A Thought Experiment

Patterico and I are having a debate about American attitudes toward the law. We’ve settled on a hypothetical, and disagree about what people’s reactions to it will be.

Ground rules: This is a hypothetical, a gedanken experiment like Schrodinger’s cat. Yes, I acknowledge that it couldn’t be true. But don’t comment here on this topic if you cannot literally accept the assumptions.

Stipulate that there is a small machine that I could put into your home or workplace that with absolute accuracy – I mean 100% accuracy – would send an alarm in the specific case that a person who had the true intent to commit murder was close to it. Yes, it’s Minority Report territory. But accept it as true.

Would you – as an American – be comfortable having something like that in your house?

Update: So let’s explain where this came from.

Patterico and I were having a long discussion on voting, and on some ideas I have to test whether there is in fact meaningful voting fraud of certain types. He explained that he was far less concerned about voting methodology, and far more concerned about the risk that non-citizens were registering and voting in significant numbers. He was unhappy that we did not require proof of citizenship in order to register to vote.

I explained that there were two reasons for it, one good and one much less so. The less good reason is obvious; there are political factions who believe they gain support from the presence of the group of voters who can’t prove they are citizens. The good reason is more complex – it goes to the nature of our relationship as Americans with the law.

I started by explaining why America doesn’t like speed cameras, and why we feel it’s important that the law by arms-length away from us. We debated, and I raised the stakes to the idea expressed above.

We don’t like the direct intrusion of control – even when it’s for as important a purpose as preventing murder. We don’t like “showing our papers.” That’s a good thing, in my view, and something to protect.

It seems like a lot of you agree.

103 thoughts on “A Thought Experiment”

  1. No. Never. A nanny state device only a Liberal could love.

    And I have one. Her name is Jasmin. She has sharp teeth. I have her backup in .45ACP & 12GA.

  2. No. For several reasons.

    1. I never consent to search, nor anything that could be construed as one. (especially a mental search… back off spock.)

    2. Suppose it beeped about a person in my home… what are the odds that I would be dead and they would be gone before anyone had a chance to stop it.
    2A. In case it was in my home, I would feel more of a need to be armed at all time because of 2. While I have no problem going around armed, I dislike feeling like I need to, even when I am armed.

    3. Being a technologically inquisitive person, it would last about 30 seconds before being disassembled out of either spite or interest in how it works, possibly both.

  3. Executive summary: “Comfortable”? You must be joking. That’d be a “NO”.

    Leaving out the crazy-drunk-[what if the assailant doesn’t think I’m human] matters… let me try to embrace the magic you envision anyway. Whoops, I immediately have questions.

    Send an alarm to whom? With what anticipated response? In what time frame? With what standing as evidence or probable cause? Able to tag the specific person, or just read out that *somebody* was that way? With what consequences?

    I note in passing that cops have no obligation to respond to alarms, that’s settled in case law since “forever”. But that leads me to ask:

    Would cops have to wear / carry them? Or would only lucky “civilians” (and *god* I hate that bogus distinction) have this terrific opportunity? Would cops standing around watching me get slaughtered trigger an alarm, or wouldn’t it count, since they’re just watching, not murdering anyone? And if it did count, who could I expect to respond to that alarm? How?

    You didn’t say; you just said “home or workplace”.

    So, strictly, NO, taking you literally… you’ve left out too many places (and, implicitly, people) for me to feel anything like “comfortable.”

    It might be interesting as some sort of redlining / anthropological polling element, but by itself it would produce zero “comfort” in me.

    Sorry ’bout that.

  4. We’ll hand-wave the objections about device failure, as you desire.

    But what happens when the police arrive and claim to be responding to such an alarm, but no alarm had occurred? Because they’ve got the wrong address. Because your buddy works at the alarm response contractor and thought it would be funny. (Because your enemy does, and thought it would be evil!) Because you asked a political candidate an impertinent question… well, I’m sure they would sort it out eventually, though you’d probably have lost your job and your home in the interim.

    If such a device existed and was in my home, I’d insist on having full access to it myself – not merely “you can get the records”, but blueprints, real-time monitoring, everything. I’d want to be able to go into divorce court with absolute proof that I wasn’t inclined to murder my wife, for example. (That makes the thought experiment an even greater stretch – it would be extraordinarily difficult for me to have the necessary familiarity with, and access to, the device, without being able to tamper with it.)

    In reality, we couldn’t accept that as cause for police action. We simply don’t accept oracular information in courts of law; it cannot be “a black box” and produce admissible evidence or be grounds for legal action. Hell, we don’t even let the manufacturers of breathalysers get away with that – they’ve been compelled to reveal their source code, their manufacturing blueprints, and their methodologies.

    So, if we had a totally open-architecture device with that capability, yet it was completely tamper-proof, would I want one in my home? Sure, but not one put there by the government. Just have that sucker hooked to an audible alarm, set it by the door, and let it work – no more home invaders disguised as pizza delivery, that’s for sure.

    [Markup corrected. –NM]

  5. Gah! I know I’m supposed to use _this_ for emphasis instead of -this-… but I never remember at oh dark hundred. Sorry, folks.

    [Avatar: fixed for you. –NM]

  6. (I’m reading this as a device which detects the intent to commit murder in the immediate future, not one that detects whether someone is planning on, I dunno, offing his soon-to-be-ex-wife two days from now outside her apartment.)

    Yes and no.

    If the device is installed by some TLA and they’re monitoring the feed, absolutely not: I’m not giving up my privacy willingly.

    On the other hand, if this were offered as a security device and wired into a run-of-the-mill home security system (e.g., it would set off an external alarm and maybe flash some lights), it becomes less odious (assuming remote monitoring of this device isn’t possible or may at least be reliably disabled). Such a device, as long as it doesn’t allow unwelcome remote observation, seems like it might be a useful element in a home security system.

    Also, like another poster said, I’d definitely want to take it apart. Dunno if that’s a vote for or against :)

  7. Absolutely not.

    Let’s say it really is 100% accurate. No false positives, no false negatives. And gives sufficient warning that the authorities can get there in time to prevent the crime. And is so well designed that is impossible to be manipulated by Avatar’s buddy (or enemy).

    Still no.

    Because the other thing we can count on 100% is that it would only be a matter of time before pressure from control freak politicians (or fearful citizens, possibly manipulated by those politicians) expanded its mission. Kidnapping, sex crimes, child abuse, deadbeat dads, spanking, neglect. “Think of the children!”

    And in due time, they wouldn’t need to abuse it to punish someone for asking a political candidate an impertinent question, because it would have detected the intent to ask an impertinent question ahead of time.


  8. No. If someone is in my home uninvited I will assume they are there to kill me and I will return the intent. Plus, my Pit Bull Terrier does a fine job of sensing such intent in people. Furthermore, I trust my Pit Bull will engage the intruder with the utmost haste and ferocity, certainly more quickly than whatever is on the other end of that mind reader.

  9. Here’s my question: what would you do if you discovered, via your device, that a substantial percentage of people want to commit murder at least several times a day?

    This is kind of like the idea of putting a “rat” on your car, that can always know when you speed (even by one mile an hour!), and report you to the government for fines.

    In one sense, I expect we’d hate that, because we’d get a lot of tickets.

    In another sense, it might lead to a better and more honest law, because people would very quickly be going back to the government and asking them to raise the limits to what they really want them to be.

    So too with violence. A man may have violent impulses; but if he spends eighty years setting them aside and doing the right thing instead, he’s a moral man. I think there was an old line about how biology isn’t destiny, was there not?

  10. It depends on where it sends the alarm.

    If the alarm is directed to me, then “Sure, I’m comfortable with that.” The device exists to serve and protect me, and by extension the magistrates of government exist to serve and protect me.

    If the alarm is directed to a magistrate, then, “No, I’m not comfortable with that.” The device exists to serve and protect the agents of the government, and by extension I’m their servant – not they mine.

    That’s the fundamental question behind the thought experiment, “Who serves who?” Does the government exist to do my bidding, or do I exist to do the government’s bidding. The Liberal (big ‘L’) attitude is that the government exists to serve the people. The fundamental right of Liberalism is the right to hold private property, and that right is what is at stake in your thought experiment. If I own the machine, then I will arrange for it to serve me, and will dispose of it or never aquire it in the first place if I have a suspicion that it doesn’t serve my interests. But if I don’t own the machine, if it is public property, then it’s my owner and I am a slave. That’s the right that private property defends against – the right to be free and not someone else’s slave. You seem to have become confused about that lately, AL, though that’s another line of thought.

