Monday, December 31, 2007

Another reason to dislike John Edwards

Ralph Nader has endorsed him.


Could you run this ad for free?

Mike "Jesus is my social worker" Huckabee is too nice a guy to run an attack ad against his political opponents. But he's not too nice to film the ad, show the ad to press at a conference called to announce that he won't air the spot and distribute the ad to the media for press purposes (Fox News, at least, has aired it in its entirety).

Can you say: "My campaign is broke, so please air my ad for free?"

Is it any surprise that reporters burst into laughter at Huckabee's press conference, causing the curtains to be drawn early on the event?


Arizona risks all with a nativist plunge

Starting with the new year, Arizona employers will be on the hook for "knowingly" hiring illegal immigrants in a state with a growing economy and a squeaky-low unemployment rate. Businesses fingered for hiring workers who informally crossed the border in search of a better life -- and Maricopa County officials, among others, have promised mob-pleasing strict enforcement -- face the loss of their business licenses for ten days after a first offense, and permanently after a second offense. It's no wonder that businesses are nervous about the potential impact of the new law. So are illegal immigrants; they've begun an exodus from the state, heading for friendlier U.S. jurisdictions, or back home to Mexico.

That's a big problem, because illegals represent about 11.6% of the Arizona workforce, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. That's a lot of workers leaving the state, and a lot of customers taking their shopping dollars along with them.

No wonder Barron's accuses the state of "strangling its own economy," further saying:

...threatening businesses with extinction for hiring people hungry for work may be the most self-defeating legislative enterprise since the Volstead Act, which enforced national Prohibition.

It will overwhelm or corrupt the officers who are supposed to enforce it. It will disrupt Arizona business, reduce the profits of its most lucrative industries, raise unemployment and lower economic output. It will enrich New Mexico and Nevada and the state of Sonora in Mexico, site of Arizona's outsourcing, at Arizona's expense.

That's the power of misguided democracy: Satisfy a vocal minority, and everybody gets it -- good and hard.

Businesses that bite the bullet, swallow the economic disruption and try to screen all of their new hires in accordance with the law face uncertain prospects. The law strongly pressures employers to use the federal E-Verify system to check the status of job applicants. But the free federal service is a pilot program that has never been tested by heavy demand from employers. Even the pilot version of the program has shown an unsettling propensity for erroneously labeling workers ineligible for employment -- 4% of the time, according to a 2006 congressional report, and up to 10% of the time for naturalized citizens, according to a recent report prepared for the Department of Homeland Security by Maryland-based Westat.

That's a lot of people wrongly denied employment, all to keep brown folks from building houses, landscaping yards and pumping the economy along to a heady pace.

There's more at stake here than economic fallout, of course. The new employer sanctions law seems based on some very dangerous premises: that doing business and taking jobs are privileges to be doled out only at the pleasure of government bureaucrats. Do we really want this country to turn (more) into a place where earning a living and hanging out a shingle are favors to be gained only by going hat-in-hand to a government office and asking "mother may I"?

And do we really want the details of our employment status -- and whatever other data may accrue in the years to come -- to be centralized and easily accessible in a government database?

When Barron's editorial writers predict an "apocalypse," they're more right than they know. It's not just the health of one state's economy at risk, but a strong dose of economic and civil liberty sacrificed for the sake of pure bigotry.


Sunday, December 30, 2007

Run, Louis, run

He's not exactly a model citizen -- Louis Wayne Fowler served seven years in prison for ripping off $5.1 million from the California State Water Resources Control Board -- but the Sacramento man's latest brush with the law certainly puts him in the role of the victim. Having turned his life around and opened a medical marijuana dispensary in the wake of California's legalization of such ventures, Fowler was targeted by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration for violating Uncle Sam's delicate sensibilities about marijuana and state-level efforts to liberalize drug laws. He was arrested on charges of cultivating at least 1,000 marijuana plants and carrying a gun to protect himself and his business. On the cultivation charge alone, he faces a mandatory minimum 10 years in prison -- three years longer than he served on the earlier embezzlement rap.

No wonder he's gone on the lam.

In comments to his mother, Fowler apparently hinted at intentions to commit suicide. I sincerely hope that's a diversionary tactic and that he plans, instead, to emulate his past actions. After robbing the Water Resources Control Board, he disappeared for three years, living under a false name in Arizona. Now, with even more to fear and much more justification, he would be well-advised to head for friendlier shores and make a new life for himself.

The federal jihad against disfavored intoxicants knows no rational limits. In fact, federal narcs, prosecutors and judges seem to be infuriated by efforts to ease or eliminate penalties for non-violent exchange and use of drugs. Judges have been known to hand out more time in prison than prosecutors request to people who do nothing more than grow plants under voter-driven medical marijuana provisions. Simply providing marijuana to patients in accordance with California's Proposition 215 landed one woman with a 41-month sentence.

With a prior record and a large-scale operation, Fowler has no reason to expect mercy from the court.

Yes, running is sometimes the best choice. I hope that's what Fowler is doing, and I hope he gets away clean.


Friday, December 28, 2007

Political sausage-making

If you want a brief glimpse at just one of the things wrong with the snuffling truffle-hunt for votes that constitutes the competition for political office, read New York magazine on the courtship of Al Sharpton by the top three contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The voice sounds familiar. “Hey, Al, this is Hillary Clinton, and...” Is it really her? Yep. Clinton is actually calling Sharpton for—pinch yourselves, folks—campaign advice. She wants to know what issues she should raise in an upcoming debate at Howard University. The focus is on black issues, and, well, who is a better judge of black issues in America than the ubiquitous face of them?

Sharpton has the cigar back in his fingers now. He wants the phone back. “Here,” he says, making sure to save the message. “Now, check this out.”

Another voice. “Al, this is Barack Obama...” Obama! Seriously? The senator also wants advice about the debate at Howard. Sharpton has calculated the values closely. “Hillary called three days before the debate,” he says. “Barack called like three hours before.”

And on the surface, that’s partly what this primary season comes down to for Sharpton: a race to see which candidate can kiss his ring the most, the fastest, and with the most sincere pucker.

The above excerpt doesn't make it clear, but the article says that John Edwards calls Sharpton even more often than his rivals.

If you're not familiar with Sharpton ... well ... lucky you. He's a political hustler who has turned the old business of political tribalism ("identity politics" in today's terminology) into a lucrative operation that gives him access to money and power. He played a key role in the bogus Tawana Brawley rape scandal that resulted in his being ordered to pay a defamation award to a man he'd fingered as a perpetrator in the case. He's led protests against businesses in majority-black neighborhoods that commit the high crime of being owned by non-blacks -- resulting in murder and arson in one case. Last (and least, since I'm not generally impressed by federal investigations) the F.B.I. is probing his very interesting financial arrangements.

Sharpton's not special -- in many ways, he's simply continuing in the tradition of the urban political bosses of the 19th and 20th centuries. But that's a contemptible tradition that has always raised doubts about the viability of democracy as a political system. If one-man, one-vote empowers tribal thugs, what value is it?

But, as very not-special as Sharpton is, he's the man Clinton, Edwards and Obama have put on speed-dial. They flatter him, dine with him, ask his advice and join him in photo-ops, all for the hope of gaining the votes he commands. Two centuries on and counting, and the republic has advanced no further than ritual favor-seeking from powerful chieftains who order their minions to support the contenders who give them the most tongue.

Republicans do their own ass-kissing, of course, though they generally seek the nod from charlatans who claim to have a direct line to God rather than hucksters who play games with race and ethnicity. Think "James Dobson" and you'll know just who's ass most GOP candidates feel obliged to smooch. In the end, it all comes down to the same sad result: democracy as farce, with votes won by cuddling up to political gangsters.

No, not every political candidate plays the game. But enough do to taint the whole process.

Do you really want to have the whip of government cracked over your head by somebody willing to break bread with Al Sharpton?


Thursday, December 27, 2007

Is your pharmacist a pusher?

Oh great. The War on (Some) Drugs is going so swimmingly that authorities are turning their attention to the "abuse" of prescription drugs -- that is, the recreational use of drugs available only with government permission for approved uses.

"It's readily available," says Bick. "You can buy illicit, pharmaceutical drugs on any Main Street, probably in the state of Vermont, certainly in the major metropolitan areas of the state of Vermont."

But while counselors say it's the demand that's driving the supply, there's also money to be made-- pharmaceutical drugs can sell for a dollar a milligram, which means that one 80 milligram pill can be an easy $80 for a dealer. And because the Vt. State Police have seen a drop in federal funding, they plan to ask the legislature for an additional $1 million next month to help fight the growing problem.

