Thursday, August 27, 2009

anti-drug operations are about power, not drugs

When a local "drug task force" dresses up in black military gear, arms up with assault rifles, breaks down someone's door, forces the occupants to the ground at gunpoint, shoots their dogs, and vandalizes their residence, this is not about drugs. It is about projecting the power of the state into someone's home and terrorizing that person, along with anyone else who might be visiting or looking on from across the street, etc. It is a statement. It says, "We are powerful and you are powerless. So keep that in mind as you go about living your life."

Similarly, when the federal government pours billions worth of military resources into a podunk South American country ostensibly for purposes of assisting "drug interdiction efforts", it isn't about drugs. It is about projecting American military power into that country and intimidating its neighbors. In this case, the federal government is completing an agreement to base troops and military aircraft in Colombia "in a battle alongside Colombian forces against Marxist guerrillas and drug traffickers".

First, I don't know exactly who these "Marxist guerrillas" are supposed to be, or whether they actually exist outside the imaginations of politicians and journalists, but assuming there are such people, this appears to signal U.S. intervention in a Colombian civil war. And all I have to say to that is: WTF?

But back to the point: I do actually know who is referred to by the term "drug traffickers". These are farmers and the middlemen who transport their crops to market. Since 2000, the federal government has spent $6 billion -- in Colombia alone -- to inundate their farmland with herbicides and to shoot at them from helicopters. The result? Colombia's share of the cocaine production market has fallen from 74% to 54%. Great. Of course, the overall production of cocaine in Latin America has risen by 16% over roughly the same time period. Oops.

It might surprise many of the folks in the various sectors of our Anti-Drug Industrial Complex here in the U.S.A., but South America is a big fucking place. It has lots and lots of remote areas, many many many square miles of which are perfectly suited for growing coca. South America is furthermore full of many thousands and millions of poor people, many of which are suited for becoming (relatively) wealthy coca farmers. Quite simply: if, tomorrow, you withdrew all American forces from Afghanistan, Iraq, Germany, South Korea, and all the other dozens of countries in which our far-flung military might be stationed on any given day of the week, and then you instituted a draft and conscripted about a million more soldiers, and then transported the entire sum of all American soldiers and military hardware down to South American and ordered them to "assist in drug interdiction efforts", you would still barely make the smallest dent in the amount of cocaine available on the streets of the United States. You would make a small dent, that is, for just as long as it took for some enterprising Africans to learn how to farm coca.

But notice I said it might surprise many of the folks in the anti-drug industry. Most of them, up to and including our Drug Warrior In Chief, President Obama, know this quite well. Why, then, would they embark on the pointless project outlined above (i.e., stationing soldiers and military aircraft in Colombia for purposes of drug interdiction)? Because it's not about the drugs. As in the hundreds or thousands of neighborhood drug raids conducted each day across America, drugs are merely the excuse.

And perhaps if Hugo Chavez wasn't such a loon, and hadn't become known as the Leftist Kook Who Cries Wolf, someone might pay attention when he says he "sees the base plan as U.S. 'imperialist' aggression".

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

guns and the nuts who carry them

A faithful reader suggests it might be productive for me to offer my thoughts on this story:
PHOENIX – About a dozen people carrying guns, including one with a military-style rifle, milled among protesters outside the convention center where President Barack Obama was giving a speech Monday — the latest incident in which protesters have openly displayed firearms near the president.
As you can see from the photo down on the right, your humble blogger is familiar with firearms. I'm comfortable around them, I grew up around them, I own several of them, and I like to take them out and shoot them from time to time. Some of my best memories of growing up revolve around my Dad and Granddad taking me out target-shooting. I support the Second Amendment, and in general I oppose most gun control measures.

So that's my starting point here. And my initial reaction to this story is along the lines of: just because something is legal doesn't mean it's a good idea (along with the corollary: just because something is a bad idea doesn't mean it should be illegal). As a recent example of this, the First Amendment does indeed allow a person to use the word "nigger" when referring to a black person. This does not mean it is a good idea to do so. The linked-to blogger (a regular commenter over at Barry Green's House of Right-Wing Crazy) wears his ignorance and hatred and faux-victimhood as a badge of honor, and gets his thrills by oh-so-rebelliously inflicting slavery-era insults upon those segments of humanity whom he can readily identify as being "below" him. These folks are easily identified by virtue of their skin pigmentation.

