Archives: 12/2015

Hill Democrats Renew Push for “Assault Weapons” Ban

“1. We must do something. 2. This is something. 3. Therefore, we must do this.” That’s not just a famous line from the BBC’s old comedy Yes, Minister, it might serve as a philosophy of government for about 90 Democrats on Capitol Hill led by Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who are seeking to revive a failed Clinton-era ban on so-called assault weapons that Congress let lapse a decade ago. (Gun homicide rates have plunged since the Clinton era.) 

The lawmakers’ timing could hardly be worse, with both the New York Times/CBS and ABC News/Washington Post polls showing American public opinion has turned against such bans, which once drew support at levels of 80% or higher. In the latest ABC poll, a 53-45 percent majority of Americans are opposed to such a ban.

That trend in opinion has been in progress for years, since well before this year’s shocking round of mass shootings in Charleston, San Bernardino, and elsewhere. And it owes much to the steady accumulation of evidence on such laws and their effect. Cato has long made gun control one of its topics of interest, with at least three recent publications shedding light on the assault-weapons controversy: David Kopel’s magisterial overview (summary) of the poor track record of supposed common-sense reforms, Jonathan Blanks’s distinction between the actual incidents that dominate gun crime statistics and the outlier episodes that are seized on as symbolic, and Trevor Burrus’s response to the New York Times’s recent overwrought front-page editorial. 

Interest On Reserves, Part I

In my last post regarding Ben Bernanke’s memoir, I took Bernanke’s Fed to task for electing to sterilize its pre-AIG emergency lending, thereby making sure that, while it was rescuing a small number of troubled firms, it was also reducing the liquid reserves available to others. It was doing this, moreover, at a time when increasingly worrisome economic conditions were giving rise to exceptional liquidity demands. The predictable result was an overall shortage of liquidity, which manifested itself in a collapse of bank lending and spending.

I now turn to an even more mind-bogglingly wrongheaded step taken by Bernanke’s Fed in the course of the financial crisis: it’s decision to pay interest on banks’ excess reserves.

“This Process Stinks”

Those are the words of Paul Ryan (R-WI) in October, ahead of his elevation to Speaker of the House. He was objecting to a budget deal being rammed through the House, and he went on to say, “This is not the way to do the people’s business, and under new management we are not going to do the people’s business this way.”

Today, the House is scheduled to debate an omnibus spending bill that has highly controversial cybersecurity surveillance legislation slipped into it.

Well. That didn’t take long.

How To Get Back To Multilateral Trade Liberalization: Cut Agriculture Subsidies!

Recent discussions of trade negotiations have focused on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), often referred to as “mega-regional” trade talks.  But most economists and other trade experts agree that trade liberalization would be more beneficial if done on a multilateral basis, at the World Trade Organization (WTO).  There are talks going on at the WTO, referred to as the Doha Round, but they started in 2001 and are widely seen as not likely to achieve much.

What would it take to get WTO liberalization going again?  There are lots of theories on this, but my view is that it’s really pretty simple:  The major trading countries need to propose significant liberalization.  That hasn’t happened yet, and that’s why there has been so little progress.

No One Is Going to Enforce the Paris Climate Treaty Through the TPP

Now that the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations have concluded, a lot of people across the political spectrum are going to have insightful and intelligent things to say about the agreement.  Their analyses may argue for opposing positions, but the public will be better off and more informed for having listened to any of them.  On the other hand, some opponents of the deal will rely on baseless fearmongering.

Fear of the unknown is a natural (and largely beneficial) human extinct.  When people feel like they don’t understand how something works, they’re more likely to imagine that it does something horrible.  This is why opponents of trade liberalization constantly exaggerate the secrecy of negotiations why they focus their rhetoric on things like transnational corporate agendas, loss of national sovereignty, or lower food safety—things that most people don’t understand very well but are afraid of. 

Most often, fantastic predictions about the consequences of free trade arguments are put forward by the Left.  They have claimed that the TPP will kill dolphins, allow corporations to bypass government regulations, cause global warming, or force us all to eat GMOs.  None of this is true, but anti-trade groups are making fairly persuasive arguments based on inaccurate and exaggerated claims.

