Archives: 05/2018

Will Anwar Ibrahim Finally Make It from Prison to Prime Minister?

Anwar Ibrahim at CatoIn 2005 the Malaysian political leader Anwar Ibrahim visited the Cato Institute. In the photo at right, I’m giving him a copy of my book Libertarianism: A Primer, which he told me he had already read – in prison. What a thing for an author to hear! After becoming leader of the opposition People’s Justice Party, he was again imprisoned on trumped-up charges in 2015. He remains in prison today. But thanks to yesterday’s elections, it now seems that Anwar may soon not only be released from prison but be named prime minister.

It’s a complicated story. Anwar was a youth leader and rising star in UNMO, the party that has ruled Malaysia for six decades since independence. He became finance minister and deputy prime minister under Mahathir Mohamad, who became well known for his defense of “Asian values” against supposedly Western notions of democracy and human rights. But Anwar fell out with Mahathir over the Asian crisis and charges of corruption. In 1998 Anwar was removed from office and then jailed in a trial that was criticized around the world. Amnesty International said that his trial “exposed a pattern of political manipulation of key state institutions including the police, public prosecutor’s office and the judiciary.” He was released in 2004 but banned from participation in politics for five years. After his return to opposition politics, he again angered the ruling party and was sent back to prison. Throughout his travails he was smeared in state-dominated media as homosexual, pro-Israel, and pro-American, the usual sorts of charges that authoritarian governments make against their critics. It should be noted that Anwar is no saint, and he tried to turn some of the same charges back against his persecutors.

Meanwhile, Mahathir retired as the world’s longest-serving elected leader in 2003. He became a sharp critic of his UNMO successors, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and later Najib Razak. This year, at age 92, he became the opposition candidate for prime minister. From jail Anwar supported him. This week Mahathir led his new party to victory and has just been sworn in as prime minister. He has promised to release Anwar from prison and make him prime minister within two years. Observers are hopeful that Anwar’s leadership would mean reform in Malaysia: an end to kleptocracy and corruption and perhaps an economy that is “inclusive, rules-based and competition-oriented with a large, well-funded social safety net,” much like Singapore. According to the Human Freedom Index, Malaysia could use improvement in all areas.

Last year I complained that President Trump was welcoming Anwar’s jailer, Najib Razak, to the White House. Now of course Anwar is joining forces with his original jailer. What a long strange trip it’s been. But hopefully it’s not over.

Finally, Welcome Relief from the Unnecessary Burdens of Dodd-Frank

Congress looks set to pass long-awaited changes to the Dodd-Frank Act that would relieve small and medium-sized banks from some of the onerous burdens of the post-crisis financial legislation package, the Hill reports:

The Senate in March passed a bipartisan bill to exempt dozens of banks from the stricter Federal Reserve oversight under Dodd-Frank and scores more from lending restrictions and reporting requirements. The deal, sponsored by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), passed by a 67-31 vote with support from more than a dozen Democrats.

A deal between the House and Senate would clear the way for Congress to pass the biggest changes to the Dodd-Frank financial rules since the law was enacted in 2010. The House and Senate have squabbled over the Senate bill, which Ryan vowed to freeze unless the Senate agreed to take up provisions from the House.

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) said he was “excited that our negotiations over the last few weeks have culminated in the Senate agreeing to vote on our House bills.”

The 849-page Dodd-Frank Act introduced 27,000 new regulations on the financial sector. The Senate bill, which the House now appears ready to support, is only a modest step to relieve the burden of such a massive exercise in rule-making.

But the effort is nonetheless welcome. Since Dodd-Frank’s passage in 2010, compliance costs have rocketed up, especially for small banks. The number of new banks has virtually ground to a halt, while there is evidence that reduced small-business lending has adversely affected local communities across America.

To ease the supervisory burden on small and medium-sized institutions, and to exempt them from trading restrictions of which they were never the target, is thus necessary and appropriate. This the Senate bill does, and for that reason it constitutes a positive move to facilitate lending, competition and access to financial services.

New Research Reinforces Earlier Studies Suggesting PDMPs Are Adding to Opioid Overdose Rate

study published last year by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania State University found that state Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMPs), a popular method used to drive down the opioid prescription rate, do not drive down opioid overdose death rates, but might have the unintended consequence of adding to them, by driving users to the underground market where dangerous drugs like fentanyl and heroin await them. Another study last October by a Purdue University researcher found that while PDMPs drove down the prescription rate of oxycodone, they significantly drove up the rate of heroin use.

Yesterday the Annals of Internal Medicine published a systematic research review by Columbia University epidemiologist David Fink and others that drew the same conclusion. The authors stated, “Evidence that PDMP implementation either increases or decreases nonfatal or fatal overdoses is largely insufficient, as is evidence regarding positive associations between specific administrative features and successful programs.” They added, “implementation of PDMPs may have unintended negative outcomes—namely, increased rates of heroin-related overdose.”

