Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Barack Obama, Ordinary Politician

I'm super disappointed Barack Obama has decided to condemn Reverend Wright. It just confirms my suspicions that Obama is an ordinary politician, no more, no less. I guess even I had a glimmer of hope that Obama really was going to change the political culture, like he and his followers had promised. Supporting his somewhere off this planet pastor would have been a step in changing politics in the right direction. It would have been so ... well ... real to hear an honest to God politician with a chance of becoming president say that he didn't have to answer for the words of a friend or supporter and that he wasn't going to play this game of political correctness.

Instead we've gotten more politics as usual, with yet another major figure forced to apologize for something that really isn't all that big of a deal.

I understand some people think that Reverend Wright was a big story. I just don't, period and I'm disappointed that Obama capitulated to those who did think it was big deal.

More Polygamy

I've heard a number of expressions of outrage in the media over the number of pregnant teenage girls found at the polygamist compound recently raided and broken up in Eldorado, Texas.

Here's the thing on this- in all likelihood, a number of the men on this compound will be arrested on statutory rape charges, when it can be proven they fathered children with girls under the legal age of consent. Under Texas law, teenagers as young as 14 are permitted to marry with parental consent. But under Texas law, polygamy is illegal, so none of the the multiple marriages of the members of the sect can be recognized.

And therein lies my big problem. I understand the need to protect children and as I wrote about last week, we obviously need to set age limitations. But you've got where you've got a crime in a situation that, without the polygamy, there wouldn't have been a crime. Or at least, there wouldn't be the simple crime that's before us now.

Yes, there is the question of coercion, and I'd support the prosecution of any polygamist man forcing a woman, young or old, into a relationship they don't want. The problem is- and you'll see this when you see the polygamist women interviewed on tv- is that most of the women don't actually feel forced, nor do they want to leave, probably because this is the only life they've known. As I noted last time, I wonder if there would be this same outrage if this was a tribal culture in the South Pacific or Africa and wasn't a group of white folks dressed up like pioneers. At heart is an issue of cultural differences and the right to preserve one's culture- as weird as that culture might be to the rest of us. Does the government have the right to intervene in isolated communities if those communities are located within our nation's borders?

Updated 4/29/2008 @ 9:45 PM : On further review I seem to have been wrong about the age requirement to marry in Texas. I believe it had been 14 and had been changed to 16. Regardless, the fact that we've had these laws changed around (and the fact that the age to marry and the age of sexual consent varies by state) are further evidence of the larger point I've been making about cultural differences.

Evil Corporate News

Wal-Mart to cash economic stimulus checks for free, rather than charging their typical $3.00 fee. Yet another example of how they're destroying America.

More Drug War Mistakes

Radley Balco has the latest door busting drug raid mistake. (You can read the news account here.) This time, there were no accidental deaths, just a broken front door and a husband and wife who may be too terrified to maintain their fish tank.

As usual, it's the tactics themselves that are indefensible. On the basis of a single tip from a subcontractor (who apparently mistook their aquarium supplies for a meth lab), the police obtained a warrant and knocked down the door. This isn't just about drugs, this isn't how police should operate. Yes, it probably was an honest mistake by the subcontractor, but it's not a mistake the police should have relied on without investigating. This is America and we shouldn't face the possibility that the police will come knocking down our door because of one tip which was never investigated.


Just wanted to write briefly to note that this is my 800th post as the lonely libertarian. With the exception of a few down months during my second year of law school and some time off to take the bar exam, I've been blogging here on a regular basis since June 2005. Since I started blogging I've graduated law school, passed the Connecticut bar, and have gotten engaged to be married (in a wedding which is now less than two months away). It's been a fun ride and I just wanted to thank all my readers for supporting me over the years. To all my commenters, new and old, I appreciate the time you take to think and respond- if anyone has any suggestions about other topics you'd like me to blog about, feel free to leave your suggestions on this post or on any post in the future.

800, Woo Hoo!

More Thoughs From The Health Care Front

Megan McArdle blogs briefly about John McCain's health care plan. One important issue got my mind spinning:

Likewise, the campaign didn't really have a good answer to the pooling problem: what happens to people with expensive pre-existing conditions when they have to buy insurance on their own? That's one of your primary lobbies for universal health care; I doubt the McCain plan will satisfy them.

If I had to come up with reasons to oppose free market health care, that would have to be it- What do you do about people who can't afford to pay for their own expensive care and don't currently have health insurance to cover the costs of a current medical condition?

As Megan points out, this is the group most strongly in favor of universal health care, which isn't all that surprising given that such a system would be the only way this group could have their health care costs covered without having it appear to be a government handout. The market system- any market system that the government doesn't completely screw with- doesn't have a good answer for individuals with pre-existing conditions and non-existent medical insurance. But don't let anyone tell you that this is somehow a failing of the market, because it's not.

The fact of the matter is that those with pre-existing conditions tend to have large medical bills and the fact that individuals who need lots of medical care and lots of drugs can wrack up large bills is not the fault of the market, it's just unfortunate. Similarly, insurance exists to guard againast future risks, not to defer the costs of current expenses. Insurance companies are in the business of making money, not taking on customers who are going to cost them more than they're going to pay in starting on day one. Again, not a fault of the market.

I don't have any great answers, but I do know this for certain. I'm always willing to entertain plans for the government to help those who lack the means to help themselves. At the very least, such social welfare programs are far less costly and far less damaging then structuring entire sectors of the economy around the needs of a small, but troubled and needy minority.

Election Law

The Supreme Court has ruled in a dispute over Indiana's restrictive voter identification policy, ruling in a 6-3 decision that presenting a mandatory, government issued identification did not place an undue burden on the right to vote.

The decision was actually split 3-3, with Justice Steven writing an opinion joined Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy, and Justice Scalia writing an opinion joined by Justices Thomas and Alito. I haven't read the case yet, so I won't give any sort of legal opinion, but I'm sort of intrigued about one point. The rational behind a law requiring voters show government issued identification is to prevent voter fraud. Not that it's exactly the same thing, but basically, ensuring transparency in the Democratic process and avoiding the appearance that elections can be bought is perhaps the primary rational behind campaign finance reform laws.

What I find interesting is those who are troubled by Indiana's voter ID restrictions in the name of stopping fraud, but have no problem trampling all over free speech rights in the name of "cleaning up politics." Indiana's law certainly seems like overkill (after all, whats wrong with your college ID?), but I'd have trouble believing it could be unconstitutional. Here's the thing- I'm sure there's a small segment of the population hurt by such a law- but rather than spend millions of dollars on lawyers fees, why not just help poor people get appropriate identification. Whatever the burden may be, there's still a solution within the confines of the law. Not so for those burdened by campaign finance reform. Restrictions on speech can't be so easily undone.

