Monday, June 29, 2009

The Dollars Don't Add Up (Several Premium Channel Reviews)

Having finished The Wire, my wife and I decided to give another premium channel show, Showtime's Weeds, a try. And having sat through the first six episodes, I have to say I'm more than a bit disappointed. I get that I'm supposed to be watching a comedy (Kevin Nealon gave that away) and I get that it's supposed to be a satire. But what I don't get is what exactly the show is trying to say about it's namesake, marijuana. As someone tangentially familiar with marijuana culture, much of what I see in Weeds just doesn't ring true. I don't tend to associate drive by shootings, turf wars, and money laundering with marijuana, but that's precisely what I've seen in the first half of season one. And beyond all that, I can't even tell whether the show thinks pot is a big deal or not. Early on, our heroine Nancy's brother-in-law is arrested on a minor pot charge and forced to attend marijuana-anonymous, an organization I'm fairly certain does not actually exist. Creating such an organization seems to be a light-hearted attempt at humor, but it's rather poor satire to poke fun at the way the real world treats marijuana use by creating a reality where marijuana use is more serious and the marijuana trade is more dangerous than our own.

I've got two other big problems with Weeds, one of which is that the show plays in racial stereotypes that border on offensive and are all the more noticeable after finishing the Wire. I cringed when the pot dealing black family, Big Mama included, all pulled out their guns immediately following the previously mentioned drive by shooting. My other problem is more about how the dollars and cents literally don't add up. Nancy is shown selling pot to a group of relatively well off suburban male acquaintances, but beyond that we're never given much clue as to the extent of her business. But what we are told is that 1- She doesn't have enough money to buy new pot so she has to leave her new car with the aforementioned drug dealing black family as collateral and 2- She's encouraged to set up a bakery as a front business to launder her drug money, taking over a very large space from what had been an Indian restaurant. Money laundering is for the Marlo's and Proposition Joe's of the world, not for pot dealers who can't pay for their own resupply. As I said, the dollars and cents just don't add up.

Speaking of dollars and cents that don't add up, my wife and I also caught HBO's new series Hung, another a show about a character pushed into the black market to make ends meet. Notice a theme here, only this time, as the title would indicate, the black market in question is male, how do we say, services. Our hero in Hung is Ray Drecker, a divorced school teacher and basketball coach, who turns to the world's oldest profession after his insurance-less house burns down and his kids move back with his ex-wife. But once again, we have a real monetary issue. The burned down house was Ray's parents- meaning no mortgage- and it's prime real estate on a lake that's clearly in the midst of a real estate boom. What the show never explains is how this guy is so broke he can't even give his son $50 bucks to go to a metal concert.

Programs on HBO and Showtime tend to get all the credit in the world for being edgy, but oftentimes that edginess comes across as rather manufactured. I haven't even mentioned True Blood, which my wife enjoys, but I find to be rather dull, and, well, manufactured. The whole idea of vampires comes out of the closet is just a bit over-the-top for my taste and I never buy that what I'm watching is supposed to be taking place in Louisiana. I believe Big Love as taking place in Mormon Utah, I believe the Wire takes place in Baltimore, and I believe Californication takes place in L.A., but the rest of this stuff ... I just don't buy it.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Gas Prices

I've heard some rumbling lately about rising gas prices and after having experienced such intense price fluctuations in the past year I'm left wondering how it is people can still think that high gas prices are the result of secret price fixing on the part of evil oil companies.

It's rather humorous that all the chatter about evil oil companies and their greedy corporate profits disappeared as prices plummeted, but have now emerged again as prices are again rising. If corporate greed is to blame when prices go up, than what the hell is to blame when prices go down, as they did by nearly $3.00 a gallon last fall?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Wrong Way

In the midst of it's horrific budget crisis, the state of California today announced that it will soon be forced to pay it's creditors with IOU's.

I've followed the California crisis only tangentially, but I've been more than a bit disappointed with the political response. As reported by the Times, the state plans on cutting health insurance for poor children, the state's main welfare program, and college financial aid. This is the wrong way to go, particularly for Republicans. Not only does it play into the stereotype that Republicans don't care about the poor and downtrodden, but it does little to actually reduce the scope of California's government which is the state's largest problem.

As a conservative, liberal, or libertarian, why should cutting programs to the poor be the first response? In local government, proposed budget cuts are usually directed at "essential" services, but be it state, local, or federal, budget cuts are rarely directed at the bureaucratic infrastructure. Why not cut consumer protection, environmental protection, or any one of the other big agencies that eats up tax dollars with a big mission and even bigger salaries? What political ideology honestly tells us that employing X number of people in an environmental protection department is more of an imperative than emergency services or programs for the poor? Yet that's precisely the message we get from government, regardless of party and regardless of ideology.