Anti-trade groups on the political right use similar methods.  The easiest target for these groups has been apprehension among conservative voters over the intentions of President Obama, focusing on things like immigration and gun control.  Conservative protectionists adopted the term “Obamatrade” to refer—interchangeably, in order to profit from confusion—to the TPP, trade promotion authority, and even the WTO.  During the debate earlier this year over trade promotion authority, a number of politicians fell for the simplistic but inaccurate argument that TPA would enable Obama to secretly liberalize America’s immigration laws.

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Is a ‘Non-Federal’ License Still a National ID?

The Department of Homeland Security has been pressuring state legislatures to implement our U.S. national ID law, the REAL ID Act. States are free to set their own policies because the DHS will always back down. But many state legislators don’t know that. They’re in a bind where they feel obligated to obey federal mandates, but they want to do right by the citizens of their states. Law-abiding Americans shouldn’t have to scrounge up long-lost identity documents, stand in line at DMVs, and see themselves entered into a national ID system just so they can carry a driver’s license.

So practical legislators are seeking that golden compromise, which the REAL ID Act seems to hold out. But watch your wallet, because a “non-federal” license may still be a national ID.

REAL ID permits the issuance of “non-federal” licenses and IDs. These can be issued without the many stringent, time-consuming, and annoying requirements of REAL ID. Such a card simply has to state clearly on its face that it may not be accepted by federal agencies for official purposes, and it must use unique designs or colors to indicate this.

But REAL ID also requires compliant states to give all other states access to the information contained in their motor vehicle databases. The law requires them to share all the data printed on the REAL ID cards, as well as driver histories, including motor vehicle violations, suspensions, and points on licenses.

That leaves an open question: Does the REAL ID Act require nationwide info-sharing on every licensee? Or just the licensees who carry REAL ID cards?

The question is important, because of the huge data security implications from exposing data about every driver to the motor vehicle bureau of every other state. A good reason to avoid REAL ID is to avoid the risk that a rogue DMV employee in any state can access the data of drivers in all the others. That’s a recipe for mass-scale identity fraud.

Drivers who are worried about identity fraud and their privacy should be able to opt out of this information sharing. While we’re at it, the privacy of security-conscious drivers could be protected if “non-federal” licenses came without the “machine-readable zone” that REAL ID requires. It allows easy collection of driver data and tracking with every swipe or scan of the card in a digital reader.

States should really resist REAL ID entirely. Congress should stop funding it and repeal the unnecessary and burdensome national ID law. But if there are to be “non-federal” IDs from compliant states, it would be nice if they offered Americans a way to opt out of the insecure information-sharing requirements in this national ID system.

What Do Police Think About Body Cameras?

Police body cameras are overwhelmingly popular across political and socio-economic demographics. However, while it is important to consider how the public views police body cameras, it is also worth noting what police law enforcement leadership thinks about the technology. Researchers from Florida Atlantic University and the University of West Florida have conducted a body camera survey on a small number of law enforcement leaders. The results show that half of police commanders would support body cameras being used in their agency and that two-thirds of commanders believe that the public supports body cameras because “society does not trust police officers.”

Survey participants were from Sunshine County, “a large southern county with 27 local law enforcement agencies, home to a number of state and federal law enforcement agencies, and a population of approximately 1.3 million people.” Each month, the leadership staff within the Sunshine County law enforcement community meet. Surveys were sent to the staff in March this year. Twenty-four surveys were completed.

The graph below shows how the respondents answered questions about the use of body cameras and their influence on police officer behavior. Fifty percent of the respondents support using body cameras in their department. The same percentage was also neutral when asked whether body cameras would improve officers’ behavior, although one-third agreed or strongly agreed.  

 

It is too early to say definitively how the use of police body cameras affects officers’ behavior. A widely cited body camera trial in Rialto, California found that the deployment of police body cameras was followed by a reduction in complaints and use-of-force incidents (see chart below).