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Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

I don’t blog much here anymore, in part because I’ve been too busy with Ethics & Economics Education, and in part because I find it easier to share quick thoughts on Twitter. Here’s a little tweetstorm I had recently on Catalonia’s independence vote next month:

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The search for a legacy always begins in earnest as presidents approach the final years of their time in office. Josh Kraushaar (National Journal) has an interesting piece on the Obama legacy. A key passage:

By ignoring the electorate and steering the country in an unmistakably progressive direction his final two years in office, he’s ensuring that his presidency will be more of an eight-year mirage for liberals, rather than one known for winning lasting support for policies that would move the country in a leftward direction.

All presidents have legacies, of course, but they are rarely what they might have imagined when they entered office.

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Bryan Caplan argues that social conservatives should prefer libertines to hypocrites, contrary to the common meme that “at least hypocrites have moral standards.” The argument is pretty simple: hypocrites seem to share your values, but when you least expect it, they will betray you. So far as it goes, the argument is pretty convincing.

But libertines and hypocrites aren’t the only two possible types of people who fail to live up to putative moral standards. A true hypocrite doesn’t actually have moral standards but merely pretends to them. After all, if one has moral standards, they should affect your behavior appreciably, but the hypocrite simply does what (s)he wants anyway while feigning belief in a stricter standard. That’s what makes hypocrites so dangerous.

The third type of moral failure is weakness of will. The weak-willed believe in moral standards and generally live up to them, but occasionally fail due to weakness of will. The weak of will acknowledge their flaws and try to do better, but you know they will sometimes fail. Unlike the hypocrite, the weak-willed is open about his/her failings, and therefore when dealing with them you know better what you’re dealing with. Unlike the libertine, the weak-willed often actually do live up to moral standards, so long as it isn’t too hard to do so.

Therefore, social conservatives should rank moral failures thus: 1) weakness of will, 2) libertinism, 3) hypocrisy. What some social conservatives praise when they praise “hypocrisy” is probably actually weakness of will, if they took some time to reflect on the distinctions.

I thought about these distinctions while considering the case of corrupt socialists. In the Spanish news today is the number-three man at Podemos, the extreme-left party in Spain (more or less their answer to Greece’s Syriza – the relations between the two parties are extremely close). This man, Juan Carlos Monedero, took half a million dollars from left-wing governments in Latin America (most particularly the Venezuelan dictatorship) for “consulting” and failed to pay taxes on it. He also defrauded his university, a technical college in Madrid, which was contractually guaranteed 20% of his consulting contracts.

Does this fraud evince hypocrisy or weakness of will? After all, Podemos has taken the lead in denouncing corruption in other parties, whom they call “la casta.” Withholding taxes from the government has to be a cardinal sin for socialists. Can true-believing socialists excuse the act on the grounds that “at least he has principles”? Or is he really pretending at having socialist principles at all?

It’s difficult to answer this question, because socialism attracts the unprincipled. If you want to enrich yourself through government, there’s no better way to do it than to denounce corruption and promote populist measures against the rich in order to get elected, and then once elected, use state-controlled companies to feather your own nest. When the state controls the economy, it controls wealth, and it will be extremely tempting to funnel some of that wealth to yourself and your friends.

Not knowing more about the man, it’s difficult to know whether Monedero – and quite possibly the other leaders of Podemos – are hypocrites or merely weak-willed. But that fact alone shows one of the inherent problems of socialism: really existing socialism either brings about rule by the already corrupt or corrupts those who rule.

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SOTU

Yes, it is tonight. Those of us who actually follow these things can predict that many of the initiatives that will be announced by President Obama will have little significance with respect to policy because they will never make it through Congress.

Priscilla Alvarez (National Journal) has an annotated version of the 2014 SOTU address, reviewing the fate of last year’s policy wish list.

I must admit, I was actually surprised by how many of the items lived beyond the speech.

