Monthly Archives: August 2011

Quote Of The Day

From a commenter over at Kevin Drum’s place. The discussion was about problems with the American educational system:

Yep. And as the posts by Aaron Carroll and Austin Frakt have shown over the last year (link below) the same is true of our health care system. We’ve gone through a 30+ year binge of hypercapitalism, naively believing the free market is a magic bullet for all problems. Health care and education stand as clear counter-examples and unless we get our act together national decline is inevitable.

Yes, the intense reliance on the free market in our education and healthcare systems clearly proves that capitalism doesn’t work. And here I thought that those areas of our economy were dominated by government, not the free market. Silly me!

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West Memphis 3 Freed with Alford Plea

MSNBC Reports a very big development in the West Memphis 3 case:

JONESBORO, Ark. — Three men convicted of killing three 8-year-old Cub Scouts were freed Friday after nearly two decades in prison and after a judge OK’d a deal with prosecutors.

Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley agreed to change their pleas from not guilty to guilty in the 1993 killings in West Memphis, Ark.

They did so using a legal maneuver that lets them maintain their innocence while acknowledging prosecutors likely had enough evidence to convict them.

After the closed hearings before a judge, Baldwin told reporters that he had been reluctant to plead guilty to crimes he maintains he didn’t commit, but that he went along so as to help Echols, who was on death row.

“That’s not justice, however you look at it,” he said of the deal.

Echols called the 18 years of prison and appeals “an absolute living hell.”

“It’s not perfect,” he said of the deal. “It’s not perfect by any means. But it at least brings closure to some areas and some aspects. We can still bring up new evidence.”

I confess – I’ve never heard of an Alford plea until today. The article goes on to explain:

Friday’s move was a complicated legal proceeding that protects Arkansas from a potential lawsuit should the men win a new trial, get acquitted, and seek to sue the state for wrongful imprisonment, Prosecutor Ellington said.

The men agreed to what’s known as an Alford plea. Normally, when defendants plead guilty in criminal cases, they admit that they’ve done the crime in question.

But in an Alford plea, defendants are allowed to insist they’re innocent, says Kay Levine, a former prosecutor who now teaches at Emory University in Atlanta. She is not involved with the Arkansas case.

It seems to me that this was a compromise that neither the WM3’s defense team nor the prosecutors could refuse. The defense team and their clients believed they would ultimately prevail with the discovery of DNA evidence that was supposed to be presented in December of this year. On the other hand, the possibility of losing (again) would have put Damien Echols at risk once again of receiving a death sentence. Turning down the opportunity to have their freedom back must have also been nearly irresistible – even if it meant pleading guilty to a heinous crime they continue to maintain they did not commit.

For the prosecution this move was IMO about saving face and protecting West Memphis from being exposed to lawsuits or compensation the WM3 may otherwise have been entitled to. The prosecution would not have been able to get away with the kinds of shenanigans they got away with the first time due to the media attention the case has received and would continue to receive.

It’s a damn shame that this is the closest to just result as this case will ever get. No compensation from West Memphis to the wrongfully convicted. No real closure for the families. And perhaps most importantly, there will be no justice for the 3 boys who were killed by unknown person(s) who will now almost certainly get away with their murders.

While it’s true that justice wasn’t served with this plea deal, it’s certainly better than these young men spending another second in prison. Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley are now free men and can continue the pursuit of clearing their names once and for all.

The video below is the press conference that was held earlier today with the WM3 and their legal team.

Related Post: Disturbed Offers New Single Download to Support ‘West Memphis 3’

I Didn’t Even Know Gary Anderson Was Running in 2012!

I came across this in this discussion thread at the Agitator that I thought was too good not to share:

I’m pretty sure “Thom” wasn’t referring to Gary Anderson, the former kicker of the Minnesota Vikings (who to my knowledge isn’t running for president) but rather Gary Johnson the former governor of New Mexico (who is running for president).

