Weekly Hit & Run Archive 2013 January 8-31

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Obama Promises the Impossible: 'Common-Sense' Gun Controls That Will Prevent Mass Murders

At a press conference today, President Obama said the gun control task force headed by Vice President Biden has given him "a list of sensible, common-sense steps that can be taken to make sure that the kinds of violence we saw at Newtown doesn't [sic] happen again." Sensible and common-sense! Who could be against that? Still, note that Obama, who a month ago conceded that "no single law [and] no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence," is now promising just that. He reiterated that unrealistic goal later in the press conference, saying he wants "sensible steps that we can take to make sure that somebody like the individual in Newtown can't walk into a school and gun down a bunch of children in a shockingly rapid fashion."

So when Obama unveils his specific proposals later this week (as he said he would do), it will be fair to ask: Would these measures have stopped Adam Lanza from murdering 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School? Can they reasonably be expected to prevent such horrifying (but rare) crimes in the future? Regarding the three major changes Obama already has endorsed (which he endorsed again at the press conference), the answer to both questions is clearly no:

1. If the federal "assault weapon" ban that expired in 2004 had still been in effect, it would not have stopped Lanza, because the rifle he used was not covered by that law (or by Connecticut's ban, which uses similar criteria). More to the point, such laws hinge on features that have little or nothing to do with a gun's killing capacity in the hands of a mass murderer (or an ordinary criminal). That would still be the case under a California-style law or under whatever definition Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) proposes in her new bill. "Assault weapon" bans leave killers with plenty of equally deadly alternatives.

2. Better background checks would not have stopped Lanza, who used guns legally purchased by his mother and in any event does not seem to have had a disqualifying psychiatric or criminal record. The latter is true of most mass murderers.

3. A limit on magazine size would do nothing about the many millions of "large capacity ammunition feeding devices" already in circulation, even if we assume that the seconds it takes to switch magazines make an important difference in assaults on defenseless moviegoers or schoolchildren.

Yet Obama insisted today that "my starting point is to focus on what makes sense, what works." Works in what sense?

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Few Answers in New Year’s Eve Police Shooting in North Carolina

Melissa Verner, an economics student at UNC Charlotte, was left with shrapnel permanently embedded in her leg after an encounter with four heavily armed police officers in the garage of her family’s home in Belmont, North Carolina, according to the Gaston Gazette. Try to follow along:

It’s been nearly two weeks since Andrea and Glenn Verner and their daughter Melissa were confronted in the garage of their Belmont home by four heavily armed officers who forced them to the ground and placed them in handcuffs.

Sgt. Brad Pickert’s submachine gun went off during a scuffle with 24-year-old Melissa, injuring her and Belmont Officer Randy Berry…

Cops arrived at the Verner home... after receiving a call about a shot being fired in a road rage incident nearby. Police say Melissa Verner’s boyfriend, Brandon Watts, was driving a car involved in the incident. That car is registered to the Verners and is what led police to their home. Four armed officers soon arrived. It remains unclear whether the officers were dressed in plain clothes or in their uniforms…

No one has been charged. Watts reportedly told officers he used a firecracker in the incident, not a gun. Chief Franklin said on Jan. 1 that he believes Watts was unarmed and the reporting person could have seen and heard a firecracker…

[The cops] were dressed head-to-toe in black attire and did not identify themselves as police, [the mother said] “They simply said ‘Get on the ground.’”

Verner said she thought her home was being invaded by robbers. The men asked her who else was in the home. Soon, she and Watts were handcuffed on the floor of the garage.

Melissa Verner was in her bedroom over the garage and came downstairs when she heard noises coming from below. As she entered the garage, officers demanded that she get down on the ground. Police say a physical struggle with her ended with Officer Berry and Sgt. Pickert on the ground trying to apprehend her. That’s when the shot was reportedly fired…

[A family attorney] said the Verner family did not know police officers were approaching them in their garage and could not see patrol cars outside. Andrea Verner didn’t know what was going on and suddenly was confronted by men dressed in black, bearing flashlights and machine guns, he said.

“Melissa was lucky not to lose her leg from injuries. I am grateful we were not killed by police officers, by an unwarranted police intrusion at gunpoint,” she wrote.

The chief of police did not respond to the paper’s request for comment. And nothing else happened?

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Without Borrowing, the Government Can Only Pay 60 Percent of Its Bills

Here’s a telling fact about our current budget situation: If Congress does not agree to raise the debt limit, thus making it possible for the federal government to borrow again once the current $16.4 trillion limit is hit, the federal government will only be able to pay about 60 percent of its bills. That’s according to the Bipartisan Policy Center, which has published an apocalyptic report in advance of the debt ceiling showdown warning of the consequences should Congress fail to raise the debt ceiling later this year.

Forget the coming showdown for a minute and focus on the first number: The BPC report wants readers to understand how bad it would be if Congress failed to raise the debt limit. But here’s another way to think about it: Without the option to borrow, the government can only finance 60 percent of its operations and obligations in the short term. More than a third of that spending goes right onto the national credit card.

That sort of reliance on borrowing is why annual deficits are so high. It’s why total federal debt levels keep growing. It's why the Congressional Budget Office describes our debt trajectory as "unsustainable." It’s why it is so important to focus on spending — not just on our long-term entitlement obligations, but now. This year. We’re already spending so much that in near-term, 40 percent of it has to go on the credit card. That’s how utterly dependent on borrowing, and how utterly unable to reduce spending, our federal government already is.

Lots of the attention in Washington right now is focused on what President Obama will do next — specifically whether he’ll negotiate over raising the debt limit. He says he won’t, but he’s said that before and never followed through. Republicans, meanwhile, say a no-conditions debt limit hike is a no-go.

It’s an impasse. And it makes for juicy political drama. But in some ways it’s a distraction from the real spending and borrowing problem that got us into this mess. Because the bigger, more important question isn’t just what Obama and Republicans in Congress will do this time. It’s what, if anything, they’ll do to better manage federal financing — and prevent us from getting into a debt-driven hole like this again. 

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French-Led Intervention in Mali Gathers British and American Support

British and American forces have joined the French-led intervention in Mali that began on Friday.

The British government has sent two C17 cargo planes to assist French operations in Mali, but will not be sending combat troops. Minister for Africa Mark Simmonds said yesterday that British troops could be sent to Mali to assist with training the Malian army as part of a wider E.U. mission. Mr. Simmonds went on to justify British involvement, citing the unpleasantness of the Al Qaeda-linked militants who have taken control of northern Mali. 

On Sunday the French confirmed that the U.S. was providing communication and transport assistance for the intervention. Today, The New York Times reported that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta confirmed the Obama administration's support for the Malian government, saying that assistance in the form of air and logistical support could be offered. Other details were left wanting:

Defense officials would not rule out the possibility that American military transport planes might land in Mali, where the United States has been conducting an ambitious counterterrorism program for years. The officials would not discuss whether the United States has deployed drone aircraft, either armed or unarmed, over Mali.

Mr. Panetta, who spoke to reporters on his plane en route to Portugal for a weeklong trip in Europe, said that the chaos in Mali was of deep concern to the administration, and he praised the French for their actions. He also said “what we have promised them is that we would work with them, to cooperate with them, to provide whatever assistance we can to try to help them in that effort." 

Although Al Qaeda-linked militants have been pushed back by French operations some have taken the central town of Diabaly as part of a wider advance south. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has been stressing that the operation in Mali will be over soon and predicts that it will be completed in “a matter of weeks.” Militants in Mali have pledged to strike “at the heart” of France in a statement that confirms the fears of a French judge who warned that an intervention in Mali could lead to terrorist attacks on French soil.

As Ed noted earlier, Dominique de Villepin, who was France’s foreign minister from 2002 to 2004, has said that France would do well to learn from the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq, lessons that British and American officials have apparently yet to learn. 

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Obamacare Mandate to Get Beefed Up, Military Suicides Hit Record High, Kentucky Sheriff Won’t Enforce Unconstitutional Gun Control Laws: P.M. Links

  • That Obamacare mandate penalty the Supreme Court ruled was low enough to be considered a tax is now considered by supporters too low to be effective. Some of them want it hiked.
  • Military suicides hit a record high this year, surpassing the total number of combat-related deaths for the fourth year in a row.
  • Glenn Beck is planning to found a community based on “Galt’s Gulch.” Who’s in?
  • The “Chief Technology Officer” for the Baltimore Public Schools resigned amid criticism of his spending habits. $250,000 in tax dollars was spent renovating his office, including the installation of “interactive whiteboards.” Jerome Oberlton is now headed to be the chief-of-staff of the Dallas school district.
  • A sheriff in Eastern Kentucky says he won’t enforce any unconstitutional gun control laws that might pass. Law enforcement officers shouldn’t be enforcing any unconstitutional laws.
  • European leaders are reluctant to bail out Cyprus, not because they’ve found religion on bailouts, but because of concerns the money would benefit Russian account-holders at Cypriot banks.
  • A Saudi newspaper reports that Syria’s Bashar Assad and his family are now living on a warship.
  • George H.W. Bush is expected to be discharged from hospital today.

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Ira Stoll on Mayor Bloomberg Taking on Public-Sector Unions

America is approaching the point where the government employee unions are so powerful that even the liberals think it’s getting out of control, says Ira Stoll.

When public-sector union power reaches the point at which Mayor Bloomberg concludes that enough is enough, it’s a hopeful sign. If he stands firm on a school-bus driver strike, people may remember him for it long after they’ve forgotten his campaign against supersized sodas.

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I Wish I Had Used My Retirement Money to Buy Guns

On Saturday The New York Times noted that gun sales, which have been on the rise since Barack Obama was first elected to the White House, are booming in response to all the talk of new restrictions following the Sandy Hook massacre. In particular, rifles with military-style features and magazines holding more than 10 rounds are flying off gun store shelves, pushing up prices in anticipation of federal bans on "assault weapons" and "large-capacity ammunition feeding devices." Just talking about reducing the number of scary-looking weapons in circulation, it turns out, has the opposite effect:

December set a record for the criminal background checks performed before many gun purchases, a strong indication of a big increase in sales, according to an analysis of federal data by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun industry trade group. Adjusting the federal data to try to weed out background checks that were unrelated to firearms sales, the group reported that 2.2 million background checks were performed last month, an increase of 58.6 percent over the same period in 2011. Some gun dealers said in interviews that they had never seen such demand.

"If I had 1,000 AR-15s I could sell them in a week," said Jack Smith, an independent gun dealer in Des Moines, referring to the popular style of semiautomatic rifle that drew national attention after Adam Lanza used one to kill 20 children and 6 adults at a Newtown school. "When I close, they beat on the glass to be let in," Mr. Smith said of his customers. "They’ll wave money at me."

Mr. Smith said many people were stocking up on high-capacity magazines in anticipation that they might be banned. Two weeks ago, he said, a 30-round rifle magazine was $12, but it now fetches $60. Popular online retailers were out of many 20- and 30-round rifle magazines....

Dale Raby, who manages one of two Gus’s Guns shops in Green Bay, Wis., said his inventory of guns and ammunition was almost cleaned out, and that most of the interest was in AR-15-style rifles....

Joel Alioto, 44, an Iraq war veteran who lives in the area, said he recently sold an AR-15 rifle at a gun show for $1,700, more than three times what he had paid for it.

Maybe Alioto should have waited. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) is proposing a $2,000 refundable tax credit for people who turn in their "assault weapons." That is twice what brand-new AR-15-style rifles are selling for at Cabela's.

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Military Suicides Outpace Combat-Related Deaths in U.S. Military for Fourth Year in a Row

The number of suicides in the U.S. military in 2012 outstripped the number of combat-related deaths for the fourth year in a row, reaching a record high. The number of suicides has been steadily increasing since 2004, and rose 16 percent last year (to 349 from 301, exceeding even the Pentagon’s projection of 325). Back in September, the outgoing defense secretary, Leon Panetta, talked to USA Today about what might be fuelling the rise in suicides:

Part of it I think is due to a nation that's been at war for over a decade. You have repeated deployments and sustained combat exposure to enormous stresses and strains on our troops and on their families that produced a lot of seen and un-seen wounds that contribute to the suicide risk. At the same time, we're dealing with what is a broader societal problem. I think CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) said something like 37,000 are committing suicide nationally. And that means we have to deal with some of the broader societal issues: substance abuse, financial distress, relationship problems, the kind of risk factors that endure even beyond our involvement in war. So it is, I think, very much a problem that not just the military, but society in general has to confront and deal with.  

In the interview, Panetta said he was making suicide prevention a top priority. But it’s not a new problem. In 2009, suicides in the army hit their highest rate since the Vietnam War. By 2010, military leaders were already expressing concern with their failure to reverse the trend. From a Time article dated April 3, 2010:

"It's frankly frustrating that with the level of effort that we've put out there, that we haven't stemmed the [suicide] tide," General George Casey, the Army's top officer, told a House panel March 23. When pressed by a lawmaker the previous month on whether the Army was getting closer to solving the challenge, Army Secretary John McHugh was blunt. "Sadly, the answer is not much closer," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee Feb. 23. "As to why people take this step — particularly as to why men and women in uniform do — we're still in many ways befuddled."

Last July, the U.S. Army provided at least $3 million to the University of Indiana to develop an anti-suicide nasal spray. Suicide is also the leading cause of death among soldiers in the Israeli Defense Force. Nearly a third of U.S. military suicides between 2005 and 2010 were committed by troops that had never been deployed.

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Memphis Police Do Home Invasion on Animal Hoarding Charges; Man Killed When He Reacted to Armed Raid by Allegedly Raising His Own Gun

Yet another terrible tale of militarized police tactics gone wrong as armed agents do a forced raid on a Memphis man and shoot and kill him -- on a search warrant for being a suspected animal hoarder (and, of course, for according to the police raising a gun when the mini army smashed into his home).

But it was all worthwhile, apparently:

"Inside the house we did find a lot of cats, dogs," said MPD Sgt. Karen Rudolph.

"I've been told there were raccoons, possums, chickens," she continued. 

Well, that could not go on another minute. And according the WMCT-TV report:

Police say the suspected animal hoarder told neighbors he'd go down fighting in order to protect his collection of pets. 

Yep, that's exactly the guy it makes total sense to execute a forced armed raid on, because he has, you think, more animals in his home than the law decides is proper.

Via Radley Balko, author of a forthcoming book on the dangers of over-militarized law enforcement.

Reason on this topic, including much from our former staffer Balko.

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How False Urgency Produces Stupid Gun Laws

"Connecticut has changed things," says Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.). "I don't know what we're going to do, but we're going to do something." Wolf is talking about violent video games, but his attitude is sadly common among politicians a month after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, no matter which scapegoat they prefer. Taking their cues from that vapid video featuring celebrities demanding "a plan to end gun violence," legislators seem to agree it does not really matter what they do, as long as they do it quickly.

First out of the gate is New York, where Democrats and Republicans are putting the finishing touches on a package of new gun restrictions demanded less than a week ago by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The New York Times reports that it will include a broader definition of forbidden "assault weapons" (mirroring California's) and a new, seven-round limit for magazines, which would be the strictest in the country. Marvel at the false urgency reflected in these comments by the people whom New Yorkers have charged with writing their laws:

"There's a real push and hope to do something today, but right now we're trying to make sure it's technically sound," said the Assembly majority leader, Joseph D. Morelle of Monroe County, the second highest-ranking official in the chamber. "If it goes into tomorrow, that's a possibility. But there's a sense that we'd like to do something."

Senator Jeffrey D. Klein of the Bronx, the leader of an independent faction of Democrats that has allied with Senate Republicans, said: "I think when all is said and done, we're going to pass a comprehensive gun bill today. And I think it's important and this is an issue that shows we can work together, Democrats and Republicans."

"Republicans, it's very clear, wanted harsher criminal penalties for illegal guns, which is something I agree with, but on the other hand we're also going to ban assault weapons and limit the number of rounds in a magazine," he added. "So I think putting those two things together makes it a better bill."

Senator Thomas W. Libous of Binghamton, the top deputy in the Republican caucus, called a gun control bill "inevitable," adding, "It's something that’s going to go forward."

For proponents of these measures, there really is no time to lose. The longer they wait, the more time people will have to wonder whether these policies make sense on their own merits, let alone as a response to Adam Lanza's horrible crimes. People might even question whether combining knee-jerk Democratic ideas with knee-jerk Republican ideas is the sort of bipartisanship we need.

