Thursday, June 14, 2012

Guilty Until Proven Innocent -- in the USA

Many countries recognize an individual's right to be considered innocent until proven guilty in court. This is known as the presumption of innocence, and is a fundamental tenet of law in many modern countries. However, as has been reported in many free-minded, libertarian-oriented publications and communities, this is changing. Take the following case.

An American citizen and acquaintance of mine, Jim* has lived as a PT (perpetual traveler) for many years, having sold a successful business and thus having the financial means to do as he pleases. While he has no wife or children, he returns to the US periodically to see his sister and other extended family. Jim has had an arrangement with his sister, Donna*, for several years, whereby she assists with his financial management. His funds are in the US, and he lives inexpensively overseas, so he keeps on hand just what he needs. When requested, Donna withdraws cash from his US bank account (she is, of course, authorized to do so), and sends the funds to him via Western Union - always less than $10,000. For some time this system has worked well for them with no complications ... until late last year.

The last time Donna went to Western Union to send her brother funds, she was unsuccessful. Upon entering all the data into the computer, the Western Union employee told Donna that her transaction was denied and would not be accepted. Furthermore, she was told, she would never again be permitted to use any Western Union office to send funds anywhere in the world. Why? Because she was summarily, on the spot, placed on a nationwide Terrorist Watch List. Just like that. It so happened that her grandson, Noah*, was with her, so she asked him to complete the transaction. Noah had never used the services of Western Union before. Nevertheless, when he attempted to complete the transaction the result was the same; another name added to the Terrorist Watch List.

Jim explained that he had tried to resolve the issue with Western Union by phoning them. It's nearly impossible to reach a person by phone, he said, but eventually he did correspond with them via email. They said they would arrange a phone interview with him, to give him an opportunity to explain his circumstances. He agreed to this, but has not had an interview, nor given a date for one.

Meanwhile, Donna was contacted via email by Western Union. They informed her, after apparently reviewing her record of transactions, that her monthly income was not sufficient to cover the sums that she was sending overseas. They wanted to know where the money came from, and were not satisfied when she explained the arrangement she had with her brother. They asked her to provide her financial records, bank statements and proof of income. Donna politely declined.

Consider the Implications

What are the possible implications of these events for Jim and his family? The issue remains unresolved, and, while he was permitted to fly out of the US, one wonders what will happen the next time Jim tries to enter the country. Since he was the intended recipient of the transferred funds, is he also a member of the (not too exclusive) Terrorist Watch List club? What will happen to him is anyone's guess.

Donna, still living in the US, may be subject to all manner of scrutiny. Everywhere she goes, everything she does, every financial transaction, phone call, and internet keystroke, may be recorded and stored for eternity, to potentially be used against her if she so much as jaywalks. She may be prevented from traveling outside the US, or detained upon reentry.

But the one who concerns me most is Noah, the grandson. In his early twenties, he has his whole adult life ahead of him, under the watchful eye of Big Brother. Consider how having his name on a Terrorist Watch List might affect him. Every school, every employer, and every professional or social organization that performs a background check on him, may learn his status. Any time he opens a bank account, applies for a loan or mortgage, buys a car, opens an investment account, or any number of other ordinary activities, a red flag may appear. Will Noah be permitted to obtain a passport if he does not yet have one? Will he be permitted to travel outside the US? Will his name be on the list indefinitely? Does he have any recourse to clear his name and have it removed from the list? To whom does he appeal?



The land of the free bureaucratic tyranny

Feds evicting mobile homes at North Dakota lake. Bureau of Reclamation move would wipe out $6 million in investments, ruin the local economy and destabilize every federal leasehold

For over half a century, picturesque Lake Tschida in southwestern North Dakota has been the destination of choice for residents of nearby communities to spend warm summer weekends with friends and family. In this semiarid part of the Northern Plains, where recreational lakes are few and far between, the reservoir has attracted cabins and mobile homes, whose owners lease lakefront parcels of land from the Bureau of Reclamation.

But if the bureau has its way, an arrangement that has worked well for decades will be cast aside, with the owners of all 114 mobile homes being told to pack up and get out by 2022. The bureau justifies its action by claiming that the mobile homes could be ripped from their moorings during a flood, posing a risk to the reservoir’s earthen dam and to areas down river. After a severe flood – the worst in 50 years -- struck the area in 2009, the bureau, without consulting leaseholders, abruptly directed that all mobile homes be removed from the lake no later than 2010. Yet of 114 mobile homes on the lake, only 16 had water in them, and no homes became detached from their moorings.

The bureau’s draconian move came less than a year after it had advised owners of cabins and mobile homes that they could expand the structures on their parcels. Believing in the good faith of the bureau, many people, at considerable personal expense, added decks, sheds, and other improvements to their properties. “By issuing building permits for decks, septic systems, and other structures,” the Bismarck Tribune noted in a recent editorial, “the bureau has forfeited the ability to tell those with mobile homes parked in low-lying areas to simply clear out.”

