The Watts case and jury nullification

I’ve been following, from a distance, the case of Canadian sci-fi writer Peter Watts. Watts’ car was searched at the US border and he was beaten, pepper sprayed, and detained when he questioned the purpose of the search. I’ve refrained from commenting until all the facts were out, but with the trial concluded there’s little to vindicate his treatment and the government’s refusal to release video of the incident lends no credence to the case against him.

A jury convicted Watts of resisting customs officials. Fortunately the sentencing judge chose not to imprison him. Read Peter’s own account for a humorous take on the hearing, his friend’s for a more touching one.

One of the jurors who convicted Watts went so far as to advocate against a jail sentence. Regrettably, the jurors felt that they had no choice but to throw Watts at the mercy of the judge. Two quotes from jurors:

As a member of the jury that convicted Mr. Watts today, I have a few comments to make. The jury’s task was not to decide who we liked better. The job of the jury was to decide whether Mr. Watts “obstructed/resisted” the custom officials. Assault was not one of the charges. What it boiled down to was Mr. Watts did not follow the instructions of the customs agents. Period. He was not violent, he was not intimidating, he was not stopping them from searching his car. He did, however, refuse to follow the commands by his non compliance. He’s not a bad man by any stretch of the imagination. The customs agents escalted the situation with sarcasm and miscommunication. Unfortunately, we were not asked to convict those agents with a crime, although, in my opinion, they did commit offenses against Mr. Watts. Two wrongs don’t make a right, so we had to follow the instructions as set forth to us by the judge.



I believe your description of the trial and deliberations is more accurate than you could know. As a non-conformist and “libertarian” (who has had some experiences not unlike yours) I was not comfortable with my vote, but felt deep inside that it was consistent with the oath we took as jurors. I believe nearly all the jurors searched for a legitimate reason to vote differently. In the end it came down to the question “Was the law broken?”. While I would much rather have a beer and discussion with you than Officer B. I never the less felt obligated to vote my conscience. I also believe most, if not all, the jurors sincerely hope that you are handled with a great degree of leniency, we, unfortunately have no say in that matter.

It’s great that Watts was lucky enough to have a sympathetic judge but tragic that the jurors who convicted him felt compelled to do so. If there is ever a time for jurors to stand up against prosecutorial indiscretion it’s in cases in which the defendant has been abused by agents of the state. Cases like this are exactly why we have citizen juries. It’s not enough to convict and hope that, as happened here, the judge will make the right decision instead of siding with his fellow authorities. Even though Watts avoided a jail sentence he will have to bear the costs of a felony conviction, including infringements on his right to travel.

Unfortunately current law generally forbids discussion of jury nullification within the courtroom. I encourage everyone who may serve as a juror to read up on their rights and responsibilities so that they can render an informed verdict should they sit on a case such as this one.

Oregon’s low bar for conviction
Filan doesn’t go far enough
Dawkins doesn’t get juries


Links for 4/30/10

Michelle Lyn Taylor gets life sentence; jury forbidden to know potential penalty

Why “quit or die” survives

Good news for GM crops

Watch out, hipster bartenders! The mustache police are on to you*

Belgian government breaks down

Two things conservatives believe

Rudy Coby is back at the Magic Castle

*Correction: Or not! This was a slightly too believable April Fool’s joke. Thanks to Dietsch for the correction.


Toward a blander future!

The Institute of Medicine has released its report on salt in the American diet and, as expected, it recommends that the FDA mandate reduced sodium content in packaged foods and chain restaurants. Here’s a short summary from The Washington Post of how this would work:

In a complicated undertaking, the FDA would analyze the salt in spaghetti sauces, breads and thousands of other products that make up the $600 billion food and beverage market, sources said. Working with food manufacturers, the government would set limits for salt in these categories, designed to gradually ratchet down sodium consumption. The changes would be calibrated so that consumers barely notice the modification.

As Jeff Ely notes, the idea is that this is a coordination problem. We might all be better off if we reduced our salt intake, but in order to calibrate our tastes to a lower level we have to gradually reduce the salt in all foods at the same time. (For what it’s worth, the FDA has stated it’s not currently planning salt regulations.)

There’s some disagreement about the benefits of reducing salt consumption across the entire population and about whether our “bliss point” for salt content is really that malleable; John Tierney writes on this topic here and here. But for now let’s grant the plausibility of both of those claims. It’s one thing to say we should all reduce our salt consumption. It’s quite another to say that a government agency is capable of gradually and imperceptibly reducing the amount of sodium in the nation’s food supply over the course of a decade and stopping at the “correct” level. The IOM report’s introduction hints at the scale of this endeavor:

… if strategies to reduce sodium intake in the United States are to be successful, they must embrace an approach that emphasizes the entire food system and emphasizes sodium intake as a national concern. This report recommends the use of regulatory tools in an innovative and unprecedented fashion to gradually reduce a widespread ingredient in foods through a well-researched, coordinated, deliberative, and monitored process. […] the approach must be supported by a strong federal government commitment to sodium reduction and leadership from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in cooperation with other agencies and groups to ensure coordination with all stakeholders including the food industry and consumers.

