Weekly Hit & Run Archive 2010 January 1-31

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"Bernanke Did Not Get a Single Thing Right."

Take heart. It's probably cold where you are, but in just a few weeks Ben Bernanke will see his shadow and we can all start working on our "long hot summer" thumbsuckers. In the meantime, get your blood boiling with the always dyspeptic Mish Shedlock, who has a nice roundup of Ben Bernanke detractors.

The gist: Time's carbon-based biped of the sidereal year (though not the tropical year) is a failure dipped in bad luck, a schlemeil, a man who exudes death. And yet you'd be a fool to bet against his (now supposedly controversial) Senate reconfirmation as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank.

As surely as Earth rests at the center of a finite series of interlocking crystalline polyhedrons within the compass of a benevolent prime mover, so Ben Bernanke will clear all challenges and have his woeful career extended by the U.S. Senate.

So enjoy the high-profile Bernanke hate while you still can. This invective from The New York Times' David Leonhardt draws on real estate economist Robert Shiller and announces its sarcastic purpose in the first sentence: "If only we'd had more power, we could have kept the financial crisis from getting so bad." And in BusinessWeek, Stanford economist John Taylor, inventor of the "Taylor rule" for monetary policy, pummels Bernanke's preposterous claim that low interest rates did not inflate the housing bubble.

Mish has more, including some contempt for the Taylor Rule [pdf] itself, and some discussion of how the rule is constructed, which is too heady for me.

The real question: Is there any official whose failure is more clearly displayed in the United States in 2010? This is not President Obama, who can claim to have inherited a mess. This is a man who has been in his office since the beginning of 2006. What chart, what graph could you possibly still need to see to understand what a complete and utter buffoon Ben Bernanke is? The evidence echoes in every boarded-up storefront, every vacant mall, every soup line in every town in every state.

Loose Change, Islamic Republic of Iran Edition

Via Joshua Keating at Foreign Policy, Radio Free Europe's Golnaz Esfandiari reports that Iranian state television has aired a documentary claiming that the death of Neda Soltan was an elaborate hoax concocted by British and American intelligence services. The English-language version, I suspect, will soon be available on Alex Jones's website. But until then:

The state-television documentary suggests the video of Neda's dying moments merely depicted her pouring blood on her own face from a special bottle she was carrying. Later, the documentary alleges that 27-year-old Neda was shot dead in the car that was taking her to a hospital.

The conspiracy theory alleged in the documentary is in line with comments by Iranian officials, who have repeatedly described Neda's death as "suspicious" and a "premeditated scenario" to defame Iran.

It seems that the doctor who came to Neda Soltan's aid is rotting in an Iranian prison for his part in the "plot":

The documentary alleges that Arash Hejazi, the writer and physician who treated Neda as she lay bleeding on a Tehran street, as well as her music teacher who was with her at the protest, were members of a team that carried out the plot.

"While Neda is [pretending] she is injured and is lying on the back seat of the car on their lap, they bring out a handgun from their pockets," the documentary's narrator says.

"A handgun that they obtained from their Western and Iranian friends to water the tree of reforms and kill people and create divisions within society. Neda, for a moment, realizes their wicked plan and struggles to escape, but they quickly shoot her from behind."

The narrator adds that this is how "deceived and deceitful" Neda was killed.

Last week, New York Times reporter Nazila Fathi wrote that a spokesman for the Iranian dictatorship claimed a video of a police van running down protesters was also faked. The video in question:

First Smart Move In a Long Time: Government Surrenders on Second Mortgages

One of many ill-advised pieces of the Home Affordable Modification Program may be getting a quiet retirement. The Second Lien Modification Program, which was announced back in April, seems to be on the skids. Calculated Risk puts the story together:

Housing economist Tom Lawler emailed the HAMP administrative website to obtain a list of servicers who had signed up for the Second Lien Modification Program. Here is the response he received:

“That program is currently on hold and there is no list of servicers that registered before it was placed on hold.”

This is not an official announcement, and the Treasury office I'm trying to confirm with has been known to take three weeks to answer a pretty simple question. But assuming the program really is suspended, that could be reflective of several things. It may be impossible to get second lienholders to go along with the program (which would explain why "there is no list"). It's possible that so many second-mortgage situations are beyond hopeless that there's no point in starting the effort. It is also possible the $75 billion HAMP program is running short on cash, though given the total value of claimed modifications so far, that seems unlikely.

In a reaction at the OC Register's real estate blog, Matthew Padilla says the suspension notice is "not a good sign." But in fact, it's an excellent sign. Bailing out bad borrowers is bad policy to begin with, but bailing out second mortgages shocks the conscience. It may not be quite axiomatic that if you are carrrying a second mortgage and you are in default you are by definition not a responsible borrower. But it's as close as anything could be to axiomatic.

Yet the HAMP website predicted the second-lien program would "reach approximately 1 - 1.5 million responsible homeowners who are struggling to afford their mortgage payments." And Congressional Oversight Panel Chairwoman Elizabeth Warren keeps saying bailing out second liens is the solution to the real estate crisis.

These arguments are getting less traction as time goes by. The destination media have lately begun taking an interest in HAMP's counterproductive results. The HAMP's underwhelming numbers, ineffectiveness, and costly efforts to limit redefaults (which have met with limited success) have been well documented. And the public, which never even wanted to bail out responsible homeowners, can't get excited about saving somebody's cigarette-boat-financing HELOC. If the Treasury Department is looking at that grim battlefield and putting up a white flag, that's the better part of valor.

New at Reason: Doug Bandow on the Folly of America's Military Spending

The U.S. dominates the globe militarily. America’s reach exceeds that of the Roman and British Empires at their respective heights. Yet the threats facing the U.S. pale compared to its capabilities. So why, writes Doug Bandow, is Washington spending so much on the military?

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A Cocaine Treatment That Boosts Cocaine Consumption

In October I discussed a study that found a cocaine "vaccine," which is aimed at neutralizing the drug's psychoactivity, was mostly ineffective at getting users to cut back on their consumption. On Tuesday The Washington Post ran a weirdly late story about the same study in which the lead author offers a decidedly more negative spin than he did last fall:

The vaccine, called TA-CD, shows promise but could also be dangerous; some of the addicts participating in a study of the vaccine started doing massive amounts of cocaine in hopes of overcoming its effects, according to Thomas R. Kosten, the lead researcher on the study, which was published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in October.

"After the vaccine, doing cocaine was a very disappointing experience for them," said Kosten, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Nobody overdosed, but some of them had 10 times more cocaine coursing through their systems than researchers had encountered before, according to Kosten. He said some of the addicts reported to researchers that they had gone broke buying cocaine from multiple drug dealers, hoping to find a variety that would get them high.

The headline over the story misleadingly says, "Testing of Cocaine Vaccine Shows It Does Not Fully Blunt Cravings for the Drug." In fact, as I noted in my original post, the vaccine does not "blunt cravings" at all. It is not designed to do so; instead it is designed to stimulate an immune system response that causes antibodies to bond with cocaine molecules, thereby making them too big to pass the blood-brain barrier. In this study, less than two-fifths of the subjects who received the vaccine had what the researchers considered an adequate immune response, and only half of those subjects reduced their cocaine use by 50 percent or more. Among the subjects with the strongest immune responses, 45 percent of urine samples tested negative for cocaine, compared to 35 percent for the rest of the subjects (weak responders and placebo recipients). Using that measure, you could say the vaccine boosted the success rate by 28 percent, which sounds impressive. But only one out of five subjects who got the vaccine substantially reduced his cocaine use, and some ended up consuming more than they were before the study.

Even if the vaccine worked perfectly, cocaine cravings would be unaffected; they just couldn't be satisfied anymore. Hence this approach probably will appeal only to highly motivated addicts who are committed to quitting. That's assuming its use is voluntary; as I said in October, the prospect of mandatory anti-drug vaccination is not far-fetched given our government's generally coercive approach to illegal drug users. And this study suggests that such forcible treatment, even leaving aside the violation of liberty, could well leave the "patients" worse off, spending more money and consuming more cocaine while enjoying it less.

[Thanks to Jamie Alford for the tip.]

How Markets Can Stimulate Rationality

Ilya Somin at Volokh Conspiracy has some interesting thoughts on whether "libertarian paternalist" arguments based on lab research hold up, and brings in a brilliant Hayek quote on how markets can help make irrational people tend to behave more rationally:

Advocates of “libertarian paternalism” cite experimental evidence showing that people often make irrational decisions, and argue that we need government regulation to guard against such problems....

One underappreciated fact about the experimental and survey evidence relied on by advocates of the new paternalism is that it models voter decision-making far more closely than market decisions. Unlike market participants, voters have little or no incentive to either acquire information about the issues they decide, or to analyze the information they do have in an unbiased fashion. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of libertarian paternalist policies established by expert regulators insulated from democratic control.... Such regulators may be more knowledgeable than voters. But unlike consumers, they do not have their own money at stake, and therefore don’t suffer any penalty if they make mistakes, and don’t have much incentive to combat any irrational biases they may have. 

By advocating increased government intervention in order to combat irrationality, the paternalists are arguing for a transfer of power to decision-making processes where irrationality is likely to be greater than it is in markets....

....the relationship between markets and rationality was well-described by F.A. Hayek. In Volume 3 of Law, Legislation, and Liberty, published over 30 years ago, he wrote:

Competition . . . is the method by which we have all been led to acquire much of the knowledge and skills we do possess. This is not understood by those who maintain that the argument for competition rests on the assumption of rational behavior of those who take part in it.... [R]ational behavior is not a premise of economic theory, though it is often presented as such. The basic contention of theory is rather that competition will make it necessary for people to act rationally in order to maintain themselves. It is based not on the assumption that most or all the participants in the market process are rational, but, on the contrary, on the assumption that it will in general be through competition that a few relatively more rational individuals will make it necessary for the rest to emulate them in order to prevail. In a society in which rational behavior confers an advantage on the individual, rational methods will progressively be developed and be spread by imitation. It is no use being more rational than the rest if one is not allowed to derive benefits from being so. 

Reason magazine ran a great feature back in our October 2007 issue on the false and biased economic assumptions that voters nonetheless hew to, at little direct personal cost to themselves.

Now Playing at Reason.tv: Reason Senior Editor Michael C. Moynihan discusses new TSA restrictions on RT

On January 4, 2010, Reason senior editor Michael C. Moynihan appeared on RT's The Alyona Show to discuss the absurd new measures implemented by the TSA in the wake of the recent attempted airplane bombing and the institutional incompetence that allowed Abdul Farouk Mutallab to board a US-bound flight in the first place.

If I Was Qaddafi's Boy

The Guardian reports:

Beyoncé Knowles gave at a private concert on New Year's Eve for the son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, according to reports, performing five songs at a club on the Caribbean island of St Barts.

The R&B star's performance reportedly followed a similar gig at the end of 2008, when her husband Jay-Z appeared with Mariah Carey at the same nightclub, Nikki Beach. While the 2008 concert was thrown by 37-year-old Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, this year's event seems to have been hosted by Saif's brother, known as Hannibal. The New York Post reports that Carey was paid $1m (£625,000) for her song and dance -- $2m is rumoured for Beyoncé's hour-long warble. Usher also took the stage, with Jon Bon Jovi, Lindsay Lohan, Russell Simmons and models Miranda Kerr and Victoria Silvstedt in the crowd....

Hannibal Gaddafi does not exactly have a sterling reputation. His father aside, Hannibal has been involved in several reported assaults, including alleged attacks on Italian police officers, Swiss hotel workers, and his own wife, Aline Skaf, though no charges were made.

