Thursday, July 31, 2008

Legalize marijuana -- if only for the votes

Even Rep. Barney Frank doesn't think much of the chances for his proposal to legalize the possession and non-commercial transfer of small quantities of marijuana, a measure co-sponsored by Rep. Ron Paul. Frank reportedly joked that the bill doesn't have a "high chance" of passing. That's a shame, because it's a good step toward getting the government out of the business of telling consenting adults what they can and can't buy, sell and -- most importantly -- put into their own bodies.

The text of the bill, H.R. 5843, is short and to the point:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no penalty may be imposed under an Act of Congress for the possession of marijuana for personal use, or for the not-for-profit transfer between adults of marijuana for personal use. For the purposes of this section, possession of 100 grams or less of marijuana shall be presumed to be for personal use, as shall the not-for-profit transfer of one ounce or less of marijuana, except that the civil penalty provided in section 405 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 844a) may be imposed for the public use of marijuana if the amount of the penalty does not exceed $100.

Of course, Congress has rarely shown much interest in expanding the range of human liberty, whether it's run by currently triumphant Democrats or previously dominant Republicans.

But even if our current crop of legislative overlords are uninspired by the prospect of freeing Americans from the threat of arrest, imprisonment and the occasional, lethal SWAT raid for evil weed, they may at least appreciate the Machiavellian advantage to be had in distinguishing themselves from their civil-liberties-trampling predecessors by building a coalition that nibbles at the Republican base. The alliance of liberal-Democrat Frank with libertarian-Republican Paul points the way to a future in which the donkey party benefits and grows its support by taking the lead on at least a few pro-liberty issues.

If even limited legalization of marijuana -- an increasingly popular policy -- is too ambitious for the timid politicos, Frank's and Paul's companion measure, H.R. 5842, to prevent the federal government from interfering with state-level permissiveness toward medical marijuana may provide safer harbor. Repeatedly approved at the ballot box, medical marijuana laws have proven widely popular with a majority of voters -- including three-fourths of those over 50.

C'mon, oh trend-setting lawmakers. If you won't support easing drug prohibition a tad for the sake of our freedom, do it for the political advantage.


Dibor Roberts gets a hearing in Phoenix magazine

Dibor Roberts, the Cottonwood woman brutalized by Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office Sergeant Jeff Newnum during a traffic stop along a deserted stretch of road, gets a nice write-up in Phoenix magazine. Importantly, author Jana Bommersbach notes that, in continuing along the road toward a better-lit, more heavily populated area, Roberts was doing exactly what Sheriff Steve Waugh advised people to do -- advice that has been recorded and is available on the Web. Despite heeding that advice, she was forced from the road by a law-enforcement officer, had her window smashed in and was dragged from the vehicle. She ended up with a felony conviction on her record.

So much for heeding official advice.

There was a witness at the scene of the confrontation -- Colin Bass -- about whom Bommersbach points out some troubling facts.
By then, passerby Colin Bass of Rimrock drove up, noted the open SUV door and thought the officer might need help. The police report from that night says this: “Bass said he drove by the police SUV and saw glass on the street. Bass said he then saw a police officer attempting to pull a female out of a vehicle…. Bass said Roberts was resisting and being combative.”

That was about all the original police report said about Bass, although his story would get more elaborate and suspicious: Bass, who claims to be a stranger to the officer, says that since Newnum had both hands busy pulling Roberts from the car, he took the flashlight from the officer’s belt, next to his gun, to signal any oncoming car. Even Newnum says a passerby “used my flashlight to assist in traffic control.”

OK, I’m not a police officer, but I know enough officers to know none of them would ever allow anyone to get near their weapon. (A veteran officer I know said this scenario is “absurd.”)

Eventually, Bass would embroider his story to back up the officer’s claim that this was a woman intentionally fleeing from a cop. Significantly, he would claim to hear her on her cell phone asking her husband how to get away – the same thing Sergeant Newnum testified he heard.

But the evidence shows this isn’t true.

First, Bass didn’t even arrive on the scene until the window was already smashed and the cell phone was in the gravel. Second, if Newnum couldn’t hear her “inaudible” screams through the closed window, how could he hear her cell phone conversation? But most significantly, cell phone records from that night show Dibor Roberts made no calls during the time of the altercation. Her husband’s cell phone records show he received no calls, either. Even Yavapai County Sheriff Steve Waugh admitted records show there was “no attempt to call her husband or call 9-1-1.” (Regrettably, Roberts’ attorney didn’t even bring up the cell phone records during the trial. Duh.)

But curiously, Bass did testify to something everybody else wanted to deny. Both Newnum and his sheriff insisted there was no reason to believe Roberts didn’t know there was a legitimate cop trailing her – that she was just avoiding arrest. But Bass said he heard Dibor Roberts, again and again, telling the officer she “was trying to get to the lights.” He heard her repeatedly ask the officer, “Why are you doing this? I did what I was supposed to do.”

This makes Bass a most curious witness: He clearly lied to help the officer but also said the one thing the Yavapai County Attorney’s Office didn’t want anyone to believe – that this woman was only trying to get to a lighted area for her own safety.

The Phoenix piece comes at an important moment -- as Dibor Roberts and her husband Merrill try to recruit an attorney to appeal Dibor's sentence. The Roberts family doesn't have the $15,000-$25,000 they're being quoted, and have had no luck convincing an attorney to take the case pro bono.

That likely leaves Dibor Roberts with a felony conviction on her record -- and therefore unable to use the nursing degree toward which she has been working.

That is, unless sufficient publicity can swing support and funds in her direction.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Campaign finance 'reform' surrendering to free speech?

Writing for the National Journal, Eliza Newlin Carney says that the days of strict government limits on how people support their preferred candidates and even what they can say about the power-hungry creatures may be limited.

But the high court's 5-4 vote in Davis v. Federal Election Commission [PDF] on June 26 could resonate broadly. Some political scientists say the ruling threatens public financing rules at the state level. Others see trouble ahead for the existing campaign finance regime now that the Supreme Court boasts a solid majority of five justices more enamored with the First Amendment than with restrictive election laws.

The Davis ruling was the third straight Supreme Court victory for pro-First Amendment conservative activists, who have mounted a series of legal challenges that have systematically chipped away at both the BCRA and the post-Watergate law known as the Federal Election Campaign Act.

The ruling came on the heels of another Supreme Court finding last year that rolled back campaign finance limits on unregulated "issue" ads that picture or name a candidate on the eve of an election. The BCRA, also known as the McCain-Feingold law, had barred corporations and unions from using treasury funds to pay for such ads. But in Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life [PDF], the Supreme Court rejected those limits as unconstitutional.

Carney goes on to quote Prof. Richard L. Hasen of Loyola Law School saying. "We could well be looking at a situation where the only campaign finance laws that are constitutional are disclosure laws and voluntary public financing systems."

Separately, Hasen has credited Justice Clarence Thomas as a leading influence steering the Supreme Court back toward greater respect for political free speech.

Since the beginning of his tenure on the Court, Justice Thomas has occupied one of the polar positions on the campaign-finance issue: a clear, deregulatory position. (At the other pole is Justice Stephen Breyer, whose “participatory self government” rationale would allow for greater consideration of equality in balancing First Amendment rights and government interests 1). Thomas’ steadfastness and clarity on this issue appears to have opened up space for additional justices to move toward his position on the issue. ...

Justice Thomas’ influence in this area could soon gain majority status. In WRTL, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito issued an opinion that did not go quite so far as the other three deregulatory justices would go, but it still significantly cut back the reach of the McConnell opinion, thereby allowing more corporate and union election-related ads to be paid for out of treasury funds. The chief justice’s opinion reads like a Justice Thomas opinion, full of paeans to the First Amendment and the value of free political debate, unfettered by campaign-finance rules. ...

The court's pro-free-speech decision in Davis may be evidence that other justices are coming over to Thomas's relatively strong stance on the First Amendment.

In fact, many legal scholars have been closely watching (PDF) the Roberts court's new respect for the First Amendment and its growing willingness to let people express themselves without jumping through regulatory hoops and risking penalties.

That's happy news, because campaign finance "reform" has proven to favor, through its byzantine regulations, sophisticated, establishment players in the political marketplace, at the expense of grassroots activists ill-equipped to negotiate rules that can threaten people who so much as put up yard signs without proper registration or disclosure with fines.

Bradley A. Smith, the former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, has extensively documented the muzzling effects of campaign finance laws. In a July 2007 article for City Journal, he warned, "Campaign finance reform is creating an intrusive regulatory regime that’s steadily eroding Americans’ political freedoms. Making matters worse, it does little or nothing to combat corruption."

Smith documents abuses of the law, including attacks on grassroots groups and efforts (some successful) to prevent the release of politically sensitive documentaries in the months prior to elections.

Nor are such cases rare. While serving on the FEC from 2000 to 2005, I kept a file of letters from political amateurs caught in the maw of campaign finance laws. Many of these people had no lawyers; none had the least intent to corrupt any officeholder; all thought that they were fulfilling their civic duty by their involvement in campaigns.

A Texas dentist wrote: “It is 5:30 PM on Good Friday. Today, like many days previous, I have taken time away from my business and my family to respond to the Commission. . . . I am being pursued by the Commission to pay over $30,000 from my personal funds.”

A CPA who had served as a volunteer campaign treasurer, and who was facing over $7,000 in fines for improper reporting, wrote: “No job I have ever undertaken caused me more stress than this one. I was frightened and concerned every day that I would do something wrong.”

Another volunteer treasurer asked the Commission to waive its fines: “We were just honest, hard working, tax paying Americans who wanted to make a difference . . . at this point, we are so disillusioned with the [legal] difficulty of running for office that we wonder why anyone other than a professional would attempt to do so.”

A retired high school teacher wrote: “I taught, and believe, that we have the best government in the world. I was happy to be part of the process. . . . I made every attempt to comply and am now being fined $600 for a misunderstanding.” The letters flowed in—from lawyers, teachers, doctors, retirees, all facing investigations and fines for their volunteer political activity. One summed up: “I will NEVER be involved with a political campaign again.”

