From Robinson’s column in today’s Washington Post:
Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman is yet another victim of the war on drugs. Prohibition is not working. It is time to try something new….
We do know that this need to get high is beyond some people’s control. Our drug policy of prohibition and interdiction makes it difficult and dangerous for people like Hoffman to get high, but not impossible — and it makes these tragic overdose deaths more common than they have to be.
The obvious problem is that when an addict buys drugs on the street, he or she has no way of knowing how pure the product is and what else it might contain….
As long as this commerce is illegal, it is totally unregulated. Since we know that addicts will continue to buy drugs on the street, we also know that some will die from drugs that are either too potent or adulterated with other substances that could make them lethal. Is this really the intent of our drug policy? To invite users to kill themselves?
The idea is supposed to be that authorities will somehow keep the drugs from entering the country. This would be a joke if it weren’t such an epic tragedy.
Read the whole thing. It is actually well past time to “try something new.” For Cato scholarship on drug policy, go here.
Christopher A. Preble
Former Bush national security adviser Stephen Hadley took to the Wall Street Journal’s op ed pages last week to try to make the case that the Iraq war was worth fighting.
The particulars of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny are familiar:
two wars against his neighbors resulting in about a million deaths; brutalization of his own people killing tens if not hundreds of thousands; use of poison gas against Iraqi Kurds; lifelong support for terrorism; open defiance of the U.N. Security Council….
Leaving Saddam in power would have badly undermined the credibility of the U.N. and the U.S. As Iran—Saddam’s mortal enemy—restarted its nuclear program after 2005, Saddam would have resuscitated his own, igniting a nuclear-arms race. Saddam would likely have intervened in the uprising against Syria’s Bashar Assad, fanning the sectarian conflict that now threatens much of the Middle East.
The removal of Saddam opened up a very different possibility: an Iraq in which Sunni, Shiites, Kurds, Christians and other minorities would work together to build a democratic and peaceful future…
Notably, Hadley does not repeat all of the claims made by others in the Bush administration in the run-up to the war.
For example, he does not allege that Saddam Hussein had ties to al Qaeda terrorists, including those individuals directly involved in the 9/11 attacks (recall Dick Cheney’s assertion that Mohamed Atta had met with “a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service” in Prague; Cheney subsequently denied making any such connections between Iraq and 9/11). Instead, Hadley explains that al Qaeda took advantage of the chaos that ensued in Iraq after the invasion and overthrow of Hussein.
Hadley does not contend that Hussein had a functioning nuclear weapons program (in contrast to Condoleezza Rice’s warning that “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”; or Bush’s famous “sixteen words” about Iraqi yellowcake), and Hadley’s prediction that Hussein would have restarted one after 2005 is purely speculative, and ignores the possibility that Iran restarted its program in response to the U.S. invasion.
Hadley’s bottom line, however, is the same as Cheney, Rice, and Bush’s: the war was worth fighting.
For a slightly different take, here are a few passages from Bob Gates’ memoir. (Gates, Rice and Hadley are now consulting partners). In the book, Gates allows that he publicly supported the war in Iraq in 2002 and 2003 (unlike his realist mentors Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski). He wonders if he “would have been able to prevent or mitigate some of the disastrous decisions that followed,” but admits that’s “all speculation on my part.”
He continues, with emphasis:
What is clear ten years later…are the huge costs of the Iraq War. It lasted eight years, more than 4,000 American lives were lost, 35,000 troops were wounded (the number of Iraqis in both categories many times that), and it easily cost over $1 trillion. The overthrow of Saddam and the chaos that followed in Iraq eliminated Iran’s worst enemy and resulted in a significant strengthening of Tehran’s position in the region–and within Iraq itself.
…the war will always be tainted by the harsh reality that the public premise for invasion - Iraqi possession of chemical and biological weapons as well as an active nuclear program - was wrong.
As much as President Bush detested the notion, our later challenges in Afghanistan, especially the return of the Taliban in force by the time I became defense secretary, were, I believe, significantly compounded by the invasion of Iraq.
Gates joined the Bush administration in November 2006 with one goal in mind: turning around the failing war in Iraq. He was only partly successful, and not, I would argue, in the parts that mattered most.
The surge of additional troops into Iraq was supposed to rally the American public, buying needed time for the U.S. military to reestablish security in Iraq. This security, in turn, would make space for Iraq politicians to reconcile their bitter differences, and set the stage for a peaceful and stable–and, the Bush administration hoped, friendly to the United States–government.
But U.S. troops never had the power to convince Iraqi politicians to let bygones be bygones. While U.S. troops fought hard, and bravely,the hoped-for reconcilation never occured. Hence the continuing violence in Iraq today.
The Iraq surge also failed to turn around public sentiment toward the war here in the United States. Americans opposed the war when Bush announced the surge in January 2007. They opposed the war a year later, and by the same margin. (Gallup asks: Was the war a mistake? Pew: Was it the right or wrong decision?) Even today, more than seven years after the surge, the majority of Americans do not believe that the war was worth fighting. (Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway scrutinizes recent polls regarding both Iraq and Afghanistan here).
I tend to agree with Jeremy Lott: If American politicians–but Republicans, especially–can’t get on the same page with the American people when it comes to the signature foreign policy of the first decade of the 21st century, then those same politicians shouldn’t expect to be taken seriously on a host of other issues.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says it wants to require auto makers to include vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications systems in all new cars. Calling V2V “the next generation of auto safety improvements,” the agency says such devices would “improve safety by allowing vehicles to “talk” to each other and ultimately avoid many crashes altogether by exchanging basic safety data, such as speed and position, ten times per second.”The government wants every vehicle on the road to transmit its location to every other nearby vehicle–as well as any other receivers that happen to be in range.
