Archive for February, 2009

The Immoral Equivalent of War

February 27, 2009

President Obama has, at least twice, very publicly called for an end to “government programs that don’t work.” We should use the money, he says reasonably enough, to support the programs that do work. So far he hasn’t issued any specific hit list, probably to avoid, for as long as possible, treading on any influential toes. But sooner or later he will have to name names. May I suggest the first candidate for the dustbin of history—the War on Drugs?

See for the latest stats on what the WoD has cost us. Yes, it’s a wildly partisan website, but the stats sound realistic. See also for a more temperate view.

Or just talk to some of my clients. One of whom says he is the only self-employed small businessman he knows who is not losing money. Another is currently in jail because he prefers to medicate his mental health issues with a cheap readily available illegal substance that makes him feel better, rather than a horrendously expensive legal one that makes him feel worse.

Marijuana is now reputedly the largest cash crop in many states. And it isn’t being taxed. How dumb is that?

Medical students over the last ten years or so have been instructed to take pain seriously, as the “5th vital sign,” and to treat it effectively. At the same time, earlier generations of doctors are still being monitored and occasionally prosecuted by the DEA for taking such advice seriously. Old canards about the dire likelihood of addiction from adequate pain medication, and the possibility of death being hastened by respiratory depression resulting from the use of analgesics, have been refuted by recent research. But the DEA apparently has not heard the good news yet. How dumb is that?

Here’s a government program that not only doesn’t work, it performs negative work on the body politic. It creates corruption and violence, destroys families, and creates an infinitely deep rathole in which to deposit public and private monies. It’s okay, Mr. President, you’re safely elected now. Scrap the War on Drugs. Now.

Red Emma

A Conservative End to the Rural Dream?

February 27, 2009

NPR’s Morning Edition quotes former FCC economist Michael Katz bashing rural life back in early February when he addressed an American Enterprise Institute panel discussion on the broadband elements of President Obama’s economic stimulus bill.

“Other people don’t like to say bad things about rural areas,” Katz began. “So I will.”

The stimulus package includes $7.2 billion to expand broadband Internet access into “underserved” and rural areas. Katz listed ways that the $7.2 billion could be put to better use, including an effort to combat infant deaths. But he also spoke of rural places as environmentally hostile, energy inefficient and even weak in innovation, simply because rural people are spread out across the landscape.

“The notion that we should be helping people who live in rural areas avoid the costs that they impose on society … is misguided,” Katz went on, “from an efficiency point of view and an equity one.”

My immediate response, when I had managed to avoid swallowing my toothbrush, was that The Blogger Who Shall Not Be Named will have a fit when he hears this. So far, apparently, he hasn’t. But Katz, about whom I know almost nothing other than the above quote, has a point.

Back when I was an enforcement attorney for federal EPA, my duties occasionally took me into the Midwestern boondocks, in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana. A lot of what we dealt with was various kinds of industrial dumping, which happened in the boondocks because such places are less closely watched than those nearer the cities. But in the course of dealing with this problem, I became acutely aware of another set of problems for which the statutes and regs provided no solution—what was inelegantly called in the Clean Water Act “non-point sources,” that is, runoff of pesticide, herbicide, and fertilizer residue into the waterways, and ultimately, into drinking water sources. The drafters of the Clean Water Act, reasonably enough, figured anybody can stop up a drain pipe until the stuff coming out of it is cleaned up, but it’s really hard to keep the rain from washing pesticide off of a cornfield, and, last I heard, nobody was trying. In god’s green countryside, the air smells great (usually—on principle, I will tolerate the smell of manure, but I’m not at all keen on fertilizer smells, which can get pretty rank in some seasons) but you have to be really careful about drinking the water. I have done no research on the sale of bottled water in rural areas, but the stats ought to be interesting.

Additionally, the farther apart people live, the more dependent they are on the passenger automobile to accomplish anything. The closest thing to public transportation in most rural areas is the school bus. Computers and various kinds of smart phones can do some of the work of physical getting around, and in the real boondocks (like arctic Alaska) they often do. But the car-truck-tractor culture has become embedded in rural culture even where it is not physically essential to rural survival.

