February is a short month, so March caught me by surprise. Hence the late Dispatch. But if February had 31 days, it would be like this came out on March 11. Not that bad, right? Anyway, on with the February battles, which are heavy on books, slavery lessons, and…dances.
- Books: February saw three new book challenges: Both The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird were removed from required reading lists in Duluth, MN; Stick was removed from all classrooms and libraries below the high school level in Beaverton, OR; and The Hate U Give was pulled as an assignment in Springfield, MO. Three of these books are not newly contested territory in our public schools’ constant values and identity-based battles. Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird have been flashpoints for decades—and the latter, several times in the last few months—while we saw a battle over The Hate U Give in Texas in 2017.
- Slavery illustrations: A teacher in Leander, TX, assigned students to draw pictures of themselves as slaves for homework and to "write one sentence that describes your surroundings using each of the 5 senses.” A New York City teacher made her African-American students lie down on the floor and then she stepped on their backs to try to give them a sense for how slavery felt. Needless to say these things disturbed many parents. But they aren’t the first concerning “immersion” assignments—which seem largely intended to help kids get a better feeling for historical events—we’ve tracked. In just the last few months we’ve also seen two in Georgia and one in Massachusetts.
- Dances: Conflicts over dress codes at school dances are common—the Map has almost 10 such incidents—but in February we saw two dance-related battles that are much less familiar. Unprecedented, at least as far as the Map indicates, was a conflict in Weber, UT, over a policy prohibiting girls from saying “no” to boys who asked them to dance at a Valentine’s Day event. At issue was disempowering girls versus protecting the feelings of potentially rejected boys. The second battle was in Staten Island, New York, where the annual father-daughter dance was cancelled in an effort to end potentially discriminatory “gender-based” activities. There is only one similar dispute I could find on the Map, a 2012 conflict in Cranston, RI.
Of course there were more battles to check out, including over an offensive science project, the National Anthem, and Cool Runnings. Meanwhile, we have continued to post polls on the Battle Map Facebook page, and utterly dwarfed old voting records with a question, in the wake of the horrific Parkland, FL, school shooting, whether teachers should be able to bring guns to work. Around 5,500 people voted, with 85 percent saying “yes” in answer to “Should a teacher’s right to bear arms extend to the classroom?” 15 percent said “no.” Of course this is unscientific, but it certainly suggests that like so many things, non-negligible percentages of the population can have differing, mutually exclusive views on crucial issues. Which is, of course, why school choice is the only system of education consistent with diversity and liberty.
Can the government convict you of a crime without showing you had any understanding of the wrongdoing? Mark Ellison was convicted without any such showing and is asking the Supreme Court to take his case.
The case arises out of the tumult of 2008. A real estate company called DBSI went under during the Great Recession, like many other real estate companies at the time. But while for many this unhappy moment meant solely financial losses, for Ellison and his codefendants it meant criminal charges. Section 10(b) of the federal securities law outlaws “any manipulative or deceptive device” used to sell securities. Combined with SEC Rule 10(b)-5, this provides the primary avenue by which the government punishes securities fraud.
The government claims that Ellison and his coworkers defrauded DBSI’s customers in selling them the real-estate investment vehicles that ultimately went bust. But the jury found each innocent on most of the charges, convicting only under the “catch-all” provision of Rule 10(b)-5(c), which outlaws any fraud done “willfully”—but according to the Ninth Circuit ‘willfully’ in this context “does not require that the defendant know that the conduct was unlawful.”
This runs contrary to traditional principles of criminal law. Normally crimes require not just a bad act but also a culpable mental state, what lawyers call mens rea. The difference between murder and manslaughter, for example, is typically whether the perpetrator intended to cause the death or not. But too often these days the government has dispensed with or watered down this traditional requirement, exposing more and more citizens to criminal liability for conduct it is less and less clear should be criminalized.
In today’s Dallas Morning News, I have an op-ed that discusses a riddle of American immigration policy right now:
The economy is roaring, and wages are rising, yet 2017 was another year of virtually no illegal border crossings. On average, each Border Patrol agent apprehended just 16 people all year—one every three weeks, tied for the lowest rate since World War II. This is down from when Border Patrol agents apprehended an average of 261 crossers per agent in 1996.
How is this possible?