Quick Quiz In Modern American History

Match the following accomplishments with the President under which they were accomplished:

Ending the Vietnam War
Creating the EPA & OSHA
Deregulating the Airline and Trucking Industries
Welfare Reform
Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit
Campaign Finance Reform

Republican Richard Nixon
Democrat Jimmy Carter
Democrat Bill Clinton
Republican George W. Bush

Answers Coming Soon ...

Friday, April 25, 2008

Age Of Consent

Over on the Volokh Conspiracy, law prof Eugene Volokh blogs on Age of Consent Laws. (Also see Prof. Volokh's various responses to commenters here and here .) Perhaps most interesting are the commenters who question why anyone would want to ask about age of consent laws in the first place, as shown by Prof. Volokh in his last post:

This is a perfect example of why people claim professors are out of touch with reality. When someone can accurately but facilely summarize your suggestion with "he wants to change the law so that adults should be allowed to have sex with high school sophomores," you lose. No further inquiry, no appeal, no nothing: you're automatically some lunatic that thinks something approaching pedophilia is OK.

Some curious thoughts are best kept to one's self....

I find the discussion rather interesting, but the "don't talk about it" comments are rather disheartening. Asking about the rationale behind age of consent laws shouldn't automatically make you a perfect. Laws- all laws- are infringements of our natural rights and as such, there should be no problem defending the laws we have if they really are necessary. Even laws againast murder and theft are infringements on the rights we'd have in the state of nature- of course laws againast murder and theft are fairly easy to defend as such laws represent the backbone of our civilization.

But the age of consent- just like any age where we permit children to exercise their rights as adult- is not such a fundamental proposition. 99.99% of the population probably agrees that yes, there does need to be some age of consent for sexual activity. But whatever that law ends up being, on some level is rather arbitrary. Why not 14? Why not 16? Why not 18? Why not 21? Why not 25? One or some of those ages may be better than others, but the only way to determine that is through rational discussion.

I think this unwillingness to discuss the rational behind law is a major flaw in our national psyche. Far too often, the fact that certain activities are illegal and have been illegal for a long time are given as reasons why the law is perfectly acceptable the way it is and shouldn't be changed. We here this faulty logic not just with age of consent, but with drug laws and even immigration policy. In my mind, it represents far too much acquiescence to government and far too little attention to the notion that laws are meant to serve the interests of society as a whole.

Let me just add before I conclude, that immigration policy discussions fit perfectly here. The point of my discussion is that just because a law is the law doesn't make it a proper or a good law. Slavery was the law of the land for centuries, but thankfully, good people questioned the rational of holding people in lifetime servitude. Run away slaves may have broken the law at the time, but that doesn't mean the law couldn't be changed to protect them from future prosecutions. Similarly, illegal immigrants may have technically broken the law to live in the United States, but that doesn't mean they can't be protected as well.

The law is the law is a good reason as to why you should follow it- It's not a good reason as to why it shouldn't be changed.

More "Greedy" Corporations

U.S. Appeals Court Orders New Trial In Credit Card Case.

A U.S. appeals court reinstated a class-action suit on Friday against a group of banks that force their credit card customers to use arbitration instead of the courts to settle disputes.

The credit cardholders "alleged that the banks (with other co-conspirators, including American Express (AXP.N: Quote, Profile, Research) and Wells Fargo (WFC.N: Quote, Profile, Research)) illegally colluded to force the cardholders to accept mandatory arbitration clauses in their cardholder agreements," according to the ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

I couldn't find any materials related to the case, but I'd be curious to read the decisions thus far along with the briefs. Other than the fact that all the credit card companies named have similar policies, is there any actual evidence of collusion? And more importantly, what the hell is wrong with mandatory arbitration. These are credit card companies, not charities- plenty of contracts have arbitration clauses, so why should credit cards be any different? (For the sports fans out there, every single major professional sport tends to rely on arbitration to resolve disputes.) If you don't like the terms of the contract, don't get a credit card. I swear, litigation like this comes from people's attitudes that they ought to be entitled to money that's not theirs, all on their own terms.

The Most Boring Weekend Of The Year

It may surprise some readers to know that I find the NFL draft to be one of the most boring sporting spectacles known to man. I put up with it every year because, well, in the end, I am interested in who gets drafted and I like to see who my Patriots take and how they've wheeled and dealed yet again. And yes, I'll watch some of the draft when it's on, but that's only if I'm home with nothing else to do and I'm killing time ... it's either that or the movie of the weekend on TNT or TBS.

Maybe the draft's not that bad, but it is basically like watching a jazzed up version of CSPAN for jocks. In the grand scheme of things, it's probably as meaningful as everything you see on CPSAN. Every year we see the draft professionals excited about the top picks and every year a majority of those picks fail to pan out. The draft offers some excitment when your team is terrible because when you make that expert and fan approved pick, you can look forward to celebrating your biggest success of the season. But for the good teams ... eh. Sure, good teams are built through the draft, but that's a process, not a spectacle. Teams that build through the draft are successful when their mid-round draft picks (3rd, 4th and 5th rounders) excel, something that's usually not all that apparent for at least several years.

The real truth of the NFL draft is that it's a crap shoot. Even the teams that draft well make plenty of bad picks and sometimes you can't go wrong when Peyton Manning is on the board. As I said before, the draft interests me from a process standpoint- not in terms of the spectacle it's presented as. Interestingly enough, the NBA draft, a fairly popular event, receives far less hype than the NFL draft, despite the fact that it's much more meaningful and interesting. I mean think about, that lottery pick in the NBA actually means something- think of all the Tim Duncan's, LeBron James's, even Allen Iverson's of the world that shaped their franchises.

So the 2008 NFL draft starts tomorrow afternoon. Get out your stop watches.

What Insanity Is This?

John Nichols reports in the Nation that the blame for the current world food crisis falls on globalization and GMO's.

And here I thought it was the economic downturn, rising speculation in food commodities, and government programs that have made it more profitable for agriculture to produce biofuels than food.

I'm not sure why I'm reporting on this insanity other than I just can't get over the fact that people actually belief such nonsense. I mean, come on. Technology that makes food easier and cheaper to produce is contributing to rising food prices? Seriously? I suppose any crisis is good enough to support such nonsense. The worst part is the blame for biofuels being placed on the market. Corn and agricultural products go to producing biofuels because of government programs mandating the use of biofuels. If the government didn't mandate their use, there'd be very little money in biofuels and farmers would be producing more agricultural products for food. This is just one of those things liberals do that drives me bonkers-

"The market doesn't work because the government passed all these laws to make corporations rich."

