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Jonathan Blanks

Over the weekend, the Washington Post ran a front-page story on the rarity of prosecutions of police officers for on duty shootings. They teamed up with researchers at Bowling Green State University to look at the few cases in which charges were brought against officers. Since 2005, they found 54 criminal cases against police officers filed for police-involved shootings:

In half the criminal cases­ identified by The Post and researchers at Bowling Green, prosecutors cited forensics and autopsy reports that showed this very thing: unarmed suspects who had been shot in the back.

In a third of the cases­ where officers faced charges, prosecutors introduced videos into evidence, saying they showed the slain suspects had posed no threat at the moment they were killed. The videos were often shot from cameras mounted on the dashboards of patrol cars, standard equipment for most police departments.

In nearly a quarter of the cases, an officer’s colleagues turned on him, giving statements or testifying that the officer opened fire even though the suspect posed no danger at the time.

And in 10 cases, or about a fifth of the time, prosecutors alleged that officers either planted or destroyed evidence in an attempt to exonerate themselves — a strong indication, prosecutors said, that the officers themselves recognized the shooting was unjustified.

While 19 of the 54 cases they found are still pending, 21 officers were acquitted of charges and only 11 officers were convicted.

It is important to note that untold thousands of people are killed in police-involved shootings during that period. Just in Los Angeles County, California, there have been at least 409 police-involved shootings since 2010—and yet there hasn’t been a single prosecution for one since 2001.

As my colleague Matthew Feeney noted, the cell phone footage of Walter Scott’s death was integral to the officer’s firing and criminal charge Without it, South Carolina authorities may not have filed any charges, let alone murder. Indeed, even with the video, conviction is not certain.

You should read the whole Washington Post piece here. And be sure to follow @NPMRP on Twitter and PoliceMisconduct.net for updates on all kinds of police misconduct and abuse.

Doug Bandow

The Obama administration’s decision to negotiate with Tehran triggered near hysteria among U.S. politicians and pundits who advocate perpetual war in the Middle East. One complaint is that the talks failed to address Iran’s regional role.

These critics denounced Tehran’s imperial ambitions. For instance, the Foreign Policy Initiative insisted that “Iran’s drive to dominate the region has been years in the making.”

However, if Mideast domination is Iran’s long-term priority, Tehran has accomplished little. Most governments in the region oppose the Islamic regime and America has far more influence.

In war-torn Syria, Iran’s reach barely extends to the Damascus suburbs. Tehran enjoys outsized but not overwhelming influence in small, divided Lebanon.

In Yemen Tehran is loosely connected to a long-time disaffected rebel movement in a seemingly permanent civil war. Iran matters in Baghdad because George W. Bush removed Iraqi secularist Saddam Hussein, Iran’s great nemesis.

None of these connections yield much geopolitical benefit. Yet the Economist magazine warned that “Iran’s belligerent behavior in the Middle East is an increasing menace.”

Of course, no one wants Iran to have a nuclear weapon. But given the region’s hostile security environment it’s hard to blame Tehran for proceeding with a nuclear program—which actually began under Washington’s ally the Shah.

The U.S. and Britain ousted post-war Iran’s democratically elected prime minister in 1953. After the Shah’s fall in 1979 the U.S. backed Saddam Hussein’s savage invasion of Iran. Over the years, Washington imposed regime change or dismembered territories in several countries posing no threat to America.

The U.S., Turkey, and the Gulf States are attempting to oust Iran’s Syrian ally. Over the last decade successive American presidents have regularly threatened military action against Tehran. So has Israel. As Henry Kissinger once observed, even paranoids have enemies.

Of course, the existing Iranian regime is ugly, especially to its own people. However, the Islamist regime has been a cautious actor dedicated to its own survival. Tehran has done nothing nearly as disastrous in humanitarian or geopolitical terms as the Bush administration’s invasion of Iran.

Moreover, by almost every measure Saudi Arabia’s monarchy is worse than Iran’s theocracy. Riyadh allows no political opposition and suppresses all non-Sunni faiths. Saudis promoted the intolerant Wahhabist theology, funded al-Qaeda prior to 9/11, provided 15 of the 19 9/11 terrorists, and underwrote extremists in Syria.

Yet Washington is helping Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states kill Yemenis. Explained Secretary of State John Kerry:  “we’re not going to step away from our alliances and our friendships.”

Until now Yemen was a local affair. The Houthis’ grievances are purely domestic and they heartily dislike al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Even British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond acknowledged that “the Houthis are clearly not Iranian proxies.”

The conflict will be ugly. Even nominal “victory” would not likely be stable, but merely the latest round in an extended fight.

The situation is serious, but Washington policy is beyond parody. Announced Kerry, the U.S. was “not going to stand by while the region is destabilized or while people engage in overt warfare across lines, international boundaries and other countries.”

As I pointed out in Forbes, “this from a government which routinely bombs, invades, and occupies other nations. Indeed, Washington empowered Iran and created the Islamic State by invading Iraq.”

After negotiating the nuclear agreement with Iran the administration plans even more intensive military involvement in the Middle East. Reported the Los Angeles Times, “Obama administration officials are promising a major strengthening of U.S. defense commitments to Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf allies, possibly including a nuclear commitment to their security.” If reducing the potential Iranian threat actually increases America’s commitments, why bother?

Of course the Middle East would be better off without Iranian meddling in other nations’ affairs. But promiscuous U.S. military action, especially on behalf of authoritarian “allies” such as Saudi Arabia, is an even bigger problem. Washington should stay out of conflicts which are not America’s to solve.

Alan Reynolds

Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler gives Senator Rand Paul Three Pinocchios for making the following claim on TV:

Ronald Reagan … said we’re going to dramatically cut tax rates. And guess what? More revenue came in, but tens of millions of jobs were created.

Before examining whether or not “more revenue came in,” consider just how dramatic the Reagan-era tax changes really were.  Under the first bill in 1981, all personal tax rates were eventually reduced by 23%.  But it is often forgotten that these rate reductions in were foolishly delayed until 1984.  By then, however, the 49% tax bracket was down to 38%, the 24% rate to 18% and the 14% rate to 11%.  

When the 1986 Tax Reform took effect in 1988, higher marginal tax rates fell further to 28-33% for those previously in tax brackets of 38-50%.  The corporate tax was cut from 46% to 34%.  After being reduced to 20% from 1982-86, however, the top capital gains tax was raised to 28% in 1987 before being rolled-back to 20% in 1997 and 15% in 2003.

Mr. Kessler mainly takes issue with Senator Paul’s comment that “more revenue came in” after the highest marginal tax rates on income or capital gains were reduced (I’ll deal with jobs issue in a separate blog).

Before considering his evidence, take a close look at the graph below – which compares reductions in top tax rates for personal income and taxable capital gains with the growth of real federal tax revenues, measured in 2009 dollars.  

Aside from cyclical revenue losses in the aftermath of recessions (1982-3, 2001-2, 2008-10), it appears undeniable that real revenues grew most briskly after top tax rates were reduced, including reduced tax rates on capital gains in 1978, 1997 and 2003.  By contrast, real revenues were flat or down during years of high tax rates on income and/or capital gains, such as 1969-77.  Although early years are not shown in this graph, real revenues were actually lower in 1961 than in 1952 – a period with 91% tax rates and three recessions.

The graph stops with 2012 because fiscal 2013 includes the fourth quarter of 2012 when taxpayers realized gains and collected bonuses to avoid Obama’s higher tax rates.  Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez report that income reported by the Top 1% fell by 14.9% in 2013 when top tax rates on income and capital gains were increased. “The fall in top incomes in 2013 is due to the 2013 increase in top tax rates,” notes Saez.

Mr. Kessler does not actually deny that “more revenue came in” after tax rates were reduced in 1984 and 1988, even though he accuses Senator Rand of lying about that. Kessler instead tries to attribute much of the (unmentioned) 1981-90 revenue increase to badly-estimated “tax increases” in 1982, 1983, 1984 and 1987.  Those tax laws mainly involved in reneging on promises to further accelerate business depreciation in 1984-85, not changes in rates. The 1983 law raised the Social Security tax rate one percentage point, but not until 1988-90.

Kessler also changes the subject from growth of revenue over time to revenues as percentage of GDP. He says, “revenues as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), which is the best way to compare across years, dropped from [a record high of] 19.1 percent in 1981 to a low of 16.9 percent in 1984, before rebounding slightly to 17.8 percent in 1989.”  Far from being “the best way” to discover whether or not “more revenue came in,” revenues as a percentage of GDP tell us almost nothing about that.  The only two times revenues hit 19% of GDP – in 1969 and 1981 – the economy and revenues promptly collapsed under that burden.

