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Jeffrey Miron

NPR has an interesting story about the interaction between Colorado’s tax revenue from legalized marijuana and its Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR):

Colorado voters overwhelmingly supported state taxes on marijuana, and the state collected tens of millions of dollars in the first year of legalization. But in a strange twist, all those taxes raised from pot may have to be refunded because of a quirk in the state’s constitution. That means money earmarked for schools and drug prevention programs could be lost unless lawmakers agree on a solution.

Liberal supporters of legalization will worry that this conflict threatens to invalidate a key argument for legalization; conservative opponents will use the conflict to claim legalization was oversold.

But libertarian legalizers should not care much either way.  The crucial arguments for legalization are increased freedom for marijuana users and decreased prohibition costs for everyone, not increased tax revenue.

So if Coloradans end up with legal marijuana and an income tax refund, that’s just fine.

Steve H. Hanke

People keep asking me what I think about Europe’s most recent crisis (read: Greece). Well, my sentiments are exactly the same as they were in April 2012, when my Globe Asia column was titled: “China and Greece – Here We Go Again.”

Here’s what I wrote on Greece: “And if you think the political chattering classes in the U.S. are dangerous, take a look at Europe, where the elites are fighting economic reality with all their might — a fight they will lose. Indeed, they have built an economic doomsday machine. And when it comes to Greece, don’t fool yourselves into believing that the recent huge debt restructuring exercise will allow Europe’s politicos to pull their chestnuts out of the fire. Greece’s annual broad money (M3) growth rate has been in negative territory for every month since February 2010, and it is currently contracting at a fantastic 17.5%. In the words of former President George W. Bush (not Yogi Berra): ‘This sucker is going down.’ You can forget all the calculations and soothing noises coming from Europe.”

Yes. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Walter Olson

What does federal labor law have in common with civil forfeiture law? As I write at Reason:

Under a provision of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, the U.S. Department of Labor can seek what is known as a “hot goods” order, freezing the physical output of an employer that it suspects of having violated wage and hour law, all without having to prove its case at a trial.

Until lately the procedure was little known to the general public, but the Obama administration, amid its general all-fronts offensive to expand wage and hour law and intensify its enforcement, has begun using it against farmers in a series of actions. Applied to agriculture, a “hot goods” order is even more than usually coercive, because both sides know the crop will rot if not brought to market soon. Moreover, as in many forfeiture cases, the freezing of a target’s most valuable asset may mean that it cannot afford legal help to appeal or otherwise challenge what has happened — all of which gives the federal government the leverage to get what it wants in resulting negotiations without having to test the strength of its case at trial.

Now, however, a federal judge has slapped down the administration hard in a Pacific Northwest case that farm groups had described as “extortion.” In a humiliating defeat, the Department of Labor has agreed to drop charges against two Oregon blueberry growers and refund the moneys extracted from them. It’s a case that should rally attention to the need to roll back the Department’s powers in this area.

My whole Reason piece is here.

Andrew J. Coulson

The Broad Foundation has decided to halt its 13-yr-old prize for academic improvement.The idea of the prize was that recognizing and celebrating top performance within our traditional district-based school system would lead to widespread emulation of the most successful practices. The proximate cause of the decision is reportedly the Foundation’s disappointment at the paucity of high performing districts. It may also have to do with the the fact that earlier prize-winners did not spark the mass replication of successful methods, as hoped.

While no doubt frustrating for the Foundation, it was neither unforeseeable nor unforseen. Two years before the Prize for Urban Districts was launched, I reviewed the Foundation’s programs and plans. Concerned, I addressed a letter to Mr. Broad, which I reproduce in its entirety below.

March 14, 2000

Dear Mr. Broad:

It was with great pleasure that I read your letter describing the creation of the Broad Foundation. Your organization’s dedication to encouraging exemplary educational leadership has the potential to do great things for our nation’s children.

Having also read the brief prospectus enclosed with your letter, I wonder if I might raise a question which I consider crucial to the Foundation’s success? It seems as though the Foundation will be promoting pockets of excellent leadership in urban districts around the country. My question is this: Does the Foundation have a plan for ensuring that these pockets of excellence will 1) consistently endure beyond the lifetime of the individuals involved, and 2) systematically expand to reach all students rather than remaining isolated?

Much of my research on educational governance has been historical, chronicling the relative merits of education systems from 500 BC to the present. One of my findings is that, while there have been few periods that lacked isolated pockets of excellence, these pockets very rarely lasted for more than a generation or two, and very rarely spread beyond a tiny fraction of the population.

There have been only a handful of exceptions to this sad historical record, such as classical Athens, the early medieval Islamic world, and early 19th century England and America. The difference between these remarkably successful periods and their less successful counterparts was that they enjoyed a mechanism that reliably perpetuated excellence over time, and relentlessly drove its spread to an ever wider group of children.

The specific nature of that mechanism is not the point of my letter. My point is to highlight the compelling need for some such mechanism given the patently transitory nature of nearly every education reform effort in the history of civilization. The goals of the Broad Foundation, which I share, are too important to be left to erode in the sands of time like the mighty works of Ozymandius, or to burn like a few solitary candles amidst a vast and lingering educational darkness.

