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Trevor Burrus

When Marvin Horne told the United States Raisin Administrative Committee (yes, there’s a raisin administrative committee) that he wasn’t going to turn over nearly 30 percent of his crop to the government in exchange for nothing, he probably didn’t expect his case would go to the Supreme Court—twice. That little act of civil disobedience was thirteen years ago, and the Hornes now stand on the precipice of vindicating an important constitutional right—the Fifth Amendment right not to have your property taken without just compensation—as well as putting a wrench in the gears of what Justice Elena Kagan called “the world’s most outdated law.”

Like much of our agricultural policy, the Raisin Administrative Committee (RAC) is a relic of New Deal-era cartelization schemes. Trying to understand the logic behind American agricultural policy is like trying to find the logic in a Marx Brothers movie—it can’t be done and you’re better off just sitting back and laughing at the antics. Yet our agricultural policy has real-world effects on farmers like the Hornes, who are subject to the whims of the RAC as it tries to stabilize the price and supply of raisins. Sometimes the RAC pays for the raisins it takes, and sometimes not. In 2002-2003, the RAC offered far less than the cost of production for 47 percent of the Hornes’ raisins, and in 2003-2004 they offered nothing for 30 percent of the raisins. The Hornes had had enough, and they refused the order, arguing the seemingly simple point that the confiscation would be a taking without just compensation under the Fifth Amendment.

On their first trip to the Court (in which Cato filed a brief), the Hornes had to establish that they could bring their takings claim in federal district court without first paying the fines (now about $650,000). A unanimous Court held that the Hornes could bring their claim and then remanded the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to determine if a taking occurred. In a frankly stunning opinion, the Ninth Circuit held that the Takings Clause affords more protection to real property (land) than it does to personal property. The Ninth Circuit also held that, because there is a possibility that the government might decide to pay money for the raisins it takes, the Hornes had not been fully deprived of their property.

Cato, joined by the National Federation of Independent Business, the National Association of Home Builders, the Reason Foundation, and the Southeastern Legal Foundation, argues that the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning ignores the text of the Takings Clause, which makes no distinction between real and personal property (“nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation”), and ignores Supreme Court precedent. We also argue that the Ninth Circuit’s argument that the mere possibility of future compensation can nullify a takings claim sets an extremely dangerous precedent. After all, as Judge Alex Kozinski wrote in dissent to the Ninth Circuit’s opinion, “if the city wants to display your Renoir in its museum, it can’t just take it and compensate you with the joy of viewing it during visiting hours.” Yet, for raisin farmers in California, the deal is even worse. If the Ninth Circuit is right, the government can take your Renoir, send it back to France, and, after pocketing the change to cover its own budget, give you absolutely nothing. It’s time for the “world’s most outdated law” to shrivel up and go the way of the California Raisins.

For more on the Hornes’ plight, see’s video below. 

Feds vs. Raisins: Small Farmers Stand Up to the USDA

Alex Nowrasteh

The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) has released a number of reports purporting to show that all employment growth since the year 2000 has gone to immigrants.  The CIS report does not include econometrics. However, the report includes a few references to the economic literature (those few references present have little to do with native job displacement caused by immigration, which is the topic of the CIS report).  Nonetheless, the CIS report has gained significant attention.

The CIS method of measuring job displacement caused by immigration is not used by professional economists to study this issue.  Fundamentally, they assume a static number of jobs that is unchanging based on immigration and do not consider what the job market would look like with fewer immigrant workers, entrepreneurs, and consumers – estimates essential for understanding the actual labor market impact of immigrants.  I discuss those actual effects here, here, and here

Regardless of their flawed methods, I decided to recreate CIS’ research in order to exactly understand how they got their results.  The CIS study did not find any evidence of immigrants pushing natives out of the job market.  After spending hours recreating their data and checking it, all I can conclude is that immigrants hold about a percentage of jobs in the economy that is roughly equal to their percent of the population.  I am underwhelmed by that finding. 

Below I will present the academic literature on immigration-induced job displacement, explain how CIS got its results, and detail why their analysis of the data does not prove that “All Job Growth Since 2000 Went to Immigrants.”  (If you just want the meat, scroll down to “CIS’ Three Big Conclusions are False”).

Brief Literature Survey

The academic literature finds very little native job displacement caused by immigration. 

David Card and John DiNardo looked at native responses to immigration in American cities to test the so-called “skating rink” model of native location decisions, a model that assumes each new immigrant knocks an American out of the workforce.  If the skating rink model is correct, natives with skills similar to immigrants should vacate areas where immigrants move to and not move to areas where immigrants are residing.  Instead, Card and DiNardo found that an increases of the immigrant population in specific skill groups leads to small increases in the population of native-born individuals in the same skill group.  Changes in the local economy, such as the creation of new businesses and types of industries affected by an increase in immigrants, made up for any displacement of native workers. 

Another paper by David Card did not find any offsetting native mobility responses to immigrants in the same skill level but did find negative wage effects for some skills sets as a result of immigration.  However, Card also found that in the very short-run at least, inflows “of new immigrants in the 1985-90 period reduced the relative employment rates of natives and earlier immigrants in laborer and low-skilled service occupations by up to 1 percentage point, and by up to 3 percentage points in very high-immigrant cities like Los Angeles or Miami” (emphasis added). 

Card’s findings in his second paper are consistent with the later findings of economists Gianmarco Ottaviano and Giovanni Peri that newer immigrants compete with the immigrants who preceded them, not with native-born Americans who have similar skills.  The labor market effects of new immigrants appear to fall most heavily on immigrants who preceded them, not Americans, which would seem to cut against the theory that immigrants have a large negative effect on American workers. 

Even then, David Card and Ethan Lewis in another paper looked specifically at how new Mexican immigrants displaced older Mexican immigrants and found decidedly small effects.  Only in Los Angeles and El Paso did new Mexicans push out older Mexicans.  In all of the other cities they examined, new Mexican immigrants complemented the existing Mexican immigrant workforce rather than displaced it.  To a remarkable degree, the U.S. economy is very good at attracting Mexican immigrants, providing incentives for them to settle in areas where they are most demanded, and responding in ways that increase net production and employment.

A paper by George Borjas seems to find the greatest effect of immigration on the wages of native-born American workers – a wage elasticity of -0.39.  Borjas’ finding has been criticized by many, including in this recent paper that extended his period of analysis by 10 years but found only a -.2 wage elasticity as well as other potential problems with Borjas’ methods.  Another paper by Giovanni Peri and Chad Sparber also questioned Borjas’ paper, finding that less educated immigrant workers and native born workers specialize in different tasks, thus inducing natives to reallocate their task supply, thereby reducing downward wage pressure.  Foreign born workers specialized in occupations that required manual labor and physical skills while natives pursued jobs that required more intensive communication and language skills.  Immigration induces natives to specialize accordingly, reducing the negative wage impact of immigration by roughly 75 percent.  In other words, natives do not react to immigration by leaving the workforce or moving to different areas, but by changing their skill sets and occupations. 

A paper by Christopher L. Smith found that for every 10 percent rise in employed immigrants with at least a high school degree, high school students worked about 3 percent fewer hours and adults decreased their number of hours worked by 1 percent.  A Chicago Fed Letter and research paper authored by Daniel Aaronson, Kyung-Hong Park, and Daniel Sullivan discovered that teens are less likely to work for reasons other than immigration.  They found that an increase in the relative benefits of education versus work, government financial incentives for schooling, merit based scholarships with minimum grade requirements, and education grants were the primary causes of a decline in teen labor force participation.  In other words, teens allocated their scarce time to education and away from work to increase their investment in acquiring human capital and, hence, a higher future income.  Low-skilled immigration and stiffer labor market competition was not a compelling explanation for their decline in labor force participation.  Another report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2002 echoed the findings of Aaronson, Park, and Sullivan when it concluded:

“In summary, the increasing proportion of teens enrolled in school during the summer and a drop in students’ labor force participation rates contributed to the overall decline in teen summer labor force participation during the recent expansion.  Data for October each year indicate that labor force participation among high school students also dropped during the school year, although nonstudents were increasingly likely to participate in the labor force.  Together, these facts suggest that, among teens, an increased emphasis was placed on school rather than work during the summer and school year.”

