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Nicole Kaeding

Today is Tax Day. Federal tax returns are due to the Internal Revenue Service with a postmark before midnight. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that the federal government will collect $3.2 trillion in revenue this year.

Revenue comes from five main sources:

  • Individual Income Taxes ($1.5 trillion). The largest source of federal revenues, individual income taxes are imposed on labor and capital income, with statutory rates that vary from 10 to 39.6 percent.
  • Payroll Taxes ($1.1 trillion). These taxes finance Social Security and Medicare. Employees and employers split the 15.3 percent tax assessed on wages, but economists agree that the entire burden ultimately lands on workers in the form of lower wages.
  • Corporate Income Taxes ($328 billion). These taxes are assessed on the worldwide earnings of corporations.
  • Excise Taxes ($96 billion). Excise taxes are consumption taxes on specific goods. At the federal level, excise taxes are charged on such things as gasoline and tanning salons.
  • Other ($206 billion). This category includes the remaining sources of federal revenue like federal tariffs and the death tax.  

The amount of money collected by the federal government ebbs and flows depending on economic growth, but the overall trend is upwards. Federal revenue decreased in 2008 and 2009 due to the Great Recession, but has since rebounded strongly for two reasons. First, the return of economic growth increases revenue collection. Second, the federal government has passed several large tax increases since 2010. In 2015, the federal government will collect the largest amount of revenue in its history, even after adjusting for inflation.

Where does all this money go?

The bulk of federal spending goes to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and defense. These three categories compromise 62 percent of all federal spending in 2015.

The three giant “entitlement” programs are the areas of the budget that are expected to put immense pressure on federal spending over the long term. Without reforms, the CBO estimates that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid will represent 60 percent of the increase in federal spending over the next ten years. Net interest is not far behind. It is responsible for 24 percent of the increase in spending over the same time period.

Despite this record intake, federal spending will still outpace revenues by almost $500 billion this year. The government does not have a revenue problem, it has an overspending problem.

Note: All data refers to federal fiscal years, not calendar years. Data for fiscal year 2015 is based on estimates.

 

David Boaz

Today, the day American taxpayers wonder if the federal government is really worth all the money and hassle, I have an article at the Washington Post on how to give taxpayers more control.

Why shouldn’t taxpayers make direct decisions about how much money they want to spend on other government programs, like paying off the national debt, the war in Iraq or the National Endowment for the Arts? This would force the federal government to focus time and resources on projects citizens actually want, not just efforts that appeal to special interests.

To do this, we’d have to expand the concept of the campaign financing checkoff to all government programs. With this reform, the real expression of popular democracy would take place not every four years but every April 15. A new final page of the 1040 form would be created, called 1040-D (for democracy). At the top, the taxpayer would write in his total tax as determined by the 1040 form. Following would be a list of government programs, along with the percentage of the federal budget devoted to each (as proposed by Congress and the president). The taxpayer would then multiply that percentage by his total tax to determine the “amount requested” in order to meet the government’s total spending request. (Computerization of tax returns has made this step simple.) The taxpayer would then consider that request and enter the amount he was willing to pay for that program in the final column–the amount requested by the government, or more, or less, down to zero.

A taxpayer who thinks that $600 billion is too much to spend on military in the post-Cold War era could choose to allocate less to that function than the government requested. A taxpayer who thinks that Congress has been underfunding Head Start and the arts could allocate double the requested amount for those programs….

Real budget democracy, of course, means not just that the taxpayers can decide where their money will go but also that they can decide how much of their money the government is entitled to. Thus the last line on the 1040-D form must be “Tax refund.”  The form would indicate that none of the taxpayer’s duly calculated tax should be refunded to him; but under budget democracy the taxpayer would have the right to allocate less than the amount requested for some or all programs in order to claim a refund (beyond whatever excess withholding is already due him).

