Messaging as Manslaughter: Massachusetts Modernizes the Salem Witch Trials

In July of 2014, 18-year-old Conrad Roy killed himself in Fairhaven, Massachusetts by pumping carbon monoxide into the cab of his truck. In a bench trial, a judge convicted Roy’s 17-year-old girlfriend, Michelle Carter, of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced her to 2 1/2 years in prison.

In May of 2019, 22-year-old Alexander Urtula killed himself in Boston, Massachusetts by jumping from the top of a parking garage. His 21-year-old girlfriend, Inyoung You, has likewise been charged with involuntary manslaughter.

In both cases, the charges hinge on the content of text messages in which the women encouraged, even “ordered,” the men to commit suicide.

You is a South Korean national who has since returned home. The treaty governing extradition between the US and South Korea requires that the charge involved “be recognized as a crime in both jurisdictions,” so unless text messaging is illegal in South Korea, You may avoid playing her part in yet another re-enactment of the Salem witch trials of 1692 and 1693.

Text messaging isn’t manslaughter, any more than it’s rape, robbery, or driving 60 miles per hour in a 50 mile per hour zone. Nor is possession of a doll or a mole or birthmark “witchcraft” as fantasized in 17th century Puritan New England.

Hanging 19 men and women for witchcraft, and crushing another man to death for refusing to plead to charges of witchcraft, didn’t bring an end to imagined “molestations from the invisible world.” It merely sated an outbreak of mass hysteria.

Imprisoning Michelle Carter or Inyoung You for sending text messages may sate the desire of a few families for retribution. It may advance the political careers of a few grandstanding prosecutors.

It won’t  bring back Conrad Roy or Alexander Urtula, nor will it erase the irrefutable truth: These two adults knowingly and intentionally took their own lives.

Are Michelle Carter and Inyoung You “bad people?” Maybe they are.

Are they (or at least were they) controlling and psychologically abusive? It seems likely, and their relationships with Roy and Urtula were obviously mentally and emotionally unhealthy on both sides.

Not everyone who’s broken can be fixed before something awful occurs. Sometimes horrible things happen, and we’re left looking for answers as to why, and for ways to prevent the next such tragedy.

Imprisoning people for text messaging is not one of the right answers. It merely compounds tragedy with error, with evil, and with comforting lies, at the expense of additional victims.

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Do You Talk About X in Open Borders? Yes!

The modal question about Open Borders is, “Do you talk about X?”  The answer is “YES” for all of the following…

1. Do you talk about the historical pattern of global poverty rates?

2. Do you talk about people’s attachment to their country of birth?

3. Do you talk about overcrowding?

4. Do you talk about the global poor’s ability to function in a modern society?

5. Do you talk about global apartheid?

6. Do you talk about the level of illegal immigration?

7. Do you talk about human smuggling?

8. Do you talk about the effectiveness of immigration law at preventing and deterring illegal immigration?

9. Do you talk about immigration as a civil right?

10. Do you talk about whether the plight of the immigrant is our problem?

11. Do you talk about whether there is a right to immigrate?

12. Do you talk about whether this right is absolute?

13. Do you talk about America’s open borders era?

14. Do you talk about how America’s open borders era ended?

15. Do you talk about the potential dangers of open borders?

16. Do you talk about whether we should look before we leap?

17. Do you talk about the Antarctican farmer hypothetical?

18. Do you talk about the connection between mass consumption and mass production?

19. Do you talk about the benefits of immigration for immigrants?

20. Do you talk about the benefits of immigration for natives?

21. Do you talk about how much immigration actually helps immigrants?

22. Do you talk about why immigration helps immigrants?

23. Do you talk about how much a trillion dollars of gains really buys?

24. Do you talk about whether open borders is “trickle-down economics”?

25. Do you talk about how immigration affects native workers?

26. Do you talk about how immigration affects you personally?

27. Do you talk about the effect of immigration on average national incomes?

28. Do you talk about the Arithmetic Fallacy?

29. Do you talk about what open borders would really look like?

30. Do you talk about the effect of open borders on the visibility of poverty?

31. Do you talk about “swamping”?

32. Do you talk about diaspora dynamics?

33. Do you talk about Puerto Rico?

34. Do you talk about brain drain?

35. Do you talk about what good for places versus what’s good for people?

36. Do you talk about zombie economies?

37. Do you talk about how immigration’s fiscal effects vary by immigrant skill?

38. Do you talk about whether open borders and the welfare state are compatible?

39. Do you talk about rival versus non-rival government services?

40. Do you talk about how welfare states prioritize the old versus the poor?

41. Do you talk about the cost of educating immigrants’ children?

42. Do you talk about the effect of immigration on the sustainability of retirement systems?

43. Do you talk about the best way to measure immigrants’ overall fiscal effects?

44. Do you talk about Net Present Value?

45. Do you talk about empirical estimates of  immigrants’ overall fiscal effects?

46. Do you talk about whether more immigration is likely to save Social Security and Medicare?

47. Do you talk about empirical estimates of immigrants’ overall fiscal effects as a function of their education and age?

