Europe’s Insane Agriculture Subsidies

American politicians have created a wretched system of agricultural subsidies, but it seems that Europe’s lawmakers win the prize for concocting the most perverse ways to squander tax money. The Times reports that there is now a secondary market in buying and selling agricultural subsidy entitlements:

City dwellers are making huge profits out of an EU loophole that allows people who have never set foot on a farm to claim European farm subsidies. …Auctioneers and brokers who used to sell cattle and farm-land are now focusing their attention on selling the rights to receive European taxpayers’ money — known as entitlement trading — in what one described as a “ferocious” market with the rights to subsidies “flying off the shelf”. …Open auctions are being held — with one in Aberdeen due next Friday — while investors are also buying the rights to subsidies over the telephone, through brokers, through internet auction sites and inter-active trading. …Under EU regulations, only someone classified as a farmer can buy the right to receive subsidies, but to be classified officially as a farmer, people need only hold a lease on a minimum of 1.7 acres for ten months of the year, and never need to visit it. Scottish landowners are now leasing out vast tracts of rocky highland for as little as £5 an acre a year, so that investors can claim to be farmers. For each acre you lease, you can buy annual subsidies averaging £100 an acre, but which can rise to over £1,000 an acre.

A newspaper in Scotland, meanwhile, reports that one dairy farmer has figured out how to scam the system for about $2 million per year - most of which is received as a subsidy for milk that does not exist:

A Scottish dairy farmer has exploited a glaring loophole in European law to annually earn the right to claim more than £1million in subsidies. William Hamilton and Sons, of Meldrum Farm, Blairdrummond, Stirling, has taken advantage of a flaw that allows it to get handouts on almost nine times the amount of milk it produces. Under EU law, the business will continue to qualify for the lottery-size payment annually until 2012 - even if it stops producing milk.

Property Rights at the Supreme Court, Again

It’s being overshadowed by the Bong Hits 4 Jesus case, but there’s an important property rights case before the Supreme Court today. Timothy Sandefur, author of Cornerstone of Liberty: Property Rights in 21st-Century America, writes about the case in Legal Times today.

The case involves a dispute that arose when Harvey Frank Robbins bought some land in Wyoming. The Bureau of Land Management claimed to have an easement on the land, but that wasn’t recorded on the deed. The government demanded that Robbins agree to the easement, and he resisted. Government agents promised him “a hardball education,” and they delivered – harassment, citations for minor offenses, belligerent visits, and criminal charges for interfering with government agents, charges of which he was acquitted after 30 minutes of jury deliberation. Sandefur takes the story from there:

After enduring years of such treatment, Robbins sued, arguing, among other things, that the BLM agents had violated his Fifth Amendment right to exclude others from his property. The trial court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit agreed, but the government asked the Supreme Court to reverse in Wilkie v. Robbins. “No court,” said Solicitor General Paul Clement in his brief, has “ever recognized a constitutional right against retaliation … in the context of property rights.”

This astonishing argument is potentially far more dangerous to the rights of property owners than the notorious Kelo v. New London decision two years ago, which held that government can use eminent domain to transfer property from one private owner to another whenever politicians think doing so would be in the public interest.

If the Court rules against Robbins, home and business owners would find it much harder to resist when the government demands their property.

Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe argued the case for Robbins, with the Justice Department defending the BLM. Watch for news stories later today.

British Taxpayers Pay to Give Self-Esteem Massages to Welfare Recipients

In the global contest to waste taxpayer money, the U.K. has a very strong entry. According to the Times, people who already receive handouts are now getting taxpayer-financed shopping sprees, beauty treatments, and other goodies to supposedly build their confidence. Not surprisingly, European Union funds also are subsidizing this boondoggle, so at least British taxpayers can take comfort from the fact that some of the cost is shifted to people in other parts of Europe:

The government is paying for unemployed single parents to have massages, beauty treatments and shopping sprees to “boost their confidence” and encourage them to attend job centre appointments. The treats, part of a programme named Big Brother…, include £30 to spend on a day out, as well as lunch and childcare. …A brochure describes it as a “free two-week scheme that will boost your self-esteem and supercharge your confidence”. Organisers said it would be “nice” if participants found work, but this was not vital. …A man from Whitley Bay, Tyne and Wear, whose teenage daughter works at a salon involved in the scheme, said: “She was baffled when she was told these women were getting treatment for nothing. They had their make-up done, they had facials, they had their nails filed and some even had their ears pierced. “My daughter doesn’t get a penny from the government and will earn less than these single mothers get in benefits. What message does this send out?” …Martin Callanan, a Conservative MEP for the North East, said: “There are lots of other parents, not to mention pensioners, who would like the state to pay for their pampering. It is suspicious that they are unable to tell us how much this is costing taxpayers.”