Kessler then confuses old revenue estimates with actual revenue.  He says, “the Treasury Department in 2006 confirmed that tax cuts reduced revenue.” That is untrue – at least three Pinnochios untrue.  

The author of that brief 2006 Treasury memo, Jerry Tempalski, simply compiled original static estimates from the Treasury, JCT or “statements or tables included in the Congressional Record without a citation for the source of the estimates.”  Tempalski warns that such revenue estimates “do not take into account the effect of the bills on GDP, even though some bills … were primarily designed to stimulate the economy.” He also admits that he made “no adjustment for estimates that proved to be inaccurate.”  In other words, Kessler’s alleged proof is just a list of antique estimates – some from unknown sources, some known to be wrong, and none of them extending beyond four years.

According to an updated version of this so-called Treasury Department study, the 1964 Kennedy tax cuts, which took rates down from 20-91% to 14-70%, were estimated to lose the equivalent of $64 billion in 2009 dollars. On the contrary, federal revenues in 2009 dollars soared from $710 billion in 1963 to $914 billion in 1967 – an awesome gain of 28.8% in just four years.  Similar vintage estimates for rate reductions in 1984-88 are no more credible today than those absurdly erroneous estimates of 1964. 

Measured in 2009 dollars, real federal revenues rose from $1.37 billion in 1981 to $1.64 billion by 1990 – a 21.3% gain. President Reagan left office in January 1989 but his tax rates lasted another year.  Top tax rates were then increased in 1991 and 1993, but real federal revenues in 1993 were no higher than in 1990 when the top tax rate was 28%.  As a share of GDP, revenues were 17.8% in 1989 but remained well below that level until 1995.  Revenues again reached 17.9% of GDP in 2007 (despite some revenue-losing 2001-03 tax breaks), but only14.9% from 2009 to 2012.

The usual cheerleaders for Carter-era tax rates jumped on Twitter with shouts of “Voodoo!” and “Smoke and Mirrors” when Washington Post writer Glenn Kessler awarded Rand Paul Three Pinnochios for telling the truth about tax revenues rising from 1981 to 1990.  It is Mr. Kessler who deserves Three Pinnochios. 

Jason Bedrick

Educational choice laws have the potential to expand educational opportunity and improve quality. However, design matters. Ideally, educational choice laws allow very wide participation and eschew technocratic regulations that can impede or even undermine their success.

Unfortunately, Alabama’s scholarship tax credit (STC) law is far from ideal.

Last week, the Alabama State Senate passed legislation making numerous changes to the state’s STC law. Yet while the legislation includes several improvements, the changes fail to address the law’s most serious flaws, and would further constrain what is already among the most limited private school choice laws in the nation.

Eligibility

Under the Alabama Accountability Act, low- and middle-income students who are zoned to attend a district school designated as “failing” are eligible to receive tax-credit scholarships from a nonprofit scholarship-granting organization (SGO). Sadly, while other states are seeking to expand eligibility, the Alabama Senate is seeking to further restrict it.

The legislation would lower the income eligibility level from 150 percent of Alabama’s median household income (about $65,000 for a family of four in 2014–15) to that of the federal free-and-reduced lunch program, which is 185 percent of the federal poverty line (about $44,000 for a family of four). It also eliminates the provision that allowed students to continue receiving scholarships if their parents’ income outgrew the eligibility guidelines, which could contribute to the poverty trap.

Even worse, rather than eliminate the problematic “failing schools” provision, the legislation would narrow the scope of what constitutes a “failing” school. The legislation would restrict tax-credit scholarships to students zoned to district schools scoring in the lowest 6 percent on the state standardized assessment in reading and math, down from 10 percent (among other provisions). However, even schools that perform higher on average might not meet the particular needs of particular students. Educational choice laws should provide opportunities to all students, no matter where they live or how well or poorly their local district school performs on average.

Tax Credits and Scholarships

Under current law, the total amount of tax credits available for donations to SGOs is $25 million. That may sound like a lot, but it isn’t. Alabama spends just under $10,000 per student in its district schools. If the scholarships averaged half that amount, there would be sufficient tax credits to fund only 5,000 scholarships, which is less than 0.6 percent of the approximately 841,000 district and private school students statewide. The law would raise the total credit cap by $5 million, which is a step in the right direction, but a very small one. The legislation would also eliminate the $7,500 per donor cap on tax credits, which unnecessarily limited donations to SGOs.

However, the legislation would also impose a new cap on the amount that scholarships can be worth: $6,000 for elementary school students, $8,000 for middle school students, and $10,000 for high school students. While it’s reasonable to impose some cap on scholarship sizes to ensure that the state saves money, it is better to cap the average scholarship size, as New Hampshire did, which grants SGOs greater flexibility in meeting the needs of particular families.

Confiscating Donations

Perhaps the most troubling provision of the legislation would mandate the potential confiscation of donated funds that the Alabama Supreme Court recently ruled constitute private money. But for a 5 percent allowance for administrative costs, the legislation would require SGOs to expend all tax-credit eligible donations as scholarships by the end of the following academic year. After that point, the state would confiscate the remaining donated funds and hand them to the “State Department of Education for the benefit of its At-Risk Student Program.” However noble or effective the At-Risk Student Program may be, it does not justify the confiscation of private funds donated to SGOs or any other nonprofit, no matter what tax deduction or credit the donors may receive. 

Alabama’s school choice law needs improvement, but the proposed legislation entails taking one step forward and 10 steps back. Alabama lawmakers should go back to the drawing board.

Adam Bates

A quick and happy update from New Mexico: Gov. Susana Martinez (R) has signed HB 560, which I detailed here, into law.  New Mexico has thus effectively abolished civil asset forfeiture by requiring a criminal conviction before the government can seize property.

Gov. Martinez’s statement can be read here.

House Bill 560 (HB 560) makes numerous changes to the asset forfeiture process used by law enforcement agencies in New Mexico. As an attorney and career prosecutor, I understand how important it is that we ensure safeguards are in place to protect our constitutional rights. On balance, the changes made by this legislation improve the transparency and accountability of the forfeiture process and provide further protections to innocent property owners.

As expected, civil liberties advocates across the political spectrum cheered the move.

ACLU-NM Executive Director Peter Simonson: 

This is a good day for the Bill of Rights. For years police could seize people’s cash, cars, and houses without even accusing anyone of a crime. Today, we have ended this unfair practice in New Mexico and replaced it with a model that is just and constitutional.

Institute for Justice Legislative Counsel Lee McGrath:

New Mexico has shown that ending policing for profit is a true bipartisan issue with broad public support. America is ready to end civil asset forfeiture, a practice which is not in line with our values or constitution. This law shows that we can be tough on crime without stripping property away from innocent Americans.

Emily Kaltenbach of the New Mexico chapter of the Drug Policy Alliance:

New Mexico has succeeded today in reining in one of the worst excesses of the drug war. Like other drug war programs, civil asset forfeiture is disproportionately used against poor people of color who cannot afford to hire lawyers to get their property back. This law is an important step towards repairing some of the damage the drug war has inflicted upon our society and system of justice.

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

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

This week, we have two notable items of interest.

First and foremost, a must-read article from Judith Curry’s Climate Etc. blog where Judy quite adeptly introduces us to the concept of an “availability cascade”—a process that has come to dominate and define climate alarmism. Curry writes that an

availability cascade is a self-reinforcing process of collective belief formation that triggers a self-perpetuating chain reaction: the more attention a danger gets, the more worried people become, leading to more news coverage and greater alarm.

She describes how the cascade of events began with the 1992 United Nations Rio Treaty aimed at “avoiding dangerous climate change through stabilization of [carbon dioxide] emissions,” transformed from “global warming” to “climate change” so as to pick up extreme weather events, and now has swept human health into the growing avalanche of woe.

Judy’s article is one of the best pieces we have read on the web is recent weeks (and we’re not just saying that because she incorporates some of our work!). Bravo to her! Here is a longer excerpt, but you (really, really) ought to have a look at the whole thing:

Climate change may exacerbate environmental problems that are caused by overpopulation, poorly planned land-use and over-exploitation of natural resources. However, for the most part it is very difficult to separate out the impacts of human caused climate change from natural climate change and from other societal impacts.

Nevertheless, climate change has become a grand narrative in which human-caused climate change has become a dominant cause of societal problems. Everything that goes wrong then reinforces the conviction that that there is only one thing we can do prevent societal problems–stop burning fossil fuels. This grand narrative misleads us to think that if we solve the problem of climate change, then these other problems would also be solved.

