The Pope On Drugs

A few days ago, over at Crimlaw, Ken Lammers, whom I admire, had a few things to say about the idea of legalizing drugs. Ken starts by quoting Pope Francis, whom I admire somewhat less. (Hey, what can I say? I was raised a Lutheran, and the First Rule of Lutheran Club is the Catholics are wrong.) When it comes to drugs, the Pope is (no surprise) an old-school anti-drug conservative:

Let me state this in the clearest terms possible: the problem of drug use is not solved with drugs!

No, but that’s not really the point of legalization.

Drug addiction is an evil, and with evil there can be no yielding or compromise.

It appears that His Holiness hasn’t quite passed the word to the rest of the team. The Catholic Church, to its credit, runs rather a lot of addiction rehab facilities, and they take a different view. One of the first addiction recovery services I found, Catholic Charities, Diocese Trenton, has this to say about addiction: “No matter which kind of addiction, it is important to recognize that addiction has nothing to do with one’s morality or strength of character.”

In fact, the overwhelming sentiment toward addicts by the people who treat them is one of compassion. For the Pope to imply that they are evil goes against the basic principles of addiction treatment, including the addiction recovery services offered by his own church.

But perhaps I misunderstand. Perhaps the Pope is distinguishing between the addict and his or her addiction. Perhaps the latter is evil, and the former is only its victim. Hate the sin but love the sinner and all that. Fair enough. But under those terms, those of us who favor legalization are also trying to help the sinner.

To think that harm can be reduced by permitting drug addicts to use narcotics in no way resolves the problem. Attempts, however limited, to legalize so-called “recreational drugs”, are not only highly questionable from a legislative standpoint, but they fail to produce the desired effects.

If the Pope believes that, then the Pope has a limited understanding of the desired effects of drug legalization. If all currently illegal drugs were legalized tomorrow, I wouldn’t use any of them. I want drugs legalized because I want the police to stop sending armed SWAT teams to raid homes and shoot dogs. I want police to stop shackling people and hauling them off to be locked in cages for years. I don’t want legalization because I want drugs. I want legalization because I want the police to stop killing innocent pastors and setting babies on fire. That would be a “desired effect.”

Substitute drugs are not an adequate therapy but rather a veiled means of surrendering to the phenomenon.

I don’t know enough about addiction therapy to say whether methadone and other substitutes are an effective treatment for drug addictions. But I’m pretty sure the Pope’s plan to lock drug users in cages is not therapy either.

Here I would reaffirm what I have stated on another occasion: No to every type of drug use. It is as simple as that. No to any kind of drug use. But to say this “no”, one has to say “yes” to life, “yes” to love, “yes” to others, “yes” to education, “yes” to greater job opportunities. If we say “yes” to all these things, there will be no room for illicit drugs, for alcohol abuse, for other forms of addiction.

On this I personally agree with the Pope. I’ve said “no” to illegal drugs all my life, and I plan to continue to do so. I rarely even drink booze, and that’s legal. Where we differ is that I don’t want to force my lifestyle on other people.

Ken Lammers has some commentary of his own:

…I find this to be a distillation of my personal beliefs about drugs. Legalization is unlikely to do the user much good. It will just switch the dealer from some guy on a corner to some guy behind a 7-11 counter.

Ken apparently doesn’t see any contradiction between those last two sentences. Buying drugs of uncertain origin, purity, and composition from a guy whose real name you don’t know is a dangerous way to get high. A drug user would be much safer buying a carefully manufactured product from a storefront backed by a corporation that wants to preserve the value of its brand and which can be hit with a multimillion dollar class-action lawsuit if the product is defective. I’m guessing that will do drug users a lot of good.

Also, the guy behind the counter at 7-Eleven isn’t going to wrestle him to the ground, throw the cuffs on, and haul him off to jail. That’s also good.

And I doubt that any cocaine producing Columbian cartel could ever match the predatory nature and capabilities of Big Pharma. After all, the Medellin cartel can’t run ads during the super bowl or deliver its product to every single grocery store, pharmacy, and convenience store in America – Proctor & Gamble (pepto bismo) and Bayer (aspirin) already do.

Here we come to a more profound difference between my views and Ken’s (or the Pope’s). I think that having digestion aids and pain medication conveniently available just a few minutes away is one of the advantages of our modern civilization. The Walgreens down the block stocks thousands of items — canned soup, milk, batteries, shampoo, condoms, light bulbs, toys, memory cards, makeup, candy — and it’s open 24 hours, so I can get what I want, when I want it. I think making high-quality recreational drugs available on the same basis is a good thing. It’s certainly better than having the manufacture and distribution of recreational drugs controlled entirely by criminals.

Anyone who believes addiction will decline in such an atmosphere is either naive or choosing to turn a blind eye to reality.