I think this is exemplifies one of Gov. Johnson’s problems with name recognition. Both “Gary” and “Johnson” are such ordinary, everyday names. There’s a Gary Johnson who is an insurance agent who has an office not far from where I live. His name could just as well be Bob Smith or Bill Jones. If he were elected president, he would be the third President Johnson in U.S. history.

Names like Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum are uncommon enough that they stick in your memory once you have heard or seen the names in the media. I mean really, I have never met anyone who had a name like Mitt or Newt. These names are uncommon enough I don’t even have to hear someone say the last name to know s/he is referring to the former governor of Massachusetts and former Speaker of the House respectively. As for Ron Paul, while in isolation both names are quite common, he has the whole two “first names” thing going on.

Maybe the best thing Gov. Johnson could do is do what another famous Johnson did… » Read more

Jon Stewart: “How Did Libertarian Ron Paul Become the 13th Floor in a Hotel?”

John Stewart’s take on the media’s non-coverage of Ron Paul in recent weeks. I think he pretty much nailed it.

Enjoy!

Ron Paul Campaign Alleges Media Bias in Politico Article Headline

I saw this on my Facebook news feed from the Ron Paul FB page yesterday:

Now that I have had a chance to follow the link today, the Politico article headline now reads “Michele Bachmann wins Ames Straw Poll.”

It seems to me that Ron Paul’s supporters called them on it and Politico had the headline changed.

The Paul campaign does raise a great point here. I can’t remember the last time I’ve ever seen a headline reporting on any contest that listed 1st and 3rd place while leaving out who came in 2nd. Then when you consider that 2nd place is a statistical tie (Bachmann beat Paul by only 152 votes) while Tim Pawlenty had 2,530 fewer votes than Bachmann, one has to wonder why the headline writer would write such a headline if s/he didn’t have some sort of anti-Paul (or pro-TPaw) bias.

Personally, I believe the bias is more than anti-Paul but anti-libertarian (or anti-anyone who doesn’t tow the big government Republican Party line). Ron Paul would be ignored the way Gary Johnson is if Paul didn’t have such a strong following or wasn’t competitive with establishment candidates (though I wouldn’t really call Bachmann an establishment candidate either). Even as Paul has as an impressive showing as he did in Iowa, there are still those in the MSM who treat him as though he is a 1%er who doesn’t merit any serious attention. It wasn’t that long ago that talk radio host/blogger Hugh Hewitt wanted the RNC to take over the debates and “exile” Ron Paul (along with Herman Cain and Gary Johnson) from the debates.

But in the end, the results are what they are. If the Iowa straw poll is any indication, Ron Paul is a force to be reckoned with in this primary battle. Tim Pawlenty wasn’t as encouraged by his 3rd place finish in the straw poll as perhaps the Politico headline writer was. In fact, Pawlenty was so disappointed in the results that today he dropped out of the race. Gary Johnson says Pawlenty “should be applauded for a great effort” and respects Pawlenty’s decision but also said “it’s too early to be picking winners and losers” indicating that he won’t be wrapping up his campaign anytime soon.

I tend to agree. It is still very early. Tim Pawlenty made his exit just a day after Rick Perry announced that he too is getting into the race. And who knows what Sarah Palin will do?

My frustration is that it seems that the media is trying to decide which candidates are worthy of being covered and which are not. Leaving Ron Paul out of a headline he logically should have been in or ignoring Gary Johnson almost entirely is but a couple of examples. Newt Gingrich had a very valid point in the Iowa debate when he said that the campaign coverage should have more to do with ideas than on the horse race aspect. I really couldn’t care less about the inside baseball B.S. concerning which campaign is losing staff members or who gives the best stump speech. What I want to know is how candidate x plans to govern as president or explain why s/he would be better for our liberty and our economy than the current president.

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Just as I was about the click on the publish button for the above post, I saw this video that I thought was very interesting and seems to confirm my suspicions about the media.

