P.L.A. - A Journal of Politics, Law and Autism
PLA is a fair and balanced Journal published by Dwight Meredith with a Focus on Politics, Law and Autism
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Saturday, October 12, 2002
A Butterfly Flaps Its Wings
Many of us who support a policy of inspections and disarmament as opposed to regime change by invasion in Iraq worry about the unintended consequences of an invasion. We worry that an invasion might destabilize much of the Middle East. We worry about setting a precedent that we do not want others to follow. We worry that an invasion will create a pool of alienated, radicalized Muslims from which the terrorists may draw recruits to attack America. We worry about a wider war breaking out that we could not control.
On October 8, Jerry Falwell appeared on CBS’s Sixty Minutes. In an interview with Bob Simon the following occurred:
You wrote an approving piece recently about a book called ‘Unveiling Islam,’” Simon said to Falwell. “And you — the authors of that book wrote, ‘The Muslim who commits acts of violence in jihad does so with the approval of Mohammed.’ Do you believe that?
Mr. Falwell’s statements were widely criticized in the United States. According to this story, however, Mr. Falwell’s statements resulted in more than criticism in India. (link from Glenn Reynolds).
Five people were killed Friday in Hindu-Muslim rioting and police gunfire after riots broke out during a general strike to protest the Rev. Jerry Falwell calling the founder of Islam a terrorist. Forty-seven others were injured.
One statement by one marginally important American televangelist critical of the Islamic Prophet had the unintended consequence of causing street protests, a riot, forty-seven injuries and five deaths half way around the world. That is why some of us worry about the unintended consequences of a preemptive invasion for the purpose of regime change in Iraq.
Political Patronage Update
President Bush continues to insist that the 170,000+ jobs at the proposed Homeland Security Department be political patronage positions. He has threatened a veto if any of the proposed employees have Civil Service or union protections for their jobs. Mr. Bush, arguing that he needs "managerial flexibility," wants the ability to personally hire or fire those employees. We argued in this article that it would be a mistake to allow the Executive Branch to increase its political patronage positions by 170,000+.
This article in the Washington Post shows the danger of allowing a politician to have hiring and firing power over a large number of federal employees.
A memo sent to employees of the Environmental Protection Agency on the do's and don'ts of campaign politics offers this advice: "Off Duty -- Express support for the President and his program."
If the EPA memo had been sent out by Tom Ridge as Secretary of a Homeland Security Department to 170,000+ plus workers who had no job security other than the good will of the President and the Secretary, it is easy to see how power could be abused.
It is not sufficient to argue that this President or most Presidents would not abuse such power. The question is whether the President most inclined to punish employees for their political views or most inclined to pressure employees to perform political tasks in their off hours would abuse the system. We think that question answers itself.
With regard to the EPA memo, sent to employees who do have Civil Service protection, Lean Left wrote as follows:
This smells like patronage - support us, or lose your job. The reason we have laws shielding federal employees from these kinds of subtle pressure tactics is that we, as a society, don't want a patronage system in the civil service. Now, if the Bush people do, fine, they can make that argument in front of Congress and the American people. But they should not engage in these kinds of cheap, schoolyard bully tactics.
In the absence of Civil Service protection, the odor of “support us, or lose your job” would be even greater. Mr. Bush should accept the compromise proposal in which only those employees directly related to terrorist activity are subject to the “managerial flexibility” of being threatened with their job if they have the wrong political views.
Friday, October 11, 2002
Ballistic Fingerprinting Update
Today’s Atlanta Journal Constitution has an op-ed piece by Mr. Larry Pratt arguing against a national system of ballistic fingerprinting. Mr. Pratt is the Executive Director of the Gun Owners of America. Mr. Pratt makes two arguments against a national ballistic fingerprint system.
A ballistic fingerprinting system requires gun manufacturers to optically scan ballistic data from bullets and shell casings for each gun sold. The ballistic data is entered into a national database. When law enforcement locates a bullet or a shell casing in connection with a criminal investigation, it may check the database in the hopes of identifying the specific gun from which the bullet was fired.