"We have to work, not only in law enforcement, but with the treatment people, education, and really get the word out that it's run under the radar for far too long. And it's time that we all work toward this problem to address it," says L'Esperance.

Specifically, Vermont officials want to make it even more difficult for people to acquire even approved drugs for permitted uses.

Police are currently working on a measure that would stop prescription drug fraud by preventing people from filling duplicate prescriptions at different pharmacies. Officials say they are also reassigning more officers on the force to focus specifically on the prescription drug problem.

Why is it a problem that people are getting high? That's really not explained -- it's just assumed that ingesting chemicals for the purpose of feeling pleasure is an inherently bad thing that needs to be stopped. Subjecting people to police raids and sending them to prison is apparently not so bad. The fact that all such efforts at heading off recreational pharmaceutical experimentation in the past failed miserably holds no lessons for the prohibitionists -- they still see a need to tighten the screws a few notches.

Hey, how about letting people buy and use drugs as they please without making a big deal about it? Is that really such an outrageous idea?

That noise you hear is the sound of prohibitionists sputtering in shock.

For a more reasonable take on drug prohibition, check here.

For a skeptical view of the value of prescription requirements, check here.


Your money, pissed down the drain

Congress and the White House conspired to rob you blind, and have now agreed to spend $555 billion of your pocket pickings to prop up the government institutions that done the deed. That government will use the cash to abuse you for another year, throw you a few low-quality trinkets to replace the decent-quality options you can longer afford after meeting the tax bill -- and then it will expect you to thank politicians for what they've done.

What? You don't feel grateful?


Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Perfect meets good, squabbles

In terms that recall the old saying, "the perfect is the enemy of the good," George Mason University economics professor Tyler Cowen, a libertarian, explains why he's not supporting Dr. Ron Paul's presidential candidacy:

The Ron Paul phenomenon reminds me of the old America First movement, with Misesian 100 percent reserve banking theory on top. He is making (one version of) libertarianism much more popular by allying it with nationalist and also states' rights memes. That includes his stances on immigration, NAFTA, China, devolution of powers, and "The Constitution." Even when the policy recommendations stay libertarian, I fear that the wrong emotions will have the staying power. Evaluating a politician is not just about policy positions; for instance personally I am skeptical of most forms of gun control but I worry when a candidate so emphasizes a pro-gun stance.

Many libertarians see the Paul candidacy as their chance to have an impact and they may well be right. There is also no one else for them to support. But, raw milk or not, I am not myself tempted to take a stance this year in favor of any of the candidates, Paul included. Liberty is lacking in the United States but I'd like to see it more closely bundled with reasonableness, moderation, and yes pragmatism; I am looking to advance on all fronts at the same time. Call me fussy if you wish.

OK, I'll call you fussy.

Look, If you believe in the primacy of individual liberty, small government, peace and the voluntary exchange of the marketplace, you're doing pretty damned good this year in terms of Ron Paul's candidacy -- the best you've done since ... well, long before you were born (and I don't care how old you are). Ron Paul is explicitly libertarian, a devotee of the free-market Austrian school of economics, a supporter of civil liberties, a proponent of free trade and a strong national defense, but an opponent of aggressive, imperialist military posturing. He's the only major-party candidate to question the disastrous war on drugs and he's the only Republican candidate to propose defusing the gay marriage controversy by simply getting government out of the marriage business.

Is Paul my perfect candidate? No -- I wish he was pro-choice on abortion. I also wish he favored open borders. It'd be great if he were an explicit anarchist. I'd be thrilled if he had a bit more fire in his belly -- if he walked onto stage during a debate and the first time Giuliani or McCain looked at him cross-eyed, Paul strolled over and slammed the head of the mayor or the senator into the podium. And then lit a joint.

But you get the candidates you get, not those you wish for -- and that may be a good thing. My little piece of Arizona is festooned with Ron Paul yard signs and bumper stickers (the only other candidate I've seen represented is Obama -- by one sticker) that probably wouldn't be there if Paul was edgier and more ... umm ... like me.

Despite my differences, I'm happy to support a credible, well-funded, wildly popular candidate who is libertarian without being exactly the sort of libertarian I usually favor.

I think Cowen gets at the heart of his objection when he says, "personally I am skeptical of most forms of gun control but I worry when a candidate so emphasizes a pro-gun stance." That's not even an ideological difference -- it's a matter of emphasis, and one probably rooted in culture.

I know many New York- and D.C.-rooted libertarians are frankly uncomfortable with the prevailing preferences and norms out in "flyover" country. They don't get social conservatism -- even when it comes packaged with live-and-let-live policy proposals. They don't understand the affection that middle America has for firearms, or its religiosity, or the way it talks, or... well ... pretty much anything about it. I get it; I'm a former New Yorker who lives in rural Arizona and straddles the great divide. I can rest up after an afternoon of splitting wood by watching a Woody Allen movie, but I don't expect other people to attempt such dangerous cultural gymnastics.

And it is a great divide. The discomfort some libertarians feel for other libertarians has engendered a bit of a silly schism over cultural issues and matters of emphasis more than ideological disputes.

But there's a big country out here, and you can't just write off political candidates who agree with you on important political issues, but talk and think differently than you and perhaps arrive at their positions by a different route than brought you to your destination -- not unless you're hopelessly tribal that is. Fortunately, many people seem capable of making the leap. The fact that Ron Paul is simultaneously steeped in middle-American values and doesn't want to jam any of them down people's throats goes a long way toward explaining his wide-ranging popularity. He's playing well in ranch country, but also among college students and even in cosmopolitan enclaves like San Francisco. As far as I can tell, his appeal doesn't lie in being exactly what everybody wants, but in sincerely respecting people's right to differ with one another and to live as they please under a strictly restrained government, as long as they respect the equal rights of others.

If, like Tyler Cowen, you're waiting for a candidate who not only agrees with you on the issues, but emphasizes them according to your priority list and does so from a viewpoint steeped in your culture, you're probably well advised to toss your own hat in the ring.

Go ahead; if you're right on the issues, I'll probably support you -- even if I think you have funny priorities. I hope you do half as well as Ron Paul.


Political countdown

Ron Paul is now polling at 10% in Iowa. Whether that new poll means anything more than earlier polls is up in the air. My guess is that the actual results on January 3 will only vaguely resemble "scientific" predictions.

Hillary Clinton is still campaigning for Bill's third term (now with tits). If you want the man back, vote for the lady, she seems to promise. Actually, I suspect that Bill would get served with divorce papers on Hillary's inauguration day.

And Mike Huckabee is getting scarier by the day. Is he really a would-be theocrat who wants to bash heathens with his Jesus stick? Or does he just like hanging around with "Christocrats"?

Oh, and John Edwards says we should vote for him because he speaks with an exaggerated Southern drawl. How do you argue with that?


The future is dumber than you think

Way back in 1974, when my father ran for governor of New York on the Free Libertarian (now just Libertarian) line and came in a ... err ... not-so-close fourth, his original campaign slogan was the somewhat inscrutable "Stamp Out Idiocracy." Inscribed on campaign buttons, it was a chuckle-inducer once readers bothered to puzzle it through.

So, when my parents came to visit their grandson this Christmas, and incidentally drop in on their son and daughter-in-law, my old man was intrigued to see that I'd rented a movie called Idiocracy for holiday viewing. A one-time campaign slogan skewering the powerful dumb-asses running the Empire State into the ground had been transformed into a satire of the dumb-ass population running American culture into the ground.

If you're not familiar with Idiocracy (a real possibility, since the studio reportedly sat on Mike Judge's movie for a year before releasing it, without any marketing push, to as few theaters as possible), it's about a lazy and no-so-bright soldier and an unlucky hooker frozen in the early 21st Century as part of a hibernation experiment. The experiment is supposed to last one year, but ... well ... scandal intervenes, the base is closed, the project is forgotten -- and the pair are revived only by accident 500 years in the future.

And what a future it is.

The stage for the rapid devolution of the world is set by an early sequence that contrasts a neurotic, high-achieving couple's indecision over having a child -- indecision that leads to the permanent removal of their genetic material from the breeding pool -- with the prolific fertility of bed-hopping trailer trash who produce successive generations of mouth-breathing spawn. The result, after centuries, is a world dominated by morons, where nothing quite works, clothing is covered in corporate logos, the most popular TV show is called, Ow, My Balls and the English language has degenerated to an amalgam of "hillbilly, valley girl, inner-city slang and various grunts."

