Tax incentives are the problem, not the fruitless search for the correct incentive.

I still have no intention of voting for him, but Senator McCain makes the most sense offers the least bad suggestion on health insurance reform:

In a speech at a cancer research center here, McCain dismissed his rivals’ proposals for universal health care as riddled with “inefficiency, irrationality and uncontrolled costs.” He said the 47 million uninsured Americans will get coverage only when they are freed from the shackles of the current employer-dominated system.

McCain’s prescription would seek to lure workers away from their company health plans with a $5,000 family tax credit and a promise that, left to their own devices, they would be able to find cheaper insurance that is more tailored to their health-care needs and not tied to a particular job.

Under McCain’s plan, $3.6 trillion worth of tax breaks over a decade that would have gone to businesses for coverage of their employees would be redirected to individuals, regardless of whether they are covered by a company plan.

“Insurance companies could no longer take your business for granted, offering narrow plans with escalating costs,” McCain said. “It would help change the whole dynamic of the current system, putting individuals and families back in charge, and forcing companies to respond with better service at lower cost.”

Unfortunately the inaccurate 47 million uninsured number seems to now be accepted as fact. Moving on.

The details will be important. If he’s proposing that Congress remove the tax incentive from employers to provide health insurance, then he’s possibly on solid ground. I disagree with filling the tax code with incentives. The current employer-provided health insurance should be ample proof that this distorts markets. But we’re dealing with least bad, not optimal. Even though people can be expected to protect themselves when they must shoulder the risk by purchasing insurance on their own, without incentive, if there must be an incentive until some foggy date in the future when we figure out the foolishness of the political game, offer it to individuals.

If he’s proposing additional tax breaks without removing the employer incentive, I don’t see how his plan succeeds unless the individual incentive gives more free money than the employer incentive. Such a free money scheme would be stupid, but with equal competing incentives, employed individuals will be likely to let their employer’s HR department handle the task of securing an insurance plan. Nothing changes.

This calls for a little bit of research. And the answer is:

John McCain Will Reform The Tax Code To Offer More Choices Beyond Employer-Based Health Insurance Coverage. While still having the option of employer-based coverage, every family will also have the option of receiving a direct refundable tax credit – effectively cash – of $2,500 for individuals and $5,000 for families to offset the cost of insurance. Families will be able to choose the insurance provider that suits them best and the money would be sent directly to the insurance provider. Those obtaining innovative insurance that costs less than the credit can deposit the remainder in expanded Health Savings Accounts.

The devil really is in the details, no? The employer-based incentive stays in place, which I assume means the incentive. If we take away the incentive, maybe employers will still offer insurance instead of cash. I doubt it, but let them if they want and employees agree. But to subsidize it is stupid, because then it requires “effectively cash” (i.e. free money). Behold the power of the government.

I realize this has a lower chance of becoming law than the plan proposed by Senator Obama. And that doesn’t factor the likely difference in electoral chances between Senators McCain and Obama in November once Senator Clinton gets pushed over the Party cliff figures out she has no chance.

Partisan buffoonary is certain to lead to a solution. Somehow.

President Bush talks about the economy, a topic he has proven himself qualified to discuss on par with his podium’s ability to explain game theory. Not that it matters, of course, because the best a president can do is get in the way. Talk of helping is politics, not economics. As it was today:

President Bush today blamed Congress for many of the nation’s economic woes, charging that lawmakers have blocked his proposals for dealing with problems ranging from soaring gasoline prices to the increasing cost of food.

Wasn’t the Free Money economic stimulus package the solution? That hasn’t even gone out yet, so it’s advertised benefits are unproven. I did get the letter telling me I might be getting the Free Money. I won’t, but why let that save me the cost of the postage and paper?

And he charged that instead of dealing with rising food prices, lawmakers are “considering a massive, bloated farm bill that would do little to solve the problem” and would not “eliminate subsidy payments to multimillionaire farmers.” Describing the U.S. farm economy as “thriving,” Bush said now is the “right time to reform our nation’s farm policies by reducing unnecessary subsidies.”

