What’s a right? What’s not?

Carefree, Arizona

Philosophical basis for rights

The Declaration of Independence gives us a general theory of rights, and the Constitution provides specifics. Liberty is inherent to the individual. So rights are about things that belong to you, such as your views, your chosen path, and your life.

It’s about knowing what’s your and what’s not yours. Your rights don’t belong to those in authority, so protecting your rights means prohibiting the government from doing certain things.

The Bill of Rights stops the government from telling you that you can’t say certain things, that you can’t worship a certain god, or that you can’t own a gun. And the government can’t declare you guilty of a crime unless guilt has been established through due process. The ninth amendment says that your rights are not limited to the ones specifically mentioned in the Constitution. And the fourteenth amendment clarifies that the law protects everyone equally.

Civil Rights

In other words, rights are about not taking things away from you. This goes for civil rights too. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 says equal protection under the law means businesses can’t deprive you of equal access to public accommodations because of race, sex, etc.

It’s important to note that the Civil Rights Act doesn’t require businesses to give anyone a job. Instead, civil rights means that if a business chooses to create a job then they must respect each applicant’s equality under the law.

Rights vs entitlements

But saying the government must give you something (or mandate that someone else must give you something) is qualitatively different from saying you can’t be prohibited from doing something. Just because something is an entitlement rather than a right, though, doesn’t mean the government shouldn’t do it. But it does mean that unlike rights, the government doesn’t have to do it.

By entitlement I mean a government benefit, not someone who wants special treatment. Health insurance is a good example. Healthcare is an entitlement, not a right, because healthcare is about what someone gives you.

The government mandating that private companies must provide an insurance product is problematic, though. If the government decides that everyone should have health insurance as an entitlement then it would be more straightforward if the government provided it directly – by giving everyone Medicare, for example.

Other cases

Because health insurance is not a right, the government can’t prohibit business owners like Hobby Lobby from refusing to provide insurance coverage for birth control, which violates their religious beliefs. It would be different if Hobby Lobby chose to provide insurance that included birth control for some employees. Then equal protection would create a case for giving every employee equal access. But if Hobby Lobby chooses not to provide coverage for birth control to anyone then the government can’t force them to violate their religious principles.

Same sex marriage, on the other hand, is a right. The government can’t stop you from marrying the person you choose. And equal protection under the law reinforces that.

But what about gay wedding cakes? This is a civil rights issue. It’s the baker’s choice to offer services to the general public – the government isn’t mandating that the baker start a business. Refusing to comply with equal access under the law is no different from a restaurant refusing to seat an African-American customer.


Do terrorists want us to hate Muslims?

An acquaintance on Facebook posted a comment about a Buzzfeed article: “Terrorism is a low-cost asymmetrical form of warfare that seeks to rip a society apart from the inside by creating chaos through generating fear and hatred toward a perceived enemy living among the people. Don’t let terrorists win. Reject fear and hate.”

Division undermines diverse, democratic societies. So bigotry directed at IMG_0681Muslims, immigrants and refugees, or anyone who looks “ethnic” plays directly into terrorists’ hands.

Americans are Americans because we are united by the ideal that everyone is created equal, which is codified in our constitution (particularly the Bill of Rights and the thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth, and nineteenth amendments).

That’s why America is about living together as a pluralistic society. That’s why Muslims are no less American than Christians, and it’s not unpatriotic to be an atheist.

But terrorists benefit from hatred toward Muslims and others because divisions undermine American unity.

Why the U.S. has always been a two party system

The winner take all system shuts out third parties.

Why is it so hard for Democrats to win a majority in the House of IMG_0539Representatives, but easier to win the presidency or the Senate?

Why has the United States always been a two party nation?

The winner takes all in presidential and Senate races. But House races are divide and conquer. House races are not statewide, so a candidate from northern California needs to worry rural voters but not San Francisco’s left wing.

The winner takes all in presidential and Senate races. But House races are divide and conquer.

