Politics Archive

Monday, October 24, 2016

2016 Texas Republican Platform - Part 13, Misc / Weird

Republican ElephantThis entry is part of a series taking a look at the latest Texas Republican Party Platform. For a list of all entries in this series, go to the Introduction. This entry covers weird and other miscellaneous planks that didn't fit in any of the other categories I discussed.

Texas Electric Grid - We urge that the Texas Legislature pass legislation to harden the Texas Electric Grid against: 1. Cyber attacks on the grid's computerized command and control system. 2. Physical attacks on substations and major high voltage transformers. 3. Geomagnetic storms created by solar flares from the sun. 4. Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP)

Wow. That's a really good one that I'm surprised to see. Here are two articles from Bad Astronomy about solar flares and coronal mass ejections, The 2012 Solar Disaster That Almost Was and When the Sun Went Medieval on Our Planet. A 'small' solar storm in 1989 caused a blackout in Quebec. A huge coronal mass ejection 2012 went off in a direction from the Sun away from Earth, but it would have been really bad if it had hit us - probably causing somewhere around $2 trillion in damage, and putting some regions into power blackouts for months until all the equipment could be repaired, not to mention knocking out a bunch of communication and other satellites. The White House at least has a plan for a warning system that would give us a few hours to prepare and start shutting down certain systems to protect them in such an event in the future, but upgrading all the hardware to protect against that type of event is a good idea (ScienceAlert.com - The White House is prepping for a huge solar storm that could kick us back into the Dark Ages).

Smart Meters- The Republican Party of Texas supports a no-cost opt out for all Texas PUC customers and the phase out of Smart Meters aka Advanced Meter Infrastructure to be replaced with mechanical, non-transmitting analog meters when software upgrades are required or the computer smart meters require replacement due to mechanical failure or model upgrade requirements.

This plank may seem merely odd at first blush, but it's really strange if you remember the platform from two years ago. In 2014, they said "Our opposition [to smart meters] is based upon security, property damage, energy inefficiencies, privacy, health issues, and the use of Smart Meters to ration electricity." And if you browse around the site, TexansAgainstSmartMeters.com, you'll find concerns like "harmful and illegal programs which attempt to force you to accept dangerous policies such as vaccinations and spying/transmitting utility meters". The motivation for this planks is well into conspiracy theory territory.

Except for non-citizens, we further oppose any national ID program, including the Real ID Act and the use of Radio Frequency Identification Chips (RFID) on humans.

I'm not shocked by this now only because I've seen it in their past platforms. To repeat what I've written previously - Is it something to do with the urban legend about the Affordable Care Act requiring RFID chips, or some crazy Mark of the Beast conspiracy theory? It seems like the type of warning you'd get from a crazy street corner preacher.

Raw Milk and Dairy Products- We support legislation confirming local dairy farmers' rights to produce and sell natural milk and dairy products within the State of Texas.

I have mixed feelings on this. On the one hand, I think people should be able to engage in any risky behaviors they want, so long as they understand the risks. We let people play football, go skydiving, go rock climbing, drive motorcycles, etc. Why should risky eating be any different? On the other hand, food is much more universal. I like being able to go into a grocery store and know that whatever I buy there is safe to consume, free from pathogens and poisons. I also worry about parents buying unprocessed milk and feeding it to their children, exposing their children to Listeria or other pathogens. Like I've said before, children shouldn't suffer because of the recklessness of their parents.

I guess I could compromise on this. If dairy farmers tested every batch of raw milk for contamination before selling it, that would probably be okay. Or, if they sold raw milk without testing, maybe put warning labels on the bottles and only sell to people over 18 (kind of like tobacco).

Direct Sales- We support allowing consumers in Texas to be able to purchase cars directly from manufacturers.

Is this really a thing? Oh, I guess it is - Car and Driver - Why Do We Keep Buying Vehicles at Dealerships?. So, I guess thanks, Texas Republicans, for actually teaching me something.

Benghazi- We call upon the United States House of Representatives to continue the select committee and appoint a special prosecutor in order to subpoena testimony to fully investigate all aspects of the Benghazi debacle.

Because 10 congressional committees, 33 public hearings, 4 public hearings, and 13 reports just wasn't enough (source). I mean, she just must be guilty of something, right? It's not like this is a witch hunt or anything.

Here's one of the better discussions of Benghazi I've read, Christopher Knox's Quora Answer to Why is Hillary Clinton blamed for Benghazi attacks? Is she responsible for the security failure and the deaths?. It really covers the whole thing quite well, putting the attack into perspective without trivializing it. Here's one of the more interesting graphs he used.

Attacks on U.S. Diplomatic Targets

Again, this isn't to trivialize what happened, but to put it in perspective. Attacks on U.S. diplomatic targets are, unfortunately, a reality. And while the nation should try to learn from each of them to improve safety in the future, it seems wildly out of proportion to spend so much time and expend so much effort on this one attack, in particular. Like I already wrote, it seems much more like a witch hunt than a sincere effort to learn any lessons.