Patricia Cortes does find some displacement effects across cities.  These effects are not large enough to equalize wages across the country, and thus not large enough to induce the displacement of one American worker for each immigrant worker.  Cortes found that three natives move out of a city for every ten immigrants who move in. 

These academic papers do not produce a compelling reason to believe that immigrants displace native-born workers in large numbers.  There is likely some job displacement caused by immigration but the effect is small and does not produce a scenario where all job growth goes to immigrants.  

Reproducing CIS’ Study

I reproduced CIS’ entire study and data set to properly understand how they reached their conclusions. 

Data and Methodology

The data for this investigation was collected through the U.S. Census Bureau’s Consumer Population Survey, and then further transformed using the DataFerrett mining program.  Monthly data on employment, citizenship, and population is available through these sources for the period 1994-2014. For some points of analysis, I chose a start year of 1994 as opposed to CIS’ start date of 2000 because their choice of that year and its very low historical unemployment rate added bias to their results. 


Each subsection below details the findings. 

Immigrant Share of Employment

There is a proportional relationship between growth in the immigrant share of the total population and the immigrant share of employment.  Unsurprisingly, as immigrants grow as a proportion of the population, they occupy more jobs as a percentage of total employment.  The immigrant share of employment has increased over the period 1994-2014 but this increase corresponds with an increase in the share of immigrants as a percentage of the population.  The proportionality between the two variables was confirmed by a statistical test, which showed a correlation between the immigrant share of employment and the immigrant share of the population of 96.4 percent.  Over the entire 20-year period (1994-2014), the immigrant share of employment has grown a paltry 2.53 percent.

Extending this analysis back to 1994 revealed an interesting pattern.  Since 2000, immigrant share of employment has been slightly higher by less than a percentage point than the immigrant share of the population would predict.  Prior to the year 2000, the immigrant share of the population was higher than their respective share of jobs.  In that sense, during the period 1994-2000, the percentage of jobs given to immigrants was lower than the respective percentage of the population.  It is only after 2000 that the percentage of immigrants in the population is less than the immigrant share of employment – again by less than a percentage point.  This could be another reason why CIS picked the year 2000 as the start date for their study.      

The Effect of Immigrant Employment on Native Employment

Immigration restrictionists claim that an increase in employment among immigrants has a detrimental effect on native employment.  The CIS study did not produce an economic model, any econometrics, or a single regression to support that claim.  Instead, I ran a few regressions to see if there is any relationship between immigrant job gains and native job losses.  

There is an 86.75 percent correlation between native employment and immigrant employment.  A regression was then performed on the data to discern the relationship between the variation in native employment and non-citizen employment, which resulted in a statistically significant positive relationship between the variables.  The variation in native employment represents the change in the number of jobs held by natives, while the variation in immigrant employment represents the change in the number of immigrant jobs.  According to the results of the regression, an increase in immigrant employment by one is correlated with an increase in native employment by approximately 1.614.  Basically, every additional job performed by an immigrant is associated with more than one additional native working.  This relationship indicates that increases in immigrant employment are not damaging to natives but instead could produce a net benefit.  Correlation does not prove causation in this situation but the preliminary findings of this regression show that immigrant job gains are not correlated with net-job losses for natives.  It is likely that both immigrants and natives get jobs when the job market is growing – hardly a controversial result.

Additionally, a negative linear relationship was found between the native share of employment and the foreign-born share of employment (see Figure 1).  The negative slope indicates that an increase in the share of immigrants with jobs correlate with a decrease in the share of natives with jobs.  Although this may seem as though immigrant employment growth is injurious to native employment growth, this is not the case when compared with the immigrant share of population (see Figure 2).  If immigrants are a larger share of the population, we would expect them to occupy a larger share of jobs.  Since there is no fixed number of jobs in the economy, this finding does not suggest that immigrants take jobs from natives.   

Figures 1 and 2 are almost identical.  Taken together, the figures demonstrate the proportionality between the share of the immigration population and the share of jobs occupied by immigrants.  CIS’ main finding appears to be that the immigrant share of all jobs is about the same as their share of the entire U.S. population. 


Figure 1: Immigrant and Native Shares of Total Employment 1994-2014


Figure 2: Immigrant and Native Shares of Total Population 1994-2014



Employment and Unemployment Rates by Nativity

Employment and unemployment rates are not significantly different between native and immigrant workers.  The unemployment rate for immigrant workers aged 16-65 is higher than that for native workers of the same age (see Figure 3).  The employment rate for immigrant workers aged 16-65 is lower than for native workers of the same age (see Figure 4).  The findings show that, on average, an immigrant worker is less likely to be employed than a native worker, and this trend has held true for the 16-65 age bracket from 1994 to 2000.

CIS limited its analysis to natives and immigrants in the 16-65 age range.  However, when all persons over age 16 are analyzed, the employment rate for immigrants is slightly higher than the employment rate for natives (see Figure 5).  Despite the lower employment rate for natives in this case, the percentage difference between the two groups is small; for example, in December 2014, immigrants were only 4.6 percent more likely to be employed than natives.  

Looking at the over 65 age bracket for the years 1994-2000, the native employment rate was higher than the immigrant employment rate (see Figure 8).  The switchover occurred only in the years immediately after 2000.  Moreover, the recent employment rate difference seemingly favorable to immigrants can be explained by the demographic differences between native and immigrant populations.  The employment rate for workers over 65 is lower than that of other age groups, and immigrant populations tend to be younger than 65.  


Figure 3: Unemployment Rate by Nativity, 16-65


Figure 4: Employment Rate by Nativity, 16-65



Figure 5: Employment Rate by Nativity, All Ages



Figure 6: Unemployment Rate by Nativity All Foreign Born, 16-65


Figure 7:  Employment Rate by Nativity All Foreign Born, 16-65



Figure 8:  Employment Rate by Nativity All Foreign Born, All Ages

For those in the 16-65 age bracket, an increase in the unemployment rate of all foreign born by 1 corresponds with an increase in the unemployment rate of natives by 0.799.  The unemployment rates move in the same direction for both natives and the foreign born (see Figure 6).  An increase in the employment rate of all foreign born by 1 corresponds with an increase in the employment rate of natives by 0.345, again meaning that the two rates move in the same direction.  An increase in the employment rate for all foreign-born by 1 corresponds with an increase in the employment rate for natives by 0.279, again meaning that they move in the same direction.  If immigrants took the jobs of natives, we would not find that their levels of employment or unemployment move in the same direction.  

Different Time Periods and Populations

Below I make two major changes to augment the CIS results.  First, I compare CIS’ time period of 2000-2014 to the 20 year time period of 1994-2000. The year 2000 is a problematic year to begin this analysis because the unemployment rate was an abnormally low at 4 percent, the lowest over the 1994-2014 period when the CPS data is available and the lowest since 1969 when it stood at 3.5 percent.  Picking a year like 2000 with such a low unemployment rate will make subsequent years look bad by comparison.  Using 1994 as a start date for this analysis makes more sense because the unemployment rate in that year was 6.1 percent compared to 6.2 percent in 2014.  Using start and end years that have similar unemployment rates should allow an analysis to more easily judge the effect of immigration on native employment. 

Second, I include all workers who are 16 years old or older.  CIS excluded workers over the age of 65 who are now more likely to work than they were in the past.  To CIS’ credit, footnote 5 in their paper admits this omission but very few people reporting on these finding bothered to read the fine print – especially when the title of the paper is “All Employment Growth Since 2000 Went to Immigrants” (emphasis added).  CIS’ exclusion of the 65 year plus age portion of the American workforce biased their results against natives. 

The percentage of total jobs in the economy occupied by natives was 88.48 percent in 2000 and 83.25 percent in 2014.  For immigrants in 2000 and 2014 it was 12.17 percent and 16.90 percent, respectively.  That is a very small shift in the relative, not absolute, employment of these two big employment groups in the U.S. economy that is roughly parallel to their increase in the population.  When compared with each group’s share of the population, native-born Americans and immigrants maintain roughly proportional growth in shares of employment and population throughout the period (see figures 1 and 2).

Furthermore, the relative share of employment for the two groups reveals only a small shift in employment.  The native share of employment went from 90.03 percent in January 1994 to 83.25 percent in 2014 (see Figure 1), and the immigrant share of employment grew from 9.97 percent to 16.90 percent during the same time period.  Again, the change in the native and immigrant shares of employment corresponds with proportional changes in share of each group’s share of the population. 

