Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Fido in the crosshairs once again

The apparent police vendetta against dogs continues. This time, officers in Buffalo, New York, stormed into a home during the course of a search for drugs, gunned the dogs down in front of the family, and then left without making any arrests.

According to the Buffalo News, the raided home was the residence of Rita M. Patterson and her father, Daniel J. Patterson. Rita's boyfriend William F. Hanavan, who has served time on drug charges, was present at the scene and the likely target, but the warrant specified only "a white male and Hydrocodone."

Before she knew what was happening, police wearing masks and helmets and carrying automatic weapons had broken through the door. They tied her hands with a zip tie and put her on the floor.

Her father pleaded with police not to shoot the dogs, but they wouldn’t allow him to grab the dogs and put them in another room, Patterson said.

One of the officers started firing a shotgun at the two dogs, one a pit bull and the other a pit bull-boxer mix.

One of the dogs was shot three times: once in the throat, once in the back and the last time in the leg while trying to run away, Rita Patterson said.

The other dog was cowering behind a table. Neither was a threat to the police, the residents said.

While no arrests were made at the time, Hanavan was picked up the next day on assault charges, which may or may not have anything to do with the raid.

Overall, the story fits into a continuing pattern in which police seemingly gun down dogs that pose no apparent threat, sometimes even intervening to prevent owners from securing their pets. Short of assuming institutional cruelty toward animals, the only possible conclusion is that police are choosing to shoot dogs as a precautionary measure -- for those rare circumstances when household companions turn out to be trained killers the police insist they run across from time to time.

It may also be a brutal means of asserting dominance in encounters with the public.

Such shootings are sufficiently common that they've been addressed by the Humane Society. According to Randall Lockwood, Vice President of Research and Educational Outreach:

Some of these reports reveal a disturbing trend. According to a report in The Indianapolis Star, nearly three-fourths of the shooting incidents in the city from January 2000 to September 2002 involved shots fired at dogs, with officers killing 44 dogs during that period.

Phoenix, Arizona police shot eight dogs each year in 1999 and 2000, and then shot 13 in 2001. In Seattle, Washington, there were 11 non-accidental firearms discharges by police between March 1999 and March 2000. Two of these involved fatal shootings of people; four involved dogs killed by officers.

Most instances in which police shoot dogs are avoidable. These incidents often underscore other problems, whether in policies, procedures, communication or training.

Lock wood also points out, "Since more than one-third of American households have a dog, officers are likely to encounter canines whenever they approach or enter a residence. Although they may encounter truly dangerous dogs in some situations, the majority of dogs are likely to be well-behaved family pets who are legitimately protecting their homes and families from intruders."

It's true that pointless shootings of beloved animals by law-enforcement authorities don't rise to the same level of horror as similar killings of people. But the consequences after such shootings are usually petty -- when the police don't completely circle the wagons. After the Buffalo incident, police spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge said, “Executing a search warrant, police never know what they’re going to find on the other side of that door,” DeGeorge said. “In most cases, these can be life and death situations.”

It's true that you never know what's on the other side of the door -- that's why you have to exercise judgment and restraint. When there is no judgment or restraint ... well ... we may get a window into institutional police attitudes toward the public. How do officers wield force when they think they can get away with it?

These shootings may offer a disturbing answer to that question.


By the way, the above is written in my "professional" voice -- the one I use for paid gigs so as not to scare the rubes. My personal addendum is that my dogs are members of my family and under my protection. Anybody who harms a member of my family without ample provocation is fair game for whatever retaliation I choose to visit upon them. A blue polyester shirt and a piece of tin on the offender make no difference in the matter.

I strongly suspect that dogs are targeted as a "safe" (that is, consequence-free) exercise of lethal force in order to assert control over situations. Adding consequences to the mix, even if outside the law, may change that calculation.


Forensic technology frees innocent man

I think the news report below effectively tells the whole story.

DNA Evidence Frees Black Man Convicted Of Bear Attack

Monday, March 30, 2009

You know that bobcat story that's been making the rounds ...

... about the wild cat that wandered into a bar in Arizona and mauled a customer? Well, that happened down the road from me in Cottonwood, which is where my wife works, my kid goes to day care and we do most of our shopping. While the story is getting the gee-whiz treatment in the press, animal encounters aren't unusual around here. It's one of the reasons, don't you know, that people in this part of the world tend to carry little gadgets that go "bang" and make wild animals have second thoughts or stop thinking at all.

The bobcat that wandered into the Chapparal Bar turned out to be rabid, which explains why a normally shy animal that keeps to itself would go on a rampage in town, attacking people in three separate incidents.

Of course, one of the guys who got chewed had decided that it was a Kodak moment and put his face near the critter for a snapshot. Or, at least, that's the word around the local hospital.

While we don't usually worry about bobcats, mountain lions are another matter. They frequently wander into Jerome, just up the mountain (and surrounded by forest) or into Verde Villages on the outskirts of Cottonwood (and bordering desert and forest) or into Cottonwood itself (bordering desert and forest) or other parts of the surrounding area. Once among human habitations, they tend to upset folks by snacking on cats and dogs and stalking people.

Occasionally, lions eat a person, though not recently -- around here. There was a non-fatal attack in the southern part of the county last year.

All the settlements around here are really islands of people in a sea of wilderness. We also have black bear living in our wild areas. Lots and lots of coyote, too. There's a coyote pack that comes by my property almost every night, since we're located near the Verde River in prime hunting ground for them. They like to taunt dogs to try to lure them from lighted, protected areas. If the dogs take the bait, you'll likely never see them again.

Coyotes don't often attack people, but when they do, children are the most likely targets (they're tender and bite-size).

This is why, when I take my three-year-old son for a walk, or run my dogs in the desert, I carry a gun. Many people around here do the same. We do it for the same reason we keep water in the car or tote a first-aid kit on hikes: precaution.

Nature is beautiful and we love living in the middle of it. But it keeps trying to eat us.


Hey all you gadget freaks! What do you know about netbooks?

When netbooks -- small, stripped-down laptop computers -- were first introduced, I was really intrigued by the idea. They were originally intended as cheap, reliable computers for the Third World, but quickly found a market in the developed world, too, among people who really don't need video-editing capability and heavy-duty gaming as default choices when they go shopping for laptops. So the market seemed to be moving toward giving people what they actually wanted, rather than just loading on the gee-whiz.

I wasn't impressed by the introductory price for some of these computers. Six-hundred bucks for something with a 7-inch screen? Really? But the price tags have come down to earth in recent months. Systems introduced at $500 or $600 six months ago are now going for $300 -- or less. And that's the way it should be.

So now I'm considering buying one of these widgets as a bang-around computer for when I'm on the road. Basically, I look at the things as rugged mobile devices that let me write, research and receive email when I'm on vacation or going to a meeting or bopping around town. I mean, my life is on my main laptop. I don't really want to carry that expensive piece of hardware every place. But if a netbook gets stolen or confiscated ... no big deal. Especially if I'm smart and store my documents online, so that nothing is actually lost except a few bucks.

