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Benjamin H. Friedman

This Monday at noon, Cato hosts “The Newburgh Sting and the FBI’s Production of the Domestic Terrorism Threat.” The event will consider how the FBI and others elements of our domestic security apparatus now generate a sense of the terrorist danger that they combat. David Heilbroner will show clips from his 2014 documentary on the Newburgh four terrorist case, which aired on HBO. Naureen Shah of Amnesty International and John Mueller of Cato and Ohio State will comment. RSVP here.

You can get a sense of the issue from this 2007 headline, from The Onion: “U.S. Counter-Counterterrorism Unit Successfully Destroys Washington Monument.” The counter-counterterrorism unit, the satirical article says, was “created in 2004 in response to the lack of terror activity since the Sept. 11 attacks,” and tasked with “raising awareness among the American public of the ‘myriad unknown threats’ that still face the country,” by demonstrating vulnerability to terrorism.

That’s make-believe, of course. No U.S. government agency has been bombing monuments, or anything else on U.S. soil. But still, like other good satire, the article gets at truth more effectively than conventional rendering of facts.

The standard view remains that the trauma of the September 11 attacks awakened Americans to their vulnerability to terrorism from without and within—terrorists groups overseas like al Qaeda and the “lone-wolf” self-starters they inspire. While our leaders, over the last decade, have become less prone to warn of imminent apocalyptic attacks, they still mostly contend that skilled terrorists lurk among us, evaluating our vulnerabilities, exploiting technologies and always growing more diabolical. That view, of course, is what justifies several of our ongoing military campaigns, various curtailments of civil liberties, and vast expenditures of our wealth for domestic security. Its proponents cite as evidence the terrorist plots found in the country since 2001.

But as The Onion suggests, our fear of terrorism and defenses against it are something of a self-licking ice cone. The surge of political pressure to find the terrorists among us in the early 2000s created a great hunt. The hunters include 104 Joint Terrorism Task Forces, roughly 80 fusion centers, depending on how you count, police at three levels of government, their paid informants, federal prosecutors, intelligence agencies, elements of the Department of Homeland Security, and all of us, at least insofar as we heed officials exhortions to maintain vigilance against something. Institutionalizing the hunt, I like to say, heightens fear of the danger hunted. That occurs not only due to greater scrutiny, but also due to the tendency to expand the definition of danger–essentially creating criminals by criminalizing more conduct.

With its terrorism stings, the FBI has taken things a step further. Relying on the meager odds of a successful “entrapment” defense and thousands of informants, the Bureau creates fraudulent plots to bait people into becoming terrorists. A variety of recent works, most notably Trevor Aaronson’s The Terror Factory, document how many of the terrorists caught (or created) by these plots are too foolish, incompetent, or mentally ill to have produced a terrorist plot without the FBI’s aid.

You may ask: aren’t we better safe than sorry? Might not even a nincompoop, whose “buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in scope” (the judge’s description of one of the Newburgh defendants) become a true threat without prophylactic policing? Might it be impossible or at least very inefficient to filter out buffoons and catch only real bad guys? These are points that FBI leaders would raise. The panels will address them and also consider the costs of such methods — whether Newburgh-type cases take attention and manpower from bigger dangers, alienate Muslim immigrants, or preserve a sense of insecurity that generates foolish policies.

Chris Edwards

For more than a century, the federal government has pursued a misguided witch hunt against perceived monopolies in the private sector. But in a glaring hypocrisy, Congress has long protected one of the nation’s largest businesses against competition. The legal monopoly conferred on the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is a relic. Government-run mail makes no sense in our email-dominated economy, and other nations are showing that postal privatization works. If the centuries-old Royal Mail can be privatized, then so can our USPS.

In a new study, former Clinton administration economist Robert Shapiro provides useful input to the privatization debate. He looks at the subsidies that Congress confers on the USPS, as well as the extra costs.

Here are some background facts from Shapiro:

  • With more than 600,000 workers, the USPS is the nation’s second largest civilian employer, after Wal-Mart.
  • The USPS has three protected monopoly products: first-class mail, standard mail (bulk circulars, catalogs, etc.), and periodicals.
  • Employee wages and benefits account for 78 percent of USPS costs. Average USPS worker compensation is at least 32 percent higher than comparable private-sector workers.
  • Since the last time Congress supposedly fixed the USPS in 2006, the agency has been losing more than $4 billion a year.

 Here are some of the benefits that Congress confers on the USPS, according to Shapiro:

  • The USPS has exclusive access to mailboxes. That saves the agency more than $14 billion a year compared to the costs faced by private delivery companies. 
  • If the USPS had been required to compete in recent decades, it would have had higher productivity growth and lower costs today of about $20 billion.
  • The USPS can borrow from the U.S. Treasury at subsidized interest rates. That creates an annual subsidy of more than $400 million per year.
  • The USPS is exempt from state and local property taxes. Since the market value of USPS property is about $85 billion, that exemption is worth about $1.5 billion a year. The agency is also exempt from vehicle registration fees, tickets, and other local charges.
  • The USPS is required to pay federal corporate income taxes on some of its earnings. But those taxes go to the Treasury’s Postal Service Fund and are circulated back to the USPS, creating a benefit of more than $800 million in 2014.
  • The USPS enjoys economies of scale and scope created by its monopoly. Shapiro says, “the USPS can leverage these network advantages supported by its monopoly to reduce its costs in the competitive market for package delivery.”
  • The USPS is not bound by local zoning ordinances.
  • The USPS “is immune from certain civil actions, including libel, slander, misrepresentation and any injury arising from the misdelivery or loss of uninsured mail.”

While Congress confers those advantages on the USPS, it also imposes costs. Shapiro says that the USPS is required to:

  • Maintain residential service six days a week, which imposes added costs of $2.2 billion a year compared to five-day service.
  • Give discounted rates for non-profit groups, which costs it more than $1.1 billion per year.
  • Provide a special rate for periodicals, which costs it more than $500 million per year.
  • Retain inefficient post office locations, which costs it more than $300 million per year.

All in all, America’s postal industry is a complex mess of subsidies and inefficiencies. There is no good reason for all these special rules. The rise of email has created a powerful competitor to letter delivery, and so mail is no longer a natural monopoly, if it ever was. Furthermore, America is teeming with entrepreneurs who would love to take a crack at mail delivery. Our experience with deregulation in telecommunications and other industries has shown that open competition drives efficiency and innovation, which ultimately benefits consumers and overall growth.

In his essay on privatizing the postal service, Tad DeHaven concludes: “It’s time to let go of the nostalgia for the USPS and bring America’s postal services into the 21st century with privatization, open competition, and entrepreneurial innovation.”

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

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.”

When the national media covers a weather story these days, it almost certainly will find some angle in which to insert/assert an element of human-caused climate change, and that element will always be characterized such as to have made the situation worse. It would take a lot of thinking on our part to try to recollect a major weather-related story in which the global warming was suggested to have ameliorated the impact—this despite a scientific literature that is complex and nebulous as to the direction of most impacts, and even less certain regarding the current detectability of such impacts.

