Monday, March 31, 2008

The sweetest little black market

Inadvertent leaders in economic research, public school officials seem dedicated to discovering again and again just what it is that sparks the creation of a black market. What have they found? Restricting goods that school kids want inspires many of them to foray into the world of underground entrepreneurship.

California school officials have discovered -- surprise! -- that banning "junk food" creates economic opportunities for kids willing to take a few risks in smuggling and peddling contraband. The lesson comes courtesy of the drive to promote healthy eating, or else, among the nation's pudgy youth. Golden State officials have cracked down on unapproved foodstuffs and put their official weight behind healthier -- but less popular -- alternatives.

“It’s created a little underground economy, with businessmen selling everything from a pack of skittles to an energy drink,” said Jim Nason, principal at Hook Junior High School in Victorville.

This has become a lucrative business, Nason said, and those kids are walking around campus with upwards of $40 in their pockets and disrupting class to make a sale.

The results could have been predicted by an economist or student of history who has paid even cursory attention to repeatedly thwarted efforts by government officials to restrict people's access to goods and services that they want. The situation in California (and in Boulder, Colorado, earlier) not only emulates the reaction to Prohibition and drug bans -- it directly reflects students' response to junk food bans elsewhere. Says the U.K.'s Daily Telegraph:

The situation echoes that in the UK where a similar drive to promote healthy eating sparked a playground black market in junk food with pupils trading snacks and fizzy drinks and the most organised staging lunchtime runs to local shops and McDonald's to fill junk food orders.

British officials shocked by widespread resistance to their efforts are considering barring students from leaving campus at lunch, and even preventing fast-food restaurants from opening near campuses -- schemes intended to further restrict the flow of contraband. Considering, though, that flat-out outlawing marijuana and heroin has failed to cut off the supply, it's hard to see how tighter restrictions on legal products can do anything more than slightly raise prices (and profit margins) on goods smuggled through school doors.

Oddly enough, surreptitious peddling of cokes and candy may offer public school students the best economic education they're likely to receive in tax-supported institutions. School officials may barely be able to teach kids to read and write, but they're offering an excellent lesson in the hurdles faced by any effort at prohibition and the inevitability of the underground economy.

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Punished for offering a choice on smoking

Hamish Howitt, of Blackpool in the U.K, owns two bars. In one of them, the Happy Scots Bar, he forbids smoking. The other bar, Del Boy's, caters to smokers. Because he offers his customers a choice, Howitt has been fined £1,950 and told to pay £2,000 costs -- he even faces potential jail time. British law, as with the law in so many U.S. jurisdictions, doesn't permit freedom of choice on tobacco -- smoking in many privately owned establishments is simply banned.

As Howitt told the BBC:

"I'm not telling people how to live. You cannot make us all compulsory joggers and orange juice drinkers.

"It's not the judges I am defying - it's the government.

"I'm giving choice. One of my bars has non-smoking staff serving you and you are not allowed to smoke.

"The other bar is served by smokers. It's so simple and it's called choice, and this government has denied us choice."

Howitt shows more commitment to his cause than do most bar owners ticked off by smoking bans that tell them how to run their businesses and often drive away customers. He's founded a registered political party, UK-FAGS, devoted to protecting freedom of choice (complete with a catchy and profane theme song) and has voiced his willingness in press interviews to go to jail if necessary.

By himself, Howitt's crusade is probably doomed. Government officials will be more than happy to crush one businessman as an example to others who chafe under rules that violate their property rights and their customers' right to choose establishments that cater to their tastes.

But if there were more Howitts in Britain, the U.S. and elsewhere, all of them willing to tell government officials to go to hell ... that might well change matters for the better.

Until then, smokers will probably have to content themselves by patronizing those establishments that quietly flout the smoking ban.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Is gay marriage the beginning of a slippery slope?

Florida is currently caught up in the currently popular hysteria over gay marriage. Apparently concerned that the prospect of two men or two women saying "I do" no longer excites the same fear among the public that it once did, John Stemberger of the Florida Coalition to Protect Marriage is now warning that if same-sex couples are accorded the same consideration traditionally given to heterosexual couples, the door could be open to all sorts of crazy relationships, like even group marriage.

"These are not crazies," he told a meeting of the Capital Tiger Bay Club. "These folks are where homosexual activists were 25 years ago. The problem is, when you unlock that door, there's really no end to the argument of where we're going to define marriage."

Uh huh. And so the hell what?

Stemberger is right that opening the door to same-sex marriage will probably lead to recognizing other consensual arrangements among adults, but it's hard to understand what all the fuss is about. Will the world really come to an end if the folks entitled to make decisions for an accident victim include three wives and two husbands, or if the mommy who picks a kid up from school isn't the same one who dropped him off in the morning? It's not as if extra uninvited brides and grooms are going to start popping from the woodwork at everybody's nuptials; nobody has to take a the-more-the-merrier approach.

Oddly enough, plural marriage is a fairly common topic of conversation in my part of the world. That's largely because of the unfortunate influence of the exceptionally creepy Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) in its strongholds along the Arizona-Utah border. Polygamy as practiced by the FLDS is largely a means for enabling dirty old men to build harems of teenage girls who have yet to reach the age of consent. Not surprisingly, the practice is not entirely popular outside of FLDS circles.

But the FLDS no more represents the totality of plural marriage than NAMBLA represents gay relationships or Mary Kay Letourneau serves as a spokeswoman for traditional one-guy/one-girl marriage. In all cases, the real deals involve consenting adults.

So why does it matter, so long as we're talking about adults, if gays, lesbians, conservative Christians and pansexual pagans have different ideas about who and how many ought to be involved in domestic arrangements?

Defenders of one-man/one-woman marriage argue that they don't want the state endorsing immoral or damaging "social experiments," and that they want to defend tradition. They may have an argument to make about the experimental nature of some arrangements -- heterosexual marriage as we know it is pretty well time-tested -- but that doesn't mean that other arrangement are unknown in history or that people are wrong to experiment. As for tradition ... well, it turns out that state-licensed marriage is a pretty newfangled innovation itself, with its dominance dating only to the 19th century.

Writing in the New York Times last November, Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history at Evergreen State College, said:

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. ...

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

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

Eliminating the government's involvement in marriage would get rid of the notion that the state is sanctioning any sort of relationship and would return domestic arrangements to their long-standing, grassroots origins.

If John Stemberger and company really want to defend traditional marriage, they should work to just get the government entirely out of the matter.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

You don't really want to retire, do you?

From the Arizona Republic:

Imagine walking into your neighborhood grocery, hospital or government office and finding that a quarter of its workforce is missing.

Census figures suggest the threat is real, and Arizona is taking steps to avoid it. By 2020, one in four Arizonans is expected to be older than 60, says Melanie Starns, Gov. Janet Napolitano's policy adviser on aging. More than 35 percent of Yavapai County residents already are in that age group.

This year, the oldest boomers turn 62 and become eligible for early Social Security benefits. The thought of millions of boomers taking their early-retirement benefits is causing concern about the stability of Social Security and Medicare.

The article goes on to talk about how much older Americans have to offer, and how retirees and those nearing retirement often find that they really want to continue working -- even if not in the same field that has held their attention throughout their main working years.

Expect to see lots of articles in this vein in years to come, with a particular emphasis on how oddly compelling the prospect of working into our seventies has become to a host of civic-minded seniors with too much time on their hands. The Social Security meltdown is looming, with the Ponzi-scheme pension system due to start tapping general revenues in a little over a decade (that's the so-called "trust fund"). Medicare is in worse shape, approaching total collapse before 2020. That makes it necessary for government officials to do their best to convince people to delay retirement -- and to recruit journalists to the cause.

I shouldn't mock too much, since there's more than necessity to the case for working longer. The fact is that the age of broken and tired 65-year-olds is largely at an end. Older Americans are running, kayaking and bed-hopping with an enthusiasm once reserved for people decades younger. As the Duke University Medical Center reported in 2005, "the majority of people enjoy good or excellent health, even past age 85. Later life is not necessarily defined by a steady decline in health, but rather by more healthy years followed by a much shorter period of ill health immediately before death."

That's good news, unless you've been planning for a retirement much like that of your parents. If you're going to live longer and be able to do more than generations past, you need more money stashed away to support an active life into your 80s.

And that's assuming that you've been doing a good job of planning for the future. Unfortunately, the Congressional Budget Office says, only "roughly half of boomer households are on track to accumulate enough wealth to maintain their current standard of living if the heads of those households retire when they now plan to."

That means that many of those healthy older folks are going to have to spend more of those long, active years than they intended in the work force. That's not really a bad thing. If 70 is the new 55, there's no reason why people who haven't made adequate provisions for their own future should be able to tap other people's income to fund what is now an early retirement. In fact, it's perfectly reasonable to expect that the working years will extend longer than they did in the past, except for those people who specifically plan for a long retirement.

So as much as I roll my eyes at the calculated nature of stories like the piece in the Republic, I have to grant that they're both necessary and inevitable. In the years to come, we'll see an increasingly desperate effort to convince older Americans to stay in the work force, paving the way for a significant hike in the age at which Americans become eligible for Social Security and Medicare benefits. Ultimately, I hope we'll see the end of the poorly considered and doomed Social Security and Medicare systems themselves, so that we never have another crisis like this one.

On the plus side, as we work throughout our long, healthy lives, a lot of us will still be around to counsel future generations to avoid the mistakes of the past.


Democratic presidential hopeful defects to Libertarians

No, not Obama, you silly. I'm talking about Mike Gravel, the former U.S. senator from Alaska.

What? You didn't know he was still in the presidential race as a Democrat? Well, now you won't know that he's still in the presidential race as a Libertarian.

Yep, a Libertarian -- Gravel defected to the Libertarian Party, saying his old donkey party "is a party that continues to sustain war, the military-industrial complex and imperialism — all of which I find anathema to my views."

In a separate statement, he added:

I'm joining the Libertarian Party because it is a party that combines a commitment to freedom and peace that can't be found in the two major parties that control the government and politics of America. My libertarian views, as well as my strong stance against war, the military industrial complex and American imperialism, seem not to be tolerated by Democratic Party elites who are out of touch with the average American; elites that reject the empowerment of American citizens I offered to the Democratic Party at the beginning of this presidential campaign with the National Initiative for Democracy.

Gravel's libertarian sympathies aren't new. He's long been a fan of Reason magazine, and explicitly endorsed libertarian ideas in an interview with Brainwash magazine. His views could probably best be described as an amalgam of liberal and libertarian -- what some folks call "liberaltarian," but which could also be considered a return to something like the old-fashioned, individualist liberalism of the sort that gave birth to modern libertarianism. Former Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern has also moved in this direction in his writings over the past two decades.

Gravel's move probably won't mean much in itself, but it may be an indication that the liberal-libertarian coalition advocated by people including the Cato Institute's Brink Lindsey may have a future.


