Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Preserving the past and preventing the future

Our animated little thinker  I recently watched a TV show about the Canyonlands National Park in Utah. One scientist talked about, and demonstrated, the effect of one human footprint on the ecology of that area. That was done by using fans to blow across an area including one footprint, to show that the soil under the footprint blew away while the surrounding land didn't. The footprint crushed bateria that helps hold the soil together. Although the scientist didn't say so, I got the distinct impression that she would prefer to keep people off the land.

Other scientists were exploring the vast park, much of which is still "unexplored" (by modern scientists), and discovering and studying signs of past inhabitants, perhaps back thousands of years. Structures built into cliffs, wall-paintings, and even very old cowboy campgrounds. Again, the unstated implication was that these areas must be protected from tourists.

I have great respect for history, and tend to be inclined toward preservation. It's wondrous that ancient people built ingenious structures and had thriving societies in such an imposing and difficult surrounding. However, one gets the impression that these scientists would like to set aside most of the planet for use only by those studying the past.

Past societies seem to be more important to these scientists than current or recent societies. Of course, studying the past IS their interest, so they want it preserved for extensive study at their leisure.

On the other hand, suppose for a moment that these scientists were working at a time in the past... a time BETWEEN societies they're now studying... after the earliest known, but before the more recent societies. Their attitude at that point in time would have prevented the more recent societies from ever developing. It's very possible that what they're now studying and trying to preserve wouldn't have even occurred if their attitude had been present in the past.

If individuals moved into Canyonlands now, built structures and found a way to survive, they would be ousted and probably charged as criminals... for doing the same thing ancient societies did. Not only would they be violating a national park, but they would be accused of upsetting the ecology and obliterating the past.

Yet, that is exactly what the ancient societies did. They hacked into cliffs, built houses and granaries, and raised crops... no doubt tromping all over the environment in the process, smashing untold bacteria, slaughtering native species, and introducing all sorts of alien life into the ecology.

In the process, we know they wiped out wall-paintings by previous residents and replaced them with their own. Chances are good that they destroyed all signs of previous inhabitants... and may have done so by means of war. Simply put, those old societies made Canyonlands what it is today, and different than it was before they settled there.

What is it that makes those old societies so important that we should prevent any future change? Why should we gasp over what they achieved and then conclude that further achievement should be prevented? As for the effect of humans on the delicate, "self-contained" ecology of an area... why should the current ecology be maintained?

The same area has, and will, see enormous change without humans. The current ecology may well be extremely well balanced, with each part dependent on all other parts, but it is all temporary. No doubt that if one went back a thousand years to the Canyonland area of then, the ecology would have been delicate and balanced, but very different than it is now. Nature effects change continually... seas dry up, may become desert, the ground heaves in spectacular ways, and species come and go... and evolve to survive in the changed ecology. What is delicate and balanced today is so only because it evolved to that state to cope with natural change.

So... what is the point of preservation? It's impossible, to begin with. Change and destruction WILL occur, with or without humans, and preservation is often done in order to study past human presence. Why should humans forcibly try to prevent change, and preserve what is already present? That IS what preservation is about, after all... preserving the past... by preventing the future.

Will future scientists studying an area like Canyonlands be perplexed that there were societies living there for a very long time... until some time in the 20th century... and that after that humans disappeared from the area? Will the few cowboy encampments be the last sign of humans in that vast area? Will they decide that cowboys or cow herds were the end of humans there? Will they wonder about some great catastrophe that eliminated humans then? Will they search for some devastating plague that wiped out all inhabitants?

Those are questions that are often speculated about concerning ancient societies. What happened to them? They just vanished? I suggest to you another possibility, only partially in jest:

I suggest to you that just perhaps... those societies developed scientists and/or ecologists, similar to ours today, who marveled at the still-more-ancient societies they discovered... and convinced (or forced) the rest of their people to MOVE, and set aside the land for no more development... to preserve the past and eliminate human change from that point forward. The result, much later, would look just like that of the ancient vanished societies that puzzle us now. They preserved the past, eliminating all signs of themselves.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Capable of committing a crime

Our animated little thinker Recently, the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld a drunken driving conviction of a man (named Fleck) who was drunk, asleep in his car, in his apartment parking lot, with the car keys on the car's console. The conviction and affirmation were based on Minnesota law that makes it illegal to be in "physical control" of the vehicle... meaning that the drunken person COULD take control of the vehicle.

