With Great Powerball Comes Great Responsibility

[T]he damage done by earning less interest in a savings account is minuscule compared to lottery spending and the financial risk for families that have no savings.

Advertisements

The Powerball is a multi-state lottery based in Florida, which I’m told is still a thing. Florida, that is. I knew Powerball was a still thing because I own several media devices which regularly dump media all over me. This week, the Powerball prize was large enough that if there had been a single winner, that winner could’ve become Batman.

Lotteries tout the contributions they make to citizens through expenditures on road construction, road signs, orange road signs, orange blinking road signs, and really big orange road signs with blinking text that drivers can read as they are driving, with helpful themes like “Don’t text and drive.” Sometimes, these signs are hacked by obnoxious teens to say obnoxious teen things like “Han Solo dies.”

In 1964, the first modern U.S. State-run lottery began in New Hampshire. Today 44 States and D.C. have lotteries, and the first multi-State lottery began in 1985. Since then we’ve learned a couple of honest-to-goodness facts about lotteries. First, poor people buy lottery tickets as a much larger percentage of their income than the middle-class. Second, lotteries really hate competition. (And not just State lotteries. Nevada’s gambling industry has successfully prevented a State-run lottery there.)

It’s easy to categorize the poor as being victimized by State-run lotteries. After all, the poor can least afford to lose discretionary income, right? But before you lament a low-income earner falling into mathematical quicksand as a result of ignorance or government predatory schemes (or both), consider the possibility that the poor are rational actors in playing the lottery. The argument goes something like this: a low-income person with a big mountain of debt who plays and loses the lottery still has a big mountain of debt. This same person who doesn’t play the lottery at all still has a big mountain of debt.  A chance of winning, however small, is the only chance of climbing atop the debt mountain. Depending on factors such as income and interest rates, this may be completely accurate. That’s not to say most poor aren’t objectively (financially) worse off for playing the lottery—they are. But lotteries would be broke if we were all objective. Humans, not calculators, buy lottery tickets.

Yep, they’re goats. In trees.

Americans also have a bad habit of not saving money. Sure, in a world where you can buy a 2016 Goats in Trees Calendar, who wants to save money?  I get it. Still, most of us know we should save more, but our national vices—including the lottery—seem to be an obstacle.

Some countries have harnessed the public’s desire to play a lottery to combat poor savings habits. The result is a Prize-Linked Savings (PLS) account. The concept is pretty simple. Suppose a regular savings account pays 3%. A PLS account pays less than 3%, maybe even nothing. But in exchange for foregoing all or part of the interest, the account owner is automatically entered into a lottery. PLS accounts have grown in popularity in the last 10 years.

Some critics of PLS accounts suggest that the cut in the interest rate hurts the poor. Would the poor be better off earning interest? Sure. Objectively.  But considering low-income household finances, the damage done by earning less interest in a savings account is minuscule compared to lottery spending and the financial risk for families that have no savings. Governments should not open candy stores and then feign shock when diabetics walk in the front doors, ignoring the “eat responsibly” signs.  Offering sugar free options might be a better response.

The PLS idea has caught on in such exotic, far off locations as Sri Lanka, Japan, and Michigan. How much does it help people save? The research of Peter Tufano, Dean at Oxford’s business school, noted that 56% of the participants in Michigan’s “Save to Win” PLS program were first-time savers.  At present, 12 states, including Indiana, do allow PLS accounts, but more states should. Even if it means fewer traffic signs.

Should States Stop Playing the Marriage License Game?

An Alabama bill proposes a solution to the debate over the definition of marriage that, while not unique, is at least new to modern audiences: get government out of the way. The bill would end the practice of issuing marriage licenses. Instead of government telling you that you may marry, you would tell the government that you have married.

Some will argue that this bill is simply a response to the Supreme Court’s recent gay marriage ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. They’re not wrong. It’s hard to think that this bill would even exist without the Obergefell case bringing matters to a head. But so what? Legislatures routinely change laws in response to court decisions. Even if some supporting it are motivated by no more than the bitter taste of sour grapes, that’s hardly an argument that the proposal lacks merit.

IMG_1758
What should–and shouldn’t–the state do for the people? (Asheville, NC)

Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history at Evergreen State College has pointed out that marriage without the blessing/permission of government is not a new idea. Not until the 16th Century in Europe did the state take an active role in permitting marriages. Prior to that time the vow–not the law–created marriage. Even marriages that the church considered illicit (an exchange of vows outside the church) were still deemed marriages.  Coontz also notes that American colonies generally required only that marriages be registered. Until the mid-1800’s American States would still allow mere cohabitation as proof of marriage. Indiana continued to recognize common law marriages well into the 1950s.