    Back on track, supposing that the machine is 100% accurate, then my concerns are similar to those already brought up. First of all, even if the machine is 100% accurate the people in charge of the machines aren’t. There will always be corruption and abuse, and if there is, then what defence will there be against it? Everyone knows the machine is 100% accurate. Secondly, I dislike the mindset behind the machine. There are no end of the small impositions on your personality liberty that are reasonable and have the best of motives – let’s call them as a class ‘Motorcycle Helmet Laws’. Taken individually, none represent a large burden. However, because there are no end to them and no end to the valid and reasonable arguments for making them, if a society isn’t careful it will soon find itself burdening itself with thousands or ten’s of thousands of small infringements on its liberties so that eventually no one can obey all the law both because the law is so extensive that they do not know what the law is and because the laws criminalize actions that are so trivial that either through rebellion or carelessness everyone violates some of them. This is a highly instable state to put a society into. The other problem is that if it is highly reasonable to screen for murder, then its also highly reasonable to screen for rape, and if rape then violent crimes of all sorts, and if violent crimes of all sorts then certainly major property crimes because they wreck peoples lives at least as throughly as simple assault. There is a tendency to disparage slippery slope arguments, but I think that they are valid whenever there is a case where going against the flow is harder than going with it.

    Finally, even if it detects intent, your machine isn’t really in ‘Minority Report territory’. Before I go further, let me note that the movie was terrible and that I’ve no interest in discussing it. When I speak of ‘The Minority Report’, I’m only referring to the Phillip K. Dick short story. In the PKD short story, the intent to murder wasn’t being detected, but rather the actual event itself. There is a big difference. I’d be terribly surprised if actual murderous intent hadn’t crossed everyones minds momentarily in a fit of wrath and hatred. Say I’m watching the TV and I see some footage of 9/11 and the flickering flame of wrath is kindled in me and for a few seconds I truly wish I could kill Osama Bin Ladin – not just abstractly, but imagine myself beating him to death with a baseball bat and the body fluids splattering everywhere. Is the machine sensitive to these transient feelings, and if not then what distinguishes them from actual murderous intent except the duration of the feeling and the proximity of the target. Thus, I don’t think a machine that detects merely the intent to commit murder is of much use. Surely some murders take place in just a second of murderous rage (or terror or some other strong emotion) and an unmeditated violent lashing out at the victim, and others take place after long hours of ice cold hatred. Should the machine detect one and not the other? If it is only intent it detects, I don’t see how it could be of any use.

    In ‘The Minority Report’, it wasn’t merely the intent to commit murder that was detected. It wasn’t even the planning of murder or taking steps toward commiting murder that was being detected, but the actual act of murder itself. That’s different, and a much more troubling question, and a much harder question than the movie makes it. The movie dumbs down the story by punishing the pre-murderer in a way we find harsh and repulsive – indeed harsher than we are generally willing to punish actual murderers. And likewise, the movie dumbs down the story by having the technology fail by getting the future wrong.

  11. What other people have said holds true, but consider these other scenarios…

    1)Even if this thing beeps, can we identify the correct person?

    Say you’re having a house party and the damn thing beeps. What do you do? Do you put everyone on citizen’s arrest? What if it’s not even a party member, but a jealous neighbor sneaking into your house during the festivities?

    At that point, does it actually prevent murder, or does it just make everyone really, really suspicous of each other? (OOh, that sounds like a great Twilight Zone episode!)

    2) Really, I’m just not that terrified of murder. 16,929 people were killed in the US last year (a fairly standard number). Assuming standard stats, 1,354,320 people are killed in an 80 year lifespan. Again, assuming 300 million people, your odds of being murdered in your lifetime are: 0.45%. (or they say about 5 people per 100,000 are murdered each year)

    I can’t find statistics, but I would guess a good porportion of murders are gang related, drug related, or contain abusive warning signs. I’m preety confident that I don’t fall into those categories. I would guess that I have less than 0.1% chance of being murdered

    3) On the other hand, if I had a machine on the counter, I’d probably check like my e-mail. Is it working? Has it changed? Is it updating? Why isn’t it working? It would probably freak me out unneccessarily.

  12. No. For all the reasons adduced in #s 1 to 12.

    Two further thoughts.

    (1) A lifesaving technology is developed that is accurate (in this case, 100% true positive, 0% false positive), economical, and practical–yet has major downsides regarding theoretical issues (in this case, that “rights” might be eroded). If it’s not implemented, there will be a series of heartbreaking stories: the tragic case of Jane Doe, the battered wife who begged police for a box that automatically alerted the precinct house–and was refused. Does our society have the structures and the will to deny the box to Ms. Doe and all others who fear murder? If the answer is no (and it is), then we’re already on the slippery slope towards trading in those wispy, unquantifiable notions for concrete, countable advantages.

    (2) Strike the “100% accurate,” and we are farther down this road than many may realize. “Criminality” is hard but not impossible to define, and it is correlated with certain features of the brain that are influenced by common genetic variants. For example, certain common alleles (variants) of genes that code for neurotransmitter receptors have recently been shown to have strong association with “high impulsivity,” a trait that itself correlates with “criminality.” There are many other genetic features that have been identified, but not carefully studied. Yet more exist, but are not currently identified. Given the Moore’s-Law-like progress of DNA sequencing technology, this state of affairs is transient. An acceptably accurate cheek-swab test that answers the question, “what’s your risk of being a murderer?” could be developed within the next, say, decade.

  13. Another point regarding “100% accurate.”

    Stop-light camera technology is 100% accurate, in that the device can be engineered such that the photograph it takes is certain to show a car in the intersection at the time the traffic light was red.

    But as we know, there are myriad cases where people had to engage in Kafkaesque struggles to attempt to get their tickets–sorry, ‘administrative citations’–dismissed.

    * A lights-and-siren ambulance was right behind them.
    * The clerk misread the license plate number.
    * The car had been stolen.
    * The traffic light was broken.
    * A jilted lover worked for the processing company.
    * The city had set the yellow light to last only a few seconds.

    In a similar vein, IowaHawk discusses the real-life context of the famous “3% margin of error” description that accompanies political polls: “Balls and Urns.”:http://iowahawk.typepad.com/iowahawk/2008/10/balls-and-urns.html

  14. I would be *comfortable* with the technology, though I don’t see much personal utility in it. So if the question were different, I wouldn’t *want* the technology for myself, though I might suggest people who would find it useful.

    But my answer would change depending upon the system the technology was a part of. Is it voluntary or involuntary? Government or Private? How much control would the individual have over its use?

  15. As stipulated in your premise, my answer is “hell no”, for a seemingly odd reason: your box subsumes and obsoletes the judiciary system. In order to determine whether “murder” is indeed being (imminently) planned, it would have to achieve a judicial judgment (in advance, at that – true magic!).
    The distinction between acts and judgments is crucial to a lawful society. Mechanical judgments are the enemy of the rule of law, which in the end relies on deliberation and balancing (imperfect, to be sure) by humans. Passing this to a box replaces rule of law with rule of hardware.

    (The same line of argument explains why I oppose “zero tolerance policies” of all kinds, as well as most mandatory sentencing guidelines and such.)

    You may find it odd that I find “hard linked” judgment rules detrimental to rule of law. It is because any inflexible judgment mechanism will be arbitraged to its final absurdity (just as tax brackets, labor union contracts, and any other effective legal mechanism is). Oddly, the system needs unpredictability to stay functional. A box can’t do this.

    — perry

  16. bq. Would you – as an American – be comfortable having something like that in your house

    Absolutely not, for many of the reasons cited above about implementation and others.

    In particular item #2 from Alchemist in #14 is important when considered in terms of trade-offs.

  17. The hypothetical reminds me of the key plot twist of a Noir short story I once read.

    The private eye has figured out Joe Badguy’s identity, but the Law can’t touch him–the only evidence of Joe’s crime is on a computer in his basement. Even if the sympathetic policeman could devise a Probable Cause for a warrant, Joe would wipe the hard drive before the cops’ second knock on the front door.

    Stealing the drive would make it inadmissible in court.

    So the PI parks down the street, waiting until Joe leaves for work. Then he breaks into the basement, sets a small but very smudgy fire, and leaves. A neighbor calls the Fire Department, who force entry and quickly douse the fire. And then notice the printouts of child pornography that now cover Joe Badguy’s desk.

    The Vice Squad comes, tags the porn, impounds the computer–and thus discovers the evidence of Joe’s actual crime.

    Privacy is certain to be abused by bad guys. Sure, it’s useful for short-story writers, but why have it? As Jeff Medcalf pointed out in #11, you shouldn’t need privacy ( = requirement for Probable Cause, = absence of Box linked to 911 ) if you aren’t doing anything wrong.

