September 30, 2016 1:11PM

The “Pardon Snowden” Case Just Got Stronger

Yesterday, the Department of Justice Inspector General (DoJ IG) issued a long overdue Congressionally-mandated report on FBI compliance with the PATRIOT Act's Section 215 "business records" provision between 2012 and 2014. It is the first such report issued that covers the initial period of Edward Snowden's revelations about widespread domestic mass surveillance by the federal government. Since his indictment for leaking the information to the press, Snowden's lawyers have argued that he should not be prosecuted under the WW I-era Espionage Act because his revelations served the public interest. The DoJ IG report provides the clearest evidence yet that Snowden's lawyers are correct (p. 6):

In June 2013, information about the NSA's bulk telephony metadata program was publicly disclosed by Edward Snowden. These disclosures revealed, among other things, that the FISA Court had approved Section 215 orders authorizing the bulk collection of call detail records. The telephony metadata collected by the NSA included information from local and long-distance telephone calls, such as the originating and terminating telephone number and the date, time, and duration of each call. The disclosures prompted widespread public discussion about the bulk telephony metadata program and the proper scope of government surveillance, and ultimately led Congress to end bulk collection by the government in the USA Freedom Act.

Public discussion of the controversy. Very public action by Congress to change the law, addressing at least one major abuse brought to light by Snowden. And there was more (p. 33):

An [National Security Division] Deputy Unit Chief noted that the number of business records orders reached its peak in 2012 and has declined annually since then, and that the number of [Electronic Communication Transation] requests has declined more than other types of requests. The Deputy Unit Chief said that the Snowden revelations have played a role in this decline, both in terms of the stigma attached to use of Section 215 and increased resistance from providers. The Deputy Unit Chief stated, "I think that it's possible that folks ... have decided it's not worth pursuing [business records orders], you know, obviously things haven't been great with providers since Snowden either." 

Translation: Snowden's actions forced companies like Verizon, Yahoo and others to grow a spine and start defending the Fourth Amendment rights of their customers. 

Earlier this month, a group of non-governmental organizations and individuals launched a campaign to get President Obama to pardon Snowden before he leaves office. We now have the department seeking Snowden's prosecution offering unambigous evidence that his whistleblowing actions served the public interest. Obama should direct DoJ to drop the case or he should pardon Snowden. Either approach would be in the public interest, just as Snowden's actions were.

September 30, 2016 12:57PM

Colombia’s Flawed Peace Plan

On Sunday, Colombians will vote in a referendum on a historic peace deal signed this week between the Colombian government and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebels who have been at war for more than 50 years. The next paragraph gives a taste of what’s in the 297 pages of the peace agreement. I recommend you skip over it since you will almost certainly not understand it, and it will not be pleasant to read.

 “During the term of the Agreement on CFHBD and DA, the Police Forces and the FARC-EP must comply with the rules governing the CFHBD and DA, as well as other chapters and protocols that make up the Agreement on CFHBD and DA. The MM&V has unrestricted access to the ZVTN included in Annex X of this Agreement and to the units of the Police Forces, committed to the devices specified in Annex Y of this Agreement.”

Surely only a small percentage of Colombians will read the entire text of the agreement. The Colombian government probably counts on that as it and its allies push the notion that those who criticize the peace plan support war. But many Colombians who read the document are finding serious reasons to oppose the plan and agree with independent observers, such as Human Rights Watch, who strongly criticize it. Indeed, José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division, calls the agreement a “façade of justice in the name of peace” and points out that it guarantees impunity.

The Colombian peace deal represents a setback in international practice. Since the aftermath of Apartheid in South Africa in the 1990s, war crimes or crimes against humanity have been prosecuted in international or ad hoc courts where justice is administered as part of peace settlements. Not so in the case of Colombia which “punishes” such criminals with requirements to engage in community service and with no deprivation of liberty.

Moreover, confessed criminals would be entitled, contrary to the Colombian constitution, to participate in politics even while serving their alleged sentences. The agreement guarantees the FARC 10 congressional seats and 16 more in special areas to be created, and in which existing political parties in Congress “may not register candidates.”

In the not too distant future, Colombia may very well see the legitimized political influence of a Senator Timochenko, leader of the FARC guerrillas. It is as if in the 1990s in Peru, which had been ravaged by the unpopular Maoist Shining Path guerillas, the country had chosen to negotiate with the rebels on the verge of their collapse, rather than what it actually did –defeat the group, and capture, try and jail its members who had been found to have committed serious crimes. (The FARC was also decimated on the eve of the Colombian government’s announcement that it would pursue peace negotiations.) Had Peru followed the alternative Colombia is pursuing, it would most assuredly have Abimael Guzmán, the Shining Path’s bloodthirsty leader, and his party in Congress today.

