Archives: August, 2013

The Post Office Is Broke: End Washington’s Postal Monopoly

The United States Postal Service has run up $4 billion in losses so far this year, on top of last year’s $15.9 billion deficit. Washington should get out of the mail business. 

Congress created the Post Office in 1792, turning it into an important patronage tool. Legislators also passed the Private Express Statutes, giving the government a monopoly over first class mail.  

Washington imposed fines on early competitors, including the famed Lysander Spooner. Uncle Sam continues to rigorously police his monopoly.  

The Postal Service boasts that it would rank number 42 on the list of the Fortune 500—but that is only because the other 499 companies on the list, as well as everyone else, are barred from competing to deliver mail. Unfortunately for USPS, government lawyers cannot force people to send letters. The number of pieces of mail delivered dropped from 213 billion in 2006 to 160 billion last year. 

In 1971 Congress voted to turn the post office into a quasi-private company. However, Washington preserved the monopoly, retained control over system operations, and preserved a variety of indirect subsidies. For instance, USPS is exempt from taxes, regulations, and even parking tickets.

Government Should Bear the Burden of Showing Why You Can’t Exercise Your Right to Bear Arms

For anyone who has watched The Wire, it’s no surprise that Maryland (Baltimore, in particular) has one of the highest rates of violent crime in the country. In an alleged effort to address this persistent problem, the state requires an applicant for a license to carry a handgun to demonstrate “a good and substantial reason to wear, carry, or transport a handgun as a reasonable precaution against apprehended danger.”

Under this prove-it-to-use-it standard, Baltimore County resident Raymond Woollard, who had had a license to carry for six years (after a violent home invasion), was denied a license renewal because he could not document that he had been threatened recently. The fact that he had been attacked by his son-in-law seven years earlier, an event to which it took law enforcement two-and-a-half hours to respond, was insufficient to meet Maryland’s special-need requirement.

Woollard, along with the Second Amendment Foundation, thus brought suit challenging the law under the Supreme Court’s recent decisions in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) and McDonald v. Chicago (2010). Although the district court ruled for Woollard, finding that Maryland’s restriction violated the Second Amendment, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit overturned the lower court and reinstated the law. The court purported to apply “intermediate scrutiny,” which allows a challenged statute to survive only if it is “substantially related to the achievement of an important governmental interest,” but in fact, hardly applied any scrutiny at all. The court’s analysis was both circular and contemptuous of Heller, finding that a regulation is “substantially related” to the valid government interest of curtailing criminal gun violence if it merely reduces the number of citizens lawfully carrying handguns, thus accepting the state’s implicit argument that the right to bear arms was itself the problem, one that should not be overcome without “a good and substantial” reason.

Stop and Frisk Ruling

Today Federal District Judge Shira Scheindlin made her ruling in a much anticipated case against the New York City Police Department regarding its controversial “Stop and Frisk” tactics. The ruling itself is some 195 pages long which will take me a few days to study, but Judge Scheindlin did prepare a very helpful “Executive Summary” so we know the bottom line. Here’s a snippet:

“I find that [New York] City is liable for violating plaintiff’s Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The City acted with deliberate indifference toward the NYPD’s practice of making unconstitutional stops and unconstitutional frisks….I also conclude that the City’s highest officials have turned a blind eye to the evidence that officers conducting stops in a racially discriminatory manner. In their zeal to defend a policy that they believe to be effective, they have willfully ignored overwhelming proof that the policy of targeting ‘the right people’ is racially discriminatory and therefore violates the United States Constitution.”

An important ruling. Airline passengers have many legitimate grievances against TSA searches, but now imagine getting frisked when you leave your home for work, or to meet friends. That’s the experience of many minority males. Judge Scheindlin reminds everyone that the Fourth Amendment applies to everyone—even those who live in neighborhoods where the crime rate is higher.

For related Cato work, go here and here.

Attorney General Holder to Address Overincarceration in the U.S.

This afternoon Attorney General Eric Holder will be addressing the annual convention of the American Bar Association. Copies of his speech have been released in advance to the news media. According to reports, the speech announces policy changes related to sentencing and the on-going problem of overincarceration in the United States. The factoid that boggles the mind is that the United States has about 5 percent of the world’s population, but we have about 25 percent of the world’s prisoners! During the 1990s and early 2000s we were building a prison about every week—and as soon as they were built, they filled up. Actually, many of our prisons are operating beyond their design capacity. The problem has been festering for years. Holder’s proposed changes are baby steps that fall way short of what needs doing. The drug war is responsible for the tidal wave of arrests and prosecutions, and prisoners in the United States. Ending the war is the key to this. At the very least, President Obama should be leading the debate on ending the war on marijuana, but he isn’t.

