Friday, February 29, 2008

Obama's nudge-and-wink on free trade

According to Canada's CTV, Barack Obama is telling his supporters one story about his position on free trade, and Canadian government officials quite another.

On Wednesday, CTV reported that a senior member of Obama's campaign called the Canadian government within the last month -- saying that when Senator Obama talks about opting out of the free trade deal, the Canadian government shouldn't worry. The operative said it was just campaign rhetoric not to be taken seriously.

The Obama campaign told CTV late Thursday night that no message was passed to the Canadian government that suggests that Obama does not mean what he says about opting out of NAFTA if it is not renegotiated.

However, the Obama camp did not respond to repeated questions from CTV on reports that a conversation on this matter was held between Obama's senior economic adviser -- Austan Goolsbee -- and the Canadian Consulate General in Chicago.

In one sense, that's reassuring -- that Obama doesn't mean the populist economic idiocy he's spewing to American voters. But it's also an interesting peek into the duplicity of the candidate for "hope" and "change." Politicians are ... well ... politicians.

Oh, and don't think Hillary is any different.

The CTV exclusive also reported that sources said the Clinton campaign has made indirect contact with the Canadian government, trying to reassure Ottawa of their support despite Clinton's words. The Clinton camp denied the claim.

Do you think John McCain is secretly telling foreign leaders that he'll really yank our troops from Iraq if he's elected? That would be an interesting surprise too.

See Steve Chapman on populist silliness on free trade.

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Making America more European

Not long ago, I riffed on an episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations set in Greece on my way to asking whether the host of EU-style laws, taxes and regulations that some folks want the United States to adopt would really make Americans more ... well ... European.

Many of the subjects of those laws don't actually obey them, I pointed out. After all, Bourdain's besotted hosts fired illegal guns in the air in full view of TV cameras. While Americans are pretty law-abiding by international standards, it's quite possible that Greek-style laws will turn them into Greek-style scofflaws.

But how to prove that point about subjects of "wiser" regimes elsewhere not quite so placidly submitting to the yoke as is often assumed? I turned to tax compliance rates. Just how likely are Americans to pay what the government demands when compared to other folks? As it turned out, the 84% compliance rate bemoaned by the IRS compares rather favorably with Switzerland's 78% compliance (PDF). But then I got stuck; most tax agencies treat compliance rates as state secrets, so I didn't have much more to go on.

Silly me. I'm not the first one to stumble across this problem, and I'm far from the first person to discover that, while tax compliance data depends on figures closely protected by government officials, the size of underground economies can be measured with publicly available data. The numbers I'm drawing on were compiled by Professor Friedrich Schneider of the University of Linz, one of the recognized experts in tracking unofficial economic activity. He defines the underground economy (he uses the term "shadow economy") as:

The shadow economy includes all market-based legal production of goods and services that are deliberately concealed from public authorities for the following reasons:

(1) to avoid payment of income, value added or other taxes,
(2) to avoid payment of social security contributions,
(3) to avoid having to meet certain legal labor market standards, such as minimum wages, maximum working hours, safety standards, etc., and
(4) to avoid complying with certain administrative procedures, such as completing
statistical questionnaires or other administrative forms.

In Shadow Economies of 145 Countries All Over the World: What Do We Really Know? (PDF), Prof. Schneider estimates the sizes of the underground economies of 145 countries as percentages of their official GDPs. The 21 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (developed countries) are listed below by the size of their underground economies, in ascending order:

United States: 8.4%
Switzerland: 9.4%
Japan: 10.8%
Austria: 10.9%
United Kingdom: 12.2%
New Zealand: 12.3%
Netherlands: 12.6%
Australia: 13.5%
France: 14.5%
Canada: 15.2%
Ireland: 15.3%
Germany: 16.8%
Denmark: 17.3%
Finland: 17.4%
Sweden: 18.3%
Norway: 18.4%
Belgium: 21.0%
Portugal: 21.9%
Spain: 22.0%
Italy: 25.7%
Greece: 28.2%

Sure enough, the United States has the smallest underground economy of the bunch. Fewer Americans than their counterparts in Switzerland, Canada or (especially) Italy and Greece choose to conduct their business out of sight and reach of the tax and regulatory authorities.

But why? Why is the U.S so relatively law-abiding?

Dan Mitchell of the Cato Institute thinks the answer is taxes. He points out that high-tax countries generally have larger underground economies than low-tax countries. Mitchell cites research that has "found that a 1 percentage point increase in marginal tax rates is associated with a 1.4 percentage point increase in the underground economy." It certainly makes sense that high tax rates would give people a reason to shield their earnings. And the U.S. has traditionally been a lower-tax country than most other developed nations.

Is that the only reason?

Schneider himself defines the shadow economy as being at least partially motivated by desire to escape "certain legal labor market standards" and "certain administrative procedures." And the United States is often criticized for its "cowboy capitalism" -- supposedly unrestrained market forces, in contrast to the heavily regulated economies of Europe. The extent to which the United States embraces laissez-faire is certainly overstated by Europeans, but there's no doubt that there's less overall government intervention in U.S. markets than in France or Germany. That may well help to explain why fewer Americans choose to take the risks involved in running businesses out of sight of the authorities.

So it's not surprising that when at least some American entrepreneurs do go underground, burdensome regulation -- as well as taxes -- features prominently among their reasons.

For the past few years, the underground restaurant industry -- a particularly tasty segment of the shadow economy -- has been booming. Michael Hale was among the restaurateurs interviewed for a 2005 article on the now-trendy business. Trendy they may be, but underground restaurants went subterranean for very practical reasons.

"It costs $200,000 just for a permit to be allowed to buy water from the city!" exclaims Hale. "You have to get tons of permits from various people. You've got to get a building permit, a permit if you want to remodel, you have to get licenses for beer and wine, and you have to get certified by the Health Board." ...

Hale isn't the only illegal entrepreneur who feels that way.

Their desire to serve high-quality food in a unique setting is now a reality because they don't pay any taxes or licensing fees. "It keeps the costs down, and it's a lot of fun," says Mo.

Well ... that makes sense. Permits, licenses and regulations create new and challenging barriers to entry into any industry. Taxes make it difficult -- and potentially unrewarding -- to stay in business. Restaurants are among the businesses in the United States subject to especially burdensome regulation. So it has become attractive for some people to operate their eateries outside the law -- in the underground economy.

But those are Americans cited in the above article complaining about taxes and regulations, not Belgians or Italians. And the underground industry in which they're operating is especially trendy and dependent on heavy interaction with the public, which could turn them in, but doesn't. That means that not only are Americans willing to go underground if given sufficient reason, but they're capable of doing so with widespread support.

Us denizens of the United States may be relatively law-abiding at the moment, but that is likely situational. So long as taxes are comparatively low and regulations somewhat tolerable, we're willing to play within the system. But if we get European-style laws and taxes, we may well get European-style disdain for the law.

If that means Anthony-Bourdainesque parties on the beach, with meat, booze and guns, so much the better. But I don't think that's what advocates of tighter laws and higher taxes have in mind.


Thursday, February 28, 2008

Arizona pols meddling in pediatrics

It's not at all unusual for politicians to consider themselves better stewards of the people's health than the people themselves or the medical providers that people choose to treat their ills. The fact that such meddling isn't unusual doesn't mean you want to encourage it, so I'm passing along an emailed heads-up about two bills being considered today by the Arizona Senate Health Committee that would compromise the privacy of patients and the independence of physicians:

SB 1213 AHCCCS; children; psychiatric medications; information

This is basically the same bill as last year, which we defeated. The bill would require AHCCCS to release an annual report to the legislature and the public containing the following information for all children receiving behavioral health care through the state system including children in the Arizona Long Term Care system and Foster Care and children receiving services through DDD:


The sponsor and the supporters of this bill will testify that they are concerned about the number of children who are receiving multiple medications and this is their way of tracking that information. The problem with that argument is that this information is already tracked by both AHCCCS and DBHS as well as the RBHA's. This information, (without the personally identifying information), is available to the legislature but not the public and should not be made available to the public.


  • The information provided includes personally identifying information (age) as per HIPPAA and therefore would be in violation of Federal and state law.
  • The information would not provide an accurate picture of the treatment plan for the child. The name and dosage of the drug without a diagnosis is useless information. Treatment plans do not consist of drug therapy alone.
  • By making the report public they would be releasing information that, if taken out of context, could be used inaccurately to inflame an already controversial issue thus fueling the further stigmatization that children with mental health disorders and their families have to deal with everyday.
  • Knowing that their child would be included in such a public report could prevent families from seeking needed treatment.
  • Publishing the names of doctors and making them available to the public is wrong for the following reasons:

    • Anyone with a personal agenda or and organization with a national agenda against psychotropic medications would be able to access the names of doctors who are prescribing to young children. This information could be taken out of context and used against the doctors in a public forum.
      Doctor's should not have to defend themselves, to the public, for using evidence based, standard in the industry, medical practices.
    • These doctors treat the medicaid and foster care population. We already have a shortage of pediatric psychiatrists, both state wide and nationally. This type of pubic reporting would prevent doctors from agreeing to treat these very vulnerable populations who have no other options.
    • Primary care physicians and pediatricians who also treat the medicaid population and prescribe psychotropic medications to children would be discouraged from doing so knowing that their names would be published in a publicly accessible report.
    • The state already has a mechanism in place for tracking this information and investigating doctors who may be prescribing inappropriately. The public does not have the knowledge or expertise in these issues and should not become part of this process.

SB 1399 doctors; prescriptions; nonindicated use

This bill would add language to the definition of unprofessional conduct for a licensed medical professional to include the prescribing of medication for "off label" use to anyone under the age of 18 unless that prescription has been confirmed in writing by a consulting physician who must examine the patient and the patient's medical records.

Prescribing of medications for "off label" use (a use other than the FDA approved use) is a common practice among the medical profession. Many drugs are used for purposes they were not originally intended but were later found to be effective treatments for. Such as: Retina A; approved by the FDA as an acne treatment but now also used to correct sun damage and for cosmetic reasons, Beta-blockers for the prevention of migraine headaches and benzodiazepines for the treatment of pain in cancer patients.


1. The bill is too broad

  • The bill does not indicate if the "consulting" physician must be licensed in the same specialty as the original prescribing doctor.
  • Emergency room doctors would also have to comply, which could delay life saving treatment.

2. The bill would create additional expense

  • Requiring a second opinion which includes a physical exam by a second physician would result in additional costs which insurance companies would most likely not cover if the need did not fall under their definition of medical necessity.
  • The state budget for AHCCCS would have to be dramatically increased in order to provide payment to a consulting physician.

3. The bill would create delays in treatment

  • Requiring a second opinion on all off label prescription would delay treatment in a state that is already suffering from a shortage of doctors.
  • Parents would have to take additional time off work to meet the consulting physician requirement.
  • The small towns and rural communities in AZ who often have a shortage of doctors, would be more adversely impacted.
  • Emergency rooms would delay life saving treatment.

4. The Arizona Medical Board already monitors physicians prescribing practices and has rules, as well as punishments for breaking those rules, in place. This additional requirement is not needed.

PLEASE CONTACT THE MEMBERS OF THE SENTATE HEALTH COMMITTEE. (The names with the asterisk before them are especially important.)

* Carolyn Allen, Chairman (Dist 8)
(602) 926-4480

Tom O'Halleran, V. Chairman (1)
(602) 926-5584

* Thayer Verschoor (22)
(602) 926-4136

* Barbara Leff (11)
(602) 926-4486

Meg Burton-Cahill (17)
(602) 926-4124

Amanda Aguirre (24)
(602) 926-4139

* Paula Aboud (28)
(602) 926-5262

If any of these members are your Senator be sure to indicate that you are a constituent in the subject line.

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War on drugs has prisons bulging at the seams

According to a new report from the Pew Center on the States, One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008 (PDF), more than 1% of all American adults are cooling their heels behind bars -- a record number. That's a staggering figure, but one that grows even more frightening when you examine specific groups. "While one in 30 men between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars, for black males in that age group the figure is one in nine."

At a time when U.S. global leadership is being questioned in a variety of areas, there's no doubt that this country still leads in its ability to lock people up.

The United States incarcerates more people than any country in the world, including the far more populous nation of China. At the start of the new year, the American penal system held more than 2.3 million adults. China was second, with 1.5 million people behind bars, and Russia was a distant third with 890,000 inmates, according to the latest available figures. Beyond the sheer number of inmates, America also is the global leader in the rate at which it incarcerates its citizenry, outpacing nations like South Africa and Iran. In Germany, 93 people are in prison for every 100,000 adults and children. In the U.S, the rate is roughly eight times that, or 750 per 100,000.

Could it be that so many more Americans deserve incarceration than Chinese or Germans? Why are these people locked up?

The Pew Center blames the surge in the ranks of the imprisoned primarily on policy choices. Examining Florida, for instance, the report says:

While crime and a growing resident population play a role, most of the growth, analysts agree, stemmed from a host of correctional policies and practices adopted by the state. One of the first came in 1995, when the legislature abolished “good time” credits and discretionary release by the parole board, and required that all prisoners—regardless of their crime, prior record, or risk to recidivate—serve 85 percent of their sentence. Next came a “zero tolerance” policy and other measures mandating that probation officers report every offender who violated any condition of supervision and increasing prison time for these “technical violations.” As a result, the number of violators in Florida prisons has jumped by an estimated 12,000.

These numbers seem to hold up across the country. In California, "A 2005 study showed that more than two-thirds of parolees in the Golden State were returned to prison within three years of release; of those, 39 percent were due to technical violations."

OK. But that doesn't tell us what brought this teeming mass of inmates to the attention of the justice system to begin with. What did they do that would make them subject to policy decisions about parole and probation? If we have a disproportionate ratio of the world's rapists, robbers and murderers in this country, maybe we need all of that expensive prison capacity.

Unfortunately, the Pew report just doesn't go there. It talks about parole, probation, long prison sentences and the high costs of incarceration. But the document steadfastly avoids addressing the overwhelming reason U.S. government officials incarcerate so many of the people subject to their authority: the war on drugs.

In 1994, the U.S. Department of Justice itself sounded a warning in An Analysis of Non-violent Drug Offenders with Minimal Criminal Histories:

Using one set of criteria which limited offenders to no current or prior violence in their records, no involvement in sophisticated criminal activity and no prior commitment, there were 16,316 Federal prisoners who could be considered low-level drug law violators. They constituted 36.1 percent of all drug law offenders in the prison system and 21.2 percent of the total sentenced Federal prison population.

