One Week at the Litter Box

A few years ago, we bought a Litter-Robot automated cat litter box. It’s a spherical litter box that detects when a cat has been inside and rotates itself to dump the resulting clump of cat litter into an internal compartment. It makes maintaining the box easier, and it suppresses the odor much better than regular cat boxes. Our dentist had bought one and she swore it did a great job, so we decided to try it.

But the big question was, would the cats recognize this contraption as a litter box? Our plan was to put it near their old litter box and see if they used it. If we only had one cat, this would be simple: We’d check the collection tray in a couple of days, and if we found clumps then we’d know he’s using it. But how could we make sure all three cats were using it? It’s not like we could watch it all the time.

The solution is obvious, and I’m sure most of you already figured it out: I setup a motion-detecting web camera with night vision that uploads captured frames to a server. Then we just reviewed the images to make sure that we saw all three cats in there.

Afterward, I turned about a thousand captured images into a short video for your enjoyment:

Oprah For President?

Ever since her speech at the Golden Globes, people have been floating the idea of Oprah Winfrey for President. This is, of course, a silly idea. Or it would have been, before Trump. Oprah, like Trump, has no experience in government. Like Trump, Oprah is a celebrity who has had considerable success at business. And like Trump, Oprah embraces junk science. If not for the example of Trump, electing her President would seem ludicrous and highly unlikely.

(This is not to say that Oprah is the same as Trump. Oprah is, as far as I can tell, a much better person.)

I wonder, when the Republicans chose Trump as their candidate for President, didn’t they realize they would be normalizing the idea of an inexperienced celebrity President? And if so, didn’t they realize which party has the most celebrities?

Republicans are going to learn that lesson the hard way when the Winfrey/Hanks 2020 campaign heats up.

Questionable Free Speech at Drexel University

Associate Professor George Ciccariello-Maher is now gone from his position at Drexel University. A year ago, I blogged a brief contingent defense of his controversial “white genocide” tweet. (Contingent because it only applies if he meant what I guessed he meant.) Drexel condemned his tweet at the time, but took no further action against him. It would have been nice if they had explicitly supported his right to free speech, but their actions were in keeping with the principles of free speech: They didn’t stop him from speaking, but they didn’t refrain from using their own free speech to criticize him. 

However, after several other controversial tweets — one criticizing the way our society honors the soldiers who carry out American foreign policy, another blaming the Las Vegas shooter on Trumpism and white entitlement — Drexel placed him on administrative leave in what sounds like a classic case of the “heckler’s veto”:

The university says the issue is safety, but not everyone is buying that explanation.

Drexel’s statement is as follows: “The safety of Drexel’s students, faculty, professional staff and police officers are of paramount concern to Drexel. Due to a growing number of threats directed at Professor George Ciccariello-Maher, and increased concerns about both his safety and the safety of Drexel’s community, after careful consideration the university has decided to place Professor Ciccariello-Maher on administrative leave. We believe this is a necessary step to ensure the safety of our campus.”

Sometimes, giving in to the “heckler’s veto” is unavoidable when the forces of oppression vastly outmatch those defending free speech. If the protests against Ciccariello-Maher overwhelmed Drexel’s campus security and budget to the point where they couldn’t protect the Drexel community from the danger, then shutting down the controversial professor may have been their only way out. Some fights just can’t be won.

That said, here’s how Ciccariello-Maher describes the problems that led to his resignation:

This is not a decision I take lightly; however, after nearly a year of harassment by right-wing, white supremacist media outlets and internet mobs, after death threats and threats of violence directed against me and my family, my situation has become unsustainable.

Sorry, but that doesn’t sound like the level of danger that would justify giving in to the hecklers. I haven’t seen the specific threats (and the specifics certainly could matter) but as a general rule, anonymous threats against public figures are garbage, and they certainly shouldn’t occupy campus security very much. I’m not aware of any actual violence committed against Ciccariello-Maher, and it’s not as if they had thousands of protesters show up to wreak havoc.

Furthermore, all the threats appear to have been against Ciccariello-Maher and his family, not the Drexel community at large, so if Ciccariello-Maher felt unsafe, he could at any time have placed himself on leave. That he chose not to do so may have increased the risk for him, but there’s no reason to believe it endangered anyone else at Drexel.