So rural life is not necessarily good for the environment. Urban life may be better, not because it produces fewer waste products, but because it produces them at fewer points, which are therefore easier to monitor and clean up. The same principle, BTW, applies to the electric car—even if the production of the electricity necessary to run it also produced the same quantity of greenhouse emissions as an internal combustion engine [which may or may not turn out to be the case], it would still be a better idea, because it’s easier to clean up emissions from a power plant smokestack than from multiple car exhausts.

On the other hand, we still need to grow food, and rural areas are where mostly we need to grow it. Which means people need to live and work there.

On the basic principle that, if our society needs some individuals or groups to engage in particular activities, or live in particular places, or bear particular burdens on behalf of the rest of us, it ought not to punish them for doing so, I believe that country dwellers shouldn’t be any worse off than city dwellers (in the same way that parents shouldn’t be any worse off than non-parents, and so on.) So if we in Chicago can get broadband at a decent monthly charge, the folks in Grundy County should have the same access. But shouldn’t we at least be trying to encourage them to tread more lightly on the land they farm?

This needs more thought.


Update from Illinois

February 23, 2009

Here’s an update for those of you who do not enjoy the benefits of living in Illinois.  The last anybody heard (, our august former governor had just appointed Roland Burris to fill the US Senate seat  vacated by Barack Obama when he was elected president, and everybody was deploring this move.  Well, since then, the governor has been impeached, and replaced by his lieutenant governor, Pat Quinn.  And Burris is being investigated on suspicion of having bought, or tried to buy, the senate seat our former governor is accused of having sold, or tried to sell.  There seems to be universal agreement, both in Washington and in Springfield, that Burris should not have accepted the office when Blagojevich offered it.  People seem to have suffered a wave of even stronger revulsion upon finding out that Burris had actually initiated a communication with the governor or his henchpeople indicating that he was interested in the appointment. So now everybody, in DC and Springfield alike, is saying Burris should step down, the Illinois legislature should change the law to provide for a special election rather than gubernatorial appointment when a senate seat becomes unexpectedly vacant in mid-term, and then we should  have a special election and put somebody else in Obama’s senate seat.

Well, not quite everybody. Not me, for instance.  I just don’t believe this sudden mania for political cleanliness in Springfield.  Its primary sponsor and beneficiary, Mike Madigan, the majority leader in the state senate, is no Mr. Clean himself, though he has so far avoided criminal investigation or charges.  The two other prime movers in this scenario, State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, the head of the Impeachment Committee (who, in the spirit of full disclosure, is the state rep. of the neighborhood in which the Wired family lives, and the recipient of their votes for decades now) and the new governor, Pat Quinn, have long been viewed as squeaky clean reformers of the sort normally derided in Illinois as Goo-goos (short for “good government.”)  Now I’m not quite sure whether their motives can be trusted, or whether they are, as some local commentators have suggested, in Madigan’s pocket.

I have no such reservations about Madigan. I know he is no reformer.  If Illinois law had given him the power to appoint Obama’s successor, I am quite sure that (a) he would do it, rather than change the law to establish a special election, and (b) the person he appointed would be either himself or some other politician friendly to him and with no particular claim to integrity.  I am also quite sure that if Burris does for some reason or other cease to be senator and his successor is the victor in a special election, Madigan will do everything he can to make sure that the people of Illinois elect either himself, his daughter (Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan), or one of his political cronies.  [BTW, I don’t mean to imply that Lisa is less than squeaky clean. So far as I can tell, she is at least as clean as Burris, and apparently doesn’t get along that well with her father.]

