Showing posts with label sex. Show all posts
Showing posts with label sex. Show all posts

30 June 2014

Hobby Lobby

Silver linings. Maybe a toilet bowl lined with shiny things. But still. Shiny things.

1) It seems, as with Citizens United, to have pissed off the left-wing base that increasingly is the agitating energy for the Democrats. Citizens United, I don't think they are correct on most any sensible legal theory. This one I think was more questionable.

2) It does not appear to have actually denied anyone any access to birth control measures. There's a work around that the government used for non-profit entities that will be applied.

2a) We should really stop pretending in our society that "denying access", eg "banning" things is at all the same as "reducing the accessibility or affordability of" whatever it is. The second is still often bad, and may have bad consequences, or unequal consequences, but it is not (usually) the same as "criminal and civil penalties for". When many abortion restrictions are considered by states, those are effectively doing both. Where this decision was concerned, it did neither. The semantics are important here because people talking about actual denial of access when what we have is an increase in risk to accessibility in actual terms (because of money usually) are confusing the best practices of solutions. If the problem is people (women) cannot afford it, that's very different from people putting up actual roadblocks via regulations, like these: "you need a prescription, so you must go see your doctor first", or "the pharmacist won't fill those prescriptions for religious reasons", or "you must wait 48 hours", or "the clinic needs admitting privileges".

We're talking about accessibility in economic terms and there's ways to resolve that, via public policy if we choose (subsidies that phase out based upon income and need would have been far, far better than insurer mandates). If we're talking about accessibility in legal terms, then we have a very different problem, one that almost entirely depends upon public policy decisions. We should not be conflating the two kinds of problems. Stop it. Just don't. They can sometimes overlap in practical terms, but the fix for either is usually different. (This is probably why debates about freedom of speech in the wake of McCullen also annoy me, in that they fail to distinguish action, which is regulated or restricted, from speech, which should not be).

3) It is a fairly narrow reading of religion or religious beliefs. Which is amusing. I've seen it referred to as all of religion comes down to in the eyes of the conservative wing of the court is "unapproved fucking".

The first amendment protection of free speech restrains the government from doing very much about speech (which is why for Citizens United, I'm not sure what the corporate personhood element had to say or why people started running around complaining about a very long jurisprudence decision that "corporations are people" in legal terms). The first amendment protection of freedom of religion does likewise, but I'm not sure how this was squared with this decision. It did not permit other religious objections under the free exercise clause. Just this one part. It puts the court or the government in the unusual position of deciding which exercises of religion are acceptable within this context of employer/employee and thus regulating those. That was a very bad idea really. Either it means there will be many more cases of the same variety or the government will eventually say, nope only these sorts of objections are okay.

It's probably further evidence that employer provided health care plans are an incredibly stupid way to go. But it's mostly evidence that freedom of religion is poorly understood.

4) Of all the aspects of the ruling that are annoying, probably most annoying is why it was that this narrow religious objection was singled out as acceptable in the first place. The belief turns largely on a metaphysical belief about the nature of personhood as applied to fertilized human eggs (but not yet actually conceived via the scientific definition of conception as there isn't one simply because the term has no unified meaning) and thus what this means about the utility of certain kinds of birth control measures. Considering a vast number of fertilized eggs fail to implant in the uterine wall and thus become "conceived", and a further vast number are implanted but fail to develop for whatever reason and are miscarried, applying such a definition is based upon a flawed understanding of the nature of human reproduction. A definition that should be considered flawed enough as to carry little weight in the decisions to mandate certain kinds of birth control be carried under a company insurance policy because it is too fungible and arbitrary to be fairly used in legal terms. It would be like judging that it is okay that only people who believe the earth is flat can have unemployment insurance at this company. Not only is the belief wrong, it is functionally meaningless to the performance and benefits of the employees.

There were far better practical and legal objections to that mandate that had nothing to do with birth control. The fact that it was singled out suggests a focus by the right upon the aforementioned "unapproved fucking" of its own that may have merited the decision of the court to narrowly tailor the ruling to that one element of religious doctrinal thinking.

5) The other annoying part is the "closely held corporation" exception. While this is not the same as large publicly traded corporations, I'm not sure why this was somehow a right that should only apply narrowly to "smaller" corporate entities, controlled by few people.

6) Some of the decision turns on the question not of the size or scope of ownership, but on the profit motives of the companies involved. Which to me seems to have little or no bearing on what restrictions of these type may be applied, and in any case, which the government seems already to have accorded non-profit companies with special accommodations for religious liberty (however absurd in this case). Why it should not also do so with for-profit corporations is not something that I think is easily established, or why the government could not also perform a similar accommodation.

7) Another aspect of the decision itself has focused on the intentions of Congress and then subsequent interpretations of those intentions by the appropriate regulatory body. With the implication that HHS in promulgating regulations exceeded its authority. While this is debatable in this case, this reading of the case suggests yet another separation of powers battle, one of several over the last year, with the basic impact and import to be to rebuke the (bloated) expansion of the executive that took place especially over the last decade. I'm not sure this was necessary in this instance, but as a general matter, this is a laudable goal. Where it fails specifically is that Congress attempted to deal with this precise question and voted down the objection of religious practices.

8) Ginsburg's dissent is a mishmash of things I find agreeable and things I do not, much as the ruling itself is. The main thrust of the argument that I find of note and interest is the general practices of a law, if everyone must comply with a given law or regulation, religious exemptions are of little importance to them, and likewise if targeting the particular religious expressions are not the interest of the state in forming the law or regulation, as it was not in this case, then the law should stand. Again, I find this interesting in a general sense, but the specific law, requiring a private actor to buy something, as well as dictating the terms under which that something must exist, seems to be the wrong hill on which to fight that battle. It further becomes muddy because of the existence of exemptions for similar, but not same, formats of companies, exemptions which came into form primarily (but not wholly) because of religious exemptions. I do not find the logic that it in some way damages the accessibility of the contentious forms of birth control persuasive, because it is plain that there are already existing methods available to substitute to assure the interest of accessibility was maintained.

9) The main appealing quality (for me) of Ginsburg's dissent is where it remains tightly focused on first amendment free exercise readings, simply because for me this was largely a question of whether a particular belief was being infringed upon, and that in this instance, the particular belief was absurd. The problem there is that there are legal statutes in place that intend the courts not to challenge whether a belief is central and essential, regardless of its absurdity. And there does not appear to be case law in either direction suggesting that corporate entities, in their function as economic devices controlled by people, do or do not have access to those exercise rights of religious beliefs. The conclusion that they should is inferred from example. The conclusion that they should not is largely inferred by absence. This is not as clear and settled a matter as a result as it appears in dissent.

05 June 2014

Some general rules of things that occur frequently to me

A general series of philosophical observations following weird dust-ups on social media.

1) Humanist/secularist notions while they can often operate on a utilitarian ethic do not absolve us of the prospect of entertaining ourselves before discharging some grand moral duty. Life is itself a (quasi) measurable reward that includes pleasures of more selfish nature. Indeed, I'd suggest that ignoring our selfish nature leads us away too often from moral duties. What our selfish nature does do, taken to its logical conclusion, is recognize that other people have needs and wants and concerns and that if we want to satisfy our wants and needs and have our problems resolved, we must also seek to satisfy some of theirs. Call it friendship if you want. Or it can be more transactional and more obviously set in a reciprocal altruism sense. Or it can be Adam Smith's invisible hand, guiding us to act in the service of the community by recognizing and meeting its needs through operation of business. There are numerous interpretations of this as a social order.

2) Humanist/secularist notions are not distinct from feminist notions. What they (both) often identify is that the particular target of some abusive or oppressive behavior/policy/action is, even in a modern developed country, very often a woman, and that this therefore means that an oppressive agent must not be tolerated or must be stopped on these grounds. Not because it's a woman but because there is oppression. The oppression and abuse exists because it can oppress or abuse a woman more easily than it might have a man. That's not "feminist" to point out; that's realism. The "feminism" part is deciding that the solution is to empower women and to remove the anchoring weights of abuses or oppressive agents of society that all people might flourish.

3) This does not mean that other kinds of oppression or abuses of power and authority do not exist and would be tolerated or ignored. Racism or religious intolerance, say, does not exclude or compete with oppression of women. It competes to some degree with the amount of outrage energy available. But if oppression is a vehicle of political activism, and responding to it is likewise, then there's not a top limit on the amount of capacity to respond to it or to impose it. The limitation is the apathy of the oppressed or those who work on their behalf with the implication that it cannot be changed.

4) There are various reasons that particular kinds of changes may not work or be as successful, and I think we should assess a particular kind of change on these grounds to wonder whether or not it will actually and usefully advance the cause it claims to advance, and not whether or not the intentions behind the proposal say so. Just because there is a problem in any society does not imply that a) the government should do something about it, that b) whatever X we are suggesting we do about is the only and best solution, or that it is in fact a solution at all, or couldn't make it worse. It's very probable we overlook very effective solutions in the haste to satisfy our demand for good intentions. Example, the focus on "equal pay" for women overlooks that a very large portion of the supposed discrimination is not from greedy employers trying to scam a female portion of the work force into working for less money than men, something that basic discrimination legislation would assess and could help deal with, but from a systematic issue with how women have come to interact with the workforce while still often juggling a home life based on traditional norms and our modernizing economy has failed to recognize this and offer ways to juggle successfully. The discrimination is still there, but it is much smaller and more manageable. The bulk of it is still probably discriminatory but the fault is more our own (as a society) so we're trying to pass the buck to make someone else pretend to do something about it.

5) Feminism, like other unpopular labels, has an image problem that causes some people to recoil from the label. Some of this image problem is the fault of more radical feminist notions (see: environmentalists setting fire to vitamin A enriched rice because "it's a GMO!" or atheists with a deliberate intention to stir the shit rather than advance secular ideas). But most of this image problem is a public relations issue caused by media and entertainment coverage and the public's mental framework working as stereotyping.

