Weekly Hit & Run Archive 2012 February 29-31

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Ron Paul Hits Fed Chief Ben Bernanke with Silver

Metaphorically, of course, in this colorfully reported piece from Forbes on a hearing of the House Committee on Financial Services. Some highlights:

In what is usually the most heated and interesting exchange of Bernanke’s excursions to Congress, the Fed Chairman was forced to sit down and listen as Ron Paul scolded him for “debasing” the currency and “destroying” the wealth of millions of Americans. 

Ron Paul first asked Bernanke if he did his own grocery shopping, to which the Fed Chairman responded with a “yes.”  Paul immediately cut him off and said “no one believes the 2% inflation rate,” claiming it was actually closer to 9%.  “Someone is stealing wealth,” said Ron Paul, in full campaign mode.

He then pulled out a silver eagle, a silver coin that has nominal face value of one dollar that is legal tender.  Ron Paul told Bernanke that in 2006, as he took the top spot at the Federal Reserve, an ounce of silver bought about 4 gallons of gas.  Today, said Paul, it buys about 11. 

“That’s preservation of value,” yelled an excited Ron Paul....Paul once again lashed out, telling Bernanke “the record of what you’ve done is destroy the currency,” before saying he still can’t pay his bills or taxes with silver eagles, just as his time was running out and he was forced to forfeit the floor...

ABC News and Wall Street Journal on the hearings.

Video of today's hearings:


For more background on why Paul feels this way about poor Mr. Bernanke, you might want to check out this new review essay of the book Alchemists of Loss: How Modern Finance and Government Regulation Crashed the Financial System, by Kevin Dowd and Martin Hutchinson, written by Austrian economist Roger Garrison from the Winter 2012 issue of The Independent Review.

 In it Garrison makes a good scholarly case for the Federal Reserve's complicity in the financial crisis we are still not out of. An interesting chunk of that, about how no degree of intelligence on the part of a Federal Reserve chief short of not inflating the money supply would likely have helped:

The fact that the Greenspan Fed adopted a loose-money stance in the wake of the dot-com bust and well into this century’s first decade was a game changer. This accommodation freed the housing sector from having to draw investment funds from other sectors. It fueled an economywide boom—with the housing bubble, leveraged by the practitioners of modern finance, being its most dramatic aspect. In one important respect, the Fed found itself in uncharted waters. Rather than countering an upward pressure on interest rates, as in the earlier episodes, it compounded the downward pressure. With interest rates at historic lows from mid-2003 to mid-2004, the mismatch between saving and the temporal pattern of investment was doubly strong.

It was another episode of turbocharging, but this time it was primarily the ongoing distortion of housing markets that was being turbocharged. The boom’s unsustainability could not have been in doubt in the eyes of those who adopted an Austrian view. And the fact that the bubble was doubly artificial provided a strong hint about the difficulties inherent in the subsequent recovery.

A Volckerized Fed would not have served the economy well during this most recent boom. The relatively mild rate of inflation was consistent with an unemployment rate that fell to subnatural-rate levels (that is, below 5 percent in the final throes of the boom) and a corresponding high level of output. A Fed chairman whose exclusive focus was on price stability could only remain agnostic about a coming downturn, claiming weakly, as Alan Greenspan repeatedly did, that you don’t know you’re in a bubble economy until the bubble bursts.

Moreover, Volckerization could not have been achieved in this most recent episode by Friedman’s monetary rule, according to which the growth rate of the money supply should be fixed at some low single-digit value. Such a rule would require that there be a meaningful money-supply target, such as M1 or M2, at which the Fed could take aim, and a predictable relationship between the targeted money-supply aggregate and the price level. Volcker himself was the last Fed chairman who enjoyed that circumstance. After implementation of the Depository Institutions and Monetary Control Act of 1980, the meaningfulness of the various M’s and the predictability of the M-P relationship began to fade and were gone by 1987, when Greenspan assumed the chairmanship. Hence, even if Greenspan had asked, “What would Volcker do?” he could not have gotten an answer applicable to his own circumstances.

I wrote about the burgeoning anti-Fed movement in Reason's November 2009 issue, and surveyed a group of Fed-watchers (including Ron Paul and Milton Friedman) about Bernanke's prospects on the verge of his assuming his mighty power in Reason's November 2006 issue. Plus lots of Reason on Bernanke.

My book about Paul, with much more on his fight against the Fed, will be out in May: Ron Paul's Revolution.

Who Started That Deadly Shootout in Ogden?

The chain of events that led to a January 4 shootout in Ogden, Utah, that left one police officer dead and five others wounded apparently began, as these things often do, with an informant's tip. Last September, The Salt Lake Tribune reports, the informant told Ogden police that Matthew Stewart, a 37-year-old Army veteran who worked at a local Walmart, was growing marijuana in his house at 3268 Jackson Avenue. According to a September 15 police report obtained by the newspaper, the tipster "stated that she has personally seen a hydroponics grow in [Stewart's] basement." She claimed that "it produces approximately 12-15 marijuana plants," that Stewart "keeps the marijuana in a freezer," and that "he also sells some." Neighbors told the Deseret News they never noticed suspicious traffic at Stewart's house, and his father told the Tribune that Stewart used the pot instead of prescription drugs to treat depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. But let's say the informant was right that Stewart sold some surplus pot from his modest hydroponic setup. Let us also note that his home is located across the street from a Mormon meeting house, which means it is inside a state-designated "drug-free zone." It is still hard to make sense of the armed assault that resulted in "a scene not unlike a war zone," as the Associated Press put it.