Take for example the coverage of the current drought in California. As the drought drags on with spring snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas at record low levels—a finding which has prompted California Gov. Brown to enact statewide water restrictions—the press is eager to finger our greenhouse gas-spewing modern economy as the prime culprit. The problem is most scientific research suggests that the lack of precipitation in California has its roots in natural variability (for example, this recent paper by Thomas Delworth and colleagues which finds a common cause to drought in the western U.S. and the hiatus in global warming).

Thus, for the time being at least, bedeviled by actual science, most in the press have resisted placing much of the blame on the lack of precipitation at the feet of anthropogenic global warming.

But, there are actually two components which contribute to drought: 1) lack of precipitation, and 2) high temperatures.

Stymied on the first, many in the media have turned to the second. 

After all, what’s a more obvious tie-in to global warming than higher-than-average temperatures? Or, in this case, even better yet, the record high temperatures that California has been experiencing as of late.

Check out the coverage of the drought from two prominent and popuar weather/climate oriented blogs—Andrew Freedman’s articles at Mashable, and Jason Samenow’s for Capital Weather Gang.

Freedman writes:

“We are now seeing the rise of a new, supercharged type of drought, in which global warming-related temperature extremes combine with dry conditions to transform what would otherwise be an ordinary drought event into a far more severe event.” 

And following Samenow’s headline “Hot hands: Fingerprints of climate change all over California drought” he tells us:

“California’s astonishingly low snowpack, a pathetic 5 percent of normal, and the severity of the drought afflicting the state isn’t some fluke. It’s a likely consequence of climate change, specifically the rising temperatures which are intensifying many of the processes causing the state to lose water at an alarming rate.”

If only things were so simple. In fact, they are not.

Several factors confound such a haste accusation.

First, drought begets high temperatures, and vice versa. When conditions are dry, instead of being occupied evaporating moisture from the soil, more incoming solar radiation (i.e., sunshine) goes towards raising the air temperature. And high temperatures enable the air to hold more moisture, which increases the process of evaporation. So, the lack of precipitation (itself linked to natural variability) helps lead to higher temperatures, which themselves, lead to worsening drought conditions.

No global warming necessary.

And second, many of the same elements of natural variability which have been linked to the precipitation deficit also act to elevate the temperature—something which is summarily being ignored by many in the media—but not by us!

Recall a couple of months ago we reported an a new study by Jim Johnstone and Nathan Mantua, researchers who, among other things, specialize in studying atmosphere/ocean  circulation patterns across the Pacific Ocean and how they impact the climatology/hydrology/ecology of the West Coast of the U.S. Johnstone and Mantua found that naturally occurring atmospheric pressure patterns across the northeast Pacific Ocean—patterns which they traced back more than 100 years—could explain virtually all of the increase in temperature that had occurred over large portions of the Pacific Northwest, and extending down into northern California. In southern California, the same patterns explained a bit more than half the long-term observed temperature increase. They wrote:

“These results suggest that natural internally generated changes in atmospheric circulation were the primary cause of coastal NE Pacific warming from 1900 to 2012 and demonstrate more generally that regional mechanisms of interannual and multidecadal temperature variability can also extend to century time scales.”

But their analysis ended in 2012. What about the years since then—the years which encompass the current California drought and record high temperatures?

We wrote to Dr. Johnstone and asked whether they had any updates to their analysis and he wrote back pointing us to this page on his website—a page dedicated to the study described above, and which included updates through March 2015. There we find that the naturally occurring atmospheric pressure pattern that Johnstone and Mantua linked to the long-term warming across California (and the Pacific Northwest) was very high during the past several years and, in fact, reached its highest anomalies on record during the past several months. In other words, the same mechanism which explains the majority of the observed temperature rise in California since the beginning of the 20th century also explains why it has been especially hot in California recently.

Again, no global warming necessary.

Dr. Johnstone did point out to us that the “The model underpredicts the magnitude of the current warm anomaly, but this is typical of strong peaks.” This type of behavior (underprediction of extreme values) is commonplace in the statistical methodology (linear regression analysis) employed by Johnstone and Mantua. And it is within this underprediction where the impact of global warming may be residing, although it is potentially sharing that space with drought-induced high temperatures, local landscape changes (e.g., urban warming), a non-linear response to atmospheric pressure forcing, and a host of other circulation factors.

In other words, any impact of human-caused global warming on the recent high temperatures in California (and their influence on drought conditions) is minor at best and most likely undetectable—and not deserving of the level of credit that good folks like Freedman and Samenow have bestowed upon it.

This is a conclusion supported by the scientific literature and basic climatology, but which is absent popular press coverage of the ongoing drought.

As the late Paul Harvey would say, “And now you know the rest of the story.”

Adam Bates

It’s been a bad week for Stingray secrecy.  Following a court-ordered document dump in New York earlier this week, a Baltimore detective yesterday testified in court that he had personally used a Stingray between 600 and 800 times during two years as a member of the Baltimore Police Department’s Advanced Technical Team.  He also testified that the unit has used such devices 4,300 times since 2007.

Stingrays are handheld or vehicle-mounted surveillance devices that operate by mimicking cell towers.  They have the capability to force cell phones within their range to connect with the Stingray and transmit ID information from the phone.  Some models - the technology is constantly being upgraded to keep pace with advancing telecommunications infrastructure - are suspected of being able to intercept content, but the true extent of the capability is a closely-guarded secret. What is increasingly not a secret is that dozens of law enforcement agencies around the country have been using these devices for years to sweep up swaths of cell phone data, much of it from innocent people, with little to no transparency or oversight.

The Baltimore detective refused to produce the device in court, citing an FBI non-disclosure agreement. The FCC, which regulates radio-emitting devices like Stingrays, has delegated to the FBI the authority to set conditions on local use of cell site simulators.  The FBI, in turn, produced an agreement so restrictive that police and prosecutors can be obligated to withdraw evidence or even drop charges rather than disclose the use of the devices to the court.

As more and more information about these devices and their uses by law enforcement trickles out, it’s worth questioning what value exists in these secrecy agreements.  Despite repeated references to “terrorists” and “national security” as a means for maintaining secrecy about Stingray use, the data that has been released detailing the purposes of actual Stingray investigations - such as this breakdown from the Tallahassee Police Department that contains not a single terrorism reference - suggests that Stingrays are used virtually entirely for routine law enforcement investigations.  Meanwhile, the sacrifices being made in the name of defeating terror impose a real cost.

A quote from the Baltimore Sun is instructive:

In Maryland U.S. District Court last fall, an argument about the stingray device was cut short when the suspects took plea deals. And on Wednesday, following Cabreja’s testimony, prosecutors and defense attorneys entered into plea negotiations instead of debating the merits of the stingray further.

In cases where the stingray becomes a sticking point, Wessler said, “defense attorneys are being able to get really good deals for their clients, because the FBI is so insistent on hiding all of these details.”

