Thursday, May 29, 2008

Barr none

At its national convention in Denver, the Libertarian Party nominated former Representative Bob Barr as its presidential candidate this past weekend, and I think the delegates took a wise step in doing so. I've publicly identified myself as a radical libertarian, so I suppose I'm supposed to object that Barr isn't purist enough, that his status as a one-time drug warrior and social conservative should disqualify him, but that's not the case.

In fact, I'd have been just about as happy if former Senator Mike Gravel had been nominated, even though he's as "impure" as Barr, though on different issues. That's because maintaining ideological purity is the job of philosophers and hard-core factions, while achieving political impact on selected issues is the job of politicians and political parties. Both roles are important, but they're very different.

To my mind, this interminable political season started with the war and civil liberties as the main issues. Over the past year, the war has faded a bit, while economic policy has risen in importance. Maintaining the ideological line across the board is less pressing than presenting the case for peace, expanded civil liberties, restrained government spending and free-market economics.

Barr is good on these issues and has the political experience and savvy to run a professional campaign and make a credible case for pro-liberty positions. I think Gravel might have done the same. Knowing how to present your case and build a political apparatus are vital skills.

On the issues where Barr was especially bad -- gay marriage and drug prohibition -- he has explicitly repudiated his former positions and adopted a more tolerant and libertarian stance.

This is not to say that Barr has become a radical libertarian. But I think he's a credible advocate for freedom at this point.

I don't want to diminish the importance of the purists. We need individuals and organizations who are willing to hold the line so that the definition of "libertarian" doesn't drift too far. We also need philosophers who are willing to take libertarian arguments to extreme conclusions so that we're ready to debate the possible consequences of our positions when our enemies attack.

But philosophers and purists make for difficult political candidates. Mary Ruwart's speculations about child sexuality may have been defensible from a purely intellectual point of view, but what makes for provocative theoretical discussions are distractions or embarrassments in a political campaign. Journalists will inevitably latch on to such passages, to the exclusion of issues that actually matter. And voters are going to be shocked by such discussions; they'll never even notice the candidate's positions on trade and the Patriot Act.

That's why a division of labor between candidates and philosophers makes sense.

As for purists ...

We're so far from a really free society, in a year when both major-party presidential candidates glorify the state, that arguments over who is libertarian enough make no sense to me. The Republicans have chosen an authoritarian militarist as their standard bearer and the Democrats have (nearly) selected a nominee who may not be as much a control freak as their usual candidates, but who wants to expand the size of government and disparages individual achievement. Libertarians need a broad-church effort to reach as many willing fans of increasing liberty as possible.

Even in countries that are especially open to small political parties, it's difficult for purist libertarians to gain traction. New Zealand has proportional representation and the hard-line Libertarianz Party. The kiwi version of the LP does worse than its American counterpart. But ACT New Zealand, a classical liberal party, is represented by two seats in parliament (and held nine at one point).

And the U.S. doesn't have proportional representation.

Some libertarians take the above argument to different conclusion than me. Wendy McElroy, for instance, sees electoral politics as a dead-end -- really, a moral wrong -- since it requires participation in a system that inevitably leads to violations of rights. I respect that point of view even though I haven't adopted it. I think voting and political participation can be valuable tools, so long as you don't let them displace other important efforts for achieving liberty through non-political and non-coercive means. In other words, don't take election season so seriously that you miss the opportunity to free a victimless "offender" through jury nullification.

So I'll maintain my radical line. But I'm also happy to see pro-liberty candidates bring in supporters and raise interest among people who might not be willing to take matters as far as I'd like. I'd rather win allies for achievable targets than hold out for the moon and get nothing.


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Tribalism in a wealthy society

More talk about growing ideological segregation and polarization in the American body politic -- this time from the Los Angeles Times.
As many of the 10 million Americans who move from one county to another each year chose to live in narrowly defined "communities of interest," the nation's counties became more politically segregated and increasingly less politically competitive. In 1976, only 38% of counties had a partisan spread larger than 20 percentage points; in 2004's astonishingly close election, more than 60% of U.S. counties saw landslides.

And homogeneity breeds more homogeneity. Political minorities in landslide counties tend to vote less and even withdraw from other forms of civic life, while political majorities vote more. In any given lopsided locale, the triumphant majority opinion hardens -- the blues become bluer and the reds redder -- and cross-party communication stops. And when communication stops, each side begins to view the other as more extreme. According to one study, fewer than 25% of Americans have regular discussions with people they disagree with politically. The more educated Americans become, the greater the distance. Americans who hold graduate degrees live the most homogenous political lives.

To a certain extent, this is to be expected in a country with increasingly diverse cultural and media outlets -- despite the popular-in-some-cynical-quarters counterfactual nonsense about "media concentration." Perhaps New York City of the 1920s, with its horde of newspapers and newborn radio media, enjoyed something approaching the explosion of voices that cable TV, satellite and, especially, the Internet have introduced to the world. It's only natural that people should gravitate to the outlets that share their interests and values, the way my grandfather huddled over the Brooklyn Eagle.

But the geographical apect of ideological segregation is something new. Only in a highly mobile and extremely prosperous society could large numbers of people afford to move from state to state, not for economic reasons, but to find political homes. That suggests that people are not just tribal (which we already knew), but that they'll use growing resources that come with relative wealth to reinforce tribalism. That's interesting.

Will the process continue? I expect that people will continue to gravitate toward media and cultural outlets that share and reinforce their views. Whether they'll continue to divide geographically -- perhaps in more refined form in the future than simple red/blue -- is something we'll have to wait to see.

Even more interesting would be if that ideological segregation led to increased decentralization and more political experiments.

Labels: ,

Friday, May 23, 2008

On the road

I'll be in and around Washington, D.C. for the next week-and-a-half or so, so blogging will be spotty. Don't worry, I'll bring you back a present.

Beware of preachers

I don't think that clerics are necessarily crazier than, say, IT engineers or home inspectors (I know one of each to whom I smile and nod politely in social situations as my eyes rapidly glaze over), but they do have a special font of potential craziness to draw from in the form of religious inspiration. They also tend to be more publicly crazy than most people because of the nature of their jobs, so they leave a track record of nuttiness to be mined for gems by interested parties.

And when those clerics are associated with presidential candidates, there are always interested parties. That's something that should have occurred to John McCain, just as it should have occurred to Barack Obama. If you're going to associate yourself with a preacher and even seek his blessing for your political ambitions, maybe it's a good idea to check out the sheer quantity of madness that has appeared in that preacher's sermons.

That's especially true of experienced and, most likely, cynical politicians like McCain and Obama. These are pragmatic, power-hungry creatures who are unlikely to be attracted at all to the peculiar doctrines of John Hagee and Jeremiah Wright. A politician's god rules in the here and now, not in the afterlife, and its support comes from taxes, not tithes. McCain almost certainly courted Hagee solely because of the preacher's prominence among the religious right, where the Arizona senator is viewed with skepticism. Obama probably warmed a seat in Wright's church because it's a powerful institution among black Chicagoans, and so a good launch pad for a political career.

So -- big surprise -- they used the preachers for their influence.

But that influence comes at a price, and not just in favors owed. When preachers have a history of throwing a lot of crazy around, some of that nuttiness is going to stick to their political friends.

Labels: ,

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Hauser's law, the Laffer curve and pissed-off taxpayers

Can governments collect as much tax revenue as they they think they need simply by tweaking tax rates? Or was Arthur Laffer correct when he said that raising rates beyond a certain average level causes revenue to actually fall?

The debate over Laffer's theoretical insight hotted-up this week after the Wall Street Journal published a column by David Ranson touting economist Kurt Hauser's claim (Hauser's Law) that tax revenue sticks pretty close to 19.5% of GDP no matter where the government sets marginal tax rates.
What makes Hauser's Law work? For supply-siders there is no mystery. As Mr. Hauser said: "Raising taxes encourages taxpayers to shift, hide and underreport income. . . . Higher taxes reduce the incentives to work, produce, invest and save, thereby dampening overall economic activity and job creation."

Putting it a different way, capital migrates away from regimes in which it is treated harshly, and toward regimes in which it is free to be invested profitably and safely. In this regard, the capital controlled by our richest citizens is especially tax-intolerant.
Several tax-happy critics promptly set out to debunk Ranson and Hauser -- inadvertently reaffirming Hauser's Law in at least one case. But the biggest criticism of Hauser's Law seems to be the 100-mile-high view he takes of the economy. What's actually going on there and how can we know that it really prevents taxes from increasing as a share of the GDP?