Monitoring! Deliberation! Coordination! This is bureaucracy porn for technocrats. It’s a safe bet that the people at the IOM aren’t reading Hayek on their lunch breaks, because if you have read Hayek the success of this enterprise starts to sound very far-fetched. You begin to wonder how the people making these decisions could possibly have all the information they need to pull this off. How gradual is gradual? What percentage of salt should be taken out of each product each year? Is it the same for bread, pretzels, spaghetti sauce, pickles?

This knowledge problem is exacerbated by the fact that salt’s impact on taste is complex. It doesn’t just make things taste salty. It can make food seem like it has greater body and reduces the perception of bitter elements (recall the way a tiny bit of salt can reduce the bitterness of bad coffee). As food companies compensate for reduced salt in their foods, they may have to make them richer in other ways or use more sweeteners. Similarly, as Tierney points out, if anti-salt advocates are wrong and consumers do have an inflexible satiation point for salt, they may eat more food just to keep their salt intake constant. To some extent we may end up trading salt for calories, hardly an unequivocal good given our current excess.

It’s doubtful whether a government agency could accurately gauge consumer preferences. The FDA is not in the food-selling business and so has little incentive to care about taste. The IOM report repeatedly stresses keeping food “acceptable” to consumers. But what if you don’t want acceptable, you want delicious? Don’t expect the FDA to care. As demonstrated by its actions against unpasteurized dairy and its threat to ban menthol cigarettes, the agency places little value on consumers’ choices when they conflict with regulators’ own assessments of acceptable risk. There’s no reason to believe the interests of regulators and consumers will be aligned on salt levels either.


Portland food and drink events

Apologies for the light posting last week, I’ve been hard at work with my new job and preparing for a few fun events coming up in Portland. First up is tonight’s Taste of the Nation event benefiting Share Our Strength. I’ll be there not as a mixologist but as a magician. This will be my first public performance since moving to Portland. Tickets are still available and there are lot of great restaurants involved, so there are plenty of reasons to come aside from watching me drop cards all over the floor trying to do tricks I haven’t done in years.

Then on Wednesday we’re celebrating Bols Genever’s Oregon launch with a punch party at Clyde Common with Jeffrey Morgenthaler. We’ll have two giant bowls of Bols punches out from 4-6 pm. Come join us for what’s sure to be a fun evening!


Magic money

New Hundred Dollar Bill

The Treasury has unveiled the new $100 bill. The redesign includes lots of new anti-counterfeiting measures, though as Megan McArdle notes this may not be a worthwhile effort:

In theory, currency counterfeiting causes mild inflation. In practice, the amount of currency that gets used in the United States is too small for counterfeiting to have any realistic impact on prices; these days, money is created not with the printing press, but in the electronic accounts of banks and the Federal Reserve. […]

What it actually does is transfer a small amount of seignorage revenues from the federal government to the counterfeiters. An anarchocapitalist might argue that this is as it should be–that the federal government’s monopoly on currency is illegal. I won’t go that far; the counterfeiters are, after all, free-riding on the full faith and trust of the US government. What I will suggest is that the trivial damage done by counterfeiters might not be worth making our national currency a laughingstock.

Regardless, counterfeiters aren’t the only victims here. Anything that makes life hard on counterfeiters tends also to make trouble for magicians. Gaffed props or effects that depend on a $100 bill blending in with smaller currency units will be rendered obsolete. They may be adaptable to new circumstances, but there’s a short-term cost. The situation is already pretty complicated for coins, as I wrote in 2008:

Perhaps that’s because we’re a secretive lot, but the truth is that these new designs can be a real pain for us magic guys. We’re sometimes inclined to use — you didn’t hear this from me, mind you — coins that have been altered and gaffed to fit our nefarious ends. To do this it helps to know what the coins in our audience’s pockets are going to look like. This used to be easy; they all looked the same. Now we’ve got 52 different possible quarters, 3 nickels, and 5 pennies that could show up. Paper currency could be old style or new. The Kennedy half-dollar has remained mercifully unchanged and is the size most suitable for sleight of hand manipulation, but no one carries it anymore. The dime alone remains reliable. Thanks, government, for giving us only the tiniest of American coins to work with.

If I ever run for president one of my campaign planks will be installing a magician to the Treasury. It would seal up the magic vote and with his advice we could secretly build all sorts of cool tricks right into the nation’s currency.


A simple sparkling cocktail

Over at Lance Mayhew has posted a simple brunch or aperitif cocktail we recently came up with featuring Quady Essensia, an Orange Muscat dessert wine. The wine is delicious on its own but we wanted to play with it in mixed drinks too. This one adds in mild Canadian whiskey, Prosecco, and orange bitters; head over to About for the recipe for the Viscusi cocktail.

Incidentally the drink is named after Vanderbilt economist Kip Viscusi, whose book Smoke-Filled Rooms happened to be out on my counter while Lance and I were experimenting with drinks. I don’t know if Viscusi is into cocktails, but I hope he’ll be glad to find his name on one if he ever comes across it.