It's difficult to review the data without concluding that a deterrent effect on political participation is intended by at least some advocates of campaign finance restrictions. That reserves the field for savvy professionals working on behalf of well-connected candidates and causes, and pushes the messy amateurs to the fringes. There, the amateurs are limited to voting "yes" or "no" to whatever the pros put on the ballot, based on whatever information and arguments the pros let slip to the public -- or they can just give up on the whole business.

So recent decisions by the Supreme Court moving -- however incrementally -- to favor the First Amendment at the expense of phony "reform" is welcome to anybody who cares about free speech. Courting the public and suffering heckling from the cheap seats may annoy the political pros, but it's an integral part of any political system that isn't an overt farce.


Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Get ready for helicopter government

"Helicopter parents" -- overinvolved, overbearing, moms and dads who just won't let their offspring venture into the world without a protective, hovering presence -- have made the news repeatedly over the past few years. This being summer, a new crop of articles detailing the woes sleep-away camp administrators are facing with clingy parents is making the rounds.

Hey, it's better than more presidential campaign coverage.

Anyway, from Lenore Skenazy via the Creators Syndicate:

So we have come to the point where children have to soothe their parents' separation anxiety. Next thing you know, they're going to have to send care packages.

Or maybe not, because the camps already are taking care of that. More and more have started posting the addictive parental treat of daily online camper snapshots.

"We promised our daughter $1 for every time we see her picture on the Web site," the parent of an 11-year-old camper, Texan Caryn Kboudi, said. This way, her daughter knows to look for the camera and make sure she gets her picture taken a lot. Meanwhile, mom can check the Web site 10 times a day — literally — to look for her.

Parents want written updates, too. "We're forced to tell parents everything the kids have done," said June Ingraham, spokeswoman for camp Sail Caribbean. "Like, 'They sailed from point A to point B; they went on land; they took a hike; they got ice cream at a local shop and stir-fry for dinner.' We put everything in there so that parents can live vicariously."

If feeding parental clinginess sounds to you like a losing strategy, you're right. Says the New York Times:
Starting about seven years ago, camps tried to satiate parents’ need to know by uploading pictures of kids at play daily to password-protected Web sites, a one-way communication tool that seemed to respect the sleep-away tradition of maintaining distance. But such real-time glimpses often aggravate the problem, as the obsessed become obsessed with what they are seeing — or not seeing.

“I have parents calling and saying they saw their child in the background of a picture of other children and he didn’t look happy, or his face looked red, has he been putting on enough suntan lotion, or I haven’t seen my child and I have seen a lot of other children, is my child so depressed he doesn’t want to be in a picture,” said Jay Jacobs, who has run Timber Lake Camp in Shandaken, N.Y., since 1980.

“In previous years, parents would understand that we were out in the field with children, and we’d get back to you after dinner when we had freer time,” said Mr. Jacobs, who has fielded inquiries from parents about what day the water trampoline would be fixed and whether a particular child still loved his mother after a promised package failed to arrive. “Now a parent calling at 11 will be off the charts if they don’t have a response by 1 or 1:30.”

Parents, says the Times, are even helping their kids smuggle forbidden cell phones into camp. They send two phones: one to be easily detected and surrendered, and a backup for actual use.

This is just nuts, of course. Frankly, when I was a kid, my parents were happy for the occasional opportunity to get rid of my sister and me. We couldn't afford more than a taste of day camp, so they sent us off to my grandmother. Grandma had an old-fashioned party-line telephone, which didn't stand up to excessive use, let alone helicopter-style monitoring. After some initial adjustment, my sister and I were fine. It taught us a little independence.

Party-line? Did I just write that? Wow, I'm dating myself.

Honestly, though, the smothering treatment helicopter parents inflict on nine-year-old campers isn't as frightening as what they do to theoretically adult college students -- or worse, to college graduates who have entered the job market.
At Hewlett-Packard, parents have gone as far as contacting the company after their child gets a job offer. They want to talk about their son's or daughter's salary, relocation packages and scholarship programs.

"Parents are contacting us directly," says Betty Smith, a university recruiting manager at HP. "This generation is not embarrassed by it. They're asking for parents' involvement."

She recalls one job fair in Texas "where the parent was there at our booth asking about benefits." The company has trained recruiters in how to handle parents.

Cell phones have taken some of the blame -- it's so easy to intervene in children's lives that parents so inclined can't resist. The digital umbilical cord replaces the real thing.

But there's more to it than that when parents are calling up HR people on behalf of twenty-something "kids." For some reason, many parents just aren't letting their offspring be independent adults. They're infantilizing men and women and depriving them of the opportunity to become full-grown human beings.

It'd be funny if it weren't so pathetic. OK, it is funny -- but it's still pathetic. And it concerns me ...

Really, what happens to the political culture when adults -- well, sort-of adults -- are accustomed to somebody always watching out for them, counseling them and bandaging their booboos? What becomes of the assumptions of individual responsibility that underpin (what's left of) a free society when teenagers become twenty-somethings, and then thirty-somethings, always with the shadow of hovering mom and dad cast across their lives?

Are these people really capable of functioning on their own, enjoying the fruits of their good decisions, suffering the fallout from the bad ones, and living as mature citizens of a free society?

Or will they always expect somebody to be there to pat their heads, make their decisions, fight their battles, and generally wipe their increasingly hairy butts as the years go by?

I think we know the answer to that. The children of helicopter parents are bound to become accustomed that hovering presence. Some will resent it and break free, but others ...

Others will happily turn to anybody who promises to institutionalize that shadow across their lives. And the people best equipped to make such promises are our ever-eager politicians.

If helicopter parenting is a current trend, helicopter government may be the wave of the future.


Monday, July 28, 2008

How about that 'nonlethal' Taser

So let me get this straight ...

Baron "Scooter" Pikes was handcuffed when Officer Scott Nugent, of Winnfield, Louisiana, began administering Taser shocks to him. At least some of those shocks were inflicted, says the medical examiner, while Pikes "was talking in the back seat of the car." According to that same ME, Pikes might well have been already dead by the time he received the last of the voltage that Nugent dished out, and therefore in little condition to engage in the sort of behavior that might be considered justification for such treatment.

And Officer Nugent was subsequently fired by the police department.

Yeah, I'd say the grand jury considering whether to indict the former police officer might be justified.

Let me add here that I'm not a reflexive Taser-hater. I think the idea of a less-lethal option to be used in situations that might otherwise call for deadly force is at least a theoretically good one.

The problem, though, is that the Taser isn't necessarily being used as a "but for this, the gun" alternative. Instead, too many police officers seem to be going to it as a first choice -- or simply using it as an instrument of abuse and torture, as one could reasonably infer from Officer Nugent's conduct. And since it's not a "nonlethal" weapon, but rather a "less-lethal" weapon, people are dying in circumstances where lives should not have been at risk -- 290 since 2001, according to Amnesty International.

Now, even media outlets in places generally deferential to authority are questioning Taser use. The police may ultimately lose the use of these devises -- which will be unfortunate for those situations when a properly deployed less-lethal devise is appropriate, but not such a terrible thing if it's going to frequently be used to abuse suspects.


Saturday, July 26, 2008

Eight reasons even the innocent shouldn't talk to the police

Catch more news and commentary about personal freedom at
Civil Liberties Examiner.

In one of the more engaging, convincing and easily understood presentations I've ever seen, Prof. James Duane of the Regent University School of Law explains why even angels devoid of the slightest moral blemish should never speak to police officers, tax collectors or other law-enforcement agents investigating crimes. Duane assumes no malice on the part of the police -- just human failings and motivations. In a 27-minute lecture, he details the legal pitfalls people can wander into even by telling the absolute truth.

Of course, "innocence" is relative. At the very beginning of the video, Prof. Duane addresses the -- literally -- unknowable extent to which federal laws and regulations have grown, so that even the government itself has no idea how many punishable offenses there are. It's very easy for people with clean consciences to admit to violating laws and regulations they never knew existed.

What about the other side of the debate?

Responding in the same classroom to Prof. Duane, Office George Bruch of the Virginia Beach Police Department says ... the professor is absolutely right.

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Even Swedes have more school choice than most Americans

There's a nice write-up in USA Today on popular and well-established education alternatives to state schools in Sweden, of all places.

Before the reform, most families depended on state-run schools following a uniform national curriculum. Now they can turn to the "friskolor," or "independent schools," which choose their own teaching methods and staff, and manage their own buildings.

They remain completely government-financed and are not allowed to charge tuition fees. The difference is that their government funding goes to private companies which then try to run the schools more cost-effectively and keep whatever taxpayer money they save.

The article is a bit hazy on the details, but the Swedish program seems to more closely resemble American charter schools than vouchers, since the money apparently goes directly to the schools rather than to families to pay tuition.

Demand for the Swedish independent schools is growing. "In 1992, 1.7% of high schoolers and 1% of elementary schoolchildren were privately educated. Now the figures are 17% and 9%." By contrast, in Arizona, where charter schools are about as well-established as they are anywhere in the U.S. 8.7% of students attend charters and about 5% attend private schools (working from 2005 numbers). A good guesstimate is that a bit less than 4% are homeschooled.

Since the state remains closely involved in education under the Swedish (and charter) model, I view the approach as less than ideal. There's still plenty of room for officials to pick and choose providers and exercise influence over curriculum. But, by contrast with the one-size-fits-all model that previously prevailed the Swedish model is a vast improvement, since it expands the range of approaches and philosophies available to families. Before the 1992 reform, Sweden's state schools followed a uniform national curriculum. If you didn't like it, you could pay private tuition on top of (high) Swedish taxes. Now, some degree of choice is available to any family.

Arizonans enjoy the luxury of choices comparable to or exceeding the options offered in Sweden. Charter schools now make up one in four public schools in Arizona, homeschooling is unencumbered by red tape and private schools are relatively inexpensive. But most Americans still have to pay for whatever the state offers -- and then pay again for what they prefer if they don't like the state option.

If Sweden can expand the range of education options available to families, why can't more U.S. states do the same?


Thursday, July 24, 2008

Phoenix: Not so free, not so unfree

Phoenix isn't a terrible place when it comes to personal freedom. It's not so great either, despite Arizona's overstated Wild-West reputation.