Chief Justice Alan Page wrote that "Fleck, having been found intoxicated, alone, and sleeping behind the wheel of his own vehicle with the keys in the vehicle's console, was in a position to exercise dominion or control over the vehicle and that he could, without too much difficulty, make the vehicle a source of danger"

We might all agree that drunken drivers are a significant danger, and that they must be stopped and punished severely enough to discourage them from doing it again. I don't have a problem with laws that allow police to stop someone driving erratically and then testing for drunkenness. I do have a problem with such laws that have been expanded and harshened steadily over the years until we have now reached a point of total absurdity.

Guilty for what one MIGHT do? Guilty for what one is CAPABLE of doing? Guilty of "driving while under the influence", but NOT driving? With the car not running? With the driver not conscious? Stop and think about the implications of such law, if applied in other areas.

Could one be convicted of ROBBERY for looking at a store, because he COULD decide to rob it?

Could a man be convicted of RAPE because he is "armed" and physically CAPABLE of doing so?

Can someone with matches in their possession be convicted of ARSON because they COULD have started a fire?

Could someone be convicted of TERRORISM because their garage contains substances that are incendiary and COULD be used to construct an explosive device?

Of course not, or at least so we thought, because one can only be guilty of DOING SOMETHING, not of being CAPABLE OF DOING IT. Even if one is INTENT on doing something wrong, but doesn't actually do it, no crime has been committed... assuming rational judgment.

Under the current DUI law, no harm need be done, no actual danger need be present, and not even intent need be present. Only the CAPABILITY to possibly cause harm is required.

I'm written about the stupidity and destructiveness of "victimless crimes"... crimes when no other person is harmed. I've written about hate crimes as "thought crimes", where extra punishment is meted out because of the reasons behind the crime, but these DUI laws, as they're being interpreted, are CAPABILITY CRIMES.

DUI is not a trivial matter, but it is involved in only about 30% of driving fatalities. Why is such intensity focused on DUI? We've all seen drivers involved in personal distractions that make them a menace to other drivers... eating and drinking while driving, chatting or texting on cellphones. I recall watching one woman curl her eyelashes while driving in rush-hour traffic. The greatest impairment to accident-free driving is, in my opinion, the presence of other people in the car distracting the driver. Probably the most distracting are children. Do we have special penalties for accidents when the driver is impaired in other ways?

Generally, we don't have such special crimes, because drivers encounter many distractions that impair safe driving, not the least of which is the condition of the streets and roads, and the absurd number of signs we're required to notice and respond to instantly.

There are a great many causes of accidents and fatalities, but our laws treat substance impairment very differently, and far more harshly, than all others. There are side issues that
fog our reason when it comes to DUI. Special laws allow police to impound a car when DUI is suspected, and often those impounds become permanent takings... to the extent that police argue about which department will get possession of the car.

Careless, erratic, or even dangerous driving seldom results in arrest. If it does happen to result in a police stop and the driver is NOT under the influence, the matter is likely to end with a warning, even though the CAPABILITY (or even likelihood) of harm is clearly present.

If we allow the current Minnesota DUI interpretation to stand, it WILL serve as precedent for other similar applications of law. A precedent that allows the mere CAPABILITY to commit an offense to be treated as the offense is to turn the law completely upside down.

It seems especially ironic that the Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, Alan Page, used to make his living as a Viking pro football player, where his job was to inflict harm on others, which he did well and famously. Yeah, well, games are different, aren't they... but consider football where penalties are called when a player MIGHT HAVE done something illegal, or because he was CAPABLE of fouling another. The case the Supreme Court ruled on was so patently ridiculous that the football parallel would be penalizing a player on the sidelines because he COULD get into the game and THEN cause harm.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Property being taken by cops? Gosh, we're outraged!

