Policy Institutes

According to a recent story on WBUR, the NPR radio affiliate in Boston,

Massachusetts hospitals are seeing evidence that the opioid epidemic is affecting the next generation, with an increasing number of babies being born exposed to drugs.

Is this cause for concern? Perhaps, but the “crack baby” scare of the 1980s suggests caution in jumping to conclusions.

In the mid-1980s, as crack use spread and garnered attention from law enforcement officials, the public health community, and the media, it seemed that crack use by pregnant mothers was generating horrific harms. For example, the New York Times reported in 1985 that

Cocaine use may be dangerous for pregnant women and their babies, causing spontaneous abortions, developmental disorders and life-threatening complications during birth, doctors reported today.

Similarly, a 1985 article in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that

these preliminary observations suggest that cocaine influences the outcome of pregnancy as well as the neurologic behavior of the newborn.

And many media assessments  were extremely pessimistic; Charles Krauthammer, for example, wrote that 

the inner-city crack epidemic is now giving birth to the newest horror: a bio-underclass, a generation of physically damaged cocaine babies whose biological inferiority is stamped at birth.

Three decades later, however, with the benefit of calm reflection and better data, the assessment of crack’s impact is strikingly different.   In 2009, the New York Times wrote:

So far, these scientists say, the long-term effects of [crack] exposure on children’s brain development and behavior appear relatively small.

And the Washington Post, in 2010, noted that

[crack babies] were written off even before they could talk. But in the two decades that have passed since crack dominated drug markets in the District and across the nation, these babies have grown into young adults who can tell their stories – and for the most part, they are tales of success.

More broadly, CBS News noted in 2013 that

a new review published May 27 in Pediatrics finds little proof of any major long-term ill effects in children whose mothers used cocaine during pregnancy… Studies at the time blamed prenatal drug use, suggested affected children had irreversible brain damage and predicted dire futures for them. 

While some studies researchers looked at for the new review linked pregnant women’s cocaine use with children’s behavior difficulties, attention problems, anxiety and worse school performance, the effects were mostly small and may have resulted from other factors including family problems or violence, parents’ continued drug use and poverty, the researchers said.

Thus increased opioid use, and its potential impact on newborns, undoubtedly deserve attention from the medical community. Fortunately, the early evidence suggests that, with appropriate medical treatment, these newborns suffer little long-term damage from their in utero exposure to opioids (see here and here).  

In contrast, punitive approaches like jailing pregnant women who use drugs, or removing newborns from such mothers (which many advocated during the crack hysteria; see here, here, or here), can easily harm newborns by discouraging drug-using, pregnant women from seeking treatment and medical advice.

Ten years ago, Idaho came out strongly against the REAL ID Act, a federal law that seeks to weave state driver licensing systems into a U.S. national ID. But Department of Homeland Security bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., have been working persistently to undermine state resistance. They may soon enjoy a small success. A bill the Idaho legislature sent to the governor Friday (HB 513) risks putting Idahoans all the way in to the national ID system.

Idaho would be better off if the legislature and Governor Butch Otter (R) continued to refuse the national ID law outright.

Idaho’s government was clear about the federal REAL ID Act in 2008. The legislature and governor wrote into state law that the national ID law was “inimical to the security and well-being of the people of Idaho.” They ordered the Idaho Transportation Department to do nothing to implement REAL ID.

Since then, the DHS has threatened several times to prevent people living in non-compliant states from going through TSA checkpoints at the nation’s airports. The DHS has always backed down from these threats—the feds would get all the blame if DHS followed through—but the threats have done their work. Compliance legislation is on the move in a number of states.

One of those states is Idaho, where that bill with Governor Otter would call for compliance with the REAL ID Act’s requirements “as such requirements existed on January 1, 2016.” That time limitation is meant to keep Idahoans out of the nation-wide database system that the REAL ID Act requires. But the bill might put Idahoans into the national ID system by mistake.

When the original “REAL ID Rebellion” happened with Idaho at the forefront, DHS was under pressure to show progress on the national ID. DHS came up with a “material compliance checklist,” which is a pared-back version of the REAL ID law. Using this checklist, DHS has been claiming that more and more states are in compliance with the national ID law. It is a clever, if dishonest, gambit.

Practical state legislators in many states have believed what the DHS is telling them, and they think that they should get on board with the national ID law or else their state’s residents will be punished. DHS is successfully dividing and conquering, drawing more power to Washington, D.C.

The compliance bill in Idaho means to give in just a small amount, but it refers to the requirements of the REAL ID Act, a federal law, as of January 1st, not the “material compliance checklist” invented by DHS. And the law is clear: a state must “[p]rovide electronic access to all other States to information contained in the motor vehicle database of the State.” That means Idahoans’ personal information, copies of their birth certificates and similar documents, their driving records—whatever the DHS decides must be shared.

The risks to Idahoans’ privacy and security are clear. Government and private databases are compromised all the time. A system for sharing driver data with every department of motor vehicles in the country would make Idahoans’ personal information as secure as the weakest DMV in the country.

The idea of having a national ID is something that Americans have long rejected, and for good reason. Once in place, a national ID would be used to control access not just to driving, but to work, to health care, to guns and ammo, to financial services, and housing. In the future, when identity systems go digital, a federally controlled system might just permit Washington, D.C. to “de-identify” people who haven’t paid their taxes or who appear on any form of watchlist.

These are not powers any government should have, much less the federal government in D.C. That’s why it is very important that Idaho should not compromise on REAL ID implementation. The requirements of the REAL ID law include a nationwide data-sharing system, even if the DHS’s implementation strategy has papered over that fact for the time being.

The right strategy for freedom-loving states is continued resistance to REAL ID—all of it. Idaho can continue to show leadership in this area and resist federal mandates. The Idaho legislature and governor said in 2008 that Congress adopted REAL ID “in violation of the principles of federalism contained in the 10th amendment to the constitution of the United States.” Those are not principles to compromise on.

Over the years, President Obama has made some statements that indicate a rather statist mindset.

Now he may have added to that list during a recent speech in Argentina. Check out this excerpt from a report in the Daily Caller.

President Barack Obama downplayed the differences between capitalism and communism, claiming that they are just “intellectual arguments.” …Obama said…”I think for your generation, you should be practical and just choose from what works.”

It’s hard to object to the notion that people should choose “what works,” so perhaps there’s not a specific quote that I can add to my collection. However, the president’s implication that there’s some kind of equivalence between capitalism and communism, which both systems having desirable features, is morally offensive. Sort of like saying that we should “choose from what works” in Hitler’s national socialism. Here’s what we know about the real-world impact of communism.

Communism is a disgusting system that butchered more than 100,000,000 people.

It is a system that leads to starvation and suffering.

Communism produces unspeakable horrors of brutality.

So what exactly “works” in that system? If you watch Obama’s speech, you’ll notice there’s not a lot of substance. There is a bit of praise for Cuba’s decrepit government-run healthcare system (you can click here, here, and here if you want to learn why the system is horrifying and terrible for ordinary citizens). And he also seems to think it’s some sort of achievement that Cuba has schools.

So let’s take a closer look at what Cuba actually has to offer. Natalie Morales is a Cuban-American actor, writer, and filmmaker. Here’s some of what she wrote about her country and her relatives still trapped on the island.