Supposedly, “the system as contemplated contains several layers of security and privacy protection.” However, privacy advocates should be far more suspicious of V2V than of electronic vehicle-mile fee systems. The big difference between them is that V2V by definition incorporates both a receiver and a transmitter, while it is possible to design vehicle-mile fee systems that do not include wireless transmitters. No transmitter means no invasion of privacy is possible; on the other hand, despite whatever privacy protection is included in V2V, a transmitter necessarily allows someone to receive the signal.
Perhaps the biggest argument against V2V is that it will soon be obsolete as a safety device, so mandating that it be included in cars adds an unnecessary expense to auto buyers. According to the NHTSA, V2V will “provide warnings to drivers so that they can prevent imminent collisions” but “not automatically operate any vehicle systems, such as braking or steering.” Yet many cars on the market today, such as the Ford Fusion shown above, do this and more solely with built-in radar or other sensors rather than V2V transmitters. Moreover, the occupants of such cars are safer even if no other car on the road has those sensors, which isn’t true of a V2V system.The Ford Fusion is a mid-priced car that has numerous built-in radar sensors that can detect and warn drivers of potential collisions, even braking if necessary to avoid accidents–all without V2V transmissions.
Moreover, as contemplated by the NHTSA, V2V will not be mandated in cars before 2018 at the earliest. Yet the kind of self-driving cars that Nissan and other companies expect to have on the market by 2020 will use radar, infrared, lasers, or other means to detect all other vehicles on the road without transmitting any signals themselves. They would get no benefit from a wireless V2V system.
If systems that are already being included in more and more new cars work as well, if not better, than V2V, then why have V2V at all? It is worth noting that self-driving cars are coming from the private sector, while the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has expressed a go-slow attitude. Meanwhile, the push to mandate V2V comes from government agencies, both here and in Europe. I suspect governments are more interested in technologies that centralize transportation and communications, while private manufacturers are supporting technologies that promote decentralization.
In any case, it will be interesting to see if privacy groups protest this plan as loudly as they do proposals for vehicle-mile fees. Those who don’t may be using privacy concerns to cover their reluctance to paying the full cost of the roads they use. But, where VMT fees are an important step to using markets, rather than politics, to manage transportation systems, V2V is both a potential invasion of privacy and a waste of money.
When I was small, my (conscientious, non-abusive) mother would leave me alone in the back seat of our car for brief spells while she ran into stores to do errands, an experience that’s entirely typical for most people I know from my generation. Nowadays a parent who behaves that way might risk a police record or a serious encounter with child welfare authorities. “In [a New Jersey] appeals court decision last week, three judges ruled that a mother who left her toddler sleeping in his car seat while she went into a store for five to 10 minutes was indeed guilty of abuse or neglect for taking insufficient care to protect him from harm.” The child was unharmed and an investigation of the household found it not otherwise problematic, which apparently still did not suffice to stop the abuse charge from going forward.
When the law behaves this way, is it really protecting children? What about the risks children face when their parent is pulled into the police or Child Protective Services system because of overblown fears about what conceivably might have happened, but never did?
Author Lenore Skenazy, who’s led the charge against the forces of legal and societal overprotectiveness in her book Free-Range Kids and at her popular blog of the same name, explains her doubts about the New Jersey case here and here. Tomorrow, Wed. Feb. 5, she’ll be the guest of the Cato Institute for a lunchtime talk on helicopter parenting and its near relation, helicopter governance; I’ll be moderating and commenting. The event is free and open to the public, but you need to register, which you can do here.
Egypt is racing toward dictatorship. But Washington always has been more interested in maintaining influence than encouraging democracy or promoting development in Egypt. That’s why the U.S. provided more than $75 billion in “aid” over the years.
In fact, the cash bought little leverage. Hosni Mubarak spent decades oppressing Egyptian citizens and persecuting Coptic Christians despite Washington’s contrary advice. Israel’s military superiority, not America’s money, bought peace.
Unfortunately, as elsewhere in the Third World, foreign “assistance” hindered economic development by effectively subsidizing Cairo’s inefficient dirigiste policies. A decade ago the government finally decided to open the economy.
Reforms including lower tariffs, enterprise privatizations, and regulation reductions. Meredith Broadbent of the Center for Strategic and International Studies also cited corporate tax reductions and insurance regulation modernization.
However, Egypt soon began to fall behind other reformers. For instance, Broadbent pointed to the survival of “significant elements of a heavy-handed statist bureaucracy.” The banking system was opaque, monopolistic, and inaccessible. A joint report by the Carnegie Endowment and Legatum Institute cited the need to give poor Egyptians clear title to their property, reform the bankruptcy law, and reduce costs of opening, operating, and closing businesses.
Corruption was pervasive, with commerce dominated by cronyism and privilege. The military controlled anywhere between 15 percent and 40 percent of the economy.
The most serious economic hindrance was expensive consumer subsidies, particularly for food and fuel. Most of the benefits did not go to those in most need. Moreover, the cost today accounts for roughly a third of the government’s budget and 14 percent of Egypt’s GDP.
Thus, even after the Mubarak reforms unemployment and inflation remained high while Cairo ran large deficits. The situation worsened after the 2011 revolution. Uncertainty and insecurity discouraged investment and the public deficit increased to 11 percent of GDP.
