Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Obama’s Big Idea: Let’s Hike Federal Cop Subsidies

President Obama’s newly announced police-reform package lives up to one’s worst expectations. He flatly refuses to curtail the federal police militarization program, instead calling for a big hike in federal spending on aid to local departments with the usual micromanaging strings attached. These strings will predictably make departments more responsive to Washington, and lobbies with clout there, as distinct from their local communities. As USA Today notes, one powerful interest group has been especially active behind the scenes: “The Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police union, has waged an intense lobbying campaign to keep the surplus equipment flowing,” with its executive director specifically speaking up in favor of the transfer of armored vehicles and personnel carriers.  A Washington Post editorial notes that while the administration has now released some useful information on the Pentagon’s 1033 surplus-gear program, it still apparently has no plans to improve data gathering on police use of lethal force. 

In a related story that shouldn’t be missed, Conor Friedersdorf assembles excessive-force and misconduct horror stories of cops reinstated in union arbitration proceedings from Oakland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Miami, Sarasota, and elsewhere around the country. He concludes:

I’d rather see 10 wrongful terminations than one person wrongfully shot and killed. Because good police officers and bad police officers pay the same union dues and are equally entitled to labor representation, police unions have pushed for arbitration procedures that skew in the opposite direction. Why have we let them? If at-will employment, the standard that would best protect the public, is not currently possible, arbitration proceedings should at a minimum be transparent and fully reviewable so that miscarriages of justice are known when they happen. With full facts, the public would favor at-will employment eventually.

You can’t tackle the excessive force problem credibly unless you tackle the power of the police unions. Period. 

[adapted from a post at Overlawyered]

The Washington Post On Dodd-Frank’s Conflict Minerals Fiasco

Economic sanctions, when they have an effect at all, tend to inflict misery on a targeted region’s civilian populace and often drive it further into dependence on violent overlords. That truism will surprise few libertarians, but apparently it still comes as news to many in Washington, to judge from the reaction to this morning’s front-page Washington Post account of the humanitarian fiasco brought about by the 2010 Dodd-Frank law’s “conflict minerals” provisions. According to reporter Sudarsan Raghavan, these provisions “set off a chain of events that has propelled millions of [African] miners and their families deeper into poverty.” As they have lost access to their regular incomes, some of these miners have even enlisted with the warlord militias that were the law’s targets. 

Congress added the provisions to Dodd-Frank in a fit of moral self-congratulation over making sure Americans had the chance to be ethical and thoughtful consumers of such products as jewelry and cellphones (as well as thousands of other products, as it turned out, from auto parts to the foil in food packaging). Publicly held companies would be required to report on their supply connections to “conflict minerals” such as tin, tungsten, and gold mined in war-torn areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Lawmakers assigned enforcement of the law to the Securities and Exchange Commission – a body with scant discernible expertise in either African geopolitics or metallurgy – and barbed it with stringent penalties for disclosure violations, to which are added possible liability in class-action shareholder lawsuits.

Reactions to this morning’s Post account frequently employ words like “unintended” or “tragic” to describe the effect on miners of the law, which people in the Congo soon came to call “Loi Obama” – “Obama’s law”.  Unintended and tragic? Maybe. But not unforeseen, because the signs that the law would backfire this way have been in plain sight for years now – as in this 2011 account by Prof. Laura Seay (via) of how “electronics companies now have a strong incentive to source minerals elsewhere, leaving Congolese miners unemployed.” Or this 2011 account by David Aronson in the New York Times of the “unintended and devastating consequences” that he “saw firsthand on a trip to eastern Congo.” Or this more recent paper by law professor Marcia Narine.

But although the evidence has been there for years, the will to believe in the law was too strong – a will fueled by anti-corporate campaigners who take it on faith that when brutalities in the underdeveloped world occur within two or three degrees of separation of the activities of multinational businesses, the right answer must be to blame and shame the businesses.

You might call it an expensive lesson for Americans too, if you assume that anything has been learned. A recent Tulane calculation found that the costs in business compliance have already topped $700 million, with billions more ahead should nothing change. Just this September, the U.S. government conceded that it “does not have the ability to distinguish” which refiners and smelters around the globe are tainted by a connection to militia groups. That is to say, the government has demanded of business a degree of certainty that it cannot achieve itself.  Courtesy of UCLA corporate law professor Stephen Bainbridge, here’s a flowchart of what complying might involve for a given business. 

If the new Republican Congress wants to be taken seriously about fixing counterproductive regulation, it should make the repeal of this law an early priority.

Harvard’s Asian-American Problem Has a Solution, Chapel Hill’s Does Not

In his op-ed at the New York Times yesterday, Yascha Mounk, a fellow at New America, asked “Is Harvard Unfair to Asian-Americans?” A century ago, Harvard had a problem, he writes: “Too many Jews.” Today it’s Asian-Americans. Euphemistic admissions criteria like “character and fitness” solved Harvard’s problem back then. Today, numbers do the job. To get into the top schools, Mounk writes, Asian-Americans “need SAT scores that are about 140 points higher than those of their white peers.” And that’s brought on a suit by a group called Students for Fair Admissions.

If this case is decided eventually under current law, as is likely, the result will be less than clear or satisfying in several respects. To see why, just follow Mounk’s argument. One reason this “new discrimination” is tolerated, he notes, is that “many academics assume that higher rates of admission for Asian-Americans would come at the price of lower rates of admission for African-Americans.” But the two issues are unrelated, he continues:

As recognized by the Supreme Court, schools have an interest in recruiting a “critical mass” of minority students to obtain “the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.” This justifies, in my view, admissions standards that look favorably on underrepresented groups, like African-Americans and Latinos. But it can neither explain nor justify why a student of Chinese, Korean or Indian descent is so much less likely to be admitted than a white one.

