Weekly Hit & Run Archive 2012 November 22-31

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Cop Forces Disabled Woman Off the Road For Going Two MPH Over the Limit

Reason 24/7 features a story on a cop in Florida who carried out what is called a P.I.T (Precision Immobilization Technique) maneuver on a speeding car back in October. The maneuver is commonly used by police to stop reckless drivers who pose a serious danger to others on the road.

However, in this instance the driver was 62-year-old Sandra Silasavage, who was driving her 2008 Ford Expedition at 57mph on a stretch of road with a 55mph speed limit.  Deputy Sean Freeman of the St. Lucie County Sheriff's Department, who forced Silasavage off the road, claims that he saw her hunched over the wheel and did not slow down when he turned his blue lights on. Silasavage claims that she did not see the lights.

Silasavage might have been hunched over because of a horse riding accident from decades ago that broke her back. Her spine is permanently bent and twisted, she requires a cane to walk, and has a morphine pump implanted in her spine. Freeman evidently thought Silasavage dangerous enough to force her off the road, total her car, and put her in hospital. She has been charged with fleeing and eluding and possession of four oxycodone pills without a prescription. The Sheriff’s Office maintains that Deputy Freeman’s use of the P.I.T maneuver was acceptable.

Understandably, Silasavage is upset:

"I was so angry. I could not believe he did that while I was trying to pull over," Silasavage said. "I can't understand it. He said he was concerned we were close to a construction site, but that's another four miles farther west."

Inmates thought the charges laughable:

"It's ludicrous," Silasavage said. "Fleeing and eluding? Ridiculous. Just take a look at me. Are you kidding? The inmates at Rock Road all fell about laughing when they heard what I'd been charged with. I was sitting in a wheelchair."

The case has yet to go to court. 

"The idea that you could openly sell things that help women achieve orgasm is pretty new."


Phil Harvey, CEO of Adam and Eve adult toy company, has a new book out titled Show Time which looks at the changing social values in America. 

Reason TV sat down with Harvey to discuss his new book as well as violence and female sexuality in American culture. 

Click above to watch the approximately 14 minute-long video now or click below to watch on a page with downloadable versions, more links, and other resources.

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Drop a Nuke on Afghan-Pakistan Border, Member of House of Lords Suggests

smiling buddhaIndian Ministry of External AffairsAs noted on Reason 24/7 this morning, in defense of a nuclear-armed world in the House of Lords, John Gilbert suggested threatening to drop a neutron bomb on the Afghan-Pakistan border to stop insurgents from crossing. “I am absolutely delighted that nuclear weapons were invented when they were,” Lord Gilbert said according to the Huffington Post UK. Gilbert claimed only goat herders occupied the area and that a good nuking would create a “cordons sanitaire,” or “quarantine zone."

The former minister of state for defense in Tony Blair’s government apparently does not think the concept of mutually-assured destruction applies to Pakistan’s conventional nuclear weaponry, which likely can’t reach Britain yet, or any speculative dirty bomb detonation it might facilitate. Since Pakistan announced it had developed a nuclear weapon in 1998, there have been no large-scale wars between India and Pakistan. There were three major conflicts between the two countries before India tested a “peaceful” nuclear device in 1974, and countless border incursions and skirmishes since, but few in the last decade. Perhaps Lord Gilbert should have suggested offering Afghanistan nuclear weapons instead. Let’s hope Iran doesn’t blow it out of proportion.

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Matt Welch on Washington’s Phantom Austerity

Here's just how stubborn the growth of government is: Even after a Democratic president wins office by campaigning until Election Eve on a "net spending cut," even after he gives his first proposed budget the humblebragging title of "A New Era of Responsibility," even after both Barack Obama and Ben Bernanke describe the country's long-term budget outlook as "unsustainable," even after a populist, anti-government backlash sweeps the land for a year and a half, culminating in the Republican re-taking of the House of Representatives and the rise of a new type of limited-government politician embodied by Rep. Justin Amash (R-Michigan) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky); even after those forces collide in a series of high-profile debt-ceiling showdowns...after all this stomach-churning sturm und drang over the size and scope of government, the federal bureaucracy still has yet to be cut. And no matter what anyone tells you, writes Editor in Chief Matt Welch, it won't be cut any time soon.

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Death Sentences over Anti-Muslim Movie, Pvt. Manning Shouldn’t Have Been Held at Quantico, Oakland Fights Pot Dispensary Forfeiture: P.M. Links

  • Seven Egyptian Christians and a Florida pastor have been sentenced, in absentia, to death in Egypt over the Innocence of Muslims movie.
  • A Hungarian leader Godwinned himself after calling for Jews to be registered as threats to national security. After criticism, he went on to explain that, really, he was just questioning the loyalty of anybody with dual nationalities, not just Jews. That’s all!
  • A former prison officer at Quantico said the facility did not have the resources to have held Pvt. Bradley Manning there for nine months. He shouldn’t have spent more than 90 days there.
  • About 10 percent of the 61 finalists selected in the Department of Education’s “Race to the Top” federal funding contest are charter programs.
  • The City of Oakland is trying to halt the federal forfeiture of a medical marijuana dispensary while a judge determines whether the feds have overstepped their authority against the state of California.
  • House Speaker John Boehner says the GOP will not cave in to the Obama Administration and support extending Bush-era tax cuts only to those earning less than $250,000 annually.
  • A Des Moines couple has filed a federal suit against their city’s police department over the Tasing and then shooting of their dog.

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Kickstarter: It's Cool and All, But It Doesn't Allow for Enough Central Control

The New Republic for some reason features an extended but thin sour sneer at Kickstarter in its December 6 issue. That reason might be that magazine's founding dedication to elite power and control, nicely unwound by former Reason editor Virginia Postrel in these pages back in 1997.

Kickstarter is the web site that allows people trying to do interesting things to fundraise via the Web. Specific financial goals are set, and premiums often offered for certain pledge levels. The pledges only go into effect if the total amount needed to actually make the thing happen are raised.

Greg Beato noted Kickstarter's wonders in Reason's July issue, and back in February Katherine Mangu-Ward noted that in its decentralized, people-power, no-one-forced-to-contribute way, Kickstarter was funding creativity more than the federal government's National Endowment for the Arts. (And going on nearly twice as much.)

Alas, that very decentralized, people-power, no-one-forced-to-contribute thing seems to be griping the gut of Noreen Malone of the New Republic.

Her piece is "The False Promise of Kickstarter," which might lead one to think that it was a fraud, that it did not in fact provide a means for creators to find and raise money. Since it most assuredly does, with an impressive success rate of fully funded projects, that can't be her complaint. What is?

It's a little hard to make sense of, but it seems to go something like this: a service that works by spreading ideas though the web (the more widely linked your plea is, the better the chances it will raise the money, other things being equal) is too undiverse and too tech-nerdy. Unlike, say, taking the time to write and publish a long feature article complaining about Kickstarter. As I'm sure has been pointed out, number one on any Stuff White People Like comedy list should be Stuff White People Like.

In the closest thing to an actual complaint, she notes that especially when the project raises so much money that the creators of the thing have to deliver at a quantity larger than they anticipated, many projects deliver late.

Then, the kicker, the heart of a heartless article, the meat of a meatless complaint:

But the problem isn’t only on the supply side. How much of the demand is real, and how much is peer pressure or idle boredom, can be tough to sort out. For the vast majority of Kickstarter campaigns, much of the money comes from friends and friends of friends of friends. There is an enormous amount of social pressure applied: Entreaties are often made via personal e-mails....

Backing a small-scale Kickstarter campaign triggers the same emotional response that giving does: You have opened your pocket with little expectation of personal benefit. You have imagined yourself as a two-bit modern Medici, furthering the cause of Art or Innovation in society....

Sure, yes, yep, and "feature not bug" for anyone who isn't just inclined to frown pettily at the Golden Age of Mendicity that the web and crowdsourcing have allowed. (Not a week goes by that some, generally successful, rent party-type call doesn't go out from my extended circle of pals and acquaintances about helping with some sudden financial problem, and great!). Yes, there are a lot of different motives one might have to give to a Kickstarter project, and so what? Value is subjective, and why not celebrate motives beyond the purely pecuniary?

But it's a problem! (Without a problem, Ms. Malone would have a problem selling her stupid article.)

Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler told Reuters, this market ambivalence is woven into the very fabric of the service. “Of all the products launched on Kickstarter, very, very few would be a good investment. ... However, if the bar is lower—to simply, do I want this to exist?—suddenly over half the things have a life.” The problem with posing the question that way—do I want this to exist?—is that it creates a relationship between consumer and merchant that is more like that of the one between donor and nonprofit.

Are you alarmed yet? "The problem with posing the question that way"? Problem?

 Kickstarter has spawned a number of copycats in arenas where the model becomes a whole lot more ethically complicated. There are now Kickstarter-esque platforms for equity investing, scientific research, and even local municipal improvements. Take, for instance,Citizinvestor, a new service that allows municipalities (big ones, like Philadelphia, Chicago, Tampa) to put forth public works languishing at the back of the queue so interested parties can donate a few dollars that might get them over the financial hump....

What in the flying hell is "ethically complicated" about allowing people to more easily express and finance their preference, in governance or markets?

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How Market Forces Undermine Racism: Uber Cab Edition

For a little over five years I lived in Harlem’s famous Sugar Hill neighborhood, where the rent was cheap and I was surrounded by the echoes of history. My favorite local landmark was the stately apartment building where both W.E.B. DuBois and Thurgood Marshall once lived. One of the downsides of the neighborhood was that I could never, and I mean never, find one of New York City’s otherwise ubiquitous yellow taxis when I needed speedy passage to lower Manhattan or a ride to the airport.

This anecdote would not surprise any longtime New Yorker. The city’s yellow cabs, which enjoy a legal monopoly over the right to pick up paying customers on the street, are notorious for avoiding black neighborhoods (and customers). As a result, when Harlem residents wanted to hail a ride we turned to what New Yorkers call “gypsy cabs,” essentially private car service drivers who pick up illegal street fares between appointments. These drivers negotiate their price on the spot and provide a much-needed service to willing buyers. In other words, a black market in taxis sprung up in order to fill the void created by government-empowered racism from the taxi cartel.

This little trip down Damon Root’s memory lane was inspired by a very interesting post at the site Racialicious by the writer Latoya Peterson. Her subject is the hot new private car service Uber, which allows customers in a handful of big cities to purchase prompt, taxi-like service at the touch of a smart phone. Unsurprisingly, Uber is not exactly popular with the established taxi regimes in those cities. Indeed, in places like Washington, DC, the yellow cab cartel has turned to its allies in local government in an effort to eliminate this new high-tech competition.

Peterson adds a new dimension to the Uber controversy. As she notes, “most analysis of Uber’s costs and benefits leave out one huge piece of the appeal: the premium car service removes the racism factor when you need a ride.” As she explains,

In 1999, actor Danny Glover made headlines by filing a taxi discrimination claim in New York City, noting that cabs failed to stop for him due to the color of his skin. Good Morning America experimented with having a black man and a white man hail cabs again in 2009, and found that the racial profiling still continued. In 2010, Fernando Mateo, Head of the New York State Federation of Cab Drivers encouraged racial profiling in the name of safety. Though it has been over a decade since Danny Glover made the issue a national conversation, the landscape hasn’t changed much.

As a black woman, I am generally seen as less of a threat than my black male peers. But that doesn’t mean my business is encouraged or wanted.

Peterson goes on to narrate her own various positive dealings with Uber, though her post is by no means a love letter to the company. She is especially critical of Uber’s high cost and “shady ‘surge pricing’ practices.” But at the same time she raises an essential point: Market forces can and do undermine even the most well-entrenched forms of racism and discrimination. Here’s hoping Uber inspires many competitors of its own, bringing even more choice to the transportation market in American cities.

For more on the debate over Uber, see Katherine Mangu-Ward’s “Post-Sandy Price Gouging by Uber?” Econ 101, in Twitter Form.”

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Christopher Balogh on the Supreme Court Decision That Could Kill Used Bookstores

On October 29, the Supreme Court heard the arguments in a copyright case involving the right to resell imported goods in the United States. The goods in question were college textbooks but the outcome could affect whether copyrighted goods made overseas can be resold in the U.S. without consent from the copyright holder. Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. may focus on the five-pound appendages lugged around by undergraduates, writes Christopher Balogh, but any product made overseas with a U.S. copyright—from shoes to laptops—could be affected. That makes Kirtsaeng potentially one of the most important decisions the Court will make this season.

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The New Chair of the House Judiciary Committee "Opposes Any Effort to Legalize Marijuana"

Yesterday House Democrats introduced the Respect States' and Citizens' Rights Act of 2012, which would resolve the conflict between the federal government and states with their own marijuana laws. As of right now, the bill faces two hurdles: A lack of Republican co-sponsors, and Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the new chair of the House Judiciary committee. 

Goodlatte, who's been in the House since 1992, is notorious in the tech community for having co-authored and co-sponsored the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, with former Judiciary chair Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas). Now that Smith will be chairing the Science, Space, and Technology Committee, drug reformers will have to get their legislation past Goodlatte. Based on Goodlatte's record on marijuana issues, that's probably going to be tough. 

