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Preview: Kerry Howley: Reason Magazine articles.

Kerry Howley: articles.

Updated: 2016-10-28T00:00:00-04:00


Government’s Ongoing Effort to Shutter Mixed Martial Arts


Contributing Editor Kerry Howley is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Her first book, Thrown (Sarabande), follows the lives of two professional mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters over the course of several years. Here Howley lists three ways that state authorities have tried, and failed, to shut down the sport:

  1. By refusing permission: Throughout the '90s, shows were effectively banned when local athletic commissions refused to regulate them. Promoters jumped state to state to avoid being shut down. It was, according to Ultimate Fighting Championship co-creator Bob Meyrowitz, "like being in a traveling circus."
  2. By switching off the TV: In 1997, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who apparently prefers his violence state-sponsored, used his sway as chair of the Senate Commerce Committee to pressure cable television to refuse to air the events.
  3. By telling stories: Politicians regularly claimed that mixed martial arts involved no rules and thus no referee. McCain called it "human cockfighting." Rudy Giuliani called it "disgusting," "horrible," and "brutalizing." Both men are avowed fans of boxing, which evidence suggests is more conducive to brain injury. Years later, public attention has turned to the bodily damage caused by a kind of brutal display no politician would dare oppose: all-American football.

It Takes a Village Atheist


Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, by Barbara Ehrenreich, New York: Metropolitan Books, 256 pages, $23 One of my earliest memories is no more than a command: “Smile.” The directive was delivered by my father, standing over me in a church pew, definitely not smiling. I wasn’t so much a morose kid as a deeply internal one, and whatever expression I made while lost in thought lacked the cheerfulness expected of little girls. As I would learn soon after that day in church, an American female with a downward-sloping mouth cannot escape the tyranny of smile-pushers. My dad’s request was echoed by teachers (“Try to look interested”), relatives (“Why so glum?”), and, much later, random construction workers (“Smile, baby!”). So it’s more than a little refreshing to know that Barbara Ehrenreich doesn’t care whether you smile. Indeed, she’d rather you not. In Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, she accuses positivity freaks of corrupting the media, infiltrating medical science, perverting religion, and destroying the economy. In her attempt to link starfish-shaped “reach for the stars” beanbags and global economic devastation, Ehrenreich gets ahead of herself, but along the way she pushes back against a kind of cultural pressure so totalizing we sometimes fail to notice its existence. All the Oprah-ready gurus you would expect to populate this polemic show up to share some advice—here’s Joel Osteen warning us never to “verbalize a negative emotion,” there’s Tony Robbins exhorting us to “Get motivated!” In turning the United States into a 24-hour pep rally, charges Ehren-reich, these professional cheerleaders have all but drowned out downers like “realism” and “rationality.” Their followers are trained to dismiss bad news rather than assimilate or reflect upon its importance. Motivators counsel an upbeat ignorance—the kind of illusory worldview that might, say, convince a president that his soldiers will be greeted as liberators in a foreign state, or a mayor that his city’s crumbling levees can withstand the force of a hurricane. But Ehrenreich seems less worried about what positivity fans value than what they ignore. Her idea of a life well-lived, as she repeatedly tells us, involves storming into the world and demanding progressive political change. Positivity’s decidedly inward focus—in which the solution to every problem lies in a mere attitudinal shift—thus seems troubling, a “retreat from the real drama and tragedy of human events.” When a Kansas City pastor declares his church “complaint-free,” Ehrenreich sees a demand that Americans content themselves with their dismal lot. When companies hire motivators to boost morale in the workplace, she sees “a means of social control” by which disgruntled employees are brainwashed into acquiescence. “America’s white-collar corporate work-force drank the Kool-Aid,” she writes, “and accepted positive thinking as a substitute for their former affluence and security.” Life coach/professional-motivator-types are soft targets. They don’t seem particularly bright, they use verbs in dumb ways (as in “God will prosper you”), and they cultivate a general air of overcaffeinated quackery. One wonders how anyone takes them seriously. But no one takes them more seriously than Ehrenreich, who believes them capable of driving Americans toward a bizarre array of conflicting behaviors. In blaming so much evil on positive thinking, she casts optimism as both an opiate—numbing us into a kind of stoned complacency, as with the wronged employers—and a stimulant, pumping us up for an ill-advised investment or attack on a foreign nation. She’d do far better to pick one. Does positivity lull us into quiescence or spur us toward risk-taking? Whichever it is, the effects cannot be comprehensively awful. If we believe Tony Robbins can motivate an investment banker to throw b[...]

