Friday, November 30, 2007

Pssst ... Got a salt shaker?

The Food and Drug Administration is contemplating yet another intervention into what you and I are allowed to eat. According to news reports:

Best known for deciding whether medications are safe and effective, the Food and Drug Administration is weighing whether to crack down on plain old salt, which doctors say is harmful in the quantities most Americans consume.

This is especially interesting because, not only is it a wildly presumptuous interference with personal taste and preference, and the market's response to that taste and preference, it's also a precipitous declaration that an ongoing debate in the medical and scientific community has been settled, just because federal bureaucrats say it has.

Yes, there is significant evidence that excessive salt intake can contribute to heightened blood pressure and cardiovascular disease -- but the data doesn't unanimously lead to that conclusion. Some studies have found that it depends on individuals' personal reaction to salt -- some people are simply not affected. And at least one study suggests "that low-salt diets may actually increase your risk of dying from heart attack or stroke."

So even if you don't agree that people ought to be able to exercise their personal choices as to what they eat, produce, buy and sell, this seems like an odd decision to ... well ... force down people's throats.


Special treatment for a special cop

Let's see ...

New Hampshire State Trooper 1st Class James A. Conrad led police on a high-speed chase, threatened to take a fellow officer's gun and "shoot him and everyone in the room" and fought with an internal affairs unit officer who tried to arrest him, and the result is:

...misdemeanor charges of criminal threatening, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. He also is accused of harassing and intimidating his wife of 24 years, Laura, in violation of a protective order.

In addition, Concord city prosecutor Tracy Connolly ordered the police to keep Conrad's police booking photo from the press -- a very unusual move, since such photos are usually made public.

Does anybody believe that a mechanic, shopkeeper or doctor who engaged in such conduct would receive such relatively lenient treatment? Threatening to shoot a roomful of police officers alone would land the average person in a simmering cauldron of hot water. And then the culprit's photo would be plastered all over the media as an enemy of society who has been reeled in by our brave protectors in blue.

It's amazing, but even when cops go completely off the reservation, their friends on the force and in the prosecutor's office still rally around their own, giving them kid treatment and special favors.

Conrad's wife is, not surprisingly, divorcing the man. I strongly suggest that she relocate out of the area and beyond the reach of her husband and his pals.


Henry Hyde's free-speech landmine

While most of the media is busy publishing encomiums to the late Rep. Henry Hyde, CNet's Declan McCullagh reminds us that the Illinois politico authored one of the more breathtaking attacks on free speech in recent memory.

Whoever...knowingly uses any...interactive computer service...for carriage...any drug, medicine, article, or thing designed, adapted, or intended for producing abortion, or for any indecent or immoral use; or any written or printed card, letter, circular, book, pamphlet, advertisement, or notice of any kind giving information, directly or indirectly, where, how, or of whom, or by what means any of such mentioned articles, matters, or things may be obtained or made...shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both, for the first such offense and shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both, for each such offense thereafter.

The law, which would have effectively banned any discussion of abortion on the Internet, has gone unenforced by the Clinton and Bush administrations because of its patent unconstitutionality. But it remains on the books, awaiting the enthusiasm of a potential future Justice Department whose opposition to abortion is matched by its disdain for the First Amendment.

Something to think about.


Thursday, November 29, 2007

More loot for the war machine

Oh, good God. Forget about making any game attempt to withdraw troops or block funding for President Bush's overseas adventures, congressional Democrats are actually looking forward to hiking taxes to pay for endless war -- and their favorite domestic programs, of course.

Democratic leaders seem willing to accept military escapades they supposedly opposed when they ran for office, just so long as they get to squeeze Americans a little harder.

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Crop substitution

Hmmm. I'm torn. Should fans of altered consciousness be sad that "[t]he fields of Balkh province in northern Afghanistan were free of opium poppies this year, a success touted often by Afghan and international officials," or happy that the pretty poppies have been replaced with majestic fields of "[t]en-foot-tall cannabis plants"?

It's mixed news indeed from the Associated Press.

The reason for the change is simple: Afghani officials put the screws on farmers to stop cultivating poppies in order to curry favor with the United Nations and foreign governments. But those same officials don't give a damn about marijuana. That makes the choice easy because:

The U.N. said cannabis yields around twice the quantity of drug per acre as opium poppies and requires less investment. The U.N. drug report estimated farmers growing cannabis could earn the same amount per acre as opium farmers.

Politically correct crops, like cotton and watermelon, simply aren't that profitable to grow. Afghani farmers need to see some profit for their efforts, so marijuana it is.

I'll bet the farmers would do better yet if the crops they grow were legalized around the world so they could sell directly to well-heeled buyers without risking the wrath of meddlesome officials.


Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Put a little ecstasy in your life

MDMA, better known as ecstasy, gets a second look from the Washington Post 22 years after being listed by the DEA as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. New research shows that the substance may be useful in treating post-traumatic stress disorder.

I'll add here that, while I haven't used it in years, ecstasy is, hands-down, my favorite recreational drug. For the sheer pleasure it brings, I think the stuff should be legally available from vending machines.

Of course, I think all substances that people might wish to consume should be legally available -- from the worst crap to the nectar of the gods, people have the right to produce, consume, buy and sell whatever they please.

But ecstasy ... Wow. Good stuff.


Can't we politicians all just get along?

There's a consensus among "right-thinking" people that the United States is too politically polarized, and that partisanship and adherence to ideological differences are getting in the way of the important business of governing. The premise is handily summarized in the title of former Los Angeles Times chief political correspondent Ronald Brownstein's new book, The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America.

Brownstein apparently (I haven't read the book, but I've read his columns and heard him interviewed) blames all of this nasty polarization on Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove. Professor Cass Sunstein, on the other hand, blames the Internet. It seems that the information superhighway is at fault for allowing us to find our own sources of information instead of force-feeding us a range of approved opinions the way the old media did. (To his credit, though, Sunstein has backed off his proposal to regulate the dissemination of opinion online, calling his former scheme "a stupid and almost certainly an unconstitutional suggestion.")

But whoever or whatever you blame, strongly held and divergent opinions are a bad thing, we're told, because they get in the way of all the good stuff that government could be doing for us.

Oh, but I beg to differ.

