Quotulatiousness

July 27, 2015

The “Ferguson Effect”

Filed under: Law,Politics,USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Radley Balko explains why the concerns and worries of police officials have been totally upheld by the rising tide of violence against police officers in the wake of the events in Ferguson … oh, wait. No, that’s not what happened at all:

The “Ferguson effect,” you might remember, is a phenomenon law-and-order types have been throwing around in an effort to blame police brutality on protesters and public officials who actually try to hold bad cops accountable for an alleged increase in violence, both general violence and violence against police officers.

The problem is that there’s no real evidence to suggest it exists. As I and others pointed out in June, while there have been some increases in crime in a few cities, including Baltimore and St. Louis County, there’s just no empirical data to support the notion that we’re in the middle of some national crime wave. And while there was an increase in killings of police officers in 2014, that came after a year in which such killings were at a historic low. And in any case, the bulk of killings of police officers last year came before the Ferguson protests in August and well before the nationwide Eric Garner protests in December.

Now, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund has released its mid-year report on police officers’ deaths in 2015. Through the end of June, the number of officers killed by gunfire has dropped 25 percent from last year, from 24 to 18. Two of those incidents were accidental shootings (by other cops), so the number killed by hostile gunfire is 16. (As of today, the news is even better: Police deaths due to firearms through July 23 are down 30 percent from last year.)

[…]

A typical officer on a typical stop is far more likely to die of a heart attack than to be shot by someone inside that car.

It’s important to note here that we’re also talking about very small numbers overall. Police officer deaths have been in such rapid decline since the 1990s that when taken as percentages, even statistical noise in the raw figures can look like a large swing one way or the other. And if we look at the rate of officer fatalities (as opposed to the raw data), the degree to which policing has gotten safer over the last 20 years is only magnified.

But the main takeaway from the first-half figures of 2015 is this: If we really were in the midst of a nationwide “Ferguson effect,” we’d expect to see attacks on police officers increasing. Instead, we’re seeing the opposite. That’s good news for cops. It’s bad news for people who want to blame protesters and reform advocates for the deaths of police officers.

July 26, 2015

The problems when you try to resolve complicated discrimination problems with laws

Filed under: Business,Law,Liberty,USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Warren Meyer explains why he — who organized and lead an effort to legalize gay marriage in Arizona — is not reflexively in favour of using the blunt force of the law to “solve” problems of discrimination:

There are multiple problems with non-discrimination law as currently implemented and enforced in the US. Larger companies, for example, struggle with disparate impact lawsuits from the EEOC, where statistical metrics that may have nothing to do with past discrimination are never-the-less used to justify discrimination penalties.

Smaller companies like mine tend to have a different problem. It is an unfortunate fact of life that the employees who do the worst job and/or break the rules the most frequently tend to be the same ones with the least self-awareness. As a result, no one wants to believe their termination is “fair”, no matter how well documented or justified (I wrote yesterday that I have personally struggled with the same thing in my past employment).

Most folks grumble and walk away. But what if one is in a “protected group” under discrimination law? Now, not only is this person personally convinced that their firing was unfair, but there is a whole body of law geared to the assumption that their group may be treated unfairly. There are also many lawyers and activists who will tell them that they were almost certainly treated unfairly.

So a fair percentage of people in protected groups whom we fire for cause will file complaints with the government or outright sue us for discrimination. I will begin by saying that we have never lost a single one of these cases. In one or two we paid someone a nominal amount just to save legal costs of pursuing the case to the bitter end, but none of these cases were even close.

[…]

To make all this worse, many employees have discovered a legal dodge to enhance their post-employment lawsuits (I know that several advocacy groups in California recommend this tactic). If the employee suspects he or she is about to be fired, they will, before getting fired, claim all sorts of past discrimination. Now, when terminated, they can claim they where a whistle blower that that their termination was not for cause but really was retaliation against them for being a whistle-blower.