I have to admit that Judge's scene-setting hit a little close to home. At 42, I'm chasing after the one toddler that my wife and I decided to have, and were able to have at this late date only after intrusive and expensive fertility treatments. Meanwhile, an ongoing topic of conversation in our house is the astonishing fecundity of the youngest, dumbest and most irresponsible of my wife's patients. To judge by the customers for her pediatric services, the next generation is primarily being spawned by unmarried sixteen-year-old high-school dropouts with no visible means of support and little interest in nurturing the annoying creatures who mysteriously pop out every nine months or so.

Idiocracy has been tentatively claimed as something of a political manifesto, but it's hard to wrap the movie in any ideological flag. Rather than conservative or liberal, it's proudly elitist. The movie bemoans crass popular culture, anti-intellectualism and the sexualization of everything (in the movie, coffee shops and tax preparers alike offer "full release" among their services). Rednecks get zapped, as do urban blacks, TV-addicted couch potatoes and anybody who has ever paid for the privilege of turning his body into a corporate billboard. It's easy to see Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley temporarily putting aside their long feud to sing the praises of the movie.

I'm not so critical of pop culture as Mike Judge, nor so worried about being swamped by trailer trash -- I suspect that dumb-ass fertility is nothing new, while the high-tech age may actually be improving reproductive opportunities for the smartest and geekiest among us. But, fundamentally, the movie makes the worthy point that popular and stupid is absolutely not better than unpopular and smart. That's a politically incorrect, anti-democratic point of view at the moment, but it's important and worth emphasizing.

My wife is a convert. After the movie ended, she turned to me and said, "We need to have more kids."

Oh no. The world will just have to risk getting a little dumber without me.

Incidentally, as for my father ... His campaign slogan might have referred to a slightly different kind of "idiocracy," but he thoroughly enjoyed the movie.


Sunday, December 23, 2007

Wow, you mean J. Edgar was a bastard?

Infamous FBI capo J. Edgar Hoover apparently thought there were a few things worth emulating about the Soviet Union -- rounding up dissidents and holding them without trial, for example. Says the Washington Post:

Former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had a plan to suspend the rules against illegal detention shortly after the Korean War began and arrest as many as 12,000 Americans he suspected of being disloyal, according to a newly declassified document...

The plan called for the FBI to apprehend all potentially dangerous individuals whose names were on a list that Hoover had been compiling for years.

"The index now contains approximately twelve thousand individuals, of which approximately ninety-seven percent are citizens of the United States," Hoover wrote in the now-declassified document. "In order to make effective these apprehensions, the proclamation suspends the Writ of Habeas Corpus."

Habeas corpus, by the way, can only be suspended by Congress, and then only in "Cases of Rebellion or Invasion." Not all presidents have agreed, but in ex parte Milligan, the Supreme Court pretty much decided the issue.


Friday, December 21, 2007

Thieves with badges

Luther Ricks Sr. was at home in Lima, Ohio, when burglars broke into his house. In the ensuing struggle, Ricks managed to fatally shoot one of the assailants.

But he was still robbed of over $400,000.

Even though the original thieves were driven off, police who responded to the scene absconded with a safe holding Ricks's life savings -- apparently using the presence of a small stash of marijuana as an excuse -- and then surrendered the loot to bigger bullies in the form of the FBI.

Now the feds want Ricks to prove that the money actually belongs to him and his wife before they return his life savings.

American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio Legal Director Jeff Gamso said Ricks has a tough road ahead, not impossible, but tough to get back his money.

“The law of forfeiture basically says you have to prove you’re innocent. It’s terrible, terrible law,” he said.

The law is tilted in favor of the FBI in that Ricks need not be charged with a crime and the FBI stands a good chance at keeping the money, Gamso said.

“The law will presume it is the result of ill-gotten gains,” he said.

Combine avaricious "lawmen" with an abusive war on drugs and stir. That's the recipe for the stealingest gang in town.

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Posting will be spotty ...

... because it's the holidays, and I have presents to wrap, family and friends to see and good cigars and whiskey in which to indulge.

Not that I'm telling you what to do, but I hope you're having a great holiday season.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Hold the fries -- or else

Los Angeles politicos are pushing ahead with plans to ban fast food restaurants in certain parts of the city -- particularly, in those areas inhabited by ... you know ... poor people who can't be trusted to make menu decisions for themselves.

Despite concerns over its broad sweep, a city panel on Tuesday moved ahead with a plan to ban fast-food restaurants in South Los Angeles.

The proposal from Councilwoman Jan Perry was approved by the council's Planning and Land Use Committee even though two city officials said they believe more work on the ordinance is needed.

"We have a serious problem in my district with fast-food restaurants and the increasing level of obesity and diabetes," Perry told the panel.

No word yet on whether those folks will also be relieved of the burden of picking city council members and such.


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Mark Steyn censored in Canada?

Conservative Canadian pundit Mark Steyn has made a name for himself in recent years as a Cassandra about the supposed threat posed by Islam to the liberal democracies of the West. Making the case most clearly in his witty, if doom-mongering, book America Alone, Steyn argues that Europeans are slipping into irrelevance courtesy of their doddering welfare states and their anemic birthrates -- that Belgium, France and Holland are poised to join the Muslim world courtesy of fast-breeding immigrants who retain a closer kinship to the cultures of the countries they left than to the values of their new homes. In response, Steyn has drawn charges of sloppy argument and even overt racism.

But, until now, the broadsides fired at the controversial writer have been rhetorical in nature -- they haven't actually carried legal consequences. That's changed now that Canadian authorities are investigating Steyn for supposed "hate speech" -- a forbidden form of expression in the frozen North -- over an excerpt from his book published in Macleans magazine.

Yep, that's right -- a writer may be penalized by the government for penning officially disfavored ideas. In Canada.

Many Americans have the idea that Canada is a lot like the U.S., but a tad more nanny-statish. In a lot of ways that's true, but it understates some important differences. In particular, Canadians are much more vulnerable than Americans to the whims of government officials when it comes to protections for individual rights. As eroded as the U.S. Bill of Rights may be, it starts from the premise that individual rights precede government, and that government may not legitimately violate or change those rights. Practical application is another matter, but the original premise still has some force.

By contrast, Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms is written as a model of slippery legalese, and seems rooted in the idea that the rights and freedoms it protects are gifts from the government. Notoriously, it includes a clause that allows federal or provincial legislators to ignore the charter by simply stating their intent to do so.

33. (1) Parliament or the legislature of a province may expressly declare in an Act of Parliament or of the legislature, as the case may be, that the Act or a provision thereof shall operate notwithstanding a provision included in section 2 or sections 7 to 15 of this Charter.

In usual practice, this difference may mean little. Canadians sometimes exercise a little more liberty than Americans on issues like marijuana use, for instance. But the idea that liberty is something that's parceled out by politicians tends to result in predictable results when those politicians come under pressure by people upset by somebody else's exercise of their rights. Specifically, that means that voicing politically incorrect opinions can trigger complaints that send bureaucrats chasing after politically incorrect opinions with hefty legal flyswatters.

Not too long ago, the Canadian Human Rights Commission actually issued a cease-and-desist order against a Canadian woman for posting homophobic Bible verses on American Websites. So Mark Steyn faces real potential consequences over the opinions he voiced in a book that hit the New York Times bestseller list.

Steyn may be right about the demise of liberal democracies in the West. But the killing may be suicide rather than murder.


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Spy amnesty bill gets yanked

As a former Connecticut resident, I know that Sen. Christopher Dodd isn't good for much other than competing in the liver-damage Olympics with his buddy, Sen. Kennedy. But those of us who care enough to want to rein-in the surveillance state owe him a vote of thanks for his threat to filibuster a bill that would have shielded telecommunication companies from lawsuits over their collaboration with the government in schemes to spy on Americans. The threat worked; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has pulled the bill from consideration for the time being.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has the lowdown on the spying scandal, and the effort to make telecoms de facto deputies of the NSA.


Courting Christians -- and nobody else

Mike "Jesus is my social worker" Huckabee has been making political hay of worn-on-his-sleeve religious faith. His latest political ad, positioned as a Christmas greeting, makes it clear that he's an explicitly -- and possibly exclusively -- Christian candidate.

The floating window frame cum cross in the background really seals the deal.

Obviously, political candidates have the right to ride to office on crucifixes, Stars-of David or prayer rugs if they want to. But, by doing so, they define themselves in opposition to voters who don't share their faith. With Huckabee trudging his way to Iowa with a ten-pound cross swinging from his neck, he risks alienating non-Christians by giving the impression that he can never, truly, be on "their side."

To put it bluntly, speaking as an atheist, Huckabee creeps me out.

That doesn't mean that religious people can't run for office; it's when they define their candidacies by one faith that they risk driving away people who don't precisely share their theological views. Huckabee has been in politics long enough to know the divisive power of running an explicitly Christian campaign. That suggests that he just doesn't care about the votes of non-believers.

