Tuesday, June 30, 2009

New boss, same as the old boss, chapter 26

President Barack Obama is actively considering issuing an executive order authorizing the continued, indefinite detention of terrorism suspects, without trial, according to the Washington Post and Pro Publica. The news is widely being treated as a shocking about-face for a president who has criticized his predecessor's harsh tactics in dealing with alleged terrorists. But for anybody paying attention, this is just one more step along a path the president has has already traveled, with indefinite detention hinted at in a May speech and even championed by the Obama administration in legal papers filed in March.

According to the Washington Post report:

Obama administration officials, fearing a battle with Congress that could stall plans to close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, are crafting language for an executive order that would reassert presidential authority to incarcerate terrorism suspects indefinitely, according to three senior government officials with knowledge of White House deliberations.

Such an order would embrace claims by former president George W. Bush that certain people can be detained without trial for long periods under the laws of war. Obama advisers are concerned that an order, which would bypass Congress, could place the president on weaker footing before the courts and anger key supporters, the officials said.

Indefinite detention, which flies in the face of Obama's campaign-trail civil libertarian attacks on the Bush administration, could apply to as many as half of the 229 detainees currently held at Guantanamo Bay. And, while it's a sharp departure from the position he took while courting voters, it's very clearly a logical outcome of the direction in which he's been moving since taking office.

On May 21, President Obama gave a speech on national security in which he addressed the issue of detention. He took care to criticize Bush-era detention policies, but then allowed that he might do the same thing -- though only with congressional approval.

[T]here remains the question of detainees at Guantanamo who cannot be prosecuted yet who pose a clear danger to the American people. And I have to be honest here -- this is the toughest single issue that we will face. We're going to exhaust every avenue that we have to prosecute those at Guantanamo who pose a danger to our country. But even when this process is complete, there may be a number of people who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes, in some cases because evidence may be tainted, but who nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States. Examples of that threat include people who've received extensive explosives training at al Qaeda training camps, or commanded Taliban troops in battle, or expressed their allegiance to Osama bin Laden, or otherwise made it clear that they want to kill Americans. These are people who, in effect, remain at war with the United States.

Let me repeat: I am not going to release individuals who endanger the American people. Al Qaeda terrorists and their affiliates are at war with the United States, and those that we capture -- like other prisoners of war -- must be prevented from attacking us again. Having said that, we must recognize that these detention policies cannot be unbounded. They can't be based simply on what I or the executive branch decide alone. That's why my administration has begun to reshape the standards that apply to ensure that they are in line with the rule of law. We must have clear, defensible, and lawful standards for those who fall into this category. We must have fair procedures so that we don't make mistakes. We must have a thorough process of periodic review, so that any prolonged detention is carefully evaluated and justified.

I know that creating such a system poses unique challenges. And other countries have grappled with this question; now, so must we. But I want to be very clear that our goal is to construct a legitimate legal framework for the remaining Guantanamo detainees that cannot be transferred. Our goal is not to avoid a legitimate legal framework. In our constitutional system, prolonged detention should not be the decision of any one man. If and when we determine that the United States must hold individuals to keep them from carrying out an act of war, we will do so within a system that involves judicial and congressional oversight. And so, going forward, my administration will work with Congress to develop an appropriate legal regime so that our efforts are consistent with our values and our Constitution.

Implementing indefinite detention via executive order would abandon this earlier commitment to work with Congress and bring the new president's position even closer to that of former President George W. Bush.

But even the May speech can be seen as a follow-up to a March 13 filing with the federal district court for the District of Columbia. In that document, the administration reasserted the Bush-era argument for holding detainees.

The President has the authority to detain persons that the President determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, and persons who harbored those responsible for those attacks. The President also has the authority to detain persons who were part of, or substantially supported, Taliban or al-Qaida forces or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners, including any person who has committed a belligerent act, or has directly supported hostilities, in aid of such enemy armed forces.

An accompanying statement explained that the Obama administration had tweaked the legal rationale for indefinite detention -- but still planned to maintain that policy.

[T]he Department of Justice submitted a new standard for the government’s authority to hold detainees at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility. The definition does not rely on the President’s authority as Commander-in-Chief independent of Congress’s specific authorization. It draws on the international laws of war to inform the statutory authority conferred by Congress. It provides that individuals who supported al Qaeda or the Taliban are detainable only if the support was substantial. And it does not employ the phrase "enemy combatant."

Taken all together, it's clear that the Obama administration has been moving toward a policy of indefinite detention of detainees under the unilateral authority of the president -- a position much like that taken by the Bush administration -- since before the moving boxes were unpacked in the White House.


Thursday, June 25, 2009

I know you're all mourning the passing of Michael Jackson as much as I am

Which is to say, you're a bit astonished he lived this long. On the off chance that he actually died of "natural causes," that would be just about the only natural thing about his life in ... oh ... 30 years.

That's not to say I'm not sorry he's dead. Death is usually sad, even if it is an inevitable part of life.

But I'm not as sad as the sackcloth and ashes mood on the TV news suggests I should be. I mean, the guy was a pretty talented performer who peaked a quarter of a century ago, and had since pissed away much of his fortune exploring the outer limits of weirdness and fending off child abuse charges.

The guy is dead. I know his family and friends mourn. Now, report on something a little meaningful. How's Iran doing today?


Supreme Court says: Hey! Teacher! Leave those kids alone

A strip search of a high school student based on a tenuous tip that she possessed a legal painkiller -- forbidden under school rules -- violated the constitutional rights of that student and is unjustified under law. However, the school officials who ordered and conducted the search cannot be held legally liable for their actions. That's the decision of the United States Supreme Court in a much-anticipated decision (PDF) that further defines the Fourth Amendment protections available to public school students, and stands as a victory for Savana Redding, the student who waged a long battle after being humiliated by officials in Safford, Arizona.

In 2003, at the time of the search in question, Savana Redding was a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Safford Middle School in the small town of Safford, Arizona. School officials got a tenuous tip that Savana had given a friend some ibuprofen -- the stuff in Advil and Motrin. That was against school rules, so the girl was detained by Assistant Principal Kerry Wilson. She was subjected to a strip search by two female school employees. The search turned up nothing.

But the Redding family wasn't done. They fought the search through the courts, finally winning at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (PDF) which ruled "A reasonable school official, seeking to protect the students in his charge, does not subject a thirteen-year-old girl to a traumatic search to 'protect' her from the danger of Advil."

Today's Supreme Court decision, written by retiring Justice David Souter, and sparking notable dissent to its Fourth Amendment holdings only from Justice Clarence Thomas, says in part:

[T]he content of the suspicion failed to match the degree of intrusion. Wilson knew beforehand that the pills were prescription-strength ibuprofen and over-the-counter naproxen, common pain relievers equivalent to two Advil, or one Aleve. He must have been aware of the nature and limited threat of the specific drugs he was searching for, and while just about anything can be taken in quantities that will do real harm, Wilson had no reason to suspect that large amounts of the drugs were being passed around, or that individual students were receiving great numbers of pills.

The court goes on to say:

In sum, what was missing from the suspected facts that pointed to Savana was any indication of danger to thestudents from the power of the drugs or their quantity, and any reason to suppose that Savana was carrying pills in her underwear. We think that the combination of these deficiencies was fatal to finding the search reasonable.

But while an intrusive search in search of a vague threat based on tentative suspicions fails to meet constitutional muster, the officials in this specific case can't be held liable for their transgressions. That's because of legal uncertainty over the extent of school officials' liability for constitutional missteps, providing officials, up until now, anyway, with conflicting guidance about just how far they can go. Because of that gray area, says the court, Wilson and company are entitled to qualified immunity for their actions.

