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Updated: 2018-02-23T00:00:00-05:00


6 Points to Consider in the Debate About Homelessness


It's amazing what a civil rights lawsuit and some federal judicial muscle have done to force officials in California to address the vexing homelessness problem in Orange County, especially in the dreary encampments along the Santa Ana River trail. Judge David Carter excoriated county and city officials during an unorthodox court proceeding on Tuesday that produced in hours an agreement that had been elusive during weeks of wrangling. The deal lets local governments clear out the sprawling camps in exchange for providing 30-day emergency vouchers for people to stay at motels. The Orange County Board of Supervisors also announced that it will soon provide more than 300 additional beds or tents for the homeless at facilities around the county. Homelessness isn't just an Orange County problem, of course. It's a growing mess throughout California and the nation. I've seen communities of all sizes and political dispositions wrestle unsuccessfully with it for decades. Cities such as San Francisco that throw money at the problem become magnets for homelessness, with sections of the city resembling an outdoor sewer. Other communities, including Los Angeles, have tried to more aggressively roust the people sleeping under freeways, along riverbeds and in public parks. But this does little long-term good. There's a reason they are called homeless people. They have no place to live, so they just push their shopping carts somewhere else. Nothing really works and it's cost prohibitive to build enough shelters for everyone. And some of the homeless are essentially feral—they're not going to live in a shelter (especially ones that forbid drug and alcohol use) even if it's offered. Judge Carter made reference to that point: "Some will take advantage and some won't. Some who want to wander will wander. Some who want to leave will leave." While there might not be any simple solutions, there are some points that policymakers ought to consider as they wrestle with the problem: First, officials should stop doing things that make things worse. Years ago, the city of Anaheim was so insistent on "cleaning up" cheap motels that dotted Beach Boulevard that it passed a law that forbade people from living there. Residents were forced to leave every 30 days. These motels had become the last step before homelessness, so you can guess what happened. It still strikes me as an example of what not to do. Second, it's foolish to depend fully on the public sector to "fix" the problem, even though this is a legitimate area for government intervention. Governments are incapable of efficiently fulfilling even their most fundamental purposes (infrastructure, public safety, etc.). So hopefully there's a much bigger role for nonprofits and private efforts. Third, let's realize that homelessness isn't primarily a problem about a lack of homes. Jim Palmer, president of the Orange County Rescue Mission, told me that 58 percent of the people who sought services from the mission in 2016 and 2017 self-identify as having a chemical dependency. And 33 percent stated that they have a mental illness. Fourth, homeless advocates need to realize that not everyone who is upset at nearby homeless congregations is being mean. Most everyone wants these troubled people dealt with humanely. But no one has a right to set up a camp on public land or on someone else's private property. I've seen once-lovely city parks turn into disgusting and foreboding places. "It's the wild west," Palmer said about the encampments. I've had homeless people defecate and leave heroin needles on my property. There are serious crime issues. I love when charities feed the homeless, but have seen massive camps sprout in neighborhoods around food centers. The public has legitimate concerns. Fifth, we need to call out shortsighted policies when we see them. Last month, homeless activists were arrested in the city of El Cajon for feeding homeless people in a city park. City officials there justified their policies as a way to combat a hepatitis A outbreak. (Some argue that such outbreaks are cau[...]

Movie Review: Annihilation


There's one scene in Annihilation that is so hair-raisingly horrific, it's still creeping me out days after I saw the movie. I'd like to tell you about it, but of course I can't. Writer-director Alex Garland, whose first feature, the 2014 Ex Machina, was already fairly disturbing—although not in the throat-grabbing way that this picture is—has adapted a novel by Jeff VanderMeer in an unusual manner. Garland has chucked quite a bit of VanderMeer's narrative, and has chosen instead to preserve the book's atmosphere of cellular chaos and hovering dread within a new structure, and to top it off with blazing psychedelic imagery. If you can deal with the picture's crepuscular ambiguity, there's a lot to look at here, and quite a bit to think about (or at least puzzle over). The story is set in Florida many years after a meteor (or other outer-space thingy) came plummeting down out of the sky and landed on or in a coastal lighthouse. This turned the surrounding swamplands into Area X—a no-go zone surrounded by a swirling, gelatinous substance now known as The Shimmer. The government has sent 11 investigative teams into Area X to find out what's up, but none of their members have returned. Until now. One night, an army sergeant named Kane (Oscar Isaac), a long-missing member of the most recent infiltration group, surprises his wife, Lena (Natalie Portman), by suddenly turning up in their home, unannounced and acting very oddly. Almost immediately, he and Lena are snatched by government operatives and transported to a secret lab facility, where team number 12 is being readied to take another crack at penetrating The Shimmer—and this time maybe living to tell about it. Being a biologist (who also spent seven years in the army and so knows her way around weapons), Lena is able to insinuate herself into this latest team, joining a physicist (Tessa Thompson), a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an anthropologist (Tuva Novotny) and a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez). When they step through The Shimmer into Area X, they find that it's a dark playground of unbridled mutation, filled with inter-species hybrids and malignant vegetation. We see a pair of deer with flowering branches where their antlers ought to be, and, at an abandoned army base, a cluster of dead bodies, eerily upright and half-transformed into trees themselves. There's an attack by a mutant alligator the size of a mid-range Mazda, some startling internal body horror, and, as noted up at the top, much worse. Garland has a poetic touch with these alarming images—which makes them all the more alarming, naturally—and he's abetted by the movie's brilliant soundtrack, which combines a weird, smeary score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury (both Ex Machina veterans) with the rumbling inventions of sound designer Glenn Freemantle. I hope there was a little something extra in all of their pay packets after this production wrapped. Not all of the women on the team make it out of Area X alive, of course. One of them has her face ripped off—another ghastly highlight—and one gets to narrate her own demise ("My flesh moves like liquid…my mind is cut loose"). The movie's conclusion is a conceptual blowout of such a spectacular nature that one is tempted to defy cliché and compare it to the celebrated ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I see no choice but to succumb to that temptation. Annihilation is a beautiful film, gracefully paced and filled with original imagery. But it's also fairly inscrutable. What's really going on in Area X? There are no solid answers, only possibilities. Which could be a problem. Following a poorly received test screening last summer, two of the movie's producers reportedly started butting heads. One of them, David Ellison, wanted the picture overhauled to make it more commercial. The other, Scott Rudin, who had final say in the matter, refused to make any changes. And so here we are. And here it is. Place your bets, fantasy fans. [...]

The Federal Government's Finances Are a Total Wreck


The federal government's latest financial statements came out last week and they paint a dire picture of our nation's fiscal health. It's not just the annual deficit, which is too large and growing. The new report shows trillions in long-term liabilities that could burden the country for years to come. And it suggests that financial management in large government agencies, like the Department of Defense, is appallingly poor. The federal government reports assets of $3.5 trillion and liabilities of $23.9 trillion yielding a negative net position of $20.4 trillion. Although this last amount is similar in size to the national debt, net worth is conceptually different. Federal audited financial statements use accrual accounting, which means that obligations are recognized as they are incurred. For example, the $23.9 trillion in liabilities includes $7.7 trillion in veterans benefits and retirement benefits earned by federal civilian employees. Another $200 trillion in liabilities arise from various guarantees the government has made, including its commitment to backstop private pension plans—many of which are becoming insolvent. But the biggest federal liabilities of all do not appear on the government's balance sheet. According to a supplemental schedule, the federal government has $49 trillion in Social Security and Medicare liabilities. Although these retirement obligations are just as politically sacrosanct as federal employee pensions and federal guarantees for private pension systems, they receive very different accounting treatment. If these obligations were placed on balance sheet where they belong, the government's negative net position (i.e., its unfunded debt) would balloon to $69 trillion—well over triple the nation's $19 trillion gross domestic product. As the accompanying chart shows, the federal government's net position has been deteriorating throughout the 21st century. The only apparent bright spot occurred in 2010 when actuaries bumped down Medicare liabilities amidst optimism about Obamacare's prospects for reining in medical costs—a hope that has not fully panned out. The big spike between 2003 and 2004 was largely the result of George W. Bush's unfunded Medicare prescription drug benefit. Although the government's fiscal year 2017 deficit was an already alarming $666 billion, its balance sheet net position worsened by over $1.1 trillion. Social insurance obligations increased a further $2.3 trillion. So, while the government added less than $700 billion in red ink during fiscal year 2017 on a cash basis, the total bleeding in accrual terms was closer to $3.4 trillion. Just as accountants and regulators insist that corporations use accrual accounting to properly inform investors about their financial condition, we should have similar expectations for sovereigns such as the federal government. Even worse, the chart doesn't include all federal liabilities. Government financial statements exclude $5 trillion in outstanding mortgage backed securities issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. These Government Sponsored Enterprises (GSEs) were placed under federal conservatorship during the financial crisis. Although the federal government owns 79.9% of each of these entities and would undoubtedly cover any shortfalls they experience with taxpayer money (as they did in 2008), their liabilities are not consolidated onto the federal government's balance sheet. Finally, it is worth noting that the 2017 federal financial statements—incomplete as they are—received a negative audit opinion, as they do every year. Specifically, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) acting in its role as the federal government's CPA concluded: The federal government is not able to demonstrate the reliability of significant portions of the accompanying accrual-based consolidated financial statements as of and for the fiscal years ended September 30, 2017, and 2016, principally resulting from limitations related to certain material weaknesses in internal con[...]

Stossel: Supreme Court Ruling May Crush Unions


Monday the Supreme Court hears a case that could block unions from forcing government workers to pay union dues.

John Stossel was forced to pay union dues when he worked at CBS and ABC, and he says government workers should have the right to choose whether to pay. Of course, that would weaken the power of union leaders.

Teacher Rebecca Friedrichs says their power should be weakened. She tried to fight people she calls "bullies" at the California Teachers Association. She was trying to save some teachers' jobs during the last recession by getting all her fellow teachers to take a slight pay cut.

She says the teachers were willing to take a cut–to save jobs, but the union would not even allow her to survey the other teachers.

So Rebecca decided she no longer wanted to pay union dues. She sued the California Teachers Association and her case went all the way to the Supreme Court. Observers said Rebecca was likely to win.

But then Justice Antonin Scalia, who would likely have ruled in her favor, died. Without him, the case tied 4-4; that meant the union won.

Now, Scalia has been replaced by Neil Gorsuch, and the court will hear a nearly identical case next week brought by plaintiff Mark Janus.

The union being sued is America's largest government workers' union, The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Their Director of Research and Collective Bargaining, Steven Kreisberg, tells John Stossel it would be unfair for the court to make public-sector unions like his "right to work."

Kreisberg suggests that the plaintiff "simply doesn't want to pay [dues] because he'd like to get those [union] services for free."

Stossel asked Friedrichs about that. Her answer: "I never asked for [union] representation...I don't see it as a benefit...the benefits aren't worth the moral costs."

By "the moral costs," she means the harm in supporting a union that she thinks harms kids and teachers with their bad policies.

Stossel says he hopes the court will make government-worker unions "right to work," because forcing someone to pay for something they don't want is tyranny.

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Should Infrastructure Spending Be State, Local or Federal?


With the Trump administration's proposal to add $200 billion of federal funding for transportation projects over the next decade, there's a renewed debate about whether we should raise the federal gas tax. One side makes the argument that a 25-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax is needed and long overdue; the other side says the hike would cost consumers $71 billion, or 60 percent of the expected gains from the recent tax cuts. But neither side is asking a more fundamental question: Should the federal government be involved in infrastructure spending at all? Yes, it is true that the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon hasn't been raised since 1993. It is also true that when adjusted for inflation, it has less purchasing power now. It is also correct that the gas tax hasn't been enough to cover the annual amounts that Congress has authorized to be spent on transportation infrastructure in recent years. But it doesn't follow that the only acceptable policy option would be to hike the federal gas tax rate to cover frivolous overspending. An alternative would be to refrain from spending money we don't have, but that's a crazy thought in the D.C. swamp, where interest groups are rewarded with spending programs, whether they are paid for or not. A better solution would be to return all public funding to state and local governments, where it belongs anyway. In a report titled "Who Owns U.S. Infrastructure?" the Cato Institute's Chris Edwards notes that 98 percent of U.S. streets and highways are owned by state and local governments. Indeed, contrary to common belief, most infrastructure projects are local in nature. And if they own the assets, state and local governments should also pay for them. Also, if they want to expand or maintain their infrastructure, they should go to their own taxpayers to raise the money based on the merits of the projects. According to data from the American Petroleum Institute, unlike the federal rate, the average state gas taxes have gone up since 1994, from roughly 21 cents to 33 cents. In other words, states do not seem to have an issue with raising taxes for given projects. State and local governments could also issue debt—which, sadly, is made easier by the tax exemption on municipal bond interest. Finally, they could go to the private sector for a public-private partnership. All of those options would make those who spend money on infrastructure more accountable to those paying for it. Those options would also make more sense than the current system, which collects money in the state and sends it to the federal government, where bureaucrats take their cut before sending the money back to the states via politically designed formulas. Unfortunately, people tend to be attached to the way things are, or, more accurately, to the idea they have of how the system functions. The truth is that it's been decades since the system has actually operated the way people think. For instance, the idea was that the tax would act as a "user fee," in the sense that those using the roads financed by the fund would effectively pay for it. But it's hardly the case, as general funds have been raided over the years to cover all the spending. Also, as is often the case with government programs, the Highway Trust Fund expanded to cover transit and other parochial projects that did not benefit the nation as a whole and certainly didn't respond to the "user fees" model. With that expansion came additional increases in the gas tax—including one from 4 cents to 18.4 in 1993—until further attempts to increase it became politically unpopular. Now is the time to rethink the way we fund our infrastructure. The best place to start would be to end the federal gas tax and let state and local governments raise and spend their own money for their own projects. That would behoove them to make the case to their taxpayers for what they really need, and it would free them from many of the tedious strings that [...]

After Pablo Escobar: Murder, Chaos, and the Failure of U.S. Drug Policy in Colombia


"The whole premise of the war on drugs is that if you focus on the supply side, you'll solve all of the U.S.'s problems with problematic drug use," says Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. But "no matter how much money you put into fighting organized crime, there are always going to be new leaders ready to step into the shoes of those who've been arrested."

The failure of that supply-side approach is an overarching theme in McFarland's new book, There Are No Dead Here: A Story of Murder and Denial in Colombia. It recounts the bloody aftermath of cocaine trafficker Pablo Escobar's death, when the Colombian military, surviving drug lords, left-wing terrorists, and paramilitary groups vied for power. Focusing on three individuals who helped expose the atrocities and win justice, the book examines the impact of U.S. intervention in Colombia's drug trade.

Before joining the Drug Policy Alliance last September, McFarland spent over a decade as a drug policy analyst at Human Rights Watch.

Reason's Nick Gillespie sat down with McFarland recently in New York City

Edited by Mark McDaniel, graphics and introduction by Todd Krainin.

Music: Modem by Kai Engel. All music licensed under Creative Commons. (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US.)

Photo credits: JAIVER NIETO/El Tiempo de Colombia/Newscom, Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Newscom, Tracy Barbutes/ZUMA Press/Newscom.

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Searching for Gun Violence Solutions That Don't Collectivize Punishment


Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, and David French, a senior editor at the conservative National Review, probably differ on most domestic-policy issues. But on one particular gun-control measure, they clearly agree. French wrote about the measure last week, in the wake of the heinous school massacre in Parkland, Florida. McAuliffe pitched the idea with regard to domestic abusers two and a half years ago in a news conference. They're both right. It's called a gun violence restraining order (GVRO), or sometimes a gun violence protective order. It's based on a familiar model: the domestic restraining order. As the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence explains, GVROs "allow families and household members, as well as law enforcement officers, to petition a court to remove a person's access to guns if he or she poses an imminent danger to self or others." The Parkland massacre makes the utility of GVROs excruciatingly obvious. The FBI now concedes that it failed to act on a tip about the shooter from someone who found the shooter's behavior, gun ownership, and social media posts disturbing. But even if the FBI had acted, it might not have been able to prevent the shooting: You can't throw somebody in jail simply for behaving erratically. Sadly, this is not a new story: Seung-Hui Cho exhibited numerous warning signs before committing the massacre at Virginia Tech. The man who killed more than two dozen people in Sutherland Springs, Texas, had escaped from a mental facility and tried to carry out death threats, among other red flags. The perpetrator of the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando had a long history of troubling behavior and acted so bizarrely in a gun store that the owner said he called the FBI. Friends of the man who killed nine people in a black church in Charleston say he had threatened to shoot up a school the week before. Acquaintances of the man who killed 13 people at Fort Hood said he was a "ticking time bomb" and complained that their superior officers ignored clear warning signs. A Connecticut investigation found that the perpetrator of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School exhibit clear "warning signs" that the school district and others "missed opportunities" to address. Not every mass killer gives off an air of impending menace. The perpetrators of the shootings in San Bernardino and Las Vegas did not telegraph their intentions. But most mass killers often display a clear set of similar warning signs: social isolation, depression, narcissism, resentment, a sudden fascination with firearms, and so on. When an individual raises fears that he might do something horrible, a GVRO gives friends, neighbors, family, and authorities a means of preventing a nightmare. The other advantage of GVROs, as French notes, is that they do not constitute "collective punishment." The vast majority of gun owners in the U.S. will never hurt anyone, so they naturally bristle at the idea that they should be forced to give up their rights because a minuscule percentage of others abuse those rights. (And the percentage truly is minuscule: 73 million Americans own a firearm; 5 million Americans own an AR-15. As the Richmond-based Fourth Circuit Court has noted, "in 2012, the number of AR- and AK-style weapons manufactured and imported into the United States was more than double the number of Ford F-150 trucks sold, the most commonly sold vehicle in the United States." Yet in 2014 rifles of all types, not just assault-style rifles, accounted for fewer than 250 homicides.) Collective punishment should offend not just gun owners, but any American who believes in individual responsibility and due process. And, in fact, liberals generally abhor the collective-punishment model when it is imposed in other circumstances or on other populations—e.g., on Middle Easterners and Muslims by policies such as the Trump travel ban. Fo[...]

Defending the Enlightenment


Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, by Steven Pinker, Viking, 556 pages, $35 For Immanuel Kant, the central theme of the Enlightenment—that great 18th century movement that emphasized the power of reason—was Sapere aude. This is usually translated as "Dare to know" or, more loosely, "Have the courage to use your own understanding." Enlightenment thinking engendered liberal democracies, civil liberties, free markets, religious toleration, and free speech; it helped us move out of the abject poverty, pervasive violence, and appalling ignorance that marked most of human history. In Enlightenment Now, the Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker defends those ideals, arguing that "we can apply reason and sympathy to enhance human flourishing." He also worries that many of us take for granted the Enlightenment ideals and institutions that have made our relatively peaceful and prosperous world possible. Political leaders and their intellectual fellow travelers, he warns, seek power and position by appealing to some of the less admirable "strands of human nature: our loyalty to tribe, deference to authority, magical thinking, the blaming of evildoers." In an earlier book, The Better Angels of Our Natures, Pinker showed that violence has been declining for centuries. That is clearly evidence of considerable moral progress. Pinker broadens his focus in Enlightenment Now to document the many other aspects of human flourishing that progress has made possible. For example, no country had an average life expectancy above 40 years in 1800; now the global average is above 71. In 1947, 50 percent of the world's population was undernourished; now the number is 13 percent. "The gross world product today has grown almost a hundredfold since the Industrial Revolution was in place in 1820, and almost two hundredfold from the start of the Enlightenment in the 18th century," Pinker points out. In 200 years, the rate of extreme poverty (living on less than $1.90 per day) has declined by 90 percent, with half of that decline occurring in the past 35 years. As the economist Angus Deaton once wrote, "Ever since people rebelled against authority in the Enlightenment, and set about using the force of reason to make their lives better, they have found a way to do so, and there is little doubt that they will continue to win victories against the forces of death." Pinker notes that rising incomes correlate with the growing respect for "emancipative values" such as women's equality, free speech, gay rights, and participatory democracy. In the past 25 years, the percentage of Americans who support equal rights for women and for racial and sexual minorities has grown to a majority. Similar trends are occurring throughout the world. In 1950, almost half of the world's countries had laws that discriminated against ethnic and racial minorities. By 2003, less than a fifth did. By 2016, consensual homosexuality had been decriminalized in 121 United Nations member states. It was still illegal in 73 countries, but that was down from 92 countries just a decade earlier. Pinker also demolishes intellectually fashionable eco-pessimism. Environmental problems, like other problems, are being solved by the human ingenuity unleashed by such Enlightenment institutions as science and markets. "As the world gets richer and more tech-savvy, it dematerializes, decarbonizes, and densifies, sparing land and species," Pinker writes. "As societies have become healthier, wealthier, freer, happier, and better educated, they have emitted fewer pollutants, cleared fewer forests, spilled less oil, set aside more preserves, extinguished fewer species, saved the ozone layer, and peaked their consumption of oil, farmland, timber, paper, cars, coal, and perhaps even carbon." As poor countries get richer, expanding forests and falling levels of p[...]

Doe-Eyed Youngsters for My Preferred Policies


We're seeking wisdom from the mouths of babes, these days. So I asked my 12-year-old son if the country would be a better, safer place if the government tried to disarm some or all Americans to reduce violent crime. "I think that would have the opposite effect," he said. "The fewer people who are armed, the fewer people there would be to fight against criminals." So there we have it: the launch of Pre-Teens Against Infringements of the Right to Self-Defense, right here in my living room. If you're less than bowled over by my son's insights, you're forgiven. He's short on experience and incompletely developed in his analytic skills. He also is one person, offering an opinion heavily colored by his parents' views and the particular American subculture in which he's raised. There's no logical reason why his participation in the discussion—which his mother and I encourage as a stepping stone to full engagement in the world around him—would be more convincing than the arguments of pundits, criminologists, and philosophers, just as there's no logical reason to pay special attention to the teens now calling for more-restrictive gun laws in the wake of the Parkland shooting. There's no logical reason that is—but we keep conscripting the tykes into political disputes in an effort to end debate, not advance it. Take, for example, the debate over abortion, where conservative pro-life activists regularly bring their children to protests in hopes of intensifying the emotional appeal of their cause. "Across the U.S., kids of all ages are woken up early on Saturday mornings and brought to local abortion clinics to protest with their parents," Jenavieve Hatch wrote for the Huffington Post this past September. "While anti-abortion leaders see children as an integral part of their protesting strategies, abortion rights advocates see young people being used as pawns to harass women making private health care decisions." Hatch describes a former child participant in anti-abortion demonstrations, now grown, as wishing "her parents hadn't pushed her so hard to actively participate in a cause she didn't quite understand at the time." Of course kids don't fully comprehend causes into which they're drafted by adults. They haven't yet entirely developed the skills, let alone the perspective, to completely grasp the consequences of changing laws and threatening people with enforcement. Most adults don't know the historical records of the policies they favor, or the potential trade-offs and dangers inherent in legally favoring one set of values over another, and in the face of resistance. Expecting kids to rise to the occasion is asking a lot. "These young people are at an age that they haven't actually lived long in the life to experience the competing issues that adults have to confront in their lifetime," the premier of the Australian state of Tasmania complained in response to kids hauled in as props at an anti-abortion protest. So why are kids pulled into these debates by adults? That's easy. Kids are pulled into political discussions by adults who want to trump debate and shame their opponents into acquiescence. Adults—most of us—are hardwired to protect children, which causes some awkwardness on the path to grinding their policy prescriptions to dust. British researchers have noted that Charles Darwin "originally pointed out that there is something about infants which prompts adults to respond to and care for them which allows our species to survive," and described their own discovery that part of the brain "is specifically active within a seventh of a second in response to (unfamiliar) infant faces but not to adult faces." Teens might lie on the outer limits of that protective instinct, but most of us still hesitate to engage them as readily and ferociously as we would go after other adults in a heated [...]

Supreme Court Case Could Spell End of Mandatory Public Sector Union Dues


If your workplace is a union shop, are you forced to pay union dues? Next week,* the Supreme Court will hear arguments about that. When I worked at CBS and ABC, I was ordered to join the American Federation of Radio and TV Artists. That union had won a vote that gave them the right to speak for all reporters. I said, "I'm no 'artist.' I'm a reporter! I won't join!" But my bosses said they couldn't pay me unless I did. In right-to-work states, unions can't force people to join. But only 28 states are right to work. Aging socialist bureaucracies like New York state are not among them. But now the Supreme Court may say that no government worker, in any state, can be forced to pay a union. "If we lose this case, the entire public sector will be right to work," warns Lee Saunders, president of AFSCME, the big government employees union. That outcome would thrill Rebecca Friedrichs. She's the teacher who filed the right-to-work lawsuit that went to the Supreme Court two years ago. Friedrichs got mad at the California Teachers Association during the last recession. Good teachers at her school were about to be laid off. She'd tried to protect them by getting all teachers to agree to a slight pay cut. "All America was taking a pay cut then," she told me. "Why should we be any different?" But her union wouldn't even allow her to survey other teachers. "They told me, Rebecca, don't worry about those teachers who were about to lose jobs... We're going to give them a seminar on how to get unemployment benefits." That was one thing that made Friedrichs angry enough to sue the Teachers Association. Three years later, the Supreme Court agreed to hear her case. Supreme Court watchers predicted that she would win. Union cheerleaders were pessimistic. Chris Hayes of MSNBC said that Friedrich's case might "decimate the way that public sector unions function." But shortly before the justices voted, Antonin Scalia died. "That was the most devastating day," says Friedrichs. Without Scalia's vote, the Court deadlocked 4 to 4. Now a new suit has been filed by government worker Mark Janus. With Neil Gorsuch now the ninth justice, unions are worried. In fact, they are so worried that AFSCME representative Steven Kreisberg agreed to do one of my YouTube interviews. "Our members... want their union to have power," he said. "It's [Janus'] right to dissent and not be a member of our union. He only has to pay the fees that are used to represent him." But what's the point of dissenting from the union if you still have to pay? Janus doesn't want to be forced to pay for something he doesn't agree with. Kreisberg replied, "I'm not sure if he doesn't agree with it, or just simply doesn't want to pay because he'd like to get those services for free." That's an argument a free-market advocate can understand: It's not fair if people freeload off others' work—getting benefits others fund. But who judges what is a "benefit"? "If I saw their representation as a benefit, I could agree with that, but I don't," Friedrichs said. "The benefits aren't worth the moral costs." Kreisberg responded, "That sounds like the words of a right-wing activist, not the words of a teacher." Janus's lawsuit points out that Thomas Jefferson wrote, "To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical." Kreisberg had a quick answer to that: "Thomas Jefferson had no sense of 21st-century labor relations." That's probably true. But some principles are eternal, like deciding what to do with your own money and not being forced to fund speech with which you disagree. The justices will announce their ruling sometime this summer. I hope that they'll side with Jefferson. Forcing people to pay for what we don't want is tyranny. COPYRIGHT 2018 BY JFS PRODU[...]

Don’t Feed the Russian Troll Hysteria


According to a federal indictment unveiled on Friday, Russians who pretended to be Americans while participating in online political discourse during the last few years committed a bunch of felonies. Whether they accomplished anything else of significance is by no means clear, notwithstanding all the scary talk about "information warfare" that supposedly undermined our democratic institutions and interfered with the electoral process. The crimes described in the indictment, which names 13 Russians associated with the so-called Internet Research Agency (IRA) in Saint Petersburg, include fraud and identity theft as well as violations of immigration law, campaign finance rules, and the Foreign Agents Registration Act. But everyone knows the real crime was, as Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch put it in Senate testimony last fall, conspiring to "sow division and discord" and "undermine our election process" by committing "an assault on democracy" that "violates all of our values." The New York Times, which last year breathlessly claimed that "Russia Harvested American Rage to Reshape U.S. Politics," reports that Donald Trump's "admirers and detractors" both agree with him that "the Russians intended to sow chaos" and "have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams." A Times editorial assures skeptics that "the Russian subversion effort" was "sophisticated" and "breathtaking" in scope. That analysis is at odds with the paper's own reporting, which describes Russian trolls as "sloppy" and "amateurish" bumblers who sounded suspiciously like foreigners while posing as Americans, left a trail that made it easy to catch them, and produced crude propaganda that amounted to a drop in the raging river of online political speech. The only thing breathtaking about this influence campaign is the hyperventilation of the alarmists who talk as if we are just a few angry tweets from the abyss. According to the indictment, the IRA 13 and their co-conspirators were so sophisticated that they had to learn the importance of targeting "purple states like Colorado, Virginia & Florida" in the context of the presidential election from an activist "affiliated with a Texas-based grassroots organization." They thought a $150 million donation to Hillary Clinton's campaign from the conservative Bradley Foundation would be a plausible hoax, and they created a Facebook ad showing Satan arm wrestling Jesus while proclaiming, "If I win, Clinton wins." It generated 71 impressions and 14 clicks. The indictment makes much of the rallies instigated by IRA operatives but never says how many people participated in them. In 2016, the Times reports, "a dozen people" attended an IRA-orchestrated "Stop the Islamization of Texas" rally in Houston, while a simultaneous counterprotest, also organized by the Russians, attracted "a far larger crowd." Two dozen? The indictment says the IRA spent "thousands of U.S. dollars every month" on social media ads. That's roughly one-millionth of the ad revenue that Facebook alone receives each month. According to Facebook, ads bought by the IRA, most of which weighed in on contentious social issues rather than endorsing or opposing candidates, represented "four-thousandths of one percent (0.004%) of content in News Feed." Twitter Acting General Counsel Sean Edgett testified in October that "the 1.4 million election-related Tweets that we identified through our retrospective review as generated by Russian-linked, automated accounts constituted less than three-quarters of a percent (0.74%) of the overall election-related Tweets on Twitter at the time." Richard Salgado, Google's senior counsel on law enforcement and information security, testified that the company found 18 YouTube channels offering about 1,100 videos with political content that were "up[...]

Poker Champion Annie Duke on Making Smart Bets in Life, Politics, and Football


"Life is poker, not chess," says Annie Duke, a former professional poker player and the author of a new book, Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don't Have All the Facts. Chess is a game of skill with "very little luck involved," while in poker good decisions and good outcomes often don't go together.

Duke cites Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll's decision in the 2015 Super Bowl to call for a pass play that was intercepted. Since the interception rate in situation like this is about one or two percent, it was a good decision that didn't work out. In football, like life, humans are prone to draw the wrong conclusions from situations involving bad luck.

"We go around and we change our decision making because we've evaluated the quality of a decision based on one outcome," says Duke. "Try and cordon yourself off from the outcome [and] recognize the uncertainty of the future."

Reason's Nick Gillespie sat down with Duke to discuss life, chess, poker, football, and why we can all benefit from exposure to dissenting opinions.

Cameras by Jim Epstein and Andrew Heaton. Edited by Austin Bragg.

Photo Credits: Jon Soohoo/UPI/Newscom, Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire/Newscom, Kevin Dietsch/UPI/Newscom, John Angelillo/UPI/Newscom, Chris Coduto/Icon Sportswire/Newscom, Shane Roper/Cal Sport Media/Newscom, Chris Wattie/REUTERS/Newscom, Charles Baus/Cal Sport Media/Newscom

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Border Bouncers Don't Need Big Brother Spying Powers Over Americans


Immigration and Customs Enforcement is reportedly trying to join the network of federal departments that can access warrantless surveillance information gathered by the spies at the National Security Agency. U.S. Customs and Border Protection is trying much the same thing. The prospect of these two law enforcement agencies gaining access to such intelligence should send chills down the spines of illegal immigrants—and all Americans. The NSA was originally handed extra-constitutional spying tools to keep an eye on foreign threats—not assist in routine law enforcement by domestic agencies. But it hasn't worked out that way. For many years, this spy agency has been sharing all kinds of information with law enforcement. It claimed that it was taking care to scrub out sensitive and private details about innocent Americans. However, since 9/11, it has come under pressure to abandon even such minimal restraint and share unfiltered information so that law enforcement doesn't miss crucial clues about burgeoning threats. Instead of resisting these demands, President Barack Obama, a constitutional law professor who should have known better, threw open the NSA's entire treasure trove of secret information to 16 agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and the Drug Enforcement Administration. However, he pointedly left out immigration enforcement agencies like ICE and CBP. But in Donald Trump, the duo has a simpatico president, which is why they have renewed their quest to join the spy community. If President Trump obliges, what information will these agencies obtain? The NSA employs tools of mass surveillance that, in theory, it is supposed to use only on foreigners outside the country. But the reality is very different, if for no other reason than we live in a digital world where information flows seamlessly across borders. Americans who correspond with any foreigner that the NSA is watching instantly become fair game. Their information is secured on servers abroad that the agency routinely taps. Emails, text messages, and vast amounts of internet data are vacuumed in. The NSA has targeted entire Yahoo and Google data centers abroad, all of which contain communication by Americans. It also intercepts and archives every cell phone call to and from the Bahamas and other Caribbean countries. It gathers millions of text messages in global information sweeps. This is not just metadata, but actual content. The NSA listens in on and records phone conversations, reads and downloads text messages, hacks into emails and copies exchanges. (In one instance, NSA agents were amusing themselves by listening to recorded conversations of Americans engaged in phone sex.) Nor does this information just sit there in untouched archives. The NSA has powerful search engines to rifle through its databases to dig up information about any American for any reason without ever obtaining a court order, basically eviscerating the Fourth Amendment's protections against illegal searches and seizures. Some agents have even used these tools to spy on their exes. The NSA gets the legal authority for such activity from Section 702 of the recently reauthorized FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) that has nominal congressional oversight but no judicial check —and the notorious Reagan-era Executive Order 12333 that has neither. In other words, the order uses executive authority to give an executive agency unchecked spying powers. Handing ICE and CBP, which have vast powers to track the physical movements of people in America, unfiltered access to this massive surveillance would be problematic under any circumstances. But it is especially so when these agencies are expanding their own internal spy[...]

After the Gun Ban


Can Americans overcome hurdles to changing this country's gun culture and the laws regulating firearms? There may be a path to accomplishing just that—but it's unlikely that anybody would like the results. Let's look back from a possible future… The strategy that gun controllers finally settled on was to shift the culture to make firearms ownership socially unacceptable. Then, legal changes would be possible. "I think we have to cleanse our culture of this false idea that guns are cool," gun opponents wrote. "Guns are not cool. Cool kids don't use guns." Others agreed, and they all pointed to an earlier example of demonizing a previously popular product. "Guns should be the new cigarettes," they insisted. Perhaps sounding a bit of a cautionary note, cigarette smoking was actually on the rise among college students who rolled their eyes at the gross old TV ads. One risk of cultural programming is that people may change the channel. But the plan to shift the culture was adopted, and it worked—sort of. That's "sort of" because, while anti-gun messages were a big hit with some media platforms, they were immediately countered by vigorous counter-efforts through opposing channels by pro-gun groups. That was something that never happened during the battles over tobacco. American culture—and media, with it--was far more fragmented than it had been in the days of unchallenged anti-smoking ads. So the anti-gun message found an audience among those who were already predisposed to listen. These were people whose politics were generally left of center, and who followed media outlets to match. The result was declining gun ownership among those who were already wary of the practice. Before the anti-gun campaign, researchers found that "44% of Republicans and independents who lean to the Republican Party say they own a gun, only 20% of Democrats and Democratic leaners say the same," but now the number of left-leaning gun owners started to fall even further. Pollsters who had found that many gun "owners associate the right to own guns with their own personal sense of freedom" were unsurprised to see them openly stockpiling weapons and ammunition in response to the cultural battle. It quickly became clear that the partisan arms gap was growing in a politically fragmented country. Conservatives and, especially, libertarians (who almost universally valued liberty over laws that threatened that liberty) owned weapons at far higher rates, and increasing, than their opponents But the cultural onslaught, ably assisted by the stumbling GOP and its internal civil war, had enough impact at the margins to affect elections. Democrats seized the White House and majorities in both houses of Congress and promised major changes to come—including on guns. Warned by experts that yet another "assault weapons" ban made no sense because "as a matter of functionality, these guns are just like other rifles. They're more powerful than some handguns and rifles, and less powerful than others," they decided to go a step further. Encouraged by Supreme Court turnover and the resulting opportunity to redefine the Second Amendment out of existence, Congress banned all semiautomatic firearms in private hands, with compensation promised in return. Many lawmakers later admitted that they never realized that semiautomatics made up maybe half of the 310 million guns estimated by the Congressional Research Service to be in private hands as of 2009. Just as important, they'd never understood that, outside of a very few jurisdictions with some sort of registration on the books, the government really didn't know who owned what guns. Even in those jurisdictions, compliance had been spotty—15 percent compli[...]

8 Attacks on Freedom, From the Left and the Right


If you look around the country today you will find that, despite the best efforts of their betters, Americans still enjoy a fair amount of freedom to do as they wish. But the nation's busybodies are on the case, and will soon take care of that. Item: Now that Republicans effectively have repealed Obamacare's individual mandate—the decree that every resident shall buy health insurance, whether he wants it or not—states are stepping in and pondering whether to impose their own. So far nine states and the District of Columbia have taken up the idea, even though less than half of Democrats favor the mandate. Item: Numerous cities are now looking with longing at rent control to keep housing costs in check. Irony alert: Many of those same cities also impose tight restrictions on land use, which limits the supply of, and therefore drives up the cost of, living space. This is an economic point so obvious even the Obama administration could see it: "The Obama administration ... is calling on cities and counties to rethink their zoning laws," Politico reported a couple of years ago, "saying that antiquated rules on construction, housing and land use are contributing to high rents and income inequality, and dragging down the U.S. economy as a whole." But why roll back regulations that raise the cost of housing when you can simply impose even more regulations to offset the effects of the first ones? Item: The majority leader of California's state Assembly has introduced legislation that would impose a fine of up to $1,000 on any waiter or waitress who offers a plastic drinking straw to a customer without being asked. The Washington Post notes that this is part of a growing anti-straw movement, which is driven by alarm over the 500 million straws that are used every single day—which is almost certainly a fake number, seeing as how it is based on an unconfirmed phone survey by a 9-year-old boy. (Yes, really.) Item: Two lawmakers in New York have introduced legislation to ban Tide Pods (those little plastic packages of laundry detergent), owing to the "Tide Pod Challenge," in which teenagers chew the things up for the delight of social media. Obviously, we don't want hundreds of children dying from such a phenomenon. Equally obviously, they aren't: From 2012 to 2017, two children died from eating detergent packets, which—as Reason's Christian Britschgi points out—is one-eighth as many children as died from swallowing batteries. Item: The Seattle Times thinks it would be swell for Washington state to follow the lead of California and Hawaii, and raise the legal age for smoking and vaping to 21. Because while you can choose to risk your life in combat at that age, you shouldn't be able to choose to risk your life with Camels. All of the preceding items reek of left-wing market interventionism and liberal nanny-statism, but conservatives often find freedom a loathsome inconvenience, too: Item: New York Times columnist Ross Douthat recently suggested that American society would be much improved if we banned pornography. This, he argues, would lead to "better men" who are not "at once entitled and resentful, angry and ... caddish ... and frustrated that real women are less available and more complicated than the version on their screen." Interesting theory—but it runs up against the reality of how men treat women in times and places where porn is hard to come by, such as America in the 1840s or Saudi Arabia today. Item: Republicans used to cheer free trade, but since Donald Trump rose to power they have turned sharply against it: 85 percent now think, wrongly, that free trade costs more jobs than it creates. Consequently, if an American choo[...]

When School Kids Lose Their Recess Time


When Donna James' fourth-grade son told her his teacher was taking his recess time away, the Fort Wayne, Indiana, dispatcher assumed this was so he'd have extra time to finish his assignments. "I was OK with it," she says. "Then one day I asked him, 'So what did you get done during recess?' And he said, 'Nothing.'" Why not? "Because she makes me stand against the wall," he answered. Welcome to the wonderful world of recess withholding. Most child development experts believe that kids need some unstructured run-around time during the day. The American Academy of Pediatrics has declared that "recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child's development and, as such, it should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons." And yet schools aren't just shrinking the number of recess minutes per day in order to shoehorn in more class time and test prep: Many allow teachers to take away recess as a form of punishment. Long Island's Patchogue-Medford School District is moving in the opposite direction. It has doubled the amount of lunch and recess time its students get from 40 to 80 minutes a day, with felicitous results: lower absenteeism and fewer disciplinary problems. "We would never take away math or reading or social studies," says superintendent Michael Hynes. "So why would we take away recess, where they learn just as much?" That sounds like heaven to Mark Sullivan, an actor/broadcaster in Westerly, Rhode Island, who still seethes when recalling the time his fifth-grader got in trouble for popping a brown paper bag. At lunch the next day, they boy's punishment was to sit at the same table as the special needs kids and not get up till recess was over. "You don't treat special needs people as the penalty box," says Sullivan. When I asked on Facebook if parents were seeing recess withheld, the answers cascaded in. "My kid misses recess most days because he has to rewrite his assignments due to poor handwriting." "Used regularly at my boys' elementary school as punishment…for using the restroom during 'non-break' times." "For not turning in a parent signature on a form." "For not filling in her reading log." "For being disruptive in class." That last reason is particularly ironic, since recess is the best way for high-energy kids to blow off some steam in order to make it through the afternoon. One teacher chimed in to defend the practice—"We work with kids who are coming to [us] from all sorts of situations. I think a lot of times, these kids need to be held accountable for poor decisions"—but most of the people who responded were parents with horror stories. Christine Davis, an organizer with Arizonans for Recess, forwarded me a front-page story from Phoenix's North Central News showing a gaggle of second graders sitting against posts. A parent snapped the photo "because district leadership was denying that recess was being withheld," she says. Davis' group tried to get individual school systems to drop the practice, which the state Department of Education had already condemned. But it struggled to achieve buy-in, so the group decided to lobby the state legislature. That body will vote on a recess mandate this spring. Other recess initiatives are underway across the country. Erin Dougherty was just elected to the Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, school board on a pro-recess ticket. "Tenacity, perseverance, sociability, all those soft skills," she says, are the ones students will need in the uncertain economy ahead. They're also the ones developed during recess. At the elementary school Shannah Pace's son attended in Plano, Texas, "the list of rules about things they couldn't do at recess was lon[...]

‘Peace Through Strength’ Is a Racket


Donald Trump has embraced the popular "peace through strength" doctrine (PTSD) with his characteristic panache: "I'm going to make our military so big, so powerful, so strong, that nobody—absolutely nobody—is gonna to mess with us," Trump has said. On other occasions he's said similar things: "We want to defer, avoid and prevent conflict through our unquestioned military strength" (same link) and, a year ago, "Nobody is going to mess with us. Nobody. It will be one of the greatest military build-ups in American history." I will acknowledge that the PTSD has surface appeal. Why not show the world the United States is so awesomely powerful that no one in his right mind would even think to get on its wrong side? It seems to make sense in a practical sort of way. Once people believe that, of course, they are softened up to accept unlimited military spending and the concomitant deficits and debt. As John T. Flynn used to say, military spending is a favorite of big-government types precisely because the conservatives won't object. Conservatives rail against even small amounts of so-called foreign aid and welfare, but they drool over monstrous sums for the armed forces and spy agencies. (Thankfully, some conservatives don't.) Progressives, by the way, are not immune to the allure of military spending. When a Pentagon budget cap was debated a few years ago, Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-South Carolina), a leading progressive and a Black Caucus leader, opposed it because he feared losing jobs in his district. Military spending thus has something for nearly everybody: strength for conservatives; economic stimulus for progressives. The conservative Keynesians like both justifications. It takes only a few minutes to see that the "peace through strength" doctrine is a racket intended (by some of its advocates at least) to gull the unsuspecting populace into supporting whatever the war party and the Pentagon want. It is handy for parrying the antimilitarist' charge that its espousers are dangerously reckless, if not outright warmongers. "We're not warmongers," they can reply. "A military second to none will prevent war and promote peace. We're the peaceniks. You doves are the promoters of war." They are also likely to quote (without knowing the source) Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus's De re militari, "If you want peace, prepare for war." Brilliant!—but the doctrine encases a racket just the same, much as "war is a racket," as the highly decorated U.S. Marine Maj. Gen Smedley Butler put it. I'd like to meet the grifter who thought it up. At least one thick book could be written on the flaws in the doctrine. I can sum them up by invoking the law of unintended consequences and the law of perverse incentives, by which I mean the well-established public-choice problems regarding policymaking and voter interest. People may have the best intentions in supporting the PTSD, but they have absolutely no reason to believe the policy would be carried out as they envision. We must expect the worse, or as David Hume charmingly wrote, "Political writers have established it as a maxim, that, in contriving any system of government, … every man ought to be supposed a knave." Had we listened to Hume, many fewer things would have gone awry. Trump's deployment of the PTSD suggests that the U.S. military isn't already powerful enough to deter an attack. But that is balderdash. The government now spends more on the military than the next 12 countries combined. The recent increase alone was bigger than Russia's entire military budget. But that is an understatement because the Pentagon budget is far from the total amou[...]

When Governments Suspend Their Own Rules


The Political Economy of Special Economic Zones: Concentrating Economic Development, by Lotta Moberg, Routledge, 192 pages, $140 All over the world, in carefully delimited areas, governments have carved out exceptions to their own rules. These special economic zones, better known as SEZs, come in many sizes and types, ranging from simple duty-free warehouses to jurisdictions the size and complexity of entire cities. Host governments typically roll back taxes, customs, and similar barriers to trade in their zones, but sometimes offer special labor, environmental, or financial regulations, too. You probably live within a short drive of an SEZ: The United States has more than 400 of them, in the form of Foreign Trade Zones. Today most countries—about 75 percent—host SEZs of some sort. Worldwide, they number well over 4,000, and if you count micro-zones, some of them no bigger than parts of buildings, over 10,000. Though the core idea runs back to ancient times (including the colonial proto-SEZs that gave rise to the United States), modern special economic zones started to emerge in 1948, when Operation Bootstrap made Puerto Rico a special trade and processing zone. A more popular model emerged in 1959, when the international airport in Shannon, Ireland, opened a special zone to accommodate transshipping and value-added processing. More recently, as with the zones that already fill China and that are planned in Saudi Arabia and Honduras, SEZs have grown to cover whole cities and areas of law. The Political Economy of Special Economic Zones casts a coolly objective eye on this latest institutional mutation to issue from the roiling competition of global trade. Its author, Lotta Moberg, a recent graduate of George Mason University's economics doctoral program and now an analyst at the investment bank William Blair & Co., finds both opportunities and challenges in their rise. As Moberg explains, politicians often have self-interested reasons to promote special economic zones. Sometimes they're merely seeking a new venue for graft. More honorably, they often hope the zones will attract investment, create jobs, and increase exports—and that voters will reward them for it. Can SEZs work such wonders? Moberg voices doubt. Her book lays out the reasons, deeply informed by public choice reasoning, why SEZs too often distort economies rather than help them grow. Politicians lack the information and incentives required to plan and run the zones well. Many become burdens to their hosts, and they can distract policy makers from broader and more essential reforms. Yet Moberg also reveals an underappreciated benefit of SEZs: Under proper conditions, they can help free an economy from pervasive rent-seeking and transition it to a more open system of market exchange. Her book concludes with insightful suggestions for how reformers can ensure zones fulfill this, their greatest potential. Among them: Make SEZs big, make them diversified, and let private parties rather than government agents choose the sites and run them. Intellectuals have been theorizing about how to run governments for almost as long as governments have been running. But SEZs offer a unique opportunity for empirical study, an opportunity that Moberg seizes. Special economic zones allow a single country to test different policies within its own borders. The popularity of America's Foreign Trade Zones, for instance, has scattered small, custom-free areas all across the country. SEZs also allow different countries to test the same policies across borders, as when Dubai imported the common law of Eng[...]

A Cure for Mass Shootings Doesn't Exist


Every time there is a mass shooting, a chorus goes up: "We must do something to keep this from happening again. We can't tolerate it any longer." Revulsion understandably creates a demand for remedies. But every time, we do nothing, to the fury of those who denounce the inaction as shameful. There is a simple explanation, though, for the inaction. It's not that the National Rifle Association is all-powerful, that too many Americans are blind to reason, or that most are complacent about wanton slaughter. It's that there are no plausible options that offer more than the faintest prospect of preventing a massacre in the next year or the next decade. Our constitutional framework was not designed to facilitate drastic government action. It was designed to prevent it in the absence of a clear and durable public consensus. In this instance, there is none. Mass shootings are a horrific problem that is peculiarly resistant to solutions. To a great extent, public policy is impotent. Until the advocates of new restrictions can make the case that they would make a difference, little is likely to happen. What answers do they offer? One is reinstituting the federal ban on "assault weapons" and high-capacity magazines that was in effect from 1994 to 2004. Another is expanding the federal background check system to cover private sales. Another is to make it easier to flag people with mental health problems and bar sales to them. These are not necessarily wrong, but they are unpromising. Though an AR-15 may be particularly useful for mass shootings, there are many substitutes that fire just as rapidly and use equally destructive ammunition. A ban on high-capacity magazines would be a puny impediment to someone like the killer in Parkland, Florida. Mass shooters, Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck told me, "always use multiple guns and/or multiple magazines, enabling them to easily fire many rounds quickly even if they had only smaller-capacity magazines. And they do not need guns that fire fast, because they do not fire fast during their crimes." The Parkland shooter had multiple magazines. A 2013 study of the 1994 law for the National Institute of Justice said, "We cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation's recent drop in gun violence." It also said, "Should it be renewed, the ban's effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement." Even if the law had any positive effect then, it would be far less likely to help today, because there are far more of these guns now. In 1994, Americans owned about 1.5 million "assault weapons." The number is now around 8 million. Restoring the 1994 law would not eliminate them. It would only block new sales—and foster new models engineered to get around the new rules. People would be able to keep and buy the "assault weapons" already out there. Background checks for private sales would make it harder for felons to acquire guns. But mass shooters have typically gotten their arms legally from licensed dealers as the alleged killer in Parkland did. Yes, it might make a difference if the United States emulated Australia by outlawing certain guns and requiring owners to surrender them. Constitutional issues aside, that sort of law couldn't be passed here—or enforced. It belongs in the realm of fantasy. Broadening the exclusion for mental health problems would mean penalizing millions of people who pose no danger. It would also deter troubled gun owners from seeking treatment. "To say no one with mental illness should have a gun—ho[...]

People Will Eat What They Want, Not What Government Prefers


This month, a pair of seemingly unrelated stories—a story about Chile's crackdown on subjectively unhealthy foods and a bill now before the U.S. Congress—make clear that the legions of do-gooders who want to compel you and others to eat just what they think you should eat are—despite their persistence—failing miserably at their jobs. In Congress, the bill in question seeks to modify and delay the FDA's menu-labeling mandate, which is part of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The bill is nothing new. It's been kicking around since at least 2012, shortly after Obamacare became law. Currently, the menu-labeling portion of that law, set to take effect later this year, would require many chain restaurants, vending-machine owners, grocers, theater owners, and others to post total average calorie information for most menu items. The bill to amend the Obamacare menu-labeling law, dubbed the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act, which passed the House last week, would allow chain restaurants to list calories per serving for menu items intended to be consumed by more than one person, and allow pizza chains and other carry-out restaurants to post calorie information online instead of in stores. It would also delay implementation of Obamacare's menu-labeling provisions for at least two years. Supporters claim the existing law would help people make better and more-informed choices, and oppose the listing of calories per-serving (rather than total calories), along with the other elements of the bill. "[W]e see from the research that actually, when consumers are given this information, they actually can make lower-calorie choices, and restaurants can also come out with lower-calorie options," Colin Schwartz, deputy director of legislative affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told CNN. Certainly people can actually "make lower-calorie choices." It's just that, with mandatory menu labeling, research shows they most often don't actually make those lower-calorie choices. "Overall, when you are looking at average consumer response to labeling, there doesn't appear to be much difference in calories purchased before and after labeling," said Dr. Jason Block, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, coauthor of a recent study on menu labeling, also in remarks to CNN. But even that's an optimistic take on the impact of mandatory menu labeling. "Research has shown that posting mandatory calorie counts on restaurant menus doesn't help people make better choices," I wrote last year. Why don't people just do what the law wants them to do? Well, maybe one reason is that dietary preferences and choices are deeply personal, and laws like this one that seek to change those habits ignore that fact. A 2016 study sheds more light on that idea. In the study, researcher Olga Kozlova looked at food choices made by people in months when they had comparatively more money available (due to lower heating costs). The study found that when low-income consumers have more disposable income, they tend to buy more of the foods they already purchase, rather than spending the additional money on healthier foods. "[I]f you were thinking—or hoping—that low-income consumers look on healthy food as a luxury that they could buy if only they could afford it, the evidence in this study doesn't seem to be in your favor," reads a New Food Economy piece on the study. That has serious implications, writes the New Food Economy's Patrick Clinton, for many people's thinking (though not my own) around po[...]

Don't Feed President Troll


"People are proud to be saying Merry Christmas again," President Donald Trump bragged, predictably, on December 24. "AP FACT CHECK: Trump on making Christmas great again," came the even more predictable reply from the Associated Press. This is no way to watchdog an administration, let alone celebrate a beloved holiday. Trump, an outsider con man who hustled his way into the most prestigious insider job in America by mastering the art of the troll, has not to date found his social media equal among the hydra-headed opposition. The president pecks out impotent bluster designed to inflame the haters, and Democrats, journalists, and establishmentarian Republicans take the bait every time. So instead of firing up the hyperbole machine after each fatuous tweet, perhaps we should work our way backward from the underlying power dynamic, asking ourselves whether the president has the means to convert his latest utterance into real policy change. One might even gently suggest that such a framework should be applied to all American politicians, not just the one who's been the most successful since July 2015. Trump's illiberal ambitions were thwarted a number of times in 2017. A week into his presidency, the administration issued a hasty and draconian travel ban, barring entry into the United States—including, amazingly, by legal permanent residents who happened to be abroad at the moment—if they originated from seven predominantly Muslim countries. This was the high-water mark to date for anti-Trump activism. Pop-up legal aid teams swarmed to scores of international airports to help bewildered travelers. Protesters, too, brought the TV cameras out. Meanwhile, a series of courts issued injunctions against the order, forcing the administration to substantially revise and improve the ban at least twice. (The third version, which includes some non-Muslim countries, doesn't affect legal residents, and is based on considerably more concrete visa-processing information, is still facing a legal challenge, though the Supreme Court stayed a pair of injunctions against it in December.) Institutions, both governmental and not, still matter. Trump has much more legal authority over who can and cannot come into the country than he does over whether shopkeepers say, "Happy holidays." That's why the first question to ask after any given Trump-blurt is What could the president do right away about this by using his executive authority? As annoying as they are in the moment, a president's comments about the cast of Hamilton being "very rude" to Mike Pence or how such-and-such journalist "should be fired" are neither sticks nor stones. The presidency, alas, has been accruing tangible administrative power and intangible public mindshare for decades. On foreign policy in particular, we still don't know how Trump will exercise his authority in response to future crises. But most of the big stuff can't get done without lawmakers. Which leads to a second question when evaluating a Trump statement: What relevant legislation might Congress pass? The most unpopular president in modern polling history is down to a 51–49 Republican majority in the Senate—a body in which 11 Republicans did not endorse him in the first place. This math helped strangle Trump's awful "border adjustment tax" idea in the crib. Meanwhile, the polls do not augur well for House Republicans. A year from now our primary worry may be what the president has in common with Nancy Pelosi. A third question that eludes too many breathless [...]

Netflix Loves the ‘90s in New Teen Comedy Everything Sucks!


Everything Sucks! Available now on Netflix. One of the most enduring cultural contributions of the Baby Boomers is the serio-comic generational-coming-of-age flick. (Whether that's a positive contribution or a cosmic banana peel is a discussion for another time and bottle of Jack Daniels.) Since American Graffiti's teenage archetypes drove off into the night toward Vietnam, the civil rights movement and K-tel hell, every generation, sub-generation and random demo (Hey, remember Generation Jones? The Bay City Rollers will never die!) has gotten a movie or TV series about its teenage years. From The Lords of Flatbush to The Wonder Years, from Pretty in Pink to Freaks and Geeks, getting older never gets old. What's interesting about this is that—except for the records/cassettes/CDs/mp3s they listened to—there doesn't to be a great deal of difference in the generations. Nerds, jocks, bullies, cool kids, bad boys, and mean girls march shoulder to shoulder through the decades in an eternal cycle of mindless oppression and hopeless sexual obsession. Toad, the Vespa-riding geek of American Graffiti, could just as easily be the reeking-of-virginity Finch in the American Pie movies. The bitch-to-the-bone Heathers of Heathers are clones (or maybe it's vice-versa) of the devious Cheerios cheering squad in Glee. Growing up is growing up. So saying that Netflix's back-to-the-'90s Everything Sucks! is derivative isn't a criticism, just an observation. Unlike ABC's Grown-ish, which swallowed The Breakfast Club and then regurgitated it whole, Everything Sucks! isn't a ripoff. But it's trapped by the parameters of the genre. There isn't much to see in it that you haven't run across before: a doomed romance not unlike the one in 16 Candles, a raucous cafeteria scene with echoes of Animal House, botched and malapropistic morning school announcements like Grease. But God knows kids who went to high school in the late 1990s deserve their chance to wallow in fuzzy nostalgia, too, especially since the two decades since they graduated have been largely comprised of economic malaise and Middle Eastern wars. So Everything Sucks! will have to do, and it does. It's funny, if not clamorously so; superbly acted, by a bunch of people you never heard of; and good-hearted, without being Hallmark-ish. You may not be screaming "Author!" at the end of every episode, but you might be smiling and thinking that 1996—existing in an age when the primary teenage use of cell phones was not to tearfully inform parents that a madman with an AR-15 was firing through the school windows—wasn't so bad. That's the year in which Everything Sucks! is set, in Boring, Oregon, which really exists even if the show's precise mise en scène, Boring High School ("Home of the Boring Beavers!") does not. Freshman geeks Luke (Jahi Di'Allo Winston, Feed the Beast), McQuaid (Rio Mangini, Nickelodeon's Bella and the Bulldogs) and Tyler (newcomer Quinn Liebling), frantically searching for protection from the terrors of high school, decide they might have a shot at the Audio-Visual Club. "It's beneath choir," notes one of them hopefully. "It's beneath Weather Club." Indeed, the AV Club turns out to be largely populated of clods and spastics whose closed-circuit TV production of the morning announcements is an ongoing technical disaster. When Luke tries to help out one of the crew, a pretty but eremitic girl named Kate (Canadian TV actress Peyton Kennedy), he peers into the viewfinder of her camera and wa[...]

Is It OK To Punch a Nazi? We Asked Berkeley Students


Is it OK to punch a Nazi? It was a hotly debated question for months after video of white nationalist Richard Spencer getting punched in the middle of an interview on the day of Donald Trump's inauguration went viral and inspired countless remixes. But the question was never really just about Nazis. It is about the acceptability of political violence. And in the following year the question came up and again and again as several high-profile political protests turn violent, including at UC Berkeley, often considered the birthplace of the free speech movement in the 60s. On February 1, 2017, the nation watched the University of California Berkeley burn as masked members of the far-left group Antifa lit fires, threw safety barriers through store windows, physically attacked people, and threw rocks at the police. The riots were sparked by the arrival of right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, who was invited to speak by a conservative student group. President Trump helped ignite the controversy by tweeting a threat to pull federal funding from Berkeley, and the event was ultimately canceled. Protests continued throughout the rest of the year as more conservative speakers were drawn to the Berkeley campus. We visited Berkeley about a year after that protest-turned-riot to ask students whether punching Nazis, or other deplorables, is ever OK. The students we talked to said that the violence was carried out almost entirely by outsiders. Antifa, short for anti-fascist, is a decentralized movement that rejects nonviolence and vows to fight whatever or whomever it identifies as fascist by any means necessary. Most of the students with whom we spoke condemned the group and its tactics, but many also sympathized with their aims and said they wouldn't blame those engaging in violence against people they deemed Nazis. But if the use of violence to counter certain ideas is acceptable, it becomes difficult to avoid a slide down the slippery slope into advocating violence against a broad array of political opponents. The response to the assault on Richard Spencer was hardly the only instance of a blase reaction to violence among the media, politicians, and celebrities. The brutal attack on Senator Rand Paul, which left him with bruised lungs and six broken ribs, was met with suggestions that he had it coming because of his libertarian views. And they haven't stopped. Putting aside the question of whether or not preemptive political violence is moral, is it actually effective? In Why Civil Resistance Works, political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan compared nonviolent and violent movements through history and found that the nonviolent ones were more than twice as effective at achieving their goals. Princeton researcher Omar Wasow found that the nonviolent protests of the early civil rights movement changed minds, while the left-wing riots in the late 60s likely tipped the presidential election in favor of Richard Nixon. And if Antifa members still want to punch so-called Nazis, they should pay attention to the work of historian Laurie Marhoefer, who studies real Nazis and says the party often rallied close to its adversaries in order to provoke them, drawing a violent reaction that swayed public opinion in its favor. Produced by Zach Weissmueller and Justin Monticello. Camera by Paul Detrick and Monticello. Music by Krackatoa, Kai Engel, and Teehoteeho available at Subscribe to our YouTube chan[...]

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Is Unaccountable. Trump’s Budget Tries to Change That.


As a result of its unique structure, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is insulated from accountability by the democratically elected branches of government. While there are efforts underway to fix this, they have so far been frustrated. Now the Trump Administration is taking another swing—this time through its proposed budget. Whether this effort will fare better than the others remains to be seen, but there is not much reason for optimism. The CFPB's insulation from democratic accountability takes two forms. First, it's headed by a single director who serves a five-year term and can only be removed for cause. Most agencies with for-cause protection are led by bipartisan commissions, where the commissioners can at least check each other to a degree; an agency led by a sole director has the ability to pursue strictly partisan goals. While some administrations may seek to exploit this opportunity, the structure also limits a president's ability to offer necessary oversight over the agency, and could potentially allow a director from a prior administration to occupy the CFPB for the entirety of a new president's term. Second, the CFPB's budget is not controlled by Congress. Instead of being funded by tax dollars subject to appropriations, the CFPB is funded from the earnings of the Federal Reserve System—in the amount the CFPB director thinks necessary (though capped at twelve-percent of the Fed's total operating expenses). The director has wide latitude to allocate those funds as they see fit. This prevents Congress from using one of its main tools—the power of the purse—to check a director's actions. While the Senate gets a say on who the director is through the confirmation process, the House of Representatives has almost no leverage with the CFPB. Yes, there is a yearly hearing where committee members get to yell impotently at the director, but the only check the House has is the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to undo a recently promulgated regulation. Neither of these opportunities provide control over enforcement actions or the director's priorities. It seemed as though the best chance to reform the CFPB's structure was through a 2015 lawsuit brought against it by PHH Corporation. PHH argued that the CFPB's structure was unconstitutional because the director was unaccountable, and therefore the agency should be shut down. In 2016 a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit agreed with PHH. Importantly, however, the Panel declined to void the CFPB. Instead they sought to cure the constitutional defect in the statute by striking the director's for-cause protections. This would mean that the director served at the pleasure of the president, and given that then-Director Richard Cordray did not please President Trump, the expectation was that he would be promptly removed. The CFPB then appealed the decision to the full D.C. Circuit, which granted the appeal and vacated the panel decision. The full D.C. Circuit recently released its opinion, which, contrary to an amicus brief filed by the Trump administration, held that the panel was wrong and that a sole director who could be fired only for cause was constitutional. While PHH could in theory appeal to the Supreme Court, that seems unlikely due to other aspects of the case. So, where does this leave the CFPB? For the time being, the director's for-cause protections a[...]

Movie Review: Black Panther


It's too bad, in a way, that we have to focus on the racial breakthrough that this movie represents—although of course we do. Here, for the first time ever, is a $200-million Marvel blockbuster that's been entrusted to a black director (Ryan Coogler), two black writers (Coogler and Joe Robert Cole), and a pair of top-shelf black production and costume designers (Hannah Beachler and Ruth E. Carter). And of course the cast—at least two of whom will emerge from this picture as bigger stars than when they went into it—is almost entirely black. Of more immediate interest, though, I'd say, is the fact that Black Panther is a ripping action flick on which a great deal of care has been expended. Kugler, best known till now for Fruitvale Station and Creed, has a gift for clarifying narrative complexities, for moving things along in a snappy manner without spinning our heads, and for balancing the story's elements of physical exhilaration and deep-seated emotion. In these regards alone, the picture is a notable achievement. The movie has pretty much everything you could want from a pulp adventure. It's largely set in a mysterious African nation called Wakanda, a place that pretends to be an impoverished Third World basket case, but is in fact a highly advanced jungle society with a very big secret. There's a commanding hero – the newly crowned King T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who shifts into combat mode as the super-suited Black Panther. There's also a stalwart lieutenant, the bald-headed warrior woman Okoye (Danai Gurira); a more comical associate named Shuri (T'Challa's genius sister, actually, played with maximum appeal by Letitia Wright); and a fetching but not-to-be-messed-with love interest named Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o). There's also a bumbling interloper from the outside world named Ross (Martin Freeman); an interestingly conflicted antagonist called Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, a master of smoldering charisma); and a homicidal lunatic named Klaue (a non-mocapped Andy Serkis), who seeks to destroy the world, or at least degrade it in a major way. Unless, of course, somebody can stop him. Coogler sets up the story with admirable economy. We see a meteor made of vibranium crashing into Africa long ago. We eventually learn that vibranium's wondrous properties enabled the rise of Wakanda and powered its highly advanced technology. Then we flash forward to 1992, to a gun deal in Oakland that goes violently wrong, and will eventually trigger even more violent repercussions in the here-and-now. The movie's production never touched down in Africa itself (it was largely shot in Atlanta and in South Korea), but the simulation presented here has an exotic fantasy glow, with the skyscrapers and elevated trains of the cleverly obscured Wakanda recalling the studio-born wonders of the 1936 futurist classic Things to Come. Director Coogler is especially adept at sidestepping the clichés of the superhero-action genre: he mounts a grippingly inventive fight at a waterfall between T'Challa and Killmonger, and an auto chase featuring the demented Klaue for which the term "hair-raising" might be honorably resurrected. And goosing all of this action along throughout is the film's terrific soundtrack, which blends a composed score by Ludwig Göransson with a raft of tailor-made tracks, overseen by Kendrick Lamar, that feature American stars like SZA and Vince Staples and stirred[...]

Lawmakers Should Avoid Rush to Ramp Up Gun Confiscations


An Associated Press report last week sounded rather shocking. State authorities conducted a raid in Los Angeles, where they "seized more than two dozen guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition" from a man who had reportedly been barred from owning firearms. Predictably, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) bemoaned a lack of funding and a long backlog in the state's ability to collect such weapons. "The thousands of weapons we've confiscated over the years essentially represent the low-hanging fruit," Becerra said. Expect a push for more power and resources for the state Department of Justice, even though its gun-confiscation system may be fraught with error. Gun-rights groups say 35 percent to 60 percent of the people on the Armed Prohibited Persons System shouldn't be on the list. The latest news says much about the perils of gun registration (or our system that is not called registration, but is awfully close to it), about the failure of agencies to maintain updated lists and protect our liberties, and about the counterproductive approach from the people we most expect to protect our gun rights. On the last point, I'm referring to California Republicans. We are the only state with such a system. Dating back to 2007, APPS cross tabs lists of firearms owners with lists of people whose criminal convictions or mental illness ban them from owning them. If, say, you bought a shotgun for home protection and your wife files a restraining order during a nasty divorce, the Department of Justice may send agents to confiscate that 12 gauge. That may be a good thing, but before the department gets more resources it ought to make sure the list it works from is as accurate as possible. The state auditor in 2013 looked at APPS and found that in some cases the department goes after people whose names shouldn't be on the list. Typically, people don't know the process for reinstating their rights. The auditor found the agency was mistaken in three of the eight cases it reviewed. This is typical of bureaucracy. And the response from politicians has been sadly typical, too. It's no surprise that Democrats are largely hostile to private gun ownership, as evidenced by the new gun restrictions they propose every year. For instance, Becerra, as a member of Congress, received an "F" from the National Rifle Association. After the horrific murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, the state called for an audit of APPS. In 2015, when Sen. Kamala Harris (D) was the state attorney general, some legislative Republicans sent a letter to state Senate Leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) after the first audit report was released. They blasted Harris for failing "to address the APPS backlog and meet the commitments they made to the legislature." So the GOP should be happy that the new attorney general is trying to deal with the estimated 10,000 people who reportedly own guns that they no longer are allowed to own, right? This is called being "too clever by half," given that the GOP letter was able to embarrass a rising Democratic official who was running for Senate. What can they say now that the current attorney general is trying to live up to the demands in their letter? There are myriad problems with APPS. For starters, it's unlikely that this approach does much to make our state a safer place. We're still a long way from the movie Minority Report, [...]

Trump's Fake News


Donald Trump tends to call whatever he dislikes "fake news," from inconvenient facts to unfavorable reporting. Even though the President himself is less a font of truth and more a spigot of self-serving exaggeration and insults. But Trump isn't all wrong when he labels reporting against him as fictitious or slanted. Reporters have become so enraged with the President that in their hurry to lambaste him, they sometimes forget about fact checking and standard quality controls. Here are just a few stories which turned out to be exaggerated or wrong. CNN: Trump's healthcare plan would qualify rape as a preexisting condition ABC: Trump instructed Michael Flynn to contact Russian officials during the campaign WSJ: Mueller subpoenaed Trump's financial records from Deutsche Bank Washington Post: Trump's Florida rally was all but empty CNN: Trump accessed stolen DNC emails nine days before WikiLeaks released them MSNBC: America's ambassador to Panama quit over Trump's "shithole" comments The result is that actual "fake news" is slipping into major news outlets. When hit pieces turn out to be false, they bolster Trump's claims about the media and discredit journalists in the eyes of his supporters. In the latest "Mostly Weekly" Andrew Heaton explains the relationship between "Trump Derangement Syndrome," fake news, and a solution for the media. Mostly Weekly is hosted by Andrew Heaton, with headwriter Sarah Rose Siskind. Script by Sarah Rose Siskind with writing assistance from Andrew Heaton and Brian Sack. Special guest appearance by Brian Sack as "TV doctor" Edited by Austin Bragg and Siskind. Produced by Meredith and Austin Bragg. Theme Song: Frozen by Surfer Blood. Subscribe at YouTube. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes. [...]

Making the Fairness Doctrine Great Again


It's time to "get us on offense and scare the hell out of Google, Facebook, Twitter," declares Phil Kerpen, top dog at the avowedly free market American Commitment. He has concocted a strategy for conservatives, described in a memo obtained by Axios, which calls for government to treat social media platforms not like the newspapers of the 20th century, with unencumbered speech rights, but like the railroads of the 19th century—as "incumbents with market power [who] therefore pose a serious threat" to society. Meanwhile, the "establishment" is eager to regulate new media, too. Three senators—two Democrats and a Republican—have proposed a bill to extend campaign finance disclosure rules to the internet, constraining who is allowed to buy online advertisements. Alarmed by Russian provocateurs and by the suspiciously improbable electoral triumph of Donald Trump, they aim to bring the wonders of McCain-Feingold to broader information markets. History speaks loudly on the merits of these ideas. Twentieth century regulatory policies dedicated to furthering "the public interest" in media—the Equal Time Rule, the Fairness Doctrine, the licensing of broadcast radio and television—triggered perverse outcomes that squeezed competition, pre-empted innovation, and quashed free speech. They scorched the very values they were ostensibly designed to advance. Ajit Pai, the Trump-appointed chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), seems to understand this. He moved decisively this fall to roll back "Title II" regulation of internet service providers (ISPs), the "nuclear option" deployed in 2015 to impose "network neutrality" on the web. But Pai isn't the only player on the field, and his good work could go up in the smoke of a 4:30 a.m. tweet issued from the Mar-a-Lago bowling alley. A Disturbing Legacy In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court found the Miami Herald to be free of any obligation to extend Pat Tornillo, a candidate for the state legislature who had been blasted in a Herald editorial, a chance to respond. A 1913 Florida statute had created such a "right of reply," but the Court struck it down as unconstitutional, 9–0. The newspaper was a powerful platform that dominated the supply of news throughout its region: "The public…is said to be in peril because the 'marketplace of ideas' is today a monopoly controlled by the owners of the market," noted the Supreme Court. But mandated access, it added, would cast a chilling effect, leading editors and publishers "to avoid controversy." The impact would be counterproductive, and free speech would suffer, as "political and electoral coverage would be blunted or reduced." Regulation, in short, was itself a threat, compromising the independence guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The Florida law was overturned. The Court got that one right. The rule protecting editorial discretion has served the country well. Newspapers have been biased, sensationalistic, and often wrong—but at least they have not been regulated to death. With broadcasting, by contrast, the Court has often been confused and the First Amendment shaved. Controversial ideas have been silenced and upstart technologies banned. Almost immediately after the Radio Act of 1927 established "public interest" radio licensing, unorthodox views became a target. Two lively statio[...]

Trump Leads GOP in Turn Against Legal Immigration


One of the big moments in the phenomenally popular musical Hamilton, which has been running on Broadway for more than two years, is titled "Immigrants—We Get the Job Done." In the debate over new federal legislation, a response is being heard: "Get it done somewhere else." Many people have long decried illegal immigration while claiming to have no problem with legal immigration. The complaints about undocumented foreigners are familiar: "Why can't they follow the rules? Why don't they get in line and wait their turn like everyone else? Why should they be rewarded for breaking the law?" The simple answer is that we make it too hard to immigrate, even as our economy depends on the labor of immigrants, legal or otherwise. If the goal is to induce more aspirants to come through legitimate channels, we should be working to expand and simplify those channels. That's not what Donald Trump proposes. His plan provides legal status and a lengthy path for citizenship for up to 1.8 million people who are eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. In exchange, though, the president wants to sharply restrict family-based immigration. The bill he favors would change the law to bar naturalized citizens from petitioning to bring their parents, adult or married children, and siblings. Only spouses and children under age 18 (down from the current 21) would be eligible. Trump also wants to abolish the diversity visa lottery, which takes up to 50,000 people each year from countries that are underrepresented in other categories. He would limit refugee admissions, which numbered 85,000 in 2016, to an annual maximum of 45,000. In all, his plan would slash legal immigration by as much as half, the most drastic cut in nearly a century. On Wednesday, Trump threatened to veto any bill that doesn't include such limits. It is not just the president's policy to target prospective immigrants who are willing to use approved avenues. It's now the agenda of his party. The bill he favors is sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and endorsed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Trump says his changes would "curb the flow of low-skilled workers into the U.S." In fact, as the Migration Policy Institute notes, close to half of adult immigrants who have come here legally since 2011 have a bachelor's degree, compared with one-third of native-born Americans 25 or older. Though Trump wonders why we take people from "shithole countries" in Africa, 40 percent of African immigrants are college graduates. His allies profess a desire to boost "merit-based" immigration. But this measure would actually reduce the flow of high-skilled workers. "If you are thinking about the number of college graduates who would be getting green cards each year, that number would go down" under Trump's plan, MPI analyst Julia Gelatt told The Atlantic. Why would we want to close off half the legal stream of immigrants? Economists generally see them as a net plus. Trump and his allies insist that the new arrivals depress wages. But the effect, if any, is small. And the newcomers stimulate investment, create employment by buying goods and services, fill jobs that few Americans want, and help revive poor neighborhoods that have lost residents. The benefits are not acci[...]

The U.S. Should Welcome More Investor Immigrants


There's a deep political divide over how to handle immigration, and clashes over the issue have contributed to two government shutdowns—albeit one lasting mere hours—thus far this year. Battles relating to illegal immigration, including the question of border security and the status of so-called "dreamers"—those brought into the United States illegally as children—are receiving the most attention. But the fight over the legal immigration system could also prove to have a significant impact on the U.S. economy. President Donald Trump has called for an end to the diversity lottery program, which offers visas to those from nations that have relatively few immigrants in the United States. He also wants to end the heavy use of family-based visa programs. The diversity lottery program isn't especially popular, and the bipartisan Gang of Eight agreement passed by the Senate in 2013 would have ended the program. However, legal immigration reform shouldn't be limited to reducing programs considered undesirable. It should also include expanding programs that are more narrowly focused on benefiting the U.S. economy. Among them are employment-based, or EB, visas, which Congress currently caps at 140,000 annually. This number hasn't been adjusted since 1990, even though the economy has doubled in size since then. Moreover, the least available of these visas, EB-5 (capped at 10,000), should be the least controversial, even in light of today's anti-immigrant zeitgeist. The EB-5 visa program allows people from abroad who invest in certain U.S. businesses to obtain lawful permanent status, a precursor to citizenship. For qualification, the program requires an investment of $1 million in a new commercial enterprise or $500,000 if directed to "targeted employment areas," typically rural areas or those with high unemployment. Since 2008, EB-5 immigrants have invested over $20 billion in the U.S. economy, and projects associated with their investments have created over 174,000 jobs, according to Department of Commerce research. Increasing the attractiveness of foreign investment in the United States was one of the top goals of tax reform, so expanding the EB-5 program would build on the economic success of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. EB-5 visa demand has increased dramatically in recent years. The program brought in over $5 billion in 2017 alone. Making more EB-5 visas available would mean more merit-based immigration of the type President Trump seems to prefer, assuming that financial success is one means through which to measure such merit, while also bringing more crucial investment into the United States. This shouldn't be a problem. As the Cato Institute's Alex Nowrasteh explained to me, Congress intended for all of the employment-based green cards to go to workers and investors and for green cards for their family members not to count against the numerical cap. However, every administration since the early 1990s has counted these family members against the cap—essentially halving the number of employment-based green cards annually. As a result, he says, "65 percent of those who earned EB-5 green cards in 2016 were the family members of the investors. At a minimum, the family members of the investors should be exempt from the cap, just li[...]