CO141 Fletcher Armstrong on the Underpinnings of the Case Against Abortion

Fletcher Armstrong is the south east director of the Center for Bioethical Reform.


Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another; for this illness seemed to strike through the breath and sight. And so they died. And none could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship. Members of a household brought their dead to a ditch as best they could, without priest, without divine offices … great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead. And they died by the hundreds both day and night … And as soon as those ditches were filled more were dug … And I, Agnolo di Tura … buried my five children with my own hands. And there were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city. There was no one who wept for any death, for all awaited death. And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world.

That’s a quote from the Italian chronicler Agnolo di Tura about the effects of the Black Death, which did a deadly circuit of Europe in the 1340s and 1350s, killing perhaps a third of the population or more. It returned at various intervals for centuries, causing more localized but sometimes just as deadly epidemics. But don’t let that get you too paranoid, this disease can be now easily cured with antibiotics, which weren’t available in the fourteenth century.

Nevertheless, the Black Death is something that still haunts the culture of Europe and beyond. The danse macabre, with its awkward dancing skeletons, is still a common image, as is that of the plague doctor, with the black gown and long beak-like plague mask.

The southern German village of Oberammergau still follows a vow that they would faithfully perform a Passion Play, reenacting biblical stories, every decade if they were spared the plague that was ravaging the area in the 1630s.

But even more influential, for an event that happened nearly 700 years ago, are the social and economic effects of the Black Death. The poor died more than the rich in the Black Death, there’s a surprise, they died more because they lived in much closer quarters, allowing much more contagion, and didn’t have the luxury of isolating themselves in castles or country houses.

But in the years after the plague subsided, the tables turned. Feudal Europe’s power structures were reversed when laborers realized that there was an abundance of farmland, all owned by the rich, and the food that it produced, but a shortage of workers. That shift of power dynamics in the market meant that peasants could negotiate a much better deal for themselves with the landholders they were previously tied to. This greatly destabilized feudalism, and can be seen as the starting point for many of the changes that came in Europe in the following centuries.

Some scholars have even attributed Italian Renaissance to the effects on society of the Black Death. That’s a bit above my pay grade, but it’s not unusual for economists to attribute big advances in society and the economy to apparently destructive upheavals.

The comparative success of the German economy, compared to Britain in the aftermath of World War II is seen as ironic, given that the British won the war and the Germans lost, but it’s not that surprising. The total destruction of Germany meant that old power structures were thrown out.

To a significant extent, people who got rich in that period in Germany started out with nothing, and got rich because of their talents and efforts. In Britain, whose class system was not disrupted by defeat, you got rich if your parents were rich. That meant that enterprise was rewarded in Germany, stagnation was rewarded in Britain. Not so surprising that Germany did better.

It looks like we’re going into another upheaval now, hopefully not nearly as dramatic. But even if the pandemic fades quickly, there are likely to be lasting effects. An obvious one is the demand for healthcare reform in the United States. The full effects of the virus are by no means clear in the US, or anywhere else for that matter, but the hugely inflated cost of healthcare, and its inaccessibility to millions of people is coming under pressure like never before.

In the UK, the outgoing Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn claimed that the virus response had proven that he had won the argument, in the election that he lost so spectacularly, he had won the argument for big government and big spending programs. That’s more than a little self-regarding, but has a point that government programs that so many conservative and centre-right European countries were very recently saying were completely impossible, they are doing them now. Requisitioning hospitals, housing people who were sleeping on the streets, giving significant cash handouts to people who have lost their jobs, banning evictions and rent increases.

I’m reading some dire predictions of the possible death toll in the United States. I’m hoping they aren’t true, but if those deaths are to be avoided, it will mean saving people’s lives with hugely expensive treatment to people who are un- or under-insured, and the only way to do that is with the federal government action. And once that’s done, it’s going to be difficult to argue that it’s impossible to do.

CO140 Amanda Starbuck on Protecting Necessities

Amanda Starbuck is a senior food researcher and policy analyst at Food & Water Watch.


I’ve talked about the other thing a couple of times already, but I’m sure you’ve heard enough about it by now, and there’s nothing extra that I can say that hasn’t already been said, so let’s talk about something else.

Let’s talk about the state of the world and its people. Bear in mind that life expectancy in the US in the year 1900 was about 48. Thinking of all the countries in the world, taking into account the huge populations of the poor countries in Africa and Asia, what would you guess is the average life expectancy of people today? 50 years? 60 Years? No, the average across the whole world is now 70.

And again, across the whole world, what percent of the population do you think has access to electricity? The answer is 80 per cent. And if you had to guess what percent of children had at least some of their vaccinations? Again, across the planet, the answer is 80 per cent.

Finally, if you had to guess, over the last hundred years, taking into account the massive population explosion we’ve had, what has happened to the number of people – the absolute number, not the proportion – the number of people who die each year in natural disasters; has it more than doubled? Stayed the same? In fact, that number has more than halved.

All these figures come from a book by the Swedish academic Hans Rosling, and he formulated them to show us that sometimes, things are much better than we think they are, and in particular, for all our cynicism, things can and do get better. Lots better.

By those metrics that he chooses, the average person in the world today is vastly better off than the average person was in the United States a hundred years ago.

More children – much, much more children – are getting educated, much more people are getting basic healthcare, much more people have access to the basics of comfort that the whole of humanity went without for almost all of our existence.

Sometimes we can be terribly stupid, but on the whole, humans are clever and creative. We can solve problems. We can make our lives better. That makes it all the more tragic when we don’t, but on the whole, we’re doing better, lots better than we were, and often way better than we actually think we are doing. Sometimes we create terrible problems, but we can solve problems too, and we do solve them, and maybe with that whole loss aversion thing in our mentality, we remember our failures better our successes.

That music you can hear in the background is the Italian resistance anthem, Bella Ciao. It’s being played by the National Theatre Orchestra of Serbia.

But this is a recital with a difference. They’re playing together, but they’re not together. The recital was recorded over a live video call with a conductor, and dozens of musicians each playing from their own home.

This technology would have been unimaginable just a decade ago, now we take it for granted that it’s in billions of people’s pockets. Wash your hands.

CO139 Demetrius Minor on Being a Black Conservative

Demetrius Minor is a member of the national advisory council of the Project 21 Black Leadership Network.

He is also the associate producer of the nationally-syndicated “Stacy on the Right” talk radio show. In addition to writing that has been featured in The Washington Times, and  by FreedomWorks, Demetrius is the author of the book Preservation and Purpose: The Making of a Young Millennial and a Manifesto for Faith, Family and Politics.


I talked about the Corona virus a few weeks back, and I mentioned that it could turn out to be nothing significant, or a real problem, or a global pandemic. Clearly one of those three options is no longer on the table.

I’m not a medic, and I’m certainly not an expert on infectious diseases, so I don’t want to comment on something I don’t know much about, you can get that from any barstool bore. But I do know a bit about statistics, and I think that I’ve spotted something that isn’t being reported, or at least not reported very widely.

After China, two of the worst-hit countries are South Korea, and Italy. That’s handy because these countries are quite alike in economic and population terms, and that allows us to make comparisons, but they are very different in social terms. I know that Iran is reporting a similar number of cases, but Iran is a closed country with a very different economy, and it’s hard to get reliable information so I’m not including it here.

South Korea and Italy have a lot of similarities, they have roughly the same population, 50 million and 60 million, they are both wealthy developed countries, both in the OECD, with advanced economies. And they’re both reporting high levels of Corona virus – about 15 per hundred thousand in South Korea, about 30 per hundred thousand in Italy.

But there is one statistic where they diverge sharply. The death rate. In Italy, the death rate currently stands well over seven per cent. In South Korea it’s 0.9 per cent. Get that, Italy is reporting a death rate from the disease, the same disease, that is eight times higher than in South Korea.