Update: Is it a surprise that Ron Paul may have the most appropriate response to Huckabee's me-and-God gambit?

If you can't or don't want to sit through the video, Paul's comment is:

"It reminds me of what Sinclair Lewis once said. He says, 'when fascism comes to this country, it will be wrapped in the flag, carrying a cross.' Now I don't know whether that's a fair assessment or not, but you wonder about using a cross, like he is the only Christian or implying that subtly. So, I don't think I would ever use anything like that."

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Monday, December 17, 2007

SF contemplates soda tax

Says the San Francisco Chronicle:

After banning plastic bags from chain grocery stores and bottled water from City Hall, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has set his sights on soda - working up a plan to charge a new city fee to big retailers of sugar drinks.

Oh, please. A "fee" to be imposed on sellers (which means buyers) of sweet drinks? I'd ask what's next, but I'm afraid what the answer would be.

Note that Newsom is specifically targeting "high-fructose corn syrup drinks like colas and Big Gulps," which suggests he may be exempting gourmet drinks sweetened with cane sugar and honey. You know -- the kind of drinks favored by Newsom's oh-so-right-thinking supporters.


New Jersey unplugs the chair

I've always had strong doubts about the wisdom of allowing government officials -- even after trial and the appeals process -- to kill prisoners as punishment for their crimes. To judge by the news, the governor of the woefully mis-nicknamed Garden State feels the same way. I can't speak for Governor Jon Corzine -- God knows, I wouldn't ever want to speak for Corzine -- but for my part, I oppose the death penalty on both personal and pragmatic grounds.

It's not that I'm a pacifist; to the contrary, I believe very strongly in the right to bear arms and to use them in defense of life and property. But killing an assailant who poses an active threat to you, your friends and loved ones, or your home and valuables is a very different matter from hauling a prisoner in shackles from his jail cell, strapping him to a gurney and running high-voltage or poison into his body. It's clear to me that, as long as an attacker displays the intention and the capacity to do you harm, you have the right to use whatever force is necessary, including lethal force, in self-defense. But force ceases to be necessary once that attacker has surrendered or been subdued. Of course you can shoot an intruder who breaks into your house in the middle of the night and brandishes a weapon at you. But how do you justify poisoning or electrocuting that same person once he's been disarmed and confined? I just don't see a moral justification for killing as a penalty for past acts.

Then there are problems with the integrity and fallibility of the people who administer all human institutions. Do you remember when then-Illinois Governor George Ryan suspended his state's death penalty -- and why he did so? As Ryan commented at the time:

We have now freed more people than we have put to death under our system -- 13 people have been exonerated and 12 have been put to death. There is a flaw in the system, without question, and it needs to be studied.

More recently, Mississippi's de facto state medical examiner, Steven Hayne, has been exposed as a hack who essentially testilies to anything that prosecutors want, no matter how unfounded his statements may be and how impermissible his practices have been judged by professional organizations. Says former Columbus, Mississippi, police chief J.D. Sanders, "There’s no question in my mind that there are innocent people doing time at Parchman Penitentiary due to the testimony of Dr. Hayne. "There may even be some on death row."

It's unacceptable to imprison people for crimes they didn't actually commit, but at least you can free them, cut them checks that feature lots of zeros and wish them the best in their new lives. How do you make amends to somebody who has been wrongly executed? Fresh flowers on the grave every week just won't do the job.

New Jersey politicians don't do a lot of things right, but they took the high ground by formally abolishing a penalty that's morally indefensible, dangerous to implement in a system run by fallible human beings -- and which the state hasn't used since 1963 anyway. It's time for other states to follow suit.


Whoops! Sorry about the broken door

Over at Reason's Hit & Run, Radley Balko has the lowdown on the latest wrong-house raid by police officers staging a potentially deadly Keystone Kops reenactment.

According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

The Police Department's SWAT team was trying to search the two-story house at 12:46 a.m. in the 1300 block of Logan Avenue N., as part of an investigation by the Violent Offender Task Force. But police said that they learned later that bad information led them to that house.

"It was found out that this particular address was not part of that long-term investigation," police spokesman Sgt. Jesse Garcia III told KSTP-TV on Sunday. He told KMSP-TV that it was a "bad situation."

"Bad situation" indeed. The innocent homeowner thought it was a home invasion by lawless gang members -- which, in a way, it was. He armed himself and fired on the raiders, hitting two of them. The officers escaped injury courtesy of their body armor.

In fact, the original headline for the Star-Tribune's article was apparently, "Two Officers Are Saved by Bullet-Proof Vests" -- a sentiment that still features in the subhead. That effusive concern for the well-being of the police and total lack of concern for the safety of the family the officers terrorized offers a real insight into the priorities prevailing in that paper's newsroom.

Not all journalists so closely identify with the authorities, however. I'll mention here the excellent work the Chicago Tribune has done exposing the free pass that city's police often get when it comes to investigations of even the most dubious shootings by cops. We could use a little more of that attention turned on not just police transgressions, but on standard tactics, such as midnight raids at the drop of a hat, that seem destined to produce tragedy.

Balko has done excellent work researching the prevalence of excessively aggressive, inappropriate and deadly police tactics. See his report for the Cato Institute: Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Big bucks for the Paul campaign


As of 9:50pm EST, the Ron Paul campaign is closing in on $5.3 million in donations courtesy of today's money bomb. I expect the campaign to clear $6 million -- possibly more -- by the time midnight rolls around.

The challenge now will be to put this money to good use. It's probably late in the game to buy much more media in Iowa or New Hampshire, although the campaign should certainly try, but the primary schedule allows for other possibilities. Paul is polling at 11% in South Carolina and is gaining traction in live-and-let-live Nevada, both of which vote on January 19. Those states would seem to be natural targets for extra effort. Good showings early on would be a big boost for the campaign on the way to Super Tuesday.

After that?

Well, $17 million or more, raised so far this quarter, buys a lot of attention. Paul's campaign now has the luxury of more resources than the good doctor ever dreamed of for transmitting his pro-freedom, anti-war message to the voters.


Friday, December 14, 2007

But they're role models!

And it's Congress's business whether private-sector athletes employed by for-profit companies are taking performance-enhancing drugs because ...?

I mean, Major League Baseball didn't hold hearings when Sen. McCain's wife, Cindy, was outed for popping painkillers like they were M&Ms.

Honestly, even if you support drug prohibition (I don't), it's hard to make a case that it's a legitimate federal concern if professional baseball players are revealed to be taking prescription drugs without benefit of a doctor's note to boost their averages and extend their careers. At most, this should be a matter for local prosecutors.

Personally, I don't care if athletes are locking themselves in hotel rooms with whiskey and hookers, a la Babe Ruth, shooting steroids, or uploading their brains into carefully crafted robot bodies. I just want to see them excel on the playing field.


Thursday, December 13, 2007

The law isn't the last word

Those of us unlucky enough to have attended law school inevitably had a classmate or two who browsed through casebooks and came across legal tricks that allowed them to wreak undreamed-of havoc on unsuspecting merchants, neighbors and the world at large. For those wayward classmates, the law was a new and dangerous toy they could use to call the tunes to which other folks dance. It was as if they'd woken up Christmas morning, unwrapped their presents, and discovered a lockpick set and wiretapping gear -- and carte blanche to put the stuff to use. Whether or not those legal tricks ought to be used was somehow beside the point.

It seems that many lawyers never get over the ain't-that-cool revelation about the power of their field of knowledge. Think, for example, of Richard McLean and Edith Stevens, a retired judge and attorney in Boulder, Colorado, who used the relatively obscure legal doctrine of "adverse possession" to go to court and swipe a third of Susie and Don Kirlin's neighboring parcel.

Unsurprisingly, the land-grab triggered a groundswell of support for the Kirlins and outrage toward the well-connected couple who manipulated the law to their advantage.

In one of the offending couple's few statements on the case, Edith Stevens responded to the Kirlins' loud complaints about the outcome of the case by saying, "They lost the case, and they are disgruntled litigants."

Supporters of McLean and Stevens are few and far between, but they seem invariably to be drawn from the legal profession. In a letter to the Boulder Daily Camera, Conrad Lattes, who clerked for McLean, wrote:

All that I know about the merits of the adverse possession claim filed against the Kirlins is that McLean and Stevens successfully proved the elements of their claim. Unless you were present for the trial and heard all of the evidence, you cannot know any more. If you don't like the adverse possession law, which is the law in all 50 states and is derived from English common law, seek a legislative change, but don't make personal attacks upon people who assert their legal rights, especially when you only know a portion of the facts.