I regret that space considerations required the loss of my historical context:

Ever since Magna Carta, signed 800 years ago this spring, the Anglo-American tradition of fiscal policy has been that the people would decide how much of their money they would give to government. Parliament arose as a representative body to which the Crown would appeal for funds. The monarch had to explain why he or she was seeking more funds–and Parliament frequently rejected the request as frivolous, wasteful, or actually injurious to the commonweal.

Today, of course, we can’t count on the legislative branch to guard our tax dollars, and technology makes it easier for us to direct them ourselves.

More on taxes – and Magna Carta – in The Libertarian Mind. Find ideas for government programs that are unnecessary or too big at Downsizing the Federal Government.

Andrew J. Coulson

Back in the mid-1990s, I was often told that Americans had no interest in what other countries were doing policy-wise. As a result, it was purportedly futile to study policy using international evidence. Ignoring that warning, I wrote a book about education around the world, back to ancient times.

Whether or not the warning was valid at the time, there is now a great deal of interest in other nations’ education policies. Well… in one nation’s in particular: Finland’s. In that country, we are often told, every child is a Socrates—except for the ones who are Jane Austens or Hedy Lamarrs—and this is due, we are told, to one or more of its current education policies (the claimer gets to pick which ones).

A recent op-ed at Cleveland.com not only jumps on this Emulate Fantastic Finland bandwagon, it also purports to use the Finnish example to critique “market-based” education policies in general.

Here’s the main problem with the movement that proclaims “Country X is doing well educationally, so let’s emulate its education system!”: there are a lot of factors outside the classroom that affect educational outcomes, and that differ among countries—culture, resources in the home, etc.—and so it’s difficult to know to what extent a given nation’s performance is due to those factors or to its education policies. Fortunately, there’s a technique that not only circumvents this problem, it turns it to our advantage:

Comparing different sorts of school systems within nations. A study that compares public and private schools within India, for example, or that looks at the effects of private sector competition in Sweden on overall outcomes, eliminates international differences as a factor.  Still, the results of such studies, taken individually, have limited generalizability.

But what if we repeat this sort of comparison scores of times in a dozen or more very different countries and we find similar results occurring over and over again? If a particular approach to organizing and funding schools consistently outperforms other approaches across widely varying circumstances, we can be fairly confident that the observed pattern is the result of the system itself and not simply an accident of circumstance, because, although the circumstances will have varied from place to place, the results will have remained consistent. That is the technique I applied in a review of the worldwide research on public, private, and truly market-like school systems. As I found, It is the most market-like systems that consistently did the best job of serving families across 7 different outcome measures used by researchers.

Perhaps most ironically for the “Emulate Finland” crowd, Finland has been slipping in the rankings on the PISA test in recent years. Moreover, Finland never performed quite so well on the TIMSS international test and has been declining on it as well. And, as will be revealed in a forthcoming paper by Gabriel Sahlgren, the introduction of the most celebrated Finnish education policies does not support the view that they aided its rise on the PISA test, due to their timing.

Walter Olson

On Sunday afternoon Montgomery County, Maryland police and Child Protective Services seized the free-range Meitiv children, 10 year old Rafi and 6 year old Dvora, after their parents, Danielle and her husband Sasha, had again let them play by themselves at a park in Silver Spring, just outside D.C. The Meitiv family became the center of a national cause célèbre in January when the county charged the parents with child neglect for letting the two kids walk home from a park. In March, CPS found the neglect charge “unsubstantiated” but puzzlingly deemed the parents “responsible” for it anyway. This time, according to news reports, the kids were again walking back from the park and had gotten to within 1/3 mile of home when police intercepted and picked them up pursuant to a 911 call from “a neighbor” who had spotted them walking alone. The kids were supposed to return home by 6; the police held them for hours in the back of a squad car and did not call the by-then-frantic parents until 8 p.m. 

The Meitivs were reunited with their kids after agreeing to “sign a temporary safety plan to take them home, which means they are not allowed to leave the children unattended at all. …Police say after a thorough investigation, a decision about whether or not the Meitivs will face charges will be made.” 