To understand what’s going on, I want to go to a book called Risk by Professor John Adams. Checking it on Google here, I see that Adams has put the entire book online for free, which is nice of him, I’ll link to that on the website. The book is about risk, and he tries to do things like understand the risks of driving, for which he needed an accurate measurement of road crashes. Where do you get that? Police reports?

Adams analyzed road crash data in the UK – he’s British – and he found interesting anomalies. For example, the death rate for reported road crashes is much higher in rural Scotland than it is in the centre of London. In fact he could demonstrate a dose-response effect where the further you were from built-up areas, the more likely a crash was to be fatal. Why? Well, could be that when you are far from the rescue services, you are more likely to die of your injuries? Or that people drive differently in isolated rural areas, causing more fatalities?

That’s possible, but that didn’t explain a different phenomenon. On days that there was a terrorist attack in London, the total number of road crashes reported in the city dropped sharply. What could cause that? People being extra careful? People staying at home on days that a terrorist attack was in the news? Maybe, but probably not, because although the rate of crashes apparently dropped, the rate of fatal road crashes didn’t change at all.

Adams goes through the figures in much more detail, and his conclusion is that the number of crashes doesn’t change at all, what changes is the reporting rate. On days that police are called away from their stations in great numbers, and the ones that remain are incredibly busy, people don’t bother them by reporting minor road crashes. But the more serious the crash, the more likely it is to get reported anyway, and of course if someone dies, then it is almost certain to be reported.

Similarly, if you live in a remote area of rural Scotland, you could be hours away from the nearest police station, and therefore you are less likely to report minor fender-benders, but the more serious the crash, the more likely you will be to make the effort. So the apparent effect of crashes being more likely to be fatal in Scotland isn’t true at all, it’s an artifact of a totally different statistical effect.

I think we could be seeing the same effect in Italy now. Remember, South Korea and Italy, similar countries, similar reported rates of Corona virus, but Italy has eight times the death rate.

Italy is a country that has a serious problem with the efficacy of public institutions. I know, I’ve lived there. There are the things that are clichéd about Italy, but those clichés have a strong basis in reality. Seat-belt laws and motorcycle helmet laws are regularly flouted. There’s a constant battle between the tax authorities and the public over tax compliance.

Even a passing experience with Italian bureaucracy will convince you how the entire system can be set up for the convenience of the people who work there – or, let’s say, are employed there – rather than the service users.

And the culture in Italy is very different to South Korea. In brief, conforming with the rules is highly prized in Korean culture; not conforming with the rules is prized in Italian culture.

For that reason, I’m not in the least convinced that the corona virus death rate in Italy is eight times higher than in South Korea. I think that it’s much more likely that the corona virus rate in Italy is eight times higher than is being reported.

That has very serious implications for the containment of this dangerous disease. But the whole of Italy is on lockdown now; they are at last taking it seriously, now that far more than a thousand people are dead.

But how can this information help elsewhere? There is one terrifying statistic about this disease. The USA at the moment has an incredibly low rate of reported infections, as I write on Saturday 14 March; it’s only 0.6 infections per hundred thousand. That’s hardly one-fiftieth the rate in Italy. But hold on, that’s not the terrifying statistic.

Remember South Korea? They are testing 10,000 people for the virus every day. 10,000 a day. That’s roughly the number that the United States has tested in total. And that’s not the terrifying statistic either. If you look at Washington State, the epicenter of the outbreak in the US, they are reporting a death rate of 6.5 per cent, almost the same as Italy. That’s Italy, where I think there is good reason to suspect that the reporting of infections is drastically underestimated.

That could mean that there are thousands of infected people in Washington State – and other states – a large portion of them who are un- or underinsured and afraid of the cost of going to the doctor, who are showing little or no symptoms, and afraid to miss a shift at a job they need to put food on the table. That 6.5 per cent death rate, that’s a canary in the coalmine.

One last point – Iceland is a tiny country, a third of a million people, but it is very rich, it is a highly cohesive society, people have a very strong allegiance to authority, and in turn the authorities are highly professional. Iceland has a free, high-quality healthcare system that covers all residents, and Iceland has the highest infection rate in the world. Or, the highest reported infection rate in the world, more almost 40 per hundred thousand, or more than 60 times higher the reported rate in the US.

Iceland hasn’t had any deaths; it is too small for that to be statistically significant. Its people are rich, and travel quite a bit, but it’s an island in the middle of the Atlantic, it isn’t anything like as connected as Europe where people regularly get in their car and drive across borders to do their weekly shopping.

I think that when the history of this is written, there’ll be a big fat chapter on the quality of the statistical reporting.

CO138 Randy Sutton on the Life of a Cop

Randy Sutton is a retired police lieutenant Las Vegas Police Department and founder of the Wounded Blue national assistance and support organisation for injured and disabled law enforcement officers. He’s also the author of a number of books including The Power of Legacy, Personal Heroes of America’s Most Inspiring People.

I mentioned the previous episode of the podcast where I talked to Heather McDonald where I talked about her book the War on Cops.


You might remember that I interviewed Aaron Naparstek of the War on Cars podcast last year; he’s a big advocate of non-car based transport. I don’t know what he would make of a story from Luxembourg I saw this week, I suspect he’d be an enthusiast.

I’m not.

The story is that Luxembourg has decided to make all public transport free to use, in an effort to cut pollution and traffic jams. The country has an extensive network of tram, train and buses, and from now on, you can just hop on and go anywhere. I say extensive, but of course the country is tiny, it has a population of just over half-a-million and it’s smaller than Rhode Island, you could throw a stone across it if you had a good go at it. And it’s rich, so they can afford to make the transit system free; they have a big financial services industry, which is a polite way of saying that they launder drug and prostitution money, and the funds looted from national treasuries by third world dictators.

But that’s a different story some people are saying that this is the way to go for transit systems. If they’re free, then people will leave their cars behind, and use these systems that don’t cause traffic jams and don’t cause as much pollution.

Luxembourg isn’t the only country going down this line, Scotland is planning to make public transport free for under-18s, and some political parties in Ireland are advocating going the whole way and making the whole system free like in Luxembourg. I think that they’re wrong.

There are two big mistakes here. The first mistake is the effect that this won’t have, and the second mistake is the effect that it will. Let’s look at the effect that this won’t have first. The thinking is that people who drive will be tempted out of their cars by free public transit.

The problem here is that in almost any city in the world, public transit is already much, much cheaper than driving. If saving that much doesn’t motivate drivers to get the bus or the train or whatever, why would anyone think that saving just a little bit more will?

This whole scheme totally misunderstands why people drive. Look at the cars on any street. There is a huge variety. You can drive anything from a clanger for under a thousand bucks to spending several hundred thousand dollars of a top-end luxury vehicle.

But one thing that they all of them, expect the very cheapest rustbucket, almost all of them have in common is that the driver could have saved a few bucks by getting a cheaper car. From the highest-end luxury performance vehicle to the most ordinary vehicle, the driver could have traded down to the next cheapest model. Every single driver, except perhaps the bottom one per cent could have saved a few bucks if they wanted to.

But they didn’t. They chose to spend more money than they really needed to, because they wanted the comfort and the prestige. Nothing wrong with that really. I have to say that I do much the same myself with other products. I have a phone that’s really much more expensive than what I need. Probably the same for the audio equipment that I use to make this podcast.

But if you understand why people do what they do, you have a better chance of understanding how to motivate them to change their behavior. And it’s clear that overwhelmingly, finance isn’t the main thing that motivates drivers. If making mass transit cheaper could tempt them away from their cars, then it would have already done so – because in most big cities, mass transit is already vastly cheaper than driving the cars that most drivers drive.

But in a lot of cities, there are a lot of people that walk or cycle to their destination. Even if drivers aren’t motivated to a modal shift, it’s pretty obvious that free public transit will encourage cyclists and walkers to hop on the public transit. That doesn’t provide any benefit in terms of reducing traffic or pollution, but I’m sure that the walkers and cyclists appreciate it.

