03 October 2011

Raising the White Flag: Why We Should Give Up on the War on Drugs

As part of my undergraduate work I wrote a piece on the drug war to satisfy a research writing requirement.  I stumbled upon it today and decided to post it here.

Every time I look at my college work I'm consistently astounded at my accomplishment -- not necessarily at the quality that was produced, but at the sheer amount of effort that was exerted.  You'll notice that this piece is considerably more detailed than my other posts, and it's fully cited.  I simply don't have the time or inclination to put that much effort into this sort of thing now, though I wish I did.  I'm totally astounded by bloggers around the globe who make this sort of effort on a nearly daily basis -- frequently without compensation.

This piece, owing to its genesis as the satisfaction of a research writing requirement, is an argument for ending the "War on Drugs" primarily on pragmatic grounds.  Although it appeals to emotional and philosophical sentiments, it looks at the effects of the drug war, as evidenced by primary and secondary sources, and suggests that the results are not worth the costs.  But it should be pointed out that I think the drug war can be refuted purely on philosophical and ethical grounds: It is simply wrong, as a violation of the non-aggression principle.  End of story.  I mention this lest someone get the idea that I'm one of those consequentialist libertarians.  Regardless, most libertarian policy wonks out there make consequentialist arguments (and very good ones), and it doesn't hurt to make arguments that are more tangible to those who might consider themselves more rational, pragmatic, realistic, or even statist, and are less amenable to philosophical and ethical arguments.

[sorry for the formatting, but this is being copy+pasted from Word and I don't have time to figure out how to make the formatting come out right in blogger]

