Weekly Hit & Run Archive 2013 February 8-31

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Report: Internet Restrictions Grow More Sophisticated and Intrusive

The Internet has proven to be a wildly enabling medium, amplifying previously weak voices, enabling commerce across vast distances and allowing ticked-off individuals to poke fingers in the eyes of the powers-that-be. Of course, most politicians would rather preside over poor, quiet subjects than prosperous, loud ones, so governments have been trying to rein-in the online world ever since they realized its implications. They're making headway toward that goal, says the latest report from Freedom House, though pressure from activists, businesses and courts continues to win victories for Internet freedom.

The big developments in the realm of online control-freakery come from efforts to make censorship and suppression less obvious. Says Sanja Kelly, project director for Freedom on the Net:

“The findings clearly show that threats to internet freedom are becoming more diverse. As authoritarian rulers see that blocked websites and high-profile arrests draw local and international condemnation, they are turning to murkier—but no less dangerous—methods for controlling online conversations,"

Thumping bloggers around the kidneys with lengths of rebar is so ... 2007, don't you think? (Though it continues. See below.)

In compiling Freedom on the Net 2012, Freedom House surveyed how subject to state interference Internet usage is in 47 countries. Since you're dying to know, I'll tell you the United States doesn't come in first freedom-wise — that honor belongs to Estonia. The U.S. comes in second. Depressingly, "Of the 47 countries examined, 20 have experienced a negative trajectory since January 2011, with Bahrain, Pakistan, and Ethiopia registering the greatest declines."

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Bloomberg Won't Stop Bogus Pot Busts, but He Will Make Them Gentler

NORMLNORMLYesterday, reviewing New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's record on civil liberties, I noted that he has presided over an unannounced crusade against pot smokers, featuring illegal "public display" arrests of people whose marijuana became visible only because of police intervention. Today Bloomberg announced during his State of the City address that people caught with small amounts of pot will no longer go directly to jail:

We know that there’s more we can do to keep New Yorkers, particularly young men, from ending up with a criminal record. Commissioner Kelly and I support Governor Cuomo’s proposal to make possession of small amounts of marijuana a violation, rather than a misdemeanor, and we’ll work to help him pass it this year. But we won’t wait for that to happen.

Right now, those arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana are often held in custody overnight. We’re changing that. Effective next month, anyone presenting an ID and clearing a warrant check will be released directly from the precinct with a desk appearance ticket to return to court. It’s consistent with the law, it’s the right thing to do, and it will allow us to target police resources where they're needed most.

Pot smokers will still be arrested, however, and they will still face misdemeanor charges, which means "ending up with a criminal record" if they are convicted. Furthermore, Bloomberg rather alarmingly misstates the current legal status of possessing 25 grams or less of marijuana. It is already a violation, punishable by a $100 fine, and has been since 1977. The misdemeanor is possessing marijuana "in public view," which is punishable by up to three months in jail. The problem is that New York cops routinely convert the former offense into the latter by removing marijuana or instructing people to empty their pockets during stop-and-frisk encounters. That sort of trickery, which is what leads to arrests for something the state legislature decriminalized 26 years ago, is illegal, as Police Commissioner Ray Kelly himself has acknowledged (although he questions how often it occurs). While Bloomberg endorsed legislation decriminalizing public display of marijuana after Gov. Andrew Cuomo took on the issue last year, he has never acknowledged that police are illegally manufacturing misdemeanors, and he is still allowing such abuses to continue, even as he concedes the stupidity of treating pot smokers like criminals.

Addendum: Queens College sociologist Harry Levine, whose research brought to light the surge in pot busts under Bloomberg, comments:

Issuance of a desk appearance ticket involves a full custodial arrest, handcuffs, and a ride back to the police station in a squad car, van or wagon.  Sometimes the person is driven around for hours while the officers look for others to arrest. 

At the police station the person arrested is fingerprinted and photographed and is locked up in the precinct's own holding pens, which hold often scary people who have been arrested for various crimes. The person's fingerprints are sent to the state and then to the FBI to be cross checked for warrants, as well as check for local NYC warrants. The most common warrant to come up is not for a crime but for having failed to pay the fine for a violation such as having an open beer can in public, riding a bike on the sidewalk, or sitting on a park bench after hours. The NYPD gives out 600,000 of these summons a year, primarily in  the city's black and Latino neighborhoods and precincts. 

Ironically, people with no warrants, and who have never been arrested before, are often held longer than those with previous arrests because it takes longer to check the fingerprints and photographs of those without criminal records. The person arrested is held for two hours or more and then released with the mandatory court appearance ticket (DAT).

The obvious question is: why are these people being arrested and detained at all?  They could be given summonses on the street charging them with possession of small amounts of marijuana, This would save far more police time and public resources, and save the young people targeted from a stigmatizing criminal arrest record for drug possession.

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Unions Look to Stalk Their Way into Our Hearts. Don’t Try to Stop Them, Because You Can’t.

"You need to start showing our pensions some respect, Mr. Man!"Image from "Misery"Grover Norquist and Patrick Gleason of Americans for Tax Reform are using Valentine’s Day to remind us that unions are powerful enough to get themselves exemptions from laws that protect citizens from stalkers in several states. Via Reuters:

Every state has made stalking a crime. These laws help protect people who might otherwise live in fear. Yet labor unions have successfully, and disconcertingly, lobbied to be exempt from anti-stalking laws in at least four states – California, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Nevada.

“The most glaring examples of union favoritism under state laws,” notes a 2012 U.S. Chamber of Commerce report, “tend to occur in criminal statutes and allow individuals who engage in truly objectionable behavior to avoid prosecution solely because they are participating in some form of labor activity.”

Pennsylvania unions now enjoy a loophole that the state’s anti-stalking law “shall not apply to conduct by a party to a labor dispute.” In Illinois, anti-stalking laws exempt “any controversy concerning wages, salaries, hours, working conditions or benefits … the making of collective bargaining agreements.”

Curious about the extent of these exemptions, I looked up California’s anti-stalking law, section 646.9 in the state’s penal code. Here’s how the act of stalking is described by the law:

Any person who willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows or willfully and maliciously harasses another person and who makes a credible threat with the intent to place that person in reasonable fear for his or her safety, or the safety of his or her immediate family is guilty of the crime of stalking, punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for not more than one year, or by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both that fine and imprisonment, or by imprisonment in the state prison.

The law goes on to define “harassment” and “credible threat,” as these statutes tend to do, and calls for further penalties for repeated violations and enhanced punishment if the victim had already gotten a restraining order against the stalker. Then we get down to section (i):

This section shall not apply to conduct that occurs during labor picketing.

That is the entire section. There are no additional components to the law to try to separate the concept of protected protest speech from threats. In California, it is absolutely legal to threaten people with harm if you are engaged in in labor picketing.

Norquist and Gleason note the consequences:

The negative effects were clear in 2008, when United Food and Commercial Workers Union members picketed a new Ralph’s grocery store in Fresno. They went beyond traditional picketing, harassing customers and instigating confrontations with employees on store property. When store workers finally called the police, authorities refused to come and put a stop to the union’s disruptive behavior.

With the nation’s highest income and sales tax rates, in addition to many costly regulations, California is already one of the most difficult places to do business. Its exemptions permitting such behavior on the part of unions – which would be considered criminal for you or me – makes the state an even more inhospitable place to do business.

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Revealed: Big Tobacco Invented the Tea Party!

Tobacco ControlTobacco ControlDid you know that Big Tobacco invented the Tea Party movement? So claims Brendan DeMelle in a recent Huffington Post piece headlined "Study Confirms Tea Party Was Created by Big Tobacco and Billionaire Koch Brothers." Said study, published by the journal Tobacco Control, is more carefully worded. Anti-smoking activist Stanton Glantz and his co-authors even concede, deep into the article, that "many factors beyond the tobacco industry have contributed to the development of the Tea Party." (For instance, "the Tea Party has origins in the ultra-right John Birch Society of the 1950s.") But DeMelle's headline accurately reflects the general thrust of Glantz et al.'s article, which features a diagram of nefarious links that seems to have been inspired by Glenn Beck (or maybe Thom Hartmann). "Rather than being purely a grassroots movement," Glantz et al. write, "the Tea Party has been influenced by decades of astroturfing by tobacco and other corporate interests to develop a grassroots network to support their corporate agendas, even though their members may not support those agendas." Co-author Amanda Fallin goes further in a press release, saying, "The records indicate that the Tea Party has been shaped by the tobacco industry and is not a spontaneous grassroots movement at all.”

The main evidence for this thesis is that Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE), a think tank co-founded by libertarian billionaire David Koch and economist Richard Fink in 1984, received donations from tobacco companies (mainly Philip Morris) between 1991 and 2002. A year or two later, CSE split into two organizations, FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, that have helped support and organize Tea Party activists. How much tobacco money did CSE get? According to Glantz et al., $5.3 million over 12 years, which amounts to roughly 11 percent of CSE's revenue as of 2002. That's a substantial share, but was it enough to corrupt "a think tank dedicated to free market economics" and backed by an ideologically motivated billionaire? Glantz et al. show that CSE saw eye to eye with Philip Morris on issues such as tobacco taxes and smoking bans, which presumably is why the company supported it. But they do not present any evidence that CSE took positions contrary to its avowed principles because it was eager to keep the tobacco money flowing. Nor do they claim that FreedomWorks or Americans for Prosperity, the groups that have aligned themselves with the Tea Party, receive substantial tobacco industry funding, let alone that such money is important enough to sway the entire Tea Party movement. Instead they resort to this sort of insinuation:


David Harsanyi on Obama’s Reactionary Jobs Plan

Credit: Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SACredit: Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SADoes it bother anyone else, writes David Harsanyi, that the president of the United States seems to believe that our collective future entails assembling battery parts in a government-subsidized factory for $9 an hour? Is that really what Americans envision for their kids -- an assembly line? Because when you look past Barack Obama's mesmerizingly hollow rhetoric, what he proposed in his State of the Union speech is a return of jobs that progress and prosperity have left behind.

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Nancy Pelosi Defends Drone Policy, Rand Paul Worried About Drone Policy Supporters, Chicago Names Mexican Drug Lord “Public Enemy Number One,” Unions Exempt From Anti-Stalking Laws in Some States: P.M. Links

  • enemigo público número unoPuente Grande JailNancy Pelosi rejected the idea that Democrats are less critical of Barack Obama’s drone polices than they would have been had George Bush had the same policy. Pelosi explained she wasn’t sure if the public should be informed when American citizens are targeted, saying “it just depends” and “we’re in a different world.” Rand Paul, meanwhile, called support for the president’s targeted killings policy “very scary and worrisome.”
  • Rand Paul may bebetter positioned than Marco Rubio to run for president in 2016.
  • Chicago’s named its first “public enemy number one” since the gangster Al Capone, a Mexican drug lord named Joaquin Guzman who’s holed up in the mountains of western Mexico. But let’s keep talking about “gun violence” not the drug war.
  • The AP reports it found a letter from a high ranking officer of Al-Qaeda detailing the terrorist network’s strategy to conquer Mali, including compromising on its religious extremism to acquire allies it acknowledges it needs in the region.
  • The Knight Foundation says it regrets paying disgraced former New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer $20,000 for a speaking engagement that included a public apology and talk about his plagiarism.
  • Cops in southern Illinois mistook a maple syrup operation for a meth lab, while in Oklahoma police found a mini-meth lab on a golf course.
  • Unions are exempt from anti-stalking laws in at least four states, California, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Nevada. Happy Valentine’s Day! 

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Justin Amash, Libertarian-Leaning Congressman, Rumored to Be Mulling 2014 Senate Run

National Review says that Michigan Republican sources tell them Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), the second-termer endorsed by Ron Paul who does a very good job holding down the hardcore libertarian fort in Congress, might try to decamp to the Senate next year:

“People are asking him to look at it, and he hasn’t closed the door,” says a Republican operative familiar with Michigan politics. “If [incumbent Democrat Carl] Levin steps down, I think he’s going to run.”

Several libertarian activists say the 32-year-old congressman is intrigued by the idea. He recently huddled with his friends and allies to express his interest.

But no decision is imminent...

Amash, a vocal critic of Speaker John Boehner and a popular presence on Twitter, is known as the libertarian bad boy of the House GOP. He was famously kicked off of the budget committee last year for his quarrels with the leadership.

Amash also voted against Boehner during the speaker election in January. Instead of backing the Ohio Republican, he cast his vote for Raul Labrador, an Idaho conservative and a fellow Republican sophomore.

Amash’s consideration is alarming to Michigan Republicans, who are hoping to back a more established candidate, especially if Levin retires and the seat is open.