Social Security- We support an immediate and orderly transition, with minimal or no impact to those at or near retirement, to a system of private pensions based on the concept of individual retirement accounts, and gradually phasing out the Social Security tax.

I'm not going to go into detail on this one other than to reference this report by the Brookings Institution, Privatizing Social Security: The Troubling Trade-Offs.

Continue to Part 14, Xenophobia / Isolationism


Friday, October 21, 2016

2016 Texas Republican Platform - Part 12, Crippling the Federal Government / Taxes

Republican ElephantThis entry is part of a series taking a look at the latest Texas Republican Party Platform. For a list of all entries in this series, go to the Introduction. This entry covers planks that if enacted would cripple the federal government, as well as planks having to do with taxes.

Unelected Bureaucrats- We oppose the appointment of unelected bureaucrats and we support defunding and abolishing the departments or agencies of the Internal Revenue Service, Education, Energy, Housing and Urban Development, Commerce, Health and Human Services, Labor, and Interior (specifically, the Bureau of Land Management), Transportation Security Administration, Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and National Labor Relations Board. In the interim, executive decisions by departments or agencies must be reviewed and approved by Congress before taking effect.

Okay, I can agree on the TSA, but man do they hate the federal government. And it's not like some of these things even make sense to want to defund. I mean, their very first example is the IRS. Maybe they don't like the IRS and would like to see it overhauled or restructured, but taxes are a fact of life. It's how government generates revenue. And when you have revenue coming into the government, you need some government agency coordinating it, and making sure people aren't trying to cheat the government or commit fraud to get out of paying their fair share of the taxes. We need an agency with the role currently fulfilled by the IRS. Even if you did away with the IRS, you'd need a new agency to do the same thing.

And why are they so opposed to unelected bureaucrats. Do they realize how many bureaucrats there are in government? I mean, even if we severely cut funding, there would still be thousands and thousands of bureaucrats working for the government. Are we supposed to hold elections for each and every one of these positions? The Library of Congress employs over 3,000 people. The FAA employs over 47,000 (source). It's just not practical at all to try to hold elections for each of those employees. And it certainly wouldn't improve efficiency, taking away the hiring and promotion process from supervisors and management. It's a rather silly plank.

We, the delegates of the 2016 Republican Party of Texas State Convention, call upon the 85th Texas
Legislature to: ... And to replace the property tax system with an alternative other than the income tax and require voter
approval to increase the overall tax burden.

Well, even a broken clock is right twice a day, at least sort of. I absolutely hate property taxes. I own my land. I don't rent it from the government. And I think property taxes can be especially unfair in areas where property values go up to where long time residents can no longer afford to stay. But I agree with what former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once wrote, "Taxes are what we pay for civilized society". I don't particularly like paying taxes, but there are a lot of things I don't particularly like doing but still do because I'm an adult and it's the responsible thing to do. Personally, I think income taxes are a fair way to go about supplying the state with the revenue it needs, certainly more fair than property tax.

Bailouts and Subsidies- We encourage government to divest its ownership of all business that should be run in the private sector and allow the free market to prevail. We oppose all bailouts of domestic and foreign government entities, states and all businesses, public and private. We oppose local government handouts to businesses and other private entities in the name of economic development.

Nobody particularly likes bailouts, either, but sometimes, they really are essential to preserve the greater health of the economy. With that said, when it does get to the point that they're required, it means there was some other failure earlier on. Those businesses should have been broken up by anti-trust laws or reigned in by regulation before it got to the point where the government had to bail them out. But letting them fail and take out the rest of the economy is no better than cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Tax Burden- We in the Republican Party of Texas believe in the principles of constitutionally limited government based on Federalist principles. To this end we encourage our elected officials at all levels of government to work to reverse the current trend of expanding government and the growing tax and debt burdens this places on we the people. We believe the most equitable system of taxation is one based on consumption and wish to see reforms towards that end at all levels of government Furthermore, we believe that the borrower truly is a slave to the lender, and so long as we continue to increase our tax and debt burdens we will never be a truly free people. Towards these ends, we support the reformation of the current systems of taxation at all levels of government: federal, state, and local. Examples of these reforms include the following:

1. Eliminating the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
2. The "Fair Tax" system
3. A Flat Tax
4. The 1-2-3 No Federal Tax
5. Abolishing property taxes, but in the interim, property taxes should be paid on the price of the property when it was initially purchased.
6. Electing appraisal boards
7. Exempting inventories from property taxes
8. Abolishing estate taxes or the "Death Tax" as it's more commonly known
9. Abolishing capital gains taxes
10. Abolishing franchise and business income taxes
11. Abolishing the gift tax.
12. Discontinuing revenue generating licensing fee

Let's get one thing clear, first. There is no growing tax burden on U.S. citizens or companies. There are multiple ways to look at this. For example, here's a graph of effective federal taxes. It includes all taxes paid to the federal government - income, payroll, and anything else (source: The Atlantic - How We Pay Taxes: 11 Charts).

