Senates Votes to Restrict Civil Liberties

Yesterday, the Senate passed the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012, which includes a nakedly unconstitutional provision that give the military power to indefinitely detain anyone deemed a national security threat without evidence or trial. They also rejected the Udall Amendment, which would have removed this part of the bill, by a wide margin of 61 to 37.

Interestingly, nearly all Republicans – the same people who drape themselves in the American flag, revere the constitution as sacred, and shrilly claim to be pro-small government – supported this effort, along with 16 Democrats. I find their justification to be laughable.

 ‎”The enemy is all over the world. Here at home. And when people take up arms against the United States and [are] captured within the United States, why should we not be able to use our military and intelligence community to question that person as to what they know about enemy activity?” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said.

“They should not be read their Miranda Rights. They should not be given a lawyer,” Graham said. “They should be held humanely in military custody and interrogated about why they joined al Qaeda and what they were going to do to all of us.”

Indeed Mr. Graham – presumably one of our more moderate conservatives – but that’s assuming there is even proof that they are terrorists to begin with – that little bit of legal tradition that presumes innocence until *proven* guilty. How would we know the right people are being detained if there is no legal due process? Are we to take the military’s word for it? Where’s the incentive to make legitimate case for detainment if there is no limit to how long someone is held in custody without formal charges?

The problem is that many conservatives revere our military to the point of trusting it’s judgment without any real oversight. But the military is like any other institution – prone to corruption, bureaucracy, and mistakes. That is why our system is so complexly designed with numerous checks and balances and procedural safeguards. Our national security apparatus isn’t even suited for matters of law – that’s what our judicial system is for.

If anyone is curious about who supported these disquieting measures, check this list and feel free to contact them accordingly. Only two Republicans, including the libertarian Rand Paul, son of Ron, voted against the provision. The great state of Florida, where I live, was an even split: our senior Democratic senator Bill Nelson was rightly opposed to the measure, while our junior Republican senator Marco Rubio supported it (some may note the irony of a Cuban-American showing approval of such draconian measures).

Thankfully, the White House has expressed its disapproval and presumably intends to block this measure (not that it hasn’t engaged in its own legally questionable acts – recall the assassination of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, to name but one known example). Even if this struck down, the fact that our representatives would even go through with this bodes ill for the integrity of an already increasingly eroded democratic system. Given the sad historical precedent, there’s little doubt that we’ll be seeing more efforts like this in the future.


Questions for Opponents of Gay Marriage

A skepticism blog called Unreasonable Faith has posted five questions for gay marriage opponents to consider. These were in response to a series of questions poised to homosexuals – and their “supporters” – by Christian Apologetic and Research Ministries (CARM). For responses and counterpoints to all 28 of their questions, click here.

These are inquiries I’ve often presented to homophobic and anti-gay marriage individuals myself. They’re as follows:

1. What is natural?

A lot of people like to say that homosexuality is unnatural. I read these statements on my computer, a device made of substances not found in nature and requiring tremendous amounts of human industry to create, maintain and power.

What are our standards for determining what is natural and what is unnatural. Is toilet training natural? Is civilization natural?

2. Is unnatural always immoral?

Consider the old saw, “If God had meant man to fly, he’d have given us wings.” Does the fact that we don’t have wings make flight immoral? Perhaps not immoral, but unwise?

If nature is good and unnatural is bad, how does this square with the common Protestant notion that nature is fallen? To quote Katherine Hepburn, “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above. ”

3. Is the Bible the basis for morality?

Perhaps the most common argument I hear among Christians is about how the Bible relates to homosexuality. Is the Bible “against” homosexuality? Let’s leave aside issues of historical context and translation for the moment.

Consider this: sections like 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 are frequently cited against gay marriage. However, in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul advises his readers against getting married at all. He states, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman,” and while he accepts marriage, it is clearly as the lesser good to celibacy (or perhaps as the lesser evil to fornication.) In my experience, this section is basically ignored.

Is there a systematic means of interpretation that leads to accepting chapter 6 as holy writ but rejecting chapter 7 as irrelevant? Or is it just “common sense”?