That leaves Savana Redding with no clear path to seek redress for her abuse by school officials -- other, that is, than the knowledge that such searches are clearly off-limits in the future. Savana's fight has strengthened legal protections for students following in her footsteps.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Public medicine looks a lot like public school

With our son approaching school age, my wife and I are considering a variety of options: charter, private, homeschooling. Just about the only option not on the list, even though we're forced to pay for it anyway, are public schools. We're not only unimpressed with the results achieved by local public schools, but we also don't like their one-size-fits-all structure. As things stand, we're concerned that, a few years from now, we'll face a similar situation with health care, forcing us to pay for coverage that we don't want in addition to care that we actually choose.

That's the big problem with government-sponsored versions of anything. No matter the quality of the ultimate product, everybody has to pay for it, even if it doesn't suit their personal needs and preferences. Just imagine if dining out was a state-provided service. Given popular preferences, at best, we'd end up with reasonably decent steak and burger joints from sea to shining sea -- and that's it. Good luck to vegetarians and fanciers of exotic ethnic foods.

Of course, at worst, you'd be forced to pay for the food quality of a high school cafeteria mixed with the service you've come to love at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

That worst-case scenario came to pass in Canada, where the country's Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that the quality of medical care provided by the state system in Quebec was so terrible that the province's law against private health insurance couldn't be allowed to stand. While the ruling doesn't apply elsewhere, private -- and arguably illegal -- clinics are springing up around the country to provide care to people who'd rather pay for medicine twice than accept the government's prescription.

Private medicine is legal in the United Kingdom, where about 11.5% of Britons (up from 5% in 1980) carry private insurance in addition to the taxes they pay for the National Health Service. Government-provided dentistry is such a shambles that people have fled the system, and dentists now make more from private-pay patients than from the state system.

But if other country's medical systems have troubles, so does the American system. After all, The World Health Organization gave America's health care a miserable 37th-place ranking out of 191 countries, right?

Well ... not so much. Actually, when economist Glen Whitman looked at WHO's rankings, he concluded:

The WHO rankings depend crucially on a number of underlying assumptions—some of them logically incoherent, some characterized by substantial uncertainty, and some rooted in ideological beliefs and values that not everyone shares.

The analysts behind the WHO rankings express the hope that their framework "will lay the basis for a shift from ideological discourse on health policy to a more empirical one." Yet the WHO rankings themselves have a strong ideological component. They include factors that are arguably unrelated to actual health performance, some of which could even improve in response to worse health performance.

Basically, WHO front-loaded its ratings with criteria that guaranteed high rankings to tax-supported systems, and low rankings to systems where people pay for their own care. Said Whitman, "To use the existing WHO rankings to justify more government involvement in health care--such as via a single-payer health care system--is therefore to engage in circular reasoning because the rankings are designed in a manner that favors greater government involvement."

Plenty of people share WHO's biases -- many Canadians and Europeans are happy with what they get, and lots of Americans say they want the same thing. But plenty of people don't share WHO's biases. If you implement a state-sponsored health care system, everybody gets drafted into the one-size-fits-all scheme, without consideration for their personal preferences.

Actually, "draft" is the right word. Since state-supported schemes are supported by taxes picked from all our pockets, they're basically conscription with limited -- or expensive -- opportunities for conscientious objectors (and sayonara to voluntary alternatives). That's true of public schools, and it may soon be true of health care.

Right now, President Obama and his allies in Congress say they have no plans to displace private medicine, only to create a public plan that would compete with and "discipline" private insurers.

Right. What do you think would happen to Burger King if McDonald's not only ran its own restaurants, but also had the power to charge everybody for Big Macs whether they ate under the golden arches or not, and could regulate all fast-food joints? That's the sort of "discipline" you get from a government plan.

I expect that, in years to come, my wife and I will be looking at our options for escaping not just public education, but also public medicine. And, as it already is for Britons and Canadians, that choice will be expensive and limited by a government that doesn't put a lot of value on personal choice.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Uncle Sugar to the rescue (of our beleaguered newspapers)

There's an old saying that "he who takes the king's coin becomes the king's man." Those words are worth remembering as journalists rend their clothing over the death throes of many of the nation's newspapers, activist groups call for the government to rescue the dead-tree press as a crucial prop for preserving democracy, and opportunistic politicians respond with schemes to put the nation's broadsheets and tabloids on government-funded life support. When journalists are dependent on coins tossed their way by the political class, just which way do you think their stories will lean?

The problem is that people just aren't reading newspapers. Readership plunged last year, again. And with subscription dollars and advertising following readers out the door, more newspapers went bankrupt, closed their doors or went online-only in response. In keeping with the times, some folks think the solution is to have Uncle Sam break out the checkbook.

Some of the calls for subsidized journalism are outright ironic. Free Press, a "media reform" advocacy organization, complains that "[t]he takeover of our country's media outlets by a small handful of giant conglomerates puts too much power and influence in too few hands. That's bad for our democracy, which depends on our ability to access diverse sources of news, information and opinion."

Even if you buy the argument that media ownership is more concentrated now than in the past (a tough sell in the world-spanning Internet age to those of us who remember when "the press" meant a couple of network TV affiliates and the local newspaper), it's difficult to see how making the press dependent on a single benefactor -- the government -- would improve matters. But that's what the organization advocates in a recent report (PDF), in the form of state-regulated non-profit status, government subsidies and even direct employment of journalists by the government.

Along these lines, Senator Ben Cardin, of Maryland, has introduced the Newspaper Revitalization Act, with an eye to allowing newspapers to function as educational non-profits, so long as they "contain local, national, and international news stories of interest to the general public and the distribution of such newspaper is necessary or valuable in achieving an educational purpose" and "the preparation of the material contained in such newspaper follows methods generally accepted as educational in character." Oh, and newspapers with non-profit status would be barred from endorsing candidates.

But those caveats provide a hint of problems with the plan. Imagine lawyer-fueled arguments over the meaning of "of interest to the general public" and "generally accepted as educational in character." Even Free Press concedes that the scheme has First Amendment problems and might not stand up in court. Report authors Victor Pickard, Josh Stearns and Craig Aaron also allow that the plan raises concerns about "newsrooms currying favor with their benefactors."

But if non-profit status raises the possibility of favor-currying, how about direct ownership of media by local governments, government subsidies, or government employment of journalists?

This isn't exactly uncharted territory -- even within the United States. The New Deal-era Federal Writers Project, so praised in the Free Press report, employed journalists to document the America of the time and (not incidentally) to put to work in government employment writers who might otherwise be disaffected. An article in 49th Parallel: An Interdisciplinary Journal of North American Studies says the FWP can be described "perhaps most aptly, as a politicized documentary of the times with a social democratic slant." Of the guidebooks produced by the project, author Michael Dittman writes, "To further their hegemonic ends, the FWP could not have chosen a better propaganda tool."

But the propaganda effort didn't stop there. Writing of the same era, Nicholas John Cull, David Holbrook Culbert, David Welch point out in Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia, 1500 to the Present:

Murals (intended for post offices and other public buildings) were commissioned as Works Progress Administration (WPA) relief work. They were painted in an American socialist realist style ...

The Federal Theater Project adapted topics favorable to the New Deal in a series of "Living Newspaper" productions. For example, Power defended the socialist content of the TVA and openly advocated public control of utilities.

