We learned that much of the increase in political polarization was unavoidable. It was the natural result of the political realignment that took place after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. The conservative southern states, which had been solidly Democratic since the Civil War (since Lincoln was a Republican) then began to leave the Democratic Party, and by the 1990s the South was solidly Republican. Before this realignment there had been liberals and conservatives in both parties, which made it easy to form bipartisan teams who could work together.
But we also learned about factors that might possibly be reversed. The most poignant moment of the conference came when Jim Leach, a former Republican congressman from Iowa, described the changes that began in 1995. Newt Gingrich, the new speaker of the House of Representatives, encouraged the large group of incoming Republicans to leave their families in their home districts rather than moving their spouse and children to Washington. Before 1995, Congressmen from both parties attended many of the same social events on weekends; their spouses became friends; their children played on the same sports teams. But nowadays most Congressmen fly to Washington on Monday night, huddle with their teammates and do battle for three days, and then fly home on Thursday night. Cross-party friendships are disappearing; Manichaeism and scorched Earth politics are increasing.
Jonathan Haidt, quoted by Scott Alexander in “List Of The Passages I Highlighted In My Copy Of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind“, Slate Star Codex, 2014-06-12.
January 17, 2016
December 11, 2015
Mark Steyn writes about his appearance before the Senate sub-committee on Space, Science and Competitiveness:
On the morning of the event, Senator Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat and Ranking Member, sent a message, warning me that I was obligated to “respect the decorum of the Senate”. I’ve been invited to Buckingham Palace, the White House and parliaments around the world, and nobody has ever felt it necessary to pre-issue such a warning. In the event, the US Senate has no “decorum” worthy of respect, as we’ll get to in a moment.
I said above that the Senate had no “decorum” to disrespect. By that I mean that, when my pal Ezra Levant and I gave evidence (as we say in the Westminster tradition) in the Canadian Parliament, members from all parties turned up and asked thoughtful and engaged questions. When we run into each other in Montreal, the representatives of the Bloc Québécois and I do not even agree on what country we’re in. But that afternoon we had a pleasant and civilized exchange, and one that had some rewardingly non-partisan after-glow in the months that followed.
In the US Senate, at least on Tuesday, senators wander in and out constantly. Their five-minute “question” sessions are generally four-minute prepared statements of generalized blather followed by a perfunctory softball to “their” witness, after which they leave the room without waiting to hear the answer – and then come back in when it’s their time to speak again at which point the staffer feeds them the four-minute blather they’re supposed to be sloughing off this time round. The video doesn’t capture the fakery of the event because under Senate rules the camera is generally just on whoever’s speaking. Whether this meets the “decorum” of the Senate, it certainly doesn’t meet the decorum of life; it’s a breach of the normal courtesies – and, frankly, Americans are the chumps of the planet for putting up with it. Since the 17th Amendment, senators have been citizen-legislators like any other, and so their contempt for the citizenry who have graciously consented, at their own time and expense to appear before them, demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of the relationship.
Take this guy Brian Schatz, the Senator from Hawaii. He did his shtick, lobbed a softball at his witness, Rear Admiral Titley, and stood up to leave. I said I’d like to respond, and he demurred on the grounds that he was outta there, he had to get back to washing his hair or whatever. I said I’d still like to respond to what he said, and so I did – to an empty chair. A pseudo-parliament is a fine place in which to debate pseudo-science, but “decorum” has nothing to do with it.
There is another kind of basic rudeness, which I have never experienced in a real parliament. If you’re moderating a panel discussion on C-SPAN with five panelists, it’s generally considered polite to distribute the questions broadly. In this case, the Democrats asked no questions of anyone other than their guy – Rear Admiral Titley. For example, there was some extensive discussion of the satellite record: They have the scientist who created and developed the satellite temperature record sitting at one end of the table: John Christy. This is a remarkable scientific accomplishment. Yet they directed all their questions on the subject to the bloke down the other end – Rear Admiral Titley, who knows no more about the satellite record than I do. This is like inviting Sir Isaac Newton to a hearing on gravity and then only asking questions of Mr Timeserver sitting next to him. It may represent the “decorum” of the Senate but in any other area of life it would be regarded as insufferably ill-mannered.
