GOP race to the bottom

And then they were four

So what by Miles Davis serenades me while writing about the Republican primaries. It’s always fun to watch presidential candidates coddle their bases during primaries by extolling the magnitude of their orientation, only to reach the general election and water down everything they said merely months ago, their chests still smarting from self-righteous thumping.

Mitt Romney needed to cruise through the primaries without any extreme right wing proclamations to take on Obama in November. He probably didn’t realize that the Republican base would sooner endorse a welfare-using pot-smoking mother-of-six than the ex-Governor, whose capacity for emotion would make a sociopath sit up and take notes. And they haven’t even played the Mormon card yet. Well, at least we can conclude that magic underwear can barely withstand the triumvirate of one wrinkled heartless crypt-keeper, one Christy senator whose main claim to fame is the guarantee of giggles upon googling his name and one shameless adulterer who was cheating on his wife while lampooning Bill Clinton for the same. The NIH budget is richer by a few thousands that can now go to fund illegal abortions.

Some people need to be sat down and explained to that making abortion legal doesn’t make it mandatory. Only that confusion can explain the outrage on this issue. Also, wide availability of contraception doesn’t mean that the high school lunch lady will sprinkle crushed Plan B over your daughter’s apple pie.

I think the employer-insurer nexus must go, but while it exists, insurance plans must cover contraception and abortion. An employer whose religious beliefs do not allow these interventions might be skittish about shopping for such a plan, but consider the alternative. Unwanted babies are less cared for and more prone to crime. Steven Levitt suggests that legalized abortion is responsible for half the drop in crime in the 90s. What if a Jehovah’s witness organization claims that forcing it to cover blood transfusions is religious persecution? Christian scientists do not believe in any medical intervention, and that disease is merely God’s will. Where does it end?

Pharmacists who believe that contraception is against their religion shouldn’t be forced to sell them, and at least one judge agrees. People should not be forced to engage in any transaction. No questions asked. This isn’t a matter of religious freedom. It’s freedom. Don’t worry about the supply of contraceptives drying up. There are plenty of sane pharmacists. But I must ask these pharmacists how they reconcile their faith and their professions. The Bible does not weigh in on melanoma or the common cold. It’s not a big leap of faith that some scientific information led to their career choice.

We live in a country where churches have automatic tax-exempt status. (Other religious organizations must file for this status if their gross annual receipts exceed $5000.) Everyone is forced by threat of state-funded violence, to subsidize Christianity in a country whose bill of rights begins with the words Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…etcRepublican politicians love saying that the U.S. Constitution is founded upon Christian principles. If a 4,543 word document is based on ten sentences that would fit on an index card, wouldn’t the founders have mentioned that as a footnote? Maybe they were being paid by the word.

What is exceptionally galling, is that a barely legitimate argument about gay marriage, immigration and abortion has descended to discussion of previously undoubted issues like contraception and mentioning Satan among adults (link to 2008 video).

This election was supposed to be about the economy. But the economy, to the right-wingers’ chagrin, is doing better. Nobody is breaking out the champagne just yet, but we are far from the train-wreck predicted most gleefully by the right. Now that that angle is out of the window, the right has gone back to what it does best: kiss up to Christ and call Obama a pansy on the international stage. Whatever your politics, you won’t be taken seriously if you don’t admit that as far as national security is concerned, this president does better with a scalpel than the previous one did with a sword. He has ridden us of Osama and al-Awlaki with minimal cost.

Mitt Romney cannot come out of this unscathed, and if he gets wounded enough, he won’t pose a real threat to Obama in November. The primaries have shown that Christ one-upmanship can reach ridiculous levels. The Christian death-grip on the right has sapped the traces of political discourse left in this country.

Benevolent dictatorship

English: india against corruption

Anna Hazare (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The blogosphere and Facebook and Twitter are abuzz with support for Anna Hazare and his hunger strike against corruption. Thousands have signed up to show solidarity with this anti-establishment movement. So far, so good. After all, democracy allows us to voice unpopular opinions, be they against the government, its decisions, its policy or democracy itself. Democracy is the only system that tolerates criticism and even encourages it.

