Justice Department Announces Partial Forfeiture Reform

The Washington Post has just reported that Attorney General Eric Holder today announced that, without evidence that a crime occurred, the Justice Department will end its practice of “adopting” civil asset forfeiture cases brought to the department by state and local enforcement agencies. The usual motive for such “equitable sharing” is to help local police departments to circumvent state restrictions aimed at stopping abuses, which arise because once the property is seized, on mere suspicion that it may have “facilitated” a crime, the local police departments keep it.

Such abuses, brought about by those perverse incentives, have led many states to require that any property so seized be turned over to the state’s general treasury. To get around that, state and local police departments ask the Justice Department to “adopt” the case, after which the assets are then split between the Justice Department and the local police department. Without evidence that a crime occurred, that is the practice that will end.

There are deeper problems with American civil asset forfeiture law, however, starting with the very practice of seizing property on the mere suspicion that it may have “facilitated” a crime. A crime does not have to be proven because it is the property that is said to be “guilty” under this bizarre area of our law, its roots in the Middle Ages. Thus, Volusia County, Florida, police stop motorists going south on I-95 and seize any cash they’re carrying in excess of $100 on suspicion that it’s money to buy drugs. New York City police make DUI arrests and then seize drivers’ cars. District of Columbia police seize a grandmother’s home after her grandson comes from next door and makes a call from the home to consummate a drug deal. Officials seize a home used for prostitution and the previous owner, who took back a second mortgage when he sold the home, loses the mortgage. No crime is ever proven. No prosecution is even begun.

In 1995 Cato published the late Rep. Henry J. Hyde’s book about these abuses, which led to partial reforms of federal law in 2000. But the core of the law remained. And abuses continued under state law. Today’s announcement is an important step toward limiting some of those abuses, but more needs to be done. See here and here for more on this subject.

Parents and Taxpayers Want More Educational Choice

Ever since Georgia enacted a scholarship tax credit law in 2008, individual and corporate taxpayers in the Peach State could receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits in return for contributions to nonprofit scholarship organizations—at least until the $58 million cap is reached.

Donors are eligible to receive credits starting on January 1st of each year. In 2012, the last of the credits were claimed in mid-August. The following year, donors hit the cap in May. Last year, they hit it in just three weeks. This year, all the credits were claimed within hours of becoming available on January 1st. In fact, taxpayers applied for more than $95 million in credits, $37 million more than the cap.

Scholarship families are highly satisfied. In a 2013 survey of families receiving scholarships from Georgia GOAL, 98.6% of respondents reported being “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with their chosen school.

Clearly, both the demand for scholarships and the willingness of taxpayers to support scholarship students have grown far beyond what the law currently allows. It’s time to raise the cap. Georgia legislators considering pending legislation to raise the cap to $250 million should be encouraged by two additional facts. First, the best evidence suggests that the tax credit law saves money by reducing expenses by more than it reduces tax revenue. Second, two-thirds of Georgians support the scholarship tax credit law. In other words, it’s good policy and good politics.

In other states that cap the amount of scholarship tax credits available—such as Florida, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island—donors consistently hit the cap each year. Two recent exceptions—New Hampshire and Alabama—highlight the adverse effects of lawsuits on fundraising. After anti–school choice activists sued to block New Hampshire’s Opportunity Scholarship law, donations dropped off precipitously because of the uncertainty about the law’s future. Fortunately, the state supreme court unanimously rejected the challenge last summer, so we should expect a significant increase in donations this year.

In Alabama, scholarship organizations raised only half as much in 2014 as they did in 2013 because of the uncertainty created by government education establishment’s legal challenge. The lawsuit is likely to meet the same end as similar lawsuits in Arizona and New Hampshire, but the plaintiffs are harming thousands of children while the case is being litigated.

Proposed EPA Methane Emissions Regulations Are a Waste of Time and Energy

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

New Actions to Reduce Methane Emissions Will Curb Climate Change, Cut Down on Wasted Energy” reads the headline from Wednesday’s White House blog, posted by Counselor to the President John Podesta (who will be leaving this post soon to serve as a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton’s presumed 2016 presidential campaign).