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Pushing for a (false) confession

Courtesy of the Detroit Free Press, here's a disturbing story and video record of an extraordinarily poorly handled interrogation of a boy with Asperger's Syndrome during which a police officer tried to bully and manipulate the 13-year-old into confessing that his family has a history of sexual abuse.

Legal experts say the video record of the boy's interrogation reveals numerous violations of rules that are supposed to protect minors who may have witnessed sexual abuse and to minimize false allegations of abuse. One called Brousseau's tactics, which included deception, threats and repeated insinuations that the boy was lying, "reprehensible." A therapist who treated the boy for Asperger's Syndrome, a mild form of autism, said the detective may have misinterpreted symptoms of the boy's condition as evidence of evasion or guilt.

The family has now been reunited, but the boy says the detective's allegations have damaged his relationship with his father.

Truly appalling.


Phoenix pastor monitors police abuse of immigrants

First off, I know nothing about God's Army church or Pastor Richard Tamayo beyond what appears in an Arizona Republic article. But I have to respect anybody who responds to reports of abuse of immigrants -- particularly abuse committed by police -- by strapping on a gun and grabbing a video recorder.

Standing in the shade of a young paloverde tree, Pastor Richard Tamayo talks about Christianity with eight day laborers in the parking lot near a Wal-Mart Supercenter.

Instead of a Bible, the former New York Police Department undercover officer has a gun in a holster and a mini Sony digital camcorder in his left hand.

Tamayo, of God's Army church in northeast Phoenix, is investigating allegations of abuse against undocumented immigrants in his congregation. These men in denim jeans and grass-stained shoes don't speak out for fear of being deported, he said.

"We're out here ministering, and they're speaking to people they feel comfortable with, the church," Tamayo said. "Contractors will hire them for two weeks then not pay them. We're looking into that. Police officers are abusing their authority, assaulting people. What these people need most is a voice. God's Army will be their voice."

Tamayo addressed a Phoenix City Council subcommittee Tuesday on behalf of his congregation, which spans 32nd Street to Cave Creek Road and Bell to Greenway roads.

At the meeting, Tamayo told the subcommittee that he will be gathering witnesses and investigating allegations against Valley police departments. Phoenix police representatives could not be reached for comment.

The phenomenon of video recording as a weapon for use against out-of-bounds officials is becoming increasingly important. The amazing combination of cheap recording technology and easy distribution via the Internet ensure that incidents that used to disappear into civilian oversight filing cabinets (at best) will now become sources of public outrage.

Tamayo appears to be taking matters a step further by putting his church behind the monitoring effort and strapping on a gun to let his targets know that he won't be intimidated. Variations of that model can easily be implemented by organizations acrss the country.

In St. Louis, the ACLU has distributed video cameras for exactly this use, and has provided training to volunteers. The effort has already had results. Orlando CopWatch volunteers patrol with video cameras to record police interactions with the public. Even police retaliation against a CopWatch activist helped the group's cause, since it drew press coverage.

So whether or not Pastor Tamayo is able to do as he promises, he's probably a pace-setter for future organized efforts to monitor authorities.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Should we obey the law?

Are we duty bound to obey the law because it's the law, and seek to change rather than evade those laws we oppose? Or should we defy oppressive and intrusive laws as a matter both of preserving our own personal liberty and of limiting the reach of the state?

I'm not speaking just of what people actually do here, but of what they should do. Practically speaking, there are limits to people's willingness to obey the law, as I've written in the past. Whatever they should do, people don't obey laws they strongly oppose.

But what we do and what we ought to do are often two different things. So to what attitude toward the law should we aspire?

Your teachers probably told you that you have to obey the law. Most police officers work on that assumption too. So does just about anybody who dons a black robe and expects to be addressed as "your honor." Much ink has even been spilled in law journals to demonstrate that "we have a general moral obligation to obey the law," although, as lawyers often do, these efforts must deny that there is any significant difference between morality and the law.

But I've always found more credible the opposite view, perhaps best expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

An immoral law makes it a man's duty to break it, at every hazard. For virtue is the very self of every man. It is therefore a principle of law that an immoral contract is void, and that an immoral statute is void. For, as laws do not make right, and are simply declaratory of a right which already existed, it is not to be presumed that they can so stultify themselves as to command injustice.

Emerson's case seems to me especially persuasive since he was writing in 1851 not in the abstract, but about an actual law: the Fugitive Slave Law, which imposed heavy penalties on anybody who assisted slaves in escaping from bondage. People who considered slavery monstrous necessarily viewed the law as immoral. Many openly defied the measure. Emerson argued, convincingly I believe, that their defiance was commendable.

Do we have laws on the books today so immoral and damaging as to justify equivalent defiance? I think so. The drug-prohibition laws, which strip people of their freedom and property simply because they choose to use, manufacture or sell disfavored intoxicants, strike me as a prime example. So do laws like the one in Arizona which compel employers to check the backgrounds of their workers and to deny them the means to make a living if the government says they crossed an imaginary line on a map without official permission. I feel the same way about laws threatening fines and loss of freedom for people who engage in consensual activities like gambling and prostitution, or who simply own a firearm without jumping through the hoops required by local law.

And I would be particularly outraged by the reinstatement of any sort of conscription, which is nothing better than a prettied-up version of slavery.

I don't think there's an obligation to obey the law just because it's the law. I do think that morality is separate from the law and has a higher claim on us than whatever rules the latest crop of legislators have seen fit to impose.

And I think that each of us has both a right and a duty to undermine laws that intrude on our rights and oppress our freedom.


U.S. government wastes 4,000 American lives

The count only includes American service people and Defense Department civilians: 4,000 dead since the war in Iraq began in March 2003. To that you can 175 Britons and 133 casualties from other U.S. allies.

And let's not forget the Iraqis themselves: 8,057 Iraq security forces and 40,935 civilians, according to conservative reports.

That's a lot of blood, and a lot of mourners for ... well ... what?

Yes, Saddam Hussein is out of power, and his secret police are gone, but the current relative freedom enjoyed by Iraqis is heavily dependent on a continued occupation by the U.S. and (decreasingly so) the U.K. What comes after coalition forces are inevitably withdrawn is anybody's guess.

Is Iraq really going to transform into a liberal democracy? You're probably better off hoping for a somewhat tolerant dictatorship, with a less-psychotic version of Saddam at the helm who only jails you if you directly challenge his power instead of torturing and murdering people who inadvertently antagonize members of his extended retinue.

That would be an improvement. Of a sort.


Friday, March 21, 2008

Perv police entrap suspects

Courtesy of Declan McCullagh at CNet's

The FBI has recently adopted a novel investigative technique: posting hyperlinks that purport to be illegal videos of minors having sex, and then raiding the homes of anyone willing to click on them.

You mean the feds can do that? They can crash through people's doors because they clicked on links that looked like they led to illegal material, but didn't?

Apparently so. CNet reviewed the law and found that courts have approved the technique. The feds can sit back, record the IP addresses of anybody who taps their mouse at the wrong moment, and then charge in with guns drawn.

McCullagh points out just where this sort of fishing expedition can lead (as if it hasn't led too far already):

The implications of the FBI's hyperlink-enticement technique are sweeping. Using the same logic and legal arguments, federal agents could send unsolicited e-mail messages to millions of Americans advertising illegal narcotics or child pornography--and raid people who click on the links embedded in the spam messages. The bureau could register the "" domain name and prosecute intentional visitors. And so on.

The judge presiding in one defendant's case even ruled that the possibility that one of his neighbors clicked on the link while connected to the Internet through his WiFi network "would not have negated a substantial basis for concluding that there was probable cause to believe that evidence of child pornography would be found on the premises to be searched."

That means that one surfer using a shared IP address over a network can bring down a world of trouble on anybody else using the same connection. That would seem to be a very common scenario, since many Internet providers use dynamic IP addresses (any of you techies tell me if I'm misinterpreting this scenario).

This is a bit reminiscent of last year's revelation that New York City police were planting purses in public view and arresting anybody who picked one up without immediately heading for the nearest cop -- with potential penalties of up to four years in prison.

It's obvious that we've reached a situation in which law-enforcement agencies feel perfectly justified in setting moral booby traps for the public at large -- and then raining damnation down on anybody who can be interpreted (even mistakenly) as making the wrong choice.

That's right -- life as a series of hidden tests, with prison time and humiliation the payoff for hesitation or a twitchy mouse finger.

Happy surfing. And be careful of what you pick up in public.

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Scottsdale cops play at stormtroopers

Via the Phoenix New Times (scroll down the page) comes word that police in upscale Scottsdale, Arizona, are continuously subjecting bar patrons to a dose of unwanted Eastern-bloc nostalgia.

Typically, the po-po show up on a Friday or Saturday after midnight, sometimes six to a dozen strong. They ask to speak with the owner, and inspect the joint's liquor license, employee log, fake ID log, and other records. They run through a checklist of liquor-related issues. And they prevent anyone from entering or exiting the premises. Sometimes the cops check customers' IDs, running them for warrants. ...

Most bar owners, citing fear of reprisals, would not talk to The Bird on the record.

Club Mardi Gras owner Jeffrey Chazen was the one exception. Chazen described how the bulls raided his saloon about 1 a.m. Sunday, March 9, during a performance by geezer rocker Barry "The Fish" Melton of Country Joe and the Fish fame.

"Why did they stop me from doing business and hold my people hostage?" wondered Chazen, adding, "The more I think about it, the more it rubs me the wrong way. I mean, if I held my customers for an hour, wouldn't that be kidnapping?" ...

As for the reports of customers being detained by Scottsdale cops, Clark equivocated in classic cop flack-ese.

"A typical bar check does not include the detention or seizure of any patrons," Clark claimed. "However, the officers may restrict customers from entering based on articulable officer safety concerns or in the furtherance of an investigation."

The AZ ACLU's legal director, Dan Pochoda, thinks differently.

"It's a Fourth Amendment violation of unreasonable seizure," said Pochoda. "Seizure is defined as when a person unreasonably isn't permitted to leave pursuant to the orders of law enforcement. That's exactly what's going on here."

Despite its western-individualist aspirations, Arizona is home to some truly bizarre police-state excesses -- and a population that often cheers the same. Maricopa County's Sheriff Joe Arpaio has made a hobby of egregious civil-liberties violations, including arresting members of the press who offend him. Nevertheless, his approval ratings remain north of 60%.

So Scottsdale's police department is just following local traditions.

But the Fourth Amendment, among other constitutional protections, is something of a tradition, too. That's something Scottsdale's Police Department might want to remember before it starts racking up Arpaio-sized legal settlements.

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San Tan Flat case goes national

The San Tan Flat case, in which the ruling politburo of Pinal County, Arizona, puts the screws to a popular bar and restaurant over dancing, draws national attention. Columnist George Will addresses the controversy in the pages of today's Washington Post.

The government of this fiefdom south of Phoenix claims that when it approved Dale Bell's blueprint for his Western-theme restaurant with an outdoor stage in an enclosed courtyard, it assumed the stage would be used for mimes or poetry readings. Mimes in Arizona scrubland? Poetry at the San Tan Flat Steakhouse and Saloon? The authorities were, they insist, shocked when country music broke out, and they are scandalized because some customers, not content to tap their feet to the Western beat while they eat, get up and dance.