No asshole. When the government fucks with the market, you can't blame the market for not working. Your beef is with the government, not the market.

Just Some Election Stuff

I've been pretty nasty to Paul Krugman in the past, so I've got to give him credit for today's op-ed piece on the Clinton Obama race. Basically, middle class whites (particularly lower middle class whites hurt by the economic downturn) aren't all that impressed with Obama's rhetoric. I can't say I disagree.

As I've watched the Democratic primary unfold, it's seemed to me that Hillary was outperforming Obama in middle America. Obama did well with young people and blacks, while Hillary did better with women and older voters. If you look at the states Obama won, you'll see many of them tended to be the very liberal states while others tended to be states with statistically significant Democratic voting black populations.

I've made several predictions that Hillary would be the next president. I really have no clue who'll take the Democratic nomination at this point, but I'm still fairly convinced that Hillary stands a better shot at winning in the general election than Obama does, because of what I've laid out and what Paul Krugman lays out in his op-ed. If Obama wins the nomination I think more of these Hillary voters will be willing to give McCain serious consideration than would Obama voters if Hillary wins the nomination. (Although I suppose the X factor is the number of Obama voters that would stay home if Hillary wins. Still though, I'm willing to bet not many, as Hillary would be greatly preferable to another Republican administration to most of the Obama voters.)

One more X-factor in the general election- the possibility that the Libertarian party could actually be a factor. Particularly interesting is the candidacy of former Democrat Senator Mike Gravel, who, along with former Republican Congressman Bob Barr, is contending for the Libertarian nomination. In an election where even the Democrats seem basically unwilling to talk about the war, I think the libertarians could siphon off anti-war votes from both the left and the right and I think John McCain's candidacy could open the door for Republican voters who care more about limited government than the war on terror.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

X-Files Movie News

The plot revealed?

The back cover blurb for Max Allan Collins' novelisation of the upcoming "The X-Files: I Want to Believe" has revealed the film's top secret plot.

Here it is in full: "When a group of women are abducted in the wintry hills of rural Virginia, the only clues to their disappearance are the grotesque human remains that begin to turn up in snow banks along the highway.

With officials desperate for any lead, a disgraced priest’s questionable “visions” send local police on a wild goose chase and straight to a bizarre secret medical experiment that may or may not be connected to the women’s disappearance. It’s a case right out of The X-Files.

But the FBI closed down its investigations into the paranormal years ago. And the best team for the job is ex-agents Fox Mulder and Dr. Dana Scully, who have no desire to revisit their dark past. Still, the truth of these horrific crimes is out there somewhere...and it will take Mulder and Scully to find it."

Source: Hollywoodreporter

Monday, April 21, 2008

And So Ends John Adams

Just finished watching the end of HBO's very excellent John Adams mini-series and I have to say that I was blown away. I can't ever recall a production so historically accurate and so thorough and yet so engrossing and personally moving. Adams certainly was a curmudgeon, but the series never failed to humanize our forgotten founding father. In my mind, the series represents a triumph of modern television, where the drive to deliver compelling drama with extraordinary production value has exceeded the current template for Hollywood's big screen productions. The pay nature of HBO and the extravagant cost of their DVD's made the 100 million dollar a production a possibility, but you've just got to appreciate the fact that such a production is possible today. It was too long for a movie and too complicated and extravagant for television of the past. So congrats John Adams. It was a fun ride.

Drug War Straw Men

Whether you buy all of them or not, those in favor of ending the war on drugs and legalizing drugs tend to employ solid arguments. You can disagree on certain arguments or certain trends, but the arguments are all relevant. Not so the drug warriors, which is yet another reason why I come down in favor of legalization. I figured I'd post some of the nonsensical arguments of drug warriors, so everyone can see what sorts of arguments I don't need to see here.

1- "Drugs destroy families."

So does alcohol. So does infidelity and divorce. There are certain subjects we don't feel comfortable legislating about (a married man leaving his wife and kids) and certain substances that are steeped into our traditions (alcohol). But that doesn't make them any less destructive.

2- "It's for the kids."

Ask any high school kid if it's easier to get marijuana or alcohol. Legal drugs are sold by legitimate businesses with age restrictions. Illegal drugs are sold by other high school kids.

3- "Drug use is drug abuse."

No it's not.

4- "Drug users make bad decisions and put the lives of others at risk."

So do those who drink alcohol.

5- "It's the job of government to protect people from their own bad decisions."

I don't think so, but fair enough. But if that's what you really think, how to you distinguish drugs from alcohol? And more importantly, where do you draw the line on interfering in people's private lives and turning the government into a police state? (I'm going to disagree with whatever line is drawn, but if you support the drawing of such a line you should at least be able to articulate where such a line should be drawn and why. If you can't even do that, do you really have any business telling other people how to lead their lives?

6- "Drugs would still be sold on the street if drugs were legalized."

No they wouldn't, or at least not typically. They'd be cheaper at a local pharmacy. Additionally law enforcement would have a much easier time dealing with the street level dealers and those selling to underage kids because the large criminal infrastructure currently involved in the drug business would vanish as black market profits dried up.

7- "Alcohol's not dangerous. Drugs are dangerous."

Explain, scientifically.

8- "Drug legalization means a government stamp of approval."

I suppose sort of like smoking, huh?

9- "Drug legalization means moral approval."

No it doesn't. See above. And remember that father that left his wife in kids. That's legal, but anyone want to tell me that such a man has societies moral approval?

Proceeding With The Drug War Debate

To respond to the comments from last week's post:

1) The results I reported come from a National Survey on Drug Use and Health self-reported survey. I can't seem to find the number of survey members, but given the ease of self-report type surveys, I'm sure there were more than enough survey members to make it statistically significant. Questions of accuracy are a bit more difficult to determine, but any statistical survey of drug use is bound to raise questions of accuracy.