I wasn’t all that comfortable with Blagojevich’s impeachment, based on evidence which the public was mostly not allowed to hear, and which obviously didn’t rise to the level of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.  But Illinois law doesn’t require proof of a criminal offense beyond a reasonable doubt. The law just says impeachment has to be “for cause.”  So far as anyone can tell, that could be mere Rogaine ™ abuse.
What’s happening to Burris is, I think, even worse.  Okay, more full disclosure here—back 20+ years ago, Burris endorsed me when I was running for office. My contact with Burris was kind of at third hand, and I don’t exactly remember all the links in the chain now, but I knew somebody who knew somebody who knew him and said it wouldn’t hurt to approach him, so I did, and he was distant but decent.  Also, many years later, I flunked his niece for plagiarism and she called up her Powerful Uncle to complain and he, I gather, told her to get lost. (What the niece did was copy a Roger Ebert movie review for an assignment.  Just happened that when I graded her paper, I had just a couple of hours earlier read the Ebert review in the paper and had no trouble tracking it down.)

Aside from all that, Burris has had the reputation over the years of being pretty clean and competent as Illinois politicians go.  Even the people who don’t like him admit they can’t prove he paid for the senate seat in even the most metaphorical way, and in fact believe he probably didn’t.  At best, they may be able to prove he wasn’t entirely truthful in his written responses to interrogatories.  Sorry, I do not believe in any obligation to absolute truthfulness–it certainly isn’t part of the Jewish tradition.  And for most people, even pretty honest people, absolute truthfulness is almost impossible unless one becomes totally obnoxious about it. If he lied ( or more likely, just didn’t tell the whole truth) it apparently wasn’t about any smoking gun that would result in anybody being convicted for bribery or corruption.

Most of the people who want Burris gone just object in principle to the governor–this particular governor–having appointed him.  Never mind that Illinois law says that’s how you fill a suddenly vacated senate seat–now all of a sudden they want a special election that was “too expensive” three months ago when we had (or thought we had) more money than we do now.  They think Burris should never have accepted the office, and certainly shouldn’t have intimated to the governor or his pals that he was interested in it–that he just wasn’t being classy enough.

I can sort of, just barely, believe that the Democrats in Washington really do care about the principle of the thing, or at least the appearance of principle.  I can’t believe that either the Springfield Democrats or the Republicans anywhere give a rat’s patootie about principles. They just want a shot at filling the senate seat with their own person, and above all, a chance to throw their weight around in very public ways.  And I for sure don’t believe that Burris’ replacement, however s/he gets into office, will be any cleaner than Burris or Madigan. [I did think the governor missed a chance at a classy and clever gesture by not appointing Barbara Flynn Currie, which would have simultaneously transcended any possibility of scandal AND deprived the impeachment committee of their chair in the middle of their deliberations.]

Then there’s the criminal investigation process, as it affects both Blagojevich and Burris.  Patrick Fitzgerald, the prosecutor in charge of it, has generally shown himself to be both competent and non-partisan on political corruption cases. His last big win put the last Illinois governor, Republican George Ryan, behind bars. But unlike a lot of people, I don’t automatically consider prosecutors–even competent and serious prosecutors–to be Good Guys.  I particularly don’t like prosecutors (like Ken Starr, may his name be blotted out) who, instead of starting with a crime and asking, “Who did this, and how can we convict him?”, start with somebody they just “know” is a bad guy, and ask, “I know he’s dirty–what can we convict him of?” I think that’s what Fitzgerald was doing in this case, though I don’t think he used entrapment or outrageous deals with other defendants to accomplish it, unlike a lot of prosecutors.

Admittedly, I started my legal career defending alleged draft dodgers and AWOLs, and I have a very deep-set pro-defendant bias.  My ex-boss at the Federal Defender pointed out, in a training lecture once, that a prosecutor is supposed to feel s/he has “won” if justice is done, regardless of whether that results in a conviction. Unfortunately, I know of very few prosecutors who fit that model (there was one in the Rolando Cruz case, who lost her job for refusing to prosecute him on what she felt was inadequate and concocted evidence. She turned out to be right. So far as I know, she didn’t get her job back when somebody else confessed to the murder in question.) Mostly they figure anybody who attracts the attention of the police has to be guilty of something, and the prosecutor’s job is to define the crime to fit the evidence, if any. I cut my legal teeth believing everybody is innocent of something. I think the Bill of Rights is based on the same presumption.

