Home // 2010 // July

I’m going a-roaming

I’ll be on the East Coast until the end of the month, escaping the desert heat by stepping into a swamp. I plan to post while I’m on the road, but I’ll be on a whenever-it-happens schedule.

This also means that I may be a bit slow to approve comments. Be patient. I’ll soon be along with a mojito in my hand.

Journolist leaks: a great reason to drop media neutrality claims

With the exception of Spencer Ackerman’s incredibly stupid and unethical scheme to randomly accuse  conservatives of racism, the latest Journolist revelations from The Daily Caller aren’t all that shocking. Ackerman’s modest proposal was this:

If the right forces us all to either defend Wright or tear him down, no matter what we choose, we lose the game they’ve put upon us. Instead, take one of them — Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, who cares — and call them racists.

Ackerman specifically wanted to use charges of racism as a weapon against conservatives who were raising questions about then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s relationship with the loony Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

[F]ind a rightwinger’s [sic] and smash it through a plate-glass window. Take a snapshot of the bleeding mess and send it out in a Christmas card to let the right know that it needs to live in a state of constant fear. Obviously I mean this rhetorically.

That willingness to level unfounded accusations in service to a political cause really should get Ackerman fired and render him unemployable.

But the other members of the list seemed, according to The Daily Caller’s quotes, to be more interested in burying the story, or protesting its coverage via an open letter. That’s the sort of thing like-minded people do in support of one of their own. As Alex Pareene snarkily puts it in Salon, “This sort of campaign doesn’t work when you’re trying to discredit avowed liberal commentators by proving that they secretly hold liberal beliefs.”

Why should anybody be surprised that liberal pundits discuss strategy for defending their ideas and promoting their pet candidates? Katha Pollitt and Todd Gitlin share ideas on how to sell lefty programs and politicians? What a surprise!

But not everybody on the list is “out” as an opinion journalist or professional applier of spin to news stories. Some of the participants are supposed to be objective/unbiased/establishment journalists. To the extent that they participated in these conversations, they undermine their supposed neutrality.

The solution should be obvious: Drop bullshit claims about the unbiased nature of the news media. If journalists come clean about their affiliations and biases — they don’t have to abandon their professionalism, but just admit to the fact that their opinions do, inevitably, color their work — then there’s little risk of embarrassment from leaked emails and discussions.

After all, nobody actually believes that journalists steadfastly keep their opinions out of their work. A little honesty wouldn’t just insulate them from Journolist-style leaks — it would improve their credibility.

Charges dismissed in Stagliano case

John Stagliano, a libertarian-oriented producer of adult entertainment who sometimes goes by the monicker “Buttman,” has finally won vindication in his long legal ordeal at the hands of federal bluenoses. The Washington Post has the story:

A federal judge dismissed the first obscenity prosecution brought in the nation’s capital in a quarter-century on technical grounds Friday, tossing out charges against John A. Stagliano and two companies associated with the adult video producer based in Van Nuys, Calif.

Acquitting Stagliano, John Stagliano Inc. and Evil Angel Productions Inc. before they began their defense, U.S. District Court Judge Richard J. Leon said evidence presented by the Justice Department’s Obscenity Prosecution Task Force in the four-day trial was “woefully insufficient” to link defendants to the production and distribution of two DVD videos at the heart of the case.

Go out and rent a few videos to celebrate this free speech victory!

Court decisions aside, scofflaws have long made gun control unenforceable

The following was written as a sample chapter for a book on how scofflaws limit state power, curbing the reach of government officials and carving out a modicum of liberty even when and where it’s officially forbidden. The overall book was intended to go much farther than the gun control issue, but it came to an abrupt halt a bit over a year ago. That’s when my agent called me on a Sunday morning to tell me how much he hated what I’m publishing below. Apparently, his loathing of my work couldn’t wait another 24 hours to be expressed.

So … Caveat emptor.

I doubt I ever would have gone to the black market to purchase an illegal assault weapon if it wasn’t for New York’s annoyingly restrictive gun control laws.