Reason magazine's Radley Balko raised a fuss in Chicago with his column in the Chicago Tribune taking that city to task for "treating its citizens like children" with a variety of nanny-state interventions into everything from sex laws to booze restrictions to firearms regulations that are designed to turn local politicians' obsessions and bugaboos into punishable offenses.

The full article from which Balko drew, rating 35 cities according to semi-scientific rankings of the various city governments' treatment of personal freedom, is available on Reason's Website. The cities are assessed on the environment they provide for personal autonomy in the areas of: Sex, Tobacco, Alcohol, Guns, Movement, Drugs, Gambling and Food/Other.

Chicago came in dead last, setting itself up for its public excoriation. Las Vegas, with a generally laissez-faire attitude toward matters that draw political and legal attention elsewhere, ranked first.

I note that Phoenix, the metropolitan behemoth of Arizona, ranks a mediocre 14. With its middle-of-the-road status, the city doesn't even rate a full text analysis of its advantages and disadvantages. The magazine merely notes: "If harassment of suspected illegal immigrants were measured in this list, the stomping grounds of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio would rank dead last."

I've written plenty about Sheriff Joe's shenanigans, so I can't disagree.

Reason's rankings are a welcome tool for assessing the livability of America's many and various jurisdictions by a variety of criteria. Measures of economic freedom are relatively easy to come by, but attempts to assess local openness to gays and lesbians, personal choice on smoking, drug laws, the ability to defend yourself within the law and other measures of the breathing room to live in a given area according to your own preferences are rare.

In fact, it's interesting to cross-reference, say, the Pacific Research Institute's U.S. Economic Freedom Index (full document here in PDF format) with Reason's rankings. Chicago's miserable last-place personal freedom ranking correlates depressingly with Illinois's overall 46 (out of 50) rank among the states for economic liberty.

Las Vegas, the top dog for personal-freedom, is located in pretty-good twelfth-ranked Nevada for economic liberty.

But the best bargain may be Denver, ranked third for personal freedom, and nestled comfortably in second-place Colorado, for economic liberty.

(Phoenix, ranked a mediocre 14 out of 35 for personal freedom, does a bit better on economics, given Arizona's slot at 11.)

Of course, rankings are only snapshots; you need to see what direction a jurisdiction is going, or you're at risk of moving to a garden of freedom just in time to watch it transform into a gulag. As David Harsanyi notes in Reason's write-up of Denver:
Often the relevant question isn’t where you are but where you’re headed. And Denver, alas, is moving in the same godforsaken direction as the rest of the country. Safety, economic and social “justice,” the children, the environment, the pets (unless we’re talking about pit bulls, a breed banned from city limits)—all of them trump individual freedom. ...

Denver is one of the freest cities in the country? That’s dreadful news for the rest of you suckers.

Oh well. Reason is going to have to repeat these rankings on a regular basis, so we have a better idea of how our homes, current and prospective, fare. It just might be better to stay in a town ranked at 14 that stays at 14 than it would be to move to a burg that starts off good and then slides, heartbreakingly, down the scale.

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Mortgage bailout sends good money after bad

So Congress creates a couple of quasi-independent corporations, backed by taxpayers' money, to encourage mortgage lenders to make loans they wouldn't normally make on their own. Largely as a result of these questionable loans, the mortgage market goes tits-up, and those quasi-independent entities, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, find themselves on the financial ropes.

Oh, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have a history of financial shenanigans, often covered up by carefully courted political protectors.

So, what should Congress do with the aftermath of this failed and very expensive gambling in creative finance?

Double down, of course! Having leveraged their connections to the public purse to create the current mess, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have now been thrown a multi-billion-dollar lifeline of taxpayer funds to "fix" the problem.

To accommodate the staggering cost, Congress plans to raise the national debt limit by $800 billion to $10.6 trillion.

You can probably disregard the "official" $25 billion price tag attached to the bailout. As the Wall Street Journal editorialized, "The CBO says this could cost $100 billion, or it could cost 'nothing.' So it threw a dart at the wall and assigned a $25 billion price tag to the Fan and Fred bailout." That's in addition to the $300 billion slated to buck-up distressed loans through the Federal Housing Administration.

What wise guardians of the public trust are our lawmakers, and the president poised to sign off on this fiasco.


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Did Colorado ban the Bible?

Social conservatives are in a fine lather over a Colorado law (PDF) signed by Governor Bill Ritter on May 29 that extends anti-discrimination protections to sexual minorities in matters of business and public accommodations. On its face, the law is the latest effort by our socially conscious lawmakers to force us all to be nice to each other under penalties of fines and imprisonment -- specifically, $300 or one year in jail per violation.

It's all just a bit too much like that old joke about the Soviet Union, in which the commissars express concern about the dreary, bleak attitudes of their subjects: "Everybody must be happy! Anybody not happy by noon tomorrow will be shot!"

Predictably, the sackcloth-and-ashes crowd seems obsessed that the new law means that women's restrooms will now be filled wall-to-wall with adam's-apple-sporting cross-dressers. The pre-verts are everywhere!

Religious conservatives have also fretted that businesses will be forced to cater to people they find repugnant -- for instance, that wedding photographers will be compelled to take shots of same-sex ceremonies. That does, in fact, seem to be the intent of the authors. Rep. Joel Judd responded to just such an objection with the comment that, "If you choose to do commerce in Colorado you have to abide by these rules."

Uh huh. Good luck to the happy gay couple who hires a true-believing Roman Catholic shutterbug. May the record of your most-important day not be made up of 300 shots of the photographer's shoes.

Perhaps most troubling, the law's Section 8 restricts the sort of written material that businesses and landlords may publish and distribute. Supposedly, this provision applies only to statements of an intent to discriminate, but if that's what the authors intended, it's not what they wrote.
SECTION 8. 24-34-701, Colorado Revised Statutes, is amended to

24-34-701. Publishing of discriminative matter forbidden. No person, being the owner, lessee, proprietor, manager, superintendent, agent, or employee of any place of public accommodation, resort, or amusement, directly or indirectly, by himself or herself or through another person shall publish, issue, circulate, send, distribute, give away, or display in any way, manner, or shape or by any means or method, except as provided in this section, any communication, paper, poster, folder, manuscript, book, pamphlet, writing, print, letter, notice, or advertisement of any kind, nature, or description which THAT is intended or calculated to discriminate or actually discriminates against any disability, race, creed, color, sex, SEXUAL ORIENTATION, marital status, national origin, or ancestry or against any of the members thereof in the matter of furnishing or neglecting or refusing to furnish to them or any one of them any lodging, housing, schooling, or tuition or any accommodation, right, privilege, advantage, or convenience offered to or enjoyed by the general public or which states that any of the accommodations, rights, privileges, advantages, or conveniences of any such place of public accommodation, resort, or amusement shall or will be refused, withheld from, or denied to any person or class of persons on account of disability, race, creed, color, sex, SEXUAL ORIENTATION, marital status, national origin, or ancestry or that the patronage, custom, presence, frequenting, dwelling, staying, or lodging at such place by any person or class of persons belonging to or purporting to be of any particular disability, race, creed, color, sex, SEXUAL ORIENTATION, marital status, national origin, or ancestry is unwelcome or objectionable or not acceptable, desired, or solicited.

Note that the law doesn't just say that you can't publish material that states you'll deny services to protected classes of people, it also says you can't make them feel "unwelcome."

Hurting people's feelings is now a criminal offense.

Social conservatives object that handing out the Bible or the Book of Mormon may be illegal under the new law. While I can't imagine the courts allowing that interpretation to stand, the text of the law is open to just such a reading.

I have to think that legislators threw as much as they could against the legal wall, just to see what would stick.

Many socially conservative groups based in Colorado say they flat-out won't obey the law. As much as I despise their attitudes toward gays and lesbians, I can't blame them. Private individuals, businesses and organizations have the right to decide who they'll associate with and who they won't, and what ideas they'll express along the way, no matter how abhorrent or unpopular their criteria. If the law doesn't recognize that right, the law should be defied.

Lawmakers who set out to make society kinder and gentler through the use of force do violence to the whole idea of tolerance -- and to our liberty.

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National service: Back to feudalism

Jim Lindgren reports on Service Nation, the creepy cabal pushing for the imposition of universal national service for both military and civilian purposes -- ostensibly voluntary, but eventually compulsory. The organization is backed by political and media heavy-hitters including Caroline Kennedy, Alma Powell (wife of Colin Powell) and Time Managing Editor Richard Stengel. Stengel has already used his magazine as a vehicle for promoting the cause of national service.

In Part III of his report, Lindgren mentions the blast-from-the-past nature of compelled labor for the state -- how it's a return to the feudal relationship between the serf and the local warlord.

One thing so-far left unmentioned by the we're-all-in-this-together brigade is the fate of the inevitable resisters. While claiming that "Americans are ready to be asked to do something," Stengel at least had the good grace to admit that "yes, there are libertarians who believe that government asks too much of us — and that the principal right in a democracy is the right to be left alone." But neither he nor his co-conspirators have taken the next logical step of discussing what they plan to do to those dissenters who decline to submit to the state's demand for service. Will refusal be a misdemeanor? A felony? Will it carry prison time or just a fine? (Yes, the Time piece specifically says service should be voluntary, but the organization Stengel backs goes farther).

The National Service Act now gathering dust in the halls of Congress passes the buck, saying only that "The President shall prescribe such regulations as are necessary to carry out this title," with those regulations including "[s]tandards for satisfactory performance of civilian service and of penalties for failure to perform civilian service satisfactorily."

My curiosity has a practical purpose. If I'm covered by the proposed national service requirement, I plan to refuse to comply. If I'm not covered, I plan to counsel those who are covered to refuse, and to help them do so.

So come on, folks. Give us something to work with.


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A grow operation in the high country

It's been a while since I've hiked Woods Canyon, near Sedona, Arizona, so I can't kick myself too hard for missing an opportunity to stroll through the woods, sampling the local flora.
Authorities raided a marijuana growing operation about 25 miles south of Flagstaff last week and seized more than 4,000 plants with an estimated value of $1.5 million.

