Tag: Social Issues

The State of Inequality

Rumors are that the President’s taxpayer-funded political speech State of the Union Address will focus on rising income and wealth inequality in the United States. As with almost everything this Administration does, I think this is misguided.

First, at least part of the problem of inequality is social. Poor people are much more likely to get divorced, much more likely to have children out of wedlock, much more likely to drop out of high school, much more likely to engage in criminal activity and more likely to have substance abuse problems. Wealthy people are far less likely to have those problems. The divorce problem is especially important because inequality is usually measured per household and having split households means split wealth. Inequality in America is as much a reflection of a social divide as it is an economic one.

Of course, it’s difficult to untangle social and economic problems: growing up in poverty can make it harder to persevere in school, for example. But I still think poverty is, to some extent, a symptom of larger social diseases. Treating those social diseases — through school choice, through ending the drug war, establishing free enterprise zones — would be a much more productive approach than throwing money at it.

But second, I think the idea of “inequality” is a fundamentally flawed way of looking at things. The problem with America is not that Bill Gates is making too much money. The problem is that millions of people are unemployed or marginally employed and that trillions of dollar of their wealth was eradicated by a government-supported real estate bubble (and trillions more will soon vanish in a government-supported education bubble). When people talk about “inequality”, that tends to devolve to the misguided idea of eating the rich. We should instead be focusing more on poverty, on unemployment and on education. Tearing down Bill Gates will help no one. We need to lift everyone else up so that they can aspire to be Bill Gates.

But how do we do that? Well, we can start by not following Democratic prescriptions. As I noted in an earlier post, Democrat-controlled California has the most massive income inequality in the nation, one so bad that pundits are calling it a “liberal apartheid”. Today, there was a report that the District of Columbia, an exclusively Democratic fiefdom, also suffers from catastrophic inequality, mostly because of the extraordinary gains in wealth for the areas in and around DC where government employees and contractors live and work.

And that’s the rub. Liberals think inequality is a result of not having a high enough minimum wage (and Obama, as Rich noted, just raised federal contract minimum wages by fiat). But we’ve had lower inequality with a lower minimum wage. California has a high minimum wage and massive inequality. They also think it’s a result of taxes being too low on the rich. But the rich are paying almost all the income taxes already. The lower classes pay payroll taxes, but almost no income tax. They think it’s because we’re not doing enough. But we’ve poured trillions into the War on Poverty (and, it should be noted, that many measures of inequality and poverty exclude this kind of federal aid. So liberals are ignoring the existing impact of anti-poverty programs in their call for more of the same).

Frankly, if you want to know why inequality is rising, look no further than the solutions Obama will propose tonight. Doubtless, we will get another “jobs bill”. This bill will shovel more money to rich connected friends of politicians while doing almost nothing to create sustainable job growth. He will doubtless push for a hike in the federal minimum wage, which will likely increase unemployment among the people who are the poorest. He will gloss over the federally-fueled housing bubble and bailout that poured billions into Wall Street while bankrupting the rest of us. He will doubtless ignore the regulatory capture that cripples small businesses while pouring wealth into those with armies of lobbyists. I am dubious that we will hear anything about the critical need to reform the tax and regulatory systems that are paralyzing our businesses.

In short, I think that Washington and the policies it has pursued for the last 15 years is the major contributor to inequality. And I think it is likely that we will hear tonight is a clarion call for more of the same. We will continue to push people down while claiming we’re helping them. We’ll continue to give money to special interests while pretending we’re fighting them. We will continue to do everything but the one thing government needs to do if it ever really wants to combat income and wealth inequality:

Stop creating it.

Cruz, Marijuana and States’ Rights

This remark is drawing some attention:

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas on Friday criticized President Barack Obama for not arresting people in Colorado who violated federal law by using marijuana.

“A whole lot of folks now are talking about legalizing pot. The brownies you had this morning, provided by the state of Colorado,” he jokingly said during his keynote speech at Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Policy Orientation.

“And you can make arguments on that issue,” Cruz continued. “You can make reasonable arguments on that issue. The president earlier this past year announced the Department of Justice is going to stop prosecuting certain drug crimes. Didn’t change the law.”

Voters in Colorado and Washington state voted to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in 2013, but federal law still prohibits the use of the drug. The Department of Justice announced in August of 2013 that it would not target for arrest adults who used marijuana in compliance with state laws.

Cruz said the Obama administration should continue imprisoning people for using marijuana until federal law is changed.

“You can go to Congress, you can get a conversation, you could get Democrats and Republicans who would say, ‘We ought to change our drug policy in some way,’ and you could have a real conversation, you could have hearings, you could look at the problem, you could discuss commonsense changes that maybe should happen or shouldn’t happen. This president didn’t do that. He just said, ‘The laws say one thing’ — and mind you these are criminal laws, these are laws that say if you do ‘X, Y, and Z’ you will go to prison. The president announced, ‘No, you won’t.’”

There is a small point to be made here. Marijuana use is still illegal under federal law, even it is legal under some state laws. The President is choosing not to enforce federal law.