There have been many foundations created for the improvement of education over the years. The ones that will be remembered will be those that understand excellence is not intrinsically self-perpetuating—that it only endures and thrives within systems whose incentive structures inexorably drive people to perpetuate it. I hope that your organization will be among this rare group of insightful foundations.

Please feel free to call or e-mail me if you would like to discuss this issue in detail.

Yours very truly,

Andrew J. Coulson

Patrick J. Michaels

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”


On Page 3 of Friday’s Washington Post is (yet another) lurid climate story, this time about mega-droughts of several decades that are going to pop up in the Pacific Southwest around 35 years from now. The findings are based upon the UN’s climate model suite that, according to our presentation to the American Geophysical Union, is in the process of failing, because it just isn’t warming at the rate they project. Here, for example, is a graphic from John Christy and Dick McNider of the University of Alabama-Huntsville, showing the growing disparity.

The work cited in the Post ignores this teensy-weensy little problem and, instead drives the models with the UN’s biggest scenario for future carbon dioxide emissions, something that natural gas, which emits much less carbon dioxide than coal when used for electrical generation, is in the process of burying.

But it gets worse.

Droughts in the Pacific Southwest are usually broken by the big pacific climate oscillation known as  El Niño.  They occur every four to eight years or so. So, in order to have decades of drought, there has to be decades without El Niños.

The overdriven, overheated climate models used in this study cannot simulate them with any degree of realism.

That’s why, in the Post article, study co-author Toby Ault

had a word of caution.  Weather conditions can vary, climate impacts can be mitigated, and the warnings of the study might not come to pass. A single El Niño weather pattern in the West could interrupt periods of prolonged drought.

At least younger climate scientists like assistant professor Ault are getting wiser. The fates willing, he’s going to live another 35 years, and we hope much longer. And when those pesky El Niños (along with many other potential co-conspirators) destroy the forecast of gloom and doom, he’ll be able to say that he warned that could happen, because the models his team used didn’t have a good handle on them.

Kat Murti

Having trouble finding the perfect V-Day greeting for your freedom-fighting honey? Cato’s got you covered.

This collection of liberty-friendly valentines puts a fun twist on some recent Cato research. Perfect for your like-minded love … and all your friends. 

If your crush cares more about free markets than flowers, these valentines are sure to sweep them off their feet!

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 features 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.

Highlights from the various and sundry stories from across the web this week:

Over the weekend, a brouhaha erupted over the trustworthiness of the various compilations of the earth’s surface temperature history for the past century or so. This is a simmering cauldron that sporadically boils over with claims of pernicious data manipulation. This week’s eruption began with an article by Christopher Booker in the United Kingdom’s Telegraph headlined “Climategate, the Sequel: How We Are STILL Being Tricked with Flawed Data on Global Warming.” It went from local to global when it was featured prominently and for several days on the Drudge Report.

We immediately sought to temper those claims—in many cases, there are good reasons why the “raw” temperature observations are not the best representation of a location’s (natural) climate. These involve such issues as station moves, instrument changes, inconsistent observing times, and erroneous readings, as well as changes to the microclimate around the thermometer (e.g., fading paint, encroaching trees, spreading suburbia, etc.). To compile a reliable temperature record that best represents how the climate is changing, you need  to  mitigate as many of these confounding effects as much as possible. (Some of those effects are harder to remove than others.) Basically, the “raw” data need to be “adjusted.”

Concerns about the appropriateness of the methodology as well as the accuracy of the adjusted data is at the root of the simmering controversy.

It turns out that the resulting temperature histories are much more robust (especially at the global level) than many people realize.

Over at Judy Curry’s blog Climate Etc., Robert Rohde, Zeke Hausfather, and Steve Mosher—independent folks who questioned the standing temperature compilations and sought an independent and better methodology—describe the results of their efforts at developing appropriate adjustment methods as well as comparing their work to others (and to the raw data). Surprisingly (even to themselves), they found that despite all the various manners in which “raw” data have been “adjusted,” on a global scale, the earth’s temperature history is largely robust, although, certainly, on smaller scales, differences do exist. They conclude:

In summary, it is possible to look through 40,000 stations and select those that the algorithm has warmed; and, it’s possible to ignore those that the algorithm has cooled. As the spatial maps show it is also possible to select entire continents where the algorithm has warmed the record; and, it’s possible to focus on other continents were the opposite is the case. Globally however, the effect of adjustments is minor. It’s minor because on average the biases that require adjustments mostly cancel each other out.

If you’re interested, you ought to have a look. You’ll probably learn a thing or two.

Another piece that caught our attention this week was a study published in the journal Environmental Communications that looked at the reasons behind why some people are climate “skeptics.”  The author, University of Nottingham’s Paul Matthews, reviewed several blog threads in which commenters explained how they came to hold their skeptical point of view. Of the 154 people identified as “skeptics,” Matthews made the following observations:

Academic and scientific qualifications are generally high, with 26% reporting a Ph.D. and an additional 46% having a degree of some form. The actual percentages may be higher than this if some individuals did not explicitly mention their qualifications, or lower if some exaggerated theirs. Professional backgrounds are predominantly in technical or engineering fields.