Politicians, activists and journalists have stimulated an ‘availability cascade’ [link] to support alarm about human-caused climate change. An availability cascade is a self-reinforcing process of collective belief formation that triggers a self-perpetuating chain reaction: the more attention a danger gets, the more worried people become, leading to more news coverage and greater alarm. Because slowly increasing temperatures don’t seem alarming, the ‘availability entrepreneurs’ push extreme weather events and public health impacts as being caused by human-caused climate change, more of which is in store if we don’t quickly act to cool the planet by reducing fossil fuel emissions.

… The availability cascade of climate change as apocalypse acts to narrow the viewpoints and policy options that we are willing to consider in dealing with complex issues such as public health, weather disasters and national security. Should we be surprised when reducing [carbon dioxide] emissions does not ameliorate any of these problems?

The other piece worth checking out this week appeared on the site The Conversation and was authored by Ivan Oransky, one of the founders of Retraction Watch, a site that “tracks retractions as a window in the scientific process.”

Oransky eaxmines the question, “is science really better than journalism at self-correction?” The recent Rolling Stone retraction of an “incendiary article about an alleged gang rape on the campus of the University of Virginia” has some suggesting that “journalism should be more like science” in employing a “journalistic method” much like the “scientific method,” which involves rigorous hypothesis testing. Oransky, however, thinks that science–perhaps increasingly–is failing to live up that ideal. He writes:

The problem is that in science–or, more accurately, scientific publishing–this process seldom works as directed.

… Just as a good narrative sells in the media, a compelling storyline carries outsize weight in science. Journals are more likely to publish positive findings than negative results. And as emerging scholarship shows, it’s not unusual to publish studies that simply are not true. That’s confirmation bias at work again, aided and abetted by the way many scientists use statistics. Simply put, if you do 20 experiments, one of them is likely to have a publishable result. But only publishing that result doesn’t make your findings valid. In fact it’s quite the opposite.

Why does this happen? Because the entire scientific community, from the junior researchers to the editors-in-chief, are vulnerable to the same sort of credulity from which Rolling Stone’s editors suffered, which is a particular form of confirmation bias.

At the Center for the Study of Science, we have taken this a step further and we stress how this positive finding publication bias can misshape and misdirect scientific knowledge. It’s worth checking out both Oransky’s full article and our explanations of the bigger implications. Also, the Retraction Watch website is worth bookmarking and stopping by on occasion to see the types of things have led to papers being retracted from the scientific literature. It is rather eye-opening to see all that goes on.

As always, you ought to have a look!

Chris Edwards

Presidential candidate Rand Paul has announced his support for a balanced-budget amendment (BBA) to the U.S. Constitution. This is an old idea, but a good idea. A BBA has been proposed in Congress as far back as 1936. In 1982 the Senate passed a BBA by a vote of 69-31, but it failed to get the needed two-thirds approval in the House. In 1995 a BBA passed the House by a 300-132 margin, but it fell one vote short of passage in the Senate.

Today we need a BBA more than ever. Historical budget data show that federal politicians have become increasingly irresponsible over the years. The bipartisan 19th century belief that balancing the budget was morally proper and economically prudent disappeared during the 20th century. As the chart below shows, from 1791 to 1929 the federal government balanced its budget in 68 percent of the years. But from 1930 to 2015, the government balanced its budget in just 15 percent of the years.

What changed in the 1930s? The unfortunate rise of Keynesian economics encouraged politicians to think that deficit spending helped the economy. Also, the 1935 creation of Social Security launched the government into the era of “entitlement” spending, which is spending that is on automatic pilot. Entitlement spending grows relentlessly year after year without politicians having to vote for the increases. It allows politicians to pretend that they are not responsible for the resulting deficits and debt.  

A legal cap on overall federal spending would be a better way to restrain the budget than a BBA. But either way, let’s hope that Paul can spur a renewed debate on fiscal control. We need it: despite today’s growing economy, the current administration recently proposed a budget that has half-trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see. From a historical perspective, that sort of disregard for fiscal prudence is remarkable. In his 2014 book, America’s Fiscal Constitution, Democratic politician and financial executive Bill White argued that until recently, aiming for balanced budgets was part of an “informal constitution” that both parties understood.

Another 2014 book, A Nation Wholly Free, examined the drive to eliminate the federal debt under President Andrew Jackson in the 1830s. Author Carl Lane found,

Debt freedom, Americans in the Jacksonian era believed, would improve the material quality of life in the United States. It would reduce taxes, increase disposable income, reduce the privileges of the creditor class, and, in general, generate greater equality as well as liberty.

Those early Americans were right about debt freedom. A frugal government that balances its books helps to secure liberty and benefits average citizens. Hopefully, Paul and other reform-minded candidates can revive such sound fiscal thinking in Washington.

Matthew Feeney

At the press conference this week about officer Michael Slager’s killing of Walter Scott, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said that he had ordered an additional 150 police body cameras. According to Summey, every officer in the North Charleston Police Department will be outfitted with a body camera once they have been trained to use it and a body camera policy has been written. In February, the city announced that it would spend $85,000 of a $275,000 federal grant on 115 body cameras.

It is, of course, impossible to know how Slager would have behaved if he had been wearing a body camera during his encounter with Scott. But it is worth conducting the thought experiment nonetheless. 

Let’s consider footage of the incident captured by Feidin Santana, a bystander. In the video, Scott flees a scuffle with Slager following a routine taillight traffic stop. There appear to be Taser barbs attached to Scott as he runs away from Slager, who fires eight rounds as him while standing flat-footed. Scott falls about 15–20 feet from Slager after the eighth round is fired. (The coroner reportedly told one of Scott’s family lawyers that five of those rounds hit Scott.) Slager then handcuffs Scott, returns to where the scuffle took place, picks up an object, and drops that object near Scott.

Police reports state that officers performed CPR on Scott, yet the footage shows no officers performing CPR. The video does show Scott receiving some medical attention, but this is several minutes after the shooting and does not include CPR. 

It is hard to imagine that if Slager had been wearing an operating body camera that he would have behaved the way he did. Knowing that first-person footage of the incident would be seen by investigators, would Slager have planted an object–widely believed to be his Taser–near Scott after the shooting? Would Slager, a CPR-certified officer, have left Scott without medical attention? Would he have claimed that he felt threatened when he fired eight rounds at a fleeing 50-year-old man? Would he have even fired his weapon at all?

Even if the answer to each of those questions is “yes,” a body camera would have provided officials with more information than written police reports.

Thankfully, Santana was at the scene of Scott and Slager’s scuffle and provided video showing that police reports of the killing presented an inaccurate account of what happened. But the public should not have to rely on conscientious citizens with cellphone cameras who happen to be in the right place at the right time to ensure that incidences of police misconduct are accurately reported.

Tim Lynch

Over at Cato’s Police Misconduct website, we have identified the worst case of the month for March: the conspiracy to frame an innocent man, Douglas Dendinger, in Bogalusa, LA.

Here’s the story: Dendinger agreed to take on the task of a “process server.” That is, he would hand-deliver legal papers to a person who has been sued, putting that person on notice about the legal action. In this instance, Dendinger was to serve papers on a former police officer, Chad Cassard, who was being sued for police brutality.

Dendinger found Cassard as he was leaving the local courthouse and made the delivery. At that moment, Cassard was in the company of several police officers and prosecutors. Those people became hostile and furious with Dendinger over what this lawsuit would mean for their friend/colleague.

The story then takes a bizarre and disturbing turn: Later that day, the police arrive at Dendinger’s home and arrest him on several charges, including two felonies (1) obstruction of justice and (2) witness intimidation. Cassard and a few of his cohorts claimed that Dendinger had served the papers in a violent fashion.

Because of those charges, Dendinger was in very serious legal trouble. He was looking at many years in prison.

Fortunately, a cell phone video of the “incident” emerged. Turns out, Dendinger did nothing wrong. All he did was peacefully hand-deliver an envelope to Cassard. Once the video surfaced, the charges were dropped.

We now know that local police and prosecutors leveled false accusations about what happened that day. Had the case proceeded to trial, and with no video evidence, it would have been Dendinger’s word against several witnesses with law enforcement backgrounds. A jury would have been hard pressed to disbelieve several witnesses who claimed to see the same thing. A miscarriage of justice was narrowly averted.

The cell phone video exposed an outrageous criminal conspiracy by officials in Bogalusa. More here.

Alex Nowrasteh

Senator Jeff Sessions’ (R-AL) Washington Post op-ed calls “for an honest discussion on immigration.” He then lays out his case against legal immigration. 

Although I appreciate Sessions’ honesty in calling for large reductions in legal immigration–a level of candor too often shrouded by immigration-restrictionists’ political correctness (“I’m only against illegal immigration”)–his op-ed makes a poor case for more government regulation of international labor markets.

Below, I look at Senator Sessions’ arguments against legal immigration. His writings will be in block quotes and my responses will follow.