I’m not sure what to make of his resignation. On the one hand, he did that to himself, which is not Drexel’s problem. On the other hand, this smells a lot like constructive termination. That’s when an employer doesn’t technically terminate an employee, but it makes the employee’s situation so bad — taking away responsibilities, badmouthing them to the public, assigning them all the worst tasks — that they quit on their own. Constructive terminations are common when dealing with employees who are protected from at will termination by law or contract — civil service employees, union employees, and tenured faculty. So it sounds a lot like Drexel found a way to fire a tenured professor for the words that he said.

As a private organization, Drexel has no First Amendment duty to protect Ciccariello-Maher’s speech. However, as FIRE points out in their coverage, Drexel had publicly announced that they supported his freedom of speech only to carry out a private investigation about which they have shown little transparency. Professor Ciccariello-Maher may very well be a rabble rouser, an anti-American jerk, and a colossal bore, but Drexel has not shown itself to be a friend of free speech and academic freedom.

Just Consequences

There was an interesting criminal case out of Fairfax, Virginia the other day, involving a young lady named Sandra Mendez Ortega who stole some jewelry from Lisa Copeland while cleaning her house. The Washington Post lays out the events this way:

The case began with Copeland’s discovery in September 2016 that her engagement and wedding rings were missing from the container where they were usually kept. The engagement ring had been her grandmother’s, made in 1943, and the two rings were appraised at $5,000 in 1996, Copeland said. Copeland didn’t realize a third, inexpensive ring had been taken until it was turned in.

Fairfax City police investigated and interviewed the three women who had cleaned the home. All three denied taking or seeing the rings, court records show, and no one was charged.

But after the interviews, Mendez Ortega reportedly felt bad about the theft, admitted to her boss that she had the rings and turned them over to him. The police were contacted and Mendez Ortega confessed to them as well, saying she returned the rings after learning they were valuable. The police had her write an apology letter to Copeland, in Spanish, which said in part, “Sorry for grabbing the rings. I don’t know what happened. I want you to forgive me.”

The case went to trial, and the jury found her guilty. But in Virginia the jury is not only the finder of facts, but also has the job of deciding the sentence. I’ve heard Virginia criminal defense lawyers complain that this can lead to very harsh sentences, because jurors lack the sense of proportion that a seasoned criminal judge would have. In this case, however, the jury went the other way:

What the jury did was extraordinary. They felt bad for the young woman, pregnant with her second child, and agreed that she had made a dumb, youthful mistake. Reluctantly, they convicted her of the felony. But the fine they imposed was her daily pay as a maid, $60. And then they took up a collection and gave her the money to pay the fine.

Naturally, this has pissed off some law-and-order types. Gatewaypundit hilariously lives up to the stereotype by blaming the whole thing on liberal jurors who are just looking for a chance to hurt America by granting special favors to illegal immigrants:

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Fairfax County residents are some of the best educated, most worldly and wealthiest and liberal people in the nation. They can spot an illegal alien right away as they have willfully turned the D.C. suburb in to a haven for illegals. Mendez Ortega’s appearance on the witness stand during the penalty phase after her conviction made it clear she fit one of the profiles of illegals-she doesn’t speak English and worked as a a maid.

Fox News also leads with the illegal immigrant angle, and runs essentially the same story under the headline “Couple’s fury as jury pays illegal immigrant maid’s fine after jewelry theft conviction.”

That’s referring to the victim, who comes across as remarkably unsympathetic in news reports. I don’t mean that she has no sympathy for the woman who stole from her (although she doesn’t seem to), but that after reading her statements to the media I have very little sympathy for her. Obviously, stealing from her was wrong, and it was also a crime, but in the aftermath of the trial, she comes across as disturbingly vindictive. For example, regarding the letter of apology that Mendez Ortega wrote to her:

Copeland said she has never seen that letter, and that Mendez Ortega has never apologized to her in person. “Never saw it,” Copeland said. “Never heard about it until the trial, during sentencing.”

Well, the reason Copeland never saw the apology letter has nothing to do with Mendez Ortega. Copeland never saw the letter because the Fairfax police never gave it to her. That’s because they were deceiving Mendez Ortega when they got her to write a letter to Copeland. It a trick to strengthen the case against her, since almost anything she’d say in an apology for the theft would also be an admission of damaging facts. It’s a confession in the defendant’s own hand, which will be damning in court.

