March 5, 2011
Last night’s prime-time interview with the disgraced Hollywood actor Charlie Sheen (who really needs no appositives by now) provides an excellent window into the manner in which the public health problem of substance abuse is handled in the United States. Sheen’s interrogator, a prim-and-proper Jeff Rossen of NBC, served as Sheen’s foil, masterfully feeding Sheen softball-style questions firmly grounded in the puritanical morality of America’s middle class: “Gee there Charlie, you live with two girls half your age; and wow, you’ve been known to stay up all night partying, in places like New York City for heaven’s sake, and you smoke cigarettes as well as God knows what else; and you really think you’re worth all this money, what, two million for only half an hour’s worth of work?”
Egged on by Rossen, Sheen obliged his audience with delusional, repetitive, practically autistic gibberish about “tiger blood” and “rocketships to the moon and beyond.” More to the point of this article, however, is what someone reading between the lines could discern from Rossen’s conspicuously conventional wisdom about how those battling “the disease” of addiction to alcohol or other psychoactive drugs “need AA” in order to “stop using and get sober.”
Current medical opinion in the United States runs something like this—those who are addicted to drugs have a disease requiring medical treatment, like cancer or pneumonia. Left untreated, the disease may result in death. Treatment for addiction, after the initial detoxification stage, is two pronged: first, doctors look at the underlying causes of drug-seeking behavior, such as depression (also characterized as a disease); then, due to the patient’s history of drug use and concomitant emotional problems, doctors recommend therapy, which typically takes the form of either a 12-step program like AA, or, for those who can afford it, psychotherapy faithful to 12-step principles.
The American medical establishment basically accepts these premises without a whole lot of critical evaluation. The result is that addiction treatment, fueled by insurance premiums, has become a multi-billion dollar business, a truly vested interest, right down to claims of infallibility, demonization of critics, and other forms of intellectual defensiveness. Yet even with divine intervention, the success rate of “rehab” programs is uncommendable. In light of the intellectual incoherence of the disease theory of addiction, perhaps that should not surprise anyone.
The American philosophy of addiction treatment (which I call “disease theory”) is an admixture of evangelical Protestantism and Freudian psychoanalysis, which generally reflects the northern European roots of American thought. Heavy on determinism, disease theory is attractive because it absolves the patient of all moral culpability while holding out the promise of immediate redemption. If one is born predisposed to be an addict (or depressed, or a murderer), it is hardly his fault when he turns out that way. Such people are not to be judged, but to be treated with compassion. After all, God loves a sinner who has seen the light.
So far so good—but if addiction is really a disease, then what is the cure? As it turns out, the answer is largely that the addict needs to stop getting high. At this crucial point in an addict’s recovery, disease theory collapses under its own deterministic weight. Indeed, as is the case with all modern psychology, disease theory is structurally unsound, in that it posits a fundamentally deterministic theory of causation, while placing all hope for future success on the patient’s dogged application of free will. Now, it may be objected that 12-step programs solve this problem by substituting God for the free will of the patient, but that is not an argument that a twenty-first-century Western physician is going to make in public. And yet our doctors have no choice—pushed into the deterministic corner by economic and cultural forces, they have to make a stand. Should the medical establishment flirt with the forbidden fruit of free will, disease theory comes undone at once, and with it, the ability to place addiction within the purview of the health-care industry.
Enlightened physicians today, both here and in Europe, will tell you that people have been self-medicating the human condition since God kicked Adam and Eve out of the Garden. What in other times went by the more poetical names “ennui” or “melancholy” today have rational, scientific labels like “unipolar depression” or “attention deficit disorder.” The point is that certain people, for whatever reason, are more easily seduced by a chemically altered state of mind. Thus the greatest advances that have been made in modern times toward battling addiction (and its cousin, depression) have come from pharmaceuticals themselves.
It is unclear what position 12-step programs take on the use of a mind-altering substance such as Zoloft. However, anti-depressant drugs, while potentially dangerous and certainly capable of creating physical dependence, are finely tuned tools befitting the twenty-first century, which, with near-surgical precision, do a far better job than such blunt instruments of the past as alcohol, cocaine, or opium.
Charlie Sheen’s outrageous remarks will not shift the debate on disease theory in a positive direction. If anything, he only bolsters the deterministic refrain of every backwoods preacher, namely, that one either admits he is doomed or is in denial. Thoughtful doctors who are familiar with the canon of psychiatric literature but still care about helping patients must recognize in their heart of hearts that disease theory is on its last legs, as the power of prayer simply cannot form the basis for an effective medical treatment plan in this day and age.
Rather like the southern officer at Gettysburg, who, faced with Colonel Chamberlain’s bayonet charge, shot at the Yankees with his right hand and offered his sword in surrender with the left, today’s doctor battles addiction with an untenable mix of newfangled pharmaceuticals and old-time religion. Times are clearly changing. When it comes to mental illness in general, and substance abuse treatment in particular, the ultimate question is this: Will history judge today’s practices as harshly as we now judge those of our ancestors? I suspect it might.
November 21, 2010
An old adage inside the Beltway is that we are recession-proof, or, as it is often more delicately put, we are protected to a large extent from the cycles of boom-and-bust that affect other parts of the country more directly. The reason? Washington is the seat of the federal government, and much of the federal budget, once collected in the form of taxes every April, has a habit of remaining inside the Beltway—in good times and bad. Federal jobs and contracts support the local economy.
