We all want Small Government

from Hobbes book Leviathan

Republicans are the so called “small government” party. That’s untrue. The reality, in my opinion, is that we all want small, or big, government, depending on what parts of the government we are talking about. When it comes to the war part of the government (“defense”), Republicans are big government all the way (and, to a lesser extent,  Democrats too). When it comes to helping poor people, generally Democrats are big government, Republicans small government, and Tea Party no government (which I think is race based, but that’s another issue). In other worlds, “small government” is not an accurate way to describe a political party.

I think that we all understand the general problem with government over time; namely, it gets bigger, it grows like a leviathan. It’s a rolling stone that does grow moss. If you looked at the current United States Code Annotated, the set of all federal laws on the books now, it spans over 50 feet (much of that includes notes about court cases but still). The Code of Federal Regulations (written by the various executive agencies like EPA), is another 50 feet.When library patrons walk into the law library I work at, they are usually astounded at the sheer volume. If you looked at the same set 50 years ago, I’m willing to bet it would be significantly smaller (I’ve noticed this trend with Michigan law…I’ve seen that as the decades grow, the volumes grow). Now, I’m not saying this is the worst thing ever, I’m just saying that, at some point, it does become a problem. Politically, it’s very hard to slash government; it’s not a sexy thing to do. Thus we have a big government. Democrats are concerned too. What to do about it?

I will add just a few ideas. First, budgets reflect priorities. Let’s stop funding wars, which cost billions. Let’s slash the Defense down to a reasonable level. Let’s make large corporations actually pay their taxes, and let’s go back to a more progressive income tax code  for the super rich. With all those savings and all that revenue, let’s invest in education (I believe a lack in education is what causes larger problems like poverty, in part).

What parts of the government do you want smaller? 

What parts do you want bigger?

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We all want Small Government

Morally I’m Pro-Life, Legally I’m not, and why Pro-Lifers need to calm down

Morally I’m Pro-Life
For some of our beliefs and opinions, we should recognize a distinction between the moral belief itself and its legal implications, or its potential legal implications. For example, I believe everyone should love others, including their enemies, but I do not believe that should be a law. I don’t think, for example, that disliking your neighbor should come with a $200 fine. I believe in radical forgiveness, but I would not support getting rid of all prisons and jails (in the name of forgiveness). I believe in God, but I also think government should be secular. These are moral and religious issues that may or may not become legal issues, depending on whether we want to extend them. The more I thought about the abortion debate and how complex it is, the more I realized that abortion is the same kind of issue–it’s moral and legal.

  • Moral Pro-Life: When you believe that abortion is wrong.
  • Moral Pro-Choice: When you believe that abortion is permissible.
  • Legal Pro-Life: When you think abortion should be illegal
  • Legal Pro-Choice: When you think abortion should be legal.

Pick two. Before you think I’m splitting hairs or creating distinctions ex nihilo, check out this Pew survey which suggests we all look at it this way. I believe terminating a pregnancy is wrong, except in the case of rape and the mother’s safety. That’s my moral view. I wouldn’t get an abortion, and if I extend my morals to other people, I don’t think they should get an abortion either (the same way I don’t think they should dislike their neighbor, or lie, or punch people in the face). I would never judge someone that got an abortion, based on the Christian prohibition against judging (Jesus: “judge not”). I would not hate them for it. I would simply think it’s not right. That’s all. Negative emotion is not required. The proper response is compassion, understanding, and sadness (both for the baby and the parents). I believe in contraception, which includes Plan B (in my understanding, it’s preventative, not a termination). More on that later.

Why am I morally pro-life? Five main reasons. First, everyone is pro-life to a certain extent. When having these arguments, we forget that almost all Pro-Choicers are pro-life when it comes to the third trimester (i.e. babies that pretty much look like a real baby). Even liberals do not want to see mothers kill these kinds of babies. So the real question is: where exactly do we draw the line? From sex, to fertilization, to “viability,” this is where the science gets very murky and the place we pick seems a bit arbitrary. Therefore, I don’t blame people for picking “fertilization.” Intuitively, it makes sense, but people don’t even understand the science behind fertilization (I don’t).

Second, actions have consequences. Sex is a big, powerful action with big consequences. One of those possible consequences, even with birth control, is a baby. Generally speaking, we should live with our decisions. This is a case where we use medicine to terminate one of our decisions, almost like asking a Genie to go back in time. But wait a minute, you say…don’t we do this all the time? When we “decide” to go skateboarding and break a leg, should we not go to the doctor and fix it? Well, of course we should, be the key word here is fix. Terminating a pregnancy is not fixing anything. That’s stretching the word fix, heal, or mend a little too much. It’s morally different. In fact, because we are dealing with a living thing (even a bundle of cells), it’s impossible to think of an exact analogy that matches other sorts of medical scenarios.

