Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Three cheers for the 'lunatic fringe'

In the Washington Post, Dana Milbank, a study in inside-the Beltway Stockholm Syndrome, had this reaction to the defeat of the bailout bill favored by both Democratic and Republican leaders:

After the shocking vote of 228 to 205, party leaders did their usual rounds of partisan finger-pointing, but it really wasn't a partisan issue at all. The center had collapsed in favor of a coalition of far-right and far-left zealots. What was once the lunatic fringe was now a majority: 40 percent of House Democrats, going by yesterday's vote, and fully two-thirds of Republicans. ...

On the floor, the usual partisan splits gave way to two new coalitions: pragmatists and wing nuts. Far-left Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) crossed over to the Republican side to strategize with far-right Rep. Steve King (Iowa), while Gohmert made common cause with Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) celebrated with Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.).

The New York Times's favorite establishment cheerleader, David Brooks, pissed the following screed down his own leg:

And let us recognize above all the 228 who voted no — the authors of this revolt of the nihilists. They showed the world how much they detest their own leaders and the collected expertise of the Treasury and Fed. They did the momentarily popular thing, and if the country slides into a deep recession, they will have the time and leisure to watch public opinion shift against them.

Hmmm ... I see a common thread here. The "problem," from the perspective of serious thinkers at America's newspapers of record is that too many legislators from both major parties turned out to have actual principles -- they wouldn't drink the Kool Aid when ordered to knock it back by the leadership. Free-market conservatives and populist liberals took a look at what they were being sold, looked deep down at what originally got them into politics, and found too much vestige of things they actually believe in to allow them to impoverish American taxpayers just to favor the likes of Bush, McCain, Obama, Pelosi and their friends.

"Wing nuts" did indeed rule, as Milbank put it, since, by D.C. standards, a wing nut is anybody who has firm and fast ideas of right and wrong and doesn't simply roll over for leaders who issues orders.

"Pragmatists," on the other hand, believe in the supremacy of the mushy consensus of power that rules in D.C. over whatever their constituents might favor, and have a healthy respect for the idea that, as Brooks puts it, "What we need in this situation is authority."

Authority, of course, comes in the form of comfortable, powerful public officials.

But this time, when "authority" tried to jam its most ambitious gambit in decades down the nation's throat, factions of the lunatic fringe who have never agreed on anything, looked at each other and recognized a commonality: the desire to do the right thing, even if they don't agree what that is.

Yep, the "far-left" and the "far-right" may not always be right in their beliefs, but at least they have beliefs. That's what saved us -- at least temporarily -- from the bailout bill.


Kids 'spontaneously' sing the praises of Dear Leader

Did I, or did I not, warn you folks about starting creepy The Wave-style political movements for the greater glory of politicians? Now look what you've done:

Or see it here.

That's ... just ... wrong.

Hat tip to Reason's Michael C. Moynihan.

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Monday, September 29, 2008

I want to arrest your friends, they're all so arty

Back in May, attendees at the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit's popular, monthly Funk Night party were just a tad surprised when the assembled hipsters were joined in their celebration by ... well ... a fully decked-out SWAT team.

The cops yelled at the patrons to hit the floor. Witnesses said some officers used their feet to force down a couple of people who failed to move fast enough or asked too many questions.

The problem? Well, in throwing their parties, the art gallery administrators apparently hadn't filled out all of the paperwork that is required in our somewhat bureaucratized society.

To the police, CAID was a blind pig, where people were buying beer after hours. They handed out 130 tickets for loitering in a place where alcohol was being sold illegally and impounded 44 cars, which cost $900 to get back.

Cops found no drugs, no weapons, no people with outstanding warrants. ...

Timlin confirmed the visit, but said he believed he had made the necessary changes. He said the police told club officials May 30 that they also need a permit to allow dancing.

A dancing permit? After-hours imbibing at an art gallery? Clearly, the cops should have sent in a tank.

The gallery and the party-goers brought the ACLU in to fight the charges, and the story has a happy-ish ending. Loitering charges -- yes, loitering -- have been dropped against 116 of the attendees at the party. Unfortunately, the city hasn't completely admitted defeat. Gallery employees who tended bar or watched the door still face charges. And one of the attendees whose charges were dropped complains that he still had to pay $1,200 to retrieve his car (more than the $900 reported in the initial article).

But we need those regulations, don't we? They would never be misused or misapplied by overzealous police, I'm sure.

And they would never be abused as revenue enhancement devices.

Twelve-hundred bucks? For one of 44 impounded cars? Do the math.


Sky pilots tell federal speech police to take a hike

In a move intended to force the hand of the Internal Revenue Service, thirty-odd pastors took to their pulpits yesterday to make explicit political endorsements -- of the Republican McCain/Palin ticket in particular -- in violation of laws regulating their tax-exempt status. Led in their civil disobedience by the conservative Alliance Defense Fund, the rebellious clergy want to provoke the IRS into imposing penalties that will serve as the grounds for a lawsuit intended to overturn muzzling restrictions.

Churches gained their tax-exempt status in 1913, at the birth of the convoluted and incomprehensible modern tax code. The republic somehow managed to survive the co-existence of tax-exempt status and full free-speech rights until 1954 when a prickly U.S. senator named Lyndon Baines Johnson, annoyed by criticism from non-profit groups, added the restrictive language "without the benefit of hearings, testimony, or comment from affected organizations during Senate floor debate on the Internal Revenue Code."

The argument since then has been that the arrangement is a simple tradeoff -- non-profit groups, including churches, get certain tax advantages in return for keeping their mouths shut about political candidates. In the case of religious organizations, the matter has also taken on a certain church-state gloss as some people argue that the restriction is a necessary component of the separation of church and state.

The first argument might be more compelling if the political muzzle had been put in place from the beginning -- but its imposition four decades later, as an overt effort to shut-up critics, strips the arrangement of any sense of inevitability.

But even if we accept the quid pro quo argument, what about other benefits offered by the state? If tax-exempt status necessarily strips its possessor of some First Amendment rights, why shouldn't access to public assistance or publicly funded student loans come with .. oh .. loss of voting rights for as long as the benefits are received or the loan is outstanding?

And what about holders of government licenses and permits, who benefit from legal access to professions and markets forbidden to others? Why shouldn't they be stripped of the right to criticize the regulators who butter their bread?

If the surrender of fundamental rights can be demanded in return for government benefits, we're headed in a pertty unpleasant direction -- especially given the increasing involvement of the state in our everyday lives.

As for the argument for separation of church and state ... The First Amendment applies to government, not private parties; as with the rest of the Bill of Rights, it's a protection against state interference. Government can't favor one religion over another, nor can it dictate doctrine to believers. The First Amendment doesn't say anything about what houses of worship can or can't do.

On a personal note, I'm a long-time, sleep-in-on-holy-days heathen, with little tolerance for sermons about my wicked, wicked ways. But I still recognize that preachers have the same free speech rights as any other idiots (or, occasionally, geniuses) with opinions.

That doesn't mean that it's necessarily a good idea for pastors to leaven their sermons with heavy political commentary. Polls in recent years have found declining public enthusiasm for pulpit-based political activism, even among people with, traditionally, the strongest religious views. According to The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, "Four years ago, just 30% of conservatives believed that churches and other houses of worship should stay out of politics. Today, 50% of conservatives express this view."

If pastors want to walk down that potentially perilous road, it's their right to do so. And if they tick off their parisioners in the process, so be it.

So kudos to the "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" pastors who had the courage of their convictions to challenge illegitimate restrictions on their free speech rights. It's about time somebody took the plunge. For the sake of political balance, they should be joined by churches, synagogues and non-profits from across the political spectrum.

Are there any liberal priests or libertarian rabbis who care to join the pastors and take a stand for free speech?

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Bailout bites the dust

Says CNNMoney:
The fate of the Bush administration's $700 billion financial bailout plan was abruptly thrown in doubt Monday as a House vote turned against the controversial measure.

The next steps were not immediately clear but supporters were scrambling to put it up for another vote.

What was supposed to be a 15-minute vote stretched past the half-hour mark as leadership scrambled for support. ...

The measure needs 218 votes for passage, but it came up 13 votes short of that target, as the final vote was 228 to 205 against. About 60% of Democrats voted for the measure, but less than a third of Republicans backed it.

Don't get too comfortable. I'm sure the bailout bill will be brought back from its well-deserved death for a gruesome undead reprise.


Column on Obama's mandatory service plan published in the East Valley Tribune

A trimmed version of my piece on the involuntary nature of Barack Obama's national service scheme is in today's East Valley Tribune (of Mesa, Arizona).

Obama's involuntary volunteerism

On September 2, I had an OpEd in the Las Vegas Review-Journal about the disparate treatment of small-time marijuana dealer Greg Gibson and Cindy McCain, who made her fortune in beer. I'm feeling pretty politically balanced at the moment in terms of calling out the major presidential candidates on issues where freedom is at stake.


Bailouts have a lousy track record around the world

Y'know, before we go plunging into an insanely expensive and potentially dangerous bailout scheme to relieve a few ailing financial companies of the burden of their bad choices, perhaps somebody could do a little research to see if anybody has attempted similar bailouts in the past, and whether they've worked out well. The research could be done by economists working for an institution with the sort of broad international scope that would give them access to experiences all over the world -- an institution like ... hmmm ... the International Monetary Fund. And it would be nice if that research was up-to-date and available right now, don't you think?

Oh, wait! How did that research paper get here?

Hat tip to Matt Welch at Reason for finding Systemic Banking Crises: A New Database (PDF) by Luc Laeven and Fabian Valencia, a just-released IMF working paper which examines "all systemically important banking crises for the period 1970 to 2007, and has detailed information on crisis management strategies for 42 systemic banking crises from 37 countries." The prognosis on bailouts? Not good.
Existing empirical research has shown that providing assistance to banks and their borrowers can be counterproductive, resulting in increased losses to banks, which often abuse forbearance to take unproductive risks at government expense. The typical result of forbearance is a deeper hole in the net worth of banks, crippling tax burdens to finance bank bailouts, and even more severe credit supply contraction and economic decline than would have occurred in the absence of forbearance.

Cross-country analysis to date also shows that accommodative policy measures (such as substantial liquidity support, explicit government guarantee on financial institutions' liabilities and forbearance from prudential regulations) tend to be fiscally costly and that these particular policies do not necessarily accelerate the speed of economic recovery.

The authors don't come to purely free-market conclusions -- they do talk about targeted government intervention and (government-controlled) sovereign wealth funds as having beneficial effects (although the benefits of sovereign wealth funds would seem to come from free-flowing globalized capital overall).

But they don't find any evidence to support massive bailout deals of the sort that seems poised to be vomited up by Congress.


Sunday, September 28, 2008

Private rocket makes it to space

From Wired:

SpaceX has made history. Its privately developed rocket has made it into space.

After three failed launches, the company founded by Elon Musk worked all of the bugs out of their Falcon 1 launch vehicles.

The entire spectacle was broadcast live from Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific. Cameras mounted on the spacecraft showed our planet shrinking in the distance and the empty first stage engine falling back to Earth.

As the rocket ascended, cheers rang out during every crucial step of the launch sequence, and at the final stage their headquarters in Hawthorne, California erupted in excitement. (Wired.com viewed the launch over the Internet on SpaceX's live webcast.)

The tensest moment came just before stage separation. At that critical juncture, the third launch attempt had failed. This time, it worked out perfectly.

Eight minutes after leaving the ground, Falcon 1 reached a speed of 5200 meters per second and passed above the International Space Station.

During a depressing political campaign, with a disastrous and government-fueling bailout bill pending in Congress, this a wonderfully encouraging bit of good news.

Even in dire times, people still do heroic things.


Friday, September 26, 2008

Choosy economists say rushed bailouts are a lousy idea

Who thinks the rush to throw together a bazillion-dollar bailout scheme is a lousy idea? A whole lot of economists do, that's who.
To the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President pro tempore of the Senate:

As economists, we want to express to Congress our great concern for the plan proposed by Treasury Secretary Paulson to deal with the financial crisis. We are well aware of the difficulty of the current financial situation and we agree with the need for bold action to ensure that the financial system continues to function. We see three fatal pitfalls in the currently proposed plan:

1) Its fairness. The plan is a subsidy to investors at taxpayers’ expense. Investors who took risks to earn profits must also bear the losses. Not every business failure carries systemic risk. The government can ensure a well-functioning financial industry, able to make new loans to creditworthy borrowers, without bailing out particular investors and institutions whose choices proved unwise.

2) Its ambiguity. Neither the mission of the new agency nor its oversight are clear. If taxpayers are to buy illiquid and opaque assets from troubled sellers, the terms, occasions, and methods of such purchases must be crystal clear ahead of time and carefully monitored afterwards.

3) Its long-term effects. If the plan is enacted, its effects will be with us for a generation. For all their recent troubles, America's dynamic and innovative private capital markets have brought the nation unparalleled prosperity. Fundamentally weakening those markets in order to calm short-run disruptions is desperately short-sighted.

For these reasons we ask Congress not to rush, to hold appropriate hearings, and to carefully consider the right course of action, and to wisely determine the future of the financial industry and the U.S. economy for years to come.
Click here to see the economists' names (including three Nobel Laureates) and their institutions.


Pushed to do the impossible, cops go too far

Reason magazine's Radley Balko has written a fascinating piece on how Virginia's case against accused cop-killer Ryan Frederick appears to be falling apart -- and how that really is a good thing. Before your eyes bulge completely from their sockets, get a feel for the details:

Frederick has said in interviews and in letters to his family that he was awoken by his dogs barking at the intruders, then heard the sound of someone breaking down his front door. He says he grabbed his handgun and ran to his living room, where he saw that the bottom panel of his door and been busted out and saw someone reaching up through the broken panel toward the door handle. Frederick says that's when he fired, striking and killing Det. Jarrod Shivers.