“There are likely going to be a lot of defense attorneys in Baltimore who may have an opportunity to raise these issues,” Wessler said. “They are on notice now that their clients may have some arguments to make in these cases.”

It stands to reason that at least some of the suspects receiving sweetheart deals from prosecutors as a result of FBI meddling are actually guilty of serious criminal behavior.  They’re getting deals (or having their cases dropped entirely) solely as a means of silencing courtroom discussion about Stingray use. Thus secret law enforcement Stingray use not only threatens the Constitutional rights of everyone swept up in the signal dragnets and the rights of suspects who are charged (and presumably have been convicted) based on improper evidence, but it also undermines a fundamental principle of criminal law: bringing actual criminals to justice.

Not only do these secret tactics jeopardize trials, they also open the door to suits from those convicted with improperly collected evidence. Just this week, following the document dump in Erie County, New York, the chief attorney of Legal Aid Buffalo declared that he had never heard of Stingrays and will now be investigating to see how they’ve affected his clients.

As more defense attorneys and judges become aware of the widespread use of this technology, more police officers will inevitably be put in the position of violating the non-disclosure agreement or forcing prosecutors to withdraw important evidence from serious criminal cases. 

That is an unacceptably steep price to pay just so the federal government can shield an increasingly open secret from public oversight.  

Patrick G. Eddington

At first glance, the USA Today headline seemed like many others in the nearly two years since Edward Snowden’s explosive revelations: U.S. secretly tracked billions of calls for decades. And while the program essentials were the same—the secret collection of the telephone metadata of every American– there were two key differences between this story and the hundreds before it on this topic. The offending government entity was the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the warrantless surveillance program was launched during the first Bush administration.

Justice Department officials told Reuters that, “All of the information has been deleted.”  “The agency is no longer collecting bulk telephony metadata from U.S. service providers.” However, DoJ provided no actual proof of the alleged data destruction, and the DoJ Inspector General only recently began an inquiry into the program. While it now seems fairly clear that the DEA’s “USTO” metadata collection program served as a model for the NSA telephony metadata program conducted under Sec. 215 of the PATRIOT Act, what is also clear is that Americans are now confronting a government surveillance apparatus that is truly vast. As Ryan Gallagher of The Intercept noted, this particular DEA mass surveillance program is just one of several undertaken by the agency over the past three decades.

How many other such programs exist at other federal agencies, whether inside or outside of the U.S. intelligence community? And how far back do such programs go? How many members of Congress knew, and for how long? Was this DEA program concealed from the agency’s inspector general for two decades, or did the IG simply fail to investigate the program year after year out of apathy or indifference?

If the past is any guide at all—and the surveillance scandals of the 1960s and 1970s are a very good guide—we are once again confronting a level of government over-reach that calls for a comprehensive, public accounting.

In is new book, Democracy in the Dark, former Church Committee chief counsel Fritz Schwartz notes that “…too much is kept secret not to protect America but to keep illegal or embarrassing conduct from Americans…the Church Committee also found that every president from Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon had secretly abused their powers.” For the paperback edition of his book, Schwartz is going to have to add more American chief executives to his list.

David Boaz

Paul Krugman has a blog post at the New York Times that seems to be based on no research at all. But it has a snappy four-cell matrix so you’ll know it’s like real economics.

Krugman’s argument is that “there basically aren’t any libertarians.” And here’s the graph that proves it:

See how small the letters are in two of the boxes? That shows you that there aren’t any people in those boxes. “There ought in principle, you might think, be people who are pro-gay-marriage and civil rights in general, but opposed to government retirement and health care programs — that is, libertarians — but there are actually very few.” And there are also very few people who are “socially illiberal” and supportive of government social programs, he says.

But you know, there’s research on this. David Kirby and I have done some of it, in studies on “the libertarian vote.” But two political scientists examined a similar matrix back in 1984 and found roughly even numbers of people in each box.

Part of the trick here is that Krugman has used a vague term, “socially liberal,” for one of the dimensions of the matrix, and a radical policy position, “no social insurance,” for the other dimension. The logical way would be to use either common vague terms for both dimensions – say “socially liberal/conservative” and “fiscally liberal/conservative” – or specific and similarly radical terms for both dimensions, something like “no social insurance” and “repeal all drug laws.” Wonder how many people would be in the boxes then? 

“No social insurance” is a very radical position. Even many libertarians wouldn’t support it. Like Hayek. So to find the divisions in our society, we might choose a specific issue of personal freedom – gay marriage, say – along with an equally controversial economic policy such as school choice or a constitutional amendment to balance the budget.

If you use either set of dimensions, it’s pretty clear that you’re going to get substantial numbers of libertarians (broadly speaking) and also of those incongruous creatures Krugman can only call “hardhats.” Libertarians often call people who support substantial government intervention in both economic and personal issues “statists” or authoritarians. In our studies we call them populists, as does the Gallup Poll.

The media constantly discuss politics in terms of liberals and conservatives, so very few voters are even familiar with the term libertarian (or populist) and thus few choose it to describe themselves.

It is of course true that the number of “real” libertarians – people who read Hayek and Nozick and Rothbard, or Reason magazine, or indeed The Libertarian Mind – is small. Maybe a few hundred thousand? (Though Hayek was selling pretty well when the government created a financial collapse and responded by bailing out Wall Street.) Maybe a few million if you include Ayn Rand? But it’s also true that there aren’t many conservatives if you mean people have read The Conservative Mind, and not many liberals if you mean people who read John Rawls and Paul Starr.

The question for politics, which is where Krugman started, is how many people there are who hold broadly libertarian views, or views that diverge from liberal and conservative approaches in a libertarian direction. That’s what pollsters try to measure. For more than 20 years now, the Gallup Poll has been using two questions to categorize respondents by ideology:

Some people think the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Others think that government should do more to solve our country’s problems. Which comes closer to your own view?

Some people think the government should promote traditional values in our society. Others think the government should not favor any particular set of values. Which comes closer to your own view?

Here’s a graphic depiction of the number of respondents who gave libertarian answers to both questions in the Bush-Obama years: 

The Pew Research Center and the American National Election Studies also ask such questions, and in our studies on the libertarian vote we have drawn on all those data sets. By using narrower criteria than Gallup does, mostly by adding a third question, we found that 13 to 15 percent of Americans hold libertarian attitudes. In 2006 we commissioned Zogby International to ask our three ANES questions to 1,012 actual (reported) voters in the 2006 election. We asked half the sample, “Would you describe yourself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal?” We asked the other half of the respondents, “Would you describe yourself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, also known as libertarian?”

The results surprised us. Fully 59 percent of the respondents said “yes” to the first question. That is, by 59 to 27 percent, poll respondents said they would describe themselves as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.”

