Progressive policies with conservative rhetoric?

I wonder whether it would be possible to advance a progressive policy agenda that was cloaked in conservative rhetoric.

For example, it is currently legal for police to use unlimited force to produce compliance with their orders, even illegal orders. Essentially, you are forced to stop going about your business, comply with whatever the police tell you to do, allow them to search you and whatever you’re carrying, tolerate an indefinite delay, even let them take you to the police station if they chose, all without offering any sort of resistance.

Any questioning of their actions or inquiry into its lawful basis can be interpreted as “resistance,” and any degree of resistance, no matter how minimal, is considered legal justification for the police to beat you up, taser you, pepper-spray you, or even shoot and kill you—and they will suffer no consequence beyond (perhaps) a brief period of paid leave.

People of color have borne the brunt of these sorts of police actions for a long time. With the advent of ubiquitous cameras we have now seen many people of color murdered while offering up either no resistance at all, or such minimal resistance that it should shock the conscience to see lethal force used. We have also seen many white people granted great deference by police under circumstances where a black person would have been killed.

This is the circumstance that led to the “black lives matter” slogan.

Many people—especially, I suspect, many Trump voters—object to this slogan, preferring to suggest that “all lives matter.”

Many liberals and leftists look to a willingness to say “black lives matter” as a marker that you’re on the right side of this issue.

My question is, could a political candidate who was on the right side of this issue (and many other issues, such as using the threat of jail to balance town budgets on the backs of indigent people) couch his objections in terms that would not offend Trump voters, while still pushing for good policies? And would such a politician be able to get support from both sides of the political divide?

For example, I’d like to see a policy that said that resistance to an unlawful order from a police officer was legal and that any force used by the officer to produce compliance was an illegal assault—the officer should be prosecuted. I’d like to see a policy that any monies extracted from an indigent person under threat of jail be considered the proceeds of an illegal extortion scheme—everyone involved in the extortion should be prosecuted, the money returned, and the original fine forgiven.

If a politician were to propose such ideas, but describe them with terms like “all lives matter,” or “protecting liberty and private property rights,” could such a politician draw support from both sides?

I’m doubtful. But I’d like to see it.

Rodney Davis questionnaire response

Congressman Rodney Davis has a questionnaire asking for constituent input on questions of the day.

I filled it out some weeks ago (in mid-December) and found some of the questions to be . . . . Well, here. This is what I sent to his office after I posted my questionnaire response:

Several of the questions on your recent survey were hard to answer, because an accurate answer might be taken as supporting a position that is the opposite from what I intend. These two in particular:

“Do you believe we need to shore up Medicare so it’s available to future generations?”

Of course I support preserving Medicare. However, I would  oppose any changes in the basic design of how Medicare makes healthcare available to seniors. In particular, I would strongly oppose turning it into some kind of voucher program.

My understanding is that, together with the cost savings provided by Obamacare, Medicare is very close to being fully funded. It seems quite possible that no changes are needed going forward. Depending on the details of health care costs and payrolls in the future, it may be that some additional funding will be required, but that is the question for the future.

“Do you believe Congress must provide proper oversight of the VA to ensure our veterans are receiving the care they deserve?”

Again, providing oversight is exactly what Congress should do. However, I would oppose giving the VA additional mandates—either in terms of the care they are to provide, or in terms of the reporting they are required to provide—unless those mandates are fully funded.

I have no sense that the VA is doing anything other than providing the best care they can with the resources provided. Congress’s deeper obligation, beyond oversight, is to provide the resources necessary to care for our veterans.

I expect to go on pestering Congressman Rodney Davis on a near-monthly basis for the next two years.

These lies make it easy to find our allies

What’s up with the very peculiar behavior of our new president and his bizarre insistence on telling lies that are easily detected as lies?

I’ve seen several suggestions about what might be going on. Two worth mentioning are Trump’s Constant Lying Is a Power Game and Hannah Arendt Explains How Propaganda Uses Lies to Erode All Truth. Both make the point that the purpose of the lie is not to fool anybody. Rather, it’s an expression of power.