Foot tapping is, so far, still legal in Pinal County. Outdoor dancing is not, at least at a dance hall, and Pinal says San Tan Flat morphs into one at certain points on certain evenings, when customers dance and Bell does not make them stop. He thinks the U.S. Constitution's protection of self-expression encompasses the right to (in the language of his brief to the county court) "sway, shuffle or even dance."

Pinal's harassment of Bell is a small provincial spat, but it illustrates two large themes of our national history. First, democracy requires judicial supervision to thwart the excesses of elected officials. Second, governments closest to the people are -- never mind what sentimentalists say -- often the worst. This is because elected tyrants can most easily become entrenched where rival factions are few.

Read the rest of Will's column here.

Check out some of my coverage of the case here.

And then share your sentiments about the issue with the obvious villains. 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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Arizona lawmakers vote to hike health insurance costs

Via Tom Jenney at the Arizona Federation of Taxpayers comes a warning about a move by the Arizona legislature to force insurance companies to cover the diagnosis and treatment of autism and autism-related disorders.

The passage of the [Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs)] mandate is a textbook example of the phenomenon known in public choice economics as Concentrated Benefits and Diffused Costs (CBDC).

Persons who stand to get a lot of money from a piece of legislation have a strong incentive to expend resources (mainly time and money) to lobby in favor of that legislation. Opposition to a piece of legislation tends to be very weak if the costs of the legislation are spread out thinly among taxpayers or consumers.

The ASD mandate will force insurance companies to pay up to $50,000 annually for behavioral therapy for children nine and younger, and $25,000 annually for older children. For families with children suffering from ASDs, that is a huge benefit. It is obvious why they would lobby vigorously for passage of the bill, and even participate in a candlelight vigil outside the Legislature.

At the same time, the costs of the ASD mandate (which may be around $50 annually per insured*) will be widely diffused. Insurance companies will pass on much of the costs to employers who buy insurance policies, and employers will pass on much of those costs to workers. Some workers will pay by losing out on wage increases, while others will pay by being unemployed.

But even if workers had known that the ASD mandate was moving through the Legislature, and that it would cost them real money, they would not have gone down to the Legislature to lobby in an effort to save themselves $50 a year. Such is the insidious nature of CBDC.

Jenney is right, but the danger he warns of isn't some hypothetical crisis of rising costs down the road -- it's been with us for years, and is partially responsible for the soaring health care costs everybody complains about, but which few people want to address in a realistic fashion.

Back in 1997, the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) engaged the actuarial firm Milliman & Robertson to estimate the costs created by government-mandated insurance coverage. At that time, wrote NCPA President John C. Goodman, "Although there were only seven state-mandated benefits in 1965, there are nearly 1,000 today. While many mandates cover basic providers and services, others require coverage for such nonmedical expenses as hairpieces, treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, pastoral and marriage counseling."

In its study, Milliman & Robertson found that "[t]aken together, the package of 12 mandates could increase the cost of a family health insurance policy by as much as 15 to 30 percent."

But that was 1997. How have mandates affected health insurance costs since then?

In 2005, the National Association of Health Underwriters (NAHU) revisited the territory covered by the NCPA. The NAHU's report (PDF), found that the "nearly 1,000" mandates found by the NCPA in 1997 had turned into "more than 1,800."

And costs? The NAHU said, "mandated benefits currently increase the cost of basic health coverage from a little less than 20% to more than 50%, depending on the state."

Mandates are insidious because there's always a good argument as to why any given condition or service should be covered by health insurance. Autism hits home for me, because one of my wife's cousins is autistic. I've seen just what a burden it places on the family of the afflicted. It's not easy to say that this condition should not be covered. But there's always another this condition to add to the growing list of mandates.

What other conditions?

For Arizona, according to the NAHU, there's ambulatory surgery, breast reconstruction, chiropractors, clinical trials, contraceptives, nurse midwives and so on, for a total of 28 mandates (as of 2005). Each of those mandates is strongly favored by a constituency that really wants access to coverage for a specific condition or provider, and each mandate adds just a little bit to health insurance costs.

But together they drive costs up, up and out of sight.

That's a problem, because costs play a big role in whether companies decide to provide their employees health insurance, and whether individuals can afford to obtain health insurance on their own. If employers drop insurance because costs skyrocket, there's a huge impact. The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas found in 2004 that "71 percent of the uninsured were employed either full-time or part-time during 2001–02."

According to the U.S. Census Bureau (PDF), with 29.3% of their ranks uninsured, young adults 18-24 years old are the least likely Americans to have any health coverage, followed by 25-34 year-olds at 26.9%. Young adults are less likely than older Americans or children to need the grab-bag of special services and providers increasingly mandated by governments. But that's all they can purchase right now; they either buy what they don't want (and can't afford) or they get nothing at all. Many of them would be well-served by bare-bones coverage, or at least the ability to shop for policies that cover only what they want covered, that provide for their care in the case of a serious accident or debilitating illness. Such coverage would be more affordable than what's required now.

That is, eliminating mandates would put health coverage within reach of more businesses and individuals than are reached by the buffet-style care now dictated by law.

Tom Jenney quotes Arizona state Sen. Jack Harper (R-Surprise), one of the few legislators to oppose the autism mandate, as saying:

I have never voted for an insurance mandate since I have been in this body. My first year in this body it was part of our majority agenda that we would not support insurance mandates because insurance costs were so sky high now because we have 20-plus insurance mandates. This particular one coming up makes me feel like a monster, but I still have to vote "no."

It's too bad that Sen. Harper feels like a "monster," because he's the one who voted to keep health insurance affordable and available. With their continued cheap votes to please a series of constituencies, the legislative majority manages to look like champions of the afflicted while guaranteeing that growing numbers of Arizonans will lose the ability to pay for health coverage.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Second Amendment decision could have perverse results

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard the arguments (PDF) in the case of D.C. v. Heller, it looks like a majority of the justices are leaning towards an individual-rights interpretation of the constitutional provision that would put the court in accord with most modern legal scholars, and everybody is awaiting the final decision.

But just what result are they hoping for?

The answer appears obvious: Advocates of the right to self-defense want the Second Amendment read as protecting an individual right, while opponents of civilian ownership of firearms want the amendment read as securing the states' right to organize militias, with no provision for individual gun ownership. Right?

Well, maybe. Perhaps the right question is what result should people be hoping for?

Gun-rights supporters certainly should be hoping for an explicit statement that the right to bear arms is protected as an individual right subject to protections equivalent to those provided for free speech. But they're not likely to get such a strong ruling. More likely, they'll get an affirmation of an individual right, but one subject to regulations of various severity supposedly linked to the government's interest in keeping the peace and enforcing laws, but really motivated by a desire to avoid too terribly offending the political powers-that-be.

This result, the likely one, is what gun control advocates should be hoping for -- not an absolute rejection of an individual right to bear arms.


Because if the Supreme Court rules that the Second Amendment is essentially a nullity from an individual rights perspective, the decision is likely to turn out to be the most effective marketing boost firearms manufacturers and gun rights organizations have ever seen. Panicked by the ruling, millions of Americans -- current gun owners as well as those who have put off firearms purchases -- will very likely flock to buy guns, ammunition and reloading supplies to make more ammunition in the future, just as they did in the wake of the Brady Bill and the now-expired "assault weapons" ban. In 1994, during the days leading up to President Clinton's signing the controversial bill restricting many popular rifles, the New York Times reported:

Although current sales have not approached the buying booms set off by passage of the Brady law on handguns last year or the House's first vote to ban assault weapons in May, handguns and assault-type weapons are selling briskly, gun dealers around the country said.

"Every time they mention the crime bill on the news, people come in," said Cesare Venegoni, assistant manager at Jim's Military Collectibles in Plano, Tex. "A lot of people are afraid they might not be able to have a gun. That fear has prompted them to buy one."

That will probably happen even in the absence of federal legislation to tighten restrictions on firearms ownership, and despite explicit state-level protections for the individual right to keep and bear arms.

Far from surrendering to a ruling stripping them of protection for their right to own the means of self-defense, Americans who prize that most politically charged of rights will dig in their heels and do their best to make the draconian laws they fear unenforceable. They'll become more adversarial toward gun control advocates and the government, and increasingly defiant toward any move they consider a step in the direction of disarmament.

The Geneva-based Small Arms Survey estimates (PDF) that American civilians currently own 270 million firearms. That's already a number far beyond the ability of any government to curtail in a significant way. Any further surge in firearms purchases will just make a mockery of whatever legislation gun-controllers might favor, while undermining support for the government by many Americans.

If, on the other hand, the Supreme Court takes the middle road by recognizing protections for an individual right, but allowing for substantial exceptions and conditions for that right, gun control advocates will get the largest measure possible of what they want. Confiscation will be off the table, most outright bans will become impossible, so gun owners will be less fearful of efforts to impose strictures on firearms use and ownership that just nibble around the edges. Gun controllers will probably still have the option of pushing for registration, permits and restrictions on concealed carry -- and they'll have a greater chance of success since the opposition will be less unified and resistant.

What? That's not enough?

Well, if you're a gun control advocate, that's the best you can hope for. Even in the current climate of a presumed individual right, California's 1989 law requiring registration of many rifles resulted in about 7,000 affected weapons of an estimated 300,000 in private hands in the state being reported to authorities. It's hard to believe that compliance could be lower, but it will be if the Supreme Court strips away protections for the right to bear arms, making advocates of civilian armament feel besieged.

Like it or not, significant changes in the way Americans own and use guns are simply out of the question. The question now is whether we get strong protections for an individual right, weak protections, or an attack on the concept of an individual right that perversely leaves Americans better armed and more divided than ever.


Obama speech can't mask phoniness

Barack Obama's speech on the Rev. Jeremiah Wright/Trinity United Church of Christ controversy was probably as good a presentation as he good have given under the circumstances. He separated himself from Wright's inflammatory and hateful comments without minimizing the valid concerns African-Americans have about racism and their ancestors' forced transportation to this country. That's quite a tightrope to walk, and I think he walked it without stumbling. He is, without doubt, a gifted orator.

But, excellent speech though it was, there are still important questions about what he's doing affiliated with an Afro-centric church whose pastor rails against whites and that teaches its parishioners as part of a Black Value System to "withstand warping by our racist competitive society" and to disavow "the pursuit of 'middleclassness'".

It never seemed likely that Barack Obama shared his pastor's bitter feelings or bizarre conspiracy theories. His life has been a relatively privileged one. His biological father was no victim of racism, but rather an economist who worked for an oil company before holding a senior position in the Kenyan government. Obama was raised in Indonesia and Honolulu, eventually graduating from Columbia University and earning a law degree at Harvard. Son of a black sharecropper he ain't.

So, what is he doing at Trinity?