But the people already riding the bus might not be so happy. Mass transit systems in many cities are already running at capacity. They just switching having walkers and cyclists getting on a few stops before a long-time user might mean that they can’t fit on, or at the very least that their ride would be a whole lot less comfortable. It might even be so much more uncomfortable as to push those people to drive their journey.

And that’s the point. All the evidence would indicate that drivers who have a choice to use mass transit and don’t choose it, do so because they like the comfort and prestige of driving. So if you have a big wad of money to spend on your city’s mass transit system, spending it on making that system free is unlikely to improve anything, unless that system is running with loads of spare capacity, which is almost never the place.

But if you are thinking of spending that wad to use mass transit to improve pollution and traffic congestion, here’s the way to do that. Spend it on making the mass transit cleaner, safer, more regular, more reliable, more extensive and operating for longer hours. That last point is important, by the way. No point in taking mass transit out for the evening if you can’t get home. Supermarkets and radio stations that operate 24 hours don’t always do it because they make a profit in the small hours of the morning, they do it because they know that if they don’t their competitor will, and the customer who uses it then once, will get used to going to their competitor all the time.

And, to be blunt, money should be spend on making mass transit more prestigious. Tram and train systems are less prone than busses to getting stuck in traffic, but they are more favored by the sort of people who could switch to a car, partly because saying ‘I got the train’ sounds better than ‘I got the bus’.

People advocating free mass transit sometimes argue ‘why can’t we do both?’ Here’s why: what you’re doing is spending money. Money is limited, or at least it represents limited resources. Every cent you spend on making mass transit free is a cent you didn’t spend on making it better. And making it better will always give a better return than making it free.

CO137 Roy Speckhardt on Freedom from Religion

Roy Speckhardt is the executive director of the American Humanist Association, and the author of Creating Change Through Humanism published by Humanist Press .


As of this podcast, something over 2,000 people have died from Corona virus infections, all but six of them in China. About 75 thousand people have been confirmed as infected, again, all but a handful in China. Of the 29 countries that have reported at least one infection, the majority have reported less than 10 infections, and as I say, the 28 countries other than China with reported cases have reported a combined total of six fatalities.

This is clearly serious. 2,000 people dead is serious by any measure. We have the whole airline industry in chaos about an apparently faulty aircraft that led to the deaths of a fraction of that number. And the number of infections, along with the much smaller number of people dead – the death rate would seem to be something around two or three per cent – those numbers aren’t the whole story. Throughout what we know of human history, there have been pandemics with terrible consequences.

The Spanish flu of 1918 killed at least 40 million people, it could have been 100 million, we don’t really know. To put that in context, World War 1, which had just ended, which resonates through our culture, which is still taught in detail in history classes, memorialized in thousands of locations across Europe and beyond, World War 1 has inspired hundreds of novels, poems, TV shows, and films not least the recent Oscar-winner 1917; World War 1 killed less than 20 million people over four years. The Spanish flu, in just one year killed an absolute minimum of double that.

So it’s worth paying attention to the Corona virus not just because of the people already dead or infected, but because of the numbers of people who could potentially be infected in the future, if the disease was left unchecked.

But it’s not being left unchecked. There are quarantines and other extreme measures being put in place to prevent its spread. You might have seen the stop motion video – that hardly required stop motion – of Huoshenshan hospital being build from scratch in 10 days.

Dozens of airlines including British Airways and Lufthansa have cancelled all flights to China. Many countries have banned Chinese people from even applying for visas to enter. Ships have been quarantined, millions have been donated, and China has closed down whole sectors of its economy, not to mention curtailing internal travel and even switching off elevator systems in large apartment blocks to discourage people from going out.

Some of those measures maybe the reason why the spread of the virus has been contained. In the past few days, the number of new daily infections in China has been falling every day, and no other country has enough cases to make a meaningful measurement. That might not continue, but that’s the situation as of now.

Or they may not be the reason. For every Spanish flu, there are thousands of infections that kill a few people, or a few dozen, or nobody at all, and then just disappear naturally. This sort of thing has a serious risk of a mild negative outcome, and a mild risk of a serious negative outcome We don’t know where on the scale from Spanish flu to mild Chinese headcold this, or any other virus will fall. What I find interesting is the speed with which governments acted, closing borders, stopping air routes, quarantining ships, not to mention China closing down a huge chunk of its economy. It’s interesting to compare that to the reaction to the threat of climate change, which by all accounts has a seriously high risk of a very serious outcome.

CO136 Rosanna Weaver on Targeting Shareholders

Rosanna Weaver is programme manager for executive compensation As You Sow.


Her face looks at the camera in a way that is totally different to how teenagers take selfies now. There’s no elaborate expression, but there is, for some reason, a hint of a smile. Maybe the instinct to smile when a camera is pointed overcomes her in the moment.

But this is not a sharable moment. Her name is Czesława Kwoka, and her photograph has been colorized, but even in the black and white original the uniform of Auschwitz-Birkenau is unmistakable.

The colorization is by Brazilian artist Marina Amaral, and it brings to life a young person who died many years ago. Her face stares out at us across the decades. In one photograph, she wears her camp-issued headscarf and looks up and to the side. She is pretty, but she is thin. Her hair is roughly cut short. Her lip is cut. The photographer who takes her pictures later testifies that she has just been beaten by a guard. Later, when he is ordered to destroy them, The photographer risks his life to save some of the pictures, including those of Czesława.

She is deported to Auschwitz, along with her mother in 1942. It’s not clear why, her family is Catholic, not Jewish, but her uniform has a red triangle alongside her prisoner number, that means political enemy, so it’s possible that someone in her family is in some organization that the Nazis dislike.

She’d be 92 now if she had survived. She might still be alive, lots of people live to be 92 or older.


But she does not survive. All that remain of her are those three photographs, now colorized, staring out from our new technology, and our wondering of what she might make of this new world.

She arrives in Auschwitz in December 1942. Some weeks later, in February 1943, someone decides that her life isn’t worth her reaching 92, or reaching one more day. They inject phenol, a poisonous acid, into her heart.

She is 14 years old.

CO135 Chris Bostic on the End of Smoking

Chris Bostic is Deputy Director for Policy of ASH, Action on Smoking and Health. Which, since 1967 has been campaigning against Big Tobacco to reduce the death toll from smoking.


So this is a famous clip of Ellen Degeneres on her TV show talking about some ridiculous products aimed at women.

Ellen is a pretty funny character, but she really doesn’t need to do much work to get a laugh at the idea of pens specially for women.

But this clip refers to one trope that was going around a while back, called the Pink Tax.

The idea was that products aimed at women were having their prices jacked up by the evil patriarchy so that women had to pay more for the same things than men. The whole idea was really just a clickbait thing, and it was confused as to whether it referred to products that were marketed at women’s preferences, or products that women needed to be different to men’s products because of their physiology.

Ellen’s example is a pretty clear case of a product that you can literally pay any price you like for. You can go to a discount store and buy packs of dozens of pens for a dollar or so, or you can spend hundreds of dollars for a single premium pen. I found one pen for sale online that costs more than $5,000 – but hey, it’s got free shipping. And all those pens do pretty much the same job; what you write won’t be any better because you wrote it with a pen that costs thousands of times more than the cheapest pen out there.

But why does this extreme price difference exist? Surely the laws of the market should flatten out the prices. Well, clearly they don’t. Because here’s a secret of capitalism. If you’re selling pork bellies or  currency futures, supply and demand set the prices, it’s a true marketplace. But if you’re buying a pen because you want to sign a card that you’re sending to someone – do you really shop around? Of course not.

What sets the price is what the market will bear. What people will pay without complaining too much. If the pen costs a dollar, will you go to the next store to see if they’re selling it cheaper? No. and even if you know that the next store sells it for only 50 cents, will you go there if you’re already in the place that sells it for a dollar? Very unlikely.

