Obama’s Clemency Project

Today, James Cole, Deputy Attorney General of the United States, announced a new “Clemency Initiative.”  The gist is that the Obama administration is soliciting more clemency petitions as a part of its “Smart on Crime” plan to address our “vastly overcrowded prison population.”

According to Cole, Obama is anxious to commute more prison sentences, but something has been amiss thus far.  To respond to Obama’s new directive, Cole tells us that a new team of lawyers will be taking over the Office of the Pardon Attorney within the Department of Justice and the new team is going to expedite clemency applications for Obama’s consideration.

The new initiative is aimed at inmates who meet the following criteria:

1.  Presently serving time federal prison.  (Inmates in state prison ineligible).

2.  Would have received a lesser sentence if current sentencing rules had been in place when they were sentenced way back when.

3.  No significant ties to gangs, cartels, or mafia families.  “Low-level” offenders.

4.  No significant criminal history.

5.  Record of good conduct while in prison.

6.  No history of violence prior to, or during, prison stay.

7.  Must have already served 10 years of prison sentence.

The administration is really hyping this initiative and raising expectations about dramatic moves by Obama as this gets underway. I remain skeptical for a few reasons.  First, I question the narrative that it has only recently occured to Obama that there ought to be more meritorious clemency petitions on his desk. 

Second, I note that the administration is expecting to receive thousands of petitions and applications.  That language is important.  Later on, Obama’s people may say, “As expected, we received thousands of applications! We never said there would be hundreds or thousands of commutations.” 

Third, there’s just no way of telling how the criteria are going to applied.  What are “significant ties” to gangs?  “Significant” criminal history?  A “history” of violence?  For example, maybe there is a guy who was caught driving a truck full of marijuana.  Maybe he was sentenced to 20 years in prison because of the amount of drugs.  Suppose he had no real ties to any gang or cartel and suppose he has already served 12 years for the non-violent offense.  Good candidate?  Wait, there’s a problem.  While in prison, he was disciplined a few times for fighting with other inmates.  (The prison authorities couldn’t tell whether the candidate was only defending himself, as he claimed, or not.)  According to a strict reading of the criteria, the candidate’s petition will fail #5 and #6 above.  But is it wise to keep a person like this locked up?

Obama deserves some credit for turning his attention to clemency.  But we will have to await his actions.  For many non-violent drug offenders, the wait has already been too long. 

For related Cato work, go here and here.  More background at the PardonPower blog.

Reflections on Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action

Right on cue, the New York Times editorialized this morning against yesterday’s Supreme Court decision upholding the right of Michigan’s citizens to amend their constitution to prohibit the state from engaging in affirmative action, which they did in 2006 by passing, by a large margin, a proposition prohibiting racial, gender, ethnic, and national origin preferences in public employment, education, and contracting. The Times was not alone, of course. NPR’s lament this morning was a solo interview of Lee Bollinger, president of my undergraduate alma mater, Columbia University, and the defendant in the 2003 Gratz and Grutter affirmative action decisions when he was president of the University of Michigan.

It was a bad day for affirmative action, but a good day for the Constitution. Yet neither of those commentaries, nor any of the five opinions that issued from this split decision, came to terms with the discrimination that is inherent and hence inescapable in government undertakings as such, and is at the core of this problem today.

Among other things, the editorialists at the Times note that “the justices disagreed about whose rights were at issue: the minorities who would be affected by the ban or the majority of the state’s voters who passed it.” Justice Kennedy, writing for a three-judge plurality, sided with the voters, taking no position on the constitutionally of race-conscious public practices. Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ginsburg in dissent, wrote that “Our Constitution places limits on what a majority of the people may do,” such as when they pass laws that “oppress minorities,” the Times adds.

Risking Taxpayer Dollars on DOE Loan Guarantees

In February, I highlighted the Department of Energy’s issuance of a $6.5 billion loan guarantee to build a nuclear power facility in Georgia. At the time, the project was behind schedule with cost overruns, and the project’s owners had already secured private financing. Yet DOE issued the loan guarantee anyway.