First, Mr. Pratt argues that such a system will be ineffective in solving crimes for three reasons. Mr. Pratt first argues that criminals will use fake identification to purchase weapons and therefore, the ballistic database will only lead to a dead end.
That strikes us as a good argument for having tighter identification requirements during background checks but not an argument against ballistic fingerprinting.
Next, Mr. Pratt argues that the database will not be able to match bullets or shell casings to specific guns. Mr. Pratt points out that ballistic signatures change over time and use. He notes that criminals may intentionally alter the ballistic signatures of weapons. Finally Mr. Pratt states that the criminal could change the firing pin or the barrel of the weapon thereby changing the ballistic signature. We do not have Mr. Pratt’s expertise on those issues and, therefore, assume that he is correct on the technical issues.
The wisest person we ever knew once told us that “perfect is the enemy of good.” While it may be true that a ballistic fingerprinting system is imperfect, it remains better than no system at all. Some criminals may intentionally alter the ballistic fingerprints but some may not. Some criminals may replace the barrel or firing pin but some may not. Let us at least catch the ones who are not as smart as Mr. Pratt.
Mr. Pratt’s argument uses a common debating tactic. In essence, he argues that a ballistic fingerprinting system should not be implemented unless it is perfect. The true debate is not over whether the system is perfect but whether it is better than nothing and whether it is worth the cost of implementation. Mr. Pratt does not address those issues.
Mr. Pratt’s second argument is the slippery slope. He argues that a ballistic fingerprinting system will be a national gun registry and that a national gun registry may lead to confiscation or a complete gun ban.
In the first place, that argument is hard to reconcile with his argument that the system will not effectively match bullets to guns. If he is correct that the system is useless in locating a gun used in a crime then it cannot be an effective national gun registry.
We have previously argued here and here that a Supreme Court decision recognizing an individual right to keep and bear arms will cause the NRA to lose political power in the gun control debates and will cause the slippery slope argument to lose traction.
The most extreme elements of the NRA, the Gun Owners Association of America and the Black Helicopter crowd will never be convinced to support any restrictions on gun ownership under any circumstances. Our argument is not based on convincing the most extreme elements.
The NRA gets the bulk of its membership, money and political power not from the most extreme elements but rather from the moderate gun owners. Whenever a restriction on guns is proposed, the NRA uses the slippery slope argument to scare those moderate gun owners into 1) opposing the restriction, 2) sending money to the NRA to oppose the restriction, and 3) voting against any candidate that supports the restriction.
A constitutional ruling on the Second Amendment guaranteeing the right to keep and bear arms will have no effect on the most extreme elements but will reassure the moderate gun owners that a gun ban is not going to happen.
Once those moderate gun owners are reassured, the NRA will continue to make the slippery slope argument but it will cease to have any potency. The moderate gun owners will quit voting on the basis of the issue and quit giving money to the NRA based on the slippery slope argument. The NRA's political power and financial clout will fade. Then we can have a reasonable political argument about gun control measure on the merits.
skippy has weighed in on the ballistic fingerprinting issue here. Armed Liberal has some interesting thought on the issue here. William Burton has his thought and a vigorous comment thread on the subject here. They are all very interesting.
Pardon the Interruption
We interrupt the march to war to bring you the late breaking news that the economy is not in very good shape. We note the following:
· The economy has lost about 1.5 million jobs since January 2001;
· The stock market is down about 5,000 Dow points from its peak and is now at 1997 levels. The fall of the stock market has erased more than $8 trillion of wealth;
· After decreasing for 8 consecutive years, poverty is again on the rise;
· Incomes increased every year from 1991 through 2000 but fell in 2001;
· Bankruptcy filings reached an all time high in the second quarter of 2002. Credit card debt and business debt are both high;
· In 2000, the Federal budget ran a surplus of about $86 billion (without including the surplus generated by Social Security). In FY 2002, the budget (again ex Social Security) will run a deficit exceeding $300 billion. Where surpluses were once predicted for as far as the eye could see, OMB now forecasts deficits through at least 2006;
· The telecommunications sector has completely cratered and the airline industry seems poised to follow suit;
· Health care costs are rising rapidly and the ranks of the uninsured are swelling;
· Consumer confidence is falling and is now at its lowest level since last November;
· There are some signs that consumer spending is falling off;
· Global economic conditions do not seemed poised to pull the U.S. out of a slow growth or double dip economy.
