Thursday, November 25, 2010

Anti-Scanner/Grope Civil Disobedience

The other day, as my class was discussing Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" a student raised the concern that Thoreau's method was not very practicable as a means of changing the law. I mentioned the possibility of refusing to go through airport scanners as a means of stopping their use. I later learned of Opt-Out Day, the day before Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving morning, I saw a report on Fox News gloating that Opt Out Day was "a bust" because travellers accept the judgement of the government, that these measures are "necessary" to "keep us safe" against (in a clip of Cong. Peter King speaking) "an enemy that's out to kill us." This AP story takes the same line.

The TSA is bragging that there were virtually no delays on Opt Out Day because the public accepts their policies. Meanwhile, traveler on their Twitter accounts blogs are indicating that this is basically a lie. There were no delays because a great many of the scanners were turned off. (See also this.) As usual, the mainstream press takes the government line, but there are a few local stories about local airports that give the same impression.

A lot of protesters are ticked off that the government did not give them the opportunity to opt out.

If this is so, the campaign of civil disobedience was a success of sorts: it provoked the TSA to back off for one day.

It was also a devastating admission on the part of the TSA.

If, as TSA chief John Pistole alleged (see "update" at the end of this article), the Opt-Out Day idea was "irresponsible" then turning off the scanners was much more so, and for all the same reasons. Imagine turning off security measures on the busiest flight day of the year, measures that are "needed" to "keep us safe," simply in order to avoid some slow-downs and some embarrassment to themselves!

It actually shows that they do not believe their own alarmist propaganda: they don't believe that, in any straightforwardly literal sense of the words, that this is necessary to keep us safe.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dear Voters: You Have Disappointed Us and Will Have to be Replaced

Charles Franklin, a prominent political scientist who works about a block up Bascom Hill from me, made a bit of a splash with a comment he made in an article by local opinionator Bill Leuders:

In my questions to Franklin, I noted that the public seemed to vote against its own interests and stated desires, for instance by electing candidates who'll drive up the deficit with fiscally reckless giveaways to the rich.

Franklin, perhaps a bit too candidly, conceded the point. "I'm not endorsing the American voter," he answered. "They're pretty damn stupid."

"Thank you, professor," I responded. "That's the answer I was looking for.

I was struck by the fact that what struck Prof. Franklin as "stupid" was not anything in Leuders' question -- not, eg., the apparent assumption that what causes deficits isn't those entitlements you have been reading about, those vast giveaways to ordinary citizens, but giveaways to the rich -- rather it was the people themselves who are stupid.

The exchange reminded me of a poem that Communist Bertolt Brecht wrote in the wake of the revolt against the East German government in 1953:
Die Lösung
Bertolt Brecht

Nach dem Aufstand des 17. Juni
Ließ der Sekretär des Schriftstellerverbands
In der Stalinallee Flugblätter verteilen
Auf denen zu lesen war, daß das Volk
Das Vertrauen der Regierung verscherzt habe
Und es nur durch verdoppelte Arbeit
Zurückerobern könne. Wäre es da
Nicht doch einfacher, die Regierung
Löste das Volk auf und
Wählte ein anderes?

The Solution
Bertolt Brecht

After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writer's Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

The English translation is from Bertolt Brecht, Poems 1913-1956, eds. John Willett and Ralph Manheim (Methuen 1976), p. 440.

Hat tip to The Monthly Review for the Brecht text.

Velma Hart Fired

You must remember Velma Hart, who confronted Obama a couple of months ago with such unpretentious dignity about how "exhausted" she was with defending him in this stagnant economy. She was worried about whether she and her family would return to the "franks and beans" period of their life.

Yesterday we learned that she has now lost her job. She had been refusing requests for interviews, but I just now saw her tell CNBC that she still supports Obama and that the economy is "improving."

The assembled talking heads seemed a little surprised at this and, unless I was imagining things, relieved. I was neither.

I would say that in a liberal democracy there are three kinds of citizens. First, there are those who don't care and don't participate. Then there are the moderates and swing voters, who have no very clear ideology and whose support for one candidate or policy or another shifts with shifting conditions (eg., in terms of the unemployment rate, the economy is not improving). Then there are the ideological voters. Their position does not change with the facts at all. Rather they use their ideologies to interpret the facts. For the most part, their positions only change with life-changing crises. I am thinking for instance of liberals who became neocons in the wake of 9/11. Another case would be those in my generation who were driven into radical positions during the Vietnam era, as a result of realizing that their own government wanted to send them to a place where they may well be violently killed -- and for no very good reason.