  • A broad range of views are expressed, ranging from a “lukewarm” position, that warming will be modest and not a serious problem (around 15–20%) to a much stronger view that climate change is a scam or a fraud (only around 10%).
  • A significant proportion (about 27%) indicates that they were converted to climate skepticism from a previous position of acceptance of climate change.
  • Motives for skepticism include the view that claims regarding climate change are often overstated, which in some cases is associated with personal experience of previous exaggerated scares. Blogs that aim to promote climate science can backfire, as they can be seen as overconfident or lacking in objectivity, leading to a potential loss of trust. The main concern of this community of skeptics is with the quality of the science, focusing on issues such as statistics, data handling, and reliance on models, with the hockey stick picture acting as the icon for the dispute. The climategate incident was not a major opinion-forming factor for this group, perhaps because they had formed their opinions before this took place.
  • Politics is a significant factor, either through the political views of the individual (which typically lean more toward libertarianism than conservatism) or through the view that those who express concern over climate change may be politically motivated.

Matthews added this insight concerning the heavy-handed tactics of environmental alarmists:

The ironic point that increasingly dire messaging about climate change may encourage skepticism is supported by the work of Feinberg and Willer (2011), and also by Bashir et al. (2013), who found that environmental messages can backfire among those who have a negative view of activists. Similarly, work by Hobson and Niemeyer (2013) found that it is difficult to dispel climate skepticism by subjecting skeptical volunteers to “climate scenarios,” and that some became more dogmatic in their skepticism when treated in this way. These results are consistent with the comments studied here.

Which leads us to a piece in the Washington Post’s new Energy and Environment section by “curator” Chris Mooney (of “Republican War on Science” fame).

Mooney’s piece was titled “Want to Get Conservatives to Save Energy? Stop the Environmentalist Preaching” and concluded–well, it’s pretty obvious from the headline what he concluded. And judging from the content of the initial three weeks’ worth of articles, the Post’s new Energy and Environment section ought to take a good look in the mirror. It’s preachy.

Steve H. Hanke

The U.S. Congress hoards real estate like proud pack rats. For example, the Department of Defense has 562,000 facilities that cover 24.7 million acres–an area about the size of the Virginia.

The Pentagon has surprisingly indicated that it might be wise to shed some of its real estate. Congress has stonewalled the Pentagon. Indeed, Congress has barred the Pentagon from even thinking about the Department of Defense’s excess asset problem.

The congressional–and often bureaucratic–asset-hoarding pathology is a result of perverse economic incentives that accompany public ownership. These incentives encourage bad behavior. The fact that capital carrying charges or rents are not paid for publicly owned assets means that no costs have to be budgeted for holding them. Once assets are under government ownership and control, they are viewed as being free; nothing must be given up for the assets’ use and retention. Furthermore, if a decision is made to dispose of public assets, the revenues from their disposal are usually not earmarked for use by the department or agency that initiates the sale. Hence, there are no bureaucratic or budgeted benefits that flow from the liquidation of government property.

I ran into both congressional and bureaucratic stonewalling over 30 years ago when I designed President Reagan’s privatization program. Until capital carrying charges on public assets are budgeted (read: charged), the game will remain rigged in favor of the pack rats.

Doug Bandow

It’s hard to get out of a bad relationship. People can’t admit that it’s time to say goodbye.

Countries have the same problem. The United States has spent decades collecting allies, like many people accumulate Facebook “Friends.”

After Valentine’s Day, Washington should send the equivalent of a “Dear John” letter to at least a half-dozen foreign capitals. Where to start:

 

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia and America have little in common other than commerce in oil. Essentially a totalitarian state, the monarchy plunders people, brutalizes political opposition, suppresses religious expression, and even exports Sunni tyranny.

But no alliance is necessary for the two states to cooperate when their interests coincide. It’s time to send Riyadh a text message breaking up. The two governments still should cooperate where appropriate, but the U.S. military no longer should act as an inexpensive bodyguard for the al-Saud family.

 

South Korea

The United States was drawn into war in Korea during the Cold War. Then American troops were required on the peninsula until South Korea gained both political stability and economic development.

By the 1980s the South had raced well ahead of the North economically. Today South Korea enjoys a 40–1 economic lead, 2–1 population edge, vast technological advantage, and overwhelming diplomatic support.

The South can defend itself. Other forms of cooperation could be conducted without a “Mutual Defense Treaty” that would be mutual in name only.

 

Iraq

The George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq was based on a number of costly illusions. The rise of the Islamic State was blowback after the U.S. invasion triggered a bitter sectarian war.

The two countries do not share values. Nor is there much strategic agreement. The relationship always will be one of convenience.

Joining with Baghdad has entangled the United States in a bitter sectarian war. Better to make the relationship purely transactional when advantageous for America.

 

The Baltic Trio

Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania live in a bad neighborhood. But Washington has forgotten what alliances are supposed to be.

In the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. created NATO as a shield behind which Western Europe could revive. With the end of the Cold War the alliance lost its purpose. Bringing in the Baltics added countries that are security black holes—weak states with minimal military capability but potential conflicts with Russia.

America’s real problem is NATO. Washington should drop out of the alliance, forging a set of more limited military cooperation agreements with the European Union and leading European nations.

 

The Philippines

America long has had a tortured relationship with this semi-failed Pacific state. The Philippines has sputtered through dictatorship and corrupt and incompetent democracy. Manila’s military reflects this flawed foundation. Yet the Philippines wants to challenge China over territory in the South China Sea.

More accurately, Manila wants the United States to do so. But Washington has little interest in local territorial disputes. “Dear Manila,” should run the letter written by President Barack Obama.

