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Ilya Shapiro

As Ted Cruz announces his White House candidacy, let me forestall a new round of birtherism prompted by the discovery that the Texas senator was actually born in a different oil patch: Calgary, Alberta, Canada. I looked at the whole “natural-born citizen” requirement a couple of years ago and concluded that Cruz’s eligibility for the presidency is an easy legal call. Here’s the heart of the matter:

So the one remaining question is whether Ted Cruz was a citizen at birth. That’s an easy one. The Nationality Act of 1940 outlines which children become “nationals and citizens of the United States at birth.” In addition to those who are born in the United States or born outside the country to parents who were both citizens … citizenship goes to babies born to one American parent who has spent a certain number of years here.

That single-parent requirement has been amended several times, but under the law in effect between 1952 and 1986 — Cruz was born in 1970 — someone must have a citizen parent who resided in the United States for at least 10 years, including five after the age of 14, in order to be considered a natural-born citizen. Cruz’s mother, Eleanor Darragh, was born in Delaware, lived most of her life in the United States, and gave birth to little Rafael Edward Cruz in her 30s.

In an amusing footnote, when this mild controversy first arose, Cruz quickly renounced any claim to Canadian citizenship. This prompted my good friend and sometime co-author Josh Blackman to present me with a filled-out renunciation application after I naturalized as a U.S. citizen last June. I have not signed or submitted this document, however, because there’s really no need – and who knows when a second passport might come in handy? (The State Department allows dual citizenship even though the naturalization oath requires a new citizen to “renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen.”) Rest assured that if I’m ever required to give up my Canadian citizenship to get a security clearance or for some other official reason, I will do so, much as I owe to the country where I grew up after my family left the Soviet Union.

Benjamin H. Friedman

I have an op-ed in The National Interest dealing with the GOP’s intramural squabble over defense spending levels in the House and Senate’s budget resolutions for fiscal year 2016, which have now passed their committees.

I explain there how the Republican chairmen of both committees tried to restrain military spending, but lost out to military hawks in their caucus in a newly pernicious way. The resolutions limit appropriations to the legally mandated cap for non-war “defense” spending. But they stuff $38 billion above the cap that the White House wanted for the Pentagon into the uncapped war (“Overseas Contingency Operations” or OCO) account, taking an established scam to evade caps and making it far larger and more blatant. If these spending levels hold, in 2016 the Pentagon would get a total budget roughly equal to its current one, but a much bigger chunk of it would come via OCO.

Thus far, then, the fight between GOP budget and fiscal hawks has produced a compromise that offers a new sort of militarism amid a pretension of fiscal responsibility. That outcome, I argue, may be worse than giving the administration a deal to raise the cap:

The problem … isn’t just that military spending is too high. It is also that this method of paying creates perverse incentives. If OCO becomes an auxiliary Pentagon fund that exists to escape caps, war becomes the Pentagon’s budgetary salvation. Historically, the elements of defense establishment benefit from a public sense of insecurity, but not necessarily war. This new set-up could change that.

I say “may” be worse because of a couple uncertainties. One is that hawks upset about this arrangement may have a point. They worry that locating this money in a shrinking war account makes it unlikely to last. I hope not.

Second, the reaction of Democrats is uncertain. Some may work with Republican budget hawks to strip the extra OCO money out on the floor, which has happened before, albeit on a smaller scale. Under current Senate rules, that apparently takes only 50 votes. But those Democrats–like President Obama, Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-RI), and various other heavies–who want to boost military spending may agree to do so through OCO. Where the leadership comes down, I can’t say.

Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. "Chip" Knappenberger

You Ought to Have a Look is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science posted by Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. (“Chip”) Knappenberger. While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic. Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

Talk of interference, intimidation, and abridgement of scientific freedom continues to make the news this week—and increasingly is taking the form of pushback against recently announced congressional investigations into sources of scientific research funding.

On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial offering a “round of applause for those pushing back, providing the bullies a public lesson in the First Amendment.” Highlighted in their coverage were efforts by the Cato Institute, Heartland Institute and Koch Industries condemning attempts to “silence public debate” on climate change. From the WSJ:

Democrats and their allies have failed to persuade Americans that climate change is so serious that it warrants sweeping new political controls on American energy and industry. So liberals are trying to silence those who are winning the argument. We’re glad to see the dissenters aren’t intimidated.

Also unintimidated by attempts abridge academic freedom is Alice Dreger, professor of Medical Education-Medical Humanities and Bioethics at Northwestern University and a historian of science and medicine. Dreger has a new book out titled Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists and the Search for Justice in Science that describes how activists try to intimidate researchers when the activists disagree with the researchers’ work.

Roger Pielke Jr. reviews the book for Nature. From his blog, leading into his review, Roger describes why he empathizes with Dreger:

Most academic work is like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, but every so often (and probably more often than many of us would like to think), scholarship becomes the focus of a political battle.

I should know. My review was completed and filed the week before I was targeted with an “investigation” by a member of Congress for the audacity of testifying before that august body with the results of peer reviewed, government-funded research, widely accepted as scientific consensus. But even before that, my own career has led me to be sympathetic to Dreger’s arguments.

I have lots of experience with personal and professional attacks based on my research and advocacy. For instance, it was one year ago today that I published a piece at FiveThirtyEight on that same research, which prompted a social and mainstream media campaign to have me fired for voicing such heresies. The Guardian, New York Times, Slate, Salon and even the American Geophysical Union all joined the campaign. Unsurprisingly, FiveThirtyEight succumbed to the pressure, explaining “Reception to the article ran about 80 percent negative in the comments section and on social media. A reaction like that compels us to think carefully about the piece and our editorial process.”

So, scientific consensus vs. Facebook likes - Guess who won?

Dreger herself describes some of the attacks on academic freedom in her post at Retraction Watch titled “Yes, we are seeing more attacks on academic freedom.” She leads with:

The good news: Policy makers and the public seem to be increasingly taking scientific research seriously. The bad news? People who don’t like researchers’ findings seem to be increasingly coming after researchers and their universities. And some of those people are powerful.

Technically, your university is supposed to protect your academic freedom. In my own university’s faculty handbook, academic freedom is the first topic discussed. But as I’ve learned from my own personal experiences, as well as from eight years studying the experiences of other researchers who have gotten into political hot water, your administration may not always have your back.

Economist Paul Frijters of the University of Queensland in Australia seems to have found this out the hard way.

You ought to have a look at her full post for some rather lurid details.

And from what we can gather, you ought to have a look at her book, too.

Stay tuned. The issue of scientific intimidation is trending—big time. 

Andrew J. Coulson

According to the American Federation for Children, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN) have reintroduced “the Educational Opportunities Act, which would create an individual and corporate tax credit for donations that pay for scholarships for students to attend a private school of their parents’ choice.”

