Thursday, May 31, 2007

CNN violates patient's right to privacy

While watching CNN for a moment this morning, the anchor flippantly said, "There has been a lot of debate between the patient's right to privacy versus the public's right to know," as they flash the picture and name of the man who is receiving so much media attention for being infected with a relatively rare, highly drug-resistent form of tuberculosis (TB). I should preface this post by noting two things: 1) that other news networks have likely done this same thing and I just happened to see and hear it on CNN, and 2) I'm little more than a dilettante with legal matters. Though CNN has made the information public domain, I will not be repeating it here out of principle:

The Atlanta lawyer who contracted a hard-to-treat form of potentially fatal tuberculosis is ______, 31, multiple medical and law enforcement sources told CNN. Hospital officials have not identified the man and his family has refused to talk to the media. (from


Dr. Charles Daley, head of the infectious disease division at National Jewish
[Hospital], said the hospital has treated two other patients with what appears
to be the same strain of tuberculosis since 2000, although that strain had not
been identified and named at the time. He said the patients had improved
enough to be released. (from

With these tidbits in mind, combined with the already official release of information relevant to seeking out those who may have been exposed to the individual and thus were at risk for infection, what is the public's right to know in this case? Where is the media's justification for violating the patient's right to privacy, when the treating hospital and patient's family obviously wished to respect his right to privacy?

Such justification cannot be found in concerns for public health. Firstly, the patient is not very contagious because he was carrying only a very little amount of the bacteria in his system, according to medical officials. Secondly, all of the information necessary for finding the individuals for testing who may have been exposed to the patient has already been revealed and officials are in the process of finding and testing all the people who were at risk. Thirdly, the man is under quarantine until it can be determined that he is not a risk to the public. In other words, there is no reason to reveal the man's name, because all appropriate and necessary steps are being taken to diffuse the risk to public health, and the release of the man's identity is requisite for none of them.

Regarding the "public's right to know"

The "public's right to know," as we so often hear, has no basis in the First Amendment, nor any other clause in the Constitution, and is in relation to the right for people to access information held by the government. Rather, its basis is in a law called the "Freedom of Information Act" (FOIA), first signed into law in 1966 by Lyndon B. Johnson, and is relevant only to government records--federal government information, at that, though most states have passed their own freedom of information acts, which are generally less transparent and thus require state governments in general to divulge less information. Importantly, I can find no indication that the federal law--that is, the more transparent of freedom of information laws--allows for the violation of a patient's right to privacy, especially when there is no risk to public health brought about by not violating the patient's right to privacy. To the contrary, two of the nine explicitly stated exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act are these: 1) "personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy," and 2) "[information that is] specifically exempted from disclosure by statute provided that such statute (A) requires that the matters be withheld from the public in such a manner as to leave no discretion on the issue, or (B) establishes particular criteria for withholding or refers to particular types of matters to be withheld." The former's application is obvious, while in the case of the latter, statutes do indeed exist dictating the privacy and handling of medical records. Thus, the media has misleadingly distorted the nature of the "public's right to know," in violation of its law of origin, for its own selfish benefit in reporting.

The media reported it because they are scrupleless bastards who are constantly clawing at any new morsel of information to feed into their morbidly voracious 24-hour news cycle, at the expense, in this case, of the patient's right to privacy legally recognized by this society. If there indeed had been much debate in the newsroom between this right and the "public's right to know," that debate was extremely poorly executed by a room apparently full of myopic dimwits.
Now, complicating factors? Well, the patient was essentially banned from flying, which he did anyway, and more or less snuck back into the country, tacitly admitting his knowledge of his wrong-doing. He needlessly and recklessly put a lot of people at risk, and surely must have made himself a target for those ever-litigious Americans, or a target of the government directly. I would imagine that it is only at the point of litigation that a name could or should be revealed.

