The “Language of Privacy” Is Doing Well in Police Body Camera Discussions

In David Brooks’ latest New York Times column he explains that he is now a proponent of police body cameras, but adds that he did not come to his position “happily.” According to Brooks, the debate over police body cameras has revealed that an increasing number of people have lost “the language of privacy” and “an understanding of why privacy is important.”

It’s refreshing to read that Brooks does have concerns related to privacy. After all, Brooks said last June that the NSA’s snooping isn’t “particularly intrusive.”  But the rise of police body cameras is prompting a sensible conversation about privacy and why it is important.

Given the nature of their work, police officers regularly witness members of the public experience tragic and embarrassing moments, many times on private property. Police officers are often among the first at the scene of auto accidents or other life-threatening emergencies. They also talk to informants as well as victims of sexual and domestic abuse. In addition to sometimes entering private homes, police officers also occasionally visit hospitals and schools.

Brooks discusses some of the legitimate privacy concerns these kind of situations raise towards the end of his column:

When a police officer comes into your home wearing a camera, he’s trampling on the privacy that makes a home a home. He’s recording people on what could be the worst day of their lives, and inhibiting their ability to lean on the officer for care and support.

Cop-cams insult individual dignity because the embarrassing things recorded by them will inevitably get swapped around. The videos of the naked crime victim, the berserk drunk, the screaming maniac will inevitably get posted online — as they are already. With each leak, culture gets a little coarser. The rules designed to keep the videos out of public view will inevitably be eroded and bent.

Even the most committed advocate of police transparency and accountability must concede that the unedited release of all police body camera footage could lead to devastating infringements on a citizens’ privacy and potentially compromise ongoing investigations. A sensible police body camera policy will exempt some footage from public release. If a police officer arrives at the scene of a fatal auto accident, interviews a young victim of sexual assault, or gives a presentation in an elementary school there are serious privacy concerns that police body camera policies ought to address.

Washington Should Make Foreign Policy for Americans, Not Foreign Liberals

Washington’s actions abroad affect the size and power of Washington at home. “War is the health of the state,” declared social critic Randolph Bourne.

The more active America’s foreign policy, the more the United States has to spend on the military: the “defense” budget is the price of Washington’s foreign policy. American military personnel and contractors die. Enemies are created, some of whom become terrorists. A national security state develops.

Thus, Americans committed to limited government and individual liberty should support a foreign policy based on humility and restraint. An imperial foreign policy like that today inevitably inflates–indeed, requires–a Leviathan state.

Nor should anyone who understands government believe the American state to be capable of competently fulfilling more expansive foreign policy objectives. At times, war is an unfortunate necessity and government must rain down death and destruction on other peoples.

Far more often, however, policymakers turn the military into just another government tool intended to achieve complicated ends that often aren’t even important, let alone vital. Attempts at so-called humanitarian intervention and nation-building, for instance, almost always turn out badly, even disastrously.

A Tax Day Review

Today is Tax Day. Federal tax returns are due to the Internal Revenue Service with a postmark before midnight. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that the federal government will collect $3.2 trillion in revenue this year.

Revenue comes from five main sources:

  • Individual Income Taxes ($1.5 trillion). The largest source of federal revenues, individual income taxes are imposed on labor and capital income, with statutory rates that vary from 10 to 39.6 percent.
  • Payroll Taxes ($1.1 trillion). These taxes finance Social Security and Medicare. Employees and employers split the 15.3 percent tax assessed on wages, but economists agree that the entire burden ultimately lands on workers in the form of lower wages.
  • Corporate Income Taxes ($328 billion). These taxes are assessed on the worldwide earnings of corporations.
  • Excise Taxes ($96 billion). Excise taxes are consumption taxes on specific goods. At the federal level, excise taxes are charged on such things as gasoline and tanning salons.
  • Other ($206 billion). This category includes the remaining sources of federal revenue like federal tariffs and the death tax.  

The amount of money collected by the federal government ebbs and flows depending on economic growth, but the overall trend is upwards. Federal revenue decreased in 2008 and 2009 due to the Great Recession, but has since rebounded strongly for two reasons. First, the return of economic growth increases revenue collection. Second, the federal government has passed several large tax increases since 2010. In 2015, the federal government will collect the largest amount of revenue in its history, even after adjusting for inflation.

Taxpayer Democracy, for Each Taxpayer

Today, the day American taxpayers wonder if the federal government is really worth all the money and hassle, I have an article at the Washington Post on how to give taxpayers more control.