…we send money, medicine or syringes for the diabetic aunt (since the hospital doesn’t have any unused disposable ones), baby clothes, adult clothes, shoes, or food… a doctor, a lawyer, or another similar profession that is considered to be high-earning everywhere else in the world will make about twenty to thirty dollars per month in Cuba. Yet shampoo at the store still costs three dollars. This is because everything is supposed to be rationed out to you, but the reality is that they’re always out of most things, and your designated ration is always meager. …if you’re a farmer and you’ve raised a cow, and you’re starving, and your family is also starving, and you decide to kill that cow and eat it? You’ll be put in jail for life. Because it’s not “your” cow, it’s everyone’s cow. That’s good ol’ Communism in practice.

Ms. Morales is especially irritated by Americans who fret that capitalism will “ruin” Cuba.

…picture me at any dinner party or Hollywood event or drugstore or press interview or pretty much any situation where someone who considers themselves “cultured” finds out I’m Cuban. I prepare myself for the seemingly unavoidable…“I have to go there before it’s ruined!”…I will say some version of this: “What exactly do you think will ruin Cuba? Running water? Available food? Freedom of speech? Uncontrolled media and Internet? Access to proper healthcare? You want to go to Cuba before the buildings get repaired? Before people can actually live off their wages? Or before the oppressive Communist regime is someday overthrown?”

Here’s more about Cuba’s communist paradise, including her observations of the healthcare system that Obama admires.

The very, very young girls prostituting themselves are not doing it because they can’t get enough of old Canadian men, but because it pays more than being a doctor does. Hospitals for regular Cuban citizens are not what Michael Moore showed you in Sicko. …That was a Communist hospital for members of the Party and for tourists… There are no janitors in the hospitals because it pays more money to steal janitorial supplies and sell them on the street than it does to actually have a job there. Therefore, the halls and rooms are covered in blood, urine, and feces, and you need to bring your own sheets, blankets, pillows, towels, and mattresses when you are admitted. Doctors have to reuse needles on patients. My mom’s aunt had a stroke and the doctor’s course of treatment was to “put her feet up and let the blood rush back to her head.”

By the way, none of this means we shouldn’t normalize relations with Cuba. There’s no longer a Soviet Union, so Cuba doesn’t represent a strategic threat. So, yes, relax restrictions on trade and travel, just like we have for China, Zimbabwe, Vietnam, Russia, Venezuela, and other nations that have unsavory political systems.

But the opening of relations doesn’t mean we should pretend that other systems are somehow good or equivalent to capitalism and classical liberalism.

Let’s close by sharing some news from another garden spot of communism.

If North Korea’s reputation as a place of hunger, hardship and repression was not bad enough, scientists have now discovered that it is too grim even for vultures. …Eurasian black vultures are no longer bothering to stop over in North Korea as they fly from their breeding grounds in Mongolia to their winter homes in South Korea. They concluded that food is so short under the communist regime that even the world’s best-known carrion birds cannot feed themselves. …Lee Han Su, of the institute, said: “This seems to happen because in North Korea the vultures can barely find animal corpses, which are major food resources for them.” Under the draconian regime of Kim Jong Un the country is unable to feed itself. International aid agencies report chronic malnutrition in some regions. …wild animals face the risk of being eaten by people. Defectors describe how victims of the famine were driven to eat dogs, cats, rats, grasshoppers, dragonflies, sparrows and crows. Vultures, for the time being at least, are off the menu.

I’m not sure what American leftists will say we can learn from North Korea. Even PETA presumably won’t be happy that starving North Koreans are eating sparrows and grasshoppers.

The bottom line is that there is zero moral equivalence between communism and capitalism. The former is based on servility to the state and the latter is based on liberty.

But if you’re amoral and simply want to know what works, compare the performance of North Korea and South Korea. Or look at the difference between Cuba and Hong Kong.

Very compelling evidence.

But this isn’t an issue that should be decided on the basis of utilitarian comparisons. What should matter most is that communism is evil.

Michael Kinsley’s short oped “And Now For Some Good News” is one of the most uplifting things I’ve read in a while:

The overwhelming Democratic front-runner is a woman, yet all the questions that used to be raised about whether a woman could be president have disappeared…

The Democratic front-runner’s rival is a Jew, which also has not been an issue…

This election season has seen the president nominate a person who would be the fourth Jew (out of nine justices) on the Supreme Court. The other five seats are filled by Catholics. No fuss at all…

[O]ne of the remaining GOP candidates is Latino, as was another who recently dropped out of the race…[Ted] Cruz still could win the nomination. There was also a black candidate who did well with voters, but the fact that Ben Carson is African-American was simply not an issue…

Most encouraging of all, after an initial explosion of joy and self-congratulation, the fact that our president for the past eight years has been a black man has largely receded into the background.

I plan to return to Kinsley’s op-ed when this election inevitably stoops to yet another new low.

According to a forthcoming paper by economists Nichola Fuchs Schundeln (Goethe-Universitat Frankfurt) and Paolo Masella (University of Sussex): 

Political regimes influence contents of education and criteria used to select and evaluate students. We study the impact of a socialist education on the likelihood of obtaining a college degree and on several labor market outcomes by exploiting the reorganization of the school system in East Germany after reunification. [We find that] … an additional year of socialist education decreases the probability of obtaining a college degree and affects longer-term male labor market outcomes.

East Germany’s control of education was far greater than what occurs now in the United States. But the East German example merits attention, especially given mounting pressure in the United States for greater federal control of education. 

Watching Pete Townshend wailing on his Fender Stratocaster last night at the Verizon Center reminded of what I’d read about Fender’s history. Part of the Fender story regards how the firm got hammered by Japanese competition in the 1970s, but then bounced back by refocusing on quality. So while I was listening to “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” I’m embarrassed to say I was pondering Donald Trump’s misguided statements favoring protectionism.

As president, Trump suggests he’d block imports from China, Mexico, and even Japan. But what Trump does not seem to realize is that import competition makes American companies stronger. To make America great again, we need both import competition and domestic policy reforms, including slashing the corporate tax rate to 15 percent, as Trump is advocating.

Let’s look at a bit of history. American firms Fender and Gibson have long been the dominant electric guitar makers. But both firms were in decline in the 1970s, as quality fell and import competition increased. Leo Fender had sold his guitar company to conglomerate CBS in 1965, and within a few years musicians began noticing substantial drops in product quality. A similar decline happened at Gibson in the 1970s, which was also controlled at the time by an ineffective corporate parent.

Japanese guitar firm Ibanez saw an opportunity. It had expanded into electric guitars in the 1960s with the idea of making cheaper copies of American products. But by the 1970s, the firm realized that it could make higher-quality products than the Americans, but at lower cost. And like Honda and Toyota in automobiles, Ibanez focused on product innovation, while the American firms rested on their laurels. Ibanez’s strategy succeeded, and today it is one of the top guitar firms.

By the 1980s, Gibson was “floundering” and “might well have gone under,” noted an article in Guitar World. And Fender was “all but dead,” according to the company’s official history. But America’s capital markets came to the rescue. Fender was bought out in 1985, and Gibson in 1986, by teams of investors determined to revive the firms’ traditions of quality. Today, Fender and Gibson are back on top of this competitive industry.

