Archives: 11/2016

Washington DC Progressives Fight to Preserve Gas Stations

The number of gas stations in the United States has fallen by nearly 30 percent in the last two decade and the DC government says it is determined to arrest that decline, at least in this jurisdiction. Why it feels this way is a complete mystery, and that it has taken action on this front is absurd.

It is easy to surmise why we have fewer gas stations: more stringent regulations on underground gas tanks increased the cost of operating a station and spurred many operators to close their doors in the late 1990s. Also, many gas station operators these days see selling gas as primarily a way to attract a lot of shoppers to their store and are willing to cut their margin to the bone to get those ancillary sales. As a result, the average fuel sales (and non-fuel sales) of gas stations has been growing steadily. The days of a mom and pop station selling gas, fixing cars, and selling a little candy by the cashier are long gone.

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Government Shouldn’t Retaliate Against Politically Active Citizens

The First Amendment guarantees the right to speak freely without fear of official retribution. One aspect of this right is that a government agency may not punish someone for speaking out, supporting a candidate, or running in an election. Allowing such retribution would be to allow the government to extort citizens into supporting a particular political orthodoxy.

But such extortion is exactly what happened in Nebraska. Robert Bennie, a financial advisor, became active in the Tea Party movement in 2010. Before then, he had never received any disciplinary action from the Nebraska Department of Banking and Finance, a regulatory agency that monitors brokerage advertisements for compliance with financial regulations. After Bennie became politically active, the Department suddenly began a campaign of investigations and threatening letters, despite the fact that Bennie remained fully compliant with all regulations.

Suspecting that these developments were retaliation for his political stands, Bennie sued the Department. Both the district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit agreed with Bennie that the government took an adverse action against him that was motivated in part by his First-Amendment-protected speech. And yet the courts nonetheless denied Bennie any relief, imposing yet another hurdle: the “ordinary firmness” test.

Police Misconduct — The Worst Case in October

Over at Cato’s Police Misconduct web site we have selected the worst case for the month of October.  It goes to the City of Minneapolis for its handling of an excessive force complaint against Officer Blayne Lehner.

Here’s the background: Lehner and his partner responded to domestic disturbance call at an apartment building where they found two women arguing with one another.   According to the news reports, the encounter was captured on video.  The owner of the apartment building was so disturbed by what he saw–Lehner pushing one of the women without cause–that he filed a complaint with the department.

Later, Police Chief Janee Harteau agrees that Lehner’s conduct was unacceptable.  The Chief terminates Lehner’s employment with the police department.

Only now a labor arbitrator has overturned that employment decision and has ordered the city to reinstate Lehner along with compensation for the time he has been off the force.

News reports also show that Lehner has been the subject of previous complaints and lawsuits:

City records show that since 2000, more than 30 complaint investigations have been opened against Lehner. The vast majority of investigations were closed with no discipline. One case from 2014 with the Office of Police Conduct Review is still open. Records show Lehner was suspended twice in 2013. However, the reasons for the discipline were not listed. Lehner was also issued two letters of reprimand in 2012.

In 2015, Lehner was sued by a man who claimed the officer kicked him in the face, breaking a few of his teeth and causing him to briefly lose consciousness. In a rare move, the city decided not to defend Lehner. However, the city later settled the case for $360,000.

Officer Lehner will soon be back to policing again.

Common Myths About Marijuana Legalization

This coming Tuesday, nine states will consider ballot initiatives that legalize marijuana for medical or recreational purposes under state law. Twenty-five states have already legalized marijuana for medical use, and four have legalized fully, and polls suggest many or most of the new initiatives will pass. Opponents nevertheless make strong claims about adverse consequences from existing and proposed legalizations. We argue, based on the evidence, that such claims are exaggerated, misleading, or outright false.

Legalizing marijuana dramatically increases use: Several countries (Portugal, the Netherlands, Australia, and part of the U.K.) have liberalized their marijuana laws with little or no impact on marijuana use. Research on U.S. medical marijuana laws suggests that adult marijuana use has increased only modestly. Preliminary data in Colorado and Washington, the two first states to legalize recreational marijuana, display similar trends in use before and after legalization.

