Wednesday, July 31, 2002

You might have been wondering, during the debate over government subsidies to Amtrak, how the money might otherwise have been spent. Well, here are some relevant figures: Amtrak was granted a $520 million capital subsidy in 2001, plus another $105 in "safety and operations" funding (another $130 million-odd was spent on sundry other passenger rail projects, including "research and development"). The previous year, Amtrak supplied about 5.5 billion passenger miles of rail transportation; total passenger rail subsidies thus amounted to about 13.5 cents per passenger mile.

In 2000 (the most recent year for which figures appear to be available), Greyhound bus lines took in a total of about $1 billion in revenue, while providing nearly 8 billion passenger miles of bus transportation, for a total of about 13 cents per passenger mile (and that's assuming zero profit and zero revenue from non-passenger sources such as its package-shipping service). Meanwhile, Continental Airlines brought in 13.44 cents of revenue per passenger mile; United's figure was 13.25 cents, and American's was 14.05 cents. (Since 2000, airlines' revenues per passenger mile have declined, while Amtrak's subsidy per passenger mile has increased. Greyhound's parent company, Laidlaw, has been granted bankruptcy protection, so Greyhound's recent revenue figures are hard to come by.)

Remember, these are revenue figures--the amount these companies charged for the transportation they provided. (And all were profitable during the year in question.) In other words, the government's 2001 subsidy of passenger rail would have been approximately sufficient to pay for all of Amtrak's passengers the previous year to take a bus or plane instead--absolutely free.

On the other hand, it's not entirely certain that Amtrak's passengers would have taken this deal, even if they could somehow have been identified and offered the switch. After all, Amtrak is hardly the price-sensitive traveler's first choice; its fares on the most popular routes are typically slightly above the best available airfare (as a bit of experimentation with Amtrak's and Expedia's Websites will show), let alone the cost of a bus ticket. More likely, rail passengers are opting for comfort and convenience--particularly compared to Greyhound, whose highly, uh, "price-conscious" clientele may be exactly what Amtrak's passengers are looking to avoid. Viewed in this light, the massive federal subsidy provided to Amtrak's affluent, luxury-seeking customers is, pace the "egalitarian" mass transit ideologues, an appalling example of expensive, wasteful government favoritism towards the well-to-do.

Sunday, July 28, 2002

Bloggers the world over, led by Instapundit Glenn Reynolds, are hooting in celebration of John Leo's proclamation, in an entire column on blogging in the oh-so-mainstream US News and World Report, that "[t]he main arena for media criticism....will be the Internet." Now, I'm as enthused about the blogging phenomenon as anyone (okay, as anyone I know), but in understanding its growth and influence, it's important to separate form from content.

A stroll through the "blogosphere", as it's called, reveals that a very large fraction of blogs are nothing more than the appallingly tedious, self-centered ramblings of appallingly tedious, self-centered people (whether "I Could Be Wrong" falls into this category is of course a question for you, the reader, to decide). Many more are simply Web versions of the moderated electronic bulletin board, a medium that has been used for decades now by technical specialists and hobbyist-enthusiasts to disseminate information and host discussions targeted at a particular narrow audience.

The relatively small collection of political and media-critic blogs that have risen to such spectacular popularity and prominence lately are simply new-technology equivalents of the low-budget "alternative" publications that sprang up in the political ferment of the late '60's and early '70's. Like bloggers, "alternative" journalists used the cheapest publication medium at hand to give expression to a nascent political faction that just happened to catch on and mount a serious challenge to one of the dominant political coalitions of the day. Back then, it was a radical-left takeover by educated upscale youth of the previously working-class, mildly populist institutions of the liberal-Democratic coalition; today, educated, upscale youth on the libertarian right are hoping to conquer the distinctly working-class, mildly populist institutions of the conservative-Republican coalition.

If they succeed, then blogs will be the Rolling Stone, Village Voice and urban "alternative weeklies" of the early 21st century--an established, commercially successful media vehicle catering to a particular political demographic. And if they fail, then blogging will likely simply return to its obscure specialist-and-vanity roots, until the next political upheaval--or the next technology--takes over. Either way, it will be the content it carries, not the blog form itself, that will determine its fate.

