Thursday, January 31, 2008

Real life and the minimum wage

I've worked for minimum wage; if I remember right, it was $3.35/hour at the time. I remember wishing that my wages were higher, and grumbling about my paychecks with my buddies as we spent our take on pizza and cokes.

Would my situation have been improved if the minimum wage had been magically raised to, say, $7.00/hour while I was working that first job?

I doubt it -- I doubted it even then. I may have been a resentful teenager, but I wasn't a complete economic illiterate. Even as I grumbled to my friends, I strongly suspected that, given my limited skills and maturity, I was barely worth what I was making. Hike the minimum wage much above where it was, and my paycheck wouldn't grow -- it would disappear as my responsibilities were shifted to people who could actually perform at that pay level.

So it's with interest that I read the account of businessman Warren Meyer -- a fellow who runs private campgrounds and public campground under contract -- as he details his experience with and response to minimum wage laws. As he describes it, his company's survival isn't threatened by mandated hikes in wages. But the number of people the company employs and who it employs does change dramatically when government tries to set a minimum price for labor. That's because, when minimum wages are raised, his company has options; it can:

  1. simply refuse to engage in certain projects (therefore hiring nobody)

  2. hire more-productive employees (excluding whole classes of potential labor) or outsource to contractors who hire more-productive employees

  3. replace workers with automation

  4. raise the cost of its offerings to the public.

For example:
Anyway, on this particular concession we have to pay our living-on-site workers based on the SCA. This means, for example, that someone who sits in a parking lot booth collecting parking fees must be paid something like $12.50 an hour, which translates to a bit over $15.60 when you factor in FICA, SUI and workers comp. Over 2000 hours a year that is $31,200 a year.

A fully automated fee collection machine (which actually does more than the attendent, since it takes credit and debit cards as well as makes change for cash) costs $23,000. Plus, the machine never will sue over wrongful termination, never will discriminate against or sexually harass a customer, never will steal, and never will fail to show up for work.

What would you do? I would prefer to have the person there, and if we put the machine in I will still probably staff the booth on busy summer weekends to help customers out, but over 5 years the machine may save us over $100,000.

Economists and policy makers have long made the case against mandated minimum wages as job killers, but such arguments are in dry language and seem abstract when compared to the promise of a fatter paycheck at the end of the week. Meyer's anecdotes put a little flesh on the bones of the argument against minimum wages.

By the way, when you check out Meyer's piece, don't miss the comments. Some are well thought out, but the pro-minimum bits are doozies. In particular, there's the poster who wants to shut down all businesses that pay less than $10/hour because such low pay "is an abuse."

I guess it's better to have your pride -- and your unemployment.


Dibor Roberts update

If Dibor Roberts or any of her supporters is reading this blog, please contact me at jd(at) I've been approached by a civil right attorney interested in discussing the possibility of taking the Roberts case on a pro bono basis. I'll be happy to put you in touch.

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Totally unscientific candidate visibility index

So, based on the visibility of their campaigns as I drive around running errands, how are the various contenders for the powers of the U.S. presidency doing in my area?

Over the past many months of electioneering, only three candidates have had any visibility at all, ranked below in diminishing order of in-your-faceness:

Ron Paul

An abundance of yard signs that pop up with the surprising regularity of the paperboy in Better off Dead. Turn a corner, and there's another one; turn another corner and ... Oh my God! They're everywhere!

Paul's support is also visible on bumper stickers, and in the message "Go Ron Paul!" soaped on the rear window of one guy's truck.

Mitt Romney

Several (OK, two) yard signs along the road.

Barack Obama

One bumper sticker seen on a car outside Mount Hope, a natural foods store in Cottonwood.

Winners: John McCain and Hillary Clinton.

Yeah, that's right. Nobody really likes McNasty enough to put his name on their bumper or in their front yard, but they'll still go through the motions of voting for him. The Arizona State University's Cronkite/Eight poll has McCain at 41% support, well ahead of Romney's 18% and Paul's anemic 2%.

Likewise, I have yet to meet anybody truly enthusiastic about Hillary, but she still polls in this state at 45% -- almost double Obama's 24%.

Unfortunately, visibility measures passion, but winning isn't about passion; it's just about rousing enough people to detour to the polling station to check your name after stopping by the diner for chorizo and eggs. They may do so grudgingly and without any enthusiasm to speak of, but if they do it at all, you nab the big prize.


Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Who says we shouldn't require warrants for wiretaps?

In the pages of the Wall Street Journal, Cato Institute staffer and supposed libertarian Roger Pilon made the case for granting President Bush's request for essentially unlimited surveillance power free of any significant oversight.

Wait. That can't be right.

Crap -- it is. Read Pilon's own words:

Today the Senate takes up a bipartisan surveillance authorization measure that's already passed the Intelligence Committee. The clock is ticking. This Friday a temporary law called the Protect America Act will expire. If Congress does not act before then, the president's statutory power to prevent terrorist attacks will be seriously compromised.

This dangerous situation should never have arisen. From the beginning, presidents have exercised their Article II executive power to gather foreign intelligence — in war and peace alike, without congressional or judicial intrusion. As our principal agent in foreign affairs, the president is constitutionally bound to protect the nation. For that, intelligence is essential.

The rest of the column lays out the case for why Congress and the judiciary should butt out and leave the executive branch to the serious business of eavesdropping on people's phone calls -- at least, when the words "foreign intelligence" can be invoked. It's a breathtakingly imperial argument of the sort I expect to see coming from the pen of an AEI staffer or a Weekly Standard scribe -- not somebody who heads up constitutional studies for Cato.

To give Cato its due, the whole place hasn't gone blood-and-soil on us. On Cato's blog yesterday, Timothy Lee, explicitly rebutting Pilon, argues that Congress should definitely provide for judicial oversight of surveillance operations, if only to make sure that the president doesn't engage in wholesale civil rights violations under the screen of "foreign intelligence":

Roger’s position appears to be that neither the courts nor Congress may place any restrictions on domestic surveillance activities that the president declares to be related to foreign intelligence gathering. But that’s not good enough. Without judicial oversight, there is no way to know if the executive branch is properly limiting its activities to spies and terrorists, or if they’ve begun to invade the privacy of petty criminals or even law-abiding individuals. This is no hypothetical scenario. The FBI conducted extensive surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights and anti-war leaders in the 1960s and 1970s, which was one of the reasons Congress enacted new safeguards in the first place.

Lee didn't have to dig too deeply to uncover abuses committed by the executive branch in the past; surely Pilon is just as aware of why Congress imposed judicial oversight on eavesdropping operations to begin with. Yet, in the Journal column, Pilon makes it sound as if Congress was just being spiteful by requiring that Fourth Amendment protections apply to electronic searches as well as to physical pawing through people's sock drawers.

If Roger Pilon is going to abandon the cause of liberty, can't he come up with a better argument to make his case?


Can I get one?

A marijuana-dispensing vending machine, that is. They're the hot new thing in California.


Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Now, that's cool

Arlo Guthrie, son of Woody and famed singer of "Alice's Restaurant," has endorsed Ron Paul for president. If you've heard the anti-war, anti-draft song, or seen the movie, Guthrie's endorsement comes as no great surprise.

Watch Guthrie perform "Alice's Restaurant" here.


Lessons for the law-abiding from Greece

Lest night's episode of the excellent Travel Channel show, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, brought the boozing, snarky celebrity chef to Greece for overindulgence in local cuisine, booze, music, dance and firearms. Firearms? Yes, not only did Bourdain hunt quail with a shotgun, but an outdoor raki-fueled picnic on Crete featured one of the participants firing his pistol in the air as part of the raucous festivities.

But Greece is supposed to have strict gun-control laws. In fact, Greece does have strict gun-control laws. Shotguns are relatively easy to come by for hunting, but handguns and even rifles are tightly restricted. According to an online posting by a Greek gun owner:

There are generally two ways that one can legally get a gun in Greece.

One is, if your life is in danger, due to your job, social status or functionality, or if you have some good friends in the right places. In that case, you can easily obtain, what is known as a Concealed Self-Protection Carrying Permit (let's call it CSCP, for short). This permit allows you to have only one gun and a very limited amount of cartridges (30 or usually less). Now, if you are allowed to have 30 rounds, you can only fire, let's say half of them for practice. How can a person be trusted to protect his own life with so little practice is of course beyond my comprehension.

The second reason that entitles you to own a firearm, is to be an athlete in a shooting sport. This permit allows you to have more than one guns (usually a 0.22 LR, a 0.32 or 0.38 or 9mm, etc) in order to be able to participate in the corresponding shooting matches. In order to get such a permit, you must be a member of an athletic shooting club for several months, and to have participated in several matches (using either your friend's guns or your clubs guns, if they have any). The club is responsible for supplying you with cartridges you need for your practice sessions and your participation in shooting matches. Of course, this permit does not allow you to carry your gun(s) on yourself. You are only allowed to transport you guns in bags or suitcases to and from the shooting range. For those interested to know I have this kind of permit.

It's unlikely that the fellow on No Reservations was expending his limited legal allotment of ammo for the edification of Bourdain and company, so chances are that at least his ammunition was illegally owned, and it's a fair bet that the gun itself wasn't one familiar to the authorities. Nevertheless, he felt perfectly comfortable popping off rounds in front of a TV crew.

Why? Well, the answer may be found in another part of that Greek gun owner's post:

...there are some areas in Greece, like Crete and Mani, where guns are not that restricted. That does not come from these areas having different legislation that the rest of the country. It is more of a customary habit than anything else, which however is endorsed by some politicians.

OK -- so the festive-minded gunman was probably taking advantage of Crete's traditional nudge-and-wink attitude toward the country's gun laws.

In fact, as of 2005, the Greek government estimated that the country's population of 11 million harbored 1.5 million illegal firearms.

Actually, that's not all that surprising. Americans with an eye toward "reforming" the way things are done in the United States are fond of pointing toward tighter gun control laws in the UK, higher taxes in France or hate-speech laws elsewhere. But while touting the alleged virtues of the rules imposed by other governments, Americans with statute-envy miss an important point: The people of the United States are a lot more likely to actually obey the deficient laws to which they are subject than the citizens of many other countries are to even notice the oh-so enlightened legislation that they enjoy. Greece may have much tighter gun control laws than the U.S., but the descendants of Plato and Socrates clearly take those laws with a very large grain of salt -- and a case of 9mm ammunition.

In many countries, passing laws often seems to be more an exercise in letting eager young parliamentarians vent their elitist frustrations (and satisfy the letter of various international treaties) than an actual effort to change the way life is lived by the majority of people. The laws get passed and the enforcers do their best to make folks obey, but compliance ... well, compliance is another matter.

I'm reminded of a conversation I had with a Flemish law professor in the early 1990s that somehow drifted into a discussion of the apparent willingness of Europeans to pay much higher taxes than Americans. Was it because Europeans really wanted a higher level of services and were willing to pay accordingly?

The professor laughed and told us that he couldn't speak for all Europeans, but Belgians weren't any more eager to pay than Americans -- they just thought they were getting something for nothing. Belgians, he said, all thought they were the best tax evaders in the world. They weren't entirely right about that -- they paid more than they anticipated -- but they held back tax money at a rate undreamed of by Americans.

Taxes are a good place to start when comparing the willingness of different peoples to submit to the law, since they're the easiest laws for which to quantify compliance. Oddly enough, even though compliance should be relatively easy to calculate, official figures are hard to com by. But according to the latest figures, Americans have a roughly 84% rate of compliance with the federal income tax. By contrast, orderly, reputedly law-abiding Switzerland had an estimated tax-compliance rate of about 78% as of 1995 (figures here in PDF format). That's Switzerland, which could be expected to be a model of compliance among Western European countries. (As for that professor's beloved Belgium ... Time says "tax evasion is a national sport" in the country.)

America's myth of rugged individualism runs up against its surprisingly law-abiding nature as compared to the countries from which its citizens originally came.

Of course, America's law-abiding nature evolved in a climate of relatively light-handed governance and stable institutions. While Europeans groaned under authoritarian monarchs, totalitarian regimes and unrestrained majorities, the United States enjoyed a comparatively hands-off approach. Since most laws made sense or, at least, weren't terribly objectionable, it was easy to obey them and assume that the neighbors should do the same.