By the way, the weakness of Fender and Gibson also prompted American entrepreneurs to enter the fray. Randall Smith started guitar amplifier company Mesa Boogie in his California workshop in the late 1960s. Smith told Guitar World that he saw the decline of Fender and Gibson in the 1970s, and he was determined to “avoid that fate and remain dedicated to the instruments and the musicians that play them.” Smith’s company went on to invent an array of new features for guitar amps that have become standard in the industry.

Hartley Peavey has a similar story. As a teenager in Meridian, Mississippi, Peavey began building guitars and amps for his friends, which led to his founding Peavey Electronics in 1965. He wanted to offer consumers better value for money than the gear on the market at the time. Peavey used innovative manufacturing techniques to keep his costs down and to challenge Fender and Gibson with quality guitars at lower prices. Today, Peavey is one of the largest names in amps and guitars, and it ships many of its products worldwide from factories in Mississippi.

In sum, Trump is singing the right song on corporate taxes, but don’t be fooled by his rhetoric on trade.

For more on guitars, see here.

It’s very hard to be optimistic about Japan. I’ve even referred to the country as a basket case.

But my concern is not that the country has been mired in stagnation for the past 25 years. Instead, I’m much more worried about the future. The main problem is that Japan has the usual misguided entitlement programs that are found in most developed nations, but has far-worse-than-usual demographics. That’s not a good long-term combination.

As I repeatedly point out in my speeches and elsewhere, a modest-sized welfare state can be sustained in a nation with a population pyramid. But even a small welfare state is a challenge for a country with a population cylinder. And it’s a crisis for a jurisdiction such as Japan that will soon have an upside-down pyramid.

To make matters worse, Japanese politicians don’t seem overly interested in genuine entitlement reform. Instead, most of the discussion (egged on by the tax-free bureaucrats at the OECD) seems focused on how to extract more money from the private sector to finance an ever-growing public sector.

But the icing on the cake of bad policy is that Japanese politicians are addicted to Keynesian economics. For more than two decades, they’ve enacted one “stimulus package” after another. None of these schemes have succeeded. Indeed, the only real effect has been a quadrupling of the debt burden.

The Wall Street Journal shares my pessimism. Here’s some of what was stated in an editorial late last year.

Japan is in recession for the fifth time in seven years, and the…Prime Minister who promised to end his country’s stagnation is failing at the task. …Mr. Abe’s economic plan consisted of three “arrows,” starting with fiscal spending and monetary easing. The result is a national debt set to hit 250% of GDP by the end of the year. The Bank of Japan is buying bonds at a $652 billion annual rate, a more radical quantitative easing than the Federal Reserve’s. …The third arrow, structural economic reform, offered Japan the only hope of sustained economic growth. …But for every step Mr. Abe takes toward reform, one foot remains planted in the political economy of Japan Inc. In April 2014, Mr. Abe acquiesced to a disastrous three percentage-point increase in the value-added tax, to 8%, pushing Japan into its first recession on his watch. More recently, he has pushed politically popular but economically ineffectual spending measures on child care and help for the elderly. …only 25% of the population now believes Abenomics will improve the economy. Reality has a way of catching up with political promises.

You might think that even politicians might learn after repeated failure that big government is not a recipe for prosperity.

But you would be wrong.

Notwithstanding the fact that Keynesian economics hasn’t worked, Japanese politicians are doubling down on the wrong approach.

According to a report from Bloomberg, American Keynesians (when they’re not busing giving bad advice to Greece) are telling Japan to dig a deeper hole.

Paul Krugman urged Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to…expand fiscal stimulus to revive the economy.

Reuters filed a similar report:

U.S. economist Paul Krugman said on Tuesday he advised Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to…boost fiscal spending… Krugman’s advice was the same as that which fellow U.S. economist Joseph Stiglitz gave Abe last week.

Indeed, there apparently was a consensus for bigger government:

Every one of the economists that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has invited here for a series of meetings with policymakers has recommended that Japan let loose government spending… When Abe asked why consumer spending has remained feeble since the 2014 consumption tax increase, the U.S. academic suggested the answer lies in expectations that fiscal stimulus will end. …Abe’s government…appears to be seeking to rally the G-7 for aggressive fiscal policy.

So why did the Japanese government create an echo chamber of Keynesianism? Perhaps because politicians want an excuse to buy votes with other people’s money.

With an upper house election looming in July, ruling coalition lawmakers also are eager to dole out massive public spending.

And it appears that Japanese politicians are happy to take advice when it’s based on their spending vice ostensibly being a fiscal virtue. That’s not too shocking, but the Keynesian scheme that’s being prepared is a parody even by Krugmanesque standards.

Japan’s government is considering handing out gift certificates to low-income young people in a supplementary budget for fiscal 2016 as consumer spending remains sluggish on a slow wage recovery, the Sankei Shimbun newspaper reported Thursday. Government officials believe certificates for purchasing daily necessities would lead to spending, unlike cash handouts which could be saved… The additional fiscal program would follow a similar measure for seniors and the ruling coalition would use it to gain voter support before the Upper House election expected in July, the daily said.

Maybe the politicians will succeed in buying votes, but they shouldn’t expect better economic performance. Giving people gift certificates won’t alter incentives to work, save, and invest (the behaviors that actually result in more economic output).Indeed, on the margin, these handouts may lure a few additional people out of the labor force. 

The plan is foolish, even from a Keynesian perspective. Since money is fungible, do these people really think gift certificates will encourage more spending that cash handouts?

By the way, another reason to be pessimistic about Japan is that there apparently aren’t any politicians who understand economics. Or, at least, there aren’t any that want good policy. The opposition party isn’t opposed to Keynesian foolishness. Instead, it’s leader is only concerned about who gets the goodies.

Katsuya Okada, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, said in parliamentary debate in January. “Elderly people are not the only ones who are suffering. Among the working generation, only a limited number of people are feeling the fruit of Abenomics.”

The bottom line is that Japan will become another Greece at some point. I’m not smart enough to know whether that will happen in five years or twenty-five years, but barring a radical reversal in government policy, the nation is in deep long-run trouble.

P.S. Though I have to give the Japanese government credit for being so incompetent that it introduced a giveaway program that was so poorly designed that nobody signed up for the handout.

P.P.S. And Japan also wins the prize for what must be the world’s oddest regulation.

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed a scholarship tax credit (STC) bill into law today, making the Mount Rushmore State the 29th state to enact a private school choice law, and the 21st to enact STCs. However, while an important step in the right direction, the number of students who will be able to receive tax-credit scholarships is vanishingly small.

South Dakota’s Partners in Education Tax Credit Program provides tax credits to insurance companies that contribute to nonprofit scholarship organizations that help low-income families pay tuition at the school of their choice. According to the Friedman Foundation, nearly four in ten South Dakota families meet the income eligibility requirements (150 percent of the federal poverty line, or about $67,000 for a family of four in 2015-16), but only a tiny fraction of eligible students will actually receive scholarships because the law only provides a total of $2 million in tax credits. With a scholarship cap equal to 82.5 percent of the state’s per-pupil expenditure at district schools, the maximum scholarship value in 2015-16 will be $4,023. That means that in a state with about 147,000 K-12 students–nearly 16,000 of whom are enrolled in private schools–only 500 students could receive scholarships worth $4,000.