The coup was another step backwards. The government is focused on suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood and reconstituting old political and economic relationships. Reported the Washington Post: “now some businessmen and officials implicated in post-uprising corruption probes are again in positions of power and influence, including in the cabinet appointed last summer by the military.”
The prime minister said the government plans to “rationalize” the subsidy, but economic reform appears to be a low priority. In September the regime launched a “$4.2 billion program for “economic development and social justice,” the sort of big spending initiative which has not worked elsewhere.
Military rule could offer a form of stability. However, Gen. al-Sisi’s brutality, including the slaughter of Brotherhood protesters in Cairo in August, has encouraged increasingly violent opposition. Policemen are regularly being killed, and both auto and suicide bombings are on the rise.
Such violence could frighten off investors and tourists.
In this environment American financial assistance would be even more harmful than before. The massive aid coming from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states—given purely for the political purpose of combating the Brotherhood—reduces any financial pressure on the regime to streamline economic policy.
In contrast, freer trade would be a positive good. Meredith Broadbent proposed negotiating a free trade agreement—previous talks left off in 2005—and updating the bilateral investment treaty. The Institute for International Economics once projected that an FTA would increase Egypt’s GDP by three percent annually.
A new accord also would benefit U.S. firms which have been left at a disadvantage by the EU-Egyptian FTA. Such agreements, Broadbent argued, “can serve as systemic tools to help pry open closed government regulatory processes.”
Absent an inclusive political process, Egypt likely faces an unstable and violent future. However, economic reform also is necessary. That is unlikely to come from lectures and money from foreign governments. But the prospect of increased participation in international commerce would offer a far more powerful and direct incentive for action. Washington should propose that the two governments free up investment and trade.
This week Jonathan Rauch celebrates the new, expanded edition of his book Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought. He’s also guest-blogging at the Volokh Conspiracy, itself newly hosted at the Washington Post. In his first post, Rauch sums up a key point of his book and also why its reissue is so timely:
Over the past 20 years, the idea that minorities need protection from hateful or discriminatory speech has gained ground, both in American universities’ speech codes and in national laws abroad. In fact, I argue, minorities are much better off in a system that protects hateful or discriminatory speech than in a system that protects them from it.
Kindly Inquistors offers a moral defense of free inquiry, with a focus on how minorities fare under different approaches to controversial speech. Rauch concludes that when individuals disagree, the only proper approach is the “checking of each by each through public criticism.”
He terms this approach liberal science, and he recommends it not just in science, but in public policy. One of the most interesting facets of Kindly Inquisitors is the way that Rauch links the free inquiry of science to the free inquiry found in liberal democratic societies; both, he argues, are also akin to the free inquiry found in capitalism.
In all these areas, free inquiry can nevertheless cause genuine harm. Why not restrict, just a bit, if it will prevent some suffering? In the book, Rauch answers:
The truth is that liberal science demands discipline as well as license… It does not give a damn about your feelings and happily tramples them in the name of finding truth. It allows and – here we should be honest – sometimes encourages offense. Self-esteem, sensitivity, respect for others’ beliefs, renunciation of prejudice are all good as far as they go. But as primary social goals they are incompatible with the peaceful and productive advancement of human knowledge. To advance knowledge, we must all sometimes suffer. Worse than that, we must inflict suffering on others.
For many, these words will not be welcome. And for a few truly loathsome people, they will be all too welcome. Undeniably, words a lot like these have been used as a pretext to hurt, which they should not be.
Yet we classical liberals have always welcomed the progress that comes from free minds, from the free exchange of ideas, and from the freedoms of travel and commerce, even if at times they bring disruption, embarrassment, or loss. In science, in public opinion, and in the marketplace, there will always be failures. And yet for a society to succeed, such failures cannot be avoided.
Our faith in mankind’s ability to find and act upon the truth is key: We trust that the process of inquiry, with its defeats as well as its victories, will bring a better and better life for us all.
Thailand has voted for the third time since the military staged a coup in 2006. The crony populists won again. The establishment thugs didn’t even compete. The country is headed toward more and more dangerous political turmoil.
Thailand’s latest poll was triggered by PDRC mobs in Bangkok which sought to drive Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office. Although the protestors wear yellow, associated with the Thai monarchy, they are the modern equivalent of Benito Mussolini’s Black Shirts, who seized power through the infamous 1922 march on Rome.
The misnamed Democrat Party and its ally, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), led by former DP deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban, then attempted to block Sunday’s vote.
The Thai political system is nominally democratic. But the state typically was controlled by an elitist establishment, essentially a military-royalist-civil service-business-urban/upper class axis.
That was overturned by the 2001 victory of telecommunications executive Thaksin Shinawatra, who followed the traditional political strategy of tax, tax, spend, spend, elect, elect. Thaksin won another big victory in 2005, but the following year the so-called People’s Alliance for Democracy launched demonstrations to bring down his government. The military then ousted him in a coup.
The next election in 2007 was won by Thaksin’s successor party (though he remained in exile abroad). But PAD soon launched a series of protests to shut down the government. After the coalition collapsed, angry Thaksin supporters, called “Red Shirts”—dominated by the rural poor and middle-class—flooded into Bangkok. The security agencies then killed scores of protestors and wounded thousands of others.
However, Yingluck, Thaksin’s sister, won the 2011 election. Last fall PAD relaunched itself as the PDRC and employed storm trooper tactics against her government, even threatening to seize the prime minister.
Yingluck responded by calling an election, but that was the last thing the protestors wanted. So the Thai Black Shirts proceeded to block candidate registrations and early voting and halt polling in several areas.
