Weekly Hit & Run Archive 2003 December 22-31

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Help Me, Jeebus!

In the wake of The New Republic's cover story on the electoral problems posed by Howard Dean's secularism, the candidate has announced his intention to begin spreading the gospel... in the South. This strikes me as bizarre. It'd be one thing to have just done it. But it seems potentially counterproductive for someone who's already on record as saying he doesn't go to church much and doesn't let his religion influence his politics to, in essence, announce that he's made a strategic decision to pull out the God-talk for the rubes below the Mason-Dixon (while, presumably, abstaining up North). If his secularism is offputting to religious voters, isn't this kind of calculated, condescending pandering likely to be even more so?

Lip Service

New at Reason: Jacob Sullum chews on the logic of keeping accurate information about smokeless tobacco secret from the public.

Abooooout Face!

Gen. Wesley Clark's campaign stumbled early on by giving the cold shoulder to the legions of online activists who'd launched a grassroots movement to "Draft Clark"—the same kind of network that's proved so vital to the success of Howard Dean. Now Wired is reporting that Clark's people have seen the light: They're developing open source social-networking applications to orchestrate campaigining.

Present Shock

The kindly folks at Crooked Timber remind me I've got to go see Good-bye, Lenin! as soon as it comes to the U.S. The premise is that a young East Berliner's mother falls into a coma just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. When she comes-to, the doctor warns him that any serious shock could do her in... and so he's forced to go to amusing lengths to persuade her that they're still living under a communist dictatorship. Good buzz so far. The North American rights have been picked up by Sony Classic, but there's no release date yet.

Oh, Xenu!

Between Christmas, Chanukah, Solstice, and Kwanzaa, Scientologists may feel a bit left out. For them, there's a new musical based on the life of schlock sci-fi author cum Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Read the New York Times review if you have any doubts. (Hat tip: Jeff Patterson)

The Man-Beast Lies In His Cage, Sniffing Popcorn

New at Reason: If Jeremy Rifkin gets his chimera patent, will you still be allowed to live like an ape man? Ron Bailey wants to know.

Happy Holidays

On behalf of the Reason staff, I'd like to extend season's greetings to Hit & Run's readers, who have posted nearly 60,000 comments to this blog in a little over a year's time.

Due to the long holiday weekend, we'll be doing light blogging until next Monday.

Torture AFA

The American Family Association is running a meaningless online poll on attitudes about gay marriage which, they say, they'll be sending to Congress. Presumably, they thought selection bias (who goes to the AFA website, after all?) would yield a huge margin against gay marriage. Except, so far, it's not quite working out. I'm dying to see them forced to send a "petition" to Congress showing upwards of 60 percent support for gay marriage, with another 8 to 10 favoring at least civil unions. That, or watching them try to weasel out of doing so. Have fun. (Hat tip: Amy Phillips.)

Busted Computing

Folks like Larry Lessig have bee warning for years about the shared interest of government and corporations in altering the architecture of the internet to facilitate top-down control and curtail its intrinsic openness. Now in Newsweek, Steven Levy looks at how it may happen.

Lenny Bruce Was Bad

Almost 40 years after being conviced of obscenity in New York, comedian Lenny Bruce, who has inspired countless imitators and at least two of the very worst rock songs in recorded history (by the execrable Phil Ochs and the maestro Bob Dylan), has been pardoned by Gov. George Pataki. From the Newark Star-Ledger's account:

"Freedom of speech is one of the greatest American liberties and I hope this pardon serves as a reminder of the precious freedoms we are fighting to preserve," Pataki said in a statement.

It goes without saying that Bruce never should have been arrested for anything, much less convicted of anything. All of us who benefit from free expression are forever in the debt of the man dubbed "America's #1 Vomic" by the idiotic Walter Winchell.