Senators face a statewide election, however. That’s why all California senators are Democrats while 14 of 53 House seats go to California Republicans. And the House is 435 of 535 members of Congress. This gives California Republicans some power.

While the same could theoretically be true for Democrats in Texas, the more consistently conservative makeup of Texas is a bigger obstacle for Democrats in that state. This gives Republicans an advantage in the House of Representatives. 

It’s the Electoral College, not the popular vote, that decides the presidency.

But the presidency is a stranger case. It’s winner take all like the Senate, but with a caveat that even most Americans can’t explain. It’s the Electoral College, not the popular vote, that decides the presidency.

When you vote for the president you’re actually voting for the electors from that state who represent the candidate. The number of electors is the number of senators (always two) plus representatives for that state – 535 total, just like Congress. Alaska has three electors while California has fifty-five.

It’s a given that the Democratic presidential candidate will win all 55 of California’s electoral votes. The Republican candidate will carry all of Texas’s 38 electoral votes.

My home state of Maine, however, can split the electoral votes that correspond to House seats, creating a possible 3 and 1 combination (2 and 2 isn’t possible). Nebraska also allows this. But no election has produced such a result.

A candidate needs 270 out of 535 electoral votes to win the presidency. But there are three issues with this. One is that a candidate could lose the popular vote but win the electoral vote – and the presidency. George W. Bush did it in 2000.

The second is how important Ohio is. I’ve never been there. I’ve heard it’s flat, and there are a lot of corn fields. At any rate, Ohio has 18 electoral votes. But unlike Texas or California, Ohio voters are more evenly split between liberals and conservatives. Those 18 electoral votes are up for grabs. Florida’s 29 electoral votes present a similar situation. What American can forget the “hanging chads” from the 2000 election? 

Two presidential candidates means one will get 270 electoral votes. Three candidates? Uh-oh.

But the most important point is that two presidential candidates means one will get 270 electoral votes.

Three candidates? Uh-oh.

The founding fathers were not morons. They thought of this possibility. But they didn’t want to get too crazy with the whole democracy thing, which is why they contrived the Electoral College in the first place. The fail safe is that a deadlock in the Electoral College throws the vote to the House of Representatives.

Then it really gets heated. Americans have tried it, and weren’t so happy with the results. In 1824 there was a complex race between John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay (remember him?), some guy named Bill Crawford (who?), and John C. Calhoun (who is best remembered for encouraging the Civil War).

Long story short, it was a cluster. Adams promised Clay a job as Secretary of State if he dropped out, and the House elected Adams as president.

Andrew Jackson was mad. He went on to defeat Adams in 1828, and Americans decided not to repeat the debacle (though we’ve forgotten why we always scoff at third party wannabees).

Change is a slogan and we really don’t want it.

Americans keep the Electoral College because change is a slogan and we really don’t want it, amending the constitution is hard, low population states would have less power with a popular vote, and even after the mess in 2000 most American still have no clue anyway.

Parliamentary systems, on the other hand, allow for coalitions. This incentivizes multiple parties – and with it, cooperation and less extremism. The United States isn’t a parliamentary system, but we don’t have to amend the constitution to encourage third parties.

The simplest solution is for all states to split their electoral votes.

The simplest solution to two party dominance is for all states to split their electoral votes. And adding ranked choice voting to the mix might keep the House of Representatives out of it.

How the GOP Shot Itself In the Foot

The Republican Party is being hijacked by a bigoted demagogue because the Republican establishment fell asleep at the wheel.

Let’s take a trip back in time when Democrats were more racist than Republicans. Though Barry Goldwater and five other Republican senators voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 21 Democratic senators voted against civil rights.

Goldwater didn’t think government had the right to tell businesses what to do. And though Goldwater opposed the Ku Klux Klan, a lightbulb went off in the KKK’s head. White racists realized that arguments about limited government and states rights generated more public support than explicitly racist arguments did.

The South had been solidly Democratic since the Civil War because it was the Republican Party that defeated the Confederacy, abolished slavery, and were early champions of civil rights legislation. Back then, Republicans were more popular in the North. Still, Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed despite immense opposition from Southern Democrats.