It is encouraging to see growing support for scholarship tax credit school choice programs, which have been found to simultaneously boost achievement for students who switch to private schools, do the same for students who remain in public schools, and save taxpayers millions of dollars every year–a win-win-win scenario. Nevertheless, it is ill advised to pursue such a program (or other school choice programs) at the federal level.

Years ago I summarized those problems when President George W. Bush advocated creating a federal school voucher program. Such programs are not only beyond the mandate accorded to Congress by the Constitution, they bear the risk of suffocating private schools nationwide with a raft of new regulation, defeating their very purpose of increasing the range of educational options available to families with limited means.

In the past few years I have visited Sweden and Chile and studied their federal school chioce programs. Both confirm my earlier worries about national programs. Chile’s entrepreneurial voucher schools grew rapidly at first, but with a recent change of government hostile to the program they have sensed the new climate and stopped expanding.The new government is trying to enact regulations to diminish the scope and freedom of private schooling in Chile.

Meanwhile, something similar is happening in Sweden. Among other things, the government has mandated that all schools hire graduates of government-certified teacher training programs, despite the well known fact that those programs are currently attracting the lowest-achieving college students.

National school choice programs have proven to be a prime case of “staff car legislating.” The legislators who enact them are not always the ones in the official staff cars, making the rules. New lawmakers with different preferences ultimately come to power and can wreak havok on a nation’s entire K-12 education sector.

This problem can be minimized by leaving school choice legislation to the state level, where the Constitution rightfully leaves it. We thus have a “laboratory of federalism”–a variety of different policies across states that make it easier to determine how best to design such programs.

Michael F. Cannon

I have a post over at National Review Online’s Bench Memos blog that explains why, contrary to Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s concerns, the King v. Burwell challengers’ interpretation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (a.k.a., PPACA, ACA, and ObamaCare) doesn’t coerce states. At least, not under the Court’s current tests for determining whether Congress is coercing states.

If you happen to be a busy Supreme Court justice, here’s a spoiler:

1. The ACA’s exchange provisions don’t penalize states. They let states make tradeoffs between taxes, jobs, and insurance coverage.

2. Roughly half of states appear to consider those costs tolerable. Prior to 2014, eight states voluntarily imposed this supposedly coercive penalty on themselves.

3. This “deal” is comparable to what the Court allowed in NFIB v. Sebelius. In NFIB, the Court allowed states collectively to turn down Medicaid subsidies for as many as 16 million poor people. The exchange provisions permit states to do the same for 16 million higher-income residents.

I have no objection to the Court lowering the bar for demonstrating that cooperative federalism programs coerce states. But the Court will have to lower the bar quite a bit to find the ACA’s exchange provisions coercive.

If you aren’t a busy Supreme Court justice, or even if you are, read the whole thing.

Walter Olson

Gov. Gary Herbert (R) has signed into law an expansion of Utah’s anti-discrimination law following what’s being billed as a historic compromise between gay rights advocates and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Unfortunately, as I argue at the Daily Beast, both halves of the compromise are bad news for individual liberty and freedom of association in the workplace. Excerpt:

As I noted at the Cato Institute’s website a while back, these laws “sacrifice the freedom of private actors—as libertarians recognize, every expansion of laws against private discrimination shrinks the freedom of association of the governed.”

That’s the familiar half of the story. What’s new about the Utah Compromise is that it adds completely new restrictions on employers’ rights to keep the workplace focused on work as opposed to religious or moral debate. In particular, it allows employees to sue on a claim that they were fired or otherwise treated poorly for talking about religion or morality in the workplace, at least if they were doing so in a way that was “reasonable” and didn’t interfere with the employer’s “essential” business interests.

When an employee then begins treating customers or co-workers to unasked-for disquisitions about religious or moral matters, it will apparently be the state of Utah—rather than, as now, the folks in human resources—who will have the final say as to whether the topic is “similar” to others on which discussion had previously been allowed, and whether the proselytizing or reproachful comments taken as a whole were “reasonable” or by contrast “harassing or disruptive.”

And I conclude:

It’s not clear whether anyone was at the table speaking up for employers’ rights and interests during the Utah negotiations. It’s a lot easier to reach what’s hailed as a historic compromise if you can do so at the expense of absent third parties, isn’t it?

Whole thing here.

Adam Bates

Over at Forbes, the Institute for Justice’s Nick Sibilla details a new report from the Department of Justice concerning the Drug Enforcement Administration’s practice of cold-stopping travelers at airports, bus stations, and train stations and asking to search their property looking for forfeitable assets.

Federal drug agents may be racially profiling and unjustly seizing cash from travelers in the nation’s airports, bus stations and train stations. A new report released by the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Justice examined the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)’s controversial use of “cold consent.

In a cold consent encounter, a person is stopped if an agent thinks that person’s behavior fits a drug courier profile. Or an agent can stop a person cold “based on no particular behavior,” according to the Inspector General report. The agent then asks the people they have stopped for consent to question them and sometimes to search their possessions as well. By gaining consent, law enforcement officers can bypass the need for a warrant.

While many people who believe they have nothing to hide may–inadvisably–consent to a police search, they may not be familiar with federal civil asset forfeiture laws, which give federal agents wide latitude to seize property, especially cash, without charging anyone with any crime. Sibilla notes that the DEA agents even go so far as to carry affidavits for search targets to sign disclaiming any rights to the property being seized. 

Disturbingly, the Inspector General found that DEA interdiction task force groups have been seizing cash from travelers and then urging them to sign forms disclaiming their own cash and “waiving their rights.” In one cold consent encounter, DEA agents stopped another African-American woman in part because she was “pacing nervously” before boarding her flight. After gaining her consent, the agents searched her luggage and found $8,000.

The extortive waiver maneuver is not an isolated practice in civil forfeiture jurisdictions. In exchange for signing away your money, the agents agree not to seize other property (for instance, your car or home) or arrest you on criminal charges. Many interstate travelers (the primary targets of drug interdiction forfeiture efforts) rationally decide it’s better to get on with their journey than fight the government for their property. It’s not hard to imagine the practical and financial vulnerability of people getting ready to step on an airplane being threatened with arrest if they refuse to hand over their cash. 

The Department of Justice report also raises troubling questions concerning the criteria used to make the stops. There is an obvious risk that allowing DEA agents to stop travelers cold and question them invites the possibility of racial profiling. This federal policy bears a striking resemblance to the NYPD’s controversial Stop-and-Frisk program, which received withering criticism for the constitutional and racial dynamics involved in allowing officers to stop people cold.