That's not to say that Bruce's shtick is--or was--particularly funny. Like many crying-on-the-inside-clowns, he quickly degenerated into that most vile of humorists--the moralistic, self-aggrandizing "satirist." As I wrote a year ago in a review of Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover's fascinating The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon,

Bruce�s targets -- organized religion, politicians, sexual hypocrisy, racism -- long ago lost whatever widespread, uncritical support they once might have enjoyed. (To be sure, Bruce himself contributed to this.)...Bruce�s insistence on his didactic function -- "I�m a surgeon with a scalpel for false values," he used to say -- transformed him into an adults-only version of the tedious magazine Highlights for Children, whose subtitle threatens to deliver "Fun With a Purpose."

Collins and Skover argue persuasively that Bruce helped pave the way for the rejection of 1996's Communications Decency Act. Here's hoping his ghost hovers over this new attempt to regulate "obscenity."

Paging Sheikh McBragg

New at Reason: Charles Paul Freund rattles the cave of Dr. al-Zawahiri.

What's a Billion Here or There?

The Department of Defense knows precisely how much its major IT initiatives will cost... give or take $1.6 billion. That's the amount of the discrepancy between two DoD reports found by the General Accounting Office. The full GAO report is here [PDF].

Of, By, And For the Common Man

New at Reason: In an interview with Nick Gillespie, Johan Norberg, the author of In Defense of Global Capitalism, explains why international free trade, open markets and cultural mongrelization are good for the poor.

A Failure by Any Measure

As Brian Doherty notes, the Marijuana Policy Project is calling attention to the contradiction between the results of the latest Monitoring the Future Study, released last week, and those of a similar survey unveiled in August. The Monitoring the Future data, produced by University of Michigan researchers under contract with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, show either a decline or no change in drug use among students in the eighth, 10th, and 12th grades between 2002 and 2003. By contrast, the PRIDE Survey found an overall increase in drug use among adolescents, including substantial increases in past-month pot smoking (from 4.7 percent to 7.1 percent) and heroin use (from 1 percent to 1.6 percent) among junior high school students.

Not surprisingly, the University of Michigan presented the Montoring the Future results as good news. "Ecstasy use falls for second year in row, overall teen drug use drops," said the headline on last week's press release. More impressive was the positive spin that PRIDE Surveys managed to put on an increase in drug use by teenagers: "'03 Student Drug Use Consistent With 5- and 10-Year Averages."

Whichever results are closer to the truth, MPP notes, federal drug warriors have not even come close to the goal set by Congress, which in 1998 charged the Office of National Drug Control Policy with reducing past-month drug use among adolescents to 3 percent by the end of this year. Judging by these surveys, the current rate is at least five times that. Data from the 2002 National Survey on Drug Use and Health are a little more encouraging, indicating a rate that's only four times the official target.

Who To Conquer Next?

Pakistan? See this report in today's Christian Science Monitor, which pulls together some earlier reports from both The New York Times and The Washington Post. It speculates that Pakistani scientists may have been the source of nuke technology for both Iran and North Korea. Combine this with Pakistani sources' known past, and possibly present, support for the U.S.'s Taliban enemy in Afghanistan, and the casus belli is there. It's a big, expensive, bloody world to subdue, and a rigorous application of Bush administration foreign policy wisdom could see the red, white, and blue mixing it up in 2004 from Persia to Peshawar to Pyongyang.

Teen Drug Use Survey Says...

How worthwhile is the "data" when it comes to kids and drug use? See today's press release from the Marijuana Policy Project, headlined "Teen Drug Surveys Contradict Each Other." An excerpt:

Results from the 2003 Monitoring the Future survey of teen drug use, released today, show a trend directly opposite to that seen in the National PRIDE Survey, released in late August. The two annual youth surveys have been designated by Congress as measures of the success of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy's (ONDCP's) efforts to reduce teen drug use.

While Monitoring the Future, conducted by University of Michigan researchers and funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, indicates a decrease in teen use of marijuana and other drugs, the privately-funded PRIDE Survey showed a sharp rise in drug use: Monthly use of marijuana by junior-high students rose 51 percent from 2002 to 2003, and monthly use of heroin rose 60 percent. Despite the differences, both surveys confirm that ONDCP has failed by a large margin to meet goals set for it by Congress. Full PRIDE Survey results are available at http://www.pridesurveys.com.

