Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Supreme Court justice who is worth a damn

Of course, he's on the Washington State Supreme Court, but you take what you can get. From the Seattle Times:

Richard Sanders, a justice on the Washington State Supreme Court, has never been one to shy from controversy or blunt language. And last week, as he sat at a Federalist Society dinner and listened to Attorney General Michael Mukasey, Sanders reached his tipping point.

After listening to Mukasey defend the Bush administration's counterterrorism policies — its detainment practices at Guantánamo Bay, its interpretation of the Geneva Conventions' reach — Sanders stood and shouted "Tyrant! You are a tyrant!"

Can we get this libertarian jurist up to the big leagues?

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Friday, November 28, 2008

Drew Carey on free trade and innovation

When good economies go bad, otherwise intelligent people sometimes advocate stupid policies -- like protectionism. When the Great Depression set in, Congress pushed through a tariff bill, better known as Smoot-Hawley, inspiring a round of beggar-thy-neighbor trade policies that impoverished people at home and abroad. This was only one of a series of economic policies adopted during the 1930s that turned a nasty down-turn into a catastrophe that spanned longer than a decade, but it was an important blow against prosperity and common sense.

Since bad times seem to be here again, it's once again become popular to advocate the construction of an economic barrier around the United States. Free trade and innovation are out, protectionism and make-work jobs are in. Swimming against the tide in the following video from ReasonTV, Drew Carey makes the case for free trade and real jobs.

But remember, politicians are largely insulated against the consequences of their own policies. As a result, they usually advocate not what is smart, but what is popular. If foreigner-bashing becomes, once again, a national sport, expect free trade to go by the wayside -- along with jobs and income.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Rahm Emanuel chats about his civilian draft scheme

The selection of Rahm Emanuel, the Illinois congressman and Democratic apparatchik, as President-Elect Barack Obama's chief of staff, has raised a few eyebrows -- at least partially because of Emanuel's advocacy of a civilian draft. That plan for "universal civilian service" would press Americans aged 18 to 25 into government service for a minimum of three months (though Emanuel is flexible about the actual parameters of service). Civil defense training features prominently in the agenda for those three months, although the assembled ranks would presumably be available for whatever purpose the government of the moment favored.

As for resisters ... Emanuel never does specify what the penalty should be for those who refuse to be shanghaied.

In 2006, after the publication of his book, The Plan, Rahm Emanuel sat down for an interview with Ben Smith of the New York Daily News. In particular, Smith pressed Emanuel on the details of his compulsory civilian service proposal. Part of that interview is available below.

A longer version of this interview is available at


Monday, November 24, 2008

Censorship through red tape

Politicians have always been annoyed by folks who bug them to do or not do things. Somehow, they've successfully subjected such people to strict rules, never mind that the act of lobbying is nothing more than exercising First Amendment rights to "freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." And these days, few people annoy politicians more than bloggers -- which could be why online pamphleteers in Washington state may soon find themselves wading through a web of lobbying regulations.

Lobbying is regulated in the Evergreen State by the Public Disclosure Commission. The PDC defines who is subject to the state's strict rules on political activism and attempts to influence public policy. As the Seattle Times boils it down:

Under the law, lobbyists must register with the state, and submit regular reports about who pays them, how they spend money, and which issues they're working on.

Groups that don't fit the traditional definition of "lobbyist" also have to file reports, provided they meet certain spending thresholds while leading public campaigns intended to influence public policy.

There's a fair amount of paperwork and hassle involved, and not a little bit of expense -- especially if you screw up. The PDC can impose thousands of dollars in penalties. That's a challenge for organizations and businesses that have to divert resources to ensure that they're in compliance with the rules. But it could be a deal-killer for bloggers whose resources consist of little more than passion and a little free time. Unable to afford legal advice or fines, many of them might have to pull in their horns to steer well clear of activities which could potentially incur big costs and penalties.

Which may be the whole point.

This isn't the first time that government officials have turned their potentially muzzling attention on online publishers and activists. Just two years ago, Congress considered legislation that could have required some bloggers to register as lobbyists under threat of up to ten years of prison time. The measure would have applied to anybody who spent or received $25,000 over three months as part of their political efforts. Critics pointed out that a blogger raising money for newspaper or radio advertising would have been swept up in the requirements. The grassroots Ron Paul blimp effort might well have brought down the wrath of the regulators, as could any other online political fundraising campaign.

The Senate ultimately stripped the legislation of language that would apply to bloggers, though it's clear that online activists are now on the political class's radar.

Washington's PDC has been asked to rule whether political activism on the Internet is subject to regulation. The commission has touched on the issue (PDF) in the past, ruling that "payment is key." The commission also allows that "blogs may also be entitled to the 'media exemption'" -- a series of provisions that acknowledge that efforts to regulate what lawyer-heavy newspapers say about government isn't going to fly.

What's largely at issue now is whether the blend of activism and journalism in which so many bloggers engage is going to land them on the regulated lobbyist or unregulated media side of the divide -- and subsequently, whether they'll be able to carry on the freewheeling online activity that has made the Internet such an exciting place for political expression.

The media exemption has always been arbitrary, of course. The idea that journalists are supposed to be disinterested and objective observers is a relatively new conceit -- and one that few people buy, if the polarized audiences for MSNBC and Fox News are any evidence. Early newspapers were often associated with one political faction or another and happily bared their teeth at the opposition. So when modern bloggers cover issues even as they rally the troops for or against candidates and policies, they're doing nothing that journalists weren't doing back when the country was founded.

The low barrier to entry and minimal costs of getting a message out provided by the Internet probably raise politicians' concerns, but that's their problem. The Internet is just a medium, and taking advantage of easy online communications shouldn't mean that you surrender your free speech rights. Plenty of respected news outlets now focus their efforts on the Internet, including the Christian Science Monitor, which has dropped its print edition.

"Payment is key" is clearly no answer. Newspapers are usually paid a lot more than the average blogger for their advertising space, and their column inches for or against a ballot issue or candidate can have every bit as much (or as little) impact as the publicity campaign funded with contributions raised through a Website. It's difficult to understand why a blogger should have to struggle through reporting and disclosure requirements for actively campaigning against a measure when a newspaper gets free rein to campaign for it.

In fact, the more you look at it, the more the idea that some people whould have to jump through regulatory hoops to voice their opinions while others get a pass to say what they please without fear of red tape looks ridiculous.

By making it remarkably easy for people to publish, organize, raise funds and make a fuss, the Internet is blending journalism, activism and organization in a way that probably suits people better than the rigid definitions of recent years. It's making lobbying less of a profession and more of an activity available to anyone. And by doing so, it's showing up lobbying regulations as threats to fundamental rights.

Some fans of lobbying rules fret that if bloggers and other online activists win a free speech victory against the regulators, other lobbyists might just close up their physical offices and move their efforts to the Internet.

Well ... so what if they did?

Maybe its time to recognize that assembling and petitioning politicians aren't just unfortunate practices that we have to tolerate, but fundamental rights. Bloggers deserve to rescued from restrictive rules that would muzzle their political expression, but so does everybody else.


More reason to worry about Eric Holder

President-Elect Barack Obama may have promised to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, stop abusing the inmates and bring them within the bounds of a legitimate legal system for trial, but his pick for Attorney General is unlikely to be enthusiastic about that plan. Here's Eric Holder from a 2002 CNN interview, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal:

One of the things we clearly want to do with these prisoners is to have an ability to interrogate them and find out what their future plans might be, where other cells are located; under the Geneva Convention that you are really limited in the amount of information that you can elicit from people.

It seems to me that given the way in which they have conducted themselves, however, that they are not, in fact, people entitled to the protection of the Geneva Convention. They are not prisoners of war. If, for instance, Mohamed Atta had survived the attack on the World Trade Center, would we now be calling him a prisoner of war? I think not. Should Zacarias Moussaoui be called a prisoner of war? Again, I think not.

It's going to be an interesting few years.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

When cops turn against drug prohibition

Norm Stamper is the former Seattle Police Chief, a position he held from 1994 through 2000. So he'd seem to be an unlikely person to advocate drug legalization. But that's exactly what he's done time and again, drawing off his 34 years of police experience, and his knowledge of the failures of the war on drugs. In 2005, he wrote the following words for the Los Angeles Times:

Sometimes people in law enforcement will hear it whispered that I'm a former cop who favors decriminalization of marijuana laws, and they'll approach me the way they might a traitor or snitch. So let me set the record straight.

Yes, I was a cop for 34 years, the last six of which I spent as chief of Seattle's police department.

But no, I don't favor decriminalization. I favor legalization, and not just of pot but of all drugs, including heroin, cocaine, meth, psychotropics, mushrooms and LSD.

See Stamper discuss his beliefs and experiences in the following video for ReasonTV. Note especially his statement, "I believe this body is mine, that it is sovereign. I believe in taking care of it. But if I didn't, it would still be my right to inject, ingest or inhale anything into this body that I chose."

Norm Stamper now works with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition in his efforts to end the threat to life and liberty posed by the doomed effort to tell people how they can and can't get high.


Will Obama take Janet Napolitano off Arizona's hands?

Secretary of Homeland Security is a lightning rod position, charged as it is with harassing air travelers, chasing brown people across the border and preventing hurricanes from being inconvenient. That said, Janet Napolitano, the governor of Arizona, is a perfectly competent choice for the person tasked to tell us if today's threat level is "orange" or "mauve" and to, more seriously, shake out some of the organizational difficulties at DHS. But she's unlikely to represent any sort of softening in policy at the department in terms of immigration or civil liberties. And let's hope that somebody other than her has control of the checkbook.

By Arizona standards, Napolitano is a moderate on immigration. That means she's capable of vetoing a bill requiring her to dispatch National Guard troops to monitor the state's southern border while, at the same time, dispatching National Guard troops to monitor the state's southern border of her own accord. Napolitano eventually persuaded the federal government to provide funding for about 2,400 soldiers. She also signed into law a measure that threatens to strip state businesses of their licenses to operate if they're caught hiring undocumented workers more than once.

This nails down the moderate position in a state where high-profile Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a cartoonish bully, has gone so far as to raid city hall in Mesa in a search for illegal immigrants. Napolitano has gone head-to-head with Arpaio in battles that are roughly equally about philosophy and ego, and it will be interesting to see if she continues that feud from a D.C. perch.

In civil liberties circles, Janet Napolitano gets some credit for formalizing Arizona's rebellion against the federal "Real ID" scheme to convert state-issued drivers licenses into standardized national ID cards. While she did sign the bill blocking the state from complying with the federal ID law, that was only after it became clear that her own "3-in-1" ID plan for bringing Arizona into compliance with Real ID was a no-go with the legislature and with state voters.