Raising the White Flag: Why We Should Give Up on the War on Drugs

In 1968, frustrated by the ineffectiveness of the drug prohibition laws in reducing drug use and abuse, and in response to the continued existence and escalation of organized crime related to the black market, President Richard Nixon established what he called the “War on Drugs,” in an effort to stop the “plague” that was “decimating a generation of Americans“ (Baum 12).  Apparently the unfortunate language describing this effort as a war did not strike Mr. Nixon as particularly problematic.  Perhaps if he had considered whom he was declaring war against he might have reconsidered.
But the President wasn’t the only one supporting this war.  In another context, the significance of this declaration might not have been lost on the people of the United States.  But irrational fear of the perceived destructive power of drugs has apparently blinded us to reality.  Perhaps because we believe, as former DEA agent Michael Levine believed, that drug abuse is “the number one national security threat,” our fear prevents us from asking the question: Who is the enemy (Levine 40)?  And since we don’t ask, we don’t learn that if we accept the analogy of war, then we must also be willing to accept that it is a civil war that we have been waging against ourselves.  In executing this War on Drugs, the federal government spent roughly $30 billion on drug enforcement in 2000.  That’s twice the amount spent on the Desert Storm operation, yet we cannot even measure our success, let alone declare victory (McNamara “Defensive” 63).  To the contrary, there is considerable evidence to suggest that the war on drugs has succeeded in increasing the harmful effects of drug use to users and to society as a whole.
The war on drugs is a war against the sovereignty and the health of the individual.  The very concept of using law enforcement to attempt to stop drug abuse is a departure from traditional law enforcement goals and methods, and brings with it an entirely new issue.  Inherent in the process is the need to attack individuals based on their behavior, despite the lack of a direct victim.  In a report to the judiciary committee of the Connecticut General Assembly, the Connecticut Law Revision Commission (CLRC) states:
Traditional law enforcement punishes and deters antisocial conduct by a wrongdoer against a third party…. The case of a user of illicit substances, however, must be analyzed differently [since] there is no direct third-party victim of the substance user. (10)
In the CLRC’s analysis, the “reason for prohibiting illicit substances is to [protect] users and potential users from themselves” (10).
If this is true, this view of prohibition has rather significant implications for public policy and law enforcement methods.  Although there are some exceptions, generally our society does not take this attitude toward other self-destructive behavior.  And one might wonder whether this policy is necessary given that statistics make a weak case at best for the idea that drug use significantly harms the user.  In 1998, the Drug Abuse Warning Network reported just nine Ecstasy-related deaths out of “millions” of doses taken (Sullum 33).  The CLRC admits, “A significant number of heroin users apparently remain unaddicted and continue to lead normal lifestyles…. For marijuana in particular, the evidence of long-term detrimental health effects […] that might justify incarceration to protect the user from harming himself, is weak” (13).  This should not be taken to mean that drug abuse is not harmful at all, but it should call into question whether or not the actual effects of drug abuse are sufficient to warrant the actions being taken in response, particularly when balanced against the results of those actions.
If we ignore the evidence and accept the commonly held belief that drug use is detrimental enough to the user to warrant the current prohibitive policy, it should be reasonable to expect to see some significant, positive results from our efforts.  The evidence does not live up to that expectation.  Between 1975 and 1995, about 82% of high school students said they found marijuana “fairly easy” or “very easy” to obtain, and about 50% of students in 1995 said they had tried illegal drugs before they graduated high school.  One high school student even said in 1993 that he found it easier to obtain illegal drugs than to obtain alcohol (Boaz 2).
In an analysis of the Dutch drug policy, professors Robert J. MacCoun and Peter Reuter found that increasing drug law penalties in the U.S. War on Drugs “has led neither to increased price nor reduced availability” (47).  MacCoun and Reuter compare drug use rates between the U.S. and The Netherlands (where drug use and possession in small amounts is tolerated), and find that the rates are “comparable,” suggesting simultaneously that decriminalization will not lead to a significant increase in use, and that strict prohibition does not curb use (49).
The federal government’s own reports suggest a failure of the War on Drugs to achieve any significant reduction of drug supply or use.  In a December 2001 report entitled, “What America’s Users Spend on Illegal Drugs,” the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy shows that the number of methamphetamine users increased between 1988 and 2000 (23), and that the amount of heroin consumed per year has remained more or less level, despite massive increases in law enforcement efforts (19).
Furthermore, the effects that the drug war has had have been detrimental to the user, rather than helpful.  The CLRC finds that one of the side effects of the drug war is that users could potentially be exposed to “greater risks.”  Since drug users under prohibition can only get drugs from illegal sources, “they do not have access to substances of known quality and potency” (11).  Some private U.S. labs have conducted studies that show that as many as 33% of ecstasy pills on the black market are “bogus” (Sullum 33-34).  The result is the potential for the user to obtain “cut” drugs—drugs that have been mixed with other substances to increase the dealer’s profits.  Some such substances are benign, but some can be deadly.  Additionally, the clandestine nature of drug production means the labs in which the drugs are created are not necessarily controlled for quality.  Errors in production can lead to some drugs being hazardous right off the production line.  The CLRC goes on to state that the costs introduced by the pharmacological effects of drug use “appear to be significantly less than the cost of incarceration.”  Even for self-destructive users, they say, “it is not clear that criminal law enforcement generally confers a benefit….  By any standard, the cost of criminal law enforcement to the persons incarcerated is enormous in terms of lost liberty and lost economic opportunity” (Connecticut 11-15).
Associate Policy Analyst for the Cato Institute, David B. Kopel finds that seventy percent of inmates incarcerated in federal prison for drug-related crimes have no history of violent crime, and fifty percent are first time offenders (9).  According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, almost 50% of federal drug convictions in 1999 were of people who had no prior record, and only 13% had a prior history of violent crime (“Federal” 6).  These statistics don’t prove a link between incarceration and harm to the individual who is incarcerated, but they do point out that a huge percentage of our federal prison inmates have otherwise clean records if you ignore drug convictions.  If the only problem an individual is having related to drugs is that they are being incarcerated based on prohibition laws, then the problem is the law—not the drugs.