"Apparently, Drug Czar John Walters only likes to publicize surveys that make federal policies look good, while ignoring everything else," said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C. "Walters was strangely silent about this year's PRIDE Survey, though he touted it last year. The taxpayers deserve an honest discussion of the differences between these two surveys, because the bulk of the data suggest our current policies are failing. The only thing these results tell us for sure is that ONDCP has spectacularly failed to meet Congressional goals."

It has never struck me as likely that surveying teenagers about drug use is apt to result in accurate answers, with motivations for lying in every direction, from fear of punishment to desire to mess with people's heads to general disdain for this sort of time-wasting nonsense. So it doesn't surprise me a bit to find two such surveys coming up with such wildly varying results. Such surveying is more a consumption expense for bureaucrats than an investment in human knowledge.

Northern Weed

Canada's Supreme Court has rejected the claim that banning marijuana possession violates that nation's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The plaintiffs had argued that the charter requires the government to demonstrate harm to third parties before criminalizing an activity. On the brighter side, Prime Minister Paul Martin plans to reintroduce a bill that would eliminate the possibility of jail time for possessing small amounts of pot, insteading imposing a modest fine.

A dozen U.S. states have the same policy. But as the Drug Reform Coordination Network's Phillip Smith notes in his handy guide to Canada's marijuana debate, that fact has not stopped federal drug warriors from popping a vein over the prospect of decriminalization in Canada.

Cop blogger gone wild

From Newsday, via Drudge:

A Brooklyn cop is being investigated for Internet postings in which he brags about beating suspects, writing phony tickets and ignoring calls to his precinct.

The officer, identified by Internal Affairs investigators as a patrol cop who works in the 75th Precinct, uses the pseudonym "Brooklynbacon" and posts his messages on a site accessible through Xanga.com.

Alongside pictures of motorcycle trick riders, naked women, photographs with comical captions and pictures of human oddities, he posts messages supposedly about his job and, in some instances, his own misconduct. Any one of the offenses he describes could cost him his job.

Even for a bad cop, it sounds too dumb not to be a hoax. Does anybody know? Here's his site. (free reg required.) A sample entry:

Last night, I pulled up in the middle of a illegal import car race and I attempted to write a ticket but what was I really thinking of? An illegally parked Honda Civic saw me approaching and "took the fuck off". I sat there for .05 seconds and realized that this guy just took off on a me. WTF?

So I decided to chase him for the next 25 blocks, 4 major intersections, and 6 red stop lights into the next adjoining precinct. Not too bad..

Is it too much to ask the NYPD to invest in some faster patrol cars? I was driving the Chevy Impala wishing I was driving the Ford Crown Victoria with the Police Interceptor package instead. However, to wish and get, is obviously 2 different things with the NYPD.

To make a long story short, my partner suggested I terminate the car pursuit before someone innocent get hurts because "I wanted to write a parking ticket". A innocent human life is worth than a $150 "No Parking Anytime" ticket belive it or not.

Maybe for Christmas, I will ask Santa to install missiles, oil slicks, and machine guns onto the patrol car like the game "Spy Hunter". Or should I carry some extra bullets in case I let some rounds go "by accident"?

And here's a little message for the 2 Afro- American males inside the Black Honda Civic hatchback with Pennsylvania license plates, there will be another day and next time I won't be hesitant to ram your vehicle from behind.

Al Jazeera Fights the Fat

This Al Jazeera headline provides more evidence that the West is winning hearts and minds in the Middle East:

Obese at greater risk from prostrate cancer

How else to explain everyone's favorite Arab news service reporting on such a quintessentially Western obsession as obesity and its various possible health effects? Who knows, pretty soon they'll even hire a better proofreader who will note that it's prostate cancer, not prostrate.

We'll know the Rubicon--er, the Tigris?--has been crossed when Al Jazeera runs with this related story.

