Monday, November 28, 2005

Selective Rights

Students at Oak Ridge High School in Tennessee published and distributed a newspaper containing articles about birth control and tattoos. School administrators retrieved the 1,800 copies of the newspaper from the classrooms, stating that such topics were inappropriate for some of the younger students.

The school administration is now under scrutiny for potentially violating the students’ first amendment rights.

Quite frankly, I’m surprised this story made the front page on CNN’s website. It’s not news to anyone that the Bill of Rights is selectively applied in a public (government) school setting. I’m sure an article in the school newspaper about which rifle the student is using during this year’s hunting season wouldn’t go over so well with a lot of government school administrations either. But it wouldn’t make national news. University of Tennessee journalism professor Dwight Teeter says this will teach students “a terrible lesson in civics.” I wonder if he is as concerned about 1st Amendment rights when students are subject to disciplinary action for wearing a shirt that bears the emblem of a firearm or cigarette manufacturer. What is the lesson that students draw when they can be suspended under ‘zero tolerance’ rules for possessing a bottle of Tylenol? What lesson do they draw from virtually being held captive throughout the day, without the freedom to step outside the classroom without a hall pass? What lesson do they draw when they are forced to be in the school and then can be subject to searches without probable cause? What lesson do they draw when bureaucrats decide whether they learn intelligent design, evolution, or a combination of the two?

This is the problem with mandatory public education. Were there more choices in education, parents who disagree with their children being exposed to topics such as birth control or tattoos will not send their children to school that permit those stories to be published. Those who would like their children to be free to publish stories on any topic will send their children to schools where no topics are forbidden. We would not have to rely on bureaucracies to decide what was taught and what was not. In the current system, students are accustomed to violations of their rights on a daily basis. The sad thing is that they will eventually become adults trained to quietly accept violations of their rights.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Black or Gold?

The name “Black Friday” has come to refer to the day after Thanksgiving in which stores throughout the United States open early with various items on sale and consumers rush to begin their Christmas shopping or just to take advantage of some of the good deals.

So why is it called “Black Friday” and given a sinister connotation?

It rings of the name “Black Tuesday” given to the stock market crash of October 29, 1929, often erroneously thought of as a failure of capitalism. The prefix “Black” before a day often refers to days in which government made errors in monetary policy, days in which government trampled upon the liberties of its people, or days in which a tragic event occurred. None of these describe the sales and voluntary transactions that occur on the Friday after Thanksgiving.

For a change, why don’t we refer to “Black Friday” by a less ominous term? Perhaps we can call it “Gold Friday” or “Sale Friday” or “Lots-of-people-shopping Friday.” The prefix “Black” should not be applied to a day that does not represent a tragedy in some way. Crowded stores and numerous voluntary transactions hardly constitute a tragedy.

Thanking the Market

As I was shopping on “Black Friday” (see my next post on why it is improperly named), I noted that at a few stores the salespeople and cashiers were considerably bigger and presumably stronger than I am. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I was quite thankful that a market system has emerged in which we generally do not use violence as a means of rationing food, clothing, and shelter. If it were a system where the bigger and stronger prevail, I would no longer have a competitive advantage.

Because we have a system of exchange in which both parties voluntarily participate, in which each party offers something of value to the other party, it doesn’t matter how big or strong a person is. What matters is how much value he offers to obtain the goods he wants. In this system, we equip ourselves by seeking education, by working diligently, and by finding ways in which we can better serve our fellow man. In this system, we are rewarded for making life easier for others, by providing for the wants of others, by delivering a valuable good or service. In this system, strangers cooperate, violence is lessened, and all benefit.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Mens Rea or Mea Culpa

At least one reader has mentioned the concept of mens rea as the justification for holding ‘hate crimes’ as a worse crime than crimes that cannot be shown to derive from disliking a particular race, religion, national origin, etc. However, mens rea is not the distinction between one evil mindset and another. It is the distinction between the existence and the absence of evil intent. Proving mens rea is required for some crimes in order to account for accidents and situations in which an individual unknowingly violates another’s rights. It is meant to distinguish between criminal actions and honest errors when the actions and fault are not in question.