The first “great wave” of U.S. immigration took place from roughly 1880 to 1930. During this time, according to the Census Bureau, the foreign-born population doubled from about 6.7 million to 14.2 million people. Changes were then made to immigration law to reduce admissions, decreasing the foreign-born population until it fell to about 9.6 million by 1970. Meanwhile, during this low-immigration period, real median compensation for U.S. workers surged, increasing more than 90 percent from 1948 to 1973, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Senator Sessions only presents the income data for Americans during the time when immigration was restricted. Real per-capita GDP increased by 95 percent during the 1880–1930 period of high-immigration that he cites. There are other sources for wage data from that period, although all of them are troublesome compared to the modern economic information available.

The United States did not have closed borders from 1948 to 1973. The Bracero guest-worker visa program let in nearly five million lower-skilled Mexican workers to temporarily labor in American agriculture, a policy that did more to limit unlawful immigration during that period than any other.

From 1948 to 1982, the size of the U.S. workforce practically doubled from 60 million to 111 million. A baby-boom, women entering the workforce, and other migrations increased the number of workers. The number of working women increased from 16.3 million in 1948 to 43.3 million in 1982 to 73 million in 2012. The number of male workers shot up to from 43 million in 1948 to 76 million in 2012. Female labor market gains did not take jobs away from men. There is not a fixed supply of jobs to be divided up amongst Americans: the market constantly creates and destroys new job opportunities and increasing supplies of workers and consumers help that process along.

Internal migration was also a big factor. About 29 million black and white Southerners migrated to the North during the course of the 20th century. Those migrations took place during periods of rapid income growth around the nation. If immigrants supposedly lower the wages of Americans, wouldn’t women also lower the wages of men and Southerners depress the wages of Northerners and Westerners? The scale of those migrations and the entry of women into the workforce dwarfed the post-1968 immigration.

Senator Sessions’ theory that the supply of workers is the prime determinant of wages ignores much. Worker productivity is also influenced by the type and quantity of capital in the economy, the differences between immigrant workers and native-born workers, and the availability of technology. In a well-functioning economy, increases in the supply of workers increases demand for workers, which don’t lead to more unemployment.

This ongoing wave coincides with a period of middle-class contraction. The Pew Research Center reports: ‘The share of adults who live in middle-income households has eroded over time, from 61% in 1970 to 51% in 2013.’ Harvard economist George Borjas has estimated that high immigration from 1980 to 2000 reduced the wages of lower-skilled U.S. workers by 7.4 percent—a stunning drop—with particularly painful reductions for African American workers. Weekly earnings today are lower than they were in 1973.

Senator Sessions begins by talking about middle-income households, but he cites George Borjas’ work on how lower-skilled immigrants decrease the wages of Americans with less than a high-school degree. In order to compete with middle-income Americans, immigrants must have similar skill sets. Because not all labor is the same, a lower-skilled immigrant who works in agriculture does not compete with a middle-skilled American accountant. By the senator’s own admission, immigrants are more likely to be less skilled than middle-class Americans, so it’s hard to see how immigrants in one skill category lower the wages of Americans in another.

Concerning Borjas, his findings that immigrants decrease the wages of Americans are the most negative in the economics literature. In that paper, he holds the supply of capital as fixed–an assumption that may be fine for an academic publication but it is not useful for analyzing policy. The stock of capital is dynamic, increasing with population. Ignoring that important effect would make any increase in population decrease wages. It should further be noted that Borjas, like other economists, admits that immigration does help Americans more than it harms them, but with some distributional consequences.

Applying Borjas’ research methods to different periods of time yields less negative results. This recent paper used Borjas’ methods but includes the wage data up through 2010, finding effects so small that they are insignificant. That is a significant rebuttal to Borjas’ findings.

In contrast to Borjas’ work that holds the stock of capital fixed, economists Gianmarco Ottaviano and Giovanni Peri assume that capital adjusts in response to immigrant inflows. They find that immigrants have a very small effect on the wages of native-born Americans without a high school degree (-0.1 percent to +0.6 percent) and an average positive effect on all native workers of about +0.6 percent. The negative wage effects of new immigrants are concentrated on older immigrants. Unsurprisingly, new immigrants compete with older immigrants who both share similar skills while native-born Americans benefit from a larger supply of lower-skilled workers.

Research by Peri and Chad Sparber finds that increases in lower-skilled immigration induce lower-skilled natives to specialize in jobs that require communication in English while the immigrants specialize in jobs that are more manual-labor intensive. Communication jobs are more highly compensated than manual-labor jobs. This complementary task specialization reduces the downward wage pressure because natives react by adapting and specializing in more highly paid occupations, not by dropping out of the job market. This effect decreases wage competition between lower-skilled natives and immigrants by around 75 percent. Peter Henry found that low-skilled immigrants to an area induced natives to improve their school performance so that they wouldn’t have to compete with lower skilled immigrants. Immigrants push Americans up the skills ladder.

Yet each year, the United States adds another million mostly low-wage permanent legal immigrants who can work, draw benefits and become voting citizens. Legal immigration is the primary source of low-wage immigration into the United States. In other words, as a matter of federal policy—which can be adjusted at any time—millions of low-wage foreign workers are legally made available to substitute for higher-paid Americans.

If controlling immigration to the United States was as easy as flipping a policy switch, then there would be no debate over immigration reform. The most contentious issue, the 11 to 12 million unlawful immigrants, wouldn’t be here. The only times in American history when our immigration laws were largely obeyed were when there was a Great Depression that turned off the “jobs magnet,” a world war that prevented the crossing of borders, and a large-scale guest-worker program to funnel would-be unlawful immigrants into the legal system (the Bracero program). Since 1964, we have not had a Great Depression (thank God), world war (thank God), or a functional guest-worker visa program for lower-skilled workers. As a result, we have a large problem with illegal immigration that spending on border enforcement can’t halt. Only a functional legal immigration system can prevent illegal immigration.

This federal policy continues at a time when robotics and computerization are slashing demand for workers. One Oxford University professor estimates that as many as half of all jobs will be automated in 20 years. We don’t have enough jobs for our lower-skilled workers now. What sense does it make to bring in millions more?

Economist, futurist, and Artificial Intelligence researcher Robin Hanson is skeptical of the claim that 47 percent of jobs are at risk of being automated. He wrote:

Yet this 47 percent figure comes mainly from the authors ‘subjectively’ (their word) labeling 30 particular kinds of jobs as automatable and 40 as not. They give almost no justification or explanation for how they chose these labels. Such a made-up figure hardly seems a sufficient basis for expecting catastrophe.

Even if 47 percent of jobs were soon to be automated, why not let the market decide how many workers should be added to our economy? Surely the free market is better able to regulate labor markets than well-meaning politicians.

Every few decades going back to the early 19th century, concerns about machines taking away our jobs briefly push Luddite fears to the forefront of public debate. Interestingly, an editorial adjacent to Senator Sessions’ op-ed in the Washington Post is skeptical of Luddism. What sense does it make for the U.S. government to base immigration policy on yet another prediction that our jobs will soon be automated?

The percentage of the country that is foreign-born is on track to rapidly eclipse any previous historical peak and to continue rising. Imagine the pressure this will put on wages, as well as schools, hospitals and many other community resources.

The economy is dynamic and adaptive, just like immigrants. They don’t just magically appear on our shores; they are incentivized to come here for economic, family, or humanitarian reasons. If there are few job opportunities then fewer immigrants will come. Once here, immigrants increase production and demand for goods and services.

As a percentage of the U.S.-born population, yearly immigrant flows to the U.S. are half of what they were during the 19th century and early 20th centuries. Australia’s immigrants, as a percent of their entire population, is about double what it is in the United States. Using the same metric, Canada’s immigrant population is about 50 percent bigger than in the United States. Australia and Canada are both wealthy, growing economies with more liberalized immigration and migration policies than the United States. Senator Sessions has spoken approvingly of Canada’s immigration system in the past. Having more immigrants is correlated with a more quickly growing economy, not increasing poverty and joblessness.

As for the pressure on government services, those must be put in to perspective. It is currently illegal for new immigrants to get most means-tested welfare benefits. Those barriers to welfare use should be increased, as we’ve written about in detail at Cato. Even so, poor immigrants use much less means-tested welfare than poor-natives. We should absolutely seek to lower those expenditures through welfare reform, but imposing more government controls over immigration is a difficult and backwards way to go about it. The fiscal effects of immigration are small–mostly clustered around zero. The long-term taxes paid by immigrants and generated through the economic activity they jumpstart are about equal to the benefits that they consume. (Read here for a literature survey on the topic.)

If welfare and government budgets are the primary concerns, then reform or eliminate those programs. Reforming the fiscal policies of the government will have a much bigger, direct, and immediate effect on our budgetary problems than attempting to change demographics by fiddling with immigration policy.