Economists from both the right and the left are concerned that the economy may fall back into recession (a "double dip” ) or, far worse, deflation. Among those expressing such concerns are Paul Krugman, The Economic Policy Institute, Bruce Bartlett and Steve Forbes.
The right and the left are in agreement that something needs to be done to minimize the risks associated with a double dip recession and/or deflation. They agree that economic stimulus is in order. They do not agree, of course, on what form that stimulus should take.
While it may be tempting to launch a political debate over whether the faltering economy is the fault of the current administration, that is not our purpose. Regardless of how the current situation came to be, it is not now Bill Clinton’s job to solve the problem. Like it or not, George W. Bush needs a strategy to turn the economy around. If he does not have an effective response to the current economic problems, he may suffer the political consequences but we will all suffer the economic consequences.
The economic issue is a difficult one for President Bush because he is painted into a corner by the “trifecta” of his large tax cut, the campaign promises he made and the current economic conditions.
Mr. Bush’s 2001 tax cut has structural features that tie his hands in addressing the current economic conditions. The tax cuts were phased in over time so that the long-term impact on the federal budget was not apparent in the stylized method of budget “scoring” used in the Congress.
The tax cut is, as the budget maven’s say, backloaded. All of the money that could be used to stimulate the economy right now is already committed to tax cuts that do not kick in for years. While that money has been “spent” from a budgetary point of view, it is not yet in the economy increasing economic activity.
Economists have suggested that the amount of needed stimulus is $100 billion this year. Mr. Bush cannot find $100 billion to stimulate the economy without either rolling back his tax cut or increasing the deficit. Either option causes Mr. Bush to break a major campaign promise.
All courses open to Mr. Bush are fraught with political peril. First, he can do nothing. If Mr. Bush does nothing and the economy goes into a double dip recession or a deflationary cycle he will be blamed for taking no action and being indifferent to the economic suffering of Americans.
If the Democrats have both a spine and a brain, they will feed that perception by proposing a stimulus package that includes items such as 1) extending unemployment benefits; 2) cutting payroll taxes for working Americans; and 3) increasing government spending for such projects as school building repair, infrastructure improvements and funding a prescription drug benefit for seniors. Democrats should propose paying for those projects by rolling back portions of the 2001 tax cut that are not yet in effect and which benefit the wealthiest Americans.
If Mr. Bush opposes such a stimulus package, he risks being seen as not caring about the economy as well as being perceived as putting the interests of the wealthiest Americans over the interests of seniors, the unemployed, working people and school children.
Mr. Bush’s second option is to support the Democratic stimulus package. That option permits him to look engaged. If he supports the spending, however, he must also agree to a way to pay for it. If he agrees to reduce future tax relief for the richest Americans, he breaks a major campaign promise dear to the hearts of his base. If he funds the program through deficit spending he offends the deficit hawk portion of the Republican Party as well as the Perot independents. He cannot fund the stimulus through cutting spending as that defeats the purpose of the package.
One may argue that the abandonment of a balanced budget will not cause Mr. Bush any political harm as the budget is already in deficit. We disagree. Mr. Bush promised in the campaign not only to balance the budget but also to do it without raiding the Social Security trust fund. The Republican platform of 2000 endorsed a balanced budget amendment. In addition, the Republican Party is heavily invested in a balanced budget. The Republicans shut down the government in 1995 in an effort to achieve a balanced budget. That shut down cost the Republicans heavily and paved the way for the fall of Newt Gingrich and the resurrection of Bill Clinton. That is a lot of pain to endure only to abandon the prize.