6) Labels or the rejection of same should not excuse people from practicing ideals and values consistent with those labels overall goals that they otherwise would agree with, say, religious (or non-religious) freedom, or the relative economic and social equality of women and girls. The "no true Scotsman" fallacy applies in both directions. If these are your ideals, fight for them in politics and society, practice them in life as best you are able, and argue over them to examine them from time to time to assure that you are practicing them as best you are able or that they are the best ideals you can put in practice available, and don't worry very much about what other people try to call them as a package of ideas. You can decide that. Atheism can become both the flying spaghetti monster and scientists and scientific literature using neurological behavior, evolutionary predictions and behaviors, anthropology and so on to explain the phenomenon of religious belief. Environmentalism can be both Greenpeace and getting a Prius and pushing for wind or solar power adoption (but probably not getting solar panels on your house since most of us would put them on the wrong side of the house). Feminism can be both the cause for more gender-balanced societies and the associated expansion of opportunity for women, or even for families and children regardless of gender issues, and so on (say, better family leave, paternity and maternity, or more flexible work schedules and telecommuting opportunities to allow whoever to stay at home when possible.)

7) Feminism doesn't remove or exclude the prospect that men and women can or should get along, that they couldn't approach one another, can't flirt, can't have (casual) sex, can't enjoy off-colour remarks and the like in mixed company, or couldn't discuss sexuality at all, and that somehow the only relationships between men and women must be completely sterile and platonic friendships mixed with somehow, someone becoming (mutually) attractive as a physical partner once in a while on top of that. I have no idea why this argument persists (naturally among men) that the issue is somehow that approaching and talking to an attractive woman is in some dystopian future liable to get a sexual harassment lawsuit. Depends on how that talk went, or what behaviors went along with it. There's nothing inherently wrong with recognizing attraction or even making people uncomfortable with potentially offensive remarks. There's something wrong with not recognizing that they are making others uncomfortable, using them out of context, or persisting in that attraction when it is not desired to be pursued or acknowledged.

And in particular, in not acknowledging a variety of wholly legitimate reasons why that lack of interest could be true that are not "I have a boyfriend/husband/significant other". Such as "you might be an asshole, go away". Possibly learning how to listen and talk to women, or just talk in general with other human beings, would be a great improvement for much of humanity. I do not consider myself a master at this, but other people seem capable of listening and responding to me in what we might fashion to call a conversation.

8) Most people do not give a shit. About you, or much of anything, often including themselves. What that means is not "they will run over you in a truck to get their way", or our sometimes more likely interpretation "they will run over you with the truck in order to make their way". What that means is mostly they will ignore you as you would ignore a bug on the sidewalk and they're not actually a problem. They are not plotting your destruction, injury, and harm. The general status quo of other people is apathy and ignorance toward the general status quo of other people. They are not interested enough to come and bother you, deliberately inconvenience you, find you absurd and worth their shame and derision, and so on. This implies both that we should be less wary of other people and that we should pay attention when they are paying attention to us or doing something that we feel is worthy of our attention.

28 May 2014


In the wake of the shooting in California. Two things occur to me.

1) Gun control, the basis for it, the plausibility of it, the nature of the debate for or against it, and both the futility of it and the enormous demand for "something to be done" hasn't changed at all since I last wrote about it at length. It probably hasn't changed since I first wrote something about it to be honest. About the only good news is that it took a lot longer to get around to talking about guns, because there other issues at play worth discussing instead.

2) This one horrible act of violence has spawned a curious debate about privilege and the general societal culture when it really should have or could have remained focused on misogyny and gone a lot further and been far more productive. Because that as a motivation is pretty sufficiently vile to be worthy of debate and discussion. Apparently being an ass to women, objectifying and demanding of their attention, and then acting violently when they possess agency and ignore or reject attention, is not a big enough deal to be a cause de jour without tying in a lot of other speculative junk and trying to attack that too.

(just to clarify, white or male privilege is a thing, not "junk", and there are elements of popular culture that may be debatably subversive or interpreted in dangerous ways by a small fraction of the population, but these are very separate arguments and lack the complexity of "guy hates women for not giving him sex", which treats other human beings as objects who exist simply for our pleasure. That's a serious problem with a set of complex causes, but it's a problem that can be pushed back against much more easily than the others)

25 May 2014

A thing I don't get, mixed with one I do

I have always what for others must seem a strange detached reaction when something terrifying happens. I start processing it for the question not of "how could this happen" but usually something more like "why doesn't this happen more often". And in fact, in some ways, it does happen more often, it just doesn't happen in the same way (1 or 2 people getting killed by someone is a different kind of story than 15) or to people that make the news (eg, non-college aged healthy white people, or their children).

The general takeaway I have from senseless violence is that it doesn't happen very often. And this is usually because it is in fact senseless. We don't live in a comic book world where the villains cause dismay and mayhem constantly to the point that nobody could afford to live in Metropolis or Gotham (or NYC) because of the insurance claims from repeated devastation. I consider that a good thing even if it is of no comfort to people whose lives are directly impacted.

Still. The logical requirements that lead someone to punish innocent people for... whatever it is they think deserves punishment, I have a problem following. I can sometimes follow the rage that blinds people into a corner. I've seen people behave irrationally, and I used to experience this myself, because of heavy emotional burdens of anger. Directed at? Who knows. It's just there. I don't find that to be that alien of a connection that I would somehow see everyone who gets angry and plots to kill a bunch of people that strange. That's why I find it curious it doesn't happen all the time. Clearly we have a society that fosters pretty good anger management, or at least anger re-direction, if with sometimes poor results. This probably explains a PTSD case that snaps. Or someone who takes a strong racial or cultural or religious animus wayyyy too seriously. I don't condone these things. But I know where they came from. I've felt that kind of blinding rage. I didn't go out and kill anyone over it but I could say I know where it comes from. In a darker mood, it's not even that challenging to imagine violent scenarios involving death. This is not the same as plotting a violent act, acquiring the necessary supplies, and carrying it out. There needs to be a lot more than the rage at play, a specific purpose. And that I have a harder time following but I can acknowledge there's a path there that apparently is harder to stray down far enough than we think at times like this (because for a country of 300M people, it doesn't seem to happen that often), but still much easier than it should be (because if it happens at all, then it's suggesting a problem).

What that doesn't explain is these repeated cases of sexually frustrated folks, men obviously, snapping into violent outbursts involving manifestos about how terrible women are because "I can't get laid". The logic of "if I can't fuck it, I will kill it" does not compute here, or at least I have a hard time seeing where it comes from. There's other people out there who might find someone attractive and amusing for such things if someone in particular rejects the approach. The logic of the world, and the people in it, owing you something, particularly team building exercises for your penis, does not compute either. It's a sense that people are objects, playthings for amusement and they're not playing the game the way "I want", in so far as they won't do what I want them to do. Most of us probably engage in a variation of this where other people are concerned but this seems like a very extreme theory of mind problem that just rejects the prospect of agency entirely. Obviously the problem could not be with the approach or offers. It must be with the people who are turning down such offers, or not even recognizing that they are being made.

I suspect this style of self-aggrandizing sexuality explains a large portion of motivations for rape. Which is awful enough to contemplate. I still don't quite get from there, the idea that somehow, somewhere, every woman (or man) must actually want to have sex with me, because of how they looked at me or how they were dressed or how they were dancing or whatever, as asinine a thought as that is (and for men at least, a rather common perspective, just not one that is necessarily commonly acted upon), to "because they won't have sex with me, I must hurt them". Maybe I come at this problem from an entirely opposed perspective, where I consider the likelihood much higher that the reason someone won't have sex is because you're acting like you're supposed to be anointed sex god that all lesser mortals are to be in awe of. I hate to break it to people, mostly because I shouldn't have to, but as wonderful as some human beings are at sex, or as wonderful as it could be to have sex with them, there tends to be some underlying requirements of "don't be a dick" to get around to using said dick. Treating other human beings as objects for sexual gratification and amusement is pretty high on the "don't be a dick" creed of things not to do. This is not very complicated.

But it seems to be very complicated to explain to human males, particularly younger human males. My younger self, as could be expected given my social issues, was not a ladies' man either. I did not hold that against an entire gender. I found, rather easily, it was an issue with me, or at least that it must have been an issue with me that I did not fully comprehend. It still is in some respects. The only way to try to resolve that question was to begin to talk to some women or, perhaps more importantly, listen to them. Talking to men about women seems a useless prospect if the goal is to learn about women in a general sense, or in a sexual sense, or really almost any subject at all in relation to women. Women are far more interesting to converse on any of these questions, regardless of what kind of relationship is involved that supplies such conversations.

That specific question ultimately has had more to do with whether I get along with other human beings at all, not just the female of the species. Or more precisely, whether I want to get along with other human beings at all or whether I want them to get along with me. Those are rarely aligned prospects, and even if they are aligned, they're not inherently suggestive of a prospect of forming a sexual relationship. Even with otherwise sexually attractive individuals. Eg, I'd like to get along with this woman and relate to her in a non-pants-off scenario too and if that's not happening, I'd rather just read a book than get laid. Because I would get bored with the relationship otherwise from past experience. Since forming new relationships of any kind is tedious for me and consumes a lot of energy rather than fuels and invigorates me (in most circumstances), this helps cut down on the possibilities. In fact, it is far more likely that I miss suggestive signals of interest that other people communicate to me than that I over-interpret such signals. Much less that I would act upon those signals.

Despite that internal complexity, the underlying issue of forming sexual relationships is still not very hard to do. It's probably too easy to do actually for most of us if we just paid attention (though not quite bonobo easy where sex is a handshake practically, but still). Which leads back to this psycho-sexual position of "if I can't fuck it, I will kill it". It seems like a portion of this is a desire to be part of the sexual dynamics of "college", or "the culture", or whatever it is that it is perceived that sex is somehow an easy commodity to come by and that by not getting any sex, this is being missed out on. It actually "isn't" that easy, it's just not that complicated to pay attention to when sex is available, and when it is not and follow along. Human beings are set up by evolution to communicate sexual interest, of an actual variety, both for reproductive purposes and social purposes. Since 99% of the time we don't have sex in order to reproduce, but more because it's an enjoyable experience, it's something that we humans have adopted methods to say so to each other, or to say that we think it might be an enjoyable experience, and so on.

