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Walter Olson

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

[adapted and expanded from Overlawyered

Alan Reynolds

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neal McCluskey

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

Let’s look at the trends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tim Lynch

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

Here is an excerpt: 

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

Simon Lester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Boaz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nate Silver looked at growing libertarian sentiment back in 2011.

Ted Galen Carpenter

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

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

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

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

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

Trevor Burrus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew Feeney

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

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

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

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

A snippet: 

In a third of the cases­ where officers faced charges, prosecutors introduced videos into evidence, saying they showed the slain suspects had posed no threat at the moment they were killed. The videos were often shot from cameras mounted on the dashboards of patrol cars, standard equipment for most police departments.

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

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

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

Jonathan Blanks

Over the weekend, the Washington Post ran a front-page story on the rarity of prosecutions of police officers for on duty shootings. They teamed up with researchers at Bowling Green State University to look at the few cases in which charges were brought against officers. Since 2005, they found 54 criminal cases against police officers filed for police-involved shootings:

In half the criminal cases­ identified by The Post and researchers at Bowling Green, prosecutors cited forensics and autopsy reports that showed this very thing: unarmed suspects who had been shot in the back.

In a third of the cases­ where officers faced charges, prosecutors introduced videos into evidence, saying they showed the slain suspects had posed no threat at the moment they were killed. The videos were often shot from cameras mounted on the dashboards of patrol cars, standard equipment for most police departments.

In nearly a quarter of the cases, an officer’s colleagues turned on him, giving statements or testifying that the officer opened fire even though the suspect posed no danger at the time.

And in 10 cases, or about a fifth of the time, prosecutors alleged that officers either planted or destroyed evidence in an attempt to exonerate themselves — a strong indication, prosecutors said, that the officers themselves recognized the shooting was unjustified.

While 19 of the 54 cases they found are still pending, 21 officers were acquitted of charges and only 11 officers were convicted.

It is important to note that untold thousands of people are killed in police-involved shootings during that period. Just in Los Angeles County, California, there have been at least 409 police-involved shootings since 2010—and yet there hasn’t been a single prosecution for one since 2001.

As my colleague Matthew Feeney noted, the cell phone footage of Walter Scott’s death was integral to the officer’s firing and criminal charge Without it, South Carolina authorities may not have filed any charges, let alone murder. Indeed, even with the video, conviction is not certain.

You should read the whole Washington Post piece here. And be sure to follow @NPMRP on Twitter and PoliceMisconduct.net for updates on all kinds of police misconduct and abuse.

Doug Bandow

The Obama administration’s decision to negotiate with Tehran triggered near hysteria among U.S. politicians and pundits who advocate perpetual war in the Middle East. One complaint is that the talks failed to address Iran’s regional role.

These critics denounced Tehran’s imperial ambitions. For instance, the Foreign Policy Initiative insisted that “Iran’s drive to dominate the region has been years in the making.”

However, if Mideast domination is Iran’s long-term priority, Tehran has accomplished little. Most governments in the region oppose the Islamic regime and America has far more influence.

In war-torn Syria, Iran’s reach barely extends to the Damascus suburbs. Tehran enjoys outsized but not overwhelming influence in small, divided Lebanon.

In Yemen Tehran is loosely connected to a long-time disaffected rebel movement in a seemingly permanent civil war. Iran matters in Baghdad because George W. Bush removed Iraqi secularist Saddam Hussein, Iran’s great nemesis.

None of these connections yield much geopolitical benefit. Yet the Economist magazine warned that “Iran’s belligerent behavior in the Middle East is an increasing menace.”

Of course, no one wants Iran to have a nuclear weapon. But given the region’s hostile security environment it’s hard to blame Tehran for proceeding with a nuclear program—which actually began under Washington’s ally the Shah.

The U.S. and Britain ousted post-war Iran’s democratically elected prime minister in 1953. After the Shah’s fall in 1979 the U.S. backed Saddam Hussein’s savage invasion of Iran. Over the years, Washington imposed regime change or dismembered territories in several countries posing no threat to America.

The U.S., Turkey, and the Gulf States are attempting to oust Iran’s Syrian ally. Over the last decade successive American presidents have regularly threatened military action against Tehran. So has Israel. As Henry Kissinger once observed, even paranoids have enemies.

Of course, the existing Iranian regime is ugly, especially to its own people. However, the Islamist regime has been a cautious actor dedicated to its own survival. Tehran has done nothing nearly as disastrous in humanitarian or geopolitical terms as the Bush administration’s invasion of Iran.

Moreover, by almost every measure Saudi Arabia’s monarchy is worse than Iran’s theocracy. Riyadh allows no political opposition and suppresses all non-Sunni faiths. Saudis promoted the intolerant Wahhabist theology, funded al-Qaeda prior to 9/11, provided 15 of the 19 9/11 terrorists, and underwrote extremists in Syria.

Yet Washington is helping Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states kill Yemenis. Explained Secretary of State John Kerry:  “we’re not going to step away from our alliances and our friendships.”

Until now Yemen was a local affair. The Houthis’ grievances are purely domestic and they heartily dislike al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Even British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond acknowledged that “the Houthis are clearly not Iranian proxies.”

The conflict will be ugly. Even nominal “victory” would not likely be stable, but merely the latest round in an extended fight.

The situation is serious, but Washington policy is beyond parody. Announced Kerry, the U.S. was “not going to stand by while the region is destabilized or while people engage in overt warfare across lines, international boundaries and other countries.”

As I pointed out in Forbes, “this from a government which routinely bombs, invades, and occupies other nations. Indeed, Washington empowered Iran and created the Islamic State by invading Iraq.”

After negotiating the nuclear agreement with Iran the administration plans even more intensive military involvement in the Middle East. Reported the Los Angeles Times, “Obama administration officials are promising a major strengthening of U.S. defense commitments to Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf allies, possibly including a nuclear commitment to their security.” If reducing the potential Iranian threat actually increases America’s commitments, why bother?

Of course the Middle East would be better off without Iranian meddling in other nations’ affairs. But promiscuous U.S. military action, especially on behalf of authoritarian “allies” such as Saudi Arabia, is an even bigger problem. Washington should stay out of conflicts which are not America’s to solve.

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