In addition, incarcerating otherwise peaceful and law-abiding individuals, based on discretionary acts that have no direct negative impact on others, might be generating more criminals.  The Bureau of Justice Statistics unwittingly testifies to this in a 1994 report titled, “Drugs & Crime Data.”  In an interesting twist of logic they state, “Drugs are related to crime” in that they “generate […] violence and other illegal activity in connection with drug trafficking.”  But later in the same report the BJS admits that some drug-related crime may actually be due to the drug laws themselves: “Illegal activity is increased because drug users […] are exposed to situations that encourage crime” (“Drugs” 1).  This implies that the exposure to crime that the user experiences, as a result of black market conditions due to prohibition, actually induces the user to commit other crimes.
Ultimately the BJS concludes, “Drug trafficking generates violence” (3).  This statement does not try to suggest that the pharmacological effects of drug use generate violence, but only that drug trafficking does.  Furthermore, the way this statement is worded misleads the reader.  By testifying that “drug trafficking” generates violence, the BJS is expecting the reader to forget that all black market trafficking generates violence since the participants in such a market have no legal recourse for settling disputes (Boaz 3).  Most “drug related” violent offences are turf wars, robberies, and other offenses generated as a result of this lack of peaceful dispute resolution.  In one survey of New York City drug related violent offenses, only 26 of 218 could be linked to the pharmacological effects of drugs—the rest were drug war induced (Kopel 30).
Unfortunately, such statistics cannot be derived from the BJS report because their definition of “drug-related offenses” lumps crimes resulting from the pharmacological effects of drugs in with all other drug related crimes, making it impossible to differentiate drug-induced crime from crimes committed as a result of black market conditions (“Drugs” 1).  Whether this is intentional deception or simple incompetence, the result is that the U.S. government avoids acknowledging that it is actually the drug laws themselves that generate violence—not merely drug trafficking.  However dubious the BJS conclusions are, their findings do point to one solid conclusion: the drug laws are detrimental to the user in that they expose the user to crime, thereby increasing the chances that a crime will be committed against them, or even that the user will be induced into a criminal lifestyle.
When faced with this evidence, supporters of the War on Drugs usually point to the supposed benefits the effort provides to society as a whole.  By removing drugs and drug users from society, the argument goes, we are preventing people from committing crimes—people who, we assume, would undoubtedly do so.  However, there is little evidence to suggest any level of success in this effort.  On the contrary, there is significant evidence to suggest that the War on Drugs has significantly harmed society.
At its core, the protection of society argument has a single, monumental problem: it tramples on our civil rights by making the assumption of guilt before a crime has been committed.  As Steven Wisotsky states in a Cato Institute Policy Analysis, “the War on Drugs is, by its very nature, a war on the bill of rights.”  If, as we have already established, about half of all federal prisoners incarcerated for drug violations are first-time offenders and have no prior record, and if, as the CLRC has found, a “minority of drug users degenerate to committing socially destructive acts,” then what we have actually done in the War on Drugs is to institutionalize presumption of guilt, in contradiction to presumption of innocence (14).  Drug offenders are incarcerated because we presume that they will commit crimes at some point in the future – not because they have actually done anything to warrant incarceration.
Aside from the de-facto civil liberty violations that are the drug laws themselves, there are severe examples of civil liberties abuses perpetrated by law enforcement officials in pursuit of drug offenders.  The CLRC suggests that this is due to the lack of a “natural informant” (usually a victim).  Instead of being able to rely on a third-party to provide a complaint and evidence, prosecutors and law enforcement have to resort to unethical and illegal methods in order to catch people.  The CLRC says these illegal methods include documented cases of perjury, property seizure without the benefit of trial, and bribery, among others (21).  Former police chief, Joseph McNamara agrees, citing his own experience in which “police […] resort to informants and illegal searches” in the effort to catch drug offenders.  He continues, “[In 2001] there were 1.4 million drug arrests.  Almost none of those arrests had search warrants.”  To get around the need for search warrants, police officers frequently provide false testimony about illegal searches they have performed.  Mr. McNamara says, “Sometimes the officer reaches inside the suspect’s pocket […] and testifies that the suspect ‘dropped’ [the evidence] as the officer approached.”  This form of Constitutional abuse is so commonly practiced that it has been dubbed, “white perjury,” by the officers that perpetrate it (“Battlefield” 38-39).
Other former participants of the War on Drugs are also speaking out publicly about abuses.  Judge James P. Gray has presided over thousands of drug-related court cases.  He says, “it used to be illegal for a police officer, even after arresting you, to search anything that was outside of your grasp.  That,” he says, “has been totally reversed” (30).  Former DEA agent, Michael Levine agrees, saying, “There is no U.S Constitution anymore when it comes to the drug war” (Levine 42).  Levine cites two examples that make his case, illustrating that civil rights violations have become progressively worse since the early years of the War on Drugs.  In 1973, three drug enforcement agents broke down the wrong door in a bust in Collinsville, Illinois.  In alignment with the proper function of our judicial system, those agents were successfully prosecuted for civil rights violations.  In contrast, Levine cites a mid-1980s case in which a Mr. Donald Carlson had his home raided by a “multi-agency task force,” “on the word of an uncorroborated informant.” In the process of raiding Mr. Carlson’s home the agents found no evidence whatsoever, but shot him dead anyway.  Although the participating agents were put on leave for a time, pending investigation, they were eventually reinstated and actually promoted (40).
Perhaps the civil liberties violations induced by the War on Drugs are best addressed by a surprising majority opinion offered by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals:
[T]he drug crisis does not license the aggrandizement of governmental powers in lieu of civil liberties.  Despite the devastation wrought by drug trafficking in communities nationwide, we cannot suspend the precious rights guaranteed by the Constitution in an effort to fight the War on Drugs…. If the zeal to eliminate drugs leads this state and nation to forsake its ancient heritage of constitutional liberty, then we will have suffered a far greater injury than drugs ever inflict upon us.  Drugs injure some of us.  The loss of liberty injures us all. (qtd. in Wisotsky)
Despite this public majority opinion offered by a federal court, the civil rights abuses in the War on Drugs continue, unabated.
Aside from civil rights abuses, which tend to be rationalized as necessary evils by those that haven’t been affected by them, the War on Drugs has a much more tangible effect on everyday life.  One such effect is the immense drain the effort puts on taxpayer resources, primarily in the area of law enforcement efforts.  The War on Drugs has become a major priority in the law enforcement community, taking away resources that could otherwise be used in pursuing criminals that society is more at risk from, such as burglars and violent criminals.  The CLRC acknowledges in their report that tax money spent on “drug suppression” cannot be used for other purposes, including suppression of “crimes against person and property” such as theft and violence (20).