Effective Federal Tax Rates

Notice how the effective tax rate has dropped for all income groups.

Here's a graph of effective corporate tax rates, from Wikipedia. Again, notice how the tax rates have decreased.

U.S. Effective Corporate Tax Rate, 1947-2011

And since I'm already on the topic of taxes, here are two more graphs, made with data from USGovernmentSpending.com and USGovernmentRevenue.com. These show government revenues and spending.

Federal Revenue by Source
Federal Revenue and Spending

Notice how current revenues are inline with what they've been for the past half century, so even from a big picture view, it's clear that the government hasn't drastically increased the tax burden. And if you look at the spending, it's also roughly in line with what it's been for the past half century, so it's not like there's been drastic government expansion. Pay attention to the trends at the end of the spending vs. revenue graph, as well. Now that the country is recovering from the recession, spending and revenue are coming back into closer alignment. Granted, there's still some work left to do on balancing the budget, and it probably will require spending cuts, but there's no need to panic or do anything drastic.

Moving on, I already commented above on the necessity of the IRS. Since the government is necessarily going to have revenue, there needs to be an agency to handle it. The rest is just a mish mash of ideas - some decent, some horrible. But it's not really a well thought out section of the platform.

Federal Reserve System- We believe Congress should repeal the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 thereby abolishing the Federal Reserve Banking System. In the interim, we call for a complete audit of the Federal Reserve System and its Board of Governors followed by an immediate report to the American people.

You can read all about the Federal Reserve, how it works, and why we need it at How Stuff Works - How the Fed Works, or even on Wikipedia. There were plenty of financial crises, recessions, depressions, and periods of inflation early in our nation's history. And something I hadn't known before but learned from the second page of the How Stuff Works feature, there were over 30,000 currencies in the U.S. prior to the Federal Reserve Act, because even though the federal government printed currency, different banks had their own currencies floating around, as well. The Federal Reserve Act standardized currency across the nation, and stabilized the economy. Yes, there have still been recessions and depressions, but they'd have been even worse with no central bank to manage the economy.

Sound Money- We support the return to the precious metal standard for the United States dollar.

I'm going to repeat verbatim what I wrote in 2014. There are very good reasons why no first world countries use the gold standard. To quote an article on About.com, "The stability caused by the gold standard is also the biggest drawback in having one. Exchange rates are not allowed to respond to changing circumstances in countries. A gold standard severely limits the stabilization policies the Federal Reserve can use." The article went on to cite an economist explaining how these limitations of the gold standard lead to higher short-term price instability, 'real output' variability, and even higher unemployment.

United States Department of Education- Since education is not an enumerated power of the federal government, we believe the Department of Education (DOE) should be abolished, and prohibit the transfer of any of its functions to any other federal agency.

Not a lot of commentary on this one - just pointing out another plank wanting to gut the federal government (as well as contempt for education).

Restrictions by Government Agencies- We oppose any restrictions by any government agency on individual taxpayer contributions to churches, faith-based charities and other non-profit organizations.

Not a lot of commentary on this one either - just pointing out their desire to deregulate to the point of anarchy. I would agree that regulations on charitable contributions shouldn't be too strict, but I wouldn't want to do away with them entirely.

Preserving Private Enterprise- We believe that goods and services which are not transported across state lines should not be subject to federal regulations, or regulated by any other level of government other than the minimum necessary to prevent disease, fraud, injury to others, or other infringement of citizens' unalienable rights.

This makes me wonder what these Texas Republicans think existing regulations are for. They say they don't wany any regulations "other than the minimum necessary to prevent disease, fraud, injury to others, or other infringement of citizens' unalienable rights." What do they think politicians are doing now? Passing regulations just for the sake of having regulations? The whole point of existing regulations is exactly what the Texas Republicans have put in this plank. No mainstream politicians want more regulation than is necessary.

Continue to Part 13, Misc / Weird


Thursday, October 20, 2016

Voter ID Laws and Voter Fraud - A Cure Worse Than the Disease

The other day, I received a link to the following video on the National Review:

The YouTube description states, "Democrats like to pretend voter fraud isn't a problem -- but it is. This video proves it." In truth, the video does nothing of the sort. The video itself is merely a series of claims with absolutely no references to back them up, with ominous music playing in the background, and graphics somewhat related to the claims. And the claims themselves don't support the case for voter fraud being a major problem.

Before getting to the actual claims from the video, I'm going to start off with a big picture view of voter fraud, voter ID laws, and how this video misses the mark.

