Monday, June 30, 2008

America doesn't need leadership

Writing for Britain's The Independent, John Rentoul notes that Barack Obama is running for president less on policy than on a forceful, leader-like presence. "[W]hat matters is Obama's personality." Obama himself vows to "take us in a fundamentally new direction."

Likewise, John McCain has long touted his leadership skills over specific views on what the government ought or ought not be doing, and constantly links himself to a one-time White House strongman, saying, "I am a Teddy Roosevelt Republican."

And just as McCain's camp challenges Obama's ability to lead by trying to link him to the hapless Jimmy Carter, Obama supporters question McCain's leaderly credential, with Wesley Clark rolled out to cast doubts on the Arizona senator's "command experience."

Both major presidential candidates have made it quite clear that -- policy differences aside -- they're running to be national leader and they want to be assessed on their readiness to take the nation's helm.

That's a shame, because if there's anything this country does not need, it's a leader.

In fact, the whole idea of national leadership in a republic of free, self-governing people was intensely distasteful to the founders. In his book, The Cult of the Presidency, Gene Healy points out:
Indeed, the term "leader," which appears repeatedly in Madison, Hamilton, and Jay's essays in defense of the Constitution, is nearly always used negatively, save for one positive reference to the leaders of the American Revolution. The Federalist is bookended by warnings about the perils of popular leadership: the first essay warns that "of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants." The last essay raises the specter of disunion and civil war, ending with the "military despotism of a victorious demagogue." For the Framers, the ability to "move the masses" wasn't a desirable quality in a president -- it was a threat.
Free countries don't need leaders because their citizens lead themselves. The inhabitants of free countries are disparate individuals with varying values and preferences, all wanting to go in a multitude of different directions. The role of the government in a free country is to protect the borders and prevent the citizens from getting too rough with one another, and otherwise let people find their own way as best they can.

Leaders are for tribes where young upstarts challenge old warriors to duels to determine who gets to plan the next chicken-and-bride raid on a neighboring village. National leaders are for sad, dusty realms where peeling posters featuring the faces of politicians pasted on steelworkers' bodies stare down from every corner.

Of course, we already have a "national leader." George W. Bush and his "unitary executive" theory didn't even originate the idea of an all-powerful, inspirational presidency -- that particular abomination goes back rather further -- at least to McCain's beloved Teddy Roosevelt. The impression of the president as sort of a combination warlord and spiritual savior is already well-entrenched, putting the next holder of the office well along the path to turning the presidency into something resembling the Roman consulship under Augustus Caesar.

And most Americans seem perfectly happy with this development, with the public apparently eager for an intimidating and inspirational president. True, Barack Obama has the better-developed cult of personality of the two candidates, but there's no evidence that any lack of popular enthusiasm will restrain John McCain's views of the powers of the presidency.

Personally, I plan to lead myself whichever way I choose to go, no matter who wins this November's election. But I suspect that those of us who choose that course will be odd men out in a country hungry for a tribal chieftain.


Sunday, June 29, 2008

Chicago, where you do what you're told

The windy city gets raked over the coals for its poor treatment of personal freedom in a Chicago Tribune OpEd written by Reason magazine's Radley Balko. A taste:
Chicago reigns supreme when it comes to treating its citizens like children (Las Vegas topped our rankings as America's freest city). Chicagoans pay the second-highest cigarette tax in the country, and the sixth-highest tax on alcohol. Chicago has more traffic-light cameras than any city in America (despite studies questioning their effectiveness), restricts cell phone use while driving, and it's quickly moving toward a creepy public surveillance system similar to London's.
Don't miss the multitude of comments attached to Balko's article,  many belonging to two general threads: one applauding the restrictions because they make Chicago more in tune with the poster's values and preferences (my taste, now mandatory); the other pointing out that a heavily regulated city gives the folks in charge unparalleled opportunities for shaking downs folks who violate or want to violate the rules.

The column is based on an upcoming Reason article assessing 35 American cities on how they "balance individual freedom with government paternalism. We ranked the cities on how much freedom they afford their residents to indulge in alcohol, tobacco, drugs, sex, gambling and food. And, for good measure, we also looked at the cities' gun laws, use of traffic and surveillance cameras, and tossed in an 'other' category to catch weird laws such as New York's ban on unlicensed dancing, or Chicago's tax on bottled water."

Chicago, by the way, comes in dead last. Las Vegas is first.

There are plenty of assessments of various jurisdictions' economic freedom rankings, but this is the first I'm aware of  that actually tries to rank cities based on their overall respect for personal freedom. I look forward to seeing the full piece.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

A right to bear arms, if you can keep it

I wrote earlier that the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision (PDF) in D.C. v. Heller that the Second Amendment recognizes and protects a pre-existing individual right to bear arms is a "bit weak." I didn't mean that the reasoning is weak -- indeed, it picks up on decades of scholarship about the language, drafting and legal history of the Second Amendment. Linguists, historians and legal scholars had already done the hard work and Justice Scalia eagerly took excellent advantage of their efforts leading to the logical conclusion that the Second Amendment means what it says.

Instead, by "weak," I meant that the right recognized as constitutionally protected by the court is pretty tightly constrained -- relative to what I would have liked to see, anyway. But that "weak" right is better than I feared it might be and stands as a pretty satisfying victory under the circumstances.

Scalia starts off by comparing the Second Amendment to the finite limits of the First Amendment:

There seems to us no doubt, on the basis of both text and history, that the Second Amendment conferred an individual right to keep and bear arms. Of course the right was not unlimited, just as the First Amendment’s right of free speech was not, see, e.g., United States v. Williams, 553 U. S. ___ (2008). Thus, we do not read the Second Amendment to protect the right of citizens to carry arms for any sort of confrontation, just as we do not read the First Amendment to protect the right of citizens to speak for any purpose.

Well, all right. But what does that mean?

Although we do not undertake an exhaustive historical analysis today of the full scope of the Second Amendment, nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.26 We also recognize another important limitation on the right to keep and carry arms. Miller said, as we have explained, that the sorts of weapons protected were those “in common use at the time.” 307 U. S., at 179. We think that limitation is fairly supported by the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of “dangerous and unusual weapons.”

Those restrictions that Scalia finds consistent with an individual right to keep and bear arms go quite a bit further than any limits we'd consider reasonable on First Amendment rights. It's impossible to imagine the courts permitting bans on the mentally ill or convicted felons speaking their minds about matters of public policy. Nor is it possible to imagine, say, a requirement for background checks or waiting periods on anybody starting a blog passing constitutional muster. And there's no requirement that publishers refrain from using "unusual" or "dangerous" (especially powerful?) media, even in these days of campaign finance "reform."

The court also avoids the question as to whether the Second Amendment is incorporated through the Fourteenth Amendment -- that is, whether it protects Americans not just from federal laws, but also from state and local laws. It seems likely that it is incorporated, but that will have to be definitively established by future litigation.

But the right recognized by the Supreme Court isn't meaningless. For starters, the court finds that Americans have a right to possess handguns in their homes and "a complete prohibition of their use is invalid." It also finds that D.C.'s requirement that rifles and shotguns be stored in an inoperable condition, rendering them useless for self-defense, is unconstitutional. Scalia goes on to write, "the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table. These include the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defense in the home."

That means the Second Amendment now means, in terms of law, at least something like what it quite clearly says. That's probably the best we could have hoped for under the circumstances, given the reality of political pressures and the kamikazi passion of opponents of the right to keep and bear arms, even those on the Supreme Court.

Kamikazi passion?

Why sure. Try this on:

Framers used the phrase “the people” in these constitutional provisions. In the First Amendment, no words define the class of individuals entitled to speak, to publish, or to worship; in that Amendment it is only the right peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances, that is described as a right of “the people.” These rights contemplate collective action. While the right peaceably to assemble protects the individual rights of those persons participating in the assembly, its concern is with action engaged in by members of a group, rather than any single individual. Likewise, although the act of petitioning the Government is a right that can be exercised by individuals, it is primarily collective in nature. For if they are to be effective, petitions must involve groups of individuals acting in concert.

Similarly, the words “the people” in the Second Amendment refer back to the object announced in the Amendment’s preamble. They remind us that it is the collective action of individuals having a duty to serve in the militia that the text directly protects and, perhaps more importantly, that the ultimate purpose of the Amendment was to protect the States’ share of the divided sovereignty created by the Constitution.

That's Justice Stevens arguing in his dissent that the use of the phrase "the people" indicates a collective right -- even in the First Amendment. In his zeal to prevent the recognition of an individual right to bear arms, Stevens was willing to surrender constitutional protections for individual rights to assemble and to petition the government. Think of it as a constitutional scorched-earth policy, with Stevens tossing long-established rights on the burning barricades.

Even if Stevens' side was destined to lose, the right we got from the court could have been a lot weaker. In a separate dissent, Justice Breyer wrote:

[T]he District’s law is consistent with the Second Amendment even if that Amendment is interpreted as protecting a wholly separate interest in individual self-defense. That is so because the District’s regulation, which focuses upon the presence of handguns in high-crime urban areas, represents a permissible legislative response to a serious, indeed life-threatening, problem.

Such reasoning suggests the outcome that I actually feared in this case: a "right" to bear arms that provided no protection against government action at all.

So, just how vigorous is the protection provided by the Supreme Court's recognition of an individual right to keep and bear arms? We should start finding out soon. The National Rifle Association has already announced plans to file lawsuits on constitutional grounds against restrictive laws in Chicago, some Chicago suburbs and San Francisco.

The Heller decision was only the beginning of a long process of hammering out just how far courts are willing to go in defending gun rights.


The Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms

Read the decision here (PDF).

It is a bit weak, but not as bad as I feared. For instance, the D.C. ban on handguns was found unconstitutional.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

No Fourth Amendment for your hard drive

At the border, that is.

From U.S. News and World Report:

The extent of the program to confiscate electronics at customs points is unclear. A hearing Wednesday before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary's Subcommittee on the Constitution hopes to learn more about the extent of the program and safeguards to traveler's privacy. Lawsuits have also been filed, challenging how the program selects travelers for inspection. Citing those lawsuits, Customs and Border Protection, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, refuses to say exactly how common the practice is, how many computers, portable storage drives, and BlackBerries have been inspected and confiscated, or what happens to the devices once they are seized. Congressional investigators and plaintiffs involved in lawsuits believe that digital copies—so-called "mirror images" of drives—are sometimes made of materials after they are seized by customs.