Fortunately, Hauser's take on the matter isn't the only one out there. A 2006 report (PDF) by Louis Levy-Garboua, David Masclet and Claude Montmarquette for Quebec's Centre Interuniversitaire de Recherche en Analyse des Organisations (CIRANO) looked at the behavior of individuals subject to varying tax rates. What they found is that the Laffer curve doesn't kick in when tax rates are perceived to be "exogenous" -- dispassionate and impersonal, like gravity. But when tax rates are experienced as unfair products of human calculation, the Laffer curve kicks in in spades.
We do not observe the Laffer curve phenomenon in our simplified setting when tax rates are randomly imposed on working taxpayers. However, we observe it in a Leviathan state condition in which an experimental tax setter in flesh and blood is given the power to maximize tax rates to his own benefit. ...

The fact that tax responsiveness of work is substantially greater when tax rates are set by another subject in flesh and blood than by nature is taken as evidence that workers respond strongly and emotionally to unfair taxation, which is consistent with the history of tax revolts. To be more specific, taxpayers want to punish the tax setters who intentionally violated the norm of fair taxation. ... We also find evidence of affective responses (Zajonc 1980) to unfair taxation by angry taxpayers who lost their temper and were ready to incur a net cost to hurt norm violators, and these turn out to be the ultimate cause for the Laffer curve phenomenon.
What constitutes "unfair" taxation? Whatever the taxpayers say it is. In the study, the maximum rate before revolt kicked in was 50% (this is a Canadian study, after all). Ultimately, though, it seems obvious that the trigger point will depend on the expectations of the specific taxpayers who are affected.

The researchers conclude that "fiscal policies that serve macroeconomic purposes" are unlikely to trigger a revolt, but that "[i]n order to produce a Laffer effect, fiscal policies need to be felt as intentional, discriminatory and especially hurtful by a group of taxpayers."

So, if we can get God or Plato's philosopher-kings to take over tax policy, taxes might be raised nearly forever without consequence. But we live in a world in which taxes are inherently political, and tax rates are often used to reward or punish. Does anybody really experience changes in tax rates as dispassionate acts of nature? Or are they understood, more or less universally, as the arbitrary choices of whoever happens to be in power?

The currently popular craze to increase taxes on people considered wealthy is especially problematic since, say Levy-Garboua, Masclet and Montmarquette, "The initiators of tax revolts are usually found among the most productive, high-earning, and hard-working group of taxpayers." This point squares, of course, with Hauser's and Ranson's insight that "the capital controlled by our richest citizens is especially tax-intolerant." Try to soak the rich too much and, more than any other group, they'll skate their money out of the country, drop into the underground economy or stop being productive even if it hurts them to do so.

This, then, is likely why Hauser's Law seems to hold true. Taxpayers view tax rates as the outcomes of political decisions by human beings with axes to grind. Taxpayers will tolerate tax hikes up to a certain point -- but then, no more. In the modern-day United States, with expectations as they are, that has confined tax revenues in recent decades to roughly 19.5% of GDP.


Texas court nixes mass roundup of kids

Icky beliefs are no grounds for staging pogroms.

Or, if you want more detail, the fact that a church's doctrine might, at some point in the future, lead lead some members to break the law and other members to act as willing victims is not, in and of itself, enough reason to kidnap hundreds of kids who are being raised in that church. Even if there is reason to believe that a few minors in a religious community have been abused, there is no justification for treating children in other families that just happen to be members of the same community as potential victims.

That, in a nutshell, is the decision of the Third Court of Appeals of Texas, based in Austin.
The Department did not present any evidence of danger to the physical health or safety of any male children or any female children who had not reached puberty. Nor did the Department offer any evidence that any of Relators' pubescent female children were in physical danger other than that those children live at the ranch among a group of people who have a "pervasive system of belief" that condones polygamous marriage and underage females having children. (9) The existence of the FLDS belief system as described by the Department's witnesses, by itself, does not put children of FLDS parents in physical danger. ...

The Department also failed to establish that the need for protection of the Relators' children was urgent and required immediate removal of the children. As previously noted, none of the identified minors who are or have been pregnant are children of Relators. There is no evidence that any of the five pregnant minors live in the same household as the Relators' children. (10) There is no evidence that Relators have allowed or are going to allow any of their minor female children to be subjected to any sexual or physical abuse. ...

[T]he district court abused its discretion in failing to return the Relators' children (13) to the Relators. The Relators' Petition for Writ of Mandamus is conditionally granted. The district court is directed to vacate its temporary orders granting sole managing conservatorship of the children of the Relators to the Department. The writ will issue only if the district court fails to comply with this opinion.

Note that the court didn't say that nothing inappropriate has occurred in the FLDS settlement at the Yearnings for Zion ranch. What it's saying is that religious doctrines that condone illegal activity aren't grounds for brute state intervention; there must be evidence of specific violations. Those violations must then be dealt with on an individual basis, not as an excuse for moving against everybody who espouses the church's belief system.

That seems like a remarkably wise decision, rooted as it is in the centuries-old American legal tradition. The children may still be taken from their parents, but only after something that bears a closer resemblance to due process.

The Houston Chronicle reports that Texas’ Child Protective Services hasn't yet decided whether to abide by the ruling and release the children, or to appeal. I'm betting on an appeal, if only as a matter of pride.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

French and Canadians defy smoking bans

France's high-profile smoking ban, which took effect in January, was honored at the Cannes film festival -- in the breach. Jurors, including jury president Sean Penn, lit up in defiance of the law.

Toronto's club-goers sport a similarly individualist ethos. Seventy-three restaurants, clubs and businesses have been charged for permitting their patrons to light-up despite Ontario's two-year-old ban.

Cleveland is doing its part to scoff at the law with a proliferation of underground smokehouses, but most Americans have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to telling the busybodies to take a hike.

Labels: ,

This is interesting ...

I'm getting a lot of traffic from the Tor Anonymous Network -- specifically, That means that many of my readers are concerned about shielding their identity, which is cool, or else many of my readers are law-enforcement agents who don't want me to know that they're checking out my subversive scribblings, which is flattering in a creepy sort of way.

I'd ask who you folks are, but ... that would sort of defeat the purpose, wouldn't it?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Abortion options expand in Arizona -- for now

The Arizona Daily Star reports that the Arizona State Board of Nursing will allow nurse practitioners to perform first-trimester abortions. The ruling apparently stands as a formal recognition of a de facto practice in the Tucson branch of Planned Parenthood.

From the perspective of expanding options for women, it's an important move. The Guttmacher Institute said in 2005 that Arizona has 19 abortion providers -- down from 21 in 2000. Allowing nurse practitioners to perform aspiration abortions will make it easier for women who want to terminate a pregnancy to find a medical practitioner willing to do so without traveling long distances. (Says Guttmacher: "In the West census region, where Arizona is located, 18% of women having abortions traveled at least 50 miles, and 5% traveled more than 100 miles.")

It's also, I might add, a small step toward deregulation in medicine, by expanding the range of procedures that NPs can perform. This increases competition, with all of the add-on benefits that entails, including the potential for reduced costs.

Of course, given the controversy over terminating pregnancies, there's a legislative move afoot, HB 2269, to reverse the Board's decision.

The next move, to cut the need for abortions, might involve teaching teenagers how to use a condom, a pill, a diaphragm or any other of the wonderful inventions the human race has developed for preventing unwanted reproduction. That has to start in the family, of course, and that involves breaking down cultural barriers against discussing the consequences of becoming sexually active with teenagers who are pretty clearly determined to do just that. At the moment, Arizona has the second highest rate of teenage pregnancies in the country (though it's declining) -- 20% of which are terminated.

I'm sure that has nothing to do with the state's long focus on abstinence education to the exclusion of alternatives if the horny little monsters decide to climb on each other anyway. Governor Napolitano, in a wise break from extorting state industries to support her projects, has rejected federal funds linked to abstinence-only education. I'd rather the tax-supported schools not be the primary source of information about proper sexual practices -- and why in hell is the federal government getting involved? -- but they shouldn't be the source of unrealistic nonsense either.

Labels: , ,

The barrier of ideological labels

If you're the kind of obsessive who actually tracks changes in my profile blurb, to the right of my posts, (and who among us doesn't eagerly await such revisions), you may have noticed that I no longer describe myself as a "writer and editor with a radical-libertarian bent." Instead, I now say I'm a "writer and editor with a strongly pro-freedom bent."

This isn't because my political views have changed -- not in the least. I altered the wording because I've come to realize that labeling myself so specifically -- and my blog, by extension -- acts as a barrier to some readers who automatically tune out arguments from people with "enemy" political affiliations, even if they agree with much of what I have to say.

I'm not here to preach to the choir, and I'm not especially interested in turning a focused discussion on tax policy, education, civil liberties or a property dispute into a free-wheeling debate over the minutiae of my overarching ideology. We can have that conversation sometime, but not every goddamned day.

Instead, I want to use this blog to discuss important political, cultural and legal issues, and to put forward arguments for preserving and expanding individual liberty.

