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Doug Bandow

Nigerians have elected a new president, the first time an opposition candidate defeated an incumbent since the restoration of democracy in 1999. Muhammad Buhari, a 72-year-old former dictator and perennial presidential candidate, will take over on May 29.

Nigeria enjoys the continent’s largest GDP but trails several African nations in per capita GDP. Although possessing extensive energy resources, the nation suffers from regular power outages.

Nigerians are entrepreneurial but nearly a quarter of them are unemployed. An intrusive, exploitative state blocks economic development and steals wealth. According to the latest Economic Freedom of the World Nigeria has one of the world’s least open economies, coming in at 125 of the 152 countries rated. This discourages foreign investment in what should be the continent’s best market.

Corruption raises the cost of business and rewards economic manipulation. Last year an expatriate worker told me:  “Nigeria is not a country. It is an opportunity.”

Nigerian politics is anything but clean. Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party ruled for 16 years, using patronage and other tools of incumbency to maintain power.

Nigeria better protects political rights and civil liberties than many African states. However, the State Department pointed to a number of human rights challenges, including “vigilante killings; prolonged pretrial detention; denial of fair public trail; executive influence on the judiciary; infringements on citizens’ privacy rights; restrictions on the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, religion, and movement.”

Insecurity is pervasive. When I visited last year my group sported a well-armed escort. The oil-rich Niger Delta is especially dangerous; executives admit to paying bribes to discourage attacks.

Worse, sectarianism divides the nation. At times violence flares.

In recent years the murderous Boko Haram extended its reach across Nigeria. The group received a blaze of publicity last year after kidnapping hundreds of school girls. Boko Haram has killed more than 20,000 Nigerians and displaced 1.5 million people in Nigeria and neighboring countries.

The Nigerian military is underfunded and ill-trained, distrusted by civilian politicians. Worse, government abuses generate support for Boko Haram.

Understandably, Nigerians desperately wanted change. But in what direction?

As dictator, Buhari lasted only 20 months before being unseated by another general. The Economist observed: “He detained thousands of opponents, silenced the press, banned political meetings and had people executed for crimes that were not capital offenses when they were committed.”

Buhari says he now recognizes democracy to be the better option. He has a reputation for probity and being a Muslim may better position him to combat Boko Haram.

However, energizing the economy may prove more difficult. Candidate Buhari promised much. While there are some free market advocates in Buhari’s coalition, more around him are not and he is thought to be an “unreconstructed statist,” according to the Financial Times. This is a prescription for economic failure.

His previous record is cause for pessimism. Noted the Economist: “He expelled 700,000 immigrants under the illusion that this would create jobs for Nigerians. His economic policies, which included the fixing of prices and bans on ‘unnecessary’ imports, were both crass and ineffective.” Nigeria cannot afford a repeat performance.

Still, in at least one important respect the election was good news. Despite some technical problems, the election went surprisingly well. Jenai Cox of Freedom House called the vote “one of the smoothest and least violent in Nigeria’s history.”

Equally important was President Jonathan’s unconditional acceptance of the results. He declared:  “I promised the country free and fair elections. I have kept my word.” And he did.

As I point out in Forbes online, “Nigeria’s success suggests that the country has developed a lusher civil society and stronger commitment to the rule of law than often thought. Moreover, this experience offers hope for other African nations struggling with democracy.”

Nigeria is a tragedy. Not so much because of the bad events which have occurred, which are many, but for its many lost opportunities and great unused potential. The future of Nigeria now rests in Muhammad Buhari’s hands.

Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz

Now that a federal judge has enjoined President Obama’s unilateral amnesty, immigration reform will have to be achieved the old-fashioned – and constitutional – way: by compromise with Congress. A grand bargain is not impossible, but it will require a broad re-framing of the issues and a clear sense of what is at stake. For one thing, any such bargain should end, once and for all, governmental discrimination on the basis of race.

Affirmative action and immigration might, at first glance, appear unrelated; in fact, they are profoundly and perversely intertwined. It is often said that anti-immigration sentiment is driven by a fear of competition; Americans are said to fear competing against new immigrants for jobs, for contracts, for educational opportunities. This account leaves out a crucial part of the story: Americans have never lacked competitive spirit or feared a fair fight. What many Americans fear is that these competitions will, in fact, be rigged from the outset. The sad fact is that they are right.

American law and policy will discriminate in favor of most immigrants — those of favored races such as blacks and Hispanics — and their children, and their children’s children. Correspondingly, American law and policy will discriminate against Americans of disfavored races — Asian Americans, Indian Americans, Caucasian Americans — and their children, and their children’s children. This discrimination is enshrined in federal law, in state law, and in private policy abetted by law. It is called affirmative action.

This systematic discrimination is pervasive in American life — in private employment, state employment and federal employment; in state contracting and federal contracting; at private universities and state universities. And in practice, it is no mere tie-breaker; it is a massive thumb on the scale in favor of some races and against others. A first-generation Asian American who has made his home in, say, Wisconsin and worked hard to earn for his children their chance at the American dream might, in principle, favor liberal immigration reform, so that more ambitious immigrants might follow in his footsteps. This Asian American may be happy to know that the son of a new Hispanic immigrant who settles next door would have an excellent chance of claiming his share of the American dream: With a respectable GPA and LSAT, such a boy would have, for example, a 62 percent chance of admission into the University of Wisconsin Law School. But this Asian American also may know a deeply perverse and unjust fact: If his own son earns identical credentials, that boy will have a mere 16 percent chance of admission, simply because of his race.   State law, federal law, private schools and public schools will all dramatically favor a Hispanic immigrant’s child over an Asian American child, simply on the basis of race. This is one of the great injustices of American life, and it is one of the great political and moral hurdles to immigration reform.

As a political matter, there is a natural bargain here. Democrats believe that immigration is a winning political issue for them; they believe that it makes them look compassionate while it makes Republicans look churlish. Affirmative action, on the other hand, is a political winner for Republicans; polls overwhelmingly oppose it, and it allows Republicans to argue for the ringing principle of equality under law, while Democrats are left to defend the status quo of institutional discrimination and racial spoils. The connection between these two issues creates the potential for a grand congressional compromise. Republicans could agree to comprehensive immigration reform, if Democrats would agree to end governmental discrimination on the basis of race.

Meanwhile, for President Obama, this would be more than a political victory; it would be a historic moral triumph. There is a broad consensus that our immigration system is broken and that it can be downright cruel in its current dysfunctional form. President Obama has wanted to achieve immigration reform since before the beginning of his presidency. As for affirmative action, President Obama is uniquely well qualified to explain the moral case for equality under law. His soaring speech in Selma last month reminded us all of how eloquent he can be on this topic: as he declared, the heroic marchers of 50 years ago “didn’t seek special treatment, just the equal treatment promised to them almost a century before.” Our newest Americans seek exactly the same thing. It is President Obama alone who can say to them:

Welcome to the United States of America. We are a nation of immigrants, a nation of opportunity. We are not a land of discrimination; we are a nation of equality under law. This is a nation where the son of a Kenyan immigrant may grow up to be president of the United States. Come to our shores and we make you this promise: We will treat you like everyone else. We will not discriminate against you based on your race, your color, your country of origin. And we will not discriminate in your favor either. Your children will be treated like our children. We will not discriminate in favor of your daughters on the basis of their race. But neither will we discriminate in favor of my daughters, Malia and Sasha, on the basis of theirs. We know that, like the marchers at Selma, you seek not special treatment but equal treatment, and that is what we promise you. You are welcome here, and we offer you a uniquely American constitutional guarantee. We promise you — our Fourteenth Amendment promises you — equal protection of the law.