Last fall, along with all the major federal, state, and local offices, the people of Illinois had a chance to vote in a referendum on holding a constitutional convention to redraft our 30-year-old state constitution. I now suspect that those of us (like me) who voted against a Constitutional Convention in the referendum last fall goofed big time, and that we should probably try to get another vote on it now, to deal with both explicit standards for impeachment and the process of filling a suddenly vacated senate seat. I haven’t yet researched the possibility of a do-over of that vote, but it would sure be a good idea.

Jane Grey

The Mirrored Curtain

February 15, 2009

A few years ago, some beleaguered scholar of geography characterized Americans below the age of 50 as a “lost generation,” in the sense of not knowing where they were physically located in relation to the rest of the world. He was responding to some test given to a selected sample of Americans, in which they were shown a map of the world, at a considerable level of detail, but with the names of the countries (and the states in the U.S.) omitted. A horrendous percentage of respondents could not find England, France, the USSR (as it was then), Mexico, or Canada. A significant number could not even find the United States. Many could not identify the state in which they lived.

At the time, I half-seriously suggested that this appalling ignorance could legitimately be blamed on the Sexual Revolution. Playboy, I pointed out, had provided more recent generations of male adolescents with someplace other than the National Geographic to look for pictures of nekkid wimmen. (That hypothesis, of course, provides us with no illumination whatever about the geographic ignorance of the younger generation of women.)

The study in question dealt only with physical geography of the most rudimentary kind. It did not even mention the ignorance of Americans about how people live in places other than the U.S., which is in practice a much more important issue than whether Paraguay lies north or south of Bolivia. It would be hard even to design a survey tool to measure that variety of ignorance. Today, perhaps the most important ways the U.S. differs from the rest of the world have to do with crime, poverty, welfare, and education. Not coincidentally, these are hot topics in the news in this country. Most reasonably educated Americans are aware that Europeans generally regard the U.S. as barbaric because, unlike most European countries, we have the death penalty and no gun control. Some really sophisticated Americans know that the only countries in the world with higher rates of execution, imprisonment, and violent crime than ours are all in the Third World. Some of us know that the Brits think we’re barbarians because we have the death penalty, and that the Saudis think we’re sissies because we don’t implement it in the public square with a sword.  But the only Americans who have any real sense of what it is like to live in countries outside the US are those who have done it.

Since we are a nation of immigrants, we do have a fair-sized population of people who know firsthand what life is like in Mexico and Central America, India, Pakistan, the Middle East, and many other countries with lower pay-scales, higher crime rates, and wider gaps between rich and poor than the U.S. Those immigrants have no problem colluding in the propagation of the Great American Myth that this is the richest and greatest country in the world–it is certainly the richest and greatest country they have ever lived in. Which is precisely why they are here in the first place.

What we don’t have is a sizeable population of people who have lived in Western Europe and Japan over the last twenty years. Most of the natives of those countries don’t move here, because they find life over there more comfortable. And most Americans can’t move there because, given present-day currency rates, it’s too expensive for people who get paid in dollars. Living outside the U.S. might even require an American to learn some language other than English. And learning languages, of course, is boring. In addition, most Western European countries don’t welcome middle-class immigrants. They have more than enough educated citizens of their own to fill local white-collar jobs. They certainly don’t need people who don’t speak the local language and may not be educated up to local standards–except for menial jobs for which Europe gets its own share of Third World immigrants. While Mexicans and Asians are enduring unbelievable and sometimes life-threatening hardships to flock to our gates because their culture is full of our artefacts and their villages are full of people who have relatives writing home from the U.S. about the luxury of having a home of one’s own and two cars, Americans are not willing to save their dollars or work out deals with overseas employers because we don’t know anything about life over there. And the corpocracy that runs the U.S. economy, polity, and culture is happy to keep it that way.

