Anatomy of a “Beyoncé Voter”

Fox News host Jesse Watters recently declared that Hillary Clinton would need to win over the “Beyoncé voters” (aka “single ladies”) in order to win an election. While it may be true that Clinton would need to overwhelmingly win over single women at the polls if she decides to run for President in 2016, I’m confused by Watters’s definition of the “Beyoncé voter.”

Watters says that Beyoncé voters “depend on government because they’re not depending on their husbands. They need contraception, health care, and they love to talk about equal pay.” To break it down rhetorically, according to Watters, the criteria of these voters are as follows: single, need contraception, need health care, and enjoy discussing equal pay.

Watters points out that President Obama won single “ladies” (women?) by 76 percent in 2012–and he’s maybe 9 points off, but for argument’s sake, let’s say the premise is correct. This demographic almost certainly includes all female voters who are unmarried. These voters reportedly make up 25 percent of the entire electorate. So my first question is: How does Watters jump in his reasoning from “single” to “dependent on government”–all while implying that the woman has chosen to be both single and dependent on government? Not every unmarried woman is dependent on government. And even if an unmarried woman is dependent on government, how can we assume that it’s because she’s unmarried?

Let me list a few potential ways a woman could be dependent on government and single, without one influencing the other. She could have been impregnated by a man who decided to leave her and left economically unstable due to the child (this would be the man’s fault). She could have lost her job (this would be the economy’s fault). She could have divorced an abusive, unfaithful, or somehow inadequate husband (this could be either the husband’s or circumstances’ fault). She could be a widow (unless she killed her husband, this would be circumstances’ fault, again). There are many more scenarios I could list, but it basically comes down to the Census’s definition of single: never married, divorced, separated, or widowed. But in nearly all of these cases, a woman’s singleness is not necessarily correlated with her level of dependency on the government.

So if we looks at Watters’s original statement about women being economically dependent on government because they’re unmarried, we can see that poor, single women are dependent on government not because they’re single–but perhaps because they lack access to contraceptives at a higher rate than economically stable women and thus more often have children at economically inopportune times. Which brings us to the next criteria: A Beyoncé voter needs contraception.

For this criteria, my question is: What does contraception have to do with being single? Among women of child-bearing age (15-44), the number of married women on contraception outweighs the number of unmarried women on contraception by 10-35 percent (depending on rate of sexual activity disparities between married and unmarried women). So why would a “single lady” care more about contraception than a married woman? By looking at rates of contraception use, they obviously don’t. Avoiding becoming pregnant is almost entirely an economic issue–women use contraception because they and their husbands or families don’t have the means or desire to support a child (or another child).

The third criteria, needing health care, isn’t really unique to single women. In fact, I’d wager that every single human being requires reliable access to quality health care. Every voter ever “needs health care,” so that’s a useless criteria to single out (pun intended) a Beyoncé voter from any other voter.

Being single doesn’t require a person to enjoy discussing equal pay. First of all, just as a preface to this paragraph, equal pay isn’t this crazy notion that people bring up at parties from time to time. It’s something that should exist in the United States of America in the 21st century. Equal pay isn’t one of those far-left communist ideas that needy people are asking for because they don’t want to work. It’s not a political talking point. It’s an embarrassingly obvious economic state of being. Maybe some people are under the impression that pay inequality a myth, but here are other things large groups of people have also argued are myths: the Holocaust, the 1969 moon landing, 9/11, climate change–just to name a few.

Everyone with the same experience doing the same work with the same results must be paid equally–it’s not rocket science. It’s literally common sense. That’s all I’m going to say about it because nothing else really needs to be said about it. Wait, also, it has nothing to do with being single. Plenty of people (male, female, married, unmarried, old, young, President, not president) talk about equal pay. And if we want to link equal pay to being dependent on government, we can do that: Women are more likely than men to be poor and economically dependent in some way on the government. So if you have a problem with “government dependent” single women, how about we try to pay them the same as their male counterparts?

I’m a Beyoncé voter. And I am proud to be a Beyoncé voter. I’m in school, obtaining a world-class education that will eventually lead me to a well-paying job to finance my unmarried life during which I will be single, probably need contraception, definitely need health care, and (hopefully not have to) enjoy talking about equal pay so that I make as much as the guy doing the same exact job that I have. I may be a “single lady” for the foreseeable future, but my lack of husband to depend on will never be an indicator of whether I depend on government–because I’m not planning to have to depend on anyone.


I Eat Ice Cream Cones in Public

At the risk of giving a Buzzfeed listicle too much legitimacy by posting about it, here’s an article that one of my Facebook friends shared this morning. I have two cents burning a hole in my pocket and need to get it out.

This article gives off the impression that all women do take all of these precautions simultaneously and thereby approach life as if it’s a room filled with a web of laser beams. It makes it seems like women are all scared, helpless, and overprotective. And trust me, I know how insensitive it sounds when I say to this article: not all women.

The article seems to be asking for pity and sympathy. While some women may identify with some of the items listed, the notion that everyone else should feel bad for women because the world is purportedly not a safe place is misguided. I don’t feel bad for every child I see just because children have the potential to be abducted by some dude on a playground. I don’t feel bad for every elderly person I see just because old people more likely than anyone else to end up one day in the hospital by no fault of their own. I don’t feel bad for every man I see just because men are more likely than women to end up in jail and (separately) less likely to go to college. If (God forbid) I were ever assaulted, the last thing I’d want would be sympathy. I don’t want anyone to pity me just because I’m a woman.