Question For The Nanny Staters

Watching Reason's Radley Balko take part in this Denver area forum on the nanny state left me wondering ... How do nanny state supporters (or at least nanny staters of the liberal variety) reconcile government authority over drinking, smoking, and eating with privacy in the sexual realm? Or in other words, why does the government have the authority to ban trans fats but not the authority to mandate safe sex?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Dog Days of Summer

Last week, the inestimable Radley Balko hit briefly on Prince George Count clearing it's own officers of wrong doing in the Cheye Calvo raid last summer. Long term readers will remember this was the case where the mayor of Berwyn Heights, Maryland had his two labrador retrievers shot and killed by county police during a botched drug trade. The mayor was innocent of any wrong doing, having only been on the wrong end of a drug trafficking conspiracy when a package wound up at his house.

Balko has been excellent at documenting such law enforcement abuses, utilizing his blog over the past several years to point out the numerous occasions innocent dogs have been shot by police. As a dog owner- specifically a lab owner- I've followed these incidents intently and it's pretty damn clear that, like door-busting drug raids, these incidents are far too common. Balko points out, time and time again, that 1- police are held to a seemingly lower standard than you or I would be when shooting people's pets and 2- that it makes no sense that trained law enforcement officers can't understand the difference between a dog attacking and a dog looking to play.

It's really all about the drug war (it always is) and Balko's other theme of police militarization. To delve into a personal anecdote for a minute, I take my two labs to work with me 3 or 4 times a week and have been doing so for the past year and a half. My black girl, Devon, is 6 and always behaves herself, but my chocolate boy, Callahan, is only 3 and just growing out of being a puppy. Both dogs are super friendly to everyone who comes into the small, two-story building where I work, but Callahan is occasionally spooked by loud noises down the hall and with a few loud barks is off at a sprint to investigate. In the time since I've been bringing him in, I can honestly say he's spooked fewer than 5 people, even with all the running and the barking. Dog people can instantaneously recognize his sweet nature when they see him and even non-dog people can pick up on it pretty quick (probably because he tends to stop running once he can see you, gives you googly eyes and plops down in front of you so you can pet him). So of the dozens upon dozens of folks he's met at work, only several have been really scared by him.

I don't bring up my little story to make a point about numbers, only to point out that it seems to me that there are a lot of dog people in this country and even amongst non-dog people, there are plenty of them who can tell the difference between a dangerous and a not-so-dangerous dog. And I just don't think the police are any different from the rest of us - it's not as though there are just some overwhelming number of police that don't know dogs. No, what these dog shootings are about are attitudes and expectations. It's the difference between community policing and fighting a war on drugs. When we train police to fight a war, they're going to behave as though they are in a war zone. It's not about individual officers not knowing about dogs, it's about the atmosphere that encourages this thought process that the police are at war.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Tax Wars

Writing in the American Prospect, Matthew Yglesias writes that Progressives Need To Stop Worrying and Just Love Taxes. (I caught the story at at Reason)

Yglesias astutely points out that Obama succeeded in part because he adopted some of the anti-tax rhetoric of the right, promising tax cuts to the vast majority of Americans.

To some, Barack Obama's successful 2008 presidential campaign points the way out of the box. As Obama described his plan while debating Sen. John McCain, "If you make less than a quarter of a million dollars a year, your taxes will not go up; if you make less than $200,000 a year, your taxes will go down." In other words, there's no reason to fear tax hikes because you won't be paying them -- someone else will.

Obama did not change the framework so much as find a way to survive within it. A platform of no tax increases for the bottom 95 percent can win elections, but it reinforces rather than debunks the right's fundamental view of the tax question -- that public services aren't worth paying for -- and merely suggests that the correct answer is to get someone else to pay for them.

But then, being quite honest, Yglesias goes on to point out that this rhetoric of tax cuts will not sustain a progressive agenda in the long term.

This is, to be sure, better than the alternative, which is to provide no public services at all. And amid a cataclysmic recession, there are sound macroeconomic reasons to eschew any kind of tax increase until recovery is underway. Still, it's hard to see how a long-term progressive agenda can be financed with the revenues raised through this method. A March report by the Congressional Budget Office showed that the administration's proposed budget would lead to unsustainably large deficits in which interest payments would steadily grow as a slice of the budget pie.

All in all, it's an interesting piece and I give Yglesias a lot of credit for his honesty. There's something to be said for pushing this idea that government programs and services actually cost money. Just look at any town or municipal government today and you'll see large numbers of peoples who want both A) lower taxes and B) the same level of services if not more. I've written about it time and time again on this blog, in any number of contexts, but there are substantial numbers of people out there who basically just want more for less. For some of these folks this is about class warfare- let the rich pay for it- but for others the thought process probably doesn't even go that far.

And let's be honest, this isn't a liberal or conservative problem in particular, as the rhetoric of both sides over the past thirty has fueled the fire. On the left all we here about is what the government can do for us without ever hearing what it's going to cost us. And from the right, all we hear about are tax cuts without ever hearing what programs and services are going to be sacrificed. Liberals have avoided raising taxes and conservatives have been even worse about spending.