According to the official police account, a dozen or so officers and deputies went to Stewart's house between 8 and 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, January 4. Six members of the Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force knocked on a side door, identifying themselves as police officers. When there was no response, they broke down the door about 8:40 p.m., again announcing that they were police officers serving a search warrant. Police say Stewart emerged from a hiding place about five minutes later, while they were searching the house, and began firing at them with a 9mm Beretta pistol. They say he kept shooting at them after they retreated from the house, then escaped through a bedroom window when they returned fire. He ran inside a metal shed in the backyard and continued firing from there, surrendering after he was wounded.

Stewart, who worked the night shift at Walmart, told the Tribune that he was asleep when the police arrived and that after he was awakened by an alarm clock he heard the sound of glass breaking and surmised that he was being robbed. He said he did not hear the intruders identify themselves and did not realize they were police officers. "When you're convinced that you are getting robbed and most likely killed by a group of armed men," he said, "your instincts kick in."

Is Stewart's account plausible? It is hard to tell from the various press reports how long the shootout lasted, but it's conceivable that someone in the situation he describes could have remained confused for several minutes at least, especially if people were shooting at him. The Tribune says the police affidavit supporting the case against Stewart "goes to lengths to demonstrate Stewart knew, or should have known, he was firing at police officers." Not only should he have heard the announcements, it says; he should have seen flashing lights when he looked out his front door at the retreating officers, and he should have noticed the "standard police uniform" worn by one of the wounded officers, Michael Rounkles. Perhaps so, but that detail suggests that Rounkles, who arrived as backup and entered the house after the shooting had started, was the only police officer in the house who was clearly dressed as one. The most damning part of the official police account is the claim that last summer Stewart told an unnamed acquaintance that if police ever raided his house looking for pot he would "go out in a blaze of glory and shoot to kill." Assuming he really said that, it might have been bravado, but it certainly does not make him look good.

Almost all of the information that has emerged so far comes from the police or prosecutors. The defense attorney hired by Stewart's family complains that police still have not allowed his investigators to visit the scene of the shootout and that prosecutors (who apparently have a grudge against him based on his past work in death penalty cases) are ignoring his discovery requests. To solicit money for Stewart's defense, his family has created a website that describes the shootout as "a tragic misunderstanding."

At least some of the official claims about Stewart seem dubious. Last month, the Tribune reported, Weber County Attorney Dee Smith, who is seeking the death penalty for Stewart, "said officers searching Matthew Stewart's house had found a photo of Stewart dressed 'as a terrorist' with 'some kind of bomb device.'" According to Stewart's father, however, "the photo actually shows his son in a Halloween costume that he wore three or four years ago." He went as Osama bin Laden. Investigators also found a "suspicious device" that was detonated by a local bomb squad. But last month A.P. reported that Smith's office had "dropped a dangerous weapon enhancement included in the charges originally filed." The remaining charges against Stewart, whose most serious offense until now was driving without insurance: one count of aggravated murder, eight counts of attempted aggravated murder, and one count of marijuana cultivation.

That last charge sorta pales beside the others, doesn't it? Yet it was the Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force's determination to hunt down a dozen or so pot plants that set the stage for this whole senseless tragedy. (Police say they found "multiple" plants, so that's at least two!) Stewart's father says police "botched" their raid, knocking down a door at night instead of, say, arresting the suspected pot grower at Walmart. If police had been familiar enough with Stewart's schedule to know when he was working, of course, they might have realized he was apt to be sleeping when they came knocking with their warrant. Smith said the cops made "a number of attempts to go to that house and do this as low-key as possible...to get him to cooperate" but got no response. It's not clear whether Stewart was at home and awake during these attempts.

Smith added that "if they had been expecting to find weapons, it would have been a different warrant and a different approach." Probably not a less violent approach, though; presumably Smith means police would have knocked down the door without anouncing themselves, and it's hard to see how that would have improved the outcome. In any case, there's a good chance a Utah homeowner will have a gun for self-defense, especially if he's worried about people stealing his pot.

These are all ultimately tactical quibbles, however. Stewart's father comes closer to the central issue when he says, "I'm hoping the citizens of this state can look at what's happened here and rethink the drug war." Once the government decides it will use force to stop people from consuming certain arbitrarily chosen intoxicants, once police officers see nothing wrong with charging into a man's home because he might be growing a few unapproved plants in the basement, this sort of thing is bound to happen. Whether or not Stewart is telling the truth about his state of mind that night, it's clear he was not the one who initiated the violence.

Lucy Steigerwald discussed the Ogden shootout and the response to it last month.

[Thanks to Ryan Ellis for the tip.]

Rep. John Conyers Turns a Blind Eye to Eminent Domain Abuse

As noted in today’s morning links, yesterday afternoon the House of Representatives approved H.R. 1443, also known as the Property Rights Protection Act, which is designed to forbid the sort of eminent domain abuse that the Supreme Court let slide in its notorious 2005 ruling in Kelo v. City of New London, where it upheld the use of eminent domain to transfer property from one private owner to another for the sake of economic development. (Here’s how well that worked out.)