What good does sympathy do? If anything, pitying people for features beyond their control only perpetuates the conception that women truly ought to fear for their safety and well-being at every turn. My being female does not make me more susceptible to being attacked; rather, running into a malicious and sexist individual makes me more susceptible to being attacked. If we’re going to feel sorry for anyone, let’s choose to feel sorry for that malicious and sexist person. Because that person can control his behavior much more easily than I can control my gender. And because pity should be served to the lowest character for acting low, not to the woman for being female.

If the article is simply trying to raise awareness for the everyday struggles that purportedly exclusively affect women. But again, I take issue with the idea that all women must feel this way by virtue of being women. Some women clearly struggle with the items listed because the items were actually provided by many different women based on their personal experiences. There are so many people in general who avoid things because they’re scared of them.

Now, here comes my piece on statistics, probability, and logic. First, the vast majority of women will never be assaulted or raped, meaning that taking lengthy precautions (like not getting in a subway car because there aren’t any women in it already) is, more likely than not, totally unnecessary. Second, being assaulted once does not increase a person’s likelihood of being assaulted again–because first, it has nothing to do with them and everything to do with the attackers, and second, each assault is an independent event that has, statistically speaking, virtually no impact on the likelihood of future events. Therefore, even if a woman has been assaulted once, it would be illogical for her to change her behavior to lessen her chances of being assaulted again because it wasn’t her fault in the first place.

Because isn’t that what we’ve all been trying to explain to the sexist slut-shamers who maintain that female victims could’ve done something differently to avoid being attacked? It’s the attackers’ problem. Not the woman’s. Something the article does suggest is that women shouldn’t have to take such extreme precautions to avoid danger, which is exactly my point. But here’s the point that the article makes that I wholeheartedly disagree with: “These [precautions] are things that men often don’t have to think about, that men take for granted, that men simply don’t have to consider as they go about their lives. And they’re things that take up a shocking amount of time, strength, and emotional bandwidth to negotiate.” This statement is the one that asks for pity and sympathy. It asks men to think about how hard women have it. How it’s “exhausting” to constantly think of ways to avoid things that might possibly be dangerous.

The world can be dangerous. But here’s my problem: If it’s dangerous, it’s dangerous for everyone. And you’re not lessening your chance of being assaulted when you decide to stay sober when you’re out with your friends. You’re not less likely to be attacked when you forget to hold your keys out as a potential “makeshift weapon.” Your chances of being raped do not diminish when you eat ice cream out of a bowl versus out of a cone in public (really?). If it needs reiteration, the only thing that increases a woman’s chance of being attacked is if an attacker attacks her. If we, as sane people against rape, want to practice what we preach, shouldn’t we not only internalize but act on the popular notion that a woman’s behavior should not dictate whether she is raped? The moment a women chooses to change her behavior to avoid being attacked and indeed becomes “exhausted” by it, the assholes of the world win.

Now for a personal story. Here are the important details: I am a woman. I have the biology of a woman. I happen to be particularly well-endowed on top, just to give you an idea, because it’ll matter in a second. I like wearing dresses. I like wearing shorts that barely cover my thighs. I lived in a densely-populated Boston suburb for 18 years, and then I moved to Washington, DC, where I’ve lived for the past three years. I went to public school. I attend college. I have had countless jobs and internships located in both urban Boston and downtown Washington. Now I’m going to rattle off the list of 29 things women reportedly avoid–and I’m going to truthfully state that I have done almost all of them. And I will moreover say that doing the vast majority of these things has never even occurred to me.