Our animated little thinker The continuing saga of the now-disbanded Twin Cities' Gang Strike Force has caused the Minnesota Legislature to perk up it's ears and identify an opportunity to make some headlines. Here is the StarTribune's headline and sub-head from Tuesday, Dec. 29th:

Minnesota Legislature to take hard look at forfeiture rules
The Gang Strike Force's meltdown could lead to new legislation governing property seizures by law enforcement agencies.

As reporter Randy Furst stated in the article: "the Legislature is swirling with proposals to dramatically change the rules governing forfeiture".

Isn't it encouraging that our elected officials have uncovered a serious problem and are anxious to do something about it? They've found that some individuals were violated by the rotten Gang Strike Force, and they're going to put a stop to it. They're going to protect us from any more such violations.

This is so typical of political hypocrisy. Asset forfeiture has been around for a long time; the Gang Strike Force just took a perfectly normal, legal process and pushed it more blatantly rather than keep it "under the radar" like most police forces.

Yes, asset forfeiture is legal, made so by the legislature who is now pretending to be up in arms about it. They made it legal for law enforcement agencies to take property "involved in a crime", and keep the property for their own use or sale. Naturally, they didn't restrict what "involved in a crime" really meant, so police forces have done very much whatever they damn well pleased.

Asset forfeiture is so embedded into government that it is a major source of income to police departments, and they have to share the booty with other parts of government. The rules were set so that if your property was taken by police, you have to prove that it shouldn't have been... a serious form of guilty until proven innocent... by you, at your expense. It's so easy to take assets that you don't even need a crime, or even a good suspicion of one. If a police force sees an asset they want, they can find a way to get it.

I first wrote about asset forfeiture 6 and a half years ago, and it was a well-established ripoff long before that. The FBI became so expert at doing it that they ran courses for police departments around the country. Government has warehouses full of stolen property.

Read my 2003 article "Another knock on your door" to learn more about how widespread and grievous asset forfeiture is. You might also want to take a look at my 2005 article "How much justice can you afford?" to see how having enough assets to be forfeited can get a criminal off the hook.

I wrote a short blog several years ago about a local case... a well-known sports star was arrested for drunk driving in his luxury SUV. Several local police departments involved in his arrest got into a dispute over which of them should get to keep the SUV, or how they should divide the spoils.

That the Minnesota Legislature should be up in arms about asset forfeiture now is complete hypocrisy. What they're really upset about is that the Gang Strike Force didn't keep good records, pushed it too far, and didn't spread the booty around properly to other government agencies. They didn't STEAL BY THE RULES.

You betcha... they'll take "a hard look" at asset forfeiture, and they'll do no more than tighten the controls to make sure the cities, counties, and state get their split of the stolen goods. Remember this next election, when legislators point to their participation in correcting asset forfeiture laws.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Vacancy, U.S.A.

Our animated little thinker Occasionally, I drive through parts of the Twin Cities that were former haunts of mine. Usually, I am surprised, and a little disappointed, at the changes that have occured since my last visit. Disappointed because what I see doesn't reflect my memories, and surprised that so much growth has taken place in what seems like the blink of an eye.

I drove around the area northwest of the 494/100 exchange. Long ago, I had my graphic design studio in that section, and watched the area grow in spectacular fashion. I also worked in two other buildings on 76th Street, and later had a client, Burgess Publishing, in the far north reaches of that quadrant, did contract work for several years for Delta Dental to the west, and did some work for Carlson Companies nearby.

In the 70's, and later, that quadrant was a hub of a large number of computer-related companies and many other technical and scientific firms. It was such a dynamic place that traffic in and out of it was always difficult.

In the past, Saturday afternoon in that quadrant was as busy as a weekday, with young professionals employed by dynamic companies all scrambling to produce innovative solutions in a market that gave handsome rewards to those who could ride the cutting edge of each technical specialty. In the 30 years since then, my visits had seen mostly cosmetic changes. A bank I watched being built on a vacant lot had turned into more small office space. A new corporate name would be seen once in a while, replacing another I recalled but couldn't name. After the building boom in the 70's filled that area, few structures changed... only the names associated with them.

What I saw today was distressing. Almost all of the buildings I remember are still there; what is missing is people. I drove around that section virtually alone... no traffic at all. The parking lots around buildings were equally vacant. The area not only didn't look dynamic... it looked dead.