2) I'm glad you took the time to question my reliance on the survey's numbers. I nearly did a post several months ago about what studies I tend to be more suspicious of why, but I never quite got around to it. There are several reasons here for me to look at these results as more or less accurate- 1- The survey was published by the Department of Health and Human Service's Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The department has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo when it comes to drugs, so I'm less likely to view a survey that seemingly contradicts the status quo with suspicion. 2- I'm less suspicious of pure numbers than I am of loaded results. The survey itself is presented in an informational matter and doesn't seem to be structured with policy goals in mind. 3- The numbers I've posted are relatively straight forward. In particular, the second chart simply reports on the percentage of first-time drug users who used the same drug two years later. And as Jacob Sullum writes in his post on Reason, the percentages in the first chart, gaged by the criteria they use to identify dependence, have the potential to be higher than they actually are. And 4- We're all a bit biased. Of course I believe it if it supports what I say!

3) To B. Rose, I'm not trying to weigh anything, I'm just trying to make the point that the government should not be able to tell a free individual what he or she can and can't put into his or her body. It's a question of morality as far as I'm concerned- just in the same way a democratic majority should not be able to silence the speech of the minority, a democratic majority should not be able to infringe on the free choices we make about our own bodies.

I tend to find that my moral point of view is further supported by economics and science. The cost of the war on drugs is tremendous- hundreds of billions of dollars every year at every level of government. Whatever your political viewpoint, those are tax dollars that could be put to better use, whether they're returned to the tax payer are used for other forms of social spending- Much of that money could be used to treat drug abuse. Drug prohibition creates a black market where the sellers tend to be large, organized groups of criminals. Without the government to settle disputes, black market disputes and turf wars are settled through violence at the expense of our inner cities. Additionally, the drug war itself creates a militaristic mentality in our police forces, as the way we fight the war on drugs has come to resemble the war in Iraq more than it reflects traditional standards of community policing. As I've blogged and linked too many times before, the costs of this war include the lives of innocent American citizens.

Finally, this survey tends to report what I've believed to be true for several years now- Drugs are not as dangerous as we're told they are. Maybe there's no good reason to try heroin, but a majority of us are not going to become addicts after trying it. Physical addiction is certainly real for a number of drugs (opiates, nicotine, alcohol in some cases), but even those numbers would be less than those who are merely dependent on drugs- The difference being that physical addiction is actually linked to the biochemical composition of the substances in question while dependence refers more to a compulsion and not any actual biochemical factors. My point is that drugs are demonized as evil substances while the truth of the matter is that drug abusers are people who make bad decisions, not good people trapped againast their will. If you just look at the way many so-called addicts will switch from one drug to another, you'll see that such drug abusers are hooked on getting high, not hooked on any one particular substance.

Finally, you mention the costs incurred by others as a result of drug abuse. It's a fair point, but it ignores the two hundred pound gorilla in the room- alcohol. Alcohol causes thousands (hundreds of thousands? I really don't know) of deaths every year, through drunk driving accidents, drunken arguments, and domestic disputes. If harm caused to innocents was a compelling rationale for drug illegality should join the rest of the drugs on the banned list.

But beyond that, I believe that drug legalization on the whole would reduce the number of deaths currently caused by drugs and the drug war, for several reasons:

A- Experience with alcohol prohibition showed us that drug prohibition does not tend to decrease drug use. Alcohol use actually increased during the time of prohibition, as did organized crime associated with bootlegging and the number of deaths of people drinking homemade moonshine. (During prohibition some people made alcohol on the cheap when they couldn't but it- today, it's much more cost effective to buy your own.) When it comes to illegal drugs today, other than marijuana, where large numbers of users at one time are turned away as they get older because of the drugs illegality, I don't believe drug legalization would have any dramatic effect on the numbers of people who use drugs. (To return to marijuana, large percentages of people use the drug despite it's legal status. Far fewer use harder drugs. This is because of social constraints and common sense, something that would not vanish if drugs were made legal.)

B- As I mentioned above, no more deaths caused by the fact that drugs are a black market business and no more violence associated with black markets. Also, no more deaths of police officers implementing the war on drugs, no more innocent lives lost in poorly executed drug raids.

C- Less property crime and less personal violence caused by drug addicts- drugs would be more affordable, meaning less need to resort to crime in order to get money for a fix and more importantly, drugs could be provided legally for drug addicts by the government or charitable or community groups.

Before I finish, you also mention health care costs- regardless of what you feel the government's role regarding drug abuse should be, the overall result of ending the war on drugs would be a net gain to tax payers.

I've argued about the drug issue before with friends and family, not because I'm some sort of hippie crack pot but because drug prohibition is a moral issue with real world consequences. It's not just that drug legalization is the right thing to do- we'd be better off because of it.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The One Where I Rekindle The Drug War Debate

Over on the Reason blog, Jacob Sullum reports on the latest government survey on drug use from the National Survey On Drug Use and Health. What may be surprising to some isn't all that surprising to me- drugs are not the demon substances they're made out to be and the negative consequences of addiction are limited to a small number of users. Here are some relevant numbers from the survey:

Dependence Rates Within Two Years Of Initial Use:

Inhalants: 0.9%

Tranquilizers (nonmedical use): 1.2%

Psychedelics: 1.9%

Sedatives (nonmedical use): 2.4%

Painkillers (nonmedical use): 3.1%

Alcohol: 3.2%

Cocaine Powder: 3.7%

Stimulants (nonmedical use): 4.7%

Marijuana: 5.8%

Crack Cocaine: 9.2%

Heroin: 13.4%

Percentages of Year-Before-Last Initiates Not Using the Initiated Substance in the Past Year, by Substance: 2004-2006:

Crack 75.6%

Inhalants 72.6%

Heroin 69.4%

Sedatives(nonmedical use) 63.7%

Hallucinogens 61.5%

Stimulants (nonmedical use) 59.1%

Tranquilizers (nonmedical use) 58.8%

Cocaine (Not Including Crack) 57.5%

Pain Relievers (nonmedical use) 56.6%

Marijuana 42.4%

Alcohol 25.7%

For those who have seen my calls to legalize heroin as a sign of insanity, this survey shows that 1) 13.4% of first time heroin users were dependent within two years (and therefore 86.6% of first time heroin users were not dependent within two years) and 2) Of first time heroin users, 69.4% were not using the drug within the following year.

Take the numbers for what you will, but I'd love to see the study that can actually tell the story of a drug that ensnares unwitting users. As I've been saying for years now, the facts of drug use and abuse don't match our draconian law enforcement approach. It's not science or reason that sets the terms of our drug policy, but superstition and tradition.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

No MILF's Need Apply

I had noticed the news about complaints of vulgarity on NBC's Thursday night comedies 30 Rock and The Office earlier this week, but didn't actually take the time to read the entire story.