Video Doesn't Actually Demonstrate Voter Fraud to Be a Problem

The big problem is that many of the claims in the video are a kind of bait and switch. They don't show how big of a problem voter fraud is, just how easy it would be to commit the crime (and on a small scale, at that - not the large scale fraud required to influence most elections). That may seem like splitting hairs, but it's not. I'll use an example. With Halloween coming up, the yearly scare about pins & needles & razor blades in candy and apples is going to be brought up again. That would be an extremely easy crime to commit - just shove those things into food. And particularly industrious misanthropes could open & reseal wrappers to disguise their sabotage. But in truth, this is a very rare crime, with basically only 1 case since 1959 where it was a stranger giving out treats to kids (the handful of other times that weren't hoaxes were friends & siblings playing pranks on each other - Snopes). So, even though this would be an extremely easy crime to commit, we don't pass onerous trick or treating regulations to deal with it, because in practice, it's just not a big issue.

When it comes to voter fraud, the Democrats aren't saying it would be impossible to commit, especially on an individual scale. They're saying that the vast majority of reputable studies that have looked into it haven't found evidence of it actually happening very often. So, there's no need to panic and rush laws into place that haven't been thought through, and especially not to put laws into place that cause more harm than they prevent, disenfranchising certain segments of the population.

Here's an article in the New York Times with links to several of the studies looking at how prevalent voter fraud actually is, The Success of the Voter Fraud Myth. And here's an article from NBC News that discusses the issue in some detail, Study Finds No Evidence of Widespread Voter Fraud. All these studies find that fraud, intentionally trying to game the system and not just making mistakes, is very rare - somewhere on the order of hundreds of votes out of the billion votes in all American elections between 2000 and 2014. Even if you grant very generous assumptions and increase the estimate to 10,000 (a couple orders of magnitude greater than what the studies have found), that's less than 0.001% of all votes. Plus, most of the types of fraud that were committed wouldn't have been caught by photo ID, anyway (such as voting in multiple polling locations).

Discriminatory Effects of Existing Voter ID Laws

On the flip side, overly strict voter ID laws have reduced voter turnout by far greater numbers. A study by the Government Accountability Office (Washington Post - Voter ID laws in Kansas and Tennessee dropped 2012 turnout by over 100,000 votes) found that overly strict voter ID laws reduced voter turnout by roughly 2% in 2012 in the two states they studied, Kansas and Tennessee - meaning ~120,000 disenfranchised voters in just those two states in just that one year, compared to the mere hundreds of cases of voter fraud nationwide over more than a decade.

Here's another story from the L.A. Times detailing the results of overly strict voter ID laws, and specifically how they disproportionately affect minorities, The results on voter ID laws are in -- and it's bad news for ethnic and racial minorities. The study found that these laws disproportionately affect latinos, blacks, Asian Americans, and multi-racial Americans, and that "the racial turnout gap doubles or triples in states that enact strict ID laws."

Actual Democratic Position on Voter ID Laws

According to a Gallup poll from last month (Four in Five Americans Support Voter ID Laws, Early Voting), a majority of Democrats, 63%, actually do favor a Photo ID requirement. So it's not voter ID laws per se that Democrats are opposed to, but the way many Republicans have tried to use unfair implementations of those laws to disenfranchise voters more likely to vote Democratic, or to sway elections in favor of Republican candidates. (Although a substantial minority of Democrats are opposed to voter ID laws in general because of the potential for voter disenfranchisement.)

Examples of Political Motivations from Republican Politicians & Leadership

I mentioned the actual stats up above, but here's an article from the New York Times discussing leaked documents and unguarded moments where certain members of Republican leadership have admitted/explained their less honorable motivations behind many of these laws, Some Republicans Acknowledge Leveraging Voter ID Laws for Political Gain.

Here's perhaps the most explicit and damning admission from the article, from Todd Allbaugh, a former staff aide to a Republican state legislator:

I was in the closed Senate Republican Caucus when the final round of multiple Voter ID bills were being discussed. A handful of the GOP Senators were giddy about the ramifications and literally singled out the prospects of suppressing minority and college voters. Think about that for a minute. Elected officials planning and happy to help deny a fellow American's constitutional right to vote in order to increase their own chances to hang onto power.

Here's a striking example from Alabama. After putting their voter ID laws in place, they went and shut down over 30 of their DMV offices, mostly in poor or predominantly black areas, making it even harder for those people to get photo IDs. Thankfully, there was enough outcry and political pressure that the offices were re-opened, but it certainly seems to indicate their motivations (though of course, the governor and others don't admit to deliberate disenfranchisement, and have claimed budgetary reasons for the closures). Here's a ThinkProgress article on the original closings, After Alabama Enforces Voter ID, Shuts Down DMVs In Black Communities, Lawmaker Wants Investigation, and a Governing.com article article on the reopenings, Alabama Will Reopen Closed DMV Offices in Black Counties.

