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RT America appearance: Your license plate is being tracked

I appeared today on RT America based on the following post at Reason’s Hit & Run Blog:

DEA Wants to Track Your License Plate, and You May Already Be Tagged!
I distinctly remember, when I was a kid, watching an episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, during which Marlin Perkins lounged safely in a camp chair, while Jim Fowler put a lion in a headlock, bit a hole in the cat’s ear, and then attached a tag for easy tracking. Well, it went something like that, anyway. It’s been a long time. Too bad Fowler didn’t work for the DEA, or even a biggish police department. He could have saved himself a little sweat and blood by tracking Americans instead of animals, by the simple expedient of setting cameras by the side of the road to capture license plates as they speed by. …

I’m a Reason-able Guy

Horrible pun, I know, but I couldn’t resist. Anyway, I’ve been actively writing for Reason.com, starting almost as soon as I figuratively punched my time card. I have a couple of small pieces turned in for an upcoming issue of the print magazine, and the big project for which I was hired is … coming soon! Really, it’s coming along nicely and I think it will be well-appreciated.

I wrote an online column this past week on the TSA — an especially wise move, since I’m flying next weekend. If you see me limping around, it’s because I rated special attention at the airport security checkpoint. If you’re as big a fan of the airborne (and, increasingly, bus-borne, train-borne and even road-borne) security state, you’ll want to take a peek.

The Terrible Truth About the TSA: It’s a failure at everything it does
We don’t all all agree on whether the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has any business groping toddlers and destroying expensive medical equipment in the pursuit of its appointed mission of keeping travelers safe from scary terrorists. Quotable security expert Bruce Schneier calls it all pointless and oppressive “security theater” intended to make the government look responsive, while Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) describes intrusive measures as “very important” and pushes for even stronger stuff. But necessary evil or not, it’s increasingly apparent that the TSA is spectacularly inefficient and inept at everything it tries to do. (see more)

Of course, I’ve also been blogging for Reason. I covered Tombstone’s battle with the feds over permission to rebuild its waterlines yesterday, and the growing regulatory burden that’s choking innovation out of charter schools the day before. The full list of my contributions to Reason can be found on my staff page here.

For those who are curious … It’s a great place to work.

The now-inescapable Tooch

Oh sure, you thought you could keep your doses of disloyal opposition down to a tolerable level — no OD for you! But no such luck. You see, I’m now employed by Reason.com, the online incarnation of Reason magazine. That’s right, that’s me right there. Try to avoid me, now!

The project for which I’ve been hired will, I believe be much appreciated by you all as a further enhancement to an already excellent pro-liberty publication, and a useful service to the freedom movement. It’s not exactly hush-hush, but we’re not advertising yet, either. So I’ll keep my lips sealed until the appropriate moment, when I have something very interesting to show.

All you need is a subservient population and a lot of cash

A friend of mine of East Coast extraction recently returned from a trip to Boston. He was visiting relations there who are, as is he, well-educated, successful, professionals. Apparently, dinner-table conversation turned to Obamacare (PPACA, if you insist), and his relatives all defended Massachusetts’s health-care “reform” and the controversial federal law which is largely derived therefrom.

“They’re all Democrats,” he told me. “They can’t imagine being anything else. In Massachusetts, almost everybody is a Democrat.”

Furthermore, my friend, a surgeon, pointed out the high concentration of hospitals and medical-research facilities in and around Boston, the high-tech sector, and the long-established concentration of wealth.

“This sort of thing (government-dominated, centralized, mandated health care) can work there. But out here, we don’t have all of that money, and we don’t have the concentration of medical facilities. Most important, people — most people — moved here for a reason. They want to be left alone. They don’t want the government telling them what to do. I didn’t really realize that until I moved here. You can’t impose a plan like this on the people who live out here.”

By the way, wealth plays a major role, so long as it lasts, that is. The Massachusetts legislation was sold as a way to reduce health care costs, but the Beacon Hill Institute points out that “[t]he law did not bring about a promised reduction in health care expenditures. Rather, it permitted the state legislature and governor to expand health insurance coverage to almost all residents, while imposing more than $8 billion in new health care costs to the federal government and on state residents and businesses.” The Cato Institute agrees, finding (PDF) “There are reasons to be concerned about the rapidly growing expense of this program, which even advocates such as Gruber (2009) admit were put aside in the quest for universal coverage.” Driving health care costs through the ceiling isn’t an option in a country that is, simply, broke.

My friend, not surprisingly, is no longer a Democrat. He considers himself an independent, and is desperately looking for an excuse to vote Republican this year — an excuse the GOP seems dead-set on denying socially tolerant, free-market-oriented independents with its ongoing efforts to define itself as the party of homicidal religious fanatics.

Yes, government-mandated, centrally controlled health care can “work,” for a time, in a region of subservient forelock-tuggers, and where deep pockets can be picked to fund the whim of the moment. But, even there, funds eventually run out. And, elsewhere, neither people nor finances are likely to cooperate.

