Thursday, June 29, 2006

Boy, if this isn't scary enough ...

John, thanks for taking Steve out of the loop. Last thing I want in the office next door is a cranky Steve Chase.

I would agree that the marketplace is the solution, but you have to understand that ultimately governmental incentives are a large part of the American economy. As a theoretical Keynsian economist, I absolutely believe that in a perfectly competitive environment the marketplace will produce the most long-term efficient solution.

But we don't have that, and I'm not convinced that it is possible at all. The problem with the alternative fuel issues we have is the massive startup costs. The R&D that Bill so accurately pointed out is critical, but who has the deep pockets for that? And, more importantly, if we as a society believe that moving towards zero-emissions is a long-term good for society, why don't we create financial incentives for participants in the marketplace to make that investment?

Just to clarify, I don't think that negative incentives (also called taxes) are appropriate at this point. If there was a viable alternative, then I could see the argument, but right now I don't think it makes a lot of sense. I do think we can do some things on the margins (such as raise CAFE standards to 40 MPH, and end the ridiculous treatment of SUVs as trucks letting them skate on the mileage standards), but I don't think anything further than that would be worth the short-term economic cost to the economy.

Finally, on the Bush-bashing. Believe me, in general I am all for it, but I think it's important not to lose focus. I do think it's legitimate to point out that the current incentives advocated by the current administration are benefitting the biggest campaign contributors to the Bush team, at the detriment of alternative fuel sources. It's also legitimate to be a WEE bit cynical of the incentive of the current administration to take actions that might harm the status quo of Big Oil, for whom Bush and the Republicans have worked very hard.

But this is a bigger picture, and I would agree that we should remain focused on the larger issue.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Fair 'N Balanced!

Yet another example of what passes for journalism today. Check this story out:

Report: Hundreds of WMDs found in Iraq,2933,200499,00.html

Holy Joe Moses! That's a blockbuster story! The President was right all along, we weren't misleading the world and using phantom intelligence to mask our nation-building neocon rationale for war! Heck, let's read the lead paragraph, to further make our point.

WASHINGTON — The United States has found 500 chemical weapons in Iraq since 2003, and more weapons of mass destruction are likely to be uncovered, two Republican lawmakers said Wednesday.
"We have found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, chemical weapons," Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., said in a quickly called press conference late Wednesday afternoon.

Wow! It's the smoking gun! Vindication for the Bush foreign policy all along! What a blockbuster story broken by FOX News. So why isn't this getting more attention?

Well, let's mosey down the story a little bit, past the ads for "Screaming Stock Picks" and "Lower Blood Pressure" (I'm not making this stuff up) and read on to paragraph eight.

The weapons are thought to be manufactured before 1991 so they would not be proof of an ongoing WMD program in the 1990s. But they do show that Saddam Hussein was lying when he said all weapons had been destroyed, and it shows that years of on-again, off-again weapons inspections did not uncover these munitions. (Emphasis added)

Oh ... so the hundreds of WMDs that were found were over fifteen years old, and don't have a thing to do with the rationale for the war. Yes, of course there were WMDs in Iraq. But that was never the issue. The issue was that Saddam's Iraq was suddenly a grave threat to the United States because he had a WMD program and was producing them.

That was the Bush rationale for the war. And if you read the headline and the lead for the story, wouldn't you think this story justified that rationale? I sure did, until I read the rest of the story. But not everyone WILL read the rest of the story, that's the point. Some will just see the misleading headline and lead and form an opinion from that.

This isn't really about the war. This is about journalism. It's not just FOX News, although they are the most blatant offenders. The point of a news story is to present in as neutral and objective a manner the facts about an important issue, and let the readers or viewers use that information to form their thoughts and opinions.

This piece is blatantly misleading. Whether it was done for political reasons or just to get schleps like me to go to their website isn't really relevant. This story is a symptom of a broader problem, namely the death of objectivity as a goal in news.

Perfect objectivity is, of course, impossible. Everyone looks at a story or an issue through the lens of their own bias and history. But a news organization should at least have objectivity as their goal and, recognizing their biases, work towards putting news out that is close to objectivity.

I'm not convinced that's a goal anymore. FOX News is the most clear in abandoning objectivity (just like Margaret Thatcher, if you have to SAY you're fair and balanced, then you aren't), but there's plenty of other outlets that aren't far behind.

News and opinion are quickly blending into one indistinguishable soup. As this process continues, conservatives and liberals will each be pushed to getting their "news" from sources that slant things their way. As this trend continues, American society will only continue to become more polarized. Now, we may look at the same facts and draw different conclusions. With the death of objectivity as a goal, we won't even be able to agree on what the facts are to disagree about.

Or, as Pilate said to Jesus, "what is truth?"

In essence, the two sides of the political spectrum won't be speaking the same language. They will each be getting their own "news" from their own spin-doctors, further reinforcing their own pre-conceived opinions, and furthering the ideoligcal chasm in our society.

Maybe I'm just naive, but I like to hold out hope that reasonable minds can look at a set of facts, discuss intelligently the points of an issue, and reach a reasonable consensus. In the Federalist Papers, the framers of the nation put the institutions of American government together to force this kind of compromise and avoid what they called the "dangers of factionalism."

