Weekly Hit & Run Archive 2012 September 22-31

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It's Cute That Janet Napolitano Avoids Email So Nobody Can Catch Her Breaking the Law

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, claimed in an interview today that she doesn't use email.

Worse, the Homeland Security Department's chief executive tried to use this claim as a laugh line. 

"Don't laugh but I don't use email at all," Napolitano said during a panel at, of all things, a Cybersecurity Summit hosted by National Journal and Government Executive.

When asked for an explanation for that perverse habit, Napolitano said, "For a whole host of reasons." 

Washington Examiner Executive Editor Mark Tapscott describes what some of those reasons might be in an article about Christopher C. Horner's new book The Liberal War on Transparency:

* While working as deputy White House chief of staff, President Obama's current campaign manager, Jim Messina, used his AOL account to orchestrate the controversial deal by which drug companies lobbied for and ran ads supporting passage of Obamacare, which was just one example in a government-wide trend.

* Political appointees at another federal agency who found a clever way to not only use private email accounts but to rig the system automatically to remove all traces of them from government servers.

* The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency created secret email accounts that few there knew about and no one apparently can now access, according to an internal document, thus calling into question EPA's compliance with certain laws and lawsuits.

I have not read Horner's book, but we already have evidence from the Solyndra case of Obama administration staffers hiding their correspondence from the public. "Don’t ever send an email on doe email with a personal email addresses," former Department of Energy official Jonathan Silver wrote to an incautious underling in August 2011. "That makes them subpoenable."  

What makes Napolitano think anybody would laugh at her admission? The most charitable thing you can say is that it shows her to be unfit for a job that involves overseeing important parts of the American online security apparatus. And that seems to be the interpretation she wants us to take away. "I don't have any of my own accounts," she said in the interview. "Some would call me a Luddite." 

Related: DMX gets his first look at teh Googles: 

 

New York Subway Bans Ads In Wake of Spraypaint Incident

New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority yesterday voted to prohibit advertisements that it "reasonably foresees would imminently incite or provoke violence or other immediate breach of the peace."

One day before the decision, journalist Mona Eltahawy made a partially successful attempt to spraypaint over an ad from a pro-Israel group. The MTA held its vote at a raucous meeting during which opponents of the ad shouted down speakers. The New York Times' Matt Flegenheimer reports

The 8-to-0 vote by the authority’s board came three days after pro-Israel ads characterizing Islamist opponents of the Jewish state as being “savage” began appearing in subway stations, setting off vandalism, denunciations of the authority and calls for the ads’ removal.

The authority had initially rejected the ads, citing their “demeaning” language. The group responsible for the ads, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, sued, and in July won a federal court ruling on First Amendment grounds.

Eltahawy was arrested in a high-profile tagging incident, which she hyped to an extent that led The Nation correspondent Jeremy Scahill to observe, "I think Nelson Mandela talked less about his 27 years in prison than Mona has about her 22 hours in a holding cell." 

It's unclear how the Authority intends to make neutral judgments about what content is likely to cause trouble. The rule may end up something like the policy Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus, which prohibits non-commercial ads, but even that policy is now the target of a lawsuit by the local AIDS Walk

Nor are strictly commercial ventures free of controversy in this age when chicken sandwich purchases encode positions on gay marriage, some cosmetics are still tested on animals, and teachers unions can bring out crowds of people with nothing better to do than protest a Hollywood movie. A transit authority is not a natural arbiter of such matters, but the real question should be what ad doesn't stand a reasonable chance of provoking a breach of the peace? 

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President Obama Brags About Spending Cuts He Wants to Reverse, and Which Aren't Cuts

In a two minute TV ad released this week, Obama talks about his second term plan in four parts. Item number four, he explains, is a "a balanced plan to reduce our deficit by $4 trillion over the next decade. On top of the $1 trillion in spending we’ve already cut, I’d ask the wealthy to pay a little more. And as we end the war in Afghanistan, let’s apply half the savings to pay down our debt and use the rest for some nation-building right here at home." Here's the ad (the relevant section starts around the 1:25 mark):

A couple problems with this claim. For starters, he has not actually cut spending by $1 trillion already: Instead, he agreed last summer to a debt ceiling deal that led to a "sequestration" process which lets future spending increase a little more slowly than previously planned over the next decade. But over that period, spending still goes up. McClatchy explains:

Federal spending totaled $3.6 trillion in fiscal 2011, the period that ended Sept. 30, 2011, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. This fiscal year, which ends Sunday, total spending is expected to decline to $3.56 trillion, and decline further to $3.554 trillion next year.

But those two brief cuts total just $49 billion over the two years – well short of $1 trillion. And after that, spending starts to rise again, and by 2015 should again top the 2011 figure. By the end of the 10-year period in 2021, the CBO projects federal spending of $5.5 trillion.

Here's what those supposed "cuts" actually look like, via Reason econ columnist Veronique de Rugy:

And guess what? President Obama has made it very clear that he does not want to go through with this particular future spending reduction at all. As UPI notes, the White House budget office recently released a report which "repeated the administration's insistence that President Barack Obama 'stands ready to work with Congress' to find ways to avoid sequestration."

As for his $4 trillion deficit reduction plan (fitting, given that he's run $1 trillion-plus deficits now for four years run), well, it's true that he has proposed $4 trillion worth of budget gimmicks and tax hikes. 

That $4 trillion in deficit reduction takes credit for nearly a trillion dollars in pared back war spending that is already scheduled to happen. The Medicare cuts called for by the plan are of the dubious slashing-provider-reimbursement variety that Congress has had serious trouble maintaining before and that the administration has already put the brakes on in one instance. The plan plays games with the budget baseline, counts $800 billion in debt payments as a "spending cut," and cleverly spreads is deficit reduction out over 12 years rather than the industry-standard 10 year window in order to meet the $4 trillion threshhold but make the early cuts — the ones he'd actually have to oversee as president — quite a bit smaller.

As The Washington Post's Fact Checker Glenn Kessler wrote earlier this month, "virtually no serious budget analyst" buys the president's $4 trillion deficit reduction figure, and "most of Obama’s claimed deficit reduction comes from his proposed tax increases."

Budget gimmicks and tax hikes: That's Obama's version of a balanced plan.

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Should Russians Have Rioted Over Pussy Riot Instead?

Back in August when three members of the Russian punk group Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in prison for hooliganism, related to an incident in which they entered a cathedral in Moscow to perform at the altar in protest of the Russian Orthodox Church's relationship with the state, some Russian apologists took issue with the way the Pussy Riot was being framed in the West as a free speech issue. The Italian journalist Enza Ferreri said “any civilized country has the law that protects feelings of religious people being offended.” The World Russian People’s Council similarly framed the issue as one of “religious tolerance”:

Defenders of the infamous group justified, glorified and even called on people to repeat their clear hooliganism only because it was targeted against the Church. This indicates serious moral problems in the influential part of the global liberal community and shows that the principles of tolerance and freedom of conscience they declare are very far from their real goals.

The State Department laid out the U.S. government’s stance on the Pussy Riot trial after a verdict was reached:

The United States is concerned about both the verdict and the disproportionate sentences handed down by a Moscow court in the case against the members of the band Pussy Riot and the negative impact on freedom of expression in Russia.

Contrast the reaction to a sentence of hooliganism in Russia for an incident described as “motivated by religious hatred” by the court to the U.S. government’s near universal condemnation of a film (free speech!) made in America believed to be motivated by religious hatred and blamed by the government for worldwide protests and a terrorist attack in Libya neither the Libyans nor anyone else believed had anything to do with just a film, and draw your own conclusions.

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Vid: Wake the F*ck Up! (A Rebuttal)

Samuel L. Jackson's "Wake the Fuck Up" video urges Americans to re-elect Barack Obama even as it chides the president's supporters for a lack of enthusiasm.

Why might voters be less than pleased with Obama? Reason TV responds with its own rhyme.

Produced by Meredith Bragg and Nick Gillespie; about a 1.30 minutes.

Watch the vid by clicking above or click below to go to a Reason TV page with full links, downloadable versions, and more.

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Netanyahu and the Cartoon Bomb: The Medium Matches the Quality of the Message

Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the only actually nuclear armed nation in his region, took his "prelude to war" show to the United Nations yesterday, alternately scaring and amusing the world with his cartoon bomb visual aid, for those "savages" in the audience for whom mere words would not convince (though the visual just confused Netanyahu's countrymen, wondering if he was speaking of percentages of enriched uranium or merely vague levels of progress toward supposed bombmaking). It was a silly gambit, in pursuit of a policy that is alas too dangerous to laugh at.

Some things to remember about Iran and the bomb as our ally continues to prove its dedication to American interests by dragging us into a war against one of its enemies. (Hell, what are allies for if not to provide us with new wars?)

*U.S. intelligence agencies continue to maintain that there is no evidence Iran is trying to weaponize its nuclear program.

*The head of Israeli Defense Forces Benny Gantz agrees.

*Former Mossad head Meir Dagan thinks that an attack on Iranian nuke facilities would be "the stupidest thing I ever heard."

*Israelis themselves seem mostly less worried than their cartoon-waving leader.

*Iran's 20 percent enriched uranium is far from weapons-grade, and as the Washington Post reported in August:

Iran appeared to have taken steps that would make it harder to use its uranium stockpile to make nuclear bombs, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported...

The report, based on routine monitoring of Iran’s nuclear facilities, documented a sizable jump in Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent, a level that can be converted relatively easily to the more highly enriched uranium needed for weapons. The report said Iran has 255 pounds of uranium enriched at 20 percent, up from 159 pounds in May.

But the IAEA also found that Iran had converted much of the new material to metal form for use in a nuclear research reactor. Once the conversion has taken place, the uranium can’t be further enriched to weapons-grade material, Obama administration officials said.

*Christian Stork has here a thorough and detailed roundup of clips and analysis making the case that Iran is not a threat to the U.S.; nor to Israel, and that there is no good reason to think their leaders are suicidal. He also provides a good timetable of how long the game of making the world fear Iranian nukes has been going on, and explains that strategically nothing is more likely to lead to a nuclear-armed Iran than attacking them to stop it (barring the sheet-of-glass solution).

Still, despite the official on-record truths about the lack of evidence of any threat from Iran, mortal or not, the slow background spinning of that notion continues apace, and is working. One poll finds 80 percent of Americans convinced that Iran's nuclear program is a threat to the U.S., said belief dominating folks Democratic, Republican, and independent. And the U.S. continues to act toward Iran in a way that seems designed to get them fighting mad.

Who else believes in "red lines" regarding when to go to war with Iran? Republican presidential aspirant Mitt Romney.

Hit and Run nostalgia: Netanyahu, and then I in retaliation, have been playing this song since at least 2006.

Katherine Mangu-Ward on Won't Back Down

In Won't Back Down, a single mother (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and a disillusioned teacher (Viola Davis) band together to fix a failing Pittsburgh school, relying on a fudged and fictionalized version of the “parent trigger” laws that exist in California and three other states. Hollywood logic dictates a happy ending for these reformers, but their real life counterparts aren't usually so lucky. The most accurate analysis of most reformers' chances for success may come from Gyllenhaal's on-screen daughter, writes Managing Editor Katherine Mangu-Ward. After an impassioned speech in which her mom vows that "we're going to get you out of there," the daughter responds with a perfect, furiously indifferent “whatever."

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Subway Ad Blocking in New York, Postal Service Defaults (Again), Spain Needs Big Bucks: P.M. Links

  • Heckler’s veto wins in New York City: New Metropolitan Transit Authority guidelines will block ads they think will “imminently incite or provoke violence.” Do Old Navy ads count?
  • An audit of the country’s main banks shows that Spain would need 59.3 billion euros (that’s $76.3 billion) in order to ride out its current economic downturn.
  • Dozens of inmates have escaped from an Iraqi jail in Kikrit. Ten policemen were killed and al-Qaeda is suspected of involvement.
  • The United States Postal Service will default for the second time this weekend, unable to meet its obligations to fund in advance the health benefits for retirees.
  • The United Nations has a whole list of potential global taxes various interests would like to pursue. Read about it now or wait for it to show up in e-mail forwards.
  • The ACLU lost its bid to get documents describing CIA interrogation methods following the 9/11 attacks released. A judge accepted the government’s arguments that the records are sensitive to national security.
  • A poll by Fox News has President Barack Obama ahead by five points over Mitt Romney.

Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and don’t forget to sign up for Reason’s daily AM/PM updates for more content

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One Day After DEA Raids 71 Medical Marijuana Dispensaries, CNN Declares Drug War Is Over

On Wednesday, Sept. 26, CNN's Out Front With Erin Burnett ran a segment titled "No more 'War on Drugs.'" The segment begins with CNN reporter John Zarrella narrating footage of a U.S. Coast Guard cutter disabling a boat carrying marijuana. "This was the mid 1980s," Zarrella says. "The drug war was at its height."

Zarella continues talking in the past tense, saying, "Then Vice President george bush headed up a task force to fight the problem....Stash houses and drug labs were routinely raided. That was a war on drugs. These days, it's not even a war of words. The White House doesn't even call it a war on drugs anymore, focusing instead on prevention."  The rest of the segment is dedicated to a single drug court in Broward County, Florida, and the many lives it has saved.


What Zarrella may not know is that the day before his CNN segment ran, the Drug Enforcement Administration launched a coordinated crackdown on 71 medical marijuana dispensaries in and around Los Angeles, bringing the total number of California dispensaries closed this year to over 800.

Perhaps Zarrella omitted this breaking news update from his package because he didn't see it, or it was too late to address it. 

Or maybe Zarrella did see the DEA story, and deemed it consistent with his claim that the Obama administration is changing the way it allocates funding for the prosecution of drug users. (This theory assumes that Zarrella believes there's an explicit moral difference between the adult who uses illegal drugs and the adult who sells illegal drugs. There is no difference.) 

What's not forgivable is Zarrella's omission of Obama's draconian drug war record, evidence of which goes back weeks, months, and years.

Now, as "in the mid-1980s," the U.S. Coast Guard and the Navy engage drug traffickers in the Caribbean. Now, as in the mid-1980s, stash houses and drug labs are routinely raided by federal agents. Not only is the present a lot like the past, but the (very problematic) drug court model that Zarrella praises isn't unique to Obama--federal drug court funding dates back to Clinton, was supported by Bush, and even appeared in the Republicans' 2008 platform and 2012 platforms. 

If there is anything familiar truth in Zarrella's report from a reality that does not exist, it is that drug policy has failed to break into the Top 50 Or So Issues Journalists Consider Important In This Presidential Election. Were journalists to ask Romney or Obama about drug policy, stories like Zarrella's would perhaps get a little more scrutiny from editors. 

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British Austerity is a Myth, Despite What the Keynesians Say

The protests in Spain and Greece have highlighted the push for “austerity” being made in the Mediterranean. Although much attention has been put on the PIIGS and their attempts to overcome the euro-crisis recently, many other European countries, such as the UK, who are in a comparably better position have been attempting their own version of “austerity”. That some European countries have decided to cut spending in response to the financial crisis has irked Keynesians like Paul Krugman, who takes particular pleasure in pointing out the failures of supposed austerity. Despite what many would have you think there has been no serious reduction in spending in the UK and taxes have increased. 

Over at the London-based freemarket think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs, Philip Booth outlines the absurdity of the “austerity” rhetoric which has somehow dominated British political discourse. According to the British government’s own budget (on page 86) from 2011-2012 to 2016-2017 public sector expenditure will increase from £647.3 billion to £708.6 billion. It is only thanks to inflation that the public sector will see a growth rate of less than -1 percent. These are hardly the “savage cuts” that the left in the UK keep referring to, which is a shame considering that the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, realized that such measures would be needed in 2009. When entering government the Tory-led coalition ring fenced the NHS and international aid from cuts, hardly a policy decision that could be attributed to fans of austerity. If you look at a visual representation of the Britsh budget it is immediately apparent that any proponents of austerity would target the NHS and welfare spending.

Indeed the size of the government as a percent of the economy has increased in comparison to Labour governments. As Ruth Porter, also of the IEA, explained, public spending in the UK is 47 percent of GDP. At the beginning of Tony Blair’s premiership public spending was 38 percent of GDP. If the British government wants to really practice “austerity” the least it could do is aim for spending to be lower than it was at the dawn of a socialist government. 

Veronique de Rugy, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center and occasional Reason contributor has written on what a farce the European claims of austerity are. She spoke to Reason TV about Europe and austerity back in May. 

What is perhaps the most frustrating trait of Keynesian arguments is that they are unfalsifiable. Stimulus didn’t work? Well then you obviously didn’t spend enough. Growth left wanting? You didn’t borrow enough. Thankfully there are some politicians who are talking about the disjoint between the British government’s rhetoric and the economic reality. Unfortunately, they are a minority. If Europe has any chance of overcoming the mess it is in then politicians have got to start being honest. In Europe government spending is not shrinking, at best governments are just growing a little slower. 

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Great Moments in Local Journalism: CBS Says Autauga County, AL Drug Raids Are "an adventure you don't want to miss."

Pretend you're an Alabama reporter; how might you report on a massive, county-wide early morning drug and weapons round-up, a year and half in the making? And say that raid resulted in 36 arrested and involved 150 officers from:

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Drug Enforcement Administration; U.S. Marshals; Central Alabama Drug Task Force; Alabama Department of Corrections; Autauga, Elmore, Chilton, Montgomery Sheriffs' Offices; police departments from Prattville, Montgomery, Andalusia, Millbrook; and Alabama State Troopers....

Available weapons and tech for these officers was:

a range of weapons and machinery used in the execution of the sting. M4 Carbines, MP5 Sub-machine guns, shotguns, SWAT gear, halogen lamps, and battering rams were available to agents in the field. Helicopters were also available to officers in case a suspect decided to flee the scene.

Well, if you're CBS 8 reporter Jessica Gertler, all of the above information can be ignored, or breezily rushed past in vague description. The only thing her CBS piece offers is a parade of b-roll of masked SWAT officer and various black men being put into cars, some saying sassy things to the camera about "haters! Snitches!" The above block-quoted information is from the al.com blog which, though seemingly a bit slanted, at least managed to include some useful information.

