Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Here comes bureaucratic health care

Get ready for a few years of breast-pounding about greedy pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies and doctors. The campaign will culminate (we can expect) in some half-assed health care scheme cobbled together by bureaucrats that will hide its costs in taxes, discourage innovation and ultimately run up against the same laws of economics that trip up state-run medicine elsewhere.

The incoming Obama administration is in full yes-we-can mode on health care. Pity-hire ... ummm ... honorable former Senator Thomas A. Daschle wanders the country, asking anybody who will hold still for a moment what the government should do to make people happy with their doctors, prescriptions and aging bodies. Not surprisingly, lots of folks seem to be reaching for the stars, answering that they want expensive stuff for free, and lots of it.

Sob stories always lead, of course. The Washington Post reported the sad case of Dolly Sweet, who says she's not taking her cancer medicine because it costs $35,000 a year.

You know, I'm sorry to hear that Ms. Sweet was priced out of that expensive drug, but I'm at a loss for a viable alternative. Medicines cost money in terms of research, development and the approval process. Seven years ago, the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development pegged the cost of developing a new prescription drug at $802 million. Two years ago, the same group put the cost of a new bio-tech product at $1.2 billion. If it's a new painkiller that's going to reach a vast number of users, the cost can be spread out over millions of people. But a new cancer drug -- particularly if it's targeted at specific types of cancer -- is going to cost fewer users a lot of money.

Somebody has to pay those costs, and resources are finite for all possible candidates. Ms. Sweet says she's unable to pay. She apparently doesn't have private coverage that will pick up the tab, and Medicare (she's 77), budget-busting prescription drug coverage be damned, clearly isn't champing at the bit to foot the bill.

Well, honestly, it's a difficult situation for whoever is holding the checkbook.

But somebody always blames the people who accept the check for being greedy bastards. From the same article:
Jill King had her own theory about why her friend's cancer medicine was so expensive: Drug companies spend too much money buying meals for doctors.
And with that sort of brilliance on the loose, this is inevitable:
The group that met in the Las Vegas home of Ruby Waller concluded that a single-payer system similar to the Canadian approach might make better sense. "There's too much profit in health care," said Waller, 53, who has diabetes.
Actually, Ms. Waller might do all right under just about any health care system, assuming she doesn't suffer from complications; diabetes is pretty easy to control with inexpensive treatments which even an inept system could probably manage.

But poor Ms. Sweet's plight would get worse, not better, up north. Two years ago, the Globe and Mail ran an editorial lamenting the Canadian single-payer system's traditional means of allocating expensive cancer treatments: making patients wait, and wait and wait ...
Canada's health system can't seem to cast off the built-in complacency that is the mark of the second-rate. Take waiting times for prostate-cancer patients. Canada's health ministers set a goal of four weeks wait for radiation treatment for cancer. But 70 per cent of hospitals surveyed don't meet that goal for prostate patients. Apparently the hospitals have decided the waits won't kill them. ...

Canadians have told their governments that the number-one problem in health care is the wait for crucial care. The Supreme Court of Canada has put governments across the land on notice that if the waits persist, medicare's constitutional foundation could be brought crashing down.
Canadians of means can't even choose to shoulder the expenses that Ms. Sweet finds excessive, since their government makes it illegal to pay privately for services covered by the public system (except in Quebec, where the Supreme Court ruled the state-run system was so bad private medicine had to be allowed). Canadian politicians are familiar with the complaints and have responded -- by coming to the U.S to pay out of pocket for their own cancer care.

The U.K. goes a step beyond Canada. Forget waiting lists -- you just can't get up-to-date treatments through the National Health Service. It's a way of controlling costs that wouldn't put Ms. Sweet any closer to her expensive cancer drugs (Britain has miserable cancer-survival rates).

At least Canadians have the U.S. Where would Americans turn if we followed Ms. Waller's advice by emulating our northern neighbors in getting the profit out of medicine?

That antipathy to profit is one of the weirder aspects of the discussion of such important services as the provision of health care. Nicholas Kristof penned a navel-gazer for the New York Times last week that actually began with the question: "Here’s a question for the holiday season: If a businessman rakes in a hefty profit while doing good works, is that charity or greed? Do we applaud or hiss?"

Umm ... what? Are we actually at the point that we'd rather that people suffer than that somebody earn a buck by making the world a better place? Who do we think will shoulder the billion or so dollar cost (plus regulatory grief and liability risk) of developing new drugs and bio-tech products if we strip away monetary rewards for making the effort? Where will the brilliant minds go if years of medical education aren't rewarded by lucrative careers?

And is it really morally preferable to keep medical providers that cater to the needy on an umbilical cord that can be severed at any time, rather than to turn them, as The HealthStore Foundation does, into for-profit franchised clinics that earn tidy incomes for their owner-operators in the third World?

To his credit, Kristof finally allowed that "by frowning on aid groups that pay high salaries, advertise extensively and even turn a profit, we end up hurting the world’s neediest."

But what about the rest of us? Aren't we all entitled to medicine and medical providers spurred to excellence by the potential for monetary reward?

Well, Mr. Daschle doesn't seem to think so. As Sally C. Pipes points out in the Wall Street Journal:

In his book, Mr. Daschle proposes a National Health Board to regulate the way health care is provided. This board would have vast powers in regulating the massive federal health-care system -- a system that includes Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs. Under Mr. Obama, it is likely that that system will be expanded and that new government insurance for the nonelderly, nonpoor will be created.

That new government insurance will likely expand and push out much of the private competition -- especially if the government responds to differences in quality of care by imposing greater mandates on private coverage so as to hide the disparity.

In the end, we'll likely get some muddled amalgam that reduces the ability to make a profit and lards the health care system with yet more mandates and regulations -- which will make matters even worse.

But we won't really ever know how much worse, because the next expensive drug that Ms. Sweet would have agonized over won't even be developed, and the top-notch medical talent that might have helped her find alternatives will have gone into another field instead.


Monday, December 29, 2008

A politer TSA scares the hell out of my kid

Airport security personnel are seemingly becoming more pleasant about the performance of their duties. But is a polite shakedown all that much better than the rude version? And as we stroll barefooted through airport security, are there any assurances that the inconveniences we suffer actually make us any safer?

In response to my solicitation for tales of unpleasant encounters with travel security authorities, whether it be the Transportation Security Administration, state or local police or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, James Kobach, a trainer with the TSA in Honolulu, sent a link to an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The piece emphasizes the dedication of TSA employees at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and the high praise that many passengers have for security screeners' performance.

Well, I'll allow here that my own passage through Phoenix's Skyharbor International Airport was pleasantly devoid of surliness on the part of TSA personnel. In contrast to the tour through North Korea that security checkpoints were just a few years ago, this experience was full of holiday greetings and helpful attitudes as my wife and I manhandled briefcase, coats, carry-on bag and three-year-old through security. (Helpful hint: The kid doesn't go on the conveyor belt.)

Even the half-dozen blue-shirted TSA agents lined up at Gate C-19 were polite as they yanked people from the boarding line for a public shakedown and poke-and-toss through their belongings. Smiles didn't convince anybody to make eye contact with the agents, though, as they trudged forward with their boarding passes in hand, hoping to not be among those chosen for special attention.

The woman immediately to my rear was less lucky than me. She was pulled from line.

"Can they do that?" My wife asked. "Isn't that a violation of the Fourth Amendment?"

Her approach in these situations is to urge me to calm even as she asks questions that make my blood boil.

Well, I happen to think these searches are unconstitutional, but the courts don't agree. Not only are we all subject to search at the airport, we can't even opt to leave the place and give up our seat on the flight to avoid the intrusion once we've entered the secure zone. In 2007, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in United States v. Aukai (PDF):

The constitutionality of an airport screening search, however, does not depend on consent ... and requiring that a potential passenger be allowed to revoke consent to an ongoing airport security search makes little sense in a post-9/11 world.

So those polite agents really can pull us out of line at the gate, and there's really nothing we can do about it. Yeah, they're smiling -- because they know you're stuck.

And stuck I was on the return leg from Baltimore, when the first TSA agent we encountered insisted on interrogating my kid. "What's your name, son? Can you tell me your name?" He shuffled through our boarding passes and then started again. "What's your name? Can you tell me?"

Ever put a 3 1/2-year-old on the spot? How about one who has been instructed to not talk to strangers?

After a few minutes, once my son surrendered a terrified nod when asked if his name was "Anthony," the TSA's finest let us go. A reminder to the officer that, "he's just three, you know," may or may not have helped.

Not surprisingly, once we passed through security, my kid pointed behind us and said, "those people scare me."

Well, they scare me, too. And now they've really pissed me off. Way to go folks. You know our country is just a little bit safer when we make toddlers piss their pants.

But what are we getting in return for that intrusive and increasingly heavy-handed (if somewhat better-behaved) security presence at the airport? That's an important question, and the fact is that nobody seems to know the answer. In a paper published almost exactly a year ago in the British Medical Journal, Harvard School of Public Health researchers pointed out:

A systematic search of PubMed, Embase, ISI Web of Science, Lexis, Nexis, JSTOR, and Academic Search Premier (EBSCOhost) found no comprehensive studies that evaluated the effectiveness of x ray screening of passengers or hand luggage, screening with metal detectors, or screening to detect explosives. When research teams requested such information from the US Transportation Security Administration they were told that evaluating new screening programmes might be useful, but it was overshadowed by "time pressures to implement needed security measures quickly."

The paper went on to say:

Even without clear evidence of the accuracy of testing, the Transportation Security Administration defended its measures by reporting that more than 13 million prohibited items were intercepted in one year. Most of these illegal items were lighters.

So, I'm glad that security screeners are becoming more polite. But however good their manners, those are still police state tactics in which they're engaged -- with no proven effectiveness.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Police screw up at DNC gets thumbs-up

Bucking a raft of complaints from activists and the ACLU of Colorado about police conduct at the Democratic National Convention, Denver Independent Monitor Richard A. Rosenthal has given thumbs-up to a mass arrest of protesters on the first day of the political gathering and dismissed concerns about police conduct contributing to tensions on the scene.

Rosenthal, who works for the office of Mayor John Hickenlooper, denied that a staged confrontation between undercover officers and police on the scene was responsible for instigating a larger confrontation.

There was no screaming, fighting or any other attempt to incite the crowd or police. In fact, the "struggle" consisted of nothing more than the mere act of pulling away slightly. It would be reasonable to expect the undercover officer to put up at least small struggle in order to avoid his identity being disclosed to the protesters watching his arrest.

The incident Rosenthal dismissed was described by Sgt. Rob Williams in an official Denver Police Department use of force report (PDF):

Deputies from the Jeffco response team (JR60) had deployed in a skirmish line for a large disturbance. Deputies were assisting Commander Kroncke in removing undercover D.P.D. detectives from the crowd. Deputies on the line had not received information that the people being removed were undercover detectives. In order not to be recognized as undercover detectives, some of the detectives put up a struggle with Commander Kroncke. As a result, Deputy Shousse thought that Commander Kroncke was being attacked and he therefore deployed the issued OC fogger. Commander Kroncke and the undercover detective were sprayed.

Understandably, in a November 6 letter (PDF) to Rosenthal, Taylor Pendergrass, staff attorney for the ACLU of Colorado, objected, "The actions of the undercover detectives on August 25, 2008, may have had the effect of exacerbating an already 'tense situation'..."