Legal? Yes. Likely to advance the cause of civilization? Not even remotely.

Likewise, carrying a gun to a presidential event may in fact be legal in Phoenix, Arizona. Is any good likely to come of it? I think you know the answer to that one.

One further point, though. Those people in the story carrying guns aren't looking to advance the cause of civilization. They are trying to assuage their own personal feelings of powerlessness in the face of the ascendancy of certain points of view which they find extremely frightening ("socialism" being the most charitable of these fears -- among other fears which are far less charitable).

But I also suspect that another, more sinister purpose -- though perhaps not well thought out -- is to provoke a confrontation in which they can be portrayed as the victims. For example: "Obama's brownshirt thugs attacked me, arrested me, and took away my assault rifle -- even though I was simply protesting his fascist policies in full compliance with all the laws!" This, the fantasy goes, will inspire thousands or millions more like-minded patriots to take to the streets bearing firearms, which in turn will result in either: (a) a bloody civil war in which all their fantasies of minority-directed vigilantism will come true, or (b) the removal of Obama from the presidency, to be replaced by someone more palatable who will -- in comparison with Obama -- reduce (even further) the tax burden on the wealthy, reduce (even further) social services for the poor, increase (even more) spending on defense and law enforcement, and increase (even more) the tax burden on the poor. This, in the fevered minds of these decidedly unwealthy, gun-toting protesters, is called "Liberty".

let God sort them out.

The Supreme Court, over two Justices’ dissents, on Monday ordered a federal judge in Georgia to consider and rule on the claim of innocence in the murder case against Troy Anthony Davis (In re Davis, 08-1443) The Court told the District Court to “receive testimony and make findings of fact as to whether evidence that could have been obtained at the time of trial clearly establishes [Davis'] innocence.”
Scalia, of course, was one of the dissenters, having never yet encountered a criminal defendant he didn't believe was guilty. The crux of his dissent: "This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent."

In other words, innocence is no constitutional impediment to execution, so long as the condemned has had a "full and fair trial". One of Sullivan's stand-ins asks if this a "crazy view". I don't know if it's "crazy", but I'd definitely vote for "callous and amoral".

But the point I want to get at is the Sullivan stand-in's subsequent statement: "Procedural rights (like the right to a lawyer or the right to avoid self incrimination) do not guarantee a specific outcome (like the correct decision in a case). It is possible to imagine a fair trial that respects everyone's rights but nonetheless reaches the wrong conclusion."

Emphasis mine, because I think this is undeniably true, and is probably the absolute best argument against the death penalty you are likely to ever see.

The Fifth Amendment provides that no person shall be "deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law". I've always thought that this should be interpreted as prohibiting the death penalty except in truly exceptional circumstances.

Obviously the Fifth Amendment allows for different levels of "process" being due to a person depending upon what the state is trying to deprive the person of. On the one hand, if it seeks to deprive you of some small amount of property (say, by imposing a fine for a parking ticket), the not a lot of process is "due". On the other hand, if the state intends to deprive a person of a great deal of liberty (say, by imposing a sentence of life in prison), then quite a lot of process is due.

My argument is that if the state intends to deprive a person of all of his property, and all of his liberty, and all of his life (say, by strapping him down and injecting him with a lethal dose of toxic chemicals), then the amount of process due that person is essentially infinite. Especially given the idea noted above: namely, that even the fairest and fullest trial may in fact reach the wrong conclusion.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Whole Foods Fail

I've often argued against anti-corporate regulations and general government interventionism in many contexts on the libertarian theory that corporations hate bad publicity, and if they do something wrong they will usually be punished by the resulting consumer backlash. For example, you don't need laws against tuna company fishing practices which snare a bunch of dolphins, because more often than not, if this is truly something that people don't like, tuna companies following these practices will suffer in the marketplace, and either change their practices or lose market share to companies who don't kill dolphins (and eventually go out of business).