Third, we are talking about a future person here; or, at the very least, a potential human, barring any complications with the pregnancy or birth. That matters. Existence is a prerequisite for a good life. You can speculate all you want about whether they would have a good life, whether adoption is a viable option, etc–you don’t know. There will never be another person quite like this one. Of course, the bundle of cells could really give a shit, they have no feelings, memory, nothing. They will pop out of existence without a peep. Yet, even under the worst of conditions, you will always wonder what would have happened.

Fourth, there is virtue in the pro-life position. If you get rid of the sexism, the Pro-Life movement could be based on compassion. And, to a certain extent, I think it is. If you take away the men who simply want to control women’s bodies, pro-life, at its core, is nothing more than people who care about life (fetuses), who stick up for those who cannot defend themselves. In this way, it shares the same impulse of the animal rights movement and the environmental movement. These are people giving voice to the voiceless. There is merit and virtue in that.

Fifth, it seems odd for us to want doctors, who took a Hippocratic oath never to harm, to terminate pregnancies. The whole point of medicine is to promote life and health. I realize this argument isn’t that good.

Legally I’m not
When I start to think about actually making a law, then it gets complicated, uncomfortable, and more of a womens’ rights issue. According to Pew, the American public feels the same: although 49% of American adults think abortion is morally wrong, only 40% think abortion should be illegal. Considering all the circumstances and consequences, I cannot support a law banning abortion. First of all, education about birth control and sex needs to improve. A law would disproportionately affect those less educated. Second, poor people would be most affected. Third, religious zealots have convinced too many people that birth control is evil and abstinence the only way, which is very unrealistic. Fourth, quality health care is not accessible to many Americans. And fifth, a lot of the people behind this (not all) are sexist males that simply want to control women. All of these practical considerations must be taken into account when thinking legally, as opposed to morally. Thinking legally considers sociological realities, while moral thinking exists in a vacuum of sorts. Right and wrong are right and wrong no matter what, no matter where, no matter how. Given the political climate, I could never force all women to either get an unsafe illegal abortion or to go through with a pregnancy they did not want. Pro-Choice is the default position, especially when in doubt.

Why Pro-Lifers need to calm down
What really amazes me about the abortion debate is that it has become such a big debate. In the grand scheme of things, abortion should be a fringe issue, a minor moral point that some people squabble over. We are talking about bundles of cells here, about zygotes and one-month-old fetuses. As actual people starve all over the world, as war is still raging in the Middle East, as most people do not have access to quality health care, as we fundamentally change the climate, this is what we argue about? Defending fetuses should be the least of our worries; it should be near the bottom of our priority list, not a major part of political platforms. In other words, what I’m saying is this: pro-lifers should stop trying to pass laws that ban abortion. Keep it a fringe moral issue, that’s it; don’t make it a legal issue. The more emotion people get about it, the more ridiculous it is. The fact that the argument has become so big tells me one thing: sexism is indeed a major part of it.

Morally I’m Pro-Life, Legally I’m not, and why Pro-Lifers need to calm down

Did a burglar really sue the owner and win?

A burglar falls through a skylight onto a knife and sues the owner. A woman sues McDonalds for hot coffee. A man has a heart attack starting a lawnmower and sues the lawnmower company. This is supposed to make us feel disgusted with the civil justice system, disgusted with those greedy poor people trying to win huge jackpot lawsuits from corporations. Those poor businesses!

After watching the fascinating documentary Hot Coffee, it seems that corporations themselves might be the reason we hear about these lawsuits to begin with. They are the voice in your head crying “poor businesses!” They are the ones promoting them!

Promoting, embellishing, exagerating, and distorting. Take the burglar case, made famous by a comment Ronald Reagan once made (and distorted). We picture an armed man in a mask trying to rob a lady in the suberbs. It was a young kid, along with some friends, on the roof of his former high school. He was in fact stealing a flood light, fell through a skylight, and became paralyzed for the rest of his life; not being able to care for himself for the rest of his life. The McDonalds “idiot” was an elderly woman who suffered 3rd degree burns all over her lap that required skin graphs. She was parked, in the passenger seat adding cream and sugar, and the coffee was indeed too hot (according to McDonalds standards). Now, don’t get me wrong, there is truth to all these stories–they are all slightly ridiculous, even when you hear all the facts.

Corporations, seeing an advantage, are making a big fuss about these extreme cases. That big fuss is called “tort reform” and, at the state level, they have managed to make several strides in limiting the amount of money that people can win over big business. Caps on damages, no matter what the jury or judge says, no matter how negligent, no matter what the damages are. On the other side, of course, are the lawyers and the consumers (us).