In Washington, D.C., meanwhile, Vice President Biden is supposed to make gun control recommendations to President Obama by tomorrow, having presided over a working group charged with that mission for all of three weeks. As of last Thursday, the day he finally got around to soliciting the views of gun control skeptics, Biden claimed he had reached "no conclusions," so I guess he really worked hard over the weekend. The pretense of fact finding is hard to credit, especially since Obama already has said he favors a new federal "assault weapon" ban, a limit on magazine capacity, and beefed-up background checks for gun buyers.

Gun controllers are not the only ones preying on panicky parents. Last month Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, demanded an armed guard in every school by the end of winter break to protect children against "the monsters and predators of this world" who "walk among us every day." That was LaPierre's attempt to one-up Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who had promised to introduce a new "assault weapon" ban "on the first day of the new Congress." The first day of the current session came and went the week before last, and the bill has yet to materialize, although the senator's website is still highlighting her blatantly broken promise. What is Feinstein waiting for? How many more innocents must die before she acts? Enough is enough.

Update: At a press conference today, Obama said he had received Biden's recommendations, adding,  "I expect to have a fuller presentation later in the week to give people some specifics about what I think we need to do."

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Republicans in Idaho Say It's Time to Legalize Marijuana

The Blaine County Republican Central Committee in Idaho's Wood River Valley surprised their colleagues at the state level last week by passing a resolution calling for the legalization of marijuana. The Times-News reports

Committeman Mike Connor said the resolution passed 6-2. Much of the discussion before the vote focused on the failure of the War on Drugs, and how to most effectively keep marijuana away from children, he said.

“The Blaine County GOP believes that the time has come to amend criminal prohibition and replace it with a system of legalization, and education,” the resolution says. It goes on to discuss violent crime and the black market that marijuana criminalization has created, and how legalization will help regulation.

Not all Blaine County Republicans agree with the resolution. Sheriff Gene Ramsey, who didn’t attend the meeting, said marijuana and other drugs should remain illegal.

“I think that we need to, as a nation, take a hard stand on drugs,” Ramsey said. With marijuana decriminalization, “we’re sending the wrong example to our youth.”

“It may not be working, but that doesn’t mean you should just give up,” [Ramsey] said.

Connor, meanwhile, emphasized that he's not in favor of more drug use, but "ensur[ing] criminals won’t benefit from the sale of marijuana." 

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Information Liberated: Jeffrey Tucker on How Digital Media Subverts Government Power

"We're all standing in front of this mountain and it's called 'government' and we don't know what to do with it," says Jeffrey Tucker, who's the executive editor of Laissez Faire Books and a former vice president at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. "But some very creative people in the private sector have figured how to dig underneath it, go around it, scale it with special new tools, and that's how I think of digital media."

Reason magazine's Matt Welch sat down with Tucker at FreedomFest 2012 to discuss his new book, No More Gatekeepers: How to Create Your Own Civilization in the Digital Age, in the latest offering from Reason TV.

Click below for full text and downloadable versions, and click above to watch the video.

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Obama Treads Path of Less Transparency, Larger Donations for Second Inauguration

Planners of President Barack Obama’s second inauguration announced last week he’d be accepting big corporate donors this time around, looking for individual donations of up to $1 million, up quite a bit from the $50,000-per-person limit placed back in 2009. But why bother with the pretense of “hope and change” any more when coverage of expanding executive power, corporate cronyism, warmongering and engaging in the same behavior as his predecessors seems to fall on deaf ears anyway? (Or maybe it hasn’t, as the New York Times reports they’re having trouble meeting fund-raising goals for this year’s celebration)

So far, the Sunlight Foundation notes, they’ve wrangled in eight corporate donors, some of whom have business with the government:

United Therapeutics, the maker of an injectable drug to treat pulmonary arterial hypertension, is continuing to seek approval of an oral version. The company faced a setback in October when the FDA did not approve the new drug. Its CEO vowed at the time to continue seeking approval "within the next four years."

The company does not have a political action committee but emerged as a surprising major donor to the Democratic National Convention in September, when it gave $600,000 to the effort, the fifth-biggest donor behind the likes of Bank of America and AT&T. 

To be fair, thanks to the massive federal regulatory apparatus, is there any corporation in America who doesn’t have pending business with the government? Is there a corporation who would be able to donate to the Obama inauguration without an observer tying it back to some federal policy or other? But then, I recall how frequently federal regulations are fundamentally corporate protectionist regulations designed to grant them special favors and harm competitors and lose any sympathy.

The other less-than-hopeful change in the inauguration party funding that the Sunlight Foundation notes – they’re declining to reveal the exact amount of each contribution as they did in 2009. They’re providing a list of names of each donor who donates at least $200, but that’s all. I guess that transparency award won’t be put on display at the inaugural balls.

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Problem: ObamaCare's Mandate Won't Work? Solution: Make It Stronger!

Last year, ObamaCare's health insurance mandate, which requires most everyone to carry health coverage or pay a tax, survived a Supreme Court challenge when a 5-4 majority ruled it was constitutionally permissable as a tax. At the time, many of the provision's defenders argued that it was necessary in order to make ObamaCare's preexisting condition restrictions viable: With no mandate, individuals would have the option to buy coverage only when sick or in need of care. But if insurers had to sell to everyone at regulated rates regardless of health history, that would mean that people could wait until getting sick or needing care to purchase insurance. 

Now, however, it seems that some folks are worried that the mandate still won't work. They worry that the penalty it imposes is too weak, which may result in the same sort of insurance market meltdown that the mandate was supposed to prevent.

And so they want to make it stronger. Politico reports

Here’s the catch: The individual mandate penalties will be pretty weak as they are phased in over two years — only $95 when they start in 2014, much less than it costs to buy insurance. And yet, everyone with pre-existing conditions will have to be accepted for coverage right away.

That’s why insurance companies are telling the administration the mandate won’t be enough for the first two years. They want more incentives — such as a late enrollment fee — to get healthy people to sign up quickly. Without getting the healthy folks in, the fear is that everyone’s health insurance premiums could shoot through the roof when all those sick people get their coverage.

Politico reports that the idea is being called "mandate plus," and that insurers are asking for even greater penalties to inflict on those who don't get coverage. 

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France Warned of Neo-Conservative Influence and the Folly of Intervention

As noted on Reason 24/7, Dominique de Villepin, who was France’s foreign minister from 2002 to 2004 (and later the prime minister), warned of the folly of France’s ongoing military intervention in Mali in an op-ed published over the weekend. Villepin, of course, was one of the most outspoken opponents of America’s invasion of Iraq, becoming the face of what Donald Rumsfeld termed “Old Europe” in the run up to that war. While Villepin may have set the tone of principled non-intervention, later revelations showed that official French opposition to the war may have been based on a much narrower self-interest, namely the lucratively corrupt Oil-for-Food program. Regardless, outside of opposition to the Iraq War, France is hardly a non-interventionist country, especially when it comes to Africa, a continent on which France operated as a colonial power until the latter part of the 20th century.

Nevertheless, in his op-ed Villepin asks: ”How has the neo-conservative virus been able to infect our outlook?” He sees in the French intervention in Mali shades of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. “We will be fighting blind without any reason for actually going to war,” he writes, pointing out that keeping the Islamists from running rough-shod over the southern portion of the country, helping Mali’s army recapture the north and hunting down elements of Al-Qaeda are all “completely separate war aims.” Perhaps most importantly, Villepin applied the principle of blowback, writing that “these wars are a cog. Each creates the conditions for the next.” Sort of how the French-backed Western intervention in Libya caused the current crisis in Mali. You can read the op-ed in the original French here.

P.S. If you had Saturday in your office pool on when France would ask the U.S. for help in its foray into Mali, you won.

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A. Barton Hinkle on Fictitious Spending Cuts

Would you like to save $20,000 this year? Of course you would. Here’s how: Plan a month-long vacation to Disneyland, and budget $20,000 for the trip. Then don’t go. Presto! You just “cut” your family budget by 20 grand.

This sounds absurd—because it is. Yet that is precisely how Washington operates, writes A. Barton Hinkle.

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Aaron Swartz, the Feds, and Proportionate Responses to Illegal Downloading

Not everybody following Aaron Swartz’s death – the tech genius who committed suicide Friday while facing a host of federal charges over his mass downloading of academic journal papers at MIT – is falling directly into the narrative that he was the target of bullying by overzealous federal prosecutors.

Orin Kerr, George Washington University Law School professor and scholar on computer crime law, looked over the charges against Swartz at The Volokh Conspiracy. He’s planning two posts analyzing the case. The first, posted today, is about whether the federal government fairly read the relevant laws. Simply put, he concludes that the charges filed against Swartz accurately reflect the crimes he was alleged to have committed. He also explains that even had Swartz been convicted, he probably would not have realistically faced combined sentences for all his charges:

The indictment against Swartz alleged several different crimes. A bunch of the crimes overlap, but that doesn’t mean that they are really treated separately: At sentencing the general practice is to take the most serious of the crimes as the basis for the sentence and to mostly ignore the rest. But the ordinary practice is to charge all the possible offenses committed in the indictment, even if they overlap, and then let the jury sort them out at trial or else drop some of the charges in a plea deal.

Part two of Kerr’s analysis (not up as yet) will be focusing on whether he believes the Department of Justice used appropriate discretion or judgment in this case. That’s truly where the conflict is right now. Over at Patrick “Patterico” Frey’s blog, Swartz’s lawyer, Elliot R. Peters, described a plea bargain that didn’t seem like much of a bargain:

Peters told me that, in his opinion, the Government had been “awfully unreasonable” in their approach to the case. He said that they insisted that Swartz plead to all 13 felonies. They said that even if Swartz pled guilty, they were going to seek a prison sentence. They told Peters that if the case went to trial and Swartz were convicted, they would seek a prison sentence of 7 to 8 years. They told Peters that they thought the judge would impose that sentence. (Peters told me he didn’t agree; he thought the case was defensible and that even if Swartz lost, Peters didn’t think the judge would have sentenced him to custody time.)

I posted about Swartz’s suicide Saturday with some quick thoughts that certainly lived up to our blog’s name. In response to some responses about that post: You don’t have to be a leftist like Swartz or even believe that America’s copyright enforcement system is rather flawed to be concerned about the federal government’s behavior in this case. Much like the prosecution and 10-year sentencing of Aaron Sandusky for defying federal marijuana law (while completely conforming to state law), we should all be concerned whenever the Department of Justice obviously wants to “make an example” of somebody.

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Glenn Beck's Blueprint for a Self-Sufficient Theme Park in Texas

Utopian text of the day:

That's Glenn Beck outlining his vision of Independence Park, a sort of a survivalist EPCOT: a self-sufficient media center, expo park, ranch, and residential area, the latter designed in ways intended to break down class barriers and nourish a rich public life. Other plans for the private city include solar energy, underground roads, a learning center (not a school, because "schools are a thing of the past"), and the town's own "national archives," where the community will keep "the things and the ideas and the books and the papers that tell the truth." In the course of laying this out, the host also touches on the topics of Tesla, the Alamo, Beck's fear of cows, and a Fourth of July entertainment spectacular that Beck is cooking up called The Man in the Moon: An American Story (From the Moon's Perspective).

It's a melange of many ideas (not all of them "right-wing"), and the pitch alone is a great contribution to the American populist-utopian tradition. It is also utterly mad, of course. I'm always skeptical when someone thinks he and a committee of experts can plan an ideal community, and the precursors in the historical record suggest that even if Beck's park is built it will evolve in ways no planner can anticipate. Whatever winds up appearing under the name "Independence Park," you can be sure it'll be different from Beck's blueprint in countless ways.

Still, I'm all for mad plans, as long as they aren't compulsory and as long as they aren't done on the public dime. My personal vision of living freely does not entail moving to a theme park owned by a TV personality. (*) But it does have room for TV personalities who want to spend their money building theme parks, the weirder the better.

(* OK, maybe if it's Gene Scott or Ernie Kovacs. But not anyone else.)

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Oliver Stone, Peter Kuznick Blast Emperor Obama in USA Today!

I've yet to sit down and watch the Showtime series Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States, but this op-ed by the director of some great and some awful movies and his co-author Peter Kuznick sure makes me want to check it out.

Snippets from USA Today:

While following through on some key promises, such as withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq, Obama has often simultaneously deepened his commitment to the empire. In some cases, he pursued his promises, proposing to close Guantanamo and launching a plan to give terrorist "detainees" civilian trials, and then quickly backed away as his political foes attacked....

Pushed by his handpicked advisers, including Hillary Clinton and Republican holdover Robert Gates, and generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, he tripled the number of U.S. troops [in Afghanistan]. By 2011, the United States was spending $110 billion on military operations. Even as the president announced a slight acceleration of the planned 2014 pullout, it is unclear what long-term impact Obama's Afghan "surge" will have.

Elsewhere, Obama quickly became the world's leading drone warrior, employing more predator drones in his first nine-and-a-half months in office than Bush had in the previous three years. The results are mixed. He managed to decapitate much of al-Qaeda's leadership, but these attacks fueled jihadist recruitment....

Obama claimed the right to murder, without judicial review, anyone he deemed a threat to U.S. interests, making him judge, jury and executioner, and far exceeding Bush's surveillance without judicial review (which also seems to have expanded under Obama). He personally selected the individuals to be targeted who were put on "kill lists." Before 9/11, the U.S. had condemned targeted assassinations. Now, they are Obama's signature foreign policy initiative, one that many other nations have prepared to emulate.

And there's this: "Often, Obama's efforts to expand America's imperial role are obscured by Republican demands that he go further." They got that right.

Read the whole thing here.

There's no question that Oliver Stone has a strange, if not thoroughly cracked view of reality (go here to read former Reason staffer Michael Moynihan's criticism of Untold History).

His willingness to pal around uncritically with dictators such as Castro and Chavez is revolting, as was his apparently sympathetc but clearly simple-minded description of the 9/11 attacks as a "revolt" and a "rebellion." Yet whether it's his willingness to push pot legalization or the current USA Today op-ed, the guy is willing to make his views known even (especially?) if they make many of his fans uncomfortable. I'll take that anyday over mealy-mouthed auteurs who can never quite put their genius out into a scrum where it might be dinged up.

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TSA Pre-Screening, Now With Access to Your Shopping Habits

The Transportation Security Adminstration wants a little help with its trusted traveler program. More to the point, the TSA is looking for private providers who can demonstrate some competency in pre-screening travelers who volunteer for the process in search of a quicker route through the airport that involves, perhaps, a bit less fondling and probing. Along those lines, the TSA issued a market research request for information last week "to obtain market research, test, and demonstration information relative to the possible expansion of expedited aviation physical screening initiatives." The American Civil Liberties Union is concerned that this is just another step toward a total-surveillance security state, and it just might be. But it also likely represents an opportunity for the TSA to bypass its own awe-inspiring history of incompetence — or to, once again, screw something up.

What the TSA is looking for is described thusly in its RFI:

The TSA is interested in evaluating the current/near term state of commercial solutions to be designed, developed, and operated by entities that are established as TSA regulated entities or are providing demonstration support in conjunction with such an entity.  TSA is particularly interested in techniques that may be used to make members of the traveling public aware of the demonstration, to enroll them for this pre-screening, to use non-governmental data elements to generate an assessment of the risk to the aviation transportation system that may be posed by a specific individual, and to communicate the identity of persons who have successfully passed this risk based assessment to TSA’s Secure Flight.

There's much talk in the overall document of giving responding companies acess to Social Security data and the like, but it's obviouc that the TSA wants private companies experienced in compiling and crunching commercial data to work their magic on frequent flyers.

The ACLU's Jay Stanley frets, understandably:

This would be a major step toward turning the agency’s Pre-Check whitelist into the insidious kind of passenger profiling system that was proposed under the Bush Administration in the wake of 9/11, and a confirmation of our longstanding warnings that the logic of the risk-assessment approach to security will drive the government toward the use of more and more data on individuals.

That the TSA insists participation is voluntary doesn't satisfy the civil liberties group, since the TSA is openly eager to encourage as much participation as possible. "[U]ltimately," warns Stanley, "[W]e face the prospect of a two-class airline security system, or even a system in which simply everyone has a Pre-Check ID, and the hapless group who can’t get one become a security underclass."

There is a risk that pre-screening — now drawing upon Safeway's knowledge of your (well ... my) impressive wine habit and peculiar online purchases — will become de rigeur for any sort of easy travel, with refuseniks and those who can't qualify subject to ever-increasing barriers to travel by air (or even other methods, as the TSA's reach extends). That could, ultimately, be where this ends up.

My guess, though, is that, while security-state barriers to transportation may be the ultimate result, what we're actually seeing is a TSA effort to bridge its Grand Canyon-esque competency gap. I've written before that "the TSA is spectacularly inefficient and inept at everything it tries to do" and that the agency has been dinged repeatedly for purchasing equipment that then gathers dust in warehouses and for deploying procedures without first making the slightest effort to determine their effectiveness.