I’m familiar with downtown Silver Spring, but even if I weren’t I could assure you: this is an outrage, and a big enough one that even in the Washington suburbs, where government often gets the benefit of the doubt, there is widespread outrage. One who’s been writing eloquently on the issue is Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak (“Our rapid march toward police-state parenting has got to end,” she writes today) who emphasizes what is obvious to older readers – that kids used to walk on the street as a routine part of childhood – by quoting a checklist from a 1979 book on six-year-olds, on first-grade readiness: “Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend’s home?”

From Lenore Skenazy’s account at Free-Range Kids of the Meitivs, a family she knows personally

 

Husband Sasha Meitiv, raised in the Soviet Union under complete state control, told his wife he was less surprised. “He said, ‘You don’t understand how cruel bureaucracy can be,’” said Danielle.

Lenore Skenazy has been instrumental in bringing this issue to national consciousness, and Cato has been glad to help. Don’t miss her hilarious, yet very powerful, speech at Cato in the spring of 2014 (“Quit Bubble-Wrapping Our Kids,” more), in which I not only moderate and ask questions, but even give my impression of a 3 year old deprived of a cookie. More recently her essay “Smothered by Safety” has led off discussion at Cato Unbound.

 

[adapted and expanded from Overlawyered

Alan Reynolds

Jim Tankersley of the Washington Post believes he has discovered “The Big Issue With Hillary Clinton Running Against Inequality”:

“Inequality got worse under Bill Clinton, not better. That’s true if you look at the share of American incomes going to the 1 percent, per economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty. It’s also true when you look at the share of American wealth going to the super-super-rich, the top 0.1%, per research by Saez and Gabriel Zucman.”

What this actually reveals is the absurdity of (1) defining inequality solely by top 1% shares of pretax income less government benefits, and (2) judging any strong economic expansion as a failure because top 1% income shares always rise during strong economic expansions.

The graph uses the Congressional Budget Office estimates of top 1% shares, because (unlike Piketty and Saez) they include government benefits as income and subtract federal taxes.  What it shows is that both affluence and poverty are normally highly cyclical. When the top 1 percent’s share of after-tax income jumped from 11.2% in 1996 to 15.2% in 2000, the poverty rate simultaneously dropped from 11% to 8.7%.  Meanwhile, median income, after taxes and benefits, rose from $50,900 in 1993 to $61,400 by 2001, measured in 2011 dollars. 

 

Conversely, when the top 1% share fell from 16.7% in 2007 to about 12% in 2013 (my estimate), the poverty rate rose from 9.8% to 15%.  If we adopt the egalitarians’ top 1% mantra, must we conclude that inequality “got better” lately as poverty got worse?

The income peak of 2000 is a tough act to beat, and few of us are ahead of it today – least of all the top 1%. The brief surge in top incomes of 2006-2007, like the related speculative surge in housing prices, proved unhealthy and unsustainable. But weak economic performance and high poverty in the past four years is no reason to dismiss the 3.7% average economic growth of 1983-2000 simply because such prolonged prosperity made more people rich.

Tankersley also asks us to “look at the share of American wealth going to the super-super-rich, the top 0.1%, per research by Saez and Gabriel Zucman.”  As I’ve explained in The Wall Street Journal, however, the Saez-Zucman estimates misinterpret shrinking shares of capital gains and investment income still reported on individual tax returns, or shifted from the corporate tax to a pass-through firm, rather than (like most middle-class savings) sheltered in IRA, 529 and 401(k) plans.

It is easy to envision Republican partisans welcoming and adopting the Tankersley theme that Hillary Clinton should now be ashamed of the strong economy of 1996-2000 because “inequality got worse” as many new firms were created and stock prices soared. Yet whenever stocks crashed and the top 1% share fell (making inequality “better”?) the poverty rate rose and median incomes were flat or down.