No arrests were made. According to information from the Coconino County Sheriff's Office, officers from several local, state and federal agencies descended on the grow, located in the Coconino National Forest at the bottom of Woods Canyon Wednesday. ...

Lt. Rex Gilliland of the sheriff's office said that the two separate grows are about the size of a football field each. The grows are located south of Schnebly Hill Road about two miles west of Interstate 17. After the crops were seized, they were destroyed.

The marijuana plantation was apparently discovered by two hikers who then alerted the cops. Can somebody please tell me what sort of rat-bastard stumbles upon a huge grow operation in the wilderness, and rather than stuff his/her backpack with a sample of the goodies, treks out and drops a dime?

Bah! Philistines abound.

Oh well, if the authorities found one grow operation, they probably missed three others. In fact, marijuana farms are frequently found on public land in northern Arizona -- an inevitable result of the plants' illegal status, the ease of doing as you please in the sparsely settled region and the appropriate climate for marijuana cultivation.

The operations are sometimes booby-trapped and often guarded so, despite my light-hearted take on the situation, they do pose a potential danger to unwary hunters and hikers who stumble upon them.

But criminals wouldn't be salting the wilderness with farms, guards and traps if marijuana were legal. That is, it's dangerous to stumble on a grow operation not because of the nasty weed that's been planted in the ground, but because of the nasty laws that have been planted in the books.

Here's a message to those hikers who turned in the Woods Canyon grow operation: If you want to reduce the chance of stumbling into a similar situation in the future, put the screws to your legislators to legalize the stuff. Then the marijuana plantations will operate openly along the interstate and the only weed in the back country will be whatever you tuck into your kit.


Monday, July 21, 2008

Lessons from the blackout

I'm still cleaning up the mess left by a "microburst" that plowed over 15 utility poles and knocked out power around me for a day and a half. Among the casualties were the cottonwood tree next to my house, which mercifully just nicked the roof on its way down, my ancient Mac and my WiFi network (apparently because of a surge).

With the power back on and me being in no great hurry to take a chainsaw to that defunct tree, I have a little time to enjoy the air conditioning and consider my community's unscheduled tour of the 19th century. The first thing that occurs to me is how incredibly unsuitable modern homes are to life without electricity.

I say that even though my wife and I are, I think, better prepared than most to roughing it for a while. We're both veteran campers and backpackers, so we're not freaked out by relatively primitive conditions. We also have a lot of outdoor gear that serves excellent double-duty during a blackout.

My old Coleman dual-fuel lantern, for instance, throws almost as good a light as any electric lamp in the house. We have canned goods, pasta, beans and dehydrated meals enough to last us weeks, no matter what corruption befalls the contents of the refrigerator. And we have any number of camping stoves to draw on even if the gas stove hadn't still been serviceable in the absence of power. Worse comes to worse, we could cook over an open fire -- we've both done it.

But that gas stove ... Unlike the top, the oven is useless without power. The cheap model it replaced didn't care whether the electricity was on or off. That's annoying, since it means we upgraded to greater dependency.

And the refrigerator contents we saved only because APS (the power company) handed out dry ice. I think the milk turned, but everything else was fine.

Our worst vulnerability, though, is water. Our well feeds us water through an electric pump. Without power, we have only what's in the pressure tank -- which gave out sooner than I expected. I was able to run into town, where the power never failed, for water, but what if ...

What if the problem had been more widespread? That might have meant no dry ice and no handy containers of water at the market. My house would have been marginally habitable only because we're a short walk to the river and I could lug back enough of the wet stuff to keep us going. The bathrooms would have been rendered useless, as would much of the kitchen and the laundry room. This house is really designed with the assumption that power will always be available. The house stays cool because of air conditioning, not because it's designed for clever air flow or has a sleeping porch of the kind you see on some older homes around here.

Less than a century after electricity became cheap and reliable, we live as if the power will never go out. I hope it never does in a catastrophic way. But should the worst happen, I think most of us are not just unprepared, we're living in homes that would be little more than uninhabitable caves.

That's not to say I want to transfer my family to some pre-technological cottage where we'll pump our water by hand and bake our goods in a wood-burning hearth just so I'll be prepared for post-apocalyptic life. The fact that I set up a computer and restored my Internet connection before tackling that tree shows where my priorities lie.

But I'm thinking we need some backup plans around here, so we can enjoy our modern home without becoming slaves to its conveniences.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Nobody messes with the TSA -- or else

CNN correspondent Drew Griffin has reported a number of stories recently detailing the failures and incompetence of the Transportation and Security Administration, and the TSA's desperate attempts to muzzle its internal critics.

Now Griffin finds himself unable to fly without extra screening and special authorization.

"Coincidentally, this all began in May, shortly after I began a series of investigative reports critical of the TSA. Eleven flights now since May 19. On different airlines, my name pops up forcing me to go to the counter, show my identification, sometimes the agent has to make a call before I get my ticket," Griffin reported. "What does the TSA say? Nothing, at least nothing on camera. Over the phone a public affairs worker told me again I'm not on the watch list, and don't even think that someone in the TSA or anyone else is trying to get even."

While the TSA claims that the airlines -- apparently all acting on their own initiative -- are the ones who have singled Griffin out for special treatment, the reporter argues convincingly that his name has been added to the TSA's bloated "watch list" of potential terrorists as an act of retribution for his critical coverage.

Of course, the TSA is just doing its best to keep us safe, right? You can always trust our fearless leaders with a little extra power ...

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Our right to travel to Cuba

I'm a strong believer that traveling is a basic human right -- that is, that people have the right to go wherever they want, for whatever reason they please, subject only to the equal rights of others, such as respect for private property. In practical terms, that means I oppose the U.S. government's oppressive restrictions on travel to (and trade with) such places as Cuba. Whatever political points government officials want to make, they should frame up in a press release and leave private citizens alone to see the world for themselves.

So I applaud the civil disobedience of the Venceremos Brigade, a group of unrepentant commies who make their own political points by risking fines and prosecution through unlicensed travel to that forbidden destination just 93 miles off the coast of Florida -- in fact, the group just returned from its latest trip.

Of course, it should be noted that Cuba imposes a few travel restrictions of its own. According to Human Rights Watch:

The Cuban government forbids the country’s citizens from leaving or returning to Cuba without first obtaining official permission, which is often denied. Unauthorized travel can result in criminal prosecution. ...

The government also frequently bars citizens engaged in authorized travel from taking their children with them overseas, essentially holding the children hostage to guarantee the parents’ return. Given the widespread fear of forced family separation, these travel restrictions provide the Cuban government with a powerful tool for punishing defectors and silencing critics.

As much as I believe that travel is a right that doesn't need to be justified on a costs/benefits basis, this raises a very pragmatic reason for opposing U.S. travel restrictions. The Venceremos Brigade is able to make political hay of its trips to Cuba only because American officials make such travel a courageous act in the face of government repression. As Human Rights Watch put it in the organization's latest assessment:

For more than four decades, the US government has used Cuba’s dismal rights record to justify a sweeping economic embargo aimed at toppling the Castro regime. Yet the policy did nothing to bring change to Cuba. On the contrary, it helped consolidate Castro’s hold on power by providing his government with an excuse for its problems and a justification for its abuses. Moreover, because the policy was imposed in such a heavy-handed fashion, it enabled Castro to garner sympathy abroad, neutralizing international pressure rather than increasing it.

Leave it to the U.S. government to take such a ham-handed stance against a regime that restricts private enterprise, imprisons dissenters, forbids emigration, bans opposition and holds no elections that it comes out looking like the bad guy.

So kudos to the Venceremos Brigade for traveling where its members please, even if those travelers would probably impose tighter strictures on the rest of us if they ever gained political power.

And isn't it time for the U.S. government to recognize our right to travel -- and to take an issue away from the starry-eyed would-be-commissars by doing so?

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

How tightly can you regulate a right?

The U.S. Supreme Court may have finally recognized the right to bear arms as protected by the Second Amendment, but the D.C. city government seems determined to put the concept of "constitutionally protected right" to the test. Mayor Fenty's wish-list of proposed regulations are certainly preferable to the outright ban on handguns the city imposed for 32 years, but they seem a bit more restrictive than you'd expect to be permissible for the exercise of a right rather than a privilege.
The proposed legislation has four main components:
1. Continues to ban handguns in most places but creates an exception for self-defense in the home. The handgun ban remains in effect, except for use in self-defense within the home. Sawed-off shotguns, machine guns and short-barreled rifles are still prohibited.

2. Requires the Metropolitan Police Department to perform ballistic testing on handguns and makes such testing a registration requirement. The Chief of Police will require ballistics tests of any handgun submitted for registration to determine if it is stolen or has been used in a crime. Also, to serve as many residents as possible, the Chief will limit registrations to one handgun per person for the first 90 days after the legislation becomes law.

3. Clarifies the safe-storage and trigger-lock requirements. The legislation modifies existing law to clarify that firearms in the home must be stored unloaded and either disassembled secured with a trigger lock, gun safe, or similar device. An exception is made for a firearm while it is being used against reasonably perceived threat of immediate harm to a person within a registered gun owner’s home. The bill also includes provisions on the transportation of firearms for legal purposes.

4. Clarifies that no carry license is required inside the home. Residents who legally register handguns in the District will not be required to have licenses to carry them inside their own homes.
You mean D.C. residents won't be prosecuted if they take their locked or disassembled pistols from the living room to the bed room? Oh joy!

Requirements for actually registering that piece of iron you've been stashing (there's an amnesty provision) or plan to purchase are ... convoluted and detailed. For example:
1. Provisions for registering a handgun purchased for self-defense in a District residence.
a. A District resident who seeks to register a handgun must obtain an application form from MPD’s Firearms Registration Section and take it to a firearms dealer for assistance in completing it.

b. The applicant must submit photos, proof of residency and proof of good vision (such as a driver’s license or doctor’s letter), and pass a written firearms test.

c. If the applicant is successful on the test, s(he) must pay registration fees and submit to fingerprinting. MPD will file one set of fingerprints and submit the other to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for analysis and criminal background check.

d. MPD will notify the applicant whether all registration requirements are satisfied. At that point, the applicant returns to the Firearms Registration Section to complete the process and receive MPD’s seal on the application.

e. The applicant takes his or her completed application to a licensed firearm dealer to take delivery of the pistol. If the dealer is outside the District, the dealer transports the pistol to a licensed dealer in the District to complete the transaction.

f. The applicant takes the pistol to the Firearms Registration Section for ballistics testing. When testing is complete, the applicant may retrieve the pistol and take it home.
The proposed rules actually remind me of the current New York City restrictions, which I navigated a decade ago with the help of a hired middleman and a fair amount of money that went to unknown uses (greased palms, I assumed). New York's rules are explicitly designed to discourage gun ownership -- although they just discourage legal gun ownership and leave most folks outside the law.