The answer, to anybody who watches politicians, is obvious. Trinity is a huge church -- one of the largest in the Chicago area. Sitting in its pews, mixing with its parishioners and courting its pastor is an excellent way to build a base for seeking political office while appearing dutifully religious in this god-crazed country. Politicians play the religion card all the time, choosing the "right" congregation from which to build a political base and in which to appear dutifully faithful. They do this despite the fact that the deity worshipped by most office-seekers is raw power, and its church is government.

Obama probably shares the same private faith as most other politically ambitious Americans. But, like his peers, he professes the faith that he believes will serve him best.

Of course, membership in the Trinity United Church of Christ has become something of a liability, but that would have been hard to predict twenty years ago when Obama was embarking on his career. Just four years ago, he was a state senator from a district in Chicago with no reason to believe that association with Rev. Wright would prove a hindrance rather than a help. Nobody had yet had reason to dig into his associations, and he'd encountered few shots across the bow from local journalists or political opponents that would cause him to rethink his past decisions. Rising like a skyrocket can leave even the brightest politician scrambling to reinvent himself.

And reinvent himself is exactly what he's trying to do. He's jamming two decades worth of distancing, clarifying, hedging and providing context into a couple of speeches and interviews. And he's doing a damned good job.

But this process of reinventing in public view may undo him where spurious concerns about bigotry and cranky views could not. Obama's main attraction to-date has been the air of sincerity and freshness he exudes. Nobody is shocked that Hillary Clinton maintains a politically motivated marriage with a compulsive philanderer and switches accents depending on the audience she's addressing -- that's what we expect of a creature who so obviously lives for power. And John McCain's kicking one wife to the curb so he can marry a wealthier, better-connected woman is just old hat for a man who so obviously believes he's born to rule. But Obama draws crowds on the implicit promise that he's an idealist who cares about people and means what he says.

But the association with Trinity and Rev. Wright suggests a colder, more calculating man, one who's capable of choosing a church and tolerating the noxious beliefs of its pastor for political gain. Obama may seem so relatively untainted not because he's a better person than his opponents, but because his fast rise hasn't required the same long years of rolling in the muck and making terrible compromises required of virtually everybody else who has risen to high office -- and because the rolling and compromising he has done is only now surfacing.

All things being equal, Obama is no better or worse than the other major contenders for the presidency; he's much as they are.

But Clinton supporters and backers of McCain have made their peace with their chosen candidates' serious moral failings and deep cynicism; Obama's constituents flocked to him because they thought he was different. Can they maintain their enthusiasm for the candidate after discovering that he's as big a phony as the rest?

The coming weeks will tell.


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Renzi's woes a cause for amusement, not alarm

The member of the House of Representatives from my district is in deep trouble. On March 4, Rick Renzi pleaded "not guilty" on charges of wire fraud, insurance fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, extortion and money laundering. He's only been in office since 2002, so that's fast work, even by congressional standards. Usually it takes a couple of decades of favors and influence peddling before a politico can line up that impressive an indictment.

Local newspapers and good-government types are bemoaning the district's "lack of representation" in Congress resulting from Renzi's fall from whatever grace a politician can ever have. Renzi stepped down from his committee appointments after the FBI raided his insurance business last year. A couple of land swaps partially engineered by Renzi are stalled by the taint of his involvement. The scandal-dogged congressman falls dead last in's power rankings of federal lawmakers.

And really, I think the whole mess is pretty damned funny.

The reason I'm not troubled is that Rick Renzi never "represented" me in Congress. Oh sure, I live in CD1, the district from which he's been elected, but I don't agree with Renzi on many important issues. He's favored the bloody and pointless war in Iraq, opposed permitting stem cell research, he's a drug warrior and he favors the Patriot Act. On the other hand, he's moderate on immigration (which is a pleasure in these nativist times) and supports a quasi-free-market approach to health care, but basically he's been a butt boy for George W. Bush.

The fact that he's from the same geographically defined political jurisdiction as me is irrelevant. He can't represent me because we don't share the same beliefs.

This isn't a matter of sour grapes over the losses suffered by his Democrat opponents; they never could have represented me either. The three of them were, by and large, standard-issue "progressives" who favor government and group rights over individual liberty (Ellen Simon, the last opponent, has been portrayed as a civil libertarian, but she's made her legal bones pursuing high-profile "discrimination" cases of the sort that turn the workplace into a minefield).

To the extent that I'm represented in Congress at all, it's by people with whom I share significant common values, like libertarian-Republican Ron Paul, of Texas.

But really, the idea of representation is a foolish one. What sort of representation can one person provide for tens of thousands of ideologically diverse constituents with disparate priorities and preferences? At best, a politician can champion the temporary majority or (more likely) plurality view on any given issue, leaving opposing views without a voice in the halls of Congress. Opinions shift, though, and even the most craven politicians find it difficult to make 180-degree policy turns when poll results drift with the winds. Elections end up being little more than popularity contests won by some fortunate fool who enjoyed a surge of warm and fuzzy feelings on the right day and will therefore be able to put forward his or her views in the legislature to the exclusion of the opinions of large parts of the population.

I said that's at best, but maybe that's not true. Maybe it's better to have a thorough-going crook like Rick Renzi who reveals the system for the sad joke that it is and spends more of his time in lining his own pockets than in trying to inflict on us the sort of well-intentioned legislation true-believing authoritarians use to strip life of its joy.

Representation, that is to say, is nonsense.

So Renzi's self-inflicted difficulties leave me neither more nor less represented in Congress than I ever have been. They do, however, provide very enjoyable theater.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Slavery wins a round

Sad to say, but Bermuda's Chief Justice Richard Ground ruled earlier this month that slavery does, in fact, have a role to play in that island paradise. On March 7, Justice Ground rejected a challenge by 14 draftees to the conscription law used to fill the ranks of the Bermuda Regiment with unwilling troops. In his decision, Ground went so far as to note that the Bermuda Regiment had apparently made only one brief attempt to recruit volunteers in the previous six years, allowing that the military could rely on forcing young men into the ranks under threat of prison time as its principal recruitment tool.

Left unaddressed anywhere in the ruling were fundamental questions about the morality of compelling human beings into involuntary servitude.

Bermudians Against the Draft hasn't given up its fight. Spokesman Larry Marshall Sr. promises to appeal the case to the Privy Council in London. His organization has already begun lobbying visiting British dignitaries, pointing out that Bermuda is the only one of the U.K.'s foreign territories to continue to force unwilling people into uniform.

Bermuda's experience serves as an important caution to Americans half a decade into an unpopular war, with proposals for a military draft resurfacing as recruitment efforts fall short, and with presidential candidates continuously floating trial balloons about national service that might -- or might not -- end up being mandatory, depending upon which way the political winds blow.

Government officials are fond of scolding people for not "doing their part" or failing to live up to supposed "responsibilities" they have toward the state. How people somehow incurred these unwanted obligations is rarely if ever addressed -- for good reason. Government owe the people they supposedly serve respect for their rights, but people owe nothing in return but wariness for an institution that wields great power that it has a history of abusing. People from Bermuda to the U.S. and beyond need to be reminded that they owe nothing to their governments beyond continuous scrutiny and skepticism.

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Spurning creative destruction

You know what makes free markets work? It's the fact that people don't just enjoy the profits made possible by their good decisions, but also that they must shoulder the losses caused by their mistakes. Decisions must be, of necessity, tempered by the awareness of risk and potential failure. If the potential for failure is removed by, say, transferring responsibility for shouldering losses to a third party, then the moderating effects of risk are lost since only profits are possible from even the most fanciful ventures. The third party willingly or unwillingly taking the responsibility for losses then faces much higher costs than investors would if they took responsibility for their own decisions.

Which is why the Fed's bailout of Bear Sterns is such a monumentally bad idea. From the New York Times:

Hoping to avoid a systemic meltdown in financial markets, the Federal Reserve on Sunday approved a $30 billion credit line to engineer the takeover of Bear Stearns and announced an open-ended lending program for the biggest investment firms on Wall Street.

In a third move aimed at helping banks and thrifts, the Fed also lowered the rate for borrowing from its so-called discount window by a quarter of a percentage point, to 3.25 percent.

The moves amounted to a sweeping and apparently unprecedented attempt by the Federal Reserve to rescue the nation’s financial markets from what officials feared could be a chain reaction of defaults.

After a weekend of intense negotiations, the Federal Reserve approved a $30 billion credit line to help JPMorgan Chase acquire Bear Stearns, one of the biggest firms on Wall Street, which had been teetering near collapse because of its deepening losses in the mortgage market.

In a highly unusual maneuver, Fed officials said they would secure the loan by effectively taking over the huge Bear Stearns portfolio and exercising control over all major decisions in order to minimize the central bank’s own risk.

Creative destruction, folks, to use Joseph Schumpeter's excellent term. It's a "process of industrial mutation...that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one." When you remove the potential for destruction from the equation, you eliminate the discipline of the marketplace, and you don't get the benefits of creativity that arise from failure and the potential for failure. In this case, you remove the lessons to be learned about the wisdom of taking on such a large burden in the form of mortgage-backed securities, which largely proved to be Bear Stearns's undoing.

Why should investment companies temper their decisions with the awareness of risk when the example of Bear Stearns says that their failures will go unpunished? What creativity can possibly come of a world in which business decisions effectively have no downside? As the Times goes on to point out:

It was unclear just how much risk the Federal Reserve was taking on, especially in the bailout of Bear Stearns. But analysts said it was clear that JPMorgan Chase was getting an extraordinary bargain, buying Bear Stearns at a tiny fraction of its market value just one week ago, and with the Fed shielding it from much of the risk.

JPMorgan Chase may be getting a bargain, but it's a deal that's likely to prove pretty expensive to taxpayers and the economy in the long run. Letting Bear Stearns fail and requiring that its buyers take on its losses would have hurt some people in the short run, but it would have involved the kind of discipline that makes the economy healthier and wealthier for everybody over the long term.

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Arizona's reckoning day closer than expected

The nasty budget shortfall faced by Arizona's state government isn't getting any closer to a reasonable conclusion. With the economy slowing, the state just isn't filling its coffers as fast as expected, but government officials are still cutting checks as if there's no tomorrow. That's a problem, because tomorrow is coming along pretty fast. Reports the Arizona Republic:

The state's worsening revenue shortfall means the general fund will run out of cash it can legally spend earlier than the previous estimate of late May, State Treasurer Dean Martin said Thursday.

Martin said his office is fine-tuning its calculations and expects to project a new no-cash date by next week.

But he said the increased size of the current fiscal year's estimated shortfall - raised to $1.2 billion currently from $970 million most recently - likely moves up the date when there's no cash in the general fund to early May or even late April.

There's plenty of blame to share around among the usual suspects. As Republic columnist Robert Robb points out, "Gov. Janet Napolitano's approach to revenue crunches is to preserve spending as much as possible. Napolitano's preferred budget fixes are debt, draining the rainy day fund, and sweeping reserves in non-general fund accounts."