Funnier than the complaints? The New York Times not actually printing the words "MILF Island" choosing instead to write:

In the case of “30 Rock,” the reference came in the form of an acronym — part of the title of a make-believe “Survivor”-like show — referring to a teenager’s crude designation of someone’s sexy mother.

Polygamy means getting nailed from the right and the left

Nasty little article on Alternet about the recently busted polygamist compound in Texas. What caught my eye was the opening line:

There is nothing so dangerous for a child as an insular, patriarchal religious organization ...

I just wonder if the writers would similarly support government intervention and the tearing of children away from families if the "insular, patriarchal religious organization" had happened to be an indigenous tribe in the Amazon or the South Pacific. Tolerance is a real bitch when it's white women dressed up liked 18th century pioneers, ain't it?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Pre-emption, Part II

To continue the discussion from last post, let's examine the issue of FDA preemption. Rather than deal with what the law is, we'll discuss what the law should be, specifically in reference to drugs. (Drugs are a good reference point because they are probably the most difficult product to deal with in a legal sense because of their differing effects on different individuals.)

So lets throw the question out there- Should FDA approval of a drug X mean that drug manufacturer Y should be relieved of liability againast claims that drug X, as it has been approved, is a dangerous product?

Rather than getting too worked up into a libertarian froth over the existence of the FDA in the first place, lets just work with this legal puzzle assuming that we do have some sort of regulatory body that approves the use of new drugs. Given the existence of such a body, does it really make sense for decisions about a drug's safety, made by scientists and professionals, to be basically overturned by a jury decision? Personally, I'd argue no. Pharmaceutical companies literally spend billions of dollars on research and clinical trials that the FDA spends years reviewing. The FDA is supposed to be staffed with scientists and experts. On what planet would a jury of untrained lay people be better equip than government experts to make technical judgments about drug safety. For anyone who might think otherwise, I'd ask this. Which drug would you feel safer taking- the one that's FDA approved or the one that was approved by a jury in upstate New York.

This may seem like a somewhat un-libertarian position for me to take, but it's just common sense. It would take an inordinate amount of corruption and incompetence to make me feel more comfortable with a lay jury making decisions on drug safety. One fact that's become painfully obvious to me as I've gotten older is that the jury system was not designed for some of the extreme technical matters they're asked to decide in the modern world.

Libertarians tend not to like regulation because it's intrusive, excessive, and inefficient. And drug regulation is certainly all of that, but when it comes to legal decisions that need to be made about drug safety, I'd rather have those sorts of necessary decisions made by individuals who have at least some small glimmer into the subject matter. When making decisions about drug safety, the FDA examines the entire record, weighing the benefits with the potential negative side effects. Juries tend not to take such macro views, looking mostly to the injured party.

To put it most simply, I guess it comes down to this- If we're going to have a government body that decides whether or not drugs are safe for use, absent some evidence of mistake or wrong doing, why should we allow those decisions to be overturned by juries?

Pre-emption, part I

The New York Times has an editorial today in support of an article from last week on the topic of FDA preemption. Not surprisingly, the Times gets the facts wrong, wrong, wrong. I fully expect this issue of preemption to become more of a major news story, as the Supreme Court has already ruled on a case involving medical devices and may soon rule on a case involving pharmaceuticals, so it's a shame the reporting on the most basic aspects of law involved has been so piss poor.

Rather than get into all the technical aspects of FDA regulation and judicial review of regulatory authority, we can just stick with the basics. Basically, the idea of preemption is that when a product's sale is conditional on some form of government approval, that approval should preempt the right of parties to sue a company for a defective product, when the company manufactured the product while relying on the government's approval. The way the New York Times has been reporting, you get the impression that preemption means Company X would have blanket immunity for any product that causes injury. That's not the case. To understand the actual impact of preemption, you need to understand some of the basics of product liability law.

Product liability law is a subset of tort law that allows injured individuals to sue and recover for damages without having to show fault on the part of the manufacturer. Two means of bringing a product liability lawsuit is to prove that the product in question was defective because of either 1- a design defect, or 2- a manufacturing defect. The notion of preemption applies only to design defects, the idea being that if the government approves a specific design in the first place, manufacturers should be protected from being sued for that design.

It should be fairly obvious, but preemption does not apply to manufacturing defects. A manufacturing defect means that the product in question was not manufactured according to specs. Therefore, it would make little sense if government approval of a specific design would preempt a lawsuit filed on the grounds that a product was not manufactured in accordance with the approved methods.

The Times discusses the case of Johnson & Johnson's Ortho Evra birth control pill as an example of horrors preemption means for consumers, but they seem to be missing the boat. I don't know much at all about the case, but the facts the New York Times seems to be concerned with seem to be a question of fraud more than anything else.

I'm amazed that basic legal issues can get so twisted that they become unrecognizable to the lay public, but that's exactly what the Times has done. The question of preemption is certainly relevant, just not in the way it's been reported. The truth is that I don't see an easy answer whether you're coming from a liberal, conservative, or libertarian point of view. More later ...

Trans Fat Ban Goes Local

In local news, Stamford Connecticut has decided to ban trans fats. I caught Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy on the radio this morning talking about the ban, and not surprisingly, I was less than impressed. It's not just that these intrusions bother me, it's the utterly ridiculous ways they're justified. In his brief radio interview, Malloy compared trans fat bans to vitamins in milk and water fluoridation, neither of which are programs mandated by law to the exclusion of other options. Milk producers choose to fortify some milk with vitamins and some water systems add fluoride to their drinking water.

Worse yet is the arrogance of "we know what's good for you" that takes on dimensions of cultural and racial bias. Malloy pointed out in his radio interview, that well over 30% of his city's population was born in other countries and may not have the education we natural born Americans have about the relative health merits of various cooking techniques. He then mentioned that the McDonalds and Burger Kings of the world had already made the switch away from frying in trans fats and it was mainly Chinese, Indian, and Latino restaurants that hadn't yet made the switch. Cultural elitism is cultural elitism whether it comes wearing a white hood or a health inspector's badge. It's not a question of the relative merits of cooking with trans fats, but a question of the role of government.

Friday, April 11, 2008

More Health Care Tragedies

Paul Krugman from today's New York Times on Health Care Horror Stories.

And if being a progressive means anything, it means believing that we need universal health care ...

And if being a libertarian (or a conservative for that matter) means anything, it means not relying on tragic stories in shaping the methods and mechanisms for the delivery of health care services. This is not to say we can't help the unfortunate, only that the unfortunate shouldn't determine the entirety of our policy.