Gertler, on the other hand, invites viewers along for "an adventure you won't want to miss". Her tone is breathless and excited about the police action.

The Thursday morning raids were one of the largest drug raids in state history. They were a success, if only because no one — not law enforcement or any of the suspects, or even any dogs, as far as we know — was injured. They didn't even have no-knock raids, but they rather "knocked and announced [themselves]" according to one undercover agent involved. The amount of drugs found was not yet reported, though most of the folks' warrants were issued because they had sold marijuana and crack cocaine to undercover agents. There were also a few illegal weapons found.

But of that information is not very relevant to Gartler, it's just good fun to watch the authorities, whoever they are, do whatever it that they're doing. Check out the report for yourself below. Also telling is the mayor of Autaugaville referring to the arrested as "trash":

On the other hand a different blond, young CBS 8 reporter actually bothered to talk to neighbors a few hours after the raids and after Gertler's report. Some locals — though not all — were troubled by the raids. Noted Autaugaville resident Totanisha Cobb,  "First thing in the morning, I just didn’t really know what was going on, especially with the kids and them being kind of scared and figuring out what was going on."  

Strange, schizophrenic reporting from CBS, but there's no excuse, even an initial lack of information, for the kind of childish, ra-ra SWAT reporting that Gertler engages in; even if she is not the only one.

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Is the Federal Reserve Unconstitutional?

Writing at the Library of Law and Liberty, George Mason University law professor Michael Greve has an interesting piece examining the constitutional foundations—or possible lack thereof—supporting the Federal Reserve:

Our fate hangs on the Fed; and yet, it is an independent institution, immunized from direct political pressures. In a democracy, operating under a Constitution that makes no explicit provision for a central bank and in many ways resists the creation of fourth or fifth branches of government, an independent Fed is an oddity. For what it’s worth, the Fed’s founders acknowledged the point: initially, the Secretary of the Treasury served as the institution’s ex officio chairman. That arrangement was changed in the 1930s, after the Supreme Court had cleared the way for “independent” agencies....

For present purposes, though, the point is this: there is no constitutional warrant for an independent Fed that acts as the economy’s master puppeteer; issues puts on the stock market; expropriates fixed-income recipients so that Congress can continue to borrow on the cheap; or targets the unemployment rate.

Read the whole thing here.

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A Third of Americans Worry About Police Getting Drones

According to an Associated Press-National Constitution Center poll, 36 percent of Americans are “opposed” or “strongly opposed” to police use of unmanned drones in their law enforcement kit. Privacy concerns contribute:

When asked if they were concerned that police departments' use of drones for surveillance might cause them to lose privacy, 35 percent of respondents said they were "extremely concerned" or "very concerned." An almost identical share, 36 percent, said they were "not too concerned" or "not concerned at all."

Twenty-four percent fell in the middle, saying they were "somewhat concerned" about a potential loss of personal privacy.

Unfortunately, the opponents are still in the minority. A good 44 percent are okay with police using drones, but then anybody who has had to deal with somebody whose fear of being a crime victim is drastically greater than the statistical likelihood probably won’t be surprised:

David Eisner, president and CEO of the constitution center in Philadelphia, said he was surprised by the level of support for police use of drones.

"I had assumed that the idea that American police would be using the same technology that our military is using in Afghanistan would garner an almost hysterical response," Eisner said. Support for drone use "shows that people are feeling less physically secure than they'd like to because they are willing to accept fairly extreme police action to improve that security."

Mind you, America's violent crime rate has been dropping for years.

Here’s an exasperatingly rote defense from somebody who has obviously never known anybody affected by a wrong-door police raid:

But Sheana Buchanan, 49, of Apple Valley, Calif., said she had no qualms about police using drones.

"I figure if you're doing something wrong, then you should be concerned about it," Buchanan said. "But if you're a law-abiding citizen, if you're concerned about safety ... and it's going to help catch the bad guys, have at it."

I wonder want Buchanan might think about even conservative think tanks like The Heritage Foundation proposing guidelines for use of domestic drones in order to protect privacy and civil liberties?

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Inspector General's New Asset Forfeiture Report Reveals DOJ Is Now Just Robbing Americans [UPDATED]

The Office of Inspector General for the Justice Department released an audit yesterday reviewing the DEA's use of asset forfeiture, which is the policy that allows federal law enforcement agencies to confiscate the savings and property of Americans suspected of a crime. The report highlights no illegal or improper behavior on the DEA's part, but it does reveal a massive shift away from due process toward blatant thuggery.

According to a chart provided by the OIG, 86 percent of asset forfeitures that occurred between 2001 and 2011 were either administrative or civil, and only 14 percent were criminal. That means roughly 86 percent of the instances in which the government took cash, computers, cars, homes, life savings, investments, property or other assets, it did so without approval from a judge, a verdict from a jury, or any meaningful form of due process

Dean Calbreath, formerly of the San Diego Union-Tribune, politely informed me that I misstated how administrative and civil forfeiture work. They do ultimately go before judges. Calbreath writes:

Civil forfeiture cases go before U.S. District Courts. Administrative cases go before administrative law judges, whose decisions can be appealed in the U.S. District Court.

I think one thing that may have misled you is the sentence that reads that administrative forfeitures take place “without judicial involvement.” What that means is without involvement of the judiciary. The administrative law judges who oversee such seizures are part of the administration, not the judiciary, although their decisions may be appealed to the judiciary.

The OIG's chart is below: 

Here's some clarification on the three types of asset forfeiture, courtesy of the Justice Department:

Administrative forfeiture is the process by which property may be forfeited to the United States without judicial involvement. Federal seizing agencies perform administrative forfeitures. Seizures must be based on probable cause. The authority for a seizing agency to start an administrative forfeiture action is found in 19 U.S.C. § 1607.

"Administrative forfeiture can be used to seize and forfeit the following:
• any amount of currency;
• personal property valued at $500,000 or less, including cars, guns, and boats;
• hauling conveyances of unlimited value.

"Real property cannot be forfeited administratively.

Criminal forfeiture is an action brought as part of the criminal prosecution of a defendant that includes the forfeiture of property used or derived from the crime. If the defendant is convicted, the judge or the jury may find that the property is forfeitable. Forfeiture is limited to the property interests of the defendant and only to property involved in the particular counts on which the defendant is convicted. Only the defendant’s interest can be forfeited in a criminal case because criminal forfeiture is part of the sentence in the criminal case.

Civil forfeiture is a proceeding brought against the property rather than against the person who committed the offense. Civil forfeiture does not require either criminal charges against the owner of the property or a criminal conviction.

19 Out of 20 Cabinet Agencies in the Most Transparent Administration In History Disregard Disclosure Law

Remember back in 2007 when Democrats staged a "Sunshine Week" designed, according to the Associated Press, to "highlight they say is a disturbing level of secrecy in the Bush administration"? Democratic media staffers told the press that they were upset in large part because seven executive had gone a decade or more without responding to legally required information requests.

Later, when their winning presidential candidate, Barack Obama, took office, he immediately promised to "usher in a new era of open government," promising to oversee "the most transparent administration in history."

Here's what transparency and accountability looks like under the most transparent administration in all of recorded time. Via Bloomberg News:

On his first full day in office, President Barack Obama ordered federal officials to “usher in a new era of open government” and “act promptly” to make information public.

As Obama nears the end of his term, his administration hasn’t met those goals, failing to follow the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act, according to an analysis of open-government requests filed by Bloomberg News.

Nineteen of 20 cabinet-level agencies disobeyed the law requiring the disclosure of public information: The cost of travel by top officials. In all, just eight of the 57 federal agencies met Bloomberg’s request for those documents within the 20-day window required by the Act.

“When it comes to implementation of Obama’s wonderful transparency policy goals, especially FOIA policy in particular, there has been far more ‘talk the talk’ rather than ‘walk the walk,’” said Daniel Metcalfe, director of the Department of Justice’s office monitoring the government’s compliance with FOIA requests from 1981 to 2007.

The Bloomberg survey was designed in part to gauge the timeliness of responses, which Attorney General Eric Holder called “an essential component of transparency” in a March 2009 memo. About half of the 57 agencies eventually disclosed the out-of-town travel expenses generated by their top official by Sept. 14, most of them well past the legal deadline. 

Outside of paid White House staffers, who continue to claim that the administration is as transparent as a newly Windexed window, is there anyone left who doesn't think the Obama administration's commitment to openness is a joke? This president and the agencies he oversees are just as indifferent to transparency as every administrion before, and perhaps more so. 

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The Case of Shakir Hamoodi: Three Years in Federal Prison For Sending Money to Iraqi Relatives During Sanctions

Say, speaking of the travesty that is the U.S. justice system, via Glenn Greenwald comes the story of Shakir Hamoodi, an Iraqi-American who earlier this month began serving a three year term in Fort Leavenworth federal prison for the crime of sending money to Iraqi relatives during the post-Gulf War I, pre-2003 invasion U.S. sanction period.

Hamoodi, who moved to America in 1985 and became a citizen in 2002, studied nuclear engineering, and eventually had five American-born children. He also has numerous relatives left in Iraq, including a blind mother and 11 siblings. During the sanctions period, his family was basically broke and starving. So, in spite of the legal restrictions on sending money to Iraq during this time, Hamoodi decided to help. He eventually coordinated with other Iraqi ex-pats and helped his family and theirs survive during these lean years. Eventually Hamoodi and the other Iraqis sent over $200,000 over to their native country. 

Now, that may seem like a big number, during that time the Iraqi dinar was nearly worthless. According to Greenwald:

Because sending money into Iraq from the US was physically impossible, he set up a bank account in Jordan and proceeded to make small deposits into it. From that account, small amounts of money - between $20 and $100 - were dispersed each month to his family members.

When other Iraqi nationals in his Missouri community heard of his helping his family, they wanted to help theirs as well. So Hamoodi began accepting similar amounts of money from a small group of Iraqis and ensured those were disbursed to their family members suffering under the sanctions regime. From 1993 until 2003, when the sanctions regime was lifted after the US invasion, Hamoodi sent an average of $25,000 each year back to Iraq, totaling roughly $250,000 over the decade: an amount that fed and sustained the Iraqi relatives of 14 families in Columbia, Missouri, including his wife's five siblings.

Prosecutors later found no proof that Hamoodi's money had any connection to the Saddam government, indeed his careful bookkeeping accounted for all the money sent. (Prosecutors did counter that they had no idea where the money went after it reached Iraqi.)

The illegality of Hamoodi's charitable efforts culminated with a massive FBI raid in 2006. Hamoodi's connections to the nuclear industry and his outspoken opposition to the American invasion in 2003 had made him a particular target. He was also not secretive about his money sending. In 2009, Hamoodi had pled guilty to conspiracy to violate the International Economic Emergency Powers Ac, and admitted that he had indeed sent the money; he was hoping to avoid jail time. But in May, Hamoodi received a three-year sentence for something that had not been a crime for nearly a decade.  

Hamoodi has received staunch community support and efforts, including this petition, to get Obama to commute his sentence, but for now the 60-year-old is now in prison. He is most worried about his youngest son, who is currently in 10th grade. 

Said Department of Justice attorney Garrett M. Heenan, it does matter that Hamoodi's crime is no longer illegal:

“But it is still a serious crime, and the larger United States government interests in having sanctions and, moreover, having people in the United States — citizens — abide by the requirements of [the] Treasury [Department] and not violate those sanctions is an important thing that the United States would seek to promote.” 

In June, the Daily Beast reported on the Hamoodi case, as well as other cases of sanctions violations. 

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Property Rights Are the Way to Save the World's Depleting Fisheries, Reports Science

I will repeat my mantra: Wherever you see whatever you want to call an environmental problem, catastrophe, screw-up, it's occurring in an open access commons. That is, since nobody owns the resource, everybody exploits it as much as they can because they know if they leave something behind, the next guy is just going to take it. I live in hope that someday soon environmental activists will heed this lesson.

A new study, "Status and Solutions for the World’s Unassessed Fisheries," (sub required) published this week in the journal Science notes that only 20 percent of the global catch comes from formally assessed fisheries, missing 80 percent that is harvested mostly from smaller scale local fisheries. With regard to the assessed fisheries, the study notes:

A recent synthesis of global fisheries with formal assessments reveals that although 63% have a biomass below what would produce maximum sustainable yields (MSY), nearly half of these (45%) have lowered exploitation rates sufficient for recovery. A complementary analysis by the FAO found that 32% of 441 studied stocks are either overexploited (28%), depleted (3%), or recovering (1%).

So the researchers looked at thousands of unassessed fisheries and found...

...that small unassessed fisheries are in substantially worse condition than assessed fisheries, but that large unassessed fisheries may be performing nearly as well as their assessed counterparts. Both small and large stocks, however, continue to decline; 64% of unassessed stocks could provide increased sustainable harvest if rebuilt. Our results suggest that global fishery recovery would simultaneously create increases in abundance (56%) and fishery yields (8%-40%).

So what do? Establishing property rights would help a lot:

Our analysis suggests large potential conservation and food benefits from improving the management of the world’s unassessed fisheries. To realize these benefits requires successful approaches for fisheries reform. Limiting entry and using individual transferable quotas (emphasis added) have been shown to benefit data-rich fisheries within developed countries . These approaches, however, may prove more challenging to implement for unassessed fisheries in developing countries, because they inherently require strong governance, rule of law and monitoring. Rather, ap- proaches such as territorial user right fisheries (TURFs), fisheries cooperatives, TURFs coupled with no-take reserves (25), and co- management approaches are likely to be more broadly appropriate tools. In addition, coupling recent advances in data poor assessment with these management instruments will be critical to success.

Speaking of the rule of law, for a depressing glimpse of how politics screws up even fisheries successes in the U.S., see my blogpost, "Give a Man a Fishery and Soon You'll Have More Fish."

Steve Horwitz on Austrian Economics, Family, and Bleeding Heart Libertarians

"In the 25 years since I've been studying central banking and competitive alternatives, there's never been so much attention on the Fed as there is right now, and there's never been so much critical attention," says Steve Horwitz, Austrian economist and professor at St. Lawrence University.

"Steve Horwitz on Austrian Economics, Bleeding Heart Libertarians, and Family" is the latest offering from Reason TV. 

Watch above or click on the link below for video, full text, supporting links, downloadable versions, and more Reason TV clips.

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Did Crappy Expert Testimony Condemn an Innocent Woman to Prison for Murder?

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, while rejecting Rosa Jimenez's request for a new trial last April, conceded that the courtroom in which she was convicted of murdering a toddler was not "a level playing field." In particular, the court said, Jiminez "makes a compelling argument that she was outclassed and outmatched by the State's numerous experts." Four months after that ruling, the judge who presided over Jimenez's 2005 trial, Jon Wisser, wrote a letter to Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg in which he said, “I believe now, as I did at the time of the trial, that there is a substantial likelihood that the defendant was not guilty of this offense." Now Jimenez, who has already served nearly 10 years of a 99-year sentence, is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene. Her petition has the support of Mexico's incoming president, Enrique Peña Nieto, who sees her case as an example of the unequal legal treatment Mexicans receive in Texas. According to The New York Times, Peña Nieto "contends that there is a widespread perception that Mexican nationals cannot get a fair trial in Texas," which he says is "bad for the citizens of both our countries.” 

That narrative is complicated by the fact that the mother of Bryan Gutierrez, the 21-month-old boy Jimenez was convicted of killing, is, like Jimenez, an illegal immigrant from Mexico. Had Jiminez been acquitted, the case might still be held up as an example of how Mexicans cannot get justice in Texas. Charlie Baird, the Travis County judge whose retrial order for Jiminez was reversed by the appeals court, seems closer to the truth when he says:

This case shows that the poor are not on an equal footing; it's not a fair fight. The state had unlimited resources to avail itself of medical experts. Ms. Jimenez went begging for expert assistance. She had woefully inadequate funds to do so. 

Expert medical testimony was crucial in this case because Jimenez was accused of stuffing five wadded-up paper towels down Bryan's throat while babysitting him in January 2003. The prosecution speculated that Jiminez, who had watched Bryan for seven months with no problem, was frustrated by his crying. The state's expert witnesses said it would have been impossible for the boy to swallow the towels on his own, which is what Jiminez said must have happened. The defense's expert witness, according to the Times, "came off as an amateur." He was "a forensic pathologist who was not an expert in pediatrics or choking, who cost far less than the experts her lawyers originally sought and who swore at prosecutors in the courthouse hall." Baird tells the Times, "It would be hard to imagine a worse witness. That’s what you end up with when you are given a pittance to hire an expert." At a 2010 hearing, "experts in pediatric airway disorders testified that a child of Bryan's age could indeed stuff five sheets of wet, balled-up paper towel into his mouth." They concluded the boy's death was probably accidental. In Jimenez's Supreme Court petition, her lawyers argue that "the rejection of Jimenez's ineffective assistance claim conflicts with this Court's precedents recognizing the vital importance of expert assistance in ensuring a fair trial."

The Austin Chronicle laid out the reasons for doubting Jimenez's guilt in a 2001 story. Radley Balko, who wrote extensively for Reason about problems with expert testimony in criminal trials, argues that the government has a duty to make sure people it accuses of crimes have enough money to hire competent expert witnesses. In the July 2011 issue of Reason, Clay Conrad explained how the right to counsel is undermined by inadequate funding for public defenders.

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Steven Greenhut on How California’s Failed Policies Are Driving Away Businesses and Residents

California may be blessed by magnificent and varied geography, mild weather, and an “anything’s possible” culture, but the state also currently suffers from a political process controlled by union advocates hell-bent on protecting their power and privilege, no matter what that means for the state’s public finances and public services. And as Steven Greenhut observes, the evidence now shows that California’s failed policies are responsible for driving away both businesses and residents. It’s time for the Golden State to mend its ways.

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Fighting Over Medicare May Not Be Good Policy, But It Can Be Good Politics

There are an awful lot of reasons why Medicare reform has been stalled. But one of them is that some elected Democrats aren't interested in working on any sort of Medicare deal as long as it remains an effective cudgel to use against the GOP during election season. President Obama has suggested in the past that he might be open to changing the seniors' health. And Politico reports that some Democrats on Capitol Hill are worried the president might actually pursue those changes in a second term because they believe it would hurt their chances at the polls in 2014:

What bothers Democrats on Capitol Hill, but not a lame-duck White House, is that any compromise that includes Medicare cuts would deprive the party of a significant issue heading into 2014.

