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Latest crop of isolated incidents

Rad Geek has a list of 42 "isolated incidents" from the last six weeks.

Political isomers

Geoff Manaugh at BLDGBLOG almost catches onto something:

For instance, one man at a recent but quite bizarre anti-health care rally – during which a U.S. senator apparently praised this very man for his publicly announced support of terrorism – said that "he could trace his ancestors back to the Mayflower and said 'they did not arrive holding their hands out for help.'" Ergo, this man should not "hold out his hands for help" and ask the government for a doctor's visit. Of course, this same argument would surely never be advanced against, say, calling the police, calling the fire department, or accepting the defense of the U.S. military. Yet these are all tax-funded government services.

Indeed, the bizarre irony for me throughout all of this has been that police officers, fire crews, and members of the military are all, to use this language very deliberately, the most socialized subsector of the U.S. economy. That is, they are paid through what many people would call "government hand-outs." On the other hand, it is these very social positions that are often held up – by these same critics – as triumphant examples of national service and personal heroism. Indeed, it is not entirely inaccurate to say that The Greatest Generation was a generation of near-total tax-funded employment.

He's making a slightly different point, but to me, this sounds like an argument against government monopolies in all of these services. Our methods of thinking aren't necessarily so different that we can't have a conversation, but my conclusion is a lot more radical. We need to find a way to tap into this kind of feeling, but direct it to more productive ends than some phantom "reform".

The downside of easy information access?

Back in the pre-internet Dark Ages, a person could get a passing acquaintance with a large number of topics only by reading anything and everything within arm's reach. The range would be restricted to the things covered in pamphlets, magazines, books, and newspapers, and maybe the encyclopedia. It took a special kind of personality to delve into so many things. Nowadays, with the internet, any clown can acquire at least a conversational knowledge of any flower, battle, recipe, or architectural landmark within a few minutes. I bet I spend an hour a day on Wikipedia, for instance, going from Bulgaria to Japanese naming conventions to anti-radiation missiles effortlessly. I am expert about exactly none of these subjects, but if someone wants to bring them up at the bar I can shoot the breeze for a few minutes.

The cultural implications of this are huge, and overwhelmingly positive as far as I can tell, but I wonder if this phenomenon has had any kind of noticeable effect on governance. It used to be that people who wanted to learn about some specific topic had to be dedicated and read up on it, such that there would have been a larger gap between those who knew and those who didn't. Now anybody who wants to can pull up Daily Kos or Free Republic and have a completely half-assed acquaintance with a subject--and feel that they know enough to evangelize and vote one way or the other about it. We've only been in this period for a few short years, so it may be too early to tell.

Wednesday blog links

1. It's not just Cash for Clunkers, it's also IOUs for suckers.
2. It takes the average Berliner 19 minutes to earn the money a Big Mac costs, and only 15 in Frankfurt. Chicago, Tokyo, and Toronto: 12. Worldwide average: 37. This is a nice synchronic snapshot of purchasing power in understandable terms.
3. Who fucked over your dream of the Swiss bank account full of money? The U.S. government. To be fair, the Swiss government didn't help too much either.

Failed Prohibition

Jacob Sullum recently wrote up some pretty ridiculous statements by Tommy Benton, GA state representative. He also included Benton's official email address, in case you wanted to share some thoughts. Here's what I shared:

Mr. Benton,

I've been alerted to your ideas about the sale and use of drugs. I
concede that a person might have reasons for taking this strong a
position about the use of substances, however wrong and frankly
un-American I think that might be.

But you've made a very important and all-too-common error: millions
upon millions of Americans already get high without fear of getting
arrested. Marijuana is everywhere. I have spent some time in
Valdosta, and while I didn't buy or use marijuana there, I could have
at the drop of a hat. The same goes for almost any place in the

The current Prohibition is every bit as much of a failure as the
previous one, they're just not advertising speakeasies in the
newspaper. The typical government solution is to double down on its
failed policies--I hope you'll reconsider.

- Randall McElroy III

The absurdity of trusting checks and balances

A friend of mine, the Rough Ol' Boy, writes up Ezra Klein's piece on the madness of the health care debate and Will Wilkinson's response. All are worth reading, but I'm highlighting R.O.B.'s conclusion here:

But I think Klein actually does make a salient point about political systems in general, but it proves far more than he wants it to. I Klein is correct when he writes that

[a] healthy relationship does not require an explicit detailing of the “institutional checks” that will prevent one partner from beating or killing the other. In a healthy relationship, such madness is simply unthinkable. If it was not unthinkable, then no number of institutional checks could repair that relationship.

But of course these institutional checks are the entire basis for our political system–think the Bill of Rights, federalism, checks and balances, etc. And, when push comes to shove, they don’t work. If you put a huge amount of power into relatively few hands (i.e. form a government), it will be abused no matter how much you attempt to safeguard it. Klein probably wasn’t aware that he was arguing for anarchy, but he was.

Yglesias and his playground gang

Brian Moore points to Matthew Yglesias trying to define libertarianism. Nothing too insightful there, but if you really want to learn what the uncritical left-wing mind thinks about libertarianism, read the comments.

I'd post over there, but what's the point? If anyone enjoys wrestling with pigs, maybe you can ask them how this whole progressive dream that is the Obama presidency + Democratic Congress is going.

