Saturday, August 24, 2013

It's Not Militarization, It's Piraticization

Radley Balko's book Rise of the Warrior Cop outlines how, in only a few decades, the Fourth Amendment's been gutted, and the military-industrial complex has expanded into the criminal justice system. Between the so-called "wars" on "terror" and "drugs," police departments are buying so much military hardware that the Pentagon set up a special office to funnel materiel from the military to police agencies across the country. This office processes hundreds of millions of dollars in business per year.

The practical upshot is that practically every city of 25,000 people or more, anywhere in the United States, commands at least a small paramilitary police force, and larger cities like Los Angeles and New York control paramilitary forces equivalent in size to small armies, and structured like small armies as well. (By the way, "small" by the standards of a top international superpower like the United States is actually still kind of a lot of people.)

Rise of the Warrior Cop is a terrific book. I think everybody should read it, but that isn't the same as thinking it's correct in everything it says. If you saw the title of this blog post, you already know the big issue I have with Rise of the Warrior Cop: it says that it's about the militarization of the police, but that isn't strictly accurate, in my opinion.

Towards the end of the book, Balko interviews a senior military officer who objects to the term, because police tend to be less well-trained and less disciplined than the military. He also points out that when the American military conducted house-to-house searches in Iraq, as part of the recent war there, the military searches met a higher standard of Fourth Amendment compliance than most police actions in the United States do today.

Last but not least, there's the issue of asset forfeiture. Asset forfeiture gives cops incredible financial incentives to drum up false charges against anyone with valuable property.

You needn’t be found guilty to have your assets claimed by law enforcement; in some states, suspicion on a par with “probable cause” is sufficient. Nor must you be charged with a crime, or even be accused of one. Unlike criminal forfeiture, which requires that a person be convicted of an offense before his or her property is confiscated, civil forfeiture amounts to a lawsuit filed directly against a possession, regardless of its owner’s guilt or innocence.

One result is the rise of improbable case names such as United States v. One Pearl Necklace and United States v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins. (Jennifer Boatright and Ron Henderson’s forfeiture was slugged State of Texas v. $6,037.) “The protections our Constitution usually affords are out the window,” Louis Rulli, a clinical law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a leading forfeiture expert, observes. A piece of property does not share the rights of a person. There’s no right to an attorney and, in most states, no presumption of innocence. Owners who wish to contest often find that the cost of hiring a lawyer far exceeds the value of their seized goods.

There's an urban legend that, during the 1980s, trains would pass through Compton in the middle of the night and leave huge crates of assault rifles, pistols, and ammunition. Lurid and provocative though such a story may seem, there's enough research out there to make a serious person wonder. Nonetheless, my personal hope is that it proves an exaggeration.

Either way, however, there's no disputing the evidence raised in Rise of the Warrior Cop that the Federal government's been not just selling military-grade armaments and equipment to police forces throughout the country, but also giving these police forces the cash with which to buy that materiel. The good news is that the Federal government shows a near-total lack of followup, oversight, results, or concern with the lack of results in this matter, and Rise of the Warrior Cop assiduously documents it. That's right: that's the good news. It indicates that this massive, nationwide, systematic weapons-dumping is probably less a totalitarian conspiracy than a confluence of irresponsible, fearmongering politicking with ruthless and equally irresponsible domestic arms dealing.

However, the bad news is that the American criminal justice system has developed a near-total disregard for the Fourth Amendment, and a ridiculously unconstitutional legal framework, called asset forfeiture, which enables cops to simply take things from people with very little restraint. There are rarely any consequences for a police officer who abuses these privileges. Consequently, the criminal justice systems of entire towns -- police, judges, and mayors -- have been implicated in what is essentially highway robbery, not in the idiomatic sense but in the ancient, literal sense.

Rise of the Warrior Cop starts out with the Founding Fathers' historic distaste for, and grudging acceptance of, standing armies. The dangers of standing armies are a very well-known element of classical and European history, and the Founding Fathers were very aware of these dangers and very cautious of them. But what happens when you have both a standing army for the nation as a whole and a motley assortment of standing "armies," one for every city? The so-called "War on Drugs" created a large number of "task forces" which do not even have sufficient oversight that anyone in government can say for sure what they do on a day-to-day basis. These task forces are peppered indiscriminately throughout the country. Some police forces have rejected their new, unconstitutional powers, while most have embraced them, and many have seen serious increases in both corruption and recklessness.

This is not militarization; this is piraticization. It's true that police culture now fetishizes the military, and police departments now use military vocabulary, organizational structures, tactics, vehicles, and weapons. It's true that this is a very surprisingly recent and rapid development. But Rise of the Warrior Cop documents in detail the legal moves which made this possible, and those legal moves are not coherent or well-organized.

