I’ve long thought that the death penalty as implemented here in the U.S. is expensive, unpopular, ineffective, inaccurate, and ought to, itself, be put down. It’s popped up in the news again lately, and parts of the recent flurry of comments are interesting to note.

It looks like I may have to revise my opinion of ‘ineffective’. Naci Mocan and R. Kaj Gittings have a few papers investigating links between executions carried out vs. future homicides committed. They finds that executions cause fewer homicides, while commutations of sentences cause increases. Their second paper finds that crime may be preventable with the proper conditions that produce incentives to work for gain legally.

From the AP:

“Science does really draw a conclusion. It did. There is no question about it. “The conclusion is there is a deterrent effect. The results are robust, they don’t really go away. I oppose the death penalty. But my results show that the death penalty [deters] — what am I going to do, hide them?”

I have to applaud Prof. Mocan for sticking to his observations when they fly in the face of his personal views. Parts of both papers show the echoes of reviewers and emotionalists attempting to chastise him for publishing findings that are inconvenient to their pet causes:

“Although these results demonstrate the existence of the deterrent effect of capital punishment, it should be noted that there remain a number of significant issues surrounding the imposition of the death penalty. For example, although the Supreme Court of the United States remains unconvinced that there exists racial discrimination in the imposition of the death penalty, recent research points to the possibility of such discrimination. Along the same lines, there is evidence indicating that there is discrimination regarding who gets executed and whose sentence gets commuted once the death penalty is received. Given these concerns, a stand for or against capital punishment should be taken with caution.”

The fact that Prof. Mocan has to add that to his papers is a sad demonstration that his colleagues are no longer scientists (even when loosely applying that term to a science as soft as economics), but activists — determined to further their cause regardless of the actual empirical data. Nearly a full page of his second paper is spent explaining that ‘just because his findings show a deterrent effect, that doesn’t mean that everyone should drop what their doing and kill a death-row inmate.’ This shows that his colleagues, newcomers to the world of moral reasoning, are still adjusting to how to deal with research that conflicts with what they decided the result “must be”.

So capital punishment is apparently slightly effective. It’s still expensive, unpopular, and ridiculously inaccurate. (Way to Go, Illinois! You’re #2!) It will be interesting to watch the lawyers-cum-researchers stretch their pundit wings and opine back and forth about this for a few years before deciding to sue each other into silence. The flurry of comments this year are significant because the author is stating the unfashionable opinion (but still distancing himself personally from it). The real state of the practice in this country will likely go untouched by these numbers, as most people approach this question emotionally and morally; they are usually immune to statistics-based arguments from either camp.

So for those of you scoring at home, that’s +1 for Prof. Mocan — he gets his little attention-boost like a good news-seeking lawyer/researcher. ‘Law and Economics’ reviewers get a -1 for demanding all results be fashionable. But overall, capital punishment in the US still gets a really really low score.


As a bit of variety for our readers, I’ve decided to throw together a periodic humor piece inspired by Simon Travaglia BOFH. It’s not exactly an angry rant… but it is Friday — you deserve a few laughs.

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It’s about 9:30 on Tuesday when I roll into the lab. We had a wicked bender last night at the little Irish pub in convenient stumbling distance from my couch, and so I’m pretty hung over (dark sunglasses and all). Disregarding my now fading headache (pounding 4 aspirins does make a difference), I plop down into my chair and try to log in to my account.

Only to find that I can’t log in at all.

Or for that matter ping the server, once I’ve rebooted into single user mode.

Not good.

I wander across the lab and give the server the ol’ three finger salute.


A hard reboot is equally as ineffective. Drat. I was actually intending on getting work done today — after I spent a little while getting caught up on friday’s BOFH.

After a quick stop by the hideously overpriced coffee shop down on the first floor for a half double-decaffeinated half-caff with a twist of lemon (which somehow came out as an Americano with a slice of orange… the bastards), I clear off a table in the lab by dumping the scattered papers into one pile in the corner. I’m sure the first year didn’t have any particular ordering scheme in mind for his paperwork. Within half and hour, I’ve completely field-stripped the server and have nearly busted out the multimeter when I see something a tad bit odd — a memory chip that’s clearly been cracked in half.