December 8, 2015
Patrick Crozier says we shouldn’t automatically believe the “common wisdom” about the career of Senator Joe McCarthy:
The vast majority of books and articles written on the subject claim that [Senator McCarthy] made it all up. M. Stanton Evans begs to differ. In Blacklisted by History: the Untold Story of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his Fight Against America’s Enemies he argues that in the vast majority of cases those accused by McCarthy of being communists were exactly that. Some were out and out spies. Some were agents of influence. Some were happy to help in the running of communist front groups. But the argument still stands: they were aiding a power that was hostile to the United States.
Evans comes to this judgement mainly by leafing through the files that have become available. These include the FBI files and what have become known as the Venona transcripts: Soviet messages de-crypted by the US military in the 1940s.
It is important to realise that these weren’t just spy games. Communist activity had a real impact. In the early 1940s, for instance, John Stewart Service, the State Department’s man in China produced a string of reports. In them he praised Mao’s Communists to the hilt claiming that they were democrats and successfully fighting the Japanese while condemning Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) for being incompetent, corrupt and uninterested in prosecuting the war. This was a travesty of the truth. Reports like this led to the KMT being starved of money and weapons which may well have tipped the balance in the Civil War leading, in turn, to the misery that was subsequently inflicted on the people of mainland China.
So, if he was right why has he been condemned and why does he continue to be condemned by history? Some of it appears to have been McCarthy’s own fault. He puffed up his war record. He over-stated his case. He bullied witnesses. He made the odd mistake. He criticised revered war heroes. Some if it was snobbery. McCarthy was from the wrong side of the tracks. There was no Ivy League education for him. He left school early but through hard work still managed to become a lawyer. He was also a Catholic. But most of it was because he was up against the combined forces of the communists and the establishment.
The Tydings Committee – a special sub-committee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – was established to get to the bottom of his initial 1950 claim that there were 57 communist agents working in the State Department. It did no such thing. In fact it didn’t even try.
According to Evans it was a cover up from start to finish. There was almost no attempt to get at the facts. Often a denial from the accused was sufficient. At one point they even asked the leader of the US Communist Party if certain people were members. He had to be prompted to say “no”. Most of the hostile questioning was not aimed at the accused – who were often evasive – but McCarthy himself. An inordinate amount of time was given over to attempting to prove that McCarthy had initially claimed a figure of 205 rather than 57 – as if it mattered. There was a definite suggestion that State Department personnel files had been tampered with. It was no great surprise when the official report concluded that McCarthy had made it all up.
November 27, 2015
Many Republicans seem confident that last week’s performance in the mid-term elections bodes the end of the Obama era, and the dawn of the bright Republican future. Many Democrats seem confident that last week’s performance in the midterms was a mere blip on the way to the Emerging Democratic Majority. Both sides would do well to read Sean Trende’s 2012 book, The Lost Majority, which I made my way through this weekend.
To state Trende’s thesis simply: There is no such thing as a permanent majority. Parties are coalitions of disparate groups of voters, and they win by strapping enough different groups together to push themselves across the electoral finish line. Unfortunately, the broader your coalition, the harder it is to hold together. Those different groups may have radically different values and interests; satisfying one may end up alienating the other. Trende suggests that the longest-lived coalition was not, in fact Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famed “realignment,” which showed large cracks as early as 1937, but the Eisenhower coalition that lasted roughly from 1952 to 1988. As the dates suggest, the reason for unity was the external threat from the Soviet Union. That’s a pretty stiff price to pay for internal unity.
I took two major things away from the book: First, you can’t count on demographics to hand you a victory in such a vast and diverse country, because today’s coalition members may end up as a large and growing pillar of the opposition. And second, although both parties are constantly hunting for a mandate for radical change, the voters almost never deliver one. The party stalwarts may want to tear down the current edifice and start over, but the less ideological coalition partners are usually looking for some light redecorating, perhaps along with a specific personal interest like freedom of conscience in business operations, or less restrictive immigration policy. The harder the parties push on their ideological platforms, the faster the “coalition of everyone” starts leaking supporters to the opposition.