  1. I’ve gotten drunk (sorry future employers, I’m only human). In public. With friends from school. With friends I’ve just met. With random strangers. I am 21 years old and way too young and fresh-faced to to let paranoia stop me from having fun.
  2. Granted, I’m not usually the frat party type, and I’ve only been 21 since April so I’m not a bar veteran–but I have from time to time left a drink lying around somewhere only to pick it back up later.
  3. I’m not exactly old enough to have had the experience of moving to a different area of the city (I still live in an apartment near my college). But I will say that I haven’t not traveled or visited somewhere because I was scared for my safety or that I might be harassed.
  4. Again, I haven’t lived long enough to be in a situation where I’ve had to talk to the landlord, the cable guy, or the electrician. But I’ve been the only one in my parents’ house when the plumber came. I’ve been the only one in my apartment when the building maintenance people came (many times…our apartment sucked).
  5. I’ve never had the opportunity to travel as an adult, let alone travel by myself. But I’ve taken solo road trips to unfamiliar places in the snow/in the rain/in the dark, stopped at creepy gas stations when I had to pee, and asked people for directions when I needed them. I’ve pumped my own gas on unfamiliar highways in unfamiliar towns. I’ve taken random trains to random places. I once ended up driving endless circles around Washington Heights at night on my way to New Jersey. (I’d never been so grateful to make it to New Jersey…I’m probably the only person in the world who’s thought that.)
  6. Haven’t tried couch-surfing…but because it never occurred to me, not because I’m worried that a well-meaning stranger will cause me harm.
  7. I’m not a runner, but I did run down to the White House and back once, and the sun set when I got downtown, so yeah, I’ve gone running alone at night. It didn’t even occur to me that I should make some sort of contingency plan for if the sun went down or that I shouldn’t go just because it was late in the day.
  8. I’ve never had the misfortune of being harassed on the street, so I’ve never had to talk back to harassers. I’m not sure why there’s this huge myth about how all women are street harassed every day–on the way to work or school or the grocery store or whatever. I work and go to class and go shopping just as much as anyone else, and no one’s ever said a word to me. Except when I run into a panhandler. And that time I was exiting the Metro and some guy told me I dropped something, but when I turned around to check, he grinned and informed me that I must’ve dropped my smile. I didn’t exactly feel threatened.
  9. I don’t think I’ve ever met up with a stranger but, again, I wouldn’t feel unsafe doing it…I just haven’t had any reason to yet.
  10. The idea that there are women out there who sincerely believe that holding their keys in their hand while walking home is somehow a form of protection is sadly and severely pathetic. If some creepy is intent on harming you, he’s going to do it whether or not you try to strike him with your mail key. I take out my keys when I get to the door of my building so I can get in. Because that’s what they’re for. It would never even have occurred to me to use my keys as a weapon–or to be paranoid enough to try.
  11. This one’s a little ambiguous because I’m not sure what “flimsy” means in this context. But I can say that I’ve never thought twice about what I’m wearing regardless of the time of day (or night). There’s always a chance that I’ll end up walking somewhere alone, and I wouldn’t let my outfit stop me from walking somewhere.
  12. I’m not sure that I wear loud or outrageous clothing in general, ever, but I have been known to canvass strange neighborhoods wearing campaign stickers and Obama buttons. But if I were the kind of person who wanted to dress outrageously, I wouldn’t give a crap about appeasing other people on the street.
  13. Remember when I said that the information about my well-endowed top half would prove important? Well, I could wrap myself tight as a mummy and then throw a sheet over myself, and I’d still look as though I’m wearing a pushup bra. My point is that I can’t help the way I look in that aspect, so literally everything I wear “exposes” me and “reminds men” that I’m female. But I’ve never fielded comments or harassment about it because men who “leer” do not need an invitation to say the things they say. They just need an attitude problem and too much time on their hands. I’ve fielded comments from male friends…but nothing has made me change what I wear.
  14. All right, this one is nuts. I wear ponytails all the time. To work. To the gym. To class. To the store. To bars. To parties. I have never once thought for a second that wearing a ponytail might provoke anyone to use my hair as a means to attack me. If the day ever comes that we hear about the Ponytail Killer on CNN–maybe then I would understand why someone might not want to wear a ponytail. But even then, it was 97 degrees in DC today, and I’m going to wear my hair in a ponytail if the mood strikes.
  15. Like virtually every other girl who isn’t paranoid, I’ve worn high heels. They weren’t particularly comfortable, but that’s the only reason I’d choose not to wear them–not because I’m concerned about my ability to run away. If I find myself having to run away in the first place, we’ve got bigger problems than whether I’m able to run fast enough.
  16. I’m not really one for small talk, but I don’t discriminate based on gender. If small talk is involved at all, I’m not concerned with whether it’s with a man or a woman…because I’m not worried about anyone “coming on to me in a lecherous way.”
  17. See above…but with eye contact.
  18. See #16…but with smiling. Apparently I don’t really smile very often in public. But I’m not fearful of the repercussions of smiling–I’m merely from a stuffy city in New England where we don’t smile at strangers, period.
  19. I eat in public. I like ice cream cones. I eat ice cream cones in public. Because I enjoy eating ice cream cones, and I usually don’t have waffle cones lying around my house to facilitate my private ice cream consumption habits.
  20. When I lived at home, I rode my bike all the time during the summer, especially when I couldn’t drive yet, but also when I didn’t have access to a car. I live close enough to downtown Boston that I could ride right in, and I did–many, many times, in the early morning when it was still dark outside (it was a phase…made a great college application essay). The only negative thing that ever happened involving my bike was that it was stolen one night in West Roxbury during a campaign last summer. And then I trekked through the not-so-nice parts of town to find a police station to report the bike stolen and then scouted out a T station in a really not-so-nice part of town as the sun went down. So I don’t have a bike anymore, but I’m perfectly capable of walking and taking public transportation without peeing myself.
  21. I’ve stayed out later than my friends at social events and found my own way back home, unscathed.
  22. Let me tell you a story. When I take public transportation, which is practically every day, whether it be a bus or the subway or the commuter rail, I have never considered the genders of the people already sitting in the compartment because I’m not paranoid enough to think that all the men sitting in the same subway car are conspiring against me. The end.
  23. Unless my phone is dead (which, unfortunately for me and my iPhone 4, is common), the only way I walk around at night (or ever) is with my headphones in.
  24. I live in a building with literally thousands of residents. If someone knocks on the door, I answer it because it’s rude to not answer the door. Not answering the door doesn’t make you smart or wary–it makes you rude and irrational.
  25. If I’m ever Ubering home, I Uber home. Not to the other side of the street so I can walk the rest of the way. Not around the corner. Home. In front of my building. Because that’s where I live. And chances are, if I’m desperate enough to be taking a cab home, I have a reason to need to be home, not around the corner wasting time over the statistically insignificant chance that someone might be lurking and watching me.
  26. I’ve never not walked straight home…because I have this weird thing about annoying journeys–I just want to get where I’m going without dillydallying.
  27. This one’s a little convenient for me–my first and last names are really common, so I have no problem giving them out. And honestly, I don’t flatter myself into thinking that giving my name away will prompt a person to google me, find my address, and subsequently stalk me. Also, how does someone knowing my name make me more likely to be attacked? The women in the article seem to be scared of all men, strangers or not, so what does it matter if they know my name or where I live? A random stranger watching a person eating ice cream in public can still attack even if they’re not graced with certain personal information like a last name.
  28. This one is also too old for me–I’m usually not the last one at any office I work at because I’ve always had superiors who leave after me.
  29. I have used an ATMs outside and ATMs that were isolated. Sometimes at night. If I’m going to walk around at night by myself wearing high heels and headphones without my keys in my hand, I need some money in my pocket, right?