  18. Perry the Cynic: Because we are all in such harmony, it is really freaking me out, so I’m going to shift sides slightly to say that yours is the first objection that I don’t find particularly strong.

    You say that you are afraid a 100% accurate device would obselete the judiciary. Fine, it probably would.

    But if we accept the terms of the thought experiment and assume that the device is 100% accurate, then what is wrong with that?

    Presumably, the quality of a judicary system is judged by its justice. A judiciary system is a good one if it grants justice to the victim according to the crime perpetrated against them, and dispenses punishment to the criminal according to the severity of their crime. Most obviously, a judiciary system fails utterly when it deals punishment to the innocent and allows the truly guilty to go free neither chastised nor repentent. That is to say, above all other things we want the justice system to separate the guilty from the innocent.

    If we had a device that would do so with 100% accuracy, wouldn’t we want this device to replace our judicial system? I mean presumably we only celebrate our justice system because we believe that it is as fair and just as we can make it, and not because we believe that those tools and protections our systems institutes are good except as means to an end. We are presumably quite aware that our system is flawed and occasionally sends the innocent to recieve punishment allows the guilty to go free to commit further crimes. Surely you are not suggesting that those are desirable features to the justice system?

    I’m inclined to think that it is a very human trait to feel as if a system that randomly coughs up the guilty and punishes the innocent undeservedly is better than one that would catch the guilty with perfect infallibility. I think we are more comfortable with a system like that because its easier for most of us to imagine ourselves becoming one of the guilty than becoming one of the wrongly accused. But I think most of us would on further reflection dismiss such feelings and recognize that we ought to have a system that is truly just if we could manage it. Are you suggesting that you’ve reflected on this thing and decided in favor of random injustice? If so, please explain why.

    If I may hazard a guess, it is because you’ve tied in your mind the act of finding judgement to the act of mandating how the guilty act is to be repaid or punished. But I don’t think these two things need to be tightly tied together (although they should be at least somewhat tied together if we are to call it justice at all). I don’t think there is any reason why we couldn’t rely on our 100% accurate ‘mechanical’ judgement to determine guilt, and leave it up to some other agency to determine how that guilt is to be expunged.

    Although I don’t think it likely we’ll ever have such perfect magic, if we suppose that we do have it surely we would want to replace our flawed justice system with something truly just and not merely a best striving toward justice?

  19. I don’t think the experiment proved anything to do with voter fraud.

    First, I think a number of commentors reacted to the intrusiveness of some sort of mental scanning. Ask them if they would have the same problem with showing their i.d. to enter a government building.

    Second, a number of commentors questioned the utility of such technology. Or they assumed the presence of better alternatives (my trusty firearm).

    Third, a number of commentors seemed to assume some risk of punishment. There is a diffeence between the fear of a system used to detect a crime and a system used to determine that you are who you say you are.

  20. Fourth, the location matters. The intrustions people are willing to submit to in their homes are far fewer than they would accept out and about.

  21. bq. Because we are all in such harmony

    bq. Patterico and I are having a debate about American attitudes toward the law.

    So now I’m curious about what positions were taken that provoked this thread.

    Is this a clue from #2?

    bq. A nanny state device only a Liberal could love.

  22. Now that you have given the explanation of where this thought experiment came from, I have to say that it looks bogus to me. ID checks aren’t an invasion of home and privacy, they are part of a public process to insure that everyone is playing by the same rules. No cheating. The guy with aces up his sleeve is rightfully shot down.

  23. To the above update: Touche AL. Interesting analogy. Not quite sure it fits, but definitely a different way of exploring the concept.

  24. bq. We don’t like the direct intrusion of control – even when it’s for as important a purpose as preventing murder. We don’t like “showing our papers.” That’s a good thing, in my view, and something to protect.

    More interesting to ask is WHY we don’t like these things, because I don’t think you can extrapolate from this hypothetical to all behaviors, just as you can’t say that Schrodinger’s Cat has an impact on day to day human behavior (as it relates specifically to the behavior of particles of matter and not people).

    And in that case it’s not the “importance” of the act but the likelihood of its occurrence versus the costs of preventing it that has to be considered.

    This directly relates to the voter registration issue. I’m not opposed to requiring voter ID on the simple vague principle that I dislike “government intrusion” (because I do in some cases but not others, as does nearly everyone). The question is whether the problem requires an approach requiring such an intrusion and sacrifice of personal liberty. It has a pretty high cost, in other words.

    And so when costs are high, the threshold for action must also be high, which in this case requires, in my view, concrete evidence that voter registration fraud has or can have a significant impact on any given election.

    That has not, as of yet, been provided.

  25. I agree with those that say that the thought experiment has nothing to do with the conversation that provoked it.

    I identified the fundamental issue in the thought experiment as private property, or if you will privacy – to be secure in ones home and possessions.

    But the fundamental issue at stake in voter fraud isn’t privacy. And even to the extent that I think privacy bears on the issue (secret ballot), I think you’ll find pretty much everyone holds a different standard with regard to access to public insitutions than they do with regard to access to their own home.

  26. On the substance, there are miles of distance between whether I want a technological snoop inside my premises, and whether I want those unqualified to vote to have a say in the direction and amount of government coercion I will encounter in my life.

    The analogy is so sloppy that I have to wonder if it’s simply a way of avoiding the question of how we deal with voter fraud. So much easier to take potshots at Diebold, and ignore the (err, elephant?) in the room.

  27. A fun thought experiment, but a false analogy, as the update makes clear.

    A vote on some form of ballot can be objectively measured, but an intent to vote (or murder) cannot.

    To be clear, I don’t mean that intent does not objectively exist (even if its existence is transient), I mean it cannot be objectively measured. So the analogy doesn’t work for me.

    I think the broad impulse that gets people up in arms about privacy and related concepts is the perceived attempt by others to impose their own subjective standards while laying claim to objectivity. Claiming it ought not to be done lightly, because people are fundamentally emotional beings.

    Obviously, some level of objective agreement is needed to define whatever the debate is about, but even when we can agree THAT there is a problem, in any case there is bound to be disagreement (and hence debate) over just what standards to apply and how to apply them.

    I would add two systemic points:

    1. make sure that the proposed standards can be measured sufficiently objectively to be applied objectively, or factor in the subjectivity by wording in qualitative terms rather than quantitative (“reasonable person acting prudently,” etc.), and

    2. Strive for an equality of standard of evidence across different issues. Don’t insist on loosely interpreting the Constitution for some subjects but rigidly for others, for example, or at some point your debating partners will walk away from the table because you are breaking the established bounds of the debate. We are too close to that already.

    So keep debating, and blogging about it! But watch out for false analogies. 8-)


  28. Country J is an island. In addition, it’s ethnically rather uniform. Almost everyone has certain physical features, so the modest number of non-citizens living in J tend to stand out.

    In contrast, Country A is in the middle of a continent, and has many citizens who are fairly recent immigrants from other countries. In addition, wisely or not, Country A’s economy has become dependent on labor from Countries M, N, and O. There are a lot of non-citizen workers from M, N, and O, as well as their families. Some of the ethnic Ms, Ns, and Os are citizens, some have visas, some live in Country A illegally.

    In this hypothetical, Country M and its people are strongly affected by Country A’s policies. Many citizens of Country M living in Country A would like to see the government of A adopt policies favorable to Country M and ethnic Ms. Many citizens of A agree, but many disagree.

    Solutions shouldn’t be out of proportion to the problems they purport to address. In this case, it seems that there ought to be more concern about the issue of non-citizen voters in Country A than in Country J.

  29. We don’t like the direct intrusion of control – even when it’s for as important a purpose as preventing murder.

    Is voter ID so intrusive that it must be compared to a soul-threatening super technology?

    Are the measures taken to prevent children from buying alcohol and cigarettes similarly outrageous?

    How about the gauntlet I run just to go into a country courthouse to buy license tags?

  30. But, G_Tarhune (#28), wouldn’t you agree that the perception alone of voter fraud, if widely held, is destructive to good governance because it acts as a partisan accellerant? 8-)

    On a separate note, what level of evidence, very generally, would you find convincing that an election had been won or lost because of fraud? I am genuinely curious, not just snarking.

  31. Is voter ID so intrusive that it must be compared to a soul-threatening super technology?

    The problem with voter ID AMac is not the idea, but the actual practice. If someone won’t let me buy beer because they think my real ID is fake, I’ll just say STFU, get a new ID and buy beer somewhere else.

    If someone claims my real ID is a fake voting… well I’m pretty much screwed. And this happens all the time. A friend of mine (luckily went to early voting first) was told he couldn’t vote because his voter ID has a middle initial but his license does not. The guy literally would not hand him a ballot. Luckily he has time to get a new one and vote next week…. but if this were Nov. 4th?