One distinction that seems not to be recognized by the Pope, and maybe Ken Lammers, is that drug use is not the same as drug addiction. People can use drugs without becoming addicted or ruining their lives, and there are far more casual drug users than addicts, even for relatively scary drugs like meth and heroin. When it comes to a less dangerous drug like marijuana, millions of people have proven that safe use is possible. Plenty of marijuana smokers have gone on to have normal, successful lives, including the current President of the United States. And his predecessor. And the one before that.

The risk of arrest and prison is part of the cost that the drug user pays when deciding to consume illegal drugs, so legalizing drugs is the economic equivalent of lowering the price. In addition, everyone in the supply chain incurs a risk of arrest and prison just for handling the drugs, and they all demand compensation for the risk, which results in a high price for the final consumer. So legalizing drugs will also reduce the actual price charged to consumers. Economics 101 tells us that lowering the price will increase the consumption, so I fully expect drug use to go up if drugs are legalized.

Whether drug abuse or addiction will also go up is more complex question. If some percentage of drug users are destined to become drug addicts, then increasing the number of users will increase the number of addicts, assuming that the new users are just as likely as the original users to develop addiction problems.

On the other hand, industrialized production and distribution will reduce impurities and variations in quality, reducing health complications and making overdoses less likely. And I think that increased social acceptance will make it less likely that drug users will be excluded from their communities, less likely that they will have trouble finding jobs, and more likely that they will be able to get help when they need it, especially since they can ask for help without fear of being arrested. Even for those who are addicted, the low cost of recreational drugs will reduce the financial burden of addiction. Finally, legalized drugs will directly benefit both casual users and addicts by eliminating the risk of arrest and imprisonment, and the reduction in enforcement efforts is a benefit in itself — no more late night raids, no more innocent grandmothers getting shot, no more puppycide.

I believe that legalizing drugs will probably increase drug consumption, but I think it will also reduce the harm caused by drugs, including the harm caused by law enforcement agencies and the justice system. That’s why we sometimes call it harm reduction. I suppose it is a “compromise,” but it’s not a compromise with evil, it’s a compromise with reality.

The Pope, on the other hand, seems to be engaged in magical thinking: He apparently believes that if we say “No to every type of drug use” then people won’t abuse drugs. He doesn’t seem to realize that his version of saying no necessitates the creation of a massive government program of spying on citizens, violently assaulting them, and throwing them in cages.

Buffer Zones and Free Speech Zones

Over at Addicting Info (a.k.a. Buzzfeed for liberal politics) Justin Rosario is trying to portray the Supreme Court’s recent decision striking down so-called “buffer zones” around abortion clinics as a case of giving special free-speech rights to rich people:

It seems that while your regular woman on the street has no way to keep religious fanatics from harassing them while they seek 100% legal healthcare, the rich can hire security to keep you and your petty complaints at arm’s length. So because they’re rich they get special rights. Again. What a shocker!

Uhm, I’m pretty sure that private bodyguards aren’t allowed to close off parts of the public sidewalks for their rich clients. More likely, they conduct their affairs on private property that’s big enough to keep the rabble away.

I pointed out that during the Occupy Wall Street protests, we were not allowed to actually march on Wall Street. We were diverted around it. This should have been 100% illegal but, of course, you can’t have the rabble pestering the masters of the universe as they rake in billions from an economy they destroyed.

Yeah, that wasn’t private security keeping you off Wall Street. That was the New York Police Department. (That police departments often function as private security for the rich and powerful is a different problem.)

However, Rosario sort of touches on something I’ve been wondering about ever since the court handed down the decision: If free speech means that anybody on a public sidewalk has the right to talk to anybody else that’s there, and if this includes the right to approach close enough to have a conversation, then shouldn’t this mean the end of “free speech zones”?

Whenever there’s a World Trade Organization meeting or a political convention or a controversial college guest lecturer, police like to set up these so-called “free speech zones” for protesters, usually far enough away that the people they’re protesting against can’t hear or see them. But if you can’t keep people from protesting outside an abortion clinic, how can you keep them away from a convention hall?

The United States of Paranoia – Review

The nice folks at the Reason Foundation sent me a free review copy of Jesse Walker’s The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory all the way back in September of last year. At the time I was churning through my close reading of Radley Balko’s Warrior Cop, so it took me a month or so to get around to reading Walker’s book. And after reading it, I really didn’t have much to say about it, so I kept putting off writing anything.

I still don’t have as much to say as I did about Radley’s book (which will probably come as a relief to readers) because United States of Paranoia doesn’t really tell a single unified story that I can talk about. Stories have arcs and plots, but one of the guiding premises of the book is that when it comes to conspiracy theories and paranoia, not much has changed. So USoP is more like a collection of short stories tied together by a common theme.