Like those law-school students with their exciting, new legal knowledge, Stevens and Lattes are missing an important point about the role that law plays in any properly functioning society.

A legal system can not be constituted as an eternal game of "gotcha" played by those with mastery of the law upon those lacking such knowledge. No matter how comfortable lawyers, judges and their friends are with the existing state of affairs, there's nothing inevitable about the survival of the current legal system if it comes to be seen as producing outcomes that offend the consciences of most people, and if the law is perceived as a weapon with which the well-connected can prey upon the unprepared.

Fundamentally, legal systems are a matter of compromise. At the heart of the birth of every legal system is a situation like, oh, this one:

Mr. Thomas: Hey, Mr. Smith! Where are you going with that baseball bat?

Mr. Smith: Didn't you hear? Mr. Jones ripped me off in a business deal. I'm going to break his legs and sell his stuff to get my money back.

Mr. Thomas: Hmmm. That seems like a clumsy way to resolve a dispute -- and one fraught with potential for future conflict. How about I get together with Ms. Brown and Ms. Walker and we hear you both give your sides of the story. If you convince us that Jones owes you money, we'll make sure he pays you.

Mr. Smith: Well ... I guess that does sound better than looking over my shoulder for Jones's sons to come after me. If you can make that work, I'll go along with it.

Oh, all right. Maybe that does conflate several centuries of gradual evolution into a neat package. But you get the picture. To hold people's respect, the legal system has to maintain a reputation for producing results better, on average, than people can get through their own resources. It has to resolve disputes equitably, preserve property, protect rights and do it all without enraging the people it supposedly serves. If the system loses public respect, the baseball bats come out.

Or, maybe, something evolves to take it's place. It's happened before.

In the Middle Ages, when the legal systems maintained by various local warlords consisted largely of dunking suspected witches and poking accused tax cheats with red-hot irons, Europe's growing ranks of merchants decided that the tools at hand were inadequate for resolving commercial disputes. So they ignored the official courts and created their own.

The resulting Lex Mercatoria evolved from the ground up, extended beyond national borders and derived its authority from wide, popular support. It was successful enough that fragments still exist today.

Of course, that doesn't mean that McLean, Stevens and company are likely to trigger the creation of an alternative legal system. Not yet, anyway. But it does mean that, when their use of the law outrages public opinion, the problem lies not in popular understanding of the law, but in the law itself. If the law seems unjust to the public, it fails in its primary mission.

McLean and Stevens complain of the vitriol heaped on them, and that they've received threats in the mail. If nothing can convince them that they've done wrong, no matter how legal their actions, then perhaps the evidence that people are turning to extra-legal means of retribution against the couple will convince them that, perhaps, their actions are undermining the legal system they so gleefully exploit.

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Cursing case now before a judge

The bizarre case of Dawn Herb, the West Scranton, Pennsylvania, woman charged with disorderly conduct after police officer Patrick Gilman, a neighbor, overheard her cursing at an overflowing toilet, continues to wind its way through the"justice" system. Herb apparently landed in court after Gilman became offended over her failure to follow his order to "shut the fuck up."

Herb is represented by ACLU attorney Barry Dyller.

Mr. Dyller presented no testimony at Monday’s hearing.

He did, however, outline several cases that were similar to Ms. Herb’s. In one, the defendant had cursed at a police officer and in another, the defendant said “(Expletive) the draft,” he explained.

Judge Gallagher said he’d take a few days to review the case law Mr. Dyller gave him and then make a ruling.

If convicted, Ms. Herb could receive up to 90 days in jail and a $300 fine.

Mr. Dyller said he didn’t think that would happen.

“It’s protected First Amendment speech,” he said. “You’re allowed to speak colorfully.”

Yes, you do have the right to "speak colorfully." But as with the exercise of all rights, beware of ticking off thin-skinned government employees.

See the First Amendment Center on profanity and First Amendment protections: "Profanity and the First Amendment"


On its face, profane language is generally not a punishable form of speech. The exceptions discussed above are narrow in scope. The context in which the speech is spoken plays a major role in determining whether such language is protected by First Amendment.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Tax competition comes to Europe

Fans of big, expensive and heavy-handed government in the United States often point to European tax rates as evidence that not everybody is as "selfish" as low-tax-advocating Americans. If Belgian, Danes, French and Germans can be happy with an extensive, intrusive state and the soaring taxes it takes to support such an entity, why can't folks on this side of the Atlantic get with the program?

Well, as it turns out, many Europeans aren't so happy with that arrangement.

The International Herald Tribune reports that even in Denmark, where the economy is chugging along largely thanks to a very un-European measure of economic freedom, many skilled workers are fleeing to jobs beyond the borders in order to escape confiscatory tax rates that can reach 63%.

As a self-employed software engineer, Thomas Sorensen broadcasts his qualifications to potential employers across Europe and the Middle East. But to the ones in his native Denmark, he is simply unavailable.

Settled in Frankfurt, where he handles computer security for a major Swiss corporation, Sorensen, 34, has no plans to return to the days of paying sky-high Danish taxes. Still, an unknowing headhunter does occasionally pass his name to Danish companies.

"When I get an e-mail from them, I either respond negatively but politely," Sorensen said. "Or I don't respond at all."

Born and trained at Denmark's expense, but working - and paying lower taxes - elsewhere in Europe, Sorensen is the stuff of nightmares for Danish companies and politicians searching for solutions to an increasingly desperate labor shortage. ...

The Confederation of Danish Industries estimated in August that the Danish labor force had shrunk by about 19,000 people through the end of 2005, because Danes and others had moved elsewhere. Other studies suggest that about 1,000 people leave the country each year, a figure that masks an outflow of qualified Danes and an inflow of less skilled foreign workers who help, at least partially, to offset the losses.

So European governments find themselves trying to court employers and workers at least partially by keeping individual tax rates at a competitively low level. Those governments that don't compete, suffer the consequences.

But isn't Europe as a whole a mecca for high taxation?

Well ... not so much anymore.

The movement toward lower taxes passed Denmark by, even as it took root in much of Europe.

Small East European countries, notably Estonia and Slovakia, started the trend by imposing low, flax taxes on income and corporate profits about five years ago. Those moves helped prod Austria, and eventually, Germany, to slash high marginal rates as well.

Danish taxes also contrast sharply with those in nearby London, often jokingly referred to among Danes as a Danish town, because so many of them live there. Lower taxes on high earners have been a centerpiece of the policy mix that has fed the rise of London as a global financial center since the 1980s.

Low taxes are a relative matter, of course. But with the relatively open borders of the European Union, allowing people to move and work where they wish, people can settle in the environment that offers what they want -- and what many obviously want is lower taxes.


Prohibition: Same as it ever was

I went to the drugstore to buy allergy medication this morning. As is often the case in this increasingly strange land, the purchase involved retrieving a card from the store shelf, going to the pharmacy counter, surrendering the card and my driver's license, signing an electronic register and then paying for the package. There was no waiting period, but I'm sure it's only a matter of time.

It's all for the public good, we're told. The ephedrine and pseudoephedrine contained in some medications can be used to manufacture methamphetamine, the officially scary street drug of the moment, so it's our civic duty to let government officials know when our noses are dripping so we can drive this dread scourge from our shores.

We've been through this nonsense before. I may have an especially cynical attitude toward regulations intended to prevent people from getting high because of my own family's long and lucrative experience with failed prohibitions of the past.

My father's maternal grandfather owned Marano's Bar and Restaurant in the Bronx, the speakeasy of choice for New York City's police commissioner when a tough day of enforcing the 18th Amendment's ban on alcoholic beverages left the law-and-order honcho's throat a bit parched. My great-grandfather ended up with a pocket full of cash as reward for his illicit efforts.

Of course, Giuseppe Marano had to buy his illegal liquor someplace. I've often wondered if one of his sources might have been Franz Kuntz, a German-speaking New Jersey farmer and maternal grandfather to my mother, who supplemented his income by supplying moonshine to the thirsty denizens of New York City. He never became as wealthy as Marano, but as far as I know, he never regretted his sideline business efforts.

Prohibition provided my forebears and their contemporaries with irresistible business opportunities that guaranteed that the ban on alcohol would fail.

Which brings us back to the very modern ritual of submitting to an identity check to buy allergy tablets. How did this happen?

Prohibition of intoxicants favored by many people created its own reality once again. As Russ Jones, a narcotics detective and member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, recently wrote on the organization's blog:

Methamphetamine is a direct by-product of the war on drugs. We would not have meth if pharmaceutical amphetamines continued to be available as they were through prescriptions in the 1960s. With the war on drugs and the crack down on doctors and pharmaceuticals, and since meth is easily created in home laboratories, methamphetamine was created by black marketeers to fill the demand of those who desired stimulants.

