General

December 28, 2020 1:59PM

Trump’s Christmas Pardon Spree

Last week, Christmas came early for various disgraced GOP congressmen, presidential cronies who didn’t “rat,” and a latter‐​day Lt. William Calley, thanks to a flurry of pardons issued by President Trump. As the 25th approached, I half‐​expected “45” to wind up his clemency spree with a big present for himself. A Christmas Day self‐​pardon would have been a fitting capstone to the ‘Me’ Presidency”: “🎶On the first day of Christmas/​my true love (me) gave to me/​a pre‐​emptive pardon in a.…🎶”—eh, you know how it goes. 

Only 22 Shopping Days Left

For whatever reason, Trump decided not to cross that particular Rubicon just yet. Instead, pardons went to son‐​in‐​law Jared’s dad, Charles Kushner (a big believer in family loyalty himself), Mueller‐​probe targets like Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, and what the New York Times summed up as a passel of “convicted liars, corrupt congressmen and child‐​killing war criminals.” Harsh: but, as they say, where’s the lie?

As I noted on the Cato blog a few months ago, “Trump is hardly the only president in living memory to issue a self‐​dealing pardonrepay silence with clemency,” or even bestow presidential mercy on war criminals. Even so, this president “has amassed an overall record of shabbiness and self‐​dealing that ranks him among the worst abusers of the pardon power.”

Last week’s pardon of four Blackwater security contractors who shot up a Baghdad traffic circle in 2007 is particularly grotesque. The White House announcement deploys the sort of obfuscatory language that comes in handy when you don’t anyone to come away with a clear picture of who did what: “when the convoy attempted to establish a blockade outside the ‘Green Zone,’ the situation turned violent, which resulted in the unfortunate deaths and injuries of Iraqi civilians.” The “situation turned violent,” a federal jury in D.C. concluded in 2014, because Blackwater sniper Nicholas Slatten, unprovoked, shot the driver of a stopped car, kicking off a fusillade of gunfire from several of his colleagues. When the shooting stopped, 14 civilians, including two children, were dead.

Last week, CNN published an account of the Nisour Square massacre from one of the lead FBI investigators on the case. What he describes is stomach‐​churning:

At a break in the gunfire, likely during reloading, one of the little girls in the back seat yelled that “Ali has no hair.” When the shooting stopped and the Blackwater team began to move, Mohammed exited the driver door and opened a rear passenger door. Ali, who had been slumped against the door, fell into his father’s arms. Ali had been struck with a Blackwater round, which entered the rear driver side door and hit the boy in the head. As his father reached for his 9‐​year‐​old son, Ali’s brains fell out onto the street and onto his father’s feet.

On occasion, presidents have commuted the sentences of convicted murderers from death to life imprisonment, but full pardons for that crime are vanishingly rare. Yet here’s another area where this president has been a norm‐​busting innovator: Slatten wasn’t even his first. In 2019 Trump pardoned one Army lieutenant, Michael Behenna, who shot an unarmed Iraqi prisoner and another, Clint Lorance, who ordered his men to fire on unarmed Afghan civilians.

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December 21, 2020 12:37PM

The Books We Read in 2020

The Wall Street Journal asked people of some prominence to name the best books they read in 2020. So I asked my colleagues. Honestly, I like this list better. Of course, we all recommend the books Cato published this year. But we read more widely, and here are some of our favorites:

The Little House By Virginia Lee Burton - This children's story tracks our heroine—a well-built, 19th-century country home enjoying the stars at night and the changing seasons—as modern urban life creeps closer, surrounds her, and takes her land, her enjoyment of nature, and everything else. After skyscrapers have expropriated every inch of her once-peaceful hillside, a family finds the little pink house “sad and lonely” and, in contempt of modern permitting and historical preservation laws, manages to quickly load her onto a truck and return with her to the countryside. Perfect for ages 1-9.