In A Comparison of State Spending Growth Under Arizona Governors, (PDF) a report Robb prepared for the Goldwater Institute in 2007, he wrote that adjusted spending increased during Napolitano's reign by 54%, well above the average of 40% inflicted on the state by her predecessors.

Using adjusted state general fund spending as the fairer comparison, spending during Napolitano’s term increased 13 percentage points more than personal income growth, compared to predecessors’ average of just over 1 percentage point. Napolitano’s rate of increase was equaled during the term shared by Evan Mecham and Rose Mofford, and was approached during Babbitt’s first term.

State spending growth under Napolitano stands out even more when compared to increases in population and inflation. Even with the adjustments, spending under Napolitano increased 29 percentage points more than population and inflation, compared to just 11 percentage points on average for her predecessors. The closest rival for increased spending was Babbitt’s second term, during which spending increased 17 percentage points faster than population and inflation.

But Napolitano isn't the queen of Arizona. She had plenty of help from state legislators -- Republican state legislators -- who collaborated with the governor to drive spending to booming heights in 2006 and 2007, when state government metastasized to exceed 6.5% (PDF) of the state economy. As always, excessive good-times expenditures can't be maintained when the economy cools down -- like now -- creating the need for quick retrenchment.

To give lawmakers credit, they did pass two budget freeze bills, both of which were promptly vetoed by the governor.

But the problem isn't going away just because Governor Napolitano finds it inconvenient to end the binge.

Americans for Prosperity has called for a firm spending limit of 6.4% of the state economy. That might rein in future rollercoaster rides, limiting spending in good times while softening the landing in bad times.

As the Goldwater Institute report makes clear, the state government has just been spending too much damned money, and now the credit card is maxed out. Like it or not, the state will pay the piper, one way or another.


Friday, March 14, 2008

Lessons in conflict resolution

I've had an old college friend and his family visiting from New York for the past few days. It's been enjoyable not just for the grownups, but for my 2 1/2-year-old son and my friend's 4-year-old daughter. The kids are excited to see new faces and have hit it off -- which has made bed time just a little challenging. So all the adults in the house were very happy when temper tantrums were done, pajamas were on, and the kids finally went down with their stuffed animals and began dreaming sweet toddler dreams.

And then, at 9:30pm, all hell broke loose in a roar of machinery and the glare of bright lights.

We've always gotten along just fine with the neighbors. We're very different people, but there was courtesy and respect shared both ways. But the neighbors moved to Oklahoma a few weeks ago and leased their acreage to new people who we don't know very well. But now we know the new folks aren't averse to cranking up a front-end-loader at an hour that's considered very late indeed in this rural area.

"What are you going to do?" my wife yelled over the racket.

"I'm going to tell Mike to shut off his goddamned machine," I yelled back.

"I'll back you up," my friend said -- a credible offer, since he's strong as an ox and built like a wall.

The new folks proudly fly a Confederate battle flag. I don't really care, though I'm a bit wary until I'm sure what they mean by that bit of cloth. But the stars and bars are an especially unwelcome symbol to my Jewish wife, which probably prompted her next comment.

"Will you take a gun?"

I paused.

"Sure." It couldn't hurt, I thought. My .357 wouldn't fit in my jacket pocket and my compact .45 was unloaded, so I grabbed my wife's .38 revolver and stuffed it under the leather flap of my old bomber.

I strolled across the yard, almost blind in the glare of the heavy machine's spotlight and deafened by the engine's roar. I was vaguely aware that my buddy accompanied me to the fence line, then waited at the gate where he could keep an eye on things as I went through.


No answer.


The engine cut off, the glare disappeared and peace returned to our little piece of paradise.

"I have two kids in bed over there," I said, pointing to my house. "It's a little too late to be running heavy machinery."

He looked startled.

"Oh. You're right, it is. Sorry about that. I just got home late and wanted to get this done."

"It's too late for that," I repeated.

"We can load this by hand," he said, pointing to some scrap metal left by his landlords and then to a huge disposal bin he had set up. His sons crowded around, obviously realizing that they had a little more manual labor to do than they'd planned.

"Thanks. I appreciate it."

And that was it. I went home, feeling a little silly for the revolver in my pocket, but glad that the matter had concluded so easily.

My friend's wife met us at the door.

"Wow," she said. "That was easy. I would have just called the cops."

I thought about that, and what it meant. As unhappy as I was to have to have to go over and ask the new neighbors to tone it down, I can think of nothing more certain to guarantee a confrontational relationship than siccing a sheriff's deputy on them within a week of their moving in.

I'd been afraid of an argument, but none was forthcoming. Instead, the matter was settled by a polite discussion. I had a gun in my pocket, just in case, but it proved to be entirely unnecessary.

But if I'd tried to "solve" the problem by summoning a uniformed, openly armed representative of the county government to browbeat the new neighbors into submission, I'd certainly have bred bad feelings and sparked something akin to a feud. Yet calling the cops had been the first reaction of the visiting New Yorkers.

In fact, calling the cops had been the reaction I'd considered normal when I'd been a New Yorker myself. I don't know whether that instinctive reaction causes much of the tension you see in New York-style life, or whether it just reflects attitudes that were already there, but it can't be healthy when people regularly summon armed troops to settle minor disputes.

That doesn't mean that things are entirely hunky dory out here under the open sky. I still want to know what that Confederate flag is all about. If it means nothing more than "leave me alone," well, that's cool. But, if it means my neighbors are racists, I'm not about to go running off to some official office to settle my concerns.

Nope, if I have the hoods-and-crosses set living next door, I'll just host a few friendly NAACP picnics or Obama fundraisers. That's the neighborly way of standing your ground.

And it's a peaceful way of dealing with folks who are reasonable enough to stop making noise when you ask them nicely.


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Tasered motorist case settled

Jared Massey, who sparked a heated debate over police conduct after he posted on YouTube a video of himself being tasered for asking questions during a minor traffic stop, will receive $40,000 from the state of Utah.

The settlement constitutes a bit of vindication for Massey, but it's probably not enough to truly deter authorities from similar hijinks in the future. The officer in the case, Jon Gardner, seems to have suffered no consequences other than brief administrative leave and "training in conflict resolution," whatever that is.


New drug panic

I don't know much about salvia divinorum, except some rumors I heard during my more experimental days that the stuff can give you a pretty nasty high. That impression is reinforced by the entry over at Erowid, which says, "Its effects are considered unpleasant by many people." That makes it an unlikely candidate for reaching a wide audience of pleasure-seekers.

Nevertheless, the hallucinogen seems to be the panic-fueling drug of the moment, billed as the "next marijuana." (A hallucinogen is the next marijuana? How?) Florida is on the verge of banning the stuff because ... well, just because, as far as I can tell.

Other states are also considering criminalizing salvia divinorum after "[o]ne teen in Delaware killed himself because of Salvia" according to one report.

Ummm ... what? He killed himself because of the drug? Please explain.

To its credit, the Associated Press has a much clearer summary of the story.

In the Delaware suicide, the boy's mother told reporters that salvia made his mood darker but he justified its use by citing its legality. According to reports, the autopsy found no traces of the drug in his system, but the medical examiner listed it as a contributing cause.

So salvia divinorum wasn't even in his body when he killed himself, but he'd used it in the past, so the ME made a very tenuous link.

And thus is a modern urban legend born: salvia divinorum killed a kid in Delaware!

Mike Strain, a former Louisiana state legislator who pushed to outlaw salvia in his state, argues, "You don't make everybody happy when you outlaw drugs. You save one child and it's worth it."

But when police start arresting users and raiding dealers, and somebody gets shot by a pumped-up narc, will it still be "worth it?"


Monday, March 10, 2008

Learning to love the tax man

Every year, as we approach tax day, we are subject to a round of scolding OpEds telling us how lucky we are to be paying such a sizable chunk of our income to support such a wonderful government. Peter L. Bernstein was ahead of the rush with his February 10 missive in the New York Times admonishing us:

We should have a sense of reward for helping to finance government. Yes, I know that government has serious faults, many and varied. But if we were to restrict our check-writing to parties without serious faults, we might as well throw away the checkbook.

Bernstein wins extra Pollyanna points for citing Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.'s over-used comment that "[t]axes are the price we pay for civilization" without pointing out how the size of government in the 1920s compares with the metastasized modern product or giving equal time to Holmes's point that "[s]tate interference is an evil, where it cannot be shown to be a good."

Whenever I see a column like Bernstein's I wonder if, perhaps, the author is blowing the head of the local IRS office, or just owes the tax collectors a favor. I'll be charitable, though, and assume that Bernstein is sincere in his claim that "[p]aying taxes is the only way to have public goods that benefit all of us."

Let's look at the examples that Bernstein believes are so worthy of our support.

We want an army to defend our country, but who will stand up and say, “O.K., I will take on the army as my personal responsibility”? Who would even want such an arrangement?

The same arguments apply to the local police departments around the nation. Or, when it comes to education, can anybody expect me to pay on my own for the schooling of millions of other people’s children across the country? I spent plenty to educate my own children. We have to do this together as taxpayers.

Would that be the same army that is currently deployed to Iraq, occupying a country where it is unwelcome, killing and being killed, all to the tune of some $500 billion to $3 trillion?

I could skip that, thank you. How about (to be moderate) we replace it with a militia and, maybe, a small professional navy and air force? That would get us that all-important defense at much lower cost. I'm not sure what the savings would be, but I'll bet it would shave a few bucks off my tax bill (and keep a few folks out of the cold, cold ground).

Local police departments? Those would be the law-enforcement agencies acquiring military-style tactics, weapons and attitudes for use against the common citizens of these United States -- mostly to enforce a doomed and oppressive effort to prohibit certain disfavored intoxicants. Too many professional law-enforcers carry over their army-of-occupation attitudes to even the most trivial encounters with the people they supposedly protect.

You can pull that from my bill too.

Education? That means the public schools, right? Oh no. Not the floundering, politicized holding pens that could be so much worse if they weren't so thoroughly incompetent. That's a pity about the government schools' complete inability to reverse declining literacy despite sky-rocketing per-pupil expenditures. Yeah, that's tempting, but I think I'd rather teach my kid ... ummm ... any other way.

Strike that line on the tax bill too.

To his credit, Bernstein allows that "entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, or even unemployment insurance" and farm subsidies are maybe not so clearly deserving of tax support. He admits that there are grounds for debate here, unlike over the war, drug prohibition and compulsory illiteracy line items. That's kind of him, but perhaps a bit short of admitting that the whole subject of a tax-subsidized leviathan legitimately rubs many of us the wrong way.

In fact, Bernstein goes on to concede that "[m]uch government spending on public goods involves waste, and sometimes corruption, and is often badly executed." Well, yes, that's true. That's a big part of why many of us would prefer to choose our own services and pay for them directly. If somebody we hire falls down on the job, we can fire them without much fuss or muss. If we try to withhold payment from the IRS over the poor quality or unwanted nature of what we receive ... well ... things get unpleasant.