Why shouldn’t taxpayers make direct decisions about how much money they want to spend on other government programs, like paying off the national debt, the war in Iraq or the National Endowment for the Arts? This would force the federal government to focus time and resources on projects citizens actually want, not just efforts that appeal to special interests.

To do this, we’d have to expand the concept of the campaign financing checkoff to all government programs. With this reform, the real expression of popular democracy would take place not every four years but every April 15. A new final page of the 1040 form would be created, called 1040-D (for democracy). At the top, the taxpayer would write in his total tax as determined by the 1040 form. Following would be a list of government programs, along with the percentage of the federal budget devoted to each (as proposed by Congress and the president). The taxpayer would then multiply that percentage by his total tax to determine the “amount requested” in order to meet the government’s total spending request. (Computerization of tax returns has made this step simple.) The taxpayer would then consider that request and enter the amount he was willing to pay for that program in the final column–the amount requested by the government, or more, or less, down to zero.

A taxpayer who thinks that $600 billion is too much to spend on military in the post-Cold War era could choose to allocate less to that function than the government requested. A taxpayer who thinks that Congress has been underfunding Head Start and the arts could allocate double the requested amount for those programs….

Real budget democracy, of course, means not just that the taxpayers can decide where their money will go but also that they can decide how much of their money the government is entitled to. Thus the last line on the 1040-D form must be “Tax refund.”  The form would indicate that none of the taxpayer’s duly calculated tax should be refunded to him; but under budget democracy the taxpayer would have the right to allocate less than the amount requested for some or all programs in order to claim a refund (beyond whatever excess withholding is already due him).

I regret that space considerations required the loss of my historical context:

Ever since Magna Carta, signed 800 years ago this spring, the Anglo-American tradition of fiscal policy has been that the people would decide how much of their money they would give to government. Parliament arose as a representative body to which the Crown would appeal for funds. The monarch had to explain why he or she was seeking more funds–and Parliament frequently rejected the request as frivolous, wasteful, or actually injurious to the commonweal.

Today, of course, we can’t count on the legislative branch to guard our tax dollars, and technology makes it easier for us to direct them ourselves.

More on taxes – and Magna Carta – in The Libertarian Mind. Find ideas for government programs that are unnecessary or too big at Downsizing the Federal Government.

The Right and Wrong Ways to Learn Policy Lessons from Other Countries

Back in the mid-1990s, I was often told that Americans had no interest in what other countries were doing policy-wise. As a result, it was purportedly futile to study policy using international evidence. Ignoring that warning, I wrote a book about education around the world, back to ancient times.

Whether or not the warning was valid at the time, there is now a great deal of interest in other nations’ education policies. Well… in one nation’s in particular: Finland’s. In that country, we are often told, every child is a Socrates—except for the ones who are Jane Austens or Hedy Lamarrs—and this is due, we are told, to one or more of its current education policies (the claimer gets to pick which ones).

A recent op-ed at Cleveland.com not only jumps on this Emulate Fantastic Finland bandwagon, it also purports to use the Finnish example to critique “market-based” education policies in general.

Here’s the main problem with the movement that proclaims “Country X is doing well educationally, so let’s emulate its education system!”: there are a lot of factors outside the classroom that affect educational outcomes, and that differ among countries—culture, resources in the home, etc.—and so it’s difficult to know to what extent a given nation’s performance is due to those factors or to its education policies. Fortunately, there’s a technique that not only circumvents this problem, it turns it to our advantage:

Comparing different sorts of school systems within nations. A study that compares public and private schools within India, for example, or that looks at the effects of private sector competition in Sweden on overall outcomes, eliminates international differences as a factor.  Still, the results of such studies, taken individually, have limited generalizability.

Maryland Seizes Kids (Again) For Walking Home From Park

On Sunday afternoon Montgomery County, Maryland police and Child Protective Services seized the free-range Meitiv children, 10 year old Rafi and 6 year old Dvora, after their parents, Danielle and her husband Sasha, had again let them play by themselves at a park in Silver Spring, just outside D.C. The Meitiv family became the center of a national cause célèbre in January when the county charged the parents with child neglect for letting the two kids walk home from a park. In March, CPS found the neglect charge “unsubstantiated” but puzzlingly deemed the parents “responsible” for it anyway. This time, according to news reports, the kids were again walking back from the park and had gotten to within 1/3 mile of home when police intercepted and picked them up pursuant to a 911 call from “a neighbor” who had spotted them walking alone. The kids were supposed to return home by 6; the police held them for hours in the back of a squad car and did not call the by-then-frantic parents until 8 p.m. 

