Saturday, April 12, 2008

Happy Tax Season!

Sometimes it's good to be self-employed. Other times, not so much.

For all the good Milton Friedman did in the world, he is spending an awful long time in purgatory for his role in paycheck withholding. If we all had to go through this kind of annual pain, I'm pretty sure we'd be a bit more prudent with government spending and taxing.

Another Reason to Back Bob Barr

Something I've noticed in the last few days: he's about 1000 times more politically savvy and shrewd than Ron Paul ever was. For starters, his position on immigration has a nuance that Ron Paul's lacked, as I noted the other day. This nuance allows him to be "tough" on illegal immigration without coming across as a raving Tancredo-ite.

But today, he has shown an ability to stay on top of the news cycle and put out an outstanding statement on the so-called Obama "gaffe." His statement manages to not only be timely, but also doesn't pretend to speak for the voters, as McCain and Hillary have both done. Instead of resorting to the demagogic "Snob-ama" refrain that has characterized most of the response to the statement, Barr used the occasion to actually push his campaign theme of freedom:

"People get bitter, so that's why they support the Second Amendment? Or that's why they support the First Amendment? That's what he seems to be saying."

While I detest the "sound-bite culture," the fact is that it is the way we get our news today. Barr's remarks make a magnificent sound-bite. I can see him doing a good job of getting enough publicity and support to make it into the Presidential debates this fall. At a minimum, he will make life very uncomfortable for John McCain.

What Should the Media Be Covering? Redux

(via memeorandum)

This has to have Glenn Greenwald in conniptions (and rightly so). We now have the President admitting that he was fully aware of the methods of torture his top-level Cabinet members were approving. Not only that, but as Cernig points out, those meetings occured before the Yoo memos, and in fact were responsible for ordering the Yoo memos as a CYA. This is something that ought to drive any American with a conscience to cry for impeachment.

Despite this, there are at this moment exactly four other bloggers of any note discussing this story.

Meanwhile, the rest of the blogosphere is in a tizzy like I've never seen before over another story. And what story might that be? Obama said some things that were politically incorrect! GASP! A politician isn't completely in touch with the people? STOP THE PRESSES! Indeed, this gaffe is so horrible that Powerline is making the argument that it disqualifies Obama from the Presidency.

If this is all the supposedly enlightened and attuned blogosphere wants to talk about, it pretty strongly suggests that Megan McArdle's argument about the media is correct. The media cover the torture issue relatively little because the public does not really want to hear about the torture issue. The public would much rather hear about who made the latest utterly meaningless campaign gaffe.

For the record, my take on Obama's horribly overblown gaffe is this: he is correct that there are an awful lot of homophobic, racist, xenophobic gun-toting Bible thumpers in small-town America. (Of course there are plenty of gun-toters and Bible-thumpers who are not necessarily homophobic, racist, and xenophobic, as well). Where he is wrong is in thinking these attitudes are attributable to mistrust of government. Usually "one who mistrusts government" is a synonym for "libertarian." But last I checked, the only two of those traits that are really compatible with libertarianism are gun-toting and (debatably) Bible-thumping. Moreover, last I checked, Hillary "the Country Can't Afford All My Ideas" Clinton is an even bigger believer in the inherent goodness of government than Obama AND she also happens to be married to a man whose administration allegedly failed these voters by not paying enough attention to their concerns. The fact is that there are other reasons these attitudes are so common in small-town America. I've seen enough of it first-hand to know. But it has absolutely nothing to do with distrust of government.

***UPDATE*** Tas also wonders what the big deal is with this story.

Please File This Under Authoritarians and Dumb-Asses

(This post title is a not-so-subtle hint to Doug & Co.)

I have very little to add to this Jim Henley post. Just to sum up: we are sending hand-held lie detectors to Afghanistan (and eventually to our local police here in the US, with a stop in Iraq along the way, of course). The "information" gleaned from these divinatio...err, Evildoer Finders is to be used as a way of finding terrorists, providing access to important areas, and as a screening tool for interviewing potential police officers and interpreters.

The trouble is: the machines are only between 63 and 79 percent accurate, making regular lie detectors look like the Oracle at Delphi (which, of course, was amazingly reliable).