People willing to leave public comments on the interwebs tend to say not-so-nice things about others as a rule, and opinion about the Alabama proposal was no different. “Stupid,” “1950s social values” and the inevitable comparison to separate drinking fountains dominated a recent comment section of a local news article. One commenter even said that the bill was an attempt to “dehumanize us.”  I assume this meant dehumanize gays, not dehumanize internet comments, which I don’t believe is even possible.

Is it really so surprising that proposed legislation would follow in the wake of such a landmark SCOTUS decision? Courts are not supposed to be active institutions, but reactive ones. Is judicial activism now so commonplace, and legislative complacency so rampant, that when a legislature—the entity actually elected to make changes to the law—engages in activism of its own the populace must cry foul?

*** On a side note, “Judicial activism” as an insult is quickly approaching Red Scare status. At some point after 1990, calling someone a socialist in polite society meant that reasonable people should question the accuser, not the accused. But at least that name-calling could be criticized as one-sided, since a socialist represented a particular political viewpoint, and so his attackers had an opposing view. “Judicial activism” is politically neutral activity in theory (if not in practice), and can apply equally to the substitution of any judicial view for the will of the legislature. But no matter. Like many perfectly accurate phrases before it, it’s sure to be deemed an antiquated, unfashionable dog whistle signaling some evil and unspoken larger meaning–though deciphering the meaning always seems to need a Rosetta Stone of political correctness. Its detractors will be sure to replace it with a slur far a more gentile, if less lucid. I, for one, will lament its complete unavailability at some point in the near future. So long, “Judicial activism,” we hardly knew ye.***

So who are the winners and losers if States start getting out of the marriage business entirely?

For some conservatives, a more passive role for the state may prevent them from choosing between violating their consciences and keeping government jobs. (Though if former IRS chief Lois Learner’s actions are any indication, righties aren’t much welcome as civil servants anyway).  For some liberals, the proposal would give them the freedom they seek, and then some. Not only would any two people be allowed to marry, it would be nearly impossible for the state to regulate how the marriage contract is entered into or who solemnizes it. And despite what an hour of MSNBC or FOX News would suggest, I suspect most gay couples aren’t really interested in using their wedding ceremony as political theater—knowing in their sunset years they will fondly think back on the day they tied the knot, expressed their commitment, and made that redneck probate clerk the subject of some serious HuffPo clickbait. No, for most people, it doesn’t work like that. Non-deranged folks want to marry surrounded by people happy for them, not someone resentful because the bronze bust representing the enduring legacy of Justice Kennedy needed polishing. (Just kidding! There’s no bust. It’s a life-sized Ronaldo-esque statue and on the first Monday each October, it is appeased with sacrifices of clerks from middling law schools.) It’s not sacrilege or lunacy for honest people on all sides to seriously consider removing the appendix of licensing marriages from the corpus of government. What does anyone have to lose?

The casual observer might assume that the Supreme Court’s decision ended the issue, and any further legislation is unhealthy because it keeps us fighting. The Obergefell decision does seem, on its face, to require states provide marriage licenses. However, the Court did not seem to contemplate a State not giving marriage licenses to anybody, but the Due Process implications of providing licenses to some citizens and not others.

Besides, the issue wasn’t even over when it was over. Despite the canard that plural marriages (polygamy) had no logical correlation to the gay marriage issue, such a debate is coming. Chief Justice Roberts anticipated as much in his dissent:

It is striking how much of the majority’s reasoning would apply with equal force to the claim of a fundamental right to plural marriage. If “[t]here is dignity in the bond between two men or two women who seek to marry and in their autonomy to make such profound choices,” . . .  why would there be any less dignity in the bond between three people who, in exercising their autonomy, seek to make the profound choice to marry?

In fact, the other shoe has already dropped. Less than a month after Obergefell, a Montana man, Nathan Collier, already voiced his intent to sue if he is denied a marriage license to marry a second wife, a contest he considers his own fight for “marriage equality.” More plural marriage proponents are sure to follow. USA Today recently cited a 2012 survey of 4,000 polyamorous individuals, and 66% reported being open to plural marriage. In the not-too-distant future, a trial judge with a polygamous marriage license application in one hand and Obergefell in the other may have only two choices: invalidate the state’s unconstitutional exclusion of plural marriage folks from marriage licensing requirements, or become . . . a judicial activist. (McCarthyism!)

