Thursday, August 30, 2007

I hope this doesn't become one of those big election issues

Just a real, real good read at Reason on what to do about post-Katrina New Orleans.

The Democratic debate over the future of New Orleans somehow passed over the instructive example of Valmeyer, Ill. In 1993, the town of 900 was swamped, not for the first time, by a rain-swollen Mississippi River. It hasn't been swamped since, because it's not there anymore. Rather than remain in a vulnerable spot, the residents voted to relocate their village to a bluff 400 feet above the river.

But no one wants to suggest similar discretion in Louisiana.

New Orleans, like Valmeyer, had long been a natural disaster waiting to happen. Most of the city lies below sea level, surrounded by water on three sides, and it's sinking. On top of that, it's steadily grown more exposed to hurricanes, thanks to the loss of coastal wetlands that once served as a buffer. It's a bathtub waiting to be filled.

As one scientist said after Katrina, "A city should never have been built there in the first place." Now that we have a chance to correct the mistake, why repeat it?

Theoretically, it's possible to keep New Orleans dry. All you have to do is surround it with levees designed to withstand a Category 5 hurricane. That's what Hillary Clinton urges.

The cost of the levee system envisioned by Sen. Clinton is tabbed at $40 billion. Restoring other infrastructure would increase the cost. The question is whether that's the best use of our resources. For $40 billion, you could give more than $61,000 to every Louisianan displaced by Katrina -- nearly a quarter of a million dollars for a family of four.

Here's the question that ought to be considered: Would those people prefer that the money be spent shoring up dikes around a natural lake? Or would they rather get the money themselves and decide whether to stay or migrate to less soggy terrain?

Maybe it's just me, but I'd take the money.

Holy Sikh!

Airport Scrutiny of Headgear Raises Bias Claims From Sikhs.

I know "civil rights" groups will complain, but what's the difference between a pat down of someone's pockets and a pat down of their head gear? Isn't it a good idea that airport security is allowed to check head gear? Does anyone really want to say it would be a better rule that airport security was not allowed to check head gear?

I understand the concerns and complaints, but aren't these just questions about security procedures and discretion in searches in general, and not really about this common sense policy?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Hitler and Stalin liked centralized decision making ... do you?

Here's a real, real, real good example of what we don't need the state government doing: Connecticut Senator Thomas Gaffey State will push for legislation that would require public schools to wait until after Labor Day to start classes.

This is a good test case because most of us don't have a vested interest in school start times. Most of us don't care. (This, as opposed to sex education or soda machines or bake sales, where people want the government- any government- to come down on their side.) I've made the point on this blog, time and time again, that these are the sorts of issues that should be left up to local school boards and parents. Why do we need a state law telling schools when they have to stop and start- shouldn't school schedules reflect the will of the people living in the town who actually have children that attend the schools?

Once again, this is the same logic I've used when it comes to state soda and junk food bans- Let these issues be decided locally. Localism gives people more freedom and more of a voice in these sorts of decisions - And isn't democracy a good thing?

I think one of the worst aspects of the twentieth century has been the way in which the authoritarian and centralizing tendencies of both fascism and communism have been adopted by the free world. Certainly uniformity is needed in regards to laws about, say, business for instance, but that's because businesses interact across both local and state lines. Education has no such problems, so why not let decisions about education policy remain in as close to the hands of the people as possible?

I know I'm all over the place here, but that's sort of the point. The policy itself is unimportant - the real question is where the power to make these decisions should lie in the first place.

Watch Red Eye

I've been meaning to take the time to give a shout out to my new favorite show, Red Eye with Greg Gutfeld. It airs week nights on Fox News at 2:00 AM, but I've made a habit of DVR'ing it and watching it as part of my morning routine. It's pretty much just off the wall, and, in my mind, is sort of a libertarian/conservative answer to the Daily Show. But whereas the Daily Show is scripted and structured, Red Eye takes the form of a round table discussion, with host Greg Gutfeld posing questions about both wacky and serious stories to regular Bill Schultz and a variety of Fox news casters, bloggers, authors, and comedians. The result is something that seems homey to the the internet generation- a mix of politically incorrect jokes, attempted jokes that fall flat, and actual flashes of insight.

It's juvenile- crass at times- yet funny if you enjoy jokes about sex dungeons, children, and unicorns. I've been loving Red Eye, because I like talk shows and I like news shows, but just can't stand the moralizing of a Bill O'Reilly or the just plain smarmyness of all of the morning shows. Whereas the Daily Show is safe, Red Eye is not- I'm still waiting for someone to have a Don Imus moment and say something that arouses some groups ire. I just can't imagine Jon Stewart answering e-mailers on the air, telling an e-mailer "to meet me in Bryant Park at 3:00 AM. I'll be wearing the pants with the hole in the back."

Socialism, Still Alive and Well

At least in the mind of Barbara Ehrenreich. Her analysis of the subprime mortgage meltdown is brilliant, in a Karl Marx meets Homer Simpson kind of way.

In fact, easy credit became the American substitute for decent wages. Once you worked for your money, but now you were supposed to pay for it. Once you could count on earning enough to save for a home. Now you'll never earn that much, but, as the lenders were saying--heh, heh--do we have a mortgage for you!

Pay day loans, rent-to-buy furniture and exorbitant credit card interest rates for the poor were just the beginning. In its May 21 cover story on " The Poverty Business," Business Week documented the stampede, in just the last few years, to lend money to the people who could least afford to pay the interest: Buy your dream home! Refinance your house! Take on a car loan even if your credit rating sucks! Financiamos a Todos! Somehow, no one bothered to figure out where the poor were going to get the money to pay for all the money they were being offered.

Global capitalism will survive the current credit crisis; already, the government has rushed in to soothe the feverish markets. But in the long term, a system that depends on extracting every last cent from the poor cannot hope for a healthy prognosis.

