Treason Or Not Treason?

2013/06/11 Leave a comment

We have yet another scandal floating around out in the aether, this time regarding the NSA. I’m not giving out a link, if you don’t know about it already, don’t bother reading the rest of this, because you are almost certainly don’t have a pulse, and I’m sure there are better things to be doing in the afterlife than discovering my opinions. (Especially true if you actually get 72 virgins.)

We have a guy, Snowden is his name, who apparently leaked the story about the NSA’s data mining operation, and they are now talking about bringing him up on criminal charges. I want to contrast him, based on what we know right now, with Bradley Manning, who is also up on similar charges because of his release of countless privileged documents.

In Manning’s case, he just leaked everything he could get his hands on, and so I do think that is treason. One of the key reasons he seems to have done this was a video (most of the details escape me) that showed civilians being killed by a US military helicopter, from the choppers FLIR system. If he had released just that, I wouldn’t be calling him a traitor. I think those who ‘blow the whistle’ on illegal activities, both private and government, should be protected.

Now, there is some debate about whether these civilians were knowingly killed, or whether it was a case of mistaken identity, or some other kind of mistake. If it was a mistake, it’s still bad, but it’s not criminal. Procedures and the ROE might be at fault, but civilians suffer and die in war, that’s just the way it is. I don’t like it, but I don’t like mayonnaise either, and sometimes it still gets put on my hamburgers. It’s the same type of thing, no one meant to do it, there are ways to avoid it in the future, but it’s still an unavoidable part of the burger making process.

But Manning didn’t so much blow a whistle as he did throw the baby out with the bath water, he had no idea what it was re was releasing, didn’t even try to figure it out.

It may be the case that this guy who leaked the info about the NSA program, has done something similar, but all indications at this point seem to be that he just blew the whistle on illegal government activities. So based on what we know now, I don’t think we can call it treason, and I don’t think he should be charged with any other crimes. From my point of view, it seems similar to a situation where a robber breaks into a house, trips on a foot stool, and sues the homeowner.

I contend that the is the scenario we are looking at. The government has broken into our home, tripped over a foot stool, and broke it’s leg, now it’s blaming someone else and ignoring the fact that it happened during the commission of a crime.

It may turn out that this man is a traitor, maybe he should be led to the gallows, we just don’t know at this point, but if nothing new comes to light, I can’t agree that he is a traitor.

Update: Snowden’s story seems to be unraveling a bit, so the truth may not be as clear cut as it has appeared thus far.

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Finally Some Real Progress

2013/06/09 Leave a comment

I’m not entirely sure that American Atheists have made any changes to their tactics, but I saw a smattering of stories today that show they are much more in line with my views on freedom of religion than I have perceived them to be in the past, at least in these cases.

The first one is this essay/article. (Please note that you can make a donation to the effort, and I am happy to inform you that I just did so.) In case you aren’t inclined to click, the basic idea is that they feel, not so much that religious groups are favored by the tax code, but that secular groups are penalized, and I couldn’t agree more. I feel that groups like American Atheists should be treated as religious organizations and be entitled to the same hands off approach to the exercise of religious beliefs (specifically the complete lack thereof) the government affords churches. In fact, I don’t think the government should charge any applicants a fee. They ask that all nonprofit organizations be treated the same.

What I usually see atheists demanding is that churches be taxed, so I’m glad to see a different approach here. The power to tax is the power to destroy, and I think that having churches and secular groups be tax exempt furthers the separation of church and state, rather than closing the gap*.

The second story is that rather than try to have a monument to the 10 Commandments removed in front of a Florida courthouse, they demanded to be allowed to add their own. I’ve always been appalled in cases where the plaintiffs contend that religious freedom means no religion in the public square, rather than no favoritism. It often seems like they are trying to say that we have freedom of non-religious speech only. I’m not as inline with their comments on this one, but I love the outcome. In fairness, the president of American Atheists said just what I loath:

The monument emphasizes the role secularism has played in American history, and the Bible quotes make it clear that the Ten Commandments are not the ‘great moral code’ they’re often portrayed to be. Don’t kill, don’t steal? Of course. But worship only the Judeo-Christian god? That conflicts overtly with the very first right in the Bill of Rights, freedom of religion.

No it doesn’t Dave, your comments conflict with the very first right in the Bill of Rights, freedom of speech, government is prohibited from establishing a religion or prohibiting it’s free exercise, which I have always thought is pretty clear. He seems to be of a mind that that means religious speech is not protected. Ken Lukin, American Atheists Regional Operations Director, is roughly on the same page I am:

When it comes to government and religion, there are only two ways to show equality: all or none, I am glad that Bradford County has chosen to show equality and will be a great example for other cities in Florida and the United States.