That’s great for the one-third of one percent of South Dakota students who might get a scholarship, but it’s hardly revolutionary.

National exit polls show that Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has captured many of the hearts and minds of the young Democratic electorate. Fully 70-80% of young Democrats, under the age of 30, are casting their ballots for Sanders over Hillary Clinton in state primaries and caucuses.

Many young people are drawn to Sanders’ vision of Democratic socialism. First, they don’t associate socialism with Soviet-style command and control economies with long bread lines and political repression. Instead, millennials associate the basic concept of socialism with Scandinavia. They like the idea of these countries’ large social welfare programs where government plays an active role in providing for people’s needs. Indeed, young people are the only cohort in which a majority—52%—support a “bigger government providing more services” compared to 38% of Americans overall.

Are young people the first generation to support activist government in their youth? Not in the least.

When Gen Xers were in their 20s during the 1990s they too preferred “bigger government providing more services” at about the same level as millennials today (~53%). Baby Boomers in their 30s during the 1980s also preferred bigger government (52%). However, about the time as both Baby Boomers and Gen Xers began entering their 40s, both groups began to prefer smaller government with fewer services. Today, 37% of Gen Xers and 25% of Baby Boomers continue to favor larger government.

It appears that as Americans get older, get promoted at their jobs, make more money, and start paying higher taxes, they become less thrilled with the idea of activist government.

It should be noted that back in 2007, when millennials were nearly 10 years younger than today, the Pew Research Center found fully 68% in support of a larger government offering more services. Is this an outlier? No poll conducted of previous generations in their youth ever identified such strong support for active government. This could be a function of fewer polls being conducted in the 1980s and 90s, and that we don’t have comparable polls of Baby Boomers when they were college-aged. Moreover, millennials were much younger in 2007, with the oldest being only 26. Perhaps given how high support used to be, it’s remarkable that support has declined so quickly.

Overall, these results tend to compliment other evidence that indicate that as millennials get older, get jobs, make more money, and pay more in taxes, they, like generations before them, become less keen on activist government.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) is celebrating its 25th anniversary this evening.  FAMM’s President and Founder, Julie Stewart, was Cato’s public affairs director in 1991 when she received the bad news that her brother had been arrested on a marijuana charge and would have to go to prison for five years. She was shocked at the severity of the sentence and set out to do something about mandatory minimum sentences.  FAMM has grown steadily over the years and so have its accomplishments–more than 310,000 persons have benefitted from reforms that FAMM has championed.  Congratulations to Julie and all of her colleagues at FAMM!


A few related items here, here and here.

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

Atmospheric concentrations of methane (CH4)—a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide (at least over shorter time scales)—have begun rising after a hiatus from 1999-2006 that defied all expectations. No one knows for sure why—why they stood still, or why they started up again.

There is a lot of research underway looking into the causes of the observed methane behavior and at least three new studies have reported results in the scientific literature in the past couple of months.

The findings are somewhat at odds with each other.

In February, a study led by Alex Turner, from Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, was published that examined methane emissions from the US over the past 10 years or so. The researchers compared observations taken from orbiting satellites to observations made from several sites on the earth’s surface. They reported over the past decade “an increase of more than 30% in US methane emissions.” And this increase was so large as to “suggest that increasing US anthropogenic methane emissions could account for up to 30-60% of [the] global increase.”

However, the methodologies employed by Turner et al. were insufficient for determining the source of the enhanced emissions. While the authors wrote that “[t]he US has seen a 20% increase in oil and gas production and a 9-fold increase in shale gas production from 2002 to 2014” they were quick to point out that “the spatial pattern of the methane increase seen by [satellite] does not clearly point to these sources” and added that “[m]ore work is needed to attribute the observed increase to specific sources.”

Perhaps most interestingly, Turner and colleagues note that “national inventory estimates from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicate no significant trend in US anthropogenic methane emissions from 2002 to present”—a stark contrast to their findings, and a potential embarrassing problem for the EPA. But, never fear, the EPA is on it. The EPA is now actively re-examining its methane inventory and seems to be in the process of revising it upwards, perhaps even so much as to change its previous reported decline in methane emissions to an increase. Such a change would have large implications for the US’s ability to keep the pledge made at the U.S. 2015 Climate Conference in Paris.

However, the Turner et al. results have been called into question by a prominently-placed study in Science magazine just a couple of weeks later. The Science study was produced by a large team led by Hinrich Schaefer of New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research.

Schaefer and colleagues analyzed the changes in the isotopic ratios of carbon in the methane contained in samples of air within ice cores, archived air samples, and more recent measurement systems. Different sources of methane contain different mixtures of methane isotopes, related to how long ago the methane was formed. Using this information, the authors developed a model for trying to back out the methane sources from the well-mixed atmospheric samples. Although such a procedure is somewhat tunable (i.e., you can get pretty much any answer you want (kind of like climate models!)), the authors are pretty confident in their final results. 

What they determined was that prior to the 1999-2006 hiatus, methane emissions largely bore a chemical signature of fossil fuels. This signal diminished during the hiatus, and has not shown much of an increase since, despite the post-2006 renewed growth in global methane emissions. Instead, Schaefer’s team found a strong chemical signal pointing to biogenic sources of methane being behind the current rise—most pointedly, emissions from agriculture (including both rice paddies and animal husbandry). 

Despite the rather surprising nature of this conclusion, the authors are resolute:

The finding of a predominantly biogenic post-2006 increase is robust. Further, it seems likely that fossil-fuel emissions stagnated or diminished in the 1990s. Importantly, they are a minor contributor to the renewed [CH4]-rise. This contradicts emission inventories reporting increases of all source types between 2005 and 2010 with a major (~60%) thermogenic [fossil fuels] contribution… The finding is unexpected, given the recent boom in unconventional gas production and reported resurgence in coal mining and the Asian economy. Our isotope-based analysis suggests that the [CH4]-plateau marks not a temporary suppression of a particular source but a reconfiguration of the CH4-budget. Either food production or climate-sensitive natural emissions are the most probable causes of the current [CH4]-increase. These scenarios may require different mitigation measures in the future.

It is very hard to reconcile the results of Schaefer et al. with those of Turner et al.

Also disturbing is the glib statement on “climate-sensitive natural emissions.” Attention, Schaefer et al.: Your study covers from 2007 through 2014.  The figure below shows annual global surface temperature departures from an arbitrary mean. There is no climate change to be “sensitive” to during this period. Further, the statement is at odds with much of the text of the article, which largely points to an anthropogenic biogenic source for the change. One can’t help but wonder if some crusading reviewer insisted on the climate statement as the price for publication. Such a thing happened to one of us (Michaels) as a condition for publication in the prestigious “EOS—Transactions of the American Geophysical Union” many moons ago, despite the fact that the paper in question specifically determined such a link was not the case. 

And, to keep things interesting, a paper was published just days after the Schaefer et al. Science piece, by a team of researchers led by Petra Hausmann of Germany’s Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. These researchers investigated the growth in atmospheric methane concentrations alongside the growth in atmospheric ethane concentrations –a tracer for methane emission from fossil fuels. By analyzing the increase in ethane, Hausmann et al. concluded that about half of the growth in methane emissions between 2007 and 2014 came from fossil fuel sources correlated to the oil and natural gas fracking boom in the U.S. In their press release, they note that their result fits with the Turner et al. results of a significant increase in US methane emissions and contrasts with the US EPA estimates.  The authors also note the discrepancy with the Schaefer et al. findings.

