Online Gambling Roundup

I have a Cato podcast today looking at federal efforts to ban online gambling. Jacob Sullum and Walter Williams have also offered critiques of the crackdown, including the recent arrest of BetonSports.com CEO David Carruthers.

In a sort of convergence of two issues I’ve been covering lately, last month, a SWAT team conducted a heavy-handed raid of an underground poker room in Dallas. The SWAT team brought along a camera crew from the A&E reality show Dallas SWAT to record the action. This was no Sopranos-style game where everybody’s packing. It was a well-known, advertised, gray-area gathering of poker fans. The Pokerati blog has more details.

For posterity, here’s a photo of the Dallas SWAT team. This is what they brought to crack down on a group of people playing cards. The Pokerati blog says the SWAT team brought computer-generated maps that looked to be specific to poker rooms, indicating that this is likely the first of many such raids.

And it isn’t the first time. SWAT teams have also been breaking up underground games in New York City. They’ve even been used to raid charity poker games in Baltimore, Denver, and all over the state of Ohio.

In my home state of Virginia, a SWAT team shot and killed unarmed Sal Culosi last January. They had come to arrest the optometrist for the crime of betting on sports games with friends. And in 1998, a SWAT team on a gambling raid in Virginia Beach shot and killed security guard Edward C. Reid, who was in a car reading a book, and mistook the police officers for burglars (the club he was guarding had been robbed months earlier).

It’s scary how quickly “good-intentioned” paternalism can turn into frightening militarism.

Gay Marriage Ban Will Make Gays Make Babies?

The Washington State Supreme Court has upheld that state’s ban on gay marriage based on the following brilliant bit of reasoning:

“Limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples furthers procreation, essential to the survival of the human race….”

And how, my good Justices, will it do that?

Will gays say: “Well, Hank, we can’t get married, so lets go find some dames and make babies”?

Or will the prohibition on gay and lesbian marriage work a Viagra-like spell on straight couples, causing them to reproduce with added alacrity?

Neither. Forbidding gays from getting married isn’t going to make them “just go straight all of a sudden” and start shopping at Baby Gap. Nor is it going to increase fertility among straights.

Any anyway, if the rationale for legal marriage is procreation alone, when do we start seeing the forced annulments of all those childless couples? Or the reverse of China’s one-child policy: “you must have at least one,” instead of “you can have at most one.”

If there is any silver lining to this decision, it is the 5-4 split of the justices – far closer than decisions in similar cases a generation ago. Perhaps, in another few years…

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The Campaign Finance Institute Study II

Two days ago, Brad Smith, Robert Bauer and I criticized a recent study by the Campaign Finance Institute.

The head of CFI, Michael Malbin, has now responded to our criticism. Bauer and Smith have in turn continued the debate in posts well worth your time.

Before turning to Malbin’s reply, I might note that he did not respond to a couple of my earlier points. I argued that the sample used in the CFI working paper was biased and a poor foundation for policymaking. I also suggested that the bias in the CFI sample was interesting: it concerned organizations–on both sides of the partisan and ideological divide–that were heavily involved in national politics and elections. The CFI sample is almost certainly not representive of the entire population of nonfprofits, 527s and interest groups. It might, however, be a workable sample of groups of primary interest to members of Congress, i.e. groups that bear on a member’s primary interest in being re-elected. In that respect, the CFI study might be a poor guide to policymaking but persuasive to policymakers. That should be troubling to the rest of us.

Malbin also does not mention a political point I made in my post. Why should the Democrats give up 527s which they used to spend substantial sums in 2004 in exchange for Republicans forsaking 501c groups that appear to have laid out only a small portion of the Democratic 527 expenditures? If I were a Democrat, I would read that “compromise option” as a ”bad deal.”

Malbin states that we have misunderstood the CFI study. It does not advocate a policy, it merely points out “uncomfortable facts” to foster a needed debate. Of course, you could say that Michael Malbin might know best what the study sought to do (he heads the organization that sponsored it), and we should leave it at that. I’m not interested in questioning Malbin’s integrity so the reader is welcome to that conclusion.

