Guilty until proven innocent?

This should enrage a lot of Americans – a man defended his house against robbers only to have his life savings ($402,767 which he kept in a safe in his home) confiscated by the FBI.

Lima Police Department officers originally took the money from his house but the FBI stepped in and took it from the Police Department. Ricks has not been charged with a crime and was cleared in a fatal shooting of one of the robbers but still the FBI has refused to return the money, he said.

Apparently when the police entered his home for the investigation they found marijuana, which Mr. Ricks uses to ease the pain from his arthritis and hip replacement. Somehow the police used this illegal find to justify their confiscation of his life-savings, and will not give it back unless he can prove how he made the money. According to Ohio ACLU legal director Jeff Gamso:

“The law of forfeiture basically says you have to prove you’re innocent. It’s terrible, terrible law”

Guilty until proven innocent – it sounds like some sort of joke, but unfortunately it’s true. It’s easy to read a story like this and quickly move on, but this could happen to any one of us. How can you be so sure that this couldn’t be you? I try and keep records for a lot of stuff, but I certainly don’t have records for every cent of money I’ve made or spent in the last year, let alone the last decade. And yet they are asking this man to essentially provide a lifetime’s worth of receipts in order to get HIS money back from the FBI. Two crimes committed against him in the same day – one by robbers, and the other by the government. It’s absolutely disgusting. Unfortunately it gets a little worse – not only does he lack money to hire a lawyer (since…you know…it was all stolen), but if he does get representation he will likely be fighting both the FBI and the local government who initially took his savings:

If the FBI does keep the money, it would be put toward a law enforcement use, if the city of Lima does not fight for it because the city discovered it, Gamso said.

So the city may argue that they have “first dibs” on the cash – they found it first, and the FBI took it from them. I can’t believe this is actually a debate over who the money belongs to. What a sad world we live in….do we have any rights left?

Source – LimaOhio.com

~Lily

Schrodinger’s Children

“Think outside the box” is a popular phrase among groups dealing with complex problems. In fact, it has almost become a cliche in our fast-paced modern world where technological changes that once would have been regarded as revolutionary are today almost quotidian. Still, there are some who are lost so deep inside their respective boxes that the darkness that surrounds them must seem the equivalent of infinite space. Kevin Carey over at the Quick and the Ed seems a likely representative of this type of person.

In his latest post, Mr. Carey takes to task Michael Winerip for his failure to endorse expansive government interference in education. In his piece in the New York Times, Winerip suggests that the state should be shifting resources away from costly “accountability” programs and in favor of costly “anti-poverty” programs. I happen to think either alternative represents a mis-allocation of funds as both are likely to undermine rather than advance achievement of their stated goals (supporting arguments here and here, respectively). In this case, however, the cost-effectiveness of government boondoggles is not my primary concern. Rather, I am troubled by Mr. Carey’s perspective that seems to imply that there is simply no solution that does not involve the state.

Confronting the findings of the ETS report, Carey poses the question “Therefore, what?” which may be read as “What should the government do about this?” He then follows this question with a proviso: “If you’re not willing to answer this question concretely, you really don’t deserve a seat at the table.” And what, exactly, constitutes a response concrete enough to secure one a place in the debate? Apparently, advancing a policy of non-intervention, or even promoting interventions not directly aimed at the public school system is insufficient. Instead, if you want to speak, you must endorse statist intervention: “NCLB, by contrast, reflects an identifiable perspective and set of resulting policy conclusions.”

It strains credulity to present NCLB as a standard of clarity. To propose that it be used to set the scope of the debate is even more galling. Education is a complex process that each of us must engage in a unique way. Acquiring the skills and perspectives that will allow us to envision and establish an individual identity in the world is not a venture readily amenable to standardization. Uniformity is antithetical to personality. Government run schools fail, not because of insufficient funding, but because they lack the flexibility and responsiveness necessary to meet the needs of the parents and students they purport to serve. The further centralization of the administrative apparatus only hastens the ossification of the system, making it brittle and more constrictive. This is the problem of living in the box.

Erwin Schrodinger once came up with a vivid and somewhat gruesome example to demonstrate one of the more mystifying implications of quantum theory. He asked us to imagine a box containing a cat, a radioactive subtance, and a vile of acid. If you’re interested in the full details, go here. Basically, though, the idea is that the cat is in mortal jeopardy, yet we have no way of knowing his fate unless we open the box to check on him. Until then, he exists in a state of suspended animation, neither alive or dead, or maybe both (though it is hard to say which is worse.)

If we extend the analogy to education, this is the current predicament of children in our public schools. They are languishing in a cruel trap guarded jealously by social planners like Carey and his ilk who venerate the contraption while condemning those of us who wish to extricate their unwilling subjects. They prefer to tinker gingerly with the dimensions of the experiment instead of investigating the merits of the underlying motivations for and assumptions of the design. The talk endlessly about improvements, excluding those who dissent with the program. Meanwhile we all suffer the scarcity of choice.