Megan McArdle, “No Party Will Get a Permanent Majority”, Bloomberg View, 2014-11-10.
October 2, 2015
In The Freeman, Lawrence W. Reed talks about one of the last few Republicans in the Rome of Julius Caesar’s ascendance:
In the estimations of many historians, two men hold the honor as the most notable defenders of the Roman Republic. Marcus Tullius Cicero was one. Marcus Porcius Cato, or “Cato the Younger,” was the other.
Since there was a “younger,” there must have been an “elder,” too. Cato the Elder was the great grandfather of the younger. Both men, separated by more than a century, were influential in public office. Think of the elder as the social conservative, concerned in his day with preserving the customs and traditions of Rome. The younger was one of history’s early libertarians, interested more in personal and political liberties because he believed that if they were lost, nothing else mattered. It is this second one to whom I refer in the balance of this essay as simply “Cato.”
By the time of Cato’s birth in 95 BC, the Roman Republic was long in the tooth. Founded four centuries earlier, it had risen from obscurity to political and economic dominance in the Mediterranean. Rome was easily the world’s wealthiest and most powerful society. It wasn’t a libertarian paradise — slavery was a part of its makeup, as it was even more brutal everywhere else — but Rome had taken liberty to a zenith the world had never seen before and wouldn’t see again for a long time after it finally fell. The constitution of the republic embodied term limits; separation of powers; checks and balances; due process; habeas corpus; the rule of law; individual rights; and elected, representative legislative bodies, including the famous Senate. All of this was hanging by a thread in the first century BC.
Cato was just five years of age when Rome went to war with its former allies in the Italian peninsula — the so-called “Social War.” Though the conflict lasted just two years, its deleterious effects were huge. The decades to follow would be marked by the rise of factions and conflict and local armies loyal to their commanders instead of the larger society. A “welfare-warfare” state was putting down deep roots as Cato grew up. The limited government, personal responsibility and extensive civil society so critical to the republic’s previous success were in an agonizing, century-long process of collapse. Even many of those who recognized the decay around them nonetheless drank the Kool-Aid, succumbing to the temptations of power or subsidies or both.
Before the age of 30, Cato had become a supremely disciplined individual, a devotee of Stoicism in every respect. He commanded a legion in Macedon and won immense loyalty and respect from the soldiers for the example he set, living and laboring no differently from day to day than he required of his men. He first won election to public office (to the post of quaestor, supervising financial and budgetary matters for the state) in 65 BC and quickly earned a reputation as scrupulously meticulous and uncompromisingly honest. He went out of his way to hold previous quaestors accountable for their dishonesty and misappropriation of funds, which he himself uncovered.
Later he served in the Roman Senate, where he never missed a session and criticized other senators who did. Through his superb oratory in public and deft maneuverings in private, he worked tirelessly to restore fealty to the ideals of the fading Republic.
September 10, 2015
Published on 9 Sep 2015
Today’s big event in Washington, D.C. was a rally sponsored by the Tea Party Patriots against the Iran nuclear deal. The event drew several hundred people who showed equal amounts of contempt for the Islamic Republic of Iran, President Barack Obama — and the congressional leadership of the Republican Party.
There doesn’t seem to be a clear libertarian position on the Iran deal — some think it will open Iran up to moderating Western influence while others think it doesn’t do enough to keep the mullah’s nuclear ambitions at bay.
Reason TV caught up with Glenn Beck of The Blaze (2:18), radio host and best-seller Mark Levin (1:00), and former Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (5:10), all of whom ragged on establishment Republicans as much or more than they did on Harry Reid, Barack Obama, and Islamic clerics.
And we managed also to find out what Donald Trump — the big draw at today’s event — thinks about libertarians. (:51)
August 19, 2015
Colby Cosh on the Senate scandal that is convulsing the Parliamentary Press Gallery from coast-to-coast (actually, it’s more like from Gatineau to Nepean):
I wish I’d captured the exact quote from Twitter, but a paraphrase will have to do: someone said recently, “If you want to feel better about Canada, try explaining the Duffy-Wright scandal to someone from another country in one sentence.” I cannot help feeling that there is something to this. Our media have blitzed a courtroom and consumed great newspaper acreage over a very technical and complicated topic. There is no glamour in the affair, by world standards — phrases like “paid for hookers,” “hired a death squad” or “donations from the Klan” are absent.