When he vetoes one of these massive, bloated farm bills, maybe I’ll think he’s serious.

Hey! Other topics exist. Who knew?

I’m not an attorney, so I can’t get completely into the questions of what Congress has restricted explicitly versus what leeway is authorized. But the Department of Justice has an insightful, albeit obviously broken, theory of how a liberty-minded society should fight an open-ended, poorly-defined war:

The Justice Department has told Congress that American intelligence operatives attempting to thwart terrorist attacks can legally use interrogation methods that might otherwise be prohibited under international law.

The legal interpretation, outlined in recent letters, sheds new light on the still-secret rules for interrogations by the Central Intelligence Agency. It shows that the administration is arguing that the boundaries for interrogations should be subject to some latitude, even under an executive order issued last summer that President Bush said meant that the C.I.A. would comply with international strictures against harsh treatment of detainees.

While the Geneva Conventions prohibit “outrages upon personal dignity,” a letter sent by the Justice Department to Congress on March 5 makes clear that the administration has not drawn a precise line in deciding which interrogation methods would violate that standard, and is reserving the right to make case-by-case judgments.

“The fact that an act is undertaken to prevent a threatened terrorist attack, rather than for the purpose of humiliation or abuse, would be relevant to a reasonable observer in measuring the outrageousness of the act,” said Brian A. Benczkowski, a deputy assistant attorney general, in the letter, which had not previously been made public.

This administration can’t be trusted. We knew that already, so this is just another example. I’m more amazed at my capacity to be surprised by this egregious implication.

Forget the injured and dead prisoners, I suppose. The former will heal, unless they won’t, in which case we’ll classify them with the latter, who deserved it. I do sometimes forget that our government only incarcerates terrorists, not accused terrorists. As long as the intent of the is to prevent a threatened terrorist attack, it can’t possibly be humiliating or *gasp* abuse.

I’m so tired of the argument that intent matters more than the act, that it should be enshrined as a rule. Beyond the obvious fault that the potential for abuse dictates clear rules limiting government, it’s impossible to completely legislate a competent determination of the subjective distinction between good and bad intent. The mere potential for an exception where a vile, illegal act can be excused becomes the rule. That is not a sane path. Prosecute the act; acquit the legitimate exceptions.

Don’t worry, though. Our government still cares a little.

“The fact that you are doing something for a legitimate security purpose would be relevant, but there are things that a reasonable observer would deem to be outrageous,” [a senior Justice Department official] said.

Who determines what is a “legitimate security purpose”? Congress? The president? What if the reasoning is classified, as it most certainly would be, an assumption the administration demonstrates¹ repeatedly? Are members of the administration who authorize such measures the reasonable observers who decide? The answers are important, since they speak to the continued development of what is supposed to be an open and free society.

¹ To be fair, the Bush administration is not alone in this inclination, nor is it unique to a party.

A Hypothetical Argument Against Tradition

A common defense used to justify continued legal indifference to the clear rights violation of male child circumcision in the United States is tradition. The sometimes-blurry distinction between ritual and social tradition is mostly irrelevant. The argument is that humans have been circumcising male children for thousands of years. In the United States, the tradition approaches 150 years. Tradition relies on “if it ain’t broke” without questioning whether or not it’s broken. I reject this, obviously, but I’d like to offer a hypothetical scenario:

A family gathers every Thanksgiving at the home of the family matriarch. This has continued for decades, and now includes children, grandchildren and a few great-grandchildren. Every year, the menu remains constant. The festivities start at the same time. Afterwards, there’s football in the yard before watching football on television.

One family member does not participate because he chooses to spend the holiday at with his wife’s family.

Those who defend tradition seem to argue that an opposition to male child circumcision rejects this. Reject tradition-inspired circumcision and you reject a family’s ability to decide. This is not the case, because the correct equivalent includes one additional piece of information not yet expressed in the hypothetical.