It shouldn't be too surprising that I completely disagree with Yglesias's position on higher taxes, but I would say he's on to something when he encourages us to think about what our taxes are paying for. Yglesias thinks this should make each and everyone of us happy to write a big fat check to the IRS every year, but even for the biggest liberal in the world this doesn't make logical sense. Say for instance you are a big time liberal and you are concerned with increasing services for the poorest and most vulnerable citizens. That money could come from raising taxes, but there's no reason it couldn't also come from cutting wasteful or unnecessary programs. I just can't see how, if given the choice, any anti-war liberal would chose A) increases taxes to pay for programs for the poor over B) end the war in Iraq, bring the troops home, reduce military spending, and siphon the money that had been for the military to pay for programs for the poor.

Far too much time has been wasted debating Yglesias and his ilk over taxes. Case-in-point, the right beat the anti-tax drum repeatedly during the Bush years as the federal government grew larger in scope and larger in dollars. What limited government types need to do is to continue to present the numerous ways in which government mismanages money and the numerous areas government shouldn't be involved with in the first place. Taxes are abstract whereas government expenditures are clear and precise. Taxes are, without a doubt, a winnable battle, but winning the battle over lower taxes means little if there's no battle over the scope and size of the government.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Violent Video Games

This thought popped into my head this weekend as my wife and I played some sort of racing game for Xbox with a younger cousin: Why is it that video game violence gets such a bad rap when video games essentially instruct in all sorts of bad behavior? If we're supposed to believe a shoot-em-up game is going to encourage children to behave violently, why wouldn't it be equally true that racing games encourage young people to drive recklessly when given the opportunity to drive? Just a thought.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Health Care Costs

Megan McArdle compares the left's promise to cut health care costs to the right's support of tax cuts as a means of growing government revenue. Here's what McArdle has to say on health care, which I'm much more interested in than the Laffer Curve at this point.

I'd say we have substantial empirical evidence that we are not going to control the health care cost inflation which is busting Medicare's budget, much less the new costs the administration is planning to add. We have been trying to control health care costs since the 1970s made it clear that Medicare was going to get really, really expensive. And any idea that you care to name, from comparative effectiveness research to healthcare IT to preventive medicine . . . these have all been on the table for more than thirty years, under one name or another. They haven't happened.

The answer that those promising magical cost reductions need to ask is "Why haven't they happened?" and "What has changed to make them feasible now?" But when I ask this question, I get angry demands that I put forward my plan for cost control, rather than merely critiquing everyone else's. This seems rather like demanding that I put forward my design for a perpetual motion machine before I am allowed to point out problems in the US energy market.

To those who say, pretty reasonably, "Why not demonstrate that you can control these costs in Medicare before asking us to believe you can do it with a broader program?" the response is something like a snapped, "But I don't want to just control Medicare costs! I want universal coverage!" Ah. Well, Republicans don't want to maximize tax revenue; they want to cut taxes. This does not make their now-deliberate wishful thinking any prettier. Nor obligate the rest of us to fulfill their desire at the expense of sound budget policy.

Perhaps the most telling rebuttal was the quite honest point made in the comment section.

Doesn't seem false to me. The evidence is that many other countries spend significantly less than the US while being comparable in relevant public health measures (life expectancy, infant mortality, etc.). So while cutting costs would certainly change the type of care delivered- fewer hip replacements, less heart surgery, etc.- it need not change the effectiveness of the care.

I know, I know, it's not the only reason and may not even be the biggest reason, but it's certainly a factor in the costs of the American system- Ordinary folks get more varied and different kinds of care than in the rest of the world. As I know from when I had my own arthroscopic knee surgery, the waiting lists for similar procedures in countries with government provided care can be months or longer. I didn't avoid a long waiting list for knee surgery because I was rich, I was just covered by a typical health insurance policy. And this is precisely why you will not be able to drastically cut health care costs in this country, because a vast majority of Americans have grown use to and expect that level of service. The lower costs models of other countries can't be applied here because there's no politically feasible way to cut back on anything we've already got.

The public may clamor for lower health care costs, but this is the same public that clamors for lower taxes while demanding more services. The insatiable and economically illiterate demands of the masses are just not possible.

"But It Hurts The Poor!" and other dumb arguments

The brilliant Matt Welch of Reason sheds some light on yet another liberal fallacy.

... L.A. Times columnist Tim Rutten chooses this moment in time to warn against the evils of–shudder–congestion pricing. An idea whose limited and tardy application in Southern California Rutten calls "a policy that discriminates against the working poor in a particularly burdensome way, because our public agencies provide most neighborhoods with the sketchiest of public transit alternatives." His fantastical plastical argument:

Let's imagine the new lanes are built and the new tolls are in operation. You're a single mother working in a downtown law office part time because your hours have been cut as one of the firm's economy measures. Just about noon, you get a call from the day-care center, where your 3-year-old is running a high fever. You decide to give up two badly needed hours of work to pick her up early, hoping she won't need a visit to the pediatrician because the state no longer funds healthcare for the working poor. About the same time you leave, the firm's managing partner heads out for lunch and a round of golf at his club.