A system that depends on extracting every last cent from the poor? Wasn't this over-extension of credit the problem? Haven't all the lenders that looked to the poor gone under? Does Barbara Ehrenreich understand how .... anything works?


The New York Times seems surprised by this: Shorter Waits For Botox Than Examination of Moles.

Patients seeking an appointment with a dermatologist to ask about a potentially cancerous mole have to wait substantially longer than those seeking Botox for wrinkles, says a study published online today by The Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Researchers reported that dermatologists in 12 cities offered a typical wait of eight days for a cosmetic patient wanting Botox to smooth wrinkles, compared to a typical wait of 26 days for a patient requesting evaluation of a changing mole, a possible indicator of skin cancer.

Of, course, as they explain,

Other dermatologists said financial incentives to perform cosmetic treatments coupled with bureaucratic obstacles in obtaining insurance reimbursement for medical treatments might also have a role in the varying wait times.

Dr. Michael J. Franzblau, a dermatologist in San Francisco, said doctors typically charged $400 to $600 for a Botox antiwrinkle treatment, for which patients pay upfront because insurance does not cover it.

Meanwhile, doctors have to wait for health insurance to reimburse them for mole examinations, for which they receive an average of $50 to $75, Dr. Franzblau said.

Is this really all that surprising or newsworthy? And isn't this comparing apples and oranges? Aren't vanity treatments in a different category than medical care? What's interesting is that no one ever looks to vanity treatments as a model for the rest of our health care system. Less regulation, no third-payer issues, and happy customers. Hmmmmmmm.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Michael Moore Says What?

Michael Cannon on the Cato blog about Cancer and Health Care.

Even though American men are more likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer than their counterparts in other countries, we are less likely to die from the disease. Less than one out of five American men with prostate cancer will die from it, but 57 percent of British men and nearly half of French and German men will. Even in Canada, a quarter of men diagnosed with prostate cancer, die from the disease.

Similar results can be found for other forms of cancer. For instance, just 30 percent of U.S. citizens diagnosed with colon cancer die from it, compared to fully 74 percent in Britain, 62 percent in New Zealand, 58 percent in France, 57 percent in Germany, 53 percent in Australia, and 36 percent in Canada. Similarly, less than 25 percent of U.S. women die from breast cancer, but 46 percent of British women, 35 percent of French women, 31 percent of German women, 28 percent of Canadian women, 28 percent of Australian women, and 46 percent of women from New Zealand die from it.

Even when there is a desire to provide treatment, national health care systems often lack the resources to provide it. In Britain, for example, roughly 40 percent of cancer patients never get to see an oncology specialist. Delays in receiving treatment under Britain’s national health service are often so long that nearly 20 percent of colon cancer cases considered treatable when first diagnosed are incurable by the time treatment is finally offered.

Not that this is in anyway the final word on health care, but it's worth mentioning the positive aspects of the American system.

Hands Off Our Bellies!

Front of the Hartford Courant today: Connecticut less fat than the rest of the nation, but we should still be worrying. And by worrying, they mean spending even more taxpayer money. Can someone tell me, why, why, why this needs to be a "public" health issue. For the life of me I don't think I'll ever understand how the same liberals who want government out of the bedroom and out of the womb want to harass me and my future kids about habits in the kitchen and the exercise room.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Costs of Cruelty

From ESPN, Dogs seized in Vick investigation face deadline, could be euthanized.

Am I the only one wondering where the Dog Whisperer is ? This seems like the sort of thing Cesar Millan lives for- rehabilitating violent and aggressive dogs. It'd be nice ... poor, poor dogs.

In all seriousness though, this is why animal rights activists are just plain lazy, scummy, worthless bastards. They can find the time to protest circuses and stage other PR stunts, but they can't take the time to save abandoned pets or help abused and neglected animals that are going to be put to death? I call bullshit on all of them.

Is that my blood boiling, or is that the oil for my deep-fried oreos?

What makes me more sick than a day at the fair? News like this New York Times story: Yes, Deep-Fried Oreos, But Not In Trans-Fat. Yes, the great Indiana state fair has banned the use of trans-fats in the fryers of the food concessionaires.

Along the steamy thoroughfare here, where only sensitive palates can distinguish among the various cuts of potato (curly fries, ribbon fries and the old standby, French), fairgoers seemed pleased with the switch. The food tasted the same, they said happily. And if this meant they could indulge without guilt or have one more helping, so much the better.

This is all just insanity - first off, as I believe some health nuts have feared, the focus on trans fats may give people the idea that "trans-fat free" means a healthy ticket to indulgence-ville, when it means nothing of the sort. And more importantly, we're talking about A STATE FAIR! You know, the sort of place you go once a year, usually for the purpose of eating yourself sick. If any place in the world shouldn't be worried about trans fats, it's a fair. It's a sad, sad world we're coming to.

Just wait until they take the candy out of candy apples and cotton candy and I'm arrested for hosting an illegal fair with trans fats in my back yard. Then we'll see who's crazy.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Defensive War?

This is another post that's been kicking around for a few weeks - It sort of came up while I was reading this Brian Doherty column on the resistance of some libertarians to anti-war Republican Ron Paul. In particular, I was struck by this passage:

Barnett is eager to dissociate libertarianism writ large from Paul's anti-Iraq War stance, claiming that many libertarians are concerned that Americans may get the misleading impression that all libertarians oppose the Iraq war—as Ron Paul does—and even that libertarianism itself dictates opposition to this war. It would be a shame, he suggests, if this misinterpretation inhibited a wider acceptance of the libertarian principles that would promote the general welfare of the American people.