As The Hill reports, H.R. 1443 is one of those bills with truly bipartisan support:

In addition to chief sponsor Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) spoke in favor of the bill, as did two Democrats, Reps. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas).

Waters co-sponsored the bill with Sensenbrenner, and both members noted that this rare alliance alone should prompt members to support the bill.

"This is a Sensenbrenner-Waters bill," Sensenbrenner said. "You will never see another Sensenbrenner-Waters bill, and that is probably one of the best reasons to vote in favor of it."

Waters said her support for the bill comes in part from the idea that poor people and minorities stand the most to lose from the Supreme Court's ruling.

"The government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more," she said. "The founders cannot have intended this perverse result."

That history lesson did not persuade eminent domain enthusiast Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), however, who refuses to see what the fuss is all about, as The Hill reports:

Judiciary Committee Ranking Member John Conyers (D-Mich.) was the only member to speak against the bill. He argued that it has been seven years since the Kelo decision, and that many states have adjusted their own eminent domain laws in reaction.

"Congress should not now come charging in after seven years of work and presume to sit as a national zoning board, advocating to our national government the right to decide which states have gotten the balance right, and deciding which project are or are not appropriate," he said.

I hope Conyers remembers to be so humble about Congress’ lawmaking powers the next time he casts a vote.

For a sense of the damage that Kelo-style takings have done in just one state, check out Reason’s coverage of New York’s eminent domain land grabs on behalf of Columbia University, an elite private institution, and real estate tycoon Bruce Ratner, the wealthy co-owner of a professional basketball team. It doesn’t take a ranking member of the Judiciary Committee to see why those two uses of public power for private gain were entirely inappropriate—and unconstitutional.

Immigrant Allegedly Killed Woman's Son While Driving Drunk, Somehow Illegal Immigration Is the Issue

Maureen Maloney, the mother of 23-year-old Matthew Denice, is understandably traumatized by her son's violent, preventable death last August. But instead of focusing on ways to prevent drunk driving, or get punishment handed down on Nicolas Dutan Guaman —the man who allegedly ran a stop sign, then hit Denice with his pickup truck, dragging the motorcyclist for a quarter of a mile, thereby killing him — Maloney wants to do something about illegal immigration; because Guaman is an illegal immigrant from Ecuador. 

According the Boston Herald, before a bipartisan committee of Massachusetts legislators, Maloney spoke in support of:

Two bills (S 2061 / H 3913) that would stiffen penalties for driving without a license, punish landlords who rent to undocumented residents, require drivers to present a Social Security number or tax ID number to register a vehicle, and would require the [Massachusetts Gov. Deval] Patrick administration to report on its efforts to join a federal program intended to identify and deport illegal immigrants who commit serious crimes.

There's lots to untangle there — for example, deporting illegal immigrants who commit "serious" crimes (let's hope that just means violent, but it really never does) isn't the most objectionable idea. Driving without a license is potentially dangerous (anecdotal refutation: my unnamed friend drives really well because if the cops ever pulled him over they might notice he hasn't had a license in ten years! Incentives, etc.) so there's that fairly reasonable suggestion to punish (if not necessarily deport) people who drive without licenses. But what do either of those issues have to do with landlords who dare to rent to undocumented immigrants? And why should they be obligated to think about immigration status at all?

And what does the tragic death of Matthew Denice have to do with anything except Guaman running a stop-sign while driving drunk and the myriad other crimes with which he is charged? 

But Maloney, as quoted by the Boston Herald, really does think her son's death has something to do with her state's lax enforcement of immigration laws:

"My son paid the ultimate price with his life because Massachusetts is a safe haven for illegal immigrants,” Maloney told members of the Judiciary Committee. “The real question I ask is, Why would illegal immigrants not come to Massachusetts when we are so willing to provide them with jobs and free services they could not get in their native countries?”

Her loss is terrible, but it should have no relevance to whether Massachusetts passes this immigration law. The backers of the bill are stressing the increased penalties for unlicensed driving, but they also admit that the death of Denice is part of the motivation.

But equating Guaman's killer recklessness with proof that illegal immigrants are inherently dangerous is as foolish as Arizona passing their controversial "papers, please" bill in response to an illegal immigrant murdering someone. Which (to some extent) they did, noted Cato's Daniel Griswold in May 2010. He also wrote the the problem with illegal immigration crack-downs is that:

Absent real reforms, ramped up enforcement will only drive illegal workers deeper underground, raise smuggling fees, and divert law enforcement resources away from apprehending real criminals who truly do threaten public safely.

Authorities dropped the ball and if they had deported Guaman for his past criminal record, yes, Matthew Denice might still be alive. But cracking down on non-violent illegal immigrants isn't the way to fix this, nor is demanding more oversight and accountability from a clearly broken immigration system. 

In Reason's June 2011 issue, contributor Michael Tracey noted that "Dead Kids Make Bad Laws" and former Reasonoid Radley Balko has often reported on the same, most notably in July, post-Casey Anthony-trial hysteria with his very sensible "Why Caylee's Law is a Bad Idea" response. Also check out Reason on illegal immigration, including Steve Chapman on how illegal immigrants aren't anything scary.