I would expect New York's rules to be challenged in the wake of Heller, with D.C. to follow if it adopts Fenty's scheme.


Fannie Mae -- a legacy of ignored warnings

In a piece titled "Fannie Mayhem: A History," the Wall Street Journal lays out a six-year timeline of warning signs about Fannie Mae an Freddie Mac, complete with linked editorials raising alarms about the increasingly dire condition of the federal government's tools for pusing the mortgage industry to make loans it would normally consider to be bad bets. Take this piece, for example, from February 20, 2002:

It seems that Fan and Fred, two "government-sponsored enterprises" that hold the majority of all home mortgages in the U.S., have been growing their debt at an annual rate of 25%. They now have about $2.6 trillion in debt outstanding, a big number in any case, but really big considering that taxpayers are on the hook for it. The budgeteers also expressed some anxiety about Fan and Fred's increasing dependence on derivatives.

Hmmm. Where have we heard this before? The more we've since looked at Fan and Fred the more they look like poorly run hedge funds: lots of leverage and snarkily hedged risk. The word Enron ring any bells?

Last year, Fan's debt/equity ratio was about 60 to 1, more than five times the average for commercial banks. Moreover, as mortgage lenders, Fannie's equity can hardly be said to be well-diversified. Risk thus becomes a critical question.

This from March 19, 2002:

The point all of this makes, and the point we've been trying to make all along, is that Fan and Fred don't function like other companies. The two biggest mortgage holders in the country are allowed to pile up debt, implicitly guaranteed by taxpayers, without being held to even the minimum of corporate governance standards that every other publicly traded company has to observe. Sooner or later this is asking for trouble.

From October 4, 2004:

For years, mortgage giant Fannie Mae has produced smoothly growing earnings. And for years, observers have wondered how Fannie could manage its inherently risky portfolio without a whiff of volatility. Now, thanks to Fannie's regulator, we know the answer. The company was cooking the books. Big time.

But if Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have been so poorly run -- even corrupt -- how did they get away with it when private-sector executives get slapped for much less? The Journal has an answer to that question, from April 27, 2006:

It's well-known that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have good friends on Capitol Hill. But last week the Federal Election Commission shed some light on how Freddie Mac rewarded its friends. In a settlement with the FEC, Freddie admitted to illegally raising $1.7 million for candidates from both parties between 2000 and 2003. In 2001 alone, Freddie Mac's Senior Vice President for Government Affairs boasted of holding 40 fund-raisers for House Financial Services Committee Chairman Michael Oxley.

That's the same Oxley who torpedoed a reform effort intended at reining in Fannie Mae's and Freddie Mac's investments in risky mortgage-backed securities.

It's not just Republicans, though. Rep. Barney Frank and Sen. Charles Schumer actually tried to raise the ceiling on the two institutions' risky investments.

NPR notes a long history of ignored warnings about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac here.

The crisis faced by Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae — and the government that chartered them — is not a surprise. For decades, critics have warned about the potential for an event like this. But their warnings failed to gain traction on Capitol Hill, where Freddie and Fannie wielded enormous clout.

And, writing for the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Karen De Coster and Eric Englund reveal the inherent flaws in setting a taxpayer-backed political instrument loose in the mortgage business.

Fannie Mae is not a free-market entity, nor is it a private body that must compete on the same playing field as its competitors. Fannie Mae is representative of all that's wrong with central planning institutions: it is a government-created conduit for carefully crafted financial and market socialism that the bureaucrats uphold for the purpose of propping up their fantasies for pandemic social engineering.

Of course, for whatever satisfaction there is in saying "I told you so," it's better to avoid the mess to begin with.


Monday, July 14, 2008

What's all the fuss about Wall-E?

A.O. Scott of the New York Times insists that the new, animated, children's movie, Wall-E, is "is a cinematic poem of such wit and beauty that its darker implications may take a while to sink in." What are those darker implications? That "[c]onsumer capitalism, anticipating every possible need and swaddling its subjects in convenience, is an infantilizing force."

Picking up on the same perceived message, but from a vastly different point of view, Jack Markowitz asks in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review if the kiddie flick's "producers realize how much they are, perhaps unintentionally, promoting an anti-market -- even anti-American -- world-view?"

So is Wall-E a profound parable or dangerous propaganda?

The truth is that this flick, which my wife, son and I sat through on an overcast Sunday morning, is something less impressive than fans and critics alike would have us believe. That is, Wall-E is a disappointingly mediocre movie.

Fifteen minutes into the slow, gray, dialogue-free first part of this cinematic misfire, we almost walked out -- not because be were offended, but because we were painfully bored. My kid squirmed, I shifted in my seat and my wife shot should-we-go glances at me over the tot's head as we waited for something, anything, entertaining to happen on-screen.

Fortunately, Eve -- the female robot and love interest -- showed up, bringing actual color and action with her.

Don't get me wrong -- as has been noted elsewhere, the animation is impressive. Pixar has done some cool stuff on-screen.

And the robots are cute and fun. The love story between them is sweet and they show commendable qualities like courage, compassion and individual initiative.

As for the political content that has folks cheering or jeering depending on whether they've declared their fealty to team blue or team red? Well, it's a lot more simple-minded than the reviewers would have you believe. I mean, "don't litter -- a lot, anyway" and "get off the sofa, drop the slushie and turn off the TV" are about as much message as I see my kid taking away from the movie for the next decade (he's not yet three). I don't think those are especially controversial or objectionable messages.

There is an anti-business element to the story, since something called Buy n Large has apparently taken over the world, branded everything and enabled people to be fat, wasteful slugs. But it seems to be a relatively benign sort of corporate rule, enforced more by convenience and screaming deals than the iron fist of oppression. It's also too over-the-top to take seriously, especially when presented by those anarcho-syndicalist collectives (not), Pixar and Disney.

Which leads us to the one really offensive element I found in the movie: the treatment of people as gullible, slothful cattle, incapable of resisting even the mildest inducement or exerting any independent effort or thought if offered a few luxuries. I mean, really, if that's your view of human character, you should just confine your elitist nonsense to scribbling "Kill Your TV" in chalk on the streets of the nearest college town and spare the rest of us the inanity.

Honestly, the only people I can imagine displaying such an exaggerated herd mentality are the twits rushing to endorse or denounce a movie that isn't worthy of all the energy that's being expended.

I hope somebody releases a good children's movie soon.


Friday, July 11, 2008

Decision in Arizona case restores Fourth Amendment to schools

In a major slap-down to holding-pen ... err ... public-school control-freakery, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled (PDF) that there actually are limits to the power of educrats to grope and humiliate their charges in search of illicit over-the-counter medications.

From the opinion, here are the details of the search of 13-year-old Savana Redding, which took place in Safford, Arizona:

First, Savana removed her socks, shoes and jacket for inspection for ibuprofen. The officials found nothing. Then, Romero asked Savana to remove her T-shirt and stretch pants. Embarrassed and scared, Savana complied and sat in her bra and underwear while the two adults examined her clothes. Again, the officials found nothing. Still progressing with the search, despite receiving only corroboration of Savana’s pleas that she did not have any ibuprofen, Romero instructed Savana to pull her bra out to the side and shake it. Savana followed the instructions, exposing her naked breasts in the process. The shaking failed to dislodge any pills. Romero next requested that Savana pull out her underwear at the crotch and shake it. Hiding her head so that the adults could not see that she was about to cry, Savana complied and pulled out her underwear, revealing her pelvic area. No ibuprofen was found. The school officials finally stopped and told Savana to put her clothes back on and accompany Romero back to Wilson’s office.

Yes, the school had a firm-and-fast rule against the sort of medications almost everybody keeps in their medicine cabinet for casual use. As insane as that seems, it's a concern best addressed separately.

Earlier court decisions had given a rousing thumbs-up to Redding's ordeal, but the appeals court had second thoughts. Writing for the majority, Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw said:

Common sense informs us that directing a thirteen-year-old girl to remove her clothes, partially revealing her breasts and pelvic area, for allegedly possessing ibuprofen, an infraction that poses an imminent danger to no one, and which could be handled by keeping her in the principal’s office until a parent arrived or simply sending her home, was excessively intrusive.

Logically enough, the court found that "The strip search of thirteen-year-old Savana ... was conducted in violation of Savana’s Fourth Amendment rights."

Good. Not only is that ruling a sound recognition of the rights of the individual, but it will spare many fathers and mothers the unpleasant necessity to go forth and do violence to school administrators who abuse their children.

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Bob Barr and libertarians plugged in Time

Advocates of personal freedom and small government are back on the national media's radar -- in a big way. In "The (Not So) Lunatic Fringe," Time magazine recognizes the relevance of the broad libertarian movement to an extent that has been all-too-rare in recent years.

The credit for this coverage belongs to those millions of Americans who care deeply about freedom -- or who just want to be left alone. They might be philosophical libertarians overall, or primarily dope smokers, or civil libertarians, or home-schoolers, or gun owners, or advocates of Internet autonomy, but their passions have come together this year in two important ways that have propelled the libertarian movement onto the national stage: the enthusiastic backing and impressive support Rep. Ron Paul won during his unsuccessful campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, and the popular support Bob Barr is drawing as the Libertarian candidate for president.

Going against its purist tendencies, the Libertarian Party did its best this year to benefit from the enthusiasm Paul generated by nominating conservative-leaning, moderate libertarian Barr. As of this week, Zogby has Barr polling at 6% nationally -- the margin between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama -- making him impossible to ignore, especially since he draws even more impressive percentages in many states. Yes, the Zogby poll is an outlier, but it's picking up on a real phenomenon -- and probably helping to fuel that phenomenon as it does so.

