Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Censorship ... err ... campaign finance reform strikes again

George Will tells the unpleasant tale of neighborhood activists in Colorado who were brought up short by modern America's limits on "acceptable" political speech.

Parker North is a cluster of about 300 houses close to the town of Parker. When two residents proposed a vote on annexation of their subdivision to Parker, six others began trying to persuade the rest to oppose annexation. They printed lawn signs and fliers, started an online discussion group and canvassed neighbors, little knowing that they were provoking Colorado's speech police.

One proponent of annexation sued them. This tactic -- wielding campaign finance regulations to suppress opponents' speech -- is common in the America of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. The complaint did not just threaten the Parker Six for any "illegal activities." It also said that anyone who had contacted them or received a lawn sign might be subjected to "investigation, scrutinization and sanctions for campaign finance violations."

Fortunately, the targets of the attempted muzzling have found an ally in the always excellent Institute for Justice. They, and IJ, are suing to overturn Colorado's burdensome laws limiting free speech.


McCain plays medicine man

John McCain's health care proposal is out and, as I predicted, it's not so much free market-oriented (as it's being touted in the press) as it is less statist than the schemes offered by his Democrat competitors, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

That said, there are some good elements in the plan. For starters, he touts the value of Health Savings Accounts. Some years ago, I had an early version of the HSA (a real one that rolled over from year to year, not one of the accounts that magically ate your money every December). It really did give me a remarkable degree of control over my health expenses and an idea of what everything cost -- and it allowed me to go to providers as a cash-paying patient, with access to lower prices.

McCain also wants to shift tax breaks so that they stop incentivizing employers to offer health coverage and start incentivizing individuals to acquire coverage independent of employers. To that end he's offering credits of $2,500 for individuals and $5,000 for families. That's not enough to pay the full cost of coverage, but it's not supposed to be. It's just supposed to act as a carrot to get people to acquire coverage. McCain also wants to allow people to shop for plans across state lines, potentially buying cheaper insurance that covers just what they need from states with fewer regulations. Overall, that promises increased competition, coverage chosen for its personal fit, and also improved job mobility since people won't stay in unpleasant situations just to retain coverage.

Tort reform is also on McCain's agenda, though I'm curious as to how he's going to address what's really a state-level issue from the White House.

McCain's proposal does not address the problems inherent in a third-party-pays system of health coverage. I don't see how his ideas are going to rein-in the increasing costs that come with the all-you-can-eat model (nor do Obama and Clinton address this).

And the plan does nothing to challenge the entitlement mentality that has converted health care in the minds of too many people into a "right" that somebody else has to provide at any and all cost. As long as people insist that unknown others owe them endless fixes for their booboos, health care will remain a political football, with the advantage going to the politicians who promise the most free stuff (Who pays the bill? Who cares?).

McCain also promises what sounds like a pricey but vague state-federal fix for the problems of "higher-risk" patients who have trouble getting approved for coverage under the third-party-pays system.

And there's some inscrutable stuff in there, including an endorsement of "coordinated care."

We should pay a single bill for high-quality disease care which will make every single provider accountable and responsive to the patients' needs.

Talk about counter-intuitive. If I want a doctor's attention, I expect that I'll get it not from one pre-paid bill, but because I haven't yet signed a check to her.

My verdict: Less bad than what the Democrats offer, with some actual quasi-market-oriented improvements over the current system. The model also allows for continuing individual experimentation, unlike Clinton's plan to conscript the entire population into a government-designed system.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Obama the free marketeer?

In the comments to a post by Michael C. Moynihan at Reason's Hit & Run, Tim Cavanaugh, late of Reason and now Web editor of the Los Angeles Times opinion page, reinforces Moynihan's contention that Barack Obama may well be the more market-oriented of the two Democrat contenders for president.

We had both of the Tiresome Twosome in for L.A. Times endorsement interviews within a day or two of each other. Obama easily clinched it right there, and the split was exactly as Moynihan lays out in his post.

To wit: On all economic topics you got vague-but-encouraging, generally New Democrat pro-market stuff out of Obama, and you got straight-up socialism out of Clinton. That was true for free trade, for punishment of the "CEOs who have caused this mess," for making sure "the workers who created the wealth get their fair share," for the bailout of sub-prime deadbeats, for everything. This was not exactly a Fox-News-type crowd they were addressing either: With a handful of exceptions, everybody in the room was quite eager to hear hang-the-rich, protect-the-people-from-themselves claptrap.

I'm not exaggerating when I say Clinton's rhetoric was openly socialist and Obama's at least showed familiarity with the basic notion of a free market. That doesn't mean Clinton will rule that way or that she's legislated that way, and it doesn't mean Obama won't suck. But just counting their comments on economics, Obama was orders of magnitude less objectionable than Clinton.

That's an interesting peek into what the two presidential hopefuls are telling a select audience of (mostly) economically authoritarian newspaper editors about their economic views.

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FLDS gives its version of events

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) has published a Website giving its own version of the raid by Texas authorities on the Yearning for Zion ranch and the subsequent kidnapping by officials of hundreds of the odd sect's children. The photos of heavily armed raiders are especially chilling.

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Why do doctors stick with the health care system?

In response to yesterday's post on John McCain's sort-of, not-quite rejection of a government-designed health-care system, a reader writes to ask me:

If they are so dissatisfied with the current state of medical insurance, why aren't more doctors operating outside of the insurance industry by providing good care for a reasonable cost and completely boycotting medical insurance?

That's a good question, since the current system is a disaster and proposals put forward by the leading presidential candidates promise to enhance the worst aspects of what's already in place. To quote a Forbes column by Yaron Brook recommended to me by the same reader:

But by the time Medicare and Medicaid were enacted in 1965, this view of health care as an economic product--for which each individual must assume responsibility--had given way to a view of health care as a "right," an unearned "entitlement," to be provided at others' expense.

This entitlement mentality fueled the rise of our current third-party-payer system, a blend of government programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid, together with government-controlled employer-based health insurance (itself spawned by perverse tax incentives during the wage and price controls of World War II).

Today, what we have is not a system grounded in American individualism, but a collectivist system that aims to relieve the individual of the "burden" of paying for his own health care by coercively imposing its costs on his neighbors. For every dollar's worth of hospital care a patient consumes, that patient pays only about 3 cents out-of-pocket; the rest is paid by third-party coverage. And for the health care system as a whole, patients pay only about 14%.

The result of shifting the responsibility for health care costs away from the individuals who accrue them was an explosion in spending.

This is exactly right. The dominant means of paying for health care in the United States has little to do with the discipline and consumer feedback of the free market. Prices for procedures and visits are set not according to supply and demand in the local market, but according to insurance company compensation and the mysteries of medical coding. Each procedure must be coded at the highest justifiable level -- too low and you're giving services away, too high and you're flirting with fraud. The charges for each code are then set at a level above expected insurance company (including Medicare and Medicaid) compensation. To maximize compensation, medical practices charge at a level well above what the companies are actually willing to compensate. If a practice is being compensated equivalent to its charges, the assumption is that the office is charging too little.

Smart cash-paying patients who know to ask at well-run practices will often find an entirely separate and unadvertised price list that bears little resemblance to what insurance companies are charged. That is, it's a lot lower. These separate price lists for cash-paying customers have been adopted at a very few medical practices as the only price lists. Practices that use SimpleCare charge patients directly and don't deal with insurance companies or government programs at all, although patients are free to submit their bills to insurers for reimbursement.

How much lower are these cash prices? SimpleCare providers are reported to charge 30% to 50% less than competitors who work through the traditional insurance schemes. And that's with much less effort and expense in collecting payments.

All right. So the system of codes and insurers as it now exists is arcane, difficult to navigate and drives up costs. So, as my reader asks, "why aren't more doctors operating outside of the insurance industry by providing good care for a reasonable cost and completely boycotting medical insurance?"

The fact is, doctors are some of the least business savvy people I've ever met. Most will admit that, too. Medical school teaches them how to save lives, but not how to run an office. Unfamiliar with alternatives, physicians go with what they know, which is the system in place. Successful practices almost always rely on practice managers who are trained in the arcane art of extracting money from insurance companies and the government. They have conferences, newsletters and mailing lists devoted to proper coding and price-setting. Practice managers are highly skilled at running medical practices under the current system and only under the current system.

And once physicians who've opened their own practices find themselves bringing in more money than they put out in expenses, they have little incentive to start jiggering with the business model. Shifting gears would involve putting profitability on the line for the hope of reestablishing profitability under a different (if more sensible) business model -- all the while swimming upstream against the prevailing assumption, so well described by Yaron Brook, that health care is a "right" that should be free. Switching to a pay-as-you-go model requires getting patients who balk at coughing up $20 for a co-pay to pay the full (but discounted off of current prices) cost of their health care.

That's one of the maddening things about medicine. People who drive to the office in a new truck with a carton of cigarettes in the back and who just spent a couple of hundred bucks to get their dogs de-wormed will bitch about handing over $20 for a co-pay. People don't mind paying the veterinarian, but that greedy doctor ...

The prevailing entitlement attitude toward medicine is another big barrier toward changing to a more market-oriented model that would lower costs.

And, of course, since most health care consumers pay little or none of the actual cost of the services they consume, there's a strong incentive among an expensive subset of patients to demand ever-more tests, more medication, more visits and more specialized treatments that drive up costs overall for the whole system.

There are health-care providers who do use a market model, though. If you're a fan of alternative medicine, chances are that your homeopath or naturopath, right after a monologue about the evils of profit-driven mainstream medicine, will guide you to the counter where you're expected to pay, in full, for all services rendered that day.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

McCain just won my wife's vote

My wife is pretty much a single-issue voter this year. As a physician who owns her own practice and already despises the extent to which the government has intruded itself into her business, she's reserving her vote for the major-party candidate who promises the least expansion of the state sector in medicine. So, while we haven't discussed the latest development yet, I think this announcement will clinch it for her:

Sen. John McCain on Monday rejected a "big government" takeover of the health care system, saying he wants to empower families to make more medical decisions.

"I've made it very clear that what I want is for families to make decisions about their health care, not government, and that's the fundamental difference between myself and Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton," McCain told reporters in Miami, Florida, referring to the two remaining Democratic presidential candidates, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

"They want the government to make the decisions, I want the families to make decisions," he said.

But, McCain goes on to denounce "parochial interests" in medicine and said:

"We must move away from a system that is fragmented and pays for expensive procedures, toward one where a family has a medical home, providers coordinate their efforts and take advantage of technology to do so cheaply, and where the focus is on affordable quality outcomes."

That doesn't really sound to me like a candidate who wants to get the government out of the way and let the market provide medical care in a variety of ways to consumers with different needs -- free markets are, pretty much by definition, "fragmented" -- so I'm not sure what his assurances are worth.

But with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama promising to stick the insurance companies with the cost of government-designed coverage (until they close their doors) that (under Hillary's plan) everybody is forced to sign up for, basically denying people access to low-cost, bare-bones plans, McCain sounds at least a bit less dangerous. And that's before we even get to the Democrats' vow to limit drug companies' prices and profits, pretty much eliminating the incentive to incur the $802 million cost of developing and getting approved a new drug or the $1.2 billion cost of developing and winning approval for a new biotech product.

I still think that to whatever extent McCain is more market-oriented than his donkey-party rivals, it's more by default than by conviction -- he wants to distinguish himself from the competition, and Republicans can't really go more socialist than Democrats. On his own, though, he's generally distrustful of the free market, and convinced that the government needs to intervene and throw its elbows around. His prescriptive vision for health care, revealed above, sounds to me like a military man's gut-level instinct to address a perceived problem by issuing orders from above rather than by getting out of the way and letting people work out grassroots-level solutions -- probably a multitude of solutions to address many needs and preferences.