What we need now is immigration moderation: slowing the pace of new arrivals so that wages can rise, welfare rolls can shrink and the forces of assimilation can knit us all more closely together.

The pace of immigrant assimilation is unaffected by immigration restrictions and has been for as long as data on the issue have been available.

But high immigration rates help the financial elite (and the political elite who receive their contributions) by keeping wages down and profits up. For them, what’s not to like? That is why they have tried to enforce silence in the face of public desire for immigration reductions. They have sought to intimidate good and decent Americans into avoiding honest discussion of how uncontrolled immigration impacts their lives.

Any honest discussion of immigration must acknowledge that our immigration system is more complex and restricted than virtually any other sector of the economy. A two-second glance at this chart of immigration laws should be enough to dispel the myth that immigration is “uncontrolled.” Indeed, too much government control over an economic activity leads to chaos. The problem with immigration isn’t that it’s “uncontrolled,” but that the quantity and restrictiveness of government controls have created an unpredictable system of arbitrary government edicts and poorly understood statutes that run contrary to our rule-of-law principles.

There is undoubtedly wage competition between some immigrants and some Americans. But that relatively small amount of wage competition is dwarfed by the economic gains of a more open labor market. Senator Sessions points to some problems in America, like a stubbornly high unemployment rate for some workers and an unsustainable welfare state, but economic protectionism through immigration restrictions will not fix these problems; it will only worsen them.

I’ve previously rebutted Senator Sessions’ claims that immigration will make us poorer. I’m not alone in thinking that immigration is a boon for the U.S. economy. Virtually every economist who studies immigration concludes that it benefits Americans. Economist David Card called research on the topic “the elusive search for negative wage impacts of immigration.” An honest discussion over immigration policy must also consider the universally acknowledged and known economic benefits of immigrants.

Gerald P. O'Driscoll Jr.

A monetary standard is a set of institutions and rules governing the supply of money in an economy. These rules and institutions collectively constrain the production of money. Through its constraints on money creation, the standard indirectly acts on prices. A monetary standard may also affect the rate of growth of real economic output, but that depends on expectations. Monetary institutions may also affect other economic institutions, which themselves influence economic growth.

Some authors talk about a monetary regime, and still others a monetary constitution. For purposes of this discussion, the same underlying issues are being discussed.

The banking and financial system interacts with the monetary standard and differences in the one may affect how the other operates. Though very important, the banking and financial system is not my main focus.

Modern authors often talk of the “choice” of a monetary standard, but historically monetary standards evolved over time. Gold and silver evolved as the money of choice by an historical process first enunciated by the Austrian economist Carl Menger in 1892.[1]

Sovereigns often tried to choose a monetary standard, as by decreeing either gold or silver to be money. Sometimes their choices were effective and sometimes market forces upended their choices. That was especially likely to occur when a sovereign choose two standards (bimetallism), most often a gold and a silver standard.

If the sovereign chose wisely, he adopted an exchange rate between the two metals reflecting their market prices. Inevitably, over time, the market exchange rate between the two metals changed due to demand and supply factors. Each metal had nonmonetary uses, and demand conditions tended to change over time. So, too, did supply conditions for the two metals.

Once market and official exchange rates diverged, bimetallism became unstable. The metal undervalued in monetary use would tend to disappear into nonmonetary uses. The bimetallic standard evolved into a monometallic standard.

There is an important lesson here. In monetary matters (as in others), a sovereign proposes and the market disposes.

We now live in a fiat money world. That is, we have a fiat monetary standard, which has its own institutions and rules. The standard critique of such a standard is that it does not sufficiently constrain inflation. The value of a U.S. dollar today is a small fraction of what it was in 1913, the year the Federal Reserve System was enacted into law.[2] Differences in the inflation performance of different standards are very important. But they may not be the most important issue.

Consider the case for the gold standard made by one of its most prominent exponents. “The gold standard was the world standard of the age of capitalism, increasing welfare, liberty, and democracy, both political and economic. In the eyes of free traders its main eminence was precisely the fact that it was an international standard as required by international trade and the transactions of the international money and capital market.”[3] The linkage between the gold standard, free trade, free capital markets, and global prosperity is the strong argument for a gold standard. It has recently been reprised by Benn Steil and Manuel Hinds.[4]

Mises also made an essentially political argument for the gold standard, or what he termed sound money. “Ideologically it belongs in the same class with political constitutions and bills of rights. The demand for constitutional guarantees and for bills of rights was a reaction against arbitrary rule and the non-observance of old customs by kings.”[5]

The argument is that the gold standard, free trade and free capital flows are interlinked. It exemplifies how the selection or evolution of a monetary standard also affects other economic institutions. Along with the rule of law, they were the source of strong economic growth in both the West, especially in the United Kingdom and the United States in the 19th century.[6]

My main point in this introductory comment is that the selection of a monetary standard is not merely a technical issue. It is also an embodiment of political values, and one’s view of the relationship between the citizen and the state.

[1] Menger, C. (1892) “On the Origin of Money.” Trans.C. A. Foley. Economic Journal2: 238-55.

[2] The United States was on the gold standard when the Federal Reserve was created. The movement from gold to fiat money occurred in stages.

[3] Mises, L. von (1966) Human Action: A Treatise on Economics. 3rd ed. Chicago: Henry Regnery, p. 472.

[4] Steill, B. and M. Hinds (2009) Money, Markets and Sovereignty. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

[5] Mises, L. von (1971) The Theory of Money and Credit. Trans. H. E. Batson. Irvington-on-Hudson, The Foundation for Economic Education, p. 414.

[6] The United States was legally on a bimetallic standard in the 19th century (except during suspension in the Civil War). It was not formally on the gold standard until the Gold Standard Act of 1900.

[Cross-posted from Alt-M.org]

Emma Ashford

A front page story in today’s Washington Post highlights that the failure of the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition campaign in Yemen is already becoming apparent:

Two weeks into a Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, airstrikes appear to have accelerated the country’s fragmentation into warring tribes and militias while doing little to accomplish the goal of returning the ousted Yemeni president to power, analysts and residents say.

Foreign Policy makes similar points:

Through its backing of Saudi Arabia—with bombs, intelligence, refueling, and search-and-rescue capabilities—and Riyadh’s military intervention in Yemen, the United States is effectively at war with the impoverished land that occupies the southwestern heel of the Arabian Peninsula. That war is going spectacularly badly.

None of this should be surprising. Yemen’s history is replete with tribal conflict and failed invasions, as I highlighted yesterday in the New York Times. Yemeni insurgencies have defeated the British, the Egyptians, and the Saudis in the last 50 years alone.

As I discuss in the op-ed, neither bombing nor a ground invasion can solve Yemen’s domestic problems, most of which are economic:

The Houthis have long felt marginalized by Yemen’s political processes, and argue that corruption and a lack of representation mean that they don’t experience any benefits from economic development or Yemen’s natural resources.

It’s becoming increasingly obvious that there is no clear path to victory in Yemen. A stable resolution of the conflict is less likely by the day, and the degenerating situation is actually counterproductive for U.S. interests in the region:

Yemen has the potential to become the next Syria, spiraling into sectarian violence, with money and arms from abroad fueling the conflict. If Arab airstrikes continue, Yemen is likely to become a failed state. Tragically, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula would be the one beneficiary, as the terrorist group enjoys a respite from drone strikes, counterterrorism campaigns and Houthi attacks.

So what should the United States do? Push for a political solution now, while it’s still possible to reach one:

The United States should encourage a political settlement, focused not on reinstalling a figurehead, but on creating a durable political process that addresses the grievances of Yemen’s regional groups. A two-sector federalized state, which the Houthis have supported in the past, could provide such a framework.

There appears to have been little attempt by U.S. leaders to discourage the Gulf states from engaging in military action in Yemen, even though such actions run counter to American interests. And with every day the military campaign in Yemen continues, it becomes less likely that a political settlement can be reached. U.S. leaders need to step back from this ill-advised military campaign and engage on Yemen diplomatically, before it’s too late.

Christopher A. Preble

President Obama has signaled that his administration may remove Cuba from the state sponsor of terrorism list. The change should have occurred years ago, but would be particularly appropriate now, at a time when the United States is trying to resume economic and diplomatic ties with the country. Cuba’s inclusion on the list is a major sticking point in these negotiations. 

It is reasonable to surmise that the defenders of the Cold War-era embargo, including Senator Marco Rubio and the editors of the Wall Street Journal, oppose a change in Cuba’s terror sponsor designation because they want to thwart normalization. They ignore the fact that the embargo has failed to bring about regime change in Havana, and has similarly failed to expand the freedoms of innocent Cubans caught in the middle of the running dispute between Washington and Havana. The WSJ notes, for example, that the Cuban government’s repression of political dissidents and human right activists continues, but doesn’t explain how a continuation of the status quo will force a change in Havana’s behavior. 