But there are factions on both sides of the issue that won’t tolerate States bowing out of the marriage license game. Some gay marriage advocates won’t like this at all because it’s not freedom that they’re after. It’s state-sanctioned acceptance. To them, it’s not enough that their relationships merely be allowed. They must be approved. Like the bratty teenager who refuses to simply raid the liquor cabinet the weekend her parents are away, her self-worth demands she badger them with sophomoric rationalizations about why no sane society would restrict a sixteen year-old from downing Mad Dog 20/20 while Mom enjoys her after-dinner sherry.  Dad eventually gives in, though more from battle fatigue than persuasion. Her victory parade is complete when she boasts to her friends that she convinced her parents to finally see the righteousness of her cause.

Likewise, some gay marriage opponents will also oppose the new proposal. They remain committed to believing that official legal rejection of gay marriage is the only acceptable answer, however diminishing its chances. If the state licensing requirement disappears entirely, the clock will have run out on their cause, and the scoreboard’s tally is not in their favor.

For these loudest voices in the echo chamber, social reformation must trump personal freedom, for social reform cannot be a private affair. For them, the Alabama bill must be opposed. Angered at the prospect of winning without continuing the fight, (or losing without a rematch) their identity depends on dragging their opponent back onto the field for humiliation. No, this proposal just won’t do. The contest for marriage equality cannot be won by forfeit.

Finally, to libertarians, this may be a panacea. Imagine what society could do if government could just get out of the business of moralizing and back to legalizing weed. Wait–on second thought, forget libertarians. Maybe we should let the adults continue the conversation.

Of Ferguson and Ham Sandwiches

Aside from the usual noise over events in Ferguson, MO recently, which have lurched awkwardly from news(-ish) event coverage, to protest coverage, to riot coverage, I found two brief articles that shed light on the grand jury process. The Wall Street Journal has an article by Ashby Jones about the legal standards behind an officer’s use of force and how grand juries treat similar cases.  Over on SCOTUSBlog, Eric Citron writes about the use of exculpatory (defendant-friendly) evidence in grand jury proceedings. The grand jury is a mystery to most Americans, who have either forgotten what they learned in their ninth grade civics class, or were never taught about it. Of course, some of us are just too invested in Dancing With the Stars to learn about a part of the justice system that really should have seen its own “Schoolhouse Rock” song by now. (Spoiler: The Duck Dynasty girl came in second).

Themis 3439Interestingly, Citron notes that in federal prosecutions, grand juries rarely refuse to return an indictment. On its face, this is consistent with the famous quip attributed to New York Chief Judge Sol Watchler, that a prosecutor could “indict a ham sandwich” if he wanted. But the WSJ article quotes a criminal justice professor who claims that indictments against police officers for wrongful shootings are particularly difficult to obtain. Aside form the fact that Ferguson is a decidedly state-court matter and not a federal prosecution, it’s difficult to imagine the cause of the discrepancy. Why would grand juries, generally quick to return an indictment when a prosecutor presents evidence of probable cause, be particularly slow to do so when the target is a cop accused of wrongful or excessive use of force? Perhaps a reluctance to second-guess someone in a position of respect. Perhaps, as the WSJ notes, the test of whether the officer’s actions were “objectively reasonable in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them” insists that the jurors inspect the facts up-close, and allow some deference for the brief window of time in which officers are called to act.

Citron’s article suggests that Ferguson Prosecutor Robert McCulloch did not really pull out all the stops to get an indictment because he introduced evidence of both sides: witnesses and facts to support probable cause, and evidence which undermined the state’s case. The Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution does not require a prosecutor to present exculpatory evidence to a grand jury. It is, after all, not a test of guilt but a test of whether the facts support charging someone with a crime. Of course, withholding exculpatory evidence at trial–where guilt is determined–is another matter entirely and amounts to prosecutorial misconduct. But a grand jury is an internal proceeding.

Imagine a football coach wants to determine the skills of his team’s offense. One coach might evaluate the offense without anyone else on the field, making sure they know all the plays in the play book. Another coach might want to see how it looks against a competent defense, because he’s less concerned about running clean routes than facing a challenge, so he calls up a full scrimmage.  Which approach is better depends on the coach’s goals and which technique better prepares his team for the big game.

