Selfish Billionaires

Divid Sirota at In These Times has a mind-boggling complaint about rich people:

[...] Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg announced a $120 million donation to San Francisco-area schools. That donation came only a few years after California considered a ballot measure to increase funding for its schools. Zuckerberg was notably absent from the campaign to pass the measure.

That detail is germane to Gore’s point about charity and democracy. Indeed, there seems to be a trend of billionaires and tech firms making private donations to public institutions ostensibly with the goal of improving public services. Yet, many of these billionaires are absent from efforts to raise public resources for those same institutions. Zuckerberg is only one example.

For instance, hedge funders make big donations to charter schools. Yet, the hedge fund industry lobbies against higher taxes that would generate new revenue for education.

Likewise, there are the Koch Brothers, who simultaneously finance the nationwide anti-tax movement while making huge donations to public institutions.

Meanwhile, Microsoft boasts about making donations to schools, while the company has opposed proposals to increase taxes to fund those schools.

The selfish bastards! They’re willing to donate huge amounts of their own money to causes they care about, but they don’t want to force other people to support those causes! That’s just how evil they are!

How the Real Professional Human Traffickers Do It

A couple of weeks ago Somaly Mam resigned from the anti-human-trafficking foundation that used to bear her name. (Apparently, it’s changing its branding from the Somaly Mam Foundation to just SMF.) It turns out she had been lying about important parts of her life story, including the part about being sold into forced prostitution. She also claimed to have rescued young women who told harrowing stories of sexual slavery, and a lot of that turned out to be lies as well, as recounted in a Newsweek cover story by Simon Marks:

Interviews with Mam’s childhood acquaintances, teachers and local officials in the village where she grew up contradict important, lurid details in her autobiography. Many of the villagers in Thloc Chhroy say they never met or even saw Mam’s cruel “Grandfather,” the rich Chinese merchant who allegedly raped her or the violent soldier she says she was forced to marry.

Not even Mam can keep the story straight. In February 2012, while speaking at the White House, she said she was sold into slavery at age 9 or 10 and spent a decade inside a brothel. On The Tyra Banks Show, she said it was four or five years in the brothel. Her book says she was trafficked when she was “about 16 years old.”

[...]

Another of Mam’s biggest “stars” was Meas Ratha, who as a teenager gave a chilling performance on French television in 1998, describing how she had been sold to a brothel and held against her will as a sex slave.

Late last year, Ratha finally confessed that her story was fabricated and carefully rehearsed for the cameras under Mam’s instruction, and only after she was chosen from a group of girls who had been put through an audition. Now in her early 30s and living a modest life on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Ratha says she reluctantly allowed herself to be depicted as a child prostitute: “Somaly said that…if I want to help another woman I have to do [the interview] very well.”

In light of these revelations, the cover of that edition of Newsweek asks the question,

Somaly Mam saved countless girls in Cambodia. Does it matter that parts of her story aren’t true?

Anne Elizabeth Moore provides the answer to that question in her piece at Salon (Yes, it does.) and along the way she touches on an important truth: Small-time criminals break the rules. The biggest criminals make the rules.

By way of illustration, one of the classic failures of the free market occurs when businesses collude to gain monopoly power over their customers. This can happen when a group of suppliers agree to divide up the market between them, or when companies form a cartel in which they agree to gang up on customers rather than competing against each other. By working together instead of against each other, businesses can extract a lot more money from their customers than they would if they competed in the free market.

These sorts of trade-restraining deals are not easy to pull off, however. For one thing, they’re pretty much illegal in the United States, and the U.S. Department of Justice has an Antitrust Division which enforces the laws against cartels and monopolies.

Cartels are also difficult to operate in the real world. Even if they’re legal, the members of the cartel usually figure out very quickly that if everyone else is committed to high prices or low production, they can greatly increase their market share by offering more product at lower prices. Furthermore, new businesses will spring up to take advantage of the high prices by offering the same services as existing companies, but at a discount, so they can grab some market share. For these reasons, it’s not uncommon for cartels to collapse almost immediately into a competitive race to the bottom.

At least that’s the case when the cartel members are the kind of people you read about in newspaper stories — shady characters meeting in smoky back rooms and Las Vegas hotels to rig bids, fix prices, and divide up markets. These guys are small-time monopolists, or at they very least they’re inexperienced at it.

The serious, experienced, big-money cartels don’t have to hide from the government and worry about who might be cheating. They have a much better strategy for monopolization that gets around anti-trust laws and prevents cheating: They get the government itself to create and enforce the cartel.

If taxi company owners tried to get together to artificially limit the number of taxis in operation to drive up prices, it would never work. For one thing, they’d be prosecuted for anti-trust violations. But probably even before government investigators figured out what they were up to, their cartel would be undermined by new taxi companies created by people who noticed the high prices and decided they wanted to get in on the action. They would quickly bid down prices and compete away most of the monopoly profits.

On the other hand, if the taxi companies can get the city government to artificially limit the number of taxis through a medallion licensing system, then the antitrust lawyers at the DOJ would ignore their arrangement, and they would be able to get the city police department to enforce their cartel by ticketing or arresting unlicensed cabbies. It’s a very sweet deal, and it’s the reason taxi medallions often trade for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Similarly, if hospital operating corporations in a state colluded to raise prices by limiting the availability of hospital beds and facilities, there would be hell to pay. Reporters would investigate them, Congress would launch hearings, and the DOJ Antitrust Division would land on them like a ton of bricks. But when hospitals get health care agencies in 35 states to require a “Certificate of Need” — demonstrating that there is “unmet need” in the market — before new hospitals can be built or existing hospitals can be expanded, the DOJ and Congress and most of the journalists remain silent about it, and hospitals continue to earn huge profits.

Of course, nobody involved ever admits that these laws are about increasing profits for those who are politically well-connected. There’s usually some pretense that the laws are promoting the public good. Taxi medallion laws are usually sold to the public as protecting consumers from unscrupulous cab operators or reducing taxi congestion in downtown areas. The hospital “Certificate of Need” rules are supposed to prevent expensive and wasteful “excess capacity” that somehow drives up health care costs.

In a similar way, at least some of the ongoing moral panic about “human trafficking” seems to be a pretense to hide less worthy motives. To be sure, human trafficking is a real problem, and organizations like SMF and other anti-trafficking NGOs do rescue some people from bondage. But as Marks made clear, there were a lot of lies, and as Moore makes clear, there’s more going on:

I visited one such NGO in Phnom Penh in January — not run by Mam, but built on the attention she’s brought to the issue since 2007. What I saw was not shocking: totally normal Cambodian women in a large room, sewing apparel. But it wasn’t social services, either: It was a garment factory. [...]

Ending deeply embedded misogynistic practices, including both sex trafficking, which is likely rarer than Mam admits, and the policies supposedly waging war against it, is not an effortless gig. I’ve nonetheless heard several students expressing the desire to get into the brothel-busting game themselves. Listen: I spent seven years researching and doing work in Cambodia, made concerted efforts to learn the language, developed a strong stomach and reliable sources, and honed my skills in investigative reporting before I could even understand what, really, anti-human trafficking NGOs do. What they do is normalize existent labor opportunities for women, however low the pay, dangerous the conditions, or abusive an environment they may be. And they shame women who reject such jobs.

[...] Massive strikes in recent years have seen demand grow for an increase in pay, although other jobs for women remain few and unregulated. Among them, work in the sex industry is both reliable and flexible enough for, say, working moms. [...] Most women in Cambodia live under conditions of poverty and desperation, and the garment industry’s insistent refusal to meet living-wage standards ensures this will continue for some time. Still, garment workers know an entire international trade system relies on their willing participation, which was how they built such a strong showing in the last elections. The big brands know it too, which is why the Nike Foundation funds Half the Sky — as do other multinationals that both enforce, and rely on, women’s desperate poverty around the world.

What anti-trafficking NGOs are saving women from, in other words, is a life outside the international garment trade, which, according to folks who sell us our clothes, is no kind of life at all — even though folks in those jobs tell me they can barely survive. About one-seventh of the world’s population of women works in the garment industry, which very rarely pays more than half a living wage (including to folks who work fast fashion retail in U.S. urban centers). This helps keep women in poverty around the globe.

In other words, the human traffickers that SMF and the other NGO’s are fighting, the guys who grab children off the streets, who smuggle them across borders in containerized shipping, who operate slave brothels, they’re like the business owners meeting in back rooms: They’re the little guys. The amateurs.

The serious professional human traffickers in the garment industry don’t need to do any of that. They’ve co-opted governments to steer women into their industry, and they fund NGOs that capture those who try to escape and re-educate them for garment work, all while claiming to be “rescuing girls.” This is how the serious human traffickers get things done. They turn their crimes into government policy and into respectable-seeming social welfare organizations.

The Wit and Wisdom of Allison Williams, Esq.

I’ve recently discovered a new member of the legal blogosphere, and I’d like to tell you a bit about how I found her. Although actually, she found me.

I like getting comments on my blog. Years ago, I used to get a lot of comments. However, my blog traffic crashed a few years back when I was dealing with my parents’ passing, and it’s never really rebounded to past heights. Consequently, I’m always excited when somebody takes the time to leave a comment.

So when someone named Allison Williams commented on my post about bioethicists

It’s the race against time and the inevitable death that is making these doctors and sorts go way beyond ethics. While it is a good thing trying to get medicine and science is helping mankind live better or longer but scrupulous attempts and greed should be stopped.

…I didn’t understand the point she was trying to make, but I appreciated her stopping by to read what I’ve been writing. Like I said, I don’t get a lot of that lately.

She also stopped by to comment on Part 3 of my review of Radley Balko’s Warrior Cop, where she wrote,

When the very people entrusted by law to protect the people go against the law and behave like criminals, where and who should the people trust for their safety?

And then 9 minutes later she commented on Part 5 of that review by quoting me quoting Radley:

“Bad cops are the product of bad policy. And policy is ultimately made by politicians. A bad system loaded with bad incentives will unfailingly produce bad cops. The good ones will never enter the field in the first place, or they will become frustrated and leave police work, or they’ll simply turn bad. At best, they’ll have unrewarding, unfulfilling jobs.”

How true is that!

This is where I began to get a little suspicious. For one thing, parts 4 and 5 of that review are almost 6000 words, and I find it hard to believe she read them in 9 minutes. Of course, the quote she picked from Part 5 is from the epigram at the top, so she didn’t really have to read all 2800 words…

I also notice that she added “Esq.” to her signature, so everyone would know she was a lawyer, and she linked it back to her family law website. Combined with the fact that she’s commenting on a lot of my older posts, that strongly suggests that she’s some kind of spammer.

A few weeks later, Allison Williams Esq. pretty much proved it when she left comment on my rant against Sprint, which is my most popular post ever.

Wow, so much anger from so many of you. Sprint really is in trouble.

What was the point of that comment? The only people who ever comment on that post are people who join in the spirit of saying terrible things about Sprint. It’s not the sort of post that invites affirmations by other commenters.

And then fifteen minutes later she comments on my recent post about how the Navy’s new fuel synthesis program really doesn’t spell the end of big oil:

This is good news! Technology is getting better and better and I believe the Navy’s new technology will eventually develop to give us better and cheaper oil.

