Will States Restrain the Federal Government?

The United States Constitution reserves all powers, not explicitly delegated to the federal government, to the states and the people.  Since each state is a sovereign entity, why do they tolerate such an enormous federal government?

A state government has real incentives to resist the encroachment of the federal government: Every dollar that the feds take in taxes is a dollar that the state can no longer use for its political purposes.  The feds can take that money and redistribute it for the benefit of other states.  Or the feds can use it as a “carrot,” only remitting the tax revenue to states when they comply with the wishes of the feds.  Either way, federal taxation takes power away from the states.  But the Constitution clearly gives states the authority to retain this power, except insofar as the federal government is spending it on a very limited set of enumerated activities.

If there was any doubt before, the recent “bailout” plans show the federal government plainly exceeding its enumerated powers.  Mark Sanford, Governor of South Carolina, is asserting that point, and suggesting that his state should not take any of this money.

The Pennsylvania state legislature is also considering a resolution that would “put the federal government on notice,” and serve as a preamble to repealing all extra-constitutional federal laws and taxes.

So long as the federal government is taxing and spending outside of its enumerated powers, the states would be justified in nullifying the taxation and prosecution of their citizens.  It would be quite easy for a state like South Carolina or Pennsylvania to simply announce that it is indemnifying its citizens against the claims of the IRS.  If the federal government threatened to send agents into a state to forcibly collect unjust taxes or imprison citizens who did not pay them, the state could not only call out its sheriffs and militia to defend its citizens, but it could also appeal to other states or countries for assistance in maintaining its sovereignty.  If the federal government tried to impound assets held outside of that state, the state could seize the assets of the federal government or its beneficiaries for recompense.

In practice, because the states are in fact sovereign entities, and because the federal government is in fact constitutionally restrained, it is likely that the mere assertion of a state’s rights would be sufficient to put the federal government back in line.  Governor Sanford: It only takes one state to start!

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Rethinking Prison

I previously lamented our society’s increasing dependence on imprisonment as a means of providing “justice.”

Anthony Gregory has an excellent discussion of this issue in the context of the current California prison system.

It seems clear that American-style imprisonment is an ineffective form of justice: It does provide deterrence to most criminals, but in general it is a poorly tailored punishment (except, perhaps, with respect to crimes of kidnapping).  It does not effectively reform criminals — in fact, it often seems to harden them.  It does not protect society from the criminally disposed, except when they are given life sentences.  And it certainly does not serve any interests of restitution, as Gregory notes:

Each prisoner costs taxpayers thirty-five thousand a year. Victims are not made whole, but forced to foot the bill to house their perpetrators. The state used to have some restitution centers through which white-collar convicts could work and pay back their victims as well as some of their detention costs—but these were closed down last month. State officials said the program was too expensive. Only government could lose more money making people work than just locking them up, feeding and clothing them.

Reform is a difficult problem, and tailored punishment may be easy (and fun) in principle but we can leave that for another discussion.  If society feels justified in taking away the freedom of convicts, why can’t it profitably employ them?

Evidently government cannot profit from slave labor, but surely for-profit enterprises can.  There has been a lot of criticism of “for-profit prisons,” but those are not what I have in mind.  For-profit prisons simply try to do in a more cost-effective manner what government prisons do, which is to confine and care for large populations of criminals. They are not permitted to exploit prisoners as slave labor.

Unfortunately, twentieth-century Russian Communists gave penal labor a bad name (“Gulag”).  But that doesn’t mean that a more open and capitalist society like ours can’t profit from prisoners within reasonable bounds of justice.

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Why flu spreads more during winter

Shaman & Kohn are getting a lot of press for their article documenting a correlation between absolute humidity (AH) and flu virus transmission and survival.  But it was already well established that flu incidence peaks during the winter.  Shaman & Kohn have merely “rediscovered” this fact through a correlated variable: Apparently nobody covering their article is aware that AH and outside air temperature are nearly perfectly correlated on a seasonal scale.

Humidity itself is an interesting subject: For a given temperature and pressure there is an absolute limit to how much moisture air can hold.  The hotter the air, the higher that limit.  Relative Humidity (RH) indicates the ratio of actual water vapor to theoretical water vapor in the air.  When air is cooled, holding all else constant, RH increases because the capacity of the air for holding water decreases with temperature.  When RH hits 100% and the air is cooled further the moisture begins to condense right out of the air.