Some Republican candidates have already alluded to the same pretax, pre-transfer “top 1%” figures to claim inequality worsened under Obama – meaning since 2009.  According to Piketty and Saez, real average incomes of the top 1% were indeed higher in 2013 ($1,119,315) than in the crash of 2009 ($975,884).  Before crashing below $1 million in 2009, though, top 1% incomes had been much higher in 2007 (the equivalent of $1,533, 064 in 2013 dollars) and in 2000 ($1,369,780). The rising tide has not lifted many small boats or big yachts since 2009, because the tide hasn’t risen much; higher tax rates in 2013 certainly didn’t help.

The trouble with Republicans using highly cyclical top 1% statistics as a political weapon against Democrats is that doing so requires capitulating to the divisive and dishonest leftist fallacy that poor people and middle-income people do best when the top 1% is doing badly.

The truth is that the poverty rate fell sharply and middle-incomes rose briskly in President Clinton’s second term, and the top 1% gladly reported more taxable income and paid more taxes as the tax on capital gains was cut from 28% to 20%.  There is a lesson to be learned here, but it is not to denigrate the so-called rising inequality of the late 1990s.

Neal McCluskey

Professor Paul Campos, something of an antagonist of our higher education system, caused a bit of ruckus last week when he wrote in the New York Times that skyrocketing college prices cannot be blamed on falling state appropriations to schools. The reality, of course, is that declining public support could explain some of the increase in prices (though not much at private colleges) but it seems unlikely it would explain all of the increases.

Let’s look at the trends.

First, note that overall state and local support, at least for general operations at public institutions, is indeed down over the last several years. Using data from the latest State Higher Education Finance report – released just yesterday – total state and local support for general operations at public colleges, adjusted for inflation using a higher education-specific index, fell from a peak of $83 billion in 2008 to $73 billion in 2014, a pretty big drop. That said, in 1989 total spending was only $64 billion, which means it has risen since then.

Of course, there has been a huge increase in public college enrollment since 1989, rising from 7.5 million full-time equivalent students to 11.1 million. So, as you can see from the blue line in the chart below, appropriations per student have definitely dropped. But do those drops explain rising prices?

Here is where the red line comes in. Note, the line is revenue received per full-time equivalent (FTE) student after accounting for state and institutional aid to students. What it shows is that net revenue per student has been going up, as expected. But look at the black, linear trend lines, which enable us to get a sense for what the overall trends have been. They show that while public institutions have lost roughly $70 per year, per student, in public appropriations, they have increased their net tuition revenue per-student $101 a year, for an annual net gain of $31.

The SHEEO data, however, are not the most damning when it comes to the Cheap States Made Us Do It hypothesis. Data from the most recent College Board pricing report, which capture state appropriations per FTE student and the cost not just of tuition and fees, but also room and board, show a much greater gap between rising college prices and what would be needed to make up for lost public funding. The College Board also uses a standard price index for calculating inflation instead of one tailored to higher ed, the latter of which would overstate past spending were all higher education costs artificially inflated faster than a “normal” basket of goods. Say, perhaps, by huge subsidies to consumers.

As the chart below illustrates, while public institutions have lost about $72 per FTE student each year using College Board data, they have increased published tuition, fee, room and board charges about $357 per year. That’s a hefty net gain of $285 per student, per year.

So what do these charts show us? What I have written before, and what Campos just argued: More is going on in rampantly inflated college pricing than just lost state funding. Almost certainly much more.

Tim Lynch

Conrad Black, writing at National Review Online, blasts the “plague of unjust prosecutions” in the American legal system.

Here is an excerpt: 