It's hard to reconcile Rosenthal's characterization of a minor "pulling away" incident with Sgt. Williams' description of a confused free-for-all in which police officers were hosed down with pepper spray. While police seemingly intended to minimize conflict, it's easy to see how missed signals and the whiff of OC in the air could have exacerbated the confrontation between police and protesters. Police screwed up and created chaos.

After that point, the arrest of an 80-year-old innocent bystander who was returning from a trip to the library (which Rosenthal also defends) and the mass round-up of protesters makes a sort of horrible sense.


Merry Christmas, surveillance state

In Tempe, Arizona, a merry band of liberty-loving Santas gift-wrap speed cameras -- with special attention to the lenses.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

The underpants gnomes take to the Internet

I've realized for a while that making a living by writing online is an awful lot like the business plan of South Park's underpants gnomes.
Phase 1: Collect Underpants
Phase 2: ???
Phase 3: Profit!
In my case, it's more like:
Phase 1: Accept invitations to write for online outlets for the sheer glory of it
Phase 2: ???
Phase 3: Profit!
OK. That exaggerates the situation a bit. I have a nice paid gig now for The Examiner and I have a book proposal a-brewing that I hope will lead to a credible deal. But I don't know how many very flattering invitations I've received in recent months to write, create vlog posts, do an online video talk show, and otherwise put my ideas and persona out there -- for free.

By and large, these have been invitations from sincere, talented people with really interesting projects. I've said "yes" to a couple, "no" to a lot more. If possible, I would have signed on for most of them -- really. There are an awful lot of interesting, well-executed online media projects out there. At least, the folks approaching me have cool ideas.

But I have enough on my plate to keep me occupied, and my wife insists that my son needs a little attention from me on occasion. And honestly, I need some play time, too.

So if you approach me with a carefully crafted plan for an online publication that you're convinced would be a great forum for my specific voice if only I'd be willing to put in some volunteer time up-front, and I say "no," please don't be insulted. It probably is a great idea, really.

But my column needs to be written, my proposal demands my attention, and my kid ... well ... he really needs to get potty trained now.

And those underpants gnomes are never satisfied.


Beware of well-armed Europeans

The Times of London recently carried an interesting report about the public response to a violent terrorist attack.

[T]wo such anarchists, lately come from an attempt to blow up the president of France, tried to commit a robbery in north London, armed with automatic pistols. ... Londoners, however, shot back – and the anarchists were pursued through the streets by a spontaneous hue-and-cry. The police, who could not find the key to their own gun cupboard, borrowed at least four pistols from passers-by, while other citizens armed with revolvers and shotguns preferred to use their weapons themselves to bring the assailants down.

If you're scratching your head, that's because the newspaper description is of an incident in 1909. At the time, the UK had no restrictions on private firearms ownership to speak of. People owned guns and carried them in public.

If you wonder what the crime rate was like with all of those well-armed Brits wandering around ... Well, there were about 9.6 murders per million people (PDF) in 1900. That dipped over the years, to a low of 6.2 per million in 1960 -- and then rose to over 14 per million by the end of the 20th century.

The strict gun control laws that we associate with Britain today really began with the red scares of World War I and were implemented thereafter, with handguns finally banned in 1997. So the murder rate seemed to first dip and then soar even as gun laws grew ever-tougher.

Which isn't supposed to be how it works in disarmed Europe, is it?

Well, European countries certainly have lower -- often, much lower -- murder rates than the U.S., but we tend to exaggerate their disarmed status. That's because most mainstream media comparisons of gun ownership dwell on official figures. How many guns Americans legally own vs. how many Germans legally own. That makes sense to American eyes, because most guns here are perfectly legal. That's exactly what gets gun control advocates so hot and bothered when they start crunching numbers. They want guns further restricted and made less common.

But less common isn't always what you get. Those official gun ownership numbers actually compare apples and oranges. That's because Europeans own an awful lot of guns outside the law. As of 2003, according to the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey (PDF), "Contrary to widely-accepted national myths, public gun ownership is commonplace in most European states." The survey adds, "public officials readily admit that unlicensed owners and unregistered guns greatly outnumber legal ones."

Even the 2003 figures may understate how unofficially well-armed European scofflaws are. The Small Arms Survey reported 350,000 unregistered guns in Greece in 2003. Two years later, the Greek government upped that figure -- to 1.5 million.

In countries with relatively loose gun laws -- like Finland -- most guns are legally held, as in the U.S. In countries with restrictive laws, like Germany, most guns are held illegally. Either way, people who want to own guns seem to go ahead and do so, no matter what the authorities want.

The result, in countries with tough laws, like the UK, is that you might have more than twice as many firearms owned in the shadows as out in the open. In France, more than five times as many guns are held illegally as legally.

So, Europeans are not so disarmed.

Why does this matter?

Well, if your population turns to supporting black markets, the logic of those illicit markets prevails. Once the mechanisms for satisfying demand move beyond the reach of the law, they acknowledge few limits. Again, from the Small Arms Survey 2003:

European criminals appear to be switching to heavier armaments. Instead of less capable revolvers, they increasingly have fully automatic pistols. Instead of hunting weapons, police are more commonly recovering sub-machine guns. Even larger weapons appear irregularly, illustrated when British police seized heavy machine guns and a mortar in March 2001.

With that booming underground market in place, you didn't think criminals were going to confine themselves to a few pocket pistols, did you?

And as illegally well-armed as many Europeans are, they're just not in a position to use those weapons against the armed bad guys the way the Londoners of 1909 were. Carrying a pistol in Edwardian times was a right, and chasing down a criminal was a civic duty. Doing the same these days carries a long prison sentence. The modern German gun owner may well use an illegal pistol to defend himself against a murderer -- after all, arrest is better than death. But he has good reason to resist the good samaritan urge to race around the corner to assist a stranger.

So Europeans still own their guns and they may even carry them, but they reserve their use for rare circumstances.

That Times description of a 1909 "hue and cry" was written by Richard Munday, a British firearms scholar who contrasted the century-old incident with the helplessness of Mumbai residents during the recent terrorist attack. India has suffered under strict gun control laws since the 19th century, leading Gandhi to lament, "Among the many misdeeds of British rule in India, history will look upon the act depriving a whole nation of arms as the blackest.”

In India, as elsewhere, people probably own a relatively large number of guns beyond the approval of the law. But under threat of prosecution and imprisonment, armed Mumbai residents certainly stayed at home to defend their families, leaving strangers to fend for themselves against the terrorists who openly used their illegal guns.

That's the end result of unenforceable laws for you. You get all the downside of whatever it is you're trying to restrict, but none of the benefits.


Sunday, December 21, 2008

You ought to be in pictures

When I've written about radar-activated speed cameras in the past, I've objected to the robotic menaces primarily on the grounds that they were fallible revenue machines for the state rather than legitimate means of protecting life and limb. It never occurred to me that the dumb electronic brutes were also handy tools for wreaking revenge on enemies and authority figures. That was clearly a lapse of imagination on my part.

An undated article in the Montgomery Sentinel of Montgomery County, Maryland, reports:

Originating from Wootton High School, the parent said, students duplicate the license plates by printing plate numbers on glossy photo paper, using fonts from certain websites that "mimic" those on Maryland license plates. They tape the duplicate plate over the existing plate on the back of their car and purposefully speed through a speed camera, the parent said. The victim then receives a citation in the mail days later.

Students are even obtaining vehicles from their friends that are similar or identical to the make and model of the car owned by the targeted victim, according to the parent.

"Brilliant," is my first reaction, though I've not been on the receiving end of such a prank. But still, my second reaction is also, "brilliant."

Of course, if you're one of the people undeservedly pranked by such a scam, it's awful. You get a ticket in the mail imposing a fine for a crime you never committed. And the same thing could, conceivably, be inflicted on you over and over again, leaving you to argue to the authorities that their lucrative ATM machines traffic control cameras are easily gamed toys.

As Montgomery County Council President Phil Andrews comments, "It will cause potential problems for the Speed Camera Program in terms of the confidence in it."

Well, yes. There is reason to lose confidence in a law enforcement program that has become an easy means of inflicting harassment and revenge on unsuspecting targets. One might even suggest that a system so easily turned to nefarious ends was ... hmmm ... a really lousy idea.

Oh, by the way ... Does anybody know what plates are on the Arizona governor's official vehicle? Just asking.


Is Michael Lind the enemy of all that is good and right in the world?

The auto industry in the South -- Asian and European companies that produce well-designed cars in the U.S. in modern plants with largely non-union workers paid competitive wages -- is beating the pants off the archaic, high-cost American car companies in their rust-belt enclave in Michigan. Michael Lind's solution: To force southern states and the automobile companies with factories there to adopt the Detroit model.
Today the division is no longer between slave and free states, or agrarian and industrial states, but between two models of industrial society -- the Northern model, based on adequate public service funding and taxation and unionization, and the Southern model, based on low-tax, low-service government and low-wage, non-unionized, easily exploited labor. If the industrial North and the industrial South compete for global capital investment, then the industrial South is likely to prevail, because Northern advantages in the form of a skilled workforce and superior public services are unlikely to overcome the South's advantages of low wages and low taxes and state and local tax subsidies. ...

Call it the Third Reconstruction. The first step is to end the race to the bottom in wages and regulation, by national action. The national minimum wage should be gradually raised until it is a living wage, of $10 to $12 an hour, and it should be adjusted for inflation. At the same time, federal regulations should set a higher floor with respect to worker safety regulations, environmental regulations, and others, preventing America's own internal rogue states from gaining any advantages by flouting national standards. ...
At the other end of a lot of tendentious phraseology, what emerges is that Lind wants to force the southern states to adopt the welfare state political model of the rustbelt, along with state-mandated high wages and production costs, so that they lose their competitive advantage with the northern states with which he feels a political and cultural affinity.

Two models were tried, one failed. Lind wants to punish the winner and force everybody to adopt failed practices.

I'm not arguing that southern political and economic practices are models of free and open government and liberty-respecting laissez-faire economics. There's a lot to be criticized about government and economic policy in the South, including cronyism and favoritism. But throw Michigan into the mix, and Alabama stinks a hell of a lot less by comparison.

Lind's northern model can't compete with the southern model. Hell, I'll lay odds that the northern model just doesn't work at all. Eliminate federalism and outlaw state experimentation in favor of a centrally mandated Detroit-style model of ridiculously high labor costs, featherbedding and ossified corporatism, and you don't get prosperity ruled over by the victorious UAW. You get national catastrophe from an unsustainable system.

Honestly, you can't just order nonsense to make sense, you can't repeal economic reality through legislation, and you can't make the Detroit model work.

And by the way ... Right or wrong about the merits of any given system, using the power of the state to jam your preferred model down everybody's throats makes you an evil autocrat in and of itself.


Friday, December 19, 2008

Good boots will see us through bad times

With the grim economic news in the headlines, we're cutting back probably as much as anybody is. My family has never been extravagant with gifts, but we've all pulled in our horns even more this year. Aside from gifts, we're taking it easy on other purchases, canceling vacations, cutting my wine budget down to Yellowtail, and making things last just a little longer than we had planned.

Along those lines ...

With the winter weather this week, I threw on one of my foul weather outfits the other day, consisting of wool pants and shirt, and a sturdy pair of leather hiking boots. The shirt is only a few years old and promises to be indestructible. The boots date back a decade, accompanied me through the Grand Canyon and on trails in Alaska, and have years of life left in them, though they need new soles. And the pants are Australian army surplus dating to 1951. I bought them 15 years ago and they look good as new.