It is well known that the federal government is the largest employer in the region. But a cursory review of the top 100 corporations in the area reveals that the vast majority of these companies serve the defense industry or closely related fields. Indeed, the defense industry bankrolls much of the private sector in Washington, while accounting for nearly half of the federal budget.
Traditionally off-limits to deficit hawks, the defense budget has grown large and unmanageable because it is an excellent place to hide money. When one thinks of a bloated defense budget, images come to mind of the Air Force getting its bombers while your local elementary school holds a bake sale. But equipping and paying our uniformed service personnel—even in times of war—probably accounts for less than half of what is denominated as defense spending during the budget allocation process.
A substantial fraction (as yet unknown) of the “defense” budget is really nothing more than money—money used to grease the wheels of the broken system in Washington that every politician dutifully derides on the campaign trail. Moneys buried deep within the defense budget pay for lucrative contracts, a portion of which goes directly into congressional campaigns. Then the contractor doles money out to lobbyists, law firms, and media outlets, in order to protect its business against would-be competitors. Whatever remains goes to the salaries (and bonuses) of the contractor’s staff and executive board. The gravy train keeps running, and the budget axe looms large for any contractor who thinks he can ride for free.
This is a familiar tale, in that everyone knows that prosperity in Washington is linked to the federal budget. But it is the defense budget in particular, with its ability to conceal gargantuan sums siphoned off for use inside the Beltway, to which this area’s economy has truly become addicted. Take away the vast phalanxes of lobbyists and law firms wedded to this contractor or that, or the miles of hi-tech companies producing components of dubious value at outrageous prices, or the advertising dollars paid out to media outlets during the permanent campaign season, or the need to pay millions of dollars to get elected to congress, and property values here would drop as quickly as in Las Vegas.
Conversely, when the federal government pumps money into the system described above, property values spike (see graph below; for the first time, we offer Free & Clear readers our own original graphics). I have long been familiar with the contours of property values in the DC area. When I started looking at defense spending over the past 30 years, I noticed a shocking similarity in long-term trends.
I chose Bethesda—where I am from, for full disclosure purposes—because Bethesda, without a doubt, has its finger on the economic pulse of the Washington area. Note the two large real estate booms: in the mid-1980s with the Reagan Cold War build-up, and again following September 11, 2001. Note also that in the 1990s, after our success in the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, defense spending dropped slightly due to decreased need; accordingly, property values remained frozen in time until 9/11 and the boom in homeland security kick-started the market.
Real estate professionals in Washington, therefore, should take heed: the sacred cow that is defense spending is now being eyed jealously in these times of deficit famine. The left wing of the Democratic Party has long opposed heavy defense spending. The fact that these politicians were largely shouted down during the Cold War, and then again after 9/11, has failed to dampen their spirit. In addition, and on the Right, elements of the so-called Tea Party movement have called for drastic reductions in the defense budget. For example, Ron Paul, father of Senator-elect Rand Paul of Kentucky, and intellectual godfather of the Tea Party, ran for President in 2008, calling for the defense budget to be eviscerated. Recently, in the 2010 midterms, Tea Party candidates (and/or those loyal to the principles of the Tea Party) gained numerous seats in the House, and a couple in the Senate. For the Tea Party to have any intellectual coherence, it must continue to oppose large defense budgets.
Like it or not, cuts in the defense budget are now on the table. Even a modest reduction in federal defense spending is likely to give the Washington real estate market a bloody nose. There is no other source of income, and nothing of value produced here, to support prices at their current levels. Every brick colonial on every tree-lined street derives a significant portion of its inflated value from current levels of defense spending, regardless of how directly its owner is involved in the running of the gravy train.
Cancellation, or even reduction, of certain key contracts could force many of Washington’s leading corporations into Chapter 11. With no new jobs, and many new layoffs, finding buyers who can qualify for loans in excess of 750K will become increasingly difficult. Foreclosures will continue to clog the mainstream market for residential properties, dragging prices down even further, despite the best efforts of title insurance companies to keep the two markets separated. The Washington real estate market, once thought safe, will take a hit like no one has seen in thirty years.
November 13, 2010
The recent narrow defeat of Proposition 19, the ballot initiative to legalize cannabis in California, underscores how far cannabis advocates have come in realizing their central goal of nationwide legalization. Although the ballot measure fell, not less than 46 percent of voters in the largest American state asserted their belief that cannabis should be regulated in a manner similar to tobacco or alcohol. In light of the medical evidence available on all three substances, the ballot measure seemed eminently reasonable. Yet the wider context of the vote shows that when it comes to marijuana, American policymakers continue to suffer from acute short-term memory loss, poor depth perception, and exaggerated emotional response.
The idea that possession of a miniscule amount of plant material should be a criminal offense is purely a twentieth-century creation. Government regulations of agricultural output—including bans on the cultivation of specific crops—have been features of American law since colonial times. But such measures generally aimed at setting price floors, thereby preserving the tax base at times when a price collapse seemed imminent. They were part of a larger hands-on agricultural policy, comprising bounties, subsidies, and tariffs. Mere possession of infinitesimal amounts of plant material never got authorities excited in the past, nor would government agents peer over an individual’s garden wall unless the quantities being produced were sufficient (at least in theory) to affect the supply-and-demand contours of the wider marketplace.