4. Why is gender treated differently than race?

Consider the following quote:

“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay, and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” (Judge Bazile, 1965)

The above comes from the Caroline County Circuit Court in Virginia, in one of the cases leading up to Loving vs. Virginia. Judge Bazile was siding with the prosecution, who were using Biblical stories like the Tower of Babel and Noah’s Flood the same way that gay marriage opponents use the story of Adam and Eve.

I’m assuming that most of my readers will disagree with this reasoning. Why?

5. Who defines marriage?

Social historians, like Stephanie Coontz and others, have noted that the institution of marriage has been undergoing major changes over the past two centuries or so. Briefly: marriage is changing from a social obligation to a personal contract within the couple. We now look askance at someone who would try to strengthen their community or family by marrying for money and political connections. Most of us believe that marriage should be for love between individuals.

So marriage is becoming more individualized. This is both subtle and profound; it leaves the outward marriage much the same but changes the very basis of marriage on the inside. My marriage may look like my grandparents marriage, but my understanding of the purpose and what my marriage means is completely different.

One of the consequences of this shift is that marriage has become more of a mutually agreed upon contract between two people than something enforced from outside. That makes it difficult to oppose people who want to marry on their own terms: who are you to tell two people that they can’t be in love?

Social transitions like this are never uncontested, but this one seems to have lots of inertia behind it. Do you feel that this shift is good, bad or indifferent? Would you support laws that attempt to reverse some of the trends, like strengthening anti-divorce laws?

Since many of these individuals tend to define themselves as constitutionalists steeped in the American values of liberty and freedom, I would also ask why they support restricting the freedoms of others. If you don’t like homosexuality, than feel free to do so. But where do we draw the line as far as what moral imperatives should be imposed by the government?

Should we pass laws against infidelity, atheism, and other anathemas to Judeo-Christian morality? Would this not present an issue as far as promoting small-government and the pursuit of happiness is concerned? It’s contradictory to stand for individual freedom and responsibility, yet expect the government to involve itself in the private matters of millions of its citizens.

I often wonder how many opponents to gay marriage actually reflect upon their own position. Do they simply defer to the Bible or the teachings of their religious leaders? If so, do they follow everything the Bible says consistently? If not, then how to they discern which parts to apply and which to ignore? Have they at least considered the scientific and ethical arguments? These are questions I would add as well, since doing so is largely what convinced me to change my position all these years ago.

In fairness, I’d ask supporters of LGBT rights and gay marriage to question their own position too. On what basis do they form their approval? Is it also visceral and intuitive, or do they have deeper ethical and philosophical considerations informing them? No belief, especially as it pertains to the rights and concerns of other human beings, should be adopted without proper reflection and dialectic.

Thought of the Day

In any given day, some sort of missive or reflection – often several of them –  emerge and begin swirling around in my mind. I don’t like to risking these epiphanies or observations dissipating, so I often share them on Facebook or Twitter, as well as jot them down in my journal. It’s nice to get feedback, see if anyone else can relate, or have others build upon my thoughts with their own ideas, views, or insights.

Previously, I found such organic thoughts to be too disjointed and brief to bother posting on a blog. Spontaneous ideas rarely translate well in a formal structure, and I have a difficult time articulating them in any readable way. But I’ve decided to experiment a bit more and develop my blog into something a bit more personal.

I doubt I’m the only one that gets lost in my own mind. This is especially common for those of us who remain so caught up in the daily grind of work that there’s no other time or place for our thoughts to emerge. It’s like trying to suppress a wellspring, or better yet a flood: the brain just releases a torrent of missives, ideas, and reflections that know no context. A profound idea suddenly enters our minds while we’re stuck at traffic, eating lunch, or at our desks in the office.

There’s no rhyme or reason for it, and such ideas will dissipate as quickly as they emerge. They are ephemeral and raw. They’ll sometimes disappear for good, but most times they reappear again, perhaps refined. And no matter how much you try to focus, they’ll nag at you: its hard to kill the product of free-thinking mind. Hence why I try to carry a journal around wherever I go, in the hopes of capturing as much as I can. It’s remarkable what questions even our distracted consciousness can raise. It’s almost as if we have two minds: one engaged in mundane, day-to-day activities; the other occupied with pondering everything and anything we can (ironically, this entire musing on the nature of thoughts is itself a spontaneous outburst).