Come to think of it, this last group includes me.

I don't think losing your job is such a life-changing experience, especially if, as in Ms. Hart's case, you still have a family member with a job.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Airport Body Scanners

For weeks, I wasn't sure what I thought of those dandy new airport "pornocanners" but then I heard the arguments in favor of them. Mainly on their account, I decided these things should be removed and incinerated. Those arguments are so lame! For instance:

This policy was actually initiated during the Bush administration. Huh? When did Bush become the gold standard of what is just, decent, or even sane?

The alternative to the scanners is a mere back-of-the hand pat-down. Sorry, but according to this article that policy was rescinded by bureaucratic fiat last week. The alternative is now The Grope (Interesting that the photojournalist in this link had to break the law in order to get this evidence of what is actually going on.)

The policy isn't really coercive or unjust, because the alternative is merely to use some other means of transportation. It is simply a condition upon your right to get on the plane. Again, this is factually incorrect. According to the same above-linked article, if you refuse both scanner and "pat-down" you may be fined $11,000 and branded a threat to national security.

Further, even if it were factually correct, this would still be a bad argument. It would be like saying, in the event that the government subjected you to this sort of invasive procedure as a condition of walking anywhere, that you can still go by bicycle, Segue, car, etc., so this isn't coercive or unjust. The big difference between walking and flying is that, because of regulations and other coercive measures, the feds have monopoly power over access to flight. But this does not give them the moral right to do anything, in my opinion. It only gives them sheer, brute power.

But, you might be thinking, there is another difference between walking and flying: Where flying is concerned this is necessary to keep us safe. In the first place, this will not "keep you safe". These scanners will not detect explosive breast implants in women, or material packed inside the rectum (room for plenty of stuff in there!). In fact, according to a comment in this interview, the manufacturers of the scanners have admitted that their machines would not even have caught the Christmas Day underpants bomber. So forget about being "kept safe." It is a mirage. If you give up rights for that reason, you give them up in exchange for nothing.

Further, why is this "necessary"? What disaster has occurred, which these scanners are needed to prevent? Almost a year ago, a guy burned himself with a device hidden in his underpants. And, now because he burned his junk, a faceless bureaucrat can see yours. It just goes to show you, as government responds to problems, every reaction is an over-reaction.

Finally, I see one good reason to take this issue seriously. If it stays in place and becomes "the new normal," this policy could represent a significant change in the sorts of things Americans think government may legitimately do to them. If so, it may well lead to worse things in the future. If it weren't for that, I really wouldn't care about it that much.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Tough Love from the Debt Commission

Neal has a point. I've seen a lot of moaning about these recommendations from all over the political spectrum. Nancy Pelosi has said "This proposal is simply unacceptable" (of course!), and various right-wingers have denounced it as well. As a whole, it seems to me as sensible as a dictionary. Below I've listed a selection of their recommendations, all taken from here.

My favorite, other than taking the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools out behind the barn and killing it with an ax (that stuff is no dam bizniz of the feds anyhoo), is slashing our overseas military presence by one third. Why on Earth should the American taxpayer be providing a large portion of the national defense of big, strong, grown-up countries like Germany, South Korea, and Japan? Can't they tie their own shoes and wipe their own butts by now? Sheesh.

Unless we do something like what's on this list, we will soon be living illustrations of Maggie Thatcher's great aphorism, "The problem with socialism is sooner or later you run out of other people's money."

Social Security cuts:

  • Index the retirement age to longevity -- i.e., increase the retirement age to qualify for Social Security -- to age 69 by 2075.
  • Index Social Security yearly increases to a lower inflation rate, which will generally mean lower cost of living increases and less money per average recipient.
  • "Increase progressivity of benefit formula" -- i.e., reduce benefits by 2050 for middle, and, especially, higher earners, relative to current benefits.

Tax reform:

  • The co-chairs suggest capping both government expenditures and revenue at 21% of GDP eventually.
  • They suggest reducing the tax brackets to three personal brackets and one corporate rate while eliminated all credits and deductions. Without any credits or deductions (including the EITC and mortgage interest deductions), the 3 tax rates would be 8, 14 and 23 percent.
  • Eliminate the mortgage interest deduction.
  • All their proposals limit Congress to collecting taxes on income made within the United States, reducing or eliminating taxes on American expats and revenues companies earn abroad.
  • They also suggest raising the federal gas tax by 15 cents per gallon.

