September 2010

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John Farmer Jr., a dean at the Rutgers School of Law and former senior counsel for the 9/11 commission, has a New York Times op-ed promoting the Justice Department’s new Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) Initiative, which basically encourages Americans to report each other to the government if they see anything suspicious. Farmer offers the following scary scenario in support of SAR:

A young man walks into a Home Depot and buys a large quantity of acetone. Later, a young man walks into a beauty supply store and buys hydrogen peroxide. Still later, a young man is observed parked outside a nondescript federal building in a rented van, taking photographs.

No crime has been committed. But should any of these activities (acetone and hydrogen peroxide can be components for explosives) be reported to and evaluated by law enforcement officials?

Let’s suppose the answer is “Yes.” What do you think happens next? You pick:

Ending A: The tips are logged and encoded into the SAR database. Minutes later, advanced datamining algorithms scan both incidents and discover a link. The items are flagged for human processing. An analyst determines this is actionable intelligence and forwards it to the FBI counterterrorism coordinator. Within hours, a warrant is issued by a special federal court and the FBI’s SWAT team is kicking down doors. A major terror attack is averted, thanks to alert citizens.

Ending B: The tips are logged and encoded into the SAR database. Fourteen weeks later, a police detective temporarily assigned to his city’s Joint Terrorist Task Force’s Investigations unit spends eight minutes interviewing each person who provided a tip, carefully filling out the proper Homeland Security interview forms. Four weeks after that, a clerk types his answers into another database, and seven weeks later another analyst clicks the “Reviewed” box on his computer. Two months later, then again at the end of the year, a line in an SAR summary report has a number that is larger by one. Nothing else is ever done about either of these tips, and there is no resulting terrorism incident.

I’m pretty sure I know which ending is more realistic…

(Hat tip: Scott Greenfield)

One of the side effects of my reading so many libertarian and criminal law blogs is that it makes it hard for me to enjoy watching cop dramas on TV. Your typical television tough cop who “breaks all the rules” comes across to me as a bully who I’d like to see fired, if not indicted and imprisoned. And whenever they take somone in for interrogation, I keep thinking “Shut up! Shut up you moron!”

Of course, because this is fiction, they almost always catch the bad guy, usually with a lot of confirming evidence, often with a confession, and sometimes red-handed. They are, after all, the good guys. But when they do the kinds of things that would earn them a spot in one of Radley Balko’s “New Professionalism” posts, it makes it difficult for me to just relax and enjoy the show. I like good police procedural fiction, but it helps when the good guys really act like the good guys.

Which brings me to Criminal Minds. It’s a pretty good show, and it helps a lot that the show is purportedly about the FBI’s Behavior Analysis Unit, the pack of profilers that goes after serial killers and other kinds of genuine bad guys. In spite of that, or perhaps because of it, the protagonists behave themselves quite well, at least by television standards. Also, I think Criminal Minds is probably the most accurate depiction of criminal profiling I’ve ever seen on television.

Granted, that’s not saying much, but if most shows get it 5% right, Criminal Minds gets it 15% right. Too many shows that feature criminal profilers portray them as almost mystical figures who get inside the killer’s head and magically predict the killer’s next move. The real profilers I’ve read about, however, all seem to be just like any other cop with a specialization. A burglary detective can visit the site of a burglary and make educated guesses about the tools used, the intent of the burglary, the age and sophistication of the intruders, and any other crimes they may have committed in the area. Profilers do the same thing for serial killers.

The killers in TV shows all seem to be cold and super-smart psychopaths who get off on taunting the police with puzzles and games. A few of them are like that, but I think most real serial killers are a lot less flashy, and they usually make at least a token attempt to hide from the police. A fair number of them, however, are so crazy and so tied in knots by their own little world that it never seems to cross their minds that the police are after them.

I’ve always believed that it’s hard to do an accurate and interesting television drama about criminal profiling because the reason profiling works at all is because serial killers are all working from a handful of scripts. Spree killer, psychotic, psychopath, and so on. Any television show is going to have either find new and interesting ways to approach these stories, or they’re going to have to deviate from the common serial killer profiles.

(Sometimes the FBI deviates from the common profiles. Back when the FBI was accusing Richard Jewell of being the Olympic Park bomber, they said he fit the “hero bomber” profile, which they sort of just made up.)

Criminal Minds has taken both routes over the years, but it seems to get some things right. The team members do try to get inside the killers’ heads, but it’s portrayed as an intellectual and investigative process, not some kind of pseudo-psychic mumbo-jumbo. I’m sure that real profilers think this show is nonsense, but to my amateur ear the profiles offered in Criminal Minds sound real enough. They have the same uncomfortable mix of empathy and contempt that I’ve read in books by Ressler and Douglas.

And while the BAU team encounter more than their share of sadist, taunting, psychopaths, they also run into various types of spree killers, delusional psychotics, and inadequate losers, some of whom are so crazy and tortured that the team members feel, well, not quite sympathy, but perhaps a sense of loss, a sense that they’re in a tragedy, not a battle between good and evil.

