Archives: 04/2012

New York Times Covers ADA Shakedown Lawsuits

As the New York Times reports today, mass filing of accessibility lawsuits against Main Street businesses, long a cottage industry for Florida and California lawyers, has now reached Gotham in a big way:

A small cadre of lawyers, some from out of state, are using New York City’s age and architectural quirkiness as the foundation for a flood of lawsuits citing violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The lawyers are generally not acting on existing complaints from people with disabilities. Instead, they identify local businesses, like bagel shops and delis, that are not in compliance with the law, and then aggressively recruit plaintiffs from advocacy groups for people with disabilities.

The cases then settle for a few thousand dollars in what are described as legal fees, as well as a payment (token or otherwise) to the named client, and a promise to relocate or replace the shelf or doorknob or paper towel dispenser whose ADA-noncompliant status was complained of in the suit.

I’ve been covering these shakedown operations for years, and some other New York press outlets have already gotten to the same case histories in livelier fashion, as with the New York Post, which last June reported on the same attorney (Bradley Weitz) and client (Zoltan Hirsch) who figure prominently in today’s Times report. (Best detail from the Post: “[Hirsch] targeted a pedicure station at the Red & White Spa in SoHo—even though he has no feet.”) Still, the Times adds some helpful details, such as that the number of similar suits nationwide has more than doubled in five years (to 3,000, “including more than 300 in New York”) and that New York’s pro-plaintiff city and state Human Rights Laws encourage things by allowing damages for complainants, thus raising the suits’ extraction value beyond the level of attorneys’ fees. (California has the worst ADA shakedown racket—to the point where liberal Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein recently threatened to intervene unless Sacramento does something to clean it up—because of the distinctively high damages available under its Unruh Act).

Inevitably, the Times also quotes advocates including a law professor, in this case Ruth Colker of Ohio State, defending the use of the law in this fashion. That Colker and other top ADA specialists in legal academia actually defend the law’s use as a shakedown mechanism—after all, doesn’t that deter violations?—is about as severe a judgment on the ideological state of legal academia as anything in Schools for Misrule.

Paul Krugman’s Distorted Views on Inequality in Latin America

When it comes to discussing Latin America, Paul Krugman has a tortuous relationship with facts. Let’s take a look at a post he wrote last week on inequality in the region. Krugman claims that Latin America’s decline in inequality in the last decade is due to the region “partially turning its back on the Washington Consensus” (a term that has misleadingly become short hand for free market policies). Is that the case?

First, note how the graph in Krugman’s post actually shows inequality going up in Latin America during the 1980s, before the implementation of policies related to the Washington Consensus (which for most countries begins in the early 1990s), and then sharply declining before the arrival of what he calls the “new policy approach” of left-of-center governments. The rise of inequality in Latin America in the 1980s coincides with the periods of hyperinflation that crippled the economies of Argentina, Brazil, Nicaragua, Peru, and Bolivia. Central banks in Latin America were all too busy in those years financing the acute fiscal imbalances of their central governments through the emission of money. And Latin American countries were deep in the red precisely because their bloated public sectors became unsustainable, leading to the serious debt crisis of 1982. Thus, it was an inflationary spree, caused by the crisis of big government, that exacerbated inequality in the region. Of course, Krugman fails to mention this.

Can we assign the recent decline in inequality in Latin America to any specific ideology? A recent study by Kenneth Roberts of Cornell University on the politics of inequality in Latin America looked at inequality trends from 2000 to 2010 and found that “countries that experienced net declines in inequality were governed by diverse administrations of the left, centre, and right, including non-leftist governments in Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Paraguay, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Panama.” According to Roberts, “there was no strict correspondence between declining inequality and either the ideological profile of national governments or any specific set of redistributive initiatives.”

Second, it’s quite a stretch to state that Latin America as a region moved away from the Washington Consensus. I’m not going to dwell here on the virtues of all the policy recommendations identified by John Williamson back in 1989 or discuss the extent to which they were actually implemented by the various Latin American governments. However, even though some countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Argentina have turned their backs on responsible macroeconomic policies in the last few years, most governments in the region, including those called “left of center,” still implement macroeconomic policies related to the Washington Consensus such as freer trade, fiscal and monetary discipline, and attraction of foreign direct investment.

It is telling that despite the serious deterioration in economic freedom in countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador, and Argentina economic liberty has actually increased—slightly—in Latin America as a region in the last decade. According to the Economic Freedom of the World , Latin America went from a regional average grade of 6.56 (out of 10) in 2000 to 6.62 in 2009. Implying that Latin America has somehow turned its back on market-friendly policies is misleading.

Third, Krugman looks at the economic performance of Latin American governments based on their ideological affiliation, suggesting that social democratic regimes have a better record than non-left-of-center governments. However, the study on which he bases his post relies too heavily on analyzing governments by their ideological labels, rather than looking at their actual economic policies. This can be very misleading. For example, during the period covered by the study (2000s), Chile is ranked as left of center, even though during that decade the country increased its level of economic freedom, moving up in the ranking of the Economic Freedom of the World index from 28th place in 2000 to 5th in 2009.

Finally, Krugman finished his post questioning Chile’s free market model and private pension system (even though the study he was referencing categorizes Chile as “left of center” and thus credited that ideological camp for Chile’s healthy economic indicators). Krugman doesn’t provide evidence to substantiate his criticism other than making a presumable reference to the recent student protests in Chile. If he looked at the facts, he would see a different picture. He would find that Chile is the country with the most impressive record in poverty reduction in Latin America (the poverty rate fell from 45 percent in the mid-1980s to just 15 percent in 2011), that it has tripled its income per capita since 1990 to $16,000 (the highest in Latin America), and that it is set to become the first developed nation in Latin America within a decade. What is it about this record that Krugman finds so annoying?

China Old and New

The developing scandal and opaque power struggle surrounding fall princeling Bo Xiali, once thought to be a shoe-in for a top party position, reminds us of the old China. The fate of a nation of 1.3 billion people has been decided by relatively few men in Zhongnanhai, Beijing’s leadership compound. Bo’s ouster appears more likely to strengthen those dedicated to maintaining a system of stable authoritarianism than those hoping to promote political liberalism, but the outcome may still be better than the alternative.

Although in this way the “new” China doesn’t look very different from the perpetual back room machinations under Mao Zedong, the communist Humpty Dumpty really has fallen off the wall, never to be put back together again. After all, during the Cultural Revolution no one looked to citizens of the People’s Republic of China to enhance the profits of upscale New York City retailers. Today, Chinese travelers are spending some of their country’s expansive export earnings in America.

Reports the New York Times:

Over five days in January, a group of visitors to New York was treated to a private concert with the pianist Lang Lang at the Montblanc store, cocktails and a fashion show attended by the designers Oscar de la Renta and Diane Von Furstenberg, and a tour of Estée Lauder’s original office.

They were not celebrities. They were not government officials. They were Chinese tourists with a lot of money.

The most important relationship of the 21st century is likely to be that between the United States and China. Both countries have a big stake in emphasizing cooperation over confrontation. But a prosperous, even democratic PRC still could pose a significant geopolitical challenge to America. After all, nationalism knows no ideological bounds, wealth enhances military potential, and vote-seeking politicians have been known to harness the whirlwind of demagoguery to win. Nevertheless, a China where the majority of citizens are still desperate to climb the income ladder and the elite are enjoying their privileges is far less likely to intentionally blow up the international system that has moved their nation from poverty to prosperity.

Whether out of ideological conviction or political convenience, Bo was seen as pushing for a return to Maoist values. However, most Chinese seem to believe “Been there, done that” during the not so Great Leap Forward and the catastrophic Cultural Revolution. For a lucky few in the new China, it’s now even time to shop at Bergdorf Goodman!

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Another Transparency Fail

According to a lengthy article in today’s Washington Post, “hundreds of defendants nationwide remain in prison or on parole for crimes that might merit exoneration, a retrial or retesting of evidence using DNA because FBI hair and fiber experts may have misidentified them as suspects.” The report says government officials have known for years that flawed forensic work might be responsible for convicting and incarcerating innocent people, but the defendants and their attorneys were never notified.

That’s difficult to believe because the Justice Department has said many times that it is totally committed to the goal of making the Obama administration the “most transparent Administration in history.” Attorney General Eric Holder will certainly admit that something is amiss when his department is holding exculpatory information and keeping it under wraps—but maybe he believes this is proof that his department is underfunded.  Hardly.

“…the American homeland is the planet”

For years, my colleagues and I have been arguing that disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda does not require the occupation of Afghanistan or anywhere else. Wars are incredibly wasteful and counterproductive to the goal of stopping terrorism. Would-be terrorists, moreover, have reduced their dependence on “base camps” and “physical havens” because they can plan, organize, and train from virtually anywhere in the world.

Mike M. from Paradigm Cure ably sums up the broader problem from which our post-9/11 mindset stems:

That is the notion that it is the responsibility of the US government to keep Americans safe from all terrorist attacks, at all times; the insistence that one attack amounts to failure, that the standard for homeland security is perfection.

[…]

We await an American political leader who will tell us the Whole Truth:  That in the emerging connected and networked world, we cannot be made totally safe.  That despite their level efforts, life—and strategy—are full of choices, and tradeoffs.  In so many ways, American public life these last few decades has been all about the avoidance of truth, and choice, and tradeoff, the promise that we could have everything and avoid the bill.  Many bills are now coming due; long-delayed tradeoffs are being foisted.  And one of them, sooner or later, will be the simple, unalterable fact:  We cannot dominate the earth, and so we must accept some risk at home.

Indeed, we are not perfect. In fact, as foreign policy planners were ordering American soldiers to invade and occupy two foreign countries simultaneously, back at home their fellow Americans were exposed to the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber, the Times Square bomber, the Ft. Hood shooter, and other failed and foiled terrorist plots and near misses. Clearly, these terrorists did not get the memo that we were supposed to be fighting them “over there.”

Unfortunately, U.S. officials remain hostage to the outdated notion that a specific territory matters—they remain possessed by a sort of safe haven syndrome. But perhaps even more crucial is that government officials also remain fixated on heading off every conceivable hazard through greater government action.

I must admit, however, that the belief that America must stop any and all terrorist attacks by controlling the world’s ungoverned spaces makes sense if one believes what the 9/11 Commission wrote on page 362 about warding off al Qaeda.

In this sense, 9/11 has taught us that terrorism against American interests ‘over there’ should be regarded just as we regard terrorism against America ‘over here.’ In this same sense, the American homeland is the planet. [Emphasis added]

‘How an E-Verify Requirement Can Help’

I know little about a House Judiciary Committee hearing tomorrow on E-Verify, but the title of it has a peculiar odor: “Document Fraud in Employment Authorization: How an E-Verify Requirement Can Help.”

You see, the immigration policies Congress has set are the source of the problem. Document fraud is made more likely by employment authorization requirements meant to enforce them, which are also—let’s remember—intrusive and costly business regulation.

In my Cato Policy Analysis “Electronic Employment Eligibility Verification: Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration,” I wrote about restrictive immigration policies and the intrusive “internal enforcement” programs they have spawned. In a section titled “Counterattacks and Complications,” I examined how workers and employers will collude to avoid and frustrate worker verification. Mandatory E-Verify will increase identity and document fraud because it makes these frauds profitable. Trying to solve this problem, the government will naturally gravitate toward more powerful identity systems, including biometric identity cards and tracking.

Sure enough, House Judiciary Committee chairman Lamar Smith’s bill, the “Legal Workforce Act,” has a “pilot program” for a biometric national identity card.

When committing fraud is the pathway to productive employment, you know something is out of whack. Among the things out of whack are: too-restrictive immigration policy, internal enforcement, and E-Verify. This is supposed to be a free country where willingness and ability are the keys to employment.

The World’s Policeman

Is the United States the world’s policeman, as Cato scholars and presidential candidate Ron Paul, among others, have often complained? A headline on the front page of the Washington Post today reads:

U.S. troops moving slowly against Kony

Are we then at war in central Africa? Not quite. We’re just there to “assist regional militaries.” But the article sure reads like a world-policeman report:

Behind razor wire and bamboo walls topped with security cameras sits one of the newest U.S. military outposts in Africa. U.S. Special Forces soldiers with tattooed forearms and sunglasses emerge daily in pickup trucks that carry weapons, supplies and interpreters — as well as the expectations of a vast region living in fear of a man and his brutal militia.

“The Americans have captured Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein,” said Bassiri Moke, a tribal chief. “Surely they can catch Joseph Kony.”

In this far-flung nook of central Africa, the United States has assumed a small but vital role in one of Africa’s most vexing military challenges: to capture Kony and dismantle his Lord’s Resistance Army.

Might this be something that President Obama and Mitt Romney might debate over the next six months—whether the United States military should be pursuing criminals and warlords across the globe? Might the United States Senate, which isn’t doing anything else, hold a debate on whether the United States should be injecting its military forces into a conflict that spans several countries?