48. Do you talk about Milton Friedman’s arguments against open borders?

49. Do you talk about the parallels between the fiscal effects of native births versus immigration?

50. Do you talk about how human beings value their cultures?

51. Do you talk about the value of Western civilization?

52. Do you talk about the cultural dangers of admitting non-Western immigrants?

53. Do you talk about terrorism, mass rape, human trafficking, Sharia, and the decline of English?

54. Do you talk about numeracy?

55. Do you talk about the statistics of terrorism, including the share of terrorism committed by foreigners?

56. Do you talk about the Skittles argument against refugees?

57. Do you talk about immigrant crime rates?

58. Do you talk about the effect of immigration on overall crime rates?

59. Do you talk about the “What if it happened to you?” objection to statistical evidence?

60. Do you talk about first-generation immigrant language acquisition?

61. Do you talk about later-generation immigrant language acquisition?

62. Do you talk about immigrant assimilation across generations?

63. Do you talk about how modernity makes assimilation slower?

64. Do you talk about how modernity makes assimilation faster?

65. Do you talk about the social importance of trust?

66. Do you talk about the effect of immigration on national trust?

67. Do you talk about trust assimilation?

68. Do you talk about how much trust a successful society needs?

69.  Do you talk about the cultural benefits of immigration?

70. Do you talk about immigrants’ desire for freedom?

71. Do you talk about immigrants’ disdain for freedom?

72. Do you talk about the danger that immigrants will vote to “kill the goose that lays the golden eggs”?

73. Do you talk about how Democratic immigrant voters are?

74. Do you talk about Indian-American voting?

75. Do you talk about immigrants’ specific policy views?

76. Do you talk about how immigrants’ specific policy views vary by education?

77. Do you talk about the effect of immigration on actual government policy?

78. Do you talk about immigrants’ political assimilation?

79. Do you talk about whether immigrants undermine natives’ support for the welfare state?

80. Do you talk about “Magic Dirt”?

81. Do you talk about research on “Deep Roots”?

82. Do you talk about whether Deep Roots research shows that “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” are illusory?

83. Do you talk about national IQ?

84. Do you talk about the effect of immigration on national IQ?

85. Do you talk about whether you’re virtue signaling?

86. Do you talk about whether IQ research shows that “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” are illusory?

87. Do you talk about the effect of immigration on immigrants’ IQs?

88. Do you talk about human genetics?

89. Do you talk about “keyhole solutions”?

90. Do you talk about imposing admission fees and surtaxes on immigrants to help less-fortune natives?

91. Do you talk about why tax-and-transfer schemes are any better than simple exclusion?

92. Do you talk about restricting immigrants’ eligibility for government benefits?

93. Do you talk about requiring immigrants to learn English?

94. Do you talk about requiring immigrants to acquire cultural literacy?

95. Do you talk about the dangers of Islam?

96. Do you talk about Muslim bans?

97. Do you talk about keyhole solutions for the dangers of Islam?

98. Do you talk about restricting immigrant voting rights?

99. Do you talk about the political feasibility of keyhole solutions?

100. Do you talk about the bracero program?

101. Do you talk about H-1Bs and other work visas?

102. Do you talk about the fairness of keyhole solutions?

103. Do you talk about Sodom and Gomorrah?

104. Do you talk about what utilitarians, egalitarians, libertarians, wealth-maximizers, meritocrats, Christians, and Kantian should think about open borders?