As in real life, the team normally only gets involved in cases when the local cops call them in, and they spend a lot of time going over crime scene and autopsy reports. In some of the early shows, the characters would interview captured serial killers in prison, just as real profilers do. (One episode even re-created Robert Ressler’s famous interview with Edmund Kemper, in which the prison guards didn’t show up when he called to be let out of the room, although Ressler handled the situation differently.)

That said, it’s still a television show, and real profilers don’t work anything like this. For one thing, real profilers do a lot of their work by mail. Police departments send them copies of case files, and the profilers send back their analysis, which becomes just one more report for the local homicide detectives to use. Profilers rarely go out to the scene, and they sure don’t have their own private jet. I’m willing to accept the jet, though, on the theory that it’s just the producers’ trick for staging some scenes outside the BAU office while still allowing the crew to shoot on an inexpensive standing set.

Much the same can be said about one of my favorite characters, Penelope Garcia, an analyst/hacker who helps out the team with her impossibly fast database queries, when she’s not busy hacking into the bad guys’ computers and cell phones. What she does is total nonsense, but it’s a lot more entertaining than a more realistic parade of clerks, bureaucrats, and technicians taking ten times as long to discover the same information. Besides, I just like the character.

Finally, it’s always nice to see a show where the characters act like competent grownups, the bosses have leadership skills beyond fear and threats, and the even the god-like super-geniuses understand the value of teamwork.

So, if you like a good crime story, I recommend you check out Criminal Minds. For those us in the Central Timezone, it’s on Wednesdays at 8pm on CBS. Those of you in other timezones can figure it out for yourselves.

I usually try to avoid outright partisan battles here on Windypundit, but with all the complaining people are doing about the state of the country today, I was struck by a recent tweet by Roger Ebert:

Say, how d’ya think we’d be doing about now with McCain and Palin?

Yes, let’s try to imagine what life in this country would be like if the country had been run by these right-wing zealots for the last year and a half instead of the Obama administration. If McCain and Palin had been in charge…

  • …healthcare reform would still be a distant dream.

[Update: A number of commenters were confused by this first item, but I’m actually serious. I felt it only fair to list Obama’s one major accomplishment before I began snarking at everything else. Unfortunately, as the comments reveal, the change in irony level confused some of my readers. My mistake.]

  • …the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo) would still be holding prisoners without trial or any real proof they had done something wrong.
  • …the unemployment rate would be not have returned to the lows of the Clinton-Bush era.
  • …federal law enforcement agents would still be raiding medical marijuana operations that are legal under state law.
  • …no one would be looking into the reasons why police agencies keep killing innocent Americans and their dogs.
  • …the government would be seeking outrageous new ways to spy on American citizens.
  • …Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell would not have been repealed.
  • …moral busybodies would be emboldened to try to force their values on America.
  • …we would be getting hit by wave after wave of bank failures.
  • …no one from the Bush administration would have been prosecuted for torture.
  • …the government would be using claims of national security to protect private people and corporations involved in torture during the past decade.
  • …the government would still be trying to drum up fear and paranoia among the citizens.
  • …government agents would continue to abuse the anti-terrorism excuse to pry into our lives.

Any other suggestions?

Update: How could I forget? If the McCain/Palin warmonger party had won…

  • …we’d still have troops fighting in Iraq.
  • …there’d probably be death squads killing American citizens accused of disloyalty.

In graduate school I had the most trouble staying awake in finance lectures. I always thought finance had to be just about the most boring topic ever.

French MEP Rachida Dati, when discussing finance in France, recently said:
I see some [foreign investment funds] looking for returns of 20 or 25% at a time when fellatio is close to zero.

I guess I was just doing finance wrong.

The Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed by Roger Scruton, an English philosopher, titled “Memo to Hawking: There’s Still Room for God“. (Sorry, it’s behind a paywall.) He attempts to refute Hawking’s premise that no God is needed to create a universe from nothing.

Immanuel Kant, who believed that Newton’s laws of gravity are not merely true but necessarily true, argued that we humans lack the ability to comprehend the universe as a whole, and thus that we can never construct a valid argument for a designer. Our thinking can take us from one point to another along the chain of events. But it cannot take us to a point outside the chain, from which we can pose the question of an original cause.
Scruton’s premise is that nothing has changed and Kant is still right. It’s the old argument that there must be a “first cause”. If you accept the idea that the Big Bang created the universe, you must accept that something or some being initiated the bang.
Hawkings said that the creation of the universe from nothing was an inevitable consequence of how physics works, and therefore first cause is no longer required. Scruton then deftly moves the goalposts.
If Mr. Hawking is right, the answer to the question “What created the universe?” is “The laws of physics.” But what created the laws of physics? How is it that these strange and powerful laws, and these laws alone, apply to the world?

The laws of physics are not physical objects that need to be created. They are a set of explanations for how the universe works. Perhaps Scruton is confused by the word “law”. The common usage for the word is that laws are man-made rules. (I’m sure the lawyers reading this have a much more precise definition…) Physicists use the word as a way of describing limitations they place on how the universe can work. In effect, the physicists are the “creators” of the laws, but only insomuch as they were the ones to write them down after figuring them out.