Here's a particularly damning example from North Carolina, as explained in this article from the Washington Post, The 'smoking gun' proving North Carolina Republicans tried to disenfranchise black voters. I'm just going to quote directly from the article:

The federal court in Richmond found that the primary purpose of North Carolina's wasn't to stop voter fraud, but rather to disenfranchise minority voters. The judges found that the provisions "target African Americans with almost surgical precision."

In particular, the court found that North Carolina lawmakers requested data on racial differences in voting behaviors in the state. "This data showed that African Americans disproportionately lacked the most common kind of photo ID, those issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV)," the judges wrote.

So the legislators made it so that the only acceptable forms of voter identification were the ones disproportionately used by white people. "With race data in hand, the legislature amended the bill to exclude many of the alternative photo IDs used by African Americans," the judges wrote. "The bill retained only the kinds of IDs that white North Carolinians were more likely to possess." [emphasis mine]

And from later in the article:

Most strikingly, the judges point to a "smoking gun" in North Carolina's justification for the law, proving discriminatory intent. The state argued in court that "counties with Sunday voting in 2014 were disproportionately black" and "disproportionately Democratic," and said it did away with Sunday voting as a result.

"Thus, in what comes as close to a smoking gun as we are likely to see in modern times, the State's very justification for a challenged statute hinges explicitly on race -- specifically its concern that African Americans, who had overwhelmingly voted for Democrats, had too much access to the franchise," the judges write in their decision.

And for the last passage from that article I'm going to quote:

"Faced with this record," the federal court concludes, "we can only conclude that the North Carolina General Assembly enacted the challenged provisions of the law with discriminatory intent."

Here's a Washington Post article, focused on Texas specifically (since I live here), Getting a photo ID so you can vote is easy. Unless you're poor, black, Latino or elderly. It mentions the oft-cited fact that the Texas voter ID law allowed concealed carry permits as a valid form of ID, but not state issued university IDs. That reeks of political bias - allowing a form of ID for a group more likely to be conservative while not allowing an equally valid form of ID for a group more likely to be liberal. That's exactly the type of reason why Democrats are so suspicious of Republican sponsored voter ID laws. The article also has a few real-life examples of people trying to get the state-issued IDs, and the onerous hassles some of them have had to go through.

And as one last example, here's an article from MSNBC, Former Fla. Republican chair: GOP discussed reducing black turnout; voter fraud is just a 'marketing tool'. Jim Greer, former chair of the Florida Republican party, stated, "Never one time did we have any discussions where voter fraud was a real issue," and that the real reasons for their voter ID laws were "to make sure that what happened in 2008, when President Obama brought out the college-age voters, the minority voters, never happened again". He also said, "They talked about making voter registration much more difficult for third party organizations like the League of Women Voters." There's more, but that's enough to show the Florida Republicans leadership's true motivation.


So, just to sum up - studies don't find voter fraud to be a big issue, and the majority of the few cases that do occur wouldn't be stopped by voter ID laws. Leaked documents, unguarded statements, and other examples make it clear that many Republican politicians intentionally mean to disenfranchise certain voters with these laws. And the measured effect is that these Republican led voter ID laws have reduced voter turnout, especially among minorities and others more likely to vote Democratic, with the reduced turnout dwarfing the number of fraud cases they were meant to stop. As one judge in Wisconsin put it, the "strict version of voter ID law is a cure worse than the disease." Finally, a majority of Democrats are in favor of voter ID laws and other reforms to guarantee election integrity, as long as they're implemented properly and fairly, and not used as a tool to disenfranchise voters and try to swing elections in favor of the Republicans.


Fraudulent Claims of Fraud

As one last note before getting to the video's specific claims, I have seen a few allegations of voter fraud popping up on the Internet. They almost always turn out to be hoaxes. Here are a couple examples from the last few weeks:

Now, I'm sure a handful of legitimate examples will turn up, as they have in the past. But they'll almost surely be isolated, small scale crimes, not anything on a scale necessary to influence elections, and certainly not as bad as the harm caused by overly strict voter ID laws.


Detailed Examination of Video Claims

With all that background information above, for anyone interested, I'll now go through the actual claims from the video.

Voter fraud is a huge problem.
Democrats pretend it doesn't exist
They vehemently oppose requiring ID at polling stations

Covered above - Voter fraud is not a well documented problem, so Democrats are just following the evidence, not pretending. Further, the majority of Democrats do favor ID. They're just wary of the details of how Republicans try to implement it.