~Fox

Taxing Target Practice

The Maryland state legislature’s recent tax hike is less than a month old, has yet to take effect, and is already drawing loud complaints.  As the Baltimore Sun reports, the latest group to raise its voice comprises citizens involved in computer services.  The article presents the familiar arguments for why higher taxes will impair the competitive position of the subject industry, and the arguments are sound; however, the proper response is not to repeal this specific enactment and exempt computer services.  The correct course of action is to stop using the tax code as a means of implementing social policy and favoring certain sectors at the expense of others.  In other words, the correct course of action is to set taxes low, and apply them to as broad a base as possible.  This will minimize tax-induced distortions in the economy removing an extraneous and unnecessary factor in the complex decisions people must make on which industry to enter, which service to utilize, or which good to buy.  For a more thorough discussion of the woeful complexity of taxes in America, go here.

~Fox

The Voice of Reason

For those of you who are interested, this (video link) is what the voice of reason sounds like when discussing religion.

I have the utmost admiration for Sam Harris when it comes to combating ignorance in the realm of religious superstition. He occasionally makes comments that betray a failure to extend his rational empiricism to the realm of economics and politics, but when it comes to spiritualism and the philosophy of mental well-being, you won’t get a better bang for your buck.

~Fox

Gentlemen, Grab Your Buckets!

Yesterday, President Bush announced the deal his administration has attempted to broker between mortgage lenders and so-called sub-prime borrowers. I won’t attempt to hash out the details of the plan, or even expound at length on the current economic crisis that began with the housing bubble. The best thing I can do for anyone that reads this and would like more detailed information is to direct you to Calculated Risk. The authors of that blog provide excellent economic insight supported with plenty of graphs and industry experience. Check it out. It will be well worth your time.

For my part, I would like simply to speculate on the nature the present and impending government intervention in the marketplace. Given that the government was going to do something (in a situation where keeping its hands off would have been the truly best option), Bush’s recently announced plan is probably among the least bad things it could have tried. So far no laws/executive orders have been passed, and as I understand it, the plan simply amounts to general guidance for the industry seeking to keep its imminent collapse orderly. If the intervention ended here, it would be relatively harmless; however, I do not believe this will be the last attempt bailout lenders sinking in a sea of funny money.

While we can only speculate on what other sorts of foolish measures are in the pipeline (inflation anyone?), we can analyze the present proclamation as fact. As such, it seems rather pointless. Since the guidance lacks the force of law, it will not ultimately cause anyone to do something which was not in their best interest beforehand. If a lender would have profited by renegotiating the terms of the loan within contractual limits it would have done so prior to the President’s announcement; if not, it would have foreclosed, and it still will. I say that the deal’s ultimate impact will be muted, because I do believe that there may be some actors that attempt to violate the terms of the original contract perceiving legal cover in the executive branch’s recent words. Barring any further intervention, however, those actions would be deemed illegal by the courts and the market would proceed along its original course to restore the balance of supply and demand.

So the question remains, if the government’s current actions do nothing, why were they done? My guess is that they are an attempt to condition us to the reality of state interference in private transactions. I would be happy to be proven wrong on this account, and see no further meddling, but I am not optimistic. The politicians in Washington cannot leave bad enough alone and will almost always make matters worse.

~Fox

God killed my friend

or at the very least stood by doing nothing while she died, while allowing people like this and this to live on.

My friend, we’ll call her Rebecca, died this past weekend at the age of 25. She was diagnosed 3 years ago with a brain tumor, and had every type of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy possible, but it was not enough to save her. She was sweet, caring, beautiful, and strong; she had recently gotten married and had a lifetime worth of goals and dreams ahead of her. Rebecca had planned on becoming a teacher, and eventually becoming a mother. She volunteered in her community and was kind to everyone she met, regardless of whether she personally liked them. She was active in her church, singing and sharing her many musical talents with anyone who asked.

Let me now add a disclaimer that I don’t believe in a God – there are a lot of things we don’t understand about the universe, and I don’t pretend to have any answers. But when my friend died, I couldn’t help but wonder how someone who believes in a God can justify what happened to her. It’s the classic question – “why do bad things happen to good people?” See, I understand that religious people generally believe in free will, so sometimes when bad things happen to us it’s a result of some action we took. For instance, if I drove my car to the grocery store while it was snowing and got into an accident injuring myself, it’s reasonable to assume that my choice to go for a drive while the roads were slippery played a role in my injuries. It was my choice, and I paid the consequences, despite how inherently good or bad I might be. I also understand that the definition of “good” or “bad” is going to vary between people.