The number of people older than 16 increased by 53.1 million between January 1994 and December 2014.  63.86 percent of this increase was native-born Americans, while 36.14 percent went to immigrants. Over that period, 53.3 percent of net job growth went to natives while 47.7 percent to immigrants.    

CIS’ Three Big Conclusions are False

CIS’ conclusions will be numbered.  My responses will follow.

1.  The long-term decline in employment for natives is a clear indication that there is no general labor shortage.

There is no evidence for a long-term decline in the number of natives employed.  The data indicates that between January 2000 and December 2014, there were two recession years (2009, 2010) that exhibited a significant decline in jobs. However, all other years saw increasing native employment.  Between January 2000 and December 2014, 5.19 million additional natives held jobs.  There is, however, strong evidence of declining labor force participation.  Between January 2000 and December 2014, native labor force participation saw a fairly steady decline from 64.01 percent to 58.46 percent, which was true both for recession and non-recession years.  So there isn’t a shortage of jobs, but there is a decreasing percentage of natives who want or are able to work.  CIS did not demonstrate that immigrants are the cause of that. 

14.4 million more natives held jobs in December 2014 than held jobs in January 1994.  From January 1994 to December 2014, native labor force participation steadily declined from 61.54 percent to 58.46 percent.

2.  The decline in work among natives over the last 14 years of high immigration is consistent with research showing that immigration reduces employment for natives.

The academic research about immigrant displacement of native born workers is thin and much of it demonstrates the opposite (see “Brief Literature Survey” above).  Interestingly, economist Robert Hall found much of the decrease in the U.S. labor force participation rate (LFPR) occurred for members of wealthier households while the LFPR increased for individuals in poorer households since 1999.  This directly contradicts CIS’ story that immigrant job competition is the cause of this decline in native employment opportunities and is consistent with the findings of the one of the few academic papers actually cited by CIS.  Lower-skilled immigrants can only really compete for jobs with young, uneducated, and low-skilled native-born workers (when there is any competition at all).  That younger, uneducated, and low-skilled native-workers in low-skilled households have increased their LFPRs in recent decades is evidence that little competition or job displacement even occurred. 

However, Salim Furth of the Heritage Foundation has challenged many of Hall’s findings.  Both Furth and Hall have found that teenagers in the lower half of the family income distribution have seen smaller declines in labor force participation compared to teenagers in the upper half of the family income distribution, excluding the effects of the Great Recession.  Furth rightly notes that more research is needed on this issue.      

The CIS report suggests that 2000 to 2014 was a period of high immigration, although the Census reveals that immigration during that period had slowed down compared to the previous decade.  Between 1990 and 2000, the immigrant population grew from 19.8 million to 31.1 million, an 11.3 million person increase that grew the size of the immigrant population by 57 percent.  From 2000 to 2010, the immigrant population grew from 31.1 million to about 40 million, an 8.9 million person increase that grew the size of the population by 29 percent – half of the previous decade.  The increase in the absolute number and relative percentage of immigrants in the first 10 years of the millennium was smaller than in the last decade of the 20th century. 

From the beginning of the Great Recession in 2007 to 2010, the immigrant population increased by 3.2 million.  From 2010 to 2013 the immigrant population increased by only 1.3 million – far below the average for any three-year period in recent decades.  The growth in the immigrant population is slowing dramatically but the job market is still poor.  Unsurprisingly, immigration is not an entirely exogenous shock; rather, it ebbs and flows based on American demand for immigrant workers. 

3.  Trends since 2000 challenge the argument that immigration on balance increases job opportunities for natives.  Over 17 million immigrants have arrived in the last 14 years, and native employment has declined.

CIS didn’t run a regression for the period 2000-2014, but if they did they would have found that an increase in noncitizen employment by 1 is correlated with an increase in native employment by 0.696.  That is not the result that we would expect if CIS’ conclusion was correct.  CIS did not identify an actual correlation between native job losses and immigrant employment gains.  There is nothing in CIS’ backgrounder that demonstrates that immigration causes native unemployment.    


Immigrants’ share of jobs is very similar to their share of the U.S. population.  That is not a surprising finding and it certainly doesn’t show that they are “taking all the jobs.”  On a bigger level, labor markets in every country are changing.  Labor’s share of GDP is declining even in countries that accept very few immigrants like Japan.  This trend will not change by radically decreasing the number or share of immigrants.  

Walter Olson

Montgomery County, Md., the suburban D.C. jurisdiction known for bans on polystyrene take-out trays, e-cigarette vaping, free bags at retail checkouts, and other disapproved elements of the mass-market economy, is now considering a ban on many common lawn and turf pesticides used by homeowners and commercial landscapers. Critics point out that since the safety of particular pesticides and their application is already comprehensively regulated at the federal and state level, the measure would put county lawmakers in the position of second-guessing safety determinations made by other, more scientifically expert levels of government. My favorite bit of the story, however, is this from yesterday’s Washington Post:

Opponents have aligned with soccer moms and dads concerned that playing field grass — also covered by the measure — will be less safe if it isn’t thickened with the help of traditional chemicals. They have an ally in County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), who wants to see [county athletic] fields exempted from the measure.

More details in a January report at BethesdaNow:

Montgomery County officials would like to see the county’s nearly 300 athletic fields exempt from a proposed ban of “non-essential” lawn care pesticides….

“We would expect declines in field quality and turf cover, higher maintenance costs, frequent field closures for renovation and decreased support in revenue,” [Parks Director Mike] Riley said.

If all this is being done for the children — and in government nowadays, what isn’t done for them? — then it would seem relevant that county athletic fields are exactly where you find children congregating in large numbers through much of the year. But notice instead how the county government is perfectly prepared to look out for its own interests for a host of plausible reasons that include maintenance expense, convenience and usability, and even safety and lawsuit risk (well-maintained turf is thought to reduce trip/fall hazards for players and resulting injuries). But private property owners won’t be allowed to invoke the same logic because, well, if they wanted kids to practice fast running moves on their lawns they should have deeded them over to the authorities for use as public parks or something.

Libertarians often note that the state freely bans private conduct in which it’s happy to indulge itself — federal investigators can lie to you but it’s a crime if you lie to them, adopting federal accounting practices in your own business is a good way to get sent to prison, and so forth. But the double standard asked for here could wind up being — well, to coin a phrase, as bald as a Rockville lawn.

Nicole Kaeding

Federal outlays in 2014 topped $3.5 trillion. Over the next ten years, federal outlays are expected to climb to $6.1 trillion. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) tries to keep tabs on some of the obvious waste in the vast federal budget. One of its efforts is an annual report highlighting areas of duplication, improper payments, and other types of inefficient spending.

Last week, GAO released a report analyzing whether or not Congress and the executive branch have followed their past recommendations. GAO said that only 29 percent of its recommendations have been fully addressed.

The report discusses a number of themes within previous duplication reports, but devotes a large section on the increasing problem of improper payments by federal agencies. The federal government spent an estimated $125 billion in 2014 on improper payments across 124 programs, an increase of 18 percent from 2013.

Twelve programs exceeded $1 billion in improper payments in 2014. These twelve programs account for 93 percent of all improper payments, with the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Medicare, and Medicaid comprising 76 percent.

GAO criticizes the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Treasury, which oversee Medicare and the EITC respectively, for failing to take the issue seriously enough. Both agencies were noncompliant with improper payment requirements for 2012, 2013, and 2014. The EITC’s error rate was greater than 10 percent in all three years. Medicare’s error rate exceeded 10 percent in 2013 and 2014.

The Congressional Budget Office predicts rapid growth in Medicare spending over the next decade, with spending increasing 89 percent from 2015 to 2025. HHS should do more to control improper payments.  Improper payments represented 10 percent of all Medicare spending in 2014. If HHS fails to control the problem and the error rate is constant, Medicare’s improper payments would be $118 billion in 2025.

GAO does not specify exact steps to reform these programs. It focuses its comments on “internal controls” and “auditor oversight.” Our solutions on for Medicare and the EITC are more dramatic than what GAO endorses, but everyone should agree that reducing improper payments is an important way to save taxpayer money.