Another disturbing recent development in the saga of gonzo American prosecutors is New York State attorney general Eric Schneiderman’s prosecution of the Evans Bank for violating consumer-protection regulations by not adequately making loans available in lower-income, largely minority, areas of Buffalo. These laws are sloppily written and are just pandering to specific income-level and ethnic voters, and enable opportunistic prosecutors to intensify their campaigns for higher office by pandering to targeted voting blocs and trying to superimpose affirmative action over commercial criteria on how banks treat their depositors’ and shareholders’ money. A competing bank chairman, not involved in any such case, Frank Hamlin of Canandaigua National Bank, wrote last month in a letter to his shareholders that he was “extremely suspicious of the arbitrary and capricious manner in which [prosecutors] are abusing the legal system in order to further their own political and economic interests.” Of the prosecution of Evans and another bank, he wrote that “the regulations are vague on explaining what conduct is actually prohibited. The media, of course, does the people no service by merely assuming these prosecutions are based in sound legal theory and fact … [unaware that the] legal system has mutated its focus from time-honored legal principle and justice to efficiency and political expediency… . The reason that 98 percent of prosecutions are settled and not taken to trial … has to do with a fundamental and reasonable lack of faith that our legal system is working properly.” It is a brave stand for a community banker to take opposite an attorney general who seeks votes by abusive grandstanding in the Spitzer-Cuomo tradition (that propelled both of them to the governor’s chair)….  The United States is afflicted by a plague of unjust prosecutions, almost automatic convictions, and often one-way tickets to a bloated, corrupt, and frequently barbarous correctional system. This is not what the founders and guardians of the sweet land of liberty intended.   Read the whole thing.   For related Cato work, go here and here.  

Simon Lester

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the possibility of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) saying something about the minimum wage, which the White House had been suggesting it would.  I was a bit skeptical that the TPP would really do anything on this issue, and subsequently, I spoke to a U.S. government official who seemed to indicate that the whole thing was overblown, and nothing much would happen with the minimum wage in TPP.

But now I see that Victoria Guida of Politico has been speaking to higher ranking U.S. government officials, who said the following:

The Trans-Pacific Partnership pact, which the White House is negotiating with 11 countries, would require members to set and enforce laws on minimum wages, maximum work hours and occupational safety and health standards — things no other U.S. trade agreement has done.

Labor Secretary Tom Perez, too, is practiced at explaining why the TPP should matter to its critics, calling the labor provisions of NAFTA and the Central American Free Trade Agreement “woefully insufficient.” Labor obligations, he acknowledges, must be in the main text — as they have been in the most recent free-trade agreements — and coupled with sanctions if countries don’t comply.

The worker protections in the deals with Peru, South Korea, Colombia and Panama stemmed from the “May 10 agreement” that House Democrats reached with the George W. Bush administration in 2007, which covered freedom of association, collective bargaining rights, the elimination of forced or compulsory labor, child labor and employment discrimination. The TPP would go further with its minimum wage, hours and workplace safety standards, Perez said.

What exactly does it mean that the minimum wage would be included in the TPP?  My current understanding is that it means that all TPP parties must have a minimum wage (and I’m told that all but one currently do), but that it does not matter what the minimum wage is.  In theory, then, you could set your minimum wage at 1 cent per hour, to make it meaningless.

For those of us who see economic harm in the minimum wage, what are the implications?  Is this all just for show, and nothing to worry about?  Do other TPP benefits outweigh these costs?  Is this the beginning of much worse things to come in trade agreements?  Definitely something to keep our eye on in the final TPP text.

David Boaz

I wrote last week about Paul Krugman’s claim that “there basically aren’t any libertarians” because “There ought in principle, you might think, be people who are pro-gay-marriage and civil rights in general, but opposed to government retirement and health care programs — that is, libertarians — but there are actually very few.” I offered some evidence from Gallup, Pew, and other polls that in fact there are substantial numbers of voters who hold libertarian-ish views on both economic and social issues.

Bryan Caplan runs some regressions to find that voters’ positions on a variety of issues don’t line up the way Krugman assumes they do. Ilya Somin explores various problems with Krugman’s claims, including this:

It’s also possible to try to justify Krugman’s claim by arguing that most of those people who hold seemingly libertarian views haven’t thought carefully about their implications and are not completely consistent in their beliefs. This is likely true. But it is also true of most conservatives and liberals. Political ignorance and irrationality are very common across the political spectrum and only a small minority of voters think carefully about their views and make a systematic attempt at consistency. Libertarian-leaning voters are not an exception to this trend. But it is worth noting that, controlling for other variables, increasing political knowledge tends to make people more libertarian in their views than they would be otherwise.