Not that Americans have been sheep. When something particularly nasty, like Prohibition, came around, non-compliance became, pace Belgium, a national sport.

But American government is no longer so light-handed. Rules proliferate like weeds -- smoking bans, light-bulb prohibitions ... and, of course, gun laws and higher taxes. Laws no longer seem so easily tolerated as they once were. When laws become too numerous, intrusive and overall objectionable, it's unlikely that they'll long command the respect and obedience of the people subject to them.

I'll lay odds that, before too long, the United States will soon be a place where breaking the law in front of a TV camera seems as reasonable to the average person as it was to Anthony Bourdain's Greek host.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

The next step in campaign finance 'reform'?

New Zealand has a new law -- the Electoral Finance Act -- regulating political speech during campaign season. According to the New Zealand Herald:

Non-political "third parties" and all individuals are subject to controls for almost the entire year before an election.

Citizens must now register with the state - through the Electoral Commission - if they want to spend $12,000 or more on advertising a cause that might influence voters, even if their message does not name a party or candidate.

The "regulated period" law prevents individuals and groups spending more than $120,000.

Political parties will be allowed to spend 20 times as much as that to promote their messages and will be able to use taxpayers' money from their parliamentary budgets to communicate with voters well beyond that limit.

Political parties will retain taxpayer-funded broadcasting rights worth millions.

Blogs are exempted -- but not regular Websites. Can't see the difference? Neither can many Kiwis, but that didn't protect 21-year-old Andrew Moore, who was forced to take down his anti-Labour Party Website under threat from the Electoral Commission. The site had cost less than NZ$100 to set up, but could have drawn a NZ$10,000 fine if he didn't publish his home address -- a disclosure he wasn't prepared to make in the heated environment of a political campaign.

Muzzling personal Websites that give voice to political opinions? The U.S. hasn't gone there yet, but New Zealand offers a glimpse of just what the "reformers" have in store for us.


Obama the new JFK? Let's hope not

In the New York Times, Camelot spawn Caroline Kennedy tells us that she's supporting the senator from Illinois for the Democratic presidential nomination because he reminds her of her father, President John F. Kennedy.

OVER the years, I’ve been deeply moved by the people who’ve told me they wished they could feel inspired and hopeful about America the way people did when my father was president. This sense is even more profound today. That is why I am supporting a presidential candidate in the Democratic primaries, Barack Obama.

My reasons are patriotic, political and personal, and the three are intertwined. All my life, people have told me that my father changed their lives, that they got involved in public service or politics because he asked them to. And the generation he inspired has passed that spirit on to its children. I meet young people who were born long after John F. Kennedy was president, yet who ask me how to live out his ideals.

Far be it from be to question Caroline Kennedy's comparison of Barack Obama to her late father. If she says "for the first time, I believe I have found the man who could be" the sort of inspirational president her father was, I believe her. So Senator Obama is JFK redux. Good for him.

But bad for us. The very argument that Ms. Kennedy uses to argue on behalf of Sen. Obama is a good reason to recoil from her endorsement in revulsion.

Sometimes it takes a while to recognize that someone has a special ability to get us to believe in ourselves, to tie that belief to our highest ideals and imagine that together we can do great things. In those rare moments, when such a person comes along, we need to put aside our plans and reach for what we know is possible.

"[T]ogether we can do great things"? "[P]ut aside our plans and reach for what we know is possible"? Gag.

Look, political office is a messy business. It's entire purpose is to manage the use of coercion to achieve goals favored by those in power and their supporters. To attempt to achieve something -- anything -- through political power is to endorse the idea that people should be threatened with fines, imprisonment and even death if they refuse to comply. Imagine going shopping with a gun instead of a debit card and you have the fundamental truth of any political agenda.

Now, there may be a limited place for the use of coercion. I don't have a real problem with coercing rapists, muggers and murderers into seeking new career paths. But pot smokers? People who renovate their homes without a permit? Gamblers? Folks who hire people who enter the country without government permission? Tell me how sticking guns in their faces and (sometimes) pulling the trigger is a morally upright thing to do. Take your time; I'm really interested in hearing your argument.

Maybe (unlikely) you'll convince me that the widespread use of coercion is a necessary thing, however unsavory. But that won't make coercive power and the people who seek it "inspirational"; it'll make coercion a necessary evil to be tentatively entrusted to the least enthusiastic seekers of power we can find.

Frankly, to admit to being "inspired" by politicians is a lot like confessing that your nipples get hard when you watch a mugger kick a victim bloody in the gutter. It may be the case, but it's not really something you should be sharing with anybody other than your shrink.


Sunday, January 27, 2008

Arizona starts to see nativist fallout

Barron's magazine predicted that Arizona's move to impose tough sanctions on employers who hire illegal immigrants would result in an "Arizona apocalypse," and while it's too early to know if that dire forecast will come to pass, something is certainly in the works. Facing a ten-day suspension of their business licenses after a first offense, and a permanent revocation of licenses after a second transgression, companies are laying workers off, reassessing their ability to do business and even moving out of state.

Reports Agence France-Presse:
A crew leader who worked for Rick Robinson's Phoenix landscaping company left the state because his wife is an illegal worker. The worker was scared his wife would be deported.

"I've talked to other companies who have said they can't find anybody," Robinson said. "I've heard they're going to Utah or Texas or New Mexico because they don't have a law like this. We and other landscape companies are uncertain as to how far-reaching it will be. People don't know what they can and can't do. The whole thing is confusing, gross, and unfair."

David Jones, head of the Arizona Contractors Association, said he knows of three construction companies which have laid off 30, 40, and 70 employees respectively since the beginning of the year.

Unable to find jobs, or fearful that their loved ones will be caught and deported, illegal immigrants and their legal friends and relatives are fleeing the state in what the press has dubbed "Hispanic panic." In a state where illegals make up better than 10% of the workforce, the exodus promises to have a major impact. The vacancy rate in Tucson-area apartment complexes favored by illegal immigrants has jumped dramatically since the law went into effect. According to the Arizona Daily Star:
The vacancy rate on Tucson's South Side jumped to 11.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2007, up from 7.1 percent a year earlier, according to Phoenix-based RealData Inc., a real estate research and consulting firm.

That area of the city has more than twice the rate of foreign-born residents than the city as a whole, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

On the Southeast Side, 10.7 percent of apartments were empty, up from 5.9 percent a year before. That part of the city has a lower percentage of foreign-born residents.

As a whole, the metro area vacancy rate grew 1 percentage point to 8.3 percent, according to RealData.
Of course, advocates of the sanctions law will say that this is exactly the result they were hoping for; they want Hispanics to flee the state (usually, they'll claim that they just want the illegal ones to leave). But with workers leaving Arizona, taking their rent money, mortgage payments and shopping dollars with them, and with state employers facing rising labor costs -- if they can even find workers -- the economy is likely to take a major hit. In fact, the University of Arizona predicts a $29 billion economic loss if illegal workers are successfully purged from the state (full report here in PDF).

Of course, the law won't be universally successful. Faced with a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't choice, many businesses will just take their chances with illegal workers, and many will slip under the radar. At least one immigration expert -- Marc Rosenblum of the University of New Orleans -- predicts major growth in the underground economy, with more workers than ever before getting paid off the books.

Black markets have dulled the economic effects of stupid policies in the past, and will likely do so this time around too. But off-the-books workers will have less security and less money than they would if allowed to function in the official economy, and they'll contribute less than they would otherwise. That's especially true since workers have the option of going where they're welcome -- already there are reports that Mexicans intent on seeking work in the U.S. are bypassing the increasingly unfriendly border states. Why take an uncertain cash job in unwelcoming Arizona when you can get a job with benefits in Oregon or Virginia?

The real losers will be the people of Arizona -- the nativists tightening the screws, the workers and employers getting the shaft and the disinterested rest who find making a living increasingly treated as a privilege to be withdrawn at the whim of government officials.


Saturday, January 26, 2008

Attacked by a cop on a dark road

On the night of July 29, 2007, Dibor Roberts, a Senegalese-born American citizen living in Cottonwood, Arizona, was driving home from her job as a nurse's aide at an assisted living center located in the Village of Oak Creek, an unincorporated community near Sedona. Along Beaverhead Flat Road, an unlit, unpopulated route through the desert, she suddenly saw flashing lights in her rearview mirror. Fearful of stopping on a deserted stretch of pavement, especially in light of reports she'd heard of criminals impersonating police, she decided to proceed to a populated area before stopping the car, the nearest such area being Cornville, an unincorporated settlement along the road to Cottonwood. She slowed her car to acknowledge the flashing lights and continued to drive. Her decision wasn't especially unusual -- in fact, it's recommended by some police departments. The Goodyear, Arizona, Police Department offers the following advice on its Website:

If you are in doubt about the vehicle with flashing red and blue emergency lights that is attempting to stop you, there are several things you can do:

If in an isolated area, continue to a public place that is well lighted. While doing this, obey all traffic laws and do not speed up to get there.

If you have a cellular phone, and can use it safely, call the police and let them know that an unmarked vehicle is attempting to stop you.

On Cornville Road, well before the populated area, Sheriff's Sergeant Jeff Newnum apparently tired of waiting for Roberts to reach a settled area. While he was, in fact, a police officer, he now proceeded to justify every fear an American may have about rogue cops. He raced his cruiser in front of Roberts's car, forcing her off the road. He then smashed her driver's-side window with his baton and grabbed a cellphone she was using to check his identity. Accounts vary at this point. While police deny it, the press has reported that Newnum dragged Roberts from her vehicle, threw her to the ground, and handcuffed her while driving his knee into her back.

All of this because she was going 15 miles over the speed limit on a deserted rural road.

Roberts's treatment has been, unsurprisingly, controversial in Arizona's Verde Valley. In a sparsely settled area not known for protests of any kind, 30 supporters showed up at her December 31, 2007 scheduling conference in Judge Janis Sterling's courtroom in Prescott, the county seat. This was the second such hearing, since all charges against Roberts had previously been dropped on November 2, 2007.

Roberts faces two felonies charges: unlawful flight from a law officer and resisting arrest. Resisting arrest? Well, Sergeant Newnum apparently injured himself while breaking into Roberts's car.

But Sergeant Newnum doesn't stand alone. Yavapai County Sheriff Steve Waugh may be many things, but disloyal to his troops isn't one of them. Amidst mounting protests and public outrage, Waugh held a press conference on January 15 to defend his hot-headed officer's abuse of a scared woman on a lonely road. He voiced his full support for Newnum, faulting the sergeant only for cutting off Roberts to force her to the side of the road. Waugh also implied that Roberts was chemically impaired -- the first time such an allegation has surfaced long months after she was taken into custody, and one that has never surfaced in the form of formal charges.

In other words, smashing Roberts's car window and dragging her out of a vehicle because he was impatient is A-OK by the good sheriff.

Dibor Roberts now faces felony convictions and prison time all because she was scared by an unexpected confrontation on a dark and deserted road. As it turned out, she had more reason to be afraid than she knew.

Sergeant Newnum is still roaming the roads of Yavapai County, comfortable in the knowledge that he can abuse innocent people and still enjoy the support of Sheriff Steve Waugh.

And the people of Yavapai County? Well, we're all well-advised to approach any encounter with a Sheriff's deputy with the idea that we'll have to fight in self-defense. Sometimes, vicious thugs don't impersonate police officers -- they are police officers.

Sheriff Steve Waugh can be reached at:

phone: (928) 771-3260

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Bush closer to snooping approval

This from the Wall Street Journal:

The Senate rejected an attempt by a number of Democrats to strip from surveillance legislation a provision that would bar lawsuits against phone companies alleged to have helped the government's warrantless spying, handing President Bush a small initial victory.

Congress seems poised to renew the extraordinary wiretapping powers allowed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which would otherwise expire on February 1. Such renewal could effectively make permanent some of the police-state powers granted to the government in the panic-stricken wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks.


Friday, January 25, 2008

The power of embarrassment

The case of a shameless land-grab by prominent retired judge and former mayor of Boulder, Colorado, Richard McLean, and his politically connected wife, Edith Stevens, has taken an interesting turn. Colorado State Rep. Claire Levy, whom Stevens served as campaign treasurer at the time she and McLean took advantage of the relatively unknown legal doctrine of adverse possession to steal one-third of a parcel of land from the neighboring Kirlin family, has proposed legislation to make such unsavory scenarios somewhat more difficult in the future. The legislative move would also help to distance her from her one-time allies, since the relationship has become something of an albatross around her neck.