This diversion of resources is actually increasing the amount of violent crime on our streets.  The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics states, “As a result of increased prosecutions and longer time served […] the number of drug offenders in federal prisons increased more than 12% annually, on average, from 1986 to 1999” (“Federal” 7).  As we have seen previously, law enforcement efforts over the same period have, at best, resulted in drug supply and use rates staying level, if not actually rising.  And an Illinois study found that “huge increases in drug law enforcement in the state [led to] a sharp increase in violent crime.”  The report further suggests that this might have been partly because “greater numbers of violent criminals were released from prison early to make room for the surge of drug offenders” resulting from increased drug law enforcement efforts (Kopel 28-29).  As Judge Gray says, “we’re flooding our courts with these cases that aren’t making any difference whatsoever" (Gray 43).
The standard operating assumption behind criminal law enforcement is when a criminal is removed from the streets there is one less person committing crime.  With most violent crime—particularly sociopathic crime such as rape—this assumption works because there is no automatic replacement waiting in the wings to take the captured criminal’s place.  With the illegal drug market, however, the profits are so immense that when one drug seller is arrested, another one immediately moves in to absorb his business (Kopel 31-32).
With each increase in law enforcement efforts, we simply increase the rate with which we relocate drug dealers from the street to prison.  Between 1981 and 1992, the number of state and federal prisoners increased over 200% from 369,930 to 883,593, largely due to increased enforcement efforts in the War on Drugs (Kopel 2).  The U.S. now incarcerates more people per 100,000 than any other nation (Kopel 4).  As a result, drug users and dealers have been systematically consuming what San Francisco Sheriff, Michael Hennessey, says is “the single most valuable resource in the criminal justice system: jail cells.”  In his opinion, “We desperately need the limited space in our nation’s jails and prisons to house violent offenders, not minor league dope addicts and dealers” (qtd. in Kopel 30-31).
Coupled with this overflow of our prisons is the policy of mandatory minimum sentencing.  Although originally introduced to try to reduce the number of drug suppliers by threatening them with tough sentences, it has resulted in barbaric sentencing practices, frequently punishing simple drug offenders more harshly than some violent criminals are punished (Kopel 10).  Judges are forced by law to adjudicate against their better judgment.  Judge Gray cites documented cases in which “very conservative federal judges are literally in tears because they are required by the law to sentence a particular offender to a draconian sentence.”  He goes on to tell of a “common” case in his courtroom in which a young mother would be in court on drug charges because her drug dealer boyfriend enticed her, with a large sum of money, to be a courier for him.  Due to mandatory sentencing laws, Judge Gray would have to sentence the young mother to five years in prison.  If the mother had no family that could take care of her children, the state would have to take charge of them as “abused and neglected” children.  In most cases, by the time a mother completes such a sentence, her children have already been adopted by another family (44).  Thirty-nine percent of imprisoned mothers are there for drug violations (Kopel 5).  The state cost of imprisoning a mother and housing her children is about $85,000 per year (Gray 44).  Thus, we are paying $85,000 per year, per family to destroy families by forcefully separating children from their mothers.
In the mean time, our overflowing prisons are forcing courts to parole violent criminals early.  Since those crimes don’t fall under the same mandatory sentencing laws that drug crimes do, a person convicted of armed robbery might be sentenced to less time than the mother described above.  And persons convicted of rape and murder, despite being sentenced to longer prison terms, are frequently released before the mother’s five year term is up simply because the courts must make room for more incoming prisoners (Gray 44).  As a result of these early releases forced by prison overcrowding, Texas A&M economist, Morgan Reynolds finds that the average expected sentence for murder is 1.8 years, for rape is 60 days, and for robbery is 23 days (Kopel 27).
These disproportionately low sentences mean we are returning violent criminals into society at an alarming rate.  The results are predictable.  In one documented case, a rapist who hacked off the hands of his victim and left her to die in the desert served less time than a first-time offender mother of two who accepted $1,000 to carry a kilo of cocaine (Wisotsky).  And in another tragic case, a murderer who was set free because of prison overcrowding murdered three more people after being released (Kopel 28).  With stories like this, it’s not surprising to learn that despite the massive increases in incarcerations of drug offenders, the violent crime rate increased 41% between 1986 and 1991 (Kopel 6).
Mandatory minimum sentencing laws and the black market further combine to the detriment of society.  The CLRC has found that drug abusers are induced to become criminals because they must fund their habit against enormous black market costs.  Their inhibitions are further reduced by their identification as criminals.  Having already broken drug laws, they may perceive that they have nothing to lose in committing other crimes (18).  Mandatory minimum laws may provide further motivation to commit crimes.  If a drug abuser knows that committing armed robbery results in less time served than for possession of the drugs he abuses, he clearly has nothing more to lose, under the law, by committing armed robbery than by using or trafficking drugs (Kopel 27-30).
Mandatory minimums may also be marginalizing drug offenders to the point where they actually become more anti-social.  Take, for example, one drug offender’s statement that he would commit violent crimes against law enforcement in the future, specifically because of the mandatory sentence that had been imposed on him for drug possession.  “If I got out today,” he said, “I’d have a gun today.  If a Government agent showed up at my doorstep, I’d kill her.  I’m not going down again.  This law is creating a monster” (Kopel 30).  Mandatory minimum laws make violent crime look less serious than drug crimes, and as a result, they are actually inducing violent crimes to be committed against innocent people.
Through escalated violence, official corruption, and Constitutional abuses, the federal government has waged a war on our civil rights and our safety.  Through black market economics resulting from prohibition, and through draconian mandatory sentencing practices, the federal government has waged a war on the sovereignty of the individual.  In the name of “national security,” our nation has waged a War on Drugs, and in so doing, has threatened us all by escalating and ignoring violent crimes and property crimes, and by systematically denying us our Constitutional protections.  Especially in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it is unconscionable that our law enforcement resources are being diverted to the futile prohibition effort.  We should end the War on Drugs as we know it, and re-establish the rule of law as it was intended: a deterrent to crime instead of an incentive for it.