In short, this is another on a long list of areas where the pernicious incentives of the drug war and civil asset forfeiture combine to create an institution of abuse and disregard for individual liberty. 

At a time when predatory, revenue-centered law enforcement is being rightly condemned-–with the ostensible imprimatur of the federal government-– it would be nice for the federal government to set an example by ending its own abusive law enforcement practices.

Daniel R. Pearson

Being a U.S. senator can be fun. The position brings with it a certain amount of influence, fame, and stature. However, serving in the Senate also is fraught with challenges. Much time must be spent away from family. Flying back and forth between home and Washington can wear a person out. And some voters always are unhappy with you, sometimes really unhappy.

This is a complicated moment for Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR). He has paid his dues in the Senate since 1997 and now is one of its more senior members. That seniority has brought him to the position of ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, which has the responsibility (among others) for establishing policies pertaining to international trade.

Congress is trying to decide whether to grant President Obama Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), formerly known as “fast track” authority. TPA commits Congress to an up-or-down vote (no amendments) on a trade agreement presented to it by the White House.  This procedure provides foreign negotiating partners with assurance that Congress will consider any agreement as a complete package, thus avoiding the risk that it might be amended in response to pressure from groups that are unhappy with one or more of its provisions. 

Such pressure dissuaded Congress from approving provisions that had been agreed to by the administration in the 1967 Kennedy Round of negotiations, which were conducted under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Other countries were not amused when the United States didn’t live up to its Kennedy Round commitments. To rebuild its negotiating credibility, the United States needed to find a way to bridge the Constitution’s clear delineation of powers: the president has the right to negotiate with other countries, but Congress has authority to regulate foreign commerce. 

The response was the Trade Act of 1974, which developed the basic formula for approving trade agreements that has been used ever since. Congress granted the president five years of negotiating authority that covered both tariffs and non-tariff measures.

The most recent version of TPA expired in 2007. President Obama currently is seeking a new grant of negotiating authority in order to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with 11 other nations, and possibly also the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the 28 members of the European Union. 

Senator Wyden will play a crucial role in determining whether or not TPA is approved. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), chairman of the Finance Committee, and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, would like to introduce TPA legislation. However, they don’t want to do so without bipartisan support. There is a long tradition of Democrats and Republicans working together on behalf of trade liberalization. 

Rep. Sandy Levin (D-MI), the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, generally opposes trade reforms that could lead to a greater selection of affordable automobiles for consumers. In other words, he’s a lost cause when it comes to sponsoring a version of TPA that the White House might approve. This is why all eyes are on Senator Wyden.

Wyden voted in favor of TPA legislation when it was most recently approved in 2002. He voted in favor of free-trade agreements with Morocco, Australia, the Dominican Republic and Central American countries, Peru, Panama, Colombia, and South Korea. However, he also voted against free-trade agreements with Singapore, Chile, and Oman, so he’s been on both sides of trade debates. 

Senators Wyden and Hatch have been negotiating in an effort to agree on TPA language. So far, Wyden has held out for a version of TPA that would be much easier for Congress to revoke than has been the case in the past. The concern is that such a reluctant grant of negotiating authority would give the administration relatively little leverage with which to close the deal on TPP. U.S. negotiating partners likely would be hesitant to agree to final terms if they think Congress is about to pull the rug out from under them.

The politics surrounding TPA have gotten quite messy for Wyden. A substantial coalition of Democratic Party stalwarts, including organized labor and various left-leaning groups, has mounted an active campaign to discourage him from agreeing to a TPA bill.

On the merits, opposition from unions in Oregon is difficult to explain. Their state is conveniently located on the Pacific coast, so implementation of the TPP would be expected to lead to increases in employment in the port, transportation, and agricultural sectors, among others. Nonetheless, unions and their allies have used claims that are often misleading to argue against approval of either TPA or the TPP. They recognize that Wyden is the linchpin in the process. If he can be dissuaded from supporting TPA, it almost certainly won’t be approved, at least until after a new president has taken office.  

On the other hand, President Obama wants TPA–at least officially–but it’s not entirely clear how hard he’s willing to fight for it. There is no precedent in which President Obama has made a concerted effort to pass legislation that was opposed by such important Democratic Party constituencies. Why would he be willing to do so now, especially when liberal supporters like Paul Krugman, the well-known political columnist, has come out against the TPP (which is the proximate reason for needing TPA), writing, “Why, exactly, should the Obama administration spend any political capital–alienating labor, disillusioning progressive activists–over such a deal?” 

(Note: Economists generally agree that elimination of the numerous trade barriers remaining among TPP nations would lead to meaningful growth in sectors such as agriculture and services. Since the United States and Japan are the world’s largest and third largest economies, the potential benefits of making markets more open and competitive could be substantial.)

At any rate, this is not a time to envy Senator Wyden. In his heart of hearts, he likely wants to support a version of TPA that would give the United States the best possible opportunity to advance an agenda that liberalizes trade. But is it worth the risk, given the certain knowledge that Democratic activists will be very upset, and the uncertainty as to whether the White House really has its heart in the fight? Will President Obama ever be able to come up with enough Democratic votes (probably 2030) to pass TPA in the House? If not, why should Wyden stick his neck out on this?

It will be interesting to see how he sorts through these issues.

Daniel J. Mitchell

Earlier this year, President Obama proposed a budget that would impose new taxes and add a couple of trillion dollars to the burden of government spending over the next 10 years.

The Republican Chairmen of the House and Senate Budget Committees have now weighed in. You can read the details of the House proposal by clicking here and the Senate proposal by clicking here, but the two plans are broadly similar (though the Senate is a bit vaguer on how to implement spending restraint, as I wrote a couple of days ago).

So are any of these plans good, or at least acceptable? Do any of them satisfy my Golden Rule?

Here’s a chart showing what will happen to spending over the next 10 years, based on the House and Senate GOP plans, as well as the budget proposed by President Obama.

Keep in mind, as you look at these numbers, that economy is projected to expand, in nominal terms, by an average of about 4.3 percent annually.

The most relevant data is that the Republican Chairmen want spending to climb by about $1.4 trillion over the next decade (annual spending increases averaging about 3.3 percent per year), while Obama wants spending to jump by about $2.4 trillion over the same period (with annual spending climbing by an average of almost 5.1 percent per year).

At this point, some of you may be wondering how to reconcile this data with news stories you may have read about GOP budgets that supposedly include multi-trillion spending cuts?!?

The very fist sentence in a report from The Hill, for instance, asserted that the Senate budget would “cut spending by $5.1 trillion.” And USA Today had a story headlined, “House GOP budget cuts $5.5 trillion in spending.”

