Randy Myers's Profile > Messages Posted

Subject: Should Politicians Vote their Conscience?

Forum: Should Politicians Vote their Conscience?
In early October, Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat in staunchly Republican West Virginia, announced that he would vote to put Judge Brett Kavanaugh on the U.S. Supreme Court.

It is impossible to know whether, in his heart of hearts, Manchin bought what he said—that while he believed Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s claim that she was sexually assaulted as a teenager, he didn’t believe the facts showed, as Ford alleged, that it was Kavanaugh who assaulted her. What is clear is that in crossing party lines (no other Democrat voted to advance Kavanaugh), Manchin voted the way a majority of his constituents would have wanted—and probably improved his chances of getting reelected when his term expires in 2019.

All of which raises an old but always relevant question: Should elected officials vote with their conscience or their constituents—or simply with their party?

When the nation’s founders created our bicameral legislature—a Congress with two chambers, the House of Representatives and the Senate—they believed members of the House would align themselves more closely with the will of the people, since they would have to stand for reelection by a smaller group of people every two years. They anticipated that senators, then chosen by state legislatures—and then and now serving six-year terms— would have more freedom to vote as they saw fit.

It hasn’t necessarily worked out that way. Senators have been elected directly by voters since the enactment of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, and today must work just as hard, if not harder, to stay in the electorate’s good graces.

In modern times, Prof. John G. Matsusaka of the University of California has studied what politicians actually do, and has concluded that legislators follow the will of the majority of their constituents about 65 percent of the time, according to a working paper he published in 2017. But Matsuska also found that when a politician’s personal views differ from those of the people who put him into office, the politician is overwhelmingly likely to follow his or her own interests, beliefs and ideologies.

What do you think? Should politicians elected to Congress vote in line with their party, with what the majority of people who put them into office want them to do, or based on what they think is best for their country? Why?

Subject: The National Anthem: Does It Belong in Sports?

Forum: The National Anthem: Does It Belong in Sports?
This week’s challenge does not call into question the sacrosanctity of mom, flag, or apple pie.

But it comes close.

Let us consider the playing of the national anthem before sporting events—a tradition that started in this country with Major League baseball—and whether it should continue.

First, some history. Baseball has been played in the U.S. since at least the late 1700s and began operating under modern rules in the 1800s, which is also when professional leagues sprang up. The anthem wasn’t routinely played before games prior to 1918, however. That year, with the nation’s mood soured by World War I, the U.S. Navy Band decided to play the Star-Spangled Banner during the seventh-inning stretch of Game 1 of that year’s World Series in Chicago between the Cubs and the Boston Red Sox. It seemed to lift the crowd’s mood. Other baseball parks began playing the song on special occasions, and the Red Sox soon made it a regular part of their home games. In 1931, the song was officially designated the U.S. national anthem. At the end of World War II, NFL Commissioner Elmer Layden ordered it played at every NFL game. The practice soon spread to other sports.

Since the summer of 2016, of course, the playing of the anthem before NFL football games has become a source of controversy, as some NFL players have used the occasion to peacefully protest, typically by kneeling or raising a fist, what they believe to be police brutality and racial inequity in the U.S. Pressured by President Trump, the league earlier this year established a policy requiring players to stand if they are on the field during the national anthem—while also giving them the option of remaining in the locker room during that time. This compromise hasn’t made people on either extreme of the debate happy.

Writer Colin Fleming, a regular guest on NPR’s Weekend Edition, has proposed a radical solution: Don’t play the national anthem before sporting events, just as we don’t play it before movies, plays, concerts, dance recitals and other forms of entertainment. Sports for most Americans exist specifically to be a diversion, he argues, and the playing of the anthem should be “reserved for matters of great consequence."

"When we kick off a sporting event in the same manner as a graduation ceremony at the Air Force Academy," he adds, "perspective is lost.”

What do you think? Should we continue to play the national anthem before every sporting event? Why or why not?

Subject: Should Actor's Gender/Sexuality Matter in Casting?

Forum: Should Actor's Gender/Sexuality Matter in Casting?
Actress Scarlett Johansson’s recent casting as a transgender woman in “Rub and Tug” drew complaint from the LGBTQ community, which said a trans actor should have been hired. Johannson subsequently withdrew from the production.

Was this right?

Actors are routinely hired for a variety of reasons. Are they good at their craft? Right for the role? Popular enough to drive box office? This often results in hiring actors whose roles contrast with their real lives: the likeable Bryan Cranston playing ruthless drug dealer Walter White in “Breaking Bad,” straight actors Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal playing gay lovers in “Brokeback Mountain,” and cisgender (non-trans) actor Jeffrey Tambor playing a transgender woman on “Transparent.” It’s hard to believe the producers of “Rub and Tug” didn’t see Johansson as both a capable actress and a star who could add to the film’s commercial appeal.