In 2010, seven years after the TSA initiated its behavioral Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program, the GAO cautioned, “TSA deployed SPOT nationwide without first validating the scientific basis for identifying suspicious passengers in an airport environment.” In the March 2012 report, the GAO pointed out that a flawed SPOT study performed since that time still “was not designed to fully validate whether behavior detection can be used to reliably identify individuals in an airport environment who pose a security risk.”

The market research request for information may well be a step along the road to Panopticon. But it's likely being taken not with sinister intent, but by incompetent bureaucrats trying to offload some of their responsibilities to anybody who might actually be able to perform them.

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Miss America Contestant Says Marijuana Should Only Be Legal For "Recreational Use and Health Care"

"I personally know people who have had to go to medical marijuana for their last resort, for their health care and I completely agree with that," said Miss Iowa Mariah Cary when asked on Saturday if she thought marijuana should be legalized.

"However, I don't think it should be used for anything but recreational use and health care." 

Which I guess means she wouldn't approve of substituting it for salad in school lunches. 

Watch Miss Iowa's answer below: 

Via Gawker. 

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Obama Administration: "Who do they think creates jobs?"

The Washington Post's superb economics columnist Robert Samuelson has good column today looking at how Obama White House chief of staff Jack Lew might perform as Secretary of the Treasury. However, what particularly caught my eye in the column was a comment by IHS Global Insight chief economist Nariman Behravesh:

Obama’s anti-business attitudes are politically convenient but economically destructive. As Behravesh puts it: “Who do they [administration officials] think creates jobs? It’s puzzling to me that, when they want jobs, they bad-mouth the private sector. It doesn’t compute.”

Indeed it does not compute. See my colleague Nick Gillespies's post, "Barack Obama and George W. Bush Absolute Worst at Creating Jobs," to see just how diastrously bad for the private sector growth our last two presidents have been.

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Who Will Be the Last Baby Girl to Go Fatherless in the Feds' War on State-Legal Marijuana?

Last month, New York Times staff writer Adam Nagourney wrote an article entitled  "Marijuana, Not Yet Legal for Californians, Might as Well Be," which seemed an odd way to describe a state in which meticulously legal pot businesses are still being systematically persecuted by President Barack Obama's Department of Justice.

Today, in a welcome revision, Nagourney is back with a different bite of the apple, this one more accurately headlined: "In California, It's U.S. vs. State Over Marijuana." The article concerns the case of 34-year-old Matthew Davies, a married father of two young girls (including an infant) who had no prior criminal record before being run up on federal charges that could put him in prison for 15 years. Excerpt:

Davies graduated from college with a master’s degree in business and a taste for enterprise, working in real estate, restaurants and mobile home parks before seizing on what he saw as uncharted territory with a vast potential for profits—medical marijuana.

He brought graduate-level business skills to a world decidedly operating in the shadows. He hired accountants, compliance lawyers, managers, a staff of 75 and a payroll firm. He paid California sales tax and filed for state and local business permits. [...]

The United States attorney for the Eastern District of California, Benjamin B. Wagner, a 2009 Obama appointee, wants Mr. Davies to agree to a plea that includes a mandatory minimum of five years in prison, calling the case a straightforward prosecution of "one of the most significant commercial marijuana traffickers to be prosecuted in this district." [...]

"Mr. Davies was not a seriously ill user of marijuana nor was he a medical caregiver — he was the major player in a very significant commercial operation that sought to make large profits from the cultivation and sale of marijuana," [a letter from Wagner to Davies's lawyer] said. Mr. Wagner said that prosecuting such people "remains a core priority of the department."

Let's underline that last comment. It "remains a core priority" of the Obama administration to deprive little girls of being raised by their fathers. Even in states that have created legal space for pot entrepreneurs to operate. All in the service of a war every sentient adult recognizes is an abject failure.

This isn't just a matter of misplaced discretion. In a climate where pot is now legal in two states, medical marijuana in 18, where public favorability toward legalizing marijuana is spiking northward of 50 percent, and where we're operating on (at least) our third consecutive president who smoked the choom, such prosecutions are analogous to launching a troop surge in 1918, or raiding speakeasies in '32. They are morally obscene.

As (former pot smoker) John Kerry gets ready for his confirmation hearings to be the next secretary of state, let's rephrase his most famous quote: Who will be the last law-abiding father to die behind bars for this mistaken war?

Reason.tv on another California family the Department of Justice recently ruined below:

UPDATE: Read Molly Davies's open letter to President Obama. (Link now fixed.)

UPDATE II: At The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf estimates the taxpayer cost of shutting down this one marijuana operation at $1 million.

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Supreme Court Will Hear Major Property Rights Case Tomorrow

Tomorrow morning the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District, the biggest property rights case of the current term. At issue is a Florida regulatory agency’s refusal to allow a property owner to commercially develop a small piece of land unless he first agreed to hand over 75 percent of the lot to the state for conservation purposes and also fund unrelated improvements to 50 acres of public land located several miles away. The owner refused to agree to that second requirement, which he considered to be an act of extortion by the government, and the necessary building permits were not issued.

The legal question before the Supreme Court is whether that permit condition violated the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment, which requires the government to pay just compensation when it takes private property for a public use. In addition, the Court will consider whether the Florida agency violated two previous Supreme Court decisions which placed strict limits on the sort of conditions land-use agencies may impose when issuing building permits.

It’s a hotly disputed case. Libertarian New York University law professor Richard Epstein, author of a seminal book on the use and abuse of the Takings Clause, has characterized the state’s actions as “grand theft real estate,” while Doug Kendall, head of the left-leaning Constitutional Accountability Center, which filed a friend of the court brief supporting the Florida agency, has called Koontz “going away the most important takings case the Roberts Court will decide.” The justices are likely to mirror this division, with property rights supporters squaring off against those who favor granting broad deference to state regulators.

Oral argument is scheduled for 11a.m. ET on Tuesday. Stay tuned.

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A.M. Links: NRA Confident Congress Won’t Pass Gun Ban, Brits Join French-Led Intervention in Mali, NYC to Link Doctors’ Pay to Performance, MIT Investigating Aaron Swartz Suicide, Indian Army Chief Considering Retaliation Against Pakistan

  • The Royal Air Force is assisting France with its intervention in Mali. Al Qaeda-linked militants have launched a counter-attack in the town of Diabaly, southwest of recent French air strikes.  
  • Thousands rallied in Paris against President Hollande’s plan to legalize same-sex marriage. 
  • MIT has ordered an investigation into the suicide of reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz. 
  • India’s army chief is considering a retaliation against Pakistan for the killing of two soldiers in Kashmir. 

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Does Obama Response to Death Star Petition Signify End of Seriousness in Political Discourse?

Over at the White House's petitions website - where citizens can post demands and the Obama administration has pledged to answer them if 25,000 people sign on within 30 days - President Obama's crack team of smartypants has responded to a suggestion that the government build a Star Wars-style Death Star as a jobs program and defense plan:

The Administration shares your desire for job creation and a strong national defense, but a Death Star isn't on the horizon. Here are a few reasons:

  • The construction of the Death Star has been estimated to cost more than $850,000,000,000,000,000. We're working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it.
  • The Administration does not support blowing up planets.
  • Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?

Ha ha ha!

This White House crew is so hip and funny, isn't it? Star Wars references! I mean, I bet Mitt Romney doesn't even know how many moons Tatooine has! Watching the Obama admin connect with the kids these days is like listening to This American Life on an iPad while riding a fixed-gear bike wearing a retro hat (not from the lounge-era retro fad, but from the newer, even more double-plus-good-ironic era of 20 minutes ago).

I mean, remember the Obama team's great Easter Egg Roll video that showed the administration's mastery of the new media? (I'm talking about the 2009 Easter Egg Roll, not the 2010 one during which Michelle Obama replaced candy with hand sanitizer and "pre-screened fruit").

The administration may not support blowing up whole planets, but it is clearly 100 percent in favor of blowing up portions of our own big blue marble, whether it has gotten the requisite authorization from Congress or any court in the country. Actual, publicly discussed and debated and settled legal frameworks for dropping semi-accurate bombs on people (actual assumed bad guys on the initial strike, then emergency responders on the second) are for lesser people.

And the administration is working hard to reduce the deficit? So that explains why the $22.5 billion in new revenue from hiking taxes on the richest Americans is offset by $65 billion in foregone revenue for special-interest business tax credits? Am I misremembering or didn't Obama actually promise to cut $2.50 in spending for every $1 dollar he jacked taxes? Yeah, it must be me.

It's kinda funny that the answer to the Death Star petition ironically references a famous Jedi mind-trick ("this isn't the petition response you're looking for") because the entire petition site is a classic gesture from the repressive tolerance handbook. I mean, it gives all of us a voice and a way to work within the system!

You can't get up against the wall motherfucker when the wall is actually a series of unlocked doors and open windows, know what I mean, Chewbacca? And we know that the Obama administration is the most openest admin ever (well, except for an endless closetful of shrouds that puts Turin to shame) because it keeps telling us it is.

Remind us again: Who is the adult in the room again? Because it isn't obvious.

And to answer the question in the title of this blog post: No, the Obama admin's response to the Death Star petition doesn't signify the end of serious political discourse. That would imply the most transparentest, coolest regime ever never had made executive power claims that would make George W. Bush think twice, or hadn't deported record numbers of immigrants, or wasn't prosecuting the drug war its fans don't seem to mind anymore.

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Brickbat: The Exalted Elk

Boulder, Colorado, police initially denied that any of their officers were involved in shooting an elk that had been roaming a local neighborhood. But after being confronted with photos, they admitted that an officer on patrol shot the animal and another officer, who was off duty at the time, took the carcass home for meat. The two officers are now under criminal investigation for shooting the elk and under departmental investigation for not reporting a discharge of a firearm.

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Tim Cavanaugh on Obama's Big Ideas

“The best is yet to come,” Obama promised in his November victory speech. And the election result gave him some justification for that promise. He won a lopsided electoral victory and, rare in modern presidential races, a popular majority. This is what makes the second term such a matter of concern, writes Tim Cavanaugh.

Nearly 61 million voters have gotten to know Obama’s mix of soaring rhetoric and bureaucratic reality, messianic claims and crushing mandates, cultish iconography and lawless actions, grand hopes and bland changes. And they decided they wanted more of it.

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Audit: Pennsylvania Turnpike Officials, Employees, and Friends Receiving "Generous Perks"

Working for the Pennsylvania Turnpike is a pretty sweet deal, according to an audit released last week. Toll payers bought private vehicles worth more than $28,000 for each of the turnpike's five commissioners—and picked up the tab for maintenance and fuel. The turnpike’s 2,104 employees don’t have to pay at toll booths—nor do 5,000 politicians, bureaucrats, consultants, and contractors.

From The Newspaper:

The free travel amounted to $5.5 million worth of trips, although the auditor believes this is an underestimate because no records are kept of employee use of this perk. The governor's office received 21 free transponders, the lieutenant governor received one, and state department of transportation officials received eight.

… In addition to $26,000 in salaries, the commissioners enjoyed $539,201 in benefits over the audit period [January 2007 to August 2011]. No limits were placed on expense accounts for commissioners traveling to conferences around the world. Commissioners stayed in luxury hotel suites and received free vehicles and electronic devices for personal use, all paid for with toll revenue.

Reason contributor Eric Boehm writes in the PA Independent

In February 2010, one or more commissioners of the Pennsylvania Turnpike walked into a Harrisburg restaurant.

They, perhaps with guests, rang up a bill of nearly $500.

But it’s impossible to determine the punch line of that joke because auditors who recently examined the turnpike’s expense accounts say there is no way to know much else about what happened at the restaurant.

Like most expenses incurred by the top officials of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, there were no receipts and no information about the number of individuals involved, the content of their orders or the legitimate business purpose for the gathering.

In a written response to the audit, Turnpike Commission CEO Craig Shuey said, “In general terms, we believe the findings in the audit suggest that the Commission is fulfilling its mission.”

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Carten Cordell on How Dodd-Frank Could Trigger a New Financial Crisis

In the wake of the fiscal crisis of 2008, lawmakers in Washington rushed to craft legislation to curtail risky practices at the center of the financial collapse. The product was the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, a massive slate of regulations that expanded the role of government to police everything from debit card purchases to insurance. But as Carten Cordell reports, a new book from two economists at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University convincingly argues that the ongoing complexity and reach of Dodd-Frank may be planting the seeds for another collapse.

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Sheldon Richman on Government Debt

Government borrowing is a source of many evils, writes Sheldon Richman, not least of which is that for decades it made big government appear cheaper than it is. Could the federal government spend nearly $4 trillion a year if it had to raise every penny through taxation? Unlikely. A tax revolt would have been ignited. But let the government borrow a trillion dollars a year, more than 40 cents of every dollar spent, and government looks relatively inexpensive—or it did before things got so out of hand that everyone could see the looming danger. Most people pay no attention to how much interest the government must pay each year to its creditors, but interest payments have been running at over $400 billion a year. December's payment alone was $95.7 billion.

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Reddit Co-Founder, Open Info Activist Bullied by DOJ Commits Suicide

If you’re using an RSS feed to help keep track of Hit & Run blog posts or the Reason 24/7 news feed, Aaron Swartz gets some of the credit. The young programmer helped developed them.

He committed suicide Friday at the young age of 26. Via Wired:

When he was a 14 years old, Aaron helped develop the RSS standard; he went on to found Infogami, which became part of Reddit. But more than anything Aaron was a coder with a conscience: a tireless and talented hacker who poured his energy into issues like network neutrality, copyright reform and information freedom.  Among countless causes, he worked with Larry Lessig at the launch of the Creative Commons, architected the Internet Archive’s free public catalog of books, OpenLibrary.org, and in 2010 founded Demand Progress, a non-profit group that helped drive successful grassroots opposition to SOPA last year.

“Aaron was steadfast in his dedication to building a better and open world,” writes Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle. “He is among the best spirits of the Internet generation. I am crushed by his loss, but will continue to be enlightened by his work and dedication.”

Swartz was a victim of bullying. Not from jocks of frat boys targeting a brilliant tech nerd for being too smart. Rather, he was being harassed by the government – the Department of Justice specifically – for his activism in trying to make academic journals and public court records freely available online:

JSTOR provides searchable, digitized copies of academic journals online. MIT had a subscription to the database, so Aaron brought a laptop onto MIT’s campus, plugged it into the student network and ran a script called keepgrabbing.py that aggressively — and at times disruptively — downloaded one article after another. When MIT tried to block the downloads, a cat-and-mouse game ensued, culminating in Swartz entering a networking closet on the campus, secretly wiring up an Acer laptop to the network, and leaving it there hidden under a box. A member of MIT’s tech staff discovered it, and Aaron was arrested by campus police when he returned to pick up the machine.

The JSTOR hack was not Aaron’s first experiment in liberating costly public documents. In 2008, the federal court system briefly allowed free access to its court records system, Pacer, which normally charged the public eight cents per page. The free access was only available from computers at 17 libraries across the country, so Aaron went to one of them and installed a small PERL script he had written that cycled sequentially through case numbers, requesting a new document from Pacer every three seconds, and uploading it to the cloud. Aaron pulled nearly 20 million pages of public court documents, which are now available for free on the Internet Archive.

Swartz did not profit from these activities whatsoever and JSTOR reportedly did not pursue any sort of justice for his intrusive but ultimately harmless hack. Nevertheless, federal prosecutors went after him, charging him with 13 federal counts. A trial was set for April. Alex Stamos was helping as an expert to prepare Swartz’s defense – Swartz faced the possibility of 35 years in prison – and details here the absurdity of the intensity of the DOJ’s efforts against the young man:

If I had taken the stand as planned and had been asked by the prosecutor whether Aaron’s actions were “wrong”, I would probably have replied that what Aaron did would better be described as “inconsiderate”. In the same way it is inconsiderate to write a check at the supermarket while a dozen people queue up behind you or to check out every book at the library needed for a History 101 paper.

In June, I wrote about efforts by activists to open access to government-funded academic research.  They filed a petition at the White House’s “We the People” site. It received more than 50,000 signatures, twice the threshold needed to get a response from the administration.

This past week, the White House responded to recent trollish petitions about seceding from the union, deporting Piers Morgan, and building a Death Star. Yet it still has not responded to the open access petition.

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Veronique de Rugy on Getting States off the Federal Dole

Reflexive calls for Washington to pick up the tab in the wake of Hurricane Sandy underscore one of the greatest shifts of power in American politics during the last four decades: the transition from state and local autonomy to federal subsidy and control. This centralization of government, writes Veronique de Rugy, was made possible largely by grants-in-aid, money provided by the federal government to state and local governments or private parties. They have become the third largest category in the federal budget, trailing only Social Security and national defense.