Unfortunately, that’s not what I was talking about. In fact, I was explaining why the Navy’s new technology does not promise a cheap oil revolution. It’s like she’s not paying attention, as is illustrated by the next comment on my post about idiotic child porn laws:

Very interesting. This is a very sensitive issue and having different laws in different places is complicating.

The somewhat perverse law I was criticizing is a Florida law, and I jokingly slam Florida in the post by implying the law is unique to Florida, but other than that, “having different laws in different places” is not really the point of the post at all.

By now I was getting pretty irritated with Allison Williams Esq. and her spammy ways, so I started writing a post that would make fun of her social media marketing. As often happens, however, I lost interest before it reached a publishable state.

Fortunately, Allison Williams Esq. is nothing if not persistent, and she left three more comments on my blog a few days a go. Two of them are on a post about Florida apparently gutting the intent element in the drug laws. The first was at 12:55 am, and Allison Williams Esq. seems to disagree with me:

It could be tiresome but if its for our own safety, then I guess no Law is bad Law.

Or maybe she’s just going through a phase, because 43 minutes later she posts this positive affirmation:

We are a nation of laws. Accountability, Integrity and Justice are principles we believe in.

A common enough sentiment, somewhat undermined however by the passive voice. But perhaps she was just having trouble concentrating that early in the morning. She did leave one more comment at 3:50 am (trouble sleeping?) where she had a bit of a fangirl moment after a comment by Mark Bennett on my rambling post about how I feel about criminal lawyers:

Mark Bennett I think I just became a fan.

Sigh. Both of those posts are observations on the legal system, and yet none of those comments shows even a little bit of legal knowledge or experience.

I searched for comments from Allison Williams Esq on Bennett’s blog, and I didn’t find any, so clearly she’s not as big a fan of his as she is of me. (Hi Allison!) However, I’m not the only blogger she likes. When Gerry W. Beyer at the Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog wrote about the Supreme Court’s approval of Michigan’s decision to eliminate affirmative action, she left this brief note:

I feel that was a good decision taken, since we cannot wish away racial inequality!

Over at Robert Ambrogi’s LawSites Blog, he was promoting his podcast discussing whether the implementation of the public defender system undermines the promise of Gideon. (My opinion: Pretty much, yeah.) Allison Williams Esq. had another fangirl moment and complimented him on his podcast series:

One of my favorite show. I never miss it.

Speaking of Gideon, Allison Williams Esq. has also visited a public defender, where she responded to Gid’s post about a lawyer who got hit with a 30-day sentence for contempt for some strenuous objections:

30 days!!! May God bless us lawyers.

Over at Library of Law and Liberty, she has this to say about Mike Rappaport’s evaluation of Justice Hugo Black:

He had a good run but then could have done much better. While it is evident that there will be differences in opinions regarding his tactical efforts, it is unavoidable when certain decisions had to made on a bigger and a broader level. You cannot please everyone but can at least try to do the right things in the right way.

That’s one of her longest comments, but does any of it sound like something a lawyer would write about a Supreme Court Justice’s service? When asked by other commenters to explain what the hell that means, she never responded.

Some of my readers will be happy to know that Allison Williams Esq. is bucking the iPad trend, as she reveals in a comment at The Droid Lawyer:

I have a Chromebook and its pretty handy for some simple stuffs. No heavy duty.

Allison Williams Esq. really gets around. When Paul Caron at TaxProf Blog posted about Admiral William H. McRaven’s commencement address at the University of Texas, she was there:

This is truly a remarkable post. It’s really inspiring.

When Jeffrey Kahn at Concurring Opinions posted about allegations that the FBI used the No Fly List as a way to pressure people into becoming informants, Allison Williams Esq. was there too:

It’s sad when people are forced to act under threat. That’s a serious violation of human rights.

When our own Eric Turkewitz got sued again, Allison Williams Esq. was there to cheer him on:

This sure is going to be interesting.

When Discourse.net went down because of server problems, Allison Williams Esq. commiserated:

Oh great.

She was similarly concise in response to a memorial day post by Adam Smith, Esq. that consisted in its entirety of a photo of Arlington National Cemetary:

Awesome!

At first I thought Allison Williams Esq. was being disrespectful, but perhaps she’s using awesome in the original sense of “inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, or fear” instead of the common vernacular sense of “those thousands of dead soldiers are way cool!” However, she undermines that option in her visit to ExCop-LawStudent, where he was promoting a new blog he had found:

Awesome. Looks like something I should look forward to reading!

Allison Williams Esq. also drops some wisdom on the Wrongful Convictions Blog:

Jonathan Fleming’s case is a sad incident. 24 years is a long time. That’s like a lifetime.

And she has this to say about Jonathan Turley’s post about a woman suing over an attack by a duck (and you really should read that story):

Some people just need an excuse to make a fuss and earn some easy buck.

She even reaches out to the Texas Bar blog:

This is great. I love how this will help a lot of people. Volunteering work is such a noble idea.

And when Judge Kopf at Hercules and the Umpire calls out the Center for Public Integrity for stupidity, Allison Williams Esq. is there to cheer him on:

So interesting. Waiting for more to come.

It’s all a little less funny, though, when she comments on Jeff Gamso’s touching story about a woman who forgave her son’s murderer on the brink of his execution:

I think after a certain point of time, the intensity of the pain and the angst subsides. No doubt there’s still a void and love for the departed. But eventually with time, people start looking at things with a different perspective. At the end, it’s the loss of the faith departed that we grief and mourn about but they will never come back.

It sounds nice. But it has nothing to do with what Gamso wrote.

Still, perhaps Allison Williams Esq.’s most entertaining response is to a Bitter Lawyer post on 5 Obsolete Legal Technologies that Shouldn’t be Obsolete:

This is a good post. I mean who would have imagined carbon paper would go obsolete. It was such a blessing having it around in the office. And the typewriter was something god sent for a lot of us.

WTF? Allison Williams Esq. isn’t that old. Her CV says she had her first experience in the legal world as a Law Intern for Judge Bryan Hedges in 2001. I know that lawyers are notoriously slow to adopt new technologies, but I don’t believe that the real Allison Williams Esq. has ever actually seen carbon paper. And probably not very many typewriters either.

And can we talk about the language in these comments? Carbon paper was a “blessing”? “The typewriter was something god sent”? Seriously, WTF? It’s not just these phrases, though. I’ve been reading legal blogs for a long time, and I have some familiarity with how lawyers write. They’re highly educated people who earn a living with words. Even when writing informally, that background tends to show though. As far as I can tell, there’s nothing in any of these comments that indicates the person writing them thinks like a lawyer.

So here’s the thing: Allison Williams seems to be a reasonably accomplished lawyer. She’s a member of several associations, she’s received awards, published articles, and given presentations. She has a straight 10 in Avvo, and she’s appeared on the Katie Couric show. I’m not saying any of that makes her a terrific lawyer (because how would I know?), but the Allison Williams Esq. writing those comments doesn’t sound like the Allison Williams Esq. who has been a lawyer for a decade.

Here’s what the real Allison Williams sounds like:

I often sense that judges consider potential child abuse to be so egregious that almost anything on the other side is a de minimus intrusion that should not be avoided. The problem with this mindset is that it fails to recognize that the agency often overwhelms and antagonizes families, making the situation worse than it actually was. Then, interventions are implemented for the purpose of addressing family distress that was brought about by the agency’s involvement, rather than by the family’s inherent functioning. This is akin to breaking someone’s leg, applying a cast and applauding yourself for having “solved” the problem of the broken leg. But for your breaking the leg, your cast would have been unnecessary.

On the flipside, the agency often does provide necessary intervention and assistance to families. The threat of removal often does force people to make necessary improvements in their family situation that otherwise would not have been undertaken. Parents going to substance-abuse treatment, undertake counseling and commit to diligent thoughtful consumption of prescribed medication to avoid the potential removal of their children. So, in effect, the agency can and does accomplish many worthwhile interventions in many circumstances.

However, where a family resists the division’s intervention, courts tend to hold that against them and work to effectuate the divisions forced involvement, where a judge may otherwise have been able to resolve the issue without such involvement. It is not unheard of, and in fact is rather common, to have a family judge order a parent to have supervised parenting time pending completion of substance-abuse treatment. The agency is not needed in this circumstance.

Unlike all those comments, these paragraphs actually say something. They convey information and make an argument. They address issues that arise when representing a client. They sound like a lawyer. Because Allison Williams is an intelligent, educated professional.

Unfortunately, she’s hired a social marketing firm to publicize her web site, and not only have they decided to go around the blogosphere and use a bunch of other people’s blogs to promote their client, but they’ve done it in a way that makes her look kind of spacy.

(Oh, I suppose it’s possible that the real Allison Williams is actually leaving these comments. But if she is, she’s sure got a flaky side. Maybe it’s because she stays up so late. And I’m pretty sure she’s used more exclamation points in my comments than she uses on her entire professional website. And she must visit India quite regularly, because that’s where the comments are coming from.)

To paraphrase an old blawgosphere saying: Outsource your marketing, outsource the ability for other people to make you look like an ass.

 

What’s Illegal About the Bowe Bergdahl Trade?

Could someone explain to me why people think it was against the law for President Obama to trade five prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in exchange for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who has been held by Taliban forces for years? I understand that Congress has passed a law that requires him to notify them before releasing a Guantanamo inmate, but I don’t see where Congress gets the power to constrain the Executive branch this way.

To the extent that they were terrorists and criminals, the President has a constitutional power to pardon people of crimes (even if they haven’t been convicted) or to grant clemency. I’m pretty sure that no law passed by Congress can change that.

Alternatively, if they’re being detained not as criminals but as enemy combatants, like traditional prisoners of war, then aren’t they being detained under the Executive’s constitutional power to wage war and not due to an act of Congress? It doesn’t make sense that the Executive branch could imprison people on its own authority but require permission from Congress to release them.

This is a sincere question. I’m completely willing to believe it was illegal, but I don’t understand why. And note that I’m not asking if it was a good idea.

You Can’t Trust a Killer

We just had Elliot Rodger’s rampage in Isla Vista, and we’re now seeing another horror story from Waukesha, Wisconsin, in the form of two 12-year-old girls who stabbed another 12-year-old child, supposedly to benefit a supernatural entity known as “Slenderman.”

Slenderman is an entirely fictional creation of recent vintage:

He is Slenderman, a menacing, faceless specter in a dark suit — sometimes portrayed with octopus-like tentacles — known to haunt children and those who seek to expose him. He was born in 2009 in an online forum for people who enjoy creating fake supernatural images.

[...]

To be clear, the origin story of the monstrous character (sometimes referred to as The Slender Man) in no way urged readers to kill to earn his favor. But Slenderman has undergone hundreds of permutations online in his five-year existence.

If you want to learn more about Slenderman, you can Google him up as easily as I can, but the details aren’t really very important. Although someone studying the psychology of the would-be killers might find it interesting to explore their beliefs about Slenderman in some detail, I doubt that the specifics of the legend are an important part of the cause of this violence.

