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To put it mildly, Italy’s economy is moribund. There’s been almost no growth for the entire 21st century.

Bad government policy deserves much of the blame.

According to Economic Freedom of the World, Italy is ranked only 54th, the worst score in Western Europe other than Greece. The score for fiscal policy is abysmal and regulatory policy and rule of law are also problem areas.

Moreover, thanks to decades of excessive government spending, the nation also has very high levels of public debt. Over the last few years, it has received official and unofficial bailouts from the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, and Italy is considered at high risk for a budgetary meltdown when another recession occurs.

And let’s not forget that the country faces a demographic death spiral.

You don’t have to believe me (though you should).

Others have reached similar conclusions. Here are excerpts from some VoxEU research.

Italy will increasingly need to rely on growth fundamentals to sustain its public debt. Unfortunately, the fundamentals do not look good. Not only was Italy severely battered by Europe’s double dip recession (its GDP is lower today than it was in 2005) but when we look at the growth of labour productivity…, we can see that Italy has been stagnating since the mid-90s. …At the end of 2016, Italy’s central government debt was the third-largest in the world…, at $2.3 trillion. …a debt crisis in Italy could trigger a global financial catastrophe, and could very possibly lead to the disintegration of the Eurozone. To avoid such a scenario, Italy must revive growth…a tentative policy prescription is for Italy, to remove those institutional barriers (such as corruption, judicial inefficiency and government interference in the financial sector) that stifle merit and contribute to cronyism.

Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute paints a grim picture.

Italy’s economic performance since the Euro’s 1999 launch has been appalling. …an over-indebted Italian economy needs a coherent and reform-minded government to get the country quickly onto a higher economic growth path. …since 2000, German per capita income has increased by around 20 percent, that in Italy has actually declined by 5 percent. Talk about two lost economic decades for the country. …if Italy is to get itself onto a higher economic growth path, it has to find ways improve the country’s labor market productivity… It has to do so through major economic reforms, especially to its very rigid labor market…being the Eurozone’s third largest economy, Italy is simply too big to fail for the Euro to survive in its present form. However, it is also said that being roughly ten times the size of the Greek economy, a troubled Italian economy would be too big for Germany to save.

Even the IMF thinks pro-market reforms are needed.

Average Italians still earn less than two decades ago. Their take-home pay took a dip during the crisis and has still not yet caught up with the growth in key euro area countries. …a key question for policymakers is how to enhance incomes and productivity… In the decade before the global financial crisis, Italy’s spending grew faster than its income, in important part because of increases in pensions. …The tax burden is heavy…a package of high-quality measures on the spending and revenue side the country could balance the need to support growth on the one hand with the imperative of reducing debt on the other. Such a package includes…lower pension spending that is the second highest in the euro area; and lower tax rates on labor, and bringing more enterprises and persons into the tax net. …together with reforms of wage bargaining and others outlined above, can raise Italian incomes by over 10 percent, create jobs, improve competitiveness, and substantially lower public debt.

There’s a chance, however, that all this bad news may pave the way for good news. There are elections in early March and Silvio Berlusconi, considered a potential frontrunner to be the next Prime Minister, has proposed a flat tax.

Bloomberg has some of the details.

A flat tax for all and 2 million new jobs are among the top priorities in the draft program of former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party… The program aims to relaunch the euro region’s third-biggest economy…and recoup the ground lost in the double-dip, record-long recession of the 2008-2013 period. …Forza Italia’s plan doesn’t cite a level for the planned flat income tax for individuals, Berlusconi has said in recent television interviews it should be 23 percent or even below that. The written draft plan says a flat tax would also apply to companies. The program pursues the balanced budget of the Italian state and calls public debt below 100 percent of GDP a “feasible” goal. It is currently above 130 percent.

Wow. As a matter of principle, I think a 23-percent rate is too high.

But compared to Italy’s current tax regime, 23 percent will be like a Mediterranean version of Hong Kong.

So can this happen? I’m not holding my breath.

The budget numbers will be the biggest obstacle to tax reform. The official number crunchers, both inside the Italian government and at pro-tax bureaucracies such as the International Monetary Fund, will fret about the potential for revenue losses.

In part, those concerns are overblown. The high tax rates of the current system have hindered economic vitality and helped to produce very high levels of evasion. If a simple, low-rate flat tax is adopted, two things will happen.

