Archives: 09/2010

Musharraf Cometh?

Last Wednesday, former Pakistani President and military leader Pervez Musharraf announced he intends to return home as head of a new political party called the All Pakistan Muslim League. Sources close to Musharraf say he is reportedly eyeing the presidency and prime ministership. Amid ongoing political unrest and economic uncertainty under the leadership of President Ali Asif Zardari, U.S. leaders may hope that Musharraf can bring some semblance of stability to the country given recent developments, but his return could be something of a mixed blessing.

On Friday, Imran Farooq, a founding leader of MQM (Muttahida Quami Movement), the fourth-largest political party in Pakistan, was stabbed to death in London. Since 2009, more than 200 MQM workers and supporters have been the victims of targeted killings.  Because MQM dominates the Muhajir urban centers of Sindh, including Karachi—Pakistan’s largest city of more than 16 million—each targeted killing unleashes waves of violence that further contributes to the city’s deteriorating law and order situation. Indeed, when news of Farooq’s death reached Karachi, rioters torched vehicles and scores of people were killed and injured.

These targeted killings reflect a multi-dimensional problem. Part of it is tit-for-tat gang warfare between Muhajir-dominant MQM and Pashtun-dominant ANP (Awami National Party). [Note: When I was in Karachi a couple years back, I was warned to steer clear of certain areas that were MQM “turf.”] It is important to note, however, that MQM has made it a point not to conflate violence with Pashtuns; in fact, ANP continues to make it a point of joining the two together in order to condemn MQM for highlighting the increasing number of Taliban seeking refuge in Pashtun areas of Karachi. Another part of this ongoing violence is competition over new development in the city, the ANP’s resistance to the government’s redress of illegal land encroachment, and the collusion of political parties with criminal networks and religious extremists. MQM has been quite vocal about what they called the increased “Talibanisation” of Karachi, a concern that foreign diplomats have continually ignored.

The tragedy is that Musharraf was driven from power to bring democratic governance back to Pakistan. But despite his back-room dealings that brought an incompetent Zardari to power, and a crackdown on the judiciary that led to the former military leader’s ignominious resignation, Pakistanis stuck in desperate straights might welcome Musharraf back with open arms. Perhaps if he returns to the political game, the West will pay more attention to events unfolding in Pakistan.

Giving Cops Bad Incentives to Harass Victimless Behavior

The Washington Post has an interesting report about the huge amount of money that Fairfax County spends to go after gambling. The story cites critics who ask “why law enforcement spends valuable time and money on combating sports gambling. The answer is obvious – and explicit in the story: “…police in Virginia are allowed to keep 100 percent of the assets they seize in state gambling cases.” In other words, harassing the gambling business is a profit-making endeavor for police. And it also can be deadly since cops killed an optometrist during a SWAT arrest. The Institute for Justice has a powerful video on the dangers of “policing for profit,” and Fairfax County is just one bad example of how this lures cops into misallocating resources to fight behaviors that shouldn’t even be illegal.

It’s football season, and for millions of Americans that means betting season. …It’s a crime that Fairfax County police take seriously. So seriously that in one recent gambling investigation, they spent – and lost – more than $300,000 in cash to take down a Las Vegas-based online bookie and his group of Fairfax-based associates. …Police critics have long wondered why law enforcement spends valuable time and money on combating sports gambling. …Unlike drug cases, police in Virginia are allowed to keep 100 percent of the assets they seize in state gambling cases, so other agencies or divisions receive no benefit. And the vast majority of those arrested are placed on probation. “What a waste,” said Nicholas Beltrante, founder of the Virginia Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability, a group formed earlier this year in part to combat unnecessary police spending. “The police should be utilizing their resources for more serious crimes.” Fairfax’s most notorious gambling investigation ended in disaster. In 2006, an undercover detective lost more than $5,000 while betting on NFL games with optometrist Salvatore J. Culosi – and when the detective called in a SWAT team to make the arrest, an officer shot Culosi once in the heart and killed him. …Since 2004, the squad has seized about $1 million in cash and assets annually, but some of those cases landed in federal court, where money is divided among various agencies, Schaible said. …One case from 2006, that of admitted bookmaker Kyle Peters, resulted in police seizing and keeping $566,940 from his bank accounts.

President Obama’s Speech Czar

President Obama’s Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius is still threatening to bankrupt insurance companies who tell their customers that ObamaCare’s mandates will increase premiums by more than 2 percent, even though her department’s projections show that, starting this week, just one of the law’s new mandates will increase some premiums by nearly 7 percent.