As I said in a comment to Henley's post: I'm pretty sure that I can tell when someone is lying to my face at an accuracy rate of 63 percent. There's also, of course, the fact that these machines are to be used in situations where extremely heavily armed men will be asking the questions. For some reason I doubt that these machines were tested in circumstances that precisely simulated that environment. Which means that the real accuracy rate is probably more along the lines of a coin-flip.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Problem of Over-Regulation, aka We Just Hit Chapter 10 of Atlas Shrugged

(Via memeorandum)

Thank you, Congressman Oberstar for telling the FAA it wasn't being intrusive enough in its attempts to hyper-regulate air travel. I'm sure anyone hoping to fly in the next three months deeply appreciates your efforts. (As a side note: my understanding is that most of these maintenance issues are unrelated to safety, so our economy is going to be even more screwed up than it would have been just so the FAA can look tough for the Congressman). I'm even more certain that the airline industry and its hundreds of thousands of employees also appreciate all the cancelled flights and lost customers which will result in even bigger losses than usual in this quarter. It's not as if airlines ever go out of business or anything.

As someone who has had his share of professional battles with the FAA, anyone who thinks that the FAA isn't aggressive enough has no idea what they're talking about. Of course, if you've ever read the Federal Airline Regulations and the thousands of circulars that the FAA puts out, you would realize that it is literally impossible to comply with every regulation the FAA has and still serve your customers in an acceptable fashion. Of course, when you have that many regulations to oversee, there is probably a tendency to overlook some of the less-important violations in order to make sure you can safeguard against the more-important violations. Or, just as likely, and as Ayn Rand and Hayek both pointed out, the enforcement of those regulations just becomes completely arbitrary and based on personal connections.

***UPDATE*** Iain Murray makes the point that these idiotic hyperinspections, which come out of one man's desire to have his ring kissed, may actually be worsening safety. As Murray points out, no small number of travelers stopped by the useless inspections will travel to their ultimate destinations by car instead. Car travel being significantly more dangerous than air travel, the likelihood is that the FAA's bow to Congressman Oberstar will actually cost more lives than it will save.

More at memeorandum.

Thieving Bastards!

Tony at RollingDoughnut has an outstanding evaluation of the asinine mortgage "crisis" bailout passed today by the Senate. (If you like my site and haven't bookmarked Tony's site, then you should do so now- he takes an almost-identiccal tone to mine but covers a more diverse array of topics).

In any event, it seems the bill is even worse than many of us had feared, as it "combines large tax breaks for homebuilders and a $7,000 tax credit for people who buy foreclosed properties, as well as $4 billion in grants for communities to buy and fix up abandoned homes."

This means that the result - which is clearly intended - of the bailout package will be that homebuilders will have an incentive to, uhh, build more homes. At a time when the supply of for-sale homes is already at record highs? Is the solution to the so-called housing crisis really to increase the supply of homes even more? How does that make sense?

Of course, the $7000 tax credit for purchasing foreclosed homes is every bit as bad. This will have the effect of reducing the value of homes owned by people who have actually lived up to the terms of the mortgage contract they signed (people like, well, me). Which will mean that those homes will continue to sit on the market for months and months at a time. In other words, incentivizing the purchase of one specific kind of real estate will have the effect of making things even worse in the rest of the real estate market - which happens to account for like 99% of homes owned. But it gets even worse than that: the people who buy foreclosed homes are usually investors and developers, not people looking for a home to live in. So the Senate's solution to a problem caused by too much speculation encourage more speculation? And not only that, but the people receiving this benefit aren't even people you could call your "average Joe."

But they didn't forget the "little guy" completely. No, they left in $11 billion in "tax-free mortgage revenue bonds" to help people refinance out of subprime loans. The fact that those people agreed to those subprime loans out of their own free will and have benefited for 3-7 years from unnaturally low interest rates on those loans appears not to have crossed the Senate's collective brain. My wife and I both had ARMs on our properties before we got married. We both understood that meant our payments would go up dramatically when the ARM kicked in. But we also understood that the ARM was a terrific option for each of us since we only intended to live in those places for a short time and since we both had every reason to believe that our incomes would rise at a greater rate than the ARM increase.

In any event, let me just second Tony's words when he writes:

The housing market needs to stabilize.... I want that to happen sooner rather than later because that is better for me, as it would be for any homeowner, whatever their equity status. More information is better than less information. But the market will not stabilize correctly, or as quickly, as long as Congress forgets that its job escription does not include "Do something".