“Look at the senators who are up next time,” said the congressional Democrat, citing the many red-state and swing-state Democrats up for reelection in two years. “You’d chop them off at the knees right before they start running.”

This isn't the first time Democrats have grumbled about the political problems they faced if they started to negotiate a deal on Medicare. Last year, The Washington Post reported that senior Hill Democrats were griping behind the scenes that agreeing to Medicare cuts would "risk squandering the major political advantage Democrats have built up on the issue."

Obviously, Democrats aren't alone in playing on fears of Medicare cuts to win votes. Republicans did it all throughout the ObamaCare debate. And the Romney campaign has been particularly aggressive about criticizing President Obama for reducing planned Medicare spending by $716 billion in order to fund the health care law's expansion of insurance coverage. But it does highlight the extent to which many of perenial entitlement fights are driven not by data-driven policy considerations or even basic concerns about what might be best for constituents, but by naked political self interest. The war over Medicare may not be good for the budget or for seniors, but it can be useful for those who want to get elected, which is one of the reasons why that war is likely to continue. 

That's a barrier to reform of a deeply dysfunctional entitlement program. It's also a barrier to creating and maintaining a functioning, effective, results-driven health care system. And it's a big reason why we ought to always be cautious about pushing for greater government interference in the health care sector: Inevitably, politicians end up pursuing their own interests instead of everyone else's. 

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Defining Deviancy Downwards: FBI Identifies Insane Clown Posse Fans as Criminal Gang

For years, the ardent and unembarassable face-painting fans of the music group the Insane Clown Posse have been known as Juggalos.

According to the FBI's 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment, they should also be known as a criminal gang.

From the report:

Juggalos’ disorganization and lack of structure within their groups, coupled with their transient nature, makes it difficult to classify them and identify their members and migration patterns. many criminal Juggalo subsets are comprised of transient or homeless individuals, according to law enforcement reporting. most Juggalo criminal groups are not motivated to migrate based upon traditional needs of a gang. however, law enforcement reporting suggests that Juggalo criminal activity has increased over the past several years and has expanded to several other states. transient, criminal Juggalo groups pose a threat to communities due to the potential for violence, drug use/sales, and their general destructive and violent nature.

In years past, such people might have been called concert-goers.

It's true that the co-founder of the band, Joseph Bruce (a.k.a. Violent J) has a past involving gangs, jail, and professional wrestling. But ICP is not taking the current gang designation of their fans lying down.

Rolling Stone reports

Rappers Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope announced in August at the [annual event] Gathering of the Juggalos that they intended to sue. "We are not a gang!" the group's statement reads. "We are a family! We come together for our luv of the Insane Clown Posse, Psychopathic Records and our Juggalo pride. Can we take a fuckin' second to note that Jimmy Buffett's Parrot Heads, Lady Gaga's Little Monsters, Justin Bieber's Beliebers, the Grateful Dead’s Deadheads and many more haven't been labeled as a gang?"

Insane Clown Posse has also established a website, Juggalos Fight Back, where fans who have experienced "any negative consequence with a governmental representative" can ask ICP's legal team to review their situations, at no cost, by filling out a questionnaire.

Years ago, in a far more troubled yet innocent age, the folk singer Phil Ochs improbably printed eight poems by Mao Tse-Tung on the back of his 1996 LP, Phil Ochs in Concert, asking listeners whether these were the words of the enemy.

If the FBI had not already embarrassed itself countless times in the past (a personal favorite is the unsuccessful attempt to determine the lyrics to "Louie, Louie"), it would be tempting to say this is the moment when the organization has officially jumped the shark. (

But we may ask now, in an age that seems to be equally post-ironic and post-constitutional: Is the music of the enemy?

Listen briefly to ICP's best-known song, Miracles, in which Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope ask the foul-mouthed and haunting musical question,

Water, fire, air and dirt
Fucking magnets, how do they work?
And I don't wanna talk to a scientist
Y'all motherfuckers lying, and getting me pissed
Solar eclipse, and vicious weather
Fifteen thousand Juggalos together
And I love my mom for giving me this

Past ICP news at Reason.

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Reason Writers Around the Internet: Ronald Bailey on HuffPost Live Talks About the Wonders of Consumer Genetics

Would you want to know your risk of Alzheimer's disease? Reason Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey did. Just in time for next week's big Consumer Genetics Conference in Boston, Bailey participated earlier this week in a panel discussion about the value and possible pitfalls of consumer genetics. Besides Bailey, the panel included geneticist James Evans from the University of North Carolina, geneticist Joel Krier from Harvard University, and journalist John Lauerman who is taking part in the Personal Genome Project.*

Later this fall, the Food and Drug Administration is expected to issue proposed regulations aiming to "protect" people from gaining unfettered access to their genetic and genomic information.

So surf on over to HuffPost Live to listen in on the conversation.

BTW, Bailey will be posting daily dispatches from the Consumer Genetics Conference all next week. As background, check out Bailey's "I'll Show You My Genome. Will You Show Me Yours?" and go over to SNPedia to sift through his DNA to find out what's wrong with him.

*Disclosure Bailey is also a participant in the Personal Genome Project. In addition, Bailey says that his genotype screening test suggests that his risk of Alzheimer's is about average (at least with respect to the alleles tested). He's losing his mind for other reasons.

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Gary Johnson Gains Support And May Take Ohio Out of Play for Romney

The usual wisdom is that, as election day grows closer, support for third-party candidates tends to shrivel as the voting public heeds the tribal war drums and comes home to Team Red or Team Blue in a ritualistic display of political masochism that could be topped only by the sight of actual hair-shirted flagellants lined up to enter the polling booths. That third-party shrinkage may not be happening this year, though — or not yet, at least. A new poll from Ohio shows Gary Johnson gaining support, even as press reports emphasize the hold-your-nose-quality in which both major-party candidates marinate, and which may have voters looking elsewhere for options.

Conducted September 21-22, a Gravis Marketing/Capitol Correspondent poll first asked the usual Obama or Romney question, which revealed a tight race. (The full results are here.)

  • Obama/Biden: 45.2%
  • Other/Unsure: 10.4%
  • Romney/Ryan: 44.3%

Then, Gary Johnson was added.

  • Johnson: 10.6%
  • Obama/Biden: 44.5%
  • Other/Unsure: 7.1%
  • Romney/Ryan: 37.8%

Not so tight, anymore. And Johnson's numbers are up from September 7-8, when he pulled 4.5% in Ohio.

If this is a break from the usual all-power-to-the-institutional-parties phenomenon, why would that happen? Well, note that, in Ohio, both Romney and Obama have higher unfavorables than favorables. When asked about Obama's job performance, 46.4 percent disapprove, and 45.3 percent approve (8.3 percent are unsure). When asked their opinions of Romney, 44.4% are unfavorable and 41.1 percent are favorable (14.6 percent are, somehow, still unsure).

The recent nation-wide Reason-Rupe Poll (PDF) also found both Obama and Romney upside down in terms of public opinion, with 50 percent disapproving of the president's performance on the economy* compared to 47 percent approval, and 49 percent holding an unfavorable opinion of Romney compared to 41 percent favoring him. That poll found national support for Johnson at six percent.

This wide-ranging dislike for what the major political parties have coughed up as their team leaders this year squares very strongly with a recent Bloomberg Businessweek article pointing out:

Never have American voters re-elected a president whose work they disapprove of as much as Barack Obama's. Not that Mitt Romney can take much comfort — they've never elected a challenger they view so negatively, either.

Unless things change dramatically, this Election Day will mark a first, no matter who wins. The victor will be a sitting president with a slow economy, 8 percent-plus unemployment and an average Gallup job-approval rating below 50 percent. Or he'll be a challenger who isn't liked personally by a majority of the public and faces notable discord within his own party.

Of course, third-party support could still shrivel by election day. But it's interesting to see Johnson's support apparently growing this close to America's regularly scheduled festival of political disappointment.

*Note: I originally pulled numbers from the wrong line of the poll. Obama has overall favorables in the Reason-Rupe poll, but an unfavorable rating on his handling of the economy, which has shaped up as moderately important this year.

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The Cabs Are Not Alright: Rent-Seeking in Omaha and Lincoln, Ne.

In August, Nebraska’s Public Service Commission (PSC) denied Servant Cabs’ application to operate in Omaha, which is now served by a monopoly of five taxi companies under common management, and the rest of the state. Servant Cab filed a lawsuit to overturn the ruling this week reports the Lincoln Journal Star.

Nebraska law requires prospective taxi operators to prove to the PSC that they are:  

“(a) … fit, willing and able to properly perform the service proposed … and [that] (b) the proposed service … will be required by the present or future public convenience and necessity.”

A broad array of citizenry testified in support of Servant. From the official report:

  • Hotel managers spoke of shoddy service: long wait times, cabs that never arrive, dirty vehicles and a shortage of taxis during periods of high demand such as bar closing hours or large events (like the College World Series, which takes place in Omaha each June). One stated that after hour-plus waits, many bar patrons give up and drive home under the influence, a serious safety issue that is a direct result of a lack of cabs (p. 35).
  • Service providers and disabled residents described the drastic need for more wheelchair-accessible transportation options, which Servant would have provided. Currently, disabled residents who need to travel during hours or along routes not covered by public transportation call ambulances because of the scarcity of cabs that can handle wheelchairs (p. 36).
  • Neighborhood activists testified that many residents rely on unlicensed cabs to get to work because public transportation and the existing cabs do not meet their needs. Senior centers have difficulty arranging for residents to get cabs for trips to the pharmacy and church (p. 33).
  • Even some Omaha cab drivers, who complained of poor treatment by existing companies, testified for Servant Cab, saying more competition would benefit consumers and cabbies (p. 31-33, 35).  

The law also allows cab companies a say in the process, and they routinely protest potential competitors’ attempts to move onto their turf. Servant Cabs’ application was naturally opposed by Omaha’s existing monopoly.

Earlier this year, Servant Cab unsuccessfully opposed those same Omaha companies’ efforts to enter the Lincoln, Neb. market, where, until this May, Servant had had its own monopoly according to the Lincoln Journal Star. Ironically, testimony from a hearing in that case played a role in the PSC’s decision to prevent Servant Cab from operating in Omaha.

In addition to finding that Servant failed to “offer any specific business plans” for their expansion into Omaha and the rest of the state, commissioners also cited complaints from Lincoln residents and officials about Servant Cabs’ failure to meet customer demand in Lincoln—complaints that look very similar to some of those aired by Omaha residents about a shortage of cabs in Omaha (p. 39).

Nebraska legislators did consider a bill (LB889) this spring that would have exempted taxi companies trying to operate in cities from having to prove “public convenience and necessity” for their services. They would still have had to prove themselves “fit, willing and able;” however, so it would not have helped Servant Cab. The bill died in committee.

Lest anyone be tempted to utter the term Schadenfreude, remember that Servant isn’t the loser in Omaha—it’s consumers who can’t catch a cab. Then reflect on the absurdity that, to PSC commissioners, a monopoly's failure to serve Lincoln customers justifies protecting a monopoly in Omaha.

Reason writers have covered harmful and unnecessary regulation of the taxi industry in DC, New York City, Connecticut, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh (Pa.), Anchorage, Quincy (Ill.) Bloomington (Ill.), and Alexandria (Va.) among other locales.

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2012 Campaign Makes Even the F Word Lame

I've been saying for a while that President Obama needs to take the campaign up a level by dropping f-bombs in all his speeches. There's still time left! 

Given what now seems to be a widening gap in the presidential race (I warned you people!), the president may not need to spice things up with potty-mouth antics. But his supporters are greeting the presidential contest with a big Fuck Yeah! 

Here's Whoopi Goldberg getting a "bullshit" bleeped on ABC's The View

Sarah Silverman performs a lewd act with a cat in this attack on Romney supporter Sheldon Adelson. This one gets an "explicit" tag from the YouTubes. 

But this Samuel L. Jackson commercial (which like most videos these days features higher production value than it really needs) does not. In a laff-riot riff on his reading of the pissy parents' book Go the Fuck to Sleep, the Snakes On a Plane star disturbs an extended family with the phrase "Wake the Fuck Up." (Warning: "laff-riot" is a genre descriptor, not a guarantee of any actual funniness.) 

 

Presumably all these generations of a haute booboisie family are living under one roof (a habit most Americans are happy to leave back in the Old Country) thanks to the margin-of-error-level GDP growth, 11 percent cumulative inflation and 8+ percent unemployment that has characterized the Obama Administration. Tellingly, other than a vague reference to the family's having been "on the street" in 2008, Jackson's appeal does not rest on claims that anybody's actually doing better today. Most of the family members are told to support Obama just because they did so when he ran against John McCain. (Only PUSSIES change their minds in response to facts.) 

Should we be worried about this growing incivility in our campaigns? Not necessarily. Time's Claire Suddath gives a nice history of presidential profanity (along with one good piece of light-blue poetry from the perpetually underrated Prime Minister John Major): 

Lyndon B. Johnson had a famously dirty mouth. He chided Canada's Lester Pearson for his anti-Vietnam stance by saying, "You pissed on my rug," and once likened the difference between a Senator and a Representative to "the difference between chicken salad and chicken s___." He even considered removing J. Edgar Hoover as FBI chief but changed his mind, reasoning that "it's probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in."

Yet despite Johnson's many outbursts, Richard Nixon holds the unofficial record for being the most openly profane U.S. President — probably because he recorded much of what he said in the Oval Office. In a taped 1971 conversation between the President and two of his aides, Nixon called Mexicans "dishonest," said that blacks lived "like a bunch of dogs" and that San Francisco was full of "fags" and "decorators." And that was just one conversation.

These days, nearly everything is either recorded, broadcast, tweeted or put on YouTube. Yet for some reason, politicians still haven't learned to keep their mouths shut. In 1993, British Prime Minister John Major was caught on tape referring to three members of his Cabinet as "a shower of bastards." The same thing happened to then Texas Governor George W. Bush in 2000, when he called veteran New York Times reporter Adam Clymer "a major league asshole." And Vice President Dick Cheney knew others could hear him when he shouted "Go f___ yourself" to Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy on the Senate floor. (Of that incident, Cheney later said, "It was sort of the best thing I ever did.")

My concern is for the future of the f word. Politicians have a way of making everything suck, from the NFL to the iPod. While I've enjoyed many of Samuel Jackson's movies, I can't get too worked up about another Hollywood star's going in the tank for the sitting president. (Where's Dennis Farina in this election? He's my favorite hard-cussing actor.) The slow leeching out of profanity's power, on the other hand, is a real threat to the republic. And it's unnecessary. Why all this sailor talk when everybody knows the real reason to vote for Obama is that he gives you a free phone? 

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Romney Looks to Capture Massive Percentage of Libertarian Voters

Over at Cato's At Liberty blog, David Kirby of Freedom Works says that when it comes to grabbing votes from libertarian-minded voters, Mitt Romney is approaching "a high water mark for Republican presidential candidates in recent elections."

Who counts as a libertarian? Kirby explains:

Using three questions, we can define libertarians as respondents who believe “the less government the better,” who prefer the “free market” to handle problems, and who want government to “favor no particular set of values.” These fiscally conservative, socially liberal voters represent 20% of the public in the [latest] Reason-Rupe poll, in line with previous estimates.

Here's a chart that Kirby, a frequent collaborator with Reason's polling director Emily Ekins, put together. In a race featuring Romney, President Obama, and Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson, the Republican pulls a whopping 70 percent of the vote. As interesting (to me at least!) is that Johnson, a former two-term governor of New Mexico. After a series of seriously meh candidates, the LP has put forth its best offering in forever.

Kirby writes

Romney’s vote share may be more a libertarian vote against Obama than for Romney. Few libertarians were excited about Romney in the Republican primary. Indeed, Romney’s deficit among libertarian voters may well have been part of the campaign’s strategic calculation of adding Paul Ryan to the ticket. If so, it seems to be working.

More here.

Read the latest Reason-Rupe national poll, released just last week, which is full of great information not just about the presidential horse race but attitudes toward Medicare, drug legalization, tax reform, and more.

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Kurt Loder on Looper

Looper is a very good time-travel movie, writes Kurt Loder. Writer-director Rian Johnson has come up with a nifty sci-fi hook, and he keeps as tight a rein as possible on the story’s twisty internal logic. The year is 2044; the place, Kansas City, Kansas—here, a familiar dystopian hellhole. Our protagonist, a young guy named Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), tells us in voiceover that time travel hasn’t been invented yet—but that 30 years in the future it has. Thus, the powerful mob of the future, run by a fearsome crime lord called the Rainmaker, is able to send any poor saps who’ve incurred the kingpin’s displeasure back in time to be terminated, their bodies to be disposed of in the past, where future cops can never find them. Things get complicated very quickly when a newly arrived victim Joe confronts one day turns out to be his older self (played by Bruce Willis). Old Joe is a crafty character with a sad backstory and a determination to alter it by finding the little boy who will grow up to be the Rainmaker and terminating him. Old Joe escapes before Young Joe can blow him away, leaving Young Joe in a serious bind.

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A.M. Links: Innocence of Muslims Filmmaker Denied Bail, Libyan Militants Bragged to Al-Qaeda About Benghazi Attack, Boston Police Record Thousands of License Plates a Day

  • The filmmaker behind Innocence of Muslims was picked up on charges of violating probation and denied bail.
  • Radical Islamic militants in Libya apparently bragged to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb about their assault on the U.S. consulate and assassination of the U.S. ambassador to Libya.
  • A FOIA request from the ACLU reveals Boston police create up to 3,000 records based on license plate reads a day, and hold on to the information for 90 days, or forever if they need it for an investigation or intelligence!
  • Muslims in Sydney complain their reputation has been ruined by a handful of extremists who they say used turned a protest over an anti-Islamic film in front of the U.S. embassy there into a veritable riot.
  • The French prime minister offered a budget proposal that raises taxes on the rich up to a 75 percent tax rate. He called the budget courageous, responsible and a “budget of conquest.”
  • A Russian bishop “consecrated” the North Pole, which Russia claims has fallen within its sovereign domain for more than a millennium. The region is slowly being remilitarized.