One bill would address the unseemly and much-commented-upon situation which had current Boulder District Judge James C. Klein awarding former Boulder District Judge Richard McLean a profitable real estate windfall. The other bill, which she didn't originate, but which she is co-sponsoring, would somewhat reform the use of adverse possession so that it less thoroughly resembles highway robbery.

Levy -- who is friends with McLean and Stevens, and who has faced public calls to "disassociate" herself from the couple -- said her straightforward, four-sentence-long amendment would fix that issue. It requires the chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court to appoint a presiding judge from another jurisdiction in county and district court cases where one of the parties is a current or former judge from within the same district in which the case is filed...

Levy also is co-sponsoring legislation that would change the requirements to win an adverse-possession claim, and would give judges in those types of cases the power to charge fair-market value for any land won through adverse possession. That bill is scheduled to be heard by the judiciary committee Feb. 6.
The reform bill, in particular, seems to be on the fast track to passage by state legislators caught unprepared by the level of public outrage over the legalized theft of a parcel of land by the savvy and well-connected Boulder couple. According to the Boulder Daily Camera, "[a]t least 31 state representatives and 17 state senators have co-sponsored" the measure.

Unfortunately, none of this means that the Kirlins get their stolen land back; it just makes similar robberies more difficult in the future. The family has appealed Judge Klein's initial ruling, but the Kirlins are given little chance of success. "Legalized theft" may be wrong, but it is, after all, legal.

All of this injustice comes at a significant price. The Kirlins estimate their legal bills at $200,000. They're pretty well-heeled, so they're not headed for the poor-house. But just imagine how little fight most families on a tight budget could put up under similar circumstances -- especially with disappointment the likely ultimate outcome.

Whatever reform measures do pass -- and it looks like something certainly will make it into the law books -- we can certainly thank the desperate efforts of Claire Levy and her colleagues in the Colorado legislature to put as much space as possible between themselves and the likes of Richard McLean and Edith Stevens.


Thursday, January 24, 2008

Felonious massage

There are lots of unfortunate things about the untimely death of Heath Ledger, but what strikes me as especially unjust is the fact that the woman, Ledger's masseuse, who found the actor and notified authorities and his friends of his death may be in hot water because of her role in the case. Check out this passage from the New York Times:

The police said that all five witnesses — Ms. Solomon, Ms. Wolozin, and the three guards summoned by Ms. Olsen — were cooperating with the authorities.

The police said they could not immediately say if Ms. Wolozin was a licensed masseuse. There is no Diana Wolozin listed in the state database of licensed massage therapists. It is a felony to practice massage without a license in New York.

A felony? As if it wasn't ridiculous enough to require people to seek government permission to rub customers' backs, the Empire State actually charges non-compliers with felonies. Ms. Wolozin may face some pretty severe consequences because she chose to draw attention to herself by doing the right thing rather than simply walking away.

If Ms. Wolozin is really digging her knuckles into the sore muscles of her clients without benefit of a state-issued piece of paper, and if authorities choose to make an issue of the matter, she may lose her right to vote (at least temporarily), to own firearms, to hold a liquor license (you need government permission to sell booze, too) and face other restrictions.

And that's in addition to any time served.

Despite spurious claims about protecting the public from incompetents and charlatans, occupational licensing laws have long had more to do with creating barriers to entry into trades and professions and so shielding existing practitioners from competition. That's a fairly well established fact among economists, and a point largely acknowledged by most people, at least when they talk about trades outside of such designated priesthoods as medicine and law. As Professor S. David Young of the European Institute of Business Administration (INSEAD) has written:

A careful analysis of licensing's effects across a broad range of occupations reveals some striking, and strikingly negative, similarities. Occupational regulation has limited consumer choice, raised consumer costs, increased practitioner income, limited practitioner mobility, and deprived the poor of adequate services—all without demonstrated improvements in the quality or safety of the licensed activities.

Why have states required licensing of so many occupations if the results are so counter to consumer interests? Participants in any regulatory process must have a reason for getting involved. Because the number of potential political and legal battles is large, people tend to concentrate on those battles in which their personal stake is high. Because their per capita stakes in the licensing controversy are so much greater than those of consumers, it is professionals who usually determine the regulatory agenda in their domains. Crucial licensing decisions that can affect vast numbers of people are often made with little or no input from the public. If such a process serves the public interest, it is only by happenstance.

With licensing laws representing such bold-faced abuses of state power for private gain, it's especially unconscionable that violating licensing restrictions can have such profoundly dire results as imprisonment and loss of rights.

Yes, Heath Ledger's death is unfortunate -- but the peril in which Diana Wolozin now finds herself may be the most underappreciated part of the matter.


Too honest

This is why acting like a boy scout with the powers-that-be is not a good idea.


Snuffed out for their own good

While visiting family and friends in Maryland this week, I stopped by a smoking-friendly venue in Severna Park with my father for a cigar and a bourbon. The Back Room at the Woodfire Restaurant was explicitly established as a smoking venue, with a humidor from which you can purchase cigars if you haven't brought your own, and a clientele that appreciates the smell of smoldering tobacco. The staff are mostly smokers themselves, and none too pleased by the changes coming in February when Maryland's broad smoking ban goes into effect, snuffing out smokes even in places that were specifically created to offer people an amenable environment in which to light up.

Business was light when I was there (a Monday afternoon), but the customers at the bar were interrogating the bartender over the ultimate fate of the humidor's contents. The disposition of the cigars has yet to be determined, though a smoking-ban sale seems to be in the works. The ultimate fate of the Back Room is also an open question. Can a successful cigar bar find new life as just another place to have a drink? Like it or not, the owners and staff at the Woodfire are about to find out.

And the folks who take advantage of the Back Room's looming cigar sale will probably have to count themselves lucky that they can, for the moment, still enjoy their purchases at home.


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Technology and the abortion debate

Abortion isn't about to go away as a contentious issue any time soon, but the the controversial procedure is losing much of its vulnerability to public protests and political intervention because of long-anticipated changes in technology. Says the Washington Post:

The French abortion pill RU-486, on the market since 2000, has become an increasingly common alternative, making abortion less clinical and more private. At a time when the overall number of abortions has been steadily declining, RU-486-induced abortions have been rising by 22 percent a year and now account for 14 percent of the total -- and more than one in five early abortions performed by the ninth week of pregnancy.

Where once abortion meant identifiable providers and centralized clinics that could be targeted for protests and public shaming -- or more-violent reactions -- now the procedure increasingly involves discreetly obtaining a drug from a wider pool of physicians who don't need to acquire the specialized training and equipment required for performing a surgical procedure. As one patient quoted in the article reveals:

"It was something I could do at home and be with my husband," Gilbert said of taking the pill. "It was a decision we made together alone, and we were able to take care of it this way alone. It was just a much more private affair."

She added: "I wouldn't say it was easy -- it's never easy to terminate a pregnancy. But in the grand scheme of things, it was much more pleasant than a surgical procedure."

The shift in the way abortions are performed may just be starting, since, in some European countries, "more than 60 percent of abortions are performed with the drug."

None of this is likely to change the moral and political debate over abortion, of course, but it is an illustration of how advances in technology can help to make even the most controversial practices more accessible and less susceptible to public scorn and political shifts. Indeed, the easier abortions are to obtain without walking a gauntlet of protesters or traveling far distances, the more widespread they're likely to become.

Whatever your opinion on abortion itself, there's a lesson here on how to entrench any controversial practice or product by improving the ease with which it can be obtained and by dispersing the practice or product to a multitude of relatively unidentifiable sources.

Imagine, for example, what reducing the production of firearms to an easy and practically automated home workshop activity can/will do to the debate over gun control. To a certain extent, that has already happened, but advancing technology promises to put production in the hands of even the least skilled tinkerers.

Technology can't settle debates over right and wrong, but it can make those debates somewhat pointless.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Heads up

I'll be on the road for a week or so, attending the wedding of a friend and giving my son a chance to visit with his cousins and his grandparents. Posting will be spotty.

Ranking economic freedom

Reports the Daily Telegraph:

Britain has slipped out of the ranks of fully "free" countries in this year's Heritage Index of Economic Freedom, reflecting the sharp rise in the tax burden and ballooning state sector.

The country has continued to slide down the league under Gordon Brown's economic management, falling from fifth to tenth place over the last two years. It has been overtaken by Canada, Chile, Switzerland, Australia, and the United States.

The UK is now ranked as "mostly free" -- a status it shares with Germany, Japan, Bahrain, Armenia and Trinidad. The country still ranks in the top ten -- by the skin of its teeth -- but its economic climate is clearly moving in the wrong direction.

The Index of Economic Freedom defines economic freedom as:

The highest form of economic freedom provides an absolute right of property ownership, fully realized freedoms of movement for labor, capital, and goods, and an absolute absence of coercion or constraint of economic liberty beyond the extent necessary for citizens to protect and maintain liberty itself. In other words, individuals are free to work, produce, consume, and invest in any way they please, and that freedom is both protected by the state and unconstrained by the state.

That freedom is assessed according to the following criteria:

  • Business Freedom
  • Trade Freedom
  • Fiscal Freedom
  • Government Size
  • Monetary Freedom
  • Investment Freedom
  • Financial Freedom
  • Property Rights
  • Freedom from Corruption
  • Labor Freedom

The top ten ranked nations are:

  1. Hong Kong
  2. Singapore
  3. Ireland
  4. Australia
  5. United States
  6. New Zealand
  7. Canada
  8. Chile
  9. Switzerland
  10. United Kingdom
North Korea comes in dead last.

Note that the United States has also dropped a hair in the ratings, "reflecting minor declines in four of the 10 economic freedoms," specifically, fiscal freedom, government size, monetary freedom and freedom from corruption.

Is anybody holding out any high hopes for the direction taken by the U.S. in future ratings?


Not so non-lethal

Without commenting on the propriety of the use of a Taser in this incident, here's more evidence that Tasers really aren't a risk-free means of controlling people. They may still be a less-dangerous choice than firearms when the use of a significant degree of force is called for, but people do die.

And no, this isn't an isolated incident.


Just to be fair to all the candidates ...

More questionable comments and affiliations from candidates for president:

Hillary Clinton has used anti-semitic slurs -- specifically, calling her husband's one-time adviser Paul Fray a "Jew bastard."

Rudy Giuliani's aides and associates keep getting caught making anti-Muslim comments, such as the suggestion by John Deady, New Hampshire co-chair of Veterans for Rudy, that America's Mayor would "chase [Muslims] back to their caves.”

Mike Huckabee wants to "amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards rather than try to change God's standards so it lines up with some contemporary view." He also called for AIDS patients to be quarantined.

John McCain plays footsie with the Christian right and calls Asians "gooks."

Barack Obama's spiritual mentor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., who inspired the title of Obama's book, The Audacity of Hope, has equated Zionism with racism and is an admirer of open anti-semite Louis Farrakhan.

Can we have some new candidates now?

Some of these points bother me more than others (I'm especially frightened by the prospect of the Constitution being amended to make the country an explicit theocracy), but I think it's fair to air everybody's dirty laundry while we're at it.

I'm sure I've left somebody out. Let me know if I've unfairly spared any candidate.


What's under the rock ...

Reason magazine's Julian Sanchez and David Weigel did the digging into those old Ron Paul newsletters for all of us who wish it didn't have to be done. Their conclusion is that the hate-filled newsletters were produced as part of a conscious strategy by the circle around economist Murray Rothbard and Lew Rockwell (now head of the Ludwig von Mises Institute) to appeal to social conservatives (really, social neanderthals) as a deliberate "paleo" break with the liberal social views of the mainstream libertarian movement. Members of Ron Paul's family were employees of the company that produced the newsletters, and Paul remains closely associated with Lew Rockwell, who played a key role in the project.

The newsletters, then, were apparently part of a cynical strategy to exploit racism for the purpose of building political support and raising money (a possibility raised earlier by Timothy Virkkala). That Paul has never personally used bigotry as part of his own political language tells me that he may not personally share those views -- but that he was (and is) comfortable enough with them to use bigotry as a political tool and to continue to associate with those who spearheaded the strategy.