What does the government do with the data it copies from the computers and cameras of journalists and business executives? If history is any judge, pretty much anything it wants.


Gun-rights decision expected tomorrow

With its term winding down, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to release its long-awaited ruling at 10 a.m. tomorrow in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller. That's 7 a.m. my time, about when I'm making my coffee and trying to minimize the property damage inflicted on the furniture by my son, so I'll have to blog about it a bit later in the day. At issue is not only the constitutionality of Washington, D.C.'s handgun ban, but also the question of whether the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to keep and bear arms, or whether it's just so much wasted ink.

My guess, for what it's worth (not much) is that the justices will issue a decision that recognizes the right to bear arms as an individual one, but one so weakly protected as to permit pretty much every gun control law you can imagine short of an actual door-to-door confiscation. Imagine a First Amendment that permits the registration of printing presses, licensing of journalists and content restrictions on newspaper editorials and you have an idea of what I expect for the Second Amendment.

As I've written before, such a result may actually be more of a win for all but the hardest of hard-core gun control advocate than for advocates of the right to bear arms, because:

Confiscation will be off the table, most outright bans will become impossible, so gun owners will be less fearful of efforts to impose strictures on firearms use and ownership that just nibble around the edges. Gun controllers will probably still have the option of pushing for registration, permits and restrictions on concealed carry -- and they'll have a greater chance of success since the opposition will be less unified and resistant.

Frankly, most gun owners would just hear "the Second Amendment protects an individual right" without hearing the all-important "to do whatever local authorities tell you to do." Gun control would then lose much of its potency as a political issue and many restrictive laws that have been resisted so far would face an easier time of it in Congress and state legislatures.

Yes, confiscation would be off the table, but it was never realistically on the table. In countries where bans have been tried, resistance has been widespread. According to Dr. Franz Császár, a professor of criminology at the University of Vienna, "Non-compliance with harsher gun laws is a common event. In Australia it is estimated that only about 20% of all banned self-loading rifles have been given up to the authorities... Following the restriction in 1983 of certain 'military-style' rifles in Canada, the compliance rate was estimated as between 3 and 20% for different models."

Not surprisingly, compliance with gun bans has been no higher in the United States, where firearms carry heavy political baggage. In Can Gun Control Work?, James B. Jacobs, Warren E. Burger Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Research in Crime and Justice at New York University wrote, "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."

Any reduction in privately owned firearms might seem like an improvement to anti-gun zealots, but as Császár points out, "Stringent gun control changes the profile of the gun-owning population. What ever the reason for keeping guns may be, remaining owners tend to cling even more tightly to firearms. Noncompliance with restrictive rules makes the remaining owners immune against even very reasonable measures of the authorities."

So confiscation would certainly be widely defied and further polarize the country. Really, it's a non-starter.

But less-draconian laws? Registration and licensing laws might be on the table if gun-rights groups lazily declare victory after a weak declaration that the Second Amendment protects individual rights, of if gun owners get complacent. A lot of Americans -- myself included -- wouldn't obey such laws, but there would probably be higher compliance after a weak "victory" on Heller than there would be if the Second Amendment were simply declared a nullity. That is, advocates of individual rights might be better off outright losing this case than sort-of, kind-of winning. That would galvanize resistance to restrictive laws.

But maybe I'm wrong and we'll get a strong decision in favor of an individual right to bear arms. We'll find out tomorrow morning.


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Coming soon: national service (or else)

It's interesting that Germany, of all places, is discussing reducing (though not eliminating) the demands of conscription even as the United States is edging slowly but surely toward some sort of national service.

True, the national service both Barack Obama and John McCain promise doesn't really resemble old-style military conscription -- although there have been calls to reinstate exactly that. Instead, the two presidential contenders envision sort of an expanded AmeriCorps -- bureaucratized volunteerism for every job the government wants done on the cheap -- with young people encouraged to participate through a combination of bribes, such as tax credits, and social pressure to conform.

But some high schools are already requiring community service as a condition of graduation, and Obama's website says he wants to "require 100 hours of service in college." That may not be a lot, but it is compulsory, and suggests an attitude that regards citizens as servants of the state. It's easy to see how the "voluntary" national service of next year could become the expected-as-a-condition-of-a-diploma labor for the state of five years from now.

I'm working on the assumption that my son will be strongly encouraged, or even required, to surrender some portion of his life to the dictates of government officials. If he's so inclined, I'll do what I can to help him defy such demands.


Monday, June 23, 2008

Will historians learn to love George W Bush?

Who said this?:

"There are many, many who can recommend, advise and sometimes a few of them consent. But there is only one who has been chosen by the American people to decide."

Why, that's obvious! It's the decider, of course. Only President George W. Bush could have such hubris as to describe himself in such imperial terms.

Or is it?

Actually, that's Lyndon Baines Johnson, another president who launched the United States into undeclared military conflicts on the basis of little more than open-ended congressional approval rooted in a dubious military threat. Johnson and Bush share other similarities; they both oversaw massive boosts in federal spending and increases in the size and role of the federal government. For Johnson, it was the "Great Society," the effects of which linger on today. For Bush, it's been No Child Left Behind and the Medicare prescription drug benefit. Bush's record on spending, in fact, is often compared to that of LBJ, with the current president presiding over an even larger increase in discretionary spending than LBJ.

And Johnson, like Bush, ended his presidency on a wave of unpopularity, declining even to seek a second complete term.

Today, Johnson is generally ranked by historians as an "above average" president. A Wall Street Journal-Federalist Society poll that sought to balance (PDF) input from conservative and liberal scholars ranked him at 17, below James Monroe and above John F. Kennedy.

How can that be?

To be blunt, historians tend to smile fondly on presidents who overstep their power, send armies to kill and maim and run roughshod over the Constitution. In his excellent book, The Cult of the Presidency, Gene Healy writes:

Summing up the results of his 1962 survey, Schlesinger Sr. noted that "Mediocre Presidents believed in negative government, in self-subordination to the legislative power." And scholars continue to see it that way. Thus, in Schlesinger Jr.'s 1996 survey, 5 of the top 10 presidents were war leaders: among them James K. Polk, Harry Truman, and Woodrow Wilson. Polk's major achievement was starting a war of conquest. Truman launched our first major undeclared war and had to be rebuked by the Supreme Court for claiming that his powers as commander in chief allowed him to seize American companies. After running for reelection as a peace candidate, Wilson took the country into the pointless carnage of World War I and carried out perhaps the harshest crackdown on civil liberties in American history.

Warren G. Harding, who freed Wilson's political prisoners and presided over a period of peace and prosperity, is rated near the bottom of the pack by historians in almost every survey.

All of which is to say: George W. Bush, who has overseen civil liberties violations, massive expenditures, war, metastasized federal government, and who has propounded a near-dictatorial view of presidential power, is exactly the sort of president that historians tend to rate very highly.

There is a very good chance that the current president, soon to leave office with approval ratings so low they have tainted his entire political party, will be added to the pantheon of "good" presidents lovingly worshipped by the very academics charged with teaching the country's youth about the nation's successes and failures.

There are other ways of rating presidents, of course. In a chapter in Reassessing the Presidency, economists Richard Vedder and Lowell Gallaway ranked the nation's chief executives according to criteria including reining-in government spending and controlling inflation. According to one of their measures, poor, oft-neglected Harding comes in first. LBJ ranks at number 33.

It would be interesting to see a similar ranking done incorporating civil liberties criteria along with the economic ones.

Is it too much to hope for a president that historians will hate?

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Will Congress just order oil to be cheaper?

The futures market for oil is getting a lot of blame for the rising price of petroleum products, and the add-on increases in prices of other goods and services such as air travel and groceries. But what are futures markets and, if they're so villainous, why do they continue to exist?

First, a definition from the U.S. government's Commodity Futures Trading Commission:

What is a Futures Contract?
A futures contract is an agreement to buy or sell in the future a specific quantity of a commodity at a specific price. Most futures contracts contemplate actual delivery of the commodity can take place to fulfill the contract. However, some futures contracts require cash settlement in lieu of delivery, and most contracts are liquidated before the delivery date. An option on a commodity futures contract gives the buyer of the option the right to convert the option into a futures contract. Futures and options must be executed on the floor of a commodity exchange—with very limited exceptions—and through persons and firms who are registered with the CFTC.

OK ... so it's a bit like gambling, right?

No, not really. It's actually about reducing risk and evening out the financial impact of price changes. The CFTC isn't real clear on why this is so, but let's start with the commission's explanation:

Who Uses Futures and Options Markets?
Most of the participants in the futures and option markets are commercial or institutional users of the commodities they trade. These users, most of whom are called "hedgers," want the value of their assets to increase and want to limit, if possible, any loss in value. Hedgers may use the commodity markets to take a position that will reduce the risk of financial loss in their assets due to a change in price. Other participants are "speculators" who hope to profit from changes in the price of the futures or option contract.

Well that clears things ... Wait! No it doesn't. Leave it to bureaucrats to obscure the utility of even the most beneficial tools. Let's turn instead to an explanation by Robert Murphy, an economist with the Institute for Energy Research:

Although it's true that a particular forward contract can only have positive market value for one party if it has a corresponding negative market value for another, this doesn't at all mean that the "losing" party should regret the transaction. This is because one of the primary uses of forward (and futures) contracts is to hedge away risk. In this type of case, the contract is chosen so that its positive or negative market value (under various scenarios) will offset losses or gains from other sources in those same circumstances.

For example, an airline's profitability is closely tied to the price of crude oil, because their jets use so much fuel. If the price of oil shoots up, operating costs rise and profit margins shrink. (Even if the airline can raise ticket prices, consumers will fly less.) On the other hand, if oil prices fall then the airline benefits.

Yet the price of oil isn't something related to someone's expertise in running an airline. The owners of the airline might prefer to avoid this additional "gamble" by purchasing large quantities of oil futures. If the spot price of oil suddenly rises, the airline is hurt because of the higher operating costs, but this hit is (at least partially) offset by the growing value of its futures contracts.

On the other hand, if the price of oil collapses, then yes the market value of those same futures contracts becomes negative. Yet the airline is fine with this, because the lower fuel prices are good for business and allow them to cope with the loss.

