Monday, March 23, 2015

Loving the Haters

Hang around Twitter long enough, and you'll see some pretty vicious hatred. Usually it's not from someone you follow, but instead is retweeted by someone seeking to shame the hater. And when it comes to the most bitter of partisan and culture wars, I get the feeling that large swaths of people on either side would not actually be disheartened to hear of their ideological foes being swallowed up by the earth in a single, cataclysmic act.

The hatred is usually justified as being a response to hate itself. Such objects of hatred are usually identified as part of a movement: patriarchy/feminism, gamergate/anti-gamergate, Democrats/Republicans, etc. Their gatherings, protests and hashtags are closely screened for any offense, and when the norms of the group are crossed, the virality magnifies the offense.

No identifiable group seems particularly immune, Christians included. And not just those from some disaffected, detached corner of the internet, but people I've known and loved and worshipped with. Often the target is some enemy of the country, or even a domestic political opponent.

I am also not immune. I may have had the grace of restraint to often hide it away inside, but it's been there before (and maybe I haven't hidden it well sometimes - I'm too scared to trawl back through my social media posts for evidence).

Nothing about this is new. The good 'ole days were as hateful on balance. In some ways, maybe better, and in some obvious ways, much worse. But in all times, people are very, very capable of hating, and doing so with a self-flattering indignation when the target is themselves identified as a hater.

So to many, there is no problem. Hate the haters, the world says. But that's not what Christ said, and what he said is as radical as it was when it was offered thousands of years ago: love your enemies.

You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
-Matthew 5:43-48 (ESV)

It's said enough to be cliché, but it's obviously not practiced very much.

So who do you hate? What person or group of people get your blood boiling to the point where you no longer care about their welfare? Or that you actively imagine their destruction? Or that you even actively work towards their destruction?

I don't believe this is a call to pacficism or resignation to evil. I still believe in actively pursuing justice, in protecting the weak from the strong, and in speaking truth to power. But all that can be done in love.

So, who do you hate?

How do you feel when someone mocks your beliefs? Love them.

How do you feel when someone blasphemes the Lord? Love them.

How do you feel when someone twists your words and beliefs into untruth and ugliness? Love them.

How do you feel when someone is caught on camera making racist statements? Love them.

How do you feel when someone acts indifferently and dangerously in traffic? Love them.

How do you feel when someone puts you down to make themselves feel better? Love them.

How do you feel when someone brings shame to the Church when they fall from a position of prominence because of their personal sin? Love them.

How do you feel when an official makes a thoroughly bad call that unfairly costs your team the game? Love them.

How do you feel when a politician moves the country away from protecting and defending the values you identify as critical to good and just governance? Love them.

How do you feel when someone carries out extreme acts of violence against helpless and innocent people? Love them.

How do you feel when people acting on behalf of your nation or state or city torment and torture captive people? Love them.

It becomes harder and harder the more you think of extreme examples. But there is no limiting principle to the commandment. No balancing. No, "Yeah, but, what about..."

It's frankly impossible. Except with grace.

Pray for the grace to love haters. I know I need it. You probably do too.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Introducing: 33 Packs a Day

I have finally completed the story I've been writing with my wife for some time now. I got the idea in 2013, and worked off-and-on for a while, getting her help to add some needed humanity to it.

It tells the story of Seran Barzani, who came to America in the 1980s with her father from Iraqi Kurdistan to escape the violence there. In the midst of her busy life, she decides to take time to engage in political protest against a city government that was betraying the principles of liberty she had thought her family had fled to.

In the process, she catches the attention of an ambitious and career-focused agent of the Department of Homeland Security.

33 Packs a Day on Smashwords

It is available for purchase immediately, and is currently being reviewed for inclusion into the Smashwords premium catalog, which will distribute it to retailers of eBooks everywhere, including iBooks, B&N's Nook and others.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Could your typical Ivy League student stand hearing a performance of The Wall?

I was on a Pink Floyd binge at work yesterday, getting through Meddle, DSOTM and Wish You Were Here, and finally, The Wall (apologies if I skipped your favorite album).  Music is an important way for me to shield myself from distractions, and their music is usually pretty contemplative.

But listening to The Wall (aside: not my favorite album of theirs), I had a strange thought: could this album be handled maturely by today's hyper-sensitive campus activist type?  Maybe it's unfair to call them the "typical" Ivy League student, though their thinking seems to pervade the Very Serious Universities, Ivy or not (links on links on links on links).

If you don't know, the pseudo-autobiographical concept album tells the story of a musician named Pink, who having been battered by a lifetime of failed relationships, pressures of the music industry, and the failings of all authorities in his life, retreats into himself and erects emotional barriers between himself and all loved ones (hence: The Wall).  While in retreat, a new, ghastly version of his personality emerges.  One that uses his platform to argue a horrendous, racist, homophobic, jack-booted crackdown on all the freaks he identifies around him.  This character's cringe-inducing outbursts are presented plainly, and without apology, until the time of his eventual emotional recovery.

It's quite clear, in the context of the album, that neither Roger Waters (lead singer and main songwriter of the album) nor the band are presenting this view as correct or laudable.  Whether it's a believable transformation or not hardly matters.  It is clear that the band is not promoting stormtroopers rounding up all the undesirables.

And yet, handling this kind of context seems increasingly challenging.  Trigger warnings are placed on works of classic literature for their period-realistic use of racist language, even when the racism is cast in a negative light.  Discussions of controversial topics spawn alternative events and safe-spaces, because students just can't handle hearing discomfiting things said.