Nevertheless, Sondra Mendez Ortega most certainly did apologize for what she did. It’s not her fault that the police never delivered it. And as for an apology in person before trial, I’m pretty sure that’s an insanely bad idea. At the very least it would be another confession, and it could easily be construed as witness tampering.

“I was outraged,” Copeland said. “I was just flabbergasted. I didn’t think $60 equated to the crime at all.”

That was my first reaction too, but when I think about it, the outrage seems overblown. After all, this was

  • a non-violent crime
  • by a first-time offender
  • who turned herself in,
  • returned everything she took,
  • and showed up to face her trial.

Given all that, the jury’s sentence of time-served with a nominal fine (and the collateral consequences of a felony conviction) doesn’t seem completely out of line. Many judges are aware of what jail can do to people, and they’re reluctant to put first-time offenders through the system for fear it will make everything worse.

At trial, the facts were not really in dispute. The jury did not hear from Mendez Ortega during the case in chief, but they were already sympathetic to her. “We didn’t feel she should have been tried and convicted,” said Memmott, the foreman. “We tried every way we could to find some way of not convicting her. But the legal standard was very clear.” Two other jurors agreed that the felony conviction was appropriate, given the facts and the law.

I’ve been on a jury that convicted someone of a felony. It’s not a fun experience, signing that verdict sheet and knowing I’m saddling them with a felony record and possibly consigning them to a cage for a long time. Just because they deserve punishment doesn’t mean it feels great to dish it out. All things considered, I’d rather I never have to do that again. Which is why this bit makes me so crazy:

Lisa Copeland was amazed. “The fact that she confessed,” she said, “and they didn’t want to convict her? I don’t get this. That’s basically saying it’s okay to steal.”

Good God. The jury may have said they didn’t want to convict her, but they did in fact convict her. So the victim is basically angry because the jurors didn’t enjoy it enough. What the hell?

(Obviously, she’s the victim here, and therefore she deserves some slack, but I can’t help wondering if one of the reasons for the light sentence was that the jury somehow picked up on her vindictiveness, found it as ugly as I do, and decided they didn’t want to give her what she wanted.)

Still, the most frustrating response comes not from the victim or Fox News or Gatewaypundit, but from ethicist Jack Marshall at Ethics Alarms, whose post first brought my attention to the case.

As is usual, I have a number of quibbles with Jack’s analysis. For example,

“Justice had to be done,” said another juror, Janice Woolridge, explaining the guilty verdict. “But there’s also got be some compassion somewhere. Young people make bad decisions. We just couldn’t pile on any more.”

[…]

(Note to juries: your job is to determine the facts and guilt or innocence. Compassion should be left to judges.)

The parenthetical comment is not how things work in Virginia, where jurors are given the responsibility for determining not only the facts but, in the event of a guilty verdict, the sentence as well. Thus considerations of compassion are entirely appropriate.

One of Jack’s commenters explains this to him in a comment, to which Jack responds,

In this case, the judge should have rejected the jury’s fine and imposed one they’d really have to dig down deep for.

That’s also not the law in Virginia. When a criminal jury recommends a sentence, the judge can only lower it, not raise it.

I’m not a lawyer, so I shouldn’t throw too many stones, but since Jack teaches legal ethics for a living, it would be nice if he got the law right. To be fair, this was a free blog post, not professional advice, so he definitely deserves some slack for shooting from the hip. But he’d make his point more effectively if he focused on the jury’s decision making instead of ranting about ordinary Virginia criminal procedure.

However, as I mentioned in a comment (which Jack called “obnoxious and unfair, as well as ignorant”), in the unlikely event that anyone ever asked me if they should hire Jack to teach legal ethics, I would point them to these two statements:

If she had confessed and was remorseful, why did she plead not guilty?

[…]

If you are guilty and admit it, then you don’t try to get lucky with a jury.

Jack is certainly not the only lawyer to think it’s unethical to plead not guilty. (As far as I can tell, it’s pretty much criminal defense lawyers v.s. everyone else — which is practically a criminal lawyer’s job description.) But I think this is the result of confusing the legal meaning of a “not guilty” plea with the common everyday meaning, as Illinois lawyer Jeremy Richey explained some time ago:

Those words do not operate in a vacuum; they are part of our legal system. Our legal system establishes a presumption of innocence for every person charged with a crime and places a burden on the government of proving the accused guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. When a person utters the words “not guilty” in court, all the players (such as the judge, prosecutor, and defense lawyer) understand that the person is requiring the government to carry its burden.