Its for this reason that I also want to create a series of “Thoughts of the Day” that will consist mostly of these brief tidbits of ideas, many of them informal or incomplete, but hopefully no less interesting. The benefits will be threefold:  I’ll have an archive of my various random musings over time, will sate my  desire to post here at least once a day without having to take up too much time and energy, and will hopefully still provide some meaningful substance for my readers.

As always, your own thoughts and missives are welcomed. Never hesitate to share what’s on your mind here. It’ll enrich my site and my perspective.

A Topical Lesson From Ancient Rome

The Romans had an interesting tactic for furthering their wealth and power. Like the US, Rome was often presented to outsiders – especially recently conquered ones – as a land of opportunity: a progressive civilization full of wonderful luxuries, a superior legal and political system, and a distinct Roman lifestyle. Eventually, you would really want to be a Roman and be a part of this great society.

But to do so, you had to buy the goods that the Romans insisted were associated with their better society – Roman-style houses, clothes, food, and so on. But they often sold these highly sought after goods at very inflated prices that people couldn’t afford. That’s where Roman moneylenders would come in, providing loans to purchase these expensive goods, but with high interest.
Thoroughly enticed, people would take the bait but end up being heavily indebted, and ultimately bounded, to Rome.
Does any of this sound familiar? Materialism and mass consumption were just as potent centuries ago as they are today (as were their vices and consequences). We view debt, credit, loans, and other financial instruments as modern-day developments. In reality, they’re just sophisticated versions of a very old and sometimes exploitative system that continues to evolve.

Sam Harris: Three Principles of Self-Defense

Better known for his critiques of religion and his promotion of scientific skepticism (he’s a big part of the so-called “New Atheist” movement), Sam Harris has written a more practical tract about how to avoid violence or defend yourself if confronted with it. They seem like pretty common sense suggestions:

  1. Avoid dangerous people and dangerous places.
  2. Do not defend your property.
  3. Respond immediately and escape.
However, he goes further in-depth about each of these principles, including specific scenarios and circumstances. He also cites a lot of studies on the subject, and even includes some recommended readings. I found quite a few interesting suggestions, so I think it merits at least a skim. It never hurts to have at least some ideas about how to avoid getting hurt or even killed.

Read it here. Feel free to share what you think, or any additional advice you’d add.

Joyeux Noel

Last night I watched a French film titled Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas), which was about the famous Christmas Truce that transpired on the Western Front of World War I. This was an informal ceasefire that occurred spontaneously on Christmas Eve, and it included exchanges of gifts, a few matches of soccer, and even the singing of Christmas carols. Needless to say, it was a remarkable, if sadly short-lived, event. How often do we hear of soldiers in the midst of battle deciding to not only lay down their arms, but also mingle with one another in the spirit of brotherhood?

Though I learned about this touching event years ago, I had never seen or heard of any cinematic portrayal of it (the movie was released only in 2005). The film is not groundbreaking or extraordinary, but it gives an intimate view of a horrible and tragic conflict that is punctuated by a spark of human decency. I found it to be a solid and inspiring tale, and I recommend that you all check it out, or at least read more about the event in question. Any story about the deeper goodness of humanity emerging in even the most blighted conditions, effervescent as it is, deserves to be told and known.

Study Sheds Light On Sleep

Few commodities are as precious to the modern world as sleep. It seems no one gets enough of it these days, and chronic fatigue resulting from sleeplessness is becoming a common problem even among young people. I am of course no exception, especially given my proclivity for trying to read, blog, workout, and socialize after an eight hour day at work. On average, I get about five or six hours of rest, although it’s not unusual for me to push it to four. As with most people, the effects of this varies: sometimes I can get back with little more than a nap, other times I feel as if I’m about to collapse. It’s a mystery as to why that is.