Legalizing marijuana increases other substance use: Whether legalization affects other substance use depends on whether new consumers progress to drugs such as cocaine or heroin (the gateway effect) and whether existing consumers substitute marijuana for other substances.  No scientifically convincing evidence supports the gateway hypothesis for marijuana.  In fact, some research suggests that users substitute from alcohol toward marijuana after liberalization. Rates of cocaine use appear unchanged in the wake of recreational marijuana laws. Research on medical marijuana laws shows little impact on alcohol or cocaine use.

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I’m a Libertarian and I Vote

Yesterday morning, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) tweeted a picture of himself being arrested as a young man. He captioned it: “I’ve marched, protested, been beaten and arrested–all for the right to vote. Friends of mine gave their lives. Honor their sacrifice. Vote.”

That tweet has gotten 35,000 retweets at this writing, and it will get many more. It’s one of many efforts mainstream politicians and parties are mounting in the final days before the 2016 elections to drive more voters to the polls.

I do honor the sacrifices of Mr. Lewis and so many others in the civil rights movement. If only the vote had made the civil rights struggle an episode in history and not the ongoing struggle that it is.

But it can be stated with certainty that Mr. Lewis’s tweet won’t make the difference in any election. It’s impossible to identify any one voter that may be convinced to go to the polls by that tweet. And if you could find that person, the chance that he or she might change the outcome in any election would be infinitesimal.

Is near-thirty-year office holder Mr. Lewis some kind of time-wasting fool for sending this tweet? Of course not.

U.S. Foreign Policy and the Switzerland Test

Has the United States reached peak incoherence in foreign policy?

President Obama spent seven years expanding the war on terror and intervening inconsistently and incoherently in the Middle East, only to acknowledge in recent interviews that Libya was his greatest mistake. The frontrunners in the presidential campaign are no better. Hillary Clinton supported the Iraq War before she later opposed it, and promoted the TTP and TTIP while Secretary of State but now says they’re a bad idea. Donald Trump’s foreign policy views have doubled back on themselves so often it’s hard to tell where he stands.

Observers on both the right and the left agree that the United States has lost its vision of how to succeed in the international arena. This makes it impossible to craft sound strategy or to build any sort of public consensus around it. What the United States needs is a new paradigm to help cut through the many conundrums that currently have the United States flummoxed. This new vision must clarify the primary goals of American foreign policy and identify the appropriate means for achieving those goals.

Crafting consensus around such a vision will be challenging, however, and in the meantime we need strategies to save us from our worst tendencies towards threat inflation, overspending, and excessive military intervention around the world.

Today I would like to propose a mechanism for doing just that. I call it the Switzerland Test. Applying the test is simple. When assessing threats, making decisions about defense budgets, or thinking about whether to intervene in another civil war, our political leaders should just ask: What would Switzerland do?

Switzerland provides a compelling vision for American foreign policy for several reasons. First, the Swiss assess security threats rationally. The Swiss are lucky, surrounded by mountains as they are, which has allowed them to fend off would-be invaders and occupiers for most of their history. Even Hitler didn’t bother. And today, the Swiss share borders with friendly neighbors. As a result, the Swiss waste little time or money on unnecessary national security initiatives. The most heated security debate in Switzerland recently has been whether or not even to have an army.

The United States will surely keep its army, but notice the parallels here. The United States, like Switzerland, is surrounded by imposing natural obstacles and friendly, militarily weak allies. Beyond this the United States also enjoys the safety of a secure nuclear deterrent. Unlike Switzerland, unfortunately, the United States sees threats everywhere and thus the legacy military-industrial complex from the Cold War continues to rumble along, sucking up trillions of dollars that the private sector economy could put to far better use.

Understanding Driver Discrimination in Ride-Hailing Platforms

Two experiments in a new working paper find some evidence that some drivers using popular ride-hailing platforms discriminate against riders. In some cases African-American riders faced longer wait times or higher probabilities of having a driver cancel on them. To some extent, these findings should temper hopes that these new technologies and platforms would succeed in quickly rooting out these forms of discrimination. It is important to note, however, that this study examined whether there was discrimination within these platforms, it did not compare ride-hailing platforms and traditional taxi companies. These new platforms do offer some advantages over the status quo when it comes to identifying the channels of discrimination through richer data, while the rating system gives riders some recourse to penalize discriminating drivers and an incentive for drivers to maintain a high rating.

In the study the researchers undertook two large-scale experiments to try to determine whether there was a pattern of discrimination for riders using these ride-hailing platforms.

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