Are Property Rights Enough?


Libertarians traditionally have viewed coercion, especially when institutionalized in the form of government, as the main threat to freedom. But cultural pressures outside the state also can restrict people’s ability to live as they please. Is that another limit on liberty worth criticizing, or is it a function of voluntary choices? In the first essay below, Contributing Editor Kerry Howley argues for a wider vision of human liberty, one that acknowledges government is not the only threat to freedom. In a reply, Todd Seavey says fighting for property rights is difficult enough without taking on cultural baggage. In another response, Daniel McCarthy agrees that culture and liberty are linked but suggests that freedom demands a more pluralistic view of acceptable cultures than Howley’s vision might allow. We’re All Cultural Libertarians  Freedom is about more than just the absence of government. Kerry Howley “It was amazing to me how quickly she overturned the power structure within her family,” Leslie Chang writes in Factory Girls, her 2008 book on internal migration within China. Chang is marveling at Min, a 17-year-old who left her family farm to find work in a succession of factories in the rapidly urbanizing city of Dongguan. Had Min never left home, she would have been expected to marry a man from a nearby village, to bear his children, and to accept her place in a tradition that privileges husbands over wives. But months after Min found work in Dongguan, she was already advising her father on financial planning, directing her younger siblings to stay in school, and changing jobs without bothering to ask her parents’ permission. Chang’s book is full of such women: once-obedient daughters who make a few yuan, then hijack the social hierarchy. Even tiny incomes cash out in revolutionary ways. With little more than 1,000 yuan (about $150) in Min’s pocket, it becomes possible to plan a life independent of her family’s expectations, to conceive of a world where she decides where to live, how to spend her time, and with whom. I call myself a classical liberal in part because I believe that negative liberties, such as Min’s freedom from government interference, are the best means to acquire positive liberties, such as Min’s ability to pursue further education. I also value the kind of culture that economic freedom produces and within which it thrives: tolerance for human variation, aversion to authoritarianism, and what the libertarian economist F.A. Hayek called “a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead.” But I am disturbed by an inverse form of state worship I encounter among my fellow skeptics of government power. This is the belief that the only liberty worth caring about is liberty reclaimed from the state; that social pathologies such as patriarchy and nationalism are not the proper concerns of the individualist; that the fight for freedom stops where the reach of government ends. It was tradition, not merely government, that threatened to limit Min’s range of possible lives. To describe the expanded scope of her agency as merely “freedom from state interference” is to deny the extent of what capitalism has achieved in communist China.  As former Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints leader Warren Jeffs can tell you, it’s possible to be an anti-government zealot with no interest whatsoever in individual liberty. If authoritarian fundamentalist compounds are your bag, the words personal agency will hold no magic for you, and Min’s situation will smack of social chaos. But libertarians for whom individualism is important cannot avoid discussions of culture, conformism, and social structure. Not every threat to liberty is backed by a government gun.  Convention creates boundaries as thic[...]

Talk of the Town


As it turns out, Benjamin Franklin did not have 69 children out of wedlock. Nor did the thrice-widowed Betsy Ross kill her husbands. Philadelphia tour guides have been known to add some extra flavor to their bite-sized history lessons for visitors, producing an entertaining if distorted history of the former U.S. capital. The City of Brotherly Love is not amused, and it has a plan.

As of October, men and women who make a living talking about the Constitutional Convention and the Liberty Bell will be required to take a city-issued test and obtain a touring license. The test had not been released when this issue went to press, but three rebellious tour guides had already launched a lawsuit. They will be represented by the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm.