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How on Earth Is a 401(k) a Government Subsidy?

Financial reporting has a tendency to make me feel either really smart or really dumb (kind of like playing Portal for the first time). My background, both in journalism and as a human being, is not particularly connected to the financial sector, so I continue to learn (or get really confused) by more experienced journalists who focus on markets.

I bring this up because I became extremely baffled by this piece over at The Atlantic, titled “The 401(k) Is a $240 Billion Waste” by Matthew O’Brien, an associate editor there. Here’s how it begins:

Imagine there were no 401(k)s. You wouldn't stop saving for retirement, right? Right? Don't worry, I won't tell Suze Orman. Not that CNBC's personal finance guru would get mad at you -- according to a new paper, most households wouldn't sock away any less for their golden years if we eliminated 401(k)s. Which raises a $100 billion question...

Why subsidize retirement saving if the subsidies don't work?

My initial thought was “What subsidies? What the hell is he talking about?” It turns out that O’Brien is describing the tax revenue the government doesn’t immediately get from the income socked away in 401(k) programs as a subsidy. And if the money Americans are putting away for retirement were taxed, the revenue would add up to about $240 billion a year. He even goes so far as to classify money the government isn’t receiving as “spending.”

O’Brien doesn’t appear to acknowledge that the taxes on most 401(k) contributions are only deferred until retirement, not eliminated. It doesn’t appear to be relevant to him. His point – as far as I can grasp it – is that because people who go through the effort to save money in 401(k)s would do so regardless of the tax benefits, let’s tax it now.

His evidence is a study from Denmark showing that the populace saved only slightly more than they would have without the “subsidy” from their version of 401(k) funds.

He makes no mention of matching funds from employers. There’s no mention of how much revenue the federal government takes in from 401(k)s that mature each year. There’s no analysis of the rate of returns for 401(k) funds vs. other retirement options. I know that’s probably a bit too much to ask for a short piece like this one, but my own personal non-profit 403(b) (rolled over from the 401(k) from my previous for-profit employer) is currently outperforming California’s Public Employees Retirement System pension fund investments.  Here is his conclusion, which ultimately left me dumbstruck, wondering if I’m too stupid to understand his argument:

It turns out the best way to get households to save more is ... to make them save more. In other words, automatically take a percentage of each person's paycheck and put it in a retirement account, as a default. If this sounds familiar, it's because that's how the payroll tax works — except it's how you think the payroll tax works now. There's a misconception that the money the government withholds from you every month ends up in an account with your name on it that eventually becomes your Social Security benefits. It doesn't. The money the government withholds every month pays for current retirees, which is why the system needs some kind of tweak over the next few decades as the Boomers retire. 

So he wants to tax the income that people would have put into savings and then just force them to save even more money for retirement, while still having a Social Security system that just needs “some kind of tweak over the next few decades”? That’s the argument? The government has done an awful job managing Social Security so let’s get rid of the 401(k) and start a new forced savings program for the same government to manage!

Why the hell would anybody – particularly members of the sacred cow known as middle class – support this idea?

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The GOP’s Secret Leverage in the Fiscal Cliff Negotiations

Who actually has the leverage in negotiations over the fiscal cliff—and the extension of Bush-era income tax cuts in particular? On the surface, it might look like Democrats, who control the White House and the Senate, have the upper hand. But House Republicans may have more leverage than is immediately apparent.

Right now there are two competing theories about the fiscal cliff negotiations.  The first says that President Obama has the most leverage. His party controls the Senate, and he has to sign off on any deal. He has the bully pulpit, and he has argued extensively that the election was to a large extent about raising taxes on top earners. More importantly, the policy landscape favors raising taxes on top earners. Because the Bush-era tax rate cuts expire automatically, all President Obama actually has to do is wait. Taxes will go up automatically on everyone. At which point it should be even easier to get Republicans to agree to lower taxes on income below $250,000 a year.

That’s the basic logic underlying GOP Rep. Tom Cole’s argument that the best way for Republicans to move forward is to fold quickly, by agreeing to extend the Bush tax cuts for all but top earners. Doing so, he says, would rob Democrats of a crucial argument: that Republicans are holding up an extension of the middle class tax cuts in order to protect the rich from a tax hike. Republicans could then negotiate tax rates for top earners separately. And even if Republicans couldn’t get a deal to keep current tax rates for top earners, allowing their taxes to go up would only give Obama half a loaf: The president has asked for $1.6 trillion in new tax revenue. Letting rates rise on top earners would raise a little less than $1 trillion.

In theory, then, President Obama has it easy: If he does nothing, he’ll eventually get what he wants. So why would he sign any deal that doesn’t raise taxes on high incomes?

The answer is that he and his economic team believe he needs to sign a deal—any deal—in order to prevent an economic calamity.

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John Stossel on Insider Trading

Vague anti-insider trading laws distort prices, says John Stossel. Prohibiting people from profiting from their access to information makes the economy less fair and less free.

These laws, like all regulation, create a false sense of security. They lead people to think stock traders play on the same level field. Far better to encourage investors to be wary—not complacent—when they buy stocks. For every buyer, there’s a seller. What does the other party know that you may not know?

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As British Journalists Prepare for Censorship Scheme, Some Vow Defiance

It was an American politician, Rahm Emanuel, who said, "you never want a serious crisis to go to waste." But that's a world-wide sentiment for wielders of political power who see anything that can be tagged as a crisis as a wonderful opportunity to expand their personal fiefdoms. In Britain, the Leveson Inquiry has been investigating the "culture, practice and ethics of the press" in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal that killed the once-widely read News of the World, further spurred by more-recent sex-abuse revelations at the BBC. With the Leveson report due tomorrow, the British media is already girding itself for an expected call for statutory regulation of the press, and a welcome reception for the same from government officials. At least one publication, the conservative Spectator, is preemptively announcing its refusal to cooperate with regulators.

That British politicos are champing at the bit for more power over the journalists who scrutinize their action is apparent. Australia's ABC News quotes the leader of the opposition Labour party, Ed Miliband, as calling the Leveson Inquiry, "a once-in-a-generation opportunity for real change and I hope that this House can make it happen." Representing the three major parties, a group of lawmakers with at least a vestigial affection for free speech and personal knowledge that their position is far from universal co-penned a letter protesting, "[s]tatutory regulation would require the imposition of state licensing – abolished in Britain in 1695. State licensing is inimical to any idea of press freedom and would radically alter the balance of our unwritten constitution."

It's worth pointing out that the end of press-licensing was won only after a hard-fought battle. A half-century earlier, John Milton had written his ground-breaking Areopagitica in which he said, "Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties." Milton was dead and in the ground twenty years before his vision came to pass.

Not trusting to Milton, or to those members of Parliament who might still value his words, The Spectator promises:

If the press agrees a new form of self-regulation, perhaps contractually binding this time, we will happily take part. But we would not sign up to anything enforced by government. If such a group is constituted we will not attend its meetings, pay its fines nor heed its menaces. We would still obey the (other) laws of the land. But to join any scheme which subordinates press to parliament would be a betrayal of what this paper has stood for since its inception in 1828.

Honestly, in the Internet age, press licensing is a losing scheme anyway. Established newspapers and magazines with printing presses and street addresses might be vulnerable but, as parliamentarian Dominic Raab warns in the London Daily Telegraph, "The global proliferation of blogs and social media would render such sanctions obsolete. Many sites would relish the chance to flout the rules that silenced Fleet Street."

With our First Amendment, and the respect generally accorded the same even by judges whose copies of the Constitution often seem heavily abridged, Americans are relatively insulated from concerns about overt press censorship. That may be for the best. I'd hate to see American journalists put to the test to see if they have sufficient backbone to tell would-be government overseers to go to hell.

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Bill Recognizing States' Authority to Legalize Pot Poses Challenge to Avowed Federalists

Yesterday Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) officially introduced a bill aimed at making it clear that legalizing marijuana in Colorado and Washington does not violate the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The bill, dubbed the Respect States' and Citizens' Rights Act of 2012, amends a section of the CSA that deals with conflicts between state and federal law:

No provision of this subchapter shall be construed as indicating an intent on the part of the Congress to occupy the field in which that provision operates, including criminal penalties, to the exclusion of any State law on the same subject matter which would otherwise be within the authority of the State, unless there is a positive conflict between that provision of this subchapter and that State law so that the two cannot consistently stand together. 

Ad I've said before, a state's choice to repeal penalties for actions that the federal government continues to treat as crimes does not create a "positive conflict." Even after Colorado and Washington begin licensing marijuana growers and sellers, it will be perfectly possible for people there to obey both state and federal law; they just have to stay out of the cannabis business. The weakness of the argument that the CSA bars states from legalizing marijuana helps explain why the Justice Department has never used it in court to challenge laws allowing medical use of the plant, which have been around since Californians approved Proposition 215 in 1996. DeGette's bill nevertheless seeks to head off any such legal action in response to the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington by adding this marijuana-specific paragraph:

Special Rule Regarding State Marihuana Laws - In the case of any State law that pertains to marihuana, no provision of this title shall be construed as indicating an intent on the part of the Congress to occupy the field in which that provision operates, including criminal penalties, to the exclusion of State law on the same subject matter, nor shall any provision of this title be construed as preempting any such State law.

This amendment seems to eliminate any threat of litigation over implied pre-emption or the meaning of "positive conflict." But why limit it to marijuana? Federalism in this area should apply equally to any drug a state decides to treat differently. The special pleading for this one particular plant dilutes the principled argument for state autonomy.

Speaking of which, the bill so far has only two Republican co-sponsors: Ron Paul of Texas (naturally) and Mike Coffman of Colorado. It seems like Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who backed a more ambitious Paul-sponsored bill aimed at repealing federal marijuana prohibition, should not be shy about adding his name to this list as well. How about Justin Amash (R-Mich.), who "supports federalism on all legislation not specifically authorized in the Constitution"? Any others? Now is put-up-or-shut-up time for avowed federalists in the House. It is certainly strange, if not embarrassing, to see that Democrats are more enthusiastic about a bill with "states' rights" in the title than Republicans are. Behold the power of pot. 

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A. Barton Hinkle on George W. Bush, Middle Class Champion

The Bush tax cuts are set to expire on Jan. 1. Republicans want to extend them all, writes A. Barton Hinkle.

President Obama is willing to extend the Bush tax cuts, too—but only for those making $250,000 or less. But hey, guess what? It turns out doing this will, in the President’s own words, keep taxes lower for a whopping 98 percent of the American people. 

The White House has even produced a convenient infographic on “Extending Middle-Class Tax Cuts” to make that point. The president, it says, “has called on Congress to act now to extend middle-class tax cuts and to not hold our economy and the middle class hostage.”

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Why the Sequestration Cuts Shouldn't Be Part of Any Larger Fiscal Cliff Deal-Making.

So we're facing a "fiscal cliff," Ben Bernanke's term for the following things scheduled to take place on January 1, 2013:

...the expiration of a payroll-tax cut, the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts, and the advent of mandatory spending cuts known as "sequestration."

That succinct summary is courtesy of Temple Law's Jan C. Ting, who also lays out the mechanics of sequestration with equal concision in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

...as part of last year's agreement to raise the federal debt ceiling, Congress pledged to cut spending by $1.2 trillion over 10 years. It agreed that if neither a congressional "supercommittee" nor Congress itself could designate the cuts by the end of 2012, they would happen automatically, divided evenly between defense and non-defense spending. These automatic cuts are known as sequestration.

As every tradesman, businessman, cook, and student knows, it's helpful to break complex tasks down to smaller, complex chunks that are easier to handle. When you apply that thinking to the fiscal cliff, one thing immediately becomes apparent: Other than coincidental timing, the sequestration cuts have nothing to do with the payroll tax cut and the Bush tax rates.

In fact, all three major components to the cliff are clearly self-contained and should be treated on their own, rather than as some sort of an OMG FML situation that seems to be overwhelming a federal government that hasn't passed a budget since 2009.

Back to sequestration: The cuts that will kick in in 2013 are the result of an agreement brokered only a year-plus-change ago to goose up the credit limit of the U.S. government. Back in 2011, the feds got the right to put another $2 trillion on the nation's Discover card in exchange for making $900 billion in immediate cuts and another $1.2 trillion in cuts from expected spending over the next decade.

There should be absolutely no room for negotiating away the pathetically small amount of spending reduction the government imposed on itself to raise the debt-ceiling by $2 trillion. For god's sake, we're talking about trims of around $110 billion annually. The 2013 budget alone will spend about $3.8 trillion and using constant dollars, federal spending has increased 50 percent over the last decade (see table 1.3, center column, page 27). The simple fact - amply illustrated by the chart somewhere to the right - is that sequestration cuts, split between defense and non-defense discretionary spending, amount to very little in terms of total federal spending. If such tiny, wafer-thin cuts cannot in fact be enforced, then we should simply give up now and really max out the credit cards and party like there's no tomorrow. Seriously, go ahead and just finish the whole tub of ice cream already.