Medicaid/Medicare cuts

  • Force more low-income individuals into Medicaid managed care.
  • Increase Medicaid co-pays.
  • Accelerate already-planned cuts to Medicare Advantage and home health care programs.
  • Create a cap for Medicaid/Medicare growth that would force Congress and the President to increase premiums or co-pays or raise the Medicare eligibility age (among other options) if the system encounters cost overruns over the course of 5 years.

Discretionary spending cuts

  • Eliminate all earmarks.
  • Eliminate the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools.
  • Freeze federal worker wage increases through 2014; eliminate 200,000 federal jobs by 2020; and eliminate 250,000 federal non-defense contractor jobs by 2015.
  • Require the Smithsonian museums to start charging entrance fees and raise fees at the national parks.
  • Eliminate funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
  • Reduce farm subsidies by $3 billion per year.
  • Merge the Department of Commerce and the Small Business Administration and cut its budget by 10 percent.
  • Cut the State Department's overseas budget by 10 percent by 2015; reduce the proposed foreign aid budget by 10 percent in 2015; and cut voluntary contributions to the United Nations by 10 percent in 2015.
  • Eliminate the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, which provides subsidized financing and political risk insurance for U.S. companies' investments abroad.
  • Cut $900 million in fossil fuel research funds.
  • Force airlines to increase their contributions to airline security costs and allow them to increase per-ticket security fees.

Defense spending cuts:

  • Double the number of defense contractor positions scheduled for elimination from 10 percent of current staff augmentees to 20 percent.
  • Reduce procurement by 15 percent, or $20 billion.
  • Cancel or reduce various military vehicle or weapon programs now in development.
  • Reduce military forces in Europe and Asia by one-third.
  • Send all military children based in the U.S. to local schools.

The report also recommends tort reform as a way to reduce Medicare and Medicaid expenditure

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Taser Madness


The first time I heard about stun guns it was from a student of mine, a long time ago. In fact, the student is now a retired Lieutenant General of the US Army. He enthusiastically described how they could be used in hostage situations, where you wouldn't want to use a gun -- that is, the kind that fires slugs -- for fear of hitting the hostage.

I just noticed on the Wikipedia page for tasers that the original inventor was motivated by the shooting deaths of two friends. He wanted to help prevent such things in the future.

On the continuum of violence -- from least to most violent means of physical force -- tasers were originally meant to substitute for more violent methods. That is not the way they are being used by police today. Police are applying these weapons as if they were at the low end of the continuum of violence, similar to pepper spray, baton use, or striking nerve centers. Because they are in fact more violent than that, this means the introduction of these weapons has resulted in a dramatic, massive increase of police violence against the citizenry in recent years.

Among the justifications for taser use I have heard in particular cases are the following:

He was being snotty.

He was giving us trouble.

He was disrespecting the officer.

He wouldn't calm down.

He was being belligerent (ie., loud).

We warned him we would taser him.

Indeed, in the famous "don't tase me Bro" incident, the victim's apparent offense was to say "I'm not resisting" in a tone of voice too loud to suit the university police who were removing him from a lecture hall.

Isn't it obvious that none of these justify administering a devastating electric shock? Indeed, in many cases the cops seem to be using tasers as a form of summary punishment -- something that is not only illegal but unconsititutional.

We need clear rules specifying justified taser use and reining this craziness in.

There are so many videos on Youtube documenting excessive taser use that it is difficult to select one or two. The following are taken almost at random.

Here is one in which the police apparently are using a stun gun as a form of summary punishment (I like the narrator's comment on America's foreign policy at the end!):

This one is for those who doubt that tasers are a particularly violent form of physical force (warning -- graphic image):

Oh, and here's one I just found. It is so egregious that, unlike the overwhelming majority of cases, it did result in some (apparently very mild) disciplinary action against the cops involved.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Now Here is a Tasering that was Clearly Justified

This story is from the web site Smoking Gun, one of my favorites. It speaks for itself (be sure to take a look at the comments section in the above linked artilce -- it is a delight!):


11/10 UPDATE/CORRECTION: According to cops, the mouse recovered was of the computer variety (not, as we initially reported, a pint-sized mammal). Sorry for the confusion/additional repulsion.