Unusually, Frederick's neighbors and then many other Virginians quickly rallied in support of the shooter. Many thought that the alleged marijuana-growing operation that Frederick supposedly had going in his home made a poor excuse for a violent police raid -- and that the innocuous plants and personal-use quantity of marijuana that were actually found made Frederick's story more believable than that of law enforcement.

Now it appears that the police may have found out about the "marijuana" in Frederick's home from a burglar who the police used as an unofficial means of scouting people's homes without bothering to obtain warrants. Anyway, be sure to read Balko's piece for the full story to-date.

The lesson I take from the Frederick tale -- and from earlier incidents like the lethal shooting of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston by Atlanta police -- is the danger inherent in allowing police to use rough-and-ready tactics against the public in a doomed effort to hold the line on unenforceable laws. In Johnston's case, Atlanta police didn't even bother with illegal surveillance tactics -- they just manufactured phony testimony they pressured an informant to endorse after the fact. They then planted drugs on Johnston's body after forcing their way into her home.

These over-the-top tactics--and the bullet-riddled bodies of Detective Shivers and Kathryn Johnston--are probably inevitable when we demand that police enforce laws against activities that involve consenting participants who won't willingly cooperate with the authorities. Police resorted to burglary in Frederick's case and manufactured testimony in Johnston's because that's a lot easier than convincing happy buyers and consumers of whatever gets you high to fink on their supplier. That the stuff didn't even exist illustrates how dangerous such a shortcut is.

Even when there's no tragedy and the over-the-top tactics are conducted within the boundaries of the law, the operation still comes off as ridiculously disproportionate to the "wrongdoing." In Shelbyville, Tennessee, police recently conducted a raid on a "gaming house."

The raid conducted last month followed a four-month investigation by Shelbyville police, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the 17th Judicial District Drug Task Force, and the Tennessee Highway Patrol, along with an area FBI agent.

Authorities seized $48,000 in cash, gambling paraphernalia, a small amount of marijuana and firearms in the raid. Detective Brian Crews of the Shelbyville Police Department headed the investigation.

Surveillance was conducted on the building for several nights and authorities also had undercover agents in the building.

And what have been the wages of sin for the gamblers caught in this net?

Judge Charles Rich ordered that the 15 who pleaded guilty must pay a $50 fine, plus court costs, which would total $327, plus forfeit any money that was seized the night of the gaming raid.

Even allowing that the cops get to keep that 48 grand, I don't think the take is going to cover overtime. That's an awful lot of time and effort to catch gamblers.

But pointless and expensive is a lot better than dead. I'm sure Detective Shivers and Kathryn Johnston would agree.


Thursday, September 25, 2008

Yes, I covered McCain's and Obama's economic views, too

Now that I've slow-roasted both Barack Obama and John McCain over their civil liberties credentials, just a reminder that I gave their economic policies a skewering a few months ago. I concluded:
[B]oth, in reality, favor higher government spending and ... 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.
A few months later, I still think McCain probably sucks just a bit less than Obama on economics, but that he's certainly no free-marketeer. And with both McCain and Obama on-board for the financial bailout ... sigh.

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John McCain -- maybe not such a great civil libertarian

If Barack Obama missed some opportunities to differentiate himself from the Bush administration on civil liberties issues, John McCain actively turned around, walked away and ducked around the corner when he saw his own chances coming down the block.

We always hurt the ones we love

Well, that's unkind. the senator from Arizona does oppose torture. It's unbelievable that support for or opposition to torture is actually a point of contention in American politics, but it is, and McCain has actually been tortured. Real-life experience inspired him to come down on the side of the angels with a 2005 amendment to "bar cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of anyone held in custody anywhere in the world by any agency of the U.S. Government."

Of course, he did vote to let the CIA have a pass when it comes to restrictions on interrogation techniques.

And, from there it's ... well, you'll see.

Can I get a gentleman's "F"?

John McCain has a lifetime rating of 22% from the ACLU and a 17% score for the 110th Congress. In the current Congress, he voted against barring the government from engaging in mass interception of communications, against stripping telecommunications companies of immunity from lawsuits over their collaboration with the government on illegal wiretaps, against greater safeguards for private communications, against restoring habeas corpus to detainees and for warrantless wiretaps.

He also flat-out missed a lot of votes on issues including Real ID and the gag rule preventing organizations that receive tax funds from providing abortion information.

On the plus side, he opposed increased regulation of grassroots political activity.

Pass on the doobie

John McCain famously sparred with a medical marijuana advocate at a New Hampshire town hall meeting. Saying "the fact is, I do not approve of the use of medical marijuana," he made his position crystal clear.

Ironically, considering that his wife's fortune is based on the sale of beer, McCain is an enthusiastic drug warrior. On the campaign trail, he has called for increased prosecution of the war on drugs, and even linked the black market in illicit intoxicants to terrorism. "The war on terror has taken some of our attention off the drug problem, drug cartels, and by many measurements they are getting a lot stronger rather than weaker. I think it's damaging to our national security when the drug usage is up."

He has also, in the past, pushed to restrict the availability of methadone for heroin addicts, execute "drug kingpins" (and endorsed (PDF) the death penalty for federal crimes) and advocated funding drug-prohibition efforts in other countries.

To his credit, he has praised his state of Arizona's voter-approved policy of putting some drug users in rehab instead of behind bars, saying (PDF), "we have too many first time drug offenders in prison."

No choice for you

Think McCain has a low ACLU score? Check out his NARAL rating (PDF) of 0% for every year since 1999. He did pull 10% in 1998 and 1992, if that matters.

In his televised meeting with Pastor Rick Warren, John McCain said, "I have a 25-year pro-life record in the Congress, in the Senate. And as president of the United States, I will be a pro-life president and this presidency will have pro-life policies. That's my commitment, that's my commitment to you."

In terms of policy, this means a promise to pick judges who will overturn Roe v. Wade.

Joined with Obama in (gay) matrimony

Oddly enough, McCain's conservative position on marriage -- he told Pastor Rick Warren, "A union between man and woman, between one man and one woman, that's my definition of marriage" -- combined with a dose of federalism, has positioned him pretty close to rival Sen. Barack Obama on gay marriage. They both want to leave the matter to the states though, unlike the Illinois senator, McCain supports the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages and allows states to snub unions sanctified elsewhere.


On the right to bear arms, John McCain is an enthusiastic Second Amendment supporter who ...


Actually, it was only a few years ago that the NRA was tagging John McCain with a mediocre C+ lifetime rating. (The harder-line Gun Owners of America still gives him an F.) He's a mixed bag on self defense, advocating background checks on private-party sales at gun shows and at least considering bans on inexpensive handguns and so-called "assault weapons."

But he has also voted to block lawsuits intended to bleed firearms manufacturers into bankruptcy, and his Website now specifically denounces bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and the confiscation of weapons during emergencies (an issue after Hurricane Katrina).

In a year when even former gun-banners seeking the presidency as Democrats have unconvincingly discovered a new-found love for the individual right to bear arms, John McCain is doing his best to sound like Charlton Heston. Well, like Heston did when he was alive.

Put a cork in it

If there is one civil liberties issue that can get people across the political spectrum frothing at the mouth about John McCain, it's his propensity to view criticism by opponents as an abuse of the political system, and to try to ban it in the name of "campaign finance reform." No joke -- McCain once said on Don Imus's radio show, "I would rather have a clean government than one where quote First Amendment rights are being respected, that has become corrupt. If I had my choice, I'd rather have the clean government."

He hasn't done it alone, of course -- the offending legislation was called McCain-Feingold, after all. The ACLU denounced the legislation, saying it "contains an unprecedented attack on issue advocacy by nonpartisan groups and organizations." After it became law, Jonathan Rauch wrote in Reason magazine, "America now has what amounts to a federal speech code, enforced with jail terms of up to five years."

My take

Proudly saying, "My friends, each and every one of us has a duty to serve a cause greater than our own self-interest," John McCain makes few bones about the fact that he's not really the sort of politician who puts individual freedom at the center if his political philosophy. Big-government nationalist Teddy Roosevelt is his idol, and his own politics fit the same mold, with what Reason editor Matt Welch, author of a book on McCain, calls "a rigid sense of citizenship and a skeptical attitude toward individual choice."

The one issue on which McCain has really broken with the Bush administration to push for the rights of the individual is on torture, something with which he has intimate experience. This reinforces my theory that aspirants to government office should probably first spend a year getting abused in every way available to the modern state. Months of censorship, tax audits, wiretaps and regulatory excess might give more political hopefuls the sort of "Ah Ha!" moment that the Arizona senator had on waterboarding.

A McCain administration would probably be fairly respectful of the right to bear arms, if only to keep the Republican base from deserting in disgust. But on most other issues, we could probably expect little mercy for us soft types who want a restrained government -- or at least to be able to bitch about a lack of restraint.

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Washington Post: Damn the merits of the bailout, just do something!

The editorial board of the Washington Post apparently engages in a group pants-wetting:
Alternatives are imaginable, but this is the one on the table, and it is conceptually credible. Treasury could recoup much of the cost as the market recovers; indeed, by jump-starting a market, the plan could draw private capital into distressed securities. ...

These are the essentials. On other matters -- relief for mortgage holders, regulatory and bankruptcy reform -- there will be plenty of time later for debate, and, if necessary, additional legislation. But for now, the president, Congress and the candidates need to stay focused on what's really important: preventing financial Armageddon.
Is it a good idea? Is it a bad idea? Who the fuck knows. But it's all we have so let's go for it before the world ends! Save us, Henry Paulson. Save us now!

Now for something completely different. In this video from Fox News, Rep. Ron Paul conducts an economics lesson and once again says the bailout is a really, really stupid idea.

On the same note, in an article distributed by ... ahem ... the Washington Post, prominent economists point out that there are alternatives to the bailout scam, and that a rush to ram the bailout through Congress could do much more harm than good.
[L]eading economists and financial thinkers argue that there are a host of alternatives that would reduce taxpayers' liabilities and perhaps more effectively address the urgent crisis in financial markets. Although these experts concede that the clock is ticking, they say different approaches have been dismissed too quickly. ...

The cost of a mistake could be huge. It could result in a catastrophic collapse of the U.S. financial system that could ripple across the world or in a staggering clean-up bill for taxpayers. At the core of the debate is whether Paulson, the former chief executive of Goldman Sachs now charged with rescuing Wall Street as Treasury secretary, and Ber­nanke, the Federal Reserve chairman and one of the lead­ing academics on financial cri­ses, are serving up the best possible recipe for purging the U.S. financial system of bil­lions of dollars worth of dis­tressed mortgage-related debt.
Hmmm ...


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Yes, politicians really did create the mortgage meltdown

Courtesy of Coyote Blog and Carpe Diem, this blast from the New York Times's past offers just a bit of insight into the roots of the mortgage meltdown. From September 30, 1999:

In a move that could help increase home ownership rates among minorities and low-income consumers, the Fannie Mae Corporation is easing the credit requirements on loans that it will purchase from banks and other lenders.

The action, which will begin as a pilot program involving 24 banks in 15 markets -- including the New York metropolitan region -- will encourage those banks to extend home mortgages to individuals whose credit is generally not good enough to qualify for conventional loans. Fannie Mae officials say they hope to make it a nationwide program by next spring.

Fannie Mae, the nation's biggest underwriter of home mortgages, has been under increasing pressure from the Clinton Administration to expand mortgage loans among low and moderate income people and felt pressure from stock holders to maintain its phenomenal growth in profits.

In addition, banks, thrift institutions and mortgage companies have been pressing Fannie Mae to help them make more loans to so-called subprime borrowers. These borrowers whose incomes, credit ratings and savings are not good enough to qualify for conventional loans, can only get loans from finance companies that charge much higher interest rates -- anywhere from three to four percentage points higher than conventional loans.

''Fannie Mae has expanded home ownership for millions of families in the 1990's by reducing down payment requirements,'' said Franklin D. Raines, Fannie Mae's chairman and chief executive officer. ''Yet there remain too many borrowers whose credit is just a notch below what our underwriting has required who have been relegated to paying significantly higher mortgage rates in the so-called subprime market.''

Demographic information on these borrowers is sketchy. But at least one study indicates that 18 percent of the loans in the subprime market went to black borrowers, compared to 5 per cent of loans in the conventional loan market.

In moving, even tentatively, into this new area of lending, Fannie Mae is taking on significantly more risk, which may not pose any difficulties during flush economic times. But the government-subsidized corporation may run into trouble in an economic downturn, prompting a government rescue similar to that of the savings and loan industry in the 1980's.

''From the perspective of many people, including me, this is another thrift industry growing up around us,'' said Peter Wallison a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. ''If they fail, the government will have to step up and bail them out the way it stepped up and bailed out the thrift industry.''

Hmmm ... What an interesting experiment in public policy exercised via political pressure on two government-sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Gee, I wonder how that turned out ...

Mr. Wallison gets to play at a bit of I-told-you-so in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, along with his co-author, Charles Calomiros, a professor of finance and economics at Columbia Business School.

It is important to understand that, as GSEs, Fannie and Freddie were viewed in the capital markets as government-backed buyers (a belief that has now been reduced to fact). Thus they were able to borrow as much as they wanted for the purpose of buying mortgages and mortgage-backed securities. Their buying patterns and interests were followed closely in the markets. If Fannie and Freddie wanted subprime or Alt-A loans, the mortgage markets would produce them. By late 2004, Fannie and Freddie very much wanted subprime and Alt-A loans. Their accounting had just been revealed as fraudulent, and they were under pressure from Congress to demonstrate that they deserved their considerable privileges.
Ouch! So this really is a mess that can be laid at the door of the politicians and their insistence at meddling in the market.