Now we’ve learned that DOE’s actions were even more foolish than previously thought. DOE waived the credit fees charged to the company—which are meant to offset the risk to taxpayers—when it issued the loan.

According to the Washington Examiner:

“Developers of a Georgia nuclear project didn’t have to pay millions of dollars in fees designed to prevent risk for taxpayers when it secured $6.5 billion in loan guarantees from the Energy Department in February, the agency confirmed Tuesday to the Washington Examiner.

The DOE calculated a zero dollar “credit subsidy fee,” which protects taxpayers if developers default, for electric utility Georgia Power – a subsidiary of Southern Co. – and Oglethorpe Power Corp. to spur completion of two large, next-generation nuclear reactors at the Vogtle power plant in Waynesboro, Ga.”

This isn’t the first time that DOE has been criticized for the handling of its loan guarantee programs, and thus risking losses to taxpayers. In 2012, the Government Accountability Office said, “if DOE underestimates these costs [credit subsidies], taxpayers will ultimately bear the cost of default.” GAO said that DOE did not follow its own processes for handling applications “potentially increasing the taxpayer’s exposure to financial risk from an applicant’s default.”

Energy loan guarantee programs should be eliminated, but closing them doesn’t seem likely under the current administration. But you would think that even this administration would favor DOE following sound lending practices to try and minimize taxpayer losses.

The Progressive Income Tax Enriches the Envious and Greedy

Most Americans dislike the income tax, now more than a century old. The rates are too high. The provisions are unfair. The record-keeping is onerous. The revenues are wasted.

But there are fans, certainly, such as the politicians of both parties. What good would it do to serve in Congress if you didn’t have money to spend? 

The beneficiaries of the politicians’ largesse also share in the income tax lovefest. Uncle Sam needs money to write checks. He can borrow, but there’s a limit to the credulity of investors. Borrow too much and they might doubt Washington’s ability to repay. 

Then there are the fans of expensive and expansive government. Never mind the endless mess created by Uncle Sam. Something he does must work!

More dangerous may be the social engineers. For instance, Yale economic professor Robert J. Shiller suggested using the income tax to mitigate “some of the worst consequences of income inequality.” He proposed indexing taxes to income inequality.

It’s a genuinely nutty idea. Inequality measures are sensitive to data distortion. Moreover, they incorporate no moral judgment as to how the inequality arose. Were opportunities obstructed and systems manipulated, or did a generally free society operate naturally and deliver ever-changing income and wealth patterns? 

What’s Really Impeding Progress in the TPP?

Japan and the United States have undertaken a series of high-level negotiations over the past several weeks in an effort to reach a bilateral agreement that could lead to completion of the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Japanese Minister of State for Economic and Fiscal Policy, Akira Amari, has met with U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman both in Tokyo and Washington in an effort to resolve differences prior to President Obama’s visit to Japan this week. Reports indicate that the talks have made some progress.  However, large gaps remain that are expected to preclude any breakthrough announcement when the president meets on April 24 with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The stated obstacles to concluding the talks have been Japanese reluctance to eliminate tariffs on sensitive agricultural products – beef, dairy, pork, rice, sugar and wheat – and U.S. reluctance to eliminate the 2.5 percent tariff on automobile imports and the 25 percent tariff on light trucks. Each side is very much in the right to ask the other to change these protectionist policies. They have the effect of stifling comparative advantage. They reduce economic welfare by raising consumer costs while curtailing opportunities for efficient producers to make export sales. Ending these trade restrictions would not only help the country requesting the changes, but would also help the economy of the country making the change. What’s not to like about this deal?