    And there are a number of people who will intentionally intimidate voters they don’t want going to the polls. I like the idea of ID laws, but fear that ID requirement will not be equally monitored.

    AL: what if you changed your ‘murder’ box to monitor public places? Especially places maintained by government… such as parks, offices, voting booths… I think that makes a better analogy, and still gives the sense of overreaching authority.

  32. bq. But, G_Tarhune (#28), wouldn’t you agree that the perception alone of voter fraud, if widely held, is destructive to good governance because it acts as a partisan accellerant?

    Perhaps, but that does not make it an acute threat or problem that must be addressed by enacting policies that would also reduce voter participation. You don’t treat a cold with a bazooka.

    The solution to the problem you raise is to better inform the electorate of the likelihood and evidence that’s already out there which suggests it is not a major factor.

    bq. On a separate note, what level of evidence, very generally, would you find convincing that an election had been won or lost because of fraud? I am genuinely curious, not just snarking.

    We had this discussion here before, I think.

    Yep…here’s a link from commenter “Vista” that I agree with regarding this:


  33. To clarify #37, it would be interesting if there is anybody here that is opposed to ID requirements for gun ownership, but supports ID requirements to vote. Or vice versa.

  34. _”If someone claims my real ID is a fake voting… well I’m pretty much screwed.”_

    Yeh. Unless you cast your vote provisionally as provided by every voter id law i’ve ever heard upheld.

    _”And this happens all the time.”_

    Obviously depends on the state, but in Illinois you need a majority of the election judges to approve any challenge. And _then_ they can still vote provisionally. Oh, and the judges are appointed in a ratio of 3:2 in favor of the majority political party of the county.

    _”A friend of mine (luckily went to early voting first) was told he couldn’t vote because his voter ID has a middle initial but his license does not. The guy literally would not hand him a ballot.”_

    What state?

  35. Piling on here: AL, you speak of this hypothetical technology “preventing” murder? I missed the part where the alarm prevents anything at all. There’s a gap there.

  36. Interesting reactions … let me respond to a few:

    “ID checks aren’t an invasion of home and privacy, they are part of a public process to insure that everyone is playing by the same rules. No cheating.”

    So you’re OK with the IRS scanning your bank accounts in real time to make sure you don’t cheat on taxes? You don’t think that being asked for ID by the government as you go about your normal business (as opposed to get stopped for an infraction) is overly intrusive?

    “I identified the fundamental issue in the thought experiment as private property, or if you will privacy – to be secure in ones home and possessions.”

    I meant it in a broader sense – it grew from a discussion of speed cameras. Why don’t we like traffic enforcement via speed camera? Why does the ability of OnStar to stop your car on demand from law enforcement creep you out – or does it?

    “On the substance, there are miles of distance between whether I want a technological snoop inside my premises, and whether I want those unqualified to vote to have a say in the direction and amount of government coercion I will encounter in my life.”

    Tim, you’re comparing means to outcomes. You should be comparing murder to having those unqualified to vote having a say in the direction etc…


  37. Also note that I’m not necessarily against showing ID to register or vote. It’s an issue I’m mulling over; but I raise this issue to suggest specifically that there are “good” (i.e. non fraud-supporting) reasons to oppose some ID standards.


  38. Ok- so where do you stand on the issue of coercing business owners into demanding ID, such as when buying liquor?

    I don’t see how this logic ends anywhere but abandoning identification entirely.

  39. I’d answer “no” to the hypothetical, and add my voice to the group pointing out that the proposed hypothetical and responses to it have absolutely no bearing on the subject of voter fraud or demonstrating eligibiity to vote.

    I’d further observe how especially absurd the argument in defense of vote fraud (i.e. it’s important to protect the “right” of people to not have to confirm their identity when voting) looks on a blog where posting a comment using an identity other than your own earns you an automatic, immediate, permanent ban.

  40. How about requiring ID to pick up prescriptions? Or non-prescriptions? Its more of a hassle for me to get over the counter Sudafed these days than prescriptions.. somebody has to leaf through a book to make sure im not cooking meth.

  41. Count me among those who consider this a bad analogy. My response to the original thought experiment is an adamant “no”. But I believe voter ID is necessary, not just to ensure the system isn’t abused by people seeking power, but also to protect people’s faith in the system. Even if there isn’t currently enough proof of actual abuse to convince some people of a problem (in part because it’s not possible to get that proof), confidence in the system is already weakened due to awareness that such manipulation is possible.

    Another thought experiment: If McCain wins this election (which is still legitimately possible), what percentage of the population will be convinced that it was due to some sort of fraud? Without a voter-verified paper trail and voter ID, how do you demonstrate that it was legitimate? Likewise, if Obama wins, there are certain to be a large number of people who suspect fraud, due to ACORN, caucus irregularities, etc. How do you demonstrate to them that it was a legitimate election?

    Between ACORN and Diebold, no matter who wins this election, there will be a large number of people who will have valid concerns about the legitimacy of the outcome. And without a paper trail and voter ID, we have no way to prove them wrong (or, worse, right).

  42. I’ve had to show ID when I:

    * Obtain a driver’s license
    * Apply for a passport
    * Get past security at the airport
    * Obtain a library card
    * Go through Customs when returning from abroad
    * Receive a speeding ticket
    * Take a certification test sponsored by an SRO (gov’t-sanctioned self-regulating organization)
    * Sign off on purchasing a house
    * Sign off on a mortgage
    * Cash a check
    * Rent a car
    * Rent a hotel room
    * Visit a safety-deposit box
    * Get past a skyscraper’s security desk
    * Visit a medical school library
    * Pick up minor relatives at the end of their flight

    The first six (or seven) cases are demands by government, the rest are by private entities.

    In which of these examples is the demand for ID too intrusive, burdensome, or unreasonable? I’d say none.

    Does showing ID in order to vote fit within this “cluster,” or is it an outlier? The last few elections, ID has been required, which I think is a good thing.

    By the way, the question concerned citizenship, not identity. A driver’s license is the de facto American ID card. A license is not a proof of citizenship, at least in my state.

  43. To clarify #37, it would be interesting if there is anybody here that is opposed to ID requirements for gun ownership, but supports ID requirements to vote. Or vice versa.

    I don’t necessarily object to requiring a photo ID and/or an instant background check in order to legally purchase a firearm but I’m against requiring registration of firearms because registration has a long history of being used as a tool for confiscation.

  44. @ #36 from G_Tarhune

    Thanks for the link, I’ll look into it tonight after work.

    Also curious as to where we draw that line about voters. For example, if we enact legislation that effectively prevents 4 eligible votes for every 1 fraudulent vote it prevents, I think everybody agrees that that is an unworkable solution. But what if the proportion is reversed? How far do we have to go in that direction before enough of a consensus is reached that it would be workable? 10:1? 100:1?

  45. Celebrim:
    Yes, that was freaky. :-)

    It’s now clear that my answer wasn’t responsive to the point AL wasy trying to make, and we’re pulling off into an altogether different direction. So let me just answer you really briefly, and do feel free to email me and discuss this at length if you like; the below is cruelly condensed.

    (If this blog has a rule on how far to stray/follow side paths in comments, please let me know. I don’t mean to strain my welcome.)

    I believe that guilt and innocence are context-dependent social constructs, and thus can’t be agreed upon except by pre-arrangement (they are consented laws, not natural laws). Thus, a box can at best implement *one* (not *the*) view of justice. This does not contradict AL’s original question – I took him to posit a box that implements justice as defined by current law, not some abstract concept of natural justice.

    (I do believe that there are natural laws, but that “what is murder” is not exclusively and conclusively determined by them.)

    I believe that a society lives (and dies) through a continuing interplay of social forces, each adapting over time to the needs and demands of each other. As such, it is important that citizens debate, argue and (peacably) fight over the meaning of such things as “murder”, gradually changing this meaning over time. In this context, a box that hard-wires a particular meaning of crime (or guilt, or law) is eventually detrimental to society’s development, and necessarily becomes a weapon in the hand of one party (the factually conservative one, if it is engineered correctly) over another in such a societal contest.

    (Yes, I do believe that society “develops”. I am Progressive in the sense that I believe change-to-the-better is possible and is happening. I am Conservative in the sense that I believe that most change is not for the better, if only because we currently live in one of the better possible worlds. I am Libertarian in that I believe the best known way to sift change-to-the-better from some-change-from-something-bad is a market.)