Nate Silver, Krugman’s erstwhile New York Times colleague who now runs the FiveThirtyEight website, writes, “There are few libertarians. But many Americans have libertarian views.” He notes:

If Krugman is right, you should see few Americans who are in favor of same-sex marriage but oppose government efforts to reduce income inequality, or vice versa.

As it turns out, however, there are quite a number of them; about 4 in 10 Americans have “inconsistent” views on these issues.

Not actually inconsistent, of course, just not consistently “liberal” or “conservative.” Those “inconsistent” Americans just might be consistently libertarian or anti-libertarian. Silver has a nice matrix, grounded in data from the General Social Survey unlike Krugman’s off-the-cuff matrix:

On those two issues, the largest group take liberal positions on both. Substitute different issues – cutting taxes, say, or internet censorship – and you’d get larger numbers of libertarians. But whatever set of issues you choose, you’re likely going to find significant numbers of voters taking positions that don’t fit into Krugman’s two boxes.

Silver speculates on why there seems to be so little political representation for these large groups of voters:

…the hard-core partisans who vote in presidential primaries are much more likely to take consistently liberal or conservative positions than the broader American population, as Krugman’s colleague Nate Cohn points out.

And the parties themselves — who have disproportionate influence in the primaries — have highly partisan views by definition. Almost all voting in the U.S. Congress, on social issues and economic issues alike, can be reduced to a single, left-right dimension.

Does this make any sense? Why should views on (for example) gay marriage, taxation, and U.S. policy toward Iran have much of anything to do with one another? The answer is that it suits the Democratic Party and Republican Party’s mutual best interest to articulate clear and opposing positions on these issues and to present their platforms as being intellectually coherent. The two-party system can come under threat (as it potentially now is in the United Kingdom) when views on important issues cut across party lines.

Maybe that’s why we have so much trouble convincing people that there are libertarian voters.

Nate Silver looked at growing libertarian sentiment back in 2011.

Ted Galen Carpenter

The Obama administration is hailing the framework agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear program as a great diplomatic triumph. It is clear, however, that several significant obstacles remain—any one of which could fatally undermine that achievement. The most obvious threat is the unrelenting hostility to the accord by hawks in the United States. The ink was barely dry when William Kristol, editor of the flagship neoconservative magazine The Weekly Standard, published an editorial openly urging Congress to kill the agreement. Outspoken congressional hawks, including Senator Tom Cotton and Senator Lindsey Graham, have made it clear that this is their objective as well. Given GOP control of both houses of Congress, such opposition is more than a minor worry.

But there are other sources of potential trouble. Just days after Kristol’s screed, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, insisted that all economic sanctions against his country must be lifted once the final version of the nuclear accord is signed. Yet even the Obama administration has adopted the position that sanctions will be lifted only in stages as Tehran fulfills its commitments. Clearly, that dispute could unravel the entire accord.

Disagreement about the timing and extent of terminating sanctions reflects the continuing lack of trust between Tehran and Washington. Although most Americans would argue that Iran is the untrustworthy party, I point out in a recent article in Real Clear Defense, that there is also reason to doubt Washington’s willingness to abide by its commitments. The U.S. track record is not especially reassuring. During the latter stages of the Cold War, for example, the United States proposed a procedure of “cross recognition” regarding North and South Korea. In other words, if Moscow and Beijing established diplomatic ties with Seoul, Washington would recognize the government in Pyongyang. China and Russia have since done so—and now enjoy a wide range of diplomatic and economic relations with South Korea. But the United States has yet to normalize relations with North Korea.

From Iran’s standpoint, an even more worrisome precedent is the action that the United States and its NATO allies took with regard to Muammar Gaddafi’s government in Libya. Gaddafi abandoned his nuclear program in exchange for promised diplomatic and economic concessions. Within a few brief years, those nations turned on Gaddafi, openly funding and arming an insurgency to overthrow his regime. That campaign culminated with NATO (primarily U.S.) cruise missile strikes to support the successful rebel offensive.