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Brickbat: Chicken Shit

Corpus Christi, Texas, officials have ordered John Webb to stop washing the bird droppings off the sidewalk in front of his downtown restaurant. Webb has washed the sidewalk for 18 years. But officials now say that since the droppings run into the storm drain he's violating the city's stormwater ordinance and could be fined $2,000 a day. But don't the droppings run into storm drains when it rains? Yeah, but that's legal, they say.

Brickbat Archive

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Long Arm of the Law Reaches Out to Innocence of Muslims Filmmaker

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, better known as Sam Becile, the filmmaker behind Innocence of Muslims, an anti-Islamic film that sparked protests throughout the Muslim world, was taken into federal custody, likely for violating a probation that includes a prohibition on internet use. Federal authorities began to review Nakoula’s probation days after the protests started, bringing him in to talk and even opened an investigation into the film. While he was convicted of credit-card fraud and identity theft, Nakoula was likely also an FBI informant (the feds tend to have quite a few). While Nakoula may seem an unsavory criminal type, the average American could commit as many as three felonies a day, bringing everyone within convenient reach of the law. Anti-anti-Muslim protester Mona Eltahawy, meanwhile, mistook vandalizing private property for free speech and arrest for the former as censorship of the latter.

An important reminder about free speech, and on Reason TV, Remy imagines a world without YouTube, a conduit for Innocence of Muslims, and target of governments looking to look tough on blasphemy (or “hate speech”):

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Forget the Super-Rich, America's Bottom 1 Percent are Imprisoned and It's an Ethical and Fiscal Nightmare

The past year brought forth much talk of 99 percents and 1 percents and even though Occupy Wall Street's influence has waned, people as percentages is now firmly fixed in the lexicon, and the concerns of rich versus poor, and corporate versus personal will remain forever and ever amen, particularly in this post Mitt "47 percent" Romney era.

Anyway; Over at the Hoover Institution, Research Fellow David Henderson suggests that the percent to really worry about is indeed the 1 percent, but not the richest of the rich, but rather those at the bottom; that is to say, prisoners, who are the poorest of the poor and in the worst straits. 

Henderson estimates, based on U.S. prisoner numbers (2.2 million) and general population (314 million), that the former makes up three quarters of one percent of the population. That's a substantial number of folks to worry about, and when you add the five million more under "correctional supervision" the numbers become almost incomprehensible. They are, indeed, higher than the rest of the world's imprisoned. 

Henderson is keen on fixing things for prisoners in general. He is particularly concerned, though, about the folks who were imprisoned for consensual crimes including prostitution, drug, and gambling offenses. He even defends the choice behind drug selling (after all, drug dealers are merely providing a product that is in demand). Indeed, the subtitle of the piece hits it straight-on: "To lower taxes, free all prisoners who have committed victimless crimes."

And Henderson isn't just a big old softy who is worried about criminals, he's got some dollars and cents to back up his push for change. About the

top 1 percent who are getting such negative attention. In recent years, they have been paying over 25 percent of all federal taxes. That’s all federal taxes, not just income taxes. In their textbook, Public Finance, Princeton University economist Harvey S. Rosen and Georgetown University economist Ted Gayer estimate that in 2005, the top 1 percent paid a whopping 27.6 percent of all federal taxes, including Social Security.

[...]

We hear the Occupy Wall Street people—and President Obama—advocate taxing the top 1 percent more. I've got a better idea: Let's tax the top 1 percent less and let a few hundred thousand of the bottom one percent out of prison—and out of poverty.

Henderson also 

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$2.8 Trillion in Unfunded State Pension Debts: Congressional Republicans Look to Block Federal Bailout

South Carolina GOP Sen. Jim DeMint is crafting a preemptive strike against states inevitably turning to the federal government for pension bailouts.

The Republicans of the Joint Economic Committee (of which DeMint is a member) have released a report, titled “The Pending State Pensions Crisis,” illustrating the extent to which state pensions are underfunded and the negative consequences should the federal government get involved in fixing it. DeMint is taking the lead in attempting to publicize its contents:

When the states with the worst pension systems come knocking at Washington’s door for a bailout, it will ultimately be taxpayers in more prudent states who will pay for the recklessness of the negligent states.

Despite the fact that 49 states have balanced budget requirements the report calculates $4.2 trillion of state debt, $2.8 trillion of which is unfunded pension benefits. It’s by far the dominant source of debt for state governments across the country.

The percentage of unfunded liability varies from state to state. North Carolina has the lowest at 37.1 percent (if having a third of your pension debt unfunded can truly be called low). Illinois has the highest at 71.8 percent. Something else to keep in mind when thinking about all those raises the teachers in Chicago just received.

It’s obviously not a sustainable model, and the report points out that little is actually being done to fix it even as the economy stagnates for the private sector:

Out of political self-interest, state and local politicians have given public sector unions much higher wages and more generous benefits than their private sector counterparts, all at the expense of current and future taxpayers. In the first quarter of 2012, state and local employees received 43% more in total compensation compared to their private sector counterparts. It is not sustainable to have public servants making more money than the public paying their salaries.

In the event of a federal bailout of state pensions, the report explored who would be the winners and losers, considering the possibility of financing either through federal tax increases or through spending cuts. Whose taxpayers would either pay more or lose more in order to close the gap? In both cases many of the winners were the same states who had the highest unfunded liabilities. They would siphon the money off of the other states that were more responsible.

The goal of the report’s authors is to try to take the possibility of a federal bailout of pensions of the table. They don’t predict any real reform will happen on the state level unless there’s no chance the federal government will come clean up the mess for them:

Until a federal bailout is taken off the table, states that enact prudent policies and take the often painful actions required to live within their means will risk being penalized, while states that are unrestrained and irresponsible in their spending and promises will hold out for a federal recompense. Washington policymakers must act now to make it abundantly clear to states that they will not benefit from a federal bailout of state pensions.

But simply passing legislation today stating there will be no federal bailout of state pensions is not enough – we have seen how many times Washington policymakers have waived or found a way around such rules in the past. Instead, policymakers must begin today by laying out the principles of what constitutes a sound pension plan and setting forth the penalties that would be applied to states seeking a federal bailout.

To preemptively deter states from seeking bailouts, the federal government could conditionally reduce federal aid to states in proportion to their unfunded liabilities until their pension fund becomes solvent over a specified future time frame. Alternatively, the federal government could revoke states’ tax free bond status if conventional, private-sector accounting standards show that their pension funds are expected to go broke within 10 years or less.

Read the whole report here (pdf).

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Video of Mona Eltahawy Vandalizing Subway Poster

As noted at Reason 24/7, journalist and MSNBC talking head Mona Eltahawy was arrested in a subway station by New York police recently while spraypainting one of the controversial new posters that calls Islamic radicals "savages." 

A New York Post video of the suspiciously well documented incident is below. As you can see, Eltahawy gets into a scuffle with a supporter of the poster named Pamela Hall. Hall, who seems to know Eltahawy, attempts to get video of the episode herself, but I'd doubt she got any usable footage. 

Best part: Eltahawy asks, "Are you Pamela Geller?

Some more description from News Busters

“Mona, do you think you have the right to do this?” said Pamela Hall, holding a mounted camera as she tried to block the barrage of spray paint.

“I do actually,” Eltahawy calmly responded. “I think this is freedom of expression, just as this is freedom of expression.”

Hall then thrusts herself between Eltahawy’s spray paint and the poster.

Eltahawy -- an activist who has appeared on MSNBC and CNN -- engaged her in an odd cat-and-mouse dance, spraying pink every time she had an opening.

“What right do you have to violate free speech,” Hall pleaded.

“I’m not violating it. I’m making an expression on free speech,” an increasingly agitated Eltahawy shot back.

Eltahawy is not a raving lunatic. In the past she has made some fairly intelligent criticisms of extremists. But even allowing that few people keep cool heads while getting handcuffed by burly cops, she has obviously gone off the deep end here. While I like a good piece of detournement as much as anybody, there's a clear free-expression distinction between buying advertising and destroying an advertisement somebody else paid for. There's also a clear distinction between making a movie and burning down a movie theater because you don't like it. Eltahawy's act may not be as lethal as that, but spraying paint around the face and eyes of another person comes pretty close to assault in my book. 

Feast yer eyes: 

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Spain and Greece Take Steps Towards Austerity

The Spanish government has unveiled its 2013 budget. If the protests of the last few days are anything to go by chances are it might not be as well received as many in the Spanish government might like.

The austerity budget includes the following (the last one in particular sounds oddly familiar):

a 12% average cut in ministerial spending

a freeze in public sector pay for the third consecutive year

a new independent authority to monitor government finances

an increase in pensions funded by drawing on 3bn euros of reserves

a new 20% tax on lottery wins above 2,500 euros (£2,000; $3,200)

a new car scrappage scheme

On the other side of the Mediterranean, Greek politicians are looking closer to an agreement on austerity measures for 2013-14 ahead of negotiations with international lenders. The agreement has to go before the Greek parliament for approval. Without these austerity measures being met Greece will almost certainly have to default on its debt in the coming weeks.

Both Spain and Greece have experienced protests this week against the austerity programs being proposed by the Spanish and Greek governments. In Spain, the unrest over the measures being pursued by the central government is only part of the story. From Forbes:

Beyond its economic crisis, Spain is mired in a political crisis as well.  The autonomous regions are all running out of cash, putting further pressure on Madrid to request the bailout (the EU has already committed up to €100 billion ($128.6 billion) to bailout its banks).  Already, five of regions (including Valencia, Catalonia, and Andalucia) have taken about 90% of a regional liquidity fund, leaving less than €3 billion ($3.9 billion) for the rest.

And Catalonia, the rich and highly autonomous region where Barcelona is located, is on the verge of holding a referendum on independence.

Even with the new budget Spain may well be asking for more assistance from its European neighbors soon. The Spanish government is under some pressure to take part in the European Central Bank’s bond buying program. Thus far the cigar smoking Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, has yet to seek such assistance. 

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Butt Chugging: At Least As Big a Trend As Vodka-Soaked Tampons

Unlike vodka-soaked tampons, which are "everywhere" (according to a cop quoted by a Phoenix TV station last year), beer and wine enemas "seem to be isolated incidents," according to a federal official paraphrased by CNN. The occasion for that reassurance: Over the weekend, Alexander P. Broughton, a 20-year-old University of Tennessee student, was treated at the school's medical center after achieving a blood-alcohol content of 0.4 percent, five times the legal cutoff for driving while intoxicated. Police called to the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity house concluded that Broughton had absorbed the alcohol by funneling wine into his rectum. "This is extraordinarily dangerous," says Aaron White of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, "but people shouldn't get the impression that it's a widespread phenomenon."

Or maybe they should. Last year's KPHO story about vodka-soaked tampons mentioned "butt chugging" as a variation on the theme. "Using a beer bong rectally is the same concept as a vodka-soaked tampon," Officer Chris Thomas told the CBS affiliate. A rehab center founder likewise tells CNN "he's seen an increase in risky behavior in young adults over the last year, from 'bath salts' drugs [which also can be consumed anally, I hear] to synthetic marijuana to vodka tampons. As their bodies develop a tolerance for toxic substances, abusers seek out stronger and faster highs."

Is that what Broughton was doing? Or was he simply behaving like a frat boy? (Since he was not a pledge, this seems more like a dare than a hazing incident.)  As Joslyn Gray observes at Babble, "you don’t need a college degree to understand that it's never a good idea to get your party planning tips from a Jackass movie." While some may blame the media or even rubber tubing, boxed wine seems like the real culprit here, since the bags they contain are ready-made for enemas, while the low price and quality clearly are geared toward butt chugging. 

Although this complication should not stand in the way of a ban on boxed wine, Broughton's father is disputing the police account, saying his son consumed wine in the usual manner during a drinking game. The father says liver test results suggesting the wine was consumed orally and the accounts of his son's friends rebut the butt chugging claim. Police say their conclusion was based on interviews with Broughton's fraternity brothers, tubing and empty wine bags found at the frat house, and "signs of physical and possible sexual assault."

Nick Gillespie included butt chugging in his recent list of "5 Classic Teen Sex-and-Drug Freakouts." For what it's worth, I found a 1999 Reuters story about vodka-soaked tampons on Nexis, while the earliest reference to an "alcohol enema" was a 2005 Houston Chronicle story about Michael Warner, a 58-year-old machine shop owner who died from alcohol poisoning after a sherry enema. The Chronicle, citing a local detective, explained that Warner "had a long history of alcoholism, but couldn't ingest alcohol by mouth because of painful medical problems with his throat." The first reference to "butt chugging" I've seen is that 2011 KPHO story quoting Chris Thomas, but there may be earlier uses of the term. Urban Dictionary has an entry for the phrase dated June 10, 2011, but no examples of its use in print or online.

Update: A May 2010 Gawker post about butt chugging uses that term and cites several relevant videos, including a 2008 episode of The Doctors that is mainly about vodka-soaked tampons (which one panelist warns will "completely destroy the vagina") but mentions "beer bongs...into their anuses" toward the end.

[via The Week]

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Sorry Innovators! Former Copyright Czar Argues that Inventors Who Might Possibly Infringe On Copyrights Should Have to Get Permission From Congress

Imagine a world in which inventors and innovators had to ask Congress for permission before releasing any new product that might possibly put current copyrights at risk. We probably wouldn’t have made it to the VCR stage of home video, much less found a market for pure digital distribution. Peer to peer sharing software would likely be outlawed, and even things like basic computer networks — which allow multiple users to share files — might be wiped from history.

Yet this is exactly the world imagined by Ralph Oman, the former U.S. Register of Copyrights. Oman held the title, which put him in charge of the U.S. Copyright Office, from 1985 through 1993, and previously helped draft the 1976 Copyright Act while working for the Senate Subcommittee on Patents, Trademarks, and Copyrights.

He still works on copyright issues today, and has filed an amicus brief in a dispute over Aereo, a streaming TV service that lets people access over the air TV broadcasts via the Internet. Predictably, Oman sides against Aereo.

But Mike Masnick at TechDirt catches him going much, much further than that. At one point, Oman seems highly annoyed that Aereo designed its system to be technically legal, writing the system seems to have "been designed by a copyright lawyer peering over the shoulder of an engineer to exploit what appeared to Aereo to be a loophole in the law and shoehorn the Aereo business model into the Cablevision decision." 

Yes, as Masnick has explained, Aereo's system is a workaround — a workaround built to stay with the legal boundaries established existing copyright laws. But Oman thinks inventors shouldn't be allowed to do that, at least not without permission. They ought to have to explicitly ask Congress for permission before taking a product to market. 

From Oman's brief:

Whenever possible, when the law is ambiguous or silent on the issue at bar, the courts should let those who want to market new technologies carry the burden of persuasion that a new exception to the broad rights enacted by Congress should be established. That is especially so if that technology poses grave dangers to the exclusive rights that Congress has given copyright owners.Commercial exploiters of new technologies should be required to convince Congress to sanction a new delivery system and/or exempt it from copyright liability. That is what Congress intended.

The idea, Oman argues, is that “the courts should not saddle the copyright owner with having to convince Congress to act to prohibit unauthorized Internet retransmissions.” But the inevitable effect would almost certainly be to substantially slow the pace of innovation, and likely prohibit many potentially useful inventions that might also be used to infringe upon copyrights. And judging by Oman's irritation with the fact that Aereo was designed to be legal, he apparently thinks that this should apply even to systems and technologies built with the explicit purpose of staying on the right side of the law. 

Even if you favor broad copyright protections, this seems like a deeply problematic balance, and an awfully high price to pay just to protect copyright owners from any possible threat. 

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Gary Johnson Campaign Sues Debate Commission For Violating Anti-Trust Laws

Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson has filed a lawsuit against the Commission on Presidential Debates on the grounds that the commission is violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) has formally invited only Mitt Romney and Barack Obama to the debates while excluding all others, including Johnson. 

According to the commission’s criteria for inclusion, Johnson meets two out of its three required metrics. The first is that the candidate be of age and constitutionally eligible to serve as president. The second is that the candidate be on the ballot in enough states to actually win the Electoral College.

Johnson falls short in the third category: a show of support of at least 15 percent in recognized polls. The CPD specifies:

The CPD's third criterion requires that the candidate have a level of support of at least 15% (fifteen percent) of the national electorate as determined by five selected national public opinion polling organizations, using the average of those organizations' most recent publicly-reported results at the time of determination.

It’s pretty much impossible for Johnson to meet the third and final part of the commission's demands. He hasn't been included in enough national polls even to register a minimum level of support. The CPD does not specify which national polling outfits they actually use to determine that 15-percent threshold.

The lawsuit, filed in a U.S. District Court in California, argues that Johnson is seeking a job in the presidency and that other parties are colluding to prevent that from happening by barring him from the presidential debates. From the filing: 

The acts of the defendants, as alleged above, to conspire and contract among and between themselves to monopolize the field in the race for president and vice-president harm the American electorate generally, and plaintiffs, particularly.

Johnson’s vice presidential pick, Judge Jim Gray of California, is planning on arguing the case before the court as soon as they give a date for a hearing. Gray says the anti-trust argument is strong that Democrats, Republicans, and the commission are conspiring to restrain trade and competition.

"I believe in this," Gray said in a phone interview. "It is something I think will be historic. I am very confident the ruling will stand up as historical precedent."

This approach of suing on anti-trust grounds is very different from previous attempts by candidates including Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan, which largely focused on free speech and FEC violations.

The court has not issued a date for the hearing.

"You have to remember, the core of the anti-trust laws is not to protect competitors but to protect competition," Gray said. 

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Big Brother Watch: Department of Justice Warrantless Digital Spying Way Up in Past Two Years

In George Orwell's novel, 1984, the masters of the totalitarian dystopia of Oceania could chiefly spy on its hapless citizens through telescreens. However, if you are out of sight, you could hope that you were out of Big Brother's mind. In the actual modern world, we've moved more and more of our lives online where the police can get access to them with just the click of a mouse. A new report by the American Civil Liberties Union* (ACLU) shows that's exactly what the police have been doing - snooping through the digital detritus that Americans leave in their wakes without so much as a warrant authorized by a neutral judge.