I also found something to make this idiotic bill even worse. According to the Washington Post, "the Senate added $6 billion in unrelated tax breaks for renewable energy producers." In other words, the December energy bill boondoggle which is helping boost world food prices through the stratosphere didn't do enough damage, so the Senate felt a need to come back for more.

Rwanda, Genocide, and Self-Education

I know this is old news, but it was a huge story during my hiatus. At the time, I wound up stumbling upon this outstanding post by the always magnificent hilzoy at Obsidian Wings.

The post itself is well worth a read because of the way in which it so utterly dispels any notion that Hillary Clinton pushed for intervention in Rwanda. But that's not really why I'm bringing this up now.

I have always had something of an understanding of what happened in Rwanda, probably a better understanding than most Americans. But that understanding was extraordinarily limited to what was reported at the time in our media outlets. I've always known the raw data of what happened, and somewhere in the dark recesses of my brain I remember hearing about the tens of thousands of bodies found washed up on the shores of Lake Victoria. But I never really understood the context of what happened, nor did I understand the international reaction to the genocide.

In the comments thread to hilzoy's post, though, I found one of the most valuable links I've ever run into. The link is a day-by-day journal written in 2004 by blogger NYCO to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide. Beginning on April 6, 2004, and concluding on July 14, 2004, NYCO provides a detailed description of the events of each day of the genocide. It is at once eye-opening, educational, stomach-churning, and depressing. In doing so, NYCO turned the genocide from an almost too-large to believe number to something that makes you painfully aware of the horrors of that time period. What happened in Rwanda 14 years ago needs to be remembered in much the way that we remember the Holocaust. For those who favored intervention in Bosnia, understanding Rwanda should remind you that an even worse ethnic cleansing was occuring at the same time we were going into Bosnia.

But there is more to this exercise than just learning the details of a horror show that ended well over a decade ago. Of course, there is much to be learned in the tale of Rwanda about the evil that prejudice, hatred, and xenophobia can wrought so easily. When you read the role of talk radio in the genocide your stomach will churn.

And beyond all that, you will find out some uncomfortable truths about the US role in Rwanda. What you will discover is that the US need not have intervened militarily if it wished to save lives. Instead, you will find that US intervention at the UN and protection of its ally's reputation, as well as intentional foot-dragging by the Clinton Administration on the delivery of rented vehicles, played a tremendous role in actively worsening the genocide.

When Bill Clinton apologized to Rwanda in 1998, he was not apologizing for failing to do enough to stop the genocide by intervening militarily. Instead, what he was really apologizing for was the active role his administration played in worsening the horror.

Where Does Expression Begin and Commerce End?

This case in New Mexico helps to illustrate the deep-seated problems with the commercial speech exception to the First Amendment. Where does artistic expression end and commercial speech begin? By whose standards?

The case involves a photographer who refused to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony. The New Mexico Human Rights Commission yesterday found that such a refusal violated the New Mexico public accommodations act, which covers sexual preference discrimination.

Even though this woman is clearly a bigot, if she can be forced to photograph something of which she does not approve, then virtually any speech or expression can be regulated if it is done "for hire." As Professor Volokh points out, photography is art, and is inherently expressive. Other forms of art that are frequently made for hire: every piece of music you've ever paid money to hear (so gangsta rap can be outlawed, amongst plenty of other things), every movie you've ever paid money to see, most works of art you've ever seen in a gallery, and every news broadcast on television. Just to name a few.

This is where the intersection between economic freedom and political freedom becomes clearest. Perhaps more than anything else, this case illustrates just how dangerous the restriction of economic freedom really is.

More at memeorandum.

Bonus side question: What is it about government agencies called "Human Rights Commissions" that makes them so frequently the source of real violations of human rights? For some reason, I keep thinking that they may as well just call each of these agencies the "Ministry of Love" and get the Orwell analogy over with.

***UPDATE*** I should add that I find it almost absolutely certain that this case will get reversed should it be appealed. But the fact that it could even reach this point is a result of the subjective nature of defining "commercial speech."

***UPDATE II*** Doug Mataconis has a similar take on this over at The Liberty Papers.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Bob Barr Scores Points With Evil Cosmotarians

One of the biggest hangups I have with Bob Barr as a prospective spokesman for liberty in this country has been his position on immigration, which has long seemed to be extraordinarily restrictionist in many of the same ways as Ron Paul. This hangup is hardly big enough to prevent me from potentially supporting Barr, but it is a hangup nonetheless.