Millions of drug users, no societal collapse

Economix has an interactive map of U.S. drug use. According to the statistics, 8.1% of people had used drugs within the month prior to the surveys (in 2006 and 2007). That's just over 24 million people.

Health care Free-for-All

These health care town hall meetings and concomitant protests are kind of getting me down. On one hand, the Democrats are presenting a plan that is bound to cause vastly more harm than good, and expensively to boot. On the other hand, these mindless Republican protesters are using uncivil tactics and silly arguments, doing long-term damage to the level of political discourse in the U.S., in favor of what I consider the correct short-term position. How are you readers dealing with it?

Yeah, I couldn't resist a comment on the Twitter outage

In case you hadn't heard, Twitter went out recently, leaving millions of self-absorbed, clueless brats to realize how worthless their lives are. Among people I know in real life, the more interest a person has in Twitter, the less interesting that person is. What could have been a really badass innovation has turned out to be pretty much of a dud, if you ask me.

Krugman relates a funny

I'll hand it to Krugman, this was funny:

There was a telling incident at a town hall held by Representative Gene Green, D-Tex. An activist turned to his fellow attendees and asked if they “oppose any form of socialized or government-run health care.” Nearly all did. Then Representative Green asked how many of those present were on Medicare. Almost half raised their hands.

Via Clusterstock

Free torture

David Theroux links to Harvey Silverglate's opposition to prosecutions for the CIA torturers.

This caught my eye:

... A CIA agent, operating in good faith, could readily consider such DOJ advice to be a binding legal opinion that he could safely follow. And in our legal system, based on an ancient Anglo-Saxon moral and legal tenet incorporated into our own criminal codes, a wrongdoer may be punished only if he knowingly and intentionally committed an act that he believed to be illegal. Given the facts and circumstances - the nation had just withstood the worst terrorist attack in its history and was being led by a president who suddenly declared a full-scale "war on terror" - it is inconceivable that any criminal jury in any American jurisdiction could, would, or even should agree unanimously (which is what it takes to convict) that an agent, acting in accord with DOJ legal advice, is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt (another prerequisite for conviction). These are legal realities often missed by those outside the practice of trial law.

I don't know exactly what training the CIA gives its personnel, but I'm sure they must cover the rules about what is permitted and what is forbidden. With that in mind, it's a flimsy defense to hide behind the DOJ. These operatives are trained professionals. To say that a specialist in interrogations operates in good faith when the DOJ all of a sudden allows him to do something he'd previously been unable to do is almost laughable. What if the DOJ were to declare some form of torture legal that even the most bloodthirsty Republican couldn't abide? The Nuremberg defense just wouldn't hold water in that case.

Either things are legal because the DOJ says they are, or agents need to take some individual responsibility.

You're not paranoid if they really are out to get you

Matt Barganier has a great post on the blog about the Gates affair. The gist of it is that police officers know the various ins and outs of the law, as well as the gray areas they can exploit, and use this specialist knowledge to trick people into situations where they can be arrested.

For instance, what struck me when reading the policeman’s account of the Gates incident was a small detail: the repeated use of the term “tumultuous.” It appears three times in the brief report in descriptions of Gates’ behavior. Why was the cop fixated on this SAT word?

Turns out, it appears in the Massachusetts statute defining disorderly conduct. The cop goaded the agitated Gates into stepping outside of his house (he made sure to give a reason for this in the report – poor acoustics in Gates’ kitchen!) to create the grounds for an arrest. The cop already knew the specific – though vague and debatable – adjective he should use in his report to make the charge sound incontestable to the lawnorder crowd.

The end of history, kind of

People who want to limit immigration are a frequent target of my anger for a number of reasons. I think that in general their main motivation is racism, which is a disgusting idea and one that disqualifies a person's arguments from my respectful consideration. Next is nationalism, hardly better.

Another one is that it's plain un-American, in fact anti-American. It rests on a mistaken conception of the American identity. The American identity, historically, has been as the land of opportunity, the refuge from the Old Country. Granted, a distinct identity has grown, but the meta-identity is the melting pot, and the particular form of the identity that obtains is constantly in flux. It's not monolithic or unchanging. It started as English*, then English plus German plus Scots-Irish plus African, then that plus a host of other things like Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Eastern European, Indian, Mexican and Central American, etc., including new waves of old groups. Someone who opposes immigration today ought, in the interest of consistency, to lament the eras of mass immigration in the same way that I lament the New Deal or the Vietnam War. That is, anybody who is not purely English-descended, from the colonial period, ought to think he shouldn't be here.**

Let me rephrase this point: the particular form of the American identity is not definitively established. It seems to me that to disagree with this point you'd have to narrow down to a historical period--maybe not a specific day, but at least to an identifiable range--in which the American identity was concluded, such that there's really an unbridgeable Us and Them situation in the present day.

I don't believe there is. One half of my ancestry arrived in the U.S. in the 1950s, and I feel like I blend into the American fabric just fine.

Bonus: how does naturalization according to Federal legislation allow someone be absorbed culturally?

* Let's not forget the various American Indian groups whose influence is historically undervalued, and which is briefly discussed at the end of Charles C. Mann's 1491, a book I recommend.
** Again, let's ask the American Indians about this.