The problem here is that our Congress has had ample opportunity to update federal law. In the wake of the Raich decision, there have been numerous attempt to change federal law so that it will respect the will of the states. This has not even been seriously considered by our Congress. They have not even had a real debate about it. They are so obsessed with never looking like hippy pot-smoker enablers, that they have refused to do anything. This “conversation” that Mr. Cruz talks about has not happened because it has been stomped down.

So I would turn this around. The correct criticism is of Congress, who have had nine years to change federal law and have refused to do so. I understand that Obama’s actions come from an Administration that has been happy to ignore the law whenever it suits them. But what we’re talking about here is standard-issue prosecutorial discretion. We don’t prosecute people for kiddie porn if they take pictures of their kids in swimsuits. We don’t prosecute people for jaywalking if they’re running across the street to fight a fire. And we don’t prosecute people for smoking pot when that would involve arresting tens of thousands of people.

However, this does cut both ways. The President could (and knowing him, likely will) rescind this promise at his discretion. A future President could do so. Under the current legal regime, people could smoke pot in Colorado for ten years and then suddenly find themselves in federal prison. So it is incredibly important that Congress move to recognize the states’ rights of Colorado and Washington (a subject Republicans are all about when it comes to abortion or gay rights). It is important that we do start this conversation in Congress. If only Ted Cruz knew a member of Congress who could get that conversation started …

That “conversation” is not something that will happen overnight. Even if Congress were amenable to changing federal law, there are anti-drug treaties we are bound to that will need to be changed. That could mean years of work and negotiation. Given the realities of the situation, I think basic prudence demands that we (1) agree to suspend federal marijuana prosecutions in states that have legalized it; (2) begin the process of revising federal law and international treaties to create a consistent legal regime.

Obama’s done Part 1. When will he and Congress start Part 2?

The Other Prohibition

All of us are familiar with Prohibition, the attempt to ban the sale and manufacture of alcohol in this country. Very few would disagree that it was an unmitigated disaster. It created a spike in crime, empowered criminals and smugglers and did little to stop drinking (and I hope you celebrated Repeal Day last week).

This post is not about alcohol prohibition, but I raise it to point out some of the traits it shares with two other kinds of prohibition. It was pushed by religious figures, yes, but more so by a Progressive Movement that saw banning alcohol as being for Americans’ own good. They believed that they could create something like a perfect society, where everyone behaved … at least according to how they thought everyone should behave. They unabashedly claimed the moral high ground, casting their opponents as either drunks or profiteers on human misery. And the effect varied depending on class. The Volstead Act was an inconvenience, at worst, to the rich and powerful, who could acquire illicit booze when they wanted it. Meanwhile, entire swathes of the population were condemned to violence, extortion and murder. But it was OK because they were just bootleggers, drunks, smugglers and Italians. Al Capone pointed out, quite correctly, the classist nature of Prohibition — that what was called bootlegging when he did was called hospitality when rich people did.

There’s a second prohibition that we’ve discussed many times — the War on Drugs. I won’t rehash the many many horrors and inefficacies of this war — see the Alberto Willmore video below. But notice the traits it shares with alcohol Prohibition. It was supported by the Religious Right, yes, but also upheld by many “Progressives”. Our Vice President has long been one of the most vocal drug warriors out there and several Presidential campaigns in the 80’s and 90’s turned on who could be toughest on drugs. The Drug Warriors believe they can create a perfect drug-free society. They unabashedly claim the moral high ground, describing their opponents as either addicts or profiteers on human misery. And again, notice how the effect is varies depending on class. It’s not difficult for the elites to get drugs if they want them. If a Congressman’s son is busted with drugs, he goes into treatment. Meanwhile, the lower classes are condemned to the hell of gang wars, no-knock police raids and minimum sentencing guidelines. But it’s OK because they’re just drug dealers or drug addicts (or, it must be said, black).

There’s a third prohibition, however. In fact, it’s actually the first prohibition, the one whose “success” inspired the ones that followed. It is so insidious that many of us don’t even realize it is a prohibition. And since my friend Maggie McNeill has asked those of us who oppose this prohibition to write about it on Friday the 13th, I’m going to talk about the prohibition on sex work. Or, to be trite: the War on Whores.

Prostitution was not illegal for most of our history or most of human history. Because even those who regarded it as an evil saw it as a necessary one. As Maggie explains in the Cato Unbound debate between her, Ronald Weitzer and two well-meaning (or not so well-meaning) fools:

Indeed, up until the nineteenth century almost nobody imagined that prohibition could be done, let alone that it should. It was almost universally understood that many working-class women and a not-inconsiderable number of those in higher classes would accept money for sex, at least on occasion, and it was impossible to draw a bright, clear line between behaviors that constituted “prostitution” and those (such as concubinage, mistresshood, and political marriage) which did not despite their often-mercenary basis. The manifold laws regulating sex work were not intended to preclude pragmatic motivations for sexual behavior, but rather to keep up appearances, guard the purity of bloodlines, and maintain public order. But as the Victorian Era dawned, a new idea began to take hold of European minds: if science could perfect Man’s tools and techniques, why couldn’t the same process be applied to Mankind itself? The immediate result of turning (pseudo-)scientific inquiry upon sex was that taking money for it was no longer considered merely something that “unladylike” or “sinful” women did for a living or extra income; instead, the “prostitute” was defined into existence as a specific type of woman, separate and distinct from other women. For most of the century the prevailing view was that women who took money for sex were congenitally defective, but in the 1880s the idea arose that most or even all were forced into the profession by evil men. It was about this time that “avails” laws started to appear, under the rationale of “protecting” women from exploitation by such men.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the “white slavery” hysteria was in full swing. Progressives were determined to “rescue” women from the clutches of the “pimps” who were abducting them by the thousands from homes, railway stations, and dance halls, and for the first time in history the act of taking money for sex was itself criminalized on a large scale. In the United States, it was illegal almost nowhere in 1909, but almost everywhere by the end of 1914.

The more you dig into the issue the more you see the parallels to the War on Drugs and alcohol Prohibition. Again, we see the hand of religion, but also the Progressives (and I would argue that they are worse on this issue than the religious, having now donned the cloak of pseudo-feminism). They believe they can create a perfect whore-free society. They unabashedly claim the moral high ground, describing their opponents as whores or pimps. And the effect once again depends on class. It’s not difficult for someone like Eliot Spitzer — who prosecuted sex workers and their clients — to get a high-priced call girl. But some poor shmoe who just wants to get laid goes on John TV. Prostitutes can be raped with impunity, extorted by law enforcement and ultimately jailed. But it’s OK, because they’re just perverts and whores.

And look where this hysteria has led us. Just as the War on Drugs will get a high school girl busted for giving Midol to a friend, so will the sex prohibitionists engage in absurd excesses in the War on Whores. In Madison, a man has started a business where people can pay to snuggle and cuddle with other people. I think it sounds stupid (about a decade ago, this sort of thing showed up on a Penn and Teller episode as a laugh). However, if paying $60 to hug some people is your thing, knock yourself out.

But ultra-liberal Madison is banning it.

Snugglers contend touching helps relieve stress. But Madison officials suspect the business is a front for prostitution and, if it’s not, fear snuggling could lead to sexual assault. Not buying the message that the business is all warm and fuzzy, police have talked openly about conducting a sting operation at the business, and city attorneys are drafting a new ordinance to regulate snuggling.

“There’s no way that (sexual assault) will not happen,” assistant city attorney Jennifer Zilavy said. “No offense to men, but I don’t know any man who wants to just snuggle.”

This is your brain on the War on Whores: a government official invoking sexual assault and the dreaded prostitution in a response to a hug house. God knows what they would have done if they’d found out about the back rubs on my freshman year college dorm.

This is where this ahistorical hysteria on sex work has led us. This is who we are now. People think that bans on prostitution and hysteria over sex work only affects dirty whores and their filthy clients. But when you open the door to government getting involved in consensual sex between adults, the entire damned law enforcement industry will stampede through it. And next thing you know, they’re calling you a rapist for wanting to hug someone.

No society has ever rid itself of alcohol — not even Islamic countries, where alcohol is illegal. No country has ever rid itself of drugs — not even China which once imposed the death penalty for opium use. They can reduce it, a bit. They can drive it underground. But they can not stop human beings from human beings.

And no society has ever rid itself of sex work. In fact, many of the greatest empires embraced it. Our experiment in banning sex work has now gone on for a century. As with alcohol and rugs, its adherents continually claim we are right on the verge of victory; we only need to ruin a few more lives. It’s time that the prostitution ban, like Prohibition and the War on Drugs, find its way into the list of history’s abandoned mistakes.

Don’t think that this is entirely about booze, drugs and hookers, either. All three of our nation’s great prohibitions have arisen from the Great Progressive Conceit: the idea that government can make people better (assuming you accept the Progressives’ definition of ‘better’). This is a conceit that plays out in a thousand ways in our politics, from the government telling you your insurance policy isn’t good enough to forbidding you from smoking in your own home to telling you not to drink so much soda.

The Great Progressive Conceit is tempting because government can create the circumstances for people to become better. Freedom of religion and speech, capitalism, rule of law, etc. all create opportunities for human beings to improve themselves and the society around them. And we absolutely need government to stop people from harming each other. But the minute the government turns its eye toward telling you that you must do this or you must not do that for your own good …

Just Say No.

When Is A Cut Not A Cut?

When it’s a program we like. A couple of Republicans have proposed a change to the budget — eliminating the sequester on the military in exchange for chained CPI for Social Security. It’s not going anywhere, but it does serve to highlight the cognitive dissonance that defines the Left:

Reps. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) and Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) are introducing the Provide for the Common Defense Act on Tuesday. The legislation would cancel out the next two years of sequestration cuts for the Pentagon by putting a heavier burden on senior citizens and federal workers.

Even without the sequestration, military spend will go down under the BCA. But notice that HuffPo gets its math right here: these are actual cuts in defense spending and the Republican are, well, making the cuts smaller — in real dollars. Sequestration is real cutting. In my own work, I’ve seen NASA closing down programs or canceling new ones in response to it.