--David Bier, immigration policy analyst
 

Apollo's Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live by Nicholas A. Christakis MD PhD (a recent McLaughlin Lecturer at Cato). A very timely overview of the pandemic, touching on a whole host of aspects of the crisis (though not much economics).

The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous, by Joseph Henrich. A very provocative thesis that suggests that church-pressured social changes in who it was acceptable to marry (not cousins) and then Protestant churches emphasizing individual interpretation and reading provided the foundations for the psychology that allowed individual rights, democracy, markets, and innovation to flourish.

--Ryan Bourne, R. Evan Scharf Chair for the Public Understanding of Economics
 

Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety; by Eric Schlosser (Penguin, 2013). Investigative reporter Eric Schlosser explores the harrowing history of fatal mishaps and near-catastrophes in America's nuclear arsenal, culminating in the explosion of a fully armed Titan ICBM in its silo in Damascus, Arkansas in 1980. Widely heralded upon its publication in 2013, Command and Control was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and was the source material for an Oscar-shortlisted PBS documentary of the same name. With a mix of dark humor and painstaking attention to detail, Schlosser explains how the appearance of safety and security surrounding nuclear weapons was always more illusion than fact. The book follows nuclear weapons designers and engineers as they sought to raise the alarm and adopt more stringent safety features from the Manhattan Project to the modern era. It explains how on several occasions America came perilously close to suffering an accidental nuclear detonation, often avoided only by dumb luck. The risk is still real today, and Command and Control offers a compelling libertarian lesson on the fallibility of human institutions and the dangers of assuming government competence.

--Andy Craig, staff writer
 

I read Animal Farm to the kids. It surprised me how relevant it remains. Now every time someone defends ObamaCare, I hear Squealer: “Surely, comrades, you don’t want discrimination against preexisting conditions back?”

--Michael Cannon, director of health policy studies
 

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December 18, 2020 4:35PM

The Presidency Is Interested in You

Will President Joe Biden #MADA: “Make America Dull Again”? Let’s hope so, Joe Ferrullo argues in a column for the Hill this week. Ferrullo’s hardly alone in hoping for a transition from “this is not normal” to a new era of normalcy. “Sleepy Joe,” President Trump’s moniker for Biden, was supposed to be an insult, but to a silent majority of Americans, it might have sounded like a welcome break. Wouldn’t it be nice to forget about the president for hours—even days—at a time?

Alas, that’s not going to happen—or so I argue in a forthcoming piece for Reason magazine: “Good luck forgetting about presidential politics when the president has the power to shape what our health insurance covers or unilaterally forgive student loans; the ability to launch a trade war from his couch—or a shooting war with Iran.” It’s not just Trump’s incontinent and erratic personality that’s made the presidency one of our biggest fault lines of polarization. It’s the fact that the president, increasingly, has the power to reshape vast swathes of American life.

I came across a vivid illustration of that point recently, in, of all places, the New York Times’ monthly “For Kids” supplement. (The banner of every edition features the tag line “THIS SECTION SHOULD NOT BE READ BY GROWN UPS,” but I cheated.)

The presidency‐​themed edition that ran just before Election Day promised, among other things, to tell kids “How to Become President” (never explaining why you’d wish such a fate on them). 

...and that’s just the risk he takes

But what really piqued my interest was a piece billed as “5 Ways the President Can Change Your Life.”

“The president and his administration help determine things that mostly only adults care about,” the Times tells the tykes, “but they also make decisions that directly affect kids’ lives.” He plays a key role in determining what goes into “Your School Lunch,” “How Safe Your Toys Are,” and, using federal aid as leverage, even “What Sports You Can Play”: “Trump’s Department of Education is pressuring Connecticut to prevent trans athletes from competing in track and field.” With authorities granted (and seized) over immigration, the president has the power to determine “Who Can Be a Citizen.” In fact, notes the Times, his authority extends to “Just About Anything.” Though bills are supposed to go through Congress before they become law, “the president can act on his own and issue something called an executive order, which can have the effect of law even though it technically isn’t one.”