This is doubly curious. First, because opposition to non-defensive war traditionally is a core libertarian principle (to begin with, since it inherently involves mass murder and property destruction aimed at people who have not harmed the people imposing the harm) and is, in fact, the position of the vast majority of self-identified libertarians. Second, why would one worry that libertarianism can be damaged by an association with an idea that is in fact immensely popular? And, to boot, a popular position in which Paul has unique credibility for being right, and right from the beginning, unlike pretty much every other candidate.

First, when it comes to Ron Paul, I think I feel the same way Randy Barnett does. Additionally, I just think much of his support comes from the fact that he is the Republican anti-war candidate. Turn his bring the troops home mantra into a Hilary Clinton-esque warning about leaving Iraq too quickly and I think much of Paul's support would wither away. As an anti-war Republican he's a curiosity, but in most people's minds he's not a serious candidate. And as a non-serious candidate I just see no reason to get excited about someone whom I disagree with on the war, on foreign policy in general, on immigration, and on abortion.

But let's get back to the war question. Doherty invokes opposition to non-defensive war as a libertarian principle, but I mean, in reality, isn't most of the world opposed to non-defensive war at this point. Hasn't that sort of been a global consensus since World War I? (Didn't Hitler justify German action in World War II as a defensive necessity?) Haven't the wars of the past 60 some odd years been much more subtle than simply defensive or non-defensive? And finally, isn't the question of what constitutes a defensive war really just part of the same debate that's been going on since the start of the war in Iraq about when military action is and is not justified?

I think Doherty, and everyone else who's been opposed to the war in Iraq since the beginning would like to be able to cloak their opposition in a neat moral package, but as I've blogged about before, I just don't think military action or foreign policy is that simple. It's complicated because international affairs are complicated- hundreds of nations interacting with each other with no body to set or enforce rules of conduct in the interactions between those nations.

Allow me to throw out a variety of different locations- Pearl Harbor, Auschwitz, Darfur, Kurdistan. When would the libertarian notion of "defensive war" have permitted American entry into World War II? Was the attack on Pearl Harbor necessary to bring us in? If we were never attacked, would that have made our entry non-defensive? And what if there was no Pearl Harbor, no war with Britain, and Nazi rule over Europe- If we declared war against Nazi Germany to stop the Holocaust would that be a non-defensive war? Yes, these examples are extreme, but I'm not the one who's chosen to use such stark moral terms.

This is not to say that military intervention in response to the suffering of others is always necessary or even always acceptable, just that it is a more complicated question. Additionally, the question of when your national interests are sufficiently threatened enough to justify military action is also a subjective question. Moral opposition to the war in Iraq is just fine, but you have to recognize that this was has been justified by the Bush administration both as a defensive war and as a war to free other people. This means that moral opposition to the war in Iraq (other than opposition to all war) is either grounded in practical concerns (the war is going to fail and kill a lot of innocent people) or in the outright distrust of the government's motives in going to war.

When it comes to Iraq, a very strong case can be made that the government has been incompetent in it's handling of the affair from the very beginning. And government incompetence is a very good reason not to go to war or to be wary of going to war in the first place. But incompetence doesn't mean that the real reasons for going to war was oil, imperialism or some other anti-war slogan. The point of all of this is that reasonable people can disagree as to the question of the Bush administration's real motivations in going to war in Iraq. The United States is not Nazi Germany. We all have our gut feelings about the government's motivations, but these gut feelings don't make moral absolutes.

This whole notion of only fighting defensive wars is not so much a moral position as it is a roundabout way of applying a libertarian and a moral simplicity to complicated foreign policy issues.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Yes, Yes, Yes, The War On Drugs Kills People

Check out this really, really good Volokh Conspiracy post from Ilya Somin, linking to this Washington Post story on the conflict in Afghanistan between fighting the War on Drugs and fighting the War On Terror. The problem is, since 2001, the Taliban have supported poppy production as a means of financing themselves through the worldwide opium black market. Meanwhile, we have supported a program of poppy eradication as part of the international War on Drugs. With the opium trade being one of the few ways for Afghani's to rise out of abject poverty, is it any surprise that our drug policy in Afghanistan has actually lent greater support to the Taliban.

Somin asks one really good question which I'll post here:

Even if you disagree with me on the overall desirability of the War on Drugs, is fighting the Afghan drug trade really more important than fighting the War on Terror? If one gets in the way of the other, should we not sacrifice the campaign against Afghan poppies rather than the campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda?

I'll take fighting terrorism, thank you very much.

This Is What I Mean About The Problems Of Campaign Finance Reform

Fred Thompson, undeclared Republican candidate for president, faces an electoral complaint in regards to his fund raising activities. A liberal blogger has filed the complaint, claiming that Thompson has raised more money than necessary in his exploration of a presidential run.

Now if you've had trouble seeing what's wrong with our draconian, speech suppressing restrictions on campaigning, this story should open your eyes a bit. Forget this "exploring" business for a minute, whatever that means. What's to stop anyone from giving potential candidates extremely large personal gifts prior to an announcement of a run for public office? And how is anyone supposed to know how much money is necessary to fund a "testing the waters" run?

As I've said before, time and again, the problem isn't money in politics, the real problem we have is politics in our money. I hope Fred Thompson drags this out as long as possible before actually declaring his intentions.

This Is What Passes For A Cohesive Argument Nowadays?

I've been spending my free time preparing for my upcoming fantasy football draft than blogging, but this stupid op-ed piece in USA Today demanded a response.

The piece argues against the privatization of public drinking water systems and against privatization in general, which is all good and dandy. Some libertarians may argue that the government shouldn't own the roads, the waterways, or our utilities, but I'm not one of those libertarians. And regardless, the trend toward privatization is based not on selling off government owned resources, but on auctioning off the management of these resources to for-profit companies. And therefore, any argument about the positives or negatives of privatization should be based on efficiency, costs, and quality.

Rather than relying on anything like, say, data or statistics, the piece focuses on the water privatization experiences of Stockton, California, which has apparently been a disaster. So score one point for public utilities, right? The piece then ends with this bit of brilliance.