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Baylen Linnekin on Public Support for Food Freedom

A new poll finds Americans have little stomach “for policies that would constrain consumer choices...such as limits on the amount or type of food that can be purchased or taxes on unhealthy foods or drinks.” The national poll, released last week by the Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago, contains several “[s]ignificant findings” that bolster the case for letting individuals and families make their own food decisions free from government interference. Baylen Linnekin explains why these results are a welcome shot in the arm for supporters of the food freedom movement—and a shot across the bow of its opponents.

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After Newtown, Can We Never Use Gun Metaphors Again?

I happened to be watching CNBC's Closing Bell this afternoon which featured a segment in which various analysts were trying to explain the upbeat equities markets. One of the analysts was Michael Pento, of Pento Portfolio Strategies, who decried again the "Keynesian counterfeiters with their Kamikaze monetary and fiscal policies have taken over the developed world."

In any case, the discussion turned to how Congress and President Obama's administration could screw up the economy over the upcoming debt ceiling crisis, etc. To describe the situation, everyone on the panel was using the conventional metaphor of Congress and the Feds "shooting themselves in the foot." Toward the end, the irrepressible Mr. Pento, said something along the lines of (I've failed to find the video so far, I will try to link to it later):

Not only are Congress and the Feds shooting themselves in the foot, but by racking up trillions of dollars in debt, they're shooting our children in the head.

Insensitive lout that I am, I thought it was actually a pretty good metaphor for the point Pento was making. However, one of the CNBC presenters (not Maria Bartiromo, but another guy who's not the usual co-host) was evidently offended. When the camera switched back to him, he rather frostily asked Pento if he'd like to change the way he characterized public policy? Pento looked confused. Once the segment was over, the presenter made it clear that he thought that gun metaphors, especially those involving children, to describe disastrous fiscal policies were inappropriate.

No actual children were harmed by the metaphor, but Federal fiscal policy definitely will.

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New Scheme to Avoid Debt Ceiling: Gigantic IOUs! To Everybody!

As we approach the debt ceiling, suggests for workarounds are getting more creative—and more depressing. For those who can't quite stomach the trillion dollar platinum coin but prefer funny money to constitutional crisis, comes this suggestion from Edward Kleinbard, former chief counsel at the Joint Committee on Taxation and a law professor at USC: 

There is a plausible course of action, one that the president should publicly adopt in the coming weeks as his contingency plan should debt-ceiling negotiations falter. He should threaten to issue scrip — “registered warrants” — to existing claims holders (other than those who own actual government debt) in lieu of money. Recipients of these I.O.U.’s could include federal employees, defense contractors, Medicare service providers, Social Security recipients and others.

The scrip would not violate the debt ceiling because it wouldn’t constitute a new borrowing of money backed by the credit of the United States. It would merely be a formal acknowledgment of a pre-existing monetary claim against the United States that the Treasury was not currently able to pay. 

Sounds crazy and fiscally irresponsible? Well, California did it, so....it's probably crazy and fiscally irresponsible, even though it worked out OK for them once in 2009:

California addressed its budget crisis by issuing 450,000 registered warrants, totaling $2.6 billion, to individual and business claimants, including recipients of aid programs, recipients of tax refunds and government contractors. Those holders who needed immediate cash were usually able to sell their registered warrants to banks at face value, though some institutions limited such purchases.

Whether as a result of public shaming, pressure from banks or a newfound sense of responsibility, the Legislature quickly worked out a budget deal and the scrip was then redeemed for cash.

Throughout the ordeal, California continued to pay its public debt service in cash and on schedule and never lost an investment-grade credit rating.

As The Washington Post has noted, the scheme has some weak points:

It wasn’t exactly popular (one item on the State Controller’s FAQ on the program is “Who can I call to complain about this?”), and big banks such as Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Citigroup stopped accepting deposits of the warrants after a couple of weeks, but credit unions accepted them throughout, and the program kept the state in business for two months.

And unlike California, the feds probably couldn't pay interest in those IOUs, which might result in more significant unrest.

But hey, anything to avoid actually cutting spending and reforming entitlements, I guess!

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National Climate Assessment: It's Getting Hot Around Here!

Hot on the heels (so to speak) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's declaration a couple of days ago that 2012 was the hottest year on record in the lower 48 states, the U.S. Global Change Research Program released earlier today the draft version of its National Climate Assessment [downloadable] report. From the executive summary:

Climate change is already affecting the American people. Certain types of weather events have become more frequent and/or intense, including heat waves, heavy downpours, and, in some regions, floods and droughts. Sea level is rising, oceans are becoming more acidic, and glaciers and arctic sea ice are melting. These changes are part of the pattern of global climate change, which is primarily driven by human activity.

Many impacts associated with these changes are important to Americans’ health and livelihoods and the ecosystems that sustain us. These impacts are the subject of this report. The impacts are often most significant for communities that already face economic or health-related challenges, and for species and habitats that are already facing other pressures. While some changes will bring potential benefits, such as longer growing seasons, many will be disruptive to society because our institutions and infrastructure have been designed for the relatively stable climate of the past, not the changing one of the present and future. Similarly, the natural ecosystems that sustain us will be challenged by changing conditions. Using scientific information to prepare for these changes in advance provides economic opportunities, and proactively managing the risks will reduce costs over time.

Evidence for climate change abounds, from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans. This evidence has been compiled by scientists and engineers from around the world, using  satellites, weather balloons, thermometers, buoys, and other observing systems. The sum total of this evidence tells an unambiguous story: the planet is warming.

U.S. average temperature has increased by about 1.5°F since 1895; more than 80% of this increase has occurred since 1980. The most recent decade was the nation’s hottest on record. Though most regions of the U.S. are experiencing warming, the changes in temperature are not uniform. In general, temperatures are rising more quickly at higher latitudes, but there is considerable observed variability across the regions of the U.S.

U.S. temperatures will continue to rise, with the next few decades projected to see another 2°F to 4°F of warming in most areas. The amount of warming by the end of the century is projected to correspond closely to the cumulative global emissions of greenhouse gases up to that time: roughly 3°F to 5°F under a lower emissions scenario involving substantial reductions in emissions after 2050 (referred to as the “B1 scenario”), and 5°F to 10°F for a higher emissions scenario assuming continued increases in emissions (referred to as the “A2 scenario”) (Ch. 2)

The policy relevant line from the report is:

Large reductions in global emissions, similar to the lower emissions scenario (B1) analyzed in this assessment, would be necessary to avoid some of the worst impacts and risks of climate change.

I suspect that President Barack Obama will break his silence over climate change policy in his upcoming second inaugural speech. For the record, it is still my judgement that the balance of scientific evidence indicates that man-made global warming is real and is a problem. The question remains: Is What Governments Are Likely to Do About It Worse than Global Warming?

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Peter Schiff on Unacknowledged Inflation


Here's a video from investment guru and author Peter Schiff which argues that the federal government chronically undercounts inflation.

It's an interesting piece, whether you agree with Schiff that consumer prices are obviously rising faster than official inflation rates calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (just going to the BLS' website is enough to convince you they have no idea of what they're doing). The rate for November 2012 came in under 2 percent and Ben Bernanke has pledged to keep money loose as a goose as long as the inflation rates stays below 2.5 percent or so.

Schiff starts out by granting that all the money that has been pumped into the system via fiscal and monetary stimulus should have resulted in inflation. Indeed, stimulatarians such as Paul Krugman argue that the lack of inflation in official numbers proves that the economy needs even more money pumped into it. Schiff says that the Consumer Price Index is created in such a way that it's missing rising prices.

Like I said, whether you agree with him about that main point, you'll find a lot of interesting stuff above.

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Not Wearing a Condom in a Porno is a Free Speech Issue, Vivid Entertainment Argues in Lawsuit

This November, voters in Los Angeles approved a referendum, backed by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, requiring actors in porn films shot in the county to wear condoms. The measure passed with 55.9 percent of the vote. That law is now being challenged by Vivid Entertainment, a porn company, which argues that the ban is a violation of the right to free speech and expression.

More from the AP:

The suit, filed Thursday in federal court, also contends that the law is vague, burdensome and ineffective and is pre-empted by California laws and regulations. It asks the court to block the measure's enforcement and to rule it unconstitutional…

Adult film actors rallied to oppose the law before its November passage.

"The idea of allowing a government employee to come and examine our genitalia while we're on set is atrocious," sex film star Amber Lynn told the Los Angeles Daily News at the time.

Industry critics also said that fans don't want to see actors using condoms. They contend that if the law is enforced, the 200 or so companies that now produce adult films in Los Angeles, primarily in the San Fernando Valley, will simply move elsewhere, taking with them as many as 10,000 jobs.

Oh California.

Reason TV previewed the LA referendum in October:

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White House Still Wants Assault Weapon Ban, Camden Pays for Police Corruption, ICE Raids Immigration Activist: P.M. Links

  • White House officials confirm the administration is still committed to pushing for an “assault weapons” ban beyond any discussion of universal background checks.
  • The City of Camden, N.J., will pay $3.5 million to 88 people whose convictions were overturned due to widespread police corruption. Five officers face accusations of planting evidence and filing false reports. Their entire police force is being disbanded.
  • A young DREAM Act supporter and immigration activist and her family were raided by ICE. She and her brother are safe under President Barack Obama’s program for younger illegal immigrants. Her mother does not have the same protection.
  • Obama and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai are meeting today to discuss U.S. troop withdrawals. There had been discussion of the possibility of pulling all troops from Afghanistan, but at a press conference today, Obama said remaining troops would move to a support role.
  • Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to explore the possibility of privatizing Midway Airport.
  • Authorities in Georgia are looking for help investigating the shooting death of a gun enthusiast with one of the most popular video channels on YouTube.

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

Follow Reason 24/7 on Twitter: @reason247.

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

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Brian Doherty on Ron Paul's Legacy

Now that he is officially retired from Congress, Ron Paul has left behind a contest legacy. Through his Republican presidential runs in 2008 and 2012, he conjured a large and dedicated army of libertarian activists and politicos where one hadn’t existed before. Two thriving organizations, Campaign for Liberty and Young Americans for Liberty, arose from those campaigns and survive his congressional career.

But can lasting change within our sclerotic political system arise from a movement as insurrectionist and outside the mainstream as Paul’s? And will he have any heirs to keep the movement alive? A vote total of 2.1 million is an impressive number, to be sure, writes Senior Editor Brian Doherty, especially for such a harsh critic of empire, drug wars, and fiat money. But it still represents a decidedly losing portion of what was, nationally in 2012, a losing party. Will Paul’s radical ideas stick around now that he’s gone from Capitol Hill?

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Patrick Kennedy's Anti-Pot Group Pushes "Mandatory Marijuana-Education Program" for Recreational Users

Project SAM, the anti-marijuana legalization group started by former Obama administration advisor Kevin Sabet and chaired by former Congressman Patrick Kennedy (D-Rhode Island), has unveiled its website and policy goals.

Topping the list is the recommendation "[t]hat possession or use of a small amount of marijuana be a civil offense subject to a mandatory health screening and marijuana-education program. Referrals to treatment and/or social-support services should be made if needed. The individual could even be monitored for 6-12 months in a probation program designed to prevent further drug use." 

Kennedy announced his involvement with Project SAM, which stands for "smart approaches to marijuana," earlier this month. Sabet is on the organization's board, and president of the group's umbrella organization, the drug policy consulting firm Policy Solutions Lab. Newsweek/Daily Beast columnist David Frum is also on Project SAM's board.

While the group's existence has been public for less than a week, the Marijuana Policy Project has already called for Kennedy to resign. 

"Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy is the chairman of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), a new national organization that wants to force marijuana consumers into treatment and subject them to mandatory health screenings and 'marijuana education' camps," reads a petition from the Marijuana Policy Project

You can read rest of Project SAM's policy positions after the jump. 

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Reason TV: The Problem with Hurricane Sandy Aid

"The Problem with Hurricane Sandy Aid" is the latest from Reason TV. 

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

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Obama, Karzai Discuss Afghanistan Drawdown at White House Press Conference

President Barack Obama and his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, met at the White House today as plans emerged for a possible complete withdrawal of U.S. troops at the 2014 deadline. The meeting came with an announcement that a drawdown of U.S. troops would actually begin this spring, with U.S. forces moving into a “support role.”

“What that translates into precisely… is something that isn’t yet fully determined,” the president said in response to a question about how fast the drawdown would be or how many troops might remain after 2014. Obama did say that what comes after 2014 ”is a very limited mission [training and assisting Afghan forces and hunting down remnants of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates] and it is not one that would require the same kind of footprint, obviously, that we’ve had in Afghanistan over the past ten years.”

For his part, Karzai told reporters it wasn’t for Afghanistan to decide those specifics. “It’s an issue for the United States,” he said. “Numbers are not going to make a difference to the situation in Afghanistan. It’s the broader relationship that will make a difference to Afghanistan and beyond in the region.”

The major sticking point appeared to be immunity for U.S. troops, which Obama noted is something U.S. troops enjoy everywhere they’re stationed. Apparently, if immunity is granted, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is envisioned, at least by Karzai, to be like the U.S. presence in Germany or Turkey.

Despite the talking today, the U.S. and Afghanistan have already entered a broad agreement keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan for a decade past 2014. As recently as two months ago, one Marine General told Congress troops would certainly have to stay past 2014 to present a “clear and compelling narrative of commitment” in Afghanistan. It appears administration officials would like to keep 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan past 2014.

The president sidestepped a question about whether the war in Afghanistan was worth the cost in blood and treasure, talking instead about why the U.S. went to war and how the U.S. was able to "decapitate" Al-Qaeda, while Karzai doubled down on his assertion that corruption in his country is largely due to foreign influence.

Of note, while the Afghan president discussed how he would have to sell the idea of immunity and U.S. presence in Afghanistan to the Afghan people, there was no mention of the American people’s, or even Congress’, say on the future role of the U.S. in Afghanistan. 

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France Begins Intervention in Mali

Yesterday Malian President Dioncounda Traoré asked the French to help halt the advance of Al Qaeda-linked militants who have taken over the north of Mali. Since requesting French assistance the Malian army has been pushed back from at least one engagement by the militants, who are moving south. French President François Hollande said that he was prepared to assist, but only within a U.N. framework. The U.N. Security Council called for a “swift deployment” of troops to the region. 

The deployment was swift. Only a matter of hours after the U.N. Security Council called for troops to be deployed it was reported that French troops (whose status remains unclear) are in Mali and that planes from the French air force are assisting Malian forces.

Hollande justified the quickly developing intervention, saying that it was allowed under international law and had been agreed to with Traoré.

It is too early to tell how effective French support will be in halting the militants’ advance south. Part of the difficulty will be identifying the enemy. An article appearing in The Guardian featured a statement from a local journalist that summarized some of the potential difficulties:

On Thursday rebels captured the town of Konna, less than 40 miles from the strategic city and army base of Mopti. The situation in Konna is described as complicated, with army personnel still in the town but rebels now in control.

"There are Islamists controlling Konna, but they are integrated into the population, it is very difficult for the army to fight them," said Boubakar Hamadoun, editor of the Bamako-based newspaper Mali Demain, who has reporters based in the north. "It is a very complicated situation."

Perhaps more worrying that the nature of the conflict is that Hollande has not set a deadline for the intervention, saying that, “This operation will last as long as is necessary."

The French government is intervening in Mali because there is concern that Mali could become an Al Qaeda stronghold from which terrorist attacks on Europe could be launched. However, as at least one French official has pointed out, the intervention could lead to terrorist attacks on French soil.

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4 Questions About 'Universal Background Checks' for Gun Purchases

As J.D. Tuccille noted this morning, "universal background checks" are emerging as a leading contender for the something that must be done by Congress in response to last month's massacre at Sandy Hook Elemenetary School. "There's a natural gravity that happens toward the ['assault weapon'] ban in the wake of tragedies," Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, tells The New York Times. “But it's very important to point out that background checks could have an even bigger impact."

Although the impulse to demand a ban on "assault weapons" after a mass shooting does resemble a reflex, in the sense that it is automatic and entails no thought, I would not call it "natural." It is a conditioned response instilled by people like Gross, who continue to peddle the lie that there is something uniquely dangerous about the guns included in this arbitrarily defined category. But I will agree with Gross on this point: Since reinstating the federal ban on "assault weapons" will have zero effect on the frequency of mass shootings or the number of people killed in them, expanding the background check requirement could be almost totally ineffective and still have a bigger impact.