Polarization and the obstruction it offers to the political apparatus are bad things only if you really believe that the "right" policies and programs can be hammered out by bipartisan political elites without need for any serious debate over whether the government really ought to be doing one thing or refraining from doing another. Tellingly, Brownstein points to the 1960s as something of a golden age of political cooperation, when Republicans and Democrats were able to put aside differences and cooperate in governing the country.

Is it any surprise that Brownstein waxes nostalgic for an era when government metastasized at a prodigious rate without any significant opposition in Washington, D.C.?

In fact, that growth in government that so many fans of cooperative bipartisanship so obviously favor may itself be a cause of the vitriol they profess to despise. Having expanded the state to the point that it reaches into every home, every wallet, every business and even personal relationships, political contests have become such high-stakes affairs that nobody can really afford to lose.

When the consequences of losing an election are that government may insert itself into your bedroom (bans on recognizing same-sex marriages), exert potentially ruinous control over your health care (calls for a single-payer system), criminalize your recreational pursuits (outlawing Internet gambling), regulate your menu choices (foie gras and trans fats) and send your kids off to die in foreign lands (do I have to say it?), how do you prevent political debate from turning into a cage match?

In fact, the best most of us can hope for is that government really will be paralyzed by partisanship.

I'll tell you what: If you really want people to play nice and let the political elites go about the important business of governing without all that unpleasant discord, the only way to get what you want is to make government so small that it really doesn't matter.

Until then, I'll be toasting partisanship and paralysis.

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Hard time for good intentions

Have you ever seen a purse or satchel left behind in a public place and picked the item up intending to return it to its rightful owner? Well, you might want to reconsider that good-neighbor policy -- at least, if you're a New Yorker. Such civic-mindedness could land you in jail in the Rotten Apple, where police police have been planting "lost" items in shops and public transportation, and then arresting people who pick them up without making a beeline to the nearest police officer.

Now, a new version of the operation has started to catch people in public places outside the subways, and at much higher stakes, Criminal Court records show.

Unlike the initial program, in which the props were worth at most a few hundred dollars, the bags are now salted with real American Express cards, issued under pseudonyms to the Police Department.

Because the theft of a credit card is grand larceny, a Class E felony, those convicted could face sentences of up to four years. The charges in the first round of Operation Lucky Bag were nearly all petty larceny, a misdemeanor, with a maximum penalty of one year in jail.

Even prosecutors and judges have noted a few problems with this policing scheme.

In dismissing one case, a Brooklyn judge noted that the law gives people 10 days to turn in property they find, and suggested the city had enough real crime for the police to fight without any need to provide fresh temptations. The penal law also does not require that found items be turned over to a police officer. The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office began to dismiss Lucky Bag charges.

Police are now looking for "sneaky" behavior that can be interpreted to mean the person picking up a bag doesn't intend to return it to its owner. Of course, interpretation is a subjective thing. For now, at least, the safest course of action appears to be to resist the temptation to be a good samaritan, and just walk on by any apparently lost items.


Crazed judge gets bounced

In what the chairman of the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct describes as “two hours of inexplicable madness,” Niagara Falls City Court Robert M. Restaino jailed 46 defendants one after another because some unknown person in the courtroom allowed a cellphone to ring in violation of the rules. Eleven of the jailed defendants had already been released and were just awaiting the end of court proceedings; Restaino rescinded their releases as part of the mass punishment.

This happened on March 11, 2005. The commission only now got around to recommending Restaino's removal from the bench. He's been deciding people's fate, doling out liberty and imprisonment uninterrupted, since that day. He remains in office while he appeals the decision to remove him.

Look, I appreciate the commission's action, and its entirely proper decision to remove an impulsive lunatic from the bench. But two years to decide this case after the man threw a temper tantrum that put 46 people behind bars? Is the State Commission on Judicial Conduct really that backed up? If so, New Yorkers have a lot more to worry about than just one (in the commission's words) "petty tyrant."


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Why license marriage?

Just why do you need government permission to get "officially" married? And is there anything aberrant about couples who choose to intermingle their lives without the benefit of a piece of paper issued by a surly civil servant?

Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history at Evergreen State College, answers these questions and more in an interesting column for the New York Times on just how we got to the point where people have to ask for permission to formalize their most private relationships.

Not until the 16th century did European states begin to require that marriages be performed under legal auspices. In part, this was an attempt to prevent unions between young adults whose parents opposed their match.

The American colonies officially required marriages to be registered, but until the mid-19th century, state supreme courts routinely ruled that public cohabitation was sufficient evidence of a valid marriage. By the later part of that century, however, the United States began to nullify common-law marriages and exert more control over who was allowed to marry.

Basically, licensed marriages are a relatively newfangled innovation, while shacking up with the one you love is a time-honored practice that's been respected for millennia. The growing number of families spurning marriage licenses in favor of arrangements of their own making are the true traditionalists.

It's interesting reading.


Monday, November 26, 2007

Tasers under scrutiny

The United Nations -- at least, its Committee Against Torture -- says that Tasers are a form of torture and a violation of U.N. treaties. Oddly enough, after what I've written about Tasers recently, I'll have to disagree just a bit.

When used as intended, as a less-lethal alternative to firearms, I think that Tasers are just dandy. If a situation calls for the use of lethal force, resorting instead to 50,000 volts strikes me as a commendable option.

But the U.N. Committee Against Torture is right when it comes to the way that Tasers are often deployed, aside from the merits of the devices themselves. Instead of using them instead of firearms in life-or-death situations, police often seem to resort to them as an easy way to forcefully extract compliance from a suspect -- or simply to punish disrespect. Tasers seem to have become an open invitation to use force in situations that don't necessarily call for any force at all -- let alone lethal force.

The problem is that Tasers are really easy to use -- just point and squeeze the trigger. There's no need to get up-close and personal, and (usually) no corpse to explain away. For a pissed-off cop, a "ride on the Taser" can be a simple and relatively consequence-free means for "correcting" a civilian's disrespectful attitude.

But I don't think Tasers should be abandoned. I like the idea that people who might otherwise be shot with a bullet can instead be stunned with voltage.

The trick, though, is going to be getting police to stop regarding the devices as substitutes for sharp looks -- or just walking away.


Judges covet your property

The Denver Post has a piece on the use of adverse possession -- the legal doctrine that allows people to seize neighbors' property through prolonged, unchallenged trespassing -- that casts a little light on the controversy simmering in Boulder. It seems that retired Judge Richard McLean isn't the only legal eagle in a black dress to use special knowledge of the law to make a killing in real estate.