Amash, as a youthful conservative with a national following, would be a force in a primary. Many Ron Paul supporters see him as a libertarian leader for a new generation.

Roll Call says it has not yet been able to get Amash office verification.

My blogging on Amash's fight with House leadership here, here, and here.

Amash is the centerpiece of my interview feature with libertarian-ish House members in the March Reason.

I helped introduce Amash's self-consciously libertarian ways to the many readers of the Sunday New York Times this weekend.

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Chicago Hasn’t Seen Crime This Bad Since the Last Time The Feds Banned Something

Reward poster for El ChapoSource: USOpenBorders.comNot since 1930 has Chicago declared anyone “Public Enemy No. 1,” but the Chicago Crime Commission assures us that Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman deserves the title every bit as much as the infamous Al Capone once did—even though he lives more than 2,000 miles away.

Like Capone, Guzman runs a crime syndicate that earns the majority of its vast revenues from the sale of illegal substances. Capone ran The Chicago Outfit, which (by some reports) earned more than $100 million per year from 1925 to 1930. That would be more than $1.3 billion per year in today’s dollars, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator.

Guzman is head of the Sinaloa Cartel, a brutal drug-trafficking operation headquartered in Western Mexico that rakes in about $3 billion each year. The influence of the cartel is so toxic that it is blamed for rising homicide rates in Chicago—and it could easily be blamed for significant violence elsewhere. The Sinaloa Cartel operates in 17 states in Mexico and in cities across North America, especially along the border.

It is impossible to know how many people have died at the hands of the Sinaloa Cartel, but as one of Mexico's major cartels, it is certain that they have claimed their fair share of the 50,000 victims since 2006 in Mexico alone.

During the past century, the two biggest threats that Chicago has seen are the kingpins of gangs that earn their vast profits by bootlegging—first alcohol and now drugs. This is not some sort of unfortunate accident. The federal government creates these criminals—and these criminal organizations—when it declares certain substances illegal.

The sale of "controlled" substances is a lucrative business thanks to the risks involved. But it's not just extra-normal profits that result from prohibition. It’s crime organized on a massive scale, violent turf wars that kill tens of thousands each year, and entire communities threatened by cultures of corruption. None of this is new. We saw it during the '20s, and we’re seeing it now with our never-ending war on drugs.

Would Hayek Have Supported Obamacare?

Would Friedrich Hayek - the Nobel-winning economist who inspired Margaret Thatcher's free-market reforms and is a hero to libertarians everywhere - have supported Obamacare?

Click the link below to read the full story and for downloadable links. 

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Happy Valentine's Day! Reason TV's Top 10 Videos on Love, Sex, and Much More!

In the interest of celebrating Valentine's Day, enjoy Reason TV's top ten videos on the subject of the day, love.

10. Zach Wahls, His Two Moms, & the Future of Same-Sex Marriage

Zach Wahls became an internet sensation when he defended his mothers' same-sex marriage to the Iowa House Judiciary Committee in 2011. After the video racked up over 18 million views on YouTube, Wahls hit the talk show circut, speaking with Jon Stewart, David Letterman and Reason TV's own Nick Gillespie. Gillespie and Wahls talk about his book, My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength and What Makes a Family.


9. Gay Wars: What We Saw at CPAC

Back in 2011, the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, DC, was divided over the most important issue since marginal tax rates: gay conservatives. Reason TV was on hand to capture the sentiment from attendees, including some who couldn't stand to think gay people could be conservative too.


8. The Real Breaking Bad: How the Drug War Creates Collateral Damage

88-year-old Bob Wallace, and his 85-year-old girlfriend, Marjorie Ottenberg have been a couple for over 35 years and they fell in love thanks to their shared interest in backbacking to the highest peaks in the world. They even invented a water disinfectant for backpackers called Polar Pure out of their garage. It was a successful product for decades until the DEA reclassified Polar Pure's main ingredient, iodine, as a controlled substance. It shut down their business and led to police surveillance, regulatory fees and even more headaches for the couple.

The videos - on sex vs. punishment, obscenity vs. free expression, lesbian acrobats vs. immigration laws, and much, much more - continue after the break!

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Does Gun Ownership Promote Suicide?

Noting that two-thirds of gun deaths in the United States are suicides, New York Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise ponders the relationship between having access to a firearm and killing yourself. Within the United States, she notes, higher rates of gun ownership are associated with higher rates of suicide. But that relationship may not be causal:

Some dispute the link, saying that it does not prove cause and effect, and that other factors, like alcoholism and drug abuse, may be driving the association. Gary Kleck, a professor of criminology at Florida State University in Tallahassee, contends that gun owners may have qualities that make them more susceptible to suicide. They may be more likely to see the world as a hostile place, or to blame themselves when things go wrong, a dark side of self-reliance.

A 2002 analysis by Wharton economist Mark Duggan found that gun availability may help explain the correlation between firearm ownership and suicide, but it is not the only factor:

Taken together, the results presented in this paper suggest that much of the positive relationship between firearms ownership and suicide is driven by selection—individuals with above average suicidal tendencies are more likely to own a gun and to live in areas with relatively many gun owners. But because female suicide rates are less responsive to the rate of gun ownership than are male suicide rates [which is significant because women are substantially less likely to kill themselves with guns], it does appear that instrumentality effects also play some role. And finally, while suicide rates have been declining in the U.S. in recent years, the reduction in the fraction of households who own a gun does not appear to be the force that is driving this decline.

In a 2007 review of international evidence published by the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, criminologists Don Kates and Gary Mauser concluded that "there is simply no relationship evident between the extent of suicide and the extent of gun ownership." Here are some examples they offer to illustrate that point:

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Gen John Allen, Out of Afghanistan, Reportedly Out as Nominee for NATO Command

going homeLance Cpl. Richard P. Sanglap-Heramis/U.S. MarinesNot a rudderless mission, not civilian casualties, but David Petraeus’ affair with Paula Broadwell, his biographer, is what’s ending General John Allen’s prospects for NATO command according to reporting by Fox News. Allen, who stepped down as NATO’s top man in Afghanistan Sunday, has reportedly withdrawn his nomination as NATO’s Supreme Commander in Europe. Via Fox News:

White House officials forced him to step aside, a source familiar with the discussions told Fox News on Wednesday.

The source told Fox that Allen was leery of getting into a confirmation battle that would dig into the embarrassing issue of his emails with Tampa socialite Jill Kelley, but the real reason was the White House power play.

“He’s out,” the source said. “I know he is retiring. He was pushed out of the door.”

Fox notes the White House is still confident about Chuck Hagel’s confirmation as Defense Secretary. This even as some Republican senators will be attempting a filibuster. Meanwhile, the vote to confirm John Brennan as the next CIA Director (a vacancy created by Petraeus November 2012 resignation) has been delayed to the end of the month.

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We Can't Confirm the Existence of the Program We've Been Bragging About

Does the U.S. government acknowledge the existence of its targeted killing program? It all depends on what's convenient at the moment, Glenn Greenwald reports:

These aren't the drones you're looking for.Key Obama officials, including the president himself, not only make selective disclosures about this program but openly boast about its alleged successes. Leon Panetta, then the CIA Director, publicly said all the way back in 2009 when asked about the CIA drone program: "I think it does suffice to say that these operations have been very effective because they have been very precise." In 2010, Panetta, speaking to the Washington Post, hailed the CIA drone program in Pakistan as "the most aggressive operation that CIA has been involved in in our history". This is just a partial sample of Obama official boasts about this very program (for more, see pages 15 to 28 here).

Despite all that, the Obama DOJ from the start has refused not only to provide the requested documents about the CIA drone program, but they refuse to say whether such documents even exist. They do so by insisting that whether there even exists such a thing as a "CIA drone program" is itself classified, and therefore, they can neither admit nor deny whether they possess any of the documents sought by the FOIA request....

This never happened.C-SPAN[L]ate last week, the ACLU wrote a letter to the appellate court where its case is now pending to notify the court of [John Brennan and Mike Rogers' recent] public acknowledgments. Specifically, as the ACLU put it, Brennan and the Committee members "extensively discussed various aspects of the CIA's targeted-killing program, including the 'role' of the 'CIA director in [the] approval process' for targeted killings abroad". Moreover, Rogers openly "discusse[d] his committee's 'monthly' oversight of the CIA's targeted-killing program." Now, there is simply no way to deny in good faith that the US government has publicly and officially acknowledged the CIA drone program.

But good faith is no impediment to the Obama DOJ when it comes to its abuse of secrecy powers. This morning, the DOJ sent a letter to the court replying to the ACLU. Ever after the events of last week, they have the audacity to claim that even the question of whether there is a CIA drone program must still be concealed.

John Ross on How D.C. Hurts Patients in the Name of Protecting Them

Credit: Free Press Pics / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SACredit: Free Press Pics / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SAHome health agencies in Washington, D.C. must obtain a “certificate of need” from the district’s State Health Planning and Development Agency (SHPDA) before they are allowed to offer new or expanded services. And to receive that certificate, applicants must convince SHPDA that there is a public need for the services they propose to provide—an impossible task because SHPDA has decided that the city’s 27 existing providers are satisfying all demand. As John Ross reports, certificate of need rules in D.C.—and 16 other states—needlessly restrain competition in the health-care industry and therefore hurt patients in the name of protecting them.

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Andrew Napolitano on Obama’s Secret Court for Killing

Credit: WhiteHouse.govCredit: WhiteHouse.govPresident Obama willingly admits he dispatched CIA agents to kill an American and his teenage son and the son's American friend while they were in a desert in Yemen in 2011. He says he did so because the adult had encouraged folks to wage war on the United States and the children were just "collateral damage." He says further that he'll do this again when he is convinced that killing Americans will keep America safe. He says he knows the adult encouraged evil, and his encouragement caused the deaths of innocents. The adult was never charged with a crime or indicted by a grand jury; he was just targeted for death by the president himself and executed by a CIA drone. Judge Andrew Napolitano explains why Obama’s actions violate the Constitution.

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Bill Clinton, Robert Byrd, Tip O'Neill, and Genesis: Why the '80s Sucked, in Less Than 9 Minutes (UPDATED)

This 1985 Democratic Party response to President Ronald Reagan's State of the Union address is, if nothing else, a vivid reminder that the state of our national production values has improved tenfold since then:

Dug up by Buzzfeed.

UPDATE: Not so fast, Buzzfeed! Reason's Jesse Walker wrote about that video back in 2010. Excerpt:

Every now and then, someone tries a different approach [to responding to State of the Union addresses]. A few times in the '80s, for example, the Dems decided to fill their slot with what amounted to infomercials for the Democratic Party. These tone-deaf programs reached their nadir in 1985, with a show hosted by a young Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton. Just two months before, Ronald Reagan had defeated Walter Mondale in a landslide. The stars of the State of the Union response were a series of purportedly typical Democratic voters, each of whom seemed to have been selected to appeal to those young, upwardly mobile Americans who wished the party had nominated Gary Hart instead. Indeed, the evening's only reference to Mondale came when one of the interviewees attacked the candidate's pledge to raise taxes. A spokesman for the Democratic National Committee explained the strategy to the press: "We needed to tell the American people we were wrong."

Did it work? That spokesman's name is Terry Michael; these days he considers himself a libertarian and occasionally contributes to Reason. "I think it was really dumb," he tells me. "In the aftermath of the slaughtering we took in November '84, there was this zeitgeist within the party 'leadership' that we were being out-communicated by the Great Communicator and his communication wizards." Aside from backing down from Mondale's suicidal tax pledge, it "never occurred to our brilliant thinkers that it was the message, not the medium, that did us in."

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A.M. Links: Businesses Struggle With Obamacare Costs, Rand Paul Speech Overshadowed Rubio's, Police Deny Deliberately Burning Out Dorner

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Kurt Loder Reviews A Good Day to Die Hard and Beautiful Creatures

Courtesty of 20th Century FoxCourtesty of 20th Century FoxAs even one of the thugs in the tired, monotonous, and generally unnecessary A Good Day to Die Hard notes, this isn’t the ’80s anymore. And this fifth installment of the Die Hard franchise, which is now 25 years old, has none of the fresh wallop of the first one. Beautiful Creatures, on the other hand, very much like the 2008 Twilight, is based on the first of four very long young-adult (read: teen-girl) fantasy-romance novels. And once again, we have an unsuspecting human adolescent falling in love with a mysterious supernatural schoolmate. Kurt Loder reviews both movies.