For one thing, these kinds of killers — serial killers, spree killers, thrill killers — are often a bit confused about the world. Something may have inspired them, but they often seem to get more out of their inspiration than what’s actually there. Back in the late 1980′s a pair of young men named Raymond Belknap and James Vance shot themselves in some sort of suicide pact. Belknap died immediately, but Vance lived for three years afterward, and he claimed they were inspired to suicide by lyrics in some Judas Priest songs. The thing is, he remembered stuff from the lyrics that just wasn’t there. In his book The Gift of Fear, author Gavin de Becker recounts some confusion by Vance when it came to the lyrics:

The group Judas Priest did not create James Vance, of course, but in a sense, he created them. When he was asked about a particular lyric, “They bathed him and clothed him and fed him by hand,” he recited it as “They bathed him and clothed him and fed him a hand.” So he had done more than just react to the songs; he had actually rewritten them, taken a lyric about someone being cared for and turned it into something about cannibalism. Even his admiration was expressed in violent terms. James said he was so enamored of the band that he would do anything for them, “kill many people or shoot the president through the head.” He told lawyers that if the band had said, “Let’s see who can kill the most people,” he would have gone out and done something terrible. In fact, the band said no such thing, and he did something terrible anyway.

Another example is John Hinckley Jr., a disturbed young man who became obsessed with actress Jodie Foster after seeing her in the movie Taxi Driver. After stalking her for a while at Yale University, where he was unable to make any meaningful contact, he eventually decided that his best chance to impress her was to make some spectacular gesture, and on March 30, 1981, he opened fire on President Ronald Reagan and his entourage outside the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C., wounding Reagan and three other people. Needless to say, Hinckley’s stated intentions were not grounded in reality, and his assassination attempt did not actually impress Jodie Foster, nor did anyone blame her for his actions. He was just crazy.

A few years before that, serial killer David Berkowitz shot 13 people in New York over a period of several months. When he was captured, he claimed to have killed his women victims because his neighbor’s dog was a demon that had demanded a blood sacrifice. As with Hinckley, the craziness of his motivation was immediately apparent, and nobody actually blamed the dog. Further, some criminal psychologists believed Berkowitz made up the whole “dog made me do it” story to lay the groundwork for an insanity defense, or maybe just to mess with investigators. And depending on how you interpret some of his statements, Berkowitz may also have tried to convince investigators that he was part of a team of murderers, some of whom were still at large. There’s no evidence for that, though.

Ted Kaczynski, the “Unabomber,” carried out a 17-year campaign of mail bombings that claimed 26 victims, three of them fatally. Based on a 35,000-word “manifesto” he sent to newspapers, he appears to have been attacking people involved in technology our of some concern for the dehumanizing effects of industrial society. Like Berkowitz, Kaczynski also seems to have wanted to convince people he had confederates: The manifesto was written in the first-person plural and refers to something called “Freedom Club,” but there is no evidence of involvement by others.

Confessions should generally be taken with a grain of salt. In 1984, a white man named Bernhard Goetz shot four young black males on a commuter train. When captured, he claimed it was self-defense (which held up in court), but he also said that after shooting each man once, he walked over to one of them, told him “You don’t look so bad, here’s another,” and shot him again. At the trial, however, it turned out that each man had been shot only once, and most witnesses said that all the shots were in rapid succession. No witnesses heard him say the “here’s another” line. He had apparently invented a story that made him seem like more of a badass.

Confusion abounds. Some killers claim to be getting back at bullies, but when investigators interview their acquaintances, it turns out they were bullies themselves. Some killers try to manufacture higher purposes for their crimes, such as leading revolutions against real or imagined oppression. Others spin their crimes to make themselves seem less pathetic and more cool and in control. Still other killers try to evade punishment by denying all involvement with the crime or blaming someone else, including the victim. On the other hand, something like 20% of all post-conviction exonerations include false confessions to the crime.

So while it’s important to consider a killer’s statements about his crimes, it’s also important to keep in mind that what he says may be delusional, incoherent, self-aggrandizing, manipulative, or an outright lie. This is obvious when the killer’s explanation is clearly nonsense — involving Slenderman or talking dogs — but just because the killer’s explanation is banal and ordinary doesn’t mean it’s accurate. And just because his explanation is crazy doesn’t mean he’s crazy in the most obvious way.

Terrorism In America

Say, did you hear about the new Islamic terrorist cell? So far, they’ve killed a Christian pastor and they’ve set a baby on fire. And they’re operating right here in the United States!

Actually, I lied. It wasn’t an Islamic terror cell, it was something called the Mountain Judicial Circuit Narcotics Criminal Investigation and Suppression Team, which is led by Sheriff Joey Terrell from Habersham County, Georgia. They killed Pastor Jonathan Ayers back in 2009 because they thought he was involved in drugs, and they decided to violently confront him before they bothered to confirm the facts. Their more recent victim, the baby, was burned just a few days ago:

A 19-month-old boy critically injured when a police device was tossed into his bed has a 50 percent chance of surviving, his parents said today. But a northeast Georgia sheriff defends the officers’ actions, calling it a tragic accident.

Sheriff Terrell refuses to admit there’s a problem:

“The last thing you want is law enforcement to injure someone innocent,” Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “There was no malicious act performed. It was a terrible accident that was never supposed to happen.”

Well what the fuck do you think is going to happen if you throw a flash-bang grenade through a doorway when you can’t see where it’s going to land? Those things may not be as deadly as fragmentation grenades, but they still explode with enough heat to start a fire. Plenty of people have been injured by flash-bang grenades.

Terrell further explains:

“Our team captain asked the normal questions – is there children?” Terrell said. “If there’s children involved in a house, we do not use any kind of distraction devices in those houses. We just don’t take the chance on it.”

But there were no indications of children in the home.

“According to the confidential informant, there were no children,” Terrell said. “When they made the buy, they didn’t see any children or any evidence of children there, so we proceeded with our standard operation.”

Even when they don’t directly injure people, flash-bang grenades still stun and disorient people, which means they are an indiscriminate assault against anybody in the room, including people who present no threat to the entry team. In many cases, the raid teams are serving search warrants, which means there may not even be proof yet that anyone in the house committed a crime. So I’m not particularly impressed by their concern for children, since they seem to have no qualms about harming innocent adults.

While Terrell said the sheriff’s office takes ownership of its decision to enter the home, that was necessitated by the man who was selling drugs there.

No. No it wasn’t. Nobody forced the task force to try to arrest that guy, in that place, on that day.

“The person I blame in this whole thing is the person selling the drugs,” Terrell said. “Wanis Thonetheva, that’s the person I blame in all this. They are no better than a domestic terrorist, because they don’t care about families – they didn’t care about the family, the children living in that household – to be selling dope out of it, to be selling methamphetamine out of it. All they care about is making money.

“Look what they made me do.” It’s the argument of the psychopath. Every schoolyard bully uses it. Every wife beater. Every guy who knifes someone over an argument in a bar. Every cop who butts in where he doesn’t belong and hurts someone.

“They don’t care about what it does to families,” Terrell said. “It’s domestic terrorism and I think we should treat them as such. I don’t know where we can go with that, but that’s my feelings on it. It just makes me so angry! I get so mad that they don’t care about what they do, they don’t care about the families or the people they’re selling to.”

As Jacob Sullum points out, it wasn’t a drug dealer who put a baby in the hospital with critical burns. That was Sheriff Terrell and his drug warrior task force. So ask yourself, who are the real terrorists here?

About a decade ago, when the U.S. military began fighting in Afghanistan, we started hearing stories of the violence the Taliban would commit in the name of their religious beliefs. I remember in particular that they were attacking men for shaving their beards (it’s still going on in the region). It’s one thing to have sincere religious beliefs, but it takes a special kind of derangement to want to use violence to force others to conform to them.

We’re seeing another example with the Boko Haram terrorists in Nigeria who have kidnapped hundreds of schoolgirls because its members have religious objections to the education of females, and they think they have the right to violently prevent other people from doing things that conflict with their beliefs.

Given that drug use is a consensual act and that the drug laws are more than a little arbitrary in what they allow or prohibit, Sheriff Terrell’s task force is violently enforcing conformity with what are essentially religious beliefs about the evils of drugs. They are the American version of Boko Haram and the Taliban.

(Hat tip: Radley Balko.)

Good Faith, Bad Policy

An interesting discussion broke out in the blogosphere last week. It all started with Andrew Cohen in The Week, complaining about the legal fiction of “good faith.”

When I was a young man learning the law, I was taught about the “good faith” in which all public officials are always and forevermore presumed to be acting. This presumption, this so-called “implicit covenant,” is an axiomatic cornerstone of both civil and criminal law. And why not? Our courts are busy enough these days without requiring judges to peer into the motives and the biases of the parties moving through our justice systems.

What a tidy but self-defeating fiction the “good faith” presumption has revealed itself to be over my 25 years in the law. The more I study criminal justice, the clearer it is to me that public officials on every level of our justice system are wholly unworthy of the benefit of the doubt the law ascribes to their actions.

I first read those words over at a public defender where Gideon was a little surprised, not by the revelation, but by how long it took:

For Cohen, who’s been a lawyer for a long time and a distinguished legal writer, to come to this realization 25 years into his career is quite telling.

It reveals that we are all operating from the same basic assumption that the system, in the end, works: that everyone in it is doing the best they can do and that any injustices are the outliers. “The best system in the world” is the norm and the wrongful convictions and the prosecutorial misconduct are the inevitable bugs in a system manned by humans.

But if you’ve been reading this blog, or others, or have had any involvement with the system, you know that the assumption is false: it’s a fiction created to grant a sense of stability to the system.

Scott Greenfield has a problem with Andrew Cohen’s piece, and with some of the reaction to it, because apparently the presumption of good faith has a technical meaning in the arena of law. Scott’s not writing Intro to Law, so his explanation of what good faith means is a little vague, but I gather that the presumption of good faith specifies a default assumption that is supposed to be used when resolving legal disputes.

But that’s not a reason to question the good faith presumption.  Missing is an understanding of what it is and why it exists.  The law is replete with presumptions, the one most honored here being the presumption of innocence.  It means that a person is innocent until proven guilty. It reflects a fundamental policy choice, does a criminal defendant start from a position of innocence or guilt?  It proceeds to establish a baseline, where the burden of rebutting the presumption falls on the party that disagrees with it.  So the prosecution has the burden of proving guilt rather than the defendant having the burden of proving innocence.

[...]

But it’s just a starting point. Without starting points, the law would require litigants to reinvent the wheel from scratch every time.

The beauty of such presumptions is that they are rebuttable.  The law may presume a public official to act in good faith, but that merely informs the parties of who has the burden to dispute the presumption and the burden of proof.

In other words, if I have this right, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, a judge is supposed to assume that public officials are acting in good faith, much as he is supposed to assume that a criminal defendant is innocent. He can’t just make up crazy ideas about why the public official is a scumbag any more than he can make up crazy ideas about why the defendant is guilty. I’ve never really thought about that before, but it seems to make sense. The basic idea seems to be that judges shouldn’t make stuff up without evidence. Hard to argue with that.

The real problem, according to Scott, is that judges aren’t taking seriously the possibility that the presumption of good faith can be rebutted.

This is the core distinction that is confused by the challenge to the presumption of good faith.  The problem is not that we begin with the presumption, but that our system suffers from inherent prejudice that prevents public officials, particularly judges, from correcting the bad faith of other public officials.

The fault Cohen complains of is undoubtedly real, but the cause isn’t the presumption of good faith.  The cause is the refusal of establishment stakeholders to care enough about the integrity of the system and their own self-respect to make hard decisions, to condemn wrongs of their fellow establishment stakeholders and to use their power to correct the faults.