Any free-market capitalist ought to recognize instantly that agricultural production controls enacted to set a price floor, and those enacted for the purpose of prohibition, differ only in degree and not kind. Assuming a constant demand, the effect on the market remains the same: prices are supported when the supply is artificially restricted. This iron law of the market goes a long way toward explaining why California’s marijuana planters stood man-and-boy against Proposition 19—the days of the sixty-dollar eighth suddenly seemed numbered.
Where is the federal government in all of this? Typically, agricultural regulation schemes come under the ambit of federal law. A state-by-state patchwork would frustrate the goal of any regulation. But that is exactly what we have now. Some states maintain puritanical, Nancy Reagan-esque prohibitions; others decriminalized simple possession of cannabis after publication of the report of President Nixon’s 1972 blue-ribbon commission on “marihuana.” Still others decided to read the aforementioned 1972 report as a recommendation that terminally ill patients should escape prosecution when using the drug to alleviate painful symptoms or side effects. The last of these policy permutations became the ancestor of modern “medical marijuana” laws.
To date, the 1972 report remains the only official United States government study of the effects of cannabis on the user. The report brushed aside hysterical concerns about psychosis and addiction, and noted that cannabis can actually be beneficial in treating certain medical conditions. Yet federal law permits neither simple possession nor a medical exception. Or does it? In March 2010, the District of Columbia enacted a medical marijuana law, after the Obama administration announced that the Justice Department would not seek to preempt state laws permitting possession of cannabis for medical use, and Congress very quietly repealed a specific prohibition law for the District. But the District of Columbia is not a state—it is a semiautonomous federal district. Therefore, federal law now reads as follows: marijuana is strictly illegal, unless being used in the nation’s capital by someone who manages to wangle a prescription from some bush doctor on 14th Street, or in one of the many states where we have likewise decided to look the other way.
Anyone can see that legalization is around the corner. Decriminalization, while a laudable attempt to limit the catalog of criminal offenses to those that actually matter, fails to offer a viable mechanism for the regulation (i.e., taxation) of what has grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry. In marijuana-producing U.S. states like California, or similarly, across the border in British Columbia, marijuana dwarfs all other crops in terms of the yearly dollar value of production.
Medical marijuana laws, conceived in compassion for the terminally ill, have today been perverted to the point where “dispensaries” are little more than head shops, where “doctors” sporting Bob Marley t-shirts wait behind the counter to write “prescriptions” for walk-in “patients” whose ailments run the gamut from cancer to garden-variety world-weariness and boredom. The only legitimate solution to this legal quagmire is for the federal government to preempt all state laws and offer qualified growers federal licenses to sell cannabis to persons 21 and over.
It is too late to look the other way; the federal government missed that opportunity by enacting prohibition in the first place in 1938. Naturally, a black market developed, as demand cannot be controlled by law—only supply. Several decades on, prohibition has created a vested interest by supporting prices and setting up a regulatory scheme that drug dealers have come to rely on in their racketeering business models. Some say that by legalizing cannabis, we might encourage such other naughty plants as the opium poppy and the coca leaf to step up and claim their places in the above-board market. Were that to happen, the drug cartels of the world—those favorite bogeymen of prohibitionists—would disappear overnight. At what price? No one can say. The dangers of cocaine and heroin are more or less beyond dispute. However a consensus is building that cannabis is no more harmful than tobacco, and less harmful than alcohol. As it stands, roughly one-third of hospital admissions in the United States are alcohol-related.
One thing is for sure. In a country that calls itself free, the presumption ought to be that a given activity is tolerated by the authorities. Obviously that presumption may be overcome when the government can show convincingly that good reasons exist for declaring something illegal. In the case of cannabis, the U.S. government has had decades upon decades to marshal intellectually respectable evidence in support of prohibition. If that evidence did in fact exist, one suspects that the government would have unearthed it by now.
October 22, 2010
With nights drawing in, and a chill after sunset becoming noticeable, the evening air will soon be tinged with a sweet aroma from area chimneys. Everybody likes a fire in the colder months—the time of year when the northwest wind rattles windowpanes, or leaden ocean air chills you to the bone. And although a White Christmas is relatively rare this far south, a roaring fire is still an essential component of holiday scenery. Consequently, indoor wood-burning apparati of various shapes and sizes are a common feature of homes in the Chesapeake region. Whether you use wood for heating and cooking, or just for the ambience, securing a suitable wood supply is critical.
This point may seem almost too obvious for words. However, due to a general lack of knowledge about (or interest in) the subject, Washingtonians regularly fall prey to the tactics of unscrupulous firewood merchants. The sale of firewood is totally unregulated, and the only rule is caveat emptor. Therefore, we offer Free & Clear readers the following buyer’s guide—knowledge is power.
Contrary to popular belief, the first thing to look for when purchasing firewood is not how dry it is. All firewood is sold as being dry enough to burn, and although that is frequently not true, any moisture problems will resolve when the wood dries. Instead, the species of tree is what really matters. If you get quality wood such as oak or beech, and it is too moist to burn properly, simply let it sit outside for a couple months. As a general rule, wood is dry enough when you can easily snap a thin strip of wood from the side of the log where it was split; whereas if the wood is still too moist, even the thinnest strips will remain flexible.