All this comes with the generous support of the state. The agreement ensures that the government will finance the political party of the FARC and the dissemination of its ideas. In addition, the state will pay for a “center for thought and political education” of the FARC, a TV channel and 31 radio stations. According to Rafael Nieto Loaiza, former vice minister of Justice, the FARC’s new party “will receive an annual contribution proportionately higher than that of the other parties.”

The agreement creates all kinds of bureaucracy for the administration of peace and the transition, and relies on new welfare and spending programs. The government will oversee a rural reform reminiscent of the unsuccessful state-centered models of the 1960s. It will create a land fund, and will distribute three million hectares for free. The government will also provide subsidized credits and insurance, and direct subsidies. The largesse will be focused on rural areas, where the amount of land each family can own is limited by law, as is the transfer or sale of land without government authorization. Public spending on housing, irrigation and other infrastructure will increase and be directed to the places affected by the conflict, but not necessarily take into account the economic viability of such spending. In this way, the government seeks to invigorate the rural economy and give peasants independence, but like so many examples of government planning, it is a model that is bound to fail.

It is reasonable to seek peace and to make concessions along the way if the exchange is worth it. To many of those who read this agreement, however, it will be difficult to conclude that that has been achieved.  

September 30, 2016 7:35AM

Notwithstanding a New Rhetorical Strategy from Statists, Higher Taxes and Bigger Government Is Not a Recipe for Growth and Development

I must be perversely masochistic because I have the strange habit of reading reports issued by international bureaucracies such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, United Nations, and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

But one tiny silver lining to this dark cloud is that it's given me an opportunity to notice how these groups have settled on a common strategy of urging higher taxes for the ostensible purpose of promoting growth and development.

Seriously, this is their argument, though they always rely on euphemisms when asserting that politicians should get more money to spend.

  • The OECD, for instance, has written that "Increased domestic resource mobilisation is widely accepted as crucial for countries to successfully meet the challenges of development and achieve higher living standards for their people."

  • Media Name: Cartoon1.jpg

    The Paris-based bureaucrats of the OECD also asserted that "now is the time to consider reforms that generate long-term, stable resources for governments to finance development."
  • The IMF is banging on this drum as well, with news reports quoting the organization's top bureaucrat stating that "...economies need to strengthen their fiscal frameworks…by boosting...sources of revenues." while also reporting that "The IMF chief said taxation allows governments to mobilize their revenues."
  • And the UN, which has "...called for a tax on billionaires to help raise more than $400 billion a year" routinely categorizes such money grabs as "financing for development."

As you can see, these bureaucracies are singing from the same hymnal, but it's a new version.

In the past, the left agitated for higher taxes simply in hopes for having more redistribution.

And they've urged higher taxes because of spite and hostility against those with high incomes.

Some folks on the left also have supported higher taxes on the theory that the economy's performance is boosted when deficits are smaller.

But now, they are advocating higher taxes (oops, excuse me, I mean they are urging "resource mobilization" to generate "stable resources" so there can be "financing for development" in order to "strengthen fiscal frameworks") on the theory that bigger government is the way to get more growth.

You probably won't be surprised to learn, however, that these reports from international bureaucracies never provide any evidence for this novel hypothesis. None. Zero. Zilch. Nada. The null set.

They simply assert that governments will be able to make presumably wonderful growth-generating "investments" if politicians can squeeze more money from the private sector.

And I strongly suspect that this absence of evidence is deliberate. Simply stated, international bureaucracies are willing to produce shoddy research (just look at what the IMF and OECD wrote about the relationship between growth and inequality), but there's a limit to how far data can be tortured and manipulated.

Media Name: Rahn_Curve.jpg

Especially when there's so much evidence from real scholars that economic performance is weakened when government gets bigger.

Not to mention that most sentient beings can look around the world and look at the moribund economies of nations with large governments (such as France, Italy, and Greece) and compare them with the better performance of places with smaller government (such as Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Singapore).

But if you read the aforementioned reports from the international bureaucracies, you'll notice that some of them focus on getting more growth in poor nations.

Perhaps, some statists might argue, government is big enough in Europe, but not big enough in poorer regions such as sub-Saharan Africa.

So let's look at the numbers. Is it true that governments in the developing world don't have enough money to provide core public goods?

Media Name: historical-size-of-govt.jpg

The answer is no.

