Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Americans distrust government? You don't say ...

For any thinking person, it can only be welcome news that the Pew Research Center reports, "[r]ather than an activist government to deal with the nation’s top problems, the public now wants government reformed and growing numbers want its power curtailed." In fact, says Pew, "[j]ust 22% say they can trust the government in Washington almost always or most of the time, among the lowest measures in half a century." It appears that perception is finally catching up with reality, and Americans are growing increasingly aware of the monster they've created.

By "reality" I don't mean that government is necessarily an unalloyed evil (though a strong argument could be made to that effect). But government's very nature is one that deserves skepticism and mistrust. After all, as an institution with a "monopoly on violence," there's no reason to involve government in any aspect of human life unless you're trying to make people do things they don't want to do -- with dire consequences for noncompliance. However necessary that may be, the role of designated arm-twister is one that should come heavily laden with distrust.

That's especially true when you consider the actual track record of government, whether federal, state or local. From the use of eminent domain to increase tax revenues to surveillance of politically active organizations to violent raids and road-side stops to enforce prohibitions on disfavored intoxicants (and legally mug motorists), government is an intrusive agency at best and an abusive one at worst. Government officials are perfectly capable of violating rights and also punishing critics.

So it's no surprise that trust in government has declined over the years, from a high back in the neolithic era ... errr ... Eisenhower-through-Johnson days to today's rock-bottom low. What is surprising is that trust was ever high. To be honest, government hasn't necessarily changed and become more contemptible since the gray-flannel era -- we may have the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Patriot Act now, but back then the powers-that-be unleashed the IRS on enemies of the administration of the moment, deposed foreign leaders and sent boys to die in Vietnam.

It's worth noting that Americans expressed their greatest trust in government at a time when media was at its most concentrated and controlled -- dwindling newspapers, a few heavily regulated broadcast networks, a muzzling Fairness Doctrine and no Internet. These days, a handful of politician-friendly editors won't keep government misdeeds from being reported and critiqued far and wide, since even the smallest publications have wide reach online. The result is the graph above, showing a fairly steady decline in trust over the years, offset only by the brief post-9/11 panic.

So if trust is falling, what's rising? Try anger at government, which has risen from 12% in 1997 to 21% today. And, logically, also rising is a desire for less of what people don't trust: about half of Americans now consistently say they want smaller government.

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

What's good for the goose ...

Many years ago, I had a law school professor who opened his very first lecture by telling us, "law is violence." His point was that any use of the law -- or of government power in general -- involves force or the threat of force. That professor and I disagreed on many issues, but we both knew that to call for the passage of a new law or the enforcement of an existing one is to invoke men with guns, handcuffs and prisons -- and, ultimately, to be willing to kill in order to achieve a desired goal. So it strikes me as absurd to see members of Congress -- professional makers of law -- get their knickers all knotted because some of the people affected by controversial health care legislation have responded with harsh words, disturbing letters and even bricks and bullets.

The apparently unfeigned outrage comes because our legal and political culture largely agrees with Max Weber's old assertion that government is defined by a monopoly on the use of legitimate violence. The state may allow others to use force (for self-defense, perhaps), but that's at the discretion of government authorities, who always retain the right to initiate force themselves to achieve their goals, and can expect acquiescence on the part of the public. Basically, that means government officials get to boss us around, and we're not supposed to fight back.

So, when people react to legislation that threatens them with fines and arrest, backed by armed men, by tossing a few bricks through windows, they're stepping out of the cozy system in which members of Congress have grown accustomed to operating. Don't they know that the peasants are supposed to just lie there and take it?

This isn't to say that threats and vandalism are wise reactions to the passage of the health care bill -- or any other of the many intrusive and oppressive policies that officials from both major political parties have foisted on us over the years. If nothing else, it's playing on the government's home turf, since lawmakers can call on large cadres of people who are trained and paid to smash and kill. It also tends to be bad public relations in a world in which most people drink the same Kool Aid as their political masters. Americans may accept thousands killed by soldiers and police, but they tend to be horrified when individuals smash a few officials' windows.

Then again, as legislators engage in violence through legislation, perhaps there's a value in reminding them that not everybody agrees that the state should be unanswered when it pushes people around.

And we can hope we'll someday achieve a world in which nobody, not even government officials, gets to initiate force to achieve their goals.


Saturday, September 12, 2009

Tea Party turnout (and it's not astroturf!)

Nice write-up from the Associated Press about the 9/12 protest against big government and excessive federal spending. It's actually respectful of the much bally-hooed event and the grassroots rage that's driving the demonstration.

Turn-out estimates are vague, but obviously substantial, to judge by the statements "Tens of thousands of protesters fed up with government spending marched to the U.S. Capitol on Saturday ..." and "The line of protesters clogged several blocks near capitol, according to the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency." I take that to mean "a whole lot of people showed up." If I remember right, the D.C. authorities have stopped releasing crowd-size guesstimates in order to avoid ruffling feathers, so we'll just have to work with the post-protest claims and counter-claims by supporters and opponents.

Perhaps the most important paragraph in the piece is the following:
Many protesters said they paid their own way to the event — an ethic they believe should be applied to the government. They say unchecked spending on things like a government-run health insurance option could increase inflation and lead to economic ruin.
That not only underlines a major motivation for the protest, it undercuts charges that the day is an exercise in "astroturfing."

It sounds like the event is staying reasonably on-topic, with opposition to expanding the role and expense of the state.

Nice take here from the Washington Post:
The groups behind the protests include a broad array of self-described libertarians, independents and other factions, who have emerged as a force largely independent of GOP leaders in Washington. Some of that is by design: Leading activists among the conservative groups say they remain suspicious of a party that endorsed runaway deficits, a Wall Street bailout and other Bush-era policies they found objectionable.
The media seems to have moved beyond the claim that this is some sort of fake protest, to growing concern that the peasants really are revolting without any insiders at their head.

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Friday, September 4, 2009

Where do all good things come from?

Tired of endless pie-in-the-sky promises from Uncle Sugar? Bent out of shape that government largesse is little better than two dollars taken from your left hip pocket and one dollar stuffed into your right hip pocket (unless you're well-connected)? So is funny man Tim Hawkins. But he's a lot better at voicing his discontent -- and puncturing official posturing -- then most of us.

So look below for a musical interlude in which Hawkins sings and dances his way to an honest assessment of a government that wants to set itself up as ... well ... the candy man.

