Weekly Hit & Run Archive 2014 January 29-31

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More on "The Increasingly Libertarian Milton Friedman"

In the journalistic/academic circle of life, Milton Friedman biographer Lanny Ebenstein in a new article available at Economic Journal Watch riffs (at least partially) off a Reason review written by me of Ebenstein's own edited collection of Friedman rarities, The Indispensable Milton Friedman.

Ebenstein's new journal article, like my review, is called "The Increasingly Libertarian Milton Friedman."

It does a very thorough job demonstrating that as Friedman's career and knowledge went on--and especially when he shifted from a professional active academic to a professional public intellectual activist--he became more and more libertarian in his views.

From the article's precis:

This article traces the evolution of Milton Friedman’s ideological views over the course of his adult life. It finds the evolution to be from a moderate liberalism to a definite classical liberalism and then, during the last 50 years of his life, to an increasingly robust libertarianism. Friedman explicitly acknowledged a change in his views on a number of policy issues; also, sometimes even if his opinion on an issue did not change, the strength with which he held and promoted it did. A significant point in Friedman’s life was his retirement and relocation to San Francisco in 1976. There he became almost exclusively a public policy advocate, and his mode of discourse shifted significantly away from empirical demonstration and toward invoking and applying what he considered to be the broad verities and maxims of the outlook he had established for himself.

It's worth pointing out that Friedman's increasing libertarianism wasn't just based in shifting away from empiricism toward maxims. In cases like public education and public money his increasing libertarianism came from an increasing recognition of some actual history of public and private education (as Friedman told me in my 1995 Reason interview with him), and recognition of historical costs of government money.

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Tonight on The Independents: Special Super Bowl Edition, Featuring Superstitions, Urban Legends, Weed, Hangover Cures, The League’s Katie Aselton, Plus a Live Guac-off!

Serious television. ||| theworldsbestever.comtheworldsbestever.comTonight's episode of The Independents (9 pm ET, 6 pm PT on Fox Business Network, repeats at midnight and throughout the weekend), provides the kind of Super Bowl coverage that you can probably only find on...The Independents!

For instance: Executive Director Allen St. Pierre of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) will talk about what the "Weed Bowl" matchup between two cities from states where recreational marijuana is legal means to anti-Drug War activists (as well as to the partiers in Denver and Seattle). NFL.com analyst Dave Dameshek will describe some of the bizarre superstitions and rituals practiced by football players and fans alike. Comedian Sherrod Small and Fox Business Network reporter Sandra Smith will play a game of Super Bowl Fact or Fiction, with questions ranging from domestic violence to 9/11 to a bunch of other stuff that's actually funny.

Fantasy football. ||| EsquireEsquireActress Katie Aselton of the raucous fantasy-football FXX show The League will relay what she's learned about the world of online sports and why smack-talking bro-dude shows like hers & FXX's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia resonate with viewers. We'll also talk hangover cures, including footage from a Reason.tv feature on a hangover truck in Las Vegas. And the show's creme de la avocado will be an all-pro guacamole-making contest between myself and the shouty host-lady.

If you haven't seen it yet, make sure to check out our interview with the thoughtful libertarian cornerback Chris Carr. And as always, send your tweets out to @IndependentsFBN.

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Drone-Limiting Bill Overwhelmingly Approved by California Assembly

defense-images-cc-by-ncdefense-images-cc-by-ncThe California Assembly voted this week to place restrictions on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or drones. The bill, AB-1327, passed on Wednesday with overwhelming bipartisan support. The state's official legislative website reports that the bill passed 63-6. It will now move on to a state senate for consideration.

Authored by assemblymen Jeff Gorell (R-Camarillo), Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) and Bill Quirk (D-Hayward), AB-1327 would require police to obtain a warrant based on probable cause before operating a drone or contracting others to do so. Though, it does make an exception for unwarranted use for “emergency situations if there is an imminent threat to life” and the inspection of state parks. The bill would also require that any footage or data be destroyed within six months of collection, as well as prohibit drones from being weaponized.

Gorell rejected the idea of a moratorium on UAVs like the one in Virginia. He clarified to the Los Angeles Times, "I don't think that's the right answer here. The right answer, frankly, is for us to embrace the new technology because it is the future." Additionally, he told Reuters that he believes that California stands to benefit from the development of commercial drone use.

Nevertheless, Gorell, a former Navy Reserve commander, is knowledgeable and cautious about their capabilities, such as thermal imaging. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation has previously warned, this technology provides law enforcement with a means to conduct unwarranted searches of homes.

The Tenth Amendment Center's Michael Maharrey explains the significance of state-based limitations on drones:

We know that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is using grant money to get drones in the hands of local law enforcement... DHS and other federal agencies will never need to fly a single drone if they can just get all the states doing it for them. Once they’re in the air, they’ll simply point to information-sharing provisions of the PATRIOT Act or other federal acts and have a network of spies everywhere... By passing state laws to restrict drone use, we can stop this nightmare before it ever takes off.

California isn't the only state crafting legislation to limit the use of drones. Iowa, Indiana, Georgia, and Wisconsin are among states currently considering drone-related legislation.  In 2013, 13 states adopted new laws about drones.

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Chris Christie Accused of Lying About Bridge Scandal by Lawyer for Former Port Authority Official Who Demands Agency Cover His Legal Costs

not overscreencapChris Christie was accused of lying about what he did and didn’t know about the politically-motivated lane closures at the George Washington Bridge in a letter (pdf) from the attorney for David Wildstein, the former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey official, and childhood friend of Christie’s, at the center of the scandal. Wildstein resigned from his position when e-mails from Christie aides to him were revealed that showed the lane closures were retribution for the Democrat Fort Lee mayor’s refusal to endorse the Republican Christie. Earlier this month, CNN reported that the position Wildstein held, “director of Interstate Capital Projects” was created specifically for the Christie crony friend. Wildstein plead the Fifth in a hearing at the state legislature about the scandal.

The attorney’s letter, addressed to the Port Authority’s general counsel, firstly asks that the Port Authority reconsider its decision not to pay for Wildstein’s legal defense costs. According to the letter, the Port Authority had previously explained it was “apparent” Wildstein wasn’t entitled to indemnification. The lawyer then cited unspecified “reports” of improper land deals involving Christie allies and the Port Authority, before moving on to a similarly vague claim that Christie lied:

It has also come to light that a person within the Christie administration communicated the Christie administration's order that certain lanes on the George Washington Bridge were to be closed, and evidence exists as well tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures, during the period when the lanes were closed, contrary to what the Governor stated publicly in a two-hour press conference he gave immediately before Mr. Wildstein was scheduled to appear before the Transportation Committee. Mr. Wildstein contests the accuracy of various statements that the Governor made about him and he can prove the inaccuracy of some.

There’s little actually new here. The involvement of people within the Christie administration in relaying an order to close lanes is the “it” of the scandal. The actual accusation is broad, and vague. Christie must have known about the lane closures as they were happening, after all, as it was a huge local news story even before it was a national political scandal. Coupled with Wildstein’s attorney’s “demand” that ongoing, and future, legal costs be covered by the Port Authority, the accusation of lyting appears self-serving.

Nevertheless,  many columnists declared in their opinion on the issue that if Christie knew about the political retribution the lane closures were meant to be, it would be the end of his career. They’re probably right, but that’s probably not what Wildstein’s attorney has evidence of. We’ll have to wait and see until it’s no longer being used as leverage to get money out of the Port Authority. New Jersey's taxpayers, it should be noted, are paying $650 an hour for the legal defense of the governor's aides.

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Wisconsin Beer Drones Grounded by FAA

Ra Boe \ WikimediaRa Boe \ Wikimedia

Lakemaid Beer, “the hottest beer on ice,” arranged for beer-delivering octocopters to carry 12-packs over frosty lakes to thirsty ice fishers. But as soon as it learned of Lakemaid's plan, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grounded it.

Released about a week ago, the Minnesota-based company's beer commercial instantly went viral. Drones delivering Wisconsin-brewed beer rather than targeted killings? Consumers loved the idea.

But the FAA says it isn't ready for the technology. The Star Tribune explains:

The nation’s stewards of the air are still studying how to safely bring drones into modern life, and until then, their commercial use isn’t permitted.

Meanwhile, Lakemaid president Jack Supple broke his printer printing all the documents the agency sent him.

When Supple saw Amazon Prime Air commercials he had his doubts. But he believes Lakemaid is a little different. Supple wasn't planning on navigating drones through mazes of skyscrapers and stoplights. They would traverse open lakes. He explained to Star Tribune:

That would be a far better testing ground because they’re vast and flat and people are in little fish houses out there.

Eager entrepreneurs have brainstormed a zillion uses for the new technology. FedEx has toyed around with replacing its delivery trucks with a drone fleet. Taco deliveries are anticipated in California.

Other countries have already legalized commercial drone use. South Africa companies have operated beer drones. China based company InCake started delivering cakes last July, and the Australian textbook delivery company Zookal has plans to utilize drones early this year.

In response to growing enthusiasm for commercial drones, the FAA released a road map to cautiously guide the country toward safe, reliable domestic drone use. Administrator Michael Huerta expects its integration plan will take five years. The FAA projects “7,500 unmanned aircraft in the skies within that period if regulations are in place.” But the roll out is already months behind schedule.

Entrepreneurs like Jack Supple have to wait for the green light from the FAA whether or not they're sure their individual enterprise is safe.

Watch Lakemaid's commercial below: 

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Hey, California! Want to Conserve Water? Then Don’t Ban Plastic Bags.

Enemy of the stateCredit: T Gibbison / Foter / CC BY-NC-SACalifornia is attempting once again to ban plastic grocery bags statewide. SB 270 would require all grocery stores, liquor stores and pharmacies to offer reusable bags or recycled paper bags instead. It’s been well-established that bag bans will barely make any dent at all in the state’s waste make-up or fix litter problems. Even a company that produces reusable bags and hates plastic bags thinks a bag ban is a bad idea, because it’s “an emotional response which fails to strike at the heart of the issue; instead of a market-based solution, a ban shifts production to paper bags and compostable bags, both of which have heavy environmental consequences.”

California is also in the middle of a drought so severe that Gov. Jerry Brown is trying to discourage people from flushing the toilet. Californians are urged to cut water consumption by 20 percent and rural communities are in potential danger of running out.

We have a contradiction in environmental goals. If Californians do switch to reusable bags, in order to use them safely, the bags will need to be washed regularly, increasing residents’ water consumption. Here’s the full list of tips from the state’s Department of Public Health (pdf) when turning to reusable grocery bags:

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Obama Wants Long-Term Unemployed Hired, Hillary Clinton, Rand Paul Leads Early NH 2016 Polling, Lawmakers Worried About High Propane Prices in Cold Weather: P.M. Links

  • relevant to multiple stories"King of the Hill"/FOXPresident Obama said he wants private companies and the federal government to do more for the long-term unemployed. The chair of his Council of Economic Advisors, meanwhile, insisted the anxiety of wealthy Americans over the president’s economic policies were mere “hyperventilation.”
  • A report from the State Department found the environmental impact of the XL Keystone pipeline would be minimal, but did not set a deadline for the White House to approve it.
  • Vice Admiral Michael Rogers will be appointed the NSA’s new chief, while Richard Ledgett, who previously floated the idea of an amnesty for Edward Snowden, will become the agency’s top civilian official.
  • Hillary Clinton leads Democrat primary voters in an early poll in New Hampshire, getting 75 percent to Joe Biden’s 10 percent. With 16 percent of Republican primary voters, Rand Paul has a slim lead in a crowded field. The state’s Republican senator, Kelly Ayotte, came in second at 13 percent.
  • Lawmakers in Washingtoon, Republican and Democrat, are pushing the feds to look into why propane prices are getting so high as the country gets so cold.
  • Bomb squads were sent out to several hotels near the site of this weekend’s Super Bowl in New Jersey after envelopes containing an unknown white powder were found. Preliminary tests indicated the substance, also sent to Rudy Giuliani’s office in New York City, was corn starch.
  • Jesse Eisenberg was cast in the role of Lex Luthor in the upcoming Superman/Batman film.

Follow Reason and Reason 24/7 on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.  You can also get the top stories mailed to you—sign up here. 

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David Harsanyi on Overestimating 'Inequality'

visionshare / Foter / CC BY-NC-SAvisionshare / Foter / CC BY-NC-SASome Democrats seem to think that the very fact "inequality" even exists should be enough to lure the entire nation to the progressive cause. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, in a recent piece imploring President Barack Obama to put emphasis on social justice in his State of the Union speech, argued as much, writing that "to focus on inequality is political realism." David Harsanyi says this kind of rhetoric sounds as if we don't believe that anyone in any of those groups can help himself anymore. This is a perverted view of the American experience. 

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Political Nonviolence, Private Self-Defense

Nicholas Johnson, a professor at Fordham Law School and the author of the new book Negroes and the Gun, has written a series of guest posts for The Volokh Conspiracy this week. His topic is the relationship between the black freedom movement and armed self-defense, and his first post draws a distinction that many people miss:

Gandhi's packing heat.The black tradition of arms has been submerged because it seems hard to reconcile with the dominant narrative of nonviolence in the modern civil-rights movement. But that superficial tension is resolved by the long-standing distinction that was vividly evoked by movement stalwart Fannie Lou Hamer. Hamer's approach to segregationists who dominated Mississippi politics was, "Baby you just got to love 'em. Hating just makes you sick and weak." But, asked how she survived the threats from midnight terrorists, Hamer responded, "I'll tell you why. I keep a shotgun in every corner of my bedroom and the first cracker even look like he wants to throw some dynamite on my porch won't write his mama again."

Like Hartman Turnbow, Fannie Lou Hamer embraced private self-defense and political nonviolence without any sense of contradiction. In this she channeled a more-than-century-old practice and philosophy that evolved through every generation, sharpened by icons like Ida B. Wells, W. E. B. Du Bois and Daisy Bates, pressed by the burgeoning NAACP, and crystalized by Martin Luther King Jr.

You can read the rest of that post here, and you can read the other installments in the series here, here, here, and here.

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Why Smoking Pot Is Not a Crime or a 'Public Health Problem'

CNNCNNDuring his recent interview with CNN's Jake Tapper, President Obama falsely claimed that reclassifying marijuana would require an act of Congress, whereupon Tapper asked whether he would favor that change. But Obama did not want to answer that question, so instead he said this:

I stand by my belief—based, I think, on the scientific evidence—that marijuana, for casual users, individual users, is subject to abuse, just like alcohol is, and should be treated as a public health problem and challenge. But as I said in the interview, my concern is when you end up having very heavy criminal penalties for individual users that have been applied unevenly and in some cases with a racial disparity. I think that is a problem.

Over the long term, what I believe is if we can deal with some of the criminal penalty issues, then we can really tackle what is a problem not only for marijuana but also alcohol, also cigarettes, also harder drugs, and that is try to make sure that our kids don't get into these habits in the first place. And the incarceration model that we've taken, particularly around marijuana, does not seem to have produced the kinds of results that we've set.

Here Obama conflates drug use with drug abuse, adults with children, and penalties for marijuana possession with penalties for marijuana productiion and distribution. Since each of those distinctions is an important prerequisite for an intelligent conversation about drug policy, let's consider them one at a time.

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Massachusetts, Model for Obamacare, Struggles to Comply With Obamacare's Requirements

Whitehouse.govWhitehouse.govThe health care overhaul passed in Massachusetts under Gov. Mitt Romney was a state-level model for the federal reform plan that became Obamacare.

But Massachusetts has had an exceedingly tough time upgrading its own system to comply with the federal law. Via The Boston Globe, the state's new exchange technology is still broken:

Connector executive director Jean Yang said Thursday that the manual systems created to bypass the malfunctioning website are complicated. The agency has been working to identify stalled enrollments, so that a crisis management team can address them.

The team was working on between 40 and 50 cases Thursday, Yang said, though she could not say how many were related to premium payments that were not properly processed. She said the Connector is planning to improve customer service with better training.

The fixes have not “happened as fast as we would have liked,” Yang said. “We won’t stop until it’s all taken care of.”

The Connector website was developed by CGI, the same firm that created the federal healthcare.gov website that got off to a rocky start.

But, while the federal site is largely fixed, major components of the state site still do not work, including those that process payments, determine whether people are eligible for subsidies, and transfer information automatically to health insurers.

At Forbes, meanwhile, Josh Archambault notes that by some measures Massachusetts has the worst performing exchange in the nation: The state has enrolled just 5,428 people—0.2% of its first year goal of 250,000, a lower percentage than any other state. (In response, the state has lowered its year-one goal to 200,000.) At this point, the state has failed to enroll a single person through its online exchange. Every enrollment so far has been via a manual workaround. 

At least two other states gung-ho about health reform—Maryland and Oregon—continue to struggle with their exchanges as well. 

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Watch the Brits Stupidly Force a Newspaper to Destroy Computers Because of Snowden

Your monitor is now tainted. Please destroy after viewing this image.The GuardianThere have been a number of low points in the tone-deaf responses from government officials in the wake of Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing. It’s hard to pick the worst – though the failure to fire Director of National Intelligence James Clapper for lying to the Senate and anonymous intelligence officials expressing their desire to murder Snowden would certainly be up there (down there?).

Over in Britain, probably one of the stupidest responses to this mass surveillance scandal so far happened last summer, when the country’s spy agency went over to the offices of The Guardian, the newspaper where journalist Glenn Greenwald first broke the story, and ordered them to physically destroy computers that were tainted – so to speak – with the documents Snowden leaked.