Indeed, the embargo hasn’t merely failed. It denies Americans their basic rights to trade with and travel to the country. It also functions as a convenient excuse for the Castros and their cronies when they are pressed to explain why Cubans lag well behind others in the Western Hemisphere in terms of economic development and basic living standards. It says a lot about the magnanimity of the Cuban people, who have been lied to for so long about U.S. intentions, and who have been told that America is to blame for their misery, that they still retain a measure of affection for their neighbor to the north. If removing Cuba from the list hastens the process toward normalization, that might be reason enough to do so.

But the best reason for removing Cuba from the state sponsor of terrorism list may be because Cuba does not appear to be a state sponsor of terrorism. As a story in today’s Washington Post notes, “In many ways, the U.S. designation, first imposed in 1982, is a Cold War relic. Although the United States strongly objects to Cuba’s domestic policies, it has offered no evidence for decades that Cuba is actively involved in terrorism abroad.”

This situation is not unique to Cuba. The terror sponsor list has become a catch-all for countries we don’t like very much, including for other reasons – human rights abuses, weapons proliferation, and general roguish behavior. Countries should be scorned, and perhaps even sanctioned, for such activities, but casting them as terrorist sponsors when they clearly are not renders the entire enterprise farcical. CFR’s Micah Zenko makes a great case for abolishing the state sponsor of terrorism list entirely. 

The president is unlikely to make such a dramatic step, of course, but he could push to ensure that it includes those states that actually do sponsor terrorism. An accurate list would likely include a number of long-time U.S. allies, which, no doubt, would make for some awkward embassy cocktail parties.

David Boaz

Rand Paul might take some inspiration from the final season of NBC’s late, lamented The West Wing. In that final 2005 season, presidential candidates battled to succeed President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen). The eventual nominees were Democratic Rep. Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Republican Sen. Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda).

Peter Funt, son and heir of Candid Camera creator Allen Funt, wrote in 2008 that the West Wing writers were in touch with Obama strategist David Axelrod as they created the Santos character, who was sort of a “test market” to “soften up millions of Americans for the task of electing the first minority president.” And he noted that Obama’s staffers “especially like the ending” of the West Wing plot, in which Santos narrowly defeats Vinick.

But Funt left out the part that might make Paul supporters optimistic. After the libertarianish Vinick got the Republican nomination, former Democratic strategist Bruno Giannelli (Ron Silver) went to him and told him that with his image he could win a landslide victory: You, he said, “are exactly where 60 percent of the voters are: Pro-choice, anti-partial birth, pro-death penalty, anti-tax, pro-environment and pro-business, pro-balanced budget.”Now, that’s not exactly Rand Paul’s policy portfolio. But Paul’s positions similarly cut across partisan divides and just might appeal to that same 60 percent majority.

The high point of the West Wing campaign was a debate that broke the rules of both presidential debates and television drama: The “candidates” threw out the usual formal debate rules and just questioned each other, and the actors improvised their questions and answers on live television from a partially written script. They actually did two live performances that night, for the East Coast and the West Coast.

In the debate, Vinick showed those center-libertarian colors against Santos’s tired old big-government liberalism dressed up in appeals to hope. The morning after that debate aired on NBC, libertarian-leaning Republicans told each other, “if only a real candidate could articulate our values as well as a liberal actor did!”

Asked about creating jobs, Vinick declared, “Entrepreneurs create jobs. Business creates jobs. The President’s job is to get out of the way.”

On alternative energy:

I don’t trust politicians to choose the right new energy sources. I believe in the free market. You know, the government didn’t switch us from whale oil to the oil found under the ground. The market did that. And the government didn’t make the Prius the hottest selling car in Hollywood. That was the market that did that. In L.A. now, the coolest thing you can drive is a hybrid. Well, if that’s what the free market can do in the most car-crazed culture on Earth, then I trust the free market to solve our energy problems. You know, you know, the market can change the way we think. It can change what we want. Government can’t do that. That’s why the market has always been a better problem-solver than government and it always will be.

His closing statement:

Matt has more confidence in government than I do. I have more confidence in freedom — your freedom; your freedom to choose your child’s school, your freedom to choose the car or truck that’s right for you and your family, your freedom to spend or save your hard-earned money instead of having the government spend it for you. I’m not anti-government. I just don’t want any more government than we can afford. We don’t want government doing things it doesn’t know how to do or doing things the private sector does better or throwing more money at failed programs because that’s exactly what makes people lose faith in government.

And after the debate, a Zogby poll found that even among the young, liberal-skewing viewers of The West Wing, Vinick had crushed Santos. Before the episode, viewers between 18 and 29 preferred Santos over Vinick, 54 percent to 37 percent. But after the debate, Vinick led among viewers under age 30, 56 percent to 42 percent. Republicans can only dream of such numbers–unless maybe they try sounding like Arnie Vinick.

West Wing producers were taken aback by the reactions of real live “voters” to their real live debate. After seven years of heroically portraying the honest, decent, liberal President Jed Bartlet–-an idealized Bill Clinton who wouldn’t take off his coat, much less his pants, in the Oval Office–-they weren’t about to let a crotchety old Republican beat their handsome Hispanic hero. So they conjured up a meltdown in a nuclear power plant that Vinick had supported, and Santos won the election.

If only the Republicans could nominate another Arnie Vinick, with strong convictions and appeal to independents–and there’s no nuclear meltdown–they might just find a majority in a presidential election.

Nicole Kaeding

Republicans control both chambers of Congress. Republicans trumpet their desire to cut federal spending and control the growth in entitlement programs, but a number of their actions over the last month suggest otherwise.  

First, Congress is supporting large increases to defense spending. The Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011 sets defense spending at $523 billion for fiscal year 2016, but both chambers want to provide more funding while getting credit for honoring its previous promises. Each chamber authorized $96 billion in additional funding for 2016, using the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) slush fund to get around BCA spending caps. That exceeds the $58 billion requested by President Obama for OCO. It also exceeds the $74 billion spent in OCO for fiscal year 2015. In total, Congress will authorize $619 billion in defense spending for fiscal year 2016.

Second, Congress is set to increase spending with its repeal of the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR). The SGR, passed in 1997, attempts to limit the growth in Medicare spending by cutting payments to doctors if Medicare grows too quickly. Historically, Congress has been hesitant to actually allow the payment cuts to go into effect, so it instead has delayed the cuts 17 times in 13 years.

House Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi negotiated a deal in March to eliminate the SGR permanently. In exchange, small reforms to Medicare would be made. However, the deal would expands the deficit. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the SGR repeal package would increase the deficit by $141 billion over 10 years.

The House  passed the deal with an overwhelming margin, 392–37, throwing fiscal restraint out the window. The Senate is expected to consider the legislation next week. Several senators are pushing for the Senate to pay for the bill before passing it, but their success is far from certain.

Third, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, is suggesting that Congress could support higher spending than in its budget resolutions. Ryan voiced support for a deal between Congress and the president to hike spending. As then-chairman of the Budget Committee, he negotiated a similar deal in 2013 that increased spending for fiscal years 2014 and 2015, but promised that spending cuts would resume after that. At the time he said, “We are not turning the sequester [automatic spending cuts] off, we are just giving a little bit of short-term relief for the sequester.” Now, he is suggesting providing more sequester relief for fiscal year 2016, the first year following his original deal.

Ryan has a long history leading the House GOP Conference on budgetary issues. He likely represents the majority view on the issue. Further, the White House has said that it will not support spending bills that match the budget resolution amounts, suggesting that a deal needs to be struck. But Ryan’s statements basically concede the negotiations before they even begin. Higher spending is coming.

It is less than 100 days into the new Republican Congress, and Republicans are already disappointing fiscally conservative voters on spending restraint. Multiple actions over the last month suggest that Republicans may be no more committed to spending restraint than President Obama and the Democrats.

Walter Olson

We’ve noted repeatedly how the U.S. Department of Education, using authority it claims under Title IX and other federal laws, has arm-twisted the nation’s colleges and universities into stripping away procedural protections for faculty and students facing charges of sexual misconduct, sought to regulate speech as “verbal conduct,” and urged colleges to record microaggressive behaviors that do not rise to the level of harassment or assault but might add up in time to some future pattern. The resulting federal pressure has done much to generate a campus atmosphere in which administrators like those at the University of Virginia react even to unsubstantiated and soon-refuted assault claims with harsh crackdowns directed at whole groups of students against whom no misconduct whatsoever has been charged.