I mean, could you imagine the reaction upon hearing the following from the song "In the Flesh"?
So you thought you might like to go to the show
To feel the warm thrill of confusion, that space cadet glow
I've got some bad news for you, Sunshine,
Pink isn't well, he stayed back at the hotel
And he's sent us along as a surrogate band
We're gonna find out where you fans really stand
Are there any queers in the theatre tonight?
Get 'em up against the wall!
Now there's one in the spotlight, he don't look right to me!
Get 'em up against the wall!
Now that one looks Jewish!  And that one's a coon!
Who let all of this riff-raff into the room?
There's one smoking a joint!
And another with spots!
If I had my way, I'd have all of you shot!
There'd be protests and vigils and concerned reflection by craven administrators.  Not because someone performed a song advocating these views.  But because someone presented these views as views that exist.  And that's one of the more frightening implications of this new climate on campus.  How do you deal with the world as it is, if you can't even discuss the horrors that are there?  There's not a topic of any controversy (and so, hardly any topic at all) that will not cause someone some offense, and maybe extreme discomfort.

Of course, when the state and its agents (as would be the case in public universities, not the Ivy League) are empowered to protect people from speech, it will eventually be the political majority that decides what speech is protected and what's speech from which people should be protected.  And that doesn't sound like a very liberal solution.  In the unchallenged enclave of academia, they are insulated from having their own views silenced, because the powers have found their views legitimate.  But they may not like it if this approach to free speech "balancing" were adopted more broadly (as is happening across the world in purportedly liberal democracies).

In the end, Pink tears down his wall after painful reflection.  And we hear the story of the people who were trying to reach him.  They're identified as the "bleeding hearts and artists", which are the people whom the campus left would seem to identify with.  Instead of cracking down on Pink in his worst moments, they try to reach him through the Wall, with their love:

All alone, or in two's,
The ones who really love you
Walk up and down outside the wall.
Some hand in hand
And some gathered together in bands.
The bleeding hearts and artists
Make their stand.
And when they've given you their all
Some stagger and fall, after all it's not easy
Banging your heart against some mad bugger's wall.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

My Network Neutrality Paper of Eight Years Ago

Back when I was fresh out of school, and unsure of what I was going to do, I wrote this paper as part of an internship application to the John Locke Foundation.  I'm reproducing it here mainly as evidence that the push-back against strong new regulations (or rather, of applying really old regulations to new technology) is not some recent, anti-Obama fervor.

Looking back, the prose is kinda horrifying at times.  That first sentence in particular is extra-stuffed.  So I'm not trying to show off by sharing.  In fact, I know it must have been bad, because I never heard back.  Oh well, being an Engineer has been pretty great.