Wallison and Calomiros add:

Now the Democrats are blaming the financial crisis on "deregulation." This is a canard. There has indeed been deregulation in our economy -- in long-distance telephone rates, airline fares, securities brokerage and trucking, to name just a few -- and this has produced much innovation and lower consumer prices. But the primary "deregulation" in the financial world in the last 30 years permitted banks to diversify their risks geographically and across different products, which is one of the things that has kept banks relatively stable in this storm.

As a result, U.S. commercial banks have been able to attract more than $100 billion of new capital in the past year to replace most of their subprime-related write-downs. Deregulation of branching restrictions and limitations on bank product offerings also made possible bank acquisition of Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch, saving billions in likely resolution costs for taxpayers.

Of course, the politicians now promise to save us all from those nasty capitalists with their greedy ways. I'm sure that our disinterested public servants will do an excellent job of salvaging something from the mess that they ... cough cough ... created.

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Bridge to ... whoops!

Not to defend Sarah Palin's political gymnastics on the Bridge to Nowhere, but she's not the only politician with a revisionist history on the issue. Says CNN:
Although Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden routinely mocks his Republican counterpart, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, for her onetime support of the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere," Biden and his running mate voted to keep the project alive twice.

Both Biden and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama voted to kill a Senate amendment that would have diverted federal funding for the bridge to repair a Louisiana span badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina, Senate records show.

And both voted for the final transportation bill that included the $223 million earmark for the Alaska project.

All together now: Flip-flop, flip-flop ...

With the feds poised to 'do' something, get ready for a rough ride

Crises are lousy environments for maintaining freedom. The sad fact is that, when people are scared, broke and in need, they lose patience for talk about legal guarantees, free speech and privacy. When faced with what seems like on-coming doom, people want somebody -- usually government officials playing at mommy and daddy -- to make the scary monster go away. As Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson writes in a discussion of current financial turmoil, "Americans often delude themselves that all problems can be 'solved' if only government would act 'boldly.' This may be another example."

And since government officials can't make every problem go away -- and are often remarkably badly suited to even try -- the problem continues or worsens, spawning calls for more action and more power for the state. Inevitably, protections for liberty get battered and the sphere in which people can conduct their lives by right, without having to ask permission, contracts.

Governments make problems worse?

Congressman Ron Paul, who serves on the House Financial Services Committee, points out that the housing crisis, which sparked the financial meltdown, had its roots in earlier government interventions.

Ever since the 1930s, the federal government has involved itself deeply in housing policy and developed numerous programs to encourage homebuilding and homeownership.

Government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were able to obtain a monopoly position in the mortgage market, especially the mortgage-backed securities market, because of the advantages bestowed upon them by the federal government.

Laws passed by Congress such as the Community Reinvestment Act required banks to make loans to previously underserved segments of their communities, thus forcing banks to lend to people who normally would be rejected as bad credit risks.

These governmental measures, combined with the Federal Reserve's loose monetary policy, led to an unsustainable housing boom. The key measure by which the Fed caused this boom was through the manipulation of interest rates, and the open market operations that accompany this lowering.

And now the government is going to fix what it has wrought, but this time, it will get it right. Right?

That's all economic policy, but government responses to crises have serious civil liberties implications -- freedom is really indivisible. When first Herbert Hoover and then Franklin Delano Roosevelt responded to the Depression with a flurry of interventionist policies, the laws they pushed through had teeth. The Schechters, for instance, a family of kosher butchers, were infamously fined $7,425 (a small fortune at the time) and sentenced to between one and three months behind bars for setting the prices of their chickens too low.

The Schechters ultimately prevailed in their case, overturning onerous government regulations.But one of the brothers noted after the fact that the "victory" ruined his family's finances.

Journalist and former FDR supporter John T. Flynn wrote in The Roosevelt Myth:

The NRA was discovering it could not enforce its rules. Black markets grew up. Only the most violent police methods could procure enforcement. In Sidney Hillman’s garment industry the code authority employed enforcement police. They roamed through the garment district like storm troopers. They could enter a man’s factory, send him out, line up his employees, subject them to minute interrogation, take over his books on the instant. Night work was forbidden. Flying squadrons of these private coat-and-suit police went through the district at night, battering down doors with axes looking for men who were committing the crime of sewing together a pair of pants at night. But without these harsh methods many code authorities said there could be no compliance because the public was not back of it.

There's no point in making laws if you're not going to enforce them, and enforcement can be a very rough business.

Right now, we're not looking at anything approaching the scope or intrusiveness of the New Deal, but we are looking at a rush to approve a bailout that will cost hundreds of billions of dollars. That massive commitment of taxpayer dollars means the government will be even more dependent than ever on a steady and copious flow of revenue in the years to come. If you think the Internal Revenue Service has been aggressive in the past, just wait to see what it has in store for you in the tax seasons to come.

No crisis is complete without scapegoats. Already, the FBI is probing the companies tagged to receive taxpayer largesse for acts of fraud. Even before the latest developments, 1,400 individual real estate lenders, brokers and appraisers were under investigation. Did people among these unlucky suspects commit crimes? Quite possibly. But whether or not they did, somebody is going to wear handcuffs on the evening news. Passions have been stirred to a level that would be inconceivable if these companies were simply forced to suffer the consequences of their own bad financial decisions. Heads must roll.

And new regulations are on the way -- also likely to be considered and approved in an emotional rush. Whether or not they make economic sense (I doubt they will), they'll further intertwine government into people's lives and livelihoods, leaving even less space beyond the reach of the state.

As I said, crises -- real and imagined -- are bad times for preserving liberty. Get ready for a rough ride.

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What's that term? Marshall ... martial ... martial something ...

I don't find this news item from the Army Times especially comforting:

Beginning Oct. 1 for 12 months, the 1st BCT will be under the day-to-day control of U.S. Army North, the Army service component of Northern Command, as an on-call federal response force for natural or manmade emergencies and disasters, including terrorist attacks.

It is not the first time an active-duty unit has been tapped to help at home. In August 2005, for example, when Hurricane Katrina unleashed hell in Mississippi and Louisiana, several active-duty units were pulled from various posts and mobilized to those areas.

But this new mission marks the first time an active unit has been given a dedicated assignment to NorthCom, a joint command established in 2002 to provide command and control for federal homeland defense efforts and coordinate defense support of civil authorities.

The piece adds, "They may be called upon to help with civil unrest and crowd control or to deal with potentially horrific scenarios such as massive poisoning and chaos in response to a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or high-yield explosive, or CBRNE, attack."

"Civil unrest and crowd control?"

Look, there's are reasons that the United States -- and liberal democracies in general -- traditionally keeps military troops at arm's length when it comes to policing duties. The military is good at killing people and breaking things. I don't mean to diminish that mission -- it's important and necessary under the right circumstances. If your country is under threat of attack, you may well need to kill people and break things. But police work involves keeping the peace within strictly defined legal parameters. The two roles don't overlap very well.

Machine guns, for instance, are not ideal crowd control devices.

That's why the Posse Comitatus Act was passed in 1878 after the domestic experience with Reconstruction made it clear that troops and law enforcement don't mix very well. But the Posse Comitatus Act has been eroded in recent years, most particularly by the use of military assets to enforce drug prohibition, and at an accelerating pace in the course of providing security after 9/11.

So the 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team is coming home. And while I welcome the troops home from Iraq, I'm not really happy with their new mission.


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Joe Biden, political historian

I was going to ignore Joe Biden's latest gaffe because I'm just a better man than that.

But I'm not, really.

If you don't want to bother with the video, Biden said:
"When the stock market crashed, Franklin Roosevelt got on the television and didn't just talk about the princes of greed. He said, 'look, here's what happened.'"
Televisions were kerosene-powered during the great FDR preview administration of 1929, weren't they?

Canada's National Post takes a peek at Bidenisms.


Barack Obama: timid civil libertarian

Running for office is all about contrasting yourself with the competition, and when it comes to civil liberties issues and the Bush administration, there's a host of material with which to work. Given the Bush administration's miserable record on issues such as due process and privacy, it's a bit mystifying that Obama hasn't taken the opportunity to offer himself as a clearer alternative to the current occupant of the White House.

Just a bit shy

For instance, Obama has promised to "close Guantanamo, reject the Military Commissions Act, and adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Our Constitution and our Uniform Code of Military Justice provide a framework for dealing with the terrorists." That's encouraging stuff in the age of the security state, but you'll have to go digging to find it. The candidate isn't talking up his position on the stump, nor is it featured in a civil liberties section on his Website -- because there is no civil liberties section.

The ACLU's seal of approval

That said, Barack Obama has a credible 82% lifetime score from the ACLU, with an 80% rating during the 110th Congress.

As a U.S. senator, the Democratic presidential hopeful voted for an (unsuccessful) effort to block the government "from engaging in massive, untargeted collection of all communications coming in and going out of the U.S." On the same note, he voted (again, unsuccessfully) for stronger legal hurdles before the government could intercept private communications, and favored stripping telecoms of legal immunity for their collaboration with the government in warrantless wiretapping schemes.

Obama also supported the Specter-Leahy Amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would have restored habeas corpus rights to people being detained without charges in the course of the "war on terror."

And, the candidate voted for an effort to kill Real ID -- a scheme to turn driver's licenses into national identification cards.

Jarringly, Obama voted to reauthorize the PATRIOT Act even after complaining that it needed greater civil liberties protections. He also voted for the FISA Amendment Act, authorizing warrantless wiretaps and telecom immunity -- and effectively nullifying some of his earlier votes. In doing so, he called the FISA bill a "vital national matter."

I part company with the ACLU when that organization gives Barack Obama a thumbs-up on a vote for hate crimes legislation -- a position he trumpets on his Website. Legislation that penalizes one person more harshly than another for the same violent act, depending on what they were thinking at the time about "sexual orientation, gender identity, gender or disability," puts government in the business of regulating thoughts.

Decriminalize it! No, don't!

On the matter of the drug war, which has crowded America's prisons with nonviolent offenders and its newspaper headlines with tales of little old ladies and dogs slaughtered in the name of prohibition, Obama is an advocate of reform -- timid reform. After first flirting with marijuana decriminalization, he backed off the idea when the Washington Times covered his supposed reformist principles. Obama now supports increased use of drug courts to channel first-offenders into rehab instead of prison. He also wants to "review" mandatory minimums (PDF) and end the bizarre disparity in sentences between powder and crack cocaine. He would also end federal involvement in medical marijuana raids.

These are all worthwhile proposals, but they barely chip at the problems inherent in criminalizing trade in and consumption of popular intoxicants. Even if legalization or decriminalization are off the table, how about stepping down the militarized nature of drug-law enforcement which turns so many encounters with the law into tragedy?

Still, this is probably the best we'll get from a major-party candidate.

Killer instinct

Barack Obama's state of Illinois is home to one of the great object lessons in the flaws inherent in allowing the state to kill in the name of justice. After a series of scandals over legal misconduct in the trials of prisoners who ended up on death row, then-Governor George Ryan commuted the sentences of 167 inmates to avoid the specter of (more) innocent people facing execution. Under the circumstances, Obama's boast that he "drafted and passed a law requiring videotaping of interrogations and confessions in capital cases to ensure that prosecutions are fair" and that "As president, Obama will encourage the states to adopt similar reforms" seems ... rather restrained.

Pro-choice, all the way ...

Obama is a reliable supporter of individual choice on the abortion issue, as well as access to birth control and sex education. No surprise then that he has the enthusiastic support of NARAL, which gives him a 100% rating for his congressional votes. His Website explicitly states he "will make preserving women's rights under Roe v. Wade a priority as President. He opposes any constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court's decision in that case."

... except on self-defense

As much as NARAL likes Obama, that's how much the NRA hates him. While the Democrat says he "believes the Second Amendment creates an individual right, and he respects the constitutional rights of Americans to bear arms," his interpretation of "individual right" leaves a lot of room for restrictions. He supports retaining the restrictions of the Brady Law, supports handgun registration and licensing and voted as a state senator to limit Illinois residents' purchase of handguns. He opposes concealed carry and private ownership of so-called "assault weapons." He may have advocated an outright ban on handguns, depending on whether you believe his explanation about how his "yes" answer to a question on the issue ended up on a questionnaire.

Gun scholar John Lott, Jr. says Obama told him face-to-face, "I don’t believe that people should be able to own guns."

Share the misery

On gay marriage, Obama splits the difference by opposing equal-treatment of same-sex relationships, but also opposing a constitutional ban on the same. That effectively leaves the ball in the states' court, where there's been steady movement toward civil unions and even (in Massachusetts and California) full wedded bliss for gays and lesbians. It's not an especially brave position, but it gets the feds out of the way.

Shut your mouth

The ACLU has rightly spanked Obama for his support of campaign finance restrictions that impose onerous rules on politically active organizations, effectively muzzling free speech. The Obama campaign has also tried to use campaign finance restrictions against his rivals -- Hillary Clinton in particular. Obama isn't alone in being bad on this issue (as I'll discuss elsewhere), but it suggests limited respect for freewheeling political expression.

You gotta serve someone

I've already addressed Barack Obama's enthusiasm for national service -- compulsory national service -- elsewhere, so I won't belabor the point. Suffice it to say that his plan to force high-school kids to work in government-approved schemes is extremely troubling. You either own your life or you don't -- and if a politician is willing to treat people as chattels of the state ... well ... you have to question his overall civil libertarian credentials.