Perhaps a better phrase is “description of physical properties of the universe”. That’s a bit more cumbersome, though. No being is required to describe how the universe works. Now that we have a good idea about how a universe is inevitably created from nothing, no being is required for first cause either.
If you want a great description of just how universes can be created from nothing, watch ‘A Universe From Nothing’ by Lawrence Krauss (a real physicist). Krauss and Hawking seem to have a better grip on how the universe works than Scruton and Kant have.

I first saw the Powers of Ten short on Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. (If you don’t know who Carl Sagan was, please don’t tell me. It will just make me feel terribly old and sad.) Way back in the ancient mists of time the Museum of Science and Industry setup a kiosk looping the video and I stood watching it over and over for as long as I could. That video had a big impact on how I viewed the universe and science.

There’s even an official website for the video and they claim that this year, on 10/10/10, they will be having special events. Nothing has been updated on the site since July, so I’m not sure if the plans are going forward. The opening scene is a couple having a picnic on Chicago’s lake front, west of the Adler Planetarium and east of the Field Museum. As the “camera” zooms away you see an aerial mosaic photo of Chicago. The Adler had a giant copy of that photo on a wall. I spent even more time staring at that picture than I did watching the video over at MSI.
I’ll have to do something this October 10th to commemorate this bit of my daydreaming youth. If there’s anyone out there with similar fond memories of this short film, please feel free to give me some ideas. Maybe I can place a geocache at the site where the video begins.
In the meantime, check out this great interactive feature (using Flash) demonstrating the scale of the universe as we understand it now.

Or, How Eating Habanero Peppers Proves I’m Smarter Than Other Mammals.

It’s chili pepper harvesting time again! While most Chicagoans seem enamored with growing tomato plants, I think habanero peppers should be the crop of choice. OK, to be honest, I’m actually too lazy to grow my own, but I have a couple of friends and a neighbor who go through the effort and I reap the rewards. I added the first batch of habaneros to my home-made enchiladas a couple of days ago and am still savoring the thought.

The New York Times science section has a fascinating article about why so many humans love hot peppers. Theories about why we like certain foods often involve evolutionary motivations for good health. In the case of hot peppers it has been suggested that by reducing blood pressure, and even providing some level of pain reduction, we evolved not just a tolerance, but a liking for hot peppers. The problem with this theory is that humans are the only mammals who seek out hot peppers to eat. Birds eat them, but they don’t have the same neurological receptors to feel the heat, so to them hot peppers are just another fruit.

If eating the hot peppers gave us an evolutionary advantage other mammals would also have developed a yen for them, perhaps well before homo sapiens split from our common ancestors. Yet even our closest relatives shun the noble jalapeno or habanero.

My son was quite impressed with an in-law who grew up in Mexico and ate habanero peppers whole, so my wife suggested a father-son gardening project. The first year only one plant survived the woodchucks and deer. But what a plant — it produced a bumper crop of killer orange habaneros. Nothing ate them. In my mind I still see that plant dangling its little orange heat grenades in front of the deer and growling, “Bite me, Bambi.”

Dr. Paul Bloom, a psychologist from Yale, sees our love of hot peppers as a unique outgrowth of our abnormally large human brains. He thinks that, perhaps, it’s a form of dietary thrill seeking.

The fact that capsaicin causes pain to mammals seems to be accidental. There’s no evolutionary percentage in preventing animals from eating the peppers, which fall off the plant when ripe. Birds, which also eat fruits, don’t have the same biochemical pain pathway, so they don’t suffer at all from capsaicin. But in mammals it stimulates the very same pain receptors that respond to actual heat. Chili pungency is not technically a taste; it is the sensation of burning, mediated by the same mechanism that would let you know that someone had set your tongue on fire.

The lizard portion of our brain gets the signals that our mouth is on fire and tells us to stop eating right now! The more evolved, logic and reasoning part of our brain tells us that it’s alright to continue. Logic an reasoning prevail, and we take another bite, thrilled that we survived the first. Being a good scientist, Dr. Bloom has been experimenting to test his theory and so far results have been encouraging.

It’s amazing that a love of hot spicy food is one of the indicators of higher intelligence in a species.

The Republicans’ have now revealed their new Pledge to America, an idea based loosely on their old Contract With America. I haven’t read any of it yet, but it’s 48 pages long. Somehow that strikes me as a bad sign for the future of small government…

Update: Yeah, I looked it over and there’s nothing much here we haven’t heard before, from the impossible, through the vague and the ridiculous, all the way to the things we know they won’t really do if they win… I doubt I’ll write much more about it.

There’s one bad policy pattern that politicians tend to repeat over and over, and according to Nathan Koppel at the Wall Street Journal, this time they’re inflicting it on lawyers:

The Mississippi Supreme Court is considering a proposed rule to require lawyers in the state to provide at least 20 hours of pro bono work.

The rule has been proposed to try to help the thousands of low-income residents in the state who can not afford a lawyer in civil matters, according to this article in The Clarion-Ledger.

This is one of those proposals that seems at first like common sense: Lawyers are empowered by the state to do things that allow them to make a lot of money, therefore they should be required to give some of that back to the community. As is often the case, however, common sense is a poor guide.

The key to understanding why this is a bad proposal is to recognize that forcing someone to work is economically almost the same as paying them a free-market wage to do the work while at the same time raising their taxes by exactly enough to cover their wages. In other words, a proposal to force lawyers to provide legal services to poor people is logically nearly equivalent to two simpler proposals: (1) The indigent should receive free legal services, and (2) lawyers should pay higher taxes.