Wait. Let me back up a bit.

New York State passed the Sullivan Act back in 1911. The law required people to get a government permit to own or carry any weapon small enough to be concealed – handguns, in particular. Issuing the permit would be a matter of official discretion, which is a policy continued to the present day. Read more [+]

Increasingly unpopular airport body scanners may offer false security

USA Today documents the growing resistance to the use of body scanners at airports — a resistance that’s particularly marked in Europe. Complaints about the devices include the expected concerns about privacy, long lines, expense and potential health concerns from even the relatively low levels of radiation emitted by the machines.

It should be noted in addition, however, that body scanners aren’t some kind of proven, super-secure technology that offers us a choice between guaranteed safety and keeping our naughty bits under cover. In fact, the machines may offer a false sense of security. German television did a very interesting demonstration in which an infrared scanner failed to uncover various objects hidden on and around a subjects body — components for thermite. You don’t need to understand a word of the lingo to see what’s going on or to recognize the embarrassment on the (English-speaking) operator’s face. (But if you do speak German, please feel free to fill in the details).

Note that the types of scanners favored by the TSA have their own flaws. Ben Wallace, a British member of Parliament who used to advise a company that studied millimeter-wave scanners, says the devices are fine for picking up knives and guns, but can’t detect powder, liquid or thin plastic.

Obamacare looks unhealthy for businesses

People tend to either love or hate White Castle — there’s no in-between when it comes to those greasy little sliders. Me, I love ’em, especially late at night after a round of social throat-wetting. But the Obama administration … Maybe not so much. From the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

The White Castle hamburger chain fears that a health insurance reform law adopted earlier this year will put its profits on a downward slide.

The Columbus-based family owned restaurant chain — known for serving small square hamburgers called “sliders” — says a single provision in the bill will eat up roughly 55 percent of its yearly net income after 2014.

Starting that year, the bill levies a $3,000-per-employee penalty on companies whose workers pay more than 9.5 percent of household income in premiums for company-provided insurance.

White Castle, which has offered health insurance to its employees since 1924, is considering dropping coverage entirely as one possible way of off-setting the expected financial hit. That would leave the company’s 10,000 formerly covered workers to seek health insurance on their own — most likely from the federal exchange. The feds will impose $2,000-per-person fines on companies that don’t offer coverage, and whose employees turn to federally subsidized insurance instead, but the article cites an IHOP franchise owner who expects the fines to cost roughly half what coverage costs under the new federal scheme.

This squares with what the Heartland Institute’s Health Care News is reporting, with some small businesses panicking about the looming 2014  date. HCN quotes the owner of a small pizza chain saying that if his company is hit with onerous costs under the health care law, “we’ll probably sell all the stores and be done.”

Since the health care law imposes its toughest requirements and penalties on businesses with more than 50 employees, the National Federation of Independent Businesses asks, “what incentive is there for a firm to grow any bigger than 50 employees when it means employers may face such stiff fines?”

What incentive for small businesses to grow — or for larger firms to stay in business, if costs rise and eat up profits?

And all this at the price, as the Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner points out, of $2.7 trillion over ten years, a higher national debt, soaring taxes, and health care costs that continue to increase.

Looks like I better stock up on those sliders.

Big surprise: Parents like being subsidized

Jennifer Senior’s very interesting piece for New York on parenting — on how having children tends to make people less happy — is getting lots of attention. Some of that attention, coming from the usual suspects, is for all of the wrong reasons. The key paragraph setting astir the hearts of those who see us all as milking cows for the sustenance of their favorite social policies is below:

One hates to invoke Scandinavia in stories about child-rearing, but it can’t be an accident that the one superbly designed study that said, unambiguously, that having kids makes you happier was done with Danish subjects. The researcher, Hans-Peter Kohler, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says he originally studied this question because he was intrigued by the declining fertility rates in Europe. One of the things he noticed is that countries with stronger welfare systems produce more children–and happier parents.