Even in putting her name on Arizona's pro-privacy rebellion, Napolitano framed her support in budgetary terms, saying:

My support of the Real ID Act is, and has always been, contingent upon adequate federal funding. Absent that, the Real ID Act becomes just another unfunded federal mandate.

Napolitano's rise to head Homeland Security may mean the end of Real ID -- or it may mean that she'll continue the push for a national ID card, but this time with more federal dollars attached.

Speaking of federal dollars ... Money management just might become an issue if Janet Napolitano is approved for the Homeland Security post. A new report (PDF) from the Government Accountability Office reveals that spending oversight is a shambles at DHS. "15 of the 57 DHS major investments reviewed by GAO were designated by the Office of Management and Budget as poorly planned and by DHS as poorly performing."

But Napolitano won't just leave fond memories behind in Arizona -- she's washing her hands of a financial catastrophe. The state's budget, already bloated at $9.9 billion, is conservatively projected to suffer a $1.2 billion deficit this year. That's on top of a $2 billion shortfall passed forward from last year. Tom Jenney of Americans for Prosperity, an organization that has been tough on the governor's financial habits, flat-out says, "[Napolitano is] going to get off the Titanic as it slips under the water. I think Obama’s got a life boat for her, and if I were her, I’d probably get off the ship."

Of course, fiscal irresponsibility will be no more of a change of pace in D.C. than Napolitano's lines on immigration and privacy.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Eric Holder, not so great on guns and ganja

You can probably toss out those fondly held hopes for drug-law reform under the incoming Obama administration. Eric H. Holder, Jr., President-Elect Barack Obama's choice for Attorney General, is undoubtedly a competent nominee with significant Justice Department experience under his belt, but he's an enthusiastic supporter of drug prohibition even when it comes to simple marijuana possession. And if you were bitterly clinging to Obama's professed support for the Second Amendment, let the scales fall from your eyes. The likely AG-to-be is a long-time opponent of the right to bear arms.

Before he became Deputy Attorney General under Janet Reno in 1997, Holder was United States Attorney for the District of Columbia. In that office, he complained to the Washington Post that laws against marijuana in the nation's capital were too lenient.

U.S. Attorney Eric H. Holder Jr. said in an interview that he is considering not only prosecuting more marijuana cases but also asking the D.C. Council to enact stiffer penalties for the sale and use of marijuana.

"We have too long taken the view that what we would term to be minor crimes are not important," Holder said, referring to current attitudes toward marijuana use and other offenses such as panhandling.

The Washington Times reported on his charges that D.C.'s repeal of mandatory minimum sentences was "misguided" and his plans to make marijuana distribution a felony. He proposed "setting minimum sentences of 18 months for first-time convicted drug dealers, 36 months for the second time and 72 months for every conviction thereafter."

Holder is just as hostile to firearms possession as he is to the use of marijuana. As Deputy Attorney General, he put forward Clinton administration proposals for imposing draconian restrictions on private individuals who want to sell a gun or two from their personal collections at gun shows and flea markets. "Under our proposal, Brady background checks would be required for all guns that are sold at gun shows, even if the gun is sold by a vendor who is not licensed."

Even after he left government, Holder signed on to former Attorney General Janet Reno's amicus brief (PDF) in the case of D.C. v. Heller, opposing the position that the Supreme Court finally adopted: that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects an individual right to keep and bear arms. The brief Holder signed explicitly asserted, "The Second Amendment does not protect firearms possession or use that Is unrelated to participation In a well-regulated militia."

After the Supreme Court rendered its pro-individual-rights decision earlier this year, Holder objected that the ruling "opens the door to more people having more access to guns and putting guns on the streets."

But what about enforcement? Can we at least expect a reprieve from the midnight raids by paramilitary squads that have resulted in injury and death for too many minor offenders, police officers and even innocent bystanders?

Don't count on it. After the violent raid by armored U.S. marshals to seize six-year-old Elian Gonzalez from his relatives and return him to Cuba, Eric Holder was one of the Justice Department officials called on the carpet to explain their actions to the U.S. Senate. Holder defended the raid to Tim Russert, despite his earlier denial that the Justice Department would try to forcefully seize the boy in the dark of night, saying, "We waited 'til five in the morning, just before dawn."

Drug warrior, gun grabber and fan of tear-gas-fueled paramilitary raids to resolve child custody disputes. That's Eric Holder, our new Attorney General.

Is there any upside to Holder's nomination?

Yes, there is, though Holder's positives are in areas that are less likely to directly affect most Americans than his negatives. Holder has, thankfully, criticized the Bush administration's affinity for warrantless wiretapping and for the use of torture against terrorism suspects -- or at least the outsourcing of such abuse to countries that have fewer scruples and legal restrictions than the United States. He told the American Constitution Society (video here):

Our needlessly abusive and unlawful practices in the ‘War on Terror' have diminished our standing in the world community and made us less, rather than more, safe.

He also said:

I never thought I would see the day when our Justice Department would claim that only the most extreme infliction of pain and physical abuse constitutes torture, and that acts that are merely cruel, inhuman or degrading are consistent with United States law and policy.

That will be a welcome change from the attitude prevailing in the current administration, though it doesn't completely offset the new almost-AG's distinct downside.

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Roadside revolution

Road-side cameras meant to enforce speed limits are a big deal in Arizona. The state government is expected to rake in $90 million this year from the freeway spy-eyes. The take is projected to climb to $120 million in 2010 -- with $45 million more going to private contractors. Even in a state awash in $2 billion worth of red ink, that's real money.

But dodging robo-cameras that slap motorists with a $181 ticket every time they tap the accelerator a tad enthusiastically isn't to everybody's taste. The most recent acts of rebellion include unknown parties who roam the roads, pasting Post-It notes over the cameras' lenses.The "vandalism" is ingenious, because it does no permanent damage, leaving state officials unsure as to just how they'll charge the perpetrators if they're ever caught.

Post-it notes aren't the only tools of the roadside revolution. The video below, uploaded on November 20, captures a speed enforcement camera lense being covered with silly string.

Hmmm. Maybe the revolution won't be televised.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Spidey senses -- out for repairs

Remember the Transportation Security Administration's highly touted effort to train its crack staff of hourly employees in "behavior detection," the better to protect us all from suspicious characters?

Ever get the feeling you’re being watched? Usually it’s just nerves or a good dose of electromagnetic energy, but if you’re traveling through a TSA checkpoint, chances are there are several sets of eyes on you. What are they looking at? Is your hair messed up? Looking flustered after problems at the ticket counter? Have toilet paper stuck to the bottom of your shoe? No. You’re being watched by Behavior Detection Officers, or BDOs in government acronym-speak.

The program was designed by Paul Ekman (PhD), a psychology professor at the University of California Medical School, San Francisco. He’s been studying behavioral analysis for the past 40 years and has taught the TSA, Customs and Border Protection, CIA, FBI and other federal agencies to watch for suspicious facial expressions of tension, fear or deception. He has even taught animators at Disney-Pixar to create convincing faces for film characters. After passing along his skills to US Customs, their “hit rate” for finding drugs during passenger searches rose to 22.5 percent from 4.2 percent in 1998.

Behavior analysis is based on the fear of being discovered. People who are trying to get away with something display signs of stress through involuntary physical and physiological behaviors. Whether someone’s trying to sneak through that excellent stone ground mustard they bought on vacation, a knife, or a bomb, behavior detection officers like me are trained to spot certain suspicious behaviors out of the crowd. Once we make our determination, we refer these passengers for additional screening or directly to law enforcement.
So, how's that working out?
Fewer than 1% of airline passengers singled out at airports for suspicious behavior are arrested, Transportation Security Administration figures show, raising complaints that too many innocent people are stopped. ...

"That's an awful lot of people being pulled aside and inconvenienced," said Carnegie Mellon scientist Stephen Fienberg, who studied the TSA program and other counterterrorism efforts. "I think it's a sham. We have no evidence it works."
Ooooh. Not so good. Maybe, a fancied-up version of "I don't like his looks" isn't really the way to go in improving the effectiveness of law enforcement.

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Would you believe government injects politics into science?

Government is an institution driven by pork-barrel politics and ideological battles, so it should come as no surprise that taxpayer-funded science can be every bit as much a political football as taxpayer-funded art, bridges to nowhere, or multi-billion-dollar payouts to well-connected banks. Indeed, The Chilling Effect: How Do Researchers React to Conflict, a recent paper by Joanna Kempner, a Rutgers University sociologist, finds that high-profile debates over the propriety of research topics, even when they don't ultimately affect funding, can cause researchers to self-censor the wording of grants and even to drop entire topics of inquiry.

Government funding of research is often touted as a means for keeping science free of profit-driven bias or favoritism toward a private funding body. All too often, though, the biases and debates that engulf institutions subject to regular elections and fueled by tax money go unconsidered.

In particular, controversies can ensue when people object to their taxes going to fund ideas and projects they find offensive or immoral. We've seen this happen in the past with provocative art and hotly debated areas of medicine, such as abortion; it stands to reason that similar battles would erupt over scientific research.

Kempner emphasizes that most attempts to study the impact of politics on science have examined outright suppression of research by government agencies. In this case, she was interested in finding out what would cause scientists themselves to retreat from areas of inquiry. She points out:

[M]any scientists self-censor rather than publish findings contrary to disciplinary or ideological boundaries. They may avoid controversial areas of research altogether, rather than face burdensome regulatory requirements. Some advocacy groups may also intimidate scientists. Animal rights activists, for example, have successfully dissuaded some scientists from using certain kinds of animal models in research.

For this study, she examined whether political controversy could have the same muzzling effect as regulatory hurdles and intimidation. She started with a proposed 2004 amendment to a funding bill for the National Institutes of Health that would rescind the funding for grants primarily concerned with sexual behavior. The NIH successfully defended the grants against the congressional challenge, and funding remained unchanged.

But there was fallout from the controversy. Responses among scientists to the attempted cut-off of federal funding for provocative research topics have implications for whether research continues in some areas and how that research is done.

About half of the scientists interviewed and/or surveyed reported that they now remove “red flag” words (for example, “AIDS” and “homosexual”) from the titles and abstracts of their grant applications. About one-fourth of the respondents no longer included controversial topics (for example, “abortion” and “emergency contraception”) in their research agendas, and four researchers had made major career changes as a result of the controversy. Finally, about 10% of respondents said that their experience had strengthened their commitment to see their research completed and its results published although even many of these scientists also engaged in some self-censorship.

The most common response is to game the system by simply rewording proposals in less-provocative ways. Clearly, though, some research isn't being pursued at all for fear of political battles. The report found, "[r]esearch topics avoided as a result of the controversy included: the sexual health and/or orientation of adolescents; abortion; emergency contraception; condom use; anal sex; childhood sexual abuse; homosexuality; and the use of various harm reduction strategies."

In an amazing example of institutional inertia, the most logical response seems to have been automatically ruled out by many scientists who "explained that, in general, they preferred to submit an NIH grant that they believed was politically viable (an act that might require self-censoring) rather than to seek alternative funding from a nongovernmental source."

That stubborn unwillingness to try something new is, perhaps, hardest to understand. The best way to escape political battles, it would seem, is to escape political institutions by looking for funding from sources friendly to a preferred line of inquiry.

Indeed, while the British Medical Journal found, just a few years ago, that "government or public funding" was behind 60% of highly ranked clinical medicine articles published between 1994 and 2003, that ratio has been moving in the direction of private funding. Importantly, "65 of the 77 most-cited randomized, controlled trials (considered the gold standard of research) received funding from industry with the proportion increasing over time. Eighteen of the 32 most-cited trials published after 1999 were funded by industry, with no other sources of funding listed."

Admittedly, the research in the BMJ study isn't entirely comparable to the NIH research grants, but it's clear that nongovernmental funding is not only available for research, it's growing in importance and seems to have the greatest impact.

Oh, and the quality of industry-supported research is often better than other research, according to a report in the International Journal of Obesity. Perhaps, we can speculate, because less energy is wasted in battles and gaming the system.

So it should be a simple step for researchers who want to do science rather than play politics to look for willing sources of support rather than try to sneak grant proposals through under the radar or drop whole areas of research. Why the resistance?

Governments will always be politically charged institutions, forever debating every dollar spent and each project subsidized. Researchers will have to either learn to seek support elsewhere, or else grow accustomed to in-fighting and self-censorship.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Maybe cops and dogs don't mix so well

Twice in recent days, police officers have gunned down family pets in incidents where the animals posed little or no clear threat to humans. The killings raise serious questions about law enforcement attitudes toward the use of force, law enforcement attitudes toward the general population and the potential for violent confrontations between police and the people they are supposed to protect.

In Park Forest, Illinois, police investigating a burglary entered the yard of the Walker family with a police dog in tow. Princess, the Walker's German shepherd-pit bull mix, apparently smelled the police canine on the other side of the door and scratched to be let out. Thinking the dog needed to answer a call of nature, the Walkers' 10-year-old son opened the door, at which point Princess ran to investigate the intruders.

One of the officers promptly shot the dog with his service revolver.

According to the Southtown Star, "Walker said the bleeding dog crawled back into the house, spilling blood everywhere, including on the hands of Walker's two stunned children."

Princess died of blood loss.

In Pittsburgh, a sheriff's deputy knocked on Tara Mangan's door, intending to deliver tax documents to the upstairs neighbor. According to WPXI, "She said she directed him to the French doors on the side of the house. Moments later, she said she heard a gunshot and found Lincoln dead in the back yard."

The deputy claimed a misunderstanding in the shooting of Lincoln, a 10-month-old pit bull. He thought he was being attacked and didn't realize that the dog was leashed and unable to reach him. Mangan disagrees.

“There is no misunderstanding. He shot my dog maliciously."

It would be bad enough if canine killings were just isolated excesses. But they're not nearly rare enough.

In September, a Mount Olive, North Carolina, police officer killed a 45-pound Labrador retriever with two shotgun blasts, despite the protests of a bystander, after it bared its teeth. He then stuffed the dog's body in a plastic bag, dumped it by the curb and left a note for the owner accusing her of owning a "vicious dog."

And in August, Grady County, Oklahoma, Deputy Sean Knight stopped in Blanchard at the home of Tammy Christopher to ask directions. He ended up shooting her approaching dog in the head. A video of that incident has become evidence in a lawsuit against Knight, the county and the state.

The most famous such recent incident was undoubtedly the killing of two dogs at the home of Berwyn Heights, Maryland, Mayor Cheye Calvo. The animals were gunned down during a particularly senseless raid after police had already intercepted a package of marijuana addressed to Calvo's wife -- and which authorities already had good reason to believe was supposed to be retrieved by a smuggling ring before ever reaching the Berwyn Heights address.

Calvo and his wife were cleared -- and so were the quick-to-shoot police officers who could as easily have killed innocent people as they gunned down dogs.

Which is the sort of big, red flag that appears in each and every one of these incidents.

Time and again, police and government officials have gone out of their way to excuse such shootings. Park Forest Deputy Police Chief Mike McNamara insists his officer "had no choice but to shoot the dog." Allegheny County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Joseph Rizzo claimed his deputy had "no recourse." Mount Olive Town Manager Charles Brown says, "any time an officer feels threatened, they have the right to respond." And Prince George's County Sheriff Michael Jackson claims "the guys did what they were supposed to do."

Never mind that these killings of household pets typically occur when the police are guests on private property -- sometimes as intruders, with minimal justification. The shootings, at the very least, display a remarkably cavalier attitude toward the personal property represented by pets, and a frightening willingness to use lethal force in response to the slightest provocation. That animals are on the receiving end of that force explains why the police officers in these incidents usually get off with little or no punishment, and often are protected by their departments.

But, as we all know, pets aren't just animals, and they're not just property. If we need academic confirmation of our own feelings about our pets, research by David Blouin, a graduate student at Indiana University, reveals that "[m]ore American dog owners report being close to their dog than report being close to their own mother or father. ... Most pet owners view their animals as family members."

Police live in the same world as the rest of us. They're fully aware of the relationships most people have with their dogs, and they still reach all too easily for their guns when an animal comes to sniff an intruder or bares its teeth in defense of its yard.

That relationship has more disturbing implications. Given the familial connection so many people feel to their animals, and the proximity of so many pet shootings to private homes in which people live and keep whatever weapons they may own, it's inevitable that killings of dogs will ultimately result in confrontations with people. Put bluntly, somebody is going to see a stranger in a blue shirt gun down Rover in the backyard and grab a shotgun to settle the score.

You can't shoot down a family member without people reacting as if a family member has been shot down, no matter what the law or department policy may say.

Do police not understand where their actions inevitably lead? Or do they not care?


Monday, November 17, 2008

Yours truly chatters about compulsory service on Tulsa's KFAQ

I talked on Tulsa's KFAQ with host Pat Campbell about President-Elect Barack Obama's scheme for federally mandated community service, Rahm Emanuel's civilian draft proposal, Obama's nebulous idea about a civilian national security force and how (and whether) they all tie together. The podcast is available here. My segment starts about three-quarters of the way through the hour.


Interesting timing on that insider trading charge

Mark Cuban, celebrity businessman of "Dancing with the Stars" fame, the Dallas Mavericks and several movie roles, has been charged with insider trading. Says Wired:
The complaint claims that in 2004 Cuban learned of a private offering of (now known as Copernic) that would decrease the value of his 600,000 shares. It says he then sold off his stake and as a result, reportedly saved $750,000.
Coincidentally, I'm sure, Cuban recently bankrolled the site,, which is tasked with tracking the distribution of the federal government's $700 billion boondoggle ... err ... bailout.

Not that I'm making any accusations, but ... Interesting timing, that.

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What would Obama do?

Oh please please please tell me that this Website is a snarky joke meant to spoof the creepy cult of personality that has evolved among Obamatons toward the president-elect.

But I fear not.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Five-trillion-dollar frenzy

Remember when we were just bitching about a $700 billion bailout to favored banks in the financial industry? Well, break out your spare zeros. Forbes reports that the total is much, much higher -- and still growing.

For all the fury over Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's $700 billion emergency economic relief fund, it seems downright puny when compared to the running total of the government's response to the credit crisis.

According to CreditSights, a research firm in New York and London, the U.S. government has put itself on the hook for some $5 trillion, so far, in an attempt to arrest a collapse of the financial system.

Honestly, I'm starting to wonder if, having gotten away with mind-numbing outrages for decades, most of our political class is so jaded that they're doing all of this on a dare. "Hey guys! Let's throw a few hundred billion more at my brother-in-law and see if that starts a revolution. Nancy! I bet you my private island that they sit still for it."

I wonder what would happen if we marched on D.C., decorated the lampposts with the politicos who couldn't catch the last flight, and then defaulted on all that debt.


Financial deregulation? What financial deregulation?

Lawrence White, a professor of economic history at the University of Missouri - St. Louis, tells of walking across campus and hearing two non-economists blaming the financial crisis on greed and deregulation. "If I had butted in, I would have made two points. ... What deregulation have we had in the last decade? Please tell me."

What? An economist questions the role that excessive economic freedom played in the nation's current bath of red ink? How can that be?

"On the contrary," White continues. "[W]e’ve had a strengthening of the Community Reinvestment Act, which has encouraged banks to make mortgage loans to borrowers who previously would have been rejected as non-creditworthy. And we’ve had the imposition of Basel II capital requirements, which have encouraged banks to game the accounting system through quasi-off-balance-sheet vehicles, unhelpfully reducing balance sheet transparency."

White isn't alone, although you could be forgiven for thinking so given the volume of "blame deregulation" voices on the country's editorial pages. They may be overlooked by most journalists, but quite a few economists are not just questioning the role of deregulation in current troubles, they're suggesting that lttle if any deregulation has occurred in recent memory.

In Canada's Financial Post, Pierre Lemieux, an associate professor in the Department of Management Sciences of the Université du Québec en Outaouais and a research fellow at the Independent Institute, allows that there has been some deregulation, such as the gradual repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act by the late 1990s and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000 which, he says, "eliminated some regulatory Damocles swords over derivatives." But, he adds:

Other traces of deregulation are not easy to find. Robert Buzzanco, a history professor at the University of Houston, blames the financial crisis on “[t]he repeal of Glass-Steagall specifically, and the orgy of financial deregulation more generally.” The orgy, however, looks rather monastic as the author provides no other example, except for a cryptic reference to an obscure change in a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rule. Prodded for more examples, he wrote to me: “I was also referring to the Fed’s ‘hands off’ policy during the early stages of the housing bubble, the government’s refusal to step in to stop predatory lending practices, the failure to address, or even understand, derivatives.” Pretty thin, if not totally misleading.

And as for the repeal of Glass-Steagall ... that certainly is getting some blame for the financial crisis, but it's not clear that the blame is well-placed. Lemieux points out that the result of the repeal was nothing more than "permitting American banks to do what European banks had long been allowed to do all along."

David Leonhardt, an economics columnist for the New York Times and generally a member of the blame-deregulation brigades, concedes "anyone trying to understand the causal chain — how the end of Glass-Steagall led to the end of Lehman Brothers — will have a hard time doing so. To many banking experts, the reason is simple enough: namely, that the law didn’t really do much to create the current crisis. It is a handy scapegoat, since it’s easily the biggest piece of financial deregulation in recent decades."

Not just the biggest piece -- but a rare example of such deregulation in a period marked more by an increase in red tape imposed by the government on financial activities. In the New York Times, Tyler Cowen, professor of economics at George Mason University, points out:

THERE is a misconception that President Bush’s years in office have been characterized by a hands-off approach to regulation. In large part, this myth stems from the rhetoric of the president and his appointees, who have emphasized the costly burdens that regulation places on business.

But the reality has been very different: continuing heavy regulation, with a growing loss of accountability and effectiveness. That’s dysfunctional governance, not laissez-faire.

For evidence of heavy regulation, Prof. Cowen points to a steady increase in spending on regulation over the years. Citing research by Veronique de Rugy, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, and Melinda Warren, director of the Weidenbaum Center Forum at Washington University, he says, "For the regulatory category of finance and banking, inflation-adjusted expenditures have risen 43.5 percent from 1990 to 2008. It is not unusual for the Federal Register to publish 70,000 or more pages of new regulations each year."

That research is available online (PDF) and reveals surging budgets for financial regulators in recent years.

And yes, regulation really has increased in significant ways in recent years. Specifically, there was Sarbanes-Oxley, an ill-considered reaction to the Enron disaster. Intended to toughen financial reporting requirements, Sarbanes-Oxley so enmeshed many companies in red tape that they took their business -- and their money -- overseas. The International Herald Tribune reported last year:

Two studies have concluded that excessive regulation was making the United States an unattractive place to sell new stocks. One study was conducted by McKinsey for the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, and U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, also of New York. The other was done by a group of executives and academics. In particular, the reports single out the Sarbanes- Oxley Act of 2002, the anti-fraud law passed after the debacle at Enron.

Both studies point to figures that show initial public offerings are migrating to Hong Kong and London, where underwriters charge half of what they do in the United States. If IPOs flee, the thinking goes, trading, investment and jobs will follow.

The result has been a fow of capital away from the United States -- capital that could have helped shore-up American banks.

Far from an example of deregulated markets, Prof. Lemieux describes the financial world in the U.S. as "a regulatory jungle" in which "[t]o be a banker or financier has become quite risky."

But if U.S. markets are enmeshed in red tape and closely scrutinized by well-funded regulators, how did the financial crisis happen? Well ... part of the problem is that we often assume that regulations are created by rational people to achieve public-spirited ends. We assume this even as we accept that everybody from our accountant to our dentist may have an agenda and not always act with our best interest in mind. Economists who work within the public choice school apply the same commonsense assumptions to politicians and bureaucrats that we apply to the guy trying to sell us something on the phone. These economists would tell us that the people writing and enforcing regulations may have reasons of their own -- such as ideology or post-government career plans -- for doing a less-than-stellar job of regulating markets.

But the problem may be more deep-rooted -- and irrational. In a paper (PDF) presented last year, David Hirshleifer, professor of finance at the University of California-Irvine, argues that regulatory policies are often crafted and enforced based on irrational factors such as scapegoating, xenophobia and misplaced ideas about fairness and ideology. He warns, "since the universe of possible tempting regulations is unlimited, the theory predicts a general tendency for overregulation, and for rules to accrete over time like barnacles, impeding economic progress." Because regulations are so often rooted in biases and prejudices, "regulatory responses to perceived problems will often be ineffective."

And speaking of irrationality ... No matter how correct Professors White, Lemieux and Cowen are about the absence of deregulation in recent years and the culpability of bad and excessive regulation, their efforts to defend economic liberty may have little benefit. Hirshleifer adds that prejudices and biases often result in "drastic increases in regulation" in response to market downturns.


Thursday, November 13, 2008

Socialists? No, we're not socialists -- well, except for health care

Beware of a politician who has a long, detailed, plan for how an important area of human life should be run by the government. A politician, for instance, like Sen. Max Baucus:
Baucus, the Senate Finance Committee chairman, called on Congress to create health reform legislation that would achieve “coverage for every American while also addressing the underlying problems in our health system” in a detailed, 87-page plan that was made public yesterday.

Baucus’ plan, which he said is not intended to be a legislative proposal, is very similar to the plan Obama outlined on the campaign trail, the notable exception being that Baucus would eventually mandate coverage for adults as well as children.
Baucus concedes that, "In the short term, health care reform would cost taxpayers more than the government can achieve in savings from all reforms and financing changes..." Making that concession before the plan has even been debated, let alone implemented, is a clear assurance that a real-world version of his universal health care system would be outrageously fucking expensive by an order of magnitude greater than predictions, sort of like Medicare.

Baucus's proposal is actually 89 pages long. The full text can be found here (PDF).

Question: Why does the word "reform" out of a politician's mouth always preface a scheme for putting bureaucrats in charge of our lives?

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Let's fight some more over marriage -- or not

On the morning of Wednesday, November 12, State Rep. Beth Bye and her partner, Tracey Wilson, made history as the first same-sex couple to marry in Connecticut. Their happy day came not much more than a month after the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that "same sex couples cannot be denied the freedom to marry." That's a happy development. But freedom of marriage in the future may come to depend on ending marriage entirely -- as a state institution that is.

Bye and Wilson were quickly followed by other gay and lesbian couples eager to formalize their own relationships in only one of two states -- the other is Massachusetts -- that permit same-sex marriages.

But there's no doubt that a shadow was cast across the festivities by last week's ballot victories in Arizona, California and Florida for state constitutional amendments intended to bar recognition of exactly the sort of marriages solemnized in Connecticut. Even as courts have been willing to rule in favor of granting equality before the law to same-sex relationships, majorities of voters have flocked to the polls to voice a very contrary opinion.

This leaves gay and lesbian couples, as well as civil liberties advocates, in something of a quandary.

The courts may still provide recourse for advocates of same-sex marriage. Article IV, Section I of the United States Constitution says:

Full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state. And the Congress may by general laws prescribe the manner in which such acts, records, and proceedings shall be proved, and the effect thereof.

Some legal scholars interpret those words to mean that marriages performed in one state must be recognized in all other states. In a 2005 law journal article, Professor Joseph William Singer of Harvard Law School wrote, "the full faith and credit clause should be interpreted to require interstate recognition of same sex marriages validly celebrated in Massachusetts and that Congress does not have the power to deny such recognition under the 'effects thereof' language of the full faith and credit clause."

If his argument prevails, Connecticut and Massachusetts may enjoy a booming get-away business as gay and lesbian couples from around the country flock to New England for wedding ceremonies that must be recognized as perfectly valid back home.

And his argument may well prevail. When the Supreme Court did away with sodomy laws in the Lawrence v. Texas decision, Justice Antonin Scalia objected in his dissent:

Today’s opinion dismantles the structure of constitutional law that has permitted a distinction to be made between heterosexual and homosexual unions, insofar as formal recognition in marriage is concerned. If moral disapprobation of homosexual conduct is “no legitimate state interest” for purposes of proscribing that conduct ... what justification could there possibly be for denying the benefits of marriage to homosexual couples exercising “[t]he liberty protected by the Constitution,” ibid.?

Scalia may disapprove, but he agrees that court decisions of the past have set the stage for recognition of gay marriage in the future.

But ... There are those majority votes against gay marriage in states including California of all places. Majorities capable of passing state constitutional amendments banning gay marriage may well be capable of sparking a federal constitutional battle that might even culminate in an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. A favorable Supreme Court decision in a year or two might well turn into yet another culture war that produces a very unfavorable legal environment thereafter.

What to do? Well, how about taking marriage entirely off the table as a legal issue?

In the New York Times, last year, Professor Stephanie Coontz of Evergreen State College wrote:

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

That may provide a road map to an approach for defusing the passionate battle over same-sex marriage, involving as it does deeply emotional issues of religion and personal life. Why not take marriage out of the hands of government and turn it into a purely private matter among people who love each other, their families, their friends, and whatever religious institutions to which they might belong?

Writing in Slate in 1997, the Cato Institute's David Boaz said of marriage:

So why not privatize marriage? Make it a private contract between two individuals. If they wanted to contract for a traditional breadwinner/homemaker setup, with specified rules for property and alimony in the event of divorce, they could do so. Less traditional couples could keep their assets separate and agree to share specified expenses. Those with assets to protect could sign prenuptial agreements that courts would respect. Marriage contracts could be as individually tailored as other contracts are in our diverse capitalist world. For those who wanted a standard one-size-fits-all contract, that would still be easy to obtain. Wal-Mart could sell books of marriage forms next to the standard rental forms. Couples would then be spared the surprise discovery that outsiders had changed their contract without warning. Individual churches, synagogues, and temples could make their own rules about which marriages they would bless.

As a private institution, marriage would no longer need to be a matter of public debate. The legal aspects of marriage, such as inheritance and child custody could be handled by simply filing a simple civil union form with the state that has no romantic connotations. It could as easily involve friends or relatives who want to share assets or ease child care. Such arrangements could be boilerplate or tailored-to-fit, as the parties prefer.

And people with deeply held beliefs about what marriage really means could join religious institutions that extend their recognition only to traditional arrangements. They'd be free to turn up their noses at anything else, without actually compromising non-traditional marriages made by others.

Not everybody would be made happy by a solution that doesn't involve cramming a victory down the other side's throat. But privatized marriage could bypass years of legal battles and heartache.

If marriage had been privatized a decade ago, social conservatives would today be free to roll their eyes at Beth Bye's and Tracey Wilson's long-ago formalized relationship.

And we could find something else to fight about.

OK, that's enough serious. Here's Doug Stanhope with a less snooze-inducing take on the same topic:


Close Gitmo as soon as possible

President-Elect Barack Obama has promised to close the controversial detention center for accused and suspected terrorists at Guantánamo Bay, in Cuba. The detention center has become a lightning rod for international criticism revolving around the quality of American justice, the ability and willingness of the government to prove its accusations in a credible court of law, and even the use of torture to extract confessions. Not surprisingly, the American Civil Liberties Union took out a full-page ad in the New York Times calling on the new president to make the shut-down of the detention center and the just disposition of the suspects job-one for his new administration.

Not everybody is on-board with that program, however. Michael A. DeVine, a legal columnist for The Examiner, sees little to worry about in the proceedings at Guantánamo Bay. "The rules are working, and even public defenders of accused criminals admit it," he says.

Well ... not quite. The anonymous public defender he quotes as endorsing the Guantanamo military commissions actually said,"this does not prove that we have a good system. Rather, it proves that a really bad system appeared to have worked right in this instance."

Really bad? How bad?

So bad that Army Lieutenant Colonel Darrel Vandeveld, a U.S. military prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay, resigned because of ethical qualms over the way the government conducted the prosecution of Mohammed Jawad. In a formal declaration (PDF), Vandeveld laid out his concerns "about the slipshod, uncertain 'procedure' for affording defense counsel discovery." He described procedures in the military commissions as so "appalling, they deprive the accused of basic due process and subject the well-intentioned prosecutor to claims of ethical misconduct."

Vandeveld also protested Mr. Jawad's mistreatment in Guantánamo Bay's "frequent flyer" program -- a colloquial term for a sleep deprivation technique meant to disorient prisoners. It was supposedly banned in 2004, but investigators found evidence of its use later.

Vandeveld was in good company when he resigned. He followed in the footsteps of Col. Morris D. Davis, the former chief prosecutor at Guantánamo Bay, and a hard-liner who had previously described sympathy for detainees as "nauseating." Col. Davis resigned his post in protest of political interference with the legal process and the use of evidence obtained by waterboarding and other forms of torture. He testified for the defense in the Salim Hamdan case.

In fact, at least six prosecutors -- Major John Carr, Major Robert Preston, Captain Carrie Wolf, Lt. Col. Stuart Crouch, Davis and Vendevelde -- are known to have resigned or refused to participate in prosecutions in protest of the suppression of exculpatory evidence, the use of torture, and other flaws in the morality and credibility of the military commissions in place at Guantánamo Bay.

According to the Wall Street Journal, in the case of the defendant he was supposed to prosecute, "Col. Couch would uncover evidence the prisoner had been beaten and exposed to psychological torture, including death threats and intimations that his mother would be raped in custody unless he cooperated."

Even the barriers to moving the detainees to new prisons and bringing them to trial under the protections provided by the U.S. criminal courts or the military courts are testimony to the fundamental failures of Guantánamo Bay and the military commissions. As Newsweek points out, "In a federal court, an Al Qaeda defendant held for years at a secret CIA site could complain that his right to a speedy trial was violated, that he was never read his Miranda rights, that the evidence against him did not go through a proper chain of custody and that confessions were gleaned through coercive interrogations."

Simply put, in its zeal to hold prisoners indefinitely and run them through kangaroo courts, the Bush administration put in place policies and procedures that legitimate U.S. courts would consider utterly ruinous to the pursuit of justice in any given case. The abusive detention of prisoners and laughable legal standards of the military commissions at Guantánamo Bay may have rendered it impossible to credibly determine the guilt or innocence of the remaining detainees.

In his defense of the military commissions, Michael A. DeVine writes, "Murder has been illegal since soon after Cain slew Abel, but we don't re-write murder laws after every homicide. No, we prosecute defendants." True. So why did we rewrite the rules this time around? Why didn't we use the existing criminal courts or military courts which have already been tested, rather than create a flimsy new legal system out of thin air, only to find that many of the legal experts chosen to staff the new system find it repugnant and unjust?

And how far down this path to inventing a new, convenient sort of justice is Mr. DeVine willing to go? He may have answered that question when he wrote:

One might argue, after the fact, that the Hamdan case was redundant given the power to detain even legal POWs, much less illegal enemy combatants like him, indefinitely until the war ends. One might also argue that only cases that seek to administer capital punishment need be tried.

Indefinite detention until the war ends? Given that war has never been declared, and that we face a rather amorphous enemy with no clear chain of command, the end of the war may be hard to recognize -- and a long time coming.

That's an awfully extended sentence in an abusive system for prisoners who have been convicted of nothing.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Anti-smokers hit close to home

These days, because of restrictive laws that jam one-size-fits-all rules down everybody's throats, you can't smoke in bars, you can't smoke in your office, you can't smoke on the sidewalk outside your office building, and ... you can't smoke in your home? Really?

Yep. City officials in Belmont, California, have reached their presumptuous little hands into private dwellings, pinching out cigarettes in any home that shares a floor or a ceiling with another home -- apartments and condos, in other words. has the full story for you:

It's not just smoking, of course; it's all the vices, pleasures and specific preferences that make life worth living that are under fire across the country. If we want our cigarettes left alone, we'll have to extend our neighbors the same courtesy for their foie gras and saggy pants. And we'll have to dump control freaks like those that rule in Belmont.

Consider it the sort of detente that's necessary to maintain a little freedom.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Screw compulsory service

In the late 1960s, Milton Friedman, the famous economist, sat on a commission tasked with ending the military draft. One of the opponents of that goal was General William Westmoreland, then commander of all U.S. troops in Vietnam. In testimony before the commission, General Westmoreland objected to volunteer soldiers, saying he did not want to command an army of mercenaries.

To which Mr Friedman replied, "General, would you rather command an army of slaves?"

The libertarian economist wasn't the only prominent person to equate forced service to enslavement. A 1930 anti-conscription manifesto signed by notables including Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud described the draft as "a form of servitude."

Ayn Rand wrote of the draft that it "negates man's fundamental right -- the right to life -- and establishes the fundamental principle of statism: that a man's life belongs to the state..."

Mahatma Gandhi signed a statement saying, "Conscription involves the degradation of human personality, and the destruction of liberty."

Slavery, servitude, statism, destruction of liberty -- some pretty bright people have looked at conscription and judged it harshly.

I raise these points because my recent posts on President-Elect Barack Obama's plans for mandatory community service for high school students, and his new Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's support for compelling universal civilian service have reopened debates that I thought were pretty well settled. In fact, some people who've responded to me seem to think a scheme to force Americans to serve the state in one capacity or another is a swell idea.

First, of all, to get it out of the way -- among those "some people" are the members of the United States Supreme Court, circa 1918. In Arver v. U.S., responding to an appeal to the anti-slavery language of the Thirteenth Amendment, Chief Justice White wrote:

Finally, as we are unable to conceive upon what theory the exaction by government from the citizen of the performance of his supreme and noble duty of contributing to the defense of the rights and honor of the nation as the result of a war declared by the great representative body of the people can be said to be the imposition of involuntary servitude in violation of the prohibitions of the Thirteenth Amendment, we are constrained to the conclusion that the contention to that effect is refuted by its mere statement.

To my mind, those may be the least convincing words ever issued in a Supreme Court opinion, consisting as they do of equal parts snottiness and sanctimony. Refusing to address an argument is not, in and of itself, an argument.

So, with all due disrespect to the Supreme Court, I see no reason why compelled service should not be regarded as involuntary servitude -- labor rendered against one's will -- of the sort forbidden in the United States under the Thirteenth Amendment. More importantly, I see no reason why compelled service, as an imposition against an individual's right to exercise liberty and determine the course of his or her own life, should not be regarded as evil.

Note, I say "compelled service," not "military draft." Some people object to militarism, but drop all objections to mandated service if the compelled labor is put to use in a soup kitchen or a clinic.

To me, though, the primary evil is not militarism, it's compulsion. It's to treat an individual not as a free person who owns his or her own life, but as the property of the state to be drawn upon as a resource at the whim of bureaucrats and politicians.

The Rahm Emanuels of the world explicitly or implicitly endorse this view, suggesting that Americans should "give something back" -- as payment for what, they never specify. What do we owe the government, after all? And why? I suppose it's possible that some individuals may have an unpaid obligation to an agency or an official, but it's impossible to say that about people at large.

In fact, it's government that owes us -- it owes us respect for our individual rights, and careful efforts to not infringe on our liberty.

Anybody who works an honest job, creates art, writes poetry, owns a business or does a myriad of other productive activities "gives" more to the world at large in terms of producing wealth, culture and community than they ever could by grudgingly picking up trash by the side of the highway or giving flu shots in a clinic under threat of fines or imprisonment.

And when people are pressed into service against their will, even in the name of very best cause you can imagine, nothing is given; instead, time is taken, labor is stolen and liberty is destroyed.

Fans of mandatory service are quick to tell us that a little taste of compulsion will get those lazy kids off the sofa and make them better people. But it's crystal clear that the folks most in need of being made into better people are the ones who think they have the right to drag their neighbors off at gunpoint to do work they don't want to do -- for any reason.


Monday, November 10, 2008

Melissa Etheridge needs to take her tax revolt a little further

Singer Melissa Etheridge is getting a lot of mileage out of her angry promise to withhold taxes from the state of California after the passage of Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment denying recognition to same-sex marriages of the sort briefly allowed after a state supreme court decision earlier this year. Her anger is understandable, since the constitutional change leaves her relationship with Tammy Lynn Michaels in legal limbo as people wait for the courts to hash out the impact on thousands of existing gay and lesbian marriages.

Writing for The Daily Beast, Etheridge said:

Okay. So Prop 8 passed. Alright, I get it. 51% of you think that I am a second class citizen. Alright then. So my wife, uh I mean, roommate? Girlfriend? Special lady friend? You are gonna have to help me here because I am not sure what to call her now. Anyways, she and I are not allowed the same right under the state constitution as any other citizen. Okay, so I am taking that to mean I do not have to pay my state taxes because I am not a full citizen. I mean that would just be wrong, to make someone pay taxes and not give them the same rights, sounds sort of like that taxation without representation thing from the history books.

No doubt, Etheridge penned her words in a rage and could probably be forgiven were she to reconsider and step back from her threat. After all, governments are capable of letting almost anything slide except challenges to their flow of revenue. Nothing gets officials to reach for the battering rams and handcuffs with greater enthusiasm than a tax case.

But what if ...

What if Melissa Etheridge were to join with other high-profile gays, lesbians and their friends and supporters to turn a quixotic bird-flip to the social conservatives who passed Proposition 8 into an organized movement? A tax revolt by one celebrity is a one-way ticket to Wesley Snipes country. But a mass tax revolt by gays and lesbians across the state could turn into a serious problem for California and a useful lesson to the majority about the consequences of restricting the rights of a minority.

There's a lot of anger out there, just waiting to be harnessed. Melissa Etheridge could be in a powerful position to remind Californians that a majority vote to abuse people may be an invitation to a world of grief.

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Good money after bad

Well, it's a good thing the seat-of-the-pants economic policy being worked out in D.C. through bipartisan cooperation is having such excellent results. After all, if you're going to throw around hundreds of billions of dollars of other people--

What's that? You say the money is doing no good and the feds are ordering up more?
Troubled insurer American International Group got a reworked $152.5 billion deal from the federal government Monday, as the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department made significant changes to the terms of the company's original bailout.

The Fed announced that it will reduce AIG's original $85 billion bridge loan to $60 billion, cut the interest rate by 5.5 percentage points and extend the borrowing period to five years from two years.

In addition, the Treasury will use its special authority under last month's $700 billion bailout law - the so-called Troubled Asset Relief Program - to purchase $40 billion in preferred stock.
It seems that even after an infusion of taxpayer cash, AIG is still tottering or, as the news report put it, "having difficulty paying back its original bridge loan."

So, what's the prognosis for the new patch-work fix to a company that seems to have outlived its allotted free-market lifespan? Mmmm ... Not so good.

Andrew Barile, an insurance consultant at Andrew Barile Consulting Corp., said the bailout will help ease AIG's need to continue to post more collateral. But he said the company will continue to have trouble selling off its subsidiaries. In the current environment, other smaller companies may rather pluck talent away from AIG than assume its unwanted companies.

"People also underestimate the time it takes to sell off assets of an insurance company, which takes months and months," said Barile.

It's nice to know that there's continuity in Washington, D.C., even after a hard-fought election campaign. Continuity of massively expensive and apparently ineffective policy, that is.

Meanwhile, the auto industry is next in line for its turn at the trough. I'm sure that will work out much better.

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Maybe they should ban private homes, too

As gun rights columnist David Codrea writes in his own take on this issue, "Across the nation, gun sales are up. The cause is attributed to fear over what new citizen disarmament edicts a Barack Obama presidency will bring."

He's right. The New York Times reports, "[s]ales of handguns, rifles and ammunition have surged in the last week, according to gun store owners around the nation."

How much?

Says the Times:

Nationally, rifle and handgun sales surged 17 percent, for example, in May, compared with May 2007, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation figures. That was before Mr. Obama had clinched the Democratic nomination. Sales then fell and were essentially flat by September compared with the year before, even as the campaign heated up, before rising 14 percent in October. November figures were not yet available.

The ultimate boost to retail sales may turn out to be higher. Britain's Sky News reports that one large retailer saw a remarkable jump in purchases of firearms. "Cheaper Than Dirt sold a million dollars in guns in October, more than double the normal amount."

News reports uniformly acknowledge that fears of the incoming Obama administration's attitude towards firearms regulation are behind the workout cash registers are getting in gun shops across the country. While President-Elect Barack Obama has said he agrees with the Supreme Court that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms, his announced policy proposals suggest a very narrow interpretation of that right. Obama's transition Website,, contained the following language before the page was yanked offline [Note: It is still in the Google cache here]:

Address Gun Violence in Cities: As president, Barack Obama would repeal the Tiahrt Amendment, which restricts the ability of local law enforcement to access important gun trace information, and give police officers across the nation the tools they need to solve gun crimes and fight the illegal arms trade. Obama and Biden also favor commonsense measures that respect the Second Amendment rights of gun owners, while keeping guns away from children and from criminals who shouldn't have them. They support closing the gun show loophole and making guns in this country childproof. They also support making the expired federal Assault Weapons Ban permanent, as such weapons belong on foreign battlefields and not on our streets.

Not surprisingly, given the new president's enthusiasm for restoring the so-called "assault weapons ban," military-style semi-automatic rifles appear to be the hottest sellers around the country.

This shouldn't be a surprise. In 1995, after the original assault weapons ban was passed under the Clinton administration, 60 Minutes co-host Leslie Stahl said of the impact of the ban, "it made 1994 the best year for gun sales in a generation and the best year for the sales of assault weapons ever."

This isn't a phenomenon confined to firearms, nor is it specific to Americans. Gay and lesbian couples rushed to marry before voters went to the polls and approved Proposition 8, banning same-sex marriages in California. When the Chinese government hinted that it might cap car registrations in Beijing, sales of new automobiles jumped by 30%.

That suggests a healthy disdain for restrictive laws on the part of people who want to go about their lives in ways that politicians disapprove. What government officials should have learned by now is that the best way to put more of anything into circulation is to suggest that you're going to attempt to use the law to restrict its availability. People will then rush to acquire that which is about to be forbidden.

And we can credibly assume, looking at history, that people rushing to beat a ban to the punch don't plan to give up what they've just acquired once a new law comes into effect.


Saturday, November 8, 2008

Surprise! Cops down on decriminalization

I'm not sure that law enforcement officials in the Bay State really anticipated that Question 2 was actually going to pass, reducing penalties for simple possession of less than an ounce of marijuana to a $100 fine.

From the Boston Globe:

"This is certainly going to make the work of many police officers a lot more complicated," said Wayne Sampson, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association. "We're going to need guidance from the attorney general and district attorneys. There are a lot of things to work out."

Well, yes, I suppose so. But decriminalization didn't come out of the blue. The measure was much-anticipated and heavily debated. It ultimately passed with the support of almost two-thirds of voters. A little just-in-case prep work may have been in order.

Instead, we're getting a bit of a frenzy of ... whining. Chief Brian Kyes of the Chelsea Police Department drags his feet with what sounds like an Intro to Police Procedure question. "If it's a civil infraction, not a crime, can police officers search for more evidence? Now that might constitute a bad search, and that definitely will require significant changes."

Well, yes, it might. But there are actually a few items in Massachusetts, possession of which is punishable only by fines, despite the best efforts of the state legislature. If I remember right, pocket knives with blades longer than 2.5 inches fall into this category in Boston. So deciding whether or not a search is permissible after discovery of a decriminalized substance should be a more or less settled matter of law.

And Frank Pasquerello, a spokesman for the Cambridge Police Department, complains, "Now, we're going to have to figure out how much they had, not whether they were carrying it, and that's a lot more difficult."

Well, I sympathize. It would have been better if marijuana were fully legalized, but there you have it. We all have our crosses to bear.

Of course, all institutions are inherently conservative. They don't like to change their ways, and they don't like to approach old challenges from a new direction.

But, in time, I'm sure that Massachusetts police officers can learn to get along without hustling casual pot smokers off to jail.


Friday, November 7, 2008

A little more on our new president's plans for your kids

When I wrote in September about Barack Obama's plan to mandate fifty hours of community service for high school students, I had to pull together two different documents to make the case. One was the national service plan (PDF) on his campaign Website, which said that "Schools that require service as part of the educational experience create improved learning environments and serve as resources for their communities." The other was a speech he gave in December 2007, promising that "[a]t the middle and high school level, we'll make federal assistance conditional on school districts developing service programs, and give schools resources to offer new service opportunities."

I thought the overall policy direction contained there was painfully clear, and so did editors at the Providence Journal and the East Valley Tribune, who ran versions of that column. But I got some flack from people who found wiggle room in the need to draw a line between those two statements.

Well, no more. On the president-elect's official transition Website,, the "America Serves" page now contains the following language [Note: The page was changed, removing the explicit "require" language, after the publication of this article. The original is still in the Google cache here]:

The Obama Administration will call on Americans to serve in order to meet the nation’s challenges. President-Elect Obama will expand national service programs like AmeriCorps and Peace Corps and will create a new Classroom Corps to help teachers in underserved schools, as well as a new Health Corps, Clean Energy Corps, and Veterans Corps. Obama will call on citizens of all ages to serve America, by developing a plan to require 50 hours of community service in middle school and high school and 100 hours of community service in college every year. Obama will encourage retiring Americans to serve by improving programs available for individuals over age 55, while at the same time promoting youth programs such as Youth Build and Head Start.

No extrapolation needed, thank you. The policy intent is now written out plain to see.

Yes, I'm aware that fifty hours of mandatory community service hardly rises to the level of a military draft. It's not even the mandatory universal citizen service his new chief of staff wants to inflict on everybody between the ages of 18 and 25. But it is a top-down mandate by the federal government that students perform state-approved labor.

I personally object to such requirements even when they come from the local school district. I want my kid to learn to volunteer and to contribute to the community, but that means volunteer, and for causes he picks, to the extent that he believes is appropriate, with a little nudging from within the family, not from bureaucrats. Government mandates destroy the whole idea of volunteerism, and the inevitable insistence that service be performed for an approved organization or cause (which is the case with most existing service requirements) is, frankly, a bit totalitarian.

Our children, as well as ourselves, are independent individuals. We are not resources to be drawn upon by politicians. Nor do we owe our labor to the government.

We've had enough of authoritarianism under the Bush administration. We don't need to begin the Obama administration with a dose of involuntary servitude.


In which my big nose fascinates you while I sound off on the economy

Watch yours truly make a fool of himself in a new video from is running a video and a matching discussion, mostly about economic issues, from bloggers in each of the 50 states. It's an interesting project, with the potential to be picked up by the major media, since the company's earlier work has appeared on the Websites of the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Link to the video here.


Thursday, November 6, 2008

What's the best approach for ending prohibitions?

After I wrote a piece favoring legalized prostitution last month, I received comments and emails from sex workers thanking me for the piece -- but, in one case, objecting to my call for legalization. The woman who contacted me said she preferred decriminalization over legalization.

Color me confused.

My experience with the difference between "legalize" and "decriminalize" comes from discussions of drug policy, in which legalization refers to removing all laws against a substance or activity and allowing it to be engaged in openly, while decriminalization has a somewhat vaguer definition, but basically refers to ending criminal penalties while maintaining civil sanctions -- fines -- against people who engage in still-discouraged conduct.

Why, I asked, would somebody prefer being fined over being free of legal penalties?

Well, it turns out that language is a bit tricky. Apparently, discussions of policy toward commercial sex have gone in a different direction than discussions of policy regarding drugs. In sex worker circles, I'm told, "legalization" refers to permitting prostitution within a rigidly structured and regulated framework that dictates how the trade will be conducted (usually in licensed brothels). "Decriminalization" refers to repealing laws against prostitution and allowing people to work out their own arrangements in a deregulated marketplace.

In the case of prostitution, Nevada is often held out as an example of legalization, while New Zealand is considered a model of decriminalization.

Nevada prostitution is fairly successful and relatively trouble-free -- certainly it is when compared to the trade as conducted in jurisdictions where it's forbidden. But Nevada prostitution is rigidly regulated and many sex workers don't like working under tjose rules. In particular, they don't like working for brothel owners. Many of them would rather freelance or make other arrangements more to their taste.

In New Zealand, as The Economist describes the trade:

[F]or liberals in search of success stories, New Zealand appears to provide more promising evidence. In 2003, that country decriminalised the sex trade with a boldness that exceeded that of the Dutch. Sex workers were allowed to ply their trade more or less freely, either at home, in brothels or on the street.

A study published by the government in May, measuring the impact of the new law, was encouraging. More than 60% of prostitutes felt they had more power to refuse clients than they did before. The report reckoned that only about 1% of women in the business were under the legal age of 18. And only 4% said they had been pressured into working by someone else.

The advantage to New Zealand's arrangement, the magazine continues is, "prostitutes can fend for themselves. As well as letting them keep all their earnings, this independence gives them freedom to reject nasty clients and unsafe practices."

The New Zealand Ministry of Justice report referenced by The Economist is available online. After assessing the impact of the Prostitution Reform Act, it concludes:

The PRA has been in force for five years. During that time, the sex industry has not increased in size, and many of the social evils predicted by some who opposed the decriminalisation of the sex industry have not been experienced. On the whole, the PRA has been effective in achieving its purpose, and the Committee is confident that the vast majority of people involved in the sex industry are better off under the PRA than they were previously.

So, greater autonomy for sex workers, no fear of arrest, prosecution or fines, and apparently improved conditions. And that's without even getting into the fact that the New Zealand arrangement uniquely respects, to a great extent, the right of adults to use their bodies as they please and to engage in whatever consensual arrangements they like. Sounds good to me.

Let me be clear, in all cases, whether we're discussing prostitution, drugs, guns or any other arrangements among consenting adults, I favor entirely removing the government from the process. That means no laws against goods or services; it also means no mandated structures or regulations. People should be free to do as they please, so long as they don't violate anybody else's rights.

It's the right thing to do. And it works.

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Attack of the Obamatons

Note about Examiner links

I'm including links to my Examiner pieces in a fair number of my posts here, and I'm noticing that they often bring up 404 pages. I don't know why that should be the case, since, if you click on the URL box at the top of your browser on the 404 page and hit ENTER the article promptly pops up.

I'll find out if there's something funky about the way Examiner interacts with Blogger that, hopefully, can be fixed.

Yes we can -- draft your ass

You know, I warn, and I warn, and I warn, and I warn, but nobody listens. Don't know what I'm talking about? Read on ...

Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, President-Elect Obama's choice for chief of staff in his incoming administration, is co-author of a book, The Plan, that calls for, among other things, compulsory service for all Americans ages 18 to 25. The following excerpt is from pages 61-62 of the 2006 book:

It's time for a real Patriot Act that brings out the patriot in all of us. We propose universal civilian service for every young American. Under this plan, All Americans between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five will be asked to serve their country by going through three months of basic training, civil defense preparation and community service. ...

Here's how it would work. Young people will know that between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, the nation will enlist them for three months of civilian service. They'll be asked to report for three months of basic civil defense training in their state or community, where they will learn what to do in the event of biochemical, nuclear or conventional attack; how to assist others in an evacuation; how to respond when a levee breaks or we're hit by a natural disaster. These young people will be available to address their communities' most pressing needs.

Emanuel and co-author Bruce Reed insist "this is not a draft," but go on to write of young men and women, "the nation will enlist them for three months of civilian service." They also warn, "[s]ome Republicans will squeal about individual freedom," ruling out any likelihood that they would let people opt out of universal citizen service.

As chief of staff, Emanuel will not be in a position to directly introduce public policy, but his enthusiasm for compulsory service, combined with Barack Obama's own plan to require high school students to perform 50 hours of government-approved service, suggest an unfortunate direction for the new administration.


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

My record at the polls -- not so great

With my track record at the polls, you'd think I'd just get the pretense over with, hire a dominatrix, and get my abuse the old-fashioned way: with whips and ball-gags. But no, I tried my hand at another election cycle, and look what I have to show for it.

OK, I didn't expect Bob Barr to win, but I was hoping for a vote total that could credibly be said to exceed that attributable to simple statistical error. He pulled 0.6% in Arizona and something rather less nationally. All because of the oh-so attractive candidates put forward by the major parties, I'm sure.

My congressional district (but certainly not me) is now represented by business-bashing, anti-immigrant, drug-warrior Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick. I already miss the corrupt, graft-hungry son of a bitch she replaces.

Prop. 100, which forbids new taxes on the sale or transfer of homes, was a bright spot. It passed with better than three-quarters of the vote.

Prop. 101, which would have blocked the government from imposing socialized medicine, failed by a heartbreakingly slim margin: 49.9% to 50.1%. That's less that 2,200 votes out of 1.7 million total.

Prop. 102, the repulsive "Arizona doesn't like queers" measure, passed with 56.5% of the vote.

Prop. 201, a scam to turn every home sale into a legal free-for-all, thankfully failed with 77% against.

And state legislators won't get a raise, since Prop. 300 went down to easy defeat.

I'm happy to say that the campaign season is now over, and I can get back to the important business of bashing politicians and government officials without worrying about electoral outcomes.

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What do the major parties stand for again?

It's no secret that the Republican Party needs to retool its brand in a big way. But Democrats may face a need to repackage their own product, and that effort could be more difficult for an ascendant political party looking to hold on to its advantage than for one looking to recover from disaster.

After two consecutive ballot-box wipeouts, in 2006 and 2008, even the densest GOP apparatchik must suspect that a heady mix of militarism, nativism, enthusiasm for big government, abuse of civil liberties, neglect of free markets and contempt for anybody with a college degree may not provide a roadmap to a viable future role in American political life.

Republicans have a couple of options, The most obvious ones are:

  • a retreat to social conservatism combined with economic populism. This would take advantage of the current rush to blame free markets for the financial mess that politicians actually wrought without having to think too hard about the existing rural-exurban base of the GOP. Such a move would be relatively easy and advantageous in the short term, but it probably has a limited future in a country growing increasingly heterogeneous and tolerant, and in need of a free economy. Call this the Mike Huckabee alternative.
  • A return to an emphasis on free markets and small government while repudiating the nativism and intolerance that have marked the GOP in recent years. An explicitly libertarian approach is probably out of the question, but a willingness to set the culture war aside could make the party at least inoffensive to some groups that have found it repugnant in recent years. While probably a tougher sell in the short term, and one that could alienate some of the existing base, such a move might make the party once again viable in urban areas, on the coasts, and among the growing ranks of Latino voters. Call this the Barry Goldwater alternative.

How Republicans will position themselves in the months and years to come is up to them, and the ultimate decision will, no doubt, be hashed out in the post-debacle infighting to come. It will be fun to watch, at least.

Democrats, on the other hand are sitting pretty, enjoying the fruits of a hard-won victor--

Whoops. No, the Democratic Party faces challenges too, though its problems may come from its success.

Even as Barack Obama was rolling up a big win in California, gaining a 61% to 37% advantage over John McCain, Proposition 8, banning gay marriage, was simultaneously chugging along to a narrow victory. That win was almost certainly attributable to African-American voters who, while giving 94% of their vote to Barack Obama, were also giving 70% of their votes to Prop. 8. Latino voters also favored the measure, but only by 53% to 47%.

The fact of the matter is that the newly energized African-American base of the Democratic Party, and the party's growing Latino constituency, are more socially conservative than the party has positioned itself to be in the past. It's not just gay marriage; a 2004 Zogby survey found that 78% of Hispanic voters and 62% of African-American voters hold pro-life positions on abortion. The number for the general population is 56%.

The Democratic Party has traditionally sold itself as supportive of gay rights and reproductive freedom -- positions which seem unlikely to be compatible with the values of a large and growing number of its adherents. But its base includes gay and lesbian voters and socially liberal voters who like those traditional positions. To please one constituency may mean alienating the other.

To a certain extent, the woes of the Republican and Democratic parties are inevitable for broad-based political organizations in a diverse society. Trying to hold together a large coalition means engaging in a massive case of cognitive dissonance that inevitably causes conflicts when contradictory promises try to occupy the same politicians' attention at the same time.

The degree to which the parties successfully address those conflicts will determine their viability in the future.

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Hoping for a little breathing room under President Obama

Probably the greatest benefit to the election of Barack Obama as the next president of the United States is to see a man of mixed race rise to the highest political office in a nation with a troubled racial history. When the senator from Illinois was born, African-Americans were in the midst of a fight for equal treatment before the law that sometimes turned violent. Now he's set to take up residence in the White House.

Senator Obama didn't just squeak in with a plurality vote, either -- he won a credible 52% of votes cast, for a six-point margin over Senator McCain.

If nothing else, I think this election put to rest the increasingly tired canard that the United States of America is a "racist country." That's not to say that racism is dead -- tribalism of all sorts seems to be an inherent human failing. But racism is very clearly no longer a ceiling to the aspirations of Americans, including the descendants of people who were forced into slavery.

Another potential benefit of the election is a likely modest improvement in respect for at least some civil liberties by the federal government. As I've written before, Barack Obama enjoyed a clear advantage over John McCain in terms of his positions on important civil liberties issues. In particular, he's reliably pro-choice on abortion and related reproductive rights. He also favors closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay and ending the use of military tribunals for accused terrorists. On the campaign trail, Obama has voiced suport for some elements of drug-policy reform, such as ending the federal government's jihad against medical marijuana and fixing the disparity in sentencing for powder and crack cocaine.

And while Senator Obama disappointingly voted to renew the PATRIOT Act and to authorize warrantless wiretaps, he does have a somewhat better record on privacy and due process issues than his defeated main rival for the presidency.

Matters of concern include the potential for the imposition of political censorship on radio and TV via a renewed Fairness Doctrine. While he has disavowed any interest in such a move, high-level congressional Democrats do favor the Fairness Doctrine, and he'll likely be under some pressure from that quarter.

Senator Obama also favors some sort of mandatory national service for high school students, and has a history of hostility to the right to bear arms, although any strong moves in that area would run up against the recent Heller decision.

As for economic freedom ... Obama's increasingly obvious hostility to free trade, the free market, small government and the right of Americans to keep what they earn would be much more disappointing if Senator McCain hadn't himself been so contemptuous of free markets and private-sector success. Frankly, we were all going to lose on this issue no matter who won, though divided government might have slowed Leviathan down just a bit.

Overall, after eight years of overweening and often abusive government under President Bush, there's reason to hope for a little breathing room under President Obama. That may not be a lot to go on, but in an era when most prominent politicians seem to be competing to intrude the farthest into Americans' lives, that's probably the best we can hope for.

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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Proposition updates at Civil Liberties Examiner

If you're not following me over at The Examiner, you're missing out! Fresh off the virtual presses tonight is news of the fate of ballot propositions dealing with marijuana, gay marriage and abortion.

Tomorrow, I'll cover Arizona's propositions and give my thoughts about the election results, but the excitement is at The Examiner now now now.

Yes, I'm drinking.

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How I voted, in case you care

Who did Tooch anoint with his much-coveted vote this year? Which issues won his all-important nod? Read on and find out.

President: Bob Barr. He's a moderate libertarian with a conservative bent, which means he and I disagree on some issues. But his overall platform is one that expands liberty instead of contracting it. That's a rare thing in this day and age, and makes him unique on the presidential line of the Arizona ballot. I didn't have to agonize over this at all.

By the way, I do find his conversion convincing. Nobody abandons conservatism for libertarian ideas, works with the Marijuana Policy Project and consults for the ACLU in order to gain political advantage. And we need to welcome converts -- the future of libertarianism lies in one-time authoritarians who have seen the light.