I've also noticed a bit of a miss in the analysis, as I've annotated below (Update: I've since heard about this story, which highlights that no, basically what I said in the original paper was how Netflix was operating - they simply chose a different transit provider).  In all, though, I think it still captures the issue pretty well.  One big miss was the rise of wireless broadband, which in retrospect should have been pretty obvious, but is only mentioned in passing.  But its growth in the marketplace only strengthens the point of the paper.
Network Neutrality
John Covil
                        As the ubiquity of the Internet becomes more complete in modern life, new policy issues arise as many people form different opinions as to just what the Internet should be.  There is currently very heated debate on the subject of so called ‘Network Neutrality’.  The concept is born out of very old regulatory laws, and the discussion is hampered by a lack of understanding of some or all of the key issues surrounding it.  When talking of network neutrality, people are generally referring to the principle that transmission of data across the Internet is content neutral.  That is, data is treated the same as it traverses the Internet regardless of the application, source, or destination.  One must consider both the technical and regulatory aspects of the Internet when making policy decisions on a neutrality stance.
            First of all, the concept that most people have about the Internet is shaped only by their experiences sitting at their PCs, and not by an understanding of how the Internet actually behaves.  The Internet is, of course, a network of networks.  These networks allow computers to communicate for a variety of purposes.  Instead of one single, vast connection of individual computers, the Internet is best described as an interconnection of autonomous systems.  Each network is maintained by an individual or individuals as part of some institution.  One network does not have control over another network.  Harmony is achieved through adherence to commonly accepted industry standards.  So instead of an Internet that is sent down from on high as a free and open land for the mutual benefit of all mankind, the real Internet is one that is controlled at great expense by private institutions, corporations, municipalities, universities, &c.  The connections between these networks are provided by Internet Service Providers (ISPs), which are often tiered to two or three levels, and owned and operated by telecommunications companies at great expense in terms of equipment and labor.
            Important for understanding the behavior of the Internet with regards to neutrality is an understanding of the way the Internet is abstracted.  A model was developed which divides networks up into seven (sometimes five) layers.  The behavior of a network at each layer is governed by different protocols.  The data is sent in packets, and as each data packet is constructed, the data from the higher layer is encapsulated (and ignored) by the layer below it.  The top four layers are governed by the end systems.  The bottom three are governed by the media that moves and routes the data through the Internet.  The way the Internet currently behaves, the routers that perform the yeoman’s work in moving data only operate up to layer three.  This is the Internet Protocol (IP) layer.  Devices operating at the IP layer keep routing tables, which tell the device which IP address to forward packets to, based on the destination address (or range of addresses).  Therefore, much of the Internet traffic is managed with no concern at all as to what application is actually being used.  Also, packets are forwarded on a ‘best effort’ basis.  Due to the transient nature of routing tables, and some attempts at congestion avoidance, packets transmitted from one source to the same destination, for the same application, may not take the same path.  Therefore, they may arrive out of order.  All of this means that the Internet, operating as it does now, cannot offer any effective kind of Quality of Service (QoS) guarantees.  This has a tremendous impact on the future of the Internet as a potentially new way to deliver entertainment. 
 Telecommunications companies are looking to compete with the cable companies by offering high-definition quality television over the Internet (IPTV).  With the Internet as it is now, this is effectively impossible.  While in some small instances, high quality, live broadcasts have been transmitted over the Internet, ‘toll quality’ television would require more QoS guarantees.  The early days of the Internet did not create a need for separate treatment of data based on the application (though the protocols were designed with that purpose in mind).  But now, there are an increasing number of interactive and bandwidth intensive applications that require more speed and lower latency (time it takes data to go from sender to receiver) than simple data transfers.  While some attempts have been made at implementing differentiated services, near-future rollout of IPTV would require a fundamental shift in the way the Internet operates.  Live television places immense demands on network resources for low jitter.  Jitter (in this context) occurs when information arrives with a greatly varying amount of time.  To put it simply, if you’re displaying the first set of frames of a television broadcast, you need to have the second set of frames there in time to show them when necessary, whether or not frame set two arrived before frame set three.  Jitter is a result of high latency, and aggravated by out-of-order packet delivery.  Some secondary network protocols, like Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM), guarantee in-order packet delivery for teleconferencing applications, but usually at the expense of other qualities of service, and they would be impractical to implement on the scale needed for IPTV.  So overcoming the challenges posed by transmitting television across IP networks requires treating IPTV traffic differently than other traffic.  This violates the concept of network neutrality. 
Controversy over the elimination of neutrality is a fairly recent phenomenon.  The format of the IP layer of network packets actually includes eight bits for differentiated service.  By flagging certain packets as higher priority, they can move to the front of queues and buffers, and face much less traffic and congestion problems across a given network.  While this possibility has always been in place, as a general rule, networks did not treat data this way.  The principles of neutrality have been largely followed, although in recent years many residential ISPs have been blocking or throttling traffic corresponding to illegal file transfer, or transfers with the BitTorrent protocol.  What is causing the most commotion now, is that telecommunications companies want to charge for different levels of service to content providers.  The fear is that the free and open Internet that we know and love today will vanish overnight.  As a technical matter, these fears are unwarranted.  While the Internet has been largely content neutral up to this point, the fact is that each network is autonomous.  Routing to other networks are handled by ‘exterior’ routing protocols.  If one network does not like the way a neighboring network, it can simply adjust its traffic around the problematic network [in practice, this hasn't always been the case for home consumers, as seen with the infamous fight between Comcast and Netflix but may be even when people don't see it that way].  What’s contributing to the emotion is the scale of the proposed change, and legal history surrounding the telecommunications industry.
The current controversy is magnified by the lack of options for ‘last mile’ broadband to the home.  A few corporations have invested large amounts of money in stringing high speed Internet to the home, most notably Verizon.  Verizon is rolling out a fiber optic network all the way to the home in many areas.  They are leading the charge for charging for differentiated services to make IPTV possible, and to recoup costs in investments to the home.  As noted, operation of these networks is not free, and they are the property of their respective owners.  The argument that a corporation should be able to do what they want with what they own is met with charges of monopolization.  The problem is that the monopolization was a result of regulation.  The Telecommunications Act of 1996 categorized ISPs as providing either Information Services (IS) or Telecommunications Services (TS).  Cable based ISPs were categorized as IS providers, while DSL providers (usually the old telecommunications companies) were categorized as TS providers.  While IS providers don’t face much regulation, TS providers were required to ‘unbundle’ services, as they always had with common carrier laws.  This put the telecommunications companies at an unfair disadvantage, as they had to open up their networks to other users.  Investment in last-mile wiring has suffered as a result.  However, it has not been dead.  Even in the face of such regulation, Verizon has stepped in to begin wiring fiber to the home.  This is in areas where DSL options already exist.  So even with current regulation, last-mile monopolies are not set in stone.  If unbundling regulations were repealed, and there were no pro net neutrality regulations added, the last-mile marketplace would be opened considerably, and even more companies would invest in the last mile.  However, by adding regulations, as the pro net neutrality supporters are want to do, they will actually remove incentive for last-mile investment, and further cement the monopoly of the cable and telecommunications providers [emphasis added 11/19/14].  While the Internet would remain as content neutral as it is today, Verizon would have little reason to continue its fiber rollout, and consumers would face, at most, three or four broadband service options: cable, DSL, wireless and fiber.
Net neutrality proponents want to throw bad policy after bad, by proposing new regulations to make up for the problems caused by old regulations.  Deregulation of the broadband industry would result in more options for the consumer, along with an increase in the ability of the Internet to carry entertainment.  Fears of stifling unwanted content are based on the old idea where a consumer has one or two broadband choices.  With more competition in the last mile, even without content neutrality, the consumers will demand and receive access to all of their old favorite websites.  It is important that we don’t fall prey to the rash appeals of the Internet content providers, and we take a stoic, reasoned look at the telecommunications policy that will have an increasingly large impact on all our lives.

Friday, January 17, 2014

What the Carolina Way SHOULD Be

Hear no evil, see no evil, proceed?

Jon Sanders has an excellent write-up on the latest on the academic scandal at UNC.  It's well-worth reading the whole thing.  As a husband, brother-in-law and good friend of UNC graduates, I appreciate his interest in strengthening the university, and the whole system of collegiate athletics, by steering them back to serving the real interests of the athletes, the other students, the faculty, and the citizens as a whole.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

My Problem with Phil Robertson's Comments on Sexuality

I'm sure most of you are aware of the controversy swirling around Phil Robertson's comments to GQ Magazine and his subsequent suspension from the 'reality' TV show "Duck Dynasty" on A&E.  And there's plenty of commentary out there about it, and not a whole lot new to offer.  But I've been turning over a lot of what he said in my mind since the story broke, and my take was different from the flash-reaction of most.

I feel it's important to add my take since many Evangelical Christians seem to be leaping to his often unqualified defense.

Right off the bat, let's be clear about one thing: this is not a first amendment issue.  There is no government censorship involved.  Stop talking about free speech.  A&E also enjoys freedom of association and freedom of speech in what they broadcast.  I've seen people who should know better saying this.  What they're asking for is something approaching the Fairness Doctrine.  I know and share the concern about true attacks on free speech and religious liberty.  I support Hobby Lobby's suit, and oppose action against wedding photogs and bakers who refuse to offer their services to ceremonies they disapprove of.  Those are troubling issues, but they don't give us a right to stretch the truth.