Never forget, though, that the smiling officials who promise the world and tax the sunrise have to build up a powerful state apparatus of tax collectors, enforcers and strong-arm men to even pretend to keep up with the IOUs they've issued. As tempting as it may be to accept an offer from the government, when you do so, you're not just mortgaging your kids' future, you're empowering the folks who will mug your grandkids.

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Government may be getting just a little more unpopular

Even though I found arguments that former President George W. Bush "stole" the 2000 election to be unconvincing, I was gladdened to hear people who usually hold coercive power in excessively high regard use the word "illegitimate" when referring to the head of state. I'm equally encouraged to see reports that tax revenues are drying up and that members of Congress are being greeted at home by angry protesters. Anything that erodes the cult of government is a good thing.

And tax revenues do, indeed, appear to be drying up. According to the Associated Press, the federal government is seeing its biggest decline in revenue since 1932. Overall receipts are expected to drop 18% this year -- a number that squares with Congressional Budget Office projections.

Other figures in an Associated Press analysis underscore the recession's impact: Individual income tax receipts are down 22 percent from a year ago. Corporate income taxes are down 57 percent. Social Security tax receipts could drop for only the second time since 1940, and Medicare taxes are on pace to drop for only the third time ever.

Internal Revenue Service figures (XLS) reveal that tax receipts have declined during past recessions, but to a relatively minor degree. This year's cash crunch is historically impressive..

But reviewing those IRS figures reveals more interesting information -- in particular, how much less the federal government used to cost us all within living memory. Using current dollars -- that is, figures adjusted to represent 2009 purchasing power so that we're comparing apples and apples -- it's easy to see that the assemblage of czars and apparatchiks in D.C. has become a much more expensive indulgence than in the past. In 1960, gross federal tax revenues were about $91.8 billion; in 2008, gross federal tax revenues stood at $2.7 trillion.

Gross Federal
Tax Revenues, 1960-2008
figures in current dollars

And yet the federal government has been so effective at finding ways to spend that extra cash that it's poised to rack up a $1.8 trillion deficit this year alone, with a total deficit of $9.1 trillion forecast for 2010-2019 (according to the Congressional Budget Office). It seems that, no matter how much the government collects, there's never enough to pay for all of the things that politicians want to do for, with or to their constituents.

You can insert the government ever-more deeply into people's lives when you keep expanding your resources by such an enormous measure, with everything that implies for the size and power of the state relative to the autonomy of the individual. Wiretaps, marijuana and immigration raids, "smart" ID cards and extensive databases don't come cheaply -- but there's been more than enough cash to pay the bills for many decades.

Of course, lots of people like the loss of liberty that comes with a government that has a seemingly endless stream of funding -- and still spends more than it takes in. But not everybody hankers after the suffocating embrace of the all-powerful state. That's why so many members of Congress are going home this month, only to run headlong into vigorous protests against proposals to expand the federal government's already enormous role in the regulation and provision of health care.

Yes, Rep. Llloyd Doggett insists that the crowd that shouted him down was a nasty "mob" dispatched by libertarians and Republicans. Well, isn't public opposition always a "mob" in the eyes of comfortable officials?

And political organizations wish they had the ability to make enthusiastic protesters show up at a whim; In reality, the best they can do is to help coordinate passion that already exists at the grassroots. Those protesters may have received a little literature and a few emails from some groups' twenty-something outreach types, but they showed up because they're ticked off.

It's too much to hope that we're seeing the end of the metastasizing state -- expansive government still has too many supporters and resources to dry up and blow away.

But we are seeing further erosion of the credibility and legitimacy of coercive institutions and officials who are discovering new resistance to their efforts to run the world.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Hey control freaks, meet the DIY revolution!

From Fast Company:

Take a design for a simple product--an engine part, for example, or a piece of silverware, and feed it into a computer. Press "print." Out pops (for a sufficiently wide definition of "pops") a physical duplicate, made out of materials plastic, ceramic, metal -- even sugar. Press "print" again, and out comes another copy--or feed in a new design, for the next necessary object.

It may sound like a scene from a low-rent version of Star Trek, but it's real, and it's happening with increasing frequency.
I guess it says something about me that the first thing that occurred to me upon reading this piece was, "wow, gun control is really, and permanently, a completely dead issue, isn't it?" And, the second thing that occurred to me is, "actually, banning anything will become an impossible dream for frustrated control freaks as this technology evolves."

We'll all get desk-top "printers" that can knock off as many AK-47s, radar jammers and pounds of heroin as we want, so long as we feed in raw materials.

And yes, the government will try to come up with a software kludge that prevents knocking out verboten items. But those kludges will be hacked in about five minutes.

Oh, and since you're wondering, basic models of these 3D printers now cost less than $10,000.

Isn't that neat?

Hat tip to Hit and Run.

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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Dutch treat (smoking edition)

Can put-upon minorities wage battle against government regulators and win? In the Netherlands, at least when it comes to smoking bans, the answer appears to be "yes." After a year of widespread defiance of a law banning smoking in bars and cafes, and two court victories by bar owners, the Dutch government is backing off enforcement of the intrusive ban and effectively letting many smaller businesses set policies that work for them and their customers.

The key to the apparent victory appears to be cooperation. Bars and cafes across the country coordinated their defiance of the smoking ban after business dropped by as much as 30% in the wake of the law's passage. To lure back customers who wanted cigarettes with their drinks, bars put the ashtrays back on the tables.

First-hand accounts even had bar patrons using table-top candle holders for their ashes in establishments that didn;t want tomake their defiance too obvious.

The Dutch government fined hundreds of establishments, but couldn't break the back of the resistance.

The law suffered perhaps fatal setbacks when courts ruled that the the government had no authority to impose total bans on small establishments that had no staff when it let larger businesses designate smoking areas. Another court ruled in favor of a bar owner who designated a store room as the (non-smoking) bar and the rest of the establishment as a smoking area.

Now, Dutch bar and cafe owners are free -- at least for the time being -- to establish rules that attract customers and suit their businesses.

From the beginning, smoking bans have been little more than efforts to take the preferences of some people and turn them into legal mandates for all businesses, without regard for the preferences of business owners and their customers. Smoking bans are widely popular in a country where a majority of the population doesn't use tobacco, and their popularity has been enhanced by cloaking the issue in nice-sounding but spurious public health language that doesn't really apply to situations involving establishments that people can choose to enter or bypass as they wish.