Of course, when I say “stories” I’m not talking about fiction. These are true stories. Well…they’re sort of true stories. I mean, many of the conspiracy theories are wild nonsense and paranoia, with little or no truth to them, but they are conspiracy theories that people really, truly believed in. United States of Paranoia is filled with true stories about untrue stories.

Jesse Walker seems to have been inspired to write this book at least in part by Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” in which Hofstadter discusses political paranoia and conspiracy theories in fringe political movements. Walker has argued at least since his 2009 article “The Paranoid Center” in Reason magazine, that paranoia and conspiracy theories are often found in the mainstream.

In 2006, a nationwide Scripps Howard survey indicated that 36 percent of the people polled—a minority but hardly a modest one—believed it “very” or “somewhat” likely that U.S. leaders had either allowed 9/ 11 to happen or actively plotted the attacks. Theories about JFK’s assassination aren’t a minority taste at all: Forty years after John F. Kennedy was shot, an ABC News poll showed 70 percent of the country believing a conspiracy was behind the president’s death. (In 1983, the number of believers was an even higher 80 percent.) A 1996 Gallup Poll had 71 percent of the country thinking that the government is hiding something about UFOs.

In the worst case, these mainstream conspiracy theories become political causes and influence legislation and public policy. Probably the most infamous recent conspiracy theory to take hold is the Satanic Ritual Abuse panic that spread through law enforcement agencies in the 1980s, when police investigators and prosecutors (and unfortunately judges and juries) seemed willing to believe any stories told by the child victims, no matter how incoherent or imaginative.

One child [...] began by saying she had no secrets to share, then eventually declared that she had been raped. After more days of questioning, she said “she was forced to drink [a teacher’s] urine and to consume his feces covered with chocolate sauce.” With time the girl “was talking about animals being slaughtered at the school and about how she was taken to a ‘mansion’ to be molested,” about adults “forcing her to take drugs, about fellating animals, about trips to a church and ‘devil land,’ and about being made to touch dead people.”

More recently, sex work activists like Maggie McNeill have been chronicling the conspiracy-theory-like thinking engaged in by so many people who are worried about human trafficking.

Although Walker didn’t write United States of Paranoia as a guide to recognizing and analyzing conspiracy theories, that’s certainly something you will be better equipped to do after you read the first of its two major sections, “Primal Myths,” which discusses some of the conspiracy theories that have circulated in the United States since before it was a country. This is an effective way to illustrate the structures of conspiracy theories, because the myths are no longer in our common consciousness, they concern matters no longer of direct importance, so we don’t get caught up in them as we think about them. However, it’s not hard to see the similarity of the old conspiracy theories to modern ones, which helps us to recognize and think about them.

Walker attempts to organizes the conspiracy theories into taxonomic categories roughly according to the identity of the bad guys: The Enemy Outside, the Enemy Within, the Enemy Above, the Enemy Below. (Walker also identifies a fifth category — the Benevolent Conspiracy — which posits a secret society working behind the scenes to help us and protect us from greater evils.)

In the early days of what eventually became the United States, the local Indian tribes were a prime candidate for conspiracy theories about the Enemy Outside. The mostly Christian immigrants were suspicious of the non-Christian Native American religions, often suspecting the Indians of being in league with Satan. On the other hand, most of the immigrants were Protestants, leading some of them to suspect that the Indians were in league with the Catholics. Making matters worse for the conspiracy-minded (and for the Indians), the colonists were unreasonably concerned that the tribes were on the brink of uniting under some imaginary “superchief” or Indian “King.”

Like most conspiracy theories, these fears were not completely made of whole cloth. Some tribes were a real source of danger for the settlers, but they were also likely to go to war with each other, or to join the colonists in attacking another tribe. In fact, tribes would sometimes spread rumors that other tribes were planning to attack the Europeans, hoping to encourage the colonists to bring their powerful military forces to bear against a rival tribe.

(We see similar patterns in our modern Enemy Outside, when we imagine that all the world’s Muslim terrorists are arrayed against us, an alliance of evil masterminds hiding in caves. It’s not that there aren’t Muslim terrorists, but they aren’t by any means unified, and some of the various Islamic groups have tried to manipulate us into fighting their enemies.)

Walker illustrates the Enemy Within through the witchcraft hysteria in Salem, Massachusetts. It started with accusations against an Indian slave, an obvious Enemy Outside, but soon the fear spread that almost anyone might be a witch — prostitutes, businessmen, ministers, even the governor’s wife. Many of the accusations followed preexisting animosities — business rivalries, cultural conflicts, religious differences — because if you’re going to suspect someone in your life of being a witch, it’s probably going to be someone you already have reason to dislike. And besides, an accusation of witchcraft was a good way to cause trouble for your enemies.