Saturday, July 27, 2002

It's chutzpah week on the Israeli left. Shimon Peres has apparently told the German news magazine Der Spiegel that he has "doubts" about Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's commitment to peace in the Mideast, and that he is not certain Sharon can be considered a partner for peace any longer. I had no idea that Peres had officially taken up his post as foreign minister for the Palestinian Authority, but now that he is openly (and negatively) evaluating the Israeli Prime Minister's suitability to reach a deal with him in that new capacity, it would behoove him, at least, to resign from his position in said Prime Minister's government. No such luck: "As long as I can serve as a balancing factor, I'll stay." A nation at war can ill afford a cabinet minister who sees his role as "balancing" the views of his loyal colleagues by representing the enemy within the government. Peres' continued membership in the cabinet is a serious danger to his country, lending credibility to anti-Israel agitators around the world, and undercutting the valid arguments of Israel's defenders in the battle against terrorism.

Meanwhile, Gideon Samet in Ha'aretz waxes furious about the killing of Hamas leader Salah Shehadeh and the supposed ceasefire it supposedly interfered with: "a genuine opportunity to break the cycle of terror and retaliation was buried in Gaza." Putting aside the vague, dubious nature of the alleged ceasefire proposal (Amir Oren, also in Ha'aretz, throws a ton of cold water on all the talk of a "breakthrough"), I don't recall Gideon Samet standing foursquare behind Ariel Sharon's firm policy of "no negotiations under fire", when the latter was refusing to make political concessions to the Palestinians in the face of terrorist attacks. On the contrary, I seem to recall him and his fellow peaceniks arguing at the time that military restraint and willingness to negotiate--even under the threat of terrorism--were necessary to the serious pursuit of peace. Why, then, would Samet believe that Israel's attack on a terrorist leader in Gaza--even one that killed several civilians as a regrettable side effect--can rightly be blamed for scuttling Palestinian ceasefire initiatives this time? Or does he consider "no negotiations under fire" a reasonable position for Palestians to take, but abominably warlike when held by Israelis?

Thursday, July 25, 2002

"Instapundit" Glenn Reynolds has been arguing for a while now that "airport security is a dangerous joke", completely incapable of accomplishing anything beyond acute passenger harassment. I've generally been inclined to cut the security folks a little more slack than that, given the difficulty of their job and the constraints (including the political ones) under which they're working. But my experience yesterday at Sea-Tac International Airport (in the Seattle area) has gotten me thinking that maybe Prof. Reynolds has a point. You see, my fellow passengers and I were all subjected to the now-standard thorough security check, including baggage X-ray, before being allowed into the terminal gate area--from the plane. That's right--we were led directly from our overseas flight to the immigration officers, then baggage claim and customs, then the metal detectors, where they carefully searched us for any firearms we might have acquired in Europe and brought on board our airliner (but somehow neglected to use up until that point). They even checked my shoes for explosives, just in case I might have smuggled some C4 plastique onto the plane in the soles of my New Balances, only to change my mind and target the duty-free shop instead.

As I told them, "you guys are so lucky making jokes about this stuff is illegal."

Friday, July 19, 2002

Just in case anyone might have thought my characterization of the American criminal justice system as a bizarre cult was an exaggeration, the latest development in the Zacarias Moussaoui case should remove all doubt. In a scene straight out of classic film farce, the accused terrorist, having decided for convoluted reasons to confess, shouts at the judge, "I am a member of Al Qaida", and demands to plead guilty. But the judge refuses to accept the plea, and gives him a week to think it over.

One almost feels sympathy for the baffled Moussaoui. He was prepared to die a martyr's death, and probably even to be tortured and executed by the infidels; what he could never have expected was that he would instead be forcibly incorporated into their perverse religious rites. Having firmly and openly declared his guilt, he suddenly finds that guilt or innocence is no longer the issue; rather, he is told that he must follow the holy rules and procedures, which require him to accept the assistance of a cultic acolyte in seeking out instances of ritual impurity in his accusers' performance of the sacred dance of prosecution, and present those instances before a priest of the sect. If they are successful, then the accused wins his freedom; if he fails, he is punished as unworthy, although the choice of punishment is itself a highly ritualized process. (As Judge/Priest Leonie Brinkema tells him, it's "normal, in criminal cases, to plea bargain".)