Compelling people who know better to repeat your lies in their own words dramatically displays your complete control over them. Yes, there was a certain schadenfreude to seeing Christie and Rubio parroting Trump’s lies when they were angling for the VP slot or a cabinet post, but there are additional dangers in rendering even powerful people powerless—it means even more power is captured by the person at the top.

All of which is a bit tangential to my point, which is to recognize one good thing about this. Sad and disturbing as the situation is, these lies make it easy to find our allies: The news organizations that identify the lies and present them as such are on the side of right and truth.

Other strategies exist for identifying our allies, but most of them have turned out to be vulnerable to being co-opted by the bad guys.

This one is different.

Yes, an organization under the sway of the bad guys could attempt to do the same thing only backwards—call out the truth as a lie—but that’s pretty easy to spot. No one would be fooled for long.

They could, I suppose, call out actual lies as lies, and then (having built up some credibility) try to slip in an occasional falsehood as the truth, but that’s not going to be a successful strategy for the long term, unless maybe there’s a single issue that you really want to fool people about.

No, the strategy of calling out lies as lies will turn out to be uniquely available to the good guys, which means that we’ll be able to know which news organizations (and other organizations) are on the side of right and truth.

Sure, there’ll be a bit of extra work on our part—identifying the lies and documenting them, taking the time to pick a random few stories and digging into the data to see if the story is true (and the supposed lie an actual lie).

It’s important not to see that as pointless or hopeless work. It’s not like emptying the sea with a teaspoon, even if it may seem like that (because the supply of lies is vast and renewable). Think of it rather as collecting a bit of seawater for the purpose of making some artisan sea salt: The point is not to empty the sea, but to gather a bit of seasoning to use in the service of a larger project.

The larger project is what’s important, not emptying the sea. And there’s the bonus benefit that doing the work marks you as one of the good guys, and that’s something that’s good for all of us to know.

Volunteer Snow Removal Program?

So this is great and all, but how lame is it that we need a volunteer program to clear sidewalks? Isn’t this something that the land owners should have been doing right along?

C-U Safe Routes to School Project is launching a volunteer snow removal program with the support of MTD and the Urbana School District. When snow remains on sidewalks and builds up to block sidewalks, ramps, and intersections, the daily journeys of students and other community members become more dangerous as they must move into the street to find a clear path. This includes our riders.

Source: Volunteer Snow Removal Program | The Inside Lane

This is my stop if I take the bus to the Urbana Library.

Second passports for expensive

This sort of thing was a fantasy of mine, back in the 1980s. I could see things getting worse in the US, and the idea that a foreign passport and foreign residency could provide an escape if things got too bad was pretty appealing.

Nowadays not so much. It’s not that things have gotten better in the US; it’s that things have gotten worse other places at least as quickly. More to the point, things getting worse in the US seems to make things worse other places, so the conditions that make the idea appealing are the same conditions that make it pointless.

One book that substantially influenced my thinking in this area is Emergency: This book will save your life by Neil Strauss. I recommend it highly. In entertaining and informative prose, he documents his transformation from just the sort of kook I was in the 1980s into somebody with a much more practical perspective.

Still, an EU passport might have its upsides. Anybody got a spare quarter million euros and an interest in learning Greek? (If money is no object, a half million euros will let you buy in to Ireland, and I expect learning Gaelic is optional.)

Graphic from Citizenship for Sale on the International Monetary Fund’s IMFDirect blog.


Are we reaching the end of “escalate faster”?

For about a generation now the police in the U.S. have followed a general practice of escalating any confrontation, with the intention of escalating faster than the opposition can respond. This has saved lives, but I think we’ve reached the point where the negative consequences of this practice are becoming highly visible in a way that’s going to force changes.

The police still patrol in ones and twos the way they always did, but starting in maybe the 1970s they quit responding to confrontations that way. At the first sign of trouble, they’d call for backup. A confrontation with one person would be met by four or six officers. A confrontation with several people would be met by a dozen officers. A confrontation with an armed individual would be met by countless officers with rifles and shotguns.

In many cases this has no doubt saved lives. Certainly it has saved the lives of police officers, but it has probably saved the lives of suspects who were persuaded to surrender in the face of overwhelming force.