The addition of the word “libertarian” clearly made the question more challenging. What surprised us was how small the drop-off was. A healthy 44 percent of respondents answered “yes” to that question, accepting a self-description as “libertarian.” We summed all that up in this handy but not necessarily helpful graph:

All these numbers are open to debate, of course. Do these views affect how people vote? I think our studies on the libertarian vote present evidence that they do. But I’m sorry that Paul Krugman didn’t do a Google search on “how many libertarians” before dashing off his post.

Krugman says there just aren’t many people who hold views that cross red/blue, liberal/conservative lines, who believe in, say, both gay marriage and lower taxes, or oppose both marijuana legalization and free trade. That is, there are no people who are, as he puts it, “socially liberal” but also “fiscally conservative.” In the real world, of course there are. It’s not hard to find them in polls, or by talking to people. Are they just inconsistent? Or might they have broadly libertarian views (or broadly pro-government views)?

If all this data doesn’t impress Krugman, maybe he’ll accept Radley Balko’s scientific analysis:

Libertarians are like dark matter. There may be no direct proof we exist, but you can infer us due to how we affect Alternet & Salon.

I don’t think a Princeton professor would give this paper a passing grade.

Chris Edwards

For taxpayers needing IRS help, this year’s filing season could be a nightmare. The Washington Post today reports on the long lines at IRS offices. The newspaper suggests that five years of Republican budget cuts are to blame, even though Democrats control the White House and, until recently, the Senate. But, whoever is at fault, the IRS commissioner is correct that his agency’s service is “abysmal.”

Let’s take a closer look at those alleged budget cuts. Using data from the OMB budget database, I split total IRS outlays into two activities: administration and handouts. Administration includes tax return processing, taxpayer help, enforcement, and other bureaucratic functions. Handouts are mainly refundable tax credits, particularly the earned income tax credit, child credit, and Obamacare exchange subsidies, which began in 2014.

The chart shows that the IRS budget for handouts has skyrocketed (red line). The IRS has become a huge welfare agency. Handouts quadrupled from $30 billion in 2000 to an estimated $121 billion in 2015. Handouts have spiked the past two years because of Obamacare exchange subsidies of $13 billion in 2014 and an estimated $29 billion in 2015. (Data for 2015 are the president’s estimates).

How about IRS administration costs? They have been relatively flat (blue line). They grew from $8.4 billion in 2000 to a peak of $12.3 billion in 2011, and then they dipped to an estimated $11.3 billion in 2015.

However, there have been large changes within the IRS administration budget. Here are 2005 and 2015 spending figures for the three largest administrative areas: “taxpayer services” spending plunged from $3.9 billion to $2.2 billion, “enforcement” spending grew from $4.3 billion to $4.9 billion, and “operations support” spending soared from $1.5 billion to $3.9 billion. The latter category includes general IRS bureaucracy, such as management, facilities, and telecommunications costs.  

 Has the IRS budget been cut? Well, “taxpayer services” certainly have been cut, and so the Washington Post’s focus on taxpayer line-ups at IRS offices is on target. However, other aspects of IRS administration spending have increased. The huge jump in “operations support” actually occurred during the last few years of the Bush administration.

The larger story is how the huge welfare system run by the IRS is dwarfing its traditional role of collecting taxes. In 2015, IRS spending on handouts of $121 billion is eleven times larger than the $11 billion spent on administration. In the recent federal budget, the White House requests a giant $45 billion for Obamacare exchange subsidies in 2016, which would be four times larger than total IRS administration costs.

A short-term solution for the long lines at IRS offices would be for Congress to trim handouts a tiny bit and use the money to hire more workers to answer taxpayer queries. The long-term solution is to greatly simplify the tax code. That would include eliminating all $121 billion of tax-code handouts and moving to a flat tax or a simplified two-rate system.

Data note: if you send me an email (cedwards [at] cato.org), I can send you my IRS budget spreadsheet.

Doug Bandow

If America ends up at war, it almost certainly will be on behalf of an ally. Washington collects allies like most people collect Facebook “friends.” The vast majority of U.S. allies are security liabilities, as potential tripwires for conflict and war.

Yet American officials constantly abase themselves to reassure the very countries that the United States is defending at great cost and risk. For instance, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) recently worried:  “What ally around the world can feel safe in their alliance with us?” The right question is with what ally can America feel safe?

Instead of relentlessly collecting more international dependents, Washington policymakers should drop Allies In Name Only (AINOs).

Contra the scare-mongering of hawkish politicians, the strategic environment today is remarkably benign for the United States.  The world is messy, to be sure, but the number of big conflicts is down. More important, America faces no hegemonic threat or peer competitor and is allied with every major industrialized state other than China and Russia.

All of Washington’s recent wars have been—from America’s standpoint—iver unimportant, indeed, sometimes frivolous stakes.

Terrorism remains a genuine threat, but falls far short of the sort of existential danger posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Worse, terrorism typically is a response to foreign intervention and occupation. Washington has inadvertently encouraged terrorism by backing authoritarian regimes, joining foreign conflicts, and creating enemies overseas.

Adding unnecessary allies makes this problem worse. In Ukraine, for instance, the Obama administration is under pressure to treat a non-ally as an ally—arming and/or defending Kiev—thereby confronting Russia, a nuclear-armed state which considers border security a vital interest.

Bringing Ukraine (and Georgia) into NATO would be even more dangerous, inviting a geopolitical game of chicken over minimal stakes. Neither country has ever been considered even a marginal security concern of America.

Of course, both nations have been treated badly by Moscow. But that doesn’t justify a military alliance, which should be based on interest, not charity. Adding troubled states with limited military capabilities and unresolved conflicts turns the purpose of alliances on their head.

The U.S. long-eschewed “foreign entanglements,” against which George Washington inveighed. Extraordinary circumstances during World War II and the Cold War justified temporary alliances.

But as I wrote for Forbes, “it makes no sense for Washington to retain responsibility for defending Europe, with a larger economy and population than America. Or for protecting prosperous Japan and South Korea.”

The problem is not just wasted resources, but tripwires for war. Alliances deter, but they also ensure involvement if deterrence fails, as it often does.

Moreover, lending smaller states a superpower’s military changes their behavior, causing them to be more confrontational, even reckless. In fact, most prospective conflicts for which Washington plans involve allies, not America directly.

The United States should start defenestrating AINOs. Most of these nations would remain close friends. In some cases, military coordination might be called for, when the United States and other nations shared vital objectives.

However, Washington should stop defending South Korea, which has an overwhelming resource advantage over the North. The United States should end its European defense dole.

Moreover, the United States should not turn conflict-prone nations like Georgia and Ukraine into allies. Washington should be particularly wary about treating less-important and less-democratic states as allies. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are, at best, “frenemies.”

Washington still has an interest in preventing a hostile, hegemonic power from dominating Eurasia. But that possibility isn’t likely for decades to come.

America has benefitted much from its relative geographical isolation. It rarely needed allies in the past. It requires even fewer allies today. Washington should create alliances to deter and win wars, not go to war to promote and preserve alliances.