Even so, whenever a bridge falls, a levee breaks or a steam pipe bursts, we invariably hear renewed calls to privatize. Let Stockton's experience testify that privatization is not the solution.

Instead, what is required is a new commitment by citizens and government to rebuild our infrastructure so that our water and other essential services remain in the public domain to be managed for the benefit of all citizens, and not for the profit of a few.

Hopefully the failings of this sort of argument is hitting all you readers over the head like a blunt instrument. Specific examples of private sector failings shows us that we can't privatize vital resources. But when the public sector fails, as we saw in the Minneapolis bridge collapse, it doesn't show us that the government is incompetent. Rather, it shows us that we didn't spend enough money. Or in other words, any business failure reflects poorly on all businesses, but government failure only reflects poorly on those who made bad decisions. Get it? Got it? Good.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Libertarians, Michael Vick, and Dog Fighting (The Dog Whisperer Cries)

Seeing as though Michael Vick just took a plea deal, I figure it's time to finally get out this little post that's been percolating in my head for over a month now. (And no link to Vick stories, because, if you don't know anything about the Michael Vick story or where to find information about it, you're hopeless.)

I remember my personal reaction to the Vick dog fighting scandal when it first broke was the same as most other Americans- I was horrified. As the proud keeper of two pure bred Labrador Retrievers, I know I feel bad when I miss a walk or when I'm a few hours late feeding them. Executions and torture of dogs would be as unthinkable as, well, doing all that awful stuff to people. But as the case lingered in the news, I began to think about the issue from a libertarian perspective - how, as a libertarian, do I justify laws against animal cruelty? Where do those laws come from and how should they be determined?

The problem is, the law traditionally has treated animals as property - so therefore, killing someone else's dog would be a property crime, but killing your own dog was more akin to smashing your own car. While buying a car to smash it for no reason what so ever may be stupid, it doesn't hurt anyone- but to most of us, torture, abuse, and murder of dogs is just appalling.

Of course, any question of animal abuse raises the question of just what abuse is in the first place. Some animal rights folks will tell you that keeping pets and eating meat is animal abuse, but for most of us, that doesn't ring true any more than the animals as property argument does. Maybe conservatives, and some liberals, are happy just drawing a line, telling us that some things are just plain wrong, but as a libertarian I'd like more of a foundation. After all, the just plain wrong argument seems to reek of moral relativism, which raises the additional question of what to do about cultures where dog fighting (or cock fighting even) are socially acceptable. I think one of the points of libertarianism is that we believe in big rights and wrongs that apply cross-culturally, while leaving personal rights and wrongs up to the individual. So once again, how do I justify wanting to put Michel Vick in jail?

I think the answer is, at least in part, that we have to recognize that animals are more than property and may have some rights. And no, I don't mean animals have the right to vote, drive, and receive public assistance as PETA does. I only mean that animals are sentient beings and should therefore be entitled to more moral consideration than a car or a tree. Not only that, but we should consider animals on a relative scale, by species, rather than all together. After all, dogs, cats, pigs, and dolphins are a bit closer to humans than fish, lobsters, or insects.

And what should these animal rights mean? I'm still sort of working that out. Maybe rights isn't even the best term, as what we're really talking about what consideration animals should be given by humans. Our relationship with animals is probably the most important factor in determining what sort of consideration they should be given. Eating animals, and using their furs, skins, and feathers are all part of the natural order of things. The same goes for hunting. Maybe we're not talking about activities that are necessary for our survival today, but they are all activities that stem from the human drive to survive. Maybe furs are unnecessary in the modern world, but notions of rights shouldn't be based on our current state of relative luxury. I would contrast these uses of animals with those uses that are solely for our entertainment and pleasure that do not stem from our natural survival instincts. This would include the keeping of pets, but not the keeping of work animals.

Keeping pets, using animals for a circus, and whatever else you can think of in that category should require that we give animals more consideration. Dog fighting is cruel precisely because it isn't based upon our primitive survival behavior, but on more modern notions of entertainment. And sure, the circus is all about entertainment too, but wearing stupid outfits, jumping through hoops, and training to be gentle seems to be a far cry from drownings, torture, and training to be vicious.

I think this theory works, at least enough for me - although I'd be more than happy to hear about any holes this theory may have. I recognize that I haven't answered the big question - what if you want to eat your pet dog? But in reality I think that's so unlikely to happen that it's just not a serious issue. And what about raising dogs for the purposes of eating them - well, I find that disgusting, but I imagine we can all agree that doesn't rise to the same level as Michael Vick's actions. I've never heard of any underground black market for dog meat, so maybe that too is something we need not worry about. And from a legal perspective, is our discomfort with the idea of raising dogs for food any different with the Hindu discomfort with the idea of raising cows for food. Maybe that's just more of the price of living in a pluralistic society. Not dog fighting though - It's just plain wrong, and damn it, I've got a damn good reason. I for one am happy Michael Vick is going to jail- and maybe after being there the judge should require he spend a year working with the Dog Whisperer rehabilitating mistreated and neglected dogs.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Global Warming Costs

Ron Bailey at Reason has a nice, short article on the costs of global warming and the costs of global warming solutions. Bailey quotes extensively from Yale Economist William Nordhaus's just released economic analysis of global warming.

I'm obviously not an economist, and I'm always at a bit of a loss to understand how economists come up with all these technical projections, but it's still nice to just see some numbers. And agree with them or disagree with them, these are the sorts of considerations that need to be made. If you're not calculating costs, you're not a credible voice when it comes to climate change solutions.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Some good readings on health care issues

Some good readings on looking toward market solutions for today's health care issues from Cato's Arnold Kling: The Universal Distraction and Insulation vs. Insurance.