Genetics may make political arguments unwinnable

If you and I entertain such inherently different preferences about the sort of society in which we want to live that common ground is limited, can expansive, top-down policy-making ever be anything more than an in-your-face power play? If political arguments are doomed to be unpersuasive to much of the opposition, no matter how well-stated, because of vast and largely unmovable differences in values and assumptions, isn’t keeping state interference in people’s lives to a minimum a matter not just of political preference, but the only course for avoiding a permanent state of low-level civil war?

I’ve written before about Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt‘s interesting research into the moral foundations of ideology and the different values and assumptions that separate liberals, conservatives and libertarians. These differences hold strong implications for the likely outcome of policy debates, since they make it clear that various factions often speak past each other, since they’re working from varying moral emphases and different concepts of good and bad when it comes to both means and ends — even the language they use can be confusing, since meanings of words vary among the factions.

Now Haidt comes forward with new information suggesting that conversation among ideological opponents can be even more difficult than previously thought. In an article (not yet online), “Born This Way?”, in the latest issue of Reason, Haidt writes of evidence that our ideology is, partially, determined by genetic factors that govern our risk aversion and our openness to new experiences. These innate traits then nudge us along paths in life that tend to reinforce our inherent inclinations.

Haidt is careful to emphasize that we’re not hard-wired into our political beliefs. He’s talking about a nudge that is likely to be self-reinforcing rather than genetically predetermined belief systems.

Genetics explains between one-third and one-half of the variability among people in their political attitudes. Being raised in a liberal or conservative household accounts for much less.

Our genetic traits lead us to respond to situations, pick careers, choose neighborhoods and associate with people in ways that reinforce our tendencies. Haidt points out that society has changed in recent years in ways that make it increasingly easy to surround ourselves with the familiar and like-minded and disassociate from people and situations that would pull us in a different direction.

Technology and changing residential patterns have allowed each of us to isolate ourselves within cocoons of likeminded individuals. In 1976, only 27 percent of Americans lived in “landslide” counties — counties that voted either Democratic or Republican by a margin of 20 percentage points or more. But the number has risen steadily; in 2008, 48 percent of Americans lived in a landslide county.

This same point about Americans self-sorting ourselves along ideological lines was made several years in The Big Sort by Bill Bishop and Robert G. Cushing. Now, Haidt tells us that we’re actually reinforcing genetic traits.

I don’t see anything in this research that’s guaranteed to make liberals, conservatives and libertarians like each other more, or find each other more sympathetic. But I do see lessons here regarding the limits of debate and the wisdom of letting people live their own lives with minimal interference. If we don’t just choose to embrace vastly different beliefs, but we entertain beliefs toward which we’re nudged by our internal source codes, it strikes me as both arrogant and cruel to impose policies on one another that must always be perceived by our opponents as alien and incomprehensible.

Democracy doesn’t change this dynamic, since democratic outcomes may just represent differences in genetic distributions across various populations, with the same impossibility of converting opponents to the majority’s way of thinking.

Yes, we need to be better about trying to understand each other, but I think it’s even more important to make allowances for each other’s preferences. The emphasis should be less on winning overall policy battles than on making as much space as possible for people to live according to their own beliefs — beliefs, it seems, that have their roots at the genetic level.

The super-sneaky trick that defeats TSA’s nude scanners

Believe it or not, the secret to bypassing the new airport “security” scanners is to  … wait for it! … hang contraband off your side. That’s because, says blogger/engineer Jonathan Corbett, the scanners display the human body as light, ghost images against a black background, and they display metallic objects as black. So if something metallic is hanging off your side, it literally disappears into the background. He tested his theory at two airports and went through the TSA checkpoint without a hitch each time.

Britain’s Daily Mail points out that Corbett’s revelation about the scanners’ little flaw “comes just weeks after Europe banned the ‘airport strip-searches’ over fears the X-ray technology could cause cancer.”

Live and learn

You’ll notice that Disloyal Opposition looks a tad different today. Well … Many years ago, I was warned to back up my files before screwing around with anything computer-related. This morning, I noticed that WordPress had a number of pending updates sitting in the queue, waiting my approval. I wanted to get on with my current project with minimal delay, so approve I did. Without backing up files.

It seems that the updated version of my WordPress theme conflicts with … something. I don’t know what, and I’m not so in love with the theme that I care to troubleshoot and dig through code. And, since I didn’t backup my files, I can’t roll back to the old version.

So I chose a new theme that includes the features I want and doesn’t conflict with … something. I hope you like the new look.

How Arizona’s land-use debates make my novel so damned relevant

A major conceit of my novel, High Desert Barbecue, (now available as a DRM-free ebook from the Google ebookstore that’s readable on your Nook, Kobo, iPad and pretty much anything but a Kindle or an Etch-a-Sketch) is the desire of a cabal of radical environmentalists to drive humans off of western lands so that they can return to some natural and, presumably, idyllic state. What some readers may not understand is that I really didn’t stretch the truth much. Tug on it a bit? Sure. But not a lot of stretching.