  • There will be more revenue than expected because of better economic performance.
  • There will be more revenue than expected because of a smaller underground economy.

These things are especially likely in Italy, where dodging tax authorities is a national tradition.

That being said, “more revenue than expected” is not the same as “more revenue.” The Laffer Curve simply says that good policy produced revenue feedback, not that tax cuts always pay for themselves (that only happens in rare circumstances).

So if Italy wants tax reform, it will also need spending reform. As I noted when commenting on tax reform in Belgium, you can’t have a bloated public sector and a decent tax system.

Fortunately, that shouldn’t be too difficult. I pointed out way back in 2011 that some modest fiscal restraint could quickly pay big dividends for the nation.

But can a populist-minded Berlusconi (assuming he even wins) deliver? Based on his past record, I’m not optimistic.

Though I’ll close on a hopeful note. Berlusconi and Trump are often linked because of their wealth, their celebrity, and their controversial lives. Well, I wasn’t overly optimistic that Trump was going to deliver on his proposal for a big reduction in the corporate tax rate.

Yet it happened. Not quite the 15 percent rate he wanted, but 21 percent was a huge improvement.

Could Berlusconi – notwithstanding previous failures to reform bad policies – also usher in a pro-growth tax code?

To be honest, I have no idea. We don’t know if he is serious. And, even if his intentions are good, Italy’s parliamentary system is different for America’s separation-of-powers systems and his hands might be tied by partners in a coalition government. Though I’m encouraged by the fact that occasional bits of good policy are possible in that nation.

And let’s keep in mind that there’s another populist party that could win the election And its agenda, as reported by Bloomberg, includes reckless ideas like a “basic income.”

…economic malaise is increasingly common across Italy, where unemployment tops 11 percent and the number of people living at or below the poverty line has nearly tripled since 2006, to 4.7 million last year, or almost 8 percent of the population… “Poverty will be center stage in the campaign,” says Giorgio Freddi, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Bologna. …Five Star is a fast-growing group fueled by anger at the old political class. …a €500 ($590) monthly subsidy to the disadvantaged…is a key plank in Five Star’s national platform, and the group’s leaders have promised to quickly implement such a program if they take power. Beppe Grillo, the former television comedian who co-founded the party, says fighting poverty should be a top priority. A basic income can “give people back their dignity,”… The Five Star program echoes universal basic income schemes being considered around the world. …Five Star says the plan would cost €17 billion a year, funded in part by…tax hikes on banks, insurance companies, and gambling.

Ugh. Basic income is a very troubling idea.

I’ve already speculated about whether Italy has “passed the point of no return.” If the Five Star Movement wins the election and makes government even bigger, I think I’ll have an answer to that question.

Which helps to explain why I wrote that Sardinians should secede and become part of Switzerland (where a basic income scheme was overwhelmingly rejected).

In conclusion, I suppose I should point out that a flat tax would be very beneficial for Italy’s economy, but other market-friendly reforms are just as important.

P.S. Some people, such as Eduardo Porter in the New York Times, actually argue that the United States should be more like Italy. I’m not kidding.

P.P.S. When asked about my favorite anecdote about Italian government, I’m torn. Was it when a supposedly technocratic government appointed the wrong man to a position that shouldn’t even exist? Or was it when a small town almost shut down because so many bureaucrats were arrested for fraud?

We joked about communism yesterday, so let’s stick with the humor theme and make Trump today’s target.

Months before the 2016 election, I shared a world-according-to-Trump map that had some very clever parts (I especially liked the portrayal of Eastern Europe and Canada, though I confess I’m not sure why China was labeled as the New England Patriots).

Now let’s look at three new Trump maps.

Lots of terrorists in this first version, as you can see. And maybe Trump will have China build the wall rather than Mexico.

And, compared to the 2016 map, Obama loses North Africa.

I’m not sure why all of Europe is considered Germany in this second map, but you won’t be surprised to see Russia portrayed positively.

The most amusing part is the “PROBABLY OK” for the Antipodes, which actually matches what I told a New Zealand TV audience last November.

Now let’s look at our final map, which is the best of today’s collection. It was sent to me by a Che-loving former significant other and it’s obviously a new map since it references “s***hole countries” and Norway also gets listed.

We also see an appearance by “Rocket Man” in North Korea and the “Election Non-Meddlers” from Russia. But I’m baffled that China is considered “Climate-Change Hoaxers.”