If you're willing to pay for it upfront, there are things that last and save money over time. That shirt and those boots weren't cheap, but the boots have outlasted several pairs of light hiking shoes, costing me less overall. I expect the same of the shirt, which replaced an earlier wool shirt which still does woodcutting duty.

Even if you're not willing to pay upfront, some things last and really save money. I paid $12 for those wool pants. What a bargain. I should have bought another pair. But I still see similar deals here and there. Stuff that's going to last.

A few years ago, I got fed up with the cost of razor blades. The last straw was when they started putting batteries in manual razors so they'd vibrate. Oh cool, another thing to buy. No thanks. So I bought a straight razor and the accompanying gear.

You know, there's a reason most men gave up on straight razors. Jesus, they take some effort to master. And thank you, whoever invented the styptic pencil. But I mastered the damned thing and began to enjoy the morning ritual. With replacement razor cartridge refills going for ten bucks a pop, the straight razor paid for itself in less than two years.

The clippers I bought for $15 in 1996 paid for themselves in haircut savings in about a month. Of course, I have fairly uncreative ideas about men's hair styles. So far, my son does too. I use those same clippers on him.

My leather bomber jacket is twenty years old. The fabric trim could use a little work, but the leather just has a great, distressed look. It'd look even better if I hadn't virtually lived in it for five years. I'll bet my son inherits the thing.

It's possible to fetishize all this, of course. You could live a pre-war life of brass, wool, leather and wood. Most of that stuff would last for quite a long time. But there are tradeoffs.

Backpackers and hikers don't usually wrap themselves in wool and leather anymore for good reason: the stuff weighs a ton. Seventy pounds on your back or thirty pounds on your back? Which do you prefer when you're climbing out of a canyon? And, frankly, nylon tents do a far better job than canvas tents (I've slept in them both).

Not everybody wants to Sweeny Todd themselves to save a few bucks down the road. Straight razors and hangovers really don't mix. Trust me on this.

And the savings in durable items are dependent on good care. Drop that razor and ding the blade and you're just out of luck.

Not everything has to be built for the ages. My wife likes fashionable clothing that changes from year to year. I'm really glad that it's inexpensively made and priced. Her handbag, on the other hand ... gulp. But it's a classic piece that should last for decades.

But fashion is for prosperous times. When times get tough, it's worth sticking with durable items that will last and see you through to the other side.

Good times will come around again and so will the ability to buy fashionable clothes and disposable toys. Until then, my wool pants will keep me warm.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

California cops invite feds over for good times

In an excellent catch by the California chapter of NORML, documents submitted to the House Judiciary Committee reveal that the California Police Chiefs Association has been chafing under the state's relatively permissive marijuana laws, particularly regarding the medical use of the drug. Essentially shopping for tougher rules, the head of the police group sought the assistance of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to bypass the protections of California law.

From an October 2, 2006 letter (PDF) to DEA Administrator Karen Tandy written by then California Police Chiefs Association President Steve Krull (who retired last year as chief of police in Livermore):

This document clearly points out the dangers and frustrations that law enforcement has experienced in California with trying to enforce marijuana laws. Some situations have reached the point where state judicial officers (local judges) are ordering our rnernbers to return marijuana which has been lawfully seized.

As you are aware this has become a political issue in California, and even though local police chiefs want to enforce the law, some cities have determined that California law is what they want to follow.

So Krull and company are unhappy with the laws in their state and annoyed that local judges are actually holding the police to those laws. Their solution?

What the California Police Chiefs Association is requesting is that DEA become more actively involved in working with local law enforcement to close these distribution centers, seize their profits and all marijuana which might be located and to take these cases into the federal judicial system.

We understand this is an issue of priorities with DEA, but it is the feeling of the California PoIice Chiefs Association, and our members, that a concentrated effort sustained over a period of time would send a strong message to local and county government that "medical marijuana" is not allowed and that those who profit from the sales and distribution of marijuana under the guise of "medicine" will face the consequences.

Whether Tandy responded specifically to the begging letter or not, DEA agents have certainly been busy raiding marijuana dispensaries in California. In July of this year, as if rubbing Californians' noses in the power of the federal government, the DEA raided Nature's Wellness Collective in Orange, California -- just weeks after a state judge awarded the place a favorable ruling in the course of a lawsuit to keep the dispensary in business.

At almost the same time, federal drug cops raided Organica Collective, a Culver City dispensary -- just after a court ruled that federal law does not preempt (PDF) state law on marijuana.

Last year, the Los Angeles Times documented the DEA's targeting of many larger medical marijuana dispensaries in the state as part of an apparent effort to end the drug's status in California through sheer intimidation.

We always knew that federal officials have been dead set on suppressing state and local deviation from drug prohibition. Now we know that they were invited to do so by the cops down the street who are paid by and work for the people who put those local laws in place.

The new president's stimulating faith in economic witchcraft

Could somebody tell me who convinced Mr. Spare Change You Can Believe In that running up the credit cards is a brilliant way to resolve our economic difficulties? He knows that the balance has to be paid, right?

If we piss away $850 billion now on digging and filling holes, organic faerie-dust-powered cars and free-range IRS offices, and the inevitable pork frenzy, the supposed recovery is going to come with a hefty monthly payment plan.

That's especially true on top of the "hey, I've got six months to live" spending plan the feds have been on in recent days, which put "taxpayers more than $1 trillion in the hole even before the astronomical costs of the economic bailout were taken into account, according to an annual report released Monday by the White House."

As you and I could probably guess (but it's a revelation to government policy makers) stimulus spending is no panacea anyway. To spend money, you have to tax it, borrow it or create it out of thin air -- and all of those approaches take purchasing power out of the pockets of the private sector. The general result is that stimulus spending stimulates nothing but government, leaving the economy worse than ever.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Your house is still up for grabs

The use of eminent domain for "economic development" -- involving the seizure of homes and businesses by government, which then transfer the properties to private developers -- elicited a brief moment of outrage in 2005. That's when the U.S. Supreme Court decided, in Kelo v. New London, that such abuse-laden arrangements were a perfectly legitimate use of the government power to take private property for public use, so long as somebody cuts a check to the owners. Angered by the court's decision, people and legislators pushed for state and local limits on eminent domain power of varying degrees of efffectiveness. And then ... well ... then the matter died.

But the abuse of eminent domain didn't die. Some measures -- the one in Arizona, for instance -- imposed well-written strictures on government officials. Others, though, were either poorly crafted or else deliberately structured to defuse anger without restricting government officials. Californians, for example, passed over a good measure in favor of one that accomplished very little.

And some states never even pretended to impose limits on eminent domain. Those states included New Jersey.

In Long Branch, New Jersey, a battle over a particularly egregious "economic development" land-grab has waged for years. The city government there wants to boot middle-class families from their modest oceanfront homes because, wouldn't you know, connected developers want to construct condos for the well-heeled, which would generate a rich flow of cash for city coffers.

Normally, this would just end badly, and quietly, as most homeowners surrendered and accepted what government officials have to offer rather than wage an uphill fight. But property owners in the Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace, Seaview Avenue (MTOTSA) area banded together to push back, and they brought in the Institute for Justice to take on their case.

The two sides are now in court-ordered mediation after an appellate-level finding that the land-grab is illegal, but that the matter should continue to be dickered over before a judge.

What appears to be developing now if a face-saving effort by Long Branch officials to back away from the use of eminent domain in this case, but to retain it as a weapon in the future when the public-interest law firms have gone home and the neighborhood activists have returned to their family concerns. According to the Asbury Park Press:

After a second session with MTOTSA members Thursday night, Mayor Adam Schneider said Friday he continues to believe the case can be settled in a way that does not use eminent domain.

However, what eminent domain opponents likely will not see is the adoption of what certain group members and Councilman Brian Unger have labeled "Protecting the American Dream Ordinance," which would require the City Council to agree not to use eminent domain to acquire private property that would be transferred to another private owner.

The proposal, championed earlier this year by Unger and his private attorney, Jeff Williams, stalled, but MTOTSA member Denise Hoagland said the council's adoption now would give the affected homeowners more than the word of officials that eminent domain won't be used in their community.

Council President Michael DeStefano said he cannot support the ordinance because it makes certain assumptions that redevelopment is not a proper reason for exercising eminent domain.

Well, yes. The homeowners do contend that "redevelopment is not a proper reason for exercising eminent domain." Accepting it as grounds for land-grabs opens the door for any home or business to be seized if somebody else proposes to replace it with a larger house or a more profitable venture. Everything is up for grabs.

Which is the option that politicians want to preserve for the future.

But Long Branch residents are rightfully concerned about their own homes and businesses first, and it looks like they're going to win that battle. The final defeat of eminent-domain abuse will have to be left to the future.

For them and for us.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Federal court gags on gag orders

National security letters have been a stain upon the U.S. criminal justice system for several years now, permitting, as they do, federal investigators to go on a fishing expedition through private records -- and then forbidding the recipients of the letters to publicly complain about the treatment they've received. Now, after a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, the use of the letters will finally be subject to some judicial oversight.

Some oversight, implying a bit of restraint.

In a 2007 report (PDF) revealing widespread abuses of National Security Letters, the Department of Justice's Office of the Inspector General described the documents:

Four federal statutes contain five specific provisions authorizing the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to issue national security letters (NSLs) to obtain information from third parties, such as telephone companies, financial institutions, Internet service providers, and consumer credit agencies. In these letters, the FBI can direct third parties to to provide customer account information and transactional records, such as telephone toll billing records.

Before the Patriot Act, NSLs could be used only to gain information "involving a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power." The Patriot Act allowed the use of NSLs in pretty much any case where the words "espionage" or "international terrorism" were invoked. By 2005, 53% of NSLs involved Americans rather than foreigners.

And invoked they have been.

The Inspector General's report points out that the use of these letters soared from 8,500 in 2000 (before the Patriot Act) to 39,000 in 2003, 56,000 in 2004, and 47,000 in 2005. Each letter may contain more than one request for information, so even those figures understate the matter.

And the FBI apparently engaged in poor recordkeeping. The report dug through the files and found 17% more NSLs than had been officially recorded.

This is all important because NSLs allow federal agents to engage into far-reaching probes through sensitive private information, on the say-so of federal law enforcement officers, without judicial review.

And if you're an ISP or a phone company and don't like being on the receiving end of an NSL, tough luck. You can't complain in public about the letter, inform the ultimate subject of the investigation or do much at all but fume -- in private -- about the situation. The gag order, like the NSL, is on the say-so of the agents conducting the investigation.

In the words of Title 18, Section 2709(c):

... no wire or electronic communications service provider, or officer, employee, or agent thereof, shall disclose to any person (other than those to whom such disclosure is necessary to comply with the request or an attorney to obtain legal advice or legal assistance with respect to the request) that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has sought or obtained access to information or records under this section.

Until now.

Last year, a federal district court judge found the gag order provisions of the national security letters to be offensive to the First Amendment and to separation-of-powers language in the Constitution. That decision was appealed.

The Second District U.S. Court of Appeals agreed to a large extent (PDF), although it was much more deferential to the government's "national security" mantra than was the lower court. The appeals court noted that the gag order served as a constitutionally suspect "prior restraint" on speech, even if it's one that operates in a specific area of speech.

The nondisclosure requirement of subsection 2709(c) is not a typical prior restraint or a typical content-based restriction warranting the most rigorous First Amendment scrutiny. On the other hand, the Government’s analogies to nondisclosure prohibitions in other contexts do not persuade us to use a significantly diminished standard of review. In any event, John Doe, Inc., has been restrained from publicly expressing a category of information, albeit a narrow one, and that information is relevant to intended criticism of a governmental activity.