That Greenwald was not in England and the destruction of the computers would not stop the flow of Snowden’s data didn’t seem to matter. Today The Guardian released video showing the destruction of the computers, along with more details about the newspapers’ interactions with the government, which was threating to shut them down:

The government's response to the leak was initially slow – then increasingly strident. [Guardian Editor Alan] Rusbridger told government officials that destruction of the Snowden files would not stop the flow of intelligence-related stories since the documents existed in several jurisdictions. He explained that Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian US columnist who met Snowden in Hong Kong, had leaked material in Rio de Janeiro. There were further copies in America, he said.

Days later Oliver Robbins, the prime minister's deputy national security adviser, renewed the threat of legal action. "If you won't return it [the Snowden material] we will have to talk to 'other people' this evening." Asked if Downing Street really intended to close down the Guardian if it did not comply, Robbins confirmed: "I'm saying this." He told the deputy editor, Paul Johnson, the government wanted the material in order to conduct "forensics". This would establish how Snowden had carried out his leak, strengthening the legal case against the Guardian's source. It would also reveal which reporters had examined which files.

With the threat of punitive legal action ever present, the only way of protecting the Guardian's team – and of carrying on reporting from another jurisdiction – was for the paper to destroy its own computers. GCHQ officials wanted to inspect the material before destruction, carry out the operation themselves and take the remnants away. The Guardian refused.

You can watch the video here. As is obvious by now (and was obvious to everybody at the time) the destruction did not stop the flow of information from Snowden to the public.

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Ronald Bailey Says Obama's 'Opportunity' Makes Everybody Less Well Off

Obama 2014 SOTUCFRAt a speech in December to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the left-leaning Center for American Progress, President Barack Obama declared, “The combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American Dream.” Earlier this week, the president dropped the claim that income mobility was increasing and just said that it had "stalled." The president pointed out that it was easier for people in our rich country cohort to rise from the lowest income quintile to the highest. Reason Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey points out that that is true, but it's largely because people living in Denmark, France, and Germay have much shorter income ladders to scale due to massive income redistribution.

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Spain's Economy Surges—Off the Books

Not that Europe is lacking for economic basket cases, but Spain has been an especially fascinating train wreck to watch, with the unemployment rate hitting 27 percent last year. Official statistics are so dismal that they could be expected to produce riots in the streets; that they haven't is evidence that, somehow, Spaniards are finding ways to eat and pay the bills. If some sort of invisible economic activity were not under way, pointed out Victor Mallet and Guy Dinmore in a 2011 article in the Financial Times, "Spain would not be as peaceful as, barring a few demonstrations, it has so far been." Now comes confirmation from the country's government that the people of Spain have, in fact, retained their ability to work and create jobs and wealth—by staying as far under the state's radar as possible.

A new report from Spain's Finance Ministry reveals that the shadow economy—underground activity that would be legal, if subject to the usual tax and regulatory regime—has grown steadily every year from 2008 through 2012, the most recent year measured. In that time, the shadow economy increased from 17.8 percent of official GDP to 24.6 percent.

Spain's shadow economySpain's Finance Ministry

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a country troubled by state meddling with the economy, the shadow economy is smallest in Madrid, the seat of government, at 17.3 percent, and sharply larger in every other region, hitting 31.1 percent in Extremadura.

And Spain's economy is somewhat hobbled by government interference. On the 2014 Index of Economic Freedom, Spain ranks at 49, and 22nd out of 43 countries in Europe. "Its score is 0.8 point lower than last year due to declines in the management of government spending, business freedom, and labor freedom that outweigh small improvements in trade freedom and freedom from corruption."

For Spaniards looking to climb out of the country's economic doldrums, not only are taxes high, but "Incorporating a business takes 10 procedures and about three weeks, but completing licensing requirements takes over seven months and costs more than the level of average annual income. Labor regulations remain largely inflexible hindering job growth in the private sector."

The country has actually improved its overall economic freedom ranking a bit over the past 20 years, but unevenly and with decline in recent years, even as the Euro crisis made life difficult.

As they grapple with the growth of the shadow economy, Spanish officials, like officials everywhere, will have to deal with the fact that underground activity can develop its own inertia as people get accustomed to living that way.

Writes economist Friedrich Schneider (PDF):

But even major tax reforms with major tax rate deductions will not lead to a substantial decrease of the shadow economy. Such reforms will only be able to stabilize the size of the shadow economy and avoid a further increase. Social networks and personal relationships, the high profit from irregular activities and associated investments in real and human capital are strong ties which prevent people from transferring to the official economy.

Having given people ample reason to hide their activities and experience in doing just that, Spain's government may have a tough time getting those underground entrepreneurs back into the official economy.

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Obama, Who Evidently Has Not Read the Controlled Substances Act, Denies That He Has the Power to Reclassify Marijuana

CNNCNNIn an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper that aired last night, President Obama tried to dodge responsibility for eliminating the contradiction between his recent comments about marijuana and its classification as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act:

Tapper: You said that smoking pot was a bad habit but you didn't think it was any worse for a person than drinking. Now that contradicts the official Obama administration policy, both on the website of the Office of National Drug Control Policy and also the fact that marijuana is considered a Schedule I narcotic, along with heroin and Ecstasy. Now do you think you were maybe talking just a little too casually about it with Remnick in The New Yorker, or are you considering not making marijuana a Schedule I narcotic?

Obama: Well, first of all, what is and isn't a Schedule I narcotic is a job for Congress.

Tapper: I think it's the DEA that decides that.

Obama: It's not something by ourselves that we start changing. No, there are laws undergirding those determinations.

Tapper: Would you support that move?

Instead of answering that question, Obama started talking about a "public health" approach to marijuana (a subject I address in another post). But notice that Obama at first denied that the executive branch has the power to reschedule drugs, saying "what is and isn't a Schedule I narcotic is a job for Congress." As Tapper pointed out, that's not true. While Congress can amend the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) to increase or reduce restrictions on particular drugs, the statute also gives that power to the attorney general, who has delegated it to the Drug Enforcement Administration (a division of the Justice Department). In fact, the DEA has repeatedly rejected petitions to reschedule marijuana, most recently in 2011. I forget: Who was president then?

Apparently Obama forgot too. Obama often speaks as if he is an outside observer of his own administration—condemning excessively long prison sentences while hardly ever using his clemency power to shorten them, sounding the alarm about his own abuses of executive power in the name of fighting terrorism, worrying about the threat to privacy posed by surveillance programs he authorized. Now here he is, trying to distance himself from his own administration's refusal to reclassify marijuana.

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Video: Why No Smart City Would Want the NFL

“Why No Smart City Would Want the NFL” is the latest video 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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Should Snowden Have Run Away?

SnowdenwikimediaYesterday, Georgia Institute of Technology law and ethics professor Peter Swire published an op-ed in the Washington Post in which he tried to sort through the "culture war" between spies and techies over how they view Edward Snowden. My views are pretty clear. What struck me was Swire's assertion that he would think better of Snowden had he chosen to go to jail for making his revelations about unconstitutional domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency. Swire writes:

After wrestling with the issue, I think that Snowden could have been a conscientious objector — but he has thus far failed the test. A central element of nonviolent dissent is to move society’s conscience by taking personal responsibility. Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. went to jail for their beliefs, but Snowden ran away.

Going to jail is, of course, a lot to ask of a person. But Snowden knowingly set himself above the law, claiming a higher morality. Full clemency, without any jail time, would create a bad precedent in holding others in the intelligence community accountable, should they break security rules.

The moral leadership and the sacrifices made by Gandhi and King deserve our highest respect. Gandhi and King were imprisoned for the crime of fighting for liberty. However, both men were able to communicate with and guide their movements from their jail cells. After being convicted of "sedition" in 1922, Gandhi was sentenced to six years of imprisonment, of which he served two. The known charges against Snowden could add up to 30 years in prison.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested 30 times. In 1960, he was sentenced to four months in prison for participating in a lunch counter sit-in in Atlanta, Georgia. He was quickly released after the intervention of then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. Most famously in 1963, King was jailed for eleven days in Birmingham, Alabama for protesting government-mandated racial segregation. From his jail cell, King composed one of the great documents of the civil rights movement, The Letter from Birmingham Jail.

Both the British Raj and the segregated South were brutal, but their functionaries were not able to impose the sort of totalitarian silencing that our current legal system enables with regard to cloaking the illegal activities of the surveillance state. Even now, the NSA has stamped "top secret" its own "talking points" outlining its claims against Snowden and refuses to release them in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The liars at the head of national surveillance state had blocked any way for whistleblowers like Snowden to alert Congress and the public to their violations of our constitutional rights.

Interestingly, Swire does not mention the much more relevant civil disobedience case of Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg who, like Snowden, was charged under the Espionage Act in 1971 and could have been sentenced to 115 years in prison.

Ellsberg pointed out in a July, 2013 Washington Post op-ed that Snowden today would be imprisoned and held in total isolation and incommunicado. His trial, when it would occur, would be closed to the public on the excuse that an open trial would harm national security. Ellsberg noted that after his arrest he was immediately released on his personal recognizance. That would not happen today. Instead, Ellsberg writes: 

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The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il, from Reason Contributor Michael Malice

Reason contributor and celebrity memoir collaborator Michael Malice (Made in America with Ultimate Figher Matt Hughes and I Want You to Shut the F#ck Up with comedian D.L. Hughley, among others) was inspired by his visit to North Korea, which he wrote about for us in our Aug./Sept. 2013 issue, to produce an "unauthorized autobiography" of North Korea's late Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, Dear Reader.

That book is out now.

While a lot of the tyranny of North Korea reads like a dark humor comic opera to us--and the idea of an "unauthorized autobiography" is funny--Malice has a serious intent behind the apparent comedy: to get inside the nearly unspeakable evil of North Korean government in a way no other method could.

I wrote about Harvey Pekar's graphic novel biography of Malice, Ego and Hubris, back in 2006. 

Malice did a Reddit "ask me anything" yesterday on this book and other things.

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Steven Greenhut: This Is How Government Builds Infrastructure

creative commonscreative commonsCalifornia Gov. Jerry Brown is gearing up for an infrastructure-building spree, as he hopes to create the nation’s first high-speed-rail system and bore giant water-moving tunnels underneath the Delta. Before the state moves forward with these multibillion-dollar projects, however, Californians might want to look at how the state has built other recent projects, says Steven Greenhut. They got a rare opportunity to do so in recent days and the results are alarming.

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Poor Foreigners Shouldn't Be Political Reformers at Home, They Should Come Here Instead

Credit: martnpro / Foter / CC BY-NC-NDCredit: martnpro / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

George Mason University economics professor Bryan Caplan has written an article for EconLog titled “I'm Too Busy Fighting Tyranny to Feed My Family,” which does a good job of highlighting the absurdity of opponents of increased immigration saying that foreigners in awful conditions should stay where they are and fix their home country rather than try to flee to a wealthy country like the U.S.

Caplan begins his article by describing John, an unemployed political activist who spends much of his time posting and sharing political news on social media and attending political events. John is so dedicated to political activism that his kids are “hungry and ragged.”

Caplan then makes a moral point which I hope is obvious to most readers:

I think you'll agree that John is a terrible human being.  Why?  Because his priorities are demented.  Political activism is a luxury.  Before you engage in this luxury, you must satisfy your basic responsibilities to provide for yourself and your family.  

Caplan goes on to rightly point out that some opponents of increased immigration are asking those who live in regrettable situations to do exactly what John is doing:

Why bring this up?  When I point out that would-be immigrants are trying to save themselves and their families from hellish Third World conditions, my critics often respond, "They ought to stay home and try to fix their broken political systems!"  In other words, my critics are admonishing the global poor to heed the example of John the feckless activist.

Thus, suppose Jacques the desperate Haitian father has an opportunity to escape to Miami, where he can shine shoes and send money home to feed his kids.  Instead, he chooses to let his kids go hungry so he stays in Port-au-Prince and fights tyranny with political leaflets and soapbox speeches.  Noble?  No more than John.  The righteous man knows that meeting his family responsibilities is more important than playing Don Quixote.

The article finishes by pointing out that people in poor countries who try to escape to the developed world while trying to provide for their families are doing their home country far more of a service than most political junkies:

What should humble people born into Third World misery do?  Stay the course.  Do your best to provide for your family.  Keep trying to escape to the First World and get the best job you can.  Remember that activism is a luxury if you know what you're talking about - and a pestilence if you don't.  The people who follow this advice aren't just fulfilling their basic responsibilities.  They're doing far more to improve their homelands than the vast majority of political junkies ever will.

I’m glad that Caplan has highlighted the nonsense that is the “stay home and fix your own country” rhetoric sometimes heard among those who oppose increased immigration. Men, women, and children die every year trying to leave their homes. Some drown, others die of thirst and exposure, and some are tortured and killed by traffickers. It’s immoral and ignorant to suggest that people who risk such dangerous outcomes while trying to improve their lives and the lives of their family members would be better off back in their home countries being political activists.

Watch Reason Foundation’s Shikha Dalmia outline five reasons why low-skilled immigrants are good for the economy below:

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Lavabit Appeal to Set Email Privacy Precedent

Frank C. Müller \ WikimediaFrank C. Müller \ Wikimedia

Secure email provider Lavabit failed to surrender its encryption keys to the government in 2013. It's been paying the price. In what some call a landmark privacy case, the Virginia-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court will decide whether or not Lavabit sufficiently complied with the lower court's orders last year. Three judges listened to opposing arguments Tuesday.

The feds presented a search warrant to the company in the summer 2013, in what many believe was a hunt for the emails of NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden. In response, encrypted email service Lavabit suspended operations in August 2013.

The company faced a tough decision. If Lavabit had relinquished its Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) private keys, it would have provided the government unrestricted access to 400,000 users' communications, not just the one user the FBI was looking for. Since users expected privacy—whether from governments or corporations—making the private key accessible undermines the point of Lavabit's privacy service. Rather than comply with court's orders, Lavabit founder owner Ladar Levison decided to halt Lavabit's operations completely.

Levison told BBC that if he wins the appeal he filed last August, Lavabit could rise from the dead. It would also set a precedent for future privacy communication cases.

Brian Hauss, a legal fellow for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) told BBC News:

Mr Hauss hopes the case can "establish a principle that governments can't use a hammer when it should be using a scalpel".

"If the court does not find in Lavabit's favour, technology companies will look for new ways to protect user data," he added.

But judges seem to disagree about the focal point of the case. PC World explains:

For the proceedings, the judges actively listened to and questioned the arguments of both sides, though they seemed wary of turning the case away from the specifics of why Lavabit did not comply with court orders to turn over data on one of its users, and towards the larger issues that Lavabit raised in its highly publicized defense of what scope the government should have over those parties who hold SSL (secure socket layer) keys to encrypted data.

Last year, U.S. government meddling led to the closure of privacy services like Silent Circle and CryptoSeal. Faced with a government hostile toward privacy services, innovative, secure communication products are opening outside of the United States.

Reason's J.D. Tuccille argued in August:

Unfortunately, the government's position seems to be the same as that of the Mafia: If you're told to do business with the mob, you don't get to decide otherwise.

We'll see if the government continues down that path. A decision could take a few weeks.

Read more on Lavabit here.

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Here’s What It’s Like to Work for the TSA

Flickr user billpalloozaFlickr user billpalloozaPolitico magazine is running a long personal essay by Jason Harrington, a former Transportation Security Administration worker, about his time working the security lines at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. The tone is confessional, and apologetic, and he reveals a lot about the ugliness of the job. A few lowlights below:

The job was demoralizing: “It was a job that had me patting down the crotches of children, the elderly and even infants as part of the post-9/11 airport security show. I confiscated jars of homemade apple butter on the pretense that they could pose threats to national security. I was even required to confiscate nail clippers from airline pilots—the implied logic being that pilots could use the nail clippers to hijack the very planes they were flying.”

The rules were nonsense: “Once, in 2008, I had to confiscate a bottle of alcohol from a group of Marines coming home from Afghanistan. It was celebration champagne intended for one of the men in the group—a young, decorated soldier. He was in a wheelchair, both legs lost to an I.E.D., and it fell to me to tell this kid who would never walk again that his homecoming champagne had to be taken away in the name of national security.”

Privately, TSA workers knew the agency’s full-body scanning technology didn’t work: “We knew the full-body scanners didn’t work before they were even installed. Not long after the Underwear Bomber incident, all TSA officers at O’Hare were informed that training for the Rapiscan Systems full-body scanners would soon begin. The machines cost about $150,000 a pop. Our instructor was a balding middle-aged man who shrugged his shoulders after everything he said, as though in apology. At the conclusion of our crash course, one of the officers in our class asked him to tell us, off the record, what he really thought about the machines. ‘They’re shit,’ he said, shrugging. He said we wouldn’t be able to distinguish plastic explosives from body fat and that guns were practically invisible if they were turned sideways in a pocket.”

The body scanning machines may not have been able to catch terrorists. But they provided TSA agents with plenty of fodder for jokes about the passengers they were scanning: “Just as the long-suffering American public waiting on those security lines suspected, jokes about the passengers ran rampant among my TSA colleagues: Many of the images we gawked at were of overweight people, their every fold and dimple on full awful display. Piercings of every kind were visible. Women who’d had mastectomies were easy to discern—their chests showed up on our screens as dull, pixelated regions. Hernias appeared as bulging, blistery growths in the crotch area. Passengers were often caught off-guard by the X-Ray scan and so materialized on-screen in ridiculous, blurred poses—mouths agape, à la Edvard Munch. One of us in the I.O. room would occasionally identify a passenger as female, only to have the officers out on the checkpoint floor radio back that it was actually a man. All the old, crass stereotypes about race and genitalia size thrived on our secure government radio channels.”