At the time of the case in 1989, Donald P. Smith was a state appeals-court judge. He acquired a 20-foot swath the length of a neighbor's half-acre lot that he had used as a driveway to his weekend home in Buffalo Creek.

In another case, former Boulder County Judge Marsha Yeager used the law to seize a 100-foot-long stone fence that was built as an architectural component of a neighbor's stone home on Seventh Street.

Adverse possession may make sense when it comes to settling good-faith boundary disputes between large land owners in remote areas, but the doctrine is clearly being abused by savvy public officials who just want to widen a driveway or prevent a neighbor from constructing a home -- without incurring the cost of paying for the privilege.

Richard McLean and his wife, lawyer Edith Stevens, need to be put through the wringer until they return the property they stole from the Kirlin family. That's a matter of justice in this specific case, and a deterrent to others who might try to engage in a little legalized theft.

Contact McLean and Stevens here:

2059 Hardscrabble Dr.
Boulder, CO 80303
Home Phone: 303.494.3324
Fax: 303.494.6973


Saturday, November 24, 2007

Ron Paul gets stroked in the Post

Reason magazine's Nick Gillespie and former Reasonoid (and current LA Times staffer) Matt Welch have a great piece on the Ron Paul phenomenon in the Washington Post.


Friday, November 23, 2007

More on the Utah Taser incident

Most reaction to the tasering of Jared Massey by Utah Highway Patrol Officer John Gardner has been, quite rightly, supportive of Massey. Not just in the United States, but around the world, sensible people realize that Gardner was out of control, and that the officer responded with force to a situation that should have been engaged by conversation, or (if the officer has extremely poor control of his temper) by his leaving the speeding ticket with Massey and just driving away. It's worth pointing out that, only now, with the video of the incident available on the Internet, is UHP taking Massey's complaint seriously and scrambling to investigate the incident.

But a strident minority of voices defend Gardner and insist that Massey had an obligation to tug his forelock and obey every order issued by Gardner, and that his failure to do so justified Gardner's use of force in the incident.

This is ridiculous. At no time did Massey become aggressive toward Gardner. At no time did Massey pose a danger to police or the public. Massey did nothing more threatening than question the grounds for issuing a speeding ticket. Gardner may not like being questioned, but his pride simply doesn't enter into it. If he didn't want to continue discussing the matter with Massey, Gardner could have simply left the already-issued ticket with the driver -- signed or not -- and driven off.

There's no obligation on the part of any person to refrain from questioning police officers about their actions.

Let's remember the principles laid down by Sir Robert Peel when he established the modern policing profession. Principle seven states:

7. Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent upon every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.

Remember that: police are only members of the public working full time to keep the peace. None of us -- with or without a badge -- have a right to assault people, even lawbreakers, simply because they vex us with questions or treat us without the respect we believe is our due. That's right, Sir Robert Peel, the father of modern police departments, never intended for police to have special rights to use force in circumstances where it would be inappropriate for the average person to throw a punch or draw a weapon.

If nobody has the right to use force against a man who does nothing more than ask questions and decline to sign a ticket, that raises some interesting thoughts about the Massey incident. Most importantly, it means that Mrs. Massey would have been completely within her rights to respond to Gardner's assault on her husband with whatever force was necessary to disarm or disable the officer and rescue Jared Massey. Under the circumstances, with her husband lying bleeding and stunned by the side of a highway because of the actions of an armed and aggressive man, the pregnant woman might well have been fully within her rights to draw a gun and shoot Officer Gardner.

It's fortunate that didn't happen. A living and intact John Gardner may yet have time to atone for his error and become fit company for the decent members of the human race. More important though, in a world that has become accustomed to treating police officers as a specially entitled aristocracy, the Masseys would have had a difficult time explaining their act of self-defense to a legal system that protects its own. Defensive force would have been justified, but it would have landed the Masseys in a world of hurt.

So it's good to know that Jared Massey has the opportunity to bypass official channels and take his case to the public. Embarrassed and under siege, UHP and Officer Gardner now have to explain a violent assault on a peaceful man.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Tasered for asking questions

Most coverage of this incident focuses on the idea that 28-year-old Jared Massey was tasered by Utah Highway Patrol Officer John Gardner over a speeding ticket. In fact, he was tasered for daring to ask Gardner questions about the ticket, refusing to sign the ticket before his questions were answered and then acting with incredulity when Gardner whipped out his Taser.

Kudos for Massey's savvy response -- it was apparently he who got a copy of the trooper's dash-cam video and posted it on the Internet. That way we can view the incident for ourselves and determine -- beyond a reasonable doubt -- that Officer Gardner is a vicious thug.

I won't argue here that Massey was wise in his response to the traffic stop. Given the authoritarian, intolerant nature of too many police officers, it's generally safer to submit during an encounter and then make a stink after the fact. But Massey did nothing wrong by asking Gardner just how fast he'd been going.

Gardner's response was that of an overseer -- a driver of serfs who will tolerate no challenge to his authority. His attitude seems to be increasingly common among the folks who draw government paychecks, and it has no place in a free society.

Amnesty International on Tasers here.


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Crime pays -- if you're well-connected

In Boulder, Colorado, retired judge, former mayor and all-around well-connected politico Richard McLean and his wife, attorney Edith Stevens took a shine to property adjacent to their own, so they had one of McLean's former colleagues on the bench steal the parcel from its rightful owners and give it to them.

No, I'm not kidding.

Don and Susie Kirlin had purchased the land in the early 1980s, planning to build their dream home on the site. But McLean and Stevens claimed that since they'd trespassed on the land continuously for many of those years, they'd gained the right of "adverse possession" over the property -- an obscure and dubious legal doctrine originally intended to encourage development in sparsely settled areas. It's apparently also a handy tool for clever legal-eagles looking for borderline legal scams to run on their neighbors. District Judge James Klein bought their argument and ordered the Kirlins to hand over one-third of the parcel.

In what may be a surprise only to McLean and Stevens, the move has proven controversial. The controversy has spawned protests and an effort to have the duo investigated for legal-ethics violations.

You can find full coverage of the case here in the Boulder Daily Camera.

McLean and Stevens have reputations as Boulder-style advocates for community-controlled open space in preference to private property rights. They're also extremely plugged-in politicos with power and influence among the Boulder elite. It shouldn't be any shocker, then, to discover that, when they talk about community control, they mean themselves and their friends.

