Weekly Hit & Run Archive 2012 April 22-31

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Baylen Linnekin on the Misguided Attempt to Ban the Sale of Shark Fins

Earlier this month, a Maryland bill that would have banned the possession or sale of shark fins gathered steam before eventually dying in the state’s House of Delegates. It was the latest in a series of efforts around the country to outlaw the popular ingredient employed by Chinese-American chefs in shark fin soup and other delicacies. Baylen Linnken, executive director of the nonprofit Keep Food Legal, argues that when it comes to the sale and possession of shark fins, the federal government has developed the right regulatory approach. As Linnekin explains, federal law requires any fisherman who catches a shark to bring the entire carcass back to shore, rather than just slicing off the edible fin and dumping the rest of the dying animal back into the ocean. Fisherman, chefs, and diners all reap the benefits.

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Destroying Latin America: Journalist Mary O'Grady on Populism, Protectionism, and Prohibition

"The inequality produced by liberty: This, for the socialist, is the soft underbelly of pro-market rationale and the best place to attack," says Mary O'Grady, a columnist who covers Latin America for the Wall Street Journal. "I would argue that it's the intellectual stream that prevails in Latin America, and it's the reason the region can not hope to reach its potential any time soon." 

O'Grady made a presentation at Reason Weekend 2012, Reason Foundation's annual donor event. He talked about why Latin American countries are so susceptible to socialism and identified the "three P's" of "Populism, Protectionism, and Prohibition" as the primary sources of the region's biggest problems.  

About 32 minutes. Filmed by Joshua Swain and Anthony Fisher. Edited by Zach Weissmueller.

Visit Reason.tv for downloadable versions and subscribe to Reason.tv's YouTube channel to receive automatic notifications when new material goes live. 

The New York Times Flip-Flops on Judicial Restraint

A few days after the Supreme Court finished hearing oral argument in the legal challenge to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act last month, The New York Times ran an unsigned editorial denouncing the Court’s conservative justices for their apparent willingness to strike down President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul. “For anyone who still thought legal conservatives are dedicated to judicial restraint,” the Times huffed, “the oral arguments before the Supreme Court on the health care case should put that idea to rest. There has been no court less restrained in signaling its willingness to replace law made by Congress with law made by justices.”

Pretty forceful words. In fact, they strongly echoed the arguments made by well-known legal conservative Robert Bork, the former federal appeals court judge who was unsuccessfully nominated to the Supreme Court in 1987. In his bestselling 1990 book The Tempting of America, Bork argued that the “first principle” of the American system wasn’t the protection of individual rights, it was majority rule. “In wide areas of life,” Bork wrote, “majorities are entitled to rule, if they wish, simply because they are majorities.” For the courts, this meant adopting a pro-government posture of judicial restraint—precisely what The New York Times wants the Supreme Court to do in the health care case.

Yet just two days ago the Times ran another unsigned editorial that offered a very different take on judicial restraint. In that piece, the paper attacked GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney for asking Bork to head up his campaign’s Justice Advisory Committee. According to the Times, Romney's acceptance of Bork and his “extreme views” reveals the shortcomings of Romney’s own approach to the law. So what’s so bad about Bork? Here’s the Times again:

[T]he confirmation shed considerable light on Mr. Bork’s extreme views. As a critic of what he called the “imperial judiciary,” he contended that, except when the Constitution expressly says otherwise, the court must defer to the will of the majority. Otherwise, he said, it makes “corrupt constitutional law” that is constrained only by the personal values of justices, leaving government subject to the “tyranny of the minority.”

To recap: The New York Times attacks the current Supreme Court for abandoning judicial restraint and “signaling its willingness to replace law made by Congress,” then turns around less than a month later to attack Judge Bork for advocating judicial restraint and saying that “the court must defer to the will of the majority.”

Shouldn’t the Times’ editorial board try a little harder to avoid openly contradicting itself like that?

Sheldon Richman on Exploitation and Mutually Beneficial Exchanges

When two people not under duress enter into an exchange for goods or labor services, both must be expecting to benefit or the exchange would not occur. In any such exchange there necessarily exists a double inequality of value. Each trader gives up something to obtain what he or she prefers. Moreover, we have at least prima facie grounds for pronouncing the exchange legitimate since no compulsion is apparent.

But as Sheldon Richman observes, libertarians must take care in applying the free-exchange principle. Let’s say you enter a post office and buy a first-class stamp for 45 cents. May we conclude that you prefer the services of the post office, a government-protected monopoly, to whatever else you might have spent the 45 cents on? Weren’t your alternatives artificially constricted by a system supported by violence?

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John McCain Blasts Obama For Using Bin Laden Against Romney, Used Bin Laden Against Obama in 2008

Senator John McCain took umbrage with the Obama campaign’s latest tactic, using the killing of Osama bin Laden to draw a contrast between the President’s decisiveness and Mitt Romney’s lack thereof.

“No one disputes that the President deserves credit for ordering the raid, but to politicize it in this way is the height of hypocrisy,” McCain said in an e-mail sent out by the RNC. Condemning the politicization of bin Laden’s killing, though, didn’t stop Senator McCain from politicizing it. “President Obama is shamelessly turning the one decision he got right into a pathetic political act of self-congratulation,” McCain boldly declared, despite backing the President on the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, defending the President’s involvement in Libya from Republicans, and applauding the President’s decision to block the release of photos documenting abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Candidate McCain also used the idea that he would make the decision to order the killing of Osama bin Laden while a putative President Obama would not on the campaign trail in 2008.

Expect more to come of the Romney campaign trying to paint President Obama’s foreign policy as “weak” while agreeing in principle with everything the President’s done and pushing for more of the same.

Reason.tv talking to Jacob Hornberger on how President Obama's foreign policy is a continuation of President Bush's:

New Smartphone App Will Let You Complain to the TSA With Ease

Smart phone applications, is there anything they can't help you evade or complain about faster? Not from the people that brought you the various DUI checkpoint warning apps, nor the people who offered the Occupy Wallstreet-ready and the undocumented immigrant-friendly versions of "hey, I'm getting arrested right now, help!" apps, but rather from something called the Sikh Coalition, comes a new app that makes complaining about the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) a breeze. Well, possibly. That's the idea behind the app set to be released on Monday, anyway.

For those confused about what exactly a generally pro-Sikh group has to do with the TSA, well, apparently they get targeted a lot at airports. Even though technically of course they don't (because profiling isn't allowed! Which is why little kids and Grandmas get targeted for terrorism. Not that the TSA should be profiling, because oh my God they would be even more terrible at that than we could possibly imagine.)

According to Raw Story:

[T]he app asks a series of questions that mirror the complaint reporting document offered on the TSA’s website, then sends the agency an official report, which they claim are always followed-up on.

Amardeep Singh, director of programs for the coalition, told Raw Story that the app should enable people who believe they’ve been profiled to file an official complaint “within minutes” of an incident at a checkpoint.

“The application creates a novel marriage between technology and civil rights activism,” The Sikh Coalition said in an advisory. “It is the first and only such application of its kind, allowing users in communities such as the Sikh, Muslim, Latino, or Black communities to document their experience at the airport.”

“For years The Sikh Coalition and the Sikh community has been complaining about profiling by security at airports,” Singh said. “But official complaints filed with the TSA or Homeland Seucrity are notoriously low from our community. For example, for the third quarter of 2011 the TSA reported to Congress that only 11 people had complained of profiling at airports, and of course the complaints we received [about the TSA] are more like in the hundreds.”

Reason on the TSA. And this Remy/Reason/tv classic:

GOP-Controlled Legislature Passes a Medical Marijuana Bill; Democratic Governor Plans to Veto It

This week the Republican-controlled New Hampshire House of Representatives passed a medical marijuana bill by a lopsided vote of 236 to 96, one day after Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, threatened to veto the legislation. Last month the state Senate approved the bill, which would let patients with "debilitating medical conditions" or their "designated caregivers" grow and possess up to six ounces at a time, by a vote of 13 to 11, with all five Democrats and eight Republicans in favor. The number of yes votes in the House, where nearly three-quarters of the seats are held by Republicans, is enough to overcome a veto (which requires a two-thirds majority), but the bill's supporters need to get three more votes in the Senate. If they manage to do that, New Hampshire will become the 17th state to allow medical use of marijuana. Lynch successfully vetoed a similar bill in 2009.

Democrats were actually more likely than Republicans to vote for the the bill, but there aren't enough of them to pass anything on their own, let alone achieve a veto-proof majority. In absolute numbers, the bill got more votes from Republicans than from Democrats. In New Hampshire, then, medical marijuana is a cause supported mainly by Republicans and opposed by the state's most prominent Democrat (who perhaps is taking his cues from the country's most prominent Democrat). Weird, right? Why would the party that supposedly favors a smaller, less intrusive government want to let sick people grow their own medicine?

Economy Sputters, No Gag for Zimmerman, Blind Activist Publicizes His Mistreatment: P.M. Links

  • No, that's not a two-stroke engine — it's the sound of the U.S. economy sputtering along, delivering slower growth than expected in the first quarter.
  • In a new video, the Obama campaign suggests that rival Mitt Romney wouldn't have had the nerve to assassinate bin Laden — with his bare hands, just like the incumbent.
  • Florida Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester has refused the prosecution's request and will not issue a gag order on those involved in George Zimmerman's murder trial.
  • A day after Standard and Poors downgraded the country's credit, the Spanish government says that almost one in four Spaniards are out of a job.
  • A Dutch court upheld a law creating a "weed pass" allowing only citizens to buy marijuana, even as many other countries debate and implement looser drug policies.
  • Gary Johnson, said by rivals and party faithful to be a shoo-in for Libertarian presidential nomination, is polling at 15 percent in New Mexico.
  • In China, a blind activist's family has been subject to intrusive surveillance, beatings and harassment — a situation he revealed by escaping and releasing a video.
  • One North Chicago police officer was fired and another suspended without pay for 30 days after Darrin Hanna died while in their custody.

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NYT Dives Back Into the Food Desert Swamp

Last week, I noted a contradiction in The New York Times' coverage of the low-income, low-grocery store neighborhoods known as food deserts. The print edition covered two new studies suggesting that access to fresh fruits and vegetables was not the problem policymakers had made it out to be, while a blog on website suggested the the problem of access to fresh fruits and vegetables could be solved (at least in part) by authorizing food carts to sell produce in low-income neighborhoods. 

Today, that late-to-the-party blogger, David Bornstein, issues a semi-mea culpa.

When I wrote my column last week, I had not seen this new research. Since then, I read the studies, as well as a number of others, and spoke to more food experts. I’m still convinced that convenient access to fresh food remains a significant barrier for many low-income people around the country, but I have been persuaded that the standard way “food deserts” have been defined may overemphasize—and in some cases mischaracterize—the problem of access.

What follows in a thoughtful take on what is really going on—considering "food prices, preparation time and knowledge, marketing, general levels of education, transportation, cultural practices and taste" as possible factors in the vegetal divide between rich and poor.

But while Gina Kolata's print story on new academic literature about food deserts was excellent, it was hardly breaking news. Another study with similar findings have been making the rounds since last year, and even if you don't indulge in the dreck truth published here at Reason, you might have seen it mentioned in papers like The Washington Post.

By the end of the column, Bornstein has bargained himself down to quantifying the food desert problem as a pretty minor issue indeed, working his way down to an estimate of about 2.5 million low-income households located more than half a mile from a grocery store who lack access to a car. We might want to think about policy solutions to help these folks, but they do not explain why Americans are Twinkie-eating lard butts.

U.S. Doesn't Need To Know A Person's Name to Kill Him in a Drone Strike

The U.S. drone strike program in Yemen keeps droning on, now with even less personalized service. 

As J.D. Tuccille noted in yesterday's P.M. links, CIA officials now officially don't even need to know an individual's name in order to make the person a target. Unofficially, they've probably been operating this way for a while.

Via Wired's Noah Shachtman:

The Yemeni drone campaign — actually, two separate efforts run by the CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command — will still be more tightly restricted than the Pakistan drone war at its peak. Potential targets need to be seen or heard doing something that indicates that they are plotting against the West, or are high up in the militant hierarchy.

“You don’t necessarily need to know the guy’s name. You don’t have to have a 10-sheet dossier on him. But you have to know the activities this person has been engaged in,” a U.S. official tells the Journal.

Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen specialist at Princeton University, believes these “signature” strikes — “or something an awful lot like them” — have actually been going on for a quite a while in Yemen. Awlaki’s son was killed just a month after his dad. And there have been 13 attacks in Yemen in 2012, according the Long War Journal. Many of them have hit lower-level militants, not top terror names. This authorization only makes targeting killings legally and bureaucratically kosher.

Bonus interventionist (no) fun: The strike targets don't always turn out to be the grave threats they're supposed to be in order to qualify for death-by-drone. And as a result, at least one official believes that America may be "percieved as taking sides in a civil war." Shachtman links to this depressing Washington Post piece:

A senior administration official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations, declined to talk about what he described as U.S. “tactics” in Yemen, but he said that “there is still a very firm emphasis on being surgical and targeting only those who have a direct interest in attacking the United States.”

U.S. officials acknowledge that the standard has not always been upheld. Last year, a U.S. drone strike inadvertently killed the American son of al-Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki. The teenager had never been accused of terrorist activity and was killed in a strike aimed at other militants.

Some U.S. officials have voiced concern that such incidents could become more frequent if the CIA is given the authority to use signature strikes.

“How discriminating can they be?” asked a senior U.S. official familiar with the proposal. Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen “is joined at the hip” with a local insurgency whose main goal is to oust the country’s government, the official said. “I think there is the potential that we would be perceived as taking sides in a civil war.”

Surprisingly!

On the other hand, at least we have a president who is super cool

Judge Upholds Dutch Policy Banning Foreigners From Cannabis Cafés

Today a judge in the Hague upheld a new Dutch policy excluding foreigners from cannabis cafés. The plan, which transforms the cafés into clubs open only to Dutch citizens and legal residents, is scheduled to take effect in southern provinces next month and throughout the country by the end of the year. The ban is aimed at addressing nuisances associated with "drug tourism" in border towns (some of which involves travelers buying pot for resale in other countries). But in Amsterdam, which has more than 200 "coffee shops" (about a third of the national total) and welcomes visitors attracted by the cannabis culture, the city's government has joined café owners in opposing the new policy.

A lawyer for the coffee shops complained that the judge "completely fails to answer the principal question: Can you discriminate against foreigners when there is no public order issue at stake?" He plans to appeal, but a 2011 decision suggests the Dutch Council of State, the country's highest court, may not be receptive to the challenge. In that case, which involved a local ban on selling marijuana to foreigners in Maastricht, the Council of State said discriminating against people from other countries does "infringe European law on the freedom to provide services" but "is permissible in the interests of combating drug tourism and the nuisance associated with it." Opponents of the national ban presumably will have to argue that it is illegal insofar as it applies in places, such as Amsterdam, where drug tourism is not considered a nuisance.