This is the speech that President Obama was born to give, a speech that no one else could, a perfect complement to his speech at Selma. In one historic moment, he could renew the pride that we all felt six years ago when our first black president swore his oath of office. He could at once reform our immigration laws and, in the same moment, redeem the true promise of equal protection — the promise, in Justice Harlan’s words, that “[o]ur Constitution is color-blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.”

In 2008, President Obama promised to “fundamentally transform[] the United States of America”; here, at last, is the transformation that would assure his legacy. For the first time in American history, we could welcome immigrants of all colors to the nation of Martin Luther King’s dream, “a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” And President Obama could, for all time, be the one who made Martin Luther King’s dream come true.

[Cross-posted from The Volokh Conspiracy]

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

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

In Paris this December, the U.N. will hold its 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) to the 1992 Rio Treaty (officially known as the UN framework Convention on Climate Change). Like the 20 previous COPs, the goal will be to entice (browbeat) as many countries as possible to commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in an attempt to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” [“Dangerous anthropogenic interference” has been defined to mean a global average temperature rise of more than 2.0°C above the preindustrial global average temperature. We are highly doubtful that a 2.0°C rise (of which we are more than a third of the way there) will actually prove “dangerous” especially when adaptations are factored in, but we digress.]

And like the 20 COPs that have come before, COP 21 will fail—largely because greenhouse gas emissions result primarily from burning fossil fuels to produce the energy which powers the modern economy.  Those with a modern economy want to keep it rolling along, and those without, desperately strive for one. Neither group is willing to budge much from these wishes. Consequently global emissions continue to rise.

Even the U.N. now is beginning to realize that meeting a 2.0°C warming target is virtually impossible—this despite rather absurd new calls for the target to be lowered to 1.5°C.

Nevertheless, the U.N. continues to go through the motions (after all, COPs are big business).

At last year’s COP 20, held in Lima, Peru, the best that everyone could agree on was assigning each country some homework along the lines of this: Describe what types of greenhouse gas emissions reductions (with targets and timetables) that you feel you may undertake; justify your answer. The assignment was due on March 31. Most countries are tardy.

Under U.N. terminology, the homework must include a declaration of each country’s “Intended Nationally-Derived Contributions (INDCs)” –that is, what each “intends” to do to reduce their carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gas) emissions.

A look through some of the work that has been handed in on time reveals a strange mélange on “intentions.”

For example, Russia’s INDC reveals that its declared intent to the U.N. is less stringent than what it already intends to do via its own existing domestic programs. The chart below points out this rather odd occurrence:

Basically, if we are understanding this right, Russia is proposing to the U.N. a more lax timetable than required via its existing domestic programs and a reliance to the “maximum possible” extent on carbon credits from carbon dioxide uptake by boreal forests.

The Russian proposal already has enviros wringing their hands.

Let’s move on to Mexico. What they claim they intend to do is virtually impossible.

Mexico says it intends to peak its national CO2 emissions in 2026—just 11 years from now.

That’ll be some trick; the charts below show why. The top one is Mexico’s population projections between 2010 and 2050. The forecast is for a robustly growing population, adding over 30 million people by 2050—all of which presumably will require energy to subsist. The bottom figure shows Mexico’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions history for the past 20 years. Again, robust growth indicating that Mexico is increasingly meeting its growing energy needs via the use of greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels.

Yet Mexico tells the U.N. that it intends, in just over a decade, not only to halt the growth in per capita emissions, but to turn it downwards to such an extent as to offset population increases. And keep it heading that way.

Predictably, environmental activists hailed Mexico’s announcement.

The real world, on the other hand, isn’t so kind, revealing Mexico’s “intention” as being an empty promise.

And what about the U.S.?

The U.S. announced its intentions as:

The United States intends to achieve an economy-wide target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26%-28% below its 2005 level in 2025 and to make best efforts to reduce its emissions by 28%.

Turns out that this a bit less than we proposed to do in when we were negotiating at the UN’s 15th COP in Copenhagen in 2009. There we pledged a 30% reduction by 2025 and a 42% reduction by 2030. Our declining pledge is probably is deference to a thing called reality—as depicted in the figure below (taken from the EPA).

As seen in the figure, in Copenhagen, in 2009, greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. had been on the decline for about 5 years, and stood at 8% below our emissions in 2005. Now, five years later, the picture isn’t as rosy. Between 2009 and 2013 (the last year in the EPA has made data available), there has been scant change in our emissions (early indications for 2014 are for emissions up a bit from 2013). This despite natural gas replacing some coal-fired electricity generation (natural gas produces only about half the greenhouse gas emissions as does coal) and higher fuel economy cars.

The President is finding that it is hard to grow the economy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the same time (something that we have been saying for a long time).

Consequently, he is paring back our emission targets and timetables.

But no matter the details, any U.S. plan will never contribute much to mitigating future global climate change. 

Here’s why: even under the assumption we cut our fossil fuel emissions 100% by the year 2050 (the President’s  plan only calls for cuts of about 80%), the amount of future global warming that will be averted is about 0.05°C by the year 2050 and 0.14°C by the year 2100. That’s it!  Fourteen-hundredths of a degree—that’s what all the hubbub over carbon taxes, power plant emissions restrictions, Keystone XL pipeline, electric cars, ethanol, etc. is all about. Fourteen-hundredths of a degree. And even that is being generous, because it assumes a climate sensitivity to greenhouse gas emissions that is a good 50 to 100 percent greater than what many new scientific studies are pointing to. If we do the same calculation using a climate sensitivity of 2°C rather than 3°C, the warming averted by the year 2100 drops to 0.10°C (one-tenth of a degree).

You can see all this for yourself using our global temperature savings calculator—a great tool (based on a model developed in part by EPA funding) that everyone contemplating greenhouse gas emissions limitations ought to have at their fingertips.

To get a sense of the temperature savings from what the U.S. is intending for Paris, use our tool and select a “CO2 Reduction” of 80% from the U.S.—that scenario matches very closely to the current U.S. plan.

You’ll find a grand total of about 0.11°C of temperature savings by the end of the century. Too little to matter. Impossible to verify. Scientifically insignificant.

All in all, pretty much par for the course when compared with the other INDCs.

We’ll continue to track the Road to Paris. But thus far, it is a Road to Nowhere.

David Boaz

In a series of studies and an ebook, David Kirby and I have been examining the libertarian segment of the American electorate. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is about to test that analysis.

Paul has been arguing that he’s the Republican who can expand the Republican base to include more young people, independents, and even minorities. That was part of the message in the advance video he posted on the web Sunday night. And he argues that a more libertarian approach to such issues as marijuana, criminal justice, mass surveillance, and overseas wars could help do that.

