Weekly Hit & Run Archive 2012 November 29-31

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The NSA Tells Congress What to Think And Say About the NSA: Checks and Balances in Action

Julian Sanchez at Cato with some bitter but worthwhile examples of how checks and balances really work when it comes to congressional oversight on executive action, especially when "national security" is (supposedly) involved:

Blogger Mike Masnick recently came across a series of talking points that the National Security Agency provided its putative “overseers” on the congressional intelligence committees back when it first became known that President George W. Bush had authorized an unlawful warrantless surveillance program.  (These talking points have apparently been publicly available for some time, but have escaped attention.)

Some pieces of NSA’s script for its legislative vassals are merely humorous. For instance:

I have personally met the dedicated men and women of the NSA. The country owes them an enormous debt of gratitude for their superb efforts to keep us all secure.

One perk of this sort of ventriloquism, I suppose, is that you can dispense entirely with modesty when heaping praise on yourself.

Other points on the list, however, appear to be outright falsehoods.  For instance:

I can say that the Program must continue. It has detected terrorist plots that could have resulted in death or injury to Americans both at home and abroad.

As best we can tell from the unclassified version of the Inspectors General’s Report on the President’s Surveillance Program, this is not true.  Rather, while it appears to have had somevalue, the program “generally played a limited role in the FBI’s overall counterterrorism effort,” and “was rarely the sole basis for an intelligence success.” On the whole, it “was not of greater value than other sources of intelligence,” and “most [intelligence] officials had difficulty citing specific instances where [the program] had directly contributed to counterterrorism successes.” .....

Returning to the talking points, there’s this:

The Program is not “data mining”; it targets only international communications closely connected to al Qai’da or an affiliated group.

Two deceptions for the price of one! As we now know, the original “Stellar Wind” program did indeed involve data mining as well as warrantless wiretapping. Once the program was revealed, however, intelligence officials retroactively decided to make up something called the “Terrorist Surveillance Program” as a label for only the warrantless wiretapping component of the program. Then, even though the NSA surveillance program did involve data mining, they could claim that the “Terrorist Surveillance Program” didn’t use data mining, because they’d defined it (without telling anyone) as the non-data-mining parts of the real larger program....

Also, as the Inspectors General concluded, “most [of the surveillance program's] leads were determined not to have any connection to terrorism.” 

Reason on the NSA.

I wrote for Reason all the way back in 1992 on Congress' general tendency to become ideological prisoners of what they tend to hear from lobbyists of all sorts; and the most dangerous lobby in Washington is, as always, the government itself.

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The Bush Tax Cut Issue in One Chart

Federal outlays and receipts in the last two years of the Clinton Administration, all eight years of George W. Bush and Barack Obama’s first term:

you can soak the rich but you can't ignore mathReason.com

In 2011, income tax revenue made up about 55 percent of federal receipts. Raw data here and here

A few notes: George W. Bush and supporters of the tax cut said federal revenue would go up after passing the cuts and it appears it did. In fact, federal receipts reached Clinton-era levels without Clinton-era tax rates in 2006, not long after all the cuts went into effect (passed in 2001 and 2003, they were tweaked with in 2005). Bush passed a tax cut as stimulus in 2008 and Barack Obama’s trillion dollar stimulus package in 2009 included some type of tax cuts as well, but does that chart look like a revenue problem or a spending problem?

And for those who would say “well of course the government has to spend more when the economy is hurting” only one question applies: has it helped? If you think so, I've got a tiger-repellant rock to sell you.

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Same Old News on Fiscal Cliff, Unemployment Highs in Eurozone, Palestine Recognition Doesn’t Change Much: P.M. Links

  • The reporting on the fiscal cliff today sounds pretty much the same as the reporting yesterday. Tax the rich. Spend more. Oh, and the president wants to seize control over the debt ceiling from Congress.
  • Unemployment in the Eurozone reached a record high of 11.7 percent in October.
  • The Federal Communications Commission will be allowing community groups to get permits to operate low power FM radio stations in urban areas.
  • A Democratic Georgia congressman wants a constitutional amendment to restrict the free speech rights of corporations. He claims they are “stealing your government” and “control the media.”
  • Burger King is returning to France after a 15-year absence. Maybe we’ll finally find out what they call a Whopper over there.
  • Pfc. Bradley Manning testified he considered attempting suicide shortly after his initial arrest in Kuwait for handing classified material to WikiLeaks. But he says the military continued significantly restricting his behavior long after those urges went away.
  • United Nations members may have overwhelmingly voted to recognize the State of Palestine, but it doesn’t really change much right now.

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

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J.D. Tuccille on Cybersnooping Beyond Email

Electronic privacy is all the rage in these post-Petraeus days. Can the government really go pawing through our email at will? Well, pretty much so, it turns out, at least, until the Supreme Court gets around to focusing a little bit of its attention on this newfangled, electronic world of ours. But email isn't the only data we pass around in electronic form, writes Reason 24/7 Managing Editor J.D. Tuccille, and with all of our attention focused on our in-boxes, we may be missing a larger world of privacy perils—and the unlikely guardians who have been fighting a rearguard action against official snoops.

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Iranians (and Americans) Use Bitcoin to Fight Government Control

Thanks to U.S. sanctions, dollars are scarce in Iran. Enter Bitcoin, the handy-dandy stateless peer-to-peer crypto currency! Iranians are using the hard-to-trace digital currency (which can be exchanged for dollars) to buy things they want or need abroad. And Americans are using bitcoins to evade sanctions:  

At online store coinDL.com, shoppers can use bitcoins to buy Beyond Matter, the latest album from Iranian artist Mohammad Rafigh. Anyone in the U.S. downloading songs, which fetch .039 bitcoins or 45¢ each, risks violating U.S. sanctions. That doesn’t bother Rafigh, who’s studying computer engineering as well as playing music. “Bitcoin is so interesting for me,” Rafigh wrote in an e-mail. “I wish the culture of using digital money spreads all over the world, because it does not have any dependency on anything like politics.” Rafigh has translated some bitcoin software into Farsi for his friends. “I love Iran, and if bitcoin is good for me, it can be good for more Iranians like me.”

Here's Reason TV on Bitcoin and the end of state-controlled money:

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Even Speaker Boehner Calls White House Proposal on Fiscal Cliff Ridiculous

Earlier today, the Washington Post circulated the White House's opening bid on fiscal cliff negotiations. The Post says it got the plan from Republican aides. Here 'tis:

Taxes

  • Immediate increase in both top marginal rates, as well as capital gains and dividends: +$960 Billion
  • Additional taxes: +$600 Billion
  • 2009-level estate tax
  • AMT and business tax extenders: -$236 Billion
  • Payroll tax extension or alternative policy: -$110B
  • Bonus depreciation extension

Spending/Extras

  • $50 billion stimulus package in FY13
  • Mass refi mortgage proposal
  • Deferral of sequester
  • Savings from non-entitlement mandatory programs
  • Extension of unemployment insurance: $30 billion
  • Medicare SGR Patch: $25 Billion
  • Increase in the debt limit to avoid requiring Congress to vote to increase

STAGE TWO:

  • Tax reform consistent with $1.6 trillion tax increase
  • Entitlement policies from President’s FY13 budget that could total $400 billion in savings

So basically, what we're looking at here is the same thing Politico was reporting yesterday: Substantial net increases in federal revenue that start in 2013 with the promise of meager savings ($400 billion) somewhere way down the road. Politico suggested that Obama would make do with "just" $1.2 trillion in tax hikes and that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) would be happy with a deal that averts the cliff, even if it raising taxes three dollars for every one dollar in spending cuts.

Today, Boehner told the press, "There's a stalemate. Let's not kid ourselves" and that Obama's proposal was not a "serious" offering.

Given Boehner's weak limited government bona fides, thank heavens for small miracles.

All members of Congress should read Reason's special November 2010 issue - so special it was printed in 3D! The issue is chock full of real-life examples of countries (including the United States right after World War II and Canada and New Zealand in the 1990s) that cut spending, right-sized debt-to-GDP ratios, and were rewarded with booming economies.

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Reason Writers Around Town: Shikha Dalmia on What America Can Learn From Canada About Rational Immigration Laws

Now that Republicans seem ready to play ball on immigration, notes Reason Foundation Senior Analyst Shikha Dalmia in her Bloomberg View column, it will be a pity if the momentum for reform is squandered on little, piddly reforms like raising visa caps. This opportunity should be used for a fundamental overhaul of U.S. immigration system, especially its employment-based part:

This isn’t as daunting as it appears. For inspiration, Americans need look no farther than Canada.

Canada’s provincial-nominee program, while not perfect, avoids the economically meaningless distinctions between skilled and unskilled workers that bedevil the employment-based U.S. immigration laws. It also puts in place incentives to treat foreign workers not as foes but as friends whose labor and skills are vital to the economy.

Read the whole thing here.

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Virginia Postrel on Why Robert Frost's Copyright Has Miles to Go Before It Sleeps.

Former Reason Editor Virginia Postrel (Reason archive here) has a great column up at Bloomberg about copyright law and how it's totally lost its way. The short version of the article is this: "A copyright isn’t supposed to be a reward. It’s supposed to be an incentive."

Read the whole thing for a fascinating meditation on the copyright history of Robert Frost's fascinating meditation on mortality, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."

Snippets:

Just as an effective emissions-trading system depends on getting right the exact number of permits and total amount of emissions, so a good copyright system depends on setting the right terms, limits on fair use and enforcement mechanisms.

“If copyright is weak, then it will provide little incentive to create,” [Mercatus Center scholar Jerry] Brito writes. “But if it is too strong, then it will limit the public’s ability to enjoy and build on creative works, which after all is the reason why we have copyright in the first place.”

Striking that balance is tricky, even without political pressure. And lawmakers have shown little interest in trying to reason out the optimal solution. Instead of balancing the interests of consumers and future producers with financial incentives to create new works today, copyright has become an expanding monopoly privilege for well-connected industries.

Read the whole thing.

