Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Shameless self-promotion

The latest issue of Rain Farm Press's literary journal Paradigm is up, and it's worth a look. My own contribution to the project is an excerpt from my novel High-Desert Barbecue. Click here to check out my scribbling--then let me know what you think.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Public airwaves, public censorship

The Democratic-run Congress is making noises again about reimposing the late and un-lamented Fairness Doctrine to achieve some sort of balance of opinions on broadcast radio and television. The move is pretty transparently motivated by the dominance conservative-leaning pundits enjoy on talk radio. After the relative failure of several attempts to establish a liberal presence of the nation's radio stations, Democratic legislators have turned to brandishing raw power as a fall-back position.

It's all justified, we're told, by the government's stewardship over electronic public property.

"These are public airwaves, and the public should be entitled to a fair presentation," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)

That sounds like a somewhat reasonable argument--until you remember that Congress originally seized control of the airwaves specifically to give government the power to regulate broadcast content. As noted law professor Eugene Volokh points out:

The Radio Act of 1927 authorized licensing decisions based on the content of the speech (despite its provision supposedly banning "censorship").

By 1930, the Federal Radio Commission was restricting what it saw as "propaganda stations," on the theory that "there is no place for a station catering to any group" (said in an opinion about a Chicago Federation of Labor station).

Modern members of Congress say they should control broadcast content because that content is transmitted over public airwaves, but their predecessors declared those airwaves to be "public" in order to gain the power to regulate content. The fact that broadcasters need government licenses to operate and so need to keep regulators happy, in stark contrast to print and Internet operations (which largely follow the print model) shows just how effective that tactic has been. The original nationalization of the airwaves was a self-serving power-grab, and there's no reason to accord it any legitimacy.

As Circuit Judge Williams the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia wrote in his dissent in a motion for a rehearing in banc of the 1997 case of Time Warner v. FCC:

Further, the way in which the government came to assert a property interest in spectrum has obscured the problems raised by government monopoly ownership of an entire medium of communication. We would see rather serious First Amendment problems if the government used its power of eminent domain to become the only lawful supplier of newsprint and then sold the newsprint only to licensed persons, issuing the licenses only to persons that promised to use the newsprint for papers satisfying government-defined rules of content.

Unfortunately, Judge Williams's opinion was on the losing side in that case, but his point remains a good one and the problem he raises remains unresolved--or rather, it remains unrecognized as a problem by politicians happy to wield power over part of the press and a public to accustomed to this state of affairs to raise questions.

We don't need a Fairness Doctrine for broadcasters anymore than we need a censorship board for newspapers, magazines and Websites. More important, content regulation such as the Fairness Doctrine overtly violates individual free speech rights by making the expression of opinions subject to government regulation.


How many lawyers does it take to make a free speech case?

Just one--if he or she is a New Yorker. Federal Judge Frederick Scullin ruled that the Empire State's recently adopted restrictions on advertising by attorneys violate the First Amendment.

New regulations were instituted in February that affect all forms of lawyer advertising. Testimonials by current clients are banned. Attorneys are not allowed to use depictions of courtrooms or courthouses. And tradenames or mottos that suggest an ability to obtain results are not allowed.

The decision is a welcome, if somewhat rare, win for commercial speech.


Sunday, July 29, 2007

Charged for speaking their mind

In North Carolina, Buncombe County Sheriff’s deputy Brian Scarborough went to the home of Mark and Deborah Kuhn to cite the couple because he was offended that they flew a U.S. flag upside-down as a political statement. Things rapidly degenerated from there. Apparently incredulous that a government employee would try to penalize them for peacefully expressing their political views, the Kuhns refused to accept the citation and closed the door on the petty little thug. Scarborough then broke into the couple's home, precipitating a scuffle.

Now the Kuhns are charged with assault on a government employee, resisting arrest and desecrating an American flag.

Assault on a government employee? Resisting arrest? They were defending their home from an intruder. Frankly, the Kuhns would have been justified in using a lot more force against Scarborough than the few slaps and punches that resulted in "some scrapes and cuts to his hand."

Desecrating an American flag? That's free speech, folks. You don't have to like it, but it's the Kuhns' right to fly a flag upside-down if they want, no matter what the law says.

I give the Kuhns credit for speaking their minds, and for refusing to back down when a ridiculous little official came around to wag his finger at them.

The Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office can be reached at (828) 250-4503. Why not make a call and let Sheriff Van Duncan know that Deputy Brian Scarborough deserves a real "assault on a government employee."