The fact is, despite it’s importance and increasing rarity, we know very little about sleep – we don’t even know why we do so in the first place. There is no real field of study for it, nor are there any special doctors geared towards addressing sleep-related issues.  There are several dedicated research centers and institutes, but they don’t get nearly as much funding and public support as they should – though I expect that to change as sleep-deprivation and all its subsequent health problems becomes more widespread.

One of the more contentious issues concerning sleep is how much of it you should have. Eight to nine hours seems standard and remains the most widely cited figure, but many studies have raised questions as to whether there is even an universally correct amount. It may be that the amount of time one needs to rest varies based on the individual. Genetic, environmental, psychological, and other factors may also influence how much one needs to sleep.

Now a recent German study may have found why some people can – lucky for them – get by with just four hours of sleep.

Scientists have identified the gene responsible for controlling the length of time for which an individual sleeps and why some have their own internal alarm clock. Karla Allebrandt and her team from the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich identified a gene called ABCC9 that can reduce the length of time we sleep.

The discovery is expected to explain why light sleepers, such as Margaret Thatcher, are able to get by on just four hours shut-eye a night.

The Europe-wide study of 4,000 people from seven different EU countries saw the volunteers fill out a questionnaire assessing their sleep habits.

The researchers then analysed their answers, as well as participants’ genes.

They discovered that people who had two copies of one common variant of ABCC9 slept for “significantly shorter” periods than people with two copies of another version.

Having already established that the ABCC9 gene was also present in fruitflies, the team were able to modify it in the animal and shorten the length of time for which it slept.

“Apparently the relationships of sleep duration with other conditions such as heart disease and diabetes can be in part explained by an underlying common molecular mechanism,” the Daily Mail quoted Allebrandt as saying.

“The ABCC9 gene is evolutionarily ancient, as a similar gene is present in fruitflies. Fruitflies also exhibit sleep-like behaviour.

“When we blocked the function of the ABCC9 homolog in the fly nervous system, the duration of nocturnal sleep was shortened,” she added.

You better believe I’ll be keeping my eye open for more developments on this front. I’d be curious to know if this will ever lead to gene therapies that might allow people get by on less sleep (assuming they can function as if they slept longer – barely dragging yourself through the day doesn’t count). Imagine the implications of being able to reduce the amount of time we spend – some would say waste – sleeping. I for one love to sleep, but I do wish it could take up less of my time without me having to sacrifice my cognitive abilities.

GOP Aims For Theocracy?

In many ways, the GOP has largely developed into a religious party, placing increasing emphasis on the socially conservative values that are held up by it’s strong fundamentalist Christian base. It’s moderates or Libertarians are either marginalized or forced to play along, lest they lose their political careers. It’s come to a point that most aspiring Republican politicians are almost explicitly calling for what could only be called a theocratic state.

In an under-reported forum that took place in Iowa a week ago, Republican presidential candidates running for president gathered together to burnish their religious and ideological credentials. You could find a video for the entire event – the “Thanksgiving Family Forum” – on the website of the National Organization for Marriage. It goes without saying that much of their rhetoric is disquieting, especially coming from people who presumably value individual freedom and self-determination.

While I intended to narrow it down to a few of the more pressing examples, I found all of them too concerning to pass up sharing. Even if it’s just political opportunism, the fact that politicians would have to feign these ideas in order to get elected is just as disquieting as them meaning it (I think it’s a bit of both). So many presumably freedom-loving ,right-wing Americans see no qualms about making all of society conform to their notions of “America,” despite their claim as promoters and lovers of liberty. It seems such freedom is only acceptable if it conforms to your own rigid and specific ideology.

1. Religious Americans must fight back against nonbelievers. To quote Herman Cain:

What we are seeing is a wider gap between people of faith and people of nonfaith. … Those of us that are people of faith and strong faith have allowed the nonfaith element to intimidate us into not fighting back. I believe we’ve been too passive. We have maybepushed back, but as people of faith, we have not fought back.