Members of the trans community say that didn’t make the decision right. They argue that it’s unlikely any cisgender actor could portray the challenges of being transgender as well as one who has lived the experience. They charge that since trans actors are almost never considered for cisgender roles, not being hired for trans roles makes it almost impossible to earn a living. Gay actors sometimes voice similar concerns.

Transgender filmmaker Nevi Lee Cline warns that hiring cisgender actors for transgender roles perpetuates the idea that transgender people aren’t genuine. “If your idea of a trans man is Scarlett Johansson, that reveals that you think trans people’s genders are somehow fake, that they are performances. That a trans man is really a woman,” Cline told writer Danielle Solzman for the website Film. “Every time a cis person is cast in a trans role of the opposite gender, it reinforces this idea to the audience, the idea that trans people are ‘deceivers,’ which is an idea that contributes to violence against trans people.”

White minstrel performers once appeared in blackface—stereotypical caricatures of blacks. Mickey Rooney, made up with taped eyelids and false buck teeth, performed as I.Y. Yunoshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” a role now seen as lessening rather than burnishing his legacy.

Neither would happen today. Should we also stop having non-trans actors star in transgender roles? Or should producers and directors continue to choose the actors they believe—rightly or wrongly—will best contribute to the success of their films?

Subject: Is Jail the Answer to Drug Addiction?

Forum: Is Jail the Answer to Drug Addiction?
We Americans jail our neighbors for all sorts of good reasons: robbery, assault, drug trafficking. Should we also jail them for being addicted to drugs? Sometimes we do—indirectly.

Drug addiction itself isn’t a crime. But judges often make abstention from drugs a condition of probation. And if someone lapses—even if they’ve committed no other crime—it's back behind bars.

Consider Julie Eldred, who, according to a recent New York Times article, was granted probation after stealing jewelry to buy drugs. One condition of her probation: no more drugs. Fair enough; drug use prompted her stealing.

But what happened? Eager to comply, Eldred promptly attended an all-day outpatient drug treatment program. She started taking prescription Suboxone, a drug meant to lessen opiate cravings. When she nonetheless relapsed and snorted fentanyl, she asked for a stronger does of Suboxone and got it. She stayed clean for two days. Then, 11 days after the start of her probation, traces of the fentanyl showed up in her first drug screening, and she was shackled, strip-searched and jailed.

Eldred sued, and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is now weighing whether the drug part of her probation amounted to cruel and unusual punishment for someone with a substance abuse disorder.

Many law enforcement authorities argue such measures reduce drug-related crime. Many addiction specialists say treatment is more effective.

I’m not sure who’s right, but as anyone who’s tried to lose weight and maintain it will tell you, it can be awfully hard to avoid things our bodies crave—even if it’s just a donut. Incidentally, the Times says Eldred has completed her probation and now appears to be doing well—but only after nearly eight months in a drug treatment program.

What do you think? Should judges continue to make abstinence from drugs a condition of probation—under penalty of incarceration?

Suggested reading:

“She Went to Jail for a Drug Relapse. Tough Love or Too Harsh?” The New York Times

“Should Drug Addicts Go to Jail? This Study Says No,” Turnbridge addiction treatment program

“To Treat Drug Addiction, We’ll Still Need Jail Time,” By Ed Gogek, Newsweek

Subject: Illegal Immigration: Separate Kids and Parents?

Forum: Illegal Immigration: Separate Kids and Parents?
Proclaiming a new era of “zero tolerance,” US Attorney General Jeff Sessions has announced the Justice Department will start prosecuting everyone who illegally crosses to the US along our southwestern border. This means parents and kids could be separated while the parents face jail time. Kids would be institutionalized while the US looks for a relative to take them.

"We don't want to separate families, but we don't want families to come to the border illegally and attempt to enter into this country improperly," Sessions said. "The parents are subject to prosecution while children may not be. So, if we do our duty and prosecute those cases, then children inevitably for a period of time might be in different conditions."

Harsh? Perhaps. But supporters say it’s no different from what we do with our own citizens who commit crimes. And, Sessions noted, the new policy would not apply to people who show up at a port of entry requesting asylum.

Immigration rights advocates take a different view. They say Sessions and President Trump are trying to frighten migrants from seeking safe haven in the US, and their policy doesn’t account for whether migrants are fleeing gang warfare or other violence. Nor, they say, has the administration made any attempt to deal with migrant families more humanely. (There’s no law against detaining adults and children together.)

Seth Stodder, a former assistant secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration, and policy director for Customs and Border Protection during the George W. Bush administration, told the New York Times that contrary to Session’s claims of a “massive influx of illegal aliens across our southwest border,” undocumented migrant crossings in fact are at historic lows. And, he said, “brutally separating young children from their parents is not a response worthy of a great and humane nation.”