Geopolitics is not a grand version of Facebook, with the objective of amassing as many “friends” as possible. Since most of Washington’s military pacts endanger the United States, America should be dropping, not adding, allies.

Matthew Feeney

South Carolina police officer Michael T. Slager is facing a murder charge after footage emerged of him fatally shooting an apparently unarmed man following a traffic stop last Saturday. The disturbing footage not only shows that Slager shot eight rounds at Walter L. Scott while he was fleeing, it also appears to show him planting his Taser next to Scott after he is brought down. The incident is the latest reminder of how important it is to protect the right to film police officers doing their jobs.

The footage, which can be seen below and contains graphic content, clearly contradicts police reports.

Fatal North Charleston Police Shooting | The New York Times

According to police reports, Slager fired his Taser at Scott after pursuing him onto a grassy lot after a traffic stop prompted by a broken taillight. The Taser reportedly failed to subdue Scott. Slager reported via radio: “Shots fired and the subject is down. He took my Taser.” Police reports also stated that officers performed CPR and first aid on Scott.

The video, which was captured by an onlooker, begins with Scott fleeing from Slager after what police reports claim was a scuffle over Slager’s Taser. Slager, standing flat-footed, then fires eight rounds at Scott, who falls to the ground roughly 15-20 feet from Slager after the eighth round is fired. The coroner reportedly told one of Scott’s family lawyers that Scott was hit by five times: once in the ear, once in the upper buttocks, and three times in the back.

The video appears to show Taser wires attached to Scott as he flees the encounter. If they are Taser wires, the beginning of the video confirms police reports which claim that Slager’s Taser did not stop Scott.  

However, it is hard to see any of the footage backing up Slager’s claim that “He took my Taser.” Indeed, the video shows that after he handcuffed Scott Slager went back to where the scuffle occurred, picked up an object, and then dropped that object next to Scott. Despite claims made in police reports, the video does not show officers performing CPR on Scott.

One of Slager’s attorneys, who is reportedly “no longer involved” in the case, said earlier this week that Slager felt threatened and believes that he acted appropriately, two claims that will be hard to justify given what the video shows.

The video will undoubtedly play a key role in Slager’s case. According to Justin Bamberg, a South Carolina House representative and one of Scott’s family lawyers, “If there was no video, I do not believe that officer would be in jail.”

Filming police officers doing their jobs is a good way to help ensure that officers are held accountable for their actions. Today many citizens have phones which can record video and audio. These recordings can play an important role in investigations of alleged police misconduct. Readers interested in filming police officers ought to read this July 2014 ACLU primer on recording the police. Some highlights:

When in public spaces where you are lawfully present you have the right to photograph anything that is in plain view.

Police officers may not confiscate or demand to view your digital photographs or video without a warrant.

Police may not delete your photographs or video under any circumstances.

Police officers may legitimately order citizens to cease activities that are truly interfering with legitimate law enforcement operations

Some readers may live in one of the minority of states which have so-called “two party consent” laws. The ACLU states the following:

In situations where you are an observer but not a part of the conversation, or in states where all parties to a conversation must consent to taping, the legality of taping will depend on whether the state’s prohibition on taping applies only when there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. But no state court has held that police officers performing their job in public have a reasonable expectation.

It is tragic that police officers sometimes commit crimes against the people they are tasked with protecting. Fortunately, it is becoming easier for members of the public to capture evidence of police misconduct. Because Scott’s final moments were caught on camera, Slager is facing a murder charge and years behind bars rather than the prospect of a continued career in law enforcement. Without the video, here is what we might have read about Walter L. Scott’s death.

For more on the case, read my colleague Jonathan Blanks’ related PoliceMisconduct.net post. In 2010, the Cato Institute released a video on the topic of police officers on camera. Watch that video below. 

Cops on Camera

Alan Reynolds

In Ancient Greece, “The politicians strained their ingenuity to discover new sources of public revenue… . The results of these imposts was a wholesale hiding of wealth and income, Evasion became universal, goods were seized, men were thrown into jail. But the wealth still hid itself, or melted away.”

–Will Durant The Life of Greece, Simon and Schuster, 1939. P. 66.

 In ancient Rome; “taxation rose to such heights that men lost incentive to work or earn, and an erosive contest began between lawyers finding devices to evade taxes and lawyers formulating laws to prevent evasion. The government issued decrees binding the peasant to his field and the worker to his shop until all his debts and taxes had been paid. In this and other ways medieval serfdom began.”

–Will, and Durant, Ariel. The Lessons ofHistory, Simon and Schuster, 1968.

Neal McCluskey

With yesterday’s release of a new, Senate, No Child Left Behind revision, there certainly seems to be a serious effort to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, due since 2007. Perhaps the first thing they should do, though, is keep the name simply “Elementary and Secondary Education Act” so I don’t always have to explain that the ESEA is the same as NCLB.  But no: this is the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015, in keeping with the political need to have names no one could possibly oppose. (You want to leave kids behind? You want some kids not to achieve?) That said, while the bill seems to be a step in the right direction, it would still keep us miles from our necessary destination: no federal education control.

The new bill, like the Student Success Act in the House (yup, another loaded name) gets rid of NCLB’s “adequate yearly progress” mandate and the cascade of punishments for schools that fail to meet it, and tries to curb the U.S. Secretary of Education’s ability to coerce states to use specific standards and tests such as the Common Core and related exams. But it would still require states to have uniform standards and tests – sorry, local control – and state accountability plans would have to be approved by the secretary. This approval provision is especially concerning because, despite NCLB giving the secretary no authority to attach conditions to waivers out of its requirements, the Obama administration attached conditions anyway. In other words, we already have concrete experience with an education secretary blatantly exceeding the authority given to him by law. To think a future administration wouldn’t do so again is wishful thinking. Yes, there is a “peer review” process for state plans, and some rules on what a secretary may not require a state to do, but never underestimate the power of regulation-writing to fill in gaps with unexpected power, or future administrations to interpret imprecise wording as expansively as possible.  And the bill calls for states to have “challenging” standards, which certainly seems to require that the feds define what, exactly, “challenging” means. So maybe the worst parts of NCLB are gone, but the biggest danger – rule by executive fiat – remains.

At a higher level, the ultimate destination needs to be the scrapping of federal education governance, which neither the Senate nor the House bill comes close to doing. The reality is that several decades of serious federal meddling has produced few if any discernable, lasting improvements in academic outcomes, while costing a mint. And this holds true for the NCLB era.  One can say that era–at best–saw some gains for younger children, but which were very hard to attribute to NCLB and were largely gone by the end of K-12 schooling.  We also saw bigger gains for various groups in several periods before NCLB.

Oh, and there’s one more problem, though I know it’s considered quaint by some: Except for prohibiting state and local discrimination, and giving full control over federal lands, the Constitution does not permit federal education involvement. Based on the outcomes, it’s not hard to see why: National, political control of education is far too imprecise an instrument to deal with the unique needs of fifty states, thousands of communities, and millions of children. And no amount of renaming is going to change that.