This isn’t that surprising a finding, of course, for anybody who has ever been stuck with the check for dinner. More than a few of our friends and neighbors take great pleasure in ducking the tab for their indulgences (and yes, children are an indulgence — “economically worthless but emotionally priceless” as a sociologist pithily describes them in the article). Along those lines, were I of a more-parasitic mindset, I’m sure I would take much greater joy in a new truck if I could send you the tab instead of shouldering monthly payments.

But sending somebody else the bill doesn’t change the fact that there’s a bill. And the bill for subsidizing basic activities like child-rearing might well prove pretty hefty — especially if times turn tough and belts need tightening.

As it turns out, Denmark, the land of those happy, subsidized parents, is broke. Well, broke-ish, in European terms, since the continent is a financial mess (like the dear old U.S.A., but with fewer credit cards hidden in the desk drawer). In fact, Denmark has instituted fairly serious budget cuts in an effort to reduce the government’s growing deficit. And yes, those parenting subsidies are included — with cuts amounting to 5% across the board. (Ireland is among the countries making similar cuts.)

And if Danish parents have been pleased to have somebody else foot the bill, the subsidies haven’t necessarily made them more fecund, even though in-vitro treatments have also been subsidized (and, now, cut). The fertility rate hovers somewhere between 1.8 and 1.9, raising questions about the article’s claim that “countries with stronger welfare systems produce more children.” With the replacement rate at 2.1, Danish parents are happier, but fewer with every passing year. (Americans are breeding at just about exactly the replacement rate, mournful though they may be over the burdens of parenthood.)

Basically, the payoff to subsidizing parents doesn’t seem to extend beyond the fact that many parents like being subsidized.

Never mind the Nazi pickpocket, look at the brown guy over there!

This morning I received a very courteous email from a fairly prominent political writer with conservative-to-libertarian sentiments. He wanted a little clarity on the madness that is the Arizona immigration kerfuffle. Basically, is there really a problem, or are politicians doing an ignore-the-man-behind-the-curtain to cover their own misdeeds, and in the process creating a national frenzy? Because I loathe doing work without getting some kind of mileage out of it, below is my response:

Mr. XXX:

I think the best insight into Arizona’s immigration politics is the fact that anti-immigrant fervor is concentrated in the Phoenix area, where you have the largest numbers of new arrivals in the state, and that Maricopa County’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio (who has responsibility for Phoenix), the nationally visible nativist militant, was supportive or at least agnostic on immigrants and dismissive of the close-the-border fanatics until five or six years ago (you’ll find a mention of that here). At that time his popularity was fading even as nativist sentiment was rising, and he switched horses.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating too much when I say the worst excesses of the anti-immigrant frenzy seem to come from lily-white snowbirds who recently settled in Arizona to escape the Minnesota winters, only to discover that the place is a bit too brown and spicy for their tastes.

Arizona has the same economic mess as many other states — worse than most — and our politicians have been more than eager to find scapegoats to divert attention from their spending spree (PDF) and looting of the coffers. Several years ago, I worked on an effort to pass a taxpayer bill of rights to cap spending growth — we were soundly defeated and the money continued to fly out the door. The tab has now come due.

Almost in unison, politicians blamed hard-working Mexican immigrants (who, yes, often ignore government red tape in search of opportunity) for the electorate’s economic distress. This provided an easy opening for Sen. Russell Pearce, who is just barely coy about his white-supremacist sentiments, to push through the recent anti-immigration bill. Yes, really. SB1070 was authored by a state senator who is pretty open about his anti-semitism and racism and who hangs out with Nazis.

That all of this is opportunistic should be apparent from the fact that, according to the latest figures, crime is going down, not up in Arizona despite a few terrible and widely publicized incidents involving violence by drug gangs and coyotes (people smugglers) — the sort of criminals who inevitably move in to capitalize on illegal markets. Illegal immigration is down all across the border. In fact, because of the lousy economy, illegals were fleeing the state well before SB1070 passed [Note: according to the linked report, the number of illegals in the state dropped by one third from 2007-2009, while the number dropped nationally by 14%].