Lord Haw-Haw Agonistes

Here's an interesting review of a new biography of William Joyce, the notorious Nazi-sympathizing Brit propagandist better known as Lord Haw-Haw. Those of us of Irish extraction (or, more precisely, embittered Irish extraction) will immediately recognize attentuated versions of Haw-Haw from any number of family gatherings, even when it's only Catholics in the room.

William Shirer is quoted on the roots of Joyce's derangement, a set of twinned revulsions that have poisoned all too much of European history:

I should say that he has two complexes which have landed him in his present notorious position. He has a titanic hatred for Jews and an equally titanic one for capitalists.

Whole thing here.

[Link via Arts & Letters Daily]

Teapot Dome on the Tigris

The next time the Bush administration starts bitching about its press in Iraq, roll out this glowing ode to U.S. bribes of tribal sheiks. Even though bribes can never be a long-term path to a stable nation, indeed the end of the story proves that in sad detail, the American bribers are praised as "embracing unorthodox, creative and daring approaches to build alliances with local power brokers."

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Cow

Well, now we get to see if the American public can go absolutely hysterical like their European cousins. Me, I'm glad I waited to get that Christmas rib roast. Should be half-off by now.

Health of the State

New at Reason: Kelly Jane Torrance cuts a rug at the American Public Health Association's annual meeting.

If It Makes You Happy...

Good post by Matt Yglesias on conservative arguments that biotechnology can't make us happy.

A couple added thoughts. Every feeling you get as a result of virtuously carrying out your duties to family, community, and all that other lovely stuff has some neurological base. So presumably, it's in principle possible to replicate those subjective feelings through technology. That doesn't mean I'd necessarily want to do it—the point of Nozick's famous experience machine thought experiment was that we care about more than happiness, even in the most exalted, non-hedonistic conception of the term. We're satisfied when we achieve our goals, but often what we're really aiming at is precisely the achievement of the goal, and not the satisfaction.

That said, I'm probably more inclined than most to attribute much of our day happiness or unhappiness (I'm not talking about anything as serious as clinical depression here) to chemical blips than to the deep, subconscious psychological roots many seem to assume must underly those moods. And the two aren't disconnected. If you wake up feeling grumpy and lethargic, how effectively are you going to fulfill your goals? And when you wake up feeling refreshed and optimistic, maybe for no particular reason—aren't you more apt to be a better neighbor, friend, lover, worker, student? We're already largely subject to these sorts of chemical flukes—is it somehow worse to be subject to the same chemistry under our own control?

The fear animating people who worry about this aspect of biotech seems to be the "soma scenario"—that happy pills will somehow subvert or replace the more familiar "pursuit of happiness" (or eudaimonia, or whatever). They seem more likely to supplement it.

The Delinquent Dauphin

As this Christian Science Monitor story puts it:

Parents of teenagers now have an additional incentive to really get to know their children's friends and acquaintances.

It is called Maryland v. Pringle.

That's the title of a US Supreme Court decision announced this week that, for the first time, authorizes a police officer who discovers contraband in a car to arrest every occupant of the car when no one admits to ownership of the illicit item.

Tell that to the parents of pals of Al Gore III, son of the former VPOTUS and tantalizingly near-POTUS. AG3 and his pals just got thrown in the pokey with some buds for smoking, er, buds. AG3 had been playing the role of the Delinquent Daupin of American politics for years.

Indeed, his father's oh-so-close loss in the last presidential election was a national calamity if for no other reason than this: It robbed the country of what surely would have been the most hilariously dysfunctional First Family since, well, the current one. And all the ones before that.

[CSM link via Free-Market.net]

I May Be Small But I'm Also Little

New at Reason: Think small, says Ron Bailey, and consider how transformative nanotechnology may be.

CrimeSing

German authorities have jailed the lead singer of a skinhead rock band that glorified Naziism—a band that was ruled to be a "criminal organization." In addition to opposing censorship of even this hateful swill on general free-speech grounds, it's troubling to think that these guys will now probably have martyr status in the eyes of many. Just as sales of Frankenchrist exploded after the Dead Kennedys were brought up on obscenity charges, I suspect the attention the trial has generated will win this loathesome band new fans.

