My irregular musings on city life, politics, baseball, roller derby, and whatever happens to be getting my goat today.

Monday, June 27, 2005

I agree with Scalia?

A wave of Supreme Court decisions over the past few days. No resignations thank god, but after reading about these decisions, how could it get much worse?

Fort Trumbull Massacre

I blogged about the Battle of Fort Trumbull here, and I'm not about to do it again, so follow the link, you lazy bums. But the Supreme Court has spoken, and the decision, 5-4, states that local governments have the legal right to use eminent domain to seize people's homes and businesses against their will for private development.

The constitution explicitly grants governments the right to seize land for "public purposes," and no one is contesting the constitutionality of appropriating land to build a hospital, road, or park. At issue was whether homes can be seized and domolished to build a Wal-Mart or an office park. Is such activity a "public purpose?"

The court has ruled that it is. "The city has carefully formulated an economic development that it believes will provide appreciable benefits to the community, including — but by no means limited to — new jobs and increased tax revenue," wrote Justice Stevens, a guy I often find myself agreeing with. He was joined by Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer. You know, the "good guys." Defining the public interest as "economic development" and "increased tax revenue."

In other words, it's in the public interest to remove lower income people from within city limits and replace them with people and businesses which will pay more in taxes. Since the poor are a drain on public finances, obviously it is in the public interest to drive them out of town! Following this logic, since our economy really has no further need for unskilled manual labor, it would be in the public interest to take the deindustrialized underclass out in a field somewhere, tie their hands behind their backs, and shoot them in the head. Think about the gains in efficiency and economic growth! Thankfully the Supreme Court was not quite so sweeping in its reasoning. This term.

Defending our rights and basic human dignity were a group of dissenting justices - namely O'Connor, Renquist, Thomas, and, yes, Scalia. How come these guys can so clearly see that granting the government power to run people out of town with bulldozers is wrong, but don't have a problem with sodomy laws? I just don't get it. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's dissent said that the majority handed "disproportionate influence and power" to the well-heeled in America. No shit. We'll return to that theme in a moment.

Well what the f**k is it good for then?

In another fun case, the Court, in a 7-2 decision, ruled that Jessica Gonzales did not have a constitutional right to police enforcement of the court order against her husband, who subsequently kidnapped and murdered her children.

Justice Antonin Scalia, (back on Team Evil where he belongs) wrote, "The creation of a personal entitlement to something as vague and novel as enforcement of restraining orders cannot 'simply go without saying.' We conclude that Colorado has not created such an entitlement."

In a dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said that the woman's "description of the police behavior in this case and the department's callous policy of failing to respond properly to reports of restraining order violations clearly alleges a due process violation."

"The restraining orders are not worth anything unless police officers are willing to enforce them. They are just paper," said Brian Reichel, the attorney for Gonzales. "If nothing else this case has shined the spotlight on a very important issue."

It sure has! Abusive thugs everywhere are celebrating and stocking up on ammo now that it's been established the people with orders of protection don't actually have a rigtht to, er, protection.

End of the digital revolution?

In another fine example of Supreme judgement, the court ruled - unanimously! - that the music and movie industries can sue technology companies like Grokster to stem losses from music and movie piracy. These corporations have been blaming file sharing for their failure to achieve the profits the feel the so richly deserve.

The court may be right about the letter of the law, but I have two big problems with this decision. First of all, Congress keeps extending copyright protections out to the horizon, so that it looks like nothing is ever going to be public domain again - and now those copyrights will be rigidly enforced, not just against sale by a rival company, but against you, doing things traditionally regarded as "fair use."

The second problem here is that piracy isn't really causing the big media companies to lose that much money, any more than cassette tapes or VCRs did. Example: Wells burned me an illegal copy of a "Tindersticks" album, which I occasionally listen to. Did the company or the band lose any money here? No, because I never, ever would have bought it myself. Basic supply and demand for you: quantity demanded at a price of $0 is much higher than quantity demanded at a price of $17. I learned that in Econ 101. If they had to pay for all these songs and movies, consumers would pony up for maybe 10% of what they grab for free. Which means corporate losses are less then they are claiming by a factor of 10. The real reason they are losing money is that the product in recent years has been bland, boring, market tested, genre-specific, derivitive, unimaginative crap. Look who supported the decision: Don Henley, Cheryl Crow and the Dixie Chicks. Mass marketed pablum. Look who opposed it - Chuck D, Brian Eno, Heart, and a bunch of musicians having trouble getting their product out passed the corporate filter to their audience.

What's really at stake here is control over the distribution of content. Take the example of that Fiona Apple album, finished but locked up somewhere. The record company owns it and won't release it. Do you really want big media corporations deciding what you can listen to? Again, the rights of the rich and powerful trump your rights.

In a related case, the Court in its infinite wisdom decided that cable companies cannot be forced to allow competing Internet Service Providers from using their broadband networks, establishing a virtual broadband monopoly in many areas. This will slow the public's uptake of broadband technology, of course, but it has other implications as well. We are at the point technologically where we could eliminate fixed TV programming schedules for good. Under a more competitive model, if you wanted to watch the latest episode of "Battlestar Galactica," you'd just go to the Sci-Fi Channel website and download in whenever you felt like it. But now that companies have asserted total control over the content of their infrastructure, your only option is to set the VCR or TiVo for its obnoxious Friday night timeslot (I'm assuming you have a life). That is, until next term, when the Supremes will probably reverse their 1983 Betamax ruling and decide that taping shows is copyright infringement, too, as is hitting MUTE during those stupid car commercials.

Conservative Movement whackos like to complain that when the Court acts to protect the rights of women, homosexuals, and minorities, it is answering to the social preferences of elites rather than the law. While the argument is ridiculous, it is sort of a funhouse mirror image of the truth; time and again, the Court seems to bow to the economic interests of the corporate elite, no matter what else is at stake. I heard a man on the radio bemoaning the New London case - he's being thrown out of the house he's lived in his whole life, as has his elderly mother. "My great grandfather built this house - I garden the same ground as my great grandfather." This time next year, that garden will probably be paved over as part of the parking lot of one of those horrible suburban office parks. Ah, progress.

At least they can't do any more harm until October 3. Let's hear it for those long Federal vacations!


Bob said...

I don't really understand the depths or the implications of this imminent domain ruling, but at what point does it make sense to say, "There is no such thing as property ownership anymore"?

Wells said...

Imminent domain will be used in Brooklyn for that stupid Nets stadium around Atlantic Ave. Its bs.

I couldn't agree more about the file sharing issue. On The Media several months ago previewed this ruling, and prior to this the court had always valued technological advancement. I have a lot of music now - almost all of which I would never buy on my own. I prefer to spend my money on other things. However, by sharing there are musicians that I never knew about or heard who I will now definately purchase their work. After all, you can't find so much of the good stuff thanks to media consolidation. I live in the largest market and know nothing about local radio stations except for the public ones. Can this really be enforced? Somewhat... some programs will be blocked - but nothing will ever stop traveling with your external hard drive and letting relatives and friends copy a few things from your library. It is no different than when my brother made me copies of his Van Halen cassettes back in the day. The only thing that has changed is that mp3s are easier and a far better quality and way to store music than CDs and Cassettes.