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.

-AI

John McCain needs to write Hillary Clinton a thank-you letter, and he might as well start working on it right now. At this point, there’s nothing he can do to help himself win this year’s presidential election more than what Senator Clinton has already done.

First and foremost, Clinton is trying to get herself (s)elected as the Democratic nominee. Considering that she might be the most passionately hated person in America (not counting terrorists, who presumably do not live in America), there is nothing McCain could do to gain the support of the far right more than having her as an opponent. They’re still convinced that she is just biding her time and plotting her way to creating a socialist state, no matter how lamely centrist she might actually be in reality. The Clinton-haters may be delusional, but they happen to be exactly the same Republicans who are disappointed with McCain. So, McCain can count on getting the moderates on his own merits, and he can count on Hillary to deliver the right-wing votes to him as well. One McCain presidency, courtesy of Clinton.

Second, Clinton keeps praising McCain in her efforts to tear down Obama. People are becoming genuinely concerned that Clinton’s do-anything-to-win strategy is guaranteeing that even if she loses, she will have raised enough doubts about Obama to keep him from winning as well. “If I can’t have the White House, then you can’t either!” says both the toddler and the junior senator from New York. All McCain will need to do is to take the Clinton ads out of the trash, change a couple names, and start running them on TV. Again, a McCain presidency, courtesy of Clinton.

Speaking of doing anything to win, Clinton’s efforts to get delegates any way she can is doing a great job of damaging the Democratic Party’s credibility. I was a little worried back when it was announced that Clinton was the only candidate remaining on the disqualified Michigan ballot. Sure enough, she’s now trying to get the delegates from Michigan and Florida to count. Once again, the only comparison that comes to mind is little kids cheating by changing the rules in the middle of their games. This is politics, not Calvinball, and any attempt to treat it as such will only make the Democrats look like crooks. In turn, this will help McCain win the presidency.

Now there are even rumors that the Clinton campaign will try to get pledged delegates (not the superdelegates!) to switch sides at the convention. Such a strategy is so unlikely to work that I doubt the rumors. However, given everything else we’ve seen from Senator Clinton, perhaps I shouldn’t be so skeptical.

In the end, Senator Clinton just doesn’t get it. She talks about a joint ticket with Obama, which is great if all you want is to get one or both of these people into the White House at some point. However, a backroom deal to settle the nomination is not going to please voters who support Obama specifically because they’re fed up with the current crowd of politicians (including Clinton) and their backroom dealings. The joint ticket idea just seems like yet another way for Clinton to put herself in the White House in spite of losing most of the primaries; and it’s exactly that kind of cynical ambition that will turn off voters in the general election.

So, whether she wins or loses, Clinton’s doing all she can to make McCain the president in 2009. She might lose in August or she might lose in November, but her seemingly limitless drive to win guarantees that sooner or later, she will lose.

It’s looking more and more like the campaign of HRC believed their own “inevitability” line and didn’t bother to plan past Super Tuesday. Tell a line long enough and you start to believe it yourself and stop thinking about what you might need to do if your “inevitability” turns out not to be so inevitable after all and the opposition doesn’t cooperate by playing their assigned role of loser. There’s a name for this problem: Victory Disease. Believe it or not, the Wikipedia page is pretty solid, so I’ll quote it for you (with some slight edits):

The signs are:

  • Arrogance, overconfidence, and complacency,
  • Use of previously victorious patterns of fighting, and not developing new tactics to anticipate enemy advances,
  • Stereotypes of enemies, underestimating enemies,
  • Ignorance of contrary intelligence or refusal to recognize it.

While the winning side grows complacent, arrogant, feeling invincible, the enemy adapts. Military disaster ensues. While “victory disease” does not automatically foretell failure, it is a strong indicator. The term applies outside the military world.

The deep irony is that HRC and her team got a heck of a case before any actual victories.

This should sound familiar: It’s essentially the Donald Plan (Rumsfeld that is) for post-invasion Iraq. But, as he said famously at the time “it would be weeks, not months.” Now he was right about formal large unit operations but that doesn’t change the misleading nature of the quote, which was widely believed to mean “just like Desert Storm,” i.e., no long occupation, no big bill, no casualties, etc. We all know how well that turned out. Lots of people whose jobs it is to know better were telling the then-SecDef and those above him that things were going to be trouble. The invasion could have been more difficult than it was but it was not seriously in doubt. The post-invasion, on the other hand…. Well let’s just say that such things are complicated and cannot be left for improvisation. You need a plan for what happens when things don’t go the way they should.

