Archives: 04/2009

D.C. Vouchers: Better Results at a QUARTER the Cost

The latest federal study of the D.C. voucher program finds that voucher students have pulled significantly ahead of their public school peers in reading and perform at least as well as public school students in math. It also reports that the average tuition at the voucher schools is $6,620. That is ONE QUARTER what the District of Columbia spends per pupil on education ($26,555), according to the District’s own fiscal year 2009 budget.

Better results at a quarter the cost. And Democrats in Congress have sunset its funding and are trying to kill it. Shame on them.

If President Obama believes his own rhetoric on the need for greater efficiency in government education spending and for improved educational opportunities, he should work with the members of his own party to continue and grow this program.

TSA Intimidates Political Activist Traveler

Thanks to ever-improving technology, we have a record of what can happen when Americans try to assert their rights against government officials.

The video is a bit ponderous, but when they play the tape of TSA agents interrogating a young political activist who wishes to exercise his right to remain silent, it’s riveting and offensive.

(HT RedState and @JonHenke)

Congressional Bonuses

The Wall Street Journal reports,

While Congress has been flaying companies for giving out bonuses while on the government dole, lawmakers have a longstanding tradition of rewarding their own employees with extra cash — also courtesy of taxpayers.

And at the very time that Congress was mishandling the financial crisis and trying to direct popular outrage at Wall Street, not Washington, the bonuses were getting bigger:

Capitol Hill bonuses in 2008 were among the highest in years, according to LegiStorm, an organization that tracks payroll data. The average House aide earned 17% more in the fourth quarter of the year, when the bonuses were paid, than in previous quarters, according to the data.

LegiStorm is a pretty scary website for congressional staff members and privacy advocates. It makes readily available not just staffers’ salaries but their financial disclosure forms, including their spouses’ sources of income, as the Washington Post reported this week. I used LegiStorm myself (or technically interns Schuyler Daum and Jonathan Slemrod did) to write about how the Republicans shoveled bonus money to their staff members before they lost control of committee budgets after the 2006 election. Now that bonuses have become a focus of outrage, maybe Congress should impose 90 percent clawbacks on the bonuses of congressional staffers — and bonuses to other federal employees. After all, they’ve mismanaged the government’s finances far worse than AIG employees mismanaged that company.

NYCLU: Repeal REAL ID

The New York Civil Liberties Union has issued an impressive report calling for the repeal of the REAL ID Act.

No Freedom Without Privacy: The REAL ID Act’s Assault on Americans’ Everyday Life” is a thorough look at the federal government’s national ID law, which states have refused to implement.

Less than a year ago, when it was clear that no state would be in compliance with the national ID law by the May 2008 deadline, then-DHS secretary Michael Chertoff granted waivers until December of this year, even to states that have statutorily barred themselves from complying. One of those states was South Carolina, whose governor Mark Sanford (R) has been a leading REAL ID opponent. The report cites him favorably for that.

Last year, bills to repeal the national ID law were introduced in both the Senate and House. With President Bush sure to veto, and Secretary Chertoff sure to demagogue a REAL ID repeal, the bills did not move. The political dynamics have changed since then, of course.

“Though the Real ID Act is not a household name,” the report says, “it is a central component of the Bush Administration’s assault on Americans’ liberty and privacy rights, and one that if not repealed now would forever change the fabric of American life.”

In its finite wisdom, the federal government often doubles down on bad policies, but the REAL ID Act is ripe for repeal. The law can’t be fixed, and there is no such thing as an acceptable national ID card.

I Love You Too, America

People who don’t know me well don’t realize I’m not American.  I have no accent, am among the most patriotic people you could meet, went to college and law school here, interned for a senator, clerked for a federal judge, worked on a presidential campaign, spent time in Iraq, and speak and write about the U.S. Constitution for a living. I was born in Russia, however, and immigrated to Canada with my parents when I was little.  “We took a wrong turn at the St. Lawrence Seaway,” I like to joke.

The upshot is that, much as I’ve wanted to be American since about age eight — when I discovered that the U.S. governing ethos was “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” while Canada’s is “peace, order, and good government” — I am a Canadian citizen.  And, because of this country’s perverted immigration system, none of the time I’ve spent in the United States (my entire adult life save a 10-month masters program in London) got me any closer to the unrestricted right to live and work here (a “green card”). 

Don’t worry, I’ve always been legal, through a combination of student, training, and professional visas, but those were always tied to the school or employer, hindering the types of professional activities I could engage in hanging a sword of Damocles over my life. If I lost my job — as so many lawyers have, for example, in this economy — I would have to leave the country where about 95% of my personal and professional network is located.

When I came to Cato, the opportunity presented itself to finally be able to petition for a green card.  (I’ll spare you the overly technical and exceedingly frustrating details.)  Along the way, I even got a certificate saying that the U.S. government — or at least the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (what used to be the I.N.S.) — considered me an “alien of exceptional ability.”  I didn’t let this go to my head; when lawyers and bureaucrats come up with a term of art, it means less in real life than, say, one of you readers emailing me that you liked something I blogged here.

Anyhow, not expecting any action on my green card petition for at least another year (based on the processing times posted at the USCIS website), last night I came home to an unmarked envelope in my mailbox.  It was my green card! — complete with a little pamphlet welcoming me to America.