Champion of the working poorDespite the time of day, L.A.'s freeways are inexplicably clogged -- virtual gridlock for no apparent reason. The new toll lanes, however, are moving freely. For the senior partner, it's a no-brainer. He pays the $1.40-a-mile toll without a first, let alone a second, thought and arrives at his club early enough for a Bloody Mary before lunch. Our single mom, however, looks at the bumper-to-bumper traffic around her, glances over at the freely moving toll lane and has to do the mental math to decide whether getting to her child in less than 90 minutes is worth being late with this month's rent.

What the heck, she's already disadvantaged by the status quo, so what's another hour of anguish?

A society that can rationalize the imposition of such pain doesn't need to worry over how to define equity; it needs to worry about its soul.

You call that imagination, Rutten? First of all, the senior partner didn't even smoke a thousand-dollar bill for breakfast, fondle his Mexican maid for lunch, or shoot a street urchin for a nightcap.... More substantively, as the Reason Foundation's Ted Balaker has tirelessly pointed out in such obscure fora as the Los Angeles Times, the way that the crappy status quo hurts our single mom RIGHT NOW, every day, is that the child care center in question often charges by the minute or half-hour, at rates that rack up during rush hour quite a bit higher than an HOV toll lane ever will. Congestion, which political pundits love complaining about but rarely propose solving beyond the impossible dream of "getting people off the road," is just horrifyingly costly, inefficient, and polluting. (Also, I'd bet a fistful of daycare credits that most people for whom $10 represents a possible late rent payment are not likely to be driving alone on a freeway to a child care center; if anything, they tend take the bus.)

I love how public policy fix-it ideas like toll lanes get called "ideological" by the Tim Ruttens of the world, but the absolutely abysmal status quo, in which people pay more and more money while their highways and roads get worse and worse, is magically free of the ideological taint.

For instance, you want to talk about making things harder for the working poor? Getta load of how the dominant political party in California intends to fix the budget crisis:

Democrats yesterday proposed a $15 automobile license fee and said they may consider a 9.9 percent per-barrel levy on oil produced in the state.


Democrats are also eyeing possible tax hikes on tobacco products and liquor, though they did not provide details.

Does our struggling single mom not pay for license fees or gas? Is it possible that she may be so bold as to enjoy an occasional alcoholic beverage or cigarette? And if the answer to any of those questions is "yes," how in hell does a couple of measly toll lanes require an entire society to search for its "soul," while a series of far more costly and impositional price-hikes isn't even considered "ideological"? Such, such are the joys of elite discourse in my native state.

Liberals like to talk about helping the poor and downtrodden, but funny how helping always comes down, first and foremost, to politics. Of course, I like to blame liberals, but the truth of the matter is we're talking about a mindset that crosses party ideological lines. It's not just about supporting big government, it's a real resistance to change.

Monday, June 15, 2009

And we'll go in there, Dr. Stein style ...

From today's Times: Obama Tries To Woo Doctors On Health Care. I've written very little on all the new and various proposals on health care that have been making the rounds in the news cycle in part because I've been busy, but also because I've probably beaten the health care discussion to death on this blog. I know I've made my thoughts clear: That our system sucks in numerous ways, mostly because of the effects of government policy, and that any health care reforms should be market oriented. And obviously, that's not where we seem to be headed.

Perhaps what's most galling about President Obama's words on the subject is the endless, two-fold drum beat that government can do better and we can do better individually. Solving "the health care problem" is supposedly as simple as the government dictating more efficiency (as if private industry has no interest in efficiency) and each and everyone of us just leading healthier lives.

I've reached the point where the obvious government leap into health care seems inevitable, so my thoughts now are about what would be the least disastrous. Noting the 40 million (or whatever the number is) of uninsured Americans, I wondered why we can't just have the government provide health insurance to those who don't have it. The fact that such a solution is both politically and practically unfeasible is fairly indicative of how meaningless that number is in the first place. There are plenty of relatively poor people who have health insurance and plenty of relatively high earners who do not and there's no way- repeat, no way- to insure each and every American without the government providing coverage for all or mandating coverage for all. And the obvious problem of government provided coverage without restriction is that most people would opt for government provided care and pocket the extra savings in their paychecks.

The real debate, the one that always gets lost in the fight over health care is that over the rights of individuals. Do we have the right to make decisions on health care for ourselves or will the needs of society as a whole dictate our individual choices? Some liberals may take umbridge at that statement, but mandating health insurance is dictating individual choices. Either you let individuals make choices or you don't ... and everything I hear from the Obama administration seems to hint we're going in the wrong direction.

Market Failure or Market Working?

Megan McArdle asks whether the lack of non-smoking bars is an example of market failure. McArdle, to be clear, is an opponent of smoking bans and is merely posing the theoretical question of why jurisdictions without smoking bans don't seem to have any non-smoking bars.

I'd posit that this isn't a market failure but a clear case of the market working. The reason that the market doesn't provide non-smoking bars is the same reason that the market eliminated fast food restaurants that allow smoking: because there's no demand for non-smoking bars and fast food restaurants that allow smoking. Non-smokers may say, "that's crazy," but the facts tell a different story. There was/is no demand for non-smoking bars because given the choice, smokers are going to go to smoking bars and non-smokers are going to follow their smoking friends. Non-smokers just don't care enough smoking in bars to abandon their smoking friends, just as smokers can forgo a cigarette to eat a quick meal at McDonalds. It's easy to say market failure, but I'm not so sure it happens too often in practice.