Sometimes observable actions do not reveal the mental state of the accused. For example, a driver may crash into another vehicle, killing the driver of the other vehicle. The court does not automatically convict the driver of murder. It must also prove mens rea, Latin for ‘evil mind,’ to show that the driver purposefully and knowingly killed the driver of the other vehicle. Otherwise, the first driver is presumed to have accidentally killed the other driver and may be found guilty of a lesser offense depending on the circumstances.

Sometimes the person committing what would normally be considered a crime is not capable of understanding that his actions violate the rights of another. The lack of mens rea is what protects a two-year-old from facing charges of theft. If a two-year-old child takes a candy bar from a store shelf without intending to pay for it, the child is not found guilty of stealing because he is presumed to not fully understand the meaning of his actions at such a young age. The child may not understand that taking a candy bar deprives the store owner of his property and may not know that his actions constitute theft. Were the child closer to adulthood, the courts would not make such an assumption.

Mens rea refers to any criminal intent, where the criminal is fully aware of his actions and their consquences and performs them regardless. Someone who deliberately murders someone for fun, without regard to their race, nationality, or religion, has criminal intent just as someone who murders someone because of their race, nationality, religion, etc.

We may place a value judgment on certain types of motivating factors. We may find it more despicable to harm a weak individual than a strong one. This does not mean that we create separate laws to apply to harming those who can't lift more than 50 lbs or run a mile in less than 7 minutes. We may believe it worse to steal from someone who earns $25,000/year than someone who earns $150,000. This does not mean that we create separate laws pertaining to stealing from a person with a high salary versus stealing from a person with a low salary. Both of these scenarios provide a corollary for the hate crime legislation that continues to be promoted by politicians today.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Generously Giving

The Washington Post has a number of articles on charitable giving today in the business section. It discusses specific examples of prosperous people who have very generously donated or sponsored charities. It also lists some figures for private donations to specific events. According to the figures in the article, people in the United States donated $26 million for the earthquake in Pakistan on October 8th of this year, $2.2 billion to hurricane victims in the Gulf Coast, $1.6 billion to the victims of the tsunami in Asia last December, and $2.8 billion in response to the September 11th attacks. These are all gifts to strangers. But how much more do we give to those whom we dearly love? Are we more likely to help a family member or friend in need or a stranger? The figures in the article don't measure the time we donate, the innovations we create that make life better for everyone, or the help we routinely offer to those around us.

Generosity is not the only motivating factor, however. We often donate when we no longer value the items that we are donating but instead value something else that we may obtain by giving up the items. For example, I often give away clothes that I no longer wear. It is not out of my generosity, but out of my own self interest. Sometimes I value more space in my closet more than I value the sweater I purchased two years ago. In giving, I not only benefit the recipient, but benefit myself. The amount I give is also directly related to my income. As my income rises, I give more than I may have given the year before. If my income were to increase by a sudden decrease in taxes, I would be inclined to give even more. Again, I don't have to be generous; I may simply purchase more expensive items and then give away my old items that I no longer value. Regardless of my motives, everyone benefits.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Equal Protection?

One of the serious issues with hate crime laws, other than policing thought, is that the laws are not applied equally and, assuming that they provide any protection for victims at all, do not provide protection equally. Take some of the Virginia hate crime legislation for example.
§ 18.2-57. Assault and battery.
A. Any person who commits a simple assault or assault and battery shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor, and if the person intentionally selects the person against whom a simple assault is committed because of his race, religious conviction, color or national origin, the penalty upon conviction shall include a term of confinement of at least six months, 30 days of which shall be a mandatory minimum term of confinement.
B. However, if a person intentionally selects the person against whom an assault and battery resulting in bodily injury is committed because of his race, religious conviction, color or national origin, the person shall be guilty of a Class 6 felony, and the penalty upon conviction shall include a term of confinement of at least six months, 30 days of which shall be a mandatory minimum term of confinement.

