Archives: 03/2012

James Q. Wilson on Crime and Drugs

James Q. Wilson, the prominent scholar on political science and crime, has died.  His most well-known work was an essay that he co-published with George Kelling in the Atlantic, Broken Windows” (which is not to be confused with the broken windows fallacy that is so well known in libertarian circles).  The gist of that article was that our social order can be pretty fragile.  If a broken window is not promptly repaired/replaced, the other windows of that building will soon be intentionally broken–and if nothing is done about that, the neighborhood might well spiral downward and will soon be regarded as a lousy area.  The article is now a classic.  In my opinion, it was his best work.

Dr. Wilson wrote on a wide range of subjects, but I am most familiar with his writings in the criminal law field.  He was a neoconservative  – so it will not surprise anyone that I found his record to be mixed.  He skewered the liberal ideas that (1) poverty “causes” crime and (2) that prisons are passé.  And he cautioned policymakers bent on more gun control laws, pointing to the growing body of evidence that armed citizens thwart a lot of criminal mayhem.

But then there was his approach to drug policy.  When Bill Bennett needed academic support or intellectual guidance, he seemed to turn to James Q.  Wilson, who, before the creation of the drug czar’s office, called for  the creation of the Drug Enforcement Agency in the Nixon period.   Like many of the zealots who pushed for alcohol prohibition, he saw the police effort against drug use as a moral crusade: “[D]rug use is wrong because it is immoral and it is immoral because it enslaves the mind and destroys the soul.”   For years and years, he championed the conservative program of more police, more prosecutors, more prisons, stiffer penalties.   Despite the escalation, drugs remain readily available.  And the gang violence–especially in Mexico–is getting worse. 

Dr. Wilson was also a big proponent of  police “stop and frisk” tactics–the idea that cops should stop pedestrians in the city and frisk them for weapons.  For white, middle-class Americans, think about having to endure a TSA airport search on your trips to the grocery store or on your commute to work! (For background, go here and here.)

I never met Dr. Wilson in person, but we spoke several times on the phone after he accepted my invitation to prepare an essay for my book, In the Name of Justice (2009).  He was a gentleman-scholar who influenced many.

Why Do People Detest Jury Duty? (Hint: It’s Compulsory)

Several bloggers have been kicking around the question of why people so often dislike serving on juries even though it’s educational, a potentially valuable civic contribution, a break from routine, a chance to get reading done, and so forth. Matt Yglesias got the ball rolling at Slate by wondering why others don’t share his happiness at being called and Josh Barro, Stephen Bainbridge, Glenn Reynolds, and many Andrew Sullivan readers have been glad to enlighten him. (Hint: the process is compulsory.)

I wrote about the question some time back at Reason:

When they move from room to room, they go as a group, escorted by men in uniform,” writes Stephen Adler of his subjects. “They are supposed to follow directions, ask no questions, make no demands.” In cases where their captivity is prolonged, some suffer serious financial losses, while others are unable to nurse an ailing spouse or fly to a loved one’s deathbed. “It was the closest I’ve ever been to being in jail,” one woman said.

Such can be the experience of those called to serve on that reputedly all-powerful body, the jury. For many of us, no doubt, the potential excitement of acting a part in a real courtroom drama outweighs any indignation at the compulsory aspect of the adventure. Still, jury duty helps point up one of our legal system’s less endearing features: its penchant for casually inflicting the kind of harms for which it would demand the most stringent punishment were they to be inflicted by anyone else.

Whole thing here.

Tim Geithner’s Amnesia

In case you missed Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s revisionist fiction in today’s Wall Street Journal, he takes the critics of Dodd-Frank to task for forgetting about the financial crisis and how it came about.  Sadly it is Geithner who forgets (or willfully ignores) the causes of the crisis.  Just a few highlights:

Geithner reminds us of the AIG bailout.  He forgets that it was the NY Fed’s approval of using credit default swaps to lower bank capital that lead to so much bank counter-party risk being concentrated in AIG (see Gillian Tett’s Fool’s Gold), as well as increasing bank leverage.  But then who was heading the NY Fed at this time?  Tim Geithner.

Mr. Geithner goes on to complain about the growth of the shadow banking sector.  Who was it that approved banks’ exemption from the Sarbanes-Oxley rules on off-budget entities, which lead to the growth of various bank off-budget, hidden liabilities?  Again, Geithner’s NY Fed gave that approval.

Geithner raises the issue of “risky short-term financing” but does so without mentioning that the primary reason for such was the low interest rates and steep yield curve created by… again Geithner’s NY Fed (and the rest of the Federal Reserve System).  There’s a reason that MF Global failed in basically the same way that Bear Stearns did, because monetary policy provided both with strong incentives for maturity mismatch.  But since Geithner also acts shocked that “household debt rose to an alarming 130% of income” perhaps he needs a few lessons in monetary policy.  Did he seriously not think that cheap credit, via the Fed, would result in increased debt?