Now let’s go a paragraph earlier:

A pair of House Republicans have a new bill that would spare the military from sequestration by cutting the Social Security benefits of many Americans who already experience painful federal budget cuts.

Emphasis mine.

These are not cuts. They are changes in the rate of growth of Social Security benefits. Many economists believe these changes reflect actual spending patterns. You can disagree with you want* but you can’t change the language life that.

(*Many fools on the Left want Social Security massively expanded despite its current and swelling fiscal shortfalls. Krugman says that Social Security is the only part of the retirement system that’s working well. All Ponzi schemes work well … until they collapse. My 403b would be working great too if my bank could stock up an imaginary portfolio against expected future investments.)

If the Republican proposal were to increase military spending very slightly, HuffPo wouldn’t call those cuts. But slow the rate of growth of their pet program and it’s “cuts!”.

You Lie! Kinda Sorta.

Many people are tweeting and linking this article which claims that Louis Gohmert spouted 12 lies about Obamacare in two minutes. Some of the things Gohmert said were not true. But other were and still others can not really be assessed at this stage. To take on the lies one-by-one:

Was Obamacare passed against the will of the people?

Nope. It was passed by a president who won the largest landslide in two decades and a Democratic House and Senate with huge majorities. It was passed with more support than the Bush tax cuts and Medicare Part D, both of which were entirely unfunded. And the law had a mostly favorable perception in 2010 before Republicans spent hundreds of millions of dollars spreading misinformation about it.

The first bits of that are true but somewhat irrelevant: the Iraq War had massive support at first, but became very unpopular. The second is cherry-picked. Here is the Kaiser Foundation’s tracking poll on Obamacare (panel 6). Obamacare barely crested 50% support for a brief period, well within the noise. Since then, it has had higher unfavorables. If anything, those unfavorables have actually fallen slightly, not risen in response to “Republican lies”.

Supporters of the law have devised a catch-22 on the PPACA: if support falls, it’s because of Republican money; if it rises it’s because people are learning to love the law. But the idea that there could be opposition to it? Perish the thought!

Is Obamacare still against the will of American people?

Actually, most Americans want it implemented. Only 6 percent said they wanted to defund or delay it in a recent poll.

That is extremely deceptive. Here is the poll. Only 6% want to delay or defund the law because 30% want it completely repealed. Another 31% think it needs to be improved. Only 33% think the law should be allowed to take effect or be expanded.

(That 6% should really jump out at you since it’s completely at variance with any political reality. The second I saw it, I knew it was garbage. Maybe they should have focus-group-tested it first to come up with some piece of bullshit that was at least believable.)

Of the remaining questions, many are judgement calls on things that have yet to happen. National Memo asserts that Obamacare does not take away your decisions about health care, does not put the government between you and your doctor and will not keep seniors from getting the services they need. All of these are judgement calls about things that have yet to happen. There are numerous people — people who are not batshit crazy like Gohmert — who think that Obamacare and especially the IPAB will eventually create government interference in healthcare. Gohmert might be wrong about this. But to call it a lie when someone makes a prediction about what will happen is absurd. Let’s imagine this playing out in 2002:

We rate Senator Liberal’s claim that we will be in Iraq for a decade and it will cost 5000 lives and $800 billion to be a lie. The Bush Administration has claimed that US troops will be on the ground for only a few years and expect less than a thousand casualties and about $2 billion per month. In fact, some experts predict it will pay for itself.

See what I did there?

Obamacare is a big law with a lot of moving parts. There are claims about how it is going to work but we won’t really know for a long time. Maybe the government won’t interfere with your health care. But that’s a big maybe to bet trillions of dollars on.

The article correctly notes that the government will not have access to medical records. But then it is asserts that any information will be safe. This point was overtaken by events this week when an Obamacare site leaked 2400 Social Security numbers.

See what I mean about “fact-checking” things that have yet to happen?

Then there’s this:

Under Obamacare, will young people be saddled with the cost of everybody else?

No. Thanks to the coverage for students, tax credits, Medicaid expansion and the fact that most young people don’t earn that much, most young people won’t be paying anything or very much for health care. And nearly everyone in their twenties will see premiums far less than people in their 40s and 50s. If you’re young, out of school and earning more than 400 percent of the poverty level, you may be paying a bit more, but for better insurance.

This is incorrect. Many young people are being coerced into buying insurance that they wouldn’t have before. As Avik Roy has pointed out, cheap high-deductible plans have been effectively outlawed. Many college and universities are seeing astronomical rises in health insurance premiums, including my own. The explosion of invasive wellness programs, like UVAs, has been explicitly tied to the PPACA. Gohmert is absolutely right on this one.

The entire point of Obamacare was to get healthy people to buy insurance so that sick people could get more affordable insurance. That is how this whole thing works. It’s too late to back away from that reality now.

Does Obamacare prevent the free exercise of your religious beliefs?

No. But it does stop you from forcing your beliefs on others. Employers that provide insurance have to offer policies that provide birth control to women. Religious organizations have been exempted from paying for this coverage but no one will ever be required to take birth control if their religion restricts it — they just can’t keep people from having access to this crucial, cost-saving medication for free.