But in an interview with Neil Boortz (who seems less and less of a libertarian to me the more I hear from him), Barr dropped a bombshell that was music to my ears. This is not to say that he has completely reversed his position on immigration - indeed, he remains quite insistent on tighter border controls and (it would seem) on generally limiting immigration into this country. However, he made extremely clear in his interview with Boortz that he is opposed to mass deportation of illegal immigrants (something I blogged about here). Instead, he has taken the much more reasonable position of performing background checks on illegal immigrants; if the immigrant passes the check, they could potentially remain in the US.

This is hardly a perfect position in my view. But it also makes quite clear that Barr is far from a nativist in his current immigration stance. Moreover, David Weigel did some digging into Barr's Congressional voting record on immigration, and found a handful of important exceptions to his generally restrictionist point-of-view. These exceptions show a Congressman that actually appears more concerned with "illegal" immigration than with immigration more generally, a position that I find perfectly coherent, albeit a position with which I somewhat disagree.

Poll Question

Help us give our daughter-to-be a middle name. The choices are at left. The results will, of course, be non-binding.

Aggregating Yesterday

Yesterday was a busy day at Publius Endures. Below I've aggregated all the posts so you don't have to scroll down to catch up.

More Fun with Bad Statistics: About the murders of trade unionists in Colombia
More on Partisan Business Cycles: Following up a post from last week about the partisan political economy.
What Are the Media's Responsibilities?: In which I take a look at the debate between Glenn Greenwald and Megan McArdle and discuss how much coverage the media should have given to the Yoo memoranda.
What Would Happen if the Media Covered the Yoo Memos More?: In which I argue that greater MSM coverage of the Yoo memos would have been counterproductive in the fight against the torture regime.
Strict Construction: Pointing out the hypocrisy of conservative "strict constructionists" who argue for the "unitary executive."
NSLs and Telecom Immunity: Pointing out that the Bush Administration seems to have an odd set of priorities in determining who is qualified to review "classified" evidence.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

NSLs and Telecom Immunity

I know that telecom immunity is less than a hot topic right now, but I think this is worth a post anyways.

The issue at the center of the telecom lawsuits is access to so-called "national security letters" (NSLs) that may or may not have been provided to the telecoms as justification for the Administration's warrantless wiretapping program. It is access to these letters, rather than any claim for monetary damages, that is the motivation behind the lawsuits.

In lobbying intensely for telecom immunity from these lawsuits, the Administration has repeatedly advanced two fundamental arguments. The first is that immunity is required because the telecoms acted in good faith and should not be punished for cooperating with the government on an issue of national security. This argument is absurd and a red herring, however, because the entire issue to be decided by the lawsuits is whether the telecoms acted in good faith.

The second argument often advanced is that the evidence in the case must remain secret as a matter of "national security." So necessary is secrecy, in fact, that not even the judge should be allowed to review the evidence. This argument may seem more plausible, but it really isn't. Indeed, what the administration is saying is that telecom executives and their inner circle of employees are inherently more trustworthy with national secrets than a Congressionally-approved and Presidentially-appointed judge. Moreover, the execs and their employees are so much more inherently trustworthy than the plaintiffs in these cases (none of whom are accused of any wrongdoing) that the plaintiffs should not be trusted with the information in the letters even if it is presented to them under seal and only after a thorough background check.

So there you have it: telecom execs are more trustworthy on matters of national security than all but the highest level of government officials.

Strict Construction

The various ongoing debates about the expansions and abuses of executive power under the Bushies brought something important to my mind.

It used to be - and remains - that conservatives of all stripes love to run around waving the banner of "strict construction" of the Constitution (please note: many libertarians do this as well, but in a slightly - but significantly - different manner). "Strict construction" of course is also called "textualism" and "originalism" in different contexts.

In any event, conservatives often throw these words around as a way of arguing against all sorts of legal changes, usually along the lines of (incorrectly) asserting that strict constructionism would deny the right of gays to marry or (perhaps correctly, depending on your view of when life begins) asserting that it would deny the right of abortion. They also (correctly) have used this manner of Constitutional interpretation as a way of arguing against various federal government interventions in state affairs.