Without going too deeply into details, the ACLU report documents an enormous increase in the Justice Department’s use of pen register and trap and trace surveillance in the past two years. Pen registers capture outgoing data, while trap and trace devices capture incoming data, e.g., phone numbers, emall addresses, and records about instant messaging. However this supposedly "non-content" information can reveal quite a lot about a person's private life. As the ACLU report explains:

...for a pen register, the government need only submit certification to a court stating that it seeks information relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation. As long as it completes this simple procedural requirement, the government may proceed with pen register or trap and trace surveillance, without any judge considering the merits of the request. As one court noted, the judicial role is purely “ministerial in nature.”

The content/non-content distinction from which these starkly different legal requirements arise is based on an erroneous factual premise, specifically that individuals lack a privacy interest in non-content information. This premise is false. Non-content information can still be extremely invasive, revealing who you communicate with in real time and painting a vivid picture of the private details of your life. If reviewing your social networking contacts is sufficient to determine your sexuality, as found in an MIT study a few years ago, think what law enforcement agents could learn about you by having real-time access to whom you email, text, and call. But the low legal standard currently applied to pen register and trap and trace devices allows the government to use these powerful surveillance tools with very little oversight in place to safeguard Americans’ privacy.

In the past two years, how much more digital snooping have government agents engaged in? To get some idea see the chart below:

The ACLU favors legislation that would require law enforcement agents to at least get a warrant to sift through Americans' digital lives. Can it really be that the George W. Bush administration was more respectful of the privacy of Americans? Go here to explore Reason's extensive (and depressing) archive on the growth government surveillance.

*Disclosure I am a card carrying member of the ACLU.

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Paper: Public Transportation Can Work — If We Punish Private Drivers

Apparently, Americans' might be broken of their love affairs with nasty, take-you-where-you-want-to-go, when-you-want-to-go, automobiles and taught to love lovely, communal bus and train timetables, through some simple, if unpopular, policy changes. That's the conclusion of a study published by Transport Reviews Journal, which compares the post-World War 2 experiences of Germany and the United States in shifting back to civilian economies and the divergent policies that resulted in different travel habits among the populations. What the paper doesn't delve into, however, is why Americans, or anybody else, should consider doing anything of the sort.

In Demand for Public Transport in Germany and the USA: An Analysis of Rider Characteristics (PDF), by Virginia Tech's Ralph Buehler and Rutgers University's John Pucher, made available by theNewspaper, there's a lot of data about public transportation usage, taxes and regulatory differences between the two countries, but the money quote is the very last sentence:

Without the necessary policies to restrict car use and make it more expensive, American public transport is doomed to remain a marginal means of transport, used mainly by those who have no other choice.

In terms of usage, the paper points out that Americans have much lower usage of public transport than most other developed countries:

The largest increase in public transport mode share for work commuters was in Germany, rising from about 13% in 1993 to 16% in 2008. The censuses for Canada and Australia report slight increases in public transport mode share over the past two decades, while mode share declined in Ireland. There has been almost no change in the share of American workers commuting by public transport, remaining about 5%, a third as high as the share in Germany.

There are a lot of policy choices the German goverment has used to drive passengers to its transport systems, in preference to private cars, but a combination of taxes, fees and outright restrictions have been key. By example, the average sales tax for a new car in the U.S. is 4.9 percent, while it's 19 percent all across Germany. Drivers licenses cost about $100 in the U.S. and $2,000 in Germany. About 15 percent of the price paid by Americans for gasoline is tax, compared to 61 percent in Germany. And German governments ban cars from many downtown areas and restrict the availability of parking spaces, which are subsequently more expensive.

So, by design, driving a car in Germany is a pricey proposition, and potentially prohibitive unless you have a lot of cash to burn. Of course Germans look for alternatives. But while Buehler and Pucher seem pretty clear on the policy path that led Germany to where it is today, transportation-wise, they never tell us why that emphasis on public transport should be preferred over one on private means or, even better, simply letting people make their own choices and shoulder their own costs.

Here's a thought: If people will choose what you want them to choose only if you artificially hike the price and restrict the availability of alternatives, you might want to do some soul-searching about your personal comfort level with twisting people's arms.

See also, Brian Doherty's take on light rail, and Calvin Thompson's look at public transit's ongoing troubles in the U.S.

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Too Fat to Fight (Or Just Too High?)

Some of the nation's top military brass—including 300 retired generals and admirals, including Richard Myers, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and James M. Loy, former Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security—are worried that American kids are too fat to fight.

A new report released this week, creatively titled "Still Too fat to Fight" tries to scare policymakers into cutting down on the availability of junk food in schools.

400 billion calories of junk food are being sold in our schools every year.

That’s the equivalent of 2 billion candy bars.

Put them on a scale and they would weigh almost 90 thousand tons.  That’ s more than the aircraft carrier Midway.

While those stats are eye-catching, they're also misleading. Some of the junk kids eat in schools is from vending machines. But school lunches can be just as bad, and more legitimate target for reform. I say this as someone who had a fried chicken sandwich and a Hawaiian Punch—doled out in the official lunch lady—for my public school midday meal every single day of 8th grade. Recent efforts at new menus have met with mixed responses, with these Kansas student athletes complaining that they are fading away, but may actually be a step in the right direction.

Earlier this month, First Lady Michelle Obama delivered the same message on Dr. Oz, agreeing that "the greatest threat to national security that we have is obesity."

The report also notes:

Currently, 75 percent of 17- to 24-year olds in the US cannot serve in the military, primarily because they are physically unfit, have not graduated from high school, or have a criminal record. 

A good chunk of those criminal records are drug war related, of course. (Just 27 percent of kids can't serve due to obesity, which makes this another dubious stat in the report.) The way I see it, we have two choices for the defense of our nation: fit weed smokers or fat Twinkies eaters. I know which I'd choose when the Krauts come a-callin'.

I'll be discussing this story on RT at about 5 p.m. Eastern time today, so tune in!

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Afghanistan Surge Looks Like a Bust, Economy Staggers Along, Drug Legalization Touted at the U.N.: P.M. Links

Have a news tip for us? Send it to: 24_7@reason.com

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

Damon Root on Libertarianism and the GOP

Has libertarianism taken hold of the Republican Party and ruined American conservatism in the process? New York Times columnist David Brooks thinks so. In a column this week, Brooks surveys the state of the American right and declares it to be in terminal decline. The root of the problem, he explains, is libertarianism. Traditional conservatives have been eclipsed by those who “upheld freedom as their highest political value” and worry too much “about the way government intrudes upon economic liberty,” Brooks says, and the results have been disastrous.

Reason Senior Editor Damon Root has a different take. The GOP needs more libertarianism, Root writes, not less.

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Rachel Carson's Silent Spring at 50 Years

"It's not polite to talk about brown and black people dying because rich white people in America feel better about themselves when the brown and black people don't get to use DDT," says the University of Alabama's Andrew Morriss.

"Rachel Carson's Silent Spring at 50" is the latest offering from Reason TV.

Watch above or click on the link below for video, full text, supporting links, downloadable versions, and more Reason TV clips.

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We Must Discourage Medical Use of Opioids and Marijuana—for the Children

The results from the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), released this week, are not very different from the 2010 results. Reaching for evidence of success in the war on drugs,  the federal government is highlighting a 14 percent drop in the number of 18-to-25-year-olds who reported using prescription drugs for nonmedical purposes in the 30 days prior to the survey. USA Today notes that the change occurred "amid federal and state crackdowns on drug-seeking patients and over-prescribing doctors." Pamela Hyde, who runs the agency (the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) that sponsors the survey, says "these findings show that national efforts to address the problem of prescription drug misuse may be beginning to bear fruit and we must continue to apply this pressure to drive down this and other forms of substance use." Here are three reasons to be skeptical of this argument:

1. If nonmedical use of prescription drugs had stayed the same or gone up, Hyde still would be arguing that her numbers show the need for continued "pressure to drive down this and other forms of substance use." That's the great thing about drug use surveys: No matter what the data are, they always reinforce the case for more taxpayer money.

2. The government tends to notice drug trends, such as the increase in methamphetamine use during the 1990s or the increase in nonmedical use of prescription painkillers during the first decade of this century, after they have already peaked. That may seem like a disadvantage from the perspective of someone who counts on the government to stop people from consuming politically incorrect chemicals, but it positions government officials to take credit for declines in drug use that would have happened with or without their belated interventions.

3. To the extent that the "pressure" championed by Hyde works, it does so by discouraging doctors from prescribing opioids, which may seem like a great idea to drug warriors but is apt to be perceived differently by patients suffering from severe chronic pain who rely on these medications to make their lives livable. Since there is no way to objectively verify pain, even the most diligent physician has to put a certain amount of trust in his patient when deciding what to prescribe. Efforts to discourage doctors from believing their patients may well frustrate some malingerers, but only at the cost of condemning others to avoidable agony. It is hard to see how this tradeoff, which sacrifices the welfare of legitimate patients for the sake of protecting fakers from their own recklessness, can be morally justified.

Drug czar Gil Kerlikowske provides another illustration of how any data can be used to support any point a prohibitionist wants to make. The NSDUH report says the share of 12-to-17-year-olds reporting past-month marijuana use in 2011 (7.9 percent) was "similar to the rates in 2009 and 2010" (7.4 percent in both years). Kerlikowske nevertheless latches on to the new number as an excuse to reiterate his argument that legalizing marijuana for medical use and talking about legalizing it for recreational use send "a bad message" to the youth of America, encouraging them to believe cannabis is not all that dangerous (which happens to be true, but never mind) and tempting ambivalent teenagers to try it. "Marijuana is still bad news," he tells USA Today. "I think [teenagers] are getting a bad message on marijuana. I think that the message that it's medicine and should be legalized is a bad message."

Is there any evidence this "bad message" translates into more marijuana consumption by teenagers? Kerlikowske seems to be fixated on a single data point: The NSDUH measured a statistically significant increase in past-month use by 12-to-17-year-olds between 2008 and 2009 (from 6.7 percent to 7.4 percent). The timing suggests Kerlikowske himself may be to blame, since he took over the Office of National Drug Control Policy in early 2009. Not surprisingly, that is not the explanation he favors, but it makes at least as much sense.

NSDUH numbers indicate that the share of teenagers reporting past-month use of marijuana was slightly lower last year than it was in 2002, the first year of the survey, despite all the intervening publicity attracted by the marijuana reform movement. The Monitoring the Future Study, which focuses on students, indicates that the share of seniors reporting past-month marijuana use rose from 21.9 percent in 1996, the year that California became the first state to legalize the medical use of marijuana, to 23.7 percent in 1997. But the rate immediately started falling, and it has never been that high since, even as 16 more states and the District of Columbia followed California's example. Furthermore, studies that compare marijuana consumption in states with and without medical marijuana laws find no impact on use by teenagers. And if public receptiveness to repealing marijuana prohibition encourages teenagers to smoke pot, what are we to make of the fact that past-month use by 12th-graders peaked at 37 percent in 1978, even though the percentage of Americans favoring legalization has almost doubled since then? Kerlikowske's persistent reliance on this argument, despite all the evidence against it, should be condemned for what it is: a crude, fact-free attempt to intimidate reformers by portraying their advocacy as an act of child endangerment.

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Italian Prosecutors Target Scientists Who Failed To Predict the Future

I understand the impulse to kill the bearer of bad news — it's rude, but understandable — but what about punishing people who fail to properly read their tea leaves so as to foresee unpleasantness in the future? That's what Italian prosecutors are doing in the wake of the devastating earthquake that killed over 300 people in L'Aquila; they're prosecuting seven geologists and volcanologists who downplayed the possibility of an earthquake shortly before the big event actually hit.

From the London Daily Telegraph:

Prosecutors in Italy have called for a group of scientists to be sent to prison for four years each for allegedly failing to give adequate warning of the L'Aquila earthquake in 2009 that killed 309 people and injured hundreds more.

The trial of the seven experts has proved immensely controversial, with the international scientific community saying that earthquakes cannot be predicted and that the experts are being made scapegoats for an unforeseen natural disaster.

But critics say that by downplaying the risks, they consigned hundreds of people to their deaths when the quake struck at 3.32am on April 6, 2009, reducing centuries-old buildings as well as modern apartment blocks to dust.

In calling for the jail sentences, prosecutors accused the experts of offering "an incomplete, inept, unsuitable and criminally mistaken analysis" of the dozens of tremors which rattled the mountain city in the days before the massive quake.

Note that in the days before the L'Aquila quake, researcher Giampaolo Giuliani was targeted by authorities for doing what prosecutors say the L'Aquila seven should have done. The Guardian wrote in 2009:

Meanwhile, Giampaolo Giuliani, a researcher for a physics lab in the nearby Gran Sasso, claimed in media interviews that he forecast the quake days earlier by measuring the amount of radon gas released by the earth, but was muzzled by officials.

Giuliani said Monday that he was placed under investigation by prosecutors for causing alarm after he sent warnings of a pending quake in the Sulmona area 30 miles south of L'Aquilato.

So, scientists can get into trouble for predicting disaster, and they can get into trouble for not predicting disaster.

Methinks that research and scientific inquiry will play a dwindling role in Italy's short-term future.

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70 Percent of Americans Favor Auditing the Federal Reserve

Despite increasing interest in the Federal Reserve’s actions since the 2008 financial crisis, few polls have asked Americans about auditing the nation’s central bank. Consequently, the Reason-Rupe September Pollasked Americans if they would favor or oppose a law that would allow Congress to conduct an annual internal review of the Federal Reserve, 70 percent favor and 21 percent oppose.

In fact, auditing the Federal Reserve is one of the few things that all partisan can agree, although Republicans are more amplified than Democrats. Sixty-five percent of Democrats, 78 percent of Republicans, and 70 percent of Independents favor a Federal Reserve audit.

 

Nationwide telephone poll conducted September 13th-17th on both landline and cell phones, 1006 adults, margin of error +/- 3.8%. The sample also includes 787 likely voters, with a margin of error of +/- 4.3%. Columns may not add up to 100% due to rounding. Full methodology can be found here. Full poll results found here.

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Greg Beato on the Age of the Infographic

In 1982, when USA Today debuted and first began to present its data-driven “Snapshots” as a key component of its editorial mix, these perky charts and graphs (no one called them infographics yet) were often derided as a primary symptom of journalism’s decline, a way to make trivial information significant, important enough for inclusion on the front page. But as Greg Beato observes, now we look to infographics not as a way to dumb down stories but rather as a means of smartening them up. Charts, graphs, and timelines are the new normal in our post-newspaper world.

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U.S.A. Wins In Beer Affordability Index

UBS Bank gets set for Oktoberfest with a chart of beer affordability around the world. Using median income figures and prices for a pint, the chart calculates how long the Average Jose has to work in various countries to buy some suds. Raise your glass and chant "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" 

The Economist, where this chart appears, never seemed like a magazine for inexpensive beer drinkers. Neverthless, they may be overstating the price-per-hour slightly. 

U.S. median income is $50,054 per year. With a 40-hour work week over 52 weeks, that comes to about 40 cents a minute. A 24-pack of Miller High Life in my neighborhood comes to $15.99, which is quite a bit more than I prefer to pay, but nevertheless this comes to about 67 cents a can. 

The UBS chart uses a 500-milliliter beverage, which is a little more than a pint. Even scaling up the size of the beer, that still means you can get the Champagne of Beers at a little less than 90 cents a can. (Do they even sell High Life by the pint? That seems kind of British.) So in reality, John Q. Public only has to work somewhere between a minute and a half and three minutes to quench the deep-down-body thirst we all feel after 90 seconds or so of concentrated labor.

The chart, however, has Americans toiling about six minutes per beer. Those are the kind of economics that could cost Barack Obama the election, unless they start serving Hamm's at those beer summits. 

UBS has the unit "retail" price for the United States at what I presume is $1.80. That seems too cheap for a bar and too pricey for a supermarket. It's good to know our overpaid working slobs are getting great taste for their less filling career prospects, but let's face it: It's been downhill for this country ever since they stopped brewing Henry Weinhard's

Update: National Journal shows how beer drinkers line up by party affiliation:

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As Goes Ohio, So Goes the Nation or, Happy 2nd Term, President Obama!

I am not sure how to make sense of wildly varying polls on the presidential race. On the one hand, you've got polls such as the new Reason-Rupe survey giving Barack Obama a large 52 percent to 45 percent margin over Mitt Romney and various swing-state polls showing the president walking away with Florida, Ohio, and just about everywhere else. On the other hand, you've got polls such as Rasmussen calling it a tie in general and in swing states too.

Then there's Matt Mayer, a former Bush admin Homeland Security official and former head of the free-market Buckeye Institute, talking about Ohio with National Review:

I don’t want to be the one who contradicts Karl Rove’s view that Romney can win without Ohio, but he can’t. It isn’t just that historically no Republican has won the presidency without Ohio’s electoral votes that “proves” that point. It also is the fact that Ohio is a bell-weather state, so if a candidate cannot win Ohio — especially a candidate operating under a very-low-margin-of-error strategy — the likelihood that that candidate wins enough of the other five to nine toss-up states is not high. We are seeing that in the polling results in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Virginia. The election isn’t over, but it appears that Romney will need a big Obama misstep to win.

Read the whole thing here. And read Mayer's devastating book about why state and local governments never cut spending, Taxpayers Don't Stand a Chance.

In 2011, Reason TV caught up with Mayer shortly after Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) released a budget that increased spending and regulatory hassles.

Samuel Scheib on the Streetcar Swindle

There are currently 16 streetcar lines operating as public transit in the United States, but depending on how you count there are as many as 80 cities with streetcars in the planning or development phase. Far from the dominant form of urban transport they once were, streetcars have become prestige projects celebrated for their history, beauty, and alleged ability to promote development.