Friday, July 27, 2007

Turning garbage into guns

Have you ever fantasized about taking advantage of one of those "gun buybacks" that trade cash or credit for old scrap guns and using the proceeds to buy yourself a shiny new boomstick? Well, somebody did--in spades.

Read the full story. It's a hoot.


Personally, I'd choose magic mushrooms

Cool. I didn't know NASA was running party cruises. I have to say though, if I was being shot off into the mind-blowing heavens, alcohol wouldn't be my preferred mood enhancer.


Thursday, July 26, 2007

Zero tolerance under the microscope

If you're interested in a roundup of tales of injustice resulting from school zero-tolerance policies, as well as a rogues gallery of school officials defending those policies even while discussing the aforementioned cases, check out this article from The Nogales International.

First, the troubling anecdotes:

Shannon, a 10-year-old, discovered at lunchtime that her mother had put a small paring knife in her lunch to cut an apple. Shannon realized that the knife might violate the school's zero tolerance policy, and turned it in to a teacher, who told her that she had done the right thing. Should Shannon have been disciplined?

Lisa was an honor student, a cheerleader, a Student Council member, a violinist in the school orchestra, an award winner at the school science fair and the recipient of high praise for a project in her honors history class. However, she violated the school alcohol policy by bringing a bottle of cherry 7UP with added grain alcohol to school. What should have happened?

David, an Arizona seventh grader, inspired by the movie "October Sky," a biography of NASA rocket scientist Homer Hickam, brought a homemade rocket made from a potato chip canister to school. The potato chip canister was fueled with three match heads. What result was appropriate?

In Pennsylvania, a 5-year-old wore a five-inch plastic axe as part of his firefighter's costume to a Halloween party. Should he have been disciplined?

A 6-year-old in Colorado Springs. Colo., was observed giving another student some "candy" with a brand that the teacher did not recognize. "It was not something you would purchase in a grocery store," said a district spokesman. "It was from a health food store." What was the proper course of action?

[A]s the 5-year-old Halloween firefighter found out, zero tolerance - even though it aims to protect students - can sometimes go overboard. The kid was suspended for bringing a simulated weapon to school. After firefighters around the country contacted the school to complain, the school officials composed an open letter to firefighters across the country stating that they never intended to offend firefighters by referring to the axe as a weapon. However, they defended the zero tolerance policy against weapons and simulated weapons as fair.

Even though Lisa, the honor student with the spiked 7UP, had never been to the principal's office for any disciplinary reason, she was assigned to five months in a military style boot camp. Had she been charged in juvenile court, she would have received a ticket and a fine.

David, the rocket-crazed seventh grader, was suspended for the the school term after the police were called and they classified the rocket as a weapon.

The 6-year-old who shared candy with his friend? Thinking that the candy may have contained drugs, the school administrators called an ambulance. The candy was determined to be lemon drops. Nevertheless, the kid was suspended for a half day.

And Shannon? The girl who turned in the paring knife her mother sent in her lunch box? She was expelled for bringing a knife to school in violation of the school's zero tolerance policy.

The defenses of zero tolerance range from, "gangs are bad, m'kay," to fretting over lawsuits resulting from disparate punishments meted out for similar offenses if teachers and administrators are permitted discretion. My favorite quasi-defense of zero-tolerance reasoning, though, comes from this little exchange between two administrators:

[W]here do you draw the line in schoolyard violence? Bejarano asked. What if a kid stands up to a bully? "I ask you to consider this," he said. "If you're out in public somewhere with your family and someone punches you in the face, are you going to go find help or are you going to stand up for yourself?"

"I wouldn't put myself in that situation to begin with," answered John Fanning, the president of Calabasas Middle School.

You wouldn't out yourself in what situation? Going out in public?

Overall, the school officials featured in the article come off as dominated by CYA bureaucratic timidity and wishful thinking about the image into which the world can be forced if the penalties for deviation are made sufficiently draconian.

Kids, of course, are caught up in the fallout from those fears and delusions.

But the problem is worse than just the immediate injustice visited upon isolated children. These children, and all of their classmates in the public school system, spend their formative years subject to a system of discipline that imposes ridiculously over-the-top punishments for minor and even unknowing transgressions, and that permits little leeway for mercy. Even such fundamentally natural acts as defending yourself from a bully can draw harsh penalties.

Existence year after year under such a regime can't help but shape the view of the world that inmates in the government-funded holding pends have of the world around them. At best, they learn that the law is something to be resisted and that authority figures are drones and thugs to be avoided at all costs. That's probably a valuable lesson in today's world, if it helps to raise a generation of instinctive anarchists who harbor abiding contempt for governing institutions.