P.S. If you like humorous maps, you can click here to see how the Greeks, Brits, and Americans view Europe.

P.P.S. If you like Trump humor, previous examples can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.

More Communism Humor

Since communism killed 100 million people over 100 years and still causes unimaginable misery in a few blighted nations today, part of me thinks we should always treat the topic in a somber fashion.

But humor plays an important role in the world of politics. Reagan’s jokes (see 4th video) about the Soviet Union, for instance, helped undermine the legitimacy of that wretched system.

So let’s augment my collection of anti-communist humor from with a couple of new items.

We’ll start with a look at the class dunce.

I’m not sure what that made me laugh, but it did.

Next, here’s something I saw on Twitter. I assume Soviet Barbie was done as satire. In any event, it captures the utter dreariness of Soviet life.

Let’s close with an actual beer commercial from the 1980s, featuring the humor of a Russian émigré, Yakov Smirnoff.

On a related note, there is plenty of socialism humor, as well as redistribution humor and Venezuela humor.

Centralization of government power is generally a very bad idea.

But this does not mean that state governments and local governments do a good job.

I’ve previously shared many examples of “great moments in state government” and today I’m going to augment my similarly sarcastic collection of “great moments in local government.”

We’ll start with one of America’s most poorly governed cities. Yes, we’re talking about Chicago.

The city can’t be bothered to stop real crime (indeed, it encourages and enables criminals by disarming law-abiding citizens), but it will nail small business owners with heavy fines for things that shouldn’t even be illegal.

A number of neighborhood small business owners are complaining that the city is overzealously policing sign permits, saying they’ve had to pay thousands of dollars in fines for words painted on their shop windows. “It just seems unfair to make you get a permit for every window panel,” said Scott Toth, owner of Craft Pizza at 1252 N. Damen Ave. …Toth had paid a contractor to paint “boiled bagels,” the hours of a pizza by the slice daily promotion, “pastries” and Sparrow Coffee in a window. Toth got a ticket for that window panel as well as three others that featured the restaurant’s logo. …hand-painted lettering at Dove’s Luncheonette advertising “breakfast, lunch, dinner,” and window script advertising “wedding dress cleaning” and “leather repair” at Wicker Park Cleaners also earned tickets, according to owners of those spots.

If you want to know what the city has achieved, here’s a “before” photo. Obviously a clear and present danger to public safety.

And here’s the “after” picture. Feel safer? Has government protected you?

I don’t know about you, but I’ll sleep more soundly knowing that there’s a crackdown on the scourge of illegal window signs.

Here are some details on Chicago’s inane law.

…city law enforced by the Department of Buildings states that permits are required for non-illuminated painted or vinyl advertising signs or lettering that take up more than 25 percent of any single window. The cost for each on-premise window sign is $200 per sign, plus a Department of Buildings zoning review fee that can vary from $50 to $1000 depending on the size of the sign. …The city requires that a professional contractor apply the lettering or images. Violators face fines of $350 to $15,000 per day until the signs are removed

Now let’s look at how Los Angeles is fleecing citizens.

…it is currently illegal for a pedestrian to step into a crosswalk after the red hand starts, even if there is sufficient time to safely cross. A Los Angeles Times investigation found that 17,000 people in the city were ticketed over a four-year period for stepping off the curb after the countdown had started. …”I don’t believe pedestrians should be preyed upon just to fill local coffers,” Santiago said in May.

Of course, Mr. Santiago is a politician, and I’m guessing he’s a big spender, so he presumably wants to prey on a different group of people.

Here’s a story from Arizona, as reported by Reason. It starts innocently enough, with one person wanting to buy some land but the owner rejecting the price.

For thirty years, Stapleton raised horses and plied his trade as a blacksmith while the city slowly grew up around him. During that time, says Stapleton, no one seemed to care much about his property or what he did with it. Until the former mayor of Phoenix set eyes on it. In 2006, Larry Herring, a representative for former mayor Phil Johnson offered Stapleton $225,000 for his property. Johnson intended to build condominiums next door. Stapleton told Herring his offer was much too low.

But then went awry. The property owner was threatened.

Herring, Stapleton says, told him if he didn’t sell, “bad things are going to happen to you” and that “a stone wall is going to fall on you.”

Unfortunately, city bureaucrats turned the threat into reality.