And if he refuses to embrace this arcane liturgy with all his heart--as Moussaoui is now finding out--he is declared a madman, and is treated as such. For only a lunatic, saith the Priests, would reject any of the true teachings of the Law, or deviate in the slightest from the elaborate ceremonial practices specified therein--by, for instance, blurting out the blindingly obvious truth of his own guilt.

Saturday, July 13, 2002

Last December, before this blog came to be, I posted a comment to the Slate Fray about the debate over John Walker Lindh, expressing concern that current American law, with its focus on concrete criminal actions, may not be up to the task of prosecuting terrorist "sleeper" agents stationed in the US, quietly awaiting the command to attack. I suggested the RICO statute, used so successfully against organized crime syndicates, as one possible solution to the problem. Well, the idea (which had unsurprisingly crossed other minds before mine) has finally made it into Slate--as a sarcastic, "Modest Proposal"-style critique of the broad reach of federal conspiracy law. Apparently, Stanford law professor Robert Weisberg considers RICO and its ilk such egregious abuses of government power that merely pointing out that they might cover "dirty bomb" suspect Jose Padilla is enough to discredit them completely. (Not everyone caught his sarcasm, and Weisberg ended up having to explain himself. I suggested in response that if he wanted to attack federal conspiracy statutes, he might consider pointing to at least one specific case of an actual not-so-horrible person who was unfairly prosecuted under those laws, rather than shouting, "they're so vague they could even be used to prosecute Al Qaida sleeper agents awaiting the call to commit murderous terrorist acts!")

Of course, a law professor can be expected to view the criminal justice system as a means to the end of satisfying the quasi-religious abstract aesthetic of civil libertarians. But what about the public response to the now-infamous Inglewood videotape? The whole country has now watched Inglewood police officer Jeremy Morse slam arrested teenager Donovan Jackson onto the hood of his car and cuff him in the face--no prolonged beating with batons, just a slam and a punch--and everywhere the reaction is outrage. Michelle Cottle, while defending the police against charges of racism, concedes without argument that "[t]he tape shows some pretty nasty business", and that it's "abundantly clear" that "excessive force was used". Jack Dunphy, the National Review's resident pseudonymous policeman and a stout defender of his profession, also acknowledges that "it seems plain from watching the videotape" that Morse "used excessive force", and suggests that the deputies on the scene of the incident "were troubled by what they had witnessed." And that's what the defenders of the police are saying. Perhaps that's why there are no fewer than five investigations underway, and the surreptitious videorecorder of the arrest can be heard on the tape commenting about the offending officer, "You just lost your job, buddy."

Now, we don't know all the facts of the incident, and it's possible that it was nothing more than an unprovoked display of sadistic brutality. But the officers in question apparently reported--before knowing about the videotape--that they had had to punch a lunging Jackson to subdue him before he was handcuffed. While the rules do supposedly dictate that once handcuffed, a suspect must be treated with kid gloves, it seems to be common knowledge that the police don't normally follow that particular rule. And in fact, I doubt that such a rule is even workable, for the simple reason that if a misbehaving suspect is treated exactly like a quiescent one once the cuffs are on, then the disincentive to "get one's licks in" before the cuffs are applied largely disappears. Although I don't have the statistics at hand, I would be very surprised, for that reason, if the number of "difficult" arrests hasn't skyrocketed since concerns about police brutality have made it harder for the police to deal harshly with those who resist arrest.

But complaints about the Inglewood videotape and the RICO statute are not about the messy practicalities of fighting crime and protecting the innocent. They're about obeisance to a strange American dogma, which requires that law enforcement authorities be assumed to be ruthless, oppressive monsters at all times, however honorable, difficult and carefully-performed their job. The dogma does not make law enforcement any more effective, nor, as the Iglewood incident shows, does it make the police any more gentlemanly towards the public; mostly it just encourages dishonesty and hypocrisy on the part of the authorities, as they struggle to maintain the appearance of adherence to the absurdly unrealistic standards of conduct imposed upon them. But societies are often willing to pay a high price for the sake of clinging to their religious beliefs, and America is no exception.

