What Washington Thinks of You

For a hint of what Washington bureaucrats think of the rest of the America, take a look at this letter to the Wall Street Journal:

You say the average federal civil worker makes more than the average private sector worker. That’s true, but this isn’t even an apples and oranges comparison – it’s more apples and filet mignon. The federal government doesn’t sell fast food or operate large-scale retail stores using minimum-wage employees. So yes, medical researchers at the National Institutes of Heath [sic] and the Centers for Disease control [sic] are paid more than entry-level workers at McDonald’s. Yes, intelligence analysts in the Department of Defense and State Department diplomats working under harsh conditions around the world are paid more than Wal-Mart greeters. And, yes, the thousands of dedicated doctors and nurses caring for our wounded and disabled veterans in the Department of Veterans Affairs are paid more than a new barrista [sic] at Starbucks.

Max Stier
Partnership for Public Service

Max Stier, a lobbyist on behalf of government, whose official biography boasts that he “has worked previously in all three branches of the federal government,” sees medical research and intelligence analysis when he thinks of the federal government. And when he thinks of the 124 million Americans who work in the private sector, he can only imagine McDonald’s clerks, Wal-Mart greeters, and Starbucks coffee servers. Stereotypes, anyone?

As I wrote a few years ago, some people in Washington look across the fruited plain and see only a vast and barren wasteland interrupted by federal bureaucracies.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said in 1992, “The ballot box is the place where all change begins in America”–conveniently forgetting the market process that has brought us such changes as the train, the skyscraper, the automobile, the personal computer, and charitable or self-help endeavors from settlement houses to Alcoholics Anonymous to Comic Relief.

Entrepreneurs and businesses in America satisfy far more of our needs than coffee, Big Macs, and cheap clothes, as useful as those things are. Housing, for instance. Planes, trains, and automobiles. Software and computer networks. Entertainment. Medical research. (Yes, there’s some done at NIH. There’s more done by pharmaceutical companies.) Compound interest. In that earlier article, inspired by the latest proposals for some niggling regulations of banking services, I suggested:

Consider the presumptuousness of such a bill and the relative contributions of banks and senators to our lives. Civil society, hampered at every turn by petty political rules, takes thousands of years to develop the technology, the complex market mechanisms, and the levels of trust necessary for individuals to be able to get cash, at midnight, in an airport or a 7-Eleven thousands of miles from home, from a bank that they do no other business with–and members of Congress decide that the bank shouldn’t be able to charge a dollar for that service. Imagine what kind of banking services we’d have if we had to wait for Congress to develop the necessary institutions, and then imagine what we might have if Congress got entirely out of the business of controlling, hamstringing, and bullying banks.

Has Max Stier ever tried to do business with American Express and the Social Security Administration, Federal Express and the U.S. Postal Service, McDonald’s and the DMV? His demeaning of 124 million American workers in the attempt to defend the above-market wage rates of bureaucrats is laughable. But it’s also insulting, and utterly revealing of the Washington mindset.

Much Ado about Crisis of Abundance

The American Prospect’s Ezra Klein and Berkeley’s Brad DeLong have each weighed in on Cato’s book forum for Arnold Kling’s new health policy book, Crisis of Abundance (Cato Institute, 2006). 

Kling notes that we had invited The New York TimesPaul Krugman to speak. I was disappointed that Krugman had to decline. I would have loved to see that matchup, as I have for some time thought of Kling as The Anti-Krugman.

Now comes word that Harvard’s Greg Mankiw recommends the webcast of the book forum.

Homebuilder of the Century

From Walter Scott’s “Personality Parade” in Parade Magazine (to be posted here soon):

Q: How much time do former President Carter and wife Rosalyn devote to their Habitat for Humanity projects?

A: Since 1984, they have spent one week each year on Habitat projects, helping to construct 2,733 new homes.

All Snark, No Substance

Brad DeLong endorses Ezra Klein’s comments (see my earlier post) about Cato’s recent forum for my book Crisis of Abundance. The event was really a health care symposium, with New York University’s Jason Furman offering comments and the Washington Post’s Sebastian Mallaby offering comments on the book.

Concerning the latter commenter, DeLong offers the following:

I challenge the classification of Sebastian Mallaby as a “professional domestic policy thinker.” It would seem to me that it would be more accurate to call him a lazy hack journamalist [sic].

Memo to Cato: putting Sebastian Mallaby on a panel as a health care “expert” gains you brownie points among the journamalists [sic] of the Washington Post. It doesn’t boost your reputation among the reality-based community.

Memo to DeLong: I’ll debate anyone of your choice. I understand that Cato tried really hard to get Krugman, and I am willing to travel to Princeton.  At least Jason Furman (or is he just another hack?) and Sebastian Mallaby were willing to engage.

The main criticism of Mallaby is that he argued against insurance coverage for wigs. Actually, if you think about it, there is much to be said for Mallaby’s point. Just because wigs go to cancer patients, and we feel sorry for cancer patients, does not mean that insurance should cover wigs. Wigs are neither necessary nor sufficient for curing cancer.

If a critic wants to “score points with the reality-based community,” I suppose he should use snark. But snark can be the refuge for someone who is having difficulty with substance.

Dumb and Dumberer?

Tonight, ABC will rerun its 20/20 special, “Stupid in America,” which exposes our monopoly school system for what it is: a remarkably dumb — and harmful — idea.

Central planning has been thoroughly discredited in every other field of human exchange over the past half-century. But, for some reason, we still cling to our public school politburos.

Tonight, you can see John Stossel summarizing some of the human and financial costs of our dumbitude.