Back when I ran's civil liberties site, the editors once came to me with a proposal to more closely brand the project as a libertarian online publication. I objected that a civil liberties site was inclusive; a libertarian site was exclusive. As it was, I was read by conservatives, liberals, moderates, libertarians and at least one anarcho-syndicalist (are you still out there?). They didn't all agree with everything I wrote, but they came to read the articles and debate in the forums. The moment I identified the site as a libertarian site, each disagreement would turn into a skirmish in a war of clashing worldviews, and the folks who didn't consider themselves libertarians would flee to comfortable ideological havens.

So we kept the sit as a civil liberties site, and I kept my diverse readers.

I want to do that with this blog, too. Disloyal Opposition is a pro-freedom publication. Yeah, I'm a libertarian, but that doesn't mean you have to be one too. If you agree with the property rights pieces but can't stand my advocacy for drug legalization, so be it. If you're down with gay marriage but iffy on gun rights, that's OK.

Forget the labels. It's all about freedom, and we all think that's a good thing, right?


You mean you're not underage?

Y'know, when your justification for a violent raid on a ranch owned by an eccentric polygamous religious sect and the kidnapping of hundreds of that sect's children is a supposed crusade to save the sect's girls from being forced into underage unions with older men, it helps if you can find girls who have actually been forced into such relationships. It's not much help when many of the "underage" girls you claim to have rescued turn out to be at least 18 years of age.

Note that Texas's situation is even more complicated than the recent revelations suggest, since the state's age of consent is 17.

Further complicating the situation is the fact that Texans can marry at 16 with their parents' consent. Sure, Texas doesn't recognize plural marriages, just as it doesn't recognize same-sex marriages, but we've now wandered into technical violation territory. If a relationship is illegal only because there are several wives rather than one wife, that hardly justifies armed assaults by the state, mass roundups of children and legal battles over custody.

More and more, it looks like the real crime of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is being different and ... well ... creepy. The FLDS has apparently been targeted for destruction because its tenets and practices rub America's increasingly intolerant soccer moms and suburban dads the wrong way.

We just can't let people live that way!

I'm as weirded out by the Persian-harem-via-How The West Was Won ambience that clings to the FLDS as the next guy, but I want allegations of abuse against the group to be (fancy this) based on actual evidence, and addressed on an individual basis, rather than as an excuse for a pogrom. That is, as weirded out as we all may be, you prosecute the actual abusers among the oddball minorities (as well as the bland majorities) and leave everybody else the hell alone.

As it is, we're well on the way to SWAT raids against any community that doesn't abide by the lifestyle script favored by local prosecutors and Children's Protective Services seat-warmers. If you think that's a good idea, just give me a crack at appointing the committee that decides whose doors get kicked in. Just for laughs, my nominees will all either wear leather chaps or pioneer garb.

Oh, and don't forget to review my argument for why traditional marriage, gay marriage and plural marriages should all be permitted -- as private arrangements.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, May 19, 2008

Federal government aims to bankrupt us all

USA Today came out with a troubling (but not unexpected) story stating that the federal government is way over its head in red ink -- so deep in debt that if you divvied it up among the population, the tab would be "nearly $500,000 per household."

D.C.'s estimated $57.3 trillion in liabilities (State and local debt raise the total to $61.7 trillion) comes courtesy primarily of those oh-so-popular entitlement programs that keep the population sucking at the government tit and voting for more. Medicare alone has an unfunded liability of $30.4 trillion.

For 2007 alone, liabilities soared by $2.5 trillion. That's just a tad higher than the official deficit of $162 billion.

The reason for the discrepancy: Accounting standards require corporations and state governments to count new financial obligations, even if the payments will be made later. The federal government doesn't follow that rule. Instead of counting lifetime benefits for programs such as Social Security, the government counts the cost of benefits for the current year.

The deteriorating condition of these programs doesn't show up in the government's bottom line, but the information is released elsewhere — in Medicare's annual report, for example.

So the $57.3 trillion figure comes from the apparently unprecedented tactic of applying generally accepted accounting standards to the federal books -- an approach strongly favored by the Institute for Truth in Accounting.

The USA Today report echoes what former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker has been saying for years. From U.S. News and World Report:

The problem is where we're headed in the $44 trillion-plus in unfunded obligations for Social Security and Medicare that's growing $2 trillion plus a year.... Cash is key. We are already negative cash flow for Medicare. We're going to go negative cash flow for Social Security within the next 10 years...though Social Security is not the real problem. It's healthcare that's going to bankrupt the country.

Walker went into more detail on 60 Minutes:

Walker prescribes a combination of spending caps and tax hikes to combat the pending fiscal apocalypse. The caps make sense to me, but the tax hikes are premised on the assumption that Congress and the White House won't simply piss away extra revenue, leaving taxpayers poorer and the fiscal situation worse than ever.

My solution? Liquidate the federal government and its assets, pay off the past-due bills, and start over again with something much smaller, less ambitious and significantly less expensive.

Labels: ,

Float away to freedom

I force myself to be skeptical about schemes to establish new countries since the history of such efforts is ... well ... not encouraging. It's been all downhill ever since Tonga invaded and occupied the foam-splashed Republic of Minerva. But an effort involving, among others, Patri Friedman, grandson of Milton Friedman, and Pay-Pal co-founder Peter Thiel, to create independent ocean colonies using existing technologies inevitably raises my hopes.

True to his libertarian leanings, Friedman looks at the situation in market terms: the institute's modular spar platforms, he argues, would allow for the creation of far cheaper new countries out on the high-seas, driving innovation.

"Government is an industry with a really high barrier to entry," he said. "You basically need to win an election or a revolution to try a new one. That's a ridiculous barrier to entry. And it's got enormous customer lock-in. People complain about their cellphone plans that are like two years, but think of the effort that it takes to change your citizenship."

Friedman estimates that it would cost a few hundred million dollars to build a seastead for a few thousand people. With costs that low, Friedman can see constellations of cities springing up, giving people a variety of governmental choices. If misguided policies arose, citizens could simply motor to a new nation.

"You can change your government without having to leave your house," he said.

That's ... cool.

Oh, I know I'm in for a disappointment.

You'll find the brains behind the scheme at the Seasteading Institute here.

Labels: , ,

Friday, May 16, 2008

Dibor Roberts denied justice

The jury in the Dibor Roberts case returned a verdict that I can only describe as contemptible, finding her guilty of resisting arrest and felony flight from a law officer as a result of a brutal attack upon her by Sgt. Jeff Newnum of the Yavapai County Sheriff's Department.

Greg Nix of Larson newspapers has an interesting insight, suggesting that the trial could have come down to the prosecution painting a picture for the jury of "'angry black woman' v. 'respectable white officer.'" He adds, "I grew up in the South so running the 'angry black woman' strategy is nothing new and generally works for getting convictions."

Perhaps he's right, and the decision was essentially racist. Or maybe the prosecution succeeded in picking jurors who bow down and bang their heads on the floor every time they see a uniformed government employee. Or the result could have resulted from a little bit of both factors.

An appeal is possible, of course. Also, the Maricopa County chapter of the NAACP has asked the U.S. Justice Department to intervene, and Roberts reportedly plans to sue, so she may yet get a measure of justice in this case.

But it bothers me that a creature like Jeff Newnum, who apparently has so little control over his emotions and such an inflated sense of his place in the world, probably walked out of the courtroom feeling vindicated, with a license to assault the people of Yavapai County.

Update: Dibor Roberts was sentenced to six months unsupervised probation. Her attorney, Stephen Renard, said, "This is flat out the lightest sentence I have ever seen for a Class-5 felony, period." That suggests Judge Michael Bluff may have had reservations about the prosecution or the severity of the "offense" committed by Roberts -- especially since he reduced the resisting arrest charge from a Class-6 felony to a Class-1 misdemeanor.

But she still has a conviction on her record.

Labels: , ,

School vouchers nixed in Arizona

School vouchers took a beating in a decision handed down yesterday by Arizona's Tucson-based Court of Appeals, Division Two. Specifically, in Cain v. Horne (PDF), the court ruled that the Arizona Scholarships for Pupils with Disabilities Program, which enables disabled children to attend private school, and the Arizona Displaced Pupils Choice Grant Program, which similarly helps foster kids pay private school tuition, run afoul of the Arizona Constitution.

Article 9, Section 10 of that document reads:

No tax shall be laid or appropriation of public money made in aid of any church, or private or sectarian school, or any public service corporation.

I think that's an unfortunate provision, but there's no doubt that it exists. Given the clear words of the document, the court's interpretation seems reasonable.

So, what does that mean for school vouchers as a means for expanding education options for Arizona families? The overt glee of the Arizona Education Association should be a clue. When the state's leading cheerleader for Stalinist schooling is rapturous, it's a sure sign that the education menu is getting trimmed.

But that doesn't mean that choice is dead -- just that vouchers are probably off the table unless the state constitution is revised.

The court of appeals pointed the way to an alternative when it cited 1999's Kotterman v. Killian decision by the state supreme court:

In Kotterman, the court disposed of the Aid Clause challenge in a single paragraph, finding the tax credit there was neither an appropriation of public money nor the laying of a tax...