That does not mean it is a good idea, however. Here are some questions to keep in mind if, as the Times predicts, "universal background checks" get a warmer reception from Congress than Dianne Feinstein's latest hodgepodge of "military characteristics":

1. How universal? After the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, Colorado voters approved a ballot measure that requires everyone who buys firearms at a gun show to undergo a federal background check. If the seller is not a licensed gun dealer, he has to get someone who is to run the check. According to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, five other states (California, Illinois, New York, Oregon, and Rhode Island) have similar rules, while an additional three states (Connecticut, Maryland, and Pennsylvania) require background checks at gun shows only for handguns. (There are also seven states—Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Nebraska—that require handgun buyers to obtain permits, a process that involves a background check.) Now Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper wants to go further, requiring background checks for private sales that do nor occur at gun shows, which are said to account for 40 percent of gun purchases in his state. That policy seems tantamount to banning private sales, since a licensed dealer with access to the National Instant Check System would have to be involved in every transaction. And if Hickenlooper is serious about making the requirement universal, simply giving your guns to someone—a father passing his hunting rifle to his son, for instance—also would have to be criminalized.

2. How would the requirement be enforced? The Washington Post reports that the gun control task force headed by Vice President Joe Biden, which is expected to make its recommendations next week, "is seriously considering measures backed by key law enforcement leaders that would require universal background checks for firearm buyers [and] track the movement and sale of weapons through a national database." To make the background check requirement stick, you have to know where the guns are at any given time and when they change hands. So now we are talking about a national registry of gun owners, enabling the federal government to make sure everyone who obtains a firearm is allowed to have one. If he's not, presumably he can expect a not-so-friendly visit from federal agents, who might merely confiscate the gun but could also arrest him for violating the Gun Control Act of 1968, which is punishable by up to five years in prison. The Times reports that "some [Obama administration] officials would like to expand mandatory minimum sentences for gun law violations."

3. Do we want better enforcement? As I noted last month, the categories of people prohibited by federal law from buying or owning guns are absurdly broad, including the 40 million or so Americans (probably considerably more) who qualify as "unlawful user[s] of...any controlled substance" and anyone who has been convicted of a felony, whether or not it involved violence or even a victim. Universal background checks, combined with the improved data collection that also is widely perceived as an eminently sensible response to mass shootings, would unjustly strip millions of people of their Second Amendment rights and subject them to criminal penalties for actions that harm no one.

4. How is this supposed to prevent mass murder? Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox, an expert on mass shootings, notes that "most mass murderers do not have criminal records or a history of psychiatric hospitalization," so "they would not be disqualified from purchasing their weapons legally." And if they were, he adds, "mass killers could always find an alternative way of securing the needed weaponry, even if they had to steal from family members or friends."  

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D.C. Elites Are Worried About Marijuana Smoking Etiquette, Not So Much About the Drug War

"At a time when smoking marijuana is increasingly mainstream, legal and socially acceptable, when and where to inhale is a question flummoxing regular smokers, part-time partakers and nonsmokers alike," writes Kyle Spencer in the Washington Post.

In many parts of the country, marijuana users are flummoxed about how to explain their arrest records to current and future employers, how to regain custody of their children from the state, how to make all their drug court appearances, how to pay mandatory substance abuse counseling fees, and how to get their seized vehicles returned so that they can go to work and drug court and mandatory substance abuse counseling. 

In D.C., marijuana users are worried about etiquette: 

A new challenge is figuring out how we’re all supposed to navigate dinners, cocktail parties, barbecues and cross-generational family get-togethers as more people liken puffing on a joint to sipping a glass of wine, while others still consider it a malodorous habit that’s best done not at all, or at least far from our house.

Here in D.C., it is far from a partisan debate, something that both Republicans and Democrats struggle with. “It’s a cross-party issue,” said a 27-year-old aide to a GOP congressman who, like many interviewed for this story, preferred not to give her name, further highlighting people’s discomfort with this subject. She says she smokes often at home, but does so without telling her ultraconservative, 50-something boss, her co-workers, or even many of her friends. “It’s really hard to know how people stand on it.”

If you've ever wondered why Washington, D.C. is so languorous about confronting our failed war on drugs, it's because there is no war on drugs in Washington, D.C. Not if you're white, that is. At every party I've been to since moving to D.C.--so many parties, dear reader!--pot was present. The party G. Gordon Liddy's producer threw in Northern Virginia? People smoked pot there. The house-warming party hosted by an active duty air force officer? People smoked pot there, too. I've seen an Obama speechwriter smoke pot, and a McCain advisor smoke pot, and I even smoked pot with a congressional staffer whose boss was working on anti-marijuana legislation. (All of us are going to hell.) 

That's not to say D.C. is Haight-Ashbury. White elites can, if they're obnoxiously indiscreet, catch some heat. But even the heat is different. CBS reporter Howard Arenstein and his wife learned that in 2010 when a Georgetown neighbor called the cops to report the 11 massive, stinky marijuana plants growing in Arenstein's backyard. In many states, 11 plants would be more than enough for jail time. In D.C., the arresting officer didn't bother to show up to Arenstein's hearing, so his charges were dropped

Is it any wonder that pot-smoking elites in D.C. worry more about party fouls than the externatlities of the drug war? As far as these people concerned, there is no drug war. 

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Jerry Brown: California’s Recovering, So Let’s Spend, Spend, Spend!

Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown released his proposed budget for 2013-14 Thursday, increasing education spending while having an extremely optimistic outlook of California’s economic future.

What’s getting most attention (because the increased spending and rosy outlook were already gimmes in the reporting of the state’s economy), is Brown’s declaration that the state’s budget deficit – estimated at well over $20 billion just last summer – was all but gone.

Not getting as much reporting (in favor of pretending the state has faced deep-to-the-bone cuts) is that the state’s deficit is being turned into debt.  To be fair to Brown, though, he’s not ignoring it in his budget summary (pdf):

The state’s budget challenges have been exacerbated by the Wall of Debt—an unprecedented level of debts, deferrals, and budgetary obligations accumulated over the prior decade. In 2013‑14 alone, the state will dedicate $4.2 billion to repay this budgetary borrowing—paying for the expenses of the past, instead of meeting current needs. Moving forward, continuing to pay down the Wall of Debt is key to increasing the state’s fiscal capacity. In 2011, the level of outstanding budgetary borrowing totaled $35 billion.

Brown is also aware in the report that California’s upcoming recovery is based mostly on projections that may turn out to be a bit too optimistic. California is also participating in the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, and rising health care costs are noted as a potential budget buster. The budget adds $1.2 billion to state Health and Human Services agencies. Even California is waking up to the possibility that the Affordable Care Act might not actually make care more affordable.

While Brown may give good lip service to the state “living within its means” in speeches and in his summary, the high-speed rail plan still lives. The funding for the initial segment in the Central Valley has already been budgeted and is expected to begin construction later this year. Brown has proposed in the past using the money the state was hoping to get from its upcoming cap-and-trade auctions to possibly help fund the train’s $68 billion price tag. He is still proposing using cap-and-trade revenues in his latest summary to help fund the train. And that’s a problem, because the first auctions in November brought in a grand total of $55 million to the state. The state was expecting to rake in $1 billion in its first auction. $55 million won’t even get the union workers who will be guaranteed all the jobs building the train out of their beds.

Calling for fiscal responsibility while pushing this boondoggle is the equivalent of President Barack Obama insisting the federal government has more important problems than marijuana users while the Drug Enforcement Agency continues raiding legally operating pot dispensaries. If the economy doesn’t improve as projected, California is hosed. If the economy does improve, Californians can enjoy watching their revenue get thrown away at absurd, ego-driven, crony-enriching public projects.

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Slate Magazine Misses the True Cause for Declining Global Fertility: Liberty

As my colleagues at Reason 24/7 noted yesterday, Slate is running an article, "About That Overpopulation Problem," the subhed of which notes, "Research suggests we may actually face a declining world population in the coming years."Perhaps it's a bit churlish of me, but I can't help but observe that it's about time that the folks over at Slate caught up with the data.

The article cites projections from Austria's International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis that suggest that the global population will top out at 9 billion some time around 2070 and then begin declining. In fact, Slate notes, if fertility rates subsequently hover around the European average of 1.5 children per woman, world population will be cut in half by 2200 and drop to about 1 billion in 2300.

So why are fertility rates declining? Slate argues:

The reason for the implacability of demographic transition can be expressed in one word: education. One of the first things that countries do when they start to develop is educate their young people, including girls. That dramatically improves the size and quality of the workforce. But it also introduces an opportunity cost for having babies. “Women with more schooling tend to have fewer children,” says William Butz, a senior research scholar at IIASA.

Well, yes. But Slate's answer begs a prior question: What causes countries to develop? Short answer: Liberty and the rule of law. In my 2009 column, "The Invisible Hand of Population Control" I reported:

Let's take a look at two intriguing lists. The first is a list of countries ranked on the 2009 Index of Economic Freedom issued by the Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal. Then compare the economic freedom index rankings with a list of countries ranked by their total fertility rates. Of the 30 countries that are ranked as being free or mostly free, only three have fertility rates above 2.1, e.g., New Zealand at 2.11, the Bahamas at 2.13, and Bahrain at 2.53. If one adds the next 53 countries that are ranked as moderately free, one finds that only 8 out of 83 countries have fertility rates above 3. It should be noted that low fertility rates can also be found in more repressive countries as well, e.g., China at 1.77, Cuba at 1.6, Iran at 1.71, and Russia at 1.4.

In 2002, Seth Norton, a business economics professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, published a remarkably interesting study on the inverse relationship between prosperity and fertility. Norton compared fertility rates of over 100 countries with their index rankings for economic freedom and another index for the rule of law. "Fertility rate is highest for those countries that have little economic freedom and little respect for the rule of law," wrote Norton. "The relationship is a powerful one. Fertility rates are more than twice as high in countries with low levels of economic freedom and the rule of law compared to countries with high levels of those measures."

Norton found that the fertility rate in countries that ranked low on economic freedom averaged 4.27 children per woman while countries with high economic freedom rankings had an average fertility rate of 1.82 children per woman. His results for the rule of law were similar; fertility rates in countries with low respect for the rule of law averaged 4.16 whereas countries with high respect for the rule of law had fertility rates averaging 1.55. 

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Steven Greenhut on Why Hiring More Cops Is Not the Answer

As California’s toughest cities struggle with violent crime, we are hearing a familiar refrain: “Hire more police officers.” While more cops may be the right answer in some places, writes Steven Greenhut, public officials need to consider a wider array of crime-fighting options and examine ways to stretch their existing budgets. Considering the recent wave of police abuse cases, what California really needs is a more accountable and professional police force and not just more officers toting expensive gadgets.

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ObamaCare To Result In Higher Premiums for Young People Too

As we get closer to the scheduled implementation of ObamaCare's major coverage provisions, we're seeing even more evidence of what many of the law's critics warned: Many individuals will see their health insurance premiums rise in the wake of the law.

We've already seen big premium hikes in a handful states. Now a study from the consulting firm Oliver Wyman projects that the law's insurance restrictions will raise health insurance prices for young people.

The study estimates that people in their 20s could see hikes in the range of 42 percent. Those in their 30s could see premium hikes of about 31 percent. That's because the law restricts how much insurers can restrict premiums based on an individual's age; insurers can charge older individuals no more than three times what they charge the young. Which means that younger individuals will have to balance out the greater costs of older beneficiaries; it essentially forces the young to subsidize health insurance coverage for the old.  

The insurance industry is warning that this could cause breakdown in the health insurance market, at least for the first few years. Via The Hill:

The lead advocacy group for U.S. health plans recently petitioned the Health and Human Services (HHS) Department to delay its implementation of the 3:1 rule.

"Higher rates for the younger population combined with low mandate penalties during the first years of the ACA implementation will result in adverse selection because younger individuals are likely to choose not to purchase coverage," America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) wrote in comments to HHS.

"When these younger individuals do not enroll, destabilization of the individual market will occur, premiums will increase in the individual market for enrollees of all ages, and enrollment will decline."

This sort of effect, often referred to as an insurance death spiral, would not be entirely unprecedented. Prior to ObamaCare's passage, several states enacted similar restrictions on how insurers could structure their charges. The result? Individual insurance market meltdowns in which higher premiums led people to drop coverage, leading to even higher premiums, and so on until the individual markets basically ceased to exist. ObamaCare may not lead to effects quite that drastic. But it seems more than clear that higher premiums and insurance market instability are on the way. 

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Thaddeus Russell on Howard Zinn, the Last Leftist

There was once a radical left in the United States. Back then, it was common to hear on college campuses and in respectable left-wing publications that liberals and the Democratic Party were the enemies of freedom, justice, and the people. There was widespread left-wing rejection of the liberal claim that government was good, and many leftists spoke of and stood for a thing they called liberty.

There was no better exemplar of that thoroughgoing, anti-statist left than Howard Zinn, the author of A People’s History of the United States, writes Thaddeus Russell.

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Joe Biden's Political Posturing on Gun Background Checks and Magazine Bans

We'll have to wait until Tuesday to see the details of Vice President Joe Biden's 2016 presidential campaign platform gun control recommendations, but already we know that it's likely be heavy on pandering to the gun-averse political base, and light on anything that might leave the administration dangling in the breeze when it comes to the hard business of enforcement. (You'll note that I didn't say "effective" because, when it comes to reducing crime or violence, restrictions on firearms ownership offer little hope of being "effective.") Biden is steering well clear of anything on which compliance or the lack thereof could be easily measured, such as a ban on existing semi-automatic rifles, and jauntily touting an ethereal "emerging consensus" on "universal background checks" for gun sales, even between private parties, and a ban on the sale of new high-capacity magazines. Passing such restrictions will likely require a battle in Congress, but whether such proposals win or lose, the administration will stroke those supporters who fret over metal objects that make loud noises — and then walk away from the laws they've passed without worrying overly much about having accomplished nothing.

First, huge numbers of high-capacity magazines are already in circulation. Under the last ban, the price went up, but they were still available, and more have been made and sold since. Even if sales of existing magazines are forbidden, they'll still exist, and change hands quietly. That is, aside from the ones that people are already manufacturing on hobbyist 3D printers or in metal shops. Getting existing magazines out of circulation is a non-starter, since nobody knows where they are and most owners are unlikely to surrender them when keeping the things is essentially a risk-free enterprise.

Which is the same problem faced by the "universal background checks" Biden insists are part of the emerging consensus he perceives among the people who already agree with him. The background check brainstorm is a bone thrown to people who heard somewhere about a "gun show loophole" — not realizing that most private owners can sell free of paperwork requirements anywhere, in the majority of states, while commercial dealers have to do background checks, even at gun shows. Americans own an estimated 270 million firearms (PDF), most of them unregistered. Even records in those few states that require some sort of registration are compromised by the fact that owners move out of state, or in-state from elsewhere, and the lists become inaccurate and unreliable over time. A gun owner in New Jersey, for instance, where multiple levels of paperwork are maintained, could move to bureaucracy-free Arizona, then move back to Trenton (for reasons I could never fathom) and plausibly deny still owning any of the guns the state of New Jersey meticulously recorded.

Since the vast majority of firearms exist in private hands with the same status as chainsaws or propane torches — that is, untraceable after the point of sale — a "universal background check" law would be nothing more than a pretty-please request by politicians to expend time, effort and (probably) money running a purchase through a bureaucracy when it could more easily be settled cash-and-carry over a kitchen table. Sure, some people will comply, but that will be a voluntary matter.

But the impotence of a magazine ban and the vast non-compliance a background check law will face will be relatively quiet matters, while the passage of such laws will be like so many Ol' Roy treats tossed to the do-something-now crowd who won't know the difference.

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Army Corps Bulldozes 40 Acres of Prime L.A. Wetlands Because of Bums and Gay Sex

The Sepulveda Dam Basin, the San Fernando Valley oasis where the Los Angeles River gathers for its brief sprint into the Pacific, is one of the great green spaces within the suburban grid of Southern California. Or, I should say, was.

From the LA Weekly comes a story that beggars belief: Just before Christmas, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, without really consulting anybody, bulldozed more than 40 acres of the "prime wildlife and vegetative habitat," partly for reasons of social cleansing:

Corps officials insisted the federal flood-control agency had no choice, in part because cruising gay men and homeless campers had flocked there and endangered the public.

Local law enforcement on the bums-and-gay-sex beat have no idea what the Corps is talking about:

That rationale is news to West Valley Division Los Angeles Police Department Lt. Anne-Marie Fuller, who for six months has overseen vice patrols in Sepulveda Basin in Encino. Fuller tells L.A. Weekly she's unaware of homeless or lewd-behavior problems beyond those commonly seen in parks and woods patrolled by LAPD. "It sounds kind of strange," Fuller says, adding she'd "never heard anything" about a mounting threat to public safety. [...]