But the sad secret, writes Samuel L. Scheib, is that streetcars of all descriptions and vintages are at best modestly successful transportation projects, at worst expensive objets d’art that very few people use. Demand for the vehicles is driven not by the public but by the dreams of land-use planners and downtown boosters who imagine that aesthetically pleasing vehicles lumbering in slow circles through walkable areas will somehow prompt a boom in economic activity. It’s time to rethink America’s retrograde love affair with trolley technology.

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Presidents of Guatemala, Colombia, and Mexico Urge U.N. to Consider Changing the Drug War

Otto Perez Molina, of Guatemala, along with Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, and Philipe Calderon of Mexico yesterday spoke at the U.N. and urged serious discussion of drug policy. This was not based on libertarian pleas for freedom, but more a realistic, depressing realization, particularly on the part of the departing President Calderon, that unless people stop having a taste for drugs, something else has to happen. The new-to-office Molina also is preparing to go hard against the cartels who have moved from Mexico into his backyard, even as he plead to the General Assembly that it's time to seriously change the drug war's tactics.

According to Fox News:

Calderón's speech characterized organized crime as a principal cause of death and "one of the greatest threats to democracy in the 21st century."

He urged drug-consuming nations to "evaluate with all sincerity, and honesty, if they have the will to reduce the consumption of drugs in a substantive manner."

"If this consumption cannot be reduced, it is urgent that decisive actions be taken," Calderón said.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos also called for a debate looking at alternatives to the traditional "war on drugs," saying the discussion "must be frank, and without a doubt, global."

"It is our duty to determine — on objective scientific bases — if we are doing the best we can or if there are better options to combat the scourge," Santos said.

Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina in the past has called for legalization of drugs as one possible alternative, but did not go that far in his U.N. address.

Instead, Pérez Molina said his government "would like to establish an international group of countries that are well disposed to reforming global policies on drugs" and would consider "new creative and innovative alternatives."

On the other hand, Perez Molina told the AP on Tuesday, with no dancing around the issue, that he was in favor of legalization, even of cocaine and heroin (regulated, of course).

Of course, back in April, during the Summit of the Americans, when several of these same leaders pushed at Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to seriously discus ending the war on drugs, the result was less than progressive The only sign that came from non-Latin American leaders was the extremely grudging admittance from Obama that this issue "worth discussing." But the answer was, of course, still no.

The Organization of American States is preparing a report on drug legalization, but it's for next year. On the off-chance that things move in the right direction on drug legalization, we can always depend on things to move at the excruciating pace of bureaucracies who have no sense of how bad the drug war is for people caught in its middle.

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Taxes Threaten Gullah Community

Kim Severson of The New York Times explains how a sudden spike in taxes is threatening a Georgia Gullah village:

Sapelo Island, a tangle of salt marsh and sand reachable only by boat, holds the largest community of people who identify themselves as saltwater Geechees. Sometimes called the Gullahs, they have inhabited the nation's southeast coast for more than two centuries. Theirs is one of the most fragile cultures in America.

These Creole-speaking descendants of slaves have long held their land as a touchstone, fighting the kind of development that turned Hilton Head and St. Simons Islands into vacation destinations. Now, stiff county tax increases driven by a shifting economy, bureaucratic bumbling and the unyielding desire for a house on the water have them wondering if their community will finally succumb to cultural erosion.

"The whole thing just smells," said Jasper Watts, whose mother, Annie Watts, 73, still owns the three-room house with a tin roof that she grew up in.

She paid $362 in property taxes last year for the acre she lives on. This year, McIntosh County wants $2,312, a jump of nearly 540 percent.

The chief reasons for the tax hike are an increase in property values, which won't do you much good if you aren't planning to sell your land, and an increase in government services, which won't do you much good if you aren't among the people the services reach:

"We're rural, we're on the coast and we're desirable," [County Manager Brett] Cook said. "When the market got hot six or seven years ago, a lot of individuals holding $15,000 or $20,000 lots on the marsh could sell them for $100,000 or $150,000."

The county also started a new garbage pickup service and added other services, which contributed to the higher tax rates, he said. Sapelo Island residents, however, still have to haul their trash to the dump.

"Our taxes went up so high, and then you don't have nothing to show for it," said Cornelia Walker Bailey, the island's unofficial historian. "Where is my fire department? Where are my water resources? Where is my paved road? Where are the things our tax dollars pay for?"

Here, where land is usually handed down or sold at below-market rates to relatives, Ms. Bailey has come to hold four pieces of property. She lives on one, which is protected from the tax increases by a homestead exemption. The rest will cost her 600 percent more in property taxes. "I think it's an effort to erode everyone out of the last private sector of this island," she said.

As Severson notes, the Gullah community, called Hog Hammock, is the "only private land left on the island, almost 97 percent of which is owned by the state and given over to nature preserves, marine research projects and a plantation mansion built in 1802."

Meanwhile, Cook claims that the

local government does a lot to support the Geechee culture.

"It's a wonderful history and a huge draw for our ecotourism," he said.

This summer, he pointed out, the county worked with the Smithsonian to host a festival that culminated in a concert with members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters, who practice a style of singing and hand claps developed by slaves.

I hate to spell out the obvious, but the creation of a theme-park Gullahland isn't inconsistent with the death of an actual living Gullah community.

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Steve Chapman on the GOP's Environmental Disaster

By the time he died last month, Russell Train was largely forgotten. Most Americans didn't know that, as The New York Times' obituary said, he helped shape "the world's first comprehensive program for scrubbing the skies and waters of pollution, ensuring the survival of ecologically significant plants and animals, and safeguarding citizens from exposure to toxic chemicals." Here's the really surprising part: Train was a Republican. He served as the first chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality under one Republican president, Richard Nixon, and as the second head of the Environmental Protection Agency under another, Gerald Ford. After that, he ran the U.S. affiliate of the World Wildlife Fund.

Back then, writes Steve Chapman, there was no conflict between being a Republican (or a conservative) and favoring environmental protection

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When it Comes to Human Flourishing, Forget Rachel Carson & Remember Bruce Ames

Here's a USA Today opinion column by former Democratic Rep. Charles Stenholm and former Republican Secretary of Agriculture John Block, talking about Rachel Carson and Silent Spring (whose 50th anniversary is being marked today).

The authors praise Carson's book for sparking "environmental awareness" but damn it for its "demonization of agricultural technology [which] obscures the overwhelming environmental fact of our times, that such technology — even pesticides — has been an overwhelming good for the environment and human health."

To that end, they cite a 1993 Reason article by University of California scientist Bruce Ames:

Synthetic agricultural chemicals, he wrote, "have advanced public health by increasing the supply and reducing the price of fruits and vegetables." First, pesticides at the infinitesimal levels they are consumed are simply not dangerous. Fruits and vegetables have naturally occurring pesticides in them, and they are not dangerous either. Second, "People who eat few fruits and vegetables, compared to those who eat about four or five portions a day, have about double the cancer rate for most types of cancer and run an increased risk of heart disease and cataracts as well. Thus, pesticides lead to lower cancer rates and improved health."

And there's this:

Because of the advances in agriculture since 1960, we are now using half as much land to grow our food crops than we would without new technologies.

In other words, if we had not embraced new technologies, the farmers of the world would have been forced to raze and plow an area of land equal to the size of Russia, or three Amazon rain forests, to grow the same amount of food. Had we gone back to organic agriculture, which is 30% less efficient, the loss of forest and habitat would also be huge.

Read the full USA Today piece here.

Here's a great 1994 Reason interview with Ames by Virginia Postrel. More on Ames here.

Read Ron Bailey on how Rachel Carson paved the way for highly politicized science policy that plagues us today.

And check out this April 2011 Reason TV vid on "The Top 5 Environmental Disasters That Didn't Happen":

 

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State-By-State Avg. Personal Income Growth Since 2007

USA Today reports that average U.S. personal income has grown about 2 percent since the recession started in December 2007. Residents of "red states" saw an average growth of 4.6 percent, which compares favorably to growth of 0.5 percent in "blue states." Swing states that are neither solidly Republican nor Democratic saw a 1.4 percent increase.

Does this sort of thing matter in the upcoming election?

Columbia University statistician Andrew Gelman, author of Red StateBlue State, Rich State, Poor State, says local conditions matter less than people think. "People vote based on what they think is good for the country, not what's good for themselves."

For a full state-by-state breakdown, go here.

Four More Years of This Exhausted Nonsense?

Here is your president's closing pitch. Feel the enthusiasm:

What are your favorite laugh lines?

1) "The trillion in spending we've already cut"

2) "nation-building right here at home"

3) "it's time for a new economic patriotism"

4) every sentence involving a precise number of future whatzits his administration will deliver

The consolation prize of a prospective second Obama administration is that he will likely be as impotent and reviled as the 2005-08 George W. Bush. Given the president's relentlessly disappointing economic policies, that's a good thing. 

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Video Prank: iPhone 5s Dropped In Front of iPhone 5 Fanatics

What happens when an Apple employee drops boxes of the new iPhone 5, apparently damaging them, in front of hundreds of customers who have been waiting for days to buy one?

Do thy get irate at the bigmouthed handtruck-tipping klutz? 

Do they offer to help out? 

Do they look up from their earlier-gen iPhones?

Do they try to get an irregular discount?

None of the above. As Alex Goyette finds out in this prank, Apple users do what they do best: sit passively and wait to be told what to do. 

The clip might have been better elaborated. A prank like this should probably include another actor playing the box dropper's supervisor. But it's pretty funny all the same: 

Courtesy of Mark J. Perry

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A.M. Links: Apple’s Map Software Slammed, NFL Refs Will Be Getting Back to Work, Burma Sanctions Eased, Dog Only Cop Left in NM Town, Journalist Thinks Vandalism is Free Speech

  • Looks like Apple might have dropped the ball on Apple Maps, software that is being slammed for its unusability, gross geographical errors, and visual defects. 
  • The labor spat between refs and the NFL is over after both sides signed off on an eight-year collective bargaining agreement. 
  • Hillary Clinton has announced that the U.S. will relax some of its sanctions on Burma. Let’s give trade a try, shall we?
  • The residents of Vaughn, NM are being served and protected exclusively by a different species. A dog is now the only certified member of the police force left in town after the police chief stepped down amid reports he was not permitted to carry a gun thanks to a criminal record.
  • Big money is being spent on campaigns focused on a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage in Minnesota. The main group opposing the amendment has raised more than $8.2 million since the campaign began. 
  • Mona Eltahawy seems to think vandalism is free speech. The political pundit was arrested after spraying an anti-Muslim poster she took exception to in a New York subway station. 

Follow Reason on Twitter and like us on Facebook. You can also get the top stories mailed to you—sign up here.

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Judge Napolitano on the Future of the Arab Spring

The Arab Spring has become the Western Winter, brought about by two American presidents who thought they could kill without moral justification or painful consequence. "We should come home from these barbaric places and leave them alone," writes Andrew Napolitano. "We should trade with them, since they want to buy our iPads and washing machines and blue jeans, but let them run their own governments."

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Brickbat: Duck Amuck

Barrie Heyman and his duck Star have already raised about £6,500 for a children's hospice by visiting businesses in Devon, England, and asking for donations. But members of the North Devon District Council are trying to put a stop to that. They say Heyman must apply 28 days in advance for a street collection permit. That permit is good for one day only.

Brickbat Archive

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Barack Obama’s Not the Only One You Can Win Dinner With

The Obama campaign has been raffling off dinners with the president throughout the campaign, holding the last of the raffles just yesterday. The efforts are useful in pumping up excitement and, most importantly, fundraising. But if “dinner with Barack” wasn’t for you, the Romney campaign’s taken a page out of the playbook. Of course you can’t have dinner with Mitt Romney, who may or may not be a cyborg that doesn’t actually eat, but you can “grab a bite” with his running mate Paul Ryan:

Friend,

Chatting with supporters like you over a good meal is one of my favorite parts of being on the campaign trail.

But with the warp speed we're at in the homestretch of this race -- it doesn't happen as often as I'd like.

That's why I hope you'll enter this contest for a chance to grab a bite with me.

As we get closer to Election Day, every bit of support will help us win this thing. We can't do it without you.

Donate $3 to be automatically entered: www.mittforpresident.com/donate/grab-bite-paul-ryan 

Thanks and good luck, 

Paul Ryan

Three dollars is the 2012 campaign’s “can you spare a dime?" Inflation!

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Gary Johnson Answers Questions On Ron Paul For Reddit

Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson discussed Ron Paul and other topics in his third Reddit appearance today to answer a hodgepodge of questions from users.  

Throughout his campaign Johnson has used the internet to hold freewheeling online town hall forums. He frequently uses Google Hangouts along with other setups to engage supporters and potential voters.

Here's a quick sample of the questions asked that referenced Paul, to whom Johnson is frequently compared. Johnson has made courting Paul supporters a major part of his campaign efforts, even altering his standard stump speech to appeal to key Paul themes like sound money and the Federal Reserve. 

User: What do you see as the main differences between you and Ron Paul? You both obviously share very similar views, but I am curious if there is anything you disagree with him on.

Johnson: Main differences are my business background and the executive experience I've had in my career. We may have differing views on immigration, a woman's right to choose, gay issues, and Israel.

User: Do you feel Ron Paul slighted you in the last debate by not naming you as a hypothetical running mate?

Johnson: I'll leave the answer about Ron Paul to you.

User: How do you feel about Ron Paul running as a Republican?

Johnson: Kudos to Ron Paul. Trying to change the Republican party resulted in a lot of knots on my head. Changing to the Libertarian party, nothing had to be changed.

In one notable exchange, Johnson was asked what he thinks about Paul supporters who plan to write in the Texas congressman's name on Election Day. 

User: Thanks for doing another one of these Governor Johnson.

I am a Ron Paul supporter and I must admit that I am still undecided as to whether I will vote for you in November or write in his name. I realize that you are also a fan of Dr. Paul and want to carry on his message, but there are a few things that concern me.

One is foreign policy. I know you don't want to start a war in Iran, but what about our countless military bases around the world? I have also heard that you support intervening in Uganda to get rid of Joseph Kony. Fans of Ron Paul seem largely opposed to intervention of any kind, even if it has good intentions. It seems that Kony is no longer a huge issue and that most Ugandans believe intervention would do more harm than good...

Johnson: As much as I support Ron Paul I think writing in his name will effectively be meaningless. Count on me to be a military non-interventionist. I think Kony could have been more effectively dealt with by letters of marque and reprisal.

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Depressing U.S. Prison Story of the Day: Released Innocent Prisoners Get Less Help Than the Guilty

In a country of two million-plus jailed individuals, one might think that the least the state could do when they get the wrong guy or gal is to is to pay through the nose, or do anything to help that state-sanctioned kidnap victim try to get their life back.

But whoops, says USA Today, turns out if you were innocent all along, that may not mean much. Indeed, even if you were jailed for a federal crime that turned out to not have been proper, well, good luck with that. Back in June, Reason's Scott Shackford related USA Today's investigation into the fact that 60 individuals in North Carolina were put into prison for being felons in possession of firearms, even though, that was not a federal crime. The details of the wonky law's federal versus state clashes can be found at the above links...

The point at the moment is that with some of these folks (17 so far, with 12 more with their convictions overturned) finally being released, well, turns out there are fewer options than you might hope for them getting their feet back on thr ground.

Most of them have received little more than a bus ticket. Federal law does not require the government to help them search for jobs or find basic necessities such as clothing and a place to live, assistance the guilty routinely receive during their post-prison supervision, partly to keep them from returning to crime.

[...]

...The U.S. Justice Department had originally argued that they should remain in prison anyway, but reversed its position last month "in the interests of justice," according to court records.

At least 10 states provide services such as job training, health care and housing assistance to wrongfully convicted prisoners, according to an Innocence Project study. Most states and the federal government also provide some help in finding social services once someone serves his full prison sentence and is released on parole or supervision, though that help is not available to people whose convictions are overturned.

Compensation for the time they were locked up is even less likely. Federal law permits the government to pay people up to $50,000 for every year they were wrongly imprisoned, but the ex-prisoners -- almost all of whom could have been convicted of state crimes with lesser penalties -- are unlikely to meet its strict eligibility requirements.

"Exonarees fall into this hole where there really isn't a re-entry program for them. Their path to re-entry is often more difficult than someone who has legitimately served time," said Michele Berry, an Ohio lawyer who has handled wrongful conviction cases there. She said that means prisoners freed because they are innocent could have a harder time after they are released than guilty inmates who finish their sentences.

The rest here. More hideous tales of the U.S's prison addiction can be found all over Reason, particularly in our July, 2011 print issue. 

The thing about the prison-industrial complex is how perfectly it encapsulates the fact that government always wins. Or rather, ordinary people will always bare the burden of government mistakes. If you suffer the unimaginable horror of being jailed for something you did not do (or something that shouldn't be a crime at all... ), you absolutely deserve payment for your stolen years. But who will pay? Taxpayers, of course. Never bad cops, bad prosecutors, or bad judges. 

Another disturbing, rarely-remembered facet of incarceration nation, can be found over at Mother Jones where James Ridgeway writes about "The Other Death Sentence," the grim fact of what caring for elderly lifers in prison means. It's essential reading if you're worried about this issue, and even if you have trouble sympathizing with actual murderers, no matter how old and feeble they may be. 

In June, Ridgeway talked to Nick Gillespie and Reason TV about solitary confinement and whether it counts as torture. 

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America's Most Hated Referee Is Also a Bank of America V.P.

Here's a factoid that explains everything wot's wrong with this here modern America: The scab referee at the center of this week's Packers/Seahawks bad-call controversy is also a Bank of America official. At my alma mater-of-sorts American Banker, Kate Davidson describes how Lance Easley's journey to infamy began even before Monday's Fail Mary play: 

The official at the center of perhaps the most controversial call of the season is in fact a vice president for small-business banking at B of A in California.

Lance Easley has worked at the bank since June 2011, according to his LinkedIn profile, and was a business banking specialist at Wells Fargo for nearly three years prior to that. A source at B of A confirmed Easley's title, but the company declined to comment further.

Easley was standing in the end zone during the final seconds of last night's Monday Night Football matchup between the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers.

Seattle was down by five points as its quarterback, Russell Wilson, threw a Hail Mary pass down the field. Seattle receiver Golden Tate shoved a Green Bay defender out of the way and wrestled another for the ball.