The one good argument against the mechanics of sequestration is that it enforces across-the-board cuts that take indiscriminately from the overall budget in each affected area. That's not smart but fear of that sort of jagged-saw approach to budgets was supposed to be one of the spurs to get the so-called Super Committee to really roll up its shirtsleeves and reach an agreement. It didn't work, of course, which is a testament to fecklessness of the people involved.

In view of the fact that the holiday season is upon us, Congress might make one slight alteration to the way in which the cuts would be imposed: allow the affected units of government to decide how to make the cuts. This would let Defense Secretary Leon Panetta - last seen hyperventilating into a paper bag over how any real and imagined cuts to the military would be "devastating" - to take a knee and figure out which less-than-defensible outlays he would prefer to cut. According to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Panetta needs to come up with about $55 billion in cuts from a base amount of $550 billion (see page 7; note that the total Defense budget is much higher than that amount, but some military spending in not subject to sequester). If he can't do that in a single day, he should be stripped of his office and sent back to the CIA, which I understand is looking for new leadership.

The OMB has helpfully prepared an encyclopedic guide to what other government functions are either exempt or open to sequestration, with relevant dollar amounts listed. 

For starters, Congress could zero out the salary and support staff for Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who more than any single person in the country is the reason Congress hasn't passed a federal budget in so long. Conrad - inevitably described as a "budget hawk" and a "deficit hawk" - remains the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee until he retires next year. He has not produced a document to be voted on in years and, in a charateristically delayed bid to join the crew of the Scooby-Doo All-Star Laff-A-Lympics, he explained his decision not to seek re-election by saying he would rather "spend my time and energy trying to focus on solving the nation's budget woes than be distracted by another campaign." That's comedy gold and if I'd be worried about my starting position on the Yogi Yahooeys if I were Huckleberry Hound or Grape Ape.

To be sure, zeroing out Conrad's last few paychecks and firing his staff would only amount to loose change and be purely symbolic. But then again, that's all the sequestration cuts amount to. So it seems like a good start. Given the spade work that OMB has already done, Congress might impose a deadline for any discretion-based sequestration-related trims to be announced by December 1, thereby giving maximum time for those affected to figure out their next moves. That would also give Congress more time to deal with the other fiscal cliff components before year's end. If it wants to.

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A.M. Links: Charter Schools Outperforming Public Schools, Rand Paul Says GOP At Risk of Extinction, Chinese Daily Reports Onion’s Kim Jong Un Sexiest Man Alive Story

  • A new report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments says cuts in the Pentagon could actually lead to much-needed beneficial reforms.
  • A Stanford University study shows New Jersey charter schools outperforming comparable public schools. In Los Angeles, meanwhile, a charter school group became a finalist in the federal government’s “Race to the Top” but the LA Unified School District did not.
  • Senator Rand Paul says the GOP is at risk of becoming a dinosaur if it doesn’t embrace libertarian ideas.
  • A state senator in Idaho is not letting the election go. She believes if states that voted for Romney refuse to participate in the electoral college, the election would be thrown to the GOP-controlled House of Representatives. She says Democrats have set the precedent by avoiding votes on legislation in places like Wisconsin.
  • The European Commission ruled that credit card companies who blocked donations to WikiLeaks did not break the Eurozone’s “competition rules.”
  • The Onion fools another authoritarian government. This time it’s China, whose English-language daily is so disconnected from reality it reprinted an Onion article declaring the North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un as the “sexiest man alive.”

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Jacob Sullum on How Your Life Became an Open E-Book

In 1986 The American Banker defined E-mail as "a trademark of CompuServe," Computerworld noted that sending a single message required a 10-minute phone call, and InfoWorld described "a pilot scheme that will allow users of one system to send messages to mailbox holders on another." That was the year Congress enacted the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), so it is hardly surprising that the once forward-looking law seems antiquated today. In fact, says Jacob Sullum, ECPA is so out of date that it has left us vulnerable to government snooping in ways most Americans do not appreciate.

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The Echo Chamber in Thomas Friedman's Head

I'm not sure why the proprietors of The New York Times pay Thomas Friedman to write a column when @Horse_ebooks would surely do the job for free, but they do, and he has a new one. The article has all the imperial arrogance, technocratic certainty, and TED-talk-on-nitrous-oxide prose that we've come to expect from its author, plus what passes for a subtle namedrop in the Friedmanverse: "President Obama is assembling his new national security team, with Senator John Kerry possibly heading for the Pentagon and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice the perceived front-runner to become secretary of state. Kerry is an excellent choice for defense. I don't know Rice at all, so I have no opinion on her fitness for the job."

The column's conceit is that the next secretary of state should be Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, because...well, one of the arguments is this:

it would be very helpful to have a secretary of state who can start a negotiating session with Hamas leaders (if we ever talk with them) by asking: "Do you know how far behind your kids are?"

And there's also this:

As we are seeing in Egypt, suddenly creating a mass democracy without improving mass education is highly unstable.

And then there's this, which isn't technically an argument so much as it's a Brion Gysin–style cut-up of every other Thomas Friedman column:

In short, we're still indispensable, but the problems are much more intractable. Our allies are not what they used to be and neither are our enemies, who are less superpowers and more superempowered angry men and women. A lot of countries will need to go back to the blackboard, back to the basics of human capacity building, before they can partner with us on anything.

A picture emerges in which the world contains no real differences of informed opinion or conflicts between interests. There's just an elite that is educated enough to share Friedman's worldview, and a planet that needs more schooling. Give them a good K-12 and they won't be too "angry" to "partner" with us anymore.

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Brickbat: A Thorough Search

A Transportation Security Administration report found an airport pat-down search that exposed the breasts of a 17-year-old girl an "embarrassing" and "unfortunate" accident. The girl was traveling with classmates from a private Christian school when she was searched at Los Angeles International Airport. During the search, her sundress slipped, exposing her breasts to everyone in the terminal.

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France to Vote For Palestinian Statehood, U.S. and Israel Not So Keen

The French government has announced that it will support a resolution that would recognize a Palestinian state at the United Nations in a vote at the U.N. General Assembly this week. Palestine is currently an observer at the U.N. The resolution would recognize Palestine as a nonmember observer state.

The U.K. has said it may support the resolution with some conditions. British officials want Palestinian authorities to stop pursuing Israel for war crimes and resume peace talks.

As it stands the resolution is almost certainly going to pass despite objections from Israel and the U.S. When asked about the issue last week U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice said:

Our goal remains a negotiated, two-state solution. A Jewish democratic state of Israel living side by side in peace and security with an independent, viable Palestinian state. The only way to accomplish that in the real world is through direct negotiations, and we continue to urge the parties to come back to the table and to resume those direct negotiations. We view unilateral steps, including the bid for upgraded status to statehood—observer state status at the General Assembly—to be counterproductive and not take us closer to that goal, and, therefore, we strongly oppose it. 

Israel and the U.S. could respond to the passing of the resolution in a few ways:

The US and Israel have both hinted at possible retaliation if the vote goes ahead. Congress could block payments to the Palestinian Authority and Israel might freeze tax revenues it transfers under the 1993 Oslo agreement or, worse, withdraw from the agreement altogether. It could also annex West Bank settlements. Britain's position is that it wants to reduce the risk that such threats might be implemented and bolster Palestinian moderates.

Read more on Israel, libertarianism, and Obama’s comments on the recent fighting in Gaza here and here

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Let’s Fret over Children in Chemotherapy Using Medical Marijuana to Dull Pain

A mom in Oregon, upon discovering her 7-year-old daughter was diagnosed with leukemia, wasted no time at all getting her little girl a license for medical marijuana. ABC News provides some details:

When 7-year-old Mykayla Comstock was diagnosed with leukemia in July, it was less than three days before her mother filed Oregon medical marijuana paperwork so the child could take lime-flavored capsules filled with cannabis oil.

The decision to give Mykayla the capsules came naturally to Erin Purchase, MyKayla's mother, who believes marijuana has healing power, but doctors aren't so sure it's a good idea. …

It's legal for a minor to enroll in the Oregon medical marijuana program as long as the child's parent or legal guardian consents and takes responsibility as a caregiver.

And Mykayla is not alone.

There are currently four other patients enrolled in the Oregon medical marijuana program between the ages of 4 and 9, six between the ages of 10 and 14, and 41 between the ages of 15 and 17, according to the Oregon Public Health Division. Severe pain, nausea, muscle spasms and seizures are among the top conditions cited for medical marijuana use.

Well, let’s give the media a little credit for focusing on the age of the medical marijuana user and whether the mother is moving too quickly rather than turning to anti-pot officials to declare out of hand that pot isn’t medicine.

Well actually, there’s this one person from the American Association of Pediatrics:

"The issue is that marijuana isn't a medicine," Dr. Sharon Levy, of the AAP, told the Oregonian.

A commenter on the Oregonian story wasted no time pointing out that Marinol, a drug prescribed to help ease the side effects of chemotherapy, contains synthetic THC, the psychoactive chemical in cannabis.

But outside of Dr. Levy, other medical experts were actually more concerned about the long-term effects of Mykayla’s drug use given that she’s so young and her prognosis is very good. Dr. Michel Dubois of NYU’s Pain Management Center weighed in:

Dubois said it would be better to give a child other drugs for nausea because the cannabis oil likely contains at least 50 or 60 different chemicals with unknown long-term health effects. If Mykayla's life expectancy is limited, her risk of toxicity will also be limited. However, if she is expected to make a full recovery, Dubois said there is a worry that the cannabis will add health problems later on.

There is a bit of worry in the story about how much of the potential long-term side effects of marijuana is unknown, which is the inherent outcome of poor research due to a governmental drug policy that declares by fiat that marijuana has no redeeming qualities. The story also has a creepy amount of Nanny State worrying from everybody (including an ex-husband) reluctant to allow a mother to make her own decisions about her daughter’s treatment.

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The Washington Post Says Obama Should Give States Leeway on Pot but Avoids the F-Word

A Washington Post editorial describes "a few options" for the Obama administration as it settles on a response to marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington:

It could enhance its own anti-marijuana enforcement in the states. It could sue to halt the laws' application.

Or the Justice Department could keep its hands off, perhaps continuing the approach the feds have largely taken for some time—focusing scarce resources on major violators, such as big growers that might serve multi-state markets, cultivators using public lands or dispensaries near schools. The last option is clearly best.

The Post takes liberties with English by describing the raids and threats that have put hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries in California and Colorado out of business as a "hands off" approach, and it gives cannabiphobic U.S. attorneys too much credit by suggesting they are "focusing scarce resources" on major threats to public order (such as The Grasshopper?). But the Post is right about two things: 1) The feds, who account for about 1 percent of pot busts, cannot enforce marijuana prohibition on their own, and 2) if they merely maintain something like their current level of harassment vis-à-vis pot growers and retailers, it won't be enough to eliminate the newly legal business. In the meantime, says the Post, we might just learn a thing or two:

It's not yet clear how a quasi-legal pot industry might operate in Colorado and Washington or what its public-health effects will be. It could be that these states are harbingers of a slow, national reassessment of marijuana policy. Or their experiment could serve as warning for the other 48 states.

What's that called again, when states experiment with different policies and learn from each other's examples? Never mind, because the Post does not want to formally acknowledge such an arrangement. It warns that repealing federal prohibition and letting states go their own way "could have a range of effects on the U.S. relationship with Mexico that lawmakers should take time to consider fully." Such as weakening the murderous cartels that profit from the arbitrary distinctions drawn by our country's drug laws? Yeah, Mexico would hate that.

The Post does endorse "decriminalizing possession of small amounts of pot, assessing civil fines instead of locking people up," which was a cutting-edge reform in 1972, when the Nixon-appointed National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse recommended it; in 1973, when Oregon became the first of a dozen or so states to do it; and maybe even in 1977, when President Jimmy Carter endorsed it at the federal level (a mainly symbolic step, since the feds almost never handle cases involving small amounts of pot). What about commercial cultivation and sale, as planned in Colorado and Washington? Although the Justice Department "does not need to stage an aggressive intervention," the Post says, "it can wait, watch and enforce the most worrisome violations as they occur." If we're lucky, that will turn out to be just as meaningless as it sounds.

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College a Bad Deal, Assad Losing His Grip, Another President Bush?: P.M. Links

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When Marvin Miller Almost Hired Richard Nixon

Marvin Miller, a labor economist, liberal Democrat, and former top United Steelworkers Union negotiator who revolutionized the economics of professional sports during his 1966-82 run as head of the Major League Players Association, died today at the ripe old age of 95.

Miller is as responsible as any other American for the concept of free agency in professional sports. As the New York Times obit puts it:

When Mr. Miller was named executive director of the association in 1966, club owners ruled much as they had since the 19th century. The reserve clause bound players to their teams for as long as the owners wanted them, leaving them with little bargaining power. Come contract time, a player could expect an ultimatum but not much more. The minimum salary was $6,000 and had barely budged for two decades. The average salary was $19,000. The pension plan was feeble, and player grievances could be heard only by the commissioner, who worked for the owners.