But before sharing those numbers, let's look at some historical data. A few years ago, I shared some research demonstrating that countries in North America and Western Europe became rich in the 1800s and early 1900s when the burden of government spending was very modest.

One would logically conclude from this data that today's poor nations should copy that approach.

Yet here's the data from the International Monetary Fund on government expenditures in various poor regions of the world. As you can see, the burden of government spending in these areas is two or three times larger than it was in America and other nations that when they made the move from agricultural poverty to middle class prosperity.

Media Name: Government-Spending-in-Developing-Nations.jpg

The bottom line is that small government and free markets is the recipe for growth and prosperity in all nations.

Just don't expect international bureaucracies to share that recipe since one of the obvious conclusions is that we therefore don't need parasitical bodies like the IMF, OECD, World Bank, and UN.

P.S. Unsurprisingly, Hillary Clinton also has adopted the mantra of higher-taxes → bigger government → more growth.

September 29, 2016 4:02PM

Trump’s Economic Plan Faces Well‐​Deserved Ridicule

Earlier this week, the Trump campaign released a white paper written by senior policy adviser Peter Navarro to elaborate and quantify the candidate’s economic plan.  The goal of the paper is to explain how Donald Trump’s promises to renegotiate trade agreements and raise tariffs will promote economic growth and raise revenue for the government. 

The plan betrays embarrassing ignorance of how trade negotiations work and a farcically simplistic and erroneous understanding of economics.  In essence, the plan justifies Trump’s policies by reimagining how the world works. 

Trump’s entire view of trade and its impact on the U.S. economy is wrong.  He believes that trade is good for the United States only if we export more than we import and that trade relations are a contest between countries, which we are losing because they sell more stuff to us than we sell to them.  He claims to be the tough-guy who will the save the American economy from shrewd foreign cheaters and the inept government officials who let them beat us. 

Since that’s not how things work in the real world, he has to rely on falsehoods and bad economics to justify disastrous policies.  This new white paper is just a continuation of that tactic.

But you don’t have to take my word for it.  If you think I’m being too harsh or would like to learn more about the “Trump Trade Doctrine” and what’s wrong with it, I recommend you read lengthier condemnations from experts who have called the plan’s analysis “truly disappointing,” “not only wrong, but foolish,” “magical thinking,” “a complete mess,” and the sort of thing “that would get you flunked out of an AP economics class.”

September 29, 2016 3:43PM

Nevada Supreme Court: Education Savings Accounts Are Constitutional, Funding Mechanism Isn’t

In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court of Nevada today upheld the constitutionality of the nation’s most expansive educational choice law. However, the court ruled that the funding mechanism the legislature adopted is unconstitutional. If the legislature creates a new funding mechanism--as it could and should in a special session--then the ESA program could be implemented right away.

Enacted in 2015, Nevada’s education savings account (ESA) policy was originally scheduled to launch at the beginning of this year, but it immediately drew two separate legal challenges from the government schooling establishment and the ACLU and its allies. Nevada’s ESA provides students with $5,100 per year (plus an additional $600 for low-income students or students with special needs) to use for a wide variety of approved educational expenditures, including private school tuition, tutoring, text books, online courses, homeschool curricula, and more. Families can also roll over unspent funds from year to year. As the Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke and I have explained, the ability to customize a child’s education and save funds for later are significant improvements over school vouchers:

ESAs offer several key advantages over traditional school-choice programs. Because families can spend ESA funds at multiple providers and can save unspent funds for later, ESAs incentivize families to economize and maximize the value of each dollar spent, in a manner similar to the way they would spend their own money. ESAs also create incentives for education providers to unbundle services and products to better meet students’ individual learning needs. 

Of the five existing ESA programs, Nevada’s is the most expansive. Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee restrict their ESAs to students with special needs. Arizona originally restricted ESA eligibility to students with special needs, but has since included foster children, children of active-duty military personnel, students assigned to district schools rated D or F, and children living in Native American reservations. In Nevada, all students who attended a public school for at least 100 days in the previous academic year are eligible. 

In two separate lawsuits, opponents of educational choice alleged that Nevada's ESA violated the state constitution's mandate that the state provide a "uniform system of common schools" (Article 11, Section 2), its prohibition against using public funds for sectarian purposes (Article 11, Section 6), and a clause requiring the state to appropriate funds to operate the district schools before any other appropriation is enacted for the biennium (Article 11, Section 10). The court found that the ESA was constitutional under the first two constitutional provisions, but the way it was funded violated the third.