Thaksin embodies the worst of irresponsible populism, and Yingluck is widely viewed as Thaksin’s stand-in. Worse, however, is Suthep, whose crowds evoke memories of fascist bullies which on election day even attacked Thais seeking to vote. He called for a “people’s revolution” with an unelected “people’s council,” which he would get to fill, to “reform” election rules, which would guarantee his victory, before the next poll is held.
Nevertheless, Prime Minister Yingluck was reelected. But Suthep is determined to take power irrespective of his lack of popular support and the Black Shirts want to make the country ungovernable.
Yingluck’s opponents may file charges of alleged electoral violations and urge the Election Commission to nullify the vote. That could trigger violent demonstrations from the Red Shirts. By blocking candidate registrations the Black Shirts prevented the poll from filling the required 95 percent of parliament’s seats, requiring by-elections before the body can open.
The opposition also may turn to the courts, which are hearing a number of highly political charges. However, Red Shirt activists are unlikely to peacefully accept a judicial coup.
If all else fails, the Black Shirts are likely to take more radical steps to overthrow the new government. Chaos in Bangkok might cause the military to stage another coup. But the 2006 coup leader, Sonthi Boonyaratglin, warned that the military likely would face violent resistance from not just the Red Shirts but the “mass” of people.
In short, Thailand’s political future looks at best uncertain and at worst disastrous. The only hope may be constitutional reform reducing central government power. If Bangkok was less dominant and regions could chart their own course, the Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts would have less incentive to battle to the political death.
Thaksin may be a blight upon Thai politics, but Suthep and his allies are a cancer. Unfortunately, in Thailand democracy does not guarantee good government. However, authoritarian, undemocratic rule would be far worse. Suthep’s Black Shirts will bear the primary blame if their nation descends further into violence and disorder.
I was among the many who misted up at the gentle, lyrical “America Is Beautiful” Coca-Cola commercial last night, but it turns out to be controversial in some circles. Former U.S. Representative Allen West called it “truly disturbing” and thinks it indicates the nation is on the “road to perdition” because it shows various participants singing portions of the song in languages other than English. He goes on to quote Theodore Roosevelt – a President closely associated with the Progressive movement, and no hero to me – that “we have room for but one language here” in America.
One irony here is that the cause of English-language assimilation is doing way, way better today than in the days when bossyboots Progressives like Teddy Roosevelt were banging on about it. It used to be that it would take three or more generations to melt away the language isolation of Finns or Norwegians in the upper midwest, Czechs in Nebraska, Quebecois in upper New England, or Deutschlanders in the parts of Pennsylvania and Maryland where German remained the predominant language long into the nineteenth century. Today, modern popular culture being the force it is, the American-born kids of native Bengali or Ukrainian speakers are likely to enjoy perfect fluency in English.
Meanwhile, a writer at Breitbart is also upset at the ad, which not only uses “several foreign languages” but “also prominently features a gay couple.” Please no one tell him about the 25-year “Boston marriage” of Katharine Lee Bates, author of “America the Beautiful.”
After 15 years, Hugo Chavez’s socialist revolution is finally reaching socialism’s signature achievement: shortages of toilet paper. The Washington Post reports:
CARACAS, Venezuela — On aisle seven, among the diapers and fabric softener, the socialist dreams of the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez looked as ragged as the toilet paper display.
Employees at the Excelsior Gama supermarket had set out a load of extra-soft six-roll packs so large that it nearly blocked the aisle. To stock the shelves with it would have been pointless. Soon word spread that the long-awaited rolls had arrived, and despite a government-imposed limit of one package per person, the checkout lines stretched all the way to the decimated dairy case in the back of the store.
“This is so depressing,” said Maria Plaza, 30, a lawyer, an hour and a half into her wait….
Why is it always toilet paper? I understand why a poorly coordinated economy isn’t likely to produce complicated goods like cars (see the Soviet Lada, the East German Trabant, or the gleaming 1950s American cars still in use on the streets of Havana) or computers. But how hard is it to produce toilet paper? Not that toilet paper is the only thing in short supply:
Each day the arrival of a new item at Excelsior Gama brought Venezuelans flooding into the store: for flour, beef, sugar. Store employees and security guards helped themselves to the goods first, clogging the checkout lines, and then had to barricade the doors to hold back the surge at the entrance.
“The store owners are doing this on purpose, to increase sales,” said Marjorie Urdaneta, a government supporter who said she believes Maduro when he accuses businesses of colluding with foreign powers to wage “economic war” against him.
“He should tell the stores: Make these items available — or else,” she said.
The regime takes credit for what it can, making sure that
products sold by recently nationalized companies carried little heart symbols and the phrase “Made in Socialism.”
The queues in front of the stores should carry the same symbol.
The graph below is from an op-ed I wrote on Argentina’s 15% devaluation last week, which looks like the beginning of a wider economic crisis. It shows how total government spending as a percent of GDP has doubled to an estimated 44% in the era of populist politics that began with Argentina’s massive debt default in 2002. The country has been spending beyond its means and paying for it by printing money. The government shows no signs of wanting to tame inflation or reduce spending. The bottom line is this: as the government draws down its reserves, and with few other sources of finance, we can expect people to continue to lose confidence in the currency and the economy to deteriorate further and faster.
Source: Luis Secco
Instead of the public defender system, how about providing poor persons who are accused of a crime with a voucher that they can use to hire their own attorney to represent them in court? Comal County, Texas will give this system a try in a few months.