At worst, though, the zero-tolerance system breeds serfs and snitches who live in fear of intrusive authority and seek favor by reporting each other for transgressions of the most mindless rules. If they carry that lesson with them into adult life--and at least some certainly will--just how well equipped are they to function in or maintain the trappings of a free society?

For now, I'll hope we're raising more anarchists than serfs.

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Thunder thighs are contagious!

According to the latest news, simply associating with fat people can make you fat yourself.

Friends of obese people were 57 percent more likely to gain weight, U.S. researchers found. The risk was 40 percent for siblings and 37 percent for spouses. Neighbors outside the person's social network weren't affected.

Apparently, knowing fat people makes you think that being fat is acceptable, which makes it more likely that you'll pack on the pounds. We are told that this makes obesity as much a "social problem" as a medical one. Uh oh. Well, if it's a contagious social problem, it sounds like a job for that champion of society, government!

I'm predicting mandatory weigh stations on street corners within ten years.


Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A charter for success

About a month ago I had a discussion with my sister and brother-in-law about education choices for our kids that turned into a political debate. My sister is very familiar with (and opposed to) my libertarian views and believes that because I question the legitimacy of government and refuse to be bound by many laws, I shouldn't be allowed to use most public services--even though I'm forced to cough up substantial taxes to support those services.

This is important because my wife, Wendy, and I mentioned that we were considering sending our son, Tony, to a charter school when he gets old enough for formal education. Homeschooling is on the table, too, but it was the charter school option that set off my sister and her husband.

"Charter schools are public schools too," my sister protested. By her logic, we shouldn't be allowed to enroll Tony in one of the charter schools we've been considering.

I'll admit that I was briefly caught flat-footed--not by the seamless logic of my sister's argument that I should be denied access to government services, but by her unquestioned assumption that charter schools are much like any other public schools. Y'see, it used to be my job, back when I worked for the Internet Education Exchange, to make exactly that argument. It was our seemingly uphill task to convince the skeptical public at large that privately managed but publicly funded schools were no threat to the supposed sanctity of government-run education. Four years later, my generally statist sister had unknowingly adopted my argument and turned it around on me.

Who'd have guessed?

I mention this now because the New York Times has an interesting story on the growing success of charter schools in Los Angeles. Steve Barr and his Green Dot Public Schools have seemingly cleared away most of the barriers to establishing and running charter schools in the city. Barr has won his battles by organizing parents to lobby on behalf of reform--but also by buddying up to the politicians and teachers unions who made the traditional schools such a mess to begin with.

Charter schools are undoubtedly becoming more mainstream, but you have to wonder how much of their independent character they're retaining as they win converts and open new facilities. What happens if charter schools become increasingly accepted only by turning into their hide-bound competition?

In the end, by arguing that charter schools really are just another type of public schools, we may have undermined our own case. I'll stay optimistic for now; Green Dot schools are out-performing traditional public schools and my local options are greatly expanded by the existence of charters. But I hope we didn't just fortify the government education monopoly when we thought we were subverting it.


Friday, July 20, 2007

Whose property is it?

Gee. How broadly do you think the categories in this executive order will be interpreted?

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Voicing heresy

Over at his blog based at South Carolina's aptly named The State newspaper, Brad Warthen is doing his best to be incredibly dense about why libertarians don't want to be dragooned into supporting government programs of which they disapprove.

He starts off with the usual strawmen.
Doug, why do you feel that way -- about wanting to make sure that you're not expected to help anyone else in retirement?

That might sound facetious, or provocative, but I'm sincere about wanting to know. The concern you express seems to be at the heart of the whole libertarian impulse, which I find it so impossible to connect with. And one thing I keep wondering is, how do people develop an attitude of "this is mine; it's just for me; don't anybody expect me to share it?" ....

But I'm not sure I feel that impulse at all. I mean, if somebody came and took all I had so that I was hungry and cast into the cold, I'm pretty sure I'd feel like saying, "Hey, that was mine! You can't do that." But when I'm able to get by, however hard it might be paying bills from month to month, I just don't even feel a murmur of protest at the idea of paying into a system that makes sure nobody else starves in old age, or into a system that makes sure no one will be turned away when they need medical care.
As is often the case with people being deliberately obtuse about what Warthen calls "the libertarian impulse," he takes his correspondent's antipathy to the coercive taking of his income for purposes of government officials' own choosing as a general lack of charitable feelings and actions toward his fellow humans. Prefer to give to Oxfam or your church instead of being mugged by the IRS? Well you're just a miserly bastard.

But about that mugging ...

