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Your good deed for this particular time period

Roderick Long is getting worked over by the Alabama Department of Revenue. It's serious. Please help if you're able.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. vs. the Cambridge PD

Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was recently arrested trying to get into his own house, the front door of which was jammed. One of his neighbors called the police to say that two black men (who were actually Gates and his Moroccan driver) were trying to break into the house, and the police didn't leave even after Gates showed his ID and explained that it was his house. Instead, these thugs kept grilling him, and in response he "exhibited loud and tumultuous behaviour", which in Copland is automatic grounds for arrest.

Gates is rare among victims of aggressive police officers in that he is well-connected; three of his Harvard colleagues showed up to the station to bail him out. He has this to say:

"I am appalled that any American could be treated as capriciously by an individual police officer. He should look into his soul and he should apologize to me," Gates said. "If so, I will be prepared to forgive him. I think that poor people in general and black people in general are vulnerable to the whims of rogue cops, and we all have to fight to protect the weakest among us. No matter how bad it was going to get, I knew that sooner or later I would get to a phone and one of my friends would be there to help."

Re-read that last sentence and imagine if Gates were not a Harvard professor: he'd be alone, and he'd be charged and convicted like any other police victim, instead of having the charges dropped by the embarrassed Cambridge police department. He'd be bullied some more along the way. He'd be just another sucker as far as the police were concerned.

I only wish he'd put two and two together: systematic racism in the police force, abuse by individual officers...maybe, just maybe, the abuse is systematic too.

The Danger in DUI

I have a friend back in Georgia who happens to have a very high tolerance for alcohol. She got a call, while at a bar drinking, requesting she pick up a friend in trouble, and she headed off to help them. She was followed from the bar by a police officer who pulled her over and arrested her for DUI, and yes she was over the legal limit.

She maintains that she was not "drunk," and that her driving was not impaired. I mention this because I do think drunk driving is a serious offense. I had two friends from high school killed by a drunk driver, so I certainly take it seriously.

However, I think that there is a very stark difference between "over the legal limit" and "drunk" or "impaired." For example I would rather get in a car with this friend driving slightly over the legal BAC limit than get in a car driven by a clone of myself who was suffering from sleep deprivation, which I often am since my son was born.

Since the original arrest, a compounding of bad circumstances led to my friend sitting in jail for 3 weeks, consequently losing her job, and now her apartment. Because of all that, there is no possible way she can afford a good lawyer to fight the charges. If she gets convicted it will mean a fine of 300-500 dollars, a year of probation, 40 hours community service, a 250 dollar dui class, at least a year suspension on her license, another fee to get her license reinstated, and finally the possibility of getting sentenced up to 11 months more of jail time.

In the meantime a DUI conviction will make it very difficult to get a new job, and cause her car insurance to skyrocket. All this is for a first offense. Doesn't this seem a little draconian? Yes drunk driving kills, but my friend did not kill anyone. It is not even clear that anyone was in danger.

Back in Texas, I had another friend call me one day (this was several years ago) while driving home from a bar and inform me in the process that she was "really drunk" through slurred speech. I begged her to pull over and told her to get off the phone. She made it home fine. This friend is now a career woman who has no stigma to worry about from her night of reckless driving, but my friend in Georgia will likely have this DUI follow her for years.

Actually, driving while slightly buzzed or worse seems to be widely practiced. I would guess 60-70 percent of the people I have known over the last decade have at some point driven while over the legal blood alcohol limit. I know very few people who would hesitate to jump in the car, and drive out to a friend in need after only consuming a couple of beers. (I wouldn't do it, but just because 2 beers would practically knock me out...) The draconian laws are not even remotely a deterrent for those who do not feel impaired. Nor do the BAC limits seem that accurate at determining impairment.

Ultimately I feel like my friend is being punished for the damages she could have caused, had she actually been impaired and gotten into an accident, and not for the "crime" (driving while over the legal BAC) committed.

