Monday, April 30, 2007

Something that's not Bush's fault

My father-in-law recently found himself in the unusual position of defending President Bush. A confirmed Democrat, he rarely misses a chance to bash the current commander-in-chief. But while he was on a business trip to Europe, well-educated, professional colleagues from Switzerland started insisting that 9/11 was a massive put-on, actually executed by agents of the Bush administration to provide a pretext for waging war in the Middle East.

As my father-in-law put it, "Europeans are insane."

Actually, I can't fault Europeans alone. Last summer, I ran into a friend I hadn't seen in a while at a wedding reception. After verbally attacking the meat-eating majority at the gathering for not conforming to his new vegan diet, he launched into a tirade about how the twin towers were brought down by a controlled demolition executed by government agents.

So it's not just the Swiss who are bat-shit crazy.

I'll note, though, that the French, in particular, have been enthusiastic consumers of conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11. They made a book touting pretty much the theory my father-in-law encountered into a major bestseller in the wake of the attack. That book has been reprinted in a multitude of countries, and the product it peddles thrives on the antipathy much of the world feels for Bush and his cronies.

But it's still lunacy.

I'm not going to bother engaging in a point-by-point rebuttal of 9/11 conspiracy theories. I'll just ask: Do you really think that a government that routinely loses laptop computers containing important data when it's not leaking like a sieve by design, and which regularly screws up important missions, is actually capable of carrying out a massive conspiracy to attack and defraud the American people?

If so, you have a higher regard for government competence than I do.

Friday, April 27, 2007

More zero-tolerance nonsense

Here's an even more egregious example of zero-tolerance nonsense, this time at a high school in Cary, Illinois. Allen Lee was assigned to "write whatever comes to your mind. Do not judge or censor what you are writing." He complied. Now he faces criminal charges for what he committed to paper, apparently because school officials found his essay "disturbing and inappropriate."

To their credit, many of Lee's fellow students at Cary-Grove High School have rallied to his defense. They note that not only does he have a right to free speech, but that he explicitly complied with his assignment.

School officials, on the other hand, have followed the usual pattern of circling the wagons and insisting that some ideas just aren't acceptable.

Hmmm. Well, here's a thought that I'm sure they won't find acceptable. I think that officials of Illinois School District 155 should be dragged from their offices and horse-whipped.

And I didn't even write the words above for a school assignment.

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Good kid, bad officials

This from Rogersville, Tennessee:

A good kid made a bad decision Wednesday at Cherokee High School that will land him in alternative school for the remainder of his high school career, school officials said.

As a result of a search in the school parking lot Wednesday morning, school officials found a shotgun in the vehicle of CHS senior Justin Tyler Luster, 18, 1430 Beech Creek Road, Rogersville.

Aside from closing out his high school career in alternative school, the Hawkins County Sheriff's Office charged Luster with carrying a weapon on school grounds.

Hawkins County Director of Schools Clayton Armstrong was quick to point out Wednesday that there was no threat to students at school, the shotgun was never in the school building, and Luster had no ill intentions for the shotgun.

Apparently Luster was planning on going turkey hunting after school and had the shotgun hidden out of view in his vehicle.

So, let me get this straight. The shotgun was unloaded, locked in the kid's car, and clearly intended for an innocent use, and Luster is said to have made a "bad decision?" School officials are willing to simultaneously admit that they know that Luster had no ill intentions, and also to punish him severely?

Actually, school director Armstrong says he could have expelled Luster, so he apparently thinks he's being merciful.

This is what you get with mindless zero tolerance policies. You start with a rule that is already unnecessarily restrictive, such as a ban on possessing firearms on school grounds, even when unloaded and locked in your own vehicle. You then apply the rule robotically, even to people who very clearly intend no harm to anybody. Presto! Innocent people are subject to suspensions, expulsions and criminal prosecutions.

And when officials are faced with clearly unjust results as a consequence of their rules, they simply roll their eyes heaven-ward and plead that they have no discretion--under the rules they themselves established to escape the torment of exercising intelligent judgment.

We can only hope that Justin Luster comes through his encounter with knee-jerk officialdom relatively unscathed, and with a healthy disrespect for authority.

Do us all a favor. Call Director of Schools Clayton Armstrong at 423-272-7629 x110 and tell him he's a weasel.

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Violent objections to the FCC report

As anticipated, the Federal Communications Commission released blue-nose bait in the form of a report (PDF file) decrying violence on television and calling for greater government control of TV content. Violent Television Programming and Its Impact on Children makes the unsurprising claim that "research provides strong evidence that exposure to violence in the media can increase aggressive behavior in children, at least in the short term." Unsurprising, that is, because the harm allegedly done by watching old roadrunner cartoons and episodes of 24 provides the basis for the massive power-grab outlined in the rest of the document.

What isn't explained is why, even if it's true that watching violent programming "can increase aggressive behavior in children," it's necessarily the business of government to address the issue instead of parents.

The report does dwell, however, on that pesky First Amendment, which has the nasty habit of throwing up roadblocks to bureaucrats intent on shielding us--our children, anyway--from televised portrayals of car chases and shootouts. The authors start off by reassuring us that, whatever hurdles the First Amendment may pose for regulation of most media, broadcast television is fair game for the blue pencil.

While a restriction on the content of protected speech will generally be upheld only if it satisfies strict scrutiny, meaning that the restriction must further a compelling government interest and be the least restrictive means to further that interest, this exacting standard does not apply to the regulation of broadcast speech.

Unfortunately, they're probably right. The courts have pretty much given regulators free rein to censor broadcast speech ever since the politicians sold the country on the questionable idea that the broadcast spectrum is somehow public property.

But, even if broadcast television suffers from anemic free speech protections, does that necessarily give the FCC carte blanche to regulate violent programming? The report says it does.

We also believe that, if properly defined, excessively violent programming, like indecent programming, occupies a relatively low position in the hierarchy of First Amendment values because it is of “‘slight social value as a step to truth.’”

"Slight social value" says them, of course. But that's all they believe they need.

But that's broadcast television, Oddly, even though the report discusses mandated changes to cable and satellite television, it never gets around to asserting a constitutional basis for regulation of media that don't use the "public" airwaves.

But let's put that aside, just as the report does.

Again, even assuming that violent programming has ill effects on children, and is of "slight social value," why shouldn't we leave the matter to parents. Isn't that what the much ballyhooed V-chip was all about?

Well, yes, but parents aren't doing their duty, apparently.

[M]any parents do not even know if the television sets in their households incorporate this technology and, of those who do, many do not use it.

After all of that hard work by the feds to insert V-chips in our televisions, us ungrateful types don't even use them. That's why we need censorship.

But censorship of what? The report devotes an entire chapter to the problem of defining "excessive violence" as distinguished from violence integral to the telling of a story. Even after citing gruesome scenes that lie at the core of The Odyssey, Dante's Inferno and The Bible, the report's authors still assert that "developing an appropriate definition of excessively violent programming would be possible, but such language needs to be narrowly tailored and in conformance with judicial precedent."

Wow, that's slippery language. In fact the report is full of slippery language, all of which adds up to a justification for greater government control of the electronic media, all in the name of shielding the kiddies from violence.

Oh good--because we know how effective governments are at protecting us from violence.


Thursday, April 26, 2007

Living dangerously

I spent much of my childhood bruised and bleeding. It was great. My friends and I played "kill the carrier," we climbed trees, we hunted each other with slingshots and we attempted to play rollerball (based on the original James Caan movie) on bicycles and roller skates.