Let’s hope Podesta didn’t write the title, because it is completely wrong.

First off, methane isn’t energy. It’s a gas. Like anything else, it can be converted to energy, and like a fuel the conversion process produces more energy than it takes to perform it. But methane leaks from the oil and gas sectors no more represent “wasted energy” than does cow flatulence.

More accurately, methane leaks represent lost revenue. Or at least they would if natural gas prices were higher. With prices as low as they are, companies sometime find it more costly to stop the leaks than what they gain by capturing the methane and bringing it to market.

Consider that the price of natural gas is so low in many regions where oil is being extracted from tight shale deposits (for example, the Bakken region of North Dakota and in west Texas) that the methane that is produced along with the oil is simply flared (burned) on site, rather than being captured and brought to market. It is more expensive to develop the transport infrastructure (largely it has to be transported via pipeline) than the return on the sale of natural gas.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that in 2013, more than 260 billion cubic feet of methane was flared in the United States. In essence, this methane represented more “unwanted” energy than “wasted” energy.

Warmest Year on Record Is Still Bad News for Climate Models

Yesterday, Jason Samenow of the Washington Post asked me for a brief comment on NOAA’s upcoming pronouncement of the warmest year in their record. Jason runs CapitalWeather (or “CapitalWeatherGang” or “CWG” to those in the know in Washington) for the Post, and it is a very popular site as he may be the best forecaster around when it comes to D.C.’s hard-to-predict winter weather.

Here is what I sent to him:

Whether or not a given year is a hundredth of a degree or so above a previous record is not the issue. What IS the issue is how observed temperatures compare to what has been forecast to happen. John Christy and Richard McNider, from the University of Alabama (Huntsville), recently compared climate model projections to observed lower atmospheric temperatures as measured by two independent sources: satellites and weather balloons, and they found that the average warming predicted to have occurred since 1979 (when the satellite data starts) is approximately three times larger than what is being observed. CWG would give itself probably a D- if it forecast 12 inches of snow and got only 3.

FYI, here’s the comparison, through 2013 (it was published in 2014).

Adam Smith on Infrastructure

I love Adam Smith. He didn’t get everything right, but he got the big things right. Oftentimes, he really nailed it.

Today, I woke up early and my newspaper had not arrived yet. So I cracked open The Wealth of Nations on the infrastructure section, Book V, Part III.

With the highway bill soon in front of Congress, and there being lots of agitation to increase federal funding, Smith had words of wisdom for policymakers. He advocated user-pays and decentralization.

Smith said user-pays is often possible, is equitable, and prevents political corruption, as opposed to what we saw with the Bridge to Nowhere:

It does not seem necessary that the expence of those public works should be defrayed from that public revenue, as it is commonly called, of which the collection and application are in most countries assigned to the executive power. The greater part of such public works may easily be so managed, as to afford a particular revenue sufficient for defraying their own expence, without bringing any burden upon the general revenue of the society.

A highway, a bridge, a navigable canal, for example, may in most cases be both made and maintained by a small toll upon the carriages which make use of them: a harbour, by a moderate port-duty upon the tunnage of the shipping which load or unload in it.

… When the carriages which pass over a highway or a bridge, and the lighters which sail upon a navigable canal, pay toll in proportion to their weight or their tunnage, they pay for the maintenance of those public works exactly in proportion to the wear and tear which they occasion of them. It seems scarce possible to invent a more equitable way of maintaining such works.

… When high roads, bridges, canals, &c. are in this manner made and supported by the commerce which is carried on by means of them, they can be made only where that commerce requires them, and consequently where it is proper to make them. Their expence too, their grandeur and magnificence, must be suited to what that commerce can afford to pay. They must be made consequently as it is proper to make them. A magnificent high road cannot be made through a desart country where there is little or no commerce, or merely because it happens to lead to the country villa of the intendant of the province, or to that of some great lord to whom the intendant finds it convenient to make his court. A great bridge cannot be thrown over a river at a place where nobody passes, or merely to embellish the view from the windows of a neighbouring palace: things which sometimes happen, in countries where works of this kind are carried on by any other revenue than that which they themselves are capable of affording.