Works Cited
Baum, Dan. Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure. New York: Little, 1997.

Boaz, David. “Drug Legalization, Criminalization, and Harm Reduction.” United States House of Representatives, Washington DC. 16 June 1999.

Connecticut. Law Revision Commision. Drug Policy in Connecticut and Strategy Options Report to the Judiciary Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly. 21 Jan. 1997.

Gray, James P. “Battlefield Conversions.” Reason Jan. 2002: 43-45.

Kopel, David B. “Prison Blues: How America’s Foolish Sentencing Policies Endanger Public Safety.” Policy Analysis No. 208. 17 May. 1994. Cato Institute. 19 July 2002 <http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa-208.html>.

Levine, Michael. “Battlefield Conversions.” Reason Jan. 2002: 40-43.

MacCoun, Robert J., and Peter Reuter. “Interpreting Dutch Cannabis Policy: Reasoning by Analogy in the Legalization Debate.” Science 278.533 (1997): 47+.

McNamara, Joseph D. “Battlefield Conversions.” Reason Jan. 2002: 38-40.

McNamara, Joseph D. “The Defensive Front Line.” Regulation 24.4 (2001): 61-63.

Sullum, Jacob. "Sex, Drugs & Techno Music: Why the rap against Ecstasy has a familiar ring to it.” Reason Jan. 2002: 27-34.

United States. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Drugs & Crime Data. Sep. 1994, NCJ-149286.

United States. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Federal Drug Offenders, 1999, with Trends 1984-1999. Aug. 2001, NCJ-187285.

United States. Office of National Drug Control Policy. What America’s User’s Spend on Illegal Drugs. Dec 2001. NCJ-192334.

Wisotsky, Steven. “A Society of Suspects: The War on Drugs and Civil Liberties.” Policy Analysis No. 180. 2 Oct. 1992. Cato Institute. 19 July 2002 <http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa-180.html>.

19 September 2011

The mind of an unwitting statist...

I occasionally happen upon a local newsprint publication that calls itself "The Cherokee Ledger-News."

Somehow I ended up with a copy of the August 17th issue in my hands, my eyes drawn to the Opinion page. On that page I saw the following provocative title on an opinion piece by the paper's Managing Editor, an Erika Neldner: "Ethics trump politics."

At least I thought it was provocation that drew my interest, but then I realized it was more confusion than anything else. Was she saying that ethics do trump politics? Or was she saying that ethics should trump politics? Or was she drawing attention to a case in which ethics did trump politics. My curiosity and confusion piqued, I proceeded to read the piece in order to re-settle my previously settled (and relaxingly incurious and unconfused) mind.

It turns out that Ms. Neldner was chastising the local GOP outfit (the Cherokee County Republican Party or CCRP) for its "reprehensible" "recent action" in which she claims the CCRP was trying to unduly influence the Cherokee Board of Education to pressure GOP members of that board into "violat[ing] the Cherokee Board of Education's ethics policy by going against their judgment of what's best for the children."

My interest is not really in the substance of the point that Ms. Neldner was trying to get across. Indeed, for a variety of reasons I won't discuss, she does a poor job of making her case.  What I'm more interested in examining is the underlying thought process (or lack thereof) behind the entire piece.

It begins as follows:
The recent action by the Cherokee County Republican Party (CCRP), as it relates to the Cherokee Board of Education, is reprehensible, and it needs to keep its politicking out of issues where it doesn't belong.
A little more than a year ago, just after the July primary election, I sat at this very same desk and penned a piece about taking politics out of education.
A year later, politics has reared its ugly head in education once again, and my opinion hasn't changed: there is no room for politics in education.
 [Emphasis mine]

With an introduction like that can we expect the remainder to be a manifesto for eliminating the government monopoly on schooling, or at the very least, a plea for increased school choice via vouchers or tax breaks for those who wish to send their children to non-state schools?  Of course not!

The issue at hand was the CCRP's assertion that any Republican board member that did not vote for a new Cherokee county charter school would be stripped of their membership in the local party... well actually, it wasn't even that bad.  Here's Ms. Neldner again:

The CCRP recently met and approved an official resolution urging the four school board members, who dissented in the vote to approve the Cherokee Charter Academy, to either reconsider their decision to locally fund the school or renounce [sic] their membership from the local Republican Party.
 [Emphasis mine]

Now, I know nothing of the CCRP, so I'm predisposed to give them the benefit of the doubt: As far as I can tell, this is just a political organization doing whatever it can to make a statement about, and prevent future execution of, a mistake in its name that in their minds -- contra Ms. Neldner -- did in fact do harm to "the children."

However, in Ms. Neldner's mind, this is what constitutes a "reprehensible" "action" that seeks to pressure the Cherokee Board of Education to "violate the Cherokee Board of Education's ethics policy by going against their judgment of what's best for the children."  Apparently it's impossible for the CCRP to simply disagree with what is in fact "best for the children."  No -- they must be evil bastards who can't help but get their dirty politicking mitts into education for ... what reason?  Oh, well never mind -- we don't want to pull back that curtain.