Dubious billing procedures by politicians make for good stories. They helped bring down an Alberta government not long ago. But that news story involved using public resources for partisan purposes. In the case of Nigel Wright — as distinguished from the issue of Mike Duffy being a scurrilous, greedy trimmer, a truth we did not need a trial to tell us — the fundamental problem is what the Conservative party and Wright did to defray the questionable expenses imposed upon the treasury.
A scandal and a shame it may be, but in an upside-down way. Mike Duffy’s expense claims have not yet been found to be legally or procedurally wrong. Duffy was unwilling to pay them back. Nigel Wright tried to pre-empt the issue by making use of his personal fortune. It’s a “scandalous” donation of private dollars to the public treasury.
If I ask what is actually scandalous about this, I am guaranteed to receive several different answers. The Conservatives are charged with having considered paying Duffy’s expenses out of party funds, which, I am told, are “public” in nature because they are supported by a tax subsidy. The Conservatives did, of course, contemplate using party funds … but didn’t. And those funds, though subsidized, exist precisely to be applied ad libitum for partisan convenience.
Another theory is that Wright’s payment was, by its inherent nature, a “bribe.” The Conservatives, covering up bribery! — non-lawyers are fond of that one. Whether Duffy was guilty of accepting a bribe is, of course, one of the issues in the trial. It is even less clear that Wright is guilty of having offered a bribe: in law, a bribe does not take two to tango. Under the Criminal Code, giving a bribe means giving money to a legislator in order to get them to do something, or not do something, “in their official capacity.” There are plenty of speculative theories about what Wright had to gain from paying Duffy’s expenses: none, as far as I can see, involve Duffy’s official conduct.
July 30, 2015
Richard Anderson explains why unlike most mature countries, Canada is unable to amend the constitution:
The Senate is our great constitutional appendix. It gets a bit inflamed from time to time but, a hundred and fifty years in, we’ve generally come to the conclusion that it’s too much of a hassle to get rid of. In other countries, normal nation states, amending a constitution is just one of those things. There’s a convention, people argue about it and eventually some words get swapped in and out of the country’s basic law. The Americans might go so far as to fight a civil war over such things, but for most countries it’s routine stuff.
Having successfully avoided civil wars, insurrections, coup d’etats and other assorted public disturbances, the Canadian project has retained one bizarre character flaw: Our inability to amend the constitution in anything like a sensible manner. For those old enough to have lived through the constitutional wars of the 1970s and 1980s the very mention of the C-word induces terrible flashbacks. Sometimes when I close my eyes I can see Joe Clark talking about amending formulas. In those moments I question the existence of a merciful God.
The latest idea to drift out of the PMO is that Stephen Harper will stop appointing Senators. This is actually quite similar to how the PM approaches maintenance on 24 Sussex Drive. The official residence is almost as old as Canada itself. Unfortunately so is much of the plumbing. The building is literally falling to bits and requires millions in renovations. Being a politician first and a government tenant second, Stephen Harper knows that doing more than the bare minimum to keep up his Ottawa home will provoke shrieks of outrage from the Opposition. Only when the building finally collapses will anything really be done. And at three times the original price.
This same logic will now be applied to the Senate. The PM will stop appointing senators until there is no more Senate. Sounds neat, eh? Except that the Senate is ensconced into the bedrock of our constitutional order. If the number of living breathing Senators drops below quorum the Supreme Court, the real rulers of our fair Dominion, will order the PM to appoint more. Then the PM of the day, perhaps Mr Harper or Mr Mulcair, will shrug their shoulders and do as their bosses tell them.
The only way to get rid of the Senate is to amend the constitution. Like going to the dentist this would be both painful and expensive. Unlike going to the dentist it would also be interminable. Dentists, you see, have golf games. Constitutional lawyers don’t play golf. It would interrupt from their fascinating work of discussing whether or not the power of disallowance is genuinely obsolete. If you don’t understand what that means don’t worry neither do they.