In our studies, we’ve found that a large portion of Americans give libertarian answers to broad values questions. In their 2014 Governance Survey the Gallup Poll found that 24 percent of respondents could be characterized as libertarians (as compared to 27 percent conservative, 21 percent liberal, and 18 percent populist). The percentage has been rising over the past decade:

Other studies show different numbers. Our own original study, “The Libertarian Vote,” using stricter criteria, classified 13 to 15 percent of voters as libertarian. A Zogby poll found that when asked if they would define themselves as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal, also known as libertarian,” fully 44 percent – 100 million Americans – accepted the description. That’s a large segment of the electorate not in either party’s camp.

Rand Paul has as strong a record on fiscal conservatism as any Republican candidate, stronger than most. And he seems to be the only one who could make a claim for the “socially liberal” element among libertarian-leaning voters. He’s urged that we stop putting young people in jail for drug use, and he’s shown that he’s willing to use that issue against Jeb Bush and other competitors. He tells young people that “the phone records of United States citizens are none of [the government’s] damn business.”

Of course, like all candidates Paul has a balancing act to put together a winning coalition. He wants to hold on to the libertarian base that gave his father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), 23 percent of the New Hampshire primary vote and $40 million in small contributions. But he’ll need more that, and he’ll look for more votes among both the conservative Republican base and non-traditional Republican voters.

His recent statements that gay marriage “offends myself and a lot of other people” and represents a “moral crisis” have disappointed a lot of libertarians (as well as a lot of gay voters, who probably weren’t likely to be in his camp anyway). The bigger question is whether such nods to the religious right will drive away voters he needs, especially the young people and Silicon Valley techies he’s been aggressively courting.

Many people have suggested that Paul’s somewhat non-interventionist foreign policy views won’t sit well with Republican voters. They should read fewer neoconservative pundits and more polls. According to a CBS/New York Times poll last June, 63 percent of Republicans thought the Iraq war wasn’t worth the costs. Paul is likely to be the only one of 10 or so Republican candidates to take that position. As neoconservatives and John McCain beat the drums for military action in Syria in 2013, Paul opposed it. Republicans turned sharply against the idea —  70 percent against in September 2013. Americans, including Republicans, are getting tired of policing the world with endless wars. Interventionist sentiment has ticked up in the past few months as Americans saw ISIS beheading journalists and aid workers on video. But I would predict that 9 months from now, when the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire begin voting for presidential candidates, Americans will be even more weary of nearly 15 years of war, and U.S. intervention will be even less popular than it is now. 

One advantage Paul starts with: political scientist Jason Sorens rates New Hampshire and Nevada, two of the four early primary states, among the six most libertarian states in the union. Iowa and South Carolina, not so much. But a libertarian-leaning Republican can count himself fortunate that early headlines will come out of frugal New Hampshire and fun-loving Nevada.

Despite his views on gay marriage and abortion rights, on a broad range of issues – from taxes and spending to spying, criminal justice, marijuana, and a skeptical approach to unnecessary wars – Rand Paul is going to present Republican voters with the most libertarian platform of any major presidential candidate in memory. If we’re in a libertarian moment, perhaps generated by government overreach in the Bush and Obama years, Paul should benefit. Win or lose, he’s going to give Republicans a clear “more freedom, less government” alternative to both the party establishment and the religious right.

David Boaz

In 1990 I went to a Cato Institute conference in what was then still the Soviet Union. We were told to bring our own toilet paper, which was in fact useful advice. Now, after only 16 years of Chavista rule, Venezuela has demonstrated that “Socialism of the 21st Century” is pretty much like socialism in the 20th century. Fusion reports:

Venezuela’s product shortages have become so severe that some hotels in that country are asking guests to bring their own toilet paper and soap, a local tourism industry spokesman said on Wednesday….

“It’s an extreme situation,” says Xinia Camacho, owner of a 20-room boutique hotel in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada national park. “For over a year we haven’t had toilet paper, soap, any kind of milk, coffee or sugar. So we have to tell our guests to come prepared.”…

Montilla says bigger hotels can circumvent product shortages by buying toilet paper and other basic supplies from black market smugglers who charge up to 6-times the regular price. But smaller, family-run hotels can’t always afford to pay such steep prices, which means that sometimes they have to make do without.

Camacho says she refuses to buy toilet paper from the black market on principle.

“In the black market you have to pay 110 bolivares [$0.50] for a roll of toilet paper that usually costs 17 bolivares [$ 0.08] in the supermarket,” Camacho told Fusion. “We don’t want to participate in the corruption of the black market, and I don’t have four hours a day to line up for toilet paper” at a supermarket….

Recently, Venezuelan officials have been stopping people from transporting essential goods across the country in an effort to stem the flow of contraband. So now Camacho’s guests could potentially have their toilet paper confiscated before they even make it to the hotel.

Shortages, queues, black markets, and official theft. And blaming the CIA. Yes, Venezuela has truly achieved socialism.

But what I never understood is this: Why toilet paper? How hard is it to make toilet paper? I can understand a socialist economy having trouble producing decent cars or computers. But toilet paper? And soap? And matches?

Sure, it’s been said that if you tried communism in the Sahara, you’d get a shortage of sand. Still, a shortage of paper seems like a real achievement.

Roger Pilon

With the Final Four set to begin in Indianapolis this evening, maybe we can shift our attention from the anti-discrimination protests there that have consumed our attention all week to the games. But maybe not, since protests are expected even at the games. The left just doesn’t know when to stop. That’s the subject of the lead editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal, “Liberal Intolerance, Round II: To stamp out cultural dissent, the left is willing to stomp on religious liberty.” Here’s a sense of what the week’s been like for ordinary Hoosiers:

Take the family-owned pizza parlor in Walkerton, Indiana—population 2,144. A local TV reporter went door-to-door asking restaurants how they would respond if they were asked to cater a gay wedding. The innocents at Memories Pizza, who had never faced the question in daily business, said that they would prefer not to participate in a hypothetical same-sex pizza party ceremony. Cue the national deluge.

They were suddenly converted into the public face of antigay bigotry across cable news and the Internet, and became the target of a social-media mob, as if they somehow screened for sexual orientation at the register. The small business closed amid the torrent, although a crowd-funding counter-reaction supplied tens of thousands of dollars in recompense.

Tens of thousands? The South Bend Tribune reports that the fund stood at $842,000 as of this morning.

Faithful readers of Cato@Liberty know our views on the underlying issue. Indeed, Cato’s amicus brief supporting those now pressing the Supreme Court to prohibit states from discriminating against same-sex marriages has just generated a brief from conservative scholars who direct their arguments entirely against ours: A most unusual move, they must be concerned.

But while we support same-sex marriage, we support religious liberty every bit as much. This week I addressed that issue here and here. And The National Interest has just put up a longer piece of mine that puts the whole freedom of association issue in perspective.


Walter Olson

Just for fun: check it out, by artist Mike Wilkins (via our friend Eugene Volokh, who incidentally is the subject of a new magazine profile, on April 1). Because sometimes you want a version more whimsical (if much less portable) than Cato’s Pocket Constitution.

Chelsea German

While a “cure for cancer,” is not yet in hand, it is probably not as far away as you think. As an article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal shows, we are making tremendous strides in the fight against cancer.

Let us take a moment to look at the data and rejoice in the many lives saved by medical innovation. We focus on gains made against the top four deadliest cancers: lung cancer, bowel cancer, breast cancer, and prostate cancer.