The man who chooses not to participate is physically forced by his blood relatives and barred from leaving the family’s holiday celebration. When he objects, he is restrained. At the end of the festivities each year, he is permitted to leave.

If he sought state intervention, would he have a valid claim of false imprisonment? Does the family’s claim of tradition supersede his right to be free in his movements and activities? The answers are undeniably “yes” and “no”, respectively.

Obviously the age of the individuals is an essential variant in the discussion. Let’s consider it. If the family refused to circumcise a son in childhood, when do they lose the right to circumcise him? At age 18? If at 18, is it not contradictory to permit them to circumcise him without need before that age? In doing so, they are effectively granted the right to choose circumcision for him at 18, 28, 38, 48, etc. He can’t unchoose what they’ve imposed. The permanence of the decision separates it from every other parental responsibility claimed as an equivalent. Those alternate claims involve life-sustaining needs (food) and/or objective benefits (education). Circumcision fits neither category, while also lacking the affected individual’s ability to overcome poor choices by his parents contained in legitimate choices based in parental responsibility.

That returns the defense to tradition. Children may be forced to attend the family gathering for Thanksgiving. Conceded. But the logic – defined loosely – needed for forced circumcision of minors based on tradition requires a familial right to override an adult’s liberty to refuse attendance at all present and future gatherings. No such right exists. There can be no consistent rule based on tradition. Thus, tradition can’t be an acceptable defense for a permanent reduction of another’s future bodily choice, barring objective medical need. We must rely on principles rather than tradition. Principles center exclusively on the individual and his natural rights.

Equality means equal suffering?

One more for today (and one more for tomorrow, then there will likely be a lull in the circumcision posts). In a comment to this anti-circumcision essay, commenter “MizMoxie” wrote this:

… I would have sex with anyone with one not “cut”. [sic somewhere in there, as you’ll see] Too much waste and bacteria and gunk. Yuck. Besides, women have to go through a bunch just because we are women. I personally think that a male child should have to suffer a little. I’ve never heard a grown man say he remembers the pain of his circumcision! …

I hope that’s meant as a lame effort at humor. I’ve encountered that argument in the past, so I don’t think it is. I assume it’s real, if only for my purpose here. When dismissing principle in favor of subjective defenses like tradition and fear, this will occur. The law currently permits this justification as much as any other, even though the intent is clearly harm (among multiple poor excuses) to the child.

Is permitting harm to male children to balance the harm females suffer a legitimate trade-off to protect the perceived rights of parents to decide what is anatomically in the best interest of their children sons? If not, what is the consistent, objective rule of law to prevent this harm that doesn’t also prevent “good” reasons (that still lack medical need)?

Sanity on the Limitation of Parental “Rights”

A few days ago, in the context of the current FLDS story, Timothy Sandefur posted a principled defense of children and their rights against the (religious) claims of their parents. It’s very similar to what I’ve written about circumcision generally, and ritual circumcision specifically. The parents’ religion is not enough to justify the objective harm under civil law, regardless of the sanctity and tradition of the action. Still, Mr. Sandefur’s wonderfully stated words are worth posting here. (Note: I have no idea whether he would apply this to the medically unnecessary circumcision of minors. I suspect he does, but I do not know.)

The starting point of the analysis must be the principle that children have rights valid against parents, including the right not to be raised in an abusive or neglectful environment. The state has the legitimate authority to enforce these rights against parents. The state obviously has the legitimate power to take a child away from parents who beat him, or from a family of homeless alcoholics who neglect him. The fact that parents act abusively or negligently because they believe that God wants them to does not change the analysis. It cannot change the analysis, because it would, of course, create an easy route around laws that validly protect the rights of children: just assert that abuse is part of your religion. Heaven knows that’s been tried many, many times.