April 7, 2015
In City Journal, Fred Siegel looks at some recent books about the late Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Monihan:
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the four-term senator from New York who died in 2003, was that rare soul who was both a political and intellectual giant. Stephen Hess, who worked in the early Nixon White House as an aide to Moynihan, was the rare individual friendly with both Moynihan and Richard Nixon. The Professor and the President is a short but revealing memoir-cum-narrative of Moynihan’s service in the executive branch.
What brought Nixon and Moynihan together was a tectonic shift of the political plates. Nixon won the presidency in 1968 thanks to the backlash against the riots that had ripped through America’s cities. What made Moynihan a Democrat of extraordinary insight, willing to serve a Republican president, were his reactions to those riots — and to the excesses and wrong turns of American liberalism.
Today, 50 years after its issuance, some liberals “bravely” acknowledge that 1965’s so-called Moynihan Report, in which the future senator warned about the dire future consequences of the collapse of the black family, was a fire bell in the night. But at the time, and for decades to come, Moynihan was branded as a racist by civil rights leaders, black activists, and run-of-the-mill liberals. “One began to sense,” Moynihan wrote, that “a price was to be paid even for such a mild dissent from conventional liberalism.”
His capacity for irony notwithstanding, Moynihan came close to a nervous breakdown and “emerged changed” from the experience. He came to feel “that American liberalism had created its own version of a politique du pire (i.e., the worse the better) … in which evidence had been displaced by ideology.” His fear that the empirically oriented liberalism of his youth was under assault from racial and cultural nihilists intensified after the 1967 riots that burned through Cleveland, Newark, and Detroit, where 43 died. “The summer of 1967,” Moynihan wrote at the time, “came in the aftermath of one of the most extraordinary periods of liberal legislation, liberal electoral victories and the liberal dominance of the media … that we have ever experienced. The period was, moreover, accompanied by the greatest economic expansion in human history. And to top it all, some of the worst violence occurred in Detroit, a city with one of the most liberal and successful administrations in the nation; a city in which the social and economic position of the Negro was generally agreed to be far and away the best in the nation.”
March 28, 2015
Here’s some high praise for the outgoing democratic senator Harry Reid, who announced yesterday he won’t be seeking re-election in 2016:
Today we will hear a lot about Reid’s “service” to the Senate and to the American people. Ha! “Service” indeed. The truth of the matter is that Harry Reid is a stone-cold killer who has damaged Washington considerably, who has elevated his own political preferences above the institution he was elected to protect, and who has made worse the partisan rancor that our self-described enlightened class claims to abhor. The greatest service he can do America is to go away.
From a purely Machiavellian perspective, there is a strong case to be made that Reid has been the most effective federal politician in the United States over the last decade or so. In order to protect the president and to advance his movements’ goals, Reid has been willing to diminish the influence, power, and effectiveness of his own institution; in order to thwart his opponents, he has demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to play dirty — a capacity that sets him apart even from other harsh players such as Chuck Schumer, Ted Cruz, and Dick Durbin; and, in order to satisfy his own need to feel powerful, he has perfected the scorched earth approach that has kept Obama’s presidency on life support since November of 2010 (in my estimation, the Democratic party’s success during the 2013 shutdown was the product of Reid’s obstinacy and resolve, not Obama’s).
National Review also reposted Kevin Williamson’s appreciation for Reid from 2014:
There are 53 Democrats in the Senate, plus two nominal independents who associate with them, and this clown caucus has chosen, since 2007, to place itself under the malignant leadership of Harry Reid, Washington’s answer to Frankenstein’s monster — stitched together out of the worst bits of Roger Chillingworth, Joe McCarthy, and Droopy — a teacup tyrant who has filled his own pockets to the tune of $10 million while decrying the allegedly baleful influence of the wealthy on politics, a man who has done violence to ethical standards left and right, using campaign funds for personal expenditures and trying to hide payments channeled to his granddaughter, who takes to the Senate floor to make patently false, malicious, and increasingly loopy claims about his political rivals, and who is leading a partisan assault on the Bill of Rights. If America needs a(nother) good reason to hand Democrats their heads come November, then they would do well to study the career of Harry Reid (D., Ritz-Carlton), the Sheriff of Nottingham to Barack Obama’s Prince John.