There was also, as the sociologist Richard Weisman has pointed out, a change in the role of the government. The typical New England witchcraft accusation involved townspeople blaming their neighbors for various mundane misfortunes. If you look past the fact that the charges involved the use of magical powers, you’ll find that the conflicts weren’t so different from the disputes that modern people have over rat-attracting junk piles, dogs that dig up gardens, or tree branches that extend into an adjoining yard. Even by the legal standards of the time, the use of malevolent magic was difficult to prove, so the New England courts were ordinarily reluctant to take on such cases.

But now the state was throwing itself into the conflict, creating a situation closer in spirit to Europe’s persecutions than to traditional tiffs between neighbors. An ordinary citizen of Salem might worry that the witches next door were poisoning his cow or making his children sick. The authorities had a grander fear: in Weisman’s words, that “an organized plot to subvert the Puritan mission had successfully infiltrated the core of the church.” Tales of vast conspiracies began to appear in the confessions.

Those confessions were easy to get, since accused witches could avoid execution by revealing the names of other witches, and the confessions led to an ever-expanding list of suspects, which raised the chilling prospect that the Enemy Within was actively recruiting conspirators, and that they might use their mysterious powers to induct your friends or even your children. These sorts of accusations have been routinely leveled against minority religious groups such as Shakers, Catholics, and Mormons.

(We can see similar Enemies Within in the anti-cult panic that followed the Jonestown massacre, or the rhetoric used to stir up oppression of fascists, communists, and homosexuals.)

The Enemy Within was also suspected to be capable of using almost every new medium to recruit. In modern times, comic books, television, video games, and the internet have all been sources of concern. Fear of manipulation through some form of mass media leads to perhaps the ultimate expression of the Enemy Within: The belief that most of the people around you are an easily manipulated mob, “sheeple,” deluded into “false consciousness,” and that only you — and a few especially intelligent people who share your views — can see the real truth.

The fear of mass culture had an authoritarian side too. It was shot through with distrust of ordinary people, who were often described in terms that suggested they weren’t fully human. Erich Fromm’s influential Escape from Freedom (1941) argued that while some of us had achieved a “genuine individuality,” monopoly capitalism had created a “compulsive conforming” in which “the individual becomes an automaton, loses his self, and yet at the same time consciously conceives of himself as free and subject only to himself.” Not every critic of mass culture would go that far, but they all contrasted the individual man with the amorphous mass.

Such ideas don’t have to lead to authoritarian conclusions. But if you see the average voter as an automaton, it’s obviously easier to support laws that might otherwise seem like restrictions on his freedom. And if you think he’s being manipulated by occult forces—advertisers, broadcasters, comic book publishers— it’s easier to rationalize those restrictions as an act of liberation.

Whereas the Enemy Within could be your neighbor, your priest, or the people teaching your children, the Enemy Below was identifiable as a particular social class. In the American colonies and the early United States, the most identifiable Enemy Below was the African slave population, who were frequently suspected of plotting an uprising to kill their white owners.

Slave escapes and revolts were real, of course, and the successful rebellion in Haiti set the slave-owning regions on high alert for signs of trouble. Rebellious slaves had often resorted to starting fires to destroy property and distract the authorities, so as far as the white population was concerned, every building that caught on fire was potentially a portent of a slave uprising. There was also concern that various shady people in rough neighborhoods were fomenting slave rebellions for dastardly reasons of their own, and during wars the slaves were often said to be working with the enemy.

(I think we can see echoes of the Enemy Below in the 1992 riots that erupted in black communities in Los Angeles. Fifty three people died and thousands were injured before military forces quieted the city. Just as slave owners couldn’t believe that slaves would spontaneously rise up, right-wing conspiracy nuts couldn’t believe that the riots were the result of poor police handling of genuine widespread outrage at the acquittal of white police officers accused of beating a black man. Rumors began to circulate that black and Hispanic street gangs had been planning the whole thing for weeks in advance so they could loot, burn, and kill.)

The opposite of the Enemy Below was the Enemy Above, the rich and powerful people who were supposedly keeping everyone else down. In the early days, predictably, the lead suspects were a cabal within the British government, intending to extinguish all liberty, starting with the colonies:

If the colonies could be subdued, one pamphleteer warned, the plotters “might open their batteries with safety against British Liberty; and Britons be made to feel the same oppressive hand of despotic Power.” The alarm was sounded: “a PLAN has been systematically laid, and persued by the British ministry . . . for enslaving America; as the STIRRUP by which they design to mount the RED HORSE of TYRANNY and DESPOTISM at home.”

(Apparently, even back then, ALL CAPS was a bit of a warning sign.)