Ultimately, there's little difference between mandating that all bars be non-smoking and that all bars play light jazz -- just because the current crop of politicians likes it that way. It's just easier to sell the smoking rule in a wrapper of false concern for the health of people who are capable of taking care of such matters themselves.

The Dutch example shows that, at least sometimes, efforts to mandate one-size-fits-all environments can be effectively thwarted if resistance is sufficiently widespread and determined.

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Friday, April 17, 2009

The other side's protests are never legitimate

The usual suspects came out of the woodwork to attack the hordes who braved occasionally hideous weather to protest against taxes, government spending and a sometimes messy array of other perceived policy flaws. The tea parties don't represent legitimate grassroots grievances, the critics charge, or they've been taken over by nutcases who just don't like the president. This is all par for the course. Some pundits don't like it when amateurs dabble in political speech; others can't believe that any significant segment of the country would dare to disagree with them.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, long-time political commentator Marc Cooper says:

Whip out your Lipton and don your tinfoil hat and join the protest against ... against ... against what exactly? ...

Then again, this rash of tea parties is being organized not only by the pseudo-journalists at Fox News (with Glenn Beck, Neil Cavuto and Sean Hannity actively stoking the flames) but also by FreedomWorks, a conservative lobbying outfit headed by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey. I suppose it was Armey's constitutional if morally dubious privilege to have built an entire political career out of defending the wealthy.

We get it, Marc. The protesters don't repesent your concerns, and the protests were pulled together by people you don't like, so never mind that simultaneous demonstrations drew large crowds across the country.

To Cooper's credit (if you can call it that), he has the virtue of being consistent. Back in 2002, when anti-war sentiment was the grassroots cause of the moment, he took demonstrators to task for being organized by the wrong people and for incorporating extraneous concerns. In the pages of the LA Weekly, he wrote:

For fundamentalist is the most polite and diplomatic characterization I can attach to a small choir of leftists who as much as declared jihad on me and a couple of other writers when we suggested that at least a tad of critical thought should be applied in building a peace movement.

With the Bushies blindly pushing for conflict with Iraq, we had argued, it's going to take a very big, a very broad and — yes — a very mainstream anti-war movement to maintain the peace....

Just as I don't want George Bush making war in my name, I don't want apologists for Saddam Hussein like Ramsey Clark going on TV anymore speaking in my name for peace.

In the future, we should let Marc organize all our protests so that they're more photogenic and promote the right message.

That's not to say that radicals and nuts didn't attach themselves to the peace movement -- they did. But that comes with the territory when protest movements aren't pre-packaged, but take on a life of their own. If it's any consolation, tea partiers embarrassed by the presence of immigrant-bashers and conspiracy theorists can point to the communists and dictator-strokers who plagued opponents of the war in Iraq.

Most criticism of the peace movement came from pro-government conservatives, though, who sought to marginalize anti-war activism as if real Americans couldn't possibly oppose military adventurism. Back then, Rush Limbaugh accused anti-war protesters of raising phony concerns and said that politicians questioning U.S. involvement in Iraq were "insulting soldiers all over the place."

David Horowitz said protesters had a "desire to hurt this country and its citizens."

These days, we have Paul Krugman claiming the tea party protesters are full of "crazy stuff" and that "the tea parties don’t represent a spontaneous outpouring of public sentiment. They’re AstroTurf (fake grass roots) events..."

Dana Milbank charges that the anti-tax protests were a "washout" that served up a "noxious brew" with "sinister overtones."


The fact is that, when thousands and tens of thousands of people show up to express their opinions and their anger, the grassroots are speaking. It's not all the grassroots of course; populations don't speak with one voice or hold one opinion. But all the efforts of George Soros or Newt Gingrich can't make people turn out to carry signs and listen to speakers in the rain if those people aren't ticked off about something.

Delegitimizing broad-based political opposition is an old tactic. Some people, like Marc Cooper, do it because they're elitists who don't trust the grassroots with something so powerful as opinions of their own. And others, like Krugman, Milbank, Limbaugh and Horowitz, are cynical political apparatchiks, who attempt to strip legitimacy from any movement that doesn't support their own ideas. They're especially aggressive in their tactics when defending a status quo that represents their own ideology.

Whatever their motivation, people who would deny public participants in the political process the authenticity of their own viewpoints have nothing of value to say themselves.

Whether or not you agree with the sentiments expressed by the participants, yesterday's tea parties were just as legitimate and grassroots as last year's anti-war protests. They may be right, or they may be wrong, but they're real.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Anti-state, not just anti-Obama

With thousands of "tea party" tax protests planned around the country on this grim day when we formally surrender a large share of our income to satisfy the ravenous appetite of government, some commentators suggest that tax-protest and anti-government rhetoric has gone too far. One of my own colleagues frets that opposition to the powers that be has crossed the line to actually challenging the legitimacy of the government. Well, I can't speak for everybody, but I do question the legitimacy of the government. I hope the tea party protests are a sign that more people are coming to this point of view.

Says John Zorabedian, the Boston Top News Examiner:

It concerns me that a broad segment of the citizenry has apparently refused to recognize the legitimacy of this government and have opted to take their political opposition outside of the "accepted channels of politics" ...

I started my Disloyal Opposition blog under the Bush administration and have continued it under the new Obama regime, so my contempt for government has nothing to do with the party in power. Not everybody raising heated protests against the government's spending spree and accumulation of power can make that claim. As Anthony Gregory of the Campaign for Liberty, which supports the tea parties, points out:

For eight years, Republican protest of income taxation was scant. Some conservatives complained quietly about Bush’s domestic welfare spending, but all in all they were apologists for the regime we are still paying for. They certainly did not talk about the state as their enemy, as many of them do today. The quickness of their transition to opposition rhetoric has been staggering. ...

Thankfully, there are more Americans than ever who eschew the statism of both right and left, who seek liberty, peace and free markets. Those who resent tax day and are searching for real solutions can join our ranks, rejecting the conservative as well as liberal policies that have gotten us into this mess.

Republican apologists for the Bush years didn't create the tea party protests, and they didn't invent criticism of government. The idea of emulating the Boston Tea Party got a push when CNBC talking head Rick Santelli called for a "Chicago tea party" in a much-publicized on-air rant. That wasn't part of any coordinated effort, though. I'm on a mailing list of bloggers and observed people spontaneously organizing tax-day protests with only scattered and belated assistance from established organizations. A representative of a small-government group sent a query to the list, asking if anybody knew how to reach Santelli, with hopes of getting the broadcaster's support after the fact.