Really, what a perfect device for journalists. Write from the scene on the hood of a car using Google Docs and a 3G modem. If the cops grab the device, you just head home and pick up the story where you left off, since it was never "on" the computer to begin with and didn't cost too much.

Along those lines, I've been looking at two specific models. I like the Acer Aspire One and the Asus Eee PC 901, which have 8.9-inch screens. In both cases, I'm looking at the versions with solid-state storage, not hard drives, because flash memory is much more rugged for a device you're sticking in your pocket and banging around. I'm also looking at the Linux versions since Linux runs faster than Windows XP on a solid-state drive (and is resistant to malware, which means less defensive software to load).

The Acer seems to get slightly better reviews, but it has a miserly battery life compared to the Asus. The Acer also includes only 8GB of storage, with the ability to slap in an SD card for another 8GB (at my cost). The Asus, on the other hand, includes 20GB of solid-state storage, with another 20GB online included in the price.

Both computers are widely available for $250 - $300, with occasional deals down to $200.

So, my question to you, oh dear geeky readers, is whether you have any experience, good or bad with one or the other of these devices? Or do you recommend a different widget entirely (keep in mind that I plan to tote this around in my pocket, so I'm looking for something rugged)?

Whaddya say?


Sow what ye reap (put THAT in your pipe and smoke it)

In parts of the United States, you can't go for a walk in the woods without bumping into apple trees. Could the debate over marijuana be settled by making marijuana plants as ubiquitous as apple trees -- so unavoidable that prosecuting people for growing and possessing the stuff becomes a preposterous proposition? More to the point, should Americans interested in easing some of the worst abuses of the drug war emulate Johnny Appleseed, the man who made apples so common, and plant marijuana seeds in every likely location?

Reader Sean Y. writes:

I propose that everyone plant their marijuana seeds in inconspicuous places. These places can be in a large city or national forest, it does not matter. Everyone that believes in liberty should plant these seeds any time that they have the opportunity. Within a couple of years this “weed” has the potential to be so prolific that the government cannot eradicate it. Not only that, marijuana enthusiasts will no longer have to search out bad characters and pay outrageous prices for a plant that grows naturally just about anywhere. Who knows, a little genetic modification could make the plants irresistible to honey bees and as prolific as the dandelion?

Sean Y. specifically references the legendary Johnny Appleseed -- actually named John Chapman -- as his inspiration. Chapman wandered the frontier for decades until his death in 1845 (or 1847 -- sources vary), creating nurseries for apple trees and helping to make sure that the apple became the American fruit. He reportedly obtained his seeds for free from cider mills, since the mills would benefit from a plentiful supply of raw material (at the time apples were drunk as hard cider more often than they were eaten. Good times.).

Marijuana seeds aren't quite so easy to come by -- but they aren't that hard to find, either. Until recently, British Columbia's Marc Emery made a profitable business of selling marijuana seeds by mail which he distributed to eager buyers around the world. Emery, a high-profile marijuana activist and advocate for overall liberty was quoted in the New York Times saying, "I've wanted to be the Johnny Appleseed of marijuana, so if we produced millions and millions of marijuana plants all over the world, it would be impossible for governments to eradicate or control all of it."

Emery's operation was maybe a little too high-profile; he's involved in a protracted battle with the United States government and faces an extradition hearing in June.

But given the ease with which marijuana adapts to nearly every environment and its rugged growth characteristics, the plan is an intriguing one. And marijuana seeds remain available from other sources. Spreading the seeds to let them grow naturally shows every sign of being a viable tactic.

By the way, if you think it unseemly that anybody should profit from such a venture, think of it this way: the potential for profit is a great incentive to make the project succeed. After all, the original Johnny Appleseed died a wealthy man and the owner of about 1,200 acres.


Friday, March 27, 2009

Concern over highway spy-eyes goes national

The Wall Street Journal clues in to a concern near and dear to our Arizona hearts: traffic cameras.
Once a rarity, traffic cameras are filming away across the country. And they're not just focusing their sights on red-light runners. The latest technology includes cameras that keep tabs on highways to catch speeders in the act and infrared license-plate readers that nab ticket and tax scofflaws.

Drivers -- many accusing law enforcement of using spy tactics to trap unsuspecting citizens -- are fighting back with everything from pick axes to camera-blocking Santa Clauses. They're moving beyond radar detectors and CB radios to wage their own tech war against detection, using sprays that promise to blur license numbers and Web sites that plot the cameras' locations and offer tips to beat them.
That's an issue I've given a nod or two in the past myself, of course.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

It's been quiet around here

I've been relatively quiet this week, largely due to an unscheduled regimen of diet and rest. Oh, sure, some folks call it the stomach flu. But I say that any situation that causes you to lose four pounds in three days while lying in bed, reading books and watching TV can't be all bad.

Unfortunately, I didn't need to lose any weight. Oddly enough for a middle-aged American, it now wouldn't hurt me to put a few pounds back on.

Also, books and even the best video library are, apparently, best enjoyed when you're strong enough to have an attention span. And when focusing your eyes doesn't hurt. Oh, and when you're not wondering whether you can actually make it to the can, or if the waste basket will do.

Oh well.

At least I got some rest.

Hey Hillary, don't criticize; legalize

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was on to something when she conceded that America shares blame for the crime and violence that has engulfed Mexico as a result of drug prohibition. Being who she is, of course, Clinton blamed demand for drugs, rather than prohibition as the culprit, and threw in a pointless call for additional restrictions on firearms. Even so, it's helpful when politicians concede that their authoritarian and ill-considered policies have harmful effects abroad as well as at home.

Of course, Clinton is a politician, so her concession that America plays a role in Mexico's woes was less a half-step in the right direction than a quarter-step. Just a day after she conceded that Mexican criminal drug suppliers are responding to the "insatiable" demand for illegal drugs north of the border, her boss, President Obama, rejected the obvious solution: legalization.

Strictly speaking, Obama's dismissal of legalization in an electronic town hall referred only to marijuana. But if he won't consider even that basic step, then legalization of heroin and methamphetamine -- the two drugs driving the black-market violence in Mexico at the moment -- is obviously off the table.

Now that's a lack of change you can believe in.

Clinton, of course, tossed in a gratuitous nod to her ideological base, calling for tighter U.S. gun restrictions as a means of countering violence in Mexico. Even she can't believe that nonsense when such gun control stalwarts as the Los Angeles Times report that the Mexican drug gangs are battling police, soldiers and each other with fully automatic weapons, grenades and rockets -- items not generally available in Texas gun shops.

Said the LA Times:

The proliferation of heavier armaments points to a menacing new stage in the Mexican government's 2-year-old war against drug organizations, which are evolving into a more militarized force prepared to take on Mexican army troops, deployed by the thousands, as well as to attack each other.

These groups appear to be taking advantage of a robust global black market and porous borders, especially between Mexico and Guatemala. Some of the weapons are left over from the wars that the United States helped fight in Central America, U.S. officials said.

The truth is that demand always finds a supply, and black markets fuel one another. Demand in the United States for illegal intoxicants such as marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine creates a potential for profit that leads to the rise of suppliers in Mexico and elsewhere. Money flows into the coffers of those black-market suppliers, who then seek to protect their turf from other gangs, from thieves and from law enforcement officers (although the lines between the various groups can be foggy). These gangs now want to purchase weapons and have the funds to do so, and ...

The cycle continues. Want to shut it down? Too bad. You can't.

What you can do, however, is allow demand to be met through legal channels. Let people who want to get high buy their heroin from above-board businesses that purchase their poppies from perfectly legal farms and their other supplies from equally legitimate sources. Disputes between legal suppliers are settled in court with lawyers, not in the streets with assassins, massively reducing crime and violence.

We're not talking utopia here, but we are talking about respecting people's liberty, reducing violence and increasing the potential for prosperity.

If Hillary Clinton wants to help Mexico, she should promise to push for drug legalization at home and tell Mexico that the best way to get rid of the drug gangs is to legalize the whole drug trade. Ending Prohibition in the U.S. stripped the Mafia of much of its power and wealth, and ending drug prohibition in Mexico would do the same to the drug gangs.

But if Clinton, as we can expect, is unwilling to give the Mexicans good advice, they should look close to home for wisdom. Just last month, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo joined with Fernando Henrique Cardoso, of Brazil, and César Gaviria, of Colombia, to call for an end to the violence-breeding, U.S.-driven prohibition model in drug policy. The report they endorsed states:

Prohibitionist policies based on the eradication of production and on the disruption of drug flows as well as on the criminalization of consumption have not yielded the expected results. We are farther than ever from the announced goal of eradicating drugs.

That's an understatement. In fact, Mexico is being torn apart by prohibitionist policies that have put whole sectors of the country in the hands of criminal gangs and produced a convulsion of violence.

With or without Clinton, Mexico should do itself a favor, and combat violence and crime by dropping drug prohibition.


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Won't somebody please give Obama the Hannan treatment?

British Conservative Member of the European Parliament Daniel Hannan tears into Prime Minister Gordon Brown in a way we could only wish U.S. presidents would hear from time to time.

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More sticky-fingered cops

From Philadelphia comes word that a roving gang of rogue cops has been looting local shops after carefully disabling security camera systems. It's a stark reminder of the importance of surveillance -- not of the public, but of the folks tasked to protect the public. It's also Exhibit A in the case against turning full responsibility for your safety over to armed men who promise you -- cross their hearts! -- that they have your best interests in mind.

This isn't a new problem. The Roman poet Juvenal put it succinctly when he wrote, "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" That is, "Who watches the watchmen?"

For Romans, like for us, it wasn't a hypothetical problem. These days, though, we get to see the evidence replayed on video surveillance footage when a Staten Island bar security camera captures New York City cops looting the till.

Maybe the Philadelphia cops saw the news from New York City. Anyway, the Philadelphia Daily News reports:

ON A SWELTERING July afternoon in 2007, Officer Jeffrey Cujdik and his narcotics squad members raided an Olney tobacco shop.

Then, with guns drawn, they did something bizarre: They smashed two surveillance cameras with a metal rod, said store owners David and Eunice Nam.

The five plainclothes officers yanked camera wires from the ceiling. They forced the slight, frail Korean couple to the vinyl floor and cuffed them with plastic wrist ties.

"I so scared," said Eunice Nam, 56. "We were on floor. Handcuffs on me. I so, so scared, I wet my pants."

The officers rifled through drawers, dumped cigarette cartons on the floor and took cash from the registers. Then they hauled the Nams to jail.

The uniformed raiders are said to have helped themselves to thousands of dollars during their assaults on the bodegas and smoke shops of the city, only a fraction of which was ever turned into the police department as evidence in the "narcotics" raids. The officers also took groceries, drinks, cigarettes and whatever else lay at hand.

In all cases, they were careful to disable video surveillance systems before committing their robberies.

The victimized shopkeepers are almost all immigrants working long hours in troubled neighborhoods where crime is a very real threat. There's no denying that the entry-level entrepreneurs and the stores they own need protection of some kind.

But there's a difference between, on the one hand, hiring help to guard streets and businesses and, on the other hand, creating a warrior class with special authority and power that just begs for abuse. Hired help you can just fire when they misbehave; rogue warriors ... well ... that's a different matter.

When Sir Robert Peel professionalized law-enforcement in the 19th Century, he made it clear in the principles he laid down for the trade that police officers were never intended to be some elevated class of people. "[T]he police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent upon every citizen."

Today, though, police testimony is given extra weight in court, there are special laws protecting police against public scrutiny and special penalties against those who harm law-enforcement officers. In the course of their duties, they are allowed to engage in criminal activity -- such as purchasing illegal drugs -- that would land you or I in prison. In many ways, police officers are treated as a special class.

All this while they are armed at public cost and authorized to use force on behalf of the state.

This is a recipe for ... well ... rogue cops preying on the people they're supposed to assist.

Who watches the watchmen?

Video surveillance and other forms of close scrutiny can help to keep the cops under scrutiny, but they can't rein in watchmen who have gained too much authority over their employers. The only solution is for people to take back much of the responsibility for their own safety, and treat police as hired help that needs to be watched with a close eye.

Oh, and the "narcotics" raids those Philadelphia cops used as a pretext for robbing bodegas? They busted the shops for selling ziplock bags -- little ones -- which they called "drug paraphernalia." That's the sort of petty regulation that exists for one reason alone -- to give out-of-control watchmen one more lever over the public they supposedly serve.


Saturday, March 21, 2009

Tooch around the world

I was quoted in Komsomolskaya Pravda about the police beating of a 15-year-old girl in Seattle.

And a piece I wrote about the new boss's retention of "enemy combatant" status under an exciting new name has been translated into German and republished by an anti-war Website based in Austria.

This comes after that recent interview with Russian TV about NSA electronic spying.

If you're thinking, just about now, "Wow, I bet Tooch's FBI file is getting interesting," then you should know that I'm thinking pretty much the same thing.


Friday, March 20, 2009

In which we discover that 'constitutional' is not a synonym for 'good idea'

With regard to the constitutionality of Rep. Charles Rangel's crowd-pleasing bill imposing a 90% tax on bonuses received by AIG executives, I'll defer to the legal experts. So far, most of the professional Constitution-parsers who have sounded off on the measure say it's unlikely to be knocked down in the courts. That said, I'll chime in with agreement to the addendum that many of them add: the laser-targeted tax is an abuse of the system that violates the spirit of the Constitution.

Rangel's H.R. 1586, imposing a 90% tax on bonuses paid out by companies receiving assistance under TARP, and clearly aimed directly at AIG employees, passed in the House yesterday by a vote of 328 - 93. That overwhelming vote is a reflection of the understandably widespread unpopularity of government-subsidized companies paying out massive bonuses to their executives with the very tax money injected into their coffers to keep them afloat.

The vote is also a sign that many members of Congress are happy to have a pinata to beat on in the business sector to divert attention from the fact that the federal government either failed to perform due diligence before buying up the faltering AIG, or -- more likely -- happily signed off on the bonuses at the time and is only suffering buyer's remorse now that the public is in a rage.

Legal A-lister Lawrence Tribe told the Wall Street Journal that he saw few potential legal hurdles to the bill. The only Constitutional provision he considered likely to pose real difficulties is Article I's ban on "bills of attainder" -- laws targeted directly at specific individuals or groups -- but that "Congress (and the Executive Branch) could avoid serious Bill of Attainder problems by passing a sufficiently broad law … rather than targeting a closed class of named executives..."

Edward McCaffery, a tax expert at the USC Gould School of Law, agreed. He told the Los Angeles Times, "The courts are very reluctant to strike down tax legislation. I think a tax this high and this targeted raises some difficult questions, but at the end of the day, I would bet a constitutional challenge would not work."

Rangel was careful to avoid language in his bill that would single out AIG and its employees, referring instead to "an employee or former employee of a covered TARP recipient." That language might well meet the rather low bar set by Tribe, especially with regard to tax legislation, as mentioned by McCaffery. We all know who the law is intended to whack, but some clever crafting makes it pass muster.

And therein lies a major problem with the AIG bonus bill. If it survives legal challenges -- as seems likely -- it will do so not by being good legislation, but by being just clever enough.

As Howard Gleckman writes for the Tax Policy Center:

The AIG bonuses are an outrage. But the bigger scandal is that a grandstanding Congress wants to use the tax law to punish the companies that paid them and the employees that got them. ...

Long ago, people were rightly outraged when Richard Nixon tried to turn the IRS into a weapon to punish his enemies. This gotcha tax is another variation on the theme, and nearly as inexcusable.

The Miami Herald agrees, saying:

Using the tax code as a weapon to exact revenge on a select few, no matter how badly they've behaved, is a horrible idea. Slapping heavy taxes on the bonuses and on the company that issued them may satisfy enraged taxpayers who see incompetent executives being rewarded for failure, but it sets a bad precedent.

Remember that the constitutional ban on bills of attainder is intended to prevent the government from bypassing established laws and trials and legislatively imposing punishments on people who have done wrong -- or have offended the powers that be. Nobody is pretending that this law is anything other than a punishment imposed on people who are seen as gaming the government's (ill-considered) financial bailouts. That legal experts think such an effort will pass judicial scrutiny just means that Rangel and company are smart enough to figure out a way to violate the spirit of the Constitution and pass a law of a type that the founders considered despicable.

Gleckman points out that the tax really is retroactive, since the bonuses were agreed to last year under rules that existed then. Writing in the Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer makes the same point:

[T]here is such a thing as law. The way to break a contract legally is Chapter 11. Short of that, a contract is a contract. The AIG bonuses were agreed to before the government takeover and are perfectly legal. Is the rule now that when public anger is kindled, Congress will summarily cancel contracts?

The Constitution also bans ex post facto laws -- laws retroactively punishing behavior that was legal at the time it was done. But the courts have historically made up a loophole for tax legislation. Charles Rangel couldn't pass a law jailing AIG executives or seizing their homes as penalties for taking the bonuses, because those would be recognized as ex post facto laws. But the courts say he can use the tax code to confiscate their money.

Clever -- and wrong.

So Congress is busy throwing red meat to the mob and using constitutionally suspect means to punish business executives for taking bonuses that the government should have known about and could have addressed through regular channels such as bankruptcy -- or simply not bailing out AIG -- months ago. And the government will probably get away with its abuses of the law.

I'm sure that won't set any bad precedents for the future.

Meanwhile, the same lawmakers playing fast and loose with the Constitution to penalize the recipients of $165 million in bonuses are poised to spend us into a hole made up of a deficit of $1.8 trillion. That's in addition to the trillions in debt they've already run up.

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

A little housekeeping note

Well, there's nothing quite like waking up to over 300 spam comments -- written in Chinese.

In case you're wondering, that's why word verification has been implemented on comments. It will take me a few days to clean out the spam as I delete them one by one in between bouts of bourbon-fueled rage.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

You can use those dollars to paper the wall or in the outhouse -- your choice

The Federal Reserve says, "to help improve conditions in private credit markets, the Committee decided to purchase up to $300 billion of longer-term Treasury securities over the next six months."

The Wall Street Journal sums that move up nicely: "With rates near zero, the Fed is now essentially printing money to increase the supply of credit in the economy."

Now where's my Econ 101 textbook? I want to see what happens to the value of any given good when you suddenly flood the market with a new supply ...


So that's why there's a tank at the DUI checkpoint

Rightfully so, attention after the recent mass shooting in Alabama focused on the trail of blood left by Michael McLendon, a former police officer on a rampage. But several Reuters photos taken after the incident, showing Army troops from nearby Fort Rucker patrolling the streets of Samson, Alabama, are starting to draw attention. The use of military personnel in a police role often raises concerns given their different missions and training. The practice is also, despite loosening of statutes in recent years, almost certainly illegal under federal law.

Passed in the wake of Reconstruction, when formerly rebellious regions of the country chafed under military occupation, the Posse Comitatus Act reads:

Whoever, except in cases and under circumstances expressly authorized by the Constitution or Act of Congress, willfully uses any part of the Army or the Air Force as a posse comitatus or otherwise to execute the laws shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.

The motivation for the law is clear. Military personnel are trained and equipped to wage war against an enemy. Police are trained to maintain order and keep the peace among their neighbors. The two roles don't interchange very well -- as has been amply demonstrated by the carnage resulting in recent years from increased police use of military tactics.

The Posse Comitatus law was specifically crafted to prevent the federal government from exercising direct, armed control over states and localities. As such, it doesn't apply to the National Guard, unless those state troops are federalized and placed under the command of the Army.

The Posse Comitatus Act "remains a deterrent to prevent the unauthorized deployment of troops at the local level in response to what is purely a civilian law enforcement matter."
-- Major Craig Trebilcock, a member of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps in the U.S. Army Reserve

The federal government has also moved in recent years to erode restrictions on the use of the military's vast assets for law enforcement operations. The military is now explicitly authorized to participate in drug enforcement efforts, as well as to help control immigration and collect tariffs. States can also call on federal troops to put down insurrections or help with natural disasters. The federal government can send troops of its own accord to suppress rebellions or when "major public emergencies" render state and local authorities incapable of protecting people's constitutionally guaranteed rights.

That's a lot of exceptions, but the Posse Comitatus Act remains in force. Even Major Craig Trebilcock, a member of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps in the U.S. Army Reserve, in an article otherwise dedicated to defending the domestic use of the military in anti-terrorism operations, conceded the law "remains a deterrent to prevent the unauthorized deployment of troops at the local level in response to what is purely a civilian law enforcement matter."

And the mass murder of ten people, horrible as it is, is a civilian law enforcement matter that simply doesn't rise to the level of a natural disaster or a regional insurrection.

Acknowledging the political tempest and tricky legal issues stirred up by sending troops to patrol civilian streets, the U.S. Army has released a statement acknowledging that military police were in fact dispatched to the city after the mass murder there, and that an inquiry into the use of those troops is under way.

On the Tenth of March, after a report of the apparent mass murder in Samson, 22 military police soldiers from Fort Rucker, along with the Fort Rucker Provost Martial, were sent to the city of Samson.

The purpose for sending the military police, the authority for doing so, and what duties they performed, is the subject of an ongoing commander's inquiry, directed by the commanding general of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, General Martin Dempsey.

In addition to determining the facts, this inquiry will also consider whether law, regulation and policy were followed. Until those facts are determined, it would be inappropriate to speculate or comment further.

In the aftermath of this horrific crime spree, the military community of Fort Rucker joins the greater Alabama Wiregrass community in its grief and concern for the victims and their families.

Well, an inquiry is a nice start -- if it goes anywhere.

The fact remains that there is a law restricting the use of military personnel in a law-enforcement capacity, and that law is based in sound reasoning. Troops trained and equipped for combat are a less than ideal choice for filling the roles of civilian police. If it turns out that the Army did, indeed, patrol the streets of Samson, Alabama, we should be concerned about the government's willingness to stretch or exceed the law to put troops where they don't belong.

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Beware the fail whale -- it's Twitterific

What's the big deal about Twitter? See the following gripping documentary to find out.

Actually, I'm sure I win some kind of tech-loser award for mocking Twitter with a YouTube video posted on a blog.

Wait ... What's that scent? Is that ... Fresh air? From a window? Is the outdoors still there?

Don't forget to follow my gripping tweets on Twitter. (twitter.com/Libertywriter)


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The vast whatever-wing conspiracy

Back in the 1990s, I attended a few meetings of the Fabiani Society in New York City. It was (and still may be) a regular gathering, ironically named after Mark Fabiani, the Clinton-administration official who coined the term "vast right-wing conspiracy" as well as a riff on Fabian socialists. As such, it attracted folks who considered themselves right-of-center in Big Apple terms, or were at least willing to be seen with those sorts of folks. That meant everybody from gay, dope-smoking libertarians to Wall Street Journal editorial-page types to Manhattan Institute staffers.

New York City's "Right" is a weird place, including folks who would be considered fairly lefty other places, anti-state types who wandered in for the drinks, Giuliani-ish law-and-order types glaring at the anti-state types, and aristocratic Tories dressed for a nice dinner circa 1890.

That's probably about as well organized as the "vast right-wing conspiracy" ever got, though repeated efforts have been made over the years to support libertarian journalists, conservative academics, and bloggers who are willing to say nice things about limited government and low taxes (hi, guys!).

Those efforts have certainly been inclusive, since they've invited me along to a few.

Maybe the Left has been doing a better job of it all these years, even while pointing fingers at everybody else. They've certainly been quieter -- at least, until recently. From Politico:
For the past two years, several hundred left-leaning bloggers, political reporters, magazine writers, policy wonks and academics have talked stories and compared notes in an off-the-record online meeting space called JournoList. ...

One byproduct of that secrecy: For all its high-profile membership — which includes Nobel Prize-winning columnist Paul Krugman; staffers from Newsweek, POLITICO, Huffington Post, The New Republic, The Nation and The New Yorker; policy wonks, academics and bloggers such as Klein and Matthew Yglesias — JList itself has received almost no attention from the media.
There's nothing necessarily sinister about all of this -- like-minded people have always banded together for support, to share expertise and to use each other as resources. But the secrecy of the group and the inclusion on it of a lot of big-hitter names make JournoList the closest thing to a "vast conspiracy" that has come along so far.

It's just not right-wing.


Monday, March 16, 2009

From now on, you're all our 'very special guests'

They're not called "enemy combatants" anymore, but that may be the Obama administration's only real change in policy with regards to military detainees. Whatever they're called, anybody said by the U.S. government to give "substantial" support to al Qaeda or the Taliban will still be held without charges or a trial in which American authorities have to prove their accusations.

In a statement accompanying a filing with the federal district court for the District of Columbia, administration officials said:

[T]he Department of Justice submitted a new standard for the government’s authority to hold detainees at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility. The definition does not rely on the President’s authority as Commander-in-Chief independent of Congress’s specific authorization. It draws on the international laws of war to inform the statutory authority conferred by Congress. It provides that individuals who supported al Qaeda or the Taliban are detainable only if the support was substantial. And it does not employ the phrase "enemy combatant."

Essentially, then, the administration is dropping a single bit of terminology, retaining the previous administration's claim to have a right to hold people seized around the world without charges, and shifting the basis of its assertion of that authority from a nebulous appeal to executive authority to a tendentious interpretation of congressional actions as viewed through an equally questionable spin on international law.

In the formal document filed with the court, Respondents’ Memorandum Regarding the Government's Detention Authority Relative to Detainees Held at Guantanamo Bay (PDF), the Justice department argues that habeas corpus petitions by detainees should be viewed in light of the administration's position regarding suspected terrorists:

The President has the authority to detain persons that the President determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, and persons who harbored those responsible for those attacks. The President also has the authority to detain persons who were part of, or substantially supported, Taliban or al-Qaida forces or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners, including any person who has committed a belligerent act, or has directly supported hostilities, in aid of such enemy armed forces.

The problem, of course, is that, in the absence of specific charges and trials, the government never has to prove its claims that the people it locks up ever truly "engaged in hostilities against the United States." It simply makes assertions against people it doesn't like and locks the cell door.

This position is essentially indistinguishable from the one taken by the Bush administration. In the memorandum, Obama administration officials cite the same precedents (Ex parte Quirin) dredged up by their predecessors.

In fact, the old Bush position still applies beyond the gates of Guantanamo. As Lyle Denniston, writing for SCOTUSBlog, notes:

The memorandum expressly noted that the new definition would only apply to individuals now held at Guantanamo Bay. That leaves out, among other detention sites, the U.S. military jail operated at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan. Earlier, the Obama Administration told Judge Bates that it was not changing the Bush Administration view that the Bagram detainees have no rights to challenge their captivity there.

No wonder Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU, responded, "It is deeply troubling that the Justice Department continues to use an overly broad interpretation of the laws of war that would permit military detention of individuals who were picked up far from an actual battlefield or who didn't engage in hostilities against the United States."

Human Rights Watch objects, "Rather than rejecting the Bush administration's ill-conceived notion of a 'war on terror,' the Obama administration's position on detainees has merely tinkered with its form."

Coupled with the Obama administration's adoption of the Bush administration's "state secrets" position to shield government misdeeds from public scrutiny or legal challenge, Attorney General Eric Holder's assertion that the Guantanamo detention facility is "well run," the dispatch of additional troops to Afghanistan and the continuation of economic policies based on bailouts and massive government spending, President Barack Obama is starting to look an awful lot like President George W. Bush, with fewer smirks and more friends in the press.

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Friday, March 13, 2009

We have met the barbarians, and they are us

When the political history of the 20th century is written, it's likely to be noted primarily as a period in which the human race willfully returned to barbarism after several centuries of increasing liberty, restrained government and recognition of the value of the individual. Up for grabs, though, is whether it will be treated as an interregnum in the development of free, civilized societies, or the precursor to a 21st century marked by resurgent tyrannical government and the the erosion of liberty. So far, the signs aren't good.

At least in the West, the 19th century was, overall, the liberal century. That's "liberal" in the original sense, as it's still understood in much of the world, a philosophy that values individuals over groups, liberty, limited government, free enterprise and the rule of law. As the Liberal International, which unites liberal political parties and organizations around the world, puts it:

Liberalism champions the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals. Liberalism acknowledge and respect the right to freedom of conscience and the right of everyone to develop their talents to the full. Liberalism aims to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. The freedom to be creative and innovative can only be sustained by a market economy, but it must be a market that offers people real choices.

In the United States, "liberalism" has generally come to mean something more collectivist and group-oriented. As South Africa's Helen Suzman Foundation, founded but the great anti-apartheid activist, points out:

[I]n 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.

The 19th century was a liberal century in the original meaning of the word. That is, it marked an imperfect, incomplete, but very real progression toward a world in which people are valued as individuals and free to guide their own lives and associate with one another with minimal interference from a restrained state. Across Europe and the Americas, monarchies were toppled and replaced with governments that felt compelled to at least pretend they respected individual rights and limits on their power. Despite the liars among them, more people than ever before came to enjoy freedom of the press and of conscience, property ownership, due process and other previously unknown safeguards for their liberty.

Probably the greatest triumph of the century was the widespread abolition of slavery. In country after country, for the first time in history, human beings stopped owning other human beings. The fact that slavery existed at all is still considered an embarrassment, but even questioning the practice is a relatively recent development. For anti-slavery movements to evolve and, ultimately, triumph in most countries, is unprecedented.

The 19th century was a remarkably encouraging century if you value individual liberty.

Overall Freedom rankingsThen came the 20th century, which combined rapid technological advancement with massive repudiation of liberal values. Suddenly, politicians felt comfortable denigrating the individual and promoting the power of the state even beyond the claims of absolute monarchs of the past.

As Benito Mussolini wrote in 1932, "The foundation of Fascism is the conception of the State, its character, its duty, and its aim. Fascism conceives of the State as an absolute, in comparison with which all individuals or groups are relative, only to be conceived of in their relation to the State."

And Joseph Stalin summed up his view of the world rather succinctly, saying, "Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas?”

Even the supposedly secure democracies of the 20th centurt flirted with totalitarian ideas. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's National Recovery Administration boasted, "The Fascist Principles are very similar to those we have been evolving here in America."

Having repudiated liberty, the totalitarian governments of the 20th century also repudiated life. R.J. Rummel, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of Hawaii, estimates that through war, deliberate starvation, genocide, gulags, pogroms and the like, governments slaughtered 262 million people during the course of the last century.

The vast majority of that killing was done by absolute states that had explicitly rejected the previously rising tide of liberty, individualism and limited government that had gone before them.

Basically, big government kills, and it kills in a big way. Even if you don't value the freedom of societies with limited governments, it's impossible to ignore the fact that restrained states bathe in rather less blood than the uncontrolled variety.

Liberalism seemed back in vogue in the latter part of the century. Fascism, Nazism and then Communism were ultimately defeated at enormous cost, while democracy, liberty and free markets were seen as the wave of the future. The all-powerful state of the 20th century looked like a horrible aberration that would be avoided at all costs in the future.

So where are we now?

Just nine years into the 21st century, the United States seems to be flirting once again with the idea that the powerful state is a good thing, and that politicians should have more control over our lives than they have been permitted in decades.

We've already had one president -- George W. Bush -- who, without having any recognizable ideology, endorsed a far-reaching and almost absolutist vision of presidential power. In the name of battling terrorism, the Bush administration crafted legal arguments to the effect that the president could unilaterally disregard constitutional protections for free speech, a free press and safeguards against unreasonable search and seizure.

Now, President Barack Obama defends the Bush administration's use of the state secrets doctrine to shield executive actions from investigation and legal challenge, and even goes so far as to defy a court order to produce documents. While quibbling about the details of his predecessors' actions, Obama seems to endorse an expansive view of government power.

And first the Bush, and then Obama administrations have gone farther, returning to fascist economic policies that empower the state at the expense of private choice and individual autonomy.

No, this isn't totalitarianism and nobody is talking about mass murder. But we are seeing a significant and dangerous growth in the power of the state -- a return to collectivist, illiberal principles that threaten liberty. We've tried that path before, with nasty results. Powerful, intrusive government has proven to be a monster that either destroys or is destroyed.

The 20th century was scarred by a brief and bloody mass flirtation with high-tech barbarism. So far in the 21st century, it looks like the old infatuation may still have a hold on politicians' hearts.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

And I couldn't bring myself to vote for that Nixon guy, either

So, I was having lunch with a friend of mine last week, and he was telling me how dissatisfied he was with our new congresscritter, Ann Kirkpatrick. In fact, he didn't like her before she ran for office, having been seriously turned off by her performance and attitude during a brief time when she was his attorney a few years ago.

Even so, he voted for her.

"I couldn't vote for Renzi," he told me. "He's so corrupt and he's on his way to jail."

True. I couldn't vote to return Rick Renzi to office, either. He is truly an impressive standout example of pure corruption in a sea of already festering pus. Then again, I didn't face much of a dilemma, because Renzi wasn't on the fucking ballot.

If you insist on looking at only major-party candidates (Libertarian Thane Eichenauer also ran), Sydney Hay was the Republican hopeful, taking the nomination after Renzi slithered away to his fate. Hay has a strong background in free-market economics at a time when that would seem to be a pressing need in Congress. But there are certainly good reasons to oppose Hay, especially on social issues, where she's a standard-issue, God-and-country conservative.

But to reasonably oppose Hay, you would have to know that she was on the ballot against Kirkpatrick, not Renzi.