A criminal who randomly targets people is given a less harsh punishment than a criminal who targets people due to their race. A criminal who targets people who wear red clothes somehow does not deserve as harsh a punishment as a criminal who targets people of a certain religion. A criminal who assaults someone for looking at them in the 'wrong way' is no less of a criminal than one who assaults someone for having skin colored the 'wrong way.' Yet the criminals who target people randomly or target people based on some other factor are no kinder or gentler than the criminal who has a politically incorrect motive.

Virginia extends the Class 6 felony classification to a simple assault on someone whom the assailant knew or had reason to know was a law enforcement officer, correctional officer, firefighter, or rescue squad member, and requires a mandatory minimum term of confinement of six months if convicted. Is is any worse for a criminal to assault a police officer than to assault the grandmother down the street? Are the police officer's rights violated more than the grandmother's simply because of his profession?

If we are going to have hate crime laws, why stop at only race, religion, color or national origin? Perhaps some criminals target only people under 5'5" or perhaps they only target people with blonde hair. Perhaps some criminals target people who speak with accents or people who are over 60 years old. Perhaps the criminal targets anyone that he finds annoying. Truth be told, it really doesn't matter much to us why someone's rights were violated. We are only concerned with the fact that the criminal violated someone's rights and the likelihood that the criminal will continue to violate the rights of others.

Hate crime legislation does nothing to decrease hate, and cannot be shown to decrease the amount of crime committed as a result of hate. Its purpose is merely to make a political statement that certain types of intolerant thought should not be tolerated.

Hate Crimes

"Hate crime" legislation is a fairly new phenomenon. In the days before a "hate crime" was a legally definable term, crime was crime. All crimes are somehow motivated by hate -- we don't generally steal from or murder those whom we love. For whatever reason, government agencies seem to enjoy tracking "hate crime statistics" based on their definition of a "hate crime."

Government is not to be the arbiter of all moral questions. It is not to police thought, even thought deemed immoral by many people. Its job is not to denounce hatred motivated by race, nationality, gender or hair color. Its job is not to make value judgments such as hatred based on race is worse than hatred based on jealousy. Yet that is exactly what hate crime legislation does. It punishes one type of thought over another, when the actions taken may be identical.

Quite simply, I am free to like or dislike anyone for any reason. "Hate," as much as we may find it repulsive, does not violate anyone's rights. Forcibly taking someone's life, liberty or property is an action that one must take to violate the rights of another. Government's job, its sole reason for existence, is only to protect people's rights.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Government's Windfall Profits

Gasoline prices have been dropping steadily. Just last week I paid $2.13/gallon. What happened to the greedy oil executives? Did they suddenly decide that profits weren't so important after all? Or perhaps in the absence of hurricanes and other phenomena that shift the demand for oil upward, prices naturally drop.

Although we generally find it best to use a combination of gasoline and automobiles to get from one point to another, as the price rises, other means become more profitable. Long ago, oil companies discovered that the demand for gasoline is not as inelastic as once thought. In one form or another, substitutes abound and people make changes to their lifestyle rather quickly. For example, in the short time that gas prices were high, I noticed that traffic was much lighter, but friends of mine who use public transportation noticed that there were more people who also utilized buses and subways. More people were carpooling or biking. Now that the price of gasoline has dropped, more people have resumed driving to work and traffic seems to have increased.