Through a series of hard-fought negotiating sessions, court decisions, arbitrations, press conferences, and strikes, Miller, in constant warfare with buffoonishly autocratic MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, won the right for players of qualifying tenure to shop their services to the highest bidder in a (mostly) open labor market. Salaries boomed, but so did competition, quality, and overall industry revenue. By 2012, the minimum salary had grown to $480,000 (over 10 times the inflation-adjusted amount in 1966), and the average salary to $3.4 million (x25), while the number of pro teams had nearly doubled.

But like any big change between 1966 and 1982, baseball's economic revolution wasn't just about money–it was also about race. Miller, a refined, thin-mustache type (and a very knowledgeable New York baseball fan), had a keen sensitivity of how vestigial racism among owners, the press, and various regions of the country poisoned the experience of black and Latino ballplayers. His great memoir, A Whole Different Ball Game: The Sport and Business of Baseball, is filled with poignant anecdotes about vilified black players such as Alex Johnson, Dick Allen, and Curt Flood, reminding us that with newfound economic liberty came the ability at long last to speak, act, and even dress like free men.

The result, I argued in a 2005 Reason piece titled "Locker-Room Liberty," was liberating (and hugely entertaining) for the country as a whole:

Operating in a subculture far more socially conservative than those surrounding the professional arts, athletes of the mid-to-late '60s and '70s forced their reluctant and occasionally hostile audiences to confront issues of race, war, and free expression, and we are all better for their efforts.

Muhammad Ali opposed Vietnam and the military draft years before it was cool, while encouraging a generation of kids to give themselves new names and manipulate the formerly all-powerful media. Three decades before metrosexual was a word, New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath shocked male football fans by parading around in mink coats, posing as an "Olivetti Girl" in a sexually charged typewriter ad, and filming commercials for pantyhose. Knuckleball pitcher Jim Bouton ripped the lid off of professional baseball's Ward Cleaver packaging with his pussy-and-pills 1970 memoir Ball Four; two years later Yankee pitchers Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich became the most famous wife swappers in the country. Bill Walton convinced the notoriously square UCLA coach John Wooden that smoking dope and attending Grateful Dead shows could be every bit as crucial to the legendary motivator's "Pyramid of Success" as hard work and respecting your teammates (provided you could still shoot 21 for 22 in the NCAA finals). And just about every star of the time had to grapple on a daily basis, in full view of the newly national television audience, with America's combustible conflict between black and white.

In a single generation--between John Kennedy's assassination and the fall of Saigon--the archetype for the pro athlete was transformed from lantern-jawed Midwesterners like Mickey Mantle to pot-gobbling longhairs like Bill "Spaceman" Lee. Earthbound sidemen like Bob Cousy found their game passed over by skywalking soloists like Dr. J. The era of Johnny Unitas buzz-cuts and Jackie Robinson no-comments was replaced by athletes who looked, played, and spoke however they damn well pleased, injecting creativity and innovation on the field while puncturing mythologies and ditching racist baggage outside the stadium walls.

So what does this all have to do with Richard Nixon?

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Ronald Bailey on Why Economic Backwardness Persists

Why do some societies maintain institutions that cause economic backwardness? In their seminal 2006 article, “Economic Backwardness in Political Perspective” in the American Political Science Review, MIT economist Daron Acemoglu and Harvard economist James Robinson suggested that many rulers have calculated that it’s better to keep their people in poverty than risk losing the privileges of political power. Reason Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey analyzes a new study that strongly bolsters this sad conclusion.

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Sports Illustrated on the Power of Charter Schools to Save Kids

In the current issue of Sports Illustrated, the compelling story of the two-month-old Urban Dove Team Charter School, which enrolls kids who are way, way behind (as in, unlikely to graduate) and motivates them to come to school and do school work with a curriculum massively infused with sports and the team mentality:

The team with which he began the day is not a sports unit but rather a group of students who have every class together. (And who accumulate points, Hogwarts style.) The coach is, in fact, a sports coach, but he is also an adult mentor who travels with the team through every class. After discussing the hurricane week and doing homework—all homework is done in the morning with the team—Carlos boarded a school bus with the rest of the UD Team students and headed to soccer fields on the south end of Brooklyn's Prospect Park....

At UD Team, sports consume several hours of each extended school day. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning students play a seasonal team sport. The school rents space from a church in Brooklyn's beleaguered Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, and on Tuesday and Thursday mornings the students rotate through four rooms that are designated, respectively, for weight training, cardio, yoga and core strengthening. (Kettle bells serve as doorstops.)

The goal of this novel high school is to use sports as an academic-engagement tool to drag the highest of the high-risk students back from the precipice of scholastic failure. 

Just a handy reminder that this kind experimentation is impossible—would never, ever happen in such a serious way—within the context of traditional public schools

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The Tax Increases We 'Need'? What About the Spending We Don't?

In the aftermath of this month's election, Democrats have renewed the push for higher tax rates on top earners. Republicans have cautiously suggested that they might be in favor of "raising revenue," but not raising tax rates. The most obvious way to get additional revenue without higher rates is to close carve-outs and loopholes. But as Politico notes, there are limits to how much money closing loopholes can raise:

The biggest loopholes in the U.S. Tax Code — generally referred to as tax expenditures — aren’t just the tricks of the trade for millionaires with offshore bank accounts. For the vast majority of Americans, they’re just how things work: You don’t pay taxes on your health insurance or Medicare benefits; you contribute tax-free to your 401(k); and your mortgage interest pushes down your tax bill each year.

And even if you dump the biggest of the set, these tax perks don’t even come close to closing the deficit. At best, the top 10 would pull in an extra $834 billion a year, according to Joint Committee on Taxation figures. Considering the hole lawmakers are trying to fill is several trillion dollars large, it’s clear they wouldn’t even come close.

Officials in the Obama administration have relied on these sorts of figures to argue that, well, tax rates are just going to have to go up. There's not other possible alternative! “I don’t see how you do this without higher rates. I don’t think there’s any feasible, realistic way to do it,” Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said earlier this month, according to The Washington Post. “When you take a cold, hard look at the amount of resources you can raise from that top 2 percent of Americans through limiting deductions, you will find yourself disappointed relative to the magnitude of the revenue increases that we need.”

Take a look at the last few words there: "the revenue increases that we need." That tells you a lot about how the Obama administration understands the federal budget. High government spending is assumed as a given. The only question is who to tax in order to pay for it. It's as if the Obama administration can't conceive of any alternative, like, say, limiting the amount of resources the federal government consumes, and looking for ways to actually cut spending

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Bloomberg Wants Nearly $10 Billion From Feds For Hurricane Sandy

As noted on Reason 24/7, Mayor Bloomberg is asking for an additional $9.8 billion dollars from the federal government for post-Sandy recovery.  In a letter to New York City’s congressional  delegation, the third-term mayor said the city received $5.4 billion in “FEMA reimbursements” and $3.8 billion in private insurance payouts. He said there were another $4.8 billion in uninsured private losses. The total cost to city agencies was $4.5 billion. The FEMA reimbursements include 75 percent coverage for “public asset losses” and 90 percent coverage for public “uninsured clean-up costs.”

Of the nearly $10 billion the mayor is seeking in extra money from the feds, $5.7 billion goes to cover “estimated net indirect losses” like lost gross product. Yet despite Hurricane Irene making its last landfall (as a tropical storm) on Coney Island in 2011, the word “disaster” doesn’t appear once in the city’s FY 2012 budget summary.

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Indiana State Police Chief on Pot: "If it were up to me, I do believe I would legalize it and tax it"

In response to the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington, as well as word that two Indiana legislators will soon introduce legislation to decriminalize marijuana, Indiana State Police Superintendent Paul Whitesell told the State Budget Committee today that he'd like to see marijuana legalized, reports radio station WFPL

"It’s here, it’s going to stay, there’s an awful lot of victimization that goes with it. If it were up to me, I do believe I would legalize it and tax it, particularly in sight of the fact that several other states have now come to that part of their legal system as well," he said.

"Wherein if you are going to imbibe, you would go through there to be recognized
or pay your taxes and keep some sense of it, give us some stats so you could monitor it in some fashion. And if you go around it in some other place, that’s where my folks would come in and take issue."

That active law enforcement leaders feel safe calling for legalization represents an incredible tipping point. 

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Eminent Domain Abuse in Fort Collins, Colorado

Fort Collins, Colorado officials are threatening to use eminent domain to help a private developer acquire a Sears department store in the aging Foothills Mall. Sears owns its building and has rejected a purchase offer from developers Alberta Development Partners and Walton Street Capital, who bought the mall in July.

Via the Coloradoan:

City Manager Darin Atteberry ... [says] ... the city is “doing everything it can to minimize the possibility” of having to use eminent domain but said the probability that it will be necessary is relatively high. “We knew going in that (eminent domain) was something we might have to consider and it looks (like) the probability is high that we will have to consider it, but we also have a lot of work to do before we get to that point.”

The city is, in fact, already using eminent domain. Officials decided the mall is “a menace to the public health, safety, and welfare of the community” and approved an urban renewal plan for the area in 2007. Whether the city eventually files for condemnation or not, negotiations between Sears and the developers are clearly influenced by the fact that the city can seize the property.

Just how menacing is the mall? The blight study cites “elevation changes” that could lead to “hazardous slip and fall situations,” inadequate sidewalks, drainage problems, poor lighting and loading zones that extend into sidewalks and roadways. Click here for shocking picures of UPS trucks parked on curbs, empty parking lots, and other menacing menaces.

Despite the great threat Foothills has posed to the citizenry over the last 37 years, the study provides precisely zero examples of anyone getting hurt ever.

In addition to using eminent domain, the city is offering tax-increment financing to redevelop the mall, which is bringing in half the $4 million in sales tax revenue it has produced in years past. Now half empty, the mall's decline can be traced, at least in part, to competition from newer shopping centers in Fort Collins and nearby Loveland, both of which received public subsidies as well.

In 2006, the Colorado legislature passed weak eminent domain reform barring private-to-private transfers purely for economic development. However, municipalities can still seize “blighted” property for private use—and Colorado’s blight statutes are so vague they could apply to virtually any neighborhood.

Click here and here for more Reason coverage of recent Colorado eminent domain abuses.

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Virginia Enjoys Rising Gun Ownership and Declining Crime

The debate over the relationship between guns and crime is a long one. People ill-disposed toward things that go BANG! generally believe that allowing more of them into circulation inevitably raises violent crime rates. Others assume that criminals have access to guns no matter the legal environment, so that easing legal restrictions increases opportunities for self-defense and crime-deterrence. The evidence has generally favored the crime-deterrence argument, though not without caveats. Now, though, comes straightforward evidence, easily understood and digested, which demonstrates that rising gun ownership can co-exist with declining crime rates.

From the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Gun-related violent crime in Virginia has dropped steadily over the past six years as the sale of firearms has soared to a new record, according to an analysis of state crime data with state records of gun sales.

The total number of firearms purchased in Virginia increased 73 percent from 2006 to 2011. When state population increases are factored in, gun purchases per 100,000 Virginians rose 63 percent.

But the total number of gun-related violent crimes fell 24 percent over that period, and when adjusted for population, gun-related offenses dropped more than 27 percent, from 79 crimes per 100,000 in 2006 to 57 crimes in 2011.

The Times-Dispatch asked Professor Thomas R. Baker, a specialist in research methods and criminology at Virginia Commonwealth University, to look at the numbers, and his conclusion is short and pithy:

"While there is a wealth of academic literature attempting to demonstrate the relationship between guns and crime, a very simple and intuitive demonstration of the numbers seems to point away from the premise that more guns leads to more crime, at least in Virginia."

Of course, gun-control advocates have already raised the predictable, "but crime was going down anyway and would have gone down more without all those guns" objection. But that seems like weak tea in the face of soaring firearms ownership and plummeting crime.

Note that the Virginia data doesn't indicate a causal relationship — that is, you can't conclude, based on the available data, that the increase in guns is deterring crime. It might well be, and I personally take that as a given, but the data here isn't sufficient to support that conclusion. What's clear, though, is that guns can sell like cold beer on a hot day at the same time that violent crime shows every sign of becoming un-trendy. The correlation maintains even if you remove long guns from the scenario and look only at handguns, which are the firearms of choice for gun-using criminals.

Handgun purchases in Virginia increased 112 percent from 2006 to 2011, but violent crimes committed with handguns fell by nearly 22 percent. When adjusted for population increases, handgun purchases rose a little more than 100 percent, but violent crimes committed with handguns dropped 26 percent, according to Baker's analysis.

There's been little movement toward imposing new firearm restrictions in recent years, especially post-Heller. But amok shootings like the one in Aurora, Colorado, often inspire the usual suspects to call for "sensible gun control."  The Times-Dispatch evidence makes it clear that there's nothing "sensible" about threatening people with arrest and prison for violating gun restrictions when simple gun ownership has no obvious relationship to crime.