Johnson remarked that the Democratic Party had lost the South. And in the 1968 presidential campaign this was too good of an opportunity for Republican candidate Richard Nixon to pass up. Today, thanks to Nixon’s Southern strategy, Southern whites are predominantly Republican.

But the Republican establishment seemed to think it could get the votes of right wing extremists down South without ceding control of the GOP to them. Meanwhile, Republicans like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and others used the airwaves to spread an extreme right wing message to workers throughout the country who were devastated over the replacement of good paying manufacturing jobs with low paying service and retails jobs.

The Southern strategy also meant courting evangelical Christians. In 1994 Goldwater supposedly said, “Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me.”

Soon the racism that had been directed at African-Americans became generalized xenophobia reminiscent of the nativist “Know Nothing” party of the 19th century. Today, Muslims, Mexicans, and women are also major targets.

Donald Trump’s populist presidential campaign is the culmination of this, and it shows that the Republican establishment has lost control of the party. Ronald Reagan belonged to the Republican establishment, though he courted the extreme right. George W. Bush was born into the Republican establishment, but he felt more at home among right wing populists. That is, Bush had a foot in both worlds. But the last two Republican candidates for president (John McCain and Mitt Romney) were establishment Republicans, and both lost badly.

The Republican establishment has run out of steam, but right wing populists are energized.

Still, Trump has received only 37% of Republican primary votes – a plurality, not a majority. In the general election against Hillary Clinton, Trump is anticipated to lose by a similar margin.

Also notable is that Trump’s support is highest among older voters. He has very few supporters under 30. I’ve written before about the Republican Party’s aging and therefore shrinking voter base. It’ll take another 20 or 30 years before today’s 20-somethings are in their voting prime and the older, more conservative voting block is no longer politically significant. Between now and then we can expect more disarray from the GOP as it faces an identity crisis in a changing world.


Slavery, the Civil War, & Blaming the South

South Carolina might take down the Stars & Bars. It’s about time. It’s so easy as a Yankee to judge the South. But the North is just as guilty, just more passive-aggressive.

Defenders of the South claim that the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery. They do have a point that slavery as the sole cause of Southern secession from the United States is simplistic, but they’re also engaging in historical revisionism. It’s perhaps more accurate to say that slavery was the primary catalyst of the Civil War, though there were secondary issues as well.

There’s no defense for slavery or the war that would have preserved it (had the Confederacy won). But there’s a huge myth about the Civil War that the North promotes even today.

The South would be better off exposing this myth rather than trying to revise history.

The myth is that Abraham Lincoln and the morally superior North courageously opposed slavery. The truth is that the North profited from slavery just as much – and perhaps more – than the South did; and the North fought the Civil War to preserve the Union and not to abolish slavery.

Alexander Stephens, vice president of the nascent Confederate States of America, gave his Cornerstone Speech three months after Fort Sumter (the shots that began the Civil War).

What was this cornerstone?

The “moral truth,” that for African-Americans “slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” Stephens prefaced this statement with a reference to the Declaration of Independence, where Thomas Jefferson declared that “all men are created equal.” In contrast, Stephens states unequivocally that, “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea.”

Jefferson, however, was a Southern slave owner himself, and his sentiment of equality cannot be understood in its modern, more expansive, sense.

Lest you think that Stephens was unclear, he clarified that, “The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.” (Emphasis mine.)

One defense of Stephens is that he was speaking extemporaneously, which is to say, off the cuff. In other words, he said what he really thought because he didn’t have time to come up with some bullshit.

Well, at least Abraham Lincoln will save the day. In a letter to the New York Tribune, Lincoln explained his rationale for fighting the Civil War: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it.”

In the end, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation (in part due to the fear that Britain would join the war to defend the South, which supplied much of Britain’s cotton), and supported the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery. But reread Lincoln’s words above to understand why.