    You misunderstand why I believe unpredictability (not randomization) is beneficial. I am arguing that a rigid set of rules will always be gamed by those most interested in the outcome exactly to the point where the gains of gaming it even more would be outweighed by the delegitimization of the system that benefits them. Unpredictability reduces the amount of safe extraction available, and thus shifts the burden somewhat towards where it ought to be. (Sadly, that lever can’t be pushed too far – there’s an optimum. Well, a least-pessimum, anyway.) That’s a theory, and it may well be wrong, but that’s what I was arguing.

    I also do not believe that as a matter of practical fact, our judicial system is designed to dispense “justice”, in the sense of the most morally fitting treatment of the most people. It is debatable whether it should, but I believe that it manifestly does not, now, and never has in the history of the country oandr its precursors. The judicial system’s practical task is to preserve the integrity of its society. In our society, that includes complying with notional concepts of justice to an extent, but when push comes to shove, justice is not Job #1.

    I think that in our society, the distinction between determining guilt and allotting punishment is meaningless. In the long run, notional guilt without practical consequences is immaterial. Not all punishment need to be allotted by law; social sanction does work. But our society has gone a long way towards illegitimizing social sanction as “discrimination”, and is actively trying to rely entirely on legal sanction for its operation. And thus guilt only matters (for social effect) to the extent it is punished.

    I think a lot of other things, too :-). But this will suffice…

    — perry

  46. To throw out a theory as to why there’s a disconnect between this analogy and the voter-fraud connection, its because the analogy is on the wrong side of what government’s legal role is.

    Government exists to enforce contracts, both explicit consented contracts, and the implicit social/moral contract (murder being a breach of the latter contract).

    Government has no business preventing murder. Government’s business is in applying the punishment for the breach of the contract. Now it does get a bit murky here as we’ve defined attempting murder as a breach of the social contract but I think you see where I’m going with this.

    Voting is a right accorded only to citizens who meet certain criteria (age, residency, have not yet voted in the current election, etc.). Meeting the eligibility to conduct the transaction is an inherent part of the contractual obligation of both parties, provided the effort to prove eligibility does not in and of itself negate the possibility of engaging in said transaction.

    Totally different from the sort of built in aversion Americans have to government abandoning its duty to enforce contract to instead attempt to coerce ‘right’ behavior.

    This is why the debate on voter id is not over (or at least shouldn’t be over) whether it is wrong for government to ask for id, but is over whether the effort required to meet the obligation for proving eligibility is overly onerous.

    Thought crime, bad. Enforcement of contract, good.

  47. Yes. Here’s why.

    I believe that the people living in this house – our family – are incapable of forming an intent to kill one another, no matter the provocation. Granted that premise, the alarm could only be triggered by an intruder. That being the case, should an intruder appear, I would know immediately how to react. If the alarm does not sound, it indicates that the intruder wants my stuff, and so I would know not to risk my life in resisting. If he has formed an intention to kill, the alarm would sound and I would know that I must resist with deadly force regardless of the risk.

    Your thought experiment does not indicate who would hear this alarm. My answer holds only as long as I could hear it. If any other person or authority could hear it, that would likely be irrelevant by the time they arrived, and so does not figure in my analysis.

  48. So you’re OK with the IRS scanning your bank accounts in real time to make sure you don’t cheat on taxes?

    Oooh, a strawman. I can play that game too: so you are in favor of Frenchmen voting in US elections?

    You don’t think that being asked for ID by the government as you go about your normal business (as opposed to get stopped for an infraction) is overly intrusive?

    Is voting normal business? I think it is rather special with rules different than, say, parallel parking.

  49. Mitch, #52: You’ve touched on a point I was about to make. In your scenario, if an intruder shows up with intent to murder, the alarm sounds, and you respond with lethal force, does the alarm have any way of identifying who held the original intent to murder?

    Put another way: When the cops show up, they will find a dead guy in your home, you with the weapon that killed him – and an alarm that signalled an intent to murder. But if that alarm can’t identify whose intent it was, and the dead guy can’t speak for himself, the cops are no closer to getting to the bottom of the incident than they would have been without the alarm. Which means there’s still a small but significant chance that you will end up being arrested and charged with murdering the intruder.

  50. “I meant it in a broader sense – it grew from a discussion of speed cameras. Why don’t we like traffic enforcement via speed camera?”

    I would argue that primarily it is because we collectively do not believe laws with regard to speed limits are good laws. As evidence, I cite the fact that almost everyone reutinely breaks them. I think we percieve the ‘speed camera’ as criminalization of conduct we do not consider unethical. If the camera only captured events we did consider unethical, say shoplifting, then we’d be much less concerned by it.

    “Why does the ability of OnStar to stop your car on demand from law enforcement creep you out – or does it?”

    Are you suggesting that my car is not part of my private possessions, and hense that my attitude is likely to be different to it than it is to my home?

  51. Basically agree with Treefrog.

    The analogy is flawed. Thinking about a crime is not the same as committing a crime. Voter registration and voting fraud are crimes that require an action to first be taken. Thinking about committing a crime is simply thought, not action (ie Treefrog’s contention about breaking the societal contract).

    A little stronger ID control in the US would not only help prevent/deter voter & voting fraud, it would help prevent/deter ID theft for profit (a pervasive and costly crime) and prevent/deter terrorism (add strong border controls and immigration enforcement to the latter issue).

    I have lived abroad for 25 years and visited close to 30 countries. The US has the least restrictive ID policies of any country that I am aware of, though maybe there are some countries that are more lax.

    Voter fraud is serious because it goes against the very heart of our democracy: one man, one vote to provide representative government. Any person or organization that actively violates that tenet should be stopped and punished to the maximum extent of the law.

    An organization that registers a single person 72 times, should be stopped. An organization that is under investigation in at least 13 states for committing similar illegal/immoral acts should be stopped.

    If stricter ID controls are required, then so be it.

  52. AL # 41
    I do not see how showing an ID at the polling place is in any way comparable to real time monitoring of bank accounts by the IRS.

    You already have to indentify yourself at the poll and sign the register.
    Showing the ID is one additional step to prevent fraud of many types. The Poll worker already knows who you are if you are honest.

    The Argument that requiring an ID card is similar to a poll tax or property requirements and intended primarily to discourage / disenfracnhise the poor is a specious argument.

    I 1 person in 1000 does not have a govenerment issued ID already I would be shocked. You need that just to buy an effective cold medicine at the drug store.

    So lets show IDs and move on

  53. #51 Government has no business preventing murder.

    One thing I noticed is the tendency to think of government as an entity unto itself, as opposed to humans doing a job. If the opportunity presents itself to prevent murder, there is, imho, a human obligation to do so.

    At any rate, I have no problem with AL’s device in my house. Even if I personally formed the intent to commit a heinous act, I would be grateful for a system that prevented me from doing so. That is accepting the premise of 100% reliability, and even if the machine pointed it’s alarm at me.

    I also have no problem with speed cameras. If the law says there are consequences for speeding and I get caught speeding, I should be able to own that I risked those consequences with eyes wide open, and be a grownup about it. Likewise, if the cops need to stop me via on-star, ok. Driving is a privilege not a right and if I did something wrong, I need to be big enough to face it instead of running away. If there has been some mistake, running away will not clear the air or make anything better.

    Having the IRS look at my bank accounts kind of creeps me out, but mostly due to embarassment. I am not the best financial manager, but I pay an accountant to keep me from making mistakes on my taxes. I don’t like paying them, but for now at least, this is my obligation as a citizen. The benefits of living in this country far outweigh the costs. Even in these financially challenging times.

    I think Americans spend a little too much time worrying about being held accountable for things they are not likely to do anyway. Most laws that seem intrusive are written because of documented tragedies and gazillion dollar cheaters who view our considerable freedoms as a weakness to be exploited. When these loopholes are closed by some form of legislation, people who wouldn’t have behaved that way in the first place, take the change in law personally.

    I do believe very strongly, that to register to vote, you should prove your right to vote via your citizenship. The current credit meltdown and global recession offer excellent examples of the willingness of people to exploit the system in the pursuit of money or power, as well as the potential consequences. Identifying voters as citizens is the least we should be doing to keep the political system accountable.

  54. Have a new “thought experiment” for you.

    The Director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, Helen Jones-Kelley, took it upon herself (at least as far as I know so far) to investigate “Joe the Plumber” (Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher). She claimed it was “standard procedure” to investigate anyone who is “suddenly thrust into the spotlight.” The average ‘Joe’ in Ohio should be worried.

    This is Orwellian, a clear breach of Wurzelbacher’s right to privacy and an abuse of power by Jones-Kelley. She should be fired and Joe should sue her ass.

    In addition, the ACLU should be 100% behind him. If not, they are thorough hypocrites. The ACLU is willing to push for enemy combatants (Taliban and Al Qaeda POWS) to have full rights, as though they were US citizens, so they better protect the rights of Joe.