To date, Mr. Bush has avoided responsibility for the deficit by falsely contending that it was the result of the war on terrorism and the fallout from 9/11. If he supports spending an additional $100 billion on a stimulus package, the curtain will be torn for all to see. He will have no more excuses and will have to accept the responsibility for the deficit, the loss of the projected surplus and the raiding of the Social Security trust fund.
A third option is for Mr. Bush to create a different kind of stimulus package that is more to the liking of his constituents. After the Waco summit, there were reports of a possible package of tax cuts to address the economy. Those cuts included making the 2001 cuts permanent after 2012, increasing the amount of capital losses that could be written off against ordinary income, cuts in the capital gains tax (we sure wish we had some gains), eliminating the tax on dividends and others. The problems with those proposals are that they 1) do not get money into the hands of people who will spend it but rather go to folks more likely to save thereby diluting the stimulative effect, and 2) do not kick in for a long time (stimulating the economy in 2012 is not what this exercise is all about). Mr. Bush would also have to find a way to fund the additional tax cuts.
The final option for Mr. Bush is to continue his current policy. That policy appears to consist of avoiding talking about the economy and saying, at regular intervals, “Saddam is a very, very evil man.” It has worked for him so far but we suspect that such an approach has a limited shelf life.
Democrats have the political advantage on the economic issue. They should press that advantage by proposing an economic stimulus package paid for by rolling back future tax breaks for the very wealthy. That proposal is good economics and good politics. If Mr. Bush agrees to the proposal, the economy will improve but Mr. Bush undercuts his political position with his base. If he opposes the package, he assumes the full responsibility for any failure in the economy. The only remaining question is whether or not the Democrats have the spine to force the issue.
Wednesday, October 09, 2002
The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
Ballistic Fingerprinting and the Slippery Slope
A sniper in suburban Washington, D.C., is terrorizing the community. The sniper(s) has shot eight people, killing six. The shooter appears to choose victims at random. As Salon reports:
All the victims were shot in public places: the boy outside school, two at gas stations, two in parking lots, another outside a post office, another as he mowed the grass and the eighth on a street corner. Anxious parents in the suburbs around Washington accompanied their children to school or kept them at home Tuesday, a day after a sniper linked to the murder of six adults critically wounded a middle-school pupil.
Salon reports that officials of the ATF have linked the shootings by use of ballistics:
Ballistics tests found the bullet that struck the teen was identical to those that killed some of the others and wounded a woman in Virginia, said Joe Riehl, an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
The police could use a good lead to the killer. An up and running national ballistic fingerprinting system could, conceivably, be crucial to police efforts to identify and apprehend the killer.
A ballistic fingerprinting system requires all gun manufacturers to test weapons before sale. The ballistic identifiers from both the bullet and the shell casing are optically scanned and entered into a central computer database. When police recover a bullet or shell casing from a crime scene, the ballistic identifiers from the recovered round are put into the computer system and matched to the specific gun from which the round was fired. By linking the ballistic evidence from the crime scene to a specific weapon, the police have a strong lead to investigate in an effort to identify the shooter.
According to this article in the New York Times (link courtesy of Brian Linse):
The technology exists to create a national ballistic fingerprint system that would enable law enforcement officials to trace bullets recovered from shootings, like those fired by the Washington-area sniper, to a suspect.
We have not implemented such a national system in the United States. According to the Times, that failure results from the opposition from the gun industry and the NRA. As a result of that opposition, Congress has specifically banned the establishment of such a national ballistic fingerprint system.
In a previous article, we argued that gun control advocates would be well served if the Supreme Court would decisively rule that the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution provides a guarantee of the right to keep and bear arms to individual citizens. That right, like all other constitutional rights, would be limited in scope. There would be many possible measures that would both serve the goals of gun control advocates and be permitted under the Second Amendment. Gun control advocates would benefit from the recognition of an individual right to keep and bear arms because such recognition would foreclose the slippery slope arguments used by the NRA and others to defeat otherwise reasonable gun control measures. We believe that the failure to implement a national ballistic fingerprint system underscores the points made in our previous article.