To say that I'm appalled is an under-statement. I'm also embarrassed that my first reaction was something of a defense of Ron Paul, however half-hearted.

It's not enough to not be a bigot; exploiting bigotry for political gain is also despicable.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Prince of pot to serve time

"Prince of pot" Marc Emery, an activist for marijuana legalization, publisher of Cannabis Culture magazine and dealer in marijuana seeds, is going to have to serve some hard time after all. Canadian authorities arrested Emery at the behest of U.S. anti-drug officials, even though Emery runs his businesses entirely from north of the border. His sale of seeds to American customers was apparently the only hook ticked-off Canadian police needed to do their U.S. colleagues' bidding.

After a long fight, Emery accepted a ten-year sentence -- of which he'll have to serve at least five years -- in order to avoid an even longer sentence and to keep co-accused Michelle Rainey and Greg Williams out from behind bars.

Yes, the long arm of American drug prohibitionists reaches far and wide indeed -- even beyond their nominal jurisdiction.

Update: See the National Post's well-considered editorial regarding this case.


The limits of speech in Canada

Via Wendy McElroy's blog comes news of the persecution of Ezra Levant, former publisher of the conservative magazine Western Standard (now available only online) by the horribly mis-named Alberta Human Rights Commission. Levant has been summoned before the commission, under threat of legal penalties, to answer complaints about his magazine's reprinting of cartoons critical of Islam, originally published, amidst much controversy, by Denmark's Jyllands-Posten newspaper in 2005 as a comment on self-censorship and political correctness. The complaints allege that the printing of the cartoons foments "hate" against Canadian Muslims and that it is the business of the government to monitor speech and suppress that which offends certain groups.

To Levant's credit, he came out swinging. He's documenting the whole ordeal on his blog, including video clips of the proceedings published against the commission's wishes. His opening statement questioned the very legitimacy of the commission and its seeming interest in regulating what ought to be free speech.

I am here at this government interrogation under protest. It is my position that the government has no legal or moral authority to interrogate me or anyone else for publishing these words and pictures. That is a violation of my ancient and inalienable freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and in this case, religious freedom and the separation of mosque and state. It is especially perverted that a bureaucracy calling itself the Alberta human rights commission would be the government agency violating my human rights. So I will now call those bureaucrats “the commission” or “the hrc”, since to call the commission a “human rights commission” is to destroy the meaning of those words.

This isn't the first time a north-of-the-border human rights commission has stepped into questionable territory. The conservative writer Mark Steyn has also been targeted because Macleans magazine published an excerpt from his book, America Alone, which is harshly critical of Muslim immigrants to the West. A woman named Jessica Beaumont was issued a cease-and-desist order by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal for publishing anti-gay Bible verses on American websites. And Stephen Boisson, the executive director of the Concerned Christian Coalition, faces sanctions for similar anti-gay views voiced in a letter-to-the-editor published in a newspaper.

The opinions that draw the attention of the "human rights" bureaucrats are, in many cases, objectionable to large numbers of people, but none of them rise to the level of physical attacks, or even incitement to violence. They are, in all cases, expressions of strongly held thoughts and beliefs that may excite equally strong reactions -- precisely the sort of speech that free speech protections of the sort contained in the U.S. First Amendment and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms are suppose to cover if they are to have any meaning at all.

Civil libertarian Alan Borovoy, who had a hand in the creation of Canada's human rights tribunals, now publicly regrets what they have become, saying, "During the years when my colleagues and I were labouring to create such commissions, we never imagined that they might ultimately be used against freedom of speech." Elsewhere, Borovoy commented, "Even truthful articles describing some of the awful situations in this world could run afoul of this law, it is so broad and such a potential threat to freedom of speech."

Every government is subject to criticism about the inroads it makes into the natural rights of the people who are subject to its power. The U.S., as most posts on this blog demonstrate, is no exception. But free speech is really the ultimate test of a political institution. If officials respect people's right to say things that raise hackles and produce protests, then they're at least pretending to abide by some limitations on their power; if they openly suppress ideas that offend them, then they clearly see no proper limits on their authority to intrude into people's lives.

Canada's political institutions, at the moment, are failing the test.


Monday, January 14, 2008

Smoky workplace debate resolved

Anti-smoking zealots claim that bans on smoking in the workplace are necessary to protect employees and customers -- non-smoking employees in particular, since they can't turn around and leave the way customers might. That's especially true of businesses that don't deal directly with the public, so don't have to worry about patrons wandering in and being permanently damaged by a brief whiff of cigarette smoke. The American Lung Association maintains a Web page dedicated to the benefits of a smoke-free workplace. The page contains such pearls of wisdom as:

Separating smokers from nonsmokers, cleaning the air and ventilating buildings cannot eliminate exposure to secondhand smoke. Smokefree workplace policies are the only effective way to eliminate exposure.

The European Industrial Relations Observatory, in commenting on a proposed ban in Norway, said:

The main rationale behind the government’s proposal is to provide protection against passive smoking in bars and restaurants. Tobacco smoke is seen as a particular threat to the health and well-being of employees in such establishments, and it is also widely recognised that they enjoy relatively weak legal protection against such working environment hazards.

But what if there aren't any non-smokers in the office -- and won't be, by design? What if a small German company fires all its non-smoking employees and vows not to hire any more because they're considered "troublemakers"?

The manager of the 10-person IT company in Buesum, named Thomas J., told the Hamburger Morgenpost newspaper he had fired the trio because their non-smoking was causing disruptions.

Germany introduced non-smoking rules in pubs and restaurants on January 1, but Germans working in small offices are still allowed to smoke.

"I can't be bothered with trouble-makers," Thomas was quoted saying. "We're on the phone all the time and it's just easier to work while smoking. Everyone picks on smokers these days. It's time for revenge. I'm only going to hire smokers from now on."

Well, there's no danger of non-smokers being involuntarily exposed to cigarette smoke under this arrangement. That means that anti-smoking activists should be happy, right?


Update: The story is apparently a hoax pulled by a pro-smoking activist. But I think the point raised is still a valid one.


Sunday, January 13, 2008

Freedom, Michael Kinsley and a ham sandwich

Michael Kinsley is generally a thoughtful writer who at least tries to take his opponents' arguments seriously rather than fulminating from the ramparts about the evils of those who disagree with him. Specifically, he's been somewhat more receptive to libertarian arguments than many of his "liberal" colleagues, even going so far as, at one point, to argue that libertarians should join him in the Democratic Party. But his latest column makes you wonder if he's been reading his own arguments over the years. It's patronizing toward people who advocate letting people run their own lives, and raises some hoary old arguments against the spontaneous order that arises from freely made choices.

Part of his argument is simply an authoritarian dismissal of preferences he doesn't understand. For instance, he criticizes the idea of letting people purchase and drink unpasteurized milk because he thinks it's just a wacky idea. "No one should want to drink unpasteurized milk, and almost no one does."

But there are people who prefer raw (unpasteurized) milk, claiming it has all sorts of benefits. Are they correctly assessing the benefits they perceive against the risks of raw milk? Libertarians say that's an analysis they have the right to make for themselves. Kinsley would substitute his judgment for theirs, just because he doesn't share their preferences.

Kinsley also asserts that authoritarian policies such as income redistribution are OK because they express values of which he does approve -- equality-of-result, in particular. He chastises libertarians who consider such policies immoral because they violate the fundamental right to be free and enjoy the fruits of one's own labor -- that's a mere preference, he would have us believe, that overlooks "some degree of material equality as a necessary basis for political equality; the huge role of luck in getting each of us to our relative stations in life."

But there's a huge moral issue that he blithely dismisses; he entirely overlooks the libertarian opposition to achieving goals by initiating force. Libertarians oppose the initiation of force on principle, seeing it as a violation of the autonomy of the individual -- and as a sure path to the transformation of state power into a bludgeon to be used to enforce the preferred values of whoever manages to win temporary control -- values such as equality-of-result. But would he want those raw-milk drinkers banning pasteurized milk should they win political power? Kinsley oddly ignores this issue even as he acknowledges that:
... democracy and majority rule are no answers. Tyranny of the majority is a constant danger. How would you like a law requiring people with odd Social Security numbers to give $1,000 to people with even Social Security numbers? To libertarians, much of what government does is essentially just that.
In an ancient, moldy and long-discredited criticism of letting people make their own arrangements to produce and distribute products and services that people want and need, Kinsley argues that libertarians just make things too complicated where simple mandates would do.
Libertarians have a fondness for complex arrangements to make markets work in situations where the textbooks say they can't. Hey, let's issue stamps, y'see, and use the revenue to form a corporation that sells stock to buy military equipment, then the government leases the equipment and the stockholders vote on whether to use it ... and so on. The point becomes proving a point, not economic or government efficiency. ...

Sometimes libertarians end up reinventing the wheel. My favorite example is an article I read years ago advocating privatization of highways. This is a classic libertarian fantasy: government auctions off the land, private enterprise pays for construction and maintenance, tolls cover the cost, competing routes keep it all efficient.

And what about, uh, intersections? Well, markets would recognize that it is more efficient for one company to own the intersections, but it would have an incentive to strike the right balance between customers on each highway. And stoplights? Ultimately, the author had worked his way up to a giant monopoly that would build, own and maintain all the roads and charge an annual fee to people who wanted to use them. None dare call it government.
Kinsley takes an (I assume) speculative article in which the author contemplates how roads might arise in a free society and takes that as a prescription for how things would be arranged. That's a classic error repeatedly made by people who can't understand how matters can arrange themselves -- and fear the complex decision-making involved in such a process -- even as they live in the midst of a society largely organized along precisely those free-wheeling lines.

Hmmm ...

Imagine, for example, two people raised in a society where food is a government monopoly. They sit in State Cafeteria No. 67, eating ham sandwiches for lunch and bullshitting about the way things are -- and ought to be.

Rachel: Oh no. Ham sandwiches again. I would love to eat something else -- anything else -- for lunch.

Bob: It's only a matter of time. Just last year they changed the name of the Ham Sandwich Office to the Office of Sandwiches, Soups and Salads.

Rachel: But we're still eating ham sandwiches.

Bob: Well ... It takes a lot of work. They have to make sure that the state farms can produce enough vegetables for salads and soup in addition to the lettuce and tomato for the sandwiches. And they don't want there to be a glut of ham if lots of people prefer salads and soup. It has to be done right.

Rachel: I think we'd be a lot better off if the government got out of the food business.

Bob: What? You mean, privatize the state cafeterias?

Rachel: No, go for broke! Close the cafeterias and see what private businesses take their place. I bet lots of people would open restaurants. Some would serve soup, some salad, some sandwiches -- and maybe other things too. Maybe you could even get ethnic food. And gourmet food. And if you were on the run, you could stop by a cart on a street corner or in a restaurant that promised fast service.

Bob: Where would they get their supplies? The state cafeterias have enough trouble setting production schedules with the state farms now.

Rachel: Let people open private farms, too. The farmers could sell their produce and meat to markets, which would sell it to the restaurants. Some farms might specialize, just like the restaurants -- chemical-free produce at one, exotic fruits or meats at another.

Bob: But what about mustard? And pickles?

Rachel: Private companies could make those, too.

Bob: It sounds like you're leaving an awful lot to chance. What if nobody wants to make bread for the sandwiches? The whole arrangement is awfully complicated. At least with the state cafeteria, I know I'll get lunch.

Bob is right: arrangements in free societies are complicated -- and rich and diverse. They're also decentralized and much more nimble than command-driven arrangements, because they're driven by millions of individual decision-makers rather than top-down policy. And free, market-driven arrangements work a lot better than government-dominated arrangements; somebody always makes the bread, because there's a buck to be had in doing so.

That's not always clear to people who are accustomed to being told what to do, but it should be apparent to Michael Kinsley as he sits typing at his privately manufactured computer, sipping (I imagine) a cup of Fair Trade coffee purchased at a premium because it's what he prefers, and preparing to submit his column to an independent, for-profit newspaper.

Life in a free society is chaotic and complicated. It also allows people to make decision of which you disapprove -- in return for you being allowed to make decisions of which they disapprove. It's imperfect, but efficient. It's sometimes aggravating, but it's vibrant.

Freedom even allows room for people like Michael Kinsley to have at us for wanting to apply the same freedom he enjoys as a pundit to all areas of life, so that everybody can share in the benefits. I just wish that Kinsley could understand why sharing the benefits of freedom is a good thing.