Don’t feel bad for women because they’re women. If you’re going to feel sorry for anyone, feel sorry for paranoid or scared or illogical or unreasonable people. Feel sorry for the assholes who attack other people in the first place. Because that’s the real problem here.

When We Step Over Homeless Veterans on the Street

A few nights ago I reopened an old draft of a novel I started writing when I was 14. It was quite a simple story: Set in 1969, its protagonist was a teenaged girl, Jessie, whose family spends a summer with another family in a cabin in Maine. Her family, the McCoys, has two daughters, aged 16 and 12. The other family, the Bells, have one daughter and five sons (one of whom, Jesse, 11, died of Leukemia earlier that year). Jessie doesn’t want to go, but she ends up learning about life and gushy things throughout the course of the summer; she eventually enters into a relationship with one of the Bell sons. The backdrop of the story is the Vietnam War, and more specifically, the draft.

The eldest Bell son, Elliott, is of age to be drafted, but throughout the story, his parents urge him to go to college to circumvent it. The second oldest, Sam, tried to commit suicide after Jesse’s death but was unsuccessful. Toward the end of the story, Elliott’s draft number is drawn. He is enrolled in college, but he decides instead that he wants to answer the call to serve in the military. The novel treats Elliott’s decision with the same weight as Jesse’s death and Sam’s attempted suicide: All the characters privately prepare themselves emotionally for Elliott’s death even before he’s left for Vietnam.

That’s the thing–everyone mourns Elliott’s death before he’s even died. His death is not certain but it might as well be. Just as each conscription notice sent to the millions of young American men between 1970 and 1973 seemed to come packaged with a death notification.

Imagine sitting in the living room, watching the news with your family, waiting to see which draft lottery numbers would come up. In December 1969, 195 numbers–each representing a birthdate–were chosen to serve, beginning with September 14 (#1) and ending with September 24 (#195). So you’re sitting there, with your siblings and your parents and maybe even another relative or a neighbor who doesn’t have a television set, and you’re all waiting to see what’ll happen. Or maybe you’re in your freshman college dorm, sitting around a tiny TV set with a group of friends you’ve made so far this year. The draft hasn’t been in effect since your father and your friends’ fathers fought in World War II–a great triumph and a display of American exceptionalism that conquered fascism, overturned an economic depression, and brought the United States superpower status. But you’re, like, 75 percent sure that your number won’t come up.

Take your birthdate–whatever it is–and play along. Mine would’ve been #336 (I wouldn’t have been called, but I’m also female, so there’s that). Anyway, you’re waiting for a black-and-white Rep. Alexander Pirnie (R-NY) to pick those numbers. It’s not really real until something bad happens–but it’s not going to be that bad. And then they pick the first birthdate (September 24), which means nothing to you because you don’t know anyone with that birthday. And then they pick the second birthdate (April 24). And maybe you know someone born on April 23, and you think, hey, lucky break for that kid.

But just as you’re getting comfortable listening to these numbers being pulled (and selectively hearing only the months that sound like they might be your month), someone in the room gasps. Everyone silently turns to that guy, the one who just had his death sentence read to him on the television because he’s only number 15, but you can’t make any noise lest you miss the next date called. Soon, half the people in the room are reeling–some because their birthdates were picked early, others because their brother or best friend or roommate just got called, and who knows if they’ll ever see them again after they receive their conscription notice.

Now you’re going through the process in your head, thinking of the ways you might be able to evade the draft–sickness, school, incarceration, clergy work, disappearing… But as soon as you can’t think of anymore excuses, you hear it. January 27. June 4. October 19. Insert your birthday here. You look around just to make sure everyone heard what you just thought you heard. Maybe if you’re at home, your mom is holding her hands to her mouth, looking at you longingly with the expression she used that one time you were leaving for summer camp. Maybe your freshman dormmates look at you solemnly for a second, the way you all looked over at that other guy who was number 15, but they can’t say anything out loud lest they miss the next date called.

And for the first time, you imagine what it might be like to leave these people forever. To travel to a strange place you’ve only sort of seen on TV, where they say the humidity hits 90 percent and the mosquitoes carry diseases, where 36,000 men have already died or been killed. In high school, you heard plenty about the war and knew a few people in the military, but it seemed so far away. It was far away. Thousands and thousands of miles, on the other side of the planet, where American men–and you guess now you’re one of them–were sent to perish in the jungle. But then they started announcing death tolls, and then they started showing footage of the war on the news, and it could give people nightmares just watching it. Let alone living it.

