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Referendums This Fall May ENSURE Same Sex Marriage

39 states currently have constitutional bans on same sex marriage.
Photo: ncsl.org

In the fight over marriage equality, the headline is often regarding referendums or constitutional amendments passed outlawing same sex marriage.

Currently, such laws exist in 39 states where same sex marriage is defined as between a man and a woman, whereas only 6 states (including Washington D.C.) permit same sex marriage (although these unions are not recognized by the federal government).But, public opinion in the U.S. has slowly swung, with a majority of Americans in favor of marriage equality.

Yet, even now with 48% of Americans favoring same sex marriage (including key groups who previously opposed like Latinos and African Americans) and only 44% opposed, legislation for pro-gay rights has come from legislators and courts, not directly from referendums.

The percentage of voters who support same sex marriage is continually on the rise.
Photo: fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com

This coming election may alter the battleground for gay rights. Same sex marriage referendums are on ballots this November in four states (an up and down vote in Maine, Maryland, and Washington, with Minnesota attempting to ban same sex marriage) and provide an interesting opportunity to see how gay rights may be fought over in the future: through referendums instead of courts.

As expected, special interests and large campaign donations have been made on behalf of both sides, most notably from New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who is poised to donate $500,000 personally (on the pro-marriage equality side). Still, these cases represent the first time same sex marriage will become legal through a referendum.

Currently, MaineMaryland, and Washington voters are leaning towards legalization, while Minnesota remains split. If these same sex marriage proposals do pass, which seems likely, this demonstrates two major changes in the fight for gay rights: 1) the manner in which marriage equality is implemented and 2) the changing sentiments of the American electorate towards same sex marriage. Moving forward, it will be interesting to see if this sort of legislative battle for gay rights becomes the norm, rather than the exception.

Western Hemisphere

Fully Taking Advantage of Our “Opportunities”: How The U.S. Could Improve Foreign Policy to Latin America

“The opportunities for us in Latin America we have just not taken advantage of fully,” espoused Mitt Romney during Monday night’s debate on foreign policy.  Dismally, that was both the beginning and the end of all discussion on Latin America.

Indeed, there are opportunities in Latin America, and pressing issues that ought to be dealt with.  If the candidates had actually considered these vague sounding “opportunities,” what might they have actually been?

TRADE

Trade and Partisanship

Photo Courtesy: The Economist

Most easily and with the greatest mutual beneficially, the US could seriously improve its foreign policy with respect to Latin America by actively pursuing continued trade liberalization.  Latin American is currently a large trade partner to the US, but with plenty of capacity for mutual growth.

Mexico accounts for nearly half of total Latin American trade, at 11.7% of total U.S. trade.  It also represents the fastest growing trade partner in the region, showing an 82% increase in US merchandise trade from 1998 to 2009.  The US created NAFTA and the FTAA (not without controversy), as well as numerous bilateral and multilateral trade agreements among various Latin American countries.

The challenge now is  to hammer these diverse FTAs into harmonization.  Several of them ought to be renegotiated in light of lessons of the past years, with more favorable terms for some of our Latin American partners, focusing on the Longer-term benefits of developing our partner economies (and the increased demand they bring) with friendly relationships.  Short-term economics of using our hegemonic prowess for exploitation needs to take a back-seat.

Larger Latin American countries,  less persuaded by access to large US markets and hegemonic power, such as Brazil and Argentina (and to a lesser extent Chile) represent the greatest opportunities for mutual gain.  Crafting these agreements, slowly working towards harmonization, and finally investing in the constrained supply-side infrastructure of several of these countries (ports, customs operations, roads, rails, and standards) would all yield great benefits, both economically, and for the US image in the region.

THE DRUG WAR

The Drug WarBecause of the nature of US influence in the world, one of the most powerful ways the US could improve its foreign policy toward Latin America is by ending the failed Drug War both domestically and abroad. The Drug War has been ineffective at achieving any of its stated goals.  Worse, it is harmful to individuals, society, and democratic governance in Latin America.

Over the last ten years, the US and its Latin American partners have spent millions on weapons supplies,  US paramilitary training, and air and intelligence support, yet the cultivated area of cocaine in Bolivia, Peru, and Columbia (suppliers of 100% of the world’s coca) has not receded an inch.  It is estimated that an incredible 60-70,000 Mexicans have been killed in its own microcosm of the drug war since 2006.  In Brazil, it was found that 84% of those incarcerated for drug offenses over a 2-year period were not armed.  Together, these facts highlight the truly multifaceted failure of the Drug War.

These policies kill individuals.  They also, through mass incarceration for minor drug related offenses, indoctrinate thousands into organized and violent crime.  This wasted individual talent quickly becomes destructive for society.  The near-insurgency level of Mexican drug gangs has empowered a small, extremely wealthy, very violent, and underground elite.  The police and military forces are not in control.  The organized crime infects local and regional governments and police forces with corruption, forfeiting hard-won trust of local citizens along the way.  Worst of all, in the worst of cases, this endangers continued democratic governance.

Dishearteningly and paradoxically, these laws, designed to promote societal good by curtailing drug use and sales, have instead endangered public safety, societal trust, and democratic governance.

The US can radically aid this dire situation in two ways.  First, the US could start seriously criminalizing and enforcing a ban on assault weapons and tactical arms that make their way to these crime syndicates.  In the domestic sphere, legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana and cocaine would severely cut the price of these drugs, reduce demand for imports by upping domestic supply, and cut the underground trade out of the profits by instilling a regulated (and taxable!) market.