Confidentiality

Washington University School of Law professor Neil Richards and George Washington University Law School professor Daniel Solove have an important new law review article out.  Privacy’s Other Path: Recovering the Law of Confidentiality is a useful reminder of a dimension of privacy apart from the privacy torts so famously inspired by Warren and Brandeis in their 1890 Harvard Law Review article.

Confidentiality is the idea that you can share information subject to restrictions on further disclosure and use.  There are often implicit understandings about how shared or mutually created information should be treated.  It’s an important point that’s been conveniently forgotten in government arguments for “data retention,” for example.  Confidentiality in the financial services sphere has been eviscerated by the Bank Secrecy Act and the Supreme Court cases that followed it, as well as Smith v. Maryland in the telecommunications context.

Richards and Solove’s work has its awkward turns - they characterize continental Europe’s focus on dignity and America’s focus on liberty as highly individualistic, while suggesting that confidentiality is ”based on the protection of relationships.”  If these characterizations are relevant at all, confidentiality can be seen just as much as a protection of individuals, the difference being that confidentiality is rooted more deeply in contract.  Small matter, though. 

Overall a good work, and an important reminder.

(HT: Schneier)

Is This a Log Cabin?

Photo from Washington PostBelmont College guard Andrew House complained that the NCAA assigned his team to this hotel, the historic Brookstown Inn in Winston-Salem, N.C. He objected to the old, 19-inch television sets in the room and said that the hotel felt more like a log cabin.

Isn’t it great to live in a world so rich that a 20-year-old college student thinks a beautiful, historic four-story hotel is like a log cabin? Next year, no doubt, players will complain about being assigned to hotels with old Ethernet connections that you actually have to plug your laptop computer into, like pioneer times.

Cock-fighting and Freedom

It’s not often that you can point to a stirring article about American liberty by a Weekly Standard editor. But Chris Caldwell’s piece in the Financial Times on cock-fighting is a fine read. Yes, cock-fighting. Presidential candidate Bill Richardson doesn’t want the legality of cock-fighting in New Mexico to burden his candidacy as he travels the length and breadth of this great land. So rather than defend New Mexico as the last bastion of American freedom, he chose to sign a law banning it to help his campaign.

Caldwell notes sadly that even the defenders of the practice hardly mentioned liberty. Instead, they mentioned the economic benefits of tourism and the alleged anti-Hispanic bias of the drive to ban a sport popular with Hispanics. The better argument, he thought, would have been liberty: some people want to attend cock-fights, and Americans have been doing so for centuries, so why should “reformers” be able to take a small pleasure away from others? Caldwell deplores the decline of the general presumption of liberty:

It used to be, under the US system, that one could do anything that was not expressly forbidden. Now one is forbidden to do anything one cannot make an explicit case for. The burden of proof has shifted.

It’s especially sad that Bill Richardson, who is not so bad on fiscal issues and is a supporter of medical marijuana, felt that he had to take people’s freedom away for his own political gain.

Ten Billion Served (and 300 Million Fleeced)

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) just announced that the U.S. transit industry carried more than 10 billion transit trips in 2006, the first time the industry has exceeded 10 billion trips since 1957. Naturally, APTA – the transit industry’s leading lobby group – sees this as “10 billion reasons to increase local and federal investment in public transportation.”

The 10-billion milestone looks a lot less impressive when compared with the growing population of urban residents. It works out to just 42.7 trips per urban resident in 2006. (A trip, incidentally, is a transit boarding: if you get on a subway, then transfer to a bus, that is counted as two trips.)

While 42.7 trips per urbanite is more than were carried in 2005, it is not more than 2001, and it is less than in any year between 1907 (the first year for which transit data are available) and 1993.

In the meantime, transit subsidies already average 64 cents per passenger mile, compared with less than 0.4 cents for subsidies to auto driving. Over the past decade, APTA’s transit factbook says that the U.S. has “invested” more than $100 billion in public transit capital improvements, mostly for expensive rail transit projects. Many of the cities that have built rail transit lines have actually seen transit ridership drop because the high cost of rail has forced them to cut bus services.

As I explain in more detail in my Antiplanner blog, the real problem with the transit industry is too much money. Because transit agencies get the vast majority of their funds from taxpayers rather than transit riders, their incentives are to build expensive, glitzy urban monuments rather than provide economical transit services to those who need them. The solution is to stop subsidizing transit agencies an instead give vouchers to transit users, who can use them for buses, taxis, or any other public conveyance.