Consider how the lung cancer death rate per 100,000 men has decreased since the 1980s:

While the decline is global, the greatest gains can be seen in wealthy, developed countries like the United States. This is in part because, as advisory board member Matt Ridley notes, “In the western world we’ve conquered most of the causes of premature death that used to kill our ancestors,” and with old age comes an increased incidence of cancer, making gains against cancer more notable.

Next, consider how the death rate for the second deadliest cancer–colon or bowel cancer–has fallen in the developed world.

There has also been a steep decline in the breast cancer death rate per 100,000 women. The death rate for the third deadliest cancer held fairly steady from the 1950s through the early 1990s, when it began to plummet, and it has continued to fall ever since.

Finally, consider the similar drop in the death rate of prostate cancer, the fourth deadliest cancer.

Innovation and the free market are helping to propel the medical advancements leading to falling cancer death rates. Some people believe that the modern lifestyle (e.g., drinking soda) causes cancer, but those claims are uninformed–most cancer is the result of bad luck. Instead of killing us, innovation is actually saving lives.

We have seen that cancer breakthroughs abound when regulation does not slow them down. To hurry along a cure for cancer, we need to let free innovation take its course.

Adam Bates

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) has vetoed a bill that would have prohibited disclosure of the names of police officers involved in shootings for 60 days, citing the potential unintended consequences of such a law:

“I know the goal of this legislation is to protect officers and their families, and it’s a goal I share… Unfortunately, I don’t believe this bill in its current form best achieves the objectives we share, and I worry it could result in unforeseen problems.”

While proponents argued that the bill was necessary to prevent officers from being unfairly targeted by mass protests or threatened with violence, opponents–including some in law enforcement–argued that transparency considerations and community relations outweighed that concern.

Roberto Villaseñor, chief of the Tucson Police Department and president of the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police, told the New York Times:

“To add another law that’s going to add distrust or adversarial relationships is not the way to go. Why do I cloak it in secrecy for 60 days, and now I’m going to have this story run twice? Sixty days later, we’re going to rehash it again.”

The opaqueness of government behavior, especially surrounding the government’s use of violence, has eroded the rule of law and the relationship between civilians and police around the country.  Transparency about police shootings is a necessity for effective reform and accountability. We need more transparency, not less. 

Good for Governor Ducey and the Arizona law enforcement officials who stood against more police secrecy. 

Matthew Feeney

Last week, Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) introduced legislation that would create a pilot grant program to assist state and local police agencies in leasing or purchasing body-worn cameras. The bill requires states, “units of local government,” and Indian tribes wishing to receive a full grant to commit to a range of reforms related to privacy, police practice, and data storage.

The bill presents something of a dilemma for libertarians like me, who want increased accountability and transparency within law enforcement but are also hesitant to support federal policy prescriptions for issues such as policing, which are often best handled at the local level. Given the worrying body camera legislation that has been proposed by some state lawmakers, it is tempting to think that a conditional federal police body camera grant program might be the best way to ensure that local government agencies implement worthwhile body camera policies. Yet Paul and Schatz’s legislation shows that police body camera policy ought to be addressed at the state and local level.

This is not to say that the legislation does not contain some good policy requirements. If the bill were to be enacted as written, an entity (state, unit of local government, or Indian tribe) interested in receiving a full grant would have to demonstrate a commitment to implementing some sensible policies before officers use the body cameras.

Among those policies is the development of public regulations and protocols relating to the use of body cameras, the storage of body camera footage, and the protection of the privacy rights of individuals recorded by body cameras. This is an important requirement. As the ACLU discovered last year, some law enforcement agencies do not have body camera policies, and some of those that do choose not to release them.

Yet while the legislation does make committing to publishing policies related to the release of body camera footage a condition for receipt of a full grant, it does not require that these policies advance transparency and accountability. The legislation only requires that a requesting entity develop and publish policies for “the release of any data collected by a body-worn camera in accordance with the open records laws, if any, of the State” (my bolding).

This is worrisome considering that, according to the AP, “Lawmakers in nearly a third of the states have introduced bills to restrict public access to recordings from police officer-worn body cameras.” Some of these bills, such as Michigan’s HB 4234 and Florida’s SB 248, aim to protect citizens from privacy violations by exempting police body camera footage of the interior of private homes from disclosure. SB 248 extends this protection to footage captured at the site of medical emergencies and on the property of social service, mental health, and health care facilities. However, other legislation such as North Dakota’s HB 1264, which has been passed by the North Dakota House and Senate, and New Hampshire’s HB 617 would make police body camera footage exempt from public record requests, though HB 617 would allow for citizens who pay for the recording to access body camera footage in which they can be seen or heard. (HB 617 would also require state police to use body cameras and to record all interactions with the public).

There is at least one case of a public record exemption bill being gutted in state legislatures. The Arizona House cut a section of a Senate bill that would have exempted police body camera footage from public record requests.

In addition to only requiring that entities receiving grants commit to developing and publishing policies relating to existing open record laws, the Paul and Schatz legislation also states:

IN GENERAL.—Data collected by an entity receiving a grant under this section from a body-mounted camera shall be used only in internal and external investigations of misconduct by a law enforcement agency or officer, if there is reasonable suspicion that a recording contains evidence of a crime, or for limited training purposes.

Unfortunately, the legislation does not outline how this requirement is compatible with comparatively open state public record laws that may regulate the release of police body camera footage.

Given that state lawmakers are working on implementing a range of police body camera policies, federal legislation such as Paul and Schatz’s would potentially allow for law enforcement agencies that are subject to poor open record laws to receive body camera grants. A good police body camera policy will allow for footage captured by the cameras that has been sensibly redacted and is not part of an ongoing investigation to be available via public record request. As written, Paul and Schatz’s bill provides no incentive for state lawmakers to improve their public record laws as they relate to police body cameras, although it does require that within 90 days of the bill being enacted the COPS director outline grant submission requirements.

In the coming years we should expect good as well as bad body camera policies to be passed by state legislators. While the bad policies will be frustrating to those advocating for increased police accountability and transparency, this frustration will not warrant the implementation of federal body camera grants. As with many other policy areas, police body camera policy ought to be crafted within America’s laboratories of democracy. As time goes on it will become increasingly clear which police body camera policies encourage good behavior and increase transparency as well as accountability, and are therefore worth copying.

Adam Bates

In a per curiam opinion this week, Grady v. North Carolina, the U.S. Supreme Court reinforced recent 4th Amendment decisions in holding that when the government physically occupies private property for the purpose of obtaining information, it engages in a search under the 4th Amendment.

The State of North Carolina subjects certain repeat offenders to a lifetime of satellite-based monitoring (SBM) after they complete their sentences.  The plaintiff, Torrey Dale Grady, argued that such a program represents a violation of his 4th Amendment rights under recent U.S. Supreme Court opinions, including a 2012 case called United States v. Jones (installing a GPS tracker on a suspect’s car represents a search) and a 2013 case called Florida v. Jardines (using a drug-sniffing dog on a suspect’s porch represents a search).

The Supreme Court agreed with Grady that such monitoring constitutes a search. In light of these decisions, it follows that a state also conducts a search when it attaches a device to a person’s body, without consent, for the purpose of tracking that individual’s movements.

