PATRIOT Act Provision Used for Drug Cases

The PATRIOT Act contained a number of tools that expanded the power of federal law enforcement officials. One of these, the “sneak and peak” warrant, allows investigators to break into the home or business of the warrant’s target and delay notification of the intrusion until 30 days after the warrant’s expiration. This capability was sold to the American people as a necessary tool to fight terrorism.

In Fiscal Year 2008, federal courts issued 763 “sneak and peak” warrants. Only three were for terrorism cases. Sixty-five percent were drug cases. The report is available here.

Ryan Grim has more on this, including video of Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) grilling Assistant Attorney General David Kris.

Debt Aggravates Spending Disease

USA Today’s Dennis Cauchon reports that ”state governments are rushing to borrow money to take advantage of cheap and plentiful credit at a time when tax collections are tumbling.” That will allow them to “avoid some painful spending cuts,” Cauchon notes, but it will sadly impose more pain on taxpayers down the road.

When politicians have the chance to act irresponsibly, they will act irresponsibly. Give them low interest rates and they go on a borrowing binge. The result is that they are in over their heads with massive piles of bond debt on top of the huge unfunded obligations they have built up for state pension and health care plans.

The chart shows that total state and local government debt soared 93 percent this decade. It jumped from $1.2 trillion in 2000 to $2.3 trillion by the second quarter of 2009, according to Federal Reserve data (Table D.3).

Government debt has soared during good times and bad. During recessions, politicians say that they need to borrow to avoid spending cuts. But during boomtimes, such as from 2003 to 2008, they say that borrowing makes sense because an expanding economy can handle a higher debt load. I’ve argued that there is little reason for allowing state and local government politicians to issue bond debt at all.

Unfortunately, the political urge to spend has resulted in the states shoving a massive pile of debt onto future taxpayers at the same time that they have built up huge unfunded obligations for worker retirement plans.

We’ve seen how uncontrolled debt issuance has encouraged spending sprees at the federal level. Sadly, it appears that the same debt-fueled spending disease has spread to the states and the cities.

Limited Options in Dealing with Iran

IranThe revelation last week of a second secret Iranian nuclear facility, and Iran’s test firings over the weekend of its short and medium range missiles, bring a new sense of urgency to the long-scheduled talks between Iran and the P-5 + 1 beginning on Thursday in Geneva. Many in Washington hope that a new round of tough sanctions, supported by all of the major powers including Russia and China, might finally convince the Iranians to abandon their nuclear program.

Such hopes are naive.

Even multilateral sanctions have an uneven track record, at best. It is difficult to convince a regime to reverse itself when a very high-profile initiative hangs in the balance, and Iran’s nuclear program clearly qualifies. It is particularly unrealistic given that the many years of economic and diplomatic pressure exerted on Tehran by the U.S. government have only in emboldened the regime and marginalized reformers and democracy advocates, who are cast by the regime as lackeys of the United States and the West.

But whereas sanctions are likely to fail, war with Iran would be even worse. As Secretary Gates admitted on Sunday, air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities would merely degrade and perhaps delay, not eliminate, Iran’s program. Such attacks would inevitably result in civilian casualties, allowing Ahmadinejad to rally public support for his weak regime. What’s more, the likelihood of escalation following a military attack – which could take the form of asymmetric attacks in the Persian Gulf region, and terrorism worldwide – is not a risk worth taking.

The Iranian government must be convinced that it does not need nuclear weapons to deter attacks against the regime. It is likely to push for an indigenous nuclear-enrichment program for matters of national pride, as well as national interest.

The Obama administration should therefore offer to end Washington’s diplomatic and economic isolation of Iran, and should end all efforts to overthrow the government in Tehran, in exchange for Iran’s pledge to forswear a nuclear weapons program, and to allow free and unfettered access to international inspectors to ensure that its peaceful nuclear program is not diverted for military purposes.

While such an offer might ultimately be rejected by the Iranians, revealing their intentions, it is a realistic option, superior to both feckless economic pressure and stalemate, or war, with all of its horrible ramifications.

Honduras’ Interim Government Falls Into Zelaya’s Trap

Once again, and as a response to the return of deposed president Manuel Zelaya to Tegucigalpa, the interim government of Honduras has overreacted by decreeing a 45-day suspension of constitutional guarantees such as the freedom to move around the country and the right to assemble. The government is even imposing some restrictions on freedom of the press. More disturbingly, today the army shut down a radio station and a TV station supportive of Zelaya.

As I’ve written before, these measures are unnecessary, counterproductive and unjustified. While Zelaya’s supporters are known for repeatedly relying on violence, their actions have been so far contained by the police and the army. Zelaya himself is secluded at the Brazilian Embassy, and while he is using it as a command center to make constant calls for insurrection, the authorities have so far been in control of the situation.

One of the most troubling aspects of the suspension of constitutional guarantees is that they effectively obstruct the development of a clean, free, and transparent election process. Let’s remember that Honduras is holding a presidential election on November 29th, and many regard this electoral process as the best way to solve the country’s political impasse, particularly at an international level.

There can’t be a free and transparent presidential election while basic constitutional rights have been suspended. By adopting these self-defeating measures, the interim government of Honduras is lending a hand to Zelaya and his international allies in their effort to disrupt the country’s election process.

Curbing Free Trade to Save It

In the latest example of “We had to burn the village to save it” logic, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) argues in a letter in the Washington Post this morning that the way to “support more trade” in the future is to raise barriers to trade today.

Brown criticizes Post columnist George Will for criticizing President Obama for imposing new tariffs on imported tires from China. Like President Obama himself, Brown claims that by invoking the Section 421 safeguard, the president was merely “enforcing” the trade laws that China agreed to but has failed to follow. He scolds advocates of trade for talking about the “rule of law” but failing to enforce it when it comes to trade agreements. Brown concludes, “If America is ever to support more trade, its people need to know that the rules will be enforced. And Mr. Obama did exactly that.”

Nothing in U.S. trade law required President Obama to impose tariffs on imported Chinese tires. As my colleague Dan Ikenson explained in a recent Free Trade Bulletin, Section 421 allows private parties to petition the U.S. government for protection if rising imports from China have caused or just threaten to cause “market disruption” to domestic producers. If the U.S. International Trade Commission recommends tariff relief, the president can decide to impose tariffs, or not.

The law allows the president to refrain from imposing tariffs if he finds they are “not in the national economic interest of the United States or … would cause serious harm to the national security of the United States.”

As I argue at length in my new Cato book Mad about Trade, trade barriers invariably damage our national economic interests and weaken our national security, and the tire tariffs are no exception. If the president had followed the letter and spirit of the law, he would have rejected the tariff.

And since when is causing “market disruption” something to be punished by law? Isn’t that what capitalism and market competition are all about? New competitors and new products are constantly disrupting markets, to the discomfort of entrenched producers but to the great benefit of the general public and the economy as a whole.

Human beings once widely practiced an economic system that minimized market disruption. It was called feudalism.

C/P Mad About Trade

The Land Is There, the Cubans Are There, but the Incentives Are Not

The Washington Post has an interesting story today on the program of the Cuban government to transfer idle state-owned land to private farmers so they can resurrect the dilapidated agricultural sector on the communist island. As Ian Vásquez and I wrote in the chapter on U.S. policy toward Cuba in Cato Handbook for Policymakers, before this reform, the agricultural productivity of Cuba’s tiny non-state sector (comprising cooperatives and small private farmers) was already 25 percent higher than that of the state sector.

At stake is an issue of incentives. Collective land doesn’t give farmers an incentive to work hard and be productive, since the benefits of their labor go to the government who distributes them (in theory) evenly among everyone, regardless of who worked hard or not. While with private property, “The harder you work, the better you do,” as a Cuban farmer said in the Post story.

The country’s ruler, Raúl Castro, recently declared that “The land is there, and here are the Cubans! Let’s see if we can get to work or not, if we produce or not… The land is there waiting for our sweat.” However, it’s not a matter of just having land and lots of people. It’s also a matter of incentives to produce. Failing to see this, as in the case of Cuba’s failed communist model, is a recipe for failure.