Archives: 09/2013

The First Amendment Is More than a Political Slogan

During the November 2010 election, a number of Minnesota voters were greeted at the polls with threats of criminal prosecution just for wearing hats, buttons, or shirts bearing the images, slogans, or logos of their favorite political causes (typically not relating to the Republican or Democratic parties).

Election officials cited Minnesota Statute § 211B.11, which makes it a misdemeanor to wear a “political badge, political button, or other political insignia” to the polls on election days. While there is no definition of “political” in the statute, an Election Day Policy distributed before the election explained that the statute bans any material “designed to influence or impact voting” or “promoting a group with recognizable political views.”

After several of their members were forced to cover up or remove clothing or accessories deemed to be political — in the sole discretion of an election official — a group of organizations and individuals brought suit to challenge the state law on the grounds that it unlawfully stifles core First Amendment-protected speech. The federal district court dismissed the suit, finding that § 211B.11 satisfied the lesser degree of judicial scrutiny to which viewpoint-neutral speech restrictions are subject. On appeal, a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit upheld the law’s constitutionality, citing precedent permitting bans on active campaigning at polling sites and extending that reasoning to allow prohibitions even on passive political expression.

Those challenging the law have now asked the Supreme Court to review their case. Cato joined the Rutherford Institute on a brief supporting them, arguing that the Minnesota law’s absolute ban on “political” materials at polling sites is an unconstitutional restriction of core First Amendment speech.

Protecting the right of the people to advocate political causes is one of the primary purposes of our constitutional protections for the freedom of speech, so government restrictions in this area must be narrowly drawn and for a truly compelling reason, regardless of the type of forum where the ban applies. While the Eighth Circuit relied on precedent permitting bans on campaigning at polling sites, prohibiting inert political expression at these locations doesn’t serve a similar interest; passive expression simply doesn’t pose the same threats to elections — intimidation and chilling of voters — that active campaigning can. Accordingly, § 211B.11 cannot pass strict scrutiny; in legal terms, the restrictions it imposes are simultaneously under-inclusive, over-inclusive, and overly broad.

The Supreme Court will decide whether to take the case of Minnesota Majority v. Mansky late this fall.

Who Is Making the Case For and Against Action in Syria?

Two different organizations are circulating information on Capitol Hill pertaining to the situation in Syria. The handouts are interesting, though for different reasons.

FreedomWorks, a grassroots organization credited with helping to get the Tea Party movement off the ground, issued a letter last Friday encouraging FreedomWorks’ supporters to contact their members of Congress and “urge them to vote NO on the upcoming Syrian war resolution.” 

In the letter, FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe cites the anticipated costs of the operations, but also warns about the “unintended consequences” that could cost far more. While FreedomWorks has typically steered clear of foreign policy issues, the letter explains why they have chosen to get involved this time, by linking back to the organization’s core issues: federal spending, burdensome regulations, and crushing debt. Even if the war in Syria doesn’t end up costing nearly as much as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, time spent debating our involvement in yet another Middle Eastern civil war distracts attention from more urgent challenges here at home.  

I had a chance to speak with Kibbe yesterday. The debate in Washington surrounding intervention in Syria, Kibbe explained, reminded him a lot of the late summer in 2008, when a bipartisan coalition in Washington, led by Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner, made the case for bailing out the nation’s banks. The leaders called for immediate action to rescue the nation from the economic precipice, but the public wasn’t buying it. Pelosi and Boehner, along with President Bush and Treasury Secretary Paulson, eventually secured passage of TARP, but it generated even more opposition out in the hinterland to the disconnected class here in Washington.

Party leaders have even less power today, Kibbe said. “It is harder to buy votes” because the government is drowning in red ink, and the vote-buying to secure passage of ObamaCare generated a “backlash” that drove out unpopular incumbents. Fear of that same backlash is deterring a few holdovers from that Congress from trading favors in return for casting an unpopular vote for an unnecessary war.

Long Live the Hated College Rankings!