Unfortunately, this is invariably the case whenever somebody advocates that, for the "good of the community," protections for individual rights should be curtailed. Well-intentioned people are won over by the soft-and-fuzzy argument that the interests of the majority should prevail over the "selfish" freedom of the individual. But it's not some ethereal concept of common good that benefits from these incursions -- it's the politically powerful who always come out on top.

Protections for individual rights -- like that of private property -- are hard-nosed, realistic shields against creatures like Richard McLean and Edith Stevens.

Here's an appropriate quote from Frederic Bastiat:

Sometimes the law defends plunder and participates in it. Thus the beneficiaries are spared the shame, danger, and scruple which their acts would otherwise involve. Sometimes the law places the whole apparatus of judges, police, prisons, and gendarmes at the service of the plunderers, and treats the victim -- when he defends himself -- as a criminal. In short, there is a legal plunder ...

Update: Courtesy of the Wayback Machine, here's Richard McLean's contact info:

2059 Hardscrabble Dr.
Boulder, CO 80303
Home Phone: 303.494.3324
Fax: 303.494.6973


What's so bad about Liberty Dollars? Not much

Very nice write-up in the Washington Post on that ridiculous Liberty Dollar raid and how it relates (peripherally) to the Ron Paul campaign. I may start making some investments outside the U.S.myself.


Monday, November 19, 2007

Trust the 'experts' ... not

60 Minutes and The Washington Post teamed up to expose a scandal years in the making -- thousands of prisoners behind bars across the United States because of FBI testimony based on junk science.

For years, the FBI touted a monopoly on bullet-lead analysis -- a technique that claimed the ability to match the lead in a single bullet to its mates in a production run -- or even a single box. The effect of an FBI "expert" testifying that the bullet that killed a victim came from a defendant's nightstand can't be overstated. Juries certainly found it convincing. Lots of people went to jail based on the word of FBI experts.

But the FBI has known for years that the science doesn't live up to claims -- and it definitely doesn't back up the certainty that FBI experts claimed on the stand. The FBI has finally backed off bullet-lead analysis, but it's not going out of its way to let defense attorneys know that the testimony that sent their clients to prison is bogus.

This raises concerns similar to those brought to light by Reason magazine's Radley Balko, who has written about the lucrative career of Steven Hayne. Hayne testifies as Mississippi prosecutors' medical-examiner-of-choice, despite the fact that he claims to review so many cases each year that the National Association of Medical Examiners considers him ineligible for accreditation, because a competent job can't be done with such a workload. When his testimony has been reviewed by other medical examiners, it's often been found to be ... err ... implausible.

The Mississippi Supreme Court finally threw out Hayne's testimony in a murder case based on the small fact that his claims were scientifically impossible, and Balko's article has stirred much interest in Hayne's status. But Hayne continues his work.

The FBI and Hayne (and others like them) have been able to do their damage because the public at large defers to their expertise. These are officials with status and knowledge beyond that of the common person. When they start making formal pronouncements that might have been divined from the guts of sacrificed sheep, for all that they can be parsed by the average juror, what choice is there but to take their word as definitive on the matter at hand?

But these cases keep piling up. Because of hubris and laziness (the FBI) or greed (Hayne) or any number of other reasons, not every expert can be trusted. Giving credence to the fancy-sounding rituals and incantations summoned up by an expert witness in a trial isn't always the way to go.

But dismissing it out of hand isn't the way to go either. Real science and authentic expertise are always worthy of consideration.

So, how do you know which is which?

That's a tough call. But bringing a healthy skepticism with you wherever you go is probably a good starting point.

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Good neighbor policy

Now that cloning of humans is becoming an increasingly likely prospect, I have an important question: Can I get a copy of Joe Horn to move in as my next-door neighbor?

Horn is the Pasadena, Texas, resident who called 911 when he saw two burglars breaking into his neighbors' home. While he stayed on the phone with a 911 operator, the burglars ransacked the house. After long, painful minutes of waiting, with no sign of the police, it looked as if the burglars were going to make good their escape. Horn told the operator that he was going out to confront the burglars with a shotgun. That's exactly what he did. The burglars ended up dead.

A few of the usual ninnies are whining about how terrible it is that Horn shot criminals over "mere" home invasion and property. Asks one letter-writer in the pages of the Houston Chronicle, "Does not human life trump some cash, or an iPod, in Texas?."

Well, no -- at least, it shouldn't. When we're talking about thieves caught in the act, we're talking about people whose lives are worth less than lint. I certainly wouldn't execute them once they've surrendered and been taken into custody, but when they attempt to escape, as these two did when confronted by Horn, shooting them is perfectly justified -- and a step toward neighborhood beautification.

Yep, when the science is perfected I'll be first in line for a Joe Horn clone to install next door.


Friday, November 16, 2007

Congress almost grows a pair

The U.S. Senate is squabbling over competing measures to fund the bloody morass in Iraq. House Democrats have already passed a measure that provides $50 billion in "emergency" funding for the war, but which sets a timetable for bringing troops home. The Senate is ... well ... not exactly rushing to follow suit. A similar proposal failed to muster enough support to advance in the upper chamber, although a rival Republican measure to give the president carte blanche also went down to defeat.

The Democrats won Congress largely on the strength of their promise to curb the Bush administration's military adventures. The great power of Congress is the power of the purse -- the president may want to go mucking around overseas, but Congress can cut off the funding for such crusades to keep the White House under control. That's why it was a pleasure to see the House -- however belatedly -- follow through on the promises that Democrats made last year.

But now it's anybody's guess whether Congress will finally address the big issue that determined last year's mid-term election, and which still dominates headlines.

Democrats still have the option of simply refusing to provide any funds for the Iraq fiasco -- if they have the nerve to keep their word.

I'm not holding my breath.

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Administrative issues

I've turned off pop-up boxes for comments as a bit of an experiment. The pop-ups were starting to annoy me, so I figure they're probably rubbing my readers the wrong way too.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Ron Paul and the ADL

It looks like the Anti-Defamation League is about to join itself to the chorus of voices calling on Ron Paul to return the few donations he's received from unsavory types, like white supremacists and neo-nazis, to the donors. Unfortunately, this is a problem that any political campaign can face, especially as it gains steam. Political candidates can't control who donates to their coffers, but they can control how they react to those donations.