Pretty clearly, no one knows quite what is going on.

And into this confusion, the EPA has decided (no doubt from the President’s urging) to issue regulations pertaining to the allowable amount of methane emissions from US oil and gas recovery and delivery operations—in the name of mitigating future climate change.

As we pointed out when the regulations were first announced, the impact on future climate change is so tiny as to be immaterial. And now, with the great uncertainty as to what exactly is behind the recent rise in atmospheric methane concentrations, the EPA’s regulations may not only be insignificant, but wrong-headed as well.

What is certain, is that if you don’t understand the cause of a situation, taking steps to “fix” it is probably a bad idea. The Obama Administration’s “While under debate, regulate!” mantra is a poor operating protocol destined to fail. Or worse.  



Hausmann, P., R. Sussmann, and D. Smale, 2016. Contribution of oil and natural gas production to renewed increase in atmospheric methane (2007–2014): top–down estimate from methane and methane column observations. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, 16, 3227-3244, doi:10.5194/acp-16-3227-2016.

Schaefer, H, et al., 2016. A 21st century shift from fossil-fuel to biogenic methane emissions indicated by 13CH4. Science, doi:10.1126/science.aad2705.

Turner, A.J., et al., 2016. A large increase in US methane emissions over the past decade inferred from satellite data and surface observations. Geophysical Research Letters, doi: 10.1002/2016GL067987.

When the Common Core debate was exploding three or four years ago, a primary pro-Core strategy seemed to be ignoring substantive objections to the Core and dismissing opponents as ignorant, maybe even loony. Over time, that strategy appeared to energize and expand opposition, and many Core supporters shelved it. But not, it seems, the Center for American Progress, which just posted to the website Funny or Die a video mocking Core-concerned parents.

You can watch the vid here, but basically two parents are sending their daughter to kindergarten and letting her know that she’ll have no need for books but will need a disguise, an ever-so-hilarious tin foil hat, and a ray gun, among other things, because her school uses Common Core and that means no to book-larnin’, yes to “Pod People” mind-reading. Thankfully, before the little girl sets off, her older sister, about to start her first year of college, walks by the little girl’s room and sets her goofball parents straight. “Common Core is just some standards my teachers use,” she exasperatedly explains. “So, you know, we can get into college, and get a job, and hopefully move out of our crazy parent’s house.”

Oh, is that it?

Not only insulting to Core opponents and dismissive of their concerns, the video is highly misleading. The Core is a specific set of standards – not just “some” standards – and states make teachers use them, quite likely in response to federal coercion. There is also no meaningful evidence that the Core enables students to get a job and leave the house of either their crazy or their sane parents. And a student entering college this year would have had little Core-aligned education – they would not have gone through it many years ago, as the video implies – because classroom implementation only began in the last two or three years.

Now, some opponents certainly ascribe things to the Core they should not. Sometimes these are politicians or education analysts, but often they are regular people with normal lives who cannot spend hours combing through laws and regulations to get all the right information. But CAP and many other Core defenders do, or at least should, know the whole truth, yet like this video they often put out misleading or woefully incomplete information, often with the stated goal of setting opponents straight. Indeed, just last week I responded to such “fact-checking” on the website of The Seventy Four. And what, by the way, did folks at The Seventy Four say about CAP’s video? They called it “hilarious” and reprinted a bunch of their flawed fact-check.

You can judge for yourself, of course, whether the video is hilarious. But there is little funny about dismissing the concerns of real parents and citizens who have had Common Core imposed on them, nor is it chuckle-inducing when, in the name of correcting others, Core fans keep distorting reality.

Coastal marshes are valuable ecosystems that provide important nutrients to coastal waters that help sustain local food webs. They are also increasingly recognized as valuable carbon sinks, sequestering significant quantities of carbon both above and below ground. In recent years, however, concerns have been expressed that these ecosystems are in danger of collapsing in response to rising sea levels that are projected to occur as a consequence of CO2-induced global warming. If such fears are correct, melting ice will increase the rate of sea level rise beyond which these ecosystems can keep up, essentially them to a submerged death, which would have substantial repercussions on surrounding communities.

But how likely is it that this gloomy scenario will occur?

Investigating this very topic, the three-member research team of Ratliff et al. (2015) used a one-dimensional ecomorphodynamic model to “assess the direct impacts of elevated CO2 on marsh morphology, relating to ongoing and emerging environmental change.” According to the authors, previous works have revealed large increases in marsh plant biomass productivity in response to elevated concentrations of atmospheric CO2, yet “direct CO2 effects on vegetation and marsh accretion (as opposed to its indirect effects, e.g., via the increase in temperature) have not yet been incorporated into marsh models. As a result, they note the relative importance of CO2 effects on marsh dynamics “remains unknown” … until now, that is.

Using a meta-analysis of CO2 enrichment data, Ratliff et al. were able to model the impact of CO2 fertilization on coastal marsh vegetation and morphological dynamics for varying rates of relative sea level rise that are projected to occur under future global warming. Accordingly, the authors report “we found that the fertilization effect of elevated atmospheric CO2 significantly increases marsh resilience to drowning and decreases the spatial extent of marsh retreat under high rates of sea level rise.” In addition, they found that the more expansive marshes under elevated CO2 resulted in greater carbon sequestration such that “the fertilization effect may also contribute to a stabilizing feedback within the climate system, where increasing biomass production and organic deposition consequently sequester greater amounts of CO2.”

In light of the above findings, Ratliff et al. conclude that their results “imply that coastal marshes, and the major carbon sink they represent, are significantly more resilient to foreseen climate changes than previously thought.” And that good news should suppress fears of the untimely demise of coastal marsh vegetation due to possible climate change-related increases in sea level. Sadly, such fears could have been avoided altogether, if the models would have included this important direct benefit of CO2 from the get-go.



Ratliff, K.M., Braswell, A.E. and Marani, M. 2015. Spatial response of coastal marshes to increased atmospheric CO2. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 112: 15,580-15,584.

After I published my recent post on “The Myth of the Myth of Barter,” I tweeted the link to it to David Graeber himself, as I thought his response might be interesting.

Was it ever!  Before you could say Jack Robinson, Graeber let loose a fusillade of tweets, each more vicious than the last, calling my post “wildly simple-minded & wrong,” “one of the most embarrassing examples of ideological blindness & arrogant stupidity I’ve ever read,” and that sort of thing.  Graeber even asked, in apparent disbelief, “This guy was a professor somewhere?”  Think what you will of his understanding of monetary economics, or of his scholarship in general: when it comes to vitriolic hyperbole, Professor Graeber is no dilettante.  Indeed, there were a lot more barbs besides these, and there have no doubt been others since.  But as Graeber has blocked me on Twitter, presumably to prevent me from replying, I can no longer retrieve most of them.*

But interesting as Graeber’s response was, it fell rather short of the sort of substantive reply I’d hoped to illicit from him.  The closest Graeber came to that was a tweet claiming that my post was just a rehash of arguments Robert Murphy had made some time ago, to which Graeber had already responded, and another saying that he wasn’t about to waste his time repeating what he’d already said.