The Meitivs were reunited with their kids after agreeing to “sign a temporary safety plan to take them home, which means they are not allowed to leave the children unattended at all. …Police say after a thorough investigation, a decision about whether or not the Meitivs will face charges will be made.” 

I’m familiar with downtown Silver Spring, but even if I weren’t I could assure you: this is an outrage, and a big enough one that even in the Washington suburbs, where government often gets the benefit of the doubt, there is widespread outrage. One who’s been writing eloquently on the issue is Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak (“Our rapid march toward police-state parenting has got to end,” she writes today) who emphasizes what is obvious to older readers – that kids used to walk on the street as a routine part of childhood – by quoting a checklist from a 1979 book on six-year-olds, on first-grade readiness: “Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend’s home?”

Can Inequality Get Worse If Poverty Gets Better?

Jim Tankersley of the Washington Post believes he has discovered “The Big Issue With Hillary Clinton Running Against Inequality”:

“Inequality got worse under Bill Clinton, not better. That’s true if you look at the share of American incomes going to the 1 percent, per economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty. It’s also true when you look at the share of American wealth going to the super-super-rich, the top 0.1%, per research by Saez and Gabriel Zucman.”

What this actually reveals is the absurdity of (1) defining inequality solely by top 1% shares of pretax income less government benefits, and (2) judging any strong economic expansion as a failure because top 1% income shares always rise during strong economic expansions.

The graph uses the Congressional Budget Office estimates of top 1% shares, because (unlike Piketty and Saez) they include government benefits as income and subtract federal taxes.  What it shows is that both affluence and poverty are normally highly cyclical. When the top 1 percent’s share of after-tax income jumped from 11.2% in 1996 to 15.2% in 2000, the poverty rate simultaneously dropped from 11% to 8.7%.  Meanwhile, median income, after taxes and benefits, rose from $50,900 in 1993 to $61,400 by 2001, measured in 2011 dollars. 

 

Conversely, when the top 1% share fell from 16.7% in 2007 to about 12% in 2013 (my estimate), the poverty rate rose from 9.8% to 15%.  If we adopt the egalitarians’ top 1% mantra, must we conclude that inequality “got better” lately as poverty got worse?Top 1% and Poverty

The income peak of 2000 is a tough act to beat, and few of us are ahead of it today – least of all the top 1%. The brief surge in top incomes of 2006-2007, like the related speculative surge in housing prices, proved unhealthy and unsustainable. But weak economic performance and high poverty in the past four years is no reason to dismiss the 3.7% average economic growth of 1983-2000 simply because such prolonged prosperity made more people rich.

Tankersley also asks us to “look at the share of American wealth going to the super-super-rich, the top 0.1%, per research by Saez and Gabriel Zucman.”  As I’ve explained in The Wall Street Journal, however, the Saez-Zucman estimates misinterpret shrinking shares of capital gains and investment income still reported on individual tax returns, or shifted from the corporate tax to a pass-through firm, rather than (like most middle-class savings) sheltered in IRA, 529 and 401(k) plans.

It is easy to envision Republican partisans welcoming and adopting the Tankersley theme that Hillary Clinton should now be ashamed of the strong economy of 1996-2000 because “inequality got worse” as many new firms were created and stock prices soared. Yet whenever stocks crashed and the top 1% share fell (making inequality “better”?) the poverty rate rose and median incomes were flat or down.

Some Republican candidates have already alluded to the same pretax, pre-transfer “top 1%” figures to claim inequality worsened under Obama – meaning since 2009.  According to Piketty and Saez, real average incomes of the top 1% were indeed higher in 2013 ($1,119,315) than in the crash of 2009 ($975,884).  Before crashing below $1 million in 2009, though, top 1% incomes had been much higher in 2007 (the equivalent of $1,533, 064 in 2013 dollars) and in 2000 ($1,369,780). The rising tide has not lifted many small boats or big yachts since 2009, because the tide hasn’t risen much; higher tax rates in 2013 certainly didn’t help.

The trouble with Republicans using highly cyclical top 1% statistics as a political weapon against Democrats is that doing so requires capitulating to the divisive and dishonest leftist fallacy that poor people and middle-income people do best when the top 1% is doing badly.

The truth is that the poverty rate fell sharply and middle-incomes rose briskly in President Clinton’s second term, and the top 1% gladly reported more taxable income and paid more taxes as the tax on capital gains was cut from 28% to 20%.  There is a lesson to be learned here, but it is not to denigrate the so-called rising inequality of the late 1990s.