We see that forward and futures contracts can act as a type of insurance policy, where traders can reduce their exposure to fluctuations in critical spot prices by buying or selling the appropriate instrument. To continue the analogy, consider that when assessing the damage in a given car wreck (say), the auto insurer and motorist have diametrically opposed interests. Yet it would be wrong to conclude that the institution of insurance is a zero-sum game.

So futures markets are good things because, while they can serve as a play ground for those evil speculators we've all been warned about, in doing so they actually reduce uncertainty and risk throughout the economy.

So what's really driving increases gasoline prices? The Institute for Economic Research has a pretty cool interactive feature that explains what's going on. Basically, it's supply and demand -- demand from China and the countries of the developing world has been skyrocketing as their economies grow. U.S. demand for oil has remained pretty static during that time. People in previously poor countries are getting wealthier, and they're demanding more petroleum as they do so.

Increased demand relative to supply puts upward pressure on the price of petroleum. That acts as a signal to increase production, but it takes time to do so. Is it taking so long because those nefarious oil companies are getting fat on profits while sitting on their untapped reserves? They wish. Actually, 95% of oil reserves are owned by governments, with only 5% in private hands. That means the oil companies need to cut deals with government officials and get permission to explore for oil and ... well ... there are some pretty promising areas where they're not allowed to explore for oil -- like the East Coast, the West Coast, a big chunk of the Gulf of Mexico and ANWR.

So the reason for rising gas prices, once again, is rising demand, and supply not yet catching up. It's not, repeat, not, evil futures market speculators.

But there's nothing more ignorant -- or worse, indifferent -- about economics than a politician. That's why financial industry lobbyists were on Capitol Hill last week begging Congress not to do anything stupid as part of its ongoing effort to make "speculators" the villains in the current gas-pump morality play.

In a pair of lengthy and sometimes testy closed-door sessions in the Senate last week, executives from Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, two of Wall Street's largest investment banks, made the case that their multibillion-dollar investments in energy contracts have not led to higher oil prices. Rather, they told Democratic staff members of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee that the trades allow international markets to operate efficiently and that the run-up in oil prices results not from speculation but from actual imbalances of supply and demand.

How did Congress respond?

"Spare us your lecture about supply and demand," one of the Democratic aides said, abruptly cutting off one of the executives, according to a staff member in the room.

How unbelievably stupid -- or evil -- do you have to be to end a discussion as to the real causes of a major matter of public concern?

Well, stupid or evil enough to make a career in government, I guess.

Look for lawmakers to put some serious curbs on the futures market, despite warnings from economists that they'll thereby be increasing the level of risk in the economy.

And look for a host of other dumb moves to come down the pike as Congress seeks to demonstrate the superiority of the desires of a room full of ignoramuses over mere economic reality.

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Barr interviewed on MobLogic

Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr does a good job -- I think -- of presenting his case over at MobLogic.

Barr tells Lindsay Campbell -- who comes off as well-prepared -- why he's made some dramatic changes in his stances on key issues, including drug prohibition and privacy. He covers the clear danger posed by the government, post-9/11, to liberty, and his grudging preference for Bill Clinton over George W. Bush. And, oh yeah, he addresses that moustache.

Y'know, most interviewers are a lot harder on the eyes than Lindsay Campbell.


Sweden boards the wiretapping bandwagon

Even as the U.S. Congress votes to make sure that the next president retains extraordinary power to conduct wiretaps, and to immunize telecommunications companies that collaborate with the feds against lawsuits, Swedish politicians have launched a wiretapping scheme of their own.

Sweden on Wednesday adopted contentious legislation that will give officials sweeping powers to eavesdrop on all e-mail and telephone traffic that crosses the Nordic nation's borders.

After heated debate and last-minute changes, lawmakers approved the bill that has outraged some lawmakers and prompted protesters to hand out copies of George Orwell's novel "1984" outside Parliament.

Lawmakers approved the bill in a 143-138 vote. One lawmaker abstained.

It will become law in January.

Google Inc. and Swedish telecom TeliaSonera AB have called it the most far-reaching eavesdropping plan in Europe, comparable to a U.S. government surveillance program.

"By introducing these new measures, the Swedish government is following the examples set by governments ranging from China and Saudi Arabia to the U.S. government's widely criticized eavesdropping program," Google's global privacy counsel, Peter Fleischer said.

Hmmm ... Does this law affect all data "that crosses the Nordic nation's borders"? Because, in this Internet age, a lot of communications that neither originate from nor are addressed to any given country pass through servers located in that country.

In Slate, Eric Weiner covered European authorities' propensity for conducting warrantless wiretaps as a matter of course.

The three worst offenders are not countries you would suspect of playing fast and loose with civil liberties: Britain, Italy, and the Netherlands. Italian officials conduct tens of thousands of wiretaps each year. Technically, judicial approval is needed but since judges in Italy are "investigative," meaning they act more like our prosecutors, there is essentially no check on law enforcement's ability to eavesdrop. ...

The Netherlands has the highest rate of wiretapping of any European country—a surprising fact, given the country's reputation for cozy coffee bars, not invasive police tactics. Dutch police can tap any phone they like, so long as the crime under investigation carries at least a three-year jail term.

EDRI monitors European electronic privacy issues here.

Also see Privacy International.

Really, if you want privacy these days, your best bet is to look into strong encryption.


Thursday, June 19, 2008

Dems, GOP cut wiretap deal

From the AP:

House and Senate leaders have agreed to a new compromise surveillance bill that would effectively shield from potentially costly civil lawsuits telecommunications companies that helped the government wiretap citizens' phone and computer lines after the September 11 terrorist attacks without court permission.

The House will debate the bill on Friday, potentially ending a monthslong standoff about the rules for government wiretapping inside the United States.

It looks to me that, when it comes to wiretapping, Democratic lawmakers anticipate being the ones wearing the headphones and deciding whose lines get snooped on. They're certainly going to hold on to Congress and the odds are in favor of their guy taking the White House.

I mean, Civil liberties are fine when the other side is in charge, but why hobble your own (mis)use of government power?

Parenting under court scrutiny

Ummm ... kids can appeal getting grounded by their parents? Really?

First, the father banned his 12-year-old daughter from going online after she posted photos of herself on a dating site. Then she allegedly had a row with her stepmother, so the father said his girl couldn't go on a school trip.

The girl took the matter to the court - and won what lawyers say was an unprecedented judgment.

Madam Justice Suzanne Tessier of the Quebec Superior Court ruled on Friday that the father couldn't discipline his daughter by barring her from the school trip.

Remind me to never take my kid to Quebec.


Hate privacy? Then you'll love traveling

Don't leave home without it ... Your metal-foil underwear that is. Airports in Phoenix, Los Angeles (LAX), Baltimore, New York (JFK), Denver, Dallas Forth-Worth, Albuquerque, Miami, Las Vegas and Detroit either are using or soon will use millimeter-wave whole body imagers which "[i]n a matter of seconds ... can detect weapons, explosives and other threat items concealed under layers of clothing without physical contact." Basically, it produces a three-dimensional nude picture of subjects for the viewing pleasure of a government employee.

According to the TSA:

  • Beams of radio frequency (RF) energy in the millimeter wave spectrum are projected over the body’s surface at high speed from two antennas simultaneously as they rotate around the body

  • The RF energy reflected back from the body or other objects on the body is used to construct a three-dimensional image

  • The three-dimensional image of the body, with facial features blurred for privacy, is displayed on a remote monitor for analysis

The TSA says the imagers will be used, at least initially, on a voluntary basis for secondary screenings. But not everybody is convinced the strip-down technology will be used so non-coercively. From the Miami Herald:

"We really question how voluntary this test it is, no matter what the TSA says," said Charlene Sawyer, president of the Greater Miami American Civil Liberties Union. "The TSA may say these scanners will be used only for secondary screening, but these scanners will be used as a primary search for random selectees."

The American Civil Liberties Union opposes the use to the scanners as part of a routine scanning procedure, she said. It's only OK when there is probable cause, although what that means is also up for debate, Ms. Sawyer said. ...

For passengers, she said, the X-rays are "the technological equivalent of parading around naked with a bag on their head."

If you think that air travel is starting to resemble a very-expensive East Germany-nostalgia tour and you'd prefer a less-intrusive alternative, you might consider traveling by train. Well, except, not on Amtrak, which implemented random bag searches, armed guards and bomb-sniffing dogs earlier this year.

Even local travel is iffy, since New York City has been subjecting subway passengers to annoying searches for the past three years. Los Angeles's MetroLink implemented a similar policy this week, apparently just so officials there wouldn't feel left out. Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell told the Los Angeles Times:

"It's more in response to what has become standard procedure at other commuter rail agencies across the country," she said. "We were one of the few who wasn't doing this, and we thought it would be a good idea to step up the security a little bit."

Well, you could always stay at home. Telecommuting looks better than ever.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Can Arizona lawmakers spend their way to good times?

The Arizona Republic reports that state lawmakers, including House Speaker Jim Weiers and Rep. Michele Reagan, chairwoman of the House Commerce Committee, have cooked up a "stimulus" scheme aimed at spending massive amounts of taxpayer money on selected projects (and benefiting connected businesses), all in the name of creating jobs and bringing back good economic times.
Reagan, with Weiers' backing, corralled several projects that have been floating around Capitol corridors this year. She believes that, taken together, they can revive the state's moribund economy.

Skeptics, however, question the wisdom of viewing construction jobs as an economic life preserver.

The elements of the still-shifting package are:

• Financing for an entertainment district that developer Dale Jensen would like to create south of downtown Phoenix's baseball stadium and basketball arena. The Legislature would be asked to return to the developer the sales tax paid on the construction expenditures for the district.

• Permission for Pima County officials to seek voter approval for a tourism and sports authority, with taxing power. If approved, the authority would build a new baseball stadium to shore up Tucson's ability to retain spring-training teams from Major League Baseball.

• Expansion of tax credits for research and development, aimed at start-up firms. The amount of credit would be pegged to the level of investment in R&D. Reagan, a longtime proponent of such plans, said such activity is what spurs new jobs and industries.

• Creation of tax credits for companies that manufacture solar components or for solar companies that locate their headquarters in Arizona. Backers, such as the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, say the state lacks the incentives needed to compete with other states that are trying to attract solar companies.

Initial discussions included a university-construction plan in the package, but supporters now say that would be better addressed through budget negotiations.