The Libya episode hardly creates an incentive for Iran, North Korea, and other potential nuclear-weapons states to forgo such ambitions. Indeed, it likely reinforces the opposite incentive. The pertinent lesson seemed to be that only a very foolish government would give up the nuclear option in exchange for the mere promise of normalized relations with the West.

Trevor Burrus

In a hit piece on Rand Paul posted on ThinkProgress, Ian Millhiser has taken guilt by association to new heights, and, in the process, fundamentally misrepresented the views of Herbert Spencer.

In “Rand Paul’s Favorite Philosophers Think Poor People Are ‘Parasites,’” Millhiser attempts to connect Rand Paul to 19th-century classical liberal philosopher Herbert Spencer. He does this by constructing a stunningly attenuated chain of influences: Rand Paul to his father Ron Paul, who was unquestionably influential on his thinking; Ron Paul to Murray Rothbard, by whom Ron Paul was greatly influenced; and Murray Rothbard to Herbert Spencer, whose book Social Statics Rothbard called “the greatest single work of libertarian political philosophy ever written.”

Millhiser offers no direct evidence that Rand Paul himself is a fan of Herbert Spencer, even though he implies so in his title. Despite this bit of journalistic malfeasance, Millhiser marches bravely forward with further misrepresentations about Spencer’s ideas, and, by implication, Senator Paul’s. Here Millhiser is joining a long, if not admirable, tradition of people misrepresenting Herbert Spencer’s ideas in order to attack proponents of capitalism. As usual, those critics are wrong about what Spencer himself actually wrote and believed.

Modern misrepresentations of Spencer can be largely traced back to Richard Hofstadter, famed historian and dogged opponent of capitalism. Many of his books, such as The Paranoid Style in American Politics, were attempts to pathologize the American right. Such political pathologies are usually just products of the author’s own biases–“It can’t be that people actually believe this absurd stuff because they find it convincing,” thinks the author, “so people must believe it as a manifestation of deep-seated neuroses, psychoses, and hatreds.” For an example of a political pathology from the right, see Dinesh D’Souza’s The Roots of Obama’s Rage.

In Social Darwinism in American Thought, Hofstadter, a one time member of the Communist Party, uses a type of warmed-over Marxism to argue that Americans embraced the idea of “survival of the fittest” because “dominant groups” were “able to dramatize this vision of competition as a thing good in itself.” Herbert Spencer, Hofstadter argues, was at the heart of this transformation. Fast-forward seventy years and through countless misrepresentations by people like Millhiser, and Spencer is now nearly synonymous with the idea of “social Darwinism,” that is, the idea that social programs and government actions to help the worst off should be rolled back in order to cleanse the race of undesirables.   

Never one to shy away from a acerbic jab, Millhiser calls Spencer’s philosophy “genocidal libertarianism.” Millhiser’s distaste for libertarianism is well known, but he would be better served attacking what people actually said than what he’s been told they said. Libertarians have plenty of skeletons in our closets, but Herbert Spencer isn’t one of them.

Spencer’s most notorious statement, that if someone is “not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die” is dutifully trotted out by Millhiser as an example of Spencer’s monstrous beliefs. As with most critics of Spencer, he ignores the opening sentence of the next paragraph: “Of course, in so far as the severity of this process is mitigated by the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other, it is proper that it should be mitigated.”

Like most libertarians, Spencer was a big believer in private charity. As George H. Smith wrote over at Cato’s Libertarianism.org:

Spencer opposed coercive, state-enforced charity, but he favored charity that is voluntarily bestowed. As a matter of justice, one should not be forced to help others; but as a matter of personal or religious ethics, one may be obligated to help others. Spencer noted with consternation that his views brought on him “condemnation as an enemy of the poor.” In one essay he observed that it was becoming more common for the rich to contribute money and time to the poor, and he praised this trend as “the latest and most hopeful fact in human history.” Moreover, the final chapters in Spencer’s The Principles of Ethics are devoted to the subject of “positive beneficence,” the highest form of society in which people voluntarily help those in need.