Moving along...

Most of the reaction is to the commentary that summarized 1 Corinthians 6.  But the most problematic portion, to me, came later:

It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying?

Now I've seen some Christian's commentary that offered seemingly-obligatory caveats about the crudeness of parts of his remarks.  But that part, in isolation, betrays an unbiblical view of sexuality.  While many parts of Creation engage in sexual reproduction, God has specifically gifted human sexual intercourse to married couples.  It is an issue treated with respect and dignity in Scripture.  Even passages that deal explicitly with the subject, do so with poetic beauty and reverence.  Now I understand Robertson may not be as poetic as Solomon.  But what he has done is stripped human sexuality down to an animalistic utility function of physical pleasure.  This is profane in a very literal sense.

One immediate problem is: where does this consideration lead us?  It's almost as if he's saying to gay men, "Hey, don't you realize you can reach peak physical pleasure another way?"  If one woman is more pleasurable for a man, than what about a variety of women?  And what if we could determine that he's wrong in his estimation of what offers the most pleasure?  Does that change things?

One defense of Robertson may be that he was not at that moment speaking normatively, but was speaking off-the-cuff about his confusion about the positive facts as they are.  This may well be.  But when one is acting as representative of a Biblical worldview, why even go there?  What is to be gained by even spending private contemplation on the issue?  But all that gets to the second problem I have with it: it gets even the physical aspects of sexual desire dead wrong.

When I first realized that I liked girls, it happened well before I really knew how sex worked.  I certainly was not equipped with the necessary understanding to reach the conclusion Robertson offered.  And when you stop and listen to gay people describe their lives, you'll hear much the same thing.  One of the most disappointing and heart-breaking areas in where the contemporary Evangelical church is dropping the ball, is in its very slow uptake to the fact that people do not choose their sexual orientation.

I know that even as I write this, many people I will worship with and fellowship with tomorrow disagree (and for the record, I also know many that agree).  And not just disagree, but may become angered at my assertion*.  But there's enough testimony out there from Christians who have lived this.  People who confess their belief in Biblical authority, who claim Christ as Lord and Savior, and who have had to come to the realization that they were attracted to people of the same sex.

I've recently read Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate, by Justin Lee.  And it's a book I wish every Christian would read.  Not because I think his Biblical analysis is ultimately correct, but because reading his account of growing up with the realization that he was attracted to other guys will break the hardest of hearts.  No one would choose to go what he's gone through.  And this is someone who believes the Bible is the authoritative word of God.  And he's not alone.

Culture is not monolithic.  Many Christians see the increased rejection of their worldview in the area of sexuality and think they're being maligned and marginalized.  Many gays feel they're being ostracized, rejected and marginalized, sometimes by their own family or by the only Biblical Christians they may know.  So which group is right?  I think they both are.  To me, it's not much of a stretch that in many cultures, the tax-collectors of our day that Jesus would meet with to the derision of the religious authorities would be a gay person.  There are so many people wounded by the church because of their innate sexual orientation.  These people desperately need our compassion, our patience and the deepest extension of empathy that we can muster.  Accepting the idea that people do not choose to be gay doesn't mean you have to reject any part of the Bible.  But it should have a dramatic effect on the way in which you speak to them and speak about them.

I've looked around since I was batting these ideas around in my head, and they're being made elsewhere, like: Wesley Hill: What Phil Robertson Gets Wrong.  Also, apparently it recently came out that he'd be back on the show when new episodes start airing.

* I suspect this is in overreaction to the attack on Biblical authority that is being waged in contemporary (as in all other) culture(s).  The continued normalization of homosexuality in society is to be resisted on all fronts, it is believed, even if that means drawings lines outside where Scripture draws them.  Thus it's not acceptable to say that being gay is not chosen, because acting gay is wrong, even though there is no Scriptural basis for saying that that particular temptation is chosen.

Friday, November 22, 2013

A Cost/Benefit Analysis of the War on Drugs

It's my belief that even operating under a number of different conventional political ideologies, the War on Drugs (hereafter WoD) is a functional failure, and should be scrapped for wholesale legalization of production, distribution, sale, possession and consumption.  While my own beliefs lead me to point out that in a liberal society, the presumption on any voluntary activity is on legalization, the great and escalating cost, most importantly the human cost, of the WoD compels me to drop the ideological rhetoric and adopt a non-partisan, "Does it work?" approach in hopes of building a larger coalition to rid ourselves of it.

Initial disclaimer: I reference wikipedia as a convenience.  In some cases I tried to track down the original linked source, but if you want to dispute the stuff there, be my guest.  We can have that argument.  I'm taking the liberty because this is a blog post, not an academic paper.  I make no claims about the inherent accuracy of information found in any source posted.

Special thanks at the start to Tal Arrowood, who providing some thoughts and edits.

Hopefully my biases won't get the best of me.  Here we go.  If I've made a strawman of your beliefs, let me know.

Costs of the War on Drugs

1. Cartels and Civil Instability in Latin America

We're all pretty familiar with the idea of drug cartels operating in Latin America.  For decades now, they've been a subject of periodic news coverage, pop culture treatment, and US political ire.  But the reason drug cartels exist, is because people demand drugs (particularly in rich countries like the US), and there exists no legal mechanism for their production, distribution and sale.  But it's easy to keep that as an abstract thought.  To push to the back of your mind just what it means to be living in a country plagued by drug cartels.

Consider Mexico.