This is a matter of philosophy. Many liberals think that if an employer will not provide birth control coverage to his employees, he is “forcing” his religious views upon them (these liberals being under the impression that free birth control pills are a right). I, like many libertarians and conservatives (and independents), see it differently: that forcing someone to pay for something with which they have a moral qualm is violating their religious freedom. The Courts have yet to decide on this.

I am reluctant to call something a “lie” when it’s a difference of opinion. Our government has made numerous allowance for religious beliefs in the past, including exemptions from vaccinations, the draft, taxes and anti-discrimination laws. We are still having a debate over how this applies to healthcare. Sorry, National Memo, that debate isn’t over yet.

So let’s review. Of Gohmert’s 12 “lies”, the breakdown is like so:

Lies: 4
Debatable or TBD: 5
Correct: 3
Redundant: 1

(You’ll note that’s 13 “lies”; apparently National Memo can’t count).

So 4 only out of 13 are lies. Hey, even Ty Cobb only hit .366

What Spitzer Wants

It seemed odd to me that Eliot “courtesans are for royalty, not plebs” Spitzer chose comptroller as his avenue back into politics. Paul Krugman, in probably the most Krugman column ever, opines that comptroller would give him a chance to tangle with the Wall Street fat cats. Of course, Krugman spent the previous column bashing “Libertarian populism” without ever mentioning that a core tenet of libertarian populism is breaking up the big banks and reigning in Wall Street. Apparently, Wall Street can only be attacked by rich hypocritical aristocratic friends of Paul Krugman.

It’s worth repeating what I said in an earlier column: Spitzer went to enormous effort to jail guys looking to get laid and women trying to make some money while he ran around with a high-priced courtesan; Spitzer structured his payments to avoid triggering bank reporting laws; Spitzer used his money and legal friends to avoid any prosecution for his acts. Spitzer is everything liberals claim to hate.

“Conscience of a Liberal”, my ass.

Then agan, maybe Krugman is hoping that electing Spitzer would be so idiotic that it would provoke that economy-stimulating alien invasion he’s always on about.

Walter Olson has a much more likely explanation:

Strong-arming gun makers to act against their perceived business interests, as well as those of their customers:

…in retrospect, there were a few clues that Spitzer was eying a job whose duties include managing the city’s pension funds…

In December, after the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., Spitzer wrote a column in the online publication Slate arguing that pension funds should use their investing clout to pressure corporations such as gunmakers to act in the public interest.

New York City’s comptroller, Spitzer said in the interview, is “a significant player in terms of the pension funds and how those shares are voted. And when I speak with folks about corporate governance, the missing link in all of this has been ownership.”

Eliot Spitzer has long been a key player in efforts to intimidate lawful gun manufacturers through both strained litigation theories and hamhanded attempts at economic pressure. The NYC comptroller’s office, with its sway over billions in pension fund money, would present him with a large sandbox indeed.

This sound very likely to me: that Eliot Spitzer is seeking to politicize a pension fund and gain unaccountable unrestrained power to bully, intimidate and harass any business that he doesn’t like. Indeed, it’s for these reasons that I oppose most Social Security privatization plans: because of the power that trillions in investment money would potentially give the government.

But … as shown by Krugman … liberals love Eliot Spitzer. They love him because he may be a pompous, power-hungry, hypocritical, Constitution-shredding horse’s ass; but he’s a pompous power-hungry, hypocritical, Constitution-shredding horse’s ass against people they don’t like (i.e, bankers). So the idea of using NYC’s pensions to bash lawful businesses into obeying their whims sounds great.

The problem is that sleazy tyrants like Spitzer are never satisfied with just going after one enemy. It won’t be long until Spitzer is trying to blackmail newspapers that run escort ads. Or those that run gun advertisements. Or those that are insufficiently groveling. New York may soon elect a comptroller who sees his job not as managing finances but advancing an agenda. Just don’t whine when that agenda turns on you.

Someone Messed With Texas

If you were awake late last night, you saw something pretty extraordinary unfold down in Texas. The legislature was attempting to pass a bill on the last day of the session that would have restricted abortion by (1) limiting it to 20 weeks; (2) requiring that clinics meet medical clinic standards; (3) requiring that abortion providers have hospital admission privileges. Opponents said the latter two would shut down all but five clinics in the state.

A building protest caught spark when Wendy Davis began a 13-hour filibuster to try to prevent a vote. When she was ruled to have broken the rules a third time — once for getting a back brace adjustment and twice for talking about topics deemed irrelevant — her filibuster was ended. What followed was two hours of parliamentary debate. At 11:45, the gallery erupted, shouting down the legislature. They voted for the legislation. But this morning, the Lt. Governor ruled that it had passed after the midnight deadline. For the moment, the bill is dead.

Many thoughts and I’ll have to go with bullet points that sum up much of what I said on Twitter.