Harry Reid is in some ways a laughable figure, and one of his few charms is that he is known to make self-deprecating observations about his own unprepossessing nature. His obsession with Koch Industries and the intimations of venality that surround him might be grounds for annoyed eye-rolling if they were not of a piece with his audacious war on the most important of our fundamental constitutional liberties. The cheap histrionics, the gross hypocrisy, the outright lies, misusing campaign funds to tip his staff at the Ritz $3,300 — all of that would be just about bearable, but the shocking fact is that Harry Reid and his Senate Democrats are quietly attempting to repeal the First Amendment. And that elevates Senator Reid’s shenanigans from buffoonery to villainy.
November 20, 2014
[President Obama] said he would take executive action on immigration by year’s end unless Republicans passed a bill. It’s certainly a bold negotiating tactic: You can do what I want, or I’ll go ahead and do what I want anyway. This is how you “negotiate” with a seven-year old, not a Senate Majority Leader.
I’m not sure that isn’t what Obama thinks he’s doing, and I’m sure many of my left-leaning readers are chuckling right now at the comparison. But Mitch McConnell is not a seven year old; he’s an adult, and he just won an election in which voters repudiated Obama and his party. (Temporarily, I am sure, but just the same: As someone once said, “Elections have consequences.”) McConnell is not the proverbial Tea Party extremist who won’t negotiate; he’s an establishment guy, known as a strategist and a tactician, not an ideologue (which is why the Tea Party isn’t that fond of him). In short, he’s someone who can make deals. Responding to McConnell’s rather gracious remarks about finding common goals by announcing that you know what the American public wants, and you’re going to give it to them no matter what their elected representatives say, seems curiously brash. It might chill the atmosphere today when he sits down with congressional leaders.
I wonder if Obama even knows how to negotiate with Republicans. It’s not as if he has a long, distinguished record of passing legislation in a mixed environment. His later years in the Illinois State Senate enjoyed a solid Democratic majority, and he jumped into the U.S. Senate at a propitious time. Soon after he arrived came the wave of 2006, when Democrats controlled both houses of congress by comfortable margins, and Senator Obama was far too junior to be negotiating with the White House. Then came the financial crisis, and another wave, and Obama spent the first two years of his presidency in a happy situation where he could get things done without needing the support of the opposition. He didn’t even negotiate with his own party; the Senate negotiated his health care bill, and Nancy Pelosi whipped it through the House.
Post 2010, of course, he also hasn’t had much practice negotiating. I’m not interested in another tedious argument about who did what to whom; whatever the cause and whoever’s fault it may be, the fact remains that the president has spent the last four years in a stalemate: Neither party can leave, and neither party can win.
It’s a little late in the president’s career to learn the fine art of making deals with people who fundamentally disagree with you, but might be willing to work on whatever small goals you might share. I suspect it feels more comfortable to go along with the strategy that has worked decently well over the last four years: hold your ground, complain about Republican intransigence, and hope that Republican legislators give you another opportunity to play long-suffering adult in the room.
Megan McArdle, “Does Obama Even Know How to Negotiate?”, Bloomberg View, 2014-11-07.
September 22, 2014
At Gods of the Copybook Headings, Richard Anderson proposes a brilliant reform to a Canadian institution that has never actually had a function — the Senate.
I’ve often argued that the appointment of Senators should be done through a national lottery. All Canadian citizens would be eligible to buy a $10 ticket into what would be called The Red Chamber Sweepstakes. Each April 1st a draw would be held for 20 Senators. The 20 lucky winners would get an appointment to the upper house lasting no more than five years. If the politically correct crowd complained you could screen the winners by region and ethno-cultural background. If done properly the whole Senate could become self-financing.
Now tell me gentle readers what would be wrong with this simple idea? Would the quality of Senators decline? Nope. Would the process be more corrupt that it is at the moment? Other way around I should think. Would it generate tremendous and positive interest in the Senate? Yes. It would also mean doing away with a pricey communications budget. There would be no need to rationalize the conduct or purpose of the Senatorial class. We know how they got there and we know what they’re made of. Heck the whole exercise could be spun as an act of democratic enfranchisement. Ordinary people, not party hacks, deciding on the great questions of the day. Or at least pretending to do so.