Juan Carlos Hidalgo

A new political crisis is brewing in Venezuela as the economy continues its free fall, social unrest grows, and the government escalates its crackdown of the opposition. Two weeks ago, the mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, was arbitrarily arrested under spurious changes of planning a coup. Other leading figures of the opposition are being targeted by Nicolás Maduro’s regime and could be detained at any time.

Once again, the Venezuelan opposition, as well as international human rights organizations and former presidents from other Latin American countries, have demanded that the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), an intergovernmental organization of South American countries, take a stand on the situation in Venezuela. Well, it has. On several occasions, either the secretary general of UNASUR, Ernesto Samper, or the ministers of foreign relations who have been tasked with mediating the conflict, have unequivocally sided with Maduro’s regime.

After meeting with Maduro a few days ago, Samper said that “All the countries of UNASUR reject any attempt, domestic or external, to destabilize the stability and democratic tranquility of Venezuela. We have received evidence (of the attempts).” Ten days after Ledezma’s arrest, Ricardo Patiño, foreign minister of Ecuador and one of UNASUR “mediators” in Venezuela held a “solidarity event” for the Maduro regime, saying that “We are willing to travel to Venezuela as many times as necessary to collaborate with the elected government’s revolutionary authorities on behalf of Venezuelans, and contribute to stopping what presents itself as a new coup that we deem unacceptable.”

It’s pretty evident that UNASUR’ mission in Venezuela is to boost the government. Why is it then that some leaders of the Venezuelan opposition as well as other international actors still expect this organization to play a constructive role in the crisis?

But UNASUR’s part doesn’t end there. For some reason, despite its unambiguous statements in favor of Maduro’s regime, the organization has in the past been accepted as a mediator between the government and a sector of the opposition. As such, the UNASUR-mediated negotiations have had two effects: First, they have helped divide the opposition between those that recognize the futility of negotiating with a dictatorship and those that still believe they can get concessions from the government. Second, they have given the Maduro regime an opportunity to fool the world into believing that it’s willing to negotiate with the opposition. In addition, they have helped portray those who refuse to participate as “radicals.”    

Such is what happened after the arrest of Leopoldo López a year ago. López continues to languish in jail, the government diverted international pressure, and the opposition became as divided as ever between those who sat down to negotiate (“collaborationist,” according to those who refused to take part) and those who claimed it was a trap (“radicals,” according to those that accepted UNASUR’s mediation).

After the arrest of Ledezma, will the “moderate” elements of the opposition once again fall into the trap of accepting UNASUR’s offer to mediate?

Roger Pilon

Back in the late 1940s, when the modern welfare state was all but unopposed in America, a small band of conservatives and libertarians emerged from Yale University, “standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’” as the late William F. Buckley Jr. would later write. Following Buckley as editor of the Yale Daily News was another giant of what would become—in several variations today—the movement to oppose that state, M. Stanton Evans. A libertarian conservative in the mold of the National Review’s great fusionist, Frank S. Meyer, Stan died last week at the age of 80.

After leaving Yale, Stan worked with Leonard Reed, founder of the Foundation for Economic Education, serving briefly as assistant editor of the Freeman under Frank Chodorov and studying under Ludwig von Mises at NYU. Perhaps his most important early contribution, however, was as draftsman in 1960 of the Sharon Statement, the principles on which Young Americans for Freedom was founded, the first significant national conservative organization. That and more of Stan’s career was well covered last week by the New York Times: the youngest editor of a major daily in America, the Indianapolis News, where he served for 15 years; head of the American Conservative Union from 1971 to 1977, which joined Ed Crane, Eugene McCarthy, the ACLU, and others in Buckley v. Valeo, the seminal 1976 campaign finance decision; and founder and head from 1977 to 2002 of Washington’s National Journalism Center, which trained hundreds of now-noted journalists.

But apart from his many other accomplishments, including his several books, it was Stan’s humor and infectious personality that so many of us remember. George Will caught it perfectly in a Summer 2006 Cato’s Letter: “The Cato Institute understands the nature of the modern liberal,” Will wrote; “in the words of M. Stanton Evans, a modern liberal is someone who doesn’t care what you do as long as it’s compulsory.” Stan reveled in tweaking humorless liberals—“Any country that can land a man on the moon can abolish the income tax”—but he didn’t spare conservative either—“I never really cared for Nixon, until Watergate.”

As graduate students at the University of Chicago in the early 1970s, my wife Juliana and I had the great pleasure of entertaining Stan after the talk we’d invited him to give at the university. An early rock-‘n’-roller myself, I did not know what we were in for once Stan saw my guitar in the corner. It turned out he knew the words—and the beat—to every hit we could name—and the night was young! Whoever said conservatives were no fun didn’t know Stan.

K. William Watson

Some things are an inevitable part of every election season.  Without a doubt, every candidate running for President in 2016 will, for example, make unrealistic promises and pander to special interests.  They will also just as surely try to blame America’s perceived problems on a foreign menace.  For economic issues, China has become the overwhelming favorite as a target for these attacks now that blaming Japan and Mexico has gone out of style. 

In the 2012 election, the chief China-basher was Mitt Romney, who transformed himself into a mercantilist and promised to be tough on Chinese currency manipulation.  Republicans running for Congress that year had a similar predisposition, and Pete Hoekstra certainly deserves an award for running the most tasteless anti-China ad.  In 2014, it was the Democrats’ turn to blame China on the campaign trail for stealing American jobs.

Now we’re getting a taste of how China bashing will play out in the 2016 election.  According to Politico, Mike Huckabee has started talking about the Chinese menace in Iowa.

He complained that American wages have been stagnant since Chinese trade agreements went into effect over the past few decades.

“People are working hard, and they have less to show for it,” he said. “We need to quit apologizing for being America, and we need to start making it so that Americans can prosper and not just so that the Chinese can buy Louis Vuitton and Gucci bags.”

The comments came in response to questions about why the government has kept the embargo in place against Cuba, even as trade barriers with China have been lifted.

“We have basically surrendered to the Chinese market,” Huckabee said. “We’ve not put the pressure on them.”

Aside from pandering to xenophobia, these kinds of comments are distressing because they demonstrate a willingness to vilify normal economic activity.  Huckabee describes trade as “the Chinese” fighting a battle against the U.S. economy in pursuit of frivolous luxury.

I suppose some rhetorical license should be granted to candidates who need to package their policies in a way that appeals to the most people.  So maybe instead of “surrendered to the Chinese market,” Gov. Huckabee meant to say that the United States government has lowered taxes on American consumers and businesses.  And maybe instead of “Louis Vuitton and Gucci bags,” he meant clothes, food, and medicine.

And maybe, just maybe, when he says “we need to start making it so that Americans can prosper,” he means the government should stay out of the way of mutually beneficial commercial activity and stop protecting politically powerful industries from consumer demand for innovative and affordable products and services.

Maybe Mike Huckabee or some of the other candidates will even remember that a majority of Americans in both major parties think that trade is good for the United States.

Doug Bandow

While the Obama administration lectures Europe about the latter’s fiscal policies, Washington continues to run deficits. The problem is bipartisan. When George W. Bush took office, the national debt was $5.8 trillion. When Barack Obama took over, it was $11.9 trillion. Now it is $18.2 trillion.

These numbers will look like the “good ole’ days” when the entitlement tsunami hits in coming years. Economist Laurence Kotlikoff figures total unfunded liabilities today run about $200 trillion.

It long has been obvious that the American political system is biased toward spending. Public choice economics explains how government agencies have interests and why spending lobbies so often prevail over the public.

Congress demonstrates a “culture of spending” in which members tend to back higher expenditures the longer they serve. Washington richly rewards legislators for “growing” in office and joining the bipartisan Big Government coalition.

Some analysts still hope that electing the “right people” will fix the system. But without creating some institutional barriers to political plunder the system will continue to produce the same overall results, despite slight differences in exactly how much is spent on whom and when.

The late William Niskanen proposed a measure that was simple and impossible to game. Niskanen, acting Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Ronald Reagan, left that position to become Chairman of the Cato Institute.

Two decades ago Niskanen proposed a simple 125-word amendment requiring a three-fifths vote to increase the debt limit or raise taxes and federal compensation to states and localities for any mandates. These provisions would be suspended in the event of a declaration of war. “Nothing has changed in the interim to render Niskanen’s proposal obsolete or impractical,” noted Lawrence Hunter of the Social Security Institute in a new study for the Carleson Center for Welfare Reform.