Well HRC has fallen into the same trap. Her campaign’s been noting things like the fact that the Texas delegate allocation rules are arcane and perverse. Well, that may be, but one would presume that it was her campaign’s job to find out about such things and plan for them, rather than whinge about it down the line. And she’s one to talk about arcane and perverse rules manipulation, what with changing her mind on the Florida and Michigan primaries. Again, she’s got a fig leaf of a point but was only pro these states when it looked like it was going to be good for her. Before that, who cares? She agreed to—but then reneged on—having her name removed from the ballot.

Whether this was simply due to carelessness or some other motive I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. The message of the 2000 election is that victories based on “strategery” and procedural tricks executed by one’s partisans who have multiple relationships undermine the legitimacy of the election. Sound familiar? They need to be avoided and the system upheld, i.e., be both fair and seem to be fair. Clearly the Florida and Michigan issue is a problem and, most likely, the best thing to do is to hold a caucus after the last scheduled primary. Given how chaotic this primary season has been, it’s not at all clear if it will be worthless or amazingly relevant, so by trying to push to the head of the line Florida and Michigan may well have gotten what they wanted by boosting their relevance. That would be a bit perverse, too, but poetic justice deserves its own poetic justice now and then.

Other things:

  • Speeches don’t put food on the table. Oh really? (I suppose it’s true since the presidential pension would be quite sufficient.)
  • States and voters “don’t count.” (See “Rove” and “base”.)
  • A senior staffer really known for loyalty above anything else who spent more time watching soap operas in her office, burning through money, and then famously said “screw this, Joey doesn’t want me!” when her son asked for his Dad before bedtime when things got bad. Or maybe we’re just lead to believe she said that? And if so, what does it say about HRC’s “people”? That they will stiff her when the going gets tough? That HRC can’t discipline her staff appropriately? All of the above, most likely, but an inability to appropriately discipline staff—particularly those who are longtime friends with demographically appealing bios—sounds pretty familiar too.
  • Rampant playing of the “two for one” card while still talking about being “her own woman,” i.e., trying to have it both ways. (At least this one is new.)

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t see some kind of superhero in Obama, or McCain, for that matter. They’re both more stirring than HRC, but ultimately I’m enough of a realist to know that every president steps in the doggie doo eventually. Were he to become president, I’m sure BHO would have his share of scandals in his administration. One of the virtues of a long campaign is show just what kind of person you are when you step in it, and by that score, HRC isn’t showing up too well.

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ObFascism Tag: Look up some of Hitler’s famous quote about how well Operation Barabarossa would go: “Bolshevism will collapse as a house of cards.”

The Soviets loved their “five year plans,” much imitated by other Communist nations back in the day, though often with slight variations like the “seven year plan”. (ObFascism: Five years was too long for Germany: The Nazis had four year plans.) It seems that some Democratic primary voters are touting the “sixteen year plan.” This is a plan dreamed up by people who say things like:

Imagine the possibilities…

  • A generation of progressive leadership in the White House
  • A new era of global cooperation to combat poverty, hunger, and AIDS
  • A lasting commitment to protecting the environment and combating global climate change
  • A new progressive balance of power on the Supreme Court
  • Enough time to begin undoing the damage caused by 8 years of George Bush

In other words, people who are blowing as much sugary sunshine the back door way as a delusional modern progressive can stand without going into insulin shock, in a nice way that makes Barack Obama look Rush Limbaugh-mean.

In a nutshell—which is about all there is here, and it’s one of those disappointing empty peanuts—the Sixteen Year Plan is:

  1. In 2008, HRC runs for President, BHO runs for Vice-President.
  2. In 2012, HRC runs for Vice-President, BHO runs for President.
  3. In 2016, HRC runs for President, BHO runs for Vice-President.
  4. In 2020, HRC runs for Vice-President, BHO runs for President.

