Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Not as Good as It Seems

Today, Cuba officially lifted its ban on the sale of computers to the general public. Some other prohibitions have also been scrapped in recent weeks: Cubans can now buy cell phones, stay in hotels previously reserved for tourists, and buy appliances like microwaves and TV sets.

Is this a sign of openness from Cuba’s geriatric regime? Not so.

A Cuban dissident I met in Havana last year sent me today an article he wrote about the real motive behind relaxing these bans. It has been reported in the state-controlled media that people purchasing these goods are later being investigated by the authorities who want to know the real sources of their income. As it’s widely known, the average Cuban salary is less than $20 a month, while the cost of most of these goods ranges in the hundreds of dollars. Many Cubans get their extra money from relatives in the United States, but many others run independent (and illicit) small businesses.

My friend tells the story of the first person to purchase an electric bicycle, which cost the equivalent of $1,070. This man had a small butter factory that apparently was very profitable, since he was selling the butter at a lower price than the government. After buying his electric bicycle, the authorities investigated him and discovered his factory. They proceeded to confiscate everything they found in his home, including the bike.

Let’s not forget that, after all, there is still a Castro brother running the show on the island. As my Cuban friend says about the so-called “reforms,” the fact that something is no longer prohibited doesn’t mean that you can do it.

Deborah Jeane Palfrey, Hounded to Death

Faced with the prospect of years in prison, Deborah Jeane Palfrey, known as the “D.C. Madam,” committed suicide on Thursday. Her pursuers and prosecutors should be ashamed of themselves.

Running a house of prostitution is not a distinction most of us would wish for our daughters. But it’s a vice, not a crime. That’s a crucial distinction in a free society. So far as we know, she never murdered, raped, assaulted, robbed, or defrauded anyone. Like any broker, she brought together willing buyers and willing sellers. And for doing so, she was convicted–not actually of prostitution but of “racketeering” and money laundering — and faced up to 55 years in prison, though prosecutors estimated that her sentence would likely be “only” four to six years.

Palfrey was indicted after a three-year joint investigation by the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Postal Service. Apparently they couldn’t catch her cheating on her taxes, but her employees mailed her cut of the proceeds in money orders, which led to racketeering and money laundering charges. As with former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, apparently a fishing expedition into money matters turned up something far more headline-worthy.

But really — a three-year investigation of a prostitution service? Are there no real criminals? Are there no terrorists? Before, during, and after 9/11, the Justice Department ran a 13-month investigation of a brothel in New Orleans. At least 10 FBI agents were involved. As Jonathan Turley noted, “Only the FBI could go to the French Quarter and find only a dozen prostitutes after a year of investigation. Given the roughly one-to-one ratio between agents and prostitutes, the FBI could have produced a hundred times this number by simply having agents walk down Bourbon Street.” What a ridiculous waste of money and manpower.

But the waste is not the worst aspect of this outrage. Even if there were no criminals and no terrorists to hunt down, it would be wrong to harass, arrest, prosecute, imprison — and hound to death — people who are violating no one’s rights.

There’s a nightmarish intersection of old prostitution laws and modern financial regulations. Palfrey was investigated on suspicion of tax evasion and then convicted of “racketeering” and “money laundering.” But she was no racketeer; she was one woman with some employees or contract workers. Spitzer’s bank accounts were being monitored, as apparently all our bank accounts are, under post-9/11 laws allegedly designed to turn up evidence of terrorist financing or other nefarious activity. And boy, did they find something sinister — a married man having sex with prostitutes.

In many ways we are more free today than we were in previous decades. But new regulations and new technology are making it much easier to monitor our activities and to actually enforce both old and new laws. It’s like a silent police state that we only realize when we’re suddenly served with papers. 

Palfrey told journalist Dan Moldea, “I’m not going back to jail. I’ll kill myself first.” A woman who had worked for her had also committed suicide after being charged with prostitution in 2007.

It’s time to repeal these antiquated laws against prostitution and to take a close look at the use and abuse of racketeering, money laundering, bank monitoring, and other intrusive laws. Someone needs to step forward and start that debate. Perhaps Governor Spitzer and Sen. David Vitter would be good candidates.

In the meantime, may Deborah Jeane Palfrey rest in peace. And may her persecutors have many sleepless nights.

Upcoming Event: See South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford Make Sense of the REAL ID Act

Last week, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty (R) vetoed a transportation bill that included a provision objecting to the federal REAL ID Act. The bill would have required the federal government to pay 95 percent of the cost of issuing national IDs before Minnesota would participate. Claiming political machinations were afoot, Pawlenty said that he preferred “something more reasonable like 50 or 60 percent.” One wonders what principle of federalism, liberty, or privacy could possibly support his willingness to accept a 50% unfunded surveillance mandate.

A much clearer vision will be on display next week when Governor Mark Sanford (R-SC) joins Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) here at the Cato Institute to discuss the REAL ID Act. South Carolina has barred itself from participating in the national ID system created by the Act, and Governor Sanford defiantly refused to ask the Department of Homeland Security for an extension of the compliance deadline earlier this year.

Senator Tester represents a state that has been similarly defiant. He is an original cosponsor of legislation that would repeal the REAL ID Act and restore the identification security provisions of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Protection Act, which REAL ID repealed.

The event is called The REAL ID Rebellion: Whither the National ID Law?, next Wednesday, May 7th, at noon, and it will be Webcast.

AZ-Verify

Arizona’s law requiring employers to use the federal government’s “E-Verify” system to check workers’ immigration status has employers there “confused by the law’s requirements and ‘terrified’ at the prospect of losing their business licenses if they run afoul of its provisions,” according to a local chamber of commerce official.

My recent paper on electronic employment verification calls it “Franz Kafka’s solution to illegal immigration.”

The 998th Cut - and the 999th?

Here’s a new bill in Congress that strikes me as a peculiar encroachment on freedom. H.R. 5912 would amend the U.S. code to make cigarettes and certain other tobacco products nonmailable. Undoubtedly, this would make it a teensy bit harder for some people to smoke and chew tobacco.

More importantly, I think, it would deepen the role of the Postal Service in surveillance and enshrine the USPS a part of our niggling nanny state.

Does this bill affect you directly? Chances are it doesn’t, as few people send or receive cigarettes in the mail. But what happens tomorrow when you’re part of a disfavored group?

The bill’s sponsor is Rep. John McHugh (R-NY) who today features on his homepage House passage of a bill to establish a thing called the Hudson-Fulton-Champlain Commemoration Commission.

The EU Sides with the Thugs in Bolivia

This Sunday, the department of Santa Cruz, the richest region of Bolivia, will hold a referendum on regional autonomy. Other departments in the eastern half of the country will likely follow suit in the upcoming months. The central government in La Paz opposes the project and calls it “separatist.” Despite that, polls show that an overwhelming majority of “cruceños” will vote in favor of autonomy.

As a consequence, the ruling party has threatened to use violence against the citizens of Santa Cruz who show up to vote on Sunday. It wouldn’t be the first time. Last December, the government forced the approval of a new constitution in a Constituent Assembly while a pro-government mob outside the building prevented opposition assemblymen from attending the session. This year, something similar happened when the national Congress declared these referenda on regional autonomy illegal in a rigged session while mobs outside Parliament prevented opposition Congressmen from entering the building.

This time around, the party of president, Evo Morales, has warned about the possibility of taking thousands of its supporters to Santa Cruz to prevent the vote from taking place. The only way to accomplish this is by force.

So it’s kind of surprising that the European Union is taking sides with those who, over and over again, have used violence to suppress democratic institutions. The French ambassador in Bolivia and representative of the EU in that country has stated that the leaders of Santa Cruz who are pushing for autonomy will have to “assume the consequences” if violence erupts on Sunday. That is, the EU will blame the victims if they get beaten up by government thugs for exercising their democratic rights.

Shame on the EU.

Shiny, Happy SSA Employees

I recently had the opportunity to conduct a pair of briefings for congressional staff regarding electronic employment eligibility verification. A pair of bills are vying for the attention of Congress these days. I suggested in my recent paper, “Electronic Employment Eligibility Verification: Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration,” that Congress should ignore both. Indeed, it should eliminate “internal enforcement” of immigration law entirely.

One of my co-briefers provided staffers with some interesting information pertaining to the idea of building a regulatory contraption for automatic nationwide verification of workers’ identity and immigration status. He was a representative of SSA workers from the American Federation of Government Employees, National Council of SSA Field Operations Locals.

The programs slated to go national under these proposals would compare data about new workers (and in some cases, existing workers) with databases at the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security. When the data didn’t match, workers would receive what is called a “tentative nonconformation.” With the 4.1% error rate in SSA files (as found by its Inspector General), that’s a lot of tentative nonconfirmations going even to law-abiding American citizens. A higher percentage of the time, naturalized citizens would get them, too, as government data about them is even more error-prone. Bad government data is just one source of error.

Anyway, when a tentative nonconfirmation is issued, employers are supposed to communicate this to the employee (not all do) and the worker is supposed to report to a Social Security Administration office or the Department of Homeland Security to clear the problem up. This is where the interesting new information comes in.

What would the process be like? Well, try calling your local SSA field office to find out. The SSA worker rep reported that 50% of those calls aren’t answered because field offices are too busy. Calls to the SSA’s national 800-number don’t go through 25% of the time.

It’s not just a phone problem. The agency currently has a backlog of 752,000 on disability rulings. That’s three quarters of a million people who aren’t getting an answer from SSA. It takes 530 days – a little under a year and a half – to get a disability ruling out of SSA.

In my paper, I wrote about the experience American workers would get at the Social Security offices when they went to clear up their tentative nonconfirmations:

Disputes of tentative nonconfirmations would not happen in lushly carpeted offices with marble columns, hot coffee, and friendly, attentive staff. The experience of American workers when they sought permission to work would be much more like their trips to the nation’s departments of motor vehicles, post offices, and dentists—long lines, unfriendly service, and painful procedures.

The SSA union rep assures me that SSA workers are friendly. Any perception of unfriendliness is due to overwork. Fair enough; I may have been slapdash in my writing about SSA employees. But a national electronic employment eligibility verification system would result in 3.6 million new visits to these folks, overworking them and eroding their courtesy even more. These visits, and administering tentative nonconfirmations at SSA, would cost $1 billion, according to the union rep.

Of course, an SSA employee union rep would happily take the money and add workforce to do whatever Congress wants. My preference is to save the money. Enforcement of our abnormally restrictive immigration law causes us to spend taxpayer money on undermining the productive economy. That shouldn’t make sense to anyone.