Now, both of those policy proposals might be good ideas. What I object to is the unnecessary linkage of these two unrelated policy proposals. If it’s a good idea for the government to provide more free legal services to poor people, then it doesn’t matter where the money comes from. And if there’s a good reason lawyers should pay a larger-than-currently-normal share of taxes, then it doesn’t matter how the money is used.

The sensible way to provide legal services to poor people is to pay for them out of the public treasury. Then you let the ways-and-means folks figure out where to get the money. Maybe they can cut spending somewhere else, or maybe they can raise taxes. Heck, maybe they can even raise the cost of a law license. But these are two separate decisions. Linking them is a purely political maneuver.

(Since it’s the Mississippi Supreme Court that’s doing this — and make no mistake, you don’t get to be a judge without politics — there’s also the fact that the courts don’t have the power to levy taxes. That’s a pretty good reason for them to want to combine these issues, and also a pretty good reason why they shouldn’t be allowed to do so.)

I hedged above, saying this proposal was “almost the same” and “nearly equivalent” to the pair of simpler proposals because there’s one crucial difference: The judges’ proposal requires payment in kind. Rather than simply paying additional tax money equivalent to 20 hours of billable time, the lawyers are required to work it off.

Scott Greenfield gives a wonderful explanation of why this is stupid:

The problem, unfortunately, is that mandatory pro bono doesn’t necessarily match up well with the public need.  Let’s say a civil litigator takes on, pro bono, representation of a poor litigant.  The 20 hour obligation won’t get the litigant to resolution, but could get him in deep enough to make his life a serious mess.  It could get the lawyer to go the quickie route rather than litigation, knowing that his 20 hours will end long before anything can be accomplished.  It could leave the indigent defendant worse off than he started.

Then there are transactional and criminal lawyers being asked to provide civil representation.  They may have some knowledge of diverse areas of law, but sufficient to provide meaningful representation?  Hey, it’s not like these are paying clients.  So what if we’re nothing more than warm bodies in the well?  Is this really what the Mississippi Supreme Court has in mind?

The core problems with forced pro bono is the disconnect between the lawyers’ competencies and the clients’ needs and the number of hours mandated versus the number of hours required to see a matter to completion.  It’s the difference between providing real services and the appearance of services.  Lawyers aren’t fungible, and one size does not fit all.

That’s exactly right. Lawyers aren’t fungible. But you know what is fungible? Money. In fact, solving problems like this is why money was invented.

This sort of taxation-in-kind policy is the public policy version of a barter system, and it has all the same coordination problems. In a barter system, if you want to buy a good or service, you have to find someone who has that good or service to sell, and who also wants something you have to sell. If you’re coming to ye olde towne square looking to trade candles for horseshoes, you better hope that there’s a blacksmith who needs candles. If he’s already got all the candles he needs — which may be none at all — then your candles are worthless to him, and he’ll probably hang on to his horseshoes until he can get something better for them.

The Mississippi lawyer plan is like that, only worse, because the lawyers are being forced to sell services they may not know how to provide to people who may not really want them. It’s as if the king declared that horseshoes could only be bought with candles and nothing else. If you’re a chicken farmer, you’re going to have to waste a lot of time making some pretty crappy candles in order to get your horseshoes.

Actually, the Mississippi plan is even worse than that, because if you’re a chicken farmer looking to buy horseshoes from people who can only take candles in trade, you can at least go find a candlemaker and trade your chickens for his candles.

This suggests an improvement to the Mississippi plan that might make it workable: Establish a system of tradable pro-bono credits. I’m sure there are plenty of mergers-and-acquisitions lawyers who would happily pay a few thousand dollars a year for somebody else to fulfill their pro-bono work for them. And I’m equally sure there are plenty of lawyers who would love to spend their whole year helping low-income people if they could pay for it by selling their excess pro-bono credits to the mergers-and-acquisitions lawyers.

This would do everything the Mississippi plan would do — the poor people would get their legal assistance, and the lawyers would be paying for it, just as the proposal’s authors seem to want — but it would provide better service, and probably at a more reasonable cost to the lawyers. The original policy idea is so bad that this really is a case where a few changes can be a win for everybody.

Breaking news:

New computer simulations have shown how a glass slipper, as described in Grimm’s Cinderella, could have been created using a unique combination of quartz-rich silicates found only in northern Germany. When heated to just the right temperature, as was available in primitive furnaces of 14th century middle Europe, the model demonstrated that glass could have annealed by chemicals from nearby dung fires forming a unique matrix. Early cobblers could have used this glass to construct a slipper durable enough to be worn by a young stepdaughter destined to become a princess.

The actual headline I read was Computers show how wind could have parted Red Sea. The first line of the article reads “New computer simulations have shown how the parting of the Red Sea, as described in the Bible, could have been a phenomenon caused by strong winds.” It’s a summary of an actual scientific article from the journal Plos One. Normally I just ignore crap like this, but it’s shown up in the top ten most read articles on the BBC for more than 24 hours now, and Plos One is an up-and-coming journal that has some level of respect in the science community.