Say all you want about “thermal fatigue,” but memory chips don’t do THAT… which leaves me with one conclusion — somebody else did. But who?

Was it Amy, the theorist best described as an idiot savant — brilliant about theoretical physics and high-falutin’ mathematics, but utterly clueless about anything else in the world? No, it’s unlikely that she could figure out how to open the case, even if I showed here where the quick release was on the side panel.

What about Sasha, the surly Eastern European theorist? Also unlikely. She’s evidently just found Jesus and has been off partying with him all weekend. Not the sort of partying I’ve been doing, but if it makes her any less surly, I’m all for it!

What about Javier, the Puerto Rican experimentalist? No. Javier’s the only guy in the lab who works less than I do… and over a three day weekend, there’s no way Javier would’ve stumbled into the lab… unless he’d had enough booze to forget where his apartment was.

No, it could’ve been the first year… what was his name again? But he seemed to not realize that he was in grad school yet, and was probably boozing it up with Javier.

No, there’s only one other option — Li, the stereotypical workaholic Chinese grad student, who’s deathly scared of the commies revoking his visa. Now, I don’t like Li to begin with — workaholic foreigners are bad for us more laid-back American types. By having no life outside the lab (at least Li showers), they slowly convince professors that 16 hour work days are “normal” and suddenly your whole office is speaking Mandarin and you’re getting the pink slip for putting only 8 hours in a day. As I only put in about 4, this would be a big problem. Thankfully, Li isn’t all that good at science, so his overall productivity isn’t that high, but he’s still a threat. And if Li broke the server, I’m a threat… to him.

A trip by ECE stores has me billing a new memory chip to The Advisor’s grant. By lunch time the server is up and running, so I can check my email before I head down to Burrito Mucho Grande for my traditional Monday lunch (yes, it’s Tuesday, but three day weekends reset the lunch schedule). The internet was out all weekend because some idiot down in Central Computing gas-axed through the external line. You could almost see the light bulb above my head as I pour a bunch of dust in the card reader and headed to Burrito Mucho Grande. Whoever messed with the server did so because the internet was out… and thought it was a problem with the server… *my* server. And whoever that someone is will pay.

Upon my return (and after I pick up my next cup of coffee), the card reader is out — who would have known — so I head down to the office of the only secretary in the building with actual keys to the rooms (the university having moved to card readers to “save money” and not just because the chancellor’s cousin owned a card reader business in Skokie). She sighs and walks me back to the lab and is about to let me in when I trip, spilling my coffee and grabbing her swipe card (carelessly left inside her purse). I apologize profusely, she lets me in and I duplicate her card before leaving it by the potted plant outside the lab (so she can find it when she retraces her steps after realizing she “dropped” it).

The rest of the day passes fairly uneventfully as I restock the lab’s chemical supplies from central stores. The clerk wonders why I’ve ordered so much liquid nitrogen, but I tell her some cock and bull story about a new supercooling experiment until she lets me go my way. After 6pm when most of the building staff is gone, I head down to the secretary’s office and let myself in. Within a few minutes I’ve broken into her NT box and I’m loading up the cardkey log software. Thankfully it’s web-based and Miss Secretary has chosen the “remember this password” option in her browser, so within no time I’m looking over the access logs to the lab, which confirm my suspicions — Li was the only person in the lab this weekend. And now he needs to be taught a lesson.

I head back to the lab (who’s door I propped this afternoon) and rig up a tripwire with some fishing line tied to the valve on the liquid nitrogen canister. I pull the patch cable out of the server and quietly lock the door and walk down to the lobby, chatting with the janitor about the Uni basketball team when…


It looks like the server is down… and Li’s feeling worse. That’s what you get for messing with


“I call petroleum the devil’s excrement. It brings trouble…Look at this locura—waste, corruption, consumption, our public services falling apart. And debt, debt we shall have for years.” —JUAN PABLO PEREZ ALFONSO, a founder of OPEC, in 1975

Venezuela—owner of a very large pool of oil and, thus, the curse of an oil economy—is set to choose whether Hugo Chavez gets to be President for Life or not come December 2. Chavez, for those of you who don’t know, is El Presidente of Venezuela, petro-dollar fueled caudillo and current object of bootlicking by dipshit celebrity leftists like Sean Penn and Naomi Campbell, along with tepid support from the likes of Noam Chomsky (whom Chavez seems to think is dead).