A political solution seems more likely. A.P. notes that "the Dutch government collapsed this week and new elections are scheduled for September," adding that "it is unclear whether the new administration will keep the new measures in place." 

Previous coverage of the ban on foreigners here.

The Cost Control That ObamaCare Doesn't Try

Alice Rivlin founded the Congressional Budget Office and served as its first director. She ran of the White House Office of Management and Budget under President Bill Clinton. Today, she’s a senior fellow at Brookings, and one of the most respected policy minds in Washington. Like many policy experts associated with the Democratic party, Rivlin is on record as supporting the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. But she's also open about saying that its Medicare reforms may not work as well as advertised. 

At a Congressional hearing on Medicare this morning, Rivlin reiterated her support for the president's health law and said she believed that many of its Medicare reforms—Accountable Care Organizations and multiple health system research institutes—“can help to assemble solid evidence about cost-effective approaches to delivering health care.” She cautiously suggested that the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), the cost-control bureaucracy created by the law to hold down Medicare spending growth, might also produce savings: “If [IPAB] functions as intended, it will design regulations that encourage more cost-effective delivery of care in traditional Medicare.”

But that’s a big if. And as Rivlin further argued, the success of these reforms is hardly guaranteed. “It remains to be seen how well these new institutions will perform,” she said. And that’s why Rivlin has teamed up with former Senator Peter Domenici to endorse a Medicare premium support plan that relies on competition between private insurers, in conjunction with a government-run Medicare fee-for-service plan, to hold spending in check.

Rivlin spoke this morning in front of the House Ways and Means Committee about the plan she authored with Domenici, and why she believes that it’s a good idea to bring private competition into the system:

Under the current system, with Medicare savings achieved largely through simple reductions in reimbursement rates, cost shifting has been a major concern.  However, our proposal is driven differently.  If competition works to produce more cost-effective delivery, Medicare can be a leader here. Plans and providers that have incentives to serve their Medicare patients more cost-effectively will do the same for their other clients.

...We think it only prudent to strengthen competition as an additional tool. Under our proposal,competing health plans all over the country would have strong incentives, not only to implement innovative ideas coming out of the federally-supported institutions created by the PPACA, but to seek every possible way to provide higher-quality care at a lower costin their own local area.  The PPACA attempts to reward Medicare providers that meet the conditions set in regulations. Enhancing competitive incentives to achieve savings and improve outcomes could prove the more effective approach. Our proposal is to try both.

One could argue that Rivlin is merely proposing to actually do what Democrats have long said they’re committed to doing: trying all the health care cost and spending controls available.

When the health care overhaul passed in 2010, Obama administration officials offered assurances that they were doing all they could on cost control. Former White House budget director Peter Orszag and health policy advisor Ezekiel Emanuel insisted that the health law “puts into place virtually every cost-control reform proposed by physicians, economists, and health policy experts.” But virtually every reform is not the same as every reform. And the one potentially transformative reform that the law's authors declined to include is the one that relies more on competition and market forces than the introduction of more bureaucratic payment reforms. 

Leaving a government-run, fee-for-service Medicare option in the mix is not ideal by any means. But Rivlin’s approach is vastly preferable to the current administration’s insistence on crossing its fingers and hoping that a largely technocratic approach to cost-control will work. 

"We're all moving to Alberta, get on the bus"; Buffett Rule Coming To Ontario

From the Toronto Star:

“We’re all moving to Alberta,” says Jason Safar, tax partner at Pricewaterhouse Coopers. “Get on the bus.” Or, in a slight variation, get ready to move Dec. 31 — all to avoid a new Ontario surtax on incomes above $500,000.

While the Star admits no one “really expects a mass exodus of people fleeing the province’s tax collectors,” it concedes the “chance of 100 per cent voluntary participation in the new tax is just about zero.”

The tax hike brings the combined federal/provincial tax rate in Ontario to nearly 50%, almost 10% higher than in Alberta, and the provincial government expects to collect $470 million (what’s the over/under?) earmarked for debt reduction. Meanwhile, 200,000 people moved from Ontario to Alberta in the last decade, arguably helping both provinces' economies.

Read Reason's Shikha Dalmia on the Gandhi Rule over the Buffett Rule.

Steven Greenhut on How Big Government Liberalism Is Killing California

California has always been a magnet—a land that has called people from across the country and the world. It’s a place that was known for its entrepreneurial spirit and open culture. But as Steven Greenhut observes, it has now been turned into a regulatory and tax nightmare, and the state’s plummeting population growth is evidence of the decline. The California Dream is over, Greenhut writes. People don’t want to come here even though this is, with little question, one of the most beautiful states in the union. Americans—even those who like to mock the Golden State—ought to think about what this means.

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Victim of Warrantless, Wrong-Door Raid: “I’m not the same person”

After finding two bodies in a burned-out SUV earlier this month, the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office traced the vehicle’s owner to the El Pueblo Apartments in Albuquerque, New Mexico. On April 10, the officers gathered at the complex to conduct a raid. At the last minute, they noticed activity in a unit two doors away, and decided to raid that one, too—without a warrant.

According to the Albuquerque Journal, the officers knew they’d need a warrant to search the apartment and seize evidence, but didn’t think they’d need one to break down the door and force Bertha Gamboa, 52, and her husband Carlos to the floor at gunpoint. So while one officer requested a search warrant, eight other officers battered down the Gamboas’ door, stormed it with shotguns raised, and made the Gamboas lie flat on the floor.

Minutes later, and without explanation, the officers left the Gamboas’ residence and cancelled their warrant request.

Two weeks have passed since the raid. No arrests have been made in the burned-out SUV case, the Gamboas are complaining of PTSD, and the cops can’t get their stories straight as to why they felt the need to raid an apartment unrelated to their investigation without a warrant:

MORE »

Obama Naming & Shaming Private Romney Donors

Kimberly A. Strassel writes in the Wall Street Journal:

This past week, one of his campaign websites posted an item entitled "Behind the curtain: A brief history of Romney's donors." In the post, the Obama campaign named and shamed eight private citizens who had donated to his opponent. Describing the givers as all having "less-than-reputable records," the post went on to make the extraordinary accusations that "quite a few" have also been "on the wrong side of the law" and profiting at "the expense of so many Americans."

These are people like Paul Schorr and Sam and Jeffrey Fox, investors who the site outed for the crime of having "outsourced" jobs. T. Martin Fiorentino is scored for his work for a firm that forecloses on homes. Louis Bacon (a hedge-fund manager), Kent Burton (a "lobbyist") and Thomas O'Malley (an energy CEO) stand accused of profiting from oil. Frank VanderSloot, the CEO of a home-products firm, is slimed as a "bitter foe of the gay rights movement."

These are wealthy individuals, to be sure, but private citizens nonetheless. Not one holds elected office. Not one is a criminal. Not one has the barest fraction of the position or the power of the U.S. leader who is publicly assaulting them.

"We don't tolerate presidents or people of high power to do these things," says Theodore Olson, the former U.S. solicitor general. "When you have the power of the presidency—the power of the IRS, the INS, the Justice Department, the DEA, the SEC—what you have effectively done is put these guys' names up on 'Wanted' posters in government offices."

Whole thing here.

Reason Writers at the Movies: Peter Suderman Reviews Safe

Reason Senior Editor Peter Suderman reviews Safe, the latest shoot-'em-up from Jason Statham, in today's Washington Times:

"Safe” offers yet another reminder that Jason Statham’s brutal filmography has become a genre unto itself: the Jason Statham movie. At this point, the brawny star owns the entire lower-middle swath of the action movie marketplace.

Mr. Statham is — to borrow the credo of another gruff, one-dimensional comic book character, Wolverine — the best at what he does, but what he does isn’t very nice.

No one makes a better blue-collar action flick, and these days almost no one else is trying. His movies aren’t high art, and I hesitate to even call them creative entertainment. Instead they’re mass-produced commodities designed to satiate viewers with yet another kicky, violent fix.

Still, they work. Yes, Mr. Statham’s movies pander to their viewers. But they also respect them, serving up only the bare essentials with minimal filler: no fuss, no excess chit-chat, just quips and kicks. With its clinical, efficient brutality, its serrated cynicism and its pat cruelty, “Safe” fits the bill better than most. It’s the purest Statham fix in years.

Whole thing here

Rick Scott's Thirst for Urine Will Remain Unslaked

Yesterday a federal judge ruled that Florida Gov. Rick Scott's order subjecting all executive-branch employees to random drug testing violates the Fourth Amendment's ban on "unreasonable searches and seizures." U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro said Scott had failed to demonstrate a "compelling interest" in demanding the urine of every state employee working under him:

The [executive order] does not identify a concrete danger that must be addressed by suspicionless drug-testing of state employees, and the Governor shows no evidence of a drug use problem at the covered agencies....

All of the upheld drug-testing policies [in Supreme Court cases] were tailored to address a specific, serious problem. In contrast, the rationale for the Governor's policy consists of broad prognostications concerning taxpayer savings, improved public service, and reductions in health and safety risks that result from a drug-free workplace....

Unlike the programs [upheld by the Supreme Court], which were moored to concrete dangers, the Governor’s program is detached from any readily apparent or demonstrated risk....

It is this general and essentially speculative interest that the Court must weigh against the individual privacy interests of those subject to the [executive order]....

The fundamental flaw of the [executive order] is that it infringes privacy interests in pursuit of a public interest which, in contrast to the concrete and carefully defined concerns in [the relevant Supreme Court cases], is insubstantial and largely speculative....The privacy interests infringed upon here outweigh the public interest sought.  

There is nothing at all surprising about this decision. As I pointed out last year, Scott's order was clearly unconstitutional under the relevant precedents:

In two 1989 cases, the Supreme Court ruled that government-mandated urinalysis, although a "search" governed by the Fourth Amendment, can be justified without "particularized suspicion" in special circumstances. Specifically, the Court upheld testing ofrailroad employees who are involved in accidents or violate safety rules and  customs agents who apply for positions that require them to carry guns or interdict drugs. In two subsequent cases, the Court upheld random drug testing of high school students who participate in sports or other extracurricular activities, again based on a "special need": preventing drug use by minors. By contrast, in 1997 the Court rejected a Georgia law requiring all candidates for public office to undergo drug testing, ruling that it "does not fit within the closely guarded category of constitutionally permissible suspicionless searches."

Based on these precedents, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in 2004 overturned a Florida drug testing policy that was much narrower than Scott's, applying to employees of the state Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). Hinkle began his opinion (PDF) by noting that "DJJ now virtually concedes the policy cannot constitutionally be applied to at least some DJJ employees." He noted that Roderick Wenzel, the DJJ employee who brought the case after he was fired for refusing to surrender his bodily fluids, was "a long-term strategic planner who worked in an office, did not interact with juveniles in DJJ's care, and did not access confidential information on juveniles." Hinkle concluded that the department had failed to show "a concrete risk of real harm" that would justify suspicionless testing of employees like Wenzel.

After Scott issued his order, ACLU of Florida Executive Director Howard Simon said, "I'm not sure if Governor Scott does not know that the policy he ordered has already been declared unconstitutional or if he just doesn't care." Can't it be both?

Scott, by the way, claims "drug testing state employees is a common-sense means of ensuring a safe, efficient and productive work force," which is "why so many private employers drug test." Not so. For a closer look at that question, see my 2002 Reason article "Urine—or You're Out."

Connecticut Agency Seeks to Whitewash Its Role in Kelo Eminent Domain Abuse

In 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court issued its notorious ruling in Kelo v. City of New London. At issue was New London, Connecticut’s desire to use eminent domain to clear way an existing neighborhood and put up a fancy new hotel, apartment buildings, and office towers in its place, all designed to complement the nearby research and development center being built by the Pfizer pharmaceutical company. Although this was a classic example of eminent domain abuse, with the government taking property from one private party and then handing it over to another for no legitimate public use, the Court let it stand anyway because it was part of what Justice John Paul Stevens called a “comprehensive redevelopment plan” that would provide “appreciable benefits to the community.”

Unsurprisingly, those appreciable benefits never materialized. Not only was the new development project never built, which means the existing neighborhood was destroyed for nothing, Pfizer later shuttered its facility and pulled out of New London altogether. To add insult to injury, Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Richard N. Palmer, one of the four justices who voted against the property owners and therefore directly precipitated the Supreme Court’s dismal ruling, later apologized to Susette Kelo for his misguided vote.

In the latest twist to this long and infuriating saga, the New London Development Corporation (NLDC), the quasi-public agency that orchestrated the original land grab, is now attempting to whitewash its role in the whole sordid affair. As the New London Patch reports, the agency voted yesterday to change its name to the vague and self-aggrandizing Renaissance City Development Association in order to get away from all those uncomfortable connections with the Kelo debacle. Here’s the New London Patch:

NLDC President Michael Joplin said Mayor Daryl Finizio recommended the change when Joplin and members of NLDC’s executive committee met with him in January. Joplin said the organization has also considered changing its name in the past, saying it has been “unfairly tarred and feathered” due to its role in the Kelo v. City of New London eminent domain case before the United States Supreme Court.

“Everyone in this room knows we’ve got baggage, and it’s spelled K-E-L-O,” said Joplin....

“If there’d been a little more support from the media, we probably wouldn’t have this public relations fiasco that’s plagued the city for so long,” said [NLDC member Stephen] Percy.

It’s bad enough to employ a cute euphemism like baggage to describe the use of government-backed bulldozers to destroy somebody’s house for no legitimate reason, but the self-pity on display by the NLDC is just beyond parody. These people should be ashamed of themselves.

Kennedy, Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch Talk 2012 Presidential Race

"Could Gary Johnson be the Ross Perot of 2012?" asks Reason Contributor Kennedy.

Reason.tv's Nick Gillespie and Reason's Matt Welch joined Kennedy for a discussion about the future of the "libertarian moment," now that the Presidential race has come down to "two guys who love to spend money."

Other topics discussed: the Obama Administration's "strong suggestion" that private companies drug test their employees, income inequality in the wake of the Buffet Rule's failure, and Sen. Richard Lugar's "fantastic legs."

About 6.30 minutes.

Produced by Anthony L. Fisher. Camera by Josh Swain, Meredith Bragg and Jim Epstein.

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Nick Gillespie on the Life and Legacy of Grove Press Publisher Barney Rosset

If you grew up interested in literature—and a world bigger than the one into which you were born—you owe a debt to Barney Rosset. Rosset, who ran the Grove Press for 35 years, died on February 21 at age 89, thus ending the career of a man whose first publication was a mimeographed high school ’zine called The Anti-Everything and who later introduced American readers to William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. From our May issue, Nick Gillespie explains how Rosset made us smarter, sexier, and more free.

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Analytic Thinking Reduces Religious Belief, Says Study

A new study (sub required) by researchers at the University of Bristish Columbia published in this week's Science reports that inducing subjects to engage their analytic thinking skills lowers the strength of their religious beliefs. From the press release:

A new University of British Columbia study finds that analytic thinking can decrease religious belief, even in devout believers.

The study, published today in the journal Science, finds that thinking analytically increases disbelief among believers and skeptics alike, shedding important new light on the psychology of religious belief.