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Social Security Comic Books Offered Kids a Way to Avoid Costly Obligations to Mom and Pop

Between 1956 and 1969, the Social Security Administration published a series of comic books intended to sell the seniors' retirement program to youngsters. One of the arguments the series makes is that Social Security is great because it relieves children and young adults of responsibility to help pay for the expenses of an aging parent. Don't want to deal with mom and dad's late-life costs? That's what federal retirement benefits for seniors are for. 

Except, of course, that's not quite how the program ended up working in practice. 

Via Slate, here's a page from a 1965 comic about a young woman whose dream was to get married, but her father's expenses just kept getting in the way. (Click on the image to see a larger version). 

It's interesting to see Social Security make the case for itself on the basis of health care costs. The political class of 1965 didn't think it would do enough to pay for senior health care costs; that same year, Medicare and Medicaid were passed into law

These days, the program's defenders tend to argue that Social Security should be protected because seniors have "earned" its benefits.  "You've paid into these programs your whole lives. You've earned them," President Obama has said. The implication is that it's your money, taken out of your paycheck, and you should get it back. It's a highly misleading argument. Many people believe it's a government-run savings program, but in fact it works more like a straightforward transfer program: current benefits aren't paid out of individually held accounts but out of taxes paid by today's workers.

And the benefits that many seniors have or will receive are worth far more than they paid in: A single earner couple turning 65 in 2010 and earning the average wage would have paid in about $294,000 in Social Security taxes over a lifetime — but would get about $447,000 back, according to the Urban Institute. Include Medicare in the mix, and the imbalance is even larger: Lifetime taxes paid in would be about $352,000 while benefits would be about $798,000. (Two earner couples both making the average wage and retiring in 2010 would pay enough in taxes to finance their own retirement benefits, but would still get more out of the system overall when Medicare benefits are factored.)

It's funny, then, that the program was advertised as a way for young adults to avoid financial responsibility to their parents. In fact, it enforces it. Thanks to the way that Social Security's transfer financing works, today's younger workers end up paying for retirement benefits for today's seniors whether they want to or not. 

You can find the SSA's achive of its comics online here

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Reason Writers Around Town: Brian Doherty in American Conservative on the Death of Guns as a Political Issue

In the December issue of American Conservative, I review the new book Living With Guns: A Liberal's Case for the Second Amendment by Craig Whitney, and note that the sense of mission that propelled the book might be misplaced in a year when not even a series of shocking gun massacres could really juice any life into the corpse of increasing gun control regulation.


The book...pushes a set of policy prescriptions that Whitney paints as the rational, intelligent middle between untenable pro-gun attitudes (no new laws restricting our ability to buy, carry, and store weapons) and untenable anti-gun attitudes (no private ownership of firearms). Whitney argues there’s an intractable political divide about guns that only his measured wisdom can bridge.

But the reaction to this year’s string of prominent gun crimes undercuts Whitney’s project. That reaction was—beyond personal and some civic grief—nothing, except a bump in private gun buying. No effective new call for stronger gun regulations arose. As gun-control activists complained, guns and gun policy didn’t come up at all in the domestic-policy presidential debate in October between President Obama and Mitt Romney.

It may be true that there is still, as Whitney writes, “hysteria that passes for discussion of the Second Amendment by gun rights supporters and advocates of gun control.” But that hysteria is localized within a narrow community of obsessives. It’s not dominating American politics or tearing us asunder as a people...

Whitney stresses the importance of keeping guns out of what all reasonable people agree are the “wrong hands,” even as he presents the embarrassing history of colonial and early America, in which seemingly reasonable people believed blacks, Indians, Roman Catholics, and non-property-owners should be kept from weapons. Whitney harps on the notion that the Second Amendment right is supposed to come with civic responsibilities. Though he knows that used to mean being prepared to fight government tyranny, he avoids saying that might ever be necessary today, and Whitney fails to convince a skeptical reader that the civic responsibility in question should mean much more than making sure no one is unjustly harmed by the weapons you own.

Read the whole thing. I wrote most extensively about gun control in my 2008 book Gun Control on Trial.

Reason on the Second Amendment.

Vid: David Friedman on How to Privatize Everything

"Producing laws is not an easier problem than producing cars or food," says David Friedman, author, philosopher, and professor at Santa Clara University. "So if the government's incompetent to produce cars or food, why do you expect it to do a good job producing the legal system within which you are then going to produce the cars and the food?"

Reason TV's latest offering is "David Friedman on How to Privatize Everything." Watch the video above, or click the link below for the full story and downloadable versions.

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Will Republicans Bargain Away Entitlement Reform in the Fiscal Cliff Deal?

There are a large number of policies that make up the fiscal cliff: the expiration of the Bush-era income tax cuts, the end of a temporary payroll tax cut, budgetary caps on discretionary spending imposed by last year’s debt deal, a reduction in planned spending on defense as a result the sequestration process, the so-called “doc fix” which governs physician’s Medicare reimbursements. All of these policies are set to change automatically if Congress does nothing.

What won’t change automatically is the fundamental shape and structure of any of the country’s major entitlements: Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Yet Republicans are hoping to negotiate changes to those programs as part of a fiscal cliff deal.

That’s a good thing, at least in theory, because entitlements—Medicare and Medicaid in particular—are the biggest drivers of the long term debt. And the sooner that Congress starts looking for ways to restrain them, the better.

Republicans have indicated that they might be willing to bargain: They’ll accept hikes in tax revenue in exchange for cuts or changes to entitlements. But the problem is that Republicans don’t seem clear about what they’re bargaining for. And the hints that they’ve been dropping about what sort of reforms they might accept in a trade suggest that they might be willing to give on taxes in exchange for not much in return.

Republicans have said they want “structural reforms” to Medicare, but haven’t said what, exactly, that might mean.

That’s a familiar dodge. Republican leaders supposedly seeking entitlement reform have spent the last few years saying they’re for it, in vague terms, without giving any real hints about what they might mean. Mitt Romney offered a Medicare reform plan that lacked crucial details. In the weeks before the 2010 midterm election, top GOP House Representative John Boehner would say only that he wanted to have “an adult conversation” about reforming entitlements—but refused to provide any specifics.

It often seems as if Republicans are for the idea of entitlement reform—but not for any specific plan to accomplish it.

And sometimes the proposals they hint at would barely reform the system at all.

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The Troll vs. the State

Profile of the day: Gawker's Adrian Chen hangs out with Andrew "Weev" Auernheimer, a media manipulator, prison-bound hacker, and "artisanal troll." There "will always be terrible people," Chen concludes,

and out of all of the terrible people on the internet Auernheimer is one of the best. The pureness of his awfulness-for-awfulness' sake is something to marvel at. When the law came for him he didn't suddenly pretend to see the light, he doubled-down and sent a sprawling, arrogant email to the Assistant DA signed "hugs and courage to you". Auernheimer can be a bully and a racist but like many trolls he exposes hypocrisies and injustices through his provocation. In his case, he has forced us to put up or shut up when it comes to freedom of speech on the internet.

Because in the end, Auernheimer's case is about free speech. He faces ten years in prison for using information accidentally made publicly available by AT&T to embarrass it. Nothing was harmed but a giant corporation's reputation....No doubt the fact that he was a dick about it—that he has made a career of being a dick about it—has a lot to do with the fact he's going to prison. But if being a dick on the internet was a crime we'd all be headed for the electric chair. Auernheimer plans to appeal his conviction, and when he does it will hopefully help clear up the U.S.'s outdated and vague computer crime laws, which lead to ridiculous penalties like his.
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Gene Healy on the Death of National Greatness Conservatism

Politically speaking, conservatives didn't have much to be thankful for this November. After President Obama's re-election cakewalk, 2013 looks like a rebuilding year, a time for "soul-searching" by GOP leaders and the conservative intelligentsia alike.

Last week, believe it or not, The New York Times' erstwhile "National Greatness Conservative," David Brooks, made an important contribution to that project. Brooks's Nov. 19 column, "The Conservative Future," identifies a number of youngish right-leaning thinkers who can help the GOP evolve.

And what's notable about his list, writes Gene Healy, is that not one of Brooks' rising stars is a dedicated follower of "National Greatness Conservatism."

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Hungarian Parliamentarian Wants Government to Draw up List of Dangerous Jews

Hungary, long considered one of post-communist Central Europe's biggest success stories, has been backsliding fast since the rancidly populist Fidesz–Hungarian Civic Union party headed by Viktor Orbán won a two-thirds parliamentary majority in 2010. Among the many illiberal developments has been an alarming resurgence in government-sanctioned anti-Semitism.

Now Reuters is reporting on an appalling new development:

A Hungarian far-right politician urged the government to draw up lists of Jews who pose a "national security risk", stirring outrage among Jewish leaders who saw echoes of fascist policies that led to the Holocaust.

Marton Gyongyosi, a leader of Hungary's third-strongest political party Jobbik, said the list was necessary because of heightened tensions following the brief conflict in Gaza and should include members of parliament. [...]

Gyongyosi, who leads Jobbik's foreign policy cabinet, told Parliament: "I know how many people with Hungarian ancestry live in Israel, and how many Israeli Jews live in Hungary," according to a video posted on Jobbik's website late on Monday.

"I think such a conflict makes it timely to tally up people of Jewish ancestry who live here, especially in the Hungarian Parliament and the Hungarian government, who, indeed, pose a national security risk to Hungary."

Jobbik holds 44 of 386 seats in the Hungarian Parliament, according to the Reuters report. Fidesz and the government condemned Gyongyosi's statement.

A half-million Hungarian Jews died during the Holocaust, often with the enthusiastic participation of their non-Jewish countrymen.

Link via the Twitter feed of Nick Denton.

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Los Angeles Will Not Soon Be Following the Pension Reform Lead of San Diego and San Jose

Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan has dropped his quest, on which he spent a reported $500,000, to gather signatures for a ballot initiative that would have replaced defined-benefit pensions for city employees with 401(k)-style defined-contribution plans.

Similar initiatives were approved last June by more than two-thirds of voters in San Diego and San Jose, cities where pension contributions account for 20 percent and 27 percent, respectively, of their budgets. L.A.'s public-sector pension share of the budget is at 19 percent currently, and has been projected to reach 26 percent by 2016. The trend lines are unmistakable: California's public-sector pension contributions have increased by more than 300 percent over the last decade, a key reason why the state is a fiscal disaster area and its cities keep going bankrupt.

Unsurprisingly, L.A.'s debased, union-dominated political class has depicted the 82-year-old former mayor as a moral monster throughout. The Los Angeles Police Protective League described the initiative's backers as a "billionaire boys club." And the current city government (which Riordan ran from 1993-2001) treated him like this:

[W]hen Riordan spoke at a council meeting last week, he was dressed down by Council President Herb Wesson, who smiled and asked him why he didn't fix the city's budget problems when he was mayor.

Riordan started to respond, but Wesson shut off his microphone. "There's no back and forth. I get the last word," said Wesson, adding: "This is our house."

Wesson, by the way, is paid by Angelenos more than $178,000 a year to act this way.

After the jump, if you so choose, read a mild clarification from me about how I was quoted in the L.A. Times article on Riordan's withdrawal.

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USDA Suffers Major Legal Defeat

Michael Doyle of McClatchy Newspapers reports on some very bad news for the overreaching regulators at the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

The Supreme Court on Monday provided legal juice for growers who want to sue the U.S. Agriculture Department and the California Table Grape Commission over grapevine patents.

In a decision noteworthy for farmers nationwide, the high court declined to review a lower court’s ruling that waived USDA’s customary immunity from lawsuits. The decision, issued without comment, effectively upholds the earlier appellate ruling and gives a green light for further legal battle over the “Scarlet Royal” and “Autumn King” grapevine variety patents....

“They deserve to be sued,” prominent Visalia, Calif.-area grape grower and nursery owner Luther J. Khachigian said Monday. “They don’t belong in the nursery business . . . they’re interfering in a business they don’t know anything about.”

Frank Dikötter on Mao Zedong

Alexander Pantsov is one of the few scholars to have gained exclusive access to the Russian State Archive's personal dossiers on Mao Zedong and other top members of the Chinese Communist Party. He teamed up with Steven Levine, a respected historian of modern China, to distill this new material in Mao: The Real Story. Frank Dikötter reports that the authors break new ground in some areas, but in other places they insist on presenting the Great Helmsman as a "multifaceted figure" with a good side. This lack of moral clarity fatally mars the book.

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Katherine Mangu-Ward Discusses Warrantless E-Mail Surveillance on CNBC's Kudlow Report

Reason Managing Editor Katherine Mangu-Ward discusses Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy's proposed bill that would allow warrantless searches into American's private email accounts on CNBC's The Kudlow Report. Airdate: November 20, 2012.

About 4.22 minutes.

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A.M. Links: NYC Wants a Post-Sandy Bailout, Morsi Has Obama Quite Annoyed, Gun Sales Rise as Crime Plummets

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

The updated Reason app for Apple and Android now includes Reason 24/7!