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Pucker up

South Africa has a new law that, among other things forbids teens under the age of 16 to kiss or cuddle. Really.

Among the acts defined as "sexual violation" in the bill include "direct or indirect contact... between the mouth of one person... and the mouth of another person".

Where minors are concerned, such acts are illegal even if performed with consent.

But kids aren't taking the restriction lying down. They're putting their lips on the line for liberty.

Thousands of South African teenagers gave each other hugs, pecks on the cheek or light kisses on the lips as part of weekend protests against a new law that prohibits under 16s from kissing or showing affection in public...

Buoyed by Facebook on the Internet and the tech-savvy younger generation, nearly 20,000 people have already signed up to join the protests every Saturday this month at shopping malls in major South African cities.

I hope they bring their chapstick.

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The fight over the fence

A week ago, I mentioned the ongoing battle between locals and the Forest Service over access to a road into the desert. The rangers put up a sign, people drive by it; they build a barrier, folks tear it down. Last week, the Forest Service put a fence across the clearing at the head of the road, cutting off all access from the paved road. And the next move ...

Well, today, there's a law-enforcement ranger truck parked where the desert road leaves the paved road. Yep, apparently, somebody cut the fence.

And the games continue.


Friday, January 11, 2008

Washington Post: anti-war is anti-American

In today's paper, The Washington Post's editorial board takes a few brief and well-deserved shots at some of Ron Paul's populist weak spots: his views on the Civil War, the NAFTA superhighway, the Federal Reserve Board and, of course, the racist newsletters.

But all of this is a lead-up to slamming Paul -- and presumably all non-interventionists -- because of his support of fair dealing with other countries and his opposition to the war in Iraq. It seems that opposing a bullying foreign policy and an imperial presence in a host of nations is strange, suspect and ... well ... damned un-American.

Mr. Paul goes so far as to express understanding of Osama bin Laden's antipathy toward U.S. military bases in Saudi Arabia, which, Mr. Paul says, created the "incentive" for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "It's sort of like if you step in a snake pit and you get bit," he told Mr. Russert. "Who caused the trouble?" During the Cold War, the late Jeane Kirkpatrick chided Democrats for "blaming America first" in foreign policy. That may or may not have been apt. But in 2008, there is one candidate to whom her words definitely apply: Republican Ron Paul.

So now the Post is echoing Jeane Kirkpatrick's smear of anybody who doesn't support aggressive use of military force to impose American will overseas? Wow. I guess that's because it's just too late in the game to sling "commie sympathizer" as an insult, and "islamo-fascist-symp" just doesn't trip off the tongue as easily as "blaming America first."

Why debate your opponents over the risks and benefits of military intervention when you can just accuse them of being anti-American?


Gun rights by the bay

San Francisco, where freedom is OK as long as it involves marijuana, but not firearms, lost its bid to ban handguns and ammunition.

On Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the California Court of Appeal upheld a district court decision, which found that the ordinance was pre-empted by several state laws, one of which prohibits cities from restricting handgun possession in an individual's home, business, or private property.

"These laws of statewide application reflect the legislature's balancing of interests -- on the one side the interest of the general public to be protected from the criminal misuse of firearms, on the other, the interests of law-abiding citizens to be able to purchase and use firearms," the panel wrote in its unanimous decision.

"When it comes to regulating firearms, local governments are well advised to tread lightly."

City officials may appeal -- which would be a commendable sentiment if they were trying to expand liberty instead of restrict it.


Feds look for wiggle room on Real ID

The Department of Homeland Security has pushed back deadlines that states must meet in order to comply with the federal "Real ID" scheme to convert state-issued driver's licenses and IDs into by-any-other-name national identification cards. According to the Electronic Privacy Information Center:

The REAL ID Act of 2005 creates a de facto national identification card. Ostensibly voluntary, it would become mandatory as those without the card would face suspicion and increased scrutiny. It is a law imposing federal technological standards and verification procedures on state driver's licenses and identification cards, many of which are beyond the current capacity of the federal government, and mandating state compliance by May 2008. In fact, REAL ID turns state DMV workers into federal immigration officials, as they must verify the citizenship status of all those who want a REAL ID-approved state driver's license or identification cards. State DMVs would far move away from their core mission -- to license drivers.

REAL ID was appended to a bill providing tsunami relief and military appropriations, and passed with little debate and no hearings. The REAL ID Act repealed provisions in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which contained "carefully crafted language -- bipartisan language -- to establish standards for States issuing driver's licenses," according to Sen. Richard Durbin. After more than two years, the Department of Homeland Security issued draft regulations for state compliance on March 1, 2007.

The National Conference of State Legislatures estimates (pdf) that that the cost to the states will be more than $11 billion over five years. This is more than 100 times the $100 million cost that Congress initially estimated. For 2006, $40 million was allocated for start-up costs. No more funding has been allocated, and it is likely that the cost will be shouldered by the public. The Department of Homeland Security has estimated that REAL ID will cost $23.1 billion over 10 years.

Many states have been resistant to the plan because of the expensive unfunded federal mandate it represents and also because of the potential threat it represents to privacy. The deadline delay would reduce short-term costs to a claimed $3.9 billion (still far above initial estimates), helping to defuse opposition, and give the feds more time to strong-arm state officials into submission.

Technically, states can't be forced to adopt federal standards or connect their license databases to a federally controlled network, but driver's licenses issued by states that don't comply will no longer be accepted as valid ID for federal purposes after the new deadline of December 2014. The residents of holdout states wouldn't even be able to board commercial airliners.

Unless ... enough states refuse to turn their driver's licenses into tools of a security state. New Hampshire is among the states that have flat-out refused to go along with Real ID, as have Maine, Idaho, Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Washington. Other states have condemned the law without explicitly refusing to abide by its requirements. If enough of the population lives in places that issue non-compliant driver's licenses, it's going to be very difficult for the feds to carry out their threat to bar millions of people from federal offices and airports.

Which, no doubt, is a big part of the reason that the deadline has been allowed to slip a few years. That's plenty of time to fight behind the scenes -- or to allow the whole offensive ID of Real ID to die a quiet death on somebody else's watch.


Thursday, January 10, 2008

Raid gone wrong

Lima, Ohio, remains tense after police Sgt. Joseph A. Chavalia killed a 26-year-old woman and shot and injured her one-year-old son during a drug raid. Tarika Wilson and her child were cut down during a SWAT raid targeting her boyfriend, Anthony Terry. Terry was arrested on suspicion of possession of crack cocaine.

This doesn't appear to be a wrong-address raid -- cops burst into the house named on the warrant. But a violent raid for drug possession? Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't possession of an illegal substance a non-violent "crime." In the absence of evidence that Terry intended to go down shooting, knocking on the door would seem to be the appropriate means of serving the warrant.

Some people would argue that police need to kick the door in to avoid danger to officers. But what about danger to innocent people -- like unarmed women and infants, for instance? It seems to me that if anybody should shoulder the risks of police work, it should be police. Not every interaction with the public should be conducted like D-Day on the off-chance that somebody might start shooting. That's especially true since SWAT tactics all-too-often make it certain that somebody does get shot.

That police knew there were innocent people in the house is clear; according to the Toledo Blade, "[Chief Garlock] said officers were aware that children were inside the home because there were toys in the yard outside and on the front porch." That means police can't feign surprise at the presence of people other than the one named in the warrant.

The FBI has joined a probe into just how this raid went so fatally wrong. That's no guarantee of justice, but it means the guilty department won't be investigating itself.

Radley Balko (then of the Cato Institute) on the rise of often-fatal paramilitary police tactics here.

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Ron Paul issue continues ...

Just so you know, I don't think the controversy over the Ron Paul newsletters is over.

My basic position remains as I stated earlier, that Paul, at least, paved the way for this controversy by carelessly lending his name to people who, in the absence of his oversight, then used it to add legitimacy to their bigotry. If you won't defend your own good name, who will?

While troubled by Paul's extreme lack of judgment, if this remains the likely explanation, I'll still vote for him -- though I think this controversy and his failure to break out in New Hampshire essentially spell the end to his candidacy.

But, Timothy Virkkala, a former editor for Liberty magazine, has raised the possibility, based on his recollections of that period, that Ron Paul did know what was being published under his name, and allowed it to continue because it sold newsletters. To who, I'd rather not know. Such cynical acceptance of bigotry to make a buck would be completely unacceptable and, if it turns out to be the case, should spell a shameful end to Paul's career.

Wendy McElroy, my former colleague at the Henry Hazlitt Foundation, says she knows who the actual author of the hateful material in the newsletters is and is calling on that person to come forward. If it turns out that Paul still has a close association with the author(s), it would call into question his claim that he "denounce[s] such small-minded thoughts." You don't continue to associate with people who dragged your name through the mud -- unless you liked wallowing in it with them.

Some people argue that Paul is being held to a double standard; other politicians get a pass on racist associations or even continuing advocacy of hateful ideas, such as offensive war, torture, socialism and police-state tactics. Yeah, but other politicians don't claim to be libertarians -- individualist supporters of freedom and peace. We expect champions of powerful, intrusive government to be haters; we need to hold those who claim to be our own to a higher standard.

And to those folks claiming that James Kirchik and The New Republic are smearing Ron Paul ... Hey, Kirchik didn't make anything up; the hateful material was there to be discovered and publicized. Sure, Kirchik is no fan of Paul, but investigative journalism isn't usually conducted by friends of the subject. If you can't stand scrutiny by your enemies, it's best to stay out of the public eye.

So long to the best Democrat

Bill Richardson, easily the most acceptable of the Democratic presidential candidates (OK, I'll tip my hat to Kucinich and Gravel for their anti-war, pro-civil liberties stances) has bowed out.


Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Fine, so we'll throw eggs

The Huntington, New York, Town Council wants to ban Silly String during parades. Officials say it mars the finish on fire trucks.

Methinks somebody doesn't savvy the law of unintended consequences. There are lots of worse things than Silly String.


Cry me a river

Do you remember Richard McLean, the retired judge and former Boulder, Colorado mayor, and his wife Edith Stevens, an attorney and political operative, who used their knowledge of the obscure (to anybody who isn't an attorney) doctrine of "adverse possession" to legally steal one-third of their neighbors' parcel of land? They've been ostracized and vilified in their town for their actions, as has Judge James C. Klein, who issued the ruling in the case.

But they still have supporters.

Boulder County Bar Association president Sonny Flowers wrote a column for the Boulder County Bar Newsletter in which he described opponents of the land-grab as "dumb, short-sighted, lacking in perspective or just plain wrong." Having issued his critique of the vast number of people outraged by an incident of a well-connected couple helping themselves to somebody else's property simply by trespassing on it and then filing a claim, Flowers concedes:

I can't cause anyone to change his or her mind. Not about this. Too many minds are made up. Perhaps they are made up because they are afraid personally for their property rights. Maybe those minds are made up because the first time they heard about the case, viscerally, they reacted by thinking, "That shouldn't happen!"

Count me among the people who are outraged and unlikely to change their minds.

Flowers is upset that people unfamiliar with the details of the law "would hide behind their alleged ignorance of a law that goes back more than 600 years." The outcome was by the book, he says, so people should accept it and be grateful "that our judges are excellent and our judicial system is the best."

The Boulder Daily Camera has the full story here with a link to the full column in PDF format.

I've written about this sort of reaction before -- about the (inevitably) legal professionals who are so enamored of the system within which they work that they think any outcome reached through legal formalities is acceptable, no matter how thoroughly it shocks the consciences of the people the law is supposed to serve. As I said then:

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.

Like too many lawyers, Flowers is overly impressed by the mechanism of the law, forgetting that the law is a tool that is useful only so long as it reaches outcomes that are widely acceptable.

The people up in arms over the seizure of the Kirlin family's land aren't "dumb, short-sighted, lacking in perspective or just plain wrong." They're pissed off that the law could reach an outcome that they find profoundly unjust. Castigating the public for failing to appreciate the beauty of his pet legal system shows that Flowers really doesn't understand that there's nothing sacred about that system; it can be swept aside if it consistently produces results that people find unjust and unacceptable.