But undercover agents were able to vote as dead people
Filmmaker James O'Keefe obtained former attorney general Eric Holder's ballot
He also claimed to be Eminem
...and the mayor of Detroit
A 24-year undercover agent gave the name of someone who had died in 2012 at age 87
All of them were going to be allowed to vote

Covered above - These videos don't show how often voter fraud occurs, only how easy it is to commit on a small scale, and not even the large scale that would be required to sway all but the tightest elections.

A Pew survey says 1 of 8 voter registrations is inaccurate
2.8 million people are registered in 2 or more states
1.8 million registered voters are dead

I assume they're referring to this study, Inaccurate, Costly, and Inefficient: Evidence That America's Voter Registration System Needs an Upgrade. Again, these aren't evidence of fraud, but they are evidence that the voter registration system should be improved. And that Pew study suggested several means of doing so (none of which, by the way, included voter ID).

6.4% of non-citizens voted in 2008

This is not an actual measurement, but an estimate from a questionable study, addressed in more detail here: Washington Post blog - Methodological challenges affect study of non-citizens' voting. Basically, it was a survey with a lot of questionable assumptions and methodologies, that extrapolated the 6.4% number from the basis of those questionable assumptions combined with a very small sample size. And as noted by at least one researcher who studies this, Rick Hasen, it's a much higher estimate than other studies that have looked at the same issue (Election Law Blog). And finally, most non-citizens actually do have drivers licenses, so checking ID wouldn't have stopped them from voting, anyway.

Undercover agents claimed names of dead, jailed or former residents at 63 polling places -- and got ballots

Same issues as above - not evidence that fraud is happening on a large scale.

I also have to mention that given the history of these kinds of undercover right wing videos I've seen in the past, such as O'Keefe's ACORN video and the more recent Planned Parenthood video, which both used misleading editing to completely misrepresent what was actually going on, you have to have an extra dose of skepticism when viewing them. For example, in the few undercover voting videos I did watch, some of them did appear as if the 'agent' was going to get a normal ballot to vote with, but in others, it seemed pretty clear that they were going to get a provisional ballot - that the election officials recognized that something was out of the ordinary with the agents, and so were only giving them a provisional ballot which would be reviewed later to see if they were eligible to vote or not.

In 2008, illegal felon voters appear to have swung the outcome of a critical Senate election

Since they're not very specific and don't give any references, I can only assume they mean Al Franken's election to the Senate, since there is some controversy on that. Here's an article from Alternet dealing with the claim, GOP Voter Fraud Hucksters Latest Lie: Felons Made Franken U.S. Senator. Needless to say, illegal felons did not swing the election in Franken's favor. The biggest issue was ex-felons voting before they'd had their voting rights restored, usually out of ignorance of the process, when most of them would have been eligible to vote if they'd filed the proper paper work. In other words, it was more of a paperwork issue than people intentionally trying to cheat the system. Additionally, the election was decided by 312 votes, while the combined number of accused & convicted voter fraud cases is only 243 (so actual convictions will be lower than that - probably far lower given the other studies on fraud referenced above) - not enough to sway the election even if they all voted as a bloc in favor of Franken, which is a pretty big assumption in itself. And to be clear, all but one of those fraud accusations were ex-felons who hadn't filed the appropriate paperwork - not, to quote the alternet article, "double voting, underage voting, voter impersonation, coercion of elderly or disabled voters, or non-citizen voting". And just like with several of the other examples discussed, many of those ex-felons had drivers licenses, so voter ID wouldn't have stopped them from voting, anyway.

It's time to require ID and more vigilance at all polling locations

Again, this general conclusion isn't opposed by most Democrats. It's the details of implementing the laws in such a way as to try to disenfranchise voters or sway elections to Republicans that most Democrats are opposed to. The laws should not cause more harm than they prevent.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

2016 Texas Republican Platform - Part 11, Crime & Drugs

Republican ElephantThis entry is part of a series taking a look at the latest Texas Republican Party Platform. For a list of all entries in this series, go to the Introduction. This entry will cover crime and drugs.

Capital Punishment- Properly applied capital punishment is legitimate, is an effective deterrent, and should be reasonably swift and unencumbered.

Carlos DeLuna. Richard Cantu. Larry Griffin. Joseph O'Dell. David Spence. Leo Jones. Gary Graham. Claude Jones. Cameron Willingham. Troy Davis. Lester Bower. Brian Terrell. Richard Masterson.

These are all men who were very probably innocent of the crimes they were accused of, yet were still killed by the state. There are many more questionable cases, and many more people who have, thankfully, hand their convictions overturned before they were killed. When punishments are irreversible, there's no possibility of correcting false convictions. And when the death penalty is 'swift and unencumbered', there's even less opportunity for these corrections, and more innocent people will be killed. And innocent people are convicted at an alarming rate. According to the article, How Many People Are Wrongly Convicted? Researchers Do the Math, the false conviction rate for death row inmates is around 4.1% (and that's not even looking at the larger prison population). One out of every twenty-five people. It would be horrific to execute that many innocent people.

