Archives: 03/2011

Bonuses for Prosecutors?

A Colorado district attorney is offering bonuses to prosecutors who score a lot of convictions.  This is an awful policy that reinforces bad incentives that are already commonly found in law enforcement.  That is, the rewards and commendations typically go to those who bring in the big cases.  And that encourages a win-at-all-cost mentality to get ahead.  The agents who scrupulously respect the constitutional rights of suspects and witnesses do not usually get awards for that—so the wrong people tend to rise to the top.   

Even conservative and libertarian writers can get carried away with the idea of bringing market concepts into the government sphere.  It would be a nightmare, for example, to give IRS agents a percentage of the money they collect from taxpayers.

For a sensible view of the qualities we should want to see in a prosecutor, read this address by former U.S. attorney general Robert H. Jackson, reprinted in my book, In the Name of Justice.

(H/T to Instapundit for the news story).

Friday Links

  • When is an entitlement not an entitlement, but a command? When a federal judge contradicts herself, of course.
  • As the Arab League’s influence over its own member states wanes, of course they support the creation of an international no-fly zone over Libya.
  • Of course, there’s really no such thing as a “Social Security trust fund.”
  • Should the United States and Saudi Arabia remain allies? Of course—but Washington should probably re-think the terms of the partnership.
  • Of course, when George W. Bush was president, you couldn’t go anywhere in Washington without seeing an anti-war protest. Where have they all gone?


End Federal Welfare - Don’t Mend It

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), the chairman of the conservative House Republican Study Committee, recently introduced “The Welfare Reform Act of 2011.” The legislation’s two key components are the imposition of work requirements on food stamps recipients and the capping of total spending for 77 welfare programs at 2007 levels (adjusted for inflation going forward) when unemployment drops below 6.5 percent.

From the RSC press release:

Congressional Republicans and President Bill Clinton enacted reforms in 1996 that required beneficiaries of a new welfare program (TANF) to either work or prepare for a job. President Clinton triumphantly declared these reforms would “end welfare as we know it,” and in fact millions of families have since moved off the TANF rolls and begun to provide for themselves.

Still, TANF is only 1 of 77 federal programs that provide benefits specifically to poor and low-income Americans. Despite the success of these reforms, combined state and federal welfare spending has almost doubled since 1996. Since President Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty in 1964, Americans have spent around $16 trillion on means-tested welfare. We will spend another $10 trillion over the next decade based on recent projections. Even with all these resources devoted to assistance for the poor, poverty is higher today than it was in the 1970s.

The bold text is my emphasis. I emphasized it because I have a hard time calling the reform of one welfare program a “success” when dozens of other federal welfare programs more than took its place. In my opinion, it’s analogous to winning a battle but losing the war – badly. Or, in keeping with the military theme, it was a Pyrrhic victory.

The aftermath of TANF is one reason why I’m not enthusiastic about the RSC’s legislation. Assuming the bill becomes law (it won’t anytime soon), will the scope of federal government’s powers have become more limited? Will the now commonplace attitude that the federal government exists to provide for us at our neighbor’s expense begin to recede? Will the tangled mess that is the relationship between the federal government and the states be unsnarled?

While I don’t take issue with the House conservatives’ desire to rein in welfare spending and limit the pathologies that the food stamp program engenders, it’s disappointing that the propriety of the federal government’s role in providing welfare remains virtually unchallenged on Capitol Hill.

The designers of the Constitution gave the federal government a tidy, defined list of powers – everything else was to be left to the states or to the people. Yes, that set-up has gradually been eviscerated. Yes, the federal government isn’t going to return to its more constrained origins in the near future. However, across the country there is renewed interest in reinstituting limits on federal power. Thus, there is hope for the long-term.

Policymakers who claim to share that interest would better serve this long-term hope by introducing legislation that returns powers the federal government has assumed to the states. Instead of tinkering with federal welfare programs, let’s have the public discussion and debate over the fundamental justness and desirability of letting Washington dictate how to meet the needs of the less fortunate.

[See these Cato essays (here, here, and here) for more on federal welfare programs and why both taxpayers and those in need would be better off if they were abolished. See this Cato essay for more on the desirability of fiscal federalism.]

Federal Reserve to Hold Press Conferences

Today Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke announced he would hold four annual press conferences, after select meetings of the Federal Open Market Committee.  The first such meeting will be on April 27 and will be webcast.

While I generally haven’t been a fan of Bernanke’s policy decisions, many of his “process” decisions, such as holding these press conferences, have been moves in the right direction of greater Fed communication with the public.  The Fed took some bold moves during and since the financial crisis – often without a word to the public.  Indeed, it is interesting that this announcement comes only a few days after the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal of the Bloomberg suit demanding Fed disclosure of banks assisted during the crisis. 

It remains to be seen, however, if these press briefings provide any real substance or explanation of the Fed’s actions.  After all, I don’t think Bernanke’s appearance on “60 Minutes” really changed anyone’s mind.  But then again, the interview was fairly devoid of actual substance.  For these future press briefings to have any real value, the reporters involved are going to have to ask tough, insightful questions, rather than the fluff Bernanke is used to.

Then perhaps the real problem with the Fed’s communication strategy is that it has been only one-way.  By now we all know that Bernanke didn’t want to be the Fed chair that oversaw “Great Depression II,” or that he’s just a simple guy from Dillon, SC.  But how about some sense that Bernanke is not just lecturing, but listening?  Where’s the evidence that he understands the squeeze that rising food and gas prices put on the middle class?  Where’s the evidence that he gets that the “Phillips Curve” isn’t real?

I am going to hold out for the best.  Maybe these briefings will provide some substance where previous appearances have not.

New Jersey Canceled for Lack of Funds

New Jersey is broke. In an effort to get the state back on its financial feet, governor Chris Christie has made across-the-board cuts–including cuts to public school spending. This week, a judge ruled that his school cuts are unconstitutional, in light of state supreme court precedents dating back decades.

Basically, New Jersey’s highest court has ruled that the state must spend a fantastically large sum of money in order to meet its constitutional requirement of providing a “thorough and efficient” school system.

Slight problem: by definition, a system that spends outrageous sums of money for outcomes that are merely “thorough” cannot also be “efficient.” The courts seem to have resolved this logical contradiction by ignoring the word efficient. So now they just demand that the state spend more money on public schools, while acknowledging how futile that is. In Judge Doyne’s words:

Despite spending levels that meet or exceed virtually every state in the country, and that saw a significant increase… from 2000 to 2008, our “at-risk” children are now moving further from proficiency.

Spending more on public schools will do one thing for the state, though: bankrupt it. Unless something changes soon, we could well see the Detroitification of New Jersey: an exodus of residents fleeing failed government services and rising taxes, creating a death spiral as the shrinking tax base exacerbates the fiscal problems and perpetuates the exodus.

The only way that I can see for New Jersey to survive the court-mandated burden of its public school systems is to provide families and taxpayers with an alternative to them.

The state legislature is currently considering a k-12 school choice program that would subsidize private school tuition for poor kids by giving businesses a tax break if they donate to non-profit scholarship organizations. Florida has a program like this and it saves taxpayers $1.49 for every dollar it reduces tax revenues. That’s because monopoly public schooling is so much less efficient (there’s that word again) than parent-chosen private schooling.

If the state doesn’t enact this program–and make it large enough to make a difference… fogettaboutit

Graduating Law Students - Come Work for Liberty!

For almost two year now, Cato has been running a highly successful legal associate program.  Talented recent law school grads have come to work for us during the time that their law firms have “deferred” their start dates (from a few months to a full year), with commensurate stipends.  The firm deferral phenomenon seems to be mostly played out as firms have adjusted their employment policies, but some law schools are now picking up the slack by creating post-grad fellowships with similar conditions.

Now that we’re again approaching graduation season, I thought I’d put out another call for more potential legal associates.  We can always use the extra brain, you can always use Cato on your resume, and your firms/schools can always use your getting substantive legal experience/counting as “employed” for US News rankings – we all win!

And so, the Cato Institute invites graduating (and recently graduated) law students and others with firm deferrals or post-grad funding – or simply a period of unemployment – to apply to work at our Center for Constitutional Studies. This is an opportunity to assist projects ranging from Supreme Court amicus briefs to policy papers to the Cato Supreme Court Review.  Start/end dates are flexible.  Interested students and graduates should email a cover letter, resume, transcript, and writing sample, along with any specific details of their availability to Jonathan Blanks at jblanks [at] cato [dot] org.  Note again that this announcement is for a non-paying job: we’ll give you a workspace, good experience, and an entree into the DC policy world, but we will not help your financial bottom line.  You don’t have to be a deferred law firm associate or funded by your school, but you do have to be able to afford not being paid by us.

Please feel free to pass the above information to your friends and colleagues.

For information on Cato’s programs for non-graduating students – or graduates who would like to be part of our internship program (which does come with some minimal compensation) – contact Joey Coon at jcoon [at] cato [dot] org.

The Government Shouldn’t Try to Manage the Communications Marketplace

Matt Yglesias takes my recent post gathering three links a little too seriously. Beyond their subject matter—the proposed merger of AT&T and T-Mobile—the theme running through the links was that they were all to the TechLiberationFront blog, not that “the federal government should not try to manage the development of the communications marketplace.” My humor is a little odd. Not everyone gets to come along….

But it’s true that the federal government should not try to manage the development of the communications marketplace. So I’ll defend that, and first principles, which Yglesias claims to have reached their limits when it comes to communications.

First, I’ll refine my thesis: the government should not manage the communications marketplace.

What is a “marketplace”? The handiest web dictionary has the following two relevant definitions: “1. An open area or square in a town where a public market or sale is set up. 2. The world of business and commerce.”

To “manage” such a thing [“to take charge or care of: to manage my investments”] would be to have a hand in much or all of it—not just meta-rules about the terms of buying and selling, but what may be sold on what terms, often up to and including price and quality.

Given these ordinary meanings, I think “manage the communications marketplace” has a relatively broad connotation, and the argument that the government should not manage the communications marketplace is easy. The give-and-take of the market is a better way to discover consumers’ true interests and to apportion resources to serve them. For all the effort and smarts they put into it, government regulators are at a serious disability compared to the market’s manifold forces. More often than not, regulators serve the interests of the corporations that are well organized to win their succor, and they nurture their own interests in maintaining and growing power.

If Yglesias holds the contrary view, that the government should regulate the price, quality, and content of communications services, I welcome that debate, including its free speech dimensions. (There’s a “first principle” worth keeping in mind.)

But he actually doesn’t take that position, not openly at least. He says, instead: “The federal government has to have some kind of policy vis-à-vis the electromagnetic spectrum.” From there, management of the entire communications marketplace is a few bootstraps away.

The electromagnetic spectrum is one input into the communications marketplace. Spectrum is a challenging policy area because we are unused to treating it as anything other than a federally controlled resource.

My thinking is not dictated by the choice Congress made in the Radio Act of 1912, though. It’s important to imagine what rules and tools for dividing up radio spectrum might have emerged had the federal government not assumed power over it. I would prefer to try to move in that direction. (I don’t exclude commons treatment of some spectrum as appropriate, btw.) The historical accident that the government presumed to control radio spectrum should not metastisize into government control of communications.

Holding communications policy as close to first principles as we can, including John Locke when we can, is not the same as intoning “government bad, markets good.” But if the two approaches reach a congruent result, so be it.

If Yglesias holds the view that the government should manage the communications marketplace, he should say so forthrightly. One suspects that he wanted to feature the ad hominem insinuated into his short post. (“Of course the Cato Institute isn’t allowed to reach any other conclusion.”) It certainly sells with his commenters! But there are very good reasons to keep the government from controlling the communications marketplace, and there is much work to be done wresting control of spectrum from the government as well.