2. The religious values we must fight for are Judeo-Christian. Rick Perry warned:

Somebody’s values are going to decide what the Congress votes on or what the president of the United States is going to deal with. And the question is: Whose values? And let me tell you, it needs to be our values—values and virtues that this country was based upon in Judeo-Christian founding fathers.

3. Our laws and our national identity are Judeo-Christian. Michele Bachmann explained:

American exceptionalism is grounded on the Judeo-Christian ethic, which is really based upon the 10 Commandments. The 10 Commandments were the foundation for our law. That’s what Blackstone said—the English jurist—and our founders looked to Blackstone for the foundation of our law. That’s our law.

4. No religion but Christianity will suffice. Perry declared, “In every person’s heart, in every person’s soul, there is a hole that can only be filled by the Lord Jesus Christ.”

5. God created our government. Bachmann told the audience:

I have a biblical worldview. And I think, going back to the Declaration of Independence, the fact that it’s God who created us—if He created us, He created government. And the government is on His shoulders, as the book of Isaiah says.


6. U.S. law should follow God’s law. As Rick Santorum put it:

Unlike Islam, where the higher law and the civil law are the same, in our case, we have civil laws. But our civil laws have to comport with the higher law. … As long as abortion is legal—at least according to the Supreme Court—legal in this country, we will never have rest, because that law does not comport with God’s law.

7. Anything that’s immoral by religious standards should be outlawed. Santorum again:

God gave us rights, but He also gave us laws upon which to exercise those rights, and that’s what you ought to do. And, by the way, the law should comport—the laws of this country should comport with that moral vision. Why? Because the law is a teacher. If something is illegal in this country because it is immoral and it is wrong and it is harmful to society, saying that it is illegal and putting a law in place teaches. It’s not just—laws cannot be neutral. There is no neutral, Ron. There is only moral and immoral. And the law has to reflect what is right and good and just for our society

8. The federal government should impose this morality on the states. Santorum once more:

The idea that the only things that the states are prevented from doing are only things specifically established in the Constitution is wrong. Our country is based on a moral enterprise. Gay marriage is wrong. As Abraham Lincoln said, the states do not have the right to do wrong. … As a president, I will get involved, because the states do not have the right to undermine the basic, fundamental values that hold this country together.

9. Congress should erase the judiciary’s power to review moral laws. Newt Gingrich suggested:

I am intrigued with something which Robby George at Princeton has come up with, which is an interpretation of the 14th Amendment, in which it says that Congress shall define personhood. That’s very clearly in the 14th Amendment. And part of what I would like to explore is whether or not you could get the Congress to pass a law which simply says: Personhood begins at conception. And therefore—and you could, in the same law, block the court and just say, ‘This will not be subject to review,’ which we have precedent for. You would therefore not have to have a constitutional amendment, because the Congress would have exercised its authority under the 14th Amendment to define life, and to therefore undo all of Roe vs. Wade, for the entire country, in one legislative action.

Gingrich said the same strategy could secure the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars federal recognition of same-sex marriages and protects the right of states to disregard same-sex marriages performed in other states. In his words, “You could repass DOMA and make it not appealable to the court, period.”

10. Courts that get in the way should be abolished. Gingrich again:

The simplest first step which I would take is to propose—and I hope this will be a significant part of the campaign next year—I have proposed to abolish the court of Judge Biery in San Antonio, who on June 1 issued an order that said, not only could students not pray at their graduation, they couldn’t use the word benediction, the could not say the word prayer, they could not say the word God, they could not ask people to stand for a moment of silence, they couldn’t use the word invocation, and if he broke any of those, he would put their superintendent in jail. I regard that as such a ruthless anti-American statement that he should not be on the court, and I would move to literally abolish his court, so that he could go back to private practice, as a signal to the courts.

Biery’s order was an overreach. In fact, it was overturned two days later by an appeals court. But he’s only the first target of the anti-judicial purge. The next words after Gingrich’s threat came from Santorum, who said: “I agree with a lot of what has just been said here. I would go farther—one step farther, Newt. I would abolish the entire Ninth Circuit.”