NOVEMBER 9--A naked South Carolina man who had a computer mouse lodged in his rectum was arrested Saturday evening after he allegedly burglarized a home and later attacked officers responding to a call about the break-in.

Noah Smith, 24, slapped, kicked, and tried to bite Oconee County Sheriff’s Office deputies, who responded by using pepper spray, a Taser, and their batons to subdue the suspect, according to an incident report.

Deputies noted that Smith, pictured in the above mug shot, later told doctors that he could not recall fighting with law enforcement officers. It was in the hospital emergency room where a “physician noticed a mouse could hanging from male subjects rectum. X-rays shown part of the mouse was lodged in the male subjects rectum.” A police representative told TSG that the word "could" was a typo and should have read "cord."

That mistake contributed to initital reports that the mouse found was a rodent, not a computer peripheral.

The police report provides no further insight as to how the mouse ended up inside Smith.

Deputies noted that witnesses surmised that Smith “was most likely under the influence of mushrooms.” Smith was charged with burglary, assault, resisting arrest, and indecent exposure. He is being held without bond in the county jail.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

R and R

Here is a l
ovely version of Monteverdi's magnificent "Domine ad adjuvandum me festina" (Lord, Help Me Now) from the Vespers of 1610 (the most ambitious piece of liturgical music before Bach).

Below is a version that is far more visually stunning, set as it is in a Gothic cathedral in Lisbon. However, in this one you can't hear the instruments very well, and it's those highlights on the upper brasses that really make the piece, at least for me. Also, you might find the tempi a little draggy. The conductor's enthusiasm, however, is infectious.

Monday, November 08, 2010

More Trouble with Tasers: The BART Shooter Sentenced

Johannes Mehserle was sentenced Friday for shooting young Oscar Grant in the back as he lay face down on the ground -- to the minimum sentence. When time served taken off, he could be out in seven months.

Of course we knew there would be riots. I don't approve of people rioting when a trial does not come out their way, but in this case I agree with the rioters that the sentence was probably not just. I have one very specific reason for saying that.

The judge and the jury found reasonable doubt that Mehserle intentionally shot Grant, that his own story -- that he mistakenly drew his gun thinking it was his Taser -- may well have been true. This makes sense to me. As I have said before, the intentional homicide version of events makes no sense and does not fit the above video of the tragic event. So far, I am with the judge and not with the rioters, who think Mehserle shot Grant for no reason other than that he was black.

Where the judge goes wrong is in holding that this is the only culpable mistake that Mehserle made. As it says in the above story, the judge maintains that "Mehserle would have been justified in using the Taser because Grant was resisting the attempts to handcuff him."

I cannot think of a scenario that is consistent with the images in the above video that would justify tasering. What appears to be happening is that Grant is extending an uncuffed arm straight behind him, while lying face down, and not moving that arm close enough to the other to permit its being cuffed. Look, whatever is going on there, would it justify punching Grant? Kicking him? Hitting him with a board? Of course not. Then why on Earth would it justify administering a sever electric shock?

Tasering someone is a violent act. One reason we have rules about when use of violence is reasonable and when it is not is that it has bad unforeseen consequences. People have died of heart attacks induced by tasers, or been injured by the fall tasering typically causes. One of the many bad things that can happen when a cop reaches for his/her taser is that they might mistakenly draw their gun and shoot someone.

I think Mehserle was wrong to reach for his taser in the first place. This is another reason, in addition to the one recognized by the judge, why he was criminally responsible for Grant's death, and I think it would have justified a heavier sentence than he got.

Friday, November 05, 2010

What Obama Doesn't Get

Wow. This is one of the strangest things I've heard this man say yet. Here he is explaining, in his upcoming 60 Minutes interview, how Tuesday's election-day catastrophe was partly his fault. He thinks that, just as he has the power to make legislation, he has a power to "bring people together" and get them to approve of it. The only reason he did not achieve this result was that he "forgot" to do it. He was just so busy! Still, he takes full responsibility for being so busy and forgetful.

I think there is more going on here than egregiously maladroit spin-doctoring. There's that, yes, but there is also an attitude that a lot of liberals have, including a lot of classical liberals (which is what at I used to be, until I finally gave up on the idea of good government). It's the notion that the great problems of politics are really technical problems, solvable by experts. All people of good will agree on what the goals are. Once the technical fix that will get us there has been figured out, you will be on board with it unless a) it hasn't been explained to you, b) you are too ignorant or stupid to understand the explanation, or c) you are too selfish and venal to care about getting there in the first place.

His remarks over the last two days also suggest another notion, which leads to the same conclusion: Americans are non-ideological and only care about how the system affects them. If they are well-off, they vote for incumbents. If they are badly off, they get mad and throw them out. In other words, precisely because they are selfish and venal, but not completely stupid, if you convince them that your policy will be good for them eventually, they won't worry their little heads about abstract notions like Liberty and Power, and they won't be bothered by a few nuts waving placards about the Constitution.

Both ideas are simply wrong. There are differences between people -- differences of principle -- that often make it impossible to "bring them together" with a technical fix. It is true that Americans are not very ideological, but they do tend to believe that the best society is one that offers freedom. They want the opportunity to improve their own lives, and if they make the wrong choices or have bad luck, well such is the price of freedom.

Obama on the other hand thinks the best society is a fair one, and fairness in this sense is a structural feature of the system that can only be brought about by government coercion.

There is a trade-off between freedom and fairness: you can only get more of one by giving up some of the other.

Obama is convinced that it is fair to force the young and healthy to buy lavish insurance policies they don't need, in order to pay for the care of the old and infirm. To a great many Americans, however, it makes no sense for the government to abridge their liberty by forcing them to buy health insurance they may not want, and another hundred or so speeches about it (no, he didn't "forget" to do that) will not convince them otherwise.

Speeches can change people's opinions about the facts, but they cannot change their principles. That is why, the more speeches he gives about it, the worse it gets.

Update: Here is Greg Gutfeld's satire on this sort of reaction to the elections:

Thursday, November 04, 2010

The Great Political Earthquake of 2010

.I think people don't realize how shockingly huge Tuesday's political earthquake was. Partly, this is because the national media are not reporting local election results very much. I suppose one reason is that vote-counting seems to be slower in these micro-elections.

As you may know, here in Wisconsin, a Tea Party candidate was elected governor on Tuesday. The previous occupant of the office was a Democrat. And another Tea Party candidate replaced my favorite liberal in the Senate, eighteen-year veteran Russ Feingold.

Here's some stuff you may not know. According to yesterday's Wisconsin State Journal (incredibly, today's WSJ does not contain a follow-up), given the tallies so far, the State Assembly will apparently flip from Democratic majority to Republican majority, and the State Senate will do likewise. More shockingly, if such is possible, the majority leaders of both houses -- that's right both houses -- were voted out of office and replaced with Republicans.

Not only has the government shifted in the Democrat-to-Republican direction but, more important, the Republican party has veered sharply in the direction of smaller-government, pro-market ideas.

Nothing like this has happened in my lifetime (and I was born right after WW II, just as soon as my father could return from the Philippines, marry my mother, and get her pregnant).

Why has it happened?

As to Feingold, one thing is that he made the tactical mistakes of campaigning proudly on "health care," and of welcoming Obama here to campaign for him. But these errors, at worst, merely converted a defeat into and decisive defeat (by 5%). And of course this is not just about him.

Wisconsin has been ruled by Democrats for some years, and they have spent their way into some serious fiscal problems. They haven't ruled as long as they have in California or New York, but then our problems are not as serious as theirs, yet. Conditions here are a lot like those of the federal government, except that we can't print money and must make ends meet somehow.

The voters of Wisconsin, who are not utterly and completely irrational, are trying to do something -- as to whether it will make a difference, we can only wait and see -- to rectify the situation.

Just now, on TV, I heard another progressive commentator saying "Oh, the voters are just unhappy because the economy isn't mending very fast. This doesn't mean anything. Ignore the man behind the curtain. We are the Great and Powerful Oz!"

No, you're not.

Update: A day later, I see the true extent of the earthquake is beginning to be reported. According to this article, the Republicans have not controlled this many state legislatures since 1928. In Minnesota, they captured the Senate for the first time in the state's history[later: but see the comments section] ; in Alabama, for the first time since Reconstruction.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Our Well-Informed Electorate

Can you distinguish between a Keynesian and a Kenyan? Then you know more than these pitiable and dangerous fools, who showed up a the "Rally for Sanity" to support Obama, but obviously haven't taken the trouble to do any serious thinking about the great issues of the day. I say they are "dangerous" because their vote counts just as much as yours does.

Think about that!