Category: Law

Guns v. Country

It’s tough to surpass The Onion with their synopsis of conservatives’ gun policy: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” The New York Daily News had their own snappy headline: “God Isn’t Fixing This” – as they mocked four conservatives for their usual empty platitudes in the wake of yet another mass shooting. The New York Times issued its first front-page editorial in nearly 100 years, calling for a ban on high-powered weapons, and lamenting the disgrace of conservative gun policies.

Following San Bernardino, conservatives werent content to offer their customary palliative – prayer, and a call for even more guns. As a special bonus, they defeated a law that would have made it illegal for people on terror watch lists, the mentally ill and convicted felons to buy guns. The stupid never ends.

There’s an unfortunate resemblance between conservatives’ approach to this issue, and their approach to universal health care. The US ranks near the bottom of the developed world in every health measure: infant mortality, child mortality, adult mortality and life expectancy. And Americans pay more than double the OECD average in per capita healthcare expenses. The thing sets the US apart from those other countries is that it does not have universal, government-paid health insurance. The US has spent decades trying to reinvent the wheel, though the cure for poor health and high healthcare costs has been well-known for ages, with success stories the world over.

It’s the same with gun control. The solution has been effected in every other developed western country, with excellent results: make all guns harder to obtain; and ban the most dangerous guns altogether. Instead the US has done nothing – and to go with the easiest access to guns in the western world, the US not coincidentally has by far the highest rate of gun violence. The murder-by-gun rate in the US is at least eight times higher than it is in every country in Western Europe. It’s 60 times higher than the UK rate.

America’s gun troubles extend to every corner of the country. 49 US states have higher gun-murder rates than every country in Western Europe. (The rate in Vermont is a bit lower than that of Portugal.) At the high end, Missouri’s gun-murder rate is 25 times higher than the typical Western European country. Louisiana’s rate is nearly 40 times higher.

Moving beyond comparisons with Western Europe: the US gun-murder rate is 50% higher than that of Argentina; triple that of Chile; 3.5 times that of Israel; six times that of Greece; seven times that of Canada; twelve times that of India; 35 times that of Australia; and 175 times that of Poland.

In response to a 1996 mass-shooting, Australia passed strict gun control legislation – and hasnt had a single mass shooting since. Australia’s gun murder rate has dropped by 60%; it’s violent crime rate has dropped by more than 20%; and studies show that the price of guns on the black market has gotten so steep, that criminals lack the means to purchase them.

Meanwhile, the US has had more than 350 mass shootings in 2015 alone, and is on track for 30,000 dead from guns by year’s end – making for a very typical year. We neednt wonder what a solution might look like, or whether it might succeed. The cure for the national scourge of gun violence is gun control – same as it’s been everywhere, the world over.

 

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Editor’s note: The Field Guide is off for winter break – we’ll see you in the New Year.

 

Refs:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/05/opinion/end-the-gun-epidemic-in-america.html

http://www.theonion.com/article/no-way-to-prevent-this-says-only-nation-where-this-36131

http://money.cnn.com/2015/12/13/media/new-york-daily-news-guns/

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/11/AR2010061103259.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_firearm-related_death_rate

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gun_violence_in_the_United_States_by_state

Nice paper showing how gun prices make it harder for criminals to obtain guns, when stricter gun control is adopted: http://home.uchicago.edu/~ludwigj/papers/EJ_gun_markets_2007.pdf

Stupidity from the usual suspects:

Success stories abroad:

The US body count:

We at the Field Guide offered our own market-based solution: require that gun owners buy insurance to cover any harm their gun may do – including harm done after it’s stolen. Then sit back and watch as the insurance market prices guns into oblivion. Sorry for trying to reinvent the wheel – we just like listening to conservatives argue against free markets. https://liberalfieldguide.org/2014/01/31/gun-economics/

 

 

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VW Buggin’ Out

News of Volkswagen’s fraudulent evasion of EPA and EU regulations is astonishing. Emerging facts show that VW sold 11 million cars and trucks that were secretly designed to run clean only when they were being emissions-tested, but to run dirty otherwise. The difference between clean and dirty performance is enormous. Under dirty operation, VW diesels emit up to forty times more nitrogen oxides (NOx) than they do under clean operation. NOx is known to cause respiratory problems – sickening and killing many thousands of people each year.