On the merits, a national ballistic fingerprint system is hard to criticize. It would have two major beneficial effects. First, it would help police identify and apprehend criminals thereby preventing additional crimes and punishing past crimes. If the police could identify the precise gun from which a specific bullet was fired, the manufacturer’s records would identify the wholesaler or retailer who purchased the gun. The retailer’s records would identify the consumer who originally purchased the weapon. We presume that police work could then, in many cases, identify the present owner of the gun.
Secondly, the implementation of such a system would deter future crimes. A crucial element in deterring crimes is the swiftness and surety of apprehension and punishment. A national ballistic fingerprint system would help to ensure that the gun used in any crime (if a bullet or shell casing could be recovered) would be quickly identified and the owner of that gun investigated. Criminals would be forced to use weapons they themselves did not purchase and hope that the person from whom they did purchase the gun would not talk.
The system is not a panacea. It would not assist in identifying guns that were not entered into the system either because they were sold before the system was running or because they were imported illegally. To the extent that the ballistic markings of a weapon change over time and use, the quality of the data would degrade. In a circumstance like the one in Washington, however, such a system could provide a crucial lead that prevents further killings and calms a frazzled community.
The downside of such a system is harder to identify. The gun manufacturers already have to test weapons before sale. Simply scanning the ballistic information from the shell casing and the bullet does not seem unduly burdensome. The law-abiding purchaser of the gun has little or nothing to fear from the system. His or her ammunition is not likely to be the subject of a criminal investigation. If a gun is stolen and then used in a crime, the police report of the law-abiding citizen reporting the theft should eliminate most unfounded suspicions.
If the system has high potential benefits and minimal downside, why has it not been implemented and why has Congress banned a nationwide system?
The answer to that question lies in the power of the gun lobby and the political potency of the slippery slope argument used by that lobby. The Times article notes that the NRA’s objection to a system of ballistic fingerprinting is that it is “tantamount” to a system of national gun registration. Please note that the NRA is not objecting to the use of such technology to catch criminals nor arguing that it would not be a valuable tool for law enforcement.
What then is so wrong with universal gun registration? Perhaps the NRA does not object to ballistic fingerprinting in and of itself. Perhaps the NRA does not even object to national gun registration in and of itself. We suspect that the NRA believes that ballistic fingerprinting would lead to universal gun registration and that universal gun registration would lead, in turn, to the outright banning or even confiscation of guns.
Ballistic fingerprinting is opposed not on its own merits but because it may lead to registration. Registration is opposed not on its own merits but because it may lead to confiscation. That is the slippery slope argument.
Professors Reynolds and Volokh contend that the slippery slope arguments are rational. They are, of course, completely correct. Many folks take the first step down a slope and soon find themselves at the bottom where they never intended to be.
Politicians who gain notoriety or popularity arguing for ballistic fingerprinting may find it irresistible to then try for more fame and power by proposing registration. A political climate that finds registration inoffensive may permit or require confiscation. From the NRA’s point of view, it may indeed be rational to try to stop the slide before it starts.
That dynamic, however, still leaves the Washington area police unable to locate the gun or the gunman. How as a society may we receive the benefits of a ballistic fingerprinting system without unduly alarming those who fear that such a step may ultimately lead to the banning of all guns?
A definitive Supreme Court ruling establishing that the Second Amendment provides an individual right to keep and bear arms does the trick. In the event of such a ruling, the NRA’s slippery slope argument loses both its rationality and its political traction.
We recommend that gun control advocates push a Second Amendment case to the Supreme Court as soon as possible. Once there, gun control advocates should concede that the Second Amendment provides an individual right to keep and bear arms but that such a right is limited (as are all constitutional rights). For a description of those limitations on Second Amendment rights, see our previous post and Professor Reynolds' law review article.