I think it's charming that Mr. Bernstein is so pleased with what he's receiving in return for his annual mugging. Taking pleasure in your abuse makes the whole experience so much more pleasant. In a sick way.

But we don't all feel that way. Many of us see what's taken from our paychecks, compare that to what's being done with the money, and bitterly resent the involuntary transaction. It's not just that we're left with so little money to seek superior alternatives; we also often actively oppose the things being done with our tax dollars.

I see little relief on the horizon, though. With the Congressional Budget Office projecting that federal expenditures will rise from roughly 18% of GDP today to almost 40% of GDP in 2075 -- mostly because of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid -- high(er) taxes are bound to be with us for a while.

That's why I hold out such high hope for rising noncompliance with the tax laws and the growing underground economy. I suspect that living in the shadows is going to become an increasingly attractive proposition in the years to come.


Eliot Spitzer sullies prostitutes with his presence

It couldn't happen to a nicer guy bigger prick.

New York Governor Eliot Spitzer who, among his many crusades against mere mortals, enthusiastically prosecuted those engaged in the victimless crime of providing sex for money, has been named as a client of Emperors Club VIP, a high-price prostitution ring.

I personally have nothing against prostitution. As a consensual activity among adults, it's nobody's business but that of providers and clients. If Spitzer were a live-and-let live kind of guy, his patronage of prostitutes wouldn't matter worth a damn.

Alan Dershowitz tried to make that point on MSNBC a few minutes ago -- that this is a made-in-America scandal that wouldn't make the newspapers in Europe. He'd be right if Spitzer weren't such a sanctimonious creep who has made a career of taking the moral high ground in public while doing whatever he damned well pleases behind the scenes.

As governor of New York, Spitzer was caught using the state police to spy on state senate majority leader Joseph Bruno, a political enemy of the ambitious Spitzer. Clearly, he considers himself above the rules that apply to the rest of us. So it comes as no surprise that he's capable of prosecuting some sex providers while paying cash for services rendered to their competitors.

Hmmm. That raises a possibility ... Was Spitzer doing favors for his favorite pimps and madams by engaging in a little selective prosecution?

Oh, what a wonderful scandal.

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Reality check on Cuba

What happens when a Cuban-American stages an unvarnished play about life in the Caribbean dictatorship? She runs up against a wall of denial about the island.

Ms. Peláez, a Cuban-American actress, was born in this country and raised in Miami. She came to New York in 1993 to study acting. In the mid-’90s, she traveled to Cuba to explore the world of her great-aunt, Amelia Peláez, a noted painter who died in 1968. All those experiences pulse through “Rum & Coke,” a one-woman show in which she channels relatives on both sides of the Florida Straits and weary Habaneros stuck on an island forgotten by the outside world.

The play was her retort to the fascination with Che T-shirts, solidarity tours to Cuba and the endless praise of the revolution’s twin pillars of health and education.

“When I started writing the play, I thought people just didn’t know what was happening in Cuba,” she said after the show closed its monthlong New York run last week. “But the longer I live here, the more I realized, they don’t care.” ...

“They would rather keep their little pop revolution instead of saying it is a dictatorship,” Ms. Peláez said. “I had somebody come to me after a show and say, ‘Don’t ruin Cuba for me!’ Well, why not? They’re holding on to a fantasy.”

More here from the New York Times about the disconnect Cuban refugees find between the reality that they know and the fantasies that many "progressive" Americans insist on maintaining.

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Friday, March 7, 2008

Dibor Roberts to go to trial

Dibor Roberts, the woman accosted by Yavapai County, Arizona, sheriff's Sergeant Jeff Newnum on a dark country road, will go to trial on April 23, 24, and 25. She is charged with felony counts of resisting arrest and unlawful flight from a law officer. "Resisting arrest" apparently consisted of not submitting fast enough when Newnum smashed her window and dragged her from her car. (Note: I now have a copy of the police report, and Newnum's actions don't get any prettier when rendered in his own words.)

The county is under pressure in this case, facing unaccustomed protests and public scrutiny. That may have been the prosecution's motivation for offering to reduce the charges to misdemeanors if Roberts agreed to a guilty plea. Roberts declined.

That's a rare and courageous move on the part of Dibor Roberts -- to stand by her innocence and risk a potential felony conviction. Nationally, only 5 percent to ten percent of defendants plead not guilty. Most accept a deal and go straight into the system. Note, that doesn't mean that 90 percent to 95 percent of the accused are necessarily guilty. As law Prof. Stephen Schulhofer told PBS:

The major problem with plea bargaining is that it forces the party into a situation where they have to take a guess about what the evidence is, about how strong the case might be, and they have to make that guess against the background of enormously severe penalties if you guess wrong. So defendants, even if they have strong defenses, and even if they are innocent, in fact face enormous pressure to play the odds and to accept a plea. And the more likely they are to be innocent, and the more strong their defenses are, the bigger discount and the bigger benefits the prosecutor will offer them. Eventually at some point it becomes so tempting that it might be irresistible, especially when the consequences of guessing wrong are disastrous.

The "discount" the prosecution offered Dibor Roberts was substantial -- misdemeanor convictions with far less serious ramifications than felony convictions, which can result in substantial prison time as well as potential loss of some civil rights. It seems the county wants this case to go away, but without losing face.

Of course, if County Attorney Sheila Polk really wants this case to go away, she could just instruct her people to drop all charges.

Let's help her make that decision by leaning on her a little bit. Let Ms. Polk know that the public scrutiny isn't going to disappear. County Attorney Sheila Polk's office can be reached by phone at:

(928) 771-3344

Or by snail mail:

255 East Gurley Street
Prescott, AZ 86301

Read more about this case here.

Dibor Roberts and her husband Merrill tell their tale on their Website here.

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All the world's a (smoky) stage

From Minnesota, via the Associated Press:

A new state ban on smoking in restaurants and other nightspots contains an exception for performers in theatrical productions. So some bars are getting around the ban by printing up playbills, encouraging customers to come in costume, and pronouncing them "actors."

Customers are apparently pretty enthusiastic about the clever workaround. They're wearing wild outfits, staging skits, putting on accents and -- most important -- they're going to the bars that are using the loophole.

Proving anew there's no business like show business, Anderson said her theater-night receipts have averaged $2,000 - up from $500 right after the ban kicked in. Similarly, Bauman said revenue at The Rock dropped off 30 percent after the ban took effect, then shot back up to normal once the bar began allowing smoking again.

I don't expect the "theatrical productions" will be a long-term solution; legislators will, no doubt, tighten the law as best they can, and enforcers will simply start citing bars, no matter what the law says.

But the costumed rebellion, replete with enthusiastic customers happily puffing on their cigarettes, makes it clear that there is a strong constituency for allowing bars and their patrons to work out their own smoking rules. When bars are packed to the rafters with happy scofflaws, lawmakers can't claim to be doing patrons any favors.

Of course, prohibitionists have stumbled across that little hurdle to their efforts, so they've largely abandoned claims to be helping bar and restaurant customers, and now claim to be the friends of the waiters and bartenders. The American Lung Association makes that argument explicitly on its Web page dedicated to the glories of the smoke-free workplace.

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

Nobody, however, seems to have asked the workers whether they want or need protection. Some are smokers themselves, many certainly appreciate the tips that come with a room full of happy customers and those most offended by smoke are unlikely to take work in a smoky establishment to begin with.

So we're left with laws intended to prevent people from smoking, sponsored and passed by intolerant folks who aren't subject to the effects of the practice themselves, but who are apparently offended that anybody could want to indulge in the vice.

Who's acting out now?

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Is it too late to nominate George McGovern?

Former senator George McGovern has become a more-interesting figure over the course of the years since his 1972 run for the presidency. It seems that actual experience in business (an inn), laboring under the burdens imposed by government, has given him a new appreciation of the unintended consequences inherent in intrusive laws and regulations. Coupled with his already strong appreciation for a restrained foreign policy (he was the peace candidate in '72), it has to leave you wishing there was a way to draft him for the Democratic nomination.

Anyway, here's what he has to say in today's Wall Street Journal:

Under the guise of protecting us from ourselves, the right and the left are becoming ever more aggressive in regulating behavior. Much paternalist scrutiny has recently centered on personal economics ...

Why do we think we are helping adult consumers by taking away their options? We don't take away cars because we don't like some people speeding. We allow state lotteries despite knowing some people are betting their grocery money. Everyone is exposed to economic risks of some kind. But we don't operate mindlessly in trying to smooth out every theoretical wrinkle in life.

The nature of freedom of choice is that some people will misuse their responsibility and hurt themselves in the process. We should do our best to educate them, but without diminishing choice for everyone else.

The whole column is worth a read.

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Thursday, March 6, 2008

TV writers endorse jury nullification

What happens when you spend years writing about gritty life in an old-line city like Baltimore, and the tribulations visited on everyday people by the prohibition of certain disfavored intoxicants? If you're smart, you turn against the war on drugs and defect to the opposition. Five television writers, Ed Burns, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Richard Price and David Simon, for The Wire, HBO's acclaimed crime drama, penned an OpEd for Time magazine denouncing drug laws.

[F]or five seasons, we answered lamely, offering arguments about economic priorities or drug policy, debating theoreticals within our tangled little drama. We were storytellers, not advocates; we ducked the question as best we could.

Yet this war grinds on, flooding our prisons, devouring resources, turning city neighborhoods into free-fire zones. To what end? State and federal prisons are packed with victims of the drug conflict. A new report by the Pew Center shows that 1 of every 100 adults in the U.S. — and 1 in 15 black men over 18 — is currently incarcerated. That's the world's highest rate of imprisonment.

Just as important, the authors announced their own plans for undermining prohibitionist efforts. And they call on readers to join them.

If asked to serve on a jury deliberating a violation of state or federal drug laws, we will vote to acquit, regardless of the evidence presented. Save for a prosecution in which acts of violence or intended violence are alleged, we will — to borrow Justice Harry Blackmun's manifesto against the death penalty — no longer tinker with the machinery of the drug war. No longer can we collaborate with a government that uses nonviolent drug offenses to fill prisons with its poorest, most damaged and most desperate citizens.

Jury nullification is American dissent, as old and as heralded as the 1735 trial of John Peter Zenger, who was acquitted of seditious libel against the royal governor of New York, and absent a government capable of repairing injustices, it is legitimate protest. If some few episodes of a television entertainment have caused others to reflect on the war zones we have created in our cities and the human beings stranded there, we ask that those people might also consider their conscience. And when the lawyers or the judge or your fellow jurors seek explanation, think for a moment on Bubbles or Bodie or Wallace. And remember that the lives being held in the balance aren't fictional.

I've written often about both the immorality and the failures of efforts to criminalize people's politically incorrect taste in cocktails. I've also mentioned jury nullification -- the right of jurors to judge the laws as well as the facts, and to render a "not guilty" verdict even in defiance of the law if they believe the law to be unjust or improperly applied.

But I don't have the reach of Time magazine or of TV writers; it's a pleasure to see new names join the fight, and lend their stature to the cause.