"Uniform" Does Not Mean "Exclusive" 

The anti-choice plaintiffs alleged that the state constitution's mandate that the state provide a "uniform system of common schools" means that the state may only fund that system, and not an "alternative" system that includes "non-common, non-uniform private schools and home-based schooling." Essentially, they argued that "uniform" meant "exclusive." The court disagreed. The plain language of the term "uniform" refers to uniformity within the system of common schools. Such schools must be free-of-charge, free of sectarian instruction, open at least six months a year, and so on. The ESA program does not change that.

The plaintiffs took great pains to explain away the previous provision of the state constitution, which explicitly authorized the legislature to "encourage" education "by all suitable means." Although the plaintiffs argued that the term "all suitable means" is somehow limited by the "uniformity" clause, the court ruled that the two clauses operate independently. Furthermore, the court held that the expression "by all suitable means" clearly "reflects the framers' intent to confer broad discretion on the Legislature in fulfilling its duty" to promote education. The creation of an ESA program falls within this discretion. 

ESA Funds Belong to Parents, Not the State

The plaintiffs further alleged that the ESA violated the state constitution's Blaine Amendment, which states: "No public funds of any kind of character whatever [...] shall be used for sectarian purpose." Although even the plaintiffs conceded that the ESA has a secular purpose and that parents may expend all of their ESA funds on secular education, they contended that the potential that parents might use ESA funds to pay tuition at a religious school or purchase religious homeschool materials was a violation of the Blaine Amendment. The court disagreed:

Once the public funds are deposited into an education savings account, the funds are no longer "public funds" but are instead the private funds of the individual parent who established the account. The parent decides where to spend that money for the child's education and may choose from a variety of participating entities, including religious and non-religious schools. Any decision by the parent to use the funds in his or her account to pay tuition at a religious school does not involve the use of "public funds" and thus does not implicate Section 10.

This is consistent with how the courts treat other transfers of public funds to individual citizens. A person using food stamps for a religious feast, hosting regular Bible studies at a subsidized apartment, or spending Medicaid funds at a Catholic hospital with a crucifix in every room and priests on the staff likewise do not violate the U.S. or state constitutions. The mere fact that the state places some restrictions on how those funds may be spent does not, as the plaintiffs alleged, mean that they are still "public funds." As the court ruled, "That the funds may be used by the parents only for authorized educational expenses does not alter the fact that the funds belong to the parents."

Finding a New Funding Mechanism

Education savings accounts are constitutional. Nevertheless, the court ruled that the way the legislature funded them is not. In its current form, there is no limit to the number of ESAs that the state might issue because it depends on the number of eligible students who apply for an account. The legislature did not explicitly create a separate appropriation for the ESAs, but rather diverted the funding that the state would otherwise have spent on those students had they enrolled in a district school. This creates a Catch-22. If the court were to find that the ESA funds do constitute a separate appropriation, then it runs afoul of the constitutional mandate that the legislature fund the district school system first because the legislature passed the ESA bill before the district school funding bill. However, if it is not a separate appropriation (as the court eventually held), then the legislature did not actually appropriate funds for the ESA because the district school funding bill makes no mention of them. The state treasury therefore has no authority to use the funds appropriated in the district school funding bill to fund the ESAs.

Although the Nevada Supreme Court issued an injunction against implementing the ESA, this decision gives supporters of educational choice more reason to celebrate than not. If funded properly, ESAs are constitutional in Nevada. Now all the legislature needs to do is hold a special session to make that happen.

September 29, 2016 2:19PM

Study: Fewer Citizen Complaints After Police Body Camera Deployment

Media Name: screen_shot_2016-09-29_at_12.35.57_pm.png

A recent randomized controlled trial found that the number of complaints against police fell dramatically after officers were outfitted with body cameras. It is the latest piece of research suggesting that police body cameras have a positive effect on police-citizen interactions. 

The study, headed by the University of Cambridge's Institute of Criminology, studied complaints against police in seven sites in two countries. The departments involved in the study were in areas such as the English Midlands, Cambridgeshire, California, and Northern Ireland. Researchers examined 4,264 officer shifts over roughly 1.5 million hours. In the 12 months before the trial began there were 1,539 complaints filed against police in the seven sites. After 12 months of taking part in the trial there were 113 complaints, a reduction of 93%.

Officers involved in the study were told to adhere to two policies that are not required by many departments: 1) officers wearing body cameras "had to keep the camera on during their entire shift," and 2) those same officers had to "inform members of the public, during any encounter, that they were wearing a camera."

The study's findings are similar to an often-mentioned trial that took place in Rialto, California, which also found that the outfitting of officers with body cameras was followed by a significant reduction (87.5%) in complaints. 

