The Kind of Press Corrupt Governments Love

While we still have a functional press, journalists have a duty to bring the truth to the public. When evidence leads us to wonder if government officials committed serious crimes, and much of the public desires the truth, there’s just no excuse for the press to look the other way.

Glenn Greenwald criticized NBC News political director Chuck Todd for joining the choir of pundits making excuses for avoiding the investigation of potential war crimes. When Todd offered Greenwald an interview, only under much pressure would he give lip service to the notion that an investigation should be done, but it’s obvious he feels no obligation to the public in pushing for the truth. He’s afraid a trial would be “cable catnip”, or a politicized media circus.

What message does that send if we have this political trial, and how do you know this won’t turn into a political trial? In fact, we know it’s going to turn into a political trial. I’ll take that back – we don’t know whether it’s going to turn into a political trial.

Government cover-ups are acceptable if they keep his news day orderly. He has other worries as well:

If you have this trial, and there is, inevitably, some appeals and some, where we have a back-and-forth, where there is some sort of, where it becomes a legal debate about whether so-and-so can go on trial, or not go on trial, what was allowed – they were, they thought that they were following the law, that they, you know, what message does that end up sending? Does that end up harming us down the road?

The message sent by such an event would be a very good one to send: criminals will be punished and organizations that permit or encourage them will be made in the least very uncomfortable.

Personal opinions don’t excuse Todd and other “journalists” from their responsibilities to the public. The free passes they give today lay the groundwork for future corruption and its quiet pardoning. Already Obama has had some shady and questionably legal actions (disregard of contract law, the embrace of state secrets privileges); more conservatives should realize the necessity of and demand a strong press persistently shining a light in the corners of the White House and Congress.

On Immigration

Radley Balko provides some good evidence toward debunking the myth that immigrant communities bring violent crime, but while these communities are safe, a report on identity theft makes a convincing case that there are serious costs unfairly imposed on the citizens whose identities are stolen to employ those communities (beyond the more distributed costs of social services).

If our society is to be permissive about the use of false documentation, what does one say to a person finding themselves on the hook for loans they didn’t borrow, wanted for crimes they didn’t commit, liable for taxes on income they didn’t receive, or being denied safety net benefits because of someone else’s actions? Also our desire to allow good-natured illegal immigrants to live quietly on false identities means criminals can as well.

The report claims that organizations like the IRS, SSA and credit bureaus knowingly maintain policies that ease ID theft, and certainly the private sector enjoys handling the money of (and preying on vulnerabilities of) the falsely documented, so it seems there are some nasty incentives at play.

I’m still very much torn on many issues, but the situation doesn’t seem sustainable and has an ugly effect on some Americans’ view of Hispanics. Certainly criminalizing a huge percentage of the population and economy isn’t a reasonable solution, and the idea of mass deportation is ludicrous (and would likely be an even bigger civil liberties disaster than we already have), but there must be practical and humane means to provide decentives to future border crossings and visa over-stays.

There’s a sane middle between the libertarian ideal of free borders and the ugly rhetoric coming out of the cultural warriors.

Prisoners of Endless Wars

Most reasonable people can agree that Gitmo detainees not proven to be enemy combatants at all (e.g. persons pulled off the street on whom we’ve never had anything more than suspicion) should be freed. The tougher question is, what about those obviously working for the enemy, but who are acquitted of committing war crimes.

Mark Kleiman points out that it would still be lawful to detain (not imprison) these individuals as PoWs.

Imagine that the Russians had captured Waffen SS Gruppenfuhrer Klaus Heinrich Schmidt in the summer of 1941 and put him on trial for, let’s say, ordering the massacre of civilians. And imagine that he was acquitted, because he was able to show that the massacre was actually ordered by another Gruppenfuhrer named Heinrich Klaus Schmidt.