The court also dismissed the government's argument that judges should simply accept FBI officials' assurances that national security would be at stake if NSL recipients were allowed to air their complaints in public, saying that such a role would reduce judges to "petty functionaries."

Ultimately, the court let the NSL gag orders stand, but required that the FBI initiate judicial review of each order to determine if it's justifiable and to give the recipient an opportunity to contest the order in court. This is a much less sweeping decision than the one reached in the lower court, but it's a real challenge to the "just trust us" security state philosophy that has prevailed through the Bush years.

After all these years and tens of thousands of national security letters, it's about time that somebody got a chance to take a look at what the investigators have been doing under cover of legally imposed silence.

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Madoff scam fallout

Among the victims of the Madoff Ponzi scheme (as opposed to the Social Security Ponzi scheme, which victimizes all of us) is the JEHT Foundation, which supports human rights groups and criminal justice reform. And among the human rights groups supported by JEHT is the Innocence Project, which helps to free wrongly convicted prisoners.

The JEHT Foundation will apparently be closing its doors. But the Innocence Project plans to keep its doors open through the support of other donors (including you, if you go here). That's welcome news, since the group would be much missed were it to go under.


Blasts from the past, or, the social media vortex sucks me in ...

Uh oh. Somebody created a Facebook group dedicated to The Beat, an infamous rock-n-roll bar once located in Port Chester, NY, at 34 Adee Street. Moby used to DJ there, among other minor claims to fame. The place apparently closed in the late '90s and is now a law office.

And I spent much of my time hanging out, hooking up, and drinking way too much at The Beat from ... oh ... I thought '86, but really sometime in '84, until maybe 1990. I broke in my fake ID at the place, so it had to be ... Could I have started going there in '83? My peak time was the summers while I was home from college, when I was a regular ornament at the place. The last time I dropped by was in '96 for a mid-day beer and a dose of nostalgia.

Jeez it's all a blur. And I used to drive home ...

The group has plenty of photos and info on folks I haven't talked to or heard about in years.

Anyway, I know you don't give a damn where I got drunk and laid 20 years ago. But it's just amazing how this sort of thing can suck you in, reestablishing contact with people, some of whom I only knew by nickname or face. It's weirder than pawing through an old box of photos, because the actual people are suddenly all in one place, sharing war stories.

Oh, this won't kill too much time.


Monday, December 15, 2008

Bill of Rights Day, for what it's worth

Happy Bill of Rights Day! Those ten amendments are a little time-worn and eroded in places ... well ... a lot of places. But they're still the best protection you have, aside from that rifle in your closet, against the predatory creatures we call government officials.

It's become de rigueur to read an elegy for constitutional protections for liberty every time government changes hands. To a certain extent, that's appropriate -- every new president and Congress seems to feel obliged to violate the American people anew in the name of necessity, or justice, or the emergency of the moment. But occasionally, we step back from the brink, and even the worst administration usually brings a little good with its bad.

So, as we prepare for the latest passing of the imperial whip, let's put on our gloves and give the aging Bill of Rights a bit of a finger-wag to see how it's doing.

United States Constitution

Bill of Rights

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.


The First Amendment always seems to be the healthiest of the bunch, even though it comes in for its share of abuse. I've always assumed that's because the amendment protecting freedom of the press has the best-heeled protectors in the form of large media companies holding the leashes of snarling packs of lawyers and access to the public space in which they can air their grievances.

That hasn't always been enough. Presidents like Lincoln and Wilson shut down publications that criticized their policies. And governments can sometimes bring backdoors pressure -- aside from auctioning off a Senate seat, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is in trouble for offering the Chicago Tribune a massive government bribe in return for the dismissal of critical members of the editorial board.

In recent years, threats to the First Amendment have mostly come in the form of attacks on edgy sexual speech and assaults on political speech during campaigns and in electronic media -- both of which enjoy less protection than the words of the amendment would seem to guarantee.

Campaign finance reform restrictions, such as McCain-Feingold, have muzzled independent voices with the support of both Republicans and Democrats, so expect that to continue as President Bush gives way to President Obama. The new administration may well abandon the Bush administration's assault on "obscenity" -- including purely fictional erotica involving no real people or images. But many of Obama's allies in Congress are also champing at the bit to reimpose political censorship on broadcast media.

Amendment II

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.


Something of the black sheep of the Bill of Rights family through much of the 20th century, the Second Amendment got a shot in the arm when the U.S. Supreme Court belatedly recognized in D.C. v. Heller that the provision, like its fellows, protects individual rights. The right to bear arms is now recognized as an individual right protected by the Constitution.

But what does that mean in terms of permissible and impermissible restrictions? The courts will hash that out as a new president with a history of hostility to private ownership of firearms takes office, along with an attorney general who actively petitioned the Supreme Court to reach the opposite conclusion from the one it decided in Heller.

Amendment III

No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.


Forcing private citizens to give up their homes to troops was big deal at the time of the revolution, but government officials haven't actively pressed up against the Third Amendment's restrictions since the 19th century. That's a good thing to the extent that it means there's been no erosion of the amendment by hostile court decisions and legislation. But it also leaves open the question as to how courts would apply the restrictions in the modern context.

I'm also a bit curious as to how closely the IRS's occasional habit of parking agents at your kitchen table to audit your lifestyle brushes up against the protections of this amendment.

Amendment IV

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.


A battleground of active combat between the government and defenders of individual rights, the fourth Amendment has been declared dead time and again -- by me, among others. Actually, it's still breathing, though badly wounded and in need of reinforcements.

True, the government has carved out broad exceptions for searches of automobiles, and allowing for the serving of warrants simultaneous with knocking your door off its hinges. And the use of wiretaps and other forms of electronic surveillance often seems to function in a parallel universe where George Mason and James Madison decided to knock back a few beers rather than discuss searches and seizures (especially if somebody invokes the magic words "national security").

But the exclusionary rule continues to push illegitimately acquired evidence out of courtrooms, cops still chafe under warrant requirements, and knowing your Fourth Amendment rights, even if they're somewhat eroded, is key to passing relatively unscathed through an encounter with the authorities.

Amendment V

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.


Ummm. Guantanamo.

Actually, the Fifth Amendment's due process protections are still alive and well for most Americans, but the Bush administration's construction of a system of prisons and courts outside the protections of the Fifth Amendment is a chilling example of what governments are willing to do in the name of "necessity" -- if the courts and the public let them get away with it. The courts, thankully, have pushed back pretty hard (PDF) (though it's an ongoing battle). How President Obama deals with the jailing and prosecution of terrorism suspects will be a key indicator for whether the due process protections of the Fifth Amendment will continue to shrink, as have those of the Fourth Amendment.

As for the Fifth Amendment's protections for private property ... Kelo v. City of New London made it clear that these protections are largely defunct. To the extent that your property rights are protected, it's at the state and local level.

And the double jeopardy rule, while still hanging on, has been bypassed by the expedient of allowing another jurisdiction -- say, the feds -- to have a second shot at a defendant acquitted in state court.

Amendment VI

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.


Speedy trial? Newspapers make a regular sport of publishing stories about the months and even years that elapse between arrests and the date when the state finally gets around to making its case. Lives are on hold, witnesses disappear, evidence grows stale...

Jury trials, though, remain a protection that is increasingly peculiar to the U.S. system of justice as other English-speaking nations largely abandon the practice, leaving the outcome of cases in the hands of government officials. Juries allow real people to have a say in the application the laws -- occasionally (or maybe frequently) monkeywrenching laws they don't like.

And defendants who don't bargain their rights away (most do) have access to a rather remarkable system of tools and guarantees for determining guilt or innocence.

Amendment VII

In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.


Still alive and well, it seems.

Amendment VIII

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.


I suppose "excessive" is in the eye of the beholder, as is "cruel and unusual." I would say the latter provision is easily violated by lengthy sentences in some of the more lawless and dangerous prisons in the developed world. As for excessive fines -- I guess we'll know what that means if and when the courts ever get around to addressing the issue. It's a slow process, you know.

Really, this is a neglected amendment, in many ways.

Amendment IX

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.


Potentially the most powerful of the amendments in the Bill of Rights, because of its assurances that the sphere of liberty extended well beyond a few printed words, the Ninth Amendment has been largely declawed, defanged and otherwise rendered impotent.

Amendment X

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.


Alas, poor Tenth Amendment. We hardly knew ye. It still breathed in the 19th century, but has grown cold and still ever since.

So there's your Bill of Rights. Enjoy it so long as it's there to be enjoyed, however bruised and battered it may be.


Thank the drug warriors for Arizona's heroin bargains

It's too early to call it a new drug of choice, but the ranks of heroin users appear to be growing here in Arizona. The local emergency room -- in a rural area -- is accustomed to a steady flow of meth heads. But it's now seeing the occasional heroin user, with more expected. As often happens, fanciers of illicit intoxicants are responding to the marketplace, turning to a fresh flow of inexpensive opiates as prices rise for their old preferred means of getting high.

KVOA news recently reported:

The Northwest commmunity and the foothills are becoming hotspots for black tar heroin use according to some law enforcement officials.

The mother of a former heroin addict tells us, "It was so bad and so infested in the foothills, the drug dealers actually come to the end of the street."

At about the same time, the East Valley Tribune said, "In the last year, there has been a 200 percent increase in heroin trafficking arrests."

The actual number of users involved is small, but the growth in heroin use in Arizona bucks a national trend. Across the country, "The number of current heroin users decreased from 338,000 in 2006 to 153,000 in 2007," according to the latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

But that decrease among heroin users was a minor blip in drug-use numbers that have remained remarkably static for years. No matter what anti-drug initiative has been pursuded, despite all the widely proclaimed busts, use of illicit intoxicants has remained at roughly constant levels.

If drug use has remained relatively steady over the years, with a recent downward blip in heroin use across the U.S., why are Arizonans switching their brand loyalty from meth to heroin?

It's all a matter of availability.

Earlier this year, the Tucson Citizen reported:

Adding to the drug's lure are the climbing street prices of methamphetamine and cocaine, caused by a crackdown on smugglers of both of those drugs by authorities on both sides of the border, local and federal drug investigators say.

While the price for meth rises, a single hit of black-tar heroin costs $10 on the streets of Tucson.

The Department of Justice's National Drug Threat Assessment for 2009 says (PDF):

Heroin production trends in Mexico and Colombia, the two primary sources of heroin in the United States, have diverged as Mexican heroin production has increased and Colombian heroin production has decreased. ...

In fact, Mexican heroin production increased 105 percent from 1999 (8.8 MT) to 2007 (18.0 MT).

During those years, the U.S. government pumped $5 billion into anti-drug efforts through Plan Colombia. The money failed to scratch cocaine production, which increased -- but heroin production, in fact, dropped by about 50%.

Mexican drug suppliers picked up the slack by increasing their own heroin production, as well as the purity of their product, from 21% in 2001 to 30% in 2006. Heroin became more available and higher quality from Mexican sources even as the drug warriors focused their efforts on methamphetamine and cocaine. And Arizona shares a border with and serves as a smuggling route for, Mexico.

Hence the surge in heroin use in Arizona, where the stuff is suddenly cheap and abundant.

That's the drug war for you. It can't actually reduce the number of people who choose to use illegal drugs. But it can invoke the laws of economics and get drug entrepreneurs to take advantage of new markets and consumers to respond to rock-bottom prices and surging availability.

Who ever would have guessed?