Attorney General Holder is basically ordering federal prosecutors to bypass mandatory sentence rules in certain situations. It is a small step. Most of the criminal cases in the United States are handled at the state level, so the impact of this federal move can be huge to the persons actually impacted, but small in terms of the impact on the overall system. 

I recently discussed a proposal by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) to scale back mandatory minimum sentences here.

More Americans Going Galt

President Obama promised he would unite the world…and he’s right.

Representatives from all parts of the globe have bitterly complained about an awful piece of legislation, called the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), that was enacted back in 2010.

Michael Ramirez/Investor's Business Daily(Michael Ramirez/Investors Business Daily)

They despise this unjust law because it extends the power of the IRS into the domestic affairs of other nations. That’s an understandable source of conflict, which should be easy to understand. Wouldn’t all of us get upset, after all, if the French government or Russian government wanted to impose their laws on things that take place within our borders?

But it’s not just foreign governments that are irked. The law is so bad that it is causing a big uptick in the number of Americans who are giving up their citizenship.

Here are some details from a Bloomberg report.

Americans renouncing U.S. citizenship surged sixfold in the second quarter from a year earlier… Expatriates giving up their nationality at U.S. embassies climbed to 1,131 in the three months through June from 189 in the year-earlier period, according to Federal Register figures published today. That brought the first-half total to 1,810 compared with 235 for the whole of 2008. The U.S., the only nation in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that taxes citizens wherever they reside.

I’m glad that the article mentions that American law is so out of whack with the rest of the world.

The Data Says Open-Ended Spending Bills Are Common

Let’s start with a little civics lesson: Congress spends money through a two-step process. Spending must first be authorized. That’s called an authorization of appropriations. Then, in a second step, the money is actually appropriated. There are exceptions, but on the whole this is how spending works. Authorizing bills go to authorizing committees, and appropriations bills go to the appropriations committees. When both do their thing, money gets spent. It’s good to keep an eye on.

In our project to generate better data about what Congress is doing, we’ve “marked up” over 80 percent of the bills introduced in Congress so far this year, adding richer and more revealing computer-readable data to the text of bills. That’s over 4,000 of the 5,000-plus bills introduced in Congress since January. We’re to the point where we can learn things.

I was surprised to find just how often the bills that authorize spending leave the amounts open-ended. A recent sample of the bills we’ve marked up includes 428 bills with authorizations of appropriations. Just over 40 percent of them place no limit on how much money will be spent. They say things like “such sums as may be necessary,” leaving entirely to the appropriations committees how much to spend. (There are many bills with both defined amounts and open-ended spending. To be conservative, we treated any bill having limited spending as not unlimited.)

This leads me to two related conclusions. First, authorizations of appropriations being a potential brake on spending, this surprisingly common practice is part of Congress’s fiscal indiscipline. The members of Congress and Senators who introduce such bills and vote to authorize open-ended spending are avoiding their responsibility to determine how much a program is worth to us, the taxpayers.

Obama Administration Should Close NATO Door to Georgia

Although many members of the defense establishment haven’t seemed to notice, the Evil Empire collapsed. The Soviet Union is gone, along with the Warsaw Pact. Europe is wealthier than America. Why is Washington still pushing to expand NATO?

In May, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that “We are very supportive of Georgia’s aspirations with respect to NATO.” In June NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen visited Tbilisi, where he said that once Tbilisi made needed reforms “the burden will be on us to live up to our pledge that Georgia will be a member of NATO.”

Alas, the biggest burden of adding Tbilisi would fall on the United States. The administration should halt the process before it proceeds any further.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created to contain Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. The U.S.S.R.’s demise left NATO without an enemy. The alliance desperately looked for new duties, finally settling on “out-of-area” responsibilities. 

In essence, the alliance would find wars to fight elsewhere, such as in Afghanistan and Libya, while expanding eastward toward Moscow. That process continues today. For instance, Rasmussen declared: “Georgia’s full Euro-Atlantic integration is a goal we all share” 

That’s a dumb idea. Georgia would be a security liability to the United States and Europe.