This is only a general rule, of course, and subject to many exceptions in particular contexts. But today we have an especially ironic example of this rule in action. John Mackey, CEO of the grocery chain Whole Foods Market, is apparently somewhat of a libertarian himself. Yesterday he took to the pages of the ultra-right-wing WSJ editorial page to argue vehemently against government involvement in health care.

I think you can see the problem here. Whole Foods caters to hippies, crunchies, and granola types. These are its hard core of support -- its target group of customers. And this demographic is heavily slanted toward liberal (or "progressive") views on various political issues. Such as for example: health care.

The link above will take you to a DailyKos post vilifying (rightly or wrongly) Mr. Mackey for his strident stance against health care reform. The post, in turn, links to the forums section of Whole Foods' website. When I first read the DailyKos item I of course immediately clicked on over to the WF forums to rubberneck at the trainwreck carnage. Sure enough, threads and comments, running roughly 99% against Mackey and WholeFoods, were proliferating at an amazing pace.

So I had my fun, and went on to something else. I clicked back over a while later just to check the comment count, and lo and behold WF's web minions (and, presumably, P.R. staff) had done a massive purge of forum threads and were, even as I watched, engaged in a heroic effort to scrub the new posts and comments as quickly as they were being posted. These new comments had moved from the obvious "Food Politics" section and were now inundating more innocuous sections of the forums, such as "Recipe Swap" and "Gluten-Free Diets".

I only skimmed Mackey's op-ed. I don't know for sure whether his ideas are good or bad. But either way, the irony here is delicious. Mr. Mackey surely believes in the idea that "the market will decide" what's best for everyone -- consumers, corporations, and society alike. I tend to agree. And I have a feeling that the market for organic arugula is going to decide to teach Mr. Mackey a hard-earned lesson about where his whole-grain bread is buttered.

Of course, Mr. Mackey can always hope to pick up some customers from the ranks of folks who agree with his health care views. You know, the "Death Panel" "keep your dirty gubmint hands off my Medicare" crowd. Good luck with all that. That particular demographic is on record as stating that arugula is only consumed by communist muslim illegal aliens, and that organic farming is nothing more than a Satan-inspired conspiracy to force us all into interracial gay marriages and abort our white babies. I'm sure they'll all be lining at your stores any minute now, Mr. Mackey.

[UPDATE] Well, it appears now that the P.R. staff is starting to realize that the delete-ignore-hope it all goes away strategy isn't going to work. They've now created a whole new forum category (Current Events/Health Care). Which is good, I guess, but it didn't stop someone from posting, in the "Recipe Swap" forum, a thread entitled "Recipe for Obviously You Don't Know Your Customers Soup". Heh.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

some disjointed observations

1. It's been a while since I was in law school, but from what I remember from my first year torts class, there's a name that lawyers have for this type of thing: false imprisonment.

2. Though I find Judd Apatow movies generally amusing, I'm not a huge fan and am on the verge of being an anti-fan simply because the guy gets so much hype nowadays. But aside from that, I guess I never realized that his movies had this element of "conservative family values", a fact which, I suppose, means that the message was clever and effective. In any event, Matt Yglesias makes a really insightful point in discussing the linked article. Namely, the tendency of a high percentage of the folks most loudly espousing these ideals to place a highly disproportionate amount of importance on those parts of "Christian family values morality" that are the easiest for them personally to adhere to. For example, most people are not gay. For those people, refraining from having sex with persons of the same sex is easy -- they have no desire to do so. On the other hand: being charitable, turning the other cheek, loving your enemies, keeping lust out of your heart, being faithful to your spouse, subordinating your materialistic desires in favor of your love of Christ and your fellow man, or -- to take the teachings of Christ literally -- to give away all of your material possessions and lead a simply, godly life in service of the Lord: these things, to a greater or lesser degree, are all very difficult. But hating fags: simple!

3. This story comes from one of my old stomping grounds -- a place where Christian charity abounds. Apparently County Judge Tom Head thought it would be a good idea to paper the courthouse cork board with a racist wingnut email he printed out. When caught, rather than admitting error and apologizing, he chose to defend the message, deny any racism, and state that he was attempting to "try and get people talking to one another". Because, ya know, in Lubbock County, Texas, the best way to promote a civil, productive conversation about racial issues is to use the county courthouse as a forum to champion the idea that blacks are all a bunch of crack-smoking, wife-beating felons. I predict this guy will be re-elected in a giant landslide.