I would argue that the First Amendment prohibits the ‘none’ part of his quote. They cannot establish a state religion or favor one over another, but neither can they prohibit speech and expression based on it’s religious nature. There is no sense in the common assertion that less is more. Remove the monument? No, no, add other monuments that add to the discussion, don’t remove them to quash it. The Community Men’s Fellowship (whatever that is. Don’t know, don’t care) made their own statement, also declaring the matter a victory, not for them, but for everyone:

We want you all to remember that this issue was won on the basis of this being a free speech issue, so don’t be alarmed when the American Atheists want to erect their own sign or monument. It’s their right.

I couldn’t agree more. Hopefully this is the tack that American Atheists will use in other lawsuits, they could save us all some money, time, and strife, and just endeavor to restrict their lawsuits to actual church/state separation issues, not issues of where government has permitted free speech of a religious nature, and not endorsed or banned others from also expressing their ideas and beliefs. I think Bradford County is on to something by declaring a “free speech forum” where monuments could be erected at private expense. It doesn’t try to limit free speech, it seeks to provide an area in which to concentrate free speech, a place where it’s sure to bump against other speech. It’s basic chemistry, which I would expect most atheists to realize, mix some chemicals together, apply heat, and study the reaction. All to often we have people on both sides of the issue who think we can learn more by preventing reactions, instead of facilitating them. Go figure.

UPDATE: The monument is now installed. I want to say again how refreshing this is, instead of trying to prohibit religious speech (because it’s somehow distinct from other speech) in the public forum, we now have more speech, not less.

There are no constitutional problems with groups erecting a cross memorial on public property unless other groups are prohibited from doing the same. Having said that, those groups should be accountable for maintaining such monuments, when the American Atheists bench starts to disintegrate it needs to be on them to fix it, remove it, or replace it.

There are actually a range of circumstances where other groups could be prohibited, one possibility is when there is a lack of space, in which case these types of things should be for a limited time frame. Another possibility is using a lottery system to allocate spaces. there are tons of options that would maximize speech of all types instead of eliminating or minimizing certain classes of speech.

*Having nonprofit status requires that organizations, religious or otherwise, not endorse or support candidates, but limit themselves to issues only, among other political involvement restrictions. They get to be free from the heavy, and destructive, hand of taxation and church and state become as minimally interdependent upon each other as we reasonably can manage.

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The Boston Bombings Didn’t Scare Me…

2013/06/07 1 comment

I think we know enough now, and it’s been long enough, to stand back a little and consider what the most terrifying part of the entire ordeal was. I can only speak for myself, but for me, it wasn’t the bombings, it was the aftermath.

Have a look at this video:

There are a  few things I’ll get out of the way first. Notice the weapons they are carrying. While it’s hard to tell from appearances alone, they were either M-4’s or AR-15’s, I would guess the latter. Haven’t we been exposed to endless emotional screeds about how these weapons don’t belong on our streets? How many times has some ignorant political opportunist told us that these weapons have one purpose, to “kill as many people as possible in as short a time as possible”? Now if you do know about these weapons, you know that they are no different in function and capability than other semi-auto rifles, and they are not designed to kill with extreme efficiency. The police carry them for the same reason civilians like them, they are light, adaptable, all weather (wooden stocks change with temperature and humidity), modular, easy to repair, reliable, and so on. They are the multitool of guns, and just like multitools, they are not really the best thing for all circumstances, they simply provide the best performance across a number of situations. If you really need a good pair of pliers, you go to your tool box, if you just need a pair for general use, you grab your leatherman.

So it isn’t the weapons that I am concerned about.

I started out saying that the bombings didn’t scare me, what scared me was the police going door to door in force, in some cases harassing homeowners (not often, just in a few cases), and generally instilling terror in the population. In some instances, they happily tromped around on private property without permission or articulable suspicion, to say nothing about reasonable cause, and I’m still not sure why police departments feel like they need what are essentially tanks (I know they can be useful, but they are expensive, and having very limited usefulness, they seem like an awful waste of tax money).

I’m not sure what else they should have done, I don’t claim to have answers there, but I do know that the idea of the police rolling around the streets in force, yelling at people to get off their porches and go inside, not permitting people to move about freely, all those things make me uneasy. We have seen the ever increasing militarization of the police force, and I’m not saying that is a bad thing by itself, but crime has been plummeting for a couple decades, and as far as I can tell, the cause is no more related to this militarization than it is to increasing rates of gun ownership, the proliferation of concealed carry and the general loosening of gun laws we have seen over that same period. There is correlation between falling crime rates and all of those things, but not much causation to be found.