In Defense of Jury Nullification

Over at my personal blog, I’ve been having a back-and-forth on the issue of jury nullification with an L.A. prosecutor who blogs under the pseudonym “Patterico.” I can certainly understand why a prosecutor would be opposed to jury nullification. Were more Americans aware of their power to nullify — a tool with a rich tradition in the American founding, by the way — prosecutors would have a lot less power.

Patterico’s “gotcha” question on the issue concerns the oath many courts require jurors to take before serving, which affirms that they will uphold the law. Patterico asks supporters of nullification if they’d risk perjury charges by taking that oath and then subverting an unjust law during deliberations.

It’s a difficult question, and one I think people interested in real justice need to reconcile with their own values and priorities. But I also think his question is pretty revealing. It shows how prosecutors and judges have tweaked juror oaths to set perjury traps for would-be nullifiers, thus taking out of play an important check against bad laws, bad judges, and bad prosecutors. I’d like to see a civil liberties group mount a challenge to those oaths.

It seems to me the disagreement between opponents and supporters (like me) of nullification boils down to this: I believe that we have enough bad laws, overly aggressive police officers and prosecutors, and imperfections in the criminal justice system that jury nullification is a needed and justified last defense against overreaches of the state. I think there are a not-insubstantial number of real cases — historically and recently — where real people have been wrongly sent to prison, or sent to prison for far too long, to back this up.

Opponents’ objections can only come down to one of three positions:

  1. They doubt the current system gives rise to a significant number of injustices.
  2. There are a significant number of injustices, but they’re okay with that, in the interest of upholding the law.
  3. There are unjustices, and they are indeed troubled by them, but jury nullification isn’t an appropriate way to prevent injustices from occuring.

I think choice (3) is the least morally objectionable position. But it’s also the least logical. If these outrages really are outrages, and we’re clearly not okay with them, I’m at a loss to see why nullification, with it’s considerable history in this country, wouldn’t be an appropriate remedy. Indeed it seems to be the only remedy.

Remember, to get to this point, we’ve already accepted the premise that there is indeed a significant number of injustices, and that we don’t believe that they’re acceptable. If “changing the laws” were really feasible, then the laws leading to these types of injustices wouldn’t be in place to cause the injustices in the first place. They’d already have been changed, or never passed at all. That, or they wouldn’t have led to the injustices we’ve agreed have happened.

In other words, something clearly isn’t working.

So if you have an unjust law that’s clearly leading to unjust outcomes, what’s the solution if you’re on the jury? Is voting for what you know to be an injustice out of deference to the wisdom of a bunch of politicians really the correct, moral decision?

Put another way, which act is more immoral, upholding a law made by imperfect men, enforced by imperfect men, and that has clearly led to an immoral outcome, or subverting a wrongheaded law the one time you have the chance, and preserving the freedom of a man who doesn’t deserve to go to prison?

Opponents of nullification also really need to answer for what they’d have done had they served on a jury in which the defendant was charged with violating Jim Crow laws, helping smuggle a slave to freedom, exercising his right to free speech in war time, or any number of other clearly immoral laws that have been on the books throughout American history. They need to ask themselves if it’s really possible that, given that history, we should just assume that all laws on the books today ought to be immune from the scrutiny of juries simply by virtue of the fact that they made it through the legislative process. Given our imperfect past, isn’t it a bit naive to think we’re perfect — or even “close enough” to perfect — today?

Keep in mind, too, that upholders of those clearly immoral laws of the past made the same arguments at the time that opponents of jury nullification make today — that even if they conflict with one’s own personal values, those laws should have been respected and upheld by jururs by simple virtue of the fact that they were, after all, the law.

Now, it’s true that many of those laws were eventually repealed or changed. But their later repeal doesn’t account for the fate of the people imprisoned or even executed while they were still on the books. What about them? Wouldn’t it have been better if a jury had assessed and acted on the immorality of those laws before they were repealed? And looking back now, isn’t it a wonderful thing that many juries did?

There is a reason why we’re tried by a jury of our peers and not by a jury of professional experts, trained in meticulously assigning value to evidence. Peers are capable of mercy. They don’t — and shouldn’t — deal solely in cold equations. They can take into consideration and assess more than just the facts of a case. They’re capable of seeing injustice in spite of the law.

And they are the last line of defense against government when government oversteps its bounds.

For more, see Clay S. Conrad’s excellent book on the subject, or his synopsis of the book for Counterpunch.

The Right That Was

Remember FreeRepublic.com? The right-wing web forum for Clinton-hatred, respectable and otherwise? I recently ran across an article, “The Secret FISA Court: Rubber Stamping Our Rights,” that somebody posted on FR back in 2000. (Hat tip: Glenn Greenwald.) The comments are precious:

This is beyond frightening. Thank you for this find.

This does not bode well for continued freedom. Franz Kafka would have judged this too wild to fictionalize. But for us - it’s real.

And my personal favorite:

Any chance of Bush rolling some of this back? It sounds amazing on its face.

Today, when NSA surveillance is in the news, as with the recent decision in ACLU v. NSA [.pdf], you’re far more likely to read this sort of thing over at FR.

Privacy is a false argument and has been for some time. Your insurance company and the credit bureaus have more on you than the feds do and you can do nothing about it. I would rather be secure knowing that the feds were looking over my shoulder and keeping me safe. I have nothing to hide, and in times of war, these steps are necessary.

There are a few exceptions per comment thread, a few throwbacks to the pre-9/11 Right who think skepticism about power is justified even when the Red Team’s in charge. But they’re a distinct minority.

Was it September 11th that “changed everything,” or Republican takeover of the executive branch? Either way, for the Right, it’s a different world indeed.