From an archeological perspective, just what has the study shown? Well, nothing, actually. It showed that, under certain meteorological conditions, a phenomenon that is known to be possible, is possible in one particular geographic area. If this had been a study to explain an observed event, or to shed light on a particular set of fossils in a particular location, it would have been interesting and useful.
From an anthropological perspective? Very little, if not nothing as well. Studying accounts of actual historical events is a useful process for anthropologists. There is a difference, however, between well documented accounts and stories or legends about events. Stories and legends can be based upon actual events, but often become modified and embellished as they get repeated. The Iliad is a good example of story telling based upon what may, or may not be, an actual historical event.
The Iliad is a wonderful set of stories about the Trojan War. There is some evidence that the Mycenaeans mounted expeditions against the city of Illium. This may have been what Homer’s stories were based upon. There is nothing, however, to suggest that people called Achilles, Ajax, Hector and Paris fought personal battles over the honor of anyone. There is no evidence that the infamous Trojan Horse is anything other than a very cool plot twist in an epic story.
There were certainly great battles and wars fought by the ancient Greeks, but we have no account of the details of the Trojan War outside of the epic poems of Homer. It would be (scientifically) pointless to create computer models showing how a Trojan horse could be built using the technology employed by the ancient Greeks. It might make for a crappy Discovery Channel show, but should never be published in a respected scientific journal.
The Biblical story of the Exodus is just that; a story. A legend. It may be based on some actual events, but the details of those events have been lost. Archeo-anthropologists can’t even find good evidence that an ancient tribe of Israel was ever enslaved by the Pharaohs of Egypt, though it’s certainly possible. If such an exodus occurred, however, the stories in the Torah, Old Testament and Qur’an are like the tales compiled by the brothers Grimm.
Grimm’s Fairy Tales is a collection meant to teach values or morals, written in an entertaining style, based upon stories that had been told by countless generations in many forms. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but Cinderella is not about a specific German girl in a specific German village who became a princess of a known kingdom. I’m sure that, throughout history, there have been actual people who started out with a raw deal and eventually ended up making good. I also am sure that ancient enslaved peoples have at times managed to become free from their masters and settled in new regions.
Trying to prove a specific element from one such tale, such as the parting of the Red Sea, or the existence of a glass slipper, is scientifically pointless. Those who think that, without proof of the details, the meaning of those stories will be lost are just as pointless.

Thirty years ago, Philip B. Crosby wrote Quality Is Free, in which he explained how a business that improved its products could earn higher profits. The basic insight was that the earlier you catch a product defect, the cheaper it is to fix: Catching a defect during your outgoing quality assurance testing is a lot cheaper than dealing with a product return from a customer, which is costly in terms of labor and damage to your reputation. And both of those options are more expensive than manufacturing your product right the first time. Thus, efforts to improve quality at the front end will more than pay for themselves at the back end.

I was reminded of this when Scott Greenfield (via Doug Berman) linked to an ABC news item about Missouri’s new sentencing program. The basic idea is to bring a bit of empiricism to the judge’s sentencing decisions. The Missouri Sentencing and Advisory Commision has collected statistics on convicted persons’ recidivism rates and actual time served for various crimes committed in Missouri, and judges can now query the database through a website to learn what the typical outcomes have been for the charge and type of defendant before them.

The most interesting item in the report is section titled “Costs of Incarceration and Supervision” which shows the cost to the State of different sentences, based on the cost of services and the historical expected time served.

For example, here’s the result for an offender with a light criminal record who is conviced of Robbery in the 2nd degree:

Mitigating Sentence: Community Structured Sentence – 5 years enhanced probation @ $1,792 per year. Total Cost = $8,960
Presumptive Sentence: Shock Probation or Drug Treatment – 120-Day incarceration @ $6,294 + 5 years probation @ $1,354 per year. Total Cost = $13,064
Aggravating Sentence: Prison – 7 years prison assuming expected actual time served of 60% = 4.2 years in prison @ $16,823 per year + remaining sentence of 2.8 years on parole @ $1,354 per year. Total Cost = $74,448

This shows the real cost of cost of getting tough on crime: The heavy prison sentence costs nine times as much as probation. (And according to the site, recidivism is slightly less likely for the probationers.)

Now we can do some math. A year in prison costs $16,823, but a year of probation only costs $1,792, a difference of about $15,000. According to this site, the top of the pay scale for an experienced public defender is $120,000 a year. Therefore, a public defender need only get a combined sentence reduction of 8 years across all of his clients in an entire year to reduce the cost of the prison system enough to completely pay for his salary.

A few caveats are in order: That figure of $120,000 is only for the public defender’s salary. He also gets benefits, including an eventual retirement. In addition, the true cost of putting a public defender to work also includes the cost of stuff like support personnel, supplies, utilities, and office space. I don’t have figures for the overhead costs of public defense, so just to have some numbers to work with, let’s assume that it’s similar to the cost of engineering overhead, for which I know that a 3.5:1 ratio is reasonable, giving a fully-burdened cost of about $540,000. That raises the total number of years to 36, which we might as well round to 40.