But these histrionic claims are based on dishonest math. The “cuts” only exist if you compare the GOP budget numbers to the “baseline,” which is basically an artificial estimate of how fast spending would grow if government was left on auto-pilot.

Which is sort of like a cad telling his wife that he reduced his misbehavior because he only added 4 new mistresses to his collection rather than the 5 that he wanted.

I explained this biased and deceptive budgetary scam in these John Stossel and Judge Napolitano interviews, and also nailed the New York Times for using this dishonest approach when reporting about sequestration.

Interestingly, the Senate plan tries to compensate for this budgetary bias by including a couple of charts that properly put the focus on year-to-year spending changes.

Here’s their chart on Obama’s profligate budget plan.

And here’s their chart looking at what happens to major spending categories based on the reforms in the Senate budget proposal.

So kudos to Chairman Enzi and his team for correctly trying to focus the discussion where it belongs.

By the way, in addition to a better use of rhetoric, the Senate GOP plan actually is more fiscally responsible than the House plan. Under Senator Enzi’s proposal, government spending would increase by an average of 3.25 percent per year over the next 10 years, which is better than Chairman Price’s plan, which would allow government spending to rise by an average of 3.36 percent annually.

Though both Chairmen deserve applause for having more spending restraint than there was in the last two Ryan budgets.

But this doesn’t mean I’m entirely happy with the Republican fiscal plans.

Even though the two proposals satisfy my Golden Rule, that’s simply a minimum threshold. In reality, there’s far too much spending in both plans, and neither Chairman proposes to get rid of a single Department. Not HUD, not Education, not Transportation, and not Agriculture.

But the one thing that got me the most agitated is that the House and Senate proposals both indirectly embrace very bad economic analysis by the Congressional Budget Office.

Here’s some language that was included with the House plan (the Senate proposal has similar verbiage).

CBO’s analysis…estimates that reducing budget deficits, thereby bending the curve on debt levels, would be a net positive for economic growth. …The analysis concludes that deficit reduction creates long-term economic benefits because it increases the pool of national savings and boosts investment, thereby raising economic growth and job creation.

But here’s the giant problem. The CBO would say - and has said - the same thing about budget plans with giant tax increases.

To elaborate, CBO has a very bizarre view of how fiscal policy impacts the economy. The bureaucrats think that deficits are very important for long-run economic performance, while also believing that the overall burden of government spending and the punitive structure of the tax code are relatively unimportant.

And this leads them to make bizarre claims about tax increases being good for growth.

Moreover, the bureaucrats not only think deficits are the dominant driver of long-run growth, they also use Keynesian analysis when measuring the impact of fiscal policy on short-run growth. Just in case you think I’m exaggerating, or somehow mischaracterizing CBO’s position, check out page 12 of the Senate GOP plan and page 37 of the House GOP plan. You’ll see the “macroeconomic” effects of the plans cause higher deficits in 2016 and 2017, based on the silly theory that lower levels of government spending will harm short-run growth.

So hopefully you can understand why GOPers, for the sake of intellectual credibility, should not be citing bad analysis from the CBO.

But even more important, they should stop CBO from producing bad analysis is the future. The Republicans did recently replace a Democrat-appointed CBO Director, so it will be interesting to see whether their new appointee has a better understanding of how fiscal policy works.

Doug Bandow

Americans take religious liberty for granted. But four of five people around the world lack the freedom to worship and live faithfully.

The Pew Research Center, with Peter Henne as lead researcher, recently issued its latest study on religious liberty. The report makes for a sad read.

In some nations governments suppress the faithful. In other countries people make their societies unfriendly to minority beliefs, imposing a wide range of less formal sanctions, including murder.

The overall global environment to religious faith is hostile. Concluded the study:  “restrictions on religion were high or very high in 39 percent of countries. Because some of these countries (like China and India) are very populous, about 5.5 billion people (77 percent of the world’s population) were living in countries with a high or very high overall level of restrictions on religion in 2013, up from 76 percent in 2012 and 68 percent as of 2007.”

Christians and Muslims, who make up the largest share of the world’s population, are the most widely harassed faiths (in 102 and 99 countries, respectively)—in both cases, ironically, far more grievously in Muslim than Christian nations.

But particularly worrisome has been the increase in anti-Semitism. Noted Pew: “there has been a marked increase in the number of countries where Jews were harassed,” to 77, a recent peak. The problem is more social than government, and is evident in 34 of 45 European nations.

In 2013 18 nations were found to have “very high” levels of government restrictions. A Baker’s Dozen of the chief miscreants were Muslim states: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Brunei, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan.

Four were classically authoritarian and/or Communist/post-Communist (so were the three Central Asia nations listed previously): Burma, China, Eritrea, and Russia. The surprising outlier was Singapore, which bans particular sects, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses. (North Korea could not be ranked due to a lack of data.)

There is substantial overlap between persecuting states and those with significant social hostilities, but also some notable differences. Seventeen make the disreputable very high antagonism category.

Nine are majority Muslim:  Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Pakistan, Palestinian territories, Somalia, and Syria. Eight are other confessional states (Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish) and mixed (several with bitter sectarian conflict):  Central African Republic, India, Israel, Kenya, Nigeria, Russia, Sri Lanka, and Tanzania.

The worst nations combine intrusive state restrictions with widespread social intolerance. Among the most populous countries which score high or very high in both categories are:  Bangladesh, Burma, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, and Turkey.

As always, Islam’s role is significant: Six of the top 11 are Muslim and another (Nigeria) has a slight Muslim preponderance.

The Middle East, dominated by Muslim states, shows the greatest tendency toward persecution and intolerance. The median score globally was 2.4 for government restrictions and 1.6 for social antagonism. The Middle East scored 6.0 and 5.8, respectively.

Religious minorities obviously are the most vulnerable. Pew found that “government at some level used physical violence against minority or disfavored religious groups in 47 of the 198 countries (24 percent).” Social antagonism against minorities is evident in 88 countries, 44 percent.

Particularly disturbing for Americans is Pew’s rating for the U.S., second only to Brazil in the Americas. Americans committed to religious liberty should work to reverse the dangerous slide away from vigorous freedom of faith.

As I wrote in Forbes, “Religious liberty is the canary in the mine for civil and personal liberties. Lands filled with people willing to persecute, harass, discriminate, kill, denigrate, and more those with whom they disagree spiritually and even more people willing to overlook or excuse such crimes are potential hothouses for the most virulent forms of violence.”

Saving religious liberty, and the broader freedom of conscience, requires greater efforts in the U.S. and around the world. Only if we lose it are we likely to understand how very much we miss it.

