To conservatives: Why Jason Collins coming out matters

It’s 2013, y’all. I don’t understand why this kind of thing has to be explained anymore, but based on the reactions to Jason Collins, veteran NBA player, coming out today as the first current gay male player in US team sports, it does.

Here’s how some conservatives I follow (and one I don’t) reacted on Twitter:


Exhaustive summary of others, both positive and negative, at Twitchy, as usual.

To those with any passing contact with anyone who is not exclusively heterosexual, this kind of reaction is utterly baffling. Ideally, no one would care. Ideally, sexual orientation is totally irrelevant to how someone is perceived and treated in the world. We don’t yet live in that ideal world. Until we do, coming out is incredibly important, especially for friends, family, and celebrities. The biggest influence of personal opinion about the normalcy of LGBT people and issues is knowing someone who is. Even on the question of gay marriage, knowing someone who’s gay is a huge factor.

Of course, this assumes people like the above believe in equality and normalcy. They don’t. Implicit in their “who cares?” is the desire for the issue to just go away so they don’t have to face it. This is typical of those on the losing side of cultural arguments. You can also see this in the phenomenon of parents being horrified at having to explain life to their children (or, being parents). No, having openly gay celebrities doesn’t mean you have to demonstrate gay sex to your kids. A simple “some people like boys, some like girls” will suffice.

This, in a nutshell:

Now, by openly airing their disdain for coming out stories, people like this are doing the opposite of what they intend. Instead of squashing the story, they literally promote it and their own ignorance in the process. This can only serve to further isolate them in the public debate. So let them speak. It can only be good for the rest of us.

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Empty bank accounts: A prime example of government waste

Today the news comes to us from the Washington Post that this year, the federal government will spend
$890,000 on fees for 13,712 empty bank accounts.

I’ll let that sink in. You probably have to read it a couple more times, as it makes no sense the first time. Ok, done? No? Still don’t understand? Yeah, me neither. So let’s review.

The federal government, not including state and local governments, just the federal government, has 13,712 bank accounts. No, I’m sorry, not even that. It has way more accounts than that. Those are just the ones that are…yes…empty. There are actually 202,000 of these accounts that pay out federal grants, and 7% of them are empty, but still open and costing $65 per year to remain so.

Now…I realize your head has either already exploded or at least begun leaking fluid from any of several orifices by now, but stay with me. This is important.

Every time the federal government awards a grant, it opens a bank account. Given the obscene number of grants awarded, one would think that a new bank account for each one would be absurd. And one would of course be correct. But the federal government operates on the premise of absurdity, not in spite of it. Instead of just writing a check for the grant amount, issuing a prepaid debit card, or using one massive account for all of them, someone decided it would be a better idea to open a new account for each one. And not just any old account you can throw some money in and ignore. An account that costs $65 a year. And 202,000 of them.

To his credit, President Obama issued an order last year that agencies should start closing these accounts. The problem is, there was no followup. Some did, others didn’t. And that’s even more insane. That there are still 13,712 empty accounts after many agencies and departments looked into it and closed some.

So we know this problem will cost taxpayers $890,000 this year ($2.1 million the year before!), but how much is that really? In 2010, the average federal income tax paid was $6,660. If roughly equivalent to this year, that means that the tax returns of more than 133 people were completely wasted on this ridiculous accounting blunder (over 315 the year before). Yes, it’s a small number, but it’s symbolic of the waste, fraud, abuse, and gross mismanagement of the unwieldy federal government.

Adding more painfully ironic salt to the wound is that the Government Accountability Office, the agency that monitors waste and fraud, actually took the time to issue a 55-page report on this problem last year (which prompted Obama’s order). A simple five-word tweet would have sufficed:

“This is insane. Fix it.”

Texas House abolishes the lottery…then realizes how insane that is

Every two years, the Texas legislature votes on a measure to renew the Texas Lottery Commission, which oversees the many lottery games in the state, as well as authorizing charity bingo operations. The funds from the lottery provide $2.2 billion in funding for the state every year.

In previous legislative sessions, which occur only every two years in the state, the reauthorization has been relatively uncontroversial. Yesterday before lunch, the bill was defeated 81-65. Apparently no one realized that abolishing the lottery would have actual consequences. Both Republicans and Democrats voted against the measure, some on “moral” grounds that the lottery was a(n ENTIRELY VOLUNTARY) “predatory tax” “on the poor”. All hell broke loose in Austin as House leaders had to convince members of the imminent $2B budget gap that would have to be cut or made up for with actual taxes if this vote was not reversed. Within hours, senses returned, cooler heads prevailed, and the measure was reintroduced and passed 92-53.

There are many lessons to be drawn from this farcical episode, most of which are self-evident. Fortunately, my representative, Democrat Carol Alvarado, was one of the consistently sane ones.