SP Lowers the U.S. Debt Rating

The Standards and Poor rating service has downgraded the U.S. Federal Government’s bonds to AA+ status. This action long overdue does not go far enough.

To understand the meaning of this, we should first understand the meaning of the S&P ratings.

The ratings indicate several things:
1) The likelihood of a default – the debtor failing to make interest payments owed to the people who purchased the bonds.

2) The likelihood that the bond holders will recover some of their losses after a default.

3) How quickly the debtor’s financial condition could deteriorate causing them to slide into default.

In the pdf explaining their rating system, S&P has a very interesting table showing the default rate associated with organizations based on their classification. As one would expect, in the past thirty years no AAA organization has defaulted, nor has any organization that is rated AA+.

In their press release explaining the downgrade, S&P makes the following points:

• The downgrade reflects our opinion that the fiscal consolidation plan that Congress and the Administration recently agreed to falls short of what, in our view, would be necessary to stabilize the government’s medium-term debt dynamics.
• More broadly, the downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges to a degree more than we envisioned when we assigned a negative outlook to the rating on April 18, 2011.
• Since then, we have changed our view of the difficulties in bridging the gulf between the political parties over fiscal policy, which makes us pessimistic about the capacity of Congress and the Administration to be able to leverage their agreement this week into a broader fiscal consolidation plan that stabilizes the government’s debt dynamics any time soon.
• The outlook on the long-term rating is negative. We could lower the long-term rating to ‘AA’ within the next two years if we see that less reduction in spending than agreed to, higher interest rates, or new fiscal pressures during the period result in a higher general government debt trajectory than we currently assume in our base case
• The downgrade reflects our opinion that the fiscal consolidation plan that Congress and the Administration recently agreed to falls short ofwhat, in our view, would be necessary to stabilize the government’smedium-term debt dynamics.
• More broadly, the downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness,stability, and predictability of American policy making and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges to a degree more than we envisioned when we assigned anegative outlook to the rating on April 18, 2011.
• Since then, we have changed our view of the difficulties in bridging the gulf between the political parties over fiscal policy, which makes us pessimistic about the capacity of Congress and the Administration to be able to leverage their agreement this week into a broader fiscal consolidation plan that stabilizes the government’s debt dynamics anytime soon.
• The outlook on the long-term rating is negative. We could lower thelong-term rating to ‘AA’ within the next two years if we see that lessr eduction in spending than agreed to, higher interest rates, or newfiscal pressures during the period result in a higher general governmentdebt trajectory than we currently assume in our base case.

In essence, the S&P rating agency is implying that since the recent debate about raising the debt ceiling was immaturely handled, they are now more pessimistic than they were this spring. This strikes me as and excuse to give plausible deniability to the accusation that for years they have been rating the U.S. government much more favorably than is appropriate by any objective manner.

The fact is that over the past few decades, the U.S. government’s long-term fiscal condition has been steadily eroding, and the legislature has shown no willingness to seriously tackle the issue.  Unsurprisingly any legislator who broaches the topic of reducing any of the major sources of spending, medicare, social security, millitary spending,  corporate subsidies, etc risks being voted out of office by an electorate whipped into a frenzy about an attack on the elderly, the poor, our allies, etc.

The rating agencies, having been granted a monopoly on ratings by the U.S. government, have been loath to bite the hand that feeds them, to risk the wrath of the legislature by frankly describing the terrible financial outlook for the U.S. government. At this point the AAA rating has become a joke; there is no way that the U.S. government can pay back the loans. There is no ideological chasm between the Republicans and the Democrats.  Both parties support massive welfare spending, high taxes, and massive plundering of the productive bits of the economy.  I am increasingly of the opinion that the debt fight was a kabuki theatre engaged in by the Democrats and the Republican leadership in order to end the Tea Party threat to the metastasizing state.  The Teaparty were the grownups announcing that the party has to stop, and the political parties’ leadership were the petulant teenagers plotting to keep things going a little longer.

At this point U.S. government bonds are a very bad thing to buy. The interest the U.S. government is offering is pathetically low.  Inevitably, to attract buyers, the government will have to raise the interest rate. Once they do this, prices in the secondary market for the older low-yield bonds will collapse.  The interest payments needed to service the outstanding debt will increase, and the U.S. government will be in even worse financial shape.  It’s possible that the Federal Reserve will buy the bonds itself, using newly printed dollars, much like the central bank of Zimbabwe.

Unfortunately too many retirees have invested in U.S. government bonds, expecting that the income from the bonds would provide a reliable, dependable source of income. Either they will be screwed by the inevitable default, or they will find their income’s purchasing power destroyed by inflation.

I am an anarcho-capitalist living just west of Boston Massachussetts. I am married, have two children, and am trying to start my own computer consulting company.

5 New Orleans Cops Convicted on 25 Counts in Post-Katrina Shootings

A new chapter in one of the more disturbing occurrences following hurricane Katrina came to a close today in a jury verdict that found 5 New Orleans cops guilty on 25 counts.

The AP reports (via The Houston Chronicle):

NEW ORLEANS — A federal jury on Friday convicted five current or former New Orleans police officers of civil rights violations in one of the lowest moments for city police in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: the shooting deaths of a teenager and a mentally disabled man as they crossed a bridge in search of food and help.

[…]

Sgts. Robert Gisevius and Kenneth Bowen, Officer Anthony Villavaso and former officer Robert Faulcon were convicted of civil rights violations in the shootings that killed two people and wounded four others on the Danziger Bridge less than a week after the storm. They face possible life prison sentences.

Retired Sgt. Arthur “Archie” Kaufman and the other four men also were convicted of engaging in a brazen cover-up that included a planted gun, fabricated witnesses and falsified reports. The five men were convicted of all 25 counts they faced.

[…]

Faulcon was found guilty of fatally shooting Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old mentally disabled man, but the jury decided his killing didn’t amount to murder. Faulcon, Gisevius, Bowen and Villavaso were convicted in the death of 17-year-old James Brissette. Jurors didn’t have to decide whether Brissette was murdered because they didn’t hold any of the defendants individually responsible for causing his death.

The documentary series Frontline had an investigative report on this case entitled “Law & Disorder” (episode below).

Watch the full episode. See more FRONTLINE.

Should Republicans Fight Gas Tax Renewal?

It appears that our Federal $0.184/gallon gasoline excise tax is set to expire in just under 2 months, on September 30. This was news to me. As my colleague Doug blogs over at Outside the Beltway, this is being batted around as potentially being big news — brought to you by Grover Norquist & the Tea Party — over the interim:

You can already see how this issue could play itself out a month from now. As it is the issue of increased energy prices is an easy one to demagouge with simplistic slogans (“Drill Baby Drill”) and even more simplistic ideas (anyone remember when Hillary Clinton and John McCain came up with the idiotic idea of a Federal Gas Tax Holiday during the 2008 campaign?). It’s not at all hard to see the argument over the the gas tax being boiled down to the slogan Barack Obama wants to increase the price of gas. Given that renewing the gas tax is going to require affirmative action on the part of Congress (rather than legislation to block it) I’d already say that the forces that come out against it are going to have the advantage here, especially given the partisan make up of Congress and the difficulty of getting anything through the Senate.

There are, in fact, some remarkable similarities between the just concluded debt ceiling showdown and the showdown that could result over renewing the gas tax. Like increasing the debt ceiling, the renewal of the Federal Gasoline Tax has been a fairly non-controversial action in the past.

Republicans and Tea Party folks can advocate this on two grounds.

The first, of course, is Federalism. It is inefficient and counterproductive to route all these dollars through the earmark meat-grinder of Washington when states are more than capable of maintaining their own roads. Simply put, outside of direct Interstate Highway planning (which may have interstate commerce implications), the Federal government need not be involved in intrastate maintenance. For a party that has paid so much lip service to the earmark issue, this is a natural progression.

The second is mere populism. The national price of a gallon of gas on the day Barack Obama was inaugurated was $1.68. Today it is $3.70. That’s more than doubled since election day, and while it’s certainly easy to point out that there are a lot of reasons NOT related to the POTUS that drive gas prices, the “drill baby drill” crowd can clearly point to the moratorium on offshore drilling to suggest that POTUS is not only driving up gas prices, but then wants to keep taxing on top of them.

There’s only one problem: it’s not going to work. As Doug & the original article point out, the public does see tangible benefit in a purpose-driven tax such as this — they have roads to drive on. While libertarians and free-market types can point out all the ways that government provides roads inefficiently and performs crappy maintenance, the public doesn’t see stripping the funding as a way to fix that.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a fight. Just as previous debt ceiling increases were provided “cleanly” but this one was driven through brinksmanship to force a $2T budget cut to make it happen, it is clear that the gas tax renewal can be tied to being a package deal with something that Republicans want.

The natural package deal is allowing expanded drilling (incl. places like ANWR). Push that along with an end to most “green energy” subsidies, and you have a fallback position of simply allowing the drilling that will please most of the Republican base, potentially drive down long-term gasoline costs, and does so in a way that otherwise simply gives us the status quo (the current tax rates). Or tie it to different taxes (keeping the Bush tax rates, or tax reform in another area such as repatriation of foreign earnings), although these options might be a political loser as the two issues are so separate.

But it would be a shame to simply let this slide without a fight. This is a tax that’s set to expire unless Congress actively extends it. This means that the burden is on Congress to bring an extension to the floor and pass it. Given Republican’s recent fight over the debt, ending a tax which doesn’t have a lot of inherent opposition may not be feasible. But that doesn’t mean it should be a clean bill.

The 2-Minute Budget Deal Reaction: Open Thread

So I’ve had a tiny bit of time to reflect on the budget deal. Here are the key points:

  • $900B in immediate cuts [1/3 to defense], coupled to a $900B immediate debt ceiling increase.
  • Additional $1.2T-1.5T debt ceiling increase IF Congress either passes a balanced budget amendment or a bipartisan commission creates a debt reduction [tax revenue OR spending cuts] that can pass Congress by the end of the year.
  • If the above doesn’t occur, triggered spending cuts to defense and medicare [and possibly elsewhere] in the amount of $1.2T will occur along with a $1.2T debt ceiling increase. No revenue increases.

It could be better, it could be worse. I can see a few things here… First, we can throw out the BBA. That’s a non-starter. The whole reason that was added was for Tea Party buy-in, but it’s simply not going to pass. So we’re left with anywhere from $1.2T minimum in debt reduction, which is ALL cuts, to probably about $1.5T maximum (as there’s no political will for more) that can come from taxes or cuts.

With multiple paths going forward, I think we have to figure out what we’d like to see. And in my opinion, the BEST outcome is for the commission to fail and for the triggered cuts to occur. The commission has the capability to push for tax hikes, and I think in any scenario they’ll find a way for more than $300B of their package [assumed to be exactly $1.5T] to be increased tax revenues, meaning they’ll cut spending LESS than $1.2T.

Of the proposed cuts in the trigger, it’s about $600B over 10 years to defense, and a sizable chunk is expected to go into Medicare. While libertarians and Republicans may not find common ground on the defense spending, we’re talking about a total of $1T over 10 years, which should be feasible if we’re going to assume that we actually draw down in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the most part, that $1T will encompass keeping military spending roughly equal to what it is now, as those cuts are from a projected baseline which add at least $500B from what we’d spend by multiplying this year’s war-inflated spending out over 10 years.