New Hampshire roundup

So, who were the big winners in the New Hampshire presidential primary? Well, Hillary Clinton, of course -- she was supposed to lose big and instead she won small. That's good news if you're a fan of endless war, an overreaching state and are really, really lukewarm on civil liberties. That's a shame, because the donkey party has a credible candidate on offer in the form of Bill Richardson, who is reasonably friendly to both economic and civil liberty, favoring both lower taxes and medical marijuana. Of course, he's going nowhere in the polls.

Not that the Republicans chose better. Ron Paul, the most pro-liberty candidate in the race (and the only anti-war Republican), came in a distant fifth, trailing just behind Rudy "9/11" Giuliani. New Hampshire, with its strongly libertarian ethos, was supposed to be Paul's breakthrough state; it didn't happen. Instead, the top vote-getter among GOP candidates was, as expected, John McCain.

Which may make the big winner Matt Welch, the Reason magazine editor who penned McCain: The Myth of a Maverick, a definitive exploration of the rigid, authoritarian core of an uber-hawkish politician with little tolerance for public criticism. The book seemed doomed to gather dust in remainder bins when McCain's campaign got caught in the doldrums, but it deserves a new look now that the Arizona senator is again a serious contender for the nomination.

We're still early in the political season, and nobody in either of the major parties is a lock for the nomination. But indicators so far suggest that there will be little to like about what we get.


Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Ron Paul charges dissected

Well, The New Republic's much ballyhooed "expose" on Ron Paul's alleged bigotry is out, and I promptly read it, fearing that I would have to drop my support for the, to-date, most palatable candidate in the presidential race. Well, that's not about to happen. The article is a re-hash of allegations that have arisen before, with no new information and nothing to rebut the explanations that Paul has already offered.

Basically, the article breathlessly revives some truly contemptible quotes and sentiments (mixed in with non-mainstream, but not necessarily objectionable ideas that offend TNR writer James Kirchik) from newsletters that bore Paul's name and were published from the 1970s to the 1990s.

whoever actually wrote them, the newsletters I saw all had one thing in common: They were published under a banner containing Paul's name, and the articles (except for one special edition of a newsletter that contained the byline of another writer) seem designed to create the impression that they were written by him--and reflected his views. What they reveal are decades worth of obsession with conspiracies, sympathy for the right-wing militia movement, and deeply held bigotry against blacks, Jews, and gays. In short, they suggest that Ron Paul is not the plain-speaking antiwar activist his supporters believe they are backing--but rather a member in good standing of some of the oldest and ugliest traditions in American politics.

The article says "whoever actually wrote them" because Paul has stated that he essentially licensed his name to other people, without exercising editorial discretion, for use in promoting newsletters, and that he's embarrassed by the garbage they published when he wasn't paying attention.

Of course, that's a convenient excuse for Paul, but it's a credible explanation given the extent to which much of what appeared in those newsletters contradicts Paul's public statements elsewhere.

For example, Kirchik accuses Paul of antisemitism. The quotes drawn from the newsletters are more appropriately described as anti-Israel rather than overtly anti-Jewish, but they're of the sort that plenty of antisemites hide behind, and they are pretty far out there.

A 1987 issue of Paul's Investment Letter called Israel "an aggressive, national socialist state," and a 1990 newsletter discussed the "tens of thousands of well-placed friends of Israel in all countries who are willing to wok [sic] for the Mossad in their area of expertise." Of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, a newsletter said, "Whether it was a setup by the Israeli Mossad, as a Jewish friend of mine suspects, or was truly a retaliation by the Islamic fundamentalists, matters little."

But, as Kirchik himself writes:

To understand Paul's philosophy, the best place to start is probably the Ludwig von Mises Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Auburn, Alabama. The institute is named for a libertarian Austrian economist ...

The politics of the organization are complicated--its philosophy derives largely from the work of the late Murray Rothbard, a Bronx-born son of Jewish immigrants from Poland and a self-described "anarcho-capitalist" who viewed the state as nothing more than "a criminal gang"...

That's right, Rothbard, who heavily influenced Paul's political and economic philosophy, was Jewish. So, for that matter, was Ludwig von Mises. If Ron Paul is an antisemite, he picked an odd intellectual starting point.

Then there are the scurrilous things published in the newsletters about Martin Luther King:

Martin Luther King Jr. earned special ire from Paul's newsletters, which attacked the civil rights leader frequently, often to justify opposition to the federal holiday named after him. ("What an infamy Ronald Reagan approved it!" one newsletter complained in 1990. "We can thank him for our annual Hate Whitey Day.") In the early 1990s, a newsletter attacked the "X-Rated Martin Luther King" as a "world-class philanderer who beat up his paramours," "seduced underage girls and boys," and "made a pass at" fellow civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy. One newsletter ridiculed black activists who wanted to rename New York City after King, suggesting that "Welfaria," "Zooville," "Rapetown," "Dirtburg," and "Lazyopolis" were better alternatives. The same year, King was described as "a comsymp, if not an actual party member, and the man who replaced the evil of forced segregation with the evil of forced integration."

Kirchik quotes Paul campaign spokesman Jesse Benton saying "he was surprised to hear about the insults hurled at Martin Luther King, because "Ron thinks Martin Luther King is a hero." Now, that could just be spin from a political staffer trying to win votes from people unlikely to be enamored of insults directed at a civil rights leader -- but there's evidence that it's true. Just last year, Ron Paul was vilified in the press for comparing tax protesters to ... well, here's the quote:

"People who point this out and fight the tax code and fight the monetary code are heroic," he said in a video that's been linked to on several pro-Brown websites. "I compare them to people like Gandhi, who's willing to speak out and try to bring about change in a peaceful manner; Martin Luther King fought laws that were unfair and unjust, and he suffered, too."

What appeared in the newsletter just doesn't square with the sentiments that Paul -- who has named economist Walter Williams (who is black) as a potential running mate -- has publicly expressed.

The newsletters are full of attacks on gays too:

In 1990, one newsletter mentioned a reporter from a gay magazine "who certainly had an axe to grind, and that's not easy with a limp wrist." In an item titled, "The Pink House?" the author of a newsletter--again, presumably Paul--complained about President George H.W. Bush's decision to sign a hate crimes bill and invite "the heads of homosexual lobbying groups to the White House for the ceremony," adding, "I miss the closet."

Contrast that with this recording on YouTube of Paul defending gays -- especially their participation in the military -- from an ultra-conservative interviewer. Paul comes across as conservative and religious, but not judgmental.

In his case against Paul, Kirchik also mixes in his objections to non-mainstream, but not obviously unacceptable views that appear in the newsletter or are espoused by some of the congressman's associates. Specifically, he objects to the Ludwig von Mises Institute's seeming fondness for the old Confederacy and its defense of secession as a political tool. I'll admit to a limited patience with nostalgia for Old Dixie (and some of the institute's supporters do tend in that direction) but it's hard to share Kirchik's apparent sentiment that Abraham Lincoln should be the one U.S. president immune to revisionist assessments -- especially in light of his unconstitutional suspension of habeas corpus and his other inroads into civil liberties. And in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, objection to even discussion of the potential upside of secession is just plain silly.

Kirchik also targets Paul's "paranoia--specifically, the brand of anti-government paranoia that festered among right-wing militia groups during the 1980s and '90s." Some of the newsletter excerpts are a bit over the top -- there's the usual tired denunciation of the Trilateral Commission, for example -- but there's no explanation of why anti-government sentiment, in and of itself, is a bad thing. That's a point that Kirchik needs to explain in the days of the Patriot Act, FBI abuses of the few remaining restrictions on surveillance, waterboarding and seemingly limitless government spending.

In fact, Kirchik dilutes his whole argument by mixing in ideas that he just doesn't like with bigotry that should offend any reasonable person and presenting it all together as an unpalatable stew.

Perhaps the strongest argument against linking Ron Paul to the sentiments in the newsletters is the plain, crass, stupidity with which many of the sentiments are expressed: "Rapetown,"; "The ACT-UP slogan, on stickers plastered all over Manhattan, is 'Silence = Death.' But shouldn't it be 'Sodomy = Death'?"; "Barbara Morondon"; "far-left, normal-hating lesbian activist." This just doesn't sound like the guy who can turn any interview into a (take your pick) sophisticated/deadly dull discussion of monetary policy.

Of course, none of this means, beyond a doubt, that Ron Paul didn't pen the sentiments that appeared in these newsletters. It's possible that he's capable of associating with and being inspired by people he then vilifies in publicly available newsletters -- possible, but really odd.

More likely is the explanation that he has put forward: that he lent his name to people who used it to wrap bigotry in a veneer of credibility (Racism! Now endorsed by a congressman!). That's a knock against Paul in itself. He did an incredibly poor job of policing the use of his name, and is now paying the piper for his lack of oversight. Chances are, he created the situation that's now causing damage to his reputation through his own carelessness.

Update: With something of an insider's perspective, Timothy Wirkman Virkkala suggests an unpleasant possibility:

As a writer and editor working in the libertarian movement at the time of these “Ron Paul” newsletters, I have vague recollection of “common knowledge”: it was known who wrote these newsletters, and why. It was money for Ron. It was money for the writers. And it was a way of keeping Ron’s name in the minds of right wingers with money . . . future donors.

It was designed to be entertaining writing. Provocative. It flirted with racism, like Mencken’s did, and Mencken was indeed the model of the style. But these “Ron Paul” writings went further than Mencken’s usually did (at least for publication) along the lines of annoying the racially sensitive; and they sometimes did veer into outright racism.

That sort of feed-the-animals cynicism would be better than actual bigotry on Ron Paul's part, but not by a lot. If evidence surfaces for that scenario, a brusque "don't let the door hit you in the ass ..." would be the most appropriate send-off for Paul.


Long arm of the tax man reaches expats

It looks like American expatriates working in Europe are facing a double squeeze, from rising U.S. taxes on their income even as tax rates in the countries where they work ease downward. According to the International Herald-Tribune:

You could say American expatriates were ambushed in May 2006, when the U.S. Congress passed a new tax law - retroactive to the previous January - that raised the tax bracket on anything U.S. expats earned overseas beyond a fixed amount, and put a cap on expat housing allowances...

Anything beyond $85,700 is subject to U.S. tax, unless the expat is paying taxes at an equal or higher rate elsewhere. If paying higher taxes abroad, he can use a foreign tax credit to offset his U.S. tax liability. If there are low or no taxes overseas, then according to the 2006 law, the first dollar of compensation above $85,700 is taxed at the rate it would be taxed at as if the person were living in the United States. Previously it had been taxed as if it were the first dollar earned, at the lowest rate.

But while 20 years ago U.S. citizens who worked in high-tax places like France or Austria were able to use their tax credits to offset all U.S. taxes, these days many countries' tax systems are becoming more competitive, and their top rates have fallen.

In France, where the top rate used to be more than 50 percent, it is now 40 percent. In Germany, the maximum tax rate has been falling 1 to 2 percentage points a year and now stands at 42 percent. Slovakia's maximum personal income tax rate is a mere 19 percent.

What is more, some countries give taxpayers a lot more deductions than the United States. While the French top tax rate of 40 percent is still higher than the U.S. top rate of 35 percent, the French permit taxpayers to deduct large social security payments that cover medical insurance and other obligatory social payments from gross income. The United States does not. The French also allow deductions for child support and support of aged parents, and credits for housekeeping help if done within the legal framework. In the United States, there are no tax benefits for these expenditures.

The bottom line is that in some cases, despite higher nominal tax rates, the tax liability overseas may actually be lower than the U.S. tax liability.

The United States is one of the few countries around the world to treat its citizens as property of the state whose income can be claimed by the tax man no matter where they live. Most countries tax only people who reside within their borders under the theory that folks living thousands of miles away aren't putting any demand on the government they left behind. The long reach of the American tax man was annoying, but tolerable (by those who didn't actively evade the I.R.S.'s sticky fingers) so long as the U.S. was a comparatively low-tax nation and the countries in which the expats resided were high-tax -- after all, it's not like most expats were losing out on a deal.

But now they are missing out on a deal. The inclusion in the European Union of the newly free nations of Eastern Europe, most of which are opting for limited governments funded by low, flat tax rates, is exerting downward pressure on tax rates even in the traditionally over-governed Western European countries. If France and Germany don't lower their tax rates, they lose businesses and talent across borders to more competitive environments. And so lower them they do.