Currently listening to: "Billie Jean" by Chris Cornell (Michael Jackson cover)
Previous activity: Waking up
Next thing on the agenda: Showering, dressing, eating

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The police presence paradox

Tomorrow morning, I'm embarking upon a 4200 mile road trip to California and back, with a few worthwhile diversions along the way to visit friends whom I have not seen in quite some time. The espoused purpose of the trip is to assist my older brother and his wife in packing and moving, though of course I'm more interested in its social and scenic aspects. (I'm also hoping to finally see the Grand Canyon while I'm out West.)

In light of this road trip, I will raise a certain rumination of mine: I believe that the presence of recognizable police cars acutely increases the likelihood of unsafe driving or an accident.

The chances are good that you have been involved in a traffic back-up that had no logical reason to exist. After minutes or miles of waiting or driving bumper to bumper at 5mph on an interstate, you finally reach daylight and are able to resume the legal (or "legal-plus" speed) without seeing any obstruction that should have caused such a delay. In my own experiences, the explication for these inexplicable back-ups is just ridiculous: a huge traffic back-up due purely to drivers rubbernecking, staring at an accident entirely on the other side of the median, for example. This should serve as an important illustration of the capacity of distraction or interest in an extraneous visual to change one's driving habits in the moment, even when the source of distraction bears no relevance to the actions at hand.

Every observant driver will notice a marked police car in his or her presence. Even a legal driver--that is, a driver abiding by every law of the road--will take notice, as no one wants to get pulled over. I speak as an historically hasty driver, of course, and one must understand and critique my personal psychology from this perspective, but with that said, even when I am very consciously driving legally, I find myself taking my eye off the road to watch the police car in front of me and disappearing behind me in my rearview mirror, to watch my speed, to watch anything but the road in front of me--ostensibly becoming overly cautious with regard to the police car, but in reality driving more unsafely. Oftentimes, I instinctively tap my breaks to needlessly reduce my already-legal speed, "just in case." In other words, the sight of a police car changes my driving behavior immediately and, for all intents and purposes, erratically and inexplicably, for any car behind me who may need to react to my sudden changes. I use myself as an example, but I'm confident that almost any driver can either remember or recognize such situations when they have either behaved this way or had to respond to someone who was. The presence of a police car, in other words, can be said to cause a ripple in the normalcy of the flow of traffic, and a ripple in normalcy surely must produce conditions favorable to accidents. If a study were designed and conducted to analyze this, I would love to see the findings.

Of course, I recognize that the intangible yet omnipresent threat of traffic enforcement via police surely must rein in the more malignant motorists, but I do indeed believe that the actual perceived presence of the police must heighten the risk to those on the roads, for reasons mentioned and alluded to above.

Currently listening to: "Soul Singer in the Session Band" by Bright Eyes
Previous activity: Watching the worthless news
Next thing on the agenda: Sleeping, so I can hit the highway bright and early

Thursday, May 17, 2007


Well, the shouts are "amnesty!" not "sanctuary!" Nevertheless, as immigration talks are once again occupying Congress--and perhaps this time fruitfully--it seemed an appropriate time to make a few points on this contentious issue. Like many in politics, the issue of illegal immigration seems to be one so mired in the act of politics, wrapped up in obstinate ideology on both sides of the aisle detached from any reality or research, that any real, fruitful deliberation is a rarity. The left shouts "amnesty!" with gleeful fervor; the right shouts "amnesty?!" with reproachful disbelief. The left ignores the fact that illegal immigrants are criminals by definition and uncontrolled illegal immigration is a danger to our economy and security; the right ignores the impossibility of deporting every single illegal immigrant within our borders, the impossibility of keeping every would-be illegal immigrant out of our borders, and that our economy is in many respects dependent on outside workers. Neither side is willing to wholly address the bigger picture of the issue within our country, let alone the cross-boundary issue. The latest proposal seems to cut through at least some of this myopia, and is garnering a fair amount of respect among politicians in this, a lame duck presidential year.