This FOX News article is just one more small example of how far away from that goal we've come, and how fast we are moving further from it.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Knock, knock ... bonus coverage

Where is all the outrage about judicial activism? The way I understand it, according to the good folks from Justice Sunday, is that judges aren’t supposed to be breaking new ground and making law.

Well, Scalia & Co. in Hudson v. Michigan are challenging the exclusionary rule, a rule that’s been in place in American law since 1914. Pitching that rule would be an absolute sea change in the law. If that’s not judicial activism, I don’t know what is.

So, as Bob Dole so eloquently said, “where’s the outrage?”

Or, could it be that the vitriol from the hard right about judicial activism wasn’t about the process, but just about the outcome …

Knock, knock ...

Ladies and gentlemen, take a front row seat to the next step in the continuing saga of the re-writing of American Constitutional law, brought to you by the well-renowned Scalia & Co. troupe from Washington.

Last week, the United States Supreme Court handed down a 5-4 decision in Hudson v. Michigan that was limited in its’ direct effect, but chilling in its’ possibilities down the road.

Here’s the case in a nutshell. Michigan police searched the home of Booker Hudson, ultimately finding a loaded firearm and a good quantity of drugs. The search was based on a warrant, and the Supreme Court has held for the last 11 years that before police can execute a search warrant they must knock and announce their presence.

Here, the police clearly did not do that. They just went in, executed the warrant, and arrested Hudson. In doing so, they clearly violated their Constitutional responsibilities and Hudson’s rights.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the majority opinion, and started out with a narrow position that this particular evidence should not have been suppressed because the evidence would have been discovered anyway. While reasonable minds may differ, at least at this point he was following new Chief Justice John Roberts’ promise to decide cases on the “narrowest possible grounds.”

But then he kept going. He discussed how the exclusionary rule – the rule that police cannot use the fruits of an illegal search – has too high of a social cost, and amounts to a “get-out-of-jail-free card” for criminals. Scalia then continued to say that at one point in our nation’s history, the exclusionary rule might have been necessary, but now police are so professional and well-trained that the rule is no longer required.

Scalia’s suggestion for a replacement to the exclusionary rule to deter bad police behavior would be a civil rights lawsuit. If the police violate your constitutional rights, in the world according to Scalia & Co., the state can still use that evidence, but you can sue the police and get monetary compensation.

Seriously. That’s his suggestion.

So, let’s think about this. What is the point of the exclusionary rule, a rule that has been in place since 1914? Doesn’t the rule just protect the guilty? Isn’t Scalia right when he says it’s a “get-out-of-jail-free card” for the bad guys?

Yes, it does protect the guilty. And that’s why it is so vitally important.

If the Bill of Rights mean anything, it means that it protects all of us. To live in a free society means that we limit the power of the government (and, therefore, the police) to intrude in our lives. If our only concern is stopping crime, then all we have to do is adopt a Soviet-style police force and give them the authority to stop anyone, anywhere, anytime, for any reason.

Quite simply, without the exclusionary rule, the Bill of Rights has no real meaning. A right without a remedy is not a right at all, and the exclusionary rule is the only remedy that has worked to protect those rights we all say as Americans we hold dearly.

Scalia’s rationale that the exclusionary rule is no longer needed because of the professionalism of modern day police is particularly ironic. He says we don’t need the exclusionary rule because the police already follow the rules, rendering the deterrent effect meaningless. But in the very case making that decision, the police openly broke the rules, and now have been rewarded for that behavior.

I’m no psychologist, but it seems to me the message that would be sent to the police would be to break more rules and see what Scalia & Co. will let you get away with.

I have a tremendous amount of respect for police officers. I think it is the single hardest job in the world to have. But it should be. We entrust our police officers with the joint duties of keeping us safe and allowing us to remain a free society. Police officers have an unbelievable amount of power that comes with a badge. That power must be limited and controlled, or there will be elements within a police force who will abuse it.

A professional police force does not need to worry about the exclusionary rule. They do the hard work, follow the rules, and make sure that they both catch the guilty AND protect the rights of the innocent.

A lazy, unprofessional police force does need to worry about the exclusionary rule. They don’t do the hard work, they aren’t thorough, they just go after someone they think might have done something and hope for the best.

A system should be set up to reward good behavior and punish bad behavior. Seems to me we should be rewarding the former, not the latter, don’t you think?

Justice Anthony Kennedy, in a concurring opinion, limited his reason for voting with the majority and said specifically that the exclusionary rule is not in jeopardy. The fact that Kennedy felt it necessary to say that should tell you a lot about the nature of the Scalia & Co. voting block.

It is one of the great American ironies that we fight so hard for freedom abroad and fight so hard to limit that freedom at home. We have already seen secret detentions and consistent use of torture abroad, and unbridled surveillance of the telephone records of millions of innocent Americans at home. Now we have four members of the Supreme Court who are ready to jettison the single most successful tool to protect the rights of individual Americans created since the Bill of Rights was passed.

I’m not saying that we’re going to move into a police state tomorrow. But the hostility shown by four members of the Supreme Court towards one of the most fundamental principles of American law is enough to make me take notice.

Monday, June 12, 2006

A rebirth, of sorts.

Thanks for the push, Joe. The Law-Talking Guy lives again, and really wishes he was in Las Vegas with all the other lefty 'bloggers.

Anyway, hopefully you all will find this forum at least a little bit useful and enlightening. I'm looking forward to any comments, criticisms, or questions you may have. Thanks!