In a CBS News story last week, Sebelius tried to defend those indefensible threats:

But don’t the insurance companies have a right to make their own analyses and claims to their customers?

“Absolutely, they have a right to communicate with their customers,” replied HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “We just want to make sure that communication is as accurate as possible.”

The government can and should police fraud – but that’s not what Sebelius is doing.  She is suppressing legitimate differences of opinion in the pursuit of political gain.

What if the government had said, “Absolutely, CBS News has a right to communicate with its customers – we just want to make sure that communication is as accurate as possible”?  Should the government be able to put CBS News out of business if it decides those communications are not as accurate as possible? How about the National Rifle Association?  Should the next Republican administration be able to put the Center for American Progress, the SEIU, or The New York Times out of business if it decides their communications are not as accurate as possible?

You don’t have to oppose ObamaCare to see the danger here.

Regulator, Leave Those Kids Alone

“These kids today and their violent [blank]….” This refrain has been around for as long as there have been kids – and elders to shake their fists at them. In the 19th century, dime novels and “penny dreadfuls” were blamed for social ills and juvenile delinquency. In the 1950s, for example, psychologist Fredric Wertham’s attack on comic books – in his bluntly titled book Seduction of the Innocent – so ignited the national ire that Congress held hearings on the cartoon menace. In response, the comic book industry voluntarily adopted a ratings system. Similarly, backlash against the movie industry and the music industry (e.g., Tipper Gore’s attack on gangsta rap) caused those respective industries to also adopt voluntary ratings systems.

The videogame industry also adopted an effective and responsive ratings system after congressional hearings in the early ’90s. Thinking this ratings system ineffective, however, California passed a violent videogame law, which prohibits minors from purchasing games that are deemed “deviant,” “patently offensive,” and lacking in artistic or literary merit. The gaming industry challenged the California law and the Ninth Circuit struck it down on First Amendment grounds.

California now seeks to overturn the lower court’s ruling by arguing that violent videogames deserve an exemption from First Amendment protection. Cato’s brief supports the videogame manufacturers and highlights not only the oft-repeated and oft-overblown stories of the “seduction of the innocent,” but the less-repeated stories of the effectiveness and preferability of industry self-regulation.

We show that not only does self-regulation avoid touchy First Amendment issues but that entertainment industries take self-regulation very seriously. Moreover, evidence from the Federal Trade Commission shows that the existing videogame ratings system works more effectively than any other regulatory method. Adding a level of governmental control, even if were constitutional, would be counterproductive.

The case of Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association will be argued November 2 (coincidentally election day).

The Dangerous Trade in Black-Market Cigarettes

NPR reports:

Black-market cigarettes are costing many states hundreds of millions of dollars a year in lost tax revenue. And the lucrative, illicit trade is attracting violent criminal gangs that can be lethally ruthless.

The rewards, and the risks, of dealing in contraband cigarettes became quite clear recently in northern Virginia, says Capt. Dennis Wilson of the Fairfax County Police Department.

Undercover investigators working with his department “had two cases where contacts that we were working with had asked us to murder their competition,” Wilson says.

The problem is that exorbitant taxes in New York state and especially New York City can add as much as $60 to the cost of a carton of cigarettes. No wonder criminals including “organized crime groups with ties to Vietnam, Russia, Korea and China” are getting into the business of buying cigarettes in lower-taxed states and driving trailers full of them to the high-tax states.

A Cato Policy Analysis warned about the problem of black markets and crime back in 2003, when the New York City tax was only $3.00 a pack ($30.00 a carton):

The failure of New York policymakers to consider the broader effects of high cigarette taxes has been a mistake repeated across the country in the stampede to maximize tax revenue from this demonized product. Too often, policymakers do not consider these effects in the erroneous belief that people do not respond to government-created economic incentives. The negative effects of high cigarette taxes in New York provide a cautionary tale that excessive tax rates have serious consequences–even for such a politically unpopular product as cigarettes.

Social Conservatives Left Behind?

Lots of the criticisms of the tea party movement as “extremist” assume that the movement is some sort of “American Taliban” – theocratic, censorious, antigay. The reality is that the highly decentralized tea party movement has done a remarkable job of staying focused on a specific agenda that is nothing like that. The Tea Party Patriots website proclaims its mission as “Fiscal Responsibility, Limited Government, Free Market.” Many tea partiers say that “tea” stands for Taxed Enough Already. Toby Marie Walker, lead facilitator for the Waco [not Wacko] Tea Party, told NPR Thursday, ”Well, we focus around three main issues, is constitutionally limited government, free markets and fiscal responsibility.”