  • Once again, the MSM fell flat on its face. Twitter, Facebook and blogs had copious coverage of what was going on. At the precise moment the vote was happening, CNN was highlighting … the calorie content of muffins. I’m calling it: 2013 is the year the MSM died. Almost all the big news — the IRS scandal, the NSA, last night in Texas — emerged from outside the MSM. And their typical reaction has been to either dismiss it or be snide about it, culminating in David Gregory pondering if Glenn Greenwald should be prosecuted for breaking the law (note to Gregory: I don’t think journalists breaking the law is a can of worms to you want to open, asshole). The MSM is still relevant, a little, for foreign news. Or at least they could be. Some journalists, like the ones who exposed the abuse in Bell, California, still fill a role. But the big news houses are nothing but fluff.
  • Probably the most amazing, if unsurprising thing, was the complete reversal of people’s attitudes on the particulars. Liberals who had spent years denouncing the filibuster suddenly thought it was the most awesome thing ever. People who had denounced peaceful Tea Party protests as display of thuggery and racism suddenly decided that shouting down the legislature was good citizen participation.
  • Me? Even though I’m mixed on the abortion issue and prefer the more dignified, restrained and lawful tactics used by the Tea Party, I am encouraged when I see citizens paying attention to what their legislatures are doing. I am always impressed by real filibusters not the bogus “we’re pretending to talk” kind.
  • The law itself, however, is not the most ridiculous thing. As pointed out, many countries have more restrictive abortion laws than Texas tried to pass, including western European ones. France, for example, only allows abortion on demand through 12 weeks, with exceptions for health of the mother or fetal illness. I really think, after the Gosnell horror, abortion clinics should be held to higher standards. And now that we’ve had fetuses survive after being born at 21 weeks, the push to move viability back was not unreasonable. However, the GOP has been winning legislative victory after legislative victory on the abortion issue. Something like last night was inevitable.
  • The victory abortion proponents scored last night may be temporary. There is no force on Earth that can stop Rick Perry from calling a special legislative session today to pass SB5. However, I suspect that the law is dead for now. The GOP, if they are wise … stop that snickering … will take their wins on abortion law and wait for passions to cool.
  • In the end, despite the extremely boring parliamentary debate that pushed SB5 past midnight, I found last night kind of riveting. Not because I am particularly sympathetic to the protesters, but because I am sympathetic to anyone pushing back on government. I want people protesting, calling legislators and getting involved because so many of us have fallen asleep at the switch. Our Republic only functions if we hold our leaders responsible for the decisions that they make and the laws that they pass.

    So my challenge to those who participated last night, even it was just a “StandWithWendy” hashtag is this: are you willing to keep this up? Are you willing to push back on NSA abuses, even when it is the eeevil libertarians raising awareness? Are you willing to protest the IRS targeting groups based on their politics, even when it’s groups you don’t like? In short, are you going to stay involved when it’s not your pet issue? When it doesn’t involve aborting fetuses?

    Because if you’re not willing to stay involved; if you’re going to bash the Tea Party when they do something like this; if you’re going to decry the filibuster when Rand Paul uses it, then you are not a participant, a protester, a citizen, a revolutionary, a patriot or someone who “stands” with anything.

    You’re just a partisan.

    VRA On Its Last Legs

    SCOTUS delivered an important decision today, basically striking down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. A little history:

    When the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, almost no African-Americans were registered to vote in the Deep South due to brutal repression and sickening legal chicanery. Civil rights litigators and the Department of Justice were doing their best to help. They filed lawsuit after lawsuit to make it possible for blacks to register. But every time a court deemed one discriminatory practice illegal, local officials would switch to another. Literacy tests, poll taxes, burdensome registration requirements—these techniques were all used to prevent African-Americans from voting. Southern voting registrars would even resign from their positions as soon as a lawsuit was on the cusp of succeeding, thereby sending the case back to square one. The Voting Rights Act aimed to change all of this.

    Section 5 was the most important and imaginative provision in the law. It required certain states and jurisdictions, mostly in the South, to ask the federal government’s permission before making any change—no matter how small—in the way they run elections. Until a rule was “precleared,” it could not go into effect. This unusual provision solved the central problem of voting-rights enforcement during the civil rights era—keeping up with the increasingly creative strategies recalcitrant state and local governments used to disenfranchise voters. Section 5 shifted the burden of inertia, allowing the Department of Justice to get one step ahead of local officials.

    In what is becoming a trend for the Roberts Court, the judges declined to strike down the entire VRA. Instead they struck down Section 4, which defines which areas need to preclear their election laws based on voter registrations and restrictions as they existed in 1972. This is an incremental step, building on criticisms the judges leveled at Section 4 four years ago. They warned Congress then that Section 4 was becoming outdated and needed to be replaced. Congress didn’t listen. And while I expect Congress to make a lot of noise, I don’t expect any action. Section 4 and, to a large extent Section 5 are effectively dead.