The official toll of Mexican drug violence in the six years of former President Felipe Calderon's tenure is 60,000 (1).  It may well be higher, as there are an estimated 100,000 total homicides counting missing people, unsolved murders, etc (2).  Alfredo Corchado, a Mexican-American journalist working for the Dallas Morning News covering the activity of the cartels in Mexico, puts the number at more than 80,000 (3).  To put that in perspective:


You have to go back to the world wars and the Civil War to find wars that produced more American casualties.  This is not exactly an apples/apples comparison, of course.  One the one hand, while the numbers include civilian deaths, the American wars were not fought on American soil.  But I don't include the numbers to compare the overall deadliness of the wars, but to force you to consider how you feel about American dead in wars, and then think those thoughts for our neighbors to the south.  Mexico is in a state of effective war, with all the incumbent terror.

How much terror?

In a panel on Mexican drug violence, the NY Times' Mexico City desk reporter, Karla Zabludovsky, shared that police in Mexico are often seen wearing masks to hide their identities (5).  Other targets of the cartels include journalists that report on Mexico's drug violence.  Note that I didn't say those that report on Mexico's drug cartel.  Zabludovsky says journalists often fear reporting on the violent activities that arise because of drug cartels, even without attribution to the cartels themselves.  So it is not uncommon to come across the scene of a shooting, but then never read about it later.  That or anonymous Twitter users report the event (this was a particular focus of that Cato panel).

(image source: 6)

The previously mentioned Alfredo Corchado had a well-publicized death-threat issued against him by cartels (7).  Thankfully they have not carried out their threat.  But here is a depressing list of journalists killed in Mexico since 2000 (8).

The people who report the news and the people who protect and serve live in fear of these cartels.  Corruption is rampant in various levels of Mexican government according to Corchado's work.  And all of this is, in large part, to supply drugs to countries like the US.

Now it is too simplistic to say the cartels would vanish if the WoD were truly ended (including legalizing production, distribution and sale).  After all, we still have moonshiners in America, and the cartels have other revenue streams like human trafficking.  But it's clear that most of their revenue comes from the illicit drug trade (citation needed - but I'm not gonna dig for one - they're called "drug" cartels for a reason), and if there were a legal market for those illicit drugs, most all of the demand would be met by that legal market (taking into account the elasticity of how users would respond to differences in prices - taxes would have to be set with an eye towards minimizing black market activity).  The chance of citizens of Mexico to live a normal life may hinge on our willingness to end the WoD.

A note on enforcement: attacking the drug cartels directly seems not to have worked.  Those 60,000 official deaths occurred over a period of time in which the Mexican administration waged direct war on the cartels.  While corruption may be partly to blame for their failures, there's been no lack of violence between the army and cartels themselves, and very little to show for it.

2. Gangs and Gang Violence in the US

Of course, not all of the black market violence is south of the border.  When the drugs come to America, they must be distributed by someone, and gangs are the primary distributors of drugs within the US, according to the Department of Justice (9).

Not all of the drugs the gangs profit from are from outside the country.  Manufacture of drugs like methamphetamine, as we all know, can take place just about anywhere.  The drug trade within the US takes a small part of the violence we see in Mexico and imports it to the US.  While it is very difficult to account for gang violence, it's estimated around 1,900 people are killed each year in America because of it (10).  Some large portion of that because of the illicit drug trade.

3. Loss of Civil Liberties and Police Militarization

A recent news item told of man subjected, against his will, to multiple anal cavity probes.  All because a police officer saw him "clinching his buttocks" as he got out of his car.  This was supposedly probable cause for a search, which never turned up any drugs (despite a drug dog "alerting" - more on that later).  There's plenty of reporting and commentary about the incident out there, like this (11).  But while it's a particularly egregious example of how the WoD has gone wrong, it's far from the only one.  There's another very instructive example.  We're all fortunate though, that this time it happened to someone with the means to fight back.

i) Cheye Calvo

You may remember the story of Cheye Calvo, but if not, it starts with his being the unwitting victim of a drug smuggling ring.  The ring operated to distribute drugs by shipping them to the target area to random people, who have no idea they're going to be getting the drugs.  They're delivered while the people aren't home, and an inside man with the delivery company lets someone know at the other end to make the rounds and pick up the packages.  If something goes wrong along the way, it's not traceable to any of the people on the receiving end, since the drugs are going to the victims' addresses.

This time, the police manage to intercept one of the packages.  They decide to surreptitiously deliver the package themselves, and then raid the home when the people take it inside.  This duty falls on Prince George's County Police.  The person on the receiving end was Calvo, who was mayor of the town in which he lived: Berwyn Heights, MD.

After the mayor got home and took the package inside, completely unaware of its contents, his home was broken into by a SWAT team, which immediately shot his two dogs, including one that was running away, as they threw the mayor and his wife on the ground and held them at gunpoint as they ransacked their house for four hours.  You can read his account here (12).

The bit about the dogs being shot is tragically routine.  Radley Balko write about civil liberties issues and police abuses, and coined the grim hashtage #puppycide for tweets involving such incidents.  Here are the search results (13).  There's also a Kickstarter campaign underway to fund a documentary on the practice (14).

Raids like that on Calvo's house exist because of the WoD.

ii) Paramilitary Police Raids

The existence of paramilitary police raids puts multiple lives at risk.  Not just criminals.  Not just police.  But innocent civilians.  The Cato Institute started mapping incidents where these kinds of raids occurred.

Initially, the use of paramilitary equipment and tactics by law enforcement was rare.  It was introduced as a way to mitigate situations in which there is imminent danger to peoples' lives.  The term S.W.A.T. (Special Weapons and Tactics) dates back to Philadelphia in 1964, but gained notoriety in Los Angeles, where Inspector Daryl Gates was a prominent supporter of the teams (15).

They were used to great effect to put down the heavily armed Symbionese Liberation Army in LA in 1974.  In a report following the incident, some important rationales were given for the necessity of the heretofore unusual approach to police work: "the emergence of snipers as a challenge to civil order; political assassinations; and the threat of urban guerrilla warfare by militant groups." (quoted from wikipedia - tried to track down the pdf, but it's a dead link in the page - would like to find it somewhere).