Watch this great recent Reason TV interview about copyright:

 

Texas Schools Track Students with RFID Chips! (Nanny of the Month, Nov '12)

Reason TV's Nanny of the Month for November 2012 has been announced!

Click above to find out the winner or click below to watch on a page with downloadable versions, more links, and other resources.

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Police Union Says No One in Law Enforcement Supports Legalizing Pot

Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, claims in a recent ABC News story that "the law enforcement community is universally consistent in its opposition to legalizing pot." Which is true, if you don't count Indiana State Police Superintendent Paul Whitesell, former San Jose Police Chief Joe McNamara, U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet, former Orange County, California, Superior Court Judge James P. Gray, or the members of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. You'd also have to overlook King County Sheriff Steve Strachan, former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, former Seattle FBI Special Agent in Charge Charles Mandigo, and former U.S. attorneys John McKay and Katrina C. Pflaumer, all of whom publicly supported legalizing pot in Washington. Plus former Colorado Assistant Attorney General Sean McAllister, former Denver police Lt. Tony Ryan, former  Deputy Town Marshal Jason Thomas, former Polk County Sheriff's Deputy Lynda Carter, former Travis County Senior Patrol Deputy Griffin Lott, former Municipal Judge Leonard Frieling, former Denver Senior Deputy District Attorney Lauren Davis, and former deputy district attorneys Ann Toney, Titus Peterson, and Robert Knepel, all of whom publicly supported legalizing pot in Colorado. Not to mention the National Black Police Organization and the National Latino Officers Association, both of which endorsed legalizing pot in California, Colorado, and Washington.

It's true there are a lot of former law enforcement officials on those lists, and maybe Jim Pasco does not consider them members of "the law enforcement community." But criticizing the drug laws can be risky for judges, prosecutors, and police officers whose jobs still include enforcing those laws, and it is safe to assume that for every open dissenter there are many other quiet ones.

How many? In a 2011 online survey by Police One, more than two-fifths of the 1,700 respondents said pot should be legal. The sample is not necessarily representative, but active-duty cops who support marijuana legalization clearly do exist in significant numbers. Even among top police officials, there are dissenters, as a 2005 survey of police chiefs and sheriffs indicates. Sixty-two percent of the respondents opposed legalizing marijuana for medical use, while 69 percent did not think that "the decriminalization of 'soft drugs' would allow more resources for violent and property crime management." Assuming that "no opinion" does not account for all of the rest (the survey report does not say), that suggests significant minorities of people running police departments support medical marijuana and think pot busts are a waste of resources. Furthermore, 82 percent of the sheriffs and police chiefs said the war on drugs has not been "successful in reducing the use of illegal drugs," which makes you wonder what the point is. It seems like there may be a bit more diversity of opinion about drug policy within the law enforcement community than Jim Pasco allows.

[Thanks to Richard Cowan for the tip.]

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Leaving Office Calderón Leaves Bloody Drug War Legacy, Tens of Thousands Dead and Missing

Unpublished documents from the Mexican government reveal that more than 25,000 people have gone missing in the six years since President Felipe Calderón took office.

From UPI:

Government bureaucrats, whose names were not reported, said they released the list because they are frustrated by what they said is a lack of transparency about the cases and a failure to investigate the disappearances, the Post reported.

The figures are only the latest in a catalogue of heartbreaking statistics on Mexico’s drug war. Calderón is leaving office tomorrow, and he might want to reflect on some of the results of his notorious Operation Michoacán, which began in late 2006. A small sampling:

  • At least 55,000 drug-related deaths, which, as Jorge Castañeda has noted, “is more than the number of Americans who died in Vietnam, but in a country with one-third the U.S. population.”
  • Over 7,000 bodies remain unidentified in Mexican morgues or common graves. Oftentimes the bodies are hard to identify thanks to mutilation.
  • Deaths amongst journalists have increased. Mexico is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist.
  • Drug cartels continue to grow and develop, establishing their own radio stations and recruiting from classified ads.
  • Soldiers have been taking on the duties of policemen. 

Given the obvious failure of Calderón’s drug war it is hardly surprising that there have been calls from other Latin American countries, as well as a former Mexican president, for Mexico and the U.S. to reform their drug laws.

In the U.S. there is little hope for serious policy changes that will help alleviate much of the human misery in Mexico. Drug czar Gil Kerlikowske has said that federal laws will continue to be enforced despite the recent legalization of recreational marijuana in Washington and Colorado.

Despite the violence, the cost, the lack of public confidence, and the empirical evidence of better alternatives it looks like we can all expect a violent drug war to be the reality for a while longer in both Mexico and the U.S.  

Watch Nick Gillespie speak at a recent debate hosted by Intelligence Squared on drug legalization below:

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Katherine Mangu-Ward on Drones Invading New York City

On September 16, 29-year-old “Essam” and a group of friends blanketed lower Manhattan with posters designed to look like official New York Police Department signage. “Drones: Protection When You Least Expect It,” read the slogan below simple ideograms of families running from unmanned aerial vehicles. Essam and his team disguised themselves as employees of the outdoor advertising firm Van Wagner, which manages the advertising space on bus stations and kiosks throughout the city. All told, they swapped out about 100 ads, writes Katherine Mangu-Ward.

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Nevada and Arizona Lure Tax-Hit Businesses from California

Nevada and Arizona are trying to capitalize on California’s latest ballot measures by attempting to lure tax-burdened companies out of the golden state.

According to the Las Vegas Review Journal, the Las Vegas Regional Economic Development Council (LVREDC) plans to launch a campaign to attract businesses across state lines.  Tom Skancke, CEO of the LVREDC, told the paper that he “welcomed all California businesses” and that his development staff would be reaching out to their contacts in California in the new year.

Arizona business leaders have made a more ambitious play for businesses fleeing tax hikes. The Greater Phoenix Economic Council (GPEC) launched a program to fly 100 Californian chief executives to Arizona for a tour of what the Grand Canyon state has to offer. Speaking to the L.A. Times, Barry Broome, President of the GPEC project, questioned the continuing viability of businesses in California

"If I were running a company in California, I would have a deep internal debate about the direction of the state. You just have an environment in California that isn’t good news for people who build and run companies."

The program has extended its initial ambitions looking to target 100 high-tech companies with 200 or more employees; double it's initial plans of 50. So far 11 CEOs have committed to meeting with the GPEC. Gil Duran, a spokesman for Governor Jerry Brown (D-Calif.), dismissed the program in an email saying; "Anybody who tries to convince you to leave the best and richest state for some parched desert outpost should be regarded with extreme suspicion. Scam alert!"

The number of businesses leaving California this year is said to be on track with last year's figure of an estimated 254. However, with the increase in statewide sales tax (from 7.25 percent to 7.5 percent) brought in by Proposition 30, a boost in income tax rates for the next seven years on incomes over $250,000, the newly implemented cap-and-trade program and an elimination of many business tax loopholes by Proposition 39 more and more companies may be persuaded to move states. 

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Senate Judiciary Committee Unanimously Approves Warrant Requirement for Email

Yesterday the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved amendments to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) that require the government to obtain a search warrant before looking at people's remotely stored email, regardless of whether the messages have been opened or how old they are. As I noted in my column this week, ECPA currently requires a warrant only for unopened messages up to six months old; the rest can be accessed through court orders or administrative supboenas based on the claim that they are relevant to an investigation, as opposed to the warrant standard of probable cause to believe they contain evidence of a crime. This distinction, based on the assumption that people download email to their own computers and that copies on servers are made only to facilitate transmission, is so clearly out of date that it is impossible to justify.

Still, I am surprised that no one voted against the changes, which were introduced by the committee's chairman, Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). In particular, Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the committee, had expressed concern that the warrant requirement would impose an unreasonable burden on law enforcement agencies. Grassley proposed an amendment that would have allowed warrantless access to email "for purposes of investigating a crime involving child abduction or kidnapping, child pornography, or a violent crime against a woman." It was defeated by a vote of 11 to 6. 

Another amendment, by Leahy himself, lengthened the amount of time that an agency can delay notice to someone whose email it seeks from three to six months, presumably in response to complaints from people like Grassley. Then a third amendment, by John Cornyn (R-Texas), limited that extension to law enforcement agencies. Ordinarily notice would be required within 10 days, but the court issuing the warrant could approve a delay based on concerns that notification may result in "endangering the life or physical safety of an individual," "flight from prosecution," "destruction of or tampering with evidence," "intimidation of potential witnesses," or "otherwise seriously jeopardizing an investigation or unduly delaying a trial." Notably, the six-month delay permitted for law enforcement agencies is twice as long as the delay currently allowed and much longer than the one recommended by George Washington law professor Orin Kerr in his widely cited 2004 guide to ECPA reform:

The current ninety-day delay period is simply too long. In all but very unusual cases, ninety days of delay is a period out of proportion to the legitimate law enforcement interests in delay articulated in § 2705(a)(2). It may be reasonable for law enforcement to have a thirty-day delay of notice if they are investigating a crime and the notice may tip off the suspect. The thirty-day period gives the police time to assess the evidence, pursue leads, and indict the target if necessary. But in most cases, giving the government ninety days serves no legitimate purpose, especially given that courts can grant extensions of delayed notice for additional periods if circumstances warrant. Shortening the delay period would still allow the government to delay notice for legitimate reasons but would help ensure that notice delayed does not become notice denied. 

Yet Leahy claims doubling the delay is necessary "to help with sensitive law enforcement investigations."

Unlike an ECPA reform bill that Leahy proposed last year, this one does not address the requirements for obtaining geolocation data from cellphone companies, leaving police free to claim that they can demand a record of your whereabouts at will. The legislation, which amends a bill already approved by the House, is not likely to be enacted during this session but presumably will be the starting point for ECPA reform next year.

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Self-Reliance and Tight Budgeting Got Colorado Springs Through the Recession

Sometimes it takes an outsider's perspective to point out to people the reality that's around them. So it is with Canada's National Post, which surveyed the troubled behemoth to its south, and found an example of Americans responding to recession-shriveled tax revenues and government services by boldly doing stuff for themselves.