Dirty Tricks

When it was Kathleen Willey reporting stuff like this, it was the other side that made a big deal out of it.

Time's Person(s) of the Year

As you've doubtless heard, Time picked "The American Soldier" as POY this go-round:

They swept across Iraq and conquered it in 21 days. They stand guard on streets pot-holed with skepticism and rancor. They caught Saddam Hussein. They are the face of America, its might and good will, in a region unused to democracy. The U.S. G.I. is TIME's Person of the Year.

This isn't the first the U.S. G.I. (or equivalent) has been chosen: The "American Fighting Man" was selected in 1950. Go here for a decade by decade listing, starting with the '20s.

Perhaps the oddest element of this all is that Time is using the story as a way of driving subscriptions via its Web site.

A Steaming Pile of Entertainment

Via Radley Balko, I see that Showtime has chosen to sign on for another season of Penn and Teller's excellent program Bullshit! They'll air five of the best episodes from season one starting tonight at 8pm. The show contains heavy doses of skepticism and libertarianism: The first episode running this evening, on "environmental hysteria," features an interview with Cato's Jerry Taylor.

What the "Media" Won't Tell You!

New at Reason: What are the lessons of the Saddam conspiracy theories?

Orange Alert, Orange Alert

Intelligence warning of "near-term attacks that could either rival or exceed what we experienced on September 11" has led to another shift in the national terrorism rainbow. That'll mean tighter security for holiday travellers, including random vehicle searches at airports. No word on whether Tom Ridge plans to deploy Rover.

Seriously, though, if we did see holiday attacks that "rival" or "exceed" 9/11, would there be any political will whatever to hold the line on civil liberties? There's been a gradual return to sanity among many of the legislators who voted for PATRIOT, and moves to repeal provisions that threaten privacy without making us appreciably safer. An attack won't change the wisdom of those provisions, but it'd likely make that momentum evaporate.

Tidy story

Newsweek says Saddam Hussein put up a fight when captured, sort of:

The Special Forces commando had already pulled the pin. He was primed to toss the grenade into the "spider hole," a Vietnam-era nickname for lethal hiding places. But the man cowering inside did not use the pistol resting in his lap. He raised both hands in submission and, speaking in English, announced, "I am Saddam Hussein, I am the president of Iraq and I'm willing to negotiate."

As the story was later told, one of the Special Forces operators looked down at the disheveled, bearded, seemingly dazed man and replied, "President Bush sends his regards." And coming out of the hole, Saddam accidentally bumped his head. But a knowledgeable U.S. official told NEWSWEEK that it didn't quite happen that way. In fact, as Saddam was being handcuffed, he began to struggle with his captors. He spat at the soldiers. One of the commandos decked him, either with a punch or a rifle butt. (The military later tidied up the story of his capture for popular consumption.)

Third Party Time?

In today's Washington Times, Bruce Bartlett says things aren't so great for third parties despite the recent talk.

Whether he's right or not, the talk about troubles in the big two parties is nice to hear:

The lack of competition for the Republican presidential nomination and the increasing likelihood Howard Dean will be the Democratic nominee seem to be feeding renewed talk about third party candidates. It is fueled by a belief the Internet has helped make the major parties obsolete.
On both the Republican and Democratic sides of the fence, there is talk about third parties. Libertarians and many conservatives within the Republican Party are deeply frustrated with President Bush's budgetary profligacy and a number of other issues...
At the same time, some of Mr. Dean's people are making not-so-subtle noises about Mr. Dean running as a third party candidate should he lose the Democratic nomination. In effect, they are warning the party establishment not to gang up on Mr. Dean or he will guarantee that the Democratic candidate loses.