My take

Barack Obama hasn't especially emphasized civil liberties issues in his campaign, but his support for restoring habeas corpus, blocking Real ID and closing Guantanamo by themselves put him head and shoulders above the current president. Add in his taste for some elements of drug-policy reform and his raves from NARAL, and he looks reasonably good.

The problem is that Obama's civil libertarian stances look awfully ... rote. It's almost as if he received his positions from central casting for a Democratic legislator. Pro-choice? Check. Anti-gun? Check. Oppose outrageous Republican wiretapping schemes? Check. Drug reform? Check.

But even his adherence to traditional Democratic positions doesn't seem especially ... passionate. He supported the PATRIOT Act when it seemed convenient, voted for warrantless wiretapping when opposition threatened to draw energy from his presidential campaign, claimed to be pro-gun when the courts and public opinion were obviously moving toward individual rights ...

And wouldn't those security-state powers come in handy for a newly minted Democratic president?

I strongly suspect that none of these issues are especially important to the senator from Illinois beyond their impact on his political ambitions. Looking at the record, it's hard to imagine a President Obama expending much political capital to reform the death penalty, ameliorate drug prohibition or rein-in the "war on terror" brigades -- or, on a positive note, to ban guns and impose national service.

But, after eight years of George W. Bush, even that much is refreshing.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Hey officer, that dope is gonna cost you

Will police in Fort Collins, Colorado have to compensate a couple for a small crop of medical marijuana that was seized and left to rot in an evidence room? That seems like an unusual question to ask -- marijuana is illegal, right? -- but it's one that may well have to be answered in the positive according to legal provisions passed very deliberately by state voters.

Colorado has a fairly sensible system regarding the medical use of marijuana -- fairly sensible that is, short of simply recognizing people's right to grow, buy, sell and ingest whatever they please. But, given the limitations of the American legal environment, it's a decent law that allows the use of marijuana to alleviate a defined set of medical conditions, and even lets doctors and patients petition to add new conditions to the list.

In some states with medical marijuana laws, police have thumbed their noses at the public's laissez-faire sentiments and gone after people buying and using marijuana anyway. The assumption seems to be that a midnight raid and confiscation of plants and equipment are punishment enough in themselves, even if the courts dismiss all charges after the fact.

It's sort of do-it-yourself Prohibition.

The plight of James and Lisa Masters in Fort Collins isn't quite so clear-cut. They were clearly authorized to use and grow marijuana, but they hadn't made their status clear to the state for economic reasons.

In 2006, James Masters and his wife, Lisa, were arrested on suspicion of felony cultivation and intent to distribute. At the time, they were growing marijuana for themselves and for at least five other people with medical problems, their attorneys said. Lisa Masters, 33, has fibromyalgia and tendinitis; her husband, 31, suffers from chronic nausea and pain from knee and hip problems, Corry said.

Both had doctors' recommendations that they ingest marijuana for their medical issues, but they had not joined the state's registry, Vicente said, because they could not afford the $110 fee.

Without all the "i"s dotted and "t"s crossed, police felt justified in taking the Masters into custody and grabbing their 39 plants. Those plants then went into the evidence room, without air, light or water. That's not really a nurturing environment for a living crop -- a valuable living crop.

Fast forward in time after all charges have been dismissed and the charges ruled illegal. The Masters' property must now be returned to them. But ...

"All the plants were dead," said Brian Vicente, one of the attorneys for the couple. "Some had turned to liquid -- this black, moldy liquid. There was mold over everything."

This is a problem, because Colorado's Amendment 20, passed by the voters in 2000, specifically holds:

(e) Any property interest that is possessed, owned, or used in connection with the medical use of marijuana or acts incidental to such use, shall not be harmed, neglected, injured, or destroyed while in the possession of state or local law enforcement officials where such property has been seized in connection with the claimed medical use of marijuana. Any such property interest shall not be forfeited under any provision of state law providing for the forfeiture of property other than as a sentence imposed after conviction of a criminal offense or entry of a plea of guilty to such offense. Marijuana and paraphernalia seized by state or local law enforcement officials from a patient or primary care-giver in connection with the claimed medical use of marijuana shall be returned immediately upon the determination of the district attorney or his or her designee that the patient or primary care-giver is entitled to the protection contained in this section as may be evidenced, for example, by a decision not to prosecute, the dismissal of charges, or acquittal.
There's no penalty specified for police departments that don't follow the law, but that would seem to provide grounds for a lawsuit.
Such as the one the Masters have filed for $200,000 to cover the cost of their destroyed plants.
I'd say they have a good case.

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Thomas Friedman fails Econ 101

Thomas Friedman is a rare pleasure, as a newspaper columnist, because he's not just consistently wrong about so many issues, but he's wrong in a remedial-reading sort of way. Take, for example, this bit of wisdom from his September 20 piece in the New York Times:
If it weren’t for the government bailing out Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and A.I.G., and rescuing people from Hurricane Ike and pumping tons of liquidity into the banking system, our economy would be a shambles.
So, all of that government money is keeping the economy afloat? Really?

I have three words for Mr. Friedman: broken window fallacy.

As recounted by the economic journalist, Henry Hazlitt, the story of the broken window fallacy involves a brick heaved through the window of a bakery. A crowd gathers and people console each other with the thought that, at least the baker will have to spend money to replace the window, which will put money in the glazier's pocket. The glazier will then have more money to spend on other merchants, and the economy will get a bit of a boost overall.

But the money for the window doesn't come from thin air. The baker was planning to purchase a new suit, which he'll now have to forgo. In fact, the money is just being shifted around -- there's no boost.

As Hazlitt puts it:
The glazier’s gain of business, in short, is merely the tailor’s loss of business. No new “employment” has been added. The people in the crowd were thinking only of two parties to the transaction, the baker and the glazier. They had forgotten the potential third party involved, the tailor. They forgot him precisely because he will not now enter the scene. They will see the new window in the next day or two. They will never see the extra suit, precisely because it will never be made. They see only what is immediately visible to the eye.
So it is with government bailouts and disaster spending -- or any other kind of government spending. The government doesn't have any money of its own, so it has to take the funds from elsewhere. Other spending plans are dropped, taxes are raised, money is borrowed (meaning higher taxes in the future), or the government dilutes the value of everybody's cash by inflating the money supply.

In short, the money is just moved around from one use to another -- and from potentially productive uses to bailing out business or repairing storm damage.

This is Econ 101 -- the sort of thing Friedman has no excuse not knowing. New York Times columnists may think it's a great idea to pick people's pockets in order to fund their favorite government programs, but they should be honest about their preference for government spending over private retention of money for uses chosen by each individual.

There's no boost to the economy to be found in shuffling dollars around.


Sunday, September 21, 2008

Finally, a politician who doesn't want to throw taxpayer money at failed companies

Of course, it's Ron Paul, who is finally getting some credit for his warnings about the economy now that they're, you know, coming true. From U.S. News & World Report:

So you think the government should not have bailed out an y companies during this crisis?
"That would have been the best thing. It would have been painful, but housing prices would have come down sharper and faster, and it would have been over by now. But this whole idea of price fixing—that's what they are doing—has been trying to keep housing prices up and trying to stimulate home building. Well, if you have 100 percent more homes than the market really wants, you can't keep prices up and you can't stimulate home building. If the prices go down, then people will go out and buy homes again. So they should allow the liquidation of debt.

Before the Depression, [the government] generally allowed these kinds of problems to unwind. They were very severe. They would last six months or a year—a lot of liquidation of debt would be wiped off the books. And then it would go back to work again. What we've been doing now—especially since 1971—is preventing the real liquidation of the malinvestment and the excess of debt . . . If this process continues, we're going to own General Motors and Ford, then we will have to own the airlines. We are socializing our country without even a vote by the Congress. It's a horrible situation."

Oh, those "warnings" that I mentioned? This is Rep. Paul in 2002:

Ironically, by transferring the risk of a widespread mortgage default, the government increases the likelihood of a painful crash in the housing market. This is because the special privileges of Fannie, Freddie, and HLBB have distorted the housing market by allowing them to attract capital they could not attract under pure market conditions. As a result, capital is diverted from its most productive use into housing. This reduces the efficacy of the entire market and thus reduces the standard of living of all Americans.

However, despite the long-term damage to the economy inflicted by the government’s interference in the housing market, the government’s policies of diverting capital to other uses creates a short-term boom in housing. Like all artificially-created bubbles, the boom in housing prices cannot last forever. When housing prices fall, homeowners will experience difficulty as their equity is wiped out. Furthermore, the holders of the mortgage debt will also have a loss. These losses will be greater than they would have otherwise been had government policy not actively encouraged over-investment in housing.

Hmmm ... Can we have a do-over on the presidential primaries?


Thursday, September 18, 2008

What's patriotic about paying taxes?

Handing your hard-earned money to some organized-crime syndicate called "the government" is patriotic? Really?

OK, here's a clue: patriotism means "devotion to one's country." Note, that says "country," not "government." They're not the same thing. A country can survive the collapse of a government, the creation of a new government, or (we can hope) the total abolition of government.

Of course, some people who have never held a real job -- a non-parasitic one outside the government -- might not understand that. Oh, that's right, Biden has worked his entire adult life in one government job or another, hasn't he?

Hmmm. Patriotism actually might actually call for starving a parasite that's feeding off the country, don't you think? You might do that by ... not paying taxes ...


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

McCain's 'greed' comment is anti-business as usual

In response to the financial markets' current troubles, John McCain announced at a rally yesterday, "This foundation of our economy, the American worker, is strong but it has been put at risk by the greed and mismanagement of Wall Street and Washington." Sounding more like the donkey nominee than the chosen of the elephant party, he proceeded to call for miles of new red tape in which to snare nasty capitalists.

"Under my reforms, the American people will be protected by comprehensive regulations that will apply the rules and enforce them to the full."

Of course, McCain was promptly slammed by the Obama camp for supposedly attempting to distance himself from his Republican, free-market credentials -- assuming that the GOP is still a market-oriented party. That's a bit of a leap after eight years of mercantilism and metastasizing government under President Bush, but let's go with it.

But the critics were wrong to suggest that McCain was wandering from his roots. He's never been especially comfortable with the idea of economic activity that goes far beyond strict, state-defined parameters. As he told the Wall Street Journal in 2005, his political hero is Teddy Roosevelt, and TR never had much time for laissez-faire -- or for private enterprise at all.
It is here in my conversation with the senator that the McCain economic philosophy starts to come into vivid focus. Throughout our chat he has referred to Theodore Roosevelt in almost reverential terms and glows when I ask about him. He calls TR "my hero . . . and one of our greatest presidents," and at one point he excitedly searches through his briefcase and pulls out a book that he is reading on the famously tumultuous election of 1912. That was when TR bolted from the Republican Party (which Mr. McCain concedes was "a mistake") and formed the Bull Moose Party to dethrone William Taft. When I mention TR's trust-busting (which was mostly counterproductive economically), Mr. McCain really comes to life, exultantly points his finger in the air, smiles and cries out: "He called the trusts 'the malefactors of wealth.'"
So McCain's denunciation of capitalist "greed" on the stump was probably a long-anticipated Teddy Roosevelt moment for him. I suspect he was just waiting for an opportunity to go into economic populist mode.

Of course, the idea that our benighted government is a trustworthy overseer of economic activity is laughable. Are we really to believe that government officials' competence and ethics are so superior to that of private business people, that the state should be allowed to substitute its judgment for that of people actually participating in the market?

Remember, when private businesses screw up, they get punished with loss of profits and -- eventually -- bankruptcy as competitors move in to take over. (Never mind that governments often move in to shore-up losers like AIG -- and push aside tax-dollar-free private offers in the process. That's another mark against the judgment of government officials.)

We're talking about a federal government that admits to running up $9.6 trillion in debt. And that's without counting the $99 trillion or so in unfunded liabilities for Social Security and Medicare. That sort of performance can only be sustained by entities that can use military force to keep competitors from moving in and acquiring what's left of the failed venture at a deep discount.

So McCain was in usual form when he denounced private enterprise and called for a greater state role in the economy. And his misplaced faith in government is a sad statement on what passes for his economic philosophy.

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Shhh ... Don't call Obama's national service scheme a 'draft'

Both Barack Obama and John McCain have long supported some sort of "national service" that involves large-scale participation by Americans in projects deemed worthy by a government agency. It may mean building housing, assisting with the provision of medical care or patrolling the border, but overall it involves putting aside personal preferences for, as McCain puts it, "a cause greater than yourself."

Obama devotes an entire section of his campaign Website to national service; McCain does the same and penned a column back in 2001 praising AmeriCorps and calling for expanded opportunities for government-sanctioned service. Both candidates recently appeared at a national service forum sponsored by Time magazine, which has made the issue its house hobbyhorse. McCain and Obama each have praised local volunteerism, but seem to think that donating your time to a soup kitchen, a clinic or a church is less valuable than participation in a grand-scale scheme managed by the state.

I have a lot of thoughts about politicians who deem hours spent in grassroots service to causes chosen freely by volunteers to be inferior to government programs run from D.C., but I'll hold my tongue -- for now. What does interest me, though, is whether all of this talk of "national service" means that the grand old days of conscription are about to return, though now with draftees stuffed into hospital scrubs and denim as often as they're required to don camouflage.

McCain was once an advocate of the draft, though, as far as I can tell, he's uttered nary a word in favor of conscription since he started pursuing residency in the White House. The national service section of his Website is full of talk of opportunities and incentives -- lots of carrot, but no stick. Whatever his personal feelings, he seems to understand that draft boards are no longer compatible with presidential ambitions.

At first glance, Obama's scheme is similar. His proposal even specifically refers to "universal voluntary citizen service." It's all very touchy-feelly. But, as Michael Kinsley put it so well in the pages of Time: "Problem number one with grand schemes for universal voluntary public service is that they can't be both universal and voluntary. If everybody has to do it, then it's not voluntary, is it? And if it's truly up to the individual, then it won't be universal."