Meanwhile, Deputy City Attorney Raffy Astvasadoorian says he has prosecuted only seven minor cases there, for misdemeanor illegal camping, with most fines set at just $100. Corps spokesman Dave Palmer insisted to the Weekly that the complaints it got from law enforcement were "verbal," including from the LAPD and from the City Attorney's Office — but Astvasadoorian denies that city attorneys complained. [...]

A statement from Corps Operations Branch chief Tomas Beauchamp-Hernandez claims that the Corps received public-safety complaints from the city of L.A.'s obscure Office of Public Safety within the Department of General Services, which until Jan. 1 had law enforcement responsibility for the Sepulveda Dam Basin area.

See the Weekly's infuriating before-and-after photos here. As ever, there are few things more terrifying in Southern California than bureaucrats armed with bulldozers.

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A.M. Links: Leon Panetta Tells Afghanistan U.S. Has Their Back, EU Commissioner Says Keep Cutting Spending, HGH Testing Coming to Baseball Season

  • The NRA says some members of Joe Biden’s task force are more interested in demonizing he Second Amendment than protecting schoolchildren. Duh?
  • Leon Panetta tells Hamid Karzai the U.S. will stand by Afghanistan even as plans emerge for a potential massive withdrawal.
  • The government released wholly redacted summaries of foreign intelligence court decisions in response to a FOIA request by the Electronic Frontier Foundation over FISA.
  • President Obama has signed a law restoring lifetime Secret Service privileges for himself and George W. Bush. The law also covers former First Ladies and children of presidents until they turn 18.
  • A study finds male jurors are more likely to convict fat women, especially if the men are thin.
  • The EU’s economic and monetary affairs commissioner says governments on the continent must continue to cut spending after the IMF insisted the cuts are harmful to the economy.
  • Major League Baseball will be randomly testing for Human Growth Hormone this baseball season.

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Kurt Loder Reviews Gangster Squad

January slouches on with the release of Gangster Squad, a bloody revision of the old Warner Bros. crime films of the 1930s starring Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, and Josh Brolin. It’s a good-looking picture, reports Kurt Loder, and there’s plenty of smash-and-clamor—car chases, gun fights, and brutal smackdowns abound. But all of this set-piece razzamatazz can’t obscure the fact that there’s virtually no character development, and therefore no reason to care about any of the characters.

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Brickbat: Where the Boys Are

A Belgian court has ordered an Orthodox Jewish school for girls to admit the sons of Moshe Aryeh Friedman, a rabbi who took part in a conference that questioned the Holocaust. Jewish schools in Belgium have refused to admit Friedman's children.

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Tom Wolfe on 2012 Election: "I Wrote in Ron Paul"

Tom Wolfe, great journalist and novelist of American manners, chronicling at his best America's heroic pioneers of inner space (Electric Kool Aid Acid Test) and outer space (The Right Stuff) tells Reason Contributing Editor Michael Moynihan over at the Daily Beast who he voted for in 2012:

"The only times I have not voted with the American people--I don't know what that says about me--recently when I did a write in vote for first time in my life, I wrote in Ron Paul...who wasn't even running but i hoped that would start a kind of landslide..."

I wish it had, Mr. Wolfe.

See the video here.

My not particularly Wolfean book about Ron Paul, Ron Paul's Revolution.

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Biden Promises to Make Gun Control Recommendations by Tuesday

Vice President Joe Biden, the Obama administration's point man on gun control, says he will be ready to unveil his recommendations by Tuesday. Biden describes his task this way:

"There has got to be some common ground, to not solve every problem but diminish the probability” of other mass shootings, he said. "That's what this is all about. There are no conclusions I have reached."

That last part is hard to believe, especially since President Obama already has said he supports a new "assault weapon" ban, a limit on magazine capacity, and background checks for all gun transfers (not just those involving licensed dealers). But if the goal is to make mass shootings less likely, it is hard to see how any of those policies will accomplish it. A mass shooter is much more likely to use a semiautomatic handgun than an "assault weapon," which in any case is an arbitrary category defined by scary looks rather than killing capacity. Anti-gun activists are keen to obscure that reality, as in this letter to Walmart from what The New York Times describes as "a coalition of liberal organizations":

Assault weapons of all brands and models continue to adorn your shelves, from Sig Sauer M400s to Colt LE6920s. We know the horrific capacity of these weapons to wreak havoc on our communities because we have witnessed it firsthand. They have no place in our streets and in our homes, and we strongly insist that you honor your 2004 pledge to ensure they have no place in your stores either.

In what sense do the defining characteristics of "assault weapons," whether under the old, expired federal law or under the new, supposedly improved version that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) keeps threatening to introduce, make them uniquely capable of killing people? No one ever says, because there is no good answer. Perhaps Feinstein should modify her new definition of "assault weapon" so that it includes "capacity to wreak havoc" along with folding stocks and pistol grips. And if these guns "have no place in our streets and in our homes," why does Feinstein's bill let people keep them?

Limiting magazine capacity sounds like a more plausible approach, but only if you 1) assume that the seconds needed to switch magazines make an important difference in attacks on defenseless schoolchildren and moviegoers, and 2) wish away all of the millions of "high capacity" magazines already in circulation. And while a background check could conceivably prevent a would-be mass murderer from legally buying a gun, that is true only if he has a disqualifying criminal or psychiatric record, which is generally not the case. (The one arguable exception that springs to mind is the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, but the issue there was incomplete records, as opposed to a private transfer that did not involve a background check.) In the Sandy Hook massacre, the event that supposedly demonstrated once and for all the need to adopt the same policies that gun control advocates have been pushing for years, the shooter used his mother's guns, so a background check clearly would not have stopped him. Since Biden has defined the administration's goal as preventing future Sandy Hooks, his recommendations should be judged on that basis.

Will there be any surprises? Biden reportedly is considering a law that would confiscate guns from people who call them "babies." The bill could also cover other terms of endearment, such as sweetie, darling, and precious, although Biden has not reached any conclusions yet.

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Will Omar Abdel-Rahman, “the Blind Sheik,” Be Released From Prison?

Egypt’s president Mohammed Morsi made the release of Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind sheik convicted of “seditious conspiracy” related to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, a corner stone of his presidential campaign. Morsi called for Abdel-Rahman’s release in his first public address as president-elect, at Tahrir Square in June. Media reports came out in September that officials in the Obama Administration were considering the request. The State Department, of course, denied that.

Now that Morsi is planning a visit to the United States, he’s doubled down on his efforts to secure the release of Abdel-Rahman, saying he would urge Obama personally for the sheik’s release or, at the very least, for more “humane” treatment and visitation rights. The sheik’s American lawyer, Lynne Stewart, was actually convicted of providing material support to terrorism in 2005 for passing notes from Abdel-Rahman to Al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, the terrorist group in Egypt he was alleged to have led. That group has been pressing the Muslim Brotherhood to take a harder stance on the United States. From the Jamestown Foundation:

The GI [Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiya] is taking a hard stand on Egyptian-American relations, having urged Egyptian president Muhammad Mursi to cancel his September 23 visit to the United States to address the United Nations… GI spokesman Assem Abd al-Maged argued that Egypt did not need to worry about U.S. cuts in aid to Egypt as such cuts were “not in [the United States’] interest, as they know we are the superpower in the region”…

Though the Brothers may not be offering much in the way of political appointments, some veteran members of the GI are enjoying a bit of revisionary justice under the new regime. President Mursi pardoned 26 members of GI and its Islamic Jihad offshoot in July. Four members of GI who were sentenced to death in 1999 during Mubarak’s rule were released on September 5 pending a ruling in early November on their case. The four were among 43 Egyptians returned to Egypt through the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” program after being sentenced to death in absentia in the “Albanian Returnees” case of 1999 (Ahram Online, September 5; al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], September 7). The GI members had been charged with attempting to overthrow the government, killing civilians and targeting Christians and the tourism industry.

President Obama has so far been silent about the sheikh’s release.

Reason TV: 5 Facts About Guns, Schools, and Violence

As Vice President Joe Biden talks with NRA officials and gun-control advocates and prepares to make policy recommendations to the president as early as next week, Reason TV presents "5 Facts About Guns, Schools, and Violence: What Every Legislator Should Know."

Watch above or click below to go to a page with downloadable versions and full documentation of all claims.

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Judge Slaps Administration Over No-Fly Lists, Dumbed-Down Mortgage Market, Krauthammer Cautions Against Gun Confiscation: P.M. Links

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Scott Shackford on Evolving School Attendance Tactics

Government funding for schools is partly based on student attendance. Public school systems have for decades drastically increased their number of employees at percentages far, far above the actual growth in student attendance. The result, combined with America’s ailing economy and growing public employee retirement burdens, has led to significant pressure for schools to keep those students’ butts parked firmly behind their desks. And as Scott Shackford reports, this battle for student attendance has led to evolving tactics by schools. Some are notably authoritarian and controlling, but not all tactics are bad. Some methods of improving student attendance actually may help undo authoritarian public education policies. Here are four tactics public schools are using to keep attendance from falling.

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What Does 'Homeland Security' Mean? Don't Ask the Government.

Federal bureaucrats must believe Humpty Dumpty thought too small when he said a word "means just what I choose it to mean," since they've gone bigger with the phrase, "homeland security." At least, that's what the Congressional Research Service found when it went to assess just what the various and sundry government agencies that have been assigned, or taken upon themselves, the responsibility for defending and upholding just that mean when they throw the words around. The definition of "homeland security," it appears, is in the eye of the beholder.

The CRS author, Shawn Reese, is too diplomatic — and career-minded — to phrase it that way, of course. In the report, Defining Homeland Security: Analysis and Congressional Considerations (PDF), which has been made available by Secrecy News, he points to the causes of apparent mission creep in the booming homeland security sort-of industry:

The proliferation of responsibilities entitled “homeland security activities” is due to a couple of factors. One factor is that homeland security developed from the pre-9/11 concept of law enforcement and emergency management. Another factor is the continuously evolving definition of “homeland security.” Some degree of evolution of the homeland security concept is expected. Policymakers respond to events and crises like terrorist attacks and natural disasters by using and adjusting strategies, plans, and operations. These strategies, plans, and operations also evolve to reflect changing priorities. The definition of homeland security evolves in accordance with the evolution of these strategies, plans, and operations.

There is a downside to all of this continuing evolution, of course, specifically, "[v]aried homeland security definitions and missions may impede the development of a coherent national homeland security strategy, and may hamper the effectiveness of congressional oversight."

The CRS report goes on to point out that some agencies' definitions of "homeland security" encompass natural disasters, while others include borders and immigration, and maritime stuff gets stuck in there, too. Why such a mishmash of issues? Well, as the CRS suggests in a none-too-subtle hint, the various shoehorned topics all "call for substantial funding." The result, the report suggests, is that "[t]he competing and varied definitions in these documents may indicate that there is no succinct homeland security concept."

Confusion reigns amongst federal bureaucrats? You don't say!

The report's breakdown of various official "homeland security" definitions can be seen below.

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Cuomo Still Wants to Curtail Bogus Pot Busts

In addition to frivolous new gun restrictions, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo yesterday recommended legislation that would accomplish something worthwhile and long overdue, reining in police officers who defy state law by arresting pot smokers caught with small amounts of marijuana. "It's not fair," Cuomo said in his State of the State speech. "It's not right. It must end, and it must end now."

As Cuomo explained, the state legislature decriminalized possession of up to 25 grams in 1977, making it a violation punishable by a $100 fine. But possessing marijuana "in public view" remained a misdemeanor, punishable by up to three months in jail. Police in New York City routinely convert the former offense into the latter, justifying arrests by instructing people they stop to reveal any contraband they may be carrying or by removing it themselves in the course of a pat-down. Although New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly concedes this practice is illegal, court records and reports from defense attorneys show that it continues, which is why Cuomo last year endorsed abolishing the distinction between mere possession and public display. Yesterday Cuomo reiterated his support for that reform, which was blocked last year due to opposition by Republican legislators. 

Cuomo noted that arrests for public display of marijuana have skyrocketed during the last few decades:

In the first full year of enforcement of the separate "open view" marijuana law, there were 514 arrests for the crime. Today, police arrest 100 times more people for this offense, and these arrests comprise the single largest category of arrests in New York City, accounting for 15 percent of all NYC arrests and 20 percent of NYC misdemeanors.

A table included in Cuomo's prepared remarks shows the number of such arrests has increased especially rapidly since the mid-1990s, rising from 4,310 statewide in 1994 to 53,124 last year. New York City accounted for 94 percent of those pot busts in 2011. More than four-fifths of the arrestees were black or Hispanic, even though survey data indicate that whites are at least as likely to smoke pot. Last year 72 percent of the people arrested on this charge had no prior criminal record. And even though only about 10 percent of these cases end with a conviction, Cuomo noted, that doesn't mean they are no big deal:

Arrest has consequences that persist after release. There is the humiliation of arrest and, in some cases, detention during processing. More enduring is the stigma of the criminal records that can have lasting and deleterious effects on the young person’s future. A "drug" arrest can have a significant impact on a person’s life and key decisions made by employers, landlords, licensing boards and banks.

This situation clearly is not what the legislature had in mind back in 1977, when it declared:

Arrests, criminal prosecutions, and criminal penalties are inappropriate for people who possess small quantities of marihuana for personal use. Every year, this process needlessly scars thousands of lives and wastes millions of dollars in law enforcement resources, while detracting from the prosecution of serious crime.

Cuomo's proposal is to treat possession of up to 15 grams "in public view" the same as concealed possession of up to 25 grams. The lower limit looks like an attempt to allay the anxieties of drug warriors like Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican who last year warned that decriminalizing public display would allow people to "just walk around with 10 joints in each ear." If only Republicans were as eager to follow Cuomo's lead on this issue as they are to go along with his dubious gun control agenda

[I have corrected the time-warped reference to Cuomo's father.]

Reason Writers Around Town: California Can Be Reinvigorated

As Reason 24/7 notes, California Gov. Jerry Brown is predicting California will end next year with a budget surplus. Meanwhile over in the Orange County Register opinion section today, Reason Foundation's Carl DeMaio writes:

If you are worried about California's future, there's no shortage of disturbing statistics to keep you up at night. California's unemployment rate was 9.8 percent in November – and, with a host of new regulatory mandates added when the New Year began, our state is becoming even more unattractive for businesses.

California's three largest pension funds have promised $500 billion in retirement benefits that they don't have the money to pay for. California's cities have another $135 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, and a couple of municipalities have already filed for bankruptcy.

California also faces a $765 billion infrastructure deficit over 10 years. Worse, the current paradigm for selecting, financing, maintaining and managing infrastructure is dysfunctional and filled with inefficiency.

And while education costs consume more than half of the state budget, far too many children are trapped in poorly performing schools. California students lag behind national achievement averages in math, science and reading.

Without immediate action, expect state service cuts, along with closures of schools, parks and fire stations in many California cities. It's time for taxpayers and leaders to step forward: What do we want California to look like in 10 years – and how do we get there?

Full column here. DeMaio, the former San Diego city councilman, is inviting you to submit policy ideas for the "California Reform Agenda" he'll be working on with Reason Foundation. 

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Nick Gillespie Interviews Salman Khan: The Education Visionary

“There’s a lot more demand for people who want to just improve themselves than anyone would have guessed,” says Salman Khan, founder of the wildly popular free educational video series that bears his name and author of the new book The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined.

Reason.TV Editor in Chief Nick Gillespie sat down with Khan to discuss how American education can be radically transformed, why technology is so widely misused in K−12, and how massive amounts of taxpayer money never make it inside conventional public classrooms.

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Bill Richardson and Eric Schmidt’s Bogus Journey to North Korea

Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt and Bill Richardson, the former Democratic governor of New Mexico, returned from a four day trip to North Korea the U.S. State Department described as “ill advised.” Originally planned for December, it was postponed because of North Korea’s missile launch. For his part, while there this week, Richardson, who previously visited North Korea two years ago, called for a moratorium on missile launches. There trying to secure the release of American Kenneth Bae, Richardson was unable even to see Bae, though he says he got assurances from the North Koreans about the prisoner’s condition. Presumably they told Richardson Bae wasn’t being held in one of the country’s gulags, which have actually been mapped out by activists with the help of Google Earth.