So, that leaves tax credits -- with which Arizonans have substantial experience -- as a viable option for enabling foster children and disabled kids to attend private schools, if they so wish. Tax credits have the additional advantage of further removing the state from the process, putting distance between officials and the tuition money and minimizing the influence government can exercise over schools and families. That increases the likelihood that the schools families choose can actually have different philosophies and curricula than the public schools, rather than being carbon copies of the institutions parents seek to escape.

Homeschooling remains an option, of course, as do charter schools, distance learning and paying private tuition out-of-pocket. Simply because parents can choose what's right for their own children, pretty much any of these options are superior to sending your kids to the cookie-cutter traditional public schools we're all mugged to support, whether we want to or not.

Ideally, I'd get the state as far out of education as it is out of religion, if I could, and for many of the same reasons. We don't need state-employed teachers trumpeting officially sanctioned lessons any more than we need state-funded pastors delivering officially sanctioned sermons. But that's a distant goal for the moment.

The court of appeals decision may have been a bit of a setback, but it didn't kill education choice for Arizonans.


Thursday, May 15, 2008

'I wanted to get control'

That's the claim of Sgt. Jeff Newnum of the Yavapai County, Arizona, Sheriff's Department, as the trial of Dibor Roberts on charges of ticking off a polic-- ... err ... felony counts of resisting arrest and unlawful flight from a law officer gets under way.

"My only concern was to gain control of the situation." He used his collapsible baton to break out the rear passenger window and opened the front door.

Roberts at that time was yelling, "No. No. No. You can't do this to me." He said he could hear the words clearly, but did not understand, he said.

By this time Newnum did "not view her attacking" him and "did not consider she would overpower me. But, I wanted to get control."

So, before he smashed Roberts's car window and snatched her cell phone, he didn't regard her as any sort of threat. He just wanted "control."

This reinforces my initial impression that Sgt. Newnum's assault on Dibor Roberts has its roots in ... well ... a power trip. Despite the fact that police departments regularly advise motorists concerned about the legitimacy of the officer attempting to pull them over to "continue to a public place that is well lighted," and that Newnum's own boss, Sheriff Steve Waugh, has himself offered similar advice, Newnum blew his stack when Roberts slowed and continued along the dark road toward a more heavily trafficked area. By his own words, he was seeking to assert "control" when he forced her car off the road and initiated his attack.

Even assuming that Dibor Roberts was wrong to fear a police impersonator of the sort that pulled over two teenage girls in Phoenix in March, just when did Americans become obligated to give uniformed government employees "control?"

Greg Nix, a reporter for Larson Newspapers, who attended the first day of the trial has some interesting comments here:

[Dibor Roberts's attorney Stephen] Renard is talented when it comes to the leading question and getting people all tangled up in what they are saying.

He clearly tripped Newnum up by referring him back to his testimony before the Yavapai County Grand Jury, showing that 6 months ago, Newnum couldn't remember if Roberts tried to drive away or if in the tussle her foot came off the brake and "ran him over," as compared to today, when Newnum was clear on it and said that Roberts definitely tried to drive away or run him over.

He almost got Newnum to acknowledge he couldn't state definitively that Roberts actually injured him. Newnum recovered when he came back with a quick statement after a couple seconds of silence, "Except she caused this whole incident."

Renard got Newnum to acknowledge that Newnum believed his own wife should drive to a lighted area if she is concerned for her safety, but not Roberts, in this instance.

Nix, a former investigator with Arizona Child Protective Services, adds that he thinks Newnum "got into a situation that he didn't know how to manage."

Except by violently asserting control, of course.

Labels: ,

California to permit same-sex marriages

California's Supreme Court took the very big, and very welcome, step of overruling state law forbidding the recognition of same-sex marriages. In In re Marriage Cases (PDF), Chief Justice Ronald George wrote:

In light of the fundamental nature of the substantive rights embodied in the right to marry — and their central importance to an individual’s opportunity to live a happy, meaningful, and satisfying life as a full member of society — the California Constitution properly must be interpreted to guarantee this basic civil right to all individuals and couples, without regard to their sexual orientation.


In sum, we conclude that statutes imposing differential treatment on the basis of sexual orientation should be viewed as constitutionally suspect under the California Constitution’s equal protection clause.

That gives laws mandating discriminatory treatment of same-sex relationships the same 86ing accorded laws against interracial marriages in 1948.

The San Francisco Chronicle warns that the historic decision "could be repudiated by the voters in November" if a ballot measure supported by 1.1 million petition signatures passes muster with the voters. But that's November. The Supreme Court decision goes into effect in 30 days. That leaves many months during which gay and lesbian couples can cheerfully bind their futures together as frighteningly optimistic straight couples long have. The fate of those unions would be up to the courts.

Will judges blithely annul such marriages the way they did the 4,000 performed in San Francisco in 2004? That's possible, but the earlier weddings were found to be illegal, while any ceremonies performed in light of today's ruling will be legal up until the voters put a stop to the practice.

My personal preference would be to take marriage out of the government sphere and make it an entirely private matter. So what if that leads to even more interesting permutations, such as plural marriage?

But so long as marriage requires a trip through the bureaucracy, the bureaucrats shouldn't discriminate.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Boulder land grab upheld

Last week, in Boulder, Colorado, District Judge James Klein reaffirmed his earlier ruling handing former colleague, Richard McLean, one-third of a neighbor's parcel of land for free.

The case so outraged residents of Colorado that the law under which the land-grab took place has already been superseded by new legislation. A separate legal change would prevent judges like Klein from presiding in cases involving former colleagues.

But the Kirlins, whose land was stolen by McLean and his wife Edith Stevens, have to pursue their rights under the old law. They vow to appeal.


Janet's $100,000 shakedown

Arizona's Governor Janet Napolitano, says the East Valley Tribune, has been twisting arms and cutting deals to turn political opponents of her pet causes into supporters and even donors to her coffers.

In a secret deal, developers agreed to back the plan for an ambitious statewide transportation measure that will raise the state sales tax by 1 penny.

Napolitano eliminated provisions requiring developers to pay part of the $42 billion plan to finance freeways, trains, buses and other transportation needs across Arizona. This goes against the governor’s stated position that developers should pay their way when it comes to transportation to reduce sprawl and avoid traffic congestion.

Connie Wilhelm, president of the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona, said the governor’s office approached the builders late last week with an offer.

The two sides negotiated Monday and Tuesday on an agreement that also includes promises by developers to stay out of a state trust land initiative and work with the governor next year on transportation legislation, Wilhelm said.

“We had been taking a neutral position but were planning to oppose it until we spoke with them (the governor’s office),” she said. Wilhelm finalized the agreement in a letter she signed and sent to the governor’s office Tuesday.

That same day, the governor filed paperwork for the massive transportation tax package that, if approved by voters in November, will be financed with a 1-cent sales tax increase over the next 30 years.

The $100,000 promised by the builders will help pay to collect 153,400 signatures needed to get the proposal on the ballot. They have until July 3 to get the required signatures.

Tom Jenney, of the Arizona Federation of Taxpayers, flat-out calls this "extortion" and I think he has it pegged. Basically, the governor threatened to slam an entire industry with special fees unless the organization representing that industry dropped its opposition to a scheme to pull state trust land off the table for development, promised to support a multi-billion-dollar transportation boondoggle and cut a fat check subsidizing the transport scam (with promises of "further discussions regarding funding" to come).

Yeah, that's extortion.

Even if the governor's proposals were good ideas, it would still be a shameless shakedown.

This is one way that government ensures its continued power and growth. As it reaches ever-further into the recesses of human life, it gains bargaining chips. Special favors can be promised -- or special attention can be threatened -- in order to win the cooperation of people who otherwise might not so easily acquiesce to the schemes of the creatures holding political office. As time goes on, the state builds reserves of money and control that it can use to bribe or extort individuals, organizations, interest groups and industries.

It's even possible that government officials engaged in the most brazen arm-twisting can come, over time, to regard their behavior as perfectly acceptable. Dennis Burke, the governor’s chief of staff, may actually mean it when he says, "There’s nothing wrong with this. This is how you negotiate."

As if a mugging were a negotiation.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure how you stop these sorts of shenanigans. Unless the public reacts with outrage -- and so far, all I'm seeing is a little resentment among the chattering classes -- it becomes acceptable for government officials to muzzle opponents by abusing their power.

Then all you can do is hope the system collapses under its own weight.

Labels: ,

Middlemen grease E-Verify's wheels

The federal E-Verify scheme has been criticized (by me, among others) as intrusive, unreliable and a threat to privacy. Now, it turns out that it's such a pain in the ass to use that businesses are hiring specialists -- registered agents -- to run the names of employees and prospective hires through the system for an extra fee. Says the Arizona Republic:

Mehr is among the dozens of business owners who have decided to hire registered agents to use the federal government's E-Verify system, a Web-based program that electronically checks the employment eligibility of newly hired employees. Though E-Verify is free, agents say they have found an entrepreneurial niche because businesses are willing to pay a small fee to have someone help them with government regulations. ...