Of course, Barack Obama could be playing the usual politician's game of throwing empty words at an audience, without worrying overly much about their meaning. But his campaign has put forward a detailed plan for national service, and on close inspection, it's clear that he really does mean "universal." And while there's no call for old-fashioned conscription, his national service carrots are matched by very modern sticks that introduce almost as much compulsion as the old kind.

In fact, Obama's national service plan is "voluntary" in a technical sense -- nobody will be arrested for declining to participate. But non-participants also won't be allowed to graduate from high school, and without those diplomas, life could get a bit rough.

Obama's national service plan (PDF) says:

Schools that require service as part of the educational experience create improved learning environments and serve as resources for their communities. The Obama-Biden plan sets a goal for all students to engage in service, with middle and high school students performing 50 hours of service each year, and college students performing 100 hours of service each year. Under this plan, students would graduate college with as many as 17 weeks of public service experience under their belts.

But schools set their own policies, don't they? Well ... sort of. You see, as the saying goes, "he who takes the king's coin becomes the king's man." And most public schools depend on federal dollars. As Obama elaborated in a speech last December, "At the middle and high school level, we'll make federal assistance conditional on school districts developing service programs, and give schools resources to offer new service opportunities."

So, it won't be the nasty federal government forcing your kids to donate their time to government-approved service, it'll be the local schools -- but that requirement will be the among the strings attached to federal money.

This is a very modern way of imposing mandates from the top down. The uniform 21-year-old national drinking age, for instance, is nominally the choice of each state government, not a federal law. But the states set the age at 21 as a condition of continuing to receive a full measure of federal highway funds. The same goes for the late, unlamented 55mph speed limit.

Of course, state and local agencies could choose to give up the checks from D.C., but they almost never do. And so, violations of federal policies get punished by state and local authorities.

Under Barack Obama's plan, a refusal to participate in a national service program touted at the federal level will be punished by the withholding of high school diplomas by the school district in your town. And without that diploma, few colleges or employers will even bother to look at your application.

It's a softer sort of authoritarianism which requires no draft boards, muddles the identity of the "bad guy" and produces no martyrs i handcuffs for the evening news. You just can't get a job if you don't do as you're told.

Such "soft" mandates are easier to escape than the old draft. Private schools will still be able to set their own criteria for graduation, as will homeschoolers. At least, they will so long as they can resist social pressure to conform to the requirements imposed by public schools.

And 50 hours of service isn't exactly a tour in the rice paddies. Most people will just roll their eyes and do what it takes to get that diploma. (The 100 hours required of college students will be in return for a $4,000 grant, which amounts less to conscription than to the world's most expensive work-study scheme.)

But make no mistake: Barack Obama wants your kids. And he's willing to draft them, in a plausibly deniable way.


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Pennsylvania smoking ban brings college kids out in protest

At Pennsylvania's Clarion University, something remarkable happened yesterday: a "smoke-in" defying state law. No, it wasn't a pro-marijuana protest; it was a pro-tobacco protest -- and that's remarkable.

About 50 Clarion University of Pennsylvania students protested a new ban on smoking on state-owned campuses today, calling the prohibition that forbids lighting up even outdoors unfair and unenforceable. ...

University officials handed them yellow cards warning them that they risk fines or disciplinary action. Some of the protesters responded by putting tobacco on the cards, rolling them up and lighting them so they could be smoked.

It's not just Clarion University. The new ban has been interpreted as applying even to outdoor spaces at colleges and universities, because classes and events are often held in the open air. Responses by ticked-off students have been widespread.

With virtually no warning, smoking at 14 of Pennsylvania's state-owned universities has been banned anywhere on campus — even outdoors.

The action has sparked protests around the state by some of the 110,000 students in the State System of Higher Education, who received word of the ban by e-mail late Wednesday — a day before a new state law forbidding smoking in most workplaces and public spaces took effect. ...

Students who feel the policy is too extreme have organized peaceful protests of smokers and sympathetic nonsmokers on at least three of the 14 Pennsylvania campuses, and there is talk of a coordinated statewide demonstration later this week.

College campuses are one of the more reliable cultural barometers. They're not consistently libertarian, and they're not consistently authoritarian. But, from marijuana to speech codes, they are good indicators of where the culture is going at the moment, and what the attitude of young adults is toward current legal trends.

So when college students start protesting smoking bans as excessively intrusive, arguing, "I'm standing outside. I should have the right to smoke outside," there's a good chance that the tidewaters of the anti-smoking jihad have reached their high water mark and are beginning to recede.

Pennsylvania's statewide ban, passed in June and signed by Governor Ed Rendell, was intended to be wide-reaching, with even more intrusions promised by the bill's sponsor, who regretted the exemptions required to win political support. "I believe that within several years we are going to see legislation to strengthen the law and place more broad restrictions on all public places in the state," State Senator Stewart Greenleaf told reporters.

That intolerant, prohibitionist attitude may have produced the sort of legislative overreaching that sparks public reactions -- and gets college kids marching in opposition.


Monday, September 15, 2008

In FBI data, the real crime is the number of drug arrests

The latest FBI crime figures are out, and while there's plenty to mull over, perhaps the saddest news is that nonviolent activities -- involving drugs, in particular -- that violate nobody's rights and pose no threat to anybody else, rank so highly in terms of sheer numbers of arrests. According to the FBI, "Law enforcement made more arrests for drug abuse violations (an estimated 1.8 million arrests, or 13.0 percent of the total number of arrests) than for any other offense in 2007."

Logically enough,The Marijuana Policy Project is making hay about the fact that a huge number of those drug arrests were for "crimes" involving one of America's favorite intoxicants: marijuana.

Marijuana arrests set another all-time record in 2007, totaling 872,720 — that’s a marijuana arrest every 36 seconds.

Arrests for marijuana possession totaled 775,138, greatly exceeding arrests for all violent crimes combined, which totaled 597,447.

That's especially disturbing coming just months after a World Health Organization survey revealed that 42.4% of Americans have consumed marijuana at one time or another -- a number rivaled only by apparently very mellow New Zealanders. Any one of those millions could have been among the FBI's statistics.

But let's not gloss over the fact that the rest of the drug arrests -- from possession of "heroin or cocaine and their derivatives" to sale/manufacturing of "synthetic or manufactured drugs" were for nonviolent, consensual activities. Why should anybody be arrested for such "crimes" when there is no victim, no property damage and no violation of anybody's rights?

And that's without even addressing the 77,607 arrests for "prostitution and commercialized vice" and the 12,161 unlucky risk-takers who got hauled off for gambling.

The rest of the FBI's data indicates that there's plenty of real crime worthy of law-enforcement attention, from rape to murder to arson to a variety of property crimes.

With real acts of violence against people and property to occupy the attention of the nation's law enforcers, it's hard to understand why any resources at all are being devoted to dope smokers, coke snorters, sex workers and poker players.

Just having fun shouldn't be an arrestable offense.


Sunday, September 14, 2008

Thank you, Americans, for hating each other

There's a cacophony rising across the land. It's the noise generated by discord, mutual recrimination -- by insults hurled by politically inflamed hordes with fingers stuffed in their own ears.

It's the glorious sound of freedom.

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Laurie Fendrich, the director of the Comparative Arts and Culture Graduate Program at Hofstra University, writes:
In this polarized election—Obama and McCain are, by most accounts, in a statistical dead heat—there are two “majorities,” if you will. Those who have made up their minds on the candidates hang around in their respective “Amen” quarters, rarely talking to anyone other than people who think the way they do—except to shout at them. Democrats for Obama and Republicans for McCain hardly ever talk with one another about their respective ideas, and instead—if my own experience is any indicator—look at one another with dismay, if not contempt.
Writing for Variety, Brian Lowry points out that even the TV shows we watch have become identifiers of our political tribes, with people proudly touting their own entertainment choices as representative of their political and cultural affiliations.
The Palin pick comes as both the TV audience and political discourse have polarized -- the former fueled by an increasingly fragmented audience, the latter magnified by loud and angry voices from talk radio, cable news and the Internet. Lacking on both fronts is much respect for conflicting views, as the conversation degenerates from "I like this and you like that" toward something more akin to "I like this, and you must be a complete moron -- or an effete snob -- for liking that."
The fact is that Americans -- through yet another election cycle -- remain bitterly divided into rival camps, and contemptuous of the ideology, culture, religion, recreational choices and even hairstyles and dinner menus of those who hold opposing loyalties. And that's excellent news for those of us who value liberty and limited government.

Unfortunately, in a democratic country, the greatest threat to personal freedom comes not solely from above, but from next door. It's ideal when our neighbors espouse tolerance, respect for the rights of others and belief in the autonomy of the individual, but that's all too rare these days. More often, the folks across the way and down the street think "liberty" is a very nice word, but it won't stop them from nodding their heads in group approval of a host of policies that bind us in laws and regulations that are enforced by a multitude of cops and inspectors -- an expensive apparatus that requires extensive bureaucracy and high taxes.

It's all for our own good, of course -- our own good that we're threatened with fines and jail time for doing harmless things that annoy the busybody majority, and for wanting to go about our lives without filling out forms in triplicate.

A lack of political division can be very dangerous, indeed, when the things that people agree upon are meddlesome and presumptuous. And that deep red/blue divide in this country may actually cover a great deal of consensus on the issues.

In a column for the Los Angeles Times, NPR's Dick Meyer claims that the great political polarization of America is much ado about nothing.
Poll after poll, focus group after focus group show that the vast majority of Americans -- the Silent Majority, perhaps? -- are pragmatic, independent and un-partisan in their basic views. They are eclectic: "liberal" on some matters, "conservative" on others. They are not slaves to that hobgoblin of small minds, consistency. On fundamental matters such as belief in equality for women and minorities, or how large a role religion and family play in individuals' lives, the consensus among voters is broad. Unlike other times in U.S. history, there simply are no issues such as slavery, Prohibition or Vietnam that inspire violent protest or social disruption.
In typical pundit fashion, Meyer ends on a "why can't we all just get along" note, hoping that we can all put aside our differences, find our inner consensus, and get to the business of governing the country.

But do we really want our neighbors to get about that business of governing for its own sake, without regard for how they want to govern?

I would argue that our freedom shouldn't be so dependent on the approval of a fickle majority. Sure, it's great if groupthink tosses up a brilliant endorsement of free speech, legalized pot, low taxes and restrained law enforcement. But what if the majority decides it doesn't like brown people -- which is pretty much the case with the anti-immigrant frenzy gripping much of the country? Or what if everybody holds hands and concludes that our taste for hunting is just too declasse?

Better to have our neighbors at each others' throats. If red and blue camps are at-daggers-drawn, at least we know that one faction will always distrust the government, considering the apparatus of the state to be nothing more than a tool for the hated and temporarily ascendant opposition.

Fortunately, that sort of division seems to be guaranteed in the current environment.

In his recent book, The Big Sort, author Bill Bishop finds that Americans have become so prosperous that they're moving from one community to another, not for jobs or family, but for proximity to like-minded people. In an interview on the book's Website, Bishop says:

The quick answer is that most places, most communities in the nation, are growing more politically one-sided — either more solidly Democratic in presidential elections or more reliably Republican. The "red" and "blue" maps of the states are totally misleading. The real differences in American politics today are found at the level of the community. We're increasingly sorting into communities that reliably vote Democratic or Republican in presidential elections.

But our political differences are really just the tip of what has been a social and economic transformation. The nation has sorted in nearly every way imaginable. Young people have congregated in some cities and left others. People with college degrees have increasingly clustered in particular places. Not only have demographic groups sorted themselves into particular places, we've also constructed our social lives so that we spend more time around like-minded others. Over the last thirty years, our civic clubs, our neighborhoods, and our churches have all grown more politically homogenous.

When we don't even live near people who hold differing opinions, we become more confirmed in our own sense of identity -- and more likely to demonize the "other." An election win by the opposing tribe isn't just a shift in political fortunes -- it's a triumph of barely understood and easily caricatured evil. Government, then, faces eternal opposition and distrust from whomever is out of power.

And in that political battleground that hobbles and thwarts government action, those of us who recognize the state as a threat to our personal autonomy can find safe haven for our freedom.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Euro-snoops put U.S. to shame

Catch more news and commentary about personal freedom at
Civil Liberties Examiner.

The U.S. government gets rapped frequently for its growing tendency to use wiretaps, engage in surveillance and compile information about people who are doing nothing more than exercising their right to criticize political leaders -- or even people who are just going about their daily, apolitical business. Especially since 9/11, but even for decades preceding that event, government officials have engaged in a disturbing frenzy of nosiness about the communications, activities and opinions of private citizens.

But, in certain circles, it's become the norm to assume that the U.S. government is the worst of the worst. That it practices control-freakery to an extent that shocks, shocks our friends overseas. Would the sophisticated French ever engage in such abusive shenanigans.

Well, yes, they would. And so would the Germans, and the Dutch, and ...

This week come reports that French President Nicolas Sarkozy is backing off a bit from plans for a new security database called EDVIGE. Says the BBC:

Civil liberties groups complained it would turn France into a police state, spying on its own citizens.

The new system, known by its acronym EDVIGE, was set up to allow security officials to monitor anyone considered a possible threat to public order.

But there were also concerns the database could collate personal information, such as sexual orientation.

EDVIGE doesn't actually come out of the blue -- it's just an improvement on a database that's already in place. Still, the French government's step-down is a rare victory on a continent where state officials traditionally do as much snooping as they please (although it's not clear whether the EDVIGE retreat also applies to the less-well-known CRISTINA database, which is equally intrusive).