The same could be said of a prosecutor’s goals. Is he to secure indictments or convictions? While both are deterrents to crime, the indictment is a always a partial measure–a temporary inconvenience–embarrassing and costly and perhaps even offensive, but always minor compared to a conviction. There’s a reason that nobody ever said, “That loser dating my sister is an indicted felon!” Convicted felon is the preferred slur (though the phrase is actually redundant). Also, a prosecutor with 100 indictments and no convictions probably should be looking for a new gig. It’s the conviction, not the indictment, that is the expression of the state’s authority, the cop’s vindication, and the prosecutor’s ability to pay his mortgage.

But how best to convict the burglar, the banker, or the barista of a crime is the real puzzle. A grand jury evaluation unhindered by exculpatory evidence would more likely return an indictment, and thereby force a plea agreement, even where the state’s evidence is not overwhelming. The result? More convictions through volume.  On the other hand, indictments that have overcome a rugged and more rounded examination by the grand jury might be considered battle tested, and result in a stronger, more compelling case, either for trial or by bringing a defendant to the bargaining table. The result? More convictions through precision.

By presenting exculpatory evidence, Prosecutor McCullough undoubtedly made it more likely that the officer would not be indicted. But the non-indictment from the grand jury suggests he may have also prevented a long, drawn-out trial process that would only have ended in an acquittal. Comments on this approach portrayed McCullough as both hero and zero. The Huffington Post called his actions “bizarre,” while William I. Aronwald, a former assistant district attorney and federal prosecutor, said that McCullough handled the situation “perfectly.”

Reasonable people can disagree about whether the Ferguson grand jury made the right decision. But 70 hours of testimony is a substantial amount of information. I dare say the average critic–or blind supporter–of the decision probably has not read through it. I sure won’t. And since grand jury proceedings do not occur in a public forum, like a criminal jury trial does, all praise and criticism happens with a heightened level of ignorance. Even a dry transcript does not always give the full account of a witness’s testimony, and courts have long held that a witness’s demeanor is relevant to a jury’s evaluation of his truthfulness.

More importantly, grand jury decisions are not sweeping democratic policy statements, like Acts of Congress. Broad conclusions about culture, racial identity, or the landscape of what America has become–all perched atop a single grand jury decision–are precarious at best. Improving the justice system is a slow and tedious process, and the loudest voices in the Ferguson melee simply don’t have the patience for it. MSNBC and Twitter are ill-suited to the task. Those with a sincere interest in institutional changes that improve the justice system will use the voting booth, not the hashtag.

 

High Wire Risk and Daredevil Litigation

Nik Wallenda became the latest person to capture the nation’s attention with a crazy stunt that did not involve handing a microphone to Vice President Biden.

On Sunday, Nik Wallenda became the latest person to capture the nation’s attention with a crazy stunt that did not involve handing a microphone to Vice President Biden. In case you missed it, Wallenda successfully walked across the Chicago River on a wire some 50-stories up in the air. While the risk associated with crossing any street in Chicago is substantial these days, 5.8 million people will actually watch Wallenda.
chicago3
Normal people wonder at the bravery (or insanity) of Wallenda’s actions, or marvel at his skill. Lawyers, insurance adjusters, and PR agents tend to take a more gloomy view of human events. So, consider what a litigious people might do in the wake of the modern daredevil’s actions.

Scenario #1: Tragedy happens and the Wallendas sue the City, the State, and everybody else they can think of.

Most defendants would get out of this suit early, based on the extreme risk assumed by Wallenda. As it was, his most likely injury was probably carpal tunnel syndrome from all the liability waivers that he signed. However, if someone took on a special duty, like rigging the wire or other equipment, and the family could prove this contributed to the outcome, there might be some contractual violation. Such a contract would probably already limit the loss through liquidated damages, which are damages negotiated in advance in a contract.

chicago1Scenario #2: Tragedy happens and local TV crew witnesses horrific ending and sues its network and local affiliate for the emotional trauma.

At least some TV crews were required to sign a waiver explicitly prohibiting such a lawsuit in the event of a tragedy. But even without such a magic bean, it’s doubtful that a suit like this would get far. A TV reporter has a certain assumed risk to the facts or events that he or she may witness.

Scenario #3: Tragedy happens and the FCC fines the Discovery channel for a violation of broadcast guidelines.

The FCC has no jurisdiction over cable programming directly, but any over-the-air station that carried the event live could be subject to fines which the station may or may not successfully pass along to Discovery. For its part, Discovery ran a 10 second delay in the broadcast, just in case.

Scenario #4: The State of Illinois fines the City and/or the Wallendas for failing to put up a net.

This one might have some teeth, if the state fined the person or entity truly responsible. The ABC affiliate in Chicago noted this curiosity:

Chicago city officials ignored a state law requiring safety nets for aerial acts higher than 20 feet, saying the law wasn’t intended for “elite” performers.

Ignored. Not “applied for a waiver to” or “found an arguable loophole for.” Simply ignored. If it weren’t Chicago, that part of the story may have caused a bit more of a stir than it did. It’s unclear whether the city or the performer is ultimately responsible for the violation, or the penalties. Either way, the violation seems undisputed. Of course, since no tragedy happened, it will almost certainly be forgotten. But if Chicago can get the deceased behind the curtain on polling day, whose to say the State of Illinois wouldn’t issue a fine to Wallenda for this violation if something had gone wrong?

Scenario #5: A random woman’s reaction to the successful stunt, filmed by the Discovery Channel, becomes a successful, if embarrassing, internet gif.

Assuming the woman was not in a private place when her image was taken, she’s probably going to lose. The right to privacy does not extend to my right not to be photographed or videoed in a public place. If I’m walking down the street, photos of me are fair game. If that’s not enough, the Discovery Channel certainly had its bases covered on the scene:chicago2

The Not-So-Grand Inquisitor: Equal Justice and Police Interrogations in Indiana

Much of what passes for interesting reading for lawyers is just mind-numbingly tedious procedural minutia to everyone else. But the recent Bond v. State decision from the Indiana Supreme Court actually poses some questions that non-lawyers might find interesting, too.  At issue is how far police can go when using deceptive methods to obtain a confession from a suspect. The case has ignited much discussion in legal circles about criminal justice, police investigatory techniques, and race.

Suppose the police suspect Bert and Ernie of robbing a liquor store and shooting a clerk in the process, and the detectives arrest them both and put them in separate holding areas. They question Bert, and then Ernie. Then they return to Bert and tell him that Ernie has already confessed and if Bert would only fess up too, the prosecutor would be more likely to recommend a lenient sentence to the judge.

Of course, anyone who has seen Law & Order (or has an extremely cynical take on Sesame Street) knows that Ernie has not confessed. The police are lying to Bert. And there are endless variations on this lie. The police could claim to have Bert’s fingerprints.  Or that the liquor store clerk identified his photo from his hospital bed. Or that a surveillance video from the pawn shop across the street clearly identifies Bert and Ernie leaving the liquor store’s parking lot. The U.S. Supreme Court held long ago that the police may use deceptive methods when interrogating witnesses. Frazier v. Cupp, 394 U.S. 731 (1969).

ImageBut are there limits on deceptive police techniques? Sure. Imagine that the officer questioning Bert tells him that someone in the next room has Big Bird strapped to a car battery and standing in a bucket of water, and that the only choices that Bert has now are, “original, extra crispy, or confession.” So Bert signs the confession. Isn’t this just another deception used to trick him into confessing? No. In this case, Bert’s confession is coerced. Bert isn’t tricked into confessing, he’s forced into confessing. Big difference.  A permissible deception can’t trick an innocent person into confessing–at least in theory.  If Bert and Ernie are innocent, then the police assertion that Ernie “has already confessed” will only be met with bewilderment by Bert. However, threats to the life of Big Bird would cause even an innocent Bert to confess.

As long as Bert’s confession is not coerced or forced, then Bert’s motivation for making the confession can legally be based on a false premise, even a false premise the police create.

So how was Bond v. State noteworthy? In the Bond case, the detective told Bond that he would not receive a fair trial from people in Schererville and Crown Point because he is black.

While both the trial court and the Court of Appeals found the officer’s behavior deplorable, neither could say that it was illegal.  Since it was not illegal, the confession was admissible as evidence against Bond. However, the Indiana Supreme Court is more suited to make law than lower courts, and to consider the broader policy implications of rules of court procedure. In this case, the Court found that the technique of suggesting that Bond could not receive a fair trail because of his race was fundamentally different than a deception about the evidence against him. “[I]n this case Bond was intentionally deceived as to the fairness of the criminal justice system itself because of the color of his skin,” the Court noted.  It also said:

Regardless of the evidence held against him or the circumstances of the alleged crime, [Bond] was left with the unequivocal impression that because he was African American he would spend the rest of his life in jail. Unless he confessed. And in unfortunate days gone by, this might have been the case. But no one wants to go back to such a time or place in the courtroom, and so we will not allow even the perception of such inequality to enter the interrogation room.