Friday, June 12, 2009

School Of Hard Knocks

Writing in the Nation, Liza Featherstone comments on the escalating costs of a college education and makes the case for free college education. Her piece is a study in liberal hyperbole, never really touching on economics or any of the different cost-benefit analysis's that ought to be considered. Mentioned in the piece as problems?

* The escalating cost of college that is making higher education unaffordable for some people.

* The declining relative value of federal grant money for higher education.

* The cutting of faculty and faculty pay, somehow seen as part of the problem rather than part of the solution to higher costs.

* The inefficient manner in which many universities spend money.

* The lack of minority students.

* The problem of people regarding the high costs of higher education as an individual rather than a collective problem.

The solution, of course, is free higher education, where free of course means paid-in-full by the government. Support is mentioned from a political science professor, but no word on what economists think about the idea. In the midst of burgeoning federal deficits I'd imagine most economists would say it's a bad idea, but that's just me. This doesn't mean that there are no problems with higher education costs (there are), nor does it mean there can't be a federal role in providing access to higher education. If someone proposed a good plan to increase federal spending on higher education, I wouldn't protest if it was a halfway decent plan. The problem is, "free higher ed" would mean higher taxes all around and money that should be for schools siphoned off to federal bureaucrats.

As I started to get into above, you'd have to be insane to think there wasn't a problem with the cost of higher education. Of course, the affordability problem is really one for private schools- public universities already receive tax dollars which is why they can keep costs down as much as they do. And even though the article mentions Sarah Lawrence College and it's $53,000 a year price tag, it ultimately is a private university that you can take or leave.

The real problem isn't the cost of higher education, but the fact that our general attitudes about higher education lead a vast number of folks to ignore questions about costs. Higher education, all higher education is seen as more of a right than a privilege, with the attitude of "I have a right to the education I want, regardless of cost" filtering down to both parents and children. We ignore costs, so schools ignore costs, so to speak. Even amongst private universities, the institutions develop in the mold of large government bureaucracies rather than vibrant, competing businesses.

Additionally, this idea of education as a right encourages a lack of direction amongst students. If we thought of higher education more properly as a commodity we're purchasing, students would take more care to examine the degree programs they select to ensure they're getting return value on their investment. Having received one myself, I'm pretty sure that liberal arts degrees are a dime a dozen and I'm even more sure that a liberal arts degree from a mediocre or even above-average private liberal arts college probably isn't going to get you double the return value of what you'd get from a similar degree from a quality state school.

Is it fair that rich kids can afford to go away to expensive private schools and spend years getting practically worthless degrees? Of course not, but it's no more unfair than anything else the rich can get to do. Our problem as a society is that we've adopted the attitude that each and everyone of us should have not just access to higher education, but access to the carefree higher education of the rich.

The biggest problem with federal money for higher education is that it's offered for all higher education, as though every college degree is created equal. If we know, for instance, that we have a nursing shortage, why not provide greater education subsides to those pursuing such degrees. There are always shortages of math and science teachers so why not provide free education for those going into that field. But is it imperative to subsidize every student who merely feels compelled to go to college? Or as my wife has told me the story of the kid from NYU with the specialized major in wine (not wine making, but wine), why would anyone need a free college education to study wine?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Wire As A Call For Drug Legalization

(The following continues a discussion of the now finished HBO series "The Wire" and may contain spoilers.)

As much as I may feel less politically inclined as I have in maybe ten years, I still am the lonely libertarian, so it would seem foolish not to reflect on the Wire as a vehicle for advocacy for ending the war on drugs and for drug legalization. For those of you who may not have been clear from the show, David Simon, creator and writer, explicitly came out in support of legalization after the conclusion of the show's five year run. And it's really not all that surprising. Not that the drug war is the only dysfunction portrayed by the Wire, but it is certainly an integral part. And for the poorest among us, for those born into the communities most affected, there is nothing more relevant than drugs, the drug trade, and the drug war.

To understand the Wire you have to understand that institutions have meaning and that the ideas that those institutions perpetuate have meaning as well. Drug prohibition effects law enforcement policy, politics, and the drug trade and it effects the individuals on all sides of the equation. To start with the basics, why does the illegal drug trade exist? To answer simply, because there are drug addicts, personified in the Wire by our man Bubbles. As long as there are addicts, there will be a need for drugs to feed their addiction. To get even more basic, there are people out there who want drugs and unless you can change the minds of every individual sole out of the hundreds of millions in this country, nothing is going to change the fact that people want drugs. And legal or illegal, there will always be those seeking to profit off those who want or need drugs.