The best kind of firewood burns slowly, producing ample heat and a pleasant aroma. Naturally, the greater the heat output, the heavier the wood; which means the firewood dealer burns more gas bringing it to your house and has a tougher time unloading to boot. Furthermore, substandard wood commands almost no value within the trade. The potential profit margin is too much temptation for some: an unscrupulous merchant can easily acquire unwanted downed trees in the summer at no cost to himself, only to pass the same wood off as “seasoned hardwood” to unwitting city dwellers a few months down the line.
As to how much you should buy—firewood is sold in an antiquated unit of volume called the “cord,” which is equal to 128 cubic feet. The actual amount of wood you get if you buy a cord varies widely; and again, since few people know what a cord looks like, chances are good that if you request delivery of a cord, you will get something shy of one. What constitutes a cord is also highly debatable, even among experts. Let’s put it this way—a cord is an enormous quantity of firewood. A standard-bed pickup truck holds maybe three-quarters of a cord when piled high.
So what is a city dweller to do? Experience is the best guide. To shortcut the process of trial and error for Free & Clear readers, we provide the following helpful pointers:
1. Firewood is sold close to its source. Firewood purchased in the District generally comes from the surrounding hardwood forests of Maryland and Virginia, which, despite 400 years of continuous, systematic destruction at the hands of Western civilization, are still vast and extensive. After a storm, there is quality stuff lying around everywhere. Develop an eye for firewood and you can get it yourself for free.
2. The best species are oak, hickory, beech, cherry, and locust. You can go online and get familiar with the appearance of each species; then try to identify some examples near your house. That way, you’ll be able to verify the claims of people hawking “all seasoned hardwood.”
3. Do not place an order for firewood from someone you do not know. They will show up at your house with a bunch of garbage they got for free from some construction site, and then charge you full price, as if it were two-year old Red Oak.
4. Beware of Tulip Poplar. This species is a prized building material—it is lightweight and strong. Tulip Poplars soar to heights of nearly two hundred feet in old-growth forests. But poplar is horrible firewood. It stinks and provides relatively little heat. Technically a hardwood, it is indistinguishable from oak to the untrained eye, and it is ubiquitous in area forests. Plentiful and easy to transport, it is a favorite of shadowy firewood dealers.
5. You are probably more likely to get ripped off on the species of tree than on the cubic footage provided; however, as a rough price guide, you should not pay more than $200 for pickup truck full of the highest quality wood. Many firewood dealers sell by the “rick” or the “rack.” Call it what you like. Volume discounts are normal, but do not pay more than $50 to fill the trunk of your car.
6. My recommendations? In a pinch, Tenley Mini Market on Wisconsin Avenue sells small, mixed oak and hickory bundles. The wood is expensive but is of uniformly high quality. The best place in the area to buy larger quantities, in my opinion, is located off New Hampshire Avenue in Prince George’s County. It’s called Lone Cedar Farm, 9015 Adelphi Road. Just pull in the driveway during normal business hours and ask for Charles. You can buy any quantity you like, and once they’ve met you they’ll be happy to make deliveries to your house in town.
7. In more densely populated and affluent parts of the city, you often see guys in trucks driving around offering to sell firewood, typically on weekends. For intermediate to advanced firewood buyers with busy schedules, this is not a bad way to go—you can inspect the merchandise, negotiate a price, and have it stacked in your backyard. But I have seen the lure of easy money corrupt at least one formerly honest door-to-door firewood merchant. I stopped buying from him after he began to boast openly to me about how he was fleecing my neighbors. Soon enough, I recognized the same tactics being used in deliveries to me.
8. Most firewood merchants are honest. But the trade is totally unregulated, and the authorities (perhaps understandably) don’t take allegations of firewood fraud very seriously. Scam artists have seized upon the opportunity to reap huge profits from unwitting customers by selling half cords as full cords, poplar as oak, or freshly-cut wood as seasoned.
9. Firewood above 4 or 5 inches in diameter must be split to burn efficiently. Even reputable merchants will often skimp on the splitting and leave you with hunks of wood that would be difficult to burn unless you have access to a medieval banquet hall. Buying an axe is a good idea.
10. Have fun! Learning about different trees adds to your cocktail party knowledge and gives you a greater appreciation and respect for the outdoors. And the ability to build a fire in winter is an invaluable life skill for anyone living outside the tropics.
August 20, 2010
On Thursday, the White House announced the withdrawal of the last U.S. “combat” troops from Iraq, ostensibly concluding one of the darker chapters in American arms. Although U.S. leaders in 2003 claimed that history would ultimately vindicate the Iraq invasion and subsequent occupation, it does not appear that tomorrow’s high school history textbooks will be quite so charitable. In retrospect, the best that can be said in defense of U.S. policy toward Iraq is that we’ll never know for sure what havoc Saddam Hussein might have wreaked on the U.S. or our allies if left to his own devices. The facts of the Iraq War have consistently disappointed its advocates by failing to live up to the good-versus-evil romance of World War II, in which we were the good guys.
Despite the White House’s attempt this week to “declare victory and leave,” the departure of U.S. troops is illusory. By the White House’s own estimate, some 50,000 troops will remain in country—more than any “coalition” nation force level at the height of deployment. An untold number of private security contractors (better known as mercenaries or soldiers of fortune) will also remain. Neither the average Iraqi nor the average American taxpayer will detect a change in the wind. The Iraqi government, a creation of U.S. occupation forces, cannot survive in its current incarnation without a substantial U.S. military presence. It remains to be seen how the White House will spin American casualties suffered in Iraq next week and beyond.