And the manufacturers and retailers know this. They even do market testing to see what price they can get away with charging, and build their whole product around that information. That’s why women’s shampoo costs more than men’s, because women are willing to pay more for it. That’s also why men’s cars and home stereo systems cost more than women’s – because men are willing to pay more for them.

And before you ask, yes there are such things, marketers don’t write that on the label, but those markets are strongly gendered.

That brings me to a campaign that did have a bit more sense to it, but was still misguided. Value Added Tax, called VAT is a sales tax in all EU countries, and it’s pretty high, in some countries up to 25 per cent, but typically around 20 per cent. And in most EU countries, that sales tax was charged on tampons and other women’s hygiene products.

There are active campaigns to have it removed from these products because they are regarded, reasonably enough, as necessities. From the start of this year, 2020, that campaign was successful in Germany. The tax there was 19 per cent, and it’s just been cut to just seven per cent. So a win for women, right?

Not quite. As soon as the VAT was cut on these products, the manufacturers, it is reported, moved to increase the prices to compensate, and bring the retail price back to what it was before the tax cut.

So instead of this being a tax cut for women, it was a tax cut for the producers. Because the price of consumer products isn’t really set by the cost of production, it’s set by what the consumers are willing to pay. This isn’t even a secret, IKEA the massive Swedish furniture say that the first thing they design on their products is the price tag, and everything else follows from that.

The point is that, particularly when it comes to market forces, it’s hard – it’s nearly impossible – to do anything that doesn’t have unintended consequences.

CO134 Steve Garner on Whiteness

Steve Garner is a researcher at the department of Social Science at Cardiff University. The BBC Analysis programme that he appeared in is available here.


Back in August I talked here about the pro-democracy protests, anti-Putin protests in Moscow, and I noted that, compared to the similarly-motivated protests in Hong Kong, there were small. People might grumble, but there is no arguing that Putin has very widespread support in Russia, and the protesting was done by a particular well-educated cohort.

But it’s important to remember that as well as being small, these protests in Moscow are supported by a particular slice of society. There is a group of well-educated Russians, mostly in Moscow and other large cities who yearn for democracy and western-style freedoms. You could call them a young middle class. They travel abroad on holidays, they speak English and other foreign languages, they get their news online from largely independent sources…

That last point is important; television, regular broadcast television, is hugely popular in Russia; it is hugely influential, and it is totally under the thumb of the Kremlin. Just last week, Alisa Yarovskaya, a prominent journalist on a Russian regional TV station in north west Siberia asked Putin at a press conference why Moscow wasn’t supporting a project to build a bridge to link two local towns, a project that the regional governor had proposed.

Pretty innocuous you might think. Not in Russia. By the next day, she was unemployed, saying that she had quit rather than be fired. That gives you an idea of the level of dissent tolerated, or rather not tolerated, in Russian TV news.

But as I said in August, the young, urban, often well-educated people who are most likely to support democracy often just bypass Kremlin propaganda and get their news online; often they speak English or some other foreign language and keep well-informed via foreign news sites. But there might be a road block coming on that bypass.

This week the Russian government announced that it had successfully tested what is called Runet. This is the internet – sort of. The ‘sort of’ there is important. If you work in a large office, your computer is connected to the internet so you can send email and check websites, right? Not quite. A typical computer in a large office is connected to the company network, and that is connected to the internet, so you can look up stuff online.

So rather than you following a link to the Challenging Opinions website, and your computer getting the content of that website, an office computer asks the company server for the Challenging Opinions website, the server gets that content and passes it on to the user’s computer.

Or maybe not, if your office blocks the Challenging Opinions website. A lot of employers block porn, or social media, or job search websites or all sorts of other content. They’re allowed because it’s their network. But you go home, and unless you put on your own filter, you can access whatever content you want.

But not if you live in China, or Iran, or Thailand or Turkey or a growing number of countries that block content at the national level.

But Russia is going one step further here. As well as setting up what is essentially a gigantic version of a company intranet, where you get selected access to the outside internet, they are forcing telecom companies to comply with the Runet system, which would allow them to not block the internet, but then create a parallel internet system that works only in Russia, and that allows Russians online, but only to view content that originates in Russia.

So people would only be able to send and receive emails or other content within Russia. And if you’re thinking VPN, they’ve thought of that too. VPN is a way to encrypt your internet traffic and disguise where it is coming from and going to. Almost all VPN traffic would be totally blocked by Runet.

Russia has also introduced a law that requires government-controlled apps to be pre-installed on all smartphone sold in the country. Essentially what they are doing is not seeking to put their citizens offline, they are seeking the ability to disconnect Russia’s online from the rest of the world’s online.

This has been called the ‘splinternet’. Where the internet is still there, but autocracies set up a system whereby websites, messaging systems and so on continue to work, but only the ones that they approve, and only the ones that they can spy on when they want to.

The Kremlin has said that this power will only be used in ‘an emergency’ but as with most Russian laws, there is no definition of what might constitute an emergency, and no oversight of anyone making that decision.

But the real significance of this is the determination, in a country where he controls the vast majority of the media, to eliminate the last vestiges of access to free information.

CO133 Ivan Eland on Presidential Overreach

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute. He has a PhD in Public Policy from George Washington University and has been director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues.

Earlier this year he published War and the Rogue Presidency Restoring the Republic after Congressional Failure.

Continue reading “CO133 Ivan Eland on Presidential Overreach”

CO132 Joan Esposito on Democratic Strategies

Joan Esposito is the afternoon host for WCPT AM 820, Chicago’s progressive talk radio. We talked about, among other things, Barack Obama’s call for progressive unity and condemnation of excessive expectations of purity.


You’re used to me spouting on here based on not much more than my own prejudice, but here’s a topic that I am actually qualified to talk about. I studied linguistics, and I have quite a bit of experience in language learning.

And anyone who has learnt a second language will know that the words and phrases in one language often don’t map exactly to the ones in another. A language is a complete speech convention, it’s not like Morse code where you transfer words directly. Things work differently from one language to another. Some languages have several non-interchangeable words where another language has just one or maybe none, and this can make problems for a language learner who hasn’t grown up with the experience of knowing when to use which word.

And this means that people familiar with language learners will quickly learn to spot what is the native language of the learner by the mistakes that they make in their target language, the language they’re learning. There’s even a name for it, it’s called native language interference. Believe it or not, this is useful when it comes to understanding the comments in the hugely popular online version of the British newspaper, the Daily Mail.

The comment was from someone with the username DMreader and gave their location as Lovely England, it was on an article about a request from a Russian-backed separatist in Ukraine to Nigel Farage to support his cause.

Articles, in case you’re not a linguist, are words like a and the. So, if you want to say ‘I ate the apple’ you’re talking about a specific apple known to the listener; but if you say ‘I ate an apple’ then you’re not specifying to the listener which apple, because it’s not important.


Now, here’s the thing about Russian. The Russian language doesn’t have articles at all. If you want to say ‘I ate an apple’ you say ‘Я съел яблоко’; if you want to say ‘I ate the apple’ it’s the same, ‘Я съел яблоко’, in both cases literally ‘I ate apple’. It’s easy to leave out a word that you don’t have a translation for, but if you’re an language learner, it’s much trickier to work out when to use words in your target language that have no equivalent in your native language.

For this reason, Russian learners of English have a particular problem with knowing when to use articles, knowing when not to use them and knowing which one to use. This might be surprising until you think just how complicated some conventions of English actually are. This rule about using the word the for specific things and a or an for non-specific ones doesn’t always hold.

