January 19, 2008

Justice vs "Comfortable" Executions

by Donald G. Mashburn

The Supreme Court recently heard arguments on whether Kentucky’s method of execution might be too painful for criminals sentenced to die for their crimes. The Court seemed divided on just how far states must go to make sure their executions don’t inflict excessive pain on those paying the ultimate penalty for their crimes.

Liberal opponents against the death penalty want to muddle the issue enough to make the present de facto moratorium on executions permanent. Death penalty proponents see through the thin arguments about the risks that those being executed might not be comfortable while they are being put to sleep and their hearts stopped.

Kentucky, like so many other states, has gone to great lengths to make certain the executions are carried out humanely and with little discomfort to the inmate. Or as Roy Englert, attorney for the Kentucky correction commissioner, put it, to effect “a more dignified death; more dignified for the inmate, dignified for the witnesses.”

Of all the back and forth, from lawyers and justices, perhaps the issue was best summed up by Justice Antonin Scalia, when he said, “This is an execution, not surgery.”

Justice Scalia has it right. And he no doubt knows it’s also not about cruel and unusual punishment so much as it’s a not too veiled attempt to abolish the death penalty.

No rational person would want to see inhumane methods employed in executions. But those with an agenda to abolish the death penalty should not be allowed to dictate to states the “comfort” level of those being executed for horrible crimes.

Playing Chicken with Iran Dangerous

Fortunately, when the fleet of high-speed Iranian boats recently sped toward and threatened to blow up a three-ship U.S. Navy convoy passing near Iranian waters, none got hurt.
This time. But what about next time?

Playing “chicken,” with high-speed boats charging U.S. ships, while threatening to blow the ships within minutes is stupid and dangerous. An Iranian official in Tehran said the incident was “something normal.” Well, maybe in a nation headed by someone who displays irrational behavior on an everyday basis, the abnormal could come to appear normal. But not in the civilized world.

Note that, according to Navy officials, in responding to warnings from U.S. ships not to come closer, the Iranians radioed the U.S. ships would be blown up in minutes. Yet they were allowed to come closer.

A critical question is now just how close will future threatening boats be allowed to come before they are taken out with appropriate defensive force?

The USS Cole, and its loss of 17 sailors, should remind us all that small boats loaded with explosives can a big danger to big ships.

Mortgage Mess to Worsen

The mortgage mess if far from over. As this is written, it’s being reported that Bank of America (BAC) plans to acquire the nation’s largest mortgage lender, Countrywide Financial Corporation (CFC).

With the huge write-downs being taken by giant financial firms like Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, UBS and others, some business observers wonder if the BAC ship can sail the rough mortgage seas with the added “dead weight” – delinquent loans, subprime and prime – that CFC brings on board.

Sure, BAC reportedly would be getting CFC for less than market value, but still, delinquent loans are not the kind of assets where having more is better than having less.

The big problem is that the rate of delinquent borrowers has been in an alarming up trend for nearly two years, according to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association reported in the Wall Street Journal.

After bottoming at around 11 percent, the percentage of subprime borrowers at least 30 days delinquent bumped up to almost 12 percent in early 2006, and has been climbing since, to between 16 and 17 percent. And based on recent observations, and the steep shape of the curve, the delinquency rate is expected to go perhaps as high as 18 percent, or higher.

Even the prime mortgage delinquencies, after declining from 2002 to 2005, have since crept upward to three percent, which exceeds their 2002 levels.

Merrill and Citigroup have both announced gargantuan write-downs, and the stocks of both firms recently were down more than 50 percent from their 12-month highs. Some savvy observers with a bearish mindset think that more bad news is to come.

That’s something they weren’t born knowing. They learned it from listening to corporate heads, who, like politicians, downplay bad news that makes them look bad. And when bad news is unavoidable, they dribble it out in chunks instead of all at once.