Archives: 01/2015

Campaign Finance Censors Lose Debate to Reddit

Yesterday, the website Reddit, which is aptly called “the front page of the Internet,” featured an interesting discussion on attempts to overturn Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court case that held that the First Amendment protects the right of corporations and unions to make independent expenditures in elections. A group of five people working to overturn the decision fielded questions from the community in a so-called “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) thread. Past AMAs have been created by a wide-range of famous and interesting people, including Jon Stewart and even Barack Obama.

The five advocates titled the thread “We’re Working on Overturning the Citizens United Supreme Court Decision – Ask Us Anything!” Fielding questions were Aquene Freechild from Public Citizen, Daniel Lee from Move to Amend, John Bonifaz from Free Speech for People, Lisa Graves from Center for Media and Democracy, and Zephyr Teachout former candidate for New York governor and associate professor of law at Fordham University.

At the beginning of the AMA they proclaimed:

January 21st is the 5th Anniversary of the disastrous Supreme Court Citizens United v. FEC decision that unleashed the floodgates of money from special interests.

Hundreds of groups across the country are working hard to overturn Citizens United. To raise awareness about all the progress that has happened behind the scenes in the past five years, we’ve organized a few people on the front lines to share the latest.

Surprisingly, at least to me, the AMA was a disaster. Reddit caters to younger people and, as such, it is generally quite left-wing. The Reddit “Politics” community, in particular, is known for having a substantial left-wing tilt. I had thought the community would rally around the advocates—pat them on the back, complain about the Koch brothers, and pontificate on how no “real” policy change can occur until “big money” is silenced.

Instead, the community not only asked excellent and difficult questions, but they clearly identified the fundamental problems with the advocates’ position.

The Government Should Spend More Money!

From today’s New York Times editorial page:

What is a year of your life worth? How about 10 years? Or 20? In many ways the question is unanswerable: Who can assign a dollar amount to the experience of watching a child grow up, of being able to care for an elderly parent?

But when the government has wrongfully convicted and imprisoned someone, a cash payout is the most meaningful way to make amends and achieve some measure of belated justice….

Thirty states, the federal government and the District of Columbia have laws providing for compensation to the wrongfully convicted — from $5,000 per year in Wisconsin to $80,000 per year in Texas. But, over all, almost a third of those exonerated get nothing.

Wait, let’s go over that one more time: A third of the persons wrongfully imprisoned receive no compensation from the government?  What to make of policymakers who manage to spend billions of dollars and yet say there is no room in the budget for compensating the victims of government mistakes or misconduct?

The Pope Weighs in on Charlie Hebdo

Just when the West is struggling to make clear to the rest of the world the nature and importance of free speech—and the underlying political separation of sacred and secular—Pope Francis weighs in and muddies the waters. Responding during a flight to the Philippines today to press questions about the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris last week, the Pope said clearly that “One cannot make war [or] kill in the name of one’s own religion, that is, in the name of God. To kill in the name of God is an aberration.” He said also, however, that free speech does not imply total license to insult or offend another’s faith: “One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith. Every religion has its dignity.”

So far so good—insofar as his “cannot” implies simply that one “ought not” to make fun of another’s faith, as a matter of good behavior, other things being equal. That caveat is necessary because there are times when religious claims and, especially, practices are rightly ridiculed, as when they threaten to restrict the freedom of those of no or of other faiths. Thus understood, however, the Pope is simply distinguishing between what one has a right to do—speak freely, even if offensively—and what one ought to do—refrain from giving gratuitous offense.

But the Pope did not stop there. He added, “In freedom of expression there are limits, like in regard to my mom”—alluding to an earlier comment, “If [a dear friend] says a swear word against my mother, he’s going to get a punch in the nose. That’s normal.” To be sure, it may be “normal,” but it breaks down the distinction between speech and force—and opens the door to justifying the use of force to punish speech. If legitimate in the personal sphere, why not in the public sphere as well? In fact, American law has such a doctrine, the “fighting words doctrine,” which the Supreme Court held in 1942 in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire to refer to words that “by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace” and are among the “well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech the prevention and punishment of [which] … have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem.”

But that doctrine has never sat comfortably within our free speech jurisprudence, and in fact it has been steadily narrowed over the years, for good reason. The proper response to offensive speech is speech in turn. Otherwise, were the force of law to be sanctioned as a proper response, there would be no end to the fine lines that would need to be drawn to distinguish when and when not force would be justified—and no clear bounds on official powers to sanction. Indeed, do we need more than to look around the world to places where speech is not protected? Surely, the Pope did not mean to open the door to blasphemy laws, but he cracked the door just a little.

Big Brother Wants to Watch You Drive

In 2008, the Washington legislature passed a law mandating a 50 percent reduction in per capita driving by 2050. California and Oregon laws or regulations have similar but somewhat less draconian targets.

The Obama administration wants to mandate that all new cars come equipped with vehicle-to-infrastructure communications, so the car can send signals to and receive messages from street lights and other infrastructure.

Now the California Air Resources Board is considering regulations requiring that all cars monitor their owners’ driving habits, including but not limited to how many miles they drive, how much fuel they use, and how much pollution or greenhouse gases they emit.

Put these all together and you have a system in which the government will not only know where your vehicle is at all times, but can turn off your vehicle if it decides you are driving too much or driving in a way that emits too many grams of carbon dioxide or is otherwise offensive to some bureaucratic imperative.