As for your [another correspondent's] assertion that "both government programs that take private property from individual without their direct consent — the situation Ross outlines — is not much different from the hypothetical you construct with someone taking things from you..." Well, in America the two things are as different as night and day. The mugger violates the laws we came up with through our republican system. The levying of taxes such is the republican system in action. ... Of course, in a republic, the "government" is the will of our neighbors expressed through their elected representatives, making decisions within the context of a constitution. And no, individuals do not get to opt out if not consulted PERSONALLY. That takes us back to anarchy.
Ah, there we go! There's something almost theological about Warthen's conception of state power. It's an expression of "the will of our neighbors." As such, it apparently embodies all morality, since mugging is wrong only because it "violates the laws we came up with through our republican system" and not because it is a coercive deprivation of one person's rightfully obtained property by another person. Presumably, a simple whim of the legislature could make robbery hunky dory.

With the state taking on such an all-encompassing role, it's no wonder that Warthen is offended by Doug's preference for privately chosen charity over government programs funded by forcibly extracted loot. Nothing, in his mind, legitimately exists beyond the reach of government. To voice disdain for the institution of government and a preference for operating outside its orbit is not merely an expression of differing values and preferences from those of Warthen; it's to give voice to heretical deviation from Warthen's civic religion. Doug, the original correspondent, simply doesn't worship at the same altar as Warthen, and the journalist is utterly shocked to find that his god is not universally exalted.

No, I don't think I'm exaggerating the matter.

You don't have to be an anarchist to recognize the brutal nature of state power. As Tom Paine said, "Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one." Even people who believe in the necessity of government can recognize that it is, at best, a flawed means of organizing and managing human interactions. As such, it needs to be kept within strict limits lest it become an exercise in tyrannical control used by the powerful against the powerless.

The school of thought that holds that government is anything more than a temporary institution created to exercise coercive force on behalf of dominant factions against their opponents--or, if you prefer, to exercise the supposed will of a majority on a given issue over the minority--veers rather heavily off the rational road into the territory occupied by religion. The idea that government--even democratic government--represents the will of the people (whoever they are and whatever they may will through their apparent mass mind) is every bit as mystical a concept as a priest's invocation of god's will.

Brad Warthen's faith in an obligation for us all to act collectively through government programs might be charming in a naive, fourth-grade social-studies class sort of way, but it's not a political philosophy; it's a religion.

And some of us are perfectly happy to be heretics.


Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Make mine a Cuban

Federal lawmakers seem dead-set on driving the market for tobacco as thoroughly underground as the market for marijuana. A Senate Finance Committee proposal to hike the tax per cigar from $0.05 to $10.00 -- a 20,000% increase -- seems made-to-order to make stogie smuggling every bit as profitable as packing illegal drugs across the border.

I love a good cigar, but not enough to cough up an extra ten bucks a pop to Uncle Sam. That doesn't mean that I'll stop smoking cigars, though. No, instead, I'll turn to some acquaintances of mine who already supply me with the occasional already-illegal Cuban cigar (I especially favor Romeo y Julieta Churchills). Smuggled Cuban cigars will be much more cost-competitive under the proposed tax, and my friends will no doubt add still-legal but highly taxed cigars from other sources to their inventory.

The reason for the tax hike? Why, it's for the children of course. Specifically, it's intended to fund one of the Democratic Congress's favorite welfare-state programs, the State Children's Health Insurance Program. And how could any of us meanies oppose something that's so intimately tied to wide-eyed little tykes?

That such a massive tax-hike would have the added benefit of reducing demand for an officially disfavored product is gravy for the control freaks who dominate the federal legislature.

As evidence that President Bush isn't completely wrong on every issue, the White House has promised a veto of the bill that contains the tax hike.

Whether or not the tax becomes law, however, I recommend renewing your relationship with your smuggler friends.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Strange bedfellows

Here's a good piece from the Las Vegas Sun on how Ron Paul is pulling in supporters from across the political spectrum. I love the image of punk-rockers, anti-war activists and gold bugs rubbing shoulders in a common cause.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Camping with the kid

Hmmm. If you wanted to create the most exhausting situation possible, one that would deny you a good night's sleep, deprive you of peace during the day and leave you begging for mercy, what would you do?

Well, you might have a favorite answer of your own, but for my money, the key to a truly debilitating experience is to go camping with a two-year-old.

I can't place all the blame on my son; my wife and I were the ones who came up with the brilliant idea to begin with. Avid backpackers and campers that we are, we want to make sure that our demonic spawn ... err ... beloved son is exposed to the outdoors as early as possible.

