Why Is Bradley Manning in Solitary Confinement?

My first weekly blog/column at the Britannica Blog asks
What do Steven Jay Russell and Bradley Manning have in common? Manning of course is the U.S. Army private accused of passing massive amounts of Department of Defense and Department of State cables to WikiLeaks. Russell is the serial con man featured in the movie, I Love You Phillip Morris. Manning faces a maximum sentence of 52 years, while Russell is currently nine years into a sentence of 144 years (45 years for embezzlement and 99 years for escaping).... Well, one thing they have in common is that they are both being held in solitary confinement 23 hours a day.
Is solitary confinement outrageous and inhumane for nonviolent prisoners? Read more here. And while you're at Britannica.com, read my entry on libertarianism.

Posted on January 31, 2011  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Misunderstanding Inflation through the Years

NPR reports on rising food prices across the world. They may have played some role in the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, and if so, those wouldn't be the first revolutions sparked by inflation. NPR reporter Marilyn Geewax mentioned several reasons that food prices are rising -- droughts, floods, oil prices, financial speculation -- but not the obvious one: the continuing creation of unbacked money by central banks around the world. As Milton Friedman said, "Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon." And as Jerry O'Driscoll wrote just two weeks ago, about rising food prices, "Inflation is here." But that point isn't yet universally understood, at least not at our government radio network. Anyway, I turned off the radio and turned on the television, where TCM was just broadcasting the 1942 MGM propaganda film "Inflation" (made at the request of the Office of War Information but then never released because it was too anti-capitalist even for wartime propaganda). Edward Arnold plays the Devil, in league with Hitler and posing as a businessman who who encourages people to buy more, evade price controls, stockpile goods, and use the black market. (The film was made by Cy Endfield, who had been a member of the Young Communist League at Yale and went on to make such films as Zulu and Universal Soldier.) The film features what appears to be President Franklin D. Roosevelt's April 28, 1942, radio speech, "Total War and Total Effort." As the young couple in the film go to buy a new radio, the shopkeeper turns on the radio and they hear FDR say:
You do not have to be a professor of mathematics or economics to see that if people with plenty of cash start bidding against each other for scarce goods, the price of those goods (them) goes up. Yesterday I submitted to the Congress of the United states a seven-point program, a program of general principles which taken together could be called the national economic policy for attaining the great objective of keeping the cost of living down. I repeat them now to you in substance: First. we must, through heavier taxes, keep personal and corporate profits at a low reasonable rate. Second. We must fix ceilings on prices and rents. Third. We must stabilize wages. Fourth. We must stabilize farm prices. Fifth. We must put more billions into War Bonds. Sixth. We must ration all essential commodities which are scarce. Seventh. We must discourage installment buying, and encourage paying off debts and mortgages.
As it happens, I have a 1942 OWI poster with that same message hanging in my kitchen: In fact, of course, price inflation was the natural result of a substantial increase in the money supply before and during the war. All of FDR's policies -- cartels, destruction of crops, wage and price controls, rationing -- were misguided attempts to deal with the consequences of monetary manipulation and other bad policies. By the way, FDR famously said, "The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something." Which might explain another propaganda film produced by MGM, this one in 1933, that extolled the virtues of FDR's policy of inflation, utilizing the argument that is variously called "stimulus" or "the broken window fallacy." The film cited the successful results of Civil War inflation. "What inflation has done before it will do again! . . . What a man! And what a leader! Yowzer! Happy days are here again!” Yeah, that went well. And by 1942 MGM was back on board, making a government propaganda film opposing inflation. For background on inflation, read Cato adjunct scholar Lawrence H. White at the Concise Encylopedia of Economics.

Posted on January 31, 2011  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Karl Rove’s Big-Government Myth

Karl Rove, the architect of Republican victories in 2000 and 2004 and Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008, denounces President Obama's "spending binge" and "liberal activism" as described in the State of the Union address. The Wall Street Journal's tagline on the column is, "On Tuesday, Republicans offered an alternative to the president's big-government vision." What Rove omits is that he and President Bush started the spending binge, delivered big government, and indeed came into office with a big-government vision, as Ed Crane pointed out in 1999. Just take a look at the analysis in Rove's Wall Street Journal column:
Most of his hour-long speech was a paean to liberal activism, as the president called for redoubling outlays on high-speed rail and "countless" green energy jobs.
Liberal boondogglery indeed. But Rove's former colleague, White House speechwriter Michael Gerson, wrote on the same day in his Washington Post column:
 In his 2006 State of the Union address, which I helped write, President George W. Bush proposed a 22 percent increase in clean-energy research at the Energy Department, a doubling of basic research in the physical sciences and the training of 70,000 high school teachers to instruct Advanced Placement courses in math and science. I have no idea if these "investments" passed or made much difference. I doubt anyone knows.
Green nonsense is rampant in Washington. Rove criticizes Obama for
a federal budget that's increased 25% in two years, raising government's share of GDP to 25% from roughly 20%.
Obama is a world-class spender. But spending increased 83 percent during Bush's presidency, from $1.863 trillion to $3.414 trillion. He increased federal spending faster than any president since Lyndon Johnson. And yes, Obama is pushing the government's share of GDP up; but Bush increased the federal government's share of GDP by 2.2 percentage points, before the financial crisis, the bailouts, and TARP. Read more...

Posted on January 28, 2011  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Thirty Years of Deficit Disaster

The national debt has just passed $14 trillion. It's approaching the so-called "debt limit" of $14.3 trillion, and members of Congress face a vote on raising the limit that doesn't limit. President Obama will no doubt stress his commitment to reducing deficits in his speech tonight, but it's unlikely that he will propose any actual budget cuts or any serious entitlement reforms. And we're told that he will propose new spending on infrastructure, education, and research in the face of trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see. We've become so used to these stunning, incomprehensible, unfathomable levels of deficits and debt -- and to the once-rare concept of trillions of dollars -- that we forget how new all this debt is. In 1980, after 190 years of federal spending, the national debt was "only" $1 trillion. Now, just 30 years later, it's sailing past $14 trillion. Historian John Steele Gordon points out how unnecessary our situation is:
There have always been two reasons for adding to the national debt. One is to fight wars. The second is to counteract recessions. But while the national debt in 1982 was 35% of GDP, after a quarter century of nearly uninterrupted economic growth and the end of the Cold War the debt-to-GDP ratio has more than doubled. It is hard to escape the idea that this happened only because Democrats and Republicans alike never said no to any significant interest group. Despite a genuine economic emergency, the stimulus bill is more about dispensing goodies to Democratic interest groups than stimulating the economy. Even Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) -- no deficit hawk when his party is in the majority -- called it "porky."
Annual federal spending rose by a trillion dollars when Republicans controlled the government from 2001 to 2007. It has risen another trillion during the Bush-Obama response to the financial crisis. So spending every year is now twice what it was when Bill Clinton left office. Republicans and Democrats alike should be able to find wasteful, extravagant, and unnecessary programs to cut back or eliminate. They could find some of them here in this report by Chris Edwards. Tea Partiers and other taxpayers should listen carefully tonight, to both speeches. Is either party prepared to require the government to live within its means? Or will both parties continue to spend with abandon and raise the "debt limit" every few months?

Posted on January 25, 2011  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Does the Tea Party Care about Liberty?

Alex Pareene of Salon makes some fair points in his posting, "Tea Partiers don't actually care about 'liberty.'" It's disappointing to hear that New Mexico Tea Partiers booed Gary Johnson's support for legalizing marijuana. And it's true that a new poll shows Tea Partiers pretty strongly against marriage equality. But the poll does show them just a smidgen more supportive than either conservatives or Republicans. And other polls (click "Social Issues" on the left) have shown somewhat more support among self-identified Tea Party supporters, or a clear division between libertarian-minded and culturally conservative Tea Partiers. In general, Tea Party activists -- organizers and people who attend events -- seem somewhat more libertarian than people who simply tell pollsters they consider themselves to be members or supporters of the Tea Party movement. Tea Party groups have declined invitations to criticize federal court rulings on gay marriage. They have studiously avoided taking positions on social issues, even when social conservatives stomp their feet and demand that the Tea Party start talking about abortion and gay marriage. I have said before that "The tea party is not a libertarian movement, but (at this point at least) it is a libertarian force in American politics. It’s organizing Americans to come out in the streets, confront politicians, and vote on the issues of spending, deficits, debt, the size and scope of government, and the constitutional limits on government. That’s a good thing. And if many of the tea partiers do hold socially conservative views (not all of them do), then it’s a good thing for the American political system and for American freedom to keep them focused on shrinking the size and cost of the federal government." That still seems a valid point: Whatever views individual Tea Partiers may hold on an array of issues, as the Tea Party they are organized to constrain taxes, spending, deficits, debt, and the size of government, and that's a libertarian direction. Pareene seems simply wrong when he triumphantly ends his post with this supposedly damning quotation from Cato:
(A post from the Cato Institute makes its cheerful willingness to abandon the non-economic planks of its platform explicit: "Candidates and representatives hoping to appeal to the Tea Party, we argue, need to focus on a unifying economic agenda that takes into account this strong libertarian undercurrent.")
Just read the quotation. My colleague David Kirby is saying that Republicans should avoid divisive social issues -- presumably meaning abortion, gay marriage, and projects like the Terri Schiavo intervention -- lest they lose the support of libertarian-leaning Tea Party activists. That is, he's urging the Republican Party to abandon its non-libertarian agenda in order to unify a broad coalition of conservatives, libertarians, and independents. Pareene seems to have misread it.

Posted on January 23, 2011  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Kathy Bates Takes on Drug Legalization

The new NBC drama "Harry's Law" has a preposterous premise, but it does give Kathy Bates a chance to chew some scenery. In the pilot -- to be repeated tonight at 8 p.m. -- she's defending a young black man facing jail time for drug possession. And she unleashes a tirade against the drug war and against an outmatched prosecutor. Conservative bloggers have complained because Bates's character Harriet "Harry" Korn said that the idea of drug decriminalization "was first raised by conservative Republicans . . . when the party had thinkers, before it was hijacked by the likes of Rush Limbaugh." (Exchange begins at about 24:00 in the episode.) Looking for video of her courtroom speech, I found this excellent discussion from Inimai Chettiar and Rebecca McCray of the ACLU. I yield the floor to them:
While the opening few minutes are a bit absurd (Harry's first client is a third-time drug offender who literally lands on her after jumping off a building), the show's pilot brings to light the serious problem of overincarceration in our country. In her closing argument to a jury in defense of a young man charged with cocaine possession (minutes 27-31 of the episode), Harry delivers a touching and evidence-based appeal to the jury and argues that incarceration is not the appropriate way to deal with drug offenders. She points out:
"[S]tudy after study after study has shown that when you take kids like Malcolm [her young black client] and you stick them in jail, you increase the likelihood that they'll remain addicts, or wind up homeless, or worst of all become more hardened and career criminals. When it comes to drug abuse, treatment is seven times more cost effective than incarceration. Seven times. It's an indisputable fact."
Since television statistics can often be far from the truth, we did a little research. It seems the show's "seven times" statistic may be based on a 1994 reportcommissioned by the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy. Several recent studies also show that treatment is far more cost effective than incarceration for drug offenses. Drug offenses, especially possession, are often indicative of addiction. And addiction, more than being a criminal offense, is something that can be treated. Treatment rehabilitates drug offenders at a lower cost, allowing them to become productive members of society. Incarcerating someone is expensive. And as Harry so effectively points out, prison "neither treats nor trains nor rehabilitates" — it merely risks making someone more dangerous and likely to commit crimes in the future. Harry is right: these are the facts. In one of the more poignant moments in her speech, Harry argues that "intrinsic to justice is humanity. Humanity couldn't call for this young man to be locked up — it simply couldn't." It's true. Not only is it inhumane to lock up people who are addicted to drugs, it's unreasonable and fiscally irresponsible. Taxpayers spend almost $70 billion a year on corrections and incarceration. There are 1.6 million Americans in prison — that is triple the amount of prisoners we had in 1987 — and 25 percent of those incarcerated are locked up for drug offenses. When those who are incarcerated are released, they earn approximately 40 percent less than they did before entering prison — that means their economic mobility is almost half of what it was before incarceration. In times of a global economic crisis, do we really want to spend this much money locking up small time offenders? And do we really want to lock up such a large chunk of our labor force and decrease their future earning potential when it could serve as a drag on our future economic recovery? And on top of all this, it's proven ineffective to imprison people for drug offenses — incarceration doesn't fix the problem of drug addiction. It's even more ineffective (and inhumane) to lock up our kids who are addicted to drugs — as Harry points out, doing so is akin to throwing them away — thereby increasing the likelihood they will have lives filled with inhumane prison conditions, mental health problems, lack of economic opportunity, and continued addiction. And by imprisoning our children for drug offenses, we risk creating a cycle that may prevent their kids from having brighter futures. One in every 28 children in this country has a parent behind bars, up from one in 125 just 25 years ago. We are sacrificing these children's lives as well. Just as we increasingly can't afford the cost of incarceration, we can't afford to lose our kids and our country to the cycle of incarceration and poverty. The show's perspective isn't necessarily profound, but it is pleasant to hear Harry's words cut through the din of fear-driven plotlines that have for so long been a staple in popular television crime dramas.
Bonus libertarian point: The title "Harry's Law" reminds me of "Harry's War," a 1981 movie about the depredations of the IRS.

Posted on January 22, 2011  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Property Rights and the Takoma Park Tree Tussle

It's enviro vs. enviro in Washington's most "progressive" suburb, Takoma Park. Indeed, the Washington Post reports, "a potentially bough-breaking debate between sun-worshipers and tree-huggers." That is, which is more environmentally desirable, solar power or tree cover?
The modest gray house in Takoma Park was nearly perfect, from Patrick Earle's staunchly environmentalist point of view. It was small enough for wood-stove heating, faced the right way for good solar exposure and, most important, was in a liberal suburb that embraces all things ecological. Or almost all. When Earle and his wife, Shannon, recently sought to add solar panels to the house, which they have been turning into a sustainability showplace, the couple discovered that Takoma Park values something even more than new energy technologies: big, old trees. When they applied to cut down a partially rotten 50-foot silver maple that overshadowed their roof, the Earles ran into one of the nation's strictest tree-protection ordinances. Under the law, the town arborist would approve removing the maple only if the couple agreed to pay $4,000 into a city tree-replacement fund or plant 23 saplings on their own.
So now the rival environmentalists are squaring off in front of the city council:
Takoma Park City Council members, who are considering revising the 1983 tree-protection law, listened Monday night as otherwise like-minded activists vied to claim the green high ground. Tree partisans hailed the benefits of the leafy canopy that shades 59 percent of the town: Trees absorb carbon, take up stormwater, control erosion and provide natural cooling.... Solar advocates at the hearing said that they are tree lovers, too, but that scientific studies support the idea of poking select holes in the tree cover to let a little sun power through.
Being an environmentalist homeowner can become a full-time job:
But even some veteran solar users don't like the idea of trading trees for panels. Mike Tidwell, founder of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, installed solar panels on his Takoma Park house 10 years ago. As the trees have grown, the panels' effectiveness has diminished, and Tidwell now buys wind power credits to supplement them. Still, he said, "I don't believe you should cut down trees for solar." Rather, he thinks neighbors should work together to place shared panels on the sunniest roofs.
The city's "official arborist" turned down Earle's application to tear down one rotting tree to accommodate his solar panels. Now the council is debating the issue.
The Earles' council member, Josh Wright, said he was sympathetic to their plight. He said it should remain hard to cut down a tree, but he'd like to see a break for people installing solar power. Wright also wants all homeowners to get credit for trees they may have planted in the years before they remove a tree.
It all sounds very complicated. And who knows what the right answer is? Or if there is a right answer? Or if the right answer might change next year? And that's where property rights come in.  They allocate both jurisdiction and liability over scarce resources, like roofs, trees, and access to sunlight.  A little "law and economics" can help to understand the Takoma Park Tree Tussle.  Nobel Laureate in Economics Ronald Coase, who just turned 100, brought law and economics together to study the way that people externalize costs (make others pay for them) or internalize them (take them into account when making decisions).  When property rights are well defined and legally secure, and rights can be exchanged at low cost, resources will be directed to their most highly valued use.  In fact, the initial allocation of property rights doesn't affect the allocation of resources, if the transfers are freely and easily negotiable. That, unfortunately, is no longer the case in Takoma Park, where instead of a fairly straightforward transaction (facilitated by a purchase), there is a tussle over ill-defined rights and obligations that have little or no legal security, in a very expensive and costly process of negotiation that will almost certainly consume more wood pulp for memos than is contained in the tree in question.  Well-defined and legally secure property rights save us the rather substantial trouble of sitting down like the Takoma Park City Council and trying to judge the advisability of every proposed purchase, all the while consuming large amounts of paper and exuding large amount of hot air.

Posted on January 20, 2011  Posted to Cato@Liberty

The Traffic Congestion Problem

A new report says that traffic congestion is worse, and the American Public Transportation Association urges Congress to . . . spend more money on public transportation. Cato senior fellow Randal O'Toole has been challenging the received wisdom on traffic and mass transit for years. See his book Gridlock: Why We're Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It, and lots of other studies. In November he debated the head of the American Public Transportation Association at a Cato Policy Forum:

Posted on January 20, 2011  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Well, Bush Got Two Terms

From a New York Times report on NBC's interview:
Former Vice President Dick Cheney . . .  said President Obama is likely to be a one-term president because his policies are unpopular with the public. “His overall approach to expanding the size of government, expanding the deficit, and giving more and more authority and power to the government over the private sector,” Mr. Cheney said in an interview with Jamie Gangel for NBC News. “Those are all weaknesses, as I look at Barack Obama. And I think he’ll be a one term President."
I recall the Bush-Cheney administration also came under criticism for "expanding the size of government, expanding the deficit, and giving more and more authority and power to the government," and it didn't prevent him from being reelected.

Posted on January 18, 2011  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Bruce Reed at Cato

Bruce Reed, who has served as chief domestic policy adviser to President Clinton, CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council, and executive director of President Obama's deficit-cutting commission, has been named chief of staff to Vice President Biden. In 2004 Bruce Reed joined Ron Suskind and David Frum at a Cato Policy Forum on "wonks vs. hacks." Video here. In 2006 he joined Markos Moulitsas, Harold Meyerson, and Nick Gillespie in an online debate at Cato Unbound titled "Should Libertarians Vote Democrat?"

Posted on January 17, 2011  Posted to Cato@Liberty

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