Police Misconduct: The Worst Case in February

Over at Cato’s Police Misconduct website, we have identified the worst case for the month of February.

Back on July 4, 2013, San Antonio Police Department Officer Daniel Lopez held his own wife and children at gunpoint, striking his wife in the head with his gun, and had a 20-minute standoff with police before surrendering. Last month, his case finally went to court, where a deal with prosecutors resulted in him pleading no contest to a misdemeanor charge of “disorderly conduct.” For the offense, he was sentenced to just one day of probation and ordered to pay a $100 fine. 

According to one news report, “The plea deal struck out any reference to a gun or family violence.” As a result, Lopez will retain his peace officer’s license whether or not the San Antonio Police Department terminates his employment. 

Are police officers treated the same as everyone else, or are they accorded special treatment? Read the news story and decide for yourself. 

Russia Befriends North Korea to Punish U.S. Over Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin has reached out to one of the poorest and least predictable states on earth: North Korea. So far, the new Moscow-Pyongyang axis matters little. But the effort demonstrates that Russia can make Washington pay for confronting Moscow over Ukraine.

The United States and the Soviet Union divided the Korean peninsula at the end of World War II. Moscow’s zone became the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, better known as North Korea, while the U.S. zone became the Republic of Korea, better known as South Korea. But North Korea denounced Moscow in 1991 after it recognized South Korea. Since then, Russo-North Korean relations have been minimal.

In contrast, Seoul provided investment and trade in abundance. After President Vladimir Putin held a summit with South Korean President Park, Russia leaned toward Seoul in denouncing the North’s missile and nuclear programs.

However, Moscow is rebalancing its position. Last year North Korea and Russia exchanged high-level visitors and inked a number of economic agreements. Russia indicated its willingness to host a summit. Both governments talked of “deepening” economic and political ties.

Although Russia’s North Korea initiatives are new, the interests being promoting are old: regional stability, denuclearization, improved transportation links, expanded commercial and energy activities, and enhanced diplomatic clout.

Australia Could Show a Way Forward on Welfare Reform

As previous Cato work has shown, our current welfare system fails us in a number of ways. It is both overly complex and inefficient: over 100 different programs spend roughly $1 trillion each year yet do relatively little to actually lift people out of poverty. In some cases, the overlapping programs can create “poverty traps” that make it harder for people to climb the economic ladder.

Despite many warnings about the welfare system’s underwhelming performance, reform remains elusive. While there are encouraging signs that some policymakers are taking the issue seriously, reform ideas have not yet gained significant traction or translated into concrete policy change.

Each year of inaction comes with a heavy price tag: another trillion dollars spent with very little to show for it. After the relatively successful welfare reform of 1996, the welfare system in the United States has largely been on autopilot. Annual spending continues to increase with few efforts to address or even identify the many problems still present.

In contrast, in Australia a new comprehensive review of its welfare system shows the country is earnestly grappling with this issue and seeking real solutions. Their efforts are an encouraging sign that broad, substantive welfare reform is still possible.

Last week, Australian Social Services Minister Scott Morrison released the final report from a group commissioned to provide an in-depth review of Australia’s welfare system. The authors identify many of the same problems found in the antipoverty programs in the United States. The ad hoc development of the dozens of programs that make up a “patchwork quilt” welfare system leads to “unintended complexities, inconsistencies and incoherencies” and “does not provide clear rewards for work.”

Too often, beneficiaries who can work do not, either because doing so would disqualify them from disability programs or because the welfare system creates perverse incentives where additional earnings actually leave them worse off. As more beneficiaries are relegated to the economic sidelines, their likelihood of long-term dependency increases, exacerbating the fiscal burden of the welfare system. Welfare expenditures already account for a significant portion of government spending in Australia, and will only increase in the future barring substantive change. Those realizations have lent a sense of urgency to reform efforts in Australia that hasn’t been seen in this country in the 21st century.

Cash for Clunkers, EMR Edition

Since 2009, the federal government has spent about $30 billion to encourage the adoption of Electronic Medical Records. So how is that working out? This story from NPR sheds some light:

Technology entrepreneur Jonathan Bush says he was recently watching a patient move from a hospital to a nursing home. The patient’s information was in an electronic medical record, or EMR. And getting the patient’s records from the hospital to the nursing home, Bush says, wasn’t exactly drag and drop.

“These two guys then type—I kid you not—the printout from the brand new EMR into their EMR, so that their fax server can fax it to the bloody nursing home,” Bush says.

In an era when most industries easily share big, complicated digital files, health care still leans hard on paper printouts and fax machines. The American taxpayer has funded the installation of electronic records systems in hospitals and doctors’ offices—to the tune of$30 billion since 2009. While those systems are supposed to make health care better and more efficient, most of them can’t talk to each other.

Bush lays a lot of blame for that at the feet of this federal financing.