The Real Housewives of Arab Thugocracies

Interesting story in the Guardian (UK) about the first ladies of the countries involved in the Arab Spring. Contra Hillary Clinton, these dames are most certainly Tammy Wynette "Stand by Your Man" types, as they participate fully in the ill-gotten gains of their despotic lesser halves.

Among the worst offenders, writes Angelique Chrisafis are

Leila Trabelsi, the politically ambitious wife of Tunisia's Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, was easily the most detested, a monstrous symbol of nepotism and corruption, whose embezzlement of state wealth made Imelda Marcos's nearly 3,000 pair of shoes seem trifling....She and her relatives are accused of ordering people from their homes if they wanted their land, confiscating their businesses if they thought they could profit from them. Trabelsi took archaeological artefacts to decorate her palace rooms while her daughter and son in law flew in ice-cream from St-Tropez for dinner parties....

Suzanne, the half-Welsh wife of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, benefited from a fortune of billions in a country where around 40% of the population lives on less than £1.20 per day. She is now being investigated alongside her husband on allegations of crimes against the state and has relinquished disputed assets worth nearly £2.5m. Before the Egyptian revolution, whole newspaper pages were "allocated" to cover Suzanne's "charitable engagements" and "actions" for women....Suzanne Mubarak would jet off to meet Arab leaders' wives to talk about women's issues while independent women in Egypt were being heavily repressed....

But the real dark star of the region is Asma al-Assad, wife of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, who is currently killing hundreds if not thousands of citizens in an almost-certain-to-fail attempt to keep his day job. Because she was born and raised in London and is attractive, the compliments in the Western press gushed like blood from the head of a protester in Damascus. French Elle anointed her "the most stylish woman in world politics," Paris Match dubbed her "an eastern Diana," and the Huffington Post was so enthralled by her "All-Natural Beauty" that they ran a slideshow about her. "In a region where the women love to cake on their make-up," said HuffPo's Nour Akkad, "it is very refreshing to see the wife of President Bashar al-Assad with very little on." 

Last year, American Vogue ran a sickening article about her that's since been pulled off the mag's website (read it here). Titled "A Rose in the Desert," it is the worse form of celebritoid journalism:

Asma al-Assad is glamorous, young, and very chic—the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies. Her style is not the couture-and-bling dazzle of Middle Eastern power but a deliberate lack of adornment. She’s a rare combination: a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement. Paris Match calls her “the element of light in a country full of shadow zones.” She is the first lady of Syria.

Syria is known as the safest country in the Middle East, possibly because, as the State Department’s Web site says, “the Syrian government conducts intense physical and electronic surveillance of both Syrian citizens and foreign visitors.” It’s a secular country where women earn as much as men and the Muslim veil is forbidden in universities, a place without bombings, unrest, or kidnappings...

The story does acknowledge that there's something deeply disturbing about a place where the son of the last ruler can win election with 97 percent of votes cast, but it never wants to forget that working-mom Asma's life is not so very different from those of Vogue readers in the good old United States:

Asma al-Assad empties a box of fondue mix into a saucepan for lunch. The household is run on wildly democratic principles. “We all vote on what we want, and where,” she says. The chandelier over the dining table is made of cut-up comic books. “They outvoted us three to two on that.”

A grid is drawn on a blackboard, with ticks for each member of the family. “We were having trouble with politeness, so we made a chart: ticks for when they spoke as they should, and a cross if they didn’t.” There’s a cross next to Asma’s name. “I shouted,” she confesses. “I can’t talk about empowering young people, encouraging them to be creative and take responsibility, if I’m not like that with my own children.”

As Chrisafis points out in her Guardian story, Asma has been relatively silent since the Vogue story, though her office recently sent a press release to a British paper that reads in part:

"The president is the president of Syria, not a faction of Syrians, and the first lady supports him in that role.... The first lady's very busy agenda is still focused on supporting the various charities she has long been involved with and rural development as well as supporting the president as needed. These days she is equally involved in bridging gaps and encouraging dialogue. She listens to and comforts the families of the victims of the violence."

Chrisafis notes that "just before [the release appeared], she had appeared grinning from ear to ear with two of her children to support her husband as he spoke at a pro-regime rally."

You go, girl. And please take your husband with you.

Read "The Arab World's First Ladies of Oppression."

Delta Smelt v. Central Valley Farmers: The Battle Continues

In 2007, federal judge Oliver Wanger imposed limits on the amount of water pumped from the San Joachin-Sacramento River delta to farms in California's Central Valley in order to protect a two-inch endangered fish called the Delta Smelt. As a result, several hundred thousand acres of farmland on the west side of the Central Valley now lie fallow, and many thousands of jobs have been lost. In the city of Mendota, for example, the unemployment rate exceeds 40%.

Today, the US House of Representatives debated H.R. 1837, a bill that would turn the pumps back on. House Speaker John Boehner said on the House floor today that using the Endangered Species Act to protect a fish at the expense of food production and economic growth is "a perfect example of the overreach of government."

If the bill passes, Obama says he'll veto it.

Reason.tv on the Delta Smelt.

Obama's Drone Policy Backfires, North Korea Makes Nice, Davy Jones Dies: P.M. Links

  • The Obama administration's "excessive use of drone attacks undercuts one of its most laudable policies."
  • North Korea agrees to "curb" nuclear program.  
  • Davy Jones dies.
  • Israel and U.S. to talk more about Iran.
  • Another green company faces financial troubles.
  • Bernanke: No recovery in sight.