Shortly after rebuffing Herring’s offer, city officials cited Stapleton with six violations of the zoning code, everything from a fence that was too high, to vehicles improperly parked. The fines were $2,500 and came with the threat of six months in jail for each violation. Stapleton argued each of the violations were for long-standing features of his property, necessary for raising horses. “These things are farm things, and it’s a farm,” Stapleton says. “You didn’t bother me for thirty years. Now somebody wants the property, you want to bother me. And they were going to send me to jail to do it.” Stapleton chose to fight. The city rejected his request for a jury trial and in May 2007, a city judge fined Stapleton $15,000 and sentenced him to three years probation on the condition that he address his code violations or go to jail. At the same time the city was punishing Stapleton it was granting multiple variances to the ex-mayor’s development next door, one of them to allowed him to build a fence a foot higher than the one for which it fined Stapleton.

In a column for the New York Post, Walter Olson describes an insane proposal to help criminals in Philadelphia.

…in Philadelphia, …the city council will consider a bill to force owners of hundreds of small corner stores to take down glass partitions that protect their managers and clerks from being robbed and assaulted. It’s all being rationalized in the name of social justice. …Councilwoman Cindy Bass, who’s sponsoring the measure, …says…“Have you ever been served food at a sit-down restaurant establishment through a solid barrier? That is not acceptable. …What message does it send our children?”

Walter responds to the Councilwoman’s rhetorical question.

…it sends several messages. One is a moral that echoes down through the ages: Human beings threatened with violence have the right to protect themselves. …Philadelphia Health Commissioner Tom Farley, …is often quoted in the press demanding stronger government action to reduce gun violence. But that’s what the barriers deter. Philadelphia has a shooting every six hours, to say nothing of knifings and strong-arm robberies. The barriers reduce theft, too.

Now let’s close with an unbelievable story from Southern California about citizens getting abused. Let’s start by excerpting a horrifying anecdote.

Garcia got in trouble with Coachella City Hall in 2015 after a city code inspector discovered he had expanded his living room, making space to run a small day care center, without first getting building permits. Silver & Wright, a law firm contracted as Coachella’s city prosecutor, took the building permit case to criminal court, filing 29 misdemeanor charges. Garcia signed a plea agreement, brought his house up to code, paid a $900 fine to the court and moved on with his life.

Sounds annoying, right?

It gets worse. Far worse.

When Cesar Garcia pulled the letter out of his mailbox, he immediately recognized the name of the law firm on the envelope – Silver & Wright. …What did they want now? Garcia opened the letter, prepared for the worst, but was still shocked by what he found inside. The law firm had sent him a bill for $26,000. When he protested, the price climbed to $31,000.

And this sleazy firm, which acts on behalf of local governments, apparently makes a practice of targeting powerless people.

 Empowered by the city councils in Coachella and Indio, the law firm Silver & Wright has repeatedly filed criminal charges against residents and businesses for public nuisance crimes – like overgrown weeds, a junk-filled yard or selling popsicles without a business license – then billed them thousands of dollars to recoup expenses. …an extensive review of public records…identified 18 cases in which Indio and Coachella charged defendants more than $122,000 in “prosecution fees” since the cities hired Silver & Wright… With the addition of code enforcement fees, administration fees, abatement fees, litigation fees and appeal fees, the total price tag rises to more than $200,000.

Other examples are equally egregious.

…a Coachella family with a busted garage door and an overgrown yard filled with trash and junk was billed $18,500. An Indio man who sold parking on his land without a business license was billed $3,200. And an Indio woman who strung a Halloween decoration across the street in front of her home – then pleaded guilty to a crime no more serious than a speeding ticket at her first court appearance – was billed $2,700. …Juan Alvarado, a disabled Coachella homeowner…was prosecuted for converting his garage into a studio apartment without getting a building permit, then was billed $7,800 for the total cost of the case against him. …Indio prosecuted Fiesta Latina, a family-owned furniture store in the city’s struggling downtown district, because it didn’t have a permit for a sign on the roof. Then the store was billed $3,327 by Silver & Wright.

Utterly disgusting. Not only this story, but the other ones as well.

These local governments are basically extortion rackets. And the targets are usually the less fortunate.

These examples basically make my point that jury nullification is a very valuable tool (at least in cases where the local governments actually allow a trial rather than rely on bureaucratic edicts). I want fellow citizens to be a potential line of defense for the oppressed and mistreated.