It was initially unclear who caught the ball first, resulting in the controversial call captured in this now-infamous photo of one ref signaling an interception while Easley signaled a touchdown.

But instant replays showed that Tate should have been called for pass interference, which would have ended the game with a win for Green Bay. And everyone in the world — except, perhaps, for Seahawks fans and the NFL — believed the pass was intercepted by Green Bay.

At ZeroHedge, Tyler Durden says the confluence of stinky careers contains a depth of meanings. "Well done Lance," Durden writes, "you have managed to move from the most-hated occupation (bankster) to the most-hated individual (outside of Seattle) in one weekend. Is it any wonder Small Business confidence and uncertainty is so high?"

I'm not sure there's a natural connection between moonlighting as a strike-breaking ref and working days a small-biz banker, but there is definitely a connection between BOA and the NFL. Both are corporate welfare queens that suck the taxpayers dry while insulting the great traditions of competition and free markets. In a universe ruled by a just God, Bank of America would have gone out of business in 2009 (and Wells Fargo might have as well). 

While a money-printing machine like the NFL would not go broke if the public tit dried up, individual franchises might have to become a little more competitive (economically as well as athletically) if they were not heavily subsidized by the people. Which makes it even more maddening that the league enjoys such massive government indulgence. Are you ready for some cartel socialism, taxpayer fleecing, city-soaking stadiums, and dangerous workplaces that OSHA wouldn't allow any other random collection of bazillionaires to operate? Reason's all over it like Lawrence Taylor on Joe Theismann's tibia. 

Maybe one replacement ref doesn't deserve to be the public face of all that unsportsmanlike conduct, but it's telling that Easley, like all great supervillains, flamboyantly taunts the forces of justice by refusing to hide. From Larry Brown Sports:

[H]ow did Easley respond to becoming one of the most notorious — and in many cases despised — referees of all time? By hitting up a club the very next night?

George Takata, the sports director at KPGE CBS 47 in Fresno, reported on Twitterearly Wednesday morning that Easley was out at Club Habanos — a bar/club in Fresno, Calif., on Tuesday night. Takata even tweeted the tri-pane photo you see above. He says the middle photo was sent to him by one of his friends, and it is of Easley at the club Tuesday night.

In an incredible irony, Takata’s friend, whose face we blurred out, happened to be wearing a Green Bay Packers shirt — the very team Easley’s awful call victimized...

If you were concerned that Easley might go into hiding after his notorious moment, it looks like you were wrong. Apparently the man is embracing his newfound fame.

Misguided jock sniffer? Inhuman monster? Misunderstood workingman who's just making sure a troubled nation can still get its pigskin on? Unlike the replacement refs, I leave it to you to decide. 

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Don't Expect Big Tax Cuts from Romney, Most Americans Get Goodies from the Feds, Athens Is Off the Vacation List: P.M. Links

Have a news tip for us? Send it to: 24_7@reason.com

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Scott Shackford on Last Resort

The world—both the real one and the version we see on television—has changed significantly since the hit show 24 illustrated many Americans’ post-9/11 fear of a looming terrorist threat ready to destroy us at any moment. The new series Last Resort brings action and intrigue framed around America’s military actions a decade after those attacks, looking at a world where the United States is the aggressor. Scott Shackford watched the pilot and examines how this drama matches a new culture where citizens of all persuasions have growing fears of America’s authoritarian political leadership.

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Gary Johnson Could Take 6 Percent of the Vote

The September Reason-Rupe Poll interviewed 1,006 Americans on landline and cellphones. Among the 787 respondents who said they definitely planned to vote in November, 6 percent plan to vote for Libertarian Presidential candidate Gary Johnson when given the option. Problematically for Johnson, few ballots actually list only three candidates. For instance, this Ohio ballot lists 8 presidential candidates.

Nevertheless, including Gary Johnson in a presidential match-up demonstrates that he takes votes from both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, three percent from each. Johnson voters are overwhelmingly unfavorable toward both candidates; 71 percent have unfavorable opinions of Obama and 61 percent are unfavorable toward Romney.

Johnson Voters

Fifty-seven percent of Johnson voters self identify as politically independent. When asked if they lean toward one of the major political parties, 53 percent lean toward the Republicans and 38 percent lean toward the Democrats. Only 10 percent say they are completely Independent. In sum, Johnson voters are most likely to be Independent-leaning Republicans.

Forty-one percent of Johnson voters self-identify as libertarian. Only 14 percent self-identify as conservative and 10 percent self-identify as liberal. Using the Reason-Rupe ideological typology, 65 percent of Johnson voters are libertarian, the remainder is liberal or conservative, and none are communitarian.

Libertarians

Another way to slice the data is to look at libertarians, as defined by the Reason-Rupe ideological typology. These libertarian respondents said that government should not promote a particular set of values and that people are better able to handle complex economic problems within a free market with less government involvement. When only provided two-options for president, 77 percent of likely libertarian voters say they plan to vote for Romney, 20 percent plan to vote for Obama. However, when Gary Johnson is included as a third option, he receives 14 percent of the libertarian vote. Johnson also captures voters from both Romney and Obama. Obama’s libertarian share declines from 20 percent to 13 percent and Romney’s declines from 77 to 70.

Nationwide telephone poll conducted September 13th-17th on both landline and cell phones, 1006 adults, margin of error +/- 3.8%. The sample also includes 787 likely voters, with a margin of error of +/- 4.3%. Columns may not add up to 100% due to rounding. Full methodology can be found here. Full poll results found here.

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Eugene Genovese, RIP

The historian Eugene Genovese has died at age 82, leaving a legacy that will be confounding ideologues for decades to come. His scholarly focus was the antebellum South, and his most famous book was Roll, Jordan, Roll, a study of slavery that broke important ground by presenting slaves as more than just victims and investigating the rich culture they built for themselves. It was the sort of book you might expect to be written by a leftist, and sure enough, Genovese came out of the left. He wasn't some mild-mannered liberal, either: His first major public controversy came when he announced that he welcomed a Viet Cong victory in Vietnam.

But Genovese was also a cultural conservative, a sympathetic interpreter of southern traditionalists, and a fierce critic of the academic left. By the P.C. wars of the early '90s, he was routinely categorized as a man of the right, even though he still considered himself a socialist; by the end of his life, he had contributed to National Review and spoken at the American Enterprise Institute.

Hence the confounded ideologues. Genovese was sometimes called a "Marxist conservative," and while I'm neither a Marxist nor a conservative I got a lot out of reading his work. I may have disagreed with many things that he wrote, but I always knew he was thinking for himself rather than following a party line.

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Anti-Austerity Protests in Greece Turn Violent

Anti-austerity protests in Athens turned violent today, with so-called “anarchists” being blamed for much of the vandalism and rioting outside the Greek parliament.

The protests came on a day of strikes, with workers demonstrating against 11.6 billion euros worth of cuts. Without the implementation of austerity measures Greece’s future bailouts could be put in jeopardy. Among the unpopular proposals being considered by the Greek government are pension cuts and raising the retirement age.

Much of the anger is being aimed at the troika of the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission, and the European Central Bank. Representatives from the troika are expected to release the findings of their Greek audit later this month or the beginning of October (though some think the release could be even later than that). If the audit finds that Greece is not cutting enough spending and failing to make necessary privatizations then a bailout becomes less likely and Greece will almost certainly have to default on its debt.

The BBC reported on the frustration and anger of Greeks:

An estimated 50,000 people joined Wednesday's protests, including doctors, teachers, tax workers, ferry operators and air traffic controllers.

Banks and historic sites in Athens remained shut, with many shopkeepers expected to close up early so they could attend demonstrations.

Schools and government services also closed down, though buses were still running, reportedly to help ferry people to the protests.

"We can't take it anymore - we are bleeding. We can't raise our children like this," Dina Kokou, a teacher, told Reuters news agency.

"We won't submit to the troika!" and "EU, IMF out!", "People, fight, they're drinking your blood," protesters chanted.

Unfortunately for the protesting Greeks they cannot keep with the spending and remain in the eurozone, despite what leftist leaders like Alexis Tsipras would like them to believe.  The Greek fiasco has been dragged on for too long thanks mainly to political, not economic, concerns. The seemingly inevitable divorce from the eurozone will be more painful as a result.

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Is American Democracy More Like Plutocracy? If So, That Might Be the Best Thing About It

Economist Bryan Caplan, whose research feeding into his book The Myth of the Rational Voter led him to wonder why policies in a democracy aren't even worse than they are, finds some answers in the research of Martin Gilens in his new book Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America

The key? Evidence seems to indicate that government here listens mostly to the opinions of the rich. Note: not just protects the interests of the rich in a purely pecuniary sense, but skews toward their opinions. Some details from Caplan:

[From Gilens' data], Democracy has a strong tendency to simply supply the policies favored by the rich.  When the poor, the middle class, and the rich disagree, American democracy largely ignores the poor and the middle class.....

And from a libertarian perspective this is just fine, Caplan thinks:

the rich are noticeably less statist on both economic and social policy.  Rich and poor alike favor raising the minimum wage, but the support of the poor is nearly unanimous.  The poor are slightly more in favor of extending unemployment benefits.  They're much more anti-gay.  They're much less opposed to restricting free speech to fight terrorism.  The list goes on.....

Gilens is clearly disturbed, even frightened, by his own results.  On social policy, his findings horrify him as a democrat: Even if the lower classes are intolerant, shouldn't they have equal say?  On economic policy, his findings horrify him as a liberal and a democrat: Isn't it awful when our government fails to adopt the oh-so-wise regulations non-rich Americans support?  

While Gilens is disturbed, Caplan is delighted, and as usual unafraid to offend democratic sensibilities:

Democracies listen to the relatively libertarian rich far more than they listen to the absolutely statist non-rich.  And since I think that statist policy preferences rest on a long list of empirical and normative mistakes, my sincere reaction is to say, "Thank goodness."  Democracy as we know it is bad enough.  Democracy that really listened to all the people would be an authoritarian nightmare.

Reason on Caplan.

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Recording Police Encounters? There's An App for That.

There are a variety of smartphone apps that might be useful for recording police encounters. The best ones either make it difficult for police to delete recordings, or stream them to secure servers in the cloud so that they're beyond reach of even the most publicity-shy keeper of the peace. But the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey offers an app that's purpose-designed for monitoring police without them noticing, and for keeping the resulting recordings safe and delivering them, at your discretion, to the ACLU for review. From the ACLU's write-up

The iOS “Police Tape” app, which works on iPhone and iPad devices, records audio discreetly, disappearing from the screen once the recording begins, which prevents any attempts by police to squelch the recording. In addition to keeping a copy of the audio recording on the phone, the user can choose to send it to the ACLU-NJ for backup storage and analysis of possible civil liberties violations.

More than 35,000 people have downloaded the Police Tape app since it was released in July. The app is intended for use in New Jersey where the law allows citizens to record the actions of police officers in public, even without their knowledge.

The excerpt above refers to "audio" but the app also records video (though probably not so discreetly as it captures sound). In addition to its recording abilities, it includes an electronic copy of the ACLU's "Know Your Rights" summary of individual rights and advice on what you should and shouldn't do in various police-encounter scenarios.

While the Police Tape app is designed for New Jersey's legal environment by the ACLU-NJ, there's no reason it shouldn't be useful elsewhere, so long as you keep an eye on local recording laws — especially since it's generally wise to not advertise to police that you're recording an encounter anyway.

Download the Android version here.

Download the iPhone/iPad version here.

And don't miss Reason's advice on recording your dealings with the forces of law and order, and rules to consider for the same.

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Libyan President Confirms: Movie "had nothing to do with this attack."

If you still believe the murder of the American ambassador to Libya earlier this month was the result of "Muslim rage" over a film nobody has seen, you may be eligible for a high-level job with the State Department, but you should listen to the Libyan president.

In an interview with NBC's Ann Curry [video here], Libyan President Mohammed Magarief says the attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others was a, well-coordinated, pre-planned operation by terrorist networks in the country and that it was unrelated to the trailer for the movie Innocence of Muslims.

All this should be clear if you have been following our coverage at Reason – and while we've done a fine job of following this story, we're not exactly a hotbed of foreign policy mavens or a publication with an interest in finding terrorists in every shoeless airport security line. So why has it been so difficult to get the Obama team to fess up? Curry drew Magarief out on the differences between his definition and his American counterpart's.

"This is how I am calling at as a responsible Libyan Official," Magarief replied. "But it is for President Obama and Secretary Clinton to describe it as they like and they feel is right. You have your terminology and we have our terminology."

Exactly. So what's terrorism and what isn't? This handy breakdown should clear it up for you:

TERRORISM
Playing paintball
Bringing baby formula onto an airplane
Sending nasty texts to your girlfriend

NOT TERRORISM
Killing the U.S. ambassador with a shoulder-mounted rocket
Murdering 13 people at a domestic army base
Shooting and killing two people at an El Al ticket desk at Los Angeles International Airport

More from NBC:

Magarief told Curry that based on the accuracy of the assault, he believes the attackers must have had training and experience using the weapons.

"It's a pre-planned act of terrorism," he said, adding that the anti-Islam film had "nothing to do with this attack."

'A strong friend'
Magarief said that while Libyans appeared to be behind the attack that "these Libyans do not represent the Libyan people or Libyan population in any sense of the word."

He added: "We consider the United States as a friend, not only a friend, a strong friend, who stood with us in our moment of need."

More than 40 people have been questioned in connection with the incident, the Libyan leader told Curry.

The Obama administration initially maintained that the attacks were directly linked to protests over the film. Speaking on NBC’s "Meet the Press" on Sept. 16, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said: "What happened in Benghazi was in fact initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo, almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, prompted by the video."

By playing politics in such a clumsy way, the Obama State Department has actually managed to bury the part of this story that is most favorable to its own North African policy: The attack seems to have been very unpopular in Libya, with many regular people joining the president in his pro-American sentiments. (At least, that's what the media seem to indicate. My experience is that all such characterizations, pro and con, tend to dissolve when you look closely into them.)

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There’s No U.S. Embassy to Protest In Front of In Syria

The Arab Spring that toppled regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya (with an assist!) and led to protests in at least a dozen other countries throughout North Africa and the Middle East has turned into what’s been dubbed by some as an Arab Winter, with anti-American protests fueled by Islamic extremists popping up in much of the Muslim world. There is one place still in the throes of an Arab Spring uprising, Syria. Events in Syria may have been overshadowed by anti-American protests elsewhere in the region, and those protests may even have been egged on for just that reason. From the Daily Beast last week, when Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called for more protests against the anti-Islamic film likely used as cover by extremists:

As the protesters massed next door, many Syrian revolutionaries… mused darkly on how the protests over an amateur anti-Islam film were distracting international attention from their plight. “Assad must be very happy by now,” an activist in Damascus, who uses the pseudonym Lena, says.

Some even thought that Nasrallah—who made a rare public appearance at Monday’s rally in which he called it the start of “a serious campaign that must continue all over the Muslim world”—had created the stir to help his friend. “They’re trying to thwart the Syrian revolution,” says Gen. Mustafa Sheikh, the head of the military council for the rebel Free Syrian Army. “Meanwhile, Syrians are getting killed at the hands of Hizbullah and the Iranians, and no one is helping.”

Via Reason 24/7, just today in Syria rebels claim government forces massacred forty people in a small town outside of Damascus. The military, meanwhile, says Syrian rebels bombed the headquarters of the Army and the Air Force in Damascus. Yesterday a bomb went off outside an orphanage built for children whose parents have died in the nineteen months of unrest and government violence. The government says no one was hurt and the bomb didn’t damage the buildings while rebels say the school was actually a headquarters for Syrian intelligence and that their bomb resulted in many deaths. The United Nations, of course, is calling for international action. There has been little, but not for lack of trying—the United States, the United Kingdom and France have pushed several resolutions that would authorize sanctions or military action against Syria in response to the violence, one coming up this week. These resolutions have been nixed by Russia, which, along with China, France, the U.K and the U.S., hold veto power in the Security Council.

John McCain, meanwhile, has been campaigning for a U.S. intervention in Syria since the Libya mission ended. He endorsed President Obama’s interventionist inclinations vis a vis the Arab Spring in an op-ed in March, arguing the president has failed his own principles. Republicans used their convention to tout a more interventionist policy than Obama’s, and McCain himself went so far as to blame the anti-American sentiment throughout the Muslim world on a lack of engagement, saying  demonstrators and those fueling them on “believe that America is weak and we’re withdrawing, and that’s what it’s all about”. Now you know!

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A. Barton Hinkle on Denial of Medical Choice

Abortion-rights advocates are seriously cheesed off at Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli for strong-arming the state’s Board of Health into approving tough new clinic regulations. The advocates fear government bureaucrats could use burdensome rules to reduce access to medical care. Actually, writes A. Barton Hinkle, government bureaucrats are doing that already. And now they have judicial blessing. 

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Billions Spent to Make Medicare More Efficient Make Medicare More Expensive

Buried within the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act — the 2009 stimulus bill — was a substantial amount of funding intended to encourage health care providers to adopt new health information technology, including electronic health records for patients. The idea was to get doctors to use computers help patients and increase the efficiency of their medical practice, and it lined up what current Medicare director Marilyn Tavenner described in 2010 as "unprecedented resources" in service of this goal — about $27 billion over a decade.

"Once patients experience the benefits of this technology, they will demand nothing less from their providers," Tavenner wrote with a coauthor in the New England Journal of Medicine. "Hundreds of thousands of physicians have already seen these benefits in their clinical practice."

As of yet, the clinical benefits are unclear. But health providers are certainly getting financial benefits from their new electronic records systems. Not only are they being subsidized to adopt the new technology, the new systems are helping them bill Medicare for even more than before. The New York Times reports:

When the federal government began providing billions of dollars in incentives to push hospitals and physicians to use electronic medical and billing records, the goal was not only to improve efficiency and patient safety, but also to reduce health care costs.

But, in reality, the move to electronic health records may be contributing to billions of dollars in higher costs for Medicare, private insurers and patients by making it easier for hospitals and physicians to bill more for their services, whether or not they provide additional care.