In other words, pleading not guilty is the mechanism by which you secure your constitutional right to a jury trial. And in Virginia in particular, pleading not guilty is a necessary step in claiming your right to be sentenced by a jury instead of a judge. There’s nothing unethical about asserting your rights.

In the comments, Jack attempts to draw a careful line between the ethics of a lawyer and of the client:

An ethical lawyer tells a guilty client that he or she has a good chance of being acquitted, and lets the client decide, after advising the client on the right thing to do. An ethical law-breaker turns himself in, pleads guilty, and accepts the just consequences of wrongdoing.

I see what Jack is getting at here, but it’s nonsense. First of all, on a practical level, how would this work? Is the defendant supposed to meet with her lawyer, discuss her case in detail, listen carefully to his wise counsel, and then just go ahead and ignore everything he recommended? Or do I misunderstand, and when Jack talks about “advising the client on the right thing to do,” does he mean that the lawyer should tell his client to plead guilty? Not for tactical reasons, but because it’s “the right thing to do”?

But why would it be the right thing to do? Owning up to your sins and accepting “the just consequences of wrongdoing” is great ethical advice for, say, a child apologizing to his mother for breaking a vase full of flowers, or a husband explaining to his wife how he lost the rent money at the track. But is has nothing to do with what goes on in a criminal proceeding. Jack is trying to smuggle an awful lot of bullshit into his argument on the backs of the words “just consequences.”

Pleading guilty isn’t the same as accepting the “just consequences.” Pleading guilty means accepting whatever consequences the prosecutor can convince the judge to impose, and there’s no basis for believing those consequences will be just. In an ideal world, the judge will be a neutral party, but the prosecutor will always be your adversary. At best, he’s going to be a stern by-the-book guy, and at worst he’ll be a fucking monster. In any case, the decision will be made by a system that is now biased against you.

So what happens if you feel a 90-day sentence is a just consequence, but the prosecutor is thinking more like five years? Contrary to the implications of Jack’s argument, there’s no a priori reason to assume the prosecutor’s preferred sentence is a just one. Normally, this would be resolved in plea bargaining, where you (through your lawyer) and the prosecutor negotiate to a sentencing plan that is acceptable to both of you. That won’t work, however, if you’ve already committed to a guilty plea, because your only bargaining power comes from your ability to walk away from the bargaining table and demand a trial.

(We can’t be sure, because the news stories don’t say, but it’s quite likely that this case went to trial after an unsuccessful plea bargaining stage. Ms. Mendez Ortega was probably willing to accept consequences for her actions, just not the consequences the prosecutor was willing to offer.)

It’s not sensible to believe that “just consequences” will result from an adversarial system where one side agrees in advance to the other’s terms, and it’s not unethical to refuse to accept such one-sided terms.

The Giving Season

Over at Popehat, in the spirit of the Christmas, Ken White has suggested three charities you could donate to this season. Although I have no problem with donating to any of them, I thought I’d offer a few suggestions of my own.

To start with, I’m a regular donor to the Reason Foundation. This is the parent organization of Reason magazine, which is the flagship libertarian outreach publication, spreading ideas about free markets and free minds. Donating to them could help nudge us toward a world that is vibrant, prosperous, and free.

(I’m pathetically trying to draw their attention to my tiny little libertarian blog, so if you donate, tell them Windypundit sent you. Or don’t. It’s up to you. I am a libertarian, after all.)

If you’d prefer a charity that helps people directly, one of the most effective is probably the Against Malaria Foundation. They are consistently near the top of GiveWell’s list of best charities, and they have one single, simple mission: Giving out mosquito nets by the tens of millions to people in malaria-plagued regions. The nets cost only $2 each and will protect a pair of sleeping people from malaria-spreading mosquitoes for three or four years. Statistically, it takes fewer than 1000 nets to prevent a fatal malaria infection, so if you make regular annual donations, there is a good chance you will save someone’s life. Donating to AMF (or one of the anti-parasitic worms charities) will put you in the fight against humanity’s deadliest enemies.

