Archives: August, 2008

Another Police Raid; More Dead Dogs

Just north of D.C., in the small suburb of Berwyn Heights, a county SWAT team raided a house last week after a shipping service delivered a large quantity of illegal drugs to the front door.

Good police work in the war on drugs? Probably not.

The house is home to Berwyn Heights mayor Cheye Calvo and his wife Trinity Tomsic, and their two black Labs (pictured left). Though the package containing more than 30 lbs. of marijuana was addressed to Tomsic, the couple may have had nothing to do with the drugs. In recent months there have been incidents in which large quantities of drugs were shipped to homes in the D.C. area, where they were then supposed to be intercepted by drug dealers — all without the package addressees’ knowledge or involvement. Calvo and Tomsic may have been caught up in just such a scheme.

This would make Calvo and Tomsic the unfortunate victims of an understandable error by the police SWAT team, except…

The police action was yet another guns-ablazin’, no-knock raid, in which the officers (in what seems like SOP) shot the couple’s dogs, even as one of the pups tried to run away. The cops then handcuffed Calvo and his mother-in-law and interrogated them for hours, while the dogs’ bodies laid in pools of blood nearby. The cops later found the package of drugs — unopened, as if it were an unexpected package. No arrests were made.

“My government blew through my doors and killed my dogs,” Calvo told the Washington Post. “They thought we were drug dealers, and we were treated as such. I don’t think they really ever considered that we weren’t.”

Of course, it may end up that Calvo and his wife are part of a drug distribution ring, and the police have gotten their man. But even if that’s true, was a no-knock, shoot-the-dogs raid an appropriate police action for a lousy shipment of pot?

And what if the current, emerging picture is correct, and this is yet another botched police raid and cops-gone-wild? If that’s the case (and I emphazie the “if”), the Prince George’s County SWAT team and its superiors need to be held accountable.

Law enforcement officers have a difficult and dangerous job, and I do not make light of that. But their sworn duty is to protect and serve the public, not blast their way into innocent people’s houses and shoot their dogs. If they cannot fulfill that duty, then they cannot be law enforcement officers.

UPDATE (8/6): It turns out that the Prince George’s County police who no-knock raided Calvo and Tomsic’s home did not have a no-knock warrant. The police did have a standard search warrant (which they apparently failed to show to Calvo, as they are supposed to). If that warrant had been executed properly, it is unlikely that Calvo and Tomsic’s dogs would have been killed or their house damaged. Add one more to the long list of botched police raids.

This also raises an interesting question: If this illegal raid had been visited on someone other than a white mayor, would it be receiving the scrutiny it deserves?

A SECOND, MORE TROUBLING UPDATE (8/7) is here.

Cognitive Dissonance on Federal Spending

Governors David A. Paterson of New York and Martin O’Malley of Maryland deplore the federal government’s fiscal irresponsibility:

The Bush administration announced this week that the federal deficit could reach an unprecedented high, $482 billion, next year.

Time to stop spending, eh? That would be most people’s response to an unprecedented deficit. And they do mention “irresponsible spending” later in the piece. But somehow, it appears that the governors thought that was a good lead for an article in the Washington Post demanding more federal spending to subsidize state governments.

They lamented the plight of the state budgets; New York, for instance, asked state agencies “to slash their state budgets by 3.35 percent.” Now, if I had to cut my budget for a new sofa, say, from $1,000 to $966.50, I don’t think I’d call that a “slash”; it’s more like margin of error. And I’d be willing to bet that New York State’s budget wasn’t cut by 3.35 percent from last year’s levels. But maybe it’s a trim of some kinds of state spending. But their point is to demand that taxpayers across America send more money to Washington, which — despite that $482 billion deficit — should take a cut of it and send the rest to America’s governors:

No matter how prudent states are, they cannot solve the nation’s economic problems on their own. The federal government must provide serious leadership and resources and be willing to make difficult short- and long-term decisions to move our country forward.

In the short term, federal officials must pass a second stimulus package that includes investments in our nation’s infrastructure… .

Other short-term stimulus investments should include an additional extension of unemployment insurance and assistance for low-income Americans.

That’s making those difficult decisions in an era of unprecedented deficits!

And then, the final summation:

In the long term, our federal government should examine its fiscal track record from the past several years. We can no longer allow irresponsible spending, chronic underfunding of critical programs and a refusal to partner with state governments to determine the economic future of our country. It is time for fiscal responsibility.

What the heck is this article about? It begins with “an unprecedented deficit,” ends with “irresponsible spending” and “time for fiscal responsibility,” but is in fact simply a demand for huge new federal transfers to state governments. Who wrote this thing? And did the editors read it?

Choosing What to Worry About

Paul Krugman’s column in today’s NYT laments the lack of a national policy to combat global warming. He writes:

It’s true that scientists don’t know exactly how much world temperatures will rise if we persist with business as usual. But that uncertainty is actually what makes action so urgent. While there’s a chance that we’ll act against global warming only to find that the danger was overstated, there’s also a chance that we’ll fail to act only to find that the results of inaction were catastrophic. Which risk would you rather run?