Perhaps all this amnesia should not be surprising coming from the same guy who told Congress he had never been a bank regulator.  He certainly never acted like one, despite the title of NY Fed President.  The real amnesia is that despite about two decades of engineering one bank rescue after another, beginning with his role in the peso crisis, Mr. Geithner still does not understand the concept of moral hazard.  When he complains about late night calls from “then giants of our financial system” I, for one, wish he had just stayed in bed.  Would have saved us all a lot of money and we’d have a much more stable financial system.

I have no sympathy for bankers afraid to lose their subsidies.  What our financial system needs is a  dose of real market discipline.  Mr. Geithner’s rants only serve to distract from the fact that Dodd-Frank will make the next crisis more severe and more likely.  It fails to address the actual causes of the crisis while further extending the worst features of our regulatory system.  Worst of all it distracts from having a conversation about fixing this system.  Repeal and Replace.

Common Core Supporter: Maybe Opposition Not Paranoia

Two years ago Fordham Institute President Chester Finn called people like me, who saw the move toward national curriculum standards as a huge lurch toward federal control, “paranoid.” Well it looks like he might be catching a little of the paranoia, too. Or, at least, while still calling Common Core adoption “voluntary,” he recognizes that the Obama Administration keeps on proving that the paranoiacs aren’t really all that crazy:

Sixth, and closely related to the blurring of national with federal is the expectation that Uncle Sam won’t be able to keep his hands off the Common Core—which means the whole enterprise will be politicized, corrupted and turned from national/voluntary into federal/coercive. This is probably the strongest objection to the Common Core and, alas, it’s probably the most valid, thanks in large measure to our over-zealous Education Secretary and the President he serves.

Let’s face it. Three major actions by the Obama administration have tended to envelop the Common Core in a cozy federal embrace, as have some ill-advised (but probably intentional) remarks by Messrs. Duncan and Obama that imply greater coziness to follow.

There was the fiscal “incentive” in Race to the Top for states to adopt the Common Core as evidence of their seriousness about raising academic standards.

Then there’s today’s “incentive,” built into the NCLB waiver process, for states to adopt the Common Core as exactly the same sort of evidence.

(In both cases, strictly speaking, states could supply other evidence. But there’s a lot of winking going on.)

The third federal entanglement was the Education Department’s grants to two consortia of states to develop new Common Core-aligned assessments, which came with various requirements and strings set by Secretary Duncan’s team.

This trifecta of actual events is problematic in its own right, not because the federal government is evil but because Washington has become so partisan and politicized and because of angst and suspicion that linger from failed efforts during the 1990’s to generate national standards and tests via federal action.

What’s truly energized the Common Core’s enemies, however, has been a series of ex cathedra comments by President Obama and Secretary Duncan. Most recently, the Education Secretary excoriated South Carolina for even contemplating a withdrawal from the Common Core. Previously, the President indicated that state eligibility for Title I dollars, post-ESEA reauthorization, would hinge on adoption of the Common Core. Talking with the governors about NCLB waivers earlier this week, he stated that “if you’re willing to set, higher, more honest standards then we will give you more flexibility to meet those standards.” I don’t know whether he winked. But everybody knew what standards he was talking about.

It will, of course, be ironic as well as unfortunate if the Common Core ends up in the dustbin of history as a result of actions and comments by its supporters. But in March 2012 there can be little doubt that the strongest weapons in the arsenal of its enemies are those that they have supplied.

When what someone predicted actually occurs, it’s a lot harder to assume him delusional. It’s more accurate to call him “right.” And on national standards, even supporters are starting realize that Common Core opponents have been right all along.

A Call to Arms: The War on Sugar

New York Times columnist Mark Bittman delivered this commentary on Marketplace Radio:

Mark Bittman: Florida state Sen. Rhonda Storms could never be thought of as progressive. But her bill puts her in the same camp as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who suggested something along similar lines, only to have it batted down by federal ag officials, who described it as “too complex.”

Well, what’s not complex is our relationship with sugar. We eat too much of it: half a pound a day per person – and it makes us fat. The processed food industry says sugar is not to blame. A calorie is a calorie, they say. Limit your total calories – regardless of where they come from – and your health will be fine. That’s total nonsense. A calorie of refined sugar is far more likely to cause damage to your body than a calorie of, let’s say, fiber.