You don’t want to go. You like your friend here. You don’t really admit it much, but you like your family. You even like going to class and doing homework. Can you trade in your number for a 15-page book report? You’ll do anything.

When they’re done reading the numbers and your feelings have subsided, you don’t feel much at all but the lack of control and now there’s nothing you can do but wait for a notice to come in the mail (and you hope they have your correct school address because that’d be a whole other problem) and for some reason the only thing crossing your mind is how fit you’ll be when you get back and then the only thing crossing your mind becomes the image of your mangled body (fit, though) lying face-down in a swampy hillside somewhere being scouted by an American helicopter flying overhead with its light beaming down on your mud-covered hair as they realize, “There’s another one,” and come down to retrieve you and bring you back so they can show your anonymous casket on TV for other boys to watch as they eat their cereal before going off to school in the morning.

The rest of it after that is a blur. For some reason, the memory of hearing your birthday called and the moments following are so much more vivid in your mind than when you boarded that plane six months later and dropped down into the Vietnam jungle with a platoon of other guys whom you never would’ve met if you’d all just gone on living your lives back home. You’ll remember those guys and you’ll remember what you saw, for the most part, but most of it blurs together eventually, and two faces become one unclear face, and a few different raids all meld together in your mind so you can’t remember where exactly you trekked to that one time. You remember the smells of burning waste, or maybe burning bodies, and gunfire and what an open wound starts to smell like after a few days in the sun without rain, but as far as feelings go, the lottery is still the worst one. Of all the times you ended up honestly thinking to yourself (and sometimes saying aloud), “I’m going to die, I’m going to die,” the one time it felt the most overwhelming was when you were at home, watching them read off dates on the television.

That’s not to say you weren’t scared over there. You were. More than you’ll probably ever admit to anyone, but just as much as everyone else was who was there with you. There were nights you felt blinded by fire and deafened by bombs and the sensory overload was so intense that you thought you might explode where you stood, simultaneously swearing and crying and screaming and yelling at the guys around you because you have so little control over what escapes you when you realize how it feels to truly fear for your life. Now that you’re back home, everything looks and feels like a joke. But at least you made it home at all.

Most of us will never understand any of that because we didn’t live it. At this point, so many of us don’t even know anyone who lived it anymore. We are lucky. We learn about the Vietnam War in school. It’s quite literally history, and we are removed from it. But we’re not as removed from it as we think.

If you’ve ever been walking in a city and seen just four homeless people, statistically one of them was a veteran of the United States military. Of those homeless veterans, about half served during the Vietnam War (although those statistics may be slightly outdated, the current figures should be very similar). Of those, most suffer from mental illness that probably went undiagnosed (PTSD wasn’t added to the DSM until 1980), physical disability, hunger, and poor health–all of which obviously hinder anyone’s ability to escape poverty and homelessness.

It’s really easy to assume that most if not all homeless people we see on the street aren’t doing anything to help themselves. That they spend the money they raise panhandling on drugs or alcohol. That they are too mentally ill to stay on their medication. It isn’t easy, however, to step back from judgment and consider what any given homeless individual has endured in his or her lifetime. There’s a 25 percent chance that he’s risked his life for his country. There’s a chance that he’s looked danger in the eye. There’s a chance that he was transplanted to Vietnam as a teenager and experienced some of the worst fighting the U.S. has engaged in in the past 50 years. There’s a chance he’s seen his friends die.

And that’s when we have a choice. We can choose to judge homeless people for the decisions that we assume they’ve made. Or we can consider the possibility that maybe there’s more to a homeless person than the fact that they have no home anymore. Maybe “homeless” shouldn’t define a person anymore than “disabled” or “gay” does (in today’s quest for political correctness). Maybe that person is homeless because after fighting overseas for his country, the man, old now and sitting on the street corner holding an empty Starbucks cup, came back to America plagued with all the debilitating and exhausting symptoms of PTSD, never received help, and now permanently carries with him the photo reel of his memories of time spent trudging through the jungles of Vietnam, of killings, of torture, of being a scared teenager whose fate was decided for him the moment his birthdate was picked out of a bucket of capsules back in 1969 as he sat around a little black and white television set in the living room with his family. Why don’t we think about that when we step over homeless veterans in the street?

Legalize It–Like, All of It

“In this regard, I thought, the people of Beeville had come to believe about crime in the 1990s what Americans had believed about communism in the 1950s: that its threat lurked everywhere at all times, and could be stemmed only by the creation of a vast military-industrial complex—except that now it was a prison-industrial complex… [Sentencing reform] laws have been almost single-handedly responsible for the soaring federal prison population. In 1987…there were only 44,000 federal prisoners. By 2000, there were nearly 140,000. Most—59 percent—are serving time for drug offenses.” – Joseph Hallinan, Going up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation

I recently read excerpts of Going up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation by Joseph Hallinan, among many other pieces on prisons in the United States, for some of my classes. Almost every reading mentions the War on Drugs and the subsequent massive increase in prison population (see figure). If you take more than five seconds to think about what happened between the beginning of the War on Drugs and today, you’ll realize that society today is no more dangerous than it was in the 1980s (let’s be honest–it’s probably a whole lot safer). Crime has not become a sudden issue. Drugs have not become a sudden issue. We just started cracking down on drug possession, use, and distribution to the point that it would appear that we have an uncontrollable drug pandemic on our hands.