Jury nullification has enormous potential as a powerful tool for defanging the government's efforts to enforce many of its more obnoxious and intrusive laws. There's also evidence that the tactic is in wider use than is often credited. In 1999, the Washington Post wrote:

The most concrete sign of the trend is the sharp jump in the percentage of trials that end in hung juries. For decades, a 5 percent hung jury rate was considered the norm, derived from a landmark study of the American jury by Harry Kalven Jr. and Hans Zeisel published 30 years ago. In recent years, however, that figure has doubled and quadrupled, depending on location. Some local courts in California, for example, have reported more than 20 percent of trials ending in hung juries. Federal criminal cases in Washington, D.C., averaged 15 percent hung juries in 1996 (the most recent year for which data were available), three times the rate in 1991.

A hung jury is simply one in which the 12 men and women around the table disagree over whether to convict or acquit. But judges, lawyers and others who study the phenomenon suspect that more and more differences are erupting not over the evidence in these cases, but over whether the law being broken is fair.

Very little has appeared in the popular press since that article about jury nullification, but I suspect that's no accident. If juries are rebelling in increasing numbers, as the Post suggested, it's unlikely that judges and prosecutors want to advertise the fact, and further encourage opponents of various intrusive and oppressive laws to take their battles into the courtrooms. Many advocates of jury nullification lament the supposed failure of their efforts to take root in the public imagination. I suspect that they're underrating their success. I think nullification has become fairly widespread, and the powers-that-be are desperate to downplay the threat.

I hope I'm right. And I hope The Wire writers help to spur interest in a powerful tool for hobbling government efforts to continue the brutal and oppressive drug war, as well as other laws that violate individual rights and offend jurors' consciences.

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Gun control inevitable? Not likely

An interesting article in the Virginian-Pilot discusses the tendency of many Virginians to respond to incidents like the Virginia Tech shooting by pushing for looser firearms laws and public carry of weapons rather than (as many newspaper editors would prefer) stricter controls or outright confiscation. Jarringly, though, the article includes this peek into the editors' heart of hearts:

Others who have studied the issue think urbanization will eventually swing the pendulum toward more gun control. Out in the country, firearms represent a way of life; in the city, they represent crime. As rural interests lose political power, the strongest gun supporters won't have as much say...

Ah yes, demographic inevitability, the last refuge of political losers.

But that odd little statement is more than an ideological wish-upon-a-star; it's a window into an odd sort of political theology, and a massive misunderstanding of how the world works.

First of all, there's the strange idea that urbanization necessarily dictates a change in attitudes toward guns. Often, that's so, but it's not inevitable. In my experience, the cities of Arizona are as well and happily armed as the rest of the state, and that's true throughout much of the West.

Then there's the peculiar delusion that, even if urbanization does shift attitudes, 50 percent plus one is a form of political alchemy that anoints with righteousness (and effectiveness) any dominant faction's efforts to dictate terms to the minority. Philosophically, the whole idea is suspect; are 49 people really bound to bow down to 51, just because? And practically, history has shown raw majoritarianism to be a non-starter. Minorities that don't want to give up a valued practice, lifestyle or possession simply don't submit to the law. Majorities have, time and again, been thwarted on efforts to raise taxes, ban alcohol, outlaw drugs, criminalize sodomy or otherwise alter the behavior of any significant portion of the population unwilling to be so altered.

But we're talking about guns, so let's look at the success -- or lack thereof -- of gun laws around the world.

In Gun Control and the Reduction in the Number of Arms (PDF), Dr. Franz Csaszar, professor of criminology at the University of Vienna, wrote in 2000:

Non-compliance with harsher gun laws is a common event. In Australia it is estimated that only about 20% of all banned self-loading rifles have been given up to the authorities. ...

Following the restriction in 1983 of certain "military-style" rifles in Canada, the compliance rate was estimated as between 3 and 20% for different models. ...

In Austria in 1995 pump-action shotguns were prohibited. While new acquisition is next to impossible since then, already legally held guns could only be kept on a special permit. Out of an original stock estimated at 60 000 guns, only 10 557 have been either surrendered or registered. As the estimate on imports covers only the last ten years, total legal imports must certainly have been even higher.

Actually, I think Dr. Csaszar is being unduly generous to the Australian government over the success of the 1996 ban. Three years after Australians surrendered 643,000 semiautomatic rifles and pump-action shotguns, Inspector John McCoomb, head of the Queensland Weapons Licensing Branch, publicly admitted defeat.

"About 800,000 (semi-automatic and automatic) SKK and SKS weapons came in from China back in the 1980s as part of a trade deal between the Australian and Chinese governments," Insp McCoomb said. "And it was estimated that there were 1.2 million semi-automatic Ruger 10/22s in the country. "That's about 2 million firearms of just two types in the country."

I very much doubt that compliance surpassed ten percent.

Dr. Csaszar emphasizes, "the effects of changes in legislation which is to reduce the number of already legally owned guns depends on whether the existing stock has been already registered." So, is registration an effective way to go? Can you sidle into tougher laws by first getting an accurate tally of who has what?

Dr. Csaszar again:

In Germany the general registration of long guns was enforced in 1972. The existing stock was estimated at between 17 and 20 millions, while only 3,2 million guns have been registered within the legally set period. In England out of an estimated stock of 300 000 legally acquired semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns, it would appear that fewer than 100 000 have been registered. In Austria the registration of "C" category rifles of EC nomenclature (any type except semi-automatic) was enacted in 1996. It is estimated that between 500 000 and 1 million rifles have been registered, while the existing stock has been estimated at about 2 to 3 millions.

For a more U.S.-specific example, there's a New York Times report on the success of California's 1989 law requiring registration of many rifles.

Nine days before the deadline, thousands of Californians are defying a ground-breaking state requirement that they register their military-style semiautomatic guns. ...

As a one-year registration period draws toward an end on Dec. 31, only about 7,000 weapons of an estimated 300,000 in private hands in the state have been registered. This non-compliance has virtually nullified the first step of a March 1989 law that set the pattern for similar attempts to limit ownership of assault rifles in other states and in Washington.

OK. But most gun control advocates don't favor total confiscation, and they're willing to slowly work their way toward tighter rules. How about ... just making the process of obtaining permits and licensing weapons so annoying that people give up?

Says Dr. Csaszar:

[I]n Austria the costs involved in obtaining a license for "B"-category guns (mostly handguns), including psychological screening and a basic firearms instruction, are already higher than the price of a quite serviceable handgun on the black market. This is a strong incentive for illegal acquisition even without criminal intent. Although no one would doubt the benefits of checking the personal character and the technical knowledge of a prospective gun owner, one invariably has to accept that there are also disadvantages.

The overall effects of such defiance can be impressive. In 2005, the Greek government estimated that the country's 11 million people own 1.5 million illegal guns. Britain's National Criminal Intelligence Service estimates that the country's 60 million people own as many as four million illegal guns. The German police union and the Forum Waffenrecht, a gun rights group, both peg the number of illegal firearms owned by Germany's 82 million people at 20 million.

So we're not just talking about some small criminal fringe defying the law. If Germans hold enough illegal guns to arm every fourth person, it's a sizable chunk of the population that's flouting the law by keeping millions of guns in circulation.

But maybe that's sufficient. After all, some guns are taken out of circulation, some guns are registered, and, we've "sent a message." Is that enough to declare victory?

Well ... enough for what?

Do you just want to reduce the number of firearms in civilian hands? The latest estimate by the Small Arms Survey is that American civilians own some 270 million firearms (PDF). Even assuming that gun control advocates actually do want full-on confiscation (a position I believe to be held only by the hardest of the hard core), the 20 percent compliance rate estimated for the Australian gun confiscation of 1996 by Dr. Csaszar would bring stockpiles down to 216 million guns -- all illegally held by tens of millions of deliberately defiant owners. Is that what's going to make you sleep better at night?

Well ... maybe you want to reduce crime. Will even partial compliance have that effect? Don't count on it. Australia's Courier Mail reported in 2006:

And while legal gun ownership is on the rise, illegal use of firearms is not decreasing, despite an initial decline following the introduction of restrictive laws in 1996.

The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show the number of robberies involving weapons across the nation is the same as it was five years ago.

The number of abductions involving weapons is higher, and while there has been a fall in firearm murders, more than a quarter of attempted murders involved guns.

Bond University criminologist Paul Wilson said: "There are indications guns are being used illegally more than a few years ago, and a stark look needs to be taken into whether firearm laws are losing their effectiveness."

Britain's The Independent had similar news in 2005:

UK gun crime might not rival that of the US, but the problem is frightening and growing. There were more than 10,000 offences in England and Wales involving the use of firearms in 2003-04. Weapons such as Brococks were used in 2,150 offences, an increase of 18 per cent on the previous year.

Also on the rise is the number of victims shot: 440 people were seriously wounded by firearm in 2003-04, up five per cent on the previous year.

Even when handguns were banned, only around 3,000 of the 100,000 believed to have been in private hands before May 2004 have been handed in for destruction. The other 97,000 have disappeared.

That's no shocker. As Dr. Csaszar points out:

[A]fter the reduction in the number of legally held guns it would appear that there is not a comparable decrease in armed crime. This is to be expected, as the guns turned in are usually not the ones involved in crime, and the people who turn in weapons are generally the least likely to commit a crime.

Laws do have effects, but they're not always those intended by their authors. Targeting any group has the effect of putting that group into an adversarial relationship with the government and with law enforcement. Australia's Inspector McCoomb made the point in 1999 that resistance had now hardened among gun owners, saying, "The perception in the shooting community is that 'if you know all about my guns, you'll soon take them all off me'."

And those guns don't remain frozen in place. They're traded and supplemented by smuggled and illegally manufactured weapons. A black market is created or expands, controlled (by definition) by criminals.

A personal note here: Until 1999, when I moved to the very different legal climate of Arizona, I represented the third generation of firearms scofflaws in my family. For over half a century, Tuccilles cheerfully disregarded New York's draconian gun permit and registration laws. My family's outlaw status may have gone back further in time, since I simply don't know whether or not my great-grandfather was armed. The situation reached a pinnacle of absurdity in the mid 1990s when I applied for a New York City pistol permit so I could legally shoot at a range. My background was checked, my fingerprints taken, my wallet lightened -- all while I had an illegal "assault weapon" purchased on the sly stashed in my East Village apartment.

I could only smile one day at police headquarters when, after an extended session of sullen, systematic abuse intended to dissuade all us permit applicants, one man stood up, loudly vowed to purchase a gun illegally, and stalked out of the room.

Amen, brother.

So, will urbanization bring about a shift in public attitudes easing the way for tighter gun control laws?


Will the passage of new and tighter laws be effective?

Only if you want to alienate millions of Americans from the government, increase contempt for the law, breed black markets and, potentially, increase the crime rate.