By 2003, those numbers had grown dramatically. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported:

Experts say mandatory sentences, especially for nonviolent drug offenders, are a major reason inmate populations have risen for 30 years. About one of every 143 U.S. residents was in the federal, state or local custody at year's end. ...

Drug offenders now make up more than half of all federal prisoners. The federal penal system, which has tough sentencing policies for drug offenses, is now the nation's largest at more than 151,600 – an increase of 4.2 percent compared with 2001.

Simple drug possession convictions make up about 5% of the federal prison population drug offenders in federal prisons and about 27% of the state prison population drug offenders in the state prison population*, according to the federal government's own figures. Other nonviolent drug offenders were charged with nothing more than "sale or intent to sell" illegal intoxicants to willing buyers.

The legal system's reach into American life -- largely as a result of drug prohibition -- extends even farther than the Pew Center figures would indicate. In Probation and Parole in the United States 2006 (PDF), the Justice Department revealed that "About 3.2% of the U.S. adult population, or 1 in every 31 adults, were incarcerated or on probation or parole at yearend 2006."

That means that police, courts and prison authorities currently play a significant role in the lives of a shockingly high percentage of the adult population. And most of those unfortunate people are subject to loss of liberty and government supervision because they like to get high or want make a few bucks by helping other people get high. If their choice of "cocktails" were different, we'd call them bar patrons and bartenders.

So, thanks, Pew Center, for the wake-up call about the insane U.S. incarceration rate. And thanks, too, for the suggestions about parole, probation and sentencing guidelines.

But, if we want to step back from the brink of making America a land of convicts and ex-cons, we'll have to declare an end to the oppressive and brutal war on drugs.

*Thanks to Thorley Winston who pointed out in the comments that I had misstated the numbers. We are, of course, still talking about nonviolent "criminals" who engaged in victimless activity.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Tales from the smoking underground

In 2006, a majority of Ohio voters had a temper tantrum and decided they could dictate the conditions they like in private businesses -- specifically, they banned smoking in "public places" and "places of employment."

Not all business owners are knuckling under, however. In particular, lots of bar owners don't see why they should allow people who may or may not ever set foot in their establishments tell them how they can or can't cater to actual customers. Says Terry Hymore, owner of Toledo's Rip Cord bar, "It's my bar, it's my house. I can do what I want in it."

The bar owners are cooperating to stay one step ahead of the Prohibition agents:

Not only are some bars not paying fines, they're also working together, says Dr. David Grossman, with the Health Department. Grossman says when health inspectors are investigating complaints, a small network of bars start informing each other by phone.

"It's kind of in a way like bootleggers," Grossman says.

Not just bootleggers, but speakeasies are being emulated. The AP reports that in Cleveland:

Underground nightclubs where patrons can smoke freely and watch strippers after midnight have opened in some of the city's residential neighborhoods since the state began enforcing new restrictions on strip clubs and public smoking last year, police say.

Now that's the American way.

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Strong minority opposes Arizona marriage amendment

I'm not surprised that more Arizonans support a proposed state constitutional amendment "that would define marriage as between one man and one woman" than don't. I am pleasantly surprised, however, that social conservatives enjoy a rather small advantage on the issue. According to the latest Cronkite-Eight poll, "[f]orty-nine percent favored the amendment, 40 percent opposed it and 11 percent said they were unsure how they felt." It's a bit trendy now to fret over the supposed gay threat to the oh-so-sacred rite of marriage, so it's nice to see that the Goldwateresque Arizona live-and-let live impulse still has a bit of life in it.

Actually, it's 40-percenters on the issue who are the traditionalists. As Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history at Evergreen State College, wrote for the New York Times back in November 2007:

Why do people — gay or straight — need the state’s permission to marry? For most of Western history, they didn’t, because marriage was a private contract between two families. The parents’ agreement to the match, not the approval of church or state, was what confirmed its validity.

So ... What's all this nonsense about asking the county for a license to get hitched? How did that get started?

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

By the 1920s, 38 states prohibited whites from marrying blacks, "mulattos," Japanese, Chinese, Indians, "Mongolians," "Malays" or Filipinos. Twelve states would not issue a marriage license if one partner was a drunk, an addict or a "mental defect." Eighteen states set barriers to remarriage after divorce.

Ah! So, you mean there's an unsavory origin to the government's intervention in what was previously a purely private matter? I never would have guessed.

Oddly, this means that the growing ranks of Americans living "in sin" (married couples now constitute a minority of households) are the ones harking back to the traditional concept of marriage by rejecting this newfangled idea about seeking state permission to lay their toothbrushes side-by-side.

Unfortunately, marriage has been turned into an administrative sub-unit of the state. Cohabiting couples may be perfectly happy with their arrangements, but they'll likely run into trouble when it comes to inheritance, making medical decisions for ill partners and collecting Social Security. That -- along with the fundamental respect to be found in being treated equally -- is why gay and lesbian couples have been so eager to gain the same access to marriage licenses as straight couples.

But easing paperwork for government officials seems like a poor reason for allowing the state to further expand its reach into our private lives. Surely, if neighbors, priests and judges found it possible for a thousand years to recognize privately constituted marriages as legitimate, Social Security administrators can eventually find their way to the same accomplishment.

Returning to privately arranged marriages could have the added benefit of allowing couples (or hell, any number of partners) to define the terms of their arrangements to their liking. Under state-defined marriage, government retains the power to redefine marriage in ways that may not please everybody concerned. As the Cato Institute's David Boaz wrote for Slate:

In the 20th century, however, government has intruded upon the marriage contract, among many others. Each state has tended to promulgate a standard, one-size-fits-all formula. Then, in the past generation, legislatures and courts have started unilaterally changing the terms of the marriage contract. Between 1969 and 1985 all the states provided for no-fault divorce. The new arrangements applied not just to couples embarking on matrimony but also to couples who had married under an earlier set of rules. Many people felt a sense of liberation; the changes allowed them to get out of unpleasant marriages without the often contrived allegations of fault previously required for divorce. But some people were hurt by the new rules, especially women who had understood marriage as a partnership in which one partner would earn money and the other would forsake a career in order to specialize in homemaking.

Returning to private rites, but with the very modern option of individually defining the terms of the marriage contract, would allow the conservative-minded to make arrangements under the authority of their religious institutions that please them, the experimental to customize something to their taste and would force nobody to believe that they were giving their imprimatur to relationships that offend their sensibilities.

Defining marriage "as between one man and one woman"? Well, that just wouldn't be an issue for political debate.

And wouldn't it be nice if matters of love and relationships weren't the subject of political debate?

Forty percent of Arizonans oppose an amendment defining the meaning of marriage? Let's move toward a solution that allows everybody to define their own marriage.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Day off

I'm sampling a nasty little virus today. I hope to return to regularly scheduled programming as soon as possible.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Supremes to review Arizona search case

Says the Associated Press:

The Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide when police without a warrant can search the vehicle of a person who is under arrest.

Rodney Joseph Gant was handcuffed, seated in the back of a patrol car and under police supervision when Tucson, Ariz., police officers searched his car.

A sharply divided Arizona Supreme Court ruled that the search violated the Constitution's Fourth Amendment. The state asking the U.S. high court to overturn that ruling.

The justices said they will hear the case next fall to decide whether officers must demonstrate a threat to their safety or the need to preserve evidence to justify a warrantless search in cases like Gant's.

On its face, the Arizona Supreme Court decision makes excellent sense. Gant was arrested "about 10 feet away from his parked car." Secured as he was he posed no threat to police and there was nothing other than curiosity to draw law enforcement attention to his vehicle. It seems like a no-brainer to say that police had no business searching the car without a warrant.

It seems, I say but we're talking about cars, the Fourth Amendment and the Supreme Court -- three things that don't mix well.

In Maryland v. Dyson, the Supreme Court held that police can pretty much search automobiles at will. In Florida v. White the court ruled that a parked car can be seized by police without a warrant if they believe (but haven't legally proved) it is "contraband" under local law. There are other cases along these lines, too, but the gist is that, when it comes to automobiles, the Fourth Amendment is dressed-up, rouged and lying in a pine box.

Will the fact that Gant was arrested ten feet from the car make a difference?

I wouldn't count on it, unless the court is set to make a dramatic break with the trend of its recent rulings (Dyson and White both date to 1998). And don't look to Arizona law to provide a bulwark against weakened federal search and seizure protection -- the Arizona Supreme Court's Gant decision (PDF) was based on the Fourth Amendment and federal precedent, so stronger state protections won't be forthcoming.

I'm afraid that we're due for another Supreme Court ruling that we're all ripe for the plucking by the nearest uniformed government employee the moment we set foot in our cars.

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The self-correcting Internet

The Washington Post's Brian Krebs expends much digital ink on the to-do over the government of Pakistan's decision to censor YouTube and how this decision cut off world-wide access to the online video service.

According to wire reports, Pakistan ordered all in-country Internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to, complaining that the site contained controversial sketches of the Prophet Mohammed which were republished by Danish newspapers earlier this month. The people running the country's ISPs obliged, but evidently someone at Pakistan Telecom - the primary upstream provider for most of the ISPs in Pakistan - forgot to flip the switch that prevented those blocking instructions from propagating out to the rest of the Internet.

The problem is one of misplaced institutional trust he says. The Internet was created in the days when all its administrators pretty much knew each other, and the systems they created remain in place -- potentially allowing malicious governments and companies to have their nefarious way with our Internet surfing.

This kind of implicit trust has caused similar troubles on a number of prior occasions. While it's usually the result of an oversight, this trust can be abused: In 2003, Los Angeles County found that a large swath of its Internet space was suddenly redirecting visitors to porn sites. Investigators later learned a relatively small California ISP had simply declared itself the authoritative destination for a huge chunk of LA's Internet addresses in order to drive traffic to adult sites hosted on his network.

The government could have and should have fixed this situation, says Krebs, but it fell down on the job.

The U.S. government thought it a problem worthy enough of more scrutiny that it spent a few million dollars between 2004 and 2006 funding a research endeavor called the Secure Protocols for Routing Infrastructure project. Due to budget cutbacks at the Department of Homeland Security, however, the program is being discontinued.

But wait! Is this really a problem at all? I mean, YouTube is perfectly accessible today. How did that happen?

In his own post, Krebs quotes Marc Sachs, director of the SANS Internet Storm Center, who says:

"Someone at a large network could probably get away with a stunt like that for up to 30 minutes or an hour before [those in charge of] the rest of the Internet would just start shunning them," Sachs said. "As soon as you have someone in the system acting in a rogue manner - intentionally or not - they tend to lose the trust of the rest of the community pretty quickly."

So... You're saying that the Internet is already pretty effective at countering this sort of maneuver -- and in short order.

And, as ZDNet's Richard Stiennon points out, Pakistan pretty much got bumped completely off the Internet as a result of its ham-handed censorship.

Well, that's a different story, isn't it?

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Account of a wrong-address raid

Here's an interesting step-by-step account of the events and decisions that led Minneapolis police to raid the wrong house, resulting in a shootout with the homeowner (nobody was injured, and nobody is being charged).

The story also includes simple tactics the police could have used, but didn't to make sure they had the right address.

Update: Aaagh! Radley Balko beat me to the punch again. Damn, he's good.


NYC adopts the euro

Today's Washington Post tells of the growing ranks of businesses in New York City that are now accepting euros, as well as Canadian dollars and British pounds. The move makes sense, since the weak U.S. dollar has brought flocks of foreign bargain-chasers to the city, and merchants can simultaneously cater to the new customers while accumulating caches of coins and banknotes currently perceived as more likely to hold their value than American greenbacks.

The precipitous fall of the dollar -- currently one euro is worth nearly $1.50 -- has already changed the city.

Last year, the weak currency helped draw 8.5 million foreign visitors to New York, more than ever before, said George Fertitta, chief executive of NYC & Co., the city's tourism operation, and what they have been buying is as varied as lingerie and condominiums. Tourists generated $28 billion in spending last year and supported more than 350,000 jobs, and Europeans represent the largest group of foreign visitors, he said.

The plummeting dollar and rising euro have even entered popular culture. Rapper Jay-Z has a video in which he cruises New York streets flashing wads of euros.

"I need euros," said Garba Bar¿, a street vendor who sells cellphone covers and iPod cases from a table on Broadway in SoHo. He explained that he is from Niger, which he visits frequently and where the euro is commonly used.

"The dollar's going down," he said. "I don't want to change it before I go home."

While something of a sad commentary on government mismanagement of its legal monopoly on money, the real test of declining esteem for the dollar would be if merchants were refusing to accept U.S. money even as they took in euros -- a situation that has occasionally occurred in other countries. Legal tender laws (and practicality) prevent American business owners from making such a dramatic gesture, however, but growing acceptance of foreign currency seems a pretty strong statement on its own.


Sunday, February 24, 2008

Bill Ayers, meet Eric Rudolph

Fueled by a story written by Politico's Ben Smith, and the Clinton campaign's desperate promotion of said story, the press is slowly picking up on Barack Obama's past working relationship with notorious terrorists William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn.

They disappeared in 1970, after a bomb — designed to kill army officers in New Jersey — accidentally destroyed a Greenwich Village townhouse, and turned themselves into authorities in 1980. They were never prosecuted for their involvement with the 25 bombings the Weather Underground claimed; charges were dropped because of improper FBI surveillance.

Ayers and Dohrn are far from contrite about their violent past. “I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough,” Ayers told the New York Times in 2001.

Even so, they've done rather well for themselves. Despite a violent past, Ayers has settled in comfortably as an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Dohrn is an associate professor of law at Northwestern University.

And, of course, the two are respected political activists in Chicago's Hyde Park, where they hosted Barack Obama in their home and where Ayers worked alongside Obama on the board of a foundation.

I'm less concerned about Obama's association with Ayers and Dohrn than some political chatterers seem to be. I've never doubted that Obama shared some of the leftist views of people more radical than he (a touch pink? You don't say!) And I don't really fear that he's a closet bomb-thrower; there's simply no evidence that Barack Obama wants to implement his political views by force -- at least, not by force beyond that permitted by the "legitimate" political system.

But I am intrigued by the rather friendly treatment that Ayers and Dohrn receive in contrast to terrorists who adhere to different flavors of violent authoritarianism.