Almost every building has a prominent For Lease sign in front. It's not unusual for a building to have vacancies, but I got the unnerving feeling that these buildings have serious vacancies. The area east of there, along the 494 frontage road, looks even worse... vacant lots where buildings once stood, a huge and apparently empty office building, and three major stores empty in the mall near 100. I knew that Circuit City had closed, but so did CompUSA and another large store, leaving half of that big-store mall vacant. A large store, with a great glass facade and plentiful parking in front, now dark with only the outlines of the old sign on the front, is a spooky sight, almost like visiting old ruins. In the past, as now, businesses failed, but they were usually promptly replaced by another, eager for good retail space.

I ended my tour by stopping at the Galleria, as I often do. I enjoy going there because, unlike so many other retail spaces today, it is prosperous. I usually buy a magazine at Barnes and Noble and have a leisurely latte at Starbucks. As used to be true everywhere, Galleria is busy, and ever-changing. Even though I seldom buy anything else, just walking through a prosperous mall is encouraging.

I'm worried about what I saw today. It's the visible reality of an economy that has been squeezed by terrible governmental economic policies. As I walked through the book store, I caught a glance of a book about the man most responsible for those insane economic ideas... John Maynard Keynes. His suggestion that government should borrow and spend when it's broke, and intervene in all aspects of the economy has been eagerly picked up by those politicians trying to build a legacy of powerful action... from Franklin Roosevelt right up until Barack Obama. The policies have never worked and never can, but they do allow politicians to be seen as taking spectacular action, while hiding the fact that huge debts are always passed on to future generations.

Just once in my lifetime, I would like to witness a politician, challenged by some reporter with "what do you plan to do about that problem", and hear the politician answer "Nothing... it's not the government's job, and the market will fix itself". Until I start to hear such answers, I fully expect to take more driving tours and watch as our nation continues to stagnate and decay.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Put your trust in the government

Our animated little thinker How often are we told that we can't trust private businesses to produce safe products, because they're only interested in increasing their profit? The word greed is usually applied liberally in such reports. We're told that only the government can be trusted with our safety, so we have innumerable government agencies who issue regulations, perform inspections, and levy heavy fines when infractions are found.

Of course, all that work done by the agencies increases the cost of everything we buy, but we're assured that the results are that we're far safer We put our trust in the government... they're not driven by that ugly old bottom line profit.

So... how do the agencies perform for our safety? Here's an example - The General Accounting Office was asked to investigate the food safety procedures used by the Agriculture Department for food distributed through the federal school lunch and breakfast program, which deals with 30 million school children. This was the result:
Federal authorities failed to tell schools about recalls of potentially tainted peanut products and canned vegetables, and cafeterias may have unknowingly served them to children.
They knew about problems (which is good) but they didn't pass the information along to the schools (which is not good). It really doesn't help to know about problems if you don't tell the people getting the food.

Understand now... this wasn't a one-time problem, this was a problem with their procedures that might have been happening for a long time, and might still be happening if someone hadn't asked for an investigation. In fact, until they finish "working on new recall policies" it might be happening today.

If you can't trust the government to send safe food to the kids, what can you trust them to do?

If that problem had occured with a private business, what do you think the result would be? Major fines? Losing a government contract? Business folding? Jobs lost? What do you think happened within the Agriculture Department? You think heads rolled? I doubt it... they're probably government union employees, just doing their job. I suspect it will be business as usual. They're really responsible to nobody. If your child got sick as a result, could you sue? Sorry, can't sue the government.

I love the response from the Agriculture Secretary, who said... safety is of utmost importance and his department is working on new recall policies.

Safety is of utmost importance? Are you reassured?

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The retardation of America

reprinted from 09/22/04, as Obama urges children to stay in school
Our animated little thinker Yesterday, I claimed that literacy in the U.S. has declined, despite a long-standing, expensive, enforced governmental school system. Understanding how that can be true is basic to understanding many of our nation's current problems.