In concluding otherwise, the North Carolina Court of Appeals apparently placed decisive weight on the fact that the State’s monitoring program is civil in nature. See Jones, ___ N. C. App., at ___, 750 S. E. 2d, at 886 (“the instant case … involves a civil SBM proceeding”). “It is well settled,” however, “that the Fourth Amendment’s protection extends beyond the sphere of criminal investigations,” Ontario v. Quon, 560 U. S. 746, 755 (2010), and the government’s purpose in collecting information does not control whether the method of collection constitutes a search. A building inspector who enters a home simply to ensure compliance with civil safety regulations has undoubtedly conducted a search under the Fourth Amendment. 

The court also rejected North Carolina’s somewhat strange argument that its monitoring program is not meant to collect information:

In its brief in opposition to certiorari, the State faults Grady for failing to introduce “evidence about the State’s implementation of the SBM program or what information, if any, it currently obtains through the monitoring process.” Brief in Opposition 11. Without evidence that it is acting to obtain information, the State argues, “there is no basis upon which this Court can determine whether North Carolina conducts a ‘search’ of an offender enrolled in its SBM program.” Ibid. (citing Jones, 565 U. S., at ___, n. 5 (slip op., at 7, n. 5) (noting that a government intrusion is not a search unless “done to obtain information”)). In other words, the State argues that we cannot be sure its program for satellite-based monitoring of sex offenders collects any information. If the very name of the program does not suffice to rebut this contention, the text of the statute surely does:

“The satellite-based monitoring program shall use a system that provides all of the following:
“(1) Time-correlated and continuous tracking of the geographic location of the subject ….
“(2) Reporting of subject’s violations of prescriptive and proscriptive schedule or location requirements.”
N. C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §14–208.40(c).

The State’s program is plainly designed to obtain information. And since it does so by physically intruding on a subject’s body, it effects a Fourth Amendment search.

The Court did not, however, examine whether the program constitutes an unreasonable, and therefore unconstitutional, search.  The case was remanded to a lower court to sort through that issue.

Notwithstanding the reasonability issue, this ruling reinforces a heartening trend in 4th Amendment jurisprudence away from the nebulous “reasonable expectation of privacy” standard and toward a more concrete “common-law trespass” standard, at least insofar as searches of private property are concerned.

George Selgin

Lately more and more people seem inclined to congratulate the Fed for the great job it has done saving us from another Great Depression and getting the U.S. economy back on its feet. Frankly, I’m getting tired of it.

It’s not that I’m cock-sure that the Fed’s post-2008 actions haven’t achieved anything. It’s just that I’m pretty darn sure that all the people who claim that the Fed has done a bang-up job haven’t any solid reasons for doing so. They remind me of the characters in an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies who were certain that Granny had a concoction that could cure the common cold–certain, that is, until Granny told them that it took about ten days for the stuff to work.

Some point to Europe’s relatively feeble economy, and the ECB’s belated attempt to revive it by means of Bernanke-style Quantitative Easing, as proof of the Fed’s enlightened conduct. But that comparison may only prove that Europe’s central bank has bungled things even more than ours has. In fact, the comparison doesn’t even prove that much, since U.S. money market conditions appeared to offer better prospects for the success of quantitative easing than those that prevailed in Europe.

Apart from being better than Europe’s, our recovery offers precious little for Fed boosters to brag about. It has been remarkably slow—slower, according to some experts, than the severity of the crisis can itself account for. It has been remarkably incomplete. And it has landed us in a low low-interest-rate mire from which there’s no easy escape.

But surely, some may object, the Fed’s policies—all that Quantitative Easing and Twisting and Reverse-Repo-ing—have helped. Maybe. But proving the point isn’t just a matter—as some commentators seem to think—of pointing to improved economic numbers, noting that the numbers arrived after the Fed did this and that, and declaring Quod Erat Demonstrandum.

Why not? Because, first of all, economies tend to recover from slumps, if only very slowly and painfully, without the help of fiscal or monetary stimulus. The immediate cause of such slumps is a slow down or collapse of spending or “aggregate demand,” like the one that took place during the last half of 2008. When spending collapses, businesses generally can’t recover their costs. Nor can they hope to keep producing as before, unless the prices of their inputs decline enough to make up for their lower earnings. The ideal remedy is to get spending back up again—and fast—by increasing the total supply of dollars. But suppose you had a negligent central bank that first resisted creating new dollars, and then made sure that new dollars it did create piled up in bank vaults instead of being lent and spent. In that case, spending would remain depressingly low. [1]

What then? Well, eventually, people start to come to grips with the new reality. They stop hoping that spending will pick up again, and start thinking about getting by at a permanently lowered spending level. In economists’ fancy jargon, this means that “aggregate supply” schedules start dropping. In plain English it means that workers start to accept pay cuts they wouldn’t have considered before, while firms settle for lower product prices.

Downward supply-schedule shifts aren’t pretty. No one likes making them—and I’m certainly not recommending them. (I also promise to track-down and give a noogie to anyone who suggests otherwise.) But make them they will—eventually—if the alternative is not selling their services and goods at all. The adjustments might be delayed for a long time, and it might take much longer for them to succeed in getting the economy back to full employment. They might even take more than six years to do so. But it’s hardly likely that they would not have achieved some considerable measure of recovery during such a long stretch of time, unless it was because monetary (or fiscal) authorities discouraged needed adjustments by repeatedly promising to revive spending, and then failing to deliver on those promises.

The last observation brings me to my second point, which is that central bank actions—including some superficially expansionary ones—can delay as well as promote recovery. Policy announcements that end up giving a bigger boost to aggregate demand expectations than to aggregate demand itself are one example. (I continue to be perplexed by all the chatter since 2008 concerning the need to raise, not the actual, but the expected rate of CPI inflation–as if doing that would not have the effect of further raising supply schedules that are already too high.) And although Quantitative Easing necessarily increases the nominal supply of bank reserves, it doesn’t necessarily increase that supply more than it increases demand: as St. Louis Fed economist Li Wen has observed, when real interest rates on riskier assets are already low relative to the return on reserves, QE can cause some investors “to switch from interest-earning assets to money,” and so can actually end-up reducing instead of increasing an (already excessively low) equilibrium price level.

All of which is a long way of saying that determining the Fed’s actual contribution to the recovery takes some fancy statistical work—so fancy, indeed, that no one is quite sure how to do it. Instead we have, so far, numerous studies reaching different—and sometimes dramatically different—conclusions. (Here is another review of some of them.)

Many of these studies do find that the Fed’s policies succeeded to some degree. But “succeeded” in most of them means succeeded in lowering long term interest rates, which though perhaps a step in the right direction is not at all the same thing as boosting employment or real output. Those studies that attempt to measure the effect of the Fed’s interventions on output or employment generally report modest gains only, if not negligible ones (see, for instance, the studies by Wen and by Chen, Cūrdia, and Ferrero). Finally, even some of the larger estimates supply only very meager grounds for celebration. One recent Federal Reserve Board study, for example, has the Fed’s combined Large Scale Asset Purchases achieving a 1.2 percentage point peak reduction in the unemployment rate by early 2015. Though large compared to other estimates, this reduction in the unemployment rate is less than half as large as that attributable to the post-2008 decline in labor force participation. Also, because the actual unemployment rate in January 2015 was 5.7%, with 9,000,000 unemployed and an implied labor force of 157,894,737, the gain amounts to only about one job for every $2 million in Fed asset purchases!