FDR was by no means the only U.S. president to use propaganda to further his goals, but since his example is so approvingly cited by modern advocates of government-subsidized media, it's worth examining the results.

Of course, independent media can curry favor with advertisers and investors, too, just as subsidized media caters to the government. But advertisers and investors tend to be a diverse bunch, with different and sometimes opposing interests. And they don't all have their fingers in all of the pies. Setting the state up as every journalist's sugar daddy is sure to create a situation where politicians have an awful lot of say over what is published.

Considering the power wielded by those politicians, and the investigative eyes we should all hope are fastened on them, that's an unhealthy prospect.

Such fears won't stop old-line fans of cheap paper and smeary ink from fretting over the declining fortunes of warhorses like the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. But those publications are stumbling because they can't attract customers even as many Websites created in recent years (and the online editions of old newspapers) are enjoying booming readership. If the old-timers don't see the connection, maybe their successors will.

In The Joplin Globe, Jessica Shreindl, a college newspaper editor and (presumably) journalist of the future recently wrote:

And even if a government buyout, err, bailout of the newspaper industry wasn’t eerie, its necessity is hard to argue. The hard truth of the free market is that industries either adapt or they die. Contrary to the “death of democracy doom-and-gloomers,” information and news sources are not on the decline. Online readership is up. With the click of a mouse readers are deciding what the news is.

The industry will be fine, it may consolidate, but it will be fine. There will always be news gatherers so long as people desire to know what’s going on in their communities and the world around them.

Newspapers arose out of people’s ingenuity and need-to-know; not by some legislature’s stroke of the pen. They will continue to do just fine without Uncle Sam.

She's right. People who gather information have always found a way to cater to people who want to consume information. Just because one crop of aging providers can't figure out how to change with the times and keep customers happy (or make money from online customers) doesn't mean the whole business should be turned over to the people most deserving of scrutiny.


Monday, June 22, 2009

TSA encounter sparks lawsuit

In April, Transportation Security Administration agents detained Steve Bierfeldt at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport for no other reason than that he was carrying $4,700 in cash. The move immediately proved to be something of a public relations disaster, since the cash belonged to Rep. Ron Paul's libertarian-oriented Campaign for Liberty, of which Bierfeldt is the director of development, and the political activist used his cell phone to record the incident (mp3), including abusive language directed his way. Now the confrontation has sparked a lawsuit against the TSA, with the American Civil Liberties Union arguing Bierfeldt's case.

In the wake of Bierfeldt's detention, TSA brass made it clear they knew they had stepped in a PR mess as the confrontation immediately made the rounds of the Internet and television. On its official blog, the TSA conceded:

A Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employee and members of the St. Louis Airport Police Department can be heard on the audio recording. The tone and language used by the TSA employee was inappropriate. TSA holds its employees to the highest professional standards. TSA will continue to investigate this matter and take appropriate action.

But the TSA never backed down from the idea that carrying cash is enough reason to detail travelers or corrected its agents' refusal to answer Bierfeldt's pointed but polite questions about the legitimate scope of their authority. That suggests that the practice will continue, moderated only by the occasional apology directed to politically connected victims. That's not enough for Bierfeldt. He says:

"Most Americans would be surprised to learn that TSA considers simply carrying cash to be a basis for detention and questioning. I hope the court makes clear that my detention by TSA agents was unconstitutional and stops TSA from engaging in these unlawful searches and arrests. I do not want another innocent American to have to endure what I went through."

The ACLU is involved for the same reason -- to make sure the TSA goes beyond an embarrassed mea culpa and alters its procedures so that other travelers are no longer at risk of suspicionless detention and questioning. Larry Schwartztol, a staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project, protests, "Mr. Bierfeldt's experience represents a troubling pattern of TSA attempting to transform its valid but limited search authority into a license to invade people's privacy in a manner that would never be accepted outside the airport context."

The ACLU's complaint (PDF) against Janet Napolitano, in her capacity as Secretary of Homeland Security, points out that the TSA's authority to search airline passengers is limited to specific threats such as guns and bombs. Suspicionless searches of people who pose no apparent danger fall outside that limited, court-recognized exception to the Fourth Amendment.

The lawsuit asks the court to declare the TSA's actions to be in violation of the Constitution and to permanently enjoin the government "from authorizing or conducting suspicionless pre-flight searches of passengers or their belongings for items other than weapons and explosives."

The suit also seeks legal costs and any other relief deemed proper by the court.

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Perfecting society, one law at a time

From Washington, D.C., comes news that the Obama administration plans a massive program of new government-imposed financial regulations. Just a week ago, the federal government stepped up its war against people who enjoy games of chance by freezing online poker winnings. And Germany's latest effort to "save the children" involves a nationwide ban on violent video games. It's clear that, for good or ill, we live in a control-minded age. But has anybody stopped to ask the human cost of the growing web of laws in which we're ensnared?

Over 2,000 years ago, Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian, warned, "The more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the government." Even earlier, the Chinese philospher Lao Tzu cautioned, "The more artificial taboos and restrictions there are in the world, the more the people are impoverished.... The more that laws and regulations are given prominence, the more thieves and robbers there will be."

For millennia, anybody with a brain has known that weighing people down with laws -- even well-intentioned laws -- is expensive. Regulation extracts a price in wealth, in liberty and in blood. Laws and their enforcement can be tailored to suit well-connected constituencies, providing ample opportunities for bribery and malicious prosecution.

This isn't some abstract problem -- the cost of laws comes with names like John Adams, who was killed during a drug raid on the wrong house, Kathryn Johnston who was gunned down by cops working from a bad tip, and Salvator Culosi, who took an unprovoked bullet during an investigation of sports gambling.

To the ranks of those killed, you can add the many more names of those deprived of property, or imprisoned or otherwise damaged by enforcement of laws that somebody thought were a good idea. People like Linda Dorman, for instance, who was robbed of $4,000 by authorities in Tenaha, Texas, because she couldn't explain the source of the cash to their satisfaction.

Some of these people, like Dorman, Adams and Johnston, were innocent bystanders deprived of life and property during misfired attempts to enforce (or corrupt attempts to misuse) regulations that reach their tentacles deep into people's lives. Others, like Culosi, may have violated laws that they just found obnoxious and unworthy of respect.

The fact is, even the best-intentioned laws will meet some degree of noncompliance. The more contentious the passage of any given law is, the more likely a large segment of the population will defy legislation that many people oppose. That means plenty of contact between the public and enforcers, with handcuffs, bars and bullets potentially in store for people who might be your friends, neighbors or family.

The income tax in the United States has a relatively high rate of compliance by world standards at 84%. That still means millions of people are at risk of conflict with the Internal Revenue Service.

About 42% of Americans have smoked marijuana, and about 16% used cocaine, despite the illegality of both.

Teens risk child pornography charges for sending nude pictures of themselves to their friends, yet 20% of them still engage in the practice.

And European gun control laws, sometimes pointed out as models for the United States, have actually resulted in a situation where many more guns are held illegally than legally, by significant percentages of the population.

Even petty smoking bans have bred an underground culture of smokeasies where people puff away, risking violent arrest at the hands of authorities claiming concern for improving the public's health.

Such widespread defiance of laws breeds escalated enforcement efforts by the authorities. Policing becomes more drastic, more intrusive, more violent -- and always less just. People go to prison, assets are seized, businesses destroyed, and some folks are killed, all in the name of somehow making the world a better place with just one more law. Some of the people paying the price will be "criminals." Others are just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We certainly need some rules of the game to deter the predators among us. A grim price is worth the protection we hope to receive from murderers, rapists, muggers and the like.

