Archives: 05/2013

Should Murderers and Rapists Get Food Stamps?

Last week, the Senate accepted by unanimous consent an amendment to the pending farm bill that would ban convicted murderers, rapists, and pedophiles from receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (a.k.a. food stamps). Introduced by Louisiana Republican David Vitter, the amendment has received condemnation from the left and at least one round of applause on the right. 

My initial reaction was “A few undesirables will lose a taxpayer-financed handout—so what?” But the more I thought about the amendment, the less I cared for it. For starters, the amendment appears to be politically motivated. Vote against it and a Senator can expect to see a negative campaign add from his or her next opponent. That’s probably why the amendment was agreed to by unanimous consent instead of being formally voted on in the Democratic-controlled Senate.   

More importantly, what does it accomplish? In terms of budgetary savings, it probably won’t save taxpayers much money. In addition to doing little to curb the size of government, it does nothing to rein in the federal government’s scope. I believe that it is not a proper role of the federal government to fund and/or administer anti-poverty programs. At most, such concerns should be the domain of state and local governments. Ideally, poverty relief would be completely handled by charities and other private organizations. The Vitter amendment, however, is just another example of the Beltway’s one-size-fits-all mentality. 

So should an individual convicted of a horrible crime who has paid his or her dues to society be denied assistance? Some would say yes, others would say no. The left has a case when they argue that denying assistance to an ex-criminal could have the unintended consequence of incentivizing further criminal activity. But the right also has a case that, hey, that’s our hard-earned money being taken from the government and being handed over to people who made awful choices. 

The diversity of opinion points to a fundamental problem with the government trying to act like a charity: the country gets stuck with whatever the politicians conjure up. Contrary to what youngsters are led to believe in school, our elected officials are not altruistic, enlightened beings. In reality, federal efforts to alleviate poverty will always be undermined by the self-serving nature of politics. And even when approached with the noblest of intentions, bureaucratic sclerosis and the undue influence of special interests will ultimately undermine a program’s effectiveness and efficiency.   

Personally, I would have no problem donating to a charity that helps struggling ex-cons who need to put food on the family table. Perhaps other people wouldn’t feel as comfortable and would instead direct their donations toward charities that only serve, say, hungry women and children who were the victims of violent crime. That’s the beauty of choice, which stands in stark contrast to the ugly, coercive alternative of the political system.     

Incentives Matter: Even the French Know That

Europe is slowly disarming.  That really isn’t America’s business, but for the traditional expectation that America would fill the gap.  That is ever less likely, however, as budget pressures slow U.S. military expenditures.  Now the French are appear to be ready to do more in response.

European expenditures will continue on a downward path because Europe no longer faces any serious, let alone existential, threats.   European Union leaders might talk about creating a continental foreign policy and military, but European peoples exhibit little interest in paying the resulting bill, especially with the continent in economic crisis. 

This is a prescription for eventual European disarmament, but as I recently pointed out in National Interest online, hope is flickering in France.  I explained:

France’s financial difficulties created pressure for additional cuts in military outlays.  The Hollande government recently released its defense review, known as the Livre Blanc, or White Book.  Although the government reduced its rapid deployment forces, it “opted to keep France’s air, ground and sea capabilities, while freezing defense budgets over six years,” noted the Economist.  Outlays will shrink in real terms and as a percentage of GDP, but “Dark talk of the loss of 50,000 jobs proved unfounded.  The planned yearly cuts will be smaller than under the previous president, Nicolas Sarkozy.  France will maintain its capability for expeditionary warfare, and boost special forces.”

One reason Paris isn’t cutting as much as expected is Gallic pride.  But the French White Book also noted that Americans will “prove more selective in their overseas engagements.”  Thus, France must do more to maintain a global presence.

It’s a small step, but offers an important lesson for U.S. policymakers.  Instead of whining about lower European military outlays, Washington should simply shed the burden of Europe’s defense.  Then let the Europeans decide how to respond and bear the consequences accordingly.

Washington Post Investigation: Guns in America

Today’s Washington Post has a lengthy article about crime and firearms in the District of Columbia and in neighboring Prince George’s County, Maryland.

Here is the most important sentence from the article:  “In the national gun-control debate, a salient fact often has been overlooked: Legislative efforts aimed at curtailing the availability of the most lethal weapons merely play at the margins of this huge gun population.”  It hasn’t been overlooked here, but, yes, overlooked by Obama, Biden, Bloomberg, and others pushing gun control proposals that will not really address homicides.