Prohibitionist government officials tried to restrict the availability of powder cocaine and amphetamines. Innovative underground chemists responded with stable, concentrated crack cocaine and home-brewed methamphetamine. Government officials then scrambled to tighten access to the chemicals that can be used to make the drugs that were created to evade the earlier bans on legally disfavored intoxicants. Round and around we go, and the next move is in the hands black-market entrepreneurs who have proven themselves creative and adaptable through generations of prohibitions.

Prohibitionists answer evidence about the inevitable failure of their efforts with emotional pleas to "do something" to stop the supposed plague of drug use and its resulting ill-effects.

But even if you believe that government has a legitimate role to play in protecting us from ourselves (I don't), you have to wonder what's worse: real, but limited, self-inflicted harm among some users of illegal intoxicants, or an endless cycle of violence, corruption and tainted, ever-stronger drugs spawned by doomed prohibitions.

Prohibition, after all, gave us Al Capone, poisonous bathtub gin and a hypocritical high-ranking police official sitting at my great-grandfather's bar. The war on drugs has given us murderous cocaine cartels, toxic waste dumps on the sites of underground meth labs and a police narcotics squad in Atlanta, Georgia, so corrupt that it shot down 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston and then planted marijuana in her house to cover its crime.

Would the world really be such a bad place if we let people enjoy their "cocktails" and just offered help to those who misuse or abuse the intoxicants of their choice?

History demonstrates that eliminating drugs simply isn't an option. People have long made it clear that they want to get high, and clever entrepreneurs stand eternally ready to supply them something to take the edge off, no matter what the law says.

As I stand at the drug store counter, signing the register, if I squint just a bit I can see the ghosts of my great-grandfathers rubbing their hands together in anticipation of new opportunities made possible by Prohibition's offspring.


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Spook says waterboarding isn't a nice thing to do

Even former CIA interrogator John Kiriakou, who believes that waterboarding is an effective interrogation technique, admits that it's torture and shouldn't be used to gather information. Kiriakou says, "It was like flipping a switch," about the use of the torture technique on Zayn Abidin Muhammed Hussein abu Zubaida, a high-ranking al-Qaeda member. Once abu Zubaida was subjected to the simulated drowning, he spilled his guts on command. Nevertheless, Kiriakou believes that waterboarding should not be used.

The former interrogator came forward in the midst of a furor over CIA defiance of court orders to preserve all records of its interrogation sessions. Instead, the agency destroyed videotapes of the interrogations "to protect the identities of CIA employees who appear on them."

Well, yes, concealing the identities of the participants in a crime would tend to "protect" them.

Kiriakou's entry into the debate needs to be addressed. Specifically, he denounces waterboarding as torture, but says the technique actually works. This raises both possibilities and pitfalls for people who oppose using discomfort and pain as means of extracting information.

I've never been completely comfortable with the argument against torture on the grounds that inducing pain is ineffective and extracts, at best, bad information. While many studies do support this contention, it's always vulnerable to refinements in torture techniques that make the use of pain an effective tactic. If Kiriakou is to be believed, waterboarding is such an effective refinement, and therefore trumps the "ineffective" anti-torture position.

But Kiriakou still opposes the use of torture. Why? Well, without going into much detail, he says, "Americans are better than that" and "It may have compromised our principles at least in the short term."

These statements are shorthand moral arguments, which can be much stronger than pragmatic arguments, because they aren't rendered irrelevant by increasing the effectiveness of torture techniques. If you believe that inflicting pain on a helpless prisoner is inherently wrong, that it discredits your own cause, violates the rights of the person at your mercy, and implicitly makes your own people the target of similar treatment at the hands of the enemy, then it doesn't matter if it works -- it simply must not be done.

But moral arguments often involve more reasoning than people are willing to pursue, and the consequentialist subset of such arguments largely revolve around the vulnerable notion that torture is ineffective.

To me, the most convincing case against the use of torture lies in the fallibility of the people who would be given formal license to inflict pain. Knowing, as we do, that government agencies already misuse the powers they have; that they kill without just cause, imprison the innocent, deny due process, spy on opponents and destroy evidence of their transgressions, then permitting torture will open up a whole new realm of inevitable abuses. Human governments produce bullying cops, power-mad regulators, corrupt legislators and mission-creep. Delivering into the hands of such people the authority to inflict pain on people they have at their mercy guarantees that pain and discomfort will be used against innocent people, in unimagined ways under circumstances never intended by even the best-intentioned architects of legal torture.


Supreme Court actually decides the right way

Reason magazine's Jacob Sullum does the heavy lifting so that I don't have to. Short version: The Supremes ruled that, when judges disagree with the different sentences meted out for possession of crack and powder cocaine, they are free to depart from the sentencing guidelines. Such departures should be treated with deference. And trading a gun for drugs does not constitute "using" a firearm in the course of a drug offense.


Cory Maye coverage

The always-excellent Radley Balko has posted an in-depth musing the on the sad case of Cory Maye, the Mississippi man currently serving live without parole in prison (originally, he faced the death penalty) for killing a police officer in self-defense during a misfired no-knock raid on the wrong house. As always seems to be the case, the raid was an artifact of the "war on drugs" -- an attempt to arrest people for engaging in commerce in officially disfavored intoxicants.

Balko has followed this case from the beginning. While he's been a consistent advocate for Cory Maye, his reportage is notable for the sympathy he expresses toward Ron Jones, the man killed when police burst into Maye's bedroom in the middle of the night.

You have one man taken from his family, in the prime of his life. You have another man, also taken from his family, now losing the prime of his life. You have a son taken from his mother and father. And you have a loving father being taken from his son and daughter.

Thank this war. The goddamned drug war. It is so incredibly senseless and stupid. And it’ll continue to claim and ruin lives, because too few politicians have the backbone to stand up and say after 30 years, $500 billion, a horrifyingly high prison population, and countless dead innocents, cops, kids, nonviolent offenders, decimated neighborhoods, wasted lives, corrupted cops, and eviscerations of the core freedoms this country was allegedly founded upon, the shit isn’t working.

From my perspective, the case against Maye seems rooted in the twin evils of racism -- Maye is black and Jones was white -- and the insane assumption that police are automatically due cringing subservience, even when they crash through your door as unidentifiable raiders in the middle of the night.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

Do police deserve deference?

In a comment on one of my posts regarding the tasering of Jared Massey, that prolific writer "Anonymous" raised some interesting points regarding proper conduct toward police that I think are worth addressing. I reproduce the comment in full here:

If I follow your blog correctly, we should engage police on every occasion where we don't agree with their judgement of a situation, right there on the spot. I'm not really sure how that would work. Maybe we should take the human element out if it completely and enforce the law with radar controlled cameras like they do it Germany. Then the motorist would have had no opportunity to attempt to debate instead of following a rational and safe procedure of accepting the ticket and challenging it in court, which is the correct venue for defending oneself.

From the video, it did not appear to me that the officer "out of control". It did show that the officer unfortunately and incorrectly escalated the confrontation to an unacceptable level too quickly, with little cause. He should certainly be disciplined and retrained. However, the motorist was not following his instructions and while the officer didn't handle it correctly, one doesn't want to see roadside debates with police.

Let's forget the rhetoric and deal with the situation in a rational manner. What we witnessed was a complex problem of the kind confronted by human law enforcement officers every day. The officer has to cope with the eventuality that motorists, also being human, are going to exhibit a range of behavior from docile compliance to extremely aggressive. The motorist in this situation provoked an escalation of response from the law enforcement officer and while I don't condone tasing the motorist, I also don't think comparisons with pre-2003 Iraq apply either.

I appreciate this poster sharing his/her views, since I think they effectively illustrate a view of the proper relationship between people and police officers that is fundamentally at odds with my own. The idea here seems to be that people owe some sort of deference to police officers, that we should follow their instructions without question, refrain from argument when we believe that they are mistaken and raise objections only after the fact, through "proper" channels. While the writer here doesn't explicitly say so, this view often seems based in the implicit (or sometimes explicit) premise that police are a higher sort of creature than mere civilians -- both because of the awesome responsibility they have in enforcing the law, and the danger they face in performing their duties.

Needless to say, I don't find this argument persuasive.

As I've done before, I'll start by pointing to the principles laid down by Sir Robert Peel as the foundation for modern police forces. In particular, Principle Seven states:

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.

Make no mistake -- the founder of modern law-enforcement believed it necessary to specify that police are just regular people who earn their keep by maintaining the peace full-time; they have no special authority.