It’s often way more complex than that. If someone says ‘I went to the bank’ or ‘I went to the beach’ it’s likely that they are not referring to a specific bank or beach known to the listener, and sometimes we leave articles out altogether, and say ‘I went to school’ or ‘I went to work’. Sometimes this grammatical rule gets totally reversed. You might walk into a store and ask ‘Do you have the Daily Mail?’, you use the when you don’t mean a specific one, you mean any of thousands that were printed.

Then go into the café next door to meet a friend, they ask you do you have a newspaper, and you answer ‘Well, I have a Daily Mail’ when in this case you are referring to the specific copy that you just bought, for some reason.

It gets more complicated when you use negatives, sometimes the negatives can replace the article – ‘I have a computer’, ‘I have no computer’; and sometimes they can’t – ‘I have the book’, ‘I don’t have the book’. This makes things even harder for Russian speakers, because where English has several negating words, no, not, don’t Russian has only one, нет.

This is where the comment by DMreader in Lovely England on a Daily Mail online article about Nigel Farage and Ukraine from a while back comes in, I’ll read it verbatim.

There’s a number of things there. Let’s leave aside the content, why someone in ‘Lovely England’ would be so concerned that the Nigel Farage take a stance on the conflict in Ukraine; let’s just look at the language.

…stay away from business that’s not concern of ours…” That’s weird phrasing. You could say ‘not a concern of ours’, you could say ‘no concern of ours’, but ‘not concern of ours’ isn’t something typical of an English speaker.

Then there’s the mention of ‘one pro-Russian activist with a common sense’. With ‘a common sense’? Who says that? Not native speakers. And ‘sees the situation in a logical order’? that’s a strange way to put it, but it seems to me to be a direct translation of Russian phraseology. Not to mention that we are expected to believe that DM reader in Lovely England seems well-up not just on the conflict in Ukraine but also Farage’s position on it.

But I don’t.

Looking at the language, and I have significant expertise in this area, I haven’t a shadow of doubt that this text was written by a Russian-speaker. But here’s the thing. This text wasn’t written recently; it wasn’t ever written at the time of the UK Brexit referendum. It was written in April 2014, years before either that referendum or that presidential election. The Daily Mail online is the biggest UK online news source, and an obvious target for campaigns of influence.

They might have started sloppy, with writers who have middling English doing heavy-handed messaging, but it would be foolish to think they’ve given up on it, or not gotten better at it. Make no mistake, this is information warfare.

But it’s better than bombing Malaysian airlines, I suppose. Or Afghan wedding parties for that matter.

CO131 Ira Mehlman on Debating Immigration

Ira Mehlman is the media director of Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). In our discussion we talked about the prominent stories on FAIR’s home page which suggest that undocumented immigrants in the US are responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime, or are a disproportionate burden on the economy.

In fact, the weight of evidence indicates that undocumented immigrants commit proportionally fewer crimes than the rest of the population. There are a range of studies on the net cost/benefit of undocumented immigrants to the economy. Some studies indicate that the immigrants make a net contribution right across society, while others indicate that, while most US-born citizens benefit, very low skilled workers (highschool dropouts) suffer a wage drop, although this is offset by access to lower prices, and the effect diminishes with career progression.

FAIR’s contention that all levels of society suffer a significant net financial disadvantage caused by undocumented immigration is an outlier that is not replicated in other studies.


About 40 men were taken to a barn and shot. Following that, at least 300 men, women, and children, including infants were rounded up and locked in the barn, which was doused with gasoline and set on fire. Anyone who tried to escape was shot. All of them died.

This is what happened in a small village called Jedwabne on July 10 1941, in nazi-occupied Poland. Before the massacre, Jedwabne had a population of about 1,500 Jews and 700 Catholics. Some of the details are lost to history because of the fog of war, but one thing is notable about this outrage. There were nazi forces present in the village earlier that day, and some may have taken part on the periphery, but the massacre was not carried out by Germans.

In Jedwabne, the Jews were murdered by their neighbors. They were killed by Catholic Poles who they had lived beside for generations. Clearly there were ethnic tensions before the nazi invasion, and these were exacerbated by the perceived, and sometimes real support for the Soviet Union in the Jewish community – the area had been under Soviet occupation until a few months previously.

In post-war communist Poland, there were trials of people accused of participating in the pogrom; several local catholic men were convicted. Their trials fell drastically short of anything that could be considered fair or impartial. Despite this, there is no serious historical source that disputes the central fact that local Catholic poles murdered hundreds of their Jewish neighbors.

No serious historical source. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t disputed.

Memorial to the murdered Jews of Jedwabne

In 2018, Poland’s conservative ruling party, called the Law and Justice party, passed a law making it a criminal offence to publicly state that the Polish nation was in any complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich. The truth is that many Poles gave their lives fighting bravely against the nazis. But some Poles were collaborators, sometimes under duress, and some, as happened in Jedwabne were enthusiastic in their treason.

The 2018 Polish law effectively extended a practice in Poland’s schools to the whole of society, making it impossible to tell that truth. There was an international outcry, and the law was changed to remove the prison sentence, but the law remains.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance has compiled the most widely-accepted definition of anti-Semitism; it contains several examples, including one which reads “Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II”.

Poland’s legally-compelled anti-Semitic lies are an example of what happens when people can’t win an argument on the facts, so they make up their own facts. This is poison for public debate, but it’s not the only example of this.

A couple of weeks ago, the Republican-controlled House in Ohio passed a bill instructing teachers in public schools on how to grade pupils taking exams. Under the law, students can’t be penalized if their work is scientifically wrong as long as the reasoning is because of their religious beliefs.

So, if a geography teacher sets a pop quiz with a question which is closest to the age of the earth, five billion, five million, 5,000 or 500 years, and a student get it wrong, and ticks 5,000 instead of five billion, the teacher isn’t legally allowed to mark them wrong.

And, presumably if a student says that the sun orbits the earth, or the earth is supported by elephants on the back of a giant turtle, or any number of religious-inspired answers, the teacher is legally obliged to mark them right. And even if the student gets some basic math wrong, says that two plus two equals five, what’s to stop them from saying that’s based on their religious belief, so top marks please?

Once the answer is based on what’s in the student’s mind, not what’s true in reality, there is nothing to hold on to.

These two examples are on different scales, but they both show a disconnection from the real world. If the facts aren’t the way you want them to be, you just pass a law to change them, or at least to force people to agree with you. Any belief system that must be shielded from reality by the force of law doesn’t have much going for it.

CO130 Thom Hartmann on the Purpose of SCOTUS

Thom Hartmann is one of America’s most prominent progressive talk show hosts. His latest book, The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America was publisher by Berrett-Koehler recently.


I know that some listeners are in the UK, but most aren’t, and for you in the majority, although you’ve probably heard of Brexit, you mightn’t really be sure why it is such a big and difficult issue. It is a big and difficult issue, but the fact that it is a big and difficult issue makes it difficult to explain.

I’m not going to bore you to death here with all the details, but I have come across one fairly simple example of why it is so difficult. Cows. The reason – or one of the reasons anyway – is cows.

I’ll explain why in a minute, but first some basics. The EU is a huge trading bloc, currently 28 nations, with several more trying to get in, and one trying to get out – the UK. They are separate countries, but for trading purposes they work as one. If your business in one country wants to sell something to a customer in another country, you just put it on the back of a truck and send it to them. No extra paperwork, no taxes.

Tariffs with other countries are the same for all 28. They have to be. It wouldn’t be possible to have one tariff for Chinese goods going to France and another for Chinese goods going to Germany, because then you could just bring it into the one with the lower tariff and send it to the other.

Product standards are the same as well, so that you can make a product or component in one country and put it on the back of a truck and send it to any of the others. It’s been like that for more than 25 years.

Many people in Britain want to leave the EU so that they can set their own tariffs and product standards independently. That would mean that the UK and the EU would have to put up tariff barriers and product standards checks between each other, but that’s what the UK wanted and that’s their right. But it’s causing a lot of unexpected problems, because the people who proposed this didn’t really think that they would win the 2016 referendum, and didn’t really think through any solutions to problems, the big and difficult problems it would cause.