 

Ukraine

Technically Kiev is not a U.S. ally, but the administration and the usual gaggle of hyper-hawks want to treat Ukraine as one. And the government in Kiev wants to be treated like one.

Ukraine was dealt a tough hand by history and geography. But it never mattered much to America. The United States signed the 1994 Budapest Memorandum after Ukraine divested its nuclear weapons, but the agreement offered only platitudes.

The Obama administration’s promotion of last year’s street putsch backfired disastrously on both America and Ukraine, encouraging Russia to sever Crimea and back separatists in the Donbas. Ukraine always will matter more to Moscow, which will pay far higher costs and take far greater risks to prevail.

The United States should make clear that Kiev will never be in NATO. There will never be American troops in Ukraine. Washington will not give weapons to Kiev.

As I point out on National Interest online: “America long has had trouble saying no. But the U.S. should start dropping faux allies. Doing so is far more likely to increase American security than extending new commitments and guarantees to additional weak and unimportant states.”

Tim Lynch

The new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Bob Goodlatte (R-Va), discusses the problem of overcriminalization with Pat Robertson.

Chairman Bob Goodlatte Discusses Overcriminalization on the 700 Club

For related Cato work, go here, here, and here.  I discuss the prospects for criminal justice reform in 2015 in this Washington Examiner article.

Walter Olson

People ask about my soft spot for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and from now on I’m just going to point them to this article.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg admits to sharing some wine with her colleagues and not being “100 percent sober” for President Obama’s State of the Union address in January. …

“The audience for the most part is awake, because they’re bobbing up and down, and we sit there, stone-faced, sober judges. But we’re not, at least I wasn’t, 100 percent sober,” Ginsburg said during a talk at George Washington University on Thursday night, according to a report by The Blaze. 

“Because before we went to the State of the Union, Justice Kennedy brought in … it was an Opus something or other, very fine California wine […,” Ginsburg said.]

Ginsburg has also appeared to fall asleep during the president’s annual address to Congress in prior years.

As my Cato colleague Gene Healy has written, the annual speeches have long been “pompous, unedifying spectacles” in which Congressmembers clap robotically while ”the president stands at the front of the House chamber making exorbitant promises that would shame a carny barker” and a supposedly typical citizen or two are invited to showcase touching, politically well-vetted personal tales. Any legislative proposals of interest will require analysis over days or weeks, a process not well suited to in-person lecturing. “President Jefferson, who thought delivering the speech before Congress assembled smacked too much of a king’s ‘Speech from the Throne,’” converted the report to a written document, Gene writes, but Woodrow Wilson (it would be him) revived the regal practice.

For bringing to this hard-to-endure, self-important ritual the attitude it deserves, a thanks to Justice Ginsburg. 

Mark A. Calabria

With the release of Peter Wallison’s new book, Hidden in Plain Sight, debates about the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the financial crisis have heated up again. As I’ve written elsewhere, I believe there’s a lot more to the story than the GSEs’ housing goals. While there are a number of omissions in Peter’s otherwise fine book, I want to address a particular criticism of his work that strikes me as simply confused and mistaken.

I’ve often heard that Fannie and Freddie couldn’t have been a cause of the crisis because their loan loss rates (and totals) were far below those of banks. Robert VerBruggen recently repeats this in his review of Peter’s book. 

For this claim, Robert relies on loss estimates by David Min and Mark Zandi. The latter repeated this criticism at an AEI event for Peter’s book, and you can find Zandi’s estimates here (page 8, table 1). Zandi states that as a percent of debt, the GSEs witnessed a loss rate of 2.7 percent on their holdings of residential mortgages. Combined with the Federal Housing Administration’s losses, this comes to around $206 billion. In contrast, depositories (banks & thrifts) had a loss rate of 5.8 percent for a total of $217 billion—both the rate and total are obviously greater than that for the GSEs and FHA.  

So far, so good; I don’t disagree with any of the above. But Zandi’s estimates suffer from a massive omission: the other side of the balance sheet—equity. If you think losses are all that matter, consider that the dot.com bubble erased about $8 trillion in wealth, whereas losses on mortgages, according to Zandi, were just under $1 trillion. So if losses are the issue, why wasn’t the dot.com bubble so much worse than the subprime crisis? Because of leverage.

Yes, the GSEs’ losses on mortgages were less than that for depositories, but the differences in capital were far greater. The GSEs had far less shareholder money to fall back on if mortgages started to sour. Again bear in mind that total losses were similar between the GSEs and the depositories. In the 4th quarter of 2007, Fannie and Freddie held about $70 billion in shareholder equity, behind $1.7 trillion in assets and around $5 trillion in debt and guaranteed mortgage-backed securities. By contrast, depositories held $1.3 trillion in shareholder equity, or about 19 times the equity of the GSEs. Mortgage losses were not enough to sink the entire banking system, even if some banks did sink, whereas the GSEs were toast because of their low levels of capital. 

Why does that matter? Because it takes insolvencies to drive a financial crisis. The banking system, as a whole, was not driven to insolvency, but the GSEs where. Losses (and loss rates) only make sense relative to the capital ready to absorb those losses. And of course the failure of the GSEs was magnified through the system in a uniquely harmful manner. 