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not claiming that the new jobs attributable to Fed asset purchases weren’t worth it: creating money to combat cyclical unemployment isn’t the same as spending it in a state of full employment, so the numbers I mentioned don’t amount to any sort of cost-benefit calculation. What I am saying is that its worth pondering whether, had it handled things differently, the Fed might have created a lot more jobs, without having had to create nearly as many dollars. Suppose, for instance, that, instead of engaging in sterilized direct lending, the Fed had taken steps to expand the monetary base as soon as demand started flagging (or, better still, that it had expanded preemptively, as it had done on some prior occasions when markets were badly rattled). Suppose that it had refrained from paying interest on bank reserves just when the economy was starving for want of lending and spending. Suppose that instead of trying by hook and crook to preserve an obsolete interest-rate target, it had been targeting NGDP growth all along. Suppose, to go a bit further back, that it had not rescued Bear Stearns, or that, having rescued it, it made clear that it did so for reasons that would not entitle larger investment banks to similar aid?[2] Suppose, finally, that instead of “rolling the dice” (as the New York Times put it recently), the Fed had stuck to a tried-and-true monetary rule, or that it had been obliged to follow a novel but potentially superior rule, and that it had also obeyed Walter Bagehot’s sound advice for last resort lending? Is is not possible that by doing some or all of these things it might have allowed the U.S. economy to recover at least as rapidly as it has, if not considerably more rapidly, without having to purchase trillions of dollars worth of assets?

What difference does the extent of the purchases make? Plenty. First, the wealth redistribution effects of the Fed’s policies might have been smaller and correspondingly less unpalatable. Second, the Fed might not have undermined to the extent that it has its ability to tighten money by means of conventional open-market sales. The Fed claims it can instead manage by means of a combination of reverse repos and a higher interest rate on bank reserves; but there are good reasons for being less-than-sanguine about these alternative “exit” strategies: for one thing, to the extent that they succeed in reducing banks’ excess reserve holdings, they do so by permanently increasing the Fed’s share of total financial intermediation (and correspondingly reducing the efficiency of investment), and (so far as repos are concerned) by inadvertently propping-up Money Market Mutual Funds at the expense of commercial banks.[3] Finally, by boosting the prices and lowering the term premium on low-risk assets, the Fed has given an artificial fillip to riskier ones, increasing in like measure the risk of a major correction.[4] In short, after more than six years worth of Fed experiments, we haven’t yet heard the last monetary-policy shoe drop.

Am I suggesting that the Fed could not possibly have done worse? Of course not. Only someone with a severely defective imagination could suppose so. Whatever his shortcomings, Ben Bernanke was far from being an incompetent central banker. In suggesting that we might have done better than Bernanke’s Fed did, I don’t mean that we could have used a better discretion-wielding central banker. I mean that we might have been better off avoiding seat-of-the-pants-style central banking altogether.

I struggle, moreover, to understand why more people don’t take the same view. For if it takes a stunted imagination to suppose that things couldn’t have been worse, it takes a no-less defective one to suppose that we couldn’t possibly improve upon the presently-constituted Fed. Far for supplying grounds for celebration, or warranting complacency, the events of the last decade or so ought to make it more evident than ever that our monetary system is very far from being the best of all possible alternatives.

[1] If you wonder why any monetary authority would encourage banks to hoard reserves in the middle of a spending crunch, the answer in the Fed’s case is that they did it precisely because they didn’t want Quantitative Easing to lead to increased bank lending and, thence, to a general increase in spending. “It is important to keep in mind,” a Fed source informs us, “that the excess reserves [generated by Quantitative Easing] were not created with the goal of lowering interest rates or increasing bank lending significantly relative to pre-crisis levels. Rather, these reserves were created as a by-product of policies designed to mitigate the effects of a disruption in financial markets. In fact, the central bank paid interest on reserves to prevent the increase in reserves from driving market interest rates below the level it deemed appropriate given macroeconomic conditions. In such a situation, the absence of a money-multiplier effect should be neither surprising nor troubling.” Got that?

[2] Here, for once, the FCIC got things right:

The lesson taught by the rescue of Bear was that all large financial institutions—and especially those larger than Bear—would be rescued by the government. The moral hazard introduced by this one act irreparably changed the position of Lehman Brothers and every other large firm in the world’s financial system. From that time forward, (i) the critical need for more capital became less critical; the likelihood of a government bailout would reassure creditors, so there was no need to dilute the shareholders any further by raising additional capital; (ii) firms such as Lehman that might have been saved through an acquisition by a larger firm or an infusion of fresh capital by a strategic investor drove harder bargains with potential acquirers; (iii) the potential acquirers themselves waited for the U.S. government to pick up some of the cost, as it had with Bear—an offer that never came in Lehman’s case; and (iv) the Reserve Fund, a money market mutual fund, apparently assuming that Lehman would be rescued, decided not to sell the heavily discounted Lehman commercial paper it held; instead, with devastating results for the money market fund industry, it waited to be bailed out.

[3] This fear that it might trigger such a correction is of course one reason for the Fed’s reluctance to absorb excess liquidity by selling any substantial share of the assets it has acquired.

[4] Actually only 94 MMMF’s are so favored. As Bob Eisenbeis points out, they all belong to a relatively small number of U.S. and foreign financial institutions.

Steve H. Hanke

Venezuela has the dubious honor of registering the world’s highest inflation rate. According to my estimate, the annual implied inflation rate in Venezuela is 252%.

The only other country in which this rate is in triple digits is Ukraine, where the inflation rate is 111%. The only encouraging thing to say about Ukraine’s shocking figure is that it’s an improvement over my February 24th estimate of 272%—an estimate that attracted considerable attention because Matt O’Brien of the Washington Post understood my calculations and reported on them in the Post’s “Wonk blog.”

As a bailout has started to take shape in Ukraine, the dreadful inflation picture has “improved.” Since February 24th, the hryvnia has strengthened on the black market from 33.78 per U.S. dollar to 26.1 per U.S. dollar. That’s almost a 30% appreciation (see the accompanying chart). 

As night follows day, currency strength is followed by lower inflation. When inflation rates are elevated, standard economic theory and reliable empirical techniques allow us to produce accurate inflation estimates. With free market exchange-rate data (usually black-market data), the inflation rate can be calculated. The principle of purchasing power parity (PPP), which links changes in exchange rates and changes in prices, allows for a reliable inflation estimate.

To calculate the inflation rate in Ukraine, all that is required is a rather straightforward application of a standard, time-tested economic theory (read: PPP). Using black-market exchange rate data that the Johns Hopkins-Cato Institute Troubled Currencies Project has collected over the past year, I estimate Ukraine’s current annual inflation rate to be 111%.

That rate is much higher than the “official” rate of 34.5%. Both the International Monetary Fund’s Extended Fund Facility for Ukraine (which has recently been approved) and Ukraine’s debt rescheduling negotiations (which have just commenced) are sitting on quicksand. Programs and negotiations based on a false premise are always treacherous affairs.

Daniel J. Ikenson

If you don’t yet subscribe to Cato Trade, the monthly newsletter of the Cato Institute’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies, you can find the current edition here.  Highlighted in this month’s release is Simon Lester’s new paper, Expanding Trade in Medical Care through Telemedicine.  Additionally, you will find Cato trade scholars’ commentaries on the Export-Import Bank; the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks; Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS); Trade Promotion Authority (TPA); and, other important matters of U.S. trade policy.

