The Price of the Drug War

Critics of the drug war long have pointed out how criminalizing drug use creates crime.  America has been through this experience before, with Prohibition.  Just look at Prohibition-era Chicago with pervasive corruption and mob warfare.

Unfortunately, the experience is being repeated in Mexico.  And the violence is spilling over the border into the U.S.  Reports the New York Times:

Sgt. David Azuelo stepped gingerly over the specks of blood on the floor, took note of the bullet hole through the bedroom skylight, raised an eyebrow at the lack of furniture in the ranch-style house and turned to his squad of detectives investigating one of the latest home invasions in this southern Arizona city.

A 21-year-old man had been pistol-whipped throughout the house, the gun discharging at one point, as the attackers demanded money, the victim reported. His wife had been bathing their 3-month-old son when the intruders arrived.

“At least they didn’t put the gun in the baby’s mouth like we’ve seen before,” Sergeant Azuelo said. That same afternoon this month, his squad was called to the scene of another home invasion, one involving the abduction of a 14-year-old boy.

This city, an hour’s drive north of the Mexican border, is coping with a wave of drug crime the police suspect is tied to the bloody battles between Mexico’s drug cartels and the efforts to stamp them out.

Since officials here formed a special squad last year to deal with home invasions, they have counted more than 200 of them, with more than three-quarters linked to the drug trade. In one case, the intruders burst into the wrong house, shooting and injuring a woman watching television on her couch. In another, in a nearby suburb, a man the police described as a drug dealer was taken from his home at gunpoint and is still missing.

Tucson is hardly alone in feeling the impact of Mexico’s drug cartels and their trade. In the past few years, the cartels and other drug trafficking organizations have extended their reach across the United States and into Canada. Law enforcement authorities say they believe traffickers distributing the cartels’ marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs are responsible for a rash of shootings in Vancouver, British Columbia, kidnappings in Phoenix, brutal assaults in Birmingham, Ala., and much more.

United States law enforcement officials have identified 230 cities, including Anchorage, Atlanta, Boston and Billings, Mont., where Mexican cartels and their affiliates “maintain drug distribution networks or supply drugs to distributors,” as a Justice Department report put it in December. The figure rose from 100 cities reported three years earlier, though Justice Department officials said that may be because of better data collection methods as well as the spread of the organizations.

Washington officials want to believe that throwing more money at the Mexican government will solve the problem.  But there’s nothing in the experience of Afghanistan, Colombia, or many other drug production and smuggling centers to suggest that more enforcement, especially by a government as weak as that in Mexico City, will end the drug trade.

Only taking money out of drug production and sales will end the violence.  And that means no longer treating what is fundamentally a health and moral problem as a criminal problem.  Legalizing adult drug use may not be a great solution, but it would be a vast improvement over drug prohibition, which promotes violent crime while tens of millions of Americans still use illicit substances.

Education Journalism. Another Epic Failure

This weekend, the Washington Post took education secretary Arne Duncan to task for claiming that DC’s public school system has ”had more money than God for a long time.” Post education reporter Bill Turque notes a January 2009 study showing “that D.C., ranked against the 50 states, is 13th in per-pupil expenditures ($11,193).” The study he cites is the January 2009 edition of Education Week’s Quality Counts publication, which used “Department of Education data from 2005-06 (the latest year available).”

Is this finally an example of the investigative journalism I recently noted has been sorely lacking in education? Not exactly. The Post and Ed Week are reporting a figure that is less that half of what DC is actually spending on k-12 education this year.

Their first error is to imagine that the Dept. of Ed.’s 3-year-old data are the most recent available. As a few seconds of Googling demonstrate, the current year education budgets for the District are available on the website of DC’s Chief Financial Officer: here, here, and here.

What difference do 3 years make? Consider that total spending on education in DC has gone up in real terms over that period while enrollment has fallen from about 59,000 to fewer than 49,000 students. That alone has led to a dramatic rise in per pupil spending.

Next consider that Ed Week appears to have ignored capital spending (e.g., on building renovation and construction) from its calculations. So its “per pupil expenditures” are not the total per pupil figures that readers would naturally assume, they only cover part of the district’s spending (the part normally referred to as “current operating expenditures”). What difference does that make? Nearly $5,000 worth.

As I noted last year, “current operating expenditures” for DC were $13,466 in 2005-06 (Ed Week’s figure is lower because they applied a regional cost-of-living adjustment). DC’s total per pupil spending in that same year was $18,098. [Note that we have to infer that Ed Week excluded capital spending based on the numbers they report, because their table inexplicably fails to say what figures it is reporting.]

And finally, reporting old figures without adjusting for inflation understates how much was actually spent unless readers know to perform the inflation adjustment themselves.

So what happens when you add up this year’s total spending on k-12 education in DC and divide by this year’s actual enrollment? You end up with the real per pupil spending figure of $26,555.

So, secretary Duncan: you were right all along.

Any journalist or public official wishing an explanation of the current-year total per pupil spending figure cited above for Washington, DC  is welcome to contact me at acoulson(at) cato.org

The Easy Solution to Rising Health Care Costs

It turns out that solving the health care crisis is easy.  There’s never been any reason for the lengthy, divisive, and impassioned debate.  Explains the New York Times:

“Really controlling costs requires just stopping spending,” said Stuart H. Altman, a professor of health policy at Brandeis University.

Gees, it’s no problem then.  Why didn’t I think of that?