Read the whole thing here

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Sheldon Richman Says Obama and Kerry Jeopardize Peace With Iran

White HouseWhite HousePresident Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry should make up their minds: Do they want war or peace with Iran? We should hope for peace, but Sheldon Richman believes Obama and Kerry make optimism difficult. Ideally, the Obama administration would simply exit the Middle East, taking all its military and economic aid with it. The U.S. government cannot micromanage events there, especially when it is no honest, neutral broker. But, this doesn't seem like it will happen anytime soon.

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Anything Not Permitted Is Forbidden: Code Camp Edition

"And then you fill out form 543E72 in triplicate ... "Hack ReactorLearning to code is the future for today’s emerging labor pool. Even President Barack Obama says so. But more important than learning how to code is learning that it’s illegal for anybody to do anything at all without the permission of the appropriate government agency.

In California, the Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education (BPPE) is going after “coding bootcamps,” specialized private code training programs. VentureBeat reports:

These bootcamps have not yet been approved by the BPPE and are therefore being classified as unlicensed postsecondary educational institutions that must seek compliance or be forcibly shut down.

“Our primary goal is not to collect a fine. It is to drive them to comply with the law,” said Russ Heimerich, a spokesperson for BPPE. Heimerich is confident that these companies would lose in court if they attempt to fight BPPE.

Heimerich stressed that these bootcamps merely need to show that they are making steps toward compliance: “As long as they are making a good effort to come into compliance with the law, they fall down low on our triage of problem children. We will work with them to get them licensed and focus on more urgent matters,” Heimerich said.

VentureBeat notes, “The bootcamps fear that they will go bankrupt as regulatory processes can take up to 18 months.”

But we need that oversight as fraud prevention, right? Without the government’s protective regulations, people will be bilked out of their life savings and end up in debt, unlike those students at major public universities who come away with valuable degrees in art history or what have you. Beyond that weak logic, government oversight doesn’t stop private education programs from occasionally failing miserably anyway.

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NFL Cornerback Chris Carr Talks About Ron Paul, Reason, and the Underappreciated Tolerance of NFL Locker Rooms

Chris Carr is a 30-year-old well-traveled NFL cornerback and kick returner whose career ended in December with the New Orleans Saints. He’s also a loyal subscriber to Reason, and we had him on The Independents Wednesday night to talk about his political evolution, tolerance in the locker room (his answer may surprise), and his prediction for Super Bowl Sunday. Check it out:

Follow him on Twitter @triplcarr. And stay tuned tonight for a full episode devoted to the Super Bowl, including crazy superstitions, marijuana agitprop, hangover cures, a conversation with actress Katie Aselton of the hilarious football fantasy show The League, and brutal guac-off between myself and that earrings lady. Tonight at 9 ET!

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A.M. Links: Obama Optimistic About GOP ‘Progress’ on Immigration, Ukrainian Activist Claims He Was Abducted and Tortured, State Department Expected To Release Keystone XL Report

NSANSA

  • The NSA has refused a Freedom of Information Act request filed by a transparency activist related to the agency’s talking points put together in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations.
  • A Ukrainian opposition activist claims that he was abducted and tortured before being left out in the cold to die.
  • President Barack Obama is optimistic about “progress” in the GOP when it comes to immigration reform, but has not said whether he would sign an immigration bill that does not include a pathway to citizenship.
  • The State Department is expected to release an environmental report on the Keystone XL pipeline “soon.”
  • According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, almost 1,900 people have been killed in Syria since peace talks in Switzerland began.
  • Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has been accused of ordering a jail beating.

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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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Kurt Loder Reviews Labor Day and Tim’s Vermeer

The world has changed even more than you might have been aware since the 1950s, when Dinah Shore scored a hit with a song called “It’s So Nice To Have a Man Around the House.” Now, in Jason Reitman’s oddly limp new film Labor Day, the man is an escaped murderer, and the woman whose house he’s around is a basket-case divorcée who is willing to overlook this considerable shortcoming in exchange for some help with the household chores. Kurt Loder says the movie is thoroughly perplexing. By contrast, Loder finds Tim's Vermeer unexpectedly compelling.

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Brickbat: Without a Prayer

Azizul Raheem Awalludin, who works for Tourism Malaysia in Sweden, and his wife Shalwati Murshal have spent more than a month in a Swedish jail awaiting trial for hitting one of their sons on his hands for not saying his prayers. The two have not been allowed contact with any of their children, who have been placed in a foster home, since they were arrested. If convicted, they face at least nine months in prison each. And even if they are found not guilty they will still lose custody of their children and must petition a court to get them back.

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Chicago Residents, Activists Slam President Obama’s State of the Union, Suggest He Resign, Stop Blaming Corporations

Rebel Pundit, a citizen journalist project founded by a self-described “anti-activist” from Chicago, put together a video of local grassroots activists responding to President Obama, who once called Chicago his home. The reactions are universally negative, and display opinions usually marginalized in the mainstream media’s narrative about the arguments of the president’s supporters and detractors. There are comments in the video you might agree with, others you might not, but they all seem honest and uncanned.  It’s only five minutes and well worth to watch:

h/t BakedPenguin

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Corrections Officers Filed Complaint About Cop Who Physically Dragged Woman into Jail

the hogtying was sop thoughsurveillance videoToday in “the drug war is stupid,” via the Tampa Tribune:

[Officer Scott] Van Treese spotted Sonja Mimmenger, 36, sitting on the porch [of a “known crackhouse,” according to the Tribune], and the officer had previously issued a trespass warning on her to stay off the property. She was arrested on trespassing charges and possession of cocaine, and began to fight with the officers. She was restrained by a method known as the “total appendage restraint position, to protect her from potential injury,” the disposition said.

At the jail, Van Treese got out of the patrol car and put his weapons in the trunk, which is standard procedure, and opened the rear door to talk to Mimmenger “in hopes of gaining new cooperation,” the disposition said, but she continued to be uncooperative.

He dragged her out of the car and placed her face down on the concrete, with her hands shackled behind her back, her legs chained to her hands. Van Treese released the leg restraints to allow her to walk…

Van Treese lifted her by holding her left biceps and dragged her into booking, which was captured on a jail surveillance camera

Dragging Mimmenger into the jail was against jail policy, and a complaint against Van Treese was actually filed by corrections officers. The department “reprimanded” Van Teese by entering a strongly-worded letter into his file, and said it would revise its policy on handling detainees. As for Mimmenger, she plead guilty to a misdemeanor paraphernalia charge and was sentenced to time served.

All that for hanging out on a porch with a little bit of coke.

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DOJ Promises More Commutations but Despite 9,000 Petitions Needs Help Finding People to Free

Senate Judiciary CommitteeSenate Judiciary CommitteeLast month President Obama, who until that point had issued only one commutation in five years, shortened the sentences of eight drug offenders. Today, in a speech to the New York State Bar Association, Deputy Attorney General James Cole said more commutations are coming:

The President's grant of commutations for these 8 individuals is only a first step. There is more to be done, because there are others like the eight who were granted clemency. There are more low-level, non-violent drug offenders who remain in prison, and who would likely have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of precisely the same offenses today. This is not fair, and it harms our criminal justice system.   

To help correct this, we need to identify these individuals and get well-prepared petitions into the Department of Justice. It is the Department's goal to find additional candidates, who are similarly situated to the eight granted clemency last year, and recommend them to the President for clemency consideration. 

Cole asked the lawyers in the audience to help find commutation candidates and prepare their petitions. The ideal candidate, he said, is "one who has a clean record in prison, does not present a threat to public safety, and who is facing a life or near-life sentence that is excessive under current law." The Justice Department is looking for "non-violent, low-level drug offenders who were not leaders of—nor had any significant ties to—large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels." It is also interested in "petitions from first-time offenders or offenders without an extensive criminal history."

Cole's talk of more commutations is surely welcome as a sign that Obama wants to improve his abysmal clemency record. But it is also rather puzzling. Obama has received nearly 9,000 commutation petitions since taking office, Are we to believe that so far just nine of them (0.1 percent) have proven to have merit? Why is Cole scrounging around for applicants, asking his friends in the New York State Bar Association to give him a hand? Why not dig into the enormous pile of existing petitions to find some worthy candidates? Cole's appeal for "effective and appropriate" petitions that "provide a focused presentation of the information the Department and the President need to consider" sounds like an admission that the government cannot be bothered to read the petitions it has already received.

About 1,500 of the clemency petitions have been officially denied, while 1,300 or so have been "closed without presidential action." How serious was the review that preceded those decisions? And what exactly is happening to the 6,000 or so remaining petitions? Now that the president has suddenly taken an interest in exercising his clemency powers, are government lawyers finally getting around to looking at those files, or are all those prisoners out of luck unless they can get help from one of Cole's volunteers to write a fresh petition that will receive attention because it does not have the same disgusting odor of neglect and indifference?

Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which probably could help Cole identify people who do not belong in prison, comments:

This speech is evidence of just how derelict the clemency process has become in America. Once upon a time, Presidents granted hundreds of commutations, but today they're about as common as winning the lottery. It's encouraging to see the President wiping the dust off of this tool and targeting the most unjust of our many unjust sentencing laws: life without parole for a drug offense. There are plenty of nonviolent, rehabilitated people who don't deserve to die in prison. But we need more than commutations. Congress and this administration should end mandatory life without parole sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.

More on life sentences for nonviolent crimes here.

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State Department Bans Coursera From Educating Underprivileged Foreigners

coursera.comcoursera.comCoursera, which provides massive open online courses (MOOC), has the noble mission of “connecting people to a great education so that anyone around the world can learn without limits.” Unfortunately, the State Department and the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) disagree. They recently decided that the company cannot extend such opportunities to a few academically underprivileged countries.

The organization posted a notice to its website on Tuesday explaining that the U.S. government now requires it to block IP addresses in certain sanctioned countries.

Who will miss out on hundreds of free classes, offered in 12 languages, and covering a broad range of fields, including economics, the humanities, and medicine? Cuba, which ranks outside the top 50 education systems in the world, Iran, which is less well off than 40 percent of the world, and Sudan, which is worse than 90 percent.

These three aren't the only ones who will be impacted, though. The announcement notes that, “In rare instances, students with IP addresses bordering on but not geopolitically within the bounds of these countries will be affected.”

What's behind this academic censorship? Federal regulations. “United States export control regulations prohibit U.S. businesses, such as MOOC providers like Coursera, from offering services to users in sanctioned countries,” Coursera explains. The website itself is still be viewable, because it falls under “public information,” whereas the departments consider the educational materials to be “services.”

Coursera has operated since April 2012, and although the company has been talking with the State Department and OFAC “for quite some time... only very recently were we advised... that the course experience was determined to be a service offering and we have since been working closely with [federal officials] to ensure that Coursera remains in compliance with U.S. law,” co-founder Daphne Koller told the Wall Street Journal.

Yet, whether services are allowed in sanctioned countries is not always clear-cut. The OFAC initially included Syria on the list of prohibited nations, but later clarified that educational services are permissible there. Other exceptions have been made for other organizations. According to Inside Higher Ed, "edX, the MOOC provider founded in partnership between Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology... has since last May worked with the U.S. State Department and the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, and has so far applied for and received company-specific licenses for its MOOCs to enroll students in Cuba and Iran."

Although it may stop some, the government-ordered IP address block cannot prevent all Cubans, Iranians, and Sudanese from educating themselves, thanks to easily accessible proxy servers that disguise one's location.

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New York's New Mayor Drops Appeal of Stop-and-Frisk Ruling

Office of the MayorOffice of the MayorToday New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city has reached a settlement agreement with the lawyers who challenged the NYPD's stop-and-frisk program in federal court. The agreement leaves in place U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin's August 2013 ruling that the program was unconstitutional and the reforms she ordered, including a federal monitor and body cameras to record police encounters. Those changes had been blocked by an appeal that De Blasio promised to drop if elected mayor. "We're here today to turn the page on one of the most divisive problems in our city," De Blasio said at a press conference today. "We believe in ending the overuse of stop-and-frisk that has unfairly targeted young African-American and Latino men."

As that remark suggests, the NYPD will continue to stop and frisk people, which the Supreme Court has said is permitted under the Fourth Amendment when police reasonably suspect someone is involved in criminal activity and (for the pat-down) that he is armed. Statistics at the center of the case Scheindlin heard indicate that street stops by New York cops, which overwhelmingly targeted young black and Hispanic men, frequently failed this test. Between January 2004 and June 2012, when the NYPD made 4.4 million stops, only 12 percent of the people treated like criminals were arrested or issued a summons. Even more striking, although police are supposed to frisk a subject only if they reasonably believe he is armed, 52 percent of these encounters included pat-downs, only 1.5 percent of which discovered a weapon. Even when officers reached into subjects' clothing after feeling what they claimed to think was a weapon, they were right only 9 percent of the time.

Tellingly, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg's main defense of the stop-and-frisk program was that it worked by deterring young men from carrying guns, not that it complied with the requirements of the Fourth Amendment. Yet even before Scheindlin's ruling, the NYPD responded to constitutional criticism of the program by dialing it back. The number of stop-and-frisk encounters, which grew from about 100,000 in Bloomberg's first year as mayor to almost 700,000 in 2011, fell to about 530,000 in 2012. In the first three quarters of 2013, there were 179,000 stops.

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Unfavorable Views of Obamacare Grow Amongst the Uninsured

In mid-December I wrote about Obamacare’s dismal poll numbers amongst the uninsured. At that point, there was still some possibility that the poor showing amongst those without insurance was just a lagging indicator of frustrating with the federal exchange website, which was essentially non-functional during October and November.

Now it’s the end of January. The biggest problems with the federal exchange have been bandaged for almost two months. And yet the latest monthly tracking poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that opposition to the law amongst the uninsured has actually increased since December. The survey reports that 47 percent of say they have an unfavorable view of the law, up from 43 percent in December. Just 24 percent say they favor the health law, down from 36 percent in November and December.

Here’s the chart:

Kaiser Family FoundationKaiser Family Foundation

This is the group of people the law was, in theory, supposed to benefit most. And yet even as the most prominent benefits start to kick in, their support is dropping. It’s possible, of course, that this could turn around at any time. But it’s not a very good sign for the future popularity of the law.  

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Snow Kills in the South, NYC Accepts Stop-and-Frisk Reforms, Rep. Waxman Retires: P.M. Links

  • New York City has reached an agreement to reform its stop-and-frisk policy to make it less racist in the hands of an independent monitor. Mayor Bill de Blasio is dropping ex-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s fight to keep the tactics as they are.
  • The Supreme Court temporarily stayed the execution of Missouri killer Herbert Smulls, but then later lifted it denying an appeal connected to the lack of transparency surrounding the drug the state uses to put convicts to death. Smulls was subsequently executed.
  • A bipartisan bill to reform federal drug sentencing guidelines passed the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee today. The bill would reduce mandatory minimums, give judges more leeway in sentencing, and retroactively fix the disparity in sentences for those convicted of crack cocaine-related crimes.
  • California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman will retire from Congress at the end of this term. The pro-regulation Nanny-Stater will probably not be missed by Reasoners.
  • Edward Snowden’s latest info is that the United States snooped on countries participating in the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009 to try to get advance information for negotiators.

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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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J.D. Tuccille Wonders If Crazed Super Bowl Security is a Glimpse at America's Future

Super Bowl 48NFLIn the run-up to Super Bowl XLVIII (just be happy they don't use Egyptian numerals), the New York City Police Department is deploying an "amazing arsenal of security initiatives," including 200 "temporary" surveillance cameras to ensure that dirty deeds remain undone at the big game. That's remarkable, since City Hall in the rotten apple is actually about 11 miles from the site of the kickoff at MetLife Stadium, which is in East Rutherford, New Jersey. But never fear, writes J.D. Tuccille, security at the the Super Bowl itself promises to make attendance at football's championship game an awful lot like spending several hours at a very cold TSA checkpoint—with some watery beer. Get used to it America, this massive demonstration of pointless security theater just may be a glimpse of the future.

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Health Care Spending Will Gobble the Federal Budget, Warns CBO

In a brief, slideshow analysis of federal health care policy, the Congressional Budget Office warns that "federal spending for health care programs is growing much faster than other federal spending and the economy as a whole." That's partially because of the Affordable Care Act, though the CBO points out that, even after Obamacare is fully implemented, Medicare will continue to have the largest appetite for federal dollars intended to support health care (intentions and results aren't the same thing, of course.) The CBO contemplates a few cost-cutting tactics, few of which are likely to win fans, and some of which might simply torpedo the provision of health care.

Health care expendituresCBO

Ever-growing expenditures without revenues or even an economy to match are a bit of a problem, as the CBO has attempted to explain in the past, using words such as "unsustainable."

Medicare spending growthMercatus CenterDespite all of the attention paid to Obamacare's economic idiocy, technical failures, and general incompetence as a piece of policy, it doesn't represent a big portion of the federal government's projected spending spree on health care issues. Most of that money will go to the elderly, with Medicare expected to consume $894 billion in 2023, compared to $560 billion for Medicaid and CHIP, and $135 billion for Exchange subsidies and related items.

Using CBO numbers in 2009, the Mercatus Center's Veronique de Rugy prepared the graph above, which shows Medicare spending turning into the monster that eats...everything over the next few decades. Note that projections of Medicare spending keep rising, and rather quickly.

Since all of this looks to get spendy—well, spendier—really fast, the CBO contemplates a few approaches for trimming the price tag which "might (or might not) help the federal budget." Among those are taxing, bribing, and nagging people into healthier behavior, capping federal Medicaid payments (an approach that would kneecap the current push to expand Medicaid rolls), and paying less to medical providers.