But let's put that aside and, for the sake of argument, presume that Ms. Neldner is right -- the CCRP are a bunch of meddling know-nothings and malcontents bent on harming "the children."  What is the cause of this intrusion of politics into the classroom, and what is the solution?  Here is Ms. Neldner's logic:

She cites an SB 84, passed by the Georgia General Assembly, "last year," which she asserts "basically says local board of education members should be treated differently than other elected officials."  She then quotes the bill:
"... this elected office should be characterized and treated differently from other elected offices where the primary duty is independently to represent constituent views.... Local board of education members should abide by a code of conduct and conflict of interest policy modeled for their unique roles and responsibilities."
 Notwithstanding the fact that the incident which Ms. Neldner describes in fact seems to contradict that any such ethical lapse occurred (the board did NOT vote to approve the charter school), the thrust of the article seems to propose that this bill failed to do its job.  Finally we get to Ms. Neldner's solution:
... it's time for lawmakers to remove that eight-letter dirty word [politics] from our local school boards and make them non-partisan.
Call me skeptical -- or even cynical -- but doesn't this seem like a dubious proposition?  If passing a law failed to remove politics from education, does it seem likely that passing another law would work a second time around?  Can one magically erase political considerations simply by hiding the political affiliation of the office-seekers?

More to the point, what do you expect to happen when your schools are themselves the result of a political process?  What can you expect when nearly every aspect of education is essentially controlled by the state?    Furthermore, HOW DARE YOU use the political process to take a monopoly control over education, and then assert that the resultant schools cannot and should not be influenced by politics?  If I am of the opinion that politics already influences education too much, then you're damn right I'm going to use the political process to undo that influence, or failing that, do whatever I can to bend the end product toward what I think I and my children need.

Rather than being too hard on Ms. Neldner, though, I should give her some credit -- the desire to get politics out of education is a good one.  But this gets to the crux of my comments: her solution isn't to remove politics from education, but quite the opposite -- to double-down on legislative 'fixes'.

Statist tendencies almost invariably come down to one overall contradiction: that in order to solve issues that were at worst caused by the state, or at best not helped by the state, the solution is to expand the size and scope of the state.

How's this for revising the tax code?

The other day I was contemplating the federal government's various sources of revenue, marveling at the wisdom of the framers in constructing a government that has such a hard time approving new revenues (i.e. tax increases), and lamenting that the political class can simply borrow the money instead -- or even print it if needed, as the Federal Reserve Bank has done to astonishing levels recently.

I then free-associated to the nature of the fed's money-printing privileged.  It's essentially a free license to counterfeit.  The reason counterfeiting is considered 'bad' is because it effectively reduces the value of the currency being counterfeited, which can cause a lack of confidence in the currency, and all of the attendant issues arising from that lack of confidence.  But many economists seem to believe that not only is it acceptable for the federal government to issue counterfeit* paper, but that it is in fact the only way to get out of a business cycle recession in which the core issue is perceived to be a 'liquidity trap' (i.e. we're in a recession because of a lack of spending, but people are spooked so they won't spend).  As I understand it the theory is that you pump the economy so full of liquidity that people 'feel' rich, and therefore spending resumes, thus pulling the economy out of the 'liquidity trap'.  In this case, the fed is putting the cash directly into bank reserves in order to 'pump up' their books so they look less risky.  This is supposed to encourage short-term lending, which is supposed to allow businesses to borrow-and-spend at pre-recession levels.

My purpose with this post is not to get into whether or not that theory is valid, or whether or not its implementation has worked (although I think evidence shows that it hasn't -- thus Obama's new $400b+ jobs bill stimulus package).  My purpose is rather to highlight a solution to the revenue problems of the federal government, based upon the fed's ability to counterfeit.  The solution is this:

Instead of bothering with trying to get taxes and spending cuts passed; instead of implementing and maintaining a tax code that is thousands of pages long and impossible to comply with in an absolute sense; instead of periodic political squabbling over revenue vs. tax increases; instead of maintaining the charade that we're ever going to cut spending and increase revenue such that the budget can be balanced, why not simply do four things:

    1. Eliminate all taxes
    2. Authorize the federal government to borrow all the money it needs for spending
    3. Use the federal reserve to print all the money necessary to pay for that borrowing
    4. Require a balanced budget
The result would be an inflation rate that would most likely be in the double-digits, but it would also be the effective tax rate -- the amount of money each person loses due to inflation each year would be their yearly federal tax rate.  It would also mean that any time new spending was approved a corresponding change in the inflation rate would also have to be approved.

Now, this is somewhat tongue-in-cheek.  I certainly don't believe it is a viable (to say nothing of moral or ethical) solution.  But that's the point.  The only difference between what the federal government does now, and this plan, is a matter of quantity.  Are we to print money to pay for all spending, or just some portion?  If just some portion, what makes that more sustainable than the alternative?  At what point does the portion that we are paying for through counterfeit become large enough that the plan fails?  Is that failure point some absolute value?  A specific rate of inflation?  A percent of GDP?

Now, I know there are very obvious arguments against this: Keynesian economists would probably argue that massive expansion of the monetary base is not warranted except in dire circumstances -- using it as a matter of course is not recommended.  Progressives would probably argue that the result is a flat tax that doesn't allow them to practice class warfare effectively target revenues according to financial status.