Perhaps the following thoughts and facts can help provide a bit of a framework with which to understand the current discussion and any future immigration discussions we, as informed citizens, may witness.


Don't let these first parts provide assumptions that I'm simply bashing Mexico; that isn't at all the case. Nevertheless, let's start with our friends to the south. Mexico, for its part, has among the most rigid stances on immigration in the world: coming into Mexico illegally has been punishable by up to 2 years in prison (a felony by most standards) since 1974. Furthermore, concerned by illegal immigration from their own southern border, former President Vicente Fox sent thousands of Mexican troops to their southern territory about five years ago--a moved praised by Mexicans. Fox had given legal status to only 15,000 foreigners without papers in the course of his Presidency (Contreras, 2005), compared to 240,000 illegal immigrants who were apprehended by Mexico in 2005 alone, nearly all of whom were deported. The irony, of course, is that Mexico was simultaneously condemning the increased border patrol deployment on our southern border and the efforts to criminalize undocumented aliens in the United States, while lobbying for the status of millions of illegals from Mexico to be upgraded by the US government. You remember these stories in the news, right? According to Jose Luis Soberanes, president of Mexico's National Human Rights Commission, "one of the saddest national failings on immigration issues is the contradiction in demanding that the North (the United States) respect migrants' rights, which we are not capable of guaranteeing in the South (along Mexico's border with Guatemala)" (AP, 2005).

The notoriously poor treatment of illegals within Mexico stems from its Constitution, which allows for a number of restrictions and punishments that would likely be reviled as racist--and perhaps rightly so--if codified in the United States. Mexico's General Population Act, specifically, makes illegal immigration punishable by up to two years in prison plus a fine (Article 123 of the Mexican Constitution), or up to 10 years imprisonment if the individual is deported and later is caught re-entering (article 118). It allows local police to join with federal immigration agents in enforcing immigration laws (Article 73). J. Michael Waller (2006) of the Center for Security Policy also notes that private citizens may make citizens arrests on illegal immigrants, and immigrants of all kinds may be expelled from the country at any time and for any reason without due process. More broadly, immigrants are to be admitted into Mexico on the basis of their potential to "contribute to national progress" (see parallel here with one component of the bill currently being passed around Congress) and must have income to support themselves, but immigrants (legal or illegal) are still forbidden to take part in the political affairs of the country (Articles 9 and 33). In the United States, on the other hand, the only thing from which a legal immigrant is barred is serving as President, and even that is openly debated in some circles thanks to the selective popularity of Arnold.

At the same time, the Mexican Constitution serves as many Mexican governmental officials' scapegoat when pressed for why they cannot prevent its citizens from emigration--that is, to run/jump/swim north to the United States: Article 11 guarantees a "freedom of transit," granting citizens the right to move freely throughout Mexico and the world, even if they are barred from a destination country (Newell, 2006). A reasonable person would likely note that this provision falls in contradiction with the laws of other sovereign states.

We frequently hear of the abuses against illegal immigrants in our country, as well we should when they so egregiously occur. In December of 2005, however, a report released by the National Human Rights Commission in Mexico--the same group who planned the distribution of border crossing maps for entry into the United States--noted the widespread abuses against illegal immigrants within Mexico, committed in good part by Mexican government officials. The report, however, barely made any headlines and had not been mentioned by any Mexican presidential candidate as of mid-June (Campbell, 2006), and so far as I could find, no mentions were made in the remainder of the campaigns.

Interestingly, a 2002 Zogby poll showed that 73% of Mexicans believed Americans to be racist, intolerant, and not very hard-working, while 78% of Americans see Mexicans as hard-working (Elder, 2006; McLean, 2006). While government policy may not be the best barometer of the sentiments of a population, the immigration policies of the United States pale in comparison with those of Mexico when searching for signs of xenophia. Had the National Human Rights Commission's report received its fair amount of attention either by the press or politicians of Mexico, the negative views of Americans harbored by Mexicans may be partly rectified through an examination of their own culture.