Just what are businesses' complaints about this oh-so-easy-to-use barrier against the sinister forces of eager and affordable labor?

Laura Kendall, co-owner of Intricate Builders LLC in Phoenix, said in an interview that she, too, has had problems with E-Verify after spending nearly seven hours over two days last week trying to get just one employee verified. She said the frustration might lead her to hire a registered agent.

Kendall, who has background as a real-estate agent and office manager, said she tried to log on to the E-Verify system on three different computers but was unsuccessful one day, and when she finally got on the following day it took her two hours to go through the tutorial.

"They put all this responsibility on us and threaten us if we don't comply," said Kendall, who runs a small construction framing company. "The thing that upset me the most is when I couldn't go on the system, there's nothing in Arizona to help an employer. The answer I seemed to get was that it's a federal program."

This reminds me of the peculiar New York City practice of hiring expediters to deal with the city's byzantine regulatory apparatus. The New York Times reported on this fascinating development in 1991.

[W]hat, you may be wondering, is an expediter? They are the people who are hired by architects and building owners to get permits for construction and renovation -- by figuring out which forms to fill out, which lines to stand in and what will satisfy a particular building examiner. That's right, the process of getting a building permit is considered so complicated and time-consuming that an entire industry has been spawned to deal with it, even to the point where expediters hire their own expediters. ...

While the act of permit-getting may sound straightforward enough, in New York City it definitely is not. There is an old building code (which applies to certain applications for buildings built before the end of 1968) and a new building code. There are fire-safety codes, zoning ordinances, a housing-maintenance code, a multiple-dwelling law, a handicap law and asbestos-removal requirements, to name but a few obstacles for expediters. The building code and zoning regulations have been modified and amplified so many times since the 1960's that they have grown from 400 to 3,000 pages in that time.

"Our system of rules and regulations are so complicated that the average person just can't deal with them," said Judith A. Faulkner, who has been an expediter for more than 11 years.

In Arizona, as in New York, the problem of a bureaucratic barrier has become a business opportunity for those willing and able to negotiate government processes that baffle many other people.

Experts in bureaucracy often bring a little extra to the table, besides their skill in dealing with red tape. When I hired an expediter-like service to get me a New York City pistol permit in the mid 1990s, I was charged a substantial fee in addition to the cost of the permit itself. While I was never explicitly told so, it was implied that part of the fee went to the expediter, and part was used to grease palms at One Police Plaza so that the paperwork would go through without a hitch.

That's not unusual. As the Times pointed out, "Expediters have been arrested for bribe-paying in the past, and Mr. O'Brien says he believes that a number of the 14 Buildings Department inspectors who were arrested on bribery charges last year took payoffs from expediters."

A knowledge of who and how much to bribe is, frankly, one of the services expediters sell.

The registered agents handling E-Verify cases haven't been accused of such improprieties -- not yet, anyway. But they do have a special advantage, since it's easier for them to get the results that employers want from the system.

Julie Pace, a Phoenix immigration lawyer who specializes in the employer-sanctions law, said she is not surprised companies are using registered agents who have a lower level of accountability in using E-Verify.

While employers who use E-Verify are required to check photos of authorized non-citizens on a government database, registered agents, Pace said, are not subject to that requirement. And, she said, agents do not have to make photocopies of documents and keep them.

"We are all baffled the government would come out with two sets of standards," Pace said. "They (agents) do not have to comply with the same requirements as businesses."

A lower hurdle to overcome for registered agents? That's just asking employers to use the middlemen to increase the likelihood that they'll be able to hire workers without a hassle.

As much as I admire the entrepreneurial ambition of registered agents and expediters, the need for their services adds unnecessary costs to doing business. Everything becomes just a little bit more expensive, a little bit more to be avoided if possible and, perhaps, going into business at all becomes just a bit more unattractive.

Registered agents, expediters, extra costs and a whiff of corruption are understandable reactions to burdensome bureaucracy. But we'd be better off without the red tape that makes it all so necessary.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Collaborators in a civil rights violation

Via Radley Balko comes the tale of Tunde Clement, a New York City resident stopped in the Albany, New York, bus terminal by police for no good reason, subject to a brutal search, and then billed for the cost of his own abuse.

He was quickly handcuffed and falsely arrested. He was taken to a station to be strip-searched and then to a hospital, where doctors forcibly sedated him with a cocktail of powerful drugs, including one that clouded his memory of the incident.

A camera was inserted in his rectum, he was forced to vomit and his blood and urine were tested for drugs and alcohol. Scans of his digestive system were performed using X-ray machines, according to hospital records obtained by the Times Union.

The search, conducted without a search warrant, came up empty.

In all, Clement spent more than 10 hours in custody before being released with nothing more than an appearance ticket for resisting arrest -- a charge that was later dismissed.

Clement was billed $6,792 by the Albany Medical Center Hospital for the cost of his forcible drugging and ... well ... anal rape.

The egregious misconduct by Albany County Sheriff's Department deputies in the case is obvious. The Times-Union article rightly expends much ink on the history of abusive and, apparently, racially motivated searches conducted by police at that bus terminal.

But what about the doctors and nurses who voluntarily participated in the violation of this man's rights?

[J]ust before noon, Clement -- fully shackled and still in custody for a minor offense -- shuffled into Albany Medical Center Hospital with a phalanx of cops at his side, hospital records show.

He was locked in a gurney and listened anxiously as a group of doctors and nurses debated the cops' request to have Clement forcibly sedated so his body could be searched for drugs.

The doctors asked Clement to sign a consent form, but he refused.

The medical records show one of the doctors placed a call to the hospital's risk management director to assess the liability exposure of what they were about to do.

In some cases, prisoners or people under arrest can be forcibly sedated without a court order if they are in imminent danger, such as when a bag of drugs bursts open inside them and they begin to have a seizure or fall unconscious. But the hospital's records indicate Clement was behaving normally and showed no signs of any medical emergency.

"Spoke to Shirley of Risk Management," a physician wrote, documenting the medical decision-making that afternoon. "OK to treat, sedate & remove FOB (foreign object body) against (patient's) will despite his personal refusal."

Note that police had no search warrant. Even if a warrant had been presented, medical personnel are under no obligation to cooperate with police in inflicting such an ordeal on a prisoner. The article refers to one San Francisco hospital's refusal to cooperate with police, and I quickly found another such incident from Davidson County, Tennessee in which doctors balked at even drawing blood without the subject's approval. There seems to be plenty of precedent for declining to forcibly administer powerful drugs and then insert equipment into an unwilling patient's rectum without a really good reason.

So what excuse do the medical personnel at Albany Medical Center Hospital have for committing battery upon Tunde Clement?

The hospital administration seems to have clammed up, but I can think of two different rationales for the actions of the doctors and nurses at that scene.

Most or all of the people present may have been the kind of creatures who think the police can do no wrong. They may have willingly collaborated in the brutalization of a fellow human being.

Or maybe the doctors and nurses were intimidated by overbearing police officers. Perhaps, surrounded by ticked-off deputies with a reputation for working outside the bounds of the law, they grudgingly cooperated with the egregious civil rights violation.

Dissenters in the room may have walked away and refused to participate, or else swallowed their pride for fear of their jobs.

I lean toward the willing-collaborators explanation. Emergency room docs -- and this was almost certainly in the emergency room -- are, by and large (yes, I'm generalizing here in a big way), cowboy adrenaline junkies with minimal empathy. They don't intimidate easily, and they don't spend loads of time agonizing over moral quandaries. They're also likely to laugh at cops who get in their faces. "Were you counting on anesthesia the next time a uniform shows up in my ER?" is a not-unlikely rejoinder to any police officer who tries to get emergency room staffers to do what they don't want to do.

But either way, medical personnel, like the rest of us, are responsible for their actions. In the absence of guns at their heads, doctors and nurses must answer for the things they do -- even if those things are performed at the request of state officials.

You don't get a moral get-out-of-jail-free card because the cops said "pretty please" before you agreed to participate in a horrible civil rights violation.

As much as I hope the Albany County Sheriff's Department is penalized for its conduct in this matter (and its overall history of conducting abusive searches) I also think the administration and some staff members at the Albany Medical Center Hospital also need to answer for their actions. As the Clement case makes abundantly clear, collaborators make possible rights violations that don't need to happen. Hospital personnel couldn't have undone Clement's arrest, but they could have refused to enable -- and had no right to participate in -- the rest of the man's ordeal.

Let's hope Tunde Clement's lawsuit against both institutions makes him a wealthy man -- and the cops and doctors of Albany just a little more thoughtful.

Labels: , ,

Monday, May 12, 2008

You mean Americans are still polarized?

