Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Today, it's kids' meals ...

Still think politics doesn't affect you? How about the lawmaker who's trying to ban toys in fast food kids' meals?


Happy Meal's Frown: Kids' Meal Toy Ban - ABC News


It's only happening in Santa Clara, CA (for now), but with the assemblyman in New York City who's trying to ban salt in restaurants (that's all types of salt, from the kitchen to the table salt, and in all restaurants, not just fast food ones), it's another example of how the government wants to reach in and control every aspect of your life, including what you eat; and if you don't do anything about it, then they will.

Now, before you think this is just another power grab, there is actually a point to this law. They're trying to combat childhood obesity, which is a serious problem in this country and can lead to debilitating health conditions later in life. Banning toys in restaurants, though? Let's set aside the practical issues (including whether or not it would actually work) and get down to some serious personal responsibility issues, here. As the woman in the accompanying video says, combatting obesity begins in the home. It's not like three and four year-olds are driving themselves to MacDonald's and Wendy's to buy these meals; and it's not the meals that are keeping them from being active and working off the extra carbs and calories. On the other hand, no one, least of all myself, wants to tell parents how to raise their children.

Or do they? This kind of interventionist activism on the part of political leaders is hardly a step removed from regulating what types of food, toys, clothes, and other items parents can buy for their children. Do you think I'm being paranoid? We've got a lawmaker trying to ban toys in kids' meals!

I had someone tell me today that "we've tried, to varying degrees, to allow people to govern themselves and make decisions for themselves, and people have shown their incompetence at making smart decisions"; to which, I replied: "Making decisions 'for' people because they're not 'smart enough' has been used to justify the worst kinds of oppression". This is America. There's no right more fundamental than our right of self-determination.

Oddly enough, no matter how many times I think of the 'personal responsibility' debate, my mind always returns to a line from "Ghostbusters II", when the mayor is warned that all the bad feelings in New York City are leading to an apocalyptic event. The mayor responds: "What do you want me to do? Go on television and tell seven million people to be nice to each other? Being miserable and treating other people like dirt is every New Yorker's God-given right!" That's the standard of freedom, believe it or not; we're free to succeed, but we're also free to fail. Cases like the toy ban and the salt ban are examples of the government refusing to allow us the freedom to fail.

What's the next step? Perhaps we should ban video games. After all, that's time children could spend running and playing outside. Television? What could possibly be on the tube that's as important as good health? It just keeps kids from reading and doing their homework, anyway, and aren't our test scores low enough already? What about the Internet? With all the predators and dangerous (and subversive) material online, wouldn't it be in everyone's best interest to ban anyone from logging on who's under the age of ... oh, let's say 21? We've banned marijuana in this country already, so I guess the next step is to ban alcohol and tobacco, since they're just as bad for you. And yes, requiring people to purchase health insurance is part of that mentality.

I don't want to sound (too) dramatic, but today, it's kids' meals, tomorrow it's democracy. If we truly need the government to tell us how to live our lives, then that's one step removed from telling us how to vote. After all, most people don't even exercise that right; they'll never even miss it.

Update 11 May 2010:

Okay, it's spreading from California to the federal government, now. The Task Force on Childhood Obesity recommends the "intimidation first, and if that doesn't work, then forced compliance" approach. They want the government to dictate what foods can be marketed to children, as well as how and how often they should be marketed. If all that doesn't work, then they want the government to actually dictate to supermarkets what kind of displays can be used for "junk food". Also, they want to go into school cafeterias and restaurants to change what they serve to children and how they serve it. In the name of "combatting childhood obesity", this "task force" is proposing a massive expansion of government powers over schools, advertisers, television networks, supermarkets, restaurants, and especially the food manufacturers.

Did I say spreading? I meant "metastasizing".

Monday, March 22, 2010

The things that divide us ...

An insurance reform bill (not a healthcare reform bill) is finally ready for the president's signature. Last night, the House of Representatives passed the Senate's version of health insurance reform, fighting for every vote they could get. Does it seem strange to anyone else that Congress needs to fight for votes? People talk about obstructionist Republicans and all the "roadblocks" they place in the way of reform, but the truth is much more ... complicated.

First, there are far more Democrats in Congress than there are Republicans. I don't think I actually need to remind anyone of that, but the way some pundits and bloggers talk and write, you'd think right-wingers were the only ones who had problems with the bill last night. I heard a guest, I can't remember his name, on CNN say this vote had demonstrated a "coalition" had formed. The only problem I have with that statement is he meant a coalition had formed in support of the bill, when in reality, the coalition had formed in opposition to it. 34 Democrats joined every Republican in the House in voting "no". Mere hours before the vote was held, the number of Democrats opposed to the bill was much higher, and it was only after many meetings with and many concessions from President Obama and Speaker Pelosi that the number of "yes" votes outnumbered the "no" votes.

And yet, both the president and the speaker spoke about how they were able to transcend politics and partisanism. The evidence is against them, unfortunately. I can't recall a single instance in 2009 of any high-level meeting between the president and Republican leaders in Congress on the subject of insurance reform. Perhaps it's a coincidence, but the only meetings I can remember them having on this issue were after Scott Brown was elected Senator in Massachusetts.

Since that election, the public has received an education on a host of legislative maneuvers that hardly anyone had ever heard of before. Terms like "Senate parliamentarian", "reconciliation process", and "deem and pass" weren't even on the general public's radar six months ago; but now, anyone who has a problem with the bill that was passed is virtually fluent in "Washingtonese". Why so suddenly? Because ever since the Senate lost its filibuster-proof majority, Democrats in Congress have been exploring every option they have to pass insurance reform (every option, that is, besides holding serious negotiations with Republicans). Have these tactics been used before? Sometimes; but never on something so sweeping and "transformative".

"Historic" is the word the president uses; and he's right. This is the first time in history the federal government has ever required American citizens to purchase anything. No paper less than the Washington Post has questioned whether the Constitution even grants the government power to create such a mandate. Virginia's legislature has already created a law, signed by Governor McDonnell, making it illegal in the Commonwealth for the federal government to mandate purchasing insurance. The Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli, is already filing papers to challenge the constitutionality of the bill that passed Congress last night. Multiple states are considering or have already enacted similar measures. This could be one of the greatest challenges between the States and the federal government since the Civil War.

The consequences of this bill's passage could go far beyond the legal arena (though it's hard to overstate the importance of states' powers versus federal powers). We are fewer than eight months away from an election that could completely shift the balance of power in Washington (again). A mere fifteen hours since the final vote was tallied, the website FireNancyPelosi.com has raised approximately half a million dollars to defeat enough Democratic incumbents to tilt the House of Representatives back into Republican control; though, given how close the vote was, you'd hardly need to win that many seats to block further legislation.

I could go on forever about the substantive issues in this bill; it is over 2,700 pages, after all. And, as I indicated, not all the objections to it come from Republicans. My own representative, Congressman Glenn Nye, issued a statement the night before the vote detailing why he would vote "no". Among his objections were potential problems for TRICARE recipients and cuts to children's hospitals, issues that are particularly important to Hampton Roads. However, no matter how reasoned and principled his objections, angry proponents of the bill can't keep civil about it. He's been accused of selling out and even of being a closet Republican. One comment asked who he expected to support him in the coming election, apparently implying that no Democrat would (or should) vote for him after something like this.

But isn't this exactly what we should demand of our elected officials? That they do what's right, regardless of the cost to their candidacy? Certainly, President Obama has made that case numerous times throughout the insurance reform debate. Rep. Nye, in his statement, shows he did exactly what a representative should do: he spoke with "countless small business owners, families, medical professionals, and average citizens across Virginia's 2nd District, and it became very clear that this bill was not the right solution for Virginia's health care challenges." There were no "out of control townhalls" or "backroom deals" to influence his vote; just a simple, straightforward examination of the bill and what it would mean for the people of his district. That's a Congressman I can see myself supporting in eight months.

I'm not a partisan. I don't care which party holds power in Washington or anywhere else in this country. I care about one thing: no matter who holds power or how much of it they hold, they're willing to work with all sides to find the right solutions. What did I see on C-SPAN, Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC last night? I saw the Left coming together with the Far Left to pass a bill that the vast majority of Americans, business owners, medical professionals, and even politicians personally oppose; and I saw the Right coming together with the Middle and even parts of the Left to work to defeat it. I saw a coalition, true enough; but it wasn't led by the president, this time.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Stand and be counted, one and all.

I joined a group on Facebook called 2010 Census: My Race is American. One of my friends on Facebook started a bit of back-and-forth with me about it. He took up the argument echoed several times a day in the federal government's Census campaign, designed to ... well, promote the Census, basically.

The Census is important, of that there can be no doubt. Without the Census, we wouldn't know the answer to the most important question asked by the Constitution: how many people live in the United States? Without knowing that, how can we know how many representatives to send to Congress, and from where?

So far, so good. But the Census this year, as in past years, asks additional questions. Among them is the question of what race are you? In the government's promotional efforts, it says we need to know how many people live in a particular area to know how many roads, schools, and hospitals we need in those areas. What does that have to do with what race you are? Well, my friend points out that black people, for example, have a higher incidence of diabetes and other metabolic conditions, and the government needs to know about that. But is that the job of the federal government? And why, if that is the reason, do they not ask how much you weigh, or if you smoke or drink? Why not ask what sexual orientation you are? Doesn't HIV affect a greater number of gay people than straight?

There is no constitutional call for Congress to count or consider anything in the Census beyond the number of free persons in the United States. If a hospital or group of hospitals in a particular area has a higher percentage of diabetic patients than another, then there are any number of ways for that information to reach the Capitol. One of those ways is through lobbying firms. Surely the American Diabetes Association can afford to lobby Congress. Another way is for hospitals and doctors to contact senators and representatives directly. Is there a member of Congress in this entire country who won't take the phone call of a dean of medicine when it comes to apportioning federal funds for diabetes assistance? If there is, then let's vote them out office this very year. And what about the Department of Health and Human Services? Why have an HHS Secretary, or a Surgeon General for that matter, if they're not keeping an eye on this sort of thing?

Finally, the government doesn't ask on the Census, "Check all diseases that apply: diabetes, HIV/AIDS, etc." (which would be a much better way to determine diabetes funding apportionment, by the way); it asks what race you are. That is information the federal government does not need. Every possible reason why the government "might" need that information can be satisfied in other, more direct ways; and more constitutional ways, as well. What I find especially hard to believe is that Democrats, the party that supposedly believes in a fundamental right to privacy, are the ones allowing this question to remain in the Census.

There's more to it than the question of whether it's the government's right or responsibility, though. Everyone, from the president himself to the lowliest bum in the dirtiest gutter, is thinking about race in this country. Who's black? Who's white? How many of each are there, and how long until there are more blacks than whites? Who's "half-black", and what's the other half? Which culture should a quarter-black, quarter-white, quarter-Asian, quarter-Native American honor more, and (as regards this Census) which box should you check?

I have only one question about race: why does it matter? Yes, white people have done horrible things to black people, in the past, the present, and probably will in the future. So what? The emphasis on race will exist in all of our minds for so long as we choose to allow it to. Whether you're Chris Matthews, who just couldn't resist after the last State of the Union Address saying, "You know, I forgot for a while that he was black", or some Grand Wizard who wants to "put 'em all in the ground", race is as important to you as you make it.

Yes, it's important to know how important it is to others; but, a lesson we've learned time and time again from the Left's counterproductive efforts to shut up conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh and the Right's equally counterproductive crusade against Hustler founder Larry Flint, the more attention you bring to a topic, the harder it is to make it disappear. If the president truly wants to transcend racial divides, then he'd've done well to distribute a "race-neutral" census. The last thing anti-racists need is the government saying, in any way, that it matters who's black and who's white in America.

My point, basically, is there are other ways for the government to collect the information it actually needs. The Census is the wrong way, and what race I am is not information the government "needs".

Update 13 May 2010:

Arizona (that hotbed of racism and discrimination) has taken a step that anti-racists should be cheering, rather than decrying. I'm not refering to their recent immigration law overhaul, but a law aimed at eliminating school classes that "advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals". Predictably, left-leaning pundits and lawmakers have gone nuts.

When I was younger, I watched "Picket Fences", a show about life in a small Wisconsin town. This show addressed many controversial social issues against the backdrop of "smalltown America". One of the issues was bussing from the major metropolitan Green Bay area. I'll never forget the episode when the town was ordered by a federal judge to accept bussed students (most of whom were black), and the town decided to oppose the judge's ruling. They marshaled the police and sheriff departments and lined the streets with officers to block the busses from coming into their town. The busses, however, were escorted in by the U.S. military. So began a very tense season of integrating urban students into a tightknit community that didn't want them there.

What was the point of this? Why was it so important that the people of this town learn to accept these "dangerous" elements into their schools? For that matter, why was it important in the 60's and 70's to integrate the schools? Why should whites, blacks, browns, or any other "colors" mix? I don't really think I need to answer that question, do I?

When, then, did it become so important that we have classes that emphasize our differences? When did it become vital that "ethnic diversity" be promoted? Are we not all Americans? Do we not all share a common culture, a common civilization? Shouldn't that be what we celebrate, not just on the Fourth of July, but every day of every year? Shouldn't we teach our children that we're all the same?

No one wants to forget the trials and tribulations of any ethnic group. On the other hand, neither do we want to give our children any reason to think the state or the schools approve of our being "different". It's bad enough there's actual racism in America; but to reject an opportunity to teach them from the beginning that we're all part of one overriding group is simply irresponsible. Are the races "equal"? Let's teach them that.

Update 28 May 2010:

I came across this video today, and I feel the sentiment could not have been expressed better. How can we realize the dream of not being judged by color or race if we continually emphasize it, or if the government insists on "counting" us based on it?

My race? American!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Immigration reform; at what price?

The budget is still looming in the (almost) immediate future. There are two wars in the Middle East. Health insurance reform ... is not quite finished. And oh yeah, the economy is still in the garbage disposal. So what does the president do? He holds an immigration reform meeting.

Presidents should be able to multi-task, right? And it's not like immigration reform isn't in his purview. It's not just the president, though. The Senate (all of Congress, really) have their hands full just trying to deal with each other. I'm not saying they're useless, but in any given election year, you'll find more congressional infighting than you really care to see.

The country does need immigration reform, though. It hasn't seen a serious effort since McCain-Kennedy in '07 (which was not exactly a rousing success). Senators Charles Schumer and Lindsey Graham are looking to be the next dynamic duo tackling this issue. It's rare enough to find two high-profile lawmakers from different parties working together on issues as sensitive as this one; but their efforts, so far, have not drawn much support from their colleagues.

That's not hard to understand. Many believe the solution is to follow and enforce existing laws, though enforcing the law against roughly twelve million people is no mean feat. The changes to be considered by the president at tomorrow's meeting include a path to citizenship for so-called "undocumented immigrants", a less harsh term for those who are in this country illegally. A somewhat more radical proposal will also be addressed: a national identification card, including biometric verification that a citizen has the right to work in the United States. Now, what does "biometric" mean, exactly? It means the card would include your thumbprint, or even a scan of the veins on the back of your hand, to verify that you are elligible for employment.

Setting aside, for the moment, the question of just how much tax dollars we'd have to spend on creating biometric verification for the more than two hundred million Americans who are old enough to work, there are some serious privacy concerns at stake with such a measure. Congressman Ron Paul, appearing on America Live with Megyn Kelly today, discussed several of those issues. One is having your thumbprint on a card and being forced to submit it to prospective employees. A fingerprint is something that is only collected by the government if you've committed a crime, or been arrested on suspicion of a crime. Even at that, it's only shared with other law enforcement agencies. It's not something for private, independently-owned companies to potentially keep on file for years.

There's also the potential that our verification papers would become our national ID papers, making our fundamental identity that much more a part of the government's business. As Congressman Paul points out, even Social Security cards aren't meant to be used for identification purposes. Now, what about driver's licenses, Megyn Kelly asks? Well, all that card does is certify that you're safe to drive. If you don't drive, then it's no one's business at all; and unless your job includes driving, businesses aren't likely to even ask to see it. You don't even need one to be a member of Congress, Paul tells her.

So why do we need one to go to work? Well, in the words of the president, "we need to build on and improve the existing verification system if we are going to get control of the job market for undocumented workers." As Congressman Paul reiterates in his interview, though, "it's always for good purposes ... It's sort of this idea of 'why not have cameras every place on every street corner because we'll catch the bad guys', or 'well, why don't they have cameras in our houses in case there's child-beating or wife-beating' ... You either believe in freedom or you don't." It's a little extreme, of course, but when you're talking about threats to civil liberties, you have to consider extremes of every measure. (You can watch the entire five-minute, forty-second interview here.)

This immigration meeting almost overshadows another measure the president backs that could certainly be considered a threat to civil liberty. Eighteen states currently take DNA samples from people arrested for crimes in addition to fingerprints and mugshots. I repeat, people arrested for crimes, not convicted. The president believes there should be a national DNA database of "arrested" individuals. Proponents argue that, not only would a national database protect the public, but it would clear (and already has cleared) innocent men and women placed under arrest. However, it still means an involuntary surrender of your DNA before your guilt has been proven. Most states don't even take your DNA once guilt has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, let alone before a trial has even been held.

These are not the first instances where the president has shown himself open to measures that place individual's privacy and civil liberties second to the good of the state. Advocacy groups such as Break the Chains and the Center for Constitutional Rights have already spoken out against the national DNA database, and civil libertarians have been opposing the idea of a national worker eligibility card since it was first proposed. Benjamin Franklin has often been credited with saying "They who can sacrifice liberty for safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." I don't know that I necessarily agree with that; but I don't necessarily agree with a national ID card or DNA database, either.

How about you?

UPDATE (03/12/10):

The president held his meeting with Senators Schumer and Graham, and they presented him with an outline of the massive bill they hope to present later this year. Before it can be presented, though, all parties were anxious that it receive more Republican sponsors in the Senate.

Senator Graham said further "in no uncertain terms" that his support for immigration reform this year was conditional upon the president's not using the budget reconciliation tactic (the so-called nuclear option) to pass health insurance reform. However, since the groundwork for using the nuclear option apparently has been laid for some time now, it's unlikely the senator's threat will have much impact on the president's decision.

President Obama also met with a group of Catholic bishops, labor unions, evangelical leaders, and immigrant advocates who had publicly denounced his immigration policies. In the hour-long meeting, he explained to them why, especially after the protracted health insurance battle, immigration reform could not be accomplished without significant Republican support. I wouldn't want to lay odds on how much Republican support he can expect if national ID cards and de facto amnesty are part of the reform.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Letters to Washington - Warner and Nye

In response to my last letter to Senator Mark Warner, he sent me a copy of several amendments he had made to the Senate's version of health insurance reform. They looked pretty good, to me; but they were all about cost-containment, not ideology. I'd expected that, actually. Ideology is all that separates political parties, after all, and Democrats cannot really be expected to support certain measures that Republicans would support. You may as well ask them to support a bill that allows school prayer with the enticement that creationism will never be taught in public schools.

I don't begrudge anyone their ideology. This is the land of the free, after all. What I want is for our leadership, particularly my own representatives in Congress, at least to acknowledge why I oppose their efforts. It's not just about deficit reduction. It's about not having federal mandates for either individuals or businesses; about not providing coverage for abortions or persons who are in this country illegally; about not having a government-run health insurance system; and about not using the reconciliation process for passage of such an influential and controversial bill. If they are going to vote for a bill that goes against this, then let them at least say so, so I can start shopping for new representatives.