Hooray, the U.S. News and World Report college rankings are out! No, they aren’t perfect – Creighton probably isn’t slightly better than Butler, or Berkeley than UVA – but the relative standings of schools is but one piece of information U.S. News provides to help both consumers and the publication’s bottom line. You know, a win-win. Indeed, most of the information that President Obama thinks Washington needs to publish, at least according to the “fact sheet” to go with his recent college tour, is already provided by U.S. News. You will have to pay $30 for access to all of it, but that’s a microscopic investment compared to the six-figure choice many prospective students will be making.

Let’s run the presidential rating-items list:

  • “Percentage of students receiving Pell grants”: Check!
  • “Average tuition”: Check!
  • “Scholarships”: Check and check!
  • “Loan debt”: Roger that!
  • “Graduation…rates”: Better believe those are checks!
  • “Transfer rates”: Not exactly check, but close.
  • “Graduate earnings”: OK, not in U.S. News, but readily available right here!
  • “Advanced degrees of college graduates”: Here’s the only clear non-check for easy data availability. U.S. News’ “graduation and retention” sections for each college have many advanced study categories, but most don’t give data.

Other than specifics about transfer rates, advanced studies pursued by a school’s graduates, and graduates’ earnings, everything the White House wants to use for ratings is on the U.S. News site. And of those missing items, U.S. News offers a decent approximation for one and PayScale gives you the other. Oh, and U.S. News furnishes tons of additional information the fact sheet doesn’t mention, including rankings of undergraduate business and engineering programs; schools with the most emphasis on teaching; student body ethnic diversity; student housing; and much more.

Of course, again, U.S. News isn’t perfect. Which is why it is so great that it has lots of competitors, including Forbes, The Princeton Review, Washington Monthly, and more. In other words, the market provides, and we don’t need more government “help.” Indeed, what we need from government is much, much less.

Mexico’s Fiscal Reform: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

On Sunday, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto unveiled a fiscal reform bill that is an important corollary of his energy reform proposal. The legislation’s main goal is to increase the federal government’s tax intake in the face of diminished oil revenues due to the reforms that will let Petróleos de México (Pemex) keep more of its money for investments.

Approximately one third of the government’s revenues comes from oil. The fact that oil production is declining significantly (it dropped 25 percent in the last decade), adds urgency to generating new sources of tax revenue or reducing spending. Mexico’s fiscal deficit last year was 2.6 percent of its GDP, but without oil revenues it would have been close to 8 percent instead.

The good: The bill will simplify Mexico’s complex tax system. In the World Bank’s Doing Business report, Mexico ranks 107th among 185 economies on its ease of paying taxes. It takes an average Mexican businessman 337 hours every year to calculate and pay his taxes, whereas his peers in the mostly developed nations of the OECD have to spend an average 176 hours every year doing their taxes. A complex tax system constitutes a burden on the economy and can also be extremely inefficient since it encourages people to elude and evade taxes (particularly in developing countries with weak institutions). Thus, you can have a country such as Mexico with high tax rates and yet low tax revenues. This is a problem because it can lead to a slippery slope where politicians try to extract more revenue via higher taxes from a dwindling pool of taxpayers.

The current top rate on the personal income tax is 30 percent. The corporate tax rate is also 30 percent. The Value Added Tax (VAT) is 16 percent. And yet Mexico’s tax intake was only 9.7 percent of its GDP in 2012. This is not to say that Mexico should have a higher tax burden, but to point out that there is something wrong with a tax system if it has fairly high tax rates that don’t generate much revenue.

Are Democrats and Republicans Colluding to Preserve Congress’ Obamacare Exemption?

I have written about the special (and illegal) Obamacare exemption the president has granted Congress.

It turns out, this exemption polls poorly. Opposition is north of 90 percent, unites Obamacare opponents and supporters, and has the potential to oust incumbents members of Congress who accept an special exemption that other Americans don’t get.