The measure would put taxing and borrowing on a level playing field, eliminating the current bias for piling up debt. Moreover, the three-fifths requirement would make it easier for legislators to reconsider outlays than to collect more money to waste. This would create a useful corrective for the pervasive pro-spending bias built into the system today.

However, it has become evident that the Senate filibuster, with a three-fifths rule, has proved to be only a limited impediment to the growth of government. Thus, the required super-majority should be two-thirds. Wrote Hunter, experience makes clear that the three-fifths requirement is “not sufficiently stringent to overcome the enormous bias in the legislative process.”

Moreover, Hunter noted that Congress has subverted the debt limit by effectively setting a floating number “suspended” to accommodate whatever amount Congress ends up spending. Thus, he proposed that the Niskanen Amendment be updated to explicitly restrict any suspension to no more than 30 days per Congress, and require the same super-majority vote to suspend the limit.

Finally, Hunter proposed prioritizing spending in the event that borrowing hits the debt ceiling. Hunter would set repayment of the national debt, both principal and interest, as the top priority to eliminate any possibility of default. Then Washington would repay Social Security recipients to prevent big spenders from threatening retirees’ livelihoods.

Congress must again address the debt limit by the Ides of March. It would be a good time to push the Niskanen Amendment. Equally important, any debt increase should include language prioritizing payments with existing funds. Let President Barack Obama threaten to veto a debt measure because it includes language requiring him to pay the most important claims first.

While it would be hard to reject a debt limit increase for spending already approved, congressional Republicans should begin preparing for the next debt fight. As I point out in American Spectator online: “The only hope for reducing the growth in federal debt is to create institutional barriers to its growth. Otherwise the red ink likely will rise until Uncle Sam is both insolvent and bankrupt.”

Neal McCluskey

In a Washington Post op-ed laying out his thoughts on the federal role in education, Gov. Jeb Bush wrote, “We are long overdue in setting the lines of authority so clearly.” Alas, the lines he offered would furnish just the sort of “clarity” that has led to nearly limitless federal control over schooling without any meaningful evidence of lasting improvement.

The true heart of what Bush wrote was not his declaration about setting lines, but the three justifications he offered for federal intervention. Washington, he wrote:

should work to create transparency so that parents can see how their local schools measure up; it should support policies that have a proven record; and it should make sure states can’t ignore students who need extra help.

All of this is what has gotten us to the de facto state of federal control we are currently in:

  • “Transparency” has come to mean federally driven tests and curriculum standards – the Common Core – because under No Child Left Behind states had been defining “proficiency” for themselves, and it wasn’t sufficiently “transparent” for some people whether “proficient” kids in Mississippi were as educated as those in Massachusetts. Of course, you can’t have much more complete federal control than Washington deciding what students are taught.
  • Supporting policies with “a proven record” opens the door for any policies politicians declare “proven.” See, for instance, the rhetoric vs. the reality of pre-K education programs.
  • Making sure states “can’t ignore students who need extra help” has also been used to justify national standards and tests. Indeed, it underlies everything Washington does. Sayeth federal politicians, “Some groups aren’t doing so well, and since we spend money to end that we’d better dictate terms. So let’s connect to all that money to school nutrition guidelines, teacher evaluations, English and math content, school opening times…”

Quite simply, in setting his lines, Gov. Bush set no lines. Thankfully for him, lines of federal authority have already been drawn. Indeed, they were set centuries ago: the Constitution gives the federal government no authority to impose transparency, offer help, or anything other than prohibit discrimination by state and local governments and govern federal lands.

As I’ve noted before, obeying the Constitution would save folks like Gov. Bush a lot of reinventing work. More importantly, it would save everyone else expensive, ineffectual trouble.

Kat Murti

Somewhere between 30 and 40 million Americans hold libertarian views. Are you one of them? Take this quiz — excerpted from David Boaz’s new book The Libertarian Mind: A Manifesto for Freedom — and find out just how libertarian you really are! 

The quiz launched just over a week ago and almost 30,000 people have already taken it. Have you? Use #LibertarianMind to share your results on social media, tag your friends, and see how they measure up!

Of course, the quiz represents a very simplified version of libertarian principles and very few people will have “perfect scores” in any one direction, but it’s a great way to open up a discussion with friends and family.  If that discussion leads to more curiosity about libertarianism and its principles, point them in our direction…or give them a their very own copy of The Libertarian Mind!

Haven’t had a chance to read The Libertarian Mind yet? We have a limited number of copies to give away. Take the quiz to learn the details! You can also follow The Libertarian Mind on Facebook for news on the book, media appearances, and more. 

Steve H. Hanke

In my misery index, I calculate a ranking for all countries where suitable data exist. The misery index — a simple sum of inflation, lending rates, and unemployment rates, minus year-on-year per capita GDP growth — is used to construct a ranking for 108 countries. The table below is a sub-index of all Middle East and North African (MENA) countries presented in the world misery index.

A higher score in the misery index means that the country, and its constituents, are more miserable. Indeed, this is a table where you do not want to be first.

Syria and Iran were the most miserable in the region. War and sanctions have taken their toll. Bahrain and Kuwait are at the other end of the spectrum, with low (read: good) misery index scores.

Two points worth noting are somewhat related. First, the majority of countries in MENA have elevated misery index scores – scores above twenty. These poor scores indicate structural problems that require serious economic reforms. The second point, as indicated in the notes to the table, is that the governments in eight MENA countries were not even capable of producing the basic data required to calculate a misery index score. This represents government failure and suggests a lack of capacity to implement structural economic reforms.

Ilya Shapiro

Two years ago in United States v. Windsor, the Supreme Court held that the Constitution forbids the federal government from treating same-sex marriages differently than opposite-sex marriages. The Court’s majority, writing through Justice Anthony Kennedy, recognized that discriminating against lawfully wed same-sex couples violates the Fifth Amendment’s “prohibition against denying to any person the equal protection of the laws,” a prohibition which the “equal protection guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment makes … all the more specific and all the better understood and preserved.” Because Windsor challenged only the federal Defense of Marriage Act, no state marriage laws were directly affected.

Given the Court’s broad language, however—especially its direct reference to the Equal Protection Clause—many (including Justice Antonin Scalia in dissent) predicted that the opinion’s reasoning would eventually be used to strike down state laws and constitutional provisions that deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples. They were right. Windsor served as the basis for dozens of challenges to marriage laws across the country, initially resulting in an unbroken series of victories for marriage equality in federal courts, which the Supreme Court declined to review.

Finally, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (which covers Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee) issued a contrary ruling, holding that “the people who adopted the Fourteenth Amendment understood it to require the States to change the definition of marriage.” The Supreme Court could thus no longer delay taking up the marriage debate.

Cato has accordingly filed what will almost certainly be our final brief on this issue. Joining with noted originalist scholar (and Federalist Society co-founder) Steven Calabresi and Yale law professor William Eskridge—one of the leading experts on American legal history—we urge the Court to reverse the Sixth Circuit’s decision and finally fulfill the Constitution’s promise of equal protection under law to millions of gay Americans and their children.

We argue that the lower court’s ruling was inconsistent with the original meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The fact that the provision’s ratifiers didn’t automatically or explicitly understand that it would eventually require states to recognize same-sex marriages is irrelevant; all that matters is what it meant in 1868 for a state to “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” As our brief shows, this language was based on similar language in state constitutions and was widely (and properly) understood as prohibiting the states from passing what’s known as “caste” legislation—laws that create “second-class” citizens with inferior legal rights. While some jurists and academics have argued that the Equal Protection Clause only prohibits discrimination on the basis of race—and not, say, gender, religion, national origin, or sexual orientation—this is an ahistorical view that ignores mountains of evidence to the contrary.

The framers of the Fourteenth Amendment explicitly rejected earlier versions of the clause that would have restricted it to prohibiting race-based discrimination. Instead, they adopted language that “establishes equality before the law, and … gives to the humblest, the poorest, and most despised … the same rights and the same protection before the law as it gives to the most powerful, the most wealthy, or the most haughty” and “abolishes all class legislation in the States and does away with the injustice of subjecting one caste of persons to a code not applicable to another.”

Essentially, the Equal Protection Clause means, in 1868 as in 2015, exactly what it says: states cannot have one set of laws for the rich and another for the poor, separate schools for white and black students, or marriage licenses only for opposite-sex couples.