Simon Lester

In recent weeks, a number of prominent economists have expressed views on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).  David Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon Hanson are for it; Tyler Cowen is for it, mainly for foreign policy reasons; Noah Smith is for it; Larry Summers is a maybe; Paul Krugman thinks it’s not a big deal and questions whether Obama should spend “political capital” pushing it; Brad DeLong is more positive than Krugman; Dean Baker is skeptical; and Matt Yglesias is skeptical, noting that “[t]he political economy and public choice issues around what’s become of the mutlilateral trade process stink.”

Before jumping to any conclusons, though, I think DeLong makes an important point here: 

“It is foolish to debate whether a trade agreement that has not yet been negotiated is a good idea and should be ratified. Such a debate should properly begin only once there is something to analyze.”

That’s very true: We don’t have a negotiated agreement yet, so it’s difficult to judge its content.  If this were an old-school trade agreement whose main function was to get rid of tariffs, it would be easier to make an assessment in advance.  If we knew all or most tariffs would be brought to zero, and that’s all that would happen in the agreement, we would know just about everything we needed to know.   However, today’s trade agreements have lots of substantive policymaking in them, and the details are important.  

To take a few examples:

In addition, with trade in services, liberalization does not happen automatically for all services as part of trade negotiations.  It only happens where specific commitments have been made, and we don’t know yet which service sectors will be liberalized in the TPP.  A big question I have is, what commitments have been made to liberalize cross-border trade in medical sevices?

So let’s wait for a final deal before offering a definitive judgement on the TPP.  When the full text of a completed agreement is released, I hope all of these economists will weigh in on the details of the actual TPP.  It’s not just free trade in the abstract that is at issue with agreements such as the TPP; it’s trade rules in actual practice that we need to debate and discuss.

Jonathan Blanks

Yesterday, South Carolina’s Post and Courier released the video of a North Charleston police officer fatally shooting a fleeing man, Walter Scott, in the back. After the mayor’s press conference late yesterday afternoon, the State Law Enforcement Division arrested the officer and charged him with murder. Under Tennessee v. Garner (1985), it is illegal for an officer to shoot a fleeing suspect absent an objectively reasonable fear of danger to the public or himself.


Photo via the Post and Courier.

The officer had originally stated that he “felt threatened” before deploying lethal force against the 50-year-old man. The police report also stated that the officer performed CPR on Scott after the shooting, but video shows the officers left him handcuffed and on the ground with no attempt at CPR.

You should read the full story here.

This was cross-posted at PoliceMisconduct.net

Doug Bandow

North Korea continues along the nuclear path. A new report warns that Pyongyang could amass a nuclear arsenal as large as 100 weapons by 2020. That would make the North a significant regional power.

Washington has no realistic strategy to deal with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Some policymakers have advocated offensive military action, but that likely would trigger a war which would devastate South Korea.

The Obama administration’s chief policy has been to reaffirm Washington’s defensive alliance with the South. Some 28,500 U.S. troops are on station, backed by conventional and nuclear forces elsewhere.

However, this only encourages the North’s nuclear development. The DPRK sees nukes as protection against the allies’ overwhelming military strength, prestige for an otherwise geopolitical nullity, potent tool of extortion, and domestic reward for the military.

Some analysts look to more economic sanctions to stop a North Korea bomb. But neither China nor Russia is likely to approve new UN penalties. Additional U.S. sanctions alone aren’t likely to cause the North to surrender a program deemed essential to the regime’s international standing and domestic stability.

There also is the increasingly forlorn hope for negotiation. However, voluntary disarmament seems especially unlikely given the critical political role played by the military in Pyongyang.

Some policymakers look to Chinese pressure on the North as a panacea. But the People’s Republic of China is not inclined to take steps which might violently collapse the North Korean state.

The Obama administration should adopt a different approach. Instead of attempting to micro-manage the region, Washington should leave the Korean Peninsula’s future up to the two Koreas and their neighbors. What happens in Pyongyang today is of vastly greater interest to others in the region than it is to the United States.

Of course, a DPRK deploying nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles theoretically could strike America. However, Pyongyang knows that attacking the U.S. would ensure that North Korea ceased to exist. And the ruling Kims always wanted their virgins in this world, not the next.

While the U.S. retains an interest in a stable Northeast Asia, even more so do the surrounding nations. The best American “leadership” would be to turn responsibility for the peninsula over to neighboring states.

America’s defense guarantee has deformed South Korean policy. Today the ROK enjoys a GDP around 40 times that of the North, population twice as big, and vast technological and international lead. Yet the South has continued to underinvest in the military.

U.S. policy has had a similarly perverse effect on Japan. American military support has left Tokyo as a geopolitical dependent, vulnerable to its potentially aggressive neighbors, both North Korea and China.

Finally, America’s dominant regional role has encouraged China to manipulate the instability created by the North. Washington’s ill-disguised effort to contain the PRC, which would be aided by the South’s absorption of the DPRK, reinforces China’s commitment to preservation of the Kim regime even at cost of the North’s denuclearization.

America should end its defense guarantees and withdraw its troops from South Korea and Japan. Disengagement would transform the region’s dynamics.

First, the North would face a significantly reduced threat environment. America’s alliance with the South encourages the North to maintain an oversize military establishment, highlighted by WMDs.

Second, North Korea’s neighbors would be accountable for the results their own policies toward Pyongyang. They no longer could rely on the United States to underwrite their defenses, subsidize their actions, restrain their adversaries, and mitigate their mistakes.

Third, the United States would find it easier to improve relations with North Korea from a distance. Washington should initiate bilateral discussions intended to open low-level diplomatic relations, create selected economic opportunities, and offer expanded ties if the North responds positively. While transformation via engagement is a long-shot, transformation via coercion has failed.

As I point out on Forbes online:  “North Korea is Northeast Asia’s biggest security problem. But it is not—or at least should not be—America’s security problem.” The Korean Peninsula should be left to the Koreas and their neighbors.

Jason Bedrick

It’s looking more and more like the Year of Educational Choice each week.

Yesterday, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed a bill expanding eligibility for the state’s pioneering education savings account (ESA) law to all students living on Native American tribal lands. The ESAs were originally limited to students with special needs, but the state subsquently expanded eligibility to include students in adoptive care, students with an active-duty military parent, siblings of an ESA recipient, and students zoned to a district school rated D or F.

On the same day, Nevada became the third state this year to adopt a new educational choice law in both legislative chambers, behind Mississippi and Arkansas. In addition, the Montana Senate recently voted to create a new scholarship tax credit (STC) law, and Alabama Senate voted last week to expand the state’s existing STC law.

Nevada’s Assembly Bill 165 creates a STC law. Corporate donors will be able to receive tax credits for contributions to nonprofit scholarship organizations that aid low- and middle-income students attend the school of their family’s choice. The scholarships can be worth up to $7,755 in the first year, which is significantly less than the average $9,650 cost per pupil in Nevada’s district schools.