Moreover, capital punishment is not an effective deterrent. According to an article from Columbia Law School, Capital Punishment: Deterrent Effects & Capital Costs, "When we apply contemporary social science standards, the new deterrence studies fall well short of this high scientific bar." A properly controlled study "finds no effects of execution and a significant effect of prison conditions on crime rates." From a study polling criminologists, "There is overwhelming consensus among America's top criminologists that the empirical research conducted on the deterrence question fails to support the threat or use of the death penalty."

Child Abuse- We recognize the family as a sovereign authority over which the state has no right to intervene, unless a parent or legal guardian has committed criminal abuse. Child abusers should be severely prosecuted. We oppose actions of social agencies to classify traditional methods of discipline, including corporal punishment, as child abuse. As a condition of funding, publicly funded agencies are to report all instances of abuse.

This is a little better than other parental authority planks I've already commented on, but it still goes too far. As I've said several times, now, in reviewing this platform, children are not the property of their parents. They're citizens, but especially vulnerable ones because they rely on their parents and have practically no autonomy of their own. Parents have a responsibility to raise their children, while the state has a responsibility for oversight to ensure that children are receiving the best upbringing possible, within reason. While this plank only calls out criminal abuse, neglect and negligence are other areas where the state should intervene. For example, even if it's not classified as abuse for parents to withhold a certain medical treatment from their children, the state should step in to save the child. And even if a parent decided that they didn't want to educate their child, or to provide them with a sub-par homeschool education*, the state should intervene to ensure that the child receives an adequate education.

*I don't mean to imply that all homeschool educations are sub-par, as I know first hand from personal acquaintances. I simply mean that if a parent does decide to homeschool their children, the education provided should be at least as good as a public school education.

Illicit Drugs- We oppose legalization of illicit and synthetic drugs. We also oppose any needle exchange programs. Faith based rehabilitation programs should be considered as a part of an overall rehabilitation program.

The current way we regulate recreational drugs is haphazard and doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Alcohol is legal as long as you're over 21. Nicotine is legal as long as you're over 18. Caffeine is legal at any age. Nitrous oxide and cough syrup, although illegal to use recreationally, are legal to buy. A whole host of other recreational drugs are completely illegal. There really seems to be no rhyme or reason other than which drugs are socially acceptable.

Here are a few figures showing various ways of ranking drugs by the dangers they present. There's a good discussion at Vox about how the first of those graphs was done, pointing out how it leaves out a lot of the nuance and complexity.

The Most Dangerous Drugs

Source: Vox

Active/Lethal Dose Ratio and Dependence Potential of Psychoactive Drugs

Source: Wikipedia

Dependence vs. Physical Harm of Various Drugs

Source: Wikipedia

Notice that alcohol always ranks among the most dangerous, while currently illegal drugs like marijuana and LSD rank as far less dangerous. Sure, there's still a risk associated with them, but there's risk associated with all drugs, including caffeine.

This is especially hypocritical coming from the party that prides itself on freedom and liberty. As long as you understand the risks, why should the government be able to tell you what you can do to your own body? Even if you wanted to outlaw the most dangerous drugs, how can you justify making alcohol and tobacco legal, while outlawing less dangerous drugs like marijuana?

As far as needle exchange programs, I'm going to repeat verbatim something I wrote for the last platform. Needle exchange programs just make sense. A comprehensive 2004 study by the World Health Organization found that "There is compelling evidence that increasing the availability and utilization of sterile injecting equipment by IDUs reduces HIV infection substantially," along with, "There is no convincing evidence of any major, unintended negative consequences. Specifically and after almost two decades of extensive research, there is still no persuasive evidence that needle syringe programmes increase the initiation, duration or frequency of illicit drug use or drug injecting," and further, "Needle syringe programmes are cost-effective." So needle exchange programs reduce horrible diseases, don't increase drug use, and are cost effective. What possible reason could there be to oppose them, unless your goal is to punish people for having an addiction?

Compassionate Use Act - We call upon the Texas Legislature to improve the 2015 Compassionate Use Act to allow doctors to determine the appropriate use of cannabis to prescribed patients.

I'm not sure if I've written about it on the blog, yet, but I've been saying for years now that medical marijuana is the wrong way to go about legalizing marijuana. If you want to use a drug medically, you should go through the proper channels that all legitimate drugs go through to be approved by the FDA. That means isolating the active ingredient, providing it in a form where the dosage can be carefully controlled, safety tests, double blind clinical trials, and everything else. If you want to see what that process looks like, read this article, GW Pharmaceutical Gets Closer To Forcing FDA On Cannabis, where GW Pharmaceuticals, a British biotech company, is doing exactly that, and has already gone through Phase 3 clinical trials for treating seizures with a drug derived from cannabis.