However, I’m not sure of anyone that would consider an early death, like what Rebecca had to endure, a good thing. And I don’t think her brain tumor had anything to do with a choice she made (in contrast to some cancers, like lung, which are often caused by an action like smoking). There was nothing she could have done or put into her body that caused that brain tumor – it was some sort of perverse accident, a deadly combination of genetics and environmental factors beyond her control. So then I ask, if you believe in God, what is your justification for this occurrence? Why did God give Rebecca a brain tumor (or allow her to die of a brain tumor) while letting serial rapists live? Why did God allow a tsunami to kill over 200,000 people in 2004, while doing nothing to stop a repeat child-molester? Is it because “God works in mysterious ways”? That response always seemed like a bit of a cop-out – if you don’t know the answer, say so. Did my friend sin, and this was her punishment? I don’t buy that – she wasn’t perfect (no one is), but there are many people in this world far worse. Did God smite her just for his own amusement? Or it is possible, just maybe, that God had nothing to do with any of this – that sometimes life sucks and good people pay the consequence? If God is loving and all-powerful, then he would have saved my friend. He wouldn’t have let her die before her parents, leaving behind a husband who is now contemplating what goals he has left that didn’t involve a lifetime with her. The world is a worse place today, because Rebecca is no longer here to share her love and talents with the rest of us.

~ Lily

Medical marijuana and the Presidential hopefuls

Not exactly as important to many of us as the US economy, but “Granite Staters” has gone through and assigned grades to each of the Presidential hopefuls (Democrat and Republican) based on their stance toward medicinal marijuana. Of the 17 candidates profiled, 5 received a grade of “A+”, meaning they are very receptive to allowing sick individuals to use marijuana for pain relief or other medical purposes:

Republicans – Ron Paul and Tom Tancredo

Democrats – Mike Gravel, Dennis Kucinich, and Bill Richardson

All of the Democrats are in the B-A range, while the Republicans (with the exception of the 2 above) all receive an “F”. While I certainly agree that those 5 candidates deserve an A+, I don’t think many of the other Democrats are worthy of their A or B rating. The candidates who support medical marijuana should do so under the premise that it is a state, rather than federal issue – that is, the federal government should get their noses out of other people’s business, and let the states decide how they plan to regulate who should qualify for medical marijuana, how much people should be allowed to purchase, etc. This is essentially what the “A+” candidates state – says Rep. Ron Paul:

“I would like people who are dying with cancer and AIDS to have access to whatever they want and make their own choices, especially under a state law.”

The problem in my opinion is that several of the Democrats who receive high ratings would not legalize marijuana use for terminally ill, rather they state that the federal prosecution of medical marijuana users is not a priority. Says Sen. Hillary Clinton (who received an “A”):

“With respect to medical marijuana, you know I think that we have a lot of rhetoric and the federal government has been very intent upon trying to prevent states from being able to offer that as an option for people who are in pain. I think we should be doing medical research on this. We’ve ought to find what are the elements that claim to be existing in marijuana that might help people who are suffering from cancer, nausea-related treatments. We ought to find that out. I don’t think we should decriminalize it, but we ought to do research into what, if any, medical benefits it has.”

At least Sens. Barack Obama and John Edwards say they will end the federal raids – Clinton specifically says it shouldn’t be decriminalized. How the heck does that view warrant an “A”? She would let people suffer pain and nausea until proper research is conducted. I’m all for exploratory research on why marijuana seems to help some people, but the problem with any study is that it will be difficult to get conclusions that apply to every patient. Most terminally ill people might not respond to marijuana, so a broad study might show that it is not effective. But a small percentage of people may greatly benefit from its use – why should they be denied the opportunity to see if it works for them? By far the best (and by best, I mean worst) comment comes courtesy of Sen. John McCain:

“I believe that marijuana is a gateway drug. That is my view and that’s the view of the federal drug czar and other experts . . . I do not support the use of marijuana for medical purposes. “

Seriously McCain…”gateway drug”? He sounds like a bad 1980’s anti-drug commercial. A quick poll of our population shows that nearly 1/3 have tried marijuana at least once in their lives. Do you think 1/3 of our population has gone on to use and abuse other drugs like heroin and cocaine? Me neither. I suggest that the Senator peruse the website drugwarfacts.org before making any more false assumptions regarding drug use.

And just for fun…

~ Lily

Want to diversify your portfolio? Try violins…

That’s the word from a recent Reuters article discussing how well these musical instruments hold their value. They won’t give you huge returns, but apparently are pretty consistent with a long-term return after inflation of 3-4%:

CEPR calculated that over the period 1980-2006, violins gave a real return — after allowing for inflation — of 3.97 percent.

That compared with 9.18 percent on the U.S. S&P 500 stock index, 6.63 percent on U.S. Treasury bonds and 7.74 percent on works of art.

Over the longer term of 1850-2006, however, violins gave a real return of 3.3 percent, beating U.S. Treasury bonds which yielded only 2.19 percent.

I’m not sure if this will convince anyone to go out and get a violin – after all, without knowledge of musical instruments and specific violin makers you’d be relying mostly on the word of a violin broker to make sure you’re paying an appropriate price (all of the ones I’ve dealt with have been very honest, but you never know…). It’s a bit easier if you already play the violin and can physically pick it up and try it out, distinguishing between a higher or lower quality instrument based on sound and playability. For anyone out there who already owns a violin, congratulations – you’ve made a good investment. For me, I can only hope that my musical-investment will at least partially offset the money I am currently losing on my home as the housing bubble continues its downward trajectory. 🙂

~ Lily