The police serve a purpose, but lets remember one very important and oft overlooked thing: the military is prohibited from being used for law enforcement purposes. There is a reason for that, and I’m not sure it’s a good idea to let our police forces use the same tactics that the military does. The weapons are not the issue, there are no functional differences that matter, the issue is tactics. If we are going to have the police operate the same way as the army, why are we paying for both? We might as well just do the thing properly and save a bunch of money in the process, I can’t see spending more than we absolutely have to if we are going give up the protections we have against oppressive government, protections that were bought and paid for with the lives, blood, and injury, of countless men and women over the past two centuries.

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Ammunition Breaks The Laws Of Economics, Pleads ‘Not Guilty’

2013/06/05 Leave a comment

My friend Michael recently expressed his frustration with most peoples conceptions of why ammo prices haven’t increased to any meaningful degree, despite the fact that it’s in short supply. Admittedly, that isn’t quite true, prices have increased substantially on the second hand market (so substantially that I will not provide you with a link illustrating that because the numbers border on being indecent). Prices have also increased somewhat in the case of gun shops. However, when you take into account the larger businesses, I don’t know that I can say I have seen any price changes whatsoever. Thus, in the aggregate, prices appear to be almost identical to what they previously were.

By all the laws of economics this seems unbelievable. When demand rose and supply can’t keep up, you would expect to see prices go up by a margin that would reduce demand. In this case, that isn’t happening. Is our understanding of supply and demand lacking? Are we missing something?

The answer is that we understand supply and demand well enough, but we are in fact missing something.

Places like Wal-Mart don’t derive much profit from ammunition, the same is true of larger sporting goods stores. This is where it gets tricky, so try and keep up.

If you know anything about retail sales, you should know what the term, “loss leader” means. To save you the burden of clicking that link, the general idea is that you offer something for sale at a price at, near, or below it’s market value. You would do that because when people come to buy whatever the items in question are, they are like to buy other things while they are there. Hopefully that generates a net increase in sales.

The bigger stores don’t derive much revenue from ammo, and so I think they are choosing to forgo the increased profits from the rising value of ammo, in the hopes that people will regularly stop in and check on the ammo availability. Even if they don’t have the ammo in stock, the fact that the prices are lower than in gun shops means people may choose to wait and keep checking, rather than pay higher prices.

I’m stopping into stores on an almost daily basis now, and I almost always leave with some other crap I don’t really need, like milk, socks, books, and so on. I’m sure it’s the same for multitudes of others. I stop in because of the low prices, they don’t have what I want, and off I go to the beer aisle.

So, the truth is that prices have been increased to compensate for demand, but they are immediately dropped to their usual price, the difference between the two pricing levels is the loss stores are taking in return for more frequent shoppers. (example: 50 rounds of “x” used to cost $20, the store increases them to $40, with a 50% discount.) Now, I’m sure it is more complicated than all of that, but I think I’m on the right track to explain why ammo seems to be ignoring the laws of economics. Everything is working as it should, but many of the incentives presented by this particular crisis are unique to it

Lastly, to get back to the small gun and sporting goods shops, they make a substantial portion of their profit on ammo and so they have to increase prices to try and make up for the lack of supply, or risk going out of business, but the amount they can increase prices is hampered by competition from the larger stores, making the value of ammo appear lower than we would expect.

I might be completely wrong on all of it, but it makes sense.

As a footnote: The siege may be lifting. The Wal-Mart in Augusta, Maine, has two AR-15 rifles, and they have been there for the last 7 days. I was so shocked to see them sitting there on display that a unicorn might have walked up to the counter to buy a fishing license and I wouldn’t have given it a a second glance. Maybe I’ll get lucky soon and be able to find that Hi-Point carbine I’ve always wanted.

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The End of an Error/Era

2013/05/22 Leave a comment

I just got around to watching this video of the Illinois House of Representatives debating a bill that would legalize concealed carry, as per a December court ruling requiring a bill by the 9th of June.

I’m not going to parse the whole video, but I do have a few points to make.

1. The opposition to the bill doesn’t seem to be able to read.

2. I can’t understand why some of them still don’t understand that concealed carry does not cause any problems in any state that has concealed carry permits and even in the four states that don’t require permits, there are no issues.

3. Crime generally goes down after concealed carry enactment, but there doesn’t seem to be a direct link between the two. That isn’t actually a problem, if anything, the fact there are no direct connections we have discovered would seem to indicate that in the worst case, concealed carry has no effect on crime.