Congress: Sydney Hay. Yes, Hay is a social conservative, but she's savvy on economics and very pro-free-market (she sat on the board of the Goldwater Institute). That'd be an important quality in a House that has engaged in serial ineptitude for years when it comes to economic issues. Democrat Kirkpatrick is sounding the economic populism bell and touting her drug warrior credentials, so to Hell with her. Libertarian Thane Eichenauer is on the ballot and would be my choice if Hay's economic credentials weren't so impressive and important.

County Attorney/Sheriff: After the Dibor Roberts affair, I was very much looking forward to voting against Sheriff Steve Waugh and County Attorney Sheila Polk, who rallied behind the thuggish Sergeant Jeff Newnum and prosecuted Roberts. Unfortunately, the ballot is Soviet-style for these offices -- their names, with no alternatives. I wrote in Dibor Roberts for Sheriff and her husband Merrill for County Attorney.

Prop. 100, barring new taxes on property sales and transfers: Yes

Prop. 101, blocking state officials from imposing socialized health care: Yes

Prop. 102, barring the recognition of same-sex marriages: No, goddamnit

Prop. 201, basically abolishing contract law and turning home sales into a litigious free-for-all: No

Prop. 300, raising state legislators' salaries: No

That's not everything, of course. Some of the races I took a pass on, several offices were uncontested (or contested only by a nice old lady whose memory has been slipping for a few years), and a few propositions were make-the-best-of-a-bad-choice situations. I also voted against a jail tax.

You think you did better? Bring it on.

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Today's voters have it easy

Whoever comes out on top in today's political popularity contest, we're bound to endure days if not weeks of allegations about voter fraud, voter intimidation and the "corrupting" influence of money on elections. Some of these concerns are real. From ACORN's very interesting take on voter registration to fliers urging Democrats to vote on November 5, this has been a year for shenanigans that could potentially influence the outcome of the election.

On the other hand, some of these concerns are nonsense. As former FEC Chairman Bradley Smith points out, the $2.5 billion expended on the presidential race this year isn't that large a sum for a nation this size.

"Americans will spend about $12 billion on potato chips this year; Coca Cola will spend more on advertising this year than will be spent by all the candidates who have run for president. It costs money to communicate, whether you are talking about cars, cola or politicians."

But realizing that $2.5 billion isn't all that much to spend to determine which ambitious demagogue gets an opportunity to mess with us requires a bit of perspective. That's something lacking in a nation notorious for forgetting its history.

A little historical knowledge would reveal, for instance, that big campaign budgets and long lists of donors are nothing compared to the outright vote buying that prevailed in the 19th Century, when color-coded ballots printed by the parties themselves made it easy for partisan enforcers to make sure that voters who'd accepted a coin or a lunch as payment for loyalty voted "the right way." It was a well-respected practice. Even pre-revolutionary George Washington greased his way into the Virginia House of Burgesses on votes lubricated with liquor.

And a little more historical perspective would make today's padding and trimming of voter-registration lists look like weak tea compared to the gauntlet voters had to run in some places in the past. From a fascinating article in The New Yorker:

Kyle was a Democrat. As he neared the polls in the city’s Fifteenth Ward, which was heavily dominated by the American Party, a ruffian tried to snatch his ballots. Kyle dodged and wheeled, and heard a cry: his brother, just behind him, had been struck. Next, someone clobbered Kyle, who drew a knife, but didn’t have a chance to use it. “I felt a pistol put to my head,” he said. Grazed by a bullet, he fell. When he rose, he drew his own pistol, hidden in his pocket. He spied his brother lying in the street. Someone else fired a shot, hitting Kyle in the arm. A man carrying a musket rushed at him. Another threw a brick, knocking him off his feet. George Kyle picked himself up and ran. He never did cast his vote. Nor did his brother, who died of his wounds.

Granted, that was rough even for Baltimore of 1859, but upon reviewing the election, the House of Representatives accepted the results, concluding the day's occurrences were no bar to voting for any “man of ordinary courage.”

I'll admit that I often get the feeling our ancestors were a lot tougher than we could ever hope to be.

None of this is too suggest that we ignore today's less exciting but no less subversive efforts to throw elections one way or another by corrupting the electoral process. But it's pretty clear that the path to the ballot box -- which these days might be a mail-in ballot perused at leisure on the sofa -- is a bit cushier than it has been in the past, and that the inducements to vote one way or another are much less overt.

Voting has never before been so easy or so safe.

And with voting so unchallenging, in historical terms, it's hard to take seriously the claims of the goo-goos that casting a ballot is just too difficult, and that's why voter turnout is so low.

Really? In the year George Kyle's brother died trying to cast a vote, turnout was around 80%. If it's lower now, difficulty isn't the issue.

So sure, address the real issues of voter fraud and voter suppression we have today. But don't make too much of a few speedbumps in a process that's an awful lot easier and cleaner than it was once upon a time.


Monday, November 3, 2008

Column in the East Valley Tribune

A trimmed version of my recent post on presidential power, published here and here, is now available online and in dead-tree format to a new audience courtesy of the East Valley Tribune: "The Inevitable Presidential Power Trip."

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Honest social studies for a three-year-old

My three-year-old son, Tony, recognizes the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates when their mugs appear on the TV news.

"That's McCain and Obama," he blurts when their photos pop up behind a couple of talking heads.

He also blurts out something else that he's heard me say in relation to those two men, which isn't going to endear me to the nice people at day care. So my wife and I decide it's time to explain just what's going on and why mommy and daddy have such strong feelings about the people in the news.

"John McCain and Barack Obama are bad men who want to tell us what to do," my wife tells Tony. "They're competing to become president of the country, and people will pick one of them for the job."

"That's right," I add. "They don't want to let us make our own decisions. They want to decide for us. That's why they want to be president."

"Your daddy voted for Mr. Barr, who doesn't want to boss us around. But he probably won't win."

Tony looks confused at this point. I don't blame him. I'm confused myself.

"Even though they're bad men, most people think either Obama or McCain will win," I say. "So they vote for the one they think will be less bossy, just like your mom did. But some people are really just big babies. They don't want to make choices, so they vote for McCain or Obama because they want somebody else to decide for them."

That's about as detailed as we get for a three-year-old, using terms he can understand. He definitely gets the idea of "bossy," since he got a time out last week for ordering around one of his friends. He was badly embarrassed -- more because his friend was so upset at being bossed around than because of the punishment.

Yeah, my take on the political system and its stakes isn't really out of the classic social-studies curriculum. That's because I'm honest, unlike most textbooks. I'm not peddling a fairies-and-rainbows version of the political process to my kid. I'm raising him with an appreciation of liberty as the core value of politics, with an understanding of politicians as the children on the playground who grew up without ever learning to keep their hands off other kids' toys, and with a healthy dose of wariness about that bossy clique of overgrown bullies called "government."

Later, I can fill in the shades of gray -- that we can have disagreements even with the "good" guys, and that the bad guys might not be all that evil if they never entered government and gained the opportunity to push people around.

I'll instruct Tony that, as with bossy kids, just because government officials tell you to do or not do something doesn't mean that you should pay them any attention. But you have to be careful about how you ignore them since they can be very mean.

And ultimately, I hope, he'll become an independent adult who, whatever choices he makes about his allegiances and his values, doesn't let other people substitute their whims for his preferences.

Of course, I want him to have a sense of perspective and to enjoy life without getting hung up on things he can't control. So I tell him the truth: Halloween should be a lot more important to him than Election Day.

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Sunday, November 2, 2008

Bad news for the LP may still be good news for libertarians

Come Wednesday, Libertarian Party officials will almost certainly turn to their traditional task of putting a positive spin on miserable vote totals (don't blame me folks -- I threw you a bone). But amidst the spare electoral pickings, there may be more than a bit of hope for those of us who prize the message more than the messenger. As the Fort Worth Star-Telegram tells us:

Shrink the government. Cut taxes. Respect a person’s property and right to privacy.

In Texas, those are widely embraced political ideals.

They’re also bedrock principles of the Libertarian Party, which is fielding a whopping 174 candidates on Texas ballots in Tuesday’s election.

But 20 years after South Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul ran for president as the Libertarian nominee, introducing America to the message of economic conservatism and social tolerance, the party is still very much an underdog.

The culprit, as always, is the bipolar nature of American politics. People are convinced that they have to vote for Coke or Pepsi, so RC doesn't get a hearing (and unlike in the beverage marketplace, supporters of niche political products don't get to enjoy their minority selection). Nominally, that means a choice between free markets or social tolerance, although that's giving the major parties entirely too much credit. In real terms, it's turned into an oh-so-attractive race between know-better-than-you nanny-statism and thuggish meatheadism.

But people still project their expectations on the Democrat vs. Republican dichotomy.

As the Star-Telegram article points out, though, there is a constituency for a libertarian-ish message -- perhaps not a purist one, but certainly ones that tends in a more-freedom rather than less-freedom direction. The question is, does anybody other than the LP care enough to cater to that audience?

Democrats are poised to win the current election on a platform of general social tolerance, lukewarm enthusiasm for civil liberties and economic idiocy, so there's little incentive for the donkey party to fine-tune its message, unless it's concerned about holding on to gains in the West.

The Republicans are poised to suffer just desserts for eight years of militarism, authoritarianism, intolerance of legal niceties and general cronyism, so they're more likely to reconsider the product the party is selling. But all signs now point to the GOP positioning itself as a party of populist flag-wavers, sort of like the Australian National Party which, while it wanders a bit, tends to blend social conservatism and nationalism with "agrarian socialism."

The Cato Institute says that libertarians, broadly defined, make up about 10%-15% of the electorate, and Ryan Sager writes in Reason that those voters are up for grabs, though generally disgusted with the mouth-breathing program the Republicans have been peddling.
An early October Zogby Interactive poll found that self-identified libertarians (about 6 percent of the poll's sample) give McCain only 36 percent of their vote, lower than the 45 percent and 42 percent Zogby found them giving Bush in the last two elections. The libertarian voters claim to be defecting mainly to Libertarian Party candidate Bob Barr and other third-party candidates, not to Obama. A Gallup poll conducted in September, which identified libertarian-minded voters with a series of ideological questions about the role of government in the economy and society (pegging them at around 23 percent of the electorate), found that only 43 percent of these voters plan pull the lever for McCain, slightly fewer than did for Bush in 2004. The Gallup poll also finds a significant uptick in libertarians planning to vote third-party, with 3.5 percent supporting Barr. ...

Tax cuts or no tax cuts, a party that can be roused in time of deep crisis only by fear and tribalism—a party that a supposed moderate is now deeding to its most extreme elements—can scarcely serve as a safe home to liberty or the voters who cherish it.
That leaves an opportunity for the Democrats looking to hold on to recent gains, for reinvented Republicans, or for somebody else (a professionalized LP?) who wants to court a constituency interested in both economic freedom and civil liberties.

Or maybe we'll just get neglected. Again.

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