    The reactions from the Left, as you can imagine, are a bit apoplectic. The most common argument is that the VRA has done a good job (African American registration is now comparable to white registration in many VRA-affected areas) so why scrap it now? But to me, that’s the argument for scrapping it. I can see the argument for having passed the VRA in the first place, over-riding states’ rights temporarily because the extraordinary circumstances of institutionalized and unremitting racism. But that was a temporary measure. At some point, we shouldn’t simply assume states are racist monsters because of conditions older than I am. Comparing this to Dred Scott or Plessy is simply ridiculous, especially since most of the VRA remains intact. In fact, this very Court, earlier in the session, threw out Arizona’s proof of citizenship requirement by a 7-2 vote, agreeing that it was over-ridden by federal law. There is nothing whatsoever to stop individuals or the Justice Department from challenging any state law they think is designed to surpress minority voting. I find it very unlikely that states will start playing the legal games they played in the 60’s to surpress the vote.

    You can read more from Mataconis and Joyner at Outside the Beltway. The upshot — one I agree with — is that the Court made the correct decision: chip away at the VRA but leave enough intact so that discrimination can not rear its ugly head again.

    The most amazing part of SCOTUS watching is the whipsawing of the pundit’s attitudes. When the Roberts Court made the Citizens United decision, all the liberal pundits rent their garments. Then the Obamacare decision came and suddenly the Roberts Court was awesome! Now they chip away at a dubious part of the VRA and they’re worse than the Tanney Court. If the Court overturns Prop 8 or DOMA tomorrow (I expect them to punt), then they’ll be awesome again.

    Me? I think it’s been a mixed bag. The Roberts Court has made some critical inroads in Second Amendment Rights and property rights. They’ve made some poor decisions on civil liberties, Obamacare and criminal defense rights. But the thing they’ve mostly done is show restraint: knocking down parts of laws instead of entire volumes of law, deferring to the legislative process when they can and making changes in a manner consistent with judicial history and our Constitution.

    That’s not perfect. I think judicial activism is a good thing when our liberty is at stake. But it’s an improvement over the radically activist Courts of the past.

    You Can’t Say That (Prostitution Edition)

    The Supreme Court has yet to render decisions on gay marriage, affirmative action or the Voting Rights Act. But a number of critical decisions have come down, some good, some bad. I’ve been sitting on post on criminal rights for a few days; I’ll hopefully crank it out over the weekend. But I did want to comment on Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International, Inc., which was handed down yesterday.

    (Aside: I have become a total SCOTUSblog junkie. They have pages on every case the Court is handling, complete with amicus briefs. When they liveblog decisions, I close my office door. They get it fast and they get it right. They absolutely deserved the Peabody Award they won for getting the Obamacare decision right while the networks floundered. If you care about the Court, they are a must-bookmark.)

    About ten years ago, the government implemented two policies for funding organizations to fight AIDS. The first was that they not used funds to promote prostitution or its legalization. The second was that they must explicitly oppose prostitution. The orgs argued that the second requirement impugned their First Amendment rights by forcing them to advocate a political view. And yesterday the Court agreed 6-2 that it did.

    (It was always stupid policy — legalizing prostitution would very likely cut into the spread of AIDS. But the Court has no power to overturn laws because they’re dumb.)


    This case is about far more than prostitution and HIV/AIDS. The expansion of the modern regulatory state has increasingly led to financial involvement of the government with private organizations — including churches, religious universities, and religious charities — in ways that potentially give the government power over those organizations. Tax exemptions, which have been treated by this Court as tantamount to the provision of funds, are a prominent example. Student loans and grants, which are likewise treated as equivalent to direct payments to the university, are another. Numerous other examples exist, including the direct grants at issue here.

    Under the government’s theory in this case, federal, state, and local governments may use these kinds of government funding programs as leverage to pressure organizations into affirmatively expressing particular government-prescribed views as the organizations’ own. For instance, if a government wants to pressure such groups to avow that they support or oppose contraception, pacifism, abortion, the death penalty, assisted suicide, or whatever other policy those then in control of the government choose, then that government would be free to do so.

    For the reasons discussed below, that cannot be right. Such a “get with the program” power would let the government badly distort the marketplace of ideas by strengthening groups that toe the government line and financially crippling groups that refuse to say what the government demands. And such a power to coerce ideological conformity would unacceptably burden religious groups’ rights to speak or not speak in accordance with the truth as they see it.

    Exactly. As Noah Feldman pointed out, this decision protects conservative views as much or more than it protects liberal ones. Had the Court upheld this provision, there would have been nothing to stop the government from forcing organizations that wanted federal funds or tax exemptions to recognize the legitimacy of gay marriage or the importance of a woman’s right to choose or anything else that popped into their heads. To quote from Robert’s stirring decision:

    [T]he Policy Requirement goes beyond preventing recipients from using private funds in a way that would undermine the federal program. It requires them to pledge allegiance to the Government’s policy of eradicating prostitution. As to that, we cannot improve upon what Justice Jackson wrote for the Court 70 years ago: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” West Va. Bd. of Ed. v. Barnette.

    Now there’s an argument for this policy, which Scalia and Thomas put forward and is discussed more by Ken at Popehat that goes like this: it’s the government’s money, so you have to play by their rules. There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch. You don’t want to parrot the government line? Don’t take their money.