Newly released statistics from the Department of State give a plausible answer. They haven’t disappeared: they’ve become legal. . . . From 1996 to 2017, the number of temporary visas issued to seasonal workers on farms and other industries increased tenfold, from 23,204 to 236,695.
The figure below graphs these trends. As you can see, the housing bubble bursting briefly resulted in a crash in both legal entries and illegal entries, but as the economy has come back, the legal entries have soared, while the illegal ones have remained low.
Guest Workers and Apprehensions of Illegal Border Crossers Per Border Patrol Agent, 1996 to 2017
Sources: Border Patrol, State Department (2013–2017)
Congress should consider expanding and improving these guest worker programs. One proposal by Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-WA) would allow more H-2A guest workers to enter as farm workers, even if the job was year-round. This would benefit dairies, livestock, and other farms that currently have access to no temporary worker program. This proposal has already been included in the Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill in the House, which means that, if GOP leadership follows normal process, it should be included in the spending bill set to be voted on this month.
Another idea, which was included in last year's spending bill, would allow H-2B workers for non-agricultural industries not to be counted against the H-2B quota if they had entered legally and returned home in the prior three years. Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) is reportedly negotiating with House GOP leadership to have it inserted into the spending package. His idea makes sense. Congress should reward workers and employers that follow the rules, and more guest workers would be a huge benefit to both the economy and American security.
You can read my entire op-ed here.
Remember the old joke about two economists in a room, but with three opinions?
The quip is designed to highlight an important truth: that most areas of empirical and theoretical economics are contested, to a greater or lesser extent.
In most surveys you can rely on at least some conflicting opinions stemming from putting different weight on economic efficiency compared with distributional or other concerns.
In that light, the IGM Economic Experts' Panel question on President Trump's steel and aluminum tariffs is remarkable. Economists unanimously disagree that the tariffs will improve the economic welfare of Americans.
The federal government imposes a mandate to blend ethanol into gasoline. This “Renewable Fuel Standard” harms consumers, damages the economy, and produces negative environmental effects. The mandate has also spawned a bureaucratic trading system in ethanol credits, which the Wall Street Journal reports is bankrupting a refinery in Pennsylvania.
The rubber hits the road with that “10% Ethanol” sticker you see on the pump when you fill your tank. The sticker signifies that the government is imposing a foolish policy on the nation at the behest of a handful of selfish senators, who are bucking the interests of America’s 220 million motorists.
Nick Loris discusses some ethanol basics at DownsizingGovernment.org. And Thomas Landstreet reiterated some of the problems with the mandate in the WSJ the other day:
The corn ethanol mandate was created under the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Two years later, President Bush signed the Energy Independence and Security Act, which expanded the program by providing generous tax credits and subsidies to corn growers and ethanol blenders. It also established ambitious targets, increasing annually, for biofuels in the national fuel mix. The mandate soon diverted 40% of America’s corn crop away from the food supply.
The government-imposed shortage caused corn prices to float from long-term mean levels of about $2 per bushel to more than $8 per bushel in 2012. This extraordinary price surge prompted a range of harmful responses in the farming industry. Farmers planted 17 million new acres of corn at the expense of soybeans, wheat, hay and cotton, driving prices for those crops to all-time highs as well. Cattle farmers, unable to afford corn gluten feed, culled their herds to levels not seen in 60 years, causing beef prices to rise an incredible 60% from 2007 to 2012. Over this five-year period, the IMF food price index rose 42%.
…The country has endured a startling amount of economic disruption for what is clearly an inferior source of energy. Ethanol produces 34% less energy per volume than conventional gasoline, reducing cars’ fuel economy. As for its effect on the environment, a 2010 Congressional Budget Office study found that corn-based ethanol subsidies are terribly inefficient, with the government spending an estimated $754 per metric ton of avoided emissions—an astronomically high price tag compared with other policies. (The economics of climate change literature estimates the “social cost of carbon” at far lower levels, meaning the program is inefficient even on its own terms.)
Moreover, ethanol is too corrosive to be transported through pipelines, so trucks must transport it. Growing corn also requires more water than other crops—and the policy gave farmers an incentive to plant only corn, which depleted the soil of nutrients. A 2008 study in Science found that converting natural environments for biofuel production can produce hundreds of times more carbon emissions than the biofuels themselves would save. No wonder ethanol mandates are losing support among environmentalists.