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

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Welcome to Washington, D.C.: Like The Hunger Games, But Without The Laughs

Glenn Reynolds' latest column in USA Today notes the striking (read: depressing) similarity between the fictional universe of The Hunger Games and today's landscape:

You know the story: While the provinces starve, the Capital City lives it up, its wheeler-dealer bigshots growing fat on the tribute extracted from the rest of the country.

We don't live in The Hunger Games yet, but I'm not the first to notice that Washington, D.C., is doing a lot better than the rest of the country. Even in upscale parts of L.A. or New York, you see boarded up storefronts and other signs that the economy isn't what it used to be. But not so much in the Washington area, where housing prices are going up, fancy restaurants advertise $92 Wagyu steaks, and the Tyson's Corner mall outshines -- as I can attest from firsthand experience -- even Beverly Hills' famed Rodeo Drive.

Reynolds links to a recent Ross Douthat col in the NYT that also has a Hunger Games theme, but the Instapundit emphasizes that the current concentration of wealth in the greater Washington, D.C. area is a predictable and fully lamentable result of first concentrating power in the region:

Things started go go downhill with the federal expansion under the New Deal, and then really took off after the "regulatory explosion" under President Nixon, who created such entities as the Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety & Health Administration.

It's no coincidence that as the federal government morphed from an entity that did a few highly visible things well, to one that did a whole lot of not-so-visible things less well, respect for the federal government plummeted even as the political class' wealth climbed.

Reynolds' prescription for change? "Return to the Constitution." Which is, alas, easier said than done. Though state-based experiments in democracy are definitely taking hold in the wake of the 2012 elections. Whole thing here.

I trotted out The Hunger Games analogy back in July while being interviewed about my summer reading for C-SPAN; I was also reading John Barry's Roger Williams' biography, which is all about the origins and necessity of limited government. Reason has been charting the Washington wealth boom since at least early 2009, when Radley Balko noted that

America's wealthiest counties ring a city where the chief industry is government - and the entire region's only getting richer. That doesn't seem like a trend that bodes well for the health of a market-based economy.

On point here: In 2009, we interviewed the economic historian Robert Higgs, who had written an introduction to a new edition of Arthur A. Ekirch's great The Decline of American Liberalism, a bold classical liberal reading of U.S. history from colonial times through the 1950s. In Ekirch's telling, our national experiment had always been a struggle between forces of centralization and decentralization (of political power, wealth, geography, knowledge, you name it). It's a book that is as relevant today as The Hunger Games, and well worth reading. Higgs' explains why:

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Nick Gillespie Interviews Treme's David Simon

“At some point during the run of The Wire, I became a fellow traveler of the libertarians,” says acclaimed writer and television producer David Simon. “And then a great disappointment to them.”

In September Editor in Chief Nick Gillespie sat down with Simon in Baltimore to discuss Treme, the drug war, school choice, Simon’s general antipathy toward libertarians, and more.

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Brickbat: Road Kill

Normally when a road has to be re-routed any utilities in its path get moved. But no one seemed to notice that a utility pole was right in the middle of a new stretch of one highway in rural Quebec, and when the crews doing the work came upon it they just paved around it, leaving it in the middle of the road. It took two months and lots of media attention before the government got around to removing the pole.

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Intrade Prediction Market Targeted by Our Commodity Futures Trading Commission (For Absolutely No Good Reason)

In a press release strangely devoid of any mention of anyone being victimized or defrauded, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) announces it is suing Intrade, the famous "prediction market" business, based in Ireland. 

From that release:

Intrade and TEN [the corporate parent] allegedly unlawfully solicited and permitted U.S. customers to buy and sell options predicting whether specific future events would occur, including whether certain U.S. economic numbers or the prices of gold and currencies would reach a certain level by a certain future date, and whether specific acts of war would occur by a certain future date.

The CFTC’s complaint also charges Intrade and TEN with knowingly filing false “Annual Certification” forms with the CFTC stating that Intrade limited its options offerings to eligible market participants. Contrary to these representations, the complaint alleges that Intrade unlawfully solicited and permitted retail U.S. customers to buy and sell off-exchange options on the website.

In addition, the complaint alleges that TEN violated an order issued by the CFTC in 2005 that found that TEN had previously engaged in similar conduct and ordered TEN to cease and desist from violating the Commodity Exchange Act and CFTC regulations, as charged.

And CFTC wants to get, from this Irish company for violating this American regulatory agency's diktats by actually allowing U.S. citizens a harmless liberty that their government wants to bar them from:

civil monetary penalties, disgorgement of ill-gotten gains, and permanent injunctions against further violations of federal commodities law, as charged, among other relief.

Intrade, with whom I have never done business, reportedly asks its customers to insist it is legal for them to participate, though you apparently can't use a U.S.-based credit card to do so.

And why the goddamn hell is it the CFTC's business? From the release:

David Meister, the Director of the CFTC’s Division of Enforcement, stated: “It is against the law to solicit U.S. persons to buy and sell commodity options, even if they are called ‘prediction’ contracts, unless they are listed for trading and traded on a CFTC-registered exchange or unless legally exempt. The requirement for on-exchange trading is important for a number of reasons, including that it enables the CFTC to police market activity and protect market integrity. Today’s action should make it clear that we will intervene in the ‘prediction’ markets, wherever they may be based...

"Wherever they may be based." Why do they hate us? Whoever they are. Again, note the lack of any claim any U.S. citizen or other person has been robbed or cheated. Meister basically is saying, we are doing this bullshit so that all the world may know we can and we will throw our weight around doing exactly this sort of bullshit! And, uh, "market integrity" except for the integrity of this market U.S. citizens want to participate in, which we are interfering with rather than assuring.

Economist Bryan Caplan loves Intrade and thinks this suit shows the CFTC's true--useless--colors:

The CFTC's real complaint is that consumers eagerly bet on Intrade because the company exemplifies market integrity: "I trust Intrade with my money because of their reputation, not government regulation."  Reputation: That's the same mechanism, of course, that underlies eBay, Amazon Marketplace, and the whole cornucopia of internet commerce that the mainstream information economist of 1990 would have dismissed as free-market Fantasy Island.

If the CFTC really wants to protect market integrity, it should start by publicly admitting that if the CFTC ever served a useful function, that time has long since passed.  Americans send money to Intrade because Intrade delivers the goods (and produces the positive externality of accurate forecasts in the process!).  

In the information age, firms' reputations are just a click away.  That's all the protection any consumer needs.  The only people the CFTC is "protecting" are their own obsolete employees.  

The press release, by the way, lists the specific names of the specific obsolete employees responsible for the case, and may they all be ashamed of themselves.

Reason on Intrade.

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Nick Gillespie on HuffPost Live, Talking DHS, TSA, and Worse!

I'm about to start talking about the Department of Homeland Security, the TSA, and more on HuffPost Live.

Go here for the show.

And click below to watch the Reason TV video that inspired the segment:


For more info on the vid, go here.

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Did the Feds Set-Up MegaUpload?

The long-running MegaUpload saga has become known for the Keystone-Kops shenanigans of New Zealand authorities who secured the wrong legal documents and broke laws against domestic spying in executing the will of their high-handed American masters — understandable, since incompetence and snoopiness are easier to grasp than the intricacies of intellectual property law. But the copyright claims that killed the once-huge company and set in motion events that may well determine how Kiwis cast their votes next election are still in play. And it emerged recently that some of the files that MegaUpload is accused of storing in violation of copyright law were actually retained at the request of the United States government.

According to Wired:

Eighteen months before Megaupload’s operators were indicted in the United States, the company complied with a secret U.S. search warrant targeting five of its users, who were running their own file-sharing service using Megaupload’s infrastructure, according to interviews and newly unsealed court documents.

The June 24, 2010 warrant to search the Megaupload servers in Virginia was part of a U.S. criminal investigation into NinjaVideo, which was piggy-backing on Megaupload’s “Megavideo” streaming service. Though the feds had already begun quietly investigating Megaupload months before, in this case the government treated Megaupload as NinjaVideo’s internet service provider, serving Megaupload with the warrant and asking them to keep it quiet.

What did MegaUpload get for its troubles?

Despite Megaupload’s cooperation, the 39 infringing NinjaVideo files were later used against the popular file-sharing service as evidence to seize Megaupload.com domains and prosecute Dotcom and others connected to the site.

The apparent entrapment may not be so straightforward, since the forbidden files were also found elsewhere on MegaUpload's servers. Theoretically, then, the U.S. Department of Justice could be going after MegaUpload for those other copies, rather than the ones it asked the company to retain.

But ...

In the past year, we've had internationally coordinated armed raids, as well as a full-court press by the United States government, all over a friggin' copyright case against a company that has a history of cooperating with American authorities. Yes, there is, potentially, a lot of money in digital music and movie files, but this all seems oddly disprportionate to the core concerns in the case. Especially when it turns out that MegaUpload had previously worked with the feds, and the U.S. is complaining about files it asked the company to retain.

Far be it from me to suggest—

Oh, screw it. No, it isn't. The fact is, it increasingly looks like the United States government rented out the Department of Justice as a hit squad to the entertainment industry to enforce a contract on MegaUpload.

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Barack Obama’s Not Ending the War in Afghanistan

you've got the watches we've got the time, old afghan proverbWhite HouseBarack Obama campaigned in 2008 on a promise to end the war in Iraq. That promise he tried his best to break by supporting a residual force of 10,000 U.S. troops past the 2011 withdrawal date agreed to by George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki several years prior. That plan, in fact, was also endorsed by Mitt Romney; the Republican presidential nominee called the president out on this fact at the last debate, but Obama responded by outright lying, saying “what I would not have done is left 10,000 troops in Iraq that would tie us down” even though that was exactly what he tried to do. “That certainly would not help us in the Middle East,” Obama said of the 10,000 troops both he and Romney wanted to remain in Iraq past the 2011 withdrawal.

The tentative withdrawal date in Afghanistan is 2014. Unlike the withdrawal date in Iraq, the Afghanistan date was negotiated not between the presidents of the U.S. and Afghanistan but among NATO leaders, making it much easier for the U.S. to wriggle out of. In fact, before NATO agreed to withdraw by 2014, the U.S. and Afghanistan worked out a deal to keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan for the next ten years. That truth was conveniently obscured during the campaign season but U.S. officials have made it a lot clearer the U.S. war in Afghanistan is not ending in 2014 since election day. The week after the election, one general told Congress at his confirmation hearing to take command in Kabul that the war in Afghanistan would certainly have to last past 2014.

And now the top man for NATO forces in Afghanistan, General John Allen, is providing a “preliminary assessment” to the Pentagon on just how many troops ought to remain in Afghanistan after 2014. One option being floated is that magical number of 10,000 troops, to remain, apparently, in order to continue to train and support Afghan forces and to conduct counterinsurgency operations. U.S. forces in Afghanistan have been doing that for the last decade. Despite a vaunted surge in 2009, U.S. forces continue to suffer from a lack of coherent direction or leadership in Afghanistan. The ultimate decision on how many troops will remain in Afghanistan past 2014 and what they will do, of course, theoretically rests with the president, one who believes he’s ending the war in Afghanistan, or at least says so. Two thirds of Americans, meanwhile, want the war to end. Will empathy toward their preference be enough to placate?

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Cyberterror: Who Cares?

Peter W. Singer at the Brookings Institution site has some calming words about "cyberterror":

About 31,300. That is roughly the number of magazine and journal articles written so far that discuss the phenomenon of cyber terrorism.

Zero. That is the number of people that who been hurt or killed by cyber terrorism at the time this went to press.

...Taking down hydroelectric generators, or designing malware like Stuxnet [a product of governments, not stateless terrorists] that causes nuclear centrifuges to spin out of sequence doesn’t just require the skills and means to get into a computer system. It’s also knowing what to do once you are in. To cause true damage requires an understanding of the devices themselves and how they run, the engineering and physics behind the target.

The Stuxnet case, for example, involved not just cyber experts well beyond a few wearing flip-flops, but also experts in areas that ranged from intelligence and surveillance to nuclear physics to the engineering of a specific kind of Siemens-brand industrial equipment....

As George R. Lucas Jr., a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, put it, conducting a truly mass-scale action using cyber means “simply outstrips the intellectual, organizational and personnel capacities of even the most well-funded and well-organized terrorist organization, as well as those of even the most sophisticated international criminal enterprises.”

With the usual hemming and hawing about how, well, they are certainly malign people and who the hell knows what cyberdamage our phantom enemies might cause, Singer notes:

But so far, what terrorists have accomplished in the cyber realm doesn’t match our fears, their dreams or even what they have managed through traditional means.

The only publicly documented case of an actual al-Qaida attempt at a cyber attack wouldn’t have even met the FBI definition. Under questioning at Guantanamo Bay, Mohmedou Ould Slahi confessed to trying to knock offline the Israeli prime minister’s public website. The same goes for the September denial-of-service attacks on five U.S. banking firms, for which the Islamist group “Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Cyber Fighters” claimed responsibility. (Some experts believe the group was merely stealing credit for someone else’s work.) The attacks, which prevented customers from accessing the sites for a few hours, were the equivalent of a crowd standing in your lobby blocking access or a gang of neighborhood kids constantly doing “ring and runs” at your front doorbell. It’s annoying, to be sure, but nothing that would make the terrorism threat matrix if you removed the word “cyber.” And while it may make for good headlines, it is certainly not in the vein of a “cyber 9/11” or “digital Pearl Harbor.”