But any proposal for a new law (or for maintaining an old one) should come with a question attached: How many people are you willing to kill to see this enforced?

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Nature comes a-calling

Not long ago, I mentioned a bobcat that was shot in nearby Cottonwood after mauling a customer in a local bar. Well, nature's sharp and toothy reality came by for a visit again, this time in the form of a young bear. The bear wandered around the area, took down a goat for supper, and was finally shot by Game and Fish.

I'm sorry the bear was shot, I really am. I don't shoot rattlesnakes if I can just walk around them, and I don't like rattlers half as much as I like bears.

But the bear's fate was sealed about the time it tore a goat into snack-sized pieces and went looking for more.

Verde Sante Fe, the development where the bear was first sighted, is about three miles from my house. It's an odd bit of suburbia surrounded by desert and grazing cattle. I have to pass the development on my way to and from home.

The hills behind the development, into which the bear wandered, are where I used to run my dogs before I picked a spot closer to home. I ride my mountain bike on the jeep roads back there. Those hills are actually nearly unbroken Forest Service land leading straight to my house and the surrounding area. They're absolutely beautiful and full of wildlife.

Basically, we're up close and personal with nature. And, sometimes, nature is hungry.

It's easy for people who live at a distant remove from forest, desert and fur to get all misty-eyed about the denizens of the wilderness. People who actually live here can love the wild every bit as much, but rarely romanticize it to such an unrealistic extent. Ultimately, the animals with which we rub shoulders pose a potential danger to our pets, our livestock, our children and ourselves.

Usually, I put a .22 in my pocket when I run my dogs or take my kid on a hike. But bear ... This week, I traded my popgun for my .357. I hope I don't have to use it. But at least I'll have it handy.

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But who will pay the bills?

Uh oh ...
According to US Treasury data issued Monday, Beijing owned 763.5 billion dollars in US securities in April, down from 767.9 billion dollars in March.

It was the first month since June 2008 that Beijing failed to purchase more US T-bills.

It's a good thing the government can just make more money out of thin air. What could be the harm in that?

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Shut it all down

Here in Arizona, you know we're about to miss a great opportunity:
Gov. Jan Brewer wants her agency chiefs to figure out what state services will continue -- and which will not - if there is no budget when the new fiscal year begins July 1.
The article goes on to assure readers that the state will maintain "essential" services, no matter the outcome of budget negotiations. Presumably, said essential services involve the funding of a contract on former Governor Janet Napolitano.

But wouldn't it be great of we just shut the damned state government down, whole hog? We could spin off state properties as independent businesses, or sell them off to private-sector operators.

Really, how often do we get this close to such a liberty-enhancing opportunity?


Forensic science -- it ain't CSI

William Dillon spent 27 years behind bars for a crime he didn't commit. Wilton Dedge spent a similar stretch behind bars before finally being exonerated. Juan Ramos was sentenced to death before being freed from prison over a crime he didn't commit. The three men are linked not just by their innocence, but by the role played in their cases by dog handler John Preston, a one-time Pennsylvania state trooper, and his amazingly talented dog, Harass II. Preston was only one of many "scientific" experts later exposed as a fraud, some of whose victims may still wait to be revealed.

Scott Maxwell of the Orlando Sentinel has the details regarding Preston and the wreckage he left behind. But the fact that Preston and his "wonder dog" were so relied upon by prosecutors and courts until exposed in the media and humiliated by one judge demonstrates just how much suspension of disbelief (or outright dishonesty) is behind the acceptance of "forensic science" that too often turns out to be either poorly applied -- or even pure hocum.

Reason magazine's Radley Balko has made justified waves in recent years by exposing the nonsense disguised as medicine peddled by Dr. Michael West, a dentist who offered scientifically implausible evidence of guilt (in several cases, of defendants later proven innocent), based on his exclusive bite-mark "technique."

Balko was also largely responsible for (hopefully) ending the career of the notorious Dr. Steven Hayne, a medical examiner without credentials who seemed to customize his testimony to meet the needs of prosecutors.

But it's not just corrupt individuals who deserve skepticial consideration -- so do whole areas of forensic "science." Drug testing, for instance, is a highly subjective "science" that has a lot to do with the skill -- and honesty -- of technicians. It's not at all uncommon for ordinary soap to test positive for illegal intoxicants.

A report on the state of forensic medicine for the National Academies of Science concedes that "The fact is that many forensic tests -- such as those used to infer the source of toolmarks or bite marks -- have never been exposed to stringent scientific scrutiny."

Overall, says the report:

[I]n some cases, substantive information and testimony based on faulty forensic science analyses may have contributed to wrongful convictions of innocent people. This fact has demonstrated the potential danger of giving undue weight to evidence and testimony derived from imperfect testing and analysis. Moreover, imprecise or exaggerated expert testimony has sometimes contributed to the admission of erroneous or misleading evidence.

"Faulty" science has to include the evidence of dogs, which have become so ubiquitous in recent years because of their supposed ability to connect defendants to crime scenes, or to simply detect forbidden substances.

But, despite the legendary power of their noses, canine-based evidence has to be taken with a grain of salt. For starters, dogs' "testimony" is highly dependent on the word of their handlers. In fact, there's no standard way for a dog to tell us that something has been detected. Some dogs just sit, others jump up and bark -- interpretation is in the eye of the handler.

Dogs, also, are notoriously easy to manipulate, since they develop close bonds with their handlers. For a 2004 report on the unreliability of detection dogs, Auburn University professor Larry Myers, a leading expert on canine detection programs, told CBS News, “They can tell you that something's there, that's not there, simply to get praise, to get food, to get whatever they're working for.”

Through improperly training his dogs, or simply lying about their alerts, it was easy for John Preston to manufacture evidence of the guilt of innocent men.

But fallibility can be as dangerous as fraud. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled in 2007 that canine testimony was acceptable in a case where the dog was only 54% accurate.

How many years of prison time are we willing to let ride on a 54% accuracy rate?

None of this is to say that forensic science is worthless. Properly used and understood it's absolutely necessary. After all, William Dillon and Wilton Dedge were freed of the shackles placed on them by bogus canine testimony because of the more rigorous standards set by DNA evidence.

But presenting fallible and sometimes fraudulent evidence as if it's beyond question runs the risk of discrediting good science along with the bad. The damage done by the John Prestons of the world can only be undone if we treat science as an imperfect part of an imperfect world -- not as the magic so-often peddled by charlatans.

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Don't tick off the cops, part 876

When it comes to covering the May 24 altercation between Oklahoma Highway Patrolman Daniel Martin and Creek Nation paramedic Maurice White, other folks have done the heavy lifting. I'm not going to try to reinvent the wheel by replicating their coverage of the incident. But I do want to comment on Patrolman Martin's apparent assumption, backed by the thin (and dwindling) ranks of those defending his actions, that a police officer's agenda and preferences should necessarily take priority over those of everybody else on the planet.

We've seen this before -- the automatic expectation of deference on the part of a law-enforcement officer, followed by rage against anybody who fails to comply in all particulars or, worse, offers a contrary point of view. Usually, it's a policeman up against a motorist, or a business owner, or some regular joe going about his or her business. Offer criticism of the officer's actions and you're told by a legion of apologists that the roadside or bar or business or home is no place to debate an officer of the law. Take your ticket, or submit to the handcuffs, and make your argument to the judge (and a jolt from a Taser awaits anybody who deviates from that script).