I remember one employee in California taking just this tactic, claiming discrimination just ahead of his termination, though he never presented any evidence beyond the vague claim. We wasted weeks with an outside investigator checking into his claims, all while customer complaints about the employee continued to come in. Eventually, we found nothing and fired him. And got sued. The case was so weak it was eventually dropped but it cost us — you guessed it — about $20,000 to defend. Given that this was more than the entire amount this operation had made over five years, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back and led to us walking about from that particular operation and over half of our other California business.

July 15, 2015

QotD: Modern urban policing

Filed under: Britain,Law,Quotations,USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Let me interject that I hold no brief for the police in America, at least in the cities. They inspire me with a frisson of fear every time I see one, though I break no law. Their manner is more that of masters of the public than of servants of the same; many of them seem to be the kind of people who wanted to be soldiers but couldn’t make the grade because they were not fit enough. They look menacing and seem to shoot to kill on relatively slight pretexts (or perhaps they are just bad shots). I have little doubt that if I were black my less than warm feelings toward them would be a good deal cooler still. Their increasing militarization, on the flimsiest of pretexts, is another reason to mistrust them. Alas, the British police are increasingly modeling themselves on the American, as if they were permanently on riot duty.

Theodore Dalrymple, “Indulging in Destruction”, Taki’s Magazine, 2014-08-24.

July 13, 2015

Do photographers have any rights left?

Filed under: Bureaucracy,Law,Liberty — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

I no longer do much in the way of “serious” photography (my digital SLR has been out of service for a couple of years now), but I still occasionally do a bit of cellphone photography when the occasion arises. On the byThom blog, Thom Hogan provides a long (yet not exhaustive) list of things, places, and people who are legally protected from being photographed in various jurisdictions … and it gets worse:

Funny thing is, smartphones are so ubiquitous and so small, many of those bans just aren’t enforceable against them in their natural state (e.g., without selfie stick), especially if they’re used discriminatingly.

I’m all for privacy, but privacy doesn’t exist in public spaces as far as I’m concerned. Indeed, I’d argue that even in private spaces (malls, for example), that if you’re open for and soliciting business to the public, you’re a public space. As for Copyright, placing artwork in open public spaces (e.g. Architecture) probably ought to convey some sort of Fair Use right to the public, though in Europe we’re seeing just the opposite start to happen. FWIW, I no longer visit and thus don’t photograph in two countries because of national laws regarding photography. Be careful what you wish for, Mr. Bureaucracy; laws often have unintended consequences. As in reducing my interest in visiting your country.

About half of this site’s readers actively practice some form of travel photography, either during vacations or while traveling for business. Note how many of the restrictions on photography start to apply against those that are traveling (locally or farther afield). It’s always easy to impose laws on people who don’t vote for you. it’s why rental car and hotel room taxes are so high, after all.

What prompted this article, though, wasn’t any of the latest photography ban talk, though. Here in Pennsylvania we have fairly restrictive regulations on “recording” another person (e.g. conversations, phone calls, meetings, etc.). In some states, it only takes one party to consent for a recording to be legal. Here in Pennsylvania it takes all parties to consent to being recorded.

H/T to Clive for the link.

July 11, 2015

Reason.tv – How the Feds’ Subpoena of Reason and Gag Order Went Public

Filed under: Law,Liberty,Media,USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on 7 Jul 2015

You may have already heard about how the government tried to stifle Reason‘s free speech.

Federal prosecutors based in New York sent a grand jury subpoena and letter to Reason, commanding editors to hand over the records of six commenters who wrote hyperbolic statements about federal judge Katherine Forrest below a blog post at Reason.com. Forrest sentenced Ross Ulbricht to life in prison without parole for creating the Silk Road website.

Then came a gag order from U.S. District Court, meaning Reason could not write or speak publicly about the subpoena or gag order — even to acknowledge either existed. But between the subpoena being issued and the gag order being issued, one legal blogger managed to figure out what was going on.

“I got an email and I looked at it and I thought wow, this is a federal grand jury subpoena to Reason magazine,” says Ken White, a writer at the legal blog Popehat who is himself a former federal prosecutor. White sat down with Reason TV to talk about how he broke the story and what he thinks it means for press freedom and open expression online.