When I wasn't injuring myself, I made a fair attempt at burning the house down. With my co-conspirators, I made cannons out of tennis-ball cans and lighter fluid, manufactured gunpowder according to recipes scrounged from the encyclopedia and shot off bottle rockets.

Of course, we all skipped school when we thought we could get away with it.

Much of what I liked about my childhood seems to have been lost in recent years. Kids don't roam freely, exploring the world quite so often as they once did. They play in supervised groups, wear full body armor anytime they move a muscle, and bathe in the glow of video games when their hours aren't structured by allegedly life-enriching, scheduled activities.

Yes, I'm generalizing, but life for a lot of kids today is different--and I think sadly so--from what it was for my generation.

Which is why I'm so excited to stumble across The Dangerous Book for Boys. Written by British brothers Hal and Conn Iggulden, the book, according to the Associated Press, "is a childhood how-to guide that covers everything from paper airplanes to go-carts, skipping stones to skinning a rabbit."

The page for the revised American edition of the book includes a list of intriguing contents:

The Greatest Paper Airplane in the World
The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World
The Five Knots Every Boy Should Know
Building a Treehouse
Making a Bow and Arrow
Fishing (revised with US Fish)
Timers and Tripwires
Baseball's "Most Valuable Players"
Famous Battles-Including Lexington and Concord, The Alamo, and Gettysburg
Spies-Codes and Ciphers
Making a Go-Cart
Navajo Code Talkers' Dictionary
Cloud Formations
The States of the U.S.
Mountains of the U.S.
The Declaration of Independence
Skimming Stones
Making a Periscope
The Ten Commandments
Common US Trees
Timeline of American History
Basically, it sounds like a handy guide to a creative childhood. It's been a major best-seller in Britain, suggesting that I'm not the only person to think that childhood could be enriched by a few more bumps, bruises and adventures.

The book will be published in the U.S. on May 1, and I've eagerly pre-ordered a copy to share with my son. I anticipate him giving me a few (more) gray hairs while working his way through the chapters.

I'll report here on whether The Dangerous Book for Boys lives up to expectations.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Nanny state cheerleaders

The Times Argus of Vermont ran a gag-inducing editorial calling on the state legislature to approve a law allowing the police to pull people over for not wearing their seat belts. In calling on Vermont lawmakers to take a so-brave stand against unbuckled drivers, the editorial board went beyond the issue at hand to make a remarkably obnoxious argument for the nanny state.

No one wants to live in a nanny state. But neither do we want to live in a state of ignorance. The ongoing adoption of public health laws designed to protect us from ourselves follows increased knowledge about what we are doing to ourselves. Laws prohibiting smoking in public places followed when evidence became widely known that people were poisoning themselves and others. Laws requiring us to buckle up make a simple point that, if we aren't wedded to our own stubbornness, we ought to accept... [T]he real reason for the Senate to augment the enforcement powers of the police with regard to seat belt use is to save the lives of those who might not otherwise take the commonsense action necessary to save themselves.

Translation: It's all right to allow people to make choices so long as they make the right choices. If they make the wrong choices, our enlightened political leaders should make decisions for them.

Bleecch. We've heard that nonsense before. Freedom is only for the righteous--with righteousness defined by whoever has the whip hand. It's a concept of freedom that blames the slave for his own bondage. "If only you were a better person, I wouldn't have to beat you so hard."

It's government as domineering mother, forbidding us to play with the other kids because we might get hurt.

Is there any more fundamental rejection of the whole concept of free choice?

For those who need a refresher (like certain editorial board members): The whole idea of freedom is that people have a right to make their own decisions--and then to bear the consequences of their choices. If you don't like seatbelts, don't wear them; but don't go crying to anybody else if you wind up as your own hood ornament.

The freedom to make decisions for ourselves--whether for good or ill--is what gives our lives value. We can use that freedom to make of our lives what we will.

Life without the freedom to make our own choices may be safer, but it isn't worth living.

The Times Argus may be a small newspaper in a sleepy state, but its finger-wagging editorial lies on the leading edge of pernicious for-your-own-good thinking. The May 2007 issue of Reason has a great piece by Jacob Sullum (not online yet, but keep checking) on the extent to which public health arguments are increasingly being bent to infringe on personal freedom. The reasoning is the same as in the excerpt above: People make bad choices that negatively affect their health, so the state should step in to take away their options. The nanny-staters are ready to substitute their preferences for our own in areas of life as personal as what we eat, what we watch on TV and the activities we permit our children to enjoy. And whether we wear seat belts, of course.

The world envisioned by nanny-staters like the Times Argus editorial board may well be one in which we all live a little longer, but I suspect each passing moment would be a joyless, low-fat, sensible one. We would soon be praying for a shot of whiskey and five minutes, helmet-less, on a motorcycle.


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Control-freakery at the FCC

The federal government is apparently preparing to break out its blue pencils. Specifically, the Federal Communications Commission is poised to expand its power and launch a political jihad against violent television programming. According to The Washington Post:

Federal regulators, concerned about the effect of television violence on children, will recommend that Congress enact legislation to give the government unprecedented powers to curb violence in entertainment programming, according to government and TV industry sources.

You'll notice that the news report says "entertainment programming," not just "broadcast TV." That's because the FCC wants to dramatically extend its power beyond its traditional dominion over the "public" airwaves to programming carried over completely private cables and satellite links.

The report -- commissioned by members of Congress in 2004 and based on hundreds of comments from parents, industry officials, academic experts and others -- concludes that Congress has the authority to regulate "excessive violence" and to extend its reach for the first time into basic-cable TV channels that consumers pay to receive.

That's an enormous step that is guaranteed to run into legal challenges---and certainly runs afoul of the First Amendment. Until now, the FCC has claimed authority over broadcast television and radio because they use the public airwaves. Cable and satellite don't use public resources, so should be exempt from government censorship according to the usual line of reasoning.

In fact, the whole legally suspect concept of "public" airwaves was originally invoked (PDF file) by then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover and his corporate buddies as an end-run around private property and free-speech protections. That's right, the traditional argument that the FCC can regulate radio and television because they use the public airwaves has it exactly backwards; the airwaves were declared "public" so that the government could impose regulation on them.

So the FCC would seem to be testing the waters to see if it can extend its writ over media that have previously been immune to censorship.

The immediate catalyst for the FCC's move--beyond the bureaucratic imperative to accumulate power, of course--is the supposed rise in violent programming on television. Popular shows are supposedly growing more violent and, just as important, parents aren't exercising sufficient discretion over the programs their children see. Sufficient discretion to satisfy FCC commissioners, that is.

This is bad, we're told, because children ought not be allowed to view whatever qualifies as excessive violence.

I'll admit that I fall among those parents exercising what regulators no doubt consider insufficient discretion. I've never used the v-chip in my TV set, and I'm not about to start. I don't even use my satellite television company's handy-dandy parental controls. I might use those in the future, but I doubt it. I'm just not that terribly concerned that my kid might watch a bit of violence on the tube. I watched the three stooges and roadrunner cartoons as a child, and I survived the experience relatively unwarped.

And that's my choice to make.

Other parents have different standards, of course. For them, parental controls ranging from the v-chip to parental controls to the ever-present "off"-switch are always at-hand. They can use them, or not, as they please.

So, what bothers FCC commissioners isn't violence on television per se, but that many parents have their own opinions about how much violence their children should be allowed to see. Parents are exercising control--just not always the degree and type of control that regulators and politicians prefer.

The FCC isn't trying to protect kids from nasty television executives, but from the preferences of their own parents.

We don't need this sort of nanny-state second-guessing; it's intrusive, and it's insulting.

Let's see if the courts will stick to original principles and let the First Amendment keep the FCC at bay.


Monday, April 23, 2007

A good case for jury nullification

Marijuana expert Ed Rosenthal, widely known as the "guru of ganja" won't be allowed to argue in his second drug trial on the same charges that he was growing marijuana for the City of Oakland under California's medical marijuana law. Rosenthal has already served his sentence of one day in prison, but his conviction was overturned by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for jury misconduct. Prosecutors plan to try Rosenthal again, even though he can't be sentenced to any more time. Facing a second round of courtroom antics, Rosenthal's best hope may lie with an activist jury.

Why are the feds bothering to spend time and money pursuing Rosenthal through pointless court proceedings?

It appears that the powers-that-be just don't like to let people slip through their grasp--even when any conviction they win in the case will have little more than symbolic value.

Kangaroo trial though this is, the bar against Rosenthal using a medical marijuana defense may have real impact. After the last trial, jurors freshly informed of his status as an official grower for Oakland, apologized to the man they had just convicted and called for a new trial. Clearly, they regretted their votes and would have probably decided on a "not guilty" verdict had they known all the facts in the case. Depriving the new set of jurors of the same information may result in a repeat performance--unless widespread publicity for the case can accomplish what the judge won't permit defense counsel to do.

Rosenthal's best hope is that jurors will have heard about this case and will be incensed by the prosecution. Then, hopefully, they'll engage in jury nullification--that is, they'll vote "not guilty" no matter what the law may say.

Of course, in the wake of widespread calls for nullification and the heartfelt denunciation of their own verdict by the last batch of jurors, prosecutors will be on the lookout for potential jurors who are, shall we say, less than enthusiastic about the war on drugs. They'll be plucked from the pool as soon as they're discovered.

But there are ways of surviving voir dire--the screening process--as attorney Clay Conrad has outlined in this handy guide for the concerned juror. It's not pre-ordained that every juror who follows the news must be rejected.

Hmmm. Do any of you Californians know somebody who has been called for jury duty?

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Land grabs Mediterranean-style

Eminent domain isn't just a threat to Americans; Spaniards and foreigners who own property in the Valencia region of Spain are under the gun, too.

The long-running row is over a 1994 Valencia land and town planning law, under which the local authority has so far allowed at least 20,000 compulsory purchases.

The Spanish government says the aim is to ensure that community development plans are not blocked by individual landowners.

But the law has been used to reclassify rural land as urban without the owners' permission - effectively giving developers compulsory purchase rights on foreign-owned homes at a fraction of the market value. Unscrupulous developers can claim back existing properties or portions of land - and charge the occupiers to contribute to the cost of installing roads and drains.

Even worse, the law allows authorities to seize some land without compensation. it even allows them to force property owners to foot part of the bill for the grab.

The report also states that the contentious land laws can oblige property owners to "give up 10 per cent of their land without compensation and [face] an arbitrary financial charge - which can amount to tens of thousands of euros - without consultation of those who own the land".

Talk about your bold-faced, legalized theft.


Saturday, April 21, 2007

Feds fail privacy test--again

Oh joy. Yet another fumbling breach of personal privacy by our fearless leaders:

The Social Security numbers of up to 63,000 people who received Agriculture Department grants have been posted on a government Web site since 1996, but they were taken down last week.

Since 1996? The feds posted identity-theft bait for over ten years, even while burdening the private sector with burdensome and bureaucratic privacy "protections" like HIPAA?

Why am I not surprised?

The problem, of course, isn't just that some federal bureaucrats blindly went about the business of posting personal information, including Social Security numbers, without thinking about the consequences. That, frankly, is only to be expected of the sort of people who make a life of government employment. The real problem is that Social Security numbers have become such potent identifiers for tagging and tracking Americans that simply revealing them can be potentially dangerous.

If you were to deliberately devise a scheme more fraught with peril for privacy, it would be hard to beat a system that links all of the legally revealing and financially sensitive data of people's lives through a common identifying number that can be exploited by anybody who gains its possession. But we can't even point to a clear-cut villain. As far as I know, nobody set out to make the Social Security number as all-powerful and malignant as it is; we just sort of stumbled into that situation. Government officials have a seemingly innate desire to centralize their control and oversight of information about the world through which they stumble, and the Social Security number was a handy for achieving that end.

The fact that it was a really stupid idea was just an added bonus for people accustomed to meeting the "good enough for government work" standard.

I don't know that the situation is fixable short of weaning the government off its urge to control everything and everyone--and really, I don't see that happening anytime soon.

Maybe the only solution at hand is to feed the government's bottomless appetite for information with as much inaccurate nonsense as possible. The Social Security number might be a bit less of an inviting target for thieves and bureaucrats if the information it reveals can't be relied upon.


Friday, April 20, 2007

Thin blue line in action

On his blog, Radley Balko has a jaw-dropping first-hand account of a SWAT raid on a poker club in Dallas.

Think of the dangers involved in staging a paramilitary assault to enforce laws against gambling--one wrong move and somebody could have been shot. Think of the costs involved. Think of ... oh hell, just read it and weep.


Thursday, April 19, 2007

I'll drink to that!

John McCardell, president emeritus of Middlebury College in Vermont and a professor of history at the school, is getting a lot of traction with his call to re-examine the de facto national drinking age of 21. He's founded an organization, Choose Responsibility, that modestly puts forward strong evidence that the federally enforced hike in the drinking age has actually eroded responsible drinking habits and led to more binge drinking and antagonistic relations between young adults and school authorities and police.

Damn straight.

I came of age just before the national crusade to deprive people of voting age of the right to legally drink alcohol got underway. I drank legally at age 18, for a while, attended a college with a campus pub and accepting attitude toward dormitory parties, then watched as a sort of mini-Prohibition changed the culture and forced drinking into roughly the same patterns as consumption of completely illegal drugs.

When I was 18, drinking usually meant going to a bar and buying beer. We drank, but we were much more likely to get blotto on weed than on alcohol. Frankly, getting tanked on legal alcohol was a bit expensive for our budgets, and the social setting in bars discouraged
complete obliteration.

When the drinking age jumped, our first concern was to get fake IDs. I did a good job of altering my driver's license with Letraset dry-transfer numbers and letters, and then re-laminating the card with book-binding tape. In fact, I did such a good job that other people asked me to the same for them; pretty soon, I was a go-to guy at college for false documents. It was a lucrative calling.

But not everybody had fake ID. So the social scene moved, increasingly, to private parties. Those of us with ID bought the booze; everybody drank. The environment was a bit less inhibited than at the bars we still frequented; weed, coke and other drugs circulated freely with the beer and shots. I distinctly remember price lists of a range of drugs posted on the walls at off-campus gatherings.

I may have been a good forger, but I wasn't the best. My business dropped off after a while, and I heard rumors of a faster, cheaper source operating in the basement of one of the dormitories. I went to check it out and found a line longer than the one at the state Registry of Motor Vehicles. In fact, I found the same Polaroid equipment in use as at the state Registry of Motor Vehicles. If I remember right, customers had their choice of Pennsylvania or Delaware driver's licenses--at ten bucks a pop less than I charged.

I was a craft forger, put out of business by mass production. Oh, the harsh laws of competition.

So, of course, the fun continued. Drinking was now an illegal activity, enabled by more law-breaking, and engaged in in concert with yet more transgressions of local, state and federal statutes. From buying a beer at a time at the campus pub or the local watering hole, we moved to doing funnels and flaming shots in friends' apartments--and maybe did a line or two to keep things going until dawn.

That's why McCardell's argument makes enormous sense to me based on personal experience. The transition from the relatively easy-going bar-hopping of my earliest experience to the underground partying of ... wow ... only a year later, was a powerful lesson in the distorting effect of prohibition.

It's not that we didn't over-indulge when alcohol was legal for 18-year-olds--we did. But we almost exclusively over-indulged and combined our drinking with other transgressive behavior when the drinking age rose to 21.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I can think of strong philosophical reasons as to why the government shouldn't be allowed to tell people when they can and can't drink, but McCardell makes a convincing pragmatic case that should convince even people skeptical of the idea of limiting state power.


Property rights measure proves its worth

I note with satisfaction that Arizona's Proposition 207, a strong property rights measure approved by almost two-thirds of state voters this past election day, is already bearing fruit. Specifically, the Phoenix City Council backed off its designation of a crime-ridden dump as a historic site, freeing the property's ambitious owner, Scott Haskins, to level the deteriorating apartments at the site to make way for a new development that will spruce up the neighborhood while providing, hopefully, a nice return on the initial investment.

Had the historical designation remained in place, Haskins would have been forced to beg and scrape before city officials for permission to build structures that met their approval.

The city council didn't back off out of the goodness of its power-hungry little hearts, of course. They backed off because Haskins threatened a $40 million lawsuit for devaluing his land--which, under Prop. 207, he stood a very good chance of winning.

Every now and then, the good guys score.


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

When playing by the rules makes no sense

The mass-murder at Virginia Technical University makes explicitly clear something that many of us had known all along: People are at their most vulnerable in those places that pride themselves on disarming residents and visitors. I think it's time that those of us who care about our safety stop being so solicitous of rules that put us at risk.

As I write, I'm in the comfortable position of residing in a state that has a relatively liberal concealed-carry law, and that is very accepting of open carry of firearms. Where I live, it's common to walk into Wal-Mart and see people strolling around with guns strapped to their hips. Nobody bats an eyelash.

But I carry a gun much less frequently here than I did when I lived in New York City where doing so is essentially forbidden.

In New York, I felt a sense of danger that I've never encountered in Arizona. The crime rate was high, I lived in a borderline neighborhood (Avenue B in the East Village -- since gentrified) and I worked the night shift for part of my residency there. I've never believed that the government has the right to disarm me, and I adhere to the pragmatic belief that it's better to be tried by 12 than carried by six. As a result, I almost always had either a pistol or a knife (or both) in my pocket as I traveled the streets of the city.

I actually pulled the pistol once, late at night on Avenue B. Two guys on the otherwise abandoned street made straight for me, cutting across the avenue at an angle. I pulled my gun and backed up. They both raised their hands and laughed. One said, "you got us!" Then they walked off.

Make of it what you will.

All of this time, of course, I acted in complete violation of city and state law. Had I been caught, the authorities would, no doubt, have thrown the book at me--they certainly did to other people in similar circumstances. It was a balance of risks; I felt that carrying a gun was a risk worth taking.

For students at Virginia Tech, carrying a gun is a balance of risks, too. The school has a policy against carrying weapons, despite state law allowing concealed carry for people who submit to the permitting process. the school has a track record of punishing people who violate its rule. So there's a risk inherent in carrying a gun in violation of school policy.

But if somebody had flouted that policy on Monday, a lot more people might have survived the day.

That's because criminals, whether mass murderers like Cho Seung-Hui, or simple street criminals of the sort that confronted me on Avenue B, never even consider abiding by policies against weapons. Such policies disarm only potential victims, not the people who prey on them.

Many people of a libertarian bent will agree with me that government officials--including the administrators of public universities like Virginia Tech--have no legitimate authority to restrict the rights of individuals. Laws against carrying a gun might carry risks for violators, but they are morally null and void.

But what if Virginia Tech was a private school? Many liberty-minded folks tell us that private parties have a right to set the conditions for use of their facilities; you either accept the conditions or go elsewhere.

In an abstract sense, I think that argument is correct. But I think it runs up against concerns about privacy--and triviality--that rightly keep us from applying the same principle to other areas of life.

If you stop by the home of a militant anti-smoker, for instance, you're certainly not going to light up in her living room--that would be rude. But you're unlikely to empty your pockets of smoking materials and lock them in the glove box before crossing the threshold. You respect your host's right to regulate behavior in her home, but you probably don't think that you should bother to extend your consideration as far as what you have lying inert in your pockets.

Likewise, if you visit the offices of a vegetarian organization, you're probably not going to start chewing on a piece of beef jerky in the reception area. But you're unlikely to trouble yourself over your leather belt or the ham sandwich sitting uneaten in your briefcase. You're not shoving these items in your hosts' faces, so even though they may be technical violations of house policies, they're not worth fretting over.

So why the big concern over carrying a gun where they're not welcome?

Guns have been stigmatized of course. But that's a political consideration. Objectively, there's no reason to treat them differently than an errant stogie or a ham sandwich. You shouldn't target shoot with a pistol where it's unwelcome, but I see no reason why you should unholster a weapon where it's officially proscribed any more than you should empty your pockets of other personal items just to satisfy a host's intrusive fetishes.

Besides, unlike a gun, a stogie or a ham sandwich is unlikely to save your life.

In the wake of Virginia Tech, we still have to balance the risks we face when we violate oppressive rules. But we don't owe those rules any special deference.


Montana bucks Real ID

With a stroke of the pen, Montana has thrown the gauntlet down to the federal government over D.C.'s contentious Real ID requirements. Gov. Brian Schweitzer signed legislation that forbids the state's Department of Motor Vehicles to implement the national rules, which are intended to turn state-issued driver's licenses into de facto national ID cards.

While Montana is the first state to take the plunge, as many as 30 states are considering moves of some sort or another against the Real ID requirements. The more states the merrier, because non-compliant driver's licenses won't be accepted as legitimate ID for transactions with the federal government. The feds will probably let one hold-out state dangle in the breeze, but if a significant percentage of the national population is non-compliant, D.C. will be forced to back down.


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Laws for the little folks

If you needed any further evidence that nanny state laws are intended to apply only to us peons and not to our political masters, take the recent automobile accident suffered by New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine for example.

The Garden State is one of the more intrusive and authoritarian jurisdictions in the country. At one time, the state actually barred restaurants from serving eggs soft-boiled or sunnyside-up, alleging that eggs served that way are "undercooked" and not fit for consumption. And it's a primary-enforcement state for seat belt laws, meaning the police can pull you over and issue a ticket for nothing more than failing to buckle up in your own car.

But Corzine, the chief executive of New Jersey, wasn't wearing his belt. And he was sitting next to a state trooper -- his chauffeur -- while flouting the state law. Clearly, Governor Corzine didn't expect his driver to pivot in his seat and write him a ticket. After all, he's the governor of the state, and so above such petty concerns as the myriad laws his subjects are bound to obey. He clearly assumed, correctly, that no police officer would dare to call him on his violation of the statute.

Corzine didn't want to wear a seat belt, so he didn't. But he has never called for a repeal of the state law that has resulted in unpleasant encounters with the police for other state residents who share his attitude toward seat belts, but lack the political clout to escape punishment.

Let's face it. It's good to be king.

Update: It turns out that Governor Corzine's car was traveling at 91 mph--well over the 65 mph speed limit. Can you say "sense of entitlement"?


Monday, April 16, 2007

Grim news

The news from Blacksburg, Virginia, couldn't be worse. A lone man apparently went on a rampage and killed 30 people before he either killed himself or was shot by police.

Trying to draw lessons from a savage amok attack like this is often pointless--dedicated killers will always find a way to arm themselves and attack their victims. But I can't help but contrast this situation with the 2002 shooting at the Appalachian Law School, which ended when two armed students drew their weapons and disarmed the shooter.

My understanding is that Virginia Tech University doesn't allow its students to carry weapons. I sincerely wish at least one student had defied that rule.


Police profiling revealed

Five years ago, says The Washington Post, in a report published earlier this month, "[a] secret FBI intelligence unit helped detain a group of war protesters in a downtown Washington parking garage in April 2002 and interrogated some of them on videotape about their political and religious beliefs..."

The kicker:

The probable cause to arrest the protesters as they retrieved food from their parked van? They were wearing black -- a color choice the FBI and police associated with anarchists, according to the police records.

So the cops rousted a group of war protesters because their affinity for basic (and always tasteful) black indicated ... what? That they had unacceptable political views? I'm having a hard time seeing how a form of free expression (style of dress) is license for law-enforcement authorities to put the squeeze on people over a form of freedom off conscience (political beliefs).

Am I nuts? Or does this smack of a First Amendment violation twice over?

Well, to avoid unpleasant any unpleasant interrogations the future might bring my way, let me come clean about my own political beliefs and sartorial tastes.

First of all, I'm anti-war, although I rarely attend protests. I wouldn't want my absence at any given rally to mislead the FBI.

Second, I rarely wear black these days. I prefer bright colors with contrasting earth tones. I might wear a red, patterned shirt under a beige sportcoat with a pair of dark-wash jeans. I also own a very nice, navy-blue suit.

Don't let my colorful attire fool you, though. I'm really a rather desperate character.

In addition to my anti-war views, I hate taxes, oppose drug prohibition, support the right to bear arms and I'm fanatically in favor of free speech. I'm also skeptical about the whole enterprise of government to the point of a pragmatic anarchism. that is, I'm not sure we'll ever be able to do away with the state, but I think we'd be better off without it.

Does that earn me an interrogation by a "secret FBI intelligence unit?"

I'll feel neglected if it doesn't.

Oh well, maybe I should break out that old pair of black Levis.

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Some thoughts on tax day

Today is April 15, "tax day" in most years, although this year we have a two-day reprieve, giving us all 48 more glorious hours to fret over incomprehensible forms and battle long lines at the post office. Yippee.

My wife and I cut substantial checks to both the Arizona and federal governments this year, reflecting the penalties built into the system for daring to make business investments. Of course, we're supposed to feel grateful, because our accountant was able to take advantage of IRS rules that reduced the hit below what it would have been if our tax preparer didn't have a wizardly mastery of tax arcanery. So the experience has been a bit more like getting our pockets picked than like full-blown highway robbery. Again, yippee.

I find myself underwhelmed by the small favors the tax system throws my way because, in the end, I still get soaked to pay for something I despise. The fact is, I have no interest in supporting government in any way. I consider the institution of government to be nothing more than organized crime, and I'm all too aware of the damage done with the dollars I so reluctantly remit to the tax man.

There is, for instance, the ongoing "war on drugs," in the waging of which government agents use my money to threaten, kidnap and kill people who choose to use officially disfavored intoxicants. Even when narcs aren't doing damage of their own accord, they leave people open to the depredations of the sort of underworld figures who flock to illegal markets.

Then there is the enforcement of the spiderweb of regulations touted as necessary to twenty-first century life. I had a close-up and personal recent experience with some of that red tape when my wife and I joined in a partnership to construct a commercial building. The various permits and fees added thousands of dollars to our costs, and we ended up in a race against the clock to get an "occupancy permit" that would allow us to move a business into our own building. All of this in a supposedly "business-friendly" community.

And let's not forget the continuing fiasco in Iraq, wherein our fearless leaders expend dollars -- and lives, and bullets -- by the wholesale lot, allegedly to impose democracy on a country from the top down. It's an increasingly pointless fiasco that illustrates the inability of government officials to learn from their own mistakes.

Given the theft of our money to be used to do harm, why do we continue to submit to the tax man?

Some people pay their tax bills because of a misguided sense of civic responsibility. Our government schools (tax-funded, of course) are very effective at inculcating the idea that we are nothing but lost children without mother and father state, and that we should be happy for the opportunity to surrender a lion's share of our hard-earned funds for whatever purposes our political leaders choose.

Others pay taxes out of inertia. Especially with withholding taxes, it's easier to continue paying than to stop.

And many of us, myself included, grudgingly pay the bill because the government, quite bluntly, has more guns than us. We feel no obligation to the institution, but we fear it for a host of good reasons. For certain, it kills rather efficiently and indiscriminately. We'll pay as long as the government is strong, and we'll stop as soon as it loses its edge.

And just as all good things must come to an end, so do bad things. That day can't come soon enough.


Friday, April 13, 2007

Reality check

Radley Balko puts the whole Don Imus tempest-in-a-teapot into much-needed perspective.

By the way, I agree with Balko that Imus used to be hilariously funny -- but that was a long time ago.


Thursday, April 12, 2007

Development in the Kathryn Johnston case

There's news from Atlanta, Georgia, where 88-year-old Kathryn Johnston was shot dead by police during a botched drug raid on her home. The warrant the police used to raid Johnston's home was apparently based on bogus information, raising the possibility of murder charges against the officers involved in the incident.

To escape a murder trial for his role in the raid, former narcotics officer Gregg Junnier has apparently reached a plea deal with federal and state authorities. The deal opens up the intriguing possibility that Junnier could end up testifying against his partners in uniformed crime.

It's rare that prosecutors go after police officers for their misconduct in botched raids. But then, it's rare that police leave behind as their victim a little old lady who can't be construed in any reasonable way as a threat to the public welfare. More often, the body is that of a relatively healthy man who has had a brush or two with the law that leaves wiggle room for officers to claim they feared for their lives.

But reports of such lethal and near-lethal incidents have been piling up as the frequency of paramilitary-style police raids has increased. With some police departments now using SWAT tactics to serve warrants for even minor transgressions, it's inevitable that tragic results will ensue.

So keep an eye on the Kathryn Johnston case. More developments are likely to be forthcoming -- and it may help change the way law-enforcement officers go about their business.


Class dunce

This from ZDNet:

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security received its first-ever non-failing grade, while the federal government as a whole recorded incremental improvements on an annual computer security report card released Thursday by a congressional committee.

Got that? Homeland Security, the agency that, as far as I can tell, is in charge of annoying us at airports and keeping us all confused with an incomprehensible, color-coded "national threat advisory" -- all in the name of "security" -- has finally managed to pull a barely passing "D" grade on its in-house computer security.


The turning point came, apparently, when DHS took an inventory of its security systems, a step toward knowing what it needs to protect, if it ever gets around to protecting that stuff.


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Now that's zero tolerance

In the U.S., paramilitary police units are regularly used to roust people for non-violent drug offenses, and have even been dispatched to disrupt poker games. The results can be deadly for people on the receiving end of the raids -- and also for police officers invading private homes.

Believe it or not, though, it could be worse.

According to The Daily Telegraph of the U.K.:

More than a million motorists a year face having bailiffs force their way into their homes to collect unpaid parking fines under legislation before MPs.

Action could be taken even when the motorist is unaware that a ticket has been issued or that the debt has been pursued through the civil courts.

Raids on homes to collect parking tickets? You better believe it. Parking fines are big business all over -- and in the U.K., local authorities have been gaining the authority to keep fines. That gives them enormous incentive to issue tickets -- and to use any means allowed to collect their pound of flesh.

The Brits have been enthusiastically adopting American policing tactics as it is, including SWAT raids for peaceful drug infractions. Inevitable, that has led to frightening consequences, including police battering down the doors of innocent people. This may be the first time that the mother country has taken the lead on violent law enforcement, by invoking brutal tactics for the most trivial reasons.

Of course, the big difference between the U.K. and the U.S. is that Britons are much less likely to shoot back at cops than are their American cousins. Strict gun control laws mean that law-abiding people have relatively little access to firearms (real criminals, as always, can get any weapons they want). That means that police officers can kick in doors with little concern for the consequences.

So, if the idea of enforcing parking laws is going to be adopted in the U.S., look for the tactic to take root in some relatively disarmed jurisdiction.

Any New Yorkers out there?

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Monday, April 9, 2007

Pssst! Wanna buy a hot computer?

As if you didn't have enough to worry about during this festive tax season, now it turns out that the Internal Revenue Service is practically giving away sensitive data -- and expensive computer equipment on which to read it.

According to a report (PDF file) issued last month by the Treasury Department's Office of the Inspector General for Tax Administration, "IRS employees reported the loss or theft of at least 490 computers between January 2, 2003, and June 13, 2006." This is of special interest to taxpayers because "employees were not properly encrypting data on the computer devices, and password controls over laptop computers were not adequate. As a result, it is likely that sensitive data for a significant number of taxpayers have been unnecessarily exposed to potential identity theft and/or other fraudulent schemes."

So it's not enough that the feds require us all to reveal the details of our financial lives and much of our personal information to tax collectors. That information is also stored with minimum safeguards and made available to anybody with larceny in his heart and a modicum of opportunity.

How clever did the laptop thieves have to be? Not terribly. The report continues: "because a large number of laptop computers were stolen from vehicles and employees’ residences, employees may not have secured their laptop computers in the trunks of their vehicles or locked their laptop computers at home. Further, because 111 incidents occurred within IRS facilities, employees were likely not storing their laptop computers in lockable cabinets while the employees were away from the office."

Wait a minute. So IRS employees are taking sensitive taxpayer data home and leaving it lying around in the trunks of their cars?

Wow. Modern government may be Leviathan, but it's the sort of Leviathan personified by a particularly tiny-brained species of dinosaur. We may all get trampled underfoot more by accident than design.

Think happy thoughts as you get ready to mail in your 1040 form. Just try not to consider where all that information you're volunteering will end up.

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Friday, April 6, 2007

Cycling for free speech

Pro-bicycle advocates in New York City got to mix a little free-speech activism in with their pedaling last week. The city has tried and failed to shut down the monthly Critical Mass group rides through the Rotten Apple's streets, so the NYPD tried another tactic: A new rule requiring any assembly of 50 or more people to get a permit to gather in public.

To their credit, the cyclists didn't knuckle under, but jumped on their two-wheelers in defiance of the restriction. Many even wore shirts numbered from 1-50 so the police couldn't miss the point of the protest.

The police didn't oblige by handing the cyclists a First Amendment court case. According to The Village Voice:

Rather the cops hit people up for a host of minor traffic violations like failing to keep to the right, not having a headlight, or not riding in the bike lane—even though there is no bike lane on Park Avenue.

This being New York City, the cops even found time to rough up one cyclist.

Things did get a bit nastier uptown. One 21-year old woman was charged with felony assault for "kicking, punching, and biting several officers" after they wrestled her to the ground in Times Square. She was also charged with criminal possession of a folding knife and resisting arrest. According to activists who videotaped the incident, the woman was on the sidewalk taking close-ups of police and their badges when she was "violently knocked to the ground" by half a dozen police officers. Police declined to comment on that allegation, saying only, "she was arrested for assaulting an officer."
Having lived in Manhattan for much of my life, I can't begin to see the attraction of bicycling through the city's streets on a regular basis. Too many drivers there will happily play
street polo -- with a cyclist as the ball.

But I'm always impressed when people stand up for their rights. The authorities need to know that a good chunk of the population is willing to stare them down over intrusive and oppressive laws.

As Councilwoman Rosie Mendez said, "To criminalize the behavior of individuals assembling in groups over 50 is arbitrary and unconstitutional."

The powers-that-be won't get away with pulling a fast one if enough people stand up to them.


Legal limbo for medical marijuana

The San Luis Obispo New Times covers the problems medical marijuana dispensaries face from the conflict between state and federal law. While California explicitly permits the medical use of marijuana and its growth and distribution for that purpose, the feds consider all uses of marijuana illegal and act accordingly.

The article strongly suggests that local police agencies that disapprove of California's relatively lenient attitude toward marijuana actively court DEA intervention as an end-run around state law. The result is legal limbo for medical marijuana activists who never know if a joint task force of local and federal police will come calling.


Thursday, April 5, 2007

A good reason to dodge the census

The very excellent Claire Wolfe has a fascinating post on recent revelations about the Census Bureau's role in the contemptible mass arrest and detention of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

That it's taken so long to extract this information from the federal government is testimony to official embarrassment about the use of census data to commit an enormous civil liberties violation.

That it happened at all is an excellent reason to avoid surrendering personal data to the government.

True story: When the census came around in 1990, I reported that my roommate and I were a family of ten Samoans living on less than $10,000 per year. If I remember correctly, I also claimed we had no indoor plumbing.

In 2000, my funnybone was a bit less ticklish, so I just closed the door on the official snoop who showed up when I failed to return my form.


Just a pinch ...

This news item from Kentucky convincingly sums-up the fraud behind much of the anti-tobacco crusade that's currently wagging its accusatory finger at smokers from coast to coast:

The Sports Flash (TSF) Radio Network and Get Healthy Kentucky (GHK) are collaborating to reduce tobacco use in the commonwealth, launching the Kentucky “No Spit” All-Star campaign.

This unique health promotion will take place throughout high school baseball season and will honor players who have taken the pledge not to use smokeless tobacco products, such as “spit” or “chew” tobacco. The campaign, which starts this week, coincides with the beginning of baseball season.

Tobacco prohibitionists usually salt their campaigns with arguments about second-hand smoke; it's all about the folks who don't want to breathe in your fumes, don't you know. So smokeless tobacco would seem to be a perfect solution. There are no second-hand effects, since the product remains in the mouth and emits nothing that can be consumed by any person other than the user.

Not surprisingly, in an age of creeping smoking bans, smokeless tobacco -- especially new forms of the product -- is experiencing a boom in popularity. It's even healthier than the incendiary variety.

A win-win situation for everybody, right?

Wrong. The nannies may be at a loss for good examples of unwilling snuff users, but that doesn't mean they've run out of prohibitionist vigor. Now the facade falls away. Campaigns against smokeless tobacco are for your own good.

Forget about any of the silly personal-choice business.

How long do you think it will be before tobacco is just flat-out outlawed?

And will there be a measurable increment of time between the passage of that ban and the appearance of the first underground tobacco dealer?


Who wants to burn a draft card?

Rep. John "Porkmeister" Murtha has made something of a name for himself over the past couple of years for something more than merely soaking the taxpayers; he's established himself as a critic of the Iraq War with the military cred to back up his opinions. Now he's found a way to combine his two callings into one neato package by agitating for a revival of the military draft.

Calling for a return to conscription, Murtha told CNN host Wolf Blitzer, "I think it's absolutely needed."

He elaborated to the Associated Press, "A draft is the fairest way -- if we're going to fight a war -- to fight it, because everybody has responsibility. Everybody should share in this responsibility. Everybody should have the chance to serve."