The Supreme Court will hear the consolidated marriage cases under the name Obergefell v. Hodges on April 28, with a ruling expected by the end of June.

Tim Lynch

Over at Cato’s Police Misconduct website, we have identified the worst case for the month of February.

Back on July 4, 2013, San Antonio Police Department Officer Daniel Lopez held his own wife and children at gunpoint, striking his wife in the head with his gun, and had a 20-minute standoff with police before surrendering. Last month, his case finally went to court, where a deal with prosecutors resulted in him pleading no contest to a misdemeanor charge of “disorderly conduct.” For the offense, he was sentenced to just one day of probation and ordered to pay a $100 fine. 

According to one news report, “The plea deal struck out any reference to a gun or family violence.” As a result, Lopez will retain his peace officer’s license whether or not the San Antonio Police Department terminates his employment. 

Are police officers treated the same as everyone else, or are they accorded special treatment? Read the news story and decide for yourself. 

Doug Bandow

Russian President Vladimir Putin has reached out to one of the poorest and least predictable states on earth: North Korea. So far, the new Moscow-Pyongyang axis matters little. But the effort demonstrates that Russia can make Washington pay for confronting Moscow over Ukraine.

The United States and the Soviet Union divided the Korean peninsula at the end of World War II. Moscow’s zone became the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, better known as North Korea, while the U.S. zone became the Republic of Korea, better known as South Korea. But North Korea denounced Moscow in 1991 after it recognized South Korea. Since then, Russo-North Korean relations have been minimal.

In contrast, Seoul provided investment and trade in abundance. After President Vladimir Putin held a summit with South Korean President Park, Russia leaned toward Seoul in denouncing the North’s missile and nuclear programs.

However, Moscow is rebalancing its position. Last year North Korea and Russia exchanged high-level visitors and inked a number of economic agreements. Russia indicated its willingness to host a summit. Both governments talked of “deepening” economic and political ties.

Although Russia’s North Korea initiatives are new, the interests being promoting are old: regional stability, denuclearization, improved transportation links, expanded commercial and energy activities, and enhanced diplomatic clout.

So far Moscow has invested little. There is no aid. Last year the Russian government formally wrote off $11 billion in Soviet-era loans, which were never going to be repaid.

As for security, the Putin government is focused elsewhere. Joint military maneuvers with North Korea are planned for later this year, but no one imagines the two countries will ever fight together. Pyongyang wants to purchase Moscow’s best fighter, the Su-35, but has little money to do so.

Pyongyang desires to diversify its international relationships and find a counterweight to Beijing. The Chinese have grown increasingly irritated with North Korea’s determination to build nuclear weapons and refusal to adopt meaningful economic reforms.

Thus, North Korea hopes for Russian investment and trade. The North would welcome another friend on the United Nations Security Council whenever nuclear and human rights issues arise.

For Moscow, North Korea offers some economic possibilities, but the latter’s poverty and unpredictability reduce its attractiveness as a market. Instead, Russia’s chief economic interest in the North is as a transit route—rail, gas, and electricity—to South Korea. In this way the Putin government is interested in north Korea, not North Korea.

As U.S.-Russia relations have deteriorated, especially after events in Ukraine over the last year, Moscow has been looking for other fields to compete with the United States. Pressing for resumption of the Six-Party Talks, intended to peacefully resolve concerns about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, raises Moscow’s diplomatic profile and applies pressure to the United States.

Russia is also applying subtle pressure on Seoul, encouraging it to distance itself from U.S. policy toward Moscow. The Putin government does not expect the South to formally break with America, but would benefit from a less enthusiastic application of U.S.-led sanctions.

Russia also is interfering with Washington’s attempt to isolate and pressure the North. Enhanced economic ties between Moscow and Pyongyang would reduce the effects of existing sanctions and make Moscow less receptive to new U.S. proposals to tighten controls on North Korea.

The Putin government could do more to upend the Korean balance. However, so far the Russo-North Korean performance is largely international Kabuki theater. Greater Russian interest in North Korea will hinder Washington’s efforts to force North Korea to relent. But China was not going to allow that to happen and the Kim regime was not planning to negotiate away its nuclear weapons.

However, as I point out in the National Interest, “Russia’s attention to Pyongyang should remind Washington that Moscow matters to the U.S. Ukraine is of little security interest to America, but Russia may respond to U.S. pressure there by targeting more serious Washington interests elsewhere, such as Iran, Afghanistan, and Korea.”

So far, Moscow has exacted only a small price for U.S. opposition. But the expense could grow. The Obama administration should carefully consider the costs before engaging in a new Cold War with Russia.

Charles Hughes

As previous Cato work has shown, our current welfare system fails us in a number of ways. It is both overly complex and inefficient: over 100 different programs spend roughly $1 trillion each year yet do relatively little to actually lift people out of poverty. In some cases, the overlapping programs can create “poverty traps” that make it harder for people to climb the economic ladder.

Despite many warnings about the welfare system’s underwhelming performance, reform remains elusive. While there are encouraging signs that some policymakers are taking the issue seriously, reform ideas have not yet gained significant traction or translated into concrete policy change.

Each year of inaction comes with a heavy price tag: another trillion dollars spent with very little to show for it. After the relatively successful welfare reform of 1996, the welfare system in the United States has largely been on autopilot. Annual spending continues to increase with few efforts to address or even identify the many problems still present.

In contrast, in Australia a new comprehensive review of its welfare system shows the country is earnestly grappling with this issue and seeking real solutions. Their efforts are an encouraging sign that broad, substantive welfare reform is still possible.

Last week, Australian Social Services Minister Scott Morrison released the final report from a group commissioned to provide an in-depth review of Australia’s welfare system. The authors identify many of the same problems found in the antipoverty programs in the United States. The ad hoc development of the dozens of programs that make up a “patchwork quilt” welfare system leads to “unintended complexities, inconsistencies and incoherencies” and “does not provide clear rewards for work.”

Too often, beneficiaries who can work do not, either because doing so would disqualify them from disability programs or because the welfare system creates perverse incentives where additional earnings actually leave them worse off. As more beneficiaries are relegated to the economic sidelines, their likelihood of long-term dependency increases, exacerbating the fiscal burden of the welfare system. Welfare expenditures already account for a significant portion of government spending in Australia, and will only increase in the future barring substantive change. Those realizations have lent a sense of urgency to reform efforts in Australia that hasn’t been seen in this country in the 21st century.

Recognizing the Australian welfare system’s pressing problems, the report’s authors recommend making welfare simpler, the rewards to work easier to understand, and the transition from welfare to work smoother. They propose consolidating the 20 income support payment types and 55 supplementary payments that Australia offers to just five payment streams. Able-bodied working-age adults would only be eligible for two. Beneficiaries with disabilities would be able to work to their fullest capacity without being disqualified.

The authors also propose a new major initiative, the Passport to Work, that would support beneficiaries in their transition to work by making it “clear to recipients how their income support package would be affected when moving into work or increasing hours and what would happen if work reduces or ends.”

This in-depth review identifies the many significant problems with the “patchwork quilt” welfare system in Australia and offers a way forward that would make it more efficient and improve the lives of its beneficiaries.

Whether these recommendations lead to real reform remains to be seen. But the government’s decision to commission this report signals a willingness to address these many problems, and the recommendations have a substantial amount of support among policymakers like the social services minister. The Australian experience so far shows that they are facing up to the serious shortcomings of their welfare system and trying to address them in a comprehensive way, which could serve as a valuable lesson for the United States.

Jeffrey Miron

Since 2009, the federal government has spent about $30 billion to encourage the adoption of Electronic Medical Records. So how is that working out? This story from NPR sheds some light:

Technology entrepreneur Jonathan Bush says he was recently watching a patient move from a hospital to a nursing home. The patient’s information was in an electronic medical record, or EMR. And getting the patient’s records from the hospital to the nursing home, Bush says, wasn’t exactly drag and drop.

“These two guys then type—I kid you not—the printout from the brand new EMR into their EMR, so that their fax server can fax it to the bloody nursing home,” Bush says.

In an era when most industries easily share big, complicated digital files, health care still leans hard on paper printouts and fax machines. The American taxpayer has funded the installation of electronic records systems in hospitals and doctors’ offices—to the tune of$30 billion since 2009. While those systems are supposed to make health care better and more efficient, most of them can’t talk to each other.