Remember all that talk of "political polarization" that was all the rage earlier this decade? Americans were supposedly dividing into bitterly opposed camps, reading one set of political books to the exclusion of opposing ideas and socializing only with like-minded acquaintances. That's all gone now that we're in a postpartisan age in which--

Oh bullshit. Polarization is back.

Say William A. Galston and Pietro S. Nivola of the Brookings Institution in the New York Times:

The share of Democrats who could be called conservative has shrunk, and so has the share of liberal Republicans. The American National Election Studies asks voters a series of issues-based questions and then arrays respondents along a 15-point scale from -7 (the most liberal) to +7 (the most conservative). These data indicate that 41 percent of the voters in 1984 were located at or near the midpoint of the ideological spectrum, compared with only 28 percent in 2004. Meanwhile, the percentage of voters clustering toward the left and right tails of the spectrum rose from 10 to 23 percent.

Most strikingly, political polarization has become akin to political segregation. You are less likely to live near someone whose politics differ from your own. It’s well known that fewer states are competitive in presidential races than in decades past. We find similar results at the county level. In 1976, only 27 percent of voters lived in landslide counties where one candidate prevailed by 20 points or more. By 2004, 48 percent of voters lived in such counties.

Galston and Nivola say that Americans are self-segregating into communities that broadly share their values and attitudes. That doesn't just concentrate people in places where they hear no dissenting views; it actually exaggerates the views that already hold. That's because "once a tipping point is reached, majorities tend to become supermajorities. This is consistent with the findings of recent political science and social psychology: individuals in the minority of their group tend to shift their views toward the majority, while members of the majority become more extreme in their views. In such circumstances, discussions within groups often intensify, rather than moderate, the underlying polarization."

That squares with phenomena I've noticed among the circles in which I move. I have friends in both Flagstaff (predominantly liberal) and the Verde Valley (mostly conservative). Dropping in on a gathering of either crew can be like visiting an echo chamber -- there's not much diversity of opinion. The Flagstaff types almost never encounter people who favor, for example, loosening economic regulations or firming up property rights. The Verde Valley residents just don't run into people who believe in the right to choose abortion or support teaching kids about contraception.

And this isn't exactly a hardcore area; live-and-let-live still holds a lot of sway in Arizona. Many of those Flagstaff liberals are gun owners, for example, and many of the Verde Valley conservatives believe in reining in police power.

But in areas where there's common agreement, there's a total inability to comprehend how anybody could come to a countervailing opinion because they just don't usually run into people who voice an opposing view.

Take that phenomenon to Cambridge, Massachusetts, or Provo, Utah, and ... well ... Oh, Hell. I used to work in Cambridge. I know exactly what the result is -- think, the Stepford Commies.

But why, after over two centuries of American politics, is so much of the electorate now polarizing and drawing into camps so separate that they don't even socialize or live near one another?

As I've written before, I think it's because the stakes have grown so large.

[G]overnment has so intruded into every nook and cranny of modern life that Americans have real reason to fear the outcome when their opponents control the levers of political power.

Take the controversy over gay marriage as an example. Politicians debate the merits of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, but there's no real reason that marriage of any sort should be a public policy issue. New York didn't require marriage licenses until 1908 and many states that required licenses earlier provided for private alternatives, such as publishing banns.

Likewise, private ownership of firearms and personal use of marijuana were regulated by states and localities, if at all, into the 1930s. Entangled in federal law in 2004, guns and dope now serve as defining issues for many Americans, and can decide the outcome of elections.

Even Americans' mealtimes are subject to official scrutiny. The federal government is rolling out an advertising campaign to nag people about their eating habits, and some public health groups want to impose high taxes on so-called �junk food� to discourage its consumption.

Who can blame Americans for being at-daggers-drawn when marital arrangements and lunch menus are at the mercy of the victors in the next election?

In his 1955 book, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, historian Jacob L. Talmon wrote that liberal democracy "recognizes a variety of levels of personal and collective endeavour, which are altogether outside the sphere of politics." In contrast, "totalitarian democracy treats all human thought and action as having social significance, and therefore as falling within the orbit of political action."

That sounds familiar. Over the years, Americans have turned a country in which most areas of human life "are altogether outside the sphere of politics" into one in which every detail of life is treated as "falling within the orbit of political action."

This election, we have presidential candidates discussing a government takeover of health-care decisions, talking about marching Americans in unison for the good of some national purpose and otherwise dismissing the idea that anything is beyond the reach of the state.

If everything is subject to electoral outcomes, then people who hold views at odds with your own aren't just political opponents; they're enemies who want to reshape your life according to values you consider abhorrent. Why would you want to mingle with them?

This isn't the sort of a divide you cross with a warm and fuzzy PR campaign. If you want to reverse political polarization, you have to reduce what's at stake in political contests. Put more areas of human life off-limits to government intervention so that a victory by the political opposition just doesn't matter so damned much.

Labels: ,

Gone but not forgotten (on the bestseller list)

With Ron Paul's The Revolution number one on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list and number six on's overall bestseller list, I'd say the congressman from Texas isn't going away any time soon. Paul's libertarian-conservative presidential effort may not have caught fire, but he seems to be leaving a political movement in his wake as his legacy. Hopefully, it's a political movement that will help to swell the ranks, coffers and batteries of enthusiasm of the larger libertarian movement.

And that's all for the good.

Given a choice this year between an autocratic militarist who voices overt disdain for America's tradition of skepticism toward government on the one hand, and an economically pink elitist who thinks the federal government just can't spend enough, the best thing that could possibly come out of this year's presidential campaign (unless twin meteors wipe out the two major-party conventions) is a Paul-energized mass movement for small government and personal freedom.

Will it be purist libertarian? Who gives a shit? It'll inevitably be better than the overwhelming state-worship that's stinking up the rest of mainstream American politics.

I'm enjoying this year's chaotic election season, but I'm not looking forward to next inauguration day. It'd be nice to think that the give and take of the current political circus just might pave the way for positive future developments.


Friday, May 9, 2008

All hail the guy who isn't your guy

A new poll (PDF) from Diageo/The Hotline shows that, to a much greater extent than is the case for the Democratic candidates, John McCain's supporters are rallying less to back him than to oppose the donkey party.

That's supposed to be a sign of Republican weakness I guess, and it's sure a sign of tepid enthusiasm for the GOP's presumptive nominee, but it strikes me as probably a lot healthier than the potential alternative.

Placing faith in a politician is a sucker's bet -- they're mostly power-hungry sociopaths who will do or say anything in order to attain office. (Did somebody say "Hillary Clinton"?) So the cult of personality that has come to surround Barack Obama -- and which even his followers are capable of recognizing and mocking -- is a little unsettling. Should a mere political candidate hold that much meaning to so many people and consume so much energy and attention that could otherwise go to more sensible pursuits such as family, friends and Internet porn?

Republicans are capable of their own man-on-a-white-horse fantasies of course. Many conservatives want an imperial president -- McCain just isn't the Caesar they have in mind.

Given the harsh realities of politics, I think a lot fewer Americans will be disappointed come November, if they go to the polls with the idea that they'll be voting against rather than for.


Thursday, May 8, 2008

Philly's finest in a candid moment

Eventually, one of these days, cops will begin to realize that their flip-outs, tantrums, rampages and general acts of misbehavior are increasingly likely to be caught by somebody's camera.

I'll admit, though, I'm a bit puzzled as to how these Philadelphia enforcers of law and order didn't figure out that folks in the helicopter hovering above them just might be taking an interest in the beating they were laying on three suspects.

Most of the officers on the scene have been pulled from the street.

Update: The video has been pulled from YouTube for copyright reasons, but can be seen at Fox 29 here.

Labels: ,

NAACP joins Dibor Roberts case

Family reasons (fatigue from chasing after a 2 1/2-year-old) kept me away from the rally for Dibor Roberts at Windmill Park in Cornville. But I'm happy to see that somebody rather more important than me did make it: the Rev. Oscar Tillman, president of the Maricopa County Chapter of the NAACP. He has asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the case and determine if Roberts's civil rights were violated in the course of her harrowing encounter with Sergeant Jeff Newnum.

Since the NAACP is now involved, I'll say that I have yet to see evidence that racism was at the root of Newnum's misconduct on the night of July 29, 2007. It could be a matter of bigotry, but I suspect that Newnum didn't even know that Roberts was black until he'd forced her car off the road.

More likely, I think, Newnum was acting in accord with the common mindset among police officers that says that police are due instant and complete obedience at all times by members of the public. We've seen evidence of that attitude repeatedly and, increasingly, on video, in instances where civilians have hesitated or -- worse -- asked questions during encounters with the forces of law and order. Police now act like occupation troops, and those of us lacking badges and uniforms are expect to be dutifully submissive as members of a subject population.

If I had to guess, I'd say that Sergeant Newnum flew into a rage over the fact that a mere civilian looked for a safe place to pull over rather than instantly coming to a halt along a dark, deserted road.

But it's beyond doubt that Dibor Roberts's rights were violated, and I'm encouraged to see an organization with the clout and resources of the NAACP come to her assistance.