    I would say, as a general rule, that’s not unreasonable. But the history of government using its financial power to compel behavior is long and ugly and has frequently extended to areas where we don’t have a choice (or effectively don’t) about taking their money. Highway funding was used as a bludgeon to raise the drinking age. Financial aid was used to force universities to adopt more aggressive anti-drug and anti-drinking policies. In fact, this very Court has decided that we are not entitled to Social Security money. How long would it take for politicians to mandate certain views in return for benefits?

    Amanda Marcotte, always one to completely miss the point, tries to hammer this into a Bush and the evil Christians narrative. But that ignores that the Obama Administration supported this policy. Numerous “feminists” supported the policy or filed amicus briefs in favor. Numerous Democratic politicians supported it and filed amicus briefs in favor. And it would not surprise me at all to see this emerge again with a thin Constitutional veneer.

    As Volokh says, our government has tremendous financial and regulatory power. Even if we elected Rand Paul and a bunch of libertarians tomorrow, it would take decades for that power to recede. We have to be very suspicious when it tries to use that power to make people agree with it. To not do so is to ignore the monster in the room.

    The Somalia Canard

    In Josephine County, Oregon, a woman was recently raped by her ex-boyfriend while she was on the phone to 911, begging for help which never came. I’ll forgo the usual “this is why we have the second amendment” point to concentrate on something a little different.

    The Sherriff’s office is blaming the lack of response on recent budget cuts and the refusal of the citizenry to support a tax hike. But as Radley Balko points out, the city has had plenty of resources to go after legal medical marijuana growers or small-time illegal pot smokers. When it comes to the things that bring in asset forfeitures and pad arrest stats, they have all the resources they need.

    This problem, however, is being enabled by the likeliest of political suspects:

    The partisan political reactions to this story are typically awful. Wonkette’s Rebecca Schoenkopf mockingly calls Josephine County a “libertarian paradise,” and chides the dumb rubes for rejecting property tax increases that would (allegedly) fund police officers to respond to 911 calls. (More likely: It would fund more drug raids.) The post then takes the obligatory shots at people who favor local government over national government. You can find similar reactions at ThinkProgress and The Stranger.

    Here’s the thing. Maybe part of the reason Josephine County is facing budget woes is because more than half the land in the county is owned by the federal government. The federal government doesn’t pay property taxes. And property taxes are primarily how local government is funded. Perhaps, just perhaps, the county’s residents reject the idea that their federal tax dollars are going toward buying up local land that is sapping the county’s tax base, and they resent the notion that if they then want basic services — like police protection — they are then asked to make up the difference through higher property taxes. And perhaps — just perhaps — they also resent the federal government because while county residents can’t get the local cops to respond to a woman being raped, the federal government is imposing its will on the state by funding task forces to raid medical marijuana facilities in a state where voters have expressed a clear will to legalize the drug for medicinal purposes.

    But that would require an analysis of this story that involves some nuance, extra reading, and empathy. Better to just make Ayn Rand jokes and mock the dumb, low-income bumpkins for mistrusting the government.

    This is simply another variation on the Somalia Canard. Idiotic liberals have a tendency to respond to libertarian-conservative arguments with some variation of, “Well why don’t you go live in Somalia?! That’s a libertarian paradise!” I regard the Somalia Canard as the libertarian version of Godwin’s Law. When someone brings up Somalia, you know they have run out of arguments and are just going for the ad hominem.

    But, OK, assholes. I’ll do this thing. Here’s why we don’t all move to Somalia: because Libertarianism is not anarchism. And conservatism is a long way from anarchism.

    The vast majority of libertarians and conservative have no problems with funding things like law enforcement and fire-fighting. Most of us don’t have a problem with making sure our water is clean and our meat is healthy. And many of us even think public schools are OK!

    But these are not the only things that government does. They are not even a majority of what the government does.

    A lot of what the government does is either unnecessary (if we’re lucky) or damaging (if we’re not). It pays out hundreds of billions in transfer payments every year. It pays employees generous salaries and extravagant benefits for which we are now on the hook to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. It uses asset forfeiture to seize people’s property without trial because they might be dealing drugs. It uses eminent domain to force people to sell their property to rich developers. It fights unnecessary wars. It fights a stupid and devastating War on Drugs. It shovels tens of billions into corporate welfare and tax exemptions to favored businesses. It seizes well-cared-for children because their parents have a little pot.

    I have no problem giving government money to do the things that government needs to do. But no one should be willing to just throw money into the equivalent of a wishing well in the hope that, somehow somewhere, it might be spent wisely.

    How about, instead of laughing at the low-income people of Josephine County for not wanting yet more money extracted from them, you look into what kind of stupid shit Josephine County was spending money on instead of funding the police? If you can’t find any waste, then I might be prepared to listen to you chuckling at the brutal rape of a defenseless woman.

    Update: I shoulde not that what is going on in Oregon is a pattern we have seen at all levels of government in response to budget cuts: getting rid of essential services first in order to increase pressure on the public for tax hikes. One place where this did not happen was Wisconsin, where Walker’s reforms allowed the state to retain thousands of teachers they would otherwise have had to fire. But anytime shrinking governments choose to cut the meat instead of the fat, can you count on the entire Liberal Ecosphere to blame conservatives.