As Post scribe Kathryn Blaze Carlson writes, the recession sort of left Colorado Springs in the crapper:

More than a third of the city’s 24,512 streetlights went dark. Some 393 trash cans were removed from 128 neighbourhood parks. Public drinking fountains ran dry and park bathrooms were locked. Buses stopped running at 6:15 p.m. and pools shuttered. Irrigation at city parks was ramped down, yielding thirsty, yellowing, brittle grass. Roads deteriorated into a Swiss cheese of potholes and crumbling curbs.

This was Colorado Springs circa spring 2010. The mountain town was still reeling from the recession, its coffers hit by a steep decline in the sales tax revenues it depends on so heavily. The government was spending more than it was bringing in, it had too many employees, and it was being drained by an unsustainable pension scheme.

And by virtue of how it has handled its fiscal crisis, the city lived up to its reputation as a tax-wary, libertarian outpost in the American frontier.

This is a mainstream media piece using the word "libertarian," so we should assume that Colorado Springs residents responded to hard times by resorting to cannibalism and emulating the plot of Road Warrior, right? Not so much. Actually, residents voted down onerous tax hikes that would have been spent on politician-preferred priorities in favor of paying for or providing their own services.

When the lamps illuminating Ralph Kelly’s street were switched off, he and his neighbours together paid the city about $100 to “adopt” a streetlight and reignite a shared bulb. There was also an “adopt a trash can” program, where the city supplied the bin but residents hauled the garbage to privately run participating dumpsters.

The phenomenon extended beyond people's immediate neighborhoods, too.

[W]hen the government shut off the landmark fountain in America the Beautiful Park three years ago, non-profits and residents banded together to raise $25,000 to keep it flowing. When the city considered closing the innercity’s Westside Community Center, the Woodland Valley Chapel offered to manage it with only limited municipal support. That partnership, and others like it, continues to this day.

When the police force was slashed and Chief Pete Carey “needed to get innovative,” as he put it in an interview, volunteers became community service officers. They cost 60% less than police officers and can respond to non-injury traffic accidents or even burglaries so long as the thief has left the scene.

A local businessman also formed the City Committee to pore over the municipal books. Not surprisingly, committee members found that spending was nonsensical and wasteful and had Colorado Springs on the road to near-term insolvency.

Carlson does point out that not every neighborhood so effectively filled in the gaps. Residents in poorer areas weren't able to so readily step-in. This certainly, to some extent, represents fewer resources on which to draw to replace tax-funded services. You don't pay $100 to light a street lamp if you don't have it. I have to wonder, though, whether it might not also represent some of the differences in priorities and habits that help to keep people in poverty. It doesn't cost much to haul your own trash — that's actually a popular money-saver in my neck of the woods — or to clean and patrol your own streets. But the article doesn't give enough information to draw firm conclusions on the matter.

Colorado Springs, now recovering, has apparently maintained many of the cost-saving practices it adopted from necessity. The city has also tightened its budgeting practices, including adopting zero-based budgeting, under which budgets have to be freshly justified every year instead of being based on the previous year's numbers.

To judge by the very interesting piece in the National Post, our friends in D.C. might want to spend some of their seemingly endless junket time on a fact-finding mission to Colorado Springs. Oh, yeah. And then actually implement what they learn.

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Why Straight People Should Be Insulted by Arguments Against Gay Marriage (UPDATED)

The Supreme Court is scheduled to decide today whether it will hear cases connected to both California’s Proposition 8 and the federal government’s Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). In both cases, appeals courts have tossed out the marriage bans, so if the court refuses to hear them, gay marriage recognition will become legal in California and the federal government will have to recognize gay marriages in states where it is legally recognized. (Personally, I can’t imagine the Supreme Court not taking up the DOMA case, but Prop. 8 is much harder to predict)

Anyway, while everybody was focused on these cases, a federal judge in Nevada bucked the current trend and ruled that Nevada does have the authority to ban recognition of gay marriage (full ruling available at the linked BuzzFeed story).

Furthermore Judge Robert C. Jones has trotted out the more tiresome social-conservative, big-government arguments to allow for the ban. Procreation is required for the species to survive. Ergo, the government has a legitimate interest in controlling whose marriages are recognized. Otherwise we won’t have families! Without the government stamp, people will stop getting married and mankind will be doomed. Doomed!

Human beings are created through the conjugation of one man and one woman. The percentage of human beings conceived through non-traditional methods is minuscule, and adoption, the form of child-rearing in which same-sex couples may typically participate together, is not an alternative means of creating children, but rather a social backstop for when traditional biological families fail. The perpetuation of the human race depends upon traditional procreation between men and women. …

Should that institution be expanded to include same-sex couples with the state’s imprimatur, it is conceivable that a meaningful percentage of heterosexual persons would cease to value the civil institution as highly as they previously had and hence enter into it less frequently, opting for purely private ceremonies, if any, whether religious or secular, but in any case without civil sanction, because they no longer wish to be associated with the civil institution as redefined, leading to an increased percentage of out-of-wedlock children, single-parent families, difficulties in property disputes after the dissolution of what amount to common law marriages in a state where such marriages are not recognized, or other unforeseen consequences

I’m gay, so I see the marriage fight in certain ways. But I’m also a libertarian, so, isn’t that argument extremely insulting to straight people? The judge actually suggests that straight people would be so upset about gay people getting married that they’ll stop doing it themselves!

What were you straight people doing before the government came along to tell you how to breed properly?

UPDATE: The Supreme Court did not make any announcements on the gay marriage cases it's considering. There may be an announcement Monday or the end of next week.

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Steven Greenhut on Conservatives and Criminal Justice Reform

For advocates of less-intrusive government, finding the good news in the recent election is like looking on the bright side after your house has been wiped out by a hurricane. But there was some good news, however slim, on the ballot in the long-neglected area of criminal-justice reform. California voters passed, by a 69 percent to 31 percent margin, a measure (Proposition 36) that reforms the state’s notoriously tough three-strikes-and-you’re-out sentencing law. And the measure passed, reports Steven Greenhut, thanks in part to the support of several prominent conservatives. Is the right finally starting to drop its misguided support for tough-on-crime laws?

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U.S. Drug Czar on Legal Pot in Colorado and Washington: It's "very clear that federal law will continue to be enforced"

Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske went on American Public Media's Marketplace Thursday to respond to the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington state. 

"What really troubles me," Kerlikowske said, "is that in Washington state, which really prides itself on independence, it was $6 million of outside money that was raised in order to advocate for legalization. Pretty hard to compete against $6 million in outside money." 

(Kerlikowske is right that a lot of outside money went into funding Washington state's legalization campaign. But it wasn't all outside money, and it wasn't all big dollar contributions, as I detailed in The New Republic.) 

Interviewer Kai Ryssdal then asks Kerlikowske about the "change of heart" the Obama administration seems to have had about medical marijuana. "The president came in saying, in essence, 'We have better things to do with our time.' Now in the last two years, there has been more vigorous enforcement of drug control laws." 

Kerlikowske's response is that the federal government said it would not go after medical marijuana users, and has in fact not gone after them. But "there has been nothing that I have seen or heard from the Department of Justice that says 'Look we're not going to continue to enforce federal law,'" Kerlikowske said of medical marijuana growers and sellers. "And we're going to continue to take a hard look at those people who are involved in making money on essentially a violation of federal law."

Ryssdal then asks Kerlikowske the question on every drug reformer's lips: Will Washington crack down on legal pot in Colorado and Washington?

"There are questions in front of the Department of Justice," Kerlikowske said. "They've made some statements, and it has been very clear that federal law will continue to be enforced. And I think we'll wait and see what those decisions are from the attorney general and the Department of Justice." (Listen to the full interview here.)

Yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this about Colorado and Washington: "This is an ongoing debate. We are formulating our own response to the votes of two of our states as you know — what that means for the federal system, the federal laws and law enforcement."

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Do Libertarians Have Too Much Influence Over the Conservative Legal Movement?

In April the Federalist Society bestowed its ninth annual Lifetime Service Award on Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. Appointed to that court by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, Wilkinson is a respected judicial conservative whose name was frequently mentioned as a possible Supreme Court nominee during the early years of the George W. Bush presidency.

These days, however, Wilkinson is perhaps better known for his barbed critiques of fellow judicial conservatives. For example, after the Supreme Court ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) that the Second Amendment secures an individual right to keep and bear arms, not a collective one, Wilkinson unloaded on Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion, describing it as a work of right-wing judicial activism. "Heller," Wilkinson wrote in the Virginia Law Review, "encourages Americans to do what conservative jurists warned for years they should not do: bypass the ballot and seek to press their political agenda in the courts." Indeed, Wilkinson even compared Scalia’s Heller opinion to the Court’s recognition of a right to abortion in Roe v. Wade (1973), which, as I observed at the time, “is about the worst thing one judicial conservative could say to another.”

Wilkinson sounded a similar warning on the night he received the Federalist Society’s Lifetime Service Award. His acceptance speech has now been published in the legal journal The Green Bag under the title “The Lost Arts of Judicial Restraint,” and it offers a fascinating perspective on the current state of conservative legal thought. As Wilkinson tells it, the conservative legal movement has reached a crossroads, with the longstanding “tension between libertarian conservatives and traditionalists” dangerously out of balance. “At present,” he worries, “the libertarian view seems to be in the ascendency among conservatives.” He continues,

Of course, this strain has a valued place, but I fear increasingly that libertarians seek that place at the expense of those who hold to a more traditional and communitarian faith. Today, we speak of individual liberty as if the word “individual” were the only adjective that could possibly modify the noun....

To see liberty purely in terms of individual rights is too cramped a view. Democratic liberty is no less real for reflecting a collective view. I am dismayed when I see conservatives leap to the vaguest of phrases in our Constitution such as “privileges or immunities,” the Contracts Clause, the Ninth Amendment, and the Due Process Clause to establish their own set of textually nebulous bases on which to overturn enacted law.  