The problem with this tactic is that it’s obviously inappropriate in many circumstances. It’s basically a military tactic—hit with overwhelming force—and the general public views it that way and reacts with scorn (when used against people who are obviously harmless) together with either fear (when used against people like them) or shame (when they see it used in their name).

And that last, I think, is the change that’s going to make a difference: People feel shame when they see a rapid escalation to a disproportionate use of force done in their name, and they’re seeing it more in this age of smart phones.

So far when rapid escalation leads to uses of force that seem clearly unnecessary or disproportionate, and yet police officers face few or no consequences, people have been surprised. They shouldn’t be. The whole point is that these practices are codified in law and in the procedures the police departments follow. When the police rapidly escalate a confrontation they aren’t doing anything illegal, and they aren’t violating police department policies.

And those things—laws and procedures—are what need to change. Fortunately, in a democracy, when the public decides something ought to change there is a real chance of change forthcoming.

So, what do we do instead? We can go back to what policing ought to be—attempting to deescalate confrontations, reserving escalation for cases where public safety really requires it.

There are many instances where violence is a possible result—where somebody is angry or drunk or stoned or stupid or having a psychotic break or just a really bad day. In many instances violence could be avoided with deescalation.

For a very long time—as long as there has been government, right up until recent decades—escalation had to be slow, because the communication options and the manpower available didn’t allow for rapid escalation. There tended to be one representative of the government—a sheriff or tax collector—who kept order largely through moral suasion, together with having some call on overwhelming force (in the form of a posse or a platoon of redcoats or something). Unless a situation was such that calling in the marines would be appropriate, it pretty much had to be handled through deescalation rather than escalation.

Many of the lives saved by rapid escalation are police officers’ lives. Many of the people who will be saved through deescalation are not especially sympathetic—the petty criminal, the drunk, the mental patient, the burly man who is developmentally disabled. But others are, and we’re beginning to see the losses as part of a pattern, rather than as a series of unfortunate incidents.

When a guy has a stroke at the wheel of his car, manages to stop it, but is unable to respond to a police officer’s instructions (“Show me your hands! License and registration! Get out of the vehicle!”), what is the police officer’s appropriate response? Knowing the situation, obviously calling an ambulance. But under current polices there’s far too much chance that the guy will be dragged out of his car, roughed up, and dumped in the drunk tank until brain damage from the stroke is irreversible. Or, if he doesn’t have white skin, very possibly shot instead.

Now that we’re seeing people die at the hands of the police, and now that we’re hearing the testimony that these killings are legal and are in accordance with police department policy, we may finally see some changes in the laws and the policies.

Because that, rather than feelings of anger or shame, is what will make the difference.

A shift to deescalation will probably mean that people will die who might have lived. But people are dying now. People will die either way. A shift to deescalation may mean fewer people will die. It will almost certainly mean that fewer people will be shamefully killed in my name.

Coming around on gun control

I have long opposed most sorts of gun control. The main reason is the same reason I oppose drug prohibition: There is no way to enforce a ban on a thing, except through police-state tactics (and I don’t like living in a police state).

How do you ban a thing? You can pass a law against possession, but that law is unenforceable except by house-to-house searches. You can’t even enforce a ban on carrying concealed weapons except by stopping and frisking everyone out on the street. (Please don’t suggest only stopping and frisking “suspicious” people, unless you have first-hand experience with looking like one.) Since there’s no victim to report the crime (“I was illegally possessed at!”), you only find the criminals by chance, unless you’re willing to go full war-on-drugs with undercover agents, coerced informants, wiretaps, search warrants executed by SWAT teams and so on.

You could impose a high penalty on possession of a gun, and then only enforce the law when a gun came to the attention of the police. That would probably get the guns off the street—a gun hidden under the floorboards isn’t much of a threat—except of course for the “only criminals will have guns” issue: High penalties don’t much deter people who are already committing crimes with high penalties. Plus, it leads to all the classic slippery-slope arguments. Selective enforcement (searches used to harass disfavored people) and unfair results (unlucky people spending 20 years in prison for a gun they didn’t know was in the boxes of grandfather’s personal effects) being just two of the downsides.