If one wishes to see rational gun control measures enacted, the first step is to agree with the NRA that the Second Amendment provides an individual right to keep and bear arms. The political power of the NRA and the power of its slippery slope arguments will then fade. Reasonable gun control measures may then be debated on their own merits. In such a debate the gun control advocates will have the better argument as well as the better politics.
Tuesday, October 08, 2002
Where Will It End
First, Stephen Ambrose borrowed some prose from other books. Then Doris Kearns Goodwin lifted some lines from a fellow author. The trend moved to Blogtopia when Norah Vincent was playing Jackson Browne. < grin> Now Devra of Blue Streak has blatantly copied all of our best material.< /grin>
Sunday, October 06, 2002
Coup, Assassination or Exile
There has been increasing talk about methods of regime change in Iraq by means other than invasion. The Washington Post has a story today suggesting that when an American ground war is imminent, Saddam’s inner circle would stage a coup to oust the dictator. The Post story says:
Faced with an imminent, overwhelming U.S. assault and the choice of either being Hussein's successors or being imprisoned or killed in the fighting, top-ranking officers or a group of military and other senior officials would take the chance to eliminate the Iraqi leader, several senior administration officials and intelligence experts said in recent interviews."Someone will take action and cause it to happen," said one former high-ranking CIA officer with close ties to current thinking among intelligence officials.
Donald Rumsfeld has suggested that exile or assassination may result in Saddam’s ouster. According to the same Washington Post story:
"Saddam Hussein could decide that his future is limited and he'd like to leave," Rumsfeld told the House Armed Services Committee on Sept. 18. "Another way to do it would be to persuade enough people in Iraq the world would be a lot better world if that regime weren't there and they decided to change the regime."
Ari Fleisher has also endorsed assasination or exile.
"The cost of one bullet, if the Iraqi people take it on themselves, is substantially less" than going to war, President Bush's press secretary, Ari Fleischer, said when asked at a televised briefing about the cost of military action against Iraq. Asked whether the administration was advocating the assassination of Hussein, Fleischer repeatedly replied: "Regime change is welcome in whatever form that it takes."
While the overthrow of Saddam by coup, assassination or exile would be both welcome and satisfying, it would not change the fundamental analysis driving American policy. As Mark Williams, a frequent commenter on these pages has noted, American foreign policy must be based on the capabilities and not the intentions of our enemies.
The two policy options available to us are 1) regime change through invasion or 2) disarmament by inspections backed by force. If Saddam were to be assassinated this afternoon, no additional options would be presented. The core of the justification for any intervention in Iraq is that Iraq poses a substantial threat to American interests. The core of that threat is the existence of weapons of mass destruction and the potential for development of additional WMD including a nuclear arsenal. The substitution of a different Iraqi strongman for Saddam in no way changes that threat.
Some may argue, however, that the new regime might be more inclined to cooperate in disarmament. That argument runs afoul of the intentions vs. capability point raised by Mark Williams. We should not base a policy of disarmament on the good intentions or cooperation of the Iraqi government. Disarmament must be carried out by international inspectors and backed by credible force. If it dependent on the cooperation of the Iraqi regime, then it is the wrong policy option. Our idea of an inspection policy backed by force does not require Iraqi cooperation. If the Iraqi government impedes the inspectors, then force must be applied to accomplish the disarmament. For an interesting view of how inspections backed by force might succeed in disarming Iraq, see this article by Rolf Ekeus, the former head of an inspection team in Iraq. Link courtesy of Jeanne D’Arc.
The major issue with regard to a policy of disarmament through inspections backed by force is whether or not they will work. If you believe that such inspections will work with Saddam in power, there is no reason to think that they will not work if Saddam is deposed. If you believe that inspections will not work with Saddam in power, it is difficult to see why that position would change when another strongman takes his place.
Why then is the administration talking up the idea of toppling Saddam through coup, assassination or exile? We think that it is part of an argument that the war will be short and relatively bloodless because once Saddam is gone, the remainder of the Iraqi army will quickly surrender. That argument, however, is based on an assessment of intention and not capability.