“What’s upsetting is that there is no indication whatsoever either that the prosecutor or the judge gave any consideration to the fact that this was being aimed at a reporting organization about a First Amendment issue,” says White. What’s more, White stresses that the comments named in the subpoena are commonplace for the internet and especially at Reason.com, a site, he notes, “whose clever writing is eclipsed only by the blowhard stupidity of its commenting peanut gallery.”

The scrutinized comments ranged from taunts such as “I hope there is a special place in hell reserved for that horrible woman” to “Its (sic) judges like these that should be taken out back and shot,” but none, say White, come close to qualifying as “true” threats or anything other idle chatter. It remains unclear why the U.S. Attorney’s Office was interested in such internet fodder, how often these sorts of subpoenas get sent out to news organizations, and how often they comply. Nevertheless, White points out that federal prosecutors hold an enormous amount of power over human lives and rarely reflect on how they use — and abuse — their position.

“A fish doesn’t know that it’s in water,” says White. “A federal prosecutor doesn’t know that they are swimming in power. They could do it, so they did.”

Produced by Paul Detrick. Shot by Zach Weissmueller and Justin Monticello.

July 10, 2015

A new and exciting (if you’re a lawyer) aspect of photography

Filed under: Europe,Law,Liberty — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

As a casual photographer, I think very little about taking a photo of a building or landscape visible from the sidewalk or other public place. This casual attitude may become a relic of the past if EU regulators have their way, as Brian Micklethwait explains:

Basically, some EU-ers are talking about making it illegal to profit without permission by taking a photo, in public, of a publicly visible building or work of art, and then posting it on any “profitable” blog or website. The nasty small print being to the effect that the definition of “profitable” is very inclusive. For the time being, it would exclude my personal blog, because my blog has no income of any kind. But does Samizdata get any cash, however dribblesome, from any adverts, “sponsorships”, and so forth? If so, then me placing the above photo of the Shard at Samizdata might, any year now, become illegal, unless Samizdata has filled in a thousand forms begging the owners of the Shard, and for that matter of all the buildings that surround it, to allow this otherwise terrible violation of their property rights, or something.

“Might” because you never really know with the EU. At present this restriction applies in parts of the EU. It seems that a rather careless MEP tried to harmonise things by making the whole of the EU as relaxed about this sort of things as parts of it are now, parts that now include the UK. But, the EU being the EU, other EU-ers immediately responded by saying, no, the way to harmonise things is to make the entire EU more restrictive. Now the MEP who kicked all this off is fighting a defensive battle against the very restriction she provoked. Or, she is grandstanding about nothing, which is very possible.

Being pessimistic about all this, what if the restriction does spread? And how long, then, before the definition of “for profit” is expanded to include everything you do, because if it wasn’t profitable for you, why would you do it? At that point, even my little hobby blog would be in the cross hairs, if I ever dared to take and post further pictures of London’s big buildings.

Some better news for me is that if this scheme proceeds as far as it eventually might, my enormous archive of photographs of people taking photographs will maybe acquire a particular poignancy. It will become a record of a moment in social history, which arrived rather suddenly, and then vanished. Like smoking in public.

July 7, 2015

QotD: Laws as blunt instruments

Filed under: Business,Law,Liberty,Quotations,USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

On June 25th, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation seized the venerable San Francisco escort website, MyRedbook, under the usual vague and evidence-free charges the US government always uses when it wants to destroy peaceful businesses who have hurt no one. This time […] the pretenses are “money laundering” and “racketeering”, but others cases include “conspiracy”, “mail fraud” and “tax evasion”. You may believe that these are actual crimes, but the truth is they aren’t (except on paper); they’re simply blunt instruments defined so vaguely that any competent prosecutor can jam nearly any business into one or more of them. Here’s how it works: “racketeering” can mean criminals operating a legitimate business, like when a mobster owns a restaurant. So a “racketeering” charge usually means “we think you committed crimes but can’t prove them, so we’re just going to assume you’re a criminal and prosecute you for owning a regular business.” Any money you’ve deposited is then called “money laundering” on the grounds that you deposited “criminal proceeds” from your imaginary crimes into your legitimate account; “tax evasion” is based on the pretense that you have failed to pay taxes on imaginary income they can’t prove you actually made; “conspiracy” means merely talking about committing the imaginary crimes, and so on. And if you believe that the targeted business is protected by the presumption of innocence, think again.