With sugar, we’re in a situation where a dangerous substance is perfectly legal and available everywhere. It’s sold without restriction to everyone, and it’s marketed, with billions of dollars, to children before they can even speak, let alone reason… What choice do we have but to regulate it, just as we would – and do – regulate tobacco and alcohol and, for that matter, firearms?

This is so obvious that Florida state senators not known as forward-thinkers can see it, though the Department of Agriculture evidently can’t. But this is precisely what government is for: to protect us from the things from which we cannot protect ourselves. Sugar is not exactly an invading army, but it can be thought of as a hostile force, and the processed food industry has succeeded in getting us to eat way more of it than is good for us. Will power alone isn’t enough to stop that: we need national defense.

Oh, my. First I note the reflexive use of the terms “progressive” and “forward-thinkers” to mean “believing that government should make your decisions for you.” I look forward to a day when it won’t be regarded as progressive to take autonomy away from adults.

Second, note the hysteria and militarism: “a dangerous substance is perfectly legal and available everywhere. It’s sold without restriction…. [like] firearms….Sugar is not exactly an invading army, but it can be thought of as a hostile force….we need national defense.”

Wow. Sugar … it’s “the moral equivalent of war.”

Some Consequences of Government Ownership of Banks

Despite the substantial and continuing repayment of TARP bank assistance, the U.S. government maintains an equity interest in 371 banks.  A small number of those banks actually have the government as a majority owner.  For instance the former GM financing arm, now known as Ally Bank, has a government interest of 74 percent.  Sadly the United States is not alone in this regard.  The Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) is still majority owned by the UK government.  And of course the U.S. government owns Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, even if the Office of Management and Budget denies that reality.

Should we be concerned about all this government ownership of financial institutions?  The small body of empirical literature on the topic suggests a strong “yes.”  Probably the most comprehensive research was published in the Journal of Finance by La Porta, Lopez-de-Silanes, and Shleifer.  The authors find “that higher government ownership of banks is associated with slower subsequent development of the financial system, lower economic growth, and, in particular, lower growth of productivity.”  Let’s keep in mind that the last one, productivity, is ultimately what drives wage growth.  So for several very important reasons we should be doing our best to get the government out of ownership in the financial sector.  Recent research in the Journal of Financial Intermediation confirms these findings, and also finds that political inference is what primarily drives these bad results.

As much as it pains me to say it, the recent suggestion by Paul Myners and Manus Costello in the Financial Times that, in the context of RBS, we are better off as taxpayers taking our losses and getting out of these companies rather than holding out for better returns, is probably correct.  The damage to the greater economy from political interference in the financial system (witness the demands for Fannie and Freddie to take losses to support the housing market) is likely to outweigh the losses to the taxpayer from an early ownership withdraw.

It’s Not About Contraceptives, Not Really

The Senate is scheduled to vote today on the “Blunt amendment,” part of a multi-year transportation funding bill. Sponsored by Roy Blunt (R-MO), the amendment would allow employers to opt out of providing employee health insurance coverage that violates their religious or moral convictions.

Democrats are vigorously opposing the measure as an attack on women’s rights, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius encouraging the Senate “to reject this cynical attempt to roll back decades of progress in women’s health.” Most Republicans support the amendment in the name of the religious liberty protected under the First Amendment, though some worry about the implications for the upcoming elections.

Both sides seem to be missing the deeper point: This battle is exactly what you get when—in the words the president uses so often, which have come to capture his fundamental agenda—“We’re all in this together.”

Dismissing the amendment as “politics masquerading as morality,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) declaimed:

It allows any insurance company or any employer to deny coverage for any service they choose, based on a religious belief or a moral conviction. What is a moral conviction? I have moral convictions. You have moral convictions. We have different moral convictions.

Precisely. That’s why, in a free society, we don’t throw everybody and everything into the common pot. We allow individuals to pursue their individual goals according to their “different moral convictions.” We don’t force them into relationships, whether with employers or insurance companies or whomever, that offend those convictions. Yet the more we socialize ever more of life—as we’ve gone far in doing with everything from health care to retirement to education and so much more—the more we deny individuals the choices that would otherwise be available to them in a truly free society.

We haven’t yet reached the point, as in some societies, where we regulate, through force of law, where people may live, or travel, or go to college, or what medical procedures they may or may not have. But with Obamacare, especially, we’re headed down that road. That’s why an AP poll last August showed that 82 percent of Americans opposed Obamacare’s individual mandate.

Republicans would be smart, therefore, if they stopped talking about contraceptives and started talking about liberty—about where this country is headed. The Tea Party people understood that, for the most part, and look what they accomplished in the last election. The country is ready for bold but credible ideas about getting government out of our lives. We need people willing to say that the only thing we’re all in together is making this again a free country.