Oil executives, as much as they would like your money, simply can't force it from you. They have to offer you a deal that you are willing to accept and a deal that is better than a deal from their competitors. Politicians are under no obligation or incentive to offer you either. We complained about gasoline prices rising by $0.25-0.50/gallon in the short run, yet for years we have paid approximately $0.36/gallon in taxes, or more, depending on where you reside. There are 42 gallons in a barrel and we consume approximately 8 million barrels each day. In aggregate, this amounts to $120,960,000.00 per day in windfall profits for the government. (Caveat: some forms of oil receive different levels of taxation. For example, diesel fuel is taxed at five cents more per gallon, whereas home heating fuel is taxed less.) Using the $0.36/gallon approximation, the government receives $10.886 billion per quarter in windfall profits. This is much higher than Exxon Mobil, a company being investigated for earning $10 billion last quarter.

Government makes this windfall profit every quarter. Exxon Mobil does not. Lest we forget, taxes that we pay on oil are only a small portion of the taxes related to the production and distribution of oil. Exxon will pay corporate income taxes on their $10 billion earnings. Exxon employees will pay income, Medicare, and Social Security taxes. Gas stations will pay real estate assessment taxes and will pay taxes on their profits. Trucking companies will pay taxes on their vehicles used to transport oil and truckers will pay income taxes as well. Rather than investigate the "windfall profits" of Exxon Mobil last quarter, perhaps we might investigate the "windfall profits" that our government takes every quarter.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Spending Cuts = Anti-American?

Every so often, I add up the year-to-date amount on the 'taxes' section of my paystub. It's no small percentage of my salary.

The politicians in Washington, D.C. are talking about cutting spending in the tune of $50 billion. (This will have little effect on my paycheck, but it's a start.) However, there are some elected officials who strongly oppose spending cuts.

Nancy Pelosi (D-California) was quoted saying that the spending cuts are, "anti-family, anti-taxpayer and anti-American."

Quite the opposite. As an American taxpayer myself, although I cannot claim to speak for all American taxpayers, I am quite certain that spending cuts are pro-American and pro-taxpayer. The only ones who might disagree are those whom my tax dollars are subsidizing. However, the recipients of beneficial legislation and subsidies are not the American taxpaying families. They are the big businesses that those on the left publicly criticize, yet surreptitiously hand over large sums of money.

There is no question that money is best spent by those whom it is intended to benefit. Just as I would not ask politicians to go to the grocery store and buy whatever they thought I might want, I would not ask politicians to decide what kind or how much education I should pay for, what projects I would like to support, which people I would like to offer assistance, or which industries I would like to shield from competition.

$50 billion dollars, 295,734,134 people in the United States = $169 per person. For the average taxpayer, $169 amounts to less than the federal income tax amount for two weeks' pay. Unlike some politicians who would rather see your money in someone else's pockets, I think we can trust the American taxpayers with a little more of their own money.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Misguided Riots

Many young, unemployed people are rioting in France.

But of course, you knew that. How could you miss the news with pictures of cars set on fire and people running through the streets?

One of the reasons given for the riots is that people have little money and want jobs.

A video from shows a brief interview with some of the young rioters. They claim that there are no jobs, nothing for them to do; another hopes for the government to provide a solution.

Yet those who hope for the government to solve their problems hope in vain. For years, the French government has passed laws that create poverty and unemployment. For years, the French people have demanded that government provide exactly what they want. When the laws that they demand are passed, their situations only worsen.

I don't understand why there is any poverty in France. They have a minimum wage that far exceeds that of the U.S. Shouldn't they be richer than us? Shouldn't all of their poverty have been abolished? France "takes care of its citizens" by providing them with health care, making it more difficult for employers to fire workers, and ensuring that workers aren't overburdened by a 40 hour work week.

CNN notes that France has an unemployment rate of 25% in some areas. Youth unemployment is even higher. Yet people in the U.S. consistently cite the policies of European countries for the U.S. to emulate, without taking into account that consequences will occur.

Allow me to direct you to a paper which examines a trend that was visible nearly ten years ago in France. The trend has only escalated to the point of the riots occurring now. Next time, let us think twice about asking our government to take care of us. Perhaps the French should too.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Cheap Substitutes

In the course of cleaning this afternoon, it crossed my mind that there are many substitutes for flu vaccines -- substitutes that cost less than the billions of dollars that the government wants to pay for subsidizing the development of a vaccine (which may or may not yield any results). These substitutes you probably already own or can access easily.