"Our goal was to explore the fundamental question of why people believe in a God to different degrees," says lead author Will Gervais, a PhD student in UBC's Dept. of Psychology. "A combination of complex factors influence matters of personal spirituality, and these new findings suggest that the cognitive system related to analytic thoughts is one factor that can influence disbelief."

Researchers used problem-solving tasks and subtle experimental priming – including showing participants Rodin's sculpture The Thinker or asking participants to complete questionnaires in hard-to-read fonts – to successfully produce "analytic" thinking. The researchers, who assessed participants' belief levels using a variety of self-reported measures, found that religious belief decreased when participants engaged in analytic tasks, compared to participants who engaged in tasks that did not involve analytic thinking.

The findings, Gervais says, are based on a longstanding human psychology model of two distinct, but related cognitive systems to process information: an "intuitive" system that relies on mental shortcuts to yield fast and efficient responses, and a more "analytic" system that yields more deliberate, reasoned responses.

"Our study builds on previous research that links religious beliefs to 'intuitive' thinking," says study co-author and Associate Prof. Ara Norenzayan, UBC Dept. of Psychology. "Our findings suggest that activating the 'analytic' cognitive system in the brain can undermine the 'intuitive' support for religious belief, at least temporarily."

The study involved more than 650 participants in the U.S. and Canada. Gervais says future studies will explore whether the increase in religious disbelief is temporary or long-lasting, and how the findings apply to non-Western cultures.

Recent figures suggest that the majority of the world's population believes in a God, however atheists and agnostics number in the hundreds of millions, says Norenzayan, a co-director of UBC's Centre for Human Evolution, Cognition and Culture. Religious convictions are shaped by psychological and cultural factors and fluctuate across time and situations, he says.

On March 24, thousands of atheists, agnostics and assorted freethinkers gathered on the Mall in Washington, D.C. at the Rally for Reason. For more background see below the Reason.tv video, "What We Saw at the Reason Rally" by my colleagues Lucy Steigerwald and Joshua Swain. 

Romania Latest European Government to Collapse

The two-month old government of Romanian Prime Minister Mihai Ungureanu failed a no confidence vote today, forcing the President to name a third Prime Minister in a span of six months. The last prime minister, Emil Boc, resigned after violent anti-austerity protests in February. The no-confidence vote, spurred by bitterness over austerity measures as well as claims of corruption, contrasts with the government’s dissolution in the Netherlands, where the Prime Minister resigned for failing to bring the budget deficit down to the EU mandated levels it sometimes seems only the Dutch are trying to get to.

A new European budget pact, ratified so far only by Greece and Portugal, two EU bailout recipients, re-enforces the 3% of GDP limit on annual deficits and 60% of GDP for national debt that very few EU countries presently meet.

The Czech Republic’s government is expected to survive its own no-confidence vote later today. Meanwhile, in France, Socialist Francois Hollande’s is leading President Sarkozy by up to 10 points in opinion polls, running on a promise to re-open the EU’s budget pact. Angela Merkel dismissed the idea as impossible, setting up a political clash with the potential next French President.

Reason’s Tim Cavanaugh explains the myths of European austerity.

Seriously, This Is What's Passing for Liberal Political Discourse These Days

This Obama-fluffing Paul Waldman piece in The American Prospect, titled "The Cool Kids Versus the Squares," is beyond self-parody. Here's how it begins:

When Barack Obama appeared on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon the other night, he walked on stage and gave Fallon a quick pound hug, that handshake/one-arm hug that we cool guys do these days to express a sentiment something like, "It is good to see you again, my friend; we know and like each other, but are not so intimate, nor have been apart so long, that a full two-arm hug is warranted." When I watched it, the first thought that came into my head was, "Mitt Romney has never done that with another man in his life." Which is fine, of course—Romney is 65 years old, and the pound hug really only came along only about 10 or 15 years or so ago. And let's face it, even if he was a lot younger, it's just not his style.

Mitt Romney is many things, but "cool" is not one of them. Barack Obama, on the other hand, is pretty cool.

While I am always tickled to learn a new phrase, a presidential pound hug can go pound sand: What matters is how you govern. It will surprise approximately no one that Paul Waldman was much more critical of the gap between presidential image and performance back when it wasn't his team in the White House. Now, though, with a heavy sigh, this Joe Cool of opinion journalism is being dragged reluctantly back into the political quad:  

So once again, we have to wage a campaign of the cool kids versus the squares. This all started in the 1960s, when people like Rove and Romney watched their contemporaries smoking grass, listening to music with electric guitars, and dancing wildly about with adventurous girls in sheer peasant blouses, and thought to themselves, "Gosh darn it, I hate those guys!"

I can't really improve on Glenn Reynolds' reaction:

SO WHAT MAKES BARACK OBAMA A “COOL KID,” EXACTLY?

The raids on marijuana clinics?

The opposition to gay marriage?

The drone attacks?

The Mom Jeans?

UPDATE: Waldman responds here.

Is ObamaCare Helping Private Health Insurance Beneficiaries Get a Better Deal?

New estimates suggest that health insurers will pay out more than $1 billion in rebates this year due to a provision in the 2010 health care overhaul.

A success for ObamaCare? Maybe not. The rebates don't account for premium increases we've already seen during the administration's time in office. And pressure created by the provision, which caps the percentage of each premium dollar that can be spent on profit, marketing, and administrative costs, is likely to contribute to rising premiums rather than control them. 

The health care law's medical loss ratio (MLR) rule requires health insurers to spend 80 percent of individual and small group plan premium revenues on "clinical services." Large group plans must spend 85 percent of their premium dollars on the same. Insurers who fail to meet those ratios must rebate the difference to customers. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that those rebates will total about $1.3 billion this year, with an average rebate of about $39 per person in the individual market. Overall rebates will average about $127 per person, though rebates in the large group market will go to businesses rather than directly to individuals. 

A little over a billion dollars in rebates isn't nothing. But in the context of recent increases in health insurance premiums, it's close. That's especially true considering President Obama's 2008 campaign promise that under his administration health insurance premiums would be reduced by an average of $2,500. As Chris Jacobs, a Republican Senate staffer with the Joint Economic Committee, points out, premiums have continued to go up since Obama took office, from $12,680 in 2008 to $15,073 in 2011

We may see more rebates in coming years. But the existence of rebates does not necessarily indicate that health insurance customers are getting a better deal. It is possible that in the absence of the spending regulations, premium prices would have been even lower than premiums minus rebates under an MLR rule.

Indeed, the rule actually creates significant pressure to increase premiums over time: The discourages insurers from certain cost-saving activities and oversight by counting them as administrative costs. And because profits are capped as a percentage of premiums, the only way to expand profits is to increase premium revenues. So over time we'll probably see more wasteful health spending and more expensive premiums as a result of the rule. But at least people will get rebates. 

Futher reading: MLR regs are so potentially restrictive that the Congressional Budget Office warned that, if the spending requirements were set any higher (as some legislators had suggested), the requirement would be "likely to substantially reduce flexibility in terms of the types, prices, and number of private sellers of health insurance."

A. Barton Hinkle on Virginia's Response to Obamacare

If states don’t create a health care exchange, then the federal government will step in and do it for them. This has led many Republicans to believe, erroneously, that they have a choice between having an exchange built to their liking—perhaps one that offers flexibility and a remnant or two of free-market economics—or a costly, bureaucratic blanket of regulatory excess. But that’s not the choice at all, writes A. Barton Hinkle, because any state exchange must receive federal approval, and the Department of Health and Human Services has written hundreds of pages of rules that must be met to win such approval.

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Forget Paul Ryan: 7 Pols (Make it 8!) Who Still Dig Ayn Rand!

Now that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) has renounced Ayn Rand in the pages of National Review (a magazine that has long held the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged author in total contempt), it's time to figure out what other pols bought into Rand's core idea that capitalism is a moral system because it allows the individual to express oneself most fully.

Politico rounds up seven (count 'em!), including such horrifying haters of humanity as Ronald Reagan, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Justice Clarence Thomas, and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (R-N.M.), who is running for the Libertarian Party nomination for president:

“Then, in summer 2008, Johnson started seeing Kate Prusack, a passionate cyclist and Santa Fe Realtor. Early in their courtship, Johnson gave her a copy of Ayn Rand’s free-market manifesto 'Atlas Shrugged.' ‘If you want to understand me, read this,’ he said.”

Johnson and Prusack are now engaged. (The above quote is from a great Outside mag profile of Johnson.)

Politico missed at least one other Randroid in Congress: Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.), who told Reason in 2007

Atlas Shrugged is the book I give to our interns after they spend a summer here, working for free. I consider it to be the authoritative work on the power of the individual.”

As far as I know, Campbell is not engaged to any of his interns.

Hat tip on the Politico piece: Alan Vanneman.

As longtime readers of this site and of the print magazine know, I'm not the world's biggest Rand fan, though I think she (along with Jack Kerouac) remains the most influential American novelist of the 1950s and possibly the entire post-war era. Folks who dismiss her because they say she wrote bad sentences or don't share her views on the hippies she helped catalyze are missing the point, I think. Rand was one of the great anti-conformist voices of the past 70 years and the fact that she still moves hundreds of thousands of books, movies, and spin-off material is nothing less than incredible. Sneer at her if you must (typically, it seems, because you went through an adolescent Rand phase that you are now ashamed of), but if you can't understand why she resonates, you're not really in touch with the country you live in.

Anyhoo, here's Paul Ryan popping up in our 2009 video Rand-O-Rama: The Long Shelf Life of Ayn Rand's Legacy.

Reason on Rand here.

Should New Student Borrowers Be Charged What Older Ones Are?

Should Stafford program student loans originated on July 1, 2012 and later have interest rates of 6.8 percent rather than 3.4 percent? That's the topic du jour and like many such issues, the quality of discussion suffers from total agreement across Republican and Democratic lines.

Both parties want to keep the loans, which are already subsidized by taxpayers in a variety of ways, even more subsidized. The rates started going down in 2007 as part of a Bush-era plan; the cuts expire in the summer.

Both parties agree that keeping the lower rates in place for another year is the thing to do and both parties apparently agree that doing so will cost taxpayers an additional $6 billion. They disagree about how to pay for them.

When it comes to that, each side has in effect taken a political hostage: House Republicans would cut spending from Obama's prized health care overhaul law, Senate Democrats would boost payroll taxes on owners of some private corporations and House Democrats would erase federal subsidies to oil and gas companies.

Before moving on, let's at least note that at least they're talking about paying for them. That's progress, of a sort, I guess.

I've read accounts that the Obama administration claims the difference in rates could mean borrowers would pay anywhere from $1,000 more a year (New York Times) to $1,000 more over the course of the loan (many places), neither of which seems accurate. Using this loan calculator, a $10,000 loan at 6.4 6.8 percent paid back over 10 years (the repayment period allotted Stafford loans) would cost a total of $13,810. At 3.4 percent, the total would be $11,810, for a difference of $2,000.

What I haven't read, really, is a case for simply letting the rates go back to 6.4 6.8 percent. I understand that it's an election year so nobody wants to be seen as making anybody pay for anything (and the cynicism of extending the rates for a single year underscores that it's an election year). But there is little indication that the increase on new loans would actually price prospective students or borrowers out of the market (the repayment period wouldn't begin until after the students either graduated or left college), so letting the (still-subsidized) rate go back to where it was a few years ago would have minimal impact on students or the current economy.

I used student loans to pay for part of my undergrad and grad school years (at significantly higher rates than 6.4 percent, alas). I think college is important for intellectual reasons and others (I also think college is far more than a jobs-training program, which an appalling number of rightists and leftists seem to be arguing these days). I don't think costing yet more of that experience onto taxpayers is a particularly good thing to do. These loans are voluntary, after all, and there's every reason to believe that the free and/or heavily subsidized money via government that flows to colleges is a major reason for the rampant cost increases in higher ed.

Only half of all college kids take out any sort of loans and the typical graduating student who takes on debt graduates owing $25,000. (For more in this vein, go here.) That's not an incredible burden to bear, especially when you factor in the increase in earnings that go along with the amount. It would be a great world, I suppose, if nobody ever had to pay for anything and all colleges were free. But that would take, what, professors and administrators and janitors and rec center employees all donating their time, right? There's no question that college is worth a hell of a lot and there's no question (in my mind) that it's worth paying for. Especially by the person who is the chief beneficiary. 

The country is trillions of dollars in debt and the Republicans and Democrats' response to this has been to propose 10 year spending plans that do not balance the budget or cut spending in any way, shape, or form. As Obama administration officials like to remind us, "the time for austerity is not today." The Republicans agree, of course, they just prefer to strike a different pose in public.

Which helps explain why we're even in the situation we're in. The current discussion over student loan rates simply makes clear that we're going to remain stuck in this situation for a very long time to come.

Watch 3 Reasons Not to Bail Out Student Loan Borrowers:

Desks for Classrooms Can Wait—Get Some Custom-Made Furniture In This Suite, Stat!

Supporters of the Baltimore city school system "have rallied from City Hall to the State House for basic necessities like working water fountains, desks, and windows for natural light," reports Erica Green of The Baltimore Sun. Perhaps they should hold their next rally at the superintendent's office. Green writes:

New furniture, a flat-screen television, decorative light fixtures, interactive white boards -- these are among amenities the city school system bought during $500,000 in renovations to the central office, even as administrators decried the state of crumbling school buildings and sought funding to fix them.

The biggest project was a $250,000 face lift of an executive suite for the district's chief of information technology, who said the remodeling work was done in part to impress job candidates and repair unsafe conditions....

Other big-ticket projects include $94,000 spent on relocating employees and furnishing offices during [Superintendent Andrés] Alonso's 2011 reorganization of the central office. Upgrades like fresh coats of paint on office walls, carpeting, new furniture and cubicles were provided to relocated employees.

About $76,000 was spent to renovate the school system's board room, where the school board and other public meetings are held.

Chief of Information Technology Jerome Oberlton tells the Sun he needed to upgrade the suite because the conditions there were driving away potential employees: "I saw good people walk out the door and not come to city schools." Perhaps the classrooms would be in better shape if students, and their money, could leave as easily.

Meanwhile, score one for the press:

Some changes were made after The Sun inquired about the renovations. Roughly $41,000 in custom-made furniture was ordered for the new suite, but city school officials canceled the order. Instead, furniture was brought in from the district's warehouse, resulting in a $37,000 savings.

Kurt Loder Reviews Headhunters, The Five-Year Engagement, and The Raven

Headhunters is a nasty little crime thriller from Norway that keeps twisting you into a state of tense uncertainty right up to the end. The Five-Year Engagement blends sweet sentiment with go-for-broke raunch to make a very funny movie about what happens when two people who are perfect for each other realize that perfection isn’t enough. The Raven is a movie that adds up to little more than the pitch meeting that spawned it: Edgar Allan Poe, celebrated master of the macabre, does battle with a serial killer in an atmosphere of Se7en-like depravity. Kurt Loder reviews all three.