Somewhere along the line, most of us, or at least most men, seem to get the point that if they're not having sexual success in that communication loop, or relationship success more broadly which involves a sexual component, the proper reaction is to wonder "what I have been doing" and "what could I do differently", and then ask someone with some appropriate wisdom (generally a woman of some patience, if one is heterosexual obviously), or work through it with trial and error (again with women of some patience). I don't quite understand what the difference is for this small minority that ends up with a violent "fuck you all" reaction to that process of what amounts to socialisation (eg, learning how to talk to and relate to members of a preferred sexual partnership).

I do understand a more general sense of objectification or sexual competitiveness and its related jealousies. I don't engage in it, so far as I am aware, but I am aware of the existence of such thinking. Mostly because it generally offends me. And that might be where this comes along as a recognized issue that I have difficulty processing. It isn't something I have any interest in. I do not experience a strong sense of possessiveness with sexuality. I am loathe to identify someone I have semi-regular sex with as "my" girlfriend, or lady friend as is more commonly my reference, and I don't experience some variety of competitive instinct that I should need to have sex with X numbers of women, or some arbitrary and subjectively defined attractive type of woman to demonstrate my virility to other men. I am often indifferent to what other men think or do actually and don't find these to be informative statements about their quality as men or as human beings. I can't recall ever having a significant or semi-serious conversation on sex with other men as a result, much less feeling some jealous ambition that they are or were experiencing sexual activity on a semi-regular to regular basis and I was not. It is unclear to me what this would prove or provide as useful evidence that women involved in such efforts should not already validate or provide much more constructive feedback about. And yet it seems to be a motivating feature for violent actions between some percentage of men. I find this utterly baffling. Paying more attention to women seems a much more constructive method of having successful relationships, sexual or otherwise, and more likely to be demonstrative of virility through sex than bragging about it to other men, or parading a series of women as "conquests" and so on. I am not sure I can understand what causes this breakdown as a result.

14 May 2014

Sam I am?

Green eggs and ham version. Maybe.

I admit I am not fully aware of the logic involved in anti-homosexual perspectives, such as there is any. I've tried to engage with it somewhat with more religious (read: anyone who is religious) people. But in observing the case for Michael Sam's drafting being some kind of issue, I'm at a loss to explain much of it.

I see several perspectives emerging in response to the media circus surrounding this story.

"Why is this a big deal?" Surely there are gay men playing in the NFL right now, before this man was ever drafted, in a late round at that. To some extent, this point gets a part of the vision of tolerance correct. At some point this will cease to be a big deal as more players or potential NFL players (or NBA or MLB or NHL) come out. Fewer and fewer people will care. Larry Doby is not widely perceived as a major American heroic story the way Jackie Robinson is and was, despite starting his MLB career at almost the same time and facing many of the same enormous problems of acceptance and tolerance in a widely racist society and its then most beloved sport.

The problem is not that there are gay players in the NFL and so this isn't a story for that reason. The problem today is that none of those players are currently open about their sexual orientation. We do not know that there are. It is hidden, from teammates, owners, fans, and so on. That makes the first player(s) to do so kind of a big deal because it changes things a little. This knowledge of certainty, with a human name and face to the story changes things a little for all of us. It is yet one more arena where a person's sexual preferences should cease to be a matter of great public concern and we can focus on evaluating other aspects of their character and performance in a given setting/task.And it is now a story, relating to the plight and success of one individual, instead of an assumption based on statistics and reason, an abstraction. And stories are usually given far more power by people than abstractions.

Perhaps more importantly in a practical sense, it may also open up the ability of other players to be open about this aspect of themselves once the wall comes crashing down from the first to make it through the barrier without the world and professional sports as we know it coming to an end. From a societal perspective it may indeed stop being a big deal within a year or two that there are, and always have been, gay men playing professional sports (Most humorously mocked by Conan O'Brien's joke about it being the first time anyone celebrated being drafted by the Rams as the basis for the historical nature of the event). From an individual perspective, the individual outing themselves as some particularly unpopular or previously unpopular group, be they homosexual, transgender, atheist, Muslim, or whatever, potentially gains a tremendous amount by no longer concealing part of their basic humanity and identity from friends, co-workers and other trusted associates. And from a societal perspective we gain by seeing that these prejudices that we harbor, unconsciously or not, about said groups, are often incorrect in assessing the quality of people who make up such groups. Homosexual men can go play a physical game with other men, without posing any grave risk to any other male player's perceived masculinity. That's actually, surprisingly, a big deal to many people still.

The big deal is therefore not the individual event. It is the change overall it represents about how we are to relate to people who are different from ourselves. People asking this question are blithely or even maliciously ignoring the importance to the people who are being oppressed currently that they may rise above that status, and would most likely prefer that people who have unpopular and otherwise invisible character traits remain in the closet about them rather than have to tolerate this knowledge. That there is someone out there trying to overcome that barrier despite this hated or otherwise intolerable attribute of their identity. This ship has sailed, and putting it back isn't going to happen. Not for a long time.

If there are identity traits we don't like about other people, and we perceive them as something fungible about their nature, say their choice of religion or their sexual proclivities, however inflexible those things actually are, then it is not really appropriate to demand that these traits remain quietly present at all times in the background rather than as something we may come to know about this person. Indeed, if people actually perceive them as "sins" or otherwise problematic elements of character and behavior, then they should probably want them in the open so they know to either stay away from or seek to talk to such people as is their want. The common idea that these should remain hidden or unimportant strikes me as a counter-intuitive practice of the faiths that (often) lead religious people to condemn such people, and comes off more as a defensive tactic of saying "I don't really like them, but I'm going to hide behind my religion to say something else". It's not the worst such example of this kind of thinking. But this perspective has been doing considerable violence to the health and sustainability of various religious institutions throughout the Western world for well over a decade, if not longer. It has not done much to slow down the process of accepting amendments to our legal and cultural institutions (marriage rights, media coverage, pop culture characters and portrayals).

Why is a 7th round pick such a big deal? As a more football oriented point this one is pretty lame all around. This factor has been seized upon both by people who are looking to detract from the historical and cultural importance of the event of a pro team drafting and potentially selecting a gay man to come play for their team and by those seeking to look for evidence of bias that other NFL teams did not want to do so and that the NFL has a homophobia problem. The reality here is that it's probably both. He may not be very good at professional football, or he could be much better than a 7th round pick and teams will regret having passed on an otherwise appealing prospect. And some of them likely did so because of concerns over sexuality. Either personally as owners and executives or as a perspective of bias they believed is shared or even widespread in the locker rooms of the respective teams they control. It is not impossible to believe that others share our biases, nor is it possible that these biases do not exist on some level, perhaps even a very high level on some teams.

On the football grounds, asking about the importance of a "7th round pick" is the case for almost anyone who is drafted in the NFL (1st rounders included). NFL teams are notoriously terrible at assessing professional prospects through the draft. All pro sports are bad at this, but baseball at least has a minor league system for player development and the NBA seems to have gotten a decent handle on translating basketball abilities from college or international leagues to the big time that competent teams have far fewer misses. The NFL has no clue and no effective system for evaluating talented players. Some of this is the complexity of the sport with various players with more specialized roles per team, each ideally contributing to the success of others around them, making it very hard to narrowly focus on individual achievement. Some entire roles (linemen for example) have few meaningful publicly available statistics for the public or outsiders to act as a quick rational check on which players might be "good" or "bad" at a particular skill. It is therefore difficult to show evidence that the other teams passed on him because they feared the effect of his homosexuality or some such. It is possible he may not even make the team that drafted him and could end up playing elsewhere, or not make the league at all. As with the Jason Collins announcement last year at the tail end of the NBA season, this may not in itself be evidence of a fearful bias if he is not playing next year in the NFL (Collins was eventually signed by the Nets late in the year, but was playing in the league).

So okay, there's a gay guy playing football (potentially). Well then, I guess we will love the man but hate the sin. This to me is the worst kind of prejudice being paraded as religious nonsense that demands our toleration and respect. Because it rarely comes down to people who find the man tolerable but the behavior not so much who would say such a thing. I do not have a preference for having sex with other men, nor any interest in it and would not indulge someone who wanted to do so with me. But I do not find it hateful that other men do have this preference, they are welcome to do so with anyone else who wishes so far as I am concerned. So the logic that the behavior is to be despised because it is somehow icky or not what we would do ourselves doesn't really move the morality needle at all as a first order problem with this statement. I don't find it to be categorically sinful in nature to seek out the people whose company you enjoy, to express feelings of affection toward them, and to have sexual attractions and seek to act upon them as a portion of that relationship with other consenting human beings. There are categories of behavior within that that can be harmful, and which I would not condone. I would not condone cheating sexually and physically on a partner without some arrangement with that partner for an open relationship for example. This behavior carries risks and can be damaging to a relationship, and thus to another putatively cared for individual, if not more than one. Obviously sexually forcing oneself on others is categorically wrong as it removes their agency and declares that whatever it is they want or wanted, "my" wants are more important and to thus seek personal sexual gratification at the expense of their body and potentially the physical and mental health of another person to be placed at risk by this action. It is not impossible to conceive of a significant and important gradient of moral difficulties that individuals must navigate where it concerns human sexuality even in a relatively hedonistic anything goes world that I might perceive as morally appropriate and tolerable as compared to a more repressive culture as we inhabit now. I would not say I am blinded to the prospect that there are in fact sexual "sins" in that light.