“The city council made this decision eight blocks away from where the forefathers guaranteed my right to free speech,” says Ann Boulais, a plaintiff who gives sports history, haunted history, and general history tours of Philadelphia. Mike Tait, a tour guide who is also a plaintiff, says the law discriminates against the very companies that give the most in-depth information. Some larger companies have been granted exemptions because they offer training programs for their employees, and Tait says these companies tend to give superficial, sanitized tours rather than the “hard-core history” he prefers. Tait tells tourists that Benjamin Franklin may have been involved in the slave trade, for instance, which is not the kind of information you’re likely to hear while riding a duck.

The mayor’s office maintains that the tour guide test is a benign consumer protection measure. Tour guides in New York and Washington, D.C., already face similar requirements. “Tourism is a major art
of our local economy,” mayoral spokesman Douglas Oliver told the Associated Press. “It is reasonable to ensure that tourists are getting accurate information.”

Attorney Bob McNamara, who will argue the case for the Institute for Justice, says the city should not get to decide which version of Philly history is accurate. “That’s sort of the heart of the absurdity,” he says, “the conceit that there is one official history and that the government is supposed to be deciding” which version it is. Among the historical disputes McNamara’s clients have with the city, one looms largest. “They disagree over the First Amendment,” he says. The plaintiffs “think it means something.”

Pakistani Pork


In 2004 the Pakistani government began billing the United States military for a new $30 million road. In 2006 it started charging us $15 million to build bunkers. The Department of Defense cut the checks. But according the Government Accountability Office (GAO), no American ever moseyed over to check if the roads or bunkers actually existed.

Those millions, and many more, came from the Coalition Support Fund-money intended to reimburse U.S. allies for military assistance since 9/11. So far the Pentagon has handed the Pakistani government $5.6 billion, ostensibly for costs associated with support for American military operations. What, precisely, has that money bought? No one really knows. When GAO investigators went over the paperwork to see what the Pakistani military had claimed as expenses, they found slapdash, inconsistent records that made it impossible to trace much of the cash. Three-quarters of the costs from January 2004 through June 2007 were too sketchy to "perform basic recalculations needed to verify the claims, such as quantity times price."

The paperwork contained other curiosities. With no discernible pattern, the Department of Defense would provide and deny reimbursement for similar items. Claims for bulletproof jackets were "generally disallowed" but "occasionally paid." And it's hard to know exactly how much the U.S. government paid for bulletproof jackets, phantom bunkers, or anything else for the period under review, because the Pentagon never verified the currency conversion rates used by the Pakistanis. As the Pakistani rupee fell against the dollar, the U.S. may-or may not-have gotten soaked.

The One-Man Wall


Russell Pearce was far from home the day his son got shot. Minutes from the White House, the state legislator was preaching the Pearce gospel. "They're taking jobs away from Americans," he told a small audience at a prominent DC think tank. "Health care systems are failing. The education system has imploded. Eighty percent of the violent crimes in Phoenix are involving illegal aliens." Pearce speaks softly, and he has a sad-puppy look about him when he mentions the men and women he has devoted his life to pushing back behind the Mexican border. "You can't continue to pander and have pathetic policies that hurt America." Moments later, a Brookings Institution staffer handed Pearce a note instructing him to call his wife LuAnne—"now." Pearce's son Sean, a sheriff's deputy in Arizona's Maricopa County, was being airlifted to a hospital with a bullet lodged in his abdomen. Plane delays and red lights slowed an excruciating trip to a crawl. LuAnne called back with an update. "You're not going to believe this," she said. "Sean was shot by an illegal alien.' " Rep. Russell Pearce talks little about himself and much about state politics, but his personal life has an uncanny way of colliding with his political obsessions. Like his son, Pearce bears a wound from his days in law enforcement: 30 years ago a Latino gang member put a bullet in his right hand, leaving it permanently disfigured. In a state where most people—Latino or otherwise—are transplants, the Republican lawmaker can honestly say that he has been observing the transformation of Arizona since the day he was born. For decades, he has watched, horrified, as his native city spread like syrup over the pancake-colored desert. Arizona is now the second fastest growing state in the nation, and the Phoenix-Mesa metropolitan region, where Pearce was born, raised, and elected, is the fastest growing region in the state. Sun-seeking natives drove most of that growth, but over the last decade Arizona has become a major corridor for unauthorized immigrants. In the mid-1990s, federal authorities took Vietnam-era landing mats and erected a steel wall between Tijuana and California. Border agents, once a rare sight, began to dot the more populated Texas and California borders. So those who aspired to work in America charted a course right through the middle, braving the Sonoran Desert in hopes of avoiding armed guards. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 10 percent of Arizona's work force in 2005 was undocumented, twice the national average. Pearce aims to change that, one way or another. He has been a state legislator for only eight years, but he has used nearly every political position he has held, from deputy sheriff to director of the Arizona Department of Transportation's Motor Vehicle Division, to crack down on undocumented workers. He wants to end birthright citizenship, slash immigration quotas, and throw up more walls. He has proposed that officials at the state's Child Protective Services be required to root out undocumented children. The representative of a city named Mesa, Pearce co-authored an initiative to ban the use of Spanish in most official communications. Most of all, he thinks anyone who puts "profits above patriotism" ought to be kept from doing business in the state of Arizona. In the summer of 2007, Pearce finally got his wish. In July of last year the Arizona legislature passed Pearce's Fair and Legal Employers Act, also known as the Legal Arizona Workers Act, the most severe state-level anti-illegal immigration measure in the country. Under the bill, any company caught "knowingly" hiring someone not authorized to work could have its business license suspended. A second offense would bring permanent revocation. All employers would be required to use E-Verify, a federal electronic verification that is voluntary in the other 49 states. (See "Get in Line!," page 38.) Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, had a[...]