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Last week Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Department of Justice would be suspending its adoption of state civil forfeiture cases through its “Equitable Sharing” program. To review, civil asset forfeiture is the procedure by which law enforcement seizes property suspected of having been associated with a crime, and then auctions it off and uses the money for its own purposes. Under federal law, asset forfeiture is easy: the agency must simply show by a preponderance of the evidence that the property was associated with a crime, and then the owner bears the burden of proving her innocence. Under the Equitable Sharing program, the Department of Justice “adopts” state cases in states in which forfeiture laws are stricter, thereby implicating the weaker federal standard, then shares up to 80% of the proceeds of these forfeitures with state and local law enforcement.

The system creates perverse incentives for seizing the cash, vehicles, and businesses of innocent people, as last year’s blockbuster investigation by the Washington Post revealed. Moreover, the Equitable Sharing program intentionally circumvents state law. The Institute for Justice’s 2010 study Policing for Profit showed that states with stricter civil asset forfeiture procedures saw substantially greater Equitable Sharing revenues.

Thus, Holder’s announcement is very welcome. Still, as Radley Balko points out, the new policy contains some big exceptions:

. . . (1) seizures by state and local authorities working together with federal authorities in a joint task force; (2) seizures by state and local authorities that are the result of joint federal-state investigations or that are coordinated with federal authorities as part of ongoing federal investigations; or (3) seizures pursuant to federal seizure warrants, obtained from federal courts to take custody of assets originally seized under state law.

According to the WaPo story, only 57% of Equitable Sharing proceeds came from state-only investigations, so the new policy should cut payments to state and local agencies by about half. When it comes to big forfeitures, the new policy creates an obvious incentive for local law enforcement to bring in a federal investigator to create a pretext for adoption. Moreover, many of those forfeitures that are no longer adopted will still be pursued under state law, simply with a higher evidentiary threshold in many cases. Thus, the total amount of civil forfeiture that occurs in this country can be expected to drop by only a small fraction of the current annual average total.

To get a better sense of how this policy change will affect asset forfeiture in the states, I will present some numbers from the new asset forfeiture dataset that we are compiling for the fourth edition of Freedom in the 50 States. We have data on Equitable Sharing proceeds by state from Fiscal Year 2000-01 to Fiscal Year 2012-13, as well as detailed information on state standards for forfeiture.

The following time-series chart shows Equitable Sharing revenues per $1000 of state personal income for several large states: Texas, Florida, California, Illinois, and New York. These data exclude a massive, one-time payout to New York agencies for the Bernie Madoff case.
equitable sharing by state
As the chart shows, Equitable Sharing really began to ramp up in 2006-07. By 2012-13, these five states combined for $228 million in forfeiture revenues from the federal government. For each of the last four years, California was first or second among these five states in forfeiture revenue as a share of the state economy. Probably not coincidentally, California has some of the toughest procedures for civil forfeiture in the country.

In the U.S. as a whole, Equitable Sharing forfeiture revenues totaled $486 million in FY 2012-13, more than double the total of 2004-05. We don’t know just what the total value of assets forfeited in the country is, because states and localities don’t often keep track of the data. Moreover, the Equitable Sharing program includes proceeds of criminal as well as civil forfeiture (criminal forfeiture upon conviction is much less controversial). But from the states for which we do have data, it appears that, at least in the early 2000s, total assets forfeited through state law amounted to about 20-50% more than what the states got from Equitable Sharing. Those figures undercount the losses to victims of forfeiture, because agencies get, at best, market value for what they seize. So it’s quite possible that each year, more than $1 billion in value is taken from property owners through civil asset forfeiture.

