Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Death Penalty - A Modest Proposal

The state of California is the scene of a brouhaha surrounding the death penalty. Like many other states which execute people, California uses lethal injection. This was challenged by Michael Morales' lawyer, on the grounds that lethal injection is cruel and unusual. (Mr. Morales was due to exit this world last night, but the execution was delayed until tonight; full details at the S. F. Chronicle for the interested) The lawyer claims that the sequence of drug injections may not cause the executee to be completely unconscious before the actual death process begins, and therefore he may feel excruciating pain. The state has actually accepted this argument, and assigned an anesthesiologist to attend the execution, to make sure Mr. Morales is completely out before beginning the actual lethal injection.

Full disclosure: I have serious reservations on the use of the death penalty. The argument that it is a deterrent doesn't seem to be supported by the facts, except in case of the executed person; it does deter him from future criminal acts. The morality of the state offing people in my name bothers me; if it's wrong for me to kill, why is it right for the state to kill in my name, and when does state execution become simple revenge, as opposed to justice?
Mr. Morales, like many of the people we execute, has committed a heinous crime, a rape and murder; but I'm not sure that gives us a moral justification for executing him. There's no question that legally we can do so. And at least in California, it's much more expensive to execute someone than it is to jail him for life without possibility of parole, and the state of California is broke. It seems to me that we could assume a more moral stance and save some cash by discontinuing executions.

Leaving aside the issue of whether we should execute, let's get back to how. Many states went to lethal injection because everybody agreed that the previous methods (hanging, the gas chamber, the electric chair - remember "Ol' Sparky" in Florida? Which, BTW, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in 1997 was not cruel and unusual...) were "cruel and unusual". They probably weren't so by the standards of the framers of the Constitution - in fact, hanging was the 18th century norm. The 18th century probably would have found gas chambers and electric chairs "unusual". We'll have to wonder whether they would have thought them "cruel".

If lethal injection is now also too "cruel" to use (you can't really call it "unusual" when most of the states that execute use it), let's resurrect an execution method which was specifically designed to be quick, efficient, and probably as pain-free as dying violently ever is:

Let's bring back the guillotine. The guillotine (see WikiPedia) was designed to be a humane method of execution (at least compared to the methods that had been used; the WikiPedia article has some background on those for the curious), and to execute people quickly and with a minimum of pain. It's certainly efficient; the French Revolutionaries used it to execute somewhere between 15,000 and 40,000 people suspected of "crimes against liberty", over about 13 months. We won't need to use it nearly that often.

In fact, let's go all the way back: to public executions. Set up the guillotine in a public place with lots of room for spectators. If we're going to do this, let's all watch it, and see what the state is doing in our name. In fact, let's put it on television. Public executions used to be considered great entertainment for the whole family, although by the end of the French Reign of Terror, the crowds had thinned, as people grew bored. I wonder how a televised execution would stack up against "Survivor"?

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Arrogance of Power

That's what one of my colleagues in the water aerobics class called it, this afternoon, and she was right. The whole incident of Dick Cheney's quail hunt just demonstrates an attitude which, I'm sorry to say, isn't restricted to the present administration, although the present administration is certainly full of it. Among other things.

The attitude I refer to can be summed up as, "I'm really important and the rules don't apply to me." Messrs. Bush and Cheney are the most blatant examples of this attitude; but it exists in other places:

It's playing hell with our international relations, because the administration acts like that on behalf of the United States, and therefore the United States projects the arrogance of power and annoys the crap out of everyone else. We're going to regret that one of these days, maybe in Iran.

It exists in executive suites, where CEOs insist that they themselves are soooo important that they must be paid 431 times as much as their average production workers (see my post, Executive Pay, for more scary numbers).

It exists on the roads, every time anyone runs a red light or a stop sign. I sometimes think I'm the only person left who waits for the light to change before crossing the street; everyone else is too important.