4. This “chicken little” bullshit needs to stop. None of the horrible predictions about hellfire and brimstone raining down if people can carry guns in public have come to pass. I believe that concealed carry does, if not reduce crime, impact criminal behavior for the better. I say that because with more guns on the street where people can carry, violent crime doesn’t go up. Those who beat the system and get guns even if they are banned from owning them, have no reason to abide by the law when it comes to when, where, and how they carry.

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Blood Alcohol Content or Impairment

2013/05/22 Leave a comment

Make your choice already. Impairment and blood alcohol content (BAC) are not interchangeable terms, but recently the NTSB has decided that they will ignore that fact and push the states to ignore it once again. One of many proposals unveiled is to lower the BAC limit from .08, where it is now, to .05, where many other countries now have it. The justification is that in the places where it has been done, fatalities from drunk driving has fallen.

However, just like when comparing the US to other countries regarding gun control, you can’t just throw the numbers out and say what has caused observed changes. Since 1991, the US drunk driving fatality rate has fallen by 63%, most of the countries that have reduced the BAC limit to .05 have seen roughly the same decline. That would lead me to believe that the change probably didn’t have the effect that MADD and others would have us believe.

We need to incorporate culture and some other variables as well to make a fair comparison. Drunk driving is a popular subject even by internet standards, so go have a google at the data, but I’ll point out that one of the variables not controlled for is the fact that Americans don’t have the same access to public transportation that those in other countries have, at least outside of population centers, we have a much larger rural population, so more people have to drive to get anywhere they want to go.

Getting back to the point I want to make, we are always fixated on the wrong things. I don’t think there should be a legal BAC limit for driving. That’s because BAC doesn’t matter, impairment does. I can understand the need for a hard limit, it may help people grasp how much they can drink if they want to drive, but the problem with that is .08 for me and .08 for anyone else does not result in the same level of impairment. The law rightly recognizes this and so you may be arrested, charged, and convicted of DUI even if your BAC is .05.

The right way to deal with this, at least in my opinion, is to worry less about BAC and more about how we go about measuring the real level of impairment. As I recently said in a thread on Facebook, if someone had a 50/50 blood/alcohol mix flowing through their veins, I’m fine with them driving, as long as they are not impaired*.

Frankly, I’m beginning to wonder what the problem is that we are trying to address. Is it alcohol in the blood, or is it impairment? Once again, they are not interchangeable terms. I tell my students that there is no moral difference between being impaired by your cell phone or a delicious hamburger, and driving blind drunk. Stop worrying about BAC, it’s completely beside the point. We don’t need to make changes, because an arbitrary line is the sand does not actually inform us of anything in reality.

*Now that would obviously impair a person, in fact, it’s more than 150 times the level of alcohol needed to kill most people (the LD50 is around .40%), but my point is that BAC doesn’t matter.

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Freedom of Speech and Public Safety

2013/05/21 Leave a comment

In the midst of the debate about guns that has been, if not always raging, at least smoldering, since just before the Supreme Court handed down the Heller ruling, something key has been overlooked, if not outright ignored. It’s odd, because one of the justices, Roberts I think (I’ll check later and correct myself in need be), said that the Second Amendment is unique because unlike the First Amendment, the question can be one of life or death.

None of the lawyers called him on that statement during oral arguments and I have heard nothing about it since, from any source, even after the recent bombings in Boston.

The issue, if you didn’t pick up on it, is that the First Amendment protects instructions on how to make bombs, not to mention guns. I think the issue of distributing files that can be used to 3D print a functional firearm will be protected, as the countless sources of bomb making information out there are.

Keep in mind that the worst attack on a school in the US, was not carried out with guns, but with bombs, and that was well before the advent of the internet, way back in 1927. Roberts was simply not correct in stating that the First Amendment is a different animal. I’m not saying that I support restrictions on speech, but those who support nonsense like “assault weapon” bans and magazine capacity limits because of their perceived  dangerousness need to stand back and take a long hard look at what their feelings are regarding speech limitations.

I have to point out that while so called assault weapons are no more dangerous in any way than any other semi-auto rifle, bomb making information is clearly a more dangerous kind of speech than most others. Are we prepared to let the government press it’s heel harder down on Lady Liberty’s throat? How much latitude should the government have in determining what is and is not too dangerous to be covered by the preexisting rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights? I say very little.

Freedom is a dirty business and people need to decide how much they want. They need to remember that once that choice is made, history shows us that without major, and often violent, intervention that an outbound flow of freedom is seldom reversed. Give up freedoms now and you are making that choice for everyone else that follows you, what gives you the right?

You can check out this link if you want a really good example of dangerous, but rightly protected speech. I think speech can certainly be held and used against you when you have committed, are committing, or are planning to commit criminal acts, but the speech itself is not and should not be a crime. When free speech is outlawed, only outlaws will speak freely.

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