Still, such phantom fears of that digi-Pearl Harbor help push bad laws like the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) through the House of Representatives earlier this year.

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Why Cities Like Cleveland Die: They Refuse to Emulate Success While Persisting in Failure

Earlier this month, Cleveland's West Side Market celebrated its 100th anniversary with a fundraising party designed to raise dollars to help maintain the facility.

As all of us involved in the production of the documentary series Reason Saves Cleveland with Drew Carey learned, the West Side Market is a really unique and memorable scene brimming with great food, good people, and energy - for the four days a week and short hours that the West Side Market is actually open. Click on the image above to watch the episode that explores how the West Side Market could rev up its operations, benefiting customers and business folks alike.

The market is owned by the city and operated by Cleveland's parks department, which helps explain why it doesn't keep regular business hours and why the building that houses it is in a constant state of disrepair (as you'll see in the video above, vendors lost no time in complaining about the market's physical plant).

And yet, reports Cleveland's Plain Dealer, the powers that be in the "Mistake on the Lake" have no plans to innovate in a way that might not only serve the market's customers and vendors better, but allow the city to focus on core services such as policing.

Across the country, public markets have moved toward the nonprofit-management model. That's the case at city-owned markets in DetroitColumbus and Cincinnati. And not-for-profit groups run the well-known Pike Place Market in Seattle and Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market.

In Cleveland, the prospect of the city's selling the market or outsourcing its management is, to put it mildly, a non-starter.

"We sometimes hear that private is more efficient and better than public," said Ken Silliman, the chief of staff. "Mayor (Frank) Jackson doesn't buy that. We, as an administration, don't buy that. The West Side Market has received both local appreciation and national acclaim because the city of Cleveland has stayed true to the origin of the market.

"And in a time when other city markets have diversified to the point where the food is a minor feature in the interest of more profits, we have - and will continue to - resist that trend. That's one of the benefits of private ownership. We're about service, rather than profits."

Read the whole thing here.

You got that? Screw the experience of other cities that have far more famous markets (such as Pike Place and the Reading Terminal Market). Cleveland will bravely soldier on doing what it was doing 100 years ago. And if paying customers can't get a sandwich or a steak or a cup of coffee after 4pm on Mondays and Wednesday - or any time at all on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, well, that's because the city's operators are "about service, rather than profits." Pike Place Market may be open "19 1/2 hours a day, 362 days a year," but Cleveland don't play that game, you dig?!?!

You don't need to be a "market fundamentalist" or even a loosey-goosey libertarian to blanch at Ken Silliman's statement above. How the hell exactly are you about service if you're not even open three days a week? That's not putting people first - it's maintaining control at the expense of your constituents. To call it misguided would be an understatement.

Cleveland is a remarkable place, with a rich and varied history, and a ton of cool stuff. But it is, sadly, a ruin of a city, one that has lost more than half of its residents since its peak in 1950 and is now reduced to bragging about its symphony orchestra rather than its ability to educate or employ local citizens.

Unlike Pompeii, though, Cleveland wasn't destroyed by a natural disaster. Its long, slow, heartbreaking death is entirely man-made and could be reversed if the people in charge there would try to do things differently. Or let residents do things differently. That's what Reason Saves Cleveland was all about: learning from other places' successess and failures and figuring out how to adapt those lessons to your particular city.

Here's another video to watch, one of Drew Carey and me meeting with the Cleveland City Council after they invited us to discuss the series and its reform ideas. There's a lot of good people fighting the good fight in Cleveland - many of them across the table from us - but the mentality evident in the Plain Dealer article will override the best intentions of well-intentioned change agents every time.

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Dumb Laws Force Kids to Go Naked, Shut Down Small Businesses

OK, maybe naked is an exaggeration. But small companies are bailing out of the children's clothing business, thanks to a dumb batch of regulations put into place in 2009. Consumer Product Safety Commissioner Nancy Nord writes that:

At least some apparel manufacturers are opting to exit the children’s market rather than brave our labyrinthine minefield of children’s product rules. These requirements, which are arcane to trained lawyers and incomprehensible to most other people, have also forced micro-businesses focused on children’s clothing to cut back or to shut down completely. Thanks to our staff, we knew this sort of thing was coming, and with little if any benefit, but my colleagues decided to forge ahead anyway.

In another post, she tells stories from some trade conferences:

One small business owner, with fewer than 10 employees, told me of needing to add an employee to do nothing but administer and document his testing and regulatory compliance program. Another told me that since children’s garments were not a major part of his business, he has decided just to get out of that aspect of the business altogether rather than have to hassle with all the rules.

Products destined for children have long been subject to aggressive regulation, but the biggest bugaboo these days is 2009's Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA), which bans lead and phthalates in toys, books, clothes, and any other object intended for children under 12. 

The law was designed to require additional testing for children's toys after a 2007 scare over contaminants in Chinese-made Mattel toys. But overly broad language and strict testing and labeling requirements meant the law wound up seriously hurting the market in second-hand children's books, making charitable giving of secondhand stuffed animals tougher, putting motorbike manufacturers out of business, squelching the market in handmade wooden toys, taking popular children's jewelry off the shelves, and more. 

And now your kid is going to be naked—or worse, have to wear shmattes from some kind of big box chain that can afford all the extra testing and labeling. Once again, regulations designed to rein in the big guys wind up hurting little guys—literal and metaphorical.

Via Overlawyered.

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Black Friday Shoplifter Dies, Police Secrets Rain on Parade, Catalonian Independence Gets a Boost: P.M. Links

  • Black Friday isn’t just about shoppers beating up each other at the mall: An accused shoplifter at Walmart died while in the custody of company employees. A security officer who no longer works there may have placed the alleged thief in a choke hold.
  • In other holiday news, Macy’s Day Thanksgiving Parade attendees discovered something special in the confetti thrown about: confidential information from the Nassau County Police Department that had been shredded but was still very readable.
  • A Utah man might not be able to claim he was defending his home when he opened fire on a SWAT team coming to serve a search warrant, killing one. The defendant has said he thought people were breaking into his home to rob him.
  • Supporters of Catalonian independence in Spain got a boost from regional elections, nearly doubling their seats in local parliament.
  • More and more union workers are turning against their own organizers, frustrated at what they are – or aren’t – doing.
  • The federal appeals court in Virginia will hear evangelical Christian Liberty University’s challenge that the Affordable Care Act violates the college’s religious beliefs.
  • The law against providing “material support” for terrorist groups could land social media companies like Twitter in trouble for not blocking people like members of Hamas from using it.

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

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Ira Stoll on Treating the Tax-Me-More Crowd to a Voluntary Additional Tax

As the clock ticks toward a tax increase scheduled to take effect at year end, expect to hear a lot from the “tax me more” crowd, writes Ira Stoll.

These are wealthy individuals who profess to favor increases in their own tax bills. A series of recent articles help define the genre, which was pioneered by Warren Buffett last year in his New York Times op-ed piece that ran under the headline “Stop Coddling The Super-Rich.”

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ObamaCare Returns to Court

When the Supreme Court ruled on a state-led challenge to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. ObamaCare, over the summer, it settled many of the most prominent legal disputes about the law, at least as far as the court system is concerned. The law's individual insurance mandate was ruled constitutional, and several state requirements related to the law's Medicaid expansion were thrown out.

But the ruling didn't cover all of the provisions in the law that had been challenged in lower courts. Liberty University, a Christian college based in Lynchburg, Virginia, had launched challenges to both the law's employer mandate, which requires larger employers to provide health benefits to employees or pay fine, and its mandate for contraceptive coverage. The challenges didn't go anywhere, though, because the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it could not decide merits of the Liberty's case until the law was fully in effect. (Many of ObamaCare's major provisions, including its employer and individual mandates, don't kick in until 2014.)

This morning, however, the Supreme Court granted Liberty University's request to vacate the Fourth Circuit's original judgment and reopen the case. The school argued that the employer mandate and contraception issues weren't settled and hadn't been given a full hearing. And the High Court agreed. Via Politico, here's the gist of Liberty's argument:

Liberty University argues that the law’s employer coverage provisions — which will require businesses with more than 50 full-time workers to provide health insurance for their workers or face fines — are unconstitutional because Congress overstepped its power by setting those rules.

It also says the individual and employer mandates violate the Constitution's right to a free exercise of religion. The employer mandate is unconstitutional because of the contraception coverage requirement, Liberty argues, claiming that the individual mandate would require individuals to pay for coverage of abortions.

It's possible that we could see arguments on the case as early as next spring, which means that it's at least conceivable that ObamaCare could be headed back to the Supreme Court by the end of 2013. 

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British MP Recommends Patients Pay For Drugs Used to Treat "Lifestyle Diseases"

Conservative MP Phillip Lee has caused quite a stir this week with his suggestion that patients suffering from so-called “lifestyle diseases,” such as type II diabetes, pay for their own prescriptions rather than claim free or subsidized drugs from the National Health Service (NHS).

Lee made the comments as part a Free Enterprise Group panel aimed at producing proposals for reducing the UK government's spending. His suggestions come as part of a larger shake up of the NHS designed to deal with spiraling costs and decreasing standards. Lee argues the NHS requires fundamental reform or it faces certain “collapse” in the future. Whilst the system could “probably limp on for the rest of the decade,” pressure from an aging population of baby boomers and a rise in younger patients has resulted in a mounting strain on resources.

Lee proposes to remove the right to free prescriptions for those with illnesses that are self-inflicted through particular lifestyle choices, type II diabetes being an obvious example with its strong correlation with obesity. He praised the Danish system of giving patients a modest budget for their prescriptions that they then have to top up themselves if they exceed. He estimates, according to Freedom of Information requests from the Department For Health, that such a scheme could save the NHS upwards of £400 million.

Speaking at London’s Institute of Economic Affairs Lee argued;

It’s time we actually got quite realistic about this because if we don’t we are going to lose what most people would want in this country which is access to care when you need it irrespective of your means. In which case, if we don’t start reforming now…then we are going to end up with collapse and the free for all and the pretty disgraceful situation you find in the US.

The Tory MP insists the proposals are not part of a desire to privatize health care or prevent it from being free at the point of access.

I just think that we have got to have an affordable system that rewards individual responsibility. If you want to have doughnuts for breakfast, lunch and dinner, fine, but there’s a cost.

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Russia Sends Cash to Syria, Keeps Assad's Regime Functioning

Flight manifests seen by ProPublica indicate that Russia has been shipping tons of money to Assad’s regime. Assad’s government is strapped for cash thanks to sanctions and bans that have been imposed on the minting of Syrian currency. The manifests mention tons of “bank notes” being delivered but do not mention what currency the notes were, nor what else could have been carried on the Ilyushin-76 cargo planes.

The manifests catalogue the cargo of eight round-trips between Damascus and Moscow that took place during escalated violence. The flights were on flight paths different to those of civilian flights. The flights in question passed over Azerbaijan, Iran, and Iraq, avoiding Turkish airspace.

Despite the intentions of European and American sanctions Assad has found other ways to fund his crackdown on rebel forces.

It looks like Assad is in an increasingly difficult situation. Rebels have recently enjoyed strategic victories, and some governments have recognized the new National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

However, it is not all good news for Assad’s opposition. The Syrian opposition includes jihadists such as the Al-Nusra Front that has rejected the National Coalition. Unlike many of the other groups that make up the National Coalition the Al-Nusra Front aims to create a fundamentalist Islamic state in Syria after Assad loses power. The Syrian opposition also includes Kurdish groups who have different motivations than other groups fighting for the downfall of Assad.

The rebels are not alone in their diversity. Iran has been backing Syria’s military, and the recently uncovered flight manifests are more evidence that Russia has thrown its support behind Assad. The regime is also enjoying support from Hezbollah and Shiite militias.

It is not immediately obvious why a diverse opposition with jihadist elements is preferable to an Iranian and Russian backed regime that welcomes the support of terrorist organizations. However, the international community is seemingly intent on Assad being removed at all costs despite not knowing that what sort of government would take his regime’s place.

President Obama warned before the election that he would back military intervention in Syria if it looked like Assad’s forces were preparing to use chemical or biological weapons. Obama has also spoken out against Assad and called for him to step down. Quite how the Obama administration would deal with Syria without Assad but with a jihadist influence has not been made clear. As cruel and inhumane as Assad’s crackdown has been Obama and the world’s diplomatic community would do well to be more cautious in choosing sides in Syria’s civil war. It's messy enough as it is. 

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The Supreme Court Should Tackle the Federal Government’s “Naked Economic Favoritism”

Hein Hettinga and his wife Ellen are Arizona-based dairy farmers currently fighting an uphill legal battle against a federal price-fixing scheme for milk that dates back to the New Deal. As I explained in my recent column on their case, the Hettingas have asked the Supreme Court to decide whether the lower court that ruled against them erred by simply taking the federal government at its word when it said the milk regulation in question was rationally related to a legitimate government interest. The Hettingas are asking the High Court for the opportunity to present their own evidence to rebut the government’s assertion and demonstrate that the price-fixing law is little more than a protectionist scheme designed to benefit special interests.