Within any given religion, there are numerous examples of "sin" that are not condoned, or have had amended connotations to allow for certain varieties of acts but not others, and so on down the line. But, taken as given that there are in fact any varieties of wrongness or sinfulness to each of them, then the issue isn't limited to homosexuality, if one is consistent. It's applicable to almost anyone at all in the human condition. The disparity seems to be in this instance, because we do not care why someone does a thing for which we have dogma disapproving of it, it does not matter if that thing is inherent to their person and identity or not. Indeed, usually it is not even a concern to investigate the matter, it is declared a choice or a phase and something which shall be treated and excised from themselves in favor of our own preferences, again a destruction of agency. This, as a method of "treatment", is considerably harmful to individuals who go through it. It is, in effect, unethical rather than humane and sensible to behave this way. To parade around this as a variant of tolerance that should be itself tolerated and respected is not a wise thing either. Other people are being actively harmed by this notion. "You" are merely being disgusted by, or inconvenienced in your desires for, the behavior of other people.

A more serious error here is the position that any and all sins are worthy of such treatment. Or, more precisely, the issue is that not everything that has been deemed sinful behavior, or otherwise immoral and immoderate for which religion is often used to claim its wrongfulness is universally and eternally condemned by religions. Or likewise, to claim that the position of wrongfulness was determined and ordained by a deity rather than by men interpreting that deity (or inventing a deity to ordain what they disapproved of, as is the sociological and anthropological explanation).

Tolerance is difficult, and it often requires us to permit people to do or say things we do not like or do not approve of ourselves, while giving us the liberty to present alternatives or views that oppose those disdainful duties of others. It is, on many levels, perfectly permissible for people to state that they disapprove of homosexuality for personal distaste and disgust, for traditional reasons, or even a belief formed based on religious dogma. It should likewise be permissible to argue against these traditional beliefs or question how or why a personal distaste and disgust is formed and why it is needed in a particular format. Watching a gay man, or at least man we now know to be gay, running with and hitting other men with physical violence on a football field, in essence the performance of his job, is not the same as watching a gay man have sex, presumably the object of disgust involved here. This is a separate thing. This distinction is not obviated away and protected from polite discourse by claiming "that is what I believe", and by extension, "my beliefs are based on inviolable truths" so therefore others can't talk about them, threaten them with reasoned arguments, or listen to them with a learned intention of understanding one's motivations.

16 January 2014

A note on the debate over abortion

A more concise point which occurred to me about the entire "Constitution issue" in stark and frequent debate over the last few weeks is the manner it is used as a talisman for "you can/can't do X" rather than an argument for why X is even a good idea in the first place. Many gun control advocates seem more concerned with the things they can do on the basis that they can maybe get them passed and then maybe upheld in court rulings than whether they're all that effective that we need to pass them either. Similar problems arise in abortion restrictions, or the surveillance state. This practice bothers me perhaps almost as much as people ignoring each other's interpretations of Constitutional law and pretending that they do not exist. Suppose for the sake of argument that certain varieties of gun control laws or various commonly overturned abortion restrictions are really that great of an idea, we should be able to construct cases for amending the Constitution to craft these restrictions upon the people and that whole "it can't be done" debate would be kind of moot, if it is really that great of an idea that is, it could be done anyway.

In some respects this is why the balanced budget amendment idea keeps annoying me. If someone's going to sell me on it, it would help if they explained a) why it's needed, what problem it solves and b) what mechanics they'd use to achieve it from our current disparity in deficits or the long-term deficit problem. Why is it such a good idea in the first place? What effectiveness upon these United States would it achieve or attain that we're currently unable to do? What loopholes would be permitted, if any? And so on. It's a brainless or thoughtless way of expressing concern about a problem without really intending to do anything about it. This arises constantly in politics or political debate that signaling concern is more important than the real world effects, anywhere from minimum wage laws to guns to foreign policy. It's incredibly frustrating to see laws passed without much concern for how they would be used, who they really help/target, and so on.

Abortion debates are little different in this respect.

What is different seems to be a deeply rooted question that is only mediated through metaphysics rather than law. When is a life a human being, a person endowed with unalienable rights? The law, through the inherent subjective sloppiness of metaphysics, usually results in an arbitrary divisor of scientific viability. With the prospect of survival of life as a separate object and person from the being which has nourished and carried its development to that point but this says little about the questions that swirl around in the atmosphere of the debate, or for that matter much about the value and purpose and intention of creating such life in the first place.

What we find is that there are still, despite our legal framework, obvious fictions about that framework that pass by into unexpected or unanticipated places in the haste to deal decisively with objections or supports for the procedure itself and its own basis. In other words, nobody actually wants to talk about abortion itself, nobody wants to talk about miscarriages and other pregnancy related tragedies and mishaps, nobody wants to talk about the difficulties of child raising, nobody wants to talk about women and the value of autonomy and privacy of a large percentage of the human population to the economy, the society. Or, perhaps most absent from the conversation, the women themselves. What instead happens is a lot of talking sideways at these subjects as though they are awkward and untenable conversations.

In this way, it is very much like the gun control debate wherein one side presents arguments for regulation that seem mostly based on fears (somewhat rational, but largely irrationally constructed) and the other presents defences against regulation that range dangerously toward fantastical belief in the interests of a mostly complacent fat and happy and aging populace to rise up against any supposed tyranny. But mostly this one in particular.

Much of the pro-life/anti-choice arguments come off, at least to very pro-choice people like me, as "attacks on women", fundamentally. They represent a number of arguments but most of them seem horribly flawed in their understanding of human behavior and the general society we now inhabit. I would say a more accurate assessment is they represent a war on sex, with female sexuality being a primary problem in how women are interpreted by society.

One major flaw is a belief that sex is for reproduction. For humans, it is not. Sex is about communication, intimacy, love, recreation, reproduction, social status, etc. It is not a simple act we undertake only to produce offspring. In fact, it wasn't even this limited to reproduction before we came up with methods to prevent or reduce the likelihood of pregnancy, which have in advanced societies rendered the question as even more of a side line. Human beings just have sex way too often and without any obvious signs of ovulation to be doing so in order to produce progeny effectively from sexual couplings. We can even have sex in positions and methods rendering it impossible to do so, or can self-stimulate, and so on down the line of ineffective sexual reproduction. The "pill", and the condom before it certainly changed the social appreciation of sex, and certainly reduced the probabilities of sexual consequences in a noticeable way. But for humans the process of "have sex=babies" has never been a straight line even before we could put up some walls in the way. This retrograde idea needs to be simply eliminated from the conversation because it poisons the attitudes toward birth control, women, sex, sexuality, and basically the human condition in general, because it is false. It becomes a problem in this debate because there are many people opposed to abortion on the notion that people who have sex must accept the consequences and risks.

Except that those risks can be mitigated, and for most of us, are very, very small. The risks, not the objects we use to copulate with.

The average ratio of pregnancies from sex is around 1% of all sexual acts result in a live birth in advanced societies. If we assume from falling fertility rates that availability and use of birth control reduced this by a factor of 3 or 4, we're still talking about a very small percentage of human sexual activity being used for reproduction. Even considering post-menopausal women having sex or exclude the infertile more broadly doesn't get us to a more significant percentage of our sexuality for this one purpose. We might argue then whether sex ought to be more focused about reproduction and that its other uses are a social distraction, but this creates the practical question (similar to homosexuality and marriage's legal rights and contracts), of what to do about the aged or infertile. To say nothing of that it isn't a natural state of human societies not to have sex for a variety of purposes and that those purposes are equally useful to a vibrant and functioning society as producing and raising offspring.

That doesn't mean that it might somehow become intolerable to suggest or encourage that human beings should form (mostly) monogamous couples or that human beings be aware of the probabilities of pregnancy, or other risks of sexual behavior, and seek to mitigate them as probable risks, but the idea that "sex is about reproduction" is simply false firstly and secondly says nothing valid about the moral status of a fertilized egg, or a developing human embryo or fetus. Rather, it says something about the behavior and moral status we wish to ascribe to the person carrying said egg, embryo, or fetus.

The basis of this line of argument arises in the format of "women can't get pregnant from rape". It is a series of inaccurate assumptions or beliefs about the nature of pregnancy biologically and the nature of human beings sexually; beliefs such as that miscarriages and other pregnancy related tragedies and mishaps are rarer than they actually are (pro tip: they are about as common than abortions) because they are socially stigmatized and too rarely discussed, and a false dichotomy examining healthy adult sexual behavior, even where it might be limited to strictly "biblical" reproductive sex (and thus, in my view, unhealthy, or at least boring adult sexual behavior) and not recognizing that it includes a huge percentage of actions that don't do anything reproductive and probably never will. As a result a foremost problem with much anti-abortion rhetoric is that it characterizes the women involved inaccurately as killers who think having sex is more important than life essentially rather than women who may already have families, women with health complications, fetuses with health complications (that may not come to term anyway, much less adulthood) and so on.

If the character of the person involved is already questionably defined, then we're not going to understand how to reduce a number of abortions through restrictions or bans, assuming that's a goal that many people share. Most people when asked might say they are pro-choice but would not have an abortion themselves or would not want a significant other to get one except under very particular circumstances. These circumstances are not ideal or commonly conceived but can happen frequently. What happens then is that states have used a variety of methods to decline access or place barriers upon access. Waiting periods, mandatory ultrasound viewings, sometimes invasive procedures, parental or guardian permission, and so on, that often do not pertain to most other health procedures in legal forms, and have little to no effect on reducing the number of people who actually get an abortion who want one. What they can do instead is decrease the availability of well-trained and reasonably safe clinicians who provide them or make it more challenging for the people who do actually really want one for some reason. But they don't actually stop the process either. It simply gets transferred downstream to people who have sketchier clinics, or limited skills, or to people who still have these skills but are in limited supply, requiring trips across several states while encountering these invasive restrictions.