In 1848, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner railed against “an unhallowed union…between the lords of the lash and the lords of the loom.” Northern textiles were profiting greatly from cheap Southern cotton. The North profited as much as the South – and more so when you consider that the Civil War didn’t destroy the Northern economy.

What’s more, the North could plausibly say that its hands weren’t bloody. Northerners held no whips. Southerns did Northerner’s dirty work for them, only to have the North self-righteously condemn the South.

The situation today is not much different. Racism is not unique to the South.

Will a Bachelor Tax Create More Babies?

At first I thought it was Onion style satire. Japanese bachelors should pay a handsome man tax to encourage them to marry.

Japanese men are losing interest in matrimony, often because of the enormous financial demands of marriage and family. But fewer births could mean Japan’s population will be a fifth smaller by mid-century.

The birthrate in the United States is falling too. Millennials are having fewer babies because they’re not financially ready due the Great Recession and its aftershocks. But despite fewer births than deaths, the US population is still projected to grow because of immigration. Japan is disinterested in immigration, however.

Yet, a bachelor tax would fail for several reasons:

  • People respond best to natural incentives. Social engineering usually has unintended consequences.
  • Japanese men will still remain unmarried unless the tax is much more expensive than the cost of raising a family.
  • Even if the tax incentivizes Japanese men to marry, this doesn’t mean Japanese women will become more marriage minded.
  • Even if more people do marry, this doesn’t mean they’ll have more babies (at least not enough to stop the population decline).

And there’s the rub. Ultimately it’s women, not men, who have babies. So a bachelor tax fails to directly target the correct group.

When Did Americans Lose Their English Accents?

American and British speech are so different that even professional actors struggle with sounding authentic.

So when did Americans lose their English accent?

Maybe Americans never had an English accent. At least not a modern British accent.

English is constantly changing. In the late Middle Ages Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour

And it sounds even stranger that it looks.

English started out as an Anglo-Frisian dialect of Old Western German, with some influences from the Saxon dialect and Old Norse (brought by the Vikings). The Norman French invasion of 1066 dramatically changed the language. English before that was unrecognizable:

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

A sound clip of Beowulf shows how incomprehensible Old English is to a modern speaker.

Back to what English might have sounded like when the British first colonized America four hundred years ago.  Shakespeare wrote his plays a few decades before Jamestown and Plymouth Rock, and linguists today have reconstructed the sound of Shakespearean English using elocution guides from the early 1600s, analyzing spelling errors and rhyming schemes, etc.

Several things stand out while listening to a sound clip of Romeo and Juliet in the original pronunciation. One is that there’s no English dialect today that sounds like this, but it’s easy to see how this dialect could evolve over time into American English, Irish English, and Scottish English. Notably, the letter R was fully pronounced, unlike British and Australian English today.

However, London English of 1600, like today, was not representative of all British dialects. It’s notable that elocution guides from Shakespeare’s day say that one should pronounce R like a growl. Today’s soft R sound didn’t become widespread in England until around 1800. But the fact that elocution guides from 1600 had to point out the proper pronunciation of R means that some British dialects were non-rhotic early on.

In other words, America was settled when most English was still rhotic but with some exceptions. England eventually went full blown non-rhotic, but America did not. Today, American rhoticism is displacing New England’s historical non-rhoticism. Here in Maine, summer tourists are often disappointed that most of us sound more like Ben Affleck than John F. Kennedy. Australia, however, was settled after the American Revolution, which is why its dialects are non-rhotic like modern day England’s.

But it’s more than English sounding very different 400 years ago when America was settled. British dialects of centuries past were even more diverse than they are today. There are five foundational groups that created American English:

The South

Can you guess which dialect this biblical passage is written in?

De Song of Songs, dat is Solomons’s
Let him kiss me wud de kisses of his mouth
for yer love is better dan wine…
My beloved spoke, an’ said to me: Git up, my love, my fair un, an’ come away…

Song of Solomon 1:1-2 & 2:10

That would be Sussex, England of centuries past. In Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, David Hacket Fischer notes that this dialect had disappeared in England by the mid-1800s, largely due to rising educational standards and British insistence on proper London English.