And because they are big and difficult problems, they are difficult to explain to anyone, let alone to understand, which is why people are getting very frustrated with the process. And I’m not going to bore you to death by trying to explain the all, but I’ll give one example. That’s where the cows come in. They are Irish cows.

And everyone likes them. Everyone especially likes the butter and cheese that their milk makes. All that rain and green grass makes it taste good. It’s put in products that are sold all over Europe, even in some beverages that are sold around the world. But one things that the cows don’t know, that you should know.

Ireland is divided. When Ireland became independent about 100 years ago, part of the island remained under British control, as part of the UK. That’s what UK stands for, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Some people in Northern Ireland like it that way, others not so much. That’s caused a lot of problems in the past, but one reason why it wasn’t such a problem in recent decades is because of the way that border became invisible. A division that still lets people live, work and trade anywhere they want isn’t that much of a division.

The Republic of Ireland, the much larger independent part is far more economically advanced, and that’s where those premium dairy products come from. They are so popular that their factories have a huge demand for milk, and they buy a lot of it from Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is happy to have this marked, because it’s quite a poor area, income levels are about half that of the Republic, and the North relies much more heavily on agriculture.

And, like I said, there’s no tariffs, no border checks, no problem, if you want to sell a product like milk or anything else from one EU country to another, which is technically what they are doing, even though most people in Ireland don’t really see it like that.

Then comes Brexit. Because Northern Ireland is legally part of the UK, it’s leaving the EU as well. And so are their cows. That’s a big problem.

The EU doesn’t import milk products. It’s not impossible, but the tariff to import each liter or gallon of milk is about five times bigger than the profit margin for producing that milk, so actually it is impossible, and WTO rules mean that just can’t be changed. That’s bad for the dairy factories in the Republic of Ireland, but it’s a catastrophe for the dairy farmers in Northern Ireland. One-third of all their milk goes to those factories in the Republic.

They really can’t export their milk anywhere else, milk isn’t the sort of product that you can put in shipping containers unprocessed, and Northern Ireland just doesn’t have the industrial base to process it.

I guess they could build it, but building up an industry like that takes years, if not decades. Farmers can’t tell the cows to wait that long to get milked. Farmers can’t even afford to keep feeding their cows if they have nowhere to sell their milk. This bit is not big and difficult to understand, it’s pretty simple. If the UK does what’s called a no-deal Brexit, Northern Ireland farmers would have to shoot one third of the cows immediately.

The thing that is big and difficult to understand, is that almost everything in the European economy is cows. Not cows exactly, but the same idea, just much more complicated. What I mean that no products are made anywhere. Almost everything is made everywhere. Every business, in the last quarter of a century has become intricately intertwined in a web of suppliers and customers right across those 28 countries.

Sure, there are a few businesses in Britain that don’t buy any components or services from other EU countries, and only sell within Britain, but they are a tiny minority. In the UK, almost everyone’s job is, metaphorically, cows. And everything that anyone buys, it’s cows all the way down. And, if trade barriers spring up between the UK and the rest of the EU, all those cows will be lined up and shot.

CO129 Randall Holcombe on Protecting Liberty

Randall Holcombe is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. In the past He has also served as President of the Public Choice Society, President of the Society for the Development of Austrian Economics and as a member of the Florida Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors as well as a number of academic roles.

He’s written many books, the most recent of which is Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History, which was published last September.


I saw a little story from Chicago during the week. Not something that’s going to make headline news, but it’s interesting. It comes from a City Council budget hearing submission by Library Commissioner Andrea Telli. I told you, this isn’t headline news.

But it is interesting. What the Chicago public libraries did was abolish fines for the late return of books. You know the sort of thing, you get two weeks to read the book, but if you don’t bring it back in time, you have to pay a dime or whatever for every extra day. The theory is that people will be more likely to bring back their books on time if they have to pay a fine for them being late.

 Well, Chicago said, forget it, bring us back the books when you can, no worries.

What happened? The return rate soared by 240 per cent. That goes against what you might expect, why would so many more people bring back their books when the penalty is removed? There’s a couple of reasons.

First, these fines are comparatively tiny, and they were only ever likely to be enforced when someone came into the library, probably to return the books, so to a degree they were more of a deterrent than an encouragement to bring the books back.

But secondly, human motivations aren’t as simple as that. People often do things for people, not because they have a financial motivation, but because they want to be good people. And, sometimes financial motivation just doesn’t work.

I’m reminded of a study where a kindergarten set up a system of fines for parents who picked up their kids late. Kindergarten teachers are basically held hostage by parents who show up late, because the kids are too young to kick out onto the street. So they said you pay so much money for every minute past closing time that we have to mind your kid.

Did that make the parents show up on time? No, not by a mile. Actually, it made them show up even later, and significantly later. As the authors of the study wrote, the parents regarded the payment not as a fine, but as a fee, and many thought it was a fee well worth paying. And, the fact that they were paying for the service meant that they lost non-financial motives to be on time, such as the sense of moral duty not to force the teachers to stay late at work.

But what was really interesting was when the kindergarten abandoned the fine system. Did the parents go back to normal, and pick their kids up not-quite-on-time, but not as late when they were paying for the extra time?

No. It seems that the experience of paying the fine, or the fee, permanently changed the parents’ outlook. Once they saw picking up their kids on time was not a moral duty, but a transaction, it seems that they couldn’t go back. Even after the fine system was withdrawn, they still saw it as a transaction, just maybe a better value one. So the introduction of money damaged the social contract.

The point here is that not every motivation is money, even in today’s world, people still can be motivated by a sense of duty to people even when they have no real connection with them. Whether it is fighting to defend people you’ve never met, caring for them as teachers or medics, keeping an orderly line in a busy café or braking to let someone merge into traffic, that sense of duty is, literally, priceless.

CO128 Michael Tauberg on Questioning Biden

Michael Tauberg is a senior Columnist with We discussed his article Trump Administration Corruption Doesn’t Excuse the Bidens.


Air pollution in India is off the scale.

That sounds like a rhetorical flourish, but it isn’t. It’s literally the truth.

Most cities around the world, including in India, have sensors which monitor the levels of various pollutants, but one of the most important to monitor is called PM10s and PM2.5s. I won’t get into the technicalities but that’s basically a particle so small that our nasal hairs, the mucus on our airways and the other ways that our bodies have evolved to deal with impurities in the air, are unable to stop. We have no natural defenses against them.

And they’re bad.

Breathing elevated levels of these particles is associated with a whole range health problems including bronchial asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, interstitial pneumonia and birth defects, and they are listed as a grade 1 carcinogen, the worst type.

They can come from a variety of sources including diesel engines, power plants, agricultural burning and domestic fires for heating and cooking. They are estimated to cause up to 50,000 deaths per year in the United States, and more than a third of a million deaths per year in Europe, which is more densely populated.

There is a scale that basically measures how polluted the air is, it counts how many particles are in each cubic meter of air, anything under 50 is good, under 100 is satisfactory, between 200 and 300 is poor and there’s a warning with that it “may cause breathing discomfort to people on prolonged exposure, and discomfort to people with heart disease”.

Not nice, but it’s not the worst. Between 300 and 400, very poor air quality “may cause respiratory illness to the people on prolonged exposure. Effect may be more pronounced in people with lung and heart diseases”.

And the top of the scale, between 400 and 500 “may cause respiratory impact even on healthy people, and serious health impacts on people with lung/heart disease”. The scale doesn’t go higher, but the pollution can still get worse. Although there are no official classifications for the readings, the equipment can register higher readings in extremely polluted areas, but even they have their readings.

In the past few weeks, in some Indian cities, many sensors are all giving the same reading: 999. That would be a horrifying reading, if it were true. It would mean that the pollution level was double the top of the range of the worst category of pollution. But it’s not true. The air pollution isn’t that bad.