The university plan would include the completion of the downtown Phoenix medical campus, repair of aging campus buildings statewide and construction of new buildings. The money would come by bonding against state lottery dollars.

It's hard to believe that politicians still believe -- or think that we believe -- that diverting money to well-connected political cronies can actually stimulate the economy. On the assumption that Reagan, Weiers and company are sincere, let's review what Donald J. Boudreaux, chairman of the economics department at George Mason University, wrote in the Christian Science Monitor back in January in criticism of federal stimulus plans.

[S]timulus, however, is futile. Government cannot create genuine spending power; the most it can do is to transfer it from Smith to Jones. If the Treasury sends a stimulus check to Jones, the money comes from taxes, from borrowing, or is newly created.

If it comes from taxes, the value of Jones's stimulus check is offset by the greater taxes paid by Smith, who will then have fewer dollars to spend or invest. If Uncle Sam borrows to pay for the stimulus checks, this borrowing takes money out of the private sector. Any dollars borrowed – whether from foreigners or fellow Americans – for purposes of stimulus would have been spent or invested in other ways were they not loaned to the government.

To put it another way: Robbing Peter to subsidize Paul doesn't actually create more jobs, it just shifts them from where they would have been naturally to where politicians divert the cash -- while padding the pockets of targeted beneficiaries.

There are positive steps that legislators can take, if they're so inclined. Prof. Boudreaux's advice was intended for federal officials, but Arizona lawmakers will find helpful words of wisdom too.

Cutting taxes is, of course, a good thing, but it's important to know why. The goal would not be to increase consumer spending. Instead, it would be to raise the returns on investment and work.

By letting investors and workers keep more of the fruits of their risk-taking, creativity, and efforts, the economy will enjoy more risk-taking, creativity, and effort. Businesses that would otherwise not be started would be created. Likewise with machinery and training that increases worker productivity. Investors worldwide would flock to take advantage of these lower tax rates, further increasing productive investments.

Cutting government spending would result in more of the economy's resources being used by wealth-creating businesses rather than being siphoned away to special-interest groups and boondoggles such as bridges-to-nowhere and Woodstock museums.

"Boondoggles." That's what you call big-dollar projects funded by politicians with taxpayer money that the market would never have produced on its own. There's a reason these schemes get financed by governments instead of politicians -- they're not productive, profitable investments. That points out the reality that projects funded by stimulus plans aren't just diversions of funds from Point A to Point B, they're an inferior use of the money and a net loss to the economy.

The "stimulus" bill won't just fail to help Arizona's economy; it could actually hurt.


Real ID nixed in Arizona

Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano defied expectations and signed HB2677, a bill approved by the legislature that blocks federal "Real ID" efforts to convert state-issued drivers licenses into de facto national ID cards.

Napolitano had been championing what she called a "3-in-1" voluntary identification card that would move the state toward Real ID compliance while nominally allowing Arizona residents to opt out of the ID requirement. It's unclear whether the 3-in-1 scheme is dead, since HB2677 specifically bars compliance with the federal law, not state-level efforts. The governor seems to remain unconcerned about the privacy concerns raised by Real ID, arguing against the federal requirement on fiscal grounds.

"My support of the Real ID Act is, and has always been, contingent upon adequate federal funding. Absent that, the Real ID Act becomes just another unfunded federal mandate."

Arizona joins a growing list of states that have refused to implement Real ID. Since the federal government threatens to bar people with non-compliant ID from access to commercial airliners and federal services, the more states that refuse to comply, the more impossible to implement the federal mandate becomes.


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Arizona taxpayers may fund theme park boondoggle

Via an email from Tom Jenney of the Arizona Federation of Taxpayers comes a warning about SB1450, a bill that would subsidize the construction of a theme park -- and leave Arizona taxpayers on the hook for the cost:

Dear Arizona Taxpayer:

Right now, members of the Arizona Senate are considering whether or not to award a private company the privilege of issuing $750 million in tax-free bonds, so that it can build a rock music theme park in Eloy.

If the project turns out to be a flop, and if tourists fail to come to Eloy in sufficient numbers, the state could have to pay back creditors, or it could jeopardize its bond rating, making it more expensive in the future to borrow money for traditional projects, such as road construction.

But the economic downsides of the Decades Theme Park deal are not nearly as important as the question of principle at stake: whether or not the government should not be handing out special privileges to chosen companies. The answer to that question is clearly, “NO.” The government should not be in the business of picking winners and losers in business.

Like so many bills, SB1450 doesn't explicitly say who it's intended to benefit. Instead, it allows the creation of a "regional attraction district" by "a city with a population of more than ten thousand but less than twenty thousand persons that is located in a county with a population of more than two hundred fifty thousand persons but less than three hundred fifty thousand persons." That's pretty carefully crafted for a targeted beneficiary. Once established, the regional attraction district will have "all of the rights, powers and immunities of municipal corporations."

Writing about the theme park scam in the Tucson Citizen, Byron Schlomach, director of the Center for Economic Prosperity at the Goldwater Institute, said:
In a nutshell, this private business would be financed as if it were a municipality, county or the state, getting all the tax benefits that come along with that. Needless to say, most businesses in Arizona don't get these sorts of benefits.

The adoption of this proposal would allow the state to favor one business by lowering its investment costs and not doing so for other businesses. Arizona's constitution has several provisions to prevent these types of deals. The Goldwater Institute has filed a lawsuit against the city of Phoenix to prevent it from offering a sweetheart deal to a mall developer.

This project also does present a risk for all Arizona taxpayers.

If Decades' owners default on their "government" bonds, Arizona's legitimate government bond ratings could suffer. All of these creative financing schemes for private businesses that cities around the state continue to offer beg one question: If we are so desperate to help businesses open in Arizona, why don't we lower costs for everyone? If costs are too high, then cutting business taxes is the way to address the problem.

Since the state senate is considering this scam right now, it's a good time for my Arizona-based readers to contact their senators with the message that theme parks really should sink or swim on their own merits, using their owners' money.

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Is suicide among the elderly really so tragic?

Suicide among the elderly features in an Arizona Daily Star article that played up the "tragedy" of our nation's senior citizens deciding to check out when they please rather than waiting for the hand of time. The article seems to be more of a human-interest piece than a response to a pressing concern, since there's been no surge in elderly suicides in recent years. Nationally, according (PDF) to the Centers for Disease Control, the rate of suicide for adults aged 65 years and older was 14.3 per 100,000 people in 2005. This is down from the 21.8 per 100,000 rate reported in 1987. Adult men over 75 took their own lives at the rate of 37.4 per 100,000 people in 2005.

Much of the article is boilerplate about the grief and guilt felt by people left behind and the importance of watching out for signs of depression among parents and grandparents. Left unaddressed was one very politically incorrect aspect to the story: More so than any other group, the elderly may well have perfectly rational reasons for choosing to die by their own hand.

When Hunter S. Thompson shot himself at the age of 67, he was troubled by a failing body and the knowledge that his best writing was behind him. The note he left for his wife read:
Football Season Is Over

No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun -- for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax -- This won't hurt.

Thompson not only ended his pain -- he got to go out in style, amidst headlines, with a hell of a party.

Most of us aren't gonzo writers who want to leave with a splash, but even today, when people are living not just longer lives, but healthier ones than their parents and grandparents, there's no escaping the fact that bodies eventually deteriorate. At some point, more than a few people are going to decide that their hearts are still pumping well after the quality of their lives has dropped below a level they find acceptable.

What defines an "acceptable" quality of life varies for each person. Some people are eager to live as many days as possible, others recoil at outliving family and friends, many stop taking pleasure in life when they lose their physical independence, and more than a few may make their peace with declining mobility, but have a horror of mental deterioration that erases the essence of who they are. It's an individual decision that really can't be second-guessed.

I have a male relative whose plan for long-term care as he ages consists of ending things when he can no longer care for himself. He's quite clear and matter-of-fact about it, and has held his position for many years.

I respect his decision. I'm inclined to the same course of action myself, when the time comes. If I'm still up to it those many (I presume) years from now, I think I'll take one last backpacking trip that never ends.

Given that we all must eventually die, the taboo against discussing when and how some of us might want to voluntarily check out is especially jarring. It's coming, no matter what; that seems to me to be sufficient reason to give some thought to how to confront the end.

That's not to say that every suicidal impulse should be treated as a brilliant idea -- such an irreversible act seems especially perverse among the young and healthy. But for people for whom death is a looming reality, the decision by some to slightly adjust the date, place and manner of their demise strikes me as a rational effort to take control of their ultimate fate and retain a little dignity.

Abuses in Afghanistan dwarf those at Gitmo

McClatchy Newspapers reports the grim -- and under-publicized -- story about the beatings and torture to which suspected (often mistakenly) Al Qaeda members were subject while being held prisoner in Afghanistan.

Former detainees at Bagram and Kandahar said they were beaten regularly. Of the 41 former Bagram detainees whom McClatchy interviewed, 28 said that guards or interrogators had assaulted them. Only eight of those men said they were beaten at Guantanamo Bay.

Because President Bush loosened or eliminated the rules governing the treatment of so-called enemy combatants, however, few U.S. troops have been disciplined under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and no serious punishments have been administered, even in the cases of two detainees who died after American guards beat them. ...

The most violent of the major U.S. detention centers, the McClatchy investigation found, was Bagram, an old Soviet airstrip about 30 miles outside Kabul. The worst period at Bagram was the seven months from the summer of 2002 to spring of 2003, when interrogators there used techniques that when repeated later at Abu Ghraib led to wholesale abuses.

The article points out that the U.S. War Crimes Act of 1996 imposes penalties up to and including death for the sort of abuses committed at Bagram. But President Bush suspended the rules in 2002, denying detainees POW status and the protections of the Geneva Conventions.

Not only did these abuses violate standards of decency and justice, not only did they likely turn otherwise neutral or even friendly prisoners against the U.S., but they also set a precedent for the treatment of future American POWs held by hostile powers. How will we object to U.S. personnel being given the same treatment the U.S. deals out in its own prison camps?

The abuses of Bagram, Kandahar, Abu Ghraib and Gitmo are going to hang over the U.S. military for a long time to come.