Given the apparent hypocrisy--the strict policy enforced on Mexico's southern border combined with their sharp scrutiny of American policy and any attempt to fortify it (sometimes quite literally, a la "the wall")--some contend that the United States should more closely mirror the policies of our southern neighbor so long as they remain so rigid themselves. The proponents of this view most often are seeking to limit access to our own southern border. For this reason, they should be thankful for Mexico's policy, as those Central Americans that do make it into Mexico are typically headed further north to the United States. It is conceivable, then, that Mexico's perceived self-interest is not in protecting its economy from outsiders, but in preventing non-Mexicans from making the immigration situation in the United States even more politically salient, hurting Mexicans' chances of crossing the border in the process.

Moreover, the notion of protecting the United States from illegal immigrants by way of strict border enforcement should be closely inspected. With remittances back to Mexico from Mexicans working within the United States reaching $16 billion in 2004--Mexico's second largest source of revenue after oil exports (AP, 2006)--it is clear that the economic incentive for crossing the border is in large part to support family at home.

This is, of course, indicative of the economic situation of the immigrants coming from Mexico. As a whole, the country is a top-fifteen economy whose per capita GDP is approximately $10,000-relatively healthy by global standards. Of the population, though, a 2002 report from the Mexican government stated that up to 42% of the rural population lives in extreme poverty compared to only 12% of urban citizens who face such conditions (Steorts, 2006). Steorts suspects that this is in large part a byproduct of communal farms whose plots have become increasingly small--so small that farmers cannot grow crops at competitive prices. The land, further, cannot be bought or sold by Mexican law, but only passed to an hear, keeping the small plot structure intact and preventing real ownership rights. This rural population makes up perhaps the bulk of the Mexican immigration influx in the United States. Of political importance, those Mexicans with the strongest incentive to demand domestic reform--the poorest Mexicans--are those that leave their country altogether, thus perpetuating the status quo.

If conditions within Mexico do not change, half of the incentive for illeglas to come to the United States remains unaddressed. But beyond this, the means of addressing the American side of the border should be considered in a fuller context. According to Daniel Griswold (2003), most Mexicans who come to the United States com ewith the intention of solving "temporary problems of family finance" by sending money home in the form of remittances, rather than with the intention of permanently settling in the US. The numbers, from an historical perspective, support this. Between the end of the Bracero program in 1964 until the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986, Mexicans had essentially free passage back and forth across the border. In this period, nearly 80% of Mexican immigrants chose to eventually return to their homeland. This follows suit with the notion that immigration is driven by demand for labor in the United States, as it is far more expensive to be unemployed in the United States than it is in Mexico, by virtue of cost of living discrepancies. With fewer restrictions on the border, workers know that they can go home when work is unavailable and return when it is once again available to them. This, rather than having unemployed illegal immigrants sittling idly by with no income, intuitively seems infinitely preferable, as the absence of such individuals would surely contribute to a drop in petty crime and ease the burden on our overpopulated jails.

When the Immigration and Naturalization Service doubled the number of Bracero visas in the 1950s in order to meet the demand for labor in the United States, illegal immigration from Mexico became nearly nonexistent (Griswold, 2003). This demonstrates the strong preference for channels of legal entry into the US when such channels are available.

Now, with tighter borders, the crossing becomes more hazardous and more expensive, as would-be immigrants have to pay "coyotes" to help smuggle them across the border. Additionally, their illegal status artificially depresses their wages once in the United States, as they have no bargaining power. The combination of a more hazardous and expensive crossing with lower wages translates into longer stays once inside the States, in order to make the crossing worthwhile. The median stay for undocumented Mexican migrants was 2.6 years before the IRCA was passed, and rose to 6.6 years after Clinton's border tightening (Griswold, 2003).