This plan, therefore, neatly side-steps that 22nd Amendment, which states that a person is eligible for two terms as President, c’est tout, you’re done. I admit that it sounds “hinky” to me (thanks Abby) and probably violates some constitutional thing or another, but it’s on the edge of plausible, legally. I recall seeing this touted on the Washington Post forum by a poster (not one of the columnists) and thought it was ridiculous then but, it has taken on a life of its own on the intarweb much like other dumbass ideas. It’s the sort of plan that a smart high school civics student might dream up, with no notion of just how amazingly damaging to the all-too-fragile system and the norms that hold the entire electoral edifice up it would be. Such an idea was bandied about on the Republican side in 1976 when they were facing a split convention… Ronald Reagan wisely rejected such a deal, and waited four years to win a legitimate victory. We don’t need plans like this, not after the 2000 election, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, invented notes about George W. Bush’s service record (thin as the real one was), Karl Rove’s shenanigans such as accusing John McCain of fathering a black child out of wedlock in the 2000 South Carolina primary, and whatever other sleazy shit from the pile of digested Alpo from the last several years you want to pick up. No, right now what we need is a nice, clean “by the book” election, not this is freakin’ stupid and profoundly anti-“little d” democratic idea.

It’s wrong but not close to wrong enough to be “so wrong, it’s so right.” No, it’s just plain wrong.

W-R-O-N-G.

W-R-O-N-G.

Never mind the fact that this would be a clear case of “too many chiefs, not enough Indians” (two too many, given the unelected presence of Bill Clinton throughout the whole process).

Never mind the fact that it’s ludicrous to believe it would be a “credible commitment” for whomever went first—Hillary, obviously, given that this is a cheesedick way for wavering HRC supporters to get Obama to back down. Sure, I believe that you’re going to step down after being president, sure. It’s with that property in Florida and the Brooklyn Bridge….

It makes a total mockery of the electoral system and is, in essence, a throwback to the smoke filled room in the worst sort way. And I’m somewhat a fan of the old days of the smoke filled room, but this is pathetic.

It’s the kind of scheme that elected dictators of the likes of Vladimir Putin dream up when political pressure gets high enough that they need to step out of the office. Wait… Vladimir Putin IS ENACTING it!

It’s the kind of thing that shows up in Latin America, cf. Puntofijismo. It might have been OK for a while but lead to the inevitable stagnation down the road that gave the world my buddy Hugo Chavez.

I’m sure Karl Rove got semi-hard when he was hanging in Dick’s secure, undisclosed location thinking about this sort of thing, but then laughed when he realized that one’s never going to the altar with him….

This is America. We can, and should, do better than this pathetic scheme.

While the 12AngryMen wax philosophic on the issues of our time, I thought it would be perhaps useful to forward a bit of knowledge to our dear readers. Let me preface this missive by stating that in a previous life, I developed banking and on-line software for a credit card marketing company. While the company I worked for was not above certain ethically challenged marketing efforts, I assure you that it never decended to the levels described herein. I know — my group wrote all of the applications. One has to, however, admit to a bit of grudging admiration for the deviousness inherent in this bit of subterfuge.

Usually I make purchases on-line using my card and a bit of software called Shopsafe which produces one-time cards with a specified expiration date and a specified credit limit. This is a practice I heartily recommend by the way. Unfortunately other members of my family are not so circumspect. The following is an analysis of what happened and how it happened.

Upon receiving a monthly statement, my wife reviewed the card statement and noticed a charge for $9.00 from a company called WLI.ReservationRewards.com. I immediately recognized the charge as an after-marketing or cross-sell result from some purchase made by my wife. A quick search revealed what I expected. The on-line site my wife visited was eBags.com (which happens to be listed on the previous link.) Intriqued, did a little CSI work and uncovered the logic and process involved. The following is a bit technical, but if nothing else, skip it to the recommendations at the end.

WLI contacts on-line companies with affinity and cross-sell agreements. Basically, no one in their right mind would sign up for this crap (My previous company sold similar enhancements. They had a 98% profit margin.) So in order to get sales, WLI has to make agreements with companies who sell stuff you actually want. They will cut a deal with the company—after you complete your transaction, link to our site for a cross-sell opportunity and we will split any sales with you 50-50. To the legimate company, this is a hell of a deal. Free money even. All you have to do is add some code pages to your web site and in return you get 50% of the till. A lot of profit for no effort.