I don’t know enough about the law to judge whether Scott is right about this, but it certainly makes sense.

However…

Not being a lawyer, and therefore not being aware of the legal presumption of good faith, I was thinking of something else when I read Gideon’s post and Cohen’s column. Law is not the only discipline in which it makes sense to talk about a “presumption of good faith.” The question of whether public officials are acting in good faith is an important issue in analyzing public policy and the nature of government.

I’m pretty sure that Radley Balko, who is also not a lawyer, was thinking along the same lines:

We tend to assume that public employees always act in the public interest — or at least we write our laws and structure our government in a way that assumes it. But there’s nothing transformational about a government paycheck that turns the name on the “payable to:” line into an altruist. This isn’t to say that government employees are especially evil or awful or terrible, only that they’re just as human and fallible as anyone else.

Back when I was a teenager around the end of the 1970′s, I was only just becoming concerned about nature of government, but one of the things that bothered me was the problem of bad cops. It seemed to me that whenever some community activist would complain about police brutality, defenders of the police would argue that the police were there to protect us from criminals and that they deserved our respect. It seemed to me, however, that they were ignoring an important problem: Sure, most cops protected us, but given the amount of trust and power we invest in police officers, that rare bad cop could do an awful lot of harm.

As it turns out, the problem was somewhat worse than I imagined.

When economists study the market, they make some rather cynical assumptions about how people behave. In particular, it is axiomatic in economic thinking to assume that people are selfish, in the sense that, given a choice, they will always choose whatever advances their own selfish interests.

This assumption has proven useful in thinking about the behavior of the free market: Consumers want good deals, employers want hard work at a low wage, employees want light work at high wages, and investors want to make as large a profit as they can. Surprisingly, economic theory tells us that even with all this selfishness, the incentives within an ideal free market will encourage people to produce the goods and services that will most improve the lives of consumers. As Adam Smith wrote, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

You may notice that I referred to an ideal free market. The reasoning leading to the conclusion that markets optimize production and consumption only works if markets meet certain ideal criteria. (The the economics equivalent of the physics assumption that everything is spherical and frictionless.) Real markets are not ideal markets, of course, and there are complications — transaction costs, information asymmetry, monopoly power, externalities — all of which economists refer to as market failures. And in most cases of market failures, economists (and everyone else) used to assume that the government should step in to correct the problem. Exactly how the government would fix things was not explored.

In the latter half of the last century, however, economists began examining the behavior of government using the same analytical tools that they used for the market. In particular, they assumed that the people making up the government were no less selfish than the people who made up the free market. So instead of assuming that the government would just fix problems, they assumed that everyone involved — voters, elected officials, bureaucrats, and special interests — would selfishly look out for themselves. This was called public choice theory.

People seem to have a hard time thinking this way. Even after years of skepticism about the wonders of government, I still catch myself trusting it too much.

Take net neutrality, the concept that internet service providers should carry all kinds of content at the same speed for the same price, as opposed to offering to carry some content under better terms in return for payments. Advocates for net neutrality, such as the Save the Internet Campaign, believe that this would be disastrous because it would allow internet companies to discriminate against certain sites or content, it would raise costs, and it would stifle innovation. Simplifying a bit, phone and cable companies would act in their own interest, and not in the interests of internet consumers. The market would have failed.

That may be. But if you click through to the “Take Action” page, the very first recommendation is to contact the FCC:

Net Neutrality is on life support. To save it we need to turn up the heat on the Federal Communications Commission and Chairman Tom Wheeler. We must stop the FCC from passing rules that would break the Internet and allow discrimination online. The agency needs to reclassify broadband Internet access as a telecommunications service, which would pave the way to long-lasting Net Neutrality rules.

Save the Internet doesn’t want phone and cable companies to control their own pricing policies because they think the folks who run phone and cable companies are scumbags. So they want the FCC to control internet service pricing policies. But here’s the thing: What is their reason for assuming that the folks who run the FCC aren’t also scumbags? Why do they believe that Comcast and AT&T will selfishly advance their own prosperity, but the FCC will benevolently protect the interests of ordinary people?

We know how government appointments are filled, and the process is not reassuring. Current FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler was a lobbyist for the cable television and internet industry and he appears to have been appointed in part because of his fundraising efforts on behalf of President Obama’s election campaign. That’s not a selection process that seems particularly designed to choose administrators based on their honesty, altruism, or appreciation for the needs of the citizens.

This is a problem that people on the political left tend to overlook as they continue to recommend more and more government intervention to combat the inequities of the free market in pursuit of social justice. People on the political right, on the other hand, are inherently skeptical of attempts to solve the world’s problems with “big government.”

Except when they aren’t. Which is to say that conservatives seem to forget all about these problems when it comes to the military and law enforcement.

There are some bad people in our society, bad actors, who lie, cheat, rob, rape, and kill, and we need to protect our society from them. So we create a system of justice, with police departments and prosecutors and courts and prisons, and we give it money and special powers to investigate crimes and punish offenders. But there’s a problem — one that I’ve started to think of as the fundamental problem of policing — which is that the people to whom we give this power are chosen from the same pool of humanity which produces the criminals. We thus face the challenge of designing a system of justice that will protect us from bad people even though parts of it will, at times, be run by bad people.

It’s not just the very bad people, however. The theory tends to assume that most people will behave selfishly most of the time, and there isn’t a whole lot of evidence that it’s wrong. This points to what I guess could be called the fundamental problem of government: What’s the best way to build a government given that its officials and functionaries are drawn from the same pool of humanity they are governing? I don’t have a precise answer, but I’m pretty sure that giving them gobs of power with little accountability is a bad idea.

That’s what I was thinking when I read Andrew Cohen’s column — that this was about policy and trust, not a formal legal presumption — and I’m pretty sure it was what Radley Balko had in mind as well. I thought that’s what Cohen and Gideon had in mind too, but now that I’ve read Scott’s post, I’m not so sure.

Frankly though, I’m not so sure what Scott has in mind either, because bits like this don’t sound like he’s talking solely about the legal issues:

We tend to favor survival, and that relies on bridges not falling down and traffic signals that prevent the selfish jerk in the Esplanade from t-boning the Prius.  We go to sleep at night because we believe the police are out there preventing some really bad dude from breaking into our homes and slitting our throats.

Trust is a valuable thing to have, because it saves us a lot of trouble. You only have to look at a few broken-down third world countries to see what happens when nobody can really trust anyone else. But it’s something that has to be built up and maintained. You can’t just make policy founded on the hope that everyone can be trusted to act in good faith.

There is nothing wrong with the presumption of good faith, and our nation would cease to function without it.  What is wrong, and deeply wrong, is that those empowered to decide whether the presumption is rebutted lack the fortitude to serve the public, honor the Constitution and protect society.

In other words, we’re trusting too much that those who are “empowered to decide” will act in good faith.

2013 Road Trip Report – Part 1: The Road to Toledo

Chicago Traffic

It looks like I never got around to posting about last year’s summer road trip. Since it’s getting close to time for my next one, I figure I better post something. Excuse me if I ramble a bit…

I started the trip the way I always do, working through checklists of things to pack — clothes, meds, toiletries, still camera, video camera, computer — and checklists of everything I have to do before leaving — fill cat food and water bowls, vacuum, turn off all computer speakers, unplug office phone, put TV remote where cats can’t step on it, thermostat set, alarm clock off, all lights off, webcams on so we can see the cats from wherever we are.

The Chicago Skyway Bridge over the Calumet River into Indiana
Chicago Skyway Bridge

I had hoped to get going relatively early in the day so I could make it through Chicago as quick as possible, but I didn’t get going until the afternoon traffic started to get heavy and slow, and it took about an hour and a half to reach the Skyway Bridge into Indiana.

As is my tradition, as soon as I crossed the border into Indiana, I stopped at the Gas-a-Roo to fill up on cheap gas.

The Valero Gas-A-Roo in Hammond, Indiana
Gas-A-Roo

My next stop was also part of my road-trip tradition: Wagner’s Ribs, about 25 miles down the road in Porter, Indiana. I met with my friends George and Rich who I used to work with back in the ’90′s.

Rich lives in Chicago’s western suburbs, and shortly after we sat down he got a call from home telling him that heavy storm had hit his area, and his house had lost power. A half hour later, he got a call saying the storm had passed. He checked the weather radar, and it showed a narrow but intense squall line passing over Chicago. Since wind speeds were about 30 miles per hour, we knew the storm would be on us in half an hour or so. Sure enough, shortly after we got the check, a sudden heavy rain started to fall and the winds picked way up. The trees outside were rocking back-and-forth in the heavy winds and Wagner’s lost power twice.

The storm blew over in half an hour, but we decided to stick around a little longer. The weather pattern was headed east at 30 miles per hour, and I would soon be headed east at 70 miles per hour, which meant I’d catch up to it before reaching the hotel if I left too soon. Since the rain had kept the dinner crowd away, nobody minded that we kept the table.

Finally, with the storm an hour or so ahead of me, I left and headed east toward my first night’s stop. Actually, I first drove to a truck stop and got some snacks for the road — more delaying — before hopping on I-80 eastbound. By continuing to make gratuitous use of rest stops, I managed to keep the storm out in front of me, only occasionally getting sprinkles on the windows before reaching my hotel, the Hawthorn Suites by Wyndham in Holland, Ohio, on the outskirts of Toledo.

It took two trips to carry all my bags into the room, which turned out to be a full extended stay suite. My room had a full kitchen, complete with full-size refrigerator, kitchen sink, microwave, electric range, and cabinets full of glassware, china, and silverware. I didn’t need any of it, but the rate had been really good.

Hawthorn Suites by Wyndham in Holland, Ohio
Hotel Room

I had brought some left over Ledo’s pizza in the cooler, and I ate some of it out of a plastic bag for a late night snack. I could have actually poured my Diet Coke into a glass and eaten left-over Ledo’s pizza on a plate, but that just seemed excessive.

I got on the hotel WiFi — only after a call to the front desk to get the password — to check my mail and surf for a bit, but I was tired from the long day, so after about an hour I just plopped down on the bed right on top of the covers and fell asleep in the nice cool room. I woke up freezing in the middle of the night and had to crawl under the covers.

Update: Part 2 is up.

Awaiting the List

Journalist Glenn Greenwald has announced plans to publish his final big leak from the Snowden files: A list of U.S. citizens that the NSA has spied on. Naturally, this raises a very important question: Am I on the list? ‘Cause it would really help my badass libertarian rep if I was. I’m just beside myself with excitement!

Truthfully, I doubt they’ve ever spied on me, except to the extent that they’ve spied on everyone, such as phone call metadata. Actually, I’m kind of hoping that the list will run to hundreds of millions of people — damned near everyone with a digital footprint. That would make the NSA’s contempt for privacy pretty damned clear.

But if the list is more exclusive than that, I doubt I’ve drawn their attention. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of the people I know in the blogosphere have made the list. A couple of obvious candidates come to mind:

#1 by a mile is Mirriam Seddiq. She’s a Muslim criminal defense and immigration lawyer from Kandahar, Afghanistan. If the NSA isn’t watching her, they’re not paying attention.