When I started writing this, I asked Gideon how how long he thought it would take to knock a century of prison time off his clients’ sentences. It’s obviously a crazy question, but he gave me a wild-assed-guess of “over a year” or maybe just a few weeks if you do well in a big case or two. Since I assume that a PD earning at the top of the salary range gets a lot of big cases, I think it’s safe to say that he could easily save the state 40 years of prison time per year.

In other words, while I admit I haven’t seen real numbers, it seems reasonable to assume that public defense is free.


Here’s something you don’t see everyday in the news:

A worker at Arlington Park racetrack has been arrested and charged with having sexual conduct with a horse.

The horse’s name was “Buzz My Bell”. Given that, and the fact that she was prancing around naked in public, I think she was just asking for it. Besides, how do they know it wasn’t consensual?

Google had a bit of an embarrassing security problem recently. An engineer did a very creepy thing and spied on teenager’s Google accounts while interacting with the teens online. Apparently no laws were broken but Google, obviously, fired the engineer. Google’s statement about the incident underwhelmed Greg Laden:

Sorry Google, we are not impressed. We’d like to see an independent investigation, possible prosecution, and who knows, maybe some new laws and regulations.

The idea that we should have some new laws to make systems such as Gmail more secure is an bad idea.

Because users see technology and security as a block box they are often blindsided when there is a failure or breach of trust. Greg is right that the response from Google is inadequate for most users. The response was fine for me. After all, I understand what happened and it didn’t surprise me. The problem is that the response didn’t address the trust that was broken with most of its users who don’t understand the systems inside that black box.

I dislike, however, the suggestion that new laws and regulations should be put in place to prevent such problems in the future. Making it illegal for system engineers to open data files without permission may decrease the number of incidents, but probably wouldn’t be effective at stopping such practices with just legal punishment as a deterrent. Making it impossible for engineers to see data will mean a fundamental change in the way such systems operate. Security is always a trade-off against usability and expense. Having the government choose that balance point and force it upon Google and other service providers is the wrong response.

I’ve always tried to address such issues with user education. Users often have a black-box mentality and think that such issues are somehow automatically taken care of by the system. Users (especially managers) need to be aware of just how much power system administrators have.

I worked as a sysadmin at a college when email was first introduced to staff. I taught users the old IT adage that email was the electronic equivalent of postcards. Every employee of the post office who touches that postcard can, if they so desire, read the message. I also made it clear that I had access to anything they stored on the server (including email) and even conducted security workshops showing them how easy it was for people like me to defeat the simple encryption used in the software of the time. I tried very hard to build the trust with my users that I wouldn’t abuse that power, but wanted them to know what was possible.

Google lost some trust from its user base. The response from Google was “Why would anyone trust such a system?” In one respect they are right. Users should never have trusted such a system. I don’t, but that’s because I understand some of what is going on inside the black box after clicking the “send” button.

Perhaps Google should be leading an effort to upgrade the security of email and other messaging services, but by working with users rather than working under new government regulations. Email protocols were not designed for security. Of course the basic protocol of the Internet (TCP/IP) was not designed for secure transactions either, yet I’m confident that my online banking transactions are secure because of an end-to-end protocol called SSL/TLS*.

Users can already make their email secure using a similar system (called PGP) if they wish, but few people know how. Perhaps Google should lead the effort by streamlining the user interface and popularizing such a system. Google would need to educate the users and work with them to figure out what level of security is needed and how much effort users would be willing to put into such a system to make it work. Users may have to maintain special keys, for example, to communicate with recipients on different email systems. While Google can make that process easier, it will still require some effort on the user end to gain that extra security. There is always a tradeoff.

Pushback against such encryption, however, would come from governments. Governments around the world, for example, freaked out once they realized they couldn’t snoop on people’s Blackberry accounts. The United States government fought the introduction of PGP when it was first introduced claiming it was too dangerous to allow the technology out of the country. (Because of our government’s insistence that PGP not be provided on the Internet I had to download my first copy from an overseas server.) The US government would certainly resist any pervasive end-to-end technology that would prevent them from reading email.

Government involvement in this issue seems like a bad idea. It would force providers to choose a level of security that people may not need once they understand that email is just a digital postcard. Any government solution would also build in a government backdoor allowing them access to any secure system. In this case I really would like the government to not get involved.

* I’ll provide a brief introduction to the concept of end-to-end encryption below. Anyone not interested in how this stuff works should stop reading now.

Transactions can be made secure on an inherently unsecure system by introducing an additional protocol (set of rules) above the unsecure layer providing a “session” that encrypts information before the unsecure protocol and only decrypts that information after the data goes beyond the unsecure protocol at the other end. Hence it’s an “end-to-end” system and doesn’t rely upon unsecure devices in the middle of the route taken by the data.

For example, the Internet uses an unsecure protocol called TCP/IP to get information from one computer to another, let’s say from your home computer to your bank. Rather than redesigning the unsecure protocol it is better to add an end-to-end encryption/decryption system “above” the unsecure protocol. When your computer talks to the computer at the bank it uses a system called Secure Sockets Layer / Transport Layer Security (SSL/TLS) to accomplish this.


The green lines represent information that can be read since it is not encrypted (plaintext) The red lines represent the encrypted information (ciphertext) that no one can read. We don’t really know what is happening to the information in the blue lines, but we don’t care since it’s already been encrypted.