What actually happens is that instead of linking to the site as a separate session, they link internally as another page in the same session. Why is this important? When you do a credit card transaction, any reputable company will attempt to protect your credit card data. They do this by establishing an SSL session to encrypt sensitive data on-line. Because of the stateless transactions on the HTTP protocol, it is sometimes necessary to store the card data in the event that a transaction does not run to completion. Card data are usually stored in cookies encrypted under the SSL symmetric key. Note that this is actually safe as this data is not usually stored on disk, and even if it is, it is encrypted with a 128 bit symmetric key. When the session ends, the data are automatically purged, and the data on disk is not accessible as the key is toast also. Visa and Mastercard rules state that card data should not be stored, and the CVV, the verification codes are NEVER to be stored. A lot of companies interpret this as stored on disk. So when you end your transaction, and leave your session, your card data is purged. Right? Not so fast!

Remember that the code the cross-sell company added doesn’t link in the normal sense but just continues with the session in an attempt to sell you some useless crap. By continuing the session, the application running (the cross-sell application, not the original on-line store) has access to the card data in the cookie. Most legitimate companies don’t think this through — the money is too good.

Now here is where the sneakiness gets involved. This has to be legal. That is to say, somewhere you have to say that you want to buy the product that they are selling. Further, they have to send you an acknowlegment. This can be immediate (print this page) or usually as a follow-on email. So what happens?

You get to the cross-sell page and see some gobbly-gook and decide this is bullshit and navigate away from the page. You are done with it and gone. Nope! Somewhere on the page there is a box which is checked that says “Send me this crap for $9.00 a month”. This is called opt-out and is a source of great consternation between marketing people and the FTA. [As an aside, organ donors in Europe have to opt-out to NOT become an organ donor, i.e., uncheck the box. In the United States, drivers have to opt-in to become an organ donor. The relative rates of donors in Europe is over 80% verses 20% in the United States. This is the power of opt-out and why marketeers fight for it so hard.] Clever web designers that they are, attempt to hide the opt-in box which of course is prechecked (making it, in effect, an opt-out). This could be buried in a mass of text, but typically is in a place that requires the user to scroll down to see it. A cursory glance at the page shows nothing so the user just navigates away from the page.

At this point the old javascript on-exit() script kicks in. Before the browser exists, it pulls the name, card information and everything that is required to create a new transaction from the cookie left behind by the legitimate store and posts a new form to WLI. Since this is a monthly charge, it sends all of the card data so that transactions can be recurring. This has two effects: 1) you are charged for something you don’t want, and 2) your card data is now on a server somewhere else protected by likely not very much security.

Actually, I am a step ahead of myself. Typically these deals come with a free 60 or 90 day trial period, after which the charges start to appear. To be legal they have to send an acknowlegment. Since you obviously can’t print the screen since you navigated away, they send you an email. (also grabbed from the cookie.) Unfortunately, this is a simple message couched in language such that there is no immediate charge
to catch your attention and usually with a subject line that guarantees that the email will be spam-canned immediately.

After 90 days, the more enterprising send you another email, also likely spam-canned, that let you know that the charges are about to begin and then they hit you up for the $9.00 per month. The other thing is that the fees are kept low so that they are likely to slip in under the radar in a long list of charges. Err what is that – a latte I charged at Starbucks? The billing statements are also listed as obscurely as possible.

A heck of a deal. Don’t bother calling the legitimate on-line store customer service. They are usually completely unaware that this is happening, and the marketing people are not about to draw it to anyone’s attention if they find out because their revenue stream has just jumped up.

As a service to readers I give the following advise:

  • Use Shopsafe or some similar software to generate one-time cards. Set the expiration date at minimum (usually 2 months from current date) and the limit at $5.00 over the current purchase (plus shipping and handling, etc.) Scams like this can’t work if the card is invalid (expired) at the end of the free-trial period, or if the absolute credit limit will be exceeded.
  • After you complete the transaction (the page will say this) and BEFORE YOU DO ANYTHING ELSE, close the browser. Kill it — and the session data. Then open a new browser to continue whatever you want to do. Never navigate away from a completed transaction page.
  • Read your credit card statements.

[Author’s Note: If there is sufficient interest and comments, I will be willing to expose more credit card ethically challenged activities. There are several interesting ones.]