Nicole Kaeding

Senate Budget Chairman Mike Enzi released his budget proposal yesterday afternoon. The request follows yesterday’s proposal from House Budget Chairman Tom Price. The two requests are similar. Both would reduce projected spending by $5 trillion and balance the federal budget over the next ten years. Both budgets repeal ObamaCare, and neither includes reforms to Social Security. The big difference between the two is that the Senate version is even vaguer than the House version.

Like the House budget, the Senate budget includes Medicare reforms. It also includes a proposal that would cut $400 billion from Medicare over the next ten years, matching the level of cuts from President Obama’s budget request in February. The Senate version does not specify how it will cut $400 billion, other than stating that it “does not endorse the President’s specific policy proposals.”  The House plan at least it acknowledged how it would reduce Medicare spending (by using a premium support model to generate savings).

The Senate’s defense funding plan is also less clear than the House plan. Both keep the 2011 bipartisan Budget Control Act spending levels for the base defense budget, which is $523 billion for fiscal year 2016. The Senate budget includes an additional $58 billion in “emergency” defense funding, the same amount the president includes. While the House included $90 billion in “emergency” defense funding, the Senate includes a provision that would allow it to establish a “deficit-neutral reserve fund” for further increases in defense spending. That is budget-speak for an undisclosed amount of defense spending hikes, with some sort of spending cut elsewhere in the budget to offset the increase. So while the House plan appears more expensive than the Senate plan, the Senate’s total defense spending level for fiscal year 2016 isn’t obvious and could eventually be higher.

Overall, the proposals from Price and Enzi are similar. As the two chambers reconcile their proposals over the next several weeks, the negotiated budget should provide further insight into Republican spending priorities.

Jason Bedrick

In a desperate attempt to halt New York legislators from enacting a new school choice law, teachers and their allies have resorted to misrepresenting what the proposed law would do.

Scholarship tax credit laws make donations to nonprofit scholarship organizations eligible for tax credits, rather than merely tax deductions. The scholarship organizations help low- and middle-income families afford tuition at the schools of their choice. The New York proposal, known as the Education Investment Tax Credit, would create a 75 percent tax credit, meaning that a $1,000 donation to a scholarship organization would reduce a donor’s tax liability by $750. Between the donation and the remaining $250 in tax liability, the donor would have given a total of $1,250.

New York teachers unions and the think tank they fund are trying to portray this arrangement as somehow financially benefiting the donors. Sadly, some media outlets have reported their spin verbatim, including WXXI News:

“It’s nothing more than a giveaway to the wealthy and corporations,” said Ron Deutsch, with the think tank Fiscal Policy Institute, which is in part funded by unions.

He says it’s also bad tax policy that could harm other charitable organizations. Under current laws, a million dollar charitable donation nets the donor just $22,000 in tax credits. He says education tax credit donors would get $750,000 back from a million dollar donation. Under a Senate version of the plan, donors would get $900,000 dollars back.

It takes real chutzpah to describe an arrangement that decreases the amount of money in the donor’s pocket as a “giveaway.” Deutsch falsely claims that the donors receive a “net” benefit, but the net is actual in the negative. The hypothetical donor that Deutsch describes could have paid only $1,000,000 in taxes, but instead chose to pay $250,000 in taxes and donate an additional $1,000,000. In other words, the donor would have saved $250,000 had she decided not to donate anything.

Some giveaway!

Scholarship tax credits expand educational opportunities for low-income families–the type that have been rallying in support of the proposal in recent weeks. Donors do not financially benefit from their donations whatsoever. Media outlets should not let themselves be used to spread misinformation to the contrary.

For those interested in learning how scholarship tax credit laws affect the lives of real families, watch the Cato Institute’s recent film, “Live Free and Learn”:

Live Free and Learn: Scholarship Tax Credits in New Hampshire

Emma Ashford

In a piece published today over at Townhall, I talk about Vladimir Putin’s recent disappearance from the public eye, and why it wasn’t as big a deal as you might think.

The rumors surrounding his ten-day disappearance ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was kept busy, scotching speculation that the Russian leader was ill, quashing reports of a power struggle within the Kremlin, and refuting assertions that Putin had been absent to attend the birth of his new child.

When Putin finally reappeared on Monday, he waved away all questions about his absence, simply noting that “life would be boring without gossip.”  We’ll probably never know where Putin was for those ten days, though his pallor implied a minor illness. Given the consistent unwillingness of the Kremlin to divulge information about Putin’s personal life, the whole thing may have been nothing more than the flu.

But it’s worth asking why Putin’s disappearance caused such a media furor. Putin’s centrality to the Russian political system is so well-accepted that commentators and policymakers routinely treat Putin himself as sole representative of the Russian state, psychoanalyzing the man for insight into Russian foreign policy choices. His disappearance, therefore, implied the possibility of chaos in Russia.

Putin is certainly the key figure in Russian politics today, in terms of both personality and power. His ability to mediate between key factions inside the Russian state has allowed him to solidify power, and to govern far more effectively than his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, ever did. He is still overwhelmingly popular. Yet Putin is not the only player in Russian politics. He has a number of close, senior advisors, many of whom could fill a central role in the system Putin built. His death or incapacitation would be a shock, but it wouldn’t necessarily result in major political changes.

Obviously, we can’t predict the future. After all, who could have predicted when Boris Yeltsin picked a young, unknown former intelligence operative as his presidential successor how successful Putin would be in reining in the corrupt excesses of the Russian state, or how effectively he would undermine Russian democratic reforms?

Yet it is unlikely that Putin’s departure from office, no matter when it occurs, will result in chaos and the collapse of the Russian government. It is even less plausible that his death would result in a pro-democracy or pro-Western protest movement like the one we saw in Ukraine.

Instead, as I argue in the article, it is probable that one of Putin’s close advisors would become his successor, taking over as Russia’s president, probably with a thin veneer of legitimacy in the form of largely uncontested elections. With a similar background and worldview, this successor would simply continue many of Putin’s policies. In short, Putin’s Russia – and its odious foreign policy – probably isn’t going anywhere, even if the man himself does. 

Matthew Feeney

Las Vegas police officer Richard Scavone is facing a misdemeanor battery charge after body camera footage revealed that he had, according to Undersheriff Kevin McMahill, used excessive and unreasonable force while arresting a woman for loitering for prostitution in January.

Scavone’s lawyer said that his client, who is suspended with pay, was one of the 400 volunteers taking part in the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s body camera study. Footage of the incident has not been released, as it is being used in the ongoing investigations conducted by the Clark County District Attorney and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

This is not the first time that police body cameras have captured alleged excessive force. In January, prosecutors in Albuquerque, New Mexico said that they would be pursuing murder charges against two police officers who in March 2014 shot and killed James Boyd, a homeless paranoid schizophrenic camping in the Sandia Mountains. The killing was filmed by a helmet camera worn by one of the officers at the scene. Speaking about the case, Bernalillo County District Attorney Kari Brandenburg said, “We have evidence in this case to establish probable cause we didn’t have in other cases.”

