Libertarians for Obama?

At Freedom Communications, the media company founded by the tenacious libertarian publisher R. C. Hoiles, which is still largely family-owned and freedom-oriented, they had an internal lunch debate on presidential politics the other day. According to Orange County Register columnist Frank Mickadeit, their corporate philosopher Tibor Machan advocated voting for the Libertarian Party. But the company’s CEO, Scott Flanders, had a different view:

But there was a hush as Flanders reasoned that Obama is the best candidate to work on four top libertarian reforms: 1) Iraq withdrawal, 2) restoring the separation of church and state; 3) easing off victimless crimes such as drug use; 4) curtailing the Patriot Act.

As it happens, a few days earlier I had talked to a leading libertarian writer, who told me that he supposed he’d vote for Obama on the basis of the Iraq issue.

Libertarian voters should be up for grabs this year, the Republicans having done such an effective job of pushing them away. But the Democrats don’t seem to be making much of a pitch for them. At the last Democratic debate, Clinton and Obama spent the first 30 minutes proclaiming their devotion to socialized medicine and protectionism. But maybe issues of peace and civil liberties — combined with the Republicans’ loss of credibility on fiscal and economic issues — really will push some libertarians into the arms of the Democrats, especially if the Democratic nominee is not self-proclaimed “government junkie” Hillary Clinton.

One in 100: Behind Bars In America, 2008

A new report, One in 100, from the Pew Charitable Trusts is drawing attention to the remarkable growth in the U.S. prison population. The Washington Post reports: “With more than 2.3 million people behind bars, the United States leads the world in both the number and percentage of residents it incarcerates, leaving far-more-populous China a distant second.”

I do not think our prison population should be some function of the overall adult population in the United States. But, still, when the freest country in the world is locking up more people than a much more populous totalitarian state, policymakers ought to pause and ask themselves this question: Do so many Americans really need to be kept behind iron bars? I addressed that question in a Washington Post article a few years ago — just as our prison population was breaking the two-million-prisoner mark. The short answer is no. 

The subject is not that complicated. Social engineers thought that a ban on drug use would work. It has not. Federal and state drug laws are broken millions of times each and every month. The social engineers have tried increasing the penalties and stepping up enforcement in order to “send messages.” The courts and prisons are busier than ever, but the drug trade continues to thrive.  

When the prisons are overflowing in certain jurisdictions, the system starts backing up and the police will focus on the most violent offenders and only the “major drug traffickers.” In the jurisdictions where there is some extra prison bed space (such places are few and far between), the police can “crack down” on (low level) drug dealers and users. Given that reality, one must recognize the folly of the conservative policy prescription, which basically is: Let’s build some new prisons. The liberal policy prescription of “home monitoring” and “drug treatment” do not address the core problem. 

The costs of incarceration are keeping the most zealous drug warriors in check because they cannot persuade enough people to spend whatever it takes to enforce the law against the possession and ingestion of an arbitrary list of substances. The course we are now following is nothing but a series of stop-gap measures — i.e., the police will ignore some drug dealing, the judges will send more people into drug treatment (whether they need it or not), and the wardens will have the inmates set up cots and bunk beds in the cafeterias and exercise rooms at night. 

For additional Cato work on this subject, go here.

Don’t Make a Federal Case Out of It

Federal agents investigate, arrest, and prosecute local law enforcement agents on a fairly regular basis.  Unfortunately, state and local police rarely investigate, arrest, and prosecute federal agents.  I suspect the locals are just intimidated by the FBI, Secret Service, IRS, etc.  When something suspicious or questionable happens, the feds tell the locals something to the effect of “Back off.  We’ll handle this ourselves-internally.” 

So Arizona officials deserve some credit for pressing ahead and treating Border Patrol Agent Nicholas Corbett like any other suspect.  According to the local prosecutor, Corbett’s story does not hold up and sufficient evidence points toward his guilt.  If that is indeed the situation, this case should be simple: Prosecute.  The fact that the victim didn’t have a visa in his pocket does not matter.   It also does not matter that Corbett had a federal badge in his wallet.

The Arizona officials did mess up one important aspect of this caseWhy is this matter in federal court?  Well, I already know why because this typically happens in these rare circumstances when a federal agent is prosecuted.  The more precise question is: Why didn’t the Arizona officials object to the transfer to federal court?   One news story alludes to juror bias, but that does not hold up.  Where are the jurors in federal court coming from?  Rhode Island?  The issue isn’t really rural vs. big city either because, again, if you name any big city in Arizona, there are going to be Arizona courts there! 

The thinly veiled reason for the removal procedure is that the state process is supposedly rigged/biased against the federal agent.   Arizona officials should have recognized this and defended their justice system instead of just rolling over. 

Agent Corbett has a right to a trial – like any other person accused of a crime.  The point here is that he would have had the opportunity to argue self-defense in the Arizona state courts.  And if he is convicted but thinks his trial was unfair, he can appeal and try to persuade a higher court with specifics.  This case belongs in state court, not federal court.  

Washington Post Takes Even-handed Look at “Middle Class Squeeze’

If you believe Lou Dobbs and most politicians on the campaign trail, you would think the great American middle class has basically vanished—squeezed to death by falling home values, rising medical and tuition bills, and competition from low-wage workers in Mexico and China.

Today’s Washington Post business section provides a valuable reality check. In a story headlined, “An Upside for the Middle Class: Lost Amid the Stresses Are Gains in Standard of Living,” reporter Michael A. Fletcher provides an even-handed assessment of just where the American middle class stands today.

The article reports what the doomsayers have been saying about rising levels of consumer debt, “flattening wages” and rising income inequality. But it also quotes from a range of experts that trade, technology and economic growth have raised the standard of living for most Americans.

Here are a few facts from the Post article that you won’t learn from CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight:

Items once considered luxuries—dishwashers, central air conditioning, video cameras—are now common. The average size of new homes has increased 40 percent in the past generation. And as many consumer items cost less, Americans are shopping more. In 1991 the average American bought 33.7 pieces of apparel; by 2002 he or she bought 48 items, according to Boston College sociologist Juliet Schor. In 2005, she said, Americans were projected to discard more than 63 million computers.

Americans are twice as likely to travel overseas than they were in 1980, and overall they spend more than ever for other recreation, including sporting events, movies and plays—the mark of an ever-improving quality of life, some researchers say.

Of course, supporting a middle class family can be and often is hard work. But we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be panicked into grasping for big-government solutions to an economic crisis that does not exist.

For a more in-depth look at how most Americans are faring in this era of expanding trade and globalization, you can check out my recent Cato study, “Trading Up: How Expanding Trade Has Delivered Better Jobs and Higher Living Standards for American Workers.”

NCLB Wobegon

The No Child Left Behind Act hoodwinks parents and the public, allowing politicians to take credit for expanding student “proficiency” no matter how little kids actually know. What’s the trick?  Let’s go to South Carolina, where yesterday the state’s House of Representatives passed a bill that in two years would change the state’s testing system and produce “dramatic” proficiency increases.

Sound suspicious? Don’t worry, no standards will be harmed in the making of this miracle:

The state is not lowering its standards, [Rep. Bob] Walker said.

The change is in wording, such as the meaning of “proficient.”

“Our ‘proficient’ is above grade level,” he said, while No Child Left Behind defines proficient as being at the appropriate grade level.

“You will see a dramatic increase in your level of proficiency,” Walker said.

Of course you will. It just it won’t mean anything.

Candor With the Court

President Bush and Attorney General Michael Mukasey owe the Supreme Court an explanation.  Four years ago, one of Bush’s top lawyers, Solicitor General Paul Clement, told the Supreme Court that the administration did not use coercive methods on prisoners to extract information.  Given the recent admission by CIA Director Michael Hayden that three prisoners were waterboarded, we now know that the Supreme Court was misled.  If Mukasey hopes to get the Justice Department back on track, he must find out how this happened and take corrective action.

In the spring of 2004, the Bush administration was advancing its sweeping vision of executive power before the Supreme Court.  An American citizen, Jose Padilla, a suspected terrorist, had been arrested at Chicago’s O’Hare airport.  Padilla was then moved to a military brig where he was held in solitary confinement for two years.  The government refused to allow Padilla to meet with anyone, including his lawyer.  According to the Bush administration, once a prisoner is designated an “enemy combatant,” he loses the legal protections of the American Constitution—even if the prisoner is an American citizen arrested in the United States.  Because of the grave issues involved, the Supreme Court decided to hear Padilla’s constitutional objections and rule on the controversy.

Although the central issue in the Padilla case concerned the president’s power to imprison American citizens, the Supreme Court wanted to examine the breadth of the Bush administration’s legal claims.  Solicitor General Clement argued that America was at war and that the president, as commander-in-chief, could not have his military decisions “second-guessed” by the judiciary.  A pivotal moment in the Padilla oral argument came when Clement was asked about torture (pdf)(pp. 20-23).  Testing the limits of Clement’s logic, the Supreme Court justices wanted to know if there was any legal check on the executive power to coerce prisoners to obtain military intelligence.  Clement tried to talk around the question, but then a member of the Court asked this blunt question, “Suppose the executive says mild torture we think will help get this information.  It’s not a soldier who does something against the Code of Military Justice, but it’s an executive command.  Some [foreign governments] do that to get information.”

This was supposed to be the moment of truth, but the White House representative faltered by saying, “Well, our executive doesn’t.”

That was doubletalk.  Four years later, the White House is telling a different story, albeit in dribs and drabs.  Waterboarding is not the same as water torture.  Only the CIA does it.  Only a few prisoners.

Clement could have said this to the Supreme Court, “Our Office of Legal Counsel has determined that the infliction of pain equivalent to organ failure is the legal limit.”  Or he could have said something similar to what Vice President Dick Cheney said recently—that the administration does have a tough program for “tough customers.”  Instead, Clement sought to assure the Supreme Court that there was no need to wrestle with such questions because even mild torture was beyond the pale to ”our executive.”  Satisfied with that answer, the Court moved on to other legal issues.

Professional legal obligations prohibit lawyers from making false statements of fact or law to a court.  And if a false statement is made, whether intentionally or by mistake, attorneys have an obligation to bring the error to the court’s attention even after the conclusion of the relevant proceeding.  As a former federal judge, Attorney General Mukasey must appreciate the importance of the legal rules requiring candor toward the courts.  Indeed, it was precisely that obligation that recently prompted Mukasey to initiate a criminal investigation into the CIA’s destruction of an interrogation videotape in another case.  That disclosure came to light when a Justice Department lawyer discovered the CIA’s action and took the appropriate corrective action by notifying a court of what transpired.  Keeping such facts from the court might have prevented the subsequent criminal inquiry and the negative publicity, but it would have violated the legal rules.

There is no evidence that the misrepresentation to the Supreme Court in the Padilla case regarding tough tactics against prisoners was deliberate—so this matter does not appear to warrant another special prosecutor or even an internal criminal inquiry.  But neither should this matter be permitted to slip by unnoticed.  Since the rule of candor toward the courts is unlikely to ever be openly attacked, it is imperative to defend this rule when we see it undermined—especially before the Supreme Court.    If the rule is worth preserving, and it is, it needs to be enforced.  At a minimum, Mukasey should officially inform the Supreme Court of the error.

The key point is this: Reasonable people can honestly disagree about what needs to be done about the threat posed by terrorists, but a conscientious discussion of our Constitution and laws must begin with a clear understanding of what our government is actually doing and what it is actually proposing to do next.

Blinded by Ideology

Given the outspoken, anti-trade views of thrice-elected Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND), you might think that North Dakotans have no stake in the global economy.  After all, if you’re comfortable voting for a candidate who disparages NAFTA and other trade agreements, certainly your livelihood wouldn’t depend on, say, exports to Canada.

Carter Wood over at the National Association of Manufacturers posted this gem (“Leading the Nation in Exports…and Protectionism?”) earlier today.

North Dakota’s exports grew faster than any other state’s in 2007, and the primary destination for its mostly agricultural output was Canada.  If I were a North Dakota farmer, I’d be a bit wary of my senator, whose rationale for endorsing Barack Obama is that he (Obama) “has always opposed Nafta.”

Good grief.