From the San Antonio-Express News:
“Our belief is that a system of client selection can lead to improved services. Whether in fact that’s something that will occur needs to be empirically tested,” [former Indiana University School of Law dean Norman) Lefstein said. “I certainly hope that this will not be the only experiment in the United States involving client selection of counsel.”
But it will be the first. Results of the pilot program, including the costs, case outcomes and client satisfaction levels, will be tracked by the Justice Management Institute of Virginia.
“We’ve done an initial set of interviews with folks in Comal County to document how things operate,” said Elaine Borakove, institute president. “Client choice has never been tried in the United States before, so we’re very excited.”
The initiative was sparked by a 2010 Cato Institute paper calling for the use of free-market forces to address problems with America’s indigent defense systems, whether they’re based on court appointments or salaried public defenders.
The 2010 Cato paper mentioned is titled, “Reforming Indigent Defense,” by Stephen Schulhofer and David Friedman. In this blog post, David Friedman recalls the skepticism he received onthis idea 20 years ago from Judge Richard Posner. Another post here from Radley Balko.
Paul C. "Chip" Knappenberger
Recall this passage from President Obama’s Georgetown speech last summer announcing his Climate Action Plan:
Now, I know there’s been, for example, a lot of controversy surrounding the proposal to build a pipeline, the Keystone pipeline, that would carry oil from Canadian tar sands down to refineries in the Gulf. And the State Department is going through the final stages of evaluating the proposal. That’s how it’s always been done. But I do want to be clear: Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward. It’s relevant.
This basically should have green-lighted the pipeline, because, as I pointed out in congressional testimony last year, regardless of how you figure the carbon dioxide emissions from the pipeline’s oil, the resulting climate impact will be so small as to assuredly put the president’s mind at ease.
The just-released Final Environmental Impact Statement from the State Department concluded about the same thing as the Draft Environmental Impacts Statement from the State Department, which is in complete agreement with my findings regarding carbon dioxide emissions from the pipeline’s oil and climate change. The net global warming impact from the pipeline oil amounts to somewhat less than 1/100th of a degree Celsius over the next 100 years.
So if the president wants to kill the Keystone XL pipeline (clearly he does, because he has had ample opportunity to approve it), he’ll have to find a reason to do so other than a climate one. Unfortunately for him, trying to kill it for other reasons would be equally ill-founded.
The run-up to Tuesday’s State of the Union seemed downright ominous for those of us opposed to rule by presidential decree. “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone,” the president warned uncooperative legislators: “we’re not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we’re providing Americans the kind of help they need.” “You have to swerve really hard to the executive powers at a time like this,” a senior administration official told the Washington Post.
Obama would, Press Secretary Jay Carney explained, “work with Congress where he can, [but] bypass Congress where necessary,” because 2014 was going to be “A Year of Action.” (Last year’s SOTU slogan was “Let’s Get It Done,” but I guess we didn’t git ‘er done).
Yet the unilateral actions mentioned in Tuesday’s speech are mostly Clintonian smallball: new “innovation centers”; expanding SelectUSA; a Biden-led review of federal job training; jawboning CEOs about unemployment, etc. (though I am curious where the president’s supposed to get the authority to conjure new retirement savings accounts into existence…)
Obama also issued a veiled threat that “with or without Congress,” he’d move forward on gun control. But it’s not much of a threat if last year’s list of 23 executive actions on guns is any indication. Contra the excitable Rep. Steve Stockman (R-TX), nominating a new ATF director and “review[ing] safety standards for gun locks and gun safes” do not “an existential threat to this nation” make.
All in all, the executive action items in the 2014 SOTU weren’t nearly as menacing as the hype. ““Stroke of the pen, law of the land,” kinda… lame.
The biggest-ticket item on the SOTU list was the president’s announcement that he will “issue an Executive Order requiring federal contractors to pay their federally-funded employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour.”
Can he do that? Maybe, maybe not.
Per the Congressional Research Service’s analysis of “Presidential Authority to Impose Requirements on Federal Contractors” [.pdf]:“Courts will generally uphold orders issued under the authority of [the Federal Property and Administrative Services Act] so long as the requisite nexus exists between the challenged executive branch actions and FPASA’s goals of economy and efficiency in procurement.”
It’s hard to see how raising federal contractors’ labor costs serves the goal of taxpayer “economy,” but there’s longstanding caselaw upholding executive-branch procurement policies, like affirmative action, that could increase the costs of federal contracts. Even in striking down a 1995 Clinton executive order barring federal contracts for companies hiring permanent replacements during strikes, the DC Circuit “did not suggest that the order exceeded the President’s authority under FPASA and even reaffirmed interpretations of the President’s broad authority to issue executive orders in pursuit of FPASA goals of economy and efficiency … even those orders that ‘reach beyond any narrow concept of efficiency and economy in procurement.’”
If Obama’s “fair wage” executive order survives a challenge, its impact will be fairly limited. Since most employees of federal contractors earn more than the elevated wage, and since the order will only apply to future contracts, it will likely affect some 200,000 American workers in a workforce of over 150 million. Still, spending on federal contracts is roughly 4 percent of GDP. Excessive judicial deference in this area would give the president broad, unilateral power to make social and economic policy through federal procurement.
But he already has a great deal of unilateral power, thanks to the relentless expansion of the administrative state. The administration has become increasingly bold in “governing by waiver,” as with its decision, last summer, to delay implementation of Obamacare’s employer mandate via royal dispensation, and in contravention of the law. As always, some of the most troubling abuses are in the national security arena, with the president’s tortured interpretations of the PATRIOT Act and the 2001 AUMF to justify bulk data collection on Americans and new fronts in the ever-expanding war on terrorism.