There are those, of course, who would object and say that holding a national Senate lottery would be an embarrassing travesty for the nation. Yes it would be. But given the state of Canadian politics what else is new?
September 12, 2014
In Forbes, Jacob Sullum explains the amazingly lenient rules in most states for the government to steal your property:
Three key features of civil forfeiture law give cops this license to steal:
The government does not have to charge you with a crime, let alone convict you, to take your property. Under federal law and the laws of many states, a forfeiture is justified if the government can show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that it is connected to a crime, typically a drug offense. That standard, which amounts to any probability greater than 50 percent, is much easier to satisfy than proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard for a criminal trial. Some states allow forfeiture based on probable cause, a standard even weaker than preponderance of the evidence.
The burden of proof is on you. Innocent owners like Mandrel Stuart have to prove their innocence, a reversal of the rule in criminal cases. Meanwhile, the government hangs onto the money, which puts financial stress on the owner and makes it harder for him to challenge the forfeiture.
Cops keep the loot. Local cops and prosecutors who pursue forfeiture under federal law, which is what happened in Stuart’s case, receive up to 80 percent of the proceeds. Some states are even more generous, but others give law enforcement agencies a smaller cut, making federal forfeiture under the Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program a tempting alternative. The fact that police have a direct financial interest in forfeitures creates an incentive for pretextual traffic stops aimed at finding money or other property to seize. The Post found that “298 departments and 210 task forces have seized the equivalent of 20 percent or more of their annual budgets since 2008.”
There’s at least some awareness in the Senate that the civil forfeiture rules are being abused:
The Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act, a bill introduced by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in July, addresses each of these issues. The FAIR Act changes the standard of proof in federal forfeiture cases from “preponderance of the evidence” to “clear and convincing evidence.” That change does not go as far as the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that has been fighting forfeiture abuse for years, would like. I.J. argues that civil forfeiture should be abolished, meaning that a criminal conviction, based on proof beyond a reasonable doubt, would be required for the government to take property allegedly connected to a crime. But Paul’s reform would make it harder for the government to prevail if a forfeiture case goes to trial, which might deter seizures of large sums in situations where the evidence is weak.
July 28, 2014
The National Journal‘s Alex Brown talks about a federal government department facing the end of the line thanks to search engines like Google:
A little-known branch of the Commerce Department faces elimination, thanks to advances in technology and a snarkily named bill from Sens. Tom Coburn and Claire McCaskill.
The National Technical Information Service compiles federal reports, serving as a clearinghouse for the government’s scientific, technical, and business documents. The NTIS then sells copies of the documents to other agencies and the public upon request. It’s done so since 1950.
But Coburn and McCaskill say it’s hard to justify 150 employees and $66 million in taxpayer dollars when almost all of those documents are now available online for free.
Enter the Let Me Google That for You Act.
“Our goal is to eliminate you as an agency,” the famously grumpy Coburn told NTIS Director Bruce Borzino at a Wednesday hearing. Pulling no punches, Coburn suggested that any NTIS documents not already available to the public be put “in a small closet in the Department of Commerce.”
H/T to Jim Geraghty for the link. He assures us that despite any similarities to situations portrayed in his recent political novel The Weed Agency, he didn’t make this one up.
July 21, 2014
Many of you won’t even remember the heyday of Senator William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece awards: his personal choices for the worst public spending boondoggles each year. Most space enthusiasts remember him for his adamant opposition to NASA (for which he could never possibly be forgiven). As an early supporter of the space program, I thought Proxmire was a terrible man and that we’ve have had a much bigger, better space program without him. He left the senate in 1989 and died in 2005, so I’d almost completely forgotten about him until I saw this article in the latest Libertarian Enterprise by Jeff Fullerton:
The things I discover while googling for things. Such as in my efforts to substantiate that Senator Proxmire quote: Not a penny for this nutty fantasy for my previous article. Found an online version of the newsletter of the old L5 Society [PDF]; a space colony advocate group that was around back in the late 70s. Which was sort of a trip down Memory Lane. Remember seeing them on Phil Donahue’s show circa 1980. It’s kind of sad when you look at something like this on the boulevard of broken dreams. But also at times amusing.