If I haven't made it clear yet, I don't think that firearms are a special case in this regard. By and large, societies are not the malleable molding clay to be shaped by legislation that "reformers" would have us believe. Societies are more like balloons; squeeze in one spot, and they bulge elsewhere. Whatever your particular cause, reshaping the world you live in solely by the force of law is a thankless, and probably impossible, task.

Even if that spells doom for your particular concern, you might take heart in that lesson. Who wouldn't rather live in a world of stubborn people who insist on making their own decisions, rather than one populated by drones who simply do what t hey're told?

That may mean you don't get to remake the world to do your bidding. But it also means that people who want to remake you won't get their way either.

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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Fun with E-verify

Over at Coyote Blog, Arizona businessman Warren Meyer details his state-mandated venture into the federally run E-verify system for determining the employment status of new hires. The dual-jurisdiction issue leads to some ... err ... interesting problems with conflicting rules.

Right now, I am going through a 6000 screen required tutorial that I have to endure before I can use a system that requires me to fill in about 3 blanks and hit enter.  (Of course, since this is a government system, the tutorial has already crashed twice three five times and I have had to restart it each time).  Somewhere in the midst of the training, I reach this admonition:

You may not discriminate against applicants and employees based upon their citizenship or immigration status with respect to hiring, firing, or recruitment or referral for a fee. This includes treating citizens and non-citizens differently during the hiring process, such as screening out non-citizens or not hiring lawful immigrants based upon their immigration status.

WHAT?  Personally, I am all for living by this, but isn't this EXACTLY what the law is requiring me to do?  To discriminate against people, and ban my hiring of them, based on their immigration status?  How can I possibly keep my actions legal if I am required to discriminate based on citizenship status but I am also banned from discriminating in hiring based on citizenship status.  How Orwellian can we get?

More on Arizona's experiment with xenophobia enacted through business regulations here.

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Mueller says FBI continues abuses

FBI Director Robert Mueller sat down before the Senate Judiciary Committee (incomplete testimony, minus the juicy bits here), and he continued the ongoing saga of his agency's abuse of the powers it has been delegated. According to the Associated Press:

The FBI improperly used national security letters in 2006 to obtain personal data on Americans during terror and spy investigations, Director Robert Mueller said Wednesday.

This comes after an Inspector General's testimony and report detailing similar abuses of authority earlier in the decade -- national security letters featured prominently in the earlier scandal too.

While Mueller's testimony produces no revelations, it does provide ample evidence that FBI violations of civil liberties aren't occasional missteps -- they're a chronic problem. Year after year, as the 2007 report (PDF) revealed, the feds improperly use their powers "to obtain information from third parties, such as telephone companies, financial institutions, Internet service providers, and consumer credit agencies. In these letters, the FBI can direct third parties to to provide customer account information and transactional records, such as telephone toll billing records." Each time, FBI leaders promptly promise to reform practices and make sure due-process requirements and Americans' privacy rights are respected in the future -- and then off we go to the next round of reports and hearings.

It should be clear by now that government officials can't be trusted with the kind of power they've been given. If the same powers are abused year in and year out, then those powers need to be taken away and increased oversight has to be put in place. We'll probably still get violations of rights under a regime of reduced authority, but those violations will be less dangerous and more easily revealed than the tens of thousands of national security letters that have flown around the country in recent years under current law.

As I pointed out in an earlier post:

"A Review of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Use of National Security Letters" (PDF) points out that the use of these letters soared from 8,500 in 2000 (before the Patriot Act) to 39,000 in 2003, 56,000 in 2004, and 47,000 in 2005. Each letter may contain more than one request for information, so even those figures understate the matter.

As matters stand now, are we really any safer because the FBI can't keep its prying eyes out of our personal business? Or are we just under the nosy stares of an agency staffed with tax-funded voyeurs?

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Democratic slugfest continues

From a political theater perspective, the second-best possible result prevailed last night when Hillary Clinton won three out of four primaries, including the two biggies in Ohio and Texas, and regained momentum for her campaign. The best result would have been if Mike Huckabee had won all the Republican primaries and kept the battle going for both major parties.

But I'll take what I can get.

This means that Clinton and Barack Obama will spend the ... weeks? months? ... to come battering each other, making scandalous accusations, sucking donors dry and otherwise hammering each other like the power-hungry gladiators they are.

Oh, what glorious sport.

I actually have nothing more -- or less -- against Clinton and Obama than I do against John McCain, but for an antigovernment guy like me, there's pure joy to be had in watching one of the state-obsessed major political parties engage in virtual civil war, fraying and splitting at the seams all the while.

I doubt that I'll vote for either John McCain or whichever Democrat is left standing in November. I don't want my taxes raised, my life further regulated, my speech abridged, my neighbors sent to war or the leviathan in D.C. to amass greater authority over the lives of 300 million Americans. I don't want barriers built to international trade, private enterprise treated as a slightly dirty field of endeavor or service to the state glorified as the highest ideal. Since I'm shit out of luck in this regard whether McCain, Clinton or Obama ultimately claim the White House, the best I can hope for is a bloodied, weakened, somewhat illegitimate victor.

I want chaos.

I have a split household in this regard. My wife has turned into a single-issue voter this year: she's dead-set against increased government intrusion into medicine. Talk of "universal health care" causes her to reach for her ... well, if not her revolver, then her medical degree, to throw at the TV set. She'll likely vote for John McCain come election day.

I see some value in a strategic McCain vote; Congress will likely remain in the hands of the Democrats next year, so a Republican president might give us blessed gridlock, with neither party able to fully enact its obnoxious agenda.

But that's John McCain we're talking about, the Republican who seems like a civil libertarian in contrast to his party's current leadership only because he has doubts about using torture. Oh what crumbs we grasp at. This is a man who finds political criticism of sitting politicians intolerable, never mind that pesky First Amendment. He has no great respect for the free enterprise system, and an abiding belief that dedicating yourself to the state is superior to pursuing private goals.

And did I mention America's 100-year occupation of Iraq? Oh joy.

Are the Democrats any better? Not likely.

There's that unpleasant business about inserting the government like a probing finger into the nation's medical concerns, for instance. Obama and Clinton both like that idea.

According to the National Taxpayers Union, Barack Obama would boost federal spending by $287.0 billion; Hillary Clinton plans to raid the taxpayers for an additional $218.2 billion (by contrast, McCain would only increase the federal government's burden on working Americans by $6.9 billion).

Not surprisingly, Obama and Clinton both believe higher taxes are a good thing. The senator from Illinois would hike Social Security taxes; both Obama and Clinton want to roll back Bush's measly tax cuts.

Obama and Clinton have also come out against free trade -- except when they're quietly telling the Canadian government not to take them seriously. Make of that what you will.

Basically, McCain, Obama and Clinton are all authoritarians; they know what's best for us and they want the government to "help" us -- or else. The state, to them, is a prod and a carrot to move the herd along in the right direction. And we're the herd.

So I wish for chaos, combat and scandal to weaken whoever wins dominion over us in the end. The longer and nastier the fight, and the more divided and uncertain the results, the better for all of us who have to live with the election's outcome.


Monday, March 3, 2008

Arizona on the fiscal brink

Arizona's government seems to have painted its way into a corner with a bucket of red ink. Says the Phoenix Business Journal:

An analysis by the liberal Center for Budget & Policy Priorities shows Arizona with the worst budget deficit in terms of the shortfall's percentage of state spending.

Arizona's estimated $1.7 billion deficit is 16.2 percent of state spending, according to CBPP.

That is higher percentage than California (15.4 percent and a $16 billion deficit) and Nevada (7.8 percent and a $565 million deficit).

The problem, as usual, is that spending has been wildly out of control for the past several years, seriously outstripping growth in population and inflation.

As Tom Jenney, Director of the Arizona Federation of Taxpayers/Americans for Prosperity points out, "Arizona’s budget really got out of control in 2006 and 2007, when the size of state government as a portion of the state economy exceeded 6.5 percent—levels of spending not seen since the early 1990s."

The end result is that Governor Napolitano and her co-conspirators in the state legislature have seriously overcharged Arizona's figurative credit card.

Arizona actually has a spending limit of sorts, capped at 7.41% of state personal income. As the current situation demonstrates, however, our spending-mad representatives are perfectly capable of making plenty of mischief well before running afoul of that limit. Jenney's organization and the state GOP both support HCR 2038, legislation that would lower the spending cap to 6.4% of state personal income, a limit that would have actually made a difference in recent years (although it should be noted that Republican lawmakers were part of the spending problem). The cap could be lifted by a two-thirds vote -- a potentially dangerous provision, but probably a politically necessary one to satisfy the folks who believe the world will come to an end if the government isn't wallowing in stolen cash.

As it is, Arizona's government faces either massive budget cuts of the sort that make politicians squeal, or massive tax hikes bound to make taxpayers shriek. That may well provide further impetus for the growing movement to roll back property taxes (I signed the petition last month), if only to save some of our wallets' contents from the beast's maw.

It's better to limit spending now and avoid even nastier fights in the future.

Note: Thanks to AFT/AFP for the graph.

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McCain's fuzzy economics

In a sit-down with the Wall Street Journal, Republican presidential hopeful John McCain confirmed the popular impression that he's not really sure what he's doing when it comes to economic issues. He backed away from the Social Security plan touted on his own Website, and instead touted a bolder proposal he made in 2000 to allow workers to divert a portion of Social Security payroll taxes to fund private accounts. He also gave himself some wiggle room on a pledge he recently made to never raise taxes, instead saying, "I'm not making a 'read my lips' statement, in that I will not raise taxes. But I'm not saying I can envision a scenario where I would, OK?"

It's encouraging that McCain is still open to letting Americans partially opt out of the doomed scam that is Social Security. The sooner people are encouraged to make their own provisions for the future, the less traumatic will be the ultimate failure of FDR's longest-lasting hoodwink. It'd be nice if he didn't have to contradict his own campaign literature to make this point, however.

Less benign is McCain's early backpedaling on the tax issue. Can't he even wait for the election to admit that he's full of shit when he promises to keep his sticky fingers out of our wallets?

The overall impression left by the WSJ interview is that McCain is not on top of economic issues. And that's troubling for a presidential candidate -- especially one who's likely to have to field tax and spending questions during a recession.

It might be less troublesome if John McCain hadn't openly admitted that he "[doesn't] know much about the economy." Or if he hadn't repeatedly shown disdain for the private sector and boasted that his life was "not for profit, but for patriotism." OK, medal boy, but who do you think pays for those fancy uniforms and all the stuff that goes BANG?

Unfortunately, submission of the individual to the state has been a long-running McCain theme.

So far, McCain has been pretty strong on free trade -- or what passes for "free" trade in a world ruled by bilateral and multilateral agreements. That's in stark contrast to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton who oppose free trade, except when they're assuring the Canadian government otherwise.

Come to think of it, this year's presidential race looks ... ummm ... less than encouraging for anybody who cares about economic liberty.

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Saturday, March 1, 2008

Wikileaks censorship dropped

Judge Jeffrey S. White of the Federal District Court in San Francisco reversed his controversial effort to muzzle 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.”