This emerging jurisprudence is nothing but a thinly veiled assault upon labor, social welfare, and environmental legislation, the infirmities of which are political, not constitutional in character. This assault further runs the risk of simply mimicking on the right what I always thought gave us greatest pause in the legal arguments of our opponents.

Setting aside Wilkinson’s debatable assertion about what counts as a vague constitutional provision, he is undoubtedly correct that libertarian legal scholars and activists have pushed the conservative legal movement in a direction that’s more friendly to individual rights and more skeptical towards government assertions of power. Like it or not, libertarians have become major players on the American legal scene.

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The Dismal Séance

An actual sentence that an actual person actually wrote:

What would Lincoln do about the fiscal cliff?

What would the Head Beagle do about the fiscal cliff?

That's Joe Klein striving mightily to claim the award for Worst Essay Ever Inspired By A Steven Spielberg Movie, a title held til now by an elaborate Thomas Friedman metaphor involving Palestinians, iPads, and a "bigger boat." (*)

Klein's next sentence, incidentally, is "The answer seems obvious," and the rest of the paragraph includes such gems as "On the spending side, he would probably have to look at health care in a new way." I'll spare you the details, but apparently if Lincoln were alive today he would be a politically canny sockpuppet for Joe Klein.

The actual point of Klein's column is that "if we're going to resume dealmaking in Washington, my colleagues in the media are going to have to get off the high horses we mounted when, in the wake of Watergate, exposing 'corruption' became the surest path to journalistic gold and glory." You'll have to judge for yourself what's most risible about that sentence: the idea that D.C. has deserted dealmaking, the idea that the press has too many watchdogs, or the fact that Klein's description of those watchdogs includes the word "we."

(* Note: Thomas Friedman did not actually write such a metaphor. Or at least I don't think he did. I black out a lot when I read his columns.)

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The Democratic Senator Who Takes Civil Liberties Seriously

Roll Call has a profile up about how Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) has gummed up the works of the Senate Intelligence Committee over concerns about civil liberties. Excerpt:

Sen. Ron Wyden insists he doesn't have a grudge against fellow Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California. What he does have, though, is a hold on her two legislative priorities of the lame-duck session — and he has, in fact, placed a hold on every major bill coming out of her Intelligence Committee in the past two years.

Wyden's moves to block the two latest bills — a spy agency reauthorization measure (S 3454) aimed at cracking down on leaks and an extension of expiring surveillance provisions from a 2008 law — are the newest demonstrations of how the Oregon Democrat has become the Senate's hardest line to cross on civil liberties issues in the national security arena. [...]

He was one of just five Democrats who voted Nov. 14 against advancing a cybersecurity bill (S 3414) backed by his party's leadership and President Barack Obama. He has been among a small handful of Democratic senators seeking the Obama administration's legal justification for the targeted killing of U.S. citizens suspected of being overseas terrorists, requests he said have gone unfulfilled.

But sometimes, his approach nets gains: His decision to block an earlier intelligence authorization bill over provisions aimed at cracking down on leaks resulted in the panel stripping the language so that it could advance on the Senate floor.

He also led the successful fight against a Senate anti-piracy measure that he said would impinge on free speech. Initially, the bill had broad Senate support, but later it was stalled by a grass-roots opposition campaign that saw numerous senators pull their backing.

Too bad there aren't more Democrats like Ron Wyden, or Republicans like Rand Paul. (Link via InstaPundit.) Reason on Wyden here.

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With Britain's Free Press on the Brink, PM Cameron Becomes an Unlikely Champion

In the United Kingdom, the Leveson Inquiry into the "culture, practice and ethics of the press" has released its long-awaited awaited report, and the result is pretty much as expected (PDF): Assurances as to the value of a free press, coupled with calls for regulation of the press backed by law. As you might expect, the report has been met with glee by most politicians — with the perhaps surprising exception of Prime Minister David Cameron.

In the House of Commons, the prime minister said:

Now I have some serious concerns and misgivings on this recommendation.

They break down into issues of principle, practicality and necessity.

The issue of principle is that for the first time we would have crossed the rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land.

We should I believe be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press.

In this House – which has been a bulwark of democracy for centuries – we should think very, very carefully before crossing this line.

If that sounds to you like a less-than-enthusiastic enforsement of unfettered freedom, it's still the best you're going to get from a prominent British official. Especially since Cameron has promised to resist press-regulation even if it's approved by Parliament.

Nick Clegg, Mr. Cameron's coalition partner, chose to demonstrate that there's damned little that's still liberal about his Liberal Democrats by breaking with Cameron and endorsing regulation of the press:

I have always said that I would support Lord Justice Leveson’s reforms, providing they are proportionate and workable. I will come onto why – at first glance – I believe that to be the case for the report’s core proposal: for a tougher system of self-regulation, supported by new, independent checks, recognised in law.

Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition Labour Party which was largely responsible for turning Britain into the charming quasi-police state it is today during its years in power, endorsed the idea of press regulation even before the report was released. No surprise, he signed on whole-heartedly to its recommendations.

For its part, the British press has been remarkably subdued in its reactions, generally praising Cameron for holding the line, while engaging in a little public-self-criticism to satisfy the mob. The lefty Guardian went so far as to largely endorse the Leveson recommendations.

Of note, the weekly Spectator vows defiance of any regulatory regime, and Mick Hume at Spiked cautions:

The press is already far too unfree, hemmed in by dozens of restraining laws and by informal self-censorship. A top editor has warned of an ‘ice age’ for investigative journalism even before a new regulator is imposed. What we need is more diversity, boldness and troublemaking in the press. The last thing required is another policeman, state-uniformed or not, looking over the shoulders of journalists and editors.

It's easy to be smug, as an American, and rest on this country's First Amendment protections and history of relative respect for the free press. But we've had periods of state-domination of the media in this country, especially duing wartime, and most of the media complied with barely a whimper. I'm not convinced that American journalists would show more defiance than their counterparts across the Atlantic if the control freaks in D.C. sought more power over the profession that's supposed to hold them to scrutiny.

But, since we do still have somewhat firm protections for the free press in the United States, it might be worth extending that umbrella to our colleagues. Even before a new British media regulator is in place, I'd like to see American media offering to help their colleagues defy such control by publishing material online and out of reach of the U.K.'s government. A little subversive solidarity wouldn't be a bad thing.

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A.M. Links: Hillary Clinton “Not Convinced” About Drug Legalization, Labor Organizers Want Fast Food Wages Doubled, State Trooper Accused of Looting Fatal Car Crash

  • “Speaking personally,” Hillary Clinton is “not convinced” drug legalization is the way to stop drug violence in Latin America.  She’s never had a family member beheaded.
  • The U.S. debt limit will have to be increased in March so that the feds can continue to spend burn through money.
  • The New Jersey legislature passes a bill to increase the minimum wage to $8.50 and peg it to the consumer price index. It’s up to Governor Chris Christie now to sign or veto the legislation.
  • Labor organizers are pushing the unionization of fast food workers in New York City, hoping to get the average wage for flipping burgers doubled, up to $15 an hour. Would you like fries with that?
  • A Connecticut state trooper was arrested for allegedly taking jewelery off the body of a dead person at the scene of a highway crash.
  • Police in Pakistan arrested three boys aged 12 to 14 they say were trying to become suicide bombers.

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Kurt Loder on Killing Them Softly

The concept of organized crime as a dark mirror image of American capitalism was firmly established in The Godfather 40 years ago. But as Kurt Loder observes, it seems to be a hot new idea for writer-director Andrew Dominik, who beats it to death throughout his new movie, Killing Them Softly. The picture is a talky noir set in the meltdown year of 2008 starring Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, and James Gandolfini. It’s littered with Obama campaign sound bites and radio bank-bailout reports, and the thudding political allegory keeps poking you in the face while you’re trying to keep track of the story.

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Brickbat: Clipped

In England, the Manchester National Health Service Trust has banned paper clips because staff keep cutting themselves on them. The trust sent a memo telling employees that any paper clips should be "carefully disposed" and replaced with plastic fasteners.

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Hillary Clinton Reminds a Hurting Latin America That She Is Opposed to Drug Legalization

At a forum hosted by Foreign Policy magazine, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reminded the leaders of Latin America, whose countries have been savaged by drug-war violence, that the Obama administration, and Clinton in particular, are opposed to legalizing drugs as a means of making those countries less reminiscent of failed states: 

"I respect those in the region who believe strongly that [U.S. legalization] would end the problem," Clinton said Thursday at a Washington D.C. forum hosted by Foreign Policy magazine. "I am not convinced of that, speaking personally."

Some Central American leaders have urged the United States to consider other approaches to domestic drug usage — citing ruthless drug cartels that murder thousands of their citizens. Several Central American countries are considering limited legalization of drugs within their borders.

"I think when you've got ruthless vicious people who have made money one way and it's somehow blocked, they'll figure out another way," she said. "They'll do kidnapping they'll do extortion."

Speaking about the two states that recently legalized marijuana, Clinton repeated the Obama administration position that they haven't formulated a response yet.

"This is an ongoing debate," she said. "We are formulating our own response to the votes of two of our states as you know — what that means for the federal system, the federal laws and law enforcement."

"I think you can, with a comprehensive strategy succeed in certainly pushing back the tide of violence and corruption that drug trafficking brings," she said.

Clinton's statement about ballot initiatives in Colorado and Washington represents the largest number of words a named official of this administration has uttered regarding the single biggest change in drug policy this century. Good on Clinton for acknowledging that it happened. 

It's also fascinating to me how Clinton has shifted on this topic. Here's what she said during a Mexico City trip in 2009

"Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade. Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers and civilians."

Here she is in February 2011

Maerker: In Mexico, there are those who propose not keeping going with this battle and legalize drug trafficking and consumption. What is your opinion?

Clinton: I don't think that will work. I mean, I hear the same debate. I hear it in my country. It is not likely to work. There is just too much money in it, and I don't think that—you can legalize small amounts for possession, but those who are making so much money selling, they have to be stopped.

And November 2012: "I am not convinced of that, speaking personally."