105. Do you talk about whether immigrants have a right to immigrate to your house?

106. Do you talk about who Jesus would deport?

107. Do you talk about the connection between open borders and socialism?

108. Do you talk about immigration and political polarization?

109. Do you talk about why conservatives should favor open borders?

110. Do you talk about why liberals should favor open borders?

111. Do you talk about citizenism?

112. Do you talk about Trump’s views and policies?

113. Do you talk about the best argument against open borders?

114. Do you talk about whether any human is illegal?

115. Do you talk about the best way to frame the immigration debate?

116. Do you talk about immigration as charity?

117. Do you talk about immigration as justice and abundance?

118. Do you talk about open borders with Canada?

119. Do you talk about why you talk so much about the United States?

120. Do you talk about whether you hate America?

121. Do you talk about earlier cosmopolitan transformations?

122. Do you talk about Brexit?

123. Do you talk about public opinion on immigration?

124. Do you talk about scaring people with extremism?

125. Do you talk about the Overton Window?

126. Do you talk about whether open borders is another crazy Ivory Tower Proposal?

127. Do you talk about how to get there from here?

128. Do you have endnotes?  Lots of them?

129. Do you have references?  Lots of them?

130. Do you have acknowledgements?  Lots of them?

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Don’t Make Mark Zuckerberg America’s Political Truth Czar

Politicians lie.

Not all of them. Not every time. But most of them, from both “major” political parties, lie. A lot.

It’s not always easy to tell when they’re lying. It’s not always easy to prove they’re lying. Often, it’s not even easy to tell if they’re just lying to us or to themselves as well.

Some politicians want Facebook to stop politicians from lying. They phrase that desire as a request for Facebook to “fact check” content posted by politicians, especially political advertising.

Perhaps I’m too cynical, but I’m not sure it’s  coincidence that the examples politicians offer tend to be drawn from content posted by their political opponents.

US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) is a notable exception. She asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg if Facebook would let her target Republican politicians by running ads falsely accusing them of voting for her “Green New Deal” proposal (Zuckerberg said he couldn’t answer “off the top of his head”).

On the other hand, AOC’s own take seems a bit naive.  “So you will take down lies or you won’t take down lies?” she asked Zuckerberg.  “I think this is a pretty simple yes or no.”

It isn’t.

Let’s use the Green New Deal as an example.

If a Facebook employee has to “fact check” an ad asserting that the proposal would “tank the American economy,” how should that employee evaluate the truth or falsehood of the claim?

What criteria should that employee use for deciding what “tank” means? Is slow economic growth “tanking?” Or would it take a recession or depression to meet the threshold?

Should that employee rely on analyses from the Heritage Foundation? Or perhaps from People for the American Way? Or the Congressional Budget Office? Or the Office of Management and Budget? Four sources, likely four wildly conflicting sets of claims and projections.

For a conflicting ad claiming the Green New Deal would “boost the American economy,” should that employee “fact check” the ad using the same sources as for the original ad, or different sources? Would 1% growth of GDP constitute a boost? If not, what number, applied to what metric, would?

What if both ads fail the “fact check?” Should the public just flip a coin and vote accordingly, since the two sides are forbidden to offer us their takes to  evaluate and decide between for ourselves?

Politics consists of conflicting narratives. No two opposing narratives can both be true. In fact, both could be false (Spoiler: Both are probably at least partially false, intentionally or not; personal biases affect politicians’ beliefs, and ours, at least as much as facts do).

The question is not whether politicians’ claims should be fact checked. The question is who should do the checking.

In an even remotely free society, the only answer is “all of us.”

Yes, some of us will  fail to accurately distinguish truth from falsehood. Some of us will get things wrong.

That’s better than one centralized “fact checking” operation getting them wrong for all of us.

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In Syria “Withdrawal,” Less is Probably More

When US president Donald Trump announced his plan to relocate a few dozen US soldiers in Syria — getting them out of the way of a pending Turkish invasion — the Washington establishment exploded in rage at what it mis-characterized as a US “withdrawal” from Syria.

Instead of fighting that mis-characterization, Trump embraced it, pretending that an actual withdrawal was in progress and announcing on October 9 that “we’re bringing our folks back home. ”

If he’s telling the truth, hooray! But so far as I can discern, no, he isn’t telling the truth.

Since taking office (after campaigning on getting the US out of military quagmires in the Middle East and Central Asia), Trump has boosted US troop levels in Syria from 500 or fewer under Barack Obama to at least 2,000 and possibly as many as 4,000.

Even at its most ambitious, the supposed US “withdrawal” from Syria consisted of moving a few hundred soldiers across the border into Iraq, from which they could launch operations in Syria at will.

The Iraqi government objected to hosting more US troops on its soil, so now the plan has changed to deploying elements  of an armored brigade combat team (“less than a battalion,” so call it “less than a thousand troops” depending on what kind of battalion) to protect Syrian oil fields from the Islamic State (and from Syria’s own government).