It's everybody who drives an SUV around town, so they can be safe, and high up, no matter what it does to the environment, or the ability of other drivers to see around them (ever try to get out of a parking lot when the view of oncoming traffic is blocked by a parked SUV?).

It's "me first", all the time every time; and the scary thing is that it isn't even restricted to people who have power. Everybody does it, and they use that as an excuse to continue to do it; and it's destroying civil society.

How about a little humility, people? How about a little bit of "Do unto others as ye would that they should do unto you?" We all put our pants on one leg at a time. As Bobby Dylan once wrote, "Even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked." As a country, we need to Get Over Ourselves. Common sense and common courtesy will get you through most situations smoothly; but they've both become so rare that we almost can't call them "common" any more. But oh, boy, do we need them.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Executive Pay

Where did the idea come from that the chief executives at large American corporations should be paid 431 times as much as their average employees?? In 1972, according to Executive Excess 2005 (from United for a Fair Economy, www.faireconomy.org), U.S. executives made 42 times as much as their average workers. In 34 years the ratio has increased by an order of magnitude; actually, in 1990 it was only 107-to-1, so in the last 25 years the ratio has quadrupled. I guarantee, the pay of the guys on the bottom has not increased at this rate. In fact, it hasn't kept up with inflation, or only just.

The only thing that has improved about this ratio is that it isn't as bad as it was in 2000, when it hit 525-to-1. Amazingly, after the dotcom bust, and the Enron and Worldcom messes (not to mention Sarbanes-Oxley), corporate boards actually did start to pay less, tie raises to corporate performance, etc.
And it's worse in the defense industry since the "war on terror"; the CEO of DHB Industries (bulletproof vests) made 3,349% more in 2004 than he did in 2001. Nice work if you can get it. Can we spell "profiteer"?

It all comes down to this: senior corporate executives are said to do "more important work" than the guys on the factory floor, or the people carrying the duty pagers, or the front line sales people who deal directly with customers. Therefore they are "more important" than these people, and should be paid commensurately more. Four hundred times more?? Without the guys on the factory floor (metaphorically speaking; almost no one actually works on a factory floor any more), the CEO wouldn't have a job at all; just consider the nervousness at Disney after buying Pixar, due to the number of lead animation people at Pixar who are on record as saying they'd rather skate in Hell than work for Disney.

I have to wonder whether we might not still have some manufacturing jobs here, if it weren't so "necessary" to pay the CEOs such ridiculous amounts. Yes, yes, I know: at 400 to one, it wouldn't save all that many jobs. But it doesn't help; and it plays holy hell with morale. The real problem (see my next post) is the pervasive attitude that "I'm more important than they are."

Monday, February 06, 2006

Some Things Don't Change

Because I support the U.C. Berkeley libraries, I get their newsletter, called Bene Legere. The fall 2005 issue (no. 68) was about "Women of California" and included the following article, which I'm retyping verbatim since there doesn't seem to be a web site where I can link it. Having attended Berkeley myself, some 50 years after this incident, I'm appalled to discover how much had not changed in the interval:
In 1916 UC Berkeley Biology student Josephine Miller inadvertently swallowed typhoid bacilli in one of the labs on campus. The incident was widely publicized and appeared in an article in the "Daily Californian" which suggested that women should be recognized for adopting children and not for entering the field of scientific research. Student Elsie McCormick responded to this attack on women with the following article.

We have compiled rules after a careful study of the statements in recent college papers. Coeds who follow them are guaranteed bids to all the dances of the semester.

Rule 1. Do not swallow typhoid germs. It is unladylike.

Rule 2. Do not be foolish enough to plan on raising a family of your own. Adopt foundlings. You'll be sure to get your picture in the paper.

Rule 3. Do not study hygiene. It is not polite to be interested in the health of your family or the community.

Rule 4. Be a man's comrade but do not compete with him. He knows that he will never hold his position if you do.