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A.M. Links: Allen West Finds WMDs, George Zimmerman Raises $200,000, Sun Bathing UFO

  • Congressman Allen West’s onto the President. "President Obama seems determined to punish and wipe out economic success in this country, leveling tax weapons of mass destruction on all taxpayers," the Freshman Republican said on the House Floor last night. West previously said he’d consider serving as Mitt Romney’s running mate, but would have to have a “sit down” with the candidate first.
  • A federal judge rejected a FOIA lawsuit seeking the release of the photos of the killing and burial of Osama bin Laden. “A picture may be worth a thousand words. And perhaps moving pictures bear an even higher value," Judge James Boasberg, an Obama appointee, wrote in his decision. "Yet, in this case, verbal descriptions of the death and burial of Usama Bin Laden will have to suffice".
  • Two corrections officers are among three minorities suing the U.S. Border Patrol for engaging in racial profiling in the Olympic Peninsula along the Canadian border. “The Border Patrol's actions have created a climate of fear and anxiety for many people living on the Olympic Peninsula," said Sarah Dunne of the ACLU, who is filing the lawsuit in federal court. The Border Patrol’s presence on the Peninsula increased 1,300% in the last decade.
  • George Zimmerman’s received about $200,000 in donations through his website. “You can really go through a lot of money on a case like this,” said his defense attorney, Mark O’Mara.
  • Generational shift? Samsung reported record profits on the strength of Galaxy Note and SII sales while Nintendo reported record losses on the weakness of Wii and DS3 sales. Meanwhile, Apple profit moves markets.
  • The latest UFO sighting's on a NASA image of the sun, and probably a cosmic ray.

Don't forget to sign up for Reason's daily AM/PM updates for more content!

Reason.tv: "Charles Murray on Why America is Coming Apart Along Class Lines"

 

Chip Bok on Paying for Services

Chip Bok proposes an unorthodox solution to the recent spate of government scandals. 

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Brickbat: The French They Are a Funny Race

The French government has barred officials from using the word “mademoiselle” on official forms. They must now refer to all women as “madame.” Documents must also now request someone's “family name” and “name of usage” instead of “maiden name” and “spouse's name.” Feminists have complained that the banned terms were sexist.

Brickbat Archive

CISPA Passes House With Strong GOP Support

The House of Representatives has approved the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act in a 248-168 vote that broke pretty much along party lines. 

The complete roll call shows 206 Republicans voting for the bill, 28 against. Democrats went 42 to 140 in the opposite direction. The Republican No column includes some fairly libertarian-friendly names, including Amash, McClintock and Rohrabacher (who also this week earned the honor of being banned by vile Afghan kleptocrat Hamid Karzai). Voting for the legislation were great libertarian nopes Ryan, Flake and Duncan. The name Paul shows up in the not-voting lineup. 

I don't know if CISPA deserves its worse-than-SOPA designation, and I hesitate to join any side that has such wide agreement from Democrats. Nevertheless, if you want to register your opposition for the benefit of the Senate, you can send a very easy-to-use spam from a site called Demand Progress. (Warning: In addition to having the word "Progress" in its title, the site features a "funny" cat picture. Really, people, 2005 is over.) 

Jumping to Conclusions About My Conclusions

Yesterday the Chicago Sun-Times ran my column about Florida's self-defense law under the unfortunate headline "Why Trayvon's Killer Should Be Acquitted," which is certainly not the argument I intended to make. I remain agnostic on that question. Based on the publicly available evidence, it seems possible that 1) Trayvon Martin started the fight and created a reasonable fear of death or serious injury, justifying George Zimmerman's use of deadly force, or 2) Zimmerman panicked and shot Martin in circumstances that did not justify the use of deadly force (or accidentally shot him and made up a cover story afterward). In either of those scenarios, it is also possible that Martin's use of force was justified by the threat he reasonably perceived from Zimmerman. As I said in a column earlier this month, we don't know enough yet to answer crucial questions about the case and therefore should avoid jumping to conclusions.

Yet that is exactly what Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn accuses me of, based on this quote from my column:

If [George Zimmerman] went to trial, he would be (or at least should be) acquitted with that much evidence in his favor, since the prosecution has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was not acting in self-defense.

"Unless Sullum has gotten a private peek at the bulk of evidence still under wraps," Zorn writes, "he has no idea what the jury 'should' find or even if it should go to trial at all." I agree. Here is the full paragraph from my column:

One unusual aspect of Florida's law that will be apparent in this case is that Zimmerman has a right to pretrial hearing at which he can try to convince Judge Kenneth Lester, by "a preponderance of the evidence," that he acted in self-defense. If he can meet that standard of proof, which requires showing it is more likely than not that his use of force was appropriate, the charge against him will be dismissed. But even if he went to trial, he would be (or at least should be) acquitted with that much evidence in his favor, since the prosecution has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was not acting in self-defense—which, as Northern Kentucky University law professor Michael J.Z. Mannheimer has pointed out, would be true "in virtually every state."

In other words, if Zimmerman could prove his self-defense claim by a preponderance of the evidence, that would be more than enough for an acquittal, assuming the jury correctly applied the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard. If it's more likely than not that Zimmerman's use of force was lawful (the standard for dismissing the charge against him), it necessarily follows that his guilt cannot be established beyond a reasonable doubt. But I am not saying that Zimmerman should prevail in the pretrial hearing or that he should be acquitted (although I do think manslaughter is a more appropriate charge than second-degree murder). My point is that allowing Zimmerman to avoid a trial if he can meet the preponderance-of-the-evidence standard does not (or should not) affect the outcome of the case. Assuming he can show he is probably not guilty, he would be acquitted even if he did not have a right to a pretrial hearing on his self-defense claim. 

Are Right to Work Laws the New Slavery?

Nothing concentrates the mind like a hanging, they say. And Indiana’s labor unions regard the recently passed Right to Work law that bars them from collecting mandatory dues from workers as a condition of employment as nothing short of a hanging. As far as they are concerned, the law will make it impossible for them to keep their members, effectively spelling their doom. Hence they are thinking up of ever-new and creative ways to dodge the RTW bullet.

There is some reason to believe that they are over-reacting. Investor Business Daily’s Sean Higgins recently reported that there is little evidence of declining union membership in RTW states, perhaps because union bosses are forced to attend to worker needs when they can’t automatically count on their dues. For example, in Oklahoma, that became a RTW state about a decade ago, Higgins found that when the law was being debated, 6.9% of state workers were unionized. In 2011, the rate was 6.4%, a decline of just 7% over the decade. He notes:

That's not good for the unions, but it is far from a disaster. What's more, the drop is close to the 6% decline in union membership nationally over the same period. [The] membership is stable now.

But Indiana unions are taking no chances and recently filed a lawsuit to overturn the law. Among other allegations, the lawsuit claims that the Indiana law violates the Thirteenth Amendment’s prohibition against slavery for two reasons:

One, it requires dues-paying union members to work alongside non-dues paying personnel, something that it claims is “compulsory service and/or involuntary servitude within the meaning if the amendment.”

This is patently absurd. And Orwellian. For most people, being forced to pay dues for a service one doesn’t want to an organization one can't really control would be closer to slavery. But how is having to work next to people you think are being treated better than you like slavery? I’d feel many things if I had to share breathing space with a schmucky coworker who is paid twice as much as me for half the work: Envy. Rage. Indignation. But would I feel enslaved?  No – because that involves an element of force, like when someone holds a gun to your head and forces you to empty your wallet, which is closer to the modus operandi of union bosses.

Two, the suit claims that the law is tantamount to slavery because it compels “unions to furnish services to all persons in bargaining units that it represents, but it may not require payment for those services.” Unions are on more solid ground in this argument. Most people would concede that there is something unfair about requiring them to collectively bargain on behalf of workers who don’t have to pay dues.

But this is a problem of the unions’ own making. They are required to represent all workers in exchange for  monopoly rights over collective bargaining in the workplace. That is the Faustian bargain they made in the Wagner Act. Thanks to the Act, workers who don’t wish to be represented by an existing union because, say, it is inept or corrupt or in bed with the company management, are out of options. They can’t form another union to represent themselves or deal with the company on an individual basis (companies like it this way too, which is why Big Business and Big Labor both supported the Wagner Act.)

RTW laws are designed to give these workers partial relief by at least allowing them to withhold their dues if they are unhappy with their anointed union. This of course opens the door to free riders, which is far from ideal. But the problem is that unions would like the ideal solution even less because it would go something like this: They wouldn’t have to represent non-dues paying workers in negotiations, but these workers would be released to form their own parallel unions.

The upshot would be a multiplicity of unions in the workplace, each aggressively competing with the other for members.

How about it Richard Trumka? Bob King?

I didn’t think so.

My recent commentary on what Indiana's RTW law means for the future of the labor movement.

H/T: Michael Jahr. Go here for Michigan Capitol Confidential's story on the lawsuit.

Isn’t America Already Financially Repressed?

At CNBC, Antonia Oprita finds out about the newest horror in government profligacy from aptly named HSBC economist Stephen King. Now that faux-sterity has spooked the rubes, "financial repression" may be the only hope for the developed world’s morbidly obese governments: 

"Financial repression results from policies which allow governments to fund their borrowing through imposing costs on others," King wrote in a market note.

Governments could use regulations to force banks to lend more to the government while liquidity-pumping policies – such as quantitative easing – push bond yields down even when fiscal policy is out of control, allowing governments to avoid being punished by markets for lack of fiscal discipline, he explained.

The 1950s and the 1960s were, for the Western world, a period when financial repression seemed to work, as government debt fell rapidly. "This, however, was more a happy coincidence: debt fell rapidly for other reasons, allowing economies to shrug off the effects of repression," King wrote.

If applied today, repression is likely to starve the private sector of funds, as the rapid reduction in debt seen in the '50s and '60s was a consequence of bumper growth which brought in tax money rather than of government borrowing crowding out the private sector, he warned.

How would low interest rates reduce debt when they encourage more borrowing? In an interesting NBER paper [pdf] from M. Belen Sbrancia and the formidable economist Carmen M. Reinhart say it’s a function of reduced debt service cost: 

Financial repression includes directed lending to government by captive domestic audiences (such as pension funds), explicit or implicit caps on interest rates, regulation of cross-border capital movements, and (generally) a tighter connection between government and banks. In the heavily regulated financial markets of the Bretton Woods system, several restrictions facilitated a sharp and rapid reduction in public debt/GDP ratios from the late 1940s to the 1970s. Low nominal interest rates help reduce debt servicing costs while a high incidence of negative real interest rates liquidates or erodes the real value of government debt. Thus, financial repression is most successful in liquidating debts when accompanied by a steady dose of inflation. Inflation need not take market participants entirely by surprise and, in effect, it need not be very high (by historic standards). For the advanced economies in our sample, real interest rates were negative roughly ½ of the time during 1945-1980. For the United States and the United Kingdom our estimates of the annual liquidation of debt via negative real interest rates amounted on average from 3 to 4 percent of GDP a year.

It seems to me we already have a massive program of directed lending by a captive audience in the form of a Social Security "trust fund" that takes money out of every paycheck and puts it into low-interest federal debt. Governments may be able to force lending, but the way to reduce debt is to stop borrowing money. 

King notes that repression "may well redistribute the burden of adjustment from debtors to creditors via unusually low real interest rates but, in itself, is unlikely to be enough to deliver a major reduction in government debt as a share of GDP."

It’s also worth noting that the period when repression apparently worked to decrease debt-to-GDP ended with a long, severe recession that discredited the Keynesian consensus and introduced a new word – "stagflation" – to the language. That seems like a steep price to pay for more Solyndra loans, Secret Service agents’ hookers and GSA junkets in Las Vegas. 

What’s Wrong with a Few “Open-Mic Libertarian Musings” from a Federal Judge?

Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued its decision in Hettinga v. United States. At issue were two provisions from the Milk Regulatory Equity Act of 2005, which is essentially a price-rigging scheme for milk and milk products. The challengers, Hein and Ellen Hettinga, argued that their dairy operation should be exempted from the provisions on account of certain differences between their business and other dairy processors and distributors. The D.C Circuit disagreed and ruled against them.

It wasn’t a surprising outcome. Since the New Deal, federal courts have routinely upheld economic regulations against the vast majority of legal challenges. In one of the earliest examples of this now-routine practice, the Supreme Court in Nebbia v. New York (1934) upheld the prosecution of New York shopkeeper Leo Nebbia for the crime of selling two quarts of milk and a 5 cent loaf of bread for the combined price of 18 cents. Unfortunately for Nebbia (and his customers), the state’s Milk Control Board had fixed the minimum price of milk at 9 cents a quart in order to combat the scourge of low prices during the lean years of the Great Depression.

“A state is free to adopt whatever economic policy may reasonably be deemed to promote public welfare, and to enforce that policy by legislation adapted to its purpose," declared Justice Owen Roberts in his 5-4 majority opinion. Furthermore, “If the laws passed are seen to have a reasonable relation to a proper legislative purpose, and are neither arbitrary nor discriminatory, the requirements of due process are satisfied.” Lawyers today know this deferential approach as the rational-basis test, though the term rubber stamp would also be an accurate description, since the government needs to provide only the very flimsiest of justifications in order for its economic regulations to pass muster.

So as you would expect, the D.C. Circuit dutifully adhered to rational-basis doctrine when deciding Hettinga. But in a more unexpected maneuver, Judge Janice Rogers Brown filed a concurring opinion in the case (which was joined by Chief Judge David Sentelle) where she explained that although she was duty-bound to employ the rational-basis test in economic cases like this one, she did not have to like it. “The practical effect of rational basis review of economic regulation is the absence of any check on the group interests that all too often control the democratic process,” Brown wrote. “It allows the legislature free rein to subjugate the common good and individual liberty to the electoral calculus of politicians, the whim of majorities, or the self-interest of factions.” Indeed, she concluded, “Rational basis review means property is at the mercy of the pillagers. The constitutional guarantee of liberty deserves more respect—a lot more.”

Writing at Slate, liberal legal writer Dahlia Lithwick criticized Rogers not just for her “open-mic libertarian musings” but for “injecting” her own constitutional views into the Hettinga ruling in the first place. According to Lithwick, Brown “is embracing a starkly political and ideological tone most judges try to avoid.”

I happen to think that Judge Brown is correct about the Supreme Court’s shameful mistreatment of economic liberty over the past eight decades, so maybe Brown’s concurrence didn’t offend me for political reasons. But then again, I also can’t imagine being particularly offended if a left-leaning federal judge used the occasion of a gun control case to rail against the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in D.C. v. Heller (which I think was decided correctly), while at the same time acknowledging that she was duty-bound as a lower court judge to follow the Court’s Heller precedent.

As long as lower-court judges aren’t flat-out disobeying the Supreme Court, what’s wrong with pointing a few rhetorical barbs in the Court’s general direction?