Exactly how many US soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines were in Syria prior to the supposed withdrawal? How many are there now? How many will be there by the end of the year?

That’s hard to say with any exactitude. Over the last several years (and not just on Trump’s watch), the US government’s troop level claims have become less specific and more general,  less matters of public record and more notional state secrets.

But so far, according to those claims, Trump has escalated US involvement in every conflict he inherited from Obama, even after promising to do the opposite and even while pretending to do the opposite.

If past performance is an indicator of future results, what’s going on in Syria isn’t a US withdrawal at all. Instead of US forces departing the country, more troops and heavier weapons seem to be flowing into the country (and the region, including B-1B bombers to Saudi Arabia).

Will Trump’s non-interventionist supporters finally notice or admit that, as usual, his rhetoric and his actions don’t match? Fat chance.

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Impeachment: Trump Has Already Confessed to “High Crimes”

Every time a witness testifies behind closed doors in the US House of Representatives’ methodical march toward the impeachment of President Donald Trump, Trump supporters scream “no quid pro quo” while Trump opponents breathlessly inform us that the “smoking gun” has turned up and that impeachment is now “inevitable.”

What’s with all this “smoking gun” stuff? The decision to impeach is political, but in terms of evidence, it’s already a lock. President Trump publicly confessed to multiple “high crimes” before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) even announced the impeachment inquiry, then threw in a corroborating White House document.

Readers, meet Article VI of the US Constitution:

“This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land …”

And now let us consult a lesser-known document, the US government’s  Treaty With Ukraine on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters:

“Each Contracting State shall have a Central Authority to make and receive requests pursuant to this treaty. For the United States of America, the Central Authority shall be the  Attorney General or a person designated by the Attorney General. For Ukraine, the Central Authority shall be the Ministry of Justice and the Office of the Prosecutor General. … A request for assistance shall be in writing except that the Central Authority of the Requested State may accept a request in another form in urgent situations.”

Donald Trump is not the Attorney General of the United States, nor has the Attorney General publicly produced a document designating him the US government’s requesting authority under the treaty. Volodymyr Zelensky is the president of Ukraine, not a principal of its Ministry of Justice or Office of the Prosecutor General. A request by phone is not in writing, nor are matters years in the past and already subject to substantial investigation “urgent.”

Donald Trump made a request he had no authority to make, to a person he had no authority to make it of, in a form he had no authority to make it in. That’s at least three violations of the “Supreme Law of the Land.”

So, what’s a “high crime?” It may sound like a synonym for “serious crime” — espionage, treason, assassination, that kind of thing — but it’s actually a “term of art”  more concerned with the person committing the act than the act itself.

As Alexander Hamilton put it in Federalist #65, “high crimes”  for purposes of impeachment are “offences which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust.”

Donald Trump’s public trust, per the Constitution, includes “tak[ing] care that the laws be faithfully executed.” Instead, he violated “the supreme Law of the Land,” then publicly confessed to doing so, then corroborated his confession with evidence.

The “smoking gun” has been there the whole time. The rest is just details and politics.

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Roderick Long on the Plight of the Worker

In response to my Nickel and Dimed posts, my old friend Roderick Long referred me to his original review of the book.  Highlights of Rod’s review:

Ehrenreich went “undercover” to document the lives of the working poor and the Kafkaesque maze of obstacles they face: the grindingly low wages; the desperate scramble to make ends meet; the perpetual uncertainty; the surreal, pseudo-scientific job application process; the arbitrary and humiliating petty chickenshit tyrannies of employers; the techniques of intimidation and normalisation; the mandatory time-wasting; the indifference to employee health; the unpredictably changing work schedules, making it impossible to hold a second job; etc., etc.

None of this was news to me; I’ve lived the life she describes, and she captures it quite well. But it might well be news to those on the right who heroise the managerial class and imagine that the main causes of poverty are laziness and welfare.

Of course the book has its flaws…

But Ehrenreich’s misguided diagnoses and prescriptions occupy at most a tenth of the book. The bulk of the book is devoted to a description of the problems, and there’s nothing sneerworthy about that. And libertarians will win few supporters so long as they continue to give the impression of regarding the problems Ehrenreich describes as unimportant or non-existent. If you’re desperately ill, and Physician A offers a snake-oil remedy while Physician B merely snaps, “stop whining!” and offers nothing, Physician A will win every time.