Really, the point is simply to highlight the questionable nature of the fed printing machine.  However, I actually prefer this plan in some ways to what we have currently:

  • It would inflict real, immediate pain on the people each time new spending is approved -- the associated increase in inflation rate would force politicians to convince the current electorate of the need, rather than simply off-loading it to future generations.
  • It's effectively a flat tax -- there is no way for the federal government to divide the people into groups by their finances, and then pit them against each other... unless they issue separate currency for poor people versus rich people and set the inflation rate for each at different levels.
  • It would make it clear to everyone exactly how much of their wealth was being confiscated each year by the federal government. With a tax code that fools even Warren Buffet into believing his effective tax rate is only 17%, this would be an improvement.
  • It would make it transparent whether or not the federal government's tax rate was helping or hindering the economy: If interest rates settled under this regime to a value less than the inflation rate, then it would become quite clear the the federal government was destroying wealth rather than creating it!  (of course, that would only work if the fed wasn't manipulating interest rates)
  • It would make it more difficult for the fed to pick economic winners and losers (i.e. crony capitalism) -- if there were no tax breaks to hand out then there would be no way, other than explicit handouts in the form of direct subsidies and/or guaranteed loans, for the fed to create preferential conditions for specific industries and companies.
  • It would make it more difficult for the fed to interfere with free trade since it would no longer be able to implement punitive and/or preferential tariffs (remember point 1 -- all taxes have been eliminated).  
  • It's potentially more stable and predictable than the current regime... though I suppose there's no reason to think the fed wouldn't make quantitatively large adjustments to the spending (inflation) rate over short-term periods.
At this point I think I've taken it far enough...

01 September 2011

What Ever Happened to the Constitution? | Andrew Napolitano

Judge Andrew Napolitano always struck me as somewhat of a goober on Fox, but in other venues he turns out to be quite thoughtful and intriguing.

Here's a fantastic talk he gave before an audience at the Mises Institute, in which he discusses the total lack of fealty the federal government shows to the Constitution, how it came to be that way, and the insidious ways in which it results in the gradual degradation of individual liberty in this country, in a way that was the exact opposite of what the framers intended. He explains that in essence the Constitution describes the way in which the federal government is to go about its primary function -- the preservation of individual liberty -- and that all other functions are illegitimate... and I would add, contrary to the former.

09 August 2011

A rebuttal to Obama's rebuttal to the S&P credit rating downgrade

On Monday, President Obama saw fit to reiterate the same tired talking points about the debt and deficit that he's been repeating ad nauseam for weeks and months now. I have some comments in response:

On Friday, we learned that the United States received a downgrade by one of the credit rating agencies -- not so much because they doubt our ability to pay our debt if we make good decisions, but because after witnessing a month of wrangling over raising the debt ceiling, they doubted our political system’s ability to act.
A month? Sure -- the decades of overspending by both Democrats and Republicans, leading to $14 trillion in debt had nothing to do with it. And neither did the last 3+ years of massive entitlement expansion and extension of the Bush war expenditures.

The markets, on the other hand, continue to believe our credit status is AAA.
He says as the markets plummet. On Monday -- the day on which Obama delivered this speech -- the Dow fell 600+ points for the 6th largest decline in history.

In fact, Warren Buffett, who knows a thing or two about good investments, said, “If there were a quadruple-A rating, I’d give the United States that.” I, and most of the world’s investors, agree.
Of course, Buffet doesn't have millions riding and stocks, and therefore has absolutely no interest in influencing the markets.

If you and Buffet and "most of the world's investors" agree that the US is "quadruple-A [rated]," then make the case. I'm waiting. In the mean time, the reaction of the markets seems to indicate that S&P does have some credibility in their minds.

As far as I'm concerned, the federal government of the US has no credibility on this front. Point to me one single thing that is stable about the U.S. economy. There is none, because the stability of any and all segments of the U.S. economy -- and much of the world economy -- are attached to the stability of the U.S. dollar and U.S. financial institutions. The dollar is continuously devalued by excessive printing, and the financial institutions are regulated by politicians and bureaucrats. Who wants any part of that? The only reason we're not in a lot more trouble is the status of the dollar as the world currency. But that won't last forever.

The fact is, we didn’t need a rating agency to tell us that we need a balanced, long-term approach to deficit reduction.
What does "balanced" mean? My guess is that it means a combination of tax increases and spending cuts. But who knows? As far as tax increases: the federal government shot that wad decades ago. It has no credibility left on that front. If tax increases are granted, the spending cuts will never come. The politicians will simply spend the additional revenue, and then some.

We knew from the outset that a prolonged debate over the debt ceiling -- a debate where the threat of default was used as a bargaining chip -- could do enormous damage to our economy and the world’s.
No -- the damage was done, and is being done, by the psychotic and irrational control that the federal government asserts over every aspect of public life. The "prolonged debate" wasn't even the straw that broke the camel's back -- the President's and the Democrat congress' desire to create a massive new entitlement, coupled with a paralytic inability to come up with a budget, was the straw.

With respect to debt, our problem is not confidence in our credit -- the markets continue to reaffirm our credit as among the world’s safest.
True... the rest of the world's credit tends to go down with, and in proportion to how tightly their economies are tied to, the US'. I'm sure they're very satisfied with that arrangement and have no desire to change it any time in the future.