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Obama’s Misguided Minimum Wage Plan

Writing at The Wall Street Journal, Jason Riley argues that there’s “something sadly ironic” about President Barack Obama’s State of the Union proposal for increasing the federal minimum wage, considering which groups are likely to suffer the most under such a change. Riley writes:

Minimum-wage laws date to the 1930s, and supporters in Congress at the time were explicit about using them to stop blacks from displacing whites in the labor force by working for less money. Milton Friedman regarded the minimum wage as "one of the most, if not the most, anti-black laws on the statute books."

When you artificially increase the cost of labor, you wind up with surplus labor, which takes the form of unemployment. Younger and less-experienced workers—a disproportionate number of whom are black—are more likely to be priced out of the labor force when the cost of hiring someone goes up. Prior to the passage of minimum-wage laws—and in an era of open and rampant racial discrimination in the U.S.—the unemployment rate for black men was much lower than it is now and similar to that of whites in the same age group.

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Jay Carney Tries to Use Justin Amash Quote to Slam GOP on Sequester, Amash Explains “Being President 101”

The sequester is all the buzz in Washington. The reductions in the growth of spending were passed by Congress and signed by the president even though the president’s supporters call it a horrible idea. Both Congress and the president are responsible for the sequester and for the general delinquency in managing the country’s finances. Republican Congressman Justin Amash noted it was disingenuous for Republicans to “pin” the sequester on Obama and because he’s the president’s top man for spin, Jay Carney used it on Twitter. What followed:

twitter the ultimate spin zone?Twitter

For those not in the know: Congress passes laws, the president signs them. He shouldn't sign bills he doesn't want to see made law.

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Big Banks Put In Charge of (Their Own) Foreclosure Settlement Payout

A house in foreclosureCredit: BasicGov / flickr.comStep one: Use shoddy foreclosure policies to wrong four million homeowners. Step two: Agree to pay out $3.6 billion in a settlement with federal regulators. Step three: Get put in charge of the disbursement of that settlement.

This new agreement was reached after a year and $2 billion spent working with consultants made zero headway towards helping those facing foreclosure, raising questions about who these regulators were, why they were chosen, and what went wrong.

Cutting out the middleman is a time-honored way of saving money and trimming budgets. But is it the right move to put these banks in charge of cleaning up the mess they created through negligence (at best) or fraud (at worst)?

“Why did you not trust the banks a month ago?” asked one consultant who spoke anonymously for fear of offending regulators. “And why do you solely rely on them now?”

Of course, there’s one other complication. The Independent Foreclosure Review was set up to fail.

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency now says that it will check the work of the banks involved, which includes Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo. They have established a system that they think will be more equitable than a uniform payment to all parties involved:

Under the plan outlined last week, the banks will pore over loan files… to identify the worst possible errors. Military personnel illegally foreclosed on, for example, will rank highest on the list. Borrowers who might be current on their loan payments—and therefore did not warrant a foreclosure—will be next.

Regulators will then decide how much money to pay each category of borrower. The worse the errors, the bigger the payout.

Housing advocates are not so optimistic, claiming that the banks have every incentive to skimp on the process just to get it over with (not to mention conceal wrongdoing). Regulators respond to their concerns by pointing out that the settlement amount is fixed, thus “creating a backstop."

In other words: we don’t care so much who gets the money as long as it all gets paid out. A classic government sentiment: thinking that any sort of redistribution creates wealth and solves problems.

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Brickbat: Picture This

Courtesy of brian.ch / photo on flickrCourtesy of brian.ch / photo on flickrOfficials at Arizona's Poston Butte High School suspended Daniel McClaine Jr. after they found he had an AK-47 at school. OK, it wasn't a real AK-47, just an image of one that was part of the background on his school-issued computer. Officials say school policy bars students from sending or displaying offensive photographs or harrassing or threatening images.

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Greg Beato on Twitter and Free Speech

Credit: Stian Eikeland / Foter.com / CC BY NC-SACredit: Stian Eikeland / Foter.com / CC BY NC-SATwitter has developed into a major hub for mainstream discourse in large part because millions of people tweet under their real names, including thousands of celebrities and other prominent people whose accounts have been explicitly verified by Twitter. This high degree of disclosure leads to a high degree of trust. Twitter offers substantial opportunities to interact with immediately identifiable people, and that makes it a good place for strengthening real-world social ties and business relationships, and also for keeping track of Donald Trump’s latest feuds and what Kim Kardashian thinks of Atlantic City.

But as Greg Beato observes, as much as Twitter benefits from users who tweet under their real names—especially from verified celebrities—it hasn’t seen any need to prohibit fake personas. Its combination of authenticated identity and easy pseudonymity, with no barriers to access between these two very distinct classes of users, is a pretty unique attribute. In fact, Beato writes, so far at least, Twitter’s laissez-faire attitude toward online discourse has been its greatest business proposition.

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FTC Thinks Emphasizing That Four Loko Is 5 Drinks in One Can Will Encourage Moderation

This week the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a final order compelling Phusion Projects, the manufacturer of the fruity malt beverage Four Loko, to change its packaging so that consumers will finally know how totally messed up you can get by polishing off an entire 23.5-ounce can. Was there ever any real confusion on this score? Since volume and alcohol content were clearly listed on every can, and since the FTC complained that Phusion Projects blatantly promoted Four Loko as a fast and economical way to get drunk, probably not.

Yet somehow the FTC became convinced that Phusion Projects "represented, expressly or by implication, that a 23.5 oz can of 11% or12% ABV Four Loko contains alcohol equivalent to one or two regular, 12 oz beers." It must have been a pretty subtle implication, because if you look through the FTC's original complaint you will see that the company never said anything to that effect. "We do not agree with the FTC's allegations regarding these issues," Phusion co-founder Jaisen Freeman said in a statement, but "we consider this agreement a practical way to move forward." The main allegation against Freeman's company boils down to this: By putting 23.5 ounces in one "nonresealable" container, Phusion Projects implied that it was OK for one person to consume it all in one sitting, when public health experts tell us you really shouldn't do that.

FTCFTCA can of Four Loko contains less alcohol than a bottle of Champagne and less alcohol than some big bottles of craft beer. In terms of intoxicating power, it is equivalent to a few cocktails—or, as the FTC prefers to put it, "4.7 regular beers," by which it means beers with an alcohol content of 5 percent. That is an amount people have been known to consume over the course of an evening without any deleterious effects. But let us accept the FTC's premise that no one should be drinking a whole can of Four Loko by himself. How do the packaging changes it has foisted upon Phusion Projects serve to discourage that allegedly reckless practice? First, Four Loko containers henceforth will be resealable, which should be quite effective if the desire to avoid waste, as opposed to the desire to get wasted, is the main reason people drink the entire can. Second, Four Loko containers will carry an "alcohol facts" panel listing, in addition to the volume and strength information that was on the old cans, "servings per container" (4.7) and serving size (five ounces), accompanied by this statement: "According to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, a serving contains 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol."

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We’re Not Going to Have an “Adult Conversation” About State Violence, Are We?

health of the stateFacebookMore than a week after first allegedly shooting the daughter of a police officer and her fiancée, the Christopher Dorner saga ended with him most likely burning up in a cabin in which he holed up this week. The police may have set the fire themselves. Another account has the police pushing Dorner back into the burning structure [8:34pm ET update].  Officially it’s still unclear how the fire began*. Nevertheless, at the end of it, three four people were killed by a former police officer out on a vendetta against his former police force. And the LAPD responded by coming down on the city of Los Angeles for a week, shooting seemingly indiscriminately at targets that bore only the vaguest resemblance to Dorner and searching homes door to door. Almost comically, Dorner’s alleged manifesto included strong anti-gun sentiments. It’s useful to note here that most attempts at gun control include generous exemptions both for law enforcement and often ex-law enforcement. Feinstein’s bill does that. There was widespread panic when Cuomo’s anti-gun laws in New York didn’t.

Yet, Dorner, and ex-cops, aren’t the only ones that can be irresponsible gun owners. Earlier this week the attorney general of Ohio released an animation depicting how 13 cops managed to fire off an astonishing 137 rounds in under 30 seconds into a car with two unarmed passengers they pursued in a high speed chase after a phantom gunshot was heard in another town. Facing a critical eye from state authorities, the local police chief defended his force, saying there was none of the systemic failure the attorney general noted, even though the shift supervisor, for example, was unaware the chase involved so many patrol cars. But Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, the two unarmed civilians killed by police in Ohio, are far from the only ones. Reason’s Mike Riggs noted some of the most prominent victims of police violence when New York City’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, arrogantly suggested police go on strike until the population is disarmed:

What about Kelly Thomas, who screamed for his father while five cops beat him to death? Or Patricia Cook, shot to death by a deranged alcoholic with a badge? Or Andrew Scott, killed during a wrong-door raid? Or Nick Christie, gagged and pepper-sprayed to death by prison guards? Or Seth Adams, shot four times by a cop behind his family business, then left to die? Or Wendell Allen, who was unarmed when a New Orleans cop shot and killed him during a raid? Or Ramarley Graham, the 18-year-old New Yorker shot and killed by plainclothes cops for trying to flush a small bag of marijuana down the toilet? Or Kyle Miller, killed by Colorado police for waving a BB gun in the air? Or Todd Blair, killed by Utah police for raising a golf club above his head?

That's a smattering of names from the last year or so. A complete list is impossible, though you could spend months culling names from local media outlets. It would be significantly longer if we included people who were shot, but didn't die; or people who were just shot at by cops. It would be exponentially longer if we included people who were beaten, intimidated, wrongly arrested/incarcerated, or otherwise abused by police officers. 

Just a few months after Riggs wrote that, cops from the NYPD were involved in taking down a shooter at the Empire State Building. They shot more people in responding to the incident than the initial shooter. In fact, everyone but the coworker the shooter killed, was injured by shots from police officers.

At last night’s State of the Union address, President Obama suggested victims of gun violence deserve a vote in Congress. In the shadow of victims of state violence at home and abroad (up to 1,100 civilians and more than 200 children in known covert drone operations alone), the sentiment rings hollow. There won’t be votes for any of the victims of state violence listed above. And as for Dorner, he may not deserve much, but it looks like at the end he didn’t even deserve a jury trial.

*Update: Police say they didn't intentionally start the fire.

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A. Barton Hinkle on Making Fun of Politics

Credit: Tony Fischer Photography / Foter.com / CC BYCredit: Tony Fischer Photography / Foter.com / CC BYWhen the Obama administration launched the We the People petition initiative—which lets anyone start a petition on the White House website—it set the response threshold at 5,000 signatures. In the digital era you can collect that many signatures for a petition to make navel lint the official textile fiber of the United States. So the White House bumped up the threshold to 25,000. Turns out that’s a pretty easy bar to clear, too. Just look at the Death Star petition, which asked the administration to start building a Star Wars-like Death Star by 2016. A. Barton Hinkle explains why it’s encouraging to see so many Americans using We the People to have a bit of fun. Sometimes laughter is the best medicine for dealing with the unpleasant world of politics.

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Michael Bloomberg, Frequently Exhausted Champion of Civil Liberties

In a post at The Atlantic that I initially took to be a joke because it is headlined "Michael Bloomberg, Tireless Champion of Civil Liberties," Wendy Kaminer praises the New York mayor's support for the First Amendment, which she suggests outweighs the paternalistic meddling exemplified by his widely derided restrictions on soda servings. Kaminer is right that Bloomberg has taken admirable stances on freedom of speech:

When the MTA [Metropolitan Transportation Authority] was under court order to accept a series of provocative anti-Muslim ads in subway stations, Bloomberg shrugged: "I assume [they'll] do what the courts ordered them to do." [He also noted that "as Americans, we tolerate things that we find despicable."]

When other big-city, pro-gay-rights mayors threatened to bar Chick-fil-A from their domains, Bloomberg schooled them on free speech: "You really don't want to ask political beliefs or religious beliefs before you issue a permit. That's just not government's job." [Katherine Mangu-Ward noted his commendable remarks here.]

When 10 members of the New York City Council threatened to withdraw funding from Brooklyn College because it dared to sponsor a discussion of boycotts and sanctions against Israel, Bloomberg snorted, "If you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea."

Bloomberg took a principled stand in each of these cases, defending people's right to say things with which he personally disagreed. Regarding the MTA ads (which actually condemned "jihad," as opposed to Muslims generally), his attitude was a notable improvement on the position taken by his immediate predecessor, Rudolph Giuliani, who famously asked the MTA to remove a New York magazine ad that (gently) mocked him from its buses. The result was a 1997 federal appeals court decision rejecting such content-based restrictions, which was cited by the federal judge who overturned the MTA's refusal to run the anti-jihad ads. Those ads, by the way, were sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, a group that conspicuously opposed construction of the so-called Ground Zero mosque. That was another First Amendment controversy in which Bloomberg distinguished himself, offering a stirring defense of religious freedom.