It's a good thing crappy compensation from government programs isn't already an issue for physicians. Oh...wait.

Oh, yes. Look for the federal government's forays into health policy to be an ever-more expensive problem in years to come.

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Congress Expected to Approve Experimental Hemp Cultivation

Fox NewsFox NewsWith the exception of Colorado, Washington, and Uruguay, cultivation of marijuana for general use is illegal pretty much everywhere on Earth. That includes Australia, Austria, Canada, Chile, China, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, India, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand, Turkey, and Ukraine. Yet all of those countries allow cultivation of industrial hemp, a nonpsychoactive version of cannabis used in textiles, cosmetics, food products, fuel, and building materials. According to the Hemp Industries Association, the United States is "the only industrialized nation in the world" that has not managed to reconcile these two policies—an impossible feat, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. It looks like the U.S. will soon lose that dubious distinction. The farm bill approved by the House yesterday included a provision allowing pilot hemp cultivation projects in 10 states.

"This is big," Vote Hemp President Eric Steenstra told the Associated Press. "We've been pushing for this a long time." The hemp provision, which allows cultivation by colleges, universities, and state agriculture departments for research purposes, was introduced in the House by Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), and Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.). Its main champion in the Senate, which is expected to pass the farm bill as soon as next week, was Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who took up the cause of farmers in his state who see hemp as a potentially lucrative business. "In 2011," A.P. notes, "the U.S. imported $11.5 million worth of legal hemp products, up from $1.4 million in 2000."

The 10 states that notionally allow hemp cultivation are Colorado, Washington, California, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont, and West Virginia. With the exception of an experiment in Hawaii that was abandoned due to DEA resistance, hemp has been produced only in Colorado, where Amendment 64 legalized it along with marijuana. Although the Colorado Department of Agriculture has not gotten around to awarding hemp cultivation licenses yet, a few farmers went ahead and planted crops anyway. Last October, Baca County farmer Ryan Loflin harvested the country's first quasi-legal hemp crop since the late 1940s.

Maybe the next time a hemp flag flies over the Capitol, it will be made of fiber produced in the USA. The horror.

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Restrictionists Going Nuts Over Immigration Reform, Again.

The House GOP, it appears, is finally getting serious about doing something lame (as Ed Krayewski explained this morning) to reform our inhumane and irrational immigration system. So, naturally, restrictionists have started spilling vast quantities of fake bile and warning GOP leaders of dire consequences if they don’t cease and desist.

The peerless (thank god) Ann Coulter got the ball rolling. She didn’t take the tack of Republican “pussies” who limit their opposition to illegal immigration. No siree. She wants a war on all immigrants – even the good, high skilled variety – lest they ruin America forever. How? By voting against Republicans. “Immigrants — all immigrants — have always been the bulwark of the Democratic Party,” she harrumphs.

Setting aside the fact that 45-plus percent of Hispanics voted for George W. Bush, what’s bad for Republicans is ipso facto bad for America? Got it.

Famous nativist and Zullu-basher Pat Buchanan chimed in on Laura Ingraham’s radio show that House Speaker John Boehner would sing his “last hurrah” if he pushed for reform. “You will have a war inside the Republican party — a Balkan war — this year,” he snorted.

So the way for Republicans to maintain peace is by continuing a war on immigrants? Got that too.

Implacable immigration foe Sen. Jeff Sessions accused the House’s leadership of – horror of horrors! – consulting with “Democrat activists” before their own obstructionist members in their  “rush to pass an immigration bill.”

 Rush.

A reform effort that has been in the works since at least 2006 (when George W. Bush first proposed) is a rush job? The good senator obviously has a watch in geological time. But, whatever.

Meanwhile, the National Review predictably declared any reform effort that did not first erect a Berlin Wall on the Rio Grande as a “fraud” on the American people.

Less predictably, however, the Weekly Standard, which used to once have sensible views on immigration, seconded that sentiment claiming that reformers were playing “skeptics for fools” by even considering any form of legalization before the borders are sealed.

Such pre-emptive biliousness against reforms has worked well for restrictionists in the past. But how long can they go on without getting acid reflux?

My pieces on how Republicans can stay the party of limited government and still win minorities a la Canada’s Tory Party here and here.

Post Script: For a deeper discussion of each and every tired argument that restrictionists are trotting out for the nth time, please buy Reason's immigration e-book, Humane and Pro-Growth: Reason's Guide to Immigration Reform, for the bargain price of $2.99.

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Since They "Built Where the Government Told Them," They Demand Government Flood Insurance Subsidies Be Restored

Flood InsuranceDreamstime:WebkingCongress may be about to repent its uncharacteristic act of fiscal rectitude and environmental protection by rolling back its flood insurance reforms from 2012. Prior to the reforms, government flood insurance program subsidies over the decades had encouraged lots of people to live, work, and build in flood-prone areas. Why not? It's really nice to live along the banks of a river or enjoy a sunset from the balcony of your oceanfront McMansion. And if a hurricane or flood knocks it down, cheap government insurance will pay for the rebuilding.

Eventually recognizing that the flood insurance program was a fiscal disaster and an environmental menace, Congress passed the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act. Yesterday, the New York Times reported:

The Biggert-Waters measure sought to reform the nation’s nearly bankrupt flood insurance program, ending federal subsidies for insuring buildings in flood-prone coastal areas. Over the past decade, the cost to taxpayers of insuring those properties has soared, as payouts for damage from Hurricanes Katrina, Irene, Isaac and Sandy sent the program $24 billion into debt.

The aim of the measure was to shift the financial risk of insuring flood-prone properties from taxpayers to the private market. Homeowners, rather than taxpayers, would shoulder the true cost of building in flood zones.

Deficit hawks liked the idea because it would curb a rapidly rising source of government spending. Environmentalists liked the bill because they said it would reflect the true cost of climate change, which scientists say is ushering in an era of rising sea levels and more damaging extreme weather, including more flooding.

Well, that was last year. It turns out there was a reason why private insurance was not offering flood insurance to lots of the folks who were taking advantage of the government subsidized policies. The risks were too high for the premiums being paid. Who knew? From the Times:

But a year after the law passed, coastal homeowners received new flood insurance bills that were two, three, even 10 times higher than before.

In Beach Haven West, N.J., for example, Diane Mazzuca, a furniture showroom designer, had been paying $595 annually for flood insurance on her $90,000 home. After Biggert-Waters ended federal flood insurance subsidies last June, she got an updated bill — for $4,492....

Ms. Mazzuca has plenty of company. The insurance rate increases hit many of the 5.5 million coastal home and business owners covered under the National Flood Insurance Program, and came as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which runs the program, was updating flood maps and placing thousands of homes inside flood zones for the first time. Last summer and fall, homeowners near coasts, rivers and wetlands saw their insurance rates soar and their property values plummet.

The homeowners’ frustration erupted into a grass-roots lobbying campaign to roll back the Biggert-Waters act, and lawmakers in Washington quickly got the message.

For example, the pro-rollback interest group, the New Orleans-based Coalition for Sustainable Flood Insurance issued a press release arguing: 

To be clear, if Biggert-Waters 2012 goes forward unabated, hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions, of Americans who have played by the rules, built where the government told them (emphasis added), maintained insurance, and never flooded will lose everything.

And so it appears that bipartisan majorities in the Senate and the House will be voting for the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordabiiity Act. Did you catch that the National Flood Insurance Program is right now $24 billion overdrawn?

For more background, check out John Stossel's classic 2004 Reason article "Confessions of a Welfare Queen" in which the architect for his new oceanfront house tells him not to worry:

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Vid: New York to Regulate Bitcoin - Is the Cryptocurrency Biz Like "the Wild West"?

Yesterday, the New York State Department of Financial Services (DFS) concluded a two-day fact-finding hearing on how to regulate Bitcoin and other virtual cryptocurrencies. The purpose of the hearing was to consider whether or not Empire State regulators should have a direct role in overseeing the use of virtual cryptocurrencies, or if existing federal regulations suffice.

In his opening remarks, New York State Superintendent of Financial Services Benjamin M. Lawsky made it clear that the question wasn't so much if New York should regulate cryptocurrencies, but how. "Right now, the regulation of the virtual currency industry is still akin to the Wild West," said Lawsky. "That lack of regulation is simply not tenable for the long-term." Lawsky also expressed a desire not to "clip the wings" of a promising new technology, and acknowledged the potential of cryptocurrencies to revolutionize the money transmission industry.

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Euroskeptic UKIP the UK's Favorite Party

Credit: Euro Realist Newsletter/wikimediaCredit: Euro Realist Newsletter/wikimediaAccording to a poll conducted by ComRes and published in the U.K.-based The Independent on Sunday, the euroskeptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is the U.K.’s favorite political party and its leader, Nigel Farage, is the second most popular leader of a major British political party (he follows Prime Minister David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party).

Ed Miliband, the less than awe-inspiring leader of the Labour Party, and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, who has had to deal with a lot of unfair criticism from ungrateful members of his own party, are the least favorable political leaders.

Breakdown of the poll results below:

Independent on SundayIndependent on Sunday

What’s interesting about the popularity of UKIP is that it could deny the two largest parties (the Conservatives and Labour) a majority at the next general election, leaving the U.K. with its second hung parliament in a row. In this May’s European elections UKIP could do very well by taking advantage of euroskepticism in the U.K.

While UKIP may be enjoying some popularity, it is important for British classical liberals to remember that the party is not, despite what its constitution says, a libertarian party. UKIP’s hostility to to free trade and capitalism was highlighted last year by Farage’s rhetoric surrounding Bulgarian and Romanian immigration.  

I have written before about how UKIP is not a libertarian party, but it is especially worth highlighting months away from European elections. The European Union is an institution that is worthy of the mockery and anger that Farage is known for (see clips below):

However, the hostility Farage and his UKIP colleagues have towards the undemocratic and regulation-obsessed European Union is not reason enough for those who calls themselves libertarians to support UKIP.

I don’t understand the appeal of politics, but if British libertarians do want to get involved in politics they should not forget that there are classical liberal or classical liberal-leaning politicians outside of UKIP. In the Conservative Party Steve Baker MP, Alan Duncan MP, Douglas Carswell MP, and Daniel Hannan MEP each have libertarian sympathies. Even in the Liberal Democrats, a party that is wrongly categorized by many in the U.S. and the U.K. as being part of “the left,” politicians like David Laws MP and other so-called Orange Bookers are sympathetic to competition and economic liberalism. The exception to this description of the Orange Bookers is Vince Cable MP, who contributed to The Orange Book but is more of a social democrat than a Gladstonian liberal.

May is still a few months away and recent news suggests that the British economy is improving, which may help the Conservatives and make some people more hesitant to support UKIP, which includes many disillusioned Conservatives.

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Why Believe Anything Director of National Intelligence Clapper Says?

James Clapper U.S. GovermentYesterday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee about the foreign threats that menace the peace of the United States. I have no doubt that such threats exist, but why anyone would trust the way that Clapper would interpret (and strategically withhold) intelligence about those threats is beyond me. As all the world knows, Clapper lied last March in sworn testimony to Congress about the extent of National Security Agency spying on American citizens.

During the hearing yesterday, NSA critic Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) began his questioning by stating that Clapper and the NSA had previously made "misleading and deceptive statements" in their testimony. Wyden then added: 

Let me start by saying that the men and women of America's intelligence agencies are overwhelmingly dedicated professionals, and they deserve to have leadership that is trusted by the American people. Unfortunately, that trust has been seriously undermined by senior officials' reckless reliance on secret interpretations of the law and battered by years of misleading and deceptive statements that senior officials made to the American people. These statements did not protect sources and methods that were useful in fighting terror. Instead, they hid bad policy choices and violation of the liberties of the American people.

For example, the director of the NSA said publicly that the NSA doesn't hold data on U.S. citizens. That was obviously untrue.

Justice Department officials testified that Section 215 of the Patriot Act is analogous to grand jury subpoena authority, and that deceptive statement was made on multiple occasions.

Officials also suggested that the NSA doesn't have the authority to read Americans' e-mails without a warrant. But the FISA Court opinions declassified last August showed that wasn't true, either.

Earlier in the week, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) sent a letter signed by five other congressmen - both Republican and Democratic - to President Obama asking him to fire Clapper. The letter read:

The continued role of James Clapper as Director of National Intelligence is incompatible with the goal of restoring trust in our security programs and ensuring the highest level of transparency. Director Clapper continues to hold his position despite lying to Congress, under oath, about the existence of bulk data collection programs in March 2013. Asking Director Clapper, and other federal intelligence officials who misrepresented programs to Congress and the courts, to report to you on needed reforms and the future role of government surveillance is not a credible solution."

Unfortunately, in a reply to the letter a spokesperson for President Obama stated:

The president has full faith in Director Clapper’s leadership of the intelligence community. The director has provided an explanation for his answers to Sen. Wyden and made clear that he did not intend to mislead the Congress.

Not intend to mislead the Congress? That is what happens when you start lying, you have to keep lying. 

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Senate Judiciary Committee Approves Major Sentencing Reforms

Senate Judiciary CommitteeSenate Judiciary CommitteeToday, by a vote of 13 to 5, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved what the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) calls "the biggest overhaul in federal drug sentencing in decades." The Smarter Sentencing Act, introduced by Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) last July, would cut mandatory minimum sentences in half for some drug offenses, make the reduced crack penalties enacted in 2010 retroactive, and expand the category of defendants eligible for sentencing below the mandatory minimums. "The Smarter Sentencing Act is the most significant piece of criminal justice reform to make it to the Senate floor in several years," says Laura W. Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington Legislative Office.

The Durbin-Lee bill does not go as far as the Justice Safety Valve Act, introduced last March by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Pat Leahy (who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee). That bill would have made mandatory minimums effectively optional by alllowing judges to depart from them in the interest of justice. The Smarter Sentencing Act is nevertheless a big improvement. The crack provision alone could free thousands of prisoners serving sentences that almost everyone now concedes are excessively long. It would dramatically reduce the penalties for certain nonviolent drug offenses, changing 20-year, 10-year, and five-year mandatory minimums to 10 years, five years, and two years, respectively. It would allow more nonviolent offenders to escape mandatory minimums entirely by loosening the criteria for the "safety valve," allowing two criminal background points instead of just one.

"Extreme, one-size-fits-all sentencing has caused our federal prison population to balloon out of control," says the ACLU's Murphy, "and it's time to change these laws that destroy lives and waste taxpayer dollars." DPA notes that the Smarter Sentencing Act is supported by "a strange bedfellows group of senators," including Durbin, Lee, Paul, Leahy, Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). "The tide has turned against punitive drug policies that destroy lives and tear families apart," says Bill Piper, DPA's director of national affairs. "From liberal stalwarts to Tea Party favorites, there's now consensus that our country incarcerates too many people, for too much time, at too much expense to taxpayers."

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Sharon Presley Has the Last Word on Freedom Feminism

Feminist demonstrationPublic DomainChristina Hoff Sommers claims that her freedom feminism is “libertarian.” That's odd, writes Sharon Presley. Nowhere in her book does she say that. All she talks about are conservatives, including, in very approving terms, Phyllis Schlafly, who is about as anti-feminist as you can get and still be female. Sommers wants libertarians to align with conservative “feminists,” including the ones that are busy trying to destroy reproductive freedom. Any so-called “freedom feminism” that includes Schlafly and the anti-choice wing of the conservative movement is not any “feminism” Presley wants to be part of.

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What Kind of Smaller Immigration Deal Could Pass Congress?

fences keep you in tooWikipediaImmigration reform has been on President Obama’s election since it was deployed in 2012 to shore up support among Latino voters. Congress spent much of its working 2013 on legislation that ended up topping 1,000 pages, largely because, as Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) noted supportively, lobbyists keep coming to legislators for more carve outs. So a bill theoretically about legal status for illegal immigrants becomes a bill about border security, jobs, employment verification, subsidies, and who knows what else. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that such a monstrosity is having trouble getting passed. House Republicans are currently working on unveiling an outline of broad immigration reform principles.

Obama’s decision not to prioritize immigration reform during his first term also lowered the odds it would pass. George W. Bush’s similar effort at the end of his term also failed. An unpopular president can have the effect of making popular legislation easier to oppose. Bush’s efforts were torpedoed by a coalition of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, including Obama himself, who as a senator in 2007 helped the attempt at immigration reform fail by pushing pro-union amendments that would weaken the bill and its support.

Most of the senate’s current immigration reform bill and previous iterations is concerned with issues other than the human factor in the issue. While I’ve argued previously for amnesty for illegal immigrants, that solution is a non-starter in the current political climate. Nevertheless, perhaps a smaller, more focused bill that deals with the human cost of poor immigration policy would have a better chance of passing. Such a bill would not have to include e-verify, deal with any agricultural work specifically, or reform border security.

What it would have to do is provide some kind of legal status for the nations 7+ million illegal immigrants, the vast majority of whom are  otherwise law-abiding. Crossing the border illegally, after all, is merely a misdemeanor. Opponents of immigration reform, including some legal immigrants themselves, complain that illegal immigrants didn’t “wait in line” like everyone else. That line should be cut as part of immigration reform. Entering the country legally ought to be simpler for those seeking to immigrate to the US that have the means to do so. Concerns about illegal immigrants seeking to abuse the welfare system are largely unfounded, but could be alleviated by offering expedited legal status for illegal immigrants willing to forgo access to the welfare system. Every illegal immigrant I know (quite a few) has said something along those lines; they want to be legal in this country and couldn’t care less about getting welfare. They want to work, and ought to be allowed to.  To that end, immigration reform should make it easier for employers to hire the employees they want without having to worry about running afoul of immigration law. If this kind of narrower immigration reform couldn’t garner the support it needs to pass, reform supporters ought to consider a concession that could dampen opposition: making it easier to deport illegal immigrants convicted of violent crimes, and perhaps even banning such immigrants from ever returning to the US. Again, most illegal immigrants would be ok with this: they are law-abiding people just as upset by illegal immigrants who drink and drive and hit and run as legal immigrants and US citizens are.

