Reflections Following a Sad Event

Monday, October 24th, 2016

Interesting morning so far…in tragic way.  I got up a bit later than usual, planning on taking a slightly later train, since I ordinarily arrive far earlier at the office than anyone else.  However, while the train was going north, there was an accident (another train hit someone), so they had to reroute the passengers by running shuttles and so forth…and of course there were delays.  Most people tend initially to react to such events as if this is something happening to them, but of course, it’s something that already happened to the poor person who died, and to the people who are stuck on the train involved in the accident until the authorities finish their investigation. Continue reading

In States Where They Lose Voting Rights, ex-Felons Should Not Pay Taxes

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I first learned about many of the principles behind the United States government while watching cartoons on Saturday mornings, on Schoolhouse Rock.  These cartoon shorts are available to own, and if you have kids, I strongly encourage you to make that investment.  In any case, on a particular History Rock episode about the Declaration of Independence, I first heard of the concept of taxation without representation, as one of the major complaints that led the American colonists to rebel against the government of Great Britain.  If I recall the exact quote from that cartoon, it said, “That’s called taxation without representation…and it’s not fair.”  Having learned at least a little bit more about the concept in the intervening years, I’ve decided that I agree, and I think most people in America would concur.  How can a person reasonably and ethically be forced to pay for the activities of a government in which they have no ability to participate?

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An Anarchistic Thought Experiment

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In celebration of my joyous return to Florida, and my oh-so-entertaining dealings (already) with the bureaucracy of Broward County, I thought I would post something that I originally wrote some time ago…while I was “away,” in fact. It involved an invitation and discussion of a gedankenexperiment (did I get the German right?) that I considered for myself. I would like to invite all of you readers to consider it with respect either to Florida or to your own states, and tell me what you think might happen.

Ready? Here we go.

Albert Einstein famously used “thought experiments” to explore the implications of his theories of Special and General Relativity. This was necessary because actual experiments about many of the aspects of Relativity were simply not possible…and some of them may never be. After all, we can never truly get information back from inside an event horizon, at least as far as we know, so we have to consider what might happen to someone who plunged past one only in principle. In that spirit, let’s do our own thought experiment now, about what would happen if the government of Florida–at all levels, from the Governor down to the custodian who mops up the local DMV–were to disappear abruptly.

For humanitarian purposes, let’s stipulate that no harm has come to anyone in the government, but rather that–for inscrutable reasons of their own–a powerful alien race has suddenly teleported every member of every government body in the state to some other part of the country, along with their families, modifying their memories and giving them new, and better, sources of livelihood. Also, let’s imagine that an impenetrable barrier, a la Stephen King’s Under the Dome, prevents the federal government from stepping in to take any action. How would the people of Florida react once they discovered that all those in “authority” were suddenly gone?

It’s all but inevitable that, at least temporarily, a time of chaos would ensue. Some people would panic and be overwhelmed by paranoia. Others might celebrate the sudden lack of supervisory restriction by indulging in various types of crime. But the people of Florida are, to say the least, well-armed. In the ultimate spirit of “stand your ground” legislation, many citizens would defend themselves against celebrating criminals…at least the ones they deemed truly dangerous, such as thieves, rapists, murderers, trespassers, and the like. It would be silly to imagine that all such anti social miscreants would be eliminated during such a natural “purge,” but at least some of them would doubtless find that the law had protected them at least as much as it had restricted them.

Meanwhile, the average Floridian might discover that, when true, urgent needs have to be addressed, such manufactured “crises” as drug use, gambling, and even prostitution do not directly impact upon their own health, safety, and happiness. What vigilante has ever felt the urge to hunt down and kill someone who is smoking a joint in his own home, or playing a non-state-sanctioned game of poker? A new sense of perspective about such so-called offenses might very well come into being. Wouldn’t that be nice?