  55. Mike, can you write us a mirror-image essay on the curious and improper route by which Obama’s half-aunt’s immigration status ended up in today’s paper?

    Oh, and when they waterboard Joe the Plumber, let me know, OK? Given that he never finished his plumbing apprenticeship, he could probably use more time around H2O anyway.

  56. I’m torn on this one, Andrew – because the only reason Joe was targeted was because he spoke out politically. Obama’s aunt is being damaged by the press – which can’t be bothered to do substantive reporting on him, and so gets it’s jollies doing nonsense like this.

    And your last was way beneath you.


  57. Andrew

    Snide and arrogant response that is completely off topic. You must be an Obama supporter.

    Please address the issues regarding the invasion of privacy and abuse of power by Jone-Kelley. By the way, why do his plumbing qualifications even matter in regards to the illegal investigation conducted by Jones-Kelley?

    As regards Obama’s aunt, I guess her being in the US illegally should have been reported sooner. I seem to remember the hiring of illegal domestics being a major issue with a number of proposed government appointees over the past 20 years or so. So if the press had actually vetted Obama fully, then his aunt’s immigration status should have been reported sooner. Hmmm. Wonder why the NY Times or one of the Chicago papers did not know about this…or did they simply sit on the story?

    Interestingly, the Project for Excellence in Journalism (see http://www.pewfoundation.org) has analyzed news coverage and found that MSNBC is the most biased station in this election cycle (73% negative stories on McCain; 14% negative stories on Obama). CNN, NBC, CBS and ABC are biased, but not to the degree of MSNBC. The print news coverage also demonstrates strong bias.

    So much for the media being a “watch dog,” as envisioned by the Founding Fathers. This election cycle, the media are being lap dogs to the left. Bet Pelosi, Reid & company can’t wait to reinstate the “Fairness Doctrine.” Sounds like something right out of ‘1984!’

  58. A.L., saying Obama’s aunt is being damaged by the press misses my point: the issue got to the press from a government leak just as improper as the investigation of Joe the Plumber. Incidentally, even without torture Joe admitted the obvious, that he wasn’t an undecided voter in the first place (as he pretended) and went to the Obama rally to try to trip the candidate up.

  59. Andrew

    Get your facts straight.

    Joe was in his yard laying catch with his kid. Obama showed up in his neighborhood on a campaign ‘handshake’ tour.

    Please do not try to defame Joe by suggesting he was a plant at an Obama rally. That is simply false.

    You must be reading the DailyKos.

    By the way, rather than trying to discredit Joe the Plumber, why don’t you address the real issues: Obama’s own statement (“I like to spread the wealth”) and the illegal invasion of Joe privacy by Jones-Kelley.

  60. “I like to spread the wealth” was been the policy of such socialists as Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt. Even John McCain liked the progressive income tax before his campaign needed to go Full Negative. Maybe you are against public education, and roads, and stuff like that that spreads the wealth around, Mike. Could you be explicit? Some liberals are suggesting that the McCain campaign is insinuating that Obama is planning to take white people’s wealth to give as welfare to undeserving lazy black people, and that’s why they are campaigning on a what seems superficially like a self-damaging slogan that suggests to millions of economically depressed Americans that McCain thinks the wealth should stay with the people who have it now.

    One likely reason that so many stories on McCain are negative is that his campaign is negative, and so many of his statements are outrageously false. Members of the press are admitting that they used to be in the tank for McCain, until they followed what he has done this year.

    I assume someone will be fired, correctly, for improper access to Joe the Plumber’s personal data (although the tax lien was a public record). I doubt, however, if anyone will be disciplined for improper leaking of data about Obama’s aunt in Boston, at least, not while the Bush Administration is in office.

    Joe the Plumber’s Helper was not an undecided voter and the purpose of his question was to trip up Obama. If it was a handshake tour, no difference, I’m trying to find the original story. And how he plans to buy out his boss when he can’t keep up with his own taxes was a mystery, until it looks like he’ll be launching a singing and infomercial career.

  61. Joe the Plumber’s Helper was not an undecided voter and the purpose of his question was to trip up Obama.

    Why would this matter? Why shouldn’t candidates get questions designed to trip them up? Why shouldn’t any citizen be able to question a candidate?

    I’m not a big fan of parliamentary systems, but I like the way the British PM submits to Question Time, including the opposition. (FWIW, McCain has said he would like to institute something similar if elected). I would like to see political debates moderated not by journalists, but by partisans from both sides. Presidents face an opposition, why are they only questioned by ostensibly neutral parties? Let interested parties interrogate the candidates and let the journalists report the questions and answers.

  62. Because, SG, JtP had an undisclosed interest in dumping on Obama’s answers to his questions, pretending to be unsatisfied as a “neutral”. I don’t mind transparent cross-examination, but this wasn’t it. Indeed, his entire question, pretending that he was on the verge of being a $250K annual net plumber, should have been treated as the hypothetical it is.

    Investigation of Graeme Frost, compare and contrast.

    Investigation of Auntie Zetunia, compare and contrast. I don’t notice any dudgeon over this illegal leak. IOKIYAR?

  63. bq. Indeed, his entire question, pretending that he was on the verge of being a $250K annual net plumber

    I don’t think that’s what he actually did. IIRC, a Subchapter S corporation with receipts totaling $250k would be within what he was talking about thinking about acquiring, and that would not be out of the realm for someone with a couple of employees or subcontractors. Whether he had the means to do so or not, if what6 he actually said was something of the form “I’m thinking about buying a business that {xxx}” — that would put it firmly in the hypothetical zone, I think.

    Sidebar: In times past, I would sometimes get free engineering samples of electronic parts by telling the sales rep I was thinking about a 10k unit run for my first production. It was factually true. I was thinking about that when I said it. Was it likely? Maybe not.

    But in any event: OK, so we see that social-engineering sorts of questions should be rewarded with intrusions. Glad to get that cleared up.

  64. You’re assuming facts not in evidence. My understanding is that Joe the Plumber didn’t represent himself as anything. Obama went up to Joe as Joe was on his front lawn, Obama shook Joe’s hand, and Joe asked Obama a question. Joe didn’t represent himself as anything or anyone, nor did he go out of his way to inject himself into the debate. If the answer hadn’t been caught on tape, no one would even know about the incident.

    And this still doesn’t answer my question about why we should care. Why should it matter if Joe the Plumber is or isn’t a Republican? Isn’t Obama running for President of America, not just President of the Democrats. Why shouldn’t he answer questions from committed Republicans?

    You’re trying to make an issue out of the fact that he was asked the question rather than the answer he gave. It’s a legitimate question, even if it took a stealth Republican to ask it. If you support Obama defend the answer, don’t attack the question.

    And don’t pull out some lame tu quoque as a response. It is still a logical fallacy. If you think Graeme Frost or Auntie Zetunia were treated poorly, that’s all the more reason to condemn how Joe the Plumber has been treated, not a defense of that treatment.

  65. Andrew

    Joe asked a simple, hypothetical question of a presidential candidate. Is that a crime? Is he supposed to way, “By the way, now that you wandered into MY neighborhood and disrupted my playing catch with my kid, I want to ask you a question. However, I should first tell you that I am a Republican (or an Independent or whatever) and you may not like my question or be able to answer it to everyone’s satisfaction. Am I allowed to ask you a question or you do you only want to the president of liberals who agree with you?”

    Give me a break. Regardless of whether Obama was in Joe’s neighborhood or not, Joe (or any other citizen) has the right to ask any question of any candidate regarding proposed their policies, their associations and their views/statements.

    In fact, at the Rick Warren event (and at least one of the debates), the questions were submitted by “average citizens,” then presented to the candidates. The candidates were only told the general topics beforehand, not specifics. It is every American’s right, if not duty, to ask questions of our elected officials. There is nothing wrong in challenging candidates with “tough” questions.

    By the way, do you think Obama is incapable of handling tough questions from a citizens? If so, how will he be able to handle critical confrontations with our nation’s adversaries?

    As regards sharing the wealth: when someone pays income taxes and is given a rebate or a reduction in their tax rate, that is a tax cut. However, when someone who does not pay any income taxes receives a check from the government, that is spreading the wealth improperly; that is an overly socialistic distribution of wealth.

    Besides, the current tax structure is more than fair with the wealthiest paying a larger percentage of taxes now, than they paid under Clinton. The top 5% of tax filers earn 39% of all income, but pay over 60% of the total taxes collected.

    Further, taxes are paid to the government (supposedly) to pay for the services government provides its people, from defense to postal services. Of course, some of the tax money goes to help those in need (medicare, welfare and other programs). The key question is what are the limits to such programs? Obviously, there are vast differences of opinion between liberals and conservatives as to what are those limits.