11. The purge of judges should be based on public opinion. Gingrich once more:

Part of the purpose of singling out Judge Biery and eliminating his job is to communicate the standard that the two elected branches have the power and the authority to educate the judiciary when it deviates too far from the American people. And I think you would probably take that approach.

12. Freedom means obeying morality. Santorum concluded, “Our founders understood liberty is not what you want to do, but what you ought to do. That’s what liberty really is about.”

There was one voice of dissent among the candidates. Ron Paul, the libertarian congressman from Texas, argued that people should be allowed to make bad decisions, that freedom of choice in religious matters should extend to atheists, and that powers not reserved to the federal government should be left to the states. But in a field of candidates bent on legislating Christian morality and purging uncooperative judges, Paul stood alone. Protecting America is too important to let the Constitution get in the way.

US Congress Eroding Civil Liberties (Again)

Even a single attempt at violating one’s freedoms is beyond reprehensible, especially when the culprits are our own public servants. But the fact that our politicians have sought to done so several times – in just this past decade alone – is as vile as it is disturbing. I’m not sure how Congress has the audacity to actually attempt to legislate such clearly unethical and unconstitutional laws.

The Senate plans to vote on whether to grant the office of the president the power to detain anyone around the world, without charge or evidence. As the ACLU reports:

The Senate is going to vote on whether Congress will give this president—and every future president — the power to order the military to pick up and imprison without charge or trial civilians anywhere in the world. Even Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) raised his concerns about the NDAA detention provisions during last night’s Republican debate. The power is so broad that even U.S. citizens could be swept up by the military and the military could be used far from any battlefield, even within the United States itself.

The worldwide indefinite detention without charge or trial provision is in S. 1867, the National Defense Authorization Act bill, which will be on the Senate floor on Monday. The bill was drafted in secret by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) and passed in a closed-door committee meeting, without even a single hearing…

…In support of this harmful bill, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) explained that the bill will “basically say in law for the first time that the homeland is part of the battlefield” and people can be imprisoned without charge or trial “American citizen or not.” Another supporter, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) also declared that the bill is needed because “America is part of the battlefield.

Click the hyperlinks within this excerpt for more detail about the provisions. Needless to say, the premise would be disquieting enough without being applicable to potentially everyone else on the planet. As if this effort weren’t pushing the standards of decency enough, a few days ago the Senate was also looking into repealing the anti-torture measures of a previous anti-torture amendment. Again, the ACLU reports:

If passed, an amendment introduced by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) to the Defense Authorization bill would roll back torture prevention measures that Congress overwhelmingly approved in the 2005 McCain Anti-Torture Amendment, as well as a 2009 Executive Order on ensuring lawful interrogations. It would also require the administration to create a secret list of approved interrogation techniques in a classified annex to the existing interrogation field manual.

In a related development, republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann renewed her attack on the prohibition of waterboarding and other forms of torture in her claim that the ACLU runs interrogations. But in fact, the director of the CIA, General David Petraeus and the Secretary of Defense (and former CIA Director) Leon Panetta have both said that the 2009 Executive Order applying the Army Field Manual government-wide and the 2005 McCain Anti-Torture Amendment work and are consistent with good national security.

As a side-note, I find it curious that the same GOP that reveres the Constitution as a sacred document, and postures itself as the true defenders of individual liberty, is behind both efforts (though by no means are all Republicans in agreement with this, nor are all Democrats guiltless). It would seem that the shrilly expressed cause for small government is suspended with respect to issues of  “national security” and “public safety.

If anyone wants to act on this, as I certainly will, click the ACLU hyperlinks to access the main articles and follow their instructions. There are both grassroots efforts, as well as counter-amendments in Congress, that are being utilized to combat this affront on our freedoms. If there’s anything that would better contribute the curtailing of our civil liberties, it’s apathy and ignorance. Don’t let cynicism or indifference facilitate these sorts of noxious efforts – however understandable such sentiments would be, given the precedence.

Subsidizing the Rich

As I noted in my previous post, public concern about government spending has become an intractable part of our political discourse, with only unemployment registering as an equal or higher concern. While it’s disputed whether debt should be top priority, most of us could agree that government waste is something to be curtailed for the sake of political integrity, practicality, and ethics.