Addressing France's peculiar history, Charles Bremner of the Times of London wrote last year:

Scandal over the antics of police spies are a regular feature of French elections. The air is once again thick with malicious leaks and charges of dirty tricks by the Renseignements Généraux, the police intelligence service. Unusually, though, this time the boss of the shadowy RG has emerged to explain why France needs to keep secret tabs on its citizens.

Let's look at this old exception française: the way that France considers it normal that 4,000 agents and many more thousands of part-time informers, are busy in their midst reporting on them. Even in these times of "homeland security" (awful expression) and wars on terror, no other democracy runs a domestic spying service on this scale and few would tolerate it.

But France is hardly the only transgressor. In 2006, Slate's Eric Weiner reported:

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.

This isn't old news, either. In June, the Swedish government approved a new law permiiting surveillance of e-mails and phone calls that cross the country's borders. And government officials filed a complaint against a blogger who published documents revealing that Swedish authorities have long engaged in domestic surveillance.

And Germany, this summer, played host to large street protests against the growing surveillance of everyday life by state officials.

A new report (PDF) from Statewatch, an organization that monitors civil liberties in Europe, points out:

In 2006 a Directive on the mandatory retention of all communications data across the EU was adopted. Service providers are obliged to keep and give agencies access to records of all phone-calls, mobile phone calls (and their location), faxes, e-mails and internet usage. This year most EU states that had not done so are implementing this at national level. In short, records of all communications by everyone in the EU are held and can be accessed by agencies in connection with “serious crime, as defined by each Member State in its national law” which varies from member states to member state or for suspicion of a “serious crime”.

In 2004 a Regulation on EU passports required the taking of fingerprints (biometrics) from all applying for one. Again there was a time-lag in the implementation at national level. But from 2009 onwards millions of people across the EU will have to attend special centres to be interviewed (to prove who they are) then compulsorily finger-printed.

The finger-printing of everyone applying for a visa to visit the EU from third countries is already underway and fingerprinting of resident third country nationals has been agreed. Discussions are underway on extending the taking of fingerprints for national ID cards as these are used for travel within the Schengen area.

It is sobering to note that the mass surveillance of all telecommunications and mass fingerprinting of all are two proposals that have not been proposed in the USA – thus the EU is set to become the most surveilled place in the world.

None of this should be taken as an excuse for the U.S. government's compulsive snoopiness. But it's just an unfortunate truth that America's domestic spooks are boldly going down a path Europeans blazed a long time ago.


Can you bridge that chasm at the State Policy Network?

Every time I attend one of these political conferences, I have to relearn a difficult truth: I am no longer a hard drinker. So when I stay out past my bedtime schmoozing with think-tank types and knocking back pints of wine on somebody else's dime, I always end up with a next-day head of the sort I once had to earn with rivers of tequila. A tequila drunk? That's worth a hangover. A little red-wine tipsiness is no compensation for that midget-squatting-on-my-head feeling.

Hey, it's all for a good cause, right?

But whose cause is it? The gathering here in Scottsdale is a mixed bag of policy types, activists, bloggers, journalists and the like, spanning the spectrum from some kind of libertarian to some kind of conservative. And that's an increasingly fractious spectrum. The majority are pulling, pulling, pulling for McCain/Palin, but there's a lively Bob Barr contingent too (I haven't run into any Chuck Baldwin supporters).

And the constituencies don't necessarily grok each other. Yesterday, when news spread that Barr had asked Ron Paul to take the number-two slot on the Libertarian ticket, with current veep contender Wayne Allyn Root's blessing, some conservatives pushed that offer as a supposed deal-breaker -- how can you support Barr if he's making nice with (oooh) Ron Paul?

Of course, it doesn't work that way. For most of the folks considering Barr, Paul's presence on the ticket would be a bonus. His opposition to overseas military adventures, the Bush administration and the big-government GOP establishment are considered good things.

There's a growing chasm between many libertarians and conservatives, but people seem to be tripping over the damned thing without noticing that they've stubbed their toes.

The one thing the libs and cons do seem to agree on is that Sarah Palin was an inspired choice. The staff of one organization told me they pulled down their office Barr memorabilia after she won the nod. Maybe Palin is lying across that chasm all by herself as a human bridge.

Whatever happens with that chasm in the future, I'm finding these meet-and-greets to be worthwhile. The business-card collection is enough justification, as far as I'm concerned. I can't have too many additions to the ... well, nobody uses Rolodexes any more.

Which brings us to the next big boon from this conference. There's a huge emphasis on Web 2.0 and online social networking here -- tutorials and advice that are ideal for anybody who needs to promote a blog or a Website. Yes, I picked up some useful info.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go nail down the left wing of this little gathering by posting another piece or two at Examiner.com calling for legalizing prostitution.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Snickers solution

Just a note ...

I'm in Scottsdale, Arizona, as a guest of the Sam Adams Alliance at the annual meeting of the State Policy Network. I was invited as a "top" blogger, which means that somebody out there is actually reading my scribblings.

Whoops! That means I better stop boozing while I work.

Anyway, I just spent an hour-and-a-half with a hotel tech-support guy trying to hook up to the hotel's broadband connection. God knows what that's going to look like on the bill. His conclusion? My ethernet port has a bent pin, which prevents the cable from properly connecting. He apologized for not being able to help, and left.

After the tech guy went his way, I unbent the pin with my Leatherman. That didn't quite do it. Then I wedged a Snicker's bar from the room's offerings under the plug to force it tighter into the slot.

Now I'm online.

I may actually buy that goddamned $5 Snickers bar. It's actually worth it.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Celebrating British wussiedom

Leaving aside the political commentary, I think this says it all about how anemic our old, imperial master has become in its dotage. From the Times of London comes this contrast of the "weedy" British culture with its "buff" American counterpart:
I like the fact that - without ever talking about it - we all decided we didn't, actually, want to survive the Apocalypse. Because, yes, we'd be alive - but in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, full of buff, shouting American survivalists. The British are only into living so long as it's civilised and pleasant. As soon as we have to poo in a hole and lose reception of BBC4, we're quite happy to become extinct. We are not into all this forceful, effortful, yippy, yappy, living-and-winning-at-any-cost stuff. We don't want ripped, renegade leaders, like Gerard Butler in 300, shouting, “Tonight, we dine in Hell!” We want someone who is, ultimately, very good at accounts, shouting, “Tonight, we dine in the dining room!”
And in that dining room, I believe the special might just be ... Eloi.


Tucson spurns bogus breathalyzers

Nobody likes a driver who gets behind the wheel of a car when he or she is three sheets to the wind and puts innocent people in danger on the road. But even less should we like unsubstantiated accusations of drunk driving based on fallible devices -- commonly called "breathalyzers" -- that test for blood-alcohol content using technology that might as well be so many rituals and incantations because it's kept a secret from anybody who might want to challenge the results.

And that's exactly why more than 100 DUI cases have been tossed out in recent months in Tucson, Arizona -- with a whopping 19 dismissed just yesterday.

Judge Margarita Bernal threw the cases out because CMI Inc., the manufacturer of the Intoxilyzer 8000 used in Tucson, refuses to release the software source code that runs the machines and plays a large part in the reliability -- or lack thereof -- of the devices. That's a matter of concern, because CMI President Toby Hall has himself conceded that there are certain technical vulnerabilities in his company's products.

Bernal based Monday's ruling on testimony in an unrelated Pima County Superior Court case by Toby Hall, president of the company that makes the machines.

"The testimony of Mr. Hall clearly raises anomalies, errors and issues which can impact (the machine's) reliability and credibility," Bernal wrote.

In fact, problems with the Intoxilyzer 8000 date back at least two years. The Sarasota Herald Tribune reported in 2006, "The new machine's first glitch was discovered last month, and now breath-test machines across the state need a software upgrade because state officials realized the Intoxilyzer 8000 failed in certain situations. Prosecutors in Sarasota and Manatee counties have asked judges to stop accepting plea deals in DUI cases until the issue can be resolved."

The Intoxilyzer 8000 had been adopted after earlier problems with the Intoxilyzer 5000.

Turning to CMI's competitors doesn't necessarily solve the problem either. At the beginning of 2007, retired New Jersey Judge Michael King reported to the state Supreme Court that the widely used Alcotest 7110 was unreliable, with the result, as the New York Times put it, "that thousands of convictions could be overturned."

Once again, the manufactureer, Draeger, Inc., refused to release the device's source code so that the machine's reliability could be assessed.

The manufacturerers' reticence is understandable for any company that bases its success on its technology and doesn't want that technology pirated by the competition. Keeping source code proprietary is a way of holding on to an edge. But as defense attorney Evan Levow commented after Judge King's report, "They say the source code is proprietary. Well, constitutional rights are not proprietary.”

In the absence of some knowledge of how breathalyzers work -- or whether they work -- challenging their secrecy and their reliability has become something of a cottage industry among lawyers. A simple Google search on the words "breathalyzer" and "reliability" turn up endless lawyers' Websites and blogs -- some trawling for clients, others sharing information about successful challenges among attorneys.

Those challenges are going to continue, and they'll deserve continued success, so long as drunk-driving convictions are dependent on a magic machine, the reliability of which has to be taken on faith.

Of course, not everybody got the memo about the breathalyzer's unreliability. In Massachusetts, Melanie's Law punishes drivers with automatic license suspensions for refusing to take the test -- even if they're later cleared of drunk driving.

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Fannie Mae takeover is unconstitutional -- as is Fannie Mae itself

In my post yesterday on the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac takeover, in which I concluded that it might be nice that the feds are trying to clean up their mess, but that they're the worst people to do anything of the sort, I overlooked one really important point: Does the federal government have the authority to seize private corporations -- even don't-look-too-closely "private" corporations that it creates?

Andrew Napolitano -- a former judge and constitutional law professor, and current judicial analyst for Fox News -- points out that not only is the bailout bill passed in July (which authorized the takeover) unconstitutional, but the government never had the authority to create Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to begin with. You can see his full take in the video below.

Writing in the New York Times, Martin Mayer of the Brookings Institution passes over the creation of the two mortgage giants, but agrees about the unconstitutionality of the bailout bill.

First, the Treasury will be allowed to advance money to Fannie and Freddie (and even to buy their stocks) in unlimited quantities to keep them afloat — in any fashion Mr. Paulson sees fit. Yet the Constitution requires that “no money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law.” Even in wartime, budgets for the military specify how much is to be spent for what purposes.

Second, as an alternative to increasing the national debt, Mr. Paulson wants to let the two mortgage lenders become preferred customers of the Fed’s discount window, with the authority to pawn their own securities for cash. But only Congress has the constitutional power to borrow on the credit of the United States.
Is any of this important now that the horse is out of the barn?

Sure it is. After all, taxpayers are on the hook for -- potentially -- hundreds of billions of dollars. If the federal government had stayed within its boundaries to begin with, none of this would be a problem.

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Monday, September 8, 2008

Smokers defy regulators in the Mountain State

More than in most places, the smoking ban in Kanawha County, West Virginia, is running into grassroots resistance. Reports The Charleston Gazette:

There's a file at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department marked "The Blitz."

Health inspectors planned to fan out across Kanawha County one night last month and check bars and gambling parlors for smoking violations.

However, "The Blitz" was called off. Someone had warned the bar owners about the expected sweep.

So proponents of personal choice apparently have somebody inside the Health Department tipping them off.

The Health Department fielded 65 complaints during the past two months, and handed out 14 warnings.

"We get three or four complaints on one place, but we go out there and don't find anything," said Anita Ray, the department's environmental director. "Either we're not catching them at the right time, or maybe it's just a bar owner with a grudge against a competitor, or maybe they're just trying to run us."

Opponents of the law are apparently phoning in bogus tips and/or using the law to settle scores against competitors.

At the Blackhawk Saloon in Charleston, the bartender called bar owner, Kerry "Paco" Ellison, after a Health Department sanitarian paid a visit two weeks ago.

Ellison instructed the bartender to light up a cigarette, according to the inspection report. The sanitarian gave a warning notice to the bartender, who promptly tore it up at Ellison's request.

"We know Mr. Ellison is chomping at the bit to go to court," Ray said.

And some businesses are overtly flipping the bird to enforcers.

This country was built by people who didn't let government officials boss them around. It's good to see that some of that spirit survives.

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Can the feds clean up the mortgage mess they created?

I'm normally pretty much the last person to even grudgingly give a nod to anything that stinks of the outright theft that is nationalization, but when the U.S. Treasury Department grabbed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, I think it was doing little more than cleaning up a mess of the government's own making -- if it actually cleans anything up, that is.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were always tools of public policy -- they were created to encourage mortgage lending to an extent that was otherwise beyond the comfort zone of banks that were too hobbled by red tape to be creative about funding home purchases. As Thomas Firey writes at Cato-at-Liberty:

Before Fannie Mae — the first of the twins — was created amidst the “Recession within the Depression” in 1938, home mortgage lending was highly risky for banks. State regulation kept banks small and geographically limited in order to make them better targets for taxation and political manipulation. As a result, banks could not geographically diversify their loan risk, leaving them highly vulnerable to localized economic downturns. Because they lent money (as mortgages and business loans to farms and other firms) to local borrowers for long periods of time but they had to honor local depositors’ withdrawal requests, banks were often one bad harvest and one bank run away from insolvency. For that reason, they shied away from financing long-term home loans.
The 1968 privatization of Fannie Mae -- and the later creation of Freddie Mac -- was a dodge to improve the federal government's balance sheet. The "private" entities had tax-free status, could draw on the U.S. Treasury to the tune of billions of dollars and clearly had a cozy relationship with the government. Creatures of public policy with access to taxpayer money, they enjoyed a minimum of oversight.