The most menacing aspects of executive unilateralism got short shrift in the speech, and they don’t involve guns or federal contracting. “I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone”: If Obama really wanted to be intimidating, what he should’ve said was: “I’ve got an autopen, and I’ve got a drone.”
Do opinion columns get results? Last month I wrote an op-ed for Bloomberg View chiding President Obama for not using his clemency powers more broadly on behalf of inmates serving insanely long drug sentences. Now the New York Times reports:
The Justice Department wants low-level drug criminals who were sentenced under tough laws from the days of the crack epidemic to ask the president for early release from prison.
In an unprecedented move, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole asked defense lawyers on Thursday to help the government locate prisoners and encourage them to apply for clemency. The clemency drive is part of the Obama administration’s effort to undo a disparity that flooded the nation’s prison system and disproportionately affected black men.
“Bypassing Congress” is suddenly the White House slogan of the hour, but as Eugene Kontorovich points out at the Volokh Conspiracy, that loose term tends to confound two entirely different kinds of executive action. It’s fully consistent with our constitutional design for the president to act unilaterally in exercising what are known as inherent executive powers along with some range of statutory executive powers legitimately delegated by Congress. Since the American Revolution and indeed long before, executive clemency has been among the most widely recognized of inherent executive powers, a subject of very broad discretion. For a president, that’s some of the most solid ground he can stand on, constitutionally speaking; he gets onto thin ice when he tries to use unilateral executive action to accomplish essentially legislative goals, as by decreeing changes in labor law that Congress is unwilling to enact.
Last month, I wrote:
It’s baffling that over a quarter-century in which presidents of both parties have relentlessly sought to assert powers the Constitution never granted them they should be so meek about using the pardon powers that our constitutional system unquestionably gives them.
It’s entirely consistent to insist on applying close constitutional scrutiny when the president decrees, say, higher minimum wages at federal contractors, even as we applaud this week’s progress toward the wise and merciful use of executive clemency powers well-settled since the time of the Founding.
One of the great libertarian victories of the past few decades was the tax revolt of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The inflation of the 1970s caused higher property taxes and income tax bracket creep, which led to California’s Proposition 13, the Kemp-Roth tax cut bill, the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the 1981 tax cut, the deceleration of government spending, the further lowering of marginal rates in 1986—and a long period during which economic growth exceeded government growth.
This story isn’t told often in history books and popular media. Even with the boom in histories of modern conservatism, which in many instances focuses on the reaction to socialism and the welfare state, there is rarely a sense of the important arguments that free-market advocates were making. That’s why it’s important to have historians who understand economics and appreciate the value of limited government. One such historian is Brian Domitrovic, author of Econoclasts: The Rebels Who Sparked the Supply-Side Revolution and Restored American Prosperity.
In the latest issue of Cato Policy Report, the Cato Institute’s newsletter for Sponsors and friends, Domitrovic has a lead article titled “Tax Revolt! It’s Time to Learn from Past Success,” where he tells the story outlined above. If you get discouraged about the possibility of positive change, you should read it. Or read it if you just want to know more about the history of movements for limited government.
Also in the January-February Cato Policy Report: my editorial on Pope Francis, Nelson Mandela, and the longing for Utopia; leading scholars and policymakers on a century of central banking; and reports on NSA surveillance, jury nullification, and Cato’s recent policy studies.
Note that if you were a Cato Sponsor, you would get articles like this in your mailbox every month, along with the satisfaction of supporting the work of the Cato Institute. Become a Sponsor now!
Today the Washington Post has a story, also featured in their DC-area radio ads, about how some states are looking to change the name of the Common Core, but not the substance, because the brand has gotten too toxic. That the Post has so prominently run such a story shows just how noxious the fumes surrounding the Common Core curriculum standards have become, and it’s great that the paper is shining a light on dubious efforts to quell opposition. But within the story itself are several examples illustrating why, even as disgust over the Core grows, the average person doesn’t know how truly foul much about the Core is.
The Post certainly makes clear how some states are trying to cover the Core’s stench with perfume rather than attack its rot. Basically, states such as Arizona and Iowa are just changing the Core’s name. Speaking to the Council of Chief State School Officers, one of the two professional organizations that created the Core, likely Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee captured the tactic in one, succinct sentence: “Rebrand it, refocus it, but don’t retreat.”
That doesn’t sound like addressing people’s serious concerns. It sounds like, well, deception—alas, nothing new in the Common Core sales job.
Unfortunately, the Post’s story is itself guilty of Core-tilted inaccuracy, though whether knowingly or unknowingly is impossible to tell. And the Post is hardly alone among media outlets in these failings.
There’s no more crucial an example of this than the piece’s description of the Obama administration’s role in getting states to adopt the Core. Twice the article says the administration gave its “endorsement” to the Core, as if the President simply blurbed the back cover of the standards or was filmed hauling lumber in his Ford Common Core 150.
But the administration didn’t just say “Man, this Core is great!” No, it told states that if they wanted to compete for part of the $4.35-billion Race to the Top—a chunk of the “Stimulus”—they had to promise to adopt the Core. And if they wanted waivers from the almost universally disliked No Child Left Behind Act, they would have only one option other than the Core to show that their standards were “college and career ready.”
Unfortunately, the Post’s article not only ignores the federal coercion behind the Core, but does so after stating that “the standards were established by state officials with bipartisan support and quickly earned widespread approval.” If you ignore the big federal bribe in the room, that makes Core adoption sound like the “state-led and voluntary” process Core supporters love to tell us it was. But, of course, the bribe was there, so readers are getting at least an incomplete—and definitely pro-Core slanted—picture of what happened.