Not surprisingly, though, the "strict construction" method of interpretation is applied inconsistently, at best, to conservative pet issues. When strict constructionism cannot support their preferred outcome, they usually redefine the term so as to make it utterly devoid of meaning.

But even redefining the term "strict construction" to the most absurd degree does not explain how so-called "strict constructionists" can argue for a novel theory like the "unitary executive," or that the President is allowed to ignore the law whenever he deems doing so to be in the interests of national security. Of course, the fact that the "unitary executive" theory has never been heard of in American history until the Bush Administration does not appear to have crossed their minds.

So, conservatives, which is it? Are you in favor of a strict, literal interpretation of the Constitution, or are you in favor of a virtually unfettered executive branch free from any Constitutional constraints as long as the President declares the issue one of "national security," a fact about which he need offer no proof.

What Would Happen If the Media Covered the Yoo Memos More?

Thinking more about the tiff between two of my favorite bloggers, I'm wondering if more coverage in the MSM of the Yoo torture memoranda would backfire against those of us in the anti-torture crowd.

I say this because of the practice in today's television news to turn every political issue into a one-on-one debate in which "each side" gets an "equal hearing." This turns every issue - no matter how one-sided amongst the actual experts - into a very real "debate." In this case, the legal issue of whether the torture memos are legally defensible would then be decided for public opinion purposes by two talking heads in the course of a two-minute debate. This debate would epitomize everything that is wrong with the concept of "majority rules." In such debates, the correctness of your point matters a hell of a lot less than your ability to tell people what they want (or think they want) to hear. Any nuance or expert-level discussion will either be absent from the debate or will go completely over the average person's head.

A couple of examples:

1. If you are an environmentalist, think of the way in which "talking head" one-on-one debate has poisoned public opinion, leaving Americans largely divided on whether global warming is real at a time when global opinion is close to unanimous.

2. If you are a libertarian, think of the way in which the debate over things like Social Security and health care are colored by people's complete lack of understanding of free market economics, or the way in which Reaganomics became known as "trickle-down economics."

3. If you are a civil libertarian more generally, think of every criminal case that has been dismissed because of a Fourth Amendment violation but resulted in public outrage because the defendant was a [insert criminal allegation here].

4. If you believe in greater immigration to this country, think of the way the immigration debate has been colored by bogus arguments about security, population density, and welfare abuse.

My point is this: when the MSM decides to cover an issue in depth, it becomes a "debate" rather than a cut-and-dry case. In such a debate, facts and expertise matter extremely little. What matter is which participant can evince the strongest emotions amongst the audience, ie, which participant is the better debater. If the Yoo memos were to be "debated" on television, torture opponents would be resorting to discussion of things most Americans don't understand like the Geneva Conventions, and that thing called the Constitution. Meanwhile, the other side would be ranting and raving about how this program has made us safer, that it does not authorize torture (even though it does), and that these people are only the worst of the worst terrorists and should be shown no quarter by the US. These are arguments with an immense emotional appeal, even though they happen to all be factually wrong or deep exagerrations of the truth.

So while it's likely that more people than currently would become outraged by the memos, the other side to the story is that even more people would become supportive of the memos.

What Are the Media's Responsibilities?

Glenn Greenwald, Megan McArdle, and Daniel Drezner are having a bit of a blog war today over McArdle and Drezner's response to a post Greenwald made yesterday. The debate revolves around what establishment media outlets cover and should cover in terms of political news. Since this is an important debate, and since I've already gotten into the middle of it, I figured I would add some of my own thoughts here (and specifically in response to something Greenwald addressed to me in the comments to his post).

First, a quick history: Greenwald's original post argued that the media have a moral duty/obligation to cover the Yoo torture memos more in depth than trivial crap like Obama's bowling scores. Greenwald essentially argued that the media cover the trivial stuff either because of a conservative bias or because of an elitist disdain for the average American. McArdle and Drezner responded, with McArdle (in her usual snarky way) pointing out that the media don't cover these stories as much as we think they should because they simply do not get traction with the American public, and thus do not sell papers. Drezner's response was briefer, and contained an important factual error, but questioned Greenwald's methodology and argued that the problem was just one of the media preferring to cover issues that will have a clear future effect. In response, Greenwald accuses McArdle and Drezner of being part of the problem with the media, and arguing that the media is responsible for driving public opinion, not for merely giving the people what they want.