Demoralized GOP functionaries looking for something -- anything -- to reenergize their organization have tried to hang their hats on the tea parties and on the rising tide of anti-state rhetoric. But many of the people issuing the strongest denunciations of the government now were equally harsh about government power and policies during the Bush years.

Economist Robert Higgs, a consistent critic of government power who I frequently quote, has been publicly excoriated for his strong denunciations of policies foisted on us by Congress and the White House. But he has made his criticisms for decades. As he writes:

During the painful years of the Bush regime, we had to endure the slings and arrows of the brown shirts who compose the so-called Republican base. Now that Obama has ascended the throne, the brown shirts of the left are emerging as the more conspicuous barbarians. Thank God it is not the case, as far too many people suppose, that we must be on one of these sides or the other. We can transcend this disgusting political spectrum, placing ourselves neither on the left nor on the right — nor even in the so-called “independent” zone somewhere between them — but rather rising above the entire line and insisting that red-state savagery and blue-state savagery are equally despicable and intolerable.

The problem, ultimately, isn't that "leftists" are in power, just as the problem last year wasn't with the "right wing." The problem, now as always, is that government wields vast power, and it does so with the approval and support of the most powerful political factions in our society. Republicans and Democrats alike bludgeon us with the state when they are in command -- they just have slightly different priorities when it comes to abusing us and and curtailing our freedom.

Simple-minded commentators (and nobody is more simple-minded than a mainstream journalist) insist that we must embrace one faction or another, and that to criticize a government led by one party is to implicily endorse the other party.

But those of us with brains in our heads know that's a false choice. We recognize, as did Leo Tolstoy, that "Government is an association of men who do violence to the rest of us." It remains such an association whether led by team red or team blue.

But we can vote! Isn't a democratic government legitimate because it represents the will of the people?

Not really. Many of us are no more willing to be robbed and bullied by our neighbors than by some dictator or politburo -- and that's even assuming that the democracy works as advertised. But even democracies have a nasty habit of turning tyrannical under pressure. Long before today's financial woes inspired the federal government to subsidize and seize private businesses, H. L. Mencken wrote:

I need not point to what happens invariably in democratic states when the national safety is menaced. All the great tribunes of democracy, on such occasions, convert themselves, by a process as simple as taking a deep breath, into despots of an almost fabulous ferocity. Lincoln, Roosevelt and Wilson come instantly to mind: Jackson and Cleveland are in the background, waiting to be recalled. Nor is this process confined to times of alarm and terror: it is going on day in and day out. Democracy always seems bent upon killing the thing it theoretically loves. I have rehearsed some of its operations against liberty, the very cornerstone of its political metaphysic. It not only wars upon the thing itself; it even wars upon mere academic advocacy of it.

Ultimately, it is liberty that matters, not the administrative means the government uses to decide when and how to violate our liberty. A lack of respect for liberty is what delegitimizes the state.

Because we care about liberty before all other political concerns, many of us have long denied the legitimacy of the government under which we live. I hope that today's flurry of loud and passionate tea parties is a sign that we are welcoming many more converts to our ranks.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Won't somebody please give Obama the Hannan treatment?

British Conservative Member of the European Parliament Daniel Hannan tears into Prime Minister Gordon Brown in a way we could only wish U.S. presidents would hear from time to time.

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Friday, February 27, 2009

Arizona Taxpayer Tea Party--Friday, February 27

For all you Arizonans in the Valley of the Sun:

It's a tax and spending protest!

Join the Arizona chapter of Americans for Prosperity (AFP), allied pro-taxpayer organizations, and hundreds of taxpayer activists for an Arizona Taxpayer Tea Party, this Friday, February 27, at noon at the Tempe Beach Park to protest (and stop!) the tax increases proposed by big-spending politicians at the federal, state, and local levels. Wally the (Empty) Taxpayer Wallet will also be in attendance.

The meetup for the Tea Party is at 11:45 a.m. at the Tempe Beach Park, on the south side of the lake, west of the Mill Avenue Bridge. A parking lot is available next to the park, on Rio Salado Parkway.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Juries quietly flip the bird to oppressive laws

In Washington, D.C., a jury ignored a military veteran's obvious violation of the city's draconian gun laws, setting him free with only a slap on the wrist. In LaSalle County, Illinois, a medical marijuana user found with 25 pounds of the plant didn't even get the slap; jurors chatted with him after finding him not guilty. While we can't know for sure, in both cases jury nullification was likely at work as regular people serving an important role in courtrooms exercised their power to quash laws they found repugnant.

Corporal Melroy H. Cort, who lost his knees to an improvised bomb in Ramadi, Iraq, was en route to Walter Reed Hospital from his home in Columbus, Ohio, when his car got a flat. He and his wife, Samantha, pulled over for repairs, at which time Cort, who has a concealed carry permit at home, retrieved his 9mm pistol from his glove compartment and put it in his pocket.

Cort's gun was spotted by somebody who called police, and Cort rapidly gained a rapid education in D.C. notoriously strict firearms laws. He was charged with carrying a pistol without a license, possession of an unregistered firearm and possession of ammunition. He spent the night behind bars for having the nerve to possess a weapon in a city that, while it has improved since its nadir in the 1990s, still has about triple the national average rate of violent crime.

Despite its crime rate, D.C. has done its best to deny residents the right to legally defend themselves. This is the city that was taken to court for its restrictions -- and lost, resulting in the landmark case of D.C. v. Heller, which reaffirmed that the Second Amendment protects the individual right to keep and bear arms. Depite that loss, city laws remain extremely restrictive, and Cort had clearly run afoul of local law.

But an amazing thing happened in court. According to the Washington Post:

After being deadlocked twice, a D.C. Superior Court jury yesterday acquitted a Marine amputee on felony charges of gun possession stemming from an arrest while he was on the way to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. ...

Although acquitting him of the gun charges, the jury found Cort guilty of possessing ammunition, a misdemeanor. He was sentenced to time already spent in the D.C. jail.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the jury ultimately saw no benefit in applying the city's tight gun laws to a handicapped man who was just passing through. Maybe they even questioned the overall propriety of the laws. In the end, they rather clearly ignored the law to set Cort free with just a nominal slap on the wrist -- which he plans to appeal.