Now what? Should the innocent Gruppenfuhrer Schmidt be sent back through the lines so he can resume fighting? I don’t think so. He goes to a PoW camp, to be held until the war is over. As a PoW, he has certain rights (he can’t be pressed for information other than name, rank, and serial number, or be forced to work) but the right to go back to fighting is not among them.

He points out we’ve been at war with the Taliban since 2001 and al-Qaeda with us since 1998 or so, so I think the natural question is just how long can we reasonably detain a PoW for? of course the legal answer is:

… as long as the conflict lasts, even if that turns out to be forever.

This being the case, I think we should consider changing our laws to better satisfy our desires for civil liberties and human rights in the new age of endless “wars”. Some random ideas:

  • PoWs should be given the conditions that must be met for the war to be considered “over” and these should be public along with the evidence we have on them.
  • Human interaction must be allowed and PoWs should retain their human dignity.
  • Detainments should grow more comfortable over time and the public should be kept aware of those conditions.
  • Simple soldiers/workers should age out.

Thoughts on the Cost Conundrum

This New Yorker article on health care proposes that we shouldn’t focus on who writes the checks, but rather that hospitals have a well-coordinated team in place keeping costs down.

Imagine that, instead of paying a contractor to pull a team together and keep them on track, you paid an electrician for every outlet he recommends, a plumber for every faucet, and a carpenter for every cabinet. Would you be surprised if you got a house with a thousand outlets, faucets, and cabinets, at three times the cost you expected…

Even if facilities had identical rates for procedures, the cost of a given inpatient stay is impossible for anyone to predict. Neither the incoming patient nor the insurer are in a great position to judge what care given would be unnecessary or inefficient, yet hospitals in McAllen, Texas (and likely all over) appear to deliver a lot of care that might qualify as such. So what can we do about it?

In other news, there’s probably never been as much public support for single-payer care as there is now, but like many of Obama’s promises, it’s off the table. Again, a single-payer switch might only shave minor administrative costs, but it should also give us more control over providers to encourage more to operate like the Mayo Clinic.

I still find the free market health care dream intriguing. If we could just remove all government regulation and insurance, the market would just work its magic and care would be affordable (and for enough people to be considered a success). It would be a grand experiment* to just say, “OK, you get ten years to make it work.” (*Does any country have a freer market health care system I should look at?)

The reality:

  1. Voters will never ditch Medicare, so the experiment will never happen.
  2. Democrats, like Republicans, will be driven by existing industry dollars, so single-payer will go nowhere (unless unemployment got much, much worse).
  3. We’ll inevitably raise taxes to cover Medicare (no politician facing re-election will let it (or SS for that matter) go insolvent on ideology).

So we’ll continue to have a system that few are happy with, and we’ll pay too much for it.

Unstimulated

If this National Review article is accurate, the stimulus bill is worse than I was imagining. It’s not that I’m against every piece of it, but wrapping up countless unrelated projects under one bill and/or pushing it through Congress as an “emergency remedy” is a terrible way to create laws.

This is how we got the Patriot Act and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000.

Although the right is ablaze over this, I think I’m a little too cynical to believe that there’s a good/evil party boundary in this. I fear it’s in times like these that both parties will “reach across the aisle” and push through pet projects via a monumental bill to tell citizens they “did something about the recession”. It’s the minority party’s role to “oppose” and break out their own pens to fair it up.

If the Senate Reps oppose this with the same zeal, they’ll win some respect from me. If it passes, for years to come we’ll be discovering wonderful new treasures similar to the Enron loophole and unregulated credit default swaps, and plenty of junk both parties are opposed to. We’ve already found a revival of the Byrne grants frequently abused in our drug war.

I don’t see how any elected official can look us in the eye and say, “all this is what we need and we need it immediately, there’s no time to read the fine print.”

New general rule: the level of debate and time for press scrutiny of a bill should be proportional to its scope. Maybe there should even be some limitation of scope within a single bill.

Rational Debate Across the Pond: House of Lords Wants Harm Reduction

What if Congress debated the prohibition of drugs for over 2 hours, finding surprisingly that most members already favored harm reduction policies and, in some cases, regulation over criminalization?