Last week, the current and former sheriffs in Coconino County (where Flagstaff is located) came out, a day late and a dollar short, against a federal plan, driven by groups like the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, that “eliminates 66 percent of areas where car campers and travel trailers could spend the night, reducing it from a majority of the forest to an area a little more than double the size of the Kachina Peaks Wilderness area,” in the words of the Arizona Daily Sun. The scheme also closes many forest roads to vehicular use at any time.

The Center for Biological Diversity says on its Website:

[W]e believe the highest and best use of public lands is to provide safe harbor for species by protecting the ecological systems upon which they and we ultimately depend. To this end, our advocacy directly confronts land uses that harm species and ecosystems — from off-road vehicle use and livestock grazing to industrial logging and uranium and fossil fuel extraction — while advancing precedent-setting litigation, policies, and strategic collaborations to usher in a hopeful new era of biodiversity conservation for our public lands system. We work toward a future in which species and ecosystems are finally afforded primacy among public lands priorities.

No, the Center is not led by by a fellow named Rupert Greenfield. Well, not officially.

Yes, some of the sandals-and-patchouli set really do want to see human presence swept out of their wind-swept shrine. And they are able to play on cultural divisions to get their way.

In the West, outdoor use is largely divided between motors and sweat. You have your ATV riders, campers and shooters relying on vehicles to get where they want to go in the forests and deserts, and you have your trail runners, backpackers and mountain bikers depending more on their own muscles. Some people like to cast this as a moral or spiritual divide, but it really is cultural. The sweat set is largely urban/suburban and white collar, and sees machines as something to escape, and the motorheads are primarily small-town/rural and blue-collar, and see machines as things that turn back-breaking labor into mere hard work. Both sides tend to ignore the considerable overlap between their constituents while sneering at each other. The motorheads are hit hard by road closures, while the sweat set see themselves as unaffected — or even benefited — by harder access to the outdoors.

Never mind that some of the sweat set are going to be mighty unhappy when they discover some of their favorite climbable rock-faces and unofficial trails are now effectively of-limits — they’re still either indifferent to the road-closures or actively supporting them.

For the record, I’m a backpacker, trail-runner and mountain-biker — well-ensconced in the sweat-set — but I really don’t like being pushed out of the forests and deserts by a bunch of … well … tree-fuckers (read my book if you don’t get that reference!).

Why I want to paint a huge, raised middle finger on my roof

From Digital Journal, a report on the federal government’s plan to put eyes in the sky. Thirty thousand of them, that is.

A bill passed last week allocating more than $63 billion to the Federal Aviation Administration would increase the existence of drones in civilian airspace across America and is expected to be signed into law by President Barack Obama. …

If the new bill becomes law, up to 30,000 drones could by flying in U.S. airspace by decade’s end. The Senate passed the bill by a 75-20 margin. Civil liberties groups have spoken out on the measure, stating the new legislation offers no restrictions on drone surveillance operations by police and federal agencies and could put us on track toward a “surveillance society.”

What I’ll add is that we’re already a surveillance society, if not quite as Panopticon-ish as the UK. The feds don’t need flying spy robots to be all surveillance-y when they have closed-circuit TV cameras scattered hither and yon, and your neighbors are happily dropping a dime (or rollover minutes) on one another for the greater glory of state security.

Between the devil and the deep blue Santorum

The list of presidential candidates over whom I’d prefer Barack Obama is a short one, indeed. I’ll admit that I never had high expectations for old Barry — honestly, how could anybody? In 2008, when he was running for the presidency for the first time, he was a TV-ready politico-academic dilettante with an obvious social-democratic view of the ideal relationship between individuals and the state — a good-looking guy who wanted to turn the U.S. into Holland, but was ill-equipped to do so. (But he’s well on his way to turning it into Greece! Bring on the retsina!)

But, at least, I hoped, he could nudge the U.S. away from its Bush-driven role as the bombs-and-waterboarding capital of the world, right? Maybe a little more peace and a little less security state. That would be a good thing.

Now, of course, we’re reading headlines about the widespread popularity of President Obama’s scheme for using drones to assassinate American citizens living abroad who have been accused (but not convicted) of terrorist ties.

Yeah. So much for that plan (I say as I nervously watch the sky).

But, even so, Obama remains … less horrendous than some people who want to be president. I’m looking at you, Rick Santorum, you liberty-hating, authoritarian freak. I mean, really … This gay-baiting, collectivist control-freak is now the leading contender (for the next five minutes) among the Republican faithful?

Well, sure. When campaigning against an incumbent president who favors an expanded role for the state in people’s lives, why not go with a guy who favors an expanded role for the state in people’s lives, but in a different way.

That’s choice, American-style!