Moral Hazard

Former FBI agents are interviewed and defend the Bureau’s longstanding de facto practice of overlooking serious crimes, including murder, that are committed by informants.

Several said they would never protect known killers, but others said it was defensible in some circumstances.

“You have to weigh the odds of whether killing one or two people is better than killing a whole planeload,” said Wesley Swearingen, whose service as an agent from 1959 to 1977 included tours in Los Angeles and Chicago.

For example, he said, agents ignored the murder of a small-time mobster by an FBI informant in Chicago in the 1960s because “the information that the FBI was getting was more important. Somebody in the mob is going to kill that person anyway.”

The utilitarian logic here is difficult to refute, but it’s not the real point. The point is that tolerating a murder of which you have foreknowledge is not far removed morally from participating in that murder. We don’t allow government agents discretion to commit murder in situations where doing so might prevent more murders. Why then do we allow them to use informants as subcontractors to do, in effect, the same thing?
Clifford Zimmerman, a Northwestern University law professor who studies informant practices, says it is immoral, and perhaps illegal, for agents to shrug off violent crimes.

“They’re doing their own little cost-benefit analysis and really not taking into account, in my opinion, the damage to society that these people are causing,” he said. “Is a federal official entitled to make that decision — that one person’s life is more valuable than another’s?”

It’s even worse than that, because the government officials who make these decisions aren’t neutral judges. They benefit from the murders but don’t pay any of the costs.


If you are running Windows 2000 and the operating system becomes corrupted, the easiest and least risky way to fix it is to 1) buy a new hard drive, 2) install Windows on it and then 3) set it up as the master drive (assuming it’s IDE) with your old hard drive as a slave. Then copy the data and use the old drive as a backup. The standard help-desk recommendation, always some variant of the old “you must reinstall Windows” boilerplate, puts both your valuable data and valuable time at risk. (Of course the standard recommendation should work, but then if things always worked your Windows installation wouldn’t become corrupted, would it?) The price of a hard drive nowadays seems a small price to pay to avoid hours spent in help-desk hell.

The Joke’s on Them

Xerox is running a TV ad for its publishing software. In the ad, an out-of-it middle-aged professor tells his class how expensive publishing is. A confident young student puts the prof in his place by pointing out, to applause, that Xerox publishing software makes it possible for anyone to be a publisher. Ha. I guess that’s why we’re all using Xerox’s software to publish our blogs. It’s ironic that Xerox doesn’t see that its sales pitch undercuts its own product as much as it does the old publishing ways which it thinks are its main competition. Oh, well. Nobody ever accused Xerox of understanding technology.