If you are not using an encrypted email client (most of the world does not) your message may still be encrypted in the same way as your bank information, but that is not end-to-end for an email message since there is a third party involved (the email recipient). Your message may be encrypted below the email client as your bank password was, but it will be decrypted before it gets to the email server where it is stored unencrypted, until the recipient asks for it from their email client. This means your email cannot be read by anyone eavesdropping somewhere in the Internet (what is called a man-in-the-middle attack), but it can be read by anyone with access to the file on the email server.

A program such as Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) can work with an email client to encrypt a message before your computer sends it to an email server. Your message will stay encrypted, even on the email server, until a similar program decrypts the message at the email client on the other side. This allows for end-to-end encryption even when messages are stored on servers awaiting delivery and the messages will stay encrypted in all locations other than at the sender’s and recipient’s email programs.


Other messaging systems, such as SMS or chat rooms, can be designed to work the same way.

Just a quick note to point out something that really annoyed me this morning. Chicago cops are protesting at police headquarters.

Before the marchers stepped off, several hundred officers were gathering in front of police headquarters, carrying signs including “More police/No Weis!!”, “Simply resign” and “Free Cozzi,” referring to Officer William Cozzi, who was convicted of beating a handcuffed patient in an incident that was caught on videotape.

Yup. Chicago cops are seriously pissed off that one of their own wasn’t allowed to beat up a citizen who was already handcuffed to a wheelchair. They are so upset about losing their rights to beat handcuffed wheelchair bound citizens they need to picket Superintendent Jody Weis, who did nothing to stop the evil federal government from prosecuting the fine upstanding officer who did the beating.

Others have said sweeping personnel changes at the start of his tenure sent the wrong message. But his handling of Cozzi, who beat a suspect handcuffed to a wheelchair, rankled officers the most.
Of course it did!
A female demonstrator who said she was an 11-year veteran of the police department but who declined to give her name, was wearing a yellow T-shirt reading: “In case of emergency, run like hell!”
“We don’t run away, we go to,” she said.

Yes, the heroism of officers like William Cozzi has been documented.

Don’t you understand? If police become afraid to beat up people in wheelchairs it will be the end of civilization! Gangs of criminals will roam the streets beating people up with no fear of being locked away for their crimes!

I just noticed that ethicist Jack Marshall has addressed the ethics of hiring illegal immigrants:

Are Restaurants That Hire Illegal Immigrants Ethical?


Sigh. I agree with a lot of what Jack Marshall has to say about ethics. For example, he’s dead-on to call out the Obama administration for this censorious nonsense. But when it comes to economics issues, especially having to do with employment, he gets into all kinds of muddled thinking, and it just pisses me off.

Here’s the setup:

The New York Times Diner’s Journal asks the question, invoking the images of the 2004 film “A Day Without a Mexican,” in which all of California’s Mexicans suddenly disappear and the state is thrust into a world with far fewer gardeners, nannies, fruit-pickers, maids, cooks, and dishwashers. The film is the high-water mark of the essentially unethical rationalization for illegal immigration that is one of the main culprits for America’s unconscionable tolerance of it–that without illegals, the economy and quality of life of Americans would break down.

I’ve never been a big fan of that argument myself. Illegal immigrants may do the work that Americans don’t want to do, but if they all left, it’s not like the work wouldn’t get done. Those jobs would just have to be filled by Americans. It’s inefficent, but it’s not an economic apocalypse.

Marshall puts his objection a little differently:

For decades, one of the chief arguments against eliminating slavery was that it would cripple the economy of the South: the 1848 documentary “A World Without Slaves” would have probably been very similar to the 2004 film, but grainier.  Giving equal rights to women has devastated the quality of public schools, put men out of work, forced kids to grow up under the care of strangers, and made men to do a heck of a lot more housework. Well, too bad: it was still the right thing to do.

I’m not sure what slavery has to do with the voluntary employment of illegal immigrants, but Marshall is certainly right that fear of economic hardship does not justify slavery or unequal rights for women.

I should point out that the only way slavery ever seemed economically justified is because its advocates weren’t really including the welfare of the slaves in their calculations. I imagine pretty much the same is true for women’s equality. It’s easy to make benefit-cost arguments come out in your favor it you decide beforehand that certain people just don’t count.

Naturally; when you get used to an illegal or unethical short cut and they erect a wall to keep you out, you have to find another way, and until that becomes institutionalized, the change is inconvenient, disruptive, and probably expensive.

So if restaurants stopped exploiting illegal immigrants while encouraging dishonest conduct and warping national immigration and security policies for their own profit…, the same would be true…Assuming that the establishments would have to pay fair rather than exploitive wages to America citizens, sure: it will cost more. “At the end of the day, the customer is going to end up paying for it,” a chef and restaurateur told Diner’s Journal. “We’ll have to pay higher wages, more taxes and then we will have to charge more.”

Cry me a river. The fair price of a commodity or service is made up of the fair cost of its components.

So illegal immigrant wages are unfair and American wages are fair, therefore it is unethical to hire illegal immigrants because it’s unfair. I don’t see exchanging ethical for fair gets us anywhere.