But what is Anna Hazare’s answer to the problems of the current establishment? More establishment. He and his supporters are asking for an independent body to oversee government actions and protect us from those who have a preferential access to government.

Before I go into why I believe Anna Hazare’s approach is flawed, let us tackle the fundamental question. What is corruption and why does it happen?

Now I’m sure that there are intellectuals out there who can define corruption better than I can imagine it, but let me rustle up a working explanation.

Corruption is government employees performing their duties and exercising their discretion for or against the law in exchange for compensation from the party directly benefiting from said duties or discretion. This ranges from a policeman pocketing Rs. 50 instead of a legal Rs. 500 fine to a stamp duty officer who won’t let your file move up until you put money on his table.

But why does this happen? Are all government employees inherently evil? Is there a special screening in these job interviews that ensures the exclusive entry of psychopaths and purges the system of all honest and responsible people? And what of these citizens, who encourage venality by rewarding it with bribes? Are they the cause or a symptom of this horrible situation?

The answer, of course, is a lot simpler, and depending on your perspective, either heartening or disheartening. People, as Steven Levitt often says, respond to incentives. A tiny, insignificant fraction of us actually do good or evil for its own sake. We do things that benefit us. Sometimes that benefit is obvious.

The problem with government officials who can be bribed is that they have powers to grant you permissions or hand you prohibitions regarding property that’s not their own. A policeman who ignores your speeding (for a small bribe) doesn’t personally stand to lose from its adverse consequences. So he barters his power to excuse your transgression against the importance you place on reaching where you want to on time (which can be correlated well with the amount of bribe you’re willing to offer). The same goes for the stamp duty officer, or the MTNL guy we had to bribe to get our dead telephone line working after an outage.

Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited

MTNL — We remind you of a time before phones (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The more a person controls what you do over property he doesn’t own, the more the incentive for him to look the other way when you grease his palm. This principle can be applied for almost all but the very necessary functions of government. The solution to corruption is to check the growth of government, which first taxes you to establish organizations which control your actions, and then imposes a secret tax in the form of a bribe to remove those controls.

Let’s now take a look at Anna Hazare’s panacea. He believes that if we appoint a group of the right people with power to look over the government’s shoulder, we will achieve a corruption-free India. He also wants to dole out brutal punishments to strike fear in the hearts of the corruptible. Despite Arvind Kejriwal’s false equivalence of the Lokpal with the income tax department that oversees the finances of the nation’s top officials without — he believes — being influenced by them, I’m quite convinced that given enough time, the Lokpal can be corrupt too.

And then businesses will have more palms to grease than they do now. As Milton Friedman once reproached — and I paraphrase —  “What is business? Any costs that a business pays is borne by its stockholders, employees or its customers.” Have no doubt — we the customers of India Shining will pay for this extra red tape, probably more than any bribe.

Let’s take a look at our kind martyr, the genial old man supposedly on a Gandhian route to clear our national conscience. The village of Ralegaon Siddhi is Anna Hazare’s first claim to fame. It is not common knowledge that Anna Hazare endorsed the public flogging of alcoholics to shape them up, and he personally flogged some of them with his belt. When questioned about this, he nonchalantly replied that rural India was rough, and such measures were needed. Distillers who sold alcohol in the village were told to shut shop or else. This man fighting for freedom made his bones by curbing the free enterprise of people who did no bodily harm by threatening them with just that.

I’m glad that this man was instrumental in getting us the Right to Information Act, but it is worthwhile to note that many of his past collaborators don’t support him now.

While I’ve stated my case for the lack of justification for Anna Hazare’s ends in this situation, we must also examine his means. Make no mistake, fasting unto death is extremely violent. It is nothing but blackmail and coercion. This is where the comparison with Gandhi falls apart. Gandhi’s fasting was violent and coercive too, but it was violence against an imperialistic establishment, one that treated Indians as almost sub-human, subjected us to taxation without representation, and curbed our basic human rights. Anna Hazare is practicing coercion against a democratically elected government (however corrupt), which democracy has done almost nothing to curb his freedom. I say almost because I vigorously oppose his arrest, but when we put it in perspective, the matter was resolved quickly, and it gave him more publicity and sympathy.