Did other banks hold Citibank equity?  Of course not, but they did hold GSE preferred shares. This all isn’t to say that the GSEs were the only cause of the crisis; they weren’t. It is to say that loss rates presented out of context are meaningless and could even be misleading.

Kat Murti

Over his 33 years at Cato and through his earlier activities in the libertarian policy sphere, Cato’s Executive Vice President David Boaz has played a key role in the development of both the Cato Institute and the libertarian movement at large; he even wrote the the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on libertarianism!

On Tuesday, in conjunction with the release of his new book, The Libertarian Mind: A Manifesto for Freedom (which, incidentally, sold out on Amazon within hours), Boaz took to Reddit’s iAMA forum to discuss libertarianism, his book, and the burgoening “libertarian moment,” inviting Redditors of all ilks to ask him anything

During the hour long Q&A session, Boaz tackled a wide-array of questions, weighing in on everything from the drug war and abortion to effective strategies for social change and the efficacy of libertarian governance.  Each one of his responses ignited impassioned debates amongst the forum’s diverse audience as commenters from all sides of the political spectrum hashed out the ideas of liberty. 

The resulting discussion is a fascinating one, very much worth your attention. Check out the Reddit discussion and Boaz’s book, and then continue the conversation on Twitter using #LibertarianMind.

Ted Galen Carpenter

In a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Obama stated that he was considering sending weapons to the government of Ukraine.  Noting that Russia had already annexed Crimea and was now backing separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, the president warned that “the West cannot stand and simply allow the borders of Europe to be redrawn at the barrel of a gun.”

Such sentiments might have more credibility if the Western powers, including the United States, had not engaged in similar conduct.  But Washington and its NATO allies have indeed redrawn borders, including borders in Europe, through military force.  Two incidents are especially relevant.  Turkey, a leading member of NATO, invaded Cyprus in 1974 and amputated some 37 percent of that country’s territory.  Turkish forces ethnically cleansed the area of its Greek Cypriot inhabitants and, in the years that followed, desecrated a large number of Greek historical and religious sites.

Ankara subsequently established a client state, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the occupied territories.  Turkey has steadfastly refused to atone for its illegal invasion and occupation, much less disgorge the land that it conquered.  Yet except for some token economic sanctions imposed shortly after the invasion, which were soon lifted, Washington has never even condemned the aggression that its NATO ally committed. 

One might assume that it would be awkward for U.S. leaders to excoriate Vladimir Putin’s regime for annexing Crimea or setting up puppet states in the occupied Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (which Moscow did after a short, nasty war in 2008) when a NATO member is guilty of similar behavior.  But such flagrant inconsistency has apparently caused American officials little difficulty.

The other, even more blatant, case of redrawing European borders by force was the 1999 Kosovo war and its aftermath.  The United States and its NATO allies launched an air war against Serbia lasting 78 days to compel Belgrade to withdraw its security forces and relinquish control of the rebellious province.  A UN Security Council resolution ratifying that action still recognized Serbia’s sovereignty over Kosovo but mandated international control and governance of the territory for an indefinite period.  A NATO occupation force became the instrument of that control, despite Russia’s misgivings.

In early 2008, the Western powers encouraged and then formally recognized Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from (a now democratic) Serbia.   Russia, China, and other countries strenuously objected to that decision, both because it bypassed the UN Security Council and set what they believed was a worrisome precedent in the international community. Indeed, nearly half of the member-states of the UN (including several members of the European Union) still refuse to recognize Kosovo’s independence. 

Given those precedents, it is astonishing for Obama or any other Western official to assert that redrawing European borders by force is unacceptable.  Russia’s actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine deserve condemnation, but the West’s hypocrisy is nothing short of breathtaking.

 

Emma Ashford

After a grueling seventeen hours of negotiation, German, French, Ukrainian, and Russian leaders emerged with a compromise agreement aimed at ending the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Although similar to last September’s failed Minsk accords, the new deal provides more details on timing and implementation, which may help a ceasefire to hold. After so many prior failures, strong skepticism is understandable. But if U.S. and European leaders actually commit to the specifics of the deal, it can provide Ukraine with much-needed time to rebuild, reform and address its dire economic problems.

The all-night negotiations between leaders in Belarus showed how far apart the parties were on a number of key issues, including whether the deal should rely on the boundaries laid out in the Minsk I ceasefire, or on the current situation in Eastern Ukraine. Since rebel forces have made substantial territorial gains since September, neither side is keen to concede on the issue. Other issues, including which side will control border crossings into Russia, and the withdrawal of foreign fighters and equipment, proved equally thorny.

Admittedly, the deal still leaves many issues unsettled. It calls for an immediate ceasefire, the withdrawal of heavy weapons and a demilitarized buffer zone in Eastern Ukraine.  It also mandates constitutional reform to allow the eastern regions increased autonomy, as well as amnesty for those involved in the fighting. But the issue of boundary lines is left effectively unsolved, requiring Kiev to adhere to the current front lines when withdrawing weaponry, and the rebels to adhere instead to the boundaries agreed upon in September. There is also no real mechanism to ensure compliance, although the situation will be monitored  by the OSCE.