In light of these examples, "Michael Bloomberg, Defender of the First Amendment" would have been an apt title for Kaminer's post. But even if you don't count the right to control what goes into your body as a civil liberty, "Michael Bloomberg, Tireless Champion of Civil Liberties" goes way too far. As Kaminer concedes, Bloomberg has not been a very good friend to the rest of the Bill of Rights. A founder of Mayors Against Illegal Guns and a funder of pro-gun-control candidates, he has never met a firearm restriction he did not like, which certainly casts doubt on his commitment to defending the Second Amendment. Nor is he a fan of the Fifth Amendment's protections for property rights, to judge by his vigorous defense of broad eminent domain powers. But the biggest problem with any attempt to portray Bloomberg as a champion of civil liberties is his obvious lack of enthusiasm for the Fourth Amendment.

Bloomberg, despite his own youthful enjoyment of cannabis, has presided over a huge surge in arrests for "public display" of marijuana, many of them illegal because the pot came into open view only as a result of police intervention. After Gov. Andrew Cuomo took on the issue last year, Bloomberg suddenly voiced support for decriminalizing public display, which he falsely claimed would be consistent with current police practices. And as Kaminer notes, civil libertarians "deplore his defense of repressive stop-and-frisk policies." That defense has been notable not only because Bloomberg always comes down on the side of more police power but because the billionaire Harvard MBA dismisses anyone who disagrees with him as a pointy-headed pontificator insulated from the reality of the streets. Bloomberg implicitly concedes that New York cops routinely stop and frisk people without the "reasonable suspicion" that the Supreme Court has said is required by the Fourth Amendment. He just doesn't think such legal niceties matter when you're fighting crime. "Tireless Champion of Civil Liberties"? Not so much.

So is Kaminer kidding after all? Her hyperbole may have been a deliberate attempt to lure outraged Bloomberg critics, in which case I totally fell for it.

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State of the Union Address Conveniently Ignores Monetary Policy

Last night's State of the Union address made no mention of monetary policy. It did not include the following words even once: monetary, Federal Reserve, inflation, inflation rates or Treasury.

Come to think of it, Obama has never mentioned those terms in reference to monetary policy during any of his State of the Union addresses.

Bernanke DollarsCredit: Gage Skidmore/foter

Obama devoted a large portion of his speech to the economy, and rightly so. He referred to consumer confidence, budgets, and the burden of higher priced goods on households. But ignoring the essentials of monetary policy shouldn’t sit well with anyone.

Leaving out monetary policy from his address gives Americans an incomplete picture of our road to recovery.

Perhaps Ben Bernanke, Timothy Geithner, or Lawrence Summers—each of whom were appointed to various positions in past administrations and have all been involved in the financial crisis—deterred him from learning about it.

But Obama has economic advisors, the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors and other employees of the Treasury Department at his disposal, so intimidation is no defense.

Not confronting monetary policy allows Obama to ignore the monopoly that government has on the creation of money. It doesn’t force him to remember that our money is not backed by anything but the faith we have in it. By ignoring monetary policy, Obama is showing that he doesn't grasp that faith is not a sound backing for a nation's currency. But Obama used the word “faith” three times last night. The very first time is by far the most interesting:

Let's agree—let's agree, right here, right now, to keep the people's government open and pay our bills on time and always uphold the full faith and credit of the United States of America.

So we will restore faith and credit when we “pay our bills on time” with money that isn’t backed by anything? If that’s the case, it seems like we’re just handing out watermarked IOUs.

Why can’t we use a currency that not only fulfills the three essential criteria of money but also lives up to the standard of having the real full faith of the American public behind it? Allowing currencies to compete gives market participants a choice in which currency they have “full faith” in because it serves its functions and accounts for individual preferences, asserting its soundness.

Video: The Problem with E-Verify - The ACLU's Chris Calabrese on Immigration Reform

"The Problem with E-Verify - The ACLU's Chris Calabrese on Immigration Reform" is the latest offering from Reason TV.

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

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Nobody’s Holding His Breath over Obama’s Latest Promise of Transparency, Right?

This image never stops enraging people.Credit: WeazlezippersFool me once, shame on you; fool me … how many times has Barack Obama fooled us on “transparency” at this point?

The president remarkably – I’d argue shockingly at this point – invoked a promise of transparency in his State of the Union Address last night in regards to his administration’s use of drones to assassinate targets (not that he used either “drone” or “assassinate”):

As we do, we must enlist our values in the fight. That is why my Administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism operations. Throughout, we have kept Congress fully informed of our efforts. I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we're doing things the right way. So, in the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.

The way that selection is worded -- “we have kept Congress fully informed” -- you’d think that Obama had, you know, kept Congress fully informed on what the policies were. Not true. Not true at all.

Politifact did not find this paragraph worth its time to analyze, focusing instead on whose idea the sequester really was (and providing cover for Obama by saying that he proposed it as a negotiating tool and didn’t want it to actually pass), despite the significant amount of press given to the leaked white paper that detailed the Department of Justice’s guidelines for drone killings.

Adam Serwer at Mother Jones hits back at his latest transparently fabricated claims of transparency:

Obama's past record, however, suggests that his promises of transparency will be unmet, and his promise to "continue to engage with Congress" implies that he believes his administration is already meeting most of its transparency obligations.

So far, Obama has disclosed few details of the targeted killing program to Congress, let alone to the public. Until last week, the Obama administration had never shared any of the Department of Justice legal memos justifying the use of targeted killing against American terror suspects abroad. Only recently did the congressional intelligence committees begin monthly visits to CIA headquarters to observe videos of targeted killing operations, and that only began at the insistence of Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chair of the Senate intelligence committee. As the American Civil Liberties Union's Chris Anders told me last July, when Congress was considering compelling the administration to share the targeted killing memos with Congress, "The key committees of Congress don't even know what the legal standard [for targeted killing] is or how they're applying it. So how can they do meaningful oversight?"

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has publicly expressed frustration at the lack of information the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has been able to get from the Department of Justice regarding drone use and CIA cybersecurity measures. Jacob Sullum noted earlier today that Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is threatening to block John Brennan’s nomination to head the CIA unless the administration provides clearer answers on drone strike guidelines.

This does not sound like a “fully informed” Congress.

Mike Riggs documented the president’s failures of transparency in our December 2012 issue of Reason Magazine. Read it here.

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Obama's State of the Union: A Speech About Everything, and Nothing

Credit: Library of Congress/Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Library of Congress/Wikimedia CommonsYou can think of President Obama’s State of the Union address as a movie trailer for the next four years. Trailers are supposed to sell a movie's core concept, but it was hard to find a unifying idea in last night's speech. 

Instead, Obama gave a speech about, well, everything: It offered a comprehensive liberal-technocratic wishlist, packed with proposals and pseudo-policies, careful phrases and good intentions. You could describe it as the ultimate laundry list speech: laying out proposal after proposal, policy after policy. And it suffered for it, playing more like a series of spoken bullet points than a speech with an arc and an idea. 

"The American people don’t expect government to solve every problem," Obama said in the speech. But he seems to think they expect the government to solve a lot of them. His speech talked about, among others things: raising the minimum wage, expanding early childhood education, assisting homeowners with mortgage refinancing, finding policies to reduce carbon emissions, slowing the growth of Medicare through payment tweaks, increasing taxes on the wealthy, giving tax breaks to companies that hire American workers, improving the voting experience, investing in veteran's health care, ditching tax code loopholes, reforming the immigration system, going all in on clean energy to compete with China, expanding infrastructure building and hiring, increasing transparency in higher education, passing new restrictions on gun sales, reducing the energy used by homes, and creating new domestic manufacturing jobs. 

That’s quite the list. But what’s remarkable is how little of it was truly new. In some form or another, we’ve heard all these ideas before.

What that suggests is that Obama doesn’t have a big, governing idea anymore. He just has a long list of things he’d like to do, or at least talk about doing.

Credit: Barack Obama / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SACredit: Barack Obama / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SASome of the proposals, like raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour, were quite specific. But others weren’t even really proposals at all. A “nonpartisan commission to improve the voting experience”? In Washington, a commission is what you create when you want to look like you’re doing something — not what you do when you actually want something specific to happen.

Or take climate change. In order to prepare for its effects and head off potential consequences, Obama promised to “direct my cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future.” As Yuval Levin says, that phrase is basically an admission of failure — an indication that the administration wanted to do something, but couldn’t come up with anything to do.

The closest thing to a big idea in the speech was that government should be about helping the middle class.

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Largest Trade Agreement in History Needs Approval From 27 European Countries and the U.S. Congress. What Could Go Wrong?

Credit: vsaid, flickrCredit: vsaid, flickrLast night, Obama announced that talks will soon begin on a “comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union.” According to the BBC, the trade agreement will be the biggest trade deal in history.

As with most significant changes that the E.U. tries to implement the trade agreement will almost certainly divide northern European countries from their southern neighbors. As an article from Reuters points out, the countries hardest hit by the euro-crisis are ironically the ones that will probably be the most skeptical of a trade agreement with the U.S., while the generally more market-sympathetic countries of northern Europe will be more likely to support such an agreement.

It is worth remembering that the E.U. has a patchy history when it comes to organizing trade agreements, as the Reuters piece goes on to explain:

Brussels is negotiating possible free-trade agreements with more than 80 countries, with some successes, such as a recent deal set to be struck with Singapore, but some talks, such as with India, showing no signs of ending.

Talks that began with Canada in 2009 have also failed to settle differences over agricultural exports, intellectual property and public procurement, despite two high-level efforts to break the deadlock.

The deal will require a lot of negotiation, and there are still major obstacles that must be overcome before an agreement is reached.  The E.U. Commission will need approval from the E.U.’s member states for the agreement to go ahead. Getting 27 European countries to agree to anything is no small task, let alone the largest trade agreement in history. In addition, the U.S. Congress will also have to approve the deal.

How bad could a trade agreement look after 27 European countries and the U.S. Congress have got their hands on it? 

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Boehner Says No to Wage Hike, Four Loko Agrees to Label Changes, Delicious Fracking Fluid: P.M. Links

  • Probably didn't have enough scandalsCredit: London 2012 OlympicsHouse Speaker John Boehner is already shooting down President Barack Obama’s proposal to increase the minimum wage, arguing that it will kill jobs.
  • Four Loko has agreed to change the labeling on its cans to make its alcohol content more clear in order to satisfy the Federal Trade Commission.
  • The sports community is confused and rallying against the decision by the International Olympics Committee to drop one of its sexiest oldest events: wrestling.
  • Christopher Dorner’s wallet was reportedly found in the rubble of the burned down cabin where a charred body (presumably his) has been found.
  • The Democratic Governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper, drank fracking fluid to show that it’s safe.
  • The European horsemeat scandal will likely lead to more regulations. Meanwhile in the notably regulated nation of China, consumers will soon be able to buy tools to test the safety of their own food at home.

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Brian Doherty on Rand Paul's State of the Union Response

Credit: Gage Skidmore / Foter.com / CC BY SACredit: Gage Skidmore / Foter.com / CC BY SAThe official Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address last night was from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. But the Republican Party is a house (partially) divided now, with a self-conscious rebel wing, and the semi-official “Tea Party” response came from Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. As Brian Doherty observes, Paul’s speech not only revealed key differences between his approach and that of Rubio, it showed that Paul’s brand of libertarianism has a central role to play in the future of the GOP, including the 2016 presidential campaign.

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The Never-Ending War in Afghanistan and Against Al-Qaeda

to 2014 and beyondU.S. Army / Foter.com“America will complete its mission in Afghanistan,” President Obama promised Congress and the American people at last night’s State of the Union address. That mission’s objective: “defeating the core of Al Qaida.” The war, then, Obama said, would be over in 2014. But America’s “commitment to a unified and sovereign Afghanistan” (read: active military presence, or war in Afghanistan) will continue beyond that. One of the reasons for the open-ended commitment is to train Afghan security forces. But as Congressman Walter Jones told us in the February issue of Reason, “you can train a monkey to ride a bicycle in less time.”

The president’s other reason for the U.S. to remain in Afghanistan is the same reason the war on terror is set to continue indefinitely, fighting Al-Qaeda, an organization that, according to Obama , “is a shadow of its former self.” Nevertheless the campaign against it, and its associated forces or “affiliates,” acts as the government’s justification for continued military operations in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. “It’s true, different Al Qaida affiliates and extremist groups have emerged, from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa,” the president admitted, without tracing America’s hand in those groups’ evolution. Al Qaeda was a virtual non-entity in Qaddafi’s Libya. Today its presence there is by all accounts stronger than America’s. Somalia’s Islamist militants didn’t set up franchise with Al-Qaeda until just last year, years after America’s intervention in Somalia began. The president even looped the French intervention in Mali into America’s war against Al-Qaeda; “[we] help allies who take the fight to terrorists.”