So far, the Ron Paul campaign's reaction has been a statement that, "If people who hold views that the candidate doesn't agree with, and they give to us, that's their loss." Putting money from bad people to good use is an intellectually defensible position, but ... well ... why? It's worth pointing out that just because a position is defensible, that doesn't mean it's worth defending.

The ADL has a long and respectable history as a guardian against bigotry. Sad to say, in recent years the group has ventured into Bill Donahue/Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights territory -- that is, its concerns and press releases have become just a bit eye-roll inducing. But the group retains a residual respectability among people who find racists gag-worthy. More than a few folks are likely to be troubled if the ADL criticizes Ron Paul for failing to repudiate unwelcome donors to his campaign.

The Paul campaign can expend time and energy defending its decision to keep the donations -- and lose hard-won momentum in the process. That position won't be a moral error, but it will be a public relations error. Or it can seize the opportunity to denounce bigotry as incompatible with the philosophy of liberty and individual rights.

You know what I'd decide if I was calling the shots.


How much for my vote?

Pundits are full of feigned shock that two-thirds of surveyed New York University students say they'd give up their right to vote in next year's election for a year of free tuition. Twenty-percent can be bought cheaper; they'd give up their turn at the polls for an iPod Touch. And half of all students responding to the survey say they'd permanently give up voting for $1 million.

My response is a little different: You mean half of those kids are dumb enough to turn down a million bucks just so they can hold on to their otherwise worthless votes?

That's right -- worthless. Let's face it, even if you somehow summon up the interest to favor a candidate gagged up by one of the two major parties (who, for all intents and purposes, have a duopoly on political office) the chance of a single vote influencing the outcome of even a local election is essentially nil. Any single vote is diluted by the thousands, millions, or tens of millions of other votes cast.

But what about those rare elections decided by a handful of of votes cast by solid citizens? Ha! -- dream on. In the closest of elections, the razor-thin margin meets up against the limits of technology and human beings' ability to accurately tally ballots. As the Seattle Times reported during Washington's nail-biter 2002 gubernatorial election:

No election system is precise enough to determine who won a race this close, they say. Only 42 votes separate Rossi and Gregoire, out of the millions cast.

"It's closer than the technology and our capacity as humans to decipher," said Jeffery Mondak, a political-science professor at Florida State University. "You folks would do as well to flip a coin as to try to determine who actually won." ...

Why? Elections work fine when candidates win by a large margin. When victory comes down to roughly the capacity of a Metro bus, small errors — stray marks on ballots, punch cards that weren't punched properly and human mistakes — can cloud the final vote tally.

So a vote has no significance as a means of influencing the outcome of an election.

Can a vote have other value?

Well, sure. Voting can be a form of entertainment -- probably a subset of the larger entertainment of engaging in political activism. It may give you a warm and fuzzy feeling for "doing your civic duty" if you buy that sort of bunkum. But you can debate policies and be politically active without ever casting a vote. And honestly, a million bucks, or the price of a year of college, or even an iPod Touch, is likely to translate into a lot more entertainment value than voting.

Just think what you can do with a million dollars: You could buy your dream house free and clear, start a business and still have enough left over to donate to the causes of your choice. Compare that to ... what? ... pulling a lever or pushing a button once a year? Rationally, there's no contest.

Hey, is anybody in the market for one just slightly used vote?

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It's for the kids, of course

I live in an area where a lot of parents, for reasons that I find unconvincing, are suspicious of vaccination and refuse to have their kids immunized against diseases, some of which have historically killed or crippled all too many children. The result is that my wife's pediatrics practice sees a small but steady stream of cases that seem drawn straight from 19th-century medical texts -- nasty ailments that were supposed to have been eliminated by now. Not surprisingly, we've chosen to vaccinate our son against everything. We're just not taking our chances in the rare-disease lottery.

But as unwise as I think it is for parents to resist vaccinating their children, there's something that's certainly worse: letting kids see their parents hauled off in chains because they're opposed to vaccination.

In Maryland, Prince George's County officials are threatening parents with $50 per day in fines and ten days in jail if they fail to vaccinate their offspring. Parents of 1,700 children have been ordered to show up with their kids to circuit court this weekend for a ritual tongue-lashing and mandatory inoculations. The penalties will be levied against those who refuse.

R. Owen Johnson Jr., chairman of the school board, is quoted saying, "This is a public health and a children's rights issue." Oh, that's a great blow for children's rights -- sending mom and dad off to the hoosegow because they calculate the risks and benefits of vaccination differently than does the majority.

The county's authority in this little travesty seems to come from a state law requiring public school attendees to be vaccinated, so it strikes me that the logical response for parents is to withdraw their children from the public schools. That might require some scrambling on the part of parents to find alternatives, but what a great opportunity for like-minded families to set up homeschooling co-ops to give the kids a better education than they're getting in the county holding pens.

Of course, with thousands of parents and kids ordered to appear at the courthouse, vaccination opponents might want to take this opportunity to drag Judges William D. Missouri and C. Philip Nichols Jr. from the bench and -- along with any other public officials who show their faces -- give them a well-deserved flogging.

It would be an object lesson for the children in attendance -- sort of an intellectual vaccination against the pernicious idea that government officials have the right to lock us behind bars if we don't bend to their will.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Look for the union label

Some time ago, I worked for an organization that straddled the libertarian/conservative divide. For unrelated reasons, we parted company about the time the group's new leadership decided to take their efforts in a specifically anti-union direction -- that is, they weren't just going to oppose labor unions over political matters on which union leaders and this organization's leaders disagreed; the were going after the existence of unions at all. Under the circumstances, I was happy to go my own way, since I'm not anti-union; in fact, I'm pro-union under the right circumstances.

Labor unions in their pure form are, after all, voluntary organizations created to increase the bargaining power of workers with their employers. Unions certainly have the potential to improve pay and conditions for their members by presenting a collective front in negotiations.

That's not to say that unions haven't been abusive; some have engaged in sabotage and outright violence to advance their goals -- most often directed at at workers who don't toe the union line. But while violence is a rather rare characteristic of modern American business, corporations in other countries have used violence, and in the U.S. they can be rather skilled at wielding lawyers as weapons. Most commonly, both corporations and unions have become adept at buying off politicians so that they can use the power of the state to pummel their opponents without dirtying their own hands.

But when they work as intended, through peaceful, non-coercive means, unions, like businesses, can be beneficial entities.

