Coup Deux – Come Visit

Thailand is a country that likes its “collect stamps” cards. Patronize a business ten times and get a free coffee, or the like. When it comes to coups d’etat, it seems to have a similar proclivity. Depending on your count, this is the 17th, 18th, or 19th coup since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. For me, I have collected two “coup stamps”. After my fifth, I get a free t-shirt.

Thailand-Coup-Broadcast

The last coup was in 2006. A link to some of my entries about it is here. As for why Thailand has so many coups, there is an interesting article here. And if you want some insight into what is going on and what the next steps may be, the Economist has a useful article here.

As soon as the coup happened, and even when martial law was announced two days earlier, I was flooded with messages from friends who were worried for my safety. Thank you to everyone for your concern, but I’m afraid the important message is this:

Keep Calm

The words “coup” and “martial law” seem to promptĀ a visceral response, aided and abetted by the media showing close-up photos of soldiers, protesters, and political violence. In reality, the political violence over the last six months has been limited – only 28 people killed. Not to minimize the importance of that loss of life, but we regularly have bus crashes on the road here that take that many lives.

Considering the size of the country, and even the size of the city, political violence in Thailand is not sufficient reason to be alarmed or for governments to issue travel alerts warning their citizens not to travel to Thailand.

The last thing this country needs is for its economy (which is teetering on the edge of recession) to be further damaged by tourists staying away. It is an excellent time to visit the country – the weather in the early summer has cooled a bit from the Songkhran highs but the full monsoon has not yet arrived. Plus, hotel prices are amazingly low because… well, because of the political unrest.

I would ask you to help me be a de facto ambassador for Thailand. As you hear people talk about the country, let them know that your friend Chris lives there and assures them it is okay to visit. And, if anyone you know is considering travel here, urge them to come! They can always contact me for recommendations!

 

Trying for Some Perspective on the Gun Control Debate

Half a world away, I have read, watched, and listened to the debate over gun control in the United States, dismayed by the rhetoric and disturbed at how two hyperbole-fueled extremes frame the discussion. That distance, I hope, has made it easier for me to step back and consider the subject.

As an attempt to add my two cents’ worth to the public discourse, I would like to share some conclusions I have reached. I do not expect everyone to agree with me and I welcome constructive comments. Just a forewarning: comments that are not constructive, that rely on name-calling or otherwise do not contribute to a civil discussion, will not be entertained.

Many of my friends and family members are gun owners and people who enjoy guns recreationally. While my first-hand gun experience ended with BB guns in late primary school, I recognize the appeal of guns and do not think that guns are inherently bad.  

Our Rights

I think we need to look at this discussion through the lens of “gun safety.” Our individual right to bear arms must be balanced with the right of all people to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

The Second Amendment clearly states that people have a right to bear arms. Our courts have already confirmed several abridgments to those rights, though, for example limiting the types of weapons you can own (no nuclear or chemical arms – too many innocent bystanders harmed when you use them to protect your life or property).

Legitimate limits are placed on our constitutional rights routinely. My First Amendment right to freedom of expression is tempered when the safety of the larger public is affected. I cannot incite a crowd to violence. I cannot expose state secrets. I cannot shout “fire” in a crowded movie theater. 

The safety of the general public is a compelling reason to place some restrictions on our constitutional freedoms and I think this can be done in a way to balances those competing interests without unduly infringing gun owners’ rights.

Of the proposed Congressional actions, there are three I would like to see enacted:

  • Require criminal background checks for all gun sales, including those by private sellers that currently are exempt.
  • Increase criminal penalties for so-called “straw purchasers,” people who pass the required background check to buy a gun on behalf of someone else.
  • Fund research by public health agencies into deaths and injuries caused by firearms.

The Effectiveness of Legislation

Some members of the gun-rights lobby make the claim that criminals do not follow laws, therefore any gun safety legislation we pass will harm only law-abiding citizens. This seems to imply that we should not bother setting any laws about anything, because criminals will break those laws.

The setting of speed limits and the passing of laws requiring seatbelt use do not ensure that nobody speeds and everybody wears a seatbelt. These laws have resulted in a reduction of deaths and injuries and provide a basis with which to prosecute those who break the law.