The consequences that VW now faces are no less staggering. In the US alone, where fewer than 5% of the relevant vehicles were sold, potential EPA fines exceed $18 billion. Individual states might also sue, and about 25 class-action suits on behalf of consumers have already been initiated. Criminal prosecution is also a possibility.

VW officials have admitted to covertly incorporating a “defeat device” in some of its diesel engines. According to EPA regulations,

(§86.1803-01) Defeat device means an auxiliary emission control device (AECD) that reduces the effectiveness of the emission control system under conditions which may reasonably be expected to be encountered in normal vehicle operation and use….

VW isnt the first automaker to get caught trying to sneak one past EPA. In the 1990s, Ford, GM, and several truck manufacturers paid fines for employing similar cheats, to misrepresent vehicle emissions for the benefit of EPA, while enabling those vehicles to have far better fuel economy than they could have otherwise attained.

And thus we come to our point. Lots of waste comes out of a car’s tailpipe, and present technology allows us to make tradeoffs between different kinds. In many cities – Los Angeles, Phoenix, Houston, London, Paris and Beijing, for example, where air pollution is a problem – we prefer to minimize the release of NOx. But we pay a price with diminished fuel economy, releasing significantly more carbon dioxide (CO2) per mile driven. While NOx directly harms human health, CO2 contributes to global warming. And there are many parts of the world that arent given to air pollution, where it would be preferable to allow cars to achieve better fuel economy, releasing more NOx, but less CO2.

EPA has always taken a one-size-fits-all approach to automobile emissions, which is reasonable, given that cars are mobile. A car sold in Florida, which has good air quality, can readily find itself in California or New York. But today, used in conjunction with a GPS sensor, VW’s engine software could be husbanded for a good purpose. Depending on a vehicle’s location and the time of year, an engine could alternatively tune itself to achieve the highest possible fuel economy – releasing the least possible CO2 in areas where NOx pollution is not a health hazard – but then tune down to minimize NOx release in localities where air quality is problematic, accepting poorer fuel economy as a tradeoff.

We arent excusing VW for its considerable wrongdoing. Rather, we’d take this occasion to consider the options that modern engine technology affords us, in light of our competing environmental objectives.

 

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Stupid Originalist Tricks

Why should liberals expend energy bashing conservatives – when conservatives do the job so much better? This week, the Field Guide takes aim at “originalism,” to again demonstrate that conservatism, at its roots, has no principles. It is not a political philosophy – it’s just a bunch of crap packed together by historical accident, and held together through a firm commitment to not thinking it to death.

Originalism, nominally, holds that the US Constitution should be interpreted the way the people who wrote it and-or ratified it would have interpreted it. Take the 14th amendment’s birthright citizenship clause:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.

Hard to imagine how anyone who ever complained about judicial activism could suggest that the 14th amendment means anything but what it says: if you are born in the US, you are a US citizen. But it hasnt prevented conservatives from claiming that the US-born children of illegal aliens are exempt from the 14th amendment’s plain meaning.

Their argument seizes on the “subject to the jurisdiction thereof” requirement, somehow asserting that illegal aliens are not subject to US jurisdiction. Anyone who knows a little bit about law should know what the consequence of that would be. It would mean that illegal aliens could not be tried for any crime, nor compelled to appear for civil disputes either. They would have the same immunity as do diplomats (the actual, intended targets of the jurisdiction requirement), who can be expelled from the country, but cannot be brought to court to answer for their misdeeds. If that sounds crazy, wait – there’s more.

At the time of the 14th amendment’s ratification, the US had never had an illegal alien. The borders were open, and had been since colonial times. Anyone could emigrate to the US – and, under the common law, their children automatically became citizens. How could the writers and ratifiers of the 14th amendment possibly have intended an exception for a class of people that didnt exist!?

Moving on to the next stupid originalist trick: If you saw the GOP debate, you may have caught Marco Rubio advancing the loopiest anti-abortion argument to date. Per Rubio, the 5th amendment’s due process clause,

No person shall… be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law….

applies to fetuses and embryos. And so we dont need state or federal anti-abortion statutes – abortion is already illegal under the US Constitution – we just need five justices to say so.

We happen to know that Rubio is an originalist, because after the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell, (legalizing gay marriage nationwide), Rubio said,

It must be a priority of the next president to nominate judges and justices committed to applying the Constitution as written and originally understood.