And I do mean authoritarianism. While press coverage tends to emphasize Ayers' and Dohrn's anti-war activism (and to refer to the bombers as "radicals" rather than "terrorists"), their ideology encompasses rather more than skepticism about the long-gone bloodbath in Vietnam. They're hostile to the market system, fond of socialism and openly solicitous of repressive political leaders who share their goals. On his blog (they're very modern radicals), Ayers writes of Hugo Chavez's Venezuela:

Despite being under constant attack from within and from abroad, the Bolivarian revolution has made astonishing strides in a brief period: from the Mission Simoncito to the Mission Robinson to the Mission Ribas to the Mission Sucre, to the Bolivarian schools and the UBV, Venezuelans have shown the world that with full participation, full inclusion, and popular empowerment, the failings of capitalist schooling can be resisted and overcome. Venezuela is a beacon to the world in its accomplishment of eliminating illiteracy in record time, and engaging virtually the entire population in the ongoing project of education.

Chavez has engaged "virtually the entire population" by requiring even private schools to adopt his regime's politicized curriculum, under threat of nationalization.

That's the sort of political ideology that "radical" professors Ayers and Dohrn find attractive, and which drove their (still fondly remembered) bombing campaign.

Compare the treatment of this pair to, say Eric Rudolph. Rudolph is another political terrorist who also spent years as a fugitive, apparently assisted, like Ayers and Dohrn, by sympathizers. Driven by hatred of gays and lesbians and opposition to abortion, Rudolph planted bombs that killed two people and injured over 100. In his 2005 statement, Rudolph said:

Abortion is murder. And when the regime in Washington legalized, sanctioned and legitimized this practice, they forfeited their legitimacy and moral authority to govern. ...

There is no more legitimate reason to my knowledge, for renouncing allegiance to and if necessary using force to drag this monstrosity of a government down to the dust where it belongs. ...

Along with abortion, another assault upon the integrity of American society is the concerted effort to legitimize the practice of homosexuality. ...

[W]hen the attempt is made to drag this practice out of the closet and into the public square in an "in your face" attempt to force society to accept and recognize this behavior as being just as legitimate and normal as the natural man/woman relationship, every effort should be made, including force if necessary, to halt this effort.

Like the former Weathermen, Rudolph remains unrepentant. Referring to his bombing of an abortion clinic, he wrote, "I have no regrets or remorse for my actions that day in January, and consider what happened morally justified."

Unlike Ayers and Dohrn, however, Rudolph is serving hard time in prison -- multiple consecutive life terms without parole. Ayers never served time and Dohrn spent less than a year in prison for refusing to testify about a Weather Underground heist in which a guard and two police officers were killed. And there's never been any question about Rudolph's status: press accounts regularly (and accurately, I would say) refer to him as a "terrorist," denying him the nudge-and-wink "radical" status afforded to the lefty bombers.

While it's unlikely that we'll ever get the chance to see whether any American universities are eager to award Rudolph with a tenured teaching job, it's safe to say that the authoritarian right-wing bomber is treated rather more roughly by the press and the intellectual establishment than are the authoritarian left-wing bombers. Ayers and Dohrn are widely presented as otherwise-respectable activists who went a tad too far, while Rudolph is generally described as the unpleasant product of hate, intolerance and the dark underbelly of rural American society. The association of a presidential hopeful with Ayers and Dohrn may excite scattered raised eyebrows -- and talk that the issue is an overblown bit of "Obama backlash"-- among the all-of 26 news stories on the matter that a Google search turns up as of February 24. But it's hard to believe that McCain's campaign would enjoy the same nonchalant treatment if it turned out that he'd broken bread with Rudolph at a pro-life fundraiser.

The difference is likely one of culture and familiarity. Journalists, academics and intellectuals run into even the most radical leftists often enough that the likes of Ayers and Dohrn might seem excessive without coming across as unsympathetic. That sort of familiarity can result in the occasional howler, such as the misty-eyed 1990 New York Times story on a failing retirement home populated by "political idealists" -- aging communists with a lingering nostalgia for Lenin. It's hard to believe the Grey Lady would have run a similar piece about octogenarian German-American bundists pining for Adolph. But I'm certain that aging reds strike many journalists as quaint, while old brownshirts just come across as pathetic -- despite the comparable body counts of the two totalitarian ideologies.

So the minor kerfuffle over Obama's association with Ayers and Dohrn says less about the candidate -- who did nothing most of his peers would find unacceptable -- than it does about the thinking of a certain part of the American political and intellectual establishment. Violence to achieve political change may be a no-no, but it's a minor transgression in the service of a sympathetic kind of politics, and a reprehensible crime when implemented for the wrong ideas.

And the fact that the sympathetic kind of politics is as repressive as the wrong kind? Well, that says something too.

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Give drugs a chance

I'm rereading Jacob Sullum's Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use, several years after I first picked the book up. I'm struck, once again, by his treatment of the consumption of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and any other intoxicant you can think of as a not inherently bad thing -- in fact, a potentially good thing if done in moderation. Sullum is one of the few writers I can think of who treats the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake with respect, rather than as an unseemly vice.

Even among many advocates of drug legalization, drugs are treated as an unavoidable curse that burdens the human race, with legalization a necessary evil preferable to the ills, such as loss of civil liberties, that accompany prohibition. The very term "harm reduction," so popular now among advocates of alternatives to the War on Drugs, implies that drug use always damages the user, and that the goal is to reduce drug use by means other than criminal sanction.

This is why so many debates over legalization devolve to discussions of whether removing criminal sanctions will result in more consumption of disfavored intoxicants. See this otherwise somewhat sensible discussion from the Baltimore Sun:

A recent column on jury duty -- my first actual trial in more than 20 years of summonses to the Circuit Court of Baltimore City -- prompted a letter from reader Tom Ryugo about the decriminalization of heroin and cocaine. As you'll see, it's kind of hard to argue with this common-sense take. I've had this discussion with many people, including the former New York cop you runs an organization devoted to decriminalization, and the famous Baltimore attorney Bill Murphy. I can't make up my mind about it. Perhaps I should. . . . My fear is that legalization will lead to more use. I don't think the death penalty is a deterrent to murder, but I think the threat of incarceration and a life of addiction and misery is a deterrent to people who might be tempted to move from reefer to heroin or coke.

If you view drug use as inherently bad, it makes sense to assume that anything that might lead to increased consumption is something of a setback.

But, as many of us who have not just experimented with, but enthusiastically consumed various intoxicants know (Whoops! I bet I just blew my next job interview), the road to perdition is not usually lined with dried vegetation, white powder, pills or crystals. In fact, many a party, evening or weekend afternoon has been made more pleasant by "cocktail hours" that featured refreshments that would make John Walters weep. Some of us dabbled, a few of us indulged and there were occasional bingers, too. The vast majority of us, whether we still smoke or snort or not, suffered little or no harm -- in fact, we downright enjoyed our experiences, improved our moods and released a lot of tension in the process. And then we went about our responsibilities just a little more relaxed than we might have been.

Yet the loser pothead or scrawny junky is the image most often evoked when people think of drug use.

There's a good reason for that. As Sullum writes in Saying Yes:

We see the drug users who get hauled away by the police, who nod off in doorways or on park benches, who beg on the street or break into cars. We do not see the drug users who hold down a job, pay the rent or the mortgage, and support a family. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, people naturally assume that most illegal drug users are like the ones they notice, who are apt to be the least discreet and most antisocial. This is like assuming that the wino passed out in a gutter is a typical drinker.

Hmmm. So, how many users are, you know, addicts?

That's actually a hard question to answer, given the difficulty involved in asking people about their drug consumption habits. In fact, when prohibitionists talk about vast armies of addicts, they're talking about something they just don't know. Let's turn to psychologist, lawyer and drug researcher Stanton Peele for an idea of how many cocaine users just can't put the stuff down:

One way to calculate the number/percentage of addicts is to compare those who have ever taken a drug with those who currently take it with those who currently take it daily (or nearly so). Of course, many regular, daily users wouldn't be classified as addicts (like the physician described by Zinberg and his colleagues who for decades injected morphine daily, but did not use on weekends and vacations, without ever increasing his dosage or undergoing withdrawal -- see Meaning of Addiction, Chapter 1).

Unfortunately, you can't get government statistics on daily use. The most frequent use calculated in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA) National Household Survey on Drug Abuse is 51 or more times in the prior year, or an average of once weekly (or more), which would obviously include many users who are not addicts.

The 1995 Household Survey found that of 3.7 million cocaine users in the last year, 1.2 million used on average at least once a month and 600,000 used at least weekly on average. Although these 600,000 would not qualify as clinical addicts, Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey wants to claim these and more.

Hmmm ... so the number of addicted cocaine users actually falls below the government's measurement threshold.

Well, what about heroin? that's nasty stuff, right? Surely we have an idea of how many heroin addicts there are. Well, we can kind of guesstimate. Wrote Sullum for Reason magazine in 2003:

The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse indicates that about 3 million Americans have used heroin in their lifetimes; of them, 15 percent had used it in the last year, 4 percent in the last month. These numbers suggest that the vast majority of heroin users either never become addicted or, if they do, manage to give the drug up. A survey of high school seniors found that 1 percent had used heroin in the previous year, while 0.1 percent had used it on 20 or more days in the previous month. Assuming that daily use is a reasonable proxy for opiate addiction, one in 10 of the students who had taken heroin in the last year might have qualified as addicts.

One in ten? How does that compare with perfectly legal alcohol? Well, according to the National Institutes of Health:

A 1994 study of drug use and addiction in the U.S. showed that more than 90 percent of Americans have experimented with alcohol, and about 70 percent drink at least occasionally. About 15 percent of those who experiment become alcohol-dependent at some point in life. This compares to a dependency rate of 25 percent in those who experiment with smoking tobacco, and around 4 percent in marijuana smokers.

So, it's pretty clear that the vast majority of people who consume any intoxicant do so without developing dependency and, in fact, may well enjoy benefits from their consumption, since they presumably value the pleasure, stress-reduction and other qualities found in intoxicants. On the other hand, a few users of any intoxicant will have problems, whether their drug of choice is legal or illegal.

So, even if you don't believe that people have an inherent right to choose what to put into their own bodies (I obviously do), the "problem" of legalization isn't as simple as whether it "will lead to more use." For every abuser who suffers problems, there may be nine users who enjoy benefits. Increased use may, in balance, be a good thing since the evidence suggests that most of that use will be moderate.

All things considered, you still may conclude that prohibition, with its militarized policing, erosion of the Fourth Amendment, soaring costs and high rate of defiance (breeding disdain for the law) is a worthwhile venture. But I think Jacob Sullum makes a strong case that the drug use that prohibitionists want to stamp out is not an unalloyed evil.


Commissar ... err ... Sheriff Joe faces lawsuit over attack on press

Remember when Arizona's headline-chasing Sheriff Joe Arpaio, an embarrassing fixture in Maricopa County, decided to escalate his long-running feud with the Phoenix New Times by arresting newspaper executives Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin? Lacey and Larkin were released, of course, and Dennis Wilenchik, the special prosecutor in the case was fired. As you might guess, that didn't quite end the matter.

Now, the New Times has filed a Notice of Claim, a preliminary step before a lawsuit, against Arpaio, Wilenchik and County Attorney Andrew Thomas.

The Arizona Republic has a brief Q&A with Lacey about the lawsuit and the New Times' contentious relationship with Maricopa County's ruling junta. Here's a highlight:

Question: In the case of your arrest, it's more than just arresting a citizen. There's a First Amendment, freedom-of-the-press issue.

Answer: The First Amendment on a number of levels: It isn't simply my First Amendment right to write a story without fear of incarceration, it's the right of all of our readers to read our newspaper without fear that their records are going to be gone through on the Internet.

The critical question is: How do they get to the point where they believe that they have the right to arrest journalists in the middle of the night and subpoena the identity of the people that read our newspaper? They didn't get there overnight. They began by abusing prisoners, and there was a staircase escalation where they were never stopped. They're attacking judges, they're attacking editors, they're attacking writers. And by the time they get to attacking the First Amendment rights of readers of newspapers, it never occurs to them, because as Joe Arpaio says, "Hey, lock them all up until they prove they're innocent."

Incidentally, County Attorney Thomas, a key Arpaio ally, has a long-standing history of ideological discomfort with rights-focused individualism in general and libertarianism in particular. Reason magazine once quoted a 1996 Thomas contribution to the Weekly Standard (not available online) in which the future county attorney referred to street crime and social unrest as "the libertarian-created problems of Southern California and elsewhere." On another occasion, Thomas wrote in the Standard that "The root of our crime problem is a rights-happy radical individualism."

So, I guess we have no call to be shocked at how Arpaio, Thomas and company have assaulted individual freedom once in office. To anybody paying attention, Thomas telegraphed those punches.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

'Capital murder' for Ryan Frederick

Ryan Frederick, who shot and killed a police officer during a confused, unannounced middle-of-the-night raid on his home that turned up a personal-use amount of marijuana, may be charged with "capital murder" says the prosecutor in the case. That's because Detective Jarrod Shivers was ... umm ... standing in the yard, not breaking through the door at all, contrary to earlier reports. Apparently, that's why Frederick was denied bond.

Radley Balko, who has been following the case, has the lowdown on the authorities' changing story. Read it and catch up before the prosecutor tries to tell us that Frederick actually hunted down Detective Shivers and shot him in the bath.

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Starving the beast: A case history

I'm not a fan of homeowners' associations. To my eyes, they seem to include all of the bad aspects of government -- nosiness, intrusiveness, arbitrary rules, authoritarian leadership -- with even less of the already slight accountability and restraints on power that apply to formal government bodies. The last time we went house-hunting, my wife and I specified that we would not consider any property encumbered by an HOA, and we've set the same condition for our current house search.

But nobody makes you buy into an HOA. And, unlike governments, HOAs can't annex land and acquire unwilling new subjects the way governments can.

But that still leaves many people unhappy with the HOAs under which they live, just as many people are unhappy with local governments (which are much more difficult to escape). The Verde Village Property Owners Association, in Yavapai County, just outside Cottonwood, Arizona, is one somewhat typical HOA, in that many of its residents are unhappy with the rules it imposes on homeowners' enjoyment of their own property.