So, here's an intelligent (yes, he is), better-informed than most, voter, who held his nose and voted for a candidate he disliked because he didn't bother to check who the alternatives were.

Tell me again why democracy is a good idea.


Do you know what the penalty is for dealing ... err ... soap?

A while back, I wrote about a Minnesota man who spent two months in prison until laboratory tests revealed that the white powder in his deodorant container was actually deodorant -- not the cocaine indicated by an initial field test. As disturbing as that case was, it was far from the full story. In fact, a new report (PDF) funded by the Marijuana Policy Project reveals that commonly used field drug test kits are unreliable, often returning false positive results that put the freedom and reputations of innocent people in jeopardy.

This two-year scientific/legal investigation reveals a drug testing regime of fraudulent forensics used by police, prosecutors, and judges which abrogates every American’s Constitutional rights."

In False Positives Equal False Justice (PDF), forensic drug expert John Kelly, working with former FBI chief scientist and narcotics officer, Dr. Frederic Whitehurst, reports:

This two-year scientific/legal investigation reveals a drug testing regime of fraudulent forensics used by police, prosecutors, and judges which abrogates every American’s Constitutional rights. ...

Contained in this report are the results of experiments performed with field drug test kits that expose and document that they render false positives with legal substances. Based on the false positives, people continue to be wrongfully charged with, and prosecuted for, drug crimes.

Among other results, the report confirms earlier research by Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap which found that one commonly used test, NarcoPouch 928 field drug test, falsely tests positive for GHB in natural soap products and soy milk.

Kelly goes on to criticize the widely used Duquenois-Levine (D-L) for marijuana, pointing out that "As it enters its 70th year, the D-L test has yet to be validated despite being involved in the arrests, prosecutions, and convictions of millions of individuals."

Whitehurst points out further flaws with marijuana identification, "In some jurisdictions, identification is even carried out by law
enforcement officers with no more than visual, not microscopic, analysis and suspected marijuana is never even sent
to a crime lab."

Tests for cocaine are found to be equally flawed, both in their inherent accuracy and the testers' ability to distinguish results based on the color the test turns in reaction to the presence of various chemicals.

There are, of course, a number of problems with determining what blue means. First is whether the looker is color blind. Second is the inability of the human eye to resolve wavelengths of light. The blue reaction from the cobalt thiocyanate test with cocaine may give another color blue than that from another material, and yet the individual observing the blue may not be able to tell the difference in the colors."

In addition, additives used to cut cocaine's potency and increase its volume can further complicate test results.

The MPP report comes on the heels of a National Academies of Science paper that found large-scale problems with forensic "science," including such seemingly well-established fields as fingerprint evidence. To a large extent determinations of guilt and innocence, with people's liberty and even their lives in the balance, are being made based on the say-so of "experts" whose science has never actually been established according to accepted standards.

From drug field tests to fingerprints, much of what passes for scientific evidence these days is based as much on faith as Dark Age assumptions about whether or not witches float. And the stakes are just as high.

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Monday, March 9, 2009

Citibank is under new management, and there have been a few changes ...

You know it's coming, right?

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Freedom's pecking order -- how the states stack up

Think tanks have long ranked not just countries, but U.S. states, according to their economic freedom, and Reporters Without Borders grades nations on their respect for press freedom. Until recently, though, nobody has really tried to assess the attitude toward personal freedom prevailing at the state level, or to really get a handle on the best place to live in the United States for people who want the government to just leave them alone. A new report from George Mason University's Mercatus Center takes on that job, finishing the work started last summer by Reason magazine.

In Freedom in the 50 States: An Index of Personal and Economic Freedom, William Ruger, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Texas State University, and Jason Sorens, an assistant professor of Political Science at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, offer "the first-ever comprehensive ranking of the American states on their public policies affecting individual freedoms in the economic, social, and personal spheres." Ruger and Sorens very explicitly ground their understanding of freedom in a live-and-let-live understanding of the concept, in which people are able "to dispose of their lives, liberties, and property as they see fit, so long as they do not infringe on the rights of others."

In economic terms, that translates into assessments of burdensome regulations, high taxes, restrictive licensing laws, protection for property rights and the like.

Overall Freedom rankingsPersonal freedom scores depend on treatment of victimless activities such as gambling and prostitution, and restrictions on alcohol and tobacco. Asset forfeiture and violations of free-speech rights (campaign finance regulation) are also considered. Also included are policies toward marijuana, laws respecting same-sex relationships, gun control and regulation of education outside government schools.

Given the ideological divisions in this country, it's probably no surprise that states like New York, California and New Jersey come out poorly in the economic freedom rankings at 50, 48 and 46, respectively. Those states may even take pride that they failed the free-market test. But red-staters be warned: Alaska ranks at number 47 in terms of economic freedom.

When it comes to personal freedom, though, some familiar blue-state names reappear. New York ranks at 48 in this category, California at 37 and New Jersey at 45. Ouch.

Alaska gets the highest personal freedom ranking of all 50 states, creating a bit of a quandary for freedom-loving fans of the last frontier.

In terms of overall freedom, combining personal and economic considerations, the best scoring states are New Hampshire, Colorado and South Dakota.

New York ... well ... New York has really good restaurants.

As for New Jersey (number 49) ... There's still no good reason for living in the Garden State.

Last summer, Reason magazine published "What's the Matter With Chicago?," a treatment of the same issue, focusing on 35 cities instead of 50 states. The authors looked at each city's policies regarding sex, tobacco, alcohol, guns, movement, drugs, gambling and food/other to come up with their rankings.

According to Reason, Las Vegas ranked best in terms of personal freedom, while officials in Chicago are the most intrusive. According to the magazine, "The Windy City’s litany of meddlesome laws range from a tax on bottled water to a ban on serving alcohol at all-nude strip clubs. Local gun controls and a public smoking ban are among the most restrictive in the country. ... There’s a primary seat belt law, meaning motorists can be pulled over for not buckling up, and a ban on using cell phones while driving. The city is second only to New York in the use of surveillance cameras in public spaces and has more red light cameras than any metropolis in the country."

Sure enough, Illinois receives a mediocre ranking from Ruger and Sorens -- but so did Nevada. In part, that's a recognition that cities can be more or less liveable than the states in which they're located. But it's also a result of the somewhat subjective nature of ranking systems, which depend on categories included and excluded and the weights given each.

Ruger and Sorens admit that there's a subjective element to the weight they give each category. They make their data available online so that people can adjust their own rankings based on their own priorities. They also link to a site that is set up to adjust rankings using simple sliders, so have at it.

Before accusations fly that rankings like this are slanted to give the advantage to lefties or righties, let's read what Freedom in the 50 States has to say about the relative status of liberals and conservatives when it comes to respecting freedom:

[T]he relationship between ideology and personal freedom is flat, reflecting the propensity of liberal and conservative states to protect certain freedoms but not others. The relationship between liberalism and economic freedom is more strongly negative, and as a result the relationship between liberalism and overall freedom is modestly negative, but only among the most liberal states. In short, moderate states are no less or more free than conservative states, but liberal states do tend to be less free, particularly on economic issues.

Basically, neither of America's dominant political tribes has a lock on respect for liberty -- both tend to be selective about the freedoms they protect.

But if you're looking for a libertarian atmosphere of overall freedom, New Hampshire looks good. And the Wild West hasn't yet grown too mild.

Speaking of the West, Arizona, where my butt warms my sofa as I write, ranks 11 for economic freedom, 12 for personal freedom, and 8 overall. That's not too shabby.

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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Where's the cigarette holder, Barry?

Honestly, does Barack Obama just sit back, beating off to a photo of Franklin Delano Roosevelt while he's surrounded by dusty piles of New Deal-era collectibles?

OK, I owe you big for putting that image in your mind. I'm sorry.

But tell me that Recovery.gov image below isn't a conscious attempt to evoke FDR's cog-and-state-laden fascist imagery, rolled through a salad bar for a little updated Green touch.

For comparison, here's the image of the 1930s National Recovery Administration.

Eagles are a little passe these days (and maybe just a tad too evocative of torchlight parades) so instead we get a field of stars and a dot-gov to remind us that the government is our friend.


Get ready for the tax cops

It's tax season now, and with the federal government on an unprecedented spending spree, politicians' proposals inevitably turn to collecting taxes owed under the law, but never paid. Closing the so-called "tax gap" is an easy sell to the public because it sounds like simple fairness. It also avoids unpleasant talk about raising taxes. But the IRS is already the envy of international tax collectors for its results. And trying to collect the elusive billions that remain outside official reach would mean an escalating and doomed war by the government against the American people.

The latest income tax compliance figures for the United States, released by the Internal Revenue Service, put compliance with the tax code (PDF) at about 84%. That means that 16% of all taxes the government claims it is owed are never paid.

[T]he Internal Revenue Service (IRS) estimated that for tax year 2001, taxpayers paid about 84 percent of the taxes that should have been paid on time under the law, resulting in an estimated gross tax gap of $345 billion."
-- Government Accountability Office

Those hundreds of billions of uncollected dollars have politicians salivating. What less provocative way could there be for funding the government's ever-growing wish list (or, maybe, reducing the debt just a tad) than by going after money that is owed under existing tax laws, but which is being hidden from the IRS?

After all, it's about making people pay their fair share, isn't it?

But there's a difference between fever dreams of 100% compliance and the real world, and the fact is that no law ever achieves complete compliance. In fact, the IRS is already the envy of tax collectors around the world for the relatively large degree of cooperation it receives from the American people, resulting in a smaller tax gap than other nations could ever hope to achieve.

What do I mean?

First, you have to understand that the IRS is one of the few tax agencies to release its compliance figures. When you look at the numbers for other countries -- painstakingly compiled by independent economists -- the reason is clear.

In What Explains Tax Evasion: An Empirical Assessment Based on European Data (PDF), a paper repared for the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies, authors Edward Christie and Mario Holzner calculated tax compliance rates for European Union members and several candidate countries.

In terms of personal income tax, the most recent compliance rates calculated in the paper are shown below. For the purposes of a more apples-to-apples comparison, I've used numbers only from more-developed Western European countries:

Personal Income Tax
Compliance Rates
in Europe
Austria 74.80%
Belgium 70.15%
France 75.38%
Germany 67.72%
Italy 62.49%
Netherlands 72.84%
Portugal 68.09%
United Kingdom 77.97%

A separate paper, Tax Evasion in Switzerland: The Roles of Deterrence and Tax Morale (PDF), puts Swiss income tax compliance at 77.7%.

Is anything jumping out at you? How about the fact the U.S. tax compliance, at 84%, is higher than other countries have been able to manage?

The "why" of tax compliance rates certainly depends on a variety of factors, and these likely vary a bit from country to country. Christie and Holzner point to the complexity of tax systems (interestingly, they believe that too much simplicity may reduce compliance), corruption and income inequality as potential influences on tax compliance.

Overall, though, Christie and Holzner conclude that tax rates matter -- when rates are higher, people hide more money; when rates come down, people put less effort into evading the authorities. "[W]e found as our most general result that tax evasion is positively correlated with the tax rate itself ... reducing average effective tax rates should positively impact on compliance rates."

[W]e found as our most general result that tax evasion is positively correlated with the tax rate itself ... reducing average effective tax rates should positively impact on compliance rates."

That's not that surprising, is it? If you raise the price of anything, fewer people are willing to pay. There's no reason that shouldn't go for government as much as for cars or potato chips.

But governments are the only vendors that don't let customers walk away. And the Obama administration's emphasis on tax enforcement, with increased IRS audits and every possible effort to close the tax gap, isn't exactly a new idea.

In Germany, ferocious tax police are kicking in doors in an effort to squeeze the last euro from tax evaders great and small. The German authorities have even taken to paying for data stolen from banks in other countries in an effort to find where the money is hidden.

And still the underground economy, beyond the reach of tax authorities, grows along with the government's appetite.

Similar abuses by tax collectors in the United States led to congressional hearings a decade ago. Tax agents were waging SWAT-style raids on homes and businesses, pointing guns at people, and generally acting like an occupying army. The IRS pulled in its horns after public outrage led to tongue-lashings by powerful lawmakers and much embarrassment.

But when a government is running multi-trillion-dollar deficits and has abandoned any pretense of fiscal discipline, that tax gap starts looking like a piggy bank, and there are always tax collectors willing to do some smashing.

The international experience suggests that enforcement efforts don't do much to budge the bottom line. Compliance is largely a matter of finding the right price. Keep taxes within an acceptable range and maintain a system that people perceive as reasonably fair, and you'll get a decent amount of compliance (but never 100%). Raise the price, and people stop paying.

Right now, the Obama administration is talking about raising taxes on higher-income Americans. If the economists are right about the record of taxes and tax enforcement around the world, that will lead to higher levels of non-compliance, no matter what enforcement efforts are put in place.

And kicking in doors and staging intrusive audits runs the risk of making the government "the enemy" in the eyes of many Americans. That means a big hit on the "tax morale" that helps determine taxpayers' willingness to cooperate with the authorities. Nobody willingly surrenders their lunch money to somebody they hate.

So the tax gap will grow even as enforcement efforts become more intrusive and brutal.

When government officials don't get what they want, they tend to escalate. That has happened with Prohibition, the war on drugs, efforts to stamp out Internet gambling -- and tax enforcement. Tactics get nastier, and nastier, and -- as they don't achieve the desired result -- turn increasingly abusive.

So, as politicians and talking heads chatter on about closing the tax gap, keep in mind that they're talking about waging an unwinnable but still nasty war -- against you.