Americans working in Europe get to watch these developments, but because they're still taxed by distant Washington, D.C., they don't enjoy the benefits. Especially under the new rules, lower European taxes get turned into a higher bill from the I.R.S.

Now, throw in the fact that most of those expats are paid in free-falling U.S. dollars, and you add insult to injury.

Companies seeking to entice Americans to work overseas are likely to face increasing obstacles to making such assignments financially attractive. Compensation packages are probably going to have to become creative to make it worth Americans' time to work overseas. I expect that at least some long-time expats who plan to maintain that status will opt to drop their U.S. citizenship in order to escape avaricious U.S. officials. Even then, though, the I.R.S. claims the power to pick the pockets of former citizens for ten years.

In the end, there has to be some escape from a government that seems dead-set on turning U.S. citizenship into an expensive burden.


To save the kid we had to ...

Via Radley Balko, here's the tale of a Colorado family that was raided by police and held at gunpoint because the parents decided to care for their 11-year-old son themselves instead of send him to the hospital after he bumped his head.

The Garfield County All Hazards Response Team broke down Tom Shiflett's door Friday night and, following a court order, took his son for medical treatment.

The doctor's recommendation: Take Tylenol and apply ice to the bruises. The boy was back home a few hours later.

Authorities said they had reason to believe Shiflett mistreated his 11-year-old son, Jon, by failing to provide him proper medical care for a head injury. But Shiflett says his privacy and his rights were invaded, and that he has the right and the skill to treat his son himself. Shiflett, 62, said he served as a medic in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive.

An army medic? Huh, you might think him capable of treating his own kids' bumps and bruises.

Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario told reporters that the full-on paramilitary assault was necessary because Shiflett is a "self-proclaimed constitutionalist," although he declined to specify any illegal or threatening behavior on the man's part.

The use of a SWAT team to enforce an official preference for professional care over informal first-aid raises the already extreme militarization of American policing -- and the intrusiveness of even the most seemingly innocuous government agencies -- to a new and bizarre level. It's bad enough when doors are kicked in and people thrown to the floor -- or killed -- to serve warrants for non-violent offenses like drug possession. That's a monstrous abuse of government power that inevitably breeds fear of so-called "peace keepers" and builds an adversarial relationship between people and the state. But how do you characterize the use of violence to settle a disagreement between low-level officials and parents over the proper treatment of minor injuries?

It's easy to imagine a scenario under which Shiflett family members could have been injured or killed during an action supposedly intended to administer medical care. Would Sheriff Vallario have argued (in words probably all too familiar to Vietnam vet Tom Shiflett), "it was necessary to kill the kid in order to save him?"

It's long been clear that the state is too intrusive -- the micromanagement of American life has been an increasingly annoying problem for decades. But fans of the state have argued that a preference for less-intrusive government is simply a personal fetish based in only one small philosophy of governance. Incidents like the attack on the Shiflett family make it clear that an intrusive state is a dangerous state. Government agents don't just insert themselves into our lives; they acquire the troops and weapons to enforce their authority over all objections. SWAT raids are an inevitable tool of government officials who poke their noses everywhere and won't take "no" for an answer.

And injury and death are the certain outcome.

Sheriff Vallario can be reached at: (970) 945-0453

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Monday, January 7, 2008

Oh no ...

Isn't a Lou Dobbs presidential candidacy one of the Biblical signs of the Apocalypse?


Defector in the war on (some) drugs

Richard Brunstrom, Chief Constable of the North Wales Police in the United Kingdom, is making headlines with his call for full drug legalization. He told the Times of London:

“It is not possible to run a democratic country and stop drugs getting in,” he insists. “We reckon, on the best evidence we’ve got, that we stop between 10 and 12% at best of the drugs imported into the UK.”

He also emphasizes the nonsensical legal differentiation between "good" drugs and "bad" drugs based on little in the way of scientific evidence. Specifically, he called ecstasy “a remarkably safe substance” and said it's safer than aspirin -- a point that would be especially true if the drug were legalized and available in unadulterated form.

Before we go cheering Brunstrom's defection from the ranks of the prohibitionists, it's worth pointing out that he's no consistent advocate of liberty. Specifically, he's such a fan of traffic cameras for issuing automated tickets that he's been labeled "the mad mullah of the traffic Taliban," and targeted by the Association of British Drivers.

But we'll take one victory at a time. A police officer who comes to question the prohibition of some intoxicants is a police officer moving in the right direction on an important matter.

On a related note, Texas law-enforcement officers are digging in their heels and refusing to take advantage of a law that allows them to ticket people instead of arresting them for marijuana possession.


Saturday, January 5, 2008

Shake-up in New Hampshire poll

Rasmussen has Ron Paul in third place among Republican candidates in New Hampshire, polling at 14%, behind John McCain at 31% and Mitt Romney at 26%.

If those numbers hold through primary day -- and it's anybody's guess if they will -- that would be a major boost for the campaigns of both Paul and McCain, and a slap to Romney's self-funded vanity effort.

Among the Democrats, Rasmussen has Obama well ahead at 37%, with Clinton at 27% and Edwards trailing behind at 19%. It looks like Obama's momentum is continuing, though I doubt his supporters really have any better idea than the rest of us as to what their candidate stands for.


Thomas Edison gets the boot

The bizarre crusade against the venerable incandescent light bulb that has been sneaking its way across the globe has finally come to the United States -- quietly. Buried in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which President Bush signed in December, is the death knell for that familiar source of illumination that we all grew up with. By government decree, incandescent bulbs are to be no more starting in 2012.

The argument, as we've all been told, is that incandescent light bulbs are simply inefficient. We can all save energy in the long term if we simply suck it up and spend some money up-front to buy compact fluorescent lights. Global warming will thereby be reversed and Al Gore will bestow his blessings upon us.

Well, that's all well and good if you think that increasing efficiency and saving energy are good reasons to replace personal choice with government mandates. I suppose we'll all be junking our clothes dryers and jogging to work -- or else -- in the name of shaving a few percentage points off the nation's energy tab. Why not order folks to hang their clothes on the line and slip on a pair of Reeboks if it will improve efficiency?

For that matter, why not order people to switch to a raw diet to save the energy used to cook food, or even to create the equipment needed to cook food. Sure, that would mean some unwelcome adjustments for people, but we're talking about saving energy here -- personal choice is a secondary consideration.

The truth is that there's always an overruling purpose that can be invoked to trump freedom -- just this once, because the stakes are so high. It might be the environment, or health costs, social cohesion, public order, or your immortal soul. Just about everybody you know has a bug up his butt about some issue that's just too important to leave to people to decide for themselves. For the collective good, decisions must be made from the top down.

Lost in all of this crisis-driven autocracy is the consideration of freedom as a value in itself -- in fact, as the most important value. When we value freedom, we respect people as autonomous beings who are not subject to the whims of others. We recognize that, just because some segment of society is passionate about an issue, that doesn't mean that they have the right to force their preferences down the throats of others -- their personal choices don't take priority over those of other people just because they really, really care.

Which brings us to the practical concerns: Caring deeply about one way of addressing a perceived problem is not a substitute for allowing people to make a variety choices, and seeing which one(s) work out in the end. There may, after all, be better solutions; there may also be unintended consequences to the policies that the activists of the world want to make mandatory. For example, those CFL bulbs that our governments would force us to use as replacement for incandescent bulbs have now been fingered as potential causes of migraines and skin problems. They can also be somewhat difficult to dispose of.

So, when politicians act at the behest of activists to strip you of the choice to buy incandescent light bulbs, it's not just an annoyance that will have you spending more at the store and tossing out your dimmer switches and clip-on lampshades. The ban is also a sign that the powers-that-be don't respect your right to make choices for yourself, and that they're so convinced of their infallibility that they won't consider the possibility that they're wrong, and that the best solution might only be found in a free world in which innovations arise by competition among many different choices.

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Friday, January 4, 2008

Making defiance fun

About two miles up the road from my house, there's a road leading out into the desert across U.S. Forest Service land. The road offers some impressive views of the nearby mountains and the river and access to good country for horseback-riding, mountain-biking, ATVing and general playing in the desert. As a result, it's something of a popular destination for people with outdoor recreation in mind.

For some reason, probably related to the controversial roadless policy, the Forest Service has been trying to shut off access to that road. First, rangers installed a no-go sign in the clearing/parking area at the head of the road, and a barrier across the road itself. People just drove through the barrier.

Then the Forest Service laid rocks and mounded earth across the road. That didn't work. Nearly everybody around here owns high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicles, and they just drove around the rocks and mounds, through the desert.

Then the barricades became higher and more extensive. Well, that provided great fun. The serious four-wheelers made the barrier a must-do destination for the purpose of testing their trucks' capabilities.

I thought the Forest Service might have won when I saw that its people had laid a series of huge boulders linked by earthen walls. It was quite an engineering feat. I mean, add machine guns and you had Normandy Beach.

I realized I was wrong when I drove by the road and spotted a couple of guys with a front-end loader simply moving the boulders out of the way. How do you trump that?

Well, the Forest Service probably can't. But in an apparent act of petulance, this morning the feds had a crew out there stringing a flimsy wire fence and wood barricade along the edge of the main road, formally cutting off access to even the clearing at the head of the desert road. It's as if the local ranger-sachem blew a gasket and decided, like an overwrought kindergarten teacher, that if the kids can't play nice, they won't be allowed to play at all.

It's pointless. That fence will be cut within days, and people will keep on roaming the road. I hesitate to guess how much taxpayer money the Forest Service has spent to provide my neighbors' with some amusing recreational challenges.


In memory of the boozy office

Over at Slate, Jack Shafer ridicules the Cincinnati Post's unenforceable ban on booze in the newsroom on the paper's last day of publication. He (rightly, I think) criticizes the finger-wagging restriction as a repudiation of an important part of journalistic culture.

Every profession needs what academics call an "occupational mythology" to sustain it, a set of personal and social dramas, arrangements, and devices, as sociologist Everett Hughes put it, "by which men make their work tolerable, or even make it glorious to themselves and others." As hard drugs are to the hard-rocker and tattoos are to the NBA player, so booze is to the journalist—even if he doesn't drink. ...

It wasn't that long ago that alcoholics were celebrated or at least regaled in newsrooms for their heroic immoderation. Today, praise goes to the "courageous" newsroom alcoholic or druggie who enters a company-financed rehab program. Today's newspaper will fire you for taking mood-altering drugs in the workplace unless, of course, they're prescription antidepressants paid for by the company health plan. And in the old days, great status was bestowed upon the foulest mouth in the newsroom. Today, that sort of talk will earn you a write-up from HR for creating a climate of sexual harassment. Paradoxically, the language and subjects now banned as inappropriate inside the newsroom are routinely found inside the pages of the newspaper.

In issuing his dictum, Philipps surely inspired Post staffers to tote firewater to work that last day. I keep a bottle at my office for the same reason—not to drink but to symbolically cast off the petty rules and restrictions that I imagine thwart me from doing my job. If my job is to kick authority in the shins, how can I resist doing the same to the powers that cut me a paycheck twice a month?

The altered culture of the newsroom hits home for me. When I was hired away from Ziff-Davis to help launch the New York Daily News's online edition during a brief and unpleasant stint, I was abruptly told about the paper's urine test requirement only after I'd driven myself and my worldly goods from Boston to the Big Apple and showed up for my first day of work. It was a bit of a shock to me given the rather laissez-faire attitude taken by the employer I'd just left behind. Fortunately, the piss test was enforced with a nudge and a wink.

"I can't take the test tomorrow," I told my new boss.

"Why not," she asked.

"Because I'll test positive. I smoked grass just a few days ago."

"Oh. Well, we'll put it off for a couple of weeks. Be sure to drink lots of cranberry juice."

Maybe the juice did the trick; I passed the test with flying colors.

That the sober-or-bust posturing was mostly for show -- at least, then and there -- was amply demonstrated every time the newspaper suffered one of its semi-regular bomb scares. The building would empty out into two bars across the street until the "all clear" came. Much of the next day's edition was ... umm ... a tad incoherent. It was also a lot more fun to read.

Given the evolving culture, though, I suspect that the Daily News is probably a more sterile place to work now than it was in the mid-1990s. Frankly, it's not just newsrooms that have become crushingly restrictive; most modern workplaces have adopted a whole host of politically correct rules about intoxicant use, speech and conduct that might make some timid souls feel more cozy and protected, but which make the daily grind even more unpleasant than ever before for anybody who doesn't enjoy life in a straitjacket.

