Friday, January 30, 2009

One nation, under ...

In the future, we will all be Obamians.


Prohibitionists scheme to create a black market in ammunition

Hobbled by the Supreme Court decision in D.C. v. Heller, recognizing that individuals have a constitutionally protected right to keep and bear arms, gun control advocates are roaming the land with virtual lightbulbs over their heads. "Ah ha," they say. "You can have your guns, but we'll control your ammunition." Well, they're not the first to think of the idea, and they won't be the first to discover that "banning"' isn't synonymous with "eliminating."

California already has a law requiring firearms to include "microstamping" technology -- basically, firing pins that imprint traceable information on fired cases. The Brady Campaign wants to turn that into a national mandate (PDF). A group called Ammunition Accountability plans to go a step beyond, laser-engraving all bullets with serial numbers at the factory that could then be traced to purchasers in registered transactions. Laws to that effect have been introduced in 18 states, though none have yet passed. And, of course, some folks just want to ban ammunition altogether and convert firearms into decorative wallhangings.

There are, as you might guess, a few problems with these schemes.

Leave aside the cost of redesigning guns with mocrostamping technology and the challenge of replacing the roughly 270 million non-compliant guns already in circulation and in the hands of people not necessarily inclined to cooperate. Let's say you get it done. There is the added problem that few criminals are prone to purchasing their guns and ammunition in legal transactions requiring them to show their identification. Purchasing either a microstamping gun or laser-etched ammunition in a black-market transaction renders the encoded data useless.

Microstamping has the added flaw of being easy to defeat by swapping out the firing pin or by scraping off the stamping elements with a file. An old knife sharpening stone was used to remove the engraving in about one minute in an experiment (PDF) conducted by George G. Krivosta, of New York's Suffolk County Crime Laboratory. Krivosta said the technique could be performed with "no special equipment or knowledge needed."

So if your hypothetical criminal who shops for the tools of his trade at Wal-Mart does knock over liquor stores with a gun registered to his name, he can defeat microstamping with a rough stone.

The information contained in laser-engraved bullets would be harder to evade -- if they were purchased in registered transactions. But criminals can use ammunition that pre-dates the requirement. They can use stolen ammunition or ammunition purchased on the black market. Or they can use handloaded ammunition made in a commonly available press produced by one of several companies.

Which means that any effective ammunition control scheme would have to ban handloading and (as a failed Pennsylvania bill did) the possession of pre-law ammunition. So any ammunition control scheme, to be effective, inevitably edges toward a ban on ammunition.

Which raises the ultimate question: How effective could an ammunition ban be?

That brings us back to my earlier comment: They're not the first to think of the idea, and they won't be the first to discover that "banning"' isn't synonymous with "eliminating."

It's not that an ammunition ban or severe restriction would have no effect -- it would change things. Recreational shooting would be severely curtailed or destroyed entirely. If you effectively ban shooting, people won't shoot where you can hear or see them. They'll keep their guns and ammo cached out of sight. So a harmless pastime would suffer.

But the people who supposedly concern the government -- criminals, terrorists and political opponents of the powers-that-be -- really wouldn't feel a hit at all. Criminals only need a limited supply of ammunition to pursue their chosen vocations, as do terrorists. Those with political motivations are likely to posess stockpiles of ammunition with lifespans measurable in, at least, decades. And all three categories are willing to go outside the law for what they need.

And manufacturing ammunition isn't that hard. Just ask the Israelis about the Ayalon Institute. That's the name of the illicit factory in which Israeli guerrillas manufactured 40,000 rounds of 9mm ammunition per day to feed the submachine guns they made in another facility for their fight against British authorities. Under threat of the death penalty, the facility was built underground, with a functioning laundry overhead to conceal the operation.

Emulating the Ayalon Institute, the clever folks who currently build meth labs and submarines to smuggle cocaine could certainly knock off enough rounds to feed the black market appetite for ammunition. Especially in a country where making ammunition at home is considered a hobby and reloading equipment is already widely available. Illegal manufacture would be simple. That is, assuming enough couldn't be stolen from military and law-enforcement channels to satisfy demand.

And that's assuming a total ban. Tight restrictions would mean that recreational shooters use registered rounds while criminals stick with black-market ammo.

Look, I mentioned meth labs and cocaine smugglers above. Decades after outlawing drugs, we've accomplished little other than driving the drug trade underground and making it violent and corrosive. Prohibitions result not in compliance, but defiance. There's no reason whatsoever to think that controlling ammunition will be more effective than restrictions on other things that rub some set or other of control freaks the wrong way. People will find ways around any ban, especially for those criminal purposes about which the authorities are supposedly most concerned.

If illicit drug deals have turned dangerous and socially disruptive, just wait until the underground trade is in weapons and ammunition.


Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Screw the stimulus -- let's scare off the lenders

Barring divine intervention by a team of heavenly economists, President Barack Obama's massive spending spree ... err ... stimulus package, will pass into law. That probably can't be stopped. But the money to be spent isn't yet in government hands; it will almost certainly have to be borrowed -- probably from overseas. That threatens to bind generations to come to paying off the bills run up today. Unless, that is, enough Americans dissuade lenders by announcing ahead of time that they plan to repudiate the debt the government intends to incur.

To be successful, such repudiation will have to be open and massive. And it will be most convincing if it's voiced loudest by young Americans -- those who have the potential to assume political power in the future. Millions of twenty-somethings saying, when they're in Congress 20 or 30 years from now, they won't honor hundreds of billions of dollars of treasury securities issued by today's profligate politicians, just may raise serious doubts among the world's lenders.

There's good reason to take such drastic action to kneecap the stimulus package after it passes. Harvard University economist Robert J. Barro points out that massive government spending in the past -- particularly, during World War II -- actually did economic harm.

[T]he war lowered components of GDP aside from military purchases. The main declines were in private investment, nonmilitary parts of government purchases, and net exports -- personal consumer expenditure changed little. Wartime production siphoned off resources from other economic uses -- there was a dampener, rather than a multiplier.

Barro suggests that peacetime spending would be even more damaging than that during war, since people might perceive it as long-term policy and permanently adjust their own habits.

If he's right, the stimulus plan not only places us, our children and our grandchildren under the onerous burden of paying off massive debt -- it does so with the knowledge that the debt the government took on actually hurt us.

This really isn't surprising. As Professor John Cochrane of the University of Chicago puts it:

First, if money is not going to be printed, it has to come from somewhere. If the government borrows a dollar from you, that is a dollar that you do not spend, or that you do not lend to a company to spend on new investment. Every dollar of increased government spending must correspond to one less dollar of private spending. Jobs created by stimulus spending are offset by jobs lost from the decline in private spending. We can build roads instead of factories, but fiscal stimulus can’t help us to build more of both. This is just accounting, and does not need a complex argument about “crowding out.”

And Barro and Cochrane aren't alone. Roughly 200 prominent economists have signed a newspaper advertisement (PDF) sponsored by the Cato Institute that rejects the idea of massive government spending as a solution to economic troubles. Running in The New York Times and The Washington Post, the ad says, in part:

More government spending by Hoover and Roosevelt did not pull the United States economy out of the Great Depression in the 1930s. More government spending did not solve Japan’s “lost decade” in the 1990s. As such, it is a triumph of hope over experience to believe that more government spending will help the U.S. today. To improve the economy, policymakers should focus on reforms that remove impediments to work, saving, investment and production. Lower tax rates and a reduction in the burden of government are the best ways of using fiscal policy to boost growth.

Despite such sentiments among many economists, the stimulus plan is certain to be passed by Congress and signed by President Obama.

Which means the last chance to head off "stimulus" boondoggle is to make sure the money isn't there to be spent. And since our debt-ridden government has no money of its own to flush away, and will have to borrow the cash, scaring off potential lenders is the best bet.

So, come on America. Say it in print, on the radio, on TV, on blogs and in advertisements. Say it loud and say it proud: If the world is dumb enough to loan more money to the U.S. government, don't expect it to be paid back. The Americans who will be making decisions in the decades to come won't be bound by the folly of the current crop of office-holders.

If enough of us say it, the world will listen, and cut off the tap.

If that doesn't stop the spending spree, nothing will.

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So, high food prices are stimulating?

Ummm ... What the fuck? From the Wall Street Journal:
... dairy and beef cattle producers butted heads over talk that the government might buy up dairy cattle for slaughter to drive up depressed milk prices.
So the government plans to spend money to destroy animals in order to make food more expensive for the people who will have to pay back the money that's been spent. Do I have that right?

Yes, I know this has been done before. It was a stupid idea then, too.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Well, I guess a lot of economists do oppose the 'stimulus' spending spree

Yes, yes. We all heard that Paul "I won a Nobel Prize, y'know" Krugman has denounced anybody who opposes President Obama's fiscally irresponsible, budget-busting "stimulus" plan as a "dishonest flack" who should be ignored. But what Krugman glosses over is that those flacks include among their ranks hundreds of prominent economists with credentials of more current vintage than his own. The Cato Institute is running the following advertisement in major newspapers around the country. The ad says "More government spending by Hoover and Roosevelt did not pull the United States economy out of the Great Depression in the 1930s." It adds, "To improve the economy, policymakers should focus on reforms that remove impediments to work, saving, investment and production. Lower tax rates and a reduction in the burden of government are the best ways of using fiscal policy to boost growth."

Oh, and, in case you're counting, three of the signatories are Nobel Laureates.

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What will they do with the draft dodgers?

The idea of rounding up the nation's youth and forcing them to labor in government-assigned jobs is once again back in the news. Coming from an ethics expert, the latest call for a civilian draft squares to a troubling extent with what Rahm Emanuel, President Barack Obama's chief of staff, suggested in a 2006 book, and isn't too far off from what the president himself has endorsed. It's hard to avoid wondering if we're seeing the first signs of a coming policy -- and what the consequences will be for Americans who say "no."

Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, Dr. William A. Babcock, a senior ethics professor at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, proposes:

Every young American citizen, once he or she graduated from high school, would have the responsibility to complete two years of public service. National need would define the nature of such service, but at any given time the variety of jobs likely would be in education, infrastructure repair and maintenance, construction, healthcare, the military, and the arts, for example. Participants, most age 18 to 20, would be provided with room and board and given minimum wage during this two-year period.

In exchange, after a young person had completed this two-year commitment, the United States government would bear the responsibility for paying for that person's two-year junior college education or the first two years of his or her four-year college tuition.

That's pretty close to what then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel put forward in The Plan: Big Ideas for America:

Young people will know that between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, the nation will enlist them for three months of civilian service.

Babcock himself references Obama's own idea for requiring high school students to engage in government-approved service, though his scheme obviously goes farther. It should be apparent, then, that Babcock's talk of forced labor for all Americans isn't just a voice in the wilderness.

Let me be clear: There's not yet any sign that the Obama administration plans to implement civilian conscription. Still, the idea has certainly been entertained by both the president and at least one of his top aides. It's long past time, then, to ask the authors of such plans to engage moral and practical objections to compelled service. Advocates of a draft have yet to tell us how such a scheme differs from slavery. And they have yet to explain why they think the good to be done would outweigh the harm inflicted by punishing and alienating the large numbers of young Americans likely to resist conscription.

Just a few weeks ago, Jim Stillman, a colleague at The Examiner, challenged my rejection of forced labor of any type. Jim didn't like the idea of "comparing the concept of some form of compulsory service to be, alternatively, communistic, fascist, and the equivalent of slavery. It is none of these and deserves consideration on the merits."

Jim went one to explain those various supposed merits of compelled service. But his points didn't in any way refute the charge that compulsory service is slavery. Instead, he seemed to argue that a scheme commonly characterized as slavery can be a good thing -- if used the right way. Frankly, that's all too common for would-be-drafters -- they cheerlead for their schemes while glossing over serious challenges to the idea.

And compulsory service has been characterized as slavery or its equivalent by everybody from Mahatma Gandhi to Albert Einstein to Milton Friedman. True, those critics were usually referring to the military draft. But their objections weren't framed solely in pacifist terms -- they also referred to the value of liberty and challenged the compulsion inherent in conscription.

Clearly, the slavery critics refer to when criticizing conscription isn't the overt transformation of people into property that came with chattel slavery. Compelled service of one sort or another is more like the corvee system of forced labor used by European colonial powers in Africa and by some southern states after the Civil War. But the corvee system was plenty objectionable enough without ever permitting the buying and selling of draftees. According to University of Hawaii political science Prof. R.J. Rummel, in his book, Death by Government:

All the European colonial powers seemed to have extorted labor from their subjects in Africa, Asia, and the New World through such devices. For the Spanish, German, and Portuguese subjects, this was particularly deadly. In some cases the average colonial plantation or estate laborer may not have survived for more than a couple of years. It was sometimes easier or cheaper to "replenish the stock" than provide health maintaining food, clothing, medical care, and living quarters. I suspect that at a rock bottom minimum 10,000,000 colonial forced laborers must have died thusly. The true toll may have been several times this number.

So, granted, Babcock, Emanuel and President Obama aren't talking about chattel slavery, but rather corvee labor. I'm sure, too, that they'd argue that their implementations of the corvee would be much nicer than that in the Belgian Congo. They're probably right -- I doubt that mass murder is on their agenda. But we're still talking about forcing millions of people into service against their will, with their ultimate fate up to the (hopefully) gentle disposition of politicians.

But how gentle will those politicians be toward those who simply ... refuse to serve? And, of course, people will refuse to serve.

Opposition to the draft was so intense during the Civil War that it resulted in riots that left hundreds dead. The Wilson administration found anti-draft sentiment so threatening during World War I that it imprisoned about 1,500 critics. During World War II, one in every six men in U.S. prisons was a draft resister. And during the Vietnam War, 209,517 men were charged with refusing service (though only about 9,000 were convicted).

Even allowing that compelled civilian service might be less objectionable to many than compelled military service, plenty of Americans can be expected to refuse to participate. Most of them will object not to the vague idea of serving the community that permeates these proposals, but to the naked compulsion and government direction that will inevitable lie behind actual programs. Coming from a variety of backgrounds, but all believing that they have a right to choose that trumps any of Babcock's fine-sounding arguments about "shared responsibility," they'll dodge the draft in public and private, peacefully or confrontationally, as their temperaments dictate.

So what do Babcock, Emanuel, Obama and company propose to do to penalize such disobedience? And do they think the consequences of such penalties are worth whatever they hope to gain?

In the newspapers and in public office as they are, it's time that advocates of mandatory service answer these questions -- or else drop the idea and leave us alone.


Friday, January 23, 2009

Kirsten Gillibrand isn't a libertarian, but she's better than expected (and pretty easy on the eyes)

Right after Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand's name circulated as New York Governor David Paterson's choice to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate, I received an email from my father saying, "she sounds like a good libertarian." Well, not quite, but Gillibrand is about as close to a consistent supporter of personal freedom as you're going to get out of either of the major political parties these days. As the new senator from New York, she could well be a breath of fresh air, whether she's a Democrat or a Republican.

In fact, Gillibrand's 90% score from the American Civil Liberties Union, 100% rating from the National Rifle Association, support for extending tax cuts and opposition (twice) to the TARP bailout scam suggest that she has a taste for both civil liberties and economic freedom. A taste -- even a limited one -- for leaving people to make their own choices in the bedroom and the marketplace both is a woefully rare characteristic in modern politicians. Usually we have to pick one or the other and hope for the best.

On the other hand, Gillibrand waffled early on when it comes to same-sex marriage, although, to her credit, she came to support it. She opposes Social Security privatization, a position that essentially locks Americans into a Ponzi scheme that dwarf's Madoff's fever dreams. She boasted during the last campaign of voting "against legalizing marijuana" (apparently a reference to her opposition to letting states go their own way on the matter). She voted to extend immunity to telecoms when they collaborate with the government on warrantless wiretaps (although she did vote against such wiretaps on another occasion). And she has favord some of her party's traditional chestnuts when it comes to nonsensical price controls and business regulations that address problems caused by earlier interventions in the market (I'm looking at you, Rep. Frank).

Then there's immigration. Gillibrand is a bit of a roll-out-the-barbed-wire type when it comes to the border. Newsday's John Riley suggests the hard-line on immigration may be "Clintonesque positioning," but whether it's heartfelt or a position arrived at through political calculation doesn't matter if she casts her votes that way.

But we're talking about a major-party politician -- from New York. That Gillibrand has stacked up an encouraging voting record on civil liberties issues, including the right to bear arms, supports lower taxes, and opposed a federal financial spending spree puts her head and shoulders above the usual crop of aspirants to political office.

No, Kirsten Gillibrand isn't a libertarian. But in the Senate she could well be a far better ally of liberty than we had any reason to expect.

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I'm sure I'm on some kind of list now

This morning I did a brief (audio-only) segment with Russia Today, an English-language television news operation that broadcasts world-wide. The channel is state-owned and puts Moscow's spin on the day's news, but I figure that can't be any worse than last year's Fox News or this year's MSNBC.

The topic was wiretapping -- in particular, recent revelations about the NSA's eager eavesdropping schemes when it comes to Americans, with a super-special emphasis on journalists.

Not surprisingly, we didn't get into the Russian government's own enthusiastic endeavors in that realm, but it was fun to be able to say my piece. I'll have to wait and see how much gets on the air.


C'mon, Barry, lay off the dope raids

Asked about medical marijuana on the campaign trail in New Hampshire just a year and a half ago, then-Senator Barack Obama said, "I would not have the Justice Department prosecuting and raiding medical marijuana users. It's not a good use of our resources." Admittedly, he's been on the job just a few days, but now-President Obama's administration has just overseen its first medical marijuana raid. It's time for him to live up to his promise and call off the dogs.

It's not right to blame the new White House team for the raid in South Lake Tahoe, California. Drug Enforcement Administration officials are still hold-overs from the old administration, with the priorities of the Bush White House. So when the DEA stormed into Holistic Solutions and stole money and marijuana, they were following an old game plan -- not necessarily the new one.

So consider this a test. Did Barack Obama mean what he said about pulling the federal government out of the business of kicking in doors and hauling people to jail for using marijuana to treat medical problems? The ball is in your court, Mr. President.

Asking the new president to live up to his promises on medical marijuana is hardly radical. No, radical would be to ask him to respect people's right to consume whatever substances they please, to produce those substances, to buy them from willing sellers, and to sell them to eager customers. Radical would be to demand that he recognize that people should be free to do whatever they want so long as they don't violate the equal rights of others.

In other words, whatever is peaceful.

Asking the president to live up to his own promise on medical marijuana isn't radical at all. It's just a matter of pointing out that we want to see him walk the walk after talking the talk.

President Obama will be off to a great start if he quickly reins in the DEA and offers credible assurances that this raid will be the last such raid on his watch. If he doesn't ... Well, that will say an awful lot about what we can expect from this administration.

As for whether what we get is enough ... Well, some of us think it's long past time to make a few radical demands.


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Hey Barry, let the kids crack open a cold one

In the recently concluded presidential election, just two candidates truly energized young Americans and brought them into politics: Ron Paul and Barack Obama. And only Obama ended up as president of the United States. For the overwhelming support he received from the it-doesn't-yet-hurt-when-I-wake-up set, the hip, new resident of the White House owes his fans a round of drinks. Or, at least, he owes them the opportunity to legally buy themselves a round of drinks.

The United States has the highest national drinking age in the world. Technically, the Constitution doesn't give the federal government the power to impose any such thing, but Congress got around that by linking federal highway funds to a national effort to breathe new life into the fake ID industry.

Some countries, including China and Portugal, have no minimum drinking age at all. Much of Europe sets the age at 16. Most countries put it at 18. And the U.S. is all alone in threatening legal adults as old as 20 with legal penalties if they sip a beer while contemplating whether to risk their lives in the country's armed forces.

But, as the comment above suggests, Americans 18-20 are still expected to undertake the full range of adult responsibilities, including military service, voting, signing contracts and (God help them) marriage. Frankly, all of these tasks are best undertaken either under the influence of a drink or with the promise of one to come.

Supporters of the drinking-age hike have argued (PDF) variously, over the years, that raising the age would save lives on the highways and spare teens the ill-effects of marinating their still-forming brains in alcohol.

But Choose Responsibility, an organization skeptical of the high national drinking age, points out that the most troubling data about brain development and alcohol comes only from rats, while the one study to look into the matter in humans found no difference in brain function between those who started drinking before 21 and those who started later.

And while drunken-driving fatalities did decline after the 1984 imposition of the mandated drinking age of 21, Choose Responsibility makes a strong argument that fluctuations in drunken driving numbers for different age groups more closely correspond with the sizes of those age groups from year to year than with any changes in the law.

That makes sense. While it's clear that the law changed in 1984, there's no evidence that the drinking age has been any more successful at cutting off access to the widely available stuff than have outright prohibitions on such substances as marijuana.

In fact, to teach responsible use of alcohol, Professor David J. Hanson, of the State University of New York, Potsdam, a recognized authority on alcohol-related issues, recommends that alcohol sould be presented as a "neutral" part of life that is "natural and normal." Moderate use should be taught early and at home.

College presidents who'd rather not take on the task of teaching responsible drinking all at once to thousands of young adults agree. Many of them have signed on to the Amethyst Initiative, calling for reconsidering the national policy of trying to prevent some adults from having a legal beer.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving is predictably outraged, but that's a group that has gone completely off the rails. MADD has been derided by its own founder, Candy Lightner, as "neo-prohibitionist."

So come on President Obama. It's time to push Congress to let your young supporters crack open a cold one in celebration. Honestly, they're doing it anyway. So just let them have a sip in the open.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Nice little town you got here ...

After unanimously passing a resolution calling for discussion of drug legalization as an antidote to the border region's troubles with violent crime, the El Paso, Texas, city council failed to overturn the mayor's veto last week. That's because half of the members of the city council changed their votes, citing threats from federal officials. Nonsense, says U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes. He didn't issue a threat; he just wanted to "make sure they understand the things they do that aren't helpful to me."

The consequences of doing things that "aren't helpful," local officials were made to understand, could be the withholding of large sums of money with which the federal government keeps local jurisdictions on a tight leash. Play ball with the feds and the goodies get passed your way. Tick off the wrong people and you don't get to feed at the trough.

I suppose you could say that's technically not a threat, but the logical result of the state of dependency in which El Paso (like most other localities in the country) has placed itself relative to the powers-that-be in distant Washington, D.C. He who takes the king's coin becomes the king's man, after all. And El Paso takes millions of coins, from highway funds to water projects to law enforcement and beyond.

Did anybody think that wouldn't give the imperial capital a little leverage?

So El Paso backed down. And now the feds know, once again, that they can head off uncomfortable discussions by ostentatiously tucking the checkbook back in their pockets -- more in sorrow than in anger, of course.

After all, what discussion is worth all the fuss when there's so much money at stake?

Below, Terry Nelson, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Border Patrol, the U.S. Customs Service, and the Department of Homeland Security, testifies before the El Paso city council in favor of drug legalization.


Hey, Mr. President. Don't let it go to your head

The best part about the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States is that it serves as a huge slap in the face to those retrograde meatheads who deserve to be slapped in the face on a daily basis. The worst part of Obama's taking office is the cult-like following he's acquired among a legion of devotees who, rather than look to their own efforts, see their salvation in a guy who couldn't find anything better to do with his life than seek government office. Whether the best part or the worst part seems more important a year from now depends largely on how the man of the day resists the temptation to wield the entirely too massive power he's just been handed.

About two weeks after the presidential election, I passed a gaggle of those retrograde types in a supermarket parking lot. Dad (I assume it was dad) was holding forth to his unwashed spawn about "nigger" this and "White House" that. There's nothing to be done about such racist idiocy -- except to hope that today's events drive him into such a frenzy that he pops an embolism and spends the rest of his immobilized-but-aware life in the care of a nursing home attendant of color whose tender ministrations convince the kids that "those people" aren't so bad after all.

Honestly, if President Obama does nothing else than demonstrate that bigoted jackasses like that are an impotent vestige of an unfortunate past, he'll have done us all a great service.

But then I sign on to Facebook and see that people I've known for 20 years are still -- over two months after the election -- joining groups titled something like "Barack, please wipe your shoes on me" (now with 120 million fans, including the entire state of Delaware!).

And the repeated videos and images of kids drafted into almost worshipful praise for the president-to-be are ... creepy as all Hell.

But President Obama isn't responsible for the cult-like devotions of the more loser-ish among his fans. The worst he's done is hold himself forth as a human movie screen on which Americans could project their own fantasies. And project, they did, creating personal visions of the leader so many of them seem to need.

Gene Healy has pointed out in his book, The Cult of the Presidency, that the president isn't supposed to be a leader at all.

Indeed, the term "leader," which appears repeatedly in Madison, Hamilton, and Jay's essays in defense of the Constitution, is nearly always used negatively, save for one positive reference to the leaders of the American Revolution. The Federalist is bookended by warnings about the perils of popular leadership: the first essay warns that "of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants."

So much for self-government. Lots of Americans missed the memo about running their own lives.

Will Obama resist those calls for leadership? I doubt it -- not because of his special flaws, but because few American politicians of any flavor seem willing to even try. With all those fervent admirers out there, Barack Obama would have to be made of peculiar stuff for an aspirant to government office to turn a deaf ear to his worshippers.

Not just in Obama's case, but in that of his predecessors and (probably) successors to come, I'm reminded of the example of the Romans. When a victorious general came home to be feted with a triumphant parade through the streets of Rome, a slave was assigned to stand behind the guest of honor and repeatedly whisper "memento mori," which means, "remember that you are mortal." The whole idea was to pee in the victor's punch bowl so he didn't get a swelled head during the celebration -- and aspire to greater power.

Throughout the inauguration festivities, we should have somebody up there by the president whispering "memento mori."

That said, I have high hopes for the new president.

I hope that he changes this country's recent poor record on civil liberties, especially Guantanamo and the security state.

I hope that he changes America's belligerent foreign policy.

I hope that he changes his own frighteningly government-empowering economic policy proposals.

I hope that he changes his plans for compelled civilian service.

But one thing I don't expect Barack Obama to change is this country's political trend toward concentrating ever-greater power in the office of the president.

Barack Obama represents a fresh start in a lot of important ways. But given the expectations of his supporters and some of his own announced policies, it's unlikely that restrained use of government power will be one of them.


A servant to our president

It starts off earnest, gets creepy, and then turns downright horrifying.

MySpace Celebrity and Katalyst present The Presidential Pledge

Don't miss the double bicep kiss at 3:19. Or the very special pledge at 3:55.

It's a shame. I've always liked Marisa Tomei. I wish she would just ... you know ... shut up.


Monday, January 19, 2009

It's a blast from the past with New York's gun control laws

I've written before about how, when I was a New York City resident, I tired of the endless, intrusive and insulting process of applying for a pistol permit. Disgusted, I purchased a banned "assault weapon" on the black market. What I haven't written is that I also bought two pistols without a permit or registration -- perfectly legally. It was a purchase that would probably have never taken place without the perverse incentives inevitably created by restrictive laws.

For years, I stayed away from this topic because there was a nice, under-the-radar loophole in the law and I felt no need to rock the boat. It's still there, but it's not under the radar any more. The law allows for the red-tape-free purchase and possession of "antique firearms" and replicas thereof. That means guns in obsolete calibers for which ammunition is no longer manufactured. It also means muzzleloading hunting rifles. Most importantly, it includes cap-and-ball revolvers of the sort used around the middle of the 19th century. As the New York State Police Website puts it:

The Penal Law definition of antique firearm is generally applied to muzzle loading black powder firearms, but also applies to pistols or revolvers "that use fixed cartridges which are no longer available in the ordinary channels of commercial trade".

Muzzle loading pistols or revolvers do not have to be registered on a pistol permit if the owner never intends to fire them.

If they are possessed in a loaded condition or are simply possessed simultaneously with the components necessary to make them fire, they must first be registered on a valid pistol permit.

Note: Should a manufacturer begin to produce ammunition for a pistol or revolver for which ammunition had not been available previously, that weapon no longer meets the criteria of an antique weapon and is required to be registered. A pistol or revolver, regardless of age, when possessed with the ammunition necessary to make it discharge, is required to be registered.

This rare (in New York) oasis of relative freedom in a sea of overregulation survives in the Empire State largely because nobody ever had much reason to take notice. Criminals don't need to mess with loose gunpowder, percussion caps, lead bullets and grease. They just go to the black market and buy whatever modern weapons suit their fancy. So, frankly, does most everybody else. The usual estimate of illegal firearms in New York City is two million, as jaded urbanites apply the same attitude to gun control that has seen them through Prohibition, vice laws, the war on drugs and the rest of the regulatory state. But for people squeamish about illicit transactions and just looking for some insurance to keep in the nightstand, a cap-and-ball revolver might well do the job.

And there are some very nice working reproductions of Civil War-era guns available at very reasonable prices.

The opportunity for self defense provided by the muzzleloading exception to New York's byzantine gun laws has long been a matter of quiet understanding. The gun shop in which I purchased my (modern) pistol and started the legal paperwork for a permit so I could take the thing home had a small display case facing the main case of modern weapons. The smaller case contained modern reproductions of Colt, Remington and similar revolvers of the sort that won the West before anybody thought of wrapping the stuff that goes "bang" in a copper or brass tube to make it easier to handle. These revolvers take longer to load than their descendants, but once loaded, they function pretty much like today's guns.

While would-be gun buyers (inevitably) fumed over the hassle and expense of getting a modern weapon within the rules set by New York City (where the powerful are given special consideration for permits -- or bodyguards), these blast-from-the-past alternatives sat there, offering another option. Nobody said anything, but ... There can't be that many Civil War buffs in Manhattan.

I didn't buy my cap-and-ball guns at the store, because the frustration set in while I was at home. Besides, I wasn't going to pay New York prices if I could help it. So I mail-ordered what I wanted with no fuss.

Of course, New York's legal exception applied only so long as the guns were kept as paperweights. Bring ammo into the picture and the "loophole" goes away. But once you have the iron at home, what do the authorities know? And with my strictly under-the-table "assault weapon" purchase, I wasn't pretending to be law-abiding. In fact, I was on a sock-it-to-the-state tear.

So I bought percussion caps and bullets too. Gunpowder was another matter. It wasn't hard to find, but it was a tad more regulated than lead balls and I didn't want to raise any red flags. I actually improvised my own at first (it worked fine) before buying the real stuff outside the city.

And there I was, well-heeled with little fuss.

Oddly enough, I chuckled over the matter with a few Europeans about a year after the fact, and a Hungarian told me that the law was almost identical back in his home country. He said he knew plenty of people who didn't want to bother with the authorities or the black market, but who were packing like it was 1859. (A quick check reveals that Hungarian law still parallels New York antique-gun regulations.)

Unfortunately, last year, one of the twisted control freaks who infest elected offices in and around New York City got his knickers in a bunch over the antique-gun exception. In one of those statistical rolls of the dice, a New York State trooper was wounded with a black-powder rifle around the same time some guy was found with a muzzleloader on a college campus. That's two incidents in a state of 20 million people. In terms of things worth worrying about, that should have ranked up there with sewer gators coming up through your toilet and biting you on the ass. But this is New York. Assemblyman Michael N. Gianaris decided that antique guns are a threat to the public safety.

Ironically, Gianaris touts his Greek heritage in the first line of his official biography. The Greek government admits that the country's not-so-submissive population of fewer than 11 million people own 1.5 million illegal guns. You gotta wonder how Gianaris would fare in the old country.

So far, Gianaris's attempt to disarm the 19th century (and its admirers) hasn't gone anywhere. That's probably because of the loud screams raised by New York's many museums and historical reenactors, who fear felony charges for any mistakes they may make while licensing and registering their extensive collections of wall-hangers.

Welcome to our world.

But Gianaris and some breathless press coverage about "deadly" black-powder guns have let the cat out of the bag. New Yorkers may or may not continue to be able to arm themselves with the finest defense technology available to Ulysses S. Grant, but they're no longer operating under the radar.

Besides, New Yorkers have better options. Until the law changes for the (less restrictive) better, one way or another, that sizeable minority of New York City residents who want to exercise the right to self defense can take advantage of one of the better black markets in the country. Really, anything is offered for sale -- much of it at pretty good prices. Most people looking for a gun in that city -- and unwilling to subject themselves to the intrusion, expense and arbitrary permit withdrawals of the legal process -- do exactly that.

In all things, liberty finds a way around the law.

But it's still interesting to reflect on the weird holes in the law left by yet another effort to impose draconian restrictions on disfavored activities and objects by government officials who know what they don't like -- even if they don't understand it in the least. Overregulation always produces defiance and illicit markets. But sometimes it also produces oddities, like new life for antique technology.


Mobile broadband is cool after all. Very cool.

The resolution to my mobile broadband woes, described so thrillingly last week, is something of an anticlimax. Sprint sent a replacement modem, the new modem... didn't work. It was a different error, but it didn't work.

Fuming, I went online, signed on to my account on the Sprint Website to see what I was being charged, and ... I was prompted for the new widget's serial number. I entered that, the network stopped recognizing the dud device, started recognizing the new one, and my laptop was connected.

I could have used two sentences of instruction with the new card, but it's working now, so fuggehdaboudit.

And it's worth the wait. Even in the absence of Sprint's EVDO network, the regular network gives me a perfectly usable connection. I wouldn't want to download movies using the regular Sprint network, but while I was waiting for new brake pads on my truck, I used the connection to write an Examiner piece today about Ed Rosenthal and to ... ummm ... order a pair of reading glasses.

Well, I'm over 40, goddamnit. The parts-and-service warranty is close to expiration. On me, that is -- the truck is way out of warranty.

So, anyway, I'm very happy with the non-broadband performance of my wireless connection. I look forward to testing performance once I'm in range of the EVDO network.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

Here's why we need that massive stimulus bill

Don't let the nay-sayers stop our political leaders from dumping money down a giant hole!

In The Know: Should The Government Stop Dumping Money Into A Giant Hole?


Friday, January 16, 2009

Make way for the new boss

We've come along way since the early days of the republic when it comes to inaugurating a new president. In 1829, when Andrew Jackson took the oath of office, the public milled around him, offering personal congratulations and blocking his path to the White House. In 2009, after Barack Obama takes the oath, any member of the unwashed masses so unfortunate as to stray through the imperial-style security surrounding the new president is likely to be hustled off to an unpleasant fate -- if he survives the security breach.

Washington socialite Margaret Smith described Andrew Jackson's inauguration in a letter to a friend:

The south side of the Capitol was literally alive with the multitude, who stood ready to receive the hero and the multitude who attended him. . . When the speech was over, and the President made his parting bow, the barrier that had separated the people from him was broken down and they rushed up the steps all eager to shake hands with him. It was with difficulty he made his way through the Capitol and down the hill to the gateway that opens on the avenue. Here for a moment he was stopped. The living mass was impenetrable.

After a while a passage was opened, and he mounted his horse which had been provided for his return (for he had walked to the Capitol) then such a cortege as followed him! Country men, farmers, gentlemen, mounted and dismounted, boys, women and children, black and white. Carriages, wagons and carts all pursuing him to the President's house. . . . [W]e set off to the President's House, but on a nearer approach found an entrance impossible, the yard and avenue was compact with living matter."

By contrast, President Bush has declared a state of emergency to make extra federal funds available for organizing and controlling the inauguration of his successor. Even members of Congress are being told what they can and can't carry on their persons on the big day. The list of items forbidden to lawmakers includes pocket knives, backpacks, alcoholic beverages, signs, posters and thermoses.

Those are the restrictions on politically powerful people.

As for the rest of us ... After decades of increasingly tight security, the crowning of a new emperor ... errr ... president is getting tighter still. Thousands of active-duty military troops supplemented by National Guard personnel will join the ranks of the D.C's 4,000 police. Another 4,000 police are coming in from around the country. Streets will be blocked, bridges sealed, and people hoping for a distant glimpse of Obama will have to pass through security checkpoints.

There haven't even been any terrorist threats to trigger the Iron Curtain-ish ambience of the nation's capital.

In light of the police state implemented to inaugurate a new president for a republic, Time magazine poses a question more of us should be asking:

Is the unprecedented security a wise move given the historic nature of Obama's swearing-in and the tempting target it provides or is it overkill, an indication that the terrorists have already won?

It's not that we should necessarily return completely to the free-for-all that marked the Jackson inauguration -- the White House was ransacked during the party that ensued. But police should be able to clear the streets and watch the doors to the presidential residence without bringing in tanks and modeling the nation's capital on North Korea. Is it too much to ask winners of political office to take a few chances? To ask that they mix and mingle a bit on their way to assuming vast power?

If that's too much for them, if they insist on Praetorian Guards, roadblocks and troops in the street as a necessary display of their new authority as they assume the highest political office in the land, maybe they're just the wrong people for the job in a country that is supposed to be, after all, a republic.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Can I have the number for Geithner's accountant?

In 2003, faded Twin Peaks star Sherilyn Fenn filed for bankruptcy, admitting owing $101,532 in unpaid state and federal taxes.The Internal Revenue Service alone is now going after her for over $170,000. Just a few years ago, the IRS went after Robert J. Gordon, a Toledo, Ohio, electrician, for nearly $900,000 because he failed to pay about $193,000 in quarterly employee taxes back in the 1980s. And the IRS hit the United Way with a lien for $12,000 -- for a clerical error committed by tax collectors. But Timothy Geithner, Barack Obama's pick for Treasury Secretary ... He gets to make good on his unpaid taxes plus a little interest -- with no penalties.

It's not that the rather draconian penalties the IRS can impose are a secret. The tax agency publicizes them far and wide:

If you do not file your return and pay your tax by the due date, you may have to pay a penalty. You may also have to pay a penalty if you substantially understate your tax, understate a reportable transaction, file an erroneous claim for refund or credit, file a frivolous tax submission, or fail to supply your SSN or individual taxpayer identification number. If you provide fraudulent information on your return, you may have to pay a civil fraud penalty.

Filing late. If you do not file your return by the due date (including extensions), you may have to pay a failure-to-file penalty. The penalty is usually 5% for each month or part of a month that a return is late, but not more than 25%. The penalty is based on the tax not paid by the due date (without regard to extensions).

Paying tax late. You will have to pay a failure-to-pay penalty of ½ of 1% (.50%) of your unpaid taxes for each month, or part of a month, after the due date that the tax is not paid. This penalty does not apply during the automatic 6-month extension of time to file period if you paid at least 90% of your actual tax liability on or before the due date of your return and pay the balance when you file the return.

The monthly rate of the failure-to-pay penalty is half the usual rate (.25% instead of .50%) if an installment agreement is in effect for that month. You must have filed your return by the due date (including extensions) to qualify for this reduced penalty. If a notice of intent to levy is issued, the rate will increase to 1% at the start of the first month beginning at least 10 days after the day that the notice is issued. If a notice and demand for immediate payment is issued, the rate will increase to 1% at the start of the first month beginning after the day that the notice and demand is issued. This penalty cannot be more than 25% of your unpaid tax. You will not have to pay the penalty if you can show that you had a good reason for not paying your tax on time.

Geithner's unpaid taxes have been characterized as "honest mistakes" and that may be right. Some experts say the relatively unusual employee-without-withholding status that Geithner held when he worked for the International Monetary Fund trips up all too many people. Then again, he's supposed to be an economic expert who is in line to take over the department that administers the IRS. Not everybody is convinced of Geithner's innocence. Tom Ochsenschlager, vice president of tax for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, said, "It's such a basic mistake that I kind of wonder if we know all the facts."

But let's give Geithner the benefit of the doubt. Lots of people make innocent mistakes when they're wading through the unknowable morass that is the Internal Revenue Code. Many accountants, lawyers and fly-by-night tax negotiators make their living saving people from the consequences of their own misunderstandings when it comes to filing taxes. Even the IRS's own employees disagree over how to apply the tax code -- and the tax agency's advice is just flat-out wrong over one-third of the time, according to the Treasury Department.

But the IRS doesn't care that you have as much trouble as its own employees when you try to fathom the tax laws. It still imposes penalties, files liens, seizes property and throws people in prison. Unless, of course, they're politically prominent individuals who have been named by the new president to run the IRS.

The Los Angeles Times sees a potential silver lining here. The paper's editorial board says that, in return for us granting him the benefit of the doubt that tax collectors so rarely grant to common people, "we'd like Geithner to do us all a favor in return: lead the fight for a radically simpler tax code that is easier to enforce and harder to evade."

I'm not entirely on board with that, though I agree with simplifying the code. In fact, I think the LA Times misses the point. I'm less concerned about enforcing the code than about figuring the damned thing out, so that evading the wrath of tax collectors can involve more in terms of rational planning and less in terms of high-powered political connections.

As for whether the government should be picking our pockets quite so vigorously as it does ... I'll leave that for another time.


A warrant? Sure we have a warrant ... Don't we?

The Fourth Amendment allows police officers to conduct searches if they have a warrant based on probable cause, right? But what if the cops only think they have a warrant, but it doesn't actually exist? Well, that's all right, says the Supreme Court. The occasional inadvertent Bill of Rights boo-boo shouldn't stand as an impediment to the enforcement of the law.

The ruling, penned by Chief Justice John Roberts, came in the case of Herring v. United States (PDF). Bennie Dean Herring had driven to the sheriff's department in Coffee County, Alabama, to retrieve something from his impounded truck. Since Herring was apparently a regular acquaintance of local law enforcement, officials ran a check for outstanding warrants. One popped up from neighboring Dale County. Herring was searched, revealing methamphetamine and a gun, which the convicted felon wasn't allowed to possess.

But the warrant had been recalled five months earlier -- an error that was revealed only after Herring's pockets were turned inside out. Its listing in the computer database was a mistake. Police actually had no legal authority to stop Herring. Not surprisingly, his attorney made an issue of the non-warrant.

The matter worked its way up to the highest court, where Roberts and company were unimpressed by a (however unintentional) warrantless search.

"The fact that a Fourth Amendment violation occurred—i.e., that a search or arrest was unreasonable— does not necessarily mean that the exclusionary rule applies," Roberts wrote. Later, he continued, "To trigger the exclusionary rule, police conduct must be sufficiently deliberate that exclusion can meaningfully deter it, and sufficiently culpable that such deterrence is worth the price paid by the justice system."

Petitioner’s claim that police negligence automatically triggers suppression cannot be squared with the principles underlying the exclusionary rule, as they have been explained in our cases. In light of our repeated holdings that the deterrent effect of suppression must be substantial and outweigh any harm to the justice system, e.g., Leon, 468 U. S., at 909–910, we conclude that when police mistakes are the result of negligence such as that described here, rather than systemic error or reckless disregard of constitutional requirements, any marginal deterrence does not “pay its way.” Id., at 907–908, n. 6 (internal quotation marks omitted). In such a case, the criminal should not “go free because the constable has blundered.”

Roberts's reasoning that the exclusionary rule has meaning only so far as it can deter deliberate misconduct is clear, but it seems remarkably naive coming from a jurist with extensive knowledge of the criminal justice system. It assumes that police are always diligent and don't respond to perverse incentives. In this case, the court has created an incentive for police to conduct warrantless searches so long as they can credibly claim that they thought that they had warrants because of poor recordkeeping. That is, the Herring ruling rewards sloppy and inaccurate records that over-report the number of warrants that are in play.

Without even engaging in overt fraud, police can put this ruling to bad use just by using sloppy databases -- especially if they're sloppy in the "right" way.

Roberts was joined in his ruling by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito.

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The most action-packed inauguration ever!

ESPN is covering the presidential inauguration? Live? Why?

There must be tackling involved, right? Maybe an extreme-sports version of the swearing-in where the new prez has to hang-glide to the podium and then get through a line of blockers before he takes the oath.

Or did the cult of personality just get a little more grotesque?


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Nothing feeds conflict like government

Is there any good reason why conservatives and liberals, fundamentalist Christians and atheists, family traditionalists and polyamorists, free-marketeers and socialists, can't just get along, living alongside one another without turning every interaction into mortal combat? I mean, sure they have different ideas about life, but why shouldn't people live according to their own values without worrying about how the neighbors get along? There's no reason they can't, is there?

Sure there is! That reason is government. Government promises to give us all the power to boss around our neighbors and, unfortunately, it delivers. That means that rather than live side-by-side with people who share differing values, we all too often expend our energy organizing the state, lobbying the state and getting people elected to government office in order to send men with guns to intimidate the folks next door into changing their wicked, wicked ways.

And then, of course, after an election or two and a change in the political winds, our neighbors get the chance to do the same thing to us.

It's all rather bloody-minded, breeds never-ending conflicts, and raises the question of whether this whole government business is really such a good idea.

Anarchist philosopher Crispin Sartwell, an associate professor at Dickinson College, in Pennsylvania, and syndicated columnist, says it's not. He once wrote:

usually the first argument for the legitimacy of state power goes something like this: people (other than me and my friends) are fundamentally selfish and destructive. so they must be constrained from doing terrible things by force. they need a code enforced by an authority. this whole thing makes no sense if the state itself is a group of people. get me? this supposes that those who exercise authority are not subject to your general critique of humanity: that they are demi-gods, maybe ...

In the following interview, he shares more of his ideas about the flaws of government power and the growing tendency in our country for people to turn to government in order to get their way by force.

More of Sartwell's ideas on government and anarchism can be found in Against the State: An Introduction to Anarchist Political Theory.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Economist explains why a new New Deal would revive an old bad idea

Incoming President Barack Obama promises that he's going to cure our economic woes with a big-ticket stimulus package that looks to cost in the neighborhood of $775 billion. It's a new New Deal, as many on his team would have it -- hearkening back to the budget-busting spending and heavy (liberty-pinching) regulation of the Depression-era Roosevelt administration.

That spending comes on top of the hundreds of billions already allocated to save banks and automakers from their largely self-inflicted. The details of the stimulus are being hashed out as we speak -- which is another way of saying that the Obama team is sweetening the pot to pull in congressional support for his proposal. Energy tax credits are being doubled to please Senators Boxer and Cantwell, money to subsidize strapped homeowners is being allocated to stroke Senator Dodd, and that's on top of the fact that the whole scheme is pork -- what the Wall Street Journal calls "the largest collection of parochial spending projects in American history."

But before we try a new New Deal, shouldn't we examine the effects of the old one first? The fact is, despite popular mythology, there's strong evidence that the New Deal made the Depression worse than it would have been otherwise. In research published in 2004, UCLA economists Harold L. Cole and Lee E. Ohanian concluded that the New Deal kept the Depression going seven extra years.

Two UCLA economists say they have figured out why the Great Depression dragged on for almost 15 years, and they blame a suspect previously thought to be beyond reproach: President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

After scrutinizing Roosevelt's record for four years, Harold L. Cole and Lee E. Ohanian conclude in a new study that New Deal policies signed into law 71 years ago thwarted economic recovery for seven long years.

"Why the Great Depression lasted so long has always been a great mystery, and because we never really knew the reason, we have always worried whether we would have another 10- to 15-year economic slump," said Ohanian, vice chair of UCLA's Department of Economics. "We found that a relapse isn't likely unless lawmakers gum up a recovery with ill-conceived stimulus policies."

In the video below, Ohanian explains his findings to Michael Moynihan of

If you want the details, Cole and Ohanian's paper can be found a here (PDF). In particular, they found, the government's efforts to fix prices and wages did terrible economic damage.

From the UCLA announcement of the paper:

"The fact that the Depression dragged on for years convinced generations of economists and policy-makers that capitalism could not be trusted to recover from depressions and that significant government intervention was required to achieve good outcomes," Cole said. "Ironically, our work shows that the recovery would have been very rapid had the government not intervened."

As I've pointed out before, Cole and Ohanian aren't alone in their conclusions. A 1995 survey of economists and historians published in the Journal of Economic History found "[h]alf of the economists and a third of historians agreed, in whole or in part, that the New Deal prolonged the Great Depression."

In news that's gotta be embarrassing for Gitmo fans ...

Army Lieutenant Colonel Darrel Vandeveld, who resigned as a U.S. military prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay because of ethical qualms over the way the government is conducting the prosecution of Mohammed Jawad, has joined the American Civil Liberties Union's habeas corpus petition for Jawad. The ACLU seeks the release of the approximately 23-year-old detainee, who has been held without trial at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay for over six years.

In his letter, attached as Exhibit B to the ACLU petition (PDF), Vandeveld writes:

[T]here is no credible evidence or legal basis to justify Mr. Jawad's detention in U.S. custody or his prosecution by military commission.

Vandeveld continues, saying there is "reliable evidence that [Jawad] was badly mistreated by U.S. authorities both in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo."

While Jawad has been implicated in a hand-grenade attack on American soldiers, Vandeveld repeats his charges, made at the time of his resignation, that Jawad was likely lured to Afghanistan by a domestic insurgent group with the promise of a well-paid job, drugged and forced to participate in the attack.

The former prosecutor describes chaos in the prosecutors' office upon his arrival, with evidence scattered and unorganized years after Jawad's arrest. Much of the evidence necessary to conduct a prosecution had been tossed in a locker and been forgotten -- and some simply disappeared. As a result, the U.S. was in no position to prove its case even after Jawad had spent years behind bars.

Even while U.S. authorities were misplacing evidence, they were subjecting Jawad to sleep deprivation under the "frequent flyer" program of repeated moves from cell to cell, subjecting him to beatings and throwing him down stairs while he was hooded and shackled.

The habeas corpus petition was filed in federal court in the District of Columbia.


Monday, January 12, 2009

The much-anticipated demise of the gray lady

Yesterday, Britain's The Guardian produced a navel-gazer about the (mostly self-inflicted) financial wounds of "the gray lady" and its, quite possible, near-future demise. In the course of its pre-mortem on the New York Times, Paul Harris writes the following bit of drivel, demonstrating that the insular journalistic hothouse extends across the Atlantic Ocean.
It is hard to overstate the place that the New York Times holds in American journalism. It is worshipped by media professionals as the home of true, old-fashioned reporting. Many look enviously at its lavishly funded foreign operations, its arts coverage and its investigations unit. Liberal America regards the paper as a bible, while conservatives love to hate it.
In an earlier life, I was (briefly) senior editor for the launch and early days of the online edition of The New York Daily News. The News, like arch-competitor The New York Post, is a rough-around-the-edges, but credible, newspaper whose reporters know their beat, cover the city well, and do so while the news is relevant. Yes, the Post, in particular, takes a lot of grief for its tabloid style, but the two tabloids get the story right more often than not, and they're actually enjoyable to read.

The New York Times ...

reporters used to (and probably still) ask News and Post reporters for direction to some of the city's neighborhoods, because they might as well have been stranded in the Sahara desert if they crossed a bridge.

No, I'm not kidding. That was a running joke among reporters from both the tabloids.

The paper covers Queens like it's Kazakhstan, anything west of the Hudson like it's Alpha Centauri, and serious life-and-death matters of international import primarily from the perspective of their impact on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

If the Times covers a trend, it's a fair bet that it's been over for a year.

Hell. Old-fashioned reporting? Times reporters don't even write comprehensible ledes. Sure, they did swell in their creative writing classes, but just try to figure out where any given story is going without dragging yourself through the whole damned thing.

I'm not saying that the Times is worthless. But if newspapers were dogs, the News and the Post would be tough, street-wise mutts, and the Times would be a fluffy, just-bathed poodle. (Careful, don't spook it or it'll piss on the carpet).

The Times has access to movers and shakers and, no doubt, gets insights on national and international issues that aren't available to most other outlets. It does occasionally interesting analysis, though always -- always -- from within a half-inch of the conventional wisdom as seen by the JFK-to-Dulles power elites. And that access comes largely through the process of giving journalistic hand-jobs to a cultivated segment of the powers-that-be.

If the Times were to pass on, I have to wonder if it might not clear the field for new news operations that are not so ossified, not quite so incestuously connected with the supposed subjects of scrutiny, and, perhaps, just a tad less smug and insular in their cultural and political reference points.

There's plenty of room in the world for good news operations that are adaptable and appeal to an audience. If the New York Times can't survive changing circumstances ... well, the world will keep turning.


So, maybe Jack Bauer isn't a role model after all

Despite claims to the contrary by U.S. government officials, experience using coercive interrogation methods on detainees -- torture -- has proven ineffective and wasteful of time and resources. In particular, the case of Abu Zubaydah, who was the first person waterboarded in the surge of anti-terrorism efforts after 9/11, stands as a stark example of how to not gather information from prisoners. That's the conclusion of David Rose in a recent article in Vanity Fair. He writes:

In researching this article, I spoke to numerous counterterrorist officials from agencies on both sides of the Atlantic. Their conclusion is unanimous: not only have coercive methods failed to generate significant and actionable intelligence, they have also caused the squandering of resources on a massive scale through false leads, chimerical plots, and unnecessary safety alerts—with Abu Zubaydah’s case one of the most glaring examples.

Here, they say, far from exposing a deadly plot, all torture did was lead to more torture of his supposed accomplices while also providing some misleading “information” that boosted the administration’s argument for invading Iraq.

Rose isn't alone in his take on the effectiveness of the post-9/11 use of torture in interrogations. Retired FBI agent Daniel Coleman, who worked on the Zubaydah case, told the Washington Post:

"I don't have confidence in anything he says, because once you go down that road, everything you say is tainted," Coleman said, referring to the harsh measures. "He was talking before they did that to him, but they didn't believe him. The problem is they didn't realize he didn't know all that much."

This isn't exactly new information, but it seems to be a truth that has to be rediscovered from time to time by people looking for a quick and sure way to extract information from people who don't want to share what they know. A former military interrogator said during the 2006 announcement of the results of research conducted at Georgetown University into the effectiveness of torture, “With torture, we can not know if we are getting a truthful response or a response to end torture."

Or, as retired Air Force Col. John Rothrock, the former head of a combat interrogation team in Vietnam, told the Washington Post's Anne Applebaum, "if I take a Bunsen burner to the guy's genitals, he's going to tell you just about anything" whether or not it's true.

Not surprisingly, that Georgetown research effort, which included retired senior military interrogators and research psychologists, concluded, "Torture does not yield reliable information and is actually counterproductive in intelligence interrogations."

So, if torture is a dead-end that produces more garbage than useful information, leaving interrogators uncertain as to what to believe, who do so many people still turn to it as a Jack Bauer-esque cure-all in dire situations? Oddly enough, it may be because of our relative lack of experience in putting the screws to people. Unfamiliar with the limitations of pain and people's response to duress, we tend to assume torture has more power than it actually possesses. Jeannine Bell, a Professor of Law at the University of Indiana School of Law, made exactly this point in a 2005 paper about the ineffectiveness of torture:

Paradoxically, the moral and legal prohibition of physically coercive mechanisms may have had unintended consequences. Instead of steering interrogators to other mechanisms, it has increased inexperienced interrogators’ bloodlust. For poorly-trained investigators, physical coercion had become the longed-for instrument of last resort. They believe that torture will get the recalcitrant detainee to talk. Unfortunately, the infliction of pain becomes its own master. When interrogators resort to applying force, any knowledge they have about what other methods work might go out the window. From an intelligence perspective, this might be more acceptable if there were clear evidence of torture’s effectiveness.

But torture has proven, time and again, to be a waste of effort that produces information of, at best, dubious quality. That lesson has to be drummed into the heads of interrogators who are tempted to turn to harsh, forbidden techniques as some kind of magic key to the information that may (or may not) be locked in prisoners' minds.

Most of us know that deliberately inflicting pain and suffering as a questioning technique is just wrong. But for those who don't share our moral sentiments, it's helpful to know that it's also ineffective.

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Old hatreds surface in some 'anti-war' protests

In Chicago, four synagogues and a Jewish school were vandalized, suffering broken windows and graffiti screaming anti-Israel/pro-Palestine sentiments. A Jewish pre-school was defaced twice in one week in Camarillo, California. Protesters in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, ordered Jews "back to the oven." A synagogue in London, England, was set afire, as was one in Brussels, Belgium. In St. Denis and Strasbourg, France, Jewish places of worship were attacked with fire bombs -- just days after a burning car was rammed into a synagogue in Toulouse. All of this, and more, to protest the actions of a government thousands of miles away, that shares nothing more than a common faith with most of the worshippers, students and regular folks targeted by these attacks.

It's not that the actions of the Israeli military are beyond reproach -- there isn't a government on the planet that should escape criticism. That's especially true when weapons are pulled from the racks and people are dying. To engage in war -- justified or otherwise -- is to invite scrutiny and criticism. That scrutiny and criticism may well serve to moderate the tendencies of all governments to threaten life, liberty and property.

But even Israelis are divided over their government's actions in Israel. Many support the military's actions in Gaza, others oppose them, and still others thought they were justified at first but the situation has gone too far. Members of Jewish congregations in Europe, the Americas and elsewhere don't, by and large, hold Israeli citizenship, most have probably never been to Israel, and they hold a range of political opinions more representative of the issues and ideologies in their actual home countries than those in a tiny land in the Middle East.

In fact, of all the religious adherents in the world, it's only Jews who are consistently asked to answer for the actions of a foreign government whose officials just happen to share their faith. Roman Catholics aren't called on the carpet over Irish or Italian government policies, Episcopalians aren't formally requested by local officials to denounce Britain's missteps (something that Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez demanded of his nation's Jews with regard to Israeli policy). And Hindus aren't penalized when India's government does something bloody-minded.

Perhaps the closest parallel, ironically, is the plight of some Muslims who were victimized by bigots in the United States and elsewhere in the wake of the 9/11 attacks carried out by fundamentalist terrorists.

Judaism isn't even a centralized religion with ties of authority to Israel. There's no kosher pope in Jerusalem exhorting the faithful to hold to a non-existent party line.

What is it that makes so many people around the world insist that adherents of this one religion accept collective responsibility for the actions of co-religionists who live in a far-away country under very different circumstances?

Whatever the causes -- and better-equipped thinkers than myself have delved into the mysteries of anti-semitism -- much of the world's population, even in well-educated, liberal democracies supposedly beyond this sort of thing, needs little excuse to react violently to the sight of a star of David. Harsh policies by the government of the world's only mostly Jewish country are more than enough to strip away civilized restraints from at least a few thugs in France, the UK, Belgium, Germany, the United States and elsewhere around the world, raining violence on local people who just happen to be Jewish.

So far, the anti-semitism has only rarely strayed into official action; it's mostly involved freelance bigotry. Local officials responsible for responding to attacks in Europe and the U.S. have promised prosecution and penalties for the guilty. That's refreshing, given the history in some nations (Who knows? Maybe vilifying Scientologists acts like methadone to counteract an addiction to traditional hatreds.)

But enough incidents in enough places have jaded old-timers even in the U.S. heartland muttering to themselves, "here we go again."


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Hey officer, we're watching you

You've heard all about it by now. Early in the morning on New Year's Day, police in Oakland, California, had a man down on his belly on a BART platform -- a suspect in a fight with other passengers. Suddenly, in full view of other holiday revelers traveling home, Officer Johannes Mehserle draws his pistol and shoots 22-year-old Oscar Grant III in the back. Camera-equipped cell phones on the scene captured the incident as it happened, putting the telling of the tale on YouTube and beyond the power of official spin.

Oakland broke out in rioting as a result, and we have yet to see the last of the fallout. That's happened in the past in the aftermath of apparent police misconduct, whether negligent or malicious (we don't yet know in this case). But rarely, if ever, before has the public been so motivated by a story driven less by professional media reports than by raw footage taken and distributed by citizens bypassing formal channels.

Fast as the media was to respond, it relied on the amateur video captured at the scene --and even professional reports were then edited and repurposed by citizen journalists dedicated to telling their own version of the tale. When speaking to the jaded pros, police spokespeople have found themselves chasing a story driven by grassroots outrage -- one that couldn't be put to rest by stroking a few familiar faces.

Citizen journalism is coming into its own. Video cameras, cell-phone camers, PDAs and the Internet are handing tools to regular people that allow them to communicate and distribute information as never before. The stories they tell are often unpolished, but they're real, they can tell unpleasant truths, and they can reach vast audiences in unfiltered form.

Authorities are starting to clue in -- and to respond in ham-handed form. After Grant was shot, police tried to confiscate cell phones on the scene that had recorded the incident.

But almost everybody has a cell phone these days. They're small, and easy to conceal.

The revolution in journalism can't bring back the dead. But it can help to ensure that the guilty are held accountable and that the truth is widely known.


Saturday, January 10, 2009

In which I am foiled by a wireless modem

So we're talking the other day about a proposed family trip and how I'll need access to the Internet to keep current with my various projects. Do I hunt up WiFi hotspots? Track down an Internet cafe (do those still exist?)

Internet access is a constant concern. I've spent more money than I care to consider on hotel connections. In addition to my main connection at home, I pay a monthly fee for dial-up so I'm not cut off when a forest fire torches Commspeed's microwave antennas (seriously) or the pipeline squirrels are just in a bad mood.

Finally it occurs to me. Oh yeah, it's 2009. Why not get a wireless modem card and stop paying for all the other nonsense?

What a great idea. Sprint is even offering a couple of really well-reviewed models for free (except for that monthly charge, of course). Except ... have you ever tried installing one of these things?

My new don't-lose-this-in-your-change-pocket-sized Compass 597 arrived by overnight delivery. It loaded its software effortlessly. I then called Sprint for the activation code (required, presumably, so the UPS guy doesn't walk off with the widget and charge his porn surfing to my account), and ... nothing. The code doesn't work. Neither does the next one. Or the super-secret back-office codes after that. At the third level of customer service, the actual tech guy I reach concedes that the device they sent me is faulty and won't respond to the codes that are supposed to kick it into life.

"You'll have to go to a Sprint store to exchange it for a new device."

This is ... a bit of a challenge. We had a Sprint store in town, but it starved to death on the meager nourishment provided by the local economy.

"There are stores in Flagstaff and Prescott. They can take care of you at either one."

Oh joy. Flag is 50 miles up north, and Prescott is 50 miles over the mountains. Well, I have chores to run in Flag anyway. I'll go there.

So, I drive to Flagstaff, go to the Sprint store, and ...

"They sent you here? Why? We can't help you."

Ummm ... what?

"We're not a corporate store. We sell Sprint products, but we're a whole different company. We can't exchange something they sold you. Besides, we don't even stock wireless cards."

Let me digress a bit here ... The Sprint store in Flagstaff doesn't carry wireless modems? Why? Well, it's because there's not much demand. Sprint's EVDO broadband network isn't available up here (or by me, for that matter) so when you sign on using a wireless card, you get a connection no faster than dial-up service.

Oh woe is me, ya freakin' cry-babies. Unhappy because the fastest connection you can get to the Internet from the laptop in your tent in the middle of the forest is 56K?

Y'know, when I first got to northern Arizona just ten years ago, all that was available up here was dial-up, so I telecommuted over a 56K connection for a good, long time. Everybody did everything Internet-related over dial-up. But now that's not good enou--

Oh hell. Yes, I know how I sound. Now get off my lawn.

Anyway. So Sprint in Flagstaff sent me packing. I went home, called tech support, and explained just how pleased I was to be sent on a pointless 100-mile round-trip drive (I didn't dilute the message by mentioning that I had a nice lunch at the Beaver Street Brewery. Try the porter with a bowl of chipotle-ginger beef chili).

Sprint customer support has become much nicer since the last time I screamed at them, five years ago. The nice lady on the phone immediately apologized and promised to send me a new modem and compensate me for the time I've been paying for a high-tech paper weight.

The new widget is scheduled to arrive on Tuesday. I'll let you know if it's worth the hassle.

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Thursday, January 8, 2009

Just sign this blank check here

Am I imagining things, or is Barack Obama just rolling up his entire wish list of pie-in-the-sky programs for his entire term in office into one proposal and calling it by a grandiose name?

I mean, you have stuff like this in The American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan (PDF):
To improve the quality of our health care while lowering its cost, we will make the immediate investments necessary to ensure that within five years, all of America’s medical records are computerized.
Ummm ... So paying for my wife's practice's new electronic medical records system is vital for stimulating the economy? Really?

I mean, it would be nice if you all were kind enough to pick up the tab to modernize her business, but I don't see how that's a pressing economic issue.

What about this?
It means expanding broadband lines across America, so that a small business in a rural town can connect and compete with their counterparts anywhere in the world.
Aren't there a few companies already making their bread and butter doing that? Why does the government have to tap the taxpayers to run DSL down my dirt road?

I mean, with spending proposals like that, what's the point of even adding "That also means an economic recovery plan that is free from earmarks and pet projects." Who needs to add pet projects when Obama already plans to spend money on giving everybody a new doghouse (with a wind generator on top)?


Where's my remote control?

It used to be a joke that some people were so lazy that they wouldn't get off the sofa to change the channel when they couldn't find the TV remote control. In years to come, nobody will get that joke.

I just realized that our new flat-screen TV has no external controls. Volume? Channel? Picture? You better know where the remote is, or the damned thing is just a bad mirror.

Would it be so hard to add a couple of buttons for power and volume?

I think I shall dispatch a missive to the manufacturer. Fetch me my quill pen and blotter!


More constitutional questions about Eric Holder

Eric Holder, President-Elect Barack Obama's choice for U.S. attorney general, is an impressive candidate who already has significant Justice Department experience. But he comes with baggage that brings into question his respect for individual rights. In addition to his troubling stance on drug policy and the right to bear arms, his actions as deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration suggest that he may not fully respect the Sixth Amendment right to counsel and the ability of defendants to receive a fair trial.

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

The right to counsel is key to a fair trial, since it allows defendants to seek legal advice and wage the best defense possible against the impressive resources fielded by government prosecutors. But as deputy attorney general in 1999, Holder penned a memo regarding the prosecution of corporations that threatened companies with dire consequences if they helped their employees wage a defense -- or even kept them on the payroll. All this, remember, while the trial is being waged, before anybody has been convicted of a crime.

Holder's memo read, in part:

In gauging the extent of the corporation's cooperation, the prosecutor may consider the corporation's willingness to identify the culprits within the corporation, including senior executives, to make witnesses available, to disclose the complete results of its internal investigation, and to waive the attorney-client and work product privileges. ...

Another factor to be weighed by the prosecutor is whether the corporation appears to be protecting its culpable employees and agents. Thus, while cases will differ depending on the circumstances, a corporation's promise of support to culpable employees and agents, either through the advancing of attorneys fees, through retaining the employees without sanction for their misconduct, or through providing information to the employees about the government's investigation pursuant to a joint defense agreement, may be considered by the prosecutor in weighing the extent and value of a corporation's cooperation.

Four years later, with a new party in the White House, Holder's directives were restated by Deputy Attorney General Larry D. Thompson. It was this new memo, the Thompson restatement of Holder's memo, that guided the Justice Department in its prosecution of KPMG for allegedly abusive tax shelters. Sure enough, the Justice Department brought pressure to bear in the form of Thompson's restatement of Holder's guidelines for cutting off corporate defendants' right to counsel. Judge Lewis A. Kaplan described the results in his opinion (PDF) in a motion to suppress certain statements:

Although KPMG long had paid legal fees for any of its employees who were sued or charged with crimes as a result of doing their jobs, the government threatened to consider such payments as a factor weighing in favor of indicting the firm. It threatened also to consider any failure by KPMG to cause its employees to make full disclosure to the government as favoring indictment. So KPMG changed its practice regarding legal fees. It informed employees that it would pay fees, up to $400,000, but only on the condition that they cooperate with the prosecutors. In other words, KPMG told its personnel that it would cut off payment of legal expenses of any employee who refused to talk to the government or who invoked the Fifth Amendment. And it made crystal clear that it would cut off any payments of legal fees to anyone who was indicted.

Judge Kaplan was not pleased:

Having considered the evidence, the Court is persuaded that the government is responsible for the pressure that KPMG put on its employees. It threatened KPMG with the corporate equivalent of capital punishment. KPMG took the only course open to it. In the words of its chief legal officer, KPMG did everything it could “to be able to say at the right time and with the right audience, we’re in full compliance with the Thompson Memorandum.”

Ultimately, the case was dismissed, with Kaplan writing that the government "let its zeal get in the way of its judgment. It has violated the constitution it is sworn to defend."

The case was a big embarassment for the government -- not least of all because its own unconstitutional actions torpedoed the indictment. Not surprisingly, Eric Holder was asked about the wisdom of his 1999 memo. He insisted that, never mind the plain language of his writing, his original guidance had been misunderstood, telling the Wall Street Journal, “It was never the intent to view waiving the attorney-client privilege as a negative. If you made a decision to waive the privilege, you could get credit for that, but it was only in extraordinary circumstances and should have only been viewed as a positive.”

Faced with the failure of its earlier tactics, the Justice Department has revised its policy (PDF) regarding corporate prosecutions.

Of necessity, Eric Holder's 1999 memo is no longer in effect, and he is unlikely to risk his prosecutorial efforts in the Obama administration by reinstating policies that the courts have rejected.

The question, though, is whether he retains his old, dismissive attitudes toward the constitutional rights of the people he prosecutes. As Harvey Silverglate, a defense attorney and former head of the Massachusetts branch of the ACLU writes:

Holder was part of an increasingly unhealthy culture when he served in DOJ. It seems reasonable to request that the senators on the Judiciary Committee ask him whether he, like the president-elect, will be a change agent or will simply preserve the status quo. Based on recent history, it is far more important that the next AG respect the Constitution, rather than launch some new scorched-earth crusade against the evil-doer du jour.


Does Lincoln's treatment of the Constitution hold lessons for us today?

By special request from Alicia Jessop at the Chapman Law Review:


Lincoln's Constitutionalism in Time of War: Lessons for the Current War on Terror?

For good or for ill, civil liberties were sacrificed during Abraham Lincoln's administration, all for the sake of winning the Civil War. The government then pleaded necessity, just as it does now, during the War on Terror.

For its annual symposium, Chapman University's Law Review has assembled panels and speakers to assess Lincoln's trade-offs and discuss whether they hold lessons for modern America. Issues addressed include habeas corpus, wartime economics and the exchange of civil liberties losses for civil rights gains.

Friday, January 30, 2009
8:00am - 4:00pm
Chapman University School of Law
One University Drive
Orange, CA

(714) 628-2582

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

New New Deal a dangerous (and expensive) idea

What's the price for ending the recession? How about trillion-dollar-plus deficits -- and a longer recession? Add in a bigger government and less freedom, and the incoming president's grand economic plans start sounding a little ... frightening.

President-Elect Barack Obama cautions that his economic plans will probably have the United States running "trillion-dollar deficits for years to come." Before the ink has dried on news reports of his mind-boggling concession, the Congressional Budget Office raises a red flag (PDF) and warns that the next resident of the White House is being unreasonably optimistic -- the tidal wave of red ink about to engulf the federal budget is bigger than anticipated even before taking into account Obama's plans for a "new New Deal."

It's all right, the president-to-be's partisans tell us. That vast new spending is necessary and will pull us out of recession just the way the FDR-era programs on which it's modeled saved us from the Great Depression.

Don't count on it. Plenty of experts think emulating the New Deal is a recipe for economic disaster.

Recently, Salon's David Sirota declared doubt about the wisdom of the New Deal to be "abject insanity." If it's insane to criticize 1930s-era economic policies, then it's a madness shared by a good many scholars. As Jonathan Bean, a historian at Southern Illinois University, points out at The Independent Institute's blog, The Beacon, a 1995 survey of economists and historians published in the Journal of Economic History found "[h]alf of the economists and a third of historians agreed, in whole or in part, that the New Deal prolonged the Great Depression."

Credible economists continue to research the issue and conclude that Franklin Delano Roosevelt's policies did, in fact, prolong the Great Depression and deepen the misery of the era. Two UCLA economists, Harold L. Cole and Lee E. Ohanian, studied FDR's economic policies for a 2004 paper (PDF) published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. They concluded that "New Deal policies are an important contributing factor to the persistence of the Great Depression." Labor and industrial policy, in particular, "accounts for about half of the continuation of the Great Depression between 1934 and 1939."

Among FDR's mistakes, The Beacon's Bean points out, was demonizing everybody who disagreed with him so they hunkered down and held off making investments until he was out of office. Even John Maynard Keynes "repeatedly criticized FDR for discouraging private business investment with his taxes, regulations and overheated rhetoric (the White House charged that opponents were 'Big Business Fascists')."

FDR's rhetoric was a bit rich, considering that his own National Recovery Administration boasted "The Fascist Principles are very similar to those we have been evolving here in America."

So there is good reason to be skeptical of claims that a new New Deal is just the medicine that America needs. That's especially true since this particular prescription may be the most expensive one ever written for the country. President-Elect Obama talks of trillion-dollar deficits, but the CBO says (PDF) the deficit for 2009 is already on track to be $1.2 trillion, before the new chief executive's "stimulus" package is even considered.

CBO projects that the deficit this year will total $1.2 trillion, or 8.3 percent of GDP. Enactment of an economic stimulus package would add to that deficit. In CBO’s baseline, the deficit for 2010 falls to 4.9 percent of GDP, still high by historical standards.

A deficit that's 8.3 percent of the economy? That's simply unthinkable. That money has to come from somewhere, and the only source is the private sector, since that's where wealth is created. The money can be taxed, it can be borrowed or it can come from inflating the money supply and devaluing existing dollars -- in all cases, wealth is taken from the hands of private citizens so it can be spent by politicians and bureaucrats. The end result is a public flurry of checks cut by government officials, but nobody sees the checks that aren't being cut by millions of businesses and consumers who now have less to spend.

We're talking about a huge transfer of wealth and power. The New Deal made government much more powerful than it had ever been before, with terrible consequences for personal freedom. I'm not talking about the abstract value of free enterprise; I mean people thrown in jail because they had the nerve to set their own prices for their products.

Even if we don't get such intrusive regulation under a new New Deal, federal budgets so vast that the government is borrowing over eight percent of the economy inevitably means that individual decision-making will be displaced by state planning. While running up a national credit card that you and I will ultimately have to pay off, the government will purchase enormous power and influence over our lives.

The hangover from this spending spree won't just mean huge bills, it will mean huge changes in the balance of power between the people and the state. Bankrupt though the goverrnment will be, it will own things we never thought it would own, and it will have inserted itself into areas that we never thought appropriate.

That's what happened during the first New Deal, and it will happen again if those policies are repeated in any significant way.

If history is any guide, Barack Obama's proposed economic policies may actually prolong our economic woes. And they'll leave us with an unacceptably high tab in terms of both money and liberty.

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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

For the record, it's not my debt either

From the fine Arizonans at Freedom's Phoenix:


Sanjay Gupta for Surgeon General? You're kidding, right?

Oh, I wish I was kidding. From CNN:
The Obama transition team approached Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN's chief medical correspondent, about becoming U.S. surgeon general, according to sources inside the transition and at CNN.

Gupta was in Chicago, Illinois, in November to meet with President-elect Barack Obama on the matter, sources said.

Gupta has declined comment.

All I can think of is ... Idiocracy.


Freedom is a smoking deal across the U.S.

There's no ban or edict that any government can stuff down its subjects throats that some people will not resent and defy. Ample proof of that comes from Illinois, where The Telegraph reports, "[l]ike speakeasies during Prohibition, the area now has 'smokeasies.' Almost every town has a bar or two where people know they can go to smoke without being told to extinguish it." Welcome to the resistance, folks. Similar reports are trickling in from across the United States.

Where can you find smokeasies? Over the past few years, they've been spotted in Colorado Springs, Honolulu, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle ...

In Cleveland, where smoking and stripping were restricted at the same time, the bans resulted in two-fer "smokehouses" where sex, booze and tobacco mingle in a completely illegal environment.

Sounds like, fun, to be honest.

Elsewhere, licensed, above-ground establishments simply thumb their noses at the law, relying on loyal clientele to appreciate the scofflawry and keep their mouths shut. Logically enough, this suggests that low-profile, neighborhood establishments have a better chance at surviving as speakeasies than glitzy joints full of ever-changing changing faces.

According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

The smoke-easies tend to be in neighborhood dives; the Ballard bartender noted that it's too risky to allow smoking in trendy bars like the ones in Belltown. "If you're in the Frontier Room or the Rendezvous," he said, "you can't tell who's going to mind the smoking or not because there's a different crowd there every night."

In a neighborhood dive, even a militant anti-smoker will keep his mouth shut if wants to avoid pariah status.

None of this should be a surprise to anybody. The word "smokeasy" or "smoke-easy" is, after all, a play on "speakeasy," the name for establishments that sold illicit booze to willing customers during the long, dark years of Prohibition. Politicians may please themselves or the mob with restrictive laws, but very often such laws are unenforceable, because people subject to those laws aren't willing to comply, no matter the penalty.

No matter the penalty?

That's right. In 1633, Sultan Murad IV of the Ottoman Empire imposed the death penalty for smoking tobacco or drinking alcohol or coffee. Penalties were enthusiastically enforced. Even so, his subjects were ... unimpressed. The bans were repealed by his successor.

As Cleveland police Detective Tom Shoulders put it, "You put too many restrictions on people, they're going to find someplace else to go for their entertainment."

Wisdom from the mouths of enforcers.

Prohibitions don't work because no penalty is harsh enough to make unwilling people obey. Nicotine Nazis follow in the footsteps of drug warriors who walk the same path picked by Prohibitionists. All have tried to bend people to their will, and all have failed.

They do damage, though. Bans and restrictions inflict fines and prison time on people (and sometimes death). Nanny-staters often escalate their efforts rather than surrender to reality. By raising the stakes, enforcers empower criminals, who are best suited to profit from governments' authoritarian missteps and to undermine law-enforcement efforts.

But even flawed, defiant liberty is better than submission to the control freaks who would tell us how to live our lives. Light 'em if you got 'em and puff out a toast to the smokeasies of Illinois -- and elsewhere.

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Monday, January 5, 2009

Goodbye to a libertarian opponent of Apartheid

Helen Suzman served in South Africa's Parliament for 36 years, beginning in 1953, as a member of the opposition, opposed to the racist government of that country. That was a lonely and demanding job. For 13 of those years, she was the only explicit opponent of apartheid among the lawmakers. Maybe a little conflict is good for your health. Born on November 7, 1917, she lived to see a post-racial (but still troubled) South Africa, dying on January 1, 2009 at the age of 91. For all of those long years, Suzman was a champion of true liberalism.

The details of her life and achievements are, deservedly, being trumpeted worldwide in the press and by politicians and activists. I will point out that she was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, once awarded the International Freedom Prize, and -- an honor of which her foundation says she was "inordinately proud" -- denounced as an "enemy of the state" by Zimbabwe's dictator, Robert Mugabe.

But, since Helen Suzman is being widely mentioned as a leading South African liberal, I do want to comment on Helen Suzman's brand of liberalism. Specifically, I want to point out that Suzman's liberalism was real liberalism, not the micromanaging, for-your-own-good nannyism of so many Americans who use the term "liberal."

From the Helen Suzman Foundation, which Suzman, logically, headed:

The Helen Suzman Foundation supports and promotes liberal democratic policies and ideals in the South African political situation. Views such as these are very similar to those held by liberals in Europe and certain countries in the East, where liberals are non-racial in their views, support free enterprise and are generally sympathetic to individualism, although their views on, and support for, welfare policies vary both within countries and between countries.

As we understand it, in the United States of America, however, the way in which "liberals" are defined differs from the South African and European definition. Liberals in the United States include many people who hold "progressive" views in the sense that they are less sympathetic to free enterprise and individualism and more consistently supportive of public welfare. In Europe and South Africa such people are very likely to regard themselves as "social democrats" or socialists, which are less familiar categories in the United States.

American visitors to this website should bear these differences in mind when reading about The Helen Suzman Foundation and its mission.

In the American context, Helen Suzman's politics would likely have tagged her as a moderate libertarian (or a classical liberal, among some political wonks). In fact, she lectured at the libertarian Cato Institute in 1989, and that organization's executive vice president, David Boaz, has penned an enthusiastic tribute to her work.

Suzman understood, as too many people do not, that liberty is indivisible. You can't have free markets without civil liberty, and you can't have social freedom without economic liberty. The one is unsustainable without the other, and none of it can be maintained if the primacy of the individual isn't put front and center among our political values.

Helen Suzman fought the good fight for freedom all her life. While the job will probably always remain unfinished, it's time for somebody else to pick up the torch.


Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Constitution-free zone takes to the rails

You're traveling by train. Suddenly, it slows and comes to an unscheduled stop. Armed, uniformed men come aboard with dogs. They question passengers, search luggage and remove one of your fellow travelers for further interrogation. Is this some Cold War-era movie? Nope. It's New Year's Eve on an Amtrak train in California.

I wrote not too long ago about my family's experience at a Border Patrol checkpoint along Interstate 8 in Arizona. We were stopped in the desert, briefly questioned, and then allowed to proceed -- a little wiser about the modern security state. My family's experience was far from unique. The following story comes to me from a Southwestern state legislator with whom I frequently correspond (he prefers to remain anonymous):

At about 5:30am Dec 31 in Imperial Cty. CA, but well away from the Mx. border, US Border Patrol agents stopped and boarded our westbound Amtrak train with a dog and proceeded to walk through all the cars. This woke up my sleeping child and angered me. Amtrak staff told me this was 'random', not based on any specific suspicion or request, and sometimes BP makes trains stop for these searches. Nevertheless, Amtrak staff seemed to fully be part of the program and did not protest or protect passengers in any way.

I saw the dog 'hit' on one passenger's backpack, which BP then searched, without asking for consent, and found a pipe. The guy was pulled off the train, made to put his hands on his head and searched, then let go with only having his pipe taken (likely due to being in CA, if in AZ or many other states he likely would've been hauled off in handcuffs).

I asked BP agents 'why the stop?', and had a bright flashlight directed at my head in a threatening manner for a while as I was told their view that 'we can stop any person, vehicle or aircraft any time for any reason anywhere within 100 miles of the border'. I followed them to observe and eventually IDed myself as a State Rep. and made my disapproval of this conduct clear to BP and Amtrak and their behavior improved and they soon left. The USBP sector chief here (El Centro) is Calhoun.

Our train was on time up to this point, but ended up being late to our destination due to this approx. 30 min. invasive stop. This stop and search, without any reason, disrupted passengers, did not make us any safer, and delayed our trip.

This also happens a lot on buses, I've been told.

My correspondent is right -- this does happen on buses. It also happens along the highways, as I well know, and at ferry terminals. Searches at ferry terminals have become such an issue in Washington state that Customs and Border Patrol provided San Juan Islanders with a FAQ as to what they can expect during such checks, and their (limited) rights when encountering CBP agents. Among the information provided by the CBP is a hint as to what sort of treatment travelers who resent questions from uniformed enforcers can expect:

Am I required to answer the agent's questions at the checkpoint?

No person can be required to give evidence that incriminates themselves - that is a constitutional right. Neither can any public official compel or coerce such a statement if the person being questioned refuses to give one voluntarily. However, the law is quite clear that agents can interrogate any person who is an alien or who the agent believes to be an alien as to his right to be or remain in the United States. A refusal to answer could be construed as an articulabel fact supporting a level of suspicion to further investigate and possibly to arrest, depending on the totality of the circumstances at hand.

So, if you keep mum and stand by your right to remain silent, that may be taken as grounds to haul you off in handcuffs as a suspicious character.

The U.S. government claims special powers to conduct such searches anywhere within ... well ... about a two-hour drive of the border. That's right. Up to 100 miles inland, you can expect the sort of treatment my correspondent received on his train journey.

The American Civil Liberties Union refers to this 100-mile corridor round the perimeter of the United States as the "Constitution-free zone." As a map of the zone demonstrates, it includes many of the largest cities in the United States -- and about two-thirds of the population.

My correspondent was a little more courageous than many of us might be when he challenged federal agents during the encounter and voiced his displeasure. He's also a public official who reports an improvement in the behavior of Border Patrol agents once he revealed his identity.

I don't know that the rest of us could expect such respectful treatment. In fact, there's a good chance that most of us would just earn extra scrutiny by failing to bow and scrape, just as that FAQ provided to San Juan Islanders suggests. The ACLU provides the following video of San Diego resident Vince Peppard describing what happened to him when he declined to open his trunk at a checkpoint within the Constitution-free zone.

That's America in 2008. Without muss, fuss or a public vote, many of the constitutional protections we thought we had were quietly stripped away.

Feeling a bit of relief because you don't live near the border? Don't feel too safe. If the government can effortlessly trim your rights once, it can do it again.

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Friday, January 2, 2009

Valkyrie and Rogue Male

Valkyrie, the Tom Cruise vehicle about an attempted assassination of Hitler, is drawing comparisons with the 1939 novel Rogue Male by critics and commentators apparently out to prove their literary bona fides. Unfortunately, the only thing being proven is that the critics haven't actually read the classic Geoffrey Household book. But the comparison is worthwhile, if only for the opportunity to restate old lessons about the evils of all systems that despise individual liberty.

Unlike the movies made from the book (and the lesser sequel, Rogue Justice), Rogue Male is careful to avoid being specific about the dictator the protagonist sets out to stalk and assassinate of his own accord. The country ruled by the dictator is powerful and adjacent to Poland, so it's clearly either Hitler or Stalin that Household has in mind, but he doesn't say which. Just as important, it's clear that Household doesn't think it matters whether it's the Nazi thug or the Communist thug, because the two regimes are essentially indistinguishable.

That's a consistent theme throughout Rogue Male. That totalitarians of any sort, who glorify the collective over the individual, are the problem. The specifics of the ideology are irrelevant. At one point, Household's unnamed protagonist comments:
It was, in a sense, not unlike being stuck in the club with some bore whose opinions are very left or very right. You can't do anything but listen to the man. You know he is wrong, but since you argue from the standpoint of individuals and he argues about a mythical mass, there is no common ground.
During a diatribe by Quive-Smith, a servant of the dictator, the protagonist thinks:
In fact, it was a speech that would have gone equally well in the mouth of his boss's opposite number on the other side of Poland.
But what does Household himself advocate -- at least in the form of his character? There are hints throughout the novel, but a fairly clear statement comes during another exchange between Quive-Smith and the protagonist.
"My dear fellow," he protested. "There's all the difference in the world! It's the mass that we are out to discipline and educate. If an individual interferes. certainly, we crush him; but for the sake of the mass -- of the State, shall I say? You, you don't give a damn for the State. You obey your own taste and your own laws."

"That's true enough," I admitted. "But I have respect for the rights of other individuals."

"Of course. But none at all for the nation. Admit it now, my dear fellow, you could get along perfectly well without any State!"

"Yes, damn you!" I answered angrily -- I hated his pseudo-Socratic cross-examination. "Without the shameless politicians who run this country or the incompetent idiots who would like to, or your blasted spotlight Caesars."
Household's anonymous hero was an increasingly rare specimen in the 1930s: a genuine liberal of the old sort. That is, he believed in individual liberty and was distrustful of politicians and government power. We forget today what a remarkable position that was for 1939, but that was an era when liberal democracy was widely seen as a doomed model and democratic governments -- including the Roosevelt administration in the U.S. -- openly included partisans of Stalin and Mussolini.

In fact, it's a remarkable position today, although we're careful to bury our worship of unlimited state power in easy words about democracy and responsible liberty. It's all for the masses, of course. Ooops! I mean, for the good of the people. (Must be careful about those words).

I look forward to seeing Valkyrie -- it's a fictional representation of an important historical event that has people justifiably playing "what if?"

But the story of Rogue Male -- the real story -- has a larger message about the value of the individual and the dangers of government power with implications for generations to come.


I age and become crotchety

There's not much I mind about getting older. I have good reason for that. Honestly, I'm in better physical condition than I was 20 years ago. I'm healthier, eat something resembling a balanced diet and no longer treat my waking hours as an exercise in debauchery.

That's not to say that I didn't enjoy myself 20 years ago (I did say "debauchery," right?). But my lifestyle was ... ummm ... not sustainable for the long haul. I mean, I don't have access to the cyborg technology that keeps Keith Richards going.

I have many fond memories, though. Well ... some of them are actually based on stories told me about my actions after the fact. I can't remember everything I did.

But there are certainly some aspects of aging that I could do without. For starters, I don't bounce back the way I once did. I used to stay out drinking and snorting until all hours, take a pratfall down a flight of stairs, get my injuries clucked over by some stray woman who took me home for a little TLC, and then go to work in the morning. Oh, but I would wear sunglasses in the office because I had a bit of a hangover. Tough life.

Now I stay up late to watch a movie, have an extra glass of wine, and feel like death warmed over the next day.

Of course, we don't appreciate our resilience when we're young. My kid had strep last week -- not that you'd have known it to look at him. He bounced around, did somersaults, wrestled with his cousins ...

But one day, he had a little cough. My wife, the doctor, figured it wouldn't hurt to run a strep test on him this time of year. Sure enough, the culture came back really positive. The bugs were swarming: line-dancing and having a party. But the kid didn't miss a beat.

Me? I'm running a 100-degree fever and I've been rotating between my bed and the sofa for three days.

Damned kids.

I guess the cops just lost a fan

Do you have any of that NYPD paraphernalia that became so popular after the 9/11 terrorist attacks? Well, I strongly suggest you stash it away in the back of your closet -- at least, that's what you should do if you live anywhere near Belleville, Illinois. That's the garden spot where Adam C. Weinstein was rousted for nothing more than wearing a T-shirt bearing the word "POLICE." As a result, we can expect that the local cops will get a refresher course in First Amendment law.

According to the Madison County Record:

Adam C. Weinstein, of Missouri, claims he was attending a pre-Christmas party on Dec. 23, 2006, at about 11:34 p.m. at Crehan's Bar in Belleville, according to the complaint filed Dec. 22 in St. Clair County Circuit Court.

When Weinstein initially arrived at the party, he was wearing a green sweater with the black shirt bearing the word "POLICE" underneath the sweater. After getting hot at the bar, Weinstein removed his sweater, to reveal the "POLICE" shirt, the suit states.

Shortly afterwards, Weinstein claims he was told that some police officers wanted to talk to him outside.

The officers, it turns out, wanted to know if Weinstein was an actual police officer. He's not; he's an emergency medical technician. Hmmm ... an EMT who wears a shirt saying "police" of the sort that is available from shops across the country. What do you want to bet he was actually an enthusiastic fan of law enforcement, right up until ...

Belleville police officer Jeff Vernatti placed Weinstein under arrest and placed handcuffs around his wrists, but "tightened them too tightly on Plaintiff," according to the complaint.

After Weinstein asked if it was illegal to wear a T-shirt with the word "POLICE" on it, Vernatti told him to "shut the f*** up, you're real f***ing stupid, you are a dumb-a** with no common sense, do you know how f***ing stupid you are?" the suit states.

Vernatti then twisted Weinstein's wrists and quickly walked him across the parking lot, Weinstein claims.

Vernatti shoved Weinstein against the police cruiser with such force that his belt buckle left an impression on his abdomen, then pushed Weinstein into the back seat of the car, according to the complaint.

When Weinstein asked Vernatti to loosen his handcuffs, Vernatti instead tightened them and added a second pair onto his wrists, the suit states.

The Belleville prosecuting attorney, not being quite as big a bonehead as Officer Vernatti, dropped the case. Dropping the case, though, doesn't erase the incident, nor does it make Officer Vernatti any less of a jerk. But a lawsuit ...

Weinstein is suing for false arrest, false detention, excessive force, and a host of other complaints that logically follow from grabbing a man and roughing him up because he's ... wearing a T-shirt.

Incidentally, police officers should have had it drummed into their heads by now that even the nastiest anti-police slogans are protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The criticism can appear on T-shirts, bumper stickers, in print, in song, or be aired in a public place. There's a whole field of legal study related to the penalties for law-enforcement officers who ignore the right of citizens to sound off against cops.

As for arresting a man for wearing an overtly neutral message that was probably pro-police? Well, that's not just a violation of free speech rights. That's plain stupid public relations -- possibly a bigger fumble than a constitutional transgression in this day and age.

By the way, Belleville is the same municipality that made news recently for imposing tight regulations on who can celebrate Halloween, when it can be celebrated, and banning adults from wearing masks at other times of year. So, next October 31, if you want to have a little fun, drive to Belleville dressed as a police officer.

Just make sure your lawyer is on speed dial.

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