California: Poster Child for Poor Fiscal Management

On Wednesday Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is releasing his revised budget proposal against a backdrop of a massive deficit.  In my op-ed in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, I lay out the background of the “fiscal crisis” in the state (too much spending) and point out a few specific programs the governor can terminate.  Enacting a spending limit and working to increase the use of public-private partnerships would be great, but this year’s budget debate highlights the need to also eliminate programs, cut spending (not merely spending growth) and refocus the state government on its core functions. 

Not from California?  Your state has also likely forgotten the lessons of the 1990s and may have its own “crisis” brewing. 


“Testilying” is a term that police officers use to describe false testimony they give in court so that an otherwise illegal search or arrest can be justified.  It’s hard to tell how common the practice is, but it’s much more common than most people want to believe.

This New York Times report is telling.  First, we don’t know how many illegal searches and arrests take place because, as Federal Judge John Martin observes, “We don’t have statistics for all the people who are hassled, no gun is found, and they never get into the system.”  These are low-visibility state offenses that we might call state misdemeanors.  They happen all over but more often in the poorer neighborhoods.  Who would go to the trouble of consulting a lawyer for an illegal 10 minute police stop and pat-down?  How many lawyers would bother to take such a case if someone did walk in off the street with such a complaint?

Next come the cases where the police find contraband and go to court with a fabricated story in order to try and get a conviction.  In a system where such conduct goes unpunished, it’s safe to say we’re going to get more of it.  And the cops who skirt the rules are likely to rise through the ranks faster.  After all, they have many more arrests to their credit than their peers.

Note the utter indifference of the police and prosecutors to reports of testilying.

Kudos to the New York Times for this “revealing glimpse” of our troubled system.  For some related Cato work, go here and here

Democrats for Educational Freedom

A piece by Ron Matus in today’s St. Petersburg Times is the latest media acknowledgement of growing Democratic support for educational freedom. The expansion of Florida’s k-12 scholarship donation tax credit program, which I blogged about last week, was not a narrow party-line affair. The bill was approved by 82 to 34 in the House and by 30 to 9 in the Senate.

One of the reasons for this shift is growing personal experience among Democratic lawmakers with the programs and the families who use them.

[Democrat Bill] Heller voted against the bill in committee. But then he visited the Yvonne C. Reed Christian School in St. Petersburg and talked to parents who use tax-credit vouchers. He said they changed his mind.

Think about that. The more personal experience legislators have with market education reforms, the more likely they are to support their expansion. The more these programs expand, the more personal experience legislators will have with them…. Get the picture?

Just another reason I expect to see real educational freedom in America in my lifetime.

Harold & Kumar Discover the Spirit of America

Four years ago the movie Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle was celebrated mostly as a “stoner” movie: smart young Asian guys smoke pot and get the munchies. When I finally got around to watching it, it was funnier than I expected. And very near the end of the movie, after an all-night road trip in which they encountered more obstacles than Odysseus, when Harold finally gives up and says he can’t make the last leg of the epic journey to White Castle, came this wonderful speech from Kumar:

So, you think this is just about the burgers, huh? Let me tell you, it’s about far more than that. Our parents came to this country, escaping persecution, poverty and hunger. Hunger, Harold. They were very, very hungry. They wanted to live in a land that treated them as equals, a land filled with hamburger stands. And not just one type of hamburger, okay? Hundreds of types with different sizes, toppings, and condiments. That land was America! America, Harold! America! Now this is about achieving what our parents set out for. This is about the pursuit of happiness. This night … is about the American Dream! Dude, we can stay here, get arrested, and end our hopes of ever going to White Castle. Or, we can take that hang glider and make our leap towards freedom. I leave the decision up to you.

Escaping persecution, poverty and hunger … to find ample food and unlimited choices … the pursuit of happiness … the American Dream. Yes, I think writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg were on to something.

And now comes the sequel, Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. After another improbable road trip, the fugitive youths literally drop in on George W. Bush’s Texas ranch. In the increasingly fantastic plot, the president invites them to join him in hiding from the scary Cheney, shares his pot with them, and then promises to clear up the unfortunate misunderstanding that landed them in Guantanamo Bay. An uninhibited but still skeptical Kumar says, “I’m not sure I trust our government any more, sir.” And President Bush delivers this ringing libertarian declaration:

Hey, I’m in the government, and I don’t even trust it. You don’t have to trust your government to be a patriot. You just have to trust your country.

Harold & Kumar: more wisdom than a month of right-wing talk radio. Hurwitz and Schlossberg get what America is about.

35 Million Americans Going Hungry Is Baloney

Washington Post columnist Shankar Vedantam starts his column today with:

About 35 million Americans regularly go hungry each year, according to federal statistics.

But it is simply not true that 35 million are “regularly” going hungry, as I’ve previously noted

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is the official source for such statistics. Here is what the agency says:

USDA does not have a measure of hunger or the number of hungry people. Prior to 2006, USDA described households with very low food security as ‘food insecure with hunger,’ and characterized them as households in which one or more people were hungry at times during the year because they could not afford enough food … In 2006, USDA introduced the new description ‘very low food security’ to replace ‘food insecurity with hunger.’

O.K., how big is the new group called “very low food security?” If you look at the chart here, you see that it is about 3% of the population (about 9 million people). These are the people with an episode of “very low food security” during even a short period of the year. For those with very low food security in the prior 30 days, the rate falls to about 2%, or about 6 million people.

Shankar Vedantam throws the phrase “each year” into his sentence, which blurs his statistic a bit. But if people go hungry only once a year, how could that be “regularly”? In any event, he has made the same error as many politicians and advocacy groups who use the grossly inflated 35 million figure.

I enjoy Vedantam’s column, which often highlights interesting data and research. But in this case, he should have recognized that more than 10% of Americans “regularly” going hungry didn’t pass the smell test.     


Can the Resource Curse Be Lifted?

Cato Unbound’s May edition discusses the resource curse. Numerous studies confirm that countries rich in natural resources tend to be poor in property rights, individual liberty, and the rule of law. Is this just a deep, and deeply depressing, feature of the world we live in? Or can wealthier countries (which make up the market for most of these resources) and international institutions somehow intervene to alleviate or even lift the resource curse?

Philosopher Leif Wenar opens up the discussion by charging that you – yes you – are almost certainly the recipient of stolen goods, resources that clearly shouldn’t have belonged to the dictators who first sold them. Wenar then offers a simple but provocative solution to the resource curse, one that will hold kleptocracies responsible for their thefts.

The discussion will feature Cato senior fellow Andrei Illarionov, the former chief economic advisor to Vladimir Putin;  journalist and historian John Ghazvinian, author of Untapped: The Scramble for Africa’s Oil; and Washington University political philosopher Christopher Wellman, an expert in matters of international justice.  Could Wenar’s proposal succeed?  What are the obstacles along the way?  What else, if anything, can developed countries do to end the resource curse?  Be sure to check out Cato Unbound throughout the week, as discussion develops over one of the most pressing humanitarian issues of our time.