But Mike doesn’t have a monopoly on the correct interpretation of this text. To see why I (reasonably) believed the study was a policy proposal, we need to head on over to the IRS website (of course!).

The Campaign Finance Institute is a nonprofit organized under section 501c(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. That means CFI can educate the public but not propose legislation. Here is the relevant advice from your friendly taxman:

In general, no organization may qualify for section 501(c)(3) status if a substantial part of its activities is attempting to influence legislation (commonly known as lobbying)…Legislation includes action by Congress, any state legislature, any local council, or similar governing body, with respect to acts, bills, resolutions, or similar items…An organization will be regarded as attempting to influence legislation if it contacts, or urges the public to contact, members or employees of a legislative body for the purpose of proposing, supporting, or opposing legislation, or if the organization advocates the adoption or rejection of legislation. Organizations may, however, involve themselves in issues of public policy without the activity being considered as lobbying. For example, organizations may conduct educational meetings, prepare and distribute educational materials, or otherwise consider public policy issues in an educational manner without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status.

So for legal purposes I went to an education meeting at the National Press Club and received educational materials prepared by CFI.

However, the CFI authors urge us to think about campaign finance matters in light of their context (that is, the political facts) rather than “legal pigeonholes.” (CFI study, p. 33) In my original post I set out the political context of the CFI study: legislation on 527s had stalled in Congress because of partisan opposition by Democrats. I could have added to the earlier post: Louise Slaughter, the ranking member on the House Rules committee, suggested in early April that Congress should broaden the 527 debate to include 501c groups which she saw as potential loopholes to current and planned campaign finance regulation. A study then appears that argues both parties use non-regulated entities to fight elections, that such spending probably corrupts representation, and that adumbrates “possible compromise” options for policymakers. (CFI study, p. 33) Given that context and this text, what is a reader to make of the CFI study? It is educational material (it fits the legal pigeonhole) that in context looks a lot like an announcement of the next item on “the reform community’s” agenda for restricting political speech.

There is also a larger legal context here that should be kept in mind. The main justification for regulating campaign finance remains preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption. However, legislative actions to prevent circumvention of laws that address corruption may also justify constitutionally restrictions on campaign finance. The CFI study argues that powerful interest groups use 527s and 501c groups along with regulated spending in elections. Its authors then ask whether those alternatives, taken as a whole, corrupt legislators on the theory mentioned in my earlier post: policymakers do not distinguish among legal categories, which is to say that disclosed spending acts like a contribution. Given that, the use of 527s and 501c groups are both corrupting and a circumvention of campaign finance law. The CFI study thus justifies extending campaign finance regulation to entities that spend money on politics but do not contribute to candidates. That is why I wrote earlier that the CFI study sought to end the distinction between politics and elections in current law and thus constituted a radical break with the past. I would be glad to know that CFI does not support ending that distinction or making that radical break. A fair reading of this study, however, suggests otherwise.

 

FristBlog’s Rx: Focus on the Donut

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist recently launched a health policy blog. The latest post (by “Sailor”) complains that people are focusing on Medicare Part D’s donut hole rather than the tasty donut itself:

The most amazing criticism is that there is a donut hole. It is amazing that those who argue this is a defect in part D fail to understand there used to never be any donut at all – and they just continue to focus on the hole rather than the enormous benefit (donut) that never previously existed for seniors.

I’m not sure that criticism of the ‘donut hole’ is all that amazing. As Cato adjunct scholar David Hyman explains in an upcoming book (Medicare Meets Mephistopheles), Democrats have made their careers by using Medicare to pass out donuts. What did Frist, Inc., expect Democrats would do once Republicans got in on the donut racket? Quit? Or up the ante?

Is this why Dr. Frist got into politics? To hand out donuts?

Talking to Bad Guys

In an interview with NPR, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage wondered aloud why the United States was not engaged in direct dialogue with Syria concerning the ongoing crisis in Lebanon.

We’re not…using all the levers that we have, such as having the Secretary of State talk to the Syrians. I think they want to get involved. I think they want to become more central to the solution. And you might as well give them the opportunity. If they step up to it, fine. If they don’t, we’ll know them for what they are.

