The Threat of Poorly Performing Vacuum Cleaners

I don’t follow domestic regulation as closely as many people at Cato, but I keep an eye on it in relation to “regulatory trade barriers” that are being addressed in trade negotiations. In that context, I came accross this EU attempt to crack down on high-wattage vacuum cleaners:

Consumers are being urged to buy powerful vacuum cleaners while they can after it emerged that some of the most powerful models on the market will disappear in September when a new EU rule comes into force.

An EU energy label, to be introduced from 1 September, means manufacturers will not be able to make or import vacuum cleaners with a motor that exceeds 1,600 watts.

European commission spokeswoman for energy Marlene Holzner said in a blog: “As a result of the new EU eco-design and labelling regulations, consumers will also get better vacuum cleaners. In the past, there was no legislation on vacuum cleaners and companies could sell poorly performing vacuum cleaners.”

Oh, the humanity! Companies might sell “poorly performing vacuum cleaners” to an unsuspecting public! And only legislation can save the day!

Or – and I know this might sound crazy to some people – we could just rely on consumers to evaluate the vacuum cleaners, buying the better ones and leaving the “poorly peforming” ones on the shelf.

How the British Burned Washington

The British burned Washington 200 years ago today. In the Washington Post Joel Achenbach, with help from Steve Vogel, author of Through the Perilous Fight, tells how the day went, including this description of how thorough and careful the British were:

The British knew how to build a bonfire. You just stacked the furniture, sprinkled it with gunpowder and put a torch to it.

They built multiple fires inside the Capitol, immolating the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress and the splendid chambers of the House and Senate.

Later in the evening, Ross and Cockburn made their way to the White House and helped themselves, amid hearty toasts, to the fabulous meal and adult beverages left by Mrs. Madison and her staff. They took a few souvenirs, and one filthy lieutenant ventured into the president’s dressing room and put on one of the president’s clean linen shirts.

Then they set the fires. Up in flames went some of the most beautiful furniture in the country, including pieces obtained by Jefferson in Paris and the private possessions of the Madisons. The fires left the mansion a gutted, smoldering shell.

The British also burned the Treasury building, and the building housing the War and State departments. They ransacked the National Intelligencer newspaper office, with Cockburn ordering the seizure of all the letter C’s from the presses so that the editor could no longer write nasty things about him. The Americans themselves burned the Navy Yard to keep the ships and stores out of British hands. 

The invaders spared private dwellings. This was to be a civilized sacking; no rapes, no murders, minimal plundering. They even spared the Patent Office after being persuaded that patents were private property.

 One would hate to think that the British army was more respectful of private property rights than the current U.S. government.

 

 

 

The First Amendment Protects Random Ugly Rap Lyrics

To ensure that public discussion remains “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,” the First Amendment protects speech that is “vituperative, abusive, and inexact.” While nobody will argue that Anthony Elonis’s speech—the subject of a Supreme Court case this coming term—was anything but “vituperative, abusive, and inexact,” there is considerable disagreement over whether his speech should be protected by the First Amendment. 

Elonis’s chosen form of speech was a series of rap lyrics he posted on Facebook under the pseudonym “Tone Dougie.” Many of the lyrics were violent and lurid, and some of those violent images were made in reference to Elonis’s estranged wife, who took them as a threat to her life. As a result of his crude posts, Elonis was fired, his wife obtained a protective order against him, and he was arrested and charged with violating 18 U.S.C. § 875(c), which makes it a federal crime to transmit in interstate commerce “any communication containing any threat to injure the person of another.”

Elonis argued that his rap lyrics were an artistic expression and that because he did not intend them to be a threat, his speech should be protected. The federal district court hearing his case didn’t see it that way. The judge rejected his request that the jury be instructed to consider his actions based on whether he expressed a subjective intent to threaten and instead instructed the jury to judge his speech based on whether a reasonable person would have interpreted the lyrics as a serious expression of intent to inflict bodily injury. Elonis was thus convicted and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit also rejected his argument that a subjective intent to threaten is required before speech loses First Amendment protection.