We do not allow parents to beat their children, yet that almost always leaves no permanent physical damage, unlike circumcision. Of course the psychological damage of physical abuse is undeniable. But is parental intent really enough, which is what seemingly allows circumcision while prohibiting other abuse? (cf. this post) Since one excuse used in favor of infant circumcision is that the boy won’t remember it, I say no. If a parent punches an infant, the infant will not remember it. But the act itself, separate from other considerations, is antithetical to the child’s individual rights. The motivating intent we assume (or discover) of the parent is irrelevant. As Mr. Sandefur’s statement declares, we shouldn’t excuse abuse just because parents claim God made them do it.

Mr. Sandefur continues:

… —and the state has the legitimate authority to defend that right [not to be imprisoned in an asylum], again, within certain (often vague) boundaries set by a parent’s right to direct the upbringing of a child. The latter right, however, must yield to a child’s objective welfare. In other words, while a parent has broad discretion to direct the education and upbringing of a child, that discretion exists within boundaries which the state may police, and keeping children away from education, medicine, &c., are things which—at least at some level—exceed those boundaries. …

The surgical alteration of a healthy child’s genitals exceeds those boundaries. We already recognize this for female minors. The Female Genital Mutilation Act explicitly denies parents the option to cut their daughters for non-medical reasons. The 14th Amendment, among other Constitutional claims, implicitly requires us to prohibit genital mutilation of male minors.

Perhaps more succinctly, Mr. Sandefur clarifies his point in a follow-up to his original post. Discussing the implications of two court cases, Yoder and Pierce, and the constitutional limits imposed on parents, he writes:

… The fact that some communities claim that God wants them to abuse or neglect children is just not a good reason for allowing them to do so, and the state is and ought to be more concerned with ensuring that children’s rights are protected than with whatever excuses parents give—mystical or otherwise—for violating those rights or for neglecting those children. …

I can make no comment on the validity of his legal analysis; I am not an attorney. But his reasoning is logical and based in individual liberty. The family is not society’s building block, with parents acting as property holders of their (male) children until the children reach the age of majority. What’s in the best interest of the family is collectivist, anti-liberty nonsense. Cutting is objective harm. The absence of medical need demonstrates that there is no corresponding objective benefit to be gained that would permit a discussion of parental proxy after applying the child’s individual rights. So, while I certainly adhere to a libertarian deference to parents and a suspicion of extraneous laws, legislatively prohibiting medically unnecessary genital surgery on minors is well within a libertarian framework of appropriate and necessary state use of power.

It would be nice if we didn’t have to do this. Maybe we can even justify not having a specific law prior to the beginning of child circumcision, if we lived in an alternate world without the historical tradition preceding the United States. (Assault laws would still be applicable, I think.) But approximately 3,000 male minors have their healthy genitals surgically altered every day in America. Rights are being violated. Not only may the state intervene, the state must intervene.

Caveat: I am not claiming that religious circumcision of minors proves the religion is harmful. I am claiming that religious circumcision of minors is a blind spot against individual rights that can’t be overcome through claims of parental “rights”. This must be prohibited in civil law. Civil law applied to the individual must trump any and all concerns of religion, particularly since the to-be-circumcised individual retains his own freedom of – and from – religion. He alone must decide if he wishes to express his faith in this manner.

Can protection be harm?

Via A Stitch in Haste, ABC News ran a social experiment in two cities, Verona, N.J. and Birmingham, Ala.

Two years ago, ABC News hired two actors, a man and a woman, to publicly display their affection for each other by kissing in public at a restaurant. Reactions from other restaurant-goers varied; some onlookers enjoyed the sight of young love, while others lost their appetite.

This year, we once again decided to explore how the public responds to public displays of affection — but this time, our couples were gay.

911 “hilarity” ensued in Birmingham, as Kip highlighted. Shameful, but not my point here. Instead, this:

… A topic that did come up repeatedly was children. “I don’t really find it inappropriate, especially during the day when schoolchildren aren’t running around. They might get confused and want an answer for what’s going on,” bystander Mary-Kate told us. The majority of the people who spoke about children seemed to echo Mary-Kate’s feelings. They are indifferent to gay PDA but did not want to, or know how to, address homosexuality with children.