What they are especially happy to maintain is American ignorance of other systems of government and economics. As long as American voters can imagine only decadent communism, free-market capitalism, and Third World mismanagement, they will of course stick with capitalism. Who wouldn’t? The voters will spend every election splitting hairs over just how much license and subsidization to give the corpos this time, and then wonder why politics is so boring and seems to make so little difference. And those few Americans who might like to imagine some fourth alternative have to make it up out of whole cloth, and create it from nothing, because, so far as they know, nothing like it has ever even been tried, much less succeeded. That is, ultimately, the Sisyphean tragedy of the American Left. Once we’ve said, “No, of course we don’t want communism, there has to be something better,” what more can we say?

Well, we could say, “Mixed economies and democratic socialism have been tried, with considerable success, in Western Europe and Japan, where the average blue-collar worker lives a lot better than his or her American counterpart,” and then start describing a day in the life of the Swedish car mechanic, or the German secretary, or the French shop clerk, or even the British steelworker on unemployment. Why don’t we? Because we don’t even know where to find out how they live. If I were to do a web search on the subject, which of course is the first step in any halfway-serious research project these days, I would not even know what to use for a search term. “France?” That would get me airlines and travel services and tourist sites. It might get me academic programs. It would get me all the information necessary about how to be a stranger in another country. It would get me nothing at all about the experience of being a person who lived there. Even the progressive publications we rely on for something more truthful and meaningful than Time, Newsweek, and U.S.A. Today won’t give us that information. Maybe because the Progressive, In These Times, and The Nation can’t afford to keep correspondents overseas, given the currency rates. But more likely because even Americans who think of themselves as intellectuals, or at least as thoughtful people, have been brainwashed into thinking that geography is boring. Even Americans who know how exciting history can be are likely to be bored by geography.

When I was a kid, we read geography textbooks, mostly horribly out of date, about the lives of children in some other countries. We got to learn what they ate, what they wore, what kind of schools they went to, what kind of houses they lived in, and what the weather was like. All of the information except the weather was long-since obsolete even at the time, of course. And there was no mention at all of politics or economics (except for those poor kids behind the Iron Curtain, living two families to a room and having to report their parents to the police for saying the Rosary or listening to Radio Free Europe.) But we still ended up knowing more about the world beyond our borders than most Americans educated since then.

When I was a kid, the Cold War and the Iron Curtain were ever-present facts of our lives. We heard about the brave Poles and Czechs and Hungarians who risked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to listen to Radio Free Europe and find out The Truth about the world outside, which they knew their communist masters were not telling them. Our corporate masters here don’t need to tell us that learning about life in other countries is forbidden and dangerous. They just have to tell us it’s boring. We don’t need an Iron Curtain. What we have instead is a curtain that we cannot even see, because all it does is reflect back at us an idealized, thoroughly retouched picture of ourselves, so that we have no way to imagine that there is any world out there that does not look like our own. A mirrored curtain, so to speak.

So I would like to pose a challenge to the progressive media in the U.S. If each progressive media outlet–The Progressive, The Nation, In These Times, Ms., Pacifica Radio, NPR, Utne (online and dead-tree versions), Tikkun, and so on–would commit itself to presenting at least one story per issue on a day in the life of an ordinary working person in some industrialized country other than the U.S., a lot of the other rock-pushing those outlets have to do in terms of telling people, “Yes, there is an alternative to free-market capitalism, and it isn’t communism,” could be avoided. Y’all could devote some of the space you now have to use for abstract, hypothetical political theory to cartoons and comic strips and poetry. All you have to do, guys, is tell enough people, show enough people, “We have seen the present and it works.”

Red Emma

Legal Fictions and Legal Fantasies

February 9, 2009

I spend a lot of time explaining the law to my clients. Not the obvious stuff, like the statute of limitations or the Bill of Rights, which most Americans have a reasonably decent grasp of, but the more baffling and basic things, like:

Why does everything take so long?

Why does the judge get to tell me what to do when I don’t want to do it?