Now before the Supreme Court, Cato has joined the American Civil Liberties Union, the Abrams Institute for Freedom of Expression at Yale Law School, the Center for Democracy & Technology, and the National Coalition Against Censorship on a brief supporting Elonis’s position. We argue that Supreme Court precedent shows that (1) a subjective intent to threaten is an essential element of a “true threat,” (2) requiring a finding of subjective intent is in line with First Amendment principles, and (3) drawing the line between threat and protected speech carefully is particularly important given the rise of the Internet as a forum of communication—one where it can be easy to take things out of context.

As a matter of most people’s taste, the Internet may well be better off without violent rap lyrics like Anthony Elonis’s. But that shouldn’t matter to this case or how it’s analyzed under the First Amendment, which requires a high standard of proof regarding incitement or threats of violence before individuals can be jailed for their speech. The Supreme Court should take this opportunity to speak that truth freely across all mediums.

Elonis v. United States will be argued at the Supreme Court in November or December.

This blogpost was co-authored by Cato legal associate Julio Colomba.

The Interventionist Bias (on Both the Left and Right)

Over at Reason today, I have more to say (beyond here and here) about recent goings on in Iraq and Syria, and the debate over what, if anything, the United States might have done, or might do now, to change things.

As I note:

some commentators insist that the current chaos is a direct result of President Obama’s reluctance to intervene decisively in the multi-year conflicts in Iraq and Syria. Most notably, Obama’s own former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, in an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, suggested that Obama’s failure to aid the Syrian rebels led to the rise of [the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Clinton claims “that the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad … left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.” Inherent in that statement is the belief that there was a cadre of relatively liberal-minded opponents of Bashar al-Assad’s regime inside of Syria, and that American support would have been the decisive factor in ensuring that they would triumph over both Assad and the ISIL extremists. By this logic, if the United States had chosen to arm the “correct” anti-Assad rebels in Syria, we would not now be bombing ISIL in Iraq.

But experts, including George Washington University’s Marc Lynch, aren’t so sure. Others question how “moderate” some of the so-called moderates really are. Indeed, many so-called moderates, in turns out, are just “Caliphate, later” people. That is, unlike their “Caliphate, now” brethren, they are willing to use U.S. support to overthrow Assad. Once his regime is defeated, however, many will fight to implement an extremist government, one that is likely to be a thorn in the side of their regional neighbors, as well as the United States. That explains, in part, why we are now fighting in Iraq at least some of the people who we trained in Syria, And yet, the interventionist bias—do something—remains pervasive inside the Washington Beltway.

Don’t Blame School Choice for Philly’s School Funding Fiasco

Philadelphia’s government schools are in the midst of a financial crisis and anti–school choice activists think they found the perfect scapegoat.

Earlier this week, the group Americans United (AU) attacked Pennsylvania’s scholarship tax credit program, claiming that it was partially responsible for Philadelphia’s budget woes.

For the second year in a row Philadelphia’s public schools are struggling to open on time, and it appears deep budget cuts—including money siphoned for a voucher-like program—are to blame. … That’s why it’s important to remember that when voucher [sic] programs expand, it often comes at the expense of public schools.

Curiously, in a post of more than 650 words about Philly’s school funding fiasco, the AU blogger could not find space to mention how much Philadelphia actually spends per pupil. Perhaps that’s because citizens are far less sympathetic to claims of school underfunding when they learn how much is already being spent. Consistent with previous studies, a recent Education Next survey found that support for increasing government school spending dropped from 63% to 43% when respondents were first told how much the schools currently spend.

Philadelphia’s schools are well-funded compared to the national and state averages. As Andrew J. Coulson observed last September, the Philly school district spent nearly $16,000 per pupil in 2013-14, which is about $3,000 above the national average and about $1,000 more than Pennsylvania’s statewide average. It’s even $1,600 more than in-state tuition at Temple University. The $32 million budget cut that AU laments is only about 1% of the city’s $3.03 billion budget (p. 54). Moreover, that “cut” came entirely from temporary stimulus funds that had expired.