As a factual matter, none of that is wrong. But inquiring young minds might wonder whether it’s wise to have a single, nationwide, presidentially‐​imposed policy on which sports which kids get to play or which bathrooms they can use. Or why it should be the president’s role to decide who gets to come to America and who gets to stay? And why should he have the power to make law with the stroke of a pen? Those are good questions for the grown‐​ups too.

If even schoolchildren, per the Times, don’t have the luxury of forgetting about the president, it’s a sure bet that the rest of us can’t afford to either. You may not want to be interested in the presidency, but the presidency is interested in you. As vice‐​president elect Kamala Harris tweeted a week or so after the election: “Know that @JoeBiden and I will wake up every single day thinking about you and your families.” Please… don’t?

Coincidentally or not, right next to the article on five ways the president can change your life, the NYT Kids’ section featured a piece on “Fighting about Politics.” It introduces one Giselle Weingarten, 13, who lately has “gotten really into politics” and “decided she’s a Libertarian, which means she thinks the government should have a minimal role in people’s lives.” “‘It’s very frustrating to talk to people who don’t share my beliefs,’ says Giselle, ‘I just want to yell: that sounds so ridiculous!’” Giselle, I feel your pain.

November 3, 2020 9:48AM

This Election Day, Lament That We Have So Little School Choice

This Election Day, there is much more at work in American politics than a poor grasp of civics. If the people are irreconcilably polarized, or heavily inclined to ignore things like constitutional prohibitions on government power, their knowing how government is supposed to work will have little salutary effect. But it surely has not helped our situation that many people are unfamiliar with such civic basics as the three branches of the federal government, or much worse, that many seem to have lost all tolerance for those with beliefs different from their own.

What is to blame for this sad state of civic affairs? At least one culprit, ironically, is public schooling.

Of course, numerous factors likely play into our education system’s troubling civics outcomes, and the greatest may well be that many people just do not care that much about things like how a bill becomes a law. But as University of Arkansas professor Patrick Wolf lays out in School Choice Myths: Setting the Record Straight on Education Freedom, public schooling itself is likely a big problem. Tallying the research comparing civic outcomes for private and public‐​school students, including knowledge of how government works and tolerance for opposing viewpoints, Wolf finds a clear private school advantage.

Looking at the 34 existing studies comparing public and private schools that try to control for student characteristics, encompassing 86 total findings, Wolf reports 50 findings of a private school advantage, 33 no difference, and just 3 showing a public‐​school advantage. When it comes to respecting political rights even of people with views one finds repugnant – perhaps the most important civic value in an extremely polarized country – the score is 13 private advantage, 10 no difference, 1 public.

All findngs private school choice and civic outcomes
Findings on private school choice and political tolerance

Why this huge differential, especially given that the primary argument for creating public schools was that only they could guarantee the virtuous citizens essential for a democracy?

The answer may be captured in a recent Washington Post article about the minefield public school civics teachers have faced this election season. Many teachers “worry about uttering the wrong word or being misinterpreted and facing backlash from administrators, parents or polarized community members. In a year already blasted by the coronavirus pandemic, job losses and widespread protests for racial justice, teaching about the bitter election battle can feel like a high‐​wire act over a sea of sharks.”

While the 2020 election has been more toxic than others in recent memory, it has only amplified what has long crippled civics ed. As Diane Ravitch tackled in the Language Police in 2004, Berkman and Plutzer captured in their survey work on teaching (or not) evolution in 2010, we chronicle on the Public Schooling Battle Map, and Charles Glenn illuminated about the Nineteenth Century founding of “common schools,” political and social topics have always been tinderboxes, and public school teachers have been heavily incentivized to avoid them. They don’t want to ignite political and social wars.

Why is that a particularly big danger for public schools? Because people with diverse political and social views are forced to pay for those schools, and de facto to use them. That renders areas of disagreement winner‐​take‐​all battlefields, and topics like those in civics, on which diverse people may strongly disagree, minefields to avoid, not bucolic gardens to explore hand‐​in‐​hand.

Private schooling is fundamentally different. No family is forced to use a particular private school, enabling such schools to teach more concrete things in civics, especially wholeheartedly embracing values such as freedom of speech for all. They do not risk nuclear warfare because families that do not agree, rather than having to fight to make their beliefs the ones that must be taught to everyone, can simply take their kids and money elsewhere.

As the painful 2020 election season draws to a close, the irony should not be lost: The education system intended to create knowledgeable and tolerant citizens may well be a major reason we have too little of the civic knowledge and values we need. For better government, we should end government schooling.

July 2, 2020 2:50PM

I Didn’t Know My Opinion of Walter Duranty Could Fall Any Lower

Mr. Jones poster British

Walter Duranty was the New York Times reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his dispatches from the Soviet Union — reporting that even the Times now declares “largely discredited” and “completely misleading.” His biographer goes further, calling him Stalin’s Apologist. I knew this story. But a new movie, Mr. Jones, which Kyle Smith approvingly calls “a vicious act of celluloid vivisection on Duranty,” portrays him as thoroughly sinister, from his louche and lavish lifestyle to his denunciation of reporters who tried to report the truth.

One such honest reporter was Gareth Jones, a young Welsh free‐​lancer who went to Moscow in 1933 to study the Soviet economy. He found his way to Ukraine, once known as the “breadbasket of Europe” but by 1933 a land of famine and desperation. He saw starvation, death, and cannibalism. He tried to tell the story but found himself not believed or brushed off.

Mr. Jones was written by Andrea Chalupa and directed by Agnieszka Holland. The imagery in the movie is dark — shadowy and foreboding. It was, of course, a dark time, in Moscow, in Berlin, and in places where people worried about what might be coming. George Orwell, David Lloyd George, and William Randolph Hearst play small but visible roles in the movie. Blink and you’ll miss Malcolm Muggeridge and Eugene Lyons, young Soviet‐​sympathizing journalists who soon realized the truth, told it, and in later years wrote for William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review.

Anne Applebaum has told the story of the Ukrainian famine, also known as holodomor, in this Encyclopedia Britannica article and in her 2017 book Red Famine. She traces it first to the Communist collectivization of agriculture but also to Stalin’s deliberate requisition of crops and other products to be taken to Russia and to the widespread persecution, deportation, or even execution of those who resisted collectivization.

At the end of the movie Duranty says to Mr. Jones, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs” — a phrase he actually used in a New York Times article. The Times now recognizes the truth about Stalin and Duranty. Its movie review is titled “Bearing Witness to Stalin’s Evil” and calls Duranty a “Stalin apologist.”

Mr. Jones was intended for theatrical release but can be found on Amazon Prime now. For a happier historical time, you can also watch 1776 this Saturday afternoon on TCM.

In 2007 I asked, Where are the anti‐​communist movies? Mr. Jones is an admirable addition to that too‐​short list.

June 24, 2020 12:25PM

A Season for Endings

It seems to be a season for endings. At the end of May, after almost 21 years, Walter Olson published his final blog post on Overlawyered, which was described by Law​.com as “widely considered to be the oldest legal blog and also one of the most popular.” And now Johan Norberg has delivered his last “Dead Wrong” video essay, after some 4 years and 172 weekly episodes.

Of course, the world didn’t run out of legal absurdities or myths that needed busting. So have no fear: Olson and Norberg will continue to add to the world’s store of knowledge and understanding. Walter Olson can be read regularly here on this blog and in publications ranging from Arc Digital to the Wall Street Journal. Johan Norberg promises a new video blog series in 2021. He also has a book coming out in the fall, Open: The Story of Human Progress, and a planned public television documentary on corporate welfare in early 2021.

And don’t forget: Overlawyered’s archives are still a great place to search for news and commentary on law, litigation, free speech, workplace policy, and related topics, and “Dead Wrong” still has 172 videos posted on growth, progress, stagnation, socialism, economic fallacies, Sweden, Europe, and much more.

Watch Norberg’s sign‐​off video:

June 19, 2020 10:04AM

Juneteenth: A Jubilee of Freedom

On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3 from the balcony of Ashton Villa in Galveston, Texas, where he had arrived the day before at the head of Union forces occupying the last bastion of Confederate‐​held territory at the end of the Civil War.

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. 

The freedmen of Galveston reacted with celebrations, and a year later began the practice of annually commemorating the event. These yearly celebrations became a tradition in Texas and then spread throughout the rest of the country with the Great Migration as millions of blacks left the rural South for cities in the North and West during the 20th century.

Since then, Juneteenth has become the primary holiday marking the abolition of slavery, beating out other possibilities such as the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation (September 22, 1862; coming into effect on January 1, 1863) or the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment (December 6, 1865). It was the latter that marked the final act of abolition in the few slaveholding border states that had not joined the rebellion and so were not covered by Lincoln’s war measure. But it was the official proclamation of abolition in the last holdout of the Confederacy that captured the popular imagination and came to be marked with summer festivities.

Aside from its anti‐​slavery origins, the popular adoption of Juneteenth over other possible dates serves as an example of culture and tradition arising organically rather than from official recognition, which only began in recent years. Today, forty‐​nine states (all except Hawaii) have made some form of official recognition for Juneteenth and there is a movement urging Congress to adopt it as an official national holiday. That would be fitting. It might be a symbolic gesture but symbolism matters. The abolition of slavery and the suffering and contributions of black Americans deserve a prominent place in our national narrative. The festive, celebrative spirit of Juneteenth is particularly appropriate for this. The triumph of hope over adversity and liberty over slavery is very much worth celebrating.

When asked to name the greatest libertarian achievement, Cato’s David Boaz has replied “the abolition of slavery.” It might sound like an odd claim for those who think of libertarianism as a 20th century movement that coalesced in the decades after World War II, but it’s not unjustified. Although they weren’t yet known by that label, the quintessential libertarian ideas of inherent, universal, equal individual rights including self‐​ownership and voluntary exchange were at the heart of the abolitionist movement. Slavery is the antithesis of liberty. The word “liberty” itself has its Latin origins in how the ancient Romans denoted the status of persons who were not slaves. It’s no coincidence that the earliest known written term for the concept of freedom, the ancient Sumerian word ama‐​gi, referred to the manumission of slaves by returning them to their families (literally, to their mother) and has been adopted as a symbol by modern libertarians.

Advocates of freedom should have a deep reverence and appreciation for our abolitionist predecessors. While there have been others, three great historical causes in particular have heavily influenced the origins of what became modern libertarianism. The first was the rise of religious toleration and separation of church and state in response to devastating wars of religion in Europe; the second was the rise of the classical liberal movement for free trade as marked by Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and the repeal of the Corn Laws in Great Britain; but perhaps the most important were the radical individualist abolitionists who agitated against slavery in the United States and Europe in the first half of the 19th century.

Of course, it would be a mistake to think of this as a cause that ended in 1865. A century of Jim Crow, segregation, and racial terrorism would persist and eventually give way to its own modern descendants in the form of mass incarceration, the war on drugs, and police brutality targeted at black Americans.

Juneteenth can and should serve as a call to action, a reminder of our urgent need to strive towards the completion of the great unfinished work, to create a more perfect union dedicated to the self‐​evident truth that all are created equal. The mass protests over the murder of George Floyd have brought renewed prominence to the need for police accountability and reform of a criminal justice system that has been steeped in systemic racism and oppression. The “promissory note,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to the Declaration of Independence, has yet to be cashed in full.

By affirming what we want to celebrate, we don’t just memorialize the past. We also set our sights on what we want to attain for our future, what kinds of progress are worth honoring because we want to both preserve those gains and continue to build on them. So today, have a happy Juneteenth from all of us here at the Cato Institute.