If marijuana becomes legal, and people want to use it the same way they use other questionable herbal remedies (some work, some don't - all have high variability of active ingredients), that's fine. But if your justification is primarily medicinal, then treat it like any other medicine, and get it FDA approved.

Continue to Part 12, Crippling the Federal Government / Taxes


Monday, October 17, 2016

2016 Texas Republican Platform - Part 10, Guns

Republican ElephantThis entry is part of a series taking a look at the latest Texas Republican Party Platform. For a list of all entries in this series, go to the Introduction. This entry covers gun control.

I've already written about my thoughts on gun control quite a few times on this site. In short, I think there should be more gun control than there is right now, but it shouldn't become so onerous that responsible, law abiding citizens can't acquire firearms. There are also a lot of myths and misconceptions about how effective guns can be for the purposes some people like to claim. So, to start off, here are those previous entries I've written on the topic:

I'm only going to look at one gun plank from this platform, but it's enough to provide plenty to discuss.

Right to Keep and Bear Arms- We strongly oppose all laws that infringe on the right to bear arms. We oppose the monitoring of gun ownership, the taxation and regulation of guns, ammunition, and gun magazines. We collectively urge the legislature to pass "constitutional carry" legislation, whereby law-abiding citizens that possess firearms can legally exercise their God-given right to carry that firearm as well. We call for the elimination of all gun free zones. All federal acts, laws, executive orders, and court orders which restrict or infringe on the people's right to keep and bear arms shall be invalid in Texas, not be recognized by Texas, shall be specifically rejected by Texas, and shall be considered null and void and of no effect in Texas. Firearms and ammunition manufactured and sold in the state of Texas are not covered under the Commerce Clause (Article I Section 8 of the United States Constitution) and therefore are not subject to federal regulation.

First of all, I disagree with their interpretation of the Second Amendment. From the preface about a militia, and using the military language of 'to keep and bear arms', it really seems that this amendment was originally about states' rights to form militias, not an individual right for self-defense. There are others with far more expertise than me who have already written about this. For one, here's an article by former Supreme Court Justice, John Paul Stevens, The five extra words that can fix the Second Amendment. Here's another article on Politico, How the NRA Rewrote the Second Amendment, going into detail on the history of how the interpretation of this amendment has changed, largely due to NRA lobbying and propaganda. One of the most interesting things I learned from that latter article is that there was an earlier draft of what is now the Second Amendment, that was the version passed by the House, that made the military nature even more explicit, "A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, being the best security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed, but no one religiously scrupulous of bearing arms, shall be compelled to render military service in person." And if you go read the House Debate from 1789 over the wording of the amendment, it's all about serving in the militia and concerns over a standing army vs. citizen militias (many of the Founders were none too keen on a standing army, but you can see how much we as a nation value original intent on that issue).

All that being said, the Supreme Court, in District of Columbia v. Heller, changed the interpretation of the Second Amendment. So, as long as that new precedent stands, it is the law of the land, even if it is counter to the Founders' original intent.

Next, they talk about wanting to do away with all "taxation and regulation of guns, ammunition, and gun magazines." That's asinine. To use an obvious example, I'll occasionally go out to the gun range with friends, and I'll swing by the sporting goods store to buy the ammunition as a courtesy for them letting me use their guns. And I trust that I can buy any box of the appropriate ammo from the store and that it will be safe to use in my friends' guns. And I can do that because of the regulations on safety and standards for ammunition. Why would anyone want to do away with regulation of ammunition?

When it comes to 'Gun Free Zones', there absolutely are scenarios where people shouldn't be allowed to carry guns. Perhaps the most obvious is in bars. A bunch of people under the influence of alcohol shouldn't have deadly weapons in their possession at the same time. But in the wake of the Orlando night club shooting, you saw gun extremists* arguing that people should have been allowed to carry guns in bars. And yes, 50 people being killed is absolutely a tragedy. But if you allowed guns in bars, a lot more than 50 people would be killed - just in isolated shootings across the country, instead of the shocking mass shooting that occurred in Orlando. (related: Mother Jones - The NRA Myth of Gun-Free Zones)

Then, there's more of the Constitutional illiteracy. You can't just go and invent your own interpretation of the Constitution and expect it to be valid. And states can't ignore federal laws that they don't like. If the State of Texas thinks certain federal laws are invalid or overstep the federal government's Constitutional authority, then the State can go to the Supreme Court to have the laws overturned. But if the Supreme Court sides with the federal government and not the State of Texas, then the laws stand and Texas has to follow them.


*I'm not going to call such people gun rights activists. I have friends who own guns and shoot regularly who I would call gun rights activists, but they don't support anarchy on this issue. They support reasonable levels of regulation to ensure public safety while allowing responsible people to continue to be able to buy and use guns.

Continue to Part 11 - Crime & Drugs



Selling Out