And here are the links to all previous monthly newsletters:

Cato Trade Monthly Update, Mar. 4, 2015

Cato Trade Monthly Update, Feb. 2, 2015

Cato Trade Monthly Update, Jan. 6, 2015

Cato Trade Monthly Update, Dec. 1, 2014

Cato Trade Monthly Update, Nov. 3, 2014

Cato Trade Monthly Update, Oct. 1, 2014

Cato Trade Monthly Update, Sept. 2, 2014

Cato Trade Monthly Update, Aug. 4, 2014

Cato Trade Monthly Update, July 1, 2014

Cato Trade Monthly Update, June 2, 2014

Cato Trade Monthly Update, May 1, 2014 

Cato Trade Monthly Update, Apr. 1, 2014

Cato Trade Monthly Update, Mar. 4, 2014

Cato Trade Monthly Update, Feb. 4, 2014

Cato Trade Monthly Update, Jan. 6, 2014

Cato Trade Monthly Update, Dec. 2, 2013

Randal O'Toole

American Nightmare is in some ways the most profound of the three books I have written for Cato. It covers a wide range of issues, including a detailed explanation of the 2008 financial crisis. But the overarching theme is that urban planning and zoning are best viewed as a form of economic warfare by the upper and middle classes against the working and lower classes. While that might not have been the original intent, to judge by the smug attitudes of the beneficiaries of such planning and zoning, they are perfectly happy with the results.

The book, therefore, was really about inequality, an issue that of course has been made popular and controversial by Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty’s thesis is that income inequality is necessarily rising because the returns to capital wealth are greater than overall economic growth, thus giving people one more reason to hate capitalists.

Last month, a paper by an MIT graduate student in economics named Matthew Rognlie, examined Piketty’s thesis in detail. Rognlie found that, contrary to Piketty, the returns on most kinds of wealth and capital have not been greater than overall economic growth, and therefore haven’t been contributing to income inequality. The one exception, Rognlie found, was housing.

“Is capital income displacing labor income?” asks Rognlie in a Brookings paper. “Only if you count housing.” As The Economist summarizes Rognlie’s results, “surging house prices are almost entirely responsible for growing returns on capital,” which means that “rising house prices may be chiefly responsible for rising inequality.” As a result, Rognlie concludes, Piketty should have titled his book, Housing in the Twenty-First Century.


Here’s the housing bubble that contributed to the 2008 financial crisis and growing wealth inequality.

American Nightmare showed that those surging housing prices only happen in certain regions, specifically those that use planning and zoning to increase urban densities. This includes most of Europe, Australia, much of New Zealand, most coastal states in the United States, and a few Canadian cities including Vancouver, Victoria, Toronto, and Montreal.

Housing is also a factor in many developing nations where most land is still owned by the government, or held in trust by the government on behalf of local villages. This includes most of Africa, much of South America, and part of Asia. In such places, the only people who can enjoy the benefits of “surging housing prices” are the few who own their own land, and since land ownership opportunities are limited due to widespread state control, everyone else stays poor. (In the United States, the closest analogues are Nevada, where 90 percent of the land is owned by the government, and Hawai’i, where more than 90 percent of the land is owned by a handful of corporations and trusts that might be willing to sell it for housing, but the state governent won’t let them.) 

Urban areas like Houston, Indianapolis, and Raleigh were and are growing much faster than the ones shown in the previous chart, yet experienced no bubble because they didn’t have the restrictive land-use rules found in the bubble regions.

On the other hand, places that don’t practice restrictive zoning and land-use planning don’t see housing prices surge. The classic example is Houston, but in fact the infamous housing bubble that peaked in 2006 only took place in a minority of American cities and states. No bubbles were seen in most of the South (except Florida), the Midwest, or the arid West (except Arizona and Nevada).

In other words, Piketty isn’t entirely wrong. As The Economist concludes, “a story in which a privileged elite uses its political clout to create economic rents for the few (albeit through the planning system) fits Mr Piketty’s argument to a tee.” But anyone who concludes that this is some conspiracy by the 1 percent is wrong: instead, as American Nightmare shows, it is a conspiracy by the 30 percent (at least in the developed world) who are among the middle and upper classes who own their own homes.

The solution to inequality, therefore, isn’t to make war on the upper classes through punitive taxation, but simply to relax the zoning and other land-use restrictions that make housing prices so volatile. This will both reduce the returns to housing and make housing more affordable to lower-income families so they can enjoy the benefits of modest wealth accumulation that come with property ownership.

John Samples

I will be taking part in a discussion of money, politics, and policymaking on April 8, 2015, at 7:30pm at Beth Sholom Congregation, 8231 Old York Road, Elkins Park, PA 19027.

Craig Holman of Public Citizen will also set out his views on this topic. The event will be moderated by Chris Satullo, Vice President, WHYY, and Co-founder/co-director, of the Penn Project for Civic Engagement.

The Bernard Wolfman Civil Discourse Project is sponsoring this event. You can register for the event and find out more about this worthy institution at You might also register by calling 215.887.1342.

Craig and I will disagree about much on April 8, but we won’t be disagreeable, and I hope we say something you might not have heard about money and politics. I’m looking forward to participating, and I would love to see Cato folks there, whether you agree with me or not.

Jonathan Blanks

Yesterday, the Department of Justice announced that President Obama commuted the sentences of 22 federal prisoners, eight of whom were sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison. These commutations are in line with the administration’s criteria for reviewing certain clemency petitions.

Courtesy of the Clemency Project, the administration’s criteria to apply for the new clemency policy require the applicant to:

  • be serving a federal sentence;
  • be serving a sentence that, if imposed today, would be substantially shorter;
  • have a non-violent history with no significant ties to organized crime, gangs or cartels;
  • have served at least 10 years;
  • have no significant prior convictions; and
  • have demonstrated good conduct in prison.

Of course, these commutations are a welcomed development. But there are potentially thousands of inmates eligible under these criteria, as well as many others who have paid more than enough for their past misdeeds. Yesterday’s action doubled the number of granted petitions during Obama’s presidency, but these grants are not nearly enough.

Governors in the 50 states should institute their own clemency initiatives. Most of America’s incarcerated population is under state jurisdiction. The states house many more prisoners that should be brought back into society instead of  serving draconian prison sentences.

Kudos to the Clemency Project’s member organizations and 1,500 attorneys working pro bono to bring these and the many other inmates home. And congratulations to those 22 individuals who can be reunited with their friends and families as they look to rebuild their lives and rejoin society.

In a new Why Liberty? video released today, Families Against Mandatory Minimums’ founder (and Cato alumna) Julie Stewart talks about why she started her organization and the work that still needs to be done in sentencing reform.

Charles Hughes

Last week, the Associated Press reported that more than 9,000 food stamp recipients in Maine have been removed from the program because they failed to comply with the program’s work requirements. These requirements themselves are largely nothing new, but in the years since the recession, almost every state received a waiver exempting them from these provisions. By allowing the waiver to lapse, Maine will again enforce the requirement that able-bodied adults without dependents participate in some form of work activity. These rules only apply to a small fraction of beneficiaries, just 10 percent of Maine’s beneficiaries in 2013. A spokesman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services revealed that the number of SNAP beneficiaries subject to the reinstated requirements has fallen from roughly 12,000 to 2,680. This is a steep reduction, but relatively small compared to the 250,000 people in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) when the rule change went into effect.