But two-year-olds like routine. Plopping a kid down between two sleeping bags in a tent under the stars is a bit of a change from the expected bath, story and comfy crib.

Then there were the dogs. The dogs love Tony. The dogs love Tony so much that they couldn't help but engage his face in a frenzied lick-fest every time he showed signs of dozing off.

Daddy, admittedly, wasn't much help. He busied himself with a bottle of merlot while pretending to deafness, leaving mom to tend to bed-time rituals. The bastard.

Oh wait, that's me.

Oh well. Mom was short-tempered herself.

This was our second attempt at a family camping trip with the little beastie, and I can confidently say that it was our last for quite a while. I think he might be ready when he's four. Four is a good age, right?

Crap. I'm going to need more merlot.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Defiance with style

As much as I despise taxes and the institutions they support, I generally don't have a lot of time for the sort of tax protesters who insist that they've found a legal loophole that frees them from feeding the government its pound of flesh. Like kids invoking magical rituals and incantations, they claim that their arguments that the 16th Amendment was improperly ratified, or that the word "income" doesn't mean what the IRS thinks it means, will win them release from the annual mugging that constitutes the federal income tax system. And as with those magic spells, the results just never seem to live up to the promise.

The problem is that the government makes the rules and runs the courts. No matter how logical or historically founded an argument over the legitimacy of tax law may be, government officials are just not going to slap themselves in the forehead, say "whoops! you found us out," and give up the revenue stream that pays their bills and supports their power.

That said, I find myself tickled by the stance of Ed and Elaine Brown in Plainfield, New Hampshire. It's not that the Brown's are free of the magical thinking and general kookery that marks so many tax protesters--oh boy, they're not.

What I like about the Browns is the sheer fun they seem to be having in their well-stocked, solar- and wind-powered home while holding off federal and local goons during an extended siege. The Browns even threw themselves a party complete with live music, speakers, food and drink. About 200 people showed up to support the Browns, have a good time and steal police equipment set up to monitor attendees at the event.

All this while the powers-that-be stand ready to overrun the property with armored vehicles and SWAT teams.

Frankly, that's grace under pressure. It's good to see people thumb their noses at the government, and do it with style.

Unfortunately, this is all likely to end badly. No argument about the proper ratification procedure for a constitutional amendment or the meaning of the word "income" will keep the feds from putting the pinch on a family that refuses to pay extortion money. The only question is whether the end will come peacefully, or whether the authorities will decide to make yet another lethal example of people who flip them the bird.

I wish the Browns the best. And I thank them for their show of defiance.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

That'll show those profiteers

The mob-pleasing scolds in the Arizona state legislature, along with their counterparts in Florida, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas, have banned the use of the names of the war dead in loosely defined "commercial speech." In the process of violating the First Amendment, they've launched the most effective marketing campaign ever for the vendor of the anti-war t-shirts that are the target of the legislation.

Full story here.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A taxing conflict

The latest argument against war-tax resisters? The bastards are making pro-war "patriots" cough up more moolah to Uncle Sam to keep the troops in bullets and beer. At least, that's the line taken by Nathan Tabor at The Conservative Voice.

Anti-war zealots are refusing to pay their taxes because they say they don't want their money to pay for the war in Iraq. That means the rest of us are forced to make up for the shortfall. In other words, if you support our troops, you could face the prospect of an even greater tax burden, because some ideologues are refusing to pay their fair share.

Fair share? I thought that was liberal-speak. Since when do conservatives talk about the tax burden as paying our "fair share?"

Actually, I would have little problem with this argument if it was true. If the saber-rattlers are so sold on the wisdom of Bush's adventure in the Middle East, let them foot the cost and keep the rest of us out of it. That seems to me to be a fair allocation of the hefty bill for the foundering occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

But taxation doesn't work that way. The government doesn't come up with some carefully considered total tax number needed to pay for its oh-so-important programs that it then divides among the taxpayers--and then divides once again to make up for those naughty individuals who evade their "fair share." In fact, spending is largely unrelated to what the IRS takes in taxes, which is why the government runs semi-permanently in the red. And taxes are set at whatever members of Congress and the Executive Branch believe they can get away with--minus the occasional token tax cut to keep taxpayers from becoming too ticked off.

The portion of taxes evaded by war resisters--or tax rebels of any sort--just aren't collected. Nobody's tax bill rises as a result.