So, if the police are just folks in blue polyester shirts, why are we supposed to obey their dictates as if they've been handed down from Mount Olympus? We argue with plumbers, doctors and store clerks when we believe that they are mistaken, even about matters within their areas of expertise. Why would we make special rules for enforcers of the laws -- especially when the consequences of their mistakes can involve such monumental matters as stiff fines and loss of liberty?

Is it because police work for the government?

But every day, people argue with Motor Vehicle clerks, building inspectors and elected officials. We often consider them to be mistaken, or worse, and we call them on it. In fact, it would be hard to classify as a society as "free" if people didn't feel at liberty to call government officials nasty names.

Is it because their jobs are so dangerous?

But it's not obvious that the danger of a job you voluntarily assume should automatically place your actions beyond question. Is there a sliding scale along which danger equals immunity from challenge? If so, Alaskan fishermen would have to rate a status exceeding that of papal infallibility.

But, speaking of sliding scales ...

Police work is dangerous, but not exceptionally so. According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics (PDF), fishermen, lumberjacks and airplane pilots put them to shame in the macho Olympics; even taxicab drivers have a tougher time of it.

So there's no real argument for granting police special status because of the supposed risks of their jobs.

But there is good reason to argue with police. Police officers are, after all, human; they make bad judgment calls, or even make decisions that might have gone one way or the other. In fact, out of necessity, much of police work involves the exercise of discretion -- to enforce a law with iron resolve, or to exercise lenience. Police can put the screws on you for violating long-forgotten statutes, or turn a blind eye to common violations of the nonsense that clutters up law books. Police can pull you over for doing 66 in a 65-MPH zone, or wave off drivers going 70. They can haul you off to jail for minor violations, or let you off with a ticket -- or a warning. Unless we replace police officers with Anonymous's "radar controlled cameras" (a move I'd oppose), police are going to continue to exercise discretion.

And the natural reaction to police officers with discretion is to attempt to influence their decisions. When cops decide one way and could have decided another, it's perfectly natural to try to change their minds, to flatter them, or to shame them. In fact, even kissing their asses can be a means of trying to influence their decisions. As a criminal justice lecturer at North Carolina Wesleyan College points out, "Citizens who show deference (good demeanor) toward police are treated more leniently... Police sympathize with and only lecture some offenders."

So, pace Anonymous, there's no good reason to afford police special treatment, and there's every reason in the world to argue with them when you think they're wrong, or that their minds can be changed. Throw in the enormous consequences of letting police wield their power unchallenged, and arguing with cops is not just understandable, it's commendable.


Friday, December 7, 2007

Ron Paul speech revolution

The independent Ron Paul blimp effort had been barely at the edge of my radar as a cool but not terribly important way to get the word out about the candidate, but that was before I realized how innovative the team behind the blimp campaign has been.

Politico has the story:

[T]he outside lawyer retained by blimp backers is former Federal Election Commission chairman Brad Smith, who is advising former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s rival bid for the GOP nomination.

Smith is among the leading opponents of campaign finance laws, and the blimp plan offers common cause on that front with Paul’s anti-regulation supporters, as well as an opportunity to set potentially far-reaching FEC precedent. ...

They shunned traditional mechanisms such as creating an independent non-profit group under section 527 of the IRS code — like Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and the other groups that spent millions on ads in 2004 — or a political action committee — like EMILY’s List. Instead, they went an almost unheard of route, establishing a for-profit company: Liberty Political Advertising.

The name is a nod to Paul’s ideology and the website boasts the “legal arrangement offers the best of both worlds: no limits and virtually no regulations.” In other words, very libertarian. ...

Those messages might have been off limits had blimp backers raised money for the effort using a 527, since those groups can’t explicitly support or oppose campaigns.

Likewise, had blimp backers registered with the FEC as a political action committee, they would have had to report how they raised and spent almost every dime. And they would have been barred from accepting contributions of more than $5,000-a-year from any individual.

Wow. Talk about a blow for free speech and against political censorship. This is evidence that clever grassroots efforts can still find ways to bypass McCain-Feingold-style schemes to make political activism a preserve for the big boys.

Hmmm. But just wait for the next round of laws intended to muzzle even the most independent, bottom-up political speech.

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Thursday, December 6, 2007

Not quite a declaration of religious tolerance

How pathetic is it that, in his big speech on why religion shouldn't be a factor in whether or not voters choose to support his presidential candidacy, Mitt Romney found it necessary to throw raw meat to the God-botherers?

Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone. ...

There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked. What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. ...

[I]n recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism. They are wrong.

The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'Under God' and in God, we do indeed trust.

Oh for crying out loud. That's not quite, "I believe what I believe, but it's a personal matter. I don't intend to force my beliefs upon others just as I don't want them to force their beliefs upon me."

For some reason, Romney felt obligated to specifically assure the religious bigots that he's one of them, not like those nasty non-Christians or (worse) atheists.

Contrast this with ... oh ... how about Thomas Jefferson?

But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

If you're really going to say that religion shouldn't matter, say it shouldn't matter -- don't say, "I'm all right, not like those other guys."


Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Can second-class (non)citizenship be a good thing?

Starting January 1, 2008, Arizona businesses face draconian new sanctions if they hire job-applicants who don't have the government's permission to be in the U.S., and they'll be mandated to use the feds' controversial and remarkably unreliable E-Verify system to check on the status of workers. So it's with some interest that I read "Guests in the Machine," an article in January's Reason magazine by Kerry Howley on Singapore's use of guest worker programs as an alternative to reliance on illegal workers and the possibility of implementing such a program in the United States.

Howley's piece isn't yet up at the Reason site, which is a shame because it's a important treatment of a contentious issue is available here. Bypassing all the political hype about "amnesty" and the racist mutterings about brown folks taking our jobs, she outlines Singapore's flawed, sometimes heartbreaking, but overall successful program for integrating a large class of foreign workers (42.6% of the city-state's population is foreign-born) into a nation that doesn't really want to open its borders to permanent immigrants. The result has been a flood of construction workers and household maids who help power Singapore's booming economy even as they are sometimes abused by employers, denied access to basic legal protections and made always-aware that they are guests who can be booted out of the country at short notice. Even so, they come for economic opportunities that don't exist back home, and they channel vast sums to families left behind, providing seed capital to build new homes and businesses and to buy education that makes previously undreamed-of opportunities available to the next generation.

Call it an imperfect, morally hazardous win-win.

As Howley makes clear, this example elicits both temptation and revulsion in a country like the United States, with a history of mixed feelings about immigration, as well as a mythology that suggests that everybody who comes here wants to be (and should become) American. Can Americans live with a large population of economically productive second-class (non)citizens eternally denied a soak in the melting pot? (Never mind that many past immigrants -- as many as half of all Italians who landed on these shores -- eventually took their earnings back to the old country.)

I'll admit to being extremely torn on this issue. On the one hand, I'm an open-borders guy. I don't care about government-drawn borders (or about governments, for that matter). I believe that people have the right to go where they wish, seek jobs from willing employers and enjoy the full protection of their rights no matter where they were born. I don't believe they should be a burden on others, but my opposition to reliance on a welfare state applies across the board, to the native-born as well as immigrants.

But I don't expect to see open borders anytime soon. The idea is essentially a political non-starter in a nativist age.

So, that leaves us with limited options.

1. There's continuing reliance on illegal workers who, because of their illegal status, are vulnerable to abusive employers, have little legal recourse, and are forever at risk of arrest, deportation, and the loss of whatever wealth they may have accumulated with their labor, but not yet sent home. That option may satisfy labor needs as well as immigrants' need for money (and their home countries' hunger for capital) but it comes at a high moral cost.

2. We could pursue a Lou Dobbs-style crackdown, imposing tough sanctions on employers, militarizing the border and rounding up illegals for shipment home. If it's successful, labor costs, and resulting costs of goods and services, rise. American businesses then operate, permanently, under an increasingly nerve-wracking regime of intrusive inspections and reliance on government-quality databases, with opening the door to customers every day treated ever-more as a privilege to be doled out for obedience to politicians and bureaucrats. Those who would have been immigrant workers stay at home, with few opportunities in their own poorer countries. Everybody loses, except for nativist rabble-rousers.

If it's unsuccessful, we end up with option one, but with less economic freedom and more tension at the border.

3. Or we could try a guest-worker program, providing access to labor, and opportunities for residents of poorer countries to accumulate skills and capital -- at the risk of creating a class of workers who can never hope to enjoy full rights or settle on a permanent basis.

I'm still holding out for open borders, but I think a guest-worker program deserves consideration.

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Gone to pot

Hmmm ... Interesting ...