River of Tears

Enticing the NBA's New Jersey Nets across the Hudson to play in a brand new -- what else? -- arena in Brooklyn would displace 1000 families, a city councilwoman claims. The developer says not to worry, the displaced won't be that many, and besides it "guarantee(s) we will treat homeowners and renters more than fairly and work with them to make their moves as easy as possible."

e-Privatization

Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich has just auctioned off his state yacht for $275,000—not a bad price, though significantly less than the appraised value. The twist? As Jesse noted a while back, it was sold on eBay.

I'd suggest we do more government contracts this way, but the board of directors of Halliburton might have a collective coronary. (Hat tip: Jenn "Dutch" Holland.)

The "Clinton Did It" Defense

In its continuing search for connections between bin Laden and Iraq, The Weekly Standard is attempting to rehabilitate Clinton's bloody panty raid on a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory. I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Running Out of School Choice

Interesting account in today's Washington Post of the practical difficulties inherent in the school choice provisions of 2001's "No Child Left Behind" Act. Main dilemma: when kids get the federal right to opt out of awful schools, better schools either aren't available or refuse to accept them. An excerpt:

Weldon school officials attempted to negotiate a school-choice agreement with their counterparts in Roanoke Rapids, a predominantly white, middle-class school district on the other side of Interstate 95. They were turned down flat.

Weldon's request would "create an administrative nightmare," said Roanoke Rapids school Superintendent John Parker, who employs two investigators to ensure that children living in Weldon and surrounding Halifax County do not try to sneak into his schools. "There is no way we could accommodate all the students who want to come here, if we opened our doors."

The experience in Weldon suggests the depth of entrenched local opposition to school choice, as the Bush administration refers to its plan for offering parents an alternative to failing schools. It also illustrates the formidable practical difficulties in implementing the concept, particularly in small school districts.

Although the obstacles to school choice may be greater in Weldon than elsewhere, the number of students changing schools under the No Child Left Behind law is minuscule nationwide. In rural areas, it is often difficult for parents to find more acceptable schools without traveling great distances. Even in urban areas, good schools are often crowded and reluctant to accept students from "failing" schools.

Actual cash vouchers to make up for the money taken in taxes to support failing public schools, and to help jumpstart more private provision of education services, might help. Eliminating any hint of a requirement that any official, federally approved "educator" live up to the standards and structure of the typical school of today might also help make fresh options available to prisoners of the public school monopoly, helping us all realize that sitting for seven hours a day with 30 other kids in a room with someone talking at you isn't the only way to create an educated human. But that might mean the politically perilous choice of leaving teachers union members behind, so don't count on it soon.

Justice is Deaf

An Australian judge frees a man because he misheard the "guilty" (on one charge, at least) verdict from the jury.

Class Clash

Paul Krugman's piece for The Nation on the death of American economic mobility has been getting abundant link love over the last few days. I don't have much to say here, especially since I tend to agree that the Hubbard study he mentions has a number of problems that make it a poor ground for the strong claims often made by those who cite it. As I recall, for instance, it looks at people who filed tax returns in ten consecutive years. That may be necessary to get a good longitudinal picture, but it introduces some obvious selection bias.

Still, it's worth noting this:

But what these studies measure, as the economist Kevin Murphy put it, is mainly "the guy who works in the college bookstore and has a real job by his early 30s." Serious studies that exclude this sort of pseudo-mobility show that inequality in average incomes over long periods isn't much smaller than inequality in annual incomes.

I understand why that sort of mobility isn't the kind with which people are concerned, but it seems we've got to be consistent. I'm pretty sure that most claims about the degree of American income inequality don't exclude people who have low incomes because they're 20 and working in the college bookstore. If you count these folks when you're looking at inequality snapshots, but then exclude them when tracking mobility, that's going to skew your perspective as well.

Sacre Blunder

If you're wondering why we haven't been saying much about Jaques Chirac's inane effort to ban headscarves in French schools and other public buildings, it's because Jacob Levy at the Volokh Conspiracy has already given it such a nice smackdown that it'd be redundant.

Out of the House, Into the Open

New at Reason: Bob Barr was a congressman, but he still believes in freedom. Jesse Walker interviews the ACLU's right-hand man.