 And he gave an empty nod to “enlist[ing] our values in the fight.” Without mentioning drones or targeted killings specifically, he said his administration has created a “durable legal and policy framework” for its counterterrorism efforts and that he’s kept Congress informed of it. He’s going to keep informing Congress of it, too, he says, because “no one should just take my word for it.” Unfortunately, all we have are the president and his men’s word, and even that at great resistance. The targeted killing memo that vaulted Obama’s drone policies into the forefront of the news cycle was leaked. While Jay Carney tried to use it being made public to burnish the administration’s reputation for transparency, the Obama administration actually rejected a FOIA request for the very same memo. The president only provided the actual memos justifying targeted killings to select members of Congress last week, when it became an issue in John Brennan’s confirmation hearings. Brennan’s answers on the procedures behind the White House’s targeted killings policies, by the way, boiled down to “trust us”.

No indications, then, that the war that never ends is anything else.

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Food Police Have Crosshairs on Soft Drinks

Coca-cola bottlesCredit: Lawrence Whittemore / Foter.comThey’re doing this because you are not to be trusted. They know that you’re incapable of deciding when enough is enough. It’s because they care. But don’t worry! They’re here to help you with your problem.

The New York Times calls them “health advocates and public health officials from major cities” (as if an urban address somehow confers gravitas) urging the FDA to take action. They are the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and they want you to stop drinking so much damn soda, claiming that “the levels of added sugars in those products is unsafe” and “things like high fructose corn syrup and sucrose [are] a public health hazard.”

Their solution? Have the FDA regulate the amount of sugar and other caloric sweeteners that can be added to beverages. Translation: they want you drinking diet.

Clearly this is a subject about which the CSPI feels passionately. They’ve been campaigning against “liquid candy” since before 2003, when Reason magazine senior editor Jacob Sullum wrote an in-depth article about the laughably inconsistent and unscientific organization. Highlights include a timely section on the CSPI policy of “perpetual Lent” as well as a humorous bit on the supposed gastrointestinal dangers of Quorn, which the organization once hailed as a “meatless marvel."

Perhaps the CSPI feels that New York City’s soon-to-be-in-effect ban on large sodas won’t go far enough to punish small, minority-owned businesses and otherwise trample on the freedoms of the American people. After all: it is just one city. Then again, maybe they just know they’re not to be trusted—and they assume you’re not to be either.

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Paul Says He Will Block Brennan's CIA Nomination Until He Gets Answers About Obama's License to Kill

In my column today, I note that John Brennan, the counterterrorism adviser President Obama has picked to run the CIA, conspicuously declined to say at his confirmation hearing last week whether his boss has the power to order hits on suspected terrorists within the United States. While the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee let that slide, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) says he won't, threatening to block Brennan's nomination until he gets a clear answer: 

I have asked Mr. Brennan if he believed that the President has the power to authorize lethal force, such as a drone strike, against a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil, and my question remains unanswered. I will not allow a vote on this nomination until Mr. Brennan openly responds to the questions and concerns my colleagues and I share.

You can read Paul's letters to Brennan here and here. He asks a total of 40 or so questions. Here are some of them:

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The Rand Paul Rorschach Test

For the writers here at Reason, the differences between the Rand Paul and Marco Rubio responses to the State of the Union address seemed pretty clear. But how did they look to observers outside the libertarian world?

The half-visible man.Alex Seitz-Wald of Salon seemed more interested in the Rand Paul speech's sponsor, Tea Party Express, than the speech itself. (And to be fair, the efforts of a centralized operation run by Republican consultants to present itself as "the Tea Party" is a significant story.) But at the end of his article he recognized that Paul took more libertarian positions than rival Rubio on military spending and immigration. The article's odd omission is Paul's defense of civil liberties -- the section of his remarks that begins with a pledge "to defend the entire Bill of Rights, from the right to trial by jury to the right to be free from unlawful searches," then goes on to denounce "secret lists of American citizens who can be killed without trial" and to urge Congress to "stand as a check to the power of the executive," among other points. That part of the talk doesn't seem to have made an impression on Seitz-Wald, who didn't mention it.

It certainly made an impression on Jennifer Rubin, the most reliably neoconservative voice at The Washington Post. In a blog post headlined "Rand Paul should get real," she attacked Paul's position on military spending (and, more positively, praised the senator's interest in immigration reform). But it's the civil liberties talk that really sent her over the edge:

Then, however, Paul seems to hint at another agenda, saying he is going to insist on trial by jury and search-and-seizure protection. Hmm. We have those things, right? Does he mean for Gitmo detainees? Terrorists on the battlefield? And he objects to "secret lists" of Americans to be killed "without trial." Does he think we can't kill an American-turned-jihadist on the battlefield?

Yes: Just what sort of stuff might Paul have been referring to with those words? Such a mystery!

And then there's Steve Benen at MSNBC's Maddow Blog, who doesn't seem to see any differences between Paul and Rubio at all. If you read his post about the Paul speech, you can search it in vain for a reference to drones, the Fourth Amendment, Pentagon spending, or any other area where Benen's liberal audience might prefer Paul's positions to Barack Obama's. Wouldn't want to complicate the narrative, I guess.

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John Stossel on Obama's Misguided State of the Union

Credit: Library of CongressCredit: Library of CongressImagine if we lived in a world with honest politicians. If so, writes John Stossel, here's what Obama's State of the Union address would have actually said.

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Mitch McConnell, That Old Hippie, Pushes Legal Hemp

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) recently came out in favor of legalizing hemp cultivation, thanks to the persuasive talents of fellow Kentucky senator Rand Paul and the state's agriculture commssioner, James Comer, both Republicans. The New York Times cites McConnell's conversion as evidence that the cause, long identified with hippies and stoners, has gained respectability among conservatives. The fact that it has taken so long is testimony to the plant's powerful symbolism, because there is no logical reason to stop farmers from growing industrial hemp, a version of cannabis with negligible THC, even if you support marijuana prohibition. "The specter of people getting high on industrial hemp," former CIA Director R. James Woolsey noted at a Kentucky State Senate hearing on Monday, "is pretty much exactly like saying you can get drunk on O'Doul’s." Testifying at the same hearing, Paul pointed out that other countries where marijuana is illegal (including China, for crying out loud) nevertheless manage to allow hemp cultivation. "It's a crop that’s legal everywhere else in the world except the United States," he said.

CREDIT: Jeannie HererCREDIT: Jeannie HererSeizing upon an old anti-hemp canard, Kenucky State Police Commissioner Rodney Brewer worried that marijuana growers would hide their crop in fields of hemp. "They are identical in appearance when it comes to the naked eye," he warned. But as Woolsey observed, no marijuana grower in his right mind would want his plants anywhere near a hemp farm, since cross-pollination would ruin his crop. In Colorado, where the same ballot initiative that legalized marijuana for recreational use also calls for the legalization of hemp, the managers of indoor marijuana grows (currently serving the medical market) are worried about drifting pollen from hemp farms, which could make their plants go to seed instead of producing lots of lovely buds and resin. Yet prohibitionists like Brewer claim that pot growers will put their plants smack dab in the middle of hemp fields. “You’d think you're at a DEA hearing," Paul said in exasperation.

The same emotional impulse that explains why the U.S. has to import all the hemp fiber, seeds, and oil it uses was also at the root of the Drug Enforcement Administration's efforts to ban not only hemp farms but hemp products. The DEA, which ultimately was slapped down by the courts, simply could not tolerate an industry linked to the Weed With Roots in Hell, even though none of its products was psychoactive. But as Mitch McConnell finally realized, "the utilization of hemp to produce everything from clothing to paper is real," even if drug warriors prefer not to think about it. Jack Herer would be pleased.

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Will U.S. Officials Bust an Icelandic Lawmaker Over Wikileaks and Bradley Manning?

Birgitta JonsdottirBirgitta JonsdottirOne of the things that got the United States government all hot and bothered over Bradley Manning's transmission of government information to Wikileaks was the transparency organization's subsequent release of a video of American troops firing from an Apache helicopter on civilians in Iraq. Numerous adults were killed during the incident, including good samaritans rendering assistance and two Reuters journalists. Two children were badly wounded. This isn't the only element of Manning's activities that bent U.S. officials out of shape, but it definitely didn't leave them well-disposed toward the soldier, or toward Wikileaks activists like Birgitta Jonsdottir, who will soon travel to the United States to see if government officials have the stones to arrest her, especially now that she's a member of Iceland's parliament.

Of the video of the killing in Iraq, Time's Mark Thompson wrote in 2010:

[T]he videotape was ultimately confirmed as genuine by U.S. military officials. There was as much irritation inside the Pentagon at whoever leaked the videotape as there was for WikiLeaks' posting of it.

Writes Ed Pilkington in The Guardian:

Birgitta Jónsdóttir, the Icelandic MP and member of the WikiLeaks team that released secret footage of a US Apache helicopter attack on civilians in Iraq, is planning to visit America for the first time since the 'Collateral Murder' video was made public to express her support for Bradley Manning, the video's alleged source.

Jónsdóttir plans to travel to New York on 5 April to mark the third anniversary of the posting of the footage, one of the most dramatic WikiLeaks releases and one that helped put the website and its founder Julian Assange on the global map. She is making the journey even though she has been advised by the Icelandic government not to do so for fear of legal retribution from US authorities.

In keeping with Iceland's reputation for being just freaking weird, Jonsdottir represents a party called The Movement, "aiming for democratic reform beyond party politics of left and right." No, nobody really seems to know what that means. She's also a self-described "poetician." OK. But she was also a co-producer on the Collateral Murder video released by Wikileaks depicting the helicopter attack in Iraq. The incident sufficiently upset the powers-that-be that FBI agents went to Iceland to interrogate Wikileaks activists. According to Wikileaks:

Recently it has become public that the FBI had secretly sent eight agents to Iceland in 2011 in relation to the ongoing U.S. investigation of WikiLeaks. The Icelandic Minister of Interior, Ögmundur Jónasson, has confirmed this to the Icelandic press and furthermore stated that when he found out on August 25th 2011 that the aim of the visit was to interrogate an Icelandic citizen he ordered the local police to cease all co-operation with the FBI. He indicated that the FBI had left the country the day after.

In a joint statement Monday from the Icelandic Police Chief and the Prosecutor General it is revealed that the FBI agents, in fact, did not leave the country immediately and were conducting interrogation of an Icelandic subject for at least five days, without the presence of Icelandic police officers.

The U.S. Justice Department also tried to pry information about Jonsdottir out of Internet companies, including Twitter. FBI high-handedness has now become a bit of a kerfuffle in Iceland, and the subject of an official investigation.

Jonsdottir has supposedly received verbal assurances from the U.S. government that she won't be arrested if she visits the land of the free. She has also received warnings from her own government not to believe those verbal assurances. She'll find out, one way or the other, when she visits the United States this coming April to drum up support for Bradley Manning.

A short version of the Collateral Murder video is below. A longer version, along with other information, can be found at the Collateral Murder Website.

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Canadian Minister Says Mali Potential Afghanistan Repeat as Obama Reaffirms Support For Campaign Against Al Qaeda

Credit: Magharebia / flickrCredit: Magharebia / flickrCanadian foreign affairs minister John Baird has warned against Canadian military trainers being sent to Mali, saying that such a mission could turn into a military quagmire like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Baird is right to suspect that the conflict in Mali will come to resemble the situation in Afghanistan. Since Islamic militants retreated from their strongholds they have begun a predictable guerrilla campaign. Such tactics recently forced French soldiers to go house-to-house in Gao, a city in northern Mali that was attacked by Islamic militants on Sunday.

A recent mutiny, call for jihad, suicide attack, as well as accusations of abuses all put more pressure on the French, who plan to leave Mali next month in what they hope will be a better state than how they found it.  

Although militants in Mali have withdrawn or been forced out of their previous strongholds this does not mean that the conflict in the region is close to being over. A recent NPR article highlighted the size of the Islamic militant force that could return to wreak havoc in northern Mali or Niger:

Given the weekend attack on Gao, are the Islamist militants vanquished? Probably not, suggests McClatchy reporter Alan Boswell. He finds "the strongest evidence yet that the quick advance by French troops against al Qaida-linked Islamist militants was less a military rout than an orderly and strategic withdrawal into terrain far more suitable for a gritty, drawn-out insurgency campaign."