I think, then, that McCain's instinct is to move in the same coercive direction as Clinton and Obama, with the right solution (whatever in hell that is) imposed from the top down, but less so, just because he's a Republican.

That'll probably be enough for a lot of voters (including my wonderful wife), but a slower road to a bad destination doesn't sound too enticing to me.

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Dibor Roberts rally

"A Woman's Right to Light" Rally for Dibor

Community members from throughout Arizona's Verde Valley are organizing a rally to support Dibor Roberts, the 48-year-old Cottonwood woman pulled over for speeding by a Yavapai County Sheriff's officer in July 2007 around 10:40pm on Beaverhead Flats Road on her way home from her nursing assistant's job at Sedona Winds in the Village of Oak Creek. The Friends of Dibor seek justice for Dibor Roberts and all women, and want the County to recognize "A Woman's Right to Light" -- the right of a woman to get to a lighted area before stopping. The Roberts case goes to trial in mid-May.

The rally will take place on Sunday, May 4 at 3pm at Windmill Park on Cornville Road in downtown Cornville. Included in the rally will be speakers from the community, music, tee shirts, a bake sale and door prizes to raise funds for Dibor's defense.

Note: The above is drawn from a press release issued by the ad-hoc committee supporting Dibor Roberts (links added by yours truly) in anticipation of her May 14-16 trial on felony charges of unlawful flight from a law officer and resisting arrest.

Of additional interest is the revelation in the latest news story about the Roberts case that the day after Dibor Roberts was arrested, a warrant was issued for the arrest of her husband Merrill "apparently as an accomplice to the unlawful flight charge that had been leveled against Dibor." The warrant was based on nothing more than the assumption that Dibor had been talking on her cell phone with her husband when an enraged Sergeant Jeff Newnum drove her off the road, smashed her window and snatched the phone from her hands. The warrant was quashed only when phone records revealed that Dibor Roberts never completed a call to her husband or to 911 -- unsurprising considering the violent circumstances and the spotty cell coverage in that area.

Think about that. While a phone conversation never occurred in this instance, the police apparently consider it a criminal act for a man to counsel his frightened wife when she's pursued by somebody she fears may be impersonating a police officer. That's outrageous.

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Saturday, April 26, 2008

You know you're evil when ...

... in response to your wife's "what did you do today?" query, you respond that you kidnapped your political opponents' children and held them hostage in order to force the adults into submission.

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Friday, April 25, 2008

Uncharitable prohibitionists snuff out fund-raising

Advocates of forbidding private businesses to allow their customers to smoke are fond of claiming the bans have little impact on business, and whatever loss of patronage there is is purely temporary as smokers adjust to the new normal. At least for some businesses, though, that's not proving to be true. According to the New York Times, charity bingo games are withering and dying wherever cigarettes have been snuffed out.

In Minnesota, which adopted a statewide ban on smoking in all indoor workplaces in October, revenue from all charity gambling dropped nearly 13 percent in the last quarter of 2007, compared to the same quarter the year before, according to state officials. More than half of the drop — the equivalent of about $100 million annually — was attributed to the new law, they said.

Charlie Lindstrom, who runs the bingo nights at an American Legion post in Fergus Falls, Minn., said some of his former customers now drove to casinos on Indian reservations, where they can puff away, or across the border to Fargo, N.D., where veterans’ organizations are exempt from that state’s smoking ban.


Mr. Lindstrom is not alone. Managers of charity bingo games in California, New Jersey, New York and Washington State also say their states’ smoking bans have forced cutbacks in their budgets and in their support for various causes.

Few believe they can cultivate new nonsmoking players. They say smoking goes with bingo like peanut butter with jelly. Michael J. Surwill, bingo chairman at Elks Lodge No. 2501 in Ocean Springs, Miss., estimated that smokers outnumbered nonsmokers three to one at the lodge’s weekly game.

And the dip in fund-raising doesn't appear to be a temporary phenomenon either.

[B]ingo managers in states where bans on smoking have been in effect longer say nonsmokers cannot make up for the decline in revenues from smokers. Instead, they say, their industry has undergone a wave of forced consolidation.

“We actually benefited from it, but for the wrong reason — my competition was forced to close,” said Clyde Bock, bingo manager for the Ruth Dykeman Children’s Center in Seattle.

When Washington’s ban on smoking took effect in 2005, Mr. Bock was able to partially enclose a porch where bingo players could still smoke, and he got it approved as a separate facility. “It cost me $8,000, but it protected my customer base,” he said. “Other games weren’t so lucky.”

Still, revenues are down. In 2006, the bingo operation at the children’s center, which then belonged to Big Brothers Big Sisters, generated about $325,000 a year, after expenses, and employed 17 people. A year later, under the auspices of the center, it produced $150,000 and employed 13 people.

“People underestimate the impact smoking bans will have,” Mr. Bock said.

Washington used to be home to 100 bingo halls that raised money for charity. Now there are fewer than 20.

Culturally, it seems, bingo really is linked to smoking. If you take smoking out of the game, the players go elsewhere. Maybe they stay at home, or maybe they play bingo at friends houses where they can smoke, but they don't go to fund-raiser bingo games.

The article doesn't delve into the issue, but I have to assume that's a particular problem for charity-related games. Where a neighborhood bar can thumb its nose at the law and pay a few fines that amount to less than the profits from disobedience, or an underground-economy entrepreneur can operate a smoking-friendly business completely in the shadows (like the strip-joint smoke-easies proliferating in Cleveland), Big Brothers/Big Sisters or a children's hospital have limited options. By and large, they really don't want to be linked to civil disobedience or shadow economic activity. The charities are well and truly screwed.

Eventually, the charities will find new ways of raising funds. In the meantime, though, the fate of bingo games serves as an object lesson in the economic damage wreaked by restrictive laws on businesses that don't have the option of defying those laws. The customers offended by those laws can go elsewhere, including underground; the businesses just suffer.


Thursday, April 24, 2008

FLDS raid faces scrutiny

The wildly over-the-top raid by Texas authorities on the FLDS-owned Yearnings for Zion ranch, resulting in the kidnapping of hundreds of children by state officials, is finally drawing mainstream attention over civil liberties issues.

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Lost in the (fragrant) smoke screen

For the traditional 4/20 smokeout at the University of Colorado in Boulder, roughly 10,000 people showed up to defy marijuana prohibition and call for changes in the law.

With all of that highly illegal sweet-smelling smoke hovering over the crowd, did police continue their past efforts to harass, identify and arrest scofflaws?

Nope -- not a chance.

Officers in the past have gone to great lengths to catch people in the illegal act of smoking pot on 4/20.

In 2006, CU police dispatched undercover photographers to snap pictures of smokers. Photos of 150 alleged offenders then were posted on the department’s Web site, and witnesses were offered $50 to positively identify the suspects — who then were ticketed. Another year, smokers on Farrand were doused with sprinklers.

“We can’t do the same thing year after year,” [CU police Cmdr. Brad] Wiesley said hours before Sunday’s smoking began. “So I doubt we’ll do anything like the pictures. ... There’s no way our 12 to 15 officers are going to be able to deal with a crowd of 10,000. We just can’t do strong enforcement when we’re outnumbered 700 or 800 to one.”

Roughly 5,000 people gathered at the University of California - Santa Cruz for a similar event. Rich Westphal, task force commander with the Santa Cruz County Narcotics Enforcement Team, called the mass display of civil disobedience "a moral slap in the face to the cause" of drug prohibition.

That's right. Mass civil disobedience creates a reality of its own. The police either have to massively escalate their efforts and expense in an effort to counter the non-compliers -- and probably fail anyway -- or else give up. Police in Boulder and Santa Cruz quite sensibly chose to step back and leave the crowds to their peaceful, albeit illegal, pursuits.

There's a lesson here for opponents of any law. The more people they can convince to join them in disobedience of the law, the more difficult it becomes to enforce the law. Eventually, the disagreeable regulation becomes nothing more than an annoying technicality to be ignored by opponents and enforcers alike.

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Spread it thick

Marijuana butter?

Prescott Valley Police arrested a Prescott Valley man on April 20 in the 3200 block of Robert Road on various charges including marijuana for sale. ...

They found nine 5-ounce jars of marijuana butter in the refrigerator. Marijuana butter is a combination of ordinary household butter and a cooked-down version of marijuana.

I don't eat dairy products -- can't stand the stuff -- but I wonder if that would work with hummus?


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Sorry about that illegal search ...

Still number one at putting people behind bars

Visiting an issue I've written about in the past, a New York Times story starts off with a troubling lede:

The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

Unfortunately, as with too many Times articles, you have to go digging to find the meat of the story. The end result is still troubling, but rather more mixed than the lede suggests. As it turns out, the U.S. does have an extraordinarily high incarceration rate: 751 people behind bars for every 100,000 in population.

The only other major industrialized nation that even comes close is Russia, with 627 prisoners for every 100,000 people. The others have much lower rates. England’s rate is 151; Germany’s is 88; and Japan’s is 63.

The median among all nations is about 125, roughly a sixth of the American rate.

That puts the U.S. as, by far, the leader in an embarrassing category, and raises the question: why?

A big part of the answer is drug prohibition. The Times reports that, of the 2.3 million incarcerated Americans, 500,000 are in jails and prisons for drug crimes. That's up from 40,000 in 1980. About one-fifth of the prison population is there for engaging in activities that shouldn't be punishable at all.

And that's without even touching on other "crimes" that the government has no right to punish, such as gambling, prostitution and violation of many firearms laws.

But other countries have stupid laws on the books, too. And even if you eliminate victimless offenses, that still leaves the U.S. with a high incarceration rate. What gives?

For starters, more than half (52.1%) of all prisoners in state facilities committed violent offenses, according to the Department of Justice. Another one-fifth (20.8%) of prisoners in state facilities committed property crimes. That means that a lot of crimes that should be punished are being committed.

But how should they be punished? Here's where the difference lies. As the Times puts it: "If lists were compiled based on annual admissions to prison per capita, several European countries would outpace the United States. But American prison stays are much longer, so the total incarceration rate is higher."

As an example, the articles cites the fact that American burglars serve an average of 16 months in prison, compared with five months in Canada and seven months in England. And English-speaking countries tend to have longer sentences than non-English-speaking countries.

That's especially bad when you're talking about prisoners who shouldn't be incarcerated at all. It's also bad when you consider prisoners caught up by various states' three-strikes laws, which can impose draconian penalties on criminals convicted of even minor crimes. According to a 2004 Justice Policy Institute analysis of California's three-strikes provision, "over 42,000 persons—or more than one-in-four prisoners—are serving a doubled or 25-years-to-life sentence."

But is the U.S. wrong to lock up murderers, muggers and rapists for longer than their counterparts in other countries?

“As one might expect, a good case can be made that fewer Americans are now being victimized” thanks to the tougher crime policies, Paul G. Cassell, an authority on sentencing and a former federal judge, wrote in The Stanford Law Review.

From 1981 to 1996, according to Justice Department statistics, the risk of punishment rose in the United States and fell in England. The crime rates predictably moved in the opposite directions, falling in the United States and rising in England.

“These figures,” Mr. Cassell wrote, “should give one pause before too quickly concluding that European sentences are appropriate.”

Other commentators were more definitive. “The simple truth is that imprisonment works,” wrote Kent Scheidegger and Michael Rushford of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in The Stanford Law and Policy Review. “Locking up criminals for longer periods reduces the level of crime. The benefits of doing so far offset the costs.”

But, the Times goes on to point out, Canada experiences rises and falls in crime in parallel with the U.S. without imposing U.S.-style punishments.

So, what's the verdict?