Both the Las Vegas and Albuquerque incidents highlight that body cameras are valuable in providing extra transparency and accountability but are not a panacea for allegations of police misconduct.

Very few studies have been conducted that examine the effects body cameras have on police behavior. One of the most referenced studies on police body cameras, which took place in Rialto, California from February 2012 to February 2013, did find that “use-of-force” incidents and citizen complaints against officers dropped dramatically compared to previous years (see chart from the study below).

Another police body camera study, which took place in Mesa, Arizona from October 2012 to October 2013, also found that officers wearing the Axon Flex cameras received fewer complaints than in the 12 months prior to the evaluation period. In the chart below IA refers to “internal affairs” and Blue Team refers to incident recording software used by Mesa PD. 

The findings in the Mesa and Rialto studies suggest that body cameras may have a role in reducing complaints against police officers, but it remains unclear if this is because the cameras are prompting police officers to significantly change their behavior or if they are changing citizen behavior. It is worth considering not only that citizens may behave better when they know they are being filmed but that the cameras remove an incentive for citizens to file frivolous complaints. In addition, other factors such as changes in department policy or personnel may have an impact on officer behavior. More research is needed in order to definitively determine whether police body cameras have some “civilizing effect” on officers and citizens.

Nonetheless, as events in Las Vegas and Albuquerque have shown, police body cameras provide welcome evidence in police misconduct investigations. Body cameras may play a role in improving police officers’ and citizens’ behavior, but reforms to use-of-force policy and training need to be implemented in addition to body camera deployment if police conduct is to significantly change for the better.

Adam Bates

Yesterday President Obama seemed to make light of the push for drug reform (again), arguing that young Americans should put it at the bottom of their priority list in favor of issues like climate change and war:

I understand this is important to you but, you know, you should be thinking about climate change, the economy, jobs, war and peace. Maybe, way at the bottom, you should be thinking about marijuana.

As a member of that millennial generation, I’d like to ask: why?

Setting aside the strange suggestion that environmental and peace activism are somehow mutually exclusive with opposing the drug war, I would suggest that Americans have much more influence over drug policy than we have over the global climate or the U.S. government’s penchant for warmaking. 

Despite the President’s insinuations, the fight to end the drug war isn’t just a crusade by young stoners to get high without worry of arrest.  Prohibition doesn’t work.  It didn’t work in the 1920s when alcohol prohibition turned entire American cities over to organized crime, and it doesn’t work in 2015.

The War on Drugs is a key reason why America’s incarceration rate is off the charts, why more than 60,000 Mexicans have been killed in drug violence over the last decade, why violent gangs control entire swaths of urban America the U.S. prison system, why there are more than a million drug arrests clogging up our courts every year, why our cherished protection from unreasonable searches and seizures has been eroded and twisted to nearly nothing, and why paramilitary police raids have gone up 1,500% in the last generation, leaving dead bodies and maimed children in their wake.

To his credit, President Obama has made some positive policy decisions to lessen the burden of the drug war.  His decision to “de-prioritize” marijuana busts in jurisdictions that have voted to legalize marijuana is commendable.  But that is merely one small tile on a vast mosaic of ruinous government prohibition efforts.

There are thousands of non-violent drug offenders in federal custody which President Obama could free with the stroke of a pen today.  There are hundreds of state and local law enforcement agencies receiving military weaponry from the Obama Administration, while the administration’s own task force acknowledges there is very little accountability, training, or respect for civil liberties built into the weaponry distribution system.  There are thousands of immigrants seeking refuge in America from the violence spawned by our drug war.

I don’t see what’s so funny or unimportant about any of this.

Julian Sanchez

Intelligence Squared hosted a lively debate last week over the so-called “Right to be Forgotten” embraced by European courts—which, as tech executive Andrew McLaughlin aptly noted, would be more honestly described as a “right to force others to forget.”  A primary consequence of this “right” thus far has been that citizens are entitled to demand that search engines like Google censor the results that are returned for a search on the person’s name, provided those results are “inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant.”  In other words, if you’re unhappy that an unflattering item—such as a news story—shows up as a prominent result for your name, you can declare it “irrelevant” even if entirely truthful and ask Google to stop showing it as a result for such searches, with ultimate recourse to the courts if the company refuses.  Within two months of the ruling establishing the “right,” the company received more than 70,000 such requests.

Hearteningly, the opponents of importing this “right” to the United States won the debate by a large margin, but it occurred to me that one absolutely essential reason for rejecting this kind of censorship process was only indirectly and obliquely invoked.  As even the defenders of the Right to be Forgotten conceded, it would be inappropriate to allow a person to suppress search results that were of some legitimate public value: Search engines are obligated to honor suppression requests only when linking some piece of truthful information to a person’s name would be embarrassing or harmful to that person without some compensating benefit to those who would recieve the information.  Frequent comparison was made to the familiar legal standards that have been applied to newspapers publishing (lawfully obtained) private information about non-public figures. In those cases, of course, the person seeking to suppress the information is typically opposed in court by the entity publishing the information—such as a newspaper—which is at least in a position to articulate why it believes there is some public interest in that information at the time of publication. 

Google, of course, is not a newspaper or originating publisher, but a conduit between hundreds of millions of users seeking information and the billions upon billions of Web pages containing it. Unlike a newspaper, they do not index information with any concrete preconcieved ideas about why a particular Web page is likely to be interesting, relevant, or valuable to a specific audience.  Rather, their software crawls the Internet and ingests information broadly, on the premise that their hundreds of millions of users will have their own myriad reasons for finding that information valuable. They could not, of course, possibly know why each of those millions will find any particular result relevant or interesting in the future—and the great utility of the service they provide is precisely that they do not need to. This creates a profound asymmetry, however, that inevitably biases the “Right to be Forgotten” process in favor of suppression.  If I am seeking to block Google from displaying some piece of unflattering information in connection with my name, obviously I have some articulable—perhaps even facially legitimate—reason for wanting it suppressed. But neither Google nor any court or “information commissioner” considering my argument can possibly take into account the myriad reasons unknown persons in the future who conduct searches on my name might want that information available.