For several years I was a member of the National Writers Union, which is affiliated with the United Automobile Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America. NWU membership offered benefits in terms of access to media perils insurance and collective lobbying for improved compensation for writers as much content originally created for print outlets started making its way into new media. I left the NWU after it stopped offering media perils insurance, and because it was clear that the union's then-president was bat-shit crazy -- in a bad way.

That's relevant because members of the Writers Guild of America are currently on strike over an issue that concerned me when I was an NWU member -- compensation for content that's either repurposed for new media (such as the Web) or intentionally created for these new outlets. Compensation for such work hasn't been addressed in past contracts, and some television writers have been asked to create material for the Web without receiving extra pay in return. Writers and studios clearly have some legitimate disagreements to work out, and the WGA gives writers significant clout as they hammer out new compensation agreements for new media.

Note that nobody is a villain in this strike -- it's a matter of parties with real differences working out a mutually acceptable arrangement so that everybody can continue to share in the profits of a rather lucrative industry. The ritualistic performance art of pickets and press releases is all a means to an end that everybody can live with.

In the absence of headline-grabbing abuses and appeals to state power, unions like the WGA have legitimate role to play in a free society.


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A bargain at twice the price ...or not

America's military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan are running up quite a price tag.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could cost the U.S. economy $1.6 trillion through 2009, about double the amount directly requested by the Bush administration so far, according to a report released Tuesday by Democrats on the House-Senate Joint Economic Committee.

Admittedly, the report includes some arguable figures that might or might not be reliable, depending on your assumptions.

The report includes costs not included in the administration's funding requests, including the interest on money borrowed to finance the war, an estimate of the impact on oil markets, and costs tied to treating the wounded and disabled and other related costs.

But whether or not $1.6 trillion is a precise figure, it's beyond doubt that President Bush's overseas crusades are sucking money out of the U.S. economy at a prodigious rate, with consequences yet to be determined.

Not included among the costs detailed in the report is the toll in human lives that has been accumulating since 2001 (Afghanistan) and 2003 (Iraq). To-date, that adds up to 3,863 U.S. dead, 171 Britons and 133 from other countries. That's a pretty hefty price too.

And what do we have to show for these costs? Is Osama bin Laden in custody? Is Iraq a model democratic state?

Or is the Middle East even more profoundly destabilized than it was before this mess began?


Underground entrepreneur

I'm sorry he was caught, but it's good to hear that Syracuse University freshman Michael Ju is among those with entrepreneurial spirit and a healthy contempt for the law. Ju was manufacturing and selling forged Maine drivers licenses that, according to police, "appeared to be very authentic."

I've mentioned before that I made money in college painstakingly altering drivers licenses, but I was put out of business by a competitor who had a set-up for forging licenses that rivaled that of the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles.

Since then, government agencies have adopted technological gimmicks intended to make licenses more difficult to alter or forge. As Mr. Ju and his still-anonymous competitors illustrate, the market is always ready to overcome official barriers.


Ron Paul

Nice coverage of Ron Paul today, with a very respectful piece in The Chicago Tribune: A Seller of Ideas.

That follows on that Sunday piece in The New York Times: The Web Takes Ron Paul for a Ride.


Monday, November 12, 2007

Lessons in economics

Boulder Weekly covers the city public schools' burgeoning black market in ... wait for it ... candy. Black market in candy? Yep -- it's all courtesy of a new school district policy "that has removed all unhealthy, sugar-laden snacks and sodas from vending machines in schools. The new policies are part of a national trend, in which foods are forbidden at schools if they don’t meet strict nutritional criteria that limit calories coming from sugar and fat."

How restrictive is the policy?

Boulder’s new policies apply to vendors of food services, snack and beverage vending machines, student stores, fundraisers and “any regularly offered food during a child’s school day.” The policy allows water and seltzers, low-fat milk, fruit juice (no less than 50 percent real juice), and electrolyte sports drinks with 42 grams or less of added sweetener per 20-ounce serving. Allowed snack items include nuts, seeds, dairy products, fresh fruits and vegetables, dried fruits and vegetables, and some packaged fruits. Other food items are allowed only if calories are comprised of 35 percent or less fat, 10 percent or less of saturated fat plus trans fat, and if sugar comprises 35 percent or less of the total weight of the product.

All very well-intentioned, I'm sure. But school administrators clearly forgot one of the iron laws of economics: If you ban it, they will come ("they" being underground entrepreneurs, of course).

The money to be made sounds pretty impressive. The story details kids buying iPods and new clothes -- and even taking their own parents out to dinner -- from the profits made off marking up candy bought in bulk at Costco. At least one set of parents actually bankrolled their entrepreneurial offspring.

The laws of economics rule across the board, of course. Profit margins have apparently drifted down because of the influx of competition from other kids who have turned their lockers into convenience stores.

Unsurprisingly, similar black markets have appeared elsewhere when school administrators imposed nutritional restrictions that ran contrary to consumer tastes.

Huh. These modern kids have it so easy. In my day, we had to sell dope to make a buck between classes.

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Biden on the dole

Sen. Joseph Biden (Plagiarist, Del.) can't find enough supporters to voluntarily donate funds to his campaign, so he wants to milk the taxpayers to keep his latest venture into presidential politics on life support.

Oh yes, public financing of political campaigns -- taking the corruption out of politics by putting washed-up politicians on welfare.


Sunday, November 11, 2007

More on corporate collaboration

Over at The Agitator, Radley Balko has an excellent open letter to people who are outraged by telecommunication companies' open cooperation with government eavesdropping schemes -- but who don't recognize the pressures for such collaboration when government combines the role of intrusive regulator and massive customer.

The federal government is enormous. It has a massive and growing influence over what happens in the private sector. Witness (as I've pointed out many times before) the fact that the richest counties in America today aren't near the country's entrepreneurial epicenters, but in the D.C. suburbs, home to most of the country's federal employees and government contractors. Now as lefties, you may find all of this to be sweet potato pie. But know that a federal government of today's size and scope also gives whoever is controlling it enormous leverage to bend the private sector to his liking. That's great when your party is holding the reins. Not so good when it isn't.

I don't think this excuses corporations of the moral culpability they take on when they act as willing servants of the state -- see my post on this matter in regards to Yahoo's dealings with the Chinese government. But it does ably describe a situation in which even the best-intentioned corporate executives may find morally correct choices to be incompatible with the viability of their companies, which function in a market distorted by overt and covert government pressure. We may wish for corporate executives to refuse to collaborate -- and some will do the right thing -- but that takes a pretty strong backbone when companies and careers may have to sacrificed in the name of moral rectitude.