This is a major problem with the entire "judicial activism" argument in the first place. In that the question wasn't "what regime prevented women from even wanting to get an abortion" via a legal restraint on their availability but rather "what regime made it safer for them to do so". It is not an easy decision for most people, even as there are often terse and logical reasons in favor of it, these are not always convincing on matters of doubt and uncertainty surrounding the metaphysics of human life, its origins, and so forth, for many, many people. I suspect one of the reasons the "fetal pain" constraints, or the requirements to carry to term by a hospital (even if the mother is otherwise legally dead), and so on are popular is that people are just not comfortable within these morality questions and would prefer to have simple answers, or failing that, excuses that look like simple answers. There are not simple answers. The best we can do is "an infant could possibly survive and continue to grow after this point detached from the mother physically". That's it. Pain doesn't work because pain is a subjective enterprise for adults anyway and doesn't appear to be a scientifically valid prospect before viability anyway through the development of the nervous system. Dead mothers with near-to-term development and penalties for drug use by prospective mothers likewise suggest that we'd rather put up an easy wall than try to answer these questions. We don't want to punish miscarriages, but legal structures are often attempted to put in place that would or could. The reason that goes on is that both miscarriages and abortions tend to happen around the same time. And again, most people don't know miscarriages are pretty damn common, and don't have to be tied to anything obvious as a cause like drug or alcohol use that we should be punishing people who do use mind-altering chemicals during a pregnancy and policing this with invasive state powers.

I find myself constantly baffled that many pro-life advocates not only believe Roe v Wade was improperly decided, which I suppose is a legal interpretation they are entitled to support even as that notion involves a host of other problems for their privacy and agency as individuals, but that they somehow believe overturning it would matter. When for most people, most women seeking abortions, it does not. Even jurisdictional guidance it provided it would matter only for some women as most states would presumably leave them as legally accessible in some fashion. My estimation for the politics given the indefensible nature of some laws that are passed or attempted to pass that do fail is that they would be screwed as they would have to defend all restrictions they wish to make now plus the more ultimate restriction of none at all. Little or nothing would happen legally to shift the politics and such groups would lose their political viability for advocacy just as "traditional marriage" advocates (whatever that's supposed to mean) have steadily lost ground to gay rights movements.

We're ultimately punishing people for going through circumstances with the misfortune of not being ourselves, with the implication that all people should react to such events with the same exact feeling of joy and merriment and glory onto the universe/jesus/allah/buddha as the case may be. I think what this underscores is that it just isn't that easy for everyone to get pregnant, carry the egg through the stages of development to term, deliver the child, love and care for the child, supply for its basic needs and growth, raise the child, and observe and supervise their actions into adulthood as a moderately successful independent human being. Any one of those steps could be far more difficult for someone else that they'd feel a compelling need to make very different choices instead of the ones that we might prefer that they make. In order to override those choices, we should have to have a very good reason, and make that case to them as individuals. This is essentially all the court ruling said, is that there is a compelling reason at "viability" to make this case more broadly and to require a compelling and extreme basis for a procedure at that point, but not before that. Where we would remain free to choose, and also to coerce and influence (without resorting to violence).

Not everyone reacts to a miscarriage in the same way despite that being what must seem to be a devastating event for a woman to go through. Not everyone reacts to a pregnancy in the same way either. The spectrum between "well shit" and "sunbeams of joy on my every footstep" is real and has real consequences in how things are going to be handled, not just on the question of abortion but on questions of parenting or adoption too. The obligations, however desirable, of parenting are vast and should not be taken as lightly as to demand them for every pregnancy that occurs. Nor do we issue such demands for every child that is born of their parents that they be doting and caring and responsible adults. If we have the autonomy available to us on how to be a parent, we ought to have some respect for whether or when to become one. And if this is so, then seeing as a very large percentage of abortions occur for unplanned pregnancy, it might do to focus on ways to make pregnancy more often a planned effect. However best to achieve that; focuses on marriage to prepare people for collective child raising duties, focuses on proper and comprehensive sexual education to reduce unplanned pregnancy rates versus abstinence, which often has a damaging effect on teen pregnancy rates, or subsidies and otherwise expanded access to birth control, etc.

In so far as pro-life people believe the sole and fundamental argument is "its a human being", that's fine for their purposes. Maybe that's convincing enough for some people too. I'd even say that I admire that they make it even I don't think they have enough support to advance the claim. The biggest problem is that I don't think they make it consistently. Rape and incest exemptions to me smack of hypocritical political expediency rather than a logical argument flowing from this basis of an essential humanity, and bear weight directly on the logic that there are circumstantial elements. They apparently just have to be circumstances we approved of rather than more individually valid or autonomous reasons implying any moral agency. But I think this is all fine for what it is worth as a starting point. The problem is that we live in a world that ascribes this a very different legal basis, out of the necessity of pragmatic objections that policing abortions would intrude onto policing miscarriages, and out of the necessity that making these decisions in some other way invites more controversy (for now). Even for the many people that agree this is the metaphysical grounds, and that abortions are in some sense wrong, people may place them on gradients of "wrongness" that are less on par with murdering a child or another adult person than would be the case if they accepted this as a literal fact of humanity. They're complicated questions about personhood and even identity (and to be fair, even the bible's ancient text seems to have passed on this up even a month after birth, and had nothing direct to say about prenatal circumstances). That's why we don't talk about them, we talk around them or we just assume the answer, provide it for everyone somewhat blithely and condescendingly and move on. Pro-choice advocates don't get out of jail free by being correct that these are unresolved questions empirically or even innately subjective questions by nature of their metaphysical source anymore than pro-life advocates get any points by making up an answer and declaring it correct.

People probably should think much harder about what they are doing, both before they get pregnant or get someone else pregnant and then afterward on what they want to do about. These are not insubstantial societal goals. The question is how they should think about, or what do they focus upon harder. Far too much of the debate is divorced from the practical realities. So viability is at question around 24 weeks. Only 1% or so of abortions are performed after that, typically for medical reasons. Most people can say; that's not me. The "fetal pain" question has an answer sometimes made up at 20 weeks, sometimes made up earlier or later. At 20 weeks, it is only about a half a percent higher than 24. These are statistically tiny quantities of people that are impacted directly, so legal restrictions seem easier to design and support. Roughly speaking, only 10% of all abortions happen after the first trimester at all. And among these, we are still talking mostly about women close to the 13-15 week scenario where there may have been accessibility or affordability questions for the procedures pushing them outside the earlier window rather than some other source of delay.

We're talking about abstractions instead of some thousands of actual women per year when talking in this way. I think this diminishes the problems they have, the problems they experience, and the availability of their options as they see fit to exercise them. But it is also necessary to point out that the vast majority of people involved, to say nothing of the general public when asked, apparently see that this is modestly acceptable and appropriate as a decision to make at one point, but decreasingly so as it progresses in time and that they will have varying reasons for why this is so. It is not simple as saying "at conception", or some other nonsensical metaphysics answer for most people, just as it is unsatisfying to say "at 24 weeks" to others. I am something of an extremist that would say "at live birth", whenever that occurs, but I also don't have a womb over which to exercise the decision making. Men seem to be a little more pro-choice after all. But I also recognize my position is at an extreme. It is not a popular convention to hold to and not a popularly practiced ideal. This applies also to its opposite. A restriction of behavior which is commonly performed and not supported by popular will is liable to be a defunct legal fiction rather than an effective and well-enforced law. I could and would not make or advance a claim that a preferred legal structure might impose abortions on families with too many children or for certain kinds of people by the same notions of impossibilities and the impracticality of control of human behavior versus what people want to do in actual behavior. I suppose people could claim this is more serious a moral violation than traffic laws or narcotics use, and certainly it is rarer per capita than either of those, but it isn't demonstrated that it is in fact more seriously destructive to destroy potential human lives versus actual living and breathing human beings' destructive capacity. It should seem at least vaguely plausible that most women could just as easily produce children at other times in their lives instead of being compelled to produce them at any time we as outsiders require they should and this argument seems to be acceptable enough to most.

A much larger societal effect question surrounds issues like Plan B contraception or (incorrectly called this in most cases) abortifacient drugs. It is unclear to me personally and also scientifically why these are a bigger concern and more controversial publicly than abortions generally, even in the first or early second trimester that, aside from the most ardent pro-life advocates, the general public seems fairly blaise about. It is bizarre that birth control generally is treated as some kind of controlled substance, with constraints to access and a social disdain for many of the more effective forms. IUDs have a troubled US history, but they're quite safe now for example. Hardly anybody uses them in this country and they're often targeted by anti-abortion restrictions to be further restricted alongside. Condoms are locked up in some stores or some parts of the country but not in others. Suggesting the problem isn't theft prevention but rather passing a sentence of moral approbation for the devices and their associated uses by otherwise responsible teenagers and adults. These are highly effective objects at reducing rates of pregnancy used properly, which ought to be an object of considerable interest in reducing things like teen pregnancy rates (which have very high abortion rates), or the rates of abortion in poorer or minority communities, also higher than the general public. But the public seems afraid that somehow admitting this is akin to admitting that sex is okay generally and that sex is probably something their children will do. I suppose this is akin to children admitting their parents and grandparents still have sex too and "oh boy" isn't that uncomfortable to consider. But the fact remains, teenagers will do it anyway despite our efforts, schemes, and plans to prevent it. Some effort should be made to accommodate the problems rather than punish people for these actions. Some states still attempt to punish sexual conduct by minors with extreme penalties (eg, receiving a blowjob as a teenager from another teenager of similar age can land people in jail or as a registered sex offender), even as these laws have been struck down for adults. We're still having an ongoing discourse about what to do with these same children sexting with their phones and spreading photos and video of an explicit nature. Treating this as child pornography and its distribution seems no more appropriate than parents and other elders ignoring it entirely from a moral standpoint, but still the idea that it is by itself worthy of criminal sanction at all seems ludicrously popular.