Lindsay Graham: Cafeteria Constitutionalist

During the manhunt for the second Boston marathon bomber today, Lindsay Graham, senior Senator from South Carolina, tweeted the following:

Graham’s oath of office requires him to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States”. That Constitution requires that citizens of the United States be afforded due process when accused of a crime. Dzhokhar “Jahar” Tsarnaev, one of the two suspected bombers, became an American citizen on September 11, 2012, and the crime he is accused of committing occurred in this country. Regardless of how horrible that crime was, he has the right to be arrested, accused, have evidence presented against him, and defend himself against such in a court of law.

If, as Graham suggests, and “the homeland is the battlefield”, then the protections guaranteed to citizens and limits place on government in the Constitution no longer exist. In extending the war on terror within our borders, he is explicitly calling for a police state.

Anyone who witnessed Graham’s treatment of Rand Paul after his filibuster over drone use should not be surprised by his flippancy with the civil liberties of American citizens. However, every voter of South Carolina and citizen of the United States of America should be horrified by it.

This should be especially chilling to his conservative constituents. Conservatism is supposed to be about limited government and maximum personal freedom. Graham instead actually calls on the federal executive to exert direct power over what should instead be a local or state criminal matter, presumably because of, what, the ethnicity of the suspect? I assume during the Obamacare debates Graham objected to the interstate commerce justification for the individual insurance mandate. The irony of intrastate police activity being co-opted by the federal government is surely lost on him, but it shouldn’t be to his base.

It’s a shame that Graham will likely have no significant challenger in his 2014 primary and general election. The people of South Carolina, the rest of the United States, and the Constitution itself deserve better.

Universal common sense gun safety equal access rights buzzword hashtag

All nine proposed amendments to the Senate gun control bill failed procedural votes today, including stronger background checks, limited magazine sizes, and the assault weapons ban. President Obama, with his tragic human shields, was visibly upset reacting to the votes at an appearance today.

“A few minutes ago a minority in the United States Senate decided it wasn’t worth it. They blocked common-sense gun reforms, even while these families looked on from the Senate gallery. By now it’s well-known that 90 percent of the American people support universal background checks that make it harder for a dangerous person to buy a gun. We’re talking about convicted felons, people convicted of domestic violence, people with a severe mental illness.”

If 90% of the public supports something, it’s either an obviously good thing or a hideously terrible thing that everyone has been duped into supporting. In the case of the oft-parroted 90% support for background checks, it’s a mixture of the two and some other things as well.

The Quinnipiac poll where the 90% figure comes from is as follows:

Do you support or oppose requiring background checks for all gun buyers?
Support: 91%
Oppose: 8%
Don’t know: 1%

If 91% of people supported universal background checks, and that’s all that was in the Toomey-Manchin amendment, it would have passed overwhelmingly. There are three things that kept it from doing so: a large number of that 91% support the idea of universal background checks without realizing the implications, Toomey-Manchin had a lot of other problems, and many of the people voting on it are up for reelection next year.

If actually 91% of people support something, and you’re worried about your next election, you would vote for that thing, not against it. “But it’s Republican primary voters!” Nope. “But it’s Democrats running in red states!” Nope. The Quinnipiac poll shows 88% Republican support, 90% Southern support, and 91% Western support for it as well. Again. If these numbers are right and are actually consequential.

Three of the four Democrats who voted against Toomey-Manchin are up for reelection next year in red states. But even if these states were 100% Republican, 88% of them said they support universal background checks. The fourth Democrat, Heidi Heitkamp, was just elected last year, so she has another 5 years before she has to worry about reelection. Her statement on her vote includes:

“I’ve thought long and hard about this, I’ve taken the tough meetings, and I’ve heard overwhelmingly from the people of North Dakota; and at the end of the day my duty is to listen to and represent the people of North Dakota.”

But the people of North Dakota presumably also support it in the high 80s or 90s! Right? RIGHT???

So what’s the problem then? If so many people support an idea, why don’t their representatives? It must be “willful lies” of the evil “gun lobby”! Nope. It’s just that no one really cares. While a lot of people might like the idea of gun control, only 4% of people think it’s the most important problem we face. Just as many people think North Korea and immigration are our worst problems, and more people think moral decline is. So while it may have popular support in an isolated poll, it’s not going to bring people out to the only poll that matters – their local precinct next November. That means Senators and Representatives are free to use their heads when considering issues instead of poll numbers. So that means they were able to see the other problems with the bill and rightfully oppose it.

There are a few problems with the idea of universal background checks itself, of course. First, it’s great theoretically for everyone who buys a gun to have a background check, but it is logistically difficult. Background checks are already mandatory for licensed gun dealers, the only people setup to conduct them. Extending that requirement to everyone in the country would in effect end legal private gun sales. If I had a gun I wanted to sell to my neighbor, how would I go about getting a background check on him? The background checks mandated by federal law aren’t as simple as those used by tenant or employee reporting agencies. Perhaps a system could be setup to streamline the process, but Toomey-Manchin didn’t do that, otherwise it might have made their case easier to consider. Technically, Congress shouldn’t have the power to regulate this kind of commerce anyway, since it’ may not occur over state lines.

Second, it doesn’t count gifts, donations, or trades. Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook murderer, stole his weapons from his mother, who passed a background check. Even banning gifts and trades wouldn’t prevent people from stealing guns. For those new to the planet, criminals don’t follow the law.