Finally, we will truly be free, safe and democratic when we rid ourselves of the notion that the ‘right people’ in power will make things rosy. The benevolent dictator is, all said and done, a dictator, and that’s not what we signed up for.

Weird week update

I must disclose first and foremost, that this June is a month of relaxation for me. My sister’s visit from India means we’ll do most of the touristy things along with meeting family and seeing some understated NYC places that are familiar only to people who’ve lived here, breathed the air, experienced the essence of the city, or attempted a perfunctory glance of nymag.com.

Meeting family in DC

No visit with family is complete without beer, political arguments turned into shouting matches and ridiculously early bedtimes. My uncle and aunt took us bro and sis to the national arboretum, of which we saw a small part, namely the bonsai exhibits (there were trees as old as 500 years grown to an impressive height of two feet! Wait what? You know, bonsai is the Japanese art (or is it science?) of growing small trees and re-potting them so they live to impressive ages).

With some family members, you find yourself hunting for topics to talk about simply because while there is no dearth of love between people, conversational gelling isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I am usually particularly handicapped in this department. With my uncle, however, there’s no such handicap. Usually our peaceful conversations that begin about the weather escalate to shouting matches that are tie-broken by a scream of “Zip it!” from my aunt. Thank god for her, because we are usually quite out of new material by then and are spouting opposing rhetoric at each other hoping to hose our adversary down with condescension and categorical theses instead of arguments.

Weinergate

Courtesy: Wikipedia

Just in case we might have run out of topics to talk about, our friendly New York Congressman Rep. Anthoy Weiner (D) showed us the true zenith of surname oriented jokes. In simple words, he tweeted to the public (accidentally of course) a picture of his crotch area (clothed) as opposed to sending it as a direct message to a 21 year old girl. No crime, so far. As usual with politician sex scandals, people start to gather and question the regularity with which these guys put their feet in their mouths (not literally, that would need some serious Yoga). Some of course, go on to make sweeping generalization about men.

My opinion on this is as amateurish as it is unsolicited. Good politicians are go getters, and it takes a certain pushiness to climb up to the top of any ladder. The characteristics that propel people to such heights also seem to correlate with predilections of deviance. As such, in a highly competitive society, the people that get ahead are those who think outside the box, interpret the rules differently, and any more cliches I could use that those winners wouldn’t ever. Of course, their real smartness lies in keeping their indiscretions secret, and never ever using a cent of public funds for any such activities. In the latest news, while various Democratic politicians are taking turns to throw Weiner under the bus, a stark difference between the Clinton era and today is revealed. A difference that is heartening, I might add. While Clinton was nearly put out of commission for getting oral appeasement from an intern, Weiner might just get away with a leave of absence for treatment. My whole sense of pride that comes from being a New Yorker (almost four years now!), stands to be blasted to smithereens at the edge of a cliff if the people of my current city start calling for Weiner to resign. What we need to respect, and this sounds like such a given that I’m exhausted just typing it, is that it is his personal life, and that he didn’t use government funds to do this, nor did he let his affair affect any political decisions he made. He did not use his position to obstruct any sort of investigation into his private life (something Clinton has been accused of doing).

(Update: Anthony Weiner has since resigned, the pressure from fellow Democrats being too much. I guess times haven’t changed that much since Clinton, except that people might have to resign for smaller sexual indiscretions than earlier!)

Tracing Morgan?

Courtesy: entertainmentrundown.com

Tracy Morgan, who plays Tracy Jordan in the super-hit NBC laugh-riot 30 Rock, recently made some seriously anti-gay remarks during a stand up act (yes I understand how stupid the use of serious and comedy in one sentence sounds, I am not back-spacing, forget about it). He said that the president should stop being soft on bullied gay kids, and that he would stab his own son should he be gay. I am paraphrasing of course, but you can see how this set of statements couldn’t be mangled no matter how poor the translation.