The man space enthusiasts loved to hate like J.R. from Dallas! He was definitely the sort of villain that could grow on you!
The name Proxmire sounds Germanic — but he was no Werner Von Braun — his mindset was typical for the down to Earth culture of the Midlands and being a Wisconsin democrat, he surely had solid connections in Madison — the regional snake pit of Progressivism. Yet he was a conservative democrat — as in fiscal conservative being he gave his “Golden Fleece Awards” to many federal projects that really were an atrocious waste of tax dollars. His disdain for the space program may have stemmed in part from populist disdain for technology — I remember SF writers like Ben Bova and others calling him a Luddite — and that sort of thing was politically fashionable in those days (often referred to as a knee-jerk reaction) so part of his reason for jumping onto the anti-space bandwagon may have been a political calculation. Some of it was probably born of a zero sum mentality that was also vogue at the time. A few space advocates wrote funny editorials about converting Proxmire to supporting space exploration and colonization by finding a way to turn butter into rocket fuel — being that the Senator’s primary constituency were Wisconsin dairy farmers!
As for William Proxmire — I can’t be too hard on him anymore. Especially when you consider all that NASA has done to thwart any hope of establishing human settlements beyond Earth. At best a lack of vision being the space agency had long ago lost its mojo and is nothing like it was in its early days when could actually meet the challenge of JFK’s vision of putting boots on the moon in a decade — as opposed to shrugging and saying “maybe in three decades”? At best they are slow walking because NASA is much like the establishment of the Republican Party that sometimes talks “small government” but is in no hurry to deliver on it. And worst of all — NASA seems to have an ideological agenda aimed at preventing the colonization of space deeply entrenched within the bureaucracy and the story is the same within most other federal agencies and institutions.
Wikipedia (not traditionally staffed by fans of small government) has this to say about Proxmire’s legislative career:
He was an early, outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. He frequently criticized Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon for their conduct of the war and foreign policy decisions. He used his seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee to spotlight wasteful military spending and was instrumental in stopping frequent military pork barrel projects. His Golden Fleece Award was created to focus media attention on projects he felt were self-serving and wasted taxpayer dollars. He was also head of the campaign to cancel the American supersonic transport. Despite his support of budgetary restraint in other areas, he normally sided with dairy interests and was a proponent of dairy price supports.
Proxmire was famous for issuing his Golden Fleece Award, which identified what he considered wasteful government spending, between 1975 and 1988. The first was awarded in 1975 to the National Science Foundation, for funding an $84,000 study on why people fall in love. Other Golden Fleece awards over the years were “awarded” to the Justice Department for conducting a study on why prisoners wanted to get out of jail, the National Institute of Mental Health to study a Peruvian brothel (“The researchers said they made repeated visits in the interests of accuracy,” reported the New York Times), and the Federal Aviation Administration, for studying “the physical measurements of 432 airline stewardesses, paying special attention to the ‘length of the buttocks.'” Proxmire stopped numerous science and academic projects which were, in his opinion, of dubious value.
Proxmire’s critics claimed that some of his awards went to basic science projects that led to important breakthroughs, such as the Aspen Movie Map (though the Aspen Movie Map project did not receive the award). For example, Proxmire was criticized in 1987 for the Aspen Movie Map incident by author Stewart Brand, who accused Proxmire of recklessly attacking legitimate research for the crass purpose of furthering his own political career, with gross indifference as to whether his assertions were true or false as well as the long-term effects on American science and technology policy. Proxmire later apologized for several of those, including SETI.
Proxmire earned the unending enmity of space advocates and science fiction fandom for his opposition to space colonization, ultimately eliminating spending on said research from NASA’s budget. In response to a segment about space colonies run by the CBS program 60 Minutes, Proxmire stated that; “it’s the best argument yet for chopping NASA’s funding to the bone …. I say not a penny for this nutty fantasy”. Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven retaliated by writing the award-winning stories Death and the Senator, Fallen Angels, and The Return of William Proxmire. In a number of circles his name has become a verb, meaning to unfairly obstruct scientific research for political gain, as in “the project has been proxmired”.