Then what does explain why an Asian-American student is so much less likely to be admitted than a white one? Mounk continues:

Conservatives point to Harvard’s emphasis on enrolling African-Americans (currently 12 percent of freshmen) and Hispanics (13 percent) but overlook preferences for children of alumni (about 12 percent of students) and recruited athletes (around 13 percent). The real problem is that, in a meritocratic system, whites would be a minority—and Harvard just isn’t comfortable with that.

Ah! There we have it, Mounk believes. But notice that this “explanation” mentions, almost in passing, “a meritocratic system,” as if that were what we had. If we did—at least one based heavily on SAT scores—the aforementioned academics would be right: Harvard would admit far more Asian-Americans and far fewer African-Americans and Hispanics—and perhaps fewer legacy and athletic applicants as well.

The Decision of the Ferguson Grand Jury

President Obama has called on the nation to accept the decision of the Ferguson grand jury. But looking forward, across much of this country, our system for dealing with police use of deadly force is broken. Police shoot and kill civilians at a rate unheard of in many other advanced nations, and even after incidents where there are indications that excessive force was used, police across many parts of the country seldom face trial or even dismissal from the force. A system for review of police misconduct must take care to vindicate and protect the innocent cop, but it also needs to deliver a credible promise of justice to the communities being policed. As a front-line means of regulating lethal force, grand juries – which are secret, remote from the truth-finding of an adversary process, and dependent on prosecutors’ guidance – do not command broad public confidence.  We see that in Ferguson today.

The Ongoing Situation in Ferguson

The grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson is not surprising because police officers are rarely prosecuted for on-duty shootings.  And in the rare instances in which criminal charges are ever brought against police, juries are reluctant to hold them accountable with a felony criminal charge.  A report on Cato’s Police Misconduct web site found a conviction rate of only 33% – roughly half the percentage in non-police, civilian prosecutions.  It remains to be seen whether Wilson will be held accountable in some other way.  We must remember that just because a jury has declined to bring criminal charges does not automatically mean that Wilson should return to duty.  Police commanders may conclude, given all the surrounding circumstances, that he may not be right for police work. Certainly his involvement in Brown’s death will create problems for prosecutors who will have to rely on his future work. Wilson’s testimony in future trials could be very problematic.

With respect to the unrest in Ferguson, there seems to be a reluctance to acknowledge the crimes that are being committed by thugs who are taking advantage of the situation.  It seems wildly inaccurate to say that protesters have started fires and are looting stores, for instance.  The people doing that are criminal troublemakers, not “protesters.”

Broad Reforms Needed to Stop Another Ferguson

The violence in Ferguson is inexcusable. But it should not be seen as primarily a reaction to the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson. Rather, it should be seen as a reaction to years of racially charged policing and a discriminatory justice. Focusing on Officer Wilson’s culpability detracts from the bigger, nation-wide story: That every month there are innumerable police abuses throughout the country that go unnoticed and unreported, and, even if they are reported, the accused officers will likely never be disciplined, much less charged with a crime. Unfortunately, many of these abuses are disproportionately felt by people of color. Abuses can be small and nearly impossible to discover, such as stopping a car full of black men without probable cause, or they can be large and public, such as unjustifiably gunning down an unarmed black teenager. Sometimes the police action may be justified, and sometimes it may not, but the systems in place for determining culpability are egregiously biased in favor of police officers. Add to this an over-militarized police force that uses surplus military gear to violently break into homes 100 times per day, usually to only execute search warrants, and you have a recipe for disaster and an urgent need for reform. We should take advantage of this time of heightened awareness to reform a justice system that has too much power and too little accountability. Hopefully the violence in the street will not overshadow the legitimate protests, but I fear it may. 

A Tyranny of Silence: One Journalist’s Battle Against Modern-Day Restrictions on Free Speech

In their effort to provide the public with information about controversial yet important world events, journalists face constant intimidation. Whether it takes an extreme form—such as beheading or death threats—or a less violent one—like government censorship or enforced political correctness—it nonetheless constricts their ability to convey truthful information about key issues.

No one knows this better than Flemming Rose.

In 2006,  the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, stoking the fires of a worldwide debate about what limits—if any—should constrain freedom of speech in the 21st century.

Rose, then the paper’s culture editor, defended the decision to print the drawings, quickly becoming the target of death threats and more, all of which he recounts in his new book, published by the Cato Institute.

In The Tyranny of Silence: How One Cartoon Ignited a Global Debate on the Future of Free Speech, Rose provides a personal account of an event that has shaped the global debate about what it means to be a citizen in a democracy and how to coexist in a world that is increasingly multicultural, multireligious, and multiethnic. Rose writes about the people and experiences that have influenced his understanding of the crisis—including meetings with dissidents from the former Soviet Union and ex-Muslims living in Europe—and takes a hard look at the slippery slope of attempts to limit free speech.

Rose’s message clearly resonates with lovers of liberty around the world. A special one-on-one conversation between Rose and Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution, hosted at the Cato Institute in mid-November, saw over 100 in-person attendees with another 53 people tuning in online.

That impressive showing, however, was far outpaced by the mass response to Cato’s very first Reddit AMA, featuring Rose, which has been viewed well over 200,000 times since it was first published on November 13th, and continues to draw thousands of Reddit viewers every hour, almost two weeks later.

Rose’s AMA, entitled “I am a journalist and free speech advocate who has received hundreds of death threats since 2006. AMA,” quickly broke into the top ten discussions on the iAMA forum that week. As questions continues pouring in, Rose sat down for a second full hour session the day after the original session was scheduled.

You should definitely read the AMA yourself, but here are some highlights:

Enjoyed the discussion? You can read the whole thing here. And, of course, don’t forget to buy the book to read all of Rose’s harrowing tale.