I think the case is clear for eliminating laws against victimless "crimes" in which people have the right to engage whether politicians like it or not. It's bad enough to arrest somebody for selling a few pills or trading sex for money; it compounds the wrong to then impose some of the world's toughest sentences when no punishment at all is appropriate.

Also, three-strikes laws should be revisited, if only to ensure that severe sentences are being imposed only for serious crimes.

And some relatively minor crimes that are deserving of punishment are probably best treated through means other than long -- or any -- prison sentence.

But is a high incarceration rate an entirely bad thing when applied to real crimes against people and property?

That's just not clear yet.

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The circus continues

So Hillary Clinton took Pennsylvania by ten percent. That's enough of a margin to revive her campaign and keep it going for a few weeks, but not enough to give her a shot at the nomination unless she wins over superdelegates or poaches Obama's elected delegates -- which could happen, but would probably devastate the Democratic Party. That means continuing spectacle for us political junkies who enjoy watching power-hungry politicians go at each other tooth and claw.

The only thing better would be a cage match with an assortment of edged weapons scattered in the dust, but I think Hillary would win hands down. Hands down that is, until she stood to display Barack Obama's still-beating heart for the assembled audience.

Extra credit to Hillary for driving the New York Times editorial board into a hissy fit.

I just wish the Republicans had a similar battle going on to keep things evenly balanced and that much more interesting.


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Where law ends and resistance begins

Just how susceptible are societies to top-down change, with government using the force of law to impose the preferences of one faction on the unwilling members of another faction? In 2002, an intriguing and underappreciated book was published by Oxford University Press that addressed just that question. Can Gun Control Work?, by James B. Jacobs, Warren E. Burger Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Research in Crime and Justice at New York University, purports to address only the practicality of restricting firearms ownership in the United States, but it really applies to all circumstances in which governments try to impose policies disliked by significant percentages of their subject populations.

Jacobs himself sees the wider application of his book's findings. In the introduction, he writes:

Interestingly, many gun control believers are atheists when it comes to government regulation of mood- and mind-altering drugs. They insist that drugs cannot be kept out of the hands of those who want to use them. They point out that after an investment of many billions of dollars, and the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of individuals, our three-decade-long drug war has achieved few, if any, positive results. Does the drug war not cast doubt on schemes for gun prohibition or stringent regulation?

Indeed, it does. Advocates of gun control would do well to recognize that the failure of drug prohibition is virtually guaranteed to be replicated in the implementation of firearms regulations. Likewise, supporters of gun rights should realize that their zeal for the right to bear arms is paralleled among devotees of the autonomy of the human body and the right to self-medicate.

But the failure of drug laws is already well-documented -- indeed, it's a main feature in news stories that follow the latest drug busts and the ingenuity of drug smugglers, manufacturers and dealers. Have gun laws experienced similar failures that support Jacobs's point?

You bet.

In recent years, several states and municipalities passed laws mandating the registration of assault rifles. These laws were overwhelmingly ignored. In Boston and Cleveland, the rate of compliance with bans on assault rifles is estimated at 1%. Out of the 100,000 to 300,000 assault rifles estimated to be in private hands in New Jersey, 947 were registered, an additional 888 rendered inoperable, and 4 turned over to the authorities. In California, nearly 90% of the approximately 300,000 assault weapons owners did not register their weapons.

After summarizing the history of restrictions and the inherent weakness of the various proposals for registering firearms, restricting sales, banning some types of weapons and otherwise attempting to choke off private ownership of guns, Jacobs concludes:

If black market activity in connection with the drug laws is any indication, a decades-long "war on handguns" might resemble a low-grade civil war more than a law-enforcement initiative.

Well, that's a pretty definitive prognosis on gun control. And, based as it is on the failure of drug prohibition (and alcohol prohibition before that), it would seem to apply to any similar effort to restrict popular practices, substances and possessions. In fact, it's a lesson that anybody with a passing interest in history could learn fairly easily. At least since the Ottoman Empire's doomed efforts to prohibit the use of tobacco, laws that have suffered any real degree of unpopularity among the people subject to them have sputtered and died -- though often leaving strife, expense and ruined lives in their wake.

People, it seems, are remarkably unresponsive to legislation they dislike, even when the penalties for defiance are draconian (the Ottoman sultan, like the Russian czar, actually imposed the death penalty for smokers).

In a few cases, that may not be terribly important to the authorities. Politicians probably don't care that they get nothing approaching full compliance with taxes so long as they squeeze enough money from their subjects to pay for their pet projects and fill their personal accounts. But most laws are rendered ineffective by widespread defiance; worse, from a government perspective, scofflawry demonstrates the impotence of the state.

That should be enough reason to avoid grandiose legislative gestures. Why reveal the ruling regime as relatively feeble and disdained by much of the populace by passing laws that can't be enforced?

But there seems to be a popular delusion that transforming society is simply a matter of wanting hard enough and cleverly crafting legislation that everybody must follow as if it were a law of nature. As Jacobs puts it in the gun control context, "To a large extent, gun control is something that people believe in. It is embraced in principle without attention to practicalities, implementation and enforcement problems, and cost." Inevitably, the gun controllers, like all totalitarian "reformers," are disappointed when their neighbors prove resistant to social engineering.

I'm not troubled that a series of failed prohibitions and restrictions erodes the legitimacy of the state -- that's a beneficial outcome in my view. But the attempt to enforce those laws inevitably results in people fined, imprisoned and killed before the ultimate ineffectiveness of the policy in question becomes obvious to even the densest lawmakers.

For the sake of our liberty, it's a good thing that people are not anywhere near as malleable as politicians and frenzied advocates of schemes for "improving" society would like. It's just unfortunate that the lesson has to be relearned each generation.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Surprise! Government officials don't like journalists' shield law

The Free Flow of Information Act, which would somewhat protect journalists from forced disclosure of their sources when they expose government wrongdoing, has drawn the ire of many Bush administration officials. That sounds like an endorsement to me.

The bill isn't perfect. It contains plenty of loopholes and flirts with the dangerous business of defining who is a "legitimate" journalist worthy of protection and who isn't. But overall, the measure is worthy of support.

Frankly, anything that somewhat erodes the wall of secrecy around the modern security state deserves serious consideration.

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Trial by fire?

There are two schools of thought about the extended primary race for the Democrats' presidential nomination: one is that the slugfest will keep McCain out of the news and test the ultimate Democrat nominee's vulnerability to the rigors of the general campaign; the other is that the ongoing battle weakens the Democrats' eventual standard bearer. I used to lean to the former position, thinking that the process could result in a battle-hardened candidate primed to take on the GOP in the fall. Now, though, I think the primary fight may be doing the Republicans' work for them, supplying the McCain campaign with ammunition free of charge without preparing the candidate against the battles to come.

Much of the problem, I think, is that many of Barack Obama's vulnerabilities that have been exposed in recent weeks will matter more in the general election than they have in the primary fight. The "bitter" comment, the Bill Ayers connection and the Reverend Wright controversy have hurt him a bit among Democrats, but not enough to cripple his campaign. That's probably because many Democrats agree with the Thomas Frank-style thesis that Obama voiced about voters turning to social issues and voting against their economic interests out of bitterness, and find Reverend Wright and Bill Ayers to be, if not actually sympathetic figures, at least understandable. But the electorate at large is likely to be far more leery of cultural condescension, angry black ministers and former terrorists turned Marxist college professors.

I expected Obama's duplicity on trade -- telling voters one thing and the Canadian government something entirely different -- to be a bigger deal in the primary, but it hasn't stuck as an issue. That may be because Hillary Clinton was apparently playing the same game, so was in no position to exploit the matter.

The end result may be that the Democrats' primary process, in a year that was supposed to belong to the donkey party, is actually selecting for and reinforcing the final candidate's (almost certainly Barack Obama) vulnerability to the GOP in the fall.

Meanwhile, John McCain, a man possessed of many qualities worth criticizing, is having a relatively easy time of it. If Rev. Wright is worth mentioning (and he is), why isn't McCain's connection with John Hagee deserving of some air time? Then there's the certain Republican nominee's hostility to free speech and his love of ever-bigger government.

These and more will almost certainly come out as issues in the fall, but the information will have much less time to take a toll than do comparable points for Obama (or for the doomed Hillary Clinton).

I'm as guilty as anybody of selective attention. I actually find Barack Obama to be ... well, not the best; let's say, the least bad of the three remaining major-party candidates (though I very much doubt I'll vote for a major-party candidate this year). He's the most credibly anti-war, and he doesn't appear to be overtly hostile to civil liberties But I've written far more about Obama than about McCain, even though I'm technically one of the Arizona senator's constituents. Obama has been in the news and the subject of scrutiny, while McCain has largely flown under the radar. So I've focused my attention on what's in the spotlight, leaving Mr. Maverick to do his thing unmolested.

I'll see if I can't make up some of the slack in the weeks to come.

But honestly, I think the Democrats have taken what seemed like a sure thing for them and, without much outside help, turned it into a competitive race.


Friday, April 18, 2008

Keep those cameras handy

Cops behaving badly have been caught on camera in sufficient numbers recently that it can be called a phenomenon. The Internet makes distribution of the resulting still photos and video a breeze, so that officials in range of surveillance cameras or even the tiny lenses on many cell phones can expect their worst conduct to be distributed far and wide. But police have retaliated as only they can, sometimes handcuffing anybody with the temerity to point cameras in their direction. That may be about to change.

Citing a 2003 criminal decision and the outcome of a resulting federal civil case, a Florida prosecutor has announced that no charges will be brought against a 20-year-old man who, while standing on a public road well away from official activity, photographed police vehicles parked outside a residence subject to a drug-related raid.

A person cannot be charged with obstruction or resisting arrest if the police detention is unlawful, an assistant state attorney, Tony Casoria, said in a memo released this week. Sievert did not physically interfere with the search warrant, the prosecutor said.

Casoria said Sievert "took a photograph in a public place, across the street from the home where law enforcement were conducting their search."


In 2003, a state judge in Pennsylvania overturned the harassment conviction of Allen E. Robinson, who had taped police during a traffic stop. Robinson said he was concerned about unsafe truck inspections and set up a video camera.

Robinson, a truck driver, sued the police, saying he was subjected to false arrest, excessive force and malicious prosecution. Robinson won in federal court in 2005.

"The activities of the police, like those of other public officials, are subject to public scrutiny," a federal judge wrote. "Robinson's right to free speech encompasses the right to receive information and ideas."

The police, the judge wrote, citing a case in Texas, do not have "unfettered discretion to arrest individuals for words or conduct that annoy or offend them."

That's good news for people using increasingly ubiquitous video technology to monitor the conduct of government arm-twisters, and bad news for officials seeking to keep their activities under wraps.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Odd sect targeted for destruction?

There's a lot to dislike about the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Basically, any religion that seemingly tailors its theology to assure old men a steady stream of teenage brides is worthy of regarding with a hairy eyeball. Church members also have a reputation for milking social services, using taxpayers to subsidize their way of life.

But does that mean that FLDS adherents don't have a right to raise and educate their children as they see fit, so long as they don't subject them to abuse?

That's the big question hovering over the hearings in San Angelo, Texas. When authorities raided the Yearnings for Zion Ranch FLDS settlement and made off with 416 children, they didn't confine their interest to adolescent girls forced into relations with older men. They took children of both sexes, and much younger than any at risk of coerced marriage. And when the women of the community tearfully demanded the return of their children, "experts" were trotted out to insist that the grown adults protesting their treatment at the hands of the state had been "brainwashed" through physical and emotional abuse, religious faith and fear of banishment.

So, of course, there's no need to pay them any attention.