Thus, in order to quell the tide of illegal immigration and alleviate the pressures on human rights for those that do seek work in the United States, perhaps we should do the simple thing: legalize it. If a sufficient number of temporary work visas are granted to meet the demand for labor within the United States, workers will come through safe, legal, trackable and taxable channels. With the workers legalized, wages will no longer be artificially suppressed and immigrant workers will therefore not receive a competitive advantage over American laborers. (Higher wages for laborers in order to satisfy US law is something that simply must be accepted by employers and consumers alike, if one is to recognize the need to address illegal immigration. You cannot have your cake and eat it, too.) Additionally, as suggested by Griswold (2003), the temporary visas, if desired to do so by our domestic political agendas, can exclude their holders from welfare benefits, ending the argument that the immigrants are drains on the economy and preventing them from staying in the country on a work visa if they are not working. With the demand for labor met, illegals will no longer risk the dangerous and expensive path to an already satisfied labor market where it is far more expensive to be unemployed than where they came from. It would, of course, be necessary within such a system to stringently enforce the employment of only legal workers--a point often made in our own legislative chambers.

While properly arranged and apportioned temporary work visas may be in large part a solution to the current immigration debate in the United States, changes within Mexico should be fostered in order to increase regional stability. The benefit of temporary work visas may extend across the border into Mexico in this regard. Allowing for free legal passage across the border for visa holders, Mexicans can return to their homes as they so often prefer to do when given the opportunity. Therefore, while bringing money into the Mexican economy, this disenfranchised population also gain the incentive to work for political change within their home country, perhaps producing the necessary impetus to move beyond the status quo.

AP (2005). Mexico acknowledges poor treatment of migrants in its territory.
AP (2006, January 25). Border wall would fall.
Campbell, M. On road to U.S., danger lurks at every turn. (2006, June 16). San Francisco Chronicle.
Contreras, J. (2005, June 5). Stepping over the line. Newsweek, 38.
Elder, L. (2006, April 10). How does Mexico treat its illegals? Human Events, 62(13), p17.
Griswold, D.T. (2003, March). Confronting the problem of illegal Mexican immigration to the U.S. USA Today Magazine, 131(2694), p10-14.
McLean, R.T. (2006, April 13). The crisis of Mexico.
Newell, J. Mexico treats illegal immigrants in its midst harshly. (2006, April 30). San Bernardino County Sun.
Steorts, J.L. (2006, July 17). Mexico, heal thyself. National Review, 58(13), p25-27.
Waller, J.M. (2006). Mexico's glass house. Center for Security Policy.

Currently listening to: "God Rocket" by I Mother Earth
Previous activity: Continuing to read Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities
Next thing on the agenda: Scrubs!

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

If there is a sense of reality, there must also be a sense of possibility

Since the last time I posted, I finally finished up the Chomsky-Foucault Debate on Human Nature, which admittedly was not quite what I was expecting it to be. The "human nature" aspect to it was mostly approached from the perspective of linguistics, which I probably should have seen coming, but it was not what I was hoping to read. Either way, it became more interesting when it delved into politics. After that book, I made it through Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Both of those were just great.

But, I'm beginning a novel that is blowing my mind with every page, and it's 1800 pages long. In other words, this is going to be a lot of mind-blowing. It's Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, which apparently is seldom read (probably by virtue of its size) but considered by many to be the greatest novel of 20th century Europe, steeped in philosophy, history, and politics throughout. I thought I would share one chapter here to give you a taste for what it is. Fortunately for me, one chapter of which I was especially fond happened to be available online in full, so I could just copy and paste the text to here:

If there is a sense of reality, there must also be a sense of possibility

To pass freely through open doors, it is necessary to respect the fact that they have solid frames. This principle, by which the old professor had lived, is simply a requisite of the sense of reality. But if there is a sense of reality, and no one will doubt that it has its justifications for existing, then there must also be something we can call a sense of possibility.