And that brings us to the case of Loren J. Swift. Swift was arrested during a peaceful encounter at his home with a sizeable quantity of marijuana and plants -- reportedly 25 pounds and 50 pounds, respectively. He had been convicted once before for marijuana possession. A Navy veteran, Swift says he smokes marijuana to relieve pain and alleviate post-traumatic stress disorder, but Illinois does not yet have a medical marijuana law.

Twenty-five pounds of grass, plus plants, in a state where marijuana is strictly illegal. That doesn't sound good for Swift. Except ...

On Wednesday in La Salle County Circuit Court, several jurors shook hands with an emotional Loren J. Swift after finding him not guilty of a marijuana charge that would have sent him to prison. ...

In the courthouse lobby, after the verdict, two male jurors talked and laughed with Swift and his attorney, Randy Gordon; one of the jurors patted Swift on his back. However, one of these jurors refused to admit he was a juror when The Times approached him for comment about the verdict; the other juror didn't deny he was indeed a juror, but nevertheless refused to talk.

Not surprisingly, observers at Swift's trial openly speculated about jury nullification. Once again, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that jurors sympathized more with the defendant than with the law, so decided to ignore what the statute books say.

In doing so, in both cases, justice prevailed. So did liberty.

We don't know what was going through the jurors' heads in the Cort and Swift trials, or whether any jurors were even familiar with jury nullification. But it's not that difficult a concept to invent from scratch, if necessary.

Historically, as President John Adams put it, it has been the juror's "duty ... to find the verdict according to his own best understanding, judgment, and conscience, though in direct opposition to the direction of the court." Unfortunately, you won't come across that quote from Adams in many modern courtrooms. Government officials don't like being second-guessed by the hoi polloi, so the tradition of independent juries has been allowed to wither from neglect. Few jurors ever learn about the traditional power of juries.

But you don't need to know history to have an inkling that the rights of the individual sometimes violate the dictates of the law -- and then decide to come down in favor of individual rights. And individual rights are an endangered species in a nation increasingly hemmed in by laws and regulations that seem to render ever more of our daily activities either mandatory or forbidden. They need as much protection as they can get.

To preserve what's left of our liberty, jury nullification is a good and powerful tool for checking government power. But since it is frequently discouraged by judges and prosecutors jealous of their prerogatives, it's generally exercised on the sly -- often by jurors unaware that they're doing exactly what was originally intended. For that reason, we'll likely never know exactly when nullification is being exercised.

But we can celebrate it when we see it.

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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Freedom is a smoking deal across the U.S.

There's no ban or edict that any government can stuff down its subjects throats that some people will not resent and defy. Ample proof of that comes from Illinois, where The Telegraph reports, "[l]ike speakeasies during Prohibition, the area now has 'smokeasies.' Almost every town has a bar or two where people know they can go to smoke without being told to extinguish it." Welcome to the resistance, folks. Similar reports are trickling in from across the United States.

Where can you find smokeasies? Over the past few years, they've been spotted in Colorado Springs, Honolulu, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle ...

In Cleveland, where smoking and stripping were restricted at the same time, the bans resulted in two-fer "smokehouses" where sex, booze and tobacco mingle in a completely illegal environment.

Sounds like, fun, to be honest.

Elsewhere, licensed, above-ground establishments simply thumb their noses at the law, relying on loyal clientele to appreciate the scofflawry and keep their mouths shut. Logically enough, this suggests that low-profile, neighborhood establishments have a better chance at surviving as speakeasies than glitzy joints full of ever-changing changing faces.

According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

The smoke-easies tend to be in neighborhood dives; the Ballard bartender noted that it's too risky to allow smoking in trendy bars like the ones in Belltown. "If you're in the Frontier Room or the Rendezvous," he said, "you can't tell who's going to mind the smoking or not because there's a different crowd there every night."

In a neighborhood dive, even a militant anti-smoker will keep his mouth shut if wants to avoid pariah status.

None of this should be a surprise to anybody. The word "smokeasy" or "smoke-easy" is, after all, a play on "speakeasy," the name for establishments that sold illicit booze to willing customers during the long, dark years of Prohibition. Politicians may please themselves or the mob with restrictive laws, but very often such laws are unenforceable, because people subject to those laws aren't willing to comply, no matter the penalty.

No matter the penalty?

That's right. In 1633, Sultan Murad IV of the Ottoman Empire imposed the death penalty for smoking tobacco or drinking alcohol or coffee. Penalties were enthusiastically enforced. Even so, his subjects were ... unimpressed. The bans were repealed by his successor.

As Cleveland police Detective Tom Shoulders put it, "You put too many restrictions on people, they're going to find someplace else to go for their entertainment."

Wisdom from the mouths of enforcers.

Prohibitions don't work because no penalty is harsh enough to make unwilling people obey. Nicotine Nazis follow in the footsteps of drug warriors who walk the same path picked by Prohibitionists. All have tried to bend people to their will, and all have failed.

They do damage, though. Bans and restrictions inflict fines and prison time on people (and sometimes death). Nanny-staters often escalate their efforts rather than surrender to reality. By raising the stakes, enforcers empower criminals, who are best suited to profit from governments' authoritarian missteps and to undermine law-enforcement efforts.

But even flawed, defiant liberty is better than submission to the control freaks who would tell us how to live our lives. Light 'em if you got 'em and puff out a toast to the smokeasies of Illinois -- and elsewhere.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

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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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.


Friday, December 12, 2008

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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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.


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Roadside revolution

Road-side cameras meant to enforce speed limits are a big deal in Arizona. The state government is expected to rake in $90 million this year from the freeway spy-eyes. The take is projected to climb to $120 million in 2010 -- with $45 million more going to private contractors. Even in a state awash in $2 billion worth of red ink, that's real money.

But dodging robo-cameras that slap motorists with a $181 ticket every time they tap the accelerator a tad enthusiastically isn't to everybody's taste. The most recent acts of rebellion include unknown parties who roam the roads, pasting Post-It notes over the cameras' lenses.The "vandalism" is ingenious, because it does no permanent damage, leaving state officials unsure as to just how they'll charge the perpetrators if they're ever caught.

Post-it notes aren't the only tools of the roadside revolution. The video below, uploaded on November 20, captures a speed enforcement camera lense being covered with silly string.

Hmmm. Maybe the revolution won't be televised.