Now that the Equitable Sharing program is being curtailed, state laws will matter more. Which states are best positioned to protect property rights in the new order? Here’s a ranking of states as of January 1, 2015 on citizen protections from civil asset forfeiture, based on the burden of proof for showing that the property was connected to a crime, whether there is an “innocent owner” rebuttable presumption, where the proceeds of asset forfeiture go (when they go to the forfeiting agency, there are more incentives for abuse), and whether the state had put any limits on Equitable Sharing already:

1. North Carolina
2. California
3. Colorado
4. New Mexico
5. Florida
5. Minnesota
7. Oregon
8. Vermont
8. Missouri
10. Nebraska
10. Wisconsin
10. Indiana
10. Maine
14. Kansas
14. Michigan
14. Maryland
17. Connecticut
18. Utah
19. New York
19. Kentucky
21. Louisiana
21. Mississippi
21. Nevada
24. New Hampshire
24. Texas
26. Alabama
27. Arizona
27. Arkansas
27. Hawaii
27. Idaho
27. Iowa
27. New Jersey
27. Ohio
27. Oklahoma
27. Pennsylvania
27. Tennessee
27. Virginia
27. West Virginia
39. Illinois
39. Rhode Island
39. South Carolina
42. Georgia
42. North Dakota
42. South Dakota
42. Washington
46. Alaska
46. Delaware
46. Massachusetts
46. Montana
46. Wyoming

With any luck, Holder’s decision will inaugurate a new round of forfeiture reforms at the state level, as legislators realize that they once again have the power to set policy for their own officials.

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My paper on the political philosophy of secession is now out in Public Affairs Quarterly, an open-access journal. Read it here. Teaser:

The United Kingdom currently sets the gold standard for management of secessionist politics. The British and Scottish governments negotiated in good faith over the terms of the independence referendum that Scotland held on September 18, 2014. If Scotland had voted to secede, the British government would have recognized its independence, thus affirming that the United Kingdom is a free partnership among its peoples.

Spain presents a different scenario altogether. Catalonia intends to hold its own “consultation” on independence, but the Spanish government has denied its right to do so, thus denying that Spain is a free partnership. The Catalan government has repeatedly sought to hold negotiations on the self-determination process, but has been rebuffed. What ought the Catalan government to do? By the criteria set forth in this paper, Catalonia has tried to conform to a just institutional regime for regulating secessionist politics, while Spain has not. Catalonia would be justified in using all proportionate means to secure a just outcome.

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#25N
Catalan President Artur Mas gave a major speech tonight, which fortunately Liz Castro live-translated on Twitter. To review, here’s where we are now: Catalonia held an informal plebiscite on independence on November 9, which the Constitutional Court had suspended, and 81% of voters supported independence. The Spanish state has refused to negotiate any constitutional revision that would permit a binding referendum on independence, and the state prosecutor has filed criminal charges against Artur Mas and two other cabinet ministers for going ahead with an informal poll. And a new poll (not from CEO, the Catalan government pollster) shows significant majority support for independence among those with an opinion, including support for a unilateral declaration of independence if independentists win the next election.

Since Spain has closed off all legal means to secession, the Catalans are now looking at extralegal means. In tonight’s artur masaddress, President Mas endorsed “plebiscitary elections” to the Catalan Parliament (previously discussed here). A unified pro-independence list would run in early elections, and if and only if that list obtained a majority of votes and seats, the new Catalan Parliament would declare its intention to secede. Within 18 months, it would set up the institutions of a new state and set the framework for elections to a constituent assembly that would draft a new constitution and declare independence. Anyone who runs on the unified list in the next election would be ineligible to run for the constituent assembly in the subsequent election. Mas himself says he will step down from Parliament at the end of the 18-month term if the plebiscitary election yields a pro-independence majority.

The unified pro-independence list would include members of all pro-independence parties as well as pro-independence members of civil society. Interestingly, Mas’ own party, a federation of a pro-independence party and a much smaller pro-federalism party, looks set to break apart now. The Catalan Republican Left (ERC), the second-largest party in Parliament, wants early elections now and an immediate declaration of independence if secessionists win a majority in that election. They have not ruled out participating in a unified list, however. A small, hard-left, secessionist party, CUP, has ruled out participating in such a list.

There are likely to be several consequences of Mas’ announcement. First, (more…)

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