Here's the scenario: Cops seize 39 live marijuana plants from a Fort Collins, Colorado, couple who grew the pot for medical marijuana users. Cops apparently stash the plants as evidence, but don't do anything to care for them. Cops get a shock when charges are dropped against the couple because (Surprise!) medical marijuana is legal in Colorado and the couple had crossed its legal "T"s and dotted its "I"s. Now the cops have to return the seized property -- the plants.

But they're dead.

Now, the couple is suing the police for the value of the lost crop, estimated at more than $100,000.

If I had to guess, I'd say it never crossed the cops' minds that this case could go against them, and that they might eventually have to return the seized plants in anything resembling their original condition. It seems to me that "you break it, you bought it" is the operative concept here. Smugly assuming that you have an open-and-shut case shouldn't be a shield against the obligation to care for private property of which you've conditionally taken possession.

Of course, this is America -- the land of prohibition, where drugs are bad, mm'kay. Under the circumstances, I'm very curious to see how the case plays out.

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Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Lift your glasses to Repeal Day

On December 5, 1933, Utah (Utah?) ratified the 21st Amendment, repealing the 18th Amendment and ending one of the more profoundly stupid experiments in social engineering ever engaged in by the United States of America. That makes December 5 Repeal Day -- a celebration of the availability of alcoholic beverages that should be marked by a little indulgence in the spirits of your choice.

Of course, Prohibition may be dead, but prohibitionism still walks among us, an undead example of political control freakery that sucks the life from every area of human endeavor it touches.

I look forward to the ultimate abolition of the prohibitionist impulse -- or at least to rendering it a politically impotent force touted by nasty little overgrown hallway monitors who can safely be ignored. Celebration of that victory will make for one hell of a party.


More fun at the airport

Get ready to cough up more information to the feds when you reserve your airline tickets.

The Transportation Security Administration wants to start collecting your full name, birth date, and gender when you reserve an airline flight. The TSA says it will mean fewer travelers are mistaken for terrorists. Right now travelers only have to provide a last name and a first initial.

United Airlines calls the new info sought by the TSA "useless data" and says it will "create a new level of complication for completing air reservations." Oh goody, just what we need -- more complications between purchasing tickets and boarding a (late) flight.

Left unaddressed by the TSA is whether the new information will ease the plight of people unjustly added to the no-fly list and subjected to lengthy and demeaning extra scrutiny -- or just create new grounds for confusion.

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No drinks for you

The British government is considering a new alcohol limit for drivers in the UK: Zero. That's right, no drinks at all, not so much as s sip of beer or wine before hitting the road. Hell, forget drinks -- that means no cough medicine.

I think the UK has officially overtaken the U.S. as the breeding ground for the stupidest, most intrusive control-freak rules.

Well ... except for this from North Carolina (courtesy of The Agitator):

Also, as of Saturday, people can lose their driver's licenses for providing alcohol to anyone under 21. The penalty is important because many underage drinkers get alcohol from friends or family members, said Craig Lloyd, the executive director of the North Carolina chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

The law means that, theoretically, parents could be punished for giving a glass of wine to their 20-year-old son or daughter, even if the 20-year-old never gets behind the wheel.

Lloyd said that's not excessive.

"It's a zero-tolerance policy," he said. "Breaking the law is breaking the law."

Oh, OK -- the U.S. is still in the competition.

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Monday, December 3, 2007

Venezuela a wake-up call for democracy peddlers

Venezuelan voters' rejection of a laundry list of constitutional changes that would have radically strengthened the power of the president, allowed President Hugo Chavez to stay in office indefinitely and redefined the role of the state to be dominant over the private sector comes as good news to anybody who'd like to see that much-troubled country stay within the family of nations where individuals have some hope of seeing their rights respected and their liberty preserved by the powers-that-be. Human Rights Watch, among other organizations, warned the proposed constitutional changes "would jeopardize the protection of fundamental rights at times when they are most needed." But this close call should serve as a rude awakening to those people in the habit of pushing democracy, in and of itself, as the cure to the world's political ills.

The 51%-49% victory for the opposition could easily have gone the other way, further cementing Chavez's status as the poster-boy for Latin America's long-standing tradition of awarding near-absolute political power through the ballot box. Chavez is by no means an innovator in this regard; he's just a sad reminder that regular elections, by themselves, do not a free country make.

Just what would Chavez's proposed "reforms" have accomplished? The changes to 69 articles of the nation's constitution are too numerous to mention but, referring to some, Human Rights Watch said:

The proposed changes would eliminate the constitutional prohibition on suspending due process guarantees during states of emergency. They would also eliminate specific time limits on states of emergency, giving the president de facto power to suspend due process and other basic rights indefinitely.

Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned that these provisions could lead to suspension of fundamental rights in violation of international law, as the proposed amendments would also eliminate the requirement that such restrictions “meet the requirements, principles, and guarantees established in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the American Convention on Human Rights.”

Note that these changes, if they had been adopted, would have become the law of the land courtesy of majority support. Through perfectly democratic means, Venezuela would have become a less free country.

And that's saying something. Venezuela is already a place where thuggish, pro-government street gangs attack pro-opposition demonstrations, where anti-government television stations can be stripped of their license to broadcast and where supporters of the opposition can be denied access to jobs, education and passports.

And all of this is administered by a strongman and his allies in the National Assembly who won their offices through democratic elections.

I don't mean to beat up solely on Venezuela. The point is that democracy, by itself, can bring about results as nasty as those achieved through any other political system. That's fine if you think that anything preferred by 51% of the population is automatically anointed with righteousness. But if you believe that there are higher values -- freedom and individual rights, for example -- then democracy just isn't enough. To arrive at a political system fit for human beings, you need protections for the individual and strict limits on the power of the state no matter what the majority wants.

I'm hardly the first person to warn that elections -- no matter how honest -- aren't sufficient for making a country a decent place to live. Israeli historian J. L. Talmon warned of "totalitarian democracies" in which citizens have the right to vote, but must then submit themselves to the winners' visions of the "right" way to live. More recently, Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria wrote of "illiberal democracies" where elections just pick the next gang of thugs who go about their business of beating up on their constituents. In both cases, the prophets of democracy have achieved their supposed wish -- free and fair elections -- but you might want to keep your head down after the campaigning is done and the votes are counted.

Liberal democracies, on the other hand, at least in ideal form, mate elections with severe restrictions on what the winners of those elections can actually do. The emphasis isn't on ballots, but on preserving personal freedom within a framework of predictable and fairly administered laws. Reality often falls short of the ideal, of course, but it should be obvious that it's a lot more pleasant to live in a society where elections decide the selection of hobbled administrators who have limited leeway to change the world to suit their whims than it is to live in places where every cast of the ballot selects a new set of masters with the authority to re-shape the world.

You'll notice that I haven't cited the United States (or the U.K., Canada or France) as perfect examples of the good kind of democracy in action. That's because all of the traditional paragons of liberal democracy have drifted, to one extent or another, a little closer than I like to Hugo Chavez's concept of the system. Democracy everywhere seems to be getting a little more illiberal than it used to be. The governments we elect are increasingly willing to use their democratically acquired power to mold us into the preferred shape of the moment -- perhaps a bit more Christian, a tad thinner, an ounce more multicultural, a hair more patriotic, tobacco-free, of course ...

It doesn't matter what that shape is; when elections mean little more than that we get to pick our masters, it's time to stop celebrating democracy and start considering some serious limits on government, no matter how it's selected.

Otherwise, we'll one day find ourselves thankful that, for the moment, we barely escaped awarding absolute power to a comic-opera buffoon who is loved by the majority.

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Saturday, December 1, 2007

Whitewash on Taser incident

The Utah Highway Patrol has, perhaps unsurprisingly, given Trooper Jon Gardner an "attaboy" for attacking motorist Jared Massey with a Taser during a traffic stop for speeding. As I've written before, Massey was Tasered because he challenged Gardner on the grounds for the ticket and declined to sign it; at no time did he pose a threat to the officer or anybody else. Only the sort of person who really adores living in a police state would claim that people have no right to argue with police officers.

Cops are good at closing ranks, even when the public rises up in mass revulsion at their actions. Gardner is reportedly on administrative leave because of the sheer volume of death threats his actions have elicited from the public at large. I suspect the criticism has played a role in UHP's defensive response. Government officials -- police in particular -- don't like having their judgment questioned by the public; by declaring Gardner's actions justified, UHP officials were able to issue a bureaucratically worded "fuck you" to the mere civilians who called them on the carpet.

The proper response of anybody driving through Utah is to treat any UHP officers who pull them over like dangerous animals. The creatures just might attack at any moment.

The Utah Highway Patrol can be reached here: (801)965-4518

or email here:

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