This just happened in the U.K.’s House of Lords. On January 22nd, a debate was held (full transcript) to encourage the government to send a senior (rather than a junior) Minister to the U.N.’s upcoming conference on drug policy, and for that representative to push for harm reduction rather than blanket prohibition. (background).

The transcript shows a frank and open discussion of the negative effects of prohibition on many levels of society. At some point I’ll pull quotes, but basically members desired increased funds for treatment, expressed dismay that the U.N. treaties prevented countries from experimenting with alternative policies, recommended the U.N. officially recognize the difference between use and abuse of drugs, and agreed that the 40 year old policy has been a failure at reducing the use, and especially reducing the harms of drugs in the world. One mentioned that, even if the goal was to “sustain” the current level of drug abuse (as our Drug Czar frequently states), that that level of abuse and the societal price of prohibition is too high to continue to tolerate.

If the U.K. is not the only country that wants to get smarter rather than tougher on drugs, we may see some revolutionary reform discussion come out of the March meeting in Vienna.

More Drug War Victims Pile Up

Our War on Drugs has turned Mexico into a real war zone. Five more dead in Tijuana; 685 in one city in the last year; young men in rival cartels are gunned down, tortured, mutilated, beheaded, found in mass graves. Those who can afford to have left town, while the rest of the city lives in terror and economic disaster since Americans will no longer step foot there. Continue reading  

Inaction is not action

Many people have well thought out reasons for not voting in presidential elections (some still vote only in local elections or for/against ballot initiatives). This blog post compiles several given by libertarians. Here are my responses to the general themes I see:

Voting, even for a hopeless candidate that aligns most closely with my beliefs, is only a perpetuating endorsement of the hopelessly broken and immoral system.

If the government is the crew of an enormous ship horribly mismanaged and sailing in the wrong direction, despite your best intellectual justifications, inaction does nothing to sink it, redirect it, stop it, or even wound its feelings. Even if you oppose the system completely, voting is the only direct influence you have on it. Every four years one of two imperfect and corruptible people will be captain, and the worse of the two will harm more lives than the other. The very least you can do to mitigate this is to suggest the least harmful choice according to the best information available to you. You don’t have to tell anyone for whom you vote (or that you do), nor can any reasonable person claim you owe any responsibility for another’s actions.

Any positive action you do personally has much more effect than the act of voting.

You can support nearly any inaction based on the weak assumption that the opportunity cost of acting is too great; due to spending your time voting you could not perform one additional good deed. The fact is you can send in an absentee ballot and still have time to (and should) call mom, do good work, help the needy, educate fellow citizens on important issues, and, depending on your mania, begin your move abroad or work on your plan to throw yourself in the gears of the system. Voting doesn’t prevent you from doing any of that.

In my location, my vote is statistically useless to exert change.

This justification definitely carries the most weight with our system, but dissenting votes still give evidence of opposing voices and pool to show opposition on a larger scale. Obama was an electoral vote landslide, but 47% of voters preferred someone else. Only with such dissention can you remind people that no presidential vote should be considered a mandate to support the winner’s policies. In any country where votes are actually counted (we’re lucky we’re in one), you have some non-zero influence in steering the ship. Calculus shows even infinitesimally small numbers add up.

Also, while so many, no doubt, vote based on misinformation, misunderstanding, or even without putting much thought into it, we desperately need critical thinkers and the well-informed to vote.

The French 2002 presidential election is a pretty interesting study of what can go wrong in a direct election. The left wing had splintered so much that the run-off election presented two right wing candidates; leftists called it a choice between a crook and a fascist. Frustrated voters chose the crook by a landslide, but some suggested voting for politique du pire (“politics of the worst”) in hopes that the resulting bad governance would build sufficient outrage to fuel reform. Maybe the presidential system itself is flawed and all reforms will always lead in circles towards or away from more direct elections.