“I called it the ‘Cash for Clunkers’ bill,” he says. “It gave $30 billion to buy the very pre-internet systems that all of the doctors and hospitals had already looked at and rejected,” he says. “And the vendors of those systems were about to die. And then they got put on life support by this bill that pays you billions of dollars, and didn’t get you any coordination of information!”

Actually, Justice Kennedy, IRS Did Tell Congress Section 36B Contains “Contradictory Language”

During oral arguments in King v. Burwell on Wednesday, Justice Anthony Kennedy expressed skepticism about the government’s claim that the Supreme Court should defer to the Internal Revenue Service’s interpretation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as allowing certain taxes and subsidies in all states, when the statute authorizes those measures only in states that have an “Exchange established by the State.” Specifically, Kennedy expressed skepticism that the IRS interpretation was eligible for so-called Chevron deference, telling Solicitor General Donald Verrilli:

And it seems to me a little odd that the director of Internal Revenue didn’t identify this problem if it’s ambiguous and advise Congress it was.

Actually, the IRS commissioner did tell Congress the statute was ambiguous.

IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman

In August 2012, IRS commissioner Douglas Shulman testified before Congress. The hearing was largely devoted to the very IRS rule now before the Supreme Court. Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.) interrogated Shulman, in relevant part:

Dr. DESJARLAIS. Do you agree that when authorizing these premium assistance tax credits the Internal Revenue Code, Section 36B, explicitly refers to health insurance exchanges established by the States under Section 1311?

Mr. SHULMAN. I think 36B has some contradictory language in it.

[…]

Mr. SHULMAN. I very much agree with you that there is some contradictory language…

Dr. DESJARLAIS. You are not agreeing with me. I don’t think it is ambiguous, sir. I don’t think it is ambiguous. I think it is very clear.

This is notable for a few reasons:

First, the head of the IRS testified to Congress that there is in fact language in the act that contradicts the government’s argument before the Supreme Court in King v. Burwell that the statute unambiguously authorizes the disputed taxes and subsidies in states with federal exchanges.

Second, neither the IRS’s proposed rule nor its final rule claimed the statute was either clear or ambiguous on this question.

Third, the proposed and final rules identified no statutory support at all for the IRS’s interpretation.

Fourth, the IRS commissioner made this concession before the IRS rule had been challenged in court. The hearing was in August 2012 and the first challenge was filed in September 2012.

Fifth and consequent(ial)ly, this evidence further demonstrates the government’s arguments in King are post-hoc rationalizations for a rule promulgated without reasoned decisionmaking.

Continuing Constitutional Difficulties in Implementing the Voting Rights Act

Sue Evenwel is a citizen of the United States and of the state of Texas. She is a registered voter in Titus County and regularly votes in local and state elections. How is it, then, that Ms. Evenwel’s vote in a Texas state senate race is worth only about half that of certain other voters? The answer lies somewhere at the intersection of bad law and even worse politics that the modern Voting Rights Act has become. 

The VRA, as you may recall, was the heroic civil rights legislation that finally put a stop to the most blatant and invidious forms of racial discrimination impairing the fundamental right of racial minorities to vote. It has been several decades now since this important and proud work but now, sadly, the heroic VRA has lived long enough to see itself become a villain. As Cato has warned before—in our amicus briefs in Perry v. Perez and Shelby County v. Holder—the courts are at a “bloody crossroads” when interpreting what have become the conflicting mandates of the VRA.  To give one example, the courts have found that Section 2 requires race-based redistricting to prevent loss of minority voting power, while at the same time, the Fifteenth Amendment (and the currently inoperable VRA Section 5) prohibits discrimination in voting on the basis of race.

Current Wisdom: Did Human-Caused Climate Change Lead to War in Syria?

The Current Wisdom is a series of monthly articles in which Patrick J. Michaels, director of the Center for the Study of Science, reviews interesting items on global warming in the scientific literature that may not have received the media attention that they deserved, or have been misinterpreted in the popular press.

Did human-caused climate change lead to war in Syria?

Based only on the mainstream press headlines, you almost certainly would think so.

Reading further into the articles where the case is laid out, a few caveats appear, but the chain of events seems strong.

The mechanism? An extreme drought in the Fertile Crescent region—one that a new study finds was made worse by human greenhouse gas emissions—added a spark to the tinderbox of tensions that had been amassing in Syria for a number of years under the Assad regime (including poor water management policies).

It is not until you dig pretty deep into the technical scientific literature, that you find out that the anthropogenic climate change impact on drought conditions in the Fertile Crescent is extremely minimal and tenuous—so much so that it is debatable as to whether it is detectable at all.

This is not to say that a strong and prolonged drought didn’t play some role in the Syria’s pre-war unrest—perhaps it did, perhaps it didn’t (a debate we leave up to folks much more qualified than we are on the topic)—but that the human-influenced climate change impact on the drought conditions was almost certainly too small to have mattered.

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