Saturday, December 13, 2008

I need my alcospeed fix

A North Carolina man wants to force a brewing company to stop peddling alcoholic energy drinks -- and he's joined forces with a nanny-state outfit that makes its bones trying to get the government to limit the range of food and beverages from which people can choose.

According to the Wilson Times:

Mike Sprinkle wants to sue the company that produces an alcoholic energy drink he says nearly killed his daughter this summer.

Sprinkle said that on the night of July 20, his 23-year-old daughter, Amanda, drank half a can of orange-flavored Sparks, an alcoholic energy drink made by MillerCoors, at their Wiggins Mill Road home then suddenly collapsed at her computer desk.

Amanda's eyes had rolled back, Sprinkle recalled, and she had no pulse. It was only after he performed CPR on her and took her to Wilson Medical Center that she was later determined to be fine.

He says doctors pointed out the energy drink as a likely culprit.

"Honestly, if I hadn't been sitting there that night, she probably would have died," Sprinkle said.

Since then, Sprinkle has been unsuccessfully trying to organize a class action lawsuit against MillerCoors for producing Sparks, a 6 percent alcohol energy drink sold by the company. According to the MillerCoors Web site, the drink comes in three flavors - original, light and plus - and contains the stimulants caffeine and guarana, not normally used in alcoholic beverages.

Sprinkle's efforts to protect his adult daughter from her taste in beverages brought him to the doors of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. CSPI filed a lawsuit against MillerCoors back in September in an effort to get the courts to cut off the tap on Sparks.

Drinkers of caffeinated alcoholic drinks are more likely to binge drink, ride with an intoxicated driver, become injured, or be taken advantage of sexually than drinkers of non-caffeinated alcoholic drinks, according to a 2007 study conducted at Wake Forest University. ...

"MillerCoors is trying to hook teens and ’tweens on a dangerous drink," said CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner. "This company’s behavior is reckless, predatory, and in the final analysis, likely to disgust a judge or a jury."

Gardner coined the term "alcospeed" to refer to drinks that blend alcohol with stimulants such as caffeine. You may prefer other terms though, like "Irish Coffee," which, according to one recipe, consists of:

1 1/2 oz Irish whiskey
1 tsp brown sugar
6 oz hot coffee
heavy cream

Combine whiskey, sugar and coffee in a mug and stir to dissolve. Float cold cream gently on top. Do not mix.

That sounds far tastier, though possibly less healthy, than Sparks. It's probably more alcoholic, and possible more stimulating, than the caffeinated beer. Rum and coke would do the job, too. So "alcospeed" is nothing new, whatever the CSPI says.

But that's beside the point. The choice of what to consume or not consume is a personal one, to be made individually -- not by judges and politicians under pressure from presumptuous activist groups who would make our decisions for us.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

The imperial bailout

Well, I guess last night's Senate vote on the auto industry bailout was just for form's sake. Senators last night rejected (on a procedural vote) bipartisan schemes to subsidize some of the more uncompetitive manufacturers in the country and their ossified union allies. But when legislators vote the "wrong way," there's always an imperial president to don purple robes and pick up the slack through the powers of his executive branch minions.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the administration would consider tapping the $700 billion government pool -- known as the Troubled Asset Relief Plan, or TARP -- that was created ahead of the November election to calm turmoil in financial markets.

"Under normal economic conditions, we would prefer that markets determine the ultimate fate of private firms," Mr. Perino said. "However, given the current weakened state of the U.S. economy, we will consider other options if necessary -- including use of the TARP program to prevent a collapse of troubled auto makers." Ms. Perino added, "A precipitous collapse of this industry would have a severe impact on our economy, and it would be irresponsible to further weaken and destabilize our economy at this time."

Separately, Treasury spokeswoman Brookly McLaughlin said, "Because Congress failed to act, we will stand ready to prevent an imminent failure until Congress reconvenes and acts to address the long-term viability of the industry."

So the Bush administration will go ahead and do on its own what Congress declined to authorize until such time as lawmakers change their minds and votes?

Ummm ... Why bother to convene Congress anymore?

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Cops still don't dig cameras

The American Civil Liberties Union often advises people to record encounters with the police in order to discourage abusive behavior, or to capture evidence of such behavior when it does occur. The ACLU has even distributed video cameras to the public for free in areas where allegations of police misconduct are especially egregious. Residents of high-crime areas in St. Louis were among the recipients of such high-tech largesse. But if you take the ACLU's advice, you may find yourself put in handcuffs by cops who don't want their actions recorded for posterity.

Cooper Travis can tell you all about that. He was arrested outside his own home for openly recording an encounter with a police officer.

Travis is a Candia, New Hampshire resident who was at home on November 4 when Steven Sprowl, an inspector from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals showed up at the property, demanding access to see if there is shelter for horses kept on the premises. New Hampshire is among the states that delegate certain police powers to private organizations, such as the SPCA, including the power to enter property and make arrests.

Travis denied entry at the instruction of the property owner, who wanted to be present for any search. Sprowl then contacted Candia police.

Once an officer arrived, Cooper Travis and caretaker Beth Garthwaite began recording the interaction, with the officer's consent. The resulting video clearly shows a polite, if pointed discussion, with Travis and Garthwaite remaining on their side of the property fence. After a few minutes, the police officer, clearly hot under the collar, ordered the camera turned off. Travis declined, no doubt preferring to have a record of the entire encounter.

He ended up in handcuffs for his troubles (no charges were brought against him and he was released later that day).

Travis's arrest by a clearly annoyed cop is just the latest example of ticked-off police officers using the law as a weapon to block or punish efforts to monitor their conduct. New Hampshire law requires consent for audio recording (apparently you can record video alone without consent) -- even in encounters with government employees working in their official capacity, and even on private property. That law has been used to punish videographers monitoring police conduct in the past: The Concord Monitor refers to two other incidents in which private citizens were arrested for recording police encounters.

Michael Gannon, 40, of Nashua was arrested after his home security camera made video and audio recordings of detectives who had come looking for his teenage son. Felony wiretapping charges against him were later dropped.

Gannon was arrested after he brought the recordings to the police station to complain that a detective had been rude to him....

... a case in the Keene area, in which a motorist was charged for turning on a tape recorder after being pulled over by the police, Dumaine said.

Such arrests aren't confined to New Hampshire. Pennsylvanian Brian Kelly briefly faced up to ten years in prison under an old wiretapping law for recording police with a handheld camera before the Cumberland County District Attorney backed off under public pressure. Mary T. Jean faced a similar battle with Massachusetts authorities after posting video of an illegal search on her Website; she finally won her case in federal court.

Such over-the-top use of the arrest power to keep the public in the dark inspired New Hampshire lawmakers to consider legislation that would allow New Hampshire residents to freely videorecord their private property and encounters in public places. The private property bill was killed by the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

Arresting people for recording the police is ridiculous and contemptible. Law-enforcement officers, drawing tax-funded paychecks, wearing officially issued uniforms, and wielding vast powers that can be (and have been) misused against the public, should be subject to recording at all times, for the safety of the public. Officers unwilling to have their actions preserved in video and audio form probably ought not be carrying guns and badges.

Count me among those who applaud the Cooper Travises of the world -- and who want to see their actions legal and common everywhere.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Che che che took my baby away

Reason.tv comes up with another great video. This one debunks the cult of personality surrounding Che Guevara (and, incidentally. Mao Tse Tung):

But, if your radical-chic friends can't be convinced, get them an appropriate gift to keep them warm.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Rights aren't gifts, even on Human Rights Day

It's encouraging to see Human Rights Day this year become something of a celebration of the freedom of sexual minorities. The United Nations General Assembly will soon consider a resolution calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality -- an important move in a world where many gays and lesbians still face the prospect of prison time or even death as a legal penalty for just being who they are. In the U.S., many people are taking the day off from work for today's "Day Without a Gay" to remind people just how many of their co-workers and employees are affected by anti-gay discrimination. While the UN resolution might seem like the more momentous of the two developments, it's actually less impressive -- and a bit perilous -- when compared to the grassroots boycott effort.

When politicians join together to celebrate your rights, get ready for your freedom to be treated as a gift from on high. They debate a bit, they enjoy a few photo-ops with one another, and then, in front of television cameras, they tell us all why we should thank them for tweaking a few laws or, more likely, just issuing a few finely crafted words. Any small victories won come with a wink and a reminder to vote "the right way" at the next election.

Is Saudi Arabia going to cease being a lousy place for gays and lesbians to live because Nicolas Sarkozy and Jimmy Carter enjoyed a few glasses of taxpayer-purchased wine in front of a UN logo? Don't count on it.

Real change comes from the bottom up, when the people affected by bad laws don't just insist that the law should change -- they force it to happen, usually over the protests of politicians. The Americans behind "Day Without a Gay" haven't faced the threat of legal penalties for their sexual orientation since the Supreme Court decided Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 (and far longer than that, in most places), but that's because of their own efforts -- not a General Assembly resolution handed down from above. They fought back against arrest, changed the culture by being open and worked together to force the government to back off.

Beating the crap out of a few gay-bashing cops during the Stonewall riots accomplished more for the rights of gays and lesbians than the UN General assembly ever will.

That's not to say we shouldn't celebrate human rights on December 10. We absolutely should. But always be aware that the real protector of your liberty is you and your like-minded allies -- not some politician on a podium.

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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Thanks, Blago, for being honest about government

When I say that Ilinois Governor Rod R. Blagojevich is honest, I don't mean that he's an upstanding individual. I just mean that, if early reports that he auctioned off Barack Obama's old seat in the U.S. Senate to the highest bidder are true, he dispensed with pretense and revealed the business of government to be a corrupt and seamy one, comparable to any other criminal enterprise. In selling that legislative position just before Barack Obama takes office as a president on a wave of proposals for active, intrusive government, Blagojevich has provided a valuable warning to the public as to the nature of the metastasizing government we're about to let ever-further into our lives.

According to the New York Times:

As Mr. Blagojevich mulled the Senate appointment, prosecutors say, he discussed gaining “a substantial salary” at a nonprofit foundation or organization connected to labor unions, placing his wife on corporate boards where she might earn as much as $150,000 a year and trying to gain promises of campaign money, or even a cabinet post or ambassadorship, for himself.

A 76-page affidavit from the United States Attorney’s office in Northern Illinois says Mr. Blagojevich was heard on wiretaps over the last month planning to “sell or trade Illinois’ United States Senate seat vacated by Pres-elect Barack Obama for financial and personal benefits for himself and his wife.”

Bravo, Mr. Blagojevich. Even the densest, most starry-eyed political groupie in the country will have a hard time disregarding a move so overtly corrupt and self-serving by a close political ally of the president-elect. The award of Obama's seat could only have been more arrogant (if less lucrative) had the governor emulated Caligula and appointed a horse to the position.

This is our insight into the government that promises to set things right during a time of financial crisis, supposedly through well-reasoned, carefully crafted policy proposals and vast, additional powers utilized only, we're assured, with our best interests in mind. And those policies and powers will be implemented through government agencies helmed by President Obama, a man whose former office was sold to the highest bidder.

But Blagojevich's service doesn't stop there. He also demonstrated the dangers of allowing government to intertwine itself in the private sector with bailouts and subsidies. As the Chicago Tribune reported:

Another charge alleges Blagojevich and Harris conspired to demand the firing of Chicago Tribune editorial board members responsible for editorials critical of him in exchange for state help with the sale of Wrigley Field, the Chicago Cubs baseball stadium owned by Tribune Co.

There you have it: an unmistakeable lesson that government officials will use financial leverage to extract concessions for themselves, and even to muzzle critics in the press.