It’s inevitable, of course, that some fundamental new social agreements would have to be made, instituting a new form of proto-government. Some type of currency would also have to be chosen, though at first old-fashioned barter might rule the day. One thing is certain: Having a great deal of money in the bank, or tied up in overseas investments, would not yield one anything like the advantages they do in our current society. Also, without government entitlement programs, the health and care of those unable to care for themselves would likely be provided only by the goodwill of their families, their friends, and their neighbors. Thankfully, history has show that, in crises and natural disasters, many Americans (and other humans) do tend to look out for those who are weaker than they. Not everyone does it, but a surprisingly large fraction of people do. However, the criteria for being considered truly “disabled” by one’s fellow citizens, would likely become much stricter, without “other people’s money” paying the bills. It would be interesting to find out of things would be more or less compassionate than they are as things stand now.

Whatever new form of government the people might institute–and there would very likely be many conflicts and upheavals in that process–at the very least, some serious reassessment of priorities would likely ensue. In order to survive and thrive, the citizens would need to make cooperation and productivity the watchwords of their lives. If they didn’t, natural selection would likely do its ruthless but even-handed job and wipe them out.

It would take a great deal of time to explore thoroughly all the possible effects and ramifications of a sudden loss of government in the state of Florida. We can be sure that there would be at least some violence, and a great deal of disorder, fear, and heartbreak. Ultimately, though, there would have to be a return to a new equilibrium, if that term makes any sense, and it could be hoped–if one were optimistic–that the new government might be less intrusive, less authoritarian, and more streamlined than that currently in existence. It’s a historical truism that governments tend to increase in power, complexity, and self-justification over time; thus, however disorderly our alien intervention might temporarily make things, it’s possible that the complete loss of the current government of Florida might, in the long run, be very good for all honest Floridians not already in the government’s employ.

What are your thoughts? What are some of the things that you think would happen if aliens eliminated the government of Florida, or of your own state, if you’re not a Floridian? Would things ultimately become better, or would they be worse? Let me know.

The plea bargain system is a sadistic game of extortion

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Imagine the following scenario:

You are being held hostage  by a group of armed men and women.  You know they are a very large and well-financed group, and that escape is nearly impossible.  Representatives of this organization–a few of whom even claim to be working to protect you–give you the following choice:  You may agree to be their prisoner for a specific amount of time, perhaps a few months, perhaps a few years.  You will also be giving up most or all of your material possessions, agreeing to proclaim publicly that you have done some terrible deed to earn this captivity–thus destroying your good reputation, if you have one–and even relinquishing some of your human rights.  The alternative is to agree to play a twisted, sadistic, and highly rigged game, one which you have very little chance of winning; even your own so-called allies assure you of this fact.  They tell you bluntly that the game is stacked horrifically against you, and that your ruin will be sought assiduously by your opponents, using all of their considerable resources.  If you lose, they will keep you prisoner for a far longer period of time than you had been offered–perhaps even for the rest of your natural life, and your imprisonment will entail risks to your health and the risk of death–and you will lose all that you would have agreed to give up anyway.  The choice is yours.

What would you do?

This is the choice faced by those who find themselves in the American criminal justice system and are offered a plea bargain.

The plea bargain system, for those of you who are unfamiliar with it, is essentially the process I have described above.  An accused criminal (already assumed guilty by the State, whose Prosecutors are tasked with winning, not with actually finding the truth), is given the option of pleading to a specific charge and agreeing to the imprisonment and/or other punishment entailed therein.  If the accused does not agree, he or she is assured by the State that they will seek the harshest possible sentence available to them under the law, and they have the influence to make it stick.

Some might currently be thinking, “Well, but the accused has the right to legal representation,” and this is, technically, true.  However, the Prosecution works within the criminal justice system every day, all day (except weekends and holidays, of course), and thus knows the ins and outs of the judicial process better than almost anybody else.  They have political pull, they know the judges…and they know the police, who can be relied upon to go along with their prosecution, since the police and the Prosecutors depend upon each other to achieve their goals and thus to move up in their particular careers.  If one has a great deal of money, of course–and I do mean a great deal–one can hire a private defense attorney, but most of those who are brought before the criminal justice system do not fall into that category.  The usual suspects are, instead, relegated to the Public Defender’s office.