Getting immigration reform passed in a divided, hyperpartisan Washington where each side is mostly interested in demonizing the other is a difficult task. When it is in the form of a 1000+ page bill that looks and feels like a clusterfuck that expands the power of the federal government while promoting more profligate spending and ignoring the actual human beings it is theoretically supposed to help, it’s an impossible one.

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Dueling Pot Billboards at the Stoner Bowl: Marijuana Is Safer vs. Marijuana Will Ruin Your Life

When teams from the two states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use clash at Sunday's Super Bowl, so will activists on both sides of the debate about pot prohibition. The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) is sponsoring five billboards near MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, where the Denver Broncos will face the Seattle Seahawks. The anti-pot group Project SAM is responding with an ad that "will be placed on digital and vinyl billboards throughout the New York-New Jersey area."

MPPMPP

Four of MPP's ads are variations on the marijuana-is-safer theme that played a conspicuous role in Colorado's legalization campaign and was recently echoed by President Obama. Two ads criticize the National Football League's anti-pot policy, showing generic players asking, "Why does the league punish us for making the safer choice?" The other two note that marijuana is safer than football as well as alcohol. The fifth MPP ad shows a tally of attendance at the last 10 Super Bowls next to a tally of marijuana arrests in 2012 (about 750,000 in both cases).

How does Project SAM respond? It can't very well deny that marijuana is safer than alcohol, since its chairman admitted as much on national television last week. Nor can it deny that pot prohibition generates hundreds of thousands of arrests each year, the vast majority for simple possession. Here is what the group came up with instead:

Project SAMProject SAM

That's right: Project SAM—which stands, believe it or not, for Smart Approaches to Marijuana—is warning Americans about amotivational syndrome. In 2014. The theme reflected in this billboard was hoary when it was first applied to marijuana in the 1960s, having figured prominently in anti-cigarette propaganda two decades before the federal ban on marijuana, which before it was portrayed as a soporific that renders people lethargic and unambitious was feared as a "killer drug" that made them aggressive and irrationally violent.

I am not sure what target Project SAM had in mind when it created this ad, but even kids are apt to smell the bullshit here. After all, many NFL players use marijuana to relax or relieve aches and pains, and it does not seem to have affected their motivation, perseverance, or determination. It may even have helped. The swimmer who won more Olympic medals than any other athlete in history was a pot smoker, for crying out loud. Nor did marijuana prevent our last three presidents from ascending to the highest political office in the land. MPP has a list of various other high-achieving cannabis consumers, in case you are curious.

Many people who are not celebrities also manage to consume marijuana without losing in the game of life. Yet Project SAM is still trying to persuade Americans that if they smoke pot it will kill their drive and prevent them from accomplishing anything worthwhile. In a country where most people born after World War II have tried pot, it is hard to make this tired slacker stereotype stick. But I guess it's the best pot prohibitionists have to offer.

Update: MPP is adding two new billboards in response to Project SAM's. One quotes the statement by Project SAM Chairman Patrick Kennedy that I mentioned: "I agree with the president. Alcohol is more dangerous [than marijuana]." Here is the other one:

MPPMPP

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Attention New York Reasonoids: Sign Up Now For a Dynamite Reason Panel on India Next Tuesday

India watchers know that the country’s explosive economic growth after it ended its daft autarkic policies and rolled back the License Raj lifted nearly 300 million people out of poverty. The country’s IT sector became the global outsourcing hub. And Indians started harboring delusions of grandeur, talking loosely about India becoming the nextindia.slumMeanest Indian/Foter/CC BY-NC-ND super power.

That was then.

Now, the country’s growth has plummeted to a mere 4 percent, raising fears that India might be headed back to the days of the dreaded Hindu rate of growth of 2 percent. Given that every one percent drop in GPD growth consigns millions of Indians to poverty – defined as living on $1.25 a day —jumpstarting India’s economic miracle is not merely an academic question but a vital human issue.

Given such stakes, it is no overstatement that national elections this spring are the country’s most momentous since Independence in 1947. The Congress Party, that formed a coalition government in 2004, is facing a serious challenge from the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Narenda Modi. Although tainted by his failure to prevent a massacre of the minority Muslim population in 2002 in the state of Gujarat, where he remains chief minister, Modi’s promise to fix India’s abysmal infrastructure, tackle its hidebound bureaucracy, attract foreign investment and end affirmative action has made him the darling of business.

But a new threat emerged in the form of the Aam Adami Party (literally: Ordinary Man’s Party) in the state assembly elections in December. AAP’s leader, Arvind Kejriwal, a political neophyte, ran a populist campaign promising relief from inflation and rampant corruption of the established parties, riding to victory in New Delhi.

But do any of the parties or candidates have what it takes to reignite India’s economy? Are they campaigning on the right issues? Will this election produce a government that can fix India’s broken governing institutions and restart its economic miracle? Will any party gain the moral authority to enact the next wave of liberalization? Or will the elections produce more political fragmentation with no political party obtaining a clear mandate to enact a bold reform agenda?

These are the questions that Reason Foundation plans to address at a panel it is co-sponsoring with Asia Society and the South Asian Journalists Association on Feb. 4, Tuesday, 6.30 p.m., at the Asia Society’s Park Avenue premises. I’ll moderate a stellar lineup that includes American Enterprise Insitute’s Sadanand Dhume, a Wall Street Journal columnist, Arvind Panagariya, a Columbia University economist who has co-authored several books with the inimitable Jagdish Bhagwati (and Amartarya Sen’s nemesis) whom reason.tv interviewed here, and Carnegie Endowment’s Milan Vaishnav.

Reason still has a few complimentary tickets to give away that you can get if you rush to this website and register now.

Bonus material: My column on the noxious Narendra Modi and why India ain’t going to catch up with the West any time soon.

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Steve Chapman Says the No-Fly List Took a Hit

AirlinerCarpkazuAmericans have always treasured the freedom to pick up and go anywhere they please. Our forebears had to travel to get here, often had to travel more after they arrived and sometimes moved on to uncharted territories out West only to return East. No one stopped them, whatever direction they were going. They had the good fortune to live and migrate before the creation of the all-encompassing national security state. After the 9/11 attacks, Americans woke up to find that their freedom to travel was not a fundamental right but a vaporous privilege, bestowed by the government and revocable at its whim. For more than a decade, writes Steve Chapman, the federal government assumed it could consign thousands of Americans to travel purgatory without justifying itself to anyone. But the no-fly list as currently administered may be headed for its final approach.

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LAPD Framed 24-Year-Old For Murder, Lawsuit Alleges

new professionalism, hthShay Sowden/flickrThe LAPD is facing a lawsuit from Roy Galvan, a 24-year-old father who spent more than a year in jail before being tried and acquitted for a murder he says police tried to frame him for. Via NBC Los Angeles:

[The lawsuit] accuses LAPD Officers Miguel Terrazas, David Nunn and Richard Arciniega of destroying evidence in the case, falsifying reports and bribing witnesses for statements, false arrest and malicious prosecution, among other claims of misconduct and civil rights violations…

Galvan claims the officers who took him to trial strong-armed, bribed and refused to investigate “several” potential witnesses, including two homeless people – Mark Loving and Syrella Carpenter, who had paranoid schizophrenia – living in a tent near the shooting scene.

The lawsuit alleges Loving and Carpenter were paid nearly $10,000 for their false testimony, and that the police requests for city checks for the two were submitted into evidence during Galvan’s trial. Other witnesses were allegedly promised they would not face deportation if they provided false testimony. The lawsuit also claims other eyewitnesses fingered a different suspect, but that cops did not interview him.

The police officers named in the lawsuit appear to remain with the LAPD. You can read the entire complaint here (pdf), via NBC.

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The "Meaning of Cory Remsburg" Isn't What Obama and His Supporters Think It Is.

In a response to the State of the Union Address published at Time.com, I concluded that Barack Obama's invocation of injured soldier Cory Remsburg was "morally dubious" because the president elided "any responsibility for placing the young man in harm’s way."

“Patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings,” Bob Dylan once sang, updating Samuel Johnson’s dark maxim. Obama’s gesture in the State of the Union will only accelerate the cynicism that already understandably dominates public opinion. There is no more serious decision that a government makes than to send its citizens a war. And there is nothing more disturbing than a president using soldiers’ sacrifices as a way of selling a grab-bag of domestic policy agenda items.

Read the whole thing.

Over the past couple of days, reactions to the use of Remsburg in the speech has emerged as something of a litmus test toward Obama, the military, and foreign policy. At Time.com's comments section, this is very much on display, where responses from Obama supporters and boosters of the military responded favorably and libertarians reacted negatively to the invocation of Remsburg.

For sheer moral obtuseness in the service of Obama fanboyism, check out The New Yorker's John Cassidy who writes,

Obama’s underlying message has been that too much of what happens in Washington is an insiders’ game that ignores, and often tramples upon, the wishes and interests of ordinary Americans....

By inviting Remsburg...Obama was taking part in what’s now a traditional ritual for speech-givers. But he was also trying to bridge the gaping chasm between politics and political decision-making as experienced by its practitioners in the nation’s capital and by the grunts out there in the factories, offices, and Army battalions.

He was also invoking the concept of public service, which, in Washington these days, is routinely subjugated to partisan advantage. And, finally, he was saying that we can do better, and we know we can—just look at this young man.

This, Cassidy argues, is "the meaning of Cory Remsburg." Equating sending men and women to war with "grunts out there in the factories" and offices?" Or public service more broadly? Are you freaking kidding, man? That's a pretty weird interpretation. Given that Obama has failed at every turn to explain precisely what the U.S.'s goals were in Iraq and Afghanistan especially (where Remsburg was injured and where Obama tripled troops during his first year in office), I'd like to offer a different and I think more accurate interpretation, one unburdened with trying to constantly say good things about the president.

Obama, just like Bush before him, sends a guy - hundreds of thousands, actually - to war where they put their bodies and lives on the line. Obama, just like Bush before him, doesn't bother to articulate the pressing national security interest in sending soldiers to the far corners of the globe. He doesn't give yardsticks for success or failure or anything. Instead, he stumbles along: War is war, you know, and it's hell - just look at this guy in the balcony. Now please clap for him - me, really - and good night America. The meaning of Cory Remsburg? It's that Obama and Washington is more than happy to use citizens for whatever political purpose they deem worthy of pursuing. And then when those same citizens return from a tour of duty, politicians are still ready, willing, and able to use them again, without serious regard for their well-being. Contra Cassidy, "the meaning" here isn't about public service, it's about the government's grotesque exploitation of its citizens.

What a disturbing moment and what a way to end a speech otherwise dedicated to forgettable gestures such as the "MyRa." Obama should be ashamed of himself, especially when you factor in that Obama's Veterans Administration is currently backlogged on 63 percent of benefits claims made by returning soldiers:

Among talking heads, one of the most interesting discussions came on Fox News' The Five, where the hosts grappled with their conflicting feelings about Obama (generally negative) and the military (generally positive). Along the way, Greg Gutfeld mentioned my piece in passing and averred (in Mediaite's gloss):

“This heroic man was somewhat disconnected from the limp litany of grad school garbage that came before, and it felt like it was placed at the end of the speech to armor against scrutiny.” He added, “Everyone walks away thinking about this amazing hero and not how lame the president’s speech was.”

“It was really moving at the end, but I felt like I was being used,” Gutfeld said.

I suspect that more and more people, especially upon a couple of days' reflection will feel that way.

Watch the segment below:

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It’s Not Just MSNBC Making Flip Assumptions About Non-Liberal Racism (UPDATED)

Last night, the official Twitter feed of MSNBC used a Cheerios Super Bowl commercial to make a crack about non-lefties being uncomfortable with race-mixing:

Maybe! |||

After an eruption of outrage on Twitter, including a volley of colorful family snapshots under the hashtag #MyRightWingBiracialFamily, MSNBC online chief Richard Wolffe withdrew the Tweet:  

The Cheerios tweet from @msnbc was dumb, offensive and we've taken it down. That's not who we are at msnbc.

Sending out an S.O.S. |||The "that's not who we are" claim generated a flurry of LOLs, and not just from conservatives. New York magazine put the issue succinctly in a headline: "MSNBC Is Very Sorry for Suggesting Conservatives Are Racist (Again)."

But making broad and essentially pejorative generalizations about giant swaths of non-Democrats is hardly the exclusive domain of the racist-chasers at MSNBC and Salon.com. Journalistic outlets at the highest levels have been making non-jokey versions of the same accusation throughout the Obama presidency, ever since the twin ascension in 2009 of the Tea Party and opposition to the Affordable Care Act.

For an example, check out this passage in New Yorker Editor David Remnick's extraordinarily long and often insightful recent profile of the president.

In the electoral realm, ironically, the country may be more racially divided than it has been in a generation. Obama lost among white voters in 2012 by a margin greater than any victor in American history. The popular opposition to the Administration comes largely from older whites who feel threatened, underemployed, overlooked, and disdained in a globalized economy and in an increasingly diverse country. Obama's drop in the polls in 2013 was especially grave among white voters.

Where's that confounded bridge? |||Italics mine, to underscore what one of the nation's most decorated journalists felt zero need to substantiate in a 16,000-word article. Do older white voters really feel more "threatened" and "disdained" by a "globalized economy" and "increasingly diverse country" than other age and ethnic/pigmentation cohorts? I'm sure there's plenty of interesting poll data out there, but Remnick (a 55-year-old white guy, FWIW) doesn't need to cite any: He knows it's true, his readers know it's true, and the only real question is how much you can respectably pin opposition to this twice-elected black president on racism.

This isn't just bad journalism, it's bad tolerance. Attributing a single set of personality traits to scores of millions of people whose only commonality is age and race is the opposite of judging people not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. It's also a cheap way to wave off the substance of anti-Obama criticism—why bother figuring out why a majority of Americans have consistently disliked the flawed Affordable Care Act when you can just roll your eyes and assert that the real reason is white anxiety and worse? There is nothing tolerant about assuming that those who have different ideas than you about the size and scope of government are motivated largely by base ethnic tribalism.

MSNBC, on whose shows I have happily participated* (see update below), engages daily in the othering business, of making conservatism itself (and sometimes libertarianism, and other non-Progressive ideological strains) a disreputable condition, explicable in terms of pathology. That this is done in the name of tolerance and sensitivity to punitive stereotypes is one of the ironies of our age.

To his credit, Barack Obama himself seems to have a more nuanced understanding of race and his own popularity than many of his supporters and interlocutors. Here he is in the Remnick piece:

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No Charges for Texas Officer Who Shot Innocent Man at Own Home

Jerry Waller, on the rightFamily photoLast May, a 72-year-old man in the Fort Worth, Texas, area was shot to death by police investigating a burglar alarm across the street from his home. They were on his property, unaware they were at the wrong address, there was some sort of confrontation, and the man, Jerry Waller, was armed, possibly thinking there were intruders. Police shot him seven times.

Yesterday, a grand jury declined to charge the officer responsible for the innocent man’s death. Courtesy of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

The decision not to indict R.A. “Alex” Hoeppner in the death of Jerry Waller came a week after prosecutors began presenting the case.

Waller died May 28 after being shot multiple times by Hoeppner as the officer and partner Ben Hanlon searched for a possible suspect after being dispatched to a burglary alarm call across the street.

Hanlon, who did not fire his gun, was dismissed from the department in October in an unrelated matter.

Police Chief Jeff Halstead said the grand jury made the right decision.

“I think it was proven through the autopsy and evidence that a gun was pointed directly at officer Hoeppner and he was forced to make his decision …” Halstead said, explaining that the trajectory of Waller’s wounds shows that the homeowner had his arm outstretched, as if pointing a gun.

That the police were trespassing is apparently irrelevant. They claim they identified themselves to Waller before opening fire. The family, of course, has doubts about the police’s story. Even the chief of police couldn’t explain why Waller would open fire on the officers if they had identified themselves. (Oh, and the unrelated matter that Officer Hanlon was dismissed for was for allegedly providing false information about an arrest at a traffic stop.)

Here’s an invitation to visualize the opposite happening. What if Waller had killed Hoeppner, thinking the officer was an intruder, instead of the other way around? Would the grand jury have let Waller go?

(Hat tip to CharlesWT)

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Americans Not Thrilled About Obama Bypassing Congress

President ObamaIn his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Obama repeated his shop-worn mantra about being prepared to bypass Congress "wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation." Whatever slack Americans may still be willing to cut the president at this late date doesn't extend to unilateral action, however—fewer than a third of us are on-board with that idea.

A CNN/ORC poll taken after the speech asked people, "In general, would you rather see Barack Obama attempt to reach a bipartisan compromise with Congress on major issues, or would you rather see Obama take unilateral action without Congress to make changes in government policy that are not supported by Republicans?"

Only 30 percent said they wanted Obama to take action without Congress, while 67 percent held out for bipartisan compromise.

Overall, the poll found the weakest response to the State of the Union addresses given by the current president since he took office. The "very positive" column has drifted downward from 68 percent at the first speech, to 53 percent last year, to 44 percent this time (though the meh "somewhat positive" numbers are up a bit).

Americans seem a bit jaded about the guy in the White House, and letting him go it alone isn't in the cards.