If you’re looking for something in the middle ground between the philosophical Reason Foundation and the direct efficiency of AMF, check out GiveDirectly. Their approach is to carefully identify extremely poor people…and then give them money. It won’t be a lot by American standards, maybe $500 to $1000, but with it they’ll be able to replace their home’s thatched roof with a lightweight steel one, or buy a farm animal they can raise and sell, or…whatever they want. The idea — a very libertarian idea — is that the recipients will know their specific needs better than any aid worker ever could, so we should just give them money and let them figure out how to spend it.

I also donate to the Sex Workers Outreach Project, which advocates for the rights of sex workers and provides street-level outreach that, unlike so many “rescue” operations, does not involve law enforcement. Instead, it supplies help that sex workers actually need.

Yet another place your donations can make a big difference is your local charitable bail fund. (Here in Chicagoland, that’s the Chicago Community Bond Fund.) Many poor people are stuck in jail because they’ve been charged with crimes and can’t put together enough money to post even a small bond. Charitable bail funds post bond to get them out of jail, allowing them to return to their families, friends, jobs, and communities. Studies show that people out on bail are better able go fight the charges, and get better deals if they plea bargain. So donate to your local bail fund and help someone get home for the holidays, and maybe stay home. As a bonus, after their case is over, the government releases the bail funds back to the charity, where they can be used to bail out someone else.

Finally, helping people doesn’t have to be a big operation. If the opportunity arises, one of the most effective forms of charity is helping someone directly. Find someone in your community who needs help, and help them. Depending on your resources, you can let them move in with you for a while, give them a job, or just quietly put an envelope of money in their mail box.

It’s all good.

Ye Olde Ethics Alarms

I just went through yet another argument about illegal immigrants in the comments at Jack Marshall’s Ethics Alarms blog. Jack has been a frequent source of blogging ideas (at least when I used to blog more), but he’s been kind of hard to take ever since Donald Trump was elected. It’s not that he likes Trump, but he’s clearly attracted to Trump’s authoritarianism, especially when it comes to making life hard for people who are here illegally.

Jack is in the “What part of illegal don’t you understand?” camp: He regards our immigration laws as axiomatically beyond reproach, so his analysis begins and ends with the fact that these people broke our immigration laws — an unforgivable sin. (For an example of Jack’s style, he regularly ridicules people for getting upset when illegal immigrants are torn from families, friends, jobs, and communities by DHS.)

One of my biggest complaints about U.S. immigration policies is that they impose the will of anti-immigrant restrictionists on all Americans, even if we would benefit from the presence of immigrants, and even if we explicitly welcome them. This reminds me of the Fugitive Slave Laws imposed on non-slave states before the American Civil War. These laws attempted to force Northerners to return escaped slaves to their masters, despite the harm that would come to slaves sent back, and despite the clear rejection of slavery by Americans in free states.

Every time I read one of Jack’s posts about illegal immigration, I find myself trying to imagine what he would have written about those escaping slaves. So, without further ado…starting with Jack’s attitude toward illegal immigration, and mixing in some of his rants against Black Live Matter and the media, I arrived at the following, which I imagine to be a pamphlet published shortly before the American Civil War by one of Jack’s ancestors:

 

Ethicf Alarmf #28

by Jackson “Cotton” Marshall

 

Unethical Anti-Slavery Editorial of the Year:

Now THIS is Unprincipled Hooliganism!

 

The Salem Times-Gazette has published yet another crazy editorial that threatens to make my cranium shatter.

Last week, in Salem, Ohio, federal marshals were in the process of apprehending two slaves who had illegally absconded from a fine cotton plantation in Georgia, when they were set upon by a crowd of thugs, who identified themselves as members of the unprincipled, law-breaking Liberty Party. The marshals were injured, and the criminal slaves escaped, presumably to make their way to Canada instead of returning to their lawful owners.

The Times-Gazette actually applauds these criminals for “helping escaped slaves.”

This is Unethical.

1. Newspapers should report the news accurately, not spout “abolitionist” propaganda.

2. The editorial refers to the fugitive slaves as “escaped,” thus promoting the false narrative that plantations are harmful to slaves. The utterly nonsensical nature of this should be obvious to anyone who considers that slaves are an investment, and slave owners can’t afford to mistreat them, not if their plantations are to succeed. Admittedly, there have been some abuses, but for the most part slaves are well cared-for — given food and a place to live — unlike factory workers in the so-called “free North” where this act of hooliganism took place.