Since when do personal convictions matter in deciding policies that directly affect billions of people?

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What’s Going On With Sarasota’s Police Department and its Homeless?

The city manager of Sarasota, Florida, Tom Barwin looks like he wanted to be ahead of the news cycle on the latest homeless-related incident with the city’s police department. Barwin said he made sure an internal investigation was opened as soon as security video (below) emerged showing two cops slamming a homeless suspect into a wall at a bus station.

Just this Tuesday, as Reason 24/7 noted, the ACLU released documents showing police officers calling each other “bum hunters” and said Barwin was leading a “war on the homeless.” The city manager objected, the Herald Tribune reports:

Barwin said the idea of the city waging a war on the homeless is ludicrous. Rather, Sarasota's large safety net and wealth of services likely draw homeless to the area, he said.

But the city manager said that if police officers are acting inappropriately Sarasota will not ignore it.

“If there is an individual who is communicating, thinking, behaving in that manner then certainly that is something that needs to be addressed,” he said.

Earlier this month, Sarasota police arrested a homeless man for charging his cellphone in a city park (theft of utilities, $500 bail). He was in jail for his first day of work the next morning and fired. That incident included the electricity being shut down for the park with no one taking responsibility. The homeless man suggests police may have targeted him after he took a photo, he claims, of an arrest of another homeless man smoking a cigarette. With treatment like that, it’s no wonder the homeless are drawn to the area?

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Nate Silver Speculates on Why Silicon Valley Denizens Voted Overwhelmingly for Obama

Stats guru extraordinaire Nate Silver delves into the campaign contributions from employees of leading infotech companies headquartered in and around Silicon Valley in the New York Times. It turns out that employees of Fortune's top ten "most admired" IT companies threw 83 percent (Obama: $2,734,063 - Romney: $554,470) of their campaign contributions at the Obama campaign. Now why might that be?

There is always the "herd of independent minds" phenomenon in which colleagues anxiously signal their political rectitude to one another. In effect saying, "I am NOT one of those people." But given the entrepreneurial derring-do that animates the culture of Silicon Valley one might hope that knee-jerk support of a Big Government liberal is not a foregone conclusion.

I think that Silver is onto something when he concludes his article with this observation:

Perhaps a different type of Republican candidate, one whose views on social policy were more in line with the tolerant and multicultural values of the Bay Area, and the youthful cultures of the leading companies here, could gather more support among information technology professionals.

Ron Paul, the libertarian-leaning Republican, raised about $42,000 from Google employees, considerably more than Mr. Romney did.

Well, yes. In fact, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has correctly warned that the GOP "risks extinction" unless it becomes more libertarian.

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Fiscal Cliff Talks Stall, Obama Opposes Eased Immigration for Skilled Workers, Student Loans Go Unpaid: P.M. Links

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Mike Riggs on Michigan Municipalities Rejecting Marijuana Decriminalization and Democracy

While voters in Colorado, Washington, and Massachusetts celebrate the reform of those states' marijuana laws, residents in two Michigan cities are learning that marijuana ballot initiatives are only as effective as the people charged with implementing them. In Flint and Detroit, writes Mike Riggs, popular ballot measures decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of pot have been rendered toothless by resistant city governments.

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The Foie Gras Black Market Has Begun

California outlawed the sale of the French delicacy foie gras—fattened duck or goose liver—in July of 2012, but one Hermosa Beach restaurateur has found a workaround: Give it away for free. NBC LA reports:

According to the restaurant’s menu, if a patron buys "THE" Burger, as it’s called, they receive a free side of the prohibited organ.

Animal rights group PETA believes that the force-feeding process involved in the production of foie gras is inhumane to the birds and has sued Hot's Kitchen for refusing to respect the law:

"The allegation that you can have foie gras for free is as childish as it is illegal,” said Matthew Strugar, with PETA. “The only way you can get foie gras is to purchase an eight-dollar burger."

Reason TV reported on the impending ban in early January 2012 and noted that animal rights groups have long used intimidation tactics, both legal and illegal, to stop restaurants from serving foie gras. Mark Pastore, co-owner of the San Fransciso restaurant Incanto, has seen his restaurant vandalized and has received threats for serving the product.

"I believe that the only way to deal with bullying tactics is to stand up to them," says Pastore.

But now that the activists have the power of the state on their side, standing up to them might prove more tricky.

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Is John Boehner Dumb Enough to Take $400 Billion in Cuts a Decade From Now in Exchange for $1.2 Trillion in Tax Hikes That Start ASAP?

Is Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) really so dumb - or unprincipled - that he will buy into a plan that raises $1.2 trillion in tax revenue starting next year in exchange for $400 billion in entitlement cuts between 2023 and 2033?

That's what Politico is reporting:

Taxes will go up just shy of $1.2 trillion — the middle ground of what President Barack Obama wants and what Republicans say they could stomach. Entitlement programs, mainly Medicare, will be cut by no less than $400 billion — and perhaps a lot more, to get Republicans to swallow those tax hikes. There will be at least $1.2 trillion in spending cuts and “war savings.” And any final deal will come not by a group effort but in a private deal between two men: Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). The two men had a 30-minute phone conversation Wednesday night  — but the private lines of communications remain very much open.

Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen write that Obama will show "zero flexibility on his insistence on a higher tax rate for top earners" and that Boehner and Republicans, worried that the GOP will shoulder blame for any economic slowdown associated with going over the fiscal cliff, will acquiesce if they can pretend they fought to keep taxes low and succeeded in getting "specific cuts to entitlement spending." Because Paul Ryan's Medicare reforms didn't start (barely) reducing outlays for a decade, VandeHei and Allen say that both Democratic and Republicans will ultimately push off spending cuts until sometime "between 10 and 20 years from now."

This sort of negotiation is appalling but has the ring of truth to it. Recall that Boehner is in no way a small-government enthusiast - indeed, he's voted for just about every big-ticket item you can name in the past dozen years, from No Child Left Behind to invading Iraq to Medicare Part D to Bush's 2008 stimulus to TARP. And recall, too, that mere weeks before the 2010 elections, when the Tea Party was at its height, he released a "Pledge to America" that promised to cut a measly $100 billion in spending (which, as Peter Suderman noted at the time, was actually more like $50 billion) out of a budget north of $3.5 trillion. On top of that, when asked by NBC News in January 2011 to name a single program "we could do without," Boehner replied, "I don’t think I have one off the top of my head."

Whether Boehner can sell such a deal to House Republicans is another matter (the Washington Examiner's Conn Carroll flatly says there is "no way" the GOP members will sign on to such a deal).

This is as good a time as any to remind people that we have such high and growing levels of debt is because Republicans and Democrats alike have jacked up spending like nobody's business. Look upon the chart of federal outlays per capita and despair. Going back to Jimmy Carter, there's a clear pattern: Republican presidents ratchet up spending and Democratic presidents consolidate the increases. This reality is at almost complete odds with political rhetoric, in which Republicans masquerade as spending hawks and Democrats talk about increasing outlays for the wretched of the nation. Perhaps the near-total disconnect between rhetoric and reality is the reason why we can't get anywhere - taxpayers are constantly being misdirected by the powers that be.

Here's another point worth underscoring: High levels of public spending and debt retard the economic growth that increases living standards. The case against endless public spending and the debt it inevitably creates isn't an abstract argument about paying your way or being moral or anything like that. There's a crushingly strong empirical case that public spending crowds out private investment and that "debt overhang" reduces growth.

As I noted earlier today, Barack Obama never misses an opportunity to say that he favors a "balanced approach" to getting the government's finances in order. He's on the record saying that he's willing to cut $2.50 in government spending for every $1 increase in tax revenue. And now John Boehner - the head of the opposition party, fer chrissakes! - is ready to jump on a deal that nets $1 dollar of spending cuts for $3 in revenue (never mind that the tax hikes start now and the spending cuts 10 years down the road).

No wonder we're screwed. No wonder at all.

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False Balance in the Fiscal Cliff Deal: Real Tax Hikes, Fake Spending Cuts

Neither Democrats nor Republicans are providing much in the way of details about the fiscal cliff negotiations, at least not on the record. But Politico reports a few details about what kind of deal we might be able to expect: Taxes will rise by $1.2 trillion or a little less. At the same time, "there will be at least $1.2 trillion in spending cuts and 'war savings.'" Presumably the idea will be for the spending cuts and tax hikes to appear to balance each other out. But it's only an appearance.

That's because claiming that so-called "war savings" are a spending cut is Washington's favorite budget gimmick. Doing so would allow legislators to take credit for savings that are already going to happen. Counting war savings would mean that almost no real cuts are necessary: The Congressional Budget Office scored it earlier this year as "saving" about $850 billion. That's money that was never going to be spent, but gets counted as a "cut" anyway. 

Finally, Politico reports that some sort of entitlement cuts may be part of the deal as well. What kind? Who knows? Republicans won't say what they want. And Democrats won't make an offer of their own. Nor are they likely to show up any time soon. The report also suggests that the cuts could end up totaling about $400 billion, or perhaps more, at least eventually. "Democrats want most Medicare and other entitlement savings to kick in between 10 and 20 years from now," the story says. Which, given the congressional history of delay and avoidance on long-planned Medicare cuts, may as well be never. 

So if Politico's report is right, that's where things stand: Real tax hikes, fake spending cuts, and a half-hearted gesture toward Medicare cuts a decade from now. If that's the deal, it's not much of one. 

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Japan Set to Expand Ban on Synthetic Drugs

not a real jointbakedlife.comAfter adding four types of synthetic marijuana to a list of illicit substances this summer, Japan’s Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry is set to expand the list significantly. The Japan Times reports:

The ministry plans to first designate 774 synthetic cannabis drugs as subject to an import, production and sales ban, the officials said…

The new designations will represent a substantial expansion of the pharmaceutical law, which now covers 90 drugs.

The law provides for up to five years in prison or a fine of up to ¥5 million for selling banned drugs for commercial purposes.

The ministry plans to gradually expand the designation in a bid to allow regional governments and police to swiftly clamp down on a wide range of drugs that produce narcotic effects, including hallucinations.