Procyclical State Policy

James Surowiecki blames federalism and the state governments for holding back recovery:

Fiscal policy at the national level is countercyclical: as the economy shrinks, government expands. At the state level, though, the opposite is happening. Nearly every state government is required to balance its budget. When times are bad, jobs vanish, sales plummet, investment declines, and tax revenues fall precipitously—in New York, for instance, state revenues in April and May were down thirty-six per cent from a year earlier. So states have to raise taxes or cut spending, or both, and that’s precisely what they’re doing.

But is it really the case that federalism dooms states to running pro-cylical fiscal policy? Consider this seemingly unrelated story from Chile from a few months ago:

Thousands of government workers marched on downtown Santiago last November, burning an effigy of Chilean Finance Minister Andres Velasco and calling him “disgusting” as a strike for higher wages paralyzed public services.

Five months later, polls show that Velasco is President Michelle Bachelet’s most popular minister. During a three-year copper boom he and central bank President Jose De Gregorio set aside $48.6 billion, more than 30 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, that he is now using for tax cuts, subsidies and cash handouts to poor families.

The Chilean peso has risen almost 10 percent against the dollar this year to become the best-performing currency among emerging markets. The country’s economy is expected to grow 0.1 percent in 2009, as the region contracts 1.5 percent

There is no reason California could not have done the same thing. The growth of Silicon Valley has been a tremendous windfall for California. Revenue for the state government soared over the past decade. It, and more, was all spent. California could be cutting taxes and boosting spending simultaneously if they hadn't squandered their money on reckless spending.

So why the difference? It isn't federalism, but rather leadership. Chile had a finance minister with guts and intelligence (Harvard professor in economics). California had dysfunction and ill-designed referenda. The blame for the current sorry state of state finances lies not in federalism.

The Age of Diminished Expectations

Megan McArdle laments the loss of imagination in the United States, reflecting on the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's walk:

During the incomprehensibly lengthy interval between you and adulthood, man would surely prepare itself to go to Mars and beyond, and you were going to be among the pioneers.

Four years before I was born, man walked on the moon for the first time, the most magnificent single feat our little tribe of East African Plains Apes has ever managed. Now we don't even do that. What happened to the dream? Government mismanagement, yes, but something more than that, too, some failure of imagination and will.

I'm in complete agreement, and I don't think the blame for this state affairs lies with government interference. Although I don't doubt that space travel would be in a more advanced state with a freer market, there seems to have been a deeper, psychological shift in the nation's psyche. We just don't want to build big anymore.

A few weeks ago while researching something else, I ran across one of the odder transportation ideas I've ever heard of:

A vactrain is a proposed, as-yet-unbuilt proposal for future high-speed railroad transportation. This would entail building maglev lines through evacuated (air-less) tunnels. Though the technology is currently being investigated for development of regional networks, advocates have suggested establishing vactrains for transcontinental routes to form a global subway network. The lack of air resistance could permit vactrains to move at extremely high speeds, up to 6000-8000 km/h

And these ideas were not coming random kooks writing in their parents' basement. The vacuum tunnel high speed train proposal was published by RAND, one of the most respected research institutes of the time (and today). Serious proposals about space colonization were being published by NASA in the 70s.

I'm not saying these particular projects made any sense. Rather, there's something sad about a society that doesn't even dare dream of wild, even stupid things, preferring a sedate existence. But is it true that we have lost all ability to think big? I don't think so. Projects like the sequencing the human genome are huge undertakings too, to say nothing of, say, Aubrey De Grey's SENS proposal. And yet these manage to capture at least some of the public's attention.

It seems more to me that we've lost the interest in building things, even if our imaginations still run wild in other areas. And if that's the case, why has this happened? And does anyone else see this is as a bad thing?

Facebook and Networking

It took me longer than I should have to arrive at the conclusion that networking is the difference between achieving merely very good things and achieving greatness. The best networker I know writes for this blog. The US is a very meritocratic country. Whatever your background, if you're good at what you do, you'll get far. But to get to the very top, you need to know the right people.

As wealth grows and material things become more accessible in the first world, social status will be the capital invested as a means to get rich.