I suspect it would help if we had a broader and more open conversation about what it means to be sexually active, rather than running around pretending everyone who wants to have sex, particularly women, are just horny or slutty. I do not see that conversation starting anytime soon. Indeed, I see people still running as fast as possible in the other direction. 

That leaves us with the unenviable task of trying to explain that large quantities of abortions occur both globally and in this country for reasons that most people find acceptable enough not to object strenuously to, even if they remain uncomfortable with them, and under circumstances that most people are not prepared to object to. And that large quantities of these that do occur could be prevented under circumstances that large percentages of the population already have access to and undertake as precautions and sensible restrictions on their own behavior (proper use of birth control, use of non-reproductive sexual habits in the absence of available birth control, etc). That is not an easy and quick solution to a difficult and controversial problem of course. I tend not to see many easy ways out. Banning the whole thing, or crafting very particular exemptions, isn't politically popular, creates new risks and dangers, and isn't likely to be very effective anyway as a result and naturally so long as there are pro-life advocates, and the issue remains more divisive than gay marriage or marijuana use, it's unlikely to shift significantly that ardent pro-life voters and their more sensible concerns could be, or even should be, ignored. Unfortunately the atmosphere of debate is often clouded by a lot of insensible ranting that has little to do with the problem or becomes counterproductive to this as a central policy goal of reducing the number of abortions to a much lower quantity than is presently done. If in fact those other sources of ire, such as human sexuality or birth control, or female autonomy generally, are more pressing concerns, it does not speak much to the supposed value of human lives that they should be getting in the way.

27 August 2012

Brain droppings of the weeks.

Now that the great Chicken War has ended, Americans have moved onto the next outrage. Apparently this is rape semantics. I'm not sure Akin's apology clarified much serving as an explanation of his views. As he did not withdraw the most abhorrent anti-scientific portion but merely the word "legitimate" to be replaced with "forcible" . To be honest, I don't much care about this controversy either. The idea that there's a solid cohort of Republicans who don't think that abortion should be acceptable even in conditions of rape or incest is not news, nor is it much of a problem (it's not even a majority of Republicans). The circumlocution that politicians must go through to achieve electable status in a country that for some reason has a modest "we shouldn't do this*" outlook on abortion but suddenly finds it acceptable when there are rape or incest complications (a logically inconsistent position but the one that the public polls on believing consistently) is an odd game of political jujitsu to be sure. But it's actually not that interesting to catch a politician espousing the views of the pro-life/anti-choice extreme right whereupon there's this odd game of trying to define away the possibility of rape such that the exemption for rape becomes less and less strident politically without having to make the unpopular moral framing of saying that a rape victim must carry to term a pregnancy. That they might slip once in a while and drop the pretenses is not news because I think it can be acknowledged this position makes no sense unless we view it from the perspective that only male concerns in pregnancy matter (that is: things like ensuring paternity lines). Which is an interesting framing, if stupid, to look at the case, but was not how Akin framed it (from the perspective that only "legitimate" or forcible rape is actually rape). That framing has some disturbing patriarchal baggage, but not as much as the general public's agreed compromise has. Either the public needs to get on board with the idea that a woman may decide against the public's wishes to terminate a pregnancy, especially at an early stage, or the pro-life portion of the public needs to start making more sense and just say outright that the rape exemption is meaningless morally to them and oppose it. Otherwise, this is not news either. It isn't even a new phase of the abortion debate.

What it is is just a Senate seat now probably staying Democratic when it could have been had. Republicans have been there before (Delaware). I think of it as just a cost of being in bed with the Tea Party if one is a Republican and wants a greater coalition of power. Perhaps this will show that cost more explicitly, or show that the Tea Party isn't just a bunch of deficit hawks who don't understand the economy and don't like Obama, but is basically just re-branded social conservatives.

(* That has no implications for whether or not the public thinks abortion should be illegal in non-rape related cases. Generally that it should be legal, a further curious note on the politics, and generally the public thinks that some forms of limitations are acceptable because the public isn't very knowledgeable about how they work, who they affect, and how, and sees such proposals as in line with their vague sense that abortions are wrong. To me that is where the problem and the debate is with abortion rights in this country. Not debating the anti-scientific wackos like Akin or Willke who appear to imagine how the female reproductive system operates rather than examining it and ignore substantial amounts of actual research on pregnancy, the sexual functions of the female body, and so on).

(Clarification #2. I don't think there's a strong reason to draw a distinction between violent sexual assaults and other legal forms of rape. I think the usual distinction pro-life types look at is statutory rape, but there's also a more noxious version that looks upon women as lying about rape, or their reported rapes for date rape, marital assaults, etc as some other version of widespread deception, something Akin's initial followup also hinted at being his ideas. This is repellent and also false. Even if there is a non-insubstantial quantity of reported rapes that are some variety of this, there are far more rapes that go unreported, including violent assaults of the variety they try to limit exemptions to legally and morally. They're far better off on message just ignoring the rape exemption altogether because they come off as total clowns who don't understand the violation of rape of any kind. Rape is rape. Move on.)

On to other matters. I've been observing the election and the policies and platforms as they unfold. I think the selection of Rep. Ryan may be a shrewd gambit if the economy becomes more sluggish instead of tepid as it is now but otherwise I don't see the upside (and in truth, if the economy goes down, it would be because of Europe's fiscal and monetary crisis, which wouldn't be pretty for us regardless of who became President). There are at least two major problems with this gambit.

1) Ryan isn't a foreign policy guy, and neither is Romney. There are many ways that can slice but the most logical conclusion for an independent to draw is that their foreign policy agenda will be set by the Republican establishment, at least initially (which, in case one is wondering, is not ideal for anyone not already a neoconservative hawk). The fact that they can't point to much that actually differs from the policies of President Obama here is not helpful (for either side in my view). A further issue herein is to essentially concede for most voters that Obama has done, as they see it, a capable job on foreign policy and to argue instead against him on other grounds (eg the economy, possibly some social issues if framed properly). Which may be more tactically fruitful, but rely heavily on factors outside of any American control. Which then can be spun to imply to voters they're precisely the sorts of things that foreign policy successes might be perceived to influence.

2) Ryan seems to have a far better grasp of the relevant fiscal policies they want to set than Romney does. The idea that the number 2 guy is the guy with the plan might be a problem for Romney moving forward. There are lots of problems here. The VP isn't a very good position for the ideas man (see Cheney, Dick) or for the country. It's also not been well-associated with clever and thoughtful people (see Quayle, Dan or Biden, Joe), suggesting that any ideas coming out of there might be best disregarded rather than followed (in fairness, Biden I think has had a far better view of an appropriate foreign policy agenda than Obama has had). Finally, Congress is where any such plan or vision must go to get implemented. The exact place where Ryan could have held a lot more influence over matters budgetary. I'm not even sure why Ryan took the offer as a result.

17 July 2012

Quiz it

There's a political quiz here:
Which appears designed to deal with the problems routinely found in an uninformed electorate voting wildly upon issues that they may or may not care much about for candidates that may or may not actually share those views or act to carry them into law.

I went through and took this. For the most part, I find that the questions lack enough sophistication for more nuanced positions, more radical positions, or more... unique positions.  I have some quibbles with the scoring system as well, but not many. They seemed for instance to properly identify Obama as a drug warrior rather than as a drug-reformer or drug-decriminalisation advocate as is sometimes claimed, nor as an anti-war candidate as was commonly believed during the 2008 election (see Afghanistan), and there doesn't appear to be much "socialist!" idiocy. I also quibble with the fact that there isn't much dealing with the Iraq war or the Libya incursion, at least directly, for foreign policy.

Going through, these would be my more specific responses. (And short version, they didn't get into monetary policy enough for me to greatly distinguish Ron Paul from Gary Johnson and that abortion and immigration had to be relied upon. But both of them crushed everyone else. This should not be surprising)

Foreign policy

Should the US intervene in the affairs of other countries? I picked the "only if it serves national security", which to me read as the proximate statement for "realist concerns benefiting a strong or vital national interest only". That does not include "humanitarian" missions employing military force use for the most part and definitely doesn't include regime changing occupation missions.

How should the US deal with Iran? I went with "Maintain diplomacy while discouraging the use of nuclear weapons" My actual position would be something akin to "continue to attempt to slow development if possible or practicable of actual weapons, and use international law/treaty and diplomacy to enforce non-proliferation rather than military force". I'm not sure what "discouraging the use of nuclear weapons" means in practical terms but it could mean providing a nuclear deterrent against their use (M.A.D style?), or it could mean arms reduction treaties to limit the scope and size of any possible nuclear wars along with disarmament or IAEA/NPT compliance for other countries. Given that there's a lot of preposterous fear mongering relating to Iran's technical capacities for missile launches and conventional payloads (both of which might at best represent threats to Israeli security, for which they are amply supplied to defend or counter by themselves, and neither of which represents any severe danger to American security), I'm guessing that only our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have prevented outright warfare by diminishing the public appetite for additional conflict.   

Should the US maintain a presence at the UN? "Yes". Generally speaking diplomacy is cheap, even if it doesn't always provide gains to us, and as a "great power", we have veto powers to prevent things that we perceive as against our interests from happening through diplomatic means (much as China and Russia do). As a realist, while I recognize the international community won't always function according to legal dictums, it serves our interests to a) appear to go through the motions such that when rare actual forceful actions are necessary, as they might appear to be motivated by more noble concerns and thus shared in by others (obviously this has not been the case in our choice of recent actions), b) to use the existing structure to preserve or achieve power by avoiding tedious and expensive wastes of conflict for our blood and treasure by securing interests in other ways, and c) to provide diplomatic channels to secure and demonstrate alliances of convenience to hegemonic power or to cushion the decrease in relative power to a multi-polar world.

Should the US end the war in Afghanistan? "Yes". I also went with a stronger constraint on the War Powers Act, such that wars should be declared more affirmatively by Congress and only carried out by the CINC powers of the Presidency. Drone warfare should be included in this, even if it has more vague powers of declaration associated with it. The idea that "military leaders" should be allowed to determine whether any political or national interests are served by continuing a conflict is totally ludicrous to me. They can tell us whether those missions of vital interest could be carried out, what resources are required, and engage in military discipline and strategic planning with some latitude, but deciding whether or not to stay in a country for us? Stupid.