Video Taken by Patient's Family

But here we have an ambulance crewed by a paramedic and a driver, transporting a patient to the hospital. Paramedic Maurice White and driver Paul Franks incurred Patrolman Martin's wrath, according to the officer's own words and video of the incident, by failing to yield quickly enough to the policeman as Martin sped with lights flashing to a crime scene. Franks may also have flipped Martin the bird (or just waved).

And ... so? Why should an ambulance carrying a patient for medical treatment be expected to jerk to a halt at the side of the road in deference to a police officer responding to a call? Remember that the ambulance did pull over, just not fast enough for Patrolman Martin's taste.

And why should a police officer be entitled to stop an ambulance transporting a patient, and not only delay that patient's arrival at the hospital, but also physically confront the paramedic caring for that patient?

Is the police officer's concern over an insufficiently speedy stop and the possibility of a crude hand gesture really of such overriding importance that it takes precedence over the ambulance's business?

Consider this a test case. If you don't see a paramedic's life-saving responsibilities as at least as pressing as the law-enforcement duties of a police officer, there probably is no limit to the authority you're willing to grant any government employee with a badge.

Because really, the answer to any sane person, is that a police officer doesn't get to behave this way. If he has a beef with an ambulance driver, he gets to wait until the patient is safely delivered before he states his case (and does so without laying his hands on anybody).

Let's not forget that, in the words of Sir Robert Peel, who largely invented modern law-enforcement, "Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent upon every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence."

Yes, cops have an important job to do. But so do a lot of people. When it comes down to it, police officers are just like everybody else, and should be accorded the same respect (but no more) that you'd give a power company lineman or a dentist.

And they don't get to attack people -- whether with their hands or with the law -- who don't offer instant compliance.

Official Dashboard Camera Video of the Incident


Friday, June 12, 2009

So, reading rights is a 'bad' idea?

Security statists have their knickers in knots today over revelations that some terror detainees are being mirandized -- that is, read their rights. Armchair interrogators are upset that suspects held behind bars are being told that they have right to counsel and to remain silent, and accusing the Obama administration of being weak in the pursuit of terrorists. Except ... not only is this good news, the policy apparently began under the Bush administration.

In the pages of the Weekly Standard, which broke the story, Steven Hayes quotes former CIA Director George Tenet warning that information extracted from Khalid Sheikh Mohammad would have remained unknown had the detainee been aware of his rights.

"If Tenet is right," adds Hayes, "it's a good thing KSM was captured before Barack Obama became president. For, the Obama Justice Department has quietly ordered FBI agents to read Miranda rights to high value detainees captured and held at U.S. detention facilities in Afghanistan."

But ... the Washington Post had FBI agents informing detainees of their rights at Guantanamo Bay well before the current president took office. In a report dated February 12, 2008, the Post said:

Officials said most of the detainees talked to FBI and military interrogators, some for days, others for months, while one or two rebuffed them. The men were read rights similar to a standard U.S. Miranda warning, and officials designed the program to get to the information the CIA already had gleaned by using waterboarding, which simulates drowning, and other techniques such as sleep deprivation, forced standing and the use of extreme temperatures.

Why, oh why, would the FBI mirandize detainees and gently question them about information that had already been tortured out of them? Oh, that's right. Because courts and the intelligence community don't have a lot of confidence in information extracted through unpleasant means, and will often refuse to accept it.

Prosecutors and top administration officials essentially wanted to cleanse the information so that it could be used in court, a process that federal prosecutors typically follow in U.S. criminal cases with investigative problems or botched interrogations. Officials wanted to go into court without any doubts about the viability of their evidence, and they had serious reservations about the reliability of what the CIA had obtained for intelligence purposes.

Whatever depths it was willing to sink to, the Bush administration was aware that much of the world would doubt the credibility of data "volunteered" by men who were dangling from the ceiling in shackles or gasping from simulated drowning.

The Obama administration seems to be taking much the same tack.

"There has been no policy change and no blanket instruction issued for FBI agents to Mirandize detainees overseas," Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller said. "While there have been specific cases in which FBI agents have Mirandized suspects overseas, at both Bagram and in other situations, in order to preserve the quality of evidence obtained, there has been no overall policy change with respect to detainees."

The fact of the matter is, protections for rights, due process, limits on interrogation tactics and decent treatment of prisoners aren't just about being nice. They're about maintaining the credibility of a legal system so that people have confidence in the information it produces and the judgments it reaches.

It's also about making sure that you arean't wasting your time interrogating detainees who may have been scooped up through accident or malice. Without procedural safeguards and counsel, it may take you years to discover, for examples, that the Uighurs you're holding ended up in captivity because they were randomly nabbed and sold by bounty hunters.

Due process and protection of rights are humane, yes, but even if you care nothing about that, you have to recognize that decent treatment has a very practical value. Without such safeguards, legal systems and information-gathering efforts become brutal, time-wasting jokes.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

More on the zapped grandma

In the wake of last week's story about the Tasering of 72-year-old Kathryn Winkfein by Travis County, Texas, Deputy Chris Bieze because she wouldn't sign a speeding ticket, I've heard from more than a few readers who want to dispute or clarify certain points I made about the case. Some of the notes have been helpful, others have been tendentious, but none have changed the fundamental issue: Police officers can't go around zapping little old ladies -- or anybody else -- with potentially dangerous doses of electricity because they won't touch pen to paper.

First, thanks to the folks who tell me that Texas law does, in fact, require that motorists sign their speeding tickets or get hauled off to jail. This distinguishes Texas law from the law in other states where signatures are sought by police officers, but not required by law.

"So, when the woman refused to sign the ticket," wrote one correspondent, "the officer had little choice but to place her under arrest."

Well ... maybe.

Here's the deal: Saying "the law made me do it" is a cop-out. The fact is, Tasering an old lady -- that is, shooting her with metal barbs and then running electricity through her body to disrupt her nervous system -- in order to effect her arrest for refusing to sign a speeding ticket that has already been issued is barbaric. The woman had committed only a traffic violation and posed no obvious threat to anybody's life, liberty or property. That this isn't exactly an obscure point is apparent from Precinct 3 Constable Richard McCain's rather lame defense of his deputy's action, saying Winkfein used profanity and grew combative.

Seriously, just walk away and let the ticket work its way through the courts. Maybe the letter of the law dictates otherwise, but the law doesn't absolve us of moral responsibility for our actions. If following the law in the most literal sense has horrible consequences, good sense says you exercise personal discretion. In fact, psychologists say that we're not fully mature until we get beyond the idea of the law as the final word and apply individual moral judgments.

But what about Winkfein's obstinate failure to follow the orders of a law-enforcement officer?

Look -- the idea that police officers are entitled to automatic deference is the sort of mindset you might expect in North Korea -- not in a free society. Police officers are just regular people with a job; they're no more entitled to expect immediate obedience in all circumstances than are dentists or house painters.

I say zapping Winkfein was "barbaric" because a Taser isn't a full-fledged substitute for a phaser set on stun. Some readers have taken issue with Amnesty International's claim that "[s]ince June 2001, more than 351 individuals in the United States have died after being shocked by police Tasers."

Fair enough. So what about the study released at a Heart Rhythm Society conference that said that Tasers can interfere with pacemakers (some older folks have those, you know)? Or what about the research paper prepared for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (PDF) that found that some Tasers give an even bigger jolt than intended, with resultingly higher risks to the proper function of the heart? Mutiple jolts from even properly functioning Tasers have been found to be lethal in some circumstances.