And they put a lot of effort into keeping things that way. The Wall Street Journal has an excellent timeline on the whole fiasco, and editorialized in July about the agencies' overt favor-buying:
Congress sets the rules in favor of Fan and Fred, which then repay the Members with cash from their rigged profit stream. This is the government lobbying itself for more government.

And, oh, what a stream of political cash it is. First, there are Fannie and Freddie's political action committees, which have already distributed roughly $800,000 to U.S. House and Senate Members this election cycle. Nearly half of the Senators have received funds and almost all of the money is directed to incumbents. Fannie gave $10,000 to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, $10,000 to third-ranking House Democrat Rahm Emanuel, $5,000 to Barney Frank, $10,000 to Republican House whip Roy Blunt, $8,500 to Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and $7,500 to Minority Leader John Boehner and . . . you get the picture.

That Federal Housing Finance Agency Director James B. Lockhart's official statement (PDF) explicitly says, "all political activities -- including all lobbying -- will be halted immediately," is a belated acknowledgment of how effective Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have been at gaming the system.

But remember. The government created this situation to begin with. Can it be trusted to clean up the mess?

Matt Kibbe of FreedomWorks points out:
"In the Administration, Director James Lockhart repeatedly claimed that Fannie and Freddie were 'adequately capitalized' and even reduced their capital requirements earlier this year. It's a strange world indeed when the regulator who failed in his mission is now given expanded duties."

"With this plan, the U.S. government is borrowing more money from foreign creditors, in order to buy equity and mortgage-backed securities in a convoluted way in an attempt to guarantee Fannie and Freddie bonds. This is not a sustainable or rational economic policy."
What is sustainable?

How about dumping the whole rotten system and leaving banks free to make loans or not make loans based on their economic viability -- not the willingness of a quasi-public entity to shoulder the risk?

At the Cato Institute, Alan Reynolds suggests:

Potentially massive loans from the Treasury and Fed are no solution to their already excessive debt—the last thing they need is more. These two politically privileged companies pose a "systemic risk" to the economy precisely because they became much too big in the past two decades. Any serious solution must begin by requiring Fannie and Freddie to do what other troubled firms are routinely required to do—sell assets, raise capital, and reduce debt.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac need to be downsized and de-leveraged, relieved of special privileges and loan guarantees, and broken into small pieces agile enough to sink or swim on their own, without taxpayer support.

Breaking up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is probably a better bet than counting on the folks who created this situation to begin with to clean up after themselves.

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Friday, September 5, 2008

If you're hanging on politicians' words, have we got a movement for you!

Have you ever heard of "The Wave?" That's the short-hand term for a sociological experiment conducted at Cubberly High School in Palo Alto in the mid 1960s. Inspired by a question about the German public's conduct during the rise of the Nazi regime, teacher Ron Jones started a school movement that inculcated "strength through discipline," "strength through community" and had students spying on one another and threatening dissidents. All this over the course of just five days.

Jones concluded the experiment by revealing to the assembled students that they had behaved just as the Germans had, willingly joining or at least tolerating a collectivist-authoritarian movement.

Not surprisingly, The Wave has intrigued Europeans, spawning books, plays and films. A new movie version, Die Welle, from German director Dennis Gansel was released earlier this year. It's a fictionalized and sensationalized version of the story, set in contemporary Germany, but it repeats the lesson of the actual event itself: individuals are all too eager to participate in the brutalization of their fellows.

The Wave and the media it spawned are sometimes taken as a specific cautionary tale about fascism, but Gansel tells of a broader warning in an interview with Britain's Daily Telegraph:

The director reveals that he had to sharpen his movie's ending after observing young audiences giving the salute at test screenings. "They thought it was cool and iconic. The Wave is about fun and creating a community and I believe that's still appealing. There is a strong urge today for a big idea that is bigger than yourself. Not necessarily fascism; it could be, say, the Green movement."

Paradoxically, the German-language The Wave has yet to find a distributor in the US, a country never short of big ideas, especially in an election year. "People want to throw themselves behind a cause," Gansel insists. "And we hope to show how that can turn bad, much faster than we imagine."

In a year that has seen more than its fair share of cults of personality around political candidates, talk about "change" for its own sake, and people trekking from city to city, sleeping on floors and standing in line for hours just to hear politicians speak, America could probably use wide distribution of a movie like Die Welle.

If you find yourself bumming rides to political conventions, standing in the heat and the rain and carrying signs through the streets, all for the sake of somebody who wants to wield coercive power over you, your family and friends, you need to stop and think about what you're doing. It's not too big a step from there to a classroom in Palo Alto.


Tyranny with a happy face

The last two weeks have offered something of a nostalgia tour through old-fashioned police-state tactics. Tear gas, phalanxes of black-clad riot cops, mass arrests -- it's a bit of truth in advertising, as the major political parties let us know in the streets outside their convention halls just what they think of us and what we should expect from them in the future.

But control freaks don't always wear jackboots. Sometimes they come along carrying Blackberries, spouting psychobabble and telling you how much they care.

That's the premise of Mean Martin Manning. It's a wildly funny book by Drexel University writing Professor Scott Stein, about a retired misanthrope who locks himself in his apartment with TV, an Internet connection, his collection of frog figurines and a supply of salami sandwiches, wanting nothing more than to be left alone -- and discovers that the world just won't cooperate.

The neighborhood in which Manning lives is designated by the state governor as a "life-improvement zone" where social workers are sent to "help" people who are considered to be making irrational and unhealthy lifestyle choices Of course, not everybody wants help, so the social workers bring a little muscle ...

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The "life-improvement zone" comes off as an implementation of the "therapeutic state" that maverick psychiatrist Thomas Szasz warns of. The therapeutic state is "a system in which disapproved thoughts, emotions, and actions are repressed ('cured') through pseudomedical interventions."

Why criminalize disapproved choices when you can medicalize them and even diagnose "patients'" protests as evidence of their illness? Resistance is then delegitimized. It's actually part of the problem to be "cured."

As diligent Caseworker Alice Pitney tells Martin Manning, "[N]ot wanting help is one of the signs of needing it. Yours is a textbook case."

Even when it's represented by a concerned smile, the state is always backed by steel, so a stubborn Manning is dragged from his apartment at gunpoint in the middle of the night -- all for his own good, of course.

And that's when the fun really begins. Manning's life is deconstructed by a courtroom parade of people from his past who recount the wrongs he's done them ever since childhood. His diet is carefully monitored and regulated. He's subjected to group therapy sessions -- including a mandatory exploration of his supposedly deep-seated racism. His personal belongings are confiscated, to reduce distractions from his treatment.

And then he's dragged on "Dr. Karen," a pop-psychology TV show that's sort of like "Dr. Phil" meets The Running Man, to be stripped of all dignity before the taunting mob.

But they don't call him "Mean" Martin Manning for nothing. You can only push a collector of frog figurines so far before he becomes a one-man insurgency.

Appropriately, the therapeutic state that Stein explores to hilarious effect in his book turns out to be popular with much of the public. While it starts as a top-down imposition, put in place by executive order, politicians are soon vying to see who can promise bigger and better "life-improvement zones."

As Manning himself realizes:

Pitney wasn't t he problem. This wasn't about Pitney. I finally knew how to get her, understood what the something was that would stick, eat at her, but this wasn't about her any longer. Alice Pitney was only possible because the governor gave her power. The governor was only possible because the people gave him power. And his opponent, with the same damn plans, was only possible for the same reason.

That's right. Tyranny often comes with a friendly smile to accompany its long lists of requirements, prohibitions and interventions. And a lot of us like it that way.


Thursday, September 4, 2008

I'm not myself today, or, manufacturing a new you

Over at Wired, Bruce Schneier has an interesting piece that starts by musing how a foreign intelligence agency could have entered the United States in the 1980s, created a crop of phony, but perfectly documented identities, and now have a "crop" of mature, but manufactured, lives for agents to don like a suit of clothes.

So far, it sounds like the plot for an espionage novel.

But he then goes on to make the interesting point that such a tactic is possible because the records we leave in filing cabinets and databases have become more important than our physical selves as evidence of who we "really" are.

The point isn't to create another movie plot threat, but to point out the central role that data has taken on in our lives. Previously, I've said that we all have a data shadow that follows us around, and that more and more institutions interact with our data shadows instead of with us. We only intersect with our data shadows once in a while -- when we apply for a driver's license or passport, for example -- and those interactions are authenticated by older, less-secure interactions. The rest of the world assumes that our photo IDs glue us to our data shadows, ignoring the rather flimsy connection between us and our plastic cards. (And, no, REAL-ID won't help.)

I think he's right and, for good and ill, this is the major weakness of the security state into which our country is being transformed.

Proof of identity, once upon a time, meant that credible people could vouch for your name, credentials and character. Personal contacts were important, as were letters of introduction and letters of credit.

These days, though, an identity check means squinting at a bad photograph on a piece of plastic and, maybe, making sure the data on thet piece of plastic squares with an entry in a database. In a few years, the check will also include matching thumbrints, retina scans and other biometric data.

But the check is only as reliable as the information in the database. If files get corrupted or deleted, you can't prove who you are. Of equal importance, bogus data, once in the database, is holy writ -- fully acceptable as "proof" that you are who you say you are.

Manufacturing false ID has long been a lucrative business, for every use from buying beer underage to allowing illegal immigrants to seek employment. Modern technology has put effective forgery within easy reach. But most such efforts produce nothing more than cards unconnected to matching entries in databases. As such they're relatively easy to bust.

Better IDs are those that are actually issued by the state based on false information. When I was in college I ahem knew people who altered their birth certificates and then applied for non-driving proof-of-age IDs from the Department of Motor Vehicles. Once issued, these were solid gold, since they could survive the most thorough check.There was no risk to using them and no risk to accepting them since, as far as the government was concerned, they were real. The fact that they essentially manufactured new identities that didn't square with reality was irrelevant. A new reality was created.

Not surprisingly, some government employees have learned that they can make a nice income on the side by selling their access to identification databases and creating entries that back official IDs under bogus names.

As the United States moves increasingly toward tracking movement, employment status, tax compliance and the like with government databases like E-Verify, the money to be made by corrupting or manufacturing data entries is going to soar. Who you are in the system will increasingly matter much more than who you are in your skin.

The coming security state may be more annoying and intrusive than any that has gone before. But it offers no guarantees that the people you're talking to are who they say they are. And because of its near-total faith in whatever data is retrieved by a computer, it may actually offer small opportunities for those who can exploit the system's weaknesses to carve out greater freedom than the state ever intended.

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Do you have a license for that protest?

Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman's chiiling rendition of her arrest at the Republican National Convention was published by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. It offers valuable insight into just how people exercising their First Amendment rights are treated when they dare to do so in proximity to the politically powerful.

Nicole was videotaping. Her tape of her own violent arrest is chilling. Police in riot gear charged her, yelling, "Get down on your face." You hear her voice, clearly and repeatedly announcing "Press! Press! Where are we supposed to go?" She was trapped between parked cars. The camera drops to the pavement amidst Nicole's screams of pain. Her face was smashed into the pavement, and she was bleeding from the nose, with the heavy officer with a boot or knee on her back. Another officer was pulling on her leg. Sharif was thrown up against the wall and kicked in the chest, and he was bleeding from his arm.

I was at the Xcel Center on the convention floor, interviewing delegates. I had just made it to the Minnesota delegation when I got a call on my cell phone with news that Sharif and Nicole were being bloody arrested, in every sense. Filmmaker Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films and I raced on foot to the scene. Out of breath, we arrived at the parking lot. I went up to the line of riot police and asked to speak to a commanding officer, saying that they had arrested accredited journalists.

Within seconds, they grabbed me, pulled me behind the police line and forcibly twisted my arms behind my back and handcuffed me, the rigid plastic cuffs digging into my wrists. I saw Sharif, his arm bloody, his credentials hanging from his neck. I repeated we were accredited journalists, whereupon a Secret Service agent came over and ripped my convention credential from my neck. I was taken to the St. Paul police garage where cages were set up for protesters. I was charged with obstruction of a peace officer. Nicole and Sharif were taken to jail, facing riot charges.

It wasn't long ago that people who went into politics were expected to suffer taunts, mild abuse and gauntlets of the disaffected as part of the price of wielding the coercive force of the state. You want to tell people how to live their lives? Then get ready to hear what they think of what you're doing.

That's not to say that respect for free speech was ever perfect; more than a few politicians have penalized speech they really didn't want to hear in the past -- especially during wartime. But the corralling of demonstrators into "free speech zones" at the two major-party conventions, the preemptive raids to seize people who might be "troublemakers" and the mass arrests make it clear that vigorous political expression -- however annoying -- is now seen as a privilege to be exercised only in the manner and at the location permitted by the powers-that-be.

The overall impression is that the authorities would really like to dispense with all of this messy protest business, but they don't think they're yet at the point where they can push it that far.

I'm not sure where we go from here. The courts have given their approval to draconian restrictions on speech at political conventions and in proximity to high officials, like the president, the police don't appear shy about using harsh tactics in front of cameras, and the public doesn't seem especially upset.

In years to come, we might look back fondly on those days when any dissenting voices at all were permitted in the streets when the powerful come to town.


Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Can't they put Palin at the top of the ticket?

Speaking as somebody who has no intention of voting for either John McCain or Barack Obama, I have to say that if Sarah Palin can keep delivering like she did tonight, the Republican Party may actually survive the Bush years. Confident, funny (in a politician-ish way), aggressive -- she did what she needed to do.

Of course, she has to be able to handle herself on her feet, in interviews and debates. We'll see if she can do that.

But there may actually be some new blood in the Grand Old Party after all. Who knew?