The sheriff of Pima County which, unlike Maricopa, is actually on the border, calls the new law “racist,” “disgusting” and “unnecessary” and is refusing to enforce it. And this is a guy who generally takes a hard line on immigration.

As for a Mexican anschluss … In some ways, we should be so lucky. As mentioned above, though, crime is actually down along the border and people can travel more safely through the border region than in years past. I have no doubt that some radicalized graduate students in Mexico City — and Los Angeles — would like Mexico to reclaim the southwest, and maybe we should let them. Mexico has its fair share of stupid laws, but in some ways it’s more free than the U.S., if only because of a healthy disrespect for the state. But those graduate students are likely to get plenty of opposition — from the Mexican migrants who cheerfully left Mexico and its economy behind.

Honestly, the Mexican gangs are still doing a healthy trade — more in drugs than immigrants these days. But if any piece of Arizona was ceded to them, it was done so by accident, and it’s populated only by rattlesnakes and cholla.

I hope that helps! Let me know if I can be of further assistance.

J.D. Tuccille

Let me elaborate here a bit on my “we should be so lucky” comment. I’m not trying to minimize the problems that Mexico faces, but this is a country in the process of becoming more free, both in terms of civil liberties and economic freedom. The United States, at the same time, has lost ground in terms of both civil liberties and economic freedom. Also, Mexico gets heavily dinged for the easy corruption that pervades the political system; while there is much to criticize about the culture of la mordida, it also has a way of greasing tight official channels so that people  can ease through them. Overregulated regions of the United States tend to develop similar unofficial means of dealing with official obstructionism and ineptitude. That is, official corruption is not entirely bad.

Mexicans, in my experience, do intend to be more skeptical than Americans about the virtues of obedience to the law and compliance with government directives. Perhaps the best result would be for the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico to engage, as they traditionally have, in relatively free and open exchanges of goods, services, people and ideas, allowing the cultures to merge and move toward a happy middle ground.

To get back to that healthy relationship, we need to tell the nativists to get stuffed.

Why not get personal with pushy government officials?

I wonder, really, why we don’t hear about incidents like this more often:

HEMET, Calif. – A man suspected of carrying out a series of booby trap attacks  against police in a small Southern California town was expected to be charged in the case Wednesday, authorities said.

Nicholas Smit was arrested Friday for investigation of making a booby trap and assault on a police officer with intent to commit murder.

Smit is suspected of planting booby traps to hurt a Hemet police officer who arrested him after suspecting that he was growing marijuana, law enforcement officials said.

I no longer have a commercial publisher, so I don’t have to pretend that I disapprove of directly targeting government officials. Yet I’m not specifically advocating putting bear traps on the front seats of cop cars — for one thing, the unwashed masses are likely to get offended that one of the brave “thin blue line” got his steroid-shriveled testicles caught in the trap, and, for another, there’s an unfortunate likelihood of being caught, like the apparently rather dim Nicholas Smit, in Hemet.

But I’m surprised that we don’t hear more about direct, creative targeting of abusive law-enforcement officers and presumptuous officeholders.

Considering how often politicos are caught doing things for which we we mere commoners would be harshly punished, such as neglecting to foot a share of the tab for the politicians’ own spending sprees, or engaging in a little sexual experimentation in public places, wouldn’t it be worth assigning aggressive private investigators to pry into their past indiscretions and monitor their current activities? Of course, not every investigation would pay off, but focusing on especially obnoxious specimens would not only derail the occasional derail-worthy career, it would cast further doubt and disrepute on governing institutions.

Honestly, does anybody really doubt that at least one member of Congress is a serial killer? Or that at least two keep teenagers chained in some dungeon?

Yes, that requires funds, but having worked for a couple of political organizations, I’m impressed by the quantity of money that’s dedicated to low-payoff activities, like lobbying and publicity campaigns.