In fact I’d read Graeber’s reply to Murphy.  What’s more, I quoted from that reply, to which I supplied a link, in my original post, which I would scarcely have been tempted to do had I believed it answered my own complaints about Graeber’s work.

As a matter of fact, it does nothing of the sort.

My complaints, you may recall, were (1) that Graeber had wrongly accused Smith and Menger of supposing that there was no alternative to either barter or monetary exchange — that is, of supposing that there were no such things as gift-giving and other sorts of non-quid-pro-quo goods transfers, or societies that relied upon such — and (2) that Graeber lacked a proper grasp of some of the most elementary principles of economics, and of the modern theory of value in particular.

Far from defending his work against either of these complaints in his reply to Murphy, Graeber repeats there the very assertions that prompted me to complain in the first place.  Once again he declares that Smith, Menger, and Jevons “[a]ll assumed that in all communities without money economic life could only have taken the form of barter” and that “economists originally predicted all (100%) non-monetary economies would operate through barter.”  Anthropologists, in contrast, “discovered … an at first bewildering variety of arrangements, ranging from competitive gift-giving to communal stockpiling to places where economic relations centered on neighbors trying to guess each other’s dreams.”

Here I cannot resist quoting again the most relevant passage from Menger’s 1892 essay, “Geld”:

Voluntary as well as compulsory unilateral transfers of assets (that is, transfers arising neither from a ‘reciprocal contract’ in general nor from an exchange transaction in particular, although occasionally based on tacitly recognized reciprocity), are among the oldest forms of human relationships as far as we can go back in the history of man’s economizing.  Long before the exchange of goods appears in history, or becomes of more than negligible importance…we already find a variety of unilateral transfers:  voluntary gifts and gifts made more or less under compulsion, compulsory contributions, damages or fines, compensation for killing someone, unilateral transfers within families, etc.

That Menger wrote this more than three decades before the 1924 publication of Marcel Mauss’s The Gift, and therefore well ahead of what Graeber describes in his book as “the vast anthropological literature…starting with” that work’s appearance (p. 90, my emphasis), only makes Menger’s understanding all the more impressive.

Graeber can insult me all he likes.  What he cannot do is pretend that I have not shown one of his most basic claims to be flat-out wrong, at least when it comes to the economist responsible for the most famous and complete elaboration of the theory that money was an outgrowth of barter.  (That Graeber is also wrong about Smith will seem no less evident to anyone who bothers to read that profound and circumspect Scotsman with a modicum of generosity.)

Nor does Graeber’s response to Murphy supply any reason for me to modify my assessment of his understanding of basic economics.  On the contrary:  he repeats here as well his view that “money is simply a mathematical system whereby one can compare proportional values, to say 1 of these is worth 17 of those.”  This, as I said before, is what Aristotle believed;  it is also what economists stopped believing around 1871.

In his reply to Murphy, as in his book, Graeber recognizes that barter does occur, saying that it “typically occurs between strangers,” as if this were an exception of little importance.  But as I said in my earlier post, it is precisely through trade “among strangers” that non-commercial societies give way to commercial ones;  and it is in enabling this transition that money comes to acquire great importance.

But can money really develop, as Smith and Menger suggest it can, as a spontaneous outcome of trade among strangers?  It is regarding this possibility only that Graeber’s reply to Murphy offers some new arguments.  Graeber insists that money can’t emerge this way, because trade among strangers is a matter of “occasional interactions among people never likely to meet each other again,” and “because rare and occasional events won’t lead to the emergence of a system of any kind.”  If, on the other hand, “there are ongoing trade relations between strangers…it’s because each side knows the other side has some specific product(s) they want to acquire — so there is no ‘double coincidence of wants’ problem” for money to overcome:

You don’t cross mountains, deserts, and oceans, risking death in a dozen different ways, so as to show up with a collection of goods you think someone might want, in order to see if they happen to have something you might want.

Really?  If you ask me, that last sentence seems to contain a reasonable description of what countless merchants did in fact do for centuries, and what many still do to this day.  What’s far-fetched is Graeber’s contrary suggestion that traders never crossed mountains etc. unless they were absolutely certain that they could trade whatever they brought with them for whatever was to be had where they were headed.  And it is precisely because trade was risky that traders had reason to “show up” at markets where goods they wanted were on offer equipped with goods of their own that they imagined were relatively “saleable” (to use Menger’s term) in the markets in question.

Now, one has only to introduce the possibility that stranger A might first cross mountain B to acquire good C from stranger D so as to then cross mountain E in the hope of using C to acquire F from stranger G, together with other such possibilities, to have the ingredients it takes to allow Menger’s (or, for that matter, Smith’s) theory of money’s development to go through.  Allowing for the particular salience of certain goods — their popularity as ornament or in ceremonial uses — makes the development all the more likely.**

In short, Graeber’s supposed refutation of the possibility that money can develop through trade among strangers amounts to little more than a completely unwarranted assertion to the effect that, because overcoming the “lack of a double coincidence” hurdle is risky, no one will bother trying, notwithstanding the potential gains to be had by doing so.  That assumption may seem reasonable to one who believes, as Graeber does, that trade is a zero-sum game.  But it is not reasonable in light of economists’ understanding of voluntary exchange as a source of mutual gain. More importantly, it is not what persons who actually venture to engage in trade believe.

I suspect that, if he responds to this post at all, Graeber will simply maintain, by way of another burst of ≤140-character philippics, that I still haven’t undermined any of his book’s more important claims.  Still it would be nice if, instead of pretending to have already answered my arguments, or merely being nasty, he would attempt to offer a substantive reply.  After all that obloquy, I could use a weal tweet.


*Nor can I tweet this post to him.  But that needn’t stop some of you from doing so.

**Don’t get your knickers in a twist, my chartalist friends:  I do not intend to deny that public authorities and other such “big players” may play an important part in influencing this process.

[Cross-posted from Alt-M.org]

The public relations and legal battle between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Apple over the company’s use of encryption has put the focus on executive branch surveillance in a way not seen since Edward Snowden’s revelations almost three years ago. However, as the historical record demonstrates, the FBI’s domestic spying on the American public dates almost from the Bureau’s creation in July 1908. In the years that followed the FBI’s birth, other federal agencies–some civilian, some military–initiated their own warrantless domestic surveillance operations. Throughout this period, Congress was more frequently aiding and abetting this surveillance and repression, rather than preventing it or reining it in.

As the showdown between Apple and the FBI illustrates, what has changed is the technology used to accomplish the surveillance–technology that now gives federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies the ability to surreptitiously access the computers, smartphones, and even home appliances of tens of millions of Americans.

Today, the Cato Institute is launching a timeline that chronicles the history and implications of these developments: American Big Brother: A Century of Political Surveillance and Repression.

Too often, federal domestic surveillance of citizens was a prelude to government actions aimed at subverting civil society organizations opposed to American involvement in foreign wars, aiding conscientious objectors, advancing civil rights and political autonomy for people of color, the creation of labor unions, and even surveillance of candidates running for or holding office–including members of Congress and presidential contenders.  

As political scientist Robert Justin Goldstein noted in his 1978 book, Political Repression in Modern America: 1870-1976, “American social scientists have not seriously considered political repression as one important factor which helps explain the narrowness of the American political spectrum…” Put differently, through the use of surveillance, agent provocateur’s, and outright violence, federal officials often decided what political views were or were not permissible to hold and practice in the American political system.