What we need to do now is combine those spending cuts with two additional steps: tax reform that will ask those who can afford it to pay their fair share and modest adjustments to health care programs like Medicare.
Who are "who can afford it," and what is "their fair share?" Answer: whatever the politicians decide. If Obama gets his way, those tax increases will go straight into funding massive new entitlements -- not paying for existing ones. If you're gullible enough to fall for this B.S. then you are likely disassociated from any real understanding of the history of government.

Furthermore, we need more than "modest adjustments." Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security are illegal ponzi schemes (or worse) that can only work to subvert the rule of law, enslave those that aren't fortunate enough to be part of the political class, and, ultimately, bankrupt the country.

Making these reforms .... [requires] compromise.
Compromise is exactly what passed last week. If the Republicans had had their way the problem would have been solved. I'll even allow, for discussion, that if the Democrats had had their way the problem would have been solved*. Compromise is what we got, and it failed miserably, as it always does. Compromise is what has gotten us to $14 trillion in debt, with no hope of solving the deficit problem.

[* but only in the short term -- the tax increases would have further stalled the economy, which would have resulted in reduced tax revenues, perhaps enough to undo the effect of any tax increases]

Let me go into this a little more deeply:

When the federal government of the United States was founded, it was constitutionally limited to a certain small set of functions. To maintain this limited scope the government was founded with three coequal branches (really four since congress is bicameral), each of whose interests were intended to be at odds, so that they wouldn't join up and work together in order to enact some function unless that function was so agreeable to both houses of congress and the executive, and legal according to the judiciary.

Over time, politicians realized that they could increase their ability to wield power by "compromising" with each other... "If you vote for X I'll vote for Y."

Over yet more time, politicians of both major parties effectively "compromised" their interests into legislative being -- each side compromising on issues that were of less interest to them. For the Republicans this meant giving in on spending decreases (which they really aren't interested in anyway) in order to get increased military expenditures... usually by way of deficit spending and issuance of sovereign debt. For the Democrats this meant giving in on tax increases in order to get increased entitlement/welfare expenditures... usually by way of deficit spending.

In the end, spending has been very successfully increased, while revenue has remained flat or decreased, both in the name of "compromise."

For the average person, what does this mean? Answer: a government that is very well capitalized -- on debt that you will have to pay back -- to kill people around the world (military), and to restrict liberty at home (nanny state).

[The problem is] the insistence on drawing lines in the sand, a refusal to put what’s best for the country ahead of self-interest or party or ideology.
Gee, that's funny, because I'm pretty sure the GOP cut, cap, and balance, bill, passed in the House, would have prevented a default, AND would have avoided a credit rating downgrade. If you really believe this statement, Mr. Obama, then shouldn't you have spoken out in favor of the Democrat-controlled Senate passing the bill?

More to the point, if what's best for the country is at odds with what some want, doesn't that behoove those with the country's interests at heart to draw lines in the sand? Doesn't doing what's best for the country require absolute principals be adhered to?

I understand that there are differences of opinion about what principals are important. This is the EXACT REASON government should have a small footprint in every day life. When government does something it necessarily forces a single viewpoint on everyone.

We should also help companies that want to repair our roads and bridges and airports, so that thousands of construction workers who’ve been without a job for the last few years can get a paycheck again.
Why? If they're unemployed that means there are too many construction workers out there. Do you really think you're doing someone a favor by deluding them into staying in a dead career? What happens when those government-created jobs are gone? All this will do is to delay the inevitable. The fact is that the housing bubble employed too many construction workers. The ONLY way to solve this over-supply of construction workers is to let the creative destruction of the market lead them to new careers... OR, if possible, to REAL, SUSTAINABLE construction work.

Markets will rise and fall, but this is the United States of America. No matter what some agency may say, we’ve always been and always will be a AAA country.
Just saying it doesn't make it true.... I don't think even the most naive among us believes this balled-faced assertion. Everything comes to an end. [anyway, doesn't Obama sound like he's appealing to "American exceptionalism" here?]

For all of the challenges we face, we continue to have the best universities, some of the most productive workers, the most innovative companies, the most adventurous entrepreneurs on Earth.
Entrepreneurialism is a natural human attribute that is expressed and exercised when it comes in contact with sufficient opportunity afforded by liberty. It does not come from some fantastical magical attribute of being a U.S. national. Government kills opportunity. The only reason we've had "the most adventurous entrepreneurs on Earth" is because -- even until recent history -- we've also had the most laissez-faire economic policies. No more. From crushing debt, to overbearing regulation, to a devalued currency, to a cultural atmosphere -- cultivated by progressive elitists in the armchairs of academia -- that hates entrepreneurial behavior, entrepreneurship is suffering mightily in this country.

What sets us apart is that we’ve always not just had the capacity, but also the will to act -- the determination to shape our future; the willingness in our democracy to work out our differences in a sensible way and to move forward, not just for this generation but for the next generation.
Don't try to define us together just because we live within the same pot of 300+ million individuals. The only thing that the 300 million inhabitants of the U.S. have in common is the federal government that tyrannizes them. Before that the common trait was the federal government that protected them from tyranny.

... ultimately, the reason I am so hopeful about our future -- the reason I have faith in these United States of America -- is because of the American people.
If you actually believed this then you'd be doing everything in your power to put more power into the hands of these people that you have so much faith in.