Should the US continue to support Israel? "No". In so far as we should provide aid if they were attacked and invaded (foolishly) by a rival country, fine. I can see that argument, much as we might if Western Europe or Australia were attacked by some (largely fictional) enemy. Those scenarios are extremely unlikely given the relative power of any allied military to their enemies for possible invasion (even South Korea could win against North Korea rather handily, just the terribly high cost of civilian infrastructure and population in the South prevents such a conflict). I can see arguments for sharing intelligence on terrorist networks for global purposes also. In so far as we should unilaterally or even tacitly support whatever Israeli policies are internally, or projected into Palestinian occupied territories, no.

How should the US handle the genocide in Sudan? "Don't get involved". I'm not sure how our involvement would or could resolve the situation. See Kosovo or Somalia for how interventions don't work out. Or Libya for a more recent example. Sudan also sounds like less of a regime matter and more a local tribal conflict that the regime has exploited and expanded, and which would require a very considerable investment on our part to dial down successfully (essentially a large occupation/peacekeeping force positioned for an indefinite period and effectively supporting one or more of the rival factions). To boot, the US does not have substantial diplomatic ties with the current Sudanese government on which to carry any influential weight as it is in the Chinese or Russian sphere of influence. Official US policy should be non-intervention. Private citizens may lobby the Chinese if they want as was done with a modest success in the South Sudan situation.

Should the United States end its trade embargo and travel ban on Cuba? Generally I am opposed to embargoes on any country. The type of country which a trade ban or boycott or other restriction is likely to have useful effect is likely to be the sort of country we are unlikely to use such things against (that is: a country with a democratically accountable government and a large developed economy). There are types of embargoes that may more penalise the intended targets (such as by trying to track and freeze the assets of corrupt regime leaders when moved to foreign and aligned countries, which limits opportunities for investment and growth of those private assets), but wide scale embargoes accomplish little but to impoverish, even starve or otherwise endanger, the general public of a rival country at the expense of providing a cheap propaganda point on which a dictatorial leader may rally support against our initiatives. For no probable gain on our behalf. Eg, they are counter-productive. It is sensible that US interests may be served by limiting military technology or friendly espionage with rival countries, but this is not what the trade and travel bans intend. Trade and travel restrictions should really only be used during a time of active war and conflict.


Should children of illegal immigrants be granted citizenship? I went with "yes if they were born here." In general I see citizenship as distinct from open borders policies for residency or trade and labour. People should want to definitively associate themselves as "Americans" to participate fully and for civic purposes in our society as citizens. But in so far as it would then be necessary to make distinctions from current American citizens being born here instead of just getting citizenship, I don't see any reason to make such a distinction to shut off immigrants receiving citizenship at birth in the same way that other residents do.

Should illegal immigrants be given access to paid health care? "Yes". Medical ethics demands this to some extent. I am not convinced that this is a substantial driver of costs (The "ER use" mythology is very powerful). Essentially I think the same arguments against immigrants being denied care would have to apply to any poor person or anyone who lacked insurance, etc.

Should illegal immigrants working in the US be granted temporary amnesty? Again, yes. I would prefer some combination of the following: auctioning off work visas to businesses rather than requiring businesses to prove need, increased allowances for entrance through this means, and especially a simplified means of accessing citizenship rather than extension hoop jumps we use now. We are generally enriched by immigration for cultural and economic reasons and I don't see a reason to reduce this enrichment by worrying about boot millions of people out of country.


Do you support the Theory of Evolution? I suppose this is a proxy for other social conservative value assessments. (Eg, a way to provide additional emphasis to anti-gay or anti-abortion stances). Otherwise, I'm not sure what filtering value this question serves. Being anti-rational or anti-humanist isn't exactly an unpopular political view in the US, and is actually something that takes the format of being influenced by other political ideological views. Liberals end up being more likely to take views opposing GM foods or vaccinations or nuclear power with more seriousness because they hold anti-corporate views just as social conservatives take creationism and abortion and homosexuality with more seriousness than the science would indicate is deserved because of faith-based views. 

Should the federal government fund stem cell research? If the grant proposals involved in such research are very promising, I suppose a case can be made here. I'm skeptical that this is actually the case for much stem cell research that the government needs to be encouraging it in some special way that the private market doesn't have incentives to do already. The question here also simplifies the disparity between adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells; which is where most social conservatives seem concerned, though for my purposes, it doesn't matter. I'm opposed to subsidizing this sort of thing not on moral grounds but on economic grounds. There are more promising or more directly practical lines of medical and genetic research available to lavish with public monies.

Should the US increase our space exploration efforts and budget? Other than satellite surveillance or communications, or things like GPS, I'm not convinced the US requires a public space programme. If private enterprise wants to do space tourism, exploration, or maintain orbital platforms for their own use, I'm fine with that. I don't think this should be a NASA centric effort and there are other ways to exhort Americans to take up the cause of science and mathematics in ways that they presently do not.

Health Care

Should marijuana be legalised in the US? Yes. With the additional requirements of a) a regulated open market, including possible medical uses for anyone and recreational use for adults and b) the reduction or elimination of criminal penalties for nonviolent offences associated with marijuana (or other narcotic substances).

Do you support the PPACA (Obamacare)? There really wasn't a good response here. My preference is a universal catastrophic coverage system provided by the government in exchange for taxes or mandated medical savings, basic subsidies for people who are poor or lower income or medically disabled, and then open it up from there to anyone who wants first dollar coverage or augmented elements to the private insurance market (which should be cheaper to provide if catastrophic care is augmented with government payments). This idea is some version of Singapore, Wyden-Bennett, and to some extent the Ryan plan. This also feeds into the next question...

Should we expand or dismantle our medicare programme? To which I would reply dismantle. It is an unsustainable economic model in the American polity to ask poorer working young people to pay for the health care of richer retired old people. Asking working people to pay for health care for poor people might be a justifiable system. Asking them to pay for the elderly on the basis of an arbitrary retirement age being reached is stupid. This idea should be phased out, starting with means testing benefits, then a general overhaul of medical insurance structure such that people when they retire ought to have some amount of funding available for their own needs privately held (eg, mandated HSA style accounts). This is but one example of vast transfers of wealth from poor to rich within our system (Home mortgage interest deductions are another), an idea which is both socially unjust and economically unsustainable.

Domestic policies 

Do you support increased gun control? I am opposed on some general liberties and Constitutional rights, and am agnostic about the efficacy of gun control setups that have been used. Some were genuinely bad and counterproductive, others seem to have at least "noble" goals and had minimal harm on the public they were enforced against (assault weapon bans for instance or constraints on ex-felons or mentally ill). I am however not all that fond of a social mindset that sees guns in the home and on one's person as essential. I just don't see that there are many sensible legal ways to restrict this attitude. Other than to make it less feel less essential (eg, make people aware that crime is rare, for instance, for most of us). So "no".

Do you support the Patriot Act? There are probably some provisions in there that were or are still of actual utility (some position of unified intelligence and intelligence sharing between various bureaus for example, if they were ever to use such a system might be beneficial. They do not appear to have done so very efficiently). But most of it read like a laundry list of law enforcement wants that exceeded Constitutional mandates, and offered little actual anti-terrorism effects. The general effect of security theater policies, especially in the formation of the Homeland Security cabinet position and the arbitrary methods of the TSA, does little to inspire confidence that other government provisions were of any necessity either. So "no".

Should the government regulate the internet to deter online piracy? Generally no. I am opposed to stronger intellectual property rights defenses, and support weakening of public domain laws and patent trolling powers. I do think that piracy of movies and music, along with video games, is a legitimate concern for those industries, but it does not appear to cause sufficient harm to their abilities to make creative works, distribute them, and to profit by them. Indeed, piracy itself seems heavily related to either a) distorted price controlled markets or b) items of considerable popularity. That is: something being pirated a lot ought to tell us that something is really, really popular already and is probably already making a lot of money. It would better if people weren't pirating it.. but the music industry finally seems to have twigged to resolving a partial solution by using digital distribution methods like itunes, and movies or TV shows will eventually concede to things like Netflix streaming or ala carte cable subscriptions as a method of generating revenues for consumption of their works. These methods do not eliminate piracy, but seem to alleviate it by offering ways to buy into the market and participate as a consumer without the old methods of having to consume entire albums, or to purchase on reserve copies of DVD/Blue-Rays for movies and shows that we may enjoy but probably don't want to own.

Are you in favor of decriminalising all drugs? Yes. As with marijuana, the problem is generally medical, not legal. It should be treated as such rather than as locking up addicts and providers with no other basis. I am skeptical that mere possession ought to be a basis for sending people off to drug treatment centres either (seems like a wasteful lack of filtering), but this is quite a bit better than locking such people up in prisons and jails and implementing invasive and aggressive police tactics to deal with non-violent criminals. If drug dealers are killing each other or their violence and aggression challenges a neighbourhood for other reasons, we should naturally be concerned. But just selling and possessing and using things ought not to automatically concern us.

Should we limit federal funds to public schools that do not meet performance standards? If we had some means of school choice, I should think this would be handled by parents and markets without need for federal decisions for implementing standards based testing that is probably counterproductive to providing a broad based general k-12 education and lacks effective enforcement methods at this time. I see several problems with this: one the current methods are ineffective, two, it's difficult to present what federal standards ought to be, or a basis for why they should override local or state standards, and three, who monitors these standards and how is a punitive method by reducing funds to a trapped school district a means of effectively improving the quality of education available to students and parents in that neighbourhood or city?