The secret plan, John Adams explained, was to “establish the Church of England, with all its creeds, articles, tests, ceremonies, and tithes, and prohibit all other churches.” When the Stamp Act of 1765 imposed a tax on printed paper , Joseph Warren of Massachusetts announced that the law had been “designed . . . to force the colonies into a rebellion, and from thence to take occasion to treat them with severity, and, by military power, to reduce them to servitude.” The Boston Massacre of 1770, the Tea Act of 1773, the Intolerable Acts of 1774: All were evidence of the dark design. One isolated act of oppression “may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day,” Thomas Jefferson acknowledged, but America was undergoing “a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period and pursued unalterably through every change of ministers.” And that meant it faced “a deliberate and systematical plan of reducing us to slavery.”

If you were to poll the founding fathers, you would hear slightly different accounts of who was a part of this conspiracy and what exactly the conspirators were up to. But when it came to where the enemy was taking them, they agreed with Jefferson. George Washington wrote that “a regular Systematick Plan ” threatened to reduce the colonists to “tame, & abject Slaves, as the Blacks we Rule over with such arbitrary Sway.” Alexander Hamilton concurred: A “system of slavery,” he said, was being “fabricated against America.” When the revolutionaries formed a Continental Congress, the body denounced the “ministerial plan for enslaving us” and issued a warning to the people of Great Britain: “May not a ministry, with the same armies, enslave you?” When the colonies declared independence, the plot against America was detailed in the new country’s founding document. The Declaration of Independence did not merely describe “a long train of abuses and usurpations.” It argued that those abuses added up to “a design” to bring the colonists “under absolute Despotism.”

Again, as is often the case, the conspiracy theory was not entirely based on fiction. The British did, after all, rule over the colonies. But perhaps their ultimate goal was something less than total enslavement. (The British and their American loyalists suspected a mysterious cabal was behind the rebellion in the colonies. And that the French might be behind it .)

Other Enemies Above included the Masons, the Illuminati (but of course!), and bankers. Leading up to the Civil War, northern Republicans saw the hand of the Slave Power behind behind every setback. After the war, the KKK loomed larger than life in the nightmares of freed blacks. In more modern times, some people blame all political opposition on either George Soros or the Koch brothers.

Throughout the historical section of the book, certain themes seem to emerge:

  • Conspiracy theories often have a basis in reality: Indians really did attack the colonies, rich people really do have undue influence in the government, slaves really did rise up against their masters.
  • The conspiracies tend to imagine a much greater degree of coordination than is actually evident: That the Indians have a secret king, that all those fires can’t just be random accidents, and that people seeking political change must be serving a hidden master.
  • The conspiracies tend to imagine very ambitious goals: The European royals don’t just want to rule the colonies, they intend to destroy all freedom, and the witches aren’t just hexing people they don’t like, they’re destroying the foundations of the church.
  • The conspiracy tends to deny the agency or legitimacy of the enemy: The slaves aren’t unhappy, they’re being goaded into rebellion by outside forces, and the workers demanding unions are just following the commands of their communist paymasters.
  • The conspiracy theorists often imagine that an entire religious group or immigrant community could live among us for years or decades for purposes of enacting a secret agenda when the right moment arises.
  • The conspiracy is often declared to simultaneously be (a) vast and far-reaching and yet (b) hidden so well that we can only surmise its existence indirectly, unless we coerce people into confessing their complicity and naming co-conspirators.
  • The enemy — whether above or below, inside or outside — always, always wants our women.

Having laid the historic foundation, the rest of the book explores some modern conspiracy movements. It’s a longer section, but if you’ve been around a while, the conspiracies are mostly pretty familiar: Super-secret government programs, the CIA, MK Ultra and COINTELPRO, the Illuminati and the Rothschilds, the Weavers and the McMartins and the whole Satanic Ritual Abuse panic. There’s also the whole extremely weird discordian movement, which deservedly gets a chapter of its own.

(The militia movement alone has a fascinating history. Vaguely organized around a opposition to  federal power, globalization, and/or the militarized police state, the movement included racists opposed to government equal rights policies, but the militia movement also included blacks and Jews, which often brought condemnation from white supremacists. Various militia groups have opposed the Rodney King beating, they’ve reported attempts to bomb gay bars and abortion clinics, and they’ve infiltrated police groups to expose racist behavior. That didn’t stop militia opponents from manufacturing their own conspiracy theories about what the militias were really all about, and it didn’t stop people from smearing their opponents with accusations of ideological affiliations with militias. The resemblance to witch hunts, Red Scares, and, well, a lot of modern politics, is not coincidental.)

By the end of the book, Walker has caught up to the present day, and the internet has put every conspiracy theory just one Google search away from anyone who’s curious, and which has led to a confusing mishmash of conspiracies — crop circles one day, CIA brainwashing the next, followed by the latest news on the Zionist conspiracy. And so now we have black nationalists who’ve adopted sovereign citizen theories that originated with the white power patriot movement.