Rule 5. Do not request men to swear in your presence. Only suffragettes do that.

Rule 6. Always glare at a man in the streetcar until he gives you his seat. If you show any willingness to stand, it proves that you are a feminist and hence ineligible for an M.R.S. degree.

Rule 7. Do not be the only woman in the College of Mechanics. To know anything about the anatomy of an automobile is immodest.

Rule 8. Pay your ASUC dues promptly, but do not be so bold as to ask for a place on the Executive Committee...

Rule 9. If a man speaks to you, always preface your answer by "Tee-hee." If you make any other remarks, you will be considered unmaidenly.

Rule 10. Never pass sentiments in Senior Singing until a week after the men have discussed the subject and made up their minds for you. Otherwise you might disagree with them and spoil the class harmony.

Rule 11. Do not study anything useful. Coeds should specialize in English and a diluted form of art history.

Rule 12. Always look and act as silly as possible. If you can't think of anything else to do, giggle.

Coeds who live up to these rules will reach the man's ideal of a perfect college woman...
All three-dot elisions are Miss McCormick's. I particularly love Rule 4. And as a singer, I'd like to know the incident behind Rule 10; but I never will. I do hope Miss Miller didn't come down with typhoid as a result of her error.

Another item in the newsletter was a photo of a page from the scrapbook of Clotilde Grunsky, class of '14, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering - and the University Medal, as the most distinguished member of the graduating class. I am absolutely awed by any woman who would even try for a civil engineering degree in 1914! I wonder if she ever got any dates...

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Movie Weirdness

I'm not really a movie buff, but I do occasionally rent one from NetFlix. Recently I watched (again) Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 Romeo and Juliet (brilliant; if you've never seen it, well worth watching), and a few weeks later, quite by chance, watched John Madden's 1998 Shakespeare in Love (also well worth it).

The point here is: you really must watch these movies in that order to appreciate the fact that much of the first half of
Shakespeare in Love is a pastiche on the Zeffirelli! A good pastiche, too.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery??

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Prohibition Doesn't Work

George Santayana claimed that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. I guess Americans can't remember the past.

On Jan. 19, 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act went into effect, banning the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol across the entire U.S. (See WikiPedia for a summary of the Prohibition experiment. Did you know you could legally get whiskey during Prohibition on a doctor's prescription? I didn't.) This led to 13 years of increasing disrespect for the law, speakeasies, bathtub gin, lethal bootleg booze cut with poisonous substances, public gunfights between rival gangs of bootleggers, foreigners smuggling booze (legally obtained in Europe) into the U.S., etc. etc., until the whole thing was repealed by the Twenty-First Amendment on Dec. 5, 1933, throwing the regulation of alcohol back to the states. For a detailed explanation of exactly how and why this experiment didn't work, see this article from the Cato Institute.

Does any of this sound familiar? We have another "Prohibition" experiment in progress worldwide right now, based solely on the fact that the U.S. government, for the last 60 years or so, has made it illegal to get high in this country except on alcohol or nicotine. As a result, we've created a worldwide network of illegal drug trafficking that makes the Prohibition bootleggers look like a Tuesday afternoon ladies' sewing circle. The economies of entire third world countries depend on the fact that it's illegal to buy heroin, opium, cocaine, etc. in the United States. The latest president of Bolivia was elected partly on his promise to make it easier to grow coca.

We could stop this, you know. In fact, we could save a lot of money, save a lot of lives, and probably advance the medical profession in a number of useful ways. All we have to do is legalize all drugs, and regulate and tax them exactly the same way booze and cigarettes are regulated and taxed (which would mean that minors couldn't legally buy them; you couldn't legally drive a car while under the influence; in some counties you'd have to go across the county line to get them). Yes. All drugs, including things like Ecstasy. Some of them will kill you? So will booze and ciggies. At least if they are regulated and taxed, we can control the dosage and purity of what is sold.