Do you support affirmative action programmes? "No, but we should offer social programmes to address poverty regardless of race or ethnicity". I see this as far more useful than automatic assistance to ethnic minorities. Given that there are disproportionately poor minorities, poverty based assistance would still provide substantial racial disparity in public benefits, without assisting people who have limited need of our public aid. The "sin of slavery" is an important historical reference point, but it should be possible to redress it by alleviating poverty and opportunity inequalities in occupation and education for all people.

Environmental issues

Is Global warming a threat to the environment? Yes. But I'm not sure what government plans would do much to help with it. The US already is among the largest reducers of CO2 reduction in the developed world for example by way of reducing CO2 intensity in our economy. Without much in the way of direct intervention and in spite of still substantial government largess for fossil fuel production (coal and oil) and use (highway subsidies rather than congestion pricing). There are existing government policies that should be abolished that may be exacerbating the problem as a result rather than a pressing need for additional government policy. A carbon tax or congestion pricing or gasoline tax would be probably sufficient if more action is necessary after those actions are taken (in exchange for reductions in other taxes at the federal or local level). A greater emphasis on densification rather than current policy favoring suburban settlement would also help (ideally we would do little to encourage either. Better schools and lawns provide incentives to live in the burbs, while access to culture, "public" transit, and other creative class benefits should provide incentives to live in cities).

Should we expand our offshore drilling? Generally speaking we should stop promoting it with additional support in the form of subsidies but other than basic regulation of environmental damage, I'm not sure we should be preventing it either. Without government support, it's possible these would still be economically useful to energy companies, but I'm not concerned if that were to be the case or not. The government should neither support nor oppose much offshore drilling.

Economic issues

Should the government raise the federal minimum wage? No, the federal government should abolish federal min wage standards altogether. These have the effect of depressing low skilled employment. Competition among such jobs would ensure that wages would not be "too low". What would be of greater importance is a general welfare reform that takes on the format of a universal basic income or negative income tax, such that people would receive transfer payments in cash rather than most in-kind forms of assistance for housing, food, and to some extent health care, etc. This would remove some of the inefficiencies in the design of these programmes such that they would not "phase out" when people cross income thresholds and allow people to earn additional income without fear of losing essential public benefits. 

Should Congress raise the debt ceiling? Yes. My preference is for Congress to reign in spending of all kinds and conduct an extensive tax reform. Since it won't do those things, I would prefer we not default on debts. Any ideas that we can cut spending without touching defence, and entitlements are absurd as is most "balanced budget amendment" talk. This is pandering rather than solutions. That money is already effectively spent and accounts for the overwhelming percentage of our expenses.

Should the US have bailed out the major banks during the financial crisis of 2008? Not as such. What should have been done was a NGDP target, or at least an inflation target that the Fed actually tried to hit, combined with a negative interest rate on reserves. This might have meant that some big banks would fail, or be broken up, but it would have discouraged hording of money by large institutions of all kinds (regular corporations for instance) at a time when the economy required liquidity and a higher velocity of money. Simply giving money to businesses that made very poor decisions does acknowledge some amount of government complicity in those decisions (eg, that they were encouraged to make them), but it doesn't do much to resolve the underlying problem that they were in fact poorly run institutions that made stupid decisions.

Do you agree with President Obama's 2009 stimulus plan? They probably should have provided more specifics here, but in general the answer was no. Things like unemployment compensation to some reasonable extent are uncontroversial in my view. And the sort of ad hoc manner that states would balance budgets by slashing payrolls in police or teaching would not be carried out in the most effective manner (by firing and retiring ineffective or abusive members of those institutions for example; partly because the methods of dismissing public employees are already fraught with legal complexity). But infrastructure spending is by now fraught with all manner of complicating and competing regulation fights that make it inefficient stimulus and to boot wasn't in most cases all that well designed to get projects of necessity off the ground. An ideal infrastructure stimulus programme involving infrastructure could have been to improve and maintain the already existing infrastructure rather than to supply incentives to produce more.  Of an often dubious utility. This would have had the advantages of more immediately providing work to people in a heavily displaced economic sector and providing some benefits in a more functional road network, efficient electrical grid, or updated water or sewer lines, some of which date to the 19th century, and so on without the need for boondoggle projects in high speed rail or subsidized clean energy.

Should the federal government subsidize farmers?
Nope. Next question.

Should we keep or dismantle our Social Security programme? I think this can function as a mandatory retirement savings system if reformed. It is less economically insane than medicare for example that old people should draw an income in their retirement than that we should then also provide medical care for all such people. I am however very skeptical that it should be monopolized and run by the government to the exclusion of other options (in the same way that I do not think a monopoly on schools is satisfying to the public externality of providing a quality education). Some variety of asset distribution or private control would be preferred here. Arguments like "look what happened to the stock market" do not concern me much here. In general that bashed the public's retirement assets because people who are retired shouldn't have very much money left in stock anyway and the problem was financial illiteracy and complexity of financial instruments. That is a separate if related issue but one which isn't as easily resolved as the relative freedom to do with money as we see fit money which is designated to be our own at a later date. Note: that could include investment in public bonds or allowing the government to manage the money in exchange for a possibly lower return on investment.

Do you believe the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 should be extended? They should really also be called the Bush tax cuts of 2010 and, probably 2012. But okay. The answer is I don't care about the Bush tax cuts one way or the other. My real concern with the tax code is that it should be simplified and greatly reformed. A general tax structure in my ideal world would include any or all of the following:
A huge reduction or elimination in all federal corporate taxation combined with both
A relative increase in the rate of capital gains and dividend earnings taxation to be closer to that of regular wage income (retaining the same sort of progressivity, and thus ending the private equity trader exclusions of carried interest also and the absurd manner in which middle class stock earnings can be taxed at regular rates while actual investment income is not)
And elimination of most forms of corporate welfare

An overall shift toward consumption taxation, possibly with a graduated effect from earnings potential (again, including capital gains type earnings) and income excluded from taxation for basic needs. This might include a VAT, carbon or gasoline taxes, other excise taxation (alcohol, narcotics, expensive first dollar health care insurance, etc). It could also included a heavily modified (less regressive scale) version of the Fair Tax proposals generally replacing income taxation of any kind.

Abolition of many tax exclusions like home mortgage deductions combined with a roughly flatter and lower overall tax rate on the increased base of money available to be taxed (this is essentially what was done during the Reagan years but not during the Bush years and also during the Kennedy and Coolidge administrations). 

No tax proposal is going to actually abolish the IRS. A bureau will exist to enforce tax laws and collect revenues. It might be smaller, and it might have very different mandates to carry out, perhaps against different sectors of the economy than the manner of taxing income. But the tax men are still going to exist. Sorry to disappoint.

Social issues.

Should abortion be outlawed in the US? No. I am persuaded that varieties of birth control access (making it OTC for example would help in addition to subsidies or cash transfers for the poor), more comprehensive sex ed, streamlined adoption methods, and other social services could actually help achieve the purported goal of reducing the likelihood and frequency of abortions. Bans would also reduce these but at the cost of increasing risks to women's health through illegal markets for provision of abortion and decreased ability to carry out medically necessary abortive procedures for the preservation of a woman's life as well as carrying enforcement costs, probably through invasive and insensitive police tactics made necessary to insure things like miscarriages are not actually abortions, etc. If the goal is actually to reduce abortions, there are better ways than by imposing enormous limitations on the liberty of women to conduct their health and sexuality (with no such restrictions imposed upon men), both for personal liberty and economic reasons I oppose bans even before entering into other moral arguments. There I favour allowing people to make complicated moral decisions themselves without fear of penalty so long as the harms committed to other human beings are limited. I am further persuaded that there is little moral certainty or clarity  that fetal and embryonic development is a "person" endowed with unalienable rights and much scientific evidence to suggest otherwise through the persistence of pregnancy difficulties in other formats, like miscarriages and failures to implant fertilized embryos in the uterine walls, to suggest that nearly any time frame of "person" prior to birth is inherently arbitrary. Positions of viability are possibly instructive as providing points of limitation and restrictive access, but not total bans.

Should gay marriage be allowed in the US?  Yes. Federal policy should be amended to provide federal legal benefits in accordance with state laws and licensing at the very least. It is also possible that federal policy should need to be amended under equal protection clauses in the 14th amendment such that ALL states would need to legalise such arrangements but I am content that demographic change on this issue will suffice to provide it in the near future to enough US residents and citizens as to make it universally approved.

Should the government require health insurance companies to provide free birth control? In general I oppose the government mandating what insurers must provide. I think the government's role here would be to provide sound scientific or transparent evidence that provision of particular methods, medications, etc is medically sound and reasonably cost effective such that insurers ought to do this. But I don't see why, say, a woman in her 50s should be receiving an insurance plan that automatically covers birth control (maybe there's some medical reasons, but it wouldn't be what we traditionally associate with the drugs and devices) simply because the government has decided that insurance companies need to provide it. I also disagree with first dollar insurance for health care more broadly anyway and think of things that are usually only modestly expensive and regular expenses (check-ups, birth control, etc) to be things that we ought to simply budget for yearly rather than to expect anyone else to pay for us. It ought to be reasonable socially or culturally to expect men and women to share the costs of provision while in a regular sexual relationship also. As an additional step, birth control of many varieties could be made OTC, which would render it cheaper and more accessible to millions of women, men, and their families or significant or occasional others by eliminating a largely extraneous step of seeing a doctor to obtain it. Women with specific and significant health risks could be filtered out by pharmacists issuing the drugs, prior consultations with doctors,etc (and the primary risks of note are "do you smoke?") without imposing costs on the vast majority of the population.

Where this became an issue politically was not mentioned in the question. The problem is that many Americans receive their insurance through their employers and employers then get to exercise their own moralising impulses upon their employees types of plans. I do not see a basis for preventing people from opting out of mandates of this kind (as opposed to more general mandates for health care provision of any kind), nor for preventing them from accessing types of care and coverage that they find perfectly acceptable when they work with or for people who do not feel likewise. The problem is more the employer provision in my view here and less the mandates.