So did the 5th amendment, “as written and originally understood”, really include fetuses and embryos as “persons” – and outlaw abortion from way back in 1791?

To answer that question, it helps to know that abortion was legal in all 13 states at the time the Bill of Rights was adopted – as it had been in all 13 colonies previously – as it had been for several hundred years under the common law. And so Rubio will have to find some other pretext for his political beliefs. Or he can simply abandon originalism, and interpret the Constitution according to some other style. We at the Field Guide are betting that he does neither – self-contradiction, after-all, is the conservative way.

 

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Liberty, Democracy and Gay Marriage

Dissenting from the Supreme Court’s recent decision legalizing gay marriage nationwide, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote,

Those who founded our country would not recognize the majority’s conception of the judicial role. They after all risked their lives and fortunes for the precious right to govern themselves. They would never have imagined yielding that right on a question of social policy to unaccountable and unelected judges.

In his own separate dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote,

This practice of constitutional revision by an unelected committee of nine, always accompanied (as it is today) by extravagant praise of liberty, robs the People of the most important liberty they asserted in the Declaration of Independence and won in the Revolution of 1776: the freedom to govern themselves.

On the other side of the debate, a five-justice majority held that a person’s right to marry is so fundamental that it cannot be constrained by democratic processes. Justice Anthony Kennedy sums up the relationship between liberty and democracy embodied in the nation’s charter:

…[T]he Constitution contemplates that democracy is the appropriate process for change, so long as that process does not abridge fundamental rights.

As is often the case, both the Court’s prevailing liberals and its dissenting conservatives lay claim to the mantle of the nation’s founders. But which of them has it right?

Before 1776 Americans were British subjects, and regarded themselves as fortunate, compared to French and Spanish subjects, because of Britain’s longstanding liberal traditions. America’s pilgrims brought the principles embodied in the Magna Carta with them to the new world, including an expansive notion of individual liberty, safeguarded significantly by an independent judiciary.

Compared to liberty, democracy in 18th century Europe was relatively unknown. Scalia’s contention – that self-governance was 18th century America’s most valued liberty – isnt merely at odds with history, but with the plain language of the Declaration of Independence as well. Though the word “right” occurs ten times in the Declaration, it is never associated with the right to vote. The rights of rebellion and self-governance are not characterized as “unalienable” absolutes, but are conditioned upon a government’s failure to secure a people’s absolute rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The term “democracy” is nowhere to be found.

The American Revolution was not born of a naked desire for self-governance. The text of the Declaration of Independence explains why the nation’s founders were driven to “dissolve the political bands” holding them to Great Britain: the king was running roughshod over their liberties. The bulk of the Declaration is a litany of complaints against an illiberal monarch.

Once one appreciates that the American Revolution was principally about liberty – that democracy was seized upon afterward as the best means toward that end – the particular form of the US Constitution makes perfect sense. Fearing that liberalism might be lost in the transition from monarchy to republic, the Constitution painstakingly limits democracy.

The original Constitution only granted suffrage to white men with property. The only government body they were permitted to elect directly was the House of Representatives. Senators were appointed by state governments. Americans still dont vote directly for the president, but for an intermediary body (the electoral college). And judges are still appointed by the president to lifelong terms.

To constrain democracy further, a Bill of Rights was appended to the Constitution. After amendments one through eight – in which 25 distinct rights are set above and beyond the reach of the majority’s will – the ninth amendment follows as a blank check for liberty for future generations:

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Thus one cannot infer from the absence of a given right from the Constitution (like marriage – or gay marriage) that that right does not exist.

American liberty was not born in the American Revolution – it was carried over from a much older English liberal tradition that predates American democracy by several centuries. Democracy was a grand experiment, subject to considerable and manifold limits, to ensure that the prize, liberalism, would endure under a new form of government.

The US Constitution most acutely restricts the power and reach of the majority where it concerns our most basic rights – to prevent a majority from becoming a tyrant itself. Contrary to Roberts’ assertions, for centuries before the American Revolution, and centuries since, courts have stood as a bulwark against the day’s oppressors, upholding fundamental rights against usurpations by kings and majorities alike.