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A.M. Links: Obama Shilling for Higher Wages at Costco, One Out of Two Doctors Consults Wikipedia, Scarlet Johansson Steps Down as Oxfam Ambassador

sodaliciousAngela George/flickr

  • President Obama was at Costco shilling for a higher minimum wage, a policy that would give the store an advantage over its much smaller competitors.
  • A top Senate Republican, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, sent a package to all 232 Republican members of the House rebutting possible arguments against the immigration reform effort in Congress.
  • 50 percent of doctors and patients consult Wikipedia, according to a new report from a healthcare institute.
  • A Brooklyn school discontinued its gifted program over concerns about lack of “diversity.”
  • Scarlet Johansson has stepped down as an ambassador for Oxfam after an outcry from some over her relationship with an Israeli soda company that operates a factory in the West Bank.
  • The United Kingdom and France are teaming up to develop a new generation of killer drones.

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Video: President of National School Choice Week Andrew Campanella Talks Progress in the Movement

"President of National School Choice Week Andrew Campanella Talks Progress in the Movement" 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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Jacob Sullum on the Prohibitionist Backlash Against Obama's Marijuana Comments

CNNCNNPot prohibitionists reacted with dismay to President Obama's observation that marijuana is safer than alcohol—not because it was false, says Jacob Sullum, but because it was true. As measured by acute toxicity, accident risk, and the long-term health effects of heavy consumption, marijuana is clearly safer than alcohol. That does not mean smoking pot poses no risks, or that drinking is so dangerous no one should ever do it. It simply means that the risks posed by alcohol are, on the whole, bigger than the risks posed by marijuana. So if our drug laws are supposed to be based on a clear-eyed evaluation of relative risks, Sullum writes, some adjustment would seem to be in order.

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Andrew Napolitano on the Sorry State of the Union

Russ-Allison-Loar-CC-BY-NC-NDRuss-Allison-Loar-CC-BY-NC-NDFollowing President Obama's State of the Union Address, Andrew Napolitano has some questions. What if the state of the union is a mess? What if the government spies on all of us all of the time and recognizes no limits to its spying? What if its appetite for acquiring personal knowledge about all Americans is insatiable? What if the government uses the microchips in our cellphones to follow us and listen to us as we move about?

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Brickbat: Red All Over

Four Venezuelan newspapers have stopped publishing, and many others have been slashing pages or circulation because of a shortage of newsprint. The country imports almost all its newsprint, but publishers say that currency controls imposed by the government make it difficult to acquire the dollars they need to buy newsprint. They say the government is making it difficult for them because newspapers are the only part of the media still willing to criticize it.

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Tonight on The Independents: The GOP’s Welfare Conflict, Locker-Room Libertarianism, Deporting Bieber, Documenting Detroit, Duck Selfies, Bad Beards, and Even More Penn Jillette!

Tonight's live episode of Fox Business Network's The Independents (9 pm ET, 6 pm PT, repeats at midnight) will feature a sobering reminder: Never miss the online-only "Independents After Hours" (which streams at the website just after 10 pm, including tonight). Why? Because you miss some seriously free-wheeling, structureless conversations with the various beautiful freaks who populate the show. Like Monday's conversation with Penn Jillette, a solid chunk of which has been edited down for consumption tonight.

Did you want to see a little P.J. from the actual telecast? Well here you are:

Also on the program: Party Panelists Buck Sexton from The Blaze and Andrew Kirell from Mediaite will be on to discuss the divergent GOP approaches to welfare politics, President Barack Obama's mixed foreign policy messages in last night’s State of the Union address, what Justin Bieber’s many troubles tell us about immigration policy, and New Jersey’s butt-hurtedness about not getting enough revenue from the Super Bowl.

Intense journalist Charlie LeDuff will be on to talk about his book Detroit: An American Autopsy, recently retired NFL cornerback Chris Carr will discuss what it’s like to be a libertarian-leaning independent in a professional locker room, and Independents heartthrob Kmele Foster will tell us the latest news about Bitcoin (you may even see a snippet from our recent Reason.tv video on same). Also eligible for discussion: The farm bill, Jay Carney's beard, Duck Dynasty's SOTU-selfies, Vin Diesel's dance moves, and more. And REMEMBER: Make sure to watch the after-show, and send your tweets out to @IndependentsFBN.

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If Obamacare Doesn't Kill Small Medical Practices, Bureaucratic ICD-10 Coding Requirements Might

ICD-10U.S. GovernmentNews headlines have focused on the bureaucratic mandates, financial looniness, and unlikely assumptions that seem designed to drive medical providers away from the Affordable Care Act or out of business entirely. But this year, a non-Obamacare bureaucratic car bomb is set to explode in the medical world in the form of ICD-10—a new coding system for patient diagnoses and inpatient procedures. Mandated by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the coding system standardizes communications among providers and insurers. Well, it standardizes them more, since ICD-9 has been in place for 30 years. Uncertainty over hitches in replacing the old coding system with a brand new one has industry experts advising practices to keep several months worth of cash on hand to cover lags in reimbursement. Practices lacking that much liquidity under the mattress may be truly screwed.

Theoretically, the new coding system covers inpatient care involving Medicare, Medicaid, and "everyone covered by the Health Insurance Portability Accountability Act." The government says up and down that the new codes aren't really necessary for private practices providing outpatient care. A handy FAQ insists:

Will ICD-10 replace Current Procedural Terminology (CPT) procedure coding?

No. The switch to ICD-10 does not affect CPT coding for outpatient procedures. Like ICD-9 procedure codes, ICD-10-PCS codes are for hospital inpatient procedures only.

But as EHRIntelligence points out, "While it’s true that CPT/HCPCS codes will continue to be the gold standard for outpatient procedures, providers will be required to include ICD-10 diagnostic codes with their claims in order to receive reimbursements from payers."

So, if doctors want to be compensated by anybody other than cash-only patients, they need to adopt the new codes, too.

The problem is that glitches are anticipated in switchover to the new coding system, since nobody is allowed to use it before October 1, 2014, and everybody is required to use it after that day. That's right, another government-mandated healthcare industry hard launch, exactly one year after Healthcare.gov debuted.

Actually, ICD-10 and Healthcare.gov were originally scheduled to launch on the same day in 2013. That would have been fun.

The Healthcare Billing & Management Association warns that "it is possible that not all payors will be ready for ICD-10 on October 1, 2014," so "it will be important that you are able to submit in both ICD-9 and ICD-10 formats." The group further recommends that practices "establish a line of credit to tide the office over during the first months following the implementation of ICD-10" to acommodate reimbursement delays.

The CMS itself notes in its Implementation Guide for Small and Medium Practices:

The transition to ICD-10 will result in changes to physician reimbursements. ... [C]hallenges with billing productivity combined with potential payer claim processing challenges may result in signicant impact to cash flow. This may require the need for reserve funds or lines of credit to offset cash flow challenges.

According to HealthcareITNews:

Healthcare providers may face disruptions in their payments even if they are on target to operate using ICD-10 codes on Oct. 1, 2014. 

Since providers will, and indeed need, to be able to pay rent and staff salaries if the transition does not flow as smoothly as testing has indicated, experts advise having up to several months' cash reserves or access to cash through a loan or line of credit to avoid potential headaches.

"Just figure that with the transition to ICD-10 there will be delays in reimbursement," said April Arzate, vice president of client services at MediGain, a Dallas-based revenue cycle and healthcare analytics company.

Arzate recommends keeping enough cash on hand to cover medical supplies, payroll, rent, and the rest of a medical practice's overhead for three to six months.

A separate document on risk-mitigation strategies for implementing ICD-10, prepared by the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society, specifies a "minimum of six months of cash reserves to mitigate revenue impacts over the ICD-10 transformation period."

Lines of credit might step in where available cash is short, but banks issue lines of credit to good risks—not medical practices already struggling in an uncertain regulatory environment.

If you're a doctor, now is a good time to look at your cash flow, or your retirement options. If you're a patient, you might just consider buying your favorite doc a good-bye drink.

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Jeff Sessions: Marijuana Can't Be Safer Than Alcohol Because 'Lady Gaga Says She's Addicted to It'

Senate Judiciary CommitteeSenate Judiciary CommitteeSen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) looks back proudly at his efforts, alongside Nancy Reagan, to "create a hostility to drug use" in the 1980s. Not surprisingly, Sessions was not pleased by President Obama's recent comments about the relative hazards of marijuana and alcohol, as he explained to Attorney General Eric Holder during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today:

I have to tell you, I'm heartbroken to see what the president said just a few days ago. It's stunning to me. I find it beyond comprehension….This is just difficult for me to conceive how the president of the United States could make such a statement as that....Did the president conduct any medical or scientific survey before he waltzed into The New Yorker and opined contrary to the positions of attorneys general and presidents universally prior to that? 

Sessions, by contrast, clearly did his homework. He rebutted Obama's observation that marijuana is safer than alcohol by citing a renowned expert on substance abuse:

Lady Gaga says she's addicted to it and it is not harmless.

I have been covering drug policy for about 25 years, and I am still sometimes startled by what passes for an argument among prohibitionists. What should we conclude from this sample of one about the hazards posed by marijuana? That it can be taken to excess, like every other fun thing on the face of the planet? That some people say they have trouble consuming it in moderation? Didn't we know both of those things before Dr. Gaga's earthshaking discovery?

More to the point, what does the possibility of addiction tell us about the truth of the statement Obama made—i.e., that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol? After all, "less dangerous" does not mean "harmless." As Holder observed, "any drug used in an inappropriate way can be harmful," and "alcohol is among those drugs." To evaluate relative hazards, we have to dig a little deeper.

According to one widely cited study, based on data from the National Comorbidity Survey, "dependence" is nearly 70 percent more common among drinkers than it is among pot smokers. So even by this measure, marijuana looks less dangerous. That's without considering differences in acute toxicity, driving impairment, and the long-term effects of heavy consumption, all of which weigh strongly in marijuana's favor.

Gaga was not the only authority cited by Sessions. He also mentioned former Rhode Island congressman Patrick Kennedy, chairman of the anti-pot group Project SAM, who according to the senator "says the president is wrong on this subject." Yet here is what Kennedy said during a recent debate on CNN with my colleague Nick Gillespie:

I agree with the president. Alcohol is more dangerous.

Sessions was on firmer ground when he pressed Holder to admit that "if marijuana is legalized for adults, it makes it more available for young people." As I've said before, it is likely that legalization in Colorado and Washington will be accompanied by an increase in underage consumption. While the newly legal marijuana stores are not allowed to serve anyone younger than 21, there will be a certain amount of leakage from adults to "minors" (who in this case include a bunch of people who in most other respects are considered adults), as there is with alcohol. Buying marijuana may become more difficult for people younger than 21 (assuming the black market eventually withers away), but that does not mean obtaining marijuana will be more difficult. Some teenagers and young adults will get pot by swiping it from parents or older siblings, and some legal buyers will have no qualms about sharing with older teenagers or 20-year-olds (although that will remain illegal). Given this reality, Holder's response to Sessions' concern about underage access is a bit troubling:

One of our eight priorities is the prevention of distribution of marijuana to minors. If there's an indication that marijuana is being distributed to minors, that would require federal involvement....

Young people find ways to get alcohol because adults can have access to it. I'm not sure that we'll see the same thing here given what we have said with regard to our enforcement priorities.

Holder is referring to the eight issues the Justice Department expects Colorado and Washington to address as the price of federal forbearance, one of which is "preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors." If that means stopping state-licensed stores from selling marijuana to people younger than 21, it can be accomplished through strict enforcement of the states' age limits. But if it means preventing 21-year-olds from sharing marijuana with their 19-year-old friends or brothers, it is not a realistic expectation. It is more like an excuse to crack down whenever the president gets tired of sniping by diehard drug warriors like Sessions.

[Thanks to Richard Cowan for the tip.]

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St. Louis County Cops Accused of Unauthorized, Possibly Politically Motivated Criminal Background Checks

all your database are belong to themSteve NotReally/PhotobucketTwo St. Louis county police officers who were assigned to the detail of County Executive Charles Dooley have had their access to a criminal database suspended while an investigation over whether they were running unauthorized background checks, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The officers are specifically accused of running such a check on a former candidate for the police board, a body that’s theoretically supposed to supervise officers. The Dispatch reports:

Questions first arose in October when Dooley’s chief of staff, Garry Earls, announced to the county council that a criminal background check into former police board candidate David Spence had come back clean, County Chief Tim Fitch said.

Fitch said he had questioned how the county administration would know that information because he didn’t believe it was his officers’ place to run the checks.

“I thought it was inappropriate because we answer to police board members and we should not be doing any background checks on our own supervisors,” he said.

Further investigation revealed that at least one of the two officers assigned to Dooley’s detail had run Spence’s name unbeknownst to Fitch, he said.

“That’s when we asked ourselves, ‘Who else is he running?’ ” Fitch said.

Fitch insisted he’s not claiming the elected official Dooley did anything wrong, and that the investigation is focused on whether the two officers did. He said, however, that he was also interested in who may have asked them to run the checks (Dooley? duh?).  As part of Dooley's detail, they were stationed in the office of the county executive. Access to the criminal database was meant to assess threats against the county executive, and Fitch noted that all searches are only illegal if done for “criminal justice purposes.”

File this one as just one more reason you should be worried about expansive government databases even if you think you have nothing to hide.

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Snowden Nominated for Nobel Prize, Atlanta Becomes Frozen Hell, House Passes $1 Trillion Farm Bill: P.M. Links

  • Snowden isn't responsible for nearly enough deaths to get the Nobel Peace Prize, right?Credit: Anubis3Two Norwegian politicians have nominated Edward Snowden for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize. They should ask to transfer over the one they gave to President Barack Obama.
  • The cold weather has turned Atlanta into an apocalyptic landscape about which several comparisons to The Walking Dead have been made.
  • The Supreme Court ordered a temporary stay of the execution of a Missouri man. Opponents are pointing to the state’s lack of transparency about the drugs they’re using to execute prisoners as a problem.
  • The House has passed the $1 trillion farm bill. It cuts food stamps slightly and one farm subsidy but expands the crop insurance program.
  • Egypt will be putting 20 Al Jazeera journalists, including four foreign reporters, on trial for aiding members of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood as Al Jazeera correspondents.
  • A White House petition demanding the deportation of Justin Bieber has reached the threshold of 100,000 to garner a response. I was going to suggest that 100,000 folks should prepare for disappointment, but given the Obama administration’s reputation for deporting people, they may get what they want.

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Jesse Walker Reviews Torre David: Informal Vertical Communities

book coverbook coverJesse Walker reviews Torre David: Informal Vertical Communities, a book about a never-completed skyscraper in Venezuela. After a banking crisis crippled the nation's economy, the government got title to the tower and let it stagnate. Then squatters took over and transformed it. The result, writes Walker, was a complex and fascinating place: not just a symbol of poverty, but a symbol of the self-organized activity that offers a way out of poverty.

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Health Department Shuts Down 11-Year-Old's Cupcake Business

allieosmar / Foter / CC BY-NCallieosmar / Foter / CC BY-NCThe Health Department of Madison County, Illinois on Sunday shut down a baking operation run by an 11-year-old girl.

Chloe Stirling may be young, but she's already developed serious culinary and small business skills. She began an enterprise, called “Hey, Cupcake!,” out of her family's kitchen two years ago. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the sixth grader earns around $200 a month selling her baked goods. Stirling hopes to use her income to one day open her own bakery. Her mother, Heather, also offered to match the money Stirling makes to buy a car when she turns 16. Additionally, “she has donated many to charitable events, including a fundraiser for a student with cancer and, most recently, taking some to residents at a senior care center,” writes the Belleville News-Democrat.

The desserts didn't sit well with the local government, though. The health department called Stirling's parents and demanded that the girl cease operations, because she was violating the Illinois State Food Service Code. Stirling lacked the necessary permit and the kitchen wasn't properly licensed.

"The guy told me I either had to buy her a bakery or put in a second kitchen (in the house),” Stirling's mother said.

How did the sleuths at the health department discover this renegade baker? She was on the front page of the local news. The News-Democrat wanted to highlight Stirling's entrepreneurship, so they wrote a feature about her.

Health Promotion Manager Amy Yeager told the Post-Dispatch, “The rules are the rules. It’s for the protection of the public health. The guidelines apply to everyone.” When asked whether it was worth the potential poor public relations, she said, “People will react how they choose to react. But it is our job.”

The sixth grade scofflaw doesn't blame the department for finally catching up with her code-violating behavior. She told KSDK, "Well, I think it's just the rules are rules and they kind of need to be followed. I really don't blame the health department because it's not really their fault.”

This isn't the first time law enforcement has tackled little criminals. Reason has covered numerous regulation-dodging lemonade runners, one of which had cancer, and even a zucchini black marketeer

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‘The Kronies’ Will Make You Laugh in Despair about the State of American Capitalism

Big G knows better than some flimsy scrap of paper, citizen!"The Kronies"All hail Chimera Incorporated! What, you think that corporation name sounds sinister? What kind of American are you, anyway? No, Chimera Incorporated is bringing us “The Kronies,” the awesome super-powered team that keeps this country big and strong through the tools of crony capitalism. Save us from those selfish entrepreneurs who want the unpredictable “market” to decide who the winners are. Why should the market get to decide when we’ve got all this influence?

Here’s an introduction to The Kronies:

I defy you to find a better way to reach Gen Xers who distrust the government (by which I mean, “Gen Xers”) than a parody of terrible Saturday morning cartoons from 30 years ago. The site for the Kronies is here, featuring descriptions of their “heroes” and their abilities to direct government spending their way with powers like mandates and boondoggles. Right now they represent the ethanol industry, big banks, big labor, and the military-industrial complex, led by “Big G,” the manifestation of the bipartisan nature (his costume is equally split between red and blue) of government crony spending. The site promises a shop coming soon, and we can only hope they follow through.