America is a very big country, so big that it's probably more honest to describe it as an empire. If you spend time in both Texas and California, for example, it's very hard to believe that the two places are not each distinct countries. Both states have been independent countries in their own right, in the past, and probably will become such again, whether it be in fifty years or five hundred. To me, personally, both states feel like different countries today. The difference between meeting a Texan and meeting a Californian is not as intense as the difference between meeting a French person vs. meeting a German, but it's easily more intense than the contrast between meeting an American vs. meeting a Canadian, or meeting an Australian vs. meeting a New Zealander.

Militarization would, to me, imply that the newly and excessively empowered police departments throughout the nation would be capable of unified military action. It would also imply a unity of purpose. But when you have a whole bunch of people who do have weapons, but don't have cohesion or any real strategic thinking, and the training they receive is shallow, that doesn't sound military to me. Most military action involves attacking people who intend to fight back; most "militarized" police action involves large numbers of heavily armed police using extraordinary violence against small numbers of unarmed people. That's less warrior and more thug.

Add in the asset forfeiture factor and what you have is a huge number of piratical "police" forces. I don't think they're a military, and I don't think they could ever become a military, at least not on a national scale. I could see a future Texan Caesar rallying Texan police/pirates around some warlike impulse -- I think anyone who's been to Texas understands this -- but it's hard to imagine their Californian counterparts joining the cause.

I also favor the term piraticization over militarization because militarizing the police implies order, and the changes Blako documents in his book are more chaotic. For instance, one major risk of standing armies is the military coup. An antidrug task force which answers to just about no-one and gets its budget from drug arrests is not going to be qualified to take over a government. That requires organization. But it would be ridiculous to say that there are no risks in having people running around with guns, no oversight, and strong financial incentives to arrest or harass innocent people.

Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, which seemed too big to fail, I've wondered if America might fall apart too. I'm sorry to say that after reading this book, I'm certain it can, and if it happens, I think it'll be the piraticization of the police which does it. It's easy to imagine that there might one day turn out to be some significant downside in distributing massive amounts of military hardware throughout the country, so that each city has its own little heavily-armed pirate squad.

That's the bad news. The good news is that I highly recommend Rise of the Warrior Cop. It's well-written, well-researched, and even-tempered. It's also the kind of book which can tell you incredibly frightening, infuriating, and sad things without over-inflaming these emotions or callously disregarding them. Considering the provocative, serious, and deeply fucked-up nature of the topic that Rise of the Warrior Cop covers, that's a pretty impressive accomplishment.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Friday, August 9, 2013

Book Sale Countdown (And Secret Project Prelude?)

I'm not only doing my current book sale just to pay the bills and buy cool stuff. In a sense, everyone who does any kind of work is either looking to pay the bills, buy cool stuff, and/or make cool stuff, and it's that third one which is on my mind right now. I have a particular cool thing which I want to build, although in order to build this one particular cool thing, I will actually need to build a variety of other cool things to support it. In fact, to make all this mysterious, unspecified cool stuff, I'll also need to buy some cool stuff.

For instance, I'll have to buy parts and instructions to build one of these robots:

I'm not ready to reveal my specific plans for this robot (or indeed, these robots; the optimal implementation of my plan requires multiple robots). But stay tuned, and in the meantime, did I mention my book sale? It's actually a books and videos sale, the discounts are insane, the products are popular, and it only lasts for a week. It started on Wednesday, so we're already a few days into it.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

My Simple Pricing Strategy For Information Products, And Why It Works

I make videos and ebooks, and sell them on my blog. People like Patrick McKenzie and Amy Hoy constantly reiterate the advice that you should raise your prices and charge more than you think. So I took this advice. I put my first video on sale for $39, even though I was initially thinking of $19. Then I got an email from a happy customer who bought at $39 and wanted to tell me that my video would be underpriced at twice the price, so I doubled the price, and then increased it a little further, to $97. The video continued to sell very well, so I was happy.

With subsequent products, I made it a rule to charge more than I thought was reasonable, and also, to increase the margin of unreasonableness with each new product. (I also made it a rule to always set my prices at prime numbers, with only one exception, but there's really no good reason for that, and it's probably not important in this discussion.) Some of my products did well, some of them didn't, but when products didn't do well, the reason always seemed to be content or marketing, not price. My pricing strategy did not seem to have any downsides at any point. In fact it worked so well that I now consider charging unreasonable amounts of money to be a major theoretical pillar of my business. But I also noticed that Amy Hoy's husband Thomas Fuchs frequently tweeted discount codes for his ebooks (in particular the Retina one, which is quite good), and I also got a few tweets and complaints that I was charging too much, so rather than say "well yeah, that's the whole idea," I decided to run a sale.