NPR’s Renée Montagne followed up:

The administration has made it pretty clear that they are not interested in talking directly to Syria. Why draw that bright of a line?

Armitage:

I don’t know. I think they’ve talked themselves into this.

My own view is … you have to have a dialogue….We have to be able to sit and listen to the Syrians in this case, and see if they have the desire, the courage and the wisdom to get involved in a positive way.

We get a little lazy, I think, when we spend all our time as diplomats talking to our friends and not to our enemies.

On Sunday, John McLaughlin, deputy director of central intelligence from 2000 to 2004, suggested much the same thing in a Washington Post op-ed entitled “We Have to Talk to Bad Guys”:

Among the five lessons to be drawn from the recent fighting in the Middle East is this gem:

even superpowers have to talk to bad guys. The absence of a diplomatic relationship with Iran and the deterioration of the one with Syria – two countries that bear enormous responsibility for the current crisis – leave the United States with fewer options and levers than might otherwise have been the case….We will have to get over the notion that talking to bad guys somehow rewards them or is a sign of weakness. As a superpower, we ought to be able to communicate in a way that signals our strength and self-confidence.

Makes sense to me.

Armitage and McLaughlin are now out of government. Do they still talk to people on the inside? Is anyone listening?

What Does it Say When the Sensible Voices Are “Former” Administration Officials?

Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was typically brilliant on NPR this morning, discussing the limited options available in brokering a peace agreement in southern Lebanon. Here is a sampling:

I find a lot of chatter about this peacekeeping force, but I find very few people putting their hands in the air saying they’ve got troops who are willing to do it.

It all sounds like a great idea, but, sorry, each of us are busy with our own problems.

And what of the U.S. role?

If we had excess troops, which I don’t believe we have…, we would be seen as much more partial to Israel and hence would not be acceptable [to the other side].

Armitage served in the Pentagon when President Reagan dispatched U.S. troops to Lebanon in 1982, and he looks back on that period without a hint of sentimentality.

It was a very troubled time. Actually, sooner rather than later…we were seen as taking sides in someone else’s civil war. Ultimately we lost 241 naval and marine personnel….in the October ‘83 bombing.

His experience in 1982 and 1983 conditions his view of the present and future. He was asked, “Are there parallels between that peacekeeping force and now?”

I remember with stunning clarity one of our Israeli interlocutors sitting in my office telling me that ‘Don’t worry about this peace in Galilee operation. We understand our neighbors very well. We understand them better than anyone. We know all the dynamics of the situation in Lebanon.’ That turned out not quite to be the case. I suspect that people in government now are also hearing that from Israel.

Don’t get me wrong. If I thought that this air campaign would work and would eliminate Nasrullah and the leadership of Hezbollah, I think we’d all be fine. But I fear that you can’t do this from the sky, and that you’re going to end up empowering Hezbollah.

The full interview is about eight minutes long, but well worth the time.

The Same Problem Up North

A report on the state of Canadian higher education has our northern neighbors in a bit of an uproar. It seems that to accumulate political support, policymakers in Canada have been taking college aid originally intended for truly poor Canadians and giving it in gobs to the not-so-needy middle class.

“Governments must stop treating student aid as a cheap forum for buying middle-class votes and once again treat it as a way to help those without means,” declare authors Sean Junor and Alex Usher in the Educational Policy Institute’s Student Aid Time-Bomb.

Boy could we stand to learn that lesson down here! Look no further than the Democratic Leadership Council’s American Dream Initiative to see how American politicians barter for middle-class votes with promises of free-flowing aid. Who cares that huge government giveaways just keep driving up the price of college – we need votes, and we need them now!

Unfortunately, as much as we might like it to be different, such is the nature of the student aid game. You just can’t get aid for the poor without giving a lot more away to the “middle class,” a group that is always defined broadly enough that a critical political mass of Americans will get a piece of bribery pie, whether they need it or not.

Be warned, then, Americans (and Canadians) who intend to help the poor through government “charity” (like, say, the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education): You may honestly want to expand aid only for “the truly needy,” but politics will inevitably ruin your plans.