What personal favors do you think are being purchased with the hundreds of billions of dollars the government has allocated for the financial industry and the billions more for the Big Three automakers? Is there still doubt in your mind that the money comes, quietly, with strings attached?

If Blagojevich were a live-action museum exhibit about the dangers and flaws of government, created by a libertarian foundation, he could not be more venal, or more effective at communicating what we can expect from government officials anytime there's money or political advantage to be had from the misuse of their power.

But he's a real politician, caught doing what an unknown number of his colleagues have always done behind the scenes. We should thank him for his honesty, and take the lesson he offers to heart.


Everything old is new again

As if the oh-so-delicious scandal enveloping Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich over the apparent attempt to auction off President-Elect Barack Obama's old U.S. Senate seat weren't enough warning of just what lies at the core of government, the Ludwig Von Mises Institute publishes a review of a new book on the impact of FDR's New Deal, just in time to serve as a warning about the incoming administration's New New Deal. In his balanced but overall positive assessment of New Deal or Raw Deal?: How FDR's Economic Legacy Has Damaged America, by Burton Folsom Jr., David Gordon writes:
One of his best insights is that the New Deal programs were financed in large part by the poor. At Roosevelt's behest, excise taxes were imposed on many popular items of consumption; and these weighed especially heavily on the impoverished. "In the first four years of Roosevelt's presidency, revenue from excise taxes exceeded that of income and corporate taxes combined" (p. 126). (I do not think it right, though, to call excise taxes "regressive," as Folsom does. Everyone paid the same rate; the poor were not charged more.)

This was far from the only way in which New Deal programs hurt the poor. Blacks fared very badly under Roosevelt, the supposed great exemplar of enlightened modern liberalism. Minimum-wage laws proved a stumbling block to efforts by blacks to secure jobs. These laws prevented employers from undercutting unions by offering lower wages to nonunion members. Since blacks faced exclusion from many of the powerful unions, they were in effect frozen out.
Since union empowerment and massive spending are both on the agenda once again, this is an important take on policies that may well be dusted off and reused.

The review comes as part of a handy matching set with a Reason magazine article by Michael T. Flynn on the causes of the financial crisis that is being used to justify the revival of activist government. In "Anatomy of a Breakdown," Flynn writes:
Throughout the 1990s and the early years of this century, both major political parties became intoxicated with the idea of promoting "affordable" housing. By the time the crisis blew up, Congress was mandating that roughly 50 percent of the mortgages issued by Fannie and Freddie go to households making below their area's median income.

Many conservative commentators have blamed the housing mess on the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), which essentially required banks to increase lending in low-income areas. While the CRA was a bad law, its role in recent events has been overblown. After all, it was on the books for decades before the bubble began. The law's worst legacy is the permanent network of "affordable housing" advocates that sprang up after it passed. These groups, which were intended to facilitate lending in poor areas, continually called for increased activity by banks and additional government support for affordable housing initiatives. The CRA also helped create a climate in which lending to low-income households was a key metric and condition regulators used in approving bank mergers. ...

It's hard to overstate the role Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac played in creating this crisis. Chartered by Congress, Fannie in 1938 and Freddie in 1970, the two government-sponsored enterprises provided much of the liquidity for the nation's housing market. Because investors believed—correctly, it turns out—that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were backed by an implicit guarantee from the federal government, the companies were able to raise money more cheaply than their competitors. They were also exempt from federal, state, and local taxes. ...

But Fannie and Freddie by this point were political powerhouses. When the accounting scandal first emerged, Fannie's chairman was Franklin Raines, former director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Bill Clinton. Its vice chairman was Jamie Gorelick, a former Justice Department official who had served on the 9/11 commission. The two companies provided tens of millions of dollars in annual campaign contributions and spent more than $10 million a year combined on outside lobbyists.
The whole piece is worth a read to discover how government intervention in the market causes the problems that are then used as arguments in favor of more government intervention in the market.

Folsom's book seems to effectively describe the evil impact of the New Deal at the macro level, but it was a brutal thing to endure at the personal level, too. The Schechters, a family of butchers, are often (and correctly) rated as heroes for their ultimately successful battle to overturn some of FDR's more egregious regulations. But they were ultimately victims, too, since the effort destroyed their finances. The roots and victims of the New Deal are documented in Amity Shlaes's The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, a book which deserves more recognition right now.

But what was the New Deal like on the enforcement end? John T. Flynn told that tale in The Roosevelt Myth back in 1948:
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.
Obama and company seem sincere in their claims that they want to bring back the heady, big-government days of the New Deal. Let's take them out their word and closely analyze their justifications for doing what they intend, and just what it is they plan to visit upon us.


Monday, December 8, 2008

Wikipedia censorship makes technical workaround a must

If you're British and having a bit of trouble accessing Wikipedia today, you can thank the censors for your research roadblocks. The Internet Watch Foundation, a regulatory organization that calls itself "an independent self-regulatory body, funded by the EU and the wider online industry," added a Wikipedia page to its almost universally used (in the UK) "notice and take-down" service, essentially putting the page on the forbidden list for British Internet users. That's all the more reason to get acquainted with technologies specifically designed to defeat censorship.

The forbidden Wikipedia article is devoted to the Virgin Killer album by the German heavy metal band, The Scorpions. The naked prepubescent girl on the cover was controversial in 1976, when the album was originally released, and sufficiently more so now that an image of the cover is enough to get an entire country cut off from access to an encyclopedia article.

According to the IWF:

A Wikipedia web page, was reported through the IWF’s online reporting mechanism in December 2008. As with all child sexual abuse reports received by our Hotline analysts, the image was assessed according to the UK Sentencing Guidelines Council (page 109). The content was considered to be a potentially illegal indecent image of a child under the age of 18, but hosted outside the UK. The IWF does not issue takedown notices to ISPs or hosting companies outside the UK, but we did advise one of our partner Hotlines abroad and our law enforcement partner agency of our assessment. The specific URL (individual webpage) was then added to the list provided to ISPs and other companies in the online sector to protect their customers from inadvertent exposure to a potentially illegal indecent image of a child.

In its response, the Wikimedia Foundation said that this is the first time, as far as its members know, that Wikipedia has been censored in the UK. The foundation added that the IWF move had greater ramifications than simply blocking access to one article.

[I]n the case of Wikipedia, the block has had the additional -and extremely damaging- side effect of disenfranchising UK-based Wikipedia editors, by making it impossible for them to edit the encyclopedia.

The censorship shut down roughly one-quarter of all edits to the English-language Wikipedia.

The Wikimedia Foundation further points out that the Virgin Killer cover has never been found to violate child pornography laws, and that it is widely available on the Internet -- including on popular Amazon.com. Incidentally, the cover's presence on Amazon was reported to the FBI earlier this year by the socially conservative publication, WorldNetDaily -- with no consequences.

Interestingly, another Wikipedia article offers workaround information for Britons interested in defeating the IWF block. The entry on Internet censorship advises surfers attempting to evade censorship to use proxy servers, or software like Psiphon and Tor. One open-source solution from Germany, Java Anon Proxy or JonDonym, is available here. Psiphon, specifically developed to bypass censorship efforts, is found here.

A recent paper by Ian Brown of the Oxford Internet Institute concludes, "Absent the intimidation of a totalitarian state, the technically savvy and the determined are easily able to circumvent Internet filters, and content is increasingly being accessed using peer-to-peer systems that are even more difficult to police. It is mainstream Internet users whose access to information will be most affected by filtering systems."

Moves like the blocking of Wikipedia by the IWF are annoying and upsetting in the short term. But they'll certainly help to spur the development and distribution of technologies that make such censorship increasingly easy to defeat.

Evolution of a theatrical family

Have you ever wondered what became of the descendants of artistic legends? People like, oh, Oscar Hammerstein II, best known for his partnership with Richard Rodgers?

Well, Hammerstein's grandson, Simon Hammerstein, is still in the theater business -- and moving the goalpost on "freaky."

These are the types of headaches familiar to nightclub owners, and although that is certainly what Hammerstein is, it is not how he prefers to consider himself. While doing the things that nightclubs do, The Box also programs a schedule of performances that, from his point of view, are as ambitious as any Off Broadway theater’s. This was Hammerstein’s biggest gamble: that he could produce profane sets in an all-hours, anything-goes venue and yet keep the vibe classy enough that no one would think they’d entered a sex club instead of a nightclub.

There is a tension in the crowd, a sense of titillation at the prospect of a line being crossed. Shows begin at around 1 a.m. and usually include two acts and an after-show. The lineup is never announced ahead of time, but these days it’s likely to include Narcissister, a woman who performs a reverse striptease, pulling her clothing—a skirt and stockings and tube top and scarf—from her orifices. Or it might feature an acrobat who balances on one finger resting on a dildo worn by his female assistant, or an act of vaginal bloodletting, or a performer dressed as R. Kelly appearing to urinate on an performer with pigtails.

I'll admit that I'm intrigued and would attend a show just for the sheer hell of it. But I would probably want to sit ... umm ... outside the splash radius.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Cops get schooled on entrapment in Fourth Amendment sting

I've long thought that too many civil liberties advocates (myself included) are reactive -- forever chasing the last horrendous abuse, only to be blind-sided by the next one. What we need are more pro-freedom advocates who are confrontational and take the battle to the authorities. Of course, that would probably require somebody with a bankroll to spend on good deeds, or else some way to make such confrontations into a commercial opportunity so they're self-financing. Sort of like what ex-cop Barry Cooper did when he set a trap for Odessa, Texas, police and filmed the results for his online reality show, KopBusters.

According to Cooper's Website:

KopBusters rented a house in Odessa, Texas and began growing two small Christmas trees under a grow light similar to those used for growing marijuana. When faced with a suspected marijuana grow, the police usually use illegal FLIR cameras and/or lie on the search warrant affidavit claiming they have probable cause to raid the house. Instead of conducting a proper investigation which usually leads to no probable cause, the Kops lie on the affidavit claiming a confidential informant saw the plants and/or the police could smell marijuana coming from the suspected house.

The trap was set and less than 24 hours later, the Odessa narcotics unit raided the house only to find KopBuster's attorney waiting under a system of complex gadgetry and spy cameras that streamed online to the KopBuster's secret mobile office nearby.

Cooper and company were hired by Raymond Madden, the father of Yolanda Madden, an Odessa woman convicted in 2005 of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. Yolanda's supporters say a key witness in the case admitted in court to planting the drugs -- but that she was convicted anyway and sent to prison.

Local CBS news coverage of Yolanda Madden, Cooper and the raid here:

Cooper is a former Texas cop and drug warrior who turned against prohibition after seeing the consequences of arrests for non-violent, consensual acts on the people he brought in. "This war on people is a failed policy. We have more prisoners of this war in jail then ever before yet even the DEA admits we have more potent drugs and a larger supply of drugs available than ever before."

He's become an able self-promoter who makes money selling videos that teach people how to go about their lives, including growing, using and selling marijuana, without raising police interest. That's opened him up for some criticism, but it also means he may well be among the people best-positioned and most strongly motivated to keep setting traps for cops who cut corners and violate constitutional rights. After all, he stands to make money selling videos of the abuses.

Wow, civil liberties activism as a profit-making enterprise. I love it.

It will be interesting to see how the Odessa police react to the trap into which they walked. I suppose they could try to press criminal charges of some sort, but if Cooper and company are telling the truth, all they did was engage in perfectly legal activity and wait for the police to misinterpret the situation, probably through the use of illegal search techniques backed by fraudulent claims made to secure a warrant. Under the circumstances, any attempts at retaliation are just going to dig a deeper hole for the local authorities.