Consider one of the most famous Right to be Forgotten cases—that of Mario Costeja Gonzáles, who successfully forced Google to exclude from searches on his name an item in the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia, published in 1998, concerning the forced sale of some of Costeja’s properties to satisfy debts.  More than 15 years later, Costeja convinced the Court of Justice of the European Union that information about his old financial woes was “no longer relevant” and should not be displayed in response to Google searches on his name, rendering them invisible for pratcical purposes even though the original item remained in the newspaper’s archives.  (In a classic example of the Streisand Effect, the enormous attention generated by the case itself guaranteed that his efforts would be in vain as countless new articles appeared recounting those facts—but the point and intent of the RtbF is obviously that this would not be the norm.)    The problem, of course, is that while Costeja was present to make his case that this information was now “irrelevant,” the particular individuals to whom it might be relevant in the future were not, and inherently could not, be there to make the counterargument.  The most the Court could do was imagine who those future people might be—potential employers? business partners? lenders? lovers? journalists?—and attempt to weigh their hypothetical future interests against Costeja’s. Google, of course, is in precisely the same position—and faced with tens of thousands of requests over time, cannot possibly devote intensive scrutiny to each one. Now that the court has confirmed their obligation to entertain such requests, they have every financial incentive to err on the side of complying in most cases, as refusal may require them to devote time and financial resources to fighting an appeal governed by a vague and highly subjective standard.

The core fallacy underlying the Right to be Forgotten, then, is a species of the “Fatal Conceit” that F.A. Hayek saw at the heart of the case for centralized economic planning.  The “conceit” was the beguiling belief that some body of experts could calculate the best uses of an entire society’s productive resources, allocating them more rationally than messy, wasteful competitive markets.   This was a mistake, Hayek saw, because production and distribution in those messy markets was coordinated by a system of prices that harnessed and transmitted widely dispersed information stored in the brains of millions of market actors—information about individual preferences and desires, about local surplus and scarcity, and about the probability of those conditions changing in the future. History has, of course, amply borne out that pessimism about the ability of central authorities to solve the economic “knowledge problem” and rationally calculate the optimal use of a society’s resources.

Lying behind the Right to be Forgotten is a similarly grandiose—and similarly erroneous—conceit: The assumption that Google or a court or an “information commissioner” will be able to reliably determine, in tens of thousnds of cases per year, what factual information will be “adequate” or “relevant” to the users  who are searching for it, not just today, but in potentially quite different circumstances tomorrow. Those motivated to search, for reasons today’s arbiters cannot predict, may well make unwise or hasty or frivolous judgments about the adequacy or relevance of those facts—but surely they are still in a far better position to make that determination, bringing to bear their own local knowledge of their specific facts and circumstances, than a body of experts relying exclusively on the perspective of the person petitioning for censorship.  

Nicole Kaeding

House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-GA) released his budget proposal this morning, which outlines spending priorities for 2016 through the next decade. The proposal is a mixed bag. It includes some reform steps, but also fails to aggressively confront the dire fiscal realities facing the nation with specific spending-cuts.

The positives:

Spending Restraint– The budget proposes $43.2 trillion of total spending over the next decade, which is $5.5 trillion below baseline projections from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Ten year projected deficits are also much lower than CBO projections; $1.3 trillion compared to $7.2 trillion. This proposal balances the budget within ten years, moving us closer to solving our long-term fiscal challenges.

ObamaCare Repeal– Price’s proposal includes full repeal of ObamaCare including all of its health care and tax provisions. This constitutes a large share of the spending cuts, $2 trillion of the $5.5 trillion.

The negatives:

Defense–The 2011 bipartisan Budget Control Act (BCA) set caps on defense and nondefense discretionary spending through 2021. Many Republicans have pushed Price to rescind the caps on defense spending, claiming that they are too draconian and will undermine America’s security. Other Republicans pushed to keep the BCA caps as an effective restraint on spending. The Price budget goes for the easy political solution: it retains the BCA caps for defense spending for fiscal year 2016, but it increases the “emergency” defense spending account, known as Overseas Contingent Operations (OCO), by $16 billion compared with fiscal year 2015. This allows Price to honor the BCA, while violating its spirit. Under this plan, the U.S. will spend $387 billion more on defense over the next decade than CBO baseline projections.

Entitlement Reform–CBO projects that 85 percent of spending growth over the next decade will be due to Social Security, Medicare, and net interest. The Price budget acknowledges the need to reform Social Security and Medicare, but fails to meet the challenge. The budget does not include a plan to reform Social Security, other than saying it needs a “long-term solution” from a “bipartisan commission.” Medicare reforms don’t start until 2024. Waiting up to a decade to reform these two programs is a dereliction of duty.

Tax Reform–The budget proposal is vague about this important topic. It urges Congress to consider tax reform, but does not detail any specific reforms, nor does it provide a timeline for considering proposals.

Overall, Price’s budget proposal would cut spending and balance the budget, but it still leaves much to be desired.

Ted Galen Carpenter

President Obama raised eyebrows last week when he issued an executive order declaring Venezuela to be a threat to national security.  It would be pertinent to ask just how that deeply divided, nearly bankrupt country could menace the security of the global superpower.  Venezuela has no long-range ballistic missiles or bombers, much less nuclear weapons.  It does not have a large, well-equipped army.  The Venezuelan navy is both small and antiquated.  Although rumors continue to circulate that the leftist government of President Nicolás Maduro flirts with terrorist organizations in neighboring Colombia and elsewhere, those reports remain little more than rumors.

Most telling, Obama’s executive order did not cite evidence that Venezuela actually posed a threat to the security and well-being of the United States.  Instead, it focused on the Maduro regime’s ill-treatment of the Venezuelan people.  The executive order is a textbook example of an overly broad definition of national security.  The White House emphasized that the order imposed sanctions on officials who undermined democratic processes or institutions, abused human rights, were involved in prohibiting or penalizing freedom of expression, or were guilty of corruption.  White House spokesman Josh Earnest declared that the United States now had the tools to block the financial assets of Venezuelan officials “past and present” who dare “violate the human rights of Venezuelan citizens and engage in acts of public corruption.”

Those are all tragic aspects of that country’s dysfunctional political system.  There is little question that Venezuela’s government is horrifyingly corrupt and autocratic.  Cato’s Juan Carlos Hidalgo has ably described the many abuses committed by both Maduro and his predecessor and mentor Hugo Chávez..  It may well take Venezuela a generation or more to recover from the socialist idiocies of those two rulers.  But as I point out in the pages of the National Interest Online,  just because a regime is repugnant does not make it a credible security threat to the United States.

Obama’s executive order is ominous because it signals a return to the overuse of national security justifications that was so common in previous administrations.  It should be recalled that U.S. officials asserted, apparently while maintaining straight faces, that such small, weak adversaries as North Vietnam, Serbia, Iraq, and Cuba posed dire national security threats.  The ensuing policies produced frustrating, counterproductive results.  Indeed, in the cases of Vietnam and Iraq, the outcomes of such a promiscuous invocation of U.S. security needs were disastrous wars that squandered hundreds of billions of tax dollars and snuffed out the lives of thousands of American military personnel.  One might hope that policymakers had learned from those bruising experiences and would avoid such folly in the future.