Making matters worse, soon after stating that there was a mere “endorsement” of the standards by the administration, the article says, “[Core] opponents include tea party activists who say the Common Core standards amount to a federal takeover of local education.” Readers seeing this without knowing about the serious federal coercion involved reinforces the meme that tea party types are kooks who see phantom federal control behind everything they don’t like. It also backs up Core supporters’ tactic of dismissing opponents as nuts rather than dealing with their myriad, grounded concerns.
The article has other problems, but the failure to report on the absolutely real federal coercion behind the Core is the most damaging. A big part of the opposition to the Core is driven by the fact that it is a one-size-fits-all regime being inserted into schools largely by the power of a central government that has no authority to do so. This opposition is made more virulent by the mantra of supporters that the Core is “state led and voluntary” and the aggravating assertion that any who say otherwise are “misinformed” or willfully lying.
To be sure, people on all sides of the issue say things that are wrong—some probably intentionally. But for the public to know the truth, news reports must give the full, basic facts about the Core and its implementation. This is especially important because, as this article does a great job of making clear, some politicians will definitely deceive the public if they think it will help their cause.
Politico has a hilarious, revolting, and insightful article, written by former Transportation Security Administration screener Jason Edward Harrington. It’s called “Dear America, I Saw You Naked.” The subhead: “And yes, we were laughing.”
Many of the images we gawked at were of overweight people, their every fold and dimple on full awful display. Piercings of every kind were visible. Women who’d had mastectomies were easy to discern—their chests showed up on our screens as dull, pixelated regions. Hernias appeared as bulging, blistery growths in the crotch area. Passengers were often caught off-guard by the X-Ray scan and so materialized on-screen in ridiculous, blurred poses—mouths agape, à la Edvard Munch. One of us in the I.O. room would occasionally identify a passenger as female, only to have the officers out on the checkpoint floor radio back that it was actually a man. All the old, crass stereotypes about race and genitalia size thrived on our secure government radio channels.
In July, 2011, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the TSA to conduct a formal rulemaking and take comments from the public on the use of strip-search machines at airports. TSA took twenty months to propose a two-sentence regulation, which, as we pointed out to the agency, is totally defective.
The comment period closed in June last year, and we have waited another seven months, at this point, for a final rule. When it comes out, it can be challenged in court under the “arbitrary and capricious” standard of the Administrative Procedure Act.
The evidence in the rulemaking docket shows that strip-search machines cost more in dollars, privacy, and dignity than they provide in security, which, as Harrington’s article again shows, is not very much: “We knew the full-body scanners didn’t work before they were even installed.”
A statement of principles was released at today’s Republican members retreat. Part of it was a brief outline of how the legal immigration system and guest worker visa systems should be reformed. It reads:
“For far too long, the United States has emphasized extended family members and pure luck over employment-based immigration. This is inconsistent with nearly every other developed country. Every year thousands of foreign nationals pursue degrees at America’s colleges and universities, particularly in high skilled fields. Many of them want to use their expertise in U.S. industries that will spur economic growth and create jobs for Americans. When visas aren’t available, we end up exporting this labor and ingenuity to other countries. Visa and green card allocations need to reflect the needs of employers and the desire for these exceptional individuals to help grow our economy.
The goal of any temporary worker program should be to address the economic needs of the country and to strengthen our national security by allowing for realistic, enforceable, legal paths for entry into the United States. Of particular concern are the needs of the agricultural industry, among others. It is imperative that these temporary workers are able to meet the economic needs of the country and do not displace or disadvantage American workers.”
One point these principles don’t mention is that a working legal immigration system is essential to resolving unauthorized immigration. The solution to America’s problem with unauthorized immigration does not lie with more restrictions, less lawful immigration, and more restrictions on the freedom of Americans. The solution lies with deregulating our immigration system, allowing more immigrants to come lawful on green cards and guest worker visas, and minimizing the government’s role in picking immigrant winners and losers. The market can do that far more effectively than a government agency, regardless of all the shiny new fences, border drones, and invasive government databases they command.
Some of these ideas are good starts and I would have welcomed them more enthusiastically last year, but better late than never. One big problem is that they are too negative on family-based immigration, 54 percent of whom work. Agriculture did not deserve special mention as only about 5 percent of unauthorized immigrants work in agriculture, while many more work in retail or manufacturing. Here are some moderate and broad libertarian suggestions for marginally improving the current immigration system:
- Low skilled guest worker visas: Create a large, cheap, lightly-regulated, and minimally protectionist (small fees and comparable wage requirements) guest worker visa program for Zones 1, 2, and 3 occupations. The numbers should be uncapped but at the minimum should not be numerically limited per sector. Guest workers should also be able to change employers very easily without ex ante government permission. As a way to get rid of government regulation of employers, the federal government should license employers who are allowed to hire guest workers so they can move freely between them. After all, being able to quit a job is the best defense against an abusive employer. A similar visa should be created for agricultural workers. Peaceful and non-welfare using workers ought to be able to move back and forth between the U.S. and their home countries easily. The Senate’s guest worker visa plan was unworkable, overly complex, and too small – it should be scrapped in favor of something bigger and simpler.
- Green card reform: There should be more ways for highly skilled and medium skilled immigrants to get green cards with fewer regulations, higher caps, no limitations on the country of origin, and far fewer restrictions on the types of skilled immigrants who can enter. The category for immediate relatives for family-based green cards should include the spouses, minor children, and parents of all green card holders.