Monday, November 10, 2008

Melissa Etheridge needs to take her tax revolt a little further

Singer Melissa Etheridge is getting a lot of mileage out of her angry promise to withhold taxes from the state of California after the passage of Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment denying recognition to same-sex marriages of the sort briefly allowed after a state supreme court decision earlier this year. Her anger is understandable, since the constitutional change leaves her relationship with Tammy Lynn Michaels in legal limbo as people wait for the courts to hash out the impact on thousands of existing gay and lesbian marriages.

Writing for The Daily Beast, Etheridge said:

Okay. So Prop 8 passed. Alright, I get it. 51% of you think that I am a second class citizen. Alright then. So my wife, uh I mean, roommate? Girlfriend? Special lady friend? You are gonna have to help me here because I am not sure what to call her now. Anyways, she and I are not allowed the same right under the state constitution as any other citizen. Okay, so I am taking that to mean I do not have to pay my state taxes because I am not a full citizen. I mean that would just be wrong, to make someone pay taxes and not give them the same rights, sounds sort of like that taxation without representation thing from the history books.

No doubt, Etheridge penned her words in a rage and could probably be forgiven were she to reconsider and step back from her threat. After all, governments are capable of letting almost anything slide except challenges to their flow of revenue. Nothing gets officials to reach for the battering rams and handcuffs with greater enthusiasm than a tax case.

But what if ...

What if Melissa Etheridge were to join with other high-profile gays, lesbians and their friends and supporters to turn a quixotic bird-flip to the social conservatives who passed Proposition 8 into an organized movement? A tax revolt by one celebrity is a one-way ticket to Wesley Snipes country. But a mass tax revolt by gays and lesbians across the state could turn into a serious problem for California and a useful lesson to the majority about the consequences of restricting the rights of a minority.

There's a lot of anger out there, just waiting to be harnessed. Melissa Etheridge could be in a powerful position to remind Californians that a majority vote to abuse people may be an invitation to a world of grief.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Taking on the control freaks with 'Dumbocracy'

When editorial-page pundits nod their heads approvingly about "moderates" and "centrists," they're usually talking about establishment types willing to borrow a tidbit here and a sample there from the whips-and-chains wings of both the political right and the political left. Want to ban dope and guns? Hey, you're a moderate! And if you keep the penalties for transgressors to crippling fines and the occasional misdemeanor conviction instead of felonies, you're an eminently reasonable moderate.

That's not the kind of moderation that Marty Beckerman advocates in Dumbocracy: Adventures with the Loony Left, the Rabid Right, and Other American Idiots. What gets Beckerman, a twenty-something writer who first hit the literary scene with Generation S.L.U.T., is the control-freakery to be found in the outer reaches of the political spectrum. As he puts it:

Hard-core right-wingers want to shove God down our throats, but hate the freedom of guys who shove things down one another's throats. (Hint: it's their cocks.) Meanwhile left-wingers wish to regulate our behavior with taxes on anything unhealthy/enjoyable, prohibitions on tactless speech, and regulations that determine how much time we spend in the shower.

Says the author: "If you've ever used the words 'social justice' or 'moral crisis' without irony, I probably fucking hate you."

If your defenses are already up after those mini-tirades, the fact is that you're probably part of the problem. You're one of those people who "care" so much that you have an irresistible urge to threaten people with fines or imprisonment for doing things you disdain, or for not doing things you consider oh-so-praiseworthy.

Well, too bad for you, then.

But if you find Beckerman's ideas intriguing and wish to subscribe to his newsletter -- or at least delve deeper into his book -- you just may be his sort of moderate. That is, you really don't give a damn how other people live their lives as long as they have the decency to feel the same way about you.

And if you then follow Beckerman on his journey, he'll take you on a tour of extremists left and right. They're the kind of folks who vilify and want to persecute the opposition.

"Political tags - such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth - are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire."
-- Robert A. Heinlein
(one of three quotes opening Dumbocracy)

For instance, he catalogues the various and sundry restrictions on abortion that have been imposed by social conservatives, such as the gag rule (on U.S.-funded overseas clinics offering abortion infromation), the partial-birth abortion ban act, the interstate abortion bill "which criminalizes transportation of minors across state lines to receive abortions" and parental approval requirements for teenagers. These restrictions are all a bit ironic in light of the same politicians' championing of policies, such as abstinence-only sex education and controls on access to contraceptives, which tend to result in higher abortion rates.

But if, like me, you can think of some officeholders in their sixties who aren't too old to be terminated, and you're sneering at those freaky right-wingers, Beckerman dodges in from the other side to remind us that Margaret Sanger, the patron saint of birth control, was a nut who advocated sterilizing the "unfit." And it was just three years ago that a Planned Parenthood chapter created a cartoon in which a pro-choice superhero "shoots, drowns and decapitates anti-abortion protesters."

Beckerman takes to task a Bush administration spokesman who suggested that same-sex couples "move to another country," but also targets radical feminists who want to virtually eliminate the male sex.

He goes after uber-religious super-patriots who herd anti-war protesters into holding pens and try to turn the Air Force Academy into a well-armed seminary, and trendy lefties who make common cause with the fun-loving suicide bombers of Hamas.

And he finds people, right and left, who want to ban, tax or restrict anything you might enjoy, whether it's booze, dope, tobacco or food.

Socially conservative religious zealots in both the U.S. and Israel probably get the toughest going-over in the book, but that's logical enough given Beckerman's obvious affinity for the pleasures of the flesh and the eight stern years under President Bush (who he calls King Retard). Still, he has plenty of disdain to spare for extreme secularists, like Richard Dawkins, who question whether parents should be allowed to teach religious ideas to their children.

Overall, if you want to boss people around, you probably should read Dumbocracy for all of our sake. But you won't like it. And if you don't want to boss people around, you'll actually enjoy this book.

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Monday, September 29, 2008

Sky pilots tell federal speech police to take a hike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, September 8, 2008

Smokers defy regulators in the Mountain State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And some businesses are overtly flipping the bird to enforcers.

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

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Thursday, September 4, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Martha's Vineyard: Case study of an underground economy

It's no secret that it's expensive and difficult to do business in Massachusetts. Taxes and regulations are onerous -- as of 2004, the Bay State was ranked 41 out of 50 on the Pacific Reserach Institute's Economic Freedom Index (full report here in PDF), which defines economic freedom as "the ability of an individual to allocate his resources according to his preferences without outside interference."

