Friday, July 31, 2009

Oh, so you mean that whole 'peace candidate' thing was BS?

Anti-war protesters and other activists who hoped that the passing of the old Bush administration meant an end to domestic surveillance of peaceful political activity may have to give up their illusions. Democracy Now reports on the exposure of a government spy in the midst of an anti-war group in Olympia, Washington.

From a public records request, Brendan Maslauskas Dunn, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World discovered that a trusted activist with Students for a Democratic Society and Port Militarization Resistance, John Jacob, was feeding vast amounts of information to the government.

According to Dunn, when confronted:

[H]e admitted to several things. He admitted that, yes, he did in fact spy on us. He did in fact infiltrate us. He admitted that he did pass on information to an intelligence network, which, as you mentioned earlier, was composed of dozens of law enforcement agencies, ranging from municipal to county to state to regional, and several federal agencies, including Immigration Customs Enforcement, Joint Terrorism Task Force, FBI, Homeland Security, the Army in Fort Lewis.

Towery, who actually works for the Force Protection Service at the Fort Lewis military base, was co-administrator of the group's listserv, so had access to internal communications and membership lists. And, according to him, he wasn't the only government informant infiltrated into these political organizations.

See an excerpt of the Democracy Now broadcast below.

The full report, including a transcript, is available here.

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Wait, is that camera on?

Four Hollywood, Florida, police officers and a crime scene technician are suspended with pay -- and probably contemplating career changes -- after being recorded by a police dashboard camera conspiring to frame a civilian driver for a crash. Alexandra Torrensvilas was arrested for driving under the influence only after a police officer rear-ended her at a traffic light, and that officer and his colleagues openly discussed, within range of the camera's audio pickup, doctoring their stories and the evidence to blame the woman for the collision.

One of the officers can be heard saying, "I don't want to make things up ever, because it's wrong, but if I need to bend it a little bit to protect a cop, I'm gonna."

Also recorded was, "We'll do a little Walt Disney to protect the cop because it wouldn't have mattered because she is drunk anyway."

Suspended in the incident are Officers Joel Francisco and Dewey Pressley, Sgt. Andrew Diaz, community service Officer Karim Thomas and crime scene technician Andrea Tomassi.

Besides blowing the DUI case against Torrensvilas out of the water (charges were dropped,) the officers have compromised every case on which they worked. Since they're on record falsifying testimony, past and present cases in which they testified or were scheduled to testify will have to be reviewed. Some convictions may be overturned and pending charges will likely be dropped.

Broward County Chief Public Defender Howard Finkelstein has also called on state investigators and the FBI to get involved.

Up for discussion: The potential benefit to be had by making sure that all police conversations are recorded.


Thursday, July 30, 2009

Behind the spin on Cottonwood's SWAT raid

Referring to the controversial deployment of a SWAT team on July 20, the Cottonwood, Arizona, Police Department issued the following statement:

On Monday Cottonwood Police Department conducted a search warrant at 404 N. Main Street, Wild West Express, and the residence conjoined with that business. Officers of the Verde Valley SWAT team assisted in the warrant service due to the unknown number of individuals residing there. After being notified of the search warrant through a public address system, all occupants exited the residence without incident. SWAT officers deployed a noise flash diversion device to help curtail an aggressive dog within the residence. Numerous items of evidence were obtained in regard to the search warrant and are currently being examined. No arrests were made in regard to the search warrant. This incident remains under investigation pending the results of the examination of evidence.

Returning home to discover that Police Commander Tim Pierce had authorized a paramilitary raid over allegations of child abuse on a business in his absence, and that business owner David Carl was protesting the raid, including the use of a grenade on his dog, to everybody who would listen, Police Chief Jody Fanning has gone into instant there's-nothing-to-see-here mode. Fanning told the Verde Independent, "I had confidence that Commander Pierce made the right decision."

Well ... maybe. But it's easy to imagine that Chief Fanning's homecoming went something like this:

Commander Tim Pierce: Hey Chief! Welcome back. We had a little excitement in your absence.

Chief Jody Fanning: Yeah, Tim. I heard. Look, I have a few questions.

Pierce: Ask away, Chief. We covered our bases on this one.

Fanning: About that ... Why exactly did you send SWAT?

Pierce: Hey, child abuse is a serious matter. We couldn't leave those girls at risk if the allegations are true.

Fanning: Don't you think sending an armed team through the door might have put the girls at risk all by itself? And the flash-bang grenade could have torched the place. That's a little risky.

Pierce: Oh. Well, there was the dog. We had to neutralize the dog.

Fanning: Didn't everybody walk out peacefully? Why didn't you have the owner leash the dog and lead it out?

Pierce: But Carl owns guns! We couldn't let him near the guns.

Fanning: Tim, this is Arizona. Everybody owns guns. Send a cop with the owner to watch him. Speaking of which, where are the guns now?

Pierce: Umm ... Carl still has them. I mean, they're his guns.

Fanning: That doesn't really help the "Carl is dangerous" case, though, does it?

Pierce: Well ... Carl has had run-ins with city inspectors. He even threatened them.

Fanning: Really? Was he ever charged?

Pierce: Well ... no. But somebody mentioned to me that he got in their faces--

Fanning: So David Carl is so dangerous that he was never arrested for the threats he supposedly made and we let him keep his guns?

Pierce: Oh ...

Fanning: And has he been charged with child abuse yet?

Pierce: Not yet. CPS says they still have to put together a case--

Fanning: Look, this isn't going to go well unless we spin it right. Tell you what, instead of focusing on what Carl did, let's talk about what he might have done.

How about this. I'll say ... umm ... "We didn't know if he had a safe house or fortress inside the building. We would rather be prepared than have a barricade." I'll even throw in those supposed threats he made to the inspectors. We'll make him out as a hothead and a menace.

Pierce: Hey, can't we say, "We didn't know that he wasn't a potential terrorist?" Terrorism is big, and we don't know that he's not a terrorist.

Fanning: Tim, If I call the guy a terrorist, we'll have the feds here in no time.

Pierce: You think they'll give us trouble about the use of SWAT?

Fanning: No, I think they'll kick in doors right and left looking for mad bombers. They're crazier than you are.

Pierce: Uh ... Sorry.

Fanning: The idea here is to minimize the damage and make this situation look as reasonable as possible.

Oh, and Tim.

Pierce: Yeah?

Fanning: The next time you send out SWAT when there's no good reason, I'm going to stuff a flash-bang grenade up your ass.

Of course, the above exchange is pure fantasy. I have no way of knowing whether Chief Fanning and Commander Pierce ever really conspired to put the best face on a bad situation. In fact, my encounters with Cottonwood police have so far been positive, and the officers I've met have been professional.

But the Cottonwood raid illustrates just how rote the use of paramilitary tactics has become. Not to minimize the seriousness child abuse, but there's no particular reason why an investigation into allegations of such a crime should involve violent and risky tactics that, all too often result in injury and death for innocent people. If you're worried about mistreated children, wouldn't you try to minimize further trauma to the kids by keeping official intervention as peaceful as possible?

In the absence of an actual barricade, send a couple of cops and a CPS worker to knock on the door. "We didn't know if he had a safe house" is an all-purpose excuse that could apply to anybody. They also didn't know if he had a nuke, a platoon of North Korean troops or an orbital death ray. But there was no evidence that David Carl had any of the above.

Frankly, if "we would rather be prepared than have a barricade" and "we were told he was a gun collector and enthusiast" are good enough reasons to send SWAT, then flash-bangs could be tossed at just about anybody cutting a traffic light too close.

And, once again, what is it with cops and dogs?


Mouthing off to a cop really is constitutionally protected

Harvey Silverglate is a First Amendment scholar and free speech advocate who even conservatives can love; he co-founded the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education which, among other duties, defends free-speech against college speech codes, and he frequently criticizes political correctness. He's also a neighbor of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who thinks Gates's charges of racism in his treatment by Cambridge police are ill-founded. Nevertheless, he considers Gates's arrest a constitutional violation and an abuse of police authority.

I'm happy to say that Silverglate's take is a more sophisticated version of the conclusion I reached last week. Then, I wrote:

Having determined that the man forcing the door was legally authorized to be in the house and to jimmy any stuck lock in the place if he so desired, police were free to leave to escape any unpleasant accusation directed at them by Gates. Even if the man had truly slipped into full-on loud-and-defensive mode, so what? It's his house, and so long as he doesn't get violent, he can speak any words, in any tone, that he pleases.

If you don't like it, leave.

But that's not the inclination of modern police officers, who all too often act as if the worst crime of all is to fail to defer to a badge.

And again:

It doesn't matter how confrontational, loud or tumultous Gates was. He had already demonstrated that he was in his own home. Having determined that no crime had been committed, police were free to leave -- unless their egos got in the way.

Gates's claim that racism was at work can't be proven or disproven unless officers confess to bigotry. But it's likely that Gates was arrested for "contempt of cop" -- an unspoken, unofficial crime that has ensnared thousands of Americans at one time or another, no matter their color.

Sergeant James Crowley's arrest of Gates on a "disorderly conduct" charge based on the professor's use of charges language against the police officer in his home and on the porch was rooted in the "fighting words" exception to First Amendment protection. Unfortunately for police officers, that exception doesn't mean what they often think it means -- in fact, it may mean nothing at all. That could explain why the charge was so quickly dropped after the arrest. In Forbes, Silverglate puts it thusly:

Supporters of Sgt. Crowley's power and right to arrest Professor Gates--assuming the worst version of what Gates spewed at the officer--rely on the "fighting words" doctrine. But there is a problem with such reliance: The Supreme Court's affirming of a conviction for disturbing the peace based upon "fighting words" directed to a police officer has never been replicated since the original 1942 fighting words doctrine was announced in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire.


[T]o the extent that tossing an expletive at some hothead on the street might conceivably produce a violent reaction, surely such words directed to a trained police officer should not be expected to incite such a response. To be sure, much of police training is specifically directed at producing a peace officer who knows how and when to keep a violent response wrapped under a highly polished discipline. It would be an insult to any law enforcement agent to assume that he or she would respond, with violence, to unpleasant--even offensive--words. Hence, even at its worst, Gates' reaction to the officer's presence and questioning cannot by any stretch be deemed grounds for an arrest. Professor Gates, in other words, was fully protected by the First Amendment. It was the officer's duty to restrain his own response, particularly the exercise of his official powers of arrest.

Indeed, the expansive nature of First Amendment rights, even in a confrontation with official power, was made vivid in the 1971 Supreme Court case, Cohen v. California. Paul Cohen was arrested in the Los Angeles County Courthouse for wearing a jacket emblazoned with the words "Fuck the Draft." He was convicted for "offensive conduct" because, the state court ruled, "offensive conduct" meant "behavior which had a tendency to provoke others to acts of violence." Even though no one actually threatened Cohen, said the state court, an attack was "reasonably foreseeable."

The Supreme Court reversed. The great conservative justice John Marshall Harlan wrote that "Fuck the Draft" was not "obscene" and that its offensiveness did not render it unprotected--even in the corridors of a courthouse!

Silverglate goes on to criticize police officers across the country -- and elsewhere -- for being "overly sensitive to insults from those they confront." And being police officers, they act out their sensitivity not by crying in their beer, but by using their extensive powers to punish people who direct verbal abuse or mere objections their way.

But the laws law-enforcement officers rely on for pressing "disorderly conduct" charges against people who verbally challenge and insult them have shaky foundations. One good First Amendment challenge, lodged, perhaps, by a prominent Harvard professor with an army of constitutional scholars on his side, could totally undermine the ability of the police to haul people away in handcuffs for what they say.

In fact, the legal basis for such a challenge is already well-founded, with plenty of free speech red meat siting in the casebooks. In 1990, Judge Alex Kosinski of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in a case that is relevant to that of Gates:

Duran's conduct is not totally irrelevant, however, as it suggests a possible motive for his detention, one upon which law enforcement officers may not legitimately rely. The Durans contend, and the district court held, that Aguilar stopped their car at least partly in retaliation for the insult he received from Duran. If true, this would constitute a serious First Amendment violation. "[T]he First Amendment protects a significant amount of verbal criticism and challenge directed at police officers." Hill, 482 U.S. at 461, 107 S.Ct. at 2509. The freedom of individuals to oppose or challenge police action verbally without thereby risking arrest is one important characteristic by which we distinguish ourselves from a police state. Id. at 462-63, 107 S.Ct. at 2510. Thus, while police, no less than anyone else, may resent having obscene words and gestures directed at them, they may not exercise the awesome power at their disposal to punish individuals for conduct that is not merely lawful, but protected by the First Amendment.

Duran ultimately won that case (in fact, the court of appeals upheld his earlier victory in the district court). In his own home, Gates would very likely have prevailed on the same grounds. So should we all -- when our free speech rights are fully respected and "contempt of cop" is no longer an unwritten crime.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Caught up by our overcriminalized society

In 2007, reported Idaho's KIDK, Channel 3, Krister Evertson was "convicted of illegally transporting and storing hazardous waste. ... Evertson failed to properly dispose of sodium metal, and the EPA was called in to clean up the mess." In a press release trumpeting the case, the Environmental Protection Agency was more specific, saying, Evertson was found guilty of "violating the Hazardous Materials Transportation Safety Act and illegally storing and disposing of hazardous waste, violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act." But wait! Just last week, Evertson testified before a bipartisan congressional hearing on how federal law has crept into every nook and cranny of life and overcriminalized conduct. What's going on here?

As it turns out, Evertson's conviction was the federal government's second try against him in an effort that has all the appearances of a vendetta based on over-vigorous application of a spiderweb of petty rules. It all began when the inventor and fuel cell entrepreneur was run off the road in Alaska on May 27, 2004, by armed federal agents. As he says in his testimony (PDF) to the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security:

The charge against me was that I hadn’t put the right label on the box when I shipped some raw sodium that I had sold on eBay. Stored improperly, sodium can be hazardous, so it usually has to be shipped by ground. I carefully packaged the sodium that I sold and even checked “ground transportation” on the bill when I went to ship the packages. But what I didn’t know was that, in Alaska, UPS actually ships its “ground” packages by air. And that was against the law.

Rather than charge me with a violation and collect a fine, the government decided to bring the full weight of the law down upon me. I refused to plead guilty, because I was not, and so the prosecution pushed for years in prison. It took two years, but finally the jury acquitted me of every charge.

That's right, acquitted.

But Hell hath no fury like a government official frustrated -- and the feds weren't out of tricks. You see, while Evertson was detained and tried in Alaska, his chemical supplies were stored in a facility back home in Idaho. And since he was behind bars and unable to visit the storage facility, he could be charged with ... abandoning hazardous waste? Really?


As the Washington Examiner reported earlier this year:

Despite his acquittal in Alaska, federal authorities filed new charges against Evertson in Idaho for allegedly illegally transporting his materials the half mile from his home to the storage facility and improperly disposing of “hazardous” waste, all based on strained readings of EPA regulations.

Evertson claimed he had stored the materials properly and they were perfectly secure.

“My expert witness said the stainless steel container could safely contain the intermediate process stream indefinitely, that means forever. The stainless steel was 3/8 of an inch thick. I bought it from the Long Beach, California, Naval Yard. It was completely enclosed…. I could have neutralized all of it for $200,” Evertson said. ...

Never mind that Evertson had clearly saved the material for future use rather than abandoning it. Never mind that it would be potentially dangerous only if taken out of the storage materials Evertson had so carefully constructed.

And never mind, finally, that, in the words of Evertson’s appellate brief, none of the materials were “discharged into the air, land or sea,” and the government failed to produce any evidence “that the defendant intended this to happen.”

Indeed, the brief notes, “the EPA witness, Marc Callaghan, testified that the materials became hazardous waste [only] when the EPA disposed of them.”

Note that Evertson was researching fuel cells with an eye to developing cleaner energy. His violation of environmental law in the first case was technical and inadvertent, and in the second case could be charitably described as -- oh Hell, forget charity -- it was BS.

But the feds got their way the second time around. With a law that required no criminal intent on the part of Evertson, the violation of which was entirely because Evertson had been detained by the people now charging him with criminal activity, the man was convicted. Off to prison he went.

The reason we're hearing about Krister Evertson is not because his case is atypical, but because he is lucky enough to have strong allies. His case has been taken by the Washington Legal Foundation, which is appealing his conviction. The effort of which the appeal is part is supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Federalist Society, the American Bar Association, the Cato Institute and the Constitution Project. Out of public view, many many other people have suffered arrest, trial and imprisonment based on a host of regulations both too numerous and too obscure to be knowable.

Testifying before the same subcommittee, Professor James Strazzella, President of the Temple University Beasley School of Law, said (PDF):

The amount of individual citizen conduct that is now potentially subject to federal
criminal control has increased in startling proportions in the last several decades, beyond any understandable interest in dealing with federal programs, truly interstate issues, or international crime. ...

Strazzella knows of what he speaks. In 1998, he authored a report on the metastasizing mass of federal crimes for the American Bar Association. The Federalization of Criminal Law (PDF) found, in part:

So large is the present body of federal criminal law that there is no conveniently accessible, complete list of federal crimes. Criminal sanctions are dispersed in places other than the statutory codes (for example, rules of court) and therefore can not be located simply by reading statutes. A large number of sanctions are dispersed throughout the thousands of administrative "regulations" promulgated by various governmental agencies under Congressional statutory authorization. Nearly 10,000 regulations mention some sort of sanction, many clearly criminal in nature, while many others are designated "civil."

The federal government's excuses for arresting you and locking you behind bars have only increased since the publication of that report.

So the next time you see a brief news blurb about some "evil" offender who ran afoul of the law with seeming disregard for public safety, and who is publicly vilified in government press releases, keep in mind that there may be more to the story. You could well be looking at another Krister Evertson, who hurt nobody, intended no legal violation, and was tripped up by a maze of laws of the sort that you yourself may unknowingly violate every day.


Thursday, July 23, 2009

Libertarian journalists barred from Canada

The libertarian journalists of The Motorhome Diaries were detained at the Canadian border and denied entry into the Great White North. Apparently, the abuse they sustained at the hands of authorities in Jones County, Mississippi was cited as a reason to bar them from the country. That, and the "heinous propaganda" they were carrying.

Says Xaq Fixx:

A box of literature from the Alliance of the Libertarian Left was taken, and a copy of Crispin Sartwell’s “Against the State” was left out on the counter. The RV was ransacked but thankfully not to the point it was in Jones County, Mississippi. Their laptops are now in the possession of the state agents, and those agents are reading about fr33 Agents, The Free State Project, and Jason & Pete’s former employer. One agent has accused them of ’spreading misinformation.’

The guys have been told that the state agents are looking for “Pornography or Heinous Propaganda.” When asked for a definition of “Heinous Propaganda” or the applicable statute they were told it was available online, but they don’t have computers or Internet access.

For those keeping score, the Canadian encounter was less violent than the Mississippi encounter, since it involved neither pepper spray nor confinement in a cell.

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What's the price of a uniformed temper tantrum?

Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Daniel Martin, the infamous star of a viral Internet video that shows him pulling over an ambulance transporting a patient to the hospital and assaulting paramedic Maurice White, has been suspended without pay for five days and ordered to anger assessment. The relatively light penalty for an officer fired in the past over allegations of bullying comes after a period of public outrage, with a lawsuit pending.

Oklahoma Crime Examiner Patricia Phillips has followed this case from the beginning, and you can find details of the case in her columns. It's worth noting, though, that while Martin's suspension letter from the OHP goes out of its way to justify the traffic stop of an ambulance and to condemn White's conduct that day, it concedes some egregious conduct on the part of the officer.

The letter, from Commissioner Kevin L. Ward, points out that Trooper Martin was "twice advised that a patient was on board the ambulance and that the ambulance was headed to the hospital." Nevertheless, "in spite of the knowledge of the patient and the length of time of the stop, you made no inquiry of the patient or any other person regarding the status or welfare of the patient on board the ambulance."

Ward advises Martin that it would have been more appropriate to have allowed the ambulance to continue to the hospital and conclude the traffic stop there.

Ward also points out, diplomatically, that Martin seemed to be spoiling for a fight.

"On at least one occasion, you withdrew from the altercation, only to place yourself in a position for a subsequent altercation with Mr. White.

Finally, your manner when approaching Mr. Franks, the driver of the ambulance, was unnecessary and unprofessional. Your demeanor and language at the scene was also unprofessional."

Ward then cites the OHP Operations Manual to characterize Martin's behavior as "conduct unbecoming an officer" and quotes statutes allowing for Martin to be "discharged, suspended without pay for not to exceed sixty (60) calendar days or demoted..."

Ward then states, "your conduct and disregard for the welfare of the patient justify severe discipline." And that "severe discipline" turns out to be ... five days suspension without pay and an anger assessment?

Oh, please. "Anger assessment" is that greatest of meaningless institutional butt-coverings. It allows organizational higher-ups to tell the lawyers that they're doing something without actually doing something. It's nonsense.

What needs to be assessed in a police officer who was fired in 2000 as Chief of Police in Fairfax, Oklahoma, for violent and bullying behavior, and who then endangers a patient in an ambulance and picks a fight while in uniform?

Daniel Martin was out of line, acting like a cartoon cop outraged that somebody didn't "respect mah authoritah." While letting his bruised ego run wild, he behaved unprofessionally and, potentially, put a life at risk.

Five days without pay and a bit of psychobabble are an awfully light slap on the wrist for that sort of misconduct.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Hey control freaks, meet the DIY revolution!

From Fast Company:

Take a design for a simple product--an engine part, for example, or a piece of silverware, and feed it into a computer. Press "print." Out pops (for a sufficiently wide definition of "pops") a physical duplicate, made out of materials plastic, ceramic, metal -- even sugar. Press "print" again, and out comes another copy--or feed in a new design, for the next necessary object.

It may sound like a scene from a low-rent version of Star Trek, but it's real, and it's happening with increasing frequency.
I guess it says something about me that the first thing that occurred to me upon reading this piece was, "wow, gun control is really, and permanently, a completely dead issue, isn't it?" And, the second thing that occurred to me is, "actually, banning anything will become an impossible dream for frustrated control freaks as this technology evolves."

We'll all get desk-top "printers" that can knock off as many AK-47s, radar jammers and pounds of heroin as we want, so long as we feed in raw materials.

And yes, the government will try to come up with a software kludge that prevents knocking out verboten items. But those kludges will be hacked in about five minutes.

Oh, and since you're wondering, basic models of these 3D printers now cost less than $10,000.

Isn't that neat?

Hat tip to Hit and Run.

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

And now, a message from the Health Administration Bureau


Friday, July 17, 2009

The latest prescription for your ills

So, let's see if I have this right. In a few years, the federal government might send people to wrestle you to the ground for a forced vasectomy, run up massive costs in the process of performing the procedure, and deny you access to private insurance to get yourself unsnipped? Does that about summarize the situation?

Don't know what I'm talking about?

Well, according to David Freddoso in The Washington Examiner, it turns out that John Holdren, President Barack Obama's Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, co-authored (with once trendy doom-and-gloomer Paul Ehrlich) the book Ecoscience back in 1977. In the book, written when the words "population bomb" played roughly the same scary role that "global warming" does these days, he discussed, in variously approving or ethically neutral terms, policies such as forced abortions, forced contraception, forcing women to give up children for adoptions and adding "sterilants" to drinking water.
Several coercive proposals deserve discussion, mainly because some countries may ultimately have to resort to them unless current trends in birth rates are rapidly reversed by other means. Some involuntary measures could be less repressive or discriminatory, in fact, than some of the socioeconomic measures suggested.
[R]esponsible parenthood ought to be encouraged and illegitimate childbearing could be strongly discouraged. One way to carry out this disapproval might be to insist that all illegitimate babies be put up for adoption -- especially those born to minors, who generally are not capable of caring properly for a child alone...It would even be possible to require pregnant single women to marry or have abortions, perhaps as an alternative to placement for adoption, depending on the society.
Note, this was over 30 years ago, when different concerns captured the public attention. Holdren's opinions may well have changed since then. But he was an adult at the time, and was somehow capable of dismissing moral and ethical objections to coercion in the name of necessity.

The cost issue comes in courtesy of the Congressional Budget Office. Douglas Elmendorf, director of the Congressional Budget Office, told the Senate Budget Committee:
"We do not see the sort of fundamental changes that would be necessary to reduce the trajectory of federal health spending by a significant amount. On the contrary, the legislation significantly expands the federal responsibility for health-care costs."
Specifically, according to preliminary estimates (PDF) published July 14:
On a preliminary basis, CBO and the JCT staff estimate that the proposal’s provisions affecting health insurance coverage would result in a net increase in federal deficits of $1,042 billion for fiscal years 2010 through 2019. That estimate primarily reflects $438 billion in additional federal outlays for Medicaid and $773 billion in federal subsidies that would be provided to purchase coverage through the new insurance exchanges.
Taken togather, the congressional testimony and the preliminary estimate demonstrate that massive new costs are involved in the government health scheme, and that no significant cost-control measures have been developed. That suggests we're likely to see the sort of sky-rocketing expenditures that have been associated with Medicare in the past, at a time when the federal government is already drowning in red ink.

As for not being able to use private insurance to get that uber-expensive snip-job reversed, well, according to Investors Business Daily, the health care proposal does, indeed allow people to keep private coverage they like, just as promised. But plans won't be able to sign up new customers after a cut-off date, effectively letting private coverage die by attrition.

It turns out we were right: The provision would indeed outlaw individual private coverage. Under the Orwellian header of "Protecting The Choice To Keep Current Coverage," the "Limitation On New Enrollment" section of the bill clearly states:

"Except as provided in this paragraph, the individual health insurance issuer offering such coverage does not enroll any individual in such coverage if the first effective date of coverage is on or after the first day" of the year the legislation becomes law.

So we can all keep our coverage, just as promised — with, of course, exceptions: Those who currently have private individual coverage won't be able to change it. Nor will those who leave a company to work for themselves be free to buy individual plans from private carriers.

That means everybody would eventually have to migrate to the "public option" by necessity.

Now, Obamatons counter that the bill doesn't actually ban private insurance. A Daily Kossack says, "the bill is directed at making reforms that have nothing to do with a public health insurance plan, and plans that enroll people after it becomes law have to comply with those reforms."

That sounds to me like pretty much the IBD interpretation, with a bit of spin added. You still will be able to get privately offered insurance afterthe cut-off date, but it won't be the old plan you were happy with, but a new one tailored to government specifications -- rather than as a competitive product in a diverse marketplace -- that just happens to be offered with a private label.

As Heritage's Conn Carroll says:

[A]ll health insurance plans must confirm to a slew of new regulations, including community rating and guaranteed issue. These will all drive up the cost of health insurance. Furthermore, all these new regs would not apply just to individual insurance plans, but to all insurance plans. So the House bill will also drive up the cost of your existing employer coverage. Until, of course, it becomes too expensive and they just dump you into the government plan.

So remember, if you get tackled to the ground, clamp one hand over your crotch, and the other over your wallet.

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Just don't hurt anybody

We all agree that civil liberties are good things, right? But we don't all agree about specific liberties and their defenders. Some people snipe at sexual rights and the ACLU, others at self-defense rights and the NRA ... We may believe in liberty, but we don't seem to agree on what it is. So, what is liberty? The answer, is that it's anything peaceful, or, put another way, anything done among consenting adults.

Some people will answer: But, you have no right to smoke grass, own guns, have gay sex, travel without showing ID, or open a business without a license if the government says otherwise! The law tells us what our civil liberties are, and the government, elected by a majority of the people, makes the law.

To put it bluntly: Screw the government, screw the law and screw the majority.

If you want to marry somebody of the same sex, toast the festivities with marijuana bought at an unlicensed bar, and celebrate with a machinegun shoot (well ... I suggest you reverse the order of the shoot and the toast), it ain't nobody's business if you do.

In fact, Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do is the title of a wonderful book written by Peter McWilliams and published in 1996. In the book, the full text of which is now available online, McWilliams wrote, "You should be allowed to do whatever you want with your own person and property, as long as you don't physically harm the person or property of a nonconsenting other."

McWilliams didn't invent this idea. It's an old one, perhaps most closely associated with the philosopher John Stuart Mill, who wrote:

[T]he only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right... The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

In the modern context, McWilliams elaborated:

Laws against consensual activities create a society of fear, hatred, bigotry, oppression, and conformity; a culture opposed to personal expression, diversity, freedom, choice, and growth. The prosecution of consensual crimes "trickles down" into ostracizing, humiliating, and scorning people who do things that are not quite against the law but probably should be. "They're different; therefore, they're bad" seems to be the motto for a large segment of our society. We are addicted to normalcy; even if it means we must lop off significant portions of ourselves, we must conform.

There's no need to accept the validity of all these arguments; the validity of any one is sufficient reason to wipe away all the laws against consensual activities.

"A culture opposed to personal expression, diversity, freedom, choice and growth"? Isn't that a bit strong?

Not really. You see, McWilliams died in 2000. A cancer and AIDS patient himself, he was arrested while helping another writer conduct research for a book on growing marijuana for medical purposes. His mother's house was held as collateral for the bond that secured his freedom while awaiting sentencing, and the chief prosecutor in the case threatened to seize the home if McWilliams was found with even a trace of the marijuana he used to control the severe nausea caused by his medication.

Unable to control his nausea, McWilliams choked to death on his own vomit.

Some people would make excuses for the prosecutor in the case. He was just doing his job according to the law, after all.

But a law that would deny a man medicine and cause him to choke to death is evil, and so are those who voluntarily help to enforce such laws.

We make a big deal about the democratic nature of our political system, but there's nothing about 50% plus one that could sanctify laws and actions like those that led to the death of Peter McWilliams. If we recognize that you have the right to do peaceful things -- that is to engage in trade, or to love, or to consume -- by yourself and with other consenting adults, then it doesn't matter if the people intruding into your life are lone wolves or a majority of the population. They're wrong to intrude and they're doing evil by sticking their noses where those noses aren't welcome.

Because it ain't nobody's business if you do.

Unfortunately, governments and our neighbors have grown accustomed to interfering in what isn't their business. Occasionally, they give a hat tip to the philosophical tradition represented by Mill and company by arguing that, if you're allowed to smoke grass or own a gun or operate a storefront without a license, others really are harmed by your subsequent (alleged) lower productivity at work, or the possibility that you'll go postal, or the vague potential for you defraud customers in a way that could allegedly be prevented by an official piece of paper.

This stretches the idea of "harm to others" so far out of shape as to be unrecognizable -- except as a dishonest intellectual dodge. Accepting the argument that what you might do, or what could reduce your utility to society, is any business of the government, leaves absolutely nothing beyond the reach of nosey busybodies with official titles.

It also, incidentally, reduces you to a cog in the machine.

Laws that interfere in your right "to do whatever you want with your own person and property, as long as you don't physically harm the person or property of a nonconsenting other" go too far. They should be defied and sabotaged. Governments that insist on passing such laws are illegitimate and should be dumped. And majorities that put such governments in power? Well, they're just wrong, and should be told to take a hike.

Defending liberty isn't about playing by the rules. It's about judging whether the rules, and the people who enforce them, are worth respecting.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Michigan court says gag orders and sentences don't necessarily mix

The other day, I wrote of the plight of Bob Newland, a drug-policy reform advocate who, as part of his sentence for pot possession, has been forbidden to publicly advocate marijuana legalization for a year. Now, a Michigan case (PDF) overturning a gag order on a preacher raises further doubt about the propriety of the muzzle placed on the marijuana activist.

Newland was forbidden to speak out on a core matter of public policy -- an area in which his political views irked the judge. By contrast, the Rev. Edward Pinkney was jailed for violating his probation by penning a fiery editorial explicitly criticizing the judge in his case and calling down the wrath of God on the man's head.

That the appeals court backed Pinkney and found that his free speech rights had been violated suggests that Newland's sentence is well out of bounds.

Pinkney had been found guilty of buying votes in a the recall election of a local politician. He was sentenced to probation subject to certain conditions, one of which forbid him to "engage in any assaultive, abusive, defamatory, demeaning, harassing, violent,
threatening, or intimidating behavior, including the use, through any electronic or print media
under [his] care, custody or control, of the mail, e-mail or internet."

Nevertheless, Pinkney wrote an OpEd, published in a monthly newspaper, calling the judge in his case, "racist" and "corrupt" and paraphrasing Deuteronomy to instruct the judge:

[I]f thou continue not to hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God to observe to do all that is right; which I command thee this day, that all these Curses shall come upon you and your family, curses shalt be in the City of St. Joseph and Cursed shalt thou be in the field, cursed [sic] shall come upon you and your family and over take thee; cursed shall be the fruit of thy body. The Lord shall smite thee with consumption and with a fever and with an inflammation and with extreme burning. They the demons shall Pursue thee until thou persist.

For his troubles, the preacher was sent to the cooler for violating the "no defamation" clause in his probation.

In its opinion, the Michigan Court of Appeals noted:

A probation condition may impinge on a probationer’s First Amendment rights... However, such a condition is subject to careful review... The condition must be narrowly tailored...and be primarily designed or directly related to the rehabilitation of the defendant and to the protection of the public. ... The condition must be “narrowly drawn to protect the public from a situation that might lead to a repetition of the same crime.”

Calling the judge in his case unpleasant names and damning him to Hell posed no threat of causing more vote-buying, or, as the court put it:

The 15th condition of defendant’s probation prohibited defendant from engaging in defamatory and demeaning communications. The condition was a blanket prohibition on such behavior; defendant was prohibited from making defamatory or demeaning communications about any person, including coworkers, neighbors, and congregants. Such a blanket prohibition is not directly related to defendant’s rehabilitation of the election law crimes he committed, which impugned the integrity of the electoral process, or to the public’s protection from a repetition of the crimes.

Since the muzzling probation condition went beyond proper limits and violated Pinkney's free speech rights, the state had no right to jail Pinkney for his words.

The Michigan decision raises interesting questions about Newland's sentence because the words he's forbidden to utter also have no relation to his crime. Yes, the activist was sentenced for illegal possession of marijuana, but under the gag order he's forbidden not just to solicit further legal violations, but also to advocate changing the law through means established to accomplish just such an end so that his actions would have been perfectly legal.

Such a gag order isn't "narrowly drawn to protect the public from a situation that might lead to a repetition of the same crime” since the opinions he's barred from voicing are aimed at eliminating the crime itself.

Of course, a Michigan state court decision isn't binding upon the courts of South Dakota, where Newland was convicted and sentenced. But many of the principles and precedents cited by the court -- some established by federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court -- are.

If Bob Newland wants to go to bat for his free speech rights, his arguments have already been written by some highly placed judges in Michigan.


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sentenced to shut up

The sentence for a South Dakota drug-policy-reform advocate convicted of felony possession of marijuana is raising concerns about fundamental individual rights. Bob Newland, the director of the South Dakota chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, founder of South Dakotans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana group, and publisher of Hemphasis, was sentenced to one year in the Pennington County Jail, with all but 45 days suspended. During that year, he is forbidden to publicly advocate marijuana legalization.

On July 6, Newland sent out an email saying, in part:

This will be the last email I send under the banner ‘South Dakotans for Safe Access‘ at least for a year.

By now, most of you know I plead to a felony count of possession of marijuana in May. Today I was sentenced.

In an hour-long sentencing hearing, Judge Delaney waxed reminiscent as he described his admiration for Muhammad Ali’s stance against an illegal war, which cost him millions of dollars and his peak performing years, during which time he did not complain, nor did he leave the country that so abused him for his beliefs.

Then, citing the fact that he (Judge Delaney) had to account for his actions to the hundreds of kids he sees in juvenile court, he sentenced me to a year in the Penn. Co. jail, with all suspended but 45 days. During the suspended part of the sentence I will wear a bracelet that senses alcohol use and I will be subject to arbitrary p-ss tests by a probation officer to detect illegal “drug” use. In addition I may have no “public role” in cannabis law reform advocacy during that year. ...

According to the Rapid City Journal, Judge Delaney told Newland, who will turn 61in jail, "You are not going to take a position as a public figure who got a light sentence." The judge also told Newland that he didn't want the advocate to be in a position to encourage minors to consume intoxicants.

Newland was found with marijuana and a scale after a traffic stop -- a clear violation of the law, though not necessarily a wrongful act, if you believe that the government has no business criminalizing consensual activities among adults.

But, morality of the law aside, Newland's sentence was a light one for an acknowledged felony -- except for the very restrictive gag order. It's unusual for judges to require defendants to remain quiet about their political opinions. While judges have wide-ranging authority to impose restrictions, these usually revolve around issues relevant to their crimes, such as proximity to a victim, or refraining from further criminal activity, or requirements that make it easier for authorities to monitor behavior, such as search access and ankle bracelets. Throwing in a suspension of First Amendment-protected rights to speak out on matters of public policy is gratuitous and offensive.

What legitimate interest could a judge have in suppressing political opinions?

Jack King, director of public affairs and communications for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, raised exactly that point when he told the Rapid City Journal, "I don't know if the judge realized that he was imposing his politics on Mr. Newland as a condition of his probation."

But we've taken a long road to this path with other suspensions of civil rights that are said to be inappropriate for those convicted of serious crimes. Convicts, even nonviolent ones, supposedly can't be trusted with firearms, so felons are often deprived of the legal right to own the means to defend themselves and their families -- even decades after their crime. And felons are deprived of the right to vote temporarily or permanently in most states as a continuation of the medieval tradition of "civil death" which stripped felons of their rights. There's been a move on in recent years to restore voting rights, pointing out that the loss of rights unrelated to ensuring that prisoners pose no threat is incompatible with a free society.

In a 2004 article for the American Bar Association's Human Rights magazine, arguing against suspending voting rights, Marc Mauer, assistant director of The Sentencing Project, wrote of what he considered an example of suspended rights taken to the extreme:

Suppose, for example, a legislator proposed a bill to make it unlawful for a probationer to write a letter to the editor or to participate in a protest rally. Surely few policymakers or citizens would find this an appropriate consequence of a conviction.

Ironically, Mauer's absurd example is exactly where Newland is now.

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Best thing for everyone

For you Firefly fans.


Friday, July 10, 2009

Help, I'm trapped in the Smithsonian!

It occurs to me, as a guy who prefers sharpening a straight razor over throwing mountains of cartridges in the trash, wears grown-up hats instead of ball caps, considers a sport coat a minimum requirement for dining in a decent restaurant, and often writes with a decades-old fountain pen instead of buying plastic bags full of disposable pens (oh, OK, maybe the pen is just an eccentricity), that I'm in imminent danger of being nabbed and turned into a museum exhibit.

I'm as big a defender of consumer culture as anybody. I'm a big believer in choice. People should have options available and be able to select what suits them.

But my choices tend to veer sharply from those of the prevailing culture. Where most folks go for the lowest common denominator under the banner of comfort and convenience, I like quality, durability and a little style.

Razors I've written about before. I hone and strop my razor because I resent buying a "razor" that's nothing more than a handle that comes with an obligation to buy expensive cartridges. The vintage blade I'm using now cost me twenty bucks in a junk shop, which isn't much more than the price of a pack of Fusion blades. Yes, I have to maintain it, but it still gives a close shave after a half-century or so. Ten years from now, the Gilette Fusion will have been retired in favor of some vibrating 12-blade monstrosity, and my razor will still be going strong.

And, hats. I like hats. In fact, living under the Arizona sun, I need hats. But if you need protection from the elements, you can opt for something well-made, that makes you look good, or you can stick a cheap piece of polyester trash on your head. Actually, a lot of Arizonans feel as I do and wear felt hats in cooler weather and straw hats in summer. There's a tradition here of fine headwear. So there's really no excuse for sticking a ball cap on your head as the covering of choice. Especially since it makes you look like a 12-year-old boy.

Or is it the oversized logo T-shirt and cargo shorts you wore with the cap when you wandered outside that makes you look like you're developmentally impaired? Hmmm ... Let me think on that.

Don't get me started on how people dress for public consumption these days. Honestly, if you're going out for a nice meal in a restaurant where you plan to spend money on food that you trust will be well-prepared and delivered by at least moderately attentive wait-staff, why wouldn't you show respect to the place, the staff and your fellow diners by dressing for the occasion? Let's not go overboard; how about slacks and a collared shirt for starters? We'll work our way to a sport coat and tie.

Honestly, I want to be a maitre d' at a nice restaurant for just one night, just so I can tell everybody who shows up in a T-shirt and jeans to get lost.

But that would clear the place out these days, wouldn't it?

I'm not going to harp on the pen issue, since I grant that, maybe, insisting on using a fountain pen in 2009 is a tad ... off. But you gotta tip your hat to a writing instrument that still lays down ink after decades. My Pelikan Pelikano, the first pen I ever owned, dates back to the early seventies and still writes like a charm. My Sheaffer 500 "dolphin" dates to the early '60s, and my Parker 21 to the '50s (though it has been serviced once). These are well-made devices intended to last. I really appreciate that.

Again, it's all about choice. And I grant that some elements of the informal, disposable age make sense -- I'll take throw-away diapers over sterilizing cloth diapers every day of the week. And it's good to be able to throw a ball around on a hot summer day without being bogged down by the equivalent of business-casual clothes. Also, disposable means affordable -- to everybody, including folks who might have just been shut out in the past.

But I think there's value to well-made things that last, to acting like an adult, and to dressing in a way that shows respect for yourself and for others.

But thinking that way seems to put me in a dwindling minority. Maybe I'd be happier in a museum exhibit.


Can't we all just get along?

Many years ago, I had a conversation with a woman that touched on the topic of abortion. We had already discovered that we were both firmly pro-choice on the issue, when I mentioned that I opposed public funding -- not because of anything specific to abortion itself, but because I think government screws things up when it gets involved in health care. Well, forget the previous half-hour of agreement on an intensely contentious matter of public policy; red-faced and teary-eyed, she was out for blood. If we weren't 100% in agreement, we were enemies.

A few years earlier, I was a volunteer on a state assembly campaign in New York. An older staffer (in retrospect, he was probably all of 35) was driving two of us volunteers back home from an event, when we started chatting about drug policy. It turned out that both the other volunteer and I favored legalization.

The driver damned near stopped the car to kick us both out.

Never mind that we were all working for the same candidate, who appeared poised to win (he did -- and proved as useless as the rest of them. Having moved on to politically connected jobs, he's not part of the current Albany spectacle), this guy wanted to declare war against us over one issue that didn't even feature in the campaign.

Emphasizing disagreement over agreement isn't uncommon. People are tribal and tend to view one another with suspicion. We look for small differences and then exaggerate their importance instead of looking for points of agreement and working together toward common goals -- or at least tolerating disagreements.

That's troubling enough, but the problem goes further. We also tend to notice differences in ourselves that set us apart from our chosen tribe, and then we expunge those differences. Over time, we make ourselves become more like the people with whom we want to be associated.

According to, a social networking analysis outfit founded by Valdis Krebs, for the first time ever, there was no overlap at all during the last election cycle among books read by liberals and books read by conservatives.

That makes conversation a little more challenging.

The self-tailoring extends beyond ideology to lifestyles that become associated with certain sets of beliefs, report Bill Bishop and Robert G. Cushing in their book, The Big Sort. When people choose neighborhoods where they feel comfortable, the settings come with a prevailing ideology pre-installed. Say Bishop and Cushing in their book, "ways of life now have a distinct politics and a distinct geography. Feminist synchronized swimmers belong to one political party and live over here, and calf ropers belong to another party andlive over there."

Surrounded, as they are, by people who share their beliefs, people become more like their neighbors, dumping attitudes that might set them apart, radicalizing their own views, and shunning "heretics" -- just like the more-progressive-than-thou denizens of Mike Judge's spot-on The Goode Family.

Given our tendency to transform ourselves into ever-more-extreme versions of what we think we ought to be, it's no surprise that political conversations can degenerate into trench warfare over small points of disagreement, leaving large areas of potential cooperation neglected.

But if the trend continues --and it has accelerated in recent years -- we're looking at life in a world dominated by combat between monolithic rival camps that have chosen to have nothing in common, instead of negotiation among individuals looking for points of agreement.

Given the vast power that has accrued to government in recent decades, that doesn't just bode poorly for the tone of debates. It suggests a sort of political total war in the offing, with the power of the state in all its intrusiveness used as a bludgeon against the opposition by whoever currently holds the reins of power. That's quite a prospect when friends and enemies can be identified by their clothing choices and their taste in music.

Won't that be fun? Oh wait -- it already isn't.


Thursday, July 9, 2009

Dutch treat (smoking edition)

Can put-upon minorities wage battle against government regulators and win? In the Netherlands, at least when it comes to smoking bans, the answer appears to be "yes." After a year of widespread defiance of a law banning smoking in bars and cafes, and two court victories by bar owners, the Dutch government is backing off enforcement of the intrusive ban and effectively letting many smaller businesses set policies that work for them and their customers.

The key to the apparent victory appears to be cooperation. Bars and cafes across the country coordinated their defiance of the smoking ban after business dropped by as much as 30% in the wake of the law's passage. To lure back customers who wanted cigarettes with their drinks, bars put the ashtrays back on the tables.

First-hand accounts even had bar patrons using table-top candle holders for their ashes in establishments that didn;t want tomake their defiance too obvious.

The Dutch government fined hundreds of establishments, but couldn't break the back of the resistance.

The law suffered perhaps fatal setbacks when courts ruled that the the government had no authority to impose total bans on small establishments that had no staff when it let larger businesses designate smoking areas. Another court ruled in favor of a bar owner who designated a store room as the (non-smoking) bar and the rest of the establishment as a smoking area.

Now, Dutch bar and cafe owners are free -- at least for the time being -- to establish rules that attract customers and suit their businesses.

From the beginning, smoking bans have been little more than efforts to take the preferences of some people and turn them into legal mandates for all businesses, without regard for the preferences of business owners and their customers. Smoking bans are widely popular in a country where a majority of the population doesn't use tobacco, and their popularity has been enhanced by cloaking the issue in nice-sounding but spurious public health language that doesn't really apply to situations involving establishments that people can choose to enter or bypass as they wish.

Ultimately, there's little difference between mandating that all bars be non-smoking and that all bars play light jazz -- just because the current crop of politicians likes it that way. It's just easier to sell the smoking rule in a wrapper of false concern for the health of people who are capable of taking care of such matters themselves.

The Dutch example shows that, at least sometimes, efforts to mandate one-size-fits-all environments can be effectively thwarted if resistance is sufficiently widespread and determined.

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Monday, July 6, 2009

The tough job of bossing us around

White House officials are so busy wielding vast government power that they barely have time to see their kids! That's the gist of a New York Times human-interest piece, that portrays Obama administration apparatchiks as overburdened by the demands of their ambitious agenda, to the point that their home lives are somewhat neglected. Let me suggest that the bunch of them should punch out and let the policy wish-list gather a bit of dust. It's OK; we'll survive.

Says the Times:

White House advisers often work 60 to 70 hours a week and bear the scars of missed birthdays and bedtimes, canceled dinners and play dates, strained marriages and disgruntled children, all for prestigious posts that offer a chance to make an impact and unparalleled access to the president. At a time when the nation is in recession and at war, the public expects no less, many argue.

Color me unmoved. If access to the latest resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is more important to them than watching their children grow up, that's their choice. Plenty of people in this country work even longer hours out of necessity; when powerful people do so voluntarily, we get an insight into personal preferences, as opposed to hard realities.

And those preferences are clear. The article reveals that Christina Romer, the chair of the Councilof Economic Advisors, made "her first visit to her son’s school this year ... at 10 p.m. on a Friday." And "Peter R. Orszag, the White House budget chief who is a divorced father of two, works so many weekends that he often imports his parents to help care for his 9-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son." White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel apparently squeezed in a swim with his daughters -- at 5 a.m. I'll bet that was quality time.

The implication in the Times piece is that we're supposed to feel sorry for these hard-working public servants.

But what are the apparatchiks working so hard at? Remember, these people work at the highest levels of government. The very essence of their jobs is to wield coercive power against the rest of us, because that's really all that government does. If you want to do (supposedly) good deeds, you start a charity. If you want to force people to support your (supposedly) good deeds, you get the government to pass a law mandating funding for and cooperation with your charity.

Which is to say, government jobs are all about twisting arms.

And what arm-twisting we've seen from Romer, Orszag, Emanuel and company! They've put the previous administration's sailor-on-a-bender spending ways to shame with federal check-cutting that seems to tack on zeros on a dare. That doesn't just pick Americans' pockets now, but binds us to a policy of massive pocket-picking in the future (unless the peasants finally get smart and revolt).

In a move that looks like an attempt to turn the U.S. economy into an industrial museum, they've effectively nationalized a major part -- the least competitive part -- of the automobile industry.

And they're moving toward a policy that would let the federal government apply the efficiencies it brings to mail delivery and train service to the health care system -- whether we want it or not. (Of course, little mentioned is that there are a few revealing laboratory experiments along those lines already).

Oh yes, these public servants really are hard-working, damn them. But hard work can be good or bad, depending on the ends to which it's put. Ultimately, given that government officials work at making people do things they wouldn't otherwise do, and hard-working officials put in overtime at ordering people around, we could probably stand a little less midnight-oil burning in government offices.

Ms. Romer, Mr. Orszag, and the rest of you, your kids need you more than we do. Go home.


Friday, July 3, 2009

Why not punch a nun while you're at it?

From the Associated Press, via the New York Daily News:

Police used a Taser on a pastor and pepper spray to disperse his congregants Wednesday after the pastor allegedly interfered with a traffic stop in the church parking lot.

Congregants say they were in the Iglesia Profetica Peniel church for an early morning prayer when pastor Jose Elias Moran went to assist the stopped driver, a church member, by asking the police what had happened.

An incident report on the Webster police department's Web site said Officer Raymond Berryman tried to calm Moran and arrest him. But police say he pushed the officer, went inside the church and returned with 40 other congregants.

The congregants say Moran fled into the church when the officer grew angry and began to yell, and Moran's family disputes that the pastor touched the officer.

Moran's son Miguel said 30 witnesses saw the officer turn aggressive and repeatedly kick the church door. Several members were hit with pepper spray and children were present, Miguel Moran said.

Obviously, we don't know the full story yet. Maybe the pastor and his flock were out of line. But if 30 people really saw the officer flipping out, I'm curious to see how the PD will try to put a positive spin on this.

If you want a disturbing insight into what's wrong with this country, look at the knee jerk support for the boys in blue in the comments to an article on the incident at the Houston Chronicle. It seems that Tasers and pepper spray may not have been enough; perhaps the riot guns should have been broken out to teach proper respect for authoritah.

Tomorrow may be Independence Day, but not too many people are still independent of the disease of uniform-worship.


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

In which I infiltrate Team Red and Team Blue and report my findings

I meet the most interesting people through my blogging and my columns for The Examiner.

Because I write about gun rights, limited government and free speech, I get invited to participate in conservative conferences and mailing lists. My advocacy of gay marriage, drug legalization and restraints on law enforcement get me invites from progressive groups. I don't think either conservatives or progressives truly think I'm one of them, but rather they conclude -- accurately I'd say -- that I'm a guy they can talk to.

I really haven't had a bad experience with my (mostly passive) participation in these groups yet. The individuals with whom I've corresponded, on both sides, come off as decent folks, even when they voice opinions that I consider to be fucking insane. I can chat with them, have drinks with them and otherwise interact on a friendly level. There's quite a wide range of opinion on both sides, and significant disagreement over some important issues.

But the collective teams are a different matter. As in most situations, individuals are easier to take than the herd. I'm going to speak in generalities here, because I've promised to not name individuals or quote conversations from any of the groups that have been kind enough to entertain me as a participant.

First of all, both teams, red and blue, have their holy doctrines -- areas in which disagreement is treated as heresy.

With conservatives, that seems to be abortion. I was curious, at first, whether gay marriage might be a lightning rod, but that's not the case. There are homophobic wingnuts, but there's a lot of tolerance, too -- most conservatives just don't seem all that worked up about who is bedding who, and only lukewarm over whether gays can formalize their relationships as "marriage" or not. But abortion is the untouchable tenet. If you're pro-choice, you get stripped of your American flag pin.

For progressives, the point of Holy Doctrine that will not be disputed is global warming/climate change. For folks who insist on describing their ideology as founded in reason and science, their treatment of the issue is awfully theological. Deviate from the script and you lose your membership card in the reality-based community (and your right to sport a truly awful hippy name, like that used by ... never mind).

Neither the conservatives nor progressives with whom I interact seem to know many members of the opposing tribe -- by and large, the opposition are treated as aliens encountered only rarely, and then, hopefully, on neutral ground. This social division may be why they're all so prone to delegitimizing each other's world views.

For conservatives, lefties are mendacious bastards who adopt any argument under the sun in order to further a hidden, totalitarian agenda.

For progressives, righties are soulless scum who've sold out to whatever corporation is certainly sponsoring their advocacy, and who would undoubtedly spin a 180 in their opinions if directed to do so by their Wall Street masters.

It seems that nobody could ever sincerely disagree.

And, of course, the opposition is always plotting. The righties better get their white-supremacist military coup in motion and depose Barack Obama before he successfully repeals the 22nd amendment and serves as president-for-life.

While they're not necessarily dominant, both conservatives and progressives have sizable subgroups in their ranks that are remarkably open about their authoritarianism and contempt for civil liberties. With the right, this was no secret during the Bush years, with war-on-terror cheerleaders applauding the Bush administration's detentions and wiretaps, and denying the use of torture by the government right up until they praised the use of torture once it was revealed (or else denied that waterboarding, sleep deprivation and beatings qualify as anything more than gentle roughhousing).

With progressives, I see declining respect for the idea of free speech. The pattern here is the same as with every other policy issue on the left: Point to how much "better" Europeans and Canadians are at regulating "hate speech" for the good of society, and denouncing free speech advocates as corporate shills. It's only free if you can be punished for doing it the wrong way, don't you know, and anything that pisses off the self-appointed regulators is the wrong way. That's quite a shift from the dearly missed days of free speech absolutism (and it seems to bewilder some of the more traditional preogressives).

As individuals, I repeat: conservatives and progressive bloggers and pundits in these groups are almost all nice folks I can drink with. As Team Red and Team Blue ... well ... I'm surprised they haven't already started shooting at each other.