Unlike many HOAs, though, and completely unlike formal governments, the Verde Village Property Owners Association is an organization in which participation is voluntary. That doesn't mean mean obedience to the rules is voluntary; but payment of the annual dues that go to sustain the HOA, pay for the upkeep of common property and enable the organization to enforce rules is purely a matter of personal choice. And most people are opting out. Says the Verde Independent:

Only 200 families of the 3,800 property owners pay the meager $25 annual dues. That is not enough revenue to allow a large association to operate. ...

The organization also enforces the codes, covenants and restrictions. "The county doesn't have the time or money to do that. It is frustrating because people don't seem to want to be part of a community any more. More people are interested in avoiding their obligations than participating in the community," said Otterson. ...

But, as the regular income to the association dries up, so does the enforcement. The covenants will also expire in 2018.

Interesting ... So, when given the opportunity to choose whether to support their closest government body, the vast majority of people subject to its rule opt to starve it to death. That would be my choice, too, but I've never thought my views were representative of majority sentiment. On this one issue, anyway, apparently I'm more typical than I thought in my desire to put government out of my misery.

Wouldn't it be nice if the choice being exercised by most Verde Village Property Owners Association members was available to subjects of HOAs and formal governments everywhere?

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Activist victorious after catching cops on camera

The very excellent Harvey Silverglate writes in the Boston Phoenix about Simon Glik, a Massachusetts attorney who ended up in handcuffs, charged with "wiretapping," when he recorded what he considered an excessively forceful arrest with the camera function on his cell phone.

Justice Mark Summerville of the Boston Municipal Court subsequently dismissed all charges against Glik, saying his monitoring of the incident "was not a secret recording and, therefore, not the type of conduct that the legislature sought to prevent with the wiretap statute." Summerville also rejected a spurious "disturbing the peace" charge against Glik.

Silverglate applauds the ruling, but warns that it's not enough to protect similar citizen activists in the future.

Summerville’s decision is good news for Glik, who had, ironically, been seeking a job as a prosecutor, but who has had difficulty getting hired — despite graduating at the top of the New England School of Law class of 2006 — because of the outstanding criminal charges. Even so, neither the Hyde opinion nor Summerville’s decision is likely to stop police in the future from arresting citizens who record their misconduct.

The explicit statement in Hyde, that the law prohibits only secret recordings, creates a perverse incentive for cops to exaggerate or lie about whether a citizen was surreptitiously recording them in order to obtain a conviction in future cases. The small size of cell-phone cameras makes it easy for a cop to claim that at least part of the recording was done before the police noticed. And if it comes down to an officer’s word against the citizen’s, who do you think wins?

Citizens who want to document police misconduct need more protection than the statute, the Hyde opinion, and Summerville’s Glik ruling provide. As long as state law prohibits secret recordings of police activity, there can be little effective deterrent to police abuse. Without evidence, citizens cannot credibly pursue complaints. Under Massachusetts’s Hyde standard, as Chief Justice Margaret Marshall pointed out in her vigorous dissent in that case, the Rodney King video taper (or a reporter in the same position) would have committed a crime by recording that infamous example of police brutality on a Los Angeles street.

Incidents of private citizens recording police misbehaving are becoming increasingly common in the cell phone and YouTube age. As police become more sensitive to the likelihood that their conduct will be distributed to critical eyes over the Internet, at least some of them will use any legal angle they can to prevent recording of their activity or to seize any recordings after the fact.

Anything short of explicitly protecting such recording under law hands the worst cops the weapon they need to bludgeon anybody who might expose their misconduct.

Until then, we can only hope that people will continue to take their chances and record the police anyway -- and then run real fast if that's what it takes to put the recording before the eyes of the public.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Shreveport cop beats woman on camera

From Fox News:

The U.S. Justice Department on Wednesday announced an investigation after a video surfaced showing a Louisiana police officer beating a handcuffed female inmate who later is seen lying in a pool of blood.

The department's investigation comes two weeks after the firing of Wiley Willis, the officer involved in the incident. The Caddo Parish district attorney also will investigate.

Video of the incident can be seen here:

I've addressed the phenomenon of abusive police officers being caught in the act by their own surveillance cameras before. Incidents like this should never happen, but since they do, it's best that they be recorded so that there's no question of what actually occurred. Willis had been accused of abusing his authority and using excessive force in the past, but in the absence of irrefutable evidence, nothing came of the charges.

After his latest assault, I sincerely hope that Willis faces criminal charges in addition to the loss of his job.


Stop making education a political football

The Cato Institute's Andrew Coulson explains to Wired why government monopoly schools inevitably breed battles over curriculum and exacerbate social divisiveness. He argues that it's better to let families guide their own children's education -- even if they teach them a dose of nonsense.

Actually I would. I would say you should leave all these decisions to individual families. The alternative is to make the government the arbiter of truth. You either leave it up to families, or you say the political process is going to decide what truth is. We've tried doing this before, and you get any number of problems. Deciding evolution is truth and teaching it in biology classes is not effective. You also set up a conflict, because we have one of the most pluralistic societies on the planet, and we don't see eye to eye on history, math, reading, evolution ... it goes on and on. You say there has to be an official truth, you force people into conflict. You have a battle, it's a knock-down drag-'em-out fight, and it's zero sum. For every winner, there's a loser, and that's why we're still fighting the Scopes-Monkey trial 80 years later. It solves nothing basically to say the government will declare, this is truth.

I addressed this issue in a column four years ago (please excuse the funky formatting). Among other points, I emphasized that government schools often teach nonsense too.

No lesson is too trivial to become a political football. In 1997, New York State ordered public school teachers to treat the Irish potato famine of the 1840s as an act of genocide by the British. Historians debate the causes of the famine, but Empire State politicians know that only one interpretation stirs the passions of Irish-American voters.

It's no surprise that people compete to have their ideas taught in the public schools. Despite the growing popularity of homeschooling, vouchers and other schooling alternatives, most American children learn in classrooms supported by their parents' tax dollars. After paying those taxes, few families can afford alternative schools, so determined parents fight to mold government institutions to resemble the schools they would pick if they had the resources, and they are assisted by political groups interested in shaping public debate. Nobody wants hateful ideas and propaganda force-fed to their children, but people don't always agree on which ideas are hateful and which information is false. As a result, lessons are often crafted to please, or avoid offending, those with the most political clout.


Wikileaks censorship proves irrelevant in Internet age

From the New York Times, here's an interesting case study in how government and the courts still overreach in trying to suppress free speech, and how the Internet renders most censorship efforts completely futile. First, the censorship aspect of the case:

The site,, invites people to post leaked materials with the goal of discouraging “unethical behavior” by corporations and governments. It has posted documents said to show the rules of engagement for American troops in Iraq, a military manual for the operation of the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and other evidence of what it has called corporate waste and wrongdoing.

The case in San Francisco was brought by a Cayman Islands bank, Julius Baer Bank and Trust. In court papers, the bank said that “a disgruntled ex-employee who has engaged in a harassment and terror campaign” provided stolen documents to Wikileaks in violation of a confidentiality agreement and banking laws. According to Wikileaks, “the documents allegedly reveal secret Julius Baer trust structures used for asset hiding, money laundering and tax evasion.”

On Friday, Judge Jeffrey S. White of Federal District Court in San Francisco granted a permanent injunction ordering Dynadot, the site’s domain name registrar, to disable the domain name. The order had the effect of locking the front door to the site — a largely ineffectual action that kept back doors to the site, and several copies of it, available to sophisticated Web users who knew where to look.

Sure enough, is unreachable, but those "copies" available to "sophisticated Web users"? Well, for starters, how about looking at an easy-to-reach mirror site in Europe -- like
That mirror site -- and others -- lie completely beyond the jurisdiction of any U.S. court, but as available to Web users as the original, U.S.-based site.

In fact, is covering the progress of the case and publishing relevant documents -- including correspondence between Wikileaks and Julius Baer's attorneys.

I suppose Julius Baer could chase after the mirror sites too, but there are an awful lot of jurisdictions on the planet, each capable of hosting Web sites and each with its own laws about what can and can not be published.

Judge White’s censorship order has been labeled "clearly not constitutional” by David Ardia, the director of the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard Law School. Just as important, it's unenforceable.

This is far from the first time that the world-wide reach of the Internet has nullified censorship efforts. As far back as 1996, a French ban on a book about then-President Francois Mitterand was bypassed when an Internet cafe owner scanned it, uploaded the document to the Web and it was mirrored across the globe.

Update: Judge White reversed himself on February 29, 2008. In his order, he voiced frustration that his effort at censorship had proven irrelevant and unenforceable, saying, “We live in an age when people can do some good things and people can do some terrible things without accountability necessarily in a court of law.”


Arizona two-step 2: Paging Kevin Bacon

There are lots of things you can do under the stars in the Arizona desert: you can camp, shoot, go four-wheeling, build a bonfire, search for fossils or dance in the open air.

Oh wait. Strike that last one; you can't dance outside in the Arizona desert -- at least, not in Pinal County.

Pinal County has a musty old ordinance against outdoors dancing, and county officials have inexplicably exhumed that legal antique and used it to slap San Tan Flat, a popular and well-reviewed restaurant and bar with an open-air stage where country-western music is often played. They pulled the dance law out of their hats after earlier efforts to harass San Tan Flat failed to shut the place down.

I've written about this case before, and so have a lot of other people. You'd think that Pinal County officials would have backed down by now, given the ample ridicule to which they've been subject.

But they haven't -- instead, the Board of Supervisors ruled against restaurant owner Dale Bell and has continued its inexplicable crusade in an environment of mounting outrage and disbelief. The hearing transcript is full of choice quotes:

“[T]hat I envisioned it being like stepping back in time 100 years to a mining camp, and I didn’t envision a mining camp, Sir, to be one where you’d read poetry from a stage.” (Tr. Day 1 at 78) (discussing what he envisioned when he wrote down “rustic western restaurant” on his application).

Dale: I didn’t build anything for dance hall activities. I did build a stage for outdoor entertainment; that’s true.

Gruber: And you never mentioned what was in this – when you label it now, in Plaintiff’s Exhibit number nine (indiscernible – mic interference) and went into any detail of what would be happening on that stage, because you told me old west. There’s going to be no poetry, is there, Mr. Bell? No poetry; correct? Is there going to be poetry? Wait –

Dale: What are the rest of the things you said could have happened there? Puppet shows? I’ve heard that one.

Gruber: There could have been a comedian; there could have been mimes, pantomimes.

Represented by the Institute for Justice, San Tan Flat is now appealing the ruling, and permitting its patrons to dance while the case goes forward.

Recently, produced a compelling short documentary on the case, fronted by Drew Carey.

The documentary and the news stories all leave you wondering just whose pocket Pinal County politicians are in.

Why not ask them yourself. Pinal County supervisors can be reached below:

Lionel D. Ruiz
Phone: 520-866-7830
Fax: 520-866-7838

Sandie Smith
Phone: 520-866-6104
Fax: 520-866-6107

David Snider
Phone: 520-866-7401
Fax: 520-836-3876

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Real ID guidance

With the first deadline for compliance with federal Real ID standards looming on May 11, 2008, and several states outright refusing to comply, it's worth noting how this implementation of a de facto national identification card threatens to transform everyday life. CNet's Declan McCullagh has the answers to your questions.


Good riddance to bad rubbish

Too bad Fidel Castro didn't give up political power a half-century earlier. Unfortunately, there's no guarantee that Cuba's situation will get any better in the near term.

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Anonymous travel takes another hit

Rail travel in the U.S. has suffered no terrorist attacks of any note, and even around the world the sort of trains that have drawn terrorist's attention have been commuter trains that regularly carry large numbers of passengers at predictable times and which have the potential to disrupt life throughout major cities if targeted. Given that American inter-city rail travel hasn't popped up on anybody's threat radar, and that the hassle-free anonymity it offers has won some privacy-conscious passengers away from the airlines for the red-ink drenched rail system, what's the logical move for Amtrak to make? Why, to trade away its comparative advantage for airport-style security hassles, of course!

The new procedures draw heavily on measures being used in the New York City subways, Rooney said. That model has been upheld in court challenges, he noted.

Amtrak plans to roll out the new "mobile security teams" first on the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston, the railroad's most heavily used route, before expanding them to the rest of the country.

The teams will show up unannounced at stations and set up baggage screening areas in front of boarding gates. Officers will randomly pull people out of line and wipe their bags with a special swab that is then put through a machine that detects explosives. If the machine detects anything, officers will open the bag for visual inspection.

Anybody who is selected for screening and refuses will not be allowed to board and their ticket will be refunded.

Passengers purchasing tickets from station agents are now being carded, but it's still possible to purchase tickets without showing ID at self-serve kiosks -- for all the good that will do you if you're chosen for a random inspection.

But won't it make us all a bit safer to be treated like Cubans trying to exchange ration cards for a few ounces of meat? Well ... I doubt it. After all, even the most "secure" train with the most harassed passengers has to travel over thousands of miles of unwatched track.

Even before the post-9/11 hysteria, I often preferred to travel the Northeast by bus or rail because of the ability to preserve privacy and to travel without having your belongings pawed by strangers. Even when asked for a name to purchase a ticket, I always gave a fake name -- sometimes preposterously so -- and nobody batted an eyelash.

But nowadays, even travelers on the nation's private bus lines are increasingly subject to security screenings and random searches. The days of purchasing a ticket with cash, using whatever name pleases you and traveling in anonymity are rapidly drawing to a close.

Cars remain an option if you ignore the need for driver's licenses and plates; if you drive you can still pack what you want and go from point A to point B without justifying yourself to the authorities. But how much longer will that happy state of affairs remain the case before we suddenly find ourselves routinely opening our trunks at roadblocks and explaining what business we're on?

Can you even pretend it's still a free country when you can't go from town to town without showing identity papers and letting uniformed goons judge the propriety of the contents of your luggage?

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Docs say: Fire up that doobie!

The federal government says the debate is over and that "[m]arijuana has no medical value that can't be met more effectively by legal drugs." Actual physicians say otherwise. According to the American College of Physicians, the nation's largest organization of doctors of internal medicine:

Marijuana has been smoked for its medicinal properties for centuries. Preclinical, clinical, and anecdotal reports suggest numerous potential medical uses for marijuana. ...

ACP strongly supports exemption from federal criminal prosecution; civil liability; or professional sanctioning, such as loss of licensure or credentialing, for physicians who prescribe or dispense medical marijuana in accordance with state law. Similarly, ACP strongly urges protection from criminal or civil penalties for patients who use medical marijuana as permitted under state laws.