Not everybody buys the argument that people who choose to live differently should be assumed to have been forced into that life. Nancy Ammerman, a professor of the sociology of religion at Boston University and author of a book on religious fundamentalism told ABC News:

"Brainwashing is actually extraordinarily rare," said Ammerman. "It implies that the person has literally lost the ability to think independently and to make choices.

"We really don't have any evidence that anything even vaguely resembling that is going on with this particular group or with most religious groups."

Some of the FLDS women went with the children to watch over them while they were held at a state shelter. But don't try to ask them how they and the sect's younger members are being treated -- they've been cut off from outside contact. According to the New York Times, "Officials first confiscated all the cellphones held by the children and mothers who went with them to shelter to prevent communication with outsiders. Later, they separated the mothers from children older than 6 in hopes of getting them to talk without a parent in attendance."

Increasingly, the Texas raid is looking less like an effort to assure the well-being of a teenage girl who called for help -- and who may or may not actually exist -- and more like a scheme to destroy an unusual religious community with some admittedly unsavory practices. Government officials targeted the FLDS for destruction once before -- in the wildly misfired raid of 1953 that turned sect members from reviled outsiders into sympathetic victims of the state. Now, in more government-friendly times, authorities seem dead-set on destroying the sect by depriving it of a next generation.

The hearing in San Angelo has been described as "chaotic" with upwards of 350 lawyers -- many of them volunteers -- involved. That's a good thing when there's so much at stake.

At the end of the day, any FLDS members involved in coercing and abusing church members should be severely punished. But the overall treatment of the sect's children by the state will tell us whether there's still room in the U.S. for people who want to raise their families according to beliefs and customs at odds with those of the mainstream.

Update: The phone calls that triggered the armed raid on the FLDS ranch appear to be bogus. That raises big questions about the legal rationale for state intervention, and for seizing hundreds of children from their families and holding them in captivity.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Undercover and out of control

I'm no fan of people who abuse or kill wildlife without just cause. Hunting is one thing; so is shooting a mountain lion that's about to take a piece out of you or a coyote that's about to have your cat for lunch. I think the pigeon fanciers -- owners of unique roller pigeons -- who killed large numbers of rare raptors in defense of their prized birds stepped over the line. Their motives were understandable, but they went too far.

But going farther still were the federal agents who went undercover to actually infiltrate roller pigeon clubs, prowled around suspects' homes at night in full commando regalia and arguably induced suspects to commit crimes above and beyond those they'd done of their own accord.

Undercover police work has a long and dishonorable history. Undercover officers have infiltrated peaceful anti-war protests and political organizations and often acted as agents provocateurs -- engaging in or provoking illegal activity to give the authorities an excuse to move in and make arrests. Laws against victimless activities like drug use and prostitution almost require the use of undercover agents to induce people to engage in activities that would otherwise go undetected. Since such "crimes" are consensual, there's no wronged party to file a complaint -- unless a police officer covertly engages in a forbidden transaction.

So there's good reason to be leery of people like Ed Newcomer.

Newcomer is the "hero" of a May 2008 Backpacker magazine article about the operation leading to the arrest of the above-mentioned pigeon-fanciers. He's a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent and former prosecutor who specializes in undercover operations -- a revelation to those of us who had no idea the game and fish folks needed or should be permitted to run surveillance and infiltration operations. For months he posed as a novice pigeon fancier. Once inside, he befriended pigeon fanciers, learned of the often brutal techniques they used to kill raptors who preyed on their birds, induced them to sell him restricted traps -- and then slapped the cuffs on them.

To infiltrate Southern California's pigeon breeding circles, Newcomer made himself into Ted Nelson, a blue-collar worker with a mustache straight out of My Name is Earl. Through a roller pigeon website, Newcomer made contact with a fancier who invited Ted to a show. That weekend, dozens of members of the Inner City Rollers Club gathered in an alley behind The Pigeon Connection, a bird shop near Inglewood, to check out each other's pigeons. Newcomer wired himself up--"I can't tell you the specifics," he told me, "but video cameras these days are so small you can practically stick one on your wristwatch -- and walked in.

Newcomer's tactics degenerate from there, turning into an object lesson in everything that's wrong with American law-enforcement.

To get proof of McCormick baiting his traps, Newcomer and another agent, John Brooks, staked out his house at night. Armed with AR-15 rifles, Newcomer and Brooks donned camouflage suits and used night-vision scopes to crawl across an empty field adjacent to McCormick's yard. ...

To nail McGhee, Newcomer arranged to by a hawk trap from him in the fall of 2006. In wildlife cases, suspects so often use ignorance as an excuse -- I didn't know it was illegal to kill those hawks -- that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents often coax statements of legal awareness out of unwitting suspects ...

On their way out, Jojola noticed garbage cans sitting by the curb of Navarro's street. "Going through the trash is one of the best and most-under-utilized investigative tols," Jojola later told me. "It's a lot of work, though, and there's a risk of being burned." ("Burned" is undercover cop talk for getting recognized as a police officer.)

Newcomer and Jojola found nothing but trash and pigeon waste on that first garbage run, but a week later Newcomer and special agent Ho Truong hit pay dirt. At the bottom of Navarro's can, Truong discovered a dead Cooper's hawk. The bird, tied up in a white plastic bag, had been beaten to death. The next morning, Newcomer examined the surveillance photos. They showed Navarro, with a wooden stake in his hand, approaching the trapped hawk. The next photo showed an empty, re-baited trap, and Navarro holding a lumpy white plastic bag.

Remember, all of this effort, including multiple undercover agents, surveillance cameras, covert armed expeditions and trash-picking, is to catch hobbyists who are being overly aggressive in defense of their pigeons. We can only hope so much effort and expense is going into the effort to find Osama bin Laden.

So who are these undercover agents? What kind of people engage in covert surveillance of peaceful strangers as a career choice? There are any number of things that can lead people to a life in law enforcement, such as careerism, a desire to exercise power over other people, honest belief in the law in and of itself, or a true-believer devotion to a cause that can be pursued on the taxpayers' dime. But what drove the undercover agents in the roller pigeon case?

In the Backpacker article, Newcomer, at least, comes across as a serious nature-lover who takes wildlife photographs as a hobby and disdains those who violate game and fish laws.

"There are no informants among animals," says Newcomer. "A mother bear can't call me up when somebody poaches her cub."

But, for an undercover agent, Newcomer isn't that far undercover. He maintains a personal Website (since removed) that includes photos of a trip to Yellowstone. Another personal Website (since removed) is devoted to Tae Kwan Do and features a smiling photo of him in a suit and eyeglasses.

He also posts videos on YouTube. A couple have wildlife themes, one homemade cartoon features "Spy Guy" (since removed) peering around a corner with gun in hand, while "Overheated Planet" (since removed) is another homemade cartoon earnestly warning of the supposed dangers of global warming (Didn't he get Al Gore's memo that "global warming" is now "climate change?").

Newcomer also gives lots of law-school talks on the enforcement of environmental laws.

Overall, Newcomer comes across as a serious fellow who likes to kick butt and is a committed environmentalist -- a combination of a true believer and a person who enjoys wielding the power of the state.

That's probably the right sort of person to send undercover against terrorists and other folks who pose a violent threat to life, liberty and property, but is it really so wise to hand a true believer a fake identity and send him out against petty law breakers?

Let's look at it another way. Let's suppose we sent Ann Coulter undercover against anti-war demonstrators who might be toying with petty mischief. Is there any doubt that Special Agent Coulter, who already loathes the beliefs and the culture of the people she's investigating, would come back with reports of serious crimes?

Likewise, sending a committed environmentalist undercover against people of whom he's already likely to be suspicious -- hunters, fishermen and people simply on the other side of wildlife issues -- is just begging for trouble. The temptation to take "bad people" down with extraordinary tactics is going to be hard to resist. And the ability to detect casual lawbreaking that many people must engage in during the conduct of everyday life in a highly regulated society can easily turn into a record of a pattern of criminality among people he dislikes. That threat to spy on and ensnare people in any area of life becomes a powerful weapon with which the state can inspire fear and coerce submission -- or breed resentment -- among people who just don't know whether the new guy is a state agent sent to catch them violating any one of the myriad of laws in which modern life is tangled.

In Backpacker:

"Are there undercover agents still out there?" I asked.

Ed Newcomer leaned back in his chair and smiled. "Who knows?" he said. "Maybe there are."

That's a threat of total surveillance. And that's why undercover work should be confined to the investigation of extraordinary dangers that pose an imminent threat to life and limb.

People who kill wildlife without just cause are worthy of attention. But there are very few crimes so heinous that they justify the use of undercover investigations that threaten liberty and privacy.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Sorry, but 'civilized society' shouldn't cost so much

Inevitably, pro-government pundits at this time of year trot out that hoary old supposed Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. quote to the effect that "Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society."

But, assuming that Holmes was being sincere, that was a statement made at a time when the burden of government rested much more lightly on people's shoulders than it does now. In 1920, total government spending consumed 12.8% of GDP, with federal spending at 7.7%. By 2005, that figure was 35.9%, with federal spending at 20.2%. Are we really getting more civilization for that money? Or are we just getting mugged a tad more vigorously?

In a column for the Christian Science Monitor that has since been syndicated elsewhere, Walter Rodgers not only quotes (misquotes, really) Holmes, but adds that "Paying taxes is an exercise of civic virtue akin to supporting one's country in time of war." But even Holmes might have balked at the bill we're currently paying for our "civilized society." And plenty of us might prefer the status of conscientious objectors -- or even draft dodgers -- when it comes to ruinous taxation as well as government's seemingly endless appetite for military aggression.


Thumbs up for tax resisters

It's April 15, the day on which Americans ritually submit to a mugging by federal and state governments. It's an especially painful day for those people who not only resent being deprived of their hard-earned money, but have to watch as the cash is then spent on programs they bitterly oppose -- which, in their opinions, do harm rather than good. Prominent among this segment of the population in these days of seemingly eternal war are people who oppose the government's military adventures. Democracy Now! has a timely interview with Pat and John Schwiebert, a Portland, Oregon, couple who refuse to pay federal income tax in protest of military expenditures.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s good to be back here. John, how long haven’t you paid taxes?

JOHN SCHWIEBERT: Well, it’s been over thirty years. I’m not exactly sure. I think it was 1977 when we stopped paying.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your decision thirty years ago.

JOHN SCHWIEBERT: I think we just pretty much together came to the realization that we’re conscientious objectors to war, and if you object to war, you don’t participate. The only way we could participate at our age at the time is by refusing to support it. And so, we just said, well, we won’t send in the military portion, the military percentage of our taxes.


AMY GOODMAN: And in terms of the percentage, what are you calculating, for example, this year, the percentage that would go to the military? What percentage aren’t you paying?

JOHN SCHWIEBERT: Actually, we’ve gotten to the point we’re so upset by the direction the country has taken and the demise of democracy in this country, that after the Iraq war broke out we completely stopped cooperating. So we’re paying nothing now. So the percentage that’s estimated by the War Resisters League is more like 50 percent. But I haven’t paid any attention to it this year, because we—

PAT SCHWIEBERT: We don’t care.

JOHN SCHWIEBERT: —we just didn’t give anything. We’re in total non-cooperation with the federal government.

There are other reasons to hate taxes, of course, and other harmful government programs funded by the money raised through taxation. But whatever their reasons, I think it's worth saluting folks who go out of the way to avoiding feeding the beast.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

If history is any judge, speeding cameras will be crooked

With Governor Janet Napolitano touting automated speeding cameras along the state's highways as an effective way of closing Arizona's yawning budget gap, it's worth paying attention to recent reports about how various local governments have fiddled the implementation of red-light cameras.