Another likely candidate is Jamison Koehler. Jamison seems mostly harmless, but his wife Susan Burke likes to stir up some shit, and she travels overseas to do it.

Beyond that, I follow a bunch of criminal defense lawyers who probably make a lot of trouble between them — Mark Bennett, Norm Pattis, Rick Horowitz, PDgirl, Matthew Haiduk, Matt Brown, Gideon, the Squawk, the list goes on and on — but they mostly do state work, which I’m guessing wouldn’t draw a lot of attention from the national security types at the NSA. But maybe Scott Greenfield… He does federal work and used to represent drug dealers, and we know the NSA was feeding information to the DEA. Scott is also friends with Lynne Stewart, a defense lawyer who was prosecuted in connection with her defense work for some accused terrorists. If he had contact with her during that time, he could be on the list. Besides, it wouldn’t be the first time the feds spied on Scott.

After that, I don’t know. I’d like to think all us libertarians are on the government’s list, since we hate it so much — maybe Jennifer Abel for all the shit she says about the TSA or anyone at Reason because they despise both parties — but the truth is I suspect nobody in the government regards us as a threat. It kind of hurts my feelings.

(There is, of course, the hive mind that is Popehat. Between Clark’s libertarian ranting and Ken’s federal criminal work, maybe the hat made the list.)

The thing is, if the NSA is spying on libertarian writers like me, it’s an invasion of privacy in service to a witch hunt. That’s pretty bad, but it’s nothing compared to what it means if they’re spying on people like Mirriam Seddiq or Scott Greenfield or any of the other people for whom opposing the will of the government isn’t just a political leaning but their whole professional calling. And if the government has been spying on privileged lawyer-client communications, it raises a lot of disturbing possibilities.

I suppose it’s unlikely that anyone I know will make the list. But if they do, I expect they’ll be really angry.

Elliot Rodger’s Motive Says Very Little About Anyone Except Elliot Rodger

A young man named Elliot Rodger apparently killed six people Saturday in Isla Vista California. I say “apparently” because the story is new enough that it keeps changing. When I first heard it, he had shot six people dead, but now it appears that three of them were stabbed, according to a recent version of the story. Apparently most of his targets were women, although not all of them. The story is likely to change again by the time you read this. For that reason, I wouldn’t normally write about a story like this, since almost anything I say would be speculation, and it could turn out to be very wrong when a clearer story emerges.

Still, a lot of people are talking about it anyway — it’s hard not to, when it’s something so shocking — and I’d like to talk a little bit about what some of them are saying.

The first thing to note is that this is a confusing situation. A lot of people are emotionally upset by what happened, yet the story isn’t really clear yet. That’s a combination that is guaranteed to produce angry misunderstandings. People might say strange things just because they’re working from a different version of the facts than we are, which isn’t their fault (especially if it turns out their facts are correct and ours are wrong). They might also be repeating something they heard without thinking it through or trying to verify the truth of it. So for the first couple of days, if somebody says something that really pisses us off, we might want to cut them some slack and hold off on our angry responses.

And even when we don’t want to cut them any slack, we may still want to hold off on angry responses anyway. Some people are just trolls, saying outrageous stuff just to be outrageous and get a reaction. It’s best not to feed the trolls. (Although in some cases, you will probably want to keep an eye on them in the future. Geez.)

With that in mind, I’d like to talk about some of the discussion of the “cause” of Elliot Rodger’s killing spree. Most of the emerging discussion of his motive centers around a video he posted and a “manifesto” he sent out. I haven’t seen either of them, and I don’t want to, but apparently they’re quite misogynistic, and he literally threatens to kill a bunch of women. This has naturally lead a number of people to make pronouncements about the how Rodger’s killings reflect the misogyny of our society.

One immediate complication to that view is that, as far as I can tell, Elliot Rodger started by killing his male roommates, and he ended up killing more men than women. (He also wounded a lot of people, and the news reports don’t talk much about them, so he may have shot more women than men.) I’m not saying that he wasn’t a misogynist, but it’s probably not a sufficient explanation for his behavior. I’m assuming he has some type of mental disorder.

For that reason alone, it would probably be a mistake to take much of what Rodger says at face value. Furthermore, murderers are often not really reliable sources of information about their motives. Almost none of them say, “I killed because I’m a violent asshole.” They cast blame elsewhere — the victim usually, but also society in general, racial minorities, women, video games, porn, music lyrics…anything other than themselves. Sometimes this is a clear case of a manipulative personality looking for a way out, and sometimes it’s just something they’ve come to believe. They feel lonely, cut off, and rejected by the world, and they blame the world for those feelings, and they seek their revenge.

I’ve heard that Elliot Rodger was associated with the Pick-Up Artist (PUA) community, and some people have tried to use his killing spree as proof of the misogyny in the PUA community. This is spurious reasoning. Spree killers, whatever their motives, are very rare. However they fit into society, whatever communities they are associated with, they are far out at the end of the curve, and they tell us very little about the bulk of the people clustered in the center.

If you want to make judgements about the values of a community, you should base it on the values displayed by the bulk of its members, not by the crazy people on the fringe. Elliot Rodger is not proof of the misogyny in the PUA community. The PUA community is proof of the misogyny in the PUA community.

I’ve also heard that Rodger was a Men’s Rights Activist (MRA), and some people are arguing that his killing spree is proof of the misogyny in that community as well. Again, you can’t judge a group’s values by the behavior of its most extreme members. Judge the misogyny of the MRA community by the misogyny of the MRA community.

There are those who would argue that by portraying Rodger as a lone madman rather than a representative of our misogynistic society, I am minimizing the problem of violence against women. I would argue that the people who are holding Elliot Rodger out as an example of societal misogyny are distracted from the larger social problem.

Spree killers are a small part of the problem of violence against women. The larger problem is less spectacular and more mundane, so it gets less news coverage. Usable statistics are surprisingly hard to find via Google, but according to a study by the Violence Policy Center (based on the FBI UCR Homicide Supplement), in 2009 there were 989 women killed by their husbands or boyfriends. An additional 590 women were killed by other men that they knew. That is far more than are killed by spree killers in any year. Using those numbers as a statistical average, it probably means that on the day Elliot Rodger killed two women in his spree, another 2 or 3 women were killed by their husbands or boyfriends, and an additional 1 or 2 more were killed by some man in their life. And unlike Rodger’s shooting spree, that toll keeps repeating itself day after day after day. It may be a better place to focus our efforts.

(And if you think domestic violence gets little coverage or study, it gets even worse for violence against sex workers, but that’s another matter.)

At the end of the day, I’m pretty confident that Elliot Rodger was some kind of madman. He may have seen himself in a political context, as striking a blow for unloved men everywhere against women and other men, but that doesn’t mean he actually was, or that other men in similar situations are going to follow his example.

And for the record, whatever mental disorder he was suffering from, he’s out on the fringe there as well. People with mental health problems are generally no more violent than everyone else.

Don’t Disinvite, Just Don’t Invite

It’s graduation season again, which means it’s time for the usual round of news stories about controversial graduation speakers and the attempts by protestors to get them disinvited. For example, after protestors at Rutgers got Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to back out of giving the commencement address, the normally wonderfully cynical P. J. O’Rourke went into full curmudgeon mode complaining about the kids these days and extolling Rice’s experience:

…she also served, from 1989 to 1991, as the Soviet expert on the White House National Security Council under President George H. W. Bush.

1989 happens to be when the Berlin Wall fell. I know, I know, most of you weren’t born, and you get your news from TMZ. A wall falling over can’t be as interesting as Beyonce’s sister punching and kicking Jay Z in a New York hotel elevator. But that 1989 moment of “something there is that doesn’t love a wall” (and I’ll bet you a personal karaoke performance of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” that you can’t name the poet who wrote it) had interesting consequences. Stop taking selfies and Google “Berlin Wall” on the iPhones you’re all fiddling with.

Condoleezza Rice was named National Security Adviser in December 2000, less than a year before some horrific events that you may know of. She became Secretary of State in 2005 during an intensely difficult period in American history (which your teach-in was not going to teach you much about).  And she saw the job through to the end of the fraught and divisive George W. Bush presidency, making moral and ethical decisions of such a complex and contradictory nature that they would have baffled Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (of whom I suppose, perhaps naively, you have heard) put together.

You know what? Nobody gives a shit what Condoleeza Rice would have said at the Rutgers graduation ceremony. You know why? Because it was graduation day. All the exams have been taken, all the grades have been submitted. This material will not be on the test.

(O’Rourke goes on to make fun of Rutgers for being the 69th best-rated university according to U.S. News & World Report — so you know it must be true — and makes fun of a professor named Bell by nicknaming him “Jingle,” thus showing why he gets paid the big bucks while I toil here for free.)

Another of these articles comes from Stephen L. Carter, who has a sneering attack on oversensitive protestors in BloombergView:

In my day, the college campus was a place that celebrated the diversity of ideas. Pure argument was our guide. Staking out an unpopular position was admired — and the admiration, in turn, provided excellent training in the virtues of tolerance on the one hand and, on the other, integrity.

Your generation, I am pleased to say, seems to be doing away with all that. There’s no need for the ritual give and take of serious argument when, in your early 20s, you already know the answers to all questions. How marvelous it must be to realize at so tender an age that you will never, ever change your mind, because you will never, ever encounter disagreement! How I wish I’d had your confidence and fortitude. I could have spared myself many hours of patient reflection and intellectual struggle over the great issues of the day.

Look, if you’re arguing whether they’re right or wrong to protest, then your reflexive defense of free speech is missing the point. It’s just not the right occasion for controversial speakers and the “ritual give and take of serious argument.” I’m all for debate and new ideas, but by graduation day, you’ve kind of missed the window.

(And how is that argument supposed to take place, exactly? It’s been a while since I graduated, but I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a Q & A session.)

When students at Smith College protested a scheduled commencement address by Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, she graciously withdrew from the event as college President Kathleen McCartney explains:

I regret to inform you that Christine Lagarde has withdrawn as Smith’s 2014 commencement speaker in the wake of anti-IMF protests from faculty and students, including a few who wrote directly to her. She conveyed to me this weekend that she does not want her presence to detract from the occasion.

“In the last few days,” she wrote, “it has become evident that a number of students and faculty members would not welcome me as a commencement speaker. I respect their views, and I understand the vital importance of academic freedom. However, to preserve the celebratory spirit of commencement day, I believe it is best to withdraw my participation.”

Lagarde understands what the people who scheduled her did not: Students have been working long and hard to get to that ceremony, and it’s supposed to be about them.

On the day I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree, my parents drove down to see me. Neither of them had been to college, so they were proud that they had been able to send me, and I was grateful for their support and encouragement. I was also pretty proud of myself. I had done well and earned a Bachelor of Science degree with High Honors, which at that point in my life was one of the most difficult things I had ever done. I remember showing them around the campus, talking about where I lived and where I did all my studying. They had brought along some friends of mine, and afterwards we went out to dinner at a nice restaurant.

Those are my memories of of graduation, and I think I can safely assume that many of my friends have similar memories. And I’ll bet few of us can remember what the guest speaker said. But thank God that whoever planned the ceremony didn’t bring in some controversial lightning rod of a speaker. Our commencement address was given by physicist Leon Lederman. I think he said something about education.

(Dr. Lederman won the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physics for developing the method he and two other physicists used to discover the muon neutrino. He was also the director of Fermilab for ten years. He was one of the biggest advocates of searching for the Higgs boson and he wrote the most well-known book about it, The God Particle. By reading that book, or some textbooks on particle physics, or really even the Wikipedia article on neutrinos or the Higgs boson, you can learn much more about the real important work of Leon Lederman than anybody learned from his commencement address.)

Meanwhile, Stephen Carter had something to say about the Rutgers situation as well:

Then there are your fellows at Rutgers University, who rose up to force the estimable Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state and national security adviser, to withdraw. The protest was worded with unusual care, citing the war in Iraq and the “torture” practiced by the Central Intelligence Agency. Cleverly omitted was the drone war. This elision allows the protesters to wish away the massive drone war that President Barack Obama’s administration has conducted now for more than five years, with significant loss of innocent life. As for the Iraq war, well, among its early and enthusiastic supporters was — to take a name at random — then-Senator Hillary Clinton. But don’t worry. Consistency in protest requires careful and reflective thought, and that is exactly what we should be avoiding here.

This just proves my point. You invite someone like Condoleeza Rice, and next thing you know, the political pundits like Carter are insulting your community and somehow linking your graduation ceremony to an attack on Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

It gets worse. After Haverford College students protested against former University of California (Berkeley) chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau, leading to his withdrawal, his replacement speaker decided to make a stink about it:

William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton and a nationally respected higher education leader, called the student protestors’ approach both “immature” and “arrogant” and the subsequent withdrawal of Robert J. Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California Berkeley, a “defeat” for the Quaker college and its ideals.

So he insulted the Haverford and its students, and it made the newspapers. Awesome job, whoever planned the ceremony. Are you happy with what you’ve done to your graduation this year? Is this what you wanted?

Also, as with O’Rourke, Bowen seems not to understand how commencement works:

“I am disappointed that those who wanted to criticize Birgeneau’s handling of events at Berkeley chose to send him such an intemperate list of “demands,” said Bowen, who led Princeton from 1972 to 1988 and last year received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama. “In my view, they should have encouraged him to come and engage in a genuine discussion, not to come, tail between his legs, to respond to an indictment that a self-chosen jury had reached without hearing counter-arguments.”

Yeah, no question, sending lists of demands is a douchebag thing to do. But how the hell does Bowen think they’re going to “engage in a genuine discussion” during the commencement speech? Does he even hear what he’s saying?

In her letter to the Smith community, President McCartney doesn’t do any better:

I want to underscore this fact: An invitation to speak at a commencement is not an endorsement of all views or policies of an individual or the institution she or he leads. Such a test would preclude virtually anyone in public office or position of influence. Moreover, such a test would seem anathema to our core values of free thought and diversity of opinion. I remain committed to leading a college where differing views can be heard and debated with respect.

Again, “debated”? On graduation day? This is feel-good nonsense. It’s an admirable defense of free speech principals, but if your graduation ceremony has become the subject of a rancorous debate, you’ve kind of already ruined it.

I understand the point McCartney is trying to make. It’s okay to object to speech you don’t like, and it’s okay to speak out and protest against it. But it’s not okay to silence speech you don’t like, and it’s not okay to deprive other people of their right to hear speech you don’t like. Everybody say it with me: The best remedy for bad speech is good speech.

Many colleges and universities are run by people who feel it’s their role to challenge students’ preconceptions and present them with a wide range of viewpoints and opinions. I think those are perfectly valid values for an institution of higher education. It makes a lot of sense to schedule speakers who are unorthodox, who represent unpopular ideas, and who make people uncomfortable.

(Although, if I seem less than completely enthusiastic, it’s because I am annoyed by the amount of importance placed on non-curricular stuff like this. I suppose plenty of people go to college to “have experiences” and “encounter other ways of being” or whatever. But I went to school to learn shit. My degree was in Computer Science, and I spent all my time learning algorithms and data structures and the discrete mathematical structures that underlie so much of computing. I learned computer graphics and databases and operating systems. I spent long hours learning computer architecture and the deep mysteries of compilers, and as hard as some of it was, it was also absolutely fascinating. If you’re really interested in the subjects you’re studying, there are worlds to explore.)

So if you want college to present students with controversial speakers, I’m all for it, and to hell with what a bunch of whiny protestors say. But can we please stop pretending that the graduation ceremony is a crucial moment in students’ education? You’ve had four long years to mold their minds and shape their way of understanding the world. You’ve had plenty of time for all the challenging speakers — or better yet, challenging classes — you could possibly want. If you haven’t done the job right by graduation day, it’s too late.

And if you have done the job right, what’s the point of having a controversial speaker? What more good could it possibly do? The students have done everything you’ve asked for four years and now they just want to celebrate with their friends and families. After all they’ve been through to get there, making many of them sit and listen to someone you know they’ll find offensive is kind of a dick move.

(By the way, you may notice something missing from all these articles complaining about protests against commencement speakers: Quotations. Condoleeza Rice, for example, has about a dozen honorary doctorate degrees, so you know she’s given commencement addresses before, yet for all that P. J. O’Rourke extolls her virtues and accomplishments, he never quite gets around to giving any examples of the awesome things she’s said at any of her other speeches.)

Finally, if there are protests, and your speaker backs down, it’s only going to draw the kind of ugly media attention that Haverford, Smith, and Rutgers have been getting. All you will have accomplished is making your college look stupid and marring the day for your graduating students. Again, it’s wrong that the protestors are able prevent someone from being heard. But it was a predictable consequence that could have been avoided if you had kept the students in mind and chosen a speaker who would complement the occasion instead of dominating it.

Crime and Incentives

In response to my post about some of economist Gary Becker’s views on crime, “russ” leaves a comment with a couple of interesting points:

I would think the failure of the war on drugs is the evidence AGAINST Becker’s idea that increased punishment reduces crime.

Just because criminalizing drugs hasn’t made them go away completely doesn’t mean that criminalization has no effect at all. After all, we’ve seen what happens when criminalization is undone: Certainly more alcohol was sold after prohibition was repealed than while it was in force, and the home-brewed beer industry exploded after that was legalized. I assume that criminalization is suppressing a lot of drug sales and consumption that would be occurring if drugs were legalized.

Becker is just saying that if you punish people for engaging in certain behaviors, people will be less likely to engage in that behavior. It’s just another variation of the general economic assumption that people will respond to incentives. Since Becker started studying the problem, economists have generally discovered that criminals are making the same kinds of risk/reward decisions as everybody else does. In other words, the movie Trading Places has a lot of truth to it: If you took a bunch of Wall Street bond traders and stuck them in the same circumstances as poor, uneducated inner-city minority youths, they would make many of the same life choices, and some of them would choose the high-risk/high-reward life of a crime. If you changes people’s incentives, you change their behavior. It happens all the time.

Of course, maybe the problem is that only those with a vested interest in prosecution consider the drug trade a crime. After all, non-fraudulent transaction between willing buyers and willing sellers are not really crimes.

I’m right with you there, although it’s more than just police and prosecutors and prison guards lining their pockets. There’s some genuine social disapproval of a lot of consensual crimes. People are busybodies, and they assume that anything that they don’t like is probably not important.

The death penalty was supposed to deter crime but there is no evidence that it has. Perhaps Becker’s theory that crime is subject to a cost-benefit analysis only applies to theft/fraud crimes.

I’ve heard mixed reports about the effectiveness of the death penalty. Some studies find a deterrent effect, and others do not. I’ve heard that in those studies that have found an effect, much of it goes away if you drop Texas from the data set. On the one hand, that doesn’t prove the study is wrong — of course the results of a study will change if you cherry pick the data — but it’s interesting that it all depends on the state with the most executions. Perhaps the deterrent effect doesn’t show up unless you execute a lot of criminals.

More generally, I believe studies have shown that deterrence effect is not as sensitive to the severity of the punishment as it is to the immediacy and certainty of the punishment. This would be consistent with the idea that the criminal personality includes a high tolerance for risk and that criminals discount the future heavily. So if we want to fight crime, it’s more important to make the punishment swift and sure than it is to make it harsh.

Gary Becker on Crime

One of the giant minds of economics, Gary Becker, passed away on Saturday. Among other things, he and Kevin Murphy were pioneers in the idea of rational addiction, which I wrote about last year. That was just one example of his approach to applying the tools of economic thinking to a wide variety of other fields such as discrimination, family life, politics, and crime.

It’s the last field which attracts the attention of Kent Scheidegger at Crime and Consequences, who quotes from Becker’s biographical sketch at the Library of Economics and Liberty:

Not even crime escaped Becker’s keen analytical mind. In the late 1960s he wrote a trail-blazing article whose working assumption is that the decision to commit crime is a function of the costs and benefits of crime. From this assumption he concluded that the way to reduce crime is to raise the probability of punishment or to make the punishment more severe. His insights into crime, like his insights on discrimination and human capital, helped spawn a new branch of economics.

This meets with Scheidegger’s approval, and he goes on to comment,

The latter point seems so obvious now, yet the people running around proclaiming themselves “smart on crime” today apparently don’t get it.  The genuinely smart people do.

I’m not sure what Scheidegger means by “smart on crime,” but I have no doubt that Becker said something like that, and I’m pretty sure I agree with him. One of the basic rules of economic thinking is to assume that people respond to incentives. That seems like an obvious thing to say, but economists treat it almost as an axiom of human behavior. They assume that people will respond to incentives at all times, in all places, under any circumstances. Always.

This is obviously something of an oversimplification, of course, but in decades of testing the theory that people respond to incentives against observations of the real world, economists have rarely had cause to regret the assumption. So of course economists like Becker believe that punishing people for committing crimes will encourage them to commit fewer crimes. Anything else would violate one of the most important rules economists have about human nature.

It’s too bad, though, that the folks at Crime & Consequences (especially Bill Otis) don’t take to heart some of Gary Becker’s other writing. For example, economists generally assume that when you make a decision about how to live your life, you will do so with the intent of improving the quality of your life. And since you have to live with the results of your decision, you have more of an incentive to make the right decision than anyone else.

Further, unless you have some sort of mental incapacity (due to age or infirmity, say) you also have more information than anyone else about exactly what will make you happy. It therefore follows that, assuming the goal of public policy is to maximize our combined quality of life, the best approach is to allow each person to make as many decisions about their own life as possible, with the important limitation that they must also allow everyone else to do the same.

Basically, the more people are free to choose, the more they will choose to make the world better. And rather a lot of economists see no reason not to extend this reasoning to include illegal drugs: If you choose to consume them, it must be because you believe they will improve the quality of your life, and nobody has more information or a better incentive to make that consumption choice than you.

Although not the most radical of anti-prohibition economists, Gary Becker had this to say:

The 40 year-old American “war on drugs” has been a colossal failure. No progress in dealing with drugs can be expected until that basic truth is recognized. Every conceivable approach has been tried to help the war succeed, such as long prison terms for persons convicted of selling or using drugs, trying to prevent drugs from entering the US from Mexico and other countries, and confiscating huge quantities of drugs (remember The French Connection?). At some point all wars that fail are terminated, and alternative approaches explored.

The evidence from Portugal, a country that decriminalized all drug use in 2001, offers some support for the claim that decriminalization of drug use will reduce addiction to drugs. A 2010 study in the British Journal of Criminology concluded that decriminalization in Portugal reduced imprisonment on drug-related charges, only slightly increased, if at all, drug experimentation among young persons, increased visits to clinics that help end drug addictions, and reduced deaths from drug overdoses.

The retreat from the war on drugs has already begun. The question is whether it will be a sensible retreat with systematic changes in the law toward decriminalization and legalization of drugs, or a disorganized retreat that leaves users and sellers of drugs with unclear legal status.

Becker and other economists have been saying stuff like that for a long time. It seems inconsistent to believe that people will change their behavior as a rational response to punishment in order to improve the quality of their lives, and yet to assume that observed behavior such as drug consumption is not also a rational response that improves the quality of their lives.

Stealth In the Parking Lot

I did some grocery shopping at lunch today, and on my way back to my car, as I was threading my way through the parking lot, an empty car next to me started rolling forward. Several thoughts ran through my head: Was any part of it going to hit me? What was in it’s path? Other cars? People? Could I catch up to the driver’s door and try to get in to stop it? –

As I was thinking that last thought, I glanced at the driver’s seat again and realized that there was actually a driver after all. It was a small woman wearing what I think was a black niqab and dark glasses.

Man, it’s like they’re frickin’ ninjas

How Bill Nye Debates Creationism

When word got around that Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”) was going to debate Ken Ham, the founder of the Creation Museum, I was skeptical because just understanding the science of evolution is not good enough, you also have to understand and be prepared for all the creationist criticisms of evolution, and most scientists have no reason to learn about those.

Among other things, I wrote:

In other words, in order to debate the subject of evolution, it’s not enough to learn all about evolution. You also have to learn all about creationism, and how creationists think about evolution. You have to be familiar with things like Jonathan Wells’s anti-evolution Icons of Evolution and Alan Gishlick’s explanation of why it’s wrong. You have to absorb the creationists’ way of thinking about evolution in order to explain your point to them in a way they will understand.

And that’s just not something I’m willing to spend a lot of my time on. And unless Bill Nye has been secretly setting up Ken Ham for this debate for months, it’s not something he’s spent a lot of time on either.

As it turns out, Nye didn’t quite set Ham up, but as he explains in a Skeptical Inquirer article about his view of the debate, he did do a lot of prep work:

I consulted the world’s foremost authorities on arguing or debating with creationists. I flew to Oakland, California, and consulted with the famed, venerable, and formidable Genie Scott, along with Josh Roseneau, and the staff at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). They schooled me on what to do in great detail. Later that week, I managed to arrange a lunch with Don Prothero and Michael Shermer, two hardcore skeptics. Don even debated the notorious Duane Gish back in the 1980s. All of these people were wonderfully helpful. They were very patient with me and helped me figure out what to say and, especially, what not to say. They said to prefer the word “explanation” to the word “theory,” for example. I just can’t thank them enough.

I haven’t seen the debate, but it sounds like he also managed to pull off a strategy I’ve seen work before, which is to steer the debate so it isn’t constantly about the attacks on the theory of evolution, but rather a discussion of what the alternative might be. I’ve seen forum discussions where creationists were hammered by repeated requests to “state the theory of creationism.” After all, if they think they’ve got a better theory, they should be able to explain what it is and why it does a better job of explaining the physical evidence of the real world.

Ken Ham’s theories are well known, so Nye didn’t have to challenge him to describe them, which allowed Nye to address them directly and point out why they were deficient:

If you take the time to watch, Mr. Ham repeatedly mentioned or droned on about the less-than-a-handful of scientists who subscribe to the weird idea that the Earth is crazy (or crazily) young. When my turn came, I talked about geology and the Grand Canyon. Creationists from the United States, or in Australian-born Ham’s case, in the United States, just can’t get enough of the Grand Canyon. I pointed out that not a single fossil form had tried to swim from one rock layer to another during his purported worldwide flood, only 4,000 years ago. Were we to find such a fossil, it would utterly change geology and our scientific worldview. I did a bit of engineering, pointing out that no wooden boat has ever been built as big as Ham’s imagined ark. In fact, the big ones that were built were smaller and generally twisted apart— and sank (for this I used a chart from Ham’s website). I made it personal where possible. The Nyes are an old New England family, many of whom sailed wooden ships. I also spoke of decades in the Pacific Northwest, where I observed the enormous boulders washed westward by ancient collapsing ice dams in what is now Montana.

If kangaroos got off the ark in Mesopotamia, why aren’t there kangaroos in Laos? (Again, I used a map from Ham’s very website.) Then, from geology: If I find ice that has evidence of 680,000 layers of summer-winter cycles, how could the Earth be any younger? Thanks to Don for that. How can there be 9,500-year-old trees if the Earth is only 6,000 years old? And so on.

Apparently, the whole debate went like that.

Those of you familiar with creationism and its followers are familiar with the remarkable Duane Gish (no longer living—at least as far as we know). His debating technique came to be known as the “Gish Gallop.” He was infamous for jumping from one topic to another, introducing one spurious or specious fact or line of reasoning after another. A scientist debating Gish often got bogged down in details and, by all accounts, came across looking like the loser.

It quickly occurred to me that I could do the same thing. If you make the time to watch the debate (let’s say for free at http://billnye.com—wink, wink), I hope you’ll pick up on this idea. I did my best to slam Ken Ham with a great many scientific and common sense arguments. I believed he wouldn’t have the time or the focus to address many of them.

So I guess I was mistaken to worry about how this would turn out. From the accounts I’ve heard, it sounds like Nye came across very well and pretty much won the debate.

Death Doesn’t Have to Knock: A Modest Proposal

In the past few years, the states have been facing increasing difficulties obtaining the drugs they need to carry out their death penalties. This is in part because manufacturers have been refusing to make the drugs available for use in executions. So instead of using the traditional three-drug sequence, states have been experimenting with new drugs. However, since they don’t want manufacturers to stop selling them the drugs, states have begun keeping their execution protocols a secret.

And perhaps because of these changes, an execution in Oklahoma went disturbingly wrong:

McALESTER, Okla. — What was supposed to be the first of two executions here on Tuesday night was halted when the prisoner, Clayton D. Lockett, began to writhe and gasp after he had already been declared unconscious and called out “oh, man,” according to witnesses.

A medical technican inserted the IV needle and then the the first drug, a sedative intended to knock the man out and forestall pain, was administered at 6:23 p.m. Ten minutes later, the doctor announced that Mr. Lockett was unconscious, and the team started to administer the next two drugs, a paralytic and one intended to make the heart stop.

At that point, witnesses said, things began to go awry. Mr. Lockett’s body twitched, his foot shook and he mumbled, witnesses said.

At 6:37 p.m., he tried to rise and exhaled loudly. At that point, prison officials pulled a curtain in front of the witnesses and the doctor discovered a “vein failure,” Mr. Patton said.

Without effective sedation, the second two drugs are known to cause agonizing suffocation and pain.

Lockett eventually died, but that didn’t stop the criminal coddling defense bloggers (e.g. Gamso, Gideon, and Greenfield) from wringing their hands and calling for abolition of the death penalty.

Giving up is for losers. What I wanted was someone who could rise to the challenge of killing criminals. Naturally, I turned to the only name in blogging when it comes to sane, measured commentary about the death penalty, Crime and Consequences. I discovered that Kent Scheidegger had this to say:

As I have noted several times on this blog, lethal injection was a mistake from the beginning.  We should have kept the gas chamber and merely used a different gas.  Carbon monoxide, for example, is painless.

We have lethal injection for the time being, though, and we should make it effective.  Congress should act promptly to lift the restrictions on importation of the needed drugs and to outlaw manufacturers’ restrictions on resale of them.

Hmpf. I guess Scheidegger isn’t as much of a conservative as I thought. Not if he wants to limit manufacturers’ ability to set the terms and conditions of sale of their products in the free market. His closing paragraph just confirms his new namby-pamby liberal leanings:

We should do what we can to minimize pain in executions, but we should never forget that even in the worst execution what the murderer suffers is a tiny, tiny fraction of the suffering he chose to inflict on the victim.

“Do what we can to minimize pain in executions”? I visited C&C because I was looking for the hard-boiled law-and-order view, someone who would rain down hell upon the sinners. And he’s worried about minimizing pain? What a pussy.

So I set about searching for another solution. Surely someone among the hundreds of bloggers in my feed reader must have a friggin’ solution for the problem of how to execute people when the old tried-and-true drugs are no longer available. But try as I might, I couldn’t find anything useful.

In a desperate effort, I even visited The Watch, written by noted law enforcement expert Radley Balko, whose wonderful book Warrior Cop was such a loving tribute to the the brave officers who fight the war on drugs. He mentioned the Lockett execution in passing, but he had no solutions either. My heart began to fill with despair.

And then it hit me…

The states don’t need to find a new drug protocol to execute people. There’s another way states can kill people. It’s simple, easy, and effective. Every state already has the mechanisms in place, and they’ve been killing people with them for years. When it’s time for a prisoner to be executed per a judicial order, all they have to do is have a SWAT team stage a no-knock raid on the death chamber!

Just think of it: A few hours before the appointed time, the warden could call one of the local multi-agency drug interdiction task forces and leave an anonymous tip that the condemned individual was selling pot, giving the address of death row and the time when the inmate was expected to be there. The SWAT team would show up, lob flash-bang grenades into the room to stun the witnesses, kick down the door to the chamber, yell at the guy strapped to the gurney to get down on the floor, and when he doesn’t, empty their weapons into his center of mass.

Then the SWAT commander could complete the ritual by pulling a small baggie of crack out of his back pocket and announcing that police had “discovered salable quantities of narcotics at the scene” to reassure spectators that the bad guy got what he deserved.

No Need for the Truth Police

At the very liberal Addicting Info website, Justin Acuff is upset that politicians might be lying, and he wants the government to do something about it:

There’s a first amendment case going in front of the Supreme Court right now that’s very, very dangerous. Why? Because it might allow religious opinion to become legal fact, corrupting the intent of our constitutional rights, if not the specific wording.

Actually, Acuff is concerned the Supreme court might overthrow the ability of election commissions to control speech about politicians:

The Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List), an anti-choice and anti-family planning group, is suing because they believe they have a right to publicly advertise lies if they have sufficient reason to hold the advertised opinion. Paradoxical, yes, but if you’re familiar with American culture, you’ll completely understand. Cognitive dissonance and bold denial in the face of proof are defining characteristics.

The specific issue at hand is the 2010 campaign of Democratic former Rep. Steve Driehaus, a pro-life moderate in Ohio. Because he was running in Ohio, Ohio’s “false statements” law applied. Many states have an equivalent law. The idea is that stopping political ads from outright lying might be a reasonable restriction of free speech, in order to protect our democratic process. Probably a good plan, and not just for elections — after all, an appellate court has previously ruled that media sources, such as Fox News (the specific agency in the case), have the right to lie.

Granted, it’s bad that politicians lie. But you know what’s worse than allowing politicians to lie? Allowing politicians to decide what people are allowed to say about politicians. Ohio’s law against false statements in a political campaign is enforced by the the Ohio Elections Commission, which is a politically appointed body, that has been used to press “false statement” charges against political candidates attacking incumbents and against people protesting Tax Increment Funding. Are we really supposed to believe they’re going to keep mainstream politicians honest? Or are they just another way to keep small players out of the field of politics?