Sounding just a tad desperate, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy's Bertha Madras (Bertha? People still name their kids Bertha?) promptly accused the country's second largest doctor's association of trying to "drag us back to 14th-century medicine."

With the ACP's break from the government over medical marijuana, the feds are becoming increasingly isolated on the issue. It's hard to maintain a pseudoscientific stance of medical concern while raiding pot clubs when a significant percentage of the country's medical personnel publicly say that you're full of shit. The way things are going, White House shills will soon find themselves reduced to shrieking "because we said so" when asked why cancer patients and MS sufferers are being hauled away for seeking relief in a bag of grass.

The big question, though, is whether the growing consensus that marijuana should be available as a medicine will help the larger argument that people should be free to consume whatever they please for whatever reasons motivate them. Medicalizing marijuana may help to normalize the idea that substances ought not be forbidden just because a few politicians get a burr under their butts -- or it could just firm up the popular delusion that we should have to give the government a good excuse before we're allowed to pass a substance into our bloodstreams.

It looks like we'll find out, one way or another.


A hint of red in the U.K.

Having rejected two (admittedly, subsidy-dependent) private bailout proposals for the ailing Northern Rock Plc, Britain's Labour government is pushing legislation that would allow the government to nationalize the teetering bank. Tellingly, the proposed law would give the government the power to seize any other bank that "runs into trouble."

The last time the British government grabbed control of a major company was in 2002, when it seized Railtrack, which owned much of the country's railroad infrastructure. At the time, government officials were accused of fudging facts and pushing the company into bankruptcy to facilitate the effective renationalization of the rail network.

So, is the U.K. harking back to the bad old days of the 1970s when politicians developed the habit of mugging business owners for their companies and the country was widely derided as the sick man of Europe?

I'd hate to think that out-and-out socialism was coming back into vogue.


Sunday, February 17, 2008

How do we deal with the control freaks?

Writing for Freedom Communications newspapers, philosopher Tibor Machan says that candidates and proposals that maximize individual choice and restrict government mandates consistently lose at the polls because Americans just aren't all that interested in being free.

The very plain fact is that too many voters don't want to be free. Over and over again they reject candidates who champion free markets, civil liberties, global free trade and similar ideas and institutions.

Instead, they favor protectionism, government regulation, meddling in people's personal lives and habits and restricting freedom so as to achieve the mirage of perfect safety - be this about over-the-counter drugs, the threat of terrorism or environmental concerns.

They want to restrict other people's liberty and rip them off for various benefits. It's a mad dash to raid the treasury at others' expense and to control people's lives so as to serve various precautionary goals.

Sadly, that's now the character of the bulk of the American citizenry. They are not being mislead by the media or pundits or politicians. No. They want to get a free ride wherever they see a chance, never mind that this simply is impossible for them all to achieve.

I think that Machan is essentially correct, though I'll differ from him so far as to say that most people think they want freedom. Just about everybody has a complaint to share about laws, taxes, or regulations that rub them the wrong way. They'll tell you over a beer or in a business meeting how much they'd love to have the government off their backs on one issue or another.

But most people don't want to extend the same courtesy to others. They don't see freedom as something that you have to extend to everybody or else lose; instead, they see it as an a la carte menu from which they can select. So the guy who wants the building code inspector to stop harassing him is also eager to lock up pot smokers and raise taxes to fund Social Security. The woman who thinks gays and lesbians should be free to marry also wants private establishments forbidden to permit their patrons to smoke and wants to force taxpayers to pick up the tab for her healthcare. And the nice folks down the street who resent being told what color to paint their house also think that any organization that criticizes politicians should have to register with the government and file financial disclosure forms.

And, if it really comes down to it, they're more opposed to leaving you free to decide on your pet issues than they're dedicated to gaining breathing room on their pet issues.

So, advocates for liberty all, Americans fuel a political culture that tends toward ever-more control every year because putting the screws to the next guy is more important to them than being left alone themselves.

Machan says that he is "not a pessimist in the long run," but he really doesn't explain his grounds for a cheery outlook and I'll be damned if I can see them myself.

True, there have been large constituencies for liberty in the past. The most ideological period in this country's history was probably around the time of the revolution. Eighteenth-century Americans actually sat around debating political philosophy in bars and then went out, muskets in hand, to create a generally pro-liberty political system. They were far from consistent -- many had slaves at home and wives who were damned near chattel themselves. But that's as close as we've ever been to a national consensus that leaving people alone is better than bossing them around.

People are much less consistently ideological now, and few are willing to entertain the tradeoffs required to maintain truly free society. To be left alone to engage in the activities that matter to you, you have to be willing to leave your neighbors similar space, even if their businesses and pastimes offend you; if you don't allow for that live-and-let-live compromise, you create no precedent for a government of limited power and scope. By and large, most modern Americans are unwilling to make that concession, so the state grows larger and more intrusive every year, unbound by any consensus that there are things that it just should not do.

Maybe we'll spawn another generation of sort-of libertarians some day, but I don't see that in the offing. Increasingly centralized schooling has produced not just poorly educated Americans (a bad enough offense), but graduates who share overly much in the way of views and values. Taught about the glories of government control, and unlikely to meet many people raised with values very different from their own, there's little reason for them to say, you go your way and I'll go mine.

But I do think that there will always be a constituency for liberty, and the question is: How do we live life in a country that's likely to diverge from our political ideals a little bit more with every passing year? How do we survive as a political minority in a hostile culture?

There's probably not just one right answer.

I tend to favor a somewhat in-your-face and subversive approach. We need to keep the ideas of liberty in the public forum so that, even if widely rejected, they don't become completely unthinkable to the wider culture. A population that's consistently reminded of the case for drug legalization, for example, will produce more converts to the cause -- and occasional victories -- than one for whom such a proposal is so alien as to be unthinkable.

We can also carve out small victories through jury nullification, naming and shaming abusive officials and making the enforcement of intrusive laws difficult, expensive and dangerous. I guess that's a policy of political guerrilla warfare -- less about winning than about keeping the enemy from total victory.

Other people may prefer a more academic approach -- researching problems with authoritarian policies and making intellectual arguments that keep the ideas of liberty alive and respectable. That's a long-term approach that looks to small changes in policy now and bigger effects in a friendlier future.

And some people will prefer to drop out or build parallel systems and cultures. They'll ignore bad laws, bypass the authorities and work with like-minded people, the better to enjoy just a little more freedom in the here-and now.

I don't think any of these approaches are mutually exclusive, so which approach(es) you take depend on your preferences and temperament.

But I think we're all going to have to choose one approach or another. Freedom in this country looks like it's in for a long and bumpy ride.

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Friday, February 15, 2008

Hey kids, let's drink to the liquor laws

Last night, Scottsdale, Arizona, police were hard at work, battling the threat to peace and decency posed by ... underage drinkers.

Twenty-four underage drinkers were arrested at one of Scottsdale's hottest nightclubs, Scottsdale police said Friday.

The 24 people - ranging in age from 17 to 20 - were arrested about 10:30 p.m. Thursday in the Mondrian Hotel's Skybar, 7353 E. Indian School Road, police said.

Only one of the 24 arrested, the 17-year-old, was a minor, police said. Arizona's legal drinking age is 21.

Three bar employees also were arrested, police said: two for failure to use identification logs and one for allowing a minor into the bar without a parent.

Scottsdale apparently has enough police manpower that it can spare a fair-sized force to raid a bar and bust two-dozen people (plus the folks that served them) because they elected to sip a beer without waiting for that magic age which politicians have decreed turns a crime into an acceptable way to pass the time. Which is to say, the city clearly has too many cops.

Worse, the police raided the club because some "anonymous citizen" ratted the place out for serving customers who hadn't yet seen their 21st birthdays. There's nothing quite as low as a willing collaborator with the state.

Government-mandated drinking ages have always offended me as a state intervention into what is legitimately private decision-making. Parents should decide when their minor children will be permitted to drink -- not politicians. And adults, who can marry, sign contracts and are legally required to register for the draft, have the right to purchase alcoholic beverages from those willing to sell to them, whether or not legislators like that idea. That some government officials think they have the legitimate right to reach even into the home to determine who can and can't drink is truly appalling.

I'm far past the point of being personally affected by silly legislation like drinking ages, but I remember being annoyed by them once upon a time. I also remember evading them quite efficiently. I don't know what the law was then, though I doubt it was nearly as draconian as current statutes, but I was served small quantities of diluted alcohol at home from a young age -- seven or so. I was permitted to moderately raid my folks' beer and wine stash from relatively early in my teenage years.

When my friends and I decided we wanted to buy beer to drink on our own time, we went searching for fake ID that would get us past bar bouncers and liquor-store clerks -- a job now rendered much easier in the Internet age. My first fake ID was a bogus-looking Times Square special, but it worked well enough in an era before drinking ages were taken so seriously.

Later, I became adept at altering driver's licenses and even made money informally aging classmates at college. I was put out of business by a competitor who showed up with what looked like his own Department of Motor Vehicles set-up, offering authentic-looking driver's licenses from a selection of states. Finally, I altered my birth certificate and got myself a state-issued ID that said I was three years older than I was. I was actually slugging down beer in the campus pub after showing that ID while the pub manager boasted to me that nobody underage ever got served in his establishment.

I had some news for him, but I let him figure it out in his own time.

My son is years away from his first sip of wine, but he'll have it at home, under his parents' supervision, no matter what the law says.

And if, at 17 or 18, he gets busted by cops with too much time on their hands for knocking a drink or two down in a bar before the law says it's OK, he'll have my full support. I'll even give him a few pointers on craftsman-like forgery so he can stand aside and finish his drink while the police turn their attention to less fortunate bar-goers. Because there's just no obligation to obey a law that tries to substitute government judgment for your own as to when it's OK to have a drink.

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Texas gets freaky

Says the Associated Press:

A federal appeals court has overturned a statute outlawing sex toy sales in Texas, one of the last states — all in the South — to retain such a ban.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Texas law making it illegal to sell or promote obscene devices, punishable by as many as two years in jail, violated the right to privacy guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.

The state Attorney General's office has, apparently, not yet decided whether to appeal.


How is that even a debate at the AG's office? Why would state officials even contemplate spending time and money in an attempt to combat the dread scourge of dildos?

Oh, I know. It's because there's still a political constituency out there that thinks sex is bad, and joyless, anorgasmic bluenoses are prone to march to the polls and demand the death penalty for anybody sporting a certain "morning after" glow.

Ah, the wonders of democracy.

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Time to invest overseas

Here's an interesting (read: frightening) roundup of Clinton and Obama's intervention- and edict-heavy economic policies (although, it could be worse; it could be Edwards).

For Clinton, the new emphasis on the economy allowed her to push policies Thursday that align with the core of her message -- that she would help ordinary voters.

Her proposals are tailor-made for an industrial heartland hemorrhaging manufacturing jobs and crippled by mortgage defaults and rising debt. She would rescue the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, a federal-local program for small manufacturers perpetually targeted for elimination by Bush, and would immediately limit credit card interest rates and stop credit card companies from raising those rates without warning and from applying higher rates to old transactions.

She would also establish a Financial Product Safety Commission, similar to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, to crack down on abusive lending practices in the credit card, auto loan and mortgage markets.

To lower college tuition costs, Clinton said that she would crack down on lenders that shower college financial aid officers with gifts, stock options and trips in exchange for steering students to captive lending markets.

Many of those plans mirror Obama's promises. To pay for some of them, both candidates said they would eliminate tax breaks for companies that send jobs overseas. The current corporate tax code allows companies to defer taxes indefinitely on profits earned at facilities overseas. In 2004, Kerry proposed subjecting those earnings to taxation immediately but using the proceeds to lower the domestic corporate income tax, a plan designed to tack him to the economic center. Clinton and Obama see no reason for such gestures of moderation.

Clinton did offer far more detail on how her initiatives would be funded. She backed up her promise to invest tens of billions of dollars in renewable energy technology by handing the bill to the oil companies. They could either invest in renewable energy on their own or finance the federal effort, largely funded by imposing real royalties on drilling on public land and by repealing recent tax breaks.

Then there's Obama's plan to piss away $210 billion confiscated from taxpayers to "create jobs in construction and environmental industries." Do I need to point out that governments don't create jobs?

That's not to say that Bush's big-spending, fiscally irresponsible ways have exactly been a dream for the past eight years. But what we don't need is more laws telling private companies how to do their business, nor do we need higher taxes on productive people.

Unfortunately, the main alternative is being put forward by John McCain, a man who has spent a total of one year of his life in the private sector and who admits that economics is not his strong suit. And he's leading a political party that no longer feels obliged to give lip-service to the low-tax, free-market policies it once pretended to champion.

I've moved a big proportion of my investments into funds invested overseas. I think betting against the U.S. economy may be the way to go for some time to come.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

To nanny or not to nanny

Britain's New Statesman has an interesting piece on the UK political class's indecision over whether to preserve some remnant of liberal (in the classical sense) respect for people's right to guide their own lives, or whether the country should whole-hog embrace the nanny state and substitute top-down policy for individual choice.

... Politicians of all stripes are struggling with the failure of liberal democracy to cope with issues which, in the end, come down to the individual. They are fatally equivocating between two ir re concilable approach es: the paternalist desire to use the levers of the state to enforce better behaviour and the liberal instinct that people should be left alone, unless the actions in question are directly damaging to others. It is a strong liberal principle that activities which harm only the actor should not be interfered with. A gambler blowing his life savings at the baccarat table may be as foolish as the bank robber, but the foolishness of the former hurts only himself.

Behaviour leading to obesity is, in strictly liberal terms, beyond the legitimate reach of the state. If I eat badly and live as a couch potato, the only person who will get fat is me. That is why it is ludicrous to talk of an "obesity epidemic". It is hard to imagine genuine liberals such as the late Roy Jenkins getting worked up about weight gain. Nonetheless, the profound impact of obesity on health - some studies suggest obesity knocks a decade off life expectancy - has led to lots of political rhetoric on the issue.

Much of the impetus for the growing British embrace of the state as schoolmarm and personal trainer comes from that country's massively overburdened National Health Service. Having socialized medical costs, the state now feels entitled to a say in how people incur those costs -- and how they'll be treated if they misbehave. That's resulted in threats to withhold medical care from smokers, drinkers and overeaters; but it's also encouraged the tendency to meddle in people's lives so that they don't burden the health system to begin with.