I've managed to recognize some of the problems with our health insurance (or should I say health insulation) system without even being an economist - of course, Mr. Kling actually manages to come up with a number of market-based solutions of the sort that I'm not really smart enough to come up with.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Bad Policy, Good Constitutional Law

Just need to weigh in with my two cents on the Abigail Alliance case just ruled on by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Essentially, the court rejected a plaintiff's claim that terminally ill patients should be allowed access to potentially life saving drugs, even if those drugs had not yet met all FDA approvals. (Specifically, the plaintiff's were asking for access to drugs which had met Phase I approval and were about to begin or were in the process of conducting clinical trials.) Predictably, libertarians are not very happy.

I was going to write of a defense of the decision from a constitutional perspective, but Jonathan Adler beats me to it, here and here.

For those of you who are link-averse, allow me to explain, in brief, why the decision makes constitutional sense. First, this was not a challenge to the authority of the FDA to regulate drugs and drug risks - I'd entertain such a challenge, but other then myself, I think the only people interested in considering it would be Clarence Thomas, Randy Barnett, and an odd array of libertarians. Therefore, like the Raich case of a few years ago, what the plaintiffs were asking for was an exemption to a generally applicable law. Now I do have sympathy for terminal patients and I'd grant them access to whatever drugs they wanted if I were a legislator, but the question here is whether the Constitution provides such a right.

The problem with this right is constructing it - what does terminally ill mean? And more importantly, what is a life saving drug? What do the chances of success have to be? What risks are permissible? The complexities of such a right begin to sound like abortion rights to the hundredth power. And meanwhile, it would be odd if an exception applied to patients who were dying, but not to those in horrible pain. I can't think of a basis in the Constitution for this distinction, nor can I find any basis for determining a right based upon some sort of scientific or medical opinion about a physical condition. As I said, it just gets really messy, and would drag the courts into all sorts of political debates.

Policy wise, this is a horrible move by the FDA, and yet another indication of the organization's incompetence and incompatibility with the realities of life. Yet this is our monster- we created it and if we want to change it, we have to do so politically.

I also wanted to remark, briefly, on the comments left by someone named Hans Bader over at the Volokh Conspiracy (in the first Volokh comment thread above).

The court majority attempted to distinguish away other medical rights recognized by the courts, like the right to refuse unwanted medical treatment even when that results in one's death, by claiming that a ban on experimental drugs involves "affirmative access" to a "commercial good" rather than the "freedom" from "forced medical treatment."

That is an absurd distinction. If the judges in the court majority were denied the right to buy food, and thus condemned to starvation, no one would argue that their right to live was not infringed merely because buying food involves "affirmative access" to a "commercial good."

Most constitutional rights necessarily involve "access" to a "commercial good." A newspaper can't exercise its First Amendment right to publish unless it is allowed to buy "commercial goods" like newsprint and paper. A political candidate can't communicate with voters without spending money on ads. And it is well-established that the First Amendment protects "access" to such "commercial goods."

Just a few comments- first, everyone in the country is denied access to certain drugs, so much of the above discussion is somewhat irrelevant. The fact that the government can't stop people from selling food, or paper, or newsprint to certain groups or individuals is just as much a question of Equal Protection as it is one of basic rights. The equivalent sort of law needed by this example would be a law banning the sale of food to everyone, or a law banning all sales of newsprint and newspapers, to anyone and everyone. Forgetting the ridiculousness of the all-out ban on food for a minute, I would imagine that a ban on newsprint could well be considered to be Constitutional today as a time, place and manner restriction, if for instance the purpose of the ban was environmental concerns and alternative avenues of publication existed. As I've said above, the problem in finding a right for terminally ill patients is that you're looking for an exception to a neutral law that is applicable to everyone.

Beaches 2007 - More Of The Same Propaganda

The Hartford Courant covers the latest NRDC beach report, claiming the number of beaches in the state closed because of pollution rose for the 4th straight year. I say "claim" because as I chronicled last summer, (Swimming Water Hysteria and Swimming Water Hysteria II) these beach reports are pure environmental propaganda and their conclusions have no basis in science.

I work in the field, so I know how this works. Beaches do routine (usually weekly) testing for e.coli, and they shut down upon elevated readings. As last year's report noted, it is usually difficult to pinpoint the exact source of the elevated levels. Often times, the causes of the elevated levels are clearly not man-made - they can be caused by simple rain water run off and animal droppings. Yet, reading the Hartford Courant story this morning, you get the impression that all these closings are caused by man-made pollution. (Yes, they only say "pollution," but doesn't utilizing the term pollution invoke the destructive behavior of man?)

Maybe I'll look at the actual report later, but seeing as this is an annual piece of propaganda which I already examined last year, I have little hope for it. And speaking of little hope, I'm not crossing my fingers that anyone in the media will critically examine the NRDC report and press releases.

Updated 8/8/07 @ 9:40 AM : The Hartford Courant refers to the Connecticut group involved in the project, Save the Sound. According to a report I heard on the radio this morning, Save the Sound is using the report as a mechanism for urging the state of Connecticut to fund improvements in the wastewater discharge infrastructure. Let me just go on the record as saying I'm not against cleaning up the sound or improving waste treatment systems (although the mechanisms for doing so are certainly debatable). I'm just opposed to the misuse of science and concerned with the blind manner in which the media accepts these sorts of environmental reports.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Follow Up To Yesterday's Surveillance Discussion

I just wanted to briefly follow up on yesterday's discussion of the new surveillance measures passed by Congress. I've read a bit more and there's more in there that I don't like. (For some brief and informative thoughts try Orin Kerr of the Volokh Conspiracy here and here.)

Most importantly, the law refers not only to foreigners, but to anyone located outside the United States. There are also apparently mandates on internet service providers and telecommunication companies to comply with the new program. Let me just be clear on my position- I'm sure I don't understand all the nuances of the legislation, but I'm still happy that they put something down on paper. When it comes to international relations, spying, and espionage, I just don't trust the government to follow the law, period- the fact that this program needed to be passed by Congress, shows us how this sort of spying has been skirting (if not breaking the law) for years. Getting something on the books holds the promise of at least slightly more accountability.

We can only judge these sorts of programs based on the harm they do, because the truth of the matter is that we won't know the program's efficiency until decades down the road, because of the need to protect national security secrets. All we can do is look for the abuses - and so far, I haven't heard of any. So, maybe the law sucks, but it seems to me that when it comes to national security and government spying, the government is pretty much going to do whatever the hell it wants. And I'm not sure that's such a bad thing.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Libertarian Foreign Policy?

More catching up: Libertarian law professor Randy Barnett wrote this op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal back on July 17th about libertarians and the war. (Some reaction from the Reason community here.) The piece is, in part, a response to the popularity of Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul among libertarians which has been driven almost entirely by his stringent anti-war stance. Barnett, like myself, is more of a hawkish libertarian, who worries that the general public will see libertarians first and foremost as a group of anti-war mongers.

Barnett asks the question, "Does being a libertarian commit one to a particular stance toward the Iraq war?" and answers with a resounding no. I would take Barnett's argument a step further. It's not just that libertarianism doesn't provide a specific answer on the war in Iraq, I believe that libertarianism doesn't provide any answers when it comes to foreign policy, period. And truth be told, I don't think any political ideology provides real foreign policy answers- rather, at various points in history, members of differing political ideologies tend to take on different sorts of foreign policy positions. (For instance, you'd be hard pressed to come up with any strong policy differences between the foreign policies of the Democrats and the Republicans in the years from Truman to LBJ.)

Having spent a great deal of time studying American foreign policy as an undergrad, both from a political science perspective and a historical perspective, I'm left with the pragmatic impression that there are no right answers and there are no easy answers when it comes to international relations. Libertarians can hope for an ideal libertarian system within our own borders because all we're basically asking is for government to protect life, liberty, and property. Libertarianism doesn't provide an answer for what to do about Nazi Germany, international communism, or even international Islamic terrorism for that matter. At some point you have to recognize that there are groups of people in the world- be it nations or international organizations- who aren't bound by your laws and don't subscribe to your beliefs of freedom and equality. And when it comes to what to do about these people, I don't think there are any right answers, just different choices, some of which are more uncomfortable than others.

I think libertarians, particularly libertarian-leaning candidates, should shy away from taking strong foreign policy stances, period. For one thing, the president essentially dictates foreign policy, so unless you're actually running for president, your foreign policy views aren't all that relevant to the job you'll be doing. And if libertarians are ever going to actually be elected, they need to position themselves as true alternatives to the same tired conservative and liberal positions. Yes, I know both sides are out for blood when it comes to the war issue, but the point should be that we don't want to play that game and we're not going to. I think we libertarians do ourselves a disservice, when we do as Ron Paul and make the war the most important issue. All it does is divide those who want smaller government and a truly free country.

Other libertarians may be excited about Ron Paul, but I'm not. Not only is he for the immediate pull out of the troops from Iraq, regardless of the consequences, he's also anti-immigration and anti-abortion. I've voted Libertarian in past elections, primarily as a protest vote, but also because I could look past the foreign policy wackiness and vote based on the domestic agenda. Paul may have some good small government credentials, but I differ with him too much to be a real supporter. I never voted for him, but I've been happy with Bush the leader, Bush the commander-in-chief, as the lesser of 2 evils. Bush may have mishandled and mismanaged the war in Iraq (he's certainly mishandled the propaganda), but he was better than Kerry-no plan, and as I said in the days following September 11th, "thank God Al Gore isn't president." At this juncture, I don't have anyone I'm supporting, but if by some miracle it comes down to say, Hilary vs. Ron Paul, Hilary Clinton is going to be my new George Bush.

Peaches, Roses, Gumdrops, and Happy Unicorns

Newsweek's Jonathan Alter presents An Alternative 9/11 History

Alter tries to paint the piece as bi-partisan, but just remember, bi-partisan doesn't mean unbiased. Does anyone out there really think the post 9-11 world was just a Gitmo and Iraq away from virtually ending international Islamic terrorism?

Thoughts On Higher Education

Some catch up stuff: My response to A Fan For All Season's comment on college education from way before the bar exam. I wrote most of this back in June but never got around to posting it.

More people are going to college, but back in the 50s-60s, it wasn't necessary to go to college. My father, for example, didn't go to college and his family lives in suburban Connecticut, he put 5 kids through college (3 out of state) and has retired at 62. Stories like that are probably more common/similar from people his age than it will be for people my age. Nowadays, almost every job description will say "college-degree required/preferred". Employers are far more likely to take a college grad than someone with just a high school diploma or GED. Also, a lot of people going to college can't afford it. I'd guess a large percentage of college grads were on financial aid and I'm betting a lot of them have a lot of student loans to pay off.

I thought this was worth a separate post because this is a topic that's been in the news a great deal lately. The mainstream media has joined the ranks of parents and students who have been worrying about the price of college education for over a generation. It's an interesting story, because, at times, it can even paint even the upper-middle class as victims. (And for me, it's odd to see the kids that grew up in nicer houses than I did, drove nicer cars than I did, and went to more expensive schools than I did - painted as victims.)

It is true that many more jobs today require a college degrees than in the past- but remember this is in response to 1- cultural changes that have made college a virtual requirement in most circles and 2- the fact that so many people do go to college makes the non-college grads less attractive as prospective employees than ever before. (In other words, a college degree is a requirement because so many people are going to college.) I for one would question whether this intense emphasis on college is needed. I seriously doubt whether the college required by many of today's employers amount to anything more than a certificate to work- I think a vast majority of people learn on the job and use very few of the skills they learned (or were supposed to learn) in college.

That all being said, this is the world we've created and we've got to live in it. And I think the question of the affordability of college is a very different sort of question. People complain about the burden, but I rarely see any analysis of whether or not that financial burden is worth it. Let's just play with some imaginary numbers for a minute. Let's say you're $150,000 in debt from your student loans (including all of the interest). If the job you get out of college can make you $15,000 more per year than you would be able to make without a college degree, then after ten years you'd have your loans paid off and you'd be better off than you would have been if you chose not to go to college. And if college isn't worth it, then why go in the first place.

The problem is, not enough people see college as an investment even though that's precisely what it is. And the real question is, at what point is your investment in college going to get you out of the red and put you in the black. If you graduate from a small but expensive liberal arts school, and proceed to work at Barnes and Noble for the next twenty years, your investment in college was not worth it. If you go to a state school, and get a good job in the technology/computer field, than your education was probably worth every penny.

And of course, the rich can afford to go to expensive schools and get worthless degrees ... and most of the rest of us can't. But that's just like everything else in life- the rich have time and money that the rest of us just don't have. The rich can afford not to work and not to worry about their future income.

In case anyone is wondering, I do think college is far more expensive than it needs to be, and that this is mostly the result of unneeded bureaucracy, government subsidies, and just plain inefficient administration. That being said, for a great number of people, an overpriced college education is still beneficial. I think a lot of us are just spoiled- we want our salaries, all our toys goodies, and we don't want to have to pay back our student loans. And some of us also just want to plain live off the government.

I agree with anyone who says that barriers to access to college should be eliminated - but that's not the issue du jour. The issue of today is the poor, unfortunate middle class, and how it's not fair that the wealthiest middle class in the history of the world can't have more money in their pockets.

Bush, Congress, Pass Bill Legalizing Evil

From the Times, President Bush Signs Law To Widen Legal Reach For Wiretapping.

And how quietly it passed, despite all the uproar over the past several years about Bush's spying program. Apparently the Democrats in Congress were not worried that Republicans would be using this law to spy on them and destroy them.

As regular readers will remember, I tend not to worry all that much about government wiretapping and spying. I think we have plenty of other things to worry about our government doing before troubling ourselves whether big brother is listening in on our calls to grandma. What the program allows for is warrantless wiretapping of suspected terrorists overseas making calls to the United States. Cause for concern? Not in my mind. Reason to remain vigilant? Always, always, always.

If, in a good faith attempt to monitor a terror suspect, the government catches a child molester, I won't shed any tears. If the government uses the program as an excuse to catch child molesters, drug dealers, and other domestic criminals, there are mechanisms for dealing with this violation of the law, despite what they're saying on Hit and Run. The Due Process Clause of the 5th Amendment is always available when the government acts blatantly outside it's bounds. Yes, I do understand that the law is extremely deferential, but it is not a licence to spy indiscriminately.

The truth is, whatever the law happens to be, we have very little control over government spying and whether or not our privacy is being violated. Don't forget that all over the country, law enforcement violates the letter and the spirit of the law in the course of surveillance and investigations. Even in my utopian libertarian world, this would still be an issue, because cops and spies are as human as the rest of us and it can be difficult to walk the fine line that the Constitution draws. The reason that our 4th Amendment jurisprudence developed the exclusionary rule was a means of dealing with these difficulties and human frailties.

My reaction here stems from the point of the view that the mechanics of this sort of spying are far less important than the results- and by results, in this case I'm specifically referring to the actual damage done to our liberty and democracy. The moment this program becomes a front for catching drug dealers and petty criminals is the moment I change by tune, but for now, I see no reason to get myself all worked up. Critics complain that we don't even no who's been illegally spied upon by the government. In my mind, that's a good thing because it means either that the government hasn't exceeded it's appropriate terror fighting boundaries or that in the individual circumstances where the government has exceeded it's bounds in the course of spying, it has not followed up inappropriately through traditional criminal channels.

Allow me to throw in one other thought. The militarization of crime fighting, as Radley Balco has tirelessly chronicled, has become a major issue here on the domestic front. Fighting crime as if one were fighting a war is problematic, if for nothing more than the fact that the acceptable collateral damage of war is so much higher than the acceptable collateral damage of fighting crime.

When it comes to fighting terrorism, I think many people tend to fall for the opposing fallacy, that fighting terrorism internationally should be be fought the same way we fight crime. This comes to the forefront with this wireless surveillance program, as it is criticized from a traditional criminal perspective and supported through the lens of traditional warfare. The problem is, "the war on terror" doesn't fit well into the traditional distinctions between war and crime, between the national and the international. This is a theme that I've stressed since the start of this blog, that in fighting terror we need to look to a third way that's not traditional crime fighting or traditional war. And not every mechanism for fighting terror deserves the same treatment- for instance, I think scrutiny does need to be given to the detainment of foreign terrorists, and distinctions must be drawn between "terror suspects" and "enemy combatants" captured on the battlefield. But when it comes to spying, I don't think we've ever made much distinction between war and peace. We spy on international threats to our nations, without warrants, because we want to be able to protect ourselves without handicaps. It seems almost preposterous that if Osama bin Laden called me on the phone, the government would have to obtain a warrant to listen to the conversation. It's just not how the world works, which is something I think libertarians need to remember.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Reasons To Be A Libertarian, Not Number 420

The Cato blog has had some real good posts on the new farm subsidy bill just passed by Congress - Meet the New Farm Bill - Parliament of Whores Indeed - Parliament of Windbags - House Farm Bill a Major Achievement - If You're Not A Farmer Then Shut Up!

This is the sort of business our government does where nearly everyone loses. Remember, very little of this farm subsidy money goes to honest-to-goodness ma and pa farms. Most of it goes to big industrial farmers and large scale agribusinesses. Meanwhile, consumers continue to pay more for food than we should have to, a fact that's obscured by a food supply that's already cheap and abundant.

Oh yeah, and for those of you who care about poverty in other parts of the world, farm subsidies and farm tariffs serve to protect the farming industries of the developed world at the expense of poor farmers in the third world. Even in dramatically underdeveloped countries, poor people are capable of farming and exporting surplus agricultural products. Unfortunately, tariffs and subsidies make it all the more difficult for poor farmers to be competitive with the farmers of the developed world.

Who likes agricultural subsidies? Plenty of Democrats and Republicans. Who doesn't like subsidies? Libertarians.

More Fun Drug Stuff

I'm sure many of you wonder why I (and other libertarians for that matter) make such a big deal out of the drug issue. After all, neither myself nor most libertarians have much of a vested interest in whether or not drugs are legalized. In one sense, our concern is purely practical, as our government wastes billions of dollars every year on a failed War on Drugs. And in another sense, our concern is moral, as millions of Americans are locked up every year for the "crime" of getting high. However, I think the real reason for making drug legalization such a hot button issue is the symbolism involved. Both liberals and conservatives like to talk a good game when it comes to terms like freedom and liberty, but when it comes to drugs, only libertarians can walk the walk. Only libertarians don't have to fumble around, searching for explanations why an individual should not be able to chose what he or she puts into his or her own body.

Drug laws can be looked at, alternatively, as either moral laws or safety laws. But even if you really believe we need laws to reinforce morality and we need laws to ensure that we don't harm ourselves with bad choices, drug laws are still hypocritical. From a moral standpoint, people like to point out that drugs destroy families - but if drugs are to be prohibited, why not also prohibit lying, cheating, and marital infidelity. Surely that sort of morally reprehensible behavior hurts people and destroys families as well.

And when it comes to safety, well, why ban marijuana and not ban alcohol? In fact, why not ban other dangerous activities - extreme sports seem more dangerous to me than smoking pot. To be fair, I think one can make a logically sound argument that all dangerous activities should be illegal, but I'm not sure anyone would want to live in the resulting world where they are treated by their government like a 4-year old.

The truth about drugs is that the only reason for all the anti-drug hysteria is that illegal drugs are not socially acceptable. Drug takers, drug taking, and the drugs themselves all have negative associations- associations that are even worse then negative associations placed upon alcohol by the temperance movement in the years leading to prohibition. (And yes, drugs can be dangerous, but alcohol can be dangerous too- when an illegal drug incident becomes news, the anti-drug hysteria is amped up, but when an alcohol related incident becomes news, there is no outcry to get alcohol off the streets.)

Defense of the war on drugs and defense of drug prohibition is based purely on adherence to tradition and emotion, not on reason or logic. I find it troubling that so many Americans are willing to cede personal autonomy (in regards to drugs) over to the government, the very same government that we don't trust in the war in Iraq, that we don't trust not to spy on us, and that we apparently can't even trust to maintain bridges properly.

New Name

I've just realized that QU3L is now an obsolete name - I suppose I can get away with it for the summer, but I'd like to come up with a new one and QU Law Grad (or something like that) just sounds lame. So this is just to let everyone know that I'm open to suggestions ...

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Correlation Is Not Causation, Part 420

I've heard this story repeated in the news several times in the last week (here via Reason's Hit and Run): Marijuana smoking associated with psychotic outcomes. According to the report, marijuana smoking raises the chances of a psychotic outcome by 40%. But of course, as Jacob Sullum observes, correlation is not the same as causation. Just because smoking marijuana can be connected with these outcomes does not mean that it is the cause of these outcomes. Just off the top of my head, we could say that certain childhood traumas are likely related to an increased likelihood of marijuana smoking and an increased likelihood of psychotic outcomes.

Correlation has more value if, for example, we're talking about childhood trauma from child abuse. Child abuse is intrinsically bad, as are psychotic outcomes (in the sense that we'd like to avoid them), so any correlation we find here is potentially useful in examining the problems of child abuse. In other words, child abuse is a bad thing, so lets look at the possible negative outcomes. But when it comes to marijuana, we're talking about an activity which is not intrinsically bad and correlations used specifically to paint marijuana as bad or dangerous. Or in other words, marijuana is bad specifically because we can connect it with these bad outcomes.

Obviously I hate the policies handed to us by correlation is causation mistakes, but I think such mistakes do a disservice to people who really do have problems. We blame the substances themselves- marijuana, cocaine, alcohol- which tends to let people off the hook. The vast majority of people don't develop real drug problems- you know, the sort of problems that interfere with our everyday life and our relationships- without any issues or trauma from another facet of their life. In other words, people with drug problems tend to turn to drugs because of other problems in their life. When we blame the substance, we let everyone off the hook- the individual who should have more control over their own life, the people close to that person who should take a more active role in their loved one's life, and all of us as a society for not caring about everyone else around us.

In other words man, it's all about the love, not the pot.

What Sort Of A World Do We Live In Anyway?

On my way into work this morning I had my radio tuned to the local rock station's morning show, Sebastian in the morning on WCCC 106.9 FM. Sebastian was interviewing a young woman who worked as a substance abuse counselor and both interviewer and interviewee were harping on the dangers of dangerous drugs, including apparently, marijuana. Sebastian, the host, admitted to never having tried marijuana. Perhaps this is why rock is dead. I would hope the host of a rock station would be urging us to go out and snort as much cocaine as we possibly can every night and sell whatever we have left in the morning to children waiting at the bus stop.

Meanwhile, if you tune into the big local news station, WTIC 1080 AM, you'll find there's a libertarian-minded morning host, Ray Dunnaway, who's spoken on the air in support of ending the war on drugs and drug legalization. Crazy world.