"In other words, their retreat from northern Mali isn't game over, but game on."

Boswell describes how carefully militants appeared to pull out of towns they'd held: a convoy of vehicle drove out of the town of Diabaly one at a time, without headlights, over 12 hours. This way they weren't likely to attract much attention from French warplanes. Boswell suggests that in this manner, thousands of militants may have evaded French detection.

Last night Obama expressed a slightly different position on the situation in Mali than Baird, saying:

Today, the organization that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self.  Different al Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups have emerged – from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa.  The threat these groups pose is evolving.  But to meet this threat, we don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations.  Instead, we will need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali.

Given that the situation in Mali could get increasingly more violent it will be interesting to see what form the “help” the president mentioned last night will take, especially since he rejected putting boots on the ground, a commitment that presumably does not preclude the use of drones.

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Ron Paul Angers Some Fans By Using the Law--International Law, No Less--to Try to Get RonPaul.com Domain Name

Recently retired Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) is being mocked as a hypocrite by those who live to mock him (such as Gawker) and attacked for turning his back on his own principles by some disillusioned fans, because he wants the current users of the the domain name RonPaul.com to give it to him.

What's more, he is willing to follow the procedures set by the governing body of Internet domain names, the procedures the domain name owners agreed to as part of their ownership of the name, to get it back when they informed Paul they wanted $250,000 for the name and its accompanying mailing list.

The lament of the current owners. Excerpt:

On May 1st, 2008 we launched a grassroots website at RonPaul.com that became one of the most popular resources dedicated exclusively to Ron Paul and his ideas. Like thousands of fellow Ron Paul supporters, we put our lives on hold and invested 5 years of hard work into Ron Paul, RonPaul.com and Ron Paul 2012. Looking back, we are very happy with what we were able to achieve with unlimited enthusiasm and limited financial resources.

Last month, after Ron Paul expressed regret on the Alex Jones show over not owningRonPaul.com...dozens of supporters urged us to contact Ron Paul to work out a deal....

The value we put on the deal was $250k; we are getting our mailing list appraised right now but we are confident it is easily worth more than $250k all by itself. Claims that we tried to sell Ron Paul “his name” for $250k or even $800k are completely untrue...

Their letter to Paul includes this offer:

That would include a copy of our 170,000 strong RonPaul.com email list; these supporters proactively signed up for our email updates, they expect and welcome frequent communications, and they are completely "untapped" in terms of donations. This means that you (and/or Campaign For Liberty) could easily make back the purchase price in a matter of days. Only you can put this list to its best possible use, which is why we'd include it as a free bonus with RonPaul.com.

Paul's letter to the World Intellectual Property Center Arbitration and Mediation Center, which argues that Paul has a legitimate, though non-registered, trademark in his name through his long time use of it in commerce, such as book sales.

It also argues the owners of the domain name took it in bad faith with the purpose of selling it, using as evidence two offers the RonPaul.com folk made to Paul to sell, one for $848,000 then the current offer of $250,000 plus throwing in RonPaul.org for free, though the actual offer in my reading is they are offering him RonPaul.org for free irrespective of him paying for RonPaul.com.

There is a point that the legal filings and press reports leave ambiguous, and my attempts to get clarification from the RonPaul.com folk has so far failed, but I'll update it as I learn more: while they write as if they are the domain name owners, they also say they didn't start operation until 2008, and the filings indicate the domain name has been registered since 2001 and that the respondents in his case are leasing it to a "third party for a fee."

The Gawker headline tries to get contemptuous laffs out of "Ron Paul Calls on United Nations (Which He Doesn't Believe In) to Confiscate RonPaul.com."

The RonPaul.com folks also play that card:

Instead of responding to our offer, making a counter offer, or even accepting our FREE gift of RonPaul.org, Ron Paul went to the United Nations and is trying to use its legal process related to domain name disputes to actively deport us from our domain names without compensation.

Below is a copy of Ron Paul’s complaint and our original offer to Ron Paul. We have 20 days to prepare a response and we are tentatively looking for a lawyer to represent us in this case.

Hopefully it won’t have to come to that!

What in the world is going on? ....now Ron Paul, the Internet grassroots candidate, who was at the right place at the right time to lead the rEVOLution, attacks his own grassroots supporters through an agency of the United Nations to deport them from their own domain names after 5 years of nothing but unlimited, unconditional support on our part?

The "United Nations" part is pure bad faith obfuscation to make Paul look bad in the (pretty irrelevant in this case) Court of Public Opinion. Paul is using the only procedure for redress his has, the procedure that the owners agreed to when they registered the name. It is not unlibertarian to use set agreed-on procedures for arbitration in property rights disputes.

What's really at issue (if anything is....) is using existing law --or on a higher level of abstraction, any existing government provided amenity at all--as a libertarian. It certainly delights non-libertarians to think all libertarians must eschew all the services the government has abrogated arrogated to itself to avoid hypocrisy, and refuse to try to get any return on the taxes mulcted from the libertarian, but few libertarians have felt the same. (Anarcho-Austrian economist Walter Block boldly argues that if you are using government largess in part to spread an anti-government message, you are more entitled to the government cash than a non-libertarian.) There is also the question, controversial among libertarians, as to whether a name is something one can even have a property right in. But control of a domain name in practice assuredly is.

I think evidence indicates Paul is likely mistaken on the facts--the history of the use of RonPaul.com could easily make an objective observer decide that their actions don't obviously provide the requisite "bad faith" for Paul to win. They ran this website for years which in practice promoted his candidacy and his ideas (and yes, sell some stuff), not just to make a quick buck selling it to him. They are offering to sell it to him because he declared that he wanted it.

Ought they, as true fans, give him what he asks for? Ought he, as a believer in property rights, recognize they have established lawful and proper ownership? Hell if I know and not up to me to decide. But there is nothing more sinister or hypocritical at stake than the usual problem of a libertarian in a statist world. And while I'm not a domain name law expert, it strikes me that the ICANN system of establishment of rights by the cyber equivalent of homesteading and then agreement to neutral arbitration about controversies is closer to the dream world of libertarian property ownership establishment and adjudication than anything else in this fallen world, and there is nothing inherently shameful in using it.

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Mike Riggs on Drug Warrior Patrick Kennedy Running From His Own Record

Credit: Will White FlickrCredit: Will White FlickrFormer Democratic Congressman Patrick Kennedy has taken a hard line stance against marijuana since leaving office in 2011. Marijuana policy reformers have criticized the chairman of a new anti-marijuana group for pushing "mandatory marijuana-education programs," "working out his personal control issues in public," and overstating the addictiveness and danger of marijuana. Missing from their critiques is the fact that Kennedy has done an unacknowledged 180-degree policy reversal, practically overnight: As a representative from Rhode Island, Kennedy was an advocate for medical marijuana, an ally to the gambling industry, and a beneficiary of the tobacco and alcohol industries.

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Congressional Report Recommends Repealing Some Federal Criminal Statutes Amid Record-Breaking Prison Population

land of the freeWikipedia/Public DomainThe federal prison population is up nearly 800 percent since 1980, while the cost of doing all that incarceration is up nearly $3 billion in the last ten years, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service, which recommends some policy solutions, including:

For example, Congress could consider options such as (1) modifying mandatory minimum penalties, (2) expanding the use of Residential Reentry Centers, (3) placing more offenders on probation, (4) reinstating parole for federal inmates, (5) expanding the amount of good time credit an inmate can earn, and (6) repealing federal criminal statutes for some offenses.

On the problem with some federal criminal statutes, the report goes on to explain the federalization of criminal law:

One of the highlighted reasons for the growth in the federal prison population was the “federalization” of offenses that were traditionally under the sole jurisdiction of state authorities. Policymakers could consider revising the U.S. Code so that federal law enforcement focuses on crimes where states do not have jurisdiction over the offenses or where the federal government is best suited to investigate and prosecute the offenders (e.g., the offense involves multiple individuals acting together to commit crimes across several states). Some crimes will always be federal offenses…. However, over the years the federal government has become more involved in investigating, prosecuting, and incarcerating people who commit drug offenses and offenses where a convicted felon is found to be in possession of a firearm. In many instances, states have criminal penalties for individuals who commit these types of crimes.

The president’s push for more federal gun controls combined with an aggressive prosecution of the war on drugs means the federal government appears to be going in the other direction, creating the conditions for an ever larger federal prison population (already the largest in the world).

A full three quarters of the federal prison population is incarcerated on drugs, immigration or weapons offenses, with only about 25 percent for violent, property or public order offenses.

The full report here (pdf) and read Jacob Sullum on 6,741 reasons not to expect criminal justice reform from President Obama.

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Obama's Case for Gun Control: One Emotion-Laden Non Sequitur After Another

During last night's State of the Union address, President Obama did not make a case for gun control. Instead, as usual, he made an emotional appeal:

What I've said tonight matters little if we don’t come together to protect our most precious resource: our children. It has been two months since Newtown. I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence. But this time is different. Overwhelming majorities of Americans—Americans who believe in the Second Amendment—have come together around common-sense reform, like background checks that will make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun. (Applause.) Senators of both parties are working together on tough new laws to prevent anyone from buying guns for resale to criminals. Police chiefs are asking our help to get weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines off our streets, because these police chiefs, they’re tired of seeing their guys and gals being outgunned.  

Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress. (Applause.) Now, if you want to vote no, that’s your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote. Because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun—more than a thousand. 

One of those we lost was a young girl named Hadiya Pendleton. She was 15 years old. She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss. She was a majorette. She was so good to her friends they all thought they were her best friend. Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house. 

Hadiya’s parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. They deserve a vote. They deserve a vote. (Applause.) Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. (Applause.) The families of Newtown deserve a vote.  (Applause.) The families of Aurora deserve a vote. (Applause.) The families of Oak Creek and Tucson and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence—they deserve a simple vote.  (Applause.) They deserve a simple vote.   

Our actions will not prevent every senseless act of violence in this country. In fact, no laws, no initiatives, no administrative acts will perfectly solve all the challenges I’ve outlined tonight. But we were never sent here to be perfect. We were sent here to make what difference we can, to secure this nation, expand opportunity, uphold our ideals through the hard, often frustrating, but absolutely necessary work of self-government.

I was with him until that seventh word. The rest is a ritualistic invocation of dead children aimed at manipulating people into supporting policies that have nothing to do with the event that supposedly demonstrated their necessity. Background checks and magazine limits would not have made any difference in Newtown, and a ban on military-style semiautomatic rifles (which Obama misleadingly calls "weapons of war") demonstrably did not: Connecticut has such a law, and it did not stop Adam Lanza. Banning the particular rifle that he used, as Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has inanely proposed, is mere symbolism given that would-be mass murderers have many equally lethal alternatives.

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Maryland Pulls a Facebook, Wants to Claim Rights to Your Stuff

Girl doing homeworkCredit: Extra Ketchup/flickr.comNot long ago, Facebook came under fire for claiming commercial ownership of user-submitted content on Instagram. These days, the Prince George’s County  Board of Education is thinking of doing the same thing with a proposal that “would give them the copyright to anything created by teachers, students, and employees before, during, and after school hours,” according to Fox News.

Local parents, understandably upset that their children’s school work may soon be the property of Big Brother, have joined with teachers to protest the policy. Fortunately,it is currently undergoing legal review—and looks like it won’t stand up.

From the Fox News article:

San Francisco copyright lawyer Lawrence Townsend… tells FoxNews.com that while the county has the right under the Work for Hire provision to police what teachers do, trying to stake a claim in what students create won't fly. 

"The students are mostly under the age of 18 and federal law protects their rights," he said. Townsend added that unless a parent or guardian signs off on it, what a student creates belongs to the student and not the school.

The policy was apparently written to “protect the school system from teachers trying to sell their lesson plans online." But would that be so bad?

A marketplace where teachers could purchase quality lesson plans would certainly cut down on the workload that teachers face, leaving them more time for student interaction and meaningful assessment. It would also encourage teachers to develop better classroom materials from which they could earn a supplemental income.

It’s difficult to see how the students lose out in this scenario.

Public education is decidedly anti-competition, and the teachers union generally does all it can to keep charter schools and education vouchers from forcing their members to work any harder. In this instance, however, that same impulse towards protectionism should help block a policy that seems straight out of Soviet Russia.

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Veronique de Rugy on Why Soaking the Rich Won’t Solve Our Problems

Credit: Steve Rhodes / Foter.com / CC BY NDCredit: Steve Rhodes / Foter.com / CC BY NDIn January, as part of a deal to avert the fiscal cliff, Congress increased marginal tax rates on higher-income earners to Clinton-era levels while preserving existing Bush-era rates for most taxpayers. By boosting rates for the rich, Congress is banking on the notion that tax increases will deliver much-needed revenue for the government without unduly damaging the economy. The bet is that high earners will keep working despite Uncle Sam’s taking a bigger bite out of their income. In the short run, writes Veronique de Rugy, this might well be true. But the longer run is much more complicated.