Meanwhile, all 50 states have implemented PDMPs and state and federal policymakers seem focused on beefing them up. This is driven by the mistaken belief that the opioid overdose rate is primarily the result of doctors over-prescribing opioids to patients. As I have written numerous times, the overdose crisis is primarily a product of drug prohibition, as non-medical users access drugs in the dangerous black market. PDMPs might be responsible for the dramatic drop in the opioid prescription rate these last 8 years (the rate peaked in 2010), but as the prescription rate has dropped the overdose rate has increased—while fentanyl and heroin are now causing these overdoses the majority of the time.

How much more evidence will it take before policymakers finally realize their approach is not evidence-based but is contributing significantly to the overdose crisis?

Another Case for Taking the Second Amendment Seriously

Over a decade ago, Rickey Kanter’s company, Dr. Comfort, shipped diabetic shoe inserts to a podiatrist in Florida. Dr. Comfort sold the inserts as being Medicare-approved, but they were not. Because of these events, Kanter, to this day, cannot legally own a gun.

U.S. and Wisconsin law prohibit anyone convicted of a crime “punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year” from possessing any firearm or ammunition. In 2011, Kanter pled guilty to a single count of mail fraud for Dr. Comfort’s 2006 delivery of non-compliant shoe inserts to a podiatrist. Kanter has no other criminal convictions, is not under indictment, or a fugitive from justice, or an unlawful user of any controlled substance. He has not been judged mentally defective, been dishonorably discharged from the armed forces, renounced his citizenship, or been the subject of a restraining order relating to an intimate partner. In fact, Kanter has no history of any violent behavior at all.

So he brought suit in federal court, arguing that the categorical prohibition of firearms possession by felons was unconstitutional as applied to him: a non-violent, one-time offender. The district court sided with the government, which argued that a permanent revocation of Second Amendment rights for all felonies—no matter how serious or remote in time—passes constitutional muster. The court paid lip service to Kanter’s Second Amendment rights, finding that the commission of any felony shows that he “clearly disrespected important laws in the past,” which justifies completely stripping him of his rights. Kanter appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

Because fundamental rights cannot be so summarily disregarded, Cato filed a brief as amicus curiae supporting Kanter. The scope of what is considered a felony has changed dramatically in recent decades, with more and more minor offenses carrying criminal penalties. This poses a serious concern where the government does not distinguish terrorism and armed robbery from falsification of fishing records or Martha Stewart’s infamous white lies in stripping a person of fundamental rights.

The district court was motivated by efficiency of administration—that simply treating all felons the same makes it easier for the government—and by a broad conception of legislative power to “establish certain ‘categorical disqualifications’” to the rights of the people. We disagree. Where any constitutional rights are at stake, courts must engage in meaningful review—especially of individualized challenges to such broad and overreaching laws. If the government wants to strip an individual of his rights, it must demonstrate, with actual evidence, that the deprivation survives an exacting level of scrutiny.

Falsely advertising a shoe insert may not be admirable conduct, but arguing that doing so means that a person should not be able to defend himself with a gun seems like shooting from the hip.

To Prevent Torture Redux, Look Beyond Haspel

On May 9, CIA Deputy Director Gina Haspel will get her chance to shape–or reshape–the narrative surrounding one particular episode in her 30+ year CIA career: her time running one of the now-infamous Agency “black site” interrogation centers used in the Bush administration’s torture program. Haspel’s challenge will be in getting Senators and the public to look beyond existing media accounts about her alleged role in running the “black site” at which al Qaeda suspect Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri was repeatedly waterboarded, and her role in carrying out the destruction of videotapes showing the gruesome sessions. 

Despite the benefit of an unprecendeted (and in my view very legally questionable) CIA domestic influence operation on her behalf, Haspel has her work cut out for her. It’s unlikely that the “I was just following orders” line will do anything other than sink her nomination. If she has and claims to Senators, as former CIA Station Chief John Bennett has suggested, that she has learned the proper lessons from the episode (i.e., that torture is wrong, that she would refuse a Trump order to restart a new torture program, etc.), should she get the chance to lead the Agency? Would she actually serve as a check on Trump? On the latter question at least, I think the answer is a resounding “no.” The reason is that America’s first torture program got off the ground because lots of people in government–not just at the CIA–elected to not only go along with it, but facilitated it.

It took a pliant Secretary of State to not make waves about the “black sites” being set up and run outside the control of the local U.S. ambassadors, generally the person in charge of all U.S. government activities, programs, and relationships with the host nation. It took an eager group of lawyers in the Department of Justice’ Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) to write the opinions effectively redefining torture out of existence, thus providing a legal shield for anyone participating in the program. If there’s one issue that is more important than who is running the CIA, it is who is in charge at DoJ, and especially what kind of lawyers populate OLC. Just because the McCain-Feinstein anti-torture amendment is law does not mean the next John Yoo or Jay Bybee won’t try to redefine it for executive branch agencies charged with starting a new torture program. 

In the first torture program’s aftermath, a new and untested president insisted that Americans “….look forward as opposed to looking backward” on the U.S. torture program. Because the CIA is one of the federal agencies exempted from normal Office of Personnel Management rules (i.e., CIA is an excepted service), Obama didn’t actually need to have a federal prosecutor file charges to get rid of CIA personnel involved in the torture program. He could’ve fired them himself. He didn’t, and that’s one reason why Gina Haspel now has a shot to run the CIA. 

To recap: At the State Department, we now have a pliant Secretary who in the past has clearly stated his support for the first torture program, like President Trump. We have a Justice Department that is constantly under siege from a White House that clearly has a “loyalty test” it tries to impose on those working there. And we have a previous manager of America’s first torture program teed up to lead the federal agency that ran that same program. The conditions are certainly ripe for a Torture Redux. The question now is whether the Senate recognizes the danger and will act accordingly. We will know soon enough.

Does Marijuana Legalization Cause Pedestrian Fatalities?

A recent report from the Governors Highway Safety Alliance suggests that the legalization of recreational marijuana in many U.S. states has been associated with increases in pedestrian traffic fatalities. To substantiate this claim, the report cites that:

“[t]he seven states (Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Washington) and DC that legalized recreational use of marijuana between 2012 and 2016 reported a collective 16.4 percent increase in pedestrian fatalities for the first six months of 2017 versus the first six months of 2016, whereas all other states reported a collective 5.8 percent decrease in pedestrian fatalities.” 

This statistic, however, does not indicate the impact of legalization on pedestrian fatalities because many states did not legalize between the time periods cited.  An appropriate analysis should examine what happens, state-by-state, at the time of each state’s own legalization.

The graphs below depict pedestrian fatalities for states that legalized recreations marijuana between 2012 and 2016. The red lines represents the year in which the state legalized.  The graphs suggest no relation between legalization and pedestrian deaths.

Pedestrian Fatalities by State

For the states that did legalize in 2016 (Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada), the provisional January-June 2017 used in the GHSA report are the only data available for comparison. Between January-June 2016 and January-June 2017, these three states saw an average increase in pedestrian fatalities of 4 percent.
However, on average, all states saw an average decrease of 12% in pedestrian traffic fatalities in the first six months after legalizing relative to the same six months of the prior year, indicating no clear effect of legalization on pedestrian traffic fatalities.

percent change

Percent Change in Traffic Fatalities

The concern about legalization and traffic fatalities is also inconsistent with several recent studies on the topic. One study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, concluded that “[t]hree years after recreational marijuana legalization, changes in motor vehicle crash fatality rates for Washington and Colorado were not statistically different from those in similar states without recreational marijuana legalization.”

Additionally, preliminary research indicates that marijuana legalization may reduce traffic fatalities. In their study of statewide medical marijuana liberalization, Anderson et al find that “the legalization of medical marijuana is associated with a 13.2 percent decrease in fatalities in which at least one driver involved had a positive BAC level.”  Marijuana and alcohol are substitute goods, meaning that consumers’ preferences are often indifferent between the use of one good or the other. By allowing individuals to legally use marijuana, many choose to do so instead of using alcohol, thus decreasing the prevalence of drunk driving. Furthermore, medical marijuana legalization does not seem to result in an increase in “driving while high” deaths, for the same study reports that total “traffic fatalities fall by 8–11 percent the first full year after legalization.” 


Robert Capodilupo contributed to this blogpost.

Upcoming Book Forum: Psychology of a Superpower: Security and Dominance in U.S. Foreign Policy

Christopher Fettweis will be at Cato on Monday, May 14, at noon to present and discuss his new book, Psychology of a Superpower: Security and Dominance in U.S. Foreign Policy.

Columbia University’s Warner Schilling once observed that “at the summit of foreign policy, one always finds simplicity and spook.” In his lively book, Fettweis elaborates and underscores that observation. Things are worst, suggests Fettweis, if the country is, or thinks itself to be, a superpower. And we all know what country that would be.

The book is a catalogue of delusion in high places. Like monarchs who believed their own propaganda about being divine, our superpower fancies itself to be indispensable, exceptional, all-powerful, and the sole entity that can bring order to a misshapen world. Yet it envisions existential threat from tiny bands of terrorists and finds its naval majesty besmirched by little artificial islands in the South China Sea.

As Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker (author of The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now) puts it, Fettweis uses “a trove of insight from psychological science” to present a “picture with a far better resemblance to reality.”

Fettweis is the author of three previous books and is associate professor of political science at Tulane University.

Commenting will be Keir Lieber, Director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University. I will be moderating. And there is, as always, a luncheon to follow—except for those taking it in online.

Click here to register or to learn more.