So what do we do about this as a society? As the Wire shows us, the prohibition response we've attempted has been utterly and completely inadequate. The standard police response of roughing up the street dealers only hassles the street level players involved. It doesn't make neighborhoods safer and it doesn't get drugs off the streets. Even the more detailed police work of our own major crimes unit falls short from a big picture perspective. You can gut the Barksdales, but as the rise of Marlo Stanfield over the Wire's third and forth seasons shows us, there are always fresh faces willing and ready to get into the game. In short, the police are left plugging holes in a sieve, never able to do anything about the real problem.

One of the solutions, that's become more and more common place is for police to change the rules of the game. Rather than act as police, they act like an occupying army, best exemplified by the busting up of Hamsterdam in season three. Rawls watches as the troops march in, all while military music plays in the background. But the problem here is twofold. For one thing, this level of force is not sustainable, not across an entire city with anything resembling a normal police budget. So what you get instead or missions like these, occasional busts, and a militaristic mindset that convinces some officers that they are at war with the corners. More importantly, this mindset is the antithesis of community policing and is the exact wrong way to provide law an order. Not only can officers internalize this mindset, but the community at large can as well. What are young folks supposed to think when they see the police acting abusively, knocking down doors and roughing up the people they know and see on the streets. How can you tell people to come to the police for help when the police appear to be at war with your community? When taken in the context of urban poverty, what drug prohibition does is help to create an environment where the drug trade is seemingly one of the only ways out.

So why not legalization? I've made the call for it on this blog far too many times to count. Season 3 of the Wire made a similar call, in the form of Bunny Colvin's Hamsterdam project. Zone's were set up in abandoned neighborhood's throughout Colvin's district where the drug trade could be conducted freely and the police wouldn't interfere with drug dealing and drug use. It took some effort to get going, but as the project progressed, serious crime in Colvin's district declined by over 10%. Other than the drug-zoned areas, the dealers left the corners and the streets became more hospitable to the regular folk. Drug related violence declined as police were able to keep constant watch on the folks involved in the drug trade. There were some negative reactions- from the deacon who called the place hell- and from the press who never attempted to put the drug zones into any sort of context- but as a whole the project was a success. As Colvin himself put, whatever you may think about what's going on in Hamsterdam, is having that activity confined to a few square blocks really worse than having it go on all over the city?

All good things, of course, must come to an end and so did the Hamsterdam experiment once the press and the politicians got involved. Interestingly enough, Mayor Royce, who always seemed more of a career politician than anything else, seemed interested in the idea and postponed action as he and his staff worked it out. The ultimate problem was politics and the simple fact that there was no good way to spin legalization. In the end, no one cared about the crime rate, no one cared about the violence (or lack thereof), and no one even cared about what the people in the district thought about getting their neighborhood's back. Ultimately is was all about politics and the L word and the simple fact is that we have a political and media culture that can not and will not accept legalization.

I'd be curious to know if there's anyone familiar with the Wire who found the Hamsterdam project to be objectionable. I ask because there's always resistance to legalization proposals and I wonder what the supposed downside would be here. Now, obviously, Hamsterdam was only a small scale experiment that would not be indicative of full scale legalization. But given what we know about the drug trade from the Wire, what would legalization actually mean? Certainly, it'd be a difficult process, to make the change over from illegal to legal sale of drugs. What it would require is for those in the drug trade to follow and even more extreme form of the Stringer Bell/Proposition Joe plan and act like real businessmen. There's be licensing and regulation and all sorts of other hassles, but just like business in real life, there would be those willing to jump through those hoops in the hopes of making a buck. Drug dealers would have a choice of cleaning their acts up or not and the worst of them (the Greeks come to mind, with their dealing in human trafficking and stolen goods) may not even be able to join the party on the up and up. The point is, doing illegal shit costs a lot of money. Smuggling costs money, muscle costs money, and building an operation to avoid public scrutiny costs money. But to be able to sell drugs legally and out in the open, well, that has none of those costs. Legal sellers of drugs would have their contracts protected in a court of law and not have to rely on shoot outs. Legal sellers of drugs could rely on police protection. Just as there's no black market for alcohol or cigarettes, the black market for illegal drugs would dry up as the legal and cheaper alternatives emerged.

Does legalization mean allowing drug dealers to sell on every street corner or allowing junkies to shoot up in playgrounds. No and no. The images we have of illegal drugs are because they are illegal, not because of what those drugs are. Just as you can't sell alcohol on the street corner, you wouldn't be able to sell any drugs either. And just as there are rules about public drinking and public intoxication, there can be rules about public drug use. True legalization doesn't have to mean chaos and it doesn't even have to mean the controlled chaos of Hamsterdam.

Now some of you may ask, am I talking about heroin here? And yes, I'm talking about heroin. Yes it's terrible, yes it's the worst sort of drug there is out there, but that's exactly why the prohibition model is so useless. A heroin fiend is a heroin fiend and the law isn't going to change that. A heroin fiend will get his or her fix wherever they have to go to get it, be it a legal dispensary or from the shadiest of shady dealers in a back alley. Interestingly enough, the argument for prohibition is never about helping the addicts, nor is it about the people who have to live in communities heavily involved in the illegal drug trade. No, prohibition is always about new users, the people who aren't addicts yet. It's about protecting the kids, as if each and every one of us are potential addicts protected from this horror by only the thin line of prohibition. It's preposterous, but that is the essence of the argument. Even if prohibition reduced usage and reduced addiction- which I by no means will concede- there's still the question of why protecting individuals from their own choices is more important than protecting communities as a whole. Individuals have power over their own choices, but it's drug policy that helps create the environments we see in the Wire.