This presents all sorts of problems for indoor air quality.  Ideal indoor relative humidity is 30-50%.  Any higher and fungus begins to thrive.  Any lower and humans begin to dry out, which leads to health problems, some of which we’ll come to shortly.  During the summer even relatively dry outdoor air can hold enough water vapor to cause elevated humidity when cooled to comfortable indoor levels.  Fortunately modern air conditioners include condensers that remove enough moisture from the air they cool to keep humidity in line.  But many houses still have problems in basements, which are naturally kept cool by underground heat mass: As the outside summer air makes its way inside and cools in the basement, its relative humidity shoots up.  Without dehumidifiers basements get that musty smell indicative of fungus thriving on the moisture.

In the winter we have the opposite problem: Cold winter air, even at 100% humidity, dries out as it is heated indoors.  Without artificial humidifiers the RH of heated air can fall to single digits, which is drier than many deserts.  Humans acclimated to more temperate weather do not handle dry air well: their skin and sinuses dry out and crack.  Dry mucus membranes are more vulnerable to pathogens.  Which is why the onset of winter in temperate climates causes a spike in influenza: Eyes and noses are irritated from the dry air, so people are constantly touching them, sneezing, and coughing.  If that weren’t enough to get pathogens out of their body and onto their hands, then when they go outside the cold gives them a runny nose.  Now everyone’s hands are covered in respiratory pathogens, and they’re constantly putting their hands near the dried out mucus membranes those pathogens crave to infect.

No surprises here: Humidify your air during the winter to protect your respiratory membranes.  Wash your hands and keep them away from your face when they haven’t been washed.

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Shareholders Face Tyranny of the Majority Too

Democracy suffers from a fundamental flaw known as the Tyranny of the Majority.  Carl Icahn today points out that corporations, as currently organized, suffer the same hazard: A large shareholder (an institutional investor in his example) can vote for management that acts in its special interest, and counter to the general interests of other shareholders.

[M]any institutions have a vested interest in supporting [particular corporate] managements. It is the management that decides where to allocate their company’s pension plans and 401(k) funds. And while there are institutions that do care about shareholder rights, unfortunately there are others that are loath to vote against the very managements that give them valuable mandates to manage billions of dollars.

In practice it doesn’t even take a literal majority to win votes: When the potential gains for a special interest far outweigh the costs to everyone else, the majority often does not muster enough energy to cast the scrutiny and opposition necessary to defeat the special interest.  (I previously called this phenomenon the Tyranny of Special Interests.)

Reasonable Security and Asymmetric Threats

I see the “cell phone gun” Email is circulating again, encouraging Americans to acquiesce in government’s efforts to disarm them in “sensitive” places like airplanes and schools.  I am not phased:  A disguised device that can launch four subsonic .22 caliber bullets?  That doesn’t scare me any more than a homicidal man wielding a few sharp pens.

And it certainly doesn’t justify the indiscriminate harassment and disarmament of the public at “security checkpoints.”  Excluding areas where the government has disarmed people (e.g., schools), no shooting rampage in the United States has produced casualties greater than those that have been produced by homicidal individuals wielding knives or cars in other incidents.  Clearly, when anyone can be armed, firearms, knives, and other traditional (megawatt class) weapons do not pose an asymmetric threat.

In another discussion I explained what I mean by asymmetric weapons:


[A]n individual with a truck bomb is asymmetric: Your next door neighbor could surreptitiously build and detonate one, and … conceivably get away with it.  And even if he were connected to the crime how can you hold one man to account for the wanton murder of hundreds?  There is no way to deter, defend against, punish, or seek redress from an average guy who snaps and has ready means to commit a truck bombing.

Contrast this with firearms: Yes, psychopaths arm themselves and launch shooting sprees.  But individuals can and do deter and defend against such acts by arming themselves with guns.  In the worst case a gunman kills a few people before being stopped, which is not out of proportion to the punishment that can be meted out to him.


The only threats worth screening for in public places are the asymmetric ones: chemical weapons and explosives.  Current countermeasures for these are alarmingly weak.

If government stopped gate-raping airline passengers looking for knives and guns they could devote more resources to catching the truly asymmetric threats.  After all, if citizens weren’t deprived of their fundamental right of self defense when they board a commercial aircraft then any goons who tried to make trouble would expect to be promptly shot by any number of fellow passengers carrying concealed firearms.  But if somebody sneaks a bomb onto a plane and detonates it in the air there is no way to prevent the death of everyone on board.

Progress on Tobacco Regulation

In 2007 I noted that the FDA was opposed to innovative tobacco products (e.g., snus) that allow addicts to dose themselves without smoking the plant.  Turns out it wasn’t just the U.S. government: This article notes that much of the EU, Australia, and New Zealand have banned snuff and snus, for dubious reasons.  Their rules effectively say, “You can sell tobacco, but only if it is designed to be consumed in the most unhealthy and offensive fashion possible: by smoking.”

Meanwhile, as far as I can tell the U.S. has come around to a more sane policy since smokeless tobacco products are now proliferating here.