Monday, July 08, 2002

Tipper Gore apparently told her husband Al she'd like to see him run for president again in 2004. This time, though, he says he'd be less constrained by "polls, tactics and all the rest": "if I had it to do over again, I'd just let it rip....I would have poured out my heart...." wonders what the happy couple might do on stage to celebrate his next nomination....
In the Washington Post, Afghan women's rights activist Belquis Ahmadi complains that post-Taliban hopes for progress towards equal treatment of women in her country have been "eclipsed by a growing sense of futility in the face of threats, bribes and intimidation by warlords and their supporters." Sure sounds like equal treatment to me....

Sunday, July 07, 2002

In her 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs skewered the urban planners of the early-to-mid-20th century who viewed cities as, at best, necessary evils, idealized the majestic country estate as the perfect living environment, and hence devoted themselves to introducing rural elements--parks, open spaces, grand buildings--into city life, with disastrous results. The famous "urban renewal" public housing projects of the 1950's, huge high-rises surrounded by large, empty areas of greenery, are typical of the designs of that school, according to Jacobs, and their resounding failure to inspire anything but misery and social disintegration is a testament to the wrongheadedness of the ruralists' ideas.

Steven Spielberg's recent film, Minority Report, is ostensibly about the paradox of free will and moral responsibility in a deterministic universe. But (without revealing too much about the plot) it treats the whole issue in a fairly perfunctory manner; the hero, a futuristic policeman played by Tom Cruise, pursues a resolution to the conundrum of human autonomy pretty much the same way any action hero pursues his designated "McGuffin" (to use Alfred Hitchcock's term for the object--be it a black box, secret document, or missing person--that the hero must find to save the day).

The real focus of the film, in fact, is Spielberg's vision of life in the year 2054, and in Jane Jacobs' old argument about the city vs. the country, Spielberg comes down resolutely on the anti-urban--that is, anti-Jacobs--side. In Minority Report, the city is a filthy, corrupt, brutal place, where herds of soulless people file through soulless public spaces, bombarded ceaselessly with commercial pitches, tracked constantly by identity, and policed by a "department of precrime" that predicts their future offenses, arrests them before the fact, and "imprisons" them by drugging them into a catatonic state that seems little different from their previous urban lives. In an area called "the Sprawl", which resembles a present-day inner-city landscape, the grimy lower classes live squalid lives in decrepit high-rises, hustling to stay alive and ahead of the ubiquitous authorities.

But several times during the film, we see a glimpse of another world entirely: rural settings where happy, fulfilled, emotionally rich characters lead idyllic lives in isolated surroundings of breathtakingly peaceful natural beauty. It's never clear why these people, alone among the hordes, have been blessed with such picture-perfect country estates (there is no suggestion that any of them is particularly weathy, although one of them has a background story that suggests she might be). But it is very clear that any city mouse would switch places with one of these country mice in a heartbeat.

Visions of dehumanizing high-tech urban dystopias and pristine natural Edens are a staple of pessimistic science fiction, of course. But they are normally meant primarily as stylized or symbolic elements; the celebrated rain-soaked futuristic-film-noir Los Angeles depicted in the film Blade Runner, for instance, is more a (magnificently realized) stylistic backdrop to the story than an element of the story itself. The city/countryside dichotomy in Minority Report, on the other hand, is jarring precisely because it appears to be intended as a plausible extrapolation of the present into the future. (The ubiquitous ads pummelling the city folk, for example, are lent verism by the recognizeable real-world products that appear in them.) And as an extrapolation, it is missing the one crucial component that has rendered the city-country debate moot in modern America: suburbia.

Personally, I consider myself an urbanist at heart, and I sympathize strongly with Jacobs' defense of the city. But there's no denying that the suburbs, which already house the majority of Americans and are still growing, provide most people, particularly families with children, with an optimal (to them) compromise between the space and privacy of the country and the convenience and variety of the city. And in a technologically advanced, consumer-oriented world apparently possessed of ample rural space, one would only expect the flight to the security and comfort (not to mention the surveillance-unfriendliness) of the suburbs to expand still further. An imagined future in which suburbia has instead simply vanished without explanation can't be placed front and center in a film--even a science-fiction fantasy--without unduly straining the audience's credulity.