If the fact that drugs are illegal doesn't effect people's attitudes about drug dealing, then why would it effect their attitudes about drug use? Yet what we see in the show's forth season- a season that focussed primarily on a group of eight graders- is that the kids have no interest in using heroin despite it's availability on every corner. There's a level of measured respect if not flat out interest in the drug dealers, but no such interest in drug use. Forgetting about the law for a second, what I'm saying is that for these kids, drug dealing is culturally acceptable while drug use is not, but the path of the dealer and the user are both readily open. And these are big lessons as far as policy goes. If the cultural stigma against heroin exists without the law, than what purpose does the law serve, other than helping to create the environment of the illegal drug trade in the first place?

The Wire does an incredible job of asking difficult questions for which there aren't always good answers, but the point is that's it's important to ask these questions. As the Wire illustrates, the status quo has failed us miserably, on so many different levels, yet we have a society and a culture that continues to support the status quo, even when we're given evidence to contrary. Legalization is a drastic plan for change - If you've seen the show and find some truth in it's themes, than what else do you support?

You Gotta Keep The Devil Way Down In The Hole

(The following may contain spoilers of the HBO series "The Wire." If, like me, you're only now getting to this excellent program on DVD, you may not want to read ahead.)

The third season of the Wire ends in the same manner it began ... With a loud boom and a cascade of steel and concrete. Three season's in, it's become abundantly clear that the physical destruction of neighborhoods is the only solution to problems of poverty, drugs, and crime offered by the powers that be. The Wire is powerful, dark television, more honest than virtually anything that's come before it about the realities of urban poverty. As a television viewer, I've enjoyed the Wire for it's incredible writing, wonderful acting, and compelling story lines and as a libertarian, I've enjoyed the show for it's portrayal of the dysfunctional institutions that fail individuals so miserably. The Wire may not be the most fun show on television, but I don't think I'm stepping out on a limb when I say it may well be the best television program ever. Despite it's gritty subject matter, the Wire ultimately succeeds because of the way it's characters are dealt with on such human terms. It doesn't matter if you're not familiar with the streets or urban culture because the show immerses you into that world, in the form of the people who live it, the police who seek to maintain order, and the reformers who say they care to do something about it.

There's oh-so much to discuss when it comes to the Wire, but I'd like to focus this post on the characters and the politics. Like many other HBO dramas, the Wire succeeds at creating a wide array of complex characters whose lives intersect at various important plot points. But unlike other dark programs that thrive in the supposedly complex nature of their characters, the Wire has literally dozens of characters who are actually likable. Shows like Six Feet Under and Battlestar Galactica seem to be all to willing to sacrifice their characters humanity in attempts to be edgy, driving viewers mad wondering why characters continue to make such fucked up choices. But perhaps unique to television, the Wire crafts a tapestry more akin to a Shakespearean tragedy, where the tragedy is about the human condition. It's not just about highlighting the various shades of gray amongst the characters, but about the humanity in all of us. As dark as the Wire is, it's much more hopeful than other dark shows. Drug dealers and crooked cops are portrayed as people, no more and no less, and even Omar, the gay stick-up man who quickly became a fan favorite, shows us that even the most seemingly dangerous among us can still live by a code. The tragedy of the Wire is the circumstances we create for ourselves and the circumstances that society creates for us, not merely our own fucked up decisions.

Other fans of the show have asked me time and time again who my favorite character is and it's tough to say. There are the characters everyone loves, McNulty, Stringer Bell, and Omar, but beyond the fan favorites there were a few others I've found intriguing. I loved D'Angelo in the show's first season and his contemplative reactions to the violence of the drug war. Carver has been an under-the-radar great character as season three finally sees him evolving into the sort of community policy officer who works for the community rather than warrior who fights against it. And then there's Bunny Colvin, who emerges in the third season as perhaps the quintessential individual standings against the system. The one man who's truly brave enough to try something different winds up the most fucked.

Creator David Simon has called himself a liberal, but the ideas presented in the show are explicitly libertarian. Delving into "the root causes" of crime may seem to be an explicitly liberal endeavor, but failing to recognize the intersection of culture, politics, and social policy that creates not the individual criminals, but the backdrop against which the drug trade occurs, would be a major intellectual oversight. What "The Wire" showcases are broken institutions at all levels: Communities captured by the drug dealers and gangs that work the street corners, a police force that cares more about numbers than protecting the public, and a political class that is consistently trapped playing politics at the expense of any hope of real change. "The Wire" is a libertarian show because it highlights the failures of government at all levels and because of it's all too blunt portrayal of the failure of the war on drugs.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Joey Porter

I'm almost positive I've knocked Miami linebacker Joey Porter on this blog before, so allow me to take a shot at him one more time. Whatever the player he is on the field, some of the things he says to the media are just plain foolish. Take this latest, on his comments reported by ESPN that Miami was still the team to beat in the AFC East.