But–and here’s the point–these cases are exceptions to the rule. The civil justice system is not represented by these cases, they are outliers. In fact, working in a law library, it was almost impossible for me to find these cases (they happen at lower level courts, are unpublished, and are usually settled on). At the end of the day, the legal system is generally solid, generally promotes common sense justice, and compensates people who were wronged by other people.

You see this kind of thing happen all the time: first, something crazy happens; second, people make a big deal of it; third, sweeping solutions are proposes so that this crazy thing never happens again. And in hindsight, the solution is too sweeping and causes too many other problems but, hey, at least that one crazy thing won’t happen again.

Did a burglar really sue the owner and win?

5 Things Wrong with our Legal System

Laws Not Accessible to Citizens
Have you ever tried to actually read a law? Have you ever tried to find one? Even in a digital age, if a citizen is lucky enough to find a law on a given topic (say, illegal evictions), the law is written in such hyper-technical language that is virtually inaccessible to normal people. It might as well be written in Greek. The Michigan law on illegal evictions, for example, is called the “Forcible Entry and Detainer Act” and contains the beautiful words “unlawful interference of possessory interest” and “injunctive relief” and “put out of any lands.” What? And that’s not even a bad example.

Thus a fundamental parodox: the law is extremely important to our daily lives, yet we are divorced from it. This flies in the face of an informed democratic society. One solution is that lawmakers start writing laws in plain English, simple as that (they cringe at the notion). The ridiculous technical language employed by lawyers and judges, although fun as a game to play, has got to go. This isn’t rocket science. Ordinary language would suffice. Don’t call it “Summary Proceedings”; call it Eviction, a word we all know. That would be a huge leap closer to a Direct Democracy, where the people directly vote on our laws (as opposed to a Representative Republic where we hire corporate-backed politicians to write and vote on our laws).

Courts Not Accessible to Citizens
This directly follows from 1. and is even more damaging. If you cannot understand the law, and if the Court Rules make no sense either (these are the specific rules you have to follow when filing a case, filing motions, conducting yourself in court, etc)–then it’s almost impossible to represent yourself in court. Yet this is a fundamental right we are supposed to have. Court employees hate when people are set on representing themselves because (a) they know how hard it will be for everyone involved and (b) the citizen will (rightly) ask them how to do things (file paperwork), to which they will reply “sorry I cannot give you legal advice” and (c) that’s bullshit. That’s a problem with the court system, not with the citizen of normal intelligence. What about Small Claims court? Yes, that’s nice, Small Claims is accessible to people, but the whole system should be like that. Also, you can only use Small Claims when you want money from someone else, there is a cap on how much you can ask for, and if you sue a business in Small Claims they have a right to “bump it up” to district court and then you are screwed.

Poor People Get Screwed
This follows from 1. and 2. If you cannot use the court system, then you have to hire an attorney. If you cannot hire an attorney, then you are screwed. This happens in both civil court, where poor people could lose all their money, or in criminal court, where poor people could go to prison for having bad representation. Not only are poor people more likely to not understand the law, they are more likely to get screwed when they break it.

Black Men Really Get Screwed
Go read the book The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Even if you don’t agree with her conclusion–that our criminal justice system is a form of racism comparing to the Jim Crow south–the statistics are shocking. 1 in 6 black men have been incarcerated as of 2001. If this trend continues 1 in 3 black men born today will go to prison in their lifetime. A lot of this has to do with the drug war and how it has been waged for decades. Studies show that white people do drugs just as much as black people. Yet how many police officers have you seen in the suburbs, systematically stopping and frisking soccer moms for pot? Yeah, none.

Judges Shocking Power
When the law is horribly confusing and badly written, this gives judges not only a tough job but the unrestrained power to “interpret” the law pretty much in any way they want (to review, the law comes from two main sources: politicians and judges). This can be good and bad. We have all heard of the burglar who fell on a knife and sued the owner of the house. That shit happens. It’s a problem. The law has become a huge monster. Given any particular case, you could find case law to support whatever position you want (in law school I believe this is a typical exercise). It would be funny if it didn’t affect real peoples’ lives. If the law was in plain English and understandable, it would rarely happen. In a way lawyers and judges are like the Pharasees of Jesus time–they hold the keys to the kingdom at the expense of the poor.Don’t you find it completely absurd that we talk about Supreme Court Justices the same way we talk about politicians?

Having said all this, I remain proud our our legal system for the most part. In all it’s complexity, checks and balances, and evolution there is a beauty to it. There is no conspiracy here, and many lawyers and judges want to do good for people. But for the reasons above, I have a love-hate relationhship with it and think there are obvious reforms to make.

5 Things Wrong with our Legal System