Governor Brian Sandoval is likely to sign the legislation.

Unfortunately, the law will help very few students attend their school of choice. The total amount of tax credits available is limited to only $5 million in the first year, or about 0.14 percent of statewide district school expenditures. Following Arizona, Florida, and New Hampshire, Nevada lawmakers wisely included an “escalator clause” allowing the total amount of credits to grow by 10 percent each year. However, assuming an average scholarship of $5,000 (significantly lower than the law allows), there would only be sufficient funds for 1,000 students in the first year, which is the equivalent of about 0.2 percent of statewide district school enrollment. Even with the escalator clause, very few students will be able to receive scholarships without the legislature expanding the available credits.

To learn more about how scholarship tax credit laws expand educational freedom and benefit students, see the Cato Institute’s recent short film, “Live Free and Learn”:


Ilya Shapiro

Libertarians are by definition individualistic, and so the sorts of debates you often hear at their gatherings often revolve around questioning someone’s ideological bona fides or debating how much libertarians should get involved in the messy, compromise-filled world of politics. Rand Paul’s formal entry into the 2016 presidential campaign crystallizes both of these discussions – and David Boaz offers thoughtful perspectives on whether Paul is a real libertarian and whether a libertarian-leaning politician can win the GOP nomination.

But another way of framing that debate is to approach it from the perspective of those who are comfortably on “the Right” but without fully labeling themselves either conservative or libertarian. Frank Meyer, father of longtime Federalist Society president Eugene Meyer, launched such a “fusionist” project in the pages of National Review. Half a century later, another NR writer, Charlie Cooke, has issued a Conservatarian Manifesto (which I’ve reviewed for a forthcoming issue of the Cato Journal). 

So is Rand Paul that magical candidate who can finally “unite the right” in this manner? We’ve seen glimpses of that possibility, and two years ago, I penned an op-ed with my social-conservative friend Francisco Gonzalez of the James Madison Institute (Florida’s leading free-market think tank) that posited that Paul “can shape the future of conservatism”:

As a libertarian and a traditional conservative, we disagree with Paul on a number of issues. Yet we both see his constitutional conservatism as auguring a future in which social tolerance, fiscal temperance and a humbler role for government are pursued not as ends in themselves but because that’s the best path… .

1. Its social policy will focus primarily on protecting freedom of conscience in an increasingly pluralistic society, while undoing the excesses of the drug war and punitive sentencing for nonviolent crime… .

2. This new conservatism will align with the ideas of governors such as Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, who are fighting battles for domestic policy reform… .

3. We also need to unwind our military engagements while maintaining flexibility in a rapidly changing world… .

4. Finally, conservatives should consider comprehensive immigration reform that would allow skilled and unskilled workers to seek their American dream while granting parole, not amnesty, to those hard-working migrants now here illegally.

Of course, this vision may come to fruition even if Rand Paul doesn’t win his party’s nomination. Save social-conservative populists like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, all of the GOP contenders offer something for socially liberal, fiscally conservative voters. For that matter, one could argue that Ted Cruz is even more libertarian than Rand Paul but is just positioning himself differently – but I’ll leave that parlor game for the next Cato happy hour.

In any event, if Ronald Reagan was right that “the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism,” then the Republican Party seems to be moving (back?) towards conservatism’s heart. After all, this is its most libertarian field since Calvin Coolidge was essentially unopposed for the nomination in 1924. That may not be saying all too much, but it’s a hopeful step for those libertarians who do care to engage in major-party politics.

Adam Bates

A few weeks ago, a New York judge ruled that the Erie County Sheriff’s Office had inappropriately denied a freedom of information request from the NYCLU regarding the office’s use of Stingray cell phone trackers.  The judge ordered the sheriff to release the documents that had been inappropriately withheld.

Yesterday, the sheriff complied and the documents prove exactly what transparency and civil liberties advocates have been arguing: these devices are often deployed in complete secrecy and with no judicial oversight.

Per the NYCLU press release:

The Sheriff’s Office used Stingrays at least 47 times between May 1, 2010, and October 3, 2014, including to assist other law enforcement departments like the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office. It appears that the office only obtained a court order in only one of those 47 circumstances, in October 2014, and even in that case it was not a warrant but a lower level court order (called a “pen register” order). This contradicts what the sheriff said to a local reporter and undermines what he said to the legislature – that this device is being used subject to “judicial review.”

Further, the federal government is directly complicit in this secrecy, forcing law enforcement agencies to sign non-disclosure agreements in exchange for use of the devices.  The agreements forbid participating law enforcement agencies from disclosing the nature of these devices, even to judges and defense attorneys.  The agreement even contains provisions giving the FBI the authority to compel prosecutors to drop criminal cases rather than reveal the Stingray use to the court.

From the non-disclosure agreement:

In addition, the Erie County Sheriff’s Office will, at the request of the FBI, seek dismissal of the case in lieu of using or providing, or allowing others to use or provide, any information concerning the Harris Corporation wirelesss collection equipment/technology, its associated software, operating manuals, and any related documentation (beyond the evidentiary results obtained through the use of the equipment/technology), if using or providing such information would potentially or actually compromise the equipment/technology. This point supposes that the agency has some control or influence of the prosecutorial process.  Where such is not the case, or is limited so as to be inconsequential, it is the FBI’s expectation that the law enforcement agency identify the applicable prosecuting agency, or agenices, for inclusion in this agreement.

This is not just idle boilerplate.  Although that provision of the agreements has until now been redacted, civil liberties advocates have long assumed its existence based on several instances of serious criminal charges being dropped when scrupulous defense attorneys or judges start inquiring into how police were able to locate suspects. Perhaps more troubling, the conditional nature of that provision implies that police and prosecutors can use information gleaned from these devices unless the judge or opposing counsel asks the right questions to expose the Stingray use.  That implication raises a troubling question: how often has evidence from illicit Stingray use been allowed to stand because neither the judge nor the lawyer knew what to look for?

A legitimate justice system requires transparency and accountability.  It requires checks and balances and respect for the rule of law. With every revelation about the widespread and unfettered use of cell site simulators by police, it becomes more clear that this program flies in the face of our cherished principles of justice.


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

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.”

It seems like the Obama Administration is a bit behind the times when it comes to today’s announcement that it will start a new initiative to focus on the health effects of climate change.

There is no need for the White House to outlay federal resources for the time and effort that will be involved—we have already done it for them (and, undoubtedly, for a minuscule fraction of the price)!

Two and a half years ago, we released a publication titled “ADDENDUM: Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States” that basically was a non-government-influenced look at how climate change would likely impact the United States in the future, based a lot on current trends in climate and society. We titled it an “ADDENDUM” because the U.S. Global Change Research Program, back in 2009, released a similarly titled report that was so incomplete that, well, it needed an addendum. We knew the government wasn’t going to supply one, so we produced one ourselves.