Media Name: screen_shot_2016-09-29_at_1.48.35_pm.png

Speaking about the most recent study, Cambridge University's Barak Ariel, who oversaw the Rialto trial, said, "I cannot think of any [other] single intervention in the history of policing that dramatically changed the way that officers behave, the way that suspects behave, and the way they interact with each other." 

Interestingly, the researchers found that complaints fell for officers who weren't wearing body cameras as well as those who did. According to the researchers this may be because of "contagious accountability":

We argue that that BWCs affect entire police departments through a process we label contagious accountability. Perhaps naively, we find it difficult to consider alternatives to the treatment effect beyond the panopticonic observer effect when the reduction in complaints is by nearly 100%. Whatever the precise mechanism of the deterrence effect of being watched and, by implication, accountability, all officers in the departments were acutely aware of being observed more closely, with an enhanced transparency apparatus that has never been seen before in day-to-day policing operations. Everyone was affected by it, even when the cameras were not in use, and collectively everyone in the department(s) attracted fewer complaints.

As the researchers note, this "contagious accountability" effect comes with some caveats:

There is, however, a caveat associated with this conclusion, which is important for future experiments on BWCs. It is not the camera device alone that caused the contagious accountability, but rather a two-stage process. First, the treatment effect incorporated the camera as well as a warning at the beginning of every interaction that the encounter was being videotaped. We urge practitioners to acknowledge that the verbal warning, which our protocol dictated should be announced as soon as possible when engaging with members of the public, is a quintessential component of the treatment effect. It primed both parties that a civilized manner was required and served as a nudge to enhance the participants’ awareness of being observed. Without the warning, the effect might easily have been reduced or failed to materialize.

The second element to the process is the need for affirmation that the videotaped footage can be used. People may be aware of CCTV or bystanders filming the encounter but still conduct themselves inappropriately, believing the camera to either not be recording or not monitoring their demeanor. Without the actualization of the warning, transgressors may be quick to assume that the threat of apprehension and risk of sanctioning are not real. Therefore, the fact that the officially collated, recorded footage can be used against the participants moves this intervention from being a “toothless policy” (Ariel, 2012, p. 57) into an effective technological solution. 

Although the recent study and the Rialto study did reveal encouraging findings, not all cities have seen such dramatic falls in complaints following body camera deployment. Nonetheless, the recent latest findings ought to encourage citizens and law enforcement officials alike to support police body cameras. Body cameras can, with the appropriate policies enforced, provide some much-needed increase in transparency and accountability in law enforcement while also helping to exculpate officers falsely accused of wrongdoing. 

September 29, 2016 11:37AM

Refugee Program Accepts 3 Syrian Women and Children For Every Man

Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump has been warning against accepting Syrian refugees. Last year, he said of refugees, “They’re all men. You look at it. There are so few women and there are so few children. And not only are they men, they’re young men.” We showed at the time that this claim was inaccurate, but with the fiscal year closing tomorrow, we have the information necessary to test it as a prediction—and yet no matter how you look at it, it’s unequivocally false.

Figure 1 shows how the State Department groups the ages of the 12,500 Syrians that it has resettled this year. As can be seen, the breakdown skews heavily toward children. In fact, half of all Syrian refugees in the United States are 13 years old or younger. This demonstrates that the flow is overwhelmingly families with small children.

Figure 1: Ages of Syrian Refugees in FY2016


Media Name: HUWNguqmE2FpD3aZkSQ791msiAuhT7sEZ1T0B9NKPjzNdEjBiTUwZlUBAtycb_G6PPvzLUUKzQvDf0Fb5K_CTQ-Z5kT11bMi9s46leP0lML7oh2jSc5GW3SRQlx8Y4TlExbBPa9X.

Source: State Department

As Figure 2 shows, nearly three quarters of the Syrian refugee flow is women and young children under the age of 14. Nearly 90 percent of Syrian refugees who came this year were outside of the “young men” demographic—men ages 14 to 30. Donald Trump is simply confused.

Figure 2: Age and Gender Distribution of Syrian Refugees FY 2016


Media Name: AA898jg8rEj4s5TMxmRo-1lVvlhmhtIrbtfMjuh0GWAGS6omnwF5GSbZC3Lwi9_c-p5GkglRQ7hDVfMqLaWumGxwMwIFaeHr8GSpiZiFYSk9-342wHVxxPZr5lNootILnVvrMZ8F.

Source: State Department

The United States has a history of accepting refugees from war-torn areas. We shouldn’t allow inaccuracies about the threats posed by refugees to dissuade us from continuing in that tradition.