Universal background checks would work in much the same way. They will not prevent all gun violence – the Newtown shooting, for example, might still have happened. Currently, it is estimated that between thirty and forty percent of gun sales happen with no background check. (These would be private sales, gun show sales, etc.) Universal background checks will place an additional barrier in the way of people with criminal records or a history of mental instability, making it more difficult to get a weapon with which they can do great harm.

Conducting background checks on private gun sales and increasing criminal penalties for “straw purchasers” could help stem the flow of guns into the criminal underworld by closing potential loopholes. Many people purchase guns for personal protection. Making it more difficult for people who should not have guns, to obtain them, should help increase everyone’s safety.

Having a right to bear arms does not inherently give you the right to privacy when you purchase a weapon. Universal background checks would go a long way to ensuring that the people who purchase guns are law-abiding. 

The Need for More Information

On the issue of funding research, there is much we do not know about the causes and effects of gun violence. Congress (at the urging of the National Rifle Association) has routinely cut funding to the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health when the results of studies they undertook demonstrated a need for gun legislation.

In fact, despite more than four million gun-related deaths and injuries in the United States over the last four decades, the NIH has awarded only three research grants on the subject. Compare that to diphtheria, which has caused only 1,337 deaths in those four decades but for which there has been more than 50 NIH-funded studies. Even influenza, which regularly kills fewer people each year than gun violence, receives much more research funding.

Effective legislation can increase public safety and it needs to be based on empirical evidence. Some things we should better understand, as outlined in a recent Atlantic Cities blog post, include whether magazine limits actually work, who should be excluded from owning a gun, and whether there is a relationship between levels of gun ownership and levels of crime.

What We Should Not Do

Among the proposed legislative actions that I do not think we need to take are reinstating the assault weapons ban. While I do not see a need for anyone to own an assault weapon, that’s the purview of an individual gun owner or collector. So long as he or she is law-abiding and undergoes a background check, it does not matter to me what kind of gun is purchased.

Without a doubt, this debate will continue. It is fueled by loud voices and, especially in the case of the National Rifle Association, a lot of money. However, I think it behooves each of us to try to move beyond the hyperbole, gather facts, consider our own values, and then add our voice to the discussion – especially by letting our legislators know what we think.

Well, that is my opinion on the matter. I welcome your comments and remind you that only constructive comments will be entertained. The First Amendment does not prevent me from squelching name-calling and uncivil discourse!

Dear Congressman

Here’s the short email I just sent to my senators and congressman regarding the “fiscal cliff” and the larger budget deficit and national debt issue. All three of them are Republicans.


The election has come and gone and as your constituent, I want to make sure you’ve clearly heard the message: It is time for the Republicans and Democrats to compromise when it comes to addressing our country’s debt and budget deficit.

This means that revenue increases (including both reforming the tax code to close loopholes and deductions as well as increases in tax rates) are necessary in addition to spending cuts. Every reputable economist agrees on this.

I understand that the Republican Party wants to steadfastly hold to its values, but you were sent to Washington to govern, not to stonewall. Please start behaving like adults and work with the Democrats instead of acting like spoiled children who throw temper tantrums if they don’t get their way.

Many thanks. 

Honestly, it doesn’t seem to me that the country is well-served by either the Republicans or Democrats insisting on a “my way or the highway” approach to this issue. (Or any other issue, for that matter.) To tackle such a large issue, there is going to have to be give and take. All of us will have to sacrifice some of what we want in order to achieve a larger goal that we all agree is important: getting our fiscal house in order.

As near as I can tell, the idea that both parties need to compromise is a commonsense position that the vast majority of Americans agree with, no?

Want to Change the World? Choose a Woman.

Nobel Prize

While I’m wary of broad generalizations, today’s announcement of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winners, a trio of women who have promoted the causes of peace, freedom, and opportunity through nonviolence, led me to a conclusion: if we really want to change the world, we need to put more women in charge.

Leymah Gbowee (on the left) is a social worker and trauma counselor who organized a group known as the Women of Liberian Mass Action for Peace, a non-violent group protesting for peace that was instrumental in bringing an end to Liberia’s civil war.

Tawakul Karman (center) is one of Yemen’s most vocal and well-known activists.  She is also a member of the country’s main opposition party.  Using social media, she organized the first student demonstrations challenging the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (right), a Harvard-trained economist, was elected in 2005 as President of Liberia.  She was the first female democratically elected president of an African nation.  She has promoted development after 14 years of civil war that devastated the country, leaving some 200,000 dead.