3. The entire abolitionist movement is itself based on the lie that the Negro is equal to the white man. But if Negros were really equal to white people of European extraction, they wouldn’t be complaining so much about doing the same kind of farm work that Europeans have been doing for thousands of years.

4. Also, if Negros are supposed to be equal to whites, how come none of them have helped their community by investing in cotton plantations? This is nothing more than an excuse for the unwillingness and inability of Negros to perform the leadership roles that white plantation owners have been taking on for over a century.

5. White people did not enslave free African Negros. The slaves brought to the Americas were all provided in legal sales by legitimate African traders.

6. The federal marshals were enforcing the Fugitive Slave laws. These laws were passed by the United States Congress, and they are entirely Constitutional. I know this because I’ve actually read the entire Constitution, including Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3 which specifically states that

No person held to service or labour in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labour, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due.

No honest person could read that and conclude anything other than that fugitive slaves must be returned to their owners. The Times-Gazette‘s bias makes it stupid.

7. It’s true that legally, according to the 1842 Supreme Court decision in Prigg v. Pennsylvania, no State can be forced to assist the Federal Government in enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act, but that’s a mere rationalization. That it’s not illegal does not justify supporting the flagrant violators of Fugitive Slave laws.

8. Canada continues its unethical subversion of our longstanding institution of slavery. Canadians are not bound by United States law, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are unethically depriving Southern plantation owners of their property.

9. Abolitionists continue their Orwellian deception of conflating free Negroes with absconding slaves. Bounty hunters who capture free Negroes certainly are a real problem — they deserve censure, and the free Negroes should be released immediately — but the truth you won’t hear in the media is that the vast majority of Negros captured by federal marshals are slaves who are too lazy to do the important agricultural work that is their God-given duty. Yet abolitionists scream and yell every time a Negro is captured in the North, as if these lazy slaves were deserving of the same rights as hard-working free Negros. What part of “fugitive slave” don’t abolitionists understand?

10. It is reported that 157 illegally absent slaves were apprehended in the North so far this year. Nobody knows how many weren’t apprehended, but it is probably more. No, they aren’t all rapists and murderers or even criminals, but they all went north or tried to go north illegally. That makes them wrong and undesirable, and all the linguistic tricks being employed to make that simple statement difficult to express won’t alter that central fact.

The Gazette goes on to complain that the slaves are being returned to the South, where they will be punished for what the Gazette calls their “attempt to gain the freedom of which every man is deserving.”

Good.

What abolitionist rabble-rousers refuse to admit is that Southern slavery of the Negro is the law of the land. Enforcement of the law against slaves stealing themselves away had, under previous administrations, been flaccid. It’s good to have strong leadership that sees the wisdom of bringing federal marshals to the fight. The refusal by some in the Northern States to enforce those laws is incompetent, it is irresponsible, and it is foolish.

Except for the rampant anachronisms, I think I nailed it.

in Ethics

The Dumbest Take Yet On the Whitefish Energy Scandal

I know I shouldn’t be picking on left-leaning goofballs (because they’re powerless these days, and all the damage is being done by the right) but Kate Aronoff at In These Times has written the dumbest thing I’ve seen yet about the Whitefish Energy scandal.

The article is titled “Repulsed by Whitefish Energy? Maybe You Also Hate Capitalism.” That sounds like it might be a defense of the Whitefish mess in the name of greed-is-good capitalism. Or it could be a snarky send-up of that kind of that argument. But what it turns out to be is an argument that if you hate the Whitefish scandal, you might also want to start hating capitalism.

…Whitefish Energy is to disaster capitalism as Martin Shkreli is to America’s for-profit healthcare system: the most obviously bad actors in industries that are full of bad actors by design.

As Myerson wrote, “Satisfying though it might be to adorn his face with a black eye … there are more worthy objects of our loathing. All of Shkreli’s appalling antics and characteristics are in fact emblematic of the real villain: capitalism. Shkreli is capitalism embodied, and if you hate him, you’d do well to take up hating capitalism with at least equal fervor.”