In his book "The Underground History of American Education", John Taylor Gatto uses as a measure of earlier reading ability the fact that the novel "Last of the Mohicans", published in 1826, sold 5 million copies within a then-population of 20 million Americans. This was popular, casual reading for entertainment. I'm reproducing below the first paragraph of that book, so that you can judge for yourself whether we have progressed or declined in our reading ability since then.
It was a feature peculiar to the colonial wars of North America, that the toils and dangers of the wilderness were to be encountered before the adverse hosts could meet. A wide and apparently an impervious boundary of forests severed the possessions of the hostile provinces of France and England. The hardy colonist, and the trained European who fought at his side, frequently expended months in struggling against the rapids of the streams, or in effecting the rugged passes of the mountains, in quest of an opportunity to exhibit their courage in a more martial conflict. But, emulating the patience and self-denial of the practiced native warriors, they learned to overcome every difficulty; and it would seem that, in time, there was no recess of the woods so dark, nor any secret place so lovely, that it might claim exemption from the inroads of those who had pledged their blood to satiate their vengeance, or to uphold the cold and selfish policy of the distant monarchs of Europe.
Consider carefully now... this was popular leisure reading for ordinary Americans. It had been just 50 years since the founding of our nation. Both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams would die in 1826. The internal combustion engine was patented that year, and the first photograph was made. There were just 24 states, and no more would be added for another 10 years. Much of the nation was still "territory", and the vast majority of Americans were either farmers or what we would consider "blue-collar" workers.

No public schools, no compulsory education, yet Americans of 1826 were more literate than we are today. Not just some, but a huge percentage of Americans were literate. By 1826, these were not immigrants who received education elsewhere, but people who had been born and raised here, most under conditions we would now consider hardship... and they were building a nation in the process.

Learning to read, in 1826, was simply accepted as normal... as normal as learning to ride a horse, shoot a gun, and a hundred other skills needed for everyday life. It was simply expected and done. Parents helped, older children helped, and it just happened... to almost everyone. They weren't taught to read... they just learned.

How much literacy has declined isn't important. What is important to understand is that individuals learn... to read or do anything else... with or without formal schooling... if they think it is important.

The imposition of compulsory schooling was a serious turning point in our nation's development. The idea that we should all surrender our children to government schools for training was pushed for reasons that should make today's liberals as angry as it does those of the religious right, who object because those schools are secular. The primary movers behind public education were the industrialists liberals so love to hate. Those industrialists wanted to create a manageable, docile, trained workforce, so they pushed the Prussian model... efficient, lockstep, and controlled.

It would be easy to blame the "robber barons" for pushing public education, but it would not have been possible without governmental edicts to make it happen, and without tax money to make it possible. If we're to place blame, it must be with the lawmakers, for only they hold the power to "make it so".

Today, we're told that education is a national necessity... that we must spend ever-increasing amounts of money for our children's' sake... and we have. We're forced to place our children in school at an early age and keep them there for many years. Their teachers are now considered "professionals", trained specifically for their work, and the educational system is massive and carefully controlled, by local government, state government, and, increasingly, our national government. We have a system of well-paid "experts" and "professionals" continually experimenting with our children's education.

We "progressed" from virtually no educational system at all, with learning eagerly done because it was expected and desired, to a colossal, forced-feeding system... and the results don't come close to matching what we once had. Our educational system isn't, as we're told, failing a few. If we believe that "No Child Left Behind" is our goal, then we have to begin by accepting the judgment that we have failed ALL of our children. We have accepted the forcible imposition of a system that has literally destroyed most of our children's natural love of learning.

If I consider all of the aspects of our current state of affairs as a nation, I find many that are seriously disturbing, and taken together, those disturbing aspects lead me to conclude that our nation is aimed directly at massive failure. If we open our eyes and judge honestly, it isn't difficult to see the signs that we are following in the footsteps of many other dominant societies that have fallen.

When I ask myself the question "Where did America go wrong"? I can point to many tragic turns, but I repeatedly return to our educational system as being the primary factor in perverting a magnificent opportunity into a continuous decline. What that educational system has done that is unforgivable... to have avoided most knowledge of what made our people and our nation great, and replaced it with rhetoric designed to convince us that only government can solve problems.

