The Washington Post Quietly Corrects Justice John Paul Stevens’s Grievous Error about Gun Laws

Last week, former Justice John Paul Stevens penned an op-ed for the Washington Post on “The Five Words that Can Fix the Second Amendment.” The piece is actually an excerpt from his new book Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the ConstitutionIn the book, Stevens suggests some changes that would ratify his view of cases in which he stridently dissented, such as Citizens United and Heller

Stevens’s dissent in Heller, the case in which a 5-4 Court held that the Second Amendment conveys an individual right to own guns even for those not part of a militia, is largely re-hashed in his Washington Post op-ed. In addition, there is, or was, a glaring error that the Post has since corrected sub rosa, that is, without acknowledging at the bottom that the piece was edited. As Josh Blackman originally reported, and thankfully preserved by excerpting, the first version contained this error:

Following the massacre of grammar-school children in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012, high-powered automatic weapons have been used to kill innocent victims in more senseless public incidents.

As Josh and others noted, not only were automatic weapons not used at any recent high-profile mass shooting, they’ve been essentially illegal in the U.S. since 1934 and since 1986 they’ve been almost impossible to come by. Justice Stevens also repeated his error a few paragraphs down: 

Thus, even as generously construed in Heller, the Second Amendment provides no obstacle to regulations prohibiting the ownership or use of the sorts of automatic weapons used in the tragic multiple killings in Virginia, Colorado and Arizona in recent years.

When you view the piece now, however, the words have magically disappeared. But they have not, apparently, disappeared from Justice Stevens’s book, which went to press with those errors. I don’t have a copy, but I checked by searching the inside of the book on Amazon for the word “automatic.” 

Why is this omission important? Well, for one it is part of a long series of mistaken statements by many gun-controllers, including President Obama, who made a similar statement in a speech last spring. More generally, the gun control crowd often shows a pronounced ignorance of how guns work and which guns are actually illegal, which certainly doesn’t help when they try to make their case for more strict controls. For just two famous examples, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) once described a barrel shroud as the “shoulder thing that goes up” (it’s not), and Rep. Diana Degette (D-CO) once remarked that after high-capacity magazines are emptied they would not be reusable (they are). 

It seems reasonable to conclude that, based on the prevalence of these errors by people who should know better, they don’t care too much whether their statements are accurate. To them, the fact that someone used a weapon to commit a mass shooting is enough to ban that weapon. Unfortunately for them, there is nothing about the weapons used in those atrocious crimes that meaningfully distinguishes them from weapons used every day by responsible, law-abiding Americans. The AR-15, for example, used by the shooter at Newtown, is the most popular rifle in the U.S. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time it is used responsibly, including for self-defense. Ipso facto, it is not just for “spraying death.”  

A better argument can be made that actual automatic machine guns “spray death.” And if those are what Justice Stevens believes were used at Newtown, then that seems relevant to his position on guns. I imagine, however, that his views wouldn’t change if he understood the truth. At the very least, however, the Washington Post should make clear that the piece was edited. 

Close the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Program

The Government Accountability Office’s annual duplication report is out. This year, the report highlights 30 ways that the federal government can save money. One way is to terminate the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing (ATVM) program, which provides government-subsidized loans to companies that make fuel-efficient cars. The program has been a failure, and it has cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Established by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, ATVM was authorized to provide a total of $25 billion in loans for projects that “support the production of fuel-efficient, advanced technology vehicles and components in the United States.” Companies that participated in the program could borrow funds directly from the government with very little out-of-pocket expenses—participants only had to pay some upfront borrowing costs. But Congress made the program even more lucrative in 2009 by provided $7.5 billion to help offset those borrowing costs.

The Department of Energy (DOE) has issued five ATVM loans totaling $8.4 billion so far—with an additional $3.3 billion in borrowing costs. In its promotional material for the program, DOE highlights three of the recipients: Ford Motor Company, Nissan North America, and Tesla Motors.

However, these DOE materials don’t mention loans to two other companies, Fisker Automotive and Vehicle Production Group (VPG). I think I know why: taxpayers lost almost $200 million on those two loans.

Fisker Automotive borrowed $529 million from the federal government to produce its luxury car, Karma. The loan was touted by the administration, including by Vice President Biden. Biden said “the story of Fisker is a story of ingenuity of an American company, a commitment to innovation by the U.S. government and the perseverance of the American auto industry.”

The car was a flop from the beginning. It was recalled, and it received poor performance ratings. Fisker lost an estimated $35,000 on each vehicle sold. A year after issuing the loan, DOE halted Fisker’s borrowing authority after the company had already borrowed $192 million. Fisker filed for bankruptcy shortly thereafter. Only $50 million of the $192 million has been recovered for taxpayers.

Vehicle Production Group had financial and production problems as well. In addition, its loan was questioned due to the political connection between its adviser and the White House. The adviser was a fundraiser for the White House and “headed Obama’s vice presidential selection committee in 2008.” The company quietly folded costing taxpayers the full $50 million loan.

The taxpayer losses from Fisker and VPG were in addition to the losses from other federal energy loans to companies such as Solyndra and Abound Solar. After all the bad press from these failed energy subsidies, demand for the loans dried up. According to a March 2013 report from GAO, DOE was no longer considering applications for the remaining $16.6 billion in loan authority and $4.2 billion in borrowing cost subsidies. Auto companies told GAO that the “costs of participating outweigh the benefits.”