As I glanced at my can of Lysol, I noticed that not only does it kill mold and mildew, but it also kills the influenza virus. Perhaps if there was an outbreak of avian flu, I might just use Lysol more often.

This, of course, is only one substitute. Staying home, washing your hands, even wearing surgical masks are all ways to prevent infection. But I suppose these methods aren't quite as trendy as vaccines and spending tax dollars. After all, the government has to look like it's "doing something."

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Advice for the President

CNN posted a selection of emails from readers giving advice to President Bush.

I'm glad that the President is not likely to take their suggestions.

Take this one, for example, "Stop and listen, Mr. Bush! We've been trying to tell you what's important to us ... who is it you think you serve again? It's adequate health care, a sound economy, right to quality of life ..."

It's not that people want to give up their own rights, but they are always eager to give up someone else's rights if it serves their own agenda. There is no "right to quality of life" -- you make your own quality of life through your own hard work. There is no right to health care -- you choose how much health care you want and you pay for it.

Or this one, "What about the millions of people here that spend their days wishing, hoping that something, someone could change their life? Bring them food, or a job, or a safe place to live."

It's always nice to propose free lunches with someone else's money, isn't it?

Then there are people who don't know their history and the lessons we've learned from the benefits of moving industries towards deregulation and the negative effects of price controls. They make recommendations like this one: "push legislation to regulate oil companies as public utilities -- just like electric, natural gas and telephone companies. This would require that companies obtain regulatory approval before raising gas prices."

There are people who don't understand opportunity cost and make statements such as this: "The best thing Bush could do is revive the military draft. This war is something we should all share in and not just the bottom 25 percent of high school graduates."

My advice for President Bush will have to wait until another post.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Fighting the Flu

First our government was fighting terror, now it's fighting the flu.

People tend to fear the unknown and unlikely, often neglecting to prepare for the known and likely threats. Unfortunately, politicians have done just that in deciding, with my money and yours, that we need to prepare for the event of a flu pandemic.

How likely it is to occur? Were I the manufacturer of a flu remedy, I'd be the first to know. You can bet that I'd be putting my energy into research & development if I believed a flu pandemic was on the horizon. For the producer, providing flu remedies during a pandemic translates to profits. For the consumer, living in a free market where producers are not discouraged by high taxes and regulations ensures that flu remedies are available when they are most needed. The higher the likelihood and severity of the threat, the more the producers will spend preparing for it. I, as the consumer, don't have to do anything. I can sit at home and type out a new post for my blog. I don't have to worry at all.

But government's recent involvement gives me reason to worry. Perhaps one part of my worry stems from the mixed signals. Take these quotes, from the same article, "There is no evidence that a human pandemic, of H5N1 or any other super-strain, is about to start, Bush said repeatedly," followed by, "'Our country has been given fair warning of this danger to our homeland, and time to prepare,' Bush said."

This "danger," of which there is "no evidence" is reason to take $7.1 billion from your wallets. However, even and especially when the danger is evident, severe and likely, there is no reason for the government to delve deeper into your pockets. As long as the government sticks to its job, the free market and profit seeking firms will find those threats and combat them -- all in the name of making money. Those firms bear the risk when the threats do not occur and when they do. Our wallets only become involved when we decide to purchase their products or invest in their stock.

With the $7.1 billion plan, taxpayers are forced to bear the risk but earn no profit. To be sure, if the government is in charge of flu remedies, they will not be rationed on price, but on a first-come, first-serve basis or on government's assessment of 'need.' If government is providing subsidies for manufacturers, we can be sure that more of the flu remedies will be produced than the intitial expected return warranted.

The flu, even avian flu, is not a new phenomenon. It has existed for centuries at minimum. To suddenly deem it a major threat and claim that companies need the government's help in preparing for an outbreak should cause suspicion.