Friday, July 05, 2002

"The war-crimes tribunal in The Hague is supposed to put the bad guys behind bars. I never thought it would go after an American journalist," writes Peter Maass in the New York Times. ("First they came for the war criminals, but I said nothing because I was not a war criminal," he might have said.) It's not that he opposes the tribunal; "the attempts to offer justice to victims of genocide are one of the bright spots of our age," he believes. Nor does he "believe journalists should be exempt from subpoenas". It's just that "in most cases the decision to testify should be the journalist's," because "testifying at a war crimes tribunal could imperil a journalist's safety or make it difficult to uncover future misdeeds". (No word from Maass on whether ordinary non-journalistic peons, whose safety is presumably at much greater risk than that of globetrotting New York Times op-ed writers, are entitled to the same discretion about obeying the orders of international tribunals.)

I've written before about journalists' increasing confidence in their own political power, and about the dangers of judicial usurpation of democratic authority. But the two in combination are especially threatening in the context of international affairs, where there are no counterbalancing governmental institutions with genuine democratic legitimacy, and the conformist foreign press corps has a near-monopoly over channels of information about faraway events that reach the Western bodies politic. Now that the spectacularly unaccountable International Criminal Court has been established, it's not hard to guess what two self-appointed groups will be setting its agenda.

Wednesday, July 03, 2002

William Saletan complains in Slate that death penalty opponents like to object to certain aspects or instances of execution, when they really oppose execution altogether. I'll go Saletan one further: even those who argue against capital punishment in general are really arguing, more broadly, against punishment itself.

There exists, to be sure, one (single) argument against capital punishment: because it is completed instantaneously, it allows less time for evidence of innocence to be gathered, and is therefore somewhat more likely to be exacted in its entirety upon an innocent than, say, imprisonment for life. I don't personally find that argument convincing, but those who do at least have a case to make.

All other anti-execution arguments, though, are in fact simply arguments against punishment tout court that happen to gain extra force when invoked against the death penalty, by virtue of the fact that death is the most serious punishment currently under consideration in our society. Suppose, for instance, that capital punishment were to be abolished tomorrow; is it reasonable to assume that life terms of imprisonment would then be handed out with complete racial equity, sparing the mentally deficient and the rehabilitateable, and never imposed upon the innocent, or in a spirit of revenge, or upon kidnappers (thus reducing society, some would say, to the criminal's level)? On the contrary, all these familiar arguments against capital punishment can be applied equally to the case of life imprisonment--and would be, but for the severity of the death penalty, which makes a life term seem lenient by comparison.

In fact, we don't need to guess at this outcome; we can observe it empirically. When Canada abolished the death penalty in 1979, it was replaced with a maximum punishment of 25 years to life (that is, life imprisonment with no parole permitted for at least 25 years). The abolition was considered quite controversial, however, until a second parliamentary vote confirmed it in 1987. Almost immediately after that second vote, several prominent Canadians began arguing that 25 years was too long a minimum punishment for murderers who had demonstrated that they had been rehabilitated; not long thereafter, a Supreme Court decision created a murderer's "right" to a special hearing after fifteen years in jail, to determine parole eligibility. No such right had ever even been suggested, of course, until after the abolition of the death penalty had been assured. Only when the 25-year minimum became the "ultimate" penalty did its severity come under scrutiny--and unsurprisingly, it was found by many to be too severe.

Now, I actually sympathize quite strongly with those who feel a deep unease about punishment. Punishment is an ugly, painful, repulsive duty, and I would be the first to abandon it entirely if it were remotely feasible to do so. It gives disturbing expression to human moral imperfection--an imperfection that all of us, punishers and punished alike, share. It confronts us with the worst depths of our own flawed humanity, and rudely reminds the most honest among us that we, too, may require it, or the threat of it, to keep us from giving free rein to our evil impulses. It would be a much better world if we could abandon punishments altogether, starting with the most severe and continuing down to the mildest. But, alas, we cannot, and those who agitate to start that process, thinking it ennobling to do so, are living in a seductive but dangerous fantasy world.