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Obama Wants Universal Preschool, Even Though It's Expensive and Ineffective

state of the unionCredit: White HouseLast night, President Obama made some pretty grand claims for the power of preschool:

Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on—by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime. In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own

The president is proposing a national preschool entitlement, focused on low- and middle-income families. (Though his actual preschool proposal is only slightly more detailed than what he mentioned in his speech.)

If only we had some kind of large scale well-tracked pilot program that could give us some information about whether that is a good idea. Oh wait! We do! It's called Head Start, the $8 billion federal program catering to more than 1 million low-income kids.

Better still, the federal government has done a huge study, tracking 5,000 kids and comparing them to kids who did not have access to Head Start.

The findings are not impressive. A 2010 analysis of that group found that the cognitive, health, parenting, and social benefits of the program had vanished by first grade. And a 2012 look at the third grade outcomes was even less heartening, with no discernible academic gains and teachers reporting slightly more behavioral problems in the Head Start kids. 

Even if Georgia and Oklahoma have managed to formulate slightly more effective programs (Georgia is experimenting with a voucher-like system), there's still the larger evidence of the performance of American public schools overall in the last couple of decade. Spending is way, way up while academic results remain flat.

The current performance of Head Start and public schools overall is not exactly making a compelling case that we should spend hundreds of billions more dollars to shovel kids into this system earlier.

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Obama and The Debt: A Love Story

courtesy IBDcourtesy IBDLast night in his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama claimed

Over the last few years, both parties have worked together to reduce the deficit by more than $2.5 trillion... As a result, we are more than halfway towards the goal of $4 trillion in deficit reduction that economists say we need to stabilize our finances.

The folks at Investors Business Daily suggest that the president's fudge factor on that claim should induce the political equivalent of a diabetic coma:

When the [president's debt] commission filed its report in 2010, the national debt was $9 trillion, or about 63% of the nation's GDP. The national debt today is over $12 trillion, and has already surpassed 76% of GDP.

Had the debt commission's plan been adopted, the deficit this year would be $646 billion, and on its way down to $279 billion by 2020. And the debt would be holding steady at about 65% of GDP.

Instead, this year's deficit will be $845 billion — even after the alleged $2.5 trillion in savings that Obama touts — and will start climbing again in three years, reaching back up to $1 trillion by 2023, according to the latest forecast from the Congressional Budget Office.

The national debt, meanwhile, never drops below 73% of GDP, according to the CBO, and starts climbing after 2018, reaching 77% of GDP by 2023.

More here.

As a technical note, the figures above represent debt held by the public, which is a subset of total federal debt. When you factor in the debt that government agencies owes to each other (the gross debt), the current figure is actually $16.4 trillion, or more than 100 percent of GDP. That's important because when gross debt is greater than 90 percent of the economy for five years, economic growth tends to slow by 1 percentage point a year for periods that can last for 20 or more years. As awful as it is to have public debt levels climbing toward 80 percent of GDP, the fact that we've had gross debt higher than 90 percent of GDP since 2008 means we're in a "debt overhang" situation that may well retard growth for the next quarter-century.

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Matt Welch at CNN.com on Obama's Do-Something Plan for a Have-Nothing Government

The small man at the center. ||| CREDIT: Whitehouse.govCREDIT: Whitehouse.govWriting at CNN Opinion, Reason Editor in Chief argues that President Barack Obama's now-familiar philosophy of urging government "investment" to create an ever-elusive "broad-based growth" presents a fundamental conflict of visions with those who believe that the federal government on balance hinders rather than hastens prosperity. Thankfully if belatedly, Welch writes, there's a politician giving direct voice to the latter proposition. Excerpt:

"Let's cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next 20 years," said the president, who promised a "Recovery Through Retrofit" three years ago. "The American people deserve a tax code that ... lowers tax rates for businesses and manufacturers that create jobs right here in America," said the man who before he took office vowed to, uh, give "tax breaks to companies that are investing here in the United States."

That "aging infrastructure badly in need of repair"? Well, what happened to the $50 billion from the stimulus package dedicated to precisely that task, or the $50 billion plan 18 months later? Making college "more affordable"? That has been the motivation for continuous ratcheting of government involvement in higher education, which has -- surprise! -- coincided with a several-decade increase in tuition costs and student loan debt.

Do-something politics works when Americans have amnesia, or are reacting to headline-making tragedies, or when they just want free stuff. But this irresistible force is butting up against the immovable object of a have-nothing U.S. Treasury.

Read the whole thing here.

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A.M. Links: Hunt for Dorner Ends in Flames, Nugent Not a Fan of State of the Union, Pope Speaks About Resignation, Russia Bans Smoking in Public

Credit: Rvin88. WikicommonsCredit: Rvin88. Wikicommons

  • Police may have started the fire that engulfed a cabin at Big Bear Lake in California where a body suspected to be that of ex-LAPD cop Christopher Dorner was found. 
  • Ted Nugent was not impressed by Obama’s State of the Union address, saying that his favorite part when when he couldn’t hear clearly. 
  • Pope Benedict XVI has spoken for the first time about this resignation from the papacy, saying that he is stepping down “for the good of the church.”
  • At least nine civilians, mostly women and children, have been killed by an airstrike in Afghanistan. Three Taliban commanders were also killed. 

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Three State of the Union Visions: Obama, Rubio, and Paul

Sen. Rand PaulSen. Rand PaulIf you wanted a menu of political options for America's political future, you got them last night. President Obama put forward a vision — not the red-beret, full-on lefty vision of which he's often accused — but of a Borg-ish, collectivist country in which the word "we" is used a lot, and "we" tirelessly meddle in the affairs of other nations, among other things, under the command of a very powerful executive. The stark contrast was provided, not by the official Republican response delivered by a parched Sen. Marco Rubio, but by Sen. Rand Paul. He laid out a full-throated defense of individualism, small government, free markets and civil liberties. Rubio ... His response was cheeriness, a weak nod to capitalism, But ... hooray for Medicare!

Contrast, if you will, these takes on:

Aassassination by drone, executive power and related civil liberties concerns

First, the president:

As we do, we must enlist our values in the fight. That is why my Administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism operations. Throughout, we have kept Congress fully informed of our efforts. I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way. So, in the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.

From Sen. Paul:

We will stand up against excessive government power wherever we see it.

We cannot and will not allow any President to act as if he were a king.

We will not let any President use executive orders to impinge on the Second Amendment.

We will not tolerate secret lists of American citizens who can be killed without trial.

From Sen. Rubio:


Seriously. How do you skip that issue the week after the revelation of a memo authorizing the president to snuff people on his own say-so?

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Obama Calls For Modest Health Reforms, Spends More Time Ruling Them Out

Credit: Whitehouse.govCredit: Whitehouse.govIn last night's State of the Union address, President Obama noted again that "the biggest driver of our long-term debt is the rising cost of health care for an aging population" and said that "those of us who care deeply about programs like Medicare must embrace the need for modest reforms."

Keeping this in mind, it's worth noting that in recent days, the White House has been busy rejecting modest reforms: Earlier this month, White House economic adviser Gene Sperling declared flatly that "Medicaid savings, Medicaid cuts, for this administration, are not on the table.” Not big cuts, not modest ones, and not even cuts it had already said it might accept. Sperling noted that his statement specifically rules out Medicaid savings and cuts that the administration had previously indicated it would consider. 

And earlier this week, Obama rejected another idea for reducing the cost of Medicare that he'd previously said he would consider: raising Medicare's eligibility age

Tonight's State of the Union also contained the following bit about the health and economic promise of drug development:

Today, our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s; developing drugs to regenerate damaged organs; devising new material to make batteries ten times more powerful. Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation.

Yet Obama has repeatedly proposed changing the way Medicare pays for prescription drugs for seniors who are also eligible for Medicaid. And he made reference to changing the way the government pays for drugs in the speech, saying: "We’ll reduce taxpayer subsidies to prescription drug companies and ask more from the wealthiest seniors." Putting aside the question of whether those cuts are a good idea, they would almost certainly have a dampening effect on pharmaceutical research and development spending. 

He also said he would "bring down costs by changing the way our government pays for Medicare," but that's proven tricky as well. The Obama administration delayed cuts to Medicare Advantage that it stumped for, and the Government Accountability Office says that its justification for doing so is bunk. 

All of which is to say that any kind of changes to Medicare or Medicaid are going to be hard—and that Obama doesn't seem too keen on making even the sort of modest reforms he says are necessary. 

Jacob Sullum on Due Process and Death by Drone

A Justice Department white paper leaked last week describes death by drone as an "act of national self-defense," part of an "armed conflict" with Al Qaeda and its allies. Yet the white paper also speaks of due process for suspected terrorists condemned to death by the president, a requirement it says can be met through secret discussions within the executive branch. Senior Editor Jacob Sullum says this contradiction at the heart of Obama's "targeted killing" policy combines the rules of the battlefield with the rules of the courtroom, making a muddle of both. 

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Brickbat: Egyptian Edict

khalid almasoud / photo on flickrkhalid almasoud / photo on flickrA court in Cairo, Egypt, has ordered the government to block access to YouTube for 30 days. The court says it was acting on a complaint filed several months ago against YouTube for hosting "Innocence of Muslims," a film some Muslims believe insults the founder of Islam.

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Rand Paul's State of the Union

It might not have been on every cable channel, but the Tea Party's State of the Union response by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) is well worth your time:

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Reason Tweets the State of the Union 2013 Now!

Join the Reason staff for news, views, and abuse about Barack Obama's 2013 State of the Union address. Don't forget to check out the official Reason drinking game.

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Will Obama Take Credit for Slowing the Rate of Increase in Federal Spending?

courtesy V de Rugy/Mercatuscourtesy V de Rugy/Mercatus

Above is an updated chart by Reason columnist and Mercatus Center analyst Veronique de Rugy. It shows federal outlays per capita in 2010 dollars from 1977 (Gerry Ford's last budget year) through fiscal 2012 (which ended on September 30 of last year). What it show is a pretty clear pattern that we've commented on before: Spending increases under Republican presidents (Reagan, Bush II) and those increases are consolidated under Democratic presidents. 

What this chart shows - and Dems and Reps are slow to acknowledge, though for different reasons - is that George W. Bush and a GOP Congress have a ton to answer for in terms of kicking out the jams when it comes to spending. Note that 2009, which was Bush's final budget year, does include a chunk of Obama spending as well (mostly the stimulus).

So does this mean that Obama is putting the government on the path to fiscal rectitude? Not hardly. Even though 2012 shows lower spending levels than the previous three years, outlays are still higher - in real dollars and per capita - than they were in 2008. And here's another chart that de Rugy has put together:

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Green Hat Gin Gets to Keep Its Name

After filing dueling lawsuits over trademark issues, Brooklyn-based Greenhook Ginsmiths and Washington, D.C.'s New Colombia Distillers - the makers of Green Hat Gin - have put away their lawyers and decided to fight it out on liquor store shelves.

If you didn't watch Reason TV's Repeal Day video delving into the backstory of the Green Hat name, now's your chance.

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Christopher Dorner Reportedly Killed in Big Bear, Calif.; One Deputy Killed in Gun Battle

Christopher Dorner has reportedly been sighted in Big Bear, Calif., and there's a parade of conflicting reports over a possible gun battle going on with authorities right now.

For those who want to follow live, here's ABC's live coverage.

I'm on Reason 24/7 duty right now and will work to keep posting the latest.

Some updates from our 24/7 Feed: Two San Bernardino County deputies were injured in a gun battle and the Los Angeles Times is reporting that one deputy is dead. Dorner is believed to be holed up in a cabin in Big Bear.

Update (4:22 Pacific time): San Bernardino County's sheriff has confirmed one of the deputies has been killed. ABC footage of the cabin where Dorner may be hiding shows a significant amount of smoke.

Update (5:45 Pacific time): The house Dorner is reportedly hiding in has mostly burned down. Officials are keeping mum at the moment about whether Dorner is still alive or not or even in the building.

Update (7:25 Pacific time): CBS has reported that what is believed to be Dorner's body has been recovered from the cabin. However, KTLA is saying officials with LAPD are saying they have not actually entered the burning home and have not confirmed a body.