In our report (available here), we included a chapter on human health. Here are the key messages from that chapter:

  • The health effects of climate change on the United States are negligible today, and likely to remain so in the future, unless the United States goes into precipitous economic and technological decline.
  • Death certificate data indicate that 46 percent of all deaths from extreme weather events in the United States from 1993-2006 were from excessive cold, 28 percent were from excessive heat, 10 percent were from hurricanes, 7 percent were from floods, and 4 percent were from tornadoes.
  • Over the long term, deaths from extreme weather events have declined in the United States.
  • Deaths in the United States peak in the colder months and are at a minimum in the warmer months.
  • In U.S. cities, heat-related mortality declines as heat waves become stronger and/or more frequent.
  • Census data indicate that the migration of Americans from the cold northern areas to the warmer southwest saves about 4,600 lives per year and is responsible for three to seven per cent of the gains in life expectancy from 1970-2000.
  • While the U.S. Global Change Research Program states that “Some diseases transmitted by food, water, and insects are likely to increase,” incidence of these diseases have been reduced by orders of magnitude in the United States over the past century, and show no sign of resurgence.

We effectively show that if you want to focus on the health of Americans, there is no need to bring climate change into the equation—especially if you are hoping to find negative impacts (which appears to be the goal of the Administration).

Scads of new science–on everything from heat-related mortality, to asthma, to extreme weather–continues to support that general conclusion.

Of note is that accompanying today’s White House announcement is an announcement from the USGCRP that it has produced its own reportThe Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment.”

Based on loads of past experience with the USGCRP, we can only imagine the worst.

Public comments on this draft of the USGCRP report are due on June 8, 2015. It’s on our calendar.

Peter Van Doren

Why do poor parents have children who also grow up to be poor? One possible reason is that poor families do not have access to credit that would allow parents to invest more in the improvement of the human capital of their children. The conventional policy recommendation for this diagnosis is to increase transfers to poor families in order to remove their credit constraints.

The expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)—which uses the tax system to transfer money to low-income households—has been shown to increase standardized test scores. But critics of this research argue that factors unobservable to researchers but correlated with EITC receipt are responsible for children’s success, not the EITC transfers themselves.

Increasingly, economists use clever research designs that involve an element of random assignment, much like clinical trials of new pharmaceuticals, to provide more conclusive evidence of a program’s effectiveness or ineffectiveness. Recently, three researchers used a policy change in Chicago to test the effects of a change in housing subsidies.

Unlike many other welfare programs, housing subsidies are not given to everyone who qualifies for them, but are handed out on the basis of availability. In 1997, for the first time in 12 years, Chicago accepted applications for housing vouchers. About 82,000 people applied out of 300,000 poverty households in Chicago at the time. The applicants were randomly assigned a position in the waiting list. The first 35,000 on the list were told their number and that they would be offered a voucher within three years. The rest were told that they would not receive vouchers.

By 2003, 18,000 of the first 35,000 applicants had received vouchers. The Chicago Housing Authority had issued as many vouchers as it could fund, and stopped offering any new vouchers.

In a study I review in my “Working Papers” column in the current Regulation, Brian Jacob, Max Kapustin, and Jens Ludwig examine the outcomes 14 years later for children whose families “won” the Chicago housing vouchers versus the children of families that were told they would not receive a voucher. Families that won the lottery received a very large positive income shock—the equivalent of $12,000 a year—relative to the average income in the sample ($19,000 a year). If income alone allows families to improve the human capital in their children, we should see results from this experiment. 

The authors find very few effects on schooling, crime, or health outcomes—and none were significant. “Our estimates imply that extra cash transfers beyond the current level provided in the United States are likely to have a smaller impact per dollar than the best-practice educational interventions explicitly designed to improve children’s human capital,” they write. Their results are consistent with the findings of sociologist Susan Mayer, who concluded in her 1997 book What Money Can’t Buy (Harvard University Press) that there is “little reason to expect that policies to increase the income of poor families alone will substantially improve their children’s life chances.”

David Boaz

As Sen. Rand Paul announces his presidential candidacy, I’ve been talking about it in the media. At the Daily Beast, I write about his chances:

The Republican base may be divided into establishment, tea party, Christian right, and libertarian wings. Paul starts out with a strong base in the libertarian wing, which gave his father, Rep. Ron Paul, 21 percent of the Iowa caucus vote and 23 percent of the New Hampshire primary in 2012. With his strong opposition to taxes and spending and his book “The Tea Party Goes to Washington,” he’s also well positioned for the tea party vote. His pro-life views will make him acceptable to religious conservatives as the field narrows.

The wild card may be who can attract voters who don’t usually vote in Republican primaries. Paul’s stands on military intervention, marijuana, criminal justice reform, and the surveillance state give him a good shot at getting independents and young people to come out for him….

After the 2012 election Los Angeles Times columnist James Rainey wrote that the country is mildly “left on social issues and right on economics…. a center-libertarian nation.”

No other candidate is trying to appeal directly to that center-libertarian vote. That’s the big new idea that Rand Paul will test.

At Newsweek (no longer part of the same company as the Daily Beast!) I write about Paul’s libertarianish views:

He told a Harvard audience that he’s “libertarian-ish” and wants “a libertarian influence in the Republican Party.” He told Sean Hannity on Fox that he’s happy to be called “either libertarian conservative or constitutional conservative.”…

His recent comments on gay marriage—“personally offended” and “moral crisis”—created a libertarian backlash. Unlike Paul, most libertarians support abortion rights. But voters for whom abortion and gay marriage are deal-breakers aren’t likely to be voting in Republican primaries.

Many libertarian activists have vociferously objected to Paul’s foreign policy moves. His endorsement of U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State (ISIS), his signing Senator Tom Cotton’s letter aimed at derailing negotiations with Iran and his endorsement of a $190 billion increase in Pentagon spending (with cuts in other spending to pay for it) reinforced his libertarian opposition.

But conservative writer Michael Brendan Dougherty says libertarians should understand that Paul is “inching” the GOP in his direction: “Paul often offers rhetorical hostility instead of sanctions, sanctions instead of conflict and limited constitutionally authorized conflict instead of open-ended war.” Sort of a Fabian approach to non-interventionism….

Paul doesn’t claim to be a libertarian, and he takes positions that many libertarians disagree with. But on a broad range of issues, from spending and regulation to government spying, drug wars and military intervention, he has a more libertarian policy agenda than any major candidate in memory.

I told Mara Liasson at NPR something similar:

“I think Rand Paul is the most libertarian major presidential candidate that I can remember seeing,” said Boaz, whose new book is called The Libertarian Mind, “so it tells you that there is a constituency that wants this more libertarian approach.”

Al-Jazeera did a nice summary of a point I made:

Boaz too said that Rand Paul’s candidacy represents an inflection point for the libertarian movement, with an increasing number of voters attracted to a political philosophy that is skeptical of Big Government in the wake of Wall Street bailouts, the Iraq War and the abuses of the NSA. Paul’s campaign will test how far libertarian ideas can go in the Republican Party.