Leaseholders at the lake have gone to extraordinary lengths to reach an accommodation with the bureau. They have offered to move their mobile homes to a higher elevation on their lots, and to remove the homes altogether over the winter months. The latter proposal would effectively eliminate whatever remote risk the mobile homes posed from floodwaters, because they would not be brought back to the lake until after the winter snow had melted. All of this has been to no avail. The only “compromise” the bureau has been willing to make is to allow the mobile homes to stay until 2022. After that, they must go. All the leaseholders have gotten is a stay of execution.

What’s more, the bureau’s claim that the mobile homes are situated in a so-called “flood pool” rests on shaky scientific ground. It is based on information dating to 1943, six years before the Heart Butte Dam was built, creating Lake Tschida.

For the time being, the bureau is targeting only mobile homes. Even though some of the cabins are also in the “flood pool,” the bureau is leaving them in peace – for now. But once the mobile homes have been expelled from the lake, what’s to keep the cabins from suffering the same fate? Cabin owners on the lake must view the mobile homes as their last line of defense against whatever arbitrary and capricious action the bureau takes in the future.

“We’ve installed electric power service, planted trees, dug wells, built sheds, installed sewage systems, hauled in rock to protect banks from erosion, built decks, and landscaped our lots,” says Scott Ressler, president of the Heart Butte Association, a group representing leaseholders on the lake. “This work – occurring year after year for over 50 years – has been done with the bureau’s knowledge. Typically, with its written consent”

Apart from the deep emotional attachment and the sweat equity the leaseholders have in their lots, significant financial investments are at stake. New mobile homes installed and lot permits transferred in the past few years cost in the $40,000 to $70,000 range. “When coupled with lot improvements, many of us have upwards of $100,000 invested, some even more,” Ressler points out. “Assuming the value of our individual interests to be $55,000 – a conservative amount for some –, collectively the bureau’s actions affect well over $6 million in equity,” he adds.

The bureau’s move will have economic repercussions that go far beyond the leaseholders. In a letter to North Dakota’s congressional delegation, Aaron Leverson, branch president of the First International Bank & Trust in neighboring Elgin, noted that local businesses “need the traffic of the Lake Tschida cabin owners, their extended families, and guests.” He pointed out that, “Businesses such as the hospital, lumber yard, gas station, grocery store, hardware store, and bars, even our animal veterinarian, rely on Lake Tschida residents to keep their business up and running financially.”

“Frankly, the bureau probably isn’t the right landlord for the job,” the Bismarck Tribune says, “but it’s the landlord the Lake Tschida people have.” In truth, the federal government is never the right landlord. People leasing land from a federal agency will always be at the whim of bureaucrats with their own agendas. The controversy at Lake Tschida raises serious questions about how secure leaseholders are at other reservoirs around the country that are subject to the Bureau of Reclamation’s oversight.

Determined to fight back by drawing attention to the bureau’s bullying, the Heart Butte Association has recently affiliated with the American Land Rights Association. The battle is far from over.



Prague Diary: Reagan and the Charter

Peter has put up some great posts on Reagan's famous speech at the Berlin Wall. Apart from the question of the wisdom of this or that line in these foreign addresses, one sometimes hears the argument that these sorts of addresses just don't matter that much. They will get some ink in the US and foreign papers the next day--maybe even generate some controversy over a longer span, but fundamentally, they don't mean anything. WRONG. WRONG. WRONG.

Here is what former Czech dissident Pavel Bratinka told me about Reagan's evil empire speech:

"Andropov paved the way for Gorbachev right at the moment when Ronald Reagan’s truth talk about the Soviet evil empire penetrated the heart of the system with a metaphysical blow from which the system never recuperated. At long last, the Communists met an opposing force declaring determination to bring about the end of Communist empire."

Tonight I was at a meeting with Kamila Bendova (whom I wrote about here). We were discussing her life under Communism--Charter 77, house searches, her husband's imprisonment, you name it. People often make the claim, I said, that the Charter didn't ever accomplish what it was designed to because it never grew into a large enough movement to affect the society as a whole. Well, Mrs. Bendova countered, the Charter did affect future events--it made people imagine new possibilities. She mentioned many other things--among them that it clashed with the peace movement in Western Europe and pointed to its futility and backruptcy. And important people payed attention to the Charter, she said. At this point she got a little smile on her face and she went to her files. She quickly produced a piece of paper containing numerous instances when people in the West had quoted a Charter document. I glanced down at this paper and what did I see? June 4, 1984, President Ronald Reagan, speech to the Irish Parliament:

"In the moving words used by the Czechoslovak Charter 77 group just a week ago, in reply to supporters of nuclear disarmament in the West, they said, ``Unlike you, we have personal experience of other, perhaps less conspicuous, but no less effective means of destroying civilization than those represented by thermonuclear war; some of us, at the very least, prefer the risk involved in maintaining a firm stance against aggression to the certainty of the catastrophic consequences of appeasement.

The struggle between freedom and totalitarianism today is not ultimately a test of arms or missiles, but a test of faith and spirit. And in this spiritual struggle, the Western mind and will is the crucial battleground. We must not hesitate to express our dream of freedom; we must not be reluctant to enunciate the crucial distinctions between right and wrong -- between political systems based on freedom and those based on a dreadful denial of the human spirit."

Can you imagine what this did for the morale of those Charter members? Those people were hounded and harassed by the police, made to live in constant fear. And so this was proof that there was someone out there who was listening to what they said! I don't know if you wrote that one Peter, but cheers to you or whoever did.



More obstructive regulation

R. Andrew Hicks, a Drexel University math professor, has invented a driver’s side mirror that eliminates the dangerous blind spot that traditional mirrors have. But federal regulations are preventing car manufacturers from using his potentially life-saving invention.

The improved mirrors give a 45-degree field of view, compared to 15 to 17 degrees for traditional flat mirrors. And they do it without giving the distorted fish-eye view that plagues curved mirrors. Prof. Hicks told the website how it works:

“Imagine that the mirror’s surface is made of many smaller mirrors turned to different angles, like a disco ball,” Hicks said. “The algorithm is a set of calculations to manipulate the direction of each face of the metaphorical disco ball so that each ray of light bouncing off the mirror shows the driver a wide, but not-too-distorted, picture of the scene behind him.”

Pretty ingenious, frankly. And unlike many ivory tower projects, this could save lives. The trouble is that federal regulations require side mirrors to be flat. The rule made sense because, until now, curved wide-view mirrors give such a distorted view that their safety benefits are dubious at best.

Prof. Hicks’ mirrors are curved, which is why they violate federal rules for standard equipment. Of course, the curves are non-uniform with tens of thousands of inflection points, which is why they give triple the field of view with distortion comparable to flat mirrors. Regulations would do better to focus on distortion or field of view than on whether or not a mirror is curved.

Regulators should modernize mirror regulations post-haste so that car manufacturers can make Prof. Hicks’ mirrors standard equipment. As it is now, drivers could buy and install the mirrors themselves. But millions more people would benefit if car manufacturers were able to make them standard equipment.

Or, better yet, regulators could get out of the way altogether so that people like Prof. Hicks can save lives without having to say, “Sir, may I?”




SCOTUS declines Rumsfeld torture case: "The US Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up a case examining whether government officials who order the alleged torture of a US citizen on American soil can be sued for violating the citizen’s constitutional rights. Apparently, the answer is no. The high court rejected, without comment, an appeal filed on behalf of former enemy combatant José Padilla, who was held for 3-1/2 years in military detention. Mr. Padilla was subjected to harsh interrogation techniques to break him psychologically and force him to reveal everything he might know about Al Qaeda."

Mexico should just legalize drugs: "According to a front-page article in today’s New York Times, Mexico’s top presidential contenders are signaling a shift in how Mexico intends to fight the drug war. While the movement is in a positive direction, unfortunately it still doesn’t go far enough. Mexico should just end its entire participation in the drug war. It should legalize drugs."

Beware the word “extremist”: "As far as I can tell, the first widespread use of the 'extremist' label was in the 1964 presidential election campaign, when liberals so tagged Senator Barry Goldwater. Yet Goldwater’s Senate voting record was well within the American mainstream. His domestic platform rested largely on following the Constitution, and his foreign policy was drawn from traditional principles later used effectively by President Reagan."

Michael Bloomberg, soda jerk: "New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed ban on big sodas in the Big Apple is generating accusations that he is a Nanny Statist. But that’s not quite accurate. A nanny forces others to do things for their own good. Bloomberg is a moral narcissist forcing New Yorkers to do things that make him feel good."



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The Big Lie of the late 20th century was that Nazism was Rightist. It was in fact typical of the Leftism of its day. It was only to the Right of Stalin's Communism. The very word "Nazi" is a German abbreviation for "National Socialist" (Nationalsozialist) and the full name of Hitler's political party (translated) was "The National Socialist German Workers' Party" (In German: Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei)


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The problem with regulators is that they tend to draft regulations that are prescriptive rather than descriptive. So rather than allow the private sector to create several different solutions to a problem, they tell the private sector what the solution will be. For example, auto manufacturers are told that all cars must have anti-lock brakes and many airbags (which raises the price and keeps more people out of the new car market), when the proper metric is fatalities per 100k vehicle miles.