This isn't to say that Tasers are necessarily evil and should be banned. In their original role, as alternatives in situations that would otherwise require the use of a firearm, they have great promise. In a situation requiring officers to, for example, subdue a psychologically troubled person who is armed with a knife, a Taser is much more likely to leave everybody breathing at the end of the day than is a firearm. But it's a less-lethal device, not a non-lethal device, and shouldn't just be used on people who haven't dotted all the "I"s in some procedural requirement of the law.

Below is police dashcam video of the actual incident.

At the moment Deputy Bieze triggered his Taser, Winkfein was actually turning away from him, having said, "I'm getting back in my car."

Deputy Bieze had already threatened to use his Taser -- "Step back or you're going to be Tased." -- as the woman leaned against the rear of her truck.

Perhaps unwisely, but certainly unthreateningly, Winkfein replied, "I dare you."

Moments later, as Winkfein leaned against the tailgate of her truck with her arms crossed, Bieze threw what may have been his ticket book to the ground and grabbed the woman to handcuff her. She pulled her arm away and announced that she was returning to her car. Bieze shoves her. Winkfein turns away. And ... zap.


But some folks still defend Winkfein's Tasering because she dared to argue with a cop. Seriously, people who defend and even celebrate the brutal abuse of their fellow human beings because they do not "respect mah authoritah" reveal themselves for what they are. (Just back away from them, slowly.)


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

How do you behave when (you think) nobody's looking?

How well do we behave when nobody is looking? The answer isn't important if you're surfing the Internet while the boss is out to lunch, but it means a lot when it involves the misuse of state-licensed coercive force out of public view. And, as in the case of Police Officer Joseph Rios III, who apparently beat Ronnie Holloway with little cause, some people entrusted with authority seriously misbehave when they think they act unseen.

As is increasingly the case, Officer Rios wasn't unobserved. In fact, he and his partner were recorded by a security camera at a nearby bar when they pulled up to the corner in their patrol car and confronted 49-year-old Ronnie Holloway. Holloway wasn't obviously doing anything out of the ordinary in the video. The most animation he shows is when he fastens his jacket -- under instructions from Rios's female partner, he says.

Immediately thereafter, Rios emerges from the car and proceeds to push Holloway, punch him, and beat him with a night stick. If Rios felt sufficiently threatened that he needed to use violence to subdue Holloway, it's worth asking why his partner stood by as a spectator throughout the extended confrontation.

Did Holloway say something to provoke Rios? What words could have passed his lips that could possibly have justified the beating?

Holloway, whose mother says he suffers from schizophrenia, has been charged with resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and wandering for the purpose of obtaining controlled dangerous substances. Maybe he was looking for drugs; it's impossible to tell from the video. But disorderly conduct and resisting arrest seem a stretch for a man who never raised a hand during the incident -- unless police are offended that Holloway's jaw bruised Rios's knuckles.

With increasing frequency, misbehaving police officers have been captured on camera phones, private security cameras and even their own video equipment. Five Birmingham, Alabama, officers were fired after their own dashboard cameras recorded them beating an unconscious man. New York City cops were caught looting a bar by the establishment's security cameras. And passersby recorded former police officer Johannes Mehserle shooting Oscar Grant in the back in a California train station (Mehserle's supervisor concedes that Grant posed no threat).

The world has changed. For better or worse, there are a lot more eyes watching us at times and in places that were previously unobserved. So when will the conduct of people in authority change to match the new reality?


Sunday, June 7, 2009

Ahoy, me (Euro) maties

On this side of the Atlantic, voters get the shakes if anybody suggests they vote for anything more interesting than the moldering corpses of the donkey or the elephant party. Across the ocean, however, Europeans just threw themselves a (poorly attended) election for the European Parliament, in which small parties gained a respectable share of the vote.

That's small parties like the Pirate Party of Sweden, which won 7.1% of the total Swedish tally with a tech-savvy platform devoted to privacy, reined-in copyright laws, and free file sharing for all. That was good enough for two parliamentary seats. The Pirate Party no doubt benefited from the controversial legal ordeal of the Pirate Bay, a wildly popular (and very cool) peer-to-peer file-sharing Website.

Not only was the verdict against the founders of Pirate Bay considered a violation of the free spirit of the Internet, but it was also considered corrupt, given the judges' ties to copyright-protection groups. The verdict is now under review.

The Pirate Party couldn't help but reap public-relations rewards, with the result that the European Parliament will be a lot more interesting than the U.S. Congress. Even before the 2009 election, the party's soaring membership had made it the third-largest political party in Sweden. Its youth wing is the largest youth political organization in that country.

Wow! A major political party devoted entirely to online freedom. And in the United States, we get to choose between the security-state party and the nanny-state party.

Oh, such tempting options.


Friday, June 5, 2009

Auto-erotic asphyxia? Really?

So, David Carradine went to Bangkok to ... jack off in a closet? If I'm ever found dead in a compromising situation in a foreign city, there are going to be three hookers in the room shooting ping pong balls at each other


It's a privilege to do business with you

From San Francisco comes the sad story of Larry Moore, a homeless man who got it together, started a shoeshine business and saved enough cash to rent an apartment -- until a city official slapped him with a bill for hundreds of dollars to pay for a sidewalk vendor permit. You see, in Mr. Moore's city, as in most places these days, offering goods and services for which people are willing to pay requires government permission. Somehow, the most fundamental of rights -- the right to make a living -- has been reduced to a privilege.

Some places make it explicit. In Pennsylvania, for example, if you want to do things for people in return for voluntarily given money, or sell goods to eager buyers, you have to pay a tax "for the Privilege of doing business." In some towns, it's considered a privilege to stick your toe across the border, and pretty much any presence will subject you to the eager attention of local officials.

San Francisco isn't as honest in its terminology, but the city does seem to require a license or permit for anything (and I mean anything (PDF)) that involves a few coins moving from one hand to the next. In Larry Moore's case, the city demanded $491 so he could continue to shine shoes with official blessing.

And if he couldn't come up with the tariff? Back to panhandling and living in shelters, I guess. Surviving on charity doesn't require permission -- it's only supporting yourself that must be licensed. As the San Francisco Chronicle puts it:

Along Market Street, Moore's supporters are indignant. Nothing happens when mentally ill men wander the street talking to themselves and drunkards pee in the alleys. Yet Moore creates a little business out of thin air, builds up a client base, and the city takes nearly every penny he's earned.

Some people think this is the way it should be. Even a business governance handbook written by a corporate CEO insists "business is a privilege, not a right -- the privilege to run a business in a society for the benefit of present and future generations." The Supreme Court of Missouri once wrote, with regard to pawnprokers:

No person has the right to follow such occupation within the limits of said city without first obtaining a license from its authorities for that purpose, which may be granted or withheld at pleasure. The business is a privilege, not a right ...

Working to make a living is a privilege to be dispensed by bureaucrats "at pleasure" (and at no small charge)? If that's the case, how free can we ever really be?

I write often about free speech, search and seizure, domestic relationships and the general right we all have to be left alone to conduct our lives, use our bodies and love our friends and family as we see fit, so long as we harm nobody else.

But it's difficult to fully enjoy those rights, no matter how well protected, if there isn't equivalent regard for the fundamental right to make a living. After all, if a license to do business can be withheld "at pleasure," displeasing officials with the way you conduct your life can have dire consequences for the ability to pay bills and put food on the table.