Still, Minsk II provides more concrete details on each issue, which may help this deal to succeed. Timing is more clearly defined for the start of the ceasefire, the removal of troops and heavy weapons, the creation of the buffer zone, while all constitutional reforms and elections are scheduled to be completed by the end of 2015. The sequencing of events is also more clearly defined: the agreement calls for control of the border to be returned to Ukraine only after new elections in the region, which themselves must follow constitutional reform in Kiev. Since Minsk I’s failure can be attributed in part to disagreement between both sides over who would implement such steps first, this is a welcome change. The restoration of social transfers from Kiev to residents in rebel-controlled areas is also welcome, and may serve to reduce some of the misery in the region.

Although an imperfect deal, it is important that U.S. and European leaders support it. In the next few days, we can expect to see hostilities increase as both sides attempt to make last-minute gains before the ceasefire begins on February 15th. But thereafter, particularly during the first two week period, leaders must push strongly for both Kiev and Moscow to implement the deal. A substantive ceasefire will provide Kiev with breathing room, allowing them to begin the process of economic reform. Ukraine’s economy, never strong, has been a major casualty of the conflict, with the Hryvnia falling 65% in just the last year.  A newly-inked IMF deal will provide Ukraine with $17.5 billion in reform-oriented aid, allowing the government to begin the process of reducing government waste, rooting out corruption, and salvaging the badly damaged economy. It will also provide time to bolster the Ukrainian armed forces, which have performed poorly in the conflict due to rampant corruption and inefficiency. Such reforms would be extremely difficult in the absence of a ceasefire.

This week’s Minsk deal doesn’t necessarily offer a viable long-term solution to the crisis, as it fails to address several key issues. But if it can be made to produce a successful ceasefire, even in the short- or medium-term, it will provide Ukraine’s government with time to strengthen itself by addressing its numerous economic problems and widespread corruption. Such reform is far more valuable to Ukraine’s future prosperity than the current military campaign.  

Matthew Feeney

Advocates of increased transparency in law enforcement are understandably keen to see more police officers wearing body cameras. Not only is there some evidence that police officers wearing body cameras contributes to a decline in police “use-of-force” incidents, footage from police cameras has provided useful evidence to those investigating allegations of police misconduct. Yet despite the benefits of police body cameras there are serious privacy concerns that must be considered and addressed as they become more common.

Perhaps the most obvious privacy concerns are those of the civilians filmed by police officers. If footage from police body cameras is considered public record then hours of footage of innocent people’s interactions with police officers is potentially available. It is not hard to imagine a situation in which police officers wearing body cameras enter someone’s home and leave without making an arrest. Footage of that encounter could reveal embarrassing or private information about the homeowner.

In November of last year it was reported that Washington police departments were reviewing their policies related to dash cameras and body cameras in the wake of an increase in requests for footage from the public via public record requests. As the ACLU has pointed out, Washington is one of the states where body camera footage is considered “susceptible to public release upon request.”

At the end of last month, members of the North Dakota House overwhelmingly passed a bill that would exempt police body camera footage of the inside of a private place from a public record request. North Dakota House member Kim Koppelman, who introduced the bill, said that the legislation would protect civilians in situations similar to the one I outlined above. Koppelman reportedly introduced the bill “at the request of West Fargo Police Chief Michael Reitan.” Koppelman and Reitan may be primarily concerned with the privacy of civilians, but a civilian could have a genuine interest in seeing the footage gathered by police officers in her home, especially if she believes that officers damaged property or behaved poorly.

Writing in The Atlantic,Conor Friedersdorf suggested a policy framework for body cameras that included the following:

Members of the public who appear in body camera footage can request that it be sealed in certain cases—if they are a crime victim or witness, for example—but if no civilian in a video objects, then any member of the press or public can at least view it.

I would extend “certain cases” to include incidents involving police officers filming the interior of private property. Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum recommends that different police body camera policies be in place for footage captured inside private property and for footage captured in public. Whatever body camera policies police departments and lawmakers implement, they must be clear about when footage of the inside of private property will be available to the public. This is especially important because, as Friedersdorf highlights in his article, police departments are oftentimes unwilling to release their body camera footage disclosure policy (if they have one at all).

Jay Stanley at the ACLU has proposed a policy regarding when a police officer should turn on a body camera; such polices:

should require that a police officer activate his or her camera when responding to a call for service or at the initiation of any other law enforcement or investigative encounter between a police officer and a member of the public. That would include stops, frisks, searches, arrests, consensual interviews and searches, enforcement actions of all kinds, and any encounter that becomes in any way hostile.

This sounds like a good proposal, although it doesn’t address what ought to be done if such a policy is in place and an officer does not have his body camera on during an encounter. However, in October 2013 Stanley wrote that if a police department has a policy in place requiring that officers have body cameras on for all interactions with the public then failure to turn on body cameras should be dealt with in the following way:

And this requirement [to turn on body cameras during interactions with the public] must have some teeth associated with it — not only a risk of disciplinary action but also perhaps an exclusionary rule for any evidence obtained in an unrecorded encounter (for police who have been issued the cameras, unless there is an exigency to justify the failure to record). Another means of enforcement might be to stipulate that in any instance in which an officer wearing a camera is accused of misconduct, a failure to record that incident would create an evidentiary presumption against the officer.

These potential consequences may be enough to encourage officers to habitually turn on body cameras during encounters with the public, although it shouldn’t be surprising if there are genuine instances of police officers forgetting to turn body cameras on, particularly as they are introduced into departments. With something like Stanley’s exclusionary rule being strictly interpreted police officers will have to become used to regularly turning body cameras on in cases when doing so might be awkward or encumbering, such as during an unexpected on-foot pursuit of a suspect.