This is quite literally the key to the rest of my life in this wonderful country.  Those who know me well know how huge a deal this is for me personally, how long it has taken, and how many arbitrary and capricious obstacles our immigration non-policy places in the way of “skilled workers.”  (Three years ago I attracted media attention during the Senate immigration debate with the soundbite, “if this reform goes through, I’m giving up law and taking up gardening.”)

I’ve been very fortunate in the opportunities I’ve had and the people I’ve met — including, in significant part, through the big-tent movement for liberty — and I am eternally grateful that this day has finally arrived.  Believe me that I will never take for granted the great privilege that is permanent residence in the United States.  My sincere hope is that America remains a beacon of liberty and that shining city on a hill.

I may well blog or write more about this in the future, but for more on my personal story, see, e.g., here, here, and here.  More importantly, check out Cato’s excellent immigration work here.

Fight Moral Panics — With Beer!

In the UK and here at home, brewers have increasingly been producing specialty beers with the alcohol content of wine. Naturally, it’s time for a moral panic:

The new breed of bitters, with their intense flavours and alcohol contents of up to 12 per cent, are the work of young brewing entrepreneurs trying capture the attention — and cash — of lager-guzzling twentysomethings.

Beer writers and aficionados have welcomed the speciality bottles, which can contain 10 times as much hops as a traditional pint, as a necessary revitalisation of a market dominated by corporate giants turning out similar 4 per cent brown bitters.

But alcohol campaigners have complained that drinkers may be unaware of the strength of the new products, a single 330ml bottle of which is enough to make an adult exceed their daily recommended alcohol intake.

In January the Portman Group, the alcohol industry watchdog, ruled the brashest exponent of the movement, BrewDog brewery in Aberdeen, had broken its code on responsible marketing for its Speed Ball beer, named after the cocktail of cocaine and heroin which killed the actor John Belushi, star of The Blues Brothers.

Despite the group rejecting complaints against three of BrewDog’s other beers, Punk IPA, Rip Tide and Hop Rocker, its managing director, James Watt, accused Portman of being “outdated” and “out of touch”. He did, however, concede that his company had been provocative. “We thought we would give them something worth banning us for,” he said.

Good for them.

Note the comically low, and comically named, “recommended daily alcohol intake,” which would apparently forbid splitting a standard bottle of wine with another drinker. (Is there any better way to drink wine?) Incidentally, today’s 750 mL bottle derives from the “fifth,” or fifth of a gallon, which in the good old barrel-chested days of yore may well have been a single-serving portion.

It’s fascinating how the narrative of moral panic just keeps getting recycled, as if journalists only ever had this one idea in their heads. Is it their fault, or is it the watchdog groups? A question worth asking.

Either way, it works like this: Someone does something faux-provocative, often as a marketing stunt (to beer connoisseurs, brews with 12% alcohol are a fine old tradition, not a terrible new menace). But a group of Very Concerned People takes it all quite seriously and issues a worried press release. An interview is set up. The young are always invoked, as are previous moral panics. Anxious stories are written. Entirely fake concerns arise. (Hops, for example, don’t intoxicate, and strong hop flavors incline one to drink less beer, not more.)

If a moral panic keeps up for long enough, the legislators will get called in, because it’s their job to protect us naive ordinary folk from the dangers of the world. Maybe something will be done about it, or maybe not. Either way, the average member of the public goes away worried, which is just what the Very Concerned People want. They feed on worry.

They hope for a perpetual climate of worry, a feeling of unease that will carry over from this issue to the next one and to the one after that. It makes what they do — taking away freedoms — that much easier. It’s our job, as freedom-loving citizens, to deny them this perpetual undercurrent of worry. And if we can do it while drinking beer, then so much the better.

School Strips Student of Clothes, Rights

A middle-school student who was caught red-handed with prescription-strength ibuprofen (in violation of the school’s drug policy) implicated another 13-year-old girl, Savana Redding. On the sole basis of this accusation, school officials searched Savana’s backpack, finding no evidence of drug use, drug possession, or any other illegal or improper conduct. They then took the girl to the nurse’s office and ordered her to undress. Not finding any pills in Savana’s pants or shirt, the officials ordered the girl to pull out her bra and panties and move them to the side. The observation of Savana’s genital area and breasts also failed to reveal any contraband.

Savana’s mother, whom Savana had not been permitted to call before or during the strip search, sued the school district and officials for violating her daughter’s Fourth Amendment rights to be protected from unreasonable search and seizure. The trial court and a panel of the Ninth Circuit ruled against her, but the en banc Ninth Circuit reversed, finding the search unjustified and unreasonable in scope, and therefore unconstitutional. The Supreme Court granted the school district’s petition for review.

Cato, joined by the Rutherford Institute and Goldwater Institute, filed a brief supporting the Reddings’ suit, arguing that strip searches, particularly of students, are subject to a higher level of scrutiny than other kinds of searches. Such searches are reasonable only when school officials have highly credible evidence showing that (1) the student is in possession of objects posing a significant danger to the school and (2) the student has secreted the objects in a place only a strip search will uncover.

In this case, there was insufficient factual basis for the strip search and the search was not reasonably related and disproportionate to the school officials’ investigation. The Supreme Court should thus affirm the Ninth Circuit and establish that such searches may be undertaken only when compelling evidence suggests a strip search is necessary to preserve school safety and health.

Safford Unified School District No. 1 v. Redding will be argued at the Supreme Court on April 21.