Hat tip to Radley Balko for first covering this case.

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Saturday, December 6, 2008

Arizona speed camera rebellion piece published in the Republic

My column on the growing insurrection, including sabotage, against radar speed cameras on Arizona's highways appears in The Arizona Republic here: Rebellion mounting vs. speed cameras

Arizona officials can defend the use of speed cameras to raise revenue all they want, but they have a problem on their hands.

The opposition started with the usual public demonstrations by groups like CameraFraud and has now graduated to sabotage. Based on experiences elsewhere, this is only the beginning.

In the UK, Australia, Maryland and elsewhere, the roadside Peeping Toms have been pulled from the ground, spray-painted, smashed, burned and otherwise rendered not-so-revenue-enhancing. In Britain, a shadowy character known as "Captain Gatso" has organized endless efforts to turn more than 1,000 cameras into expensive scrap metal since 2000.

Note that the latest news is that a man from Glendale took after one of the spy eyes with a pick-axe.


Friday, December 5, 2008

Prohibition repeal ain't a done deal

The good folks at Bureaucrash have produced one of the better video celebrations of the repeal of Prohibition (on this day in 1933) that I've seen. It rightly notes the importance of the end of one of the nastier violations of personal liberty in this country's history, but it also, cleverly, emphasizes the growing litany of prohibitions great and small in these sadly overregulated states of America.

On a range of issues from guns to plastic bags to cigarettes, our supposed public servants have appointed themselves not only our masters, but our nannies and nags. Rather than permit us to make our own choices, they prefer to substitute their own judgment, with a boot on the neck, fines and prison time the threatened penalty for those among us who dare to tell them to get lost.

And no matter the reasons why each specific good or service is targeted by the finger-waggers, the intrusion by politicians is a violation of our rights -- and one that's doomed to fail if enough people, as is usually the case, refuse to comply.

Prohibition is an awful flop.
We like it.
It can't stop what it's meant to stop.
We like it.
It's left a trail of graft and slime,
It won't prohibit worth a dime,
It's filled our land with vice and crime.
Nevertheless, we're for it.

-- Franklin P. Adams, 1931

And so the eternal war between would-be rulers and those who won't be ruled continues.

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How much will that auto industry bailout cost?

What's a few billion dollars among friends? How about $25 billion ... err ... $34 billion ... umm ... I mean ... $125 billion?

What? $125 billion?

Yep. That's what at least one financial expert says may be required to save the Big Three automakers and the United Auto Workers from their successful effort to turn themselves into exhibits in a museum of industrial obsolescence.

From the Chicago Tribune:
Bolstering the notion that the aid request was only the beginning, Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com, predicted the companies would need $75 billion to $125 billion in government loans to avoid bankruptcy over the next two years.
My Nissan truck drives just fine, by the way. I may buy another, although it's going strong after ten years. Admittedly, Nissan is suffering in these tough times, too. The company's net profits slipped to $1.3 billion for the last six months.

I wonder if Nissan would be willing to buy up any of the pieces of the Big Three. After they go through bankruptcy, of course.


Thursday, December 4, 2008

Cops commemorate Prohibition's repeal with call for drug reform

Seventy-five years ago, one of the stupider legal experiments in American history came to a blessed end with the ratification of the 21st Amendment on December 5, 1933, repealing the 18th Amendment and ending Prohibition. An organization made up of law-enforcement officers is celebrating that termination of a disastrous violation of personal liberty by calling for an end to yet another failed prohibitionist venture: the war on drugs. As it turns out, we might just save a lot of money, as well as lives and freedom, by heeding their call.

As part of the We Can Do It Again campaign, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition has released a report pointing out the dangerous parallels between alcohol prohibition and the war on drugs, including violence, vast expense, diversion of law-enforcement resources, pointless incarceration of huge numbers of people and corruption of the criminal justice system -- even as use of the banned intoxicants actually increases amidst widespread defiance of the law.

You mean the use of drugs and alcohol increased after they were banned? You bet.

We Can Do It Again: Repealing Today's Failed Prohibition (PDF) points out:

While estimates on alcohol use before, during and immediately after prohibition rely upon incomplete data, sociologists identify two trends: first, alcohol became associated with a rebellious, adventurous lifestyle, which increased its desirability, especially among the young. Second, alcohol remained fully present in daily urban life. In New York City, for example, in the year before prohibition went into effect, there were 15,000 saloons. Five years into prohibition, those saloons were replaced by as many as 32,000 underground speakeasies. It is without question that problematic alcohol use of all kinds increased due to this policy.

The prohibited drug became more available in its most concentrated and potent form, a natural result of the costs involved in smuggling and concealing it. Beer and wine were largely replaced by liquor in illegal speakeasies.

Decades later, the same thing, predictably, occurred with other intoxicants.

According to the federal government, in the decade preceding the start of the war, 4 million people in the United States above the age of 12 had used an illegal drug in their lifetime (2 percent of the population). By 2007, the government revealed that 114 million people above the age of 12 had tried an illegal drug (46 percent of that population), an increase of 2,850 percent. Drug use became a badge of rebellion, although very widely worn. According to the World Health Organization, the United States has the highest rates of marijuana and cocaine use in the world, despite our having some of the harshest penalties.

Drugs have become more concentrated and potent, a natural result of the costs involved in avoiding law enforcement. The average purity of cocaine at retail increased from 40 percent pure in 1981 to 70 percent pure in 2003, while its wholesale cost dropped by 84 percent over the same period. The purity of street-level heroin nearly tripled, while its wholesale cost has dropped by more than 86 percent.

The money involved in satisfying the demand for illegal intoxicants fueled the growth of violent criminal enterprises then and now. The Mafia grew out of Prohibition just as various gangs and drug cartels have been spawned by laws against drugs.

The LEAP report refers to the corrupting effect of prohibitionist laws on the criminal justic system; I can find my own evidence for that claim in the headlines. Just two days ago, news broke in Illinois that "10 Cook County corrections officers and sheriff's deputies, four Harvey police officers and one Chicago officer were charged with providing protection for what they thought were a dozen large-scale shipments of cocaine and heroin." The corrupt officers were arrested in an FBI sting that was spurred by reports that the services of bent cops were widely available to drug dealers in the area.

Cops go bad because the money is so good. When you try to forbid commerce in popular goods and services, the trade goes underground and some of the loot always slips into the pockets of those willing to look the other way, or even grease the wheels of illicit business. Even more money goes to pointlessly chasing after producers, sellers and consumers of the banned substances. And, of course, underground vendors don't pay sales taxes.

How much money are we talking about?

In The Budgetary Implications of Drug Prohibition (PDF), Harvard University economist Jeffery A. Miron estimates that the war on drugs sucks something on the order of $76 billion from the economy every year.

The report estimates that legalizing drugs would save roughly $44.1 billion per year in government expenditure on enforcement of prohibition. $30.3 billion of this savings would accrue to state and local governments, while $13.8 billion would accrue to the federal government. Approximately $12.9 billion of the savings would results from legalization of marijuana, $19.3 billion from legalization of cocaine and heroin, and $11.6 from legalization of other drugs.

The report also estimates that drug legalization would yield tax revenue of $32.7 billion annually, assuming legal drugs are taxed at rates comparable to those on alcohol and tobacco. Approximately $6.7 of this revenue would result from legalization of marijuana, $22.5 billion from legalization of cocaine and heroin, and $3.5 from legalization of other drugs.

That's a lot of money that government officials could use on more productive projects or even (we can dream) return to the taxpayers.

LEAP is an organization made up of current and former police officers, prosecutors and judges who have seen the effects of drug prohibition close-up and know that it's a doomed effort that does more harm than good. The executive director is Jack Cole, a former New Jersey state police lieutenant. Other board members include: Sheriff Bill Masters of San Miguel County, Colorado; Joseph McNamara, the fomer police chief of San Jose, California; Warren W. Eginton, a U.S. district judge in Connecticut; Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico; and other veterans of the badge, the bench and the prosecutor's office.

One-time drug warriors all, they've concluded that the war on drugs is a lost cause that hurts our liberty and our institutions. Seventy-five years after we conceded the foolishness of Prohibition, the law-enforcement officers of LEAP say it's time to face reality once again and end another failed effort to stop millions of people from doing what they're bound and determined to do.


Different strokes for different folks (with lousy taste in architecture)

I don't know a lot about architecture, but I do know that I consider the work of the late Paul Rudolph, a modernist who died in 1997, to be a study in butt-ugly. You can see his Orange County, New York, Government Center below.

On second thought, I do see a certain powerful originality to-- Oh Hell. Who am I trying to kid? That's an eyesore.

But not everybody agrees with me. New York magazine reports that, while "his brutalist, sometimes off-putting buildings" were "once criticized as the worst of high modernism’s excesses," they "are now recognized as some of the most expressive American architecture of the twentieth century."

And therein lies the inspiration for the lesson for the day.

You see, in today's enlightened world of design review, where neighborhood committees and landmarks commissions have approval authority over developers' plans, a gathering of officials who share my architectural taste, but lack my live-and-let-live restraint, might easily deny the Paul Rudolph fans of the world the right to construct buildings they consider masterpieces. Or, conversely, Rudolph aficionados might force me to fashion my home along brutalist lines and then live in the godawful thing.

Taste really is a personal matter. All a government committee can do is enshrine one set of preferences at the expense of others held just as dearly by people who don't at the moment, hold coercive power.

So why not let us all build to our own fancy? I can live with Rudolph-inspired constructions so long as I'm equally free to satisfy my own preferences. Sure, we don't get to enjoy the pleasure of playing petty tyrant, but we may actually get some diversity of design, some creativity appreciated by some (if not others), something better than state-approved blandness. We all get a piece of what we want, instead of an endless battle to impose "the right way" on everybody else.

The price of seeing the occasional Paul Rudolph building is one I'm willing to pay.

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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Plaxico Burress not alone in ignoring gun laws

New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress accidentally shot himself with his own gun while nightclubbing in Manhattan. For his troubles, he received not just the medical treatment he needed and the public shaming he deserved (for lousy gun handling), but a fine and suspension from his team and the possibility of spending 15 years behind bars because the gun isn't licensed in New York City. Quietly, I suspect lots of New Yorkers sympathize with the unfortunate football player.

In carrying an unlicensed handgun, Burress is in good company. New York City politicians, protected by phalanxes of taxpayer-funded guards and politically awarded permits to carry weapons, impose some of the toughest gun laws in the country on the people over whom they rule. Even long guns require permits and registration, and the handgun permitting process is an ordeal that takes months and money and requires applicants to submit to a fair share of abuse from officials on the off chance they'll be approved. Even then, the city has been known to arbitrarily yank already issued handgun permits just to reduce the numbers on the streets.

Not surprisingly, many New Yorkers have chosen to acquire the means for self defense outside of official channels. While crime rates in the city are low now compared to years past, some neighborhoods are better than others, and some people are more at risk than their neighbors. Even the wealthy can be targets, if they don't hide, like Mayor Bloomberg, behind bodyguards. The International Herald Tribune reports, "Burress has not spoken publicly about what possessed him to pack a gun, but some have speculated that he was carrying it for safety reasons after teammate and fellow wide receiver Steve Smith was robbed at gunpoint three days earlier after being driven to his town house in a chauffeur-driven car." So owning and carrying a weapon has potential benefits, whether or not officials approve.