People like Chris Rock have made it clear that the freedom of speech is especially relevant to unpopular speech, and this should be protected as well. Other comedians like Wanda Sykes have openly chided Morgan for these statements. I don’t think this should be turned into a referendum on free speech simply because Morgan got carried away. It happens. Comedians all over are pushing the envelope of edginess in order to shock people into laughter, and the only test they’re supposed to satisfy is, “It better be funny.” This is why George Carlin and Chris Rock get away with some of their routines, while Joel Stein and Michael Richards get universally chastised. Some of these people are funny, and others aren’t. Comedy is a rough business, and sometimes they don’t laugh. You keep going, pushing the PC barrier harder and harder, till you realize that there’s nothing funny about your train-wreck of a bit, and that you’re gonna pay for this. While this Tracy business will blow over, it just makes me respect even more the comedians who are edgy and steadily funny. Tina Fey, the head honcho of 30 Rock has helped dispose of this issue with her recent comment.

That’s it for the week update. Maybe I should make this a regular thing?

bin Laden ke: my thoughts

My first reaction to the news was surprisingly nothing. I mean, I wasn’t really concentrating. I was on the phone and simply checking my google news feed during a lull in the conversation, but I must say that it took me to the moment I was checking my mail in 2001.

I was still using a dial-up internet connection and was logging into my rediffmail account, for which I had to go through rediff.com. While I was entering my username and password, I inadvertently noticed a piece of news saying something to the effect of “Plane crashes into World Trade Center building”. I barely took notice of it, and the page refreshed quickly anyway to my email inbox, which preoccupied me completely. I basically did nothing productive, just replied to a bunch of emails and logged out. I was brought back to rediff.com and by now the news had changed to “Second Plane crashes into World Trade center” or something like that. Now, my interest was piqued.

As I read about what would probably be the largest single act of terrorism I will ever see, I felt a kind of fear I didn’t understand. Sure, people died needlessly on the streets of Bombay and Delhi etc, but America was untouchable…or so I had thought.

Living in a developing country makes us susceptible to a bunch of misunderstandings about the developed world. To us, places like America seemed like a large playboy mansion where everyone was comfortable and getting a lot of nookie. Of course, I was 16 in 2001, so you can excuse my sweeping generalizations. But most of all, I was under the delusion that people in the Western world were a lot safer than us. This event scared me a lot because I just realized how far from the truth I was.

While I was but 16, I couldn’t understand what force could be so strong as to motivate 19 young educated people to giving up their lives and their futures while taking so many people with them. It was later revealed by the media that the planes were to hit the buildings at exactly the right height and angle, and with the right amount of speed in order to inflict the damage that they ultimately did. So this wasn’t some spur of the moment hot-headed act. It was planned, cold-blooded mass murder.

And now the perpetrator of that was dead. What bothered me so much was that all we heard was that he died. Sure, there were some details as to the incident, but was there an attempt to capture him alive? They said he resisted, but he didn’t seem to have a weapon. Just how do you resist capture by armed forces without weapons?

The reason I did not feel the closure I wanted to feel was that I wanted him captured. I wanted him handcuffed, held against his will, pleading for the right to live and be free. I wanted him tried in a court, so that we can show the numerous other misled folk what happens to people who hurt us. I wanted it to be clear that while we will avenge our wrongs, we are not barbarians. We will not deign to deal with scum like him the way he deals with our people. And most of all, I wanted his followers to see what a common man he was, who lived secretly and died a joke, and not the martyr they probably think he is now.

While the Republicans are scrambling for photos of his body, I do believe that releasing them to the public would be a bad idea. Photos of bin Laden with a bullet hole in his eye are inflammatory. Representative Duncan Hunter of California says that terrorists who want to hurt innocent people will not be dissuaded by the lack of these photos. Perhaps. But photos like these are great recruiting material for the Muslim fundamentalists. These people are easy to rile up. Mere Danish cartoons generated unbelievable vitriol, and actual photos of their hero’s corpse will shore up Al Qaeda’s enlistment numbers.

While I’m pissed off with President Obama for a bunch of things, I do believe he made the right call here. We all just need to move on.