Portland Protects Passengers From Prompt Pickups and Popular Prices

Three years ago the city of Portland, Oregon, enacted regulations requiring car services to charge at least $50 for airport trips and at least 35 percent more than taxicabs for other trips. The city also requires that car services (limos and sedans) make customers wait at least an hour before picking them up. These consumer-unfriendly rules were expressly designed to shield taxicab companies from competition. In a federal lawsuit filed today, the Institute for Justice argues that such protectionism is not just unwise and unfair but also unconstitutional. The suit is part of I.J.'s effort to protect "the right to earn an honest living free from excessive government regulation." Toward that end, I.J. is trying to put some teeth into the "rational basis" test, the highly deferential standard by which courts assess the validity of economic regulations under the 14th Amendment's Due Process and Equal Protection clauses. I.J. argues that Portland's regulations do not have a legitimate public purpose, which is one requirement of the rational basis test:

Portland's car service regulations were designed to protect taxicabs' profits at everyone else's expense. They have nothing to do with protecting public safety and everything to do with economic protectionism....

The U.S. Constitution protects every American's right to economic liberty—the right to practice one's chosen occupation free from unreasonable government regulation. In Portland, the government is inflating transportation prices and destroying small businesses just to help taxicab companies drive their competitors off the road.

The plaintiffs in this case, Towncar.com and Fiesta Limousine, were both hit with whopping fines last fall because they dared to offer Groupon discounts that made their prices lower than than the legal minimum. The city assessed a fine of $500 for the first Groupon sold and $1,000 for each subsequent one, making the total $635,500 for Towncar.com and $259,500 for Fiesta. Both agreed to rescind their offers and refund their customers' money to avoid the fines.

I.J. says price controls like Portland's are rare. "Of all the cities and counties in this country," it says, "only nine others impose minimum fares on car services and their customers." (One of them is Hillsborough County, Florida, whose regulations I discussed in a 2003 column.) Last month a Portland official candidly explained the rationale for the regulations to Huffington Post reporter J.L. Greene: "You don't want the Town Cars to take all of the best fares, which are to the airport, and not leave any for the taxi industry. That's why there's a minimum fare and a one-hour wait requirement."

I.J. notes that two federal appeals courts have ruled that protectionism alone is not an adequate justification for economic regulations. In 2002 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit overturned Tennessee's requirement that all casket sellers be licensed as funeral directors, saying it violated the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses because it served merely "to prevent economic competition." In 2008 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit (which includes Oregon) ruled that California's licensing scheme for pest controllers violated the Equal Protection Clause because it irrationally exempted some nonchemical methods but not others. The plaintiff argued that the licensing requirements "have no legitimate purpose for persons engaged in structural pest control without pesticides, and simply inhibit competition in the marketplace." By contrast, in a 2004 case involving an Oklahoma casket regulation similar to Tennessee's, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit rejected "the contention that intrastate economic protectionism...is an illegitimate state interest." In light of the circuit split, I.J.. says, "The question will one day have to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court."

 

Banks Try To Seem Cool By Acting More Like Payday Lenders

Various and sundry anti-poverty activists are always looking for ways to get the "unbanked" to take their money out of their mattresses and put it in a gosh darned checking account like the rest of us. Well, congrats. Sort of. A headline in today's New York Times blares, in part, "Banks Court Low-Income Customers." But the first chunk of that headline is the real explainer: "Chasing Fees, Banks Court Low-Income Customers." 

It turns out that—gasp!—the 2010's revamp of the nation's major financial institutions, the Dodd-Frank Act, did not exactly vanquish banking products that cost more money if you don't happen to have very much money. The idea was to discourage banks from (over?)charging for overdrafts, bounced checks, and the like.

Instead, traditional banks starting hanging out with the goth kids and smoking behind the music wing started offering less traditional products, such as short term loans or pre-paid debit cards precisely because these products are subject to less regulation:

[Traditional banks and credit unions are] joining the prepaid card market. In 2009, consumers held about $29 billion in prepaid cards, according to the Mercator Advisory Group, a payments industry research group. By the end of 2013, the market is expected to reach $90 billion. A big lure for banks is that prepaid cards are not restricted by Dodd-Frank financial regulation law. That exemption means that banks are able to charge high fees when a consumer swipes a prepaid card.

In other words, the regulations pushed banks to act less like their respectable selves and more like their disreputable competitors. Nice work, Congress.

Check out the whole story on the rise of payday lending and the fall of free checking.

Defense Department Launching New Spy Agency

The Pentagon confirmed it would be establishing a new intelligence agency, the Defense Clandestine Service, meant to work with the CIA, that would establish spy networks to monitor long-term threats to U.S. national security interests, pointing to places like Iran and North Korea. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta approved the program Friday. Panetta previously served as the head of the CIA and the intelligence agency’s current director, David Petraeus, previously served as the Commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The DCS would bring the federal government’s intelligence agency total to 17**.

Officials indicated the new agency would not need Congressional approval, though the move was “communicated” to members of Congress, and that it created no new authorities. The creation of the DCS seems like a bureaucratic shuffle, with Defense officials complaining about losing talented intelligence officers to agencies like the CIA that provide more opportunities for career growth.

America’s intelligence agencies have a long history of executing and affecting U.S. foreign policy. The Iranian threat cited as among the targets of the Defense Clandestine Services traces its beginnings to 1953, when the CIA backed a coup by the Shah against the democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq. That coup paved the way for the Iranian Revolution of 1979 that brought the Ayatollahs to power. Today’s clandestine operations will have similarly unpredictable consequences in the future.

Instead of reflecting and reorganizing in the face of dwindling financial resources and evolving threats, the Department of Defense is affixing another agency onto a national security apparatus still plagued by the lack of communication that some say could have prevented 9/11 and that served as the impetus for the creation of the Department of Homeland Security bureaucracy in the first place.

**The 16 federal intelligence agencies are: the CIA, the FBI, and, in the Department of Defense, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, the U.S. Army’s Intelligence and Security Command, the Office of Naval Intelligence, the Marine Corps Intelligence Agency, and the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency, the Department of State's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Intelligence and Analysis the Coast Guard Intelligence, the Drug Enforcement Agdministration's Office of National Security Intelligence, the Treasury Department's Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, and the Energy Department's Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence

CIA Gets Looser Drone Rules, TSA Defends Tyke Pat-Down, Miami Finds Missing Car Fleet: P.M. Links

  • Not content with providing firearms to Mexican drug cartels, the ATF also sent them an assortment of fine hand grenades.
  • An EPA official is in full-on CYA mode after taking flack for vowing to use regulatory powers to "crucify" oil and gas companies.
  • Privacy advocates may worry about the civil liberties implications of the CISPA cybersecurity bill, but in Congress, the battle is between CISPA supporters and backers of a similar, competing bill.
  • Officers "followed proper screening procedures," the TSA insists, defending the detention and pat-down of a four-year-old girl.
  • The CIA has been given a free hand to use drones in Yemen, even when the identity of those who might be killed is unknown.
  • Argentina's seizure of the YPF oil company came after a seemingly concerted campaign to lower the company's value, and risks alienating the investors needed to expand production.
  • Miami-Dade county recently found something it had misplaced — 298 unused vehicles purchased brand-new in 2006-2007.

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Greg Beato on the Cure for the Common Hangover

Drink too much booze on Saturday night and it doesn’t matter if you have a health insurance plan so comprehensive it even covers distance Reiki healing: The American medical establishment is going to leave you sweaty, trembling, and nauseous on Sunday morning. Oh, sure, you can hit up 7-Eleven for some Hangover Joe’s Recovery Shots. But is that product really the best solution that 21st century medical technology can offer us?

Clearly Dr. Jason Burke doesn’t think so. A board-certified anesthesiologist with a medical degree from the University of North Carolina, Dr. Burke is, according to his website, the “first physician in the United States to formally dedicate his career to the treatment of hangovers.” Contributing Editor Greg Beato reports on Burke’s new treatment clinic, a 45-foot-long tour bus emblazoned with soothing blue and white graphics and his business’s name, “Hangover Heaven.”

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You Can Tell Romney Is a Radical Because He Says He Believes In Freedom

You know how you can tell that Mitt Romney is a “radical” anti-government extremist? Because he says he believes in freedom. So says E.J. Dionne:

Romney is right in saying he has "a very different vision" from Obama's, and this is where the magic comes in. He envisions "an America driven by freedom, where free people, pursuing happiness in their own unique ways, create free enterprises that employ more and more Americans. And because there are so many enterprises that are succeeding, the competition for hardworking, educated, skilled employees is intense, so wages and salaries rise."

Just like that, all would be well -- as if we never needed the trust-busting of the Progressive Era, the social legislation of the New Deal, the health programs of the Great Society, and the coordinated action of the world's governments in 2008 and 2009 to keep the Great Recession from becoming something far worse.

This is Romney's true radicalism. I suspect it is a principled radicalism. 

That’s right: Romney is such a devout anti-government radical, so deeply opposed to any kind of large-scale government action, that in his 2010 book, No Apology, he praised the Trouble Asset Relief Program (TARP) for having “prevented a systemic collapse of the national financial system.” He's such a zealot that he argued that after President Bush’s $150 billion stimulus program, “another stimulus was called for" and agreed that the $800 billion stimulus President Obama passed in 2009 “will accelerate the timing of the start of the recovery.” Such is the depth of Romney's fanaticism that he went out of his way to pick a fight with GOP primary rival Rick Perry for calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme, and on his own website declares that “the Republican nominee must be someone who is committed to saving Social Security.”

Romney’s radicalism is so "true" and "principled" that as the governor of Massachusetts, he raised business taxes after promising not to, paid for the nation’s first near-universal expansion of health coverage using a special grant of federal Medicaid funds, and developed and signed a health care plan that would serve as the model for ObamaCare. He now consistently knocks the sitting president for being the only president to ever have cut Medicare—which Romney says is “wrong.”

Some might not see this record as particularly radical. But Dionne knows better than journalists who might draw their conclusions from any such evidence: 

What Romney has going for him is a journalistic presumption that he is either a closet "moderate" or so opportunistic that he is altogether lacking in a coherent worldview. The first is wrong. The second is unfair to Romney.

So forget all the ways that Romney has acted in favor of and voiced explicit, repeated support for the the social legislation of the New Deal, the health programs of the Great Society, and government action in response to the economic instability of 2008 and 2009. Romney has made some platitudinous remarks in favor of “freedom”—free people, free enterprise, individual pursuit of happiness, competition, and all the rest of that ridiculous “capitalist magic.” And anyone who claims to believe in any of that nonsense must truly be a radical at heart. 

Oh No! U.S. Falls Behind in Sheepskin Race!

America is, once again, at risk. That's because the kids just won't buckle down to their studies, earn their degrees and set themselves to the task of driving the nation's GDP ever-higher with the sheer force of their state college Art History majors. At least, that's what David Wessell and Stephanie Banchero tell us over at the Wall Street Journal, and to prove the point, they've pulled together a bunch of data and examples that don't necessarily go together.

The key point Wessell and Banchero make is this:

Throughout American history, almost every generation has had substantially more education than that of its parents.

That is no longer true.

When baby boomers born in 1955 reached age 30, they had about two years more schooling than their parents, according to Harvard University economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, who have calculated the average years of schooling for native-born Americans back to 1876.

In contrast, when Americans born in 1980 turned 30 in 2010, they averaged about eight months more schooling than their parents.

This is bad, they say, because "[t]hose with only a high-school diploma had an 8% unemployment rate in March, roughly double that of college graduates, who had a 4.2% unemployment rate." The high school dropout rates, they point out, "remain stubbonly high." Well, yes — stubbornly high, but moving in the right direction, from 72% graduation in 2001 to 75.5% in 2009. Of more concern is the questionable value of those diplomas, but "more kids graduate from still-shitty high schools" would be an entirely different article.

Then the authors bemoan apparently stalled interest in four-year college degrees.

Among Americans who turned 25 in the 1970s, only 5% had less education than the parent of the same sex, according to an analysis by Michael Hout and Alexander Janus, sociologists at the University of California, Berkeley. Among those who turned 25 in the 2000s, 18% of men and 13% of women had fewer years of school than their parents.

But they say that 1970s college-attendance rates were pumped up by men seeking to decline Uncle Sam's invitation to tour Southeast Asia on the taxpayers' dime. They also concede "growing skepticism among some Americans about whether a college degree actually translates into a well-paying job." There is, the article admits, a wide difference between the average $120,000 per year earned by the possessor of a bachelor's degree in petroleum engineering, and the $29,000 pulled in with a degree in counseling psychology.

This isn't new ground. Seven years ago, the New York Times ran a piece on the supposed "return on education" that found that "up to a point, an additional year of schooling is likely to raise an individual's earnings about 10 percent" but "[t]he payoff, of course, varies by individual. Another year of education will not have the same benefit for everyone. And school resources matter as well. According to studies by Professor Krueger and others, class size, teacher quality and school size can make a difference in the outcome. They have found that the effect of better schools is most pronounced for disadvantaged students."

And while it's easy to get competitive juices flowing by pointing out that other countries are crowding their young (and not-so-young) into higher eduction, there's little discussion of the often low value of college degrees both here and abroad.

So, match the value of a Liberal Arts degree from Pretty Crappy State College against the lost time and cost of tuition and ...

...you might well make the same decision as Mary Brown. "I wanted a college that taught me how to do the work, but didn't make me pay to take a lot of other classes in subjects that are irrelevant to my career," she told the WSJ. So she got a massage therapy certificate, paid off all but $5,000 of her student debt and landed a $20-per-hour job in the midst of a lousy economy.

Or you could follow the example of Alex Gavic, a 21-year-old featured by Wessell and Banchero who bypassed college to snow board full-time in Park City, Utah. He landscapes during the summer for money. Not to be unkind to Gavic, who strikes me as what we used to call a "lifestyle refugee" when I lived in the outdoor-mecca of Flagstaff, but he seems a living example of what economist Richard Vedder told John Stossel in these pages last year: "People that go to college are different kind of people ... (more) disciplined ... smarter. They did better in high school."

If you forced Gavic into college at gunpoint — at least, at this point in his life — he's not going to end up with that job-baiting petroleum engineer degree.

In Reason, Vedder went on to tell Stossel:

"There are 80,000 bartenders in the United States with bachelor's degrees," Vedder said. He says that 17 percent of baggage porters and bellhops have a college degree, 15 percent of taxi and limo drivers. It's hard to pay off student loans with jobs like those.

There's little doubt that fewer people should be dropping out of high school, and that more people should have access to high schools that are worth a damn. Beyond that, though, an expensive sheepskin of variable quality isn't necessarily the passport to everybody's idea of a good life.

The New Ron Paul Candidates

Business Week reports on some Ron Paul-inspired candidates running for office this year, in and out of the Republican Party. Highlights:

Karen Kwiatkowski, a Republican candidate for Congress in Virginia, rarely passes up an opportunity to scold Washington politicians about runaway defense spending, which she says is an egregious waste of taxpayer dollars that does little to make Americans safer. Halfway across the country, Tisha Casida, a Colorado Independent, says she’ll push to end the drug war and legalize marijuana if she’s elected to the House. In Florida, Calen Fretts, a Libertarian seeking to unseat a veteran Republican congressman, promises that if he’s elected he’ll begin working to abolish the U.S. Federal Reserve. “As people increase the size and scope of government,” Fretts says, “there’s got to be a few of us to resist it.”