Labels: , , ,

Cory Maye case gets video treatment has posted an excellent video, narrated by Drew Carey, about the horrible injustice being done to Cory Maye. If you're not familiar with the case, Maye was dozing in a living room chair one night, in December 2001, when he was awakened by the sound of somebody trying to break down his front door. He fled to a bedroom where his 18-month-old daughter was sleeping, retrieved a handgun, and prepared to defend himself in the darkened room.

Intruders rapidly forced their way into the house, and into the bedroom. Maye fired three times.

He killed a man -- Officer Ron Jones, the son of Prentiss, Mississippi's police chief. Jones was apparently there to raid Maye's neighbor, a known drug dealer, although the warrant was for both apartments of the duplex.

Maye claims he had no idea the raiders were police. The jury didn't believe him. He's been in prison ever since -- originally on death row, though he's now serving a life sentence.

Maye's attorney was later declared incompetent, the medical examiner who testified on behalf of the prosecution is now the subject of national scrutiny over his credentials and integrity, and the confidential informant relied upon by police has revealed himself as a vicious racist.

The journalistic footwork on Maye's plight has been done by Radley Balko, who is truly one of the best ink-stained wretches in the country today. His original article is here. Balko's continuing blog coverage of the case is here.

And the video is here:

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

For peddling a buzz, Cindy McCain gets rich and Greg Gibson serves hard time

What's the reward for selling Americans a little stress relief? If you're the wife of a presidential candidate with her hand in the beer trade, it can mean tens of millions of dollars. But if you're just a guy who peddles the wrong buzz-delivery system, it can be years of hard time.

Hensley & Co. is a major dealer in a popular intoxicant that was once illegal but is now enjoyed by millions of Americans. As the third-largest Anheuser-Busch wholesaler in the United States, Hensley & Co. has made company chairman Cindy McCain, Senator John McCain's wife, wealthy to the tune of about $100 million through its network of 5,000 accounts and over 600 vehicles.

Gregory Alan Gibson allegedly spent a couple of years transporting shipments of a popular intoxicant around the United States, but not in one of Cindy McCain's trucks. Instead, according to Maricopa County, Arizona, prosecutors and jurors, he was paid $4,000, $8,000, or $12,000 at a time to drive shipments of an intoxicant that's still illegal: marijuana. Like one of Hensley's drivers (although he was certainly better-paid), Gibson drove shipments where he was told, and was paid a fee for his services.

Cindy McCain may get deluxe taxpayer-funded quarters in the White House as a partial result of the wealth and connections that come with masterminding sales of her preferred intoxicant. For transporting shipments of his preferred intoxicant, Greg Gibson has already spent years in somewhat less-splendid taxpayer-funded quarters at the Great Plains Correctional Facility, a privately run prison that houses many of Arizona's convicted lawbreakers far from home in Hinton, Oklahoma. And a life of financial ruin along with the dodgy status of a convicted felon awaits him upon his release from prison.

Gibson became a statistic in the war on drugs on March 25, 2003 -- the day his guilty verdicts were handed down. He was sentenced to concurrent prison terms resulting in ten years behind bars, and fined $150,000 for each of twelve counts, plus surcharges of 60%.

Greg Gibson came to my attention courtesy of his fiancee, Melissa. She contacted me after reading a post I wrote in February on the large population of non-violent drug offenders in American prisons. She wrote to me with some trepidation, concerned that corrections authorities might retaliate against Gibson for bringing his case to light -- perhaps by transferring him to a less desirable prison. The reaction of other defendants in the case, particularly those who testified for reduced sentences, was also a concern. In the end, Melissa told me that they decided to go ahead and seek whatever publicity they could get for his situation.

The crimes Gibson was convicted of consisted of Illegally Conducting an Enterprise, Conspiracy and twelve counts of Transfer for Sale, Sale or Transfer of Marijuana. There's not a crime against property in the lot -- let alone a conviction for even the most minor act of violence.

But as non-violent as his "crimes" were, and despite the fact that about a third of Americans think the activities for which he was convicted should be perfectly legal, Gibson will be cooling his heels for a long time to come. According to the Arizona Department of Corrections Website, Gibson won't be eligible for release until, at best, August 7, 2011. At that time, he'll owe the Arizona Drug Enforcement Fund $2,888,000 -- the total of twelve separate fines of $150,000, plus 60%.

By contrast, when Clifton Bennett, the 18-year-old son of then Arizona state Senate President Ken Bennett, was found guilty in 2006 of sodomizing 18 boys, he received a rather lenient 30 days in jail and three years probation, with the likelihood of no permanent criminal record.

Even people without connections who are convicted of serious crimes get less severe sentences than Gibson did for transporting marijuana. In May of this year, Jonathan David Alldredge received 4 1/2 years in prison for shooting a man to death outside a diner in Lake Havasu City. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter.

And Nicholas David Torres was sentenced to a 3 1/2 years in prison plus five years of probation for beating an elderly man with a baseball bat.

One year is the sentence handed down to Felipe Mazo, for killing a woman in a hit-and-run car accident.

Unfortunately, this disparity between sentences handed down for crimes of violence and abuse of minors on the one hand, and non-violent drug offenses on the other, isn't confined to Gibson's case. In Arizona Prison Crisis: A Call for Smart on Crime Solutions (PDF), a report prepared in 2004 for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, authors Judith Greene and Kevin Pranis point out that Arizona has the highest incarceration rate in the western U.S. and the ninth highest rate in the country.

Why? Well, according to Greene and Pranis, "Arizona’s high incarceration rate is driven by a rigid mandatory sentencing system that severely restricts judges’ discretion in imposing sentences and crowds prisons with non-violent substance abusers." A majority of Arizona's prisoners, they write, are non-violent offenders, with one-in-five behind bars for drug offenses.

In fact, say Greene and Pranis, in Arizona "[s]entences were longer for drug sales than for many violent crimes. The average sentence imposed for drug sales (4.3 years, including marijuana sales), was longer than the average sentence imposed for assault (four years) or weapons charges (3.8 years) and the same as the average sentence for arson."

Note that these lengthy sentences for non-violent drug crimes can be handed down even for first offences. The only other arrest mentioned in Gibson's court records is one in Missouri involving the same activity that resulted in his lengthy sentence in Arizona.

As I mentioned above, Greg Gibson won't be eligible for release until 2011. The long years of his already long sentence that Greg Gibson is expected to serve behind bars can be blamed on the state's "truth-in-sentencing" statute mandating that prisoners serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. Say Greene and Pranis, "Since the law was implemented in 1994, the average time served for non-violent offenses has increased far faster than the time served by violent and other serious person offenders."

It wasn't supposed to be this way. In 1996, Arizona voters passed a ballot initiative -- that year's Proposition 200 -- mandating that non-violent drug offenders arrested for simple possession or use of an illegal drug be sent to drug treatment instead of prison for their first and second offenses. But the measure only applied to use and possession. Once a commercial aspect entered the picture, government officials were not only free, but essentially required, to impose draconian sentences.

Those long sentences for selling officially disfavored intoxicants to willing customers aren't just draconian in their effects on the lives of the convicted, they also raise questions about the integrity of the process that puts them behind bars for such sizable chunks of their lives. Melissa insists that the witnesses against Gibson were much bigger players than he and that they spun tales to please the prosecution and win reduced sentences. I have no way of testing the veracity of the witnesses' testimony, but it's clear they had strong incentive to say whatever would please the prosecutors in the case.

See this exchange between a defense attorney and a prosecution witness against Gibson and his co-defendants.

Q. All right. So, no matter what you do or say, you are not going to get more than 175 months in prison, correct?

A. Correct.

Q. And then depending on what you do and say, you may get substantially less than that, correct?

A. Yes.

Q. All right. And depending on what you do and say here and in Detroit, you theoretically could end up with probation, couldn't you?

A. Yes. ....

Q. Okay. Now, you're obligated under the terms of that agreement to provide active assistance to the United States government in good faith, true?

A. True.

Q. That's in the plea agreement, right?

A. Yes.

Q. But the person who determines whether you have done that, whether you have complied with the agreement, is, in fact, the Assistant U.S. Attorney, correct?

A. Correct.

Q. It's not the judge or somebody else, is it?

A. Correct.

Note that another witness faced a possible sentence of 20 years in federal prison and 269 years in state prison that he was trying to mitigate through his testimony. That's a lot of time behind bars that might tempt anybody to polish the truth to whatever extent is necessary to win the favor of the people holding his freedom in the balance.

Manufacturing testimony is hardly a new phenomenon. As reported ten years ago by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and more recently by Reason magazine, jailhouse networks have sprung up to sell prisoners information they need to craft credible, but false, testimony in an effort to gain reduced sentences. According to the Post-Gazette, at least one man made hundreds of thousands of dollars selling inmates confidential data. Actual participants in a case don't need to buy information -- they already have the knowledge necessary to build a story capable of winning prosecutors' favor.