One caveat before the story proceeds: I have a 100% no-questions-asked refund policy. If you have the slightest dissatisfaction with your purchase, you can have your money back. I probably wouldn't implement this kind of pricing strategy -- "charge more than you could possibly imagine people being willing to pay" -- if I didn't also have this approach to refunds. Because with this approach to refunds, charging as much as you possibly can is pretty much just an honest exercise in not knowing what the correct price is, choosing a number semi-randomly, and finding out. If I had a whole bunch of rules and hoops for people to jump through in order to get their refunds, it would be less pleasant, less ethical, and also a much less reliable source of feedback. There would be too many variables involved with that type of feedback for me to call it useful information about price and only price.

Anyway, as you can probably guess by the fact that I'm running a new sale right now, my sale went well. I did several other sales and they all went well. In fact I did one or two which were based around live-tweeting quick runs to the grocery store. The sales began when I left the house and ended when I got home and unpacked my groceries. The first one I did as an experiment, because I couldn't decide if I should work on my business or buy some groceries, so I figured I'd just do both at the same time, and then I did the second one because the first one went well.

The reason my sales work well might be because I set high prices when I release my products. For instance, here's some feedback about my Ember book:

I actually agree with both these tweets, but the Ember book sells at its normal "too expensive" price, so after this sale, it will of course go back up to that price.

The thing is, if you're in a hurry to learn the essentials of Ember, because you're really excited about it, or maybe you've got a big new consulting deal which will net you thousands and thousands of dollars if you can produce results with Ember right away, then my Ember book is easily worth the $47 I first charged for it, on day zero. You'll make that money back before you've finished your first cup of coffee on the first day of the new project. But if you're a more cautious person, or you're just sort of curious about Ember, in an academic sort of way, with no looming deadlines, you might not want to pay that much, and you certainly wouldn't have the same immediate, compelling incentive that makes it an indisputably great business decision for other people.

But you might still be down to buy it if it's on sale.

This is basically the easiest form of customer segmentation ever. Your customers who are willing to pay top dollar will pay top dollar, and your customers who would only buy at a lower price will buy when you offer the lower price. Best of all, if you retain records of how many units you sell, and at what price you sell them, you can probably come up with some math which will tell you what your optimal price should actually be. It's good to be able to draw upon data when you want to answer a question like that.

Another caveat, however: discounts don't actually have a huge influence on the sheer number of products sold, for me. They drive short-term sales spikes, and they enable me to do price differentiation, but the majority of my products sell at their higher original prices. Probably one explanation is the fact that my discounts have narrow windows, like a week, a weekend, or even just the time it takes me to get to the grocery store and back. It's not a pure, scientific experiment, after all; there's no control group.

But there's another, simpler explanation: the "set high prices" advice from Hoy, McKenzie, and others is good advice. I follow it, and I recommend you do the same. My products are almost always about programming, so if you use the information in them well, you'll make enough new money to cover the purchase price very rapidly. This is what the brilliant information marketing pioneer Dan Kennedy -- who invented nearly all this stuff back when it was all mail-order and physical books -- calls "buying free money." Say your new Ember contract is worth $47,000 to your consulting business. Would you pay $47 to get $47,000? Of course.

PS: my sale's here.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

More Praise For My Ember Book

Got this email the other day:

Hi Giles,

I just wanted to say thanks for writing your ember book. I didn't code for years but I learned Ruby on Rails a couple of years ago and now co-run a reasonably successful company building mobile and web apps, mainly to help businesses improve their internal processes.

My business partner started using Ember about 12 months ago and I had real difficulty getting my head around it. Your book massively helped me sort out my (mainly conceptual) difficulties and I'm getting pretty confident with it now. I'm in the process of building an ember app for a printer company you'd definitely have heard of and it's going really well, in large part because of your book.

Have you thought about doing a mobi or epub version of the pdf? I converted it using calibre but it's an arse getting the line breaks to format properly. I tend to read a lot of technical books in bed (once the girlfriend is asleep!) and having an ereader version is always useful.

Thanks again. We really enjoy your blog too.


David Moore - Operations Director
0121 314 3330 // 07500 898 460

Of course I told David I was glad he liked it. And a big thanks back to him for allowing me to publish the email.

(more info, table of contents, tweets)

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Lies And Propaganda



via boingboing, which also has this