One of President Obama’s principal rhetorical flourishes in the 2008 campaign emphasized that the Bush administration, by invading Iraq, had siphoned American troops away from the “real” war in Afghanistan, where “al-Qaeda” was allegedly based, and where initial successes had quickly evaporated due to neglect. However, when Gen. Stanley McChrystal sought 40,000 additional U.S. troops to augment his Afghanistan force—a modest request by the standards of the Iraq theatre—President Obama equivocated. He sent fewer troops than requested and then sacked McChrystal after the latter appeared in an entertaining but perhaps ill-advised feature article in Rolling Stone, in which he lambasted the White House for, at bottom, not sending him more troops.
Strip away the exquisite varnish of his speeches, and Obama has plainly failed to deliver on his main foreign policy objectives as stated in the 2008 campaign: close Guantanamo, negotiate with Iran, and get out of Iraq. Caught between the Scylla of public opinion and the charybdis of the defense industry, he must ply a narrow channel, supporting increases in our already crippling defense budget while reining in troop numbers. Nobody should be deceived, therefore, by this week’s theatrical and well-publicized withdrawal from Iraq. We continue to hemorrhage money there, much of which ends up with a handful of American corporations, where it is used to buy influence in congressional appropriations matters. Rinse and repeat. If ever a World War II comparison were apt, this is a Phony Peace.
May 31, 2010
As recently as the 2008 presidential campaign, the debate over whether to resume offshore oil drilling had a flippant quality to it, as is often the case when a relatively minor issue comes to the fore. The GOP vice-presidential candidate even joked about it in words that have come back to haunt the industry and its political clients alike: “Drill baby drill!”
Any logical plan to reduce US dependence on foreign oil should address the feasibility of increasing domestic production. The United States is already the world’s third largest producer of petroleum, and vast reserves remain under the North American continent and continental shelf (“wayerhoused,” as Sarah Palin put it). Offshore drilling, benefiting from improved extraction technology, can now reach reserves lying under several thousand feet of seawater. Thus it appeared to many observers that opposition to offshore drilling, even if concerted, would fall before the icons of 9/11 that the oil industry would be sure to trot out. After all, the United States needs twenty million barrels of oil per day to keep from grinding to a halt (about four times what can be produced domestically). It is therefore vitally important to our national security that domestic production be maximized—a fact beyond dispute. The industry’s case for lifting the ban on new offshore drilling seemed strong.
In the event, however, the industry chose a softer approach. America’s oil and gas magnates hired Brooke Alexander, an actress and former Miss Hawaii, to narrate a series of advertisements touting the safety and efficiency of current drilling methods, especially deep-sea methods. The industry’s campaign was a true PR blitz, with TV slots and banner ads a fixture in prime-time programming and the nation’s top newspapers.
Ms. Alexander played her role to the hilt in a series of commercials. At once a soccer mom, Bond girl, and budding grande dame, she delivered what may well be the performance of a lifetime while managing to appeal in some way or other to a wide swathe of the US population. Amazingly, the campaign, entitled “the People of America’s Oil and Gas Industry” (emphasis in original), contained a segment on how one drilling platform vessel could pump from many different wells using “Advanced Subsea Technology.” The montage, a classic example of begging the question, aimed to allay fears of coastal residents about unsightly platforms on the horizon by pointing out that the number of platforms would be greatly reduced using the new method. Then, on March 31, 2010, the campaign paid off: President Obama lifted the ban on offshore drilling.
On April 10, 2010, twenty-nine men were killed in a coalmine explosion in Montcoal, West Virginia; the mine owner there had a long history of both safety violations and political contributions. The oil and gas industry was in no way implicated in the disaster; and yet Ms. Alexander’s silky performances—still being broadcast—began to take on sinister, Orwellian overtones when placed atop newspaper coverage of the disaster or wedged in between network television coverage of vain efforts to save trapped miners.
Then on April 20, 2010, disaster hit the industry squarely in the jaw, as the deep-sea drilling platform vessel Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank, taking eleven of its crew to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. The Deepwater Horizon was the industry’s flagship. The most sophisticated drilling platform vessel to date, the Deepwater Horizon, like the Titanic a century before, inspired in its operators an irrational and quickly-tested faith in its infallibility. It was the pride and joy of BP Corporation (f.k.a. British Petroleum), the UK giant and single largest producer of petroleum in the United States.
Although tasked with the near-Herculean feat of drilling the deepest oil well in history, through a mile of seawater and six miles of rock, the crew of the Deepwater still faced constant harangues from superiors about remaining on schedule, and they regularly traded safety for time. To put it bluntly, BP was legally responsible for eleven deaths and scores of serious injuries. Fines would be in the billions.
But the worst was yet to come. The explosions aboard the Deepwater were only a consequence of a larger explosion miles below. Subterranean oil and gas are under great pressure; and BP had forged ahead with drilling despite its failure to address existing safety issues on the project. The result was a “blowout” of the well. With the Deepwater itself destroyed by the force of the blast, the well began to spew oil into the Gulf of Mexico at the rate of around one Exxon Valdez spill every two or three days. Nobody knows how much oil is now in the Gulf, or when it will stop. Efforts by BP to shut the well down have not been successful.
