Archives: August, 2010

Bulldozing Homes, Billing Homeowners

Officials in Montgomery, Alabama, are bulldozing homes in their historic civil rights district – and billing the homeowners for the cost of demolition:

Christina Walsh of the Institute for Justice writes about this injustice at the Daily Caller:

Imagine you come home from work one day to a notice on your front door that you have 45 days to demolish your house, or the city will do it for you.  Oh, and you’re paying for it.

This is happening right now in Montgomery, Ala., and here is how it works: The city decides it doesn’t like your property for one reason or another, so it declares it a “public nuisance.”  It mails you a notice that you have 45 days to demolish your property, at your expense, or the city will do it for you (and, of course, bill you).

Your tab with the city will constitute a lien on your property, and if you don’t pay it within 30 days … the city can sell your now-vacant land to the highest bidder.

The rest of her article is here.  Also, see ABC News, Big Government and Reason magazine.  And you can find Cato’s work on property rights here.

War in Iraq Not Over

President Obama will not declare “mission accomplished” in his prime-time speech on Iraq tonight, nor should he. He should not claim that a flowering democracy has been created in Iraq. He should not make unrealistic predictions about the long-term prospects for that shattered country.

The war isn’t over for the 50,000 U.S. troops left behind in Iraq. The president should recognize the sacrifice of all our troops, who have performed admirably. The war won’t be over for Americans back home until every last man and woman in uniform returns home safely from a conflict that has claimed so many lives and consumed so much treasure.

The president should reaffirm the strategic rationale for the drawdown set in motion by the Bush administration in consultation with the Iraqi government. Leaving U.S. troops in Iraq for another seven years will not make Americans safer. U.S. troops should not try to fashion a functioning state in Iraq. That task is the responsibility of the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people. Likewise, our troops should not serve as Iraq’s police force.

As our troops work hard to execute their mission, however, a rising chorus of voices is working diligently against the ultimate goal of U.S. withdrawal and Iraqi self-sufficiency. Some people are advising the president to leave a permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq, essentially arguing that the United States is the rightful guarantor of Iraqi sovereignty, and that the Iraqis simply can’t be trusted with security matters. The president has wisely turned aside such recommendations in the past, and should do so again.

A Federal Right to Obfuscate

H.R. 3421, the “Medical Debt Relief Act of 2009,” has nothing to do with relieving people of medical debts. It adds to the list of information credit reporting agencies may not communicate to their clients.

Current law bars credit bureaus from sharing truthful information about bankruptcies occuring more than ten years in the past, and lawsuits, judgments, tax liens, accounts placed in collection, or other adverse information more than seven years old, except in certain high-dollar credit transactions. This bill would add a new item to the list of officially banned information: medical debts that have been paid more than thirty days before a credit report is issued.

There are many cases, of course, where people who incur medical debts deserve our sympathy. But do they deserve our money?

If this bill becomes law, it will relieve people of one burden of medical debt. Lightening the obligation to save for a medically rainy day or carry health insurance, the bill will produce more people who fall on hard times due to illness or injury. These spendthrifts are worse credit risks than others, and their ability to obfuscate this will drive up the cost of credit.

The result? More expensive credit for everyone to cover the risk of medical debtors. A transfer of wealth from people responsible enough to save and buy health insurance to those who are not.

Not to worry, defenders of the law may say, Congress has findings in the bill saying that “medical debt collections are more likely to be in dispute, inconsistently reported, and of questionable value in predicting future payment performance because it is atypical and nonpredictive.”

The credit industry has a highly sophisticated cadre of analysts working to determine what facts and circumstances are, and are not, predictive of financial acuity. Congress does not. ‘Nuff said.

Economic Problems Won’t Be Solved by Education Stimulus, Either

Mark Calabria does a fine job dismantling Laura Tyson’s argument that we need another stimulus to spur private demand and revive the comatose economy. I would just caution against the one thing he could be construed as implicitly supporting: more federal funding for education.

I don’t dispute that there are mismatches between employers’ needs and potential employees’ skills, but the solution to the problem is not still more money going to education. As I and others have argued – especially the Pope Center’s George Leef, in a deft takedown of a recent workforce study – lobbing sacks of taxpayer dough at education will mainly enrich schools and their employees while making our resource-blowing education system even less efficient. Indeed, we already have far more bachelor’s degree holders than we have jobs for them, and the Labor Department projects that the greatest number of new jobs in the next decade will require only on-the-job training (see Table 2). And skills retraining? There are big problems there, too, with people often training for jobs that for numerous reasons they cannot get.

Putting more taxpayer money into “education” is one of those sweet sounding ideas that few people can ever resist, but which produces continually rotten outcomes. So even when it comes to education – shrill objections about “de-skilling” and being “anti-education” notwithstanding – the best thing to do for the economy is to let money stay with taxpayers and allow them to consume education as they would anything else: according to their individual priorities and abilities, which they know better than anyone else.

Obama Team Sounding the Right Notes on Export Controls

Certain headlines seem to re-appear in one form or another on a regular basis, such as “North Korea Threatens Military Action” or “Myanmar Junta Tightens Grip.” A leading example from the world of trade is, “Congress Weighs Export Control Reform.”

For the past 20 years, variations of that headline have appeared regularly, yet Congress never gets around to actually reforming our Cold-War-era restrictions on what U.S. companies can sell abroad. This week, in a welcome move, the Obama administration plans to announce administrative changes that will help to bring our export control regime into the 21st century.

As part of their constitutional duty to provide for the national defense, Congress and the executive have the legitimate power to regulate the sale of sensitive military products and technology to foreign entities. The problem is in the implementation. Export controls today cover products that have no real connection to national security, but the controls do make it more difficult for U.S. companies to compete effectively in global export markets.

The Obama administration has an extra incentive to reform export controls. In his State of the Union speech in January, the president announced the National Export Initiative, with the ambitious goal of doubling U.S. exports during the next five years. But as I pointed out in an op-ed a few weeks ago, our current export-control regime is a significant impediment to that goal.

The administration has been sounding the right notes. In a speech in April by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and an op-ed today by National Security Adviser James L. Jones, the administration has signaled that it will allow a wider range of products to be sold abroad without special licenses while more effectively controlling the sale of technology that really would pose a danger in the wrong hands.

The next few days will tell us whether this administration is willing to take the steps necessary to make the long-promised reforms a reality.

Economist Debate: ‘Governments Must Do Far More to Protect Online Privacy’

I’m at the mid-point of an online debate hosted by the Economist.com on the proposition: “This house believes that governments must do far more to protect online privacy.”

I’m on the “No” side. In my opening statement, I tried to give some definition to the many problems referred to as “privacy,” and I argued for personal responsibility on the part of Internet users. I even gave out instructions for controlling cookies, by which people can deny ad networks their most common source of consumer demographic information if they wish. Concluding, I said:

Government “experts” should not dictate social rules. Rather, interactions among members of the internet community should determine the internet’s social and business norms.

In the “rebuttal” stage, which started today, I dedicated most of my commentary to documenting how governments undermine privacy—and I barely scratched the surface.

Along with surveillance program after surveillance program, I discussed how government biases protocols and technologies against privacy, using the Social Security number as an example. I don’t know what syndrome causes many privacy advocates to seek protection in the arms of governments, which are systematic and powerful privacy abusers themselves.

Nonetheless, I’m opposing the “free lunch” argument, which holds that a group of government experts can come up with neutral and balanced, low-cost solutions to many different online problems without thwarting innovation. Right now the voting is with the guy offering people the free lunch, not the guy arguing for consumer education and personal responsibility.

You can vote here.

And Then There Were None

The Washington Post, December 21, 2005:

The four Republican rebels – Larry E. Craig (Idaho), Chuck Hagel (Neb.), John E. Sununu (N.H.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) – have joined all but two Senate Democrats in arguing that more civil liberties safeguards need to be added to the proposed renewal of the Patriot Act.

Let’s hope that some of the prospective new senators who consider themselves constitutionalists will raise their voices on issues like this.