Besides, guns are useful tools. If we have a ban that applies as well to the police and the military, then we’ve denied them tools that they may need to do their jobs. But if the ban doesn’t apply to them, then we have to draw the line in a specific place—or a series of specific places. If police qualify, how about campus police? Transit police? Park rangers? Do bodyguards qualify? How about armored-truck guards? Stalking victims? The result is once again selective enforcement and unfair results, this time with a side order of political shenanigans.  Some people who need the tool will be denied it. Other people who thought they were allowed the tool will have their lives destroyed when a court rules that they were not.

Much more sound than laws against things is laws against behavior. It’s illegal everywhere to shoot someone or to threaten someone with a gun or even to discharge a gun in a populated area. These are the sorts of laws that gun-control opponents always point to as the right way to control guns. But they self-evidently don’t work. Even if you discount suicides and accidents, there are 12,000 homicides a year in the United States—with about 90% committed with a firearm.

So, what other behaviors could we regulate? There is often talk of regulating the sale of firearms. Being in the business of selling firearms is already extensively regulated, but currently it’s legal to sell (or give away) a firearm without being in the business—sales between friends and gifts between relatives are legal, and don’t require that you be a licensed firearms dealer. That could be changed. You could make selling firearms be like selling prescription drugs, which only a licensed pharmacist can do. Many currently legal, perfectly ordinary behaviors would be illegal, or else the laws would have to be very carefully drafted. Could a father buy his son his first .22 rifle? Could an Olympic-champion riflewoman let her aspiring-sharpshooter daughter take mom’s match-grade pistol to the shooting range to practice with? If a down-on-his luck man pawned a family heirloom firearm, would he be committing a crime if the pawn shop owner’s firearms license were not in order? What if the pawn shop clerk were a felon?

Registering guns is often proposed, although I don’t see how doing so would reduce violence. Further, I think gun-owner fears of gun registries being useful primarily as a tool for eventual confiscation is well-founded: What other use would a registry have? The parallel is less with registering cars (which are big and operate in public where people can see them) and more with registering typewriters (which are small and are generally used in private).

Illinois has long had a registry of “allowed gun buyers,” which is somewhat less pernicious than a list of guns: It would still provide a list of places to search, if things trended even further toward a police state, but it would do so without providing what amounts to a master of list of guns to be seized. In fact, I would fully support such a scheme, if it were automatic: Every adult who has not been convicted of a felony or violent misdemeanor, nor adjudicated as dangerous or incompetent in some other fashion, should be on the list of those allowed to buy guns. The government could automatically strike people from the list upon conviction or commitment to a mental institution (with an appropriate appeals process to correct errors). Or people could file a simple form to ask to be taken off the list, if they had some personal objection. It’s basically the instant background check from the opposite direction.

I will say this, though—gun control advocates are finally on the right track, in attempting to mobilize public opinion. For the past thirty years, members of a small, mostly liberal elite have been trying to use their influence over government officials to pass gun control. But with public opinion so divided, legislative sausage-making has produced laws that are pointless and ineffective, full of easily ridiculed loopholes, but still with traps for the unwary gun-owner to commit a technical violation that leads to harsh sentences, without reducing the number of guns or making them less dangerous. (I am thinking in particular of the so-called assault rifle ban that ended up merely banning a handful of cosmetic details.)

And yet, I am nearly brought around. I am ready to support gun control legislation, if something can be found that would actually reduce violence (or at least its severity), doesn’t require police-state tactics to enforce, and doesn’t send people to prison simply because their papers are not in order.

That last is non-negotiable for me, an attitude puts closer than I’d like to be to unsavory company on other issues, such as immigration, where I agree with many Republicans that I think we should control our borders better. It’s because the other tactics of keeping our population density low are ineffective, unless we empower the police to check people’s papers. If we want the higher standard of living that comes from living well below carrying capacity—and I do—we can’t let just everybody live here. But having a category of “illegal” people forces immigrants to live outside the rules that promote the health, safety and prosperity of everybody, for fear of deportation. That risks the health, safety, and prosperity of all of us.

I’m no happier with letting police demand my firearm paperwork, and send me to prison if it’s not in order, than I am with letting police demand my citizenship papers against similar consequences.

I also think playing with guns is fun, and would be sad if they were banned. But I would give up playing with guns, if I thought it would prevent a large fraction of 11,000 murders a year. I don’t see a clear path from here to there, but I have joined the mass of people trying to find one.