Courts are normally utilitarian in their use of words, which seldom affords them the opportunity to be truly artful within a court opinion, but the Bond case was different than most. It provided an historic platform to look back at the progress of equal access to justice, and speak for–and to–the ages.  The Court continued:

As Dr. King did, we likewise “refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Acceptance Speech at Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony (December 10, 1964). We simply cannot and will not risk this going further, and therefore draw a firm line today.

Thus . . . this deception by the detective tips the scale to involuntariness. We cannot tacitly countenance the erosion of everything so many have worked so hard to achieve in the realm of racial equality in the justice system—and continue to work to achieve—by disapproving of the statement but finding Bond’s confession nevertheless admissible.

As a practical matter, Bond’s confession is now inadmissible.  If Bond did commit a crime, the State will have to find other evidence if it wants to convict him.

A recent entry in the Indiana Law Blog described the feedback from the legal community surrounding this case.  One comment identified what it considered the “elephant in the room” of the Court’s opinion: was the representation the detective made true? What if Bond really can’t get a fair trial from a jury drawn from Schererville and Crown Point? This is not to single out any one community. Indiana’s racial history certainly has its jagged edges, and many of us have anecdotal evidence of racism, often associated–correctly or not–with entire communities. The point to ponder is whether such a technique is really a police deception at all if it’s true.

Another commenting attorney made the point that he has advised African-American clients that certain communities would be more likely to convict based on race, and that those clients have accepted plea agreements more readily as a result. So, the argument goes, how can it be unacceptable for a police detective to advise a criminal defendant of something that his own lawyer might say?  And is the lawyer to be reprimanded for his actions, or commended for frank and wise counsel to his clients?

In some respects, racial equality in the justice system is a victim of its own success. When racism was more widely accepted, objective evidence that a community would spawn racist juries would have been easier to come by. Today, racism is so widely condemned that it’s simply not possible to prove that a given community will always–or event predominantly–produce racially biased juries. So all we will ever have is anecdotal evidence, the “I knew a guy who . . .” stuff that legends are made of.

My support of the Bond decision does not require quantifying racially biased juries. If an African-American would confess, or accept a plea agreement more quickly, for fear that a jury would be racially motivated to convict him, then we need not prove actual racial bias in the justice system because the specter of racial bias has already caused harm.  Like a self-fulfilling prophesy, the fear of biased juries causes certain defendants to exercise less than the full panoply of rights given them by law, which is a harm all its own. The fear of biased results begets biased results. For a police officer–the embodiment of state power–to invoke that fear is inconsistent with the promise of equal justice under law.

If you’d like to sit in on more of this debate, the Supreme Court’s oral arguments are available online.

When I Want Your Opinion, I’ll Give it to You.

I’m all for a law that bans annoyances, as long as I get to decide what’s annoying.

Last week, Grand Rapids, Michigan made news by repealing its “annoying” law.  That is, the law that made it illegal to be annoying, not that the law itself was annoying.  But then I suppose it would have been annoying for anyone prosecuted under the law.  The City attorney thought the law was unworkable, and she was right. Subjective standards tend to work about as well in courts as they do anyplace else, which is to say, not well at all.

NFL Fan: “Wait a minute, he caught that ball!”

NFL Rules Nazi: “No, he has to make a ‘football move’ after he catches it.”

NFL Fan: “What the heck is a ‘football move’!?  He has to bring a handgun to a nightclub before it’s a catch?  That seems arbitrary.”

Not that annoying behavior should be condoned in a civilized society. I’m all for a law that bans annoyances, as long as I get to decide what’s annoying.  To that end, I would humbly suggest the following behavior as falling well within any legal definition of “annoying”:

1.    Using the word literally in a way that demonstrates you clearly do not know what the word means.
2.    Selfies. Because friends don’t let friends hold their own cameras.
3.    Air quotes.
4.    Commenting on someone’s Facebook status about yourself. That’s what your status update is for.
5.    Refusing to make a McGriddle at 10:35 A.M. It’s only 10:35, lady!.
6.    Claiming in public to have “moves like Jagger” without, in fact, having moves like Jagger.
7.    Using the term “hashtag” out loud in everyday conversation.
8.    Kale.
9.    Pretending any of the following are words in the English language: guestimate, irreguardless, ginormous, or (my new personal favorite), flustrated.

But since nobody made me the benevolent dictator today, I’ll have to have a somewhat smaller role in shaping laws–a single vote among many.  And as long as Americans run a representative democracy, laws will reflect society’s values, albeit imperfectly.  Like a fun-house mirror, there are always some distortions.

Why must everyone be so annoying?
Why is everyone so annoying? There should be a law.

American history in general, and its legislative history in particular, is a mish-mash of discarded experiments that we recall with equal parts nostalgia and embarrassment–like looking back at a high school yearbook. 

I can’t believe that mullet I had!

I should’ve been better friends to that guy.

Did he really wear MC Hammer pants to the homecoming dance?

Sometimes our law-making past can seem unfathomable in the harsh light of the present day. The 18th Amendment, passed in 1919, ushered in an era of Prohibition. Not because the tiny but powerful minority of interests represented in the cabal of Big Tea wanted it that way, but because many Americans wanted it that way. While Prohibition is widely considered a failure because so many people circumvented the law, and because it likely contributed to crime rates, it did not fail to represent the will of many Americans.  By the same token, its repeal by the 21st Amendment was also a fair representation of the views on alcohol over a decade later. Sometimes law-making demonstrates how fickle we are.  Or how flexible we are, depending on whether one considers it a vice or a virtue.

Sometimes the rear view mirror of law-making presents a lesson about culture.  Blue laws, such as the ban on the sale of automobiles on Sunday in Indiana, suggest a time before religious convictions were deemed categorically ineligible as a basis for expressing public opinion.  Sometimes, it’s a lesson about shame.  Many parents in the last thirty years have awkwardly explained to their kids why some Americans had separate lunch counters in the later half of the twentieth century.

There’s nothing unpatriotic about hindsight that brings regret. It’s part of maturation. But let’s regret our decisions, not our freedom to make them.  Most places on earth only know laws through the eye of the despot, or the boot of his will. If you think a law that bans annoying behavior is subjective, then imagine the cruel arbitrary nature of laws selected by just one person–instead of the representatives of two-hundred and fifty million.  Imagine every law, rule, or regulation coming down to the personal preference of the one with the most guns. Or oil. Or food. Now that’s arbitrary. But for most of the world’s inhabitants, that’s reality.

A couple of years back, the UK magazine The Telegraph ranked the world’s worst cities to live in.  The dubious honor of making the top ten went to such Shangri-La destinations as: Tehran (Iran); Tripoli (Libya); and Harare (Zimbabwe).  I can only assume that Pyongyang (N. Korea) didn’t make the list because the Telegraph figured that having Dennis Rodman as a semi-permanent house guest was punishment enough and they didn’t want to pile-on.  It’s no coincidence that the arbitrary law-making process in despotic regimes produces oppression and misery.

Democratic law-making is no guarantee of success, but it has the capacity for self-correction and it shields against impulsive laws.  Something tells me that Kim Jong-Un could make a law requiring everyone to wear REO Speedwagon muscle shirts on Tuesdays and still nobody would call him out.

I know if that happened here, I would be very, very flustrated.

Ind. Legislative Action Not Involving the You-Know-What Amendment

Vapor doesn’t have the lung cancer-causing impact of cigarettes because–wait for it–they aren’t cigarettes.

Just in case you were wondering, there are a few things going on in the Indiana General Assembly that have nothing to do with HJR 3, the Resolution formerly known as HJR 6.  Here, in no particular order, are some goings on under the dome.

**********

Bill: HB 1141
Boring Name: Methamphetamine Lab Disclosures in Property Sales House List.
Fun Name: Meth House. (♪It’s a meth . . . house. It’s mighty-mighty. Just letting it all hang out.♪)

Summary: If any house is used for meth-manufacturing purposes, it would go on a list maintained by the state police. It comes off the list 90 days after it is declared clean. The law also requires homeowners to disclose if a property has been used to manufacture meth.

What’s good: Presumably nobody wants to buy a house that has undiscovered anhydrous ammonia in the spare bedroom closet just waiting for a chance freeze your appendages off.

What’s not-so-good: It seems duplicative or unnecessary.  The State already licenses home inspectors.  Couldn’t consumers start to demand that a meth-house check be part of an adequate home inspection?  Couldn’t banks that finance home purchases demand that title searches–which already search for judgments in various databases–also inquire with law enforcement about any manufacturing history?  Of course.  If the market already demands something, and there are no legal prohibitions to providing it, the market tends to get what it wants.  This well-intentioned bill will create another special inspector. And in a housing market that needs to decrease transaction costs, this will have the opposite effect–making it more difficult to buy and sell houses, particularly in rural and poor urban neighborhoods.  Even property with zero contamination will not be sold until someone has paid the costs of an inspection.

**********
StatehouseBill: HB 1174
Boring Name: Taxation of Electronic Cigarettes
Fun Name: If it Quacks Like a Duck, Tax it Like a Duck.

Summary: Vapor-producing machines, commonly called “electronic cigarettes” would be taxed just like cigarettes.

What’s good: This is the closest Indiana has come since it’s controversial state-wide smoking ban to showing respect for smokers, of sorts, in that it promises to tax them at the same level once they become former smokers. Ah, parity.

What’s not-so-good: Whatever one’s reaction to the word “tax,” taxing goods to raise revenue is at least logical. Taxing behavior to offset the state’s costs of cleaning up after that behavior is also logical.  This tax is neither. About 2.5 million people in the entire country use e-cigarettes, and even assuming Indiana’s trends are equal to the entire country, that’s just over 50,000 people in Indiana using vapor machines. So a few bucks a month from a population roughly the size of Elkhart Indiana is hardly a budget-saving measure. Nor can the state be jumping in to protect consumers from health dangers of water vapor, unless dumber-than-dirt teens are putting their faces over boiling pans of water hoping to “ride the vape” high. On second thought, give it time.  That’ll probably happen.

Instead, this measure seems designed to keep the perceived competitor (e-cigs) from having a significant cost advantage over conventional cigarettes because its customers would otherwise not have to pay taxes.  Vapor pens are what economists call “substitute goods” which are a natural part of how markets respond to innovation. Vapor doesn’t have the lung cancer-causing impact of cigarettes because–wait for it–they aren’t cigarettes. They don’t contain tobacco. Come on, why should a little thing like not actually being cigarettes stop them from being taxed like cigarettes?  Right. That’s a bit like taxing bicycles like cars just because someone might choose to ride a bike to work instead of driving.  Nevermind that bicycles don’t cause potholes, and don’t pollute.  They commit a greater sin.  They compete.

On July 1, 2012, when Indiana relegated smoking to private homes, clubs, outdoors (sometimes) and at least 8 feet from every door in the state, we were told that public health was paramount.  Apparently, that concern does not extend to the state’s tax policy, as taxing vapor machines will create a completely artificial disincentive to those trying to kick the habit. Dear Hoosier Health Crusaders: You’ll have to speak louder. I can’t hear you over these these crickets.

**********
Bill: HB 1351
Boring Name: Welfare matters; drug testing.
Fun Name: Keep a stash, get no cash.

Summary: Some TANF recipients would be required to undergo drug testing.  Those who fail the tests could risk losing benefits if they refuse to seek treatment for addictions.  Those supporting the law believe it will weed out (pun intended) drug users from the deserving welfare recipients.  Opponents claim that the costs will exceed the savings achieved.

What’s good: Someone is still willing to put it in writing that using drugs is bad.  And paying people to use drugs is idiocy.

What’s not-so good: While I’m not sure the “this experiment has failed in other states” criticism takes the deterrent effect into account, it is not hard to imagine that the costs of drug testing would exceed the benefits that can be measured.  Instead of creating a new program, we should find a way to use metrics already known and inexpensively gathered, like drug convictions, serving as a basis to limit or monitor benefits.

UPDATE:  As if reading my mind, I noticed today that the bill has been amended to include only those with drug convictions within the prior 10 years.  Probably to lower costs.

**********
Bill: SB 101
Boring Name: Agriculture Operations and Criminal Trespass
Fun Name: Ag Gag

Summary: Undercover videotaping of farm activities would be a crime.  Recent changes limit the crime to situations in which a trespasser causes property damage.

What’s good: Protection of private property, though last year’s version had more teeth.

What’s not-so-good: The limitation of the crime to incidents that have caused property damage seems to effectively gut this bill.  It’s already a crime to cause property damage.  And it’s already a crime to trespass.  Surely creating a new category of crime by doing them both at the same time is a not a net benefit.

**********
Bill: HB 1143
Boring Name: Environmental Rules and Standards
Fun Name: The IDEM Leash

Summary: Prohibits the Indiana Department of Environmental Management from adopting any rule or standard that is more stringent what its federal equivalent.

What’s good: Consistency.  While Indiana can’t prevent the feds from doing anything, it can give businesses and individuals some predictability in knowing that IDEM’s rules won’t be more restrictive than their federal counterparts.

What’s not-so-good: If this becomes law, expect significant litigation.  Interest groups will parse the shades of meaning in the ample volumes of federal environmental regulation to fight over what is or is not more restrictive than the fed’s version.