GROWN-UP TIME

Posted in Rants on June 12th, 2013 by Ed

I knew it would happen at some point. Though he has gotten a firm "meh" from me from the moment he emerged as a presidential candidate, I am finally proud of Barack Obama.

Obama was concluding remarks about his Affordable Health Care Act during an address in Northern California Friday morning when he fielded a single question about the NSA and the recently disclosed domestic spying programs.

"I think it's important to recognize that you can’t have 100 per cent security and also then have 100 per cent privacy and zero inconvenience," the president told the crowd while delivering several minutes of unscripted remarks about the NSA.

This.

I suspect Obama will suffer as a result of this approach, but it is about time that someone spoke to the American public like an adult. Of course the politically expedient thing to do is to indulge the juvenile fantasies of the electorate, the ones where they get lots of things from the government but don't have to pay for them and where they are kept safe from every potential threat with no limitations on their rights and liberties. You know what kind of person expects to get everything they want at no cost? Children. Bratty teenagers. Spoiled college kids. I have great respect for anyone willing to tell the public, "Look, make up your goddamn minds. You want us to prevent terrorism by the most aggressive means available. Well, this is the cost. If anyone has a better idea of how to stay on top of every potential terrorist activity on the planet we'd love to hear it."

Freshman-level political science courses teach students that rights and security sit at opposite ends of a see-saw. To increase one necessarily does something to decrease the other. We simply cannot have it both ways. But we have a political system that gives individual elected officials an incentive to tell us we can. There is nothing to gain by telling voters, "You were howling about terrorism and we passed a law giving the president sweeping powers to fight it. We had chances to repeal that law (or let it expire) and the right-wing media crapped itself at the thought of 'weakening' our response to terrorist threats. This infringement of your privacy is the result of that law." There's everything to gain from voting for the Patriot Act and then stoking their braying outrage over The Gub'mint listenin' in on mah phone calls.

What I'm saying here is not a defense of these surveillance programs. It is a simple statement of fact. We cannot have the best of every possible world. If you place the most value on privacy and individual rights, then you'd best accept the fact that terrorism will be more difficult to stop. If you value security more highly, realize that the pursuit of security will involve some limitations on privacy. Majorities of Americans support the NSA's actions and almost 2/3 agree that privacy is secondary to combating terrorism. That it is popular does not make it right, but it does mean that our elected officials are going to err on the side of security ten times out of ten. It's not like Americans really believe in rights anyway.

But more on that tomorrow.

UNWARRANTED

Posted in Rants on June 10th, 2013 by Ed

Last week the Supreme Court decided, based on the majority's appeal to reasonableness, that police can collect a DNA sample from people when they are placed under arrest. Scalia and three liberals formed the dissent, a strange set of bedfellows if ever there was one. Your libertarian-leaning friends are no doubt up in arms about "DNA databases" and the police state. To a great extent, hyperbolic language like that obscures the real problem with this decision.

In the majority opinion, Anthony Kennedy says:

DNA identification of arrestees is a reasonable search that can be considered part of a routine booking procedure. Taking and analyzing a cheek swab of the arrestee's DNA is, like fingerprinting and photographing, a legitimate police booking procedure that is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

Here is why that analogy is inapplicable and intellectually dishonest.

Fingerprinting and photographing are done for the purpose of identification. They're standard police procedure to ensure that your are Joe Blow rather than John Doe. They are not used retroactively to charge you with unsolved crimes. Contrary to what Hollywood portrays, useful fingerprint evidence is rare in criminal cases; the police don't get your picture and prints and then say, "Let's see what else we can charge this guy with." With a DNA sample, they will indeed have the ability to compare to a database of DNA evidence collected in previous cases – solved or unsolved. If you bleed all over the door handle during a home invasion in 2013 and get arrested five years later for drunk driving, the DNA evidence you provide at the time of arrest could be used with relative ease to tie you to the earlier home invasion.

So what?, most people say. Collecting DNA evidence will lead to convictions of guilty people in unsolved crimes. Good. But here's the real problem: this decision is, in essence, the end of the need for a search warrant. Let me explain.

You're suspected of a homicide. They neither have enough evidence to arrest you nor enough probable cause to get a judge to sign off on a search warrant. The police want to search your home to collect both physical and DNA evidence against you. But they can't.

Except now they don't have to. What they do instead, per this decision, is continue to keep you under surveillance as a suspect. They follow you around and wait for you to commit the most minor offense that will enable them to place you under arrest, even if they have no hope of convicting you. They collect DNA samples at the time of arrest and use that to connect you to the crime to which they couldn't otherwise connect you.