You might think that Republican and Democratic party committees would be salivating at the prospect of using this issue to oust incumbents of the other party. At a minimum, you would think that Obamacare opponents (i.e., Republicans) would drive a wedge between the law’s supporters (i.e., Democrats) and the public by forcing supporters to vote on a measure eliminating the exemption. Doing so could elect more new Republicans in 2014 by allowing them attack incumbent Democrats thus: “My opponent voted for Obamacare, and then voted to give himself and his well-paid friends in Congress a special exemption that the people of this state/district don’t get. That’s just wrong.”

Yet it appears the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee have negotiated a truce on this issue. If true, both parties have agreed not to give voice to the will of the people by attacking members of the other party who consent to this special privilege granted to members of Congress. If true, it would confirm what I have written previously: “America has a two-party system. But it’s not Republicans versus Democrats. It’s the ruling class — Republicans and Democrats — against everyone else.”

I can hardly imagine a more powerful argument for allowing unlimited spending by independent groups to advocate the election or defeat of political candidates. That is, I can hardly imagine a more powerful argument against “campaign finance reform.”

The NSA Economic Backlash

When the NSA spying revelations came out a couple months ago, one of my first thoughts, expressed here on this blog, was:  This could be bad for U.S. businesses.  If internet users have concerns about the privacy of their online activities, they may look for alternatives to Gmail, Yahoo and the rest.  I elaborated on this point here and here.

But I’m no expert on these industries, so I don’t have a sense of what the actual likelihood of this happening is.  How hard would it be to create a new email/browser/social network right now?  I’m not sure.

Perhaps this new proposal out of Brazil to create a competitor to the major U.S. email providers will provide a test:

The Brazilian government is planning to develop a national email system that is protected from the sort of espionage that the US National Security Agency carries out.

The government has already been working with the national postal agency Correios to develop the new commercial email system, providing an alternative to the likes of Gmail and Hotmail, which would guarantee the veracity of documents and offer functions such as a delivery certification showing when an email has been read by the recipient.

However, in the wake of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent of US government digital surveillance, Brazil’s Communication Ministry has requested to extend the project into a national service.  The new system would include encryption and have servers based in Brazil.

American companies such as Google and Microsoft are obliged to share their users’ data with the NSA. In fact, in the last eight months of 2012, Hotmail, Google, Facebook, and Twitter provided law enforcement agencies with information on 64,000 users. The NSA can reportedly also tap into three-quarters of the data flowing through the US internet and has legal power to subpoena international communications.

This has led Germany’s Minister of the Interior to tell companies not to use services that go through American servers if they are concerned about privacy. The French government is also working to build a domestic cloud infrastructure to compete with the dominant US companies.

It will be interesting to see how this turns out, and if others pursue similar efforts.  Obviously, the governmental role in any such effort is an important consideration – other governments are capable of spying as well.

Congress Should Reject War with Syria

President Barack Obama deserves credit for going to Congress on Syria.  Unfortunately, he wants to involve America in another potentially disastrous war in the Middle East.

Equally disturbing, leading members of the political opposition, led by House Speaker John Boehner, back the president’s war, which would undermine America as a constitutional republic.  Congress should say no to yet another unnecessary war.

The end of the Cold War freed Washington policymakers from international restraint.  Hubris conquered the nation’s capital:  “What we say goes,” became America’s watchword.  However, reordering the world turned out to be harder than expected. 

Now, spouting nostrums about international norms and the international community, President Obama is pushing for limited military action against the Syrian government.  However, it’s hard to be half-pregnant when at war.  Committing the nation’s prestige against the Assad regime would sharply increase pressure for more intense involvement.

Some advocate intervention on humanitarian grounds.  Alas, war is not a good humanitarian tool, as Washington discovered in Iraq.  Nor have American policymakers demonstrated much skill in “fixing” foreign nations. 

Civil wars are particularly complicated, as Ronald Reagan discovered in Lebanon.  At least he learned the right lesson and got out. 

The human costs of serious action likely would be high.  Sometimes Washington must risk its citizens’ lives, but it should not intervene militarily unless Americans have something substantial at stake.  There’s nothing moral about ivory tower warriors launching crusades with other people’s lives and money.