Stepping back from the details of the requests and offers, the real problems facing each country are the underlying political realities. Japanese farmers strongly resist reductions in the level of support they receive from tariff protection, and have done so consistently for decades. Those farmers also have been consistent and dedicated supporters of Prime Minister Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). If Japan’s agricultural community becomes sufficiently unhappy with the Abe administration, it is entirely possible that his government could fall. Nonetheless, Prime Minister Abe seems willing to push agricultural policy in the direction of reform. He knows that updating Japan’s agricultural policies is an essential condition for becoming a member of the TPP.

Political considerations in the United States are somewhat different. Yes, the automobile industry would give up tariff protection on imports from Japan. But the reality is that a 2.5 percent duty isn’t all that high in the first place, and the protective effect of the 25-percent duty on light trucks has been undermined significantly by Japanese firms’ investments in U.S. manufacturing facilities. A whole lot of “Japanese” vehicles already are built in the United States. Nonetheless, the U.S. auto industry and its workers are not enamored of tariff reductions, and the Obama administration no doubt keeps this in mind.

School Choice Lawsuit Explained

Last week, the New Hampshire Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Duncan v. New Hampshire, concerning the constitutionality of the “Live Free or Die” state’s trailblazing scholarship tax credit program. The Cato Institute filed an amicus brief in support of the program. Over at the Friedman Foundation’s blog, I summarize the law’s history and the primary legal arguments on each side, including legal standing, public versus private money, and the use of public funds at religious schools. I conclude by outlining four possible outcomes:

1. The court rules that the plaintiffs lack standing. In this case, the trial court’s opinion would be overturned and scholarship students would be able to attend the school of their choice, religious or secular.

2. The court rules in favor of the program on the merits. That would mean either the court holds that tax credits are private money or that public money may be spent at a religious school so long as it reaches the schools in a manner that is indirect and incidental to the choices of parents. As in the first scenario, scholarship students would be able to attend the school of their choice, religious or secular.

3. The court upholds the trial court’s decision. In this case, the tax-credit scholarship program would continue as it has in the last year. The trial court forbid the use of scholarships at religious schools but allowed their use at secular private schools, out-of-district public schools, and homeschool environments. In this scenario, the Institute for Justice likely would challenge the decision in federal court for violating the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment since such a decision would require legislative hostility toward religion rather than neutrality.

4. The court rules against the program and rejects the severability clause. The trial court found that the severability clause that the legislature had added was valid, therefore the program could continue for parents selecting secular schools or homeschooling. The state supreme court could reach the same conclusion on the merits, but reject the severability clause. This would be the most devastating outcome for educational choice in New Hampshire, as it would completely obliterate the tax-credit scholarship program.

Ideally, New Hampshire’s Supreme Court will follow the precedent of the U.S. Supreme Court and the Arizona Supreme Court by holding that taxpayers’ money is their own until it reaches the tax collector’s hand.

Removing the 3/10 Year Bars Is Not Amnesty

It’s no secret that the Senate’s proposed legalization for some unauthorized immigrants was a deal breaker in 2013. Detractors labelled such a legalization “amnesty” even though it is anything but that – and that label has stuck. That, at minimum, some unauthorized immigrants become legalized is economically and ethically imperative, so it’s time to consider less-than-comprehensive, keyhole solutions that will fix at least some of the problems with our immigration system.

One such solution, which even many of those opposed to immigration reform have endorsed, is a small legislative reform to the 3/10 year bars that will allow some unauthorized immigrants to depart and apply for reentry under the legal system without special treatment. This reform would avoid the so-called amnesty objection to immigration reform.

 

Removing the Bars

The 3/10 year bars require any immigrant who stays in the United States illegally for more than six months but less than one year may not leave, reenter, or apply for a green card for three years. Any immigrant who illegally stays for more than a year may not leave, reenter, or apply for a green card for 10 years. Any immigrant who violates it triggers a twenty-year ban from reentering the United States for any reason. That’s a problem because almost all applicants for a green card or visa have to visit a U.S. embassy or consulate abroad to apply which, in the case of unauthorized immigrants, requires them to leave the Untied States thus triggering the bars. The 3/10 year bars prevent any unauthorized immigrant from using the legal immigration system. 

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