The first British colonists in America settled in Virginia, and from there they established other Southern colonies. These colonists hailed mostly from southwest England, and their speech patterns have lived on in Dixie while becoming extinct in Britain.

The elongated vowels, such as Aahm instead of I’m, was another dialect feature brought across the pond, as were certain words that today we think of as not only uniquely American but uniquely Southern: howdy, moonshine (whisky), laid off, mighty (instead of very), mess of greens, pekid (ill), book learning, jeans, traipse, unbeknownst, tote, disremember, woebegone, chomp, true grit, and belly ache.

New England

Fischer quotes a Pennsylvania woman’s surprise upon meeting a Southerner “who…never pronounces the R at all” (page 256). This speech habit also has long been associated with New England. East Anglia was the 17th century Puritan stronghold from which most New England colonists hailed. This might be the origin of New England’s “pahk the cah” accent.

While filming a movie in Maine in 2001 British actor Tom Wilkinson described the broad Maine accent as a “brother” to an English Norfolk accent, going so far as to say that a Mainer with a thick accent could walk into an East Anglia pub and convince folks that he’s a local (though that’s an exaggeration).

Middle America

Non-rhoticism may have started in East Anglia, reaching northern England last. But the Quakers left for Pennsylvania before non-rhoticism reached Yorkshire. The hard R sound of the American middle colonies was destined to become the dominant American dialect, perhaps because its geographical position allowed it to spread not just west, but northwest and southwest as well.

Fischer says that the dialects of northern England resulted from the commingling of Anglo-Saxon and Nordic languages. He calls it “muscular speech – bluff, literal, direct, vivid, forceful and plain-spoken” (page 470).

As various British dialects commingled in America, some English regionalisms disappeared while others survived. Americans discarded the northern England pronunciation “coom” for come, but retained northern Britain’s short A in dance.

Middle American words adopted by the rest of the country include bamboozle, abide, blather, boggle, by golly, chuck (throw), dumbfounded, flabbergasted, fuzz ball, elbow grease, flare up, good grief, guzzle, gumption, mad (angry), thingamajig, and many more.


Another key group are the Scots-Irish. They were the last foundational group of colonists. Recruited to act as a buffer between the polite English settlements of the coast and the Native Americans to the west who were angry about their land being taken, the militant Scots-Irish were cut out for the task.

For centuries the Scots tried to fight off their English conquerors (think Braveheart), and later when they settled in Northern Ireland this militancy was extended to religion as a clear marker between Protestant Ulstermen (Scots-Irish) and the Catholic Irish.

The Scots-Irish contributed much to American culture (praise God and pass the ammunition!), which extended west as whites fought Native Americans (how the West was won).

Coming late to the colonial party, they mostly adopted the dialects they found in America, so their Scots-Irish brogue didn’t survive. But they did leave a linguistic mark, such as yonder, thar (there), wrassle (wrestle), buck nekkid, critter, adding a- before a verb such as a-goin’, scrawny, honey as a term of endearment, and of course little shit referring to a small child.

Other Influential Groups

Other groups, though less influential, also played a foundational role in American English. For example, Native Americans gave us numerous place names, and words like raccoon for species native to North America.

Africans were involuntarily brought to America and learned English informally, giving rise to speech patterns such as verb omission (“where you at?”). African-Americans gave us juke (as in jukebox), okra, gumbo; revised forms of non-English European words such as banana and banjo; coined new words such as jive and boogie-woogie; and popularized other words such as okay and jitterbug. Use of language is also key. Rhyming to make a point and greater expressiveness than found in European culture greatly influenced American speech.

The Dutch, who settled New Amsterdam (later New York) before the British, gave us Yankees and cookies.

Later immigrant groups also contributed. The Irish taught Americans to say “I will” instead of “I shall.” I could go on and on about Spanish words that have entered American English. Finally, what would American English be without Yiddish borrowings such as schmuck and schlep?