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Greg Beato on the End of the King-Sized Snickers Bar

As part of an agreement reached with the Partnership for a Healthier America, the non-profit organization whose honorary chair is First Lady Michelle Obama, the candy bar maker Mars Inc. has agreed to phase out chocolate products that exceed 250 calories per portion. This means that by the end of 2013, consumers will no longer be able to purchase king-sized Snickers bars. In addition, Mars will also need to reduce the size of a standard Snickers bar. It currently contains 280 calories and thus exceeds the new calorie cap by 12 percent. As Contributing Editor Greb Beato explains, Michelle Obama may succeed in reducing chocolate consumption, but she’s also giving Big Candy a major financial boost in the process.

View this article

Chart of the Day, Newspaper Ad Revenue Edition

Care of The Atlantic's Derek Thompson, graphical representation of what happens when technology-enabled consumers can escape monopolies:

As I wrote last year,

With each passing year, the golden era of modern newspapers—roughly the four decades from 1960 to 2000—is coming to resemble the kingdom of Hungary during the dual-monarchy's salad days of 1867-1914. What once looked like a permanent empire is now revealed as an ahistorical lucky streak undermined by overreach and the desire among captive citizens to be free.

But that late '80s dip makes me want to revise the time band. It's a flip guess, but I'd bet that the pre-Internet contraction reflected the 1980s rise in desktop publishing (an underappreciated yet crucial development that gave birth to the newsletter industry and all kinds of niche publishing), plus the post-Fairness Doctrine explosion of AM talk radio and cable news. Which, combined with the mostly forgotten recession under George H.W. Bush, forced newspapers to think competitively for the first time since the wave of consolidation during the Mad Men era.

The result was a new wave of professionalization and profit-maximizing on the business side of the Chinese Wall, which (along with an improving economy, and improving cities) produced that last-gap '90s boom. When the Internet offered consumers a better place to get their classifieds and information, and the newspaper companies mostly failed to adapt their fattened operations to the new, rapidly-changing environment, thus began the vicious cycle of cutbacks and customer-squeezing. That's my best guess, anyway.

Thompson makes a good point here:

You sometimes hear it said that newspapers are dead. Now, $20 billion is the kind of "dead" most people would trade their lives for. You never hear anybody say "bars and nightclubs are dead!" when in fact that industry's current revenue amounts to an identical $20 billion.

So the reason newspapers are in trouble isn't that they aren't making lots of money -- they still are; advertising is a huge, huge business, as any app developer will try to tell you -- but that their business models and payroll depend on so much more money. The U.S. newspaper industry was built to support $50 billion to $60 billion in total advertising with the kind of staffs that a $50 billion industry can abide. The layoffs, buyouts, and bankruptcies you hear about are the result of this massive correction in the face of falling revenue.

The structural transformation of the newspaper business has produced any number of just terrible public policy ideas; I talk about some of them here. And read Nick Gillespie and I on a similar story: "Learning From Kodak's Demise."

Is It Mitt Romney's Problem that Mormons Posthumously Baptize Dead People?

"It's bad that Mormons posthumously baptized Daniel Pearl. It is far far far worse that radical Islamists beheaded him," the New York Daily News' Josh Greenman tweeted this afternoon. That remark is a response to a report from the Boston Globe that a Mormon congregation in Idaho baptized the murdered reporter in 2011: 

Members of the Mormon Church last year posthumously baptized Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was captured and killed by terrorists in Pakistan shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to records uncovered by a researcher in Utah.

Helen Radkey, an excommunicated Mormon who combs through the church’s archives, said that records indicate Pearl, who was Jewish, was baptized by proxy on June 1, 2011 at a Mormon temple in Twin Falls, Idaho.

Mormons baptize deceased Jews and members of other religions as part of a rite intended to give them access to salvation.

But the practice has stirred outrage among some Jewish leaders. In 1995, the church, after meeting with Jewish leaders, agreed to stop baptizing Holocaust victims. Current church policy encourages church members to baptize their ancestors, but does not explicitly forbid the baptism of deceased Jews and people of other faiths.

Back when I was a Charismatic Episcopalian, the bombing of Baghdad brought me to tears, as I imagined the number of Muslims who would die that night without having accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. An agnostic now, I can still sympathize with the Mormons: In religious traditions that claim a monopoly on salvation, praying for nonbelievers is both a non-negotiable duty and an act of charity. 

If you don't believe their teachings, of course, these symbolic rites can feel like insults. But is it actually bad that Mormons posthumously baptize members of other sects? Who, exactly, is harmed by that act? Certainly not Pearl. In fact, if the Mormons have a monopoly on salvation, Pearl stands to benefit. If they don't, no harm done. His fellow Jews may feel insulted that Mormons think Pearl needed an assist, but that sword cuts both ways. Orthodox Jews have rules that prevent interfaith families from being buried together. I can imagine scenarios in which that would feel like a complete slap in the face. But Jews who abide by these laws don't see them as insulting

“We bury our people with our people,” said Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a rosh yeshiva at the Modern Orthodox Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University. “We maintain our social relationships after death as well, hence we bury Jews with Jews. We don’t bury Jews with non-Jews because we don’t have a social relationship with them,” he said, referring to communal obligations among Jews.