These candidates have two things in common: All are long shots seeking office for the first time. And all were inspired to run by the same man—Ron Paul....  

If forcing his don’t-tread-on-me, minimalist philosophy into the mainstream is the benchmark, Paul can claim victory and return to Texas a happy man. The professional political class may ridicule him as an eccentric kook leading a cantankerous army of potheads who invade chat rooms with ALLCAPS rants about government overreach.....But listening to his rivals in the GOP debates demand that the Fed be audited and the Departments of Energy and Education be shuttered, it’s clear that many of Paul’s positions, once considered extreme, are now routine Republican talking points—and that his influence over conservative politics greatly outweighs his low poll rankings and back-of-the-pack primary returns....

Paul leaves behind a small army of brawlers itching to take up the battle in his name. This election year, at least 65 of his supporters are campaigning for local, state, or national office in 23 states. They join more than a dozen Paul acolytes who won elections in 2010, including GOP Representative Justin Amash of Michigan, who is seeking a second term—not to mention Paul’s son Rand, who was elected to the Senate as a Republican in Kentucky.

Other Paul followers and former aides have maneuvered their way into Republican Party leadership positions in Nevada, Iowa, Nebraska, Texas, and Maine, where they are attempting to rewrite party platforms and keep establishment Republicans from giving Paul’s 70-plus primary delegates to Mitt Romney....

To encourage more Paul followers to enter the arena, Gigi Bowman, a Long Island real estate agent, started LibertyCandidates.com, which runs meet-ups for Paul supporters and candidates and offers advice on running for office. It may take years for some of the greener hopefuls to get their acts together. “Eventually,” she says, “they’ll win seats.”

Paul himself already seems to be looking toward the exit. “I think it’s sort of human nature to key around one person who is the spokesman,” he says. “But I think it’s much bigger than that. I don’t think that what we are doing is going to go away, regardless of what happens in the election. An army can’t stop an idea whose time has come.”

Just here in southern California where I live, a couple of people I met reporting my forthcoming book, Ron Paul's Revolution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired, are running for Congress (Christopher David) and the Senate (Rick Williams). There are others, and there will be more.

Walden/Henry David Thoreau Video Game to be Financed by NEA Grant

There may be a more perfect Henry David Thoreau quote in response to this news, but let's just with “This government never furthered any enterprise but by the alacrity with which it got out of the way” for now. Something more nature-swoony would also work nicely.

Basically, even if the 19th century philosopher, government-distrusting peacenik and fan of the simple life could scarcely have comprehended any aspect of the news that $40,000 in National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) funding was given to the University of Southern California in order to create a video game called "Walden Woods," this is deeply ironic and amusing. Notes Raw Story:

“the player will inhabit an open, three-dimensional game-world, which will simulate the geography and environment of Walden Woods”. With the game drawing from the detailed notes Thoreau wrote about the area and its landscape, flora and fauna, users will be able not only to walk in the author’s footsteps but also, said the university, “discover in the beauty of a virtual landscape the ideas and writings of this unique philosopher, and cultivate through the gameplay their own thoughts and responses to the concepts discovered there”.

The official NEA summary is here, and it notes that the game will be available to play online when it is finished.

I have some questions, such as wouldn't a Lysander Spooner video game also be a great idea? (I want to play No Treason, don't you?) And, do the game developers realize this is hilarious, even if it turns out to be somehow cool? (The quotes above rather suggest they do not.) And most of all, wouldn't Thoreau have been more of a Kickstarter guy anyway?

Reason on the NEA, on video games, and on Thoreau; and Reason.tv on "3 Reasons Not to Fund Art with Taxes":


Burning Man on Probation

The Burning Man festival (the subject of my first book, This is Burning Man), an experiment in temporary artistic community--and, yes, hard-partying along (and between) various dimensions--occurs on federal land in Nevada's Black Rock Desert, and is thus required to get a permit to operate from the Bureau of Land Management. (Yes, you need a permit to experiment with temporary artistic community in these here United States.)  

It has been an interesting couple of years for Burning Man. Most attendees were unaware that the event could potentially sell out, because its permit from the BLM had and has a population cap--just one the event had never pushed against before.

Last year, mere days before ticket sales were scheduled to end anyway, they sold out, creating a temporary panic among the Burning Man community. Always one to put off to the last minute that which could have been done months earlier, I hadn't bought my ticket yet. But I was able to.

In fact, everyone I know and everyone who everyone I know knows was able to get a ticket as well last year. I strongly suspect that almost no one who was ready, able, willing, and with the scratch on hand, to go to Burning Man failed to last year.

While this first ever sell out brought the event to the radar of professional scalpers, I really don't think there was a big group for them to exploit, though in those last, post sellout weeks, an average price of around $700, around double face value, seemed to dominate the secondary market, though that plummeted once the weeklong event actually began.

At any rate, I and many others thought it would have been best for the Burning Man organizers to just do a p.r. campaign stressing to scalpers and Burners alike that the "sell out" did not cause a horrific problem for that many would-be attendees and do their ticket sales the way they always had. Instead, they nervously instituted a new lottery system that was easily enough gamed by both scalpers and Burners and found themselves with a publicly unknown but likely between 80-120,000 requests. That the event that had been growing by no more than a few thousand attendees a year for years suddenly found itself with 10-15 times that many would-be newcomers seems unlikely, and the event had to invent a complicated system to allocate tickets to ensure that many people considered core to the experience had a chance to go, and an internal system to re-allocate tickets for those who want to avoid scalpers.

But now the BLM has announced that the event had actually overstepped its legal bounds last year anyway, with over 53,000 people on the event's site for two days last year despite a permitted limit of 50,000. See this San Francisco Bay Guardian report.

Burning Man has been placed "on probation," meaning that it can only get permits moving forward on a year to year basis rather than for five-year stints, and slowing down the event's hope of getting the official limit raised to 70,000 after five years.

I first wrote about the complicated relationship between Burning Man's would-be temporary autonomous zone and the forces of government and bureaucracy in a February 2000 Reason cover story. I thought then, and in my book, and now, that the relationship between the event and the Feds and local governments is so mutually beneficial (the event pays off local, state, and federal authorities to be there) that it will take a lot more than a mild permit violation to actually make the Feds kill it.

As I usually put it, I think it would take some singular accident out there that kills a handful of infants and senior citizens, the sort of scandal that will get BLM chiefs called before Senate or House hearings and screamed at about what the hell nonsense they are allowing to happen out on federal land.

This mere bit of overpopulation ain't that, and I'm confident Burning Man will survive it.

Meanwhile, the Burning Man community is trying to get more intelligent about lobbying, as per this FishbowlDC report:

The Burning Hour...[is] condensed version of that booze-filled western orgy that happens annually in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada that they describe as, ahem, “creative innovation.” Now they’re bringing that free “spirit” to Washington, specifically to Tortilla Coast on Capitol Hill on April 30 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., to introduce Congressional leaders and their staffs to the Burning Man community. 

Quasi-lobbying visits to D.C. and Congress on the part of Burning Man folk have happened before and will keep happening, so this isn't new news, but such a public event certainly comes at a propitious time for the Burning Man community as they are "on probation." But it is one of the glories of representative democracy (I guess) that every interest eventually gets to (is forced to) massage folks in the corridors of power to survive.

Ronald Bailey on Whether Censorship Can Stop Bioterrorism

In January, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity recommended that the journals Nature and Science restrict publication of controversial new research relevant to the transmission of avian flu between humans. The fear: Would-be bioterrorists may be combing the pages of technical publications for tips on how to wreak havoc. Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey explains why open science is the best defense against a deadly bioterrorist attack.

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Children Are Unfeeling Sociopaths

At Obit Magazine, Joyce Gemperlein ponders a mystery of classic juvenile literature: Why doesn’t plucky girl detective Nancy Drew seem to care that her mother has died and abandoned her to a life of nearly constant tribulation and physical danger? 

I realize now, though I didn’t as a child reader, that Nancy never mourns for her mother or has what we now call “issues” of being abandoned through death. She does not, a la Harry Potter, a modern parentless protagonist, yearn for her mother or imagine that she sees her. 

“Mourning can be sentimental and there’s no place for sentimentality in a child’s life. Children are too young to appreciate the business of sentimentality. That’s why The Giving Tree is an adult book, not a kids’ book. That’s why The Velveteen Rabbit is an adult book, not a kids’ book. I go crazy,” says [University of Tennessee communications prof Jinx Stapleton] Watson, “when I see teachers and librarians and parents pushing those books on kids.”  

She argues that children just don’t get the beautiful sadness that adults see in the rabbit’s plight. 

The children “sit there wondering, ‘What the h---?’” Watson says.

Even children who share tears after the death of the spider hero in Charlotte’s Web don’t mourn her death. “They move on,” says Watson. 

Watson thinks that the way children grasp a parent’s death in literature hasn’t changed over the years. She does, however, believe that our culture has changed and that’s why we read the old Nancy Drew mysteries now and wonder “how come no tears for her old mom?” 

“Why doesn’t Nancy mourn? No time! She’s an action girl. She’s got a life to live,” says Watson.

That Harry Potter’s moping around didn’t prevent those books from selling many copies would seem to put a hole in the professor’s logic. (Though it’s true that a big part of the readership consisted of age-appropriateness-flouting grownups.) It’s also worth noting that Harry can afford self-pity because the practical problems we would usually associate with having absent or useless parents – penury, social isolation, lack of access to school and career opportunities, impaired moral development – are solved almost as soon as the story starts, after which point Harry is rich, popular and consistently fast-tracked to success. 

But it’s true that the publishing titan Edward Stratemeyer (who in one way or another minimized the parental involvement throughout his impressive catalogue of young adult series) understood the audience’s impatience with emotional depth. 

There’s a kind of autism at work in good storytelling that is not so easy to pull off. Movie producers are always talking about relatability and character arcs and establishing rooting interest and so forth, and the reason for that seems pretty obvious: If you lack the ability to invent jokes and insane action and suspense and all the other things that bring people out to the theater, characterological  mumbo jumbo is a good way of keeping the conversation on a topic you can control. What gets people interested in orphans or waifs or wild teenagers is not sentimental attachment. It's wish fulfillment based on wild situations and awesome accoutrements. In the end, the audience roots for whoever has the best hair. 

They showed us a movie of the Velveteen Rabbit when I was in first or second grade, and while I was – just as Watson says – not terribly interested in the love story between the boy and the stuffed animal or the magically transformed rabbit or whatever it was, there was one aspect of the story that was fascinating: the idea that a stuffed toy could be so infected with deadly germs that it had to be incinerated. That stuck with me. 

Andrew Rosenthal: Obama Is Better Than Bush Because His Abuses of Executive Power Are Necessary

Andrew Rosenthal, editorial page editor at The New York Times, notes that "President George W. Bush used his executive power to bypass Congress, almost as a matter of routine," and "now President Barack Obama is pulling a similar stunt." But while "I was appalled" by Bush's abuses of executive power, Rosenthal says, "I am not appalled" by Obama's. Why? Because Bush is a Republican, and Obama is a Democrat? Because Obama's policy agenda is more to Rosenthal's liking than Bush's? No, no, no. It's because Bush abused his power gratuitously, while Obama does so only out of necessity:

Mr. Bush’s signing statements not only amounted to a significant usurpation of power, but they came at a time when Congress was giving him everything he wanted. Congress passed the deeply flawed Patriot Act and authorized the invasion of Iraq. It even gave its retroactive approval to warrantless wiretapping. Mr. Bush also achieved many of his domestic policy goals, including tax breaks that mostly benefited the richest Americans.

The contrast with the Obama administration is stark.

For nearly three years, President Obama devoted a great deal of effort to finding compromises with Congressional Republicans. That was futile, in my view, since those Republicans had made it clear from the day he was inaugurated in 2009 that their plan was to oppose everything he wanted, and then paint him as a failed president. (Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, said his party’s “number one goal” was to keep the president from winning a second term.)

Mr. Obama got fed up, finally, last fall,...and the result was the "We Can’t Wait" project, which has led to dozens of executive actions on a range of issues, including jobs for veterans and fuel economy standards.

Possibly relevant: As a senator, Obama supported giving "retroactive approval to warrantless wiretapping," along with retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies that broke the law to facilitate warrantless wiretapping. As president, he not only has demanded reauthorization of "the deeply flawed PATRIOT Act" but has used a secret interpretation of the law to justify a form of surveillance that we are not allowed to know about but that (according to two Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee) would shock us if we did.

In any case, Rosenthal thinks Obama deserves credit because he is happy to work with Congress as long as Congress does what he wants, resorting to extraconstitutional means only when they are necessary to accomplish his goals. Seriously? As I said in 2008 regarding Bush's illegal use of money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program to bail out automakers (an initiative that Obama enthusiastically continued and enlarged):

This is the argument of every strongman, dictator, and president-for-life who has ever overriden uncooperative legislators: They won't let me do what I want to do, and this is an emergency, so I'm going to do it anyway.

Obama, who as a presidential candidate criticized Bush's unilateralism and promised to respect constitutional limits on executive power, has been at least as bad as his predecessor on that score and in some ways worse. While Bush secretly contemplated the assassination of suspected terrorists, Obama has boldly asserted his authority to summarily execute anyone he deems an enemy of the state and has actually begun to do so. While Bush sought congressional approval for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama observed no such niceties before launching his illegal war against Libya, pushing an absurd interpretation of the War Powers Act to explain why he did not need anyone's permission. And contrary to Rosenthal's theory that Obama started bypassing Congress last fall because those mean Republicans were so darn uncooperative, both of these abuses (along with many more, ranging from extorting oil-spill reparations to blocking lawsuits by torture victims) occurred well before the president supposedly abandoned his hopes of bipartisanship.

Liberalism 2012: Re-regulation for Airlines, "federal price controls" for College, and a "mandatory moratorium down the line" on University Construction

One of the main subthemes of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America was an examination/exploration of how Democratic and liberal thinkers and politicians during the anti-authoritarian ferment of the early 1970s helped spearhead deregulation and federal decontrols, resulting directly in a country more free, prosperous, and interesting. Sadly, that history has been whitewashed by some of the left's own historians, and that tendency has been largely replaced by a robust re-embrace of big government and big regulation. Exhibit A) today is this Timothy Noah column about higher-ed inflation in The New Republic, in which he states flatly that "What we really need is to move toward federal price controls." Here's what passes for Noah's big policy idea:

I propose a voluntary moratorium on new construction on college campuses. [...]

Is some of this new construction urgently necessary? No doubt. But if the president called for a voluntary moratorium on new university construction, he would empower state governments, local communities, and concerned faculty members [...] to press university administrators harder to justify their new projects. A voluntary moratorium would also give the federal government some running room to set up some longer-term procedures for imposing a mandatory moratorium down the line. Lots more needs to be done to control college costs. Curtailing runaway construction would be a good start.