  66. Joe asked a simple question, although he suggested its premises were factual, not hypothetical. (Joe didn’t have any prospects of buying out a business until receiving whatever money accompany his 15 minutes of fame.) Fair enough. But let’s not pretend Joe supports McCain because Obama’s refutation of his unwarranted tax fears was inaccurate or inadequate. Joe is using his bully platform to expose himself as a rabid nut-case opponent of Obama, far beyond taxes.

    I suggested you look at the increase in wealth inequality under Bush before you compare percentages of taxes paid. You didn’t. You just reiterated some concept of what ‘fair’ numbers would be, pulled out of your rectum. If you don’t look at income and wealth inequality, these various percentile statistics are what I call nonce-numbers: they are literally true, but they are not positive evidence for the claim for which they are offered.

    The McCain health plan also has a refundable tax credit. No one is calling that socialism, although most economists are calling it inadequate to do anything to improve access to health care.

  67. God help the next high school sophomore that asks a question about College tuition.

    _”You’ve got no prospects of going to college! You can’t even afford it!”_

    The biggest reason class warfare is a loser in this country is the same reason we are the most innovative and dynamic economy ever seen- people _expect to improve their lot in life._ Thats so obvious to Americans we don’t realize thats a really uncommon attitude in the world. Certainly or the left which is preocupied with all the short comings of our society they have convinced themselves we are constantly in a death spiral instead of consistantly improving the lives of _all_ Americans of _all_ economic classes. The census tells us every American has over a 50% chance of rising at least 1 tax bracket every decade. Once you factor in all the self-destructive mistakes people make (dropping out of HS, having a child out of wedlock) its almost impossible not to rise in America. People _expect_ to get rich, and many do. Thats why its not so appetising to screw over the rich. Why do that when i expect to BE rich? I’m not working by butt off for nothing here.

  68. #73 Mr Buehner: BQ. Thats why its not so appetising to screw over the rich. Why do that when i expect to BE rich? I’m not working by butt off for nothing here.

    There’s the old observation about crabs in a bucket, you know.

  69. God help the next high school sophomore that asks a question about College tuition.

    “You’ve got no prospects of going to college! You can’t even afford it!”

    Luckily we are getting rid of the Republicans just in time, or else this might be true. You don’t think this used to happen, and still does?

    Joe the Plumber is not a “businessman”. There is no reason to think that he knows anything about taxes or running a profitable business, just as he knows nothing about patriotism. For that matter, he’s also more than a little confused on paying his existing taxes and on licensure requirements.

  70. _”Joe the Plumber is not a “businessman”. There is no reason to think that he knows anything about taxes or running a profitable business, just as he knows nothing about patriotism. “_

    He’s just another of the little people Andrew J. Lazurus never misses an opportunity to demean.

    You know what’s so great about America? Guys like Joe dont need guys like Andrew’s approval to go start their own business.

    I’d lay a heavy wager Joe dies a more succesful man than Andrew. Thinking you know better than everyone else for a living just isnt that profitable.

  71. Guys like Joe fantasize about hitting the lottery, but in real life he couldn’t finish his apprenticeship. He’s a loser.

  72. AJL: Bill Gates dropped out of college. I know as someone with multiple degrees you probably have a suitable explanation for that.

  73. As for licensing, Joe gets to do plumbing as long as the company he works for has the right status with the State of Ohio. Not that that matters to someone who thinks union certification confers the only valid form of expertise.

    I make no claims one way or the other about Joe’s qualifications. But the number of un-union-certified people who somehow manage to keep the Intertubes running is staggering, and I think that might serve as a kind of counterexample of AJL’s dismissal.

    Joe might or might not be a loser. But not being certified does not make him a stumblebum. Sorry to disappoint you.

  74. Lastly, as far as taxes go: You really want to claim that anyone who manages to get a tax lien for a few lousy kilobucks filed against him deserves the title of “deadbeat”? How about anyone who has ever filed for bankruptcy? How about anyone who’s ever bounced a check?

    You’re really piling the labels on, and I wonder why you feel so moved to do that.

  75. _”Do they care? Or is it just that the desperate McCain campaign needed a deadbeat loser to try to motivate the base, and got lucky?”_

    Tell me Andrew, was it McCain’s rabid media allies that were staking out Joe’s home and going through his trash hours after he asked his question?

    The Media created Joe, not McCain (though he certainly took advantage ad nauseum). If the media is in the business of telling people things they will tune in to hear (and thats debateable these days), doesnt that indicate people were interested?

    Or is _everything_ slinking conspiracy with you?

  76. #75/77/79:

    Joe the Plumber doesn’t matter. What matters is the answer Obama gave to his question. The more you rant and rave about Joe’s shortcomings, the more you confirm that Obama’s answer was something to worry about.

    And what gives you the right to opine on political matters? It seems you should have to post your resume and your credit history before expressing any opinions and let others decide before you’re worthy of expressing an opinion. At least if you don’t want to add hypocrite to the lengthy list of character flaws you’re demonstrating.

  77. SG: Agreed. This focusing on Joe (both attacking and defending) is a perfect literal example of “ad hominem” — “at the man”. His defects are irrelevant to the answer to the question. Sorry to let myself get dragged into that.

  78. AJL, that’s just beneath you. Why be a liberal if you have that much contempt for working people? Or is your regard for them conditioned on their political support for causes you support?

    I really can’t believe that’s how you feel…


  79. Why be a liberal if you have that much contempt for working people?

    No offense, but contempt for working people and unconditional support for abortion are about the only unifying modern-day liberal principles I’ve been able to discern.

    I wish I were joking…

  80. There are also highly educated losers and I suspect a number of commenters on this thread think that Yours Truly is one of them. I know enough “working people” (I’m a little mystified; lawyers and doctors and programmers don’t work??) that I don’t have to condescend to think they are all wonderful real Americans full of folk wisdom. I find it noteworthy that Joe didn’t finish the program for a plumber’s license (I don’t care about this from the union standpoint, but I like the idea that consumers have recourse to consumer protections that can include license suspension). That suggests an ambition shortage that isn’t made up for by postulating buying a business, when he himself says that he is broke. Most people would gladly cross the bridge of paying the taxes on the quarter-million dollars once they got there, as Obama pointed out. And Joe the Plumber wasn’t walking down that road. But, next year he can tell his buddies that of course he would be making $250K except that Obama’s tax plan with its 3 percent increase discouraged him.

    Incidentally, the last house painter I hired had a Ph.D., and my plumber is both a college graduate and highly trained.

    To return to Obama’s answer: upward class mobility in the United States shrank and income inequality grew under the Bush Administration, partly as a natural consequence of a tax policy catering to the super-rich. Even this bailout that we do need seems to come with no expectation that the sybarites at the top of the CEO food chain give anything back. Have any of you checked out public university tuition, for example? Obama’s offer to trade national service for tuition money must look very appealing to 18-year-olds.

  81. Forget it. Why argue? Let Andrew champion Obama’s policy all he wants. At least he has the courage to vocalize exactly the bottom line of the response Obama and his supporters have been giving Joe the Plumber, “Hey, you’re a loser, why are you worried about getting rich? And that goes for the rest of our constituents too.”

  82. I agree with AJL that there’s something very wrong with our economic system when executives of public companies are rewarded to the tune of millions and tens of millions of dollars per year when the companies do well for their shareholders… and are rewarded to the same extent when the companies do poorly. Or, as the WSJ has pointed out, when they run their companies into the ground.

    (I know AJL didn’t really make that point in #88, but I don’t think I’m mischaracterizing his sentiments.)

    Downward mobility for failing execs is a trait to be prized, just as is upward mobility for people who discern new opportunities and work hard to turn their dreams into reality.

    Where Joe the Plumber fits into this, I’m not sure. I didn’t pay a lot of attention to his exchange with Obama.

    Economics aside, the political side of his story is clear. He said things that the people who run the State’s apparatuses didn’t like, so they they took the opportunity to comb through his records: tax liens, child support payments, motor vehicle violations, professional licenses, outstanding warrants, court filings.

    This is reprehensible. Whether Joe’s opinions were 100% p.c., or whether he was a 9-11 Truther or a Scientologist. Speak out, and the State’s agents will strip your privacy from you. That is, if they are displeased by what you say.

    What’s more reprehensible was that some of this snooping was done at the behest of journalists. And that the Fourth Estate sees nothing particularly amiss with this picture.

    Some day, maybe blog commenting can be improved by the application of the same principles. Applied to those with the wrong opinions, of course.

  83. AMac is not distorting my position on class mobility, even the part I did not articulate. Some clawback provisions are in order, methinks.

