The Right to Earn a Living Deep in the Heart of Texas

The same day three weeks ago that the Supreme Court ruled on same-sex marriage (Obergefell v. Hodges), our friends at the Institute for Justice claimed a strong victory in favor of individual rights and economic freedom in an important case before the Texas Supreme Court (a.k.a. SCOTEX).

In Patel v. Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, the court was faced with a state constitutional challenge to a licensing requirement that hair threaders acquire cosmetology licenses – to the tune of nearly $9,000 and 750 hours – when such classes “are not related to health and safety or what threaders actually do.”

EEOC: Let Us Imagineer ENDA For You

After a period of foreshadowing and rumor, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has now gone ahead and ruled that employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is forbidden under existing federal civil rights law, specifically the current ban on sex discrimination. Congress may have declined to pass the long-pending Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), but no matter; the commission can reach the same result on its own just by reinterpreting current law.

It’s not the commission that gets to have the final say on that, however; it’s the federal courts. And there is a fair trail of precedent, including circuit court authority, rejecting the proposition that sex discrimination in this setting can be stretched to cover sexual orientation discrimination. Against that, it will be argued that some recent case law has nonetheless drifted toward the idea; more important, judges will be asked to defer to the EEOC in its (new) expert opinion.

The Effort to Bring TSA Under Law

Four years ago, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ordered the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to consider the public’s input on its policy of using strip-search machines for primary screening at our nation’s airports. The TSA had “advanced no justification for having failed to conduct a notice-and-comment rulemaking,” the court found. It ordered the agency to “promptly” proceed in a manner consistent with its opinion.

Over the next 20 months, the TSA produced a short, vague paragraph that did nothing to detail the rights of the public and what travelers can expect when they go to the airport. At the time, I called the proposed rule “contemptuous,” because the agency flouted the spirit of the court’s order. In our comment on the proposed rule, Cato senior fellow John Mueller, Mark G. Stewart from the University of Newcastle in Australia, and I took the TSA to task a number of ways.

The comment period on that proposal closed more than two years ago, but the TSA has still not proceeded to finalizing its rule. Continuing the effort to bring the TSA under the rule of law—and into the world of common sense—the Competitive Enterprise Institute filed suit against TSA yesterday, asking the court to require the agency to finalize its strip-search machine rule within 90 days.

President Obama Addresses Mass Incarceration

Today, President Obama became the first sitting president to tour a federal prison when he went to El Reno federal penitentiary in Oklahoma. This visit comes two days after the president spoke about criminal justice reform to the NAACP, where he focused his remarks on reducing the sentences for non-violent drug offenders. Commendably, Obama also talked about the living conditions of the incarcerated:

“[W]e should not tolerate conditions in prison that have no place in any civilized country. We should not be tolerating overcrowding in prison. We should not be tolerating gang activity in prison. We should not be tolerating rape in prison. And we shouldn’t be making jokes about it in our popular culture. That’s no joke. These things are unacceptable.”

Indeed, the horrific stories that come out of America’s jail and prison systems are repugnant to any sense of fairness and justice. For that and many other reasons, the president’s recent actions on criminal justice are to be lauded, but also critically examined.

Drug offenders make up a significant portion of the federal prison population, but mass incarceration reduction requires reforms beyond the federal level. Most of the people incarcerated in the United States are in local jails and state prisons for violating municipal and state laws, not federal ones. Moreover, as my colleague Adam Bates wrote this week, the president hasn’t done as much as he could to reduce the federal prison population, even in this limited realm where he has sweeping constitutional authority to do so.

Obama said, “If you’re a low-level drug dealer… you owe some debt to society. You have to be held accountable and make amends. But you don’t owe 20 years. You don’t owe a life sentence.”

The underlying problem with Obama’s approach is the continued reliance on the criminal justice system to be the primary tool for handling our nation’s drug habit. In a society that wants to discourage illicit drug use and sale, it’s not at all clear that throwing a low-level dealer in a prison cell for any amount of time, let alone 20-years-to-life, makes the dealer a better citizen or makes society safer. If incarceration does neither of these, and at such high fiscal cost, perhaps non-criminal alternatives should be considered.

TPP Opponents Force Obama to Ignore Human Trafficking

According to news reports, the Obama administration is planning to upgrade Malaysia’s ranking in the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report.  Advocacy groups are complaining that the move is motivated not by an improvement in Malaysia’s practices but by the administration’s desire to include Malaysia in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  These critics are probably right, and it’s all the fault of anti-TPP legislators who tried to scuttle the TPP by linking it to human trafficking.