Whether it be in Las Vegas or the various preseason power rankings all over the Internet, the New England Patriots have been chosen the AFC East's team to beat for 2009.

Miami Dolphins outside linebacker Joey Porter takes offense. Porter declared Friday morning that the road to the AFC East title will come through Miami this year, and the Dolphins are the "champions until proven otherwise."

"I don't understand how you can put somebody in front of us," Porter said Friday morning after he and quarterback Chad Pennington were named co-winners of the team's Dan Marino MVP Award in a ceremony at Joe's Stone Crab Restaurant on South Beach.

"We won the championship. We were AFC East champions. I just don't think it's supposed to happen like that. You've got to beat somebody to be the champs. We had to beat somebody to be the champs."

By all means Joey, take offense that you and your teammates have been slighted and your accomplishments from last season overlooked, it's the sort of thing that football's all about. But can you really not understand how experts are picking another team to finish ahead of you this season? Have you really never noticed that sometimes, teams that won a division, or a conference championship, or a Super Bowl, sometimes find the experts overwhelmingly against a repeat?

Not only that, but who exactly did you have to beat to win the division Joey? As I remember it, you finished 11-5, same as the Patriots, who beat you the last time the two of you met. The division was won on the basis of a conference record tie-breaker.

As I said, you should be upset that everyone is picking against you. But this should be a motivational tool for you and your teammates, not a media talking point that makes you sound, yet again, like a stupid jack ass.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Reason's Ron Bailey On Regulated Health Care

Reason's Ronald Bailey has a wonderful little blurb on the Reason blog on the scary thought of health care as a regulated entity. Take a gander.

President Barack Obama is pushing for health care reform by October. One of his main proposals is the creation of a "public option insurance plan" to keep private insurers "honest." By "honest" Obama means that private insurers would have to compete with the public health plan by keeping their prices as low as the government's plan. So how would the Feds keep their prices low? By imposing price controls, explains the New York Times:

To help control costs, the administration indicated support on Tuesday for a proposal to strengthen a federal panel that recommends how much Medicare should pay doctors, hospitals, nursing homes and other health care providers.
Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, Democrat of West Virginia, recently introduced a bill that would expand the role of the panel, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, and give its recommendations the force of law. Senators said Mr. Obama and his aides had expressed general support for such a change, which would establish the panel as an independent rate-setting body in the executive branch.

This would basically turn medical care into a regulated utility. In other words, private insurers would have to compete with a government agency that could tell doctors, hospitals, and drug companies how much they are going to get paid, period.

How have price controls worked out in other areas of the economy? Not too well, at least with regard to electrical utilities. As one research report found:

...monopoly regulation appears to have stifled productivity and long-term innovation in the U.S. electric utility sector.

You can be sure that price control regulation will do exactly the same thing to health care innovation and productivity.

And don't you just love it. The way government insurance will compete with private insurers is by forcing health care providers to accept lower rates of reimbursement. And I know plenty of folks will regularly complain about drug companies making too much money, but has anyone been saying that hospitals and nursing homes are rolling in dough and driving up health care costs? Reason's Ron Bailey

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

State Mandates Calorie Counting

I couldn't skip out on this story, could I? House Backs Bill Requiring Chain Restaurants To Disclose Calories, according to the Hartford Courant.

We've been through all this before on this blog, oh so many times. As I've said before, calorie posting requirements are a ridiculous nanny-state assault against how we live our lives. The implication is that we as consumers are too stupid to demand this important information, so the government needs to step in and make sure we're given it whether we're interested or not.

But forgetting about the whole nanny state for a moment, this just makes for bad law. The proposed law covers national restaurant chains with at least 15 outlets, but it doesn't cover smaller restaurants, in-state chains (I'm looking your way Wood N' Tap), and local delis. Perhaps oddest of all, large national grocery chains which offer sandwiches and other ready to eat items are not covered, nor are school cafeterias, even the large college cafeterias that serve pizza, fries, burgers, and all other manner of unhealthy food. House Republican leader Larry Cafero, who is opposed to the bill, wondered why a sandwich from Subway be covered under this law, but a sandwich from Stop and Shop would not be.

But is there any doubt this is about politics, pure and simple. If there's a real public health argument here I'd love to hear it. It's vital to public health that we be provided with this information at McDonald's, but not in the college dining halls where young adults eat every day? It's vital that Outback Steakhouse provide calorie information, but not Carmen Anthony's? Either it's important or it's not. Obviously, it'd be bad politics to require smaller restaurants to post calorie information and lord knows the public school system couldn't handle an expensive mandate, but all the politics are all you need to know that this isn't a necessary law, but a feel good one. It's easy to pass the buck to national chains, many of whom already have much if not all of the needed nutritional information available. But it's not about health and supporters shouldn't try and pretend it is.