Conjecture: In traditional societies the size of Dunbar's number, positive interactions such as friendliness, praise, and well wishes had to be balanced with negative interactions such as rebuke, scold, and revenge. With highly networked societies of abundance, the possibility of only positive interactions arises. Negative people can simply be ignored.

Shays, servant of the powerful

Via Clusterstock, the Wall Street Journal reports on one of CIT's maneuvers attempting to get themselves a bailout:

CIT had been trying for months to improve its connections in Washington. It spent close to $90,000 last year on lobbying, and $60,000 in the first quarter of 2009. It brought onto its board of directors former Congressman Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican.

Yes, that's Chris Shays, of Shays-Meehan fame, or legally speaking, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. You know, the one that masqueraded as a way to keep money out of politics? The one that actually served the interests of the ruling class while a whole army of useful idiots pontificated about democracy?

Taxation and Greed

Leftists are fond of asserting that those who oppose their tax-and-spend agenda are motivated by greed. Let's put aside for now the question of whether it's "greedy" to object to having the fruits of your labor forcibly confiscated. The biggest problem with this assertion is that it's flat-out illogical.

The only proposals really on the table nowadays with respect to tax hikes are to raise taxes on a fairly small number of high-earning taxpayers. Let's say those in the top 5%, though it's probably an even smaller percentage than that. Really, when was the last time you heard calls for the middle class to start paying their fair share? What this means is that 95% of people will be the ostensible* beneficiaries of tax increases, with 5% bearing the cost.

So for the vast majority of people, opposing a tax-and-spend agenda means turning down the opportunity to enrich themselves at their richer countrymen's expense. Conversely, supporting a tax-and-spend agenda amounts to reaching into someone else's pocket and grabbing a handful of cash.

The logic of this assertion—again, setting aside the dubious moral judgments—applies at best only to the small minority with incomes high enough to be hit directly by the proposed tax increases. For the rest of us, it's completely backwards: The greedy thing to do is to support tax and spending hikes, and the magnanimous** thing to do is to oppose them.

*I say ostensible because increased government spending makes us all poorer in the long run.

**Relatively speaking, anyway. Simple refraining from unilaterally deciding to grab someone else's money is a pretty low bar.

Summer news

If you don't read The Orwell Diaries, you might give it a look. It's a blog that's publishing George Orwell's diary entries 70 years to the day after he wrote them. Seventy years before this summer was the summer leading up to World War II, so there should be plenty of interesting updates coming.

Also, this year's Tour de France is killing me. Other than Mark Cavendish, certified badass, where's the action?

My unenthusiastic acceptance of Jimmy Carter's latest news item

From The Guardian, via Jezebel, via a friend, I see that Jimmy Carter has quit the Southern Baptist Convention due to a theological and political dispute:

So my decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention's leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be "subservient" to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service. This was in conflict with my belief - confirmed in the holy scriptures - that we are all equal in the eyes of God.

Good old Mr. Carter cites verse in defense of his position:

"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28)

The trouble is, each side can quote passages endlessly to justify its position. If you take the humanist perspective and think that this document was created over a long period by many people with many different points of view and agendas, it makes total sense that parts could conflict, but you also wouldn't look to this document as a source of infallible wisdom. If you take the supernatural perspective, well, God help you figure it out.

For all the people who got overexcited by Carter's statements, here's the danger of religious alliances in favor of political goals. A person could reasonably conclude based on reading the Bible that women should be subordinate to men, even though I think this position is unreasonable based on other sources of moral information--dare I say, better sources. But accepting Jimmy Carter's theology as a partner in the fight against oppression means giving weight to his reasoning, and his interpretation of the Bible might not be the correct one.

That is, assuming there is a correct one. If there's not, then he's out to sea without a rudder, and may sail some other direction during the next dispute. The people who cheer Jimmy Carter today might scorn him tomorrow when he says that Jesus never intended for gays to marry, or that we should aid and train the Mujahideen against the Soviets, or whatever else will come up. [He does, however, support civil unions.]

Or it could be that he knows oppression for the evil it is, and this colors his theology. If that's the case, then his theology is irrelevant anyway.