The trade promotion authority statute passed by Congress earlier this summer prohibits the President from negotiating fast-tracked agreements with countries listed as Tier 3 in the trafficking report.  This language was added during committee mark up by Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ).  The ban is a direct and intentional obstacle to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes Malaysia, a Tier 3 country.

The linkage is sorely misplaced.  As I’ve noted before, no one who’s worried about human rights and the TPP has explained how U.S. or foreign tariffs improve human rights.  Will lowering U.S. and Malaysian tariffs increase the incidence and severity of Malaysia’s human trafficking problems?  How so?  No, the linkage appears to be driven more by traditional opponents of trade liberalization than by concern for improving the plight of people in Malaysia.

But rather than stop the TPP from moving forward, the trafficking provision has merely required the President to embarrass himself by upgrading Malaysia’s status in this year’s report.

A Conversation on Bitcoin

(Last month, the Chilean webzine El Libero interviewed me about Bitcoin and other cryptocurrency topics. Here is the English translation of the conversation with Juan Pablo Couyoumdjian.)

1. Bitcoin is a class of “crypto-currency,” but what, exactly, are these crypto-currencies? How do they emerge? And why?

LHW: Cryptocurrencies — Bitcoin and its competitors — are digital assets, secured by cryptography, that can be circulated from peer to peer like currency.

Like government fiat money, they are not redeemable at a fixed rate for any commodity or other money. Unlike government fiat money, there is no issuer with discretion to increase the quantity at any time. In the case of Bitcoin, the number of Bitcoin units is programmed to increase at slow and known rate. In the case of Ripple, the top competitor, all the Ripple units to be made were made at the start.

Bitcoin originated (and remains) as a public-interest non-profit project by a programmer (who’s identity is not known) who wanted to create a tamper-proof private non-state currency. Some other cryptocurrencies arose similarly, by other groups of programmers who introduced improved designs (faster, more robust, more user privacy). Once Bitcoin rose to prominence and considerable market value at the end of 2013 (the total value of all Bitcoins currently held is about US$3.4 billion), private for-profit competitors like Ripple and BitShares and Nxt came along with advanced designs and full-time development and promotion teams.

Prof. Krugman: Fast and Loose with the Facts

Paul Krugman, “Killing the European Project”, NY Times, July 12, 2015: “The European project — a project I have always praised and supported — has just been dealt a terrible, perhaps fatal blow. And whatever you think of Syriza, or Greece, it wasn’t the Greeks who did it.”

Paul Krugman has always praised and supported the European project? Really? Here’s Prof. Krugman in his own words on the centerpiece of the European project, the euro:

  • Paul Krugman, “The Euro: Beware Of What You Wish For”, Fortune, December 1998: “But EMU wasn’t designed to make everyone happy. It was designed to keep Germany happy - to provide the kind of stern anti-inflationary discipline that everyone knew Germany had always wanted and would always want in future. So what if the Germans have changed their mind, and realized that they - along with all the other major governments - are more worried about deflation than inflation, that they would very much like the central bankers to print some more money? Sorry, too late: the system is already on autopilot, and no course changes are permitted.”
  • Paul Krugman, “Can Europe Be Saved?”, NY Times, January 12, 2011: “The tragedy of the Euromess is that the creation of the euro was supposed to be the finest moment in a grand and noble undertaking: the generations-long effort to bring peace, democracy and shared prosperity to a once and frequently war-torn continent. But the architects of the euro, caught up in their project’s sweep and romance, chose to ignore the mundane difficulties a shared currency would predictably encounter — to ignore warnings, which were issued right from the beginning, that Europe lacked the institutions needed to make a common currency workable. Instead, they engaged in magical thinking, acting as if the nobility of their mission transcended such concerns.”
  • Paul Krugman, “Europe’s Many Economic Disasters”, NY Times, July 3, 2015: “What all of these economies have in common, however, is that by joining the eurozone they put themselves into an economic straitjacket. Finland had a very severe economic crisis at the end of the 1980s — much worse, at the beginning, than what it’s going through now. But it was able to engineer a fairly quick recovery in large part by sharply devaluing its currency, making its exports more competitive. This time, unfortunately, it had no currency to devalue. And the same goes for Europe’s other trouble spots. Does this mean that creating the euro was a mistake? Well, yes.”

When reading Prof. Krugman’s works, it’s prudent to fact check. Prof. Krugman has always been in the Eurosceptic camp. Indeed, the essence of many of his pronouncements can be found in declarations from a wide range of Eurosceptic parties.