This fallacy that we're somehow all splitting a dinner check and leaving honest Cousin Bill holding the bag if we skimp on our portion pops up every April 15 when newspaper editorialists and goo-goo pundits wag their fingers at us, urging us to do our duty. It's usually so-called progressives who tut-tut when the IRS announces that tax compliance has dropped below 85%, warning that honest folk will have to shoulder a heavier burden as a result. Now conservatives have joined the scrum, substituting "patriotic" for "honest," but otherwise coming off every bit as nannyish and self-righteous as their supposed ideological opponents.

I take the convergence of nagging as strong evidence that liberals and conservatives alike are drinking Uncle Sugar's Kool Aid. Whatever differences they may harbor, they share a deep-seated desire to keep the government fat and happy--and that means convincing us poor sheep to cooperate in our fleecing.

Sorry, but I'm not buying the sales pitch. I've always admired tax rebels for denying a few morsels to the government's maw, and I especially admire war tax resisters for holding back even a few dollars from the funds allocated to a bloody business.

Let's starve the beast, if we can.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

War tax resistance

Via Claire Wolfe, here's an excellent AP article about the courageous people who are putting their liberty and property on the line to withhold money from the government's war machine.

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Monday, July 9, 2007

Spirit of independence

I'm a little late coming to this, but the New York Times ran an atypically light-hearted piece about the hordes of scofflaws from New York and New Jersey who descend on Pennsylvania around Independence Day each year to stock up on pyrotechnic goodies illegal in their home states. It's nice to see that the contempt for "legitimate" authority that characterized Thomas Jefferson and Company still finds a small echo in July 4 festivities.

I was in Maryland, where a fine assortment of fireworks is plentifully available, in the days leading up to Independence Day. While I didn't indulge in anything likely to challenge a professional exhibition, I had the pleasure of introducing my son and his cousins to the joy of fun snaps--those little paper twists filled with a pinch of gunpowder and a bit of gravel that detonate on impact. I have fond memories of waging war games with toy soldiers as a kid and using the snaps as "artillery" to liven up the play combat.

Jasper, the older of my two nephews at almost-five, got the biggest kick out of the little explosives. He insisted on taking one apart to see what made it go "bang."

The heavier artillery that was available for sale certainly tempted me since, oddly enough for a state that's generally pretty live-and-let-live, it's strictly illegal in Arizona. I briefly considered several schemes for smuggling fireworks home, but I discarded all of them as unfeasible in the post-9/11 world or overly Mission-Impossiblish for nothing more than a little fiery entertainment.

Happily, though, once I returned home, it was obvious that several of my neighbors had an easier time of getting hold of the good stuff. I enjoyed their displays--and the raised middle finger to the law that they represented.

Control-freak politicians in the states that outlaw fireworks (among other things) are fond of telling us how they're saving us from ourselves by building a legislative wall between us and our pyrotechnic fun. Severed fingers, scorched shrubbery and ruptured eardrums, they never tire of lecturing us, are the inevitable wages of allowing us to make our own decisions. It's better that we get tackled and dragged away by the always exuberant forces of law and order than risk setting fire to the neighbor's petunias.

Well, they're (sort of) right--some segment of the population will, inevitably, get injured by fireworks, just as people suffer from the misuse of chainsaws, candles and random pointy objects lying around the kitchen.

But it's not the responsibility of politicians to save us from ourselves or to bundle the world in bubble-wrap to protect us from every possible risk.

Lord knows, if we need protection from anything, it's busybody politicians and their pet enforcers.

Maybe those folks smuggling fireworks from state to state should take the time to gather at their local town halls and point their roman candles where they'll do the most good.


Sunday, July 8, 2007

Not just my tax return is fiction

I want to mention my friend Paul Fuhr's online literary journal, Paradigm. Paul and his colleagues have very kindly published two of my short stories in their premier issue:

I'll let you decide for yourself whether the stories are any good.

The third issue of Paradigm, due August 1, will include an excerpt from a novel I've been writing.

Have at it, you literary critics!

A danger to ourselves

National Geographic Adventure (a great magazine) has an interesting article in its current issue on why people who should know better sometimes make dangerous decisions--and how efforts to shield people from danger can actually be hazardous to their health.

[W]e should be aware that the safety we're being offered is often an illusion. Systems become more complex but not necessarily safer. When radar was introduced into commercial shipping, it was supposed to reduce accidents. Instead, accidents increased, because the captains drove their boats faster. Something as simple as requiring bicyclists to wear helmets can backfire in surprising ways. Ian Walker, a psychologist at the University of Bath, found that people drive their cars much closer to cyclists wearing helmets, because drivers assume that those people know what they're doing.

