Authors and Finishers

My country is increasingly fractured and divided these days, with this oncoming election widening the rifts deeper every day. The election has, to an extent, become a clash of ideologies. And though there are still more things that unite us than divide us—all the candidates love their country, all the candidates are trying to protect it—the rifts are so deep that compromise is becoming not just a dirty word but an equivalent to “surrender.” Too many have come to the conclusion that even agreeing with their political opponents is tantamount to treason. I will not pretend that all parties are equal in this respect; one political party, after all, has seemed to drift rightward in the wake of the other’s extremism. Now, it’s possible that the election will end some of this; if Governor Romney wins, he might attribute his success to his late-race moderation, and if he loses, the Republican Party may recognize that it is because of their ideological extremism, and adjust accordingly. But there is no guarantee of that. And with the politics of rage reaping a rich harvest of hate for both parties (though to an unequal degree), I do not see politics in this nation becoming more civil any time soon. The electorate is remarkably divided this year, with few swing votes up for grabs. This means that first, most voters were set along party lines long before Election Day, with few people deciding not on party name but on the merits of arguments, and second, the way to win the election is a matter of firing up the party base and bolstering loyalist turnout. Which means more vitriol and more hatred, because the easiest way to motivate people is through fear. It is almost becoming a situation where we no longer have the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, but the Anti-Democrat and the Anti-Republican Parties. Or at least that is how they bring out the vote.

This makes me deeply uneasy. Continue reading


Methods of Counting (part two)

Part One discussed gerrymandering and voter ID laws; now we turn our attention to somewhat darker matters.


Another form of voter suppression is still more deeply cloaked in legalism: convicted felons can’t vote. For violent felons this may be a reasonable punishment, even if it is lifelong. For non-violent drug offenders, however? Especially for marijuana? Use of marijuana is so common that if everyone who had ever smoked up was tried, convicted, and stripped of their voting rights, the electorate in this country would shrink by half. At least. Which means that being denied your right to vote, perhaps for your whole life, on the grounds of a felony drug possession of marijuana, is a travesty of justice. Yet it happens… and perhaps predictably the rate of drug felonies is dramatically higher among minorities. Continue reading

Methods of Counting (part one)

The United States of America is a democratic republic, or so goes the story. A republic, because citizens elect their representatives; a democracy, because most people are citizens and have the right to vote. This is different from a direct democracy such as ancient Athens, where citizenship meant you were part of the government, but citizenship was reserved to just a few thousand inhabitants (property-owning adult males, in other words). So American elections are simple, routine: people cast their ballots, the votes are counted, and the will of the people prevails.

Well — that’s how it’s supposed to go. There’s a lot that goes on in that middle step. But how hard could it be? Count up the votes for Candidate A or Candidate B, tally all the ballots for Proposition X, and so forth. It’s basic math! Continue reading

Cure the Sick

Recently it became clear that certain parties vying for the highest office in the United States feel that health care is something to be earned, not something freely given. Dr. Ron Paul essentially advised that anyone who could not afford care be left to die, and the crowd in the room with him evidently agreed. It has since become clear that this is no hypothetical for the congressman, as his manager in his 2008 campaign, Kent Snyder, died of pneumonia, uninsured. Reportedly a preexisting condition made purchasing insurance too expensive for Snyder.

Dr. Paul’s recent words on the subject:

“That’s what freedom is all about: taking your own risks. This whole idea that you have to take care of everybody…”

He didn’t quite finish his point, as there were too many people applauding. Continue reading

Tax Hikes

Over the past few years, the University of Washington has been raising the cost of tuition. This year the university has taken the additional step of accepting 150 fewer in-state residents as freshmen, since out-of-state students pay much, much more. This is because the State of Washington has typically paid the rest of the in-state tuition cost — but now the state will only pay 28 percent, down from 72 percent. The state has been cutting funding for the university so drastically — $204 million less this year, not to mention another $278 million in cuts to other public colleges — that the UW in essence cannot afford its primary function of providing a superlative education at a reasonable cost. (A new proposal to allow the school more latitude in setting tuition may help, but I foresee more tuition hikes — which comes to the same thing.) This means that a Washington high-school student with great grades but nothing else will now find it rather harder to get the world-class education heretofore possible — or, to put it another way, telling our children to get good grades so they can get into a good college will be true only if we’re speaking to rich kids, and a lie the rest of the time.

This cut in state support is a tax.

The traditional definition of a tax is money taken by the state under duress, but is this much different? The state is not taxing money, but futures.

The state is also cutting funding for the Washington State Ferry system, once one of the jewels of our public transportation system, by $30 million, meaning that there will be fewer runs and (probably, in time) fewer boats. I know many people who rely on the ferries for many reasons, including islanders who have no other way of getting home. The cuts to the ferry system will inevitably fall on their shoulders in increased ferry fees, more difficulty in travel and commute, and a strain on their time.

This is also a tax. A tax on islands, perhaps.