The substance of what the feds have been doing in this area has rightly stirred outrage, but another side of it also deserves scrutiny: it’s based on sheer fiat, on a series of “because we say so” edicts. A few recent items:

  • Early this year, the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee released “Recalibrating Regulation of Colleges and Universities,” the lengthy report of a group called the Task Force on Federal Regulation of Higher Education with assistance from the American Council on Education. The federal government, according to the report, has entangled colleges in a continually expanding “jungle of red tape” (the Department of Education now “issues official guidance to amend or clarify its rules at a rate of more than one document per work day”). Not only does the department’s regulatory process (see pp. 32 et seq.) generate new rulemakings that are not well grounded in statutory authority, but it regularly takes the form of “Dear Colleague” letters, informal field advisories, and other “subregulatory guidance” that dodges the important legal safeguards of actual rulemaking, such as notice and comment to the public and the generating of a decisionmaking record well suited to judicial review (pp. 35–37). The crackdown on college discipline famously has taken the form of a “Dear Colleague” letter and associated guidance, not a formal regulation.
  • Both the task force report and our friend Hans Bader of the Competitive Enterprise Institute show how the Department now routinely uses these free-floating processes to extend regulatory burdens across a whole range of issues, not just Title IX: rules on for-profit college performance, Clery-law crime reporting, disability-based harassment (on which more, and note the push for school authority over students’ off-campus social media use), race-conscious K–12 discipline, information collection, and on and on.
  • Boston College Prof. R. Shep Melnick, an expert on regulatory procedure, casts a critical eye on the enforcement practices of the Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in this Liberty Law Forum podcast (and don’t miss Michael Greve’s eloquent reactions here and here, focusing on OCR’s interpretation of “disparate impact” theory to devise new guidance on what it calls “resource comparability” between schools). Relatedly, a symposium in the Federalist Society’s Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy last year examined possible remedies to stealth or back-door regulation [see John Graham and James Broughel’s summary]

All that brings us to the big question: were someone to challenge OCR’s kangaroo-court regulations on college discipline, would they stand up in court? David Bernstein at Volokh Conspiracy in November offered three reasons why they might not. It may be difficult to persuade a college to serve as a test case, given the annihilating possibility of a federal funds cutoff as the penalty of its presumption. But given the spectacular collapse of the University of Virginia allegations, might this not be a good time to try?

Benjamin H. Friedman

This Monday at noon, Cato hosts “The Newburgh Sting and the FBI’s Production of the Domestic Terrorism Threat.” The event will consider how the FBI and others elements of our domestic security apparatus now generate a sense of the terrorist danger that they combat. David Heilbroner will show clips from his 2014 documentary on the Newburgh four terrorist case, which aired on HBO. Naureen Shah of Amnesty International and John Mueller of Cato and Ohio State will comment. RSVP here.

You can get a sense of the issue from this 2007 headline, from The Onion: “U.S. Counter-Counterterrorism Unit Successfully Destroys Washington Monument.” The counter-counterterrorism unit, the satirical article says, was “created in 2004 in response to the lack of terror activity since the Sept. 11 attacks,” and tasked with “raising awareness among the American public of the ‘myriad unknown threats’ that still face the country,” by demonstrating vulnerability to terrorism.

That’s make-believe, of course. No U.S. government agency has been bombing monuments, or anything else on U.S. soil. But still, like other good satire, the article gets at truth more effectively than conventional rendering of facts.

The standard view remains that the trauma of the September 11 attacks awakened Americans to their vulnerability to terrorism from without and within—terrorists groups overseas like al Qaeda and the “lone-wolf” self-starters they inspire. While our leaders, over the last decade, have become less prone to warn of imminent apocalyptic attacks, they still mostly contend that skilled terrorists lurk among us, evaluating our vulnerabilities, exploiting technologies and always growing more diabolical. That view, of course, is what justifies several of our ongoing military campaigns, various curtailments of civil liberties, and vast expenditures of our wealth for domestic security. Its proponents cite as evidence the terrorist plots found in the country since 2001.

But as The Onion suggests, our fear of terrorism and defenses against it are something of a self-licking ice cone. The surge of political pressure to find the terrorists among us in the early 2000s created a great hunt. The hunters include 104 Joint Terrorism Task Forces, roughly 80 fusion centers, depending on how you count, police at three levels of government, their paid informants, federal prosecutors, intelligence agencies, elements of the Department of Homeland Security, and all of us, at least insofar as we heed officials exhortions to maintain vigilance against something. Institutionalizing the hunt, I like to say, heightens fear of the danger hunted. That occurs not only due to greater scrutiny, but also due to the tendency to expand the definition of danger–essentially creating criminals by criminalizing more conduct.

With its terrorism stings, the FBI has taken things a step further. Relying on the meager odds of a successful “entrapment” defense and thousands of informants, the Bureau creates fraudulent plots to bait people into becoming terrorists. A variety of recent works, most notably Trevor Aaronson’s The Terror Factory, document how many of the terrorists caught (or created) by these plots are too foolish, incompetent, or mentally ill to have produced a terrorist plot without the FBI’s aid.

You may ask: aren’t we better safe than sorry? Might not even a nincompoop, whose “buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in scope” (the judge’s description of one of the Newburgh defendants) become a true threat without prophylactic policing? Might it be impossible or at least very inefficient to filter out buffoons and catch only real bad guys? These are points that FBI leaders would raise. The panels will address them and also consider the costs of such methods — whether Newburgh-type cases take attention and manpower from bigger dangers, alienate Muslim immigrants, or preserve a sense of insecurity that generates foolish policies.

Chris Edwards

For more than a century, the federal government has pursued a misguided witch hunt against perceived monopolies in the private sector. But in a glaring hypocrisy, Congress has long protected one of the nation’s largest businesses against competition. The legal monopoly conferred on the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is a relic. Government-run mail makes no sense in our email-dominated economy, and other nations are showing that postal privatization works. If the centuries-old Royal Mail can be privatized, then so can our USPS.

In a new study, former Clinton administration economist Robert Shapiro provides useful input to the privatization debate. He looks at the subsidies that Congress confers on the USPS, as well as the extra costs.

Here are some background facts from Shapiro:

  • With more than 600,000 workers, the USPS is the nation’s second largest civilian employer, after Wal-Mart.
  • The USPS has three protected monopoly products: first-class mail, standard mail (bulk circulars, catalogs, etc.), and periodicals.
  • Employee wages and benefits account for 78 percent of USPS costs. Average USPS worker compensation is at least 32 percent higher than comparable private-sector workers.
  • Since the last time Congress supposedly fixed the USPS in 2006, the agency has been losing more than $4 billion a year.

 Here are some of the benefits that Congress confers on the USPS, according to Shapiro:

  • The USPS has exclusive access to mailboxes. That saves the agency more than $14 billion a year compared to the costs faced by private delivery companies. 
  • If the USPS had been required to compete in recent decades, it would have had higher productivity growth and lower costs today of about $20 billion.
  • The USPS can borrow from the U.S. Treasury at subsidized interest rates. That creates an annual subsidy of more than $400 million per year.
  • The USPS is exempt from state and local property taxes. Since the market value of USPS property is about $85 billion, that exemption is worth about $1.5 billion a year. The agency is also exempt from vehicle registration fees, tickets, and other local charges.
  • The USPS is required to pay federal corporate income taxes on some of its earnings. But those taxes go to the Treasury’s Postal Service Fund and are circulated back to the USPS, creating a benefit of more than $800 million in 2014.
  • The USPS enjoys economies of scale and scope created by its monopoly. Shapiro says, “the USPS can leverage these network advantages supported by its monopoly to reduce its costs in the competitive market for package delivery.”
  • The USPS is not bound by local zoning ordinances.
  • The USPS “is immune from certain civil actions, including libel, slander, misrepresentation and any injury arising from the misdelivery or loss of uninsured mail.”

While Congress confers those advantages on the USPS, it also imposes costs. Shapiro says that the USPS is required to:

  • Maintain residential service six days a week, which imposes added costs of $2.2 billion a year compared to five-day service.
  • Give discounted rates for non-profit groups, which costs it more than $1.1 billion per year.
  • Provide a special rate for periodicals, which costs it more than $500 million per year.
  • Retain inefficient post office locations, which costs it more than $300 million per year.

All in all, America’s postal industry is a complex mess of subsidies and inefficiencies. There is no good reason for all these special rules. The rise of email has created a powerful competitor to letter delivery, and so mail is no longer a natural monopoly, if it ever was. Furthermore, America is teeming with entrepreneurs who would love to take a crack at mail delivery. Our experience with deregulation in telecommunications and other industries has shown that open competition drives efficiency and innovation, which ultimately benefits consumers and overall growth.