Conservative complaints that the Court’s decision is anti-democratic are accurate, but misplaced. Democracy was born after the American Revolution as a means toward liberalism – not as an end in its own right. Liberty is the older tradition, which democracy was established to maintain and defend – not undermine. When the two are at loggerheads, democracy must yield.

 

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Editor’s note: The Field Guide is on summer vacay – we’ll be back with new material in mid-August.

Gay Marriage: Liberalism v. Democracy

Last summer, the Field Guide ran a three-part series on the tension between liberalism and democracy, particularly on how it plays out in developing countries, informing US foreign policy. But to see that tension, Americans need look no further than their own founding document.

The Bill of Rights, above all, is a list of what a majority cannot do through ordinary democratic processes. It is a bulwark of liberalism against the threat posed by democracy. The US Constitution, with its limited powers, cumbersome amendment process, and lifetime tenure for federal judges, is a grand scheme to guarantee the blessings of liberalism against the corrosive force of democracy. In American governance, liberty and democracy are not equal partners – liberty comes first.

The struggle between liberalism and democracy is so acute that hardly a Supreme Court session passes without conflict. The 2015 session included one of the most remarkable such cases in US history, Obergefell v. Hodges, through which the Court legalized gay marriage nationwide: a victory for liberalism, at the expense of democracy.

In a characteristically feeble opinion by Anthony Kennedy, five justices in the majority take a stand for liberalism. Marriage has long been regarded by the Court as a “fundamental right.” State restrictions on marriage have been struck down repeatedly over the past 48 years, including bans on inter-racial marriage, and limits on prisoner’s ability to marry. The majority’s decision extended this “fundamental right” to gay unions also, nullifying state governments’ bans on gay marriage.

In dissent, quite predictably, three conservatives pen disingenuous paeans to democracy – one each by Justices Roberts, Allito and Scalia. Scalia loves democracy so much, he once ordered Florida election officials to stop counting ballots, lest they come to the wrong result. The three of them, with Clarence Thomas, are such proponents of democracy, that just two terms ago they gutted the Voting Rights Act – freeing up southern states to go back to excluding minorities from the ballot box. They’ve gleefully squelched a democracy’s efforts to regulate campaign finance, and struck down gun-control legislation in American cities that have among the highest murder rates in the world.

But it’s far too easy to undercut the conservative dissents by invoking those Justices own considerable anti-democratic decisions of the past. They make some compelling points, which dont just merit an answer – they need to be soundly trounced, so that all may see the error of their ways.

While it’s unfortunate that the Court’s Opinion – now the law of the land – wasnt stronger, this bold stroke is worth repeating:

The idea of the Constitution “was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities….”

And even more eloquently:

[F]undamental rights may not be submitted to a vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.

In other words, the specific complaint of the conservatives in dissent – that democratic processes were not respected; that states should be left to settle the gay marriage question as they see fit – has no place within the framework of the US Constitution, which exists significantly to exclude questions of fundamental rights from the democratic process. Majorities have wide latitude to make laws and set policy – but they cannot encroach on our most basic freedoms. And so when democracy and liberalism clash on this front, democracy must yield.

To understand why democracy was made to ride in the backseat behind liberalism, you have to go back to the birthplace of American democracy: the American Revolution.

We’ll meet you there next week.

 

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Race, Religion and Madness

There is a double-standard at play, with respect to our understanding of the Charleston killer. Though his act and his stated motivation conforms squarely within the legal definition of terrorism, many do not regard him as a terrorist, but as a common criminal – yet another well-armed, mentally-ill American. If, for example, he had been an Islamist, he would have been unequivocally identified as a terrorist, as were the conspirators behind the Boston Marathon and Charlie Hebdo attacks.

Consider this partial definition of terrorism, from the FBI’s website:

“Domestic terrorism” means activities… intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.

The definition calls for a specific act and an accompanying mental element. There’s no debate on the act. As for the intent, the accused put out a lengthy statement, declaring his racial and political beliefs and goals. And thus there can be no serious question as to whether what occurred in Charleston fits the legal definition of terrorism. It does, and obviously so.

And so we come to the curious reaction of many – including FBI director James Comey – who would not regard the accused as a terrorist, but as a mere criminal, and quite possibly insane. What’s happened is that white supremacy, as a political movement, has become so alien to mainstream America, that it’s no longer comprehensible as a cogent political philosophy.