The current recognition of the relevance of the libertarian movement is almost certainly because libertarianism is being interpreted broadly this year. The hard-line movement that has controlled the political party of the name and largely defined libertarianism in recent years may appeal to my anarchic soul, but it's all too easy to marginalize because it commands relatively few adherents and advocates for positions that are miles away from the world in which we live. When we define advocacy for freedom as 100% rejection of the modern, authoritarian state, we play into the control-freaks' hands, because then they can claim that very few people really want to run their own lives.

But the 85-percenters still want to be a lot freer than modern America allows. Given the realities of the world in which we actually live (rather than the one in which us radicals might like to live), we're all part of the same libertarian movement. That fact is apparent this year for the first time in a long time.

And that's why Time is spilling ink on the subject.

The one nit I'd pick with the Time article is its characterization of libertarianism as backward-looking.

There is a lot in the complaints in the Libertarian heartland that sounds like nostalgia for an idealized American past. Jim Berg will tell you about grazing-rights grievances, but he's just as quick to lament the death of the ranching lifestyle. "My grandkids have scattered like quail," he says. "They've all gone city."

This sense that progress has gone too far and too fast unites a large swath of Libertarians from coast to coast. ...

But the piece then backs away from that seeming-nostalgia-trip take on people who care about freedom, acknowledging that "it's always been partially left-wing, drawing from a long history of American anarchism. The modern challenge is to unite those two wings--or, as magician (and stalwart Libertarian) Penn Jillette told me, 'Convince the dope guys that the gun guys are O.K., and vice versa.'"

There are certainly people in the libertarian movement driven by a hankering for the past, but I think most modern libertarians -- especially younger ones -- look to the future and want to be free to greet it and shape it on their own terms, not those set by fearful, foot-dragging government officials.

But we embrace the nostalgia-trippers too, because finally, this year, many more people who want to live in a more-free, less-constrained country are emphasizing their similarities rather than their differences.

And they're making a difference by doing so.

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Sort of public, sort of private -- and bankrupt

The federal government thought the private sector wasn't doing a good enough job at providing home loans, so it created the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac) to grease the skids a bit and encourage private lenders to hand out more money. So how are those fine institutions doing?

They own or guarantee $5 trillion worth of mortgages­ - nearly half of all the country's outstanding home loan debt - and they're crashing. Big time.

If Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac go under, it will wreak yet more havoc on an already wrecked housing market - making loans tougher to come by and possibly pushing hundreds of billions of dollars in cost on to U.S. taxpayers.

How could that be?

Each may borrow up to $2.25 billion direct from the Treasury. They are exempt from state and local income taxes and from Securities and Exchange Commission registration requirements and fees. And they can use the Federal Reserve as their bank.

One result of all this special treatment was AAA credit ratings. That means Fannie and Freddie could borrow at super-low rates, a benefit they used to purchase - and hold -high-yielding mortgage loans. The spread between the two provided an irresistible earnings stream and the companies just kept getting bigger.

The mortgages they hold on their books alone total about $1.4 trillion, said Mike Stathis, managing Principal of Apex Venture Advisors, a research and advisory firm.

In the meantime, the companies were allowed to operate in this manner, piling on risk after risk, with virtually no capital cushion (Wall Street speak for the rainy-day piggybank financial companies keep should one of their investments blow up.) As the company's loan portfolio loses value and the mortgage market continues to crumble, it's easy to see why this was a fatal misstep.

Some saw the crisis coming before this week. For example, Alan Greenspan famously warned in 2004 that Fannie and Freddie's rapid growth needed to be curbed because their expansion threatened the financial markets.

Still, the cocktail of high credit ratings, domination of the mortgage securities market, and preferential government treatment led to the sort of shenanigans that go hand in hand with excessive privilege.

Now, given that these monstrosities are huge and are backed by the federal government, guess who is in the hook for the tab?

That's right, you taxpayer, you are.

In 2004, the Cato Institute's Lawrence White warned of the dangers inherent in Fannie Mae's and Freddie Mac's special status and called for them to be really privatized.


Thursday, July 10, 2008

The surveillance state, courtesy of your next president

Actually, the surveillance state has been a long time coming, but now that the Senate has approved a bill renewing authority for warrantless wiretaps, with immunity for telecom companies that collaborate .. err, cooperate with the government, the next president, whoever that might be, will certainly have awesome powers at his disposal.

Oh, and since you asked ... The bill was supported by both Barack Obama and John McCain.

I mean, really. Why would either one tie his own hands?

EFF is gathering funds for a court challenge.


Do cops just not like dogs?

It's all too common a scenario: A police officer steps onto private property without suspecting any wrong-doing there. The police officer is approached by a dog that lives on that property. The police officer shoots the dog.

Usually, though, the incident isn't captured -- in part, at least -- on video.

The Kalamazoo Gazette reports:

Todd Pook thought he heard fireworks Friday afternoon beside his home at 132 E. Belmont St.
What he actually heard was two gunshots fired at his dog, Chase, an Akita-rottweiler mix, after the animal was approached by a Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety officer investigating a breaking-and-entering call across the street.

"I stepped out on my back porch, and I could see the smoke from the gun," Pook said.
The dog was injured in both hind legs, requiring 21 stitches in one leg and a drainage tube for fluid in the other. Pook said he paid more than $1,000 for surgery and an overnight stay for Chase at his veterinarian's office.
Fortunately, the dog survived the shooting.

More here on police misbehavior caught on camera.


Don't expect Obama and McCain to recognize fiscal reality

Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune takes note of the two leading presidential candidates' promises to impose fiscal discipline on the federal budget -- and blows wet raspberrys at their empty rhetoric.

The latest proof came when McCain unveiled his economic plan, in which he vows to eliminate the deficit in four years. His plan to balance the budget is simple: He plans to balance the budget. Exactly which programs he will trim to reach that goal are anyone's guess.

For someone with a reputation as a fearless foe of congressional earmarks and pork-barrel waste, McCain is amazingly timid in taking on the rest of the budget. About his only specific proposal is a one-year freeze in those discretionary programs that don't involve defense or veterans.

McCain doesn't say how much that would save, but it wouldn't be a lot. Those expenditures amount to only 17 percent of all federal outlays. Eighty-three percent of the budget would keep on growing. After a year, so would the other 17 percent. ...

When it comes to spending, though, Obama is even worse. The National Taxpayers Union Foundation added up all the promises made by the two candidates and found that McCain's would cost taxpayers an extra $68 billion a year. Obama's add up to $344 billion a year.

The Illinois senator's pledge to get tough on unnecessary expenditures is as solid as cotton candy. Among his vows is to "slash earmarks to no greater than what they were in 2001," but earmarks make up less than 2 percent of the budget. Trying to restore fiscal discipline by cutting earmarks is like trying to lose weight by adopting an exercise program for your left index finger.
As Chapman mentions, the National Taxpayers Union has tallied up both candidates' promises -- and found them poised to break the bank. Details on John McCain are here (PDF) and on Barack Obama are here (PDF).

The NTU estimates that Senator McCain voted for $8.8 billion in increased spending in the most recent Congress, while Senator Obama gave his thumbs-up to $40.5 billion of additional demands on the taxpayers.

How to pay for this spending binge?

It's popular now to call for higher taxes -- a "fair share" -- on "the rich" (whoever they are). But high-income earners are already paying a staggering share of the nation's tax burden. According to the IRS (XLS format), the top 1% of income earners paid over 39% of the total income tax burden in 2005, while taking in about 21% of adjusted gross income.

And the share has been going up. In 1986, the top 1% paid about 26% of income taxes; in 1996 it was 32% of income taxes. The latest figures are expected to put top earners' share at over 40% for the first time.

By contrast, the bottom 50% of income earners paid 3% of income taxes in 2005, down from a bit over 6% in 1986.

Importantly, almost a third of people filing tax returns pay no taxes at all.

Now, I'm not a fan of taxes and I think that keeping the tax burden low is a good thing (although it should be low for everybody), so long as expenditures match. But, when half of the population pays little or nothing for government services, it's exceedingly easy for them to demand ever-more goodies from politicians, because those demands are essentially free. And it's all too easy for them to pass the actual costs on to "the rich," a constituency wealthy in terms of taxable cash and assets, but poor in votes to offer politicians as a counter to demands to soak anybody who achieves a bit of financial success.

And the numbers show that those costs have been passed on increasingly over the past twenty years, while much of the population has seen its tax burden drop even as its demands for goodies increase. Whatever your definition of "fair share," high-earners have been paying more of it every year.

So new calls to make "the rich" pay a "fair share" of taxes, as if they haven't been paying a huge and growing portion already, look like blatant efforts to buy votes by handing bribes to a large part of the population and making a minority foot the bill.

Unfortunately, there's little in those numbers to provide incentives for professional politicians like Barack Obama and John McCain to face up to fiscal reality and propose realistic plans to balance the budget by cutting spending -- that is, by cutting the flow of free goodies. In fact, doing so would probably be political suicide.

Chapman is certainly right that "[t]here is a fiscal asteroid on course to pulverize us, and no one is coming to the rescue." I have to say, I can't conceive of a scenario under which anybody will.

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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Serve yourself, not the government

In 1961, at his inaugural address, then-President John F. Kennedy uttered perhaps the most overrated words in the modern American political quotation book.
Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.
Based on the sentiment expressed in those words, I'd say that Kennedy can go to Hell, except that, as an expired politician, he's certainly already there.

Self-sacrifice for the sake of der vaterland -- err ... these here United States -- remains a popular nostrum peddled by office-seekers on both the authoritarian right and authoritarian left of the political spectrum. Both John McCain and Barack Obama are big believers in the idea that Americans should "give something back" to their country in the form of national service that, in their speeches, flirts with a strong dose of compulsion.

"Give something back?" In return for what? Having my rights respected better (or less badly) by the government than they would be in many other countries? Sorry, but I don't owe the state payment for refraining from doing things it never had the right to do. And note -- it shines in this area only by comparison to pretty weak competition.