What about protesting outside the private homes of government officials? It seems unfortunate that when this is most often done, it’s along the lines of Cindy Sheehan’s vigil in Crawford, Texas, which was guaranteed to annoy the neighbors while then-President Bush snored comfortably in the White House.

The goal should be to make the official uncomfortable.

There have been incidents over the years. I seem to remember that a King County, Washington, politician had a load of trash dumped on his front lawn in retaliation for his support for restrictions on property rights. And I believe that a Pennsylvania official who supported a ban on anonymous mail drops was zapped by a local company revealing that he took advantage of just such a service.

And, of course, the Phoenix New Times published Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s home address.

Can you think of any other past examples that might point the way to future tactics?

U.S. officials spy on activists across the political spectrum

If you’re in a mood to feel like a targeted victim of government, you don’t need to be a libertarian, or a lefty, or a righty or a tea-partier, or even a Muslim. Nope, it turns out  that the simple act of speaking out in a way that’s critical of the government, or even just a bit outside the mainstream, is enough to get you monitored, referenced in a file and tagged as an enemy of the state. That’s right — there’s room for everybody to play!

A new report (PDF) from the American Civil Liberties Union details surveillance by local, state and federal officials — separately and jointly — of peaceful political activists, protesters and organizations over the past decade. A random sampling of surveillance activities, sometimes including interference with lawful protest, includes these examples:

Military Intelligence Spied on Alaskans for Peace. According to an Electronic Frontier Foundation FOIA, military intelligence spied on the anti-war group Alaskans for Peace and Justice in 2005.

FBI Infiltration of Islamic Center. An FBI agent testified in court in 2009 that an informant had been planted at an Islamic Center in Irvine, California. Surveillance has prompted some Muslims to avoid mosques and cut charitable contributions out of fear of being questioned or branded as ‘extremists.’

Costa County Sheriff’s Homeland Security Unit Officers Infiltrate Union Demonstration. When Southern California Safeway store workers went on strike in 2003–2004, a delegation of religious leaders planned a pilgrimage to the Safeway CEO’s home to deliver postcards supporting the striking workers. Sheriff’s deputies from Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Homeland Security Unit went to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), and staff directed them to a contact number on a flyer. Despite the fact that the sheriff’s department had been in contact with the pilgrimage organizers—union leaders saw the same sheriff’s deputies in plainclothes attending a demonstration at a Safeway store in San Francisco.

FBI JTTF Monitors American Indian Movement, Peace Groups, and Environmental Groups. In August 2005, the ACLU obtained the documents in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request containing information on the Colorado American Indian Movement and the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center. The files show that JTTF agents opened “domestic terrorism” investigations after they read notices on web sites announcing an antiwar protest in Colorado Springs in 2003 and a protest against Columbus Day in Denver in 2002.

Fusion Center Profiles Modern Militia Movement. The February 2009 Missouri Fusion Center report on “the modern militia movement” claimed militia members are “usually supporters” of presidential candidates Ron Paul, Chuck Baldwin and Bob Barr.

The majority of the groups and individuals targeted would likely be considered of the political left — particularly if you categorize anti-war activists in those terms. But that seems to be largely a function of the dominance of the federal government by the Republican Bush administration over most of those years. Surveillance continues under the Democratic Obama administration, with the political right targeted by Fusion Center documents like the one above, and in DHS reports on “right-wing extremism.” Muslims are still a popular target, and environmentalists remain on the government’s radar. (Anti-war activists would probably continue to draw attention if the peace movement hadn’t faded with the change of presidents.)

Vegans have been scrutinized by the fuzz, too, for reasons I can’t begin to fathom.

Basically, this emphasizes the point made time and again that police-state activities aren’t a wholly owned subsidiary of either Democrats or Republicans, and salvation isn’t found in an election that just swaps the politicians of one major party for another. Obama didn’t end Bush’s civil liberties incursions, and returning to office the GOP clowns who authored the PATRIOT Act (largely by rewarming Clinton-era proposals) won’t reverse the current administration’s violations.

The ACLU will monitor illegal domestic spying through its new Spy Files site.