Why do I have to pay you for the time you spend in court waiting around and not getting anything done?

Why can the Other Side tell such lies about me and get away with it?

Why do I have to go to court?

Why do I have to come up with written evidence of what I’m saying? I’ve already sworn to tell the truth.

Why are you so friendly to the Other Side’s attorney?

Why do you want to settle my case instead of going to trial?

Bear in mind that my clients are, with a few exceptions, literate, and have at least high school educations and at least normal intelligence. Nonetheless this stuff eludes their understanding.

Why does everything take so long? Actually, that’s an easy one, and most people have no trouble believing the answer, which is that Cook County, Illinois, where I mostly practice, is the largest court jurisdiction in the country (New York City got split up a long time ago), and possibly (pending better information from China) the largest in the world. And of course, taking a long time is not necessarily a bad thing, depending on which side you’re on. But some of my clients have a hard time with that one too. I tell them that, often, you can either get what you want from the court system, or get the case over in a hurry, but not both. Recently, one of my clients asked me to drop his case even though he has already paid me in full and we have at least some chance of winning, because he “can’t take the stress.” And of course, Hamlet adduced “the law’s delay” as one of the possible reasons for committing suicide.

Why does the judge get to tell me what to do when I don’t want to do it? Umm, because if you and the Other Side could work things out without anybody else telling either of you what to do, you wouldn’t need a judge. And from the judge’s point of view, if being a judge doesn’t get him the right to tell people what to do, whatever else it does get him probably isn’t worth the trouble of putting on his robe.

Why do I have to pay you for sitting around in court not getting anything done? Because while I’m sitting around in court on your case, I can’t get anything done for anybody else either, and nobody else is going to pay me for that time. If you won’t pay me for all the time I spend on your case, I won’t take your case.

Why can the Other Side tell such lies about me and get away with it? Actually, they don’t necessarily get away with it. Perjury is a crime. Remember what happened to Bill Clinton? It doesn’t happen as often as it should, but it does happen. And anyway, they don’t get away with it at all if they can’t prove it, just like you. If it isn’t proven, it’s just allegation and nobody has to pay any attention to it.

Why do I have to go to court? Because the judge needs to hear your testimony. You can’t just phone it in (usually, anyway) or write a letter. A live witness under oath to tell the truth can provide evidence. Everybody else is just shooting off their mouths.

Why do I have to come up with written evidence, instead of just swearing to tell the truth? Because the judge wants the best evidence possible. Sometimes neither side has anything in writing, and the judge just has to make do with what is popularly known among lawyers as a swearing contest. Judges hate this, and often make things as unpleasant as possible for both sides if that’s all they have. But if the other side has anything in writing, you had better have something too, or the judge will believe the guy with the documents.

Why are you so friendly to the Other Side’s attorney? What I generally tell the client is that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, which is usually true. But what I generally don’t add is that clients come and go, but if I practice in the same courtrooms all the time, opposing counsels are there forever, or at least as long as I am. And opposing counsels are useful sources of information and referrals. This borders on conflict of interest, of course, but it’s unavoidable most of the time.

Why do you want to settle my case instead of going to trial? There are lots of reasons for this. I sometimes quote Lincoln, who says that the worst settlement is better than the worst trial. I don’t actually believe this, but Lincoln carries a lot of credibility with clients. More to the point is that, in a settlement, we have some control over the result. You won’t get everything you want, but you’ll get a lot of it. While a trial can bring out utter craziness or stupidity in the judge, leading to unpredictable results. If I know a particular judge well enough to know the risks of a trial, the client is likely to take this issue seriously. Or, because going to trial will cost you a lot more than a settlement, so that you may come out behind even if we “win.” Or because this judge will, one way or another, make it impossible for us ever to have a trial, by just continuing it for one reason or another until you die, or he dies, or I die, or the other party dies, or the courthouse burns down. (So far, I haven’t dealt with a courthouse fire, and I am still alive, but I have been in cases involving the death of the other party, the other lawyer, the judge, and my own client.)

Jane Grey