Actually, Murtha's support for a military draft isn't knew -- he was one of only two legislators to vote for Charlie Rangel's conscription bill. But Murtha is now chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, which puts him in a position to influence policy -- not just tweak the majority as he did as a member of the opposition. That suggests that he's serious about resorting to slavery to fill boots and uniforms.

The argument most often voiced by people like Murtha and Rangel in defense of conscription is that it's somehow "fairer" to "share the burden" of military service across society -- not just among those who choose to sign enlistment papers. The subtext to the argument is that widespread conscription will somehow make it harder to engage in foreign adventures; people will flood the streets to protest against unpopular wars, preventing political leaders from sending troops hither and yon.

But "fairness" seems an odd description to apply to involuntary servitude. How is it fair to force people to risk their lives for causes they don't choose -- or else to suffer imprisonment and criminal records? Simply put, conscription is slavery. There's nothing "fair" about it.

And the odd concept that handing politicians a ready supply of cannon fodder will somehow inhibit their hawkish fantasies flies in the face of historical experience. In the realm of less-than-popular conflicts, both the Korean and Vietnamese wars were fought with conscript armies. People may get nostalgic over the anti-war protests that accompanied the latter struggle, but our troops were still there for a decade.

Doesn't it make more sense to assume that unpopular wars will reduce the ranks of voluntary enlistees, more effectively curtailing such conflicts than the ticked-off friends and neighbors of draftees ever could?

Unfortunately, with John Murtha now wielding real power, we have a better chance than ever of testing the worth of competing theories of military recruitment.


Wednesday, April 4, 2007

No refuge for the overtaxed

The Wall Street Journal covers congresscritters' latest attempt to prevent Americans from seeking refuge from confiscatory confiscation overseas -- and to punish countries that would dare to offer a relatively friendly, low-tax environment to anybody seeking such a haven. Two separate bills would penalize Americans who invest in a blacklist of low-tax jurisdictions, effectively subjecting them to double taxation.

Unfortunately, the Journal article is behind a subscription wall, but you can find a summary here.

This seems an appropriate time to republish a 2002 column I wrote in praise of tax havens. At the time I distributed it, the piece seemed to strike a chord; several newspapers picked it up. I think it's as appropriate today as it was four and a half years ago.

Tax havens provide refuge for the oppressed

Congress and the Internal Revenue Service have expended considerable effort in recent months in targeting overseas tax havens. Too many Americans are evading their fair share of the national tax burden, D.C. insiders say, by hiding money in offshore bank accounts and transferring their businesses to low-tax Bermuda.

"There's tremendous unity in the House that dodging American taxes is un-American," huffed Rep. Nancy L. Johnson of Connecticut.

The European Union shares American concerns about tax havens. In an effort to track down Europeans who hide money overseas, EU officials tout a Savings Tax Directive that would mandate exchanges of information between nations about accounts held by nonresidents. With the information in-hand, tax authorities could hunt down funds cached around the world.

Oddly, though, one of the offending tax havens targeted by the EU is the U.S. How's that? Isn't the U.S. government dedicated to battling outlaw nations which ally themselves with tax evaders?

Well, it turns out that "tax havens" are in the eye of the beholder. In a recent article about the tax-haven controversy, Charles Adams, author of "For Good and Evil," a history of taxation around the world, defined a haven as "a kind of economic sanctuary, a modern city of refuge for those oppressed with the fiscal laws of their homeland."

Adams compared the refuge offered by tax havens with the sanctuary that Canada offered American draft resisters who opposed the Vietnam War. Like those young men, modern tax resisters flee something that they find oppressive -- in this case, government officials with a taste for other people's money.

"The U.S. tax burden is dramatically lower than that of the EU, representing 29% of GDP, compared to the EU's 42% average," points out John Blundell of Britain's Institute of Economic Affairs. This makes the U.S. a tax haven, relative to Europe. "Partly as a consequence," says Blundell, "the record for annual foreign investment into America -- a key determinant of recent U.S. prosperity -- has been broken on an almost monotonous basis."

Were American politicians to give in to European demands and snitch about money invested in the relatively low-tax environment offered by the U.S., they'd be surrendering the country's "tax haven" status -- and the significant flow of investment capital that accompanies that outlaw appellation.

The Cato Institute's Veronique de Rugy estimates that the EU's financial information scheme would drive at least $1 trillion out of the U.S., were it to be adopted.

But tax haven status is a relative thing, and a haven for Europeans is still a hostile environment for Americans who want to hold on to their earnings. The IRS digs through credit card records in search of off-shore accounts and Congress denounces "corporate traitors" because many individuals and businesses based in the U.S. consider paying domestic tax rates akin to a mugging, and they do their best to hold on to their funds.

According to the Washington Post, "The United States, with its 35 percent corporate income tax and its byzantine rules for taxing worldwide profits, is not a particularly friendly tax environment." Europeans may disagree, but only because their own tax laws make even the U.S. tax code look inviting.

Like corporations, individuals find benefits in hiding income and investments in tax-friendly environments. The growth of the internet has put tax havens at the disposal of average Americans even as high rates and incomprehensible rules have made such havens increasingly attractive.

Even Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill conceded that "our tax code is an abomination," though he referred more to its complexity than to its appetite.

If the flight of people from financially oppressive governments is equivalent to similar escapes from political oppressive regimes, then crackdowns on tax havens take on a new and troubling light. The EU's Savings Tax Directive and the IRS's pressure on banks in the Caribbean start looking like the old Eastern Bloc's demands that West Germany surrender escapees to the authorities in East Berlin.

Rather than reduce their demands on their subjects, as the rulers of Eastern Europe were eventually forced to do, politicians in the U.S. and around the world want to create a worldwide financial regime that would leave no place to hide from avaricious tax collectors. Of course, such a cartel would succeed only if every single jurisdiction joined; but the current flow of European money to America, and U.S. funds to the Caribbean, give a foretaste of the benefits to be enjoyed by holdout nations.

"When governments tax too much, there is an iron law of history, that taxpayers will respond in some direction for relief," says Charles Adams. Such relief takes many forms, including fraud, flight and even violence. Throughout history, people have proven exceedingly talented at resisting excessive taxation.

In fact, governments that lower taxes have often found that money reemerges from hiding places, and that people prefer the security of transactions conducted at home, in the open, so long as the state's take isn't too large. In a now-classic example, vast funds returned to the U.S. "above-ground" economy when tax rates were lowered in the early 1980s.

If politicians really want money and businesses to stay at home, they should curb their appetites, and let people keep their hard-earned cash.


DIY journalist once again a free man

Crusading blogger and DIY journalist Josh Wolf is out of the hoosegow after 7 1/2 months as a guest of the federal government. He was jailed for contempt of court last August for defying a federal grand jury subpoena. The grand jury sought unpublished video footage and his testimony about a 2005 political protest during which a policeman was injured and an arson attempt was made on a police car.

In the agreement that secured his release, Wolf surrendered footage that he'd taken of the protest -- footage he'd offered to the court since the beginning of the ordeal -- and was excused from testifying about the people and events of the protest.

Wolf's record-setting imprisonment hinged largely on questions over his status as a journalist. Prosecutors argued that Wolf was not entitled to the consideration extended to journalists, even in the absence of a formal federal shield law, because he didn't work for a recognized news organization. Wolf's attorneys, and press organizations that rallied to his side, countered that Wolf works as a journalist and should be entitled to legal protections that come with that status.

As happy as I am that Wolf is out of prison, and as impressed as I am by his courage, I'm less convinced by the whole yes-he-is/no-he-isn't debate over his professional status. I've always been uncomfortable with the idea that reporters, by dint of their chosen occupations, are entitled to some special legal protections denied the rest of us amateur users of the First Amendment. Shield laws create a privileged class of people, and necessarily set the stage for battles over who should enjoy the government's recognition as a member of that class.

As the Wolf case demonstrates, those battles are destined to hinge on increasingly obscure points in an age when anybody with a computer and an entrepreneurial streak can reach a world-wide audience. The line separating Josh Wolf from Dan Rather gets fuzzier everyday -- and I don't think we want government bureaucrats determining who falls on which side.

The solution, as I see it, is to extend the same protections to everybody who acts in a journalistic capacity in any given situation. These days, anybody can be a member of the press, and the law should recognize that fact. Yes, that still creates scenarios in which courts will have to determine whether people are acting as journalists, but I think assessments of people's actions are subject to more objective review than determinations of their status. People employed by media organizations will probably enjoy an assumption that they act as members of the press, while the rest of us can also enjoy journalistic protections when we engage in appropriate conduct.

Those are my thoughts, anyway. What do you say?


Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Anti-war tax protest

With Americans due to get their collective pockets picked in less than two weeks, and the proceeds from that mass act of larceny going, in part, to fund the fiasco in Iraq, it's worthwhile to highlight the efforts of people who are actively expressing their disapproval of the whole process.

Dorothy Hansen used to pay her taxes faithfully every year - until the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Since then, she has stopped filing her income tax returns to show her disapproval of the war. ...

With the tax-filing deadline just two weeks away, some Bay Area residents are using it as an opportunity to protest the war by withholding their tax dollars to fund it.

Known as war tax resisters, they consider it an act of civil disobedience. Some withhold only a symbolic portion of what they owe - $10.40, for example, to represent the 1040 tax form - while others, like Hansen, refuse to pay anything at all. Many will redirect their tax dollars to a charity of their choice.

There are plenty of reasons to refuse to pay taxes -- if you have a little more courage than I have, that is. Simply wishing to hold on to your own money is a perfectly decent rationale. But a desire to keep your hard-earned dollars from funding a bloody foreign adventure is among the better reasons that occur to me.

The War Resisters League maintains a Website with helpful information about military spending and options for keeping your personal funds out of government hands -- even if only symbolically.


When cops turn into thugs

Pro Libertate has a fascinating roundup of the case of John Coffin, a Sarasota County, Florida man who defended his wife from two out-of-control police officers -- and lived to tell the tale.

Briefly, two deputies, John Lutz and Stacy Ferris, showed up at the Coffin home to serve legal papers related to a civil proceeding -- papers he'd already been served, as it turns out. Cynthia Coffin told them her husband was in the bathroom and closed the door on them. Apparently not trusting the officers to resist the temptation to enter the house uninvited, she then proceeded to lock doors and shutter windows. This seems to have enraged the officers, because they then (illegally) entered the garage, seized Cynthia Coffin, and wrestled her to the ground, dislocating her shoulder in the process.

John Coffin then entered the scene to find his wife screaming in pain. He proceeded to beat the living crap out of the deputies.

Surprisingly, once the case went to trial, Judge Rick De Furia dismissed all but one charge against John Coffin, saying he had a "right to resist." He sentenced Coffin to time served (eight days) on that remaining charge.

I say "surprisingly" because it's rare to see the legal system dredge from the depths of its collective memory the fact that mere civilians are not cattle to be herded by anybody with a uniform. All too often, the courts seem to treat a tin badge as a license to abuse and assault -- and to severely punish even the mildest resistance.

From rather humble beginnings, the police in the United States have been elevated to a stature above that of the people they are supposed to protect. Obedience to police is expected for even the most preposterous commands, police are themselves considered exempt from many of the laws they enforce, and crimes committed against police officers often carry greater penalties than those committed against average citizens.

All of this stands in stark contrast to the principles established by Sir Robert Peel, the father of modern policing, as the necessary basis for ethical law enforcement. In particular, principle 7 states:

Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent upon every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.

Judge De Furia, to his credit, recognized that Deputies Lutz and Ferris were just people who had stepped far beyond the bounds of their legitimate authority when they invaded the Coffin home and assaulted one of the residents. As such, they were subject to the use of defensive force just as if they were any street trash who had climbed in a window.

Hats off to John Coffin for having the courage and determination to go to his wife's assistance. And kudos to Judge De Furia for remembering that the police are no better than the rest of us.


Monday, April 2, 2007

Drop that remote control!

The Federal Communications Commission is set to release a report paving the way for increased regulation of television -- and politicians are poised to drive right down that road to increased censorship.

According to The National Journal: "The report concludes that Congress can regulate violent TV images without compromising the First Amendment."

That seems like a doubtful proposition to me, but I wouldn't be surprised if the courts backed up the FCC notwithstanding the actual words of the Constitution. Broadcast media have long been exempted from many legal protections for speech under the dubious claim that the airwaves are public property, and therefore subject to the whims of our political overlords who, it is claimed, represent the public.

But the fallout from the FCC's decision may extend beyond the already government-dominated sphere of broadcast media to relatively free cable and satellite operations. According to a press release on Senator Jay Rockefeller's (D-19th Century) Website: "Senator Rockefeller stated his plans to re-introduce legislation which would expand the FCC’s regulatory authority over indecent material to cable and satellite programming and would give the FCC explicit authority over violent programming."

It's hard to see how Sen. Rockefeller's ambitions square with the First Amendment. Broadcast stations may be subject to government regulation, but cable and satellite don't use the (allegedly) public airwaves. The government doesn't have a foot in the door to control content. That should, on its face, guarantee cable and satellite the same treatment as the print media, in terms of free speech protections.

That point will certainly wind up in court, if the good senator follows up on his vow to celebrate the FCC report with censorship legislation. Without doubt, it looks like it'll be a chancy year for freedom of expression.


Place your bets

The federal government's pleasure-hating crusade against online gambling lost big in a major decision (PDF file) by the World Trade Organization released Friday. It was a follow-up decision to one issued in 2005 that found U.S. law to be impermissibly discriminatory towards non-U.S. online gambling companies since the American ban on Internet gambling allows exceptions for placing wagers on horse races through U.S. companies. The government of the tiny nation of Antigua brought suit, arguing that the U.S. was dragging its heels on complying with the earlier decision.

Specifically, the WTO slapped U.S. representatives for pointing to the same three laws rejected by the earlier panel as evidence that that the U.S. was treating gambling companies consistently and complying with the 2005 ruling. The U.S. argument basically boiled down to a claim that the 2005 panel was wrong in its decision. That argument didn't fly with the WTO. Said the panel:

There has been no change to any of these three measures since the original proceeding. There has been no change in the application of these three measures, or even their interpretation, since the original proceeding. There is no evidence of any changes in the factual or legal background bearing on these measures or their effects since the original proceeding that might have brought them into compliance. This indicates that they remain inconsistent with the United States' obligations under the GATS.

In its findings, the WTO also slammed the U.S. not just for continuing to discriminate against foreign gambling companies, but also for leaking confidential information about the proceedings to the press -- and then insinuating that the WTO was the source of the leaks.

Basically, the case went as badly for the U.S. as possible.

Unfortunately, it's unlikely that the federal government will step back from its restrictive regulations in order to comply with the ruling. More likely, the feds will further restrict domestic wagering operations -- or ignore the ruling completely.

Still, a decision like this has some currency on the international scene. According to MSNBC, "Stock prices of online gambling companies, including PartyGaming, headquartered in Gibraltar, jumped sharply after the decision."

Domestic gamblers should rest assured that their favorite overseas gambling sites aren't going away anytime soon.