What do you think? Should we follow Sessions’ policy? Why or why not?

Suggested reading:

“Jeff Sessions: We Will Not Be Stampeded’ by Illegal Immigrants,” by Anna Giaritelli, The Washington Examiner

Subject: Should We Let Food Stamps Be Used for Junk Food?

Forum: Should We Let Food Stamps Be Used for Junk Food?
“Tanya” is a 28-year-old high school dropout and single mother of two. Dealt a tough hand, she’s doing her best, working two part-time jobs. She’s still living in poverty, though, and gets government help via the $74 billion Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (also known as SNAP, or the food stamp program).

This Saturday, Tanya’s having a birthday party for her 10-year-old son and plans to splurge a little, using some of her food stamps to buy cake, ice cream, chips, and soda. Who with a heart would say there’s anything wrong with that?

Tanya isn’t real, but if she were there’d be nothing legally wrong. Food stamps can’t be used for wine, beer, tobacco, or nonfood items ranging from cleaning supplies to cosmetics. But junk food is okay. And when critics call for adding junk food to SNAP’s no-buy list, they’re sometimes criticized themselves—for “shaming” the poor. SNAP participants are only spending about as much on junk food as households that don’t use food stamps, so why single them out for poor food choices?

One answer, of course, is that they’re spending taxpayer dollars. Another is that we’re talking about a lot of junk food. According to the Agriculture Department, SNAP participants spend about 20% of their average $255 monthly benefit on items with little to no nutritional value, including soda, desserts, salty snacks and candy. All in a program founded by Congress to “alleviate … hunger and malnutrition” among low-income households.

Some critics suggest the government ban the use of food stamps for junk food, much the way states limit what can be bought through the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutritional program. Washington Post editorial writer and SNAP supporter Charles Lane is sympathetic to the idea, arguing that it could make the program a smaller target for conservative budget-cutters.

What do you think? Should we make it unlawful to use food stamps to buy chips, soda and candy bars?

Suggested reading:

“How Liberals Undermine the Food Stamp Program,” by Charles Lane, The Washington Post

“Let Them Eat Cake: Why Food Stamp Bans on Junk Food are Misguided,” by Josh Berman, Huffington Post

Subject: Should Teachers Carry Guns in School?

Forum: Should Teachers Carry Guns in School?
A confession. As a little boy, I loved playing outside in my cowboy outfit: hat, boots, holster, toy pistol.

Another confession: As an older boy watching movies on TV, I was glad I didn’t live in the Wild West where people, at least as depicted by Hollywood, routinely walked around with guns on their hips. I was glad I didn’t have to worry about anyone getting into a gunfight while my family was walking around the local mall or sitting down at a restaurant.

Looking back on it, I think was also glad to be living at a time when we, or at least I, thought certain places—schools, churches—were sanctuaries. Bad things didn’t happen in good places, in broad daylight, in 20th century America.

Today we know evil doesn’t respect boundaries. Witness the latest mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead and another 17 wounded. The suspect: a 19-year-old armed with an assault-style rifle. It was the worst of 14 school shootings so far this year in which at least one person was shot.

Now, as our nation tries to figure out how to stop the murder of innocents, our president has called for training teachers to come to work with guns. Yes. In 2018, rather than look for substantive ways to keep guns out of schools, we’re looking for ways to bring more in. It’s hard not to think that rather than running away from the days of the Wild West, we’re running toward them.

I wonder how effective arming teachers would be. I think back to all the teachers I had—kindly grade-school teachers, idealistic young teachers, a few tired teachers—and wonder how many would have had the fortitude and aptitude to add “killing crazy gunmen” to their list of job duties. I also wonder if just knowing there were armed teachers in the school, as President Trump has suggested, would actually keep crazy gunmen out, considering there’s also ample history of armed attacks on military and police facilities.

Clearly, I’m skeptical that putting more guns in schools is the best way to stop shooters. And yet I know there are people who honestly believe that good guys with guns are the only way to stop bad guys with guns.

Who’s right?

Subject: Should Supreme Court Make Union "Dues" Optional?

Forum: Should Supreme Court Make Union "Dues" Optional?
Mark Janus, a child-support specialist for the state of Illinois, doesn’t like paying $45 a month to AFSCME, the union that represents him. So he’s suing. His case—Janus v. AFSCME—is expected to be decided this summer by the U.S. Supreme Court. It will be a controversial decision. Last year, down one member, the court deadlocked 4-4 on a virtually identical case. This year, Neil Gorsuch, the newest justice, will likely break the tie.

Note that Janus is not technically paying union dues. Under existing law, nobody can be forced to join a union or pay its dues. However, where workers are represented by a union, they can be required to pay “fair share” or “agency” fees to help cover the union’s costs for negotiating contracts and representing workers in disputes with employers. The idea: keep people from getting a free ride for what the union provides.