Richardson also touted the “unilateral dialogue” between scientists in North Korea and the U.S. while Schmidt explained his view that because isolation from the Internet will lead to negative consequences in the real world economy, the government of North Korea actually had to “make it possible for people to use the Internet,” something he acknowledged they had “not yet done.” Given that North Korea hasn’t been able to make it possible for its people to eat enough, the hope its government can do something about internet access seems as fruitless as this trip, which Kim Jong Un is sure to use to appear as a high-tech leader.

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Environmentalist Praises the "Vital Wisdom" of Anti-Doomster Julian Simon

Environmentalist Mark Lynas has begun to understand that stifling human creativity and initiative is not the way to solve environmental problems. For all too many of Lynas' green brethern the real environmental problem is people, thus they favor top-down policies that aim to halt or control the activities that they dislike, e.g., population control, carbon rationing, banning biotech crops, etc. University of Maryland economist Julian Simon forcefully showed that environmentalist doomsaying was wrong and that green policies often produced far more harm than good. Simon's intellectual legacy continues to live on and to grow. For example, the work of Skeptical Environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg was inspired by Simon.

Last week, I blogged about Lynas' speech at Oxford University in which he admitted that he had been completely wrong to attack biotech crops. DotEarth blogger Andrew Revkin also took note of Lynas' admission of error and asked him about why he changed his mind. Reading some scientific research helped, but Lynas also cited the influence of Simon:

I only recently discovered the work of Julian Simon, who was Lomborg’s original inspiration, and I think it should be required reading for all enviro types – some vital wisdom there.

I met Simon many years ago when I was reporting for Forbes and we became friends. He once told me that he was astonished that I continued to report on environmental science and policy issues since the rise of reactionary environmentalism seemed so depressingly unstoppable. Sadly, Simon died at age 65 of a heart attack back in 1998. In his obituary of Simon, my colleague Brian Doherty noted:

"The main fuel to speed the world's progress," wrote Simon in the introduction to the 1995 collection The State of Humanity, "is our stock of knowledge; the brakes are our lack of imagination and unsound social regulations of these activities. The ultimate resource is people--especially skilled, spirited, and hopeful young people endowed with liberty--who will exert their wills and imaginations for their own benefit, and so inevitably they will benefit the rest of us as well."

The mass of data he accumulated told the story: It showed infant mortality falling, life expectancy rising, agricultural prices falling, arable land rising, the number of people fated to agricultural toil falling, air quality improving. There can and will be temporary and local bumps, but the long-term universal trends are positive.

In a world where doomsayers make bestsellers out of predictions of manmade horror that always proved untrue, this was a courageous and lonely stance. But Simon was not afraid to put his money where his mouth was. He made a famous bet with archdoomsayer Paul Ehrlich that a cohort of five natural resources of Ehrlich's choosing would be cheaper in inflation-adjusted terms at the end of the '80s than at the beginning. Simon won the bet. Ehrlich won the MacArthur "genius grant."

Lynas' intellectual evolution bolsters my hope and expectation that the influence Simon's "vital wisdom" continue to spread, while the false dark prophecies of the likes of Paul Ehrlich fade from human memory.

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Report: Two Wounded in Taft High School Shooting in Californa

Via KERO in Bakersfield, California comes early word of a shooting at Taft High School:

TAFT, Calif. - Officials have said that at least two people were shot at Taft High School.

The shooting happened at about 9 a.m., and reports indicate that at least two people were shot.

The shooter was taken into custody at about 9:20 a.m.

23ABC news received phone calls from people inside the school who were hiding in closets.

Kern County Sheriff's Department officials are going room-by-room to secure the school.

Reports indicate that the first person shot was airlifted to Kern Medical Center and the second person denied medical treatment.

More as it develops.

Follow the news at Reason's 24/7 News feed.

Related: 5 Facts about Guns, Schools, and Violence.

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Jack Lew: Architect of Fake Spending Cuts, Defender of Entitlements

Later today, President Obama is expected to nominate Jack Lew, the current White House chief of staff and former administration budget director, to run the Treasury Department. In that role, he’ll be the administration’s point person on issues relating to the budget and economy, and he’ll oversee a series of sure-to-be fractious showdowns with Republicans over debt and deficit issues. In the battle over the budget, Lew will be Obama’s top general.

The case for Lew’s nomination is based largely on his experience and closeness with the president: He’s spent much of his career managing highly charged budget negotiations, first as an aide to Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill in the early 1980s, and later as the Office of Management and Budget chief at the end of Bill Clinton’s second term. He’s a budget super wonk who is closely in sync with President Obama’s agenda. He’s also as close to a liberal hawk as you’re likely to get; Lew presided over the surpluses of the Clinton years, and argued at the time that fiscal discipline is necessary to achieve liberal policy goals. One softly suggested liberal criticism of Lew currently making the rounds is that he might actually be a bit too concerned about the deficit.

I don’t think they have much to worry about. Lew is a diehard, lifelong defender of the big-ticket entitlements that are the largest drivers of our long-term debt, a true believer in the goodness of government who agonizes over even the tiniest program cuts, and a budgetary sleight of hand artist who has helped the Obama administration sell fake spending cuts during the 2011 debt limit fight. 

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Cuomo Wants to Copy California's 'Assault Weapon' Ban and Limit Magazines to Seven Rounds

The New York Times reports that what Gov. Andrew Cuomo yesterday described as "the toughest assault weapons ban in the country" would copy California's definition of forbidden firearms. In addition to a list of specific models, California's law covers guns that meet certain criteria. Any one of these six features, for example, makes a rifle with a detachable magazine illegal in California (unless it was legally owned prior to June 1, 1989, in which case it has to be registered): 1) a flash suppressor, 2) a grenade launcher or flare launcher, 3) a thumbhole stock, 4) a folding or telescoping stock, 5) a forward pistol grip, or 6) a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon. If you are wondering why a mass murderer needs any of these features to kill schoolchildren or moviegoers, you have already put more thought into this issue than the average legislator.

Federal legislation sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)—which has not materialized yet, although she said she would introduce it on the first day of the current congressional session (i.e., last Thursday)—apparently takes a similar approach. According to her office's summary, Feinstein's bill will ban "the sale, transfer, importation, or manufacturing" of "120 specifically named firearms," along with "certain other semiautomatic rifles, handguns, [and] shotguns that can accept a detachable magazine and have one or more military characteristics." Under the federal "assault weapon" ban that expired in 2004 (which also was sponsored by Feinstein), those "military characteristics" for rifles were 1) a bayonet mount, 2) a grenade launcher, 3) a folding or telescoping stock, 4) a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon, or 5) a flash suppressor or threaded barrel designed to accommodate a flash suppressor. Feinstein wants to eliminate "the easy-to-remove bayonet mounts and flash suppressors from the characteristics test" and add "thumbhole stocks" while reducing the number of permissible characteristics from one to zero. Her bill also would apply to guns with "bullet buttons," which require the insertion of a bullet to remove the magazine so that the magazine does not technically qualify as detachable under existing laws.

According to a National Rifle Association analysis posted last month, Feinstein's list of forbidden features includes not only a pistol grip that "protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon," but "any other characteristic that can function as a grip," including a "forward grip," defined as "a grip located forward of the trigger that functions as a pistol grip." The NRA says that language has potentially sweeping implications:

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Illinois Punts on Pension Reform While Governor Flails Around Haplessly

Democratic Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn seems bound and determined to make us all retroactively impressed with what little public employee pension reform California Gov. Jerry Brown was able to push through in August.

Quinn had pretty much already hot-potatoed the state’s enormous ($100 billion and rising) unfunded state employee pension crisis to voters with a website and video begging them to call legislators to demand that they do something or other.

This week marked the end of the term for serving Illinois legislators and the transition to the new crop, which, like California, will result in a Democratic supermajority. Would Quinn manage to accomplish anything at all before the session ended? Not with leadership like this (via Tuesday’s Crain’s Chicago Business column by Greg Hinz):

As he has in the past, Mr. Quinn in comments to reporters stressed the importance to the state's economy of doing something to shore up pension funds that now collectively are nearly $100 billion short of the assets they'll need to pay promised benefits.

"The important thing is working for the public interest, the public good," Mr. Quinn said. "We have to have the goal of putting the state on sound financial footing right away. . . .We cannot allow our state economy to be held hostage by political timidity."

But asked directly what he is for, Mr. Quinn said only: "I'm for erasing the pension liability. I've laid out plan after plan . . . (and I'm for) anything that gets us there."

Republicans have charged that negotiations are stalled because, in part, the Democratic governor has not pushed for a specific vote on a specific bill.

Ultimately nothing happened. A modest reform plan to freeze cost-of-living increases and require employees to pay more into their own pensions failed, and the problem was punted to the next legislature.

Now it appears as though Quinn wants to formally wash his hands of the whole problem by creating a commission to deal with it.  As the Illinois Policy Institute notes, such a solution would delegate lawmaking and possibly tax increases to an unelected and unaccountable commission. Ah, that’s a solution Californians are quite familiar with as well.

More Spending Denialism From the Best and Brightest

Earlier this week I noted President Barack Obama's reported quote (as relayed by House Speaker John Boehner) that "we don't have a spending problem," and pointed out that even if the words weren't verbatim the sentiment is widespread on the left, from the likes of Steve Benen, Jonathan Chait, Kevin Drum, and Robert Reich.

Since then, other commentators have come out of the woodwork with variations on the spending-denialism theme. A quickie roundup:

Ezra Klein, Washington Post:

We don't have a spending problem, we have a military spending problem.

Jamelle Bouie, The American Prospect:

We don't have a spending problem. But we will have lots of old people in the future.

Michael Cohen, The Guardian:

For decades, Republicans and more than a few Democrats have peddled this nonsense in calling for the government to trim its fiscal profligacy. 

Let's see, $1.77 trillion in fiscal year 2000; $3.72 trillion in fiscal 2010. Nope, no spending problem there!

Less sarcastically, I will say this to my Democratic friends: When entitlements chew up an ever-larger piece of the pie (a bit more than one-third of federal outlays now; an estimated one-half by 2030), then it can sure feel like the government is spending less money. And yes, the bulk of that 2000-2010 run-up was done under Republican watch. Neither change the–what did that guy call it again?–the arithmetic of the bottom line.

We are spending a helluva lot more money now than a decade ago, and we will be spending a helluva lot more money than that a decade from now, while never coming close to paying the bill with current taxes. No wonder so many people would rather talk about trillion-dollar fantasy coins.

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U.S. Having "a serious national conversation about marijuana," White House Says As DEA Raids More Pot Dispensaries

The Obama administration responded Tuesday to three petitions calling for the legalization of marijuana. "Coming out of the recent election, it is clear that we're in the midst of a serious national conversation about marijuana," wrote Obama Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske.

"At President Obama's request," Kerlikowske went on to say, "the Justice Department is reviewing the legalization initiatives passed in Colorado and Washington, given differences between state and federal law. In the meantime, please see a recent interview with Barbara Walters in which President Obama addressed the legalization of marijuana." 

Reason covered Obama's interview with Walters, in which the president said, "It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it's legal."

"Leaving individual users alone does not suggest that Obama is any more enlightened, compassionate, tolerant, or rational than his predecessors," Jacob Sullum noted. "The question is how gung-ho the Obama administration will be in going after marijuana growers and distributors who are no longer subject to state penalties." 

If the actions of the Drug Enforcement Administration in California yesterday are any indicator, the answer is "as gung-ho as ever": 

LOS ANGELES, CA — DEA agents raided three Los Angeles medical marijuana dispensaries Wednesday afternoon, according to a preliminary report from Americans for Safe Access California director Don Duncan. More details were not forthcoming by press time.

According to Duncan, the DEA struck LA Wonderland on West Pico Boulevard, DTPG on South Hill St. near downtown, and the Iron Works in Venice.

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David Harsanyi on Winning a Government Shutdown

If Republicans do happen to force a shutdown in Washington, it's very possible they'll be embracing a political loser while doing the rest of us an immense favor.

With three Washington-manufactured fiscal apocalypses—sequestration, the debt ceiling and a new "budget"—on the docket, the idea of shutting down government to extract concessions from the iron trap sometimes known as the Obama administration has gained traction among Republicans. Or, says David Harsanyi, the idea of threatening to shut down Washington has.

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Moments After Utah Man's Wife Dies of Cancer, Cops Show Up to Confiscate Her Pain Pills

While preparing his recently deceased wife's body for transporation to a funeral home, an elderly man in Vernal, Utah says that city's police arrived at his house to confiscate Barbara Mahaffey's pain medications, which she had taken while dying of colon cancer. Eighty-year-old Ben Mahaffey is now suing Vernal. The Deseret News reports

Barbara Alice Mahaffey died of colon cancer in her bedroom last May. Ben D. Mahaffey, 80, said he was distraught and trying to make sure his wife's body would be taken to the funeral home with dignity, when he says officers insisted he help them look for the drugs.

"I was holding her hand saying goodbye when all the intrusion happened," he told the Deseret News.

Barbara Mahaffey died at 12:35 a.m. with Mahaffey, a Navy medic in the Korean War, and his friend, an EMT, at her side. In addition to police, a mortician and a hospice worker arrived at the home about 12:45 a.m., Mahaffey said. He said he doesn't know how police came to be there.

Mahaffey said he was treated as if he were going to sell the painkillers, which included OxyContin, oxycodone and morphine, on the street.

In his suit, Mahaffey alleges that Vernal City Manager Ken Bassett told Mahaffey he was being "'overly sensitive' and that police were just trying to protect the public from illegal use of prescription drugs." The suit also alleges that Bassett then told Mahaffey "his own parents had recently died and he wouldn't have cared had police searched their house for drugs." Vernal has yet to comment on the lawsuit. Mahaffey's lawyer says that the pseudo-raid on the elderly couple's home is "common practice for Vernal police when someone dies, but that it's selectively applied." 

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A Goddamned Great E-Book of Reason Interviews! Hayek, Hitchens, Leary, Reagan, Szasz

Check out Reason's first-ever ebook, which pulls together five great interviews from the magazine's first 45 years. Long-form, wide-ranging conversations with Tim Leary, FA Hayek, Ronald Reagan, Thomas Szasz, and Christopher Hitchens will delight, amaze, educate - and at times infuriate! - you.

I've written an intro to the collection as well, which puts the interviews in context (they were conducted between the 1970s and the '00s).

It's just $2.99 and the volume contains original artwork and covers from the relevant mags. Click below for more info and to purchase.

Kindle Edition

Apple Edition

Coming soon to Nook.

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Best Pic Oscar Nods for Django, Les Mis, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty...

Reason 24/7 notes that Stephen Speilberg's Lincoln has snagged a dozen nominations at this year's Oscars.

Here's a rundown of the top categories.

Best Picture:

Best Director: 

Best Actor:

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A.M. Links: Joe Biden Pretends To Make Nice With the NRA, Bradley Manning Trial Delayed, Cops Bust Students

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Brickbat: Suspicious Minds

Officials at Salt Lake City's Herriman High School canceled a student production of "All Shook Up," a musical featuring songs made famous by Elvis Presley, after someone complained it was too racy. But after media picked up the story, and the play's copyright owner agreed to allow them to make changes, the school said the students could perform the play, but only after removing a scene where a girl dresses like a boy and cutting some songs which they didn't immediately specify.

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Judge Napolitano on Gun Control and Natural Rights

The historical reality of the Second Amendment's protection of the right to keep and bear arms is not that it protects the right to shoot deer, says Judge Napolitano. It protects the right to shoot tyrants, and it protects the right to shoot at them effectively, thus, with the same instruments they would use upon us.

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Taxpayer Advocate Says Tax Code is “Unconscionable Burden,” Suggests Junking the AMT

If there's one word that appears over and over in National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson's 2012 Annual Report to Congress, it's "burden" and variations thereof. A quick search found 25 repetitions of "burden," "burdens" or "burdensome" just in the executive summary (PDF), not counting the table of contents (it's a long executive summary). Notably, she says in the chapter on the complexity of the tax code (PDF), "the existing tax code inflicts significant, even unconscionable, burden on taxpayers, and Congress could alleviate much of that burden by vastly simplifying the tax code."

Welcome to our world, Nina. But tell us, just how burdensome is the tax code?

An analysis of IRS data by the Office of the Taxpayer Advocate shows it takes U.S. taxpayers (both individuals and businesses) more than 6.1 billion hours to complete filings required by a tax code that contains almost four million words and that, on average, has more than one new provision added to it daily. Indeed, few taxpayers complete their returns without assistance. Nearly 60 percent of taxpayers hire paid preparers and another 30 percent rely on commercial software to prepare their returns.

The report offers an interesting assessment of the Alternative Minimum Tax, too, that addendum to the tax code intended to make sure that everybody their fair share of the cost of running our oh-so-wonderful federal government.