The Very Best of South Park

I'm always spouting off about South Park, so I figured it was time to finally come up with a "Best Of" list. Problem is, I got a little carried away, and as some of you know, I've actually been working on this for a few weeks. South Park has had it's share of misses over the years, but there have been far, far more hits. Rather than come up with any real rankings, I've decided to come up with several lists, one of the show's top ten episodes, another list of the remainder of the show's top fifty, and finally, because this was such hard work, a list of episodes worthy of consideration.

So without further ado, the lonely libertarian's top ten episodes of South Park, in no particular order. (The season number is in parentheses.)

(3) Sexual Harassment Panda
Perhaps the creepiest mascot ever, with that undeniably wonderful little song.

(5) Scott Tenorman Must Die
Cartman at his most evil and psychotic in a twisted tale a revenge. Bonus points for Radiohead laughing as Scott Tenorman cries over eating his dead parents.

(5) Cartmanland
Cartman gets to be evil in a way only a little kid could be, plus, everyone gets a little lesson in basic economics.

(6) My Future Self N' Me
A great polemic on why it's not good to lie to your kids about drugs. Bonus points for Randy cutting off fake future Stan's hand and for Cartman telling his real future self to go fuck himself.

(7) Casa Bonita
Cartman tricks Butters into believing it's the end of the world, all so he can go to a crappy Mexican restaurant.

(7) All About Mormons
Dum-dum-dum-dum-dum. A perfect example of South Park's treatment of religion- yeah we'll mock the crazy things you believe, but it's not personal. Mormons believe some weird stuff but they're a bunch of super nice people.

(8) Douche and Turd
The most important commentary on the 2004 election. Voting matters why?

(8) Woodland Critter Christmas
The most twisted Christmas story ever, made all the better with the revelation that it's Cartman giving a school presentation.

(9) Marjorine
More kids getting to be kids as Butters disguises himself as the new girl in town. Perhaps even more enjoyable is Butter's faked death and his parents re-enactment of pet cemetery.

(11) Imaginationland trilogy
On the list for sheer, well .. imagination. Great use of past characters and great use of the most unimaginative song ever sung about imagination.

And The Remainder of the Top 50:

(1) Mecha-Streisand
(2) Gnomes
(2) Clubhouses
(2) Chicken Pox
(3) Rainforest Scmainforest
(3) Chef's Mama (aka Sucubus)
(3) Jakavasaur
(3) Starvin' Marvin In Space
(4) Cartman's Silly Little Hate Crime 2000
(4) Cartman Joins NAMBLA
(4) Cherokee Hair Tampons
(4) Chef Goes Nanners
(5) The Super Best Friends
(5) Proper Condom Use
(5) Here Comes The Neighborhood
(5) Butters Very Own Episode
(6) Freak Strike
(6) Asspen
(6) Free Hat
(6) Return of the Fellowship of the Ring to the Two Towers
(6) The Biggest Douche in the Universe
(6) The Death Camp Of Tolerance
(6) Red Sleigh Down
(7) Butt Out
(7) I'm a Little Bit Country
(8) The Jeffersons
(8) Goobacks
(8) Something Wal-Mart This Way Comes
(9) Die Hippie, Die
(9) Ginger Kids
(9) Free Willyz-X
(10) Cartoon Wars
(10) Go God Go!
(10) Manbearpig
(10) Make Love, Not Warcraft
(11) Cartman Sucks
(11) D-Yikes
(11) Night of the Living Homeless

And finally, those just missing the cut:

(1) Starvin' Marvin
(2) Chickenlover
(2) Roger Ebert Should Lay Off The Fatty Foods
(2) Merry Christmas Charles Manson
(3) Cat Orgy
(3) Jewbilee
(4) Timmy 2000
(4) Do The Handicapped Go To Hell?
(4) Probably
(4) Pip
(4) The Wacky Molestation Adventure
(5) Osama bin Laden Has Farty Pants
(6) Jared Has Aides
(6) The New Terrance and Phillip Movie Trailer
(7) Canceled
(8) The Passion of the Jew
(9) Two Days Before The Day After Tomorrow
(9) Trapped in the Closet

I haven't included any of season 12, just because those episodes probably need some time to sink in. And there are a number of popular episodes I haven't included on my list. Wikipedia lists Comedy Central's Top 27 episodes and on that list but missing from my list of 67 includes:

(1) Big Gay Al's Big Gay Boat Ride
(1) Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo
(1) Cartman's Mom A Dirty Slut
(2) Cartman's Mom Is Still A Dirty Slut
(2) Chef's Chocolate Salty Balls
(3) Chinpokomon
(5) It Hits The Fan
(5) Towelie
(5) Kenny Dies
(5) Cripple Fight
(7) Fat Butt and Pancake Head
(7) Christian Rock Hard
(8) Good Time With Weapons
(8) Up The Down Steroid

Not to sound overly arrogant, but much of the Comedy Central list seems geared toward simple jokes and catch phrases. Comments on my list are welcome, particularly on episodes left out of the big mass of "best episodes" and episodes that may belong in the top 10. Also, any episodes I've listed that shouldn't be there? I'm sure there are some I've left out or neglected to appreciate. Just don't try to tell me the Jennifer Lopez episode is a high point of South Park ... funny at times, sure, but not an example of the best the show is capable of.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

More Media Crap

Bloggers Megan McArdle and Glenn Greenwald have been busy engaging in a war of words over the relatively poor state of the national political media. Greenwald sees, alternatively, laziness, or something far darker in the mainstream media's failure to thoroughly hash out political news. McArdle merely sees a consumer driven media that cares more about Barack Obama bowling than John Yoo's torture memo.

Greenwald started the debate, McArdle responded, and Greenwald posted a rather nasty rebuttal.

Mostly responding to her commenters, Megan McArdle has four follow up posts; Reading is Fundamental, A Great Business Opportunity, The Real Problem with the Media, and Media's Sacred Trust Is Sadly Not a Trust Fund.

Greenwald and McArdle are basically in agreement about poor political coverage in the mainstream media- the debate is really just about root causes. I should note, I definitely fall on the Megan McArdle side of things. Perhaps most importantly, there is a major difference between editorial choices in large newspapers and major media outlets and what journalists working for those outlets would actually want to report on. But whether talking about journalistic or editorial choices, I tend to be suspicious of theories that apply to the monolithic media as a whole.

Here's the thing- I do think, in general, the mainstream media sucks from an objective standpoint. But my complaints tend to have to do more with specific disciplines. Science reporting is bad, legal reporting is bad, and economic reporting ain't so hot. Relatively, I don't think the state of political reporting is so bad- generally, most reports get the basics right, unlike in some of those other disciplines.