Brooke Alexander mysteriously vanished within days of the explosion. With President Obama’s reinstatement of the drilling ban, and images of befouled aquatic birds dominating the airwaves, the industry’s PR campaign is now in tatters. BP’s lawyers will be busy defending the company and its employees against a range of civil and criminal prosecutions. Yet BP’s corporate greed and cavalier safety standards are but a symptom of a larger problem—America’s dependence on vast quantities of petroleum. Our economy’s oil dependence almost guarantees that it is only a matter of time before the industry rallies and offers a new plan to make offshore drilling safe and efficient.
May 16, 2010
President Obama’s nomination of U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan to replace Justice Stevens on the U.S. Supreme Court has generally been well received by the Sunday morning pundits. But when Kagan’s nomination was announced earlier this week, her frumpy, academic bearing and boyish haircut prompted immediate if pointless speculation about her bedroom preferences. Coming hard on the heels of Justice Sotomayor’s confirmation, the President’s selection of another plump, homely, and unattached justice has led many to quip that offhand comments about packing the federal judiciary with lesbians as retribution for GOP misrule may not have been made entirely in jest.
The tenor of this conversation—humorous to some while highly offensive to others—does a disservice to all. Leaving aside the non sequitur that equates female homosexuality with a lack of charm, as well as the questionable implication that one’s love life is a subject for the public arena, the terms of the debate as framed by the mainstream media merely serve to distract attention from the questions that normally surround a nominee to the High Court—whether she is qualified; and if so, whether she is the right person to shape the future of our country’s basic law.
Sadly, those questions are likely to go unasked—and are even more likely to go unanswered—as we lift the curtain once again on the political theatre that is the modern Supreme Court confirmation process. And yet, in my opinion at least (and I know I’m not alone), there are items on Kagan’s resume that raise serious doubts about whether she belongs on any court.
Goldman Sachs. From 2005 to 2008, Kagan was an employee of the notorious Wall Street investment bank. Her appointment by President Obama comes at a time when the distinction between Goldman Sachs and the U.S. Treasury is perhaps more apparent than real. Seen by many within the organization—and without—as being above the law, Goldman Sachs is at last the subject of fraud and conspiracy probes by the SEC and the Department of Justice. What was Kagan’s job description at Goldman? Did she violate federal securities laws? Did she conspire with her colleagues to perpetrate fraud? Did she obstruct justice? As Solicitor General, has she made any decisions favorable to her former employer? Is she still on the Goldman payroll? Is she cooperating in the current investigation of Goldman? What role does she see for a private investment bank to craft public policy in a country that calls itself a democracy?
Harvard Law. Kagan was Dean of Harvard Law School from 2003 to 2005. Harvard, like most other law schools, charges well in excess of $100K for three years’ tuition, which the overwhelming majority of students must borrow. Law students have traditionally downplayed the risk of insolvency; after all, one need only look at the employment and salary figures released by the law schools to see that a few years’ earnings as a lawyer will bring that debt, however mountainous, well under control. Hogwash. In 2008, the job market for lawyers went south; yet law schools kept releasing the same rosy figures, leading many to wonder aloud if the schools had been “juking the stats” all along.
Indeed the vast credit extended to law students—despite their conspicuous lack of any visible means of repayment—closely parallels the “ninja loans” of sub-prime fame. Law schools have every incentive to overstate the value of the sheepskin they issue in exchange for six figures of hard currency, and there is no independent audit of the numbers they proffer. The money that students “borrow” goes straight from the banks to the schools, both of which profit handsomely from those transactions. Like mortgages, law school loans are also typically packaged and sold on the secondary market (i.e., to banking firms such as Goldman Sachs).
Applications keep increasing despite rising tuition because people continue to see a legal education as a safe investment—a view formed largely in reliance on the law schools’ phony numbers. And, just as sub-prime mortgages did not become a “crisis” until the values of the assets secured thereby began to tumble, the issue of bogus law school employment statistics has taken on a newfound sense of urgency in the face of mounting unemployment in the legal profession and widespread student-loan default.
Kagan’s confirmation proceedings could provide the sudden gust of wind that topples the whole house of cards; that is, if senators are willing to ask difficult and incisive questions about the way American lawyers are trained, which institutions are profiting from the status quo, whether law schools are deliberately flooding the market with their own product to capitalize on easy credit while leaving their alumni holding the bag, the potential extent of taxpayer liability when the bubble finally pops, and so on.
Hopefully senators will see past the spin imparted by Kagan’s handlers and realize that her nomination has little to do with “diversity,” or creating a Supreme Court that “looks like America.” I for one am skeptical of the notion that nine judges—all of whom went to either Harvard or Yale—can reflect the variety of the American people in any meaningful way. However there is far more at stake than the authenticity of diversity claims; senators appear poised to rubber-stamp the appointment of yet another stooge of the banking industry. While who Kagan is literally in bed with may be none of our business, her ties to Wall Street do not portend well for her long-term commitment to the principle of an independent judiciary.
[Editors note: according to her longtime friends, Elena Kagan is straight; she is single and has only dated men.]