In his essay on privatizing the postal service, Tad DeHaven concludes: “It’s time to let go of the nostalgia for the USPS and bring America’s postal services into the 21st century with privatization, open competition, and entrepreneurial innovation.”

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

Global Science Report is a weekly 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.”

When the national media covers a weather story these days, it almost certainly will find some angle in which to insert/assert an element of human-caused climate change, and that element will always be characterized such as to have made the situation worse. It would take a lot of thinking on our part to try to recollect a major weather-related story in which the global warming was suggested to have ameliorated the impact—this despite a scientific literature that is complex and nebulous as to the direction of most impacts, and even less certain regarding the current detectability of such impacts.

Take for example the coverage of the current drought in California. As the drought drags on with spring snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas at record low levels—a finding which has prompted California Gov. Brown to enact statewide water restrictions—the press is eager to finger our greenhouse gas-spewing modern economy as the prime culprit. The problem is most scientific research suggests that the lack of precipitation in California has its roots in natural variability (for example, this recent paper by Thomas Delworth and colleagues which finds a common cause to drought in the western U.S. and the hiatus in global warming).

Thus, for the time being at least, bedeviled by actual science, most in the press have resisted placing much of the blame on the lack of precipitation at the feet of anthropogenic global warming.

But, there are actually two components which contribute to drought: 1) lack of precipitation, and 2) high temperatures.

Stymied on the first, many in the media have turned to the second. 

After all, what’s a more obvious tie-in to global warming than higher-than-average temperatures? Or, in this case, even better yet, the record high temperatures that California has been experiencing as of late.

Check out the coverage of the drought from two prominent and popuar weather/climate oriented blogs—Andrew Freedman’s articles at Mashable, and Jason Samenow’s for Capital Weather Gang.

Freedman writes:

“We are now seeing the rise of a new, supercharged type of drought, in which global warming-related temperature extremes combine with dry conditions to transform what would otherwise be an ordinary drought event into a far more severe event.” 

And following Samenow’s headline “Hot hands: Fingerprints of climate change all over California drought” he tells us:

“California’s astonishingly low snowpack, a pathetic 5 percent of normal, and the severity of the drought afflicting the state isn’t some fluke. It’s a likely consequence of climate change, specifically the rising temperatures which are intensifying many of the processes causing the state to lose water at an alarming rate.”

If only things were so simple. In fact, they are not.

Several factors confound such a haste accusation.

First, drought begets high temperatures, and vice versa. When conditions are dry, instead of being occupied evaporating moisture from the soil, more incoming solar radiation (i.e., sunshine) goes towards raising the air temperature. And high temperatures enable the air to hold more moisture, which increases the process of evaporation. So, the lack of precipitation (itself linked to natural variability) helps lead to higher temperatures, which themselves, lead to worsening drought conditions.

No global warming necessary.

And second, many of the same elements of natural variability which have been linked to the precipitation deficit also act to elevate the temperature—something which is summarily being ignored by many in the media—but not by us!

Recall a couple of months ago we reported an a new study by Jim Johnstone and Nathan Mantua, researchers who, among other things, specialize in studying atmosphere/ocean  circulation patterns across the Pacific Ocean and how they impact the climatology/hydrology/ecology of the West Coast of the U.S. Johnstone and Mantua found that naturally occurring atmospheric pressure patterns across the northeast Pacific Ocean—patterns which they traced back more than 100 years—could explain virtually all of the increase in temperature that had occurred over large portions of the Pacific Northwest, and extending down into northern California. In southern California, the same patterns explained a bit more than half the long-term observed temperature increase. They wrote:

“These results suggest that natural internally generated changes in atmospheric circulation were the primary cause of coastal NE Pacific warming from 1900 to 2012 and demonstrate more generally that regional mechanisms of interannual and multidecadal temperature variability can also extend to century time scales.”

But their analysis ended in 2012. What about the years since then—the years which encompass the current California drought and record high temperatures?

We wrote to Dr. Johnstone and asked whether they had any updates to their analysis and he wrote back pointing us to this page on his website—a page dedicated to the study described above, and which included updates through March 2015. There we find that the naturally occurring atmospheric pressure pattern that Johnstone and Mantua linked to the long-term warming across California (and the Pacific Northwest) was very high during the past several years and, in fact, reached its highest anomalies on record during the past several months. In other words, the same mechanism which explains the majority of the observed temperature rise in California since the beginning of the 20th century also explains why it has been especially hot in California recently.

Again, no global warming necessary.

Dr. Johnstone did point out to us that the “The model underpredicts the magnitude of the current warm anomaly, but this is typical of strong peaks.” This type of behavior (underprediction of extreme values) is commonplace in the statistical methodology (linear regression analysis) employed by Johnstone and Mantua. And it is within this underprediction where the impact of global warming may be residing, although it is potentially sharing that space with drought-induced high temperatures, local landscape changes (e.g., urban warming), a non-linear response to atmospheric pressure forcing, and a host of other circulation factors.

In other words, any impact of human-caused global warming on the recent high temperatures in California (and their influence on drought conditions) is minor at best and most likely undetectable—and not deserving of the level of credit that good folks like Freedman and Samenow have bestowed upon it.

This is a conclusion supported by the scientific literature and basic climatology, but which is absent popular press coverage of the ongoing drought.

As the late Paul Harvey would say, “And now you know the rest of the story.”

Adam Bates

It’s been a bad week for Stingray secrecy.  Following a court-ordered document dump in New York earlier this week, a Baltimore detective yesterday testified in court that he had personally used a Stingray between 600 and 800 times during two years as a member of the Baltimore Police Department’s Advanced Technical Team.  He also testified that the unit has used such devices 4,300 times since 2007.

Stingrays are handheld or vehicle-mounted surveillance devices that operate by mimicking cell towers.  They have the capability to force cell phones within their range to connect with the Stingray and transmit ID information from the phone.  Some models - the technology is constantly being upgraded to keep pace with advancing telecommunications infrastructure - are suspected of being able to intercept content, but the true extent of the capability is a closely-guarded secret. What is increasingly not a secret is that dozens of law enforcement agencies around the country have been using these devices for years to sweep up swaths of cell phone data, much of it from innocent people, with little to no transparency or oversight.

The Baltimore detective refused to produce the device in court, citing an FBI non-disclosure agreement. The FCC, which regulates radio-emitting devices like Stingrays, has delegated to the FBI the authority to set conditions on local use of cell site simulators.  The FBI, in turn, produced an agreement so restrictive that police and prosecutors can be obligated to withdraw evidence or even drop charges rather than disclose the use of the devices to the court.

As more and more information about these devices and their uses by law enforcement trickles out, it’s worth questioning what value exists in these secrecy agreements.  Despite repeated references to “terrorists” and “national security” as a means for maintaining secrecy about Stingray use, the data that has been released detailing the purposes of actual Stingray investigations - such as this breakdown from the Tallahassee Police Department that contains not a single terrorism reference - suggests that Stingrays are used virtually entirely for routine law enforcement investigations.  Meanwhile, the sacrifices being made in the name of defeating terror impose a real cost.

A quote from the Baltimore Sun is instructive:

In Maryland U.S. District Court last fall, an argument about the stingray device was cut short when the suspects took plea deals. And on Wednesday, following Cabreja’s testimony, prosecutors and defense attorneys entered into plea negotiations instead of debating the merits of the stingray further.

In cases where the stingray becomes a sticking point, Wessler said, “defense attorneys are being able to get really good deals for their clients, because the FBI is so insistent on hiding all of these details.”

“There are likely going to be a lot of defense attorneys in Baltimore who may have an opportunity to raise these issues,” Wessler said. “They are on notice now that their clients may have some arguments to make in these cases.”

It stands to reason that at least some of the suspects receiving sweetheart deals from prosecutors as a result of FBI meddling are actually guilty of serious criminal behavior.  They’re getting deals (or having their cases dropped entirely) solely as a means of silencing courtroom discussion about Stingray use. Thus secret law enforcement Stingray use not only threatens the Constitutional rights of everyone swept up in the signal dragnets and the rights of suspects who are charged (and presumably have been convicted) based on improper evidence, but it also undermines a fundamental principle of criminal law: bringing actual criminals to justice.

Not only do these secret tactics jeopardize trials, they also open the door to suits from those convicted with improperly collected evidence. Just this week, following the document dump in Erie County, New York, the chief attorney of Legal Aid Buffalo declared that he had never heard of Stingrays and will now be investigating to see how they’ve affected his clients.

As more defense attorneys and judges become aware of the widespread use of this technology, more police officers will inevitably be put in the position of violating the non-disclosure agreement or forcing prosecutors to withdraw important evidence from serious criminal cases. 

That is an unacceptably steep price to pay just so the federal government can shield an increasingly open secret from public oversight.  

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