“The main thing is it shouldn’t be looked upon as a derogatory view of other religions,” Tendler said. “It’s a highly personal, family concept.”

I don't mean to conflate the two practices (posthumous baptism, like Mormonism, is inclusive; segregated burial, like some forms of Judaism, is exlusive), but they are similar in that neither harms the dead or the living.

And while I certainly don't mean to suggest that any religious group should wave a white flag, I do think it's odd that anyone would ask Mitt Romney to condemn his church's harmless traditions, which the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel has done. Not only is Pearl's posthumous baptism a non-issue compared to his capture and horrific execution, there are far more substantial reasons to put Romney's feet to the fire. 

Commentary's Bethany Shondark has alerted to me a piece by Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby that's also worth your time: 

In Judaism, conversion after death is a concept without meaning; no after-the-fact rites in this world can possibly change the Jewishness of the men, women, children, and babies whom the Nazis, in their obsessive hatred, singled out for extermination. I found the Mormons’ belief eccentric, not offensive. By my lights, their efforts to make salvation available to millions of deceased strangers were ineffectual. But plainly they were sincere, and intended as a kindness.

Do Connecticut Blue Laws Keep Mom and Pop Liquor Stores Out of the Red?

Those wacky Connecticut legislators are at it again, trying to legalize the sale of liquor on Sundays and deregulate pricing in one of the last of two dry-on-the-Sabbath states left in the nation. (Sorry, Illinois Indiana.) And once again, smaller liquor stores are objecting to a policy that would take the government's thumb off the scales.

This time, though, (unlike when I blogged about this in 2010) the objection is less about Sunday sales, and more about proposed changes to the pricing structure for liquor sold in the state. Right now, Connecticut has a relatively high minimum bottle price, which benefits the little guys who are less likely to be able to negotiate bulk discounts.

This week, hundreds of small package store owners crowded into a legislative office building around a hearing on the bill to complain that their industry might soon resemble pretty much every other industry everywhere, with suppliers and retailers competing on price. 

Connecticut's man-on-the-street liquor buyers are talking sense, though:

Killingly resident Matt Young said he supports changing the blue laws regarding Sunday sales, which he described as archaic.

“You’d think these package stores would be happy,” Young said. “It’s going to keep more sales within the state of Connecticut.”

Regarding changes to pricing and permits, Young said, “It’s a free-market society.”

For more, check out "Connecticut Alkies in Search of a Snort"

Sheldon Richman on Obama’s Afghanistan Brainwashing

From President Barack Obama on down, we hear nothing from government officials but glowing public reports about how things are going in Afghanistan. In June, when Obama announced his initial timetable for withdrawal, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “We have broken the Taliban’s momentum. We do begin this drawdown from a position of strength.” But as Sheldon Richman observes, that’s not what the military says behind closed doors. Thanks to one U.S. military officer, the doors have been cracked open so the public can learn what officials really think.

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Reason TV: Transplant Denied - How Medical Marijuana Policy Kills Patients

Norman Smith seemed to be making progress in his liver cancer recovery at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles, Calif. He had some of the best doctors in the world, he was on a transplant list and he had completed a successful clinical trial that had his doctors dubbing him a "miracle man."

Then, his cancer returned and two months before he was would have received a transplant, he was de-listed for smoking marijuana prescribed by his oncologist at Cedars-Sinai. Now, if he doesn't receive a transplant, he will die.

"It's only my life that I'm fighting for," says Smith. "What do I have to hide? I have nothing to hide."

Smith's situation represents one of the first battles being fought over the place of medical marijuana in medicine and it has left him in limbo.

Cedars-Sinai declined interview requests but referred Reason TV to Peggy Stewart, a clinical social worker with UCLA's transplant program, which holds a similar position to Cedars-Sinai on medical marijuana.

"Marijuana is considered substance abuse," says Stewart. "The legality of it is really not an issue."

Stewart and Cedars-Sinai did say that transplant patients who consume marijuana put themselves at potential risk of infection from a mold found in cannabis called aspergillus.

But not everyone sees the mold as a potential threat.

"The truth is that Norman lives in Los Angeles and there are laboratories that he can take his medicine to and make sure that it doesn't have contaminants," says Stephanie Sherer of Americans for Safe Access , which works to break down political and legal barriers to medical cannabis.

Further, a 2009 study from the American Journal on Transplantation that looked at potential liver transplant candidates said that there wasn't a significant difference between marijuana users from marijuana non-users.

Sherer points out that Smith isn't alone, his problems are the reality for many patients caught in-between managing their pain and receiving a transplant.

"In our database at our office, we know of over two dozen patients that are going through this and unfortunately half of them have passed away because they did not receive these transplants," says Smith.

Music by audionautix.com and freeplaymusic.com

About 6:48 minutes. Written and produced by Paul Detrick. Camera by Alex Manning, Zach Weissmuller and Jim Epstein.

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And the Oscar Goes to... the Free Market! (Updated)*

On February 26, The Artist won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for Jean Dujardin. (Snubbing Canine-Americans, the true star of the film, Uggie the Jack Russel Terrier, did not receive a single Oscar.) While this was a great night for silent films, it was also a surprising coup for the free market. Of the nine nominees for Best Picture, The Artist was the only movie that did not receive any tax credits or subsidies for filming. Could the French be re-discovering their inner Frederic Bastiat?