He then cites the work of Harvard economist Martin Weitzman, who surveyed the results of a number of recent climate models and found that (in Krugman’s words) “they suggest about a 5 percent chance that world temperatures will eventually rise by more than 10 degrees Celsius (that is, world temperatures will rise by 18 degrees Fahrenheit). As Mr. Weitzman points out, that’s enough to ‘effectively destroy planet Earth as we know it.’”

Krugman concludes, “It’s sheer irresponsibility not to do whatever we can to eliminate that threat” and he calls for opprobrium against those who might impede global warming legislation: “The only way we’re going to get action, I’d suggest, is if those who stand in the way of action come to be perceived as not just wrong but immoral.”

There is merit to the argument that society should consider a policy response to the threat of global warming. A small chance of an enormous calamity equals a risk that may deserve mitigation. That’s why people buy insurance, after all.

However, Krugman doesn’t accept that argument — at least, not when applied to other worrisome risks that trouble people whose politics are different than his. Less than two months ago, he wrote this about another future crisis:

[O]n Friday Mr. Obama declared that he would “extend the promise” of Social Security by imposing a payroll-tax surcharge on people making more than $250,000 a year. The Tax Policy Center estimates that this would raise an additional $629 billion over the next decade. But if the revenue from this tax hike really would be reserved for the Social Security trust fund, it wouldn’t be available for current initiatives. Again, one wonders about priorities. Whatever would-be privatizers may say, Social Security isn’t in crisis: the Congressional Budget Office says that the trust fund is good until 2046, and a number of analysts think that even this estimate is overly pessimistic. So is adding to the trust fund the best use a progressive can find for scarce additional revenue?

In Krugman’s view, policies to address Weitzman’s 5 percent risk of ecological disaster by the early 23rd century (Weitzman’s time frame, which Krugman didn’t specify) are responsible and moral, but policies to address the economic crisis of Social Security’s insolvency in less than four decades’ time are unnecessary and overly pessimistic. And Krugman clobbers anyone who suggests otherwise .

Make sense to you? Me neither.

Krugman’s double-standard on risk is not confined to Social Security. He has (rightly, IMO) blasted the Bush administration for going to war in Iraq. But couldn’t the war be justified as mitigating a small risk of a great catastrophe? Was there, perhaps, a one-in-20 risk that Hussein’s Iraq would develop weapons of mass destruction and direct them at the United States (in the next 200 years)?

I write this not to argue that the United States should be unconcerned about global warming, or about rogue states’ possession of super-weapons, or about Social Security’s (and Medicare’s) unsustainability. All are risks, and it is right for us to consider policy responses for each of them. My point is that it makes little sense to say one risk must be addressed while we should dismiss another risk with an expected value that’s probably the same order of magnitude.

Moreover, if this dichotomy is simply the product of Krugman’s political allegiances (“Red team fears are stupid, Blue team fears are heroic”), isn’t he being irresponsible, wrong and immoral?

Stop Blaming the States!

Yesterday, both the House and Senate passed the atrocious new Higher Education Act, a 1,158-page monstrosity packing 62 new programs, oodles of new spending, and a bureaucrats’ dream of new rules and regulations. I won’t go into all the gory details — I’d need hundreds of blogs just to do the file-sharing provisions justice — but one piece in particular really gets my goat.

One of the services the new HEA supposedly provides is that it will encourage states to keep up their share of higher education funding so that public colleges don’t have to make money — here comes every student group’s favorite phrase — “on the backs of students.” Thankfully, it’s a weak measure, threatening only to withhold a state’s allocation of a small, new grant program, but it’s the entire premise on which it’s built that’s infuriating. Today’s Wall Street Journal article on the bill provides a great example of the problem:

It is this very reduction of funding that state schools cite as an important factor pushing them to raise tuition. Total state appropriations for higher education have dropped to 11% for fiscal 2008, down from 15% 20 years ago, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Meanwhile, the average annual cost of attendance at a four-year public college, including tuition, fees and room and board, was $13,589 in 2007-08, 78% higher than it was two decades before, even after adjusting for inflation, according to the New York nonprofit College Board.

The argument here is that because the percentage of funding that schools get from their states has declined, the states aren’t keeping up their end of the funding bargain. But the real question should be whether states are staying consistent with their total per-pupil funding, which shows whether their commitment to higher ed has been steady. It has been: While state spending has fluctuated largely in accordance with the ups-and-downs of the economy, the 20-plus-year trend is one of overall consistent funding. This graph from the State Higher Education Executive Officers’ report State Higher Education Finance: FY 2007 makes this abundantly clear:

In real dollars, the 2007 public appropriation per full-time-equivalent student was $6,773, $34 higher than in 1980. Indeed, the highest public expenditure on the chart, $7,581, was very recent — 2001 — and while there have been lots of fluctuations, the trend is clear: states have been keeping up with their expenditures.

Something else, then, must be responsible for rampant tuition inflation — maybe, ever-increasing student aid, colleges and universities having more and more sources of income, or both — and state taxpayers shouldn’t be scapegoated by federal politicians. But then, what would be the excuse for passing garbage like the new Higher Education Act?