Hospitals received $1 billion more in Medicare reimbursements in 2010 than they did five years earlier, at least in part by changing the billing codes they assign to patients in emergency rooms, according to a New York Times analysis of Medicare data from the American Hospital Directory. Regulators say physicians have changed the way they bill for office visits similarly, increasing their payments by billions of dollars as well.

The result of the new electronic records systems, which not only organize patient records but also manage the medical billing process, has not been an increase in medical efficiency so much as an increase in billing efficiency. They can charge Medicare for more services. And they can charge Medicare for services that offer greater reimbursements.

This should not come as a surprise. It is exactly how the medical establishment has responded to government-directed efforts to reform the health system through technocratic payment systems in the past. As I noted in my feature on the history of Medicare's payment reforms in the January issue, doctors and health administrators end up tailoring their practices to the payment system:

Medicare’s twin payment schemes are inevitably beset by what George Mason University economist Arnold Kling calls “the socialist calculation problem.” The bureaucrats in charge of setting prices have to come up with a rational basis for the prices they set. They have to be justified, somehow, which is where the complex rate-setting formulas come into play. But without price signals, the result is almost always an arbitrary formula based on a limited, imperfect set of factors. When all is said and done, says Kling, “it’s just a made-up formula. It has to be.” 

The other problem is that any payment system inevitably ends up being manipulated by savvy payees. “You price on the basis of one thing, but then people optimize their behavior to that thing,” says Kling. In a sense this is the primary job of health care administrators: to understand payment systems and squeeze every possible dollar out of them. 

In the wake of the two payment reforms, hospitals began to manipulate the system through “upcoding”—systematically shifting patients into higher-paying DRGs. Research by economists at Dartmouth University suggests that during the early 1990s, hospital administrators figured out ways to substantially increase the number of Medicare cases they billed to higher-paying DRGs. Payment games continue today. In October the Senate Finance Committee released a report accusing several large home health care companies of abusing Medicare’s payment rules by pushing employees to perform extra therapy visits, thereby qualifying for Medicare bonus payments, even when those visits weren’t strictly necessary. But for many health care providers, that’s the business. Hospital administrators “are people whose job it is to game the system,” Kling says. “They know every little detail of the rules.”

The Department of Health and Human Services told The New York Times that these records can "save money" and that the program “has strong protections in place to prevent fraud and abuse of this technology that we’re improving all the time.” It's hard to find this comforting, however, given how many of these sorts of improvements have only made things worse.

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John Stossel on Strangulation by Union

Rules that “protect” government workers from arbitrary dismissal and require everyone be treated equally are bad for taxpayers and “customers”—and even union workers themselves. But this is not intuitive, writes John Stossel, and union workers certainly have no clue about it.

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Sell 'Em if You Got 'Em: Cigarette Taxes Help Make Smuggling Smokes Profitable

A draft report by the Virginia State Crime Commission, quotes a Virginia State Police Officer suggesting that cigarette bootlegging is now more profitable than trade in cocaine, heroin, pot, or guns.

To the extent that is true, it is possible in part because state and local taxes in high-tax states such as New York and Illinois can add $5 or more to the price of a pack of cigarettes compared to low-tax Virginia or Missouri.

A trunk or a truck filled with cases of smokes can yield a five-to-seven-figure payday. It’s a temptation that many—including small-time criminals, cops, military personnel, convenience store owners, cigarette wholesalers, and organized crime—can’t pass up.  A roundup of recent stories:

  • Last week, the Feds filed a forfeiture complaint seeking to seize an airplane, four semi trucks and $2.6 million in cash from a Kansas City, Mo.-based smuggling ring. Most of the cigarettes were sold in New York.
  • On Monday, thieves in Columbus, OH smashed a car into a convenience store and made off with 120 cartons of cigarettes—the 18th cigarette-related theft in the city since July.
  • Two weeks ago, a former Prince George’s County, Md. cop forfeited $2.7 million and was sentenced to five years in jail for providing protection to a cigarette bootlegging operation. Another officer pled guilty in May.
  • Last week, Prince George’s County, Md. prosecutors indicted nine cigarette smugglers caught in July and August. Maryland officials reported 115 cigarette trafficking violations in fiscal year 2011, which ended in June.
  • Last week, a Northern Virginia couple who bought 400,000 cartons for transport to New York from undercover police agreed to forfeit cash, cars, and land.
  • Last week, a man was charged with identity theft in La Crosse County, Wis. for using stolen credit card numbers to purchase cartons of cigarettes. More charges are pending.
  • In August, an armed man hijacked a cigarette delivery truck in Galveston, TX.

Military commissaries and PX stores—where no federal tax ($1.08 per pack) is assessed—and Indian reservations also supply the underground cigarette market, which is active and profitable even within states, as tax rates can vary between counties.

Cigarette smuggling has provided a revenue stream for organized crime for over 50 years. More recently, Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and MS-13 have profited from the trade. "Some violent gangs now are selling cigarettes, drug traffickers are selling cigarettes—there are definitely some violent people who are involved," Jeffrey Cohen, an associate chief counsel for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

In 2010, President Obama signed the Prevent All Cigarette Trafficking Act (PACT), which requires wholesalers, distributors and manufacturers to register with the ATF and file monthly invoices to authorities in each state where they do business. It also prohibits the mailing of cigarettes (with some minor exceptions).

Reason readers may have cause to doubt whether ramping up enforcement will curtail black market activity.

Immigrants DREAM on: Neither Obama nor Romney will help you

"Immigrants DREAM on: Neither Obama nor Romney will help you" is the latest offering from Reason TV.

Watch above or click on the link below for video, full text, supporting links, downloadable versions, and more Reason TV clips.

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Friedersdorf on the Presidential Election: “To Hell with Them Both”

Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic, who supported Barack Obama for president in 2008, will not be doing so this election. Furthermore, he’s challenging Obama’s army of progressive backers to justify their continued embrace despite the incumbent’s significant human rights violations.

Friedersdorf tags three major deal-breakers:

  1. Obama terrorizes innocent Pakistanis on an almost daily basis. The drone war he is waging in North Waziristan isn't "precise" or "surgical" as he would have Americans believe. It kills hundreds of innocents, including children. And for thousands of more innocents who live in the targeted communities, the drone war makes their lives into a nightmare worthy of dystopian novels. People are always afraid. Women cower in their homes. Children are kept out of school. The stress they endure gives them psychiatric disorders. Men are driven crazy by an inability to sleep as drones buzz overhead 24 hours a day, a deadly strike possible at any moment. At worst, this policy creates more terrorists than it kills; at best, America is ruining the lives of thousands of innocent people and killing hundreds of innocents for a small increase in safety from terrorists. It is a cowardly, immoral, and illegal policy, deliberately cloaked in opportunistic secrecy. And Democrats who believe that it is the most moral of all responsible policy alternatives are as misinformed and blinded by partisanship as any conservative ideologue. 
  2. Obama established one of the most reckless precedents imaginable: that any president can secretly order and oversee the extrajudicial killing of American citizens. Obama's kill list transgresses against the Constitution as egregiously as anything George W. Bush ever did. It is as radical an invocation of executive power as anything Dick Cheney championed. The fact that the Democrats rebelled against those men before enthusiastically supporting Obama is hackery every bit as blatant and shameful as anything any talk radio host has done.  
  3. Contrary to his own previously stated understanding of what the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution demand, President Obama committed U.S. forces to war in Libya without Congressional approval, despite the lack of anything like an imminent threat to national security. 

Friedersdorf also points to Obama’s war on whistleblowers as another serious issue demonstrating the gap between Obama the candidate and Obama the president:

Obama ran in the proud American tradition of reformers taking office when wartime excesses threatened to permanently change the nature of the country. But instead of ending those excesses, protecting civil liberties, rolling back executive power, and reasserting core American values, Obama acted contrary to his mandate. The particulars of his actions are disqualifying in themselves. But taken together, they put us on a course where policies Democrats once viewed as radical post-9/11 excesses are made permanent parts of American life.

There are so many choice passages in Friedersdorf piece that posting every masterful observation of Obama’s dangerous precedents would make a mockery of the concept of “fair use,” so go read it now. He has decided that if he does vote, he will cast his ballot for Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson (who is doing an “Ask Me Anything” thread on Reddit today).

Ronald Bailey on the 50th Anniversary of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring

Rachel Carson’s jeremiad against pesticides is credited by many as launching the modern environmentalist movement. But more importantly, through Silent Spring, Carson provided those who are alienated by modern technological progress with a model of how to wield ostensibly scientific arguments on behalf of policies and results that they prefer for other reasons. Reason Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey agues that Rachel Carson, more than any other person, is responsible for the politicized science that afflicts our public policy debates today.

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3 Reasons the Obama Administration Didn't Want to Admit Benghazi was a Terrorist Attack

Eli Lake of Newsweek/The Daily Beast has been a one-man wrecking crew when it comes to demolishing Obama administration misstatements, distortions, and outright fabrications when it comes to the September 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya that killed Amb. Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

Obama admin officials quickly insisted that the attack was a spontaneously coordinated moment of outrage sparked by the YouTube vid "The Innocence of Muslims" despite facts that undercut such a position. Eventually, Obama's spokespeople acknowledged not only that the event was a terrorist attack coordinated by a group with ties to al Qaeda but that they had been warned about such sorts of attacks

Now, Lake reports, it turns out that within 24 hours of the attack, U.S. officials not only had information about who carried out the attack, but enough information to "target" at least one of the participants in the attack.

The intelligence officials who spoke to The Daily Beast did so anonymously because they weren’t authorized to speak to the press. They said U.S. intelligence agencies developed leads on four of the participants of the attacks within 24 hours of the fire fight that took place mainly at an annex near the Benghazi consulate. For one of those individuals, the U.S. agencies were able to find his location after his use of social media. “We had two kinds of intelligence on one guy,” this official said. “We believe we had enough to target him.”

Another U.S. intelligence official said, “There was very good information on this in the first 24 hours. These guys have a return address. There are camps of people and a wide variety of things we could do.” 

A spokesman for the National Security Council declined to comment for the story. But another U.S. intelligence official said, “I can’t get into specific numbers but soon after the attack we had a pretty good bead on some individuals involved in the attack.” 

Read the whole thing.

This sort of official dissembling is as appalling as it is standard-operating procedure for U.S. governments. Why would it take several weeks for Obama and his administration - the one that was going to be so transparent about everything, right? - to come even vaguely clean about the attack? And even in yesterday's U.N. talk, Obama seemed to be suggesting that recent and rampant anti-American actions in the Middle East had more to do with "The Innocence of Muslims" than with larger issues of U.S. policy in the area.

Some reasons spring to mind, including:

1. Using "The Innocence of Muslims" as the proximate cause for a spontaneous attack - as opposed to a cover for an attack on September 11 (of all dates, for christ's sake) minimizes the adminstration's responsibility for screwup after screwup. Hey, it's not American policy that's causing the problem, it's thoughtless YouTube provocateurs that are stirring up anti-American hatred in the Middle East.

CNN has gotten into hot water with the adminstration for airing portions of Stevens' journal in which he discusses rotten security for him and the American mission in Libya (a State Department official has called this act of journalism "disgusting"). But even assuming the "Innocence" was the cause of the attack on the consulate, that doesn't exonerate American incompetence in protecting its people there.

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A.M. Links: Syrian Army and Air Force Headquarters Hit By Bomb Attacks, Warren in Trouble Over Legal Practice History, Small Businesses Pointing Fingers at Big Government, Obama Signs Executive Order to Protect Government Contractor Employees Abroad

  • The headquarters of the Syrian army and air force in Damascus was the target of bombings that, according to state media, have not caused any injuries to senior military personnel. 
  • It looks like Elizabeth Warren practiced law without the right license. The Democratic Senate candidate represented numerous companies from her Harvard Law School office despite not being licensed in Massachusetts. 
  • The President signed an executive order giving better protections to those working for government contractors abroad in a bid to reduce human trafficking and forced labor. 
  • Most small businesses are worse off than they were three years ago, and over half of small business owners are blaming taxes and government spending on the poor state of the economy. 
  • Argentinian President Cristina Kirchner slammed the IMF in her speech to the UN. Argentina could face sanctions if it does not produce economic data that is of the IMF’s standards. 

Follow Reason on Twitter and like us on Facebook. You can also get the top stories mailed to you—sign up here.

John K. Ross on How North Carolina's New Cyberbullying Law Criminalizes Student Speech

This summer, prompted by complaints from teachers, North Carolina legislators passed a law criminalizing student-on-teacher cyberbullying. The measure creates a Class 2 misdemeanor—on par with simple assault or resisting arrest and punishable by up to 60 days in jail or a $1,000 fine—for students who use computers with the “intent to intimidate or torment” school employees. 

John K. Ross writes that while most states have passed anti-bully provisions in recent years, North Carolina’s is the first aimed at preventing students from bullying school employees. 

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Thank God Politicians Are Weighing In On Packers/Seahawks Officiating [Updated with nervous Romney laughter and comment]

If you're still sore over the bad call that turned the result in last night's game between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks, there's good news on the horizon. American politicians, including (twice!) the president of the United States, are giving their own opinions. 

That's a big relief, and not just because it's always good for the American people when elected officials (especially presidents) get involved with professional sports. With so many pols having free time to comment on the outcome of a football game, we can rest assured that all the country's big problems have been solved: 

Vice-presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin)
Give me a break. It's time to get the real refs. And do you know what, it reminds me of President Obama and the economy. If you can't get it right, it's time to get out.

President Barack Obama
NFL fans on both sides of the aisle hope the refs' lockout is settled soon. -bo

Wisconsin State Rep. Tyler August
Hey @danecci @necci4da when ur sworn in ur 1st action should be to file charges against those refs from last night cause that was a robbery.

New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney
This past weekend in the NFL has not only made a mockery of a great sport, but shined a very bright light on how important fully trained and professional officiating is to player safety. We wouldn’t allow a factory or construction site to operate without fully trained supervisors on hand to ensure the safety of employees. Why should we do anything differently when the job site is a playing field?

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker
After catching a few hours of sleep, the #Packers game is still just as painful. #Returntherealrefs

President Barack Obama
Terrible. I’ve been saying for months, we’ve gotta get our refs back.

Wisconsin State Sen. Jon Erpenbach
If tonights game doesnt make the NFL settle with the real refs this season will be a joke...
You can leave a message for nfl commish roger goodell at 212 450 2027. #NFL

Former President Bill Clinton
I would not have called that last play the way they did in that Seattle-Green Bay game last night. The Packers will wake up this morning and just sort of shake their head and say: "We should have won by two touchdowns."

Wisconsin State Sen. Chris Larson
People end up thinking you can get good work for cheap, you can always find a cheaper way and it's going to be just as good a result. I would hope that Scott Walker is just as outraged about decreased quality of teachers that we're going to get as he is with replacement refs in the NFL.

Update:
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney finally releases his views on the refs lockout:
I'd sure like to see some experienced referees, with NFL experience, come back out to the NFL playing fields.

When will Vice President Joe Biden speak out? How can he not have an opinion on the Seattle Giants or the San Francisco Packers when he has a comment on every other topic? What is Biden trying to hide? 

Jacob Sullum on States Opting Out of Pot Prohibition

By the time the 21st Amendment ended national alcohol prohibition in December 1933, more than a dozen states had already opted out. Maryland never passed its own version of the Volstead Act, while New York repealed its alcohol prohibition law in 1923. Eleven other states eliminated their statutes by referendum in November 1932. Senior Editor Jacob Sullum says we could see the beginning of a similar rebellion against marijuana prohibition this year as voters in three states decide whether to legalize the drug's production and sale for recreational use. If any of these ballot initiatives pass, he writes, it might be the most consequential election result this fall, forcing both major parties to confront an unjust, irrational policy that Americans increasingly oppose.

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Brickbat: Locks of Love

Officials at the Beaumont Independent School district say a high school principal cancelled an adult cosmetology class at the last minute because of a lack of funds. Kwmane Gray, a student in the class, says the principal cancelled the class because he saw him during orientation and thought he was gay. The principal has refused to talk to media about the class.

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Do Americans Hate Gridlock? 27 Percent Want Congress to Pass More Laws, 45 Percent Want Fewer Laws

Just 16 percent of voters approve and 77 percent disapprove of the job Congress is doing, according to the September Reason-Rupe pollPolitical pundits who view Congressional action as virtue and gridlock as vice conclude these numbers vindicate their frustration. However, Americans who disapprove of Congress don’t necessarily want to see more action for action’s sake. Instead, 50 percent of them say they want Congress topass fewer laws than it’s currently doing, only 27 percent of them want Congress to pass more laws, while 16 percent are content with the status quo.

Ultimately, these numbers reveal a deeper schism in American politics: the debate over the proper role of government in society. This division is also playing out in the presidential election, with 72 percent of Romney voters wanting Congress to pass fewer laws, compared to 22 percent of Obama voters.

Expectations for Congressional action are correlated with Americans’ perceived fairness of the economic system. Among those who want Congress to pass fewer laws, 69 percent believe Americans have an equal opportunity to succeed. In contrast 59 percent of those who want more laws believe Americans do not have equal opportunities. This probably explains why 77 percent of those who want fewer laws believe income inequality is an acceptable part of the economic system, compared to 56 percent of those who want more laws and believe government needs to fix income inequality. Consequently, these divergent views predict whether someone believes government should redistribute wealth. Among those who want Congress to pass fewer laws, 87 percent say it is not the government’s role to redistribute. Fifty-six percent who think Congress should pass more laws also believe government has a responsibility to redistribute wealth.

In sum, Congressional discontent is not a license to plow through gridlock to pass more legislation. These data also suggest that raising Congress’ approval rating will not be easy because disapproval is rooted in the central debate of American history: what is the proper role of government in a free society. Consequently, “compromise” means different things to different people.

Nationwide telephone poll conducted September 13th-17th on both landline and cell phones, 1006 adults, margin of error +/- 3.8%. The sample also includes 787 likely voters, with a margin of error of +/- 4.3%. Columns may not add up to 100% due to rounding. Full methodology can be found here. Full poll results found here.