The same goes for the eminently punchable team at Whitefish Energy. […] They did enter into a $300 million contract with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) to perform work that they are grossly unqualified to do, on a scale that dwarfs any of the contracts they’ve had thus far. Whitefish’s social media arm also got in a public spat with San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, at one point writing, “We’ve got 44 linemen rebuilding power lines in your city & 40 more men just arrived. Do you want us to send them back or keep working?”

To review what we know: Whitefish Energy, a small company owned by a guy who is friends with with U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, received a $300 million no-bid contract from the government-owned electricity provider of Puerto Rico. In other words, a government-run entity gave a very sweet contract to a guy with good contacts in high political offices. This is not — in any way, shape, or form — free-market capitalism.

Ironically, the Whitefish scandal could prime the pump to privatize PREPA entirely, a long-sought goal of corporate-friendly interests on the island. The federally-appointed fiscal oversight board that oversees Puerto Rico’s government recently announced that it would move to install a Flint-style emergency manager to oversee the utility with an eye toward selling off large chunks of it. Included in their official reasoning for the decision was PREPA’s contract with Whitefish.

Aside from the gratuitous reference to the awful mess in Flint, Michigan (also largely a failure of governmental entities) this sounds like maybe a step in the right direction. (Although if the privatization effort is overseen by the same corrupt people who ran the government entity, things are unlikely to improve much.)

There’s a general moral sickness to this that’s all-too-common, particularly when corporations and right-wing governments decide to profit off of disasters—financial, ecological or otherwise. Take the case of Jeffrey Chiesa, the lawyer appointed by his friend and ally Chris Christie, New Jersey’s governor, to put Atlantic City’s indebted fiscal house in order.

This is more of the same: The elected leaders of Atlantic City screwed up its finances, and the elected governor of New Jersey gave a sweetheart deal to one of his friends, and somehow that’s capitalism’s fault?

Look, just because a corporation is involved doesn’t mean it’s capitalism. The Whitefish Energy scandal looks like standard-issue government corruption: Somebody with influence got somebody with power to give them the public’s money. It’s insane to call that a problem with capitalism.

The Unknown Reason for the Vegas Shooting

Like everybody else, I’ve been trying to make sense of the Las Vegas shooting, in which a 64-year-old guy named Stephen Paddock apparently opened fire on a crowd of 22,000 country music festival attendees from his 32nd-floor room in the Mandalay Bay hotel, killing 59 people and injuring hundreds more.

One of the confusing things about this horrible incident is that from what we know about him so far, Paddock doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would do something like this. He went through a lot of trouble to kill as many people as he did, so you’d think he must have done something else on a smaller scale first to think this would be worth the effort, and yet according to reports he had no criminal record, no extremist political views, no trouble with his neighbors, and no obvious prior signs of mental illness. That’s strange because you don’t go from being a normal person to being a mass murderer overnight without a period of transition. The idea that people “just snap” is more myth than reality. It takes time to become the kind of person who would commit this kind of atrocity. So why weren’t there any signs?

I suppose one possible explanation is that Stephen Paddock was not the shooter: The real shooter lured him (and his guns) to the hotel, shot him, and then opened fire on the crowd, escaping before the police arrived to find a “convenient” murder-suicide scenario. I don’t actually believe this is what happened. It’s a movie plot, not real life, and unless the perpetrator is a Moriarty-level criminal mastermind, it would also leave a ton of evidence that would be easy for the police to discover. It’s even less likely than just snapping.

(Also, recent reporting about the incident rules it out.)

Another possibility is that Paddock had a brain tumor that caused a sudden, violent change of behavior. No doubt this crossed my mind because I’m familiar with the case of Charles Whitman, who similarly shot at a crowd from a high perch, at the University of Texas (Austin) in 1966, and was discovered at autopsy to have a brain tumor which some neurologists have speculated may have contributed to his behavior. Paddock’s behavior could also be explained by some other form of brain damage, perhaps from a stroke or a traumatic head injury or some other cause.

The truth is, the most likely explanation for the conflict between Paddock’s normal life and its violent end is probably much more prosaic. It’s most likely the same explanation as for every other murderer who is described by acquaintances as “quiet”: We’ve only heard from people who didn’t know him very well.

When something like this happens, it’s easy for the press to find the killer’s neighbors and colleagues, but few of them are likely to know anything relevant. As with most of us, a lot of people may have known him, but few people knew him really well. The media, and maybe the police, just haven’t found people who know, if they even exist.

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