I humbly entered the debate on McArdle's side, with this comment at Greenwald's site. I think and continue to think that Greenwald's outrage towards McArdle and Drezner is misplaced, since they were not making normative arguments about what they think is important, but were instead making descriptive arguments about what the media actually does cover, and why. (FYI-Megan's response to Greenwald is here).

Greenwald then graciously published a direct response to my comment. My response to this is below.

First, I think Greenwald is correct that Drezner's argument is more normative than McArdle's; however, it still strikes me that Drezner (who I don't read nearly as often as I read McArdle) is not arguing that the Yoo memos are an unimportant issue. Instead, Drezner is arguing that forward-looking issues are more important than issues that have occured in the past (note: Greenwald points out, correctly, that the question of torture more generally is an ongoing issue).

Second, the key question of whether the media drives public interest or public interest drives the media is largely a "chicken-or-the-egg" question. My suspicion is that it's a little of both, but in the era of alternative media, the establishment are more frequently following public interest. Indeed, looking at today's top stories on Digg, every single story on the first page is what you would call "trivial." There are several political stories in this group, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule: a DKos story about Obama returning a check, a CNN story linked to with the caption "Clinton Lies Again," and an image captioned "Do the math. It's Over- Obama Supporters at Clinton Rally." These are the stories that even the internet-savvy with access to all sorts of alternative media rank as the best and most important stories of the day.

Third, to call McArdle (an economics blogger/journalist) and Drezner (an political scientist and niche blogger) part of the problem with the MSM and to specifically criticize their lack of focus on the torture question is a bit odd. To the extent either of them are part of the "media," they are "alternative" media sources. While McArdle writes for a major magazine, she focuses almost exclusively on economics; asking her to focus on torture is like asking Greenwald (a legal scholar) to focus on most economically efficient way of solving the so-called mortgage crisis.

Fourth, it's worth pointing out that MSM's hyperfocus on trivialities is one of the reasons that alternative media has been growing by leaps and bounds, and an increasing number of people get their news from blogs, talk shows, and comedians. The existence of these alternatives has allowed a number of stories to prosper (and eventually become significant in the MSM) outside of the traditional media. Indeed, one such story was a triviality created by Progressive alternative media that knocked the attorney firing scandal off the front pages at the worst possible time: the Don Imus scandal.

Fifth, I should say that I do think the American people care more about these issues than the MSM give them credit for in their coverage (consider the huge percentage of Americans who want to impeach Bush or Cheney). However, I think that most of the people who care about these issues are precisely the people who least listen to the MSM; meanwhile the people who care least about these issues are precisely the people who get the majority of their political news from the MSM. This fact makes people like McArdle, Drezner, and of course Greenwald himself, important parts of the solution - not of the problem - because people with a general interest in their niche subject now have the ability to educate themselves in that niche in a much better fashion. It just so happens, however, that Greenwald's niche (civil liberties and legal matters) is a much more popular niche than McArdle's or Drezner's....but it is still a specific niche. The flipside to this, though, is that the MSM's audience is increasingly people who don't care particularly much about any niches at all, and someone like me will have to suffer through hours of coverage before I see a story that has any interest to me. Even when they do cover a niche issue, they will be unwilling to cover it in more than the most general of fashions. Which means that all nuance and subtlety gets removed from the MSM's coverage, and we are left with two talking heads yelling back and forth at each other with generalized talking points that tell those of us in the know absolutely nothing.

Finally, I should point out that a major culprit in all of this is the MSM's current perceived need to "represent both sides fairly" in all matters of political import. In some instances of particularly inflammatory issues (like torture), this can result in reduced coverage because merely discussing the issue publicly will upset a sizable portion of their audience (which means lost ratings).

So the question is: how do we with an interest in a particular issue that we believe of capital importance create enough broad interest in that issue to enact real change? To that question, I honestly do not know the answer. However, as more people rely on alternative media sources, more people will join our various causes and take an interest in our niches.

***UPDATE- For more on the Yoo torture memoranda and a JAG lawyer who engaged in an incredible and heroic act of civil disobedience, see this article today, which I highly recommend.

More at memeorandum.