Seemingly simple efforts to increase safety can actually displace skill and caution. In my part of the country, that has resulted in a growing number of situations where people have ventured into the wilderness unprepared for rugged country or desert heat--but carrying cell phones with which to summon help.

This has important policy implications because, in the age of litigation and the nanny state, government officials increasingly seek to eliminate--or at least reduce--danger in everyday life through the force of law. Such laws have recently taken the form of a mandate in Oregon that mountain climbers carry locator beacons; a move that an expert quoted in the article expects to increase the number of unnecessary rescues and put more people in danger.

The whole article is worth a read.


Friday, July 6, 2007

Setback for privacy

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out an ACLU lawsuit against an NSA snooping program. The decision came on "narrow procedural grounds" and doesn't address the legality of the wiretapping scheme.


Thursday, July 5, 2007

Oh no! Arizona's property measure is a success!

In an unfortunately typical piece of drive-by journalism, the Arizona Republic sets its sights on Prop. 207, a property rights measure that won two-thirds of the vote when it was put before the voters last November.

Breathlessly, the Republic warns us:

A new state law billed as a property rights safeguard has dealt a blow to residents and city leaders who want to save old neighborhoods, create shopping districts or influence what is built in their communities.

Little in Proposition 207 dealt with eminent domain: the power cities have to force property owners to sell.

Arizonans are now finding out that the measure severely limits cities' power to change land use, a crucial tool that helped create signature Valley neighborhoods such as Mill Avenue in Tempe, the Encanto historic district in downtown Phoenix and the Esplanade at 24th Street and Camelback Road.

Similar proposed projects across Arizona face years of delay because cities must get property owners to sign legal waivers to avoid lawsuits.

The newspaper's take is the same load of condescending pap we heard before and after the 2006 election: Oh, pity the poor Arizonans, duped into supporting a radical property rights measure dressed up as eminent domain reform.

Yeah, right.

I know just a little bit about the history of Proposition 207 because I worked for Americans for Limited Government, a principle supporter of the measure, during the campaign to get it passed. In the op-eds I penned, I was very open about the impact of Prop. 207 on a wide variety of land-use restrictions. I was open about that impact because we all thought that was a major selling point for the measure--it would protect private property against a wide variety of incursions; not just the type currently making the headlines courtesy of the miserable Kelo decision.

For its part, the Republic used its editorial and news pages to vigorously attack Prop. 207's broad protections for property owners.

The matter was thoroughly discussed.

And 65% of voters thought a little protection for their homes and businesses against intrusive bureaucrats and politicians was a great idea.

Now the Republic is back, pointing to the early effects of the proposition and trumpeting, "See? We told you so!"

Well, yeah, you did, you annoying nits, and now that you mention it, the results ... well ... the results look pretty damned good!

The Republic cites a dropped plan for a property-restricting historic district in Tempe, a tussle over a plot to impose a burdensome business district in Phoenix and a battle over yet another proposed historic district in Flagstaff.

In all three cases, property owners who don't want to surrender their liberty and money to government planners and neighborhood bullies are turning to the provisions of Prop. 207 to protect themselves from being dragooned into grand schemes that they oppose.

It's hard to even understand the hurt feelings over the business district, since the article makes clear that the idea can still be implemented using businesses that agree with the project, and skipping those that don't.

As for historic districts--those are a perfect example of what Prop. 207 was intended to protect property owners against. Historic districts are an oppressive way for busybodies and politicians to use the power of the state to convert whole areas into museums to some fancied era. Why buy a favored building and maintain it when you can simply decree that your neighbor's house must be maintained as a shrine to some romanticized bit of the past?

Quite rightly, Prop. 207 mandates that homeowners who object to being burdened by a historic designation, among other restrictions, must be compensated for their trouble.

Oddly, the article barely touches on one troubling outcome of Prop. 207: The growing tendency of some government bodies to extort waivers of property rights out of home and business owners.

Some cities are abusing the waivers, said Timothy Sandefur, an attorney for the Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation, a group that advocates for property owners. Owners shouldn't have to sign away rights so the city will grant minor requests, he said.

Sounds interesting, right? Who is "abusing the waivers" and what does that mean?

Well, you won't find out in the pages of the Republic.

According to the East Valley Tribune:

Trying to get a permit to add on to your business? How about a zoning change?

If so, you might be forced to sign a waiver saying you won’t ever sue the city for any government decision that affects the value of your property.

On Thursday, Mesa joined cities across the state that are trying to get around a new, voter-approved property rights law.

Starting now, property owners in Mesa requesting annexations, zoning changes and approval of site plans to construct apartment buildings, retail centers and manufacturers will be compelled by the city to sign the waivers. Residential additions do not require waivers.