That's part of the problem, but I don't think it's the whole thing. The old liberal ideal of individual autonomy seems to be giving way in some quarters to an increased willingness to direct people's choices with either carrot or stick. Sometimes the authoritarianism is blunt; other times it is cloaked (often creepily as "libertarian paternalism") as firm guidance to "help you make the choices you would make for yourself—if only you had the strength of will and the sharpness of mind." If only you would choose the way the people in charge want you to choose, that is.

We're in a philosophical moment when the people who think they know better than the rest of us feel themselves to be in ascendancy -- and they're having their way with public policy.

So it's nice to know that, even in overgoverned Britain, there's still something of a debate going on.


Cops on camera

On this blog, I've posted quite a few videos of cops behaving badly. There was the case of Brian Sterner, who was dumped from his wheelchair by sheriff's deputies, Eric Bush, who was roughed up by a Baltimore police officer, Hope Steffey, who was stripped naked by a mixed-sex gang of uniformed miscreants and Jared Massey who was tasered for asking questions of a police officer during a traffic stop.

In all cases, these incidents came to public attention, resulting (usually) in disciplinary action of some sort for the officers involved, because the victims, their friends or the press posted video to the Internet where people could judge official conduct for themselves -- and were overwhelmingly horrified. In all but one instance, the video posted to the Internet came from official sources: jailhouse surveillance cameras in the Sterner and Steffey incidents, a patrol car's dashboard camera in the Massey case. Only the video of Eric Bush came from an independent source -- a camera held by one of Bush's friends.

This isn't exactly a scientific survey of the sources of video evidence of official misbehavior, but it is an indication that, wonders of the distributive potential of the Internet aside, much evidence of cops (and others) behaving badly comes from video recordings made by the police themselves. The reasons are obvious: in many circumstances (such as in a jail facility) it's extremely unlikely that private citizens will have access to recording equipment; even in public, most people don't usually carry video cameras (although as such cameras become smaller, cheaper and deliberately distributed for the purpose of monitoring police, they're increasingly ubiquitous). Even when private citizens do have the means to record police behavior, officers abusing their authority are unlikely to stop short of confiscating evidence of that abuse. In fact, just such a seizure of video evidence by New Orleans police is the subject of a lawsuit filed this past December.

Sometimes the attack on private recording is more direct and official. Pennsylvanian Brian Kelly briefly faced up to ten years in prison under an old wiretapping law for recording police with a handheld camera before the Cumberland County District Attorney backed off under public pressure. Mary T. Jean faced a similar battle with Massachusetts authorities after posting video of an illegal search on her Website; she finally won her case in federal court. It's no purely American phenomenon either: Last year, France passed a law that effectively outlaws recording police conduct and publicizing such recordings.

That means that much of the effort to publicize misbehavior by police and other government officials is likely to remain dependent on the willingness of the authorities to record their activities, preserve those recordings and release them to the public. So far, despite growing awareness of the potential of YouTube and other online resources to make private behavior very public, authorities have, time and again, proven their willingness to engage in violent, stupid and otherwise illegal behavior with government-owned cameras pointing directly at them. The offenders may simply be so accustomed to the cameras in question that they just become part of the background, or they're so used to behaving outrageously that they forget their actions are widely considered unacceptable. Or maybe we're just seeing uniformed abusers who lie on the wrong side of the bell curve and the smart ones are clever enough to evade cameras.

But, at some point, officials are going to realize that their own surveillance cameras are increasingly getting them into trouble. Ideally, this will result in a reduction in the sort of bad behavior that invariably winds up on the Internet. I'm not going to hold my breath. More likely, authorities will become cannier about where they commit their abuses -- assaulting prisoners out of sight of cameras, for instance. They may also backtrack on their willingness to be recorded at all. And they'll probably attempt to control the release of any video evidence that is captured, through new laws, sabotage of recordings, or failure to comply with requests for records. That's already happening; Jared Massey had to unscramble the video of his arrest that he received from the Utah Highway Patrol, while Arizona's own Sheriff Joe Arpaio makes a sport of ignoring public records requests that aren't backed by (expensive) court orders.

But I'm not suggesting that video and the Internet revolution aren't good things or that they aren't having an effect. On the margins, some cops will think twice before punching kids in public or searching homes without warrants. They'll never know for sure that they won't end up as the next Internet celebrity, with career death or even criminal charges as the booby prize.

And members of the tax-paying public, at long last, are able to see for themselves what the powerless long knew: that agents of the state are often prone to behaving like members of a criminal gang -- one that offers salary, power and privilege. Opening people's eyes is a major accomplishment all by itself.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Are you sure you can't walk?

And while we're at it, let's not forget the four Hillsborough County, Florida, sheriff's deputies who have been suspended for dumping a paralyzed man from his wheelchair. After he was brought in for a traffic violation.

You know ... Eventually, abusive government officials are going to catch on to the fact that much of what they do ends up recorded and distributed on the Internet where it excites public outrage. Then they'll either have to clean up their acts or turn their attention to somehow censoring such information from the Internet.

I'm betting that they'll try to choose the censorship option first.

Update: "The deputy accused of dumping an inmate out of a wheelchair is headed to jail."

Deputy Charlette Marshall-Jones has also resigned to preserve some share of her retirement benefits in the lead-up to her trial.


Busted for 'dude'-ing

Says the Baltimore Sun:

A Baltimore police officer was suspended yesterday after a YouTube video surfaced on the Internet showing him berating and manhandling a teenage skateboarder at the Inner Harbor.

On the video, the officer, Salvatore Rivieri, puts the boy in a headlock, pushes him to the ground, questions his upbringing, threatens to "smack" him and repeatedly accuses the youngster of showing disrespect because the youth refers to the officer as "man" and "dude."

An incident involving a fat, rage-a-holic cop in shorts and a uniform that make him look like a bumble bee has to be seen to be appreciated.

I'm guessing that respect for Officer "Dude" Rivieri's authoritah is taking a nosedive along his assigned beat.


Arizona speed-camera scheme hits roadblock

It looks like Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano's scheme to partially close the state's billion-dollar deficit with $100 million-plus raised by robotic speeding-ticket dispensers has hit a snag. The state senate has put forward three proposals that would hinder or outright halt Janet's funding plan, two of which would go to the ballot for approval by ticket-averse voters, likely putting them beyond the reach of the governor's political machinations.

The first of the proposals, Senate Bill 1470, would prohibit the use of automated speeding cameras on state roads. Cities and towns could still use them on local roads, but drivers wouldn't be subject to the indignity of robo-traps on the state's often sparsely traveled highways.

Senate Concurrent Resolution 1032 would put the ban contained in Senate Bill 1470 before the voters, for extra emphasis.

Senate Concurrent Resolution 1033 would allow voters to require that only motorists traveling faster than 85 percent of other vehicles on any given section of road could be ticketed. A traffic study would determine the prevailing speed. The measure would allow common usage to trump the often arbitrary speed limits imposed by political authorities.

While I don't know of any polling on the issue, mail to the governor's office on the matter of photo radar has run overwhelmingly against, so it's likely that voters would hand Janet her head if given a chance to do so.

But even if the governor gets her way and the state highways are dotted with automated revenue machines, I think it's appropriate to point out that a speeding camera on a lonely stretch of highway constitutes a great opportunity for some target shooting.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Why not just issue titles of nobility?

From the Boston Herald comes news of an intriguing proposal dubbed the "Britney law":

L.A. councilman Dennis Zine is urging a proposal in the wake of the pop star’s latest psychiatric emergency that would implement a 20-yard “personal safety zone” around celebrities after Spears’ ambulance had to be surrounded by police cars and helicopters late last month to prevent the paparazzi from snapping photos of the singer en route to the hospital. ...

The tentatively termed “Britney Law” would have the right to confiscate all profits from any photograph taken without signed consent within the bubble of safety around any celebrity.

Special rights for special people? I wonder what the equal protection clause might say about that? Or the First Amendment?


Go, no stay, oh I just don't know ...

Even as Arizona lawmakers are trying to drive (mostly) Mexican immigrants from the state with a harsh employer sanction law that threatens dire economic consequences, they're also trying to lure those same immigrants to the state with a proposed guest worker program intended to off-set the effects of that sanction law.

Hmmm ... politicians seeing a need to fix a problem that they created. Who'd have guessed?


Warrantless wiretaps and telecom immunity move forward

How much impact did the Democratic takeover of Congress have on ... oh ... let's say, protecting Americans against intrusive wiretapping? Not a whole hell of a lot, to judge by the Senate vote on an extension of expanded federal wiretapping powers. Not only is the Democrat-led Senate gung-ho to "update" the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, granting law-enforcement authorities awesome power to conduct electronic surveillance without bothering with the formality of securing a warrant first, but it voted 67-31 to reject an amendment that would have stripped out a provision immunizing telecommunications companies against liability for past violations of customers' privacy during the course of wiretapping operations.

Why does the government want to give telecommunications companies what amounts to a get-out-of-jail free card? Because at least some telecoms have been the feds' willing accomplices. Says the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is acting as co-lead counsel in lawsuits against the guilty companies:

Reporting from every major American media outlet and undisputed whistleblower evidence show that AT&T and other phone companies were complicit in the NSA's warrantless surveillance. This included the records and full content of the private domestic communications of millions of ordinary Americans. The President and the phone companies hid this information from Congress and the American people for at least six years.

That doesn't sit well with everybody. As Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, said in a statement posted on the Web:

When companies break the law they should be held accountable by our government – not given a multi-million dollar favor. The millions of Americans who are telecom customers deserve to know that their phone conversations are private. The telecommunications providers illegally turned over private customer call information to the government. Instead of having faith in the U.S. court system to fairly handle these cases; the U.S. Senate is poised to give the telecom providers a get-out-of-jail-free card.

So the Senate is dead-set on establishing the precedent that, when private companies violate their customers' privacy rights at the behest of government authorities, they'll be protected by their powerful buddies. Left implicit is the threat that if they don't play along with the feds, bad things could happen. So the telecoms' have a choice between breaking the law on behalf of the government without consequence, or sticking up for their customers' privacy and pissing off the regulators who exercise enormous power over their bottom lines.

What do you think most companies will choose to do in the future?

And who do you turn to to change things when both major political parties seem to think this all constitutes wise public policy?


Monday, February 11, 2008

A peek inside the Kirkwood shootings

Tom Knapp has the best take I've seen so far on the bloody shooting rampage in Kirkwood, Missouri, by Charles Thornton.

I shouldn't have to repeat Tom's caution that he isn't condoning Thornton's murder spree; he's trying to explain it. But reading comprehension seems to be a dying art. So, consider Tom's caution to be repeated and emphasized.

Police pile-on draws Ohio AG's interest

The bizarre case of Hope Steffey, the Salem, Ohio, woman who was forcibly stripped naked by a mixed-sex mob of Stark County sheriff's deputies after being arrested and dragged to jail by the officer responding to an assault complaint in which Steffey was the victim, is drawing high-level attention. First, Gerald McFaul, the sheriff of Cuyahoga County, criticized Stark County deputies, saying their conduct was "way out of line" and that male deputies should never forcibly remove the clothes of a female. Now, Stark County Sheriff Tim Swanson has formally asked the Ohio Attorney General to investigate the incident. This is quite a turnabout from his earlier claims that his deputies behaved properly, and that the policy requiring strip searches to be conducted by officers of the same sex as the prisoner didn't apply because, while Steffey was stripped, she wasn't actually searched.

Apparently, it was all just good fun.

Swanson's change of heart comes as video of the jail-house assault on Steffey hits the airwaves and the Internet, allowing people to see the actual incident for themselves.

Swanson just might be trying to get ahead of the wave of revulsion that could make the Steffey family's federal lawsuit a winner.

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Friday, February 8, 2008

Anti-immigrant victory threatens us all

Arizona's threat to strip employers of their business licenses if they knowingly hire illegal immigrants survived yet another legal challenge. U.S. District Judge Neil Wake ruled that the law does not infringe on the federal government's power to regulate immigration since it doesn't apply to immigration directly, but instead to permission granted by the state to employers to do business.

The battle isn't over yet -- this challenge will join another awaiting the attention of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The 9th Circuit is unpredictable, so it's anybody's guess as to the ultimate outcome.

But even if you're a cheerleader for the sanctions law and firmly in the camp that wants to see a crackdown on illegal immigration, this ruling should give you pause. Judge Wake has effectively given the nod to Arizona's implicit argument that doing business and seeking employment are privileges to be dispensed by the state according to whatever criteria officials may set. Licenses, then, become little more than levers with which to force businesses into compliance with the wishes of government officials. The E-Verify database that employers are required to consult becomes a means to grant or withhold permission to work to those seeking employment.

This isn't the rationale that was originally used to sell the idea of licensing businesses. It's increasingly hard to find a jurisdiction that still bothers to justify requiring licenses of businesses, but a few still go through the effort. The town of Cave Creek, Arizona, keeps a document online (PDF) that says:

Purpose: The purpose of the Business License is to provide an additional protection to the citizens and visitors of the Town from fraud and misrepresentation; to ensure that sales tax revenues are reported equitably; and to provide a database of the commercial activities within the community.

So the stated purpose of the business license is to ensure that businesses aren't scam artists, that they pay their taxes and to keep track of how many businesses are in the community. That seems a stretch to me -- especially the part about weeding out scammers (how is that supposed to work?), but this rationale is at least related to the fundamentals of doing business -- and paying protection money to the politicians doling out the licenses.

Cave Creek's reasons for revoking business licenses get a bit stretchier, but are still related to the fundamentals of conducting business honestly:

Licenses issued under the provisions of this chapter may be restricted, suspended or revoked by the Town Clerk, after notice and an opportunity for a hearing, for any of the following causes:
A. Fraud, misrepresentation or false statement contained in the application for license.
B. Fraud, misrepresentation or false statement made in the course of carrying on the business.
C. Any violation of this chapter.
D. Conviction of any crime or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude.
E. Conducting business in violation of any Town ordinance, county ordinance or state law relating to the public health, safety and welfare.

So no fraud or misrepresentation, and you can't do business in such a way as to harm the public. Honestly, you could drive a truck through the moral turpitude clause -- and probably through the bit about "public health, safety and welfare," too. But the overall implication is that the license is supposed to make sure that businesses operate in an honest and above-board fashion. There's no implication that threats of revocation are intended to be used as a bludgeon to enforce compliance with every whim of the political class.

So how did we get here?