Bush lays a lot of blame for that at the feet of this federal financing.

“I called it the ‘Cash for Clunkers’ bill,” he says. “It gave $30 billion to buy the very pre-internet systems that all of the doctors and hospitals had already looked at and rejected,” he says. “And the vendors of those systems were about to die. And then they got put on life support by this bill that pays you billions of dollars, and didn’t get you any coordination of information!”

The story illustrates a classic difference betwen interventionists and libertarians. Interventionists think, “EMRs are good, so we should subsidize or mandate them.” Libertarians think, “EMRs appear to be good; if so, the market will adopt them on its own.”

The federal government’s response is truly disheartening. According to Dr. Karen DeSalvo, acting assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,

“The time of letting a thousand flowers bloom, and having a set of standards that are quite variable, should come to an end… We should be working off the same set of standards.”

It is plausible that a common standard will facilitate communication between different medical providers, but the question is how we get there: via the “wisdom” of government or the wisdom of the market. The EMR saga suggests a clear answer.

Michael F. Cannon

During oral arguments in King v. Burwell yesterday, Justice Anthony Kennedy expressed skepticism about the government’s claim that the Supreme Court should defer to the IRS’s interpretation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as allowing certain taxes and subsidies in all states, when the statute authorizes those measures only in states that have an “Exchange established by the State.” Specifically, Kennedy expressed skepticism that the IRS interpretation was eligible for so-called Chevron deference, telling Solicitor General Donald Verrilli:

And it seems to me a little odd that the director of Internal Revenue didn’t identify this problem if it’s ambiguous and advise Congress it was.

Actually, the IRS commissioner did tell Congress the statute was ambiguous.

IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman

In August 2012, IRS commissioner Douglas Shulman testified before Congress. The hearing was largely devoted to the very IRS rule now before the Supreme Court. Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.) interrogated Shulman, in relevant part:

Dr. DESJARLAIS. Do you agree that when authorizing these premium assistance tax credits the Internal Revenue Code, Section 36B, explicitly refers to health insurance exchanges established by the States under Section 1311?

Mr. SHULMAN. I think 36B has some contradictory language in it.


Mr. SHULMAN. I very much agree with you that there is some contradictory language…

Dr. DESJARLAIS. You are not agreeing with me. I don’t think it is ambiguous, sir. I don’t think it is ambiguous. I think it is very clear.

This is notable for a few reasons.

First, the head of the IRS testified to Congress that there is in fact language in the Act that contradicts government’s argument before the Supreme Court in King v. Burwell that the statute unambiguously authorizes the disputed taxes and subsidies in states with federal Exchanges.

Second, neither the IRS’s the proposed rule nor its final rule claimed the statute was either clear or ambiguous on this question.

Third, the proposed and final rules identified no statutory support at all for the IRS’s interpretation.

Fourth, the IRS commissioner made this concession before the IRS rule had been challenged in court. The hearing was in August 2012, and the first challenge was filed in September 2012.

Fifth and consequent(ial)ly, this evidence further demonstrates the government’s arguments in King are post-hoc rationalizations for a rule promulgated without reasoned decision-making.

Ilya Shapiro and Julio Colomba

Sue Evenwel is a citizen of the United States and of the state of Texas. She is a registered voter in Titus County and regularly votes in local and state elections. How is it, then, that Ms. Evenwel’s vote in a Texas state senate race is worth only about half that of certain other voters? The answer lies somewhere at the intersection of bad law and even worse politics that the modern Voting Rights Act has become. 

The VRA, as you may recall, was the heroic civil rights legislation that finally put a stop to the most blatant and invidious forms of racial discrimination impairing the fundamental right of racial minorities to vote. It has been several decades now since this important and proud work but now, sadly, the heroic VRA has lived long enough to see itself become a villain. As Cato has warned before—in our amicus briefs in Perry v. Perez and Shelby County v. Holder—the courts are at a “bloody crossroads” when interpreting what have become the conflicting mandates of the VRA.  To give one example, the courts have found that Section 2 requires race-based redistricting to prevent loss of minority voting power, while at the same time, the Fifteenth Amendment (and the currently inoperable VRA Section 5) prohibits discrimination in voting on the basis of race.

The conflicts go on: as Ms. Evenwel’s case demonstrates, Section 2’s requirements clash with the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal-protection guarantee. In response to the pressures of satisfying Section 2, Texas adopted a court-drawn, interim redistricting plan for state senate districts. To ensure that racial minorities’ voting power isn’t diluted, however, the plan instead dilutes the voting power of rural voters by equalizing “total population” among districts instead of using the “citizens of voting age population” (CVAP) metric. The result of this choice is that the high number of non-voting-eligible immigrants—whether legal or illegal—in Texas’s urban centers wildly inflates the voting power of the relatively fewer eligible voters who also reside in those urban districts.

This is not just a distortion of American democracy; it’s a distortion of the “One Person, One Vote” principle inherent in the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause. The Supreme Court has said before that voting districts should be as close in voting population as is feasible to protect the equal right to vote. Thanks to outmoded judicial interpretations of the VRA, the Court should now have another chance to explain what that means.

Evenwel and other Texas voters whose votes have been rendered “less equal” by Texas’s districting plan are standing up for their rights by appealing an unfavorable district court (special panel) ruling to the Supreme Court. Cato and the Reason Foundation have filed an amicus brief supporting their appeal. At this stage, the Court only needs to find that the plaintiffs have presented a substantial question for review, so our brief explains why the question presented is such an important one for the Court to decide. We explain: (1) how Section 2 and the Fourteenth Amendment’s “One Person, One Vote” principle are in conflict, (2) that recent immigration patterns have made it constitutionally problematic to use “total population” and not CVAP, and (3) that it’s inappropriate for courts to defer the choice of population metric when that choice jeopardizes the fundamental right of every citizen to an equal vote.

The Supreme Court will decide whether to take the case of Evenwel v. Abbott at some point before it breaks for the summer.

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

The Current Wisdom is a series of monthly articles in which Patrick J. Michaels, director of the Center for the Study of Science, reviews interesting items on global warming in the scientific literature that may not have received the media attention that they deserved, or have been misinterpreted in the popular press.

Did human-caused climate change lead to war in Syria?

Based only on the mainstream press headlines, you almost certainly would think so.

Reading further into the articles where the case is laid out, a few caveats appear, but the chain of events seems strong.

The mechanism? An extreme drought in the Fertile Crescent region—one that a new study finds was made worse by human greenhouse gas emissions—added a spark to the tinderbox of tensions that had been amassing in Syria for a number of years under the Assad regime (including poor water management policies).

It is not until you dig pretty deep into the technical scientific literature, that you find out that the anthropogenic climate change impact on drought conditions in the Fertile Crescent is extremely minimal and tenuous—so much so that it is debatable as to whether it is detectable at all.

This is not to say that a strong and prolonged drought didn’t play some role in the Syria’s pre-war unrest—perhaps it did, perhaps it didn’t (a debate we leave up to folks much more qualified than we are on the topic)—but that the human-influenced climate change impact on the drought conditions was almost certainly too small to have mattered.

In other words, the violence would almost certainly have occurred anyway.

Several tidbits buried in the scientific literature are relevant to assessing the human impact on the meteorology behind recent drought conditions there.

It is true that climate models do project a general drying trend in the Mediterranean region (including the Fertile Crescent region in the Eastern Mediterranean) as the climate warms under increasing greenhouse gas concentrations.  There are two components to the projected drying. The first is a northward expansion of the subtropical high pressure system that typically dominates the southern portion of the region. This poleward expansion of the high pressure system would act to shunt wintertime storm systems northward, increasing precipitation over Europe but decreasing precipitation across the Mediterranean.  The second component is an increase in the temperature which would lead to increased evaporation and enhanced drying.

Our analysis will show that the connection between this drought and human-induced climate change is tenuous at best,  and tendentious at worst.

An analysis in the new headline-generating paper by Colin Kelley and colleagues that just appeared in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences shows the observed trend in the sea level pressure across the eastern Mediterranean as well as the trend projected to have taken place there by a collection of climate models. We reproduce this graphic as Figure 1.  If the subtropical high is expanding northward over the region, the sea level pressure ought to be on the rise. Indeed, the climate models (bottom panel) project a rise in the surface pressure over the 20th century (blue portion of the curve) and predict even more of a rise into the future (red portion of the curve). However, the observations (top panel, green line) do not corroborate the model hypothesis under the normative rules of science. Ignoring the confusing horizontal lines included by the authors, several things are obvious. First, the level of natural variability is such that no overall trend is readily apparent.