It’s worse.

The reading is 999 because that’s the highest reading the sensors can give. When they were designed, nobody imagined that they would need to measure air that badly polluted, so the design limitation is that readings of 1000 or above can’t be registered, they all appear as 999, so we don’t have real data, but even though we don’t have the true reading, we know that it is truly awful. It’s the equivalent of smoking 50 cigarettes a day.

It has devastating results. Apart from the obvious, lung cancers in non-smokers, half of Delhi’s 4.4 million schoolchildren have stunted lung development from which they will never recover. There are a variety of reasons why it is so bad now, some of them seasonal, but that’s not the point I want to make here.

The live map of world air quality shows that air pollution is worst in poor Asian countries, by a long way. There are some environmental campaigners who advocate a return to a low-tech village life and who idealize some third-world ways of life; what they don’t realize is that what they are describing is poverty; grinding poverty.

And people in grinding poverty like that will do almost anything to improve their lives right now. That may be cutting down a tree to get firewood to cook their next meal, burning smoky coal to keep warm or driving a dirty diesel truck to earn a few bucks.

You can try to explain to them that they are endangering their long-term future, but when your short term future is in jeopardy, that’s not so persuasive. It’s like telling someone going before a firing squad that they shouldn’t have that last cigarette, it’s bad for them.

It’s true that the world faces gigantic environmental challenges. The way to solve them is to move forwards, not backwards. We have developed technologies that were unimaginable a few decades ago. The choice isn’t between taking people out of poverty and meeting those challenges. In fact, it’s probably not possible to do one without the other.

CO127 Scot Faulkner on the 1994 Contract with America

Scot Faulkner was the National Director of Personnel for the Reagan-Bush presidential Campaign of 1980. He went on to serve the Reagan Administration in executive positions at the Federal Aviation Administration, the General Services Administration, and the Peace Corps. He serves on the boards of numerous corporations and foundations and he’s the author of a bestselling book called Naked Emperors: The Failure of the Republican Revolution, published in 2007.


I was talking last week about how the libel laws in England prevent journalists from working, and keep stories about the rich and powerful under wraps. That doesn’t happen much in the US.

As I mentioned last week, the US follows a 1964 precedent called New York Times v O’Sullivan, from a libel case taken by Montgomery police commissioner LB Sullivan who said that some inaccuracies in a piece about the policing of civil rights demonstrations in Alabama libeled him.

In the UK he would have been certain of a win and probably a big payout, but the Supreme Court agreed with the New York Times that they are going to make some honest mistakes from time to time and if that could put them out of business, that would effectively restrain their free expression.

They ruled that proving the facts is not enough to sue. You must prove the journalist knew, or should have known the truth and maliciously or recklessly wrote something false anyway. Basically you have to prove what was in their mind, an almost impossible task.

That’s why there is no big libel business in the US. But someone did win a libel case recently. His name is Leonard Pozner, he’s the father of Noah Pozner who was murdered at the age of six years in the Sandy Hook school shooting. The court ruled that James Fetzer, a crackpot conspiracy theorist must pay him $450,000.

Fetzer had made up multiple ludicrous theories to claim that the shooting didn’t happen, that the murdered boy never existed and published them in a book. When, probably unwisely, Leonard Pozner published his son’s birth certificate, Fetzer accused him of faking it.

Someone once said that every decision is made for two reasons, a good reason and a real reason. I suspect that the real reason that Fetzer lost the case is because he is a vile individual who made it his life’s mission to terrorize the grieving parents of murdered children in a crazed attempt to bend reality to match his ideology.

But the good reason, the reason it was possible to find against him legally is because there was ample evidence that Fetzer had oceans of evidence to show that what he was writing was untrue, but he published it anyway. He had, after all, been posting on it online obsessively, so he could not claim to have been misinformed.

It’s sort of ironic that his obsessiveness actually hurt him legally, rather than helped him, but this was a very exceptional legal case. It’s extremely rare for anyone to win a significant libel case, which is why it’s rare that they are even taken. Is this a good situation?

The rise of fake news cannot be seen in isolation from this issue. There are some outlets out there that freely publish lie after lie, that make a lot of money doing that because it brings in the clicks, and the people who are being lied about can basically do nothing about it.

The effect of this is that public pressure, which can sometimes convert into political pressure, is making big tech companies into a poor substitute for libel courts. Facebook, twitter and others are feeling the pressure to get fake news off their platform, or at least to be given less attention, and they are responding, to some degree. They try to outsource the decision as to what is fake and what isn’t, but they can’t run away from it totally. Many of the platforms – as they call themselves to try to avoid the tag ‘publishers’ – many of them have been deleting posts, closing accounts, banning people.

Conservatives in particular have complained about being victimized about this. Whether they’re just being snowflakes or have a genuine grievance is another question. But this highlights a question that we aren’t tackling. There’s a list of things – no effective libel laws, frictionless publishing for everyone with a phone, social media companies not being a privatized judge and jury, and the defense of people who are the victims of merciless campaigns of lies. You can have some of the things on that list, but you can’t have all of them.

CO126 Richard Vedder on America’s Short-changed Students

Richard Vedder is an economist, historian, author, and columnist. He is a professor emeritus of economics at Ohio University and senior fellow at The Independent Institute. Who have just published his latest book called Restoring the Promise: Higher Education in America.

In our discussion, I mentioned the fact that the number of hours of minimum-wage working required to fund a year at university has skyrocketed since the 1960s:


There was an interesting little aside in an episode of South Park a few years back, but if you live in the UK, you may not have caught it, because that episode of South Park, the cartoon with eight-year-old Colorado boys who seem to know too much and too little about life was never shown in the UK. The episode had a poorly-drawn caricature of the actor Tom Cruise, who improbably shows up at the house of one of the boys, gets offended, hides in the boy’s wardrobe and won’t come out.

***** 1

You get the impression that the writers are trying to make a point.

But don’t make that point in England.

American libel laws started out very similar to the ones in England, but they have diverged radically, and that change has become such a part of the culture in the US that it’s hard for many people grasp the difference. The main change came about from a case in the US called New York Times v O’Sullivan. I don’t want to go deep into the legality, but basically, in 1964, the New York Times published a piece on policing civil rights demonstrations in Alabama which contained some inaccuracies, and the Montgomery police commissioner LB Sullivan considered that constituted a libel against him.

He sued for libel. In the UK that would be a slam-dunk. You accuse someone of something you can’t prove in court. Ka-ching, they get a big payout, supposedly to compensate them for the loss of their good name.

But the New York Times fought the case to the Supreme Court arguing that the First Amendment meant that they needed some latitude. If they publish millions of words a day, they are going to make some honest mistakes and if that could put them out of business, that would effectively restrain their free expression.

The court agreed, and changed the standard to take a libel case. Someone suing now doesn’t just have to show that what was written was wrong; they have to show that the publisher was malicious or reckless in writing it. It’s no good to just prove the facts support you; you have to prove the journalist knew, or should have known the truth but wrote something false anyway.

That sounds reasonable, but it puts a burden on the person taking the case to effectively prove what was going on in the mind of the journalist when they wrote it, and the only way to do that is to ask them, and it’s pretty unlikely that they will voluntarily admit to malice or recklessness.

In the UK, the old standard still applies; in fact it has got much stricter. All along, if you could afford an expensive lawyer, and if you got wind that some journalist was going to publish a story about you that you didn’t like, and if you could take them to court in time, you could get an injunction, an order not to publish. The only way to fight this was to prove every detail of the story in court, an impossible burden for most publications.

But journalists developed a couple of strategies to fight this. One was to keep the stories top secret until publication, but that meant you couldn’t ask the subject for a comment and risked missing out some aspect of the story, increasing the risk of a libel case. Another was, if you got injuncted, not to report the story, but report on the injunction.