You're still not concerned, right? Because once again we're tying guilty people to crimes they committed. The problem is, law enforcement collectively has a strong incentive to collect as many individual DNA samples as possible. It is in their best interest to arrest, fingerprint, and DNA sample as many people as it can, both to resolve old unsolved cases and to provide them with a larger pool of suspects for future cases. I'm not saying that the FBI and police will be playing a game of "Find the arrestable offense" from now on. If they're smart, though, that's exactly what they'll do.

The problem here – ethically, not legally – is not that DNA evidence can be used to connect offenders to all of their past crimes. The problem is that in order for law enforcement to maximize the utility of DNA as a crime-solving tool, they need (theoretically) a sample from everyone. And there's one great way to get that, in the words of the majority opinion.

tl;dr = It is in the interest of the police to arrest you for something minor now to collect evidence that may tie you to a more serious crime in the future, as well as unsolved crimes from the past. Goodbye search warrants. You had a good 230+ year run.

NPF: WEB OF CONSPIRACY

Posted in No Politics Friday on June 7th, 2013 by Ed

You have at least one relative who forwards you every ridiculous piece of chain email nonsense that crosses his or her (AOL/Hotmail) account, right? Everybody needs to have at least one person like that in their life. You're really missing out if you're not seeing this stuff.

Whenever I see one of these things I have the same thoughts: Who wrote this? Who is actually bored enough to sit down and make up a bunch of bullshit to forward to thousands of strangers? Who wakes up and thinks, "Today I'm going to start a rumor that No More Tears baby shampoo is full of novocaine"? That just seems like such a strange thing to do, even for the millions of weirdos that litter the internet.

I don't care if this turns political even on No Politics Friday, but share with us your tales of the most ridiculous, far-fetched, and insane conspiracy theories that you've seen (or heard, because why limit the fun to email) over the years. In the past month alone I've heard that Obama regularly contacts aliens, the government has purchased a billion bullets to execute us all when we are placed in FEMA camps, and genetically modified foods are made in part from fetuses and cadavers.

People believe this shit. They really do. Even the most patently ludicrous theories have a handful of supporters. Too often those supporters include the assheads from your high school graduating class who find you on Facebook, or the uncle with whom you were not allowed unsupervised interaction as a child.

ROLL OUT THE GUILLOTINE

Posted in Quick Hits on June 5th, 2013 by Ed

I don't believe I've ever done a post before directing you to Reddit – if you want to read Reddit, you'd read it – but this Ask Reddit thread is too good to pass up. Entitled, "What's the most WTF way you've seen someone brag about being rich?", it compiles readers' examples of hilariously ostentatious displays of wealth. Basically it is a narrative version of the semi-popular Rich Kids of Instagram tumblr.

As some of the comments point out, reading these stories gives me a much clearer understanding of why human history is filled with examples of poor people rising up and slaughtering their economic betters. I'm not saying I agree with it, but I understand it.

An interesting aspect of this use of the internet as a new platform for showing off one's (parental) wealth is the sharp divide it exposes between new and old money. Of the truly wealthy people I've known, people with family traditions of wealth have been raised (for the most part) with the understanding that such behavior is unacceptable. It is people with more recent, and potentially more transient, types of wealth that feel the need to turn their lives into a cheesy rap video. Look at the numerous posed photos of expensive champagne bottles and tacky, enormous gold accessories – visible "look how rich I am" symbols lifted directly from MTV. Some people look at Rich Kids of Instagram and see The 1% indulging in privileges unique to their station in life. I see modern Beverly Hillbillies, garishly appointed rubes acting out a cartoon-inspired vision of what wealth looks like.

That said, I'm pretty sure that if The Revolution ever comes the Rich Kids of Instagram are going to be first up for the Patriotic Shortener.

THE UNDERSTANDING

Posted in Rants on June 4th, 2013 by Ed

As I do not smoke marijuana, one thing it took me a long, long time to realize as an adult is that a significant portion of the population is high, like, all the goddamn time. Everybody is aware, at least vaguely, that if you drug tested a random college classroom or a restaurant kitchen, pretty much everyone would fail. But it goes beyond the lazy stereotypes. I know personally people like doctors, lawyers, elected officials, teachers, architects, and accountants (in addition to the waiters, musicians, bartenders, comedians, and people of leisure) for whom not being high is an extreme rarity. In the broadest sense, I am acquainted with hundreds of users – and probably more people who I don't realize are users.

This bothers me not at all, since I give zero shits about whether people smoke weed. What does strike me as odd, though, is that for all the (predominantly white) people I know who use regularly, I know very few people who get arrested for anything drug related. Perhaps that is because, despite surveys showing that nearly identical percentages of black and white Americans use marijuana, new data shows that blacks are 400% more likely to get arrested for marijuana-related offenses. You're shocked, I know.

Notice that this does not say blacks are four times as likely to use marijuana, or be in possession of it, or sell it, or anything of the sort. They are four times more likely to be arrested and charged. The reason, I submit, is that the entire point of the War on Drugs is to put black males in prison. This isn't a bug; it's a feature.