4. Apropos of the post below, Sarah Palin recently broke her post-employment silence to assert that Obama's health care reform plan is evil because it will establish "Death Panels" (no doubt populated by gay muslim terrorists) for the purpose of euthanize her grandmother and her Trig-baby. (the same Trig-baby, by the way, that is OFF LIMITS! to all political speech -- just FYI, dontcha know.) Prominent conservatives then lined up to support this ludicrous conspiracy theory. This is really reaching some kind of limit, isn't it?

5. Or maybe not. Here's another brain-dead ideologue's valuable contribution to the national conversation on health care, in which we are told that under the UK's state-run health care system, brilliantly intelligent special needs persons such as prominent physicist Stephen Hawking "wouldn't have a chance" -- would, in other words, presumably be put of of their misery, just like little Trig -- never mind that Stephen Hawking, of course, is British and has lived in the UK his whole life. No word on how he's managed to evade the NHS death squads for the last 67 years. (link is to secondary source, as the original has -- after being righteously (and hilariously) pilloried far and wide -- been scrubbed.)

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

right wing idiocy

I think it's wise to be skeptical about the value of the health care reform law that will end up emerging from the sausage factory and being signed by Obama. First, given that giant health care companies have been for some months bombarding members of congress with hordes of lobbyists and massive amounts of money, it stands to reason that the most likely effect of any new health care legislation will be an almost unprecedented giveaway to the aforementioned giant health care companies. Second, any new government spending that isn't paid for by commensurate savings or tax revenue will only make our increasingly severe deficit/national debt problem even more severe -- possibly even catastrophic. Third, even if new government spending is paid for by tax revenue, this isn't necessarily a good outcome unless the money is well-spent, because any increase in tax revenue will inevitably correspond with less money being available for spending in the private sector, which hurts the overall economy.

Meanwhile, of course, the health care system in this country is broken. Every other western democracy has found a way to provide health care to all of its citizens while spending a lower proportion of its overall resources on health care. Not to mention all of the crazy and stupid problems Americans -- those who actually have health insurance -- encounter in actually getting their health insurers to, you know, pay for their treatments, and the constraints the current employer-based system puts on people who might want to change jobs, start a new business, take a sabbatical, etc.

These are complicated problems with which even very smart, well-informed, well-intentioned people will struggle. But making these problems even more complicated (say, by several orders of magnitude) is that in this country we, on the whole, do not have smart, well-informed, well-intentioned people debating these issues. We have bought-and-paid-for politicians, and a bunch of ignorant asshats going around spouting nonsense. For example, people who say that we can't have some third party coming between us and our doctors, dictating what types of treatment we will receive (hint: this third party already exists -- its called your insurance company, PPO, HMO, etc -- and it only makes money to the extent that it can limit its expenditures for your treatments (e.g., deny coverage)), or people (like a senior citizen of my acquaintance) who insist that the government keep its dirty, incompetent hands off of their Medicare. Yes, you read that correctly. But even those senior citizens who do in fact understand that Medicare is a government program overwhelmingly oppose legislation which would provide government-funded universal health care. "For me, but not for thee," I guess.

As I say, I'm skeptical that this situation can be improved. Because not only is our health care system broken, but our government is broken. And not only is our government broken, but a high proportion of our electorate are "informed" by reading and listening to dishonest partisan ideologues whose personal interest in fixing either health care or government is exactly zero. Their sole objective is to endlessly spout nonsense designed to confuse and enrage. Seriously: only 42% of Republicans believe that Barack Obama was born in the United States.

Bonus right wing idiocy: I've spent the last day reading and hearing about prominent right-wingers criticizing Bill Clinton for bringing back those two girls from North Korea. Apparently this was some kind of "appeasement". Or, alternatively, it's being called (without citing any evidence) a "hostage ransom", wherein Clinton Gore and Obama desecrated the honor of our country and endangered its national security by giving those North Korean terrorists something (what? who knows!) in exchange for the return of these hostages. And, as all good right-wingers know, America Does Not Negotiate For Hostages!