Archive for the ‘ Thoughts & Musings ’ Category

Our Bizarre Handling of “Debts to Society”

Fair warning: Madison Opera has asked me to come write about one of their new shows again, so that experience will be informing the next couple of posts here on MA101.

If you’ve been reading for at least a year, you may remember last April’s Don Giovanni live-blog. Since the current show is Dead Man Walking, a contemporary opera based on the real-life story of Sister Helen Prejean’s work with prisoners sentenced to death at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, coverage will be a little less light-hearted this time around (although in an ironic twist, Dead Man Walking would be a perfectly appropriate alt-title for Don Giovanni, too).

So here are some heavy thoughts in anticipation of further heavy thoughts about crime, punishment, America’s criminal justice system, and all that.


Justice statueThe idea of retributive justice for crimes, especially violent crimes, is about as old as human civilization. So is crime, which suggests that retributive justice isn’t a great deterrent.

Seriously. I’m all for experimental social science, up to a point, but we’ve been trying to prevent anti-social behaviors like murder, theft, etc. by demanding equal retribution (or as close to it as the law can approximate) for at minimum 4000 years now.

The data does not show this system as working very well.

Retributive justice hasn’t actually come that far since the Code of Hammurabi. Probably the biggest evolution is that these days we try to legally codify victims out of the equation, and treat penalties other than monetary compensation for provable expenses as part of a “debt to society” rather than an act of personal vengeance carried out by officers of the law. (Not that you won’t hear impassioned cries for vengeance in most prosecutors’ closing arguments.)

That has the conscience-soothing effect of making punishments more impersonal — it’s not your legal opponent or the jailer or the executioner punishing you; it’s society! — but it also suggests that society has a stake in the punishment.

And if that’s the case, shouldn’t we also get a say?


Here is the reality of a convicted criminal’s “debt to society”: it is something that you, a random member of society, will never, ever be paid.

In fact, you’re paying for it. Locking people up is expensive. The average cost of incarcerating a federal prisoner in America for one year was just under $29,000 in 2011; it’s probably gone up slightly since then.

So if, to use the common phrase, a convicted felon is released after “paying his debt to society” with 25 years behind bars, society (meaning you and your fellow taxpayers) has actually ponied up three-quarters of a million dollars, give or take, as punishment for his crime.

Which begs the question: how many of you really feel like you’re getting your money’s worth on that deal?


What do we really get when we lock a prisoner up?

There are three basic arguments: security (potential threats need to be kept away from members of society), deterrence (demonstrating penalties will scare other potential offenders into following the law), and pure retribution (people who have made other people suffer should, as a moral imperative, be made to suffer).


Of the three, security is the most compelling. You don’t want a demonstrably violent offender running around the streets with access to weaponry; you don’t want a proven thief out there unsupervised. In the short term, some people genuinely do need to be separated from the rest of society, at least until the causes underlying their initial crime against society have been analyzed and corrected. In some cases that’s quite easy; in others it’s not, and would require a substantial social service infrastructure working on behalf of convicted criminals.

But if you can get to that point — if you can remove any motivation to commit crimes – there’s no longer a security-based need for incarceration. At that point any further imprisonment is wasted expense, at least from a security standpoint.

As far as creating a secure society goes, money spent on eliminating root causes of crime is a better investment than money spent on long-term incarceration.


So then we have deterrence, or the idea that people are less likely to commit crimes when they know they will be imprisoned or harmed if they get caught.

It’s a fairly easy notion to dismiss; the evidence against it is all around us. We’ve been mandating death or imprisonment for violent criminals, as I said, for literally as long as recorded history, and violent criminals are with us still.

The very best anyone can do is argue that retributive penalties reduce serious crime through deterrence, and if that’s your bag you can make a nice career out of compiling case studies and statistics for or against varying degrees of harshness.

But any argument along those lines willfully ignores the larger picture, which is that overall the method does not work. It just doesn’t. The same basic crimes are still plaguing human societies 4000 years since Hammurabi’s time. Punishing criminals, in and of itself, is demonstrably not a sufficient solution, and anyone who wants to actually eliminate crime has to look beyond simple deterrence.


Which leaves us with the third and most distasteful argument for hurting or imprisoning people in the name of justice: that they deserve it in a pure and moral sense; that someone who has harmed society is inherently in need of punishment regardless of its practical effect.

Human history gives us deep cause to be wary of any group consensus that decides some people inherently deserve punishment. Pick your horror story: honor killings, stonings, sodomy laws, the Holocaust; whatever.

Any argument based on the idea that there are some behaviors or characteristics which automatically mandate a punishment regardless of circumstance relegates some subset of humanity to second-class citizen status. I’d like to think most of us are uncomfortable with that idea.


So where does that leave us?

With an inadequate notion of how society should be repaid by its offenders, mostly.

The blunt reality is this: beyond the short-term need for public safety, incarceration provides little benefit to society as a whole. (Execution, the theme of Dead Man Walking, provides even less, and additionally burdens the society that performs it with an inherent barbarism and hypocrisy, but that’s a subject for another day.)

If we really want to think about crimes as being committed “against society,” rather than against individuals, then we also need to think about how society can be repaid in ways that benefit everyone — including the criminals, who are, after all, members of society themselves.

Right now, we’re not doing that. The only people being repaid are the increasingly privatized owners and operators of our prison system, and you should really be asking yourselves what they did to deserve a cut of the money every time someone gets convicted of a crime.

Because right now, it’s not just the convicts who are paying that elusive “debt to society” — and it’s not society that’s getting paid.


A Case Against the “Hallelujah Chorus” at Easter Services

Retrato_de_HandelAll right, ministers and church music directors everywhere.

Let me start out by saying, I feel your pain. I get it. I understand the trend, I really do.

Attendance is down, costs are up, and you get two days a year to try and impress the casual churchgoers enough that they come back for boring ol’ non-Easter, non-Christmas services.

That means breaking out the big guns for C&E. I get it!

But trust me on this one: the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah is not your friend.

Sure, it’s a crowd-pleaser. Sure, everyone knows it. And no one can deny that it’s dramatic.

Trouble is, it’s also hard to sing. Not by the standards of professional choruses, maybe, but it’s a big piece with multiple parts going in multiple directions at once. Novices are going to get confused and wander all over the place, trying desperately to find the familiar melody they know from TV commercials regardless of where their voice is actually supposed to be.

A talented organist using his instrument to its full capabilities can play most of those parts at once, giving everyone at least some guidance, but let’s be honest here — how many churches these days really have both an organist and an organ that can rise to the challenge?

Even if your congregants can find the right part, the singing is fairly challenging for an amateur with a cold start. These aren’t the hardest parts in all of choral music, but they do require a good sense of pitch and a strong set of pipes to get where you need to be and sound good while you’re there. (I, for example, can easily hit even the lowest notes of the bass part, but only in a savage growl more suited to Rammstein than Handel.)

And as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the “Hallelujah Chorus” isn’t even about Easter. (Seriously, it’s not. Look it up. Some Day of Judgement shit going on there.)

So let it go. Drop the Handel singalong from the Easter program — please.

There’s plenty of good, hearty, brass-quintet-friendly Easter stuff in the hymnal. Flip through it and find some.

The urge to impress on Easter is understandable, but trust me, untrained voices floating all over the place in search of their “And he shall reigns” is anything but impressive.


We need a word for that last little bit of sleep, after you’ve woken up and said “fuck it” and gone back to sleep.

I like that part.

Language Learning and the Words That Escape You

There’s a whole genre of “How to Learn a Language in X Days” webpages out there, and they’re surprisingly entertaining.

Not useful, mind you, but entertaining. Something about the juxtaposition of phrases like “it’s easy!” and “you can too!” with advice like “practice with a tutor for at least four hours a day” and “travel to a country where this is the majority language” just tickles me.

Like…yeah, absolutely. Anyone can learn a new language, if they don’t have to work, and can travel at leisure. I could do a lot of things if I had that kind of time and money.

So like most people, I ignore the scammy and/or over-enthusiastic webpages out there, and just bumble along with some language software and recorded lessons, which does well enough for an unpaid hobby.

And I’ve noticed something over time: no matter what the language is, or how I’m learning it, there are always a handful of words that just will not stick, no matter what I do.

I’m trying to pin down the rhyme and reason. I am deeply curious to know what combination of sounds, parts of speech, and god knows what other factors it is that makes a few specific things constantly impossible to memorize.

Or maybe it’s just psychological: my most recent bugbear has been the Dari word for “friend.” I can remember everything else I’ve learned since I started, just about, but that one is always a gaping hole in my memory whenever I reach for it. Says something about my subconscious priorities, doesn’t it?

And the Banks are Made of Wood Veneer

I had the odd experience of visiting a Chase bank location today (odd, because I’ve been at a hippie-ass local credit union since moving to Wisconsin, and occasionally need reminders of how most of America does its financial business and how shitty that is).

The whole place seemed like the love child of a low-rent dentist’s office in a strip mall and the prison cell from Star Trek Into Darkness: fake wood counters with inch-thick glass windows above them. Guns wouldn’t do robbers much good, but a decent Sawzall could probably have them in and out in five minutes, with a cheap reproduction of a Monet in the trunk as an added bonus.

dum-dum-popsFor me, though, the encapsulating image was the bowls of lollipops behind the bulletproof glass.

Yes, behind. Each teller had a bowl of Dum-Dums at her workstation, generally backed up against the glass and hidden from her view by stacks of envelopes or manilla folders.

The wrappers had dust on them. The bowls were clearly not seeing a lot of use.

But they were still there, so that you could gaze at them through the inch-thick glass and fondly remember the days when everything was open-air and you just snagged a lollipop out of the bowl while your check was being cashed (or snagged five or six, if you were a little kid putting pennies in your first savings account and/or a stoned college kid with some munchies to feed).

There was something very telling about the whole thing, no pun intended. It’s not like some Chase official sat down somewhere and decided to cut the bowls of free lollipops. Some of the tellers might even occasionally remember that they’re there and throw a couple Dum-Dums under the slit in the glass along with your receipt. Like customer service in general, they’re still something the company thinks is probably a good idea — just not at the expense of other, higher-priority issues.

If only we might own those banks of marble, with their guards at every door, and share the bowls of candy that we have sweated for:

Obamacare in Wisconsin: Competitive, Market-Based Solution Seems to Lack Competitive Markets

obamacareRemember how, for a brief shining moment back in the early 2000s, there were a few Congressfolk pushing for a universal, government-run health care system?

And remember how instead we got Obamacare, a center-right blueprint dreamed up by the conservative Heritage Foundation as a market-driven reform?

It turns out that competitive markets only keep prices down when there is, you know, competition, which Wisconsin’s exchanges are currently lacking.

Individual purchasers (like yours truly) have their choice of one “bronze” plan, three “silver” plans, three “gold” plans, and no “platinum” plans on — all offered by the same insurance provider. And yes, they’re considerably more expensive than the pre-exhange plans offered by that same company (one of which I’ve held for the last year or so, in the interests of full disclosure).

But thank god I don’t have to face a government monopoly on my health care. That private monopoly might still be a monopoly, but at least I have my FREEDOM!

It’s Surprisingly Hard to Make a Compelling Case Against Bestiality

So, this one popped up on a “most popular” sidebar yesterday, which is not even a little bit surprising. If ever there were a click-baiting headline, “North Carolina Soldier and Wife Charged with Making Dog Porn” would be it.

leda-and-the-swan-in-the-palace-of-fesch-ajaccioBut in clicking past the Huffington Post piece to some actual journalistic coverage, I noticed that the couple was charged with “crimes against nature,” an ominously euphemistic phrase that prompted some unsettling reflections on my part, and, eventually, an equally-unsettling conclusion: the people in question probably shouldn’t be punished for involving a dog in their sex life.

The biggest problem for me is that North Carolina’s crimes against humanity statue is short, old-fashioned, and almost hopelessly vague: “If any person shall commit the crime against nature, with mankind or beast, he shall be punished as a Class I felon.”

So, wow, okay. Yeah. You can tell that one was written in 1868, back when people just nodded grimly and knew exactly what you meant when you said “the crime against nature.”

But given that North Carolina case law has, at varying points in the state’s history, upheld that definition to include both giving and receiving heterosexual anal or oral sex, all forms of homosexual intercourse, cunnilingus, analingus, and “the inserting of an object into a person’s genital opening,” you can see where enforcing it — and defending its constitutionality — might be a problem in this day and age.

Which brings us to an interesting pass, with this little local interest story out of Raeford, NC. The distribution of pornography charge is one matter, but did a “crime against nature” occur? If so, what was it?

Because let’s be blunt here — if sticking an animal’s willy into something is a crime against nature, our entire farm industry has some serious problems. We jerk animals off, we stick big turkey-baster looking things into their vaginas; if we’re feeling old-school we lock them in a pen together and force them to mount one another. Consent does not really come into it, because hey, they’re just animals.

Khajuraho-Lakshmana_Temple_erotic_detail3For that matter, we don’t usually ask their consent before killing and eating them, either.

So it’s tough to make a case against bestiality based on the idea that it’s wrong to treat the animal that way. I’m sure there could be zoophiliac interactions that were so traumatic they constituted animal abuse, just like there can be human sexual interactions that are so traumatic we call them abuse or assault, but that’s a question of force applied, not of the inherent act itself — and it would be an animal abuse charge, not a crime against nature.

Which leaves us with what — that it’s squicky that people enjoy doing something like that?

Sure. I’m on board with that — it is squicky. I am discomfited by the idea. But I don’t think it’s hard for any of us to see the problems with punishing private acts just because they make us uncomfortable.

If everyone involved is consenting (all the humans, that is, because we obviously don’t give a rip about the consent of animals in any other situation involving our power over them) and there’s no money changing hands, is there really a case to be made that bestiality is a “crime against nature”? Pretty much the only thing you’re legislating at that point is what people should and shouldn’t enjoy.

And sure — enjoying sex with a dog is pretty gross. But people feel that way about lots of other, more popularly defensible sex acts, too. You can’t really go around stopping harmless behavior just ’cause it’s gross.

Or you can — but you just might have to resign yourself to being a bit of a hypocrite.

Awkward to think about, isn’t it? Thanks, North Carolina. The news out of you always makes me feel a little weird.

What a Losing Side Looks Like

I wandered over to a Madison Pride Fest event this weekend, which I think is different from just plain Madison Pride, and also other queer things like Fruit Fest — it’s hard to keep them all straight these days (hur hur hur, get it, straight?).

Anyway, this one was less of a glitter-strewn rally with floats and nipple tassels, and more of a neighborhood potluck in a park by one of our lakes. It was maybe a little more colorful than your average block party, and there were a few pamphlet-and-petition tables for various good works groups, but all in all it was a pretty low-key, suburban-whitebread kind of scene.

And then there were the six old guys standing in the sun a few hundred yards away, holding up oversized “GOD HATES HOMOS” signs.

Six of them. Total. Not a one under the age of fifty. Silently sweating their pure, manly balls off wearing blue jeans and work shirts in the August sun, while a couple dozen queers in comfy slacks and dresses danced and ate picnics and chatted with their neighbors in the shade.

I didn’t have a camera capable of capturing the whole scene, or for that matter even just the spread-out line of creepy churchy dudes, but taken as a whole it made about the best illustration I can imagine of what it looks like to be on the wrong side of history.

You gotta wonder about people who don’t have anything better to do with their time.

In an interesting footnote, about half of the aforementioned pamphlet-and-petition tables were churches advertising their gay-friendly bona fides. Having seen a couple churches’ attendance struggles firsthand, I can’t blame ‘em for reaching out, but it was another moment of recognizing just how incredibly out of place the guys with the “SAVE TRADITIONAL MARRIAGE” signs were. I dunno what church they all belonged to, but it’s a little outnumbered.

Maybe just go home and work on your marriages, guys. I bet the wives would enjoy a Saturday outing that doesn’t involve signs and scowling.

Air Travel: The Free Market Microcosm

When I headed out to California last week it was the first time I’d boarded an airplane in five years or so.

The visuals have gotten a lot slicker. Our whole airplane was dimly lit in cool blues and purples, sort of like a jazz bar, right down to the frosty glass (well, plastic, but you know) partitions dividing First Class from the rest of us.

Everything looked very new and shiny, with lots of smooth white plastic (very WALL-E, especially with the screens mounted in front of everyone’s faces). The seats weren’t actually all that padded, but did have contours in the shape of pads.


But visuals aside, the big thing I noticed flying was this: everything is for sale.

No, really. Everything.

Want an exit row seat? Get there early and ask — and hope that the rows haven’t already filled up in advance with people who paid extra to be seated there. Also maybe hope that the people who paid extra to be seated there are capable of opening the doors in case of an actual emergency, because it’s not like the internet checked.

Entertainment in-flight? Rent a pair of headphones and then choose from on-demand movies, some of which are free and some of which (the good stuff) you pay for.

WiFi in flight, $10 an hour. Enter your credit card number on your phone, laptop, or tablet.

Drinks and food, available full service. Order on the screen in front of you and — I’m not making this up – swipe your credit card through the built-in slot. You could even buy a drink for someone else, using their seat number, which, creepy.

And maybe my favorite part of all of this — you of course watch a video these days instead of a real person telling you to buckle your seat belts and put your breath mask on before helping others with theirs, which fine; no one pays attention anyway. And during that video you can’t turn your screen off, which also fine — the airline is required to at least pretend that they made you watch this. So no manual override (during the rest of the flight you could turn the screen entirely off, which I did, apart from occasional map-checks for fun).

But immediately following that safety video, during which the screens are locked on, the airline showed three commercials, which you also couldn’t turn off. You literally had to watch Crate&Barrel and Prudential Financial shilling their wares, as if it were federally mandated. Only after those (and an invitation to shop some sort of weird EBay/SkyMall hybrid) did you regain control of your screen.

It’s all a little terrifying. We have some things which would be nice if they were complimentary, but if the airline wants to sell them fine — drinks, entertainment, etc. That’s their business choice.

But we also have some things that really shouldn’t be for sale, like safety features and airtime shared with government-mandated viewing.

It’s all very capitalism-run-wild, and the result isn’t something I like very much. And that’s all before you take into account the usual hassles of screaming babies, late flights, and so on (we ended up delayed for an hour and a half because we had a plane, but our airline didn’t have a flight crew for it, and had to fly one in from a nearby airport).

Summary: if it’s another five years before I fly, it’ll be too soon.

Generation Y Doesn’t Buy Houses Because Houses Have Been a Giant Con All Our Lives

evacuation-sale-1930s-signNow, I realize I read The Wall Street Journal and therefore have a very warped view of what people older than me are thinking, but seriously, can we stop pondering what it’s going to take to get my generation buying homes to stoke the ol’ housing market?

Because there is a lot of time and ink going into this problem, let me tell you, and the answer is none of the things you might see in the pages of, say, The Wall Street Journal.

People my age are not renting longer and avoiding home ownership because we like to move more, or enjoy urban lifestyles, or are lazy little shits, or whatever.

We’re renting because buying a home is a big fat con that will devour your life savings and leave you homeless. From Reuters this week:

Six former Bank of America Corp employees have alleged that the bank deliberately denied eligible home owners loan modifications and lied to them about the status of their mortgage payments and documents.

The bank allegedly used these tactics to shepherd homeowners into foreclosure, as well as in-house loan modifications. Both yielded the bank more profits than the government-sponsored Home Affordable Modification Program, according to documents recently filed as part of a lawsuit in Massachusetts federal court.

The former employees, who worked at Bank of America centers throughout the United States, said the bank rewarded customer service representatives who foreclosed on homes with cash bonuses and gift cards to retail stores such as Target Corp and Bed Bath & Beyond Inc.

For example, an employee who placed 10 or more accounts into foreclosure a month could get a $500 bonus. At the same time, the bank punished those who did not make the numbers or objected to its tactics with discipline, including firing.

I’m told that, once upon a time, people used the phrase “safe as houses” to mean an investment upon which one could rely? If you are an American under 35 or so it’s just a punchline. Banks foreclosed wrongfully — not total foreclosures, mind you, just wrongful ones — on four million people in America in 2009-2010.

So why, assuming I’m one of the rare twenty-somethings who found a full-time job with benefits and amassed enough savings for a non-negative credit rating, would I ever want to go out and put that money into a house?

Maybe if the seller is offering it cash on the barrel, no banks involved. Beyond that, forget it.

At the point where banks are paying their employees to rob you, there’s not much reason to do business with them that doesn’t involve ski masks and getaway cars. But hey, on the bright side, a lot of us Gen Ys are looking for fallback careers right now…


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