Nobody knows how many unlicensed guns are in New York City, but the running estimate for years has been two million. I come from a family that owned guns in the city for generations before I finally applied for a handgun permit in the mid-1990s so that I could shoot at the range. After I was "out" as a gun owner, I was approached repeatedly be people who assumed (correctly) that I'd be sympathetic to their armed-and-underground status and were, often, curious as to how they could "get legal." Some were longtime city dwellers who'd packed illegally since the Sullivan Act was young, others were new to the city, carrying iron from back home. All were curious as to the process for reducing their legal exposure while retaining their ability to defend themselves.

I told them not to bother. It's not worth the hassle and expense to "get legal," just to wonder if the cops will decide to cull you from the roles of permit-holders one day, or kick in your door because you forgot to renew on time.

I'm obviously not the only person to come to that conclusion. New York has responded not by making its laws less intrusive and easier to follow, but by toughening penalties. The potential hit for being caught in possession of loaded, unlicensed gun is now 15 years, up from seven not too long ago. It's also a felony conviction.

But the potential hit from not being able to defend yourself and your family against bad guys is being dead. It's hard to trump that with prison time.

And authorities require medical staff to report any patients that come through their doors with gunshot wounds, the better to enforce the law (similar reporting requirements are in place elsewhere and may also apply to other situations, such as child abuse). Mayor Bloomberg is quite cross that doctors and nurses at New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell didn't immediately snitch on Burress to the cops.

Here's a newsflash: Doctors' and nurses' first priority is saving lives, not dropping a dime. I know many medical personnel, and they're often quite adept at selective blindness, deafness and short-term memory loss. They want the sick and injured to seek their help, not fear them. They're also not always impressed by the wisdom of the law.

In the end, toughening penalties for violating laws that offend people's sense of liberty, justice and common sense doesn't actually improve the viability of those laws. Instead, it widens the gap between how politicians want people to behave, and how those people actually live their lives. It also encourages popular contempt toward government and the law.

That contempt is probably a good thing. But less fortunate are the victims produced along the way, including athletes threatened with a decade or more behind bars for the "crime" of injuring themselves.


MSNBC prepares to slide into Fox's mouthpiece role

Did I or did I not call this one?

Well, I just hope MSNBC is up to the job.


How about some bailout love for those bygone tech firms?

Y'know, when overvalued tech firms with no viable plans for turning a profit started going belly-up a few years ago, nobody threw them a lifeline. And that's the way it should be.


Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Underground economy provides shelter for illegal workers

Not long ago, Arizona joined the immigrant-bashing frenzy by adopting a law (signed by Janet Napolitano, soon to head up Homeland Security), that essentially requires all new hires to be vetted through the federal government's buggy E-Verify system to determine their eligibility to work in the United States. Employers who knowingly hire illegal workers can have their business licenses suspended on a first offense and permanently withdrawn on a second offense. The law made it more difficult for businesses to openly hire illegal immigrants, but it didn't eliminate the need for willing and able labor. Now, not too surprisingly, it turns out that employers and workers are resolving the conflict between the law and economic reality by going underground.

The Arizona Republic reports:

Blocked by the law from getting payroll jobs, many illegal immigrants instead are performing services or selling items on the side for cash.

Others have tried a different strategy: borrowing the identities of citizens or legal residents to land jobs with employers.

The maneuvers are allowing many undocumented families to remain in the United States despite heightened enforcement of immigration laws and a battered economy that has erased many jobs.

There are no studies that estimate how many illegal immigrants have turned to cash-only work to survive in Arizona. But economists say one of the results is that much of the money immigrants earn is going unreported and untaxed. That deprives the state of income-tax revenue even as tax revenue in Arizona is plummeting because of the faltering economy.

This should be a shock to exactly nobody. In many countries over the past few decades, the United States included, an increasing share of business activity has been taking place out of sight of government authorities. Why? Well, the reasons for this growth in underground activity aren't difficult to determine. In a presentation to the World Bank, No-Wook Park, a research fellow at the Korea Institute of Public Finance, explained the causes of the underground economy as:

  • Higher tax rates and social security contributions
  • Increased regulation
  • Forced reduction of weekly working hours
  • Earlier retirement
  • Unemployment
  • Decline of civic virtue and loyalty towards public institutions

Independently, Friedrich Schneider, a professor of economics at Johannes Kepler University of Linz, says (PDF), "The shadow economy includes all market-based legal production of goods and services that are deliberately concealed from public authorities for the following reasons:

  1. to avoid payment of income, value added or other taxes,
  2. to avoid payment of social security contributions,
  3. to avoid having to meet certain legal labor market standards, such as minimum wages, maximum working hours, safety standards, etc., and
  4. to avoid complying with certain administrative procedures, such as completing statistical questionnaires or other administrative forms."

Note that avoiding regulations features prominently among the causes set forth in both definitions of the underground (or shadow) economy. Arizona's employee verification and employer sanction regulations may be popular among crowd-pleasing politicians and nativist voters, but they have proven to be exactly the sort of burdensome rules that businesses and workers want to dodge.

And so they go underground.

How many go underground? It's hard to know. In Arizona, income-tax collections are down 13% from last year, but the economy has slowed in that time, too. To get an idea of the scope of the phenomenon, we can look at Massachusetts. There, where regulation is especially intrusive, taxes are high, and there are plenty of illegal workers, a recent study (PDF) "estimates the underground economy on Martha’s Vineyard conservatively at 12 percent of reported wages and 16 percent of reported jobs."

No-Wook Park says the underground economy grew in the United States from the equivalent of 3.5% of GDP in 1960 to 9.5% in 1995. Schneider, whose numbers are generally considered the most authoritative, puts the shadow economy in the U.S at about 8.4% of GDP as of 2003. If Schneider and Park are right --and they almost certainly are -- increased regulations should increase the size of the underground economy. So, however much shadow economic activity was taking place in Arizona before the new law, there's certainly more of it now.

And as the underground economy grows, an increasing share of economic activity takes place beyond the reach of tax authorities. Arizona may already be feeling that pinch as revenues dry up. Raising tax rates is no solution, since that's yet another spur to operating in the shadows.The economy chugs along, in defiance of resented regulations -- and increasingly it does so without benefit to the government.

That might be a good thing in many ways. But the underground economy functions beyond the protections of the law, too, and without the benefits that accrue to an above-ground job. If your boss stiffs you, there's little recourse if you're working in the shadows. And you can probably forget about health coverage.

But despite the threat posed by law enforcement, the lack of legal protections and the uncertaintly if shadow status, a large number of people prefer life underground to surrendering to objectionable regulations. Regulations targeted at illegal workers are just like any other burdensome red tape. If they are so intrusive that they stand in the way of economic activity, that activity will continue underground without regard for the rules.

In Arizona, as elsewhere, the underground economy provides shelter of a sort for people who need to make a living no matter what the government says.

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If a cop asks to search your truck, you say 'no'

I am forever astonished by the number of people who willingly consent to have their vehicles and possessions searched, even when the only possible outcome is a world of legal trouble. It's not that hard to say "no" in the hopes that the police officer will have neither the inclination nor the probable cause to seek a warrant. After all, you might get off if you decline the polite invitation; if you agree to the search while in possession of contraband, you will get into trouble.

That said, the following announcement from the Arizona Department of Public Safety is making the rounds:

On Monday, December 1, 2008, at 1530 hours A DPS Officer, stopped a Large Penske Moving van that was identified as a Commercial Motor Vehicle through an interview with the driver. The officer stopped the vehicle for following too close and unsafe lane usage and conducted a Level II inspection. As a result of the inspection the officer placed the driver out of service for not having a log book and noted numerous violations. While conducting the Level II inspection the officer observed numerous indicators of illegal activity, including an unreasonable explanation of the trip, highly nervous driver, unusual rental length, non cost effective trip for merchandise being hauled as well as numerous other items. The officer asked for and received written consent to search the vehicle. The officer identified a false front wall in the truck by newly caulked walls, phillips head screws in the front wall and sheet metal along the top of the wall. A search of the false compartment revealed 1849 pounds of Marijuana.

What does the better part of a ton of marijuana look like? Take a gander:

So, you have that sitting behind you in a false compartment in your truck, a police officer clearly has his spidey senses tingling, but nothing else to go on (that's the formal translation of "an unreasonable explanation of the trip, highly nervous driver, unusual rental length, non cost effective trip for merchandise being hauled as well as numerous other items"). The cop asks if he can go probing through your belongings and, with that motherload of ganja behind your seat, you say ... yes?

Ummm ... that's the wrong answer, folks.

Here's a hint: The Fourth Amendment requires that, even in searches of vehicles, which enjoy reduced constitutional protection, police must still have probable cause. Refusing consent isn't a firm and fast roadblock to a search, but it's better protection than permitting the search to proceed.

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Monday, December 1, 2008

Stationing troops at home -- maybe not such a great idea

In a move foreshadowed by the September announcement that 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team would be stationed at home as a rapid-response force for "natural or manmade emergencies," the Washington Post reports, "[t]he U.S. military expects to have 20,000 uniformed troops inside the United States by 2011 trained to help state and local officials respond to a nuclear terrorist attack or other domestic catastrophe." The move makes additional resources available in the event of crises at home. But it raises serious concerns about the potential use of the military in situations that could put Americans at risk.

It's not the first time that active-duty military personnel have been deployed at home. Troops went to New Orleans in 2005 to respond to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And thousands of regular-Army soldiers and Marines were dispatched to Los Angeles in 1992 to help subdue riots sparked by the "not guilty" verdicts in the trials of police officers charged with beating Rodney King.

But most troops are trained to wage war and destroy an enemy -- not maintain the peace and enforce laws. And they work under the command of federal government officials, not those in state and local office. The founders were wary of having a standing army at all, for fear that it would seize power or become a tool with which the federal government would dominate the population.

Even after a standing army was established, its domestic deployment was restricted by the Insurrection Act, which initially limited the use of military forces under federal command to deal with "insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination, or conspiracy," and then only if state authorities were unequal to the task. The law was recently reworded to permit the use of troops in cases of "natural disaster, epidemic, or other serious public health emergency, terrorist attack or incident, or other condition."

The domestic deployment of federal troops was further restricted in the wake of Reconstruction by the Posse Comitatus Act, to prevent the use of military personnel in a law-enforcement capacity. Rather than a peace-time policing mission, though, the purpose of the 20,000-strong force described by the Washington Post would seem to fall within the parameters of the revised Insurrection Act.

But even if a sizeable domestic deployment of troops is legal, is it wise?

There's still the undeniable fact that the main mission of the military is to subdue an enemy. The circumstances under which military personnel are expected to serve are very different than the legally defined, constitutionally constrained, roles played by police officers.

That's not to say that military personnel can't be trained along first-responder and police lines, but it seems likely that they would then become federal police officers rather than soldiers. It's difficult to imagine them smoothly transitioning back and forth between the two roles without the training for one bleeding into the performance of the other. If they try to act like cops on the battlefield, they may put themselves and their comrades at risk. But if they behave like soldiers while responding to problems at home, life and liberty could be in danger.

In recent years, many police forces have deliberately adopted military weapons and tactics, and the result has too often been excessively violent law-enforcement responses to peaceful legal transgressions -- sometimes with lethal results. As Professor Peter Kraska, an expert on police tactics based at Eastern Kentucky University, told the BBC for an article on the militarization of American police forces, "The problem is that when you talk about the war on this and the war on that, and police officers see themselves as soldiers, then the civilian becomes the enemy."

If the people responding to domestic crises really are soldiers, such violent overreactions stand to become even more common.

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