Yup: a used car dealer whose cars are stolen will be able to sell his cars dirt cheap. Is that an argument for allowing theft?

Well, no, because he’s getting the cars from someone who did not agree to give them to him. This is different from the restaurant that pays low wages to the busboys because the busboys agreed to the wage. In one case, the original owners of the cars are forced to give them up, in the other case, the agreement is voluntary.

This is the part of Marshall’s argument that pisses me off so much. I think the concepts of choice and consent are the fundamental building blocks of any serious discussion about morality, ethics, law, or economics. Yet Marshall seems to be disregarding choice and consent completely, as if they have no ethical implications.

As near as I can tell, he says that paying someone an “unfair” amount of money in a consensual labor agreement is morally equivalent to stealing from them. In fact, he seems to suggest that similar to slavery. But by this argument, buying a car from somebody for an amount that is “unfairly” low is the moral equivalent of stealing the car, even though the original owner consented to the exchange.

Here it’s Marshall whose argument is paralleling that of the slavery apologists. They used to say that black people didn’t really want freedom–no matter what they said–because they were all simple dumb animals. Marshall is similarly implying that people who take low-paying jobs are too dumb to know better.

Laws and regulations are in place for a reason, and that reason is the general welfare of the nation’s legal citizens.

Laws are in place because legislatures pass them. We hope that they’re there for the general welfare, and it’s useful for civil order that we pretend to believe it’s true, but have you seen how laws are made? You think they’re really getting everything right?

I realize that many (most?) of Marshall’s clients are businesses, and he can’t very well advise them to break the law, but that doesn’t mean the laws themselves are ethical. I mean, we’re talking about the United States Congress and their state equivalents. Even if you believe, say, that minimum wage laws are a good idea and that there really is a fair wage, the current minimum wage is the result of a lot of political wheeling and dealing. The bills that established the wage rates are compromises, and they’ve been influenced by campaign contributions, trade-offs for other legislation, and vacation trips provided by lobbyists. This doesn’t sound like a process that could result in anything we might call ethical

There are laws requiring legal procedures in immigration because of vital and undeniable social, economic, demographic, health, national security, labor, social service, educational, entitlement and law enforcement considerations.

Saying that immigration procedures have a “vital and undeniable” purpose is just begging the question. Most of those issues are clearly and undeniably open to argument.

My message to the restaurateur: your problems and the price of a steak do not stand up against all of this, not by a long-shot.

I wonder how Jack Marshall goes about finding restaurants that don’t hire illegal immigrants. Does he ask? If so, does he insist on a guaranty or ask to inspect the I-9 forms? By his own argument this is ethically required, otherwise he’d be feeding money into an enterprise that encourages illegal immigration.

Or maybe he doesn’t go to restaurants, in which case I wonder where and how he gets his food. I hear that the agricultural industry has a lot of illegal immigrants working in it.

Firing 1,000 illegal immigrants, and thus creating less incentive for other illegals to follow them as well as giving those already here a good reason to go home, does not counter-balance the 1000 Americans who get their jobs.

Er, but earlier he said that American workers would have to be paid more. Unless restaurant owners have additional funds that for some reason they just haven’t been using until now, they’re not going to be able to afford to pay for as many labor hours as the illegal workers were providing. They’re going to have to cut back. When something becomes more expensive, people generally buy less of it. Labor included.

They don’t counter-balance 500 Americans or 100 Americans or even one. One American who has a job is a net gain of one law-abiding citizen who should not be out of work because of an industry’s greedy exploitation of people who have no right to be here, even if that one lucky American’s job requires all 12 million illegal immigrants to lose theirs.

Jack Marshall seems like a nice guy on his web site, so I think we can assume he doesn’t mean this in a bigoted way. On the other hand, it’s easy to pretend to win arguments about public policy if you declare that some people just don’t count. Again, slave owners bolstered their economic arguments by ignoring (or using fictitious measures of) the welfare of slaves. Yes, if illegal immigrants aren’t worth a bucket of warm spit, then we can stop worrying about the issue.

On the other hand, Marshall is also complaining about “an industry’s greedy exploitation” in the same sentence. According to Marshall, restaurants are exploiting immigrants by offering them low-paying jobs, but if the restaurants offered them no job at all, that would be fine, and forcing them out of the country would be even better.

Aaaaaarrrrrgh! It make my head hurt that people–including smart people of good will–can believe things like this. I suspect that from Marshall’s point of view I’m only going to make things worse, but I have to point out that I get the same kind of argument whenever I argue that our current laws against prostition do more harm the good. Someone inevitably responds that prostitution exploits women, while completely ignoring the fact that jail isn’t good for women either.

If giving illegal immigrants a low wage is mean, isn’t forcing them out of the job and deporting them even worse?

So: are restaurants that hire illegal immigrants ethical?


Despite everything I’ve said, there are all kinds of ethical problems related to various employment taxes and insurance issues. These would all go away if our government just let people come here to work without the pig-headed quotas and waiting lists. But I’m not quite convinced that our government’s stupidity is enough to negate the ethical obligations of the restuarant owners and their employees.

On the other hand, it may just be making the best of a bad situation. In any case, when I go to a restaurant, the immigration status of the employees never even enters my mind.