Indeed, these seem to me like reasonable instances where police need to have a unique set of equipment and tactics. What is most notable about the list is what it doesn't cite as a main impetus: drugs.

And yet, the primary use of SWAT teams around the country today is in enforcing drug warrants. In response to the Calvo raid, the Maryland legislature passed a bill that would require reporting of how SWAT teams were used in Maryland, and the data began to come in.

For the last half of 2009, SWAT teams were deployed 804 times in the state of Maryland, or about 4.5 times a day. In Prince George’s County alone, which has about 850,000 residents, a SWAT team was deployed about once a day. According to an analysis by the Baltimore Sun, 94 percent of the state’s SWAT deployments were to serve search or arrest warrants, leaving just 6 percent that were raids involving barricades, bank robberies, hostage takings, and other emergency situations. Half of Prince George’s County’s SWAT deployments were for what were called “misdemeanors and nonserious felonies.” More than one hundred times over a six-month period, Prince George’s County sent police barreling into private homes for nonserious, nonviolent crimes. Calvo pointed out that the first set of figures confirm what he and others concerned about these tactics have suspected: SWAT teams are being deployed too often as the default way to serve search warrants, not as a last resort.

That excerpt is from Radley Balko's book Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America (17).  While not all such raids are focused on drugs (sometimes it's to breakup home poker games (18)), Balko figures a great majority of them are.  And the consequences, not just to innocent canines, can be lethal.

a) Cops killed in raids

The person breaking the law is not the only person that can be harmed.  The homes that cops are breaking into may contain armed people.  Some may be guilty of some crime.  Others may be completely innocent.  But when people break down your door and are not dressed in normal police uniforms, it's not hard to imagine why armed citizens respond to what they think is a home invasion when someone points an MP5 or a shotgun in their direction after breaking in in the middle of the night.  The raid map chronicles officers killed or injured during the raids.

b) Innocent civilians killed in raids

The raid map also captures completely innocent civilians who were killed in raids on wrong homes, or who were minors in the homes at the times of raids.

One of the worst cases was the killing of Kathryn Johnson of Atlanta in 2006.  Police entered the home in plainclothes at night with a no-knock raid.  Johnson fired out the door over the heads of the invaders, who responded by sending a hail of bullets into the house.  The officers falsified reports that drugs were found at the home, and this was used to justify the raid initially.  Then they planted marijuana at the home after the shooting.  After Johnson was shot, she was handcuffed as she lay dying. (19)

iii) Civil Asset Forfeiture

One of the incentives for conducting raids on homes, and also often raids on people in their cars and business is because of civil asset forfeiture laws.  These laws, which are in the place at the federal level, and in the state books (with North Carolina being a noted, blessed exception) allow property to be confiscated if there's a nexus to criminal activity.  This seems like facially unconstitutional in light of the fourth amendment and fourteenth amendments to the Constitution.  Property is seized without substantive due process.  Drugs are often used a pretense.

In August of this year, the New Yorker described a town that was particularly notorious in how they confiscated property of people traveling through the town.  One family was even threatened with having their kids taken away if they didn't relinquish the cash they were traveling with (20).  The WoD facilitates these kinds of takings by providing two notable mechanisms available to police.

a) False Alerts

SCOTUS, in their wisdom, has ruled that you do not require reasonable suspicion to walk a drug dog around a car that has been stopped for any kind of violation.  The idea being that this does not constitute an invasive search, since the dog is just examining odors being emitted out from the car.

This becomes problematic as drug dogs have been shown to falsely alert to the presence of narcotics.  In some cases, this is based on the subtle cues given by handlers based on their own expectations.  A UC-Davis investigation found this particular type of false alert common (21).

And in some cases, it may be more nefarious.  Russ Jones is a former narcotics officer with experience dealing with police dogs.  He now is a part of the organization called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).  (22)  He has come out and said that a drug dog is trained to satisfy his handler.  And if the handler wants the dog to alert, he has cues he can use to make him alert.  That alert is then used as probable cause to conduct a full search of the vehicle.  Which all makes a mockery of the probable cause requirement, if a cop can just get a dog to give it to him whenever he wanted.

b) Drug Laced Cash Seized

Another tactic used by law enforcement is in testing cash for the presence of drugs.  When people travel with large amounts of physical cash, they may be conducting perfectly legal business.  But that money can be seized without due process if it is found to contain traces of drugs.

The problem is this: a whole lot of our money contains traces of drugs.

The Institute for Justice, a libertarian leaning public interest law firm has a series of statistics on their website about how problematic seizure based on traces of drugs is.
Scientists, in studies stretching back to 1987, have consistently found that a third to 97 percent of all bills in circulation are tainted by cocaine.[3]  The latest study, presented in August 2009 to the American Chemical Society, found cocaine on 90 percent of 234 banknotes from 18 U.S. cities.  The findings, arrived at by means of a new method of gas chromatography, confirm numerous previous studies.[4]
In 1987, a Drug Enforcement Agency scientist found that one-third of all money at the Federal Reserve Building in Chicago had traces of cocaine.  The study recommended “that trace analysis of currency for general enforcement or seizure be stopped.”  

A California woman had her cash seized by Nebraska police when dogs indicated the presence of drugs on the money, despite finding no evidence of drugs on her person or in her automobile.  Thankfully in this case, the judge ordered the seized money returned (24).

The incentive is clear when local departments get to keep large amounts of the cash.  Sometimes they desire the money because they're inadequately funded.  Other times they desire it for more personal gain.  NPR wrote of a Georgia Sheriff that hired inmates to build a house.  It was accused the house became a personal party house for the Sheriff (25).  The story in the New Yorker highlighted other ways in which LEOs benefited from seizing assets.