The AMT was originally enacted to ensure that the wealthiest U.S. taxpayers pay at least some tax each year by adding back into income certain tax benefits known as “tax preferences.” Yet in 2008, 87 percent of all tax preferences that gave rise to AMT liabilities was attributable to the disallowance of personal exemptions and the deduction for state and local taxes. Only under the unique logic of the AMT are the acts of having a large family and living in a high-tax state viewed as a tax dodge.

The report calls for the AMT to be repealed.

Less praiseworthy is Olson and company's insistence that the Internal Revenue Service suffers "significant and persistent underfunding," and that its budget should be hiked and then separated from the rest of the federal budget to shield it from cuts. Given the IRS's history of enforcing stupid rules in incredibly abusive ways, the idea of giving the agency more resources with which to send its licensed muggers prowling the highways and byways seeking out victims sends a bit of a chill down the old spine.

Thanks for recognizing the "burdensome" complexity of the tax code and the utter foolishness of the rules enforced by the IRS, Nina. Under the circumstances, I hope you'll forgive us if we hesitate to sign on to your proposal to further empower tax collectors.

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James Buchanan: He "Uneducated" the Economists

The New York Times has a long and interesting obituary for Nobel-winning economist James M. Buchanan, whom Brian Doherty wrote about this morning.

Some snippets from the Times' send-off:

Over the years since Dr. Buchanan won the Nobel [in 1986], much of what he predicted has played out. Government is bigger than ever. Tax revenue has fallen far short of public programs’ needs. Public and private borrowing has become a way of life. Politicians still act in their own interests while espousing the public good, and national deficits have soared into the trillions.

Dr. Buchanan partly blamed Keynesian economics for what he considered a decline in America’s fiscal discipline. John Maynard Keynes argued that budget deficits were not only unavoidable but in fiscal emergencies were even desirable as a means to increase spending, create jobs and cut unemployment. But that reasoning allowed politicians to rationalize deficits under many circumstances and over long periods, Dr. Buchanan contended.

Boy, did he ever call that one. In explaining the essence of his life's work, Buchanan had this to say:

Dr. Buchanan said the prize highlighted his long struggle for a concept. “I have faced a sometimes lonely and mostly losing battle of ideas for some 30 years now in efforts to bring academic economists’ opinions into line with those of the man on the street,” he said. “My task has been to ‘uneducate’ the economists.”

Whole thing here.

I especially recommend folks interested in this titan of modern politicial economy to read Deirdre McCloskey's wonderful review of Buchanan's own great memoir, Better Than Plowing. McCloskey praises Buchanan for quoting Nietzche and for being "educated" rather than "smart." By which she means that Buchanan engaged the world in very real and visceral ways; like very few of his peers or students, he read widely too, in all sorts of fields. He worked hard at figuring out the world's secrets and tried and tried again when stuff didn't come naturally to him. He was like the Batman of great economists - he wasn't born with superpowers, he acquired his insights through hard work and dogged determination.

Buchanan was also a classic insider-outsider: He hailed from Tennessee, far outside the part of the country where people were taken seriously during his youth (he was born in 1919). He describes movingly his anger at being taken for a yokel because of his origins, his generally unpolished academic pedigree (a B.A. from Middle Tennesse State Teachers College and an M.A. from University of Tennessee before ending up at Chicago), and his faculty affiliation with what passed for sketchy places back in the day (Univ. of Virginia, Virginia Tech, and George Mason).

In Better than Plowing, he memorably recalls how during World War II, the military brought in an actual Rockefeller heir to run his training platoon, on the assumption that non-Ivy Leaguers were too stupid for the job. "From that day forward," he wrote, "I have shared in the emotional damage imposed by discrimination, in any form, and 'fairness' assumed for me a central normative position decades before I came to discuss principles of justice professionally and philosophically."

Like many people born in his time and place, he remembered true scarcity and the toll it took on people barely eking out a living - and how power differentials ultimately corrupted a newly flush public sector that wasn't going to be held in check by the dog-eat-dog competition at work in the market economy. Companies, after all, could eventually be held in check by other companies, while government bureaucrats could swath themselves in fanciful rhetoric about the public interest and the common good. In his determination to cut through the bogus and self-serving language that attends to so many attempts to arrogate power to the state, Buchanan has always reminded me of another great, old, and recently departed libertarian giant, Thomas Szasz.

Our heroes have to die sometime, I suppose, and lord knows folks such as Buchanan contributed far more to the world than they ever took out, but it's always a dark day when they breathe their last.

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A World Without Chavez, TSA Fights Off Privatization, Record the Police in Illinois: P.M. Links

  • Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez is clinging to life, and U.S. leadership is considering whether his death might help improve relations with the country. Sean Penn just isn’t enough. In the meantime, the nation’s Supreme Court approved delaying Chavez's inauguration.
  • TSA workers are very happy the Sacramento Board of Supervisors has rescinded a plan to privatize screening at Sacramento International Airport.
  • Vice President Joe Biden’s gun control busywork will give the media plenty of opportunities for sound bites with him saying the government must take “immediate action” and planning various meetings with various interests.
  • It is officially no longer illegal to record cops in Illinois. The Supreme Court refused to take up the case, which leaves the last ruling (that the law violated the First Amendment) standing.
  • A German firm is developing a laser that can take down drones. They better hurry before President Obama runs out of guys on his kill list.
  • Outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may give her testimony on the Benghazi Consulate attacks on Jan. 22.

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Reason Writers Around Town: Shifting Transportation to a Users-Pay/Users-Benefit System

Reason Foundation Director of Transportation Robert Poole writes:

As Congress grapples with impending budget cuts, we need to do a fundamental rethink of how the federal government assists with much-needed transportation infrastructure. The reality going forward is that there will be no such thing as “general revenue” funding for much of anything beyond entitlements, defense, and interest on the national debt. As long as the federal budget remains grossly unbalanced, general-fund investments in infrastructure are essentially borrowed from China—an unsustainable situation.

Three key principles are necessary for a sustainable federal role in infrastructure:

  1. Users should pay for the infrastructure they use;
  2. Large capital projects should be financed, via revenue bonds and other mechanisms; and,
  3. The federal role should be narrowed to do only things that are truly interstate in nature, which means shifting more responsibility to the states, metro areas, and the private sector.

Reason Foundation’s new policy brief, “Funding Transportation Infrastructure in a Fiscally Constrained Environment,” explains why the model used for federal transportation programs—user taxes feeding centralized trust funds that make annual grants for cash-based investments, increasingly subsidized by general-fund money—needs replacing:

  • Because these user taxes are seen as taxes, Congress seldom increases them, even when their real value declines due to inflation and other factors.
  • Each transportation program involves large cross-subsidies, in which some users pay for other users’ projects, often for projects of low real value.
  • Federal money comes with costly strings attached, such as Davis-Bacon and Buy America requirements, needlessly raising the cost of federally aided projects.
  • Federal programs over-emphasize new capacity, leading to large amounts of deferred maintenance on existing infrastructure.
  • Most federal programs encourage state and local governments to fund large capital projects out of annual cash flow, rather than financing them over time, as businesses (and home-buyers) do.

The report sets out a comprehensive set of organizational, tax policy, and regulatory changes that would implement the above principles, thereby ensuring needed, cost-effective investment in airports, air traffic control, highways and bridges, ports and waterways, transit, and passenger rail.

Full piece here

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Judge Rules Bradley Manning Pre-Trial Detention “Excessive”, Credits Him 112 Days Off Potential Sentence

As noted on Reason 24/7 earlier today, a military judge has ruled that Bradley Manning’s pre-trial confinement, 23 hours a day in a windowless cell room for months, was “excessive” and “more rigorous.“ As such, the judge ordered 112 days be credited toward any sentence handed down to Manning, who is facing 22 charges and could get life in prison, or even the death penalty, if convicted.

Manning, of course, is accused of facilitating the leak of materials, including a trove of State Department cables, to Wikileaks. Among his charges is “aiding the enemy.” The decision came on the first day of a four day pre-trial hearing. More from the AP:

The hearing is partly to determine whether Manning's motivation matters. Prosecutors want the judge to bar the defense from producing evidence at trial regarding his motive for allegedly leaking hundreds of thousands of secret war logs and diplomatic cables. They say motive is irrelevant to whether he leaked intelligence, knowing it would be seen by al-Qaida

Manning allegedly told an online confidant-turned-informant that he leaked the material because "I want people to see the truth" and "information should be free."
Defense attorney David Coombs said Tuesday that barring such evidence would cripple the defense's ability to argue that Manning leaked only information that he believed couldn't hurt the United States or help a foreign nation.

Manning has offered to take responsibility for the leaks in a pending plea offer but he still could face trial on charges such as aiding the enemy.

Not only does Manning’s defense argue the leaked information did not harm national security, the U.S. government has admitted as much.  Nevertheless, the government is pushing for a life sentence, using a statute intended for spies or enemies of the state.  Why? “This sends a clear message to would-be national security whistleblowers to keep silent and let the government police itself,” Elizabeth Goitein of NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice explained. Just s.o.p. for the “most transparent administration in history”.

h/t Killazontherun

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President Mitch Daniels Opts for Merit Pay

That could have been the headline in an alternate universe where outgoing Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels sought and won the Republican presidential nomination.

Instead, the "motorcycle-riding, Reason-subscribingObamaCare-trashing,Postrel-and-Hayek-reading governor" with a tumultuous love life is bringing a private sector sensibility to his new gig as the president of Purdue University.

The Wall Street Journal explains:

Under the terms of the contract, Mr. Daniels will earn base pay of $420,000. That's near the $421,000 average for presidents of public universities, according to a Chronicle of Higher Education analysis, and down from the $555,000 earned by Purdue's previous president. Mr. Daniels could then make up to 30% in bonuses tied to hard outcome metrics like graduation rates, student affordability, faculty hiring and achievement, and philanthropic support. Even if Mr. Daniels met 100% of his targets, he'd still rank 10th in compensation among the Big Ten presidents.

Daniels left Indiana with a $500 million budget surplus and $2 billion in reserves, so (since we're already in a alternate universe) why not take a minute to indulge in a scenario where POTUS—or better yet, congressional—pay was tied to stuff like passing balanced budgets, keeping campaign promises, and/or transparency. 

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New York's Governor Pushes a New, Broader, Equally Pointless 'Assault Weapon' Ban

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is proposing new gun control legislation, including "one of the country's most restrictive bans on assault weapons," according to The New York Times. The story illustrates once again the confusion created by treating "assault weapons" as an objective category, as opposed to an arbitrary, scary-sounding term that has no meaning outside of the laws that define it.

New York's current "assault weapon" ban, enacted following the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, uses the same criteria as the federal law that expired in 2004. A rifle is deemed to be an "assault weapon," for instance, if it accepts a detachable magazine and has two or more of these five features: 1) a bayonet mount, 2) a grenade launcher, 3) a folding or telescoping stock, 4) a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon, or 5) a flash suppressor or threaded barrel designed to accommodate a flash suppressor. The problem, according to the Times, is that "many high-powered rifles now in production are exempt from the ban because, advocacy groups say, manufacturers have altered their products to circumvent the law."

It is not clear what the Times means by "high-powered rifles." The definition of "assault weapon" has nothing to do with caliber, muzzle velocity, firing rate, or the number of rounds that can be fired before reloading (although a separate provision of New York's law bans magazines holding more than 10 rounds if they were made after September 13, 1994, as did the federal law). The reference to "high-powered rifles" suggests that "assault weapons" are distinguished by their killing capacity, which is not true, since their defining characteristics are essentially aesthetic. To muddy matters further, the Times says manufacturers who obey legislators' dictates concerning the appearance of their guns "have altered their products to circumvent the law," which makes no sense at all when you think about it. The law says you can't sell a rifle that accepts a detachable magazine and has two or more of those five suspect features, so manufacturers stopped selling such rifles in New York. That is complying with the law, not circumventing it.

Suppose Cuomo's bill (which I have not seen yet) broadens the definition of "assault weapons" by saying that a detachable magazine plus just one of those five features is enough. If the bill passes and manufacturers respond by offering New York versions of their rifles without bayonet mounts, flash suppressors, etc., will that also mean they are circumventing the law?

This bill is ostensibly a response to last month's massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where the shooter used a Bushmaster rifle that was legal under Connecticut's "assault weapon" ban, which uses the same criteria as New York's current law. Therefore the legislation Cuomo supports presumably will cover that particular model and configuration. But since the features disfavored by these laws have little or no functional significance in the hands of mass murderers, why should that be considered an accomplishment? "Of 769 homicides in New York State in 2011," the Times notes, "only five were committed with rifles of any kind." Even if one or more of those rifles would qualify as an "assault weapon" under Cuomo's new definition, so what? Any "assault weapon" ban that is even arguably consistent with the Second Amendment will leave people like Adam Lanza with plenty of equally deadly alternatives.

Here is how Cuomo explains the need for new gun control laws: "I think what the nation is saying now after Connecticut, what people in New York are saying, is 'do something, please.'" There's no denying this is something.

Update:  In his State of the State address this afternoon, Cuomo called upon the state legislature to enact "the toughest assault weapons ban in the country." It's not clear what he means by that. He described the aim as "ending the unnecessary risk of high-capacity assault rifles," which suggests he is really talking about the distinct issue of magazine size. Yet he listed "ban high-capacity magazines" as a separate action item. A press release from his office describes the change he favors this way:

We Must Pass the Toughest Assault Weapons Ban in the Country: New York's ban on assault weapons is so riddled with loopholes and so difficult to understand that it has become virtually unenforceable. While state law bans magazines with a capacity greater than ten rounds of ammunition, the law exempts magazines manufactured prior to 1994. Because magazines are not generally stamped with a serial number or other mark that would identify the date of manufacture, it is virtually impossible to determine whether a large capacity magazine was manufactured prior to 1994. In order to fix this problem, the Governor proposed tightening our assault weapons ban and eliminating large capacity magazines regardless of date of manufacture.

I gather from this that Cuomo wants to confiscate all the millions of pre-existing magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. Good luck with that. But note that there is nothing here about changing the definition of an "assault weapon" so that gun makers can no longer "circumvent" it.

Update II: Cuomo reportedly wants to copy California's definition of "assault weapon."

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Meet New Congressman Beto O'Rourke, a Democrat With Some Libertarian Ideas About Drug Policy and Immigration

El Paso, Texas, is one of the safest cities in the United States. Ciudad Juarez in Chihuahua, Mexico, is one of the most dangerous cities on the planet. The two cities "are so close," Andrew Rice recently wrote, "that you can sit on a park bench in El Paso and watch laundry wave behind a whitewashed house on a Juárez hillside." But the cities aren't just physically close. They share an economy and a culture, and what affects one--say, the drug war and immigration policy--strongly affects the other. 

"We in El Paso very much believe that we have sacrificied mobility, trade, our economy, and community at the altar of security," says newly elected Rep. Robert "Beto" O'Rourke, a Democrat from Texas' 16th District. "It reminds me of that great Benjamin Franklin quote, 'Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither.'"

O'Rourke isn't your average congresscritter. When the father of three and former indie rocker primaried Democratic Rep. Silvestre Reyes in 2012, largely, he says, because the latter had spent seven terms in Congress ignoring the issues most pressing to El Paso, O'Rourke found himself the subject of an anti-drug smear campaign. In a TV ad, Reyes tacitly suggested O'Rourke wanted to make drugs available to children, and a Reyes surrogate accussed O'Rourke of wanting to legalize crack-cocaine. While O'Rourke has since said that his win over Reyes "wasn't about drugs," his opponent was nevertheless right about one thing: O'Rourke isn't a drug warrior. 

In 2011, he co-authored with El Paso City Rep. Susie Byrd Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the U.S. and Mexicoa book that catalogs the extent to which America's drug control and interdiction policies have hurt Mexico and jeopardized America's relationship with immigrant workers. In 2009, back when he was an El Paso city councilman, O'Rourke introduced a resolution calling the War on Drugs a failure. 

So while it's true that O'Rourke's victory over Reyes was about more than drugs, it's also true that the drug war is about more than drugs. It's also about security, immigration, and the economic law of supply and demand. In December 2012, I interviewed O'Rourke about America's immigration and drug policies, and the effect those policies have had on El Paso and its neighbor, Ciudad Juarez. I also asked O'Rourke how he plans to sell reform to his new colleagues in Washington, D.C.

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John Stossel on How Government Handouts Foster Dependency

The Obama administration now proposes to spend millions more on handouts, despite ample evidence of their perverse effects, writes John Stossel.

In this case, HUD wants to spend millions more to renew Section 8 housing vouchers that help poor people pay rent.

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