It was probably inevitable the moment that licenses were first required. No matter how well-intentioned and closely related to the business of doing business the original requirements for licenses may have been, they still converted doing business into a privilege. Once you require permission to engage in an activity, the conditions for that permission can always change. Permission was originally granted so long as you didn't fleece the yokels and gave politicians their take. Now permission is conditional on compliance with a law that has nothing to do with the integrity of the business itself. Licenses then become just another enforcement tool to guarantee public submission to government authority.

So it is with the E-Verify database. The requirement that all job applicants (and, potentially, even job-holders) be vetted through the database makes employment a privilege to be doled out only to those who have government permission to work. The conditions for that permission now depend on residency status, but there's no reason they can't be expanded in the future. Depending on political trends down the road, permission to work could be denied to tax resisters, convicted drug dealers, political radicals or any other disfavored class of people.

In its fervor to drive illegal immigrants out of Arizona and, eventually, out of the United States, the nativist movement is making it increasingly necessary for all of us to avoid offending government officials, simply so we can continue to put food on the table.

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Thursday, February 7, 2008

Green gulags

Whatever your position on whether or not human activities are actually changing the environment -- and, as I've said before, I waver on the issue of global warming -- it's certainly an issue that merits ongoing discussion and debate as climate models change and evidence accumulates.

But now a prominent environmentalist says the debate is over -- and dissenters should be jailed.

David Suzuki
is a zoologist, retired professor of genetics, and one of Time magazine's Heroes of the Environment. He's made a name for himself advocating environmental causes in sometimes strident terms, and is an especially popular figure in Canada.

But now, on at least two occasions -- the McGill Business Conference on Sustainability and a gathering at the University of Toronto -- he has suggested that politicians who dissent on the issue of global warming should face legal repercussions:

"What I would challenge you to do is to put a lot of effort into trying to see whether there's a legal way of throwing our so-called leaders into jail because what they're doing is a criminal act."

That's a remarkable statement coming from a scientist -- especially one who is a former director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. When dissenting opinions started getting treated as heresy, it's a safe bet that scientific conviction has slipped far over the line into religious fervor.

Suzuki may or may not be correct in his interpretation of climate data, but he's no longer an informed advocate -- he's a crazed fanatic. I don't expect his proposal to jail his opponents to be enacted into law anytime soon -- even in Canada, land of prosecution for thought crimes -- but in light of Suzuki's eagerness to use the state to muzzle his opponents, it's hard to see why we should treat Suzuki any differently than we treat any other nut who wants to harness the law to his personal prejudices.

Interestingly, the Cato Institute has just published a report that works from the assumption that not only is global warming true, but that the worst case scenarios are accurate. What To Do About Climate Change, by Indur Goklany, concludes that dramatic action that would trade economic growth for reductions in greenhouse emissions would actually worsen the plight of people in the developing world.

Analysis using both the Stern Review and the fast-track assessment reveals that notwithstanding climate change, for the foreseeable future, human and environmental well-being will be highest under the "richest-but-warmest" scenario and lower for the poorer (lower-carbon) scenarios. The developing world's future wellbeing should exceed present levels by several-fold under each scenario, even exceeding present wellbeing in today's developed world under all but the poorest scenario. Accordingly, equity-based arguments, which hold that present generations should divert scarce resources from today's urgent problems to solve potential problems of tomorrow's wealthier generations, are unpersuasive.

I wonder what Suzuki would do to Goklany if he had the chance.

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'Cop killer' gains neighbors' support

Via Radley Balko comes word that neighbors are rallying around Ryan Frederick, the man who shot and killed a house breaker who turned out to be a raiding police officer late at night on January 17. Detective Jarrod Shivers was among a gang of armed and armored law enforcers who appeared at Frederick's door because an informant mistook the man's Japanese maple trees for marijuana plants, triggering the sort of paramilitary assault that's become all-too-common a part of drug prohibition. Frederick has testified that all he knew was that his door was being battered down just days after his home was burglarized. He grabbed his gun and opened fire on the intruders, never suspecting they were police.

While authorities seem dead-set on making an example of Frederick -- even going so far as to appoint a high-profile prosecutor to press first-degree murder charges -- residents of the neighborhood have a different take. They're publicly signing their names to a sign located on a corner near the fatal shooting that voices support for the 28-year-old, risking vilification and even retaliation for backing a "cop killer." As Fox News put it:

With their signatures, residents are voicing their belief the accused killer, Ryan Frederick, was in the right when he fired that gun as police officers were trying to come through his front door to serve a drug search warrant.

An encouraging editorial in the Virginian-Pilot reads:

Faulty information is one thing, a faulty approach is another. Policeman storming into a house of sleeping occupants, who being legally armed is a matter of record, would seem to be an act of desperation. Surely the ordinary householder in an average neighborhood would not expect to be the target of such tactics, whether they meet the law's standards or not. And if storming has been the doctrine for narcotics raids, perhaps subtlety now should be explored.

OK -- that's a fake-out. The editorial is actually from 1972 when, in a nearly identical case, 55-year-old Lilian Davidson killed a policeman during a raid on her home based on faulty information. Authorities wisely dropped charges against Davidson in that case just two days after the shooting.

Balko is following this case closely, and I won't attempt to reinvent what he's already done. But Ryan Frederick's case raises questions for me that I doubt will ever be adequately answered.

For starters: Could this raid have ever been worth it, even if police had found the marijuana they expected?

As it turned out, Frederick had only a personal-use quantity of marijuana in his home; police information was simply wrong. But even if Frederick had been dealing in illegal drugs -- specifically, in a mild intoxicant like marijuana -- how does such a non-violent, albeit illicit activity, justify a violent attack on a private home in the dead of night? Such raids are always going to be fraught with danger, for both those on the receiving end and the raiders themselves. More than a few people targeted by raids have been shot by accident or misunderstanding, and Detective Shivers is far from the first police officer to be killed while breaking unannounced (or announced just as the battering ram is striking the door) into a private home.

I've heard police apologists argue that no-knock raids are necessary in order to minimize the peril that law-enforcement officers face in an inherently dangerous job. They're confronting low-lifes and need every advantage they can get.

But not every (suspected) law-breaker is one knock away from reenacting the siege of the Alamo. People engaged in consensual activities, however illegal, aren't necessarily looking for an opportunity to go down shooting. In encounters with non-violent suspects, violent raids introduce danger that wouldn't otherwise be there. Just ask Detective Shivers.

And, frankly, police work just isn't all that dangerous when compared to other trades. As Forbes magazine reported in 2002:

[I]n a normal year, like 2000, the most dangerous jobs do not involve firefighting or police work; they involve cutting timber and fishing. ...

The most common cause of death on the job in 2000, however, was the car accident, accounting for 23% of the total. Even police officers were slightly more likely to die behind the wheel than by homicide.

If, despite such facts, some police officers still find knocking on a door and waiting for a reply to be too frightening an activity to contemplate, perhaps they should consider a different line of work. After all, our primary concern in structuring the business of law enforcement shouldn't be peace of mind for folks who take the job -- it should be keeping the peace while respecting individual rights.

Overall, if we must enforce the ridiculous and oppressive laws against drugs, it seems blindingly obvious that openly approaching suspects with no history of violence so that there's no room for misunderstanding is the way to go.*

It's unfortunate that Jarrod Shivers died that night in January. But, if his family members and prosecutors are looking for somebody to blame, they should put Ryan Frederick out of their minds. The real culprits are prohibitionist zealots and the tactics they favor in pursuing the war on drug users.

Kudos to Ryan Frederick's neighbors for recognizing who the real victim was that dark night and coming to his defense.

*Just to be clear: Not only should we not enforce laws against manufacture, sale or use of disfavored intoxicants because these laws are intrusive and have disastrous consequences; such laws are inherently illegitimate, because they violate individual autonomy rights. People have as much right to resist the enforcement of drug laws as they have to resist a rape or a mugging.

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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Legalization gets a hearing

In a rare, high-level slap at statist orthodoxy, an international conference held in Vancouver, B.C., intended to advise the United Nations on drug policy, focused the majority of its attention on legalization. Canadian prohibitionist Judi Lalonde even complained, "Representation from the groups for legalization are probably about 95 percent, to possibly 5 percent in the area of prevention. I’m quite disappointed with the whole process of the last few days.” The Vancouver Sun was sufficiently incensed by the pro-legalization consensus that it editorialized against any loosening of restrictions on politically incorrect narcotics and attacked Jack Cole, founder of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, for his organization's support of across-the-board legalization.

Well, it's nice to see the handcuffs-and-prison brigade feel threatened for once.

Speaking of LEAP, Cole and company earned the Province's wrath and drew mentions in the press by giving voice to current and former police officers, judges and the like who argue that prohibition has been a horrible failure. There's nothing like seeing former drug warriors argue for recognizing people's right to decide for themselves what intoxicants they will or will not imbibe to add credibility to the cause. To some people, the idea of individual autonomy is a shocking concept to hear coming from a policeman's mouth.

Ironically, it wasn't long ago that Canadian authorities meekly surrendered "Prince of Pot" Marc Emery to U.S. authorities to serve hard time for running a Canadian business that would have violated draconian American drug laws -- if it were located in the United States.

One conference is good, but there's still a long way to go.


Who won Super Tuesday?

Politicians, of course.

But the losers? That would be the rest of us.

I mean, really ... John McCain? Hillary Clinton? Mitt Romney? Barack Obama? Take your pick -- it's like going to a bondage den and having to choose your master or mistress from a lineup of fat, balding former Stasi agents. And, oh yeah, there's no safeword.

It's really better to resist the temptation and stay out of the den to begin with. If they'd leave us that option, that is.


Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Please don't go 'beyond ideology'

Commenting on the lead-up to the federal government's bipartisan, budget-busting effort to buy votes ... err ... I mean, goose the economy, Bob Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said, "The question is whether they can get beyond ideology and decide what has the best bang for the buck in terms of stimulating the economy."

Along the same lines, in 2006 presidential hopeful Barack Obama told Keith Olbermann that he wants to "get beyond ideology to think in terms of what works, that we can’t solve every problem overnight, but we can make progress." According to his Website, the things Obama considers among the ranks of "what works" include expanding the Family and Medical Leave Act to smaller businesses and more situations, creating a government-administered national healthcare plan and phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

Beyond ideology?

Whatever you may think of government "stimulating" the economy, nationalizing healthcare, imposing family leave rules on businesses and ending the war in Iraq, these are all issues worthy of debate. That debate is likely to be informed by strong opinions about the proper role of government, the limits of coercive power, and the appropriate use of military force. Opinions on those matters, when guided by consistent and well-considered views, are called "ideology."

You can't just talk about "what works" if you haven't decided what "works" means. For instance, it's not a settled matter that "stimulating" the economy through government spending (or direct payoffs to citizens) is effective. John Maynard Keynes, famously, believed strongly in government spending as an engine for fueling economic growth. Milton Friedman, on the other hand, dismissed Keynesians' love of borrowing and spending and called for a steady hand on monetary policy. There's still plenty of disagreement among economists to fuel a healthy debate and policy makers who take the time to look into the matter line up on one side or the other.

Then there are arguments not only over what "works," but what is right. These are not small disagreements. To a large extent, ideology can be thought of as morality applied to politics. Is censorship ever justified? What about the seizure of private property? Jailing political dissidents? Disarming private citizens? These issues are all subject to discussions of the proper use of state power.

Do you have large-scale unemployment? Perhaps shipping surplus laborers to the gulag would "work" if all you intend to do is bring the unemployment figure down. But if you consider shipping people off at gunpoint to be a wildly immoral way to manipulate statistics -- a violation of individual rights -- you're on your way to filtering "what works" through an ideology.

From another perspective, failing to apply moral concerns to such a scenario -- that is, declining to consider ideology -- would make you something of a sociopath who is willing to use coercive power without any consideration for when it is right or wrong to wield force.

When we consider the debate over the stimulus package that Mr. Greenstein wants to move "beyond ideology," it's worth remembering that at least some people consider the whole tax apparatus used to gather and distribute "tax rebates" to be an immoral abuse of power. That's an even more fundamental issue than whether the rebates will function as advertised.

To the extent that we have a political system that's marginally tolerable, policy debates are subject not only to arguments over "what works," but also to moral considerations of when the state should and shouldn't act. The process is messy and contentious, but it at least gives us a framework by which to judge some uses of state power as simply unacceptable.

We have ideology to thank for that.

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Back to progressivism?

It's nice to see National Review's Jonah Goldberg step away from his once-enthusiastic defense of Bush administration assaults on civil liberties for a while. In his latest column, Goldberg pens a devastating take-down of one of the more iconic progressive politicians in American history:
I'm thinking of an American president who demonized ethnic groups as enemies of the state, censored the press, imprisoned dissidents, bullied political opponents, spewed propaganda, often expressed contempt for the Constitution, approved warrantless searches and eavesdropping, and pursued his policies with a blind, religious certainty.

Oh, and I'm not thinking of George W. Bush, but another "W" – actually "WW": Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat who served from 1913 to 1921.
Goldberg's take on Wilson is right on -- especially as he skewers the overrated president's vicious racism, which Wilson, academic that he was, cloaked in the pseudocience of Eugenics that so excited progressive passions in that era.

Goldberg also whacks progressives for their raw appetite for unrestrained power:
"Government," Wilson wrote approvingly in his magnum opus, "The State," "does now whatever experience permits or the times demand." "No doubt," he wrote elsewhere, taking dead aim at the Declaration of Independence, "a lot of nonsense has been talked about the inalienable rights of the individual, and a great deal that was mere vague sentiment and pleasing speculation has been put forward as fundamental principle."

In his 1890 essay, "Leaders of Men," Wilson explained that a "true leader" uses the masses like "tools." He must inflame their passions with little heed for the facts. "Men are as clay in the hands of the consummate leader." ...

Again, Wilson was merely one voice in the progressive chorus of the age. "[W]e must demand that the individual shall be willing to lose the sense of personal achievement, and shall be content to realize his activity only in connection to the activity of the many," declared the progressive social activist Jane Addams.

"New forms of association must be created," explained Walter Rauschenbusch, a leading progressive theologian of the Social Gospel movement, in 1896. "Our disorganized competitive life must pass into an organic cooperative life." Elsewhere, Rauschenbusch put it more simply: "Individualism means tyranny."

It would have been helpful, however, if Goldberg had put more effort into connecting the hoary, racist and totalitarian variety of classical progressivism to the less-well-defined modern tendency of that name. Hillary Clinton calls herself a "progressive," but it's not so clear that she means much more by that than that she ought to be in charge.

Which, come to think of it, is bad enough.

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Monday, February 4, 2008

Kafka meets local government

The federal government is too distant, right? It's too far removed from the concerns of real people to be responsive to anybody but those with high-level political connections. State government is hardly any better; you're still talking about a distant capital and professional politicians with a taste for boundless power and little concern for the consequences of their actions. But local government -- that's better. You see the city council members at the market, you share a beer with them at the bar -- there's a human connection that makes all the difference, right?

Maybe not. Read on.

The Haunted Hamburger is a destination restaurant in the old mining town of Jerome, Arizona. With stunning views out over the Verde Valley, good burgers and beer, and a location in a borderline ghost town (population in the 1920s: 15,000; population now: less than 500) it's a common place for tourists and locals to end up after strolling through town to gape at abandoned buildings and hit the shops and galleries. Recently, though, the Haunted Hamburger seemed destined to join Jerome's status as the fourth-largest city in the state on the list of do-ya-remember conversation topics.

In an op-ed for the Verde Independent, Haunted Hamburger owner Eric Jurisin details his run-ins with a bureaucracy that's definitely punching above its weight in red tape.

In March 2007 I heard through the "grapevine" that the use of the upstairs of our restaurant had changed, was unsafe, and we were going to be shut down. We thought surely there must be a mistake because diners have been seated in the upstairs of the restaurant for the last 30-some years without incident and with town approval. ...

Finally, in response to our numerous requests, a meeting was held in June at the Haunted Hamburger. We were given a list of four minor corrections to make. We said we would comply to avoid any issues with the town and be certain that our restaurant was safe and open for business. We got a building permit as directed, and completed the work in less than nine days and happily went back to Town Hall thinking this matter was being resolved. We told Jeanne Trupiano, Planning and Zoning director, that all of the work was finished and ready for inspection.

Imagine our surprise when she informed us that although we completed all of the requested work, and the town thanked us for our cooperation, the town decided that the upstairs portion of our restaurant would be closed anyway and we should talk to Fire Chief Molloy.

Thoroughly frustrated, we wrote to the town's attorney, Phyllis Smiley, again asking why the Haunted Hamburger was targeted for closure and what else needed to be fixed. Initially, she was as flabbergasted as we were. She said she would investigate and get back to us. The attorney told us that the fire chief still thought there were building code violations at the restaurant. We asked again what they were. She would not tell us. At this point we had written no less than six letters to the Town asking them to specify their concerns so we could address them. As a last-ditch effort, we went to Chief Molloy offering to sprinkler the building and we were told that was not an acceptable solution.

Did we get a list of what was an acceptable solution? No, instead Chief Muma served me with a criminal citation vaguely alleging our building was unsafe along with an order from the town closing the entire restaurant. The town said the upstairs was unsafe. We were stunned at this turn of events. When we questioned why the entire building was being closed, he replied ... "just the upstairs, for now." ...

Our building was the only one being cited for criminal violations. The town prosecutor, Kenton Jones, was surprised that a criminal citation had been issued by Chief Muma. In spite of Mr. Jones' initial reaction, he could give no specific explanations for charges and refused to dismiss the charges. Having had no success with the town officials or their attorneys, we made a written appeal to the Town Council. Surely, the chief of police and the fire chief could not close our restaurant without an appeal process. The town's attorney rejected the appeal in a one-paragraph letter, saying we needed to appeal to the Appeal Board. The Appeal Board does not exist.

The issue has now been settled for about $50 in repairs to a fire escape and promises of future alterations. In a news account of the settlement hearing, we get a timeline of the dealings between the restaurant and the town leading to the recent conflict:

[Attorney John] Phillips said Jurisin's reputation was tarnished by the town as a "do-nothing merchant" in terms of fire safety, and recited the history of the Haunted Hamburger second floor.

In 1993, the restaurant operator was told that he would need to make a couple of changes in order to seat more than nine customers upstairs. Those changes included roof repairs and the creation of a second fire escape. The town building inspector at the time, Michael Kamrar, also a carpenter, offered to design and build the second fire escape. And in 1994, the emergency exit was "designed, built and approved," he said.

In 2002, the town complained because the fire escape had been built through a bathroom that locked on the inside. Jurisin agreed to take out the bathroom.

Then in 2007, the restaurant started to hear that the town wanted changes again, this time "a four-story fire escape."

Phillips said that there was no notice, no chance for appeal, and no opportunity to talk with town officials when the police chief posted a closure notice. The attorney noted that even though the building code calls for a board of appeal on such town actions, the town has no such board to appeal to.

At that hearing, witnesses for the restaurant include former Town Clerk Al Palmieri and former Fire Chief Dave Hall. Hall's testimony is particularly revealing, since he's the official who signed off on the fire escape that current Jerome officials now find inadequate.

By Hall's own admission, the fire escape he signed off on -- which was designed and constructed by the town building inspector -- doesn't meet code. That means the Haunted Hamburger faced potential closure of the business and repair costs imposed by town officials for code violations that were approved by town officials. Following procedures and getting the proper permissions isn't enough; now town residents are expected to shoulder the burden if the government officials administering those procedures and issuing those permissions violate their own rules along the way.

Damned if you do and damned if you don't.

As for that appeals board that's supposed to handle conflicts between locals and officials but which just doesn't exist? The local paper has editorialized that Jerome just might want to consider giving the thing some life.

There's a lot of romantic talk in American political life about local government being the most responsive and representative level of government -- the one at which most matters should be handled. I think that's probably true -- for what little it's worth. In reality, Eric Jurisin's experience demonstrates that proximity to the people doesn't mean that much. In a town of 500 residents, a savvy and well-established local business owner was still taken on a tour of a bureaucratic maze that could have destroyed him. The sole value of local government in this case was that Jurisin was able to put his reputation to work to drum up public support, and the town of Jerome didn't have the near-endless resources of a state or federal agency to draw on when a legal battle became inevitable.

State, federal, local -- it doesn't matter. When you hand coercive power to government officials, people suffer.

Update: Eric Jurisin, the owner of the Haunted Hamburger, agreed to drop his lawsuit against Jerome and its officials in return for the dismissal of a criminal citation against Jurisin. Legally, the matter has been settled, though it has left bad feelings in its wake. It has also left Jerome saddled with hefty legal fees.

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Trooper who tasered Jared Massey may face charges

Remember the case of Jared Massey, the Utah motorist who was tasered after he declined to sign a speeding citation and then asked questions about the alleged offence? (Also see here and here) Well, it seems that the arresting officer in that case just might face consequences for his actions after all, even after the Utah Highway Patrol announced that tasering annoying motorists is fine as far as official procedure is concerned. Says the Salt Lake Tribune:

The case of Utah Highway Patrol Trooper John Gardner is being reviewed by prosecutors in Tooele County, who will determine if he broke the law. Lawyers in Tooele County are examining the case at the request of the Utah Attorney General's Office and to avoid conflicts for prosecutors in eastern Utah, where the traffic stop occurred.
Attorney general spokesman Scott Troxel said his office has completed a fact-finding review of Gardner's use of the Taser but has not made any recommendations to Tooele County prosecutors.

Don't get your hopes up, but it's a step in the right direction.

According to another account, in the Deseret Morning News, Massey has "filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Gardner seeking an undisclosed amount of money." Here's hoping he wins.


Save Fidler's castle

Via Hit & Run comes word of British farmer Robert Fidler, who, rather than try to wade his way through planning laws and bureaucrats who are no more tolerable in the U.K. than in the U.S., built himself a castle on the sly.

Over the course of two years, he managed to secretly – and unlawfully – build the imposing mock Tudor structure in one of his fields, shielded behind a 40ft stack of hay bales covered by a huge tarpaulins.

Once it was finished, he and his family moved in and lived there for four years before finally revealing the development – complete with battlements and cannons – in August 2006.

Mr Fidler claims that because the building has been there for four years with no objections, it is no longer illegal.

But he is under siege from council planners, who say the castle at Honeycrock Farm, Salfords, Redhill, Surrey, will have to be knocked down.

Taste is subjective, of course, but it appears to my eye that Fidler constructed a quite beautiful home without benefit of bureaucratic input. More important, he and his family really like their Tudor-style dwelling.

Perhaps that's the problem that many people have with what the Fidlers have done; they built what they like, without the hassle and expense of asking the government's permission. If you check the comments on the Daily Mail's Website, those opposed to Fidler and his family argue, over and over again, variations on: "If we're stuck with the rules, he should be too."

That seems to be the way authoritarian states are constructed. Meek people who are too timid to tell the government to go to Hell resent their more daring neighbors. Rather than admire and support initiative, they become allies of the people standing on their necks.

You can contact the Reigate and Banstead Borough Council -- the government entity that's tormenting Fidler -- here:

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Friday, February 1, 2008

Got milk?

Attention all you bakers out there. Soon, bake sales in Arizona may no longer be underground economic activities:

Lawmakers on Monday advanced a bill that deregulates bake sales and allows Arizona residents to "occasionally" bake and sell cookies, cakes and other non-hazardous goodies made in their own kitchens.

Senate Bill 1096 also sets out guidelines that would allow child-care facilities to serve whole fruits and veggies that are washed and cut on site. Also, it would allow pre-packaged foods and drinks to be sold at small-scale operations, such as Little League snack bars.

What? You didn't know that home-baked goodies and hand-cut carrots were officially verboten goods? You scofflaw, you.


Olbermann slams Bush on FISA

If you missed it, last night MSNBC's Keith Olbermann laid off the tired Bill-O'Reilly-sucks shtick long enough to make an impassioned attack on President Bush and his ongoing attempt to link open-ended power to conduct wiretaps without judicial oversight to immunity from legal liability for telecommunications companies who break the law while assisting the government with its eavesdropping schemes.

See the full rant here:

Specifically, Olbermann challenges Bush's claim that we're doomed -- doomed -- unless the government is free to monitor electronic communications at will (so long as it invokes the words "foreign intelligence"), followed by his threat to reject any legislation that grants him the oh-so-necessary power he wants, but that excludes legal immunity for his corporate collaborators.

For the record, I hope that Bush does veto any expansion of wiretapping powers sent his way -- and that Congress then declines to pass any further legislation on the matter beyond the 15-day extension that's already law. That would spare us the fallout from such easily abused power, and leave Bush with egg on his face.


No food for fatties

You know how some of us keep warning about the slippery slope of stupid activist litigation and legislation meant to "improve" our lives in ways we never wanted, and how it will inevitably lead to absurd results? We warn that presuming people are too stupid to run their own lives will lead to lawsuits against tobacco companies, and Shazam! That's what happens. Then we caution that lawsuits against tobacco companies will lead to lawsuits against fast food companies for "tricking" people into super-sizing their fries and ... crap .. somebody takes the ball and runs with it. Then we raise red flags about outlawing products that people like but are bad for them, because that could easily justify banning ... oh ... margarine. Then some bastard goes and does just that. And I distinctly remember arguing that if you punish bartenders for serving drunks, you might as well fine waiters for putting a plate down in front of fat people. Now ...

Via Hit & Run comes news of proposed Mississippi legislation to ban restaurants from serving meals to fat people. No, I am not kidding, and neither is the author, Representative W.T. Mayhall, Jr. Says Sandy Szwarc of Junkfood Science:

I called lead author, Rep. Mayhall, and asked if this was serious legislation or tongue-in-cheek to make a point. He kindly took a moment to answer my question while the legislature was in session. He said that while, regrettably, he doesn’t believe his bill will pass, this is serious. He wrote it, he said, because of the “urgency of the obesity crisis and need for government action.” He hopes it will “call attention to the serious problem of obesity and what it is costing the Medicare system.”

The full text of the bill (available here in PDF) says:

10 SECTION 1. (1) The provisions of this section shall apply
11 to any food establishment that is required to obtain a permit from
12 the State Department of Health under Section 41-3-15(4)(f), that
13 operates primarily in an enclosed facility and that has five (5)
14 or more seats for customers.
15 (2) Any food establishment to which this section applies
16 shall not be allowed to serve food to any person who is obese,
17 based on criteria prescribed by the State Department of Health
18 after consultation with the Mississippi Council on Obesity
19 Prevention and Management established under Section 41-101-1 or
20 its successor. The State Department of Health shall prepare
21 written materials that describe and explain the criteria for
22 determining whether a person is obese, and shall provide those
23 materials to all food establishments to which this section
24 applies. A food establishment shall be entitled to rely on the
25 criteria for obesity in those written materials when determining
26 whether or not it is allowed to serve food to any person.
27 (3) The State Department of Health shall monitor the food
28 establishments to which this section applies for compliance with
29 the provisions of this section, and may revoke the permit of any
30 food establishment that repeatedly violates the provisions of this
31 section.
32 SECTION 2. This act shall take effect and be in force from
33 and after July 1, 2008.

True, this bit of legislation is unlikely to make it into law at this time, but it's absolutely mind-boggling that we've reached the point at which lawmakers find such mandates even conceivable. I'm officially giving up on pointing out where any line of legislative reasoning is likely to lead for fear that I'll give somebody ideas.


Presidential disdain for the private sector

David Harsanyi at the Denver Post has a column up on the disdain for the private sector oozing from several of the leading presidential candidates. John McCain, in particular, talks of his life-long work "not for profit, but for patriotism." Barack Obama explicitly emphasizes the alleged value of "public service" over building a business or creating wealth.

It's worth noting that, of the four leading presidential candidates, Mitt Romney has the most extensive experience building and leading businesses (though certainly not from a mom-and-pop perspective). John McCain, whose only foray into the private sector consisted of a brief gig with his father-in-law's beer distributorship while he prepared for a congressional run, has repeatedly downplayed Romney's "management" expertise as inferior to his own military-style "leadership."

Hillary Clinton has private-sector experience, but it's from the privileged position of a politically connected law-firm partner and corporate board member. Barack Obama worked as a lawyer-advocate and in academia as a law professor before going into politics.

With the exception of Romney, none of these candidates has really had to worry about the real-world impact of government tax and regulatory policies. Does government intervention in the market have a track record of making it harder or easier to start a business? How do employers react to labor policies? Are regulatory agencies easy to deal with or are they company-killers?

It's likely that the next president will lack the slightest inkling of how to address such concerns, and -- if McCain is any indicator -- may not even care.

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