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Monday, June 16, 2008

Missing the point on the underground economy

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has launched something of a jihad against the state's growing underground economy. Patrick recently established the Joint Task Force on the Underground Economy and Employee Misclassification, headed up by former prosecutor Michael Bradley. The reason for the effort is simple: tax dollars. About $152 million is kept out of the hands of Bay State tax collectors each year simply by illegally classifying workers as independent contractors who then underreport their income, according to a 2004 Harvard study (PDF). That study found that 13% of Massachusetts employers were misclassifying workers in 2001-2003. That represents an increase from 8% of employers in 1995-1997.

Writing for AllBusiness, Keith Girard knows who to blame, and his thinking seems to be in synch with the of Massachusetts officials. Says he, the trouble is lax regulation and those damned foreigners.

Better enforcement of wage and hour laws, for example, would be a good place to start. But unless more rational, workable policies on immigration are adopted and enforced, the underground economy will only get bigger.

To put it mildly, that seems to be missing the point. The fact is, when researchers look at underground economic activity, the big motivators for people to operate in the shadows are always the same: troublesome regulations and onerous taxes.

In his 2006 study, Shadow Economies of 145 Countries all over the World: What do we really know?, Prof. Friedrich Schneider, of the University of Linz, defined the underground economy:

The shadow economy includes all market-based legal production of goods and services that are deliberately concealed from public authorities for the following reasons:
(1) to avoid payment of income, value added or other taxes,
(2) to avoid payment of social security contributions,
(3) to avoid having to meet certain legal labor market standards, such as minimum wages, maximum working hours, safety standards, etc., and
(4) to avoid complying with certain administrative procedures, such as completing
statistical questionnaires or other administrative forms.

More specifically, with regards to taxes, Schneider writes, "In almost all studies it has been found out, that the tax and social security contribution burdens are one of the main causes for the existence of the shadow economy... The bigger the difference between the total cost of labor in the official economy and the after-tax earnings (from work), the greater is the incentive to avoid this difference and to work in the shadow economy."

So what about those laws that Girard like so much? Can those help?

Not so much.

Says Schneider, "The increase of the intensity of regulations (often measured in the numbers of laws and regulations, like licenses requirements) is another important factor, which reduces the freedom (of choice) for individuals engaged in the official economy. One can think of labor market regulations, trade barriers, and labor restrictions for foreigners. ... Regulations lead to a substantial increase in labor costs in the official economy. But since most of these costs can be shifted on the employees, these costs provide another incentive to work in the shadow economy, where they can be avoided."

When Massachusetts officials accuse employers of "misclassifying" workers and so allowing their employees to escape the full reach of the income tax, that should be a clear indication that taxes are high enough to fuel a demand by employees as well as employers for off-the-books work. Of course, the lower costs achieved by going underground then make some companies more competitive than than others, spurring further shadow activity.

And when Girard (and Sen. John Kerry) call for vigorous enforcement of labor regulations as a means to combat the underground economy, they're actually setting the stage for more workers and businesses to move into the shadows and so escape expensive and intrusive regulation. That's especially the case when we're talking about targeting illegal immigrants, who then must, of necessity, work beyond the notice of the law.

More enforcement may trim some underground activity at the margins, but Massachusetts isn't the first jurisdiction to come up against this challenge -- and fail. As it is, Massachusetts has a relatively small "problem" since the U.S. underground economy, equaling about 8.4% of official GDP, is just about the smallest in the world. Canadian officials, by contrast, have been unable to put their shadow 15.2% of official GDP within reach of tax collectors and regulators.

Strictly speaking, an underground economy isn't a problem in itself -- it's an indicator that a big chunk of the population perceives taxes as too high and regulations as too oppressive. Those taxes and regulations are the problem. You may disagree and have a fine justification for each law and an outstanding purpose for each levy, but it's the opinions of the people who slide under the radar that matter.

Massachusetts officials are in for some unwelcome revelations.

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Friday, June 13, 2008

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

From Gerard Baker in the Times of London:

As an adviser to Mr Obama noted recently at a transatlantic conference in Washington, the differences for Europe between a first Obama administration and the second Bush Administration will probably be smaller than the differences between the first and the second Bush terms.

My biggest worry, in fact, is that Mr Obama wins and the Democrats get a huge majority in Congress. The new president will be focused hard on two big policy challenges in Washington - dealing with Iraq and reforming US healthcare. He won't have a lot of political capital to spare to stand up to a resurgent Democratic Party in Congress over trade policy, and the US could slide further towards protectionism.

Meanwhile, a big Republican defeat in November is quite likely to result in a very nasty isolationist turn inside the opposition party. The neoconservatives - those bad guys who believe that the US should spend blood and treasure trying to bring democracy to the great unwashed - will be discredited. President Obama could find himself under pressure from both parties in Congress to put US interests first.

All of this means that the new president will have to spend a fair amount of time on trips to Europe explaining to his admirers why he really isn't able to deliver that much.

A new president constrained by politics to perform much as his predecessor on the international scene? That's an interesting premise. I've been working on the assumption that Obama would bring some significant change to foreign policy -- OK, on Iraq and Afghanistan if nothing else.

I still think that a President Obama's overseas priorities would be somewhat different than those of President Bush, but it's quite possible that Europeans (Baker's main audience) might not find him as welcome a change as they anticipate. That's especially true if the next president simply substitutes a preoccupation with Pakistan and (trendy) Sudan for the current administration's obsession with Iraq. And nobody will be happy if the next White House occupant succumbs to protectionist pressures.

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Eminent domain in the news

Delaware's legislature has passed a bill to reform the sort of abuses of the power of eminent that were specifically permiited by the U.S. Supreme Court's Kelo decision. The Institute for Justice's Castle Coalition calls SB 245 "a good eminent domain reform bill" that "would prohibit cities from taking private property for economic development." The bill now goes to the desk of Gov. Ruth Ann Minner where its prospects are uncertain.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, Sen. Ronald Rice accuses fellow Democrats of ducking committee meetings so they won't have to go on the record about proposals for eminent domain reform.

And a Missouri Supreme Court decision allows property owners to sue the government when officials name a parcel as a target for a taking effort -- and then drag the process out, lowering property values, driving away tenants and destroying businesses.

The Castle Coalition offers model state legislation for combating eminent domain abuses here. A report card on state-level reform efforts as of August 2007 is available here.


Subcontracting civil liberties violations

As part of his continuing coverage of the case of Ryan Frederick, the Chesapeake, Virginia, man who is charged with murder for shooting a home intruder who turned out to be a police officer, Radley Balko has uncovered information suggesting that the Chesapeake police have been bypassing search and seizure protections by sending informants to break into people's homes.

Because they were regularly working with the police, the two men seem to have started to think they were above the law. Last January, just a few days before the Ryan Frederick raid, Steven was arrested and charged with credit card fraud and grand larceny for some credit cards police say he stole last December.

Reggie told me Steven contacted him shortly after that arrest, and told him about the charges. He says Steven told him he had worked out a deal with the police where they’d help him with the credit card charges if he could bring back evidence that Ryan Frederick was growing marijuana.

Reggie says he and Steven then broke into Frederick’s detached garage to obtain evidence against Frederick. Once again, I asked if the police knew about the break-in. Reggie again refused to answer, and again explained that he was afraid of possible retaliation from the police.

Full story here.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Shocker -- judge thinks sex is normal

I'm actually more sympathetic to Judge Alex Kozinski after this revelation:

A closely watched obscenity trial in Los Angeles federal court was suspended Wednesday after the judge acknowledged maintaining his own publicly accessible website featuring sexually explicit photos and videos.

Alex Kozinski, chief judge of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, granted a 48-hour stay in the obscenity trial of a Hollywood adult filmmaker after the prosecutor requested time to explore "a potential conflict of interest concerning the court having a . . . sexually explicit website with similar material to what is on trial here."

In an interview Tuesday with The Times, Kozinski acknowledged posting sexual content on his website. Among the images on the site were a photo of naked women on all fours painted to look like cows and a video of a half-dressed man cavorting with a sexually aroused farm animal. He defended some of the adult content as "funny" but conceded that other postings were inappropriate.

Kozinski, 57, said that he thought the site was for his private storage and that he was not aware the images could be seen by the public, although he also said he had shared some material on the site with friends. After the interview Tuesday evening, he blocked public access to the site.

Kozinski is a libertarian-ish judge on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. I say "ish" because he's great on free speech, the right to bear arms and medical marijuana, but fully supported the Kelo decision and even went so far as to suggest that government should be able to seize private property for any purpose so long as it pays fair value.

Even with that "ish," though, he's head and shoulders above 99% of other federal judges as an advocate of individual rights. So it's a bit surprising that, as the Los Angeles Times says, he's "been mentioned as a possible candidate for the U.S. Supreme Court." In the year of Obama vs. McCain, with a President Ron Paul off the table and a President Bob Barr highly unlikely, I'm not sure who would nominate him.

It's reassuring to know that a judge is open not only to keeping a somewhat off-base porn collection, but also to being largely unapologetic about it.

"Is it prurient? I don't know what to tell you," he said. "I think it's odd and interesting. It's part of life."

After all, Antonin Scalia probably has a massive collection of bondage magazines, but if ever caught perusing the material, he's the type who'd claim they belonged to his chauffeur before tearfully checking in to some kind of kink rehab. (And then there's Eliott Spitzer, who prosecuted prostitution rings while giving them his business.)

Sad to say, though, Kozinski is now probably off of the candidate list for the Supreme Court, if he was ever really on it. Unless Paul or Barr pull off a coup.

Update: Having now seen some of the images Kozinski kept, I'll add that many of them are a hoot. I've also already seen more than a few of them via the email grapevine.

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Detainees will be able to challenge their detention

Perhaps six years late, but welcome nevertheless:

It bears repeating that our opinion does not address the content of the law that governs petitioners’ detention. That is a matter yet to be determined. We hold that petitioners may invoke the fundamental procedural protections of habeas corpus. The laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times. Liberty and security can be reconciled; and in our system they are reconciled within the framework of the law. The Framers decided that habeas corpus, a right of first importance, must be a part of that framework, a part of that law.

The determination by the Court of Appeals that the Suspension Clause and its protections are inapplicable to petitioners was in error. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed. The cases are remanded to the Court of Appeals with instructions that it remand the cases to the District Court for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Thus says the Supreme Court, in its 5-4 decision in the case of Boumediene v. Bush (PDF). As a result, the detainees at Guantanamo will finally have their right to habeas corpus respected, meaning they can challenge their very extended detentions by the U.S. government. The court also admonished that, "To hold that the political branches may switch the Constitution on or off at will would lead to a regime in which they, not this Court, say 'what the law is.'"