Cities are requiring property owners to sign away their rights?

That bothers me a lot more than hearing that Prop. 207 is actually working as intended.


Tuesday, July 3, 2007

All due respect

According to CNN, President Bush and Congress are held in roughly equal--that is, very low--esteem.

President Bush is doing terribly -- an average of 30 percent job approval in six recent polls. Congress is doing worse -- 25 percent on the average in five polls.

That actually sounds too high to me for both the executive and legislative branch, but I'll settle for those poll numbers for the time being.


Monday, July 2, 2007

Can you find a bridge long enough to cross this divide?

Sometime about halfway through our family reunion-cum-vacation in western Maryland, my sister mentioned that she was a little leery of the area my parents had chosen for the gathering. In fact, her friends had asked her and her husband why they were going to such a redneck destination. Redneck? Yes, apparently the Deep Creek Lake region of Maryland is a notorious destination for low-class fans of power boats and ATVs. "They're out of touch with nature."

Through further conversations during the course of the week, my sister sounded off on the sort of folks she disliked--people who shop at Wal-Mart and eat fast food, for instance. They don't have much regard for their natural surroundings.

Err. My wife and I had to scratch our heads. Yep, our neighbors in rural Arizona like ATVs, and they shop at Wal-Mart--they even eat fast food. But it's hard to be out of touch with nature when you raise goats, pigs and horses, hunt and fish, and cut firewood for your main source of heat. Up to your ankles in manure, guts and sawdust is a pretty natural way to live.

"Really?" my sister asked. "I don't think of country people that way."

Yeah. I got that.

Don't get me wrong--I love my sister. She's a smart, fun person with impeccable taste in art and clothes. She's a good conversationalist. She and her husband are wonderful parents to their boys. But somewhere along the line they gained the impression that going on the occasional camping trip, nodding knowingly along with commentaries on NPR and cutting checks to the Sierra Club made them defenders of every shrub and critter from the threat posed by the barbarian hordes who, through some cruel trick of fate, actually live alongside nature's bounty.

I live among those barbarian hordes, and by and large I find them to be pretty damned connected to and appreciative of their surroundings.

That's not a moral judgment. I'm not saying my country-folk neighbors are better people than my urbanite sister. I have good neighbors and bad neighbors just as urban dwellers come in varying degrees of moral rectitude.

What I am saying is that my sister--and many people like her--have created a straw man image of the type of people they don't like, and have defined themselves in opposition to it. They've dedicated themselves to saving the Earth from the peasants and, if necessary, to saving the peasants from themselves.

Politically, this attitude expresses itself in an enthusiasm for centralizing control of "public" lands in Washington, D.C., far from the troglodytes who actually live alongside the vast areas in question. Some urbanites would even encourage--or compel--rural dwellers to resettle in more densely populated places.

I don't notice a comparable aggressive hostility among the rural dwellers I know toward urbanites--in fact, they tend to be pretty accepting of differences in lifestyle and opinion as long as nobody tries to tell them what to do. Of course, my experience of rural life is largely limited to one part of Arizona. Elsewhere, things are different. The anti-abortion movement is largely rurally based--and yes, it does want to impose its will through legislation. The Christian Right as a whole comes from rural foundations and it is certainly authoritarian in its ambitions and methods.

I'm sure that these authoritarian tendencies are encouraged by the tendency of people to define themselves in opposition to "the other." If you have a feared enemy that you need to combat, you're likely to rally around your allies and endorse draconian tactics against the opposition. It's tempting to attribute the worst characteristics and motivations to "the other" as a means to dehumanize them and dismiss their concerns.

And the more fearsome "the other" becomes, the stronger the urge to huddle together with like-minded members of the tribe, to be more like them and to pressure them to refrain from straying far from the herd.

Of course, many--probably most--of us don't fall comfortably in any strictly defined camp. We hunt and we discuss literature. We ride ATVs and we buy organic food.

But I fear that the folks who drive the conversation and set the stage for conflict are the ones who band together in tribal sameness and plot ways to force their will on the feared "other." They create a constituency to be served by politicians who know how to play to prejudices and fears.

Of course, by expressing their tribal instincts, I guess they're just demonstrating how in-touch with nature they really are.


I'm not dead yet!

For those few of you who may be wondering, my wife, son and I survived the airport security gauntlet--including giggle-inducing police officers on Segways and a TSA agent tattooed over most of the visible parts of his body. We have never felt safer.

I'll chime in later with some thoughts, including my take on the peculiar and very tribal cultural divide in America.