That system has dulled our brains and turned us into compliant servants of a "planned" nation. It has taught us that we are mere resources in a grandiose planned nation, and for the most part, it has convinced us.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Opposing ObamaCare without understanding the plan

Our animated little thinker I have to admit that I haven't spent much time trying to understand the President's health care proposal, yet I feel completely justified in being opposed to it. To some of you, what I just said should exclude me from even discussing the issue... how can you oppose something you know little about? Some would think that I might be a staunch Republican opposed to anything Obama and/or the Democrats propose. Nope. I would oppose a similar plan from Republicans. What I do know about the proposed plan is quite enough to oppose it, and that's what I want to explain to you.

I know this... that it's a BIG, FEDERAL, GOVERNMENT plan that promises to improve health care through government control. No more information about the proposal is needed to oppose it. There is simply NO plan with those characteristics that can possibly improve life in our nation. Why? We've been through it a hundred times with other BIG FEDERAL GOVERNMENT PLANS to save us from ourselves, and those BIG FEDERAL GOVERNMENT PLANS always have the following results:

They get far bigger than expected.
They cost far more than expected.
They become entrenched because they eliminate alternatives.
They become untouchable because they create entitled groups.
They become seriously inefficient because they have no competition.
They become politically corrupt because of the big bucks being tossed around.
They present prime opportunities for fraud and cheaters.
They decay because they cannot adapt to changing circumstances.
They shift increasing cost burdens to future generations.
They always have serious unintended consequences.

In a nutshell, BIG FEDERAL GOVERNMENT PLANS cannot work well, ever, regardless of who plans them. We need look no further for proof than to very similar BIG FEDERAL GOVERNMENT PLANS such as Social Security and Medicare.

Be assured that those plans do benefit some people. I get a Social Security check every month. Medicare has covered some of my medical expenses. How can I complain? My first complaint is that I had no choice. I was forced to participate. There is no way for me to be satisfied with my personal "results". If I die too soon, I will not receive back what I was forced to contribute. Unlike private investments, the excess will not go to my beneficiaries. If I live too long, others will be forced to fund my future checks. No, I cannot delude myself into thinking that the "government" will be responsible if I live too long... government just passes the tab along to younger people, like my own children and grandchildren.

You think that's a pleasant thought to live with? I occasionally ask students I'm speaking to how they like the idea of supporting me, a stranger to them, in my old age. They get rather pained looks on their young faces. I go on to explain how much worse those plans are becoming, and that those plans could easily bankrupt our nation.

No, Social Security and Medicare are not just bad examples of BIG FEDERAL GOVERNMENT PLANS... they are typical examples. BIG FEDERAL GOVERNMENT PLANS cannot work well, which brings me to one more result of such plans that I hate with a particular passion.

Big plans have BIG cracks. Any oversight or error becomes magnified. Large bureaucracies inevitably have flaws and oversights, but they have BIG flaws and oversights. With such BIG FEDERAL GOVERMENT PLANS, however, those individuals who fall through the cracks can become ensnared in a pit from which there is no escape. The individuals have become dependent on the system working properly. When it doesn't work properly, their very lives can be put at risk while they wait for a massive impersonal system to respond... or not. They have no alternative.

Let me explain why I'm so sure about BIG FEDERAL GOVERNMENT plans. I've spent a lot of my life making and implementing BIG PLANS. It's an approach that comes naturally to me. I tend to naturally think "outside the box" and in broad scope. As a result, I'm very aware of the inevitable faults that all big plans have. The old truism "anything that can go wrong will go wrong" is quite true. But... there is a huge difference between a BIG PLAN from me and a BIG PLAN from the FEDERAL GOVERNMENT. Ever notice that those in government don't take responsibility for anything that goes wrong? They deny problems for a long time, dismiss them as exceptions, blame them on somebody else, or simply throw still more tax money at the system to make you believe they're doing something. They're also expert at producing grand propaganda to control public opinion.

Of all the PLANS that can be conceived by anyone anywhere... of any size and scope... there are none more predisposed to disastrous results than a BIG FEDERAL GOVERNMENT PLAN, and ObamaCare is all that... in spades.