Indeed, the theme that emerges clearly from the timeline’s episodes is that in many of these cases, federal surveillance and political repression were directed most forcefully at individuals and organizations that challenged the prevailing political paradigm on the issue at hand. Occasionally, the domestic surveillance was aimed squarely at the political opponents of the president then occupying the White House (FDR ordering surveillance against isolationists, LBJ ordering Goldwater’s campaign plane bugged). In other cases, simply the perception by federal officials that an individual or group might be a “threat to national security” (think Japanese-Americans in World War II or Arab/Muslim-Americans today) was enough to trigger an unwarranted federal attack on the target’s constitutional rights.

The individuals and organizations subjected to these tactics often found themselves either politically crushed or so badly damaged as to be rendered politically marginalized and ineffective. The personal and professional costs of these federal attacks on the constitutional rights of these citizens were usually life-long, and belated apologies by federal officials decades removed from the actions of their predecessors did little if anything to actually right the original wrong, much less preclude a repeat of such surveillance and repression against others.

Indeed, just three years after the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance act in 1978, then-President Ronald Reagan promulgated an executive order than one recent State Department whistleblower alleged has been used to conduct warrantless surveillance of the overseas communications of Americans in the post-9/11 era. Whether the practice goes back farther is an issue that should be, but currently is not, the subject of a Congressional inquiry–just as all government surveillance activities initiated since the Church Committee should be investigated. 

The timeline endeavors to provide a wide range of examples of federal misconduct in this area. It will be updated regularly on the basis of archival research and new revelations of current federal domestic surveillance and political repression of Americans–citizens whose only “crime” was or is to challenge governmental policies they oppose but that are carried out in their name.

As soon as the terrorist bombings took place in Brussels, President Obama’s many critics demanded that he immediately terminate his state visit to Cuba and abandon the rest of his trip to Latin America.  Instead, Senator John Kasich, Senator Ted Cruz, and other GOP luminaries insisted, the president should return immediately to Washington and go into crisis mode with his national security team. President Obama firmly refused to do so. Instead, he continued his trip as scheduled.  That afternoon, he attended a baseball game with Cuban President Raul Castro and then completed the Cuba leg of his journey with a joint statement and press conference before leaving for Argentina.

In terms of substance, it was the right course of action.  Too many members of America’s political elite, as well as the news media, hype the terrorist threat to absurd levels. Pundits and politicians even have a tendency to compare the severity of the threat posed by such groups as ISIS and Al Qaeda to the dire menace to global peace and American security posed by the likes of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and they warn that we are on the brink of World War III or perhaps are fully engaged already in that conflict. It is a nonsensical comparison. ISIS and similar nonstate actors do not even come close to constituting such an existential threat. 

Instead, radical Islamic terrorism poses a limited threat roughly akin to that presented by radical anarchists in the second half of the nineteenth century. To allow ISIS to disrupt an important presidential visit to Latin America, a crucial and often neglected region in U.S. diplomacy, would have accorded the terrorist group an importance it does not deserve.  The news media makes a similar error when it gives every terrorist incident seemingly endless coverage for days or weeks.  President Obama sent ISIS a clear message that he would not play into their hands in that fashion this time.

However, the president’s handling of the optics surrounding his decision was extraordinarily clumsy.  It would have been one thing to have been in unspecified “meetings” or “discussions” with U.S. or Cuban officials.  Additional meetings with key members of the new U.S. embassy staff in Havana could certainly have been arranged at the last minute.  But attending a baseball game in his shirt sleeves with Castro, relaxing and enjoying the Cuban sunshine, while the bodies of the victims in Brussels were still cooling, presented a horrible image.  It was simultaneously frivolous and insensitive. 

And, unfortunately, that is the image that most people both in the United States and abroad will remember about President Obama’s initial reaction to the events in Brussels. Naturally, his critics pounced and portrayed the action as another manifestation of a feckless foreign policy. The reality is that it was the correct substantive response, but one that was ineptly executed.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Brussels this week, presidential candidate and senator Ted Cruz called for increased law enforcement activity in American Muslim communities:

 We must empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.

Pressed to clarify his remarks, Sen. Cruz called for the resurrection and nationalization of a now-defunct NYPD surveillance program directed at the Muslim community in and around New York City.  He argued that the “successful” program was shut down due to an excess of political correctness, leaving New Yorkers more vulnerable to the threat of terrorism.

The problem: even ignoring political correctness, the NYPD program was a failure by any reasonable standard.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the NYPD established a surveillance-based Demographics Unit.  The goal of this unit was to “map” certain (almost entirely Muslim) communities in and around New York City, placing them under expansive police surveillance in order to sniff out would-be terrorists before they could launch attacks.   

To achieve this mandate, the police infiltrated mosques, set up surveillance cameras around Muslim-owned businesses and residences, went undercover to monitor everyday conversations, and even infiltrated student groups at schools as far away as Yale and the University of Pennsylvania in order to monitor what students talked about, who they spoke to, and how often they prayed. 

The end result of years of Demographic Unit surveillance on American Muslims was… nothing. 

No convictions, no prosecutions, and, according to Assistant Chief Thomas Galati, not even a single legitimate lead

That’s not to say there were never any terrorist threats in New York during this time period, only that the expansive “patrolling and securing” of Muslim neighborhoods failed to produce any actionable intelligence about them.  A 2013 New York Magazine article contains an illustrative example: 

In September 2009, the National Security Agency intercepted an e-mail from a taxi driver named Najibullah Zazi to an e-mail address linked to one of Al Qaeda’s most senior leaders. The message contained the line “the marriage is ready.”

Marriage and wedding were among Al Qaeda’s favorite code words for attacks, referring to the day that a suicide bomber met his brides, the maidens of the hereafter.

Trying to ascertain the scope of the plot, the NYPD searched the files of the Demographics Unit. Even though the rakers had canvassed Zazi’s neighborhood daily, and had even visited the travel agent where he bought his tickets between New York and Colorado, there was not a single piece of useful information. “There was nothing,” said [NYPD Lt. Hector] Berdecia. 

In 2011, the Associated Press began publishing an in-depth exposé on the program, which spawned calls for reform and a wave of litigation against the city. By the time Bill de Blasio took office as mayor in 2014, the program had largely wound down, and the unit was eventually disbanded entirely.

There is little evidence that program made New Yorkers any safer. What the program undoubtedly did is cost millions of tax dollars and thousands of law enforcement man-hours that could have been spent investigating actual criminal behavior. 

Sen. Cruz’s campaign also claimed that the end of the program made it more difficult for the NYPD to work with the Muslim community: 

In New York City, Mayor de Blasio succumbed to unfounded criticisms and eliminated the efforts of law enforcement to work with Muslim communities to stop radical Islamic terrorism. 

According to the NYPD itself and advocates within the New York Muslim community, the opposite is true. The NYPD program understandably alienated the local Muslim community and generated immense distrust between Muslim Americans and law enforcement.