Maggie McNeill, “Bread and Circuses”, The Honest Courtesan, 2014-07-11.

July 5, 2015

QotD: Don’t walk on the grass!

Filed under: Europe,Humour,Law,Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… in Germany most human faults and follies sink into comparative insignificance beside the enormity of walking on the grass. Nowhere, and under no circumstances, may you at any time in Germany walk on the grass. Grass in Germany is quite a fetish. To put your foot on German grass would be as great a sacrilege as to dance a hornpipe on a Mohammedan’s praying-mat. The very dogs respect German grass; no German dog would dream of putting a paw on it. If you see a dog scampering across the grass in Germany, you may know for certain that it is the dog of some unholy foreigner. In England, when we want to keep dogs out of places, we put up wire netting, six feet high, supported by buttresses, and defended on the top by spikes. In Germany, they put a notice-board in the middle of the place, “Hunden verboten,” and a dog that has German blood in its veins looks at that notice-board and walks away. In a German park I have seen a gardener step gingerly with felt boots on to grass-plot, and removing therefrom a beetle, place it gravely but firmly on the gravel; which done, he stood sternly watching the beetle, to see that it did not try to get back on the grass; and the beetle, looking utterly ashamed of itself, walked hurriedly down the gutter, and turned up the path marked “Ausgang.”

In German parks separate roads are devoted to the different orders of the community, and no one person, at peril of liberty and fortune, may go upon another person’s road. There are special paths for “wheel-riders” and special paths for “foot-goers,” avenues for “horse-riders,” roads for people in light vehicles, and roads for people in heavy vehicles; ways for children and for “alone ladies.” That no particular route has yet been set aside for bald-headed men or “new women” has always struck me as an omission.

In the Grosse Garten in Dresden I once came across an old lady, standing, helpless and bewildered, in the centre of seven tracks. Each was guarded by a threatening notice, warning everybody off it but the person for whom it was intended.

“I am sorry to trouble you,” said the old lady, on learning I could speak English and read German, “but would you mind telling me what I am and where I have to go?”

I inspected her carefully. I came to the conclusion that she was a “grown-up” and a “foot-goer,” and pointed out her path. She looked at it, and seemed disappointed.

“But I don’t want to go down there,” she said; “mayn’t I go this way?”

“Great heavens, no, madam!” I replied. “That path is reserved for children.”

“But I wouldn’t do them any harm,” said the old lady, with a smile. She did not look the sort of old lady who would have done them any harm.

“Madam,” I replied, “if it rested with me, I would trust you down that path, though my own first-born were at the other end; but I can only inform you of the laws of this country. For you, a full-grown woman, to venture down that path is to go to certain fine, if not imprisonment. There is your path, marked plainly — Nur für Fussgänger, and if you will follow my advice, you will hasten down it; you are not allowed to stand here and hesitate.”

“It doesn’t lead a bit in the direction I want to go,” said the old lady.

“It leads in the direction you ought to want to go,” I replied, and we parted.

In the German parks there are special seats labelled, “Only for grown-ups” (Nur für Erwachsene), and the German small boy, anxious to sit down, and reading that notice, passes by, and hunts for a seat on which children are permitted to rest; and there he seats himself, careful not to touch the woodwork with his muddy boots. Imagine a seat in Regent’s or St. James’s Park labelled “Only for grown-ups!” Every child for five miles round would be trying to get on that seat, and hauling other children off who were on. As for any “grown-up,” he would never be able to get within half a mile of that seat for the crowd. The German small boy, who has accidentally sat down on such without noticing, rises with a start when his error is pointed out to him, and goes away with down-cast head, brushing to the roots of his hair with shame and regret.

Not that the German child is neglected by a paternal Government. In German parks and public gardens special places (Spielplätze) are provided for him, each one supplied with a heap of sand. There he can play to his heart’s content at making mud pies and building sand castles. To the German child a pie made of any other mud than this would appear an immoral pie. It would give to him no satisfaction: his soul would revolt against it.