Arrests cost money. Public defenders, judges, courtrooms cost money. Holding cells, jails, prisons cost money. Food, health care, heat, education, rehabilitation cost money. What if we’re not just spending money on these things but wasting money?

That’s when it occurred to me. All drugs in the United States should be legalized. Here’s why. Since the 1980s—the onset of the “war on drugs”—the proportion of drug offenders in prisons has risen so dramatically that today, about half of all federal prisoners are serving time for drug-related offenses. (Joseph Hallinan’s figures are dated; his book was published over a decade ago.) If about 90,000 federal prisoners are drug offenders and each costs approximately $30,000 per annum, these offenders alone cost the government about $2.7 billion a year—to say nothing of state- and local-level inmates who cost money to their respective states, counties, and municipalities.

Aside from holding costs such as food and facilities, drug offenders who enter the justice system also cost the government an unknowable amount in public defenders’ time, jail and other temporary facility costs, and police officers’ time. Most significantly, health care costs for imprisoned drug offenders almost certainly surpass those for other prisoners because many (if not most) drug offenders are also addicts who require additional medical attention.

People who enter the prison system inevitably leave prison with a recidivism likelihood greater than 0, a greater chance of struggling to assimilate into normal society, and a higher chance of remaining unemployed once released. Legalizing all drugs would virtually rid our federal prisons of drug offenders, saving the government billions that could be put to much better use. For example, if the government saves about $2.7 billion a year, state governments could apply the funding to strengthening inner city public schools, launching after-school programs for urban youth, issuing anti-violence/poverty/drug campaigns, and opening drug rehabilitation and education centers in cities with high rates of users.

Harmful drug use should still be grounds for child/family services to revoke parenting rights, and drug use and abuse should still be discouraged and actively fought by the federal and state governments. Individuals should still be arrested and prosecuted for crimes committed while under the influence of drugs, and selling drugs to minors should still be illegal. But arresting and incarcerating individuals for drug distribution, sales, possession, and use is useless, costly, and statistically doesn’t stop people from using, abusing, or possessing the same drugs in the future.

But since we’re not realistically going to legalize hard drugs in this country, I’d argue that the decriminalization of drugs would be a reasonable option and a step in the right direction.

Regardless, however, the decision to legalize or decriminalize would likely be decided at the state level. To circumvent the likely case that state legislatures would balk at the idea of legalizing or decriminalizing drugs, if we’re ever trying to cut the budget, the federal government should withhold funding for state and federal prisons/jails/courts in any state that does not change its drug laws (much like the federal government’s withholding of Federal Highway Act funding if states did not agree to raise their drinking age to 21 in the 1950s). Under the threat of losing necessary funding for their penal systems, states would ideally comply with the federal government strong recommendation that states reconsider and reform their drug laws.

Every resident of this country has a vested interest in our drug laws. Keeping drug offenders out of jails, prisons, and courtrooms would save the justice system billions of dollars a year—and the per capita cost of all other prisoners would in fact decrease due to the extra cost of health care for drug offenders compared with the health care costs for all other offenders. Holding drug offenders in the criminal justice system costs more than it’s worth—and the possibility of rehabilitation is effectively zero. We should never take drug use lightly, however, and we should certainly not ignore it as a society. Drug offenders in inner cities often lead bleak lives in poverty, among violence, and with little hope of recovery. Many are born addicted to mothers who cannot raise them, and many more become addicted at a shockingly young age. Still, locking them away is not only the wrong answer–it is counterproductive to our goal of grooming a functioning, contributing citizenry.

It seems, Joseph Hallinan suggests, that we have come to correlate the prevalence of crime with the vast numbers of drug offenders behind bars, thereby equating drugs with imminent danger. Imprisoning drug offenders has not decreased the number of drug offenders who roam our city streets (slash Wall Street). Imprisoning drug offenders has not sparked massive rehabilitation efforts by states to halt this epidemic. So then, why do we continue to believe that imprisoning drug offenders makes us safer? Why, in Hallinan’s account, do the residents of Beeville believe that they are surrounded by crime when they only experienced three robberies in a year and no violent crime?

By their nature, drug users already suffer every day, and serving jail time is often more preferable to them than living in poverty looking for a fix. If prison doesn’t punish or rehabilitate these offenders, and if they almost always return to drugs when they return to the street, why should we waste resources imprisoning them in the first place when their imprisonment makes us no safer–and when their freedom presents no greater danger to us?

Guaranteed Basic Income: Crazy, or So Crazy It Just Might Work?

In last Sunday’s Boston Globe, this story appeared, posing the question: Should the government pay you to be alive? And it wasn’t rhetorical or just trying to be funny. It’s a serious question that, according to the article, economists and policy experts on both sides of the aisle have suggested as a strategy for alleviating poverty and avoiding the expansion of our overcomplicated welfare programs.

If you want to see what the people had to say about this–and this is probably the best part of the entire article–read the comments it got. Gems, one and all. But here’s what I think.