Japan has among the lowest rates of drug use in the developed world, but there’s always room to fearmonger. From Asia’s self-described “most respected drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre,” on drugs use in Japan:

In 2010, the government of Japan estimated that there were at least 2.76 million Japanese who had used illegal drugs. Although this is only about 2.9 percent of the population, for a country that had relatively no drug problem only 15 years ago, this is a huge increase. Most of Japan's drug users are men and women who are in their twenties and many have claimed to first try drugs while backpacking in countries like India.

Meanwhile in America, the bath salt moral panic led to new vigor in banning and “controlling” yet more substances by the feds. Earlier this month in Idaho, authorities seized $ 2 million worth of one synthetic marijuana, Spice. Bonus: that drug, now banned in Japan and the U.S., was created with the help of the feds.

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The Town Where Farting Can Land a Kid in Jail

Welcome to Meridian, Mississippi:

Cedrico Green can't exactly remember how many times he went back and forth to juvenile. When asked to venture a guess he says, "Maybe 30." He was put on probation by a youth court judge for getting into a fight when he was in eighth grade. Thereafter, any of Green's school-based infractions, from being a few minutes late for class to breaking the school dress code by wearing the wrong color socks, counted as violations of his probation and led to his immediate suspension and incarceration in the local juvenile detention center.

But Green wasn't alone. A bracing Department of Justice lawsuit filed last month against Meridian, Miss., where Green lives and is set to graduate from high school this coming year, argues that the city's juvenile justice system has operated a school to prison pipeline that shoves students out of school and into the criminal justice system, and violates young people's due process rights along the way.

In Meridian, when schools want to discipline children, they do much more than just send them to the principal's office. They call the police, who show up to arrest children who are as young as 10 years old. Arrests, the Department of Justice says, happen automatically, regardless of whether the police officer knows exactly what kind of offense the child has committed or whether that offense is even worthy of an arrest. The police department's policy is to arrest all children referred to the agency.

Once those children are in the juvenile justice system, they are denied basic constitutional rights. They are handcuffed and incarcerated for days without any hearing and subsequently warehoused without understanding their alleged probation violations.

You can read the DOJ's full complaint here. For fans of dry dark comedy, the high point comes after the lawyers quote the county's "probation contract" for young offenders: "Youth counselors themselves are unable to clearly explain what the language in the above paragraph means." Also illuminating: a list of offenses for which kids are "regularly incarcerated," which range from "dress code infractions" to "using vulgar language" to "flatulence in class."

Side note: The Southern Poverty Law Center has been working to bring attention to the situation in Meridian, and it filed a lawsuit of its own against the county a few years ago. I'm usually very critical of the SPLC, a civil rights group that tends to focus its attention on the supposedly subversive threat posed by fringe organizations rather than the much more substantial damage done to minorities by schools, police departments, and other powerful institutions. But I'll give credit where it's due: In this case, and some other cases involving juvenile justice in Mississippi, the SPLC has been on the side of the angels.

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Grant McCracken on How to Have a Good Idea

Culturematics let us test the world, discover meaning, and unleash value. And this makes them an excellent way to innovate in a turbulent, inscrutable, confusing world. Think of them as the little ingenuity machines that make the planet a more interesting and fulfilling place. 

Grant McCracken presents a unified theory of fantasy football; Burning Man; and Eat, Pray, Love.

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The "Balanced Approach" is Bunk: All Tax Hikes, No Spending Cuts

For a long time now, President Obama has said that he backs a "balanced approach" to getting the nation's fiscal house in order. That is, the president says he wants to raise some taxes and cut some spending in order to reduce public debt - which stands at more than 100 percent of total economic activity (GDP).

So how come all he talks about is hiking taxes? Over at the White House website, what's front and center is a confusing pitch about "Extending Middle-Class Tax Cuts," which is in fact a way of saying that the president wants to see taxes on the wealthiest Americans rise back to the levels they were at circa 2000.

In September, Obama told Face the Nation:

If we go back to the tax rates for folks making more than $250,000 a year, back to the rates that we had under Bill Clinton...we can close the deficit, stabilize the economy, keep taxes on middle class families low, [and] provide the certainty that I think all of us would be looking for.

At the same time, as CBS News put it, Obama's "plan for reducing the deficit would cut $2.50 in spending allowances for every $1 of increased tax revenue."

OK, then.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that hiking tax rates on those making $200,000 (individuals) or $250,000 (households) back to Clinton-era levels would yield about $42 billion in 2013. So what are the specific $105 billion in cuts ($42 billion x 2.5) that Obama will make?

That's not a complicated question, is it? But good luck finding any specifics at the White House website or in past proclamations by the president and his spokesmen. The U.S. will likely spend about $3.8 trillion in 2013, which means cutting $105 billion amounts to a trim of less than 3 percent. So we're not talking large cuts by any measure. If Obama can't come up with what amounts to pocket change in the federal budget, why should anyone take him seriously about pursuing a "balanced approach"?

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Montana Medical Marijuana Grower Faces 80-Year Prison Sentence

On Tuesday I noted a Washington Post editorial that described the Obama administration's policy regarding medical marijuana as mainly "hands off," with the Justice Department "focusing scarce resources on major violators." Similarly, the Associated Press reported a few weeks ago that "the Obama administration has largely turned a blind eye" to medical marijuana in states where it is legal. Here is what that hands-off, blind-eye policy looks like in Montana: Chris Williams, a partner in Montana Cannabis, faces a prison sentence of 80 to 92 years for supplying patients with marijuana—and for insisting on his right to a trial.

Williams' business was one of several Montana dispensaries raided by the Drug Enforcement Administration last year. He is the only defendant arrested as a result of those raids who has refused to plead guilty. One of his partners, Tom Daubert, received probation; another, Chris Lindsey, reached a similar deal but has not been sentenced yet; and a third, Richard Flor, died while serving a five-year prison sentence.

What explains this astonishing range of penalties, from zero prison time to nearly a century? Mandatory minimums. Specifically, prosecutors charged Williams, after he turned down a series of plea deals, with four counts of using firearms in furtherance of a drug crime, based on pistols and shotguns kept at the Helena grow operation where he worked. Federal law prescribes a five-year mandatory minimum penalty for the first such offense and 25 years for each subsequent offense. Furthermore, the sentences must be served consecutively. Hence Williams, who was convicted of all four gun charges, will get at least 80 years when he is sentenced in January, even though he was not charged with wielding the guns, let alone hurting anyone with them. In fact, having the guns around would have been perfectly legal had he not been growing marijuana. (This is the same provision under which Weldon Angelos, a 24-year-old record producer, received a 55-year sentence for a few small-time pot sales in 2004.) The Missoulian reports that Williams could get an additional 12 years for the four marijuana counts on which he was convicted, but whatever the precise number it is effectively a life sentence.

The mandatory penalty is so absurdly, unfathomably harsh, in fact, that after Williams' trial U.S. Attorney Mike Cotter took the extraordinary step of offering to drop one count of manufacturing marijuana, two counts of possession with intent to distribute, and the three firearm counts associated with them, which would have made it possible for Williams to serve "only" 10 years. All Williams had to do was refrain from appealing his convictions. He refused, insisting that he did nothing wrong and that the feds had no business interfering with a medical marijuana system blessed by the state of Montana. 

During his trial Williams was not allowed to mention Montana's medical marijuana law, since it is not deemed relevant to his guilt under the federal Controlled Substances Act, which recognizes no legitimate use for cannabis. In addition to his criminal appeal, Williams is pursuing a civil suit arguing that the federal crackdown on medical marijuana violates the 10th Amendment by usurpring powers "reserved to the States." I think he is right, but I don't see how he can prevail in light of Gonzales v. Raich, the 2005 case in which the Supreme Court held that the power to regulate interstate commerce authorizes federal action against people who grow and possess marijuana for medical use in compliance with state law. Robert Raich, who helped argue that case on behalf of his wife, Angel Raich, tells A.P., ""The War on Drugs is too sacrosanct a sacred cow for the courts to weigh in [Williams'] favor." 

[via the Drug War Chronicle]

Vid: 1000 Wrongfully Convicted and Counting: New Registry Checks Justice System's Power

"1000 Wrongfully Convicted and Counting: New Registry Checks Justice System's Power" is the latest offering from Reason TV.

If you were wrongfully convicted of a crime, how would you fight the system? 16-year-old Arthur Carmona and his mom, Ronnie Sandoval, spent years doing just that.

“He wanted to fight. He said, 'I’m not signing shit. If I can’t prove I’m innocent then I’m going to die in here,'” says Ronnie of her son. She fought tirelessly to get Arthur out of prison after he was wrongfully convicted of 12 counts of armed robbery.

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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Ron Paul's "Exit Interview" with Washington Post: Hopeful, Humble, and Hating Welfare for the Rich

The Washington Post's web site this morning runs its "exit interview" with Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) who is packing up his D.C. condo and selling it as he leaves Congress, having chosen not to run for re-election for the seat he's held from Texas since 1996 (after two previous stints in Congress from 1976-84).

You can watch the video here, it's about five minutes long.

In the interview, Paul fingers the military-industrial complex and the Federal Reserve system of inflation and big bank giveaways as the most dangerous special interests in government today, and laments that "those who just want their freedom and to take care of themselves" are the least influential group in today's government.

The Post's Brook Silva-Braga asks Paul why he thinks his freedom message can't manage to build a 51 percent coalition; Paul observes that more generic expressions of a liberty message--general belief in free enterprise and keeping what you earn, keeping government out of our private lives, not being policeman of the world--get surprising assent.

But "when it comes to particulars people don't necessarily stick with it. "Yes, but you go too far, you want too much freedom!" (A common phenomenon when it comes to libertarianism, which I have long found gets greater assent the more vaguely you express its principles.)

Paul then sounds more like the "Man of the Left" I framed him as in my feature article in Reason's November issue, noting that while he started out as a more standard Republican worried about welfare for "those who won't work and get food stamps" he has a "completely different" opinion now. He's more concerned now with the special benefits that the wealthy get from a government dedicated to crony capitalism.