“That pie,” he would say to himself, “was not, as it should have been, made of Government mud specially set apart for the purpose; it was not manufactured in the place planned and maintained by the Government for the making of mud pies. It can bring no real blessing with it; it is a lawless pie.” And until his father had paid the proper fine, and he had received his proper licking, his conscience would continue to trouble him.

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel, 1914.

July 1, 2015

The awe and majesty of the Grand Jury

Filed under: Law,Liberty,Politics,USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

I was not aware that the title “Grand Jury” doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a jury empanelled to decide “grand” issues of law under US practice:

Over at the Daily Beast, Nick Gillespie attempts to bring religiosity to the fuzzy-wuzzies by describing what it was like to be hit with a ridiculous grand jury subpoena and unprincipled gag order. In response, several Daily Beast commenters trot out an argument I see now and then: “well, citizens on the grand jury thought that there were grounds to issue a subpoena.”

No.

In fact, hell no, or if you prefer, bless your heart, no.

Let’s talk about how federal grand jury subpoenas actually work. These days the U.S. Attorney’s Office prints them from fillable pdfs. Given that we were still typing them when I left the USAO in 2000, they probably achieved this technical benchmark in 2012 or so. Assistant United States Attorneys — that is, snot-nosed punks like I was at twenty-six — issue a grand jury subpoena by filling it out, or more likely, asking their secretary to fill it out. Nominally, the subpoena is issued on behalf of the grand jury. But it is not by any stretch of the imagination, issued by the grand jury. The AUSA need not — and never does, in my experience — ask the grand jury for permission. When the target of the subpoena produces documents, most often the Assistant U.S. Attorney lets the case agent — some Special Agent of the FBI or DEA or whatever — hold on to them.

So is the grand jury involved at all? Well, sort of. If and when the federal prosecutor seeks an indictment relying in part on documents produced in response to a grand jury subpoena, they’ll summarize the results of the subpoena to the grand jury. But that could be years after the fact. Prior to that, the acknowledged “best practice” is for the AUSA to appear before the grand jury, tell the grand jurors that a subpoena has been issued on their behalf, briefly outline the nature of the investigation, and ask their consent for the case agent to maintain custody of the documents produced — which, because they have been produced “to the grand jury,” are governed by secrecy requirements.

Does that always happen? No. Even when it does happen, it’s rarely a significant check on the use or abuse of grand jury subpoenas. First, when I was an AUSA, I never once had a grand juror ask about why I was issuing such a subpoena or exactly what I got back. I don’t know that any of them ever looked up from their newspapers. The common practice is to make a report so perfunctory that the grand jurors have no context from which to determine whether a subpoena is appropriate — and you’d only be reporting the subpoena after the fact. Second, there’s often no continuity of grand jurors. In a small district you might have only one grand jury that meets once a week, and those grand jurors could, in theory, write things down in their notebooks and keep track of them over time. But in many districts there are many federal grand juries. In Los Angeles, for instance, there was a different one meeting every day of the week. AUSAs don’t necessarily report subpoenas from the same investigation to the same grand jury over time. And federal grand juries turn over after a year and a half (unless extended), which means that the grand jurors hearing you report a subpoena this year won’t necessarily be the same ones hearing you report the next subpoena in the investigation next year.

June 30, 2015

The Supreme Court and the rule of law

Filed under: Law,Liberty,Politics,USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

At Ace of Spades H.Q., Weirddave explains why — even if you are in favour of Obamacare continuing in its current form — you should be worried that the United States Supreme Court made a huge mistake with the ruling that kept Obamacare alive:

… If it had gone the other way, God knows Congress would have fallen all over itself to to reinstate the subsidy. No, what was so gobsmackingly amazing about the decision was that it was justified on the basis of “intent”. 6 out of 9 justices ignored the black letter written word of law in favor of “intent”

So why is this important? Well, let’s start by asking a simple question: Why has the USA been so prosperous? Expand the scope of the question: Historically, why has the Anglosphere been so successful? If one views all of the countries in the Anglosphere as branches growing off of a British trunk, underneath all of them, providing sustenance and support is one common root:

Rule of Law

Rule of Law is a concept that goes back to Greco-Roman times and earlier. The Bible introduces some Deuteronomic provisions to constrain the king that are perhaps the earliest iterations of the concept. Plato advocated a benevolent monarchy, placing his hopes on the willingness of the king to obey the law, Aristotle firmly rebuked him for such a Utopian concept. Things really got rolling in 1215 with the Magna Carta which limited the power of King John to act unilaterally. Samuel Rutherford turned traditional wisdom on its head with Lex, Rex (“The law is king” as opposed to the traditional Rex, Lex, “The king is law”) Locke discussed the concept in great detail, and the Founding Fathers of the US kept the concept as their guiding star as they wrote the Constitution. In every case, as the concept evolved, society became more prosperous, more just and more stable.

And then along came John Roberts.

So what is Rule of Law? Simply put, Rule of Law means that the laws apply to everyone equally. A law is written. It says what it says, and everyone must obey it. No exceptions. The law applies to everyone, regardless of social status, political position, wealth, situation. The law says that one may not drive drunk. If someone is pulled over and they blow 1.5, it doesn’t matter if they were really sad because their grandfather just died, or if their mother ruled Bartertown. They broke the law, they are arrested and tried. (I do realize that real life isn’t quite as straightforward and often times position, power or wealth DO determine how laws are applied in individual cases, but we’re talking theory here). Rule of Law creates a level playing field for everyone.

Real life example: You want to set up a toilet paper factory. You can set it up in America, where a codified set of laws protects your property rights and sets legal limits on what the government can do to you, or you can set up shop in Venezuela where what you build belongs to a corrupt government and can be taken from you at anytime. Where do you build your factory?

Exactly, and that’s why Wal-Mart carries dozens of different types of toilet paper and they are wiping their asses with pine cones in Caracas.

Extending the ADA to the web

Filed under: Law,Liberty,Politics,Technology,USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Amy Alkon discusses why the notion of expanding the Americans with Disabilities Act to cover the internet would be a terrible idea:

So few people understand how laws passed can be used — and easily misused. Stretched into something they were never supposed to be (or not what they were said to be about, anyway).

For example, Title IX was supposed to be about allowing girls equal participation in school sports. The Obama admin has turned it into a system of campus kangaroos courts removing due process from men accused of sexual assault.

Next in line for strrretching is the Americans with Disabilities Act.

[…]

Bader gives some examples from Walter Olson, from his testimony to Congress, of awful changes that would ensue, like that amateur publishing would become “more of a legal hazard.” They’d go after websites like mine, that make a few shekels from Amazon links and a few more from Google ads. I need this money to supplement the money that’s fallen out of newspaper writing; also, I love the people who comment here and the discussion that goes on. It’s what keeps my eyes pried open at 11 p.m. when I need to post a blog item half an hour after I should have gone to bed for my 5 a.m. book- and column-writing wakeup time.

Also, added in the morning, after waking up worrying about this all night — making something “accessible” for a tiny minority could ruin it for everyone.

And what sort of understanding do we really owe people? I don’t do well with complex physics and I have limited attention for things I don’t understand that don’t grab my interest enough to figure them out. Should physics websites dumb themselves down for Amy Alkon’s brain? How many scientific websites will be brought down by disabled people going around to them like the quadriplegic lawyer in the wheelchair filing profit-making suits and closing classic hamburger stands and other businesses in California over ADA claims?

June 29, 2015

Europe institutionalizes the “memory hole”

Filed under: Europe,Law,Liberty,Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Brendan O’Neill on the European “right to be forgotten”:

“He stepped across the room. There was a memory hole in the opposite wall. O’Brien lifted the grating. Unseen, the frail slip of paper was whirling away on the current of warm air; it was vanishing in a flash of flame. O’Brien turned away from the wall. ‘Ashes,’ he said. ‘Not even identifiable ashes. Dust. It does not exist. It never existed.'”

This is the moment in Nineteen Eighty-Four when O’Brien, an agent of the Thought Police who tortures Winston Smith in Room 101, dumps into a memory hole an inconvenient news story. It’s an 11-year-old newspaper cutting which confirms that three Party members who were executed for treason could not have been guilty. “It does exist!” wails Winston. “It exists in memory. I remember it. You remember it.” O’Brien, mere seconds after plunging the item into the memory hole, replies: “I do not remember it.”

Of all the horrible things in Nineteen Eighty-Four that have come true in recent years — from rampant thought-policing to the spread of CCTV cameras — surely the memory hole, the institutionalisation of forgetting, will never make an appearance in our supposedly open, transparent young century? After all, ours is a “knowledge society,” where info is power and Googling is on pretty much every human’s list of favourite pastimes.

Think again. The memory hole is already here. In Europe, anyway. We might not have actual holes into which pesky facts are dropped so that they can be burnt in “enormous furnaces.” But the EU-enforced “right to be forgotten” does empower individual citizens in Europe, with the connivance of Google, to behave like little O’Briens, wiping from internet search engines any fact they would rather no longer existed.

June 28, 2015

QotD: Getting into trouble in Imperial Germany (2)

Filed under: Europe,Humour,Law,Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Now, in Germany […] trouble is to be had for the asking. There are many things in Germany that you must not do that are quite easy to do. To any young Englishman yearning to get himself into a scrape, and finding himself hampered in his own country, I would advise a single ticket to Germany; a return, lasting as it does only a month, might prove a waste.

In the Police Guide of the Fatherland he will find set forth a list of the things the doing of which will bring to him interest and excitement. In Germany you must not hang your bed out of window. He might begin with that. By waving his bed out of window he could get into trouble before he had his breakfast. At home he might hang himself out of window, and nobody would mind much, provided he did not obstruct anybody’s ancient lights or break away and injure any passer underneath.

In Germany you must not wear fancy dress in the streets. A Highlander of my acquaintance who came to pass the winter in Dresden spent the first few days of his residence there in arguing this question with the Saxon Government. They asked him what he was doing in those clothes. He was not an amiable man. He answered, he was wearing them. They asked him why he was wearing them. He replied, to keep himself warm. They told him frankly that they did not believe him, and sent him back to his lodgings in a closed landau. The personal testimony of the English Minister was necessary to assure the authorities that the Highland garb was the customary dress of many respectable, law-abiding British subjects. They accepted the statement, as diplomatically bound, but retain their private opinion to this day. The English tourist they have grown accustomed to; but a Leicestershire gentleman, invited to hunt with some German officers, on appearing outside his hotel, was promptly marched off, horse and all, to explain his frivolity at the police court.

Another thing you must not do in the streets of German towns is to feed horses, mules, or donkeys, whether your own or those belonging to other people. If a passion seizes you to feed somebody else’s horse, you must make an appointment with the animal, and the meal must take place in some properly authorised place. You must not break glass or china in the street, nor, in fact, in any public resort whatever; and if you do, you must pick up all the pieces. What you are to do with the pieces when you have gathered them together I cannot say. The only thing I know for certain is that you are not permitted to throw them anywhere, to leave them anywhere, or apparently to part with them in any way whatever. Presumably, you are expected to carry them about with you until you die, and then be buried with them; or, maybe, you are allowed to swallow them.

In German streets you must not shoot with a crossbow. The German law-maker does not content himself with the misdeeds of the average man — the crime one feels one wants to do, but must not: he worries himself imagining all the things a wandering maniac might do. In Germany there is no law against a man standing on his head in the middle of the road; the idea has not occurred to them. One of these days a German statesman, visiting a circus and seeing acrobats, will reflect upon this omission. Then he will straightway set to work and frame a clause forbidding people from standing on their heads in the middle of the road, and fixing a fine. This is the charm of German law: misdemeanour in Germany has its fixed price. You are not kept awake all night, as in England, wondering whether you will get off with a caution, be fined forty shillings, or, catching the magistrate in an unhappy moment for yourself, get seven days. You know exactly what your fun is going to cost you. You can spread out your money on the table, open your Police Guide, and plan out your holiday to a fifty pfennig piece. For a really cheap evening, I would recommend walking on the wrong side of the pavement after being cautioned not to do so. I calculate that by choosing your district and keeping to the quiet side streets you could walk for a whole evening on the wrong side of the pavement at a cost of little over three marks.

In German towns you must not ramble about after dark “in droves.” I am not quite sure how many constitute a “drove,” and no official to whom I have spoken on this subject has felt himself competent to fix the exact number. I once put it to a German friend who was starting for the theatre with his wife, his mother-in-law, five children of his own, his sister and her fiancé, and two nieces, if he did not think he was running a risk under this by-law. He did not take my suggestion as a joke. He cast an eye over the group.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” he said; “you see, we are all one family.”

“The paragraph says nothing about its being a family drove or not,” I replied; “it simply says ‘drove.’ I do not mean it in any uncomplimentary sense, but, speaking etymologically, I am inclined personally to regard your collection as a ‘drove.’ Whether the police will take the same view or not remains to be seen. I am merely warning you.”

My friend himself was inclined to pooh-pooh my fears; but his wife thinking it better not to run any risk of having the party broken up by the police at the very beginning of the evening, they divided, arranging to come together again in the theatre lobby.

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel, 1914.

June 27, 2015

QotD: The corporate tax game

Filed under: Bureaucracy,Business,Law,Quotations,USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

You can think of corporate taxation as a sort of long chess match: The government makes a move. Corporations move in response — sometimes literally, to another country where the tax burden is less onerous. This upsets the government greatly, and the Barack Obama administration in particular. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has written a letter to Congress, urging it to make it stop by passing rules that make it harder to execute these “inversions.”

I’ve got a better idea: What if we made our tax system so attractive to corporations that they would have no interest in moving themselves abroad?

The problem with this extended chess game is that every move is very costly. First, it adds to the complexity of the tax code. With every new rule — no matter how earnestly said rule attempts to close a “loophole” — it becomes harder to know whether you are in compliance with the law. This is true on both sides; corporate tax law has now passed well beyond the point where it is possible for a single expert to be familiar with its ins and outs. This makes it harder to plan business expansions, harder to forecast government revenue, and it requires both sides to hire more experts in order to determine whether corporations are compliant. It also means more lawsuits, and longer ones, as both sides wrangle over how this morass of laws should be applied to real-world situations.

You can think of it this way: Every new law has possible intersections with every other tax law in existence. As the number of laws grows, the number of possible intersections grows even faster. And each of those intersections represents both a possible way to avoid taxes and a potential for unintended consequences that inadvertently outlaw something Congress never intended to touch. This growing complexity makes it more and more difficult for either companies or lawmakers to forecast the ultimate effects of new tax laws.

Megan McArdle, “We Don’t Need a Corporate Income Tax”, Bloomberg View, 2014-07-16.

June 23, 2015

“Being skunked” takes on a new meaning

Filed under: Law,Politics,Technology,USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

At Defence One, Patrick Tucker looks at an “improved” stink bomb now available to American police departments:

As protestors and police officers clash on the streets of Baltimore and other divided cities, some police departments are stockpiling a highly controversial weapon to control civil unrest.

It’s called Skunk, a type of “malodorant,” or in plainer language, a foul-smelling liquid. Technically nontoxic but incredibly disgusting, it has been described as a cross between “dead animal and human excrement.” Untreated, the smell lingers for weeks.

The Israeli Defense Forces developed Skunk in 2008 as a crowd-control weapon for use against Palestinians. Now Mistral, a company out of Bethesda, Md., says they are providing it to police departments in the United States.

Skunk is composed of a combination of baking soda and amino acids, Mistral general manager Stephen Rust said at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Armament Systems Forum on April 20. “You can drink it, but you wouldn’t want to,” said Rust, a retired U.S. Army project manager.

The Israelis first used it in 2008 to disperse Palestinians protesting in the West Bank. A BBC video shows its first use in action, sprayed by a hose, a system that has come to be known as the “crap cannon.”

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