This is never, ever going to happen in the United States. Forget whether or not it’s plausible or actually has any merit–the simple fact is that it sounds ludicrous, and that’s all that matters. Guaranteed basic income (GBI) sounds like an uber-liberal utopian policy that gives a whole new meaning to the term “government handouts” in the worst way possible. Rhetorically it’s dead on arrival, but I’ll come back to this later.

Should a government have the responsibility to guarantee each citizen a flat rate income? For the sake of argument, let’s just say yes for a second. If everyone starts with the same basic income, aren’t we also guaranteeing inflation? The new “zero” would now be $10,000 or $80,000 or any other amount suggested by the article, and I can think of too many ways certain industries may take advantage of this (down payments on everything from homes to cars rise dramatically overnight, college tuition skyrockets, all types of insurance rates increase…). The moving pieces of the economy adjust and nullify any amount the government could ever hope to give out. A cynic might shrug and suggest that you might as well start at $0 if your $10,000 gets you next to nothing.

But perhaps if you’re trying to feed and clothe a family, $10,000 is a huge help. Maybe you can’t buy a house with it, maybe you can’t even buy and insure a car, but at least you can purchase enough food, clothes, school supplies, and basic necessities to get by, day-to-day. This raises another question altogether, however: What exactly is the goal of a guaranteed basic income? Is it to alleviate poverty? If so, it could temporarily raise families out of destitute situations, to be sure, but does it solve any long-term issues that impoverished families face? Housing? Transportation? Insurance plans? Savings accounts? Would a guaranteed basic income help tide over a family with two unemployed parents long enough so that they can get jobs to earn a healthier income?

Is the goal of a guaranteed basic income to get simplify or eliminate welfare programs? If so, it would probably do a great job of that. It cuts through all the red tape and just hands over the money without any of the mess. Of course, you’d still run into the issue of whether to provide a GBI to each citizen at the age of 18 or 21 years of age (an 18-year-old can fight in a war, vote, and buy porn, but can’t collect a GBI?). Then you run into the problem of undocumented residents over the age of 18 or 21 who can’t receive a GBI because they don’t have social security numbers, many of whom were involuntarily brought to the United States as children.

And then you get into whether or not you’d have to pay taxes on the GBI, which seems nuts seeing as the money comes from the government in the first place, but the underlying question becomes whether the GBI acts as a supplemental income or as an allowance. That is, if you’re comparing a person making $0 gets $10,000 a year (total: $10,000) and a person making $100,000 gets $10,000 a year (total: $110,000), how do you measure how much each pays in income tax? Does the wealthier individual pay a percentage of $110,000 or $100,000? Does the poorer individual pay a percentage of $10,000, or does he avoid paying taxes altogether? Does he only pay income taxes if his total income rises above a certain amount? Under our current tax code, the person making only a GBI have his income decimated by taxes (assuming he has to pay anything), whereas the person supplementing his income with the GBI would barely feel a difference.

There are more questions than answers when it comes to GBI, and before we can have a debate, we need to define the parameters of the discussion. To start, “guaranteed basic income” sounds like the government would be giving out lump sums of money for free, no labor necessary, as if its existence is encompassed somewhere in “life, liberty, pursuit of happiness.” Well, actually, that’s exactly what it is. But there’s got to be some better way to say it, a better way to define it, so that we can actually talk about it. Scholars, according to the article, have already started talking about the GBI–when will everyone else join in?

If you say it out loud, the concept behind a GBI sounds crazy. But in practice, maybe it’s so crazy that it just might work. Given what I’ve observed and read and learned about poverty in America, guaranteed basic income can’t possibly be any worse for poor people, in effect, than our current welfare programs. If anyone wants to seriously discuss the GBI, however, someone’s got to start by coming up with a better name for it. Maybe “BetterFare” or “Lifeline Credit” or “Starting Point.” I don’t know, just anything that doesn’t make me immediately think “free money.” Let’s just start there and see what happens.

The Night I Met FLOTUS in the Locker Room

I met Michelle Obama in the girls’ locker room when I was wearing nothing but a soggy bathing suit and a broken watch.

It was fall 2011, and I had just started school at American University. And trust me, if I had known the First Lady was going to be hanging by the changing area, I would have worn something nicer, like probably some shoes and a bra. But I digress.

I had been at college barely two months. I had just gotten out of the elevator on my floor when I caught my friend Allison skipping down the hallway shouting something about Sasha and Malia Obama. After listening for a minute I realized she was jumping around because, allegedly, the Obama girls were swimming in the swimming pool—in our swimming pool—taking lessons.

“I’m going down to the pool right now!” she cried.

“I’m coming!” I said, getting back in the elevator I’d just taken.

Allison and I sprinted down to the gym, where a giant glass wall separated the lobby from the pool below.  The glass wall was lined with parents watching their kids swim in the pool.  I then noticed something…off.  In every corner, stationed about twenty feet apart from one another, were straight-faced men in uniform, unsmiling, unfriendly, just standing.

As Allison and I tried to glance down at the pool, one of the men leaned forward, halting us with his eyes.

“What do you think you’re doing,” he demanded, deadpan.

Allison and I glanced at each other.  “We—we—I mean, I—um—”

“We…just wanted to see the pool,” I said.

The man stared at us menacingly. “You can’t do that.”

“I mean, we just wanted to go down to the pool. To swim. In the pool.”