Some might argue that in order to get around the problem of officers not turning their body cameras on at appropriate times that cameras should be constantly on during an officer’s shift. This is technologically possible. During the first randomized control experiment on the effect of police body cameras, which took place in Rialto, California, cameras with a battery life of at least 12 hours were used, although officers taking part in the experiment were not required to have the cameras on at all times. 

While it is technically possible for officers with body cameras to have the devices on throughout a shift, there are serious problems with this requirement.

First, police officers deserve some privacy while on the job. The public should hold police officers to high standards and expect honesty and transparency from law enforcement officials, but it remains the case that police officers ought to be able to talk to each other in cruisers about department gossip and other topics without fear that members of the public may request footage of the conversation.

Second, police officers sometimes have to interact with informants and minors who are the victims of sexual assault. It would clearly not be appropriate for such interactions to be filmed by officers. Indeed, during the Rialto experiment officers were instructed not to have their body cameras on during such encounters.

Both of these issues raise concerns regarding a policy requiring that police officers have body cameras on at all times during their shifts. Any good police body camera policy cannot require that the cameras be on at all times.

It is my hope that an increasing number of police departments will issue body cameras to their officers. However, the issuing of these cameras must be accompanied by well-considered body camera policies that take into account the privacy concerns of civilians and police officers and the impact body cameras may have on law enforcement officials doing their jobs. Police body camera policies must also take into account local policing needs and should be crafted in this country’s labs of democracy.  

Patrick J. Michaels

The Obama Administration is sticking to its talking points claiming climate change affects us more than terrorism. It might be valuable to compare and contrast the real life affects Americans endure from both of these threats.

First, let’s take a look at climate change’s effects in the United States: Hurricane power, when measured by satellites, is near its lowest ever ebb. There’s no change in the frequency of severe tornados. The relationship between heavy snow and temperature is negative along the East Coast. Carbon dioxide and longer growing seasons are significantly increasing the world’s food supply, and there’s no relationship between global temperature and U.S. drought.

Compare this with the effects of terrorism: On September 11, 2011, terrorists took down the World Trade Center and nearly an entire side of the Pentagon, extinguishing 2,996 lives. As a result, every American’s privacy is assaulted by the government on a daily basis—and let’s not talk about what they’ve done to air travel, or worse, Iraq. We’ve managed to remain in a perpetual state of war, unleashing a wave of federal spending our great grandchildren will be repaying.

Perhaps next time President Obama skips the TSA lines to fly around the world on Air Force One (on the taxpayer dime, emitting the carbon of which he’s so scared) he should look down at Arlington National Cemetery at the tombstones left from the reaction to terrorism–it’s an excellent reminder of the real cost of government action.

(Read more about actual threat of terrorism in “Terrorizing Ourselves,” by Benjamin Friedman, Jim Harper and Christopher Prebel, and “Responsible Counterterrorism Policy,” by John Mueller and Mark Stewart.)

Patrick J. Michaels

NASA takes the (frozen) cake with this one.

It just released a report on global sea ice coverage that opens with the following sentence:

Sea ice increases in Antarctica do not make up for the accelerated Arctic sea ice loss of the last decades, a new NASA study finds.

NASA continued:

Furthermore, the global ice decrease has accelerated: in the first half of the record (1979-96), the sea ice loss was about 8,300 square miles (21,500 square kilometers) per year. This rate more than doubled for the second half of the period (1996 to 2013), when there was an average loss of 19,500 square miles (50,500 square kilometers) per year – an average yearly loss larger than the states of Vermont and New Hampshire combined.

Could have fooled us!

Figure 1 shows the sea ice coverage (anomalies) measured by satellite, as reported today by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s website Cryosphere Today for the period since 1979 for the Arctic (left panel) and Antarctic (right panel). There has been an overall decline in Northern Hemisphere sea ice and a contemporaneous increase in Southern Hemisphere sea ice. It is also worth noting that the decline in Northern Hemisphere ice stopped about eight years ago, even as the within-year variability has gotten larger (perhaps because of thinning at the margins).

 

Figure 1. (left) Northern Hemisphere sea ice area anomalies (million square kilometers) from 1979 to present. (right) same for Southern (image source: Cryosphere Today).

Put them together and what do you get?  See Figure 2—the global sea ice history from 1979 through early 2015. The blow-up shows the last 10 years.

 

Figure 2. Global sea ice area anomalies (red line, million square kilometers) from 1979 to present. The insert shows the data since 2006 (image source: Cryosphere Today).

With the data available to us (and what NASA used, too), let’s check the veracity of NASA’s claims.

Is it true that increases around Antarctica don’t compensate for Arctic decreases? Nope.

The global ice anomaly (Figure 2) for the past two years has remained very close to the 30-yr (1979-2008) average.  This has happened because the increases around Antarctica have completely made up for the losses in the Arctic.

Is the loss of global sea-ice accelerating? Again, nope.

Look at the inset in Figure 2. It represents the second half of the period that NASA has offered to support its acceleration conclusion. Since 2006 (the past 9 years), global sea ice has increased.

How on earth can an extended period of increase be used as support for an accelerating decrease?!