The idea of a right to go about your life unmolested and without asking permission isn't some novelty. It was only a bit over a century ago that the U.S. Supreme Court said:

The individual may stand upon his constitutional rights as a citizen. He is entitled to carry on his private business in his own way. His power to contract is unlimited. He owes no duty to the state or to his neighbors to divulge his business, or to open his doors to an investigation, so far as it may tend to criminate him. He owes no such duty to the state, since he receives nothing therefrom, beyond the protection of his life and property. His rights are such as existed by the law of the land long antecedent to the organization of the state, and can only be taken from him by due process of law, and in accordance with the Constitution. Among his rights are a refusal to incriminate himself, and the immunity of himself and his property from arrest or seizure except under a warrant of the law. He owes nothing to the public so long as he does not trespass upon their rights.

That point of view is considered a little antiquated today, but without it, aren't we all just getting from one meal to the next dependent on the whim of an army of politicians and bureaucrats?

Larry Moore was lucky. His customers came through to make sure that there was enough money for both the permit fee and the rent payment (and to help him pay the city its money, since the process is byzantine in its complexity).

But all of us, potentially, are just as vulnerable as a man trying to make his way off the street.

Sort of apropo to all of the above, here's Doug Stanhope, sounding off on freedom -- and licensing (thanks to Mike Frink for the heads-up).


Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The company you keep

From Reuters:
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez said on Tuesday that he and Cuban ally Fidel Castro risk being more conservative than U.S. President Barack Obama as Washington prepares to take control of General Motors Corp.

During one of Chavez's customary lectures on the "curse" of capitalism and the bonanzas of socialism, the Venezuelan leader made reference to GM's bankruptcy filing, which is expected to give the U.S. government a 60 percent stake in the 100-year-old former symbol of American might.

"Hey, Obama has just nationalized nothing more and nothing less than General Motors. Comrade Obama! Fidel, careful or we are going to end up to his right," Chavez joked on a live television broadcast.

It's probably not true in some sort of absolute sense. I don't expect America's fearless leader to out-nationalize Venezuela's fearless leader, and there's no talk yet of President Obama inserting hosannas to himself in school texts or sending the Obamatons out to pound on the opposition.

But it is telling, I think.

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Intolerant thuggery may not have a political future after all

Pew- declining social conservatism
Source: Pew Research Center for People
and the Press
Much fuss has been made in the press about the low regard in which Americans hold Republicans, the stronger position of Democrats, and the ascendancy of Independents who refuse to affiliate with either party. But there's been relatively little discussion of the role Americans' growing social tolerance and concern for civil liberties plays in the GOP's troubles, or the fact that such "liberal" attitudes go hand-in-hand with a continuing distrust of government.

Gallup is getting play with survey results revealing that about 63% of the dwindling ranks of Republicans are white conservatives. The Democratic Party, by contrast, is more ethnically diverse and is overwhelmingly moderate-to-liberal.

But what do "conservative," "moderate" and "liberal" mean and what implications do such ideological identifiers have for the future?

The answer to those questions might be found in Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes: 1987-2009, a publication of the Pew Research Center for People and the Press. The survey doesn't just rely on ideological labels that often conceal more than they reveal, but delves into opinions on social issues, economic matters and the relationship of the individual to the state.

The biggest change in views in recent years, according to Pew, comes in attitudes toward social tolerance and civil liberties. For example, while Americans are still somewhat uncomfortable with outright same-sex marriage (54% oppose, up from 49% last year), 53% favor civil unions "allowing gay and lesbian couples to enter into legal agreements with each other that would give them many of the same rights as married couples."
We're now at the point where a majority of the population favors marriage for gays and lesbians in all but name.

Overall, the share of Americans saying that "school boards ought to have the right to fire teachers who are known homosexuals" has dropped from 51% in 1987 to 28% today.

It's not just homosexuality, either. Only 19% of Americans say that women should return to their traditional role in society, down from 30% in 1987. And while 71% of respondents still adhere to "old-fashioned values about family and marriage," that's down from 87% in 1987.
Pew - civil liberties
In terms of civil liberties, while 55% of Americans agreed in 2001 that it "would be necessary to sacrifice some civil liberties to curb terrorism," that figure has declined to 27% today.
Interestingly, Republican support for surrendering civil liberties has tracked with national figures, declining from 40% two years ago to 27% today. But eight years of the security state under President George W. Bush have at least temporarily associated the Republican Party with Guantanamo Bay, warrantless wiretaps and state secrets doctrine (though President Obama seems dead-set on making all of that a bipartisan affair).

While 42% of Republicans would allow warrantless searches of the homes of potential terrorism sympathizers, only 34% of Democrats and 30% of Independents agree.

Tellingly, Independents track more closely to Democrats than to Republicans on social values. That's important because "independent" is where the action is, with the ranks of those rejecting both parties growing rapidly in recent years.

And, with important implications for the future, Americans are more socially liberal the younger they are. The "greatest generation," born before 1928 is more socially conservative than the "silent generation" born between 1928 and 1945, which is more socially conservative than Boomers born from '46-'64, followed by Gen-Xers from '65-'76. Today's so-called Gen-Yers are the most socially liberal of all.
Even on an issue where overall attitudes haven't really budged with time -- banning "books that contain dangerous ideas" from libraries -- support for censorship is highest among older Americans and lowest among the young.

But as Americans grow more socially tolerant and supportive of civil liberties, they're not necessarily embracing modern liberalism's love of state intrusion into the economy. That's especially true of those unaffiliated with either major party. According to Pew:
As a group, independents remain difficult to pin down. They are clearly left-of-center when it comes to religiosity and issues of moral values – independents’ views on homosexuality, gender roles, censorship and the role of religion in politics are clearly closer to those of Democrats than Republicans. They also tend to have more in common with Democrats with respect to foreign policy and military assertiveness. At the same time, their views on broader economic issues have taken a turn to the right in the latest survey. In particular, they are now more conservative on questions relating to the role of government in providing a social safety net and the government’s overall effectiveness and scope. They are also less aligned with Democrats than at any point in the past in their attitudes toward big business.
Pew - Federal government controls too muchSpecifically, 57% of Independents believe "the federal government controls too much of our daily lives." Sixty-one percent of Independents say that "when something is run by the government, it is usually inefficiant and wasteful." And 55% of Independents agree that "government regulation of business usually does more harm than good."

Pew describes this seeming growth in a combination of social liberalism and economic conservatism as "centrism," but that doesn't really explain much. On closer examination, Americans overall -- and Independents in particular -- seem to want a little less government in both their bedrooms and their wallets. They don't want politicians discriminating against gays and lesbians, authorizing intrusive searches or banning books. They also don't want politicians to try to manage the economy or intrude into private businesses.

Americans are increasingly tolerant of each other even as they remain skeptical of the state.

Sentiments are incomplete and inconsistent, but overall national sentiment has apparently drifted in a libertarian-ish direction, favoring more liberty and hostile to government impositions.

Such sentiments might last until the next poll, of course. But they do seem to point to an intriguing -- and encouraging -- future for the country. They also indicate shifts in the population's values and attitudes that the major political parties will have to address if they want to be relevant in the years to come.

Republicans, in particular, have to face up to the fact that their socially authoritarian positions are, increasingly, a minority preference.

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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Sparks fly between old lady and Texas cop

A traffic stop for speeding in Travis County, Texas, led to the Tasering of a 72-year-old great-grandmother by a deputy. Feisty Kathryn Winkfein apparently so frightened the law-enforcement officer when she "used some profanity" and "got violent" that he felt it necessary to subdue her with a potentially dangerous jolt of electricity.

