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.

Ida Wells (1862-1931) and the Interconnectedness of Liberty

Today’s Google Doodle honors Ida Wells, born into slavery in Mississippi on this date in 1862, fearless and tireless anti-lynching activist and heroine of free speech. Writer and owner of several publications, Wells was best known for documenting the post-Reconstruction horrors of “sanctioned violence outside the machinery of the state,” as I described it in this space recently

By the time Wells came to national note in the 1890s, the threat of mob violence had come to be accepted as an endemic part of American life across much of the South and a good part of the North as well. Press freedom, however, was also something real, and Wells could bring the ghastly specifics of lynching practice, as well as the falseness of the arguments used in its defense, to a national audience. Soon a mob in Memphis proceeded to storm and destroy her printing press. But it could not silence her; she was free to carry on from other, safer cities. Is there a better lesson in how civil liberties work to reinforce each other? Because of America’s broad degree of press liberty, Wells could build her case methodically for a right to freedom from mob violence; because mob violence was held in check across enough of the country, Wells could not be prevented from writing, speaking on tour, and soon becoming an internationally known figure of reform and African-American advocacy. 

You can read Wells’ work in many primary sources online: “Lynch Law,” 1893; speech, “Lynch Law in America”; and the pamphlet “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” with a letter of encouragement from Frederick Douglass in Anacostia. Her accomplishments should be of interest to every libertarian and every American. 

P.S. As Nicholas Johnson has recounted at the Volokh Conspiracy, Wells is a notable figure in the history of the Second Amendment as well.

“John Doe” Justice at Last

A quick notice: The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s much anticipated decision in the long running “John Doe” investigations of alleged campaign finance violations came down this morning, and it’s a resounding rejection of the prosecution’s entire theory of the case. By way of very brief background of a very complex case, here’s the opening paragraph from an April 27 post I wrote for Cato@Liberty:

Just when you thought the long-running “John Doe” prosecution/persecutions in Wisconsin couldn’t get any worse—SWAT teams conducting pre-dawn raids on family homes, gag orders on the victims, and the prosecutor’s recusal motion directed against no fewer than four state supreme court justices, all over politically driven campaign finance allegations—Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm suggested over the weekend that Gov. Scott Walker could be criminally charged for lying. Walker’s “crime”? In Iowa on Saturday, he questioned whether the prosecution’s tactics were constitutional.

You can’t make stuff like this up. Well here’s just a bit of the language this morning from Justice Michael J. Gableman:

[W]e invalidate the special prosecutor’s theory of the case, and we grant the relief requested by the Unnamed Movants. 

To be clear, this conclusion ends the John Doe investigation because the special prosecutor’s legal theory is unsupported in either reason or law.  Consequently, the investigation is closed.  Consistent with our decision and the order entered by Reserve Judge Peterson, we order that the special prosecutor and the district attorneys involved in this investigation must cease all activities related to the investigation, return all property seized in the investigation from any individual or organization, and permanently destroy all copies of information and other materials obtained through the investigation.  All Unnamed Movants are relieved of any duty to cooperate further with the investigation.

Language like that makes one appreciate the importance of an independent judiciary. You can read the whole opinion here

Tariffs on Clean Energy

Here is Paul Krugman the other day, touting President Obama’s efforts to promote clean energy:

Some things I’ve been reading lately remind me that there’s another major Obama initiative that is the subject of similar delusions: the promotion of green energy. Everyone on the right knows that the stimulus-linked efforts to promote solar and wind were a bust — Solyndra! Solyndra! Benghazi! — and in general they still seem to regard renewables as hippie-dippy stuff that will never go anywhere.

So it comes as something of a shock when you look at the actual data, and discover that solar and wind energy consumption has tripled under Obama.

True, it started from a low base, but green energy is no longer a marginal factor — and with solar panels experiencing Moore’s Law-type cost declines, we’re looking at a real transformation looking forward.

You can argue about how much this transformation owes to federal policy. …

I don’t know all the reasons why solar and wind energy consumption has tripled in recent years, but yes, you can argue about the role of federal policy here. The federal policy that I follow most closely is trade policy, and what trade policy has been doing is imposing really high import taxes on solar and wind products, thus raising their costs.  Here’s what my colleague Bill Watson and I wrote about this a while ago:

Over the last couple of years, trade remedy actions on clean energy products have intensified. In the wind industry, the Wind Tower Trade Coalition, an association of U.S. producers of wind towers, brought an AD/CVD complaint against imported wind towers in 2011. The U.S. Commerce Department started an investigation, and announced a preliminary decision in December 2012.

This decision found both subsidization and dumping in relation to Chinese imports and imposed an antidumping tariff of between 44.99% and 70.63%, as well as countervailing duties of 21.86%–34.81%. The Commerce Department also established a separate antidumping duty of 51.40%–58.49% on Vietnamese wind tower manufacturers.

In the solar industry, in October 2011, the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing, a group of seven U.S. solar panel manufacturers led by Solar World Industries America, accused Chinese solar panel companies of dumping products in the United States. The Commerce Department opened an investigation in 2011 and announced the final ruling in 2012. The decision was to impose antidumping tariffs ranging from 24% to 36% on Chinese producers.

If we wanted to promote clean energy, the first thing we could and should do is stop imposing tariffs on these imports!