***UPDATE II- A lot of people cite the Abu Ghraib case as an example of the public caring about issues like this and that therefore the American people would get excited about the Yoo memorandum if the media would just try harder to get the issue out there. Unfortunately, this is the exception that proves the rule. In Abu Ghraib, you had something that created an immediate emotional reaction in the American people and about which subtlety and nuance were unnecessary. Moreover - and this is what is important - the photos were the entire basis for the outrage. As a result, the American public was not outraged at the Bush Administration (especially once they offered a defense that was based on nothing but lies) so much as they were outraged at the individual soldiers involved (and who were themselves in the published pictures). As a result, once the soldiers were identified and brought forward for prosecution, the public was largely mollified.

More on Partisan Business Cycles

The other day, I attacked some major flaws I found in a graph which shows that income growth improves for everyone under Dem Presidents while it decreases for all but the rich under Republican Presidents.

I noticed today that both the Great Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok have posted further on this phenomenon, which has been well known and fully explained for quite some time in economist circles. Bottom line, according to Cowen and Tabarrok: it all has to do with a combination of economic certainty and with the willingness of the Fed to pursue anti-inflationary measures under Republican Presidents.

If this is accurate, by the way, then it is a strong argument in favor of McCain over Obama, as inflation is becoming a major concern in our economy, while unemployment is still at low levels largely unheard of prior to the 90s.

More Fun with Bad Statistics

As a way of arguing against a free trade deal with Colombia, Matthew Yglesias and Ezra Klein link with approval to this graph posted by the left-of-center Economic Policy Institute. According to Klein, Yglesias, and EPI, the graph shows that union members in Colombia can be murdered with impunity under right-of-center Colombian President Uribe. Indeed, the trio go even further than that, calling all of these murders "assassinations," thereby implying that every time a member of a trade union is murdered in Colombia (one of the world's most dangerous countries in general), the motive for the murder is the prevention of unionization.

Except that there are a whole host of problems with this graph and with the purposes for which it is being used.

First, it terms every murder of a trade union member an "assassination." But as I alluded to above, Colombia has one of the world's highest murder rates, period. The idea that trade unionists might be murdered for the same reasons as anyone else (primarily related to the wonderful War on (some) Drugs) doesn't seem to have crossed Klein, et al's collective minds. Indeed, one commenter on Yglesias' post points out that the murder rate of trade unionists appears to actually be lower than the murder rate for the rest of the Colombian population.

Second, it's obvious that the number of murders of trade unionists peaked in the same year as trial prosecution of such murders peaked during Uribe's reign. As the number of unionists murdered has gone down, so too has the percentage of such murders brought to trial. Obviously, this strange coincidence is not a result of fewer prosecutions encouraging fewer murders. But it does suggest something else. Any cop will tell you that the easiest murders to solve are the ones committed by someone the victim knew, while random killings are far and away the most difficult murders to solve. It strikes me that in the year murder of unionists peaked, it is possible (even likely) that this was a result of a greater number of politically-motivated killings. Since such killings would provide an easy motive and thus an obvious suspect, they would be killings with a higher likelihood of being brought to trial. Meanwhile, random killings would be much more difficult to solve. In addition, in a country with such a high homicide rate, it is pretty easy to imagine a police force that tries to make the more easily solved crimes a priority for prosecution over random acts of violence.

Third, it's worth pointing out (as I did in a comment to Yglesias' post) that the graph shows only the percentage of union murders "brought to trial." It does not show the percentage of union murders actually prosecuted or resulting in convictions of some sort. Nor does it show the average sentence meted out in such cases compared to other murders in Colombia. When a motive is easily found, a case is more likely to be open and shut, and thus it is more likely to result in a guilty plea of some sort (and thus not be brought to trial).

Finally, there is this commentary piece from a week ago in the NYT that debunks these statistics even further, which is well worth a quick read of its own.
***UPDATE***I should have noted that this is not to say that there are no unprosecuted politically motivated murders of trade unionists. What it is to say, however, is that the situation for trade unionists appears to be improving the last few years. It's worth also pointing out that the number of trade union murders is now just a fraction of what it was even ten years ago.
I should also add that even if everything Klein, et al, presume is true, this actually argues in favor of a free trade deal. It's fairly well-established at this point that free trade is the best way of spreading liberal values like free speech, due process, etc. While a free trade deal might be viewed as a "reward" for Colombia, it is a reward that will ultimately result in the situation for trade unionists improving significantly over time.