The SBA List was upset they weren’t allowed to advertise things that weren’t true. After all, Driehaus supported Obama’s healthcare agenda, and they didn’t. So, they wanted to put up a bunch of billboards and use radio ads to blast Driehaus, a self-proclaimed pro-life candidate, as supporting a program that includes taxpayer-funded abortions. Except…the ACA, Obamacare, does not fund abortions. It’s actually illegal for the federal government to fund abortion. Instead, the ACA has private insurers offering abortion coverage under unique rules.

And as he just demonstrated, this is easy enough to explain to anyone who was fooled by the lies and who wants to learn the truth. You don’t need a special truth commission to rule on it.

Facts matter. Especially when it comes to democratically electing leaders. Without an educated, informed populace, there can be no progress in democracy.

Of course fact matter. And if SBA List is misrepresenting the facts about the way abortion is treated under the Affordable Care Act, it’s important to correct them, and it’s important to point out that they are a bunch of liars who can’t be trusted. But there’s a world of difference between responding to political opponents by calling out their lies and responding to political opponents by suppressing their speech.

It’s not like these kinds are laws are going to be used evenly across the board. During the long course of a political campaign, a lot of people will say a lot of things, and some of those things will be wrong. And despite the supposed goal of getting the lies out of politics, there aren’t enough investigators on the Ohio Election Commission to investigate every lie that is told during an election season.

That means that the commission will have to engage in selective enforcement, picking and choosing among all the lies to decide who they want to go after. Does anybody think that choice won’t be influenced by politics? My guess is that lies told by (or on behalf of) influential mainstream candidates will go unchallenged, because the political hacks on the election commission wouldn’t want to anger anyone who could hurt their chances of collecting a nice state pension. On the other hand, the commissioners will have nothing to lose by nitpicking fringe candidates and small special interest groups that are a thorn in the sides of candidates from both parties.

And let me point out something that every power-mad would-be censor seems to ignore: You may have the power now, but someday it will be your enemies who are in control of the power. Today the commission might be targeting a right-wing pro-life group, but tomorrow a different commission could be controlled by the other side, and it could be some left-wing cause that’s in the crosshairs. For example, I’ve heard a lot of gun control advocates say things that just aren’t true: They get confused about firearms technology, they misstate the current firearms laws, they use incorrect statistics, they make unsupported claims about things the NRA does, and they mischaracterize pro-gun arguments. Will the people demanding the SBA List be silenced have the same hardball attitude about “false statements” when a Republican-controlled election commission goes after a grassroots gun control group and runs them out of business with legal expenses?

I’m not defending the SBA List or the lies they are tell. But giving politicians the power to control political speech during an election is not something that’s good for democracy.

SORNA Challenge Update

Last summer, I expressed my doubts about scientific aims of the SORNA Challenge. By asking for proposals for “innovative” ways to measure the costs and benefits of the Sexual Offender Registration and Notification Act, I felt that the National Institute of Justice was implicitly admitting that the widely accepted methodologies of sociology, criminology, and economics wouldn’t give them the answers they were hoping for.

Also, the SORNA Challenge was using a very broad definition of the social benefits of SORNA, but limiting costs only to those directly incurred by the government, which could make SORNA look much more beneficial than it really is, if people using the study were not careful in interpreting the results.

I decided to check up on how the Challenge was going, and it turns out to be a bust:

We would like to thank everyone who submitted an idea under this Challenge.

We know our Challenge questions are tough, and in this case, no submission met the Challenge, so we will not award a prize.

We will continue to collaborate with the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking to address this important question.

That’s probably for the best.

Jim Ardis and the Abuse of Power

Via Radley Balko comes more narcissistic whining from Jim Ardis, the mayor of Peoria, Illinois, who is rapidly becoming famous for sending his pet cops to raid the house of someone who ran a parody Twitter account in his name. Nick Vlahos of the Peoria Journal Star reports that Ardis doesn’t seem to think he did anything wrong:

Ardis defended his actions, which led to search warrants, a police visit to a West Bluff residence and the arrest of one occupant on a marijuana-possession charge.

He said the profane tweets, on a Twitter account created by Peoria resident Jon Daniel, could not be tolerated. That was true even after the account was re-labeled as a parody and was deactivated.

“I still maintain my right to protect my identity is my right,” Ardis said in an interview with the Journal Star before the council meeting.

“Are there no boundaries on what you can say, when you can say it, who you can say it to?” Ardis said. “You can’t say (those tweets) on behalf of me. That’s my problem. This guy took away my freedom of speech.”

Peoria City Council member Jim Montelongo pretty much nails it:

Montelongo said the episode represented an abuse of Ardis’ authority, as well as the police department’s.

“There was too much power of force used on these pranksters,” said Montelongo, the 4th District councilman. “It made it look like the mayor received preferential treatment that other people don’t get or will never get.”

That’s exactly right. Ardis is abusing his mayoral power when he uses it in service of his personal needs. In some ways, it’s no different from when a business executive brings his wife along on a trip and uses the company account to pay for the ticket. What makes it worse, of course, is that Ardis’s little power trip resulted in an armed raid on someone’s house and suppression of free speech.

As an aside, Radley brings up a good point:

Yesterday, Illinois State’s Attorney Jerry Brady announced that he would not seek criminal charges against the man who ran a parody Twitter account purporting to be Peoria, Ill., Mayor Jim Ardis. That’s because there is no state law against impersonating someone online. (Even if there were, it’s likely that the Twitter account itself would fall under the First Amendment protections for parodying public figures.)

[...]

We’ve already discussed Ardis’s power complex issues here. But that isn’t the only troubling part of this case. It would also be interesting to hear the explanation as to why Judges Kirk Schoebein, Lisa Wilson and Kim Kelley all signed off on warrants to investigate a crime that doesn’t exist. And why the police then executed those warrants.

The warrants reportedly listed drugs among the items to be searched for — based on some posted pictures of drug paraphernalia — but they also listed computers because of the impersonation issue, which seems like a problem.

Look, there are a lot of parodies online, and the targets usually just learn to live with them, like adults. If somebody out there starts a fake Windypundit blog in my name, I might be able to do something about it under intellectual property law (although not if it’s purely parody, a well-protected speech right), but there’s no way I could get the police to go after them. Even when the person pretending to be someone else does so with malice and causes harm, the police are unlikely to get involved if there’s no straight-up crime like fraud or threats of violence. At least not unless there’s an ego-crazed maniac like Jim Ardis pressuring them to do his bidding.

Meanwhile, Ardis is apparently working from the sociopath playbook and blaming everyone else for his problems:

In his pre-meeting interview, Ardis said he believed his complaint was handled no differently than anybody else’s would be. He said he didn’t orchestrate the police investigation, nor the search-warrant process.

“That’s a heck of a lot more power than any mayor I know,” Ardis said.

“My guess is as far as the judge is concerned, it doesn’t matter if it’s the mayor. They’re looking at the substance. Why would they allow something without a foundation? That’s the core of everything they do.”

Ardis said the situation provides an opportunity to discuss the proper limits of commentary on social media. He also said the news media is responsible, in part, for the problem.

“You’re the ones responsible for getting full information, but not to spin it in the way you want to spin it,” Ardis said to a Journal Star reporter. “To make us look stupid.

“It’s your responsibility to put actual information out there and cover both sides. Not to opine. And that didn’t happen. Clearly, that didn’t happen.”

Blaming the media is standard practice, of course, but I’m kind of in awe of how quickly he turned on the people around him. He may have pressured the cops into retaliating against the author of the parody, but once it started blowing up on him and attracting media attention in a bad way, he had no problem throwing them under a bus, along with the judge who so helpfully approved the bogus search warrant.

An Argument From Envy

Over at In These Times, United Steelworkers president Leo Gerard has an opinion piece in which he purports to explain “Why the GOP Really Fears Minimum-Wage Hikes.”

Republicans in America suffer a crippling anxiety. It’s the terrible fear of corporations paying poor workers too much.

I don’t have any special claim to understanding why Republicans do the things they do, but this is at least plausible, in the sense that Republicans might be craven servants of business who want to prevent corporate owners from paying too much. Unfortunately, Gerard’s argument very quickly degenerates into lies and confusion.

The GOP is so afraid that the nation’s lowest wage earners will get a raise that Republican politicians across the country are working overtime to outlaw wages above $7.25 an hour for these workers.

That’s simply a lie. Nobody is trying to outlaw higher wages for workers. Under any of the laws Gerard describes, employers can pay employees as much as they want. What he’s complaining about is something different:

They’re passing legislation forbidding towns and counties from raising the minimum wage in their jurisdictions. Republicans insist: no pay bump for those raking in $15,080 a year!

That second sentence doesn’t follow from the first. From his own description, Republicans aren’t preventing workers from getting raises, they’re preventing small government units from forcing businesses to give workers raises. Businesses are still free to give pay bumps if they want to. They just can’t be forced to do so above and beyond the state minimum wage.

On the other side, however, there’s no amount of pay, perks, private jets, premium health plans and golden parachutes that Republican politicians believe could possibly be too much for a CEO.

As long as the corporate owners are okay with paying their CEO a crapton of money, I don’t see why it should be Republicans’ business. Or Leo Gerard’s.

That Oracle CEO Larry Ellison took home $78,440,657 last year is completely reasonable in the minds of Republicans. That it would take a minimum wage earner 5,201 years to earn what Larry took out of his company for one 365-day period is, according to Republican-think, a morally correct calculation.

I don’t see what Larry Ellison’s paycheck has to do with minimum wage laws. I suppose you could argue that if Oracle wasn’t paying him so much, they’d have more to pay their workers, but Oracle has 120,000 employees, so that’s only about $654 per employee, which works out to about 33 cents per hour over the course of a year. I suppose that’s something, but it’s not much.

Also, the reason businesses pay minimum wage workers so little is because that’s the wage the workers are willing to work for. I don’t see how reducing the CEO’s salary would change the amount the workers are willing to work for, so I don’t see how it could raise their wages very much. (Wages are the result of bargaining, and having an extra $78 million in cash might hurt the business’s bargaining position a little, so there might be a small benefit, but as I said, it’s not much.)

That is why Republicans are working so hard to prevent Walmart and McDonald’s workers from earning more money while, at the same time, doing nothing but congratulating Time Warner Cable CEO Rob Marcus for grabbing $79.9 million for six weeks of work.

Same argument, same problems. In fact, the whole rest of the piece is pretty much that argument repeated over and over: Republicans aren’t raising the minimum wage, and corporate CEOs make too much money. Although some versions of the argument are sillier than others:

[...] they believe James A. Skinner is worth every penny of the $28 million McDonald’s paid him in 2012.

They don’t believe that there are a dozen Wharton School MBAs who could take his place tomorrow and, frankly, sell hamburgers just as well for say, $280,000 rather than $28 million. They don’t see how his excessive pay might affect dividends to shareholders or the cost of fries.

Look, I think a lot of CEOs get more money than they’re really worth because of agency problems in corporate governance — I think the people who decide CEO salaries are not acting in the best interests of the shareholders — but replacing them with a bunch of MBAs is just nutty. And if paying them so much doesn’t bother the shareholders, why should anyone else care?

There may be good arguments for raising the minimum wage, but this isn’t one of them. Gerard’s argument is little more than an appeal to envy.