Sarah Palin: dope-smokin', straight-shootin' book burner?

I put Democratic VP hopeful Joe Biden under the microscope last week, so it's only fair that I give his counterpart, Sarah Palin, similar treatment on civil liberties issues.

Unfortunately, since Palin went directly from local office to the governorship without a stay in the legislature, she has no record of up-and-down votes on legislation to assess. That means no rating from the ACLU, among other things. But she has taken public positions we can examine.

On privacy, Palin bucked the Bush administration by allowing a bill to pass barring Alaska's compliance with the federal government's Real ID scheme to impose a national identification card (she allowed the bill to become law by default, dodging a formal challenge to the White House). "Alaska has joined a growing nationwide movement against Real ID, and by allowing this legislation to become law, Governor Palin has made Alaska the 9th state to pass a law prohibiting compliance," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU Technology and Liberty Program.

Palin opposes granting same-sex relationships the same formal recognition -- marriage -- as heterosexual relationships, but she did veto a bill that would have banned Alaska from giving benefits to same-sex couples. Rather than an act of respect for gays and lesbians this appears to be a simple acknowledgment that the bill was unconstitutional.

She's a drug warrior, as you'd expect from either major party these days, but she actually may be a bit less rabid about it than most politicians with national pretensions. When she was running for governor in 2006. the Anchorage Daily News reported:

Palin doesn't support legalizing marijuana, worrying about the message it would send to her four kids. But when it comes to cracking down on drugs, she says methamphetamines are the greater threat and should have a higher priority.

Palin said she has smoked marijuana -- remember, it was legal under state law, she said, even if illegal under U.S. law -- but says she didn't like it and doesn't smoke it now.

"I can't claim a Bill Clinton and say that I never inhaled."

Not surprisingly for an Alaskan, Palin has a history of supporting the right to bear arms and an A+ rating from the NRA. The gun rights organization boasts, "Gov. Sarah Palin would be one of the most pro-gun vice-presidents in American history, and Joe Biden would definitely be the most anti-gun."

It's probably no shocker that a candidate who opposes same-sex marriage is no fan of reproductive rights. During the 2006 governor's race, she was quoted on the issue:

The candidates were pressed on their stances on abortion and were even asked what they would do if their own daughters were raped and became pregnant. Palin said she would support abortion only if the mother's life was in danger. When it came to her daughter, she said, "I would choose life."

At least she walks the walk on her abortion position. Palin declined to terminate the pregnancy when she was told that her child would be born with Down Syndrome.

More troubling are reports that Palin may be weak in terms of respect for free speech. Time examined her record as mayor of Wasilla and reports:

Stein says that as mayor, Palin continued to inject religious beliefs into her policy at times. "She asked the library how she could go about banning books," he says, because some voters thought they had inappropriate language in them. "The librarian was aghast." That woman, Mary Ellen Baker, couldn't be reached for comment, but news reports from the time show that Palin had threatened to fire Baker for not giving "full support" to the mayor.

Note, though, that the claims of attempted censorship have come from Palin's political opponents -- she defeated Stein to become mayor and the story has otherwise been spread by Anne Kilkenny, a Wasilla Democrat. I'd like to see stronger sources for those charges.

In fact, the hard-line social-conservative stances may have a strong element of posturing to them. The AP reports:

Palin's children attend public schools and Palin has made no push to have creationism taught in them.

Neither have Palin's socially conservative personal views on issues like abortion and gay marriage been translated into policies during her 20 months as Alaska's chief executive. It reflects a hands-off attitude toward mixing government and religion by most Alaskans.

"She has basically ignored social issues, period," said Gregg Erickson, an economist and columnist for the Alaska Budget Report.

Is that reassuring? In a cynical way, I think it is. Better a candidate who blows smoke up your butt on her authoritarianism than one who follows through. [Update: This is probably a bit unfair of me. Palin deserves praise, not snark, for refraining from jamming her personal views down people's throats.]

But this brings me back to what I wrote on August 26: "[A]ll those positions the candidates take mean very little until they've actually been tested and had to make some hard choices. When President Bush was put to the test, it turned out that legal niceties like due process, privacy and the humane treatment of prisoners didn't matter to him much at all. But we had no way of knowing that until he was put in a position to respond to a crisis."

We're talking about people who respond to the situations they're actually in, not just what has gone before. And we're talking about politicians, who are perfectly capable of saying one thing and doing another.

But we still have to play this game.

So where does Palin stand on the PATRIOT ACT, warrantless spying, military tribunals, Gitmo and other national civil liberties issues that have become so important in recent years?

We don't know yet. We'll have to watch as she gets pressed on these issues in the course of the election campaign.

And then we'll have to decide if her responses -- and those of Biden, Obama and McCain -- really tell us how the candidates will actually perform once they win office.

Update: By the way, while it's not related to civil liberties as such, I consider Palin's maybe/maybe not affiliation with the Alaska Independence Party to be a mark in her favor. It's encouraging to see a candidate break away from the Washington D.C.-worship that's endemic in the major parties.

Let's see, support local self-determination so that people can choose the government under which they live? Oh no! What a terrible idea.


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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The real convention in St. Paul

From the Christian Science Monitor:

If some John McCain supporters suffer from what pollsters have called an “enthusiasm gap,” those of GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul might be accused of an enthusiasm surplus.

More than 10,000 members of the Ron Paul Nation paid $17.76 (get it?) to attend a convention in Minnesota to celebrate the Texas congressman’s candidacy and advance his antiwar, anti-government, pro-Gold Standard agenda among Republicans at the official GOP convention in nearby St. Paul.

“Ronvoys” of chartered vans have been streaming in since the weekend. Supporters are camping at an organic dairy farm in Goodhue, Minn., that is home to “Ronstock ’08,” a six-day culture-fest where the farmer’s neighbor has reportedly donated a cow to the food offerings. And thousands are expected in downtown Minneapolis Tuesday for the 10-hour marquee “Rally for The Republic,” featuring speakers from former governors Jesse Ventura of Minnesota and Gary Johnson of New Mexico to antitax activist Grover Norquist and MSNBC correspondent Tucker Carlson.

“I’m a social liberal and a fiscal conservative, and there’s nobody else out there that has that combination,” Linda Barr, a retired journalist from Pe Ell, Wash., population 700, said at a musical celebration Monday night in this suburb north of Minneapolis. “Have you heard of the statement ‘Ron Paul cured my apathy’? That’s it in a nutshell.”

That's pretty impressive. In fact, it's so impressive, that the Washington Times reports the McCain campaign is belatedly trying to court Paul's libertarian base.

The McCain campaign, acting through the Republican National Committee, has been negotiating with Rep. Ron Paul to win his support and acquire the names of his sympathizers among the 4,607 delegates and alternates at the Republican National Convention, according to a senior aide to the Texas congressman.

The aim is to try to win support for the John McCain-Sarah Palin ticket from Paul sympathizers, some of whom formally committed to Mr. Paul during his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination and others of whom are closet sympathizers of his libertarian brand of Republicanism.

Yeah ... Good luck on that.


Gotcha! Gun laws snare controversial writer

Prolific writer Peter Manso, author of, among other books, biographies of Norman Mailer and Marlon Brando, has been indicted on a dozen firearms charges by a Massachusetts grand jury and faces years in prison.

Did he brandish a gun in public? Threaten a neighbor with a drive-by shooting?

No, the guns were all stored, quite securely, in his locked and alarmed home. In fact, police discovered the weapons only when they responded to a burglar alarm while the writer was away. Either the guns were in plain view -- evidence that Manso expected no legal trouble for their possession -- or else, as Manso's attorney alleges, "Truro police searched Manso's house illegally while responding to the alarm." (The Times of London reports they were "in a cupboard.")

The mindboggling criminal charges for mere possession of inanimate objects are reported by the Boston Globe as follows:

Manso was indicted on charges of illegally possessing a large capacity weapon (a Colt AR-15 assault rifle), four counts of illegally possessing loading devices for that weapon, three counts of illegally possessing firearms, one count of illegally possessing ammunition, and three counts of improperly storing a firearm, according to a spokeswoman for Plymouth prosecutors.

The most serious charge, illegally possessing the assault rifle, carries a minimum sentence of 2 1/2 years in prison and a maximum of 10 years in prison. No date has been set for Manso's next court hearing.

The main problem seems to be that Manso's Firearms Identification Card expired after the passage of new legislation in 1998 -- previously, FIDs lasted a lifetime; now they expire every six years. The new law has caused endless problems in the Bay State, since authorities have not been very effective about informing gun owners of the change. As the Globe reports, "In July 2002, a State House committee found that thousands of Massachusetts residents were probably unaware that they needed to renew fire identification cards."

The "assault rifle" is a separate issue, since that's just outright illegal in Massachusetts. Still, Manso is in good company in its possession. In Can Gun Control Work?, James B. Jacobs, Director of the Center for Research in Crime and Justice at New York University, reported that Boston's assault weapons ban has enjoyed a rousing compliance rate of about 1%. Challenged by a law that seems purely arbitrary and unnecessarily restrictive (banned assault weapons are mechanically indistinguishable from many perfectly legal firearms), large numbers of Americans simply shrug their shoulders and symbolically tell legislators to go fish.

Of course, heavy-handed law enforcement is nothing new to Massachusetts. When I went to college there in the 1980s (Clark University in Worcester, if you must know), the string of ominous billboards along the highway as you crossed the border was a running joke: Speed Limit Strictly Enforced, Possession and Use of Radar Detectors Illegal, Gun Laws Strictly Enforced ... "Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here" would have been a fitting final warning, followed by a roadblock and a vigorous strip-search.

But a potential decade in prison for merely possessing a mechanical device is more than a joke: it's a deprivation of a man's freedom for doing nothing that caused any harm to people or property.

Manso claims that he's been maliciously targeted by the police because of his controversial work on a new book that casts a skeptical look at the work of local authorities in investigating the murder of a writer named Christa Worthington. I don't know whether there's any truth to his claim, but the sort of technical charges he faces lend themselves to such abuse. The more intricate and technical the law becomes, the harder it is to understand, respect and abide by. It's irresistably tempting for many people to ignore the law's sillier restrictions, and all too easy to unwittingly fall behind in paperwork -- at the cost of years behind bars if a local official wants to be by-the-book about such things.

And, of course, offending local officials then comes to carry a hefty penalty in terms of selective enforcement of arcane law.

Strictly speaking, the recent Heller decision should have made these charges impossible. By finally recognizing that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms, the Supreme Court ostensibly put the right to bear arms on the same footing as the right to free speech -- and you can't require people to get a license to speak their minds, nor can you ban high-capacity printing presses. But we're still exploring the full implications of that decision, and Heller was worded loosely enough that it may permit restrictions of the sort that we would never permit to be applied to any other individual right.

So Peter Manso faces a potential life sentence (he's 67) for doing no harm to anybody by violating laws that few respect and even fewer understand and thereby making himself vulnerable to officials who may be out to get him.

In a free country, that's not how the law is supposed to work.


Column on Cindy McCain and drug penalties published in the Review-Journal

A short version of my piece on Greg Gibson's long prison sentence for transporting marijuana, as opposed to Cindy McCain's riches for also getting people high, has been published in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

BOOZE-RUNNING USED TO BE A FELONY, TOO: Cindy McCain in same business as Greg Gibson

Note that I'm not picking on Cindy McCain for any reason other than the ease with which I can compare her business to the drug trade. In fact, Joe Biden is the most gung-ho drug warrior in presidential politics right now.

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Monday, September 1, 2008

More on the arrest of Alicia Forrest

I'm among the "left-wing" bloggers vilified over at Little Green Footballs for spreading the story of the assault on Alicia Forrest by Denver Police Officer Scott Stewart. (It's interesting to be characterized as such, by the way, just a few days after I wrote about underground economic activity as a logical response to excessive taxation and overregulation.) Copious additional photos and video are provided to demonstrate that Officer Stewart whacked Forrest in the head with a truncheon only after she provoked him terribly. And, besides, she wasn't badly hurt anyway.
But Forrest simply would not obey him (nor any of the other officers). Instead of backing up, she actually leaned forward, and started taunting Officer Stewart even more aggressively. As seen in the photo above, he had just finished trying to push her backwards, using his baton, which Forrest didn’t like, so she dared him to “Fuckin’ do it again!” At that point, Officer Stewart simply lost his patience with this annoying gadfly who obviously felt her pink clothes rendered her immune to criticism or to police enforcement. It was moments after this photo was taken that the scene depicted in the Rocky Mountain News video took place.

Here’s the contextless video again. You can hear Forrest saying “Fuckin’ do it again!”, and then Stewart taking her up on her offer and saying “Back it up, bitch!” as he clonks her on the forehead or on the sunglasses, causing her to fall backwards. The “crack” you hear is not the sound of his baton on her skull, but rather that of her pink plastic bullhorn hitting the pavement and all its batteries falling out.
Unfortunately for my critic, the scales haven't fallen from my eyes, and I have yet to embrace the righteousness of whacking women over the head with clubs when they're rude.

Instead, my reaction after seeing more footage of the incident is: Officer Stewart really is a jackass.

Here's the deal: If you can't endure a little taunting without degenerating into a violent rage, put down the badge and get another job. And stay away from high-stress situations. Really.

Oddly, the Little Green Footballs post seems to reinforce the likelihood that Forrest was hauled off to prevent her from telling her tale and putting the police in a bad light.
Some time later, journalists had gathered around her and she was starting to spin what undoubtedly was going to be a lopsided version of what had happened, and it was then that the police finally detained her for interfering with another arrest (as shown in the second half of the Rocky Mountain News video...
Read me at Examiner.com on the proper role of police.

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