In the United States, 40 states have some form of tax incentives for film or TV production. Unsurprisingly, this industry favoritism has lead to less than stellar economic results. According to Joseph Henchman from the Tax Foundation, "these programs lose governments between 72 and 92 cents for every dollar spent on them, even after accounting for increased economic activity generated by film production." In addition, these tax credits are terrible job creators, since many production companies import most of their staff, while the vast majority of local hires are only temporary.

As Katherine Mangu-Ward noted on Monday, Kickstarter already generates more funding than the National Endowment for the Arts. Plus, Kickstarter may finance sequels to seminal video games like Psychonauts and Planescape: Torment. While the NEA does fund video games, their grants range from $10,000-$200,000 per project. By comparison, the developers behind Psychonauts, Double Fine Productions, have already earned almost $2.3 million for their next game. When the market provides everything from silent films to surreal adventure games, there's just no need for the NEA.

*Correction: Merde. Looks like the Bastiat revival will have to wait. As a few Hit-and-Runners pointed out, The Artist was subsidized by the French government. Désolé.

Reason and Reason.tv on film subsidies.

The Times Continues to Present Obama's Spin on His Contraceptive Policy As Fact

In a story about legislation aimed at modifying the Obama administration's requirement that health plans cover contraception and sterilization, The New York Times once again reports the president's spin as fact (emphasis added):

Under the administration policy, most health plans must cover birth control for women — all contraceptive drugs and devices approved by the Food and Drug Administration — as well as sterilization procedures.

Church-affiliated universities, hospitals and charities would not have to provide or pay for such coverage. Instead, the White House says, coverage for birth control could be offered to women directly by their employers’ insurance companies, "with no role for religious employers who oppose contraception."

[Sen. Roy] Blunt said, "The president’s so-called compromise is nothing more than an accounting gimmick."

Why does Blunt call the purported compromise an "accounting gimmick"? Times reporter Robert Pear never explains, perhaps because that would force him to admit it's not really true that "church-affiliated universities, hospitals and charities would not have to provide or pay for such coverage." The day after President Obama announced his alleged accommodation, Harvard economist Greg Mankiw noted that it did not change the essence of the policy:

Consider these two policies:

A. An employer is required to provide its employees health insurance that covers birth control.

B. An employer is required to provide its employees health insurance.  The health insurance company is required to cover birth control.

I can understand someone endorsing both A and B, and I can understand someone rejecting both A and B.  But I cannot understand someone rejecting A and embracing B, because they are effectively the same policy.  Ultimately, all insurance costs are passed on to the purchaser, so I cannot see how policy B is different in any way from policy A, other than using slightly different words to describe it.

Yet it seems that the White House yesterday switched from A to B, and that change is being viewed by some as a significant accommodation to those who objected to policy A.  The whole thing leaves me scratching my head.

Even Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, who applauded the rhetorical shift, acknowledged this reality: 

This is, of course, a dodge — a quite clever and positive one. Everyone gets to say that the religious institutions aren’t "paying for" contraception. But if covering contraception ends up costing them money, you can be sure those costs will be passed along, as costs always are, to customers.

Marcus then echoes the administration's argument that the contraceptive mandate may not result in higher premiums because it will save insurers money on pregnancy-related health care. If so, of course, that would have been true under the original version of the policy as well. In his congressional testimony on February 16, Catholic University President John Garvey questioned the cost-saving argument (which he dubbed the "Shazam Theory") but also said the net financial impact of the mandate is beside the point:

From a moral point of view, the administration's cost savings don't matter even if they are real.  When a student who is enrolled in our plan purchases contraceptives at the local CVS pharmacy, CVS will seek payment from the insurance company.  The payment for that service will be charged to our account, funded by our contributions.  The Shazam Theory assumes that charges for other drugs and services will go down as a result of contraceptive use.  But it is still true that the University and its subscribers are being forced to pay for sterilizations, contraceptives, and abortions [a reference to the possibility that some contraceptives may prevent implantation after fertilization], and those are activities we view as immoral.

I don't expect the Times to endorse these critiques. But it should at least clarify that the issue of whether church-affiliated organizations still have to pay for birth control coverage is contested, and maybe even explain why. Here is a short version:

The Obama administration says its new policy means church-affiliated universities, hospitals and charities won't have to provide or pay for such coverage. Blunt says "the president’s so-called compromise is nothing more than an accounting gimmick" because the cost of the coverage will be reflected in the premiums employers pay.

Here is an optional addition:

The administration says the contraceptive mandate won't raise premiums because it will save insurers money by preventing pregnancies. Even if that's true, critics say, church-affiliated organizations still have to pay for health plans that cover products and services they consider immoral.

Without such explanations, the continuing controversy will be unintelligible to the average reader.

David Harsanyi on Obama's Union Speech

The same week our greed-averse president sends a fundraising letter demonizing the Koch brothers—dubious self-starters and risk takers who employ about 70,000 people without bailouts and hand out billions in noncoerced charity—he is busy celebrating policy that forces taxpayers to be their brother's keeper, writes David Harsanyi, even though their brother continues to make terrible decisions free of consequence.