He dismisses both his Republican Party and the Democrats as "dinosaurs" and explains that he didn't seriously contemplate a third party or independent run after failing to win the GOP nod for president because it's "not practical" given the legal, ideological, and media barriers to such presidential runs.

Paul says he is still hopeful about the future because of his time on college campuses. Speaking about liberty (a practice he'll be continuing even as he leaves electoral politics) gets such great reception there, and the kids, he says, know that the system is bankrupt and that the seeming health of our debt-driven dollar system can collapse quickly and unexpectedly allowing a "new system" to arise.

Paul ends with one of his most winning qualities as a public figure (and one that aggravated the political pros around him): an utter refusal to vaunt his own significance, even when handed an opportunity to do so. He's asked what he's proudest of in his political career, and his first remark is "nothing in particular" and then he goes into a vamp on how he finds it funny how other political pros wonder at his "consistency" and thus admit to their own inconsistency.

Silva-Braga presses: "You changed the discussion in this country...." 

Paul can only respond: "That would be nice. Time will tell...."

It will. As a writer of a history of American libertarianism pre-Paul's past two presidential runs (Radicals for Capitalism), and a history of his political career (Ron Paul's Revolution), I can say that Silva-Braga is certainly right.

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Sierra Club Says National Flood Insurance Is Totally "Wack"

Today's New York Times has a front page article, "Storm Cost May Force Many from Coast Life," the tone of which basically advocates National Flood Insurance as just another middle-class entitlement program. The apparent problem is that the completely bankrupt federal insurance program is doubling its premiums in a vain attempt to cover its losses. The upshot, according to the Times, is that only the wealthy will be able to afford to live along the coasts. Yet, as the Times article reports one environmentalist lobby group not noted for its economic acumen gets it - the Sierra Club:

“The irony is, if we allowed market forces to dictate at the coast, a lot of the development in the wrong places would never have gotten built,” said Jeffrey Tittel, director of the Sierra Club’s chapter in New Jersey. “But we didn’t. We subsidized that development with low insurance rates for decades. And we can’t afford to keep doing that. Should a person who lives in an apartment in Newark pay for someone’s beach house?”

The Sierra Club has left the cloud cuckoo land in which Congress dwells and has now joined Reason in the reality-based community. I praised an insightful Times op-ed that calls for ending federal flood insurance earlier today.

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Pop Goes the Student Loan Bubble

Zero Hedge has some lovely scary charts showing a remarkably sharp uptick in student loan delinquencies. The bubble has officially burst:

As noted over at Reason 24/7 today, Market Watch has some additional reporting:

New data released today shows 11% of student loans were 90 days or more past due in the third quarter, up from 8.9% in the previous quarter and 8.8% a year prior, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. It’s also the highest since at least 2003, when the bank first started tracking student loan delinquencies. “It’s a red flag and a warning sign that more Americans are struggling to repay their student loans — things are bad, really bad, and getting worse,” says Rich Williams, higher-education advocate at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit based in Washington.

The latest data comes at a time when delinquencies on many other consumer debts, including credit cards and mortgages, are dropping. Overall, delinquency rates on outstanding consumer debt fell to 8.9% in the third quarter, from 10% a year prior, according to the FRBNY.

Zero Hedge warned in September that the student loan bubble had already burst. Now we’re seeing the fallout.

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David Harsanyi on the GOP and Raising Taxes

According to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll, 73 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of independents—and even 39 percent of Republicans—now favor raising taxes on those making $250,000 or more a year. So give the people want they want, says David Harsanyi.

As it is, the GOP is engaged in an unwinnable scrum with Barack Obama, a man chasing the gold-plated Holy Grail of hiking top marginal tax rates on the rich and small businesses—bringing in, according to the Congressional Budget Office, a few days' worth of revenue. Concede the Bush-era tax rate (though you wonder what the president is going to talk about for the next four years) and move past the cliff.

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Obama's One Million Electric Vehicles by 2015 Mirage Recedes Further

Back in the halcyon days (2009) of the his administration when concerns about a ballooning federal deficit were casually swept aside in the face of his vaulting ambition to remake the American economy, President Barack Obama promised that the federal government would spend $5 billion in subsidies and the result would be:

[W]e will put 1 million plug-in hybrid vehicles on America's roads by 2015.

As a former political competitor might say, "How's that workin' out for ya?" Not all that well, says brilliant University of Manitoba science and energy policy analyst, Vaclav Smil. Over at The American, Smil updates the multiple failures that come with trying to subsidize into reality millions of vehicles for which appropriate (that is, inexpensive and effective) supporting technologies do not yet exist. Smil points out that none of the production and sales goals set by car companies have been met.

Renault-Nissan: 500,000 electric vehicles by 2013 - actual 7,000 in 2012.

General Motors Volt: 45,000 in 2012 - actual 20,000 in 2012 (plants idled twice due to lack of demand).

Tesla: 2012 deliveries were cut from 5,000 to 2,700–3,250, due to production problems.

Toyota: Cancelled plans to mass produce its mini-electric eQ city car.

Fisker Karma: Don't ask.

As Smil points out:

But by the end of 2012, the United States had about 50,000 electrics on the road, no more than 0.03 percent of all light-duty vehicles licensed to operate in the country.

Those 50,000 vehicles amount to just 5 percent of the way toward Obama's goal of 1 million electric vehicles by 2015. Achieving that goal implies manufacturing and selling about 320,000 electric vehicles each year for the next three years. If Smil is right that each Volt costs $80,000 to manufacture and sells for $32,000 per copy, I fear that President Obama might conclude that the "obvious" solution to the 950,000 electric vehicle shortfall is, say, a federal subsidy of $48,000 per car. But just think of the jobs "saved!" I shudder.

For background on just how wonderfully successful Obama's energy subsidies have been, see Reason's extensive coverage on the Solyndra fiasco. Also, take a look at my article, "Revving Up Electric Cars with Government Cash," where I report on my visit to the federally subsidized and now defunct car battery manufactuer, Ener1.

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Is Grover Norquist an 'Ayatollah,' a Terrorist, or Just an Evil Warlord?

Grover Norquist is a private American citizen who has convinced a significant number of lawmakers that their careers will be better off if they promise their constituents not to confiscate more of their money through taxes. Against the backdrop of fiscal cliff negotiations that steadfastly refuse to contemplate addressing the single biggest cause of the cliff-inducing deficit–the grotesque expansion of the federal government–this is how Norquist is being described as of late:

David Horsey, Los Angeles Times:

Grover Norquist, GOP ayatollah, is losing his grip on the party [...]

Ayatollahs seem to just appoint themselves and then start enforcing their own brand of orthodoxy. Grover Norquist has been doing that in the Republican Party for years.

Slate's Jacob Weisberg, on Twitter:

Honecker, Ceaucescu, Mubarak.. Norquist

Frank Bruni, New York Times:

On NBC's "Meet the Press," Representative Peter King of New York...stressed that the country's current fiscal woes trumped vows made in less debt-ridden times, and over on "Fox News Sunday," Senator John McCain signaled a receptiveness to new revenue, another dagger to Norquist's dark heart. [...]

It's as if some spell has at long last been broken, and the formerly bewitched villagers are rising up to defy their evil overlord and insist on the possibility of life and even mirth without a deduction for corporate jets.

Christopher Moraff, Philadelphia magazine:

The Rise and Fall of Anti-Tax Terrorist Grover Norquist

Daryl Rowland, Huffington Post:

In the same way that McCarthyism now largely overshadows the early days of the Eisenhower administration, the W. Bush and Obama years will be seen as the stage on which Grover Norquist's domination of domestic policy took place. [...]

McCarthy was of course a public figure, while Norquist has been largely a stealth tyrant, in the glorious tradition of figures like Cardinal Richelieu or Rasputin.

FTR & FWIW, I think Norquist's success has paradoxically undermined his oft-stated goal of reducing the size of government, because it has given Republicans cheap cover on looking fiscally conservative even though almost none of them have been serious about the hard part of that equation, which is actually cutting stuff. I further think it has incentivized the Swiss-cheesification of the tax code, with preferential, distorting tax treatment doled out to favored constituencies and then given immediate de facto protection from a pledge that only accepts deduction-eliminations when coupled with overall rate reductions. I think the mortgage interest deduction is a plague on our lives and should be junked.

But comparing a citizen's attempts to keep tax rates low with the behavior of murderous dictators reveals much more about the ideology of the analogists than of their target. There is a crucial distinction between a private individual attempting to restrain democratic government and a public tyrant using unrestrained government to suppress democratic individuals.

For some interesting Reason interviews with Grover Norquist, including his repeated (and arguable!) assertions that it's bad to get worked up about deficits, start backward from this 2011 conversation with Peter Suderman.

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Panama Canal Expansion Fueling Port Upgrades; Some U.S. Ports Burdened by Security, Environmental Regulations

The Panama Canal is expanding, with its capacity set to double by 2015, with the canal being able to handle ships nearly a third larger the current 965 foot long “Panamax.” This means ports serving the canal, all up and down the Atlantic and Pacific, are scrambling to handle the new demand. The Miami Herald reports:

The race for deep water is fierce. Buenaventura [in Colombia] currently feeds much of the traffic to the shallower port in Guayaquil, Ecuador. But Buenaventura is facing competition from Balboa, in Panama, which is emerging as the Latin American leader of transshipment and expects to see its business double after the expansion.

The Bahamas is working with Hutchison Port Holdings to stake its claim as the most modern container facility in the English-speaking Caribbean. With a depth of 52 feet, the Freeport Container Port can already accommodate post-Panamax ships…

But both the port of Jacksonville and Miami are hoping to take a bite out of Bahamian business.

PortMiami is also hoping to undercut Freeport and regain some of the transshipment business that it lost after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when new security regulations strangled business.

Despite the onerous security regulations, as recently as two years ago only 20 percent of cargo was screened for bombs, and the Obama Administration missed a deadline this summer to begin scanning all cargo for radioactive material.