The events of 9/11 were, of course, the result of a genuine conspiracy, but they also added fuel to the fire and touched off paranoid conspiracy theories about Muslim fifth columnists. As with the witch trials, these theories affected the government, leading to conspiracy-driven policies about how much liquid we can carry on planes and official paranoia about photography at a time when everyone in the country was about to start carrying small digital cameras.

Somewhere along the way, historians started to collect conspiracy theories and trace their origins. Soon people started collecting conspiracy theories and trading them like baseball cards, mixing the historic with the modern and the made-up-just-for-fun.

Which is, I guess, where Jesse Walker comes in.

One final note: While United States of Paranoia is a book about conspiracy theories, it’s also very much a book about telling stories that grab people’s imaginations. If you’re a novelist or screenwriter working on a series of stories, and you need to construct a compelling enemy, one that is at once secretive and powerful, then United States of Paranoia is an excellent guide. As H. P. Lovecraft says in the epigram that opens the eighth chapter, “No weird story can truly produce terror unless it is devised with all the care & verisimilitude of an actual hoax.”

2013 Road Trip Report – Part 3: Connecticut

Time for Part 3 of my rambling road trip report from last summer. Part 1 ended in Toledo, Ohio and Part 2 ended in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

I got up the next morning and took advantage of the complimentary breakfast before heading out on the road. There was some decent weather, so I pulled off the road to setup the GoPro again. This time I wedged it in place in the moonroof, and drove from one exit to the next. I discovered that it only got about 10 seconds before it stopped. I tried it a few more times, and that’s all it did: Record for about 10 seconds and stop. A little internet research at the next rest stop told me that the memory card I was using was too slow. It was only class 4 and I needed class 10.

(Why did it work the first time? I think I may have had it set to a lower resolution than full 1080. Why did Target sell it to me with a GoPro HERO3 if it won’t work? I’m not sure, but perhaps it’s good enough for the White Edition they were selling.)

I spent the rest of the afternoon driving to the Hyatt House in Shelton, Connecticut, just outside of New Haven. It’s a nice place.

I let Gideon know that I was there, and he got in touch with Norm Pattis, and they figured we should eat around 6:15 at Sally’s Apizza, although Gideon said he thought Frank Pepe’s just down the block was better.

I still needed to get a class 10 MicroSD card for my GoPro camera. I looked around for electronics and office supply stores, and there were a few in the area, but although I was sure they would have MicroSD cards, I couldn’t be sure they’d have the high-quality class 10 variant. (Calling them would probably be an exercise in frustration and perhaps being lied to.) I decided to look for professional photography stores, because pro photographers worry about things like memory card quality and transfer rate.

It turned out that I could stop at Milford Photo without adding more than a few minutes to my drive downtown. The gentleman who helped me there instantly knew exactly what I wanted, and why, and he had them in stock in several sizes. I bought a 32GB card, and while he was ringing it up we got into a discussion of whether anybody really needed all those pixels you get in modern high-end cameras. We both agreed they seemed unnecessary, except for some special cases. Having bonded over this issue, I left satisfied at maybe finally solving the GoPro problem.

By the time I got to the pizza place, Gideon had called and said something about Sally’s looking like it was closed so we should just go to Pepe’s. I parked in Pepe’s lot, all the way in back, and went to the end of the line of people waiting to get in. I started looking around to see if I could spot them.

Gideon had only given me a very brief description of himself, but I had seen pictures of Norm (although I’m bad enough with faces that that doesn’t really help). I saw a man in a suit across the street who looked like he might have the requisite pony tail. And there was a guy ahead in line who might have matched Gid’s description, but when he looked at me, he showed no signs of recognition. (My photo is on my blog, so Gid should recognize me.) Then I saw the Norm-looking guy cross the street to meet another guy coming toward us who kind of matched Gid’s self-description. I walked over and introduced myself.

I had originally planned to take some photos — with Gid’s face appropriately obscured by random objects to protect his anonymity — but never got around to it. For the record, Norm looks a lot like his photos, except in real life he’s a lot more vibrant. (His photographer does great work, so I don’t know what the problem is.) As for Gideon, he needs to remain anonymous, so I don’t want to give too much away…let’s just say that in appearance he’s somewhere between DJ Qualls and Henry Cavill.

We got back in line and went inside to get some pizza. I can’t remember the details of the conversation, but Norm and Gid spent a lot of time talking about local cases and issues, which was kind of fascinating to a legal spectator like me. The pizza was decent too. Norm had just won some sort of big case, so he picked up the tab, thus forever earning my gratitude.

(Hmm… Norm and Gid wanted to eat at different restaurants, and after some discussion we ended up eating where Gid wanted, but Norm paid. I’m not sure, but I think that means Gideon is the better lawyer.)

When I got back to my hotel, I saw some kind of fire truck and about a dozen firefighters gathered in front. I spent a minute watching from a distance — if something was happening, I wanted to stay out of the way — but they weren’t wearing turnout gear and it looked like a senior firefighter was lecturing the rest of them. I guess it was a familiarization exercise of some kind, perhaps to discuss how to fight hotel fires, or perhaps to learn their way around that building when it wasn’t on fire.

Anyway, I got back to my room a little before 9pm, and I tried to figure out what to do for the rest of the evening. At least that’s the last thing I remember before I fell asleep.

Fourth Annual Windypundit Coastal Dash: This Time It’s Backwards

For the fourth year in a row, I’ll be making a road trip to the east coast. This time, however, I’ll be going in the opposite direction from my usual pattern: I’ll be heading down into Kentucky on the way out before going up to Avalon, New Jersey for a few days at the shore.

As usual, it would be great to meet up with some of you along the way. So far I’ve managed to visit with Jennifer Abel, Jeff Gamso, Mirriam Seddiq, Norm Pattis, and Gideon. (Yeah, that’s right, I know Gideon’s secret blogger identity!) It would be nice to meet a few more of you — or see some of you again. So if you’re interested, and you can accommodate our somewhat unpredictable driving schedule, let me know soon.

Don’t worry if you’re not on the route on the map. Our plans are still pretty loose and the map is just a rough guess — we could easily veer off hundreds of miles in any direction. On the other hand, we’ll be making it up as we go along, so it’s a little hard to say exactly what days we’ll be where. (Except for my cousin Mallory’s wedding, which we do plan to get to on time, even though we still haven’t received our invitations, but the mother of the bride promises me we’re invited. It’s a bit of a scandal, if you ask me.) We’ll have a better idea of the schedule once we’re underway.

Email me for details if you’re interested: [email protected]

2013 Road Trip Report – Part 2: The Zen of Driving

Time for Part 2 of my rambling road trip report from last summer. Part 1 ended with me going to sleep outside Toledo. The next morning I woke up and hit the road: Interstate 80 eastbound. This was to be my longest drive of the trip, just over 450 miles to Scranton, Pennsylvania. With a reasonable number of stops for a break along the way, it’s not exactly grueling.

At the first stop, I decided to try out my new GoPro video camera. My wife had given it to me for Christmas, and I haven’t been able to find time to play with it. I wanted to use it to capture some of the drive, since still photos don’t really capture the experience.

So I tried setting it up and…problem: The camera reports an SD error whenever I try to start recording. That means it can’t save the video to the MicroSD memory card. I could presumably buy another MicroSD card anywhere, but was that really the problem? Or was the it the camera that was malfunctioning by being unable to access memory cards. Since I have limited time on this trip, I decided to try it both ways.

When I stopped for lunch at one of the tollway rest stops, I got on the WiFi and found out from the GoPro website that Target carries their cameras. I found a Target at the next exit and went the the camera section, where I bought both a 16GB MicroSD memory card (with adapter) and a new GoPro HERO3 White Edition camera. My plan was to try out the memory card in my current camera and if that didn’t work, open the box on the new camera and use that.

I decided to make a little headway before fooling around with it any more, but at a later rest stop I decided I’d driven far enough to take a break and try the GoPro again. The camera didn’t seem to hate the new MicroSD card, so I mounted it on the inside of the window with a suction cup, turned it on, and drove to the next rest stop, where I removed it. I was planning to take a few more test shots and look at them in the hotel.

All this time I had been driving across Ohio, and let me tell you this: Interstate 80 through Ohio is really boring. Eastern Ohio is flat and uninteresting driving, and it’s a limited-access toll road, where all the rest stops are the same.

And then there’s the road construction. It didn’t create traffic jams, but in every construction zone the official speed limit on I-80 dropped from 70 miles per hour to 55. And it seemed like everything was under construction. Just as I’d be getting into the rhythm of 70 mph traffic, we’d hit another construction zone and have to slow down, crawling along on roads designed for much higher speeds. Then I’d see those magic words “End Work Zone” and finally get to speed up again…until I hit the next construction zone. At one point, as I was passing the “End Work Zone” sign, I could already read the “Reduce Speed” sign where the next construction crew had set up.

Somewhere On the Road

Just past Youngstown, as it began to get darker, I caught up to the storm again — or at least I caught up to a storm of some kind — which put an end to my video experiments. (The GoPro housing is weatherproof, but that doesn’t keep raindrops from obscuring the view.) I then crossed over into Pennsylvania and spent the next next 6 hours driving on unfamiliar winding mountain roads, in the rain, surrounded by trucks. About half of it at night.