Third, many, if not most, murderers wouldn’t be stopped by a background check anyway. Adam Lanza might have been an oddball, but he didn’t have a diagnosed mental illness or criminal background. He could have gone to the nearest gun store, bought an AR-15 and two pistols, and done the same thing, even after Toomey-Manchin or even harsher gun control measures were in effect.

So yes, it’s easy to use isolated poll numbers and grieving families to bludgeon people who stop your agenda dead in its tracks, but occasionally there are actual ideological and substantive reasons for them to do so, even if they are politicians!

Corpse Parade

Just before the tentative deal on gun measures came out this morning, this was announced:

Gun control supporters and survivors of gun violence are gathering Wednesday in the Capitol to read the names of the 3,300 killed from guns since the Newtown shootings and protest a potential filibuster of gun legislation.

While I sympathize with the families of those killed both in Newtown and since, they are being used as puppets in a partisan shell game, for many reasons.

There are times when a memorial reading of victims’ names is honorable and worth the time. The annual reading of the names of the 9/11 victims at the World Trade Center site is a somber, helpful occasion. There is no agenda being advanced, no campaign being waged, and no political action committee members doing the reading. It is a memorial, pure and honest.

This is not.

It may not seem obvious, but what do the victims of gun violence since last December have to do with pending gun legislation in Congress? The major planks of the proposed legislation are strengthened background checks, magazine limits, and an amendment to ban cosmetic rifle improvements (aka, “assault weapons”). Do we know if the 3,300 victims were killed with modified rifles? Given the statistics, it’s much more likely that almost all of them were killed with handguns, not shotguns, rifles, AR-15s, or other “weapons of war” bogeymen. Do we know how many of those 3,300 crimes were committed by people who had undergone background checks? Given the (false) 40% statistic we hear so often, we might assume that 1,320 of them were killed by people who didn’t have a background check when they bought their gun (if they bought it at all?). 

That’s the thing about gun control measures. Since gun ownership and possession is a guaranteed constitutional right, any legislation has to be limited. That also means its effectiveness is necessarily limited. Even though the full “assault weapons” ban was in place for 10 years from 1994 to 2004, there are questions about its effectiveness, since these weapons are used in relatively few crimes anyway. Limiting magazine sizes would also have a questionable effect since it would only matter in mass killings, of which there are even fewer (relative to total gun crimes).

Of course the 3,300 gun deaths since Newtown are tragic, as those at Newtown and Aurora were. Each and every one of them should be mourned and remembered, and their families should be embraced and supported by their communities. However, their names have nothing to do with the reality of the gun debate we’re having as a nation. They are grossly being used as props by political organizations who already know that their proposals wouldn’t even have stopped Newtown.

The Christianist Impulse

YouGov has a new poll out via HuffPo (yes, I know…) that finds minority support for making Christianity (which one?) the official religion of the United States (32%), and slightly higher minority support for making it the official religion of one’s state (34%). Fortunately there is majority opposition to such a blatantly unconstitutional and insane idea (52%).

However, the breakdown by party affiliation is what’s really distressing, though not at all surprising:

Republicans were more likely than Democrats or independents to say that they would favor establishing Christianity as an official state religion, with 55 percent favoring it in their own state and 46 percent favoring a national constitutional amendment.

While I’ve dealt with the party’s image problem before, this is really the root of our policy problems. It’s fine that the majority of the party is Christian; the vast majority of the country still is. What’s not fine is that half the party wants to force that on everyone else. Not only does this fly in the face of the small government ideals of conservatism and libertarianism, it also leads to many of our worst and most unpopular platform planks.

The least popular part of the GOP platform is the moral statism, the desire to enforce moral behavior through law, most of which stems from the strong evangelical Christian base of the party. The most obvious and current example being the position on marriage. National support for same-sex marriage is roughly equivalent to the opposition to state religion in this YouGov poll, both now majorities. The effort to mandate “traditional” marriage on the state, and even federal, level is a symptom of the disease of Christianism, the desire to codify religious preferences into secular law. Eliminate the Christianist impulse, and the opposition to enforcing such things fades with it.


It’s especially silly on a foundational level for the party of limited government to advocate for state endorsement of anything, especially in violation of one of the basic freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights. The party that obsessively quotes the Founders should not be the same one that wants to end one of the basic reasons for the founding, religious freedom. This is where the conservative (contra libertarian) ideology exposes its inconsistency. Conservatives like small government on economic matters, but big, intrusive government on moral and social ones. Libertarians (and Rand Paul’s “new GOP“) consistently prefer small government on both.

One massive contradiction this exposes is the far right’s obsession with sharia law in the US, the use of Islamic code to govern the state. There’s no way to exactly correlate the two populations without more specific polling, but it’s likely that most of the same people concerned about the influence of the religion of 0.6% of the population on the law would favor enshrining the religion of 78.4% in it instead. Our republican form of government is specifically designed to prevent this type of majoritarian abuse. The majority should not be able to vote away the rights of the minority, but that’s exactly what having an official state religion would do.