But my final point is counter-intuitive. As much as I despise the actions of thuggish bureaucrats and politicians at the city and county level, I prefer local government over state government (or national government, or global government) for the simple reason that it’s much easier to escape their predatory behavior.

I wrote two days ago about a jury correctly voting to acquit a Swiss banker who was being prosecuted (and persecuted) by the government. The jury presumably recognized that it’s not the responsibility of foreign national living in outside the U.S. to enforce our bad tax law.

My support for that jury has nothing to do with my admiration for Switzerland, my support for financial privacy, or my opposition to excessive taxation.

Instead, I was motivated by the principle that borders should limit the power and reach of government. And this principle is a two-way street. I also don’t want foreign governments to have carte blanche to impose their laws inside the United States.

I’m impressed that ordinary jurors apparently understood that principle better than policy makers in Washington.

But that’s not the only evidence for the wisdom of jurors.

Here’s another report on jury nullification in action.

A jury delivered an extraordinary blow to the government in a long-running battle over the use of public lands when it acquitted all seven defendants involved in the armed occupation of a national wildlife refuge in rural southeastern Oregon. …The Portland jury acquitted Bundy, his brother Ryan Bundy and five others of conspiring to impede federal workers from their jobs at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, 300 miles southeast of Portland. …Even attorneys for the defendants were surprised by the acquittals. …Federal prosecutors took two weeks to present their case, finishing with a display of more than 30 guns seized after the standoff.

But that was just the start because another trial was scheduled for Nevada.

U.S. District Judge Anna Brown said she could not release Bundy because he still faces charges in Nevada stemming from an armed standoff at his father Cliven Bundy’s ranch two years ago. …Daniel Hill, attorney for Ammon Bundy in the Nevada case, said he believed the acquittal in Oregon bodes well for his client and the other defendants facing felony weapon, conspiracy and other charges.

And what happened at that second trial?

Hold off on that question for a moment, bucause some of Bundy’s allies were given their day in court. The Las Vegas Sun reported on another outbreak of jury nullification.

A federal jury in Las Vegas refused Tuesday to convict four defendants who were retried on accusations that they threatened and assaulted federal agents by wielding assault weapons in a 2014 confrontation to stop a cattle roundup near the Nevada ranch of states’ rights figure Cliven Bundy. In a stunning setback to federal prosecutors planning to try the Bundy family patriarch and two adult sons later this year, the jury acquitted Ricky Lovelien and Steven Stewart of all 10 charges, and delivered not-guilty findings on most charges against Scott Drexler and Eric Parker. …”Random people off the streets, these jurors, they told the government again that we’re not going to put up with tyranny,” said a John Lamb, a Montana resident who attended almost all the five weeks of trial, which began with jury selection July 10. …The current jury deliberated four full days after more than 20 days of testimony.

So how did the government respond?

The second Bundy trial won’t even take place. As David French explained in a column for National Review, an Obama appointee threw out the case, thus saving a jury from another chance for nullification.

…a federal judge, Obama appointee Gloria Navarro, dismissed the federal government’s criminal case against Bundy and two of his sons on the basis that the government was guilty of “flagrant misconduct” in the trial. Its conduct was so “outrageous” that “no lesser remedy” than dismissal with prejudice “is sufficient.”

And why did the Judge make that decision?

In this case, evidence shows that a federal agency motivated by ego, anger, and prejudice launched the most militaristic and aggressive campaign possible against a rancher whom federal officials had deemed to be likely peaceful. There is evidence they abused that rancher’s son, ringed his property with snipers, and intended to “kick [him] in the mouth and take his cattle.” Then, when it came time to prosecute that same rancher, they withheld the truth and portrayed his accurate claims about federal misconduct as criminal deceptions designed to inflame public outrage. …The judge, however, understood her legal obligations. Who is the greater threat to public peace and the rule of law? A rancher and his sons angry that the government is destroying his livelihood in part through political favoritism and vindictiveness? Or a government that acts as if might makes right, abuses its citizens, and uses maximum force when far less intrusion and risk would accomplish its lawful purposes? Bundy’s case teaches a number of valuable lessons. We cannot presume the government’s virtue. Sometimes even wild tales are true. And every American — from the angriest antifa activist to the leader of “Y’all Qaeda” — is entitled to the full protection of the United States Constitution.

Jim Bovard, in a column for USA Today, opines on the broader implications.

…federal judge Gloria Navarro declared a mistrial in the case against Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and others after prosecutