Thursday, May 31, 2007

Back to basics

I have to admit that there are days--a lot of them--when living in an underground shelter in the woods like this guy sounds like a pretty attractive idea.

[Clarence] Rounds says, "I just wanted something simple, and basic, down to earth."

He says he likes the autonomy. "I pretty much am on my own. And I'm my own boss here. I do want I want to do," he says.


Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Ganja guru gets shafted--again

This from the Associated Press:

Ed Rosenthal, the self-proclaimed "guru of ganja," was convicted again Wednesday in federal court of illegally growing hundreds of marijuana plants that he said were meant to treat sick people, which state law allows.

Rosenthal was convicted of three cultivation and conspiracy charges after U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer prohibited the marijuana activist's lawyers from telling the jury Rosenthal was working for a pot club sanctioned by Oakland government officials. The decision underscored the tension between federal law and laws in 11 states that have legalized pot to some degree.

Fortunately, Rosenthal has already served a one-day sentence on the earlier conviction, which was voided, so he doesn't face any additional prison time.

The simple fact of the conviction is troubling, however. Rosenthal's case was as widely publicized--especially in California--as any case could be. It's virtually inconceivable that nobody on that jury knew that Rosenthal was growing marijuana for medical purposes, on behalf of the City of Oakland, and that several jurors who brought the earlier guilty verdict publicly repudiated their verdict and called for Rosenthal's release. At least some of the jurors must have encountered widespread calls for jury nullification in the case--that is, for jurors to bring a "not guilty" verdict in defiance of the federal law.

All it would have taken was one juror willing to hold his or her ground to hang the jury and let Rosenthal go free--in a political climate very supportive of doing exactly that.

But the jury convicted. What went wrong?

Well, the process of screening jurors for "unacceptable" views has become more sophisticated with the years, and the government certainly exercised every effort to assure itself of a compliant jury. According to earlier news reports:

In jury selection Monday, nearly two-thirds of prospective jurors were dismissed after saying they could not be impartial in a trial involving marijuana.

Among them was ousted Sharper Image Corp. CEO Richard Thalheimer, who told the court he believed the case was "an unfortunate scapegoating" of Rosenthal for political reasons.

“I think it's tremendously unfortunate that my time is being wasted and our taxpayers' money is being wasted,” Thalheimer said, according to a court transcript.

People disgusted by the prosecution had an easy out--they needed only be honest about their opinions to be booted from the jury pool.

But not one juror of the bunch was willing to hold fast to a "not guilty vote"?

That suggests a disturbingly--and uniformly--submissive group of jurors, willing to kowtow to the government even when a large part of the population from which the jurors are drawn is upset by the case. That leaves three possibilities:

  1. The court somehow found jurors entirely unfamiliar with the case and with the controversy over medical marijuana.
  2. The court selected only those jurors supportive of the federal prosecution.
  3. The court selected jurors unwilling to buck the government despite their own views.

The first possibility seems unlikely given the media circus surrounding the Rosenthal case.

The second and third possibilities are more likely, and very disturbing since they suggest that the voir dire process has become such an effective filter that it is capable of screening out all independent-minded jurors. That would reduce juries to little more than rubber stamps.

I've always been a booster of jury nullification as a check on the power of the state, but if the Rosenthal case is any indication, judges and prosecutors are becoming more effective at preventing independent-minded citizens from getting into a position to use the power of the jury.


Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Single-payer health care--if you want it

In his new movie on the U.S. health system, Sicko, Michael Moore takes the time to praise Cuba's socialized medical care. Now the New York Times takes a look at the system that Moore found so impressive and ... well ...

Having practiced medicine in both Cuba and the United States, Dr. Cordova has an unusual perspective for comparison.

“Actually there are three systems,” Dr. Cordova said, because Cuba has two: one is for party officials and foreigners like those Mr. Moore brought to Havana. “It is as good as this one here, with all the resources, the best doctors, the best medicines, and nobody pays a cent,” he said.

But for the 11 million ordinary Cubans, hospitals are often ill equipped and patients “have to bring their own food, soap, sheets — they have to bring everything.” And up to 20,000 Cuban doctors may be working in Venezuela, creating a shortage in Cuba.

Oh wow. You mean authoritarian socialist rulers keep the best for themselves (and their foreign friends) and let the rest of the country go fish? Who'd've thought?

Can I call Hugo Chavez a thug?

Some many years ago, I was taken to task on the Internet by a lefty gadfly who was miffed that I would dare to refer to President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela as a "thug" and a "strongman." My critic maintained that Chavez's democratic election to office excused his authoritarian excesses which, after all, were legitimate expressions of the will of the Venezuelan people, opposed only by reactionary fans of the old regime.

Well, a big, fat raspberry to that.

The Chavez administration's shut-down of RCTV, the only opposition-linked television network with national reach, is about as thuggish a move as you can make without overtly outlawing political criticism. Pretending to protect free speech while simultaneously muzzling outlets for speech critical of the state is a classic authoritarian tactic. Why create political martyrs when you can just deny critics the ability to reach an audience?

That Chavez immediately replaced RCTV with a pro-government station says all that needs to be said about his intent in the matter.

But the thuggish Chavez isn't about to stop at gagging explicit opposition; his government is also looking at anything that might be inferred as criticism. According to news reports, government officials are now investigating Globovision, the last remaining opposition TV outlet, for implied attacks on the state.

Willian Lara, the communications minister, called for an investigation of Globovisión, a 24-hour news channel, saying semioticians hired by the government had determined that video run by the channel of an assassination attempt in 1981 against Pope John Paul II could be interpreted as hostile to Mr. Chávez.

Semioticians? Really? Is any further proof required that Hugo Chavez and his cronies are dead-set on suppressing even the most subtle dissent?

Actually, I suspect that my lefty gadfly is still out there somewhere, cheering on the Venezuelan government's latest oppressive excesses. People willing to cheer on dictators are unlikely to flinch at a little run-of-the-mill political repression.

Beyond the borders of Venezuela, the closure of RCTV holds a warning for media outlets even in countries with relatively strong free speech protections. Technically, RCTV wasn't censored; it was denied a renewal of its broadcast license. That's a nice bit of sleight of hand that allows the government and its supporters to hide behind a regulatory move.

Broadcast media (and sometimes print media) in other countries, including the United States, also rely on licenses from the state. Those licenses aren't supposed to be dependent on chumminess with the political powers-that-be, but bureaucratic rules can certainly be wielded as clubs against people out of favor with the government. Even in the United States, politicians have threatened broadcasters with non-renewal of licenses over sexually suggestive and violent content, and the Canadian government has pulled the plug on at least one radio station for "hate speech."

It's all done in the name of the "public interest," of course.

So, while we justifiably tag Hugo Chavez as the threat to freedom that he is, let's not be too smug about our own supposed immunity to similar outrages.


Saturday, May 26, 2007

Ron Paul with Bill Maher

If you didn't see it, here's Ron Paul's appearance on Bill Maher's HBO show. Nice job!

Friday, May 25, 2007

Memorial Day plans

I'm taking my wife and son out for our first family camping trip since before Tony was born--which makes it the little beastie's first camping trip ever. If Tony takes to the experience--which we fully expect, given the love of the outdoors that he's already displaying at 21 months--it'll be the first trip of many for us all together.

We'll drive down a dirt road, find a likely looking patch of national forest, and pitch our tent. I'll bring the dogs, folding chairs, a cigar, a bottle of rum and a few limes and we'll relax. I'll grill up burgers over a fire and we'll watch the stars come out. We may do some target shooting--before breaking into the rum, of course. It's all free-form, low-cost fun, available for the doing without asking anybody permission.

That's an increasingly rare commodity.

Of course, we can't completely escape the modern world. I have to be careful about the camping spot I pick, to avoid fire restrictions that just went into effect on most of the federal land around us. Those restrictions put a crimp not just on the fire over which I plan to cook dinner, but also on the cigar I'll enjoy afterwards. I've ignored Forest Service restrictions before, on many occasions, but not with the family in tow--it's just something I don't need to worry about. So we'll drive a little further to evade the red tape.

But that red tape becomes a little more tangled every year. The Red Rock Ranger District already requires hikers, mountain bikers and other users of the outdoors to get a pass to park on national forest land. Like a lot of locals, I defy this rule and tear-up the few citations I receive for doing so (the "notice of non-compliance" is not enforceable in court). But I always have a moment's hesitation when I think about heading out for a hike in the Sedona area, because I'd rather avoid a confrontation if I can help it.

That's not all. One of my favorite backpacking destination, the Fossil Creek area, has been effectively closed to the public for the duration while the Forest Service decommissions an old--and picturesque--hydro-electric power plant. The feds have long wanted to shut down the Flume Trail which leads to the creek, and I expect that will remain shut even after the larger area is reopened.

And there are hints of worse on the horizon. As I wrote several days ago, administrators at the Ironwood Forest National Monument in southern Arizona are talking about completely banning target shooting from the 129,000 acres they manage on behalf of... well... clearly, not the public.

Overall, government managers of what are supposed to be the public lands are increasingly acting as if that land is their private property. They treat access to the land as a privilege to be doled out only to those who duck their heads and tug their forelocks.

And let's not even get into the growing legal crimp suffered by the alcohol, tobacco and firearms I so enjoy.

So, as I sit around my campfire, sipping rum and smoking a cigar, I'll be wondering just what rules Tony will have to break to enjoy the same experience when he's my age.

Armed America

Some years ago, when I ran the civil liberties site for, I had the peculiar pleasure of reviewing a book about the history of firearms in America. The book was written by a historian named Michael Bellesiles and ... well, that's probably all you needed to know. The fate of Arming America and its author made headline news. Repudiated by its publisher, condemned by scholars as a work of fraud, and stripped of its awards, the book now ranks alongside Clifford Irving's "authorized autobiography" of Howard Hughes as embarrassing hoaxes that briefly fooled the publishing industry and some credulous reviewers. Bellesiles himself was forced to resign from his professorship at Emory University.

I'm happy to say that I wasn't one of the reviewers who was taken in. I had early doubts about the book, though I didn't have the scholarly background to say outright that Bellesiles was wrong in his claims. I just thought the book was excessively ideological and belabored minor issues to make anti-gun-rights political points that didn't seem appropriate for a work of history. To do a decent review of the book, I contacted somebody who knew a lot more about the subject than I did: a fellow named Clayton Cramer.

As it turned out, Cramer had been digging into Bellesiles's research for several years. He cited me chapter and verse about problems with Arming America--problems that started coming out in scholarly papers and newspaper articles with much wider circulation than I had with my Website. I'm proud, though, that I was a small part of the wave of criticism that eventually sank Bellesiles's fraud.

Anyway, all of this is a long-winded and roundabout way for me to say that Clayton Cramer now has his own book out about the history of firearms in America: Armed America. The book covers much of the same ground as Bellesiles's work, although it comes to very different conclusions--finding that firearms were actually very common in early America.

I've only just started Cramer's book, but I find it interesting and certainly free of the red flags I saw in the other work. I look forward to finishing Armed America and posting a complete review.


Thursday, May 24, 2007

No peace, more spending

Tell me please, what value was there in tossing the Republicans out of the congressional majority and handing the Democrats control if donkey party leaders are going to use their new position of power to roll over on the war in Iraq?

Of course, that's not all they did; they also managed to trade away any hope for a timetable on ending the war for billions of dollars in spending on their pet programs.

Hooray for the new boss; same as the old boss.

And so much for the promises of fiscal discipline and anti-war passion the new crop of Democrats offered up during the last election cycle.

I'm at a loss for a suggestion as to where the majority of Americans who oppose the war in Iraq should turn to get us out of that mess. Even worse, people who oppose the war in Iraq and think the federal government is spending money like a drunken sailor are completely out of luck.

At this point, the main differences between the two major parties seems to be their disagreement over how to manage a war that most Americans don't want to be involved in at all, and their choice of which programs are most deserving of excessive amounts of the taxpayers' money.

Well, there's also still the hope that Democrats might be a tad better on civil liberties, but I'm not holding my breath on that one.

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Good press for Ron Paul

Ron Paul picks up a couple of very friendly notices from mainstream newspaper columnists:

Here's a piece in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review by Bill Steigerwald.

And here's a column in Newsday by James Pinkerton.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

And the winner in the frivolous lawsuits category is...

... Judge Roy Pearson, Jr., who is suing a drycleaner for losing a pair of pants. What's he asking for? Try $67 million.



ACLU loses its way

Wendy Kaminer, a prominent civil libertarian, has a disturbing piece in The Wall Street Journal about the degeneration of the ACLU from an organization that defends everybody's rights, no matter how unpopular, into one that cherry-picks the people it supports.

Once the nation's leading civil liberties group and a reliable defender of everyone's speech rights, the ACLU is being transformed into just another liberal human-rights group that reliably defends the rights of liberal speakers.

Even worse, in some instances the ACLU is coming to overtly oppose certain expressions of free speech that its leadership finds unpleasant.

"Take hate speech," [ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero] remarked to the New York Times in May 2006. "While believing in free speech, we do not believe in or condone speech that attacks minorities."

This transformation is especially disquieting in the age of the Patriot Act and the security state, when we need a committed civil libertarian organization more than ever. It's not that the ACLU no longer takes important cases; the problem is that an ACLU that defends only a particular point of view becomes an inconstant advocate. It turns the defense of individual rights into a partisan activity exercised only on behalf of "right-thinking" people and inevitably alienates potential allies who don't buy into left-wing ideology.

I'm still an ACLU supporter because the organization remains the best bet for opposing the Bush administration's excesses in the endless War on Terror. But I no longer expect the organization to be a consistent advocate for liberty--especially if somebody more to the leadership's liking wins the next presidential election.


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Creeping control

I see the busybodies at the Bureau of Land Management have their skirts in a bunch over recreational shooting on government land. Specifically, they want to ban recreational shooting at the Ironwood Forest National Monument in southern Arizona. The proposal to ban target shooting appears in two out of four strategies that fall under the monument's proposed resource management plan--including the BLM's preferred Alternative C.

In the plan, the BLM justifies the proposed ban by claiming, vaguely, that target shooting poses a risk to people engaged in dispersed recreation on the monument's 129,000 acres. In an interview with The Arizona Republic, monument manager Patrick Madigan insists that the real problem is shooters who plink at saguaros or who are little more than well-armed litterbugs. "People are bringing their trash out and shooting their trash, or they shoot someone else's trash," said Madigan.

Now, anybody who shoots knows that there are, in fact, meatheads who see every tree and rabbit as a potential bullseye, and who seem to own an endless supply of old TV sets to shoot and abandon in the forest or the desert. These people make up a small, but disproportionately visible minority of shooters, most of whom pride themselves on leaving their shooting range looking much as they found it. Unfortunately people who pick up after themselves are simply not as noticeable as folks who leave a mess.

But other recreational activities are equally plagued by subsets of jackasses. Most backpackers are responsible types who police their campsites and douse their fires; A few leave trash scattered behind them on the trail and a very few can't light a match without torching old-growth forest. Most mountain bikers are solid citizens who stick to established trails; a few carve endless pathways across fragile environments and spook hikers and horseback riders.

If you're going to base policy on the conduct of the minority of jerks, you're going to end up banning public access to the outdoors--or trying to anyway.

But BLM officials aren't talking about cracking down on all recreational activities; they've rested their crosshairs on target shooters alone. They've even exempted hunters from the proposed ban, with no evidence that hunters are immune from the meathead element that plagues other outdoor uses.

That's why I suspect that the ban is a test balloon for a more comprehensive ban on shooting on public land well beyond the boundaries of the Ironwood Forest National Monument. Government officials have never been terribly comfortable with armed civilians, so picking on litterbugs who happen to shoot at this one national monument could well be a test run of a strategy for squeezing responsible shooters off of federal land everywhere. Hunters are left out of the ban to divide the opposition--an old tactic that works often enough to keep it alive and well. I would guess that, if the ban passes with a minimum of opposition, hunters would be added at a later date.

But again, every recreational activity draws its share of idiots who can be used to smear other practitioners through guilt by association. If shooters can be pushed off of public land, so can enthusiasts of any other activity that draws the disfavor of the current crop of government bureaucrats. Dirt-bikers and ATV-riders aren't exactly loved by government land-managers; they're already under attack and would make easy targets for a future ban.

And it doesn't necessarily stop there. There really are people who want to make the wilderness off-limits to humans. Do you think the same people who can turn litterbugs into grounds for banning shooters could maybe point to firebugs as reason for booting backpackers out of the forests?

Better to head this nonsense off early than to have to fight a bigger battle later.

You can contact the BLM at:

Or you can write to:

Mark Lambert
Project Lead
BLM Tucson Field Office
12661 E. Broadway Blvd.
Tucson, AZ, 85748


Monday, May 21, 2007

The Ron Paul pile-on

Until now, I've refrained from commenting on the Ron Paul imbroglio for the simple reason that plenty of people who actually respect the political process have already chimed in to point out that the maverick congressman was dead right; U.S. foreign policy did play a role in making the country a target for the 9/11 attacks. Even supporters of the war in Iraq should be willing to recognize that actions beget reactions. That doesn't mean that thousands of Americans deserved to be murdered; it does mean that government officials have to be mindful that their decisions can trigger "blowback," a term devised by the C.I.A. to describe unintended consequences of operations around the world. That Republicans rallied around Rudy Giuliani and attacked Dr. Paul for his moderate anti-war stance I took as further proof of the hopelessness of the political process and good reason to stay out of the fight.

But the attacks on Dr. Paul have grown increasingly shrill and hysterical. Mainstream media outlets are calling for him to be excluded from the debates for the high crime of suggesting that the U.S. government doesn't operate in a vacuum, and widely publicized (if nails-on-chalkboard shrill) pundits like Michelle Malkin have even tried to tie him to 9/11 conspiracy theorists. Are conservatives really so wedded to the blood-drenched mess in the Middle East that they have to muzzle or discredit dissenting voices?

This is especially remarkable because, not so long ago, prominent Republican leaders like Robert A. Taft advocated a restrained, non-interventionist foreign policy for the same reasons espoused by Ron Paul. The idea that an attack on the United States might have been intended as a response to government activities overseas would not have seemed strange to Sen. Taft. Modern conservatives might disagree, but they reject their own history when they try to paint Dr. Paul's views as illegitimate and beyond the pale of polite discussion.

If nothing else, Dr. Paul's candidacy serves to demonstrate that traditional views about restrained, peaceful foreign policy haven't been completely displaced in the Republican Party--only mostly so. That he's also an enthusiastic civil libertarian and believer in small government in the age of waterboarding, the PATRIOT Act and Medicare drug benefits makes him something of a ghost of the Republican Part past.

Maybe that's why conservatives don't want Paul up on stage with the other candidates--he's too much of a reminder of what their party could have been if its leaders had made better choices.

And that's what bothers me most about the attacks on Dr. Paul. As much as I've written off the political system, the rare, decent politician like him reminds me of my early hopes that peace and freedom could be supported through political action.

Friday, May 18, 2007

White wedding, red tape

From the folks who promised to "get government off our backs," comes this Republican-sponsored bill that would subject marriage-bound Texas couples to a heavy dose of politicians-know-best.

Under the bill, couples eager to marry who attend a state-approved premarital counseling course will have the state's marriage license fee -- which would double from $30 to $60 -- waived. Couples who receive counseling will also dodge the state's 72-hour mandatory marriage waiting period.

The measure has already been approved by the legislature, so only Governor Rick Perry stands in the way of a Hobson's choice for love-struck Texans between coughing up twice the old fee for the "privilege" of getting the state's sanction for their relationship, or else submitting to a nagging session from some finger-wagging social worker.

I can think of no better argument for chucking the un-filed marriage license application in the trash and just shacking up together.

But Rep. Walter Chisum, the author of the marriage measure, doesn't just want to harangue people about to get married; he wants to hassle folks planning to dissolve their relationships too.

Chisum is also working on a divorce bill that has been hung up in this legislative session and that he intends to pursue next year. That legislation would require at least one of the two parties seeking the split to attend a "divorce training" seminar to discuss the challenges -- from financial to familial -- of legally divorcing.

Really, if you want young couples to write off marriage entirely, this sounds like a great way to convince them that the institution is more trouble than it's worth.

Frankly, there's no reason that government officials should have any say over personal relationships at all. The idea that we need the government's blessing for our romantic endeavors is a pernicious one that subjects private matters to public scrutiny. Thankfully, the premise that we need official sanction to share our lives has grown attenuated in recent years. Increasingly, people are making their own arrangements without regard to what the Walter Chisums of the world might prefer.

If marriage is to remain relevant at all, it needs to become a purely private matter, defined by the people taking their great leap of faith. Some couples will choose traditional arrangements, others will tailor the institution in innovative ways and a few may even choose the tortuous path that Chisum lays out. But there's no need for government marriage licenses, let along mandatory counseling sessions and waiting periods. Marriage as a private matter can be vital and responsive since it will adapt to meet the needs of the people getting married.

Or we can let the Walter Chisums of the world keep marriage as a government monopoly encumbered with all sorts of requirements intended to "perfect" the institution to their liking. If we follow that path it's a sure bet that formal marriage will end up as a legal museum exhibit, largely ignored by couples who have little interest in submitting to mandatory counseling sessions.


Now that's a happy meal

It doesn't get any happier than this.


Thursday, May 17, 2007

When law enforcement breeds contempt

What happens when law enforcement becomes so intrusive and petty that people can expect to randomly incur the wrath of the state?

Well, if you're a British driver, insurance companies stop taking speeding convictions seriously.
Excessive speed camera ticketing in the UK has led a major insurance company to announce this week that it will ignore driver's license penalty points when setting rates. Swinton Insurance, which has two million customers, is seeking a competitive advantage by offering lower rates to the safe drivers who receive automated tickets for driving just a few miles per hour over the speed limit.
The U.K. is the land of intrusive law enforcement, with speed cameras and closed-circuit television monitoring citizens' every move, and arbitrary penalties applied to people with little recourse to an appeals process. This has meant tighter and tighter constraints upon personal behavior until ... well ... until the logical conclusion was reached. When everybody is a criminal, criminality becomes a laughing matter. Points from traffic offenses no longer count against drivers because those traffic offenses are no longer taken seriously.

This is only a small move, of course, but there's a lesson here for the control freaks. Tighter controls don't make people obedient--they make people view the controls with contempt.

Evening musing

My wife was away at a late meeting tonight, so I had a boy's night in.

I started the evening with a vodka and tonic. I had a supper of a (gourmet) hot dog smothered in home-made habanero hot sauce with rice pilaf and a salad. I'm now drinking a glass of red wine. I haven't hit the humidor yet, but there are a couple of good cigars in there with my name on them.

I wonder how long it will be before my evening becomes illegal.

I can just see myself a few years from now, sitting on the patio sipping bootleg booze and puffing a Cuban stogie over the remains of a meal of forbidden delicacies. I'll have to invite a couple of sheriff's deputies around for the occasional blackmail-able sharing of the wealth to keep the SWAT teams at bay.

I'll bet you think I'm kidding.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Putting juries to the test

The federal government is taking its second bite at the apple with a vindictive re-prosecution of medical marijuana guru Ed Rosenthal--a prosecution that can result in no prison sentence since he already served his time on the same charges prior to his conviction being overturned. Rosenthal is charged with growing plants for medical marijuana dispensaries--a legal act in California, but one that remains verboten under federal law.

The original case resulted in a better-late-than-never jury revolt once jurors were dismissed and discovered information about the case that had been withheld from them by the judge. Five of the jurors held a news conference, apologized to Rosenthal, and called for a new trial.

Now, for reasons unrelated to juror regret, that new trial is being held. It's occurring in an atmosphere of public controversy, with plenty of publicity. Jurors have been selected from a pool exposed to open discussion of Rosenthal's role as an Oakland-appointed grower and amidst calls for the new jury to find the defendant "not guilty" in defiance of federal law. As such, the new Rosenthal trial is a good test of whether jury nullification remains a viable check on the government and the legal system.

It's an open question. While jury nullification continues to be practiced--increasingly so, according to a 1999 Washington Post article--the government has stepped up its efforts to curtail the practice. Defiant jurors have been prosecuted, jurors are instructed that they must follow the law (a major point in the original Rosenthal trial) and the business of winnowing independent minds from the jury pool has become something of a science; nearly two-thirds of prospective jurors were dismissed from the new Rosenthal trial.

So the new trial will be a strong indicator of whether juries remain independent representatives of the people in the courtroom, or whether they can be effectively beaten into submission by judges and prosecutors. After all, if a jury won't put the law aside for Ed Rosenthal, who will it acquit?

Keep an eye on this case--and keep your fingers crossed.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Smoke this, Arizona!

Three cheers for Alfonso Larriva! He's an owner of four Arizona bars who's spitting in the eye of government officials--and the pantywaist state voters who, last November, approved a smoking ban that applies even to such meccas of healthy living as Larriva's Metro Sportz Bar. Reading the fine print of the law and seeing that it applies to "enclosed" spaces, Larriva replaced windows in his watering holes with louvered vents, the better to turn them into unregulated patios.

I don't expect Larriva's touch of legal trickery to stand. In fact, the health nazis, led by Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, have already filed suit against the bar owner, seeking nearly $50,000 in fines from the man for the terrible crime of permitting his patrons to smoke on the grounds of his own businesses.

But ill-fated as Larriva's legal strategy undoubtedly is, I admire his spunk. At least he has the nerve to tell the busybodies to go to hell; that's more than many of his fellow businesspeople can boast. Most of them whine and sigh and roll over without even a gesture of resistance.

Yes, the fines are stiff, but not all acts of resistance have to come with a hefty charge. It doesn't cost anything to very publicly ban the health inspectors who enforce the law from dropping by your bar during their off hours.

Of course, it's unfair to ban the government enforcers without making it clear that there are consequences for the drones who went to the polls to inflict their preferences on the state at large. So how about posting a sign at the front door that says something like:

If you support the state ban on smoking
in privately owned businesses, you are unwelcome here.
Please take your business elsewhere.

Posting that sign would have an add-on benefit by sending the most fanatical of the anti-tobacco zealots packing with their smoke-free noses tilted high in the air. Since there aren't enough health inspectors to make a serious enforcement effort, barring anti-smokers would reduce the chances that somebody might drop a dime on an establishment that chooses to let its patrons smoke in defiance of the law.

Such efforts would be even more effective if implemented in an organized way by a large number of Arizona bars at the same time. Here's a campaign that might make the Arizona Licensed Beverage Association a relevant organization.

But for now we have to settle for Alfonso Larriva's gesture of defiance. Doomed it may be, but for now, it's the only sign of open rebellion in Arizona.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Tripwire laws

Have you ever wondered what purpose the clutter of silly and barely enforced laws on the books could possibly serve? I mean, who can keep track of all of the silly, petty and downright foolish statutes that lay scattered around the legal landscape. So, what good are they?

Well, I have a suspicion ...

The sheriff's department in Mohave County, Arizona, reportedly plans an aggressive "Click It or Ticket" campaign for seat belt scofflaws from May 21 - June 3. Oh great. Police encounters are nerve-wracking enough without the frequency stepped up "for our own good."

What gets me though, is that the same article reporting the crackdown mentions that Arizona is a secondary enforcement state--that is, you can't be pulled over just for not wearing a seat belt. How do you have a "special crackdown" to punish people for ignoring a law that can't be enforced on its own?

I suspect the answer is that police will manufacture "primary" offenses so they can pull over people who aren't wearing their seat belts. Expect exuberant enforcement of rules against illegal lane changes and improper use of directionals, all so the cops can reach their true goal: nabbing folks who don't buckle up.

Yep, those obscure laws do serve a purpose; they keep us all within reach of any law-enforcement officer who really wants us. After all, chances are that we've done something illegal.


Circling the wagons

Why admit to major problems in your police department when you can just let a couple of low-level cops take the fall? That seems to be the philosophy of Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who fully backs her cops and her chief of police in the wake of the killing of elderly Kathryn Johnston by police during a botched drug raid, and the indictment of three officers in the incident.

Mayor Franklin stands by her man despite allegations by federal prosecutors that the shooting was far from an isolated incident, but was, instead, the product of a "culture of misconduct" within the Atlanta Police Department. In fact, police involved in the incident have admitted that they and their colleagues frequently lie in order to get search warrants.

A better mayor might see the death of Johnston and the resulting scandal as a sign that it's time to clean house and bring the police department up to first-world standards. If nothing else, a major reform effort might help to off-set the extraordinarily bad press Atlanta is getting over the use of local citizens for shooting practice by police officers.

It might also help to minimize the frequency of future lawsuits and prosecutions of those entrusted with enforcement of the law.

Oh well. If Mayor Franklin can't be counted on to keep her political house tidy, maybe the feds will do it for her.


Thursday, May 10, 2007


Here's some news that's hard to swallow:

Oral sex could be more dangerous than cigars

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Irreconcilable differences

We all do it. We tend to live in something of an echo chamber. Not necessarily by design, but naturally and inevitably, we associate more often with people who share at least some of our fundamental values than with those who don't. We avoid people whose views we find abhorrent. Famously, The Austin American Statesman claimed in 2004 that American communities are becomingly increasingly ideologically homogeneous, so that many people rarely run into differing viewpoints. Whether that's actually true on a geographical scale I can't say, but I think it's indisputable that most of us run with a crowd we find welcoming and agreeable.

And pretty soon, we start assuming that all decent people must be like our friends--how could it be otherwise?

In my case, while I'm friendly with people who nominally span the political spectrum, most of the people I know agree that there are too many laws and too many people enforcing those laws. Liberal, conservative or libertarian; Democrat, Republican or none-of-the-above, they may differ on exactly what constitutes excessive intrusion into our lives, but they share the opinion that we're overgoverned.

Which leaves me wondering how, if everybody is so damned sensible, how come laws continue to proliferate and enforcement of even the silliest rules is a growing employment opportunity for control freaks who can't satisfy their urge to bully in the private sector?

Then I read something like this by Sharon Srodin and have an a-ha moment:

I moved to Chestnut Hill from the New Jersey suburbs eight months ago. Some may say that's not much of a stretch - trading one nice, sheltered, upper-middle class enclave for another. It's ironic, however, that I've gained an appreciation for many of the things I used to complain about while living in New Jersey, such as overzealous traffic cops. Living here, I've noticed a distinct difference in the ways laws are both obeyed and enforced. Or to put it more accurately, not obeyed and never enforced....

All of our laws should be enforced across the board in every community. If those who are charged with enforcing the laws are indifferent, then it's no surprise that citizens are indifferent to obeying them. It's unfortunate that in some parts of "our" city that indifference takes a heavy toll.

All of our laws should be enforced? Huh. I don't remember agreeing to most of the laws on the books--in fact, I violently object to a good many of them, and I suspect that at least a few residents of Philadelphia (Ms. Srodin's new home) would agree--so I don't think we can fairly call them our laws.

As for enforcing all laws "across the board in every community" ... yikes. It doesn't take a lot of effort to dig up a listing of moronic legislation cluttering up the books in any locality. Enthusiastic enforcement of the full range of truly bad laws would require a lot more cops--and would trip up a lot more people.

As far as I'm concerned, it's the slack in the system--the failure to enforce many laws--that makes life in many places tolerable.

More important, though, is that I don't even know how to begin to bridge the gap between a Sharon Srodin and myself. How does a person who thinks we need fewer laws and less enforcement talk to somebody who seriously believes "the police commissioner, the politicians, and the community organizations are doing their best to make our city streets safer" and wants to turn every law on the books into a tripwire for the unsuspecting.

In a very real way, Ms. Srodin and I live in different worlds, and we want to live in worlds that are even more divergent than they already are. She, undoubtedly, lives her life amidst a circle of friends who agree with her that the world is a dangerously underregulated place; she'd find me and my crew as alien as I find her.

I don't think a difference like that can be reconciled. In the end, only one of us can be happy. It's my job to make sure that the happy one is me.


Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Live free or don't

Years ago, when I lived in Boston, my folks lived across the border in Rye, New Hampshire. Visiting them was a little like crossing the old Berlin Wall; I left behind a sea of dictates and prohibitions and entered an island of relative freedom. New Hampshire was a refuge for independent-minded people in a region of the country otherwise dominated by finger-waggers, for-your-own-gooders and all-purpose busybodies.

That was then, this is now. All hail New Hampshire, the nanny state.

Having triumphed over a state Republican Party that hitched its fate to a wildly unpopular president, Democrats are now in control of the New Hampshire legislature and they're wasting no time in leaving their mark. Forget about the voting public's visceral reaction to a bossy, arrogant White House; Granite State donkey-party members are dead-set on proving they can be even bossier and more arrogant than President Bush.

The latest outcry comes as the House of Representatives passed bills to require adults to wear seat belts, increase the minimum hourly wage, crack down on trans fat, and outlaw smoking in restaurants and bars.

All of those years out of power, and it turns out that the Democrats' long-thwarted legislative wish-list consists of ordering state residents to buckle up, eat healthy, stop smoking and pay teenage kids more than they're worth. If that's what they wanted, why didn't they move south to Massachusetts long ago?

To give them their due, New Hampshire Democrats actually voted for one measure that expands people's freedom of choice; they voted to allow gay couples to join together in "civil unions" that give them many of the same benefits as marriage. It's not as positive a move as opening marriage to everybody--or, even better, making marriage a purely private institution defined by those who use it--but it's a step in the right direction.

Actually, the civil union bill is a bit surprising in that it advances liberty a tad. If the measure was in the spirit of the rest of the Democrats' agenda, the legislature would have commanded gay couples to get hitched.

The whole development is sad, because it represents the seeming transformation of New Hampshire from an outpost of liberty into just another unremarkable spot of snowy, low-fat, helmeted New England conformity. I've lived in both Massachusetts and Connecticut; trust me when I say that a little nanny-statism goes a long way.

Oh well, things are still relatively good in the West. Maybe we Arizonans should set up a refugee-assistance agency for bewildered Granite Staters in need of asylum.


Monday, May 7, 2007

Second Amendment surprise

Like a man slapped in the face with a trout, the New York Times has finally noticed that the Parker v. District of Columbia Second Amendment decision was based on a whole lot of constitutional scholarship. And--gasp--many of the scholars supporting the individual right to bear arms are liberals!


Whoops! Sorry I shot your dog

Via Radley Balko's The Agitator comes word of a heavily armed Stockton, California, "code enforcement" team that arrived at the wrong address in the course of responding to a complaint about drug use--and ended up shooting the family dog and injuring a mother and her five-year-old daughter.

Yes, you heard that right; a code enforcement team which, according to the article, "addresses unsafe living conditions and includes armed deputies for the safety of environmental health workers... A team includes a sergeant, two deputies, two environmental health workers and two code enforcement officers, and often a California Highway Patrol officer." What are code inspectors doing tagging along on a drug raid? Conversely, what are cops doing tagging along for a home inspection?