Even before the recession, the percentage of Maine households in the program surged from 9.6 percent in 2002 to 12.3 percent in 2007. The recession caused the beneficiary rolls to swell even further, and they have continued to grow in the years since, in part due to the waiver. In 2013, 18 percent of Maine households participated in SNAP, third highest in the country. As the figure shows, since October 2010, Maine’s unemployment rate has fallen significantly, but the number of SNAP recipients remains elevated. Since the enforcement of the new rules began, these two measures have been more highly correlated.

Maine Unemployment Rate vs. SNAP Beneficiaries


Sources: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, “Federal Reserve Economic Data,” MEUR_NBD20100901, BRME23M647NCEN; Office of Family Independence, “Geographic Distribution of Programs and Benefits,” Maine Department of Health and Human Services, June 2013-February 2015.

Some advocates for the poor have raised concerns that there are not enough jobs available, so even willing beneficiaries might be disqualified. Looking at the broad array of activities that meet the work requirements could allay some of these fears. As the state’s Employment and Training Plan explains, the requirements are “very broad” and include aspects like job training, assisted job search and education, in addition to traditional work. Beneficiaries who volunteer for 24 hours a month would also meet these requirements.

Part of the motivation for this renewed enforcement is to provide a better path for beneficiaries to transition off  the program and back into the mainstream economy. Many beneficiaries are on the program for extended periods of time, and for too many, next to nothing is being done to help them improve their employment prospects during this time. A recent national study found that, over a 56 month period, a full quarter of beneficiaries participated for more than four years. Some of these people are exempt due to disability status or age, but those with the capacity for work are not really helped by a program that leads them to languish for years on the welfare rolls.

Reinstating enforcement SNAP’s work requirements will not drastically change the entire anti-poverty regime. SNAP is just one small (but growing) component of the welfare system, and these requirements only apply to a small fraction of those beneficiary households. Those caveats aside, Maine’s renewed focus on work requirements is an improvement and will help more people transition out of the program and into work, where they are much more likely to flourish.

Kat Murti

April is Alcohol Awareness Month. What better time to take a close look at one of our nation’s most heavily regulated industries and the inventive ways entrepreneurs are innovating within this realm?

The ratification of the 21st Amendment may have officially ended this nation’s failed experiment with alcohol Prohibition, but the policy hangover has had lingering effects. From dry counties to bans on Sunday sales, the sale of alcohol is severely restricted in a confusing patchwork of local, state, and federal regulations. Homebrewing was not legal in all 50 states until 2013 (and homebrewers still cannot legally sell their product). Eighteen states maintain a state monopoly over the wholesaling or retailing of some or all categories of alcoholic beverages. But, even in this stifling economy, intrepid businesses are finding new ways to serve thirsty consumers.  

One real-world example of this is Klink, formerly known as DrinkDrivers, a rapidly growing start-up with a strong foothold in the nation’s capital. The app-based alcohol delivery company relies upon the mechanisms of the sharing economy—which has faced its own share of difficulties from overzealous regulators—to navigate the treacherous legal landscape of the American alcohol industry.

The concept behind Klink is a simple one: modern consumers want the ease of on-demand goods and services, deliverable at the touch of a button, wherever they are. Yet, Klink is not an alcohol provider in the traditional sense.

Unlike many other businesses in the sharing economy, Klink is stringent in its adherence to the laws and regulations governing alcohol sales. When you place an order, the company does not itself process your payments or deliver your alcohol. Instead, Klink plays the role of middleman, partnering with licensed liquor retailers, providing an easy-to-use online platform to connect alcohol providers with customers and occasionally running localized marketing campaigns.

Tomorrow at noon, I’ll be moderating a live-streamed lunchtime discussion featuring my colleague Matthew Feeney, who is Cato’s leading expert on the sharing economy; David Ozgo, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS)’s Senior Vice President of Economic & Strategic Analysis; and Klink’s Founder and CEO, Jeffrey Nadel.

We’ll be discussing the ways in which Klink is navigating the treacherous regulatory waters of both the sharing economy and the alcohol industry, the regulatory hurdles standing in their way, and what this means for the future of tech innovation and alcohol sales. The panel will be live-streamed, and at-home viewers are encouraged to participate in the Twitter discussion—and tweet their question—using #CatoDigital.

Ilya Shapiro

This debate is so banal. Progressives shout “discrimination,” conservatives cry “liberty,” and it really all boils down to the difference between government and private action, which both sides misunderstand.

Progressives aren’t satisfied with state recognition of same-sex couples and want to bend the will of those private citizens who have religious objections to the only belief system that’s now allowed by MSNBC polite society. Conservatives are wrong to oppose the extension of state marriage licenses to same-sex couples – I’m against such licensing schemes, but states have no good reason to treat gay and straight people differently – and it’s that opposition that breeds distrust when they correctly argue that people should be free to live their lives according to their consciences.

As I said a year ago,

[The Indiana law] does nothing more than align state law with the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (which passed the House unanimously, the Senate 97-3, and was signed by President Clinton in 1993). That is, no government action can “substantially burden” religious exercise unless the government uses “the least restrictive means” to further a “compelling interest.” This doesn’t mean that people can “do whatever they want” – laws against murder would still trump religious human sacrifice – but it would prevent the government from forcing people to violate their religion if that can at all be avoided. Moreover, there’s no mention of sexual orientation (or any other class or category).

The prototypical scenario that [the law] is meant to prevent is the case of the New Mexico wedding photographer who was fined for declining to work a same-sex commitment ceremony. This photographer doesn’t refuse to provide services to gay clients, but felt that she couldn’t participate in the celebration of a gay wedding. There’s also the Oregon bakery that closed rather than having to provide wedding cakes for same-sex ceremonies. Why should these people be forced to engage in activity that violates their religious beliefs?

For that matter, gay photographers and bakers shouldn’t be forced to work religious celebrations, Jews shouldn’t be forced to work Nazi rallies, and environmentalists shouldn’t be forced to work job fairs in logging communities. This isn’t the Jim Crow South; there are plenty of wedding photographers – over 100 in Albuquerque – and bakeries who would be willing to do business regardless of sexual orientation, and no state is enforcing segregation laws. I bet plenty of [Indiana] businesses would and do see more customers if they advertised that they welcomed the LGBT community.

At the end of the day, that’s what this is about: tolerance and respect for other people’s beliefs. While governments have the duty to treat everyone equally under the law, private individuals should be able to make their own decisions on whom to do business with and how – on religious or any other grounds. Those who disagree can take their custom elsewhere and encourage others to do the same. 

I hate to repost exactly the same thing, but literally nothing has changed but the site of the overwraught protests.

Moreover, I don’t know why you’d want to have someone who can’t in good faith (literally) support your celebration be a vendor for that event. Actually, I do know: it’s the desire of some to change and narrow the rules of the game “such that private institutions are allowed to continue operating only as long as they follow a prescribed list of behaviors and mores.” (To quote something new, my recent recent National Affairs essay on “Hobby Lobby and the Future of Freedom.”) For more smart takes, see Josh Blackman and Jon Adler.

Oh, and apparently Arkansas is now joining the party too. This could become one of the big issues of the 2016 election – not same-sex marriage itself, mind you, but the brave new world of government mandates clashing with religious (among other) freedoms.