I have serious respect for the Public Defenders, as a general rule.  They take on a thankless and even reviled role, which many of them do for purely idealistic reasons, believing (unlike a good fraction of their counterparts) that every person is innocent until proven guilty, and deserves a fair trial with a vigorous defense.  Unfortunately, individual Public Defenders tend to have ridiculous numbers of cases–measuring into the hundreds at a time–and lower budgets than the Prosecutors’ offices have.  This fact, of course, runs counter, in principle, to the very idea of “innocent until proven guilty”.  If we were living by that moral code as a society, we would surely give our Public Defenders better resources than their opponents, who after all have their own budgets in addition to the help of local law enforcement.

According to the Constitutional Rights Foundation, more than 90% of all criminal cases never go to trial, but are instead settled with a plea bargain.  This is often seen as a good thing for the defendant, a way for them to reduce their potential sentence.  However, what it really represents is a means by which the State can achieve the conviction of an accused citizen without ever having to go to the trouble of proving their case.  This is especially true when the accused comes from a lower socio-economic background, but it is by no means confined to that group. Any person who finds him or herself brought before the courts is, of course, terrified…especially one who is innocent, ironically enough.  Even the reasonably wealthy do not have resources in the same league as the vast, monolithic, and merciless machine which is the State’s criminal justice system.  The accused in a criminal proceeding faces a dilemma rather akin to being given the choice of either playing a round of Russian roulette or being shot outright.  It is impossible for a defendant to make a rational, honest decision in his or her own best interest in such a situation.  And though Defense attorneys are there to help, they are, as I said, overworked and underfunded.  In addition, Defenders have to see and work with the Prosecutors day in and day out.  They tend not to make waves over what they see as minor cases, because they might want or need a favor in the future on some case of greater political import.  This is not done out of some moral failing on their part; it is done out of simple, brutal necessity.

When an accused makes his (or her) statement before a judge, announcing that he is pleading guilty to a particular charge, as part of a plea bargain, he is asked by the judge if he has been threatened or otherwise coerced into making this plea.  Of course, if he answers anything other than “No,” he will not have his plea bargain available any more, and he can rest assured that the Prosecution will be livid, and will pursue his ruin with even greater fervor than they might have otherwise.  Yet to pose the question at all is a sick joke, for the true answer is always and inescapably “Yes.”  A defendant who accepts a plea bargain always does so under threat–and it is a threat of force, since it entails being taken to prison in shackles, by armed men and women, and being held there against his will a long period of time.  It is a rare situation indeed in which a person would plead guilty without being under such a threat.  The accused knows that truly fair trials are very few and far between, especially for those who do not have a great deal of money, and for those in ethnic minorities.  He almost always–90% of the time, anyway–takes the seeming lesser of the two evils on offer.

If our society does not have the resources to give a full and fair trial to every person who is accused of a crime, then rather than institute a biased, extortionist, abusive system of plea bargains, we should simply not opt to arrest and prosecute so many people.  There are real crimes to prosecute; we should apply appropriate resources to those crimes, and this includes providing for the actual fair trials of the defendants.  We should never bully or railroad any American citizen into a prison sentence under threat of a worse one.

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I will be writing more about this subject, and other aspects of the criminal justice system, in the future, between posts about my fiction.  I encourage you to respond with comments, and share your views and experiences, whether you agree or disagree with me.  I, in turn, will do my best to engage in honest conversation with you.

The Treatment Trap

In America today, we rely far too much on pills and on procedures–on would-be “cures” for our problems–than we really should.

It may seem strange for a medical doctor like me to be saying this, but I have insight into the issue from multiple perspectives.  I’ve been one of the doctors who falls into the trap of trying to “treat” every issue rather than prevent or solve it, and I’ve been a patient who approaches things the same way.