To argue about the relative prominence and the relative merits of some stories over others, well ... I think you're treading on to unsteady ground. As Megan has discussed time and time again, you can't leave out the issue of consumer tastes- papers can only print what's going to sell. But maybe even more importantly, how do you weigh questions of consumer tastes and relative costs with even more nebulous concepts of personal and political judgments. So yes, Greenwald is correct that political judgments do play a role in political coverage, however, it's merely one of any number of factors. In the end, the mainstream media isn't a monolithic organization making one group decision- it's an amalgamation of various connected and unconnected newspapers, news outlets and television networks. Each organization has it's own editorial choices to be made and for the bigger organizations (like say the 24 hour cable news outlets) there are editorial decisions to be made on various levels for various sorts of programming.

Glenn Greenwald laments the lack of attention the mainstream media has paid to the story of John Yoo's torture memos to the Bush administration, but as I've just finished pointing out, there are a multitude of factors that play into how and how much a news story is covered. I wouldn't dream of coming up with a simple theory to explain the multitude of journalistic and editorial decisions that occurred. I buy what Megan McArdle has to say because it's loosely based on all these factors. I question what Glenn Greenwald has to say because his explanation attempts to be all-encompassing. Glenn Greenwald thinks the John Yoo story is of eminent national importance- good for him and thank God for the internet for providing a forum for the story to be discussed. I'm not sure what Megan McArdle thinks- the fact that she hasn't weighed in on the issue says as much about her specific role as a blogger on economics and economic policy as it does about anything else.

My comments on the mainstream media, both today and in the past on this blog, tend to refer to specific instances of poor explanations of technical matters, explanations that distort the basic facts of a story. It's not always true across the board, just a phenomenon I've observed on multitudes of occasions, a phenomenon by the way, that I've never really tried to explain. Here's the difference between me and Greenwald- my criticism relates strictly to the manner of chosen subject matter. Greenwald's criticism on the other hand, is specifically about the selection of subject matter. I don't get all bent out of shape that the media doesn't cover all the stuff I find important, I only get worked up when they do a poor ass job of covering the news they do cover.

Why Would a Libertarian Vote For Obama?

I was posed that question and figured it was worth the time to hash it all out on the ol' blog.

First and most importantly, I don't think any real libertarian- or any real believer in limited government can a defend a vote for either Obama or McCain on any grounds other than having to to make a choice between the two of them. Neither of them are very appealing, but I think a number of libertarian arguments could be made on both sides that one is better than the other. In no particular order, here are some reasons why a libertarian might vote for Obama.

1- Just as simply a rejection of the Bush administration, in particular over civil liberty issues.

2- The anti-war vote, not because Obama will bring the troops home right away, but because he's likely to start bring troops home sooner than McCain.

3- In the hopes Obama will be a more reasoned voice in the Drug War. At the very least, many of his public statements have indicated that cracking down on drugs is not a priority.

4- Obama seems less likely than McCain to waste time and money on issues like steroids in baseball and gambling.

5- Because McCain was the architect of campaign finance reform, the bane of every free speech loving American's existence.

6- Because McCain's brand of "national greatness" conservatism is more concerned with duty and public service than it is with limited government.

7- In the hopes Obama's (or any Democrat's) big government proposals will get more opposition from Republicans in Congress than would McCain's big government proposals.

8- I've heard bits and snippets of good talk on free trade from both Obama and his supporters and McCain and his supporters. I think it's a stretch to weight trade in Obama's favor, not because of what he might or might not do, but because the Democrat base seems so opposed to free trade. McCain has talked a good game in recent weeks, but hardly enough to inspire any confidence who someone who previously talked about not understanding economics.

9- Barack Obama's health care plan isn't as bad as Hillary Clinton's or even as bad as Mitt Romney's program in Massachusetts. Obama's plan would not mandate health insurance coverage.

When it comes to Obama, I'm not fooled or particularly excited by his dialog of hope and change. Politics is politics is politics is what I always say. I also wonder what would be better; the crushed looks of Obama supporters if he failed to win the election or the more slowly realized sense of horror that the Obama administration will not in fact be bringing rainbows, unicorns, and harmony to every street corner.

Under no circumstances will I vote for John McCain and I couldn't really say exactly why not, other than his role in campaign finance reform which I just find to be a horrendous assault on the basic principles of democracy and free speech that this nation was founded on. McCain talks a good game on making government more efficient and cutting back on pork barrel spending, but deep down he's a statist, and there's no aspect of our lives he wouldn't feel comfortable interfering with in the name of some greater good. Obama is a possibility for myself and many other libertarians, I think because there's the hope he could actually take some bold, freedom oriented stances once the mess with Hillary comes to a close.

Personally though, I'm not all that convinced on Obama. And more importantly, he's going to win Connecticut, making my own vote of little consequence. I'll probably end up voting for whichever certifiably inane person the Libertarian party nominates, just as a protest vote, although I am excited that formed Republican congressmen Bob Barr has announced he will seek the Libertarian party nomination. (Many might remember him from his appearance in Borat.)

Monday, April 07, 2008

More Signs I'm Not Crazy

Liverpool, England to ban the sale of Happy Meals.

Cllr Paul Twigger, who presented a childhood obesity panel final report, said: “We want to look at some restrictions on not just Happy Meals, but Mars, Burger King and Wimpey and the like, because offering gimmicks with food is unethical.

“McDonald’s say their Happy Meals are low in salt, sugar and fat along with 75% of the food they sell.

“But I believe the majority of the food bought at McDonald’s accounts for the 25% high in fat, salt and sugar.”

Paul Krugman and Health Care Costs

Paul Krugman, from last week, on John McCain's Voodoo Health Economics. Now I'm no McCain fan, nor am I am I intimately familiar with his health care plan, but as a general matter, I know for a fact that market competition is the best method for providing goods and services. Krugman attempts to refute this by pointing out that those with preexisting medical conditions (like Elizabeth Edwards or John McCain's cancer) would not be able to afford medical insurance even if market competition lowered insurance costs. To that I'd respond ... duhhhh.

To act as though the problem of high costs for those with preexisting medical conditions is an example of market failure is just plain ridiculous. If you have no insurance and you want to be covered, of course it's going to cost a hell of a lot if you have a preexisting condition. Insurance companies are in the business of selling insurance and making money, not taking on charity cases. To act as though people with preexisting medical conditions shouldn't have to pay for those conditions accordingly in a market system is to say that my car insurance company should insure me for the same cost as every other driver even though my car happens to be on fire. It's not an issue of the market failing, it's an issue of individuals being in situations where they can't afford to cover their own expenses.