    Those responsible for accessing the non-public part of Joe the Plumber’s data should be sacked or otherwise disciplined. (The embarrassing tax lien is, I assume, a public record; liens generally are.) Doubtless AMac has a similar feeling about the presumably anti-Obama leakage about the destitute half-aunt in Boston, whose immigration record mysteriously made its way to a Murdoch-owned newspaper.

  84. _”I agree with AJL that there’s something very wrong with our economic system when executives of public companies are rewarded to the tune of millions and tens of millions of dollars per year when the companies do well for their shareholders”_

    Make you a deal- we can clip the golden parachutes the day incompetent teachers in failing public schools get fired, as well as every public sector manager who’s projects don’t show improvement. Let me know when that deal gets inked.

  85. > Doubtless AMac has a similar feeling about the presumably anti-Obama leakage about the destitute half-aunt in Boston

    At the moment, not at all. As far as I know, the story of Obama’s half-aunt is a case of journalists (albeit foreign ones, working for a foreign paper) “practicing journalism.”:http://www.seanet.com/~jimxc/Politics/November2008_1.html#jrm6708 That’s something that I’d have liked to have seen more of. If you provide links showing that this was an analogous case of abuse of government powers, I’ll change my mind.

    When reporters draw honest portraits of a candidate’s family, it can give voters some insight into that person’s history and values. “Don’t you agree, AJL?”:http://www.windsofchange.net/archives/a_few_reasons_why_the_ayers_argument_isnt_an_electionwinner.php#c32

  86. Ah, I see. If civil servants in Ohio leak damaging information about Joe the Plumber, or some relative of McCain, or Sarah Palin herself (what is she hiding in those medical records?) to a newspaper, that’s reprehensible, but if it’s a leak against a relative of Obama, that’s practicing journalism. The issue is not that the newspaper found this aunt, although how Jim Miller can vouch for the way they did so is not at all clear to me. The issue is that her immigration history was leaked, including the denial of her asylum request, and I understand those records are confidential.

  87. Mark Buehner #92 —

    Teachers didn’t trigger the worst financial crisis of the past 50 years.

    Wall Street execs aren’t to blame for lousy student performance at many public schools.

    I’m also against rewarding project managers who rationalize dangerous O-ring erosion. I don’t see any inconsistency among these positions. (I also don’t see an easy fix to the Wall St. problem, but that’s far off topic.)

  88. _”Teachers didn’t trigger the worst financial crisis of the past 50 years.”_

    Neither did ‘business men’. Very specific people did that, encouraged by a government intent on ignoring or rewriting laws to prevent it.

    But then again teachers havent created the greatest economic boom in the history of the world in the last 30 years. Im so sick of everyone treating this short term crisis that has apparently been checked from going into a full blown disaster as the end of capitalism. In 10 years we’ll think about 2008 like we did 1987. IE- hardly at all.

    Why is it that people are so incensed when a company decides to pay its CEO… for whatever damn reason it feels like, but taking a pension away from a crooked politician is almost unheard of? We’ve got guys that stashed CASH in their refrigerators that still live off the government dole. No outrage there.

    I dont like the government bailing out businesses. And if they do it is entirely appropriate that they should insist on clipping golden parachutes… which has been done. But a company that has nothing to do with the government has to answer to its shareholders. Why are people so eager for the government to jump in and screw with compensation in such cases?

    We are at a dangerous point with this stuff. The John Galt talk is starting to make a lot more sense. The dirty secret of human civilization is that a very small percentage of the population ultimately grows almost all of its wealth. And now those people are the most demonized in the country. We’ve seen a hundred examples of nations that have robbed, imprisoned, or murdered its productive class- and it ALWAYS ends in disasters we can barely fathom.

  89. AJL #94 —

    Miller was “vouching” to the extent that he provided a link to the story he was discussing, “here.”:http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/us_and_americas/us_elections/article5068613.ece Where do you think reporters Macintyre and Bone are misleading?

    You’re right about “the leak of her immigration status,”:http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/us_and_americas/us_elections/article5068649.ece though.

    bq. The US Department of Homeland Security is investigating whether the leak about the immigration status of Ms Onyango violated its privacy rules, which bar the disclosure of information about individuals.

    bq. “They are looking into whether there was a violation of policy in publicly disclosing individual case information,” Kelly Nantel, a spokeswoman, said.

    That is indeed another example of politicized abuse of government powers.

    Do you know how this information became public? “The original Times (UK) article”:http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/us_and_americas/us_elections/article5042571.ece?token=null&offset=0&page=1 only says:

    bq. The Times could not determine their immigration status and an official at Boston City Hall said that Ms Onyango was a resident of Flaherty Way but not registered to vote on the electoral roll. However, that Ms Onyango made a contribution to the Obama campaign would indicate that she is a US citizen.

  90. Interesting intersecting points. A final comment from me, then offline. Mark Buehner, executives are charged with managing a public company on behalf of its owners. Suppose we took a vote of the shareholders of AIG, Lehman Brothers, Fannie Mae, WaMu, or any of the dozen or so other financial giants in similar reduced circumstances. With benefit of hindsight, what do you think these owners now think about the millions in bonuses that they’ve paid these employees in the past couple of years? It’s not anti-capitalism to be outraged at the compensation these execs awarded themselves. Far from it.

  91. _”With benefit of hindsight, what do you think these owners now think about the millions in bonuses that they’ve paid these employees in the past couple of years? It’s not anti-capitalism to be outraged at the compensation these execs awarded themselves. Far from it.”_

    Be as outraged as you like. Gather your fellow shareholders and throw the bums out. But heed my advice- when you ask the government to come in and arbitrarily manage these things you are inviting the fox to guard the henhouse. Who knows more about protecting and taking care of their friends at the expense of anything else? Wallstreet may play this game but Washington invented it.

    People don’t seem so outraged about the foibles of corporations when their 401ks are exploding. Cycles. Its the way of the market. And our market has an unparalleled track record of growth over time. ALL of our lives are dependent on that continuing. Muck around with the fundamentals of the system at your peril. But do it with a clear head, not out of emotion. What we are seeing is the large scale equivalent of panic selling at the bottom of a bear market. And i promise you it will be the government that keeps its head and buys up all the power we are so ready to cede. They wont give it back.

  92. I’m not sure Mark B realizes the implications of what he is saying.

    The dirty secret of human civilization is that a very small percentage of the population ultimately grows almost all of its wealth.

    This may be true, but the devil is in the details. It isn’t obvious a priori who these people are, and it isn’t clear that they couldn’t have done it without the rest of us. What is clear is that the rentier class is almost disjoint from this set, and that any random engineer at Intel has more business being in this group than the C*Os of the collapsing subprime mortgage lenders, rating agencies, and investment banks.

  93. _”It isn’t obvious a priori who these people are, and it isn’t clear that they couldn’t have done it without the rest of us.”_

    Absolutely true. Which is all the more reason to keep government from deterring, distracting, and restraining those people from succeeding. This class warfare business has always been more about pounding down the achievers than raising up the struggling. It is the government’s business to keep a fair playing field, not to pick winners and losers.

    As to the ‘rest of us’ bit- the producers create jobs and pay almost all of the taxes. Perhaps more importantly they create a chain of _opportunity_ amongst a vast web of lives they touch. How many jobs has Bill Gates works created? How much wealth? How much leisure time? Its immeasurable. Surely more than a President could create in a dozen lifetimes. A president might ‘create’ jobs, but in reality he is merely shuffling productive jobs in the private sector to makework jobs in the public sector via taxation. There is little future in government work. How often do you hear about a government employee inventing something, or coming up with a breakthrough, or founding a new company? That work is soul sapping, meanwhile those things happen each and every day in the private sector.

    Not inevitably or with every business, of course. Perhaps not even with most. But the point is it is the ones that succeed that prosper and create further wealth, further opportunity. The government almost _never_ creates either. The government at its best can create catalysts (education, research). But it is god-awful at creating wealth. To the contrary, government is a sinkhole for wealth.

  94. To clarify- government should be kept out of ALL peoples hair, equally. Precisely because pretty much anyone CAN be a producer.

  95. _It isn’t obvious _a priori_ who these people are…_

    I can think of one group that is _a priori_ crucial to successful civilization, insofar as “civilization” is taken at its root, ‘of the city.’ That group is… plumbers. Sanitation, and the men who provide it, is the key to thousands living together, to universities, to libraries, and to everything good that comes from any of that.

    They may be losers, but everything the good urbane man loves is based on their work. It’s work many would rather avoid; but someone has to do it or the whole thing falls apart.

    Kind of like soldiering, I’d say.

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