May 9, 2010
Mourners gathered yesterday at Baltimore’s Catholic cathedral for the funeral of Yeardley Love, who would have been an alumna of my alma mater The University of Virginia had she lived until next week, when her fourth-year classmates will don the “honor of honors.” By all accounts a gifted athlete and student, Miss Love came from a well-to-do family in Baltimore County, where she excelled at lacrosse. She made the varsity lacrosse squad as a Virginia first-year—a rare distinction on that very competitive team. Apparently she was also a highly competent mathematician.
A brilliant career in lacrosse and/or corporate America seemed a near-certainty.
And yet it was not to be. Miss Love was brutally assaulted in her own bedroom by her ex-boyfriend and classmate George Huguely V. Now Mr. Huguely’s potential to make something of his life seemed, if possible, even greater. The scion of a longtime moneyed Washington family, Mr. Huguely was, like his victim, a star lacrosse player in both high school (Landon School) and college. He was studying anthropology and would have walked the Lawn with Miss Love next week. Instead, he was in the dock this week at Charlottesville Circuit Court, charged with first-degree murder.
The facts of the case are simple. Mr. Huguely, who had dated Miss Love but found himself out in the cold after she tired of his off-the-field antics and belligerent persona, persisted in attempting to re-ignite the relationship. When a teammate of Mr. Huguely’s spent a romantic evening with Miss Love at a restaurant on the Corner (i.e., in full view of his classmates) he tracked down his teammate and mauled him badly enough for facial injuries to be obvious a week later. Strangely enough, Mr. Huguely ambushed his teammate as the teammate slept—a modus operandi that foreshadowed the attack on Miss Love.
Then, a week ago tonight, he descended on Miss Love’s apartment in the wee hours of the morning. She had had the presence of mind to lock her bedroom door on the inside before turning in—a practice that was unheard of at the school I knew, and probably still is. Who knows why she chose to do that, but police think Mr. Huguely may have threatened her on several occasions, and quite possibly on the night in question. Finding her bedroom barred to him, Mr. Huguely battered down the door, injuring his leg slightly and splintering the door. After a brief exchange of words, he dashed Miss Love’s head against the wall of her bedroom repeatedly, caving in her skull and causing her death. After a quickly abandoned and futile attempt to clean up the large pool of blood that had formed, he stole Miss Love’s computer and fled.
Her roommates, upon hearing the commotion, checked in on her but got no response. They summoned Charlottesville Police; and Miss Love was pronounced dead on the scene. Mr. Huguely, on whom suspicion immediately fell, admitted to all of this; and by sunrise he was in custody. His defense to murder is an admixture of mitigation of the requisite mental state for murder and accidental homicide, which if successful will probably still earn him a lengthy prison term. It is unclear to me whether prosecutors have tacked on burglary and larceny charges, since Mr. Huguely has admitted facts that are usually sufficient to support convictions for those felonies as well. At his arraignment, he was denied bond.
Last year, Virginia executed three condemned murderers, and Virginia stands second only to Texas in the number of capital sentences it has carried out since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. A review of Virginia’s current death row inmates shows some aggravating circumstance in each case (killing a police officer or state witness, serial or mass murder, murder with rape, etc.). My sense is that Mr. Huguely will evade Old Sparky, if only because his case is a borderline one (that is, between capital murder and straight first-degree) and because he has a defense team commensurate with his social rank. However, due to the brutal nature of the crime, and to send a message that the death penalty is not just for the poor, the Commonwealth ought to seek a capital conviction in this case.
[Editors Note: information provided to Free and Clear by an anonymous source familiar with the Huguely family suggests that although their circumstances are by any account comfortable, they are perhaps a few rungs shy of the city's historic elite, mainstream media portrayals notwithstanding.]
May 4, 2010
by Mary O. McCarthy
Over the past couple weeks, hopes have been dashed that we residents of the District of Columbia, and citizens of these United States, might actually attain soon the most fundamental of the rights of citizenship. That “equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them”, as our forefathers admonished King George, does not yet entitle us apparently. Our colonial rulers on Capitol Hill are more concerned that our laws conform to their particular ideas of how we should regulate firearms in our city, than they are disposed to grant us that essential element of democracy, the right to chose our representatives and, thus, to be represented. We are denied this right by others wielding raw power, simply put, because they can.
Having won their most recent battle to keep the vote out of our unreliable hands, some in congress see an opening for reshaping our laws and lifestyle. The focus now is on guns, always a winner when elections are nigh and coffers are needy. As the campaign season approaches, the rhetoric gets more combative. “Just look,” they say; “even the Supreme Court has said that the District of Columbia’s laws are unconstitutional, and the District government is defying the Supreme Court. All we want to do is fix the laws so they are constitutional.”
These Congressional members know that DC has revised its gun laws in the wake of the landmark Supreme Court decision defining the Second Amendment as an individual right in District of Columbia v. Heller, and they know (but are ignoring) that a federal court now has declared DC’s new gun laws to be in conformity with constitutional bounds as defined in that Supreme Court Opinion.
The latest maneuver comes by way our old friend Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) and a newer face in the battle against democracy in the District, Sen. John Tester (D-Montana), who together introduced late last week The Second Amendment Enforcement Act, designed to overturn laws enacted by our only representative body, the DC Council, in the exercise of its constitutional role.