These and many similar facts scarcely fit the common picture of a Herbert Spencer devoid of humanitarian sentiments. One must read Spencer’s extensive treatments of poverty and the poor to appreciate fully the outrageous misrepresentations of his critics. That Spencer was offended by such lies is dramatically illustrated by the fact that he broke off a close friendship of some forty years with Thomas Henry Huxley (“Darwin’s Bulldog”), after Huxley had written that, according to the Spencerian individualist, a poor man should be left to starve because charity interferes with “survival of the fittest.”

In reply to this accusation of “reasoned savagery,” Spencer wrote: “For nearly fifty years I have contended that the pains attendant on the struggle for existence may fitly be qualified by the aid which private sympathy prompts.” Even after Huxley apologized, it took several years for the friendship to heal.

To people like Millhiser, it may be laughable to believe that private charity could be sufficient to relieve the problems of the poor, and that may be true. But this would be factual disagreement about the effects and possibilities of private charity, not a disagreement about whether the poor should be helped. Like so many opponents of libertarianism, Millhiser seems to believe that opposing the government doing something is the same as opposing it being done at all.

As a Lamarckian, someone who believes that acquired traits can be inherited, Spencer’s views of evolution were in opposition to Darwinism. Spencer believed that societies would evolve through a process of “survival of the fittest” (a term coined by Spencer and later co-opted by Darwin), but this did not mean “survival of the best.” Who survives depends on who is “constitutionally fittest to thrive under the conditions in which they are placed,” but “survival of the fittest is not always the survival of the best.” 

As Smith notes, Spencer also believed that beneficence was an essential element of an advanced and evolved society. “[T]he highest form of life, individual and social,” he wrote, “is not achievable under a reign of justice only; but … there must be joined with it a reign of beneficence.” To this end, he devoted large parts of his Principles of Ethics to arguing that a fully evolved society would need more than merely the “avoidance of direct and indirect injuries to others,” it would need “spontaneous efforts to further the welfare of others.”

This little post is only the latest attempt to correct the record on Herbert Spencer. For more see George H. Smith, Damon Root, and Thomas C. Leonard, just to name a few. I’m sure it will have no effect on how Spencer is used by people like Millhiser to attack proponents of capitalism, or to even attack those, like Rand Paul, who can be spuriously connected to Spencer through three degrees of separation.

Matthew Feeney

Yesterday, former NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly appeared on ABC News’ This Week and said that the recent Walter Scott shooting had reversed his opinion on police body cameras. Kelly, a former body-camera skeptic, said, “We have to assume that this officer would not act the way he did if in fact he had a body camera that was recording.”

Last week, I discussed what might have happened if Michael Slager, the now-former North Charleston police officer who shot and killed Walter Scott, had been wearing a body camera. I mentioned that it is hard to imagine Slager behaving the way he did if he had been wearing an operable body camera. Video footage of Slager’s encounter with Scott, which was captured by onlooker Feidin Santana, shows that Slager shot eight rounds at Scott while he was fleeing, planted an object widely suspected of being his Taser next to Scott after the shooting, and did not attempt CPR.

Washington Post article published the day before Kelly made his comments on This Week draws attention to how important camera footage can be in prosecuting officers facing charges in fatal shooting cases. My colleague Jonathan Blanks wrote about the findings here.

The article is full of disturbing reporting on how rare it is for a police officer involved in a fatal shooting case to face charges (only 54 have been charged out of the thousands of fatal shooting which have taken place since 2005).

A snippet: 

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.

Had Santana not recorded Slager and Scott’s scuffle and the subsequent shooting, it is less likely that Slager would be facing a murder charge

Video footage can provide crucial insight into fatal police shootings. While it is fortunate that Santana was in a position to film Slager shoot Scott, law enforcement agencies ought to implement police body camera policies which will ensure that fatal police shootings are recorded regardless of whether a member of the public is watching.

Kelly rightly pointed out that there are issues related to body cameras, some of which I have discussed before. But these can be adequately addressed and ought not to hamper attempts to make police officers more accountable.

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.

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