People wilt under the pressure of addressing “tough” issues with children. (Some to a greater extent than others.) But when children get confused and want an answer for what’s going on in the world, the proper response is to treat them like human beings who deserve respect. Adults must apply tests to decide what information is appropriate to censor or finesse, but shielding children from information solely because the question makes the adult uncomfortable is not a rational response to reality.

Obviously I’m drawing a comparison to circumcision, so I’m not going to dance around the topic. When I’ve protested on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol against infant male circumcision¹, children approach to discuss the topic. I discriminate based on age. Without a good qualifier, it’s best to let the child ask. This generally leads to self-selection among the children who are capable of understanding and discussing. The youngest child I’ve spoken to is probably 10 or 11. And I still limit the discussion away from the anatomical function of the foreskin during intercourse and masturbation. However, those children are capable of understanding the core of the issue. They know when they’re being lied to. I’ve witnessed parents offering excuses to children while shielding them from any consideration. The children rejected these excuses by asking further questions.

I’m dismayed at how many people, even when not rejecting that same-sex relationships exist, fear that children can’t understand love if it’s not packaged in a specific, safe manner. Safe, of course, refers to the perceptions of the adult, not the child.

¹ Here’s a writing tip for you. The first edit of the footnoted sentence read:

When I’ve protested against infant male circumcision on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol …

There are no circumcisions occurring on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol, to my knowledge. Clarity demands that the writer group “on the lawn” with what occurred on the lawn.

I will use this in conversation.

In the course of providing an enjoyable threepart-and-counting narrative of a recent trip to New York City with his wife, Wil Wheaton wrote this, in part three:

It was getting late, and though our bodies thought it was three hours earlier, we’d still been up for about 14 hours on less than five hours of quality sleep. All of a sudden, we were exhausted, and ready to collapse like the Mets down the stretch.

I laughed out loud, enough to scare Emmett, who is sleeping at my feet. I love that both for the beauty of an excellent simile and the mocking poke at the Mets. (Go Phillies!) Bravo, Mr. Wheaton.

The U.S. owes the world. The world owes nothing to individuals.

Here’s an interview (part 2 of 3) with Stephen Lewis¹, a former diplomat now involved in HIV/AIDS issues. Here are a few curious excerpts (italics added):

What do you think should be done [to fix PEPFAR]?

People should demand more – much more. No one denies that when you pump several billion dollars into a response it will mean something. Of course it will; millions of people will be treated. That’s terribly important.

But that’s what we deserve to expect from the United States. You don’t kneel down before a country because it’s doing… something that the world has a right to receive. The American administration is so discredited, George Bush is such a lamentable president, that when anything of a positive kind happens people are prostrate at the unlikelihood of it and they shouldn’t be.

It gets worse from there, but it’s most important to focus on the key assumption. The world has a right to receive American funding for its problems. I’d like to know the socialist theory Lewis is using to arrive at the conclusion. Presumably we’re only allowed to call our giving “charity” if we need to feed our American egos. The world will acquiesce with that concession, but the dollars must continue to roll in to satisfy the world’s right to receive.

I don’t have anything else nice to say about that, so I’ll move on to the next interesting bit. (Again, italics added.)

How about the response of the United Nations to HIV/Aids in Africa?

There is just so much more to be done. Frankly, one of the things that is inadequate is the United Nations agencies. Some of it is bewildering.

For example, you get the Minister of Health in South Africa (Dr. Manto Tshababala-Msimang [sic]) attacking and dismissing circumcision as a preventive technology. Here you have three determinative studies, definitive studies, we have UNAIDS and WHO encouraging male circumcision as a way of reducing transmission and you get an attack on it by the minister of health in South Africa. Where is the United Nations’ voice? Why haven’t they taken on the minister? Why haven’t they said what should be said, which is that she’s effectively dooming people to death and it need not be done? You have to have a much stronger voice of advocacy from the United Nations in dealing with disease and related matters.

Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang is nuts is HIV, yes, but Lewis’ rant against the United Nations is bizarre. Whether it’s pushing circumcision through UNAIDS with breathless calls-to-action, issuing press releases touting the latest hype on the original story from WHO, or endorsing gender-based human rights violations through its remaining organizational reach, I’m not sure it’s possible to do more for the organization to insert its reach any further into this debate on the wrong side of human rights. But that’s defensible. Instead, let’s complain that they never criticized Dr. Tshabalala-Msimang for being stupid and dangerous.

Except, they did.

The United Nations special envoy for Aids in Africa has closed a major conference on the disease with a sharp critique of South Africa’s government.

Speaking at the end of the week-long gathering in Toronto, Canada, Stephen Lewis said South Africa promoted a “lunatic fringe” attitude to HIV/Aids.

Mr Lewis described the government as “obtuse, dilatory and negligent about rolling out treatment”.

Hey, wait a minute. Stephen Lewis? Stephen Lewis, working as special envoy for AIDS in Africa, attacked Dr. Tshabalala-Msimang’s comments in August 2006. Denouncing idiotic statements is necessary, but move on. Leave the grudge match to the WWE. Instead, every microphone is dead horse meets Stephen Lewis’ stick.

I did thoroughly enjoy this, in an “I’m disgusted” way:

“It really is distressing when the coercive apparatus of the state is brought against the most principled members of society,” he said.

Clearly Lewis is exhibiting a textbook case of Kip’s Law. I would challenge Lewis’ assertion that he is principled, since the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child clearly forbids medically unnecessary genital cutting, without exceptions for gender or potential disease prevention. Nor am I particularly moved by his claim of oppression. Are infants subjected a coercive apparatus when they are circumcised, in part based on the rantings of individuals like Stephen Lewis?

¹ The following biography accompanies the article:

Formerly the special envoy for HIV/Aids in Africa for United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, [Stephen Lewis] is now chairman of the board of the Canada-based Stephen Lewis Foundation, which endeavors to ease the pain of HIV/Aids in Africa by funding grassroots projects. Lewis is also co-director of Aids-Free World, a new international Aids advocacy organization based in the United States.

This will be important later in the entry.

With advocacy like this, who needs enemies?

Advocates for Youth is

… dedicated to creating programs and advocating for policies that help young people make informed and responsible decisions about their reproductive and sexual health. Advocates provides information, training, and strategic assistance to youth-serving organizations, policy makers, youth activists, and the media in the United States and the developing world.

Helping young people make informed and responsible decisions about their reproductive and sexual health is a noble goal. This is not that:

  • Human rights—Planners must take an approach to offering male circumcision that acknowledges the human rights of the client:
    • Every adult male who is considering circumcision for himself should be able to give informed consent.[1]
    • Where a minor is the prospective client, counselors must take extra time to ensure that the minor and his parents understand the procedure and that the young male consents to it.[1]
    • When an infant is to undergo the procedure, his parents must be fully informed.

If he is an adult, the male must consent. If he is young, the male must consent. If he is an infant, no human rights principles apply to him. That is a pathetic view of human rights. Anyone who accepts that view is not an advocate. At best, he is a propagandist who does not believe in principles, only principals who may act on another according to an undefined criterion.

What is the delimiter indicating when a male ages out of “pre-young” and into young, conferring a human rights requirement for consent before his healthy genitals may be surgically altered? I reject the answer in advance for reasons I’ve explained in detail. Still, I want to know because I do not understand the magical powers wrapped around the penis that reduces mankind’s ability to think when applying principles to its anatomical sanctity. So, advocates of the “pre-young” qualifier within human rights, when do “pre-young” males get the (ahem) equal right to consent – or refuse consent – to the surgical alteration of their healthy genitals that young and adult males possess?

Post Script: The footnote attached to the young and adult requirements points to an excuse from the usual suspects in infant male genital cutting advocacy. I will not provide a link to that report here.

Post Post Script: I addressed a similar, gender-based ethical lapse in a previous entry challenging nonsense from UNAIDS.