And I loved it. I’ve always enjoyed driving. I find it…not relaxing, exactly. But I like the feeling of focus that comes from a long drive. I’ll be cruising along in the right-hand lane and I’ll start to creep up on a truck, so I flip on the left turn signal, change lanes, pass it, signal again, and move back to the right. Problem solved.

A few minutes later, I’m creeping up on another truck, but a third truck is overtaking me at the same time. It looks like it will want to pass me about the same time I’m trying to pass the truck in front of me, and that won’t work on a two-lane road. I could just slow down, let the overtaking truck pass me, and then follow him around the truck in front of of us. Or I could speed up and pass the truck in front, and then let the overtaking truck pass us both. Whatever I decide, I just do it and move on.

About an hour after it gets dark, I’m rolling through the night on cruise control, on a straight piece of road, with trucks about a quarter mile ahead and behind me. I’m just enjoying the ride. Then the truck ahead of me gets my full attention as its hazard flashers come on. That would makes sense if it was coming to a stop. At night, in the rain, it’s hard to judge distance, and a following vehicle might not be able to tell if a vehicle far ahead has stopped, so truckers often do this. I now watch carefully, and I after a few seconds I can tell I’m gaining, so I begin slowing down.

Now I have to make sure the trucker behind me knows I’m stopping, so I flip on my hazard flashers, and a few seconds later I see his hazard flashers start up. And just like that, we all come to an orderly stop and then begin crawling forward slowly. After a few minutes, vehicles in front of me start merging left, and I can see lights flickering from an emergency vehicle ahead. A minute later, I pass a police car that is blocking the right lane because the storm has blown down a tree across most of it. A few seconds after that, we’re all accelerating to 65 mph again.

Winding roads, trucks, poor visibility, police cars, and fallen trees. There’s nothing complicated about any of it, nothing requiring long-term thinking. I just have to stay focused and pay attention. It’s a continual series of small problems that I can solve one after another, never looking back, never planning more than a minute or two ahead.

The Best Western Plus East Mountain Inn & Suites in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania
Best Western Plus East Mountain Inn & Suites

Eventually I arrive at my hotel in Wilkes-Barre, the Best Western Plus East Mountain Inn & Suites, which was hidden back from the road a bit. It had bell carts, so I had an easier time getting everything up to my 4th floor room. I farted around on the internet a bit — again after having to ask the front desk for the password (why don’t they just put it on a note in the room?) –  before falling asleep.

Finally, here’s a sample of the video I got while I was driving through. This was just an experiment, so there’s no real point to it, and mounting the camera inside the car leaves too much of the dashboard visible. But I need to get more experience editing, so here goes. Best viewed full-screen to see the super-wide angle from the GoPro:

5 Years of the Business Cycle

I’ve been seeing this chart meme in a few places lately:

The URL at the bottom indicates it’s from the folks at “I love it when I wake up in the morning and Barack Obama is President.” I’m assuming the numbers are accurate. There’s no date on it, but with that Dow number it has to be fairly recent.

Economic recessions are, by definition, deviations from the norm. The economy is humming along, everybody is working, output is growing a little every year…and then something goes wrong. For some reason, the economy slows down. People want to work, but they can’t find jobs, even though offices and factories sit empty and ready for use. Somehow the economy loses efficiency, the market no longer links up jobs and capital with customers. Output falls, consumption falls, and people suffer. Why exactly it happens is the subject of some controversy — there are several major theories — but recessions are part of the business cycle, and the economy eventually works its way back to its normal state of employment and growth. There may or may not be much the government can do to help with that (again, there are several theories).

Barack Obama took over the Presidency while the United States was in the midst of a deep depression caused by the mortgage crisis. The recession ended, and the economy improved. Just like it always does when a recession ends. So it’s not clear to me that President Obama should really be given credit for the economic growth depicted in the 5 Years of Obama meme, unless you want to give him credit for ending the recession. And if you do give him credit for ending the recession, you also have to hold him responsible for how long it took:

Change in U.S. Non-Farm Employment in Post-WWII Recessions

This has been the longest and deepest post-war recession in terms of the employment rate. The same is true when you look at production:

Change in U.S. Real GDP in Post-WWII Recessions

You might argue that Obama isn’t responsible for the depression, since that started during George W. Bush’s presidency. In that case, Obama reigned over one of the slowest recoveries:

Change in U.S. Non-Farm Employment in Post-WWII Recoveries

Change in U.S. Real GDP in Post-WWII Recoveries

I don’t know how much President Obama can really affect the business cycle, but if he’s responsible for it, he hasn’t been doing a very good job. Those are the pesky facts.

(Charts are from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, The Recession and Recovery in Perspective.)

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 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:


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.


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

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 protesters to get them disinvited. For example, after protesters 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 protesters 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 protesters’ 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 protesters 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 protesters 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.