[Note: The authors identify an upwards trend in the observations and describe it as being “marginally significant (P < 0.14)”. In  nobody’s book  (except, we guess, these authors) is a P-value of 0.14 “marginally significant”—it is widely accepted in the scientific literature that P-values must be less than 0.05 for them to be considered statistically significant (i.e., there is a less than 1 in 20 chance that chance alone would produce a similar result). That’s normative science. We’ve seen some rather rare cases where authors attached the term “marginally” significant to P-values up to 0.10, but 0.14 (about a 1 in 7 chance that chance didn’t produce it) is taking things a bit far, hence our previous usage of the word “tendentious.”]

Whether  or not there is an identifiable overall upwards trend, the barometric pressure in  the region during the last decade of the record (when the Syrian drought took place) is not at all unusual when compared to other periods  in the region’s pressure history—including periods that took place long before large-scale greenhouse gas emissions were taking place.

Consequently,  there is little in the pressure record to lend credence to the notion that human-induced climate change played a significant role in the region’s recent drought.



Figure 1. Observed (top) and modeled (bottom) sea level pressure for the Eastern Mediterranean region (figure adapted from Kelley et al., 2015).

Another clue that the human impact on the recent drought was minimal (at best) comes from a 2012 paper in the Journal of Climate by Martin Hoerling and colleagues. In that paper, Hoerling et al. concluded that about half of the trend towards late-20th century dry conditions in the Mediterranean region was potentially attributable to human emissions of greenhouse gases and aerosols.   They found that climate models run with increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases and aerosols produce drying across the Mediterranean region in general. However, the subregional patterns of the drying are sensitive to the patterns of sea surface temperature (SST) variability and change. Alas, the patterns of SST changes are quite different in reality than they were projected to be by the climate models. Hoerling et al. describe the differences this way “In general, the observed SST differences have stronger meridional [North-South] contrast between the tropics and NH extratropics and also a stronger zonal [East-West] contrast between the Indian Ocean and the tropical Pacific Ocean.”

Figure 2 shows visually what Hoerling was describing—the observed SST change (top) along with the model projected changes (bottom) for the period 1971-2010 minus 1902-1970. Note the complexity that accompanies reality. 


Figure 2. Cold season (November–April) sea surface temperature departures (°C) for the period 1971–2010 minus 1902–70: (top) observed and (bottom) mean from climate model projections (from Hoerling et al., 2012).

Hoerling et al. show that in the Fertile Crescent region, the drying produced by climate models is particularly enhanced (by some 2-3 times) if the observed patterns of sea surface temperatures are incorporated into the models rather than patterns that would otherwise be projected by the models (i.e., the top portion of Figure 2 is used to drive the model output rather than the bottom portion).

Let’s be clear here.  The models were unable to accurately reproduce the patterns of SST that have been observed as greenhouse gas concentrations increased.  So the observed data were substituted for the predicted value, and then that was used to generate forecasts of changed rainfall.  We can’t emphasize this enough: what was not supposed to happen from climate change was forced into the models that then synthesized rainfall.

Figure 3 shows these results and Figure 4 shows what has been observed. Note that even using the prescribed SST, the model predicted changes in Figure 3 (lower panel) are only about half as much as has been observed to have taken place in the region around Syria (Figure 4, note scale difference). This leaves the other half of the moisture decline largely unexplained.  From Figure 3 (top), you can also see that only about 10mm out of more than 60mm of observed precipitation decline around Syria during the cold season is “consistent with” human-caused climate change as predicted by climate models left to their own devices.

Nor does “consistent with” mean “caused by” it.

Figure 3. Simulated change in cold season precipitation (mm) over the Mediterranean region based on the ensemble average (top) of 22 IPCC models run with observed emissions of greenhouse gases and aerosols and (bottom) of 40 models run with observed emissions of greenhouse gases and aerosols with prescribed sea surface temperatures. The difference plots in the panels are for the period 1971–2010 minus 1902–70 (source: Hoerling et al., 2012).

For comparative purposes, according to the University of East Anglia climate history, the average cold-season rainfall in Syria is 261mm (10.28 inches).  Climate models, when left to their own devices,  predict a decline averaging about 10mm, or 3.8 per cent of the total.  When “prescribed” (some would use the word “fudged”) sea surface temperatures are substituted for their wrong numbers, the decline in rainfall goes up to a whopping 24mm, or 9.1 per cent of the total.  For additional comparative purposes, population has roughly tripled in the last three decades.


Figure 4. Observed change in cold season precipitation for the period 1971–2010 minus 1902–70. Anomalies (mm) are relative to the 1902–2010 (source: Hoerling et al., 2012).

So what you are left with after carefully comparing the patterns of observed changes in the meteorology and climatology of Syria and the Fertile Crescent region to those produced by climate models, is that the lion’s share of the observed changes are left unexplained by the models run with increasing greenhouse gases. Lacking a better explanation, these unexplained changes get chalked up to “natural variability”—and natural variability dominates the observed climate history.

You wouldn’t come to this conclusion from the cursory treatment of climate that is afforded in the mainstream press.  It requires an examination of scientific literature and a good background and understanding of the rather technical research being discussed. Like all issues related to climate change, the devil is in the details, and, in the haste to produce attention grabbing headlines, the details often get glossed over or dismissed.

Our bottom line: the identifiable influence of human-caused climate change on recent drought conditions in the Fertile Crescent was almost certainly not the so-called straw that broke the camel’s back and led to the outbreak of conflict in Syria. The pre-existing (political) climate in the region was plenty hot enough for a conflict to ignite, perhaps partly fuelled by recent drought conditions—conditions which are part and parcel of the region climate and the intensity and frequency of which remain dominated by natural variability, even in this era of increasing greenhouse gas emissions  from human activities.


Hoerling, M., et al., 2012. On the increased frequency of Mediterranean drought. Journal of Climate, 25, 2146-2161.

Kelley, C. P., et al., 2015. Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, doi:10.1073/pnas.1421533112

Walter Olson

Confirming expectations, the U.S. Department of Justice has announced that it will not file federal civil rights charges against the police officer who shot Michael Brown following a confrontation on the streets of Ferguson, Mo. Contrary to a visual theme repeated before countless news cameras through weeks of protests, “no, Michael Brown’s hands probably were not up” at the time of the shooting. In the end, “Hands Up — Don’t Shoot” 2014’s iconic protest gesture, was founded in the self-serving, oft-repeated eyewitness account of Brown chum/soon-established-robbery-accomplice Dorrian Johnson. And he was credible why?

At the same time, the report released yesterday by the U.S. Department of Justice makes clear that the Ferguson, Mo. police department was up to its hip in bad practices, ranging from the rights-violative (knowingly baseless arrests and stops, arresting persons for recording police actions) to the cynical (“revenue policing” aimed at squeezing money out of the populace over subjective/petty offenses that include “manner of walking.”)

Whether these bad local police practices are a suitable subject for federal oversight, and where the actually existing U.S. Department of Justice gets off complaining about high-handed and revenue-driven law enforcement given its own sorry track record, are other questions. But any view of Ferguson’s troubles in the back-view mirror should now acknowledge two things: 1) many people rushed to assume Officer Darren Wilson’s guilt who should have known better; 2) even so, there was much to protest in Ferguson law enforcement.

In recent months, libertarians who took an interest in the Ferguson events and sympathetically noted the grievances of local residents have been sniped at from a few quarters as insufficiently supportive of the legitimate role of the police. While I can’t speak for all libertarians, I’d say that at groups like Cato, most of us were careful not to prejudge the specifics of the Wilson/Brown encounter before the facts were in, but were not afraid to be critical of the underlying patterns that soon became clear in on-the-scene reporting from Ferguson (escalatory tactics, revenue-driven policing and municipal court practices, pervasive disrespect for citizens’ rights in street encounters, and so forth). After yesterday’s release of the DoJ report, I continue to believe that ours has been the right approach. 

[cross-posted from Overlawyered and expanded with a new final paragraph]