Getting high is immoral? That's a tricky issue. Even if you assume - and I don't - that the state has grounds for regulating morality, whatever that is, it seems to me that by legalizing alcohol and nicotine for the purpose, we've cut the moral high ground right out from under our feet. We don't really object to people getting high: we just object to
people getting high on those drugs. One of the lessons of Prohibition was that making a popular practice illegal doesn't reduce the number of people doing it. I'm talking public safety and public health here. The consumption of intoxicating substances, by itself, is a victimless crime; the crimes that create real victims are mainly related to the fact that the activity is illegal. In fact, the "drug war" is worse than Prohibition: in Prohibition you couldn't be busted for possession.

If we legalized all dope, we could:
  • Remove the incentive for international criminal gangs to run drugs into the U.S. (most recently, concealed surgically in the bellies of puppies).
  • Quit putting 30% of the population of our inner cities in the slammer for possession, or trafficking of minor amounts. Probably build fewer prisons.
  • Reduce the incentive for the constant gang wars in our inner cities, since the bulk of them are turf battles over drug sales.
  • Probably, reduce the number of police we need, by reducing the number of crimes they have to chase. At least, allow the police to concentrate on crimes against person and property; in my neighborhood, if you're burglarized, you can't get the cops to show up - they're all down in the ghetto chasing the drug gangs.
  • Certainly reduce the impact on our overloaded court system.
  • Do actual research into the medical properties of marijuana, and possibly other drugs, currently prohibited by our ridiculous laws. Who knows what we might find?
  • With any luck, improve pain management for people with serious chronic pain issues; right now much of the medical profession is so paranoid about "enabling addiction" that it denies opiates even to terminally ill cancer patients (if you're dying in pain, who cares if you're also addicted to Oxycontin??).
Of course, if we do this, there will be side effects; and we'll have to take other actions to deal with those:
  • The economies of many countries will be severely affected.
    • We'd have to give Colombia actual development aid, instead of military helicopters and "advisers".
    • We'd have to put serious effort into rebuilding Afghanistan, in much of which right now the only realistic cash crop is opium poppies.
    • The whole Golden Triangle (Thailand, Burma/Myanmar, Laos) in southeast Asia would be affected.
  • On the plus side, with any luck the military junta in Myanmar would collapse; I'm sure they rely on drug money.
  • Ditto the FARC in Colombia; without drug money, they'll have real trouble supporting that insurgency.
  • We'd have to do something serious about our inner cities. Right now the only option available there, in which a young man or woman has a chance to make serious money with the kind of education and training our schools offer them, is drug dealing. This is a disgrace and we need to fix it; we never will while the drugs are illegal and the supposed easy cash is so good. (And if you want to find out just how mythical the "supposed easy cash" is, read the chapter in Steven Leavitt's Freakonomics entitled "Why do drug dealers live with their moms?")
  • We'd have to build educational programs to encourage people not to use intoxicants, because they are bad for you, just like the ones we have for booze and cigarettes. Some of this (NarcAnon) is already in place.
  • We'd have to expand the existing programs to help people get unaddicted, once they discover they really don't want to be. Right now there's no money for this because it's all going toward expanding the prison system.
But we are putting so much money into a "drug war" (aka Prohibition) that is not solving the problem, and that is in fact making the problem worse (go read that Cato Institute article: the more they enforced Prohibition, the more people drank), that by legalizing all the controlled substances, we could probably free up enough money to take care of many of the societal side effects of having drugs available at RiteAid and Costco. The Netherlands don't seem to have collapsed after legalizing many drugs.

Nothing in this is based on any detailed research; these are just the implications that seem
obvious to me, based on the last 30 years of reading the newspaper.

It'll never happen while the current administration is in office. It'll never happen while the party in power is willing to defer to the Religious Right on "moral" issues. That doesn't mean there aren't real public policy reasons for considering it. Thanks for listening to my rant.