Air Security Follies and the Death of Innocence

Airport security is nothing if not a rich pageant and an endless source of amusement. Yesterday, I saw none other than Tweety Bird pass through the TSA checkpoint at Reagan National Airport. I am not joking (so far).

From my vantage some distance behind her in line, I couldn’t quite see the entire process, but I did see that she was sent to secondary search — perhaps for lack of ID, perhaps because the magnetometer suggested her bulbous, yellow head was full of daggers and C-4. She opted for secondary in a side-room, away from public view.

When I got to the front of the line, I managed to quiz the TSA ID-checker about whether Ms. Bird had presented government-issued ID. She had not.

But I had seen Tweety emerge from secondary in just a few short minutes. This does not square with the new procedure whereby people without ID are subject to dossier review against TSA’s public records databases, a time-consuming process by all reports.

One of two possibilities presented itself:

It may be that the new dossier-check policy does not apply to birds. After all, birds are likely to have exceedingly thin files. They have no Social Security Numbers — not yet, anyway — and little access to the financial services that would form the basis of a credit file. Only a few birds own vehicles or property (the emancipated pets of deceased, eccentric millionaires). So, perhaps, for lack of records about them, birds have of necessity been made exempt.

But this would open a gaping hole in our air security system. Al Qaeda would have to do nothing more than recruit birds to carry out attacks on air transportation. They wouldn’t even have to be “clean-skin” birds with no history of terrorism (or “clean-feathers,” I suppose). Birds that we knew to be associated with the bombing of the USS Cole, for example, (waterfowl, one assumes) would easily be able to access air transportation for lack of a check of their IDs against the terrorist watch-list at the airport.

Putting a bird on a plane to attack us — how diabolically, ingeniously ironic. Have we no defense against it?

Though I’ve been disappointed before — like, with the entire concept of watch-listing — I can’t believe that the DHS and TSA would leave open such a vulnerability.

My second theory is more plausible, though I was somewhat gut-wrenched when it occured to me, and still am.

Our memory of life scrolls out behind us like a fabric, ornamented by moments, inflection points, of two kinds: the times when change comes, and the times when we realize it has come.

On one day, a child’s mother does not meet her at the schoolbus, and a change has come. She looks down the street. A best friend says to a best friend, “See ya’ later,” and it’s for the last time. Your first true love didn’t understand you and never will.

The second moment, the recognition, may take decades. You’re alone in the world, child. The best friend simply left. There’s no crescendo. Four days after my mother passed, I awoke in the black pre-dawn, and the tears flowed.

The TSA guy said something that I didn’t understand: “It’s their policy not to take the head off.”

“It’s their policy not to take the head off.” What could that possibly mean?

And then, like flu, revelation.

I think that maybe Tweety Bird was actually a human person in a Tweety Bird costume. The TSA guy may have allowed the person through the normal ID checkpoint, and in the seclusion of the secondary search room the person in the Tweety Bird costume took off the head, showed his or her ID, and got a pat-down search and wanding of the big yellow feet.

So I guess they will improvise for people in gigantic costumes at the checkpoint. I wonder if people dressed as, say, The Incredible Hulk get the same treatment as classic Warner Brothers characters.

But I still feel like I lost something in airport security yesterday. Tweety Bird isn’t real.

Oh, and also, I noticed that they’re not requiring participants in the Clear card Registered Traveler program to also show government-issued ID. That is (or was) a policy that was perfectly incoherent because the Clear card is a biometric proof of the ID the person used to join Registered Traveler. I’ll be checking to see if they’ve dispensed with the double-ID requirement nationally or just at DCA.

Public Education vs. Public Schooling

A few days ago, I wrote a blog entry taking umbrage at, among other things, Kevin Carey’s failure to acknowledge the distinction between public schooling and public education. Yesterday, the Atlanta Journal Constitution ran an op-ed by Allene Magill, executive director of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, complaining that some Georgia lawmakers are abandoning public education by supporting vouchers and other public-school alternatives. Like Carey’s, her assumption that “public education” means government providing schools, not just enabling people to pursue education, is both dangerously imprecise and pervasive. It’s time we clearly make the distinction between public education and public schooling.

If one looks at the term “public education,” nothing about it implies that government must provide schools. What it implies is that government will make education accessible to the public while saying nothing about how that will be done. (It could also just refer to educating the public without any government involvement, but let’s assume it doesn’t.) In other words, vouchers, tax-based choice mechanisms, and other forms of government-funded school choice are totally compatible with “public education.” Suggesting that they aren’t simply cannot be supported by the term being used.

Fortunately, there is a term that does strongly imply a system in which government provides the public not just with the means to obtain an education, but schools themselves. It’s called “public schooling,” a term I use repeatedly—and intentionally—in my piece attacked by Carey, and a system that, as I wrote, is very much at odds with basic American values.

I hope that this clarifies the difference between “public education” and “public schooling” and will help to end the mistaken assumption that the terms are synonymous. They aren’t, and school choice is fully compatible with public education. Of course, that might be exactly why some people try so hard to blot out distinctions between the terms.

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