McCain and Tester’s bill is similar to that which caused Congressional Democrats to scuttle the DC Voting Rights bill the week before. Reps. Travis Childers (D-Mississippi) and Mark Souder (R-Indiana) had succeeded in attaching a draconian gun “rights” amendment to the bill, and for the bill’s supporters it was simply too high a price to pay. If this fearsome foursome (remember those names if you have some extra cash for political contributions) has its way, DC’s gun registration requirements, managed by the Metropolitan police, will be invalidated and will, instead, be written and controlled by the Colonial Authority up on the Hill. Moreover, the DC Council will be prohibited from passing any legislation that bars carrying arms in public.
Well, now. That could make things very interesting. Beyond the spectacle of bands of armed protestors marching through the streets of our home town—coming here from far and wide as they are wont to do—think of the impact this newfound freedom would have on another piece of legislation passed recently. The Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure Act of 2009, which cuts down on the ways we can be fleeced by credit card companies—or at least requires them to invent some new ways—also carries a provision allowing firearms in National Parks and other categories of public land. It is true that people had been crossing these areas with firearms for decades, arguably illegally, traversing a park or wildlife refuge for the perfectly legal purpose of reaching hunting areas. Congress, instead of addressing this limited issue, made a broad sweep of things.
In applying the new rules, the U.S. Park Service says it will look to the laws of the states and localities where the park or other area is located. That’s why last month the folks wishing to create a spectacle of prominently displayed personal firearms and ammo went first to Gravelly Point in Virginia where it would be legal, instead of to the Washington Monument where they also gathered—unarmed in accordance with DC laws. But if some in Congress have their way, thousands can come right here all at once and mingle with us locals and the tourists while packing heat.
The District is awash in National Parkland. Our local parks such as Rock Creek, Anacostia, Fort Dupont Park, and the C&O Canal are all under the management of the National Park Service. The NPS also runs the sites more often shared with tourists, like The Mall, the monuments and memorials, and dozens of little out of the way places visited by residents and tourists alike such as the (tiny) Old Stone House in Georgetown. Picture nearly a million people on the Mall for the Fourth of July celebration, an event us local flock to along with the tourists. Security already has become tight, with crowds controlled through narrow entrances at unknown and unpredictable spots.
Things could get complicated. Stay tuned to Free and Clear for more on the constitutional and pragmatic issues surrounding the right to bear arms in DC, or whatever other landmines that those who want to retain us as their colonials might lay for us next.
March 31, 2010
Many of us of the liberal persuasion can recall taking to the streets of Washington in 2005 to protest the Iraq War, the Bush administration’s “heckuva job” in New Orleans, and the looting of the U.S. Treasury by private contractors with close ties to the Republican Party. Now, with our crowd at the helm of the ship of state, it is the right-wingers’ turn to carry signs down Pennsylvania Avenue.
The American Right kicked things off with the eponymous Million Moron March in 2009, which over-performed by drawing a far larger crowd than anyone anticipated. As with many anti-government rallies, it comprised a loose affiliation of malcontents, although militant white supremacists seemed very much at home and perhaps in the majority. I’m quite sure many of these people were the same ones who lined Pennsylvania and shouted “Traitor!” at us in ’05. Funny how the tables have turned since aught-five—and I must say, lining Pennsylvania and jeering demonstrators is a lot more fun than demonstrating.
In the past year, that loose affiliation has coalesced into the so-called Tea Party movement. The intellectual progeny of the Million Moron March, the Tea Party harks back to the evening in 1773 when a group of American tax protestors raided British shipping in Boston Harbor, turning the harbor into a giant cuppa. The Tea Party of today is opposed to big government spending—although they manage to contemplate the gigantic U.S. defense budget with a degree of equanimity that is truly remarkable for a group opposed to direct taxation of the American people. The next Tea Party event in Washington is set, appropriately, for April 15, 2010.
I looked at the web site set up to promote the April 15 event and had a gander at the roster of scheduled speakers: Dick Armey, Matt Kibbe, Lord Monckton, Andrew Breit—wait—Lord Monckton?
Indeed it’s true. The Tea Party has booked Christopher Walter Monckton, the 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley. And that’s not all. Lord Monckton has spent the past several months touring the American heartland, fanning the flames of right-wing extremism. In St. Paul, Minnesota—where the keynote speaker rhymed viscount with discount—Monckton took aim at a host of right-wing bogeymen, from global warming to the United Nations to President Obama’s birth certificate. He’s been all over American television and print media. Now he plans to engage in gratuitous rabble-rousing by addressing an organization that takes its name from a revolt against the Crown. Why would Lord Monckton behave this way?
Perhaps his Lordship simply enjoys public speaking, and cannot attract a crowd in England that will not beat him senseless as soon as he opens his mouth. He does not hold a seat in the House of Lords, despite being a hereditary peer; and he failed in a recent attempt to get elected to the House of Commons. Who knows; but in my opinion, and especially in light of the secret admiration and nostalgia among many upper-class English Tories for all things Hitler, I think his activities in the United States are irresponsible, dangerous, and worthy of closer examination by both U.S. and U.K. security services.
This country came close—and perilously so—to becoming the next Nazi Germany, and the jury is still out in much of the economically depressed American heartland, where private militias drill in remote corners, preparing for impending wars of annihilation against the forces of liberalism. Someone with Monckton’s education and experience must know he is playing with fire, and he is clearly enjoying himself.