The irony is that a great many of the health problems we face in the modern world–especially the most rampant and devastating ones, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and their related problems and consequences–are governable simply by modifying our lifestyles.  Indeed, for many of us, these health concerns’ very existence AS problems is only CAUSED by our modern lifestyles.  I’ve already discussed in some earlier entries the mechanisms and effects of type 2 diabetes, a disorder which is becoming more and more endemic in our nation, and at younger and younger ages.  It’s absolutely clear why this is happening:  We are more sedentary and more overweight and we eat more rapidly absorbed carbohydrates than humans have ever done before in our existence.  What’s more, thanks to public health interventions and control of infectious diseases, we live long enough for these habits to matter more than they could have in the past.  We also know, quite well, many of the things that we can do to counter diabetes and its close relatives, hypertension and heart disease. Yet, instead, we allow our health to deteriorate and then rush to modern medicine to seek “cures” or at least treatments for the outcomes of our bad habits.

I suspect that this trap of habits was set for us, to some degree, by the brilliant innovation and success of antibiotics.  These are the quintessential medical cures:  When used against an infection caused by a sensitive bacteria, antibiotics actually CURE the problem (with the help of our own immune system).  To some degree anti-virals do the same, though they are more recent, and anti-parasitic agents are also analogous.

Unfortunately, most other kinds of medicines–unless you count the occasional Tylenol or Motrin to treat a tension headache or muscle soreness–don’t actually cure anything.  They simply “treat” it, governing the symptoms and consequences to some degree or other, but not addressing whatever underlying processes might be contributing to the issues.  In addition, they give the patient the illusion that the problem is now under real control.

There are, of course, times, when health problems are not soluble or easily controllable, and managing the symptoms and consequences is the very best we can do, at least for now.  So PLEASE do not think that I am advocating the elimination of Western medicine or that those being treated for chronic health conditions should just give up their pills and let nature take its course.  Yet with so many health problems, even if we have to resort to medication, we can also make lifestyle and behavioral changes that will mitigate our problems and decrease, though not always eliminate, the need for medications (and surgery, when applicable).

We all know, or should know, that taking medicine can be a double-edged sword.  Medications sometimes create new issues of their own.  The human body is an incredibly complex system–arguably the most complicated thing in the known universe, especially when you count the human brain–and when you manipulate such a  system in one way or location, unexpected consequences almost never fail to arise.  This leads to the horrible spectacle of patients receiving medication for one problem, but developing side-effects, which then need to be treated by other medications, and which cause toxicities and interactions that later have to be addressed.  The whole affair can become a vicious cycle of increasing biological chaos, like a metabolic Rube Goldberg machine.  In the elderly especially, it can sometimes be all but impossible to be certain whether new health problems are intrinsic or are caused by earlier treatments.

We try, of course, to mitigate and avoid this conundrum by studying medications as carefully as possible and learning what their possible side-effects are…but every human body is different, and that’s going to continue to be the case, since the number of possible genetically unique humans is vastly greater than the number of human beings who have ever lived.  So we can be guaranteed that the one expectation we can reliably entertain is the UNEXPECTED.

It is better by far to avoid developing problems whenever possible rather than trying to treat them.  This is true because it is simpler and more predictable, and also because it makes life better.  Rather than being a person who identifies themselves by their litany of ailments, for which they build their house-of-cards treatment regimens, we can work to maintain lifestyles that are GOOD for our health, that work with our natures, and that help us to think of ourselves as–and to feel like–healthy, vital and thriving human beings.

Medicines are indeed wonderful products of modern science and technology, and I strongly suspect that they have saved and improved many more lives than they have harmed, even despite what I’ve said above.  If I didn’t think that, I wouldn’t have gone into medicine.  Yet, it would be even better if we could avoid having the need for medications as often as possible in the first place.

I’m going to discussing more of this in future entries.  I’ll go into some fairly obvious lifestyle issues such as exercise and diet, but I’m also going to explore philosophical and psychological aspects of health that can make a great difference in not only how long you live, but also in how much you enjoy the time you have.

A life of a hundred years can be a tragedy and a life of a single day can be a triumph.  It all depends on what kind of life it is.