Here are a few other points from the Post analysis:

  • Only a small fraction of the firearms seized by the police might fall within a definition for so-called ‘assault weapons.’: “Far more typical for local police is the matter-of-fact recovery of a handgun, which passes with little or no public notice. Handguns account for about eight of every 10 firearms confiscated in the analysis period.  Nearly 70 percent of the handguns seized were semiautomatic pistols, most often 9mm models, with magazines of varying capacity.
  • “Homicides by gun in the city and the county are down by about 70 percent over the past six years.”  Recall that city officials were alarmed when the Supreme Court ruled the city’s strict gun control laws unconstitutional five years ago.  Then-Mayor Fenty said he was “outraged” that the courts ruled that his constituents would be able to keep a handgun in the home for self-defense.  Fenty said crime would be going up.
  •  “The vast majority of the millions of guns in circulation nationwide will never become crime guns.”
  • According to the ATF, the firearms that do become crime guns have been on the streets over a dozen years. “Recovered guns have often changed hands multiple times.”  These black market transactions are going to take place—even if there are new regulations concerning background checks.  The Post article relates an incident where the police were executing a warrant at a residence and a man “sprinted from the yard, tossing guns from his pants: a Cobray M11, a 9mm semiautomatic machine pistol, a .45-caliber minimax Llama handgun, and a Glock 19. Police arrested the man, a felon on probation, and found a rusted handgun and rifle at his home.”  The legal code said he wasn’t supposed to have those guns, but he did.

Bottom line: Gun control proposals have no significant impact. They generally restrict the actions of persons who care about staying within the rules. After controls are enacted, some politicians are surprised by the fact that criminals are able to obtain guns and use them to commit crimes. Jerome Earles, a felon quoted in the story, said he carries a gun around even though he knows it is illegal to do so. “It ain’t right, but I carry my gun” he said.

Cato will be hosting an event on the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in the Heller case on June 4.  For additional Cato scholarship about firearms and crime, go here.


Obama on Perpetual War: Less “Hope,” More Handwringing

There was something almost otherworldly about President Obama’s big national security speech last Tuesday at the National Defense University in DC. At times, Obama seemed to position himself as the loyal opposition to his own administration—or just one of many concerned citizens who worry that perpetual war “will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.” A few examples from the speech:

Look at the current situation [at Gitmo], where we are force-feeding detainees who are being held on a hunger strike…. Is this who we are?  Is that something our Founders foresaw?  Is that the America we want to leave our children? 


I’m troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable.


Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight…. this war, like all wars, must end.


The very precision of drone strikes and the necessary secrecy often involved in such actions can end up shielding our government from the public scrutiny that a troop deployment invites.  It can also lead a President and his team to view drone strikes as a cure-all for terrorism.

A president”? Anyone in particular? Who’s been president all these years, anyway?

Farm Bill Would Increase Spending 47%

House and Senate farm subsidy supporters are pushing to enact the first big farm bill since 2008. Democratic and Republican supporters say that this year’s legislation will be a reform bill that cuts spending. Hogwash.

Last year, House farm subsidy supporters proposed a bill that would spend $950 billion over the next 10 years, while the Senate proposed a bill that would spend $963 billion. By contrast, when the 2008 farm bill passed, it was projected to spend $640 billion over 10 years. Thus, the proposed House bill would represent a 48 percent spending increase over the last farm bill, while the Senate bill would represent a 50 percent increase.

A new estimate of the House bill finds that it would spend $940 billion over 10 years, which would be a 47 percent increase over the 2008 farm bill. This new estimate is shown in the chart alongside the estimate of the 2008 farm bill.

The CBO score of the 2008 farm bill is here. Scores for the 2012 farm bill proposals are reported in this CRS report. And the new score of the House bill is here.

Current Wisdom: Hansen’s Extreme Sea Level Rise Projections Drowning in Hubris

The Current Wisdom is a series of monthly articles in which Patrick J. Michaels, director of the Center for the Study of Science, reviews interesting items on global warming in the scientific literature that may not have received the media attention that they deserved, or have been misinterpreted in the popular press.

Retired NASA scientist and peripatetic global warming crusader James Hansen has a—let’s put it delicately—unique view of sea-level rise resulting from mankind’s use of fossil fuels. Specifically, he believes global average sea level will rise some 15 to 20 feet by 2095. The central estimate from the most recent report from U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is about 15 inches.

Hansen’s an outlier, and proud of it, thinking himself more courageous than other scientists who, he says, are “reticent” to tell the public how bad things really are.

Wethinks that Hansen doth protest too much. His scientific arguments for a large and rapid sea level rise this century simply don’t hold water.

He laid out a summary of his logic on sea level rise in a book chapter (co-authored with Makiko Sato) published last year titled “Paleoclimate Implications for Human-Made Climate Change.”

Below, we have reproduced the relevant text on sea-level rise from that chapter along with our comments highlighting recent findings from the scientific literature which refute each and every one of Hansen’s claims.

The Real Reason Politicians Want a Bigger Bite of Apple

Earlier this month, I explained four reasons why the Apple “tax avoidance” issue is empty political demagoguery.

And Rand Paul gave some great remarks at a Senate hearing, excoriating some of his colleagues for trying to pillage the company.

But this Robert Ariail cartoon may be the best summary of the issue.

Arial Apple Cartoon

What makes this cartoon so effective is that it properly and cleverly identifies what’s really driving the political class on this issue. They want more revenue to finance a bigger burden of government spending.

When I did my contest for best political cartoonist, I picked a cartoon about Greece and euro for Robert Ariail’s entry. While I still think that was a very good cartoon, this Apple cartoon would probably take its place if I did a new contest.