Whoever has it does not say, for instance: Here this or that has happened, will happen, must happen; but he invents: Here this or that might, could, or ought to happen. If he is told that something is the way it is, he will think: Well, it could probably just as well be otherwise. So the sense of possibility could be defined outright as the ability to conceive of everything there might be just as well, and to attach no more importance to what is than to what is not. The consequences of so creative a disposition can be remarkable, and may, regrettably, often make what people admire seem wrong, and what is taboo permissible, or, also, make both a matter of indifference. Such possibilists are said to inhabit a more delicate medium, a hazy medium of mist, fantasy, daydreams, and the subjunctive mood. Children who show this tendency are dealt with firmly and warned that such persons are cranks, dreamers, weaklings, know-it-alls, or troublemakers.

Such fools are also called idealists by those who wish to praise them. But all this clearly applies only to their weak subspecies, those who cannot comprehend reality or who, in their melancholic condition, avoid it. These are people in whom the lack of a sense of reality is a real deficiency. But the possible includes not only the fantasies of people with weak nerves but also the as yet unwakened intentions of God. A possible experience or truth is not the same as an actual experience or truth minus its "reality value" but has - according to its partisans, at least - something quite divine about it, a fire, a soaring, a readiness to build and a conscious utopianism that does not shrink from reality but sees it as a project, something yet to be invented. After all, the earth is not that old, and was apparently never so ready as now to give birth to its full potential.

To try to readily distinguish the realists from the possibilists, just think of a specific sum of money. Whatever possibilities inhere in, say, a thousand dollars are surely there independently of their belonging or not belonging to someone; that the money belongs to a Mr. Me or a Mr. Thee adds no more to it than it would to a rose or a woman. But a fool will tuck the money away in his sack, say the realists, while a capable man will make it work for him. Even the beauty of a woman is undeniably enhanced or diminished by the man who possesses her. It is reality that awakens possibilities, and nothing would be more perverse than to deny it. Even so, it will always be the same possibilities, in sum or on the average, that go on repeating themselves until a man comes along who does not value the actuality above the idea. It is he who first gives the new possibilities their meaning, their direction, and he awakens them.

But such a man is far from being a simple proposition. Since his ideas, to the extent that they are not idle fantasies, are nothing but realities as yet unborn, he, too, naturally has a sense of reality; but it is a sense of possible reality, and arrives at its goal much more slowly than most people's sense of their real possibilities. He wants the forest, as it were, and the others the trees, and forest is hard to define, while trees represent so many cords of wood of a definable quality. Putting it another and perhaps better way, the man with an ordinary sense of reality is like a fish that nibbles at the hook but is unaware of the line, while the man with that sense of reality which can also be called a sense of possibility trawls a line through the water and has no idea whether there's any bait on it. His extraordinary indifference to the life snapping at the bait is matched by the risk he runs of doing utterly eccentric things. An impractical man - which he not only seems to be but really is - will always be unreliable and unpredictable in his dealings with others. He will engage in actions that mean something else to him than to others, but he is at peace with himself about everything as long as he can make it all come together in a fine idea. Today he is still far from being consistent. He is quite capable of regarding a crime that brings harm to another person merely as a lapse to be blamed not on the criminal but on the society that produced the criminal. But it remains doubtful whether he would accept a slap in the face with the same detachment, or take it impersonally as one takes the bite of a dog. The chances are that he would first hit back and then on reflection decide that he shouldn't have. Moreover, if someone were to take away his beloved, it is most unlikely that he would today be quite ready to discount the reality of his loss and find compensation in some surprising new reaction. At present this development still has some way to go and affects the individual person as a weakness as much as a strength.

And since the possession of qualities assumes a certain pleasure in their reality, we can see how a man who cannot summon up a sense of reality even in relation to himself may suddenly, one day, come to see himself as a man without qualities.

Currently listening to: "The Lovesong Writer" by Thursday
Previous activity: Reading from the aforementioned novel
Next thing on the agenda: Reading some news, sleeping, and hoping the flood doesn't escalate