It is imperative to adopt a more rigorous standard about what does and does not constitute a threat to national security.  A foreign regime’s domestic behavior, however reprehensible, does not per se pose a menace to America.  The actions of Maduro and his henchmen fall into that category.  Venezuela’s government is riddled with corruption and behaves in a disturbingly repressive fashion toward political opponents.  But that makes Venezuela an obnoxious neighbor, not a security threat to the United States.  

Doug Bandow

America has been at war in Afghanistan for more than 13 years. U.S. troop levels peaked at 140,000 in 2010. More than 2200 Americans died in a conflict reflecting little more than purposeless inertia.

The U.S. is leaving, but not entirely and maybe not soon. Warned NATO commander Gen. Philip Breedlove in January, “we are going to continue to have casualties.” The formal combat mission might be over, but combat is not.

Roughly half of the 10,600 American troops are supposed to depart by the end of the year, with the rest scheduled to go in 2016. But the administration is considering slowing the withdrawal.

Washington intervened in Afghanistan with two overriding objectives:  destroy al-Qaeda and oust its Taliban hosts. The U.S. quickly fulfilled both goals. But then the Bush administration lost interest in the country.

Instead of ending Washington’s half-hearted misadventure at nation-building, the Obama administration twice doubled down. Some progress was made, but when I visited I found only limited confidence in private.

Washington and its allies built a large government bureaucracy and security force in Kabul, but on a potential foundation of sand. The Afghan government is noted for venality, incompetence, and corruption.

The administration celebrated Ashraf Ghani’s election since he signed the (U.S.) Bilateral Security Agreement and (NATO) Status of Forces Agreement which Hamid Karzai had rejected. This allowed Washington to retain around 10,000 Americans (joined by roughly 3000 Europeans) in the Afghan muddle. 

These forces are not necessary to confront al-Qaeda, which largely has disappeared from Afghanistan. Little likely would change if the Taliban again dominated the country:  the group learned that misbehaving foreign guests bring down the wrath of a superpower.

Some policymakers hope to leave a liberal, democratic outpost in Central Asia. Unfortunately, Afghanistan’s gains are fragile and failures are significant.

Tens of tens of thousands of troops, thousands of lives, hundreds of billions of dollars, and thousands of aid projects from America failed to fix the country. A much smaller U.S. troop presence won’t remedy the system’s deep deficiencies.

Afghanistan still could eventually end up with a reasonably liberal society, but only on its own terms. Thankfully, what emerges won’t be matter much to America so long as Afghanistan does not host terrorists bent on striking the U.S. The conflict has regional impacts, but none of significant consequence to America.

Surrounding countries likely will play the Great Game as Washington’s force levels drop. But U.S. security is not dependent on Central Asian stability.

America’s most important task may be to use its remaining time to encourage resumption of talks between the Afghan government and Taliban. There should be no illusions about the prospect of success.

Of course, Washington hopes to forestall a Taliban victory. But last year was the costliest for the Afghan National Security Forces since the conflict began in 2001. The Diplomat’s Franz-Stefan Gady reported: “There are areas that are a no-go for the ANSF, others where they will only go with U.S. air support, and others where they will go on their own,” mostly major urban areas.

Kabul’s main hope is Taliban weakness. The movement’s brutality has cost support. The United Nations noted “divisions driven primarily by differences over political strategy” as well as factions behaving “with increasing autonomy.” The Taliban also faces violent competition from groups claiming allegiance to the Islamic State.

Afghanistan is most likely to end up with multiple “governments.” Which gives everyone an incentive to reach a modus vivendi to end the fighting. Even Pakistan, after long backing the Taliban, may be ready to encourage negotiations.

The administration should live up to its promise to leave Afghanistan. Thirteen years of war is more than enough. Washington also should abandon its attempts at global social engineering.

As I wrote on Forbes online: “Afghanistan is a tragedy. Unfortunately, that isn’t about to change. It is time for America to leave. Some day Afghanistan must stand on its own. That day should be today. Only Afghans can decide Afghanistan’s destiny.”

Adam Bates

The New York Times this week published a troubling article detailing the secrecy surrounding police use of Stingray cellular site simulators.  Essentially, these devices (which can be mounted on vehicles or carried by hand) mimic the signals of a cell phone tower in order to force cell phones in a given area to connect to the device.  Both data on the phone (including numbers, texts, emails, and any other data stored on the phone) and the phone’s physical location can then be accessed and recorded by police.

Additionally concerning is the extensive use of non-disclosure agreements by the Harris Corporation, which sells the devices, to prevent the public (and in some cases even judges, defense attorneys, and prosecutors) from finding out how these devices are being used or even whether a given department owns any.   The preference for secrecy is so powerful that prosecutors have dropped serious criminal charges simply to avoid having the police use of Stingrays subjected to examination by defense attorneys or judges.

According to the Times,

The confidentiality has elevated the stakes in a longstanding debate about the public disclosure of government practices versus law enforcement’s desire to keep its methods confidential. While companies routinely require nondisclosure agreements for technical products, legal experts say these agreements raise questions and are unusual given the privacy and even constitutional issues at stake.

The stated reason for the secrecy is the common refrain that terrorists will circumvent the technology if they know what law enforcement is up to.  However, a recent ACLU report was unable to uncover a single instance of these devices being used to bring domestic terrorists to justice in any jurisdiction surveyed. 

The ACLU report estimates that Stingrays are in wide and rapidly increasing use in law enforcement agencies across America.  However, there appears to be very little oversight structure for police departments, legislatures, or courts governing the use of these devices. In some instances, it seems that courts have even unwittingly been authorizing their use without the judge’s full understanding.  For instance, a sampling of applications for court orders from Florida law enforcement agencies informs the judge that the order is for cell phone records, but doesn’t mention anything about how they’re to be obtained.  Police claim such vague orders authorize Stingray deployment, but some judges have been less than enthused upon finding out.

The problem is that the technological capabilities of law enforcement are getting far ahead of our mechanisms of oversight and accountability.  From Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations, to the DEA’s questionable use of automated license plate readers, to the use of automated social media trawlers to award citizens “threat scores,” to the use of cell site simulators which can access your phone without your permission, the government is plainly capable of mapping your every move and insinuating its eyes and ears into nearly every human interaction. 

In the absence of Supreme Court involvement or robust 4th Amendment restoration efforts from legislatures, the burden falls on the public to demand increased transparency and accountability from local officials.  Such efforts have met with success in the past, and must continue to do so if any sphere of American life is going to be spared the tentacles of the surveillance state.

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