What agency fees don’t cover are costs associated with political activities or organizing employees into a union. Congress has said paying those costs could breach an employee’s constitutional right to free speech by forcing them to fund political activities they may not support.

Janus claims everything a union does is inherently political. If the Supreme Court agrees, workers covered by union contracts everywhere could stop paying agency fees.

Union supporters argue that the organization representing Janus, an arm of the National Right to Work Committee, which is supported by a number of big-name conservative donors, is simply trying to stamp out unions and lower costs for big business—at a time when corporations, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, can spend as much as they want politicking. (Unions can too. But if they take in fewer dues or fees, they would find it difficult.)

It’s easy to argue that workers shouldn’t be required to pay for union activities they don’t support. It’s also easy to argue that if people feel that strongly about not supporting unions, they can work somewhere else.

What do you think? Should the Supreme Court side with Janus or his union?

Suggested Reading:

“For the Third Time, Justices Take on Union-Fee Issue: In Plain English,” by Amy Howe

“Janus v. AFSCME: 5 Things to Know,” by Carolyn Phenicie, The 74

Subject: Do Secret Settlements Enable Sexual Predators?

Forum: Do Secret Settlements Enable Sexual Predators?
Like most people, you were probably shocked by the many claims of sexual harassment lodged against public figures last year. You may have been dismayed, too, to learn that their alleged behaviors in some cases stretched back over decades. How could these things have remained hidden for so long?

As it turns out, some of the accused men escaped public scrutiny—and perhaps were then emboldened to prey on more victims—because they entered into financial settlements with their victims--settlementsthat prevented those victims from talking publicly about their experiences.

These non-disclosure agreements, or NDAs, are now highly controversial. Lawmakers in New York, New Jersey and California are considering limiting their use in cases of sexual misconduct. By making it harder for sexual predators to hide their actions, proponents of such laws say they also would make it harder for predators to continue their bad behavior.

Not everybody agrees. Attorney and women’s rights advocate Areva Martin, for example, has argued that NDAs and secret settlements in many ways benefit victims, allowing them to seek justice without going through the potentially painful process of public proceedings and the possibility of being retaliated against, or ostracized by, past or potential employers. She also contends that without the promise of secrecy, accused predators might no longer agree to sometimes pay large sums of money to their victims as part of their settlements—money the victims may need if their complaints result in the loss of their jobs.

Are such personal concerns valid if those secret settlements make it easier for sexual predators to continue to harm other victims? Should NDAs continue to be allowed in settling sexual misconduct cases, or should they be banned?

Suggested reading:

“How Non-Disclosure Agreements Protect Sexual Predators,” by Daniel Hemel, Vox

“How NDAs Help Some Victims Come Forward Against Abuse,” by Areva Martin, Motto

“How Legal Agreements Can Silence Victims of Workplace Sexual Assault,” by Hiba Hafiz, The Atlantic

Subject: Should We Give Money to Panhandlers?

Forum: Should We Give Money to Panhandlers?
You’re walking down the street, on your way to a night out with friends. So you probably have some cash on you. Ahead, a man sits on the sidewalk, cup in hand, asking for money. Should you give him some?

The compassionate argument is that we should, if we’re able. Circumstance alone suggests the panhandler is worse off than we are—financially, maybe emotionally, maybe psychologically. He likely needs what we can offer more than we do.

The skeptic’s arguments are many. We can’t know how the panhandler will spend the money. On food? Or liquor? Shelter? Or drugs? We also can’t know if the panhandler can’t work, or just doesn’t want to work.

Some people worry that giving money to panhandlers encourages the activity—and who wants to walk a gauntlet of panhandlers at every turn? As an article in The Atlantic noted some years ago, “If you travel to a poor city … you’ll find swarms of beggars by touristy locations. If the tourists become more generous, the local beggars don’t get richer, they only multiply.”

To avoid worrying about how money will be spent, or about encouraging more begging, some people give only to shelters and other charitable organizations. But this doesn’t help the poor and homeless whose mental health issues make them wary of seeking out such help. Taking the compassionate side, Pope Francis said earlier this year that we should just give when we meet panhandlers, and not worry about why they are begging or how they will use the money.

What do you think? Assuming we can afford it, is there any reason not to give panhandlers money? Is doing so that much different from other charitable giving? Finally, when confronted by a panhandler, how do you decide whether or not to give?

Suggested reading:

“Should You Give Money to Homeless People,” The Atlantic

“Should I Give Money to Panhandlers,” The Homeless Hub

“Brother, Should You Spare a Dime? How to Handle a Panhandler,” Money magazine

“The Pope on Panhandling: Give Without Worry,” The New York Times

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