Second, the US could stop encouraging, through conditional aid and other soft-power influences, prohibition oriented solutions to drug problems in Latin America .  On the other side of the same coin, the US ought to forego the policy of undercutting sensible domestic decriminalization in the Latin American countries.  Ending the War on Drugs was a major issue at the Summit of the Americas, and endorsed by the Latin American Initiative on Drugs and Democracy, the Pan American Health Organization and WHO, and the both of the Latin American Conferences on Drug Policy.  It’s time for the US to abandon the withering failed policy of prohibition in favor of sensible drug regulation and taxation.

Debt Releif

Latin American CurrencyThe issue of debt relief rises and falls over the years, but seems to never gain enough traction to overcome the powerful interests of creditors.

Only after a near-collapse of the Eurozone and the strong endorsement of the US, IMF, World Bank, European Bank, and Germany was the–merely partial–debt relief of Greece possible.

Latin America, as a continent, is truly burdened by debt.  In 2005, at $720 billion, Latin America’s foreign debt was equivalent to 38 percent of the Continents GDP.  In 2011, the ratio of debt to GNI was 21 and increasing.

Since Mexico‘s 1982 default, debt’s onerous weight on the back of Latin America has slowed its measured steps toward development, raising interest rates in a vicious cycle and sapping much-needed resources from government expenditures and investments.  In the most highly indebted Latin American countries, debt service payments can consume over half of the government’s annual expenses.  This misappropriation results in perennial problems that could easily be avoided, to the benefit of global economic stability, with a serious and long-term focused debt relief deal.

Domestic Agricultural Subsidies

A final US domestic policy with far reaching consequences world-wide, but especially in Latin America, is the market distortions brought about through implicit and explicit crop, pesticide, and fertilizer subsidies.  These domestic political behemoths are nearly untouchable in the US’s farm bill, but to Latin America, they mean a flooded markets of crops well below the price of production.  This has far-reaching effects within Latin American economies.

quinoa-plantsIn one study, it was found that US corn was being sold at 19% below production costs in Mexico.  The flooded supply and depressed prices of imported corn from the US, assured through FTAs, disincentivizes domestic farming.  This has the immediate effect of impoverishing small land-owners, forcing massive urbanization in search of often non-existent manufacturing or service jobs, and changing the ethno-cultural eating habits practiced in the region.

Historically, countries industrialize when land consolidation and technological advancements in land and labor productivity bring about rural disposable incomes.  With these incomes and less rural labor required, urban manufacturing and services have strong and geographically diverse demand for their goods and services.

In the longer term, Latin American economies may be hindered from generating an equitable manufacturing, and service economy by the lack of demand from the rural population.  Reversing the US policy on these disastrous subsidies would help struggling farmers in Latin America move beyond mere subsistence.  More comprehensively, it could help diversify the economies of the region.  Finally, ending subsidies for pesticides and fertilizers would unchain small farmers from the vagaries of monopoly prices and have the additional benefit of promoting more sustainable agricultural practices.

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These recommendations are all complementary.  Had Governor Romney and President Obama had a serious debate on how the US could use these “opportunities” to promote greater neighborliness and mutual benefit in the Western Hemisphere, these are some of the policies we ought to consider.

Robo Squirell

Government Waste: Robo-Squirrels, Thoreauian Video Games, and More…

Tom Coburn

Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK)

Tom Coburn, the junior Oklahoma Republican Senator takes a very serious attitude toward fiscal responsibility. So much so that he publishes a yearly “Wastebook”, documenting 100 of Congresses most egregious spending habits.

Coburn’s 100 selected projects total $18.9 billion. This is a gross overestimate due to the way Coburn calculates these expenditures (often only a part of a government-funded grant costing total amount he lists.)

Fortunately for us, many of these are pretty funny. The National Journal went through and picked out some of the more absurd, hilarious, and wasteful of the projects listed:

  • $300,000 effort to promote caviar consumption, while Americans are “struggling just to put the basics on the family dinner table.”
  • “How many nutritious school lunches could have been served with the $1.8 million in financial assistance provided to cupcake specialty shops?”
  • Increased food stamp benefits for recipients that use medical marijuana.
  • A NASA program designed to research proper food and drink for an unscheduled future mission to Mars.
  • $32,000 project to recreate a historic street out of Legos.
  • $325,000 for an effort to build a lifelike Robo-Squirrel.
  • $27 million for a project that included pottery classes for Moroccan artists translated by someone who was not fluent in English – and using materials that cannot be purchased in Morocco.
  • Almost $50,000 for Smokey the Bear hot-air balloon appearances.
  • $505,000 in block grants for a pet shampoo and toothpaste company.
  • $520,000 for an Ohio bridge that doesn’t connect to a road or trail.
  • $40,000 for a video game based on Thoreau’s writings at Walden Pond.
  • More than $540,000 for a dancing robot that DJs smartphones.
  • Nearly $68,000 for a “Students Against Trash” poster campaign.
  • $6.9 million for research into making rubber-free tires from natural materials.
  • $35,000 for a book vending machine.

Granted, many of these programs may have idiosyncratic histories that justify, to the constituents at least, the spending. On the other hand, Congress is able to fund all these programs, yet is unable to pass a budget, a highway bill, a farm bill, or nearly any other bill. As Coburn quips, “Many high school student councils have been more deliberative than the U.S. Senate.”