Update: Chembelle argues that bin Laden could’ve had bombs strapped to his chest which he could’ve detonated at any time. Maybe trying to capture him alive would’ve been too big a risk to take.

Either way, hope this issue is settled now, and we can focus on real stuff.

The French Burqa Ban – My take

“I was a fan of Nicholas Sarkozy, but what he’s pushing for now is reprehensible,” said a friend – a Muslim who chooses to wear the head scarf. We tend to banter on religion, and for a religious person, she’s a good sport. My jibes and taunts are often well received, and now and then, when one remark steps innocently over the line, I am gently but curtly reminded of the distance we should maintain for an argument not to turn personal.

The French ban on the veil is famous, and has polarized the public. Let us exclude the opinions of devout Muslims from this analysis, for they can hardly be expected to be disinterested in this issue.

I myself find the burqa to be an abomination: a image of imprisonment that we should have evolved out of by now. Political correctness aside, Islam and women’s rights have always seemed like oil and water to me, but that’s a topic that requires a blog of its own.

Today, the issue is of liberty. People often view the Western (developed) world as a land of plenty, where the basic conditions are good enough, and hence our laws can favor the rights of the individual over the rights of the population as a whole. The idea of a government telling us what not to do is an indirect way for everyone else to control us – for a majority to determine what is good or necessary.

There are many reasonable arguments for this ban. Most people connect the overt religiosity of many Muslims to a refusal to assimilation. Wherever they go, they are Muslims first. Hence the wearing of the burqa is regarded as a slippery slope to madrassas proliferating and even to imposing Sharia law among the Muslim diaspora. Our bogeyman is the honor rape/murder that is a product of a conveniently literal interpretation of the Qur’an. There is no proof linking madrassas directly with terrorism. They do produce fundamentalists, but no one has proof of them breeding terrorists. Hence, I am not thoroughly convinced that the slope between legalizing the burqa and the festering of terrorism is slippery enough to ban such an important civil liberty. Frisk them as much as you want at airports, and select them for additional screening, but such a huge step is not warranted now.

Imagine a woman who wears salwar-kameez exclusively, and is forced by law to wear skirts. She would view this as violating her modesty. She would either wear the skirt grudgingly, or leave the country that legislates her wardrobe, or, worst of all, never leave the house; a giant leap in the backward direction. A woman who’s used to wearing the burqa all her adult life (regardless of whether she was brainwashed into doing so), would be even more skittish about showing her body to other men. Of course, there are various groups arguing that any woman who’s wearing a burqa is doing so out of compulsion or out of some kind of Stockholm-syndrome to a victimizing religion. Based on whatever I have read on this subject, and the arguments of Muslim women who’ve chosen to wear the burqa, I would agree. This doesn’t seem like complete free will.

However mean this might sound, emancipating Muslim women is not my problem, and I certainly don’t want the government to spend taxpayer money on researching which woman is acting out of her free will and which one has been brainwashed. Let the privately funded NGO’s do all that. I would even volunteer my services.

Forcing a Muslim woman to shed her religious attire is violating her free expression and the freedom of religion. Readers of this blog know what I think about religion. Freedom of expression, no matter what the expression, is sacrosanct to me, and curbing it using the might of the law needs more justification. The ban on the veil is unconstitutional, and does not behoove a free country.

I apologize for the offense any woman has felt while reading this post.

P.S: This topic was on my mind for a long time, but I decided to write a post on it only after reading this fine post by Greatbong. His arguments are different from mine, but we both seem to agree that the ban violates freedom.

The better ‘one-third’

Courtesy: manjunathsinge.com

I have been commenting on various blogs for the past few days steadfastly opposing the bill to reserve one third of parliament seats for the fairer sex. I guess I was taking a sledgeghammer approach to a subject that does require some fine observation. So, here is my nuanced opinion. As such, I oppose reservation of any kind, and it annoys me to no end that people can get to certain positions through shunt-pathways that others simply have no access to. Also, I do believe that corruption in politics is widespread, and highly profitable. It doesn’t matter whether the perpetrator is a man or a woman.

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