Balko suggests that such teams have been assembled as an end-run around the Fourth Amendment. The inspectors can gain access to homes that would require warrants for police officers alone. While the article isn't clear on whether the team had a warrant, I think he's probably right; other jurisdictions--notably, Belleville, Illinois--have pulled similar stunts explicitly to get around the search-and-seizure protections that usually shield people from unwarranted intrusions into their homes.

But such stunts are almost certainly unconstitutional. In 1967, in the case of Camara v. Municipal Court of San Francisco, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled:

In summary, we hold that administrative searches of the kind at issue here are significant intrusions upon the interests protected by the Fourth Amendment, that such searches when authorized and conducted without a warrant procedure lack the traditional safeguards which the Fourth Amendment guarantees to the individual, and that the reasons put forth in Frank v. Maryland and in other cases for upholding these warrantless searches are insufficient to justify so substantial a weakening of the Fourth Amendment's protections.

The Supreme Court allowed an exception for "emergency situations," which Stockton may have invoked as a creative interpretation of the drug complaint. Or Stockton may simply have ignored the standard set by the Supreme Court as Belleville has done. The idea that
home inspectors have super-constitutional powers seems to be stuck in the minds of certain government officials, never to be dislodged by mere legal precedent. That's dangerous enough, but the full extent of politicians' contempt for constitutional protections becomes clear when they attempt to piggyback police officers on the special powers they imagine to be possessed by code enforcers.

Unfortunately, the importance of constitutional protections is emphasized most strongly by incidents like the one in Stockton. Any encounter between citizens and government officials is fraught with legal risk for the citizens. Who can keep track of all the laws on the books and be sure that they've run afoul of none? But add armed police officers to the mix and the potential for violence becomes very real. That's especially true as police have become increasingly aggressive in their tactics.

A warrant requirement at least places some restraints on the encounter. At the very least, there must be suspicion of criminal activity and probable cause to persuade a judge (although too many judges these days are nothing but rubber stamps). Searches done by the book, with warrants, are sufficiently subject to abuse and mistake that loosening restraints on the state clearly opens the door for horrific results.

Like arriving at the wrong address, shooting a harmless dog and wounding a mother and her daughter with bullet fragments.

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Friday, May 4, 2007

Kathryn Johnston roundup

Here's a full accounting of what's known so far about the murder by police of Kathryn Johnston in Atlanta, Georgia. It's chilling reading.


Maybe it doesn't all come out in the wash

I enjoy ... well, no, I appreciate Consumer Reports magazine, and my wife and I often refer to the publication when making purchases for the home. By and large, the magazine does an impressive job of comparing and rating products, with very few missteps along the way.

But I've always been bothered by the endless cheerleading of the magazine and its publisher, Consumers Union, for unrestricted government intervention into every area of human life. It seems there is no product, service or activity that the editors of Consumer Reports don't think could be improved by the micro-management of tax-funded regulators. There's rarely any acknowledgment of the possibility that government can make things worse.

So it's with some surprise that I note the June issue of CR includes a grudging recognition of the law of unintended consequences. In a roundup of clothes washers and dryers, the magazine notes:

Not so long ago you could count on most washers to get your clothes very clean. Not anymore ...

What happened? As of January, the U.S. Department of Energy has required washers to use 21 percent less energy, a goal we wholeheartedly support. But our tests have found that traditional top-loaders, those with the familiar center-post agitators, are having a tough time wringing out those savings without sacrificing cleaning ability, the main reason you buy a washer.

The January change in energy efficiency requirements is actually the second phase in the implementation of standards passed in 2001. The first phase came in 2004 and doesn't seem to have had much effect on the results achieved by washing machines.

Apparently, though, with clothes washer energy efficiency, as with so many other things, you eventually run up against diminishing returns and something has to give. According to both CR and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, what's often giving is the use of hot water. Says a newsletter article published by the federal laboratory, "Most of the energy used in a typical clothes washer is used to heat the water. Therefore, efficiencies are primarily being met by reducing hot water consumption."

That does wonders for complying with government regulations, but not so much for getting grunge out of your duds.

Until the real-world technology catches up with pulled-out-of-their-butts government mandates, you might want to keep your old rattletrap washing machine going as long as possible. Chances are, it's doing a better job at cleaning your clothes than all but the high-end machines you'd have to buy to replace the thing.


Thursday, May 3, 2007

Dangerous indeed

I wrote a few days ago about The Dangerous Book for Boys, a British import penned by brothers Conn and Hal Iggulden. Touted as an antidote for today's sedentary, over-protected and politically correct childhoods, the book improbably hit British best-seller lists and has now been released in revised form for the U.S. market. I received my copy today and I'm ready to give a preliminary, but very favorable, report on the tome.

One U.K. reviewer I came across said he couldn't believe the book had actually been published. I'll modify that a tad to say that I'm pleasantly surprised that it's been brought out by a major publisher in the U.S., and that I can't believe it was first published in Britain. That over-governed, over-surveilled and disarmed nation seems an unlikely place to produce--let alone make a success--a book that celebrates great battles of history, advises boys to carry pocket knives and includes chapters on how to construct a bow-and-arrows, and how to hunt and skin rabbit.

The book promisingly begins with an introduction by the authors to the effect that, "In this age of video games and cell phones, there must be a place for knots, tree houses, and stories of incredible courage." Fortunately, the Igguldens don't just advocate an active childhood, they offer an informative and fun guide to making it so.

In addition to sections mentioned above, the book includes such helpful information as: how to make a battery at home; how to play stickball; how to make a go-cart; codes and ciphers; first aid; proper construction of a workbench; plans for a homemade electromagnet; poems and Latin phrases that everybody should know; a timeline of early American history; and much, much more.

Special notice goes to a series of tutorials on understanding grammar, much of which (sad as this is for a writer and editor to admit) I was never formally taught in the public schools I attended. Thanks, New York. These chapters should give my son a leg up when he starts wrapping his own brain around the English language.

As the title suggests, the book is unabashedly aimed at boys, even including a chapter of advice on dealing with girls. But there's much here to interest girls too, so long as they don't mind the boy-centric tone.

While the U.S. edition is revised for American readers, some Britishisms slip through, as well as sections that may miss their mark. A chapter on rugby rules? It's a perfectly fine game, but American football might have been a better choice. And the section on hunting rabbit with an air gun suggests that gun permits will be required for their possession. Huh? Hunting permits maybe, but few U.S. jurisdictions regulate the ownership of air guns.

But the fact that this section is in a contemporary book for kids at all is remarkable. I used to love hunting rabbit, but I stopped because my wife won't eat the things. If I can get my wife past her aversion to Thumper and friends, I'll use this chapter as a primer for my son so we can spend some time tracking cottontails and jacks.

The book is packaged in an old-fashioned binding that evokes a boys' adventure book from the early years of the 20th century. That association will probably be lost on most of the modern audience, but it reminds me of the dusty books (whatever happened to them?) I used to pull from my grandparents' shelves when I was a kid.

Most important, The Dangerous Book for Boys comes off as fun. It's a great blueprint for an active, bumped and bruised childhood away from glowing screens and over-protective ... well, you know who they are.


Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Did you hear that?

You have to give them credit for utter shamelessness. Even after recent revelations that the FBI abused national security letters to collect private information to which it wasn't entitled, federal intelligence officials don't flinch from requesting expanded wiretap powers.

Claiming that federal investigators are missing key information on terrorists because of an outdated spying law, the top U.S. intelligence official called on lawmakers on Tuesday to revamp the foreign surveillance act and make it easier to eavesdrop on non-citizens in the United States with suspected links to terrorism.

Congressional Democrats don't seem too keen on the idea. The Bush administration's misuse of existing surveillance powers gives them pause and, besides, they just don't like the Republican-led executive branch.

You gotta love divided government.


Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Hooray for the fatherland!

Ummm ... no:

I, GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim May 1, 2007, as Loyalty Day. I call upon the people of the United States to participate in this national observance and to display the flag of the United States on Loyalty Day as a symbol of pride in our Nation.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this thirtieth day of April, in the year of our Lord two thousand seven, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-first.

That's just super creepy.

But let me clarify ...

Governments of free countries don't demand reflexive loyalty of their subjects--they give citizens reason to feel gratitude. Such governments protect the natural rights of their citizens, defend them against foreign aggressors, refrain from micro-managing the lives of people with diverse tastes, values and preferences and otherwise create a situation where, for pragmatic reasons, people who want to make their own way in the world and pursue their own dreams wish for the political order to continue.

No government has ever been perfect in that respect, but for much of its history, the United States government did a better job than most of giving people reason to refrain from lynching political leaders.

"Loyalty Day" is not the sort of thing the government of a free country adds to the calendar. It's an exercise in ritual obeisance that demagogues demand of the mob as a substitute for rational consideration of value given for value received. Tribal chieftans demand loyalty, emperors require it, religious zealots thrive on it; presidents of free republics request sufferance.

The United States has been a pretty good country not because of some mystical demand on our fealty, but because it has been better than the competition at maintaining a tradition of live and let live. It retains its political value only to the extent that it lives up to that tradition.

Loyalty Day? Come on, George; what do you have to offer in return?

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Controlling the mentally ill

Tim Dees, the editor-in-chief of has a sensible piece on the response to the Virginia Tech massacre. No, not involving guns--instead, he addresses the calls for tighter controls on people considered to have mental health problems.

We could put into place a mechanism where people who were acting angry, alienated, or erratic would be held for a thorough psychological workup and screening, but, tell me, would you want to live in a world like that? I think most of us would wind up institutionalized, sooner or later.

Fundamentally, I agree with Dees that there are no easy fixes that will ensure that another Virginia Tech shooting never takes place. The chance that somebody will blow a fuse and attack others can't be addressed by policy; it's a matter for personal preparation.

Highway robbery

I had to renew the registration on both of my family's vehicles last month. The 70-odd dollars I had to cough up to allow me to legally drive my old Nissan truck on the state's roads--roads I've already paid for time and again through gas taxes, property tax and income tax--was annoying enough. It was a hefty sum, but tolerable in the same way that a modest payment to a protection racket is "tolerable" to a store keeper who judges it as part of the cost of doing business. But the state demanded three times as much money for my wife's Ford Explorer.

That's just robbery.

Logically, there's no good reason why an SUV should cost more to register than a pickup truck, and certainly there's no reason why it should cost that much. My truck certainly puts more wear and tear on the roads; I've loaded it with ceramic tile, cement backerboard, appliances, a wood-burning stove and construction supplies of all description for my (currently stalled) home-improvement projects.

My wife, on the other hand, rarely carries anything heavier than groceries and our son's car seat. She's just not putting the same kind of strain on the roads as I am.

The SUV has a higher bluebook value than the truck, but the state got it's piece of the action at the time of sale.

The problem is that the state keeps taking a piece of the action.

The culprit for my high registration fees, as Arizona residents already know, is the vehicle license tax. This is a tax on the assessed value of the vehicle that is collected year after year. The vehicle license tax isn't connected to any actual costs imposed by the vehicle on the state's infrastructure. It's nothing more than a shakedown for the simple privilege (according to the state) of being permitted by our masters to own motor vehicles.

In the way that it works, it's not much different than a personal property tax. It doesn't work as a user fee, it doesn't take a piece of a transaction. Instead, it functions as a penalty for being reasonably successful in life and, in doing so, fattens the government's coffers for uses and programs that I mostly oppose.

So, like most taxes, the vehicle license tax hurts me twice: first, by depriving me of money I earned; second, by feeding the maw of the government.

Hmmm. Does anybody know a good source for forged registration stickers?