The Medicare spending will put further pressure on reforming the program, and may give more political cover to performing drastic reforms such as the Ryan plan — voucherizing Medicare and pushing it to the Obamacare exchanges. Either way, we MUST restructure entitlements, and this is a start.

So I see a lot of danger in whatever the commission comes up with. Let’s start hoping the commission fails, and these already-planned $1.2T in cuts go into effect. Seems like the best option on the table at the moment.

This is an off-the-cuff reaction, of course. I encourage you guys to give your own thoughts on the plan in the comments.

Call to action: Stop the police cyber-state

There is a scary bill working its way through Congress right now: H.R. 1981 – the Protecting Children From Internet Pornographers Act of 2011

While this sounds like a worthy goal, the bill features a repressive data retention requirement that would open ordinary Americans to abuse from government as well as cyber-criminals. Specifically, the bill requires that the temporary IP address of users of commercial ISP access be retained along with identifying information for 18 months.

Here’s a quick primer on how your computer gets on the internet with the average commercial ISP:

  1. You plug the phone line/TV cable into this modem.
  2. The modem establishes a connection with the ISP through the phone line/TV cable.
  3. The modem is assigned an IP address (e.g. 71.119.121.143)
  4. You hook a computer or a router into the modem.
  5. This computer or router is assigned an IP address (either 192.168.xxx.xxx or 10.xxx.xxx.xxx)
  6. If you hooked up a router, then the computers hooked to it will be assigned IP addresses by the router.

The important thing here is that only the IP address of the modem is visible to the ISP. There could be one, five, or fifty computers sitting behind that modem, but to the ISP all that traffic would be coming from a single IP.

Let’s look now at a couple of cases in which child pornography might be requested by a machine behind an IP without the ISP customer’s knowledge:

  1. The WiFi Stealer: The customer is running a poorly-secured wireless access point. A neighbor looking to download child porn cracks the security and uses the access point to download the material.
  2. The Virus: A computer virus makes it on to one of the customer’s machines. It is programmed to fetch data from child porn websites and relay it to the virus creator.

Note that in both cases, the customer of the ISP and those living in his household wouldn’t even know their connection had been used to download child porn until they got the knock on the door. Aside from the thousands of families each year whose lives would be disrupted by purely mistaken prosecutions, setting this standard in law would make it possible to deliberately set people up to undergo a time-consuming and costly legal battle.

If that weren’t bad enough, the requirement to retain “identifying account data” is troublesome as well. What could be so bad about keeping the name of the customer for 18 months? Nothing, except keeping the name alone won’t do what the bill wants. As someone who’s designed software to match identities, I can say with certainty that in practice this requirement would force retention, at a minimum, of customer name, address, and date of birth. Most ISPs would probably go farther and retain a unique ID number such as a Social Security Number or a financial ID number such as a credit/debit card number or checking account number.

But wait a minute, you say. Don’t ISPs already have all this?

Yes, they do. Today, they are not required to relate the assigned IP addresses for the last 18 months to it. This requires storing the customer data in such a way that it can be related to the IP addresses, as well as being recalled later for use by law enforcement.

The simple fact of making it usable for law enforcement makes it less secure. The logs have to be linked to the customer accounts, meaning that the data is likely exposed to the internet. All the data has to be recalled as plain text, meaning that weaker encryption practices must be used. Even if everything is done perfectly right, an interface must be built to get the data out and to law enforcement, meaning that a bad actor inside an ISP has a ready-made portal to all sorts of personally-identifiable information.

Sounds pretty bad, right? It’s worse than you think. Corporate records are not subject to the same Fourth Amendment protections as individual records. Currently, to find out everything an ISP user is doing, law enforcement needs to prove its case and get a warrant. Under this bill, your internet activity would be pre-existing corporate records. No more warrants. Government wants to find out about your IP address, they subpoena the ISP for that record and they get information about you without having to prove a thing.

This bill is bad, folks. We need each of our readers to step up and contact your Representative and encourage them to say NO to this bill that treats all internet users as criminals.