So the courts started issuing what are called superinjunctions. That’s a court order not only not to publish a story, but also not to publish the injunction, or report that the injunction exists, or report anything about the case whatsoever, and it applies to anyone who knows anything about it, so by definition no journalist can report it.

There have been a few high profile cases, including one taken by the chairman of the Conservative party. In the 1980s he won half a million pounds sterling, a gigantic fortune at the time, from a newspaper that reported that he had paid a prostitute for sex. Decades later, he was convicted of perjury, the story was entirely true. The newspaper was from a big media group, but other smaller publications have been totally put out of business by libel awards.

But that was the 1980s, before the internet took hold. That brings me back to South Park and Tom Cruise. Now anything that is published anywhere is, give or take the odd great firewall, published everywhere. Including England.

That gives us what is called libel tourism. People with no connection to the UK at all, going to the UK to sue other people with no connection to the UK for what they wrote in publications with no connection to the UK. That path has been somewhat narrowed, following a change in the law in 2014, but it’s still there, and that’s why the episode from South Park that I’ve taken that clip from has never been shown on British TV.

South Park hit back with another episode where a whole host so stars lock themselves in the boy’s wardrobe, and when they come out you hear this exchange.

I’ll sue you in England seems to be the ultimate threat that a celeb can make to a publisher, because it’s basically impossible to sue in the US.

Whatever about the international impact, this affects British politics profoundly. If you want to know how profoundly, try to find out how many children the UK prime minister, Boris Johnson has. British reporters, if they mention the topic at all, usually say that he has ‘at least’ five children. His Wikipedia entry, at the time of recording, in the quick facts box says ‘Children: 5 or 6’. He has four children with his second wife, another with a woman he had an affair with while he was married to his second wife – that information came out in a court case – and there are persistent rumors of at least one more child with another woman, but nobody’s publishing.

The British libel laws are said to allow politicians to sleep soundly in other people’s beds, but I’m much more concerned about them being used to prevent information vital to the public good being published. One oil company, called Trafigura used a superinjunction to prevent the publication of a report that they had been illegally dumping toxic waste on beaches in West Africa. We found out about that because of a concerted action including a member of the British parliament who managed to mention it in a speech, under parliamentary privilege.

For the rest – we don’t know, because we don’t know. That’s the problem with libel laws being too strict. But what about the almost – almost – non-existent libel laws in the US – more next week.

But my point about the British laws is not so much about the scandals that people try to suppress, but break through, not even about the stories that are successfully stymied by legal action, but about the much larger number of stories that never get that far, because journalists are too afraid to write them, or just don’t even start on the research because they know that there is a good chance that they will never be able to publish.

That is a cancer on public life.

CO125 Wen Fa on Litigating Liberty

Wen Fa is an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, a national, nonprofit legal organization that represents clients free of charge.

We talked about his work on cases including Rentberry v. City of Seattle about rent-bidding laws, and another tenant/landlord case, Pakdel v. City and County of San Francisco, and various cases about Vaping.


Francis Rawls is in jail. And that’s where he’s staying. He lost his case at the 3rd US Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. So what has he been convicted of? Nothing.

Rawls, a former Philadelphia police officer has been in jail 17 months because he invoked the Fifth Amendment, he said he wouldn’t give self-incriminating information to police investigating him. But the Fifth Amendment is, you know, the Fifth Amendment. It guarantees the right not to incriminate yourself.

The exact text is no person “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself”. So how come the court denied his appeal, with three judges voting unanimously against him? It’s partly because the information that the police and the courts want him to hand over, and that he is refusing, are the passwords to encrypted external hard drives that were connected to his computer. The police seized them, along with his computer because they believe they contain child porn, and they do have good reason to believe that, and they convinced a judge to give them a warrant to seize and search his computer.

The appeals court ruled that forensic examination showed that Rawls had downloaded thousands of files, the hash values of which indicated they were child pornography.  That’s a bit of geek-speak but it means they were monitoring his online activity, they didn’t get the actual files, but they recognized that they were extremely likely to be identical to files of known child porn images.

There was other evidence – one image depicting a pubescent girl in a sexually suggestive position was found on his computer, Rawls’ sister had said her brother showed her hundreds of pictures and videos of child porn, and that logs on his computer that suggested the user had visited groups with titles common in child exploitation.

There are some problems with that evidence, logs of a computer visiting pages with titles common in child exploitation doesn’t mean that the computer downloaded child porn, and they don’t prove who generated those logs; but that said, you can be damn sure I wouldn’t be leaving  Francis Rawls alone with any child of mine.

But Rawls hasn’t been convicted of anything, he hasn’t even been charged with anything, but the court ruled that the Fifth Amendment doesn’t apply; the lower court, the appeals court and the police, all agreed that the presence of child porn on his drives was a “foregone conclusion.” That’s where my real problem was. If it is a foregone conclusion, why not just use the evidence that shows it is a foregone conclusion to charge and convict Rawls?

We’ve had a speaker from the Electronic Frontier Foundation on the podcast before and one of their attorneys said about this case “compelled decryption is inherently testimonial because it compels a suspect to use the contents of their mind to translate unintelligible evidence into a form that can be used against them. The Fifth Amendment provides an absolute privilege against such self-incriminating compelled decryption.”

But the court disagreed, and Rawls stays in prison until he hands over the passwords, even though he has already been inside for longer than he might expect to be if he was sentenced for possessing child porn.

It’s hard to have sympathy with someone who’s probably a pedophile, but that’s the whole point. If our rights can be cancelled by just being accused of being a criminal, then none of those rights will last long. There’s no point in saying that everyone is entitled to a fair trial, as long as they are not suspected of being a criminal.

And this is not a rarified situation. Many countries have a variation of this, but New Zealand has gone a step further and made it a crime for anyone travelling in or out of that country not to unlock their phone or other devices for border officials to snoop through and copy as they see fit. No reason, no warrant required, and anyone who doesn’t comply will have their devices confiscated, along with a $5,000 fine.

So if anyone you’ve ever been sexting with decides to take a trip to New Zealand, you can expect your private photos to be shared around the break room of the border guards, and then be sent on to all their friends, and their friends’ friends, and so on.

It’s long been established that countries are entitled to check the goods coming across their borders to make sure they are legitimate, the right taxes are paid and so on. When the electronic age came in, that seems to have been quietly extended to examining the data stored on laptops, phones and so on.

I just don’t buy the line that this is to protect us from terrorists or organized crime. Anyone who is wise to these laws will be smart enough to make sure they only travel with clean devices. If they want to store or transport incriminating data, they can just encrypt it, email it to themselves, and pick it up once they have crossed the border.

Sure, these laws might pick up the odd dumb criminal, but that leaves the question – are you willing to sacrifice all of your privacy, hand over all your data to the border agents of any country you, or anyone you’ve been in contact with travels to for them to make use of on their next bathroom break or to pass on to their secret police, just to pick up the odd dumb criminal?

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CO124 Steven Taylor on The Electoral College, again

Steven Taylor  is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University, Alabama. He specialises in political parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. We discussed an article he wrote for Outside the Beltway.

We’ve been hearing a lot about Ukraine in the past week, and I can promise you’ll be hearing a lot more about it the coming weeks and months, and maybe even years. I’m not going to try to keep you up to date with what’s going on in the White House, that’s not really the job of a podcast, certainly not this podcast.

Continue reading “CO124 Steven Taylor on The Electoral College, again”

CO123 Anthony Galace on Greenlining not Redlining

Anthony Galace is the director of health equity at the Greenlining Institute.


Our brains don’t really work so well with very small or very large numbers. If I ask you to imagine the distance from earth to the sun, from earth to the nearest star, or earth to the nearest galaxy, it’s tempting to just think very, very far in all three cases, even though each one is millions of times more than the previous one.

Continue reading “CO123 Anthony Galace on Greenlining not Redlining”