“He who draws his sword against his prince should throw away the scabbard.” —ALESSANDRO FARNESE, Third Duke of Parma

TORANAGA: There is no mitigating factor for rebellion against your liege lord.
BLACKTHORNE: Unless you win.
TORANAGA: Very well, you may have named the one mitigating factor. —JAMES CLAVELL, Shogun

All this could have been avoided. Back in 1992, then Teniente Coronel (Lieutenant Colonel) Hugo Chavez led a failed “colonel’s” coup against the government of Venezuela. The government of Venezuela, led by then-President Carlos Andres Perez, didn’t listen to the corollary of the advice of the Duke of Parma. I’m sure that the good Duke would have thought it was so obvious it went without saying. Updated for modern times, the reward due to all who attempt a coup and fail is, in order:

  1. A night to make peace with the maker of your choice (optional);
  2. A nice meal (optional);
  3. A cigarette (optional);
  4. A blindfold (optional);
  5. Several high velocity rifle rounds to the chest (not optional, though a stout length of rope around the neck or a sharp blade are acceptable substitutions);
  6. A hollow point to the head (if needed).

Failure to follow this obvious advice is not a recipe for long-term survival of a government and, indeed, a profound sign of its weakness. Think, for instance, of the savings had Adolf Hitler received his justified reward for the Beer Hall Putsch rather than several months in jail, which he used to write Mein Kampf and catch up on his sleep for his soon-to-come European tour.

Given the nature of Venezuela as a petro-state, weakness is almost guaranteed, which is why Chavez has been able to win in slow motion since 1992. Post-World War II, Venezuela developed an odd system of planned party alternation known as puntofijismo, in which two political parties agreed, starting in 1958, to swap back and forth who got the presidency. Venezuela was beset by outsiders wanting to intervene, e.g., Cuban-backed revolutionaries and rightwingers financed by Dominican dictator Trujillo, and had recently come out of its own caudillo past. So at the time getting some political stability probably made sense, but as time went on, the system got more and more corrupt, creakier and creakier, until Chavez made his move in 1992, pushing himself up from nobody in the army to the center stage, kicking down the puntofijismo to allow in third parties. By that he meant, of course, his party.

While many like to think that petroleum (or any other expensive commodity) is a Godsend to a poor country, petro-states are widely known to have severe weaknesses, corruption, serious lack of broad-based economic development, and the accompanying political corrosion. They rarely do well over the long term, instead going through major boom-and-bust cycles as oil prices go up and down. Right now, oil is up. In the ’80s, oil was down, way down, which is why Chavez was able to stage his coup. It won’t be up forever, most likely being replaced as a diverse basket of bio-fuels, solar, etc. While Venezuela could be a participant in the development of modern energy (and hence a modern economy), rather than spending the money on future investments, Chavez is busy spending it on a giant planned city in currently uninhabited hills, oil subsidies to the Mid-Atlantic states and New England, petro-swaps to Cuba for doctors (rather than, oh, trying to grow some of your own), lots more guns to protect against a coming “Yanqui” invasion, six hour workdays, etc. And, of course, he buys off the legions of Venezuelan poor—those who don’t benefit from the oil bucks that are stolen by Bolivarian apparatchik cronies, competed away, or diverted into the coffers of international companies, just like in basically any other petro-state, but have to suffer through the boom-and-bust of a commodity economy. Chavez’ behavior, in short, reminds me of the kind of thing I’d expect of a lottery winner elevated up from the trailer park to the realm of multi-millionaire, only writ large. Sure, he’s putting his friends’ kids through college and paying mom’s medical bills, but he’s also supporting a deadbeat uncle with six kids and doesn’t realize his stash is, in fact, limited, and needs to be grown for the future.