Smith said that when user revenues are not enough to pay for useful infrastructure, it should be funded by local governments, not the national government. The result will be higher quality services, lower costs, and less chance of abuse:

Even those public works which are of such a nature that they cannot afford any revenue for maintaining themselves, but of which the conveniency is nearly confined to some particular place or district, are always better maintained by a local or provincial revenue, under the management of a local and provincial administration, than by the general revenue of the state, of which the executive power must always have the management. Were the streets of London to be lighted and paved at the expence of the treasury, is there any probability that they would be so well lighted and paved as they are at present, or even at so small an expence?

… The abuses which sometimes creep into the local and provincial administration of a local and provincial revenue, how enormous soever they may appear, are in reality, however, almost always very trifling, in comparison of those which commonly take place in the administration and expenditure of the revenue of a great empire. They are, besides, much more easily corrected.

Is a Sock Drug Paraphernalia?

Yes, according to the attorney general. And the “crime” of possessing drug paraphernalia is serious enough to warrant deportation of a legal permanent resident:

At the U. S. Supreme Court Wednesday, the question before the justices boiled down to whether a sock can be considered drug paraphernalia.

Each year 30-35,000 people are deported for drug crimes. But federal law does not treat all drug crimes equally. The question before the justices was whether the government can deport legal permanent residents for minor drug offenses.

Moones Mellouli came to the U.S. on a student visa from Tunisia in 2004. He graduated with honors, then went on to earn two master’s degrees—in applied mathematics and economics—from the University of Missouri-Columbia. He became a lawful permanent resident, worked as an actuary, and taught mathematics at the university.

But in 2010, he was arrested for driving under the influence and having four Adderall pills in his sock. Adderall is a drug prescribed to treat hyperactivity, but it’s widely used by students and others to study and stay awake. Millouli pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for possession of drug paraphernalia—namely the sock in which he had the four pills. He got a suspended sentence plus a year’s probation, and he was subsequently deported.

He appealed his deportation all the way to the Supreme Court.

Campaign Finance Censors Lose Debate to Reddit

Yesterday, the website Reddit, which is aptly called “the front page of the Internet,” featured an interesting discussion on attempts to overturn Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court case that held that the First Amendment protects the right of corporations and unions to make independent expenditures in elections. A group of five people working to overturn the decision fielded questions from the community in a so-called “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) thread. Past AMAs have been created by a wide-range of famous and interesting people, including Jon Stewart and even Barack Obama.

The five advocates titled the thread “We’re Working on Overturning the Citizens United Supreme Court Decision – Ask Us Anything!” Fielding questions were Aquene Freechild from Public Citizen, Daniel Lee from Move to Amend, John Bonifaz from Free Speech for People, Lisa Graves from Center for Media and Democracy, and Zephyr Teachout former candidate for New York governor and associate professor of law at Fordham University.

At the beginning of the AMA they proclaimed:

January 21st is the 5th Anniversary of the disastrous Supreme Court Citizens United v. FEC decision that unleashed the floodgates of money from special interests.

Hundreds of groups across the country are working hard to overturn Citizens United. To raise awareness about all the progress that has happened behind the scenes in the past five years, we’ve organized a few people on the front lines to share the latest.

Surprisingly, at least to me, the AMA was a disaster. Reddit caters to younger people and, as such, it is generally quite left-wing. The Reddit “Politics” community, in particular, is known for having a substantial left-wing tilt. I had thought the community would rally around the advocates—pat them on the back, complain about the Koch brothers, and pontificate on how no “real” policy change can occur until “big money” is silenced.

Instead, the community not only asked excellent and difficult questions, but they clearly identified the fundamental problems with the advocates’ position.