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More Evidence That Government Policy Was Behind the Mortgage Meltdown

Mortgage MeltdownInvestors Business DailyJust two months ago, with regards to the mortgage meltdown that government apologists have been eager to lay at the door of moustache-twirling Wall Street types, a research paper answered the question, "Did the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) Lead to Risky Lending?" with a resounding, "yes, it did." Now, Investors Business Daily tells us that, as the federal government encouraged ever-riskier loans with fewer and fewer safeguards, the most enthusiastic issuers of the mortgage-backed securities that ultimately crashed in spectacular form were (can you guess?) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

IBD's David Hogberg writes:

HUD not only encouraged no down payments but also adopted affordable housing mandates for the government-sponsored en terprises that issue mortgage securities, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Beginning in 1996, the [government-sponsored enterprises] had to make 40% of new loans they financed to borrowers with incomes below the national median.

With lower underwriting standards and a mandate to fulfill, Fannie and Freddie's MBS issuance began to take off. It surged more than 116%, from $342 billion in 1997 to $741 billion in 1998.

Hogberg describes how MBS issues soared even as standards for loans were continuously eased, in compliance with the National Homeownership Strategy.

That strategy was a key piece of government policy through two administrations. Of its implementation, then-President Clinton said in 1995 "[t]he goal of this strategy, to boost home ownership to 67.5 percent by the year 2000, would take us to an all-time high."

The "how" of the boost is a big part of what got us into trouble. Businessweek reported in 2008 that the strategy "promoted paper-thin downpayments and pushed for ways to get lenders to give mortgage loans to first-time buyers with shaky financing and incomes."

While the strategy was no secret, and was continued by the Bush administration, it was sufficiently low-profile that the Department of Housing & Urban Development quietly tried to drop the embarrassing thing down the memory hole in 2007. That didn't work.

Hogberg continues:

By 2000, Fannie and Freddie were financing loans with zero down payments. The private market soon followed. By 2006, 30% of all homebuyers made no down payment. ...

After those changes, Fannie and Freddie's business skyrocketed. Their MBS issues jumped from about $469 billion in 2000 to $1.1 trillion in 2001. The increase continued, rising to $1.5 trillion in 2002 and $2.2 trillion in 2003.

As GSEs' issuance of mortgage securities began to fall in 2004, the private MBS market took up some of the slack. Private issuance rose from $684 billion in 2003 to $980 billion in 2004 to a high of $1.3 trillion in 2005.

Yet private mortgage securities never matched that of the GSEs. From 1995-2009, the private market issued about $6.8 trillion in MBSs vs. $14 trillion for Fannie and Freddie.

I distinctly remember "no-doc" loans being a big deal during those years, too. A friend of mine took out more than one mortgage during the National Homeownership Strategy years without offering a single page of evidence that the income he claimed bore any resemblance to reality. He "self-certified" in the language of the time, in return for a (very) slightly higher rate. He also admitted to me that his claimed income was complete bullshit. He wasn't the only one, as no-doc loans became known as "liar loans" and are now essentially unavailable.

This was a result of federal government policy to promote home ownership as a good in itself without regard to the financial ability to pay for a home. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac took that policy and turned mortgage-backed securities into the equivalent of torpedoes fired at the U.S. economy.

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6,741 Reasons to Think Obama Is Not Serious About Criminal Justice Reform

Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann hopes, against experience, that President Obama will say something about "the issue of mass incarceration in America" during tonight's State of the Union address. After all, he has made noises about criminal justice reform in the past, he supported shrinking the irrational sentencing gap between crack and cocaine powder (a reform that was favored by virtually every member of Congress), and... Well, that's pretty much it, although Nadelmann notes some comments in a recent Time interview that recall concerns Obama expressed as a presidential candidate in 2007 about America's overachievement in the field of locking people up:

I don't think it's any secret that we have one of the two or three highest incarceration rates in the world, per capita. I tend to be pretty conservative, pretty law and order, when it comes to violent crime. My attitude is, is that when you rape, murder, assault somebody, that you've made a choice; the society has every right to not only make sure you pay for that crime, but in some cases to disable you from continuing to engage in violent behavior.

But there's a big chunk of that prison population, a great huge chunk of our criminal justice system that is involved in nonviolent crimes. And it is having a disabling effect on communities. Obviously, inner city communities are most obvious, but when you go into rural communities, you see a similar impact. You have entire populations that are rendered incapable of getting a legitimate job because of a prison record. And it gobbles up a huge amount of resources. If you look at state budgets, part of the reason that tuition has been rising in public universities across the country is because more and more resources were going into paying for prisons, and that left less money to provide to colleges and universities.

But this is a complicated problem. One of the incredible transformations in this society that precedes me, but has continued through my presidency, even continued through the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression, is this decline in violent crime. And that's something that we want to continue. And so I think we have to figure out what are we doing right to make sure that that downward trend in violence continues, but also are there millions of lives out there that are being destroyed or distorted because we haven't fully thought through our process.

I hope Nadelmann is right that Obama finally will follow through on these fine words about unjust punishment and wasted human potential. The main reason I am skeptical, aside from his almost complete failure to do so thus far, is this: Even though Obama declares that "millions of lives...are being destroyed or distorted" by an excessively punitive criminal justice system, he has used his clemency power to mitigate that destruction less often than any president in American history, with the exceptions of George Washington in his first term (when there weren't many applications lying around) and two presidents who died soon after taking office. This amazingly stingy clemency record, which includes a grand total of one commutation granted out of 6,742 petitions, would be disgraceful for any president. It is especially unconscionable for a reputedly progressive and enlightened man who has repeatedly complained that too many people—"a great huge chunk of our criminal justice system," as he puts it in the Time interview—are going to prison for too long. Unlike many of the powers Obama has tried to claim, from waging war without congressional authorization to executing suspected terrorists without due process, clemency is completely within his constitutional authority. He has plenary power to shorten the sentences of federal inmates—many of whom, by his own account, either do not belong in prison or should have been released long ago. His refusal to do so, even now that he has been safely re-elected, tells me he either lacks the courage of his convictions or has no real convictions on this subject but likes to pretend he does.

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Matthew Feeney on HuffPost Live Talking About Virtual Currencies

Credit: zcopley / photo on flickrCredit: zcopley / photo on flickrI will be on HuffPost live at 5pm ET talking about virtual currencies and what we can expect form their continued use in the coming years. 

I have written on virtual currencies before in the context of the euro-crisis

Other Reason writers on virtual currencies here, here, and here

Click here at 5pm ET to watch. 

Gene Healy on Obama’s Executive Death Warrants

Credit: WhiteHouse.govCredit: WhiteHouse.govFor three years now, thanks to White House leaks, we've known that President Barack Obama claims the right to summarily execute American citizens far from any battlefield. He even joked about it at the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner in 2010, telling the Jonas Brothers to stay away from his daughters: "Two words for you: 'predator drones.' You will never see it coming." But as Gene Healy explains, this is no laughing matter. Obama's drone strikes are an affront to the entire Anglo-American constitutional order.

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Gun Rights To Feature During President's Speech, Long-Term Unemployment Persists, Government Tracking Raises Fears: P.M. Links

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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SOTU Pivot to Jobs and the Economy Means More Talk About Raising Taxes, Blaming Republicans, and Not Reducing Government Spending

Credit: Dreamstime.comCredit: Dreamstime.comIn tonight's State of the Union address, some reporting has suggested that President Obama will pivot to a focus on "jobs and the economy" (again). In practical terms, what that apparently means is an all-too-familiar focus on government spending, as well as setting the stage to blame Republicans if the economy takes another dive. So reporteth The Hill:

President Obama will use his State of the Union speech Tuesday to turn public opinion against automatic spending cuts and argue that some of the money to replace the cuts should instead come from higher taxes.

He will use the prime-time TV address to argue the economy would be damaged if $85 billion in automatic spending cuts were to go ahead on schedule on March 1, and will seek to set up Republicans to take the blame if they do. 

For a laugh-filled trip down memory lane, it's always fun to go back and look at what Obama said about deficits before he was president: "You don't have to be a deficit hawk to be disturbed by the growing gap between revenues and expenses," he said in 2005, when the deficit was less than $250 billion (the CBO's most recent estimates put this year's deficit at around $850 billion). In his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope, Obama lamented not only the deficit levels of the Bush years, but the out of control spending that helped produce those deficits:

We were told by our President that we could fight two wars, increase our military budget by 74 percent, protect the homeland, spend more on education, initiate a new prescription drug plan for seniors, and initiate successive rounds of massive tax cuts, all at the same time. We were told by our congressional leaders that they could make up for lost revenue by cutting out government waste and fraud, even as the number of pork barrel projects increased by an astonishing 64 percent.

The result of this collective denial is the most precarious budget situation that we've seen in years. We now have an annual budget deficit of almost $300 billion not counting more than $180 billion we borrow every year from the Social Security Trust Fund, all of which adds directly to our national debt. That debt now stands at $9 trillion—approximately $30,000 for every man, woman, and child in the country.

A few sentences later, the younger Obama offers a warning:

We've been able to get away with this mountain of debt because foreign central banks—particularly China's—want us to keep buying their exports. But this easy credit won't continue forever. At some point, foreigners will stop lending us money, interest rates will go up, and we will spend most of our nation's output paying them back.

Today, the budget situation is far more precarious. After four years of trillion-dollar-plus deficits, the debt stands at $16.4 trillion. In 2012, the federal government spent about $3.5 trillion, about $600 billion more than it spent in 2007, and spending is projected to rise in real dollars over the next decade even if the sequester cuts Obama is warning against go through. Even with this year's somewhat lower deficit, we'll continue adding to the debt, and continue adding to the amount we pay in debt service, bringing us a little closer to the potential credit crisis that the 2006 Obama warned about. 

Yet Obama is also expected to follow up on an argument he made this weekend, that we've already done most of the debt and deficit reduction that's necessary

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There Are Reports Obama May Say Something Sensible at the State of the Union

Credit: Michael Heilemann / photo on flickrCredit: Michael Heilemann / photo on flickrThere is a lot of speculation about what Obama is going to say in this evening’s State of the Union. While much of what the president is rumored to be planning to say will be of little reassurance to those of the libertarian persuasion there is one proposal that Obama might make that I would welcome. According to The Telegraph Obama is expected to call for a drop in the number of nuclear weapons we have.

From The Telegraph:

Although Mr Obama is not expected to give precise numbers in his speech, reports yesterday claimed that the number of warheads could be cut from 1,700 to as low as 1,000, if a mutual agreement can be secured with Russia.

Mr Obama believes that "pretty radical reductions" can be made to the arsenal, a left-over from the Cold War, and US military leaders have "signed off" on the proposed reductions, the New York Times reported, citing anonymous administration officials.

I still think 1,000 nuclear weapons still sounds a little excessive, but some progress is better than none.

Cuts to our nuclear arsenal would accelerate compliance with the NEW START treaty with Russia, which requires the U.S. and Russia reduce the total number of warheads both countries have to 1,550 by 2018.

America’s greatest external threats are not nations that have their own nuclear weapons. Terrorists that are not a part of any military or loyal to any nation are more of a danger to American national security than a nuclear Iran or North Korea. In the unlikely event of a terrorist detonating a nuclear weapon on U.S. soil it is far from obvious what the target of our nuclear response should be. Even were Russia and China threats to our national security 1,000 nuclear weapons are still an effective deterrent. The U.S. is fighting wars that are very different to the wars that were being fought during the Cold War; it is time that we adapted our arsenals accordingly. Cutting back on our nuclear arsenal is especially worth doing now considering the state of the American economy.

Don’t forget to follow me and others from the Reason crew tonight as we live tweet the State of the Union. Reason senior editor Peter Suderman has put together drinking game rules for the occasion especially for those who prefer to experience these sorts of things through the bottom of bottles and shot glasses. 

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California Couple Could Lose a $1.5 Million Property Over a $37 Medical Marijuana Purchase

Nick Schou at the OC Weekly tells the story of an Irvine couple who stand to lose their $1.5 million office building in Anaheim because they made the mistake of renting space to a medical marijuana dispensary. It seemed like a good idea at the time, which was shortly after Deputy Attorney General David Ogden issued a memo telling U.S. attorneys they should not use Justice Department resources to prosecute marijuana offenders who are complying with state laws allowing medical use of the plant. But after that green light prompted a surge in dispensaries, the department shifted course, claiming it never meant to imply that it would tolerate the sale of medical marijuana (despite Attorney General Eric Holder's repeated comments to that effect). Now the owners of the Anaheim building, a dentist and computer engineer who were counting on it for retirement income, are trying to fend off federal forfeiture based on a $37 marijuana purchase from ReLeaf Health & Welness by "an undercover officer posing as a patient with a legitimate doctor's recommendation for cannabis." The owners say they viewe