The state, furthermore, is cutting 17,000 people from the rolls of Washington Basic Health, the lowest-cost health insurance available in the state, to the tune of $108 million. As those 17,000 people were on Basic Health because they could afford no other coverage, this essentially puts them out in the cold with no protection at all. Speaking as someone whose only insurance for the past two years has been the grace of God, I can understand the fear and dread of those 17,000 citizens, who have committed no crime other than being poor in a state that apparently considers poverty worth punishing.

This, too, is a tax. A tax on lives.

These taxes I’ve described strangle people. They steal hope, they steal days and years, they steal breath from bodies. Considering that here among our residents (I need not name names) we have several people with enough wealth to wipe out the state’s deficit and not worry about the check bouncing, and considering we have companies (I need not name names) that make more profit in a quarter than Basic Health costs in two years, and considering that this wealth has not been taxed, I am forced to conclude that there’s one more tax in effect here: a tax on souls. The state government, through its actions and its failures to act, extracts a portion of every soul resident in Washington. This tax policy that lets money go by while putting lives at risk is no less than criminal, and it tarnishes everyone in the state — the politicians for proposing it, and we the citizens for permitting it.

For our own sakes, for the sakes of our leaders, we should end these brutally punishing taxes on the poor and the sick, these levies on those who just happen to be living in the wrong state at the wrong time, and take our taxes from something that — despite appearances — is relatively plentiful: the money that’s out there.

I understand that governments cannot do everything. But if that is true, why must it take its pound of flesh from those who have so little, rather than from those who have so much? I understand the desire to retain one’s property. But does one’s right over property extend to hazarding the lives of your neighbors? I understand that the citizens have reason to distrust the state government with the power of taxing money — I’ve watched one state-sponsored, tax-funded megaproject go up despite the explicit disapproval of the voters, and now I’m watching another roll in without any voting at all. But to respond to such injustice and betrayal by withholding taxes is to punish a dispute between children by starving them to death.

We can do better. We must do better. Yes, there must be reform. Yes, trust must be regained. But when we cut taxes on our wallets we impose taxes on our neighbors. What matters more, our money or their lives? The whole history of human morality cries out, “Life first.” If we cannot help our neighbors through that form of community called government, we deserve neither help nor neighbors.

Tax your thinking on that, and make your choice.

Recap For Recent Readers

For those of you who’ve started reading only recently or are just joining us, here are some key posts that somewhat capture the character of this blog.

The namesake post that explains what the generous grasp is — or at least what it could be.

My “belief basesline,” otherwise known as a Credo.

One of my favorite posts, on a topic dear to my heart.

Here’s what the Weekly Query is all about.

A post from last year, but still somewhat timely/seasonal.

Unfortunately this one’s still timely too.

That should get you started — but there’s plenty more out there for you to find on your own. I’m a teacher; did you think I was going to do all the work for you?

They Must Be Fed

There’s considerable debate these days about the role of government. This is nothing new, really; Ronald Reagan famously declared that “government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem,” and the 1932 presidential election was essentially a referendum on whether or not the federal government should intervene in the Great Depression. However the rise of the Tea Party in the United States has now brought the old questions back to the fore, and they are always worth discussing — in particular the use of government funds to feed the poor.

First, let me say that I am not automatically a huge fan of government.

Governments, after all, are capable of perpetrating enormous crimes. The greatest murderers on record — Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong — were not exactly libertarians. Without going to such extremes, however, every government perpetrates small crimes against its citizens: “the insolence of office, the law’s delay,” Hamlet laments in his famous speech, and anyone who has dealt with the DMV or dealt with legal proceedings knows what he meant. And, perhaps nearest to the Tea Party’s heart, governments almost universally insist on that redistribution of wealth called taxation. As Terry Pratchett put it, if you steal a small amount of money, you’re a thief; steal millions and you’re probably a government. [Paraphrased from “Going Postal,” pg. 10] Continue reading

If Only the Czar Knew!

In Czarist Russia, centuries ago, conditions for the serfs could get truly appalling. Living in an agricultural society in a cold, dry land, famine was a frequent visitor; living in an autocratic society, taxation was basically armed theft by the lords, the boyars. The serfs were therefore caught between the climate and the hierarchy. But they held out hope for rescue: their perpetual refrain was, “If only the czar knew!”

The czar was the agent of Jesus, you see — the sainted ruler, Christ’s agent on earth. Since he was so holy, he would rein in the boyars and protect the people (and who knows, he might ask Christ for a mild winter, too). Since he obviously wasn’t doing this, however, it must be because he had no idea how his people were suffering. So the serfs reasoned, or so goes the story. In 1905, therefore, a group of serfs and low-ranking priests took a petition for a relief of sufferings to the czar at the Winter Palace, relying on his goodness, and were massacred for their trouble. There were probably quite a few serfs who had guessed the truth before that, but afterward it was blindingly obvious.

For the czars were mortal — some good, some bad, some totally ineffectual, not a few insane — and they were bound up in the system the serfs bemoaned. Rather than being above and apart from the outright robbery of the boyars, rather being a potential intercessor, the czars benefited enormously from the system as it was. To intercede would have been to cut off the branch they were sitting on. So for nearly a thousand years, it was “If only the czar knew!” while the czar knew all along. Continue reading