Those who commit acts of violence in furtherance of white supremacy are not afforded the dignity of being labeled political activists. Rather, they are belittled as kooks and-or criminals. We make no attempt to meet or comprehend their arguments – we summarily dismiss them as the product of ignorance, at best, if not madness. This is progress.

In the first half of the 20th century, the white supremacy movement was a basic part of the American political landscape. One-time Klan members included President Truman, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, and Senator Robert Byrd. Today, its adherents no longer seem like political actors, but as crazies, who might as well be wearing tinfoil hats in place of white hoods. This, again, is progress.

By comparison, they who commit indistinguishably insane acts under the auspices of religion are called “extremists” or “radicals.” Instead of likewise dismissing them as criminals and crazies, Islamist terrorists are dignified as political activists. While white supremacy has been dispatched to the dustbin of bad ideas, killing in furtherance of religion still has a recognizable logic, such that its advocates are not immediately identified as insane, criminally or otherwise.

What constitutes sanity or madness in a given time and place is informed by cultural and social norms, and even economics, and always has been. Michel Foucault filled three hundred pages adding window dressing to this simple observation, in his tedious classic Madness and Civilization. That we might treat the Charleston shooter as a mere criminal, or a madman, is an improvement. One hopes that we, as a society, will come to see violence committed in the name of religion to be no less mad.

 

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Refs:

https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/terrorism/terrorism-definition

http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/245649-fbi-head-wont-call-charleston-shooting-a-terrorist-act

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/06/22/white-house-won-t-back-fbi-chief-on-charleston-terror.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/06/18/call-the-charleston-church-shooting-what-it-is-terrorism/

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/06/18/let-s-call-charleston-shooting-what-it-was-a-terrorist-attack.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ku_Klux_Klan_members_in_United_States_politics#Edward_L._Jackson

Liberty v. Security

Centuries ago, an English jurist opined that it was better that a few good men be killed on the highways each year, than the rest of us should live in tyranny. Ever has it been thus: increased security, which one acquires by increasing the power of government, comes necessarily at the expense of liberty. It might be possible to eliminate nearly all crime – but to do so, one would have to eradicate almost all liberty.

Just as your plumber and electrician would gladly, for a price, improve your plumbing and lighting, so too would your police force make you safer – and safer – and safer still. When the Obama administration insists that they require certain provisions of the Patriot Act to make Americans safer, we have good reason to believe them. But no matter the intentions of these well-meaning professionals, our objective isnt to maximize our plumbing, lighting or security without respect to cost. Beyond a certain point, a society will prefer a certain amount of crime – rather than having a police camera at every intersection and in every living room, and-or the power to monitor all electronic communications.

While the natural evolution of government is, inexorably, to grow ever larger, the US now has a rare opportunity to go against the natural order of things, and to shrink the size of its security apparatus. At a minimum, the expiry of significant portions of the Patriot Act should be taken as an occasion to reevaluate the nation’s security priorities, particularly on how they impact privacy and the power and intrusiveness of government.

Of course one must avoid the conceptual error of the bureaucrats whose deregulation of the financial services sector unwittingly paved the way for the 2008 financial crisis. One does not want to be the man who throws away his umbrella because he hasnt felt a raindrop in ages – failing to realize that the umbrella had been keeping him dry all along. Americans have enjoyed relative quiet since the 1993 and 2001 World Trade Center attacks, and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, without experiencing domestic terrorism of that magnitude. By reducing the power of the police, we necessarily make terrorism, large scale and small, that much more likely.

Walt Whitman wrote that great poets needs great audiences. Analogously, great leaders need a great electorate. And it is unfortunate that no one in Congress trusts American voters enough to accurately frame the debate over extending the expiring portions of the Patriot Act. It is indeed a matter of sacrificing liberty for security, or vice-versa. The problem in part is one of trust – that the electorate is not expected to react reasonably to an act of terrorism – or three or six – much less accept it as a fair price to pay for increased liberty. Politicians like Rand Paul should stop equivocating, and make that case, because that indeed is the tradeoff we as a society must inevitably make.

Not everyone will agree on the same balance to be struck between liberty and security, but it is the sort of issue that a democracy is ideally suited to hash out. We look forward to that debate, should our elected officials muster the courage for it.

 

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Editor’s note: the Field Guide is off for an early-summer vacay. We’ll be back with new material in mid-June.