Anyway, read Radley's letter for the full take.

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Thursday, November 8, 2007

What's that smell?

Hmmm ...

This week, Denver voters ordered city police to make marijuana busts their lowest priority. That's in addition to an earlier vote that repealed city penalties for marijuana possession. The latest vote came after cops ignored the earlier ballot measure by citing violators under state law.

And in Hailey, Idaho, voters decided "to legalize medical marijuana, make enforcing pot laws the lowest police priority and to decriminalize industrial hemp..."


Party on

Remember Elisa Kelly and George Robinson, the Virginia couple who were arrested and imprisoned for serving alcohol at their son's 16th birthday party? Well, their tormentor, Albemarle County Commonwealth's Attorney James L. Camblos III, has been quite rightly bounced from office.

It couldn't happen to a nicer guy.


Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Yahoo and the risks of collaborating with the state

Yahoo founder Jerry Yang and his legal-eagle mouthpiece Michael Callahan got raked over the coals by members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee -- and deservedly so. Yahoo's crime was blithely surrendering the identity of an e-mail account holder to government authorities when served the Chinese equivalent of a subpoena. The account holder -- dissident journalist Shi Tao -- had used the account to disseminate a super-secret Chinese government directive forbidding journalists from covering the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Unmasked, Shi Tao was sentenced to ten years in prison.

Yang and Callahan protested that they were following "lawful orders" when they ratted out Shi Tao. They were right. The Chinese government was following its own legal rules in demanding the journalist's identity and then packing the unfortunate scribbler off to the hoosegow for embarrassing the state.

Committee Chairman Tom Lantos wasn't impressed.

"These were demands by a police state to make an American company a co-conspirator in having a freedom-loving Chinese journalist put in prison," he said. "Will you continue to use the phrase 'lawful orders,' or will you just be satisfied saying 'orders'?"

Lantos's outrage was well-founded. Laws, after all, can be whatever the government says they are, so long as officials follow their own procedures in getting even the most obnoxious rules passed. "Lawful" is not a synonym for right, or good, or moral. In the case of Shi Tao, Yahoo obeyed Chinese law and, in doing so, did the wrong thing.

We can thank Tom Lantos and his colleagues on the House Foreign Affairs Committee for pointing out that obedience to the law is no shield for bad behavior -- and for extracting a grudging commitment from Yang and Callahan to consider compensating Shi Tao's family for what their company has done.

But would Lantos and his fellows willingly apply their argument in a consistent fashion? What about intrusive and oppressive laws in other jurisdictions like, say, the United States?

Would Rep. Lantos advise a garden supply store to deny records of grow-light purchasers to DEA agents who want to persecute peaceful marijuana growers?

Would he praise a gun shop that refused to reveal the names of its customers to the notoriously abusive ATF?

I agree with Rep. Lantos that obedience to law doesn't absolve business people of moral culpability when they help government officials enforce dictates that violate individual rights. But I wonder if he embraces the full implications of his argument.

Duress makes a difference, of course. A person who names names when a gun is held to his head can be forgiven for foregoing martyrdom. And some businesses function under crippling rules -- the gun shop mentioned above, for instance -- that leave proprietors with an unpleasant choice between cooperating with government officials or completely denying the public access to certain goods and services.

But cooperating with the state is, at best, a morally questionable act. If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas; if you lie down with law-enforcement officers ... well ... you may have Shi Tao's fate to keep you up at night.

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Fighting rape with porn

Over at Reason magazine, columnist Steve Chapman points to Clemson University Economics Professor Todd D. Kendall's much-discussed paper (PDF) concluding that the increased availability of pornography in the United States in recent years has helped to reduce the rate of sexual violence. As Chapman points out:

Since 1993, violent crime in America has dropped by 58 percent. But the progress in this one realm has been especially dramatic. Rape is down 72 percent and other sexual assaults have fallen by 68 percent.

How can that be? Isn't pornography supposed to awaken the beastly libido in poorly restrained men? Alternately, isn't rape a crime of violence, rather than sex -- and therefore one that should be disconnected from sexually explicit material?

Well, Kendall can't be absolutely certain, but he does have an interesting theory as to why the rate of sexual violence has plummeted even as the most explicit material has become easily available on millions of Websites.

The results above suggest that potential rapists perceive pornography as a substitute for rape. With the mass market introduction of the world wide web in the late-1990’s, both pecuniary and non-pecuniary prices for pornography fell. The associated decline in rape illustrated in the analysis here is consistent with a theory, such as that in Posner (1994), in which pornography is a complement for masturbation or consensual sex, which are themselves substitutes for rape, making pornography a net substitute for rape.

Kendall's paper isn't a substitute for a commitment to free speech as a matter of right, regardless of possible abuses of that right. But Kendall's findings do supply valuable ammunition for people looking for a pragmatic argument in favor of allowing adults to produce and exchange sexually explicit material -- because permitting such exercises of free speech can have socially beneficial effects.

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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Yes, please impeach him

Rep. Dennis Kucinich has introduced a resolution to impeach Darth Vad-- Err ... I mean, Vice President Dick Cheney.

Yes, I know it isn't going to happen. But it's great political theater.

Update: The Democratic leadership forced through a measure referring the impeachment resolution to the black hole that is the House Judiciary Committee.


Paul bucks draw overdue notice

Just a few minutes ago, Fox News's Shepard Smith bit the bullet and had Ron Paul on to discuss the libertarian-Republican congressman's draw-dropping $4.34 fund-raising million haul on November 5. The interview retained some of the usual snarky, dismissive tone of Fox's non-coverage of the Paul campaign, but face time is face time. Other outlets are also recognizing the fund-raising coup, with respectful coverage coming from ABC News, Associated Press, MSNBC and Reuters, among others. Editor & Publisher, the trade journal of the newspaper industry, asks in a headline: "After Massive Fundraising This Week -- Will Press Stop Underplaying Ron Paul's Race for White House?"

Obviously, money talks. Paul is probably going to be drawing more coverage -- even if grudgingly -- from the media.


More fun with tech issues

Arrgh. The Internet is a revolutionary, seamless way to share information -- except when it isn't.

Did you miss me?

One week after being knocked off the information superhighway by a glitch with my ISP, I was muzzled by ballsed-up server move at my Web hosting company. My email is handled by my Web host as well as my Website and blog, so I had a frustrating few days.