That has resulted in a bit of an exodus from the official economy into the shadow economy, where transactions are untaxed, unregulated (and unprotected by the force of law -- a tradeoff people are still willing to make to escape taxes and regulations). In response, the state has launched a crusade against underground economic activity, headed by a Joint Task Force on the Underground Economy and Employee Misclassification. The goal is to pull in some of the vast quantities of money that flow freely through the subterranean world, such as the estimated $152 million that is kept out of the hands of tax collectors each year simply by illegally classifying workers as independent contractors who then underreport their income.

That's the big picture. But what does the underground economy look like on a local level?

We can answer that question now, because a report (PDF) was recently released on the economy of Martha's Vineyard, an off-shore tourist mecca where, it turns out, the numbers just don't add up. It appears that there's a lot more economic activity than official figures allow for.

Throughout most of the year, there are roughly 40 percent more employed residents than there are wagepaying local jobs. Given that relatively few workers commute off-island, this discrepancy suggests a high level of self-employment and a relatively high level of contract labor and unreported work.

But how does that ultimately break down in terms of aboveground and underground activity? After looking at the figures, the report's author "estimates the underground economy on Martha’s Vineyard conservatively at 12 percent of reported wages and 16 percent of reported jobs. This represents at least 1,200 unreported jobs and $34 million in unreported wages. The actual numbers could be dramatically higher if the unsubstantiated estimate of 5,000 year-round undocumented foreign residents is close to accurate."

The off-the-books jobs appear to be fairly evenly distributed across the economy, with the logical exception of government positions. Basically, in every industry where it's possible to do so, a large chunk of the workforce is going about its business without paying taxes or worrying about red tape.

One of the interesting implications of these numbers is that people are better off than official numbers suggest, since they're earning far more from jobs, businesses and home rentals than is formally acknowledged.

With the equivalent of at least 1,200 jobs and $34 million in wages, this conservative estimate of the island’s underground labor market is as large as the reported size of the Accommodation and Food Services or Retail industries. By comparison, the informal practice of renting one’s home on a weekly basis during the summer adds $60–$100 million/year in largely unreported income, much of which accrues to non-residents. The underground economy is directly linked to the perception that the island houses more residents than are officially reported. It also contributes to the sense that there is more money circulating, and that conditions for young adults and poorer residents may not be as bad as official reports indicate.

And the the number of people working in the shadows is destined to grow since, as the report concedes, the underground economy is growing faster than its formal counterpart.

There are costs to underground work, of course. The report points to nebulous concerns about "community stability," but there are more serious problems when the fastest growing sector of the economy is one that enjoys no protection for contracts and no access to legal recourse in the courts.

But as long as governments impose high taxes and crippling regulations, some people -- growing ranks of them in fact -- will take their chances in the shadows.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Bar owners tell anti-smokers to take a hike

In an inspiring display of civil disobedience, more than a dozen bars in Kanawha County, West Virginia, joined together this week to commit the currently subversive act of simply allowing their patrons to light up within the confines of privately owned establishments whose owners don't oppose the practice:

Nobody's going to tell Kerry "Paco" Ellison's customers they can't smoke at his bar.

The Black Hawk Saloon is Ellison's bar, and he'll run it as he sees fit.

"If I don't want to pray, I don't go to church," Ellison said. "If you don't want to smoke, don't come in here."

Today, Ellison and at least a dozen other bar owners across the county defiantly encouraged their patrons to smoke in violation of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department's six-week-old smoking ban.

Not long ago, it wasn't considered all that controversial for business owners to decide for themselves the nature of the service that they'd offer and the environment in which it would be offered -- and for potential customers to either patronize the establishment or else satisfy their preferences elsewhere.

If enough people liked what the business had to offer, it thrived. If they didn't, it either changed or failed.

But the trend in recent years has been to substitute legislated majority preferences -- the more faddish, the better -- for individual choices. When the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department handed down its smoking ban (PDF) last year, it was simply going along with the cool kids, who have made public regulation of conduct on private spaces a de rigeur legal accessory for every modern government.

The argument for smoking bans is usually made on health grounds -- the dangers of second-hand smoke, in particular. Accordingly, the Kanawha regulation is salted with language claiming an urgent need to:

(a) protect the health of the public by minimizing exposure of individuals to a proven harmful environmental toxin, i.e. secondhand smoke, while they engage in public indoor commerce; and (b) direct and/or strongly encourage the proprietors of public places of indoor commerce to provide a smoke-free environment to minimize public exposure to this harmful toxin.

But the only way members of the public can be exposed to such a "harmful environmental toxin" is if they choose to enter an establishment, to do business or to seek employment, where people are allowed to smoke. In every case, there's that all-important moment at the threshold when they get that first whiff of Marlboro and have to decide whether to take the next step.

Should I stay or should I go?

Or, if you're concerned about that single whiff, health concerns could be addressed by following the advice of Barbara Lutes, one of Ellison's customers, and "Just have a sign on the door: 'This is a smoking establishment.' "

In the end, banning smoking in private businesses starts looking a lot like banning bars from playing loud rock music because you're worried that people's hearing might be harmed (and, besides, you prefer jazz). Maybe that's what you want, but why should your preferences trump other folks' choices?

Enough people understand that point that there's significant support -- minority support, to be sure -- for business owers like Ellison who tell the law to take a hike. Maybe that's why Kanawha officials wisely decided to avoid making anybody a martyr. They've declined to issue any citations over the mass act of defiance.

That's probably a good idea. In Cleveland, when authorities got tough, the result was a proliferation of underground "smokehouses" which also feature strippers.

Hmmm ... Maybe the law is on to something ...

Forbidding bar owners to permit their customers to smoke might be very trendy, at the moment, and certainly it's a democratic expression of what today's majority wants.

But, you know, the whole point of freedom is letting individuals choose -- and telling the majority that it can, from time to time, go fuck itself.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Defying the state as a matter of course

When they become part of our day-to-day life, some of the smallest acts of seemingly apolitical rebellion can be especially powerful. Acts such as warning on-coming drivers of a lurking police officer, for instance.

I was driving into town to pick up my son from day care yesterday. The road I was on is relatively lightly traveled and has a long, straight stretch that just begs for a little speed. In a relatively short distance, though, the 45 MPH limit plummets to 25 MPH, which it remains along a wide, straight stretch that services a new housing development, lined by masonry walls, landscaping and not a single driveway.

Speeding through here is endemic, because you feel like you're pedaling a tricycle down a hallway if you don't.