However, Congress still has not rescinded ATVM’s loan authority. DOE could start reissuing loans under the failed program at any point, and it is re-launching its promotional efforts. Closing the program would not only save taxpayers money, it would reduce government interventions in the energy and automobile markets. For reformers in Congress, this change should be a no-brainer.

Government Keeps Growing

Political scientist Matt Grossmann discussed the results of his research on federal government growth in the Washington Post last week.

I combed through hundreds of history books covering American public policy since 1945, tracking the most significant domestic policy changes that made it into law and the actors that historians credit for those changes. Of the 509 most significant domestic policies passed by Congress, only one in five were conservative, in that they contracted the scope of government funding, regulation or responsibility. More than 60 percent were liberal: They clearly expanded government. The others offered a mix of liberal or conservative components or took no clear ideological direction.

Grossman mentioned one of the structural reasons why this has happened:

Liberal policies are self-reinforcing because they create beneficiaries who act as constituencies for their continuation and expansion. Policy debates center on what additional actions government should take, not whether to discontinue existing roles.

Grossman is essentially saying that not only has the size of the federal government expanded, but so has the scope. The problem is not just that programs such as Medicare keep growing, but also that Congress keeps adding new programs.

The following chart shows an official count of the number of federal benefit, subsidy, and aid programs—Medicare, farm subsidies, food stamps, and more than 2,000 others. The source is the CFDA website for recent years and hard copy CFDA catalogs for the older years.

Hunger on College Campuses? Not Really

There are many problems with The Washington Post’s recent article, “More College Students Battle Hunger as Education and Living Costs Rise.” Instead of discussing each problem—such as the claim that a college education is necessary for a good career—I’ll stick to research on quality of life.

When it comes to the claim that college students are going hungry, the article appears to be misleading sensationalism. The article argues that American college students are increasingly “food insecure” (i.e., they go hungry or lack access to nutritional food). This is supposedly a problem in part because students increasingly focus on obtaining food rather than studying.

In reality, Americans have never been more food secure. Over time, agricultural productivity has risen as food prices have dropped. (See Figure 1, below.) As incomes have increase, Americans use less of their total budget to purchase food (Figure 2). Today, calorie consumption in the United States is well above the recommended amount, even as we eat healthier foods more frequently (Figure 3).

Figure 1

 Figure 1

Figure 2

 Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 3 

Why Did Western Nations Continue to Prosper in the 20th Century even though Fiscal Burdens Increased?

In the pre-World War I era, the fiscal burden of government was very modest in North America and Western Europe. Total government spending consumed only about 10 percent of economic output, most nations were free from the plague of the income tax, and the value-added tax hadn’t even been invented.

Today, by contrast, every major nation has an onerous income tax and the VAT is ubiquitous. Those punitive tax systems exist largely because—on average—the burden of government spending now consumes more than 40 percent of GDP.

historical-size-of-govt

To be blunt, fiscal policy has moved dramatically in the wrong direction over the past 100-plus years. And thanks to demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs, things are going to get much worse, according to Bank of International Settlements, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and International Monetary Fund projections.

While those numbers, both past and future, are a bit depressing, they also present a challenge to advocates of small government. If taxes and spending are bad for growth, why did the United States (and other nations in the Western world) enjoy considerable prosperity all through the 20th century? I sometimes get asked that question after speeches or panel discussions on fiscal policy. In some cases, the person making the inquiry is genuinely curious. In other cases, it’s a leftist asking a “gotcha” question.

Long-Run GDP

I’ve generally had two responses.

Ideas Have Consequences: The Neoconservatives

The New York Times has produced a useful video about the “super-predator” scare from the 1990s.  At that time, we were already waging a drug war, so we were advised to build more prisons–and so we did.  Then regrets.

You can watch the video here.

As it happens, we are also finding more scrutiny of neoconservative ideas at the movies. A new documentary film directed by Errol Morris looks at former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld and the Iraq war.  Here is the film trailer:

For related Cato work, go here, here, and here.

Don’t Push China and Russia Together

One of the more notable results of Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea is how unenthusiastic the Chinese government has been about that development. In a piece at China-U.S. Focus, I describe Beijing’s reaction as one of “nervous ambivalence.”

Moscow’s policy regarding Crimea sets extremely dangerous precedents from China’s standpoint. Amputating the province of a neighboring state through military occupation and a subsequent referendum to give the “secession” a façade of legitimacy, triggered multiple alarm bells in Beijing. Russia’s Crimea annexation violated China’s repeatedly stated position emphasizing respect for the territorial integrity of all states as a key principle of international behavior. Beijing’s emphasis on that principle is hardly surprising, given its own territorial issues involving Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan. The last thing Chinese leaders want to encourage is a precedent whereby one or more of those entities might seek secession with the assistance of a hostile foreign power or combination of powers.

Unfortunately, U.S. officials are apparently oblivious to opportunities to exploit China’s nervousness. Instead, Washington seems determined to adopt measures that are likely to push Beijing and Moscow together. Obama administration officials have thrown diplomatic temper tantrums because Beijing has joined Moscow in resisting U.S.-led efforts to unseat Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and impose increasingly harsh economic sanctions on Iran. On one occasion, Susan Rice denounced Chinese and Russian vetoes of a UN resolution on Syria, proclaiming that her country was “disgusted.” She added that those actions were “shameful” and “unforgivable.”