While there is scant evidence that the NYPD program generated much in the way of actionable intelligence, it did generate civil rights and constitutional litigation against New York City.  Several suits have been settled, with costs ranging in the millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, another suit in New Jersey remains on the docket. Last October, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued a strongly worded opinion reinstating a lawsuit against the NYPD surveillance program, invoking several of the darkest civil liberties violations in our history to explain why the suit should proceed:

No matter how tempting it might be to do otherwise, we must apply the same rigorous standards even where national security is at stake. We have learned from experience that it is often where the asserted interest appears most compelling that we must be most vigilant in protecting constitutional rights. “[H]istory teaches that grave threats to liberty often come in times of urgency, when constitutional rights seem too extravagant to endure.”


Today it is acknowledged, for instance, that the F.D.R. Administration and military authorities infringed the constitutional rights of Japanese-Americans during World War II by placing them under curfew and removing them from their West Coast homes and into internment camps. Yet when these citizens pleaded with the courts to uphold their constitutional rights, we passively accepted the Government’s representations that the use of such classifications was necessary to the national interest. […] In doing so, we failed to recognize that the discriminatory treatment of approximately 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry was fueled not by military necessity but unfounded fears.


What occurs here in one guise is not new. We have been down similar roads before. Jewish-Americans during the Red Scare, African-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, and Japanese-Americans during World War II are examples that readily spring to mind. We are left to wonder why we cannot see with foresight what we see so clearly with hindsight – that “[l]oyalty is a matter of the heart and mind[,] not race, creed or color.” 

Recycling failed, constitutionally-dubious policies is not a solution to terrorism, nor is singling out a largely law-abiding minority community for even more invasive government surveillance than it already endures.  Police are already empowered to investigate criminal activity, and to patrol any neighborhood they like. But the power to select entire neighborhoods or communities for intense police surveillance based solely on the ethnicity or religion is a power the police don’t need and shouldn’t have. 

For its part, the NYPD now seems to agree

Six years ago today, President Barack Obama gave the Affordable Care Act his signature. There is no sense in marking the ACA’s anniversary, however, because the ACA is no longer the law.

Realizing the law he signed was unconstitutional and unworkable. President Obama and the Supreme Court have since made a series of dramatic revisions that effectively replaced the ACA with something we now call “ObamaCare.”

ObamaCare–not the ACA–is the law under which Americans now live.

  • Under ObamaCare, the Supreme Court used Congress’ taxing power–a power Congress declined to use under the ACA–to force Americans to purchase government-approved health-insurance plans.
  • Under ObamaCare, the Supreme Court severed the connection between the (ineffective) Medicaid expansion Congress enacted and the rest of the Medicaid program–a bifurcation Congress never contemplated, much less intended.
  • Under ObamaCare, the president imposed and the Supreme Court green-lighted taxes on nearly 100 million Americans whom Congress clearly exempted.
  • ObamaCare gives members of Congress a special exemption from the ACA. (It’s good to be the king.)
  • Under ObamaCare, the president can tax and subsidize whom he pleases. Even if Congress didn’t provide the funding. Even if Congress says he can’t.

The ACA, in effect, is dead. ObamaCare is the law governing Americans’ health care–even if we don’t know what that law is from one day to the next. The ACA had legitimacy. No legislature ever approved ObamaCare. It has no legitimacy.

Unfortunately, ObamaCare doesn’t work much better than the ACA. ObamaCare is still causing Americans to lose their health plans. As one voter pointedly reminded Hillary Clinton, ObamaCare is still driving premiums higher. It is still causing their coverage to erode.

If you want to celebrate something on March 23, celebrate the anniversary of the last time Democrats put the legislative process and political legitimacy ahead of their ideological goal of universal coverage

Today’s argument in Zubik v. Burwell was very different than what we saw two years ago on Hobby Lobby. The focus was almost entirely on whether the “accommodation” offered to religious nonprofits constitutes a substantial burden on those employers’ religious free exercise. Indeed, much of the argument involved a dispute over how exactly the “accommodation” works and whom it burdens – not simply whether adequate alternatives were available.

But getting past these technicalities of instance regulations, the result looks to be the same as what we saw regarding for-profit corporations: the progressive justices are in lockstep for the government, the conservatives support the religious-liberty claimants, and Justice Kennedy is in the middle but almost certainly leaning towards the conservatives. Of course, after Justice Scalia’s passing, that suggests that the vote will be 4-4 – meaning an affirmance of conflicting lower-court rulings and a Schroedinger’s mandate that lives on in some of the country but not the rest.

The Court could avoid this untenable result – as well as the messy casuistry and the culture-war battle – by following the administrative-law line suggested by Cato in our amicus brief. We argued that the Department of Health & Human Services simply lacked the authority to create law in this sensitive area. As Josh Blackman and I write in the current issue of The Weekly Standard:

Conveniently, there’s an alternate argument, based on the Hobby Lobby and King rulings, that could command a majority opinion: The agencies lack both the expertise and power to exempt some religious groups while forcing others—deemed “less” religious—to be complicit in what they consider sin. By rejecting this bureaucratic assertion of executive authority, Zubik can thus be resolved without further politically fraught haggling over RFRA.

In other words, if Congress had imposed this regime, that would’ve been one thing, but we cannot assume that the Congress that passed Obamacare – including especially the pro-life Democrats whose votes were essential – delegated such awesome power to administrative agencies without saying so explicitly.

Alas, the Court didn’t seem at all interested in that nifty solution, and so, rather than releasing that impossible tie, what we’re likely to see is a setting of Zubik for reargument at a time when the Court gets its ninth justice. That means we’ll be doing this all again next year, when it really will be deja vu all over again.

Yesterday at the Washington Post, which I saw just this morning, Radley Balko found two stories that make the blood boil. His headline says it all: “A dead cop, a dead suspect, a wounded cop and a terrified, hospitalized grandmother.” He’s writing, of course, about the war on drugs.

Early Sunday morning, it seems, just after midnight, two Howard County, Indiana, sheriff’s officers tried to serve a warrant in a trailer park in Russiaville, Indiana, by forcibly entering the home. The result? Read the headline again. And what was the alleged crime? Possession of a syringe. That’s right.

So a deputy is dead, a suspect is dead, and a third deputy was seriously wounded because a guy failed to appear in court after he was arrested for possessing a syringeThe Indianapolis Star reports that the suspect had prior arrests for drug possession. Not distribution. Just possession.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, Balko continues, an 82-year-old great-grandmother, Elizabeth Harrison, was given the scare of her life last Friday when cops, guns drawn, broke down her door and ordered her to put up her hands. They had the wrong house, she later told reporters from her hospital bed. “They wanted me to produce this young man that they were looking for. And they would not take no for an answer that I didn’t know him.”

As Balko notes, this case has a bizarre twist (in part, quoting the original story):

The man police were looking for walked up to the officers as they were explaining to Harrison’s family how they can fill out paperwork to file a claim to get her door fixed …

Linda Channel, Harrison’s daughter who lives on the same block as her and rushed over following the raid, said the “target” told cops they had the wrong house …

“You all came to the wrong house. I live at 126, and this is 136,” Channel told ABC, quoting the man.

In the end, the police didn’t even arrest him, due to lack of evidence. Harrison is lucky she’s still alive. She isn’t the first innocent grandmother to be wrongly raided. Or the second. Or the third.

She also wouldn’t have been the first grandmother to be killed in a mistaken drug raid. Or the second. Or the third. Or the fourth.

Read the whole piece here. This insane war on drugs has got to end.