Let’s abolish time zones and DST!

Time zones are an anachronism from the days of railroads and pocket watches. They should be abolished. Instead of time zones, we should all use local solar time.

From the dawn of man everyone always used local solar time. We kept right on using it even after clocks became common. Time zones were created because it was too computationally complex to maintain train schedules when each town the train passed through was on local solar time. (In the days of stage coaches the inherent schedule variability produced by using horses to travel over unimproved roads was so large as to make the variations in local solar time insignificant.)

Computational complexity is no longer an issue. Nowadays everyone walks around with a supercomputer in his or her pocket. Those very same supercomputers also already have the one other thing needed to make local solar time practical: GPS positioning. (Because knowing the local solar time requires knowing where you are.)

Shifting to local solar time would be almost unnoticeable for most people—they’d just carry on checking their phone for the time the way they do now.

The only practical change would be that any mention of a particular time would have to include the location—which people already do informally anyway. If you schedule a meeting for 10:00 AM in conference room B, everybody would know that you mean 10:00 AM local solar time. If you’re scheduling a teleconference that some people will attend remotely, you’re already providing the time zone—and most often you’re providing it by reference to the local city (Chicago time, Bangalore time), which is exactly what you’re going to need for local solar time.

As long as the time of an event includes a location, your phone will be able to calculate the time at your current location (or at any other location you might care about).

Some people that I’ve described this system to object that two people on opposite sides of town would always be off-schedule, and always be having to go through gyrations to do ordinary stuff like arranging lunch plans. “Are we meeting at 11:45 at the restaurant, or 11:45 at my office?” This will simply not be an issue.

Social convention will quickly make the matter clear. When you say “I’ll pick you up at 11:45 at your office, and then we’ll meet everyone else at 12:00 at the restaurant,” everyone will assume the first time is local solar time at the office and the second time is local solar time at the restaurant. And in any case, the difference is insignificant. Local solar time changes by just a few seconds for each mile you move east or west, so even in a vast metropolitan area like Los Angeles, you’re talking about a difference of perhaps three minutes from one side to the other.

Giving you an alert 5 or 10 minutes ahead of a meeting that will be happening some miles to your east or west will be easy enough for your pocket supercomputer to handle. Certainly it’s less complicated than adjusting the alert time based on travel time from your current location, which many calendar systems are already beginning to handle. Adjusting for both at the same time is a simple matter of addition.

As a bonus, switching to local solar time has a reasonable shot at ending the perversion that “daylight saving” time has always been. When you live in a time zone whose borders are already arbitrary, it seems only a little more arbitrary to offset the clocks by yet another hour. Once we’re on local solar time—where local noon is when the sun is at its peak—it will seem preposterous to call that time 1:00 PM.

Abolish time zones! Return to local solar time!

Suspected terrorists

People are making a big deal right now about how it’s obviously stupid that “suspected” terrorists can buy guns, but can’t get on planes. But nobody seems to be pointing out how it’s terribly unamerican that there’s even a category of “suspected” terrorists.

Until 15 years ago, you were presumed innocent until you were convicted of a crime. Yes, there was a category of “indicted” that was kind of in-between—but there was a clear legal process for how you got there, and a clear path to resolving the in-between state.

I really object to the idea that someone who has been convicted of no crime can be put into a category that denies them any of their constitutional rights. The gun nuts are putting a special premium on the right to be armed, but what about the right to travel?

The government, in the few court cases that have had at least some proceedings so far, has put a lot of weight on the idea that you don’t have to be able to fly to exercise your right to travel. You can still walk, after all. If you’re overseas you can buy a yacht and sail to the U.S, and the lawyers for the government seem to think that resolves the right-to-travel issue.

The fact that the process for getting into this state of “not convicted of a crime but still lack the rights of a normal person” is opaque and uncontestable is bad, but really doesn’t bother me as much as the state existing at all.

I am slowly coming around on the gun-control issue, but I wouldn’t mind preserving the status quo just for a bit, as a way to focus the mind on the broader issue: We used to have constitutional rights, and nowadays the most basic of them—being deprived of liberty without due process—has been constantly violated for fourteen years.