I'm not arguing that Greg Gibson is an angel. According to prosecutors in his case, he fled custody at one point and tried to bribe the bail bondsman who was sent to retrieve him.

But who can blame him?

Threatened with years of lost freedom for engaging in another victimless, but illegal, trade, Deborah Jeane Palfrey chose to hang herself. Desperation makes people do ... well ... desperate things.

But if Gibson isn't an angel, he's not a devil either. He didn't kill anybody, nor did he molest a single child, or assault an old man, and it's hard to see why he should face fines and prison time more harsh than that given to those who did.

In fact, it's hard to justify punishing Greg Gibson at all for dealing in the means to get a buzz when Cindy McCain is rewarded so richly for doing pretty much the same thing, and on a much larger scale.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Day off

No, I'm not dead -- I'm just taking a day off. I'll be back on Wednesday.

Incidentally, I'm working on a big post regarding sentencing for drug offences in Arizona. It'll be up within the next few days.

Monday, May 5, 2008

If you make up the crime, serve the time

Last night's 60 Minutes carried the moving story of the growing number of people sent to prison during the reign of infamous Dallas tough-guy District Attorney Henry Wade who are now being proven innocent and released because of the efforts of the Innocence Project and current DA Craig Watkins. After ten or twenty or more years behind bars without reason, it's remarkable that so many of the wrongly accused have lived long enough to see the light of day again and enjoy at least a modicum of compensation ($50,000 for each year of incarceration, or $100,000 per year if sentenced to death).

The immediate mechanism for the release of these falsely imprisoned Texans has largely been DNA but, in at least some cases, it seems that the original prosecutors deliberately withheld evidence that would have assisted the defense (the Dallas Morning News reports that about half of belated exonerations in the state, and three in Dallas County, involve withheld evidence). That's illegal, but it carries no penalty under law.

DA Watkins wants the power to bring criminal charges against prosecutors who withhold evidence. I think that's appropriate. But what should the penalty be?

Here's an idea: Any prosecutor who withholds exculpatory evidence in a trial, leading to the conviction and imprisonment of an innocent person, should have to serve as many years behind bars as that person did before being exonerated. There should be a minimum sentence, of course, so that any such misconduct carries serious prison time.

Depriving innocent people of their liberty is among the more despicable acts I can imagine.

Unfortunately, Henry Wade himself is immune from prosecution, having gone to Hell in 2001. But some of his staff must still be kicking around.

Labels: ,

The crime: embarrassing politicians

The Sunday Times of Western Australia ran a story revealing that the state government planned to use taxpayer funds as part of its reelection effort. So police raided the paper to find the source of the leak.

The department of Premier Alan Carpenter, a former journalist, admitted today making a complaint that led to the raid by 16 officers on the Perth newsroom of News Ltd's Sunday Times yesterday.

The fraud squad officers were trying to find who leaked information about a $16 million advertising bill for taxpayers to help get the WA government re-elected.

During the raid all exits at the Sunday Times building in Perth's inner-east were blocked and staff were subjected to bag searches when they left.

The article, written by staff reporter Paul Lampathakis and published in February, quoted "government sources'' as saying the money was to be spent on strategic advertising campaigns ahead of an upcoming election.

It said Treasurer Eric Ripper, as chairman of the cabinet sub-committee on communication, had "urgently'' asked the expenditure review committee, which he chaired, for $5.25 million for the first half of the year and a further $10.75 million until July next year.

A search warrant executed by police was for documents relating to information held by Sunday Times employees about the investigation, including notes, scribblings and computer and phone records.

Don't anybody pass this story along to the White House.

Thanks to Anonymous, who pointed the way to this story in the comments to the latest Joe Arpaio post.

Labels: ,

Friday, May 2, 2008

Yummy conservation

I am forever looking for new and exotic things to put on the dinner table. I always search for the wild game items on restaurant menus. I own a guide to the edible plants of Arizona and I've harvested mesquite beans and picked prickly pear fruit. I've also shot a variety of cute, cuddly critters, all in the search for something different and delicious. Now, it seems, I've been doing a public service -- well, at least to the extent that I have adventurous tastes that help fuel demand for otherwise neglected foods. Says the New York Times:

SOME people would just as soon ignore the culinary potential of the Carolina flying squirrel or the Waldoboro green neck rutabaga. To them, the creamy Hutterite soup bean is too obscure and the Tennessee fainting goat, which keels over when startled, sounds more like a sideshow act than the centerpiece of a barbecue.

But not Gary Paul Nabhan. He has spent most of the past four years compiling a list of endangered plants and animals that were once fairly commonplace in American kitchens but are now threatened, endangered or essentially extinct in the marketplace. He has set out to save them, which often involves urging people to eat them.

Nabhan has put together a book, Renewing America’s Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent’s Most Endangered Foods, on just this subject. It sounds ... tasty.

Don't forget to thank me for my personal efforts.


Thursday, May 1, 2008

Arpaio's junta sued for attack on the free press

Generalissimo ... err ... Sheriff Joe Arpaio, of Maricopa County, Arizona, has landed himself in yet more legal hot water with his insistence on modeling his conduct on that of Robert Mugabe and Hugo Chavez. His jailing of two Phoenix New Times executives has resulted in a lawsuit against Arpaio, County Attorney Andrew Thomas and Dennis Wilenchik, a former special county prosecutor. The lawsuit, which makes fascinating reading (PDF), alleges: negligence; gross negligence; violations of constitutional rights (including violations of free speech, false imprisonment and retaliatory conduct by law enforcement) and conspiracy and racketeering.

The lawsuit includes a detailed summary of the conflict between Maricopa County's ruling junta and the crusading weekly newspaper. In short, though, the New Times has long disliked Arpaio and his cronies, accusing them of civil liberties violations, abuse of power and unethical conduct. In an article on Arpaio's curiously substantial real estate investments for a man who makes a modest income, the New Times published Arpaio's publicly available home address. This ran afoul of an almost-certainly unconstitutional state law forbidding such publication on the Web, but not in any other medium. After prolonged and unsuccessful attempts to get another county to handle the case, Maricopa County officials appointed a special prosecutor who subpoenaed information from the New Times, including names and addresses of its online readers, as well as details of what those readers viewed online. After county officials attempted to set up an inappropriate meeting with the judge handling the case, the New Times published details about the subpoena. County officials promptly arrested Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, founders of the Phoenix New Times and executives with Village Voice Media.

And that's how we ended up here.

This case is important enough on its own merits, dealing as it does with free speech and abuse of power. It has special importance, though, for Maricopa County residents because the Phoenix New Times is the only media outlet in the area to consistently challenge Joe Arpaio and company's history of self-aggrandizement, bigotry, civil rights violations, ethical lapses, and the tens of millions of dollars accrued in civil settlements. Other Arizona newspapers and even the national press have belatedly begun to pay attention to the excesses of the Maricopa junta, but Arpaio has been in office for 16 years and is running for reelection this year. Only the New Times has kept the spotlight on the sheriff and his cronies through all of those years.

So Maricopa County's jailing of Lacey and Larkin wasn't just an abuse of power and a violation of civil liberties; it was an attempt to muzzle the one journalistic enterprise that has been a thorn in the side of county officials for a decade-and-a-half.

As Joe Arpaio knows, America just isn't as far as we'd like to think from turning its own locally grown egomaniacs into tin-pot dictators.

Labels: , , ,

San Tan Flat customers to boogie down

Pinal County, Arizona's bizarre crusade against San Tan Flat, a popular bar and restaurant, has come to an end, with victory for the establishment's owners and for would-be dancers everywhere.

Pinal County Superior Court Judge William O'Neil overturned a decision from the county Board of Supervisors that said the country-Western-themed restaurant was operating an illegal dance hall by allowing patrons to dance to live music on its back patio. ...

The Board of Supervisors had said [owner Dale] Bell violated a zoning ordinance from 1962 that bans outdoor dance halls. The county contended the ordinance was designed to prevent excessive or disruptive noise and threatened to fine Bell $700 a day for each day he was found out of compliance.

But O'Neil said the wording of the ordinance has nothing to do with noise. He added that Bell's business and profits rely on food and beverage sales, not dancing.

County officials knew full well that San Tan Flat would have noise, sell liquor and have a stage and "at each step they approved" Bell's plans for the building in the rural area near Ellsworth Road and Hunt Highway, O'Neil said. ...

Bell opened his business in November 2005 and said the county should have objected to the project before they let him build it. Bell sued the county for $1, saying the dance-hall ordinance violated his constitutional right to freely run his business.

"That $1 is about freedom and about civil liberties and the government not being allowed to overreach," Bell said Wednesday.

Judge O'Neil threw in a few slaps at San Tan Flat owner Dale Bell for having had the temerity to operate the place, but agreed that he had dotted every "i" and crossed every "t" on the way to opening San Tan Flat's doors.

Labels: , ,