“All great historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice … the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” —KARL MARX, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

In 1994, Chavez was let out of jail. In 1998 he ran for President, running as a “Bolivarian,” more or less meaning “socialist.” Over the last decade, he’s been gradually undermining the democratic state of Venezuela—flawed as it was—using the playbook of dictators such as Louis Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler, etc., a playbook first written by the original “man on horseback”, Gaius Julius Caesar. These include:

  • Widespread use of rule by decree and emergency powers of highly dubious legal grounds.
  • Ignoring international bodies (in this case the OAS) when it suits his purposes.
  • Whipping up populist fury by constantly playing the nationalist and the xenophobic “they’re out to get us!” card, e.g., by conveniently cutting ties with Colombia right before an election.
  • Engaging in a my way or the highway foreign policy based on chumming up with lackwits like Mahmood Ahmadinijad.
  • Siccing jackbooted thugs on his Jewish countrymen (where have we heard that one before?)

Since being elected president in 1998, Chavez is busy actually doing a lot of the stuff that gives Dick Cheney major wood when he’s in his undisclosed location and not busy shooting hunting companions in the face. Add to that plenty of stuff that Cheney wouldn’t ever countenance, too. If Hugo wasn’t constantly giving Uncle Sam the middle finger and, let’s face it, they weren’t so f—ing stupid, Hollywood Leftists and my home boy Radical Jack would be slamming him for what he really is. Now, he’s completing the process of autogolpe, “self-coup,” or so he hopes. He may well have over-played his hand.

Why, may you ask, has the US done nothing? Well, first of all, the US does not have the power that the wildest dreams of Latin American conspiracy theorists believe it to have in general and certainly not in the case of Venezuela. Simply put, Chavez has us—mutually—by the cojones. The US obtains 15%+ of its oil from Venezuela. Remember all those refineries forced to shut down by Hurricane Katrina? They’re set up to refine the very tarry Venezuelan oil. Oil, you see, is only fungible up to a point, since it varies greatly in its characteristics. US refineries are set up to receive Venezuelan oil. Most other refineries aren’t. Refineries are not easy or quick to build. You do the math.

Unfortunately, Chavez is very, very good at playing the anti-American populist card. Also unfortunately, much of American foreign policy is designed for domestic consumption (or as bureaucratic grandstanding). Backroom channels, supporting the locals, letting the locals own initiatives, etc., don’t look sexy to the American voter and thus often lose out to more active policies that often breed long-term resentment. So it is with Chavez. Two examples spring to mind:

  • Pat Robertson’s loose lips calling for Chavez’ assassination. While most people in the US think Robertson is a lunatic (not enough, however, to keep him off the air entirely), abroad he’s perceived as a non-governmental figure who is close to the current administration.
  • In 2002 there was a coup attempt to overthrow Chavez, who by that time was a democratically-elected president. Whatever really happened, the US government was seen to be giving tacit support to the coup. While Chavez himself attempted a coup, he doesn’t much like the notion of it happening to him (duh) and, more importantly, is quite willing to use the event rhetorically forever.

Chavez’ idol Simon Bolivar ended his life as a dictator and was about to go into exile, but he died of consumption first. The people of Venezuela will, alas, probably not be so fortunate since I’m quite sure that Chavez has the best Cuban doctors his petro-dollars can buy…. Morphing from “leftist hero” to “right wing oppressor” is really not at all hard to manage. Mussolini started as a socialist “man of the people.” Juan Peron was similar. Indeed, we should not forget that the “socialism” in National Socialism was there for a reason.

Let’s hope the people of Venezuela on Sunday finally realize that giving ultimate power to one man is a road best not traveled… though, of course, it may be too late.

Update: It looks like Venezuelans decided that Chavez for life was too much for them. Let’s see if Chavez actually has any democratic bones in his body and actually accepts the verdict of a loss, which is, in my view, the key test. Of course, just because Chavez himself won’t be in office doesn’t mean he won’t pull a Vladimir Putin, unarguably the most successful of the petro-state presidents. Lest we forget, the fall of the Soviet Union was, in no small part, due to the drop in the price of oil in the late ’80s, and chaos in Russia in the ’90s was also maintained by the drop in oil price. Next time the price goes down….

Update (02/12/08): Hugo’s regime seems to be unraveling. It seems that even large amounts of oil money can’t balance the unicycle.