Winkfein was reportedly doing 60 in a construction zone where the posted speed limit was 45 when she was pulled over. She was ticketed but declined to sign the ticket, leading the police officer to place her under arrest lest civilization collapse for want of the surrender of a penny's worth of ink.

At this point, the stories diverge. According to Precinct 3 Constable Richard McCain, Winkfein cursed and refused to cooperate. She says nothing of the sort occurred. "I wasn't argumentative, I was not combative. This is a lie," the woman told a news reporter for Fox 7.

Either way, it's difficult to see how the issuance of a speeding ticket to an elderly woman devolved to the point where a grown, trained law-enforcement officer could be considered justified in subjecting the speeder to an electric jolt intended to disrupt her nervous system -- no matter what command of profanity she displayed.

Given that the speeding ticket had already been issued, it's also difficult to understand what purpose was served by prolonging the encounter and demanding a signature. A similar incident in Utah in 2007 between a state trooper and a motorist also resulted in a Tasering after the driver declined to sign a speeding ticket. In that case, the officer escalated the matter to a violent conclusion even though Utah law doesn't actually require a signature. Texas law apparently follows the same reasoning, considering the signature merely a promise to appear in court, not a necessity for the validity of the ticket itself.

Jared Massey, the Utah motorist, was ultimately awarded $40,000 as compensation for the abuse he suffered at the hands of Trooper Jon Gardner.

The use of Tasers is controversial because, while they are often presented as non-lethal devices, they are actually less-lethal alternatives to firearms. According to Amnesty International, "[s]ince June 2001, more than 351 individuals in the United States have died after being shocked by police Tasers." Tasers can interfere with proper cardiac function, even resulting in death. Logically enough, people with pacemakers, such as might be expected among older people, are at particular risk, according to a 2007 study.

A research paper prepared for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (PDF) found that some Tasers give an even bigger jolt than intended, with resultingly higher risks to the proper function of the heart.

As such, Tasers make the most sense in situations where force has to be used, as alternatives to shooting or clubbing a suspect; they aren't appropriately applied to suspects who have simply annoyed police officers.

After being Tasered along the road for failing to put pen to paper, Kathryn Winkfein was taken to jail and booked for resisting arrest and detention. Not surprisingly, she's hired a lawyer.


Monday, June 1, 2009

So this is the 'expert' in charge of the auto industry

Really, why didn't Obama just make his new dog the honcho. Instead, we get a guy who, as far as I can tell, has never had a real job, let alone experience in the industry he's supposed to transform.

It is not every 31-year-old who, in a first government job, finds himself dismantling General Motors and rewriting the rules of American capitalism.

But that, in short, is the job description for Brian Deese, a not-quite graduate of Yale Law School who had never set foot in an automotive assembly plant until he took on his nearly unseen role in remaking the American automotive industry.

Nor, for that matter, had he given much thought to what ailed an industry that had been in decline ever since he was born. A bit laconic and looking every bit the just-out-of-graduate-school student adjusting to life in the West Wing — “he’s got this beard that appears and disappears,” says Steven Rattner, one of the leaders of President Obama’s automotive task force — Mr. Deese was thrown into the auto industry’s maelstrom as soon the election-night parties ended.

“There was a time between Nov. 4 and mid-February when I was the only full-time member of the auto task force,” Mr. Deese, a special assistant to the president for economic policy, acknowledged recently as he hurried between his desk at the White House and the Treasury building next door. “It was a little scary.”

A little scary? Is this a joke?

Look, I know government-is-your-friend types think that there's no area of human life that a bureaucrat couldn't make better, but this guy almost seems like he was appointed on a dare. As if the White House staffers sat around trying to see just how much they can get away with, and were torn between this guy and the pizza deliveryman. The deliveryman refused to give up his honest employment for a government job, so we got Deese.


New passport hassles at the border

A few years ago, when I rented a house in Mexico's Puerto Penasco, my friends and I crossed the border with nothing more than a flashed driver's license and answers to a couple of curt questions. As of today, that same trip requires a show of official travel documents. It's the latest step in the century-long process of closing the world's borders. Travel to America's neighbors, until recently a casual matter, now requires the permission of the state.

The whole world used to resemble a Mexican summer rental circa 2005. Actually, traveling much of the world was an even more casual matter as recently as the days of our grandparents and great-grandparents. In a 2004 article for The Globalist, David Fromkin, a professor of history and law at Boston University, wrote:

According to the historian A. J. P. Taylor, "until August 1914, a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state." You could live anywhere you liked and as you liked. You could go to practically anywhere in the world without anyone's permission.

For the most part, you needed no passports -- and many had none. The French geographer André Siegfried traveled all around the world with no identification other than his visiting card -- not even a business card, but a personal one.

John Maynard Keynes remembered it, with wonder, as an era without exchange controls or customs barriers. You could bring anything you liked into Britain or send anything out.

Real financial freedom

You could take any amount of currency with you when you traveled, or send (or bring back) any amount of currency -- your bank did not report it to the government, as it does today.

And if you decided to invest any amount of money in almost any country abroad, there was nobody whose permission had to be asked, nor was permission needed to withdraw that investment and any profits it may have earned when you wanted to do so.

Contrast this with Friday's U.S. State Department press briefing, conducted by Deputy Assistant Secretary Bureau of Consular Affairs Brenda Sprague:

Implementation of the land and sea border crossing requirements of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, better known as WHTI, begins Monday, June 1st. This is the day that Americans will need WHTI-compliant documents in order to cross land and sea borders into the United States. WHTI-compliant documents verify both the identity and citizenship of the individual in a single document, which must be presented to the border official.

Travel document requirements for air travelers were tightened back in 2007. Today's deadline means that once-casual ground transit across America's northern and southern borders, and easy puddle jumps to the island nations of the Caribbean, are things of the past. From now on, if you want to drink in Tijuana, dine in Montreal, or sun yourself in Bermuda, you'll need to carry a passport, a passport card, a trusted traveler card, or an enhanced driver’s license (Real ID-style license that's effectively a national ID card).

Government officials tell us that the world has changed, so the rules have to change with them. International terrorism, espionage, smuggling and other dangers mean that we need to abide by tighter regulations regarding when and how we can cross borders.

Somehow, oddly, those new rules always seem to transform travel from a right into a privilege.

The terrorism concern seems a valid one, but it's not as new as the security-staters pretend. An attempt to blow up the British Parliament was thwarted over 400 years ago (and has made for bonfire-lit parties every Guy Fawkes days since). The faces and terminology change over time, but not the will to do harm.

Espionage is nothing new either. Spies have been around since there was something to spy on.

And smuggling is equally ancient. Despite the hysteria of modern drug-warriors, the existence of smugglers has historically been a sure sign that a government's tariffs are too high or that it's engaged in the doomed project of trying to ban stuff that many of its subjects are determined to have.

But we're all much safer because you now need passports to return to the country from Mexico and Canada.

Well ... maybe not. After all, it was only a few months ago that a hacker drover around San Francisco, reading data from passport cards in people's pockets using a homemade scanner.

And respected security expert Bruce Schneier has written of the Trusted Traveler program, "there are so many ways for the terrorists to get trusted traveler cards that the system makes it too easy for them to avoid the hard path through security."

So maybe we're not getting much more safety in return for having to show our papers. But show them you must -- even if, like two former presidents, you were caught unaware by the changed rules.

It'll probably be a while before I rent another house in Mexico.

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