Archives: December, 2011

Mandatory Minimum Sentences

Federal Appellate Judge Andre Davis has penned an op-ed about mandatory minimum sentences.  Here’s an excerpt:

As a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, I learn of many personal narratives. Tony Gregg’s bears retelling.

Mr. Gregg was a user, a seller, a “snitch” for the FBI. His early life was marked by abuse and instability, suicide attempts, jails and prison stays. As a drug user, Mr. Gregg resorted to selling crack cocaine — not kilos, but several grams at a time out of a hotel room in a run-down section of Richmond, Va.

Not unexpectedly, he was arrested and convicted. A district judge sentenced Mr. Gregg to the mandatory term of life imprisonment, required by statute, at the discretion of the prosecutor, for a third conviction of a felony drug offense.

When Mr. Gregg’s case came before me and my colleagues on appeal, there was nothing we could do but uphold the sentence of life in prison. The appellate court, like the disapproving trial court, found its hands were tied.

I do not believe Mr. Gregg deserves life in prison — the kind of sentence often imposed on convicted murderers — but I am handicapped by mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, set by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.

And Mr. Gregg’s is far from the only story that underscores the kind of handcuffing by mandatory minimums that U.S. judges habitually face.

After 25 years of watching countless Tony Greggs serve out impossibly long sentences for transgressions that would be better served by drug treatment and social safety nets, I say with certainty that mandatory minimums are unfair and unjust. They cost taxpayers too much money and make very little sense.

For more information, vist the FAMM web site.

 

Podcast: How States Can Shut Down ObamaCare

Here’s a podcast on how states can shut down ObamaCare.

And here are links to additional material, including an op-ed that provides an overview, a blog post about Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) getting involved, a blog post on how presidential candidates could get involved, and finally a blog post on what the Obama administration has to say about all this.

The Student Aid ‘Myth’ Myth

There’s a very disturbing tendency among academics – though many people in policy fights do it – to dodge substantive debate by declaring, basically, “the other side is full of garbage so just ignore them.” You probably see it most glaringly about climate change – no one credible disagrees with Al Gore! – but I see it far too frequently regarding the possibility that government student aid, the bulk of which comes from Washington, is a significant factor behind college price inflation. 

Today, we are treated to this lame dodge in a letter to the Washington Post from Terry Hartle, Senior Vice President at the American Council on Education, arguably the most powerful of Ivory Tower advocacy groups. He writes:

Second, we must do away with one of the most persistent and pernicious myths of higher education: that increases in federal aid drive up the cost of college. Several studies, including two by the Education Department, show there is no link between federal student aid and tuition increases. But there are still those who would have people believe that modest increases in student aid programs are the driving force behind institutions’ decisions about tuition and fees.

I would love to put this “myth” myth to rest. Yes, as I discuss in my recent policy analysis, there are serious challenges in trying to prove that aid fuels price inflation. Lots of variables affect what colleges charge; you need to study long time frames encompassing several business cycles; and you have to account for the fact that aid automatically rises when prices do. So while there is tremendous logical reason to think aid has enabled price inflation – former college presidents acknowledge as much, basic economics says subsidies drive up demand, etc. – like any social science there is no definitive proof.

That sure as heck doesn’t mean, though, that there isn’t any research showing government aid driving price inflation, even if it doesn’t prove it. In addition to the incredibly powerful rational reasons to strongly suspect aid plays a big role in out-of-control college pricing, there is, indeed, empirical evidence. For the benefit of the whole debate I offer a smattering of it below, hopefully putting an end to the disturbing denial tactic employed by Hartle and others. Hopefully, but not likely….

John D. Singell, Jr., and Joe A. Stone, “For Whom the Pell Tolls: The Response of University Tuition to Federal Grants-in-Aid,” Economics of Education Review 26, no. 3 (2006): 285-95.

Bridget Terry Long, “How Do Financial Aid Policies Affect Colleges? The Institutional Impact of Georgia Hope Scholarships,” Journal of Human Resources 30, no. 4 (2004): 1045-66.

Bradley A. Curs and Luciana Dar, “Do Institutions Respond Assymetrically to Changes in State Need- and Merit-Based Aid? ” Working Paper, November 1, 2010.

Rebecca J. Acosta, “How Do Colleges Respond to Changes in Federal Student Aid,” Working Paper, October 2001.

Michael Rizzo and Ronald G. Ehrenberg, “Resident and Nonresident Tuition and Enrollment at Flagship State Universities,” in College Choices: The Economics of Where to Go, When to Go, and How to Pay for It, edited by Caroline M. Hoxby, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

Income Inequality Data Has Flaws

In the Wall Street Journal yesterday, Alan Reynolds pointed out some of the flaws in the data being used in the income inequality debate. Far too many policymakers, analysts, and reporters assume that the data showing rising inequality is carved in stone, but it isn’t. Some portion of the supposed change in income inequality in recent decades is a statistical artifact due to changes in marginal tax rates and other factors.

One of Alan’s points is that fluctuations in capital gains (CG) realizations by the top 1 percent of earners plays an important role in that group’s measured income share out of total American income. I constructed two charts with Alan’s data to illustrate the point. The two charts are scatter plots using data from 1979 to 2009.

Chart 1: Lower CG Tax Rates Lead to Higher CG Realizations for the Top 1%. In years when we had a higher 28 percent CG tax rate, the share of high earners’ income from CG is lower. In years when we’ve had lower 15 and 20 percent CG rates, the share is higher.

Chart 2: Higher CG Realizations Increase the Measured Share of the Top Earners’ Income. In years with lower CG tax rates, high earners realize more CG, and that inflates their measured share of total American income.

(Note for data wonks: Regressions on these two relationships were highly statistically significant, i.e. high F-statistics).

Information Regulation that Hasn’t Worked

When Senator William Proxmire (D-WI) proposed and passed the Fair Credit Reporting Act forty years ago, he almost certainly believed that the law would fix the problems he cited in introducing it. It hasn’t. The bulk of the difficulties he saw in credit reporting still exist today, at least to hear consumer advocates tell it.

Advocates of sweeping privacy legislation and other regulation of the information economy would do well to heed the lessons offered by the FCRA. Top-down federal regulation isn’t up to the task of designing the information society. That’s the upshot of my new Policy Analysis, “Reputation under Regulation: The Fair Credit Reporting Act at 40 and Lessons for the Internet Privacy Debate.” In it, I compare Senator Proxmire’s goals for the credit reporting industry when he introduced the FCRA in 1969 against the results of the law today. Most of the problems that existed then persist today. Some problems with credit reporting have abated and some new problems have emerged.

Credit reporting is a complicated information business. Challenges come from identity issues, judgments about biography, and the many nuances of fairness. But credit reporting is simple compared to today’s expanding and shifting information environment.

“Experience with the Fair Credit Reporting Act counsels caution with respect to regulating information businesses,” I write in the paper. “The federal legislators, regulators, and consumer advocates who echo Senator Proxmire’s earnest desire to help do not necessarily know how to solve these problems any better than he did.”

Management of the information economy should be left to the people who are together building it and using it, not to government authorities. This is not because information collection, processing, and use are free of problems, but because regulation is ill-equipped to solve them.

Ignore the Hawks on Iran, Too

This week, experts at the (neo)conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) released a report on how to deal with a nuclear-armed Iran.

The authors argue that because of the “rising consensus” that a preemptive attack is unappealing, and that sanctions likely will fail, they recommend “a coherent Iran containment policy.” That approach entails, among other things, that America “work toward a political transformation, if not a physical transformation, of the Tehran regime.” Leaving aside the fact that Washington has already once “physically transformed the Tehran regime” – when alongside the British it overthrew Iran’s democratically elected prime minister in 1953 and restored the Shah – there is a broader problem that comes with listening to proponents of the calamitous decision to invade Iraq.

Take, for instance, report co-author Danielle Pletka, who years ago decreed “Saddam’s entire Ba’athist government must be replaced.” Little surprise that someone who promoted a war based on a web of misleading information is now peddling the notion that Iran is less than a year from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

More credible voices suggest otherwise. The nonprofit Arms Control Association (ACA) observed that the most-recent IAEA report suggests “[I]t remains apparent that a nuclear-armed Iran is still not imminent nor is it inevitable.” Iran was engaged in nuclear weapons development activities until it stopped in 2003, and as Cato’s Justin Logan observes, the IAEA’s own report shows there is no definitive evidence of Iran’s diversion of fissile material.

When Pletka was called out for her “less than a year” prediction, she turned up her nose and snapped:

Quibblers will suggest that there are important “ifs” in both these assessments. And yes, the key “if” is “if” Iran decides to build a bomb. So, I suppose when I said “less than a year away from having a nuclear weapon,” I should have added, “if they want one.” But… isn’t that the point? Do we want to leave this decision up to Khamenei?

Confronted with ambiguous information, and forced to infer intentions, hawks evince the very same arrogance and overconfidence that helped open the door for Iranian influence in the region in the first place by toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime (Pletka advocated repeatedly for this leading up to the 2003 invasion). Pletka and others who years ago had the gall to argue that Iraq “will end when it ends” are today worthy of being ignored on Iran.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.