The real issue here is the argument for mandated universal coverage that Krugman has been pushing since the primaries started. You don't have the problems of individuals seeking insurance with preexisting conditions in any system where health insurance coverage is mandated. In theory, the costs of insurance should be reduced if everyone is paying into the system. But whether you have a system of mandates or not, someone is being neglected. Without mandates, the neglected are the sick without medical insurance. With mandates, the neglected are the young and healthy, forced to pay costs they may not have otherwise chosen to pay.

Here's the difference- society can find ways to help with those who have fallen on hard times, whether through charity or the more liberal notion of government assistance programs. Forcing people to purchase health insurance they don't want? It's just not right man. It's government putting money in the pockets of the insurance industry and thinly veiled tax and government lifestyle mandate.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Parking Wars

The inability of people to follow directions never fails to amaze me and this weekend's Hartford Courant highlighted an example I'm quite familiar with. The piece, by consumer watchdog George Gombossy, tells of the trials and tribulations of an East Hampton resident who struggled to resolve a Hartford parking ticket issued to the resident's old license plate which had been stolen.

It's a sob story, but one that could have been avoided if the man had just followed directions. Working as a parking citation hearing officer, I'm quite familiar with how the process works. What we have to work with is the information provided to us by the DMV- if the information we have from the DMV says such and such plate is registered in your name, then you're going to need the appropriate paperwork to clear things up if there's misunderstanding.

The gentleman in the story never actually provided the appropriate body with the appropriate paperwork, so hence his problem. Rather than contacting the Hartford Parking Authority, which issues the tickets, or the Citation Hearing Office, which has the authority to dismiss the ticket, he spent time calling the Hartford police, the East Hampton police, and the Attorney General's office. When he actually called the Citation Hearing Office, he heard a recorded message to mail a copy of the police report of his stolen plate to the office- rather than following those instructions, he sent a fax to a different number.

When a delinquent parking notice is sent in the mail, the appropriate phone number is on that notice- calling that number will give you the information you need. Resolving a parking ticket issued to your stolen license plate is as simple as calling the number,listening to instructions, making a copy of the appropriate paperwork, and putting it in the mail.

The thing is, I know it sucks. Dealing with any bureaucracy sucks. It's no fun and it can take time- but what other solutions are there when it comes to parking tickets on busy city streets, other than not regulating parking in the first place (and just give that a few days to see what a disaster that would be)? Getting the appropriate paperwork to the appropriate people seems reasonable. Generally things tend to work smoothly, but when the appropriate instructions aren't followed, you just make things more difficult for yourself.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Catching Up On Lost

After not having seen a episode a month ago, I now find myself nearly caught up to speed on the ABC hit Lost. I finished season three a few weeks ago and I've spent the last two weeks catching up with enhanced repeats of the first two episodes of season four. It looks like I may have to watch about four episodes on the computer to get fully caught up, but that'll be a small price to pay to actually get to enjoy the end of season four in real time when it gets started in a few weeks.

To any potential commenters, please don't bombard me with spoilers - I'm two episodes into season four, and we've just met Daniel, Miles, Charlotte, and Frank. My McBlogging buddy posed the question of why this team was formed when he blogged back during the episode's initial airing and it seems quite obvious to me. Charlotte is clearly some sort of anthropologist/archeologist with knowledge of the Dharma initiative and polar bears in unusual places. Daniel is the physicist, capable of understanding the unique electromagnetic properties of the island. And Miles has his paranormal skills - perhaps so he can talk to Jacob and unravel the other mysteries of the island?

Then there's Frank, the pilot, who part of me can't help but wonder if he was somehow drawn to the island after not piloting Oceanic Flight 815 as he was supposed to. The supposed mission of this team- to bring back Benjamin Linus- seems a bit too simplistic for me. There's certainly more going on than just wanting Ben, but I'll be damned if I know what it is. The great thing about Lost is that for all the mysteries that have been revealed, plenty still remain and plenty more remain to be discovered. I don't know if it's just me, but there seemed to be honesty in his voice when Ben told Locke he didn't know what the black smoke was.

More on Lost later perhaps, before the second half of season four kicks off.

He That Believeth in Me

Battlestar Galactica returned with a bang last night, an enjoyable experience highlighted by the Sci Fi Channel HD, a recent addition to my cable package. And what a night for HD! Season four began right where season three left off, as Starbuck returned just as mysteriously as she disappeared, right in the midst of an all-out Cylon assault. The visually stunning opening bang soon gave way to the mystery of the fourth season- the identity of the last remaining Cylon and the truth of Starbuck's experiences.

Over the past few weeks I've read more than a few criticisms of the show as a whole and I'll get to those in time, but for now lets just say that last night's season premier renewed my faith in the show's never ending ability to reinvent itself. What's truly great about Galactica is it's ability to seamlessly shift from the political to the personal to the mystical. Last night, after the initial special effects extravaganza, the mystical was on display as Starbuck cliamed to have found earth. Problem is, she cliams to only have been gone six hours, while the rest of Galactica had thought she'd been dead for several months. And to top it all off, the viper she returned in was not the well-worn fighter she'd left in, but some sort of brand new, unscathed duplicate.

The cliffhanger ended with Starbuck pointing a gun at President Roslin. The tone of the episode leads you to believe that Starbuck is the 12th Cylon, but her behavior on her return should make it obvious that she's not- Starbuck's experience was clearly religious in nature and her role this season will be to further pursue that religious experience. Meanwhile, the other lead contender for the part of the 12th Cylon model, Dr. Baltar, finds himself the focus of a religious cult, populated by numerous attractive young women and one sick little boy. Even my fiance, half-watching in the background, was quick to notice the Jesus parallels- the cult of personality like attraction, the belief in one true God, and of course, the Jesus-like facial hair.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the show this season, even more so than the search for earth, will be the exploration of spirituality and God. We have several characters with intense spiritual connections and beliefs- Obviously there's Dr. Baltar and Starbuck, but let's not forget Laura Roslin and her shared visions with the captured Number 6 of the opera house on Kobol. Not should we forget the most spirtual Cylon, Leoben, who, all the way back in the first season, told Starbuck that she would find Kobol and Earth. For those who would doubt the importance of spiritual beliefs this season, just look at the episode titles- in addition to last night's "He That Believeth In Me" there are also episodes on the schedule (according to Wikipedia) entitled "Faith" and "Revelations."