I sometimes think privacy advocates are a paranoid bunch, seeing men in black around every corner and surveillance helicopters or drones in the air at all times. On the other hand, if a technology is available–such as the ability to record cell phone calls–the government has proven it will use it.

Consider all of the lovable progressives out there who think the government should “punish climate change liars,” meaning people who have differing opinions on scientific issues. It’s not much a stretch to think that, any time they happen to be in power, they will use the available technology to make people stop driving. After all, just how important can that extra trip to the supermarket be compared to the absolute imperative of preventing the seas from rising a quadrillionth of an inch?

Of course, the elected officials and bureaucrats who run this system will exempt themselves from the rules. After all, nothing is more important than their work of running the country and making sure people don’t abuse their freedom by engaging in too much mobility.

As California writer Steven Greenhut points out, we already have red-light cameras, and some “eastern states have suspended drivers from using toll lanes after their transponders showed them to be speeders.” They’re not invading our privacy, the greens will argue, they are just making sure that our actions aren’t harming Mother Earth.

Of course, for many it really isn’t about greenhouse gas emissions. Mobility allows (or, as anti-auto groups would say, forces) people to living in low-density “sprawl” where they can escape taxation by cities eager to subsidize stadiums, convention centers, and light-rail lines. All they have to do is ramp down people’s monthly driving rations–something like a cap-and-trade system that steadily reduces the caps–and suburbanites will eventually find that they have to move back to the cities.

No doubt some will argue that even those who drive the most fuel-efficient cars should be subject to the same driving limits because suburban homes waste energy too. Or that people will be safer from terrorists if they are all jammed together in cities close to emergency facilities than if they are spread across the countryside. Or that suburbanites are parasites on the cities and should be reassimilated back into the cities’ benign embrace and taxing districts.

Whatever the argument, the point is that if the technology is there, the government will use it. If people really want to buy cars that monitor their every move and are capable of communicating those moves to some central infrastructure, they should be allowed to do so. But allowing the government to mandate these things is simply asking to have well-meaning, and sometimes not-so-well-meaning, government bureaucrats control how we travel and where we live.

Japan’s Defense Budget Is Still Inadequate

The Japanese government and Western news outlets are highlighting Tokyo’s commitment to increase its military spending for the third straight year.  Pundits and policy experts see the boost as a response to the spike in bilateral tensions with China—especially the bitter dispute concerning sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.  But as with similar moves by the Baltic republics and Washington’s other NATO allies that reflect worries about Russia’s recent behavior, there is more symbolism than substance in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision. 

Japan’s defense budget for the fiscal year beginning in April will be 4.98 trillion yen ($42 billion). The increase is quite modest—up from 4.84 trillion yen in the current year. Moreover, even the larger sum is less than half of China’s official military budget and less than one-third of what the Pentagon and most independent experts believe is Beijing’s actual level of spending. Although Japan’s “Self Defense Forces” already can deploy a significant amount of modern weaponry, such a large disparity in spending is cause for concern. 

That is especially true since Abe’s government has adopted an increasingly assertive posture toward China on a range of issues. In one sense, U.S. officials have reason to be gratified by that move and Tokyo’s greater overall interest in East Asia’s security. Japan finally seems to be taking steps to become a normal great power regarding military matters instead of clinging to pacifism and relying on the United States to protect important Japanese interests. Abe’s efforts to “reinterpret” Article Nine of the country’s constitution, which officially places draconian restraints on the military, also reflect the shift in thinking.

The Danger of Analogies

Last week I wrote a piece for the Orange County Register, talking about the dangers of describing the current U.S. conflict with Russia as a new Cold War. In it, I highlighted the problems that arise when policymakers use historical analogies as a cheat sheet to understand today’s foreign policy crises.

Drawing analogies to past crises is a natural human reaction, and one which is widespread among foreign policy decision makers. As I noted:

Political science research demonstrates that leaders often rationalize their decisions by making analogies to prior crises. Policymakers also frequently use historical analogies to justify their choices.

Such analogies range from the sublime to the ridiculous. The prize for most ridiculous, at least recently, goes to those who described the North Korea/Sony hacking scandal as a potential “cyber Pearl Harbor.” But there were also a variety of serious analogies which dominated the news last year.

The idea that the United States and Russia are now engaged in a new Cold War has been mooted by media and by politicians. Yet current tensions with Russia over Ukraine differ in key ways from the cold war: Russia and Europe are far more economically linked than during the cold war, and disagreement centers primarily on the issue of NATO expansion, rather than on ideological grounds. By describing tensions with Russia as a new cold war, policymakers interpret all facets of the U.S.-Russian relationship in a conflictual way, preventing cooperation on other policy issues like Syria.

Recollections on Fannie Mae’s Housing Goals

With the release of Peter Wallison’s new book, Hidden in Plain Sight, I suspect the debates over the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the financial crisis may heat up again (I suspect Joe Nocera is working up a nasty review).  Anyone interested in the financial crisis should read this book.  It is extensively documented and well-written.  While the narrative is similar to other of Wallison’s writings, he musters far more evidence for his case here. The amount of contemporaneous material from advocates, HUD and the GSEs (Fannie and Freddie) is impressive.

I’ve generally been on the fence about the housing goals, as I have felt that GSE leverage was a far greater issue.  The book leaves me more sympathetic to Wallison’s argument.  For the best counter-argument regarding the goals, see John Weicher’s paper on the issue (unlike Nocera, Weicher includes facts and analysis).