You can read that story and damn Beyoncé for entertaining the thuggish son of a tyrant, or you can take it as another sign that liberatory vulgar culture is infiltrating the Muslim world. Or maybe you'll just marvel at the news that Jon Bon Jovi was on Qaddafi's guest list. Hell, you can do all three.

Elsewhere in Reason: Our March issue will include a travelogue from Tripoli by Michael Moynihan. In the meantime, here's a brief item I wrote about Col. Qaddafi's occasional pledges to abolish the Libyan state.

Update: The reference to the earlier concert allegedly hosted by Hannibal's brother has been removed from the Guardian article. A statement there says that the tale "was denied at the time and several publications retracted reports they had published."

Reason Writers Around Town: Nick Gillespie on John Stossel's Fox Business Show Tonight!

John Stossel’s new show Stossel airs on the Fox Business Network tonight at 8 PM EST. Reason.com and Reason.tv Editor in Chief Nick Gillespie will be on the program to discuss Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and its meaning today.

If you'll be in New York City and would like to be part of the studio audience for future Stossel tapings, you can email Stosseltix@foxnews.com or call 877-369-8587. For more information on the show, go here.

Reason.tv: We're the TSA and You Can Count on Us! (to overreact to tiny threats and ignore big ones)

We're the Transportation Security Administration. We're working hard to make sure you enjoy a safe flight. And while we cannot apprehend every terrorist, you can count on us to do what we're trained to do whenever there's a security breach—overreact to tiny threats.

Overreact to tiny threats; ignore the big ones. That's what we do, and we do it better than anyone.

Written and produced by Ted Balaker.

Approximately one minute.

New at Reason: John Stossel on Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged

Even though Ayn Rand published Atlas Shrugged in 1957, writes John Stossel, her descriptions of intrusive and bloated government read like today's news. The "Preservation of Livelihood Law" and "Equalization of Opportunity Law" could be Nancy Pelosi's or Harry Reid's work.

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Here Comes...Tucker!

Tucker Carlson's new Daily Caller website premiers on Monday. Reason Contributing Editor David Weigel has an entertaining preview up over at The Washington Independent. Excerpt:

"If there's a story whose facts are verifiable, and it generates interest, and it comes from Satan himself, I will take it and I will pay him a reporting fee," Carlson said. "But if we take a piece from Satan, that does not mean we're on board with Satan's agenda. It just means that the provenance of the piece, the origins of the piece, is not the most important thing. People don't give you stuff because they love journalists. They give you that stuff because they're pushing an agenda." [...]

"I keep reading all of these Nick Denton memos for Gawker," said Carlson, "these ferocious memos to writers where it's like 'get a million pageviews this week or you're fired!' Maybe we'll have to do that! But it's not my personality at all."

More deets here. And here's Carlson talking to Reason.TV at Ron Paul's 2008 Rally for the Republic:

Suet and 17 Green Beans: School Lunch

When Orwell writes about food, he doesn't mess around. If you ever want to eat at a fancy French restaurant again, I suggest that you avoid Down and Out in Paris and London. But while the rest of us can give the steak frites a miss, schoolkids aren't so lucky. 

In his brilliant and distressing essay on the cruelties of English boarding school life in the 1910s, “Such, Such Were the Joys,” George Orwell devoted a few lines to the prevailing attitudes toward feeding children. A boy’s appetite was seen as “a sort of morbid growth which should be kept in check as much as possible.” At Orwell’s school, St. Cyprian’s, the food was therefore not only unappetizing but calorically insufficient; students were often told “that it is healthy to get up from a meal feeling as hungry as when you sat down.” Only a generation earlier, school meals began with “a slab of unsweetened suet pudding, which, it was frankly said, broke the boys’ appetites.” Orwell described sneaking, terrified, down to the kitchen in the middle of the night for a slice or two of stale bread to dull the hunger pains. His contemporaries at public school had it better, and worse: so long as their parents gave them pocket money to buy eggs, sausages, and sardines from street vendors, they scrounged enough food to get through the day.

Orwell on school lunch is just as brutal, and while things have changed since his time school lunch is still one of the worst parts of a pretty terrible education system—meager, yet obesity inducing. From The Washington Monthly's review of Janet Poppendieck's Free for All: Fixing School Food in America:

Under the National School Food Lunch Program, there are three tiers of school meals: free ones for the poorest children, reduced-price ones for those with somewhat greater means, and full-price meals for everyone else. All of the meals, including the full-price ones, are subsidized and therefore artificially cheap. And it is hard to break even when your most expensive meal costs $1.50, so school districts have increasingly turned to unregulated (and pricier) a la carte lines, the income from which goes straight back into the cafeteria program, and vending machines, which help fill out the schools’ general discretionary budgets. 

Via A&L Daily

How the Internet Helps Neighbors Communicate

...passive-aggressively.

Reason Morning Links: Obama Wants Tax on High-End Health Plans, Holocaust Museum Shooter Dies, Cell Phones Prevent Alzheimer's?

That's Just A Little Bit More than the Law Will Allow

Legal blogger Josh Blackman highlights a revealing passage from a L.A. Times story on pro basketball star Gilbert Arenas’ illegal gun troubles. Here’s the Times (emphasis added):

Washington Wizards star Gilbert Arenas says he took unloaded guns from his locker in a “misguided effort to play a joke” on a teammate. Arenas released a written statement Monday after meeting with law enforcement officials. Arenas’ lawyer says the player voluntarily met with prosecutors and detectives and answered every question during a two-hour interview. In his statement, Arenas repeated his assertion that he brought four guns to the Verizon Center to store in his locker in order to get them out of his house and away from his children. He said he mistakenly believed that recent changes in District of Columbia law made it legal for him to store unloaded guns there.

As Blackman notes, “Arenas undoubtedly is referring to Heller here. Amazing how the landmark case, even if misunderstood by this athlete, has made it into the cultural zeitgeist.”

Still, Arenas isn't without his champions. The Legal Times blog quotes Philip Van Cleave of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, who says, "Everything Gilbert Arenas did in D.C. would be hunky dory in Virginia. On one side of the bridge over the Potomac, he's a law abiding citizen, but step into in D.C. and you can be viewed as a dangerous criminal."

New at Reason: Steve Chapman on the Naked Truth About Airport Scanners

Here’s the sad reality, writes Steve Chapman. If we insist on preserving what little remains of our privacy, we will remain at risk of a terrorist attack like the one attempted on Northwest Airlines on Christmas. And if we give it up? Ditto.

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The NRA Takes on McDonald v. Chicago

Damon Root blogged below about a curious amici brief on behalf of Chicago; elsewhere in McDonald v. Heller news, the NRA, reputed greatest organized champion of gun rights, are angling to get some minutes in oral arguments on the case, even though it isn't theirs, to make arguments different from that of the lawyers fighting for McDonald. (The NRA had its own Chicago gun challenge it tried to get the Supreme Court to accept, which the Court has so far not done.)

In short, the NRA is unhappy that so much of McDonald lawyer Alan Gura's arguments in his brief rely on an attempt to revive the "privileges or immunities" clause of the 14th Amendment, as opposed to relying on what has generally been used in the past century to extend the Bill of Rights to the states, the "due process" clause of the 14th.

Details from the fabulous ScotusBlog:

The National Rifle Association asked the Supreme Court on Tuesday to allow its lawyer to take part in the oral argument March 2 in the case testing whether the Second Amendment restricts the power of state and local governments to pass gun control laws. It sought 10 minutes of time allotted to the individuals and groups that are pursuing the Amendment’s extension, to put more stress on an alternative constitutional argument.  The request, the NRA noted in its motion, is opposed by the lead parties in McDonald, et al., v. Chicago (08-1521).  Those parties are expected to file a written opposition shortly.  The Court will consider the NRA request at its private Conference on Jan. 15.

The Court in the McDonald case will consider two main arguments for applying the individual right to possess guns to state and local laws: first, that gun rights should be protected at those levels by the 14th Amendment’s “Privileges or Immunities” clause; and, second, the protection should come under the Amendment’s Due Process clause.   Both of those arguments are at issue in the question presented by the petition.  The NRA said it wants to put stress on the due process argument.

In their merits brief in the case, the NRA noted, Otis McDonald and the others appealing “have concentrated their argument on a Privileges or Immunities Clause theory that would require overruling at least three of this Court’s precedents.”  And, the motion added, only 7 pages of the 73-page McDonald brief discuss the Due Process Clause.....

The NRA maneuver brings further out into the open the strategic differences in pursuing the two alternative arguments. 

A leading reason for pressing the Privileges and Immunities Clause approach is that it could give the Court a chance to overrule the 1873 ruling in the SlaughterHouse Cases — a ruling that made a nullify of that Clause.  It has long been a goal of some advocates to revive that Clause, as a firmer foundation for weighing government power against individual rights.  Conservative advocates, in particular, argue that the use of the Due Process Clause has given judges too much latitude to invent new rights that exist nowhere in the Constitution.

I was one of the first reporters to cover the divisions within the pro-Second Amendment community on McDonald lawyer Alan Gura's "overturn Slaughterhouse" strategy in this December Reason Online piece.

While it is little known, except to readers of my book on the case, Gun Control on Trial, the NRA had a similar difference of strategy with Gura on his first grand Second Amendment case, Heller v. D.C., pretty much fighting against it every step of the way in the belief it was premature and risky, until it reached the Supreme Court, when they came on board as staunch allies. The reasons for the NRA's discomfort with Heller are detailed in my book and in this Reason magazine excerpt from our December 2008 issue.

Chicago's Friends in the Gun Rights Fight

Today is the filing deadline for the friend of the court briefs submitted on behalf of Chicago and Oak Park, Illinois in the landmark gun rights case McDonald v. Chicago, which the Supreme Court will hear in early March. ChicagoGunCase.com has been posting them as they come in, and perhaps the most curious so far is the “Brief of Historians on Early American Legal, Constitutional and Pennsylvania History.” This document essentially tries to get the Supreme Court to return to the question it settled in last year’s 2008's Heller case: Whether the Second Amendment secures an individual right or a collective one. These historians of early America adhere to the latter view, arguing, “The debates over the Second Amendment indicate that the Founders codified the right of the people to bear arms collectively.... Protecting the right to keep and bear arms for militia purposes was the dominant reason behind the Second Amendment.” The Supreme Court, of course, disagreed.

And while there’s some interesting stuff here about Pennsylvania Quakers during the American Revolution, the brief isn’t exactly relevant to the question presented in McDonald v. Chicago, which asks: “Whether the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms is incorporated as against the States by the Fourteenth Amendment’s Privileges or Immunities or Due Process Clauses.” In other words, what matters is the text and history of the 14th Amendment, which was ratified in 1868 in order to prevent the former Confederate states from robbing the recently freed slaves (and their white allies) of their political, economic, and civil rights, including the right to armed self-defense. So while early American history mattered very much in Heller, Reconstruction-era history will be the key in McDonald. For Reason’s coverage of that history and what it means for Chicago's draconian handgun ban, see here.

The Sheriff Is Coming! The Sheriff Is Coming!

A cluster of lookouts in an Arizona neighborhood have started sending blast text messages to warn when an immigration sweep is imminent. Who are they on the look out for? The cop Reason loves to hate, of course—Maricopa county sheriff Joe Arpaio.

You remember Arpaio: He's the anti-illegal immigration zealot who forced prisoners to live in tents in the desert, held a candlelight vigil for his deputies when they were imprisoned after being caught on tape stealing documents in a courtroom, retaliated against newspapers that did investigations on him (also against mayors who speak against him), inspired a life-sized guerilla art installation at the Mexican border, and left a Hispanic woman arrested after a traffic stop in shackles while she gave birth.

Frankly, I'd subscribe to text messages warning me when this guy is coming.