Get in Line!


When comprehensive immigration reform crashed in 2007, federal and state legislators searched the remains for salvageable pieces. Some picked up the border wall, others legalization of undocumented workers. In Arizona, lawmakers seized on E-Verify. Formerly known as Basic Pilot, E-Verify is a federal program that employers can use to check the employment status of new hires against federal databases run by the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security. For most employers, it's just an option, but in January the state of Arizona began forcing everyone within state lines to run new hires by the feds. The state is ahead of the game; in June President Bush signed an executive order requiring that all federal contractors sign up, and various congressmen are pushing to make E-Verify mandatory for the nation's 6 million employers. Francisco Romero thinks everyone ought to consider slowing down a bit. Romero is a legal Arizona resident who says he has been fired-twice-based on E-Verify-related blunders. "I have been a citizen for 12 years!" exclaims the construction worker, who spent months shuttling between the Social Security Administration and human resource offices trying to obtain permission to work. He was able to get back on the job site only after a community advocate took up his case and hacked through the verification labyrinth. The federal data, as Romero could tell you, have some problems. The Social Security Administration estimates that 17.8 million (or 4.1 percent) of its records contain discrepancies. About 5.3 percent of queries to E-Verify come back as "tentative nonconfirmations"; workers must then either schlep to the Social Security Office to prove their status or go underground. Many of the citizens forced to request federal permission to work will be women who took their husbands' names and thus have outdated Social Security records; others will simply be victims of bad Social Security data, bad Homeland Security data, or their employers' fat fingers. While native-born workers have had their share of problems, foreign-born citizens like Romero are far more likely to be incorrectly flagged. Because the databases are dodgy, employers are not supposed to fire workers until they've given them eight days to contest E-Verify's "tentative nonconfirmations." But a 2006 report from the Office of the Inspector General and the Social Security Administration found that almost half of employers using the program were "prescreening" potential employees before hiring, meaning they might never be given the chance to challenge erroneous disqualifications. According to the Department of Homeland Security, which now cheerleads for the program on its own website and in public service announcements splattered across city buses, employment verification is a perfectly pleasant experience for most people. That might well be true. But those most likely to be victims of its errors are the least equipped to contest the findings or challenge their employers. Romero speaks little English. He does not have a lawyer. Arizona's Social Security Administration offices are open only from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays, when most construction workers are, well, working. On the department's blog, Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Stewart Baker says the idea that employers will fire people without giving them time to correct data problems is a "myth," because, after all, E-Verify "prohibits" employers from prescreening or firing employees right away. The arrogance of that reasoning, and the faith it displays in frictionless compliance with government diktat, does not bode well for the next American who has to fight for his right to work. Kerry Howley ( is a senior editor of reason. Astrid Arca provided translation services for this article. [...]

Course Correction


State Rep. Russell Pearce (R-Mesa) wants to clarify what kind of content is acceptable in Arizona’s classrooms, so he has called for a ban on public school courses that are contrary to “western civilization.” Pearce’s proposal would prohibit a public school from including content deemed to “promote, assert as truth or feature as an exclusive focus any political, religious, ideological or cultural beliefs or values that denigrate, disparage or overtly encourage dissent from the values of American democracy and western civilization, including democracy, capitalism, pluralism and religious toleration.” The bill would also ban race-based groups, such as Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán, from operating on public campuses. The legislation follows a controversy over Tucson Unified School District’s “Raza Studies” program.

“This bill basically says, ‘You’re here. Adopt American values,’ ” Rep. John Kavanagh (R-Fountain Hills) told The Arizona Republic. “If you want a different culture, then fine, go back to that culture.” The House Appropriations Committee approved the measure by a vote of nine to six, but Pearce told PBS the measure is probably “written too broadly” and would be revised before it goes up for a vote.

Lipstick Libertarians


The Politics of Exclusion


What Women Want


Striking Distance


In the tough-on-crime wave of the ’90s, more than 20 states passed “three strikes” legislation, which subjects repeat offenders to increasingly harsh penalties. Few enforced the law with as much zeal as California, which has slapped more than 40,000 residents with a strike or two. But thanks to perverse incentives built into the legislation, the law may encourage some of those offenders to commit more-violent crimes in the future.

California criminals receive their first strike by committing an “aggravating offense,” which covers a broad range of crimes, including burglary and rape. After that first strike, any felonies count as second and third strikes, with the latter carrying three times the normal sentence. To determine how the law affects criminal behavior, Harvard economist Radha Iyengar compared criminals who had committed the same crimes in a different order. He concluded that people who commit the aggravating offense first, triggering the law, behave differently than those who commit the aggravating offense after a series of other crimes.

Iyengar found that the law had a significant deterrent effect, just as intended; criminals were less likely to reoffend after they triggered the law. But those who did reoffend, she found, were motivated to commit more-violent crimes. Criminals eligible for a third strike face the same punishment whether they simply rob a man or rob and kill him. Because the penalty for that third strike is equally severe whether a criminal commits a nonviolent or a violent crime, Iyengar hypothesizes, offenders opt for the latter.

Prosecutors might argue that the law’s deterrent effect more than compensates for the violent crimes it encourages. But even if Californians are happy with the outcome, Nevadans may beg to differ. Iyengar found that criminals with prior convictions are more likely to cross state boundaries before they strike again.



Massachusetts state Rep. Paul K. Frost (R-Auburn) owns two dogs—Reese’s and Snickers—and they’re not for rent. Frost is a co-sponsor of An Act Prohibiting the Rental of Pets, now in committee in the state legislature, and he has the support of many members of Boston’s animal welfare community in his fight to render part-time pet ownership illegal.

Frost authored the bill after discovering that Flexpetz, a dog rental service that caters to wealthy professionals, planned to expand to Boston. From its current locations in Los Angeles, San Diego, and New York, Flexpetz adopts dogs from shelters and from families who say they can no longer care for them, and it rents them out for hefty fees.

How much is that doggy in the window? Clients pay $280 a month for the privilege of spending four days a month with the rescued canine of their choice. The service caters to dog-loving urbanites who, for a variety of reasons, cannot take care of a dog full-time, and the dogs are also available for adoption to renters who eventually want to commit.

Company founder Marlena Cervantes wants to bring Flex­petz to D.C. and London as well as Boston, but opponents are galvanizing in the Bay State. “Renting encourages us to think of all pets—rented, adopted or purchased—as ‘things’ we enjoy till they’re no longer cute, fun or convenient, then return, like DVDs or cars,” writes Brian Henderson at the webzine DogBoston. For his part, Frost told the Worcester Telegram that he normally “sides with the free market” but feels this is different. “I know what kind of bond there is with a dog. You don’t rent out members of your family.”

Tyranny of the Old


Kids' Stuff