But it was a peaceful visit to the 1980s.

Friday, November 2, 2007

University of Pyongyang ... errr ... Delaware

I missed this controversy until it was over, but the University of Delaware, under pressure from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, has formally shut down a "residential life" program intended to force students to adopt "acceptable" ideological positions on a range of issues. The program required group meetings, one-on-one sessions, formal reports on the results of those sessions and mandatory displays of ideological conformity and participation in pre-determined political activism.


The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a thorough article on how the program worked, and the reactions it evoked.

I strongly suspect that my son is going to get himself expelled from college when he's old enough to attend. And I'll be all the prouder of him for it.

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A little judicial remorse for a big injustice

The U.S. Constitution is pretty clear that government gets one shot at trying a criminal defendant. Says the Fifth Amendment:

nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb

The reasoning is pretty clear: Government has essentially unlimited resources to draw upon to hone its case and to, basically, throw prosecutions against the wall until one sticks. Defendants have limited resources and can easily be destroyed by the process of waging an unending defense, even if that defense succeeds. To avoid the injustice inevitable in such scenarios, prosecutors get one chance to prove their case and that's it.

Or so you'd think.

In fact, the Supreme Court has long disagreed with what seems to be the plain meaning of the Constitution. Among their interesting interpretations of that document, our legal solons decided in U.S. v. Lanza that the prohibition against double jeopardy didn't really apply to prosecutions brought by different jurisdictions.

We have here two sovereignties, deriving power from different sources, capable of dealing with the same subject matter within the same territory. ... Each government in determining what shall be an offense against its peace and dignity is exercising its own sovereignty, not that of the other.

This gives federal and state prosecutors a tempting opportunity to work hand-in-hand to bring repeated prosecutions against defendants for the same crime. That's especially tempting to government legal eagles who prefer the draconian sentences demanded by Washington, D.C. over the somewhat more humane penalties meted out by many state legislatures.

All of this comes into play in the case of Katie Heath, an Illinois resident who was tried and convicted in state court of distributing methamphetamine (a victimless activity, let me add). She served one year.

After she had served her time, returned to her community and begun putting her life back together, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Cutchin came after her on a conspiracy charge for distributing meth, based on the same activities for which she had already served time. Heath cooperated with the prosecution and signed a plea deal, reasonably expecting leniency. Instead, prosecutors rewarded her with a 20-year sentence.

Federal Judge J. Phil Gilbert was so appalled by the state's actions that, for months, he refused to impose the sentence. He also blasted prosecutors for "misconduct" and "misuse — if not outright abuse" of their power in negotiating agreements. Gilbert reportedly singled out James Cutchin for "his unwavering zeal for disproportionate punishment."

But a three-judge appeals panel ruled that federal prosecutors have all the discretion they claim to have and ordered Gilbert to reconsider. Instead, he exercised his last option and recused himself from the case. He also apologized to Heath for the gauntlet the government has put her through.

Now it's up to the next judge in the case to send Heath away for the mandated 20 years -- or (less likely) to follow Judge Gilbert's example.

Lots of little evils led to the injustice being committed in this case. Start with the "War on Drugs," which criminalizes consensual activity and has already deprived Ms. Heath of a year of her life. There's no good reason she should have gone to prison at all.

Then there's the Supreme Court's clever exception to the Constitution's ban on trying defendants twice for the same crime. Federal authorities are now free to put defendants through the ringer a second time, even when they've already been convicted and punished in state court. God help any poor fool who gets on the wrong side of a federal prosecutor.

Don't forget federal mandatory minimums, which take behavior punishable by a year or two behind bars at the state level and turn it into crimes punishable by decades in the slammer. Frankly, given the chunk of her life that's at stake, Ms. Heath would be well-advised to take her chances on the run rather than submit to the "justice" that's in store for her.

And then there's the duplicity of federal prosecutors, who lure defendants into cooperation with promises of leniency, then renege on the deals and slam their victims with the full force of government overreaction.

We have a legal system designed for the convenience of the vicious fanatics who gravitate toward prosecutorial work in general, and the U.S. Attorney's office in particular. They have the tools in their hand to destroy anybody who crosses their path, and the checks on their power are few.

Under the circumstances, we're certain to see more Katie Heaths sent away for long stretches, even after they've already been punished for crossing the state.

Contact The United States Attorney's Office -- Southern District of Illinois, the office that went after Katie Heath, here.

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Thursday, November 1, 2007

Felony cheese making?

Courtesy of Sunni Maravillosa comes news that a Southern California couple have been arrested on a variety of charges, including "felony cheese making." It seems that they were running a successful home-based business producing artisanal cheeses, but hadn't bothered to go begging, in mother-may-I fashion, for government permission.

What higher crime can there be than failing to tug one's forelock for a bureaucrat before going about your business?

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But will it be enough to spark a revolution?

The Politico reports that Americans are thoroughly pissed at both Congress and the President, and that this potentially means bad news for the Democrats as much as for the Republicans.

The anti-Washington mood in the country — aimed at both a Republican president and a Democrat-controlled Congress — has reached breathtaking levels. One has to reach back almost 30 years, to the low points of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, to find a time when there was such simultaneous disdain for both the executive and the legislative branches, as measured by Gallup approval ratings.

How low are these approval ratings? Fortunately, provides handy roundups of of job approval ratings for both Congress and the President, and these roundups make interesting reading.

During October, President Bush pulled consistently dismal ratings in national polls, ranging from 31% to 38% approval from the American public. Turn to the person on your left, then to the person on your right; only one of you thinks the president is a swell guy. It's anybody's guess whether even Laura thinks G.W. is doing a passable job in office. Outright disapproval ranges from 55% to 66%.

But Congress ... Forget the spouses of our people's representatives; even their boyfriends and girlfriends think they suck. Approval in October ranged from 21% to 27%. Disapproval starts at 54% and goes as high as 75%.

Bush obviously doesn't give a damn that a majority of his constituents just want him to go away, but congressional leaders are taking it bit harder. Says The Politico:

Interviews with lawmakers and top party operatives make clear that the Democratic House and Senate caucuses are divided into two camps. One group views the numbers with concern. The other group views them with panic.

Hmmm ... I know something that would soothe their concerns: They should all retire. Then, if we're lucky, nobody would step forward to take their places.

Oh, I can dream, can't I?