The man gave us the once-over. “All right.”

Allison and I shuffled away from the window.

“Now we’ve gotta actually go down to the pool,” I mumbled as we walked toward the gym, trying not to look behind me.

When we reached the desk, the girl asked for our IDs.  You need your ID if you’re going to use the gym. Or the pool, we learned. In the excitement back in our dorm, Allison had forgotten her ID.

“Can’t I swipe her in?” I asked.


“But—I’m a student here,” Allison objected. “Can’t you look me up on the computer or something?”

“No, sorry.”

So we sprinted back up to our building to retrieve Allison’s ID. While we were there, we decided it might be a good idea to grab our bathing suits so we could actually go in the pool. We would go for an undesired swim if necessary, just to see the Obama girls, if they were actually there, of course. And if we were allowed.

We flew back down to the gym, presented our IDs to the girl at the desk, and bounded down the stairs to the basement, where we changed into our bathing suits and tiptoed out to the pool.

From the pool area, we could see a dozen adults watching from the glass panels above.  In the main pool, a large group of middle school-aged girls dove and swam and stood in their sporty swim suits while Allison and I touched the water’s surface with our toes, contemplating getting in.

“I think we should just do it,” I said.  “Then we can say we swam in the same pool as the Obamas. How cool is that. Right?”

“Yeah, okay.”

We slid in. Did a couple lame laps, lifting our heads up every so often to get a glance of Sasha or Malia. We stopped at one end of the pool.

“I think that’s her,” I said.

“Who?” Allison looked at the girl standing on the diving platform. “Sasha?”

“Doesn’t that kind of look like her?”

“I mean, she’s black…”

Though our behavior seems, in retrospect, quite pathic, I don’t think either of us realized it. We kept pretending to swim. On the other end of the pool, Allison squinted up at the giant glass window.

“Does that look like Michelle Obama to you?”


“Up there…in gray?”

I looked. “I mean, I think so… Can you tell, though?” I asked.  “I’m not wearing my glasses.”

“Neither am I.”

“Well, awesome.”

“I think it’s her.”

Then I glanced at my watch. “Shit, shit.” I waited in vain for the second hand to jump back to life. “I knew I should’ve taken this off.  Shit.” I looked around. “We need to stop staring and get out of this pool before the Secret Service comes down here and arrests us.”

I followed Allison out of the pool and into the locker room.

“Well, I’m pretty sure that now we can say we swam in the same pool as Sasha Obama, right?”

When we got back to the bench where we’d thrown our clothes, Allison walked back toward the door. “I’m going to the water fountain.”


I began to collect my things, located my other sock, shook out my waterlogged watch in the hopes that it would begin to tick again, heard something—

“…honor to meet you…”

My ears perked up. Who was Allison talking to? I went to investigate, turning the corner of our enclave of lockers, and—

There she was. In the flesh. Tall, regal. In an elegant mix of black and gray. Her skin gleamed in the humid locker room air. Her presence was enough to render me speechless. Her smile could probably end wars.

Goosebumps everywhere, suddenly aware of every droplet of water on my skin, I stood, frozen.

“Hi,” she smiled.

I inched away from the scene, backing farther and farther into the small area of lockers where my socks were strewn next to my American University sweatshirt and my ID was somewhere on the floor. Suddenly Allison and I were leaning against the lockers on the other side of where she had been standing. And we just sobbed uncontrollably.

A few young girls appeared at lockers near ours, staring at us. They’d been swimming in the pool with Sasha.

“Oh my gosh!”

“Are you okay?”

“I think they’re crying…”

“Are you guys crying?”

I shook my head, trying to wipe my tears away and stop shaking. “Yeah, no, I’m fine,” I blubbered. “We’re fine…”

The girls gave us another concerned look and hesitantly turned back to their lockers.

Allison and I burst into tears all over again. Trembling, we got half-dressed and fled the scene. Outside the locker room, we were met with a giant crowd of students dressed for the gym, waiting to be let into the locker room. They looked at us funny; I didn’t know whether this was because we had been allowed in the locker room…or because persistent tears were still rolling down our cheeks.

We squeezed past the throng. We made it upstairs. It was a madhouse. At least a hundred students, maybe two hundred, stuffed into the lobby of the gymnasium. All hoping to meet the Obamas. All hoping to meet the Obamas. Hoping to meet the Obamas.

Later, I found out that, when Allison had gone back to the water fountain, she had run into Sasha Obama, who had dropped her water bottle, and Allison had picked it up for her. I also found out that, even though I don’t remember saying a thing, I had said a feeble “Hi” the First Lady.

When Allison and I returned to our dorm, I ran straight into the laundry room and called my mom, crying into the phone about how I should have at least had the gumption to shake her hand!

I went over everything rapidly in my head, replaying every second. Had I really worn a red bathing suit? I couldn’t’ve at least been wearing a blue one? I was a Democrat–what was wrong with me?!

After I got off the phone with my mother, I entered the lounge, only to be made fun of by everyone on our floor because they’d witnessed our crying. A friend invited me to lean on his shoulder, only to mock me about how what I’d done was really embarrassing and stupid. “Yeah, thanks,” I said, sitting up.

Later, when the tears stopped, I looked down at my broken watch. Worth it, I thought. Totally worth it.