The ethanol mandate reduces freedom and costs you money at the gas pump for no reason other than to line the pockets of corn farmers, who already benefit from billions of dollars of federal farm subsidies. The mandate is stupid policy and ought to be repealed.
Nothing about Rex Tillerson’s firing should surprise us, except perhaps its timing. Tillerson has often been at odds with his boss in the White House, whether on Russia, Iran, or North Korea. Though widely hailed as one of the ‘adults in the room,’ it’s not clear he had much influence at all on Trump’s biggest foreign policy decisions. He was widely disliked inside his own agency; civil servants at Foggy Bottom hated his insularity and his plans to massively cut the State Department’s budget and diplomatic capacity.
Even the casual cruelty of the firing should not surprise us. Sure, the President fired his Secretary of State via Twitter, while Tillerson was abroad, without apparently offering him any explanation or courtesy phone call. But from the man who fired James Comey, his FBI Director, via television while Comey was on-stage giving a public speech, this was almost polite.
But while Tillerson’s firing has been expected for some time, it will have big implications. Tillerson may not have had much influence with the President, but he was one of the administration’s more reasonable voices. He apparently had a good relationship with Secretary of Defense James Mattis, acting as a sounding board for ideas, and both men have advocated against some of Trump’s more disastrous foreign policy decisions.
It’s always been questionable the extent to which these so-called ‘adults in the room’ could actually constrain Trump on foreign policy issues. But with the loss of Tillerson and – last week – of Gary Cohn of the National Economic Council, we will see them replaced by advisors who appear to be trying not to restrain the President’s worst impulses, but instead to indulge them. On tariffs, conflict and more, things have the potential to get a lot worse.
As Anne Fuqua recently pointed out in the Washington Post, non-medical drug users accessing heroin and fentanyl in the underground drug market are not the only victims in the opioid crisis. Many patients for whom prescriptions opioids are the only relief from a life sentence of torturing pain are also victims. That is because policymakers continue to base their strategies on the misguided and simplistic notion that the opioid overdose crisis impacting the US, Canada, and Europe, is tied to doctors prescribing opioids to their patients in pain.
Unfortunately, political leaders and the media operate in an echo chamber, reinforcing the notion that cutting back on doctors prescribing opioids is the key to reducing overdose deaths. As a result, all 50 states operate Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs that track the prescribing habits of doctors and intimidate them into curtailing the prescription of opioids. Yet multiple studies suggest that PDMPs have no effect on the opioid overdose rate and may be contributing to its increase by driving desperate pain patients to the dangers that await them in the black market.
Last month Arizona joined the list of 24 states that had put in place limits on the amount and dosage of opioids doctors may prescribe acute and postoperative pain patients. These actions are based on the amateur misinterpretation of the 2016 opioid guidelines put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and are not evidence-based.
And the Food and Drug Administration continues to promote the replacement of prescription opioids with abuse-deterrent formulations, despite an abundance of evidence showing this policy only serves to drive non-medical users to heroin and fentanyl while raising health care costs to health systems and patients.
As prescriptions continue to decrease, overdose deaths continue to increase. This is because as non-medical users get reduced access to usable diverted prescription opioids, they migrate to more dangerous fentanyl and heroin.
It is simplistic—and thus provides an easy target—for politicians and the media to latch on to the false narrative that greedy pharmaceutical companies teamed up with lazy, poorly-trained doctors, to hook innocent patients on opioids and condemn them to a life of drug addiction. But this has never been the case.
As Patrick Michaels pointed out about recrudescent opiophobia back in 2004, prescription opioids actually have a low addictive potential and when taken by patients under the guidance of a physician, have a very low overdose potential. Cochrane systematic studies in 2010 and 2012 both found an addiction rate of roughly 1 percent in chronic non-cancer pain patients. And a January 2018 study in BMJ by researchers at Harvard and Johns Hopkins examined 568,000 opioid naïve patients prescribed opioids for acute and postoperative pain from 2008 to 2016 and found a total “misuse” rate (all “misuse” diagnostic codes) of just 0.6 percent. And researchers at the University of North Carolina reported in 2016 on 2.2 million residents of the state who were prescribed opioids, where they found an overdose rate of 0.022 percent.