Will the Supreme Court agree to take the case? It’s still too soon to say, though the pressure is mounting. Last week, the Cato Institute and the Institute for Justice filed a joint friend of the court brief urging the justices to take a closer look at the government’s “illegitimate economic protectionism” against the Hettingas. Here’s a portion of that brief:

Wary of the problems of judicial imperialism, this Court has deferred to the policy judgments of the political branches and upheld economic regulation against constitutional challenge as long as it has some rational relationship to a legitimate government interest.  But it has never abdicated its responsibility to guard against naked economic favoritism.  The Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection necessarily means that the courts should not allow the actions of the political branches to escape scrutiny when they extend special favors to one group to the detriment of another. ...

The D.C. Circuit’s decision is not only out-of-step with decisions from other courts of appeals, but it is also a dangerous abdication of the judiciary’s obligation to ensure that our democratic institutions produce policies that reflect legitimate democratic choices and are not the result of a factional takeover.  Illegitimate economic protectionism is a serious problem in a whole host of areas where democratic processes have not worked as they should and government regulation is being used by powerful and entrenched interests to impose disproportionate burdens on the underprivileged and politically disfavored.  The Court should grant review to ensure that the judiciary remains an essential bulwark against this form of illegitimate government action.

Download the Cato/IJ brief here. Read more about Hettinga v. U.S. here.

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Q for Those in Favor of "Balanced Approach" of Spending Cuts and Tax Hikes: How Many Times Has Real Spending Declined Since 1980?

All the signs are pointing toward some sort of late-minute, ill-conceived deal to avoid the "fiscal cliff" at year's end.

This fiscal cliff is that dreaded Witching Hour come midnight on Jan. 1, 2013 at which the Bush tax rates expire (meaning a reversion to higher rates in place under Bill Clinton), Obama's payroll tax "holiday" ends, the debt ceiling might need upping (again), and "sequestration" kicks in, thereby cutting $110 billion in 2013's estimated spending tab (currently assumed to be about $3.8 trillion). The fiscal cliff, we're told, will be ruinous because our economy - not yet recovered from the recession that ended some time in 2009 - will not be able to withstand higher taxes on low- and middle-income earners (you know who you are) at the same time that the federal government will be forced into draconian "austerity" (also known as nearly 3 percent of anticipated federal spending for 2013).

Yet in the name of "fiscal responsibility," says the president who has overseen four consecutive years of trillion-dollar-plus deficits and a majority of adults, we should raise taxes on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans because they alone don't respond to basic economic incentives (why should they - they've got money to burn). And yes, let us be clear that we will also work to cut spending sometime down the road when we can afford to, after we have even more debt than we do today.

Because lord knows that no other countries have ever addressed debt-to-GDP issues by actually cutting spending in the here and now. Except maybe for, well, the United States itself after World War II and the New Deal, and Canada in the long-ago 1990s. And some other places, all of which not only reduced expenditures but saw powerful economic growth as a result.  

Republican legislators such House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) has already nudge-nudge-wink-winked and Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), John McCain (Az.), and Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) are now signaling that, like President Obama, they are willing to adopt a "balanced approach" to fiscal responsibility. That means that more and more of them are willing to talk about hiking government revenues in the short term for promises of cutting government expenditures in the long run.

Here's a quick question for the folks earnestly in favor of such a trade-off: How many times between 1980 (when Ronald Reagan was elected) and 2011 (last year for which full data are in) have inflation-adjusted, year-over-year government expenditures declined? That strikes me as a decent indicator of just how serious the federal government can be about restraining spending in recent years. The answer, using constant 2005 dollars and relying on Office of Management and Budget (OMB) tables (see table 1.3)? Four times, in 1987, 1993, 2007, and 2010. At least two of those four years warrant asterisks, too: In 2007, spending was almost exactly flat, and the decline in 2010 mostly had to do with the inability of the federal government to get its shit together and pass a budget.

So why exactly would anyone expect Congress to really cut spending down the road if it has shown essentially no ability to rein in spending in the near term? This is like a variation on the old joke about losing money on every unit sold but making it up in volume. Except it's not like that at all. Or funny.

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It's November 26, and the Obama Administration Still Has Not Responded to Legal Weed in Colorado and Washington

Twenty days ago, voters in Colorado and Washington legalized the sale and use of recreational marijuana.

Since then, prosecutors in both states have dropped misdeamonor pot charges against hundreds of offenders; legislators in Maine, Rhode Island, and Mexico have said they'll introduce marijuana legalization bills in the coming months. Dozens of members of Congress have written letters urging the DEA, the Justice Department, and President Obama to refrain from enforcing federal marijuana law in those states. Oh, and the U.N.'s drug czar has asked Attorney General Eric Holder to shred the U.S. Constitution and force Colorado and Washington to re-outlaw marijuana

Despite these developments, and having known for more than a year that Colorado and Washington would have legalization measures on their ballots, the Obama administration has stayed mum On The Other Big Thing That Happened on Nov. 6. The Office of National Drug Control Policy has yet to acknowledge the vote anywhere on its website (though it did find time to blog about Small Business Saturday). The DEA has been slightly more forthcoming, telling the press on Nov. 7 that "the Drug Enforcement Administration’s enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged," and republishing a 2011 in-house paper, titled "The Truth About Marijuana and Legalization," on its homepage

The Obama Weed Watch continues. 

Previously: It's November 19, and President Obama Still Hasn't Responded to Legal Pot in Colorado and Washington

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A. Barton Hinkle on Employer Choice and Contraception Mandates

The 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act—Obamacare for short—forces employers to provide coverage for birth control, writes A. Barton Hinkle. After outraged Catholics erupted in protest last year, the Obama administration offered a compromise—of sorts—exempting certain religious institutions, at least on paper if not in practice. Virginia delegate Bob Marshall (R-Prince William) proposes to expand the exemption by letting most employers opt out of the contraception requirements.

Naturally, this has provoked groups such as Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia—whose director, Cianti Stewart-Reid, thinks “politicians should stay out of women’s health.”

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Uganda Hates on the Gays in Order to Make it Possible to Imprison Anybody Forever

Since 2009, some Ugandan leaders (with the backing of evangelical interests) have been pushing for a law to make homosexuality a capital offense. The bill now appears to be close to a vote, but the capital punishment part has been stripped out. It now provides for a host of jail terms, including possible life sentences (and lesser sentences for those who fail to report homosexuals in their midst).

Human rights groups and Western nations are, of course, all aghast. A parliamentary speaker said she wants the bill passed as a “Christmas gift” for anti-gay Ugandans.

Beyond the barbaric attitude toward homosexuality, the vague wording (pdf) of the law shows that it’s not just the gays who should be worried: It appears to be practically designed to be used against political (or even personal) enemies.

Box Turtle Bulletin, a blog that centers on analyzing anti-gay rhetoric, went clause by clause through the bill and notes the incredibly loose way the law defines homosexual activity. Those football players smacking each other’s butts on the field could be accused of being vile sodomites, apparently:

The new definitions provided in Clauses 1 and 2 greatly open the possibility for conviction to just about anyone who has simply bumped into or brushed up against an accuser who has an axe to grind. Look again at Clause 2, 1.c.: a person, under this clause, can be sent to a Ugandan prison for life for merely “touching” someone. And Clause 1 defines ”touching” to include “any part of the body” “with anything else” (a finger? a foot? a ten foot pole?) “through anything.” All of which means that someone can “commit homosexuality” even if they are fully clothed and there is no actual skin-to-skin contact. The sole proof required is that the “touching” took place with the perceived “intention” of committing the act of homosexuality. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But just to make sure we’re clear that the bill intends to cast an extraordinarily wider net, go back to the definition of ”sexual act” in Clause 1: an act that “does not necessarily culminate in intercourse.”

You can see where this is going, can’t you? With the bar for conviction thus lowered, anyone can be falsely accused of being gay — one can easily imagine rival politicians, business owners and pastors falling prey to such accusations – and it will become virtually impossible for them to prove their innocence.

In Uganda, the parliament and the executive branch are currently in conflict over who controls licensing to drill oil and dubious land trades. Uganda has also been accused by the United Nations of supporting the rebel troops in Congo who have taken over the city of Goma.

Ugandans (and foreigners inside Uganda) won’t have to be gay in order to worry about this law. They’ll just have to worry that they have something that somebody else wants or have done something to piss somebody off.

Video: The Future of Financing the Arts: An Interview with Adam Huttler of Fractured Atlas

"The Future of Financing the Arts: An Interview with Adam Huttler of Fractured Atlas" 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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SCOTUS Won't Let Cook County Prosecute People for Recording Cops

Today the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review an appeals court decision that blocked enforcement of the Illinois Eavesdropping Act against people who record police on the job in Chicago and other parts of Cook County. Under the law, the strictest of its kind in the country, recording cops without their permission is a Class 1 felony, punishable by four to 15 years in prison. Last May the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, responding to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, ruled that the statute "restricts far more speech than necessary to protect legitimate privacy interests" and "likely violates the First  Amendment's free-speech and free-press guarantees" when applied to "people who openly record police officers performing their official duties in public." (State judges in Cook and Crawford counties also have deemed the Illinois Eavesdropping Act unconstitutional.) The 7th Circuit ordered the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois to enjoin enforcement of the law against the ACLU's police monitors until the case is resolved. Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez asked the Supreme Court to override the 7th Circuit.

Even when the law is not on their side, of course, cops may still hassle you for daring to record them on the job. Photography Is Not a Crime provides yet another example

Daniel J. Saulmon was charged with resisting, delaying and obstructing an officer, but the video shows he was standing well out the way of a traffic stop and was only arrested when he failed to produce identification to an approaching officer....

There is no law in California that requires citizens to produce identification....

Prosecutors have already dropped the charge against Saulmon as well as a few other minor citations relating to his bicycle such as not have proper reflectors on the pedals.

California's wiretap law makes it a crime to record "confidential communications" without the consent of all parties. Communications are considered confidential when there is an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which includes California, has recognized a First Amendment right to record police in public.

Radley Balko chronicled "The War on Cameras" in the January 2011 issue of Reason. Last spring Steve Silverman suggested "7 Rules for Recording Police." More from Reason TV:

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Yaël Ossowski on Stadium Welfare in Florida

Whether or not they’re fans of baseball, residents in Tampa and St. Petersburg, Florida have the opportunity of a lifetime to become investors in the future of America’s pastime. They’ve been told to imagine a sprawling ballpark with a retractable roof, enviable seating capacity, and a prime location in Tampa that would make attract baseball teams and fans from all around.

The catch? As Yaël Ossowski explains, taxpayers will be expected to shell out close to $400 million in order achieve such a dream, notwithstanding overrun costs to expand infrastructure and parking garages around the new stadium.

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Jersey City Spends $15 Million On “Longevity Pay” While Touting Pay Freeze

The Jersey Journal reports on a much used but rarely explored method to boost the pay of government employees in Jersey City, New Jersey:

A long-standing tradition among public employees, longevity pay costs some public entities millions of dollars a year, and yet it receives scant attention, with foes of government waste focused more on sick time benefits or overtime payouts.

Longevity pay comes in the form of bonuses to employees for continued employment with a public entity. The longer an employee works, the larger the longevity bonus is.

In total, Jersey City taxpayers last year paid out $15,089,184 in longevity pay to employees of the city, the school district and five of the city's seven autonomous agencies, according to records reviewed by The Jersey Journal…

The records show that some workers received bonuses equaling 19 percent of their base salaries, while half of the city's roughly 2,600 employees received longevity pay equivalent to 5 percent or less, even as the city touted a years-long pay freeze.

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Today's Depressing Post-Thanksgiving Metaphor

Magnus Fiskejö describes what happens to the turkeys pardoned by the president and sent to a petting zoo:

The birds are then, in proverbial fashion, said to live happily ever after. In reality, however, they are usually killed within a year and stand-in turkeys are supplied. This goes on year after year. The chosen birds are killed because they have been engineered and packed with hormones to the point that they are unfit for any other purpose than their own slaughter and consumption....The sturdiest survivors may live a little more than a year. But the birds are always finally put out of their growing misery. Then they are buried nearby in a presidential turkey cemetery—the ritualistic significance of which remains to be explored.

Via Jason Read, who adds: "They are creatures designed for the cage, and no decree can change that. Yep, the holiday really symbolizes the nation." And I hope you had a happy Thanksgiving too!

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Why Walmart's Critics Are Wrong, In 17 Tweets

On Saturday morning I had the opportunity to go on MSNBC's Up with Chris Hayes to talk about Black Friday and Walmart's role as both a cultural and economic force as part of a panel. You can watch a clip from the discussion below:

I really enjoyed the conversation with Hayes and the other guests. But there were a couple of additional points I wanted to make. So I followed up with a longer defense of Walmart on Twitter: