Archives: January, 2013

‘Call me a Constitution Nut, But I Still Support the Second Amendment’

That’s the title of my op-ed that ran in the (Newark) Star-Ledger today.  Here’s an excerpt:

Even making it illegal to own a gun wouldn’t prevent a criminal or madman from doing his malevolent deed. Robust policies to prevent legal gun ownership only translate to guns being overwhelmingly possessed by those willing to break the law—i.e., criminals.

Indeed, Connecticut has some of the strictest gun laws in the country, and Sandy Hook Elementary is a “gun-free zone”—as was the movie theater in Aurora, Colo.

None of the measures at the top of gun-control advocates’ agenda—such as banning so-called assault weapons (ordinary rifles with certain cosmetic features like pistol grips or bayonet mounts) and closing gun-show loopholes—would’ve averted these shootings. The Newtown killer stole the pistols he used from his mother.

We’d be much better off focusing on improvements we can make in identifying and treating mental illness—the common factor in all these incidents—and ensuring that disqualifying records make it into the database used for background checks (which would’ve stopped the Virginia Tech shooter from buying his guns).

I actually wrote that piece nearly a month ago, right after the Newtown shooting, but of course this issue isn’t going anywhere.  As we’ve been discussing here at Cato how best to advance our ideas, one of my colleagues mentioned that it’s become obvious that the Obama administration has embarked on a concerted strategy for driving the gun debate. We can expect a new “story” every other day: Joe Biden meets with all and sundry; New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announces his plan to ban so-called assault weapons; Mayor Rahm Emanuel announces Chicago’s plan to evade last month’s Seventh Circuit ruling striking down Illinois restrictions on bearing arms. Next week, the Biden Task Force will announce its recommendations, then Sen. Dianne Feinstein announces a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, then Obama issues executive orders…

I don’t want to prejudge the various proposals that will come from Congress, the executive branch, and state officials, but I fear that most will do real damage to the individual right to own guns for legitimate reasons (self-defense, hunting, defense against tyranny) while not affecting incidents of gun violence one iota.  As I say in my op-ed, we should pursue certain sensible reforms—e.g., tightening the system of background checks—but further regulations and restrictions without addressing underlying social problems and mental illness issues will only deter the law-abiding rather than those who don’t care about the law.  I fear more faux “gun-free” zones of the sort exploited by the Aurora and Newtown killers, but at least the gun-controllers will feel good about having done “something.”

For a longer discussion of these issues, watch the forum I moderated on Wednesday. And, as Tim mentioned below, the Washington Post conducted an insightful interview on gun control with Cato’s chairman, Bob Levy.

Do Higher Tax Rates Hurt Growth?

Because of Obama’s class-warfare tax hike and additional tax increases by kleptocrats at the state level, many successful taxpayers will now lose more than 50 percent of any additional income they generate for the American economy.

I discuss the implications of this punitive tax policy in this CNBC interview.


Normally, this is the section where I highlight certain points I made, or bemoan the fact that I failed to mention an important fact or overlooked a key argument. Today, though, I want to address the do-taxes-impact-growth issue raised by Robert Frank.

Milwaukee Grandmother: “[The Gun] Saved My Life”

From ABCNews.com:

A gun-carrying grandmother in Milwaukee foiled an attempted robbery when she pulled a firearm on the suspect as he grabbed for her grocery store cash register.

Ernestine Aldana, 48, was behind the counter at the San Ignacio Market when a man in a dark hat pulled a knife on her and attempted to rob the store register, police said. Aldana pulled a handgun from behind the counter on the man, causing him to flee.

Americans use guns every day to stop mayhem. It’s nice to see some of those incidents reported in the news during the on-going gun control debate.

Cato hosted a book forum the other day for Craig Whitney’s Living with Guns: A Liberal’s Case for the Second Amendment. Since Whitney is a former reporter for the New York Times, I took the opportunity to ask him why reporters will ignore stories in which civilians use guns in self-defense or even write stories that omit the details where a civilian used a gun to stop a criminal attack. For example, the newspaper article might say something like “students were able to subdue the gunman” instead of letting readers know that “students had carry permits and used their own weapons to confront the gunman, who then surrendered.”

Whitney’s reply (at the 70:30 minute marker) was that it was just bad reporting. But it wasn’t one reporter who botched one story; dozens of stories have made the same “error.” And I supplied just a single incident—there are others. I agree with Whitney that it is not a liberal conspiracy, but I do think there’s a bias at work here. And think about the consequences: the average American is bombarded with news stories about criminals using guns in violent attacks, but there’s very little reporting when an ordinary civilian uses a gun to put a stop to a criminal attack. No wonder polls jump around.

To learn more, check out the paper Cato published last year that compiled scores of cases where civilians used guns to defend themselves.

Update: Cato Chairman Bob Levy is interviewed in today’s Washington Post on the Second Amendment and gun control.

Update II: Indiana home invasion ends with victim getting gun and shooting at suspects.

How Washington Grows Rich

I see that I’m quoted in Annie Lowrey’s New York Times Magazine story, “Washington’s Economic Boom, Financed by You”:

David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, told me: “Washington’s economy is based on the confiscation and transfer of wealth produced elsewhere. Out in the country they’re growing food, building cars and designing software — all these things that raise our standard of living. Here in Washington, everyone is writing memos to each other about how to take some of that money and which special interest should get it.” I asked him if he liked living in the city, which has become undeniably nicer. Boaz sputtered a bit. “I can’t walk to lunch from my office without having to avoid the construction projects!” he said. “For Washington, it does mean better restaurants and better entertainment, and the potholes get filled faster. But for the country as a whole? I don’t think it’s a good thing for America.”

I’m confident I didn’t sputter, but otherwise this sounds right. I’ve been writing about the wealth of the Washington area and where it comes from for years.  

Wait, Didn’t the Fiscal Cliff Deal Originate in the Senate?

If you thought the policy side of the “American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012” is bad, did you notice that there’s a constitutional problem too? I’m sure there’s more than one, actually, but this one was easy to spot without even digging into the gory details.

Recall that the fiscal cliff bill was first passed by the Senate in the wee hours of New Year’s Day, and then seconded by a vote of the House some 20 hours later. And yet, Article I, Section 7, Clause 1—known as the Origination Clause—states: “All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.” 

Far from being “archaic, idiosyncratic and downright evil”—as Georgetown law professor Mike Seidman claimed as part of his argument for throwing out the Constitution altogether—this provision serves, or at least is supposed to serve, the very real and timeless purpose of keeping the taxing power as close to the voters as possible. Mindful of the potential for abuses of this awesome power (see, e.g., John Roberts on Obamacare) the Constitution’s authors chose to give it to the congressional body that is elected every two years directly by people in local districts (the House), instead of the one whose members serve alternating six-year terms and weren’t initially directly elected (the Senate). As Cato adjunct scholar Tim Sandefur explains in a forthcoming law review article (footnotes/citations omitted):

When the Anti-Federalist “Brutus” warned that the taxing power, “exercised without limitation,” will “introduce itself into every corner of the city, and country” and “light upon the head of every person in the United States” crying “GIVE! GIVE!” the Constitution’s supporters answered that this risk was minimized by the political checks over the taxing power. “The exclusive privilege of originating money bills [belongs] to the house of representatives,” wrote Alexander Hamilton.  This would ensure that the power to tax belonged to “the most popular branch” of the government, “the favorite of the people.” James Madison reiterated this point: the “principal reason” why the House was given the power “of originating money bills” was that the Representatives “were chosen by the people, and supposed to be the best acquainted with their interest and ability.” Perhaps the point was put best by George Mason, who considered the Senate “[a]n aristocratic body” which “should ever be suspected of an encroaching tendency,” and believed that “[t]he purse strings should never be put into its hands.”

So what happened last week? Did Harry Reid, John Boehner, and Barack Obama simply agree to ignore the Constitution? (Specifically here, I mean—we know they do generally where federal power is concerned.) Were the House and Senate parliamentarians overruled by a naked political deal?

Obama’s Stimulus: A Bit of Pork, a Lot of Opportunism

A study [$] published in the winter edition of Political Science Quarterly considers two possible reasons for why the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) failed to sprinkle Uncle Sam’s magic dust onto those areas of the country that were being hardest hit by the recession. 

Was it because well-positioned politicians were successful in delivering the pork? 

Or was it because the recession created a “window of opportunity” for politicians to quickly spend a bunch of additional money on pet causes, which had the effect of benefitting certain areas of the country? 

I’m going to skip right to the answer: the uneven geographic distribution of stimulus funds had only a little to do with traditional pork barreling and much to do with Obama’s then chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel’s famous quip that “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” 

On the possibility of traditional pork-barreling, the authors found no statistically significant relationship between the distribution of funds and whether a county was represented by a politician serving on a congressional committee relevant to stimulus funding. Nor was a relationship found between funding and counties that were represented by a Democrat in the House or Senate. However, a relationship was found between funding and those counties that overwhelmingly voted for the president: 

There does, however, appear to be a distinct tilt toward counties that were stronger for the Democratic Party in 2008. All else equal, counties at the 90th percentile of Democratic share presidential vote ’08 received between $35 and $36 more per capita in both total funding and infrastructure projects than did counties at the 10th percentile (p ≤ .001)…The effect of presidential politics may be especially relevant for the distribution of ARRA funds because most of the grants, loans, and contracts funded by the stimulus were in discretionary programs overseen by administrative agencies, over which presidents and their political appointees exercise influence. 

On the other hand, the authors found that a county possessing attributes that synched with the policies funded in ARRA were more likely to receive money. For example, a county with a lot of interstate highway mileage made out better than a county that did not. Another example is counties that had a larger share of state and local government workers received a larger share of funds. 

While it’s not surprising that legislation that funds highway infrastructure projects would benefit areas with more highway mileage, let’s remember that the stimulus was sold by many politicians as being necessary to help those with the greatest need. Indeed, as the authors point out, the text of the legislation stated that a main goal was “to assist those most impacted by the recession.” 

The bottom line is that the Obama administration used the economic downturn to spend a bunch of money it otherwise would not have been able to on a stack of its pet policies. In the process, the counties that did the most to put Obama in the White House received a taxpayer-funded thank you in return.  

Prosperity and World Population Growth

Readers of Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist and Ronald Bailey’s columns in the Reason magazine will not be surprised to hear that the rate of population growth is slowing—dramatically—throughout the world. Jeff Wise’s article in the Slate magazine, “About that Overpopulation Problem,” revisits that familiar territory and makes some interesting points. Ultimately, however, Wise fails to appreciate the real reasons for the fall in population growth rate.

First, the good news. As Wise notes, “[The] rate of global population growth has slowed. And it’s expected to keep slowing. Indeed, according to experts’ best estimates, the total population of Earth will stop growing within the lifespan of people alive today. And then it will fall… the long-dreaded resource shortage may turn out not to be a problem at all.”

“For hundreds of thousands of years,” Wise’s article continues, “in order for humanity to survive things like epidemics and wars and famine, birthrates had to be very high. Eventually, thanks to technology, death rates started to fall in Europe and in North America, and the population size soared. In time, though, birthrates fell as well, and the population leveled out.”

Why might that be? “The reason,” Wise avers, “for the implacability of demographic transition can be expressed in one word: education. One of the first things that countries do when they start to develop is educate their young people, including girls. That dramatically improves the size and quality of the workforce. But it also introduces an opportunity cost for having babies.”

True enough, better education is a by-product of development, but where does development come from?

For that we have to look to Ronald Bailey. As he writes, “In 2002, Seth Norton, a business economics professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, published a remarkably interesting study on the inverse relationship between prosperity and fertility. Norton compared fertility rates of over 100 countries with their index rankings for economic freedom and another index for the rule of law. ‘Fertility rate is highest for those countries that have little economic freedom and little respect for the rule of law,’ wrote Norton. ‘The relationship is a powerful one. Fertility rates are more than twice as high in countries with low levels of economic freedom and the rule of law compared to countries with high levels of those measures.’”

And, “Economic freedom and the rule of law produce prosperity which dramatically lowers child mortality which, in turn, reduces the incentive to bear more children. In addition, along with increased prosperity comes more education for women, opening up more productive opportunities for them in the cash economy. This increases the opportunity costs for staying at home to rear children. Educating children to meet the productive challenges of growing economies also becomes more expensive and time consuming.”

So, education is a proximate cause of population growth slowdown. The ultimate cause, however, rests with economic freedom and resulting prosperity.