When women lead, they tend to lead people towards health, education, and peace.  Looking at the track record of men, which often leads towards war, abuse of power, and exploitation, it seems that all other factors being equal, a female leader would be preferable to a male one.

 

Is America’s Fiscal Future Safe in These Hands?

As part of the Budget Control Act passed this month, a twelve-member Join Committee on Deficit Reduction has been charged with recommending at least $1.5 trillion in additional deficit reduction over the next decade.  They have until November 23 to make their recommendations.

The committee’s recommendations will then be put to a simple up-or-down vote by Congress, with no amendments, filibusters, etc. allowed.  The recommendations have to be passed by December 23 otherwise a $1.2 trillion package of automatic spending cuts would come into effect.

Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction

The Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction.  Top row are members of the House of Representatives: Co-chair Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), Dave Camp (R-MI), Fred Upton (R-MI), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Jim Clyburn (D-SC), Xavier Becerra (D-CA).  Bottom row are members of the Senate: Co-chair Patty Murray (D-WA), John Kerry (D-MA), Max Baucus (D-GA), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Pat Toomey (R-PA), Rob Portman (R-OH).

First question on my mind: Do these twelve congresspeople sufficiently represent America?  They are overwhelmingly white (83% vs. about 66% in the general population) and male (92% vs. 50% in the general population).  Now, I realize that a committee of twelve national politicians will not necessary mirror the United States population, nor do they need to.  But it seems that when we talk about “sacrifices” in the budget, these sacrifices are disproportionately borne by women, children, and people of color. 

The public schools in the wealthy suburbs seem to face fewer cutbacks than the inner city schools.  The unemployed factory worker seems to run out of resources long before the unemployed hedge fund manager.  And considering that you have to be at least 25 years old to run for the House of Representatives, is anyone looking out for the interests of the infants and children who will end up inheriting the results of any deficit reduction legislation?

Second question on my mind: With the committee evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, what is the likelihood that they will actually reach a compromise?  The six members of the House of Representatives are up for election in just over a year, so they will be careful not to rile their base. 

Of the six Senators, one of the Republicans (Kyl) has announced he will retire at the end of his term.  The other two Republicans were just elected in 2010 so they have time to repair any damage with their base that comes from compromising or, from a Tea Partier’s view, selling out.  Among the Democrats, Murray was just elected in 2010 and the other two Democrats do not face re-election until 2014.

Is there some hope that at least one Senator will cross over the line on the “no new revenues” position so that a balanced approach of spending cuts and revenue increases can be found?  While I’d like to hope that the Senators can rise above partisanship and make some sound decisions, nothing I’ve seen recently gives me any reason for optimism.

Additional Reading: OpenCongress.org article about key budget, spending, and tax votes of the committee members.

 

Blinders On and Heading Off a Cliff

Economist

This cartoon from this week’s Economist magazine summarizes how I feel about the debt limit debacle going on in Washington right now.  While I think there is blame to be shared by all sides, the obstinacy of the Tea Party Republicans to not accept any revenue increases, even if they are only in the form of closing tax loopholes, shows a fiscal illiteracy that is reckless.  The deficit cannot be tackled through spending cuts alone.

I was discussing this over lunch this afternoon with a mixed crowd of Thais, Australians, and a Canadian.  They all would like to know why American politicians are behaving like this.  I’d like to know, too.

 

Proposed Changes to Politcal Terms

The thought occurred to me the other day that maybe the problem of the never-ending campaign, in which it seems America has no sooner finished one election season than another begins, would be to change the length of terms to which politicians are elected.

Currently, the President is elected to a four-year term with a maximum of two terms.  Senators are elected for six-year terms, with approximately a third of the Senators up for election every two years.  Representatives are elected for two-year terms with the entire House of Representatives up for election at the same time.

What, then, if we changed the President to a single, six-year term with no chance for re-election?  Senators could remain a six-year term, but modify it so half the body changes every three years.  Representatives could be increased to three-year terms.

It would seem that the upshot would be a bit more time between election seasons, allowing for more opportunity to govern.  Especially for the President, since he or she could not be re-elected, there would be more freedom to govern based on one’s positions rather than the poll results.

What do you think?  Would there be any pros or cons to this plan?