Here's an attaboy to the U.S. government: You don't suck as bad as the folks running Cuba. Now leave me alone.

Last week, Barack Obama gave a speech expanding his concept of what you can do for your country.
"This will not be a call issued in one speech or one program -- this will be a central cause of my presidency," he said. "We will ask Americans to serve. We will create new opportunities for Americans to serve. And we will direct that service to our most pressing national challenges." ...

"Loving your country shouldn't just mean watching fireworks on the 4th of July," he said. "Loving your country must mean accepting your responsibility to do your part to change it. If you do, your life will be richer, and our country will be stronger."
Specifically, he wants to require 50 hours of annual "service" from high school students and 100 hours of annual "service" from college students, with the schools arm-twisted into imposing the mandates. Those hours will be put toward government-approved goals, of course. I don't suppose agitating for an end to the national service program would qualify.

Look, I think volunteering -- that's service of the duration and for the cause that you choose -- is a good thing. That's not because it's owed to a nebulous idea like "country" or a malevolent institution like "the state," but because it helps make the community in which you live a better place and it reaffirms your own connections to that community.

But compelled service builds nothing of value except low-cost labor battalions for fulfilling politicians' wish-lists.

In the end, the most valuable service comes in the form of working against the state, not for it.


Don't get burned by the experts

Ross Curtis faces prosecution in California because he and his brother, Micah, set backfires, in defiance of official orders, that successfully protected their home and the homes of their tenants.

On Thursday, the situation got particularly dicey as the fire picked up strength and bore down on their retreat, a five-minute drive up a twisting dirt road from Big Sur village.

Their small team of amateurs toiled into the night, trying to beat back flames by pumping water from the swimming pool with makeshift fire hoses.

As the fire closed in on three sides, Micah Curtis said, they used a flare to set controlled burns no more than a dozen feet from the blaze. That not only steered it away from their houses, he said, but also created a broader line of defense, which helped state and federal fire crews protect the village below.

Giving a tour of the property over the weekend, Micah Curtis bumped into a state fire captain doing mop-up work with an inmate crew.

The captain, who asked not to be identified because of the controversy, praised the work of the amateurs of Apple Pie Ridge.

"I'll tell you what," the captain told him, "you guys did a good job of holding it."

Praise also came from other professionals.

"Awesome," a U.S. Forest Service crew leader said, shaking his head in disbelief. "You did an awful lot of work up here."
Note that firefighters had abandoned the 55-acre Curtis spread to its fate as "undefendable" and that the backfires were set when the wildfire was already approaching and threatening the property. Under the circumstances, it's hard to take seriously the authorities' contention that the Curtis brothers created some sort of extra risk through their actions. In fact, the Curtis brothers saved homes while structures not under their protection burned.

Ross Curtis's prosecution may be exceptional, but his attitude is not. The San Francisco Chronicle documented broad dissatisfaction among Big Sur residents with the quality of the protection they received from the "experts."

Sequoia Chappellet, 23, said she and her sister, along with several cousins and other extended-family members, were evacuated from Big Sur two days ago, but her parents and brother stayed with the home. She said some homeowners had hired private firefighting services and even private helicopters to provide protection.

"There's a general feeling that if you want your house to be saved, you'd better stay and save it," Chappellet said. "There's a lot of frustration in the community about the lack of resources that have been administered to the fire. That's part of the reason so many people are staying. When they go on the highway, they don't see any engines."
More than a few residents defied evacuation orders and stayed behind to protect their property when the powers-that-be made it clear they were writing off whole areas. Police responded by demanding signed waivers and next-of-kin information -- and people still stayed.

In the end, Ross Curtis's arraignment on July 15 on two misdemeanor charges for disobeying orders to stop his efforts to save the property seems less about creating a hazard than about making the experts look inadequate to the job -- and replaceable by individual effort.

Making government officials look bad is the highest crime there is


Don't buy real estate in Tehran if McCain wins the election

Y'know, if I joke that exporting cigarettes to Iran is a "way of killing 'em", it's tasteless but funny. If a guy actively seeking the power to wage war and conduct America's foreign policy says it, maybe it's a ... well ... pretty frigging stupid comment.

Oh, and let's not forget that blast from the past, "bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran."

I think maybe this guy is ... umm ... not quite right.

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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Don't ask, don't tell shoots blanks

The potential for man-on-man sex in the trenches apparently is no pressing threat to the fighting ability of the U.S. military, according to a new study (PDF). Prepared by a panel of former military officers, the report for the Michael D. Palm Center, part of the Institute for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Research at the University of California, Santa Barbara, finds that the current "don't ask, don't tell" policy costs the military talented personnel and puts many commanders in a position in which they have to choose between obeying the law and maintaining the cohesion of their units. It points out that "[m]ilitary attitudes towards gays and lesbians are changing" and concludes that "[e]vidence shows that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly is unlikely to pose any significant risk to morale, good order, discipline, or cohesion."

The officers who prepared the report, Brigadier General Hugh Aitken, USMC (Ret.), Lieutenant General Minter Alexander, USAF (Ret.), Lieutenant General Robert Gard, USA (Ret.) and Vice Admiral Jack Shanahan, USN (Ret.) recommend that the military adopt "uniform standards that are neutral with respect to sexual orientation" and simply deal with inappropriate conduct as inappropriate conduct without worrying whether it's straight or gay.

Interestingly, the report notes that not a single expert who opposes allowing gays and lesbians to openly serve in the military was willing to be interviewed by the panel preparing the report.

Overall, the report is a strong nudge in the direction of doing with gay and lesbian soldiers what the military did with black soldiers in 1948 (officially in 1954) -- treat them as full members of the armed forces and punish the folks who can't deal with that fact, not the blacks or gays. If Southerners (by which I mean residents of South Boston, of course) could be expected to work alongside African-American soldiers, even the straightest arrow can learn to not care who his or her fellow jarheads or GIs are dating.

Then we can move on to squabbling about important stuff -- like Wiccan chaplains.

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Monday, July 7, 2008

Budget scam keeps Arizona in bad shape

Arizona's newspapers are portraying the new state budget as some kind of painful compromise that gave Governor Napolitano much of her legislative agenda without breaking the bank.


As House Minority Whip Steve Gallardo (D-Phoenix) commented, "I like being in the majority."

The budget that passed was awash in red ink and gave the legislative shop-aholics everything they wanted. There was no compromise.

In an OpEd distributed by the Arizona Federation of Taxpayers, Tom Jenney put it nicely.

For the Big Spenders in both parties, who wish to expand the size and influence of government, the FY 2009 budget is a major victory. It actually increases spending commitments by over $700 million--during a recession, and in a supposedly conservative state. State government spending now takes up 7.01 percent of the state’s economy—the biggest portion since 1980—and is set to get even bigger.   
For state universities alone, the budget included $1 billion-plus in borrowing. Does that sound like an exercise in austerity? More to the point, is that the sort of money the state government should be laying out when the goal is to close a $2 billion deficit?

Worse, the budget hides education expenditures through an illegal trick that has school districts borrowing against the future to cover their expenses -- a violation of the requirements of Proposition 301, passed by voters in 2000.

Why tighten your belt when you can just spend what you want and lie about it?

Well, actually, there may be good reasons for the state government to tighten its belt -- such as the fact that it's taking in less tax revenue this year than last. As of April 2008 (PDF), net collections for the "Big Three" -- individual income tax, corporate income tax, and transaction privilege, severance and use taxes -- were $6,697,335,002. In April 2007 (PDF) they were $7,250,856,133. If you take in less money, but you spend more money ...

Well I gues that makes you an Arizona legislator who "delivered on the pain promised by lawmakers and the governor," according to the Arizona Republic.

Or maybe it just makes you a huge part of the problem.


What rises to the top?

What kind of police officers get considered for command positions? Well, in Buckeye, Arizona, it's the sort of officers who face charges of misconduct. Which is to say, meet Lieutenant Derek Arnson.
Lt. Derek Arnson was notified June 5 of a formal investigation into complaints of intimidation and inappropriate comments, according to documents obtained by The Arizona Republic.

The notice of investigation indicates the probe is exploring "multiple complaints of ongoing intimidation of employees coupled with threats of job loss; intimidation regarding hiring practices; inappropriate comments regarding an employee's sexual orientation, and inappropriate comments regarding employee employment status." ...

Former mayoral candidate Michael Todd said Buckeye Vice Mayor Elaine May and Councilman David Hardesty advocated for Arnson to be picked as chief during talks around the time of the town's March 11 council primary.

May ran as an unopposed incumbent. Hardesty was not up for re-election.

"Arnson had two council members lobbying for him, telling me, 'We want this guy,' " Todd said, referring to May and Hardesty.

Arnson's promotion to commander "was a push by two council members to make Arnson chief," Todd added.
No, Arnson has not become the city's top cop, and the investigation against him is still underway.

But there's plenty in that situation to worry about ...


Saturday, July 5, 2008

Smokey the Bear has an anger-management issue

Leave it to the U.S. Forest Service to do the nearly impossible -- get into a large-scale, violent clash with members of the wildly eccentric but peaceful Rainbow family at an isolated gathering. From the Casper Star-Tribune:

U.S. Forest Service officers pointed weapons at children and fired rubber bullets and pepper spray balls at Rainbow Family members while making arrests Thursday evening, according to witnesses.

"They were so violent, like dogs," Robert Parker told reporter Deborah Stevens of the libertarian-oriented, Round Rock, Texas-based We the People Radio Network [] after the incident.

"People yelled at them, 'You're shooting children,'" Parker said during an interview on the network's "Rule of Law Show." ...

One member who identified himself only as "Ryan" told Stevens he was with his two children in his tent at the Rainbows' Kid Village north of the main meadow where the major prayer circles and dinners are held.

One of the 10 officers pointed a pepper spray gun at him and his children, he said. His girlfriend was using the latrine outside when four officers came to her and asked if she was smoking marijuana.

The officers then ran through the Kid Village and through its kitchen, and chaos erupted, he said.

Other witnesses recounted seeing about 10 officers of the Forest Service's incident command team drag an older man from the woods near the Kid Village, according to interviews by Stevens.