Sure, a federal takeover of state, local, and private property rights might run a teensy bit afoul of the United States Constitution (a minor obstacle that, needless to say, Noah's spitballing does not address), but extremism in the cause of magically bringing prices down via artificial scarcity is apparently no vice.

Meanwhile, the formerly neoliberal Washington Monthly claimed in its March/April issue that "deregulation is slowly killing America's airline system." The rousing, Internationale-caliber conclusion:

Why have we become so passive and reluctant to face up to the hard task of governing ourselves and our markets? We don't need to recite "The Serenity Prayer." We need to get out from under the thrall of the false prophets of deregulation, conservative and liberal alike, and make the benefits of true capitalism work for us once again.

The WashMonth re-regulation proposal has received respectful hearings at The Washington Post's Wonkblog (where Brad Plumer muses that "Perhaps building a modern passenger-rail network between cities like Pittsburgh and Cincinnati would be cheaper and easier than propping up air travel"), and at the centrish New America Foundation ("Is it Time to Re-Regulate America's Broken Airline System?"). And to think that six or seven years ago some damned fools were talking about the rise of "libertarian Democrats"....

Reason on airline policy here; on college stuff here. And here's a 2010 column from me on "The Death of Neoliberalism."

Leftwing Pitchforkers: Kill the Limited Government Monsters!

I am awed by the way that Blue and Red Team members fall into lockstep whenever a new political or ideological demon has been identified by their "intellectual" elites. For example, Team Blue has been using the Trayvon Martin shooting as an excuse to go after the limited-government think tank, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) on the grounds that it promoted "stand your ground" self-defense legislation. (See my colleague Jacob Sullum's trenchant analysis of the actual relevance of such laws in this situation.) 

While that may be ALEC's latest "sin," its biggest one is advocating free markets and limited government. A lot of Team Blue members seem to really believe that the people who disagree with them must be paid, witting agents of secretive evil task masters who scheme to enrich themselves by oppressing the poor. Talk about brain-addled conspiracy theorists!

Instead positing Bilderbergeresque cabals, the Left should, as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt suggests, "Forget the money, follow the sacredness." Values matter more than money. Unfortunately, the morally stunted Left is incapable of understanding that and so conjures up "vast rightwing conspiracies."

In a letter to the editor in the Wall Street Journal about the relentless Team Blue crusade against "market voices," Fred Smith, head of the libertarian think tank, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, warns:

The attack on the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is part of a broader attack by those seeking to drive all market voices from the marketplace of ideas. ("Shutting Down ALEC," Review & Outlook, April 18). As the Founders realized, "factions"—what we now call "special interests"—are an unavoidable aspect of democracy. The Founders' solution was not to suppress factions, but to "set faction against faction" to ensure vigorous debate. The attack on ALEC runs counter to that spirit. It is a concerted effort to silence one faction by driving productive economic voices from the policy debate.

When businesses seek to expose and reduce the harmful consequences of capricious legislation, that is both their right and good for democracy. When market voices are excluded from the policy debate, the only voices left are those motivated purely by ideology. And as history shows, the greatest harm to nations comes from ideologues who believe they know what's best for everybody.

Our Founders gave us a system based on the battle of ideas. If critics of the free market believe they have a strong case, they should seek to win that battle openly, rather than by silencing the opposition through intimidation. What ALEC's opponents seek is nothing less than the sabotage of democracy. It is especially unfortunate when businesses retreat from backing free-market groups like ALEC when they come under pressure. America needs more CEOs willing to stand up for free enterprise. Readers who agree should let those CEOs know now.

In an email, Smith notes...

...there are only three sources of financial support for anything:  Stolen money (government),  Dead money (foundations) and Live Money (firms and individuals).  All are useful but very different.

He asks why should anyone be nervous about "Live Money" participating in public debates? As Smith correctly points out:

After all, bureaucrats and foundation managers have goals too – are these more moral?

The Left may buy (or not) products from whomever they wish for whatever reasons. However, the pitchfork-wielding Left apparently believes it can win policy debates in America only if it shouts down and shuts up advocates of free markets and limited government (and their financial supporters) who oppose the authoritarian egalitarianism Team Blue stands for. 

See also my column, Everyone Who Agrees With Me Knows What They Are Talking About, for reporting on some of the research dealing with the pervasive problem of confirmation bias. 

Disclosure: I think that I am still an adjunct fellow at CEI and I had lunch with Fred and Fran last week. FWIW, I paid my part of the tab.  

John Stossel on the Food Police

Who becomes a regulator except people who want to regulate? Some come from activist groups that hate industry. Some come from industry and want to convert their government job into a higher-paying industry job. Some just want attention. They know that saying, “X will kill you,” gets more attention than saying that X is probably safe. The moral issue of force versus persuasion, writes John Stossel, applies even if all the progressives’ ideas about nutrition are correct. 

View this article

Newark Targets Newsstand After Owner Talks to Newspaper

he's hoping coverage keeps him openreason.comLast week, the Star Ledger’s Barry Carter wrote about the plight faced by a local newsstand owner in Newark, NJ who was having trouble getting the city to renew the license on his nearly 40-year-old business:

[Robert] Vernacchia, 69, doesn’t know how much longer he’ll be in business here because the city hasn’t renewed his license in four years and licensing agents have threatened to shut him down. Vernacchia says his license was renewed every year as long as the business facing his newsstand didn’t have a problem with him being there. All that changed in 2008 when Valu-Plus, a discount store that’s no longer in business, told the city it didn’t want the newsstand in front of its store anymore. As a result, Vernacchia said, the city denied his renewal application for a license when he reapplied.
Vernacchia, however, is still there peddling coffee, tea, snacks and years of friendship, not knowing what’s going to happen. "I feel like I’m on death row," said the Newark native who lives in Warren. The city didn’t have much to say and that’s been the problem. He doesn’t understand why.

Vernacchia told Carter he expected to feel some heat from the city for his comments. In yesterday's Star Ledger, Carter reports he was right:

A day after my column appeared, the 69-year-old vendor got hit with four summonses. None of them, surprisingly, had anything to do with the business license he needs for a newsstand. A detective from the licensing department gave him two tickets for not having an eatery license and another two for not having a food license. Talk about going out of your way to cause a guy trouble. "I knew they were going to come after me," Vernacchia said. "I had that feeling something was going to happen."

Meanwhile, the Institute for Justice has gotten in touch with Vernacchia and his wife, and an attorney from the Institute, Robert Frommer, tells me there’s no reason he can tell why Newark shouldn’t issue Vernacchia the license he’s requested.

shutting down for nowreason.com

In fact, Frommer says, the ordinance that required neighboring businesses’ consent for a license, which was likely unconstitutional, was repealed three years ago. “It’s a bit of a mystery of why they’re refusing to issue him a license,” says Frommer, pointing to a “culture of no” in Newark that often frustrates entrepreneurs. The Institute for Justice is seeking an answer from the city of Newark on where the “no” is coming from this time. Mayor Cory Booker’s office and the Councilman in whose district Vernacchia’s newsstand is located have not responded to requests for comment yet.

Voters Not Convinced Either Candidate Has a Clear Plan to Fix the Economy

Hayek wept

But on what is likely to be the central issue of the 2012 race, a majority of voters say neither candidate has a “clear plan for fixing the economy.”

Sixty-one percent of voters surveyed said Obama did not have a plan to aid the economy, with 36 percent expressing confidence in his policies.

Fifty-eight percent did not believe Romney had solutions for the nation’s economic woes, with 31 percent expressing support.

In surveys like this, you often learn as much from the questions as from the responses. Fox asked likely voters whether they think each candidate "has a clear plan for fixing the economy, or not?"

The assumption is that voters are looking for a president who can map out and execute a master plan to "fix" the entire $15 trillion U.S. economy. Basically, they want a This Old House-era Bob Villa for the entire economy.

Given how poorly recent presidents (with plenty of help from Congress, to be sure) from both parties have managed the explicitly federal parts of the economy, maybe it's time to reset expectations a little bit. How about a president with a plausible plan to clean up the massive federal budget mess—and a commitment to try not to make the rest of the economy worse? 

Andrew Napolitano on Rick Perry and Social Security

When Texas Gov. Rick Perry, then in the early stages of his short-lived quest for the Republican presidential nomination, referred to Social Security as "a Ponzi scheme," he was excoriated by the press, left and right, and by his fellow Republicans, as well. Earlier this week, writes Andrew Napolitano, government actuaries revealed that Perry was correct.

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Thank You, Mr. President, for the Insurance You Didn't Get Me!

Ah, the perils of politicking by personal anecdote:

A Des Moines woman who publicly thanked Barack Obama Tuesday for helping her obtain health insurance actually is receiving her coverage through a 25-year-old state program.

CeCe Ibson was chosen to share her personal story as an introduction to a Michelle Obama speech in Windsor Heights. Ibson talked about losing her health-insurance coverage when she lost her job as a lawyer two years ago. She bought private coverage for her two children, she said, but could not find it for herself. "No one would insure me because of my pre-existing conditions. No one. Until President Obama stood up for me and millions of Americans like me across Iowa and across the country," she said to cheers from the crowd of campaign volunteers.

In fact, Ibson's current coverage is provided by HIP Iowa, a state insurance program for people whose health problems make them ineligible for most commercial insurance. HIP Iowa was created in 1987, when Republican Terry Branstad was governor. Most of its subsidies come from fees paid by commercial insurers. Ibson did not qualify for a similar program created last year under President Obama's health-reform law. That program, called "HIP Iowa-Fed," offers significantly cheaper premiums than HIP Iowa, but it is open only to people who have gone without insurance for at least six months.

Link via the Twitter feed of "Baseball Crank" Dan McGlaughlin.

Meanwhile, the Texas engineer who Obama was going to find a job for remains unemployed. My April-issue column on anecdotal governance here.

Radical Idea of the Day: Hire Africans to Cover Africa

Laura Seay suggests a way to improve the media's often-awful Africa coverage:

Many major Western media outlets assign one correspondent for the entire continent -- more than 11 million square miles. He or she will be based in Johannesburg or Nairobi, but be expected to parachute into Niger, Somalia, or wherever the next crisis is unfolding, on a moment's notice. At best, larger publications will have two or three regional Africa correspondents who are each responsible for covering 10 to 15 countries. The wire services tend to have broader reach, but even they cannot station a correspondent in every country....

There is an easy solution to this problem: Hire local reporters. One notable exception to the history of poor coverage of Africa is the BBC, whose World Service has long maintained correspondents in most of the continent's capital cities. Although the World Service's budget has been slashed repeatedly due to declining government support, the BBC has managed to keep much of its Africa coverage afloat by relying largely on local reporters to get the story. This has been particularly important in Somalia. For two decades, it has been nearly impossible for Western reporters to fully and freely report from Somalia due to safety concerns, but the BBC Somali Service's team of local correspondents and producers do an excellent job of getting the news out from their own country. There's no reason that other major media providers couldn't hire local reporters to improve their coverage as well. Rather than relegating them to second-tier or co-author status, why not hire Africans as country or regional correspondents? A reporter does not have to be Caucasian to provide objective and well-written reporting from the continent, and in many cases, this reporting is more nuanced than that of an international correspondent who spends five days reporting a story....

The problem is not simply that reporters cannot be expected to speak all of Africa's 3,000-plus languages; it is that foreign correspondents tend to rely on the same small group of fixers to arrange interviews, interpret, and manage logistics.

Yet fixers tend to take reporters to talk to the same subjects, over and over and over again. An echo chamber often results, as the same interviews are done with essentially the same questions and the same answers. The echo-chamber problem is much worse in conflict zones, where NGOs often arrange safe travel for reporters in a bid to get their stories out (and to raise funds for their humanitarian operations)....[T]his tends to produce very one-sided and nonobjective reporting. For example, much of the recent coverage of the conflict in Sudan's Nuba Mountains has been facilitated by the U.S.-based NGO Samaritan's Purse. Many of the reporters traveling with Samaritan's Purse have used the same fixer for their stories, Ryan Boyette, a former employee of the group who is married to a Nuba woman and runs a local effort to document atrocities occurring there. In the space of just a few weeks, Boyette also became the subject of a fawning New York Times profile by Nicholas Kristof, was a centerpiece of Jeffrey Gettleman's reporting for the same publication, and was interviewed by Ann Curry for NBC's Today. This is not to question Boyette's credibility or challenge his analysis (though he is far from a neutral observer), but rather to point out one of many examples of the way the West's Africa reporting becomes biased due to a lack of access and local language skills. As Karen Rothmyer noted in a Columbia Journalism Review article, many reporters working on Africa rely "heavily, and uncritically, on aid organizations for statistics, subjects, stories, and sources." It is thus no wonder that much reporting on Africa is so heavily focused on crises and that many pieces read like little more than NGO promotional materials.

On a related note, Binyavanga Wainaina, author of the classic "How to Write About Africa," tries to imagine an Africa that "was really like it is shown in the international media." It "would be a country," he writes. "Its largest province would be Somalia. Bono, Angelina Jolie and Madonna would be joint presidents, appointed by the United Nations." Click through for more.

Reason Writers Around Town: Shikha Dalmia on Five Reasons Why Serious Republicans Should Root for a Romney Defeat in November

Now that Mitt Romney has all but sealed the Republican presidential nomination after his five-state primary state victory this week, conservative commentarati will start circling the wagons around him. It’ll try and rally the base by arguing that whatever Romney’s flaws, he’s better than the alternative, President Obama, whose labor-friendly, green-obsessed, spendthrift, soak-the-rich ways will finish off what’s left of the economy.

But Reason Foundation Senior Analyst Shikha Dalmia in her morning column at The Daily lists five reasons why Republicans — and the country — would be better off if Romney loses in November. “A visionless, rudderless, gaffe-prone presidency is the last thing that Republicans need right now,” she notes.

Read the whole thing here.

A.M. Links: War Crimes Tribunal Convicts Charles Taylor, Newt Gingrich to Drop Out, Property Rights in Space Preemptively Attacked

  • Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president, was convicted by the International Criminal Court of aiding and abetting in war crimes and crimes against humanity in relation to his support for rebel groups involved in the region’s blood diamond conflict.
  • Newt Gingrich is likely to finally put an end to his presidential campaign Tuesday in Washington. His campaign spokesperson said Mitt Romney’s called to ask for Gingrich’s support.
  • Rupert Murdoch told a British inquiry yesterday he panicked when he decided to close News of the World in response to a ballooning hacking scandal. The News Corp CEO also claimed he’s spent millions of dollars cleaning up the company. “We are now a new company altogether,” Murdoch told the inquiry
  • The Rutherford Institute blasted the Richmond Police Department’s “Wake Up Call” initiative, a practice where police officers patrol neighborhoods late at night looking for valuables in cars, and waking up their owners to warn them about leaving valuables in their car. "The recent Trayvon Martin incident from Florida should serve as a stark warning of how the fear and misunderstanding of a homeowner can turn a benign situation into a tragedy involving loss of life," Rutherford Institute President John Whitehead wrote to the police department.
  • Private property rights in space are being preemptively attacked.
  • Hospital security video was released of police officers apparently punching Joseph Bryans, who is filing a lawsuit against the Meridian Connecticut police officers in relation to the incident. Bryans had exited the hospital to smoke a cigarette. Security told police Bryans had to be restrained, but the officers were actually responding to a different call.