While I think civil asset forfeiture is a violation of due process rights in the first place, it is largely enabled by the WoD.

4. Mass Incarceration

It is an often-quoted statistic that while the United States has about 5% of the world's population, they have about 25% of the world's currently incarcerated.  I have a bit of trouble with some of the details there, mainly because I do not trust the accounting of highly populated, autocratic regimes.  However, the raw numbers are scary enough.  It is indisputable that the US has the highest incarceration rate of any purported liberal democracy (26).

(image source: 27)

According to Saki Knafo at the Huffington Post

The problem: There are 219,000 inmates in the federal prisons system -- compared with 25,000 in 1980. About half are there for drug offenses.


Note the mention there, by the way, of the disproportionate treatment of cocaine and crack-cocaine, and of the need to reform mandatory minimum sentencing.  Both issues I am very concerned about, but are slightly outside the scope of this piece.

5. Increased Danger from Drugs Themselves

Part of the rationale in prohibiting drugs is that people irrationally make choices that pose a danger to themselves.  Even if, for the sake of argument, all negative externalities of drug use are nullified, some would still argue for the prohibition of drugs to protect people from themselves.

But what if the drug prohibition introduces harms to the drug users we're concerned about?

In a legally regulated open market, the amount of information about drugs, and the reliability of their content, would be greatly escalated.  If you purchase a bottle of vodka, you will know from the label whether it is 40% alcohol by volume, or 50% alcohol by volume, or higher.  Likewise, you can be almost perfectly certain that the bottle contains ethanol distilled from grain and water.  However, when you buy a drug from someone at the corner, you don't know if the cocaine is cut with some cheap powder that may prove deadly.

In recent years, deaths across the world have been linked to fake ecstasy (29 , 30 , 31).

The track-record of open markets in ensuring reliability and open information about product formulation is not perfect, but it is remarkably high.  While we often debate the efficacy of various degrees of regulatory intervention into markets, bringing drugs into the open market and out of the black market will help protect people from faulty and potentially more lethal products.

6. Criminalizing Addicts

Along the same lines, our concern for those struggling with drug abuse should lead us to ask what we may do to most effectively help them.  But accepting help means admitting to use.  As hard as it is to admit to being an addict, we have added the additional hurdle of requiring drug addicts to admit they are law-breakers as well.

7. Fiscal Cost

Last, and I would argue, least in my lists of costs of the WoD is the direct fiscal cost itself.  The Cato Institute estimated:

...legalizing drugs would save roughly $41.3 billion per year in government expenditure on enforcement of prohibition. Of these savings, $25.7 billion would accrue to state and local governments, while $15.6 billion would accrue to the federal government.
Approximately $8.7 billion of the savings would result from legalization of marijuana and $32.6 billion from legalization of other drugs.

Still, I think this is relatively minor in comparison to the tremendous human cost outlined in the other points.

Benefits of the War on Drugs

1. Lowered Use

So far, I haven't addressed the prudence, wisdom or morality of using any of the currently prohibited drugs.  That's beyond the scope of what I'm addressing.  In fact, I'm going to continue with the rhetorical assumption that use of drugs is bad - in whatever way you want to take it.

So one benefit of prohibition would be limiting the use of illicit drugs.  It is an intuitive expectation that the prohibition of illicit drugs leads to less use of illicit drugs.

But to what degree?  It's clearly not a binary phenomenon: with prohibition we have no drug use, and with no prohibition we do.  It turns out this is a complicated matter which I'll address later.  For the moment, lets assume that it does.

This has implications beyond those for the individual user.  The use of drugs produces externalities (as with any activity).  Some may be good, but I think most are bad.  I would wager most people reading this would agree with that, though we may argue over the degree.

Directly under the influence of drugs, users may pose a danger to others.  Most illicit drugs will impair driving, an activity that requires attention and coordination.

Aside: not all illicit drugs will - if the guy coming in the other direction has had trouble sleeping lately, I might would rather prefer he be on a small amount of amphetamines than not.  This is why the Air Force has Fly/No Fly pills (also called Go/No Go pills).  The fly pills are dextroamphetamine.  Their use is controversial, but the rationale is apparent (33).
Beyond that, people high on a variety of different drugs may see a behavioral change to the violent, including drugs like cocaine, PCP, or alcohol (whoops - maybe we'll talk about our past experiments with prohibition later).

Chronic depressant use may induce a lethargy that depresses a person's economic contribution to their family and everyone else around them.

And almost every single drug carries a risk of overdose from toxicity, asphyxiation, injury from impaired activity, etc.

Another aside: there has still never been a single confirmed case of direct overdose from the use of cannabis (34).

Anyway, you may have noticed that I'm not including references for the harms posed by drug use.  That's because I'm willing to accept them for the sake of argument and stack the deck against myself.

All that being said, any accounting of the costs and benefits of the WoD must include the amount to which drug use can be restricted, and the concurrent reduction in the negative externalities of said drug use.

2. State as Provider of Moral Censure

I think this particular line of reasoning is somewhat out-of-step with the political preconceptions I bring to the issue.  But it will resonate with traditional conservatives (and ironically, maybe with progressives as well, if you swap out some of the normative terminology (or maybe even if you don't!)).

To many people, drug use represents something more than just a casual, imprudent or selfish (or all of the above) indulgence.  It is, in fact, morally wrong.  And within their political ideology, things that are clearly morally wrong, or perhaps sufficiently morally wrong, should not enjoy the legal freedom to exist.  Even if all penalties were stripped, and drugs were totally "decriminalized", the very existence of an unenforced, un-penalized, but still official censure that contained the legal imprimatur of the state would contain value.  It is a signal that as a society, we do not condone the activity.

Again, I do not share this view of the role of the state.  But for those that do, legal prohibition has a very real value.