It's a decision that civil libertarians have hoped for over ... well ... too many years. And you know what they say about justice delayed.


Schools peddle nonsense to kids -- again

Was it just this spring that the Center for Inquiry was slamming the textbook American Government, written by John Dilulio and James Wilson, for peddling conservative political positions disguised as objective education? Now the Arizona Republic editorial board warns of an ethnic studies program in the Tucson Unified School District that propagandizes for identity politics and victimization in the guise of ... well ... objective education.

The Arizona Republic editorial drew heavily from a column penned by former Tucson High Magnet School teacher John Ward for the Tucson Citizen. He wrote that his U.S. history course was taken over by instructors from the Raza/Chicano studies department:

Immediately it was clear that the class was not a U.S. history course, which the state of Arizona requires for graduation. The class was similar to a sociology course one expects to see at a university.

Where history was missing from the course, it was filled by controversial and biased curriculum.

The basic theme of the curriculum was that Mexican-Americans were and continue to be victims of a racist American society driven by the interests of middle and upper-class whites.

In this narrative, whites are able to maintain their influence only if minorities are held down. Thus, social, political and economic events in America must be understood through this lens.

This biased and sole paradigm justified teaching that our community police officers are an extension of the white power structure and that they are the strongmen used "to keep minorities in their ghettos."

It justified telling the class that there are fewer Mexican-Americans in Tucson Magnet High School's advanced placement courses because their "white teachers" do not believe they are capable and do not want them to get ahead.

It justified teaching that the Southwestern United States was taken from Mexicans because of the insatiable greed of the Yankee who acquired his values from the corrupted ethos of Western civilization.

It was taught that the Southwest is "Atzlan," the ancient homeland of the Aztecs, and still rightfully belongs to their descendants - to all people of indigenous Mexican heritage.

As an educator, I refused to be complicit in a curriculum that engendered racial hostility, irresponsibly demeaned America's civil institutions, undermined our public servants, discounted any virtues in Western civilization and taught disdain for American sovereignty.

When I raised these concerns, I was told that I was a "racist," despite being Hispanic. Acknowledging my heritage, the Raza studies staff also informed me that I was a vendido, the Spanish term for "sellout."

Is Ward exaggerating the biased nature of the curriculum? It doesn't seem so. Augustine Romero, the head of the ethnic studies program, told the Arizona Daily Star, "We have to be able to be honest. If we have cancer, should we not name the cancer and overcome it? If oppression and subordination are our cancers, should we not name them?"

A February column by Arizona Republic columnist Doug MacEachern found Romero touting the virtues of politicized education.

If Romero's words sound politically anchored, they should. Romero happily acknowledges that he and all his instructors are "progressives," and he is contemptuous of teachers who resist admitting that all history instruction is political.

"Our teachers are left-leaning. They are progressives. They're going to have things (in their courses) that conservatives are not going to like," he told me.

"Their concern is that it's not their political orientation. To sit here and say teachers don't walk into the classroom with a political orientation, that's the furthest (thing) from the truth."

Romero is a confident man. Not unlike that self-assured aide-de-camp of Fidel Castro, Ché Guevara, whose romantic portrait has been hung in Romero's ethnic-studies classrooms.

Ché, too, believed the world was divided between progressives and ultraconservative reactionaries, many of whom he imprisoned and shot.

In one of Romero's TUSD classrooms, in fact, a video posted for a time on the Internet Web site YouTube showed at least four separate posters of the beret-capped Ché decorating the classroom walls. And a poster of Pancho Villa. And, yes, one poster of the godfather of the revolution himself, Fidel.

So concerns about right-wing indoctrination in the classroom alternate with concerns about left-wing propaganda, ad nauseum.

This is nothing new, I'm sorry to say. Is anybody keeping track of just how long the battle over teaching evolution in classrooms has raged? In the 1990s, the New York State legislature ordered schools to teach the Irish potato famine as an act of genocide by the English against an occupied people. Not surprisingly, the bill was proposed by a lawmaker whose constituents were heavily Irish-American.

As I've written before, "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."

People want their views of the world taught to their children. Trapped as they are in the government schools, it's logical that they'll try to shape the curriculum. And if that means they get the added benefit of spoon-feeding their views to the neighbors' kids, so much the better. Those kids ought to be disabused of their parents' horrible ideas anyway, don't you think?

And it's not just parents, of course. The captive audiences represented by rooms full of public-school children are tempting targets for every activist and organization with an axe to grind. Whisper a few words in the ear of the right official or round up enough legislative votes, and you can determine what ideas are taught for six hours a day, five days each week, to children too young to put up an argument. The chance to help mold the beliefs of the next generation is an irresistible lure for anybody who wants to bypass debating adults by indoctrinating kids.

And so the government-run schools become ideological battlefields, with access to young minds as the spoils.

Of course, alternatives such as home-based education and private schools aren't immune to bias. But the ideas they teach are selected and approved by each child's guardians. Since families can pick the school or the lesson and reject those with which they disagree, parents can ensure that their own values are taught -- and then send their children out into a world where other kids have learned very different lessons. That means a more diverse society, where children haven't all been taught whatever victorious ideology has been imposed from the top down.

But the idea that parents should pick the viewpoints their children learn and let them freely interact with peers taught vastly different ideas seems to be a controversial one in our society. Mainstream thinkers seem much happier with the prospect of an eternal cage match between John Dilulio and Augustine Romero for control of a unified curriculum forced down the throat of every kid trapped in a public-school classroom.

I'm happy that my wife and I have access to several excellent options that aren't subject to top-down government control for educating our son. I look forward to Tony going out into the world to engage your kids -- after he's been given a foundation in my family's core beliefs.


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Arizona poised to dump Real ID

From the Arizona Republic: "The Arizona Legislature is sending Gov. Janet Napolitano a bill barring the state from participating in new federal security standards for driver's licenses."

Those federal standards, generally called "Real ID," would turn drivers licenses into de facto national ID documents. The Electronic Frontier Foundation warns against Real ID (PDF):

Even if the system works perfectly, however, interfacing flawlessly designed, uncrackable cards through a secure reader to a database system full only of well-verified, lawful information on citizens, accessible only to properly-authorized civil authorities, one factor can never be engineered away: even a perfectly-built system is corruptible by imperfect individuals. Today, we entrust considerable amounts of personal information to our state and federal governments. Unfortunately, public officials, acting in rash patriotic zeal or for less noble motives, have time and again violated the public's trust. The solemn confidentiality surrounding census data, for instance, was abrogated to round up and imprison Japanese-American citizens during the Second World War, and income tax data has been misused time and again by politicians and IRS investigators alike.

Despite government assurances to the contrary, Lord Acton's maxim, "power corrupts" has time and again proven true. Our best hope is to lead our government not into temptation, and to reject national ID systems before they get started.

No word yet on Governor Napolitano's willingness to sign the bill, although she's been pretty gung-ho about the idea of turning drivers licenses into identification cards -- an idea the legislature has resisted.

According to the Associated Press, states that have rejected Real ID to one extent or another include Idaho, New Hampshire, Montana, South Carolina, Tennessee, Washington, Oklahoma and Maine.

If Napolitano resists her control-freak instincts and signs the bill, Arizona will be in good company.


Do you want to be bankrupt or bankrupter?

The other day, I mentioned that both Barack Obama and John McCain "favor higher government spending," without going into the details of what that means. Specifically, the National Taxpayers Union, which tallies the cost of candidates' policy proposals, says that Obama's promises would increase annual federal spending by a whopping $343.9 billion. McCain's promises would cost taxpayers an extra $68.5 billion each year.

Even more troubling, the annual costs of each candidate's proposed policies have been rising as the campaign progresses and the promises fly fast and furious.

Details for Barack Obama here (PDF) and for John McCain here (PDF).

Leave aside, for the moment, the supposed pluses and minuses of any one or more of the entries on these policy wish lists. Where, after eight years of near-record federal spending -- the most profligate government spree since the days of LBJ -- is the money for these added expenditures supposed to come from?

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One less radar trailer

Last week, along a stretch of the several-mile-long road to nowhere that leads to my house, the sheriff's department parked a mobile radar speed sign. It's mounted on a trailer, towed to a location and left in place by a sheriff's deputy. It features a digital readout that nags you about exceeding the speed limit, sort of like a scold wagging its finger at you from the side of the road. Worse, the county mounties parked the trailer in an area where the limit transitions from 35 to 45. As you came around a curve accelerating for the 45 limit posted about 150 feet behind the radar speed sign, the damned thing flashed red, warning that you were doing 37, no 39, no 42 -- you scofflaw, you.

I joked to my wife that she shouldn't ask any questions if I left the house in the evening with my shotgun under my arm.

Well, one of my neighbors beat me to it. This morning, the electronic scold was flipped on its side, its LED readout cracked. It didn't look so good.

I'd have taken a picture this morning while taking my son to day care, but my phone has no camera feature. By the time I returned, two sheriff's department SUVs were parked with their lights flashing. Deputies strolled around the toppled device, clearly trying to figure out just how to recover the damned thing. I slowed to give the deputies a grin and got a glare for my trouble.

I've written before that the piece of Arizona in which I live has more than its fair share of live-and-let-live types who tend to do as they please and generally accord their neighbors the same respect -- no matter what the law has to say on the matter. That's starting to change as we get an influx of people who really wanted to live in Sedona, but had to settle for Cornville. But last night's events suggest that the culture hasn't changed too much -- yet.

I'm not going to pretend that tipping over a radar trailer is a great blow against Leviathan. It's small potatoes, probably done by fed-up neighbors with a case of beer next to them on the seat of a truck. That's OK. It lets the folks at the sheriff's department know that their nagging isn't all that welcome down our road, and that they're invited to leave their radar trailers elsewhere where people don't mind being nannied. That is, if they have any to spare now that this one is out of action.

Of course, these trailers aren't free, and some critics are bound to object that last night's saboteur cost "us" money, since that trailer is some sort of common resource.

You know, I don't have a lot of say over the regular muggings to which I'm subjected to fund the government, and I have even less say over how that money is spent once it's extracted from my bank account. While I'd rather keep the cash, I'd sooner burn it -- or see it tipped into a ditch -- than suffer many of the uses to which it's put. If that means some expensive equipment gets trashed, so be it. Maybe the government will be less eager to use its stolen funds for intrusive purposes if its toys get broken from time to time.