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New at Reason.tv: "Arizona's Immigration Law Heads to Supreme Court"

Postal Service Could Cut Saturday Delivery in Two to Three Years, No Guarantees (Like Priority Mail)...

...but new legislation allowing such a possibility sweetens that deal with $900 million for "excess postal facilities" and gives "the Postal Service nearly $11 billion to offer buyouts and early retirement incentives to hundreds of thousands of postal workers and to pay off its debts."

Mail volume is down, says the Post Office, from 203 billion delivered annually a decade ago to just 168 billion last year. The Senate bill passed easily but raised the ire of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who's got a competing bill that may or may not see the light of day.

From the Wash Post:

“While the Postal Service is actually trying to shutter some facilities it does not need, the bill forces the Postal Service to keep over one hundred excess postal facilities open at a cost of $900 million a year,” Issa said.

Issa’s bill, which has yet to be scheduled for a vote in the House, allows USPS to end Saturday mail deliveries, streamline postage rates and require postal workers to pay the same health insurance premiums as federal employees. It also establishes a financial control board to overhaul postal finances and a separate commission inspired to recommend which postal facilities should close.

More here.

Reason on the Postal Service (including a preview of the vote noted above).

Larfs about the impending end of the Postal Service's hold on American tax subsidies, circa 1998:

As the fourth-class box office of mailman-oriented cinematic bombs like Greg Kinnear's Dear God and Kevin Costner's The Postman suggest, perhaps the only person in America fully satisfied with the Postal Service was Theodore Kaczynski, who no doubt disdained FedEx's and UPS' easy-to-use computer-tracking software and who seemed to be in no particular rush to see his packages delivered to the correct address.

Take it away, Newman:

Steve Chapman on Picking Romney's Running Mate

Vice presidential candidates, though commonly thought to be politically important, rarely make a discernible difference. So a wise presidential candidate will disregard all the bogus factors that excite political forecasters and commentators, writes Steve Chapman. Romney should ask only two questions: 1) Would this person be an asset to his administration? and 2) Is this person equipped to be president?

View this article

Brickbat: Get Off the Bus

In West Virginia, Point Pleasant Intermediate School Principal Cameron C. Moffett has been charged with felony child abuse after being caught on video pushing an 11-year-old special-needs student off a bus. Moffett rolled the boy down the steps of the bus then allegedly pinned him to the ground with his knee. At least three adults saw the incident but did not respond. Students were preparing to go on a field trip when some other students allegedly pushed the boy out of his seat. When the boy refused to get up out of the aisle, a teacher sent for Moffett.

Brickbat Archive

Lawyer for Anti-Illegal Immigrant Group Gets SWAT Raid for Son's Graffiti, But He's Still Not Worried About Law Enforcement Excess

Via Cato @ Liberty comes this Washington Post story about attorney Michael M. Hethmon, who is general counsel for Immigration Reform Law Institute and who is a supporters of the various tough on illegal immigrant bills seen in Alabama, Georgia, and of course Arizona. According to the Post, Hethmon is one of the two important architects of the idea that local and state governments can take immigrant law into their own hands, ideally making illegal immigrants feel so constricted that they "self-deport":

Judges have blocked some of the legislation, resulting in a pile of legal bills for the governments they helped, and on Wednesday the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments about the law in Arizona that has become the centerpiece achievement of the self-
deportation movement.

Supporters say the idea would never have advanced this far without [law professor Kris] Kobach and Hethmon, who have been editors, advisers, ghostwriters and legal defenders for politicians nationwide.

“They’re the wizards behind the curtain,” said Oklahoma state Rep. Randy Terrill (R), whose bill they rewrote. “They were the face and the muscle behind the effort that really synthesized it into a movement. Do I think it would have happened without them? Most certainly it would not have.”

One of the most worrying aspects of these laws, and one which seems like it will likely be upheld by the Supreme Court, is the one that tells police to check the immigration status of drivers that they pull over. But worries over racism or xenophobia aside, it's clear that Hethmon is an equal-opportunity fan of police power; if his reaction to a recent SWAT raid on his home is any yardstick, that is:

Hethmon had an up-close and unpleasant experience with the same kind of local police he had done so much to empower.

The problem began with graffiti on a highway overpass in Bowie. Police there suspected that Hethmon’s teenage son might be involved and obtained a search warrant. They arrived at 7 a.m. on March 9 with a heavily armed team of county officers.

“Come in with masks, guns, screaming. You know, knocking everybody down,” Hethmon recalled. “I tried to explain to them, you know: ‘Look, I’m a lawyer, this is outrageous.’ [The reply was:] ‘Shut up and lie down on the floor.’ ”

Police said they found 2.5 grams of marijuana in the house. They filed charges against Hethmon, his son and his wife — all for the same drugs. The charges against Hethmon will be dropped, prosecutors said last week.

Hethmon said the experience has not changed his work.

“The fact that a law is legitimate and serving a purpose doesn’t mean that it can’t be abused,” he said. “Human beings are flawed people.”

And so, for the lesser-known of this duo, there has been a personal test. After he did so much to place greater trust in local police officers nationwide, police in Prince George’s County sent a SWAT team to his house to look for . . . spray paint.

“It’s ironic, you know,” Hethmon said.

Long-time readers of Reason might remember that Prince George's County also was the location of the infamous raid/puppycide on the home of Berwyn Heights, Maryland Mayor Cheye Caylvo.

It's hard to know what's creepier about this story, Hethmon's devotion to the cause of making life miserable for immigrants, the status quo of the drug war, the use of SWAT for spray paint, or just the unnerving fact that Hethmon seems just as unconcerned about injustices when they happen to his own family as when they happen to poor immigrants. At least Hethmon isn't a hypocrite? 

Reason on the militarization of police and immigration

Hysterity! Global Panic about "Austere" 9 Percent Spending Hike

America’s economic boom is the latest evidence for anti-austerity arguments.

Measured according to the strict two-quarters-of-GDP macroeconomic standard, the United Kingdom is now back in a recession. According to this same standard, the United States is not in a technical recession. 

At Business Insider, Joe Weisenthal cites the UK recession to continue a theme advanced by BI founder Henry Blodget yesterday.

"Basically we have a life test of a country that wants to do what conservatives in the US want to do: reduce national debt," Weisenthal writes. "Doing so is a growth disaster."

Sounds like the contrast between the judicious Keynesianism of President Barack Obama and the small-government extremism of Prime Minister David Cameron is pretty stark, right?

According to the OECD, British deficit spending as a percentage of GDP is 0.6 percent lower than our own, and projected to be a full percentage point lower in 2013. (The ghost of First Baron Keynes can rest easy in the knowledge that the deficit/GDP percentage in both nations is still more than twice what it was in 2007; that’s an almost-Keynesian public response if you slightly edit Keynes’ advice that you’re actually supposed to run surpluses during a boom.) 

So what does the Sceptre’d Isle’s budget look like under the tyranny of extreme austerity? Here’s the lowdown from Her Majesty’s Treasury [pdf]. 

Leave aside the violence you need to commit against our two great nations’ shared language to define "austerity" as a "five straight years of increases in outlays." There’s a bigger problem, noted yesterday by powerhouse commenter R C Dean, with citing GDP to determine the economic  effects of deficit spending.

MORE »

Arizona's Immigration Law Heads to the Supreme Court

"As long as there is not a direct conflict, which the federal government did not do a very good job of pointing to today, the Arizona law gets to stand under the Preemption Doctrine," says Reason's Damon Root, who was at the Supreme Court during Wednesday's oral arguments surrounding Arizona's controversial immigration law. "The federal government is saying that 'we have the power to stomp out all of the state experiments in immigration law enforcement.'"

Much like the Health Care arguments before the Court in March, Root does not see this as a good day for the Obama administration, in part due to their Solicitor General Donald Verrilli's poor performance. "At one point," Root explains "Justice Sotomayor interrupted [Verrilli] and said 'look, I am terribly confused by what you are saying.'"

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Detroit's Leaders Borrow a Page From Government Motors and Chrysler

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing has cooked up a true-and-tested scheme to rescue Detroit from its impending bankruptcy (which would have happened by now had the state not already given it a $137 million-loan on the state credit card). The scheme doesn’t involve implementing his promised layoffs of city workers to bring the city's expenditures in line with its revenues. Nor a full-scale privatization of city services. Nor does it require persuading Detroit's bellicose municipal unions to renegotiate retiree contracts to lighten the city's legacy obligations that make up half of its accumulated $12 billion debt.

Bing’s scheme is clean, simple, and painless: Shaking down Uncle Sam for $1 billion in emergency bailout money, just like GM and Chrysler.

Bing has hired a Washington lobbying firm for $330,000 to aid his efforts. His quest has the full backing of Rep. Hansen Clarke, who represents the city in Congress, and has been arguing since March that the feds need to step in and rescue Detroit just as they did New York City in 1975. "It's the same situation that's just as grave," Clarke told the Huffington Post. "We need to provide relief for the city of Detroit in order to create jobs in this country and rescue this symbol of our manufacturing power."

New York City got $2.3 billion in federal loans after President Gerald Ford signed the New York City Seasonal Financing Act in 1975.

But Detroit is a bottomless pit of need whose annual debt payments—$600 million a year—exceed its primary tax revenue by $60 million. Without structural reforms and new contracts with municipal unions to rationalize its legacy obligations, it’ll run through the billion dollars in a year and be back for more.

But Detroit is hardly alone in promising more benefits than it can afford. States and cities across the country have about $1 trillion in unfunded liabilities on their books, according to a 2010 survey by the Pew Center. Other studies put this figure closer to $3.5 trillion. So if the feds decide to help Detroit – which is not entirely inconceivable given that this is an election year and  Obama will be looking for union votes in Motown – expect a line of city and state leaders holding their tin cups forming from Washington D.C. to Sacramento.

My articles on Detroit’s deepening fiscal crisis here and here.

H/T: Walter Grinder

White House Threatens Veto, ACLU Says CISPA Amendments Not Enough

The White House indicated it would veto the Cyber Intelligense Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), which sets up a regime under which government agencies can acquire and retain records from companies that collect private data on the Internet, though largely because the White House doesn't think the legislation goes far enough.

While the White House insists on the “civilian nature” of cyberspace, more importantly, in a fashion typical of this Administration, the federal government would like to see itself granted new authority to “ensure that the Nation’s critical infrastructure operators are taking the steps necessary to protect the American people” as well as to set “cybersecurity performance standards.” The regime proposed by CISPA is described as “voluntary” by its sponsors.

The ACLU, meanwhile, rejected amendments to the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) meant to alleviate rights concerns as “not enough.” The amendments offered would narrow the definition of a “threat” and the conditions under which the government could retain or use the information.

CISPA has a much broader base of support than the ill-fated SOPA did, and popular opposition to the bill has not been as fierce as to its predecessor.

Peter Suderman on Why Health Care Reform Isn't Entitlement Reform

In February 2009, as the Obama administration was beginning to make its pitch for a major health care overhaul, then-White House budget director Peter Orszag made his closing pitch for the law at a summit in Washington: “To my fellow budget hawks in this room and in the rest of the country, let me be very clear: health care reform is entitlement reform,” he said. “The path of fiscal responsibility must run directly through health care.” A little more than a year later, the law that would become known as ObamaCare passed.

So how is Medicare, the nation’s biggest health care entitlement, doing now? Not so well. Two years after the passage of the Patient Protection Protection and Affordable Care Act, the program’s Trustees are reporting that the seniors’ health program is on a glide path to insolvency—perhaps by as soon as 2016. The technocratic reforms that were supposed to remake the program aren’t working nearly as well as hoped. And, writes Senior Editor Peter Suderman, there are already signs that the Medicare spending reductions called for by the health care law will be delayed or undercut just as many critics warned.

View this article

Supreme Court Appears Willing to Uphold Arizona Immigration Law

Earlier today the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in Arizona v. United States, the case arising from Arizona’s controversial immigration crackdown S.B. 1070. Judging by what I saw in the courtroom, a majority of the justices appeared willing to take Arizona’s side.

At issue is whether federal immigration law preempts four of S.B. 1070‘s provisions, including Section 2(B), the controversial requirement that state law enforcement officials make a “reasonable attempt” to determine the immigration status of any person they encounter during “any lawful stop, detention, or arrest” if those officials have a “reasonable suspicion” that the person may be in the country illegally.

The federal government argues that these provisions undermine and conflict with the comprehensive immigration regulations established by Congress, and that Arizona’s actions will force the federal government to waste scarce resources on behalf of state priorities, rather than federal ones.

Justice Antonin Scalia quickly emerged as the biggest skeptic of the federal government’s position. Not only did Scalia repeatedly stress his view that the Constitution allows each state “to close its borders to people who have no right to be there,” he dismissed Solicitor General Donald Verrilli’s worry that Arizona’s immigration crackdown will put a strain on U.S. foreign relations. “We have to enforce our laws in a manner that will please Mexico,” Scalia snapped. “Is that what you're saying?”

Chief Justice John Roberts also seemed unwilling to buy many of Verrilli’s core arguments, including the solicitor general’s claim that S.B. 1070 will force the federal government’s hand when it comes to immigration prosecutions. “You say that the Federal Government has to have control over who to prosecute,” Roberts told Verrilli, “but I don't see how Section 2(B) says anything about that at all. All it does is notify the Federal Government, here's someone who is here illegally, here's someone who is removable. The discretion to prosecute for Federal immigration offenses rests entirely with the Attorney General.”

The biggest hurdle for the government will to be to attract one or more of the Court’s five right-leaning justices (Justice Elena Kagan is recused). With Roberts seemingly out of the running, the next, and perhaps most obvious candidate is Justice Anthony Kennedy, who regularly sides with the liberal bloc. Yet Kennedy also subjected the solicitor general to a thorough interrogation this morning. Moreover, Kennedy’s well-known support for federalism principles came to the forefront when asked the solicitor general if “social disruption, economic disruption” stemming from a “flood of immigrants” would allow Arizona or other states “to enact laws to correct this problem?” It seemed clear that Kennedy thinks the states do possess the authority "to correct" such a problem.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, meanwhile, promptly established herself as the federal government’s strongest ally in the case. But that alliance didn’t stop her from repeatedly chastising the solicitor general when he stumbled during the oral argument. “General, I'm terribly confused by your answer,” she declared at one point. “I don't know that you're focusing in on what I believe my colleagues are trying to get to.” Several minutes later, Sotomayor was even blunter, telling Verrilli that his argument wasn’t “selling very well.” “Why don’t you try to come up with something else?” she instructed.

Unfortunately for the federal government, it may now be too late for that.