In fact, some social conservative activists are annoyed that President Obama’s big-government agenda and the robust tea party response have focused the country’s attention on the issues of spending, debt, and the size of government rather than cultural war. On that same NPR interview Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association complained that “the leadership of the Tea Party movement is at a fundamentally different place … when it comes to social issues” and demanded that the movement “send a clear note on the culture of conservative issues.” Walker explained that the tea party isn’t opposed to social conservatism, it just doesn’t take a position on those issues: “It would be like asking the NRA to take up an abortion issue. That’s not what the NRA is about. They’re about gun rights.” As she said:

I think that the Tea Party movement is more of a Libertarian movement. I think that that’s one of the things that has been like a myth out there, that it’s a Republican-based. But not all of us are Libertarians. You know, we have Republicans, Democrats, independents, all over the spectrum. And that’s why we stick to the issues that brought us together.

In the Washington Times social conservatives complain about the tea party movement’s emphasis on fiscal issues:

“There is suspicion among our social-conservative base that the new tea party/libertarian Republicans might soon view restrictions on abortion as they would any government proscription of private conduct,” said former Oklahoma Gov. Frank A. Keating. [Not clear if this is also the position of his current employer, the American Council for Life Insurance.]

“Some of my law enforcement friends have expressed similar views about a worrisome second look at drug laws,” Mr. Keating added. “Perhaps it is fringe thinking and a fringe worry, but it is still a worry.”

In fact, many libertarian-minded Republicans - among them Senate nominee Rand Paul of Kentucky - have raised questions about the wisdom of the country’s strict laws on drug use.

Saturday’s Wall Street Journal quotes me in a discussion of the Values Voter Summit and social conservatives’ griping about the tea party:

[Christine] O’Donnell’s appearance at the Values Voter Summit in Washington put a spotlight on the challenge facing social conservatives, prominent in GOP politics earlier in the decade, as they try to hitch themselves to the fiscal insurgents of 2010. They may be ideological soul mates, but that doesn’t mean they’d govern the same way.

“My sense of the average tea party-endorsed candidate this year is that what motivates them is their concern over spending and the national debt,” said David Boaz, executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute. “If a gay-marriage ban came before Congress, they’d probably vote for it, but that’s not what motivates them.”

Mr. Boaz predicted tea-party congressional freshmen would push for a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, not an amendment to ban gay marriage. “I don’t think there’s likely to be a lot of social activism coming out of them,” he said….

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted in June found that just 2% of those identified as tea partiers put social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage at the top of their priority lists for federal action. 

The tea party is not a libertarian movement, but (at this point at least) it is a libertarian force in American politics. It’s organizing Americans to come out in the streets, confront politicians, and vote on the issues of spending, deficits, debt, the size and scope of government, and the constitutional limits on government. That’s a good thing. And if many of the tea partiers do hold socially conservative views (not all of them do), then it’s a good thing for the American political system and for American freedom to keep them focused on shrinking the size and cost of the federal government.

Liberals spend too much of their time being deathly afraid of the religious right. Brink Lindsey described contemporary American politics as a “libertarian consensus that mixes the social freedom of the left with the economic freedom of the right” in his book The Age of Abundance. Over the past 50 years, social conservatism has lost its battles against civil rights, against feminism, against sexual freedom, against gay rights. It hasn’t even managed to reduce the illegitimacy rate.  The real challenge in American politics today is to constrain and reverse the past decade’s accumulation of money and power in Washington. And in that effort the tea party movement is on the front lines.

This Week in Government Failure

Over at Downsizing Government, we focused on the following issues this week:

  • There’s more corruption at Amtrak, but Congress probably won’t hold any “show trials” for Amtrak management since it’s not a private business.
  • A new study find that the government’s “cash for clunkers” program had no long-run effect on auto purchases. It’s hard to believe this clunker of a program still has defenders.
  • Federal payments to individuals as a share of the economy has reached an all-time high after 70 years of steady growth. Unfortunately, all those free lunches aren’t actually “free.”
  • The battle over the administration’s plan for a national system of high-speed rail is heating up.
  • The head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency throws cold water on the horrible idea of having the federal government explicitly back most mortgages.