In the single court case that has occurred thus far, Chattanooga's city traffic engineer John Van Winkle testified that the yellow signal light should be (and was) turned on for the 3.9 seconds necessary to meet basic safety standards. The judge in question ordered the claim verified, and discovered that the light was only set for 3s—significantly less than the 3.9 second minimum. ...

In Dallas, yellow lights at the city's revenue generators camera-enforced intersections were timed for just 3.15 seconds, or 0.35 seconds less than the Texas Department of Transportation minimum. In this case, a third of a second may make a substantial difference in revenue—theNewspaper reports that most (80 percent) red light tickets are issued less than one second after the light has turned to red. ...

Springfield has a similar story. There, residents voiced concerns last spring after the city announced its intention to slash yellow lights by one second at multiple intersections. Again, evidence from the investigation indicated that longer yellow lights actually reduce the number of accidents at busy intersections. The only problem is, long yellows also have a negative impact on revenue, which can make the cameras cost more than they're worth.

Adding urgency to tales of the corruption inherent in the implementation of red-light cameras is a report from the Florida Public Health Review that the cameras are actually dangerous and counter-productive.

"The rigorous studies clearly show red-light cameras don’t work," said lead author Barbara Langland-Orban, professor and chair of health policy and management at the USF College of Public Health.

"Instead, they increase crashes and injuries as drivers attempt to abruptly stop at camera intersections. If used in Florida, cameras could potentially create even worse outcomes due to the state’s high percent of elderly who are more likely to be injured or killed when a crash occurs."

Why is the fiddling of red-light cameras relevant to proposals to dot the state's highways with radar-activated speeding cameras? Because officials who are capable of trimming yellow lights to manufacture "red-light runners" are equally likely to jimmy speeding cameras so that they'll record folks as traveling at just a few miles per hours faster than their (untampered) speedometers indicate.

The temptation is obvious: money. While traffic cameras have often been sold as safety measures, they've been very openly embraced as revenue generators by government officials unwilling to cut spending and equally leery of openly embracing higher taxes. Governor Napolitano has explicitly pushed speeding cameras as a means of raising money that the state government doesn't have, but wants to spend anyway. The existing speeding cameras along Loop 101 are generally described in terms of the funds they generate.

While photo enforcement vendors and government agencies have stressed the program is about safety and not money, it has brought in revenue to both the city and the state.

The freeway program has collected $5.4 million in state surcharges, $2 million for the city's general fund and nearly $1 million more for Scottsdale's court enhancement fund, according to city figures through February.

Speeding cameras won't succeed as revenue generators if they actually deter speeders. They'll meet revenue goals only if drivers continue to speed and get caught -- or can be tagged as violators, anyway, no matter the speed at which they actually drive.

If the urge to pick pockets is strong enough to drive officials to tinker with traffic-light timers, it will certainly inspire them to set radar cameras a little ... err ... "creatively."

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Social engineering through the law

The little piece of Arizona in which my wife and I live has been something of a refuge from an increasingly regulated and bureaucratized modern world. Down our dead-end road and in the area around, people have lived pretty much as they pleased, working on their homes and even building additions without permits, running businesses from land technically zoned as residential, keeping animals in numbers beyond those formally permitted by the busybodies in the distant county seat, and otherwise living their lives as they wish without terribly inconveniencing their neighbors.

Until now.

Last year, new neighbors purchased six acres across the road and split the land into three parcels. On the middle parcel they built an attractive faux-adobe home -- what most people call "Santa Fe-style" but which is more commonly referred to around here as a "Sedona-type" house. It's by far the most up-scale dwelling in an area otherwise populated by manufactured homes and simple stick-built houses.

But architecture wasn't the only thing the new people brought in -- they also imported a new set of attitudes and expectations. Within months after the completion of their house, the new people began filing complaints with the county against the people already living here. So far, the complaints have consisted of charges that people are running businesses from residential land, harboring more animals than allowed and allowing people to illegally dwell in travel trailers on land zoned for single-family homes.

We're not supposed to know who filed the complaints, but it's not hard to guess -- especially when a woman on the receiving end of a complaint (a descendant of the family that homesteaded the area) calls an acquaintance at the county and gets a nudge-and-wink acknowledgment of what she already knows.

Of course, the charges are true. Many of the people who abide here chose the area precisely because it's been possible to live here and ignore the regulatory accretia of 21st Century America. That's a known quality of the area, and people come here or avoid the area because of that characteristic.

But there's nothing written in stone about the area's immunity to modern law. If somebody starts insisting that every regulation and code be enforced, the folks living in the shadows can quickly run out of options. They either start abiding by the laws they tried to escape, they continue to flout them and suffer the consequences, or they leave. At least one home is on the market as a direct result of the new crackdown.

Which is probably what the new folks across the road have intended from day one. You see, this is an odd place to build a Sedona-type house -- unless you're looking to buy land at a discount in anticipation that the area will gentrify. And there's no better way to hurry along the process of gentrification than to insist on the enforcement of every rule that makes the local way of life impossible. When county officials start snooping in places they've never before been welcome, the local scrap-metal dealers, unlicensed horse boarders and eccentric bird collectors by necessity head for the exits -- and make way for blander folks more amenable to rule-bound life.

Then the value of the Sedona-type house will rise, as will that of the two adjoining parcels that the new people plan to develop with similarly up-scale homes and sell to buyers willing to pay a premium for a newly gentrified piece of Arizona that's been cleansed of the hoi polloi.

It turns out that the new people are building contractors and that they know the laws and the inspectors who enforce those laws very well. They're in an extremely good position to use their knowledge of the county's regulatory apparatus as a whip with which to drive "undesirables" out of the area. It's all about using government as a tool for social engineering.

Hmmm. Laws as weapons to be wielded by well-connected individuals against people less informed and less powerful. Whoever would have guessed?

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Drug warriors seek to muzzle critics

Over at the Huffington Post, Maia Szalavitz has the lowdown on federal prosecutors' efforts to convict a physician who specializes in treating chronic pain -- and to muzzle family members and allies, including Siobhan Reynolds of the Pain Relief Network, who have spoken out in the press on behalf of the defendant.


Sunday, April 13, 2008

Somebody's been reading too much Thomas Frank

It's an article of faith among many left-wing intellectuals that Americans -- rural Americans in particular -- vote for Republicans only because they're too damned stupid to realize that they'd be better off if the government ran their healthcare, intervened more directly in the economy and relieved people of the burdensome responsibility of managing their own lives. The thesis, most famously stated by Thomas Frank in What's the Matter with Kansas?, goes on to suggest that rural-dwellers not only vote against the economic policies that would best serve them, but they also have been gulled by clever conservatives into thinking that social and cultural issues like abortion, religion and gun control are worth worrying about.

Now, lefties may widely believe this proposition, but rarely do you see it so baldly stated by a political candidate as it was by Barack Obama before a not-so closed to the press as he expected gathering of San Francisco Democrats.

You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

Part of the problem with Obama's (and Frank's) thesis is the simple assumption that nobody could disagree that heavy state intervention in the economy is the best deal for average people. Forget the debates among economists or the failure of the world's socialist economies -- it's a settled matter for them that interventionist economic policies are better for working people than free-market economic policies. So it's not possible that many voters could legitimately hold an informed preference for the opposing party's proposals.

Obama, though, manages to add a level of complexity by adding "anti-trade sentiment" to the litany of foolish notions to which rural Pennsylvanians cling in their despair over their economic fate. This, after all, is the same Barack Obama who, not too long ago, assured rust-belt voters of his own antipathy to free-trade agreements -- and quietly whispered to Canadian officials that he meant none of what he said. So, is this further evidence that he's mouthing populist bullshit on trade as part of his own effort to fool the rubes?

Yep -- it sounds that way.

Then there's the premise that "bitter" small-town dwellers "cling to guns or religion" among other social issues as political lifesavers in a world that's grown unresponsive to their economic interests. Support for gun rights, strong religious faith and skepticism over immigration, among other views, then become, if we are to believe Obama, irrational anchors rooted in resentment to be dispensed with by the right outreach program. Are we really to believe that these folks would leave behind their supposed bitterness -- and their socially conservative beliefs -- if Mr. "Yes We Can" could just persuade them that nirvana can be achieved through higher taxes and tighter economic regulations?

What a profoundly condescending view of people who hold beliefs at odds with his own.

That Obama sold his contemptuous perspective on small-towners and their silly social views in front of a San Francisco audience is especially ironic. The City by the Bay defines its political culture at least as much by closely held social views as does any rural notch on the Bible belt. From permitting gay marriage to protecting medical marijuana to banning plastic shopping bags, San Francisco is very much about social policy. That's understandable because social and cultural issues are important, no matter what Thomas Frank says. These issues are important because people think they are important, and the level of passion issues excite in people is what defines their centrality -- not the preferences of snooty writers who think the unwashed masses don't know their own good.

This doesn't mean that Barack Obama is obliged to adopt social views with which he disagrees. I certainly prefer that he doesn't, since I probably agree with his social views more than those of the small-town Pennsylvanians to whom he condescends. But it's possible to disagree with people without disparaging the legitimacy of the process by which they arrived at opinions at odds with your own. In fact, it's critical to do so if you aspire to hold powerful political office in a vast and diverse nation.

A candidate who adheres to the position that people who don't support him are inherently irrational is one who poses a danger if he wins election.

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Friday, April 11, 2008

Homeschooling -- not just for fundies anymore

Homeschooling is still stereotypically depicted -- by people who don't have a clue what they're talking about -- as an education option largely reserved for white, conservative religious fundamentalists. I'm fortunate to live in an area where it's a common and accepted means of teaching children, but in much of the country, proud ignorance prevails.

Nevertheless, homeschooling continues to grow in popularity, especially among people not traditionally considered to be prone to pulling their kids from the government schools and trying the DIY approach to education. Take, for example, this interesting article from the Village Voice about African-American homeschoolers in New York City:

Robinson, like a small but growing number of black parents, has chosen to take her son Tau out of the public-school system and teach him on her own (Deion is a cousin's child she's also teaching).

In the 2006–2007 school year, the city's Department of Education says that 3,654 students in New York were homeschooled. Most are white, but a growing number are African-American. Black parents tend to take their children out of the schools for other than religious reasons, and homeschooling groups say black children taught at home are nearly always boys. Like Robinson, some of New York's parents have concluded that the school system is failing the city's black boys, and have elected to teach them at home as an alternative.

That's no surprise. The same arguments for homeschooling that originally appealed to religious Christians and educational progressives can be equally convincing to any parents dissatisfied with what the schooling establishment is inflicting on children. The more people who take their childrens' education into their own hands -- whether by taking on the responsibility themselves or by actively choosing another option -- the stronger the constituency for truly decentralized education will become.


Surprise! Public school textbook is biased

From KTAR in Arizona:

A New York-based think tank is criticizing a high school textbook as being ``too conservative."

The Center for Inquiry says the book, "American Government," contains numerous erroneous statements, including one that scientists aren't sure global warning exists. The center issued a scathing report about the book after a New Jersey high school senior raised concerns about its content.

The book is used in some Arizona high schools, and the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Horne, says there's no reason to pull it from classes.

"The mere fact that a textbook may have a statement that can be argued about doesn't mean anything because it's up to the teacher to present the student with a lot of different sides about all kinds of issues," Horne said.

The textbook in question was written by conservative scholars (and sometime Republican officials) John Dilulio and James Wilson.

Of course, it's worth noting that conservatives have complained for years that many textbooks display liberal bias. Maybe Dilulio and Wilson thought that turnabout was fair play.

As I've written in the past, if we insist on giving government a virtual monopoly over indoctrinating ... err ... educating young minds, it's inevitable that the curriculum will become a political football battled over by competing factions seeking to mold the next generation.