Glenn Beck and The Blaze tracked down the mastermind of the site, John Papola, CEO of Austin-based production company Emergent Order. Beck interviewed Papola about the bipartisanship nature of crony capitalism and the business culture that makes it so hard to fight. In short, the more powerful the government, the greater the incentive for crony capitalism.

“I really believe that it’s fundamentally the unique nature of government as a monopoly that gives rise to these things,” he told Beck. “Whether you’re General Motors or General Electric or — you name the big corporation — and you have a fiduciary duty to go after the maximum profit, and you have the opportunity to use legislation to help do that or help keep your competitors at bay, you’re gonna do it. The incentives are so perverse that it’s not even a matter of morality after a certain point, because if your competitors are doing it, are you going to fire your people to be the nice guy, because you let the other guy take the subsidies and rig the rules against you?”

I’m crossing my fingers for a video game in the future. As it’s a licensed intellectual property, it must be a very, very bad video game that costs too much, as is typically the case.

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Lawmaker Dreams of Transforming Hawaii Into Marijuana Production Hub

Aleks / WikimediaAleks / WikimediaHawaii House Majority Leader Rida Cabanilla thinks that legalizing the production and exporting of pot would be the golden opportunity for Hawaii to tackle its $25 billion debt.

Cabanilla told Hawaii Reporter:

This state would turn into a manufacturing state. Can you imagine factories that would be making ‘Maui Wowie’ cookies and making marijuana macadamia nut candy for export? I think that would be wonderful.

Maui Wowie, the renowned Hawaiin strain of marijuana, has been the subject matter of Kid Cudi.

The bill also mentions “cannabis-infused chocolate, ice cream, beverages, capsules, bath soaks, and muscle relief lotions.”

Cabanilla insists she's not calling for marijuana legalization. She doesn't like the stuff. But she thinks it's a practical step toward reducing the state's unfunded liabilities.

First Cabanilla needs to pass House Bill 2124 which would put the state's Department of Agriculture and Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism at the helm of a temporary working group. It would be tasked with outlining an export plan and handling other tricky logistics.

Tax revenues would be divided amongst the state Department of Education, Department of Health, Public Housing Authority, and Housing and Finance & Development Corporation.

Cabanilla sees a number of problems receding post-roll out:

“I am not even a fan of it. But if that is what it takes for our state to be in the forefront where we can fix our roads, we can build more affordable housing, we can help the homeless —that is the route we should go.  And people in Hawaii will be so happy, because this may be the state that they don’t have to pay property tax.”

She added: “Our farmers will never be poor again."

Hawaii has the optimal climate for the production of illegal substance production. The bill reads:

The Goddess Pele has provided Hawaii with the best soil in the nation for marijuana cultivation; it should be capitalized upon for the good of her people.

Of course, recreational drug use in Hawaii, like in most states, is illegal. The bill would not lift barriers to domestic use.

But one day Hawaii could export to foreign countries, like the Netherlands, where it is legal. Cabanilla also hopes to work with Colorado and Washington, which are unrolling legalization this year and are facing shortages. Hawaii could fill the void.

Unfortunately, Cabanilla's plan faces an uphill battle with the federal government. Moving the plant on federal property is illegal. But Hawaii in the case that the federal government entertains a change of heart, the state will be “ready to rock.”

Watch the interview from Hawaii Reporter with Rida Cabanilla below:

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Obama Channeled Ron Paul Last Night (Kind of)

Credit: David Carlyon/wikimediaCredit: David Carlyon/wikimediaDuring the State of the Union address last night Obama said the following:

We must fight the battles that need to be fought, not those that terrorists prefer from us – large-scale deployments that drain our strength and may ultimately feed extremism.

This doesn’t that much different from what has been said by the non-interventionist former Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who has pointed out that American foreign policy and diplomacy might have something to do with why the U.S., and not another country which allows for freedom of religion and women’s rights, is one of the primary targets of Islamic extremists.

During the race for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 Paul’s differences with most of the rest of his party when it came to foreign policy were highlighted by an exchange with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Watch that exchange below:

The main difference between what the president said last night and what Paul has argued is that Obama’s statement is understandably less definitive. Obama drew a comparatively weak causal relationship between “large-scale deployments” and “extremism” by saying that the former “may” lead to the latter.

It is ironic that it is Obama, who has overseen years of what is perhaps the most unpopular war in American history as commander in chief, is the one warning of the risks of large military deployments abroad. Around 37,500 American troops are in Afghanistan. 

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Katherine Mangu-Ward on the Eternal Recurrence of Race to the Top in the State of the Union

thumbsCredit: whitehouse.gov

This year, in the State of the Union address, President Barack Obama touted a success in reforming K-12 education in America:

Race to the Top, with the help of governors from both parties, has helped states raise expectations and performance.  

And it's true that Race to the Top has been a pretty good program. But it was ultimately a pretty small reform and the effects have petered out. 

But that hasn't stopped the president from filing almost the entire K-12 portion of the education sections of his State of the Union addresses with a brag on Race to the Top, writes Reason magazine Managing Editor Katherine Mangu-Ward.

Every. Single. Year.

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Ted Cruz: Democratic Abuses of Executive Power Should Be a Bipartisan Concern

In today's Wall Street Journal, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) condemns President Obama's "persistent pattern of lawlessness, his willingness to disregard the written law and instead enforce his own policies via executive fiat." The piece, which focuses on three ways in which Obama has flouted the plain language of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, is mostly on target, although I question Cruz's contention that declining to prosecute state-licensed marijuana growers and sellers is tantamount to violating the Controlled Substances Act. The most striking thing about Cruz's essay is what he left out.

While Cruz argues (correctly) that the abuse of executive power "should not be a partisan issue," he does not cite a single example involving a Republican president, although he does concede that "Republican presidents abused their power" and might do so again in the future. And although there is no shortage of cases in which Obama has acted lawlessly in the name of national security, Cruz does not mention any of them, possibly because doing so would raise the hackles of hawkish Republicans and bring to mind similar sins by Obama's Republican predecessor.

One of the earliest and clearest examples of Obama's lawlessness stemmed from his determination to bail out the auto industry. But it was George W. Bush who initiated the illegal use of money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program to rescue American car manufacturers from their own mistakes—a policy that Obama welcomed as a senator and expanded as president. Obama went further with his high-handed engineering of the merger between Chrysler and Fiat, a deal that violated well-established bankruptcy principles. But bringing that up would remind anyone who was paying attention that Obama's abuse of executive power in this area was a logical extension of Bush's.

The same could be said of the National Security Agency's surveillance programs. After condemning the NSA's warrantless wiretapping of Americans' international communications during the Bush administration, Obama voted to authorize it, and it continues to this day. Likewise the NSA's routine collection of every American's phone records, which Obama claims is authorized by the PATRIOT Act. The main author of the PATRIOT Act disagrees. Yet Cruz does not mention illegal surveillance as an example of Obama's (and Bush's) excesses.

Nor does Cruz mention Obama's completely optional yet congressionally unapproved air war against Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime in Libya, although it is hard to think of a purer example of the president's unilateralism. The Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, but Obama never sought such a declaration. He even argued, against the advice offered by his own Office of Legal Counsel, that the War Powers Act, which requires congressional authorization for the continued use of military force without a declaration of war after 60 days, did not apply, because the bombs and missiles raining down on Libyan forces did not constitute "hostilities." I don't know where Cruz, who took office last year, stood on Libya, but many of his fellow Republicans think the president should have a great deal of discretion in deciding when and why to use military force. Some of Cruz's comments about Syria suggest he may agree.

Cruz even overlooks two executive-power issues related to national security that he has highlighted in the past. Last year Cruz challenged the president's license to kill anyone he suspects of involvement in terrorism, and he voted against the National Defense Authorization Act because he was "deeply concerned that Congress still has not prohibited President Obama's ability to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens arrested on American soil without trial or due process." But imprisoning and killing people at will somehow do not make Cruz's list of Obama's most troubling power grabs, possibly because so many of his fellow Republicans do not see anything wrong with those policies.

"In the nation's history," says the subhead above Cruz's op-ed piece, "there is simply no precedent for an American president so wantonly ignoring federal law." Although Cruz may not have written that, he did not challenge the claim when CNN's Jake Tapper read it back to him last night. Instead he tried to make the case that Obama has indeed been especially lawless. In the Journal essay, he suggests that Democrats (including journalists covering the White House) have been less keen to challenge Obama's abuses than Republicans were to challenge presidents of their party:

In the past, when Republican presidents abused their power, many Republicans—and the press—rightly called them to account. Today many in Congress—and the press—have chosen to give President Obama a pass on his pattern of lawlessness, perhaps letting partisan loyalty to the man supersede their fidelity to the law.

From the perspective of someone who is neither a Democrat nor a Republican, both the abuse of executive power and the willingness to overlook it when a member of your party occupies the White House seem like bipartisan tendencies. Cruz would be much more credible on this issue if he forthrightly admitted that instead of insisting that the other team is worse.

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Rand Paul Speaks on Culture of Dependency, Hemp and the Farm Bill, the Racial Aspect of Drug War, and the Burdens of Being a Libertarian Poster Boy

I chatted with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) this morning via phone about his State of the Union response, the farm bill, and bearing the burden of presumed political spokesman for all libertarianism.

His speech last night, released independently via the Internet rather than being an official Republican or even "Tea Party" branded response, stressed a theme that hasn't been a particularly big deal in American politics since the Reagan years--and indeed Paul summoned Reagan's spirit right at the start.

That's the dangers of a culture of dependency, how government efforts to supposedly help can trap the poor while ignoring the real, free-market ways of lifting people up the economic ladder. (And it is worth noting, and you'll read more about this from Ronald Bailey in the forthcoming April issue of Reason [subscribe now!] that American economic mobility has not actually been particularly worse lately than historically.)

"People feel trapped and it's not their fault, the government doesn't provide them an exit," Paul said. "They don't have an easy way to get out of dependency and if we are trying to fight long term dependency or long term unemployment we have to figure a way out. And that has to be the creation of a vast numbers of jobs."

Paul believes that government attempts to target its (really, our) money to the places where jobs can or should be created will tend to be ill-aimed. "The marketplace sorts through  who are the good job creators," Paul says, through a process of creative destruction that weeds out many, many failures.

So it's better, Paul says, to "give money back in the form of tax reductions" since "the marketplace, consumers have already voted who are the good job creators" rather than funnelling money to Washington to take its skim and than back to local communities in the hopes good things happen. That generally just leads to cronyism and government trying to shape outcomes it, rather than consumers and citizens, choose.

Paul in his SOTU response sounded very Reaganesque when he told the story of Star Parker, a former welfare user--welfare abuser, in her own telling--who decided to eschew dependency on government and became a successful writer, pundit, and even congressional candidate. She is black, and Paul has talked in the past of the importance of the Republicans reaching out to black constituencies. Does he think talking "culture of dependence" can help with that?

"I think the message has to be there is a way out," Paul says. "People who have been on welfare are not bad people, they are not wanting to be there" so Republicans need to promote "a way to get out from under that and into the middle class. It is a message you haven't necessarily heard from Republicans," Paul says. "It's not that anyone is condemning anyone for being poor, but we have to have a debate" about the best ways to lift people from poverty, rather than "saying 'Hey, we are Democrats and we are against poverty, we are the Party to go for if you want alleviation of poverty.'"

"They had a chance in Detroit and Detroit is a disaster," Paul says. "For many years [Democratic policies] have run many cities" and those policies "aren't good for cities and aren't good for the poor."

Given that he said in his SOTU response that "I believe in an America with a strong safety net," what are more specifics about the sort of government aid programs that need to be changed, curtailed, or killed?

"There needs to be a gateway back into the job market," Paul says. "Things that are permanent need to be made temporary, things that are duplicative need to be gotten rid of." And his vision of a basic safety net from government, Paul says, "should be closer to home, state vs. federal" and should be "transitional to getting into the work force, not lifelong or even, many times, multigenerational."

Thus, Paul along with Sen. Mitch McConnell last month introduced his "Economic Freedom Zones" Act which would lower tax and regulatory burdens in areas that are particularly economically troubled, with Detroit as his leading example of an area that could use it. How's that going politically?

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Obama is Over

Whitehouse.govWhitehouse.govWhen a president frames his speech around a call for a “year of action,” you can safely bet that the next 12 months will be as action-packed as an afternoon nap. The subtext of last night’s State of the Union address was that Obama’s presidency is not just frustrated but tired; it’s not only that he can’t do much, thanks to Republicans in Congress, it’s that he has so few remaining ideas about what to do. (Last night's most significant new ideas was a vaguely explained government-backed retirement savings program.)

Five years in, the Obama presidency has already been exhausted. And so Obama plans to ride it out, propping up the laws he has already passed, doing his best to stop Democrats from losing too many seats in 2014, and tweaking policies through executive action where he can. Yes, there will still be controversies surrounding his administration, and yes, the president will still be the center of considerable attention and controversy from both fans in critics—but mostly for what he’s already done, not what he wants to do. He’ll be in office for another three years, but he’s already finished. Obama is over.

Meanwhile, as the Obama presidency grows stale, it’s the once agenda-less Republicans and their conservative allies who are busy generating fresh new ideas. Obama has talked broadly about tax reform for years, but it’s Republican Sen. Mike Lee (Utah) who recently put forth a big plan to overhaul the tax code. Obama last night challenged Republicans who oppose Obamacare to present some kind of alternative—but failed to acknowledge the three GOP Senators (Coburn, Hatch, and Burr) who did so just this week. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and Sen. Marco Rubio have spent the last month talking up policies to address poverty. Lee and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are amongst the nation’s most aggressive champions of criminal justice reform. Obama’s State of the Union rehashed old, flawed arguments about health care and education; Sen. Lee’s response to the president’s address highlighted a slew of Republican reform ideas from transportation to education to energy.

Meanwhile, small but influential journals like National Affairs provide a forum for right of center policy wonks to work through their ideas in detail, looking at both what to do and how to do it. The evidence suggests that at least some Republican politicians are listening.

You can see tensions, too. There's a push and pull at work, between technocratic conservatism and revivalist libertarianism, between those who are more concerned with, say, spending taxpayer money well and those more concerned with spending money less, between the party’s individualistic impulses and its communalist concerns. There’s still plenty left to work out.

But this is how a party develops an agenda. Not overnight, with a dictum from the top or the selection of a presidential candidate, but over time, through iteration and experimentation, and through a conversation with itself—and eventually with its critics as well. For too long, the right has lacked the infrastructure to start this conversation and the political will to carry it on. Its agenda has been opposition, and little else. But that’s changing, in part because of the efforts of conservative reformers, and in part because the Obama agenda is so clearly nearing its end.

Not all of these Republican ideas are fully formed. Not all of them are practical, or politically feasible. And not every Republican is on board; party leadership is still far too hesitant to engage with the right’s policy reformers. But Republicans are, finally, talking about what to do. Obama is stuck talking about what he’s already done. 

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Former Georgia Corrections Commissioner Supports Lawsuit Over Jailhouse “Rapid Response Team” Abuses

compliancevia My Fox AtlantaSeveral former inmates of a county jail in Georgia allege in a class action lawsuit filed last year that the Gwinnett County sheriff and his“rapid response team” abused the use of restraint chairs at the jail, leaving inmates in it for hours at a time. The Gwinnett Daily Post describes what it saw of the practice, apparently used more than 200 times in the six months before the lawsuit was filed last summer:

The rapid response team is a SWAT-style group made up of highly trained deputies. Videos previously viewed by the Daily Post show members, upon being summoned, staging outside a cell in helmets, vests and masks before entering, pinning down the inmate in question and putting them in the chair. Some were shot with pepperballs prior to deputies entering the cell.

Last week, a former Georgia Department of Corrections commissioner who spent 40 years working in the system, filed a report in favor of the lawsuit’s claims. Via the Post:

[Allen] Ault’s thoughts included the following:

— “In my opinion, the problem is not how they conduct a takedown, but rather, the almost total indiscriminate use of the RRT that have now become standard practice in the jail.”

— “Although it would be a daunting task to get the actual number of deployments of other Response Teams, I would venture to state, based upon my experience in the field and without fear of contradiction, that the Gwinnett County RRT has been deployed more often in the last thirteen years then (sic) the combined total of all other County, State and Federal facilities located in the state of Georgia.”

— “Instead of the RRT being deployed as the last resort, it is being deployed as the first choice of preference by staff to handle a ‘problem’ inmate. Upon arrival, the RRT routinely uses force where no force is justified.”

— “It was also obvious that it was being used to punish some individuals who had been ‘vulgar’ in either language and/or deed in ‘reception’ or elsewhere in the jail before being placed in a cell.”

— “… way too often, in my opinion the ‘takedown’ and the use of the ‘restraint chair’ is a ruse for implementing excessive force.”

The alleged misuse of law enforcement tools to hide excessive force is not unique to Georgia. A recent newspaper report in Philadelphia chronicled the apparent return of the “nickel ride,” when police drive vans recklessly to inflict injury on detainee passengers. As Alonzo Harris, the crooked cop in Training Day played by Denzel Washington, observed after a use of excessive force, “it’s not what you know, it’s what you can prove.” Police unions and deferential local governments have often helped make even that not enough.