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Inside Philadelphia's Asset Forfeiture Racket

The Philadelphia City Paper dug into the city's use of civil forfeiture, a practice that allows the government to seize property without proving it is connected to a crime, and estimates that hundreds of people lose their property every year without being convicted of a crime. From the story:

When Philadelphia Police officers stopped Dwayne Marks as he was driving north on Broad Street near Temple University last year, Marks says he wasn’t particularly worried. Marks, who is a black man in his late 30s from East Mount Airy, has faced drug charges in the past—but he’s straightened up, he says. When the police asked whether he had a criminal background, “I told them, ‘Yeah,’” he recalls. “I told them the truth.” 

As he saw it, he had done nothing wrong and had nothing to hide. And so, when police asked to search his truck, Marks said they could go ahead. 

He describes the encounter, initially that is, as calm. It was when police found more than $6,000 in cash in his car—money he says was related to a number of rental properties he owns, he says—that things changed.

“They … took me down to the district, handcuffed me, took my money … [searched] my whole truck again. Then they got a dog to sniff my whole truck out—and still didn’t find nothing.” There were no drugs on Marks or on his vehicle; no charges were filed. But the interaction wasn’t over, Marks says: “They got mad. … They said, ‘We’re going to make you go to court for your money, then.’”

Marks would soon find himself sucked into a strange, upside-down corner of the legal system, where the burden of proof would be reversed to rest on the accused, where those opposing him would seem to call the shots—and where the minor matter of his undisputed innocence of any charge would not seem to be a factor.

Millions of dollars taken via forefeiture disappear into city coffers annually, and the money is spent in secret. From City Paper:

In recent years, the Philadelphia DA’s forfeiture program has brought in an average $6.2 million annually; since 1987, the earliest year for which City Paper could find data, the program has raised more than $90 million. Last year, the DA reported a fund balance of $10.5 million, as well as $5.5 million in new revenue and $5.9 million in expenses—all of this on top of the budget allocated to the DA by the city.

How is this multimillion-dollar pot spent? The DA won’t say. The office cited confidentiality issues in declining repeated requests to provide details of how this fund is used, let alone a full breakdown of its expenditures. If there is a larger stream of unreported public expenditures in the city, we’ve never heard of it.

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Steve Chapman on How the Consumer Became King

In America, the consumer is king, writes Steve Chapman.

This has not always been true. Producers once reigned supreme. When I took economics in college in the 1970s, my instructors continually highlighted the danger of large firms that could restrict production to keep prices unreasonably high. This was often taken as proof of the need for strict government regulation.

Monopolies and oligopolies were seen as a constant threat, and with some reason. In one major industry after another—cars, steel, oil, telecommunications, computers—there were only a few relevant firms, and they divided up growing markets without much fear of competition.

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National Flood Insurance is Insane

The observation, usually attributed Albert Einstein, that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is a pretty good description of the federal government's National Flood Insurance program. The New York Times today has a terrific op-ed, "End Federal Flood Insurance," by two economists explaining in detail the costs and stupidity of subsidizing insurance that encourages people to live in dangerous flood-prone areas. A tidbit:

IT’S no surprise that it can be very expensive to live near the ocean. But it may come as a surprise to American taxpayers that they are on the hook for at least $527 billion of vulnerable assets in the nation’s coastal flood plains. Those homes and businesses are insured by the federal government’s National Flood Insurance Program.

You read that right: $527 billion, which is just a portion of the program’s overall liability of $1.25 trillion, second only to Social Security in the liabilities on the government’s ledgers last year, according to government data.

The flood insurance program was created by Congress in 1968 to fill a void: because of the risk, few carriers provided flood insurance. Now, private insurers offer flood insurance in a partnership with the government — but taxpayers shoulder all the risk. It has turned out to be a bad bet. The program is $18 billion in debt, a sum the government acknowledges probably will never be paid back by premiums, and it is likely to need a new multibillion-dollar infusion to pay claims from Hurricane Sandy. It is long past time for the government to stop subsidizing home and business owners who live and build in dangerous flood zones.

Homeowners and businesses should be responsible for purchasing their own flood insurance on the private market, if they can find it. If they can’t, then the market is telling them that where they live is too dangerous. [emphasis added] If they choose to live in harm’s way, they should bear the cost of that risk — not the taxpayers. Government’s primary role is ensuring the safety of its citizens, so the government’s subsidizing of risky behavior is completely backward.

Who else might have railed against this economically and ecologically absurd program? Oh right, that would be Reason. For example, see contributor James DeLong's depressingly insightful 1999 article, "All Wet," in which he observed:

People are now becoming so used to the idea that the federal government will pay for disasters that they are not bothering to buy even the subsidized flood insurance. In most places, less than 30 percent of the properties located in designated flood plains are covered.

The response to such developments? The feds are now working with communities, buying back properties, passing regulations, yada, yada, yada. All to try to keep people from doing what government payments make it profitable for them to do: build in flood zones. Indeed, the feds seem anxious to consider anything except the one solution--eliminating the insurance program--that might actually change the situation.

Check out Reason's extensive reading list of hurricane and flood insurance related public policies.

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I, For One, Welcome Our New Robot Overlords

The Future of Humanity Institute (FHI) at Oxford University is holding its Winter Intelligence Conference in a couple of weeks to try to figure out how to prevent a future robot uprising that would destroy humanity.

In a recent article fellows from Center for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER),* Huw Price, Bertrand Russell Professor of Philosophy, Cambridge, and Jaan Tallinn, Co-founder of Skype, laid out what they see as the dangers that will come with the rise of general artificial intelligences that can write their own software: 

It would be comforting to think that any intelligence that surpassed our own capabilities would be like us, in important respects – just a lot cleverer. But here, too, the pessimists see bad news: they point out that almost all the things we humans value (love, happiness, even survival) are important to us because we have particular evolutionary history – a history we share with higher animals, but not with computer programs, such as artificial intelligences.

By default, then, we seem to have no reason to think that intelligent machines would share our values. The good news is that we probably have no reason to think they would be hostile, as such: hostility, too, is an animal emotion.

The bad news is that they might simply be indifferent to us – they might care about us as much as we care about the bugs on the windscreen....

By now you see where this is going, according to this pessimistic view. The concern is that by creating computers that are as intelligent as humans (at least domains that matter to technological progress), we risk yielding control over the planet to intelligences that are simply indifferent to us, and to things that we consider valuable – things such as life and a sustainable environment.

If that sounds far-fetched, the pessimists say, just ask gorillas how it feels to compete for resources with the most intelligent species – the reason they are going extinct is not (on the whole) because humans are actively hostile towards them, but because we control the environment in ways that are detrimental to their continuing survival.

The conference will feature leading researchers in the field of artificial intelligence and some of the deepest thinkers about the ethical, economic, and existential implications of the development of super-intelligent machines.

You doubt that indifferent robot overlords will be a problem? Keep in mind that just last week my Reason colleague J.D. Tuccille warned that we should "Forget Drones, Beware of Killer Robots." The folks meeting at Oxford argue that that is just the beginning.

Back in 2008, I covered the FHI's conference on Catastrophic Risks to humanity. As background, see my reporting, "The End of Humanity: Nukes, Nanotech, or God-Like Artificial Intelligences,"; "Will Humanity Survive the 21st Century?,"; and "TEOTWAWKI!"

*Correction: In my initial post I wrote that the conference was being jointly held by the FHI and CSER. in fact, the conference is entirely run by the FHI. I apologize for any confusion that I may have caused.

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Republican Opposes Crony Capitalism, Democrats Denounce Him as Anti-Business

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli made a name for himself in right-leaning circles back in 2010 when he launched a state lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, on the very same day President Barack Obama signed the legislation into law. These days Cuccinelli is touting those conservative bona fides as he campaigns to be the next governor of Virginia. With yesterday’s announcement that GOP rival and current Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling is dropping out of the gubernatorial race, Cuccinelli has emerged as the clear frontrunner.

Writing at The Washington Examiner, Timothy Carney highlights one powerful constituency that is not so keen about Cuccinelli’s rise to power: Virginia’s business lobby. As Carney explains,

Liberals typically ding Cuccinelli as too socially conservative, but the Democratic Governors Association today had a different knock on him: “The people of Virginia need a governor who will be business-friendly and focused on creating jobs and growing the economy…” they wrote.

This has been a theme throughout Cuccinelli’s career: significant portions of the business lobby have turned against him, not because he’s too pro-life, but because of his economic conservatism.

Before running for office in 2002, Cuccinelli made a name for himself campaigning against a tax hike for new roads. Cuccinelli explicitly called out the developers lobbying for the tax hikes: “They are asking you to pay for their driveway,” he said. One developer funding the campaign for the tax hike had substantial holdings along the routes where the new tax-hike-funded roads would be laid....

This year, Cuccinelli rallied behind a ballot initiative that limited the state’s power of eminent domain. So in next year’s general election, especially if Democrats nominate K Streeter Terry McAuliffe, expect to see the business community again lining up against the Cooch.

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A.M. Links: America Almost Nuked the Moon, Majority Oppose Healthcare Guarantee, Sons of Dosed Scientist Sue the CIA

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Judge Napolitano on Republicans and Taxes

As recently as this past election just a few weeks ago, Republicans argued that increased tax revenue, whether from increased tax rates or from decreased tax deductions, effectively moves wealth from the productive sector and delivers it to the consuming sector—which would be the government.

This argument is really one of the basic laws of economics, says Judge Napolitano. So why are Republicans now rejecting it?

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Brickbat: Woman in Chains

The Selma, North Carolina, police department has suspended officer Travis Abbot with pay while they investigate a claim that he handcuffed a nursing supervisor at a local hospital. Abbot reportedly brought a DWI suspect to the emergency room and became angry when the nurse refused to draw blood from the suspect without a court order. Abbot released the nurse only after Johnston County sheriff's deputies intervened. The DWI suspect was later taken to the county magistrate, who ordered him released for lack of probable cause.