Lydia Guzman, director of the nonprofit immigrant advocacy group Respect/Respeto, is the trunk of a sophisticated texting tree designed to alert thousands of people within minutes to the details of the sweeps, which critics contend are an excuse to round up illegal immigrants.

Guzman said the messages are part of an effort to protect Latinos and others from becoming victims of racial profiling by sheriff's deputies. Deputies have been accused of stopping Hispanics, including citizens and legal immigrants, for minor traffic violations to check their immigration status....

Arpaio has conducted 13 sweeps since March 2008, and deputies have arrested 669 people, about half of whom were held on immigration violations.

Eugene Volokh, who alerted me to this story, has a paper [PDF] on crime-facilitating speech with some relevant case law. He asks the tough questions:

So what’s the First-Amendment-relevant difference, if there is one, between this and a lookout who alerts criminals when the police are coming? (Assume that the lookout isn’t getting a share of the loot, but is just helping his friends avoid getting locked up.) Should it matter, as one expert who’s mentioned in the article suggests, whether Ms. Guzman’s real goal is preventing lawful arrest of illegal immigrants (as opposed to preventing racial profiling, assuming such profiling is unlawful)?

Does It Matter If C-SPAN Is Allowed To Broadcast the Health Care Negotiations?

The Center for American Progress' Wonk Room offers a case for not allowing C-SPAN cameras into the House-Senate health care negotiations. But I still don't buy it.

The short version of the argument is that C-SPAN's coverage would put pressure on legislators to perform for the cameras and thus make the bill worse:

C-SPAN is grounded in the belief that transparency produces superior legislation. And maybe a certain level of transparency does. But if one actually considers the tone and tenor of the televised health care debate of 2009, filming the conference negotiations seems counterproductive.

...On the whole, C-SPAN’s coverage informed and entertained the viewer. But did it improve the underlying bill?

The post suggests pretty strongly that the answer is no. But how you answer this last question depends quite a bit on what you mean when you say "improved." If you asked me, I'd say that anything in the health care bill that increased individual control and responsibility for their health care improved it. But when anyone at CAP asks whether something has been "improved", I think it's fair to say that what they're asking is whether it made the bill more progressive — ie: does it cover more people, spread costs across a greater share of the population, offer larger subsidies for care, and move more power away from private enterprise and toward centralized government authority. The implicit argument here is that not filming the negotiations will push the bill in a more progressive direction. I agree, but I think that's a bad thing. And I also think that as excuses go, shutting out C-SPAN and other media because doing so would limit opposition to the progressive agenda is pretty weak.

There's also something to be said for the argument that even if Democrats allowed C-SPAN to film some of the discussions, much of the real negotiations — the conversations in which legislators actually hash out the details of the deals — are going to happen behind closed doors anyway. To some extent, I'm sure that's true. But even the most self-aware, for-the-cameras political performance is going to air more of the debates and information than what we're getting now, which is zilch.

But how about this for a reason to be annoyed with the refusal to air the debates: It's a blatant reversal from the president. On the campaign trail, Obama promised these negotiations would be broadcast on C-SPAN. Repeatedly.

Now, Obama's not shown any particular concern about breaking campaign pledges when it comes to health care, so I guess it's not all that surprising that he'd break this one too. But it's more than reasonable to hold him to account for this sort of thing, especially when the only excuse for doing so that Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs can come up with is that, uh, well, the White House really wants to move the bill through quickly, thankyounextquestionanybody. As The Cato Institute's Will Wilkinson recently argued, the Democrats increasingly "seem interested primarily in how a temporary majority can do more, faster, now." Shutting out C-SPAN is about avoiding accountability in order to speed up the Democratic agenda. And when time is of the essence, I suppose you just can't be bothered to deal with pesky annoyances like political opposition, or public scrutiny.

Anal-Retentive Anti-Humor People? Yeah, There's an App For That!

Alan Vanneman tips us toward this Silicon Alley Insider story on "Apple's 10 Dumbest iPhone App Rejections." At the top of the list? "This image, along with jokes about Hitler and Michael Richards, earned a rejection for the app from online e-card company Someecards."

Cocaine, Now With More Levamisole! Thanks, Uncle Sam!

In September I noted government warnings about cocaine cut with levamisole hydrochloride, a veterinary drug that can impair people's immune systems, leaving them vulnerable to disfiguring, disabling, and potentially deadly diseases. As of July, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, about 70 percent of the cocaine entering the country was tainted by levamisole, which may be favored as a cutting agent because it boosts the stimulant's perceived effect. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that levamisole-related medical problems are starting to turn up in that city:

So far, eight cases of illness caused by the drug levamisole have been identified in San Francisco, one of a handful of cities in the country where pockets of sickness caused by the drug have been found....

Levamisole can significantly reduce the number of white blood cells in the body, a condition called agranulocytosis. Symptoms include fever, swollen glands, painful sores in the mouth and anus, and an infection that won't go away. In San Francisco, patients with levamisole poisoning also are getting serious skin conditions that make their skin look black.

In a group of 200 patients at San Francisco General Hospital who tested positive for cocaine, 90 percent also tested positive for levamisole. That figure may exaggerate the prevalence of levamisole in cocaine, since patients who test positive for cocaine are not necessarily representative of cocaine users in general. In any case, most of the patients who had been exposed to levamisole did not get sick as a result. "The big question we have right now," the associate chief of the hospital's toxicology lab tells the Chronicle,"is, if 90 percent of cocaine users in San Francisco are positive for levamisole and are being exposed to this compound, then why aren't 90 percent of them in the emergency room with these side effects?" It may be that the drug has a dramatic effect only on people who are predisposed to immune system problems. It is also possible that milder reactions are being misidentified as flu, or that repeated exposure is necessary, in which case a larger percentage of cocaine users can be expected to get sick over time.

As I emphasized in September, whatever the magnitude of the levamisole hazard, we have prohibition to thank for it:

You won't find levamisole in legal, pharmaceutical cocaine, just as you won't find methanol in the whiskey you get at your local liquor store. The main reason for that is not government regulation (although there's none of that in a black market) but the need to compete for customers in a legal, open market where fraud and negligence are punished not only by law but by the loss of business. By making such competition impossible, prohibition creates uncertainty about the quality and purity of drugs, and more aggressive enforcement only makes the problem worse. To the extent that the government succeeds at its avowed goal of reducing cocaine purity, for example, it encourages more use of levamisole, resulting in more disease and death. Anyone who supports this policy has to accept the resulting casualties as a necessary cost of deterrence.

[Thanks to Paul Rako for the tip.]

New at Reason: Peter Suderman on the War Over Net Neutrality

For years, Internet search giant Google has been pushing the Federal Communications Commission to step up Net neutrality regulations. By forcing Internet service providers to treat each and every piece of information that passes through their systems equally, Net neutrality regulations would arguably give Google the upper hand in its dealings with ISPs, which would be constrained in how they choose to manage their networks. Google claims its support for neutrality is in the public interest, but the reality is that it is self-interestedly seeking to impose regulatory restrictions on its business partners and competitors. Yet as Associate Editor Peter Suderman writes, by pursuing this approach—calling for regulations that may or may not bolster the public good but certainly bolster their business model—Google has opened itself to similar attacks from its competitors.

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Tobacco Ad Restrictions Overturned

Yesterday a federal judge in Kentucky overturned two speech restrictions imposed by the law that authorized the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco products. U.S. District Judge Joseph H. McKinley Jr. agreed with R.J. Reynolds and other tobacco companies that Congress violated the First Amendment by trying to ban color and pictures from outdoor ads, indoor ads (except those in adult-only businesses), and print ads carried by publications with significant underage readerships. He also overturned a provision that prohibits tobacco companies from telling consumers their products are regulated by the FDA, lest that fact mislead people into believing that cigarettes are any safer than they used to be.

Last June I asked, "How Long Will the New Tobacco Ad Restrictions Last?" The answer is either "about six months" or "they will never take effect," since they never did. I discussed the first rule of FDA regulation (You Do Not Talk About FDA Regulation) here and here.

[via The Rest of the Story]

At Least Her Avatar Doesn't Smoke

Anti-smoking activist Stanton Glantz thought Avatar was "a great movie," except for the one detail that moved him to launch a publicity campaign against it: Grace Augustine, the environmental scientist played by Sigourney Weaver, has a cigarette habit. "This is like someone just put a bunch of plutonium in the water supply," Glantz tells The New York Times, with his usual sense of proportion. In addition to rousing the ire of Glantz's Smoke Free Movies project, Avatar, which is rated PG-13, earned a "black lung" from Scenesmoking.org. In response, director James Cameron says he considers smoking "a filthy habit" and does not view Weaver's character as "an aspirational role model" for teenagers:

She’s rude, she swears, she drinks, she smokes. Also, from a character perspective, we were showing that Grace doesn’t care about her human body, only her avatar body, which again is a negative comment about people in our real world living too much in their avatars, meaning online and in video games....

I don’t believe in the dogmatic idea that no one in a movie should smoke. Movies should reflect reality. If it’s O.K. for people to lie, cheat, steal and kill in PG-13 movies, why impose an inconsistent morality when it comes to smoking? I do agree that young role-model characters should not smoke in movies, especially in a way which suggests that it makes them cooler or more accepted by their peers.

Cameron is a bit too defensive, I think, but he is right to reject the notion that art should not only be didactic but that it should impart the lessons endorsed by the reigning ideology—in this case, "public health," which elevates the minimization of morbidity and mortality above all other values. The expectation that everyone who is not in the pocket of Big Tobacco will toe the official line is one of the creepiest aspects of the contemporary anti-smoking movement, as exemplified by Glantz.

I criticized the campaign for smoke-free movies in a 2003 column and discussed Glantz's wild claims about the impact of cinematic smoking in a 2005 column. Last month Peter Suderman raised some non-tobacco-related objections to Avatar.

The Future's Not What It Used To Be

Charles Johnson—the Rad Geek People's Daily guy, not the Little Green Footballs guy—looks back at the predictions Ray Kurzweil made in 1999 about the lives we'd be living by the end of 2009. As you'd expect, Kurzweil got a lot wrong, but Johnson is making a point more interesting than the familiar mock-the-futurist game:

I think what's interesting [about] this is not so much what Kurzweil predicts which hasn't come to pass, but rather the number of things he failed to predict which have come to pass—and why the things he predicts coming to pass haven't come to pass. Sometimes it's because Kurzweil is too optimistic about technologies that never materialized, or which are still in their incipient stages at best. But a lot of the time, it's just that people found they have better things to do with their limited time and resources. So it turns out that a lot of people book travel reservations online now, but nobody books it by talking with some animated virtual customer service agent. Not because it would be impossible for clever folks to program that sort of thing, if they'd spent the last 10 years doing it. But rather, even if they did, who would want to waste time on that kind of goofy shit, when you just get the tickets through Kayak? Similarly, I'm sure that if folks had spent the last 10 years working on virtual reality games, or on establishing fancy new paperless Information Superhighway channels for great big established media companies to push their DRMed-up chosen publications, you probably would have seen something like what Kurzweil predicts. But instead of that, we have people who put their time into developing IndyMedia, Craigslist, blogging software, and Flickr, MySpace, and so on—tools which, technically speaking, are mostly dead-simple HTML over HTTP. The real awesomeness of the future—so far, at least—turns out to have not nearly so much to do with technical fireworks and the kinds of techno-conveniences that brute-force computational power can achieve, but rather with the new lifestyles, new patterns of autonomy, and the new forms of social relationships that relatively simple but increasingly pervasive technologies, have helped facilitate.

(Title stolen from a great song.)

The Fine Line Between Airport Screener and Child Pornographer

The London Guardian reports that routine use of full-body scanners at airports—Prime Minister Gordon Brown's response to the Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's fizzled underwear bomb—appears to violate Britain's ban on child pornography. "Ministers now face having to exempt under 18s from the scans," the paper says, "or face the delays of introducing new legislation to ensure airport security staff do not commit offences under child pornography laws."

On Monday I discussed an Independent report suggesting that a scanner would not have detected the explosive powder in Abdulmutallab's underwear even if it had been used on him. Last summer I noted that indecent pictures of minors are the main thing U.S. border guards find when they seize travelers' computers.

[Thanks to Tricky Vic for the tip.]

New at Reason: David Harsanyi on Flying With the Enemy

It is a shame that anyone has to endure questioning or pat-downs or worse at airports, writes David Harsanyi, but the fact is that those who are behind terrorism have, by large margins, originated from certain nations. That's why the Obama administration was correct in instructing airports to profile travelers en route to the United States from those countries.

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Texas PTA Blames Texas Crime Stoppers for 'Strawberry Quick' Panic

A few weeks ago, I noted that the Texas PTA was excitedly passing along rumors about "strawberry meth" that had been debunked by (among others) Snopes.com, the drug policy organization Join Together, and the Drug Enforcement Administration. In addition to explaining this online, I emailed the relevant links to the local PTA officer who had sent me the warning. Today she sent me the following "Correction re Strawberry Quick Methamphetamines":

Texas PTA works closely with Texas Crime Stoppers and Attorney General Greg Abbott. In December, at the request of Texas Crime Stoppers, Texas PTA released information about "strawberry quick," which generated several questions. As a result, Texas PTA consulted with Texas Crime Stoppers about your questions, and officials at Texas Crime Stoppers wrote an apology to Texas PTA with a correction found below.

Texas Crime Stoppers Response Concerning Strawberry Quick 
A Texas Crime Stoppers internal investigation of a methamphetamine-laced drug being marketed to school age children in Texas called "strawberry quick" has found that it does not exist in Texas. Dr. Jane Maxwell, with the Gulf Coast Addiction Technology Transfer Center, University of Texas at Austin was consulted on the existence of "strawberry quick." She replied to this staffer that "strawberry-quick is a myth, and an urban legend." This office regrets the passing of information to our friends at the Texas PTA without investigating the validity of the information sent to us from a Juvenile Probation office in Central Texas....

Rumors about new drugs or drugs targeted to children can occur in this field, but the fact that "strawberry quick" is not present in Texas in no way invalidates the urge to caution and to be fully aware regarding drug and alcohol promotion or usage amongst our Texas children. Forewarned is forearmed.

In short, after trying to stir up a panic about an urban legend, the Texas PTA blames Texas Crime Stoppers, which in turn blames a juvenile probation office in Central Texas. That's a nice example to set for the kids: When you're caught prevaricating, shift the responsibility to someone else.

A quick visit to Snopes.com or a  cursory Web search would have turned up skeptical treatments of this story (including mine). Even if no one at the Texas PTA or Texas Crime Stoppers has Internet access (unlikely, since they use the Internet to spread anti-drug hysteria), the tale told in the "Strawberry Quick" alert has the earmarks of an urban legend: lack of detail (children supposedly were rushed to the hospital after ingesting meth they mistook for candy, but we're not told when, where, or to whom this happened); implausibility (why flavor a drug that is typically snorted or smoked, let alone offer it in "chocolate, peanut butter, cola, cherry, grape and orange" as well as strawberry?); similarity to other urban legends (such as the old one about poisoned Halloween candy); and the closing admonition to "pass this email on to as many people as you can."

Note that Texas Crime Stoppers, even as it admits the story is a "myth," is still trying to salvage it by saying that "'strawberry quick' is not present in Texas," which implies that it might be a problem elsewhere. The 2007 Fox News story that the Texas PTA cited in its alert likewise said, "While Strawberry Quick hasn’t made a big splash in Dallas, it is gaining ground in other [unspecified] parts of the country."

Crying "Strawberry Meth!" may not invalidate "the urge to caution and to be fully aware regarding drug and alcohol promotion or usage amongst our Texas children." But it does put parents on notice that they should not believe anything these organizations say about drugs, since they are so ready to trumpet any scary rumor they hear on this subject without considering its plausibility or making even a rudimentary effort to verify it. Forewarned is forearmed.

Byron Dorgan, Senator From Ethanol?

North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan announced yesterday that he would not seek reelection. What's he going to do with all that free time? According to a press release, he "would like to do some teaching and would also like to work on energy policy in the private sector." In other words, as Timothy Carney speculates, he'd like to cash out:

Perhaps Dorgan intends to go back to North Dakota and drill for oil or grow switchgrass, but far more likely it seems he wants to jump into the game of lobbying for subsidies and mandates for the hottest new renewable energy. The indications he will stay in DC are pretty strong:

His wife, Kimberly Dorgan, is a lobbyist for the American Council of Life Insurers, and the two share a 4-bedroom, 4-and-a-half bath home on a cul-de-sac in McLean, Virginia. And this is simply the way of Washington -- lawmakers don't stop talking about their home state while they're here, but many of them never really plan on leaving the Beltway.

So here's my bet: Dorgan will be consulting for a cellulosic ethanol company in the DC area by the spring of 2011.

Anyone want to bet against him?

More from Reason on ethanol and other biofuel scams here, here, and here.

Make Money by Writing About Sound Money

Reason Foundation (the nonprofit that publishes Reason magazine), in partnership with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, invites you to participate in the Atlas Sound Money Essay Contest, which has a deadline of January 15th, 2010. The contest is open to students, young faculty, and policy writers who are interested in the cause of sound money. It aims to engage you in thinking about sound money principles with relevance to today's economic challenges. 

Prizes:

  • The overall winner of the Essay Contest will receive a cash prize of $5000.
  • Two additional prizes of $1000 each will be given to outstanding essays written by junior faculty, graduate students, or policy writers.
  • Three additional prizes of $500 each will be given to outstanding essays written by undergraduate students.

Essay topics include:

  • “Money and the Free Society: Can Money Exist Outside of the State?”
  • “The Ethical Implications of Monetary Manipulation”
  • “Monetary Policy and the Rule of Law in the United States”

Eligibility:           

To be eligible, you must be a legal resident of the U.S. or engaged as a full-time student or faculty in the U.S.  You must also be no more than 35 years old on the date of the contest deadline (January 15th, 2010).  Atlas welcomes involvement of older and non-U.S. scholars in its discussions and ongoing work on sound money, but this essay contest is targeted to the audience described above.

For a list of reference materials and writing guidelines, please visit the Atlas website: www.atlasnetwork.org.

You may e-mail your completed essay to SoundMoneyProject2009@AtlasNetwork.org on or before January 15th, 2010. In your email, you must include your name, mailing address, and the think tank, university, or school that you wish to list as affiliation.

Reason Morning Links: Dems Lose Two Senators, Banks Hit Back, Closer Than Expected Race in Massachusetts

Richard Epstein's Medicine for the Continuing Crisis: "Deregulation Now"

Writing in Forbes, the esteemed legal theorist and occasional Reason contributor proposes some New Year's resolutions for public policy. Excerpt:

At this point, it won't work to reaffirm the deadly triumvirate that drives this misery: tax the rich, greater local control over real estate development and special privileges for organized labor. [...]

On real estate, change the culture so that getting permits for yourself and blocking them for everyone else is no longer the preeminent developer's skill. The government can still prevent buildings from falling down and fund infrastructure through general taxation. But don't let entrenched landowners and businesses raise NIMBY politics to a fine art. Today our dysfunctional land-use processes too often build thousands of dollars and years of delay into the price of every square foot of new construction. The instructive requirements on aesthetics and handicap access should be junked, along with the crazy-quilt system of real estate exactions that asks new developments to fund improvements whose benefit largely belongs to incumbent landowners. And for heaven's sake, learn the lesson of Kelo and stop using the state's power of condemnation for the benefit or private developers. [...]

State and local governments should never, repeat never, be forced to negotiate with local unions. The huge pensions garnered by prison guards in California or transportation workers in New York present the intolerable spectacle of requiring ordinary citizens to pay huge subsidies to union workers far richer than themselves. On the private side, don't force developers to hire union workers on construction sites or to block the construction of new facilities that hire nonunion labor. If unions are really efficient--and they aren't--let them compete like everyone else. [...]

None of this activity costs the public a dime. All of it will increase tax revenues and reduce administrative expenses. The best test of a good policy is whether it is sustainable over the long haul. We know now that the progressive regime flunks this key test. At this point, all good libertarians can only take cold comfort that they have fought these destructive policies tooth and nail.

Link via Instapundit.

New at Reason: Jacob Sullum on Obama's Anti-Terrorism Policies

Last week former Vice President Dick Cheney accused the Obama administration of forsaking George W. Bush’s War on Terrorism. If only it were true, says Senior Editor Jacob Sullum.

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Does Newt Gingrich Speak for Either Republicans or Tea Partiers?

If the former, I hope the wilderness gets even colder. If the latter, it's a matter of time before the currently popular governance-less anti-big-government movement fractures along some of the same idiot lines that helped shrink and divide the GOP coalition in the first place. Here's Newt on Fox News talking about the divided loyalties of the Obama administration:

"I believe what you have is a group of people centered in the Justice Department and the Attorney General, whose law firms all gave pro bono support to terrorism," the former House Speaker told Fox News host Bill O'Reilly Monday. "They start every day with a presumption that the rights of terrorists are more important than the lives of Americans."

An incredulous O'Reilly replied that Gingrich's statement was "impossible to believe" and asked, "Why would any rational person want to extend protections to a terrorist than their own family?"

"You interjected the word 'rational,'" Gingrich responded.

Most likely, Newt Gingrich speaks just for Newt Gingrich. But one reason why the anti-big-government tent has been growing recently after years of heavy shrinkage is that the ascent of an even bigger-government party in Washington, coupled with a basic loss of GOP power/responsibility, has allowed the putative Leave Us Alone Coalition the luxury of not arguing over sharply divergent views on foreign policy and militarism. But there's nothing like a little national security freakout to get the Zell Miller choir singing again. And that's a group I never want near the levers of power again.

Link via Wonkette.

A Novel Way to Combat Russia's Love of Cheap Booze

Because the average Russian drinks like an unemployed Foster Brooks, the Kremlin has decided to create a black market in booze from neighboring countries like Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, by levying an enormous tax on beer and vodka. Reuters has details on this ingenious, fool-proof plan:

The price of the cheapest half-liter vodka bottle will nearly double to a new minimum of 89 roubles ($2.95), according to the alcohol regulator's website www.fsrar.ru...Russia has moved to triple the excise duty on beer and is considering drastic limits on where and when beer can be sold, such as banning the sale on street side kiosks. There are also plans to raise duties for vodka, but these are separate measures that do not take effect yet....

The average monthly salary of 18,702 roubles ($651) would have bought 368 bottles of the cheapest vodka available before the New Year in an online supermarket, but 210 bottles now.

In 1985, the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev declared a war on the traditional evil of alcohol abuse, ordering dramatic cuts in the production of wines and spirits and introducing strict controls on public consumption of alcohol.

The campaign triggered a surge in illegal production of low-quality home-brewed booze and the curbs dealt a blow to the popularity of Gorbachev, the author of the liberal Soviet reform known as Perestroika.

Just in case they haven't yet figured out that consuming three bottles of bootleg vodka per day might have a deleterious effect on your health, the government will also require health warning labels in the new year and is toying with the idea of a state monopoly on the production of alcohol.

For obvious reasons, this isn't a campaign that would have had much credibility under the Yeltsin government:

Getting Better All the Time, Price Division

Sometime Reason magazine contributor Steven Horwitz takes a chart of nominal price rises over the past decade on a variety of consumer items and adjusts them for inflation and average hourly wage rises to calculate how much more (or less) they cost in hours-worked terms.

And the news is pretty good for most things, with real prices in those terms sinking in the past decade by double digits for 34 out of 46 items on the list.

Only buyers of the daily New York Times (up 51 percent), gold (up 125 percent), and admission to the Empire State Building's observation deck (up 184 percent) are truly screwed among the selected items, a pretty varied cross-section of the stuff we might be buying.

UPDATE: As neither I nor Horwitz noted, but perspicacious commenter Mike P. did, Horwitz was dealing with nominal wage rises in his calculations, not inflation-adjusted ones. Horwitz has swiftly adjusted his calculations accordingly, and now only about half the items show a real fall in prices in hourly wage terms, and only 20 of the 46 items have fallen by double digit percentages. That's still good news, methinks, if slightly less spectacularly good news.

New at Reason: Ronald Bailey Argues For Contractual Parenthood

Who's your daddy? Or your other daddy? Or your mommy? In today's world of IVF, artificial insemination, same sex marriage, traditional and gestational surrogacy, paternity testing, and of course, conventional reproduction, one increasingly good way to determine parenthood is to take a peek at the terms of the contracts under which kids were born. Reason Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey argues that the best public policy is for courts to look beyond a traditional focus on genetic ties and enforce the terms of reproductive contracts.

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Obama's Transparency Outlook: Still Hazy

The Columbia Journalism Review's Clint Hendler grades President Obama's delivery so far on his promises of greater transparency. Obama earns an A–, his best grade, for opening up White House visitor records, which Bush treated as confidential. He gets his worst grade, F, for continuing off-the-record briefings by "senior administration officials" who must remain nameless even when they are announcing official policy and even when they turn around and say the same things on TV. Hendler notes that "Scott McClellan, Bush's press secretary from 2003 to 2006, said the practice didnt make much sense to him, and decided not to conduct them." Obama gets a D+ and D, respectively, for his efforts to put agency data online and for his use of the "state secrets" privilege, which seems pretty similar to Bush's despite a new internal review procedure.

I'm Just a Simple Lawman

The Arizona Republic reports that in his deposition for a class action suit against him and his department, Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio testified that he hasn't read his own book on immigration policy.

Less surprising but still sort of startling to see in print, the sheriff conceded he is "not well-versed" on the Fourth Amendment.

Willie Mitchell, RIP

The producer and trumpeter Willie Mitchell, father of the Hi Records sound in Memphis, Tennessee, has died at age 81. If you've heard the soul hits Al Green and Ann Peebles recorded for Hi in the '60s and '70s, you've heard Mitchell's work -- and staggeringly good work it is, too. The Cleveland Scene has assembled some of Mitchell's best-known collaborations with Green here, and Funky 16 Corners has posted three of Mitchell's instrumentals here. And here's my favorite of the songs he produced for O.V. Wright:

Semi-obligatory quasi-political content: an article I wrote about southern soul music, regional culture, and race relations.

Update: Mark Richens has rounded up some more Mitchell appreciations here.

$12 Million Prevents a Supreme Court Ruling in Prosecutorial Abuse Case

Yesterday a settlement ended Pottawattamie County v. McGhee, a Supreme Court case that raised the question of when prosecutors can be held personally liable for misconduct they commit while accumulating evidence against a defendant. Terry Harrington and Curtis W. McGhee, who served 25 years for the 1978 murder of a retired police officer before being released, sued Dave Richter and Joseph Hrvol, the Pottawattamie County, Iowa, prosecutors who sent them to prison, accusing them of fabricating evidence, coercing witnesses, and hiding exculpatory evidence. The issue before the Court, which heard the case in November, was whether Richter and Hrvol committed these abuses in their roles as prosecutors, in which case longstanding precedent would make them immune from lawsuits, or in their roles as investigators, in which case they could be held personally liable. The $12 million settlement by the prosecutors and the county suggests they feared the Court would reach the latter conclusion.

Radley Balko discussed the case here and here.

[Thanks to Mark Lambert for the tip.]

D.C. Taxes Plastic Bags, Annoying Shoppers and Ending American Beauty Scourge

The District of Columbia instituted a 5 cent tax on plastic grocery bags this week. So after work today I'll tote my reusable bag—the one I already owned thanks to plenty of private sector initiatives on this front—to the grocery store to buy small trash bags for the garbage cans in my house that used to be lined with leftover grocery bags. While I'm at the store, I'll probably run into the city's dog owners, who now need a new way to scoop and store canine poo. And once we're there, purchasing products to offset the intended effect of reducing consumption, predicts Jillian Melchior of Commentary, our wait in line will be longer than it was before:

A nickel might not seem like much. But anyone who has lived recently in Hong Kong and experienced their 6-cent bag tax knows how burdensome that levy makes commerce. There, grocery-store clerks must cram as much as possible into a single, side-split reusable bag – or face a perturbed customer. (Never underestimate the public’s desire to save a buck.) Milk, butter, and eggs become Tetris blocks; and consequently, the checkout lines grow longer and longer as clerks painstakingly pack for maximum space efficiency....

The nice thing about living in Washington is that voters choose all of their city-council members, unlike Hong Kongers. Next time they’re voting, the harried shoppers of D.C. might remember this lesson in the unintended consequences of government meddling.

The tax isn't all downside though. Perhaps the eventual abolition of disposable grocery sacs will stave off future abominations like the extended The Plastic Bag Was Just Dancing with Me, Like a Little Kid Begging Me to Play With It rapture from American Beauty:

Public Sector vs. Private Sector Compensation or, Suck It, Private Sector.

From a new Cato report on "Employee Compensation in State and Local Governments":

The study's author, Chris Edwards, found that the wage premium for public sector employees was about 34 percent and for benefits about 70 percent.

More here.

Historians Against the War: Only Progressives Need Apply?

At Liberty & Power, University of Alabama historian (and Reason contributor) David Beito challenges the group Historians Against the War (HAW) to come clean about its attempts to purge libertarian and conservative members, including Beito himself. As he writes:

The shift to the new HAW began in March when the leadership purged non-progressives from the blog, including yours truly and Thaddeus Russell, a historian of the left who has libertarian sympathies and is critical of the moral universalism and imperialism of the progressive tradition. The major complaints against us were that we were devoting too much space to pushing a "libertarian agenda," (others did not hesitate to blog on progressive proposals that had nothing to do with foreign policy) "bashing Obama" and his foreign policy, and criticizing the HAW leadership for its silence on the new administration.

The blog purge was only a prelude. Soon after it took place, HAW scuttled its generally welcoming and ecumenical original statement of purpose in favor of a leftist critique of "global capitalism" that seemed almost calculated to spurn potential libertarian or conservative recruits.

As Beito goes on to note, the latest example of the group’s leftward descent appears in the advertisement for HAW’s upcoming event, “Obama’s Troubling First Year,” which asks, “what can progressive historians & historically minded activists do to positively influence political events?”

What indeed. Apparently it’s too much for them to forge a left-right alliance aimed at achieving a common goal.

New at Reason: Nick Gillespie on The Overblown Fears of The Coming Decade

In a piece originally published in The Wall Street Journal, Nick Gillespie asks,

What will be the great hysterical fears of the coming decade? By definition, such worries need to be simultaneously undocumentable and just plausible enough to convince politicians, celebrities, civic do-gooders, captains of industry and media types that our very society hangs in the balance.

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E.J. Dionne: Pass The Health Care Plan So We Can Figure Out What's In It

It was Sunday, so it was Meet The Press (one more reason to sleep in). And Wash Post columnist E.J. Dionne dished about flagging support for the health care plan among us rubes what's actually going to pay for it. His advice to a weary, wary nation?:

The whole plan got discredited in the, in the minds of some people because the legislative process looks really awful.  And the more the focus was on the legislative process, the more people said, "What's going on here?" Once they pass a plan, you can actually talk about a plan.

That worked so well for, what, TARP? The Patriot Act? Curiously, the public pushback against ObamaCare has generally fallen into two categories: First, a fear that as the government gets more involved in something, the quality of service goes in the crapper. This is a lesson learned not via ideological indoctrination, but by everyday reality. Second, nobody really knows what the hell is in the plan or how it will work in terms of dollars and sense. Both immediately and down the road a bit. Hence, apprehension. The legislative process in this case "looks really awful" because it is really awful, filled with special deals, obfuscatory language, shady cost estimates, and worse. Barack Obama, fer chrissakes, gave a whole big talk about the need for reform a few months back, where he resolutely refused to make anything clear other than whatever happens will both taste great and be less filling.

But fear not, ObamaCare supporters. You've got all the right viziers in your corner, such as celebrity plagiarist and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who chimed in on MTP in support of Dionne.

They have to put out a campaign to tell everybody what's in this bill... They [voters] don't know what's in this bill.  They're afraid of this bill, but there's so many good things in it.  If they can run a campaign like they did to get the election, to tell people what's in this bill, it's going to be hugely popular.  That's my prediction as a historian going backwards.

More comforting thoughts, to be sure. Run a campaign explaining what's in a great historic bill after it has been passed.

Whole transcript here.

If past (or Medicare) is prologue, we know that any government health care reform will end up costing bazillions more than anticipated. And we can rest assured it will suffer mission creep up the yin-yang too.

Democrats Cut Out Republicans, Public From Health Care Negotiations

The health care debate resumes today, and the big news is that Democrats have opted to cut Republicans out of the negotiating process, a move intended to keep GOP legislators from forcing unpleasant votes or using procedural delaying measures.

Meanwhile, the CEO of C-SPAN has written a letter to House and Senate leadership urging them to allow C-SPAN cameras into the House/Senate negotiations. There's no official word from Congressional leadership, but judging from White House press secretary Robert Gibbs' question dodging when asked about televising negotiations, it's unlikely to happen.

Now, this isn't terribly surprising — legislative negotiations are typically held behind closed doors — but it's pretty disappointing for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, secrecy makes the legislative sausage-making process even uglier. Without public scrutiny, politicians just aren't going to be as accountable. Democrats pay lip service to this idea all the time — the C-SPAN letter notes that "Senate and House leaders, many of your rank-and-files members, and the nation's editorial pages have all talked about the value of transparent discussions on reforming health care." Obama has declared that his administration "is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government."

But as important, I think, is that without reporters and recorders in the room, we'll miss out on the historical record, which is both useful (in terms of understanding the legislative process) and interesting (as political narrative). That's important for any bill, and it's especially true with a bill of this size and this sort of transformational impact. When future generations — or, hell, current generations — ask how we got the system we have, we'll be able to tell part of the story, but when it comes to the end, we'll simply have to speculate, or shrug our shoulders in confusion, as crucial details from the final days of negotiating will be missing.

The Surprising Popularity of the Non-Existent Tea Party

In a column that laments the fact that "Americans have lost faith in their institutions" (as if that's a bad thing!) and declares his non-fandom of the Tea Party movement, The New York Times' David Brooks nonetheless sketches out some interestingly fluid political context:

[S]tate governments are in disrepute and confidence in Congress is at withering lows. As Frank Newport of the Gallup organization noted in his year-end wrap-up, "Americans have less faith in their elected representatives than ever before." [...]

The public is not only shifting from left to right. Every single idea associated with the educated class has grown more unpopular over the past year. [...]

[The tea party movement] is now more popular than either major party. According to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 41 percent of Americans have a positive view of the tea party movement. Only 35 percent of Americans have a positive view of the Democrats and only 28 percent have a positive view of the Republican Party.

The movement is especially popular among independents. The Rasmussen organization asked independent voters whom they would support in a generic election between a Democrat, a Republican and a tea party candidate. The tea party candidate won, with 33 percent of independents. Undecided came in second with 30 percent. The Democrats came in third with 25 percent and the Republicans fourth with 12 percent.

Over the course of this year, the tea party movement will probably be transformed. Right now, it is an amateurish movement with mediocre leadership. But several bright and polished politicians, like Marco Rubio of Florida and Gary Johnson of New Mexico, are unofficially competing to become its de facto leader. If they succeed, their movement is likely to outgrow its crude beginnings and become a major force in American politics. After all, it represents arguments that are deeply rooted in American history. [...]

In the near term, the tea party tendency will dominate the Republican Party. It could be the ruin of the party, pulling it in an angry direction that suburban voters will not tolerate. But don't underestimate the deep reservoirs of public disgust. If there is a double-dip recession, a long period of stagnation, a fiscal crisis, a terrorist attack or some other major scandal or event, the country could demand total change, creating a vacuum that only the tea party movement and its inheritors would be in a position to fill.

Whole thing here.

The Polycentric Parking System

Josh McCabe looks at people digging the snow off their cars in Boston and sees one of last year's Nobel laureates in economics, Elinor Ostrom:

On-street parking seems like it would be the mother of all tragedies of the commons. This is especially true after it snows. You spend all morning shoveling out your car (especially after the plows have come by and made a 20 foot high snow bank blocking you in) only to have some jerk who didn't even lift a finger come along and take it as soon as you leave. And indeed this happens in some parts of the city but usually only in the commercial districts where people don't park long enough to get snowed in anyways. How do people prevent the tragedy of the commons from happening? Are there violent altercations in the streets? Did the government privatize all the available street parking? Or maybe they instituted a whole slew of regulations on the matter?

The answer is: none of the above. Winter parking in the city is one of the best examples of what Hayek would call a spontaneous order or Ostrom would call a polycentric system. Public space is privately regulated by something as simple as putting an object in the parking spot after you've moved your car....And depending on what neighborhood you're in, you might just find your mirror missing or your tire slashed if you still decide to steal the spot. There are all sorts of local rules regulating the practice too. For example, you can't save your spot if there was only a few inches of snow on the ground and shoveling out your car once doesn't entitle you to that spot all winter. The rules are usually very local and organic.

Read the whole thing here. Paul Dragos Aligica celebrates Ostrom's work here. I defend those local and organic parking-place property rights here.

State Spending Declines, Except For All The Cases When It Increases; Update!

USA Today has a story about how states are cutting general fund spending due to belt-tightening, jock-scratching, knicker-twisting, you name it. The upshot? Even though such spending is going down for the third time in three years, budget shortfalls remain:

States passed fiscal 2010 general-fund budgets totaling $627.9 billion, 5.4% less than a year earlier, says a study released last month by the National Association of State Budget Officers and National Governors Association.

Despite cuts, shortfalls for the 2010 fiscal year, which in most states began July 1, are $14.8 billion, the study says. The gap in 2011: $21.9 billion.

More here. So why the shortfalls? Partly because revenues are down even more than spending cuts (this happens in a recession, as tax dollars and other fees tank). And USAT warns that stimulus funds are gonna be running dry pretty soon too.

But there's another culprit which dare not speak its name: Increased overall spending. General fund revenues are only one part of state spending. For a more comprehensive accounting of state (and local) spending, repair to the invaluable site US Government Spending and punch in your favorite state and see what's been going on the past few years. With virtually no exceptions, you'll find that states are spending significantly more than they were a year or two ago. Some of this is tied to the recession, too: Unemployment benefits and other sorts of safety net spending always increases during slowdowns. But that in no way explains all, or even a majority of increased expenditures. Examples of total state spending in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 in the following states (figures for 2009 and 2010 are estimates):

California: $141 billion; $153 billion; $169 billion; $187 billion

New Jersey: $45 billion; $48 billion; $51 billion; $54 billion

Ohio: $49 billion; $50 billion; $52 billion; $54 billion

Texas: $69 billion; $75 billion; $83 billion; $91 billion

It's fun and easy! And a staggering work of heartbreaking fiscal indiscipline (not a word, but should be one!).

Update: In the comments below, University at Buffalo political scientist Jason Sorens points to a fatal flaw in using the site above's figures for spending after 2008 in most cases:

* State and local data up to and including 2007 is actual data reported to and published by the Census Bureau.
* State spending and revenue data for 2008 is actual data reported to and published by the Census Bureau.
* State tax data for 2009 is actual data reported to and published by the Census Bureau in State Government Tax Collections.
* Data for 2008 (except state data for 2008 and state tax data for 2009) and subsequent years is "guesstimated" by projecting the change in each spending or revenue item between 2006 and 2007 forward. Maximum change is 15 percent. Minimum change is zero percent.

Thought I noted in my original comment that numbers for '09 and '10 were estimates, I think Sorens is right to underscore the methodology in question. Though it's worth charting the progression in spending from, say, 2005 through 2008. In the case of California, for instance, the numbers look like this: $130 billion; $137 billion; $141 billion; $153 billion. The site is also useful for checking revenue numbers in the states, which are actual data through 2008.

Even More Update: Pity the poor, poor states. In 2005, they had aggregate revenue amounting to $1,049 billion. In 2008, they pulled in a total of $1,251 billion and still were going broke (those are real numbers, btw, not estimates). It's like a disturbing version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's essay, "How to Live on $36,000 a Year," which describes how the author's balance sheet took a beating precisely when the big bucks started rolling in.

American Law Institute Shifts Course on the Death Penalty

Citing "the current intractable institutional and structural obstacles to ensuring a minimally adequate system for administering capital punishment," the American Law Institute has retracted its guidelines for administration of the death penalty in the United States.

Adam Liptak argues in the New York Times that this may have been the most important death penalty story of 2009. The organization of 4,000 judges, lawyers, and academics essentially provided the scholarly heft behind the Supreme Court's reinstatement of the death penalty 30 years ago.

In 1962, as part of the Model Penal Code, the institute created the modern framework for the death penalty, one the Supreme Court largely adopted when it reinstituted capital punishment in Gregg v. Georgia in 1976. Several justices cited the standards the institute had developed as a model to be emulated by the states...

A study commissioned by the institute said that decades of experience had proved that the system could not reconcile the twin goals of individualized decisions about who should be executed and systemic fairness. It added that capital punishment was plagued by racial disparities; was enormously expensive even as many defense lawyers were underpaid and some were incompetent; risked executing innocent people; and was undermined by the politics that come with judicial elections.

Reason Morning Links: More Names on No-Fly List, Shooting in Las Vegas, Regulating Tax Preparers

New at Reason: Briefly Noted Books, Movies, Comics, and More

From the Briefly Noted section of our January issue, Katherine Mangu-Ward chronicles the rise of the parking garage, Damon Root reviews James Ellroy's latest piece of pulp fiction, Brian Doherty watches Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story, and more.

View this article

Anti-Texting Laws Promote "More Public Awareness"

Colorado recently joined 27 other states and the District of Columbia in banning texting while driving. But since the ban went into effect a month ago, police haven't issued a single citation. Local radio reporter Kirk Siegler interviewed Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle, who says "the measure has created more public awareness, and that's a good thing."

[Reporter] SIEGLER: State Representative Claire Levy...pushed Colorado's texting ban through the legislature. Levy is quick to deflect criticism that the state's new law is just a feel-good measure. It's on the books, she says, and that's going to deter some drivers from picking up their phones.

State Representative CLAIRE LEVY (Democrat, Colorado): I mean, look at speed limits. People treat those as just merely a suggestion but—yet there's an awareness of what's a safe speed to travel on a particular highway.

But laws passed in the service of raising awareness aren't just harmless fun. They lend themselves to selective enforcement and profiling. A phone visible anywhere in the car is now a pretext for police to pull over anyone they like.

And just as posted speed limits have little to do with the actual safe speed to travel (on many highways, traveling the speed limit would cause a massive pileup), blanket bans on texting ignore the fact that a quick "ok" sent from a stoplight endangers no one, even if typing out War and Peace in stop-and-go traffic isn't a good idea.

More on texting while driving here.

There's a New Law in Town. Actually, Lots of Them.

Every fall, regardless of budget crisis, the state of California passes literally hundreds of asinine laws. Every Jan. 1, these laws go into effect. I made a list a few months back, but I missed some beauts that the L.A. Times flagged on New Year's Day:

Air safety: Allows airports to kill birds that pose a danger to aircraft without violating state fish and game laws.

Blueberries: Creates a California Blueberry Commission, to be funded by an industry fee of up to $0.025 per pound of berries sold. [...]

Fat in food: Requires restaurants to use oils, margarine and shortening with less than half a gram of trans fat per serving of regular foods. The standard will apply to deep-fried bakery goods next year. Trans fat has been linked to heart disease.

Football stadium: Exempts a professional football stadium proposed in the City of Industry from state environmental laws, so it can proceed despite a lawsuit filed by opponents. [...]

Hanging nooses: Makes it a misdemeanor to hang a noose, "knowing it to be a symbol representing a threat to life," in order to terrorize a person who lives, works or attends school at the property where the noose is hung. The law is in response to a series of incidents at California colleges. [...]

Liquor ads: Waives rules prohibiting indoor alcohol advertisements in one club that sells the featured products: Club Nokia, a downtown Los Angeles venue owned by billionaire Philip Anschutz. [...]

Mortgage crimes: Creates a new offense, "mortgage fraud," punishable by up to a year in prison. Such crimes are defined as those in which someone makes "any misstatement, misrepresentation or omission during the mortgage lending process with the intention that it be relied on by a mortgage lender, borrower, or any other party to the mortgage lending process." [...]

Prostitution arrests: Allows local government agencies to impound vehicles used in the commission of prostitution-related crimes. [...]

Talent agents: Prohibits talent representatives from charging advance fees. [...]

Snake food: Requires pet stores to use specific, "humane" methods for killing rodents before they are used as food for another animal.

Whole thing here.

George Will on New York's Eminent Domain Abuse

George Will had a great column in yesterday’s Washington Post detailing some of New York’s ugliest cases of eminent domain abuse. Here’s something that won’t surprise any readers of Reason: Bruce Ratner’s notorious Atlantic Yards project is right there at the top of the list:

The Atlantic Yards site, where 10 subway lines and one railway line converge, is the center of the bustling Prospect Heights neighborhood of mostly small businesses and middle-class residences. Its energy and gentrification are reasons why 22 acres of this area—the World Trade Center site is only 16 acres—are coveted by Bruce Ratner, a politically connected developer collaborating with the avaricious city and state governments.

To seize the acres for Ratner's use, government must claim that the area—which is desirable because it is vibrant—is "blighted." The cognitive dissonance would embarrass Ratner and his collaborating politicians, had their cupidity not extinguished their sense of the absurd.

Last month, Jacob Sullum explained how New York’s controversial Empire State Development Corporation uses "blight" as a pretext to seize property. And in October, I explained why the state's highest court should have put a stop to Ratner’s land grab.

New at Reason: Read Our Complete January Issue

Our entire January issue is now available online. Don't miss Matt Welch on the differences between the French and American health care systems, Peter Suderman on the states' failed health care experiments, and Tim Cavanaugh on government-sponsored housing inflation, plus our complete Citings and Briefly Noted sections, and much more.

Click here to read our full January issue.

Roger Stone's Best and Worst Dressed Mens and Womens of 2009

Political operative and french-cuff wearer Roger Stone has compiled his second annual best and worst dressed list. Among the best: Barack Obama, Jude Law, Halle Berry, and Rachel Uchitel.

Among the worst: Jesse Ventura, Chuck Schumer (right...and so wrong), Sarah Silverman, and Ivana Trump.

His commentary is a hoot. For instance, his great nemesis Eliot Spitzer made the list of Best Dressed:

YES Client # 9 is on the list for the second year. While we admit we'd rather see him in prison stripes, he still personifies a heavily European influenced Upper East Side gentleman. Collars a bit loose but Hermes ties and somber blues with a soft shoulder suits - a bit stiff but deeply conservative, unlike his sexual side.

And here he is on Jesse Ventura, who made the Worst Dressed:

I understand the feather boa in his wrestling days but as Jesse the body emerges as the head of the 9/11 conspiracy theorists or "truthers", he looks like a homeless Hulk Hogan on his latest cable TV interviews. The bald with a ponytail look is so...still bald. Baggy sweat pants: Good for gym, bad for National TV.

Read the whole list here.

And watch Stone talk to Reason.tv about "new media and old campaign tricks" below. (Yes, he was appalled by my Simon Cowell-like T-shirt.)

For links and downloadable versions go here.

Last Week's Top 5 Hit & Run Posts

Here's what you were reading last week at Hit & Run:

Public Sector Drives Deep Into The Night, by Nick Gillespie (12/30)

Believe It Or Not, They Have Found Another Way To Blame Poor People, by Tim Cavanaugh (1/1)

This Has Been Another Episode of Political Scandalettes That Don't Matter, by Matt Welch (12/28)

New York's Decade of Debt, by Damon W. Root (12/30)

D.C. to AT&T: All Your Unused Minutes Are Belong to Us, by Radley Balko (1/3)

Would a Scan or a Pat-Down Have Detected the Underwear Bomb?

A story in the London Independent suggests that neither a millimeter-wave body scan nor a pat-down would have detected the bomb in Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's underwear. According to Ben Wallace, a Conservative M.P. who helped develop the scanners for airport use, they are good at revealing dense objects such as guns, knives, and C4 plastic explosive but miss low-density material such as the three ounces of PETN powder Abdulmutallab carried. And since American screeners are "forbidden from frisking sensitive areas," a security analyst tells The Independent, it's unlikely they would have felt the explosive in Abdulmutallab's crotch even if they had patted him down. If the experts cited by the Independent are right, responding to Abdulmuttalab's attempted bombing with more pat-downs and more scans, as the U.S., the U.K., and the Netherlands have, is a non sequitur.

New at Reason: The Correction of an Editing Mistake in Last Week's "Reason Staffers Pick the Best and Worst Things of The Decade"

Due to my editing mistake, Senior Editor Katherine Mangu-Ward's contribution to last week's very popular article, "Reason Staffers Pick The Best and Worst Things of The Decade" was inadvertently excised.[*] I've added it to the original story and am happy to include it below, too:

Katherine Mangu-Ward, Senior Editor

Worst: The End of the End of History. In 1992, Francis Fukuyama published The End of History and the Last Man, and we were all supposed to sail off into the sunset on the U.S.S. Liberal Democracy. But then the Russian Bear woke up grumpy, 9/11 went down, Iran decided to it was in the mood for nukes, the word Islamofascism started appearing in newspapers. History resumed.

Best: Cell phones. A good innovation is one that makes life before it seem unimaginably difficult. In the dark days at the end of the 20th century, cell phones had more or less assumed their modern form, but most people still didn't own one. Ownership levels around the globe struggled to crack double digits, and even in the U.S. fewer than a third of adults owned a cell phone. Today, 87 percent of Americans have a mobile, and that figure rises to 94 percent under the age of 45. More than half the world's population now carries a phone in their pocket, and many developing nations have skipped over landline infrastructure entirely. At the dawning of a new decade, one question plagues us: How did people ever manage to meet for lunch in the '90s?

Read the whole story again here.

[*]: As was a full sentence in the original post here.

New at Reason: Radley Balko on the Great D.C. Snowball Fight of 2009

Last month, Washington, D.C. police Det. Mike Baylor pulled his gun after his Hummer was pelted by some young D.C. urbanites engaged in a snowball fight. Reason Senior Editor Radley Balko writes that the more interesting story isn't about Baylor so much as how social networking and the democratization of technology are holding government officials and the traditional media more accountable.

View this article

When You Lie Down With Fill-in-the-Blanks, You Wake Up With Fill-in-the-Blanks

Via Hit & Run commenter brotherben comes this Associated Press story about local government officials and big-box corporate types waking up the morning after with regret:

Cash-strapped communities have a message for corporations that promised jobs in return for tax breaks: A deal's a deal.

As the recession drags on, municipalities struggling to fix roads, fund schools and pay bills increasingly are rescinding tax abatements to companies that don't hire enough workers, lay them off or close up shop. At the same time, they're sharpening new incentive deals, leaving no doubt what is expected of companies and what will happen if they don't deliver.

"We will roll out the red carpet as much as we can (but) they are going to honor the contract," said Brendon Gallagher, an alderman in DeKalb, Ill., where Target Corp. got abatements from the city, county, school district and other taxing bodies after promising at least 500 jobs at a local distribution center.

So when the company came up 66 workers short in 2009, Target got word its next tax bill would be jumping almost $600,000 - more than half of which go to the local school district, where teachers and programs have been cut as coffers dried up. [...]

What's more, the recession has communities thinking about how the tax breaks they dole out will play with residents who have grown increasingly angry at the thought of anything that hints of corporate welfare.

"The public is a lot more aware of tax abatements and there's a climate of skepticism about what can be perceived as corporate handouts," said Geoff McKimm, a member of the Monroe County Council in Indiana.

Love that "what can be perceived as" stuff.

In some ways this is the most heartening news I've read all day. City councils spend their lives making "deals" with developers (particularly though not only massive retailers) to "create jobs" by waiving any and all sorts of fees and regulations, or sometimes providing some or all of the financing themselves, or sometimes (if the corporation is more Evil) doing the inverse by adding a bunch of bizarre requirements to build workfare housing, add a green roof, or promise to fund X groovy nonprofit. Rarely if ever during this incredibly time-wasting, winner-picking process do local politicos sit back and imagine a universe in which the rules are minimal, simple, and universal, and City Council instead spends its time focused on providing services to its constituents. Breaking that cycle might be a longshot, but this is shaping up to be a weird political year.

Read Reason's Corporate Welfare page here, including my 2008 column about D.C.'s famous rats, and this great 2006 feature on tax increment financing from Daniel McGraw.

143 Libertarians!

The Libertarian Party has 143 candidates holding public office right now, and the national LP now has what's supposed to be a full list of them on its web site; 112 of them are holding non-partisan offices, 31 partisan ones.

From Madison, Alabama's City Council District 4 to Wisconsin's Eau Claire County Board of Supervisors District 2, let freedom ring!

I've written about the Libertarian Party a fair amount here at Reason Online; see here for a representative bunch of links.

[Hat tip: Scott Lieberman]

TSA Withdraws Subpoenas to Journalists

Last week I noted that the Transportation Security Administration had demanded that two travel writers reveal the source of the TSA directive they posted after the foiled Christmas Day bombing of a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. One of them, Chris Elliott, was planning to challenge the TSA's administrative subpoena in federal court. It looks like that won't be necessary, since the TSA has withdrawn both subpoenas, saying its investigation of who leaked the document is "nearing a successful conclusion" without them. Although the circumstances in which a a journalist can be compelled to reveal a source vary from state to state and from one federal circuit to another, it seems clear under the relevant precedents that the government should not resort to this option when there is another way in which it can readily obtain the information it seeks. The TSA's quick capitulation therefore suggests the subpoenas were illegal to begin with. A.P. reports that Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, "said she could not remember the last time an administrative subpoena had been served on a reporter in the last decade."

Last Week's Top 5 Hits at Reason.com

Presenting last week's most popular Reason.com columns:

The Criminalization of Protest: Police and politicians ignore the First Amendment when we need it the most, by Radley Balko (12/30)

Reason Staffers Pick The Best and Worst Things of The Decade: What was bad and good during the Aughts. (12/30)

Hold on to Your Boxers: What will the TSA demand from travelers next? by Jacob Sullum (12/30)

It Takes a Village Atheist: Barbara Ehrenreich's jeremiad against cheerful thinking, by Kerry Howley (12/28)

Laboratories of Repression: We don't let the states "experiment" on the First Amendment. Should the Second Amendment receive any less respect? by Damon W. Root (12/31)


Nick Gillespie on Wall Street Journal Radio, Talking About Hysterical Fears in The Coming Decade

Reason's Nick Gillespie discussed his recent Wall Street Journal article about the new decade's moral, economic, and cultural panics on WSJ radio.

Listen to a podcast of the appearance by going here and clicking on the This Morning link.

More on The Coming War Over Public-Sector Pensions

When we last checked in on public-sector pensions, things were not going so well. For current and future taxpayers, that is, who are on the hook for big bucks and big obligations. For public employees, things are going pretty swell, as this Cincinnati Enquirer article makes clear.

Retirement incomes for the most experienced government employees top out at 88 percent of their active-duty pay. Unlike most private-sector workers, whose retirement is driven by the strength of the stock market and their 401-k plans, the pensions for government employees are guaranteed.

In addition to higher average retirement incomes, government retirees in Ohio also enjoy government-sponsored health care, can retire as young as 48 for police and firefighters, and have the opportunity to 'retire' and collect a full pension while going back to work, often at full pay for doing the same job. Such 'double-dippers' were paid more than $741 million by the State Teachers Retirement System last year and $240 million by the Public Employees Retirement System, records show.

In Toledo, even the mayor is a double-dipper.

Since starting his current term in January 2006, Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner has drawn his annual salary of $136,000 in addition to a state pension for more than two decades in elected and unelected positions. He is leaving office on Monday.

And because he is already receiving a Public Employees Retirement System pension, Toledo taxpayers have paid $75,221 into an annuity as an additional retirement fund for Finkbeiner.

Having no knowledge of Carty Finkbeiner until reading this article, I take no position on his contribution to the great state of Ohio, whose public-sector pension issues are absolutely representative of everywhere else in the nation. But as a taxpaying resident of the Buckeye State, I do take a position on his double-dipping and the robust payouts to public-sector employees, especially double-dippers (which I know is legal in many instances). Ohio government at all levels has not fully funded its pensions, meaning that either public-sector retirees gets a growing share of my income until I die or the "guaranteed" retirement for public-sector employees gets cut, just like it gets cut in the private sector. The public sector at all levels should be switched to defined-contribution plans immediately (this is happening in the private sector for all sorts of reasons, the historical inability and/or unwillingness of companies to fully fund pensions on an ongoing basis being part of the problem). This is already happening in many parts of the public sector (Ohio's teachers plan, for instance, switched at least partly to such a system a decade ago) and it should go full steam ahead, if only to make it easier to account for future liabilities.

The Enquirer reports further

The pension cost to local governments in Ohio now stands at $4.1 billion a year. If current trends continue, the pension costs will grow by $604 million to $768 million during the next five years, according to a Columbus Dispatch computer analysis. The costs are directly related to the size of government payrolls.

One of the old arguments about lavish (relative to the private sector) retirement benefits for public-sector employees was that they were simply getting deferred compensation, that they might have job security, but they got paid less during their careers, so good retirement benefits were the payoff. This is no longer true, with the average public-sector worker making about $71,000 and the average private-sector drone pulling only $40,000 nationally. Plus great job security, more days off, generally sweeter health-care coverage, etc.

Read the whole Enquirer piece here.

And then get ready to take a stand against giving up even more of your money to pay for lavish retirement benefits for people who already make more than you do.

Buy the new issue of Reason, whose cover story on "Class War: How Public Servants Became Our Masters" is directly on point. Available at newsstands everywhere. And just subscribe already. A year costs less than $20 a year.

Update: In the comments below, Citizen Nothing helpfully sends a link to the Columbus Dispatch's truly enraging summary of public-sector retirement packages in Ohio, which is a representative stand-in for every state in the Union.

Monday Slightly Fun Link: The Presidential Campaign Commercials of Yesteryear

The modern-age miracle of Hulu has a nice selection of old presidential campaign political TV commercials, from little girls with flowers getting nuked to Willie Horton.

In ye olden days, I had to walk uphill both ways through the snow to spend the day at the Museum of Television and Radio in Beverly Hills to research this 1997 Reason magazine article arguing that the quality of political ads qua political ads had, despite conventional wisdom, improved in the 1990s compared to the often contentless or bizarre hysteria of the past. Now, we all have a museum of television and radio at our desks. Two cheers for the 21st century.

[Hat tip on link: Steve Finefrock]

Health Care Reform: Because the IRS Isn't Big Enough Yet

From Kaiser Health News:

Internal Revenue Service agents already try to catch tax cheats and moonshiners. Under the proposed health care legislation, they would get another assignment: checking to see whether Americans have health insurance.

The House and Senate bills require most Americans to have health insurance and to prove it on their annual federal tax return. Those who don’t would pay a penalty to the IRS.

That’s one of several key duties the IRS would assume under the bills that have been approved by the House and Senate and will be merged by negotiators from both chambers.

The agency also would distribute as much as $140 billion a year in new government subsidies to help small employers and as many as 19 million lower-income people buy coverage.

In addition, the IRS would collect hundreds of billions of dollars in new fees on employers, drug companies and device makers, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO). 

Nor is it even clear the underperforming agency could handle the new responsibilities:

"It’s hard to see how the IRS could take on the huge responsibility it would be given under pending health care legislation without some real glitches, or worse," said Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee who voted against the bill with every other Republican senator.

...The IRS already has trouble meeting its primary duty: collecting taxes. By the IRS’s own estimates, it failed to collect about $290 billion in taxes in 2005, the latest year for which data are available. Pete Sepp, spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union, an IRS watchdog group, says the IRS might be the “logical” agency to enforce the mandate, “but that doesn’t mean things will go smoothly.”

Was Turning Down Stimulus Money Smart After All?

This weekend's Wall Street Journal, in the course of sketching out the fiscal contours of Stimulus II, makes that claim. Excerpt:

Remember how $200 billion in federal stimulus cash was supposed to save the states from fiscal calamity? Well, hold on to your paychecks, because a big story of 2010 will be how all that free money has set the states up for an even bigger mess this year and into the future.

The combined deficits of the states for 2010 and 2011 could hit $260 billion, according to a survey by the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Ten states have a deficit, relative to the size of their expenditures, as bleak as that of near-bankrupt California. The Golden State starts the year another $6 billion in arrears despite a large income and sales tax hike last year. New York is literally down to its last dollar. Revenues are down, to be sure, but in several ways the stimulus has also made things worse.

How's that? Read on:

First, in most state capitals the stimulus enticed state lawmakers to spend on new programs rather than adjusting to lean times. They added health and welfare benefits and child care programs. Now they have to pay for those additions with their own state's money. [...]

A few governors, such as Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Rick Perry of Texas, had the foresight to turn down their share of the $7 billion for unemployment insurance, realizing that once the federal funds run out, benefits would be unpayable. "One of the smartest decisions we made," says Mr. Daniels. Many governors now probably wish they had done the same.

Second, stimulus dollars came with strings attached that are now causing enormous budget headaches. Many environmental grants have matching requirements, so to get a federal dollar, states and cities had to spend a dollar even when they were facing huge deficits. The new construction projects built with federal funds also have federal Davis-Bacon wage requirements that raise state building costs to pay inflated union salaries.

Worst of all, at the behest of the public employee unions, Congress imposed "maintenance of effort" spending requirements on states. These federal laws prohibit state legislatures from cutting spending on 15 programs, from road building to welfare, if the state took even a dollar of stimulus cash for these purposes.

The upshot?

This is the opposite of what the White House and Congress claimed when they said the stimulus funds would prevent economically harmful state tax increases. In 2009, 10 states raised income or sales taxes, and another 15 introduced new fees on everything from beer to cellphone ringers to hunting and fishing. The states pocketed the federal money and raised taxes anyway.

Now, in an election year, Congress wants to pass another $100 billion aid package for ailing states to sustain the mess the first stimulus helped to create.

Whole thing here. Do yourself a favor: If you don't subscribe to Reason's print magazine yet, fix that problem. And while you wait for the paperwork to be processed, get thee to a newsstand and buy our February cover story on public sector unions (pictured), which people are already applying to their own lousy government situations. Also, Happy New Year!

"Ron Paul's ideas no longer fringe"

So declareth an L.A. Times headline, on an article-slash-discussion of Austrian economics that begins like this:

For three decades, Texas congressman and former presidential candidate Ron Paul's extreme brand of libertarian economics consigned him to the far fringes even among conservatives. Not a few times, his views put him on the losing end of 434-1 votes on Capitol Hill.

No longer. With the economy still struggling and political divisions deepening, Paul's ideas not only are gaining a wider audience but also are helping to shape a potentially historic battle over economic policy -- a struggle that will affect everything including jobs, growth and the nation's place in the global economy.

Already, Paul's long-derided proposal to give Congress supervisory power over the traditionally independent Federal Reserve appears to be on its way to becoming law.

His warnings on deficits and inflation are now Republican mantras.

And with this year's congressional election campaign looming, the Texas congressman's deep-seated distrust of activist government has helped fuel protests such as the tea-party movement, harden partisan divisions in Washington and stoke public fears about federal spending and the deficit.

Hat tip to Kerry Welsh.

Senior Editor Brian Doherty chronicled Paul's concurrent Audit-the-Fed/End-the-Fed movements in our November 2009 issue, and typed up some "Scenes from the Ron Paul Revolution" back in February 2008.

Reason Morning Links: Embassies Close, the Burj Dubai Opens, Stimulus Funds Enter the Twilight Zone

• The U.S., France, and Britain close their embassies in Yemen.

• The TSA brings us new screening measures, and possibly new heights of incompetence as well.

• The feds send stimulus money to phantom zip codes.

• Arizona might do away with its highway speed cameras.

• December was the first month since the U.S. invasion with no American combat deaths in Iraq.

• The world's tallest building is open for business but not yet full.

h+ picks the top five technology panics of 2009.

New at Reason: Steve Chapman on Why Pro Athletes Should Be Seen and Not Heard

If professional athletes want to spend their time debating, writes Steve Chapman, they should run for office. Nobody goes to a game to see athletes run their mouths, yet a lot of them operate as though they're being paid like freelance writers—by the word.

View this article

OK, Maybe Poor People Are the Problem

Commenter Voltaire may not agree with what I had to say on the topic of scapegoating poor home buyers over the weekend, but he raises a jumbo conforming question: Could the not-as-bad-as-advertised performance of subprime loans (relative to prime loans) be explained by fraud in Fannie Mae's accounting of prime loans?

My reason for not agreeing with Tim Cavanaugh's post is that apparently, since 1993, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have been increasingly systematically reporting as prime loans loans that were in fact subprime. It was the corruption of these GSE's that makes any statistical claims of the sort [Stan J.] Liebowitz makes suspect from the beginning.

The gist: Edward Pinto, a consultant who worked as chief credit officer at Fannie Mae during the Reagan Administration, is publicizing an enormous post-1992 increase in Community Reinvesmtent Act-guaranteed loan volume. Here's The Wall Street Journal explaining how Pinto... 

found that from the time Fannie and Freddie began buying risky loans as early as 1993, they routinely misrepresented the mortgages they were acquiring, reporting them as prime when they had characteristics that made them clearly subprime or Alt-A.

In general, a subprime mortgage refers to the credit of the borrower. A FICO score of less than 660 is the dividing line between prime and subprime, but Fannie and Freddie were reporting these mortgages as prime, according to Mr. Pinto. Fannie has admitted this in a third-quarter 10-Q report in 2008.

An Alt-A mortgage is one in which the quality of the mortgage or the underwriting was deficient; it might lack adequate documentation, have a low or no down payment, or in some other way be more likely than a prime mortgage to default. Fannie and Freddie were also reporting these mortgages as prime, according to Mr. Pinto.

It is easy to see how this misrepresentation was a principal cause of the financial crisis.

I'm not sure where that admission is in Fannie's third quarter 10-Q for 2008 [pdf], unless it's this reference:

Net investment losses were $1.6 billion in the quarter, compared with losses of $883 million in the second quarter. The third-quarter loss was driven by other-than-temporary impairments of $1.8 billion recorded primarily on private-label securities back by Alt-A and subprime mortgages, and reflected a reduction in expected cash flows for a portion of our private-label securities portfolio.

Anyway, Pinto claims about 19 million loans listed as prime in the GSEs' portfolio are actually high-risk, Option ARM, Alt-A and other junk. You can read him on the miscategorization of subprime loans at Slide 21 here, and you can watch him present his thesis at the Cato Institute's Apparatchik Fashion Show here.

I would not go to court on this evidence, but it's pretty intriguing. Pinto's broken-out numbers do not make a strong case for the CRA as the primary culprit in this Murder On the Orient Express plot wherein (spoiler) everybody is guilty. (If you want to read a very unpersuasive exoneration of the CRA by BusinessWeek's Aaron Pressman, here it is.) However, it would either shake or restore your confidence in Fannie's million-dollar men if there turned out to be this much bad medicine hidden in the mortgage giant's boot.

But what of poor Stan Liebowitz, whom we left arguing that mortgage resets, not borrowers' apparent quality, shaped the collapse? Liebowitz drew his data from the Mortgage Bankers Association, a private group of good reputation that, I hope, would not just gobble up whatever lies and propaganda the government gives out. Stay tuned.

And since the original had a cool clip, the rebuttal gets one too:

Recently at Reason.tv: Worst. Decade. Ever.

Hands down, the '00s were the worst political decade at least since the 1990s.

Reason.tv looks back at the (lack of) personalities, the scandals, and the screw-ups that made us all want to forget the first 10 years of the 21st century.

Approximately 2.10 minutes. No politicians were hurt in the making of this video.

Produced by Meredith Bragg and Nick Gillespie.

Scroll down for downloadable versions of this video.

Please subscribe to Reason.tv's YouTube Channel.

For an alternate take on The Aughts, read Jesse Walker's Five Reasons For Optimism.

Chicago Politics on a Global Stage?

Columnist Ron Hart on anti-market politics in the U.S. and the dangers of "Crony Capitolism":

Korean automaker Hyundai registered record sales in August. Chinese telecom manufacturer Huawei might soon pass Cisco in sales. Brazil’s jet maker Embraer is, according to Cessna CEO Jack Pelton “scaring us to death.” And more IPOs are happening away from America’s overly regulated capital markets. In addition, India has heart bypass surgery outcomes equal to the U.S. at half the cost, and Singapore is willing to pay U.S. biotech research stars about $715,000 in annual salaries.

In short, we do not have a monopoly on capitalism. We risk losing out to a world market that moves faster and with more resolve today than ever before. Our new political class does not seem to care that innovation and capitalism are fleeing.

Whole thing here.

Hart's recent collection of columns, There's No Such Thing as a Pretty Good Alligator Wrestler, is on sale here.

D.C. to AT&T: All Your Unused Minutes Are Belong to Us

Washington, D.C. is suing AT&T because some customers who buy its prepaid calling cards don't always use up all the minutes. The city isn't suing on behalf of the customers, of course (though even that would be sort of silly). It's suing on the notion that when a customer doesn't use up all of a product or service they purchase, the remainder belongs to the government. So they want the company to pay what the minutes are worth to the D.C. government, where they might be better used on, oh I don't know, maybe to pay overtime for Mayor Adrian Fenty's mountain bike detail.

Next up, D.C. sues Burger King for stray fries that go uneaten after falling to the bottom of the drive-thru bag.