Disputed Results of the War on Drugs

1. Restricted Minor Access

I think a very, very large majority of people would agree that it is a legitimate goal to keep mind altering drugs out of the hands of kids (in the context of recreational use).  Nearly as many will identify this as a legitimate public policy goal.

But does the WoD serve this function?  It's not immediately obvious to me that a drug sold in a legal, regulated market would be more available to minors than a drug sold exclusively in the black market.  This is anecdotal, and reliant on my memory (so essentially: rubbish - feel free to skip ahead), but it seems to me, looking back, that in Middle and High School, marijuana was as easy to acquire as alcohol or tobacco.  Now this is just one person's experience, and I was only ever interested in acquiring one of those three things (tobacco).  But still, given the legal availability of alcohol and tobacco, and the much larger ratios of the adult population that used those substances compared to marijuana, one would expect them to be comparatively plentiful.

I think there's a logical explanation for why that might not be the case.  Adults, when given the option to acquire any item, would prefer operating through a legal market over a black market, all else being equal.  Even in the face of excise or other sales taxes, with differing people responding differently based on how they value legality, the risks of lawbreaking, the perceived quality, blah blah blah.

Point is, almost every adult who buys alcohol or tobacco does so through the legal market.  Vendors in these markets have a decided interest in complying with age related laws (and their own moral reasoning).  Not all retailers do, of course, but compared with the incentives faced by the illegal drug dealer, the difference would be dramatic.

But this is still an empirical question.  And shame on me for rambling this far along without finding the data.  Problem is, I don't know the data, and I haven't yet found much reliable data, so I'm just relating my own intuition.

2. Lowered Use

I put lowered use in the section on the benefits of the WoD.  It is not clear, though, the degree to which prohibition lowers drug use.  Empirical evidence is hard to come by, but we do have a couple of examples to consider.

i) Portugal

In 2001, Portugal passed a law removing the criminal penalties for possession of drugs, treating all such cases as administrative.  This is not the widespread legalization proposed in ending the WoD, but it may give some clue as to the effect changing drug laws can have.

The results have been mixed, with many sides of the argument picking and choosing and spinning.  Overall drug use increased slightly, but was down among teenagers.  HIV incidence rate among users dropped steadily, as the decriminalization was pared with harm reduction efforts (aside: for which money would become available as would-be felons are routed out of prison and into treatment programs).  Various statistics and claims and analysis can be found here (35) and here (36).

What did not happen was an explosion of drug use.

ii) Drugs are Cheaper and More Pure

According to a recent report, drugs around the world are cheaper and more pure than ever, suggesting competition is driving down prices and driving up quality.  If the WoD was successful in separating willing consumers from willing buyers, scarcity would drive prices up.  But don't trust my analysis, the researchers have said as much themselves:

They found that illegal drugs have become cheaper while their potency has increased, indicating that efforts to control "the global illegal drug market through law enforcement are failing."

Mixed Results of the WoD

The massive reduction in costs associated with policing the WoD is a burden we need to get off the public fisc.  That said, a lot of that money goes into employing lots of people.  I don't mean to confuse costs and benefits here, but it must be considered that large swaths of bureaucracy and law enforcement would become redundant.  On balance, in the long-run, this would be an improvement.  But considerations could be made, particularly for those trained up in law enforcement.  The blow could be softened to a great degree by reducing headcounts by attrition (closing open positions instead of hiring people to fill them), and by providing retraining assistance.  As for the companies that make money making products and providing services tied to the drug war, there may be capital sunk into those enterprises which cannot be retrieved.

But all of that ends up being arguments to end the WoD sooner rather than later.  The longer you wait, the higher those sunk costs rise.  Just as no one wants to be the last person to die in a losing war, no one wants to invest the last dollar in the cottage industry that was enabled by it.

Thanks to Tal for pointing out that particular result, which was missing from my initial consideration.


Tens of thousands of lives lost.  Communities in Latin America terrorized.  Youth in America turned into felons.  Homes broken into.  Property seized on flimsy pretense.  Governments around the world corrupted.  Users afraid of seeking treatment.  People killed by black market knock-off drugs that are more dangerous than their pure counterparts.  A trillion dollars spent (38).  And drugs are still used and readily available.

What are we getting for all this?  How is this worth it?

Now you may think it's necessary to reform.  Maybe trim some around the edges.  Start with legalizing marijuana, because maybe you know marijuana is safer than alcohol anyway and it just kinda makes sense.

While that may be a step in the right direction, legalizing marijuana will do nothing to address most of the problems.  People don't need treatment for marijuana addiction, a drug with little physical dependency.  And drug cartels aren't fighting in the streets over meager crumbs of a cheap drug that grows better in Canada.

I know this is radical.  And I may well be wrong.

One big gotcha against my point: legalizing production in the United States may not completely eradicate illegal activity in other countries if they do not change their laws.  However, I would say 1) if the US changed its drug laws, it would drastically increase the likelihood of other countries in our hemisphere of doing the same.  Usually the US is applying pressure to prevent Latin American countries from exploring legalization. 2) While the US does not have the climate of, say, Colombia, I am sure a legalized cocaine industry would perfect growing coca leaves, or in acquiring raw material through legal channels.

I also recognize that it's really hard to weigh these things in a balance.  It's a lot of anecdotes, with some data thrown in.  It's fuzzy and messy.

But this is what I believe.  When I stack up the pros and cons, I don't see how drug prohibition works.  I don't see how it works for families.  I don't see how it works for communities.  I don't see how it works for our nation.

BTW, there are two other matters that come to mind that escaped mention here, but I think are important.  One is the lesson of alcohol prohibition.  The other is the way in which our WoD has a disproportionate impact on the poor and minorities.  I think the first issue is generally well understood by most people.  The second is one that deserves more attention, perhaps in a future blog post.

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