Deadly Canadian Health Care

Opponents of nationalize health care rightly warn about the negative impact of politicizing medical care, but it’s never easy to prove that someone who otherwise would have lived died as a result.  Yet Canadians are asking whether that may be the case with actress Natasha Richardson.  Reports the News & Observer (hat tip to Matthew Vadum at the American Spectator blog):

Questions are arising over whether a medical helicopter might have been able to save actress Natasha Richardson.

The province of Quebec lacks a medical helicopter system, common in the United States and other parts of Canada, to airlift stricken patients to major trauma centers. Montreal’s top head trauma doctor said Friday that may have played a role in Richardson’s death.

Richardson, 45, died Wednesday at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York after falling Monday on a ski slope at the Mont Tremblant resort in Quebec.

“It’s impossible for me to comment specifically about her case, but what I could say is … driving to Mont Tremblant from the city [Montreal] is a 2 1/2-hour trip, and the closest trauma center is in the city. Our system isn’t set up for traumas and doesn’t match what’s available in other Canadian cities, let alone in the States,” said Tarek Razek, director of trauma services for the McGill University Health Centre, which represents six of Montreal’s hospitals.

While Richardson’s initial refusal of medical treatment cost her two hours, she also had to be driven to two hospitals. She didn’t arrive at a specialized hospital in Montreal until about four hours after the second 911 call from her hotel room at the resort, according to a timeline published by Canada’s The Globe and Mail newspaper.

Because of the pervasiveness of both third party payment and government regulation, the American medical system spends more than it should.  But it remains far more oriented towards meeting patient needs than does government-dominated health care.  As policymakers debate various “reform” measures, they should keep Natasha Richardson’s tragic fate in mind.

DHS Officials Skirt Open Meeting Laws to Promote REAL ID

There’s not much chance that U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials went to Annapolis to argue against having Maryland implement the national ID law. Maryland’s Gazette reports:

Federal homeland security officials skirted open meetings laws at a briefing last week on the state’s efforts to comply with the federal Real ID Act, unsettling several lawmakers in an era of heightened government transparency.

A meeting with the Maryland House Judiciary Committee members and other lawmakers was carefully regulated to avoid reaching a quorum so open meeting rules could be avoided.

Something is funny in the state of Maryland, and something is funny at the DHS, to insist on holding closed meetings about REAL ID during what President Obama promised would be the most open and transparent administration in history.

Napolitano revealed early this month that she has been collaborating with the National Governors Association on REAL ID. Just what they plan also remains a secret.

As governor of Arizona, she signed legislation to resist REAL ID, but politicians that come to Washington have a tremendous capacity to go native and start working to build federal power. There’s even precedent for them working with the NGA to do it.

The Problem of Guantanamo

The Constitution obviously does not leave Americans helpless in fighting against those who wish them ill.  But it also sets standards of conduct that should not – indeed, cannot – be carelessly tossed aside.

The prison at Guantanamo Bay has become such an international symbol of the U.S. abandoning its principles because it reflects an anti-terrorism policy gone badly awry.  First, the Bush administration was both callous and careless in imprisoning people, even paying unreliable tribal allies for captives.  Second, the U.S. government created no effective and objective truth-determining process to assess guilt.  Third, Washington employed torture, violating both domestic and international law.

No doubt dangerous terrorists have been incarcerated at Gitmo.  But so too have many innocent people.  Indeed, the claims of former State Department Chief of Staff Larry Wilkerson are particularly sobering:

Lawrence B. Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, admitted today that of the approximately 800 detainees held at Guantanamo Bay since the controversial detention center opened, only “two dozen or so” were actually terrorists. Wilkerson told the Associated Press today that “there are still innocent people there,” and that “some have been there six or seven years.”

Wilkerson made other comments earlier in the week in an internet posting entitled “Some Truths About Guantanamo Bay.” In that posting he said that “several in the US leadership became aware of the lack of proper vetting very early on and thus, of the reality that many of the detainees were innocent of any substantial wrongdoing, had little intelligence value, and should be immediately released.”

Wilkerson also claimed that then-Secretary Powell and Richard Armitage were pressuring for the repatriation of as many detainees as possible, and that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney were unphased by the fact that “among the detainees was a 13 year old boy and a man over 90,” standing in opposition to returning detainees.

Even if Wilkerson exaggerates–and he has been a credible witness so far–he points to the price America has paid for failing to live up to its principles.  The U.S. has locked up many who were neither terrorists nor otherwise dangerous.  Doing so undoubtedly has helped turn some people in and out of Gitmo towards violence against America.  And mistreating the innocent has badly sullied America’s reputation as a shining city upon a hill.

Confronting terrorism will never be easy.  But violating America’s principles is no way to defend the America in which we all claim to believe.

Miss Manners’s Advice for President Obama

A reader writes to Miss Manners to complain that often she can’t find a seat at a bookstore coffee shop, even though she’s a paying customer and some of the people seated seem not to be buying anything. She suggests that it is obvious that this is not the way to manage a coffee shop in a bookstore and asks Miss Manners how she can politely get the seat she wants. Miss Manners responds:

If you want to manage a coffee shop, Miss Manners suggests you first talk to those who do.

She goes on to explain that bookstores may “do better selling books by being a neighborhood center than they would by checking to see that the tables are occupied only by people who are eating and drinking.” But in any case, the bookstore managers are likely to have a better sense of this than customers who have not invested in the business.

That’s good advice for the Obama administration: If you want to manage a bank, an insurance company, an automobile manufacturer, or any other company, you might try talking to people with expertise. Better yet, you might even let those with skin in the game manage their own companies. If they make mistakes and the government doesn’t bail them out, bad managers will soon enough be weeded out.