Yet of all the surprising places that taxpayer money could (and does) go, who would expect that those in our society who need it least, would be recipients of tens of billions of dollars of it? As HuffPo reports:

Millionaires are receiving billions in taxpayer-funded support every year that helps them pay for everything from child care to bad debts to boats and vacation homes, according to a report released Monday by Sen. Tom Coburn.

People who individually earned more than a million dollars in 2009 even managed to collect a total of nearly $21 million in unemployment insurance.

“From tax write-offs for gambling losses, vacation homes, and luxury yachts to subsidies for their ranches and estates, the government is subsidizing the lifestyles of the rich and famous,” wrote Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, in an accompanying letter. “Multimillionaires are even receiving government checks for not working. This welfare for the well-off — costing billions of dollars a year — is being paid for with the taxes of the less fortunate.”

Read the Post’s satirical but sobering report on just how and where the estimated $30 billion of pubic money is spent. It pretty much breaks down to this:

Coburn totaled up all the federal money for millionaires over several years that his office could find. Among the handouts for the well-heeled are:

  • $18.15 million in child care tax credits
  • $74 million in unemployment checks
  • $89 million for preservation of ranches and estates
  • $316 million in farm subsidies
  • $608 million in business entertainment deductions
  • $9 billion in retirement checks
  • $21 billion in gambling losses
  • $28 billion in mortgage breaks for mansions, vacation homes and yachts

Some of the payments, such as for Social Security and Medicare, stem from payroll taxes and are not means-tested when they are paid out. Advocates of such payments believe the government made a promise to individuals that it must keep, regardless of their wealth.

Some other payments, such as the millions received by the wealthy to preserve land or to use alternative energy sources, arise from programs that proponents consider beneficial overall, even if the rich get the money.

If this isn’t a case for reform, I don’t know what is. If the government made a promise to individuals to repay a certain amount, regardless of whether they actually need it, than that’s not a case for scrapping social security altogether, but for at least attempting to re-calibrate it’s distribution to make more sense. It’s dated and inefficient, but it still does some good and could still merit more creative solutions besides total amputation (which is largely populist rhetoric anyway, but is still thoroughly supported by a lot of people).

The same goes for these other programs – maybe some of this money will always inevitably spillover into the wealthier segments of this society: the free rider problem is endemic in any public good. But why not try to mitigate this issue through auditing and reform rather than wholesale cuts that will hurt the poor far more? (consider that a hypothetical question, since the answer as to why it’ll be obstructed should be obvious by now).

Many would argue that $30 billion isn’t a lot of money in the grand scheme of things, which is a sad indicator of just how flawed our fiscal system is. But money is still money, and we should trim any and every amount that is unnecessary. We hear much about the “waste and fraud” that goes into social welfare programs for the poor and middle-class – some of it exaggerated, some of it credible. But things like corporate welfare – which also costs us tens of billions of dollars additionally – don’t get nearly as much as much attention, even by the GOP hypocrites who claim to be small government warriors while safeguarding and creating tax loopholes for the wealthy. I commend Coburn for owning up to this issue, despite the indifference or outright support by most of his party.

“Government policies intended to mainstream wealth redistribution are undermining these principles. The tragic irony is the wealth in these cases is trickling up rather than down the economic ladder,” he continued. “The cost of this largess will thus be shared by those struggling today and the next generation who will inherit $15 trillion of debt that threatens the future of the American Dream.”

Coburn does not argue that taxes should be raised on the wealthy, however. Simply ending giveaways for people who don’t need them would help, and he recommends limiting or cutting payments to millionaires in the safety net programs; ending farm and conservation payments to the rich; means-testing tax breaks and other payouts; and reforming provisions of the tax code that help pay for vacation properties and mansions.

Indeed, at the very least we could start with streamlining a tax code that allows for $1 trillion in lost revenue due to  various deductions and loopholes. That should’ve been one of the few non-partisan non-issues that everyone could’ve agreed on. And yet even that, go figure, was too much for the best politicians money could by.