Monthly Archives: April 2011

Words that sustain

Today, I thought I’d post a poem that I keep returning to; the author is Theodore Roethke, who is perhaps my favorite American poet.

In a dark time

In a dark time, the eye begins to see,

I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;

I hear my echo in the echoing wood–

A lord of nature weeping to a tree,

I live between the heron and the wren,

Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.

What’s madness but nobility of soul

At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!

I know the purity of pure despair,

My shadow pinned against a sweating wall,

That place among the rocks–is it a cave,

Or winding path? The edge is what I have.

A steady storm of correspondences!

A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,

And in broad day the midnight come again!

A man goes far to find out what he is–

Death of the self in a long, tearless night,

All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

Dark,dark my light, and darker my desire.

My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,

Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?

A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.

The mind enters itself, and God the mind,

And one is One, free in the tearing wind.v


“No child left unmedicated?”

I borrow the title of this post, and the link, from the indomitable Tyler Cowen. The reference is to this study by Bokhari and Schneider in the Journal of Health Economics titled “School accountability laws and the consumption of psychostimulants“.

Here is the abstract, written in that cool academic chill (emphasis mine):

Over the past decade, several states introduced varying degrees of accountability systems for schools, which became federal law with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The intent of these accountability laws was to improve academic performance and to make school quality more observable. Nonetheless, schools have reacted to these pressures in several different ways, some of which were not intended. We make use of the variation across states and over time in specific provisions of these accountability laws and find that accountability pressures effect medical diagnoses and subsequent treatment options of school aged children. Specifically, children in states with more stringent accountability laws are more likely to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and consequently prescribed psychostimulant drugs for controlling the symptoms. However, conditional on diagnosis, accountability laws do not further change the probability of receiving medication therapy.

Foucault is relevant here. The state’s biopolitical power to regulate and control life itself is brutally manifested in the overmedication of children, driven by bureaucratic and federal incentives. This is a powerful argument against the acceptance of federal dollars or incentives to regulate America’s education system.
My generation grew up in a world where medication became, transparently, a mechanism for social control. It will be interesting how our politics shape the future.
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Letter to the editor of the Hawaiian Star-Advertiser

Yesterday, the Hawaiian Star-Advertiser published the following opinion editorial, to which I respond below:

The national controversy about whether marijuana is a drug or medicine is being played out in Senate Bill 1458, which proposes a five-year pilot program to establish a marijuana dispensary based on the Colorado model.

While the bill ensures no prosecution to the licensed marijuana vendor, the operation is in direct conflict with federal law and could be shut down.

Also, there is potential for abuse, given this bill allows for not only Hawaii residents but tourists to use the dispensary.

Colorado law enforcement reports the lack of controls, increased crime and violence and the lowered quality of life in neighborhoods with dispensaries are hardly worth the projected tax revenues.

Most important, this bill sends the wrong message to our youth. It would erode prevention efforts by decreasing perception of harm and increasing access.

Alan Shinn
Coalition for a Drug-Free Hawaii

My response (emailed, but I do not yet know if they will publish it):

Dear Editor,

In response to Alan Shinn’s letter of April 17, 2011

The arguments Mr. Shinn raises against the adoption of a Colorado-style model for the regulation and taxation of cannabis in Hawaii are specious.

First, the argument that the proposed initiative is against federal law does not mean that the voters of Hawaii have given up their rights to self-determination. The American federal system allows for conflicts between state and federal laws to be resolved legally, though the courts, and politically, as voters across this brave land vote for different people and policies over time.

Mr. Shinn’s second point, that tourists may access Hawaiian dispensaries, is not an argument. In fact, this is a desirable feature, as tourism brings dollars and people to Hawaiian shores. In a recession economy, does Mr. Shinn want to pick jobs out of a hat instead?

Mr. Shinn’s third point is a dishonest one. Crime problems are invariably related to prohibition. Hawaii has the advantage of being geographically isolated, so Hawaiians should not have to worry about traffic between Hawaii and neighboring states.

Finally, Mr. Shinn assumes that parents should not have the freedom to raise their children as they please. Parents should have the authority to direct the education of their children insofar as health and lifestyle choices are concerned; the government has no duty in dictating what those choices may be.

Rather, it is our status as citizens that should empower us to dictate what our government should do to us. Liberty is America’s promise; it should not be our failure.

Thoughts on jury nullification, Part 1

This past week I had the fortune to attend a discussion on nullification hosted by the Show-Me Institute with my friend Mitch Richards (a representative of the Fully Informed Jury Association, or FIJA). I should note that nullification issues have been in vogue for the last few years; if I recall correctly, there was a jury nullification topic selected for high school debaters nationwide a year or two ago, and with increasing federal presence in all arenas of economic and political life there is increasing grassroots interest in the topic.

It is not my intention here to discuss the history or legitimacy of nullification issues. Such issues are more fully discussed elsewhere by others. However, I wish to discuss why I find jury nullification strategies valuable but unsatisfying.

Why jury nullification is valuable: It can be used to protect individuals from prosecution under unjust laws, by unjust governments. Note that I say “can” here; despite the functional reality of the existence and the popularity of nullification strategies, it is not certain that they can even be used in many real-life contexts. Moreover, there is no reason to think that juries will only attempt nullification of unjust laws; juries can act in unjust ways. However, as an additional recourse for citizens being unjustly prosecuted by their government, the nullification option is valuable at an important margin.

But the popular focus on jury nullification strategies is very unsatisfying to me. It ignores the pragmatic reality of criminal justice system operation and legislative lawmaking. In particular the nullification discourse completely ignores the agency incentives that determine how laws are actually interpreted and applied by government agents. It is this incentive structure we must understand and seek to change; otherwise nullification efforts will always be stop-gap, low-level efforts against specific laws. Nullification strategies are like using your hands to swat mosquitoes; you might kill individual mosquitoes but that’s of little comfort when you’re in a swamp.

It would be of more practical use to try to pursue other strategies if we are really interested in constraining the justice system to minimize the number of unjust outcomes.

There are two ways in which I see this can be done. First, reformulate the incentive structures facing prosecutors. Second, make it harder for government officials to use official or qualified immunity as a shield from liability. I will be exploring these two policy prescriptions at length in further posts, so stay tuned.


“E pluribus unum”

I met Mitch Richards last May speaking against the use of paramilitary policing tactics by the Columbia Police Department. The particular SWAT raid that had brought us to City Hall had happened in February, to a family who lived about 5 miles from my downtown abode; the cops had obtained a warrant based on specious paid informant testimony and gone in at night, guns blazing. They shot the dogs, manhandled the suspect, and videotaped the entire affair for training purposes.

In the crowd that came to Columbia’s City Hall that May night to protest the raid, Mitch stood out. Above the angry, sometimes incoherent clamor that night, Mitch spoke in measured, eloquent language about individual sovereignty, natural rights, and the freedoms protected for Americans by the Constitution of the United States.

In these times such a voice speaks loudly. There is great yearning in America for our lost Liberty; across the country, the political landscape is experiencing an upheaval as citizens find our political structure inapt to meet their demands. Much of this energy is unfocused. In this environment opportunists, charlatans, and fringe elements proliferate; witness the incoherence  and sheer ignorance of Sarah Palin.

And the establishment is not much better. We are asked by our leaders and our governing institutions to give up many of our most basic freedoms in the name of security and liberty. Both political parties are perversely invested in the status quo; this is often reflected in the transition that happens between (relatively independent) candidate and (beholden) elected official.

American politics has been defined by powerful institutional players and vested interests for decades. In this morass one may lose one’s way and spend an eternity adrift far from the borders of hebetude. Consider Barack Obama, who ran on an anti-war ticket in 2008. Now he is President Obama. War-monger Obama.

Reasserting our stakeholder interests in American politics may be a Sisyphean task. I may be delusional for thinking that Americans can successfully challenge the political structures that seek to enslave us with debt and barter away our freedoms. But I know it is possible to try, and that there is virtue in the struggle. It is hard to remain independent, and speak truth to power about the realities of America’s governance, about the insanities of our Wars on Drugs, Terror, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. Mitch has never been afraid of confronting these realities; in his approach he represents an honesty and integrity that has been lacking in our politics since before I was born in 1984.

I look forward to tonight’s vote as Mitch seeks election to Columbia’s City Council in the First Ward. The outcome is uncertain, but I know that tonight’s election is an opening move, not the endgame.

Please visit Mitch at

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