A woman in the village told the officers to take their guns out of the Kid Village. An officer threw that woman to the ground and pulled her head back by her hair while she was being handcuffed, one Rainbow named Rick told Stevens.

"I got out and yelled, 'what the f--- are you doing?'" Rick said. "That got it started."

The officers backed up in a defensive position, and some used their Tasers on Rainbows, he said.

Rainbows called for their crisis management team, and Rainbow family elders urged the crowd to remain calm, he said. However, the crowd kept moving, and the Forest Service officers began randomly spraying the crowd with pepper spray bullets.

Are Forest Service officers juicing these days? I guess when your face starts breaking out and that roid-rage kicks in, a crowd of pot-smoking flower children down a dirt road is a pretty safe target for venting some aggression. After all, who's going to know?

It's a shame about that whole lots-of-witnesses thing, though.

Yes, I'm sure that more details will be forthcoming, and that the Forest Service's official version of events will be a tad different than that of eyewitnesses. But this little tussle will be difficult to explain.


Thursday, July 3, 2008

The spirit of Independence Day: defiance

From the Chicago Tribune:

TAYLORVILLE, Ill. — The sign on the door of the American Tap warns patrons not to smoke. But sitting at the bar, customers merrily puff away, sharing cigarettes with the bartender and the owner while openly defying and mocking the state's ban on indoor smoking.

"I told the health department weeks ago, 'Go ahead and fine me,' " said owner Gary McWard, flicking an ash from his cigarette into an empty beer can on the bar top. "And I'm still waiting."

Enforcement could be a long time coming. Light up indoors in Chicago and the suburbs and get caught, and it's virtually certain the law will try to snuff it out. But in Downstate Illinois, where state smoking rates are the highest and opposition to the smoking ban is most vociferous, some communities are refusing to halt indoor smoking or levy fines.

This is what America is all about. It's people running their businesses as they please, setting rules for their property that suit them and freely associating with others who share their values and preferences -- and telling government officials who'd have it otherwise to fuck off.

McWard even posts a picture of Kathy Drea, director of public policy for the American Lung Association and a prominent nanny-state advocate who lives in his town, so she can be barred from the establishment.

Because shunning control freaks is another way of striking a small blow for liberty.

Following up on the Tribune story, Phil Luciano, a columnist for the Peoria Journal Star, celebrates downstate Illinois's defiance.

The story generated a mass of online comments to the Trib. Some carried typical Chicago snootiness: "Leave it to the hillbillies to be proud of their own ignorance."

But overwhelmingly, the comments recognized that this isn't about ignorance or even smoking. It's about standing up for individual rights. As one put it, "Sounds like those downstaters got a whole lot of common sense. Good for them. This is just another Chicago law forced on the rest of the state."

Amen. And may all the great thinkers up north - and the Chicago Tribune - realize that sometimes, just sometimes, we hillbillies have the brains and guts to stand up to asinine public policies.

And Marc Hansen, a columnist for the Des Moines Register, speculates that Iowa smokers may also show a little resistance to that state's nany-state efforts to snuff out cigarettes in privately owned establishments. Commenters volunteer knowledge of several bars "that are ignoring the commie smoking ban."

This is an encouraging start to the Independence Day weekend.

Happy Fourth of July.

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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Americans like to get high -- and so what?

The U.S. is still a global leader in at least one area: getting high! According to a new World Health Organization survey of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and cocaine use, "Globally, drug use is not distributed evenly. In general, the US had among the highest levels of use of all drugs. Much lower levels were observed in lower income countries in Africa and the Middle East, and lower levels of use were reported in the Asian locales covered."

This is especially remarkable, given the fanatical "war on drugs" and puritanical attacks on alcohol and tobacco consumption Americans have suffered in recent years. Indeed, the WHO study found that punitive policies do little or nothing to reduce demand for intoxicants.

The US, which has been driving much of the world's drug research and drug policy agenda, stands out with higher levels of use of alcohol, cocaine, and cannabis, despite punitive illegal drug policies, as well as (in many US states), a higher minimum legal alcohol drinking age than many comparable developed countries. The Netherlands, with a less criminally punitive approach to cannabis use than the US, has experienced lower levels of use, particularly among younger adults. Clearly, by itself, a punitive policy towards possession and use accounts for limited variation in nation-level rates of illegal drug use.

The biggest factor for drug use seems to be income: affluent people can afford to get high, and across the world they tend to take advantage of their opportunities. Illegal drugs (cannabis and cocaine) are primarily consumed by single people. If you're living alone and you're rolling in the dough, there's a good chance that you're a head -- especially if you're American.

So, why are people -- especially us tipsy Yanks -- so prone to use drugs, even when the law dictates otherwise? Could it be that people perceive that they gain some benefit from using intoxicants?

That's a good question to ask on day when not only news of the WHO survey makes headlines, but we also read reports that hallucinogenic "magic" mushrooms causes many users to feel "spiritual" effects that actually improve their health.

In a previous study, the researchers gave psilocybin to 36 healthy, well-educated volunteers with active spiritual lives. After taking the substance under controlled conditions, 60 percent of the participants reported have a "full mystical experience."

When the researchers checked with the volunteers 14 months later, the same percentage said taking psilocybin increased their sense of well-being or life satisfaction.

"Most of the volunteers looked back on their experience up to 14 months later and rated it as the most, or one of the five most, personally meaningful and spiritually significant of their lives," lead investigator Roland Griffiths, a professor in the departments of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and neuroscience, said in a prepared statement.

The drug is reported in the Journal of Psychopharmacology to have positive effects on "people with conditions such as cancer, depression and drug dependence." The researchers found no evidence of harm from the drug experiences.

This is a factor that is often missing from reports about drug use. Countering the risks of even the most potentially dangerous intoxicants are benefits enjoyed by users that partially or complete offset the downside. People get high because they get something valuable out of their experiences. That's something sufficiently valuable that the threat of legal penalties acts as no real deterrent.

There's a lesson in there for policy makers -- if they're paying attention.


Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Kiss this

Yesterday, in the parking lot of the local Safeway, there was a car idling with a stocky guy sporting a flat-top haircut, a porn-star mustache and shades behind the steering wheel. A decal on the bumper read: "Sworn To Protect Your Ass, Not Kiss It." The words circled a stylized tin star emblazoned with "Deputy Sheriff."

OK, I get it. You're a cop and you resent being polite to people.

I know, I know. That's not what the decal explicitly says. But really, that's what it means.

Does anybody really believe that in the many interactions between police and the public, many perfectly polite, but others quite confrontational, that the overriding issue regarding behavior is the public's demand that armed, uniformed officers behave obsequiously? Or is it just possible that, when bad behavior is the order of the day, it's more often on the part of police officers throwing their weight around and demanding subservience from the public?

It should be clear that the power disparity between the average person and any uniformed law-enforcement officer -- backed by more cops and friendly relations with prosecutors and judges -- makes it unlikely that police officers are frequently confronted with demands for deferential treatment. Yes, they'll get some from the politically powerful and well-connected, but that's not going to be an everyday experience for most cops.

It's much more likely that members of the public will "yes, sir" and "no, sir" their way through any interaction with law-enforcement in order to prevent an escalation into -- potentially -- legal consequences or even violence.

Let's consider this... Deputy Flat-Top drives around for a month with his decal, and I drive around for a month with a bumpersticker that reads: "Hey Officer! Keep The Peace -- Don't Be An Asshole!" Let's see which one of us has the most negative interactions at the end of the experiment.

But before we give that experiment a try, I think I'll upgrade my life insurance.


Bob Barr makes his case in GQ interview

Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr gets thoroughly probed in a GQ interview that appears on the ABCNews site. Importantly, interviewer Wil S. Hylton presses Barr on his radically changed positions toward the PATRIOT Act, war in Iraq, drug policy and same-sex marriage. Barr plainly states that he was wrong in the past, that his views changed as the real-world impact of many policies became clear, and that he regrets some important congressional votes.
Are you worried about being accused of flip-flopping? One minute it's the Barr Amendment, the next you're on staff at the Marijuana Policy Project.
Well, it's a fact: My views have changed. If you recognize that a policy is not working and is based on an erroneous presumption, you have to change. There is no use spending billions of dollars just because we have to stay the course. It's the same situation in Iraq, only it's hundreds of billions. Being a good leader is being willing to change. I was very disappointed in 2004 when John Kerry allowed the Bush campaign to browbeat him on the PATRIOT Act. Early in the campaign, he said, "Look, I voted for the PATRIOT Act, but it's time for it to be changed." The Bush people called him a flip-flopper, and the whole discussion didn't come up again.

In fact, the act was renewed.
It was, and I spent a great deal of time working against it. There again: I had voted for the USA PATRIOT Act in 2001, but after seeing how it was used and abused and expanded by the administration, I think it was the worst vote I cast in the Congress. Because it undercuts the whole system of checks and balances in our criminal-justice system. It stands for the proposition that the government can gather evidence against someone without any evidence whatsoever of criminal behavior. The simplistic and very misleading explanation that Bush and Ashcroft and Gonzales—all the apologists for this administration—make is "Well, we can spy on American citizens, because if they're talking to Al Qaeda, we want to know."
Overall, Barr comes off as a sincere, conservative-leaning, moderate libertarian with significant political savvy and experience. I think that positions him about as effectively as possible to have a major impact in this year's presidential election.

I say that even though I'm a radical libertarian myself. My own political wish list goes a lot further than Barr's platform in terms of reducing the size of the state, expanding the range of human activity not restricted by law and recognizing people's right to act with maximum freedom. But, frankly, my political views scare the hell out of most people. If you want to make major changes, you do it the Fabian way -- a little at a time, without taking people too far out of their comfort zone.

That the approach is working is clear from the relatively copious press coverage he's receiving even before he starts campaigning, and the fact that he's already being discussed as a "spoiler" in this year's election (pretty much the only context in which journalists are willing to discuss third-party candidates).

Barr manages to emphasize the value of freedom speaking as an established political figure who is familiar with existing policies, says they're unworkable and dangerous, and offers serious reforms that expand liberty without shocking the audience into disbelief.

When we get to where Barr wants to be, then I'll start arguing about how much further I want to go.