Speaking of which, if my mystery neighbors are reading this, I have a whole list of targets more annoying than radar trailers to which they can turn their attention. Red-light cameras, anyone? How about the county assessor's computers?


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Do you have permission to hold that job?

From the Arizona Republic:

Following the lead of at least 11 states, including Arizona, President Bush signed an executive order requiring contractors that do business with the government to use an electronic system to ensure their employees are eligible to work in the United States.

The order, announced Monday, is unlikely to influence defense contractors who already have to confirm an employee's status to work in the United States. However, it would force a gamut of businesses to use E-Verify, the Employment Eligibility Verification Program that critics say is flawed because it doesn't detect identify theft.

Identity theft isn't the only concern, I'll add. We should all be concerned that the government is rapidly turning doing business and seeking jobs into privileges to be dispensed by government officials. Forget land of the free, this is becoming the land of "do you have permission to do that?"

Even if you think we should all have to ask "mother, may I" of government officials before we're allowed to make a living, you probably want mother's grant or denial of permission to be based on something with a degree of accuracy -- not flawed information. But last year's Westat report (PDF) on E-Verify, commissioned by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, found:

The accuracy of the USCIS database used for verification has improved substantially since the start of the Basic Pilot program. However, further improvements are needed, especially if the Web Basic Pilot becomes a mandated national program – improvements that USCIS personnel report are currently underway. Most importantly, the database used for verification is still not sufficiently up to date to meet the IIRIRA requirement for accurate verification, especially for naturalized citizens.

Most troubling: "Among U.S. citizens who received tentative nonconfirmations, approximately 10 percent (9,900) contested and were found to be work-authorized."

Wow. That's ... not good.

And yet, that's the system all new hires must go through in Arizona, and which all employees of federal contractors must go through nationally.

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Die for the environment

According to Prof. Schpinkee's Greenhouse Calculator, offered up by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, I should have died when I was 2.6 years old for the sake of the environment. Apparently, I ate my fair share of meat, burned my gas and spent my money all while I was a toddler.
I suppose it's possible that the people who created this fun little kid-friendly educational tool aren't actually sick-and-twisted human-haters who want to drive children to fling themselves from highway overpasses; maybe they're agents provocateurs who want to portray environmentalists in as negative a light as they can.

Anyway, give the calculator a whirl and find out when you should die. For my part, I'm going to eat a burger and burn some dead dinosaurs. I'm living on borrowed time, after all.


Where is McCain on wiretaps?

Last week, one of John McCain's top aides said that Teddy Roosevelt v.2 fully endorses President Bush's insistence that the White House has the power to authorize warrantless wiretaps, no matter what the law says. In a letter to National Review, Douglas Holtz-Eakin wrote:

[B]oth the 109th and 110th Congresses have conducted extensive evaluation and examination of this topic and have satisfied the public’s need for appropriate oversight; hearings purportedly designed to ‘get to the bottom of things’ have already occurred; and neither the Administration nor the telecoms need apologize for actions that most people, except for the ACLU and the trial lawyers, understand were Constitutional and appropriate in the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001.

Senator McCain has never stated, nor does he believe that telecoms should only receive retroactive immunity in exchange for congressional testimony about their actions. We do not know what lies ahead in our nation’s fight against radical Islamic extremists, but John McCain will do everything he can to protect Americans from such threats, including asking the telecoms for appropriate assistance to collect intelligence against foreign threats to the United States as authorized by Article II of the Constitution.

That seems to contradict an interview that McCain gave to the Boston Globe in January of last year, during which he said, "There are some areas where the statutes don’t apply, such as in the surveillance of overseas communications. Where they do apply, however, I think that presidents have the obligation to obey and enforce laws that are passed by Congress and signed into law by the president, no matter what the situation is. ... I don't think the president has the right to disobey any law."

That might mean that the McCain camp hasn't got its message straight yet, or it might mean that the senator is "refining" his position as he enters the general election campaign. Or, it might just mean that, like lots of politicians, McCain likes to leave his actual position open to interpretation, so that voters can see what they want to see.

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Monday, June 9, 2008

Are McCain and Obama really that opposed on economics?

Now that the general election campaign is effectively underway, we can start looking at the matchup between Barack Obama and John McCain. In economic terms, we have, says Peter Dreier at the Huffington Post, an advocate of "sensible regulation" facing off against a "free market fundamentalist." Robert Lenzner of Forbes is a tad more neutral, describing the race as a contest between "McCain's free-market laissez-faire and Obama's tax 'em high and create new programs."


A lot of ideas and policy proposals can be attributed to John McCain, but anybody who sees anything resembling pro-market economic ideas is following a political contest in a parallel universe. In this universe, McCain openly told the Wall Street Journal, "I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues. I still need to be educated." In that same interview the only economic policy about which he showed enthusiasm is his hero Teddy Roosevelt's trust-busting -- hardly an example of laissez-faire.

Two years later, he repeated his caveat to the Boston Globe, saying, "The issue of economics is not something I've understood as well as I should. I've got Greenspan's book."

So where does this newfound allegiance to the free functioning of the billions of individual choices that make up the market come from? From thin air, so far as I can tell.

Well, Dreier is a political science professor who writes for The Nation, so perhaps like many academics nostalgic for the heady days of nineteen-sixty-whatever, he just has his head firmly ensconced up his ass. But Lenzner is the national editor of Forbes. He's supposed to have a handle on this stuff. What's his excuse (and that of the multitude peddling similar stories)?

It's not as if they're simply extrapolating from the conduct of the Bush administration. Bush is the biggest spender since LBJ, and his Medicare prescription drug benefit is one of the more massive expansions of the welfare state ever. Free-marketeers consider the Bush administration generally weak when it comes to limiting the costs and impositions of government regulations.

If you're expecting a McCain presidency to be the "third Bush term" as some folks would have it, on the economic front you must be forecasting profligate spending, an expansive welfare state and indifference to deregulation.

So what's with the meme that has McCain channeling the spirit of Adam Smith?

Honestly, I think much of the political battle waged on blogs and oped pages uses the candidates as rough proxies for positions pundits wish were being taken. So Dreier pits a virtuous social democrat against a nefarious government-minimalist because that's the campaign he wants to see waged -- damn the facts. And Lenzner sets a socialist against a free-marketeer the better to set off the mushy middle way that he's touting.

I think that, for a lot of people, the campaign they see going on around them has more to do with the political warfare waged in their own minds than with the positions the actual candidates advocate -- to the extent they can be pinned down at all.

That's why we end up with bloggers and columnists painting such a supposedly stark contrast between two political candidates who both, in reality, favor higher government spending and who both see a large role for the state in economic matters. Obama is a bit more explicit about his statist economic views, while also not afraid to muddle the message he sends, while McCain is more of a seat-of-the-pants believer that he should be wielding the big stick in all matters, including the economy, though he leaves room for a few market-oriented gestures. There's no real free-market voice -- certainly not a laissez-faire one -- speaking for either of the major political parties in this year's presidential campaign.

It has to make you wonder about the rest of the oh-so-stark differences with which we're supposedly presented in this endless campaign for the White House. It's unlikely that people limit themselves to projecting their own political fantasies on often-vague candidates just on the economic front. Maybe the parties should just run two mannequins with blank platforms and let those members of the public so interested wage whatever good vs. evil battles they please. Hell, we'd all get the candidates we want!

As for the issue at at hand ... It's a shame. I was hoping that, just once, there would be a major-party candidate who really is a "free market fundamentalist."

Free speech on trial in British Columbia

Of course, free speech is an "American concept," of no value to Canadian bureaucrats -- or so says Dean Steacy, the principal "anti-hate" investigator of the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

Strictly speaking, the body judging the case against eternal pot-stirrer Mark Steyn and Maclean's magazine, a newsweekly, is the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal, not its federal counterpart, but it's still one of the myriad bodies dedicated to policing thought crimes in a country that, several decades ago, apparently redesigned much of its legal system along the lines of a UC-Berkeley graduate seminar.

Steyn and Maclean's are on trial for publishing an excerpt from Steyn's book, America Alone, which warns of the supposed dangers posed by the Muslim hordes to Western civilization. The case against them alleges that they exposed Muslims to hate with their words -- a charge that, even if true, wouldn't seem to have much basis in the legal traditions of a liberal, democratic country.

The Washington Times chimes in on the case with an interesting roundup here:

Numerous Canadians and Americans following the hearing denounced the case as absurd and that it is a threat to free speech that a provincial tribunal is asserting jurisdiction over the writings of a best-selling author residing in New Hampshire, based upon an out-of-province complainant offended by the response of anonymous American readers on American Web sites.

With proceedings in the case concluded and a judgment pending, the Vancouver Sun's Ian Mulgrew voices a few hopes for the ultimate conclusion:

I can't wait to read the judgment. If there is justice, the three adjudicators will uphold Habib's complaint and Maclean's can seek judicial review. Then a real judge will have a chance to set the record straight and excoriate this abusive, unconstitutional process.

As for Attorney-General Oppal, he should either disband the tribunal or immediately amend the law to accord with the Constitution and common sense.

Honestly, while this case is doing nothing good for the reputation of Canada's civil liberties protections, it's just about the best publicity Maclean's and Mark Steyn could ever hope for. Nothing boosts journalistic credentials like being the target of power-mad censors. Especially when those power-mad censors openly muse that respect for free speech is some sort of foreign affectation.

More: The lowdown on the Alberta Human Rights Commission's jihad against former newspaper publisher Ezra Levant here. And that same body's lifetime gag order against homophobic pastor Stephen Boissoin here and here.


Friday, June 6, 2008

In praise of the mortgage 'crisis'

Writes Paul Thornton in Reason:
In their concerted attempt to "keep Americans in their homes," Clinton, Obama, and McCain have called for the federal government to spend billions of dollars to curtail foreclosures and shield Americans from the consequences of their own risky investment decisions. Makes you think the candidates are on your side.

Not if you’re a renter. Foreclosures boost the supply of housing at a faster than expected clip. With supply for potential buyers (i.e., renters) increasing, home prices stand to fall (albeit modestly) to less insane levels, particularly in overheated areas such as Southern California, the region I call home. That increasing supply of housing and those lower prices could be why a Zogby poll released in April showed that, despite the economy’s tailspin, most Americans think now is a good time to buy a home.

It's true. The combination of falling prices, low interest rates and foreclosures (read: rock-bottom deals) of houses purchased by dummies who reached far beyond what they can afford has created perhaps the best-ever moment to become a homeowner for those with some savings, ambition and fiscal discipline.

The Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller national home price index fell 14.1% (PDF) between the first quarter compared of 2007 and the first quarter of 2008. For anybody with a little sense, that's not tragedy; it's opportunity.

People bitching and moaning about the "mortgage crisis" are the sort of folks who felt slighted when the value of their dot-com stock didn't continue soaring into the stratosphere. They bet on a bubble and it popped. That's life. The feds didn't compensate folks for all that Confederate money ... err ... those shares, and they shouldn't bail out folks caught up in the recent real estate madness.

If you're a renter who wants to make the jump to ownership, go for it. It won't get any better than it is now.


Arizona 'right to light' sought by Dibor Roberts supporters

Dibor Roberts and her supporters, as part of their continuing effort to ensure that Dibor Roberts's ordeal at the hands of an out-of-control police officer is never repeated, have launched the A Woman's Right to Light campaign.

For those not in the know: Roberts was driving along isolated Beaverhead Flat Road at night in rural Yavapai County, Arizona, when a car with flashing red and blue lights attempted to pull her over. Concerned by reports of police impersonators, Roberts decided to follow the advice of many law enforcement agencies, including the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office, to slow down, proceed to a well-lit, populated area, and then pull over.

Unfortunately, Sergeant Jeff Newnum quickly flew into a rage, forced Roberts's car off the road, smashed her window and dragged her from the vehicle.

For following Sheriff Waugh's own advice, Roberts was eventually found guilty of resisting arrest and flight from a police officer and sentenced to six months of unsupervised probation. It turned out that the recommendations have no legal force -- civilians follow them at their own risk.

The A Woman's Right to Light Website allows visitors to sign the following petition:

"We, the undersigned, call on the Arizona Legislature to pass a law that states that a woman has the right to drive to a lighted, populated area when being stopped by law enforcement at night, for her safety and that of the officer. The woman would be required to signal the officer by turning on her hazard lights and reducing her speed to a specified limit to communicate her intention to stop in a lighted area. Such a law would be included on the state motor vehicle website and in all materials published for driver's education."

Personally, given the reality not just of police impersonators but also of rogue cops, I think the right to light should apply to everybody. But the legislation advocated by the campaign strikes me as a step in the right direction.

See: A Woman's Right to Light

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Thursday, June 5, 2008

D.C. cops say: 'Papers, please!'

I spent several pleasant days in Washington, D.C., last week, mostly dedicated to exploring the Dupont Circle area's restaurants and bars. But I'm not sure I would have had as good a time if I'd known about the imperial city's police force's scheme to seal off whole neighborhoods and interrogate visitors about their reasons for being there. According to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's office:

Potential Neighborhood Safety Zones must be approved by the Chief of Police, and will be in effect for a maximum of 10 days. Public safety checks will be established along the main thoroughfares of the established neighborhoods. Anyone driving into a designated area may be asked to show valid identification with a home address in that neighborhood, or to provide an explanation for entering the NSZ, such as attending church, a doctor’s appointment or visiting friends or relatives. Pedestrians will not be subject to the public safety checks.

City officials dismiss any civil liberties concerns raised by the establishment of police checkpoints, but not everybody agrees. The Examiner reports that Assistant U.S. Attorney Bradley Weinsheimer is among those who question the wisdom of random document checks and the ejection of people disapproved by police from no-go neighborhoods. "As you can see, I am very concerned that the NSZs will not pass constitutional muster or at least that there are so many circumstances that will lead to discretionary calls on the part of officers that as applied, the NSZs will be unconstitutional," Weinsheimer wrote in an email to D.C. police.

Constitutional scholars including the Cato Institute's Roger Pilon and District Councilwoman Mary Cheh, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University, have chimed in with similar objections to the Iron-Curtain-style tactics.

Whatever the courts ultimately say about D.C. police checkpoints, I think it's remarkable that, in the capital city of a republic established by the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Sam Adams, people who are not suspected of committing any crimes are being forced to show their documents at police roadblocks and justify their presence on public streets. Travel -- even local travel -- has now become a privilege to be dispensed by government officials only if you can satisfy them as to your reasons for going from one place to another.

It's been a long road to this point, beginning with passport requirements, through drivers licenses and vehicle registration, easing into ID checks for air and train travel -- each move justified for reasons other than controlling people's movement, but each somehow managing to do just that.

Neighborhood checkpoints are repugnant and need to be stopped, but let's not pretend we're doing anything other than fighting a rearguard action.

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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Germans and Angelinos tell regulators to get lost

In Germany, of all places, smokers are busy building loopholes into the country's internationally trendy anti-smoking laws where possible, and outright ignoring them otherwise.

The head of Frankfurt's civil order office, Hasso Haas, said his staff has better things to do than chase smokers.

"We are not the anti-smoking police. We do not patrol. If we receive a complaint we will look into it, but no, we are not proactive. It is our interpretation of the law that we do not have to be, and I think our colleagues in other states see things the same way," he told AFP.

Haas said his office instituted a period of grace and had only began issuing fines in March.

"Since then we have fined 25 pubs 280 euros (440 dollars) each but nobody has paid up."

He predicted that before long the ban in bars would be relaxed throughout the country, where nearly one in three adults smoke.

"I'll bet that within a year we will see a nationwide liberalisation. There is massive resistance and you cannot have exceptions in some places and not in others, people find it unfair and defy the law."

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, taco vendors who sell their savory fare from catering trucks are thumbing their noses at a new ban on parking in any one place for more than an hour. It's a law that County Supervisor Gloria Molina openly admits is intended to favor politically potent restaurants who resent the mobile competition.

A controversial new set of regulations regarding taco trucks took effect May 15, making it possible to bring criminal charges against lingering catering truck drivers.

But an organization of drivers said they do not plan to comply with terms of the new law. ...

Under the banner “Carne Asada is not a Crime,” more than 8,000 people have signed an online petition at calling for the ordinance to be repealed.

Roxane Marquez, Molina’s press deputy, said that there were no plans to repeal the ordinance despite the defiance of some drivers.

Politicians can push and push, but nicotine fiends and taco lovers will only go so far.

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Confused Californians reject property protection

Yesterday, California voters gave a thumbs-up to Proposition 99, a measure that, according to George Mason University law Professor Ilya Somin, "purports to protect property rights against eminent domain, but it actually provides almost no protection."

Why is that?

Well, says Timothy Sandefur of the Pacific Legal Foundation:

The fact is that Prop. 99 would not protect anyone in California from eminent domain abuse. It would not apply at all to small businesses, which are the most common victims of eminent domain. It would not protect people living in apartments at all. It would not protect farms, or churches. It would only protect “owner occupied residences.” And in fact, it would not even protect them, because the small print in the initiative eliminates such protections in almost every case of eminent domain abuse.

At the same time, Californians rejected Proposition 98, a measure that, says Somin, "really would forbid 'economic development' condemnations and other abuses."

It's hard to know what California voters had in mind, however, since Prop. 99 was falsely sold as a pro-property-rights measure. Prop. 98 was slammed mostly over a provision that would have phased out popular but oppressive government control of rents charged for privately owned rental properties -- controls that are already illegal in much of the state and on the wane elsewhere.

California voters may actually have intended to support property rights, while undermining them with their votes.

Whatever their intentions, though, state officials are likely to treat the vote as carte blanche to seize private property. As Somin points out in a post-mortem on the vote, "In effect, Prop 99 incorporates into the California Constitution an extremely broad definition of 'public use' that allows state and local officials to condemn almost any property they want."

Since Prop. 99 is a constitutional amendment, it essentially closes off whatever relief the state's courts might have offered property owners, instead limiting protections for private property to the meager offerings in the ballot measure.


Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Kids returned as pogrom against FLDS fizzles

Members of the polygamous FLDS church are getting their kidnapped children back from the Texas authorities who swiped them in the wake of two court decisions, one from the Texas Supreme Court, saying that state officials overstepped their bounds by declaring that adherence to a specific religion inherently makes people unfit parents. As the Salt Lake Tribune editorialized, "under the law in the United States, a culture cannot be indicted. Only the specific people who commit specific crimes against specific victims can be. Thank goodness."

Texas authorities are still free to pursue allegations of child abuse, but now they'll have to do it the American way: by building evidence of specific crimes and naming actual suspects instead of engaging in a pogrom. Yeah, that's a pain in the ass. Every now and then, though -- if only when folks are watching -- government employees have to do things by the rules.

Interestingly, this is at least the second time that a wildly over-the-top campaign by government officials against the FLDS church has turned the members of the odd little sect from outcasts with some unsavory practices into sympathetic victims of the state. In 1953, a massive raid by Arizona law-enforcers on Short Creek (now Colorado City), motivated by precisely the same concerns that inspired Texas's assault on the Yearning for Zion Ranch, had much the same results as the 2008 controversy. Wrote the Los Angeles Times in 2006:

By day’s end, families and crying children were separated in a scene that would haunt political leaders for years to come. In all, 36 men were arrested. Authorities loaded 86 women and 263 children aboard buses to Phoenix. ...

As sympathy built for the FLDS, [Arizona Gov. J. Howard] Pyle was denounced and ridiculed by newspaper editorials. The raid was called "Pyle’s Folly."

The Arizona Republic said the action would have made the Keystone Kops "green with envy" and resembled "too closely the hated police-state roundups of the Old World."

Religious leaders and political rivals accused him of using excessive force.

Democrats decried the action as "odious and un-American." A prominent Mormon leader denounced the "tyrannical methods" used.

The raid’s results were meager in court as well. Charges of statutory rape and contributing to the delinquency of a minor were dropped. The men pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate laws against bigamy, and open and notorious cohabitation. One-year suspended sentences were handed out. Many promptly returned to Short Creek with their families.

Pyle lost the subsequent election, and even he attributed his defeat to public reaction against the Short Creek raid.

It's too early yet to know whether there will be political fallout from the 2008 raid, but it's good to see that the courts are at least as protective of the individual rights of members of a despised subculture as they were in 1953. Once again, government officials took a step toward persecuting an entire community, and once again, they were slapped down hard.

The day those slaps stop coming will be the day it's open season on anybody who strays too far from the herd.

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