The AU blogger also does not offer an explanation for how the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) supposedly harms government schools. The EITC grants tax credits worth 75% to 90% of corporate donations to nonprofit scholarship organizations that help low- and middle-income families select the schools of their choice. The scholarships averaged only $990 in 2011-12, which is barely 6% of Philadelphia’s per pupil expenditures. Scholarship organizations can use up to 20% of the donations they receive for administrative purposes, so even assuming that every organization used the maximum administrative allowance (though a 2010 state report [p. 33] put the average at 8%), that’s still only $1,237.5 per pupil. Even assuming that every donor received the maximum 90% credit, the EITC reduces revenue by only $1,113.75 per pupil, which is still only about 7% of what Philly spends per pupil.

Congress Gets Unlimited Power Because…Slavery?

After engaging in a racially motivated street fight with a black man, Charles Cannon found himself facing—as expected—assault charges and a sentencing enhancement to penalize him further under Texas’s hate crime law. To federal prosecutors, however, this was not good enough, so they charged Cannon under the federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA). You see, they had to make a federal case out of a fistfight to stop the return of slavery.

If that sounds odd, it probably should. The HCPA was passed pursuant to Section 2 of the Thirteenth Amendment, which authorizes Congress to enforce the Thirteenth Amendment ban on slavery, which authority the Supreme Court has extended to eliminating the “badges and incidents” of slavery. Defining these “badges and incidents” is naturally left up to Congress, and Congress has determined that racially motivated violence fits into that ever-expanding category. Cannon challenged his HCPA charges, but the federal district and appeals courts upheld the HCPA’s constitutionality, deferring to Congress’s power to “rationally determine” what the badges and incidents of slavery entail.

In petitioning the Supreme Court for review, Cannon argues that the HCPA intrudes on the states’ police power to prosecute local crimes and that Congress can’t be the judge of the limits of its own powers, whether under the Thirteenth Amendment or otherwise. Joined by the Reason Foundation and the Individual Rights Foundation, Cato has filed a brief supporting Cannon’s petition. We argue that the use of hate-crime laws to sweep local criminal activity into federal court has nothing to do with stamping out slavery and that the Court should decide the legitimacy of these laws before a more highly politicized case comes along—Ferguson, anyone?—and makes that task even harder.

Not only are federal hate crime laws constitutionally unsound, but, as George Zimmerman’s trial over the death of Trayvon Martin highlighted, they invite people dissatisfied with a state court outcome to demand that the federal government retry unpopular defendants. Giving Congress unlimited power and impairing the fundamental right to be free from double prosecution are too high and too immediate a price to pay to combat the phantom menace of slavery’s return to the United States.

The Supreme Court will decide this fall whether to take Cannon v. United States. For more on the case, see this description and brief on behalf of two members of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

This blogpost, as well as Cato’s brief, was co-authored by legal associate Julio Colomba.

L.A. Considers Giving Away Lottery Tickets To Encourage Voting

Concerned about low voter turnout, the Los Angeles Ethics Commission has floated the idea of using “financial incentives, such as a lottery system” to lure the apathetic to the polls. The Los Angeles Times has the details, while columnist Debra Saunders weighs in with critical commentary here and here.  From Saunders’s second post:

Total prize money is expected to be $100,000, or 1 percent of the $10 mil Los Angeles spent on public financing last year. … While the commission was thinking of giving away 100 $1,000 prizes, [City Councilman Herb] Wesson suggested that the panel consider a bigger takeaway – say a $50,000 prize, and two for $25,000. The measure hasn’t even made it to a City Council vote, and already politicians are trying to figure out how to fatten the prize.

Lottery tickets, paying off in other people’s money, as a reward for voting. That’s a perfect metaphor for the political process, isn’t it?