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ObamaCare's Expensive Exchanges

The White House apparently thinks ObamaCare needs more money—to the tune of more than $100 billion. Over at Forbes, Avik Roy notices that the latest administration budget proposal calls for an additional $111 billion to be spent on the insurance subsidies for the law’s health insurance  exchanges between 2014 and 2021. Though the White House hasn’t explained the change, the difference may suggest that the administration now believes more individuals will end up enrolled in the exchanges than initially projected, as a number of analyses have suggested is possible. The considerable expense of the exchange subsidies means that if significantly more people end up purchasing subsidized insurance through exchanges than expected, the law could be in serious fiscal trouble.

How big a risk are the exchanges? It’s hard to say exactly, but taking a larger view, ObamaCare’s record so far does not exactly give me confidence in the likelihood that it will stay within initial budget parameters: The early retiree reinsurance program blew through its funding far faster than expected; despite low enrollment; nine states have already requested additional money for their high-risk pools (although overall the program has still not spend through its initial funding); and despite repeated promises that the administration would rework the law’s long-term care benefit to make it fiscally sustainable, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius eventually admitted that they couldn’t figure out how to do so, and shuttered the program. Yes, we’re still early in the implementation of the law, and the exchanges are a much bigger undertaking than any of these programs. But the little we’ve seen so far does not bode well for the rest of the program. 

New Ron Paul Ad Calls Romney a "Flip-Flopper"--Does That Count as an Attack?

Update: As commenter Bart points out, this ad first went up on Paul's Youtube channel a month ago. For some reason, the campaign posted it again yesterday (the upload date for the below version of the "Three of a Kind" ad is Feb. 28, 2012; the first pub date was Jan. 16, 2012). Unlike most of the Paul campaign's ads, however, this ad is "unlisted"; meaning "only those with the link can see it." My guess: The Paul campaign uploaded and circulated the ad again to convince campaign reporters that they are not colluding with Romney. 

Original: Ron Paul's campaign has released an ad attacking Gingrich, Santorum, and--yes--even Romney.

Brian Doherty on the Ron Paul/Mitt Romney "non-alliance."

Ronald Bailey on Kicking the Can on Climate Change

The new climate change agreement arduously reached in December at the 17th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was widely hailed as a “historic breakthrough.” The Durban Platform for Enhanced Action commits all countries for the first time to cutting their greenhouse gas emissions, chiefly carbon dioxide. To achieve this goal the signatories have agreed to negotiate “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force” by 2015. Whatever deal is reached then will have five years to be ratified so that it can come into force by 2020. On its face, this appears to be a significant step in climate change diplomacy. In reality, observes Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey, it’s not.

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How Santorum Sets the Devil Back in the Senate

I suspect that the results in Arizona and Michigan spell the end of the unfortunately named Santorum Surge or Santorum Bubble, but here's one more bit on the former senator from the Keystone State:

Santorum may have met Satan way back in the U.S. Senate:

The devil was in a bind, 'cause he was way behind and he was willin' to make a deal. He came across this junior senator from PA who was playing it hot, and the devil jumped up on a hickory stump and said, "Boy, let me tell you what (to vote for). I got this prescription drug entitlement bill and a labor union's dream. I bet you a pot of campaign gold against your soul you will take one for the establishment team."

"My name is Ricky, and it might be a sin, but I will take your bet, I am going to regret, 'cause I will be running for president again."

Ironically, the only one in the race who has not sold his soul for a fiddle of gold is Ron Paul. It's high praise for a man who really values gold – and the fiddle, too.

Read the whole thing, which is written by Ron Hart, and then watch Charlie Daniels play his fiddle below.

And honk if you think that the Debbil clearly wins the duel. If there is a god, Johnny ought to replace the chicken in the breadpan and be pickin' out dough for all eternity. IN HELL.

A.M. Links: Syria Launches Ground Assault Against Rebels, Dow Returns to Its Glory Days, House Votes to Overturn Kelo

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New at Reason.tv: "Why is the Economy Growing So Slowly?"

Romney Wins Arizona, Michigan; Paul 4th, 3rd

Mitt Romney took both Republican primaries held yesterday, winning easily in Arizona with 47 percent and less so in his boyhood home state of Michigan, where he garnered 41 percent of ballots.

Your presumptive GOP nominee, ladies and gents:

“We didn’t win by a lot, but we won by enough. And that’s all that counts,” Romney told supporters Tuesday night in the Detroit suburb of Novi.

And there's this:

“It’s very easy to excite the base with incendiary comments,” Romney told reporters. “We’ve seen throughout the campaign that if you’re willing to say really outrageous things that are accusatory and attacking President Obama, that you’re going to jump up in the polls. You know, I’m not willing to light my hair on fire to try and get support.”

Ron Paul placed fourth in Arizona totals and third in Michigan. [Note: corrected placement.]

Now it's on to Super Tuesday next week.

For Wash Post coverage, go here.

Jacob Sullum on the Trial of Tyler Clementi's Roommate

In 2010 Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old freshman at Rutgers University, killed himself three days after his roommate watched him kiss another man via a surreptitiously activated webcam. The roommate, Dharun Ravi, is now on trial for invasion-of-privacy offenses that are being treated as hate crimes. Senior Editor Jacob Sullum says the case illustrates the dangers posed by hate crime statutes, which enhance the penalties for existing offenses based on bigoted motives and therefore punish people for their opinions.

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