In practical terms, there isn't one reason why this happens. There are many. Police patrol more in black neighborhoods. They pull over more black drivers. They conduct more vehicles searches of black drivers during traffic stops. There is more drug enforcement (locker searches, etc) in predominantly black schools. Once arrested, blacks are more likely to be convicted and to receive harsher sentences for the same crimes. And, as the linked article emphasizes, performance metrics based on quantity encourage police to target simple offenses like possession.

A few weeks ago, a judge in an Illinois county near St. Louis died of a cocaine overdose on a hunting trip with other judges. This is a perfect snapshot of the relationship among drugs, the American public, and law enforcement. Tons of people use drugs across all socioeconomic levels, and the laws exist to punish…well, poor blacks and Latinos, basically. The image of a couple of judges who probably sentence people on drug-related crimes regularly sitting around and doing blow in a cabin in the woods speaks for itself. See, the laws are for Those People, not for Us. Statistically, the police don't seem to mind too much if judges and lawyers get high. Or kids in expensive private high schools (You know those drug dogs they parade around the "bad" schools? I'd love to see what they'd find when marched past the lockers of Northern Virginia's various academies and Country Day schools). Or college kids. Or people who live in nice houses in the suburbs. Or basically anyone, with the exception of black people and particularly young black males. Sure, the dumbass white kids from the suburbs can spend all of mom and dad's money on blow and bad acid and expensive weed for four years in college, but if there's weed to be found in the crappy black neighborhood they'll move heaven and Earth to find it. Ethan might be selling his mom's Vicodin out of their 4000 square-foot home in Barrington, but the crime is Curtis selling dimebags behind the convenience store.

This. This is what institutionalized racism is. It is a system that is designed from stem to stern to do one thing as efficiently and as thoroughly as possible: arrest and incarcerate poor people in general and the dark-skinned ones in particular. From the police officer on the street to the judge in the highest courtroom, the entire system operates under the wink-and-nudge understanding that some people can break the drug laws with relative impunity while others must be assessed their Strikes as rapidly as possible and incarcerated for as long as the law permits.

Many years ago I went to court for a traffic ticket. The courtroom was full, and the Offenders consisted of me, a handful of Hispanic men, and about 75 black people. The area in which the offense happened was predominantly white. I told the judge that I wouldn't ask for special treatment despite apparently being the only white person in the county to commit a moving violation that month. He didn't laugh.

HOUSTON IS THE FUTURE, OR: THE FUTURE IS GOING TO BE SHIT

Posted in Rants on June 3rd, 2013 by Ed

There are some people I truly love living in Houston, Texas. I've been there a few times and generally enjoyed myself. But let's not kid ourselves; unless your idea of a well laid-out metropolis with a high quality of life is Phoenix or Tulsa, Houston is a clusterfuck. To be outdoors in Houston in August is like breathing soup or living in the anal cavity of a giant mammal. It is necessary to drive everywhere – which I'm sure has no bearing on Houston being the fattest city in the country. The public transportation "system" is a joke and good luck trying to meet your needs on foot. The city center is a concrete splatter surrounded and pierced by one highway after another. It sprawls mightily in every direction with nothing to constrain it and with no rhyme or reason (much like Phoenix, Las Vegas, Southern California, etc). Much of the city is seedy, impoverished, and crime-ridden despite what the rest of this post is going to talk about. The Astros are fucking horrible.

Houston is a big, hot, sprawling mess. It's also "America's #1 job creator" according to The Atlantic.

The crux of this analysis is that it's really cheap to live in Houston and its location makes it relevant to the energy industry (read: oil and gas). Because it's cheap to live there, employers can set up shop there, pay less than they would have to pay elsewhere, and then make the cost of living argument. Combined with Texas's legendarily "business friendly environment", it's a cheap place. It's not hard to see why Houston would be adding jobs.

These things don't exist in a vacuum, though. Housing is cheap because land is ample and cheap, hence the epic sprawl. Add more highways to move people between the city and the sprawl to up the ugliness factor. And that business friendly environment isn't free either. Employers are lured there with billions in tax abatements and other handouts from the public till. Accordingly, there's a limited tax base and the population growth has outpaced the ability to provide public services. That's why Houston manages to be "booming" and "affluent" while appearing to residents and visitors alike to be run down and seedy. Come for the great jobs, cheap houses, and public schools you wouldn't send your dog to.

This is supposed to be the template for other cities to follow – be more like the growing, sprawling megaplexes of the Sun Belt. Pay particular attention to Texas and the Southwest. Turn your city into a gargantuan strip mall, hand out money to oil companies (and defense contractors; good lord does Texas love it some defense contractors), actively reject the idea of urban planning as socialist, and tell everyone who lives there to fend for themselves. We have seen the future, and it sucks.