This is a copy of the letter I wrote to Senator Warner, a slightly modified version of which I sent to Senator Jim Webb:

Dear Senator,

I appreciate your reply to my last letter, including the amendment package you included. They look to be very good measures that would help keep down costs, and I'm pleased that the Senate is taking cost control seriously.

There are, however, significant issues that still have not been addressed fully. As I've written before, no health insurance reform can include federal mandates, either for businesses or individuals. As the CBO wrote when President Clinton proposed similar mandates sixteen years ago, this would be the first time in history the government has mandated any sort of purchase by the American people.

Another issue is abortion funding. The president has stated there is no abortion funding in the bill he will send to Congress, but recent statements by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius suggest otherwise. The Stupak Amendment included in the House bill has no true parallel in the Senate version, which the president favors. As for funding of illegal immigrants, I've yet to see language in either bill that expressly prohibits it. Perhaps I missed something; it is thousands of pages long, after all, and will no doubt become even longer if the budget reconciliation process is used (which I also oppose).

Finally, the president has said repeatedly that he would not sign a bill that adds "even one dime" to the federal deficit. The bill he proposes, however, as scored by the CBO, would add significant deficits in the coming years. As these issues rise to the surface, Senator, it becomes clear why Republican congressmen and the public at large still oppose the bill. Even though the president has incorporated some Republican ideas in his proposal, key issues such as banning coverage for illegals and abortion, mandates on individuals and businesses, and the very real possibility that taxes will be raised significantly to pay for it all remain crucial to winning support from the people; including myself.

The president and Congress can incorporate as many cost-cutting measures as they can, Senator; but it misses the heart of the debate. Trimming around the edges won't chop down the tree; and as optimistic as you are about the potential the reconciliation process has for reducing the deficit, it's not as benign a tactic as you believe. Democrats used to remember that.

Sincerely,

Stephen Monteith


This is a copy of the letter I wrote to Congressman Glenn Nye, who is one of the few members of the House of Representatives I would characterize as a centrist:

Dear Congressman,

I appreciate your recent donation to Vetshouse of the money Congressman Rangel donated to your campaign. I know you're a heavy target this election year, and while I haven't decided who I will support, your continued willingness to work across the aisle is a definite selling point, for myself and many others.

Health care reform is still in the air, Congressman. The leadership has been pressuring you, I know. When you talk to them, please make them aware there are significant issues that still have not been addressed fully. As I've written before, no health insurance reform can include federal mandates, either for businesses or individuals. As the CBO wrote when President Clinton proposed similar mandates sixteen years ago, this would be the first time in history the government has mandated any sort of purchase by the American people.

Another issue is abortion funding. The president has stated there is no abortion funding in the bill he will send to Congress, but recent statements by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius suggest otherwise. The Stupak Amendment included in the House bill has no true parallel in the Senate version, which the president favors. As for funding of illegal immigrants, I've yet to see language in either bill that expressly prohibits it. Perhaps I missed something; they are thousands of pages long, after all, and will no doubt become even longer if the budget reconciliation process is used (which I also oppose).

Finally, the president has said repeatedly that he would not sign a bill that adds "even one dime" to the federal deficit. The bill he proposes, however, as scored by the CBO, would add significant deficits in the coming years. As these issues rise to the surface, Congressman, it becomes clear why Republican congressmen and the public at large still oppose the bill. Even though the president has incorporated some Republican ideas in his proposal, key issues such as banning coverage for illegals and abortion, mandates on individuals and businesses, and the very real possibility that taxes, any taxes, will be raised significantly to pay for it all remain crucial to winning support from the people; including myself.

The president and Congress can incorporate as many cost-cutting measures as they can, Congressman; but it misses the heart of the debate. Trimming around the edges won't chop down the tree; and as optimistic as some are about the potential the reconciliation process has for reducing the deficit, it's not as benign a tactic as they believe. Democrats used to remember that.

Thank you for your time, Congressman.

Sincerely,

Stephen Monteith