You can watch Gwinnett County’s rapid response team in action here:

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Peyton Manning Could Pay New Jersey More in Taxes for the Super Bowl Than He Earns For Playing It

tax man's worse than a hanger onJeffrey Beall/WikipediaThis year’s Super Bowl, scheduled to be played this Sunday, will be held in New Jersey, even though a lot of news outlets covering the sporting event, and even the NFL, may prefer to call what’s officially a “NY/NJ” Super Bowl a New York affair. The football teams that play at the East Rutherford, New Jersey stadium, the Giants and the Jets, are after all New York (or NY/NJ) teams. Sunday’s televised coverage is sure to include plenty of bump shots of New York City locations and few actually from the area where the stadium is located, which is basically a swamp. Even the NYPD has gotten in on the “let’s pretend this thing is happening in New York" action; promising unprecedented security at the event and deploying 200 “temporary” security cameras in midtown New York.

But one way to ascertain that, yes, in fact the Super Bowl is being held in New Jersey, is to look at whose taxman the Colorado and Washington players competing in the Super Bowl will pay. That would be dirty Jersey, and according to K. Sean Packard, a CPA writing at Forbes.com, Jersey will indeed treat the players dirty when it comes to taxes:

If Manning is able to play next season, his New Jersey income tax would be $46,989 on $92,000 for winning the Super Bowl, or 51.08%. If they lose and he is able to play in 2014, he will pay New Jersey $46,844 on his $46,000, which amounts to a 101.83% tax on his actual Super Bowl earnings in the state—and this does not even consider federal taxes!

Manning’s tax liability would be less, Packard explained, if the 38-year-old Denver Broncos quarterback were to retire after the Super Bowl, because New Jersey looks at the total income, even when not playing in the state, and because the Broncos play the Jets next season, so New Jersey’s state government gets a take of that too. The taxes paid by Manning and the other Broncos and Seahwawks players for merely competing in New Jersey in a league event, will also fall quite short of how much tax money New Jersey has wasted holding the Super Bowl.

Bilking athletes, though, is nothing new. Jamaican track star Usain Bolt, for example, is boycotting sporting events in the United Kingdom until their tax laws are loosened, while golf star Phil Mickelson was bullied by wealth redistribution  advocates for complaining about his onerous tax rate, eventually apologizing for quite rightly pointing out that onerous federal and state (for Mickelson, California) tax laws would cause him to consider drastic changes in his life. Mickelson pays 61 percent of his winnings in taxes, an uncomfortable fact tax boosters tried to deny.

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Egypt Was Not Mentioned Once in Last Night's State of the Union

Credit: Globovisión / Foter / CC BY-NCCredit: Globovisión / Foter / CC BY-NCYesterday, I mentioned the number of times that Obama referred to Egypt in his 2012 and 2013 State of the Union addresses, noting that since the 2013 speech there has been a coup in Egypt, a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, and a referendum on a draft constitution, which the Muslim Brotherhood called for its members to boycott.

I was expecting that given the current situation in Egypt (the most populous Arab country and home of the Suez Canal) and America’s history of aid to the Egyptian military that it might warrant at least a brief mention.

However, Egypt was not specifically mentioned once in last night’s speech, although Obama did say, “From Tunisia to Burma, we're supporting those who are willing to do the hard work of building democracy.”

Obama might not want to have mentioned Egypt because his administration’s policy towards Egypt has been far from ideal.

In the wake of the military overthrowing Egypt’s first democratically-elected president the Obama administration did not withdraw foreign aid as it is supposed to in response to a coup.

U.S. military aid to Egypt was also not suspended after security forces carried out a brutal crackdown on supporters of ousted President Morsi.

It was months after the the overthrow of Morsi and the bloody crackdown on Morsi’s supporters that some aid was suspended.

Obama spoke out in support of “those who are willing to do the hard work of building democracy” last night, but failed to mention that Egypt’s draft constitution was passed by just over 98 percent of those who voted in a referendum which the Muslim Brotherhood urged its members to boycott. Since the referendum on the new constitution, which bans political parties like the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian military has backed Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Sisi to run for president. Gen. al-Sisi was the head of the Egyptian military at the time of Morsi’s overthrow last July.

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John Stossel: Re-state of the Union

White HouseWhite HousePresident Barack Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday wasn't what John Stossel wanted to hear. This is what he thinks the president should have said, on topics ranging from NSA surveillance and Obamacare to drug legalization and climate change.

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The Essential 1970s Conspiracy Thrillers

I have an article up at io9 listing 10 essential 1970s conspiracy thrillers. From the opening:

And the Academy Award for the best use of a picture of Thor in a feature film goes to...Techno-paranoia has become the norm in our post-Snowden world, and hit shows like Person of Interest play on our fears of being watched. But the high-tech conspiracy tale has its roots in the 1970s, which saw a great wave of movies about assassins, surveillance, secret governments, and corporate cabals. The result was a decade's worth of paranoid thrillers, many of them extremely entertaining....

Between the Watergate scandal and a series of ugly revelations about the CIA, the FBI, and other federal agencies, the public was more receptive to stories where the country's leaders were the villains. And with the rise of the so-called New Hollywood, a younger, more countercultural group of filmmakers was ready to deliver them.

These aren't the best '70s conspiracy thrillers—a couple of them aren't all that good, though they're worth watching for other reasons. They're just the essential ones: necessary stops on any extended tour of the genre.

The article is pegged to my book The United States of Paranoia, which discusses most of these movies and much else besides. It's been a while since I last posted a roundup of United States of Paranoia coverage, so here's a few of the highlights from the last month or two:

• The Chicago Tribune included it in its list of 2013's best books.

Boing Boing's podcast You Are Not So Smart interviewed me about it.

• Ed Driscoll invoked it while discussing how "Beltway and Northeast Corridor elites have plenty of conspiracy theories of their own."

• Arthur Goldwag, who had already posted one review of the book on his personal blog, published another article about it in The Washington Spectator. If you read the piece, be sure to check the comments, where I take issue with how he interpreted a part of the text.

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Obama’s State of the Union Misleads on Obamacare

Whitehouse.govWhitehouse.govPresident Obama’s State of the Union address last night was in no small part an attempt to politically rehabilite himself and his party after the damage done by the botched rollout of Obamacare. That’s why so little of the speech was focused on the law, which has never been popular, and has become even less so over the last few months.

But he had to say something about his signature legislation. And so, at the end of a section of providing Americans financial security, he segued into a brief litany of upbeat statements about how the law has changed health care for the better. The problem is that not all of it was exactly true.

For example, he said that the law’s benefits came “while adding years to Medicare’s finances.” But the only way you get to that conclusion is through gimmicky double counting. Now, since gimmicky double counting is how the program keeps track of its trust fund, Obama’s statement was, on paper, true. But as the Congressional Budget Office has explained rather clearly, the “savings” attributed to Medicare’s trust fund are actually the same dollars being used to finance the law’s coverage expansion. 

“To describe the full amount of [Medicare] HI trust fund savings as both improving the government’s ability to pay future Medicare benefits and financing new spending outside of Medicare would essentially double-count a large share of those savings and thus overstate the improvement in the government’s fiscal position,” the budget office said in a 2009 letter. That’s not just CBO’s judgment. It’s also the position of Medicare’s former chief actuary, Richard Foster. While he was still with the program, he explained several times that the Medicare savings were basically an illusion created by the program’s accounting conventions.

A few lines later, Obama also touted enrollment in health coverage through Obamacare. “Already, because of the Affordable Care Act, more than three million Americans under age 26 have gained coverage under their parents’ plans,” he said. “More than nine million Americans have signed up for private health insurance or Medicaid coverage.”

The first half is correct. But it’s not right to credit Obamacare with providing private coverage or Medicaid to more than nine million Americans.

That number comes from combining the six million people the federal government says have signed up for Medicaid coverage since Obamacare’s exchanges went live in October with the three million people it says have signed up for private coverage. 

The Medicaid count dramatically overstates the effect of the law, however, because it includes people who were already enrolled in Medicaid and merely renewed their coverage. More than half of the enrollments in the first two months were in states that didn’t even participate in the Medicaid expansion. As Sean Trende recently pointed out, the true number of people enrolled in Medicaid because of the law is likely an order of magnitude smaller than these counts suggest.

As for the three million private coverage sign-ups—they’re just that: sign-ups. It’s the number of people who have selected a plan, whether or not they have paid a premium. And given the lags and delays in payment deadlines, it seems safe to assume that collecting payments has been a bumpy process so far. One well-connected insurance industry consultant has said that we should expect a 10-20 percent attrition rate as a result of nonpayment.

And of course, none of this tells us how many people are newly insured as a result of the law. Insurers and consumer surveys have suggested that the majority of the sign-ups so far have come from people who already carried health insurance.

It’s a sign of how big a disaster the law has been for Obama and for Democrats that in the same year its biggest changes go into effect, the most consequential legislative achievement of the Obama era is shuffled reluctantly into the most high-profile policy speech of the year. And it’s even more telling that not only does Obama still have to downplay his signature achievement, he has to rely on misleading statements to promote it. 

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Who Is This Myra Lady and Why Does She Want My Money?

Pictures of Greek ruins are what you get when you Google "Myra." Isn't that interesting?Credit: voyageAnatolia.blogspot.com / Foter / CC BY-NC-SAI spent the State of the Union Address high on the CVS generic version of NyQuil (not as part of Peter Suderman’s drinking game, so it wasn’t even fun). Most of the speech was a blur to me, other than a brief bit of rage when he described his murderous use of drones as “prudent.”

Nestled into the seemingly neverending speech was the introduction of some lady named Myra. She was going to help Americans save money for retirement. Now that I’m off the drugs, I see that he is actually referring to a new federally operated savings program. Here’s the text from the speech:

Let’s do more to help Americans save for retirement. Today, most workers don’t have a pension.  A Social Security check often isn’t enough on its own.  And while the stock market has doubled over the last five years, that doesn’t help folks who don’t have 401ks.  That’s why, tomorrow, I will direct the Treasury to create a new way for working Americans to start their own retirement savings: MyRA. It’s a new savings bond that encourages folks to build a nest egg.  MyRA guarantees a decent return with no risk of losing what you put in.  And if this Congress wants to help, work with me to fix an upside-down tax code that gives big tax breaks to help the wealthy save, but does little to nothing for middle-class Americans.  Offer every American access to an automatic IRA on the job, so they can save at work just like everyone in this chamber can.”

I am a middle-class American, and my bank is constantly asking me if I want to open up an Individual Retirement Account with them, so I’m a little skeptical that people aren’t saving for retirement because they just don’t have access.

There wasn’t much information about this plan last night, but this morning Josh Barro at Business Insider offered an explainer. He says, “MyRA would be a program of small Roth IRAs with access to a special, safe investment that pays a little better than Treasury bills. Remember, a Roth IRA is a retirement account where you contribute after-tax earnings, and can then withdraw money in retirement without ever paying tax on your investment returns.”

It does seem like a modest plan, compared to something like Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin’s proposal to create a national retirement pension system (pdf).  

But this program will have costs. Barro calculates: “Essentially, instead of issuing short-term Treasury bills at almost no cost, the federal government will do a little bit of its borrowing through this G Fund-like security, paying an extra point or two of interest in the process. If you imagine a program at scale with 50 million accounts averaging $5,000 in balances, the cost to taxpayers would be $2.5 billion per year for every point of interest rate premium.”

I’m not so much concerned about the costs so much as: one, the suggestion that the administration has no idea why people don’t save money on their own (and still thinks that home-ownership for everybody is the way to go); and two, anything the government provides as a voluntary service has the potential to be made mandatory. It’s easy to imagine this new government program put into place, and then in order to increase the “success” of the program, pushing for more and more sign-ups. It is very easy to imagine a future where anybody who doesn’t have an government-recognized IRA or 401(k) plan being forced to participate in this program.

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A. Barton Hinkle Says That In Virginia, Education Isn’t Always Liberal

epiclectic-CC-BY-NDepiclectic-CC-BY-NDVirginians who think of colleges and universities as bastions of free inquiry and no-holds-barred arenas for intellectual engagement might be shocked at how inaccurate that picture can be. Some of the state’s colleges and universities have put in place policies that make a mockery of such notions. A. Barton Hinkle reviews Virginia's mixed results found in a report on the state of free speech on U.S. campuses.

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Obama on Surveillance-State Snooping: Not Nearly as Good as ... uh, Richard Nixon?

There's a lot of bad Nixon/Obama art out there. ||| SayAnythingBlog.comSayAnythingBlog.comLast night, in one of the only passages that departed in any significant way from his four previous State of the Union Addresses (plus his 2009 SOTU-like speech), President Barack Obama made a curious and passing reference to drone-warfare due process and America's increasingly controversial surveillance state:

So even as we actively and aggressively pursue terrorist networks—through more targeted efforts and by building the capacity of our foreign partners—America must move off a permanent war footing. That's why I've imposed prudent limits on the use of drones—for we will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence.

That's why, working with this Congress, I will reform our surveillance programs, because the vital work of our intelligence community depends on public confidence, here and abroad, that privacy of ordinary people is not being violated.

You can't unsee. |||As J.D. Tuccille and Ed Krayewski have pointed out in these pages, what Obama calls "prudent limits" are basically things that exist inside in his own cranium, and therefore not particularly useful as a legal template going forward. (Do remember that the Obama team scrambled to think about creating drone rules before the 2012 election when they thought for a brief moment that they might lose it.... Don't worry, the fever soon passed.) And Jacob Sullum can give you a succinct tour of Obama's late-breaking epiphany on surveillance reform.

But here's a startling historical nugget I turned up when conducting my annual ritual of reading past SOTUs of presidents at the same juncture of their second terms: Do you know who had a longer and more convincing passage about personal privacy vis-a-vis the surveillance state? Richard Nixon. In 1974:

One measure of a truly free society is the vigor with which it protects the liberties of its individual citizens. As technology has advanced in America, it has increasingly encroached on one of those liberties—what I term the right of personal privacy. Modern information systems, data banks, credit records, mailing list abuses, electronic snooping, the collection of personal data for one purpose that may be used for another—all these have left millions of Americans deeply concerned by the privacy they cherish.

See? Told ya. ||| BeforeItsNews.comBeforeItsNews.comAnd the time has come, therefore, for a major initiative to define the nature and extent of the basic rights of privacy and to erect new safeguards to ensure that those rights are respected.

I shall launch such an effort this year at the highest levels of the Administration, and I look forward again to working with this Congress in establishing a new set of standards that respect the legitimate needs of society, but that also recognize personal privacy as a cardinal principle of American liberty. 

On the one hand, this is an always-timely reminder that presidents are inherently full of shit, presiding over actions that make a mockery of their rhetoric. On the other, it's hard to think of a more damning indictment than the most imperious president of my lifetime coming off as more robustly concerned with the 4th Amendment than the constitutional law professor who was elected in a spasm of disgust at executive-branch overreach. Whoever thought that saying "Obama, you're no Nixon!" would be an insult?

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The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations for State of the Union Addresses Has Got to Stop

I'm as guilty as the worst offender of treating annual State of the Union as beneath contempt, instantly forgettable, and worse.

It was George W. Bush - whose SOTUs were uniformly awful and misguided (cough, cough, Axis of Evil) - who talked about battling the "soft bigotry of low expectations" for minority kids in K-12 education.

But the same standard should apply to State of the Union addresses. Everyone fully expects them to be useless laundry lists of barely connected guaranteed-applause-getters (GAGS) punctuated with shout-outs to jes' plain folks who magically appear in the gallery for this one special night (when is a billionaire prankster in the tradition of Terry Southern's Guy Grand in The Magic Christian going to get a president to note Dick Hertz in one of these things?).

This has got to stop. I'm fond of saying that the tragicomedy of America is that we get the government we deserve.

And we deserve better.

There's nothing stopping a president from actually giving a substantive speech for the State of the Union (or even forgoing a performed speech altogether) rather than clearing out his office closet for every rag-tag idea that's been gathering dust. And stop with the least-convincing soft-feature anecdotes this side of an NBC Olympics broadcast. 

President Obama's speech last night was genuinely terrible, packed with empty boasts, fantasy policy prescriptions, and outright falsehoods. That doesn't make it stand out as a State of the Union address, it just makes it the same as all the other ones we struggle to recall from years and presidents past. If Obama really wanted to lead in a positive way, he could use the next three SOTUs to actually start a discussion about a single issue or topic - immigration, foreign policy, whatever - and then follow that up by trying to build a consensus in Congress and across the country. That sort of speech would not only be worth turning on but actually worth listening to.

Until that happens, Cafe Hayek's Don Boudreaux is right to characterize SOTUs as "political vaudevillainism" and, I fear, to tune out from such spectacles.

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Obama's State of the Union's Most Despicable Moment: Using Wounded Vets as Props

The most emotionally powerful moment in Barack Obama’s State of the Union address was also its most morally dubious. The nation’s commander in chief drew attention to a wounded warrior while eliding any responsibility for placing the young man in harm’s way.

A record number of Americans – 60 percent – think the government is too powerful, says Gallup, which also finds a near record low percentage trusts the government “to do what is right.” Who can blame us? The government under Republican and Democratic presidents has spent virtually the entire 21st century sending young men and women to fight in ill-defined and unsuccessful elective wars. That’s bad enough, but then to use them as props in political speeches? That’s positively obscene....

[Army Ranger Cory] Remsburg’s sacrifice is plain to see: He has a long, visible scar on his head and, the president  explained, he “is still blind in one eye” and “still struggles on his left side.” Regardless of political affiliation and ideological positioning, all Americans can appreciate Remsburg’s willingness to serve while questioning whether President Obama is right to use such a soldier as an applause line in a political speech....

What exactly was Remsburg – or any of his fellow soldiers – fighting for in Afghanistan? The president didn’t offer any explanation in his State of the Union address and you’d search his past speeches in vain for a clear and compelling reason, too.

That's from my newest piece at Time.com's Ideas sections.

Read the whole thing here.