Rod’s solutions:

First: eliminate state intervention, which predictably works to benefit the politically-connected, not the poor. As I like to say, libertarianism is the proletarian revolution. Without all the taxes, fees, licenses, and regulations that disproportionately burden the poor, it would be much easier for them to start their own businesses rather than working for others. As for those who do still work for others, in the dynamically expanding economy that a rollback of state violence would bring, employers would have to compete much more vigorously for workers, thus making it much harder for employers to treat workers like crap…

Second: build worker solidarity. On the one hand, this means formal organisation, including unionisation – but I’m not talking about the prevailing model of “business unions,” conspiring to exclude lower-wage workers and jockeying for partnership with the corporate/government elite, but real unions, the old-fashioned kind, committed to the working class and not just union members, and interested in worker autonomy, not government patronage.

I’ve had similar debates with Rod before, but I still can’t resist responding.  Verily, I do “heroise” the managerial class.  And at least in the First World, I do think that irresponsible behavior (partly fueled by the welfare state) is the main cause of severe poverty.  Specifically:

1. Management quality is vital for productivity – and measured management quality really is high in First World countries.  Contrary to stereotypes, poor countries have very little big business. Instead, their economies are dominated by “informality” and self-employment.  So yes, I am most grateful to managers for doing their jobs – especially given all the abuse that intellectuals and activists have heaped upon them.

2. In rich countries, non-work is the main cause of severe poverty.  A small percentage of non-workers are seriously disabled or genuinely can’t find a job.  The overwhelming reason for non-work, though, is behavior that intuitively seems highly irresponsible.  Such as?  Not searching for a job.  Not showing up for work on time – or at all.  Having impulsive sex.  Committing crimes.   Sloth (“laziness”) is one poverty-inducing vice, but don’t forget lust and wrath.

3. There are, of course, many full-time workers who – like Ehrenreich and most of her co-workers – end up moderately poor.  How is this possible?  I endorse the standard economic explanation: low-paid workers are, on average, low-skilled.  Since they aren’t very productive, employers don’t bid much for their services.

4. Why, though, do low-skilled workers endure such unpleasant working conditions?  Again, I endorse the standard economic explanation: making work more pleasant costs money – and low-income workers don’t want to take a pay cut to get more pleasant working conditions.

5. Rod apparently rejects both textbook stories.  Instead, he blames the government for using “taxes, fees, licenses, and regulations” to prevent the poor from “starting their own businesses rather than working for others.”  While I would be happy to see “taxes, fees, licenses, and regulations” go away, I’m afraid there’s little reason to think this would sharply increase the poor’s rates of self-employment or small business ownership.  Why not?  Because  it’s far from clear that regulation on net penalizes small businesses relative to big businesses.  Yes, some regulations impose fixed costs, which discourage small business and self-employment.  However, many regulations specifically exempt small business.  Furthermore, it is much easier for small business to evade regulation.  I wouldn’t be shocked if self-employment and small business became somewhat bigger under laissez-faire, but Rod’s confidence that this effect would be big is wishful thinking.

6. I totally agree with Rod’s view that government hurts the poor by suppressing economic growth.  Because government hurts almost everyone by suppressing economic growth.

7. I’m honestly puzzled by Rod’s desire to see the poor start their own businesses.  Romantic thinking aside, most people lack the competence for self-employment. With or without regulation, it’s incredibly hard.  I get that Rod has seen the ugly side of low-skilled employment first-hand.  But what about the ugly side of low-skilled self-employment?  Instead of bosses mistreating you, you’re mistreated directly by customers.  If you can actually get some customers, which is like pulling teeth.  Imagine how bleak Ehrenreich’s book would have been if, instead of trying to find a bunch of low-skilled jobs, she tried to found a bunch of low-skilled businesses!  Without her savings, she probably would have ended up homeless.

8. I’m even more puzzled by Rod’s desire to “build worker solidarity” and support for unions.  The standard economic story says that unions are labor cartels; they improve wages and working conditions for members at the expense of other workers and the rest of society.  While I’ll defend the legality of unions on libertarian grounds, they’re nothing to celebrate.  The best I can say is that without government help, very few people will belong to unions.  Indeed, even with hefty pro-union regulations on their side, private sector unions have almost disappeared in the U.S.  But isn’t solidarity nice?  Not solidarity with large, unselective groups like “workers” – and not when you build solidarity by scapegoating employers as exploiters and managers as bullies.

9. General observation: If you know a little social science and a lot of libertarianism, Rod Long’s story sounds great.  If you want to sell libertarianism to leftists, his approach is plausibly more persuasive than mine.  Alas, if you take the time to learn more social science, Rod’s story isn’t tenable.

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