Alex Nowrasteh

President Obama’s executive actions on immigration, known as the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), have allowed those beneficiaries to retroactively receive Earned Income Tax Credits (EITC) and Child Tax Credits (CTC).

The DACA and DAPA programs grant recipients temporary work permits during the period of their deferred action.  Under current legislation, CTC eligibility is determined through either a Social Security Number (SSN) or an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN).  Since many unauthorized immigrants are already issued ITINs, eligibility for the CTC is not much affected by DACA and DAPA.

EITC eligibility status is another story altogether, as currently only those who file taxes with a valid SSN are eligible to receive the benefits.  DACA and DAPA will allow those recipients to apply for an SSN, thereby making them eligible for EITC benefits.  Another IRS rule allows those recipients to retroactively claim EITC benefits for previous years in which they were not in the country legally.  Under current law, taxes can be filed retroactively for up to three years by using the 1040X Amended Tax Return Form.  Because DACA and DAPA recipients are eligible for SSNs, they are able to file amended tax returns, making many eligible for EITC benefits in previous years.

The EITC is known as a refundable tax credit, meaning that low-income families can receive a tax “refund” that is larger than their original tax liability.  The program has become notorious for fraudulent and improper payments, yet the IRS has not enacted systematic reforms.  According to a report by the Treasury Inspector General, the IRS paid out $63 billion in EITC payments in 2013 alone – $15 billion of which were given to people ineligible to receive EITC benefits.  Of that $63 billion, only $8 billion were actual tax cuts and $55 billion were payments.

Non-citizens should be ineligible for means tested welfare benefits, the EITC, and CTC.  Walling off welfare benefits is the best option after scaling the benefits back or removing them for everybody.  Here is our previous work on how to build a wall around the welfare state.  Since I did not consider the EITC in my original Cato policy analysis on how to wall off welfare benefits to non-citizens, these are the specific laws that would need to be amended to correct this.

Reforming Section 32(c)(1)(E) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 delineates the eligibility for EITC benefits. The language in subsection (1) determines eligibility.  Changing the statute there could eliminate the ability for newly legalized immigrant workers to retroactively file for EITC benefits.  This section could also be amended to deny the EITC to non-citizens broadly, but that is more complex as SSNs are granted to some non-citizens.  A citizenship requirement for EITC would still decrease the outlays. 

CTC should also be denied to those had their deportations deferred. CTC eligibility requirements are included in Section 24 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986.  Denying CTC benefits for previous years when the tax filer was ineligible for such benefits was actually proposed in Congress last year – here is the text of that bill.  If possible, CTC benefits should be reserved for citizens only (if we can’t get rid of them altogether).

Immigration is a huge economic net-positive for the United States and fiscally neutral in the long run.  Poor immigrants generally underuse means-tested welfare compared to poor Americans.  Immigrants broadly subsidize the entitlement programs.  Regardless, tax credits should not be retroactively available to immigrants who have had their deportations deferred nor should non-citizens have access at all.

Fiscal conservatives can use immigration as an argument in favor of restricting welfare and EITC benefits.  That would be a far more effective and conservative use of their time than using the welfare state as an argument against liberalized immigration.       

Gene Healy

Today, six months after President Obama unilaterally launched our latest war in Iraq, five months after he expanded the war to Syria, four months after his administration thought up a name for the war, and three months after he promised to go to Congress for authorization, the president sent congressional leaders a draft “Authorization for the Use of Military Force against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”—along with a message insisting that “existing statutes provide me with the authority I need” to wage war anyway.

Better late than never? Maybe not: as I explain in my “Reclaiming the War Power” chapter in Cato’s new monograph “Policy Priorities for the 114th Congress,” retroactive authorization might be worth it as part of a package deal that sunsets the 2001 AUMF and imposes new barriers to “mission creep” in the war against ISIS. The Obama AUMF does neither.

As drafted, the president’s ISIS AUMF:

1. Does not impose geographic restrictions on the use of military forces (…thus a war that began with the placeholder Pentagon designation “Operations in Iraq and Syria” could easily expand beyond its current two-country theater);

2. Does not include firm limitations on ground combat operations (…unless you think barring “enduring offensive ground combat operations” is a workable and enduring limitation);

3. Does not preclude the war’s expansion to “associates of associates” of ISIS (… in fact, the Obama AUMF’s “associated forces” provision contains a broader delegation than did the 2001 AUMF, which doesn’t contain any such provision…);

4. Does not sunset the 2001 AUMF; and

5. Does not clarify application of the 2001 AUMF to the ISIS fight (…which risks leaving any limits it imposes susceptible to evasion by a president invoking the earlier resolution).

What little congressional debate we’ve seen so far on the president’s new war hardly smacks of “Profiles in Courage.” Still, the draft AUMF approved by the lame-duck Senate Foreign Relations Committee last December, flawed as it was, made for a far better starting point. It imposed a three-year sunset on the 2001 AUMF, applied new transparency requirements, and at least tried to provide limits on ground combat beyond a few flexible adjectives. If Congress is going to retroactively authorize the president’s latest war, they ought to reclaim some of the control they’ve ceded, not blithely delegate still more power. As I argue in greater detail here, “the 114th Congress should pick up where the SFRC left off, and impose additional limits on presidential authority.” Adopting the Obama AUMF as-is would amount to signing another blank check.

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