Anyway, I hadn't yet begun to decelerate when the driver of an oncoming pickup truck signaled with his hand for me to slow down. I figured he had a reason, so I did -- quickly.

Sure enough, a sheriff's deputy was parked over the hill, just waiting for anybody to come barreling through a few miles over the limit. I gave the deputy a grin as I went by at exactly 25 MPH, and promptly passed along the warning I'd received to two cars coming from the other direction.

I've written before that my piece of the Earth is populated by people not overly impressed by the petty posturing of law enforcement -- the last (and only, so far as I remember) radar trailer to be parked down my road ended up tumbled on its side, in need of an overhaul. So a friendly warning that the county mounties are around the corner was hardly unusual.

And it was much appreciated.

But it's just such small acts that make life bearable in an increasingly overgoverned society. That warning certainly saved me a few minutes of getting hectored by the side of the road by one of Yavapai County's finest, as well as some money and possibly a bit of hassle with the insurance company. It also reaffirmed the connections I have with my neighbors, at the expense of government authority. And last, but not least, it was an important thumb in a petty official's eye -- that deputy certainly knew what was going on as traffic improbably crawled by him at precisely the speed limit.

As the laws that ensnare us and the enforcement efforts for those laws become ever-more intrusive, such small acts of defiance as warning your neighbors about patrolling cops become necessary lubricants for life. To the extent that they're internalized in our day-to-day behavior and become normal activity rather than explicitly political statements, they transform the culture and fuurther undermine government authority.

And that's always a good thing.

By the way, while your mileage may vary, at least one court has found the act of flashing headlights to warn other drivers of a the presence of police to be protected free speech. Of course, you should help your neighbors out anyway, whether or not the law approves.


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A little jury nullification in Boston

This past March, a remarkable thing happened. A juror in a federal trial in Massachusetts actually exercised his responsibility to question the government's authority to prosecute a defendant. Apparently pressed by fellow jurors to address his doubts to the bench, Thomas R. Eddlem sent a note to US District Court Judge William G. Young asking: "Where – if two-thirds of both houses of congress voted in 1919 that it was necessary to amend the constitution to give congress the power to ban mere possession of a substance (prohibition of alcohol in that case) – is the constitutional grant of authority to ban mere possession of cocaine today?"

Taken aback, Judge Young essentially replied that the government has the power because courts say it does -- based on the infinitely malleable Commerce Clause. Unmoved, Eddlem persisted, and was ultimately yanked from the jury for his troubles and replaced by an alternate.

It's impressive enough that a juror had the temerity to question the grounds for a prosecution -- most jurors today grudgingly serve their time as rubber stamps for the judge, doing what they're told and neglecting their role as representatives of the people in the courtroom.

Even more impressive is that Eddlem -- a radio talk-show host and former research director for the John Birch Society -- raised a valid objection that has been a legal sore point for many scholars. No less an authority than Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas raised a similar concern in his dissent (PDF) in Gonzales v. Raich:

Respondents Diane Monson and Angel Raich use marijuana that has never been bought or sold, that has never crossed state lines, and that has had no demonstrable effect on the national market for marijuana. If Congress can regulate this under the Commerce Clause, then it can regulate virtually anything–and the Federal Government is no longer one of limited and enumerated powers.

So Eddlem's question to Judge Young is one that has been echoed at the highest level -- hardly a fringe concern. He exercised his responsibilities as a juror and did so in an extremely credible way. Nevertheless, Judge Young was so shocked that he penned a 41-page legal memorandum (PDF) denouncing Eddlem's presumption, as well as the doctrine of "jury nullification" that he accused Eddlem of espousing.

Jury nullification is when jurors are so offended by a law or by the application of a law that they refuse to bring a conviction, even when a defendant is clearly guilty. During American history, juries have nullified (refused to enforce) laws against assisting runaway slaves, peddling alcohol in violation of Prohibition, dodging the draft and smoking marijuana, among other laws that draw the scorn of a sizeable portion of the population.

Young's memorandum cited chapter and verse about alleged abuses of nullification and the dangers it supposedly poses to American democracy -- though in doing so, he managed to completely ignore Clay S. Conrad's Jury Nullification, the definitive book on the subject, which ably addresses such objections. That's an odd omission, since Young does cite a minor article by Conrad as an example of political advocacy for nullification.

Eddlem denies that he supports nullification and, in fact, says he would have voted to convict in a state court -- his objections were constitutional in nature. But that clearly puts him in the tradition of a long line of jurors who have refused to do the government's bidding in cases of prosecutions they considered unjust.

But whether it was nullification or not, was Eddlem's action such a good idea?

Remember, every step along the way, all of the other participants in the criminal justice system exercise discretion based on their own sense of what's right. Police officers look the other way, prosecutors decide not to pursue cases, judges dismiss or reduce charges and pass down light sentences. These officials are all representatives of the state. It's only the jury, the representatives of the people in the court, that Judge Young and his colleagues say should behave like automatons. That makes no sense -- or rather, it makes an unfortunate self-serving sense when argued by a judge, whose power is diminished by independent jurors.

Really, there's every reason to recognize the jury's right to exercise at least as much mercy as the other participants in the criminal justice system -- especially given their role as the last check on the power of the state. That right was not just recognized, but celebrated by the founders. John Adams, the nation's second president, said it is the juror's "duty ... to find the verdict according to his own best understanding, judgment, and conscience, though in direct opposition to the direction of the court."

In fact, there's some evidence that more jurors than we usually realize appreciate their power to mitigate the impact of the law. In 1999, the Washington Post reported:

The most concrete sign of the trend is the sharp jump in the percentage of trials that end in hung juries. For decades, a 5 percent hung jury rate was considered the norm, derived from a landmark study of the American jury by Harry Kalven Jr. and Hans Zeisel published 30 years ago. In recent years, however, that figure has doubled and quadrupled, depending on location. Some local courts in California, for example, have reported more than 20 percent of trials ending in hung juries. Federal criminal cases in Washington, D.C., averaged 15 percent hung juries in 1996 (the most recent year for which data were available), three times the rate in 1991.

A hung jury is simply one in which the 12 men and women around the table disagree over whether to convict or acquit. But judges, lawyers and others who study the phenomenon suspect that more and more differences are erupting not over the evidence in these cases, but over whether the law being broken is fair.

Eddlem may have drawn the headlines, but jurors across the country are quietly exercising the discretion he publicly advocates.

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