Boy, it's nice to be a freelancer.

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Thursday, January 3, 2008

Good cop put through the ringer

Yes, there really are good police officers, but sometimes their colleagues make life hell. Radley Balko has the details on Albuquerque Officer Sam Costales, who landed in hot water for spilling the beans about Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department deputies who abused and brutalized race-car driver Al Unser, Sr.

Check out the full story.


And the long trudge begins

With 85% of Republican precincts reporting, it looks like Ron Paul is pulling right at the top of what the polls said he'd get: 10%.

That's good enough for fifth place, ahead of Benito Giuliani, but behind Mike "Jesus is my social worker" Huckabee, Mitt "the incredible plastic man" Romney, Fred Thompson's reanimated corpse and John McNasty. That's a disappointment to those of us who dreamed of a third-place finish and hoped for fourth place, but it's credible leading to New Hampshire. That's especially true, since he was the preferred candidate among independents who voted in the GOP caucuses.

Unfortunately, the result suggests that there may not be a vast swarm of unpolled, unmeasured Paul supporters out there -- the promised horde of independents, young first-timers and traditional non-voters who are supposed to carry Dr. No to victory. If Paul is just going to draw at the upper end of the polling results, he's not going to shake up the race. It's not certain yet, but New Hampshire's primary, in a state much friendlier to his libertarian message, will likely settle the question of whether Paul has more supporters than the pollsters can find.

Virtually complete results on the Democratic side confirm the near-certainty that we're not going to see a relatively palatable Bill Richardson vs. Ron Paul match-up. Richardson is polling toward the back of the pack under the complicated rules adopted by the donkey party to make picking a candidate roughly as clear-cut a process as divining the future from animal entrails. That's a shame, since Richardson is the only one of the Democrats who isn't pandering to a bread-and-circuses (and band-aids) constituency.

Fortunately, though, John Edwards, the metro-sexual Huey Long, hasn't taken the day -- that honor belongs to Barack Obama, the candidate who has mastered being everything to everyone, and seeming really sincere about it. Right now, Edwards is on CNN talking up his squeaker second-place finish, just ahead of Hillary-the-anointed, and silently wondering where in God's name he's going to get the money and organization to carry him through to Super Tuesday.

But it's e-e-e-a-a-r-l-y yet in the selection process. There's still time to firm up the chances for my nightmare scenarios, such as a horrific Edwards vs. Huckabee race pitting warmed-over class warfare against theocracy, or a three-way, New York-only contest among Clinton, Giuliani and Bloomberg, with everybody living in the U.S. guaranteed to be a loser (I'm assuming that Paul doesn't run an independent campaign).

There's even still time -- lots of time -- for something half-way decent to come out of this race. But don't tell anybody I said that -- I don't want to be blamed for jinxing us all.

Results here.

Temperature rises for the CIA

The U.S. Justice Department has formally opened an investigation into the CIA's destruction of tapes which may have documented the torture of prisoners by government interrogators, suggesting that the Bush administration is hanging the intelligence agency out to dry. Never mind that the Bush administration has championed waterboarding (the practice used by the CIA) while carefully arguing that it's not torture; rather than back the spook interrogators, according to Bush supporters cited by the Washington Post, "Officials have said that some White House and Justice Department lawyers advised the CIA not to destroy the tapes, which contained information of interest to the attorneys of detainees and to a congressionally chartered panel examining the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks."

Putting the Justice Department on the job may head off calls for an independent counsel who could, potentially, pursue an investigation further up the political food chain than the White House might like. That might allow the Bush administration to throw a few intelligence agents to the wolves before the political season occupies everybody's attention and the scandal over torture and destroyed tapes simply fades from the public consciousness.

But will the CIA play ball? That's an interesting question. A lot depends on whether the CIA agents under scrutiny are willing to live up to the example set by spy novels and take a bullet for the chief.

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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Arizonans resistant to hiring law

Arizona employers may now be subject to penalties for "knowingly" hiring illegal aliens, but they aren't rushing to comply with the law.

A new law penalizing employers who hire illegal immigrants took effect at midnight on Tuesday.

But thousands of Arizona employers have yet to use the free government service to determine if their workers are legal...

Only 7 percent of all employers in Arizona have registered for e-Verify.

Business owners seem to be waiting to see if the intrusive law will actually be enforced, or whether one of the legal challenges to the nativist measure will successfully toss it into the dustbin.


Wading into the muck

I've broadly hinted, more than a few times, that I don't consider government to be a legitimate institution. The use of coercion to order human affairs has prevailed since the dawn of time and has invariably resulted in war, oppression and general bloodshed. Various forms of democracy, even assuming that they work as advertised, do little more than give people a share of responsibility in the brutalization of their neighbors at home and foreigners overseas. If you believe the hype, elections seem to mean we all get to feel a little guilty about the bombing of Dresden and the murder of Kathryn Johnston by Atlanta police officers, because the people behind those crimes "represented" us. More to the point, democracy means people get a bit of a say in who cracks the whip, but there's no doubt that the whip will continue to be cracked.

So, if I have such a dim view of government, why do I take any interest in the trite popularity contest now being staged by the two major political parties to pick their candidates for president of these over-governed states? If the ultimate winner is nothing more than a prettied-up tribal chieftain who will use political power to shed blood and crush freedom, why bother to pick a favorite?

Well ... because if you know that somebody will be cracking the whip, it really does matter who has the whip hand. Democracy may be no great shakes, but it does give us a small -- very small -- voice in who wields the terrifying and destructive power of the state. I may find government repulsive, but I also find it in my self-interest to try to arrange matters so that our slave drivers are drawn from the ranks of those reluctant to use state power -- even skeptical (as I am) about the legitimacy of the state itself.

In this, I draw from the reasoning of prominent 19th-century abolitionist, anarchist and writer Lysander Spooner, who disputed the legitimacy of the U.S. government and the Constitution on which it is based, but argued that voting could be a desperate act of self-defense rather than an act of allegiance to the state:

In truth, in the case of individuals, their actual voting is not to be taken as proof of consent, even for the time being. On the contrary, it is to be considered that, without his consent having ever been asked, a man finds himself environed by a government that he cannot resist; a government that forces him to pay money, render service, and forego the exercise of many of his natural rights, under peril of weighty punishments. He sees, too, that other men practise this tyranny over him by the use of the ballot. He sees further that, if he will but use the ballot himself, he has some chance of relieving himself from this tyranny of others, by subjecting them to his own. In short, be finds himself, without his consent, so situated that, if he use the ballot, he may become a master; if he does not use it, he must become a slave. And he has no other alternative than these two. In self-defence, he attempts the former.

So my participation in the political process is not evidence that I drank the Kool Aid served in fifth-grade Social Studies class, but rather that I see electioneering and voting as a relatively low-cost way of trying to ameliorate the abuses of the government under which I am forced to live. And in attempting to ameliorate those abuses, it's easy for me to pick a favorite this time around. I'm supporting Rep. Ron Paul. As the Boston Globe, among other media outlets, has documented:

On the campaign trail, Paul articulates a philosophy that recalls the famous dictum often attributed to Henry David Thoreau: "That government is best which governs least." "I want to be president mainly for what I don't want to do: I don't want to run your life, I don't want to run the economy, and I don't want to police the world," he told a potential supporter at the Strafford County straw poll. He wants to abolish the Federal Reserve and the income tax, to end the war in Iraq and the war on drugs, to dismantle the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Education.

This is actually the first political season in a long time that's offered up a candidate who clearly is unenthusiastic about wielding that whip I mentioned. That doesn't mean he's a perfect candidate -- he's too much of a nativist, he's opposed to personal choice on abortion and he's much more culturally conservative than me. But compared to the major-party competition, it's a no-brainer: he's head-and-shoulders above the rest.

So if, like me, you have sincere doubts about the propriety of participating in the morally hazardous business of supporting political candidates, rest easy. Voting and electioneering don't inherently taint you with culpability for the worst abuses of the state. Participating may just be an act of self-defense against a thuggish institution that shows no sign of disappearing any time soon.


How did that happen?

Mike Huckabee is shocked, shocked to discover that his attack ad targeted at Mitt Romney, that the former Arkansas governor is just much too nice to air, has somehow found its way to the press and is now being aired free of charge.

Oh no, he never intended that to happen.



Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Riding the Constitution Coach

What's the Constitution Coach? It's a donated bus used by some of Ron Paul's young campaigners in Iowa, of course. The New Republic's Eve Fairbanks has an intriguing take on the college students spending their Christmas break campaigning for Ron Paul in the Hawkeye State.

Actually, if the candidates were judged by the quality of their young supporters, I would now be voting for Ron Paul. Beyond just being polite, the Paul volunteers have an incredible passion for the technical mechanics of the American constitution and body of laws. As I spend time with them, I start to think: I wouldn't want a repairman working on my car who didn't know how it was put together, so why not the same with people who work on my government? (Assuming, that is, that the Paul adults mirror the Paul youth.)...

It's not about personality worship for the volunteers, the fetishization of a person's capacity to shine in public or persuade. It's about questions like the purpose of our Federal Reserve, which really piques these volunteers' interest, and which just so happens to get a Texas congressman named Ron Paul going, too. When Nickel muses, "I think centrists are the most extremist, because they don't believe in anything but people," it suddenly seems to make a lot of sense.

I just hope that Paul's volunteers are as effective and persuasive as Fairbanks finds them.


Now everybody can suffer

It's not quite marriage all-around, but New Hampshire's new law allowing civil unions for same-sex couples is good news for gay and lesbian couples who want to enjoy the same protections as their straight neighbors.

Personally, I think marriage should be a purely private institution. But as long as it's available to heterosexuals, marriage, or almost-marriage, should be an option for homosexuals too.


Bad prescription

Here's a notable legacy of Mitt Romney's mis-rule of Massachusetts: mandatory health insurance, with hefty fines for state residents who demur. Now, those fines are heading through the roof.

When the new year begins Tuesday, most residents who remain uninsured will face monthly fines that could total as much as $912 for individuals and $1,824 for couples by the end of 2008, according to penalty guidelines unveiled by the Department of Revenue on Monday.

Individuals who failed to sign up for health insurance by the end of 2007 faced only a one-time loss of their $219 personal income tax exemption.

The theory is that people who have willfully declined to pay for health care are irresponsible, not that they've rationally assessed their own needs and concluded that paying for coverage doesn't make sense -- at least when the options are limited to what the government of the Bay State considers acceptable.

For the record, I spent some time as a freelancer in Boston in my twenties without health coverage simply because I considered it an unnecessary expense for a man with zero health concerns. It was a gamble, but one I considered quite reasonable. I switched over to the most bare-bones catastrophic policy I could find (not so bare-bones in the people's republic by the sea) when I started riding a motorcycle, with all of the risks that entailed. Frankly, it was my choice to make, and my responsibility to live with the consequences of my choice.

But assuming that people are too stupid or irresponsible to make their own decisions is a popular pastime among politicians. Hillary Clinton has made coerced coverage a centerpiece of her platform, while John Edwards adds mandatory coverage to a far-reaching scheme for government-regulated care.

It's probably no surprise that mandates rarely stand alone. Once government officials get into the business of ordering people to get health coverage, they become ever more enthusiastic about defining what constitutes coverage. Edwards, for one, wants to drag folks to regular doctor's appointments whether they want to go or not.

"It requires that everybody be covered. It requires that everybody get preventive care," he told a crowd sitting in lawn chairs in front of the Cedar County Courthouse. "If you are going to be in the system, you can't choose not to go to the doctor for 20 years. You have to go in and be checked and make sure that you are OK."

He noted, for example, that women would be required to have regular mammograms in an effort to find and treat "the first trace of problem." Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, announced earlier this year that her breast cancer had returned and spread.

Call it eat-your-broccoli social policy. Oh hell; call it finger-wag-or-else, because nothing says "good for you" like the prospect of being held down by a couple of health cops while a state-contracted sawbones checks your prostate.

More regulation will inevitably drive up costs or hammer-down the quality of medical care. When providers and consumers don't respond to legislation the way politicians promise, the result will be rising penalties all around to penalize "uncooperative" doctors and patients.

Just look at Massachusetts.

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