- State based visas: States and localities should be able to sponsor guest worker visas or at least get more allocated to businesses in their jurisdictions.
- Welfare reform: Poor immigrants are less likely to use welfare benefits than poor Americans and the size of their received benefits is typically smaller. Regardless, non-citizens who are here on guest worker visas or green cards should not be able to access means-tested welfare programs. This is a relatively easy reform (here’s the Cato blueprint) that’s fair for American taxpayers and the immigrants.
This GOP statement comes on the heels of President Obama’s SOTU, where he was very conciliatory toward House Republicans. He tried to give them room to pursue reform this year at their own pace and he appeared sensitive to the demands of some Republicans in the House. Hopefully these Republican principles can blossom into bills.
There is a chorus of prominent conservative voices against immigration reform this year. In The Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol opposed reform in 2014 because it would hurt the GOP’s chances to make Congressional gains. The editors of National Review echoed Kristol’s worries about Republican political prospects in 2014 but also moved beyond partisanship and developed a set of principles that call for the economic central planning of the American supply of labor, a massive government database to track employment and employees, and for another domestic police force just as the intensity of the War on Drugs could be diminishing.
Steve H. Hanke
Yesterday, in the wake of Tuesday’s State of the Union address, I poured cold water on President Obama’s claim that a hike in the minimum wage would benefit the United States’ economy, pointing specifically to unemployment rates in the European Union. The data never lie: EU countries with minimum wage laws suffer higher rates of unemployment than those that do not mandate minimum wages. This point is even more pronounced when we look at rates of unemployment among the EU’s youth – defined as those younger than 25 years of age.
In the twenty-one EU countries where there are minimum wage laws, 27.7% of the youth demographic – more than one in four young adults – was unemployed in 2012. This is considerably higher than the youth unemployment rate in the seven EU countries without minimum wage laws – 19.5% in 2012 – a gap that has only widened since the Lehman Brothers collapse in 2008.
I will conclude yet again with a piece of wisdom from Nobelist Milton Friedman, who correctly noted that “the minimum wage law is most properly described as a law saying employers must discriminate against people who have low skills. That’s what the law says.”
Daniel J. Mitchell
Self awareness is supposed to be a good thing, so I’m going to openly acknowledge that I have an unusual fixation on the size of government.
I don’t lose a wink of sleep thinking about deficits, but I toss and turn all night fretting about the overall burden of government spending.
My peculiar focus on the size and scope of government can be seen in this video, which explains that spending is the disease and deficits are just a symptom.
With all this as background, you’ll understand why I got excited when I started reading Robert Samuelson’s column in today’s Washington Post.
Well, there’s a presidential whopper. Obama is right that the role of the federal government deserves an important debate, but he is wrong when he says that we’ve had that debate. Just the opposite: The White House and Congress have spent the past five years evading the debate. They’ve argued over federal budget deficits without addressing the underlying issues of what the government should do, what programs are unneeded, whether some beneficiaries are undeserving… The avoidance is entirely bipartisan. Congressional Republicans have been just as allergic to genuine debate as the White House and its Democratic congressional allies.
By the way, I have mixed feelings about the final sentence in that excerpt. Yes, Republicans oftentimes have displayed grotesque levels of fiscal irresponsibility. Heck, just look at the new farm bill. Or the vote on the Export-Import Bank. Or the vote on housing subsidies. Or…well, you get the point.
On the other hand, GOPers have voted for three consecutive years in favor of a budget that restrains the growth of federal spending, in large part because it includes much-needed reforms to major entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.
But Republican inconsistency isn’t my focus today.
He argues that you can’t balance the budget merely by cutting discretionary programs. That’s technically untrue, but it’s an accurate assessment of political reality.
I’m much more worried about his assertion that you can’t balance the budget even if entitlement spending also is being addressed.
Let’s look at what he wrote and then I’ll explain why he’s wrong.
Eliminating many programs that are arguably marginal — Amtrak, subsidies for public broadcasting and the like — would not produce enough savings to balance the budget. The reason: Spending on Social Security, Medicare and other health programs… But even plausible benefit trims for affluent retirees would still leave deficits. There would still be a need for tax increases.
This is wrong. Not just wrong, but demonstrably inaccurate.
The Ryan budget, for instance, balanced the budget in 2023. Without a single penny of tax hikes.
By the way, you don’t even need to cut spending to balance the budget. Spending cuts would be very desirable, of course, but the key to eliminating red ink is simply making sure that government spending climbs at a slower rate than revenues.
And since revenues are expected to grow by about 6 percent per year, it shouldn’t take advanced knowledge of mathematics to realize that the deficit will fall if spending grows by less than 6 percent annually.
Indeed, we could balance the budget as early as 2018 if spending merely was restrained so that the budget grew at the rate of inflation.
But never forget that the goal of fiscal policy should be shrinking the size and scope of the federal government, not fiscal balance.
Ask yourself the following questions.
- If $1 trillion floated down from Heaven and into the hands of the IRS, would that alter in any way the argument for getting rid of wasteful and corrupt parts of the federal leviathan, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development?
- If the politicians had all that extra money and the budget was balanced, would that mean we could - or should - forget about entitlement reform?
- If there was no red ink, would that negate the moral and economic imperative of ending the welfare state?
In other words, the first part of Samuelson’s column is right. We need a debate about “the underlying issues of what the government should do, what programs are unneeded, whether some beneficiaries are undeserving.”
But we’re not going to come up with a good answer if we don’t understand basic fiscal facts.