Wrote yours truly in a 2004 column:

It's no surprise that people compete to have their ideas taught in the public schools. Despite the growing popularity of homeschooling, vouchers and other schooling alternatives, most American children learn in classrooms supported by their parents' tax dollars. After paying those taxes, few families can afford alternative schools, so determined parents fight to mold government institutions to resemble the schools they would pick if they had the resources, and they are assisted by political groups interested in shaping public debate. Nobody wants hateful ideas and propaganda force-fed to their children, but people don't always agree on which ideas are hateful and which information is false. As a result, lessons are often crafted to please, or avoid offending, those with the most political clout.

Biased textbooks aren't just unfortunate, they're inevitable.


Pro-immigrant pastor to challenge Arpaio

In an e-mail, Pastor Richard Tamayo, the former New York City police officer turned preacher who now who advocates for the rights of immigrants with a video camera in his hand and a gun on his hip, announces that he wants to be Maricopa County, Arizona's top cop.

As of 4/10/08 I've decided to run for Sheriff of Maricopa. I am registered at the Elections Department and have started the petition process to get on the Primary election ballot. I need about 10,000 signatures to be on the safe side by June 4, 2008.

A quick search of Maricopa County campaign information shows that Richard Tamayo is indeed registered, with no campaign finance information yet on file (registration is required before funds can be raised).

While Tamayo has yet to work out a detailed platform -- he tells me he's "taking baby steps" and likens his challenge to long-established banana-republic-style Sheriff Joe Arpaio to the "story of David and Goliath" -- it's a fair bet that ending police abuse of immigrants will be on the agenda.


Hard time for flirting

In Farmington, Utah, junior high and high school kids have been using the camera functions on their phones to take nude pictures of themselves that they then show to their friends. This perfect intersection of technology and the teenage sex drive will elicit little more than a sigh of resignation from anybody who remembers their own adolescence -- well, except for Davis County prosecutors, that is. Law enforcement authorities there have arrested the "offending" teens, charged them with misdemeanors and sent them into the juvenile justice system to face "fines, community service or behavior classes." For taking pictures of their own bodies.

Oh yeah -- and prosecutors are congratulating themselves on their leniency.

[Davis County Attorney Troy] Rawlings described the majority of the teens as good kids who do well in school and who aren’t the type to defy the law. Many didn’t realize that what they were doing is illegal, he said.

He explained that while the actions of the teens matched felony charges more closely than misdemeanors, his office wanted to send a message to not be unduly harsh. So they used “a bit of legal fiction” to match the acts to the crime of lewdness rather than the crime of distributing child pornography.

Well, I suppose that a legal minor showing a naked photo of herself to her boyfriend could constitute "distributing child pornography" -- if you're completely insane.

I know that it's entirely too late in the game to hope for anything resembling common sense and restraint to emerge from a prosecutor's office. But here's a small suggestion to those legal eagles standing between us and the villainous hordes who threaten decent society: Maybe flirtatious snapshots really shouldn't be a criminal matter.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Are you sure you're not illegal?

Could Arizona's jihad against folks with Spanish surnames be reaching just a tad too far -- embracing people holding actual U.S. citizenship? That seems to be the case, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Juan Carlos Ochoa, a naturalized U.S. citizen who lives in an upper-middle-class subdivision near Phoenix named Laguna Hills, can't find a job because a government database classifies him as a possible illegal immigrant. ...

Because many did not register their citizenship with the Social Security Administration, they are often listed as possible illegal workers.

That's what apparently happened to Ochoa, 47, who became a citizen in 2000. He quit his job as a car salesman at the end of last year and got hired by a local Dodge dealership in February. Days later, his new employers called him with bad news -- E-Verify classified him as a possible illegal immigrant. He only had a couple of days to convince Social Security that he wasn't.

He had lost his naturalization certificate, so Ochoa took his U.S. passport, Social Security card, driver's license and Arizona voter identification card to the local Social Security office. He was told he'd have to request new papers from the Department of Homeland Security, which could take up to 10 months.

"I love this country, I'm happy in this country," said Ochoa, a father of two, who escaped eviction this month only because a church group paid his rent. "The guy who made this law, I don't know him. He's started destroying a lot of families."

American citizens mistaken for illegal immigrants are only a subset of the problems caused by the anti-immigrant frenzy. Other problems include families impoverished, people thrown out of employment, economic damage and the right to engage in business treated as a privilege that can be revoked by the government. But they make for especially poignant victims because there's no pretending at an excuse for ensnaring them in the net of sanctions and penalties, unless you're just out to inconvenience Hispanics.

I've written before that the best possible reaction to the sanctions law, short of outright repeal, would be enormous growth in the size of the state's underground economy. That would guarantee jobs for immigrants, employees for businesses, and somewhat offset the damage done by the law. But life in the shadows is cold comfort for people who've actually jumped through the hoops required for full access to the American dream -- and find themselves denied the fruits of their efforts.

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Who knew people would dodge taxes?

Let's see, New York schemes to boost its cigarette tax by $1.25 a pack to a whopping $2.75 a pack -- the highest in the nation. New York City residents pay another $1.50 in tax on top of that. What could be the possible result? Hmmm ... Think ... Think ...

Oh, I think I know. Could it be an increase in clever tax dodging? Says the New York Times:

Millions of dollars worth of counterfeit tax stamps were seized and a Jordanian man arrested as part of a major undercover investigation into tobacco smuggling in New York, authorities announced Wednesday.

The fake stamps would have allowed unscrupulous cigarette dealers to evade nearly $6.1 million in state and city taxes, authorities said.

This shouldn't be too much of a shock. The New York Sun reports that "27% of city smokers and 34% of upstate smokers sometimes bought 'under-taxed' cigarettes in 2006. These smokers avoided the tax by buying cigarettes from other states, ordering cigarettes over the Internet, and purchasing cigarettes at Indian reservations." That's before the latest hike in taxes.

I think I see a business opportunity here. Does anybody have a printing press? Or just a truck?

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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

New doping scandal

So, if it's congresscritters' business when athletes employed by privately owned sports teams use performance-enhancing drugs, should we expect to see Henry Waxman dragging physicists and biologists before his committee now that scientists are copping to boosting their brainpower with a host of pharmaceuticals?

According to Nature:

Nature ran its own informal survey. 1,400 people from 60 countries responded to the online poll.

We asked specifically about three drugs: methylphenidate (Ritalin), a stimulant normally used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder but well-known on college campuses as a 'study aid'; modafinil (Provigil), prescribed to treat sleep disorders but also used off-label to combat general fatigue or overcome jet lag; and beta blockers, drugs prescribed for cardiac arrhythmia that also have an anti-anxiety effect. ...

One in five respondents said they had used drugs for non-medical reasons to stimulate their focus, concentration or memory. Use did not differ greatly across age-groups (see line graph, right), which will surprise some. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) in Bethesda, Maryland, says that household surveys suggest that stimulant use is highest in people aged 18–25 years, and in students.

For those who choose to use, methylphenidate was the most popular: 62% of users reported taking it. 44% reported taking modafinil, and 15% said they had taken beta blockers such as propanolol, revealing an overlap between drugs. 80 respondents specified other drugs that they were taking. The most common of these was adderall, an amphetamine similar to methylphenidate. But there were also reports of centrophenoxine, piractem, dexedrine and various alternative medicines such as ginkgo and omega-3 fatty acids.

Oh those insidious dopers ...


Oh no! Some folks are getting wealthier too fast!

The San Francisco Chronicle aptly sums up the media's overall reaction to a new report on income inequality by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute: "Rich getting richer, poor getting poorer." It's a facile reaction to a publication heavily larded with policy proposals up-front that have to be endured before you get to the part that's causing all the fuss. And once you get to the meat of the paper, you find that the Chronicle's take is ... well ... untrue.

According to Pulling apart: A state-by-state analysis of income trends, between 1987-1989 (the initial period studied) and 2004-2006, the bottom fifth of income-earners saw an 11.1% increase in real income while the top fifth of income earners enjoyed a 36.1% increase in real income.

The Chronicle was able to make its "poor get poorer" point by skimming the report's intro and highlighting the authors' statement that, "on average, incomes have declined by 2.5 percent among the bottom fifth of families since the late 1990s, while increasing by 9.1 percent among the top fifth." That's since the late 1990s -- a subset of a longer period of time over which incomes grew for everybody. The period of income decline is actually even shorter. According to the report, "Specifically, real wages for low- and moderate-income families grew more slowly in 2002 and the first part of 2003 and then began to decline." Yes, it's of concern when incomes decline in the short term, but it's more important that they grow in the long term.

Perhaps that's why the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute focus their attention on "income inequality" -- the fact that, according to their figures, everybody is getting more prosperous, but wealthier Americans are growing in prosperity at a faster clip than poorer Americans. According to the report's authors, it's a bad thing that not everybody is getting wealthier at exactly the same pace.

This trend has broad implications. A widening gulf between the rich on the one hand and the poor and middle class on the other hand can reduce social cohesion, trust in government and other institutions, and participation in the democratic process. Growing income inequality also has widened discrepancies in political influence — a particular problem given political candidates’ heavy dependence on private contributions. This may have contributed to the increase in the number of Americans who feel that their elected officials do not care much about the views of ordinary citizens.

Also, as the divide grows among families at different income levels, families at the upper end of the income scale have less and less contact and familiarity with the problems faced by low- and middle- income families. For example, when income growth is concentrated at the top of the income scale, housing prices can be bid up beyond the reach of low- and moderate-income families, yet an upper-middle-income family living in the suburbs may have trouble understanding the extent of this problem. Similarly, wealthy families that can afford private schools for their children can lose sight of the need to support public schools. As a result, support for the taxes necessary to finance government programs declines, even as the nation’s overall ability to pay taxes rises. The failure to invest adequately in programs that educate children, meet the health and housing needs of families at all income levels, and support low-wage workers can dampen the nation’s future economic growth.

If I'm reading that correctly, it's basically a complaint that, if the wealthy keep getting wealthier, they might not be willing to advocate for the interventionist economic policies and expensive government programs favored by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute.

Yeah ... I don't think I'm going to buy that argument. Like I said, I do think it's a problem if incomes are declining. I don't think it's a problem if incomes are growing at different rates for different segments of society -- especially since we haven't yet looked at things like income mobility. According to a recent U.S. Treasury Department study, "Income mobility of individuals was considerable in the U.S. economy during the 1996 through 2005 period with roughly half of taxpayers who began in the bottom quintile moving up to a higher income group within 10 years." You can debate whether that's enough mobility for your taste, but it means that the "bottom fifth" of 1987-1989 isn't made up of all the same folks as the "bottom fifth" of 2004-2006.

Which makes it all the less pressing to consider the policy nostrums that the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute peddle at the beginning of their report:

  • Raise, and index, the minimum wage.
  • Improve the unemployment insurance system.
  • Make state tax systems more progressive.
  • Strengthen the social safety net.

Because nothing says economic opportunity like an expanded welfare state and increased taxes to pay for it. Well, nothing other than increasing the price of labor through a higher minimum wage, which deprives low-skilled workers of jobs and (at best) drives them to work in the underground economy without guarantees, benefits or legal protections -- often with long-term consequences.

Look, none if this should be read as an apologia for the economic policies of the Bush administration, such as they are. Sending a trillion dollars into the desert so you can blow it up and greasing your friends with whatever is left over do not a viable program make. Nor does the domestic spending spree in which the government engaged with borrowed money. I don't think it's any mistake that the short period of income decline that the CBPP/EPI report found was on Bush's watch. The Clinton administration, whatever its shortcomings, was reasonably good about negotiating (somewhat) liberalized trade and then getting out of the way of the market.

But, if everybody is getting wealthier over time, does it really matter that some of them may be getting wealthier faster? I don't think so. I don't know how you'd make income grow in some statistically impossible lockstep across the economy, anyway. And I'm not about to buy "inequality" as a crisis that justifies a grab-bag of economic nostrums that have a track record of damaging economic opportunity rather than improving it.

Update: In a piece published last year, Cato's Alan Reynold disputes much of the data used to justify claims of growing income inequality.

In sum, studies based on tax return data provide highly misleading comparisons of changes to the U.S. income distribution because of dramatic changes in tax rules and tax reporting in recent decades. Aside from stock option windfalls during the late-1990s stock-market boom, there is little evidence of a significant or sustained increase in the inequality of U.S. incomes, wages, consumption, or wealth over the past 20 years.


Balko debunks crooked pathologist

Dr. Steven Hayne, every Mississippi prosecutor's favorite forensic pathologist despite dubious credentials, questionable practices and laughable testimony, has been thoroughly exposed by Reason magazine's Radley Balko. Now the Innocence Project wants Hayne stripped of his medical license for his role in putting innocent people behind bars.

Balko steps up to the plate again, to debunk Hayne's efforts to defend himself. Click on through -- it's good reading.


Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Adverse possession case heads back to court

Boulder, Colorado's own land-grabbing lawyers, Richard McLean and Edith Stevens, will have to make their case again in front of the same judge who originally awarded them a free share of their neighbors' land. The Colorado Court of Appeals granted a request by Don and Susie Kirlin to send the case that has divided the town back to Judge James C. Klein.

The Kirlins argue in the filing that newly available eyewitness testimony and a series of aerial photos prove McLean and Stevens conspired to "willfully fabricate" a path on the Kirlins' south Boulder land -- a key piece of evidence in the original lawsuit.

The path was used in the trial last year to help convince Klein that McLean and Stevens openly used the Kirlins' property for more than 18 years, which is one of the requirements to win land in an "adverse-possession" lawsuit in Colorado.

Meanwhile, legislation inspired by the case, to completely rewrite adverse possession law in Colorado, has gone to the governor's desk for his signature.

Whether or not McLean and Stevens get away with their legalized land theft, their action will make similar grabs much more difficult in the future.


Bay State targets underground economy

Ever-tightening business regulations and rising taxes inevitably drive a growing share of economic activity beyond the easy reach of regulators and tax collectors. People desiring to hold on to a larger share of their income than allowed by law, or fearful that rules and regulations make business activity next to impossible, are forced to look to operating in the shadows as a reasonable alternative to being bled dry or ceasing operation entirely. So, in this age of heavy regulation as well as a slowing economy, expect to see more stories like this one from Massachusetts:

Businesses who operate under-the-table and employers who break employment laws will be the focus of a task force Gov. Deval Patrick is poised to create on Wednesday.

Patrick plans to sign an executive order establish a Joint Force on the Underground Economy and Employment Misclassification, according to a State House source briefed on the announcement.

Advocates for tightening penalties against businesses engaging in illegal activities say so-called underground economy businesses drain the state’s economy through fraudulent practices.

Mark Erlich, executive secretary treasurer of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters, called the measure “long, long, overdue.”

“State budgets are tight. Here is an opportunity to raise revenues without raising taxes,” said Erlich.

A 2004 report (PDF) produced by Harvard University scholars found that simply "misclassifying" workers as independent contractors rather than employees allowed those workers to keep $152 million out of the hands of the state government. Plenty more money escapes the state coffers through other clever dodges -- or simply through the practice of operating businesses beneath the government's radar.

Nationally, the underground economy is estimated (PDF) as equivalent to 8.4% of GDP -- just about the smallest in the world. A heavily regulated and taxed jurisdiction like Massachusetts almost certainly has an underground economy closer to European proportions, ranging anywhere from Switzerland's 9.4% of GDP to Greece's 28.2% of GDP.

I'm sure the heads of the European Union wish Governor Patrick better luck than they've enjoyed so far.

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Monday, April 7, 2008

Boring buildings, courtesy of your neighborhood elitists

Have you ever wondered what ever happened to the creative, interesting architecture of yore? To my taste, so many modern buildings are glass and steel boxes -- works of engineering, without any aesthetic value to speak of. Well, this hardly constitutes a definitive study, but a New York magazine article on an unlikely sounding condo/hotel project in New York City's SoHo by Donald Trump, the comb-over king himself, and his partners offers a peek into the motivations behind dull construction.

There would be no architecturally forward design: It would be a simple, approval-friendly box, the way Trump likes it. “In New York,” he says, “I can build a box as-of-right [within existing regulations]. Or I can get a creative design, go through ten years of community boards, and still get refused 32 to zero. Given that choice, I’ll build a box.”

Huh ... So you can put up boring buildings without a hassle, but creativity requires special permission and delay? I think I see a problem here.

And just who are the local activists behind all this delay? Who are these civic-minded folks who the Donald Trumps of the world want to dodge through boxy designs that bypass review?

Once he grasped the scope of the project, no one was more outraged by the news than Sean Sweeney, the director of the Soho Alliance. Sweeney’s group arguably created Soho as we know it, by pushing for “artist zoning” in the seventies and coining the very name “Soho” at its inaugural meeting. A slight and excitable man in wire-frame glasses, Sweeney occupies a Greene Street penthouse crammed with custom contemporary furniture and leads a life seemingly devoted to squashing out-of-context construction. “In 1990,” he says, pointing out the window and across West Broadway, “they wanted to build a hotel there. I said, ‘Hey, you’ll ruin my view!’ We fought, and it stayed an empty lot for twelve years.” The building that finally did go up is a modest-size condo, with a politely recessed top story. Trump Soho stands a few blocks beyond, splitting the sky in two.

Sweeney rallied other downtown groups, got the zoning-committee chairman at Community Board 2 to pledge support to the cause, and launched an aggressive campaign against the invader. He likes to frame his opposition to Trump Soho in vintage class-warfare terms. “We didn’t fall off the pumpkin truck. He moved into the wrong neighborhood. We’re a phoenix, and Trump is a vulture,” he told me. Sometimes, though, his civic outrage crosses over into a more particular anti-Trump animus. Never mind that a number of other large-scale projects are already under way or being planned nearby. (The “manufacturing” designation, which allows hotels but not condos, has done precisely the opposite of what it was supposed to do. Within blocks, five hotels are being built right now, and six more are being talked about.) Sweeney seems more intensely alarmed by the brand, and the people it attracts, than anything else. “We don’t want airline hostesses here,” he says, “or people coming from Europe or Asia for a couple of weeks. Who was the first buyer in that building—a Croatian-Swedish soccer player? Trump represents everything we hate. Bad taste. Déclassé. He’s uptown, we’re downtown, and never the two shall meet.”

Wow. It takes a special kind of person to make Donald Trump seem like a sympathetic character. But Sweeney sounds like he's prick enough for the job.

Under the circumstances, I'd build a boring box too.

Motions rejected in Dibor Roberts case

In the case of Dibor Roberts, the woman charged with several felonies after being assaulted by a Yavapai County sheriff's deputy on a dark, deserted road, Judge Michael Bluff has rejected three motions filed by the defense. Roberts is now set to go to trial May 14-16.

The controversy in the case surrounds Roberts's decision to continue driving several miles to a well-lit area to make sure the car pulling her over was actually a police car after Sergeant Jeff Newnum attempted to pull her over for speeding. An enraged Newnum smashed Roberts's window and dragged the woman from her car once he drove her off the road. This despite the fact that she was following advice published on some police department Websites and repeated by Sheriff Steve Waugh during a press conference. According to the Verde Independent:

Waugh said that if someone is concerned an officer may not be legitimate, he or she should move to a well-lighted area. But, he cautioned that in some areas of the county, there are "25 to 75 miles between well-lighted areas." Make sure to signal or acknowledge the officer and roll down the window enough to hear."

That Roberts's fears were not paranoia was demonstrated just last month and a mere 100 miles from her arrest.

A police impersonator conducted a traffic stop on two teenage girls last month, Phoenix police said.

The girls were pulled over by a white Crown Victoria with a light system shortly before 11 p.m. on March 21.

Believing the Crown Victoria was a real police car, the 14-year-old driver pulled into the parking lot of the Desert Sky Mall.

Police said Michael Escobar, 33, got out of the flashing car wearing a "police-type uniform" with a bullet-proof vest and a gun belt equipped with Mace, handcuffs and a handgun.

Yavapai County is now in the difficult position of prosecuting a woman for acting in accordance with advice offered by its own sheriff for dealing with real-world fears of criminals pretending to be police.

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Thursday, April 3, 2008

School kids still can't write

The latest measure of the nation's tax-funded educational institutions is out, and the results aren't especially encouraging. According to The Nation's Report Card: Writing 2007, released by the U.S. Department of Education, there has been some very minor improvement in performance at the lowest level of writing achievement, but none at higher levels. The report defines reading achievement levels thusly:

Basic denotes partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at a given grade.

Proficient represents solid academic performance. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter.

Advanced represents superior performance.

Says the executive summary:

At grade 8 in 2007

  • The average writing score was 3 points higher than in 2002 and 6 points higher than in 1998.
  • The percentage of students performing at or above the Basic level increased from 85 percent in 2002 to 88 percent and was also higher than in 1998.
  • The percentage of students performing at or above the Proficient level was higher than in 1998 but showed no significant change since 2002.

At grade 12 in 2007

  • The average writing score was 5 points higher than in 2002 and 3 points higher than in 1998.
  • The percentage of students performing at or above the Basic level increased from 74 percent in 2002 to 82 percent and was also higher than in 1998.
  • The percentage of students performing at or above the Proficient level was higher than in 1998 but showed no significant change since 2002.

The percentage of students writing at a Proficient level rose from 31 percent to 33 percent of 8th graders, and remained at 24 percent of 12th graders.

The percentage of students performing at an Advanced level of writing remained at 2 percent of 8th graders from 2002 to 2007, and declined from 2 percent to 1 percent of 12th graders.

That's not much of a return for a significant and growing investment. Even as the states and federal government battle over the controversial mandates of No Child Left Behind and tax dollars flow into the public schools in a growing torrent, only one in four students in their last year of high school "have demonstrated competency" in written communication.

I say that tax dollars go to public schools "in a growing torrent" because it's true. As the Department of Education boasts, "On a per-pupil basis and adjusted for inflation, public school funding increased: 24 percent from 1991-92 through 2001-02 (the last year for which such data are available); 19 percent from 1996-97 through 2001-02; and 10 percent from 1998-99 through 2001-02." And that's only the tip of the iceberg -- real per-pupil spending almost tripled in this country from 1965 to 2002.

The Census Bureau uses slightly different figures, but still finds per-pupil spending growing, exceeding $10,000 in seven states and the District of Columbia.

And despite all of this money and repeated legislative crusades to make that money do something, most kids still aren't learning to communicate in writing at a credible level by the time they leave school.

Those high school graduates take their poor writing skills with them as hobbles into their adult lives. The College Board reports (PDF) that "a significant proportion of responding firms (about one-third) report that one-third or fewer of their employees, both current and new, possess the writing skills companies value." That's a big problem, because the same report found that "[m]ore than half (51 percent) of responding companies say that they frequently or almost always take writing into consideration when hiring salaried employees."

Education officials are spinning the results of the writing report to put as positive a cast on it as possible. They trumpet the slight improvements in overall writing skills while ignoring stagnant or declining performance at higher levels of achievement. The truth, though, is simple and unpleasant: the public schools still aren't teaching kids to write. After decades of failure despite increased attention and funding, there's no reason to believe the public schools are up to the task.

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Prostitutes are victims -- of the law

The titillating tale of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer's downfall has had two beneficial results. One is the end of the self-righteous hypocrite's political career of course. The other is revival of interest in legalizing prostitution. The benefits are clear: stripped of outlaw status, the sex trade could operate in the open, enjoying all of the protections and benefits of a legal enterprise, without the dangerous baggage that attaches to any trade conducted in the shadows.

There's push-back, of course. San Francisco Chronicle editorial writer Caille Millner claims to be "surprised" by the number of people she's encountered who don't think people should face fines and imprisonment if they exchange sex for money. It's hard to know what to say about somebody who is so easily shocked, or who insists that long-established arguments for legalization are "incoherent," except that she seems rather sheltered and just a bit closed to opinions that contradict her own.

Millner dismisses arguments that laws against prostitution are widely ignored, saying, "people also murder other people 'anyway,' and no one's clamoring to legalize that."

But that's the point, isn't it? Murder is held to be immoral and worthy of punishment by virtually everybody, which is why nobody wants it legalized. That's because murder has clear victims and perpetrators. Prostitution, on the other hand, has no victims in and of itself; there are providers and customers, but the participants are willing. Some people are forced into prostitution, but that act of slavery is the evil, and is an artifact of the illegal nature of the business. That most participants are willing is reflected by the fact that prostitutes are punished by law and that sex workers have organized to change the law.

The consensual nature of prostitution undermines Millner's claim that "our legal system isn't written simply for the purpose of expediency, it's also written to underline morality." It's hard to send a message about morality when there's widespread disagreement about whether the criminals or the law enforcers are the good guys. Laws against prostitution, as with other laws against victimless activities, then become nothing more than a temper tantrum by the majority, joined with blunt threats against the dissenting minority.

Millner argues, implausibly, that legalizing prostitution might, somehow, make it more dangerous for participants in the business. Right -- because access to courts, doctors and police is such a harbinger of doom. And finally, she asks: "Is this the kind of 'career route' you would want for your sister or your daughter?"

Not necessarily. But it's not really my place to make business decisions for my relatives. Besides, if my sister or daughter does choose to peddle her favors for money, I think I'd like her to be able to go about her business without fear of being rousted by the cops.

But why would a woman -- or man -- go into the sex trade? For the answer to that question, we turn to somebody who actually knows what she's talking about: anthropologist Patty Kelly, who spent a year studying workers at a legal Mexican brothel.

Here's what I learned: Most of the workers made some rational choice to be there, sometimes after a divorce, a bad breakup or an economic crisis, acute or chronic. Of the 140 women who worked at the Galactic Zone, as the brothel was called, only five had a pimp (and in each of those cases, they insisted the man was their boyfriend).

The women made their own hours, set their own rates and decided for themselves what sex acts they would perform. Some were happy with the job. (As Gabriela once told me: "You should have seen me before I started working here. I was so depressed.") Others would've preferred to be doing other work, though the employment available to these women in Mexico (servants, factory workers) pays far less for longer hours.

Hmmm ... no slaves here in a brothel operating in the open. And since the prostitutes Ms. Kelly studied worked in a legal business, the police were their allies, not their enemies.

Kelly doesn't pretend that the women she studies led idyllic lives -- the trade might be legal, but it's still stigmatized and has its own risks. But, as she adds:

[C]riminalization is worse. Sweden's 1998 criminalization of commercial sex -- a measure titled "The Protection of Women" -- appears not to protect them at all. A 2004 report by the Swedish Ministry of Justice and the police found that after it went into effect, prostitution, of course, continued. Meanwhile, prices for sexual services dropped, clients were fewer but more often violent, more wanted to pay for sex and not use a condom -- and sex workers had less time to assess the mental state of their clients because of the fear of getting caught.

That makes sense. The idea that you protect people by threatening them with legal consequences and denying them the resources available to legal workers is ludicrous. Any trade conducted in the shadows will have more risks than one conducted in the open.

Don't expect real-life experience to sway the Caille Millners of the world. They've concluded that trading sex for money is stained with immorality and that the law, no matter how counterproductive or ineffective, must send a message. Considering the people fined, jailed and victimized in the absence of legal recourse, that's an expensive telegram.

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Wednesday, April 2, 2008

That air of gravitas

This is a tad derivative, but I'm citing a Reason magazine mention of a FAIR report that think tanks just aren't getting as much ink as they once did. As a long-time sucker at the tit of various non-profits, activist groups and think tanks, I can empathize with Reason's Katherine Mangu-Ward when she says, "I still find sources through think tanks, I just don't cite them as such if I can help it. Lack of citations may not indicate the the influence of think tanks is actually, well, tanking."

Unfortunately, I have friends who went into academia proper, and since we're all in our forties, they're tenured now. I mean, I know these people. To retain my self-respect, I wouldn't mention their university affiliations either. Brown University as a credible source? Ya gotta be kidding me. I'd sooner refer to a refrigeration-repair school.

That pretty much leaves me identifying experts as folks whose heads I held over the toilet when we were 19.

Oh hell, I'll cite their think tank affiliations after all.

Economics 1, moral outrage 0

Is there a "right" price for any good or service? Can the market mistakenly value something below or above that "right" price? That's the question raised in the March 31 issue of New York magazine in the tale of the fall of prominent art gallerist and artist Larry Salander. Most of the article details a web of business deals and alleged acts of fraud that left Salander bankrupt and in as much as $100 million in debt. But the catalyst for his downfall was Salander's belief that masterpieces of art wrongly trade at prices lower than those offered for pieces of contemporary art -- and that he could change that fact all by himself.

“Our society now values a Warhol for three times as much money as a great Rembrandt,” he thunders, referring to the latest auction reports. “That tells me that we’re fucked. It’s as if people would rather fuck than make love.”

He says the last sentence slowly, emphasizing each word.

“That’s the difference between the Warhol and the Rembrandt,” Salander continues. “Being with Rembrandt is like making love. And being with Warhol is like fucking.” ...

As a house for serious nineteenth- and twentieth-century art, the gallery had settled into a proven, commercially successful formula. But over the last decade, as the art market underwent a seismic shift, Salander noticed a particular gulf opening up between the markets for postwar and contemporary art, and most art created before Impressionism. New art suddenly started going for far more than older, established masterpieces. Many of the newly rich collectors preferred to spend their hedge-fund wealth on more recent, name-brand artists. A Jasper Johns was soon worth twice as much as the Metropolitan’s Duccio, the Madonna and Child purchased by the museum for as much as $45 million in 2004. An oversize sculpture of costume jewelry by the art star Jeff Koons was valued higher than a Tintoretto, an El Greco, or a clutch of Courbets.

To Salander, this development was a moral travesty. It was also a business opportunity. As he obsessed over these market dynamics, Salander eventually came to believe that the very survival of great art was at stake. By 2005, he had determined to be the first dealer to do something about it. He would risk his gallery’s established reputation as a nineteenth- and twentieth-century house by investing heavily in old-master and Renaissance art. He would make some money and, if his plan worked, save the contemporary market from itself.

Salander put his large fortune and reputation on the line to acquire classic works of art. His end game was to sell a (supposedly) newly identified Caravaggio, Apollo the Lute Player, for $100 million. The staggering price was set as a counter to the sum paid for a diamond-encrusted skull by contemporary artist Damien Hirst.

I have to admit to a certain sympathy with Salander. I share his preference for classic art -- particularly his personal taste for Canaletto -- over much modern art. Most of the work produced over the past century or so leaves me cold. I'd much prefer to wander through the Metropolitan Museum of Art than MOMA. But having personal preferences at odds with those of the majority of people just means that you can get what you like at a relatively reasonable price; it doesn't augur success for setting out with force of will and moral zeal on a crusade to readjust the relative prices of art in the market to reflect your own values.

Price isn't a moral matter; it's a reflection of what hundreds, or thousands, or millions of people are willing to pay for goods and services. We might wish that the public at large was willing to pay more for Rembrandt than Koons or for the labor of teachers than professional baseball players, but trying to force a number one way or another doesn't change the variables, such as supply and demand, that go into setting that number where it is. You might, over time, try to shift the culture and alter people's taste, but you can't arbitrarily decide that a Caravaggio must be worth as much as a Hirst.

By trying to replace the laws of economics with his moral outrage, Salander inevitable set himself up for padlocked doors, empty bank accounts and a host of lawsuits. Salander was doomed before he ever began accumulating his horde of masterpieces.

The story of Salander's downfall ends on an ironic note: contemporary artist Jeff Koons, of all people, is busily acquiring art by old masters. But Koons isn't trying to force prices up to some morally superior level; he's simply building his collection, probably anticipating naturally rising increases in monetary value in the future. By working with the market rather than trying to transform the market, Koons may help to gently nudge prices for classic works upward where Salander dashed himself against the rocks of economic laws.

Note: The Tuccille family's long-standing interest in classic works of art is documented here. Yes, my grandfather really did stash a fortune in stolen works of art behind a false wall in his basement. You just can't make that shit up.

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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Where's our anonymous electronic money?

First, Congress banned the use of credit cards "and other payment forms" to settle Internet wagers. Now the San Francisco Chronicle wants to impose a similar ban on the use of credit cards to make purchases from online pharmacies. Not content to simply forbid people to purchase products or pursue vices of which they disapprove, the nation's all-too-full ranks of control freaks also want to deny folks who don't toe the line the ability to pay unapproved bills. Credit cards and other payment systems, once seen as a potential route to financial flexibility, have become tools of political control.

There are alternative means of payment, but these have proven vulnerable to government pressure. PayPal, which began with an explicitly antigovernment agenda, folded rather early, and now bans a variety of politically incorrect transactions. NETeller, even though it's based outside the country, followed suit after two of its executives were essentially kidnapped and held hostage while in the U.S. Some other payment systems remain available, but nothing has established itself as invulnerable, or even highly resistant, to government arm-twisting.

Where is this brave new world of anonymous and untraceable transactions we were promised?

Digital cash that would flow as freely as coins and paper has been "just around the corner" for years. Cryptographer David Chaum was an early pioneer of the idea, although the company he founded, DigiCash, folded a decade ago. The idea seems to be feasible -- at least, experts like Chaum believe it is -- but it hasn't quite caught fire yet. People have proven more open to adapting payment systems they know -- such as credit cards -- to a new environment than they are to adopting something as completely new as money represented by encrypted bits of data.

But as governments choke off the use of traditional payment means and make familiar Visa and Mastercard accounts into extensions of the political whims of whatever crop of nannies currently holds office, they may inadvertently open the door for high-tech money that, until now, has seemed to be a solution in search of a problem. Out of necessity, gamblers, pharmacy customers and other patrons of disapproved businesses may soon look for high-tech payment systems that can offer them reliability and privacy in an overgoverned world.

The overwheening nannies of Congress and the editorial pages may yet turn a gee-whiz technological promise into a practical reality.

Well, I'm hoping so, anyway. Any of you technological whizzes out there know how close anonymous, safe and reliable electronic money currently is to being a real-world deliverable service?

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Motions pending in Dibor Roberts case

Via Merrill Roberts, husband of Dibor Roberts, comes word that three motions in the case of the woman assaulted by a Yavapai County, Arizona, sheriff's deputy will be decided on Friday, April 4 at 9am at the Verde Valley Justice Center court house. One motion would send the case back to the grand jury to hear -- live this time -- the testimony of a witness to last summer's altercation. Another motion would dismiss the "resisting arrest" charge. The third would compel the deposition of Deputy Jeff Newnum, who has been ducking the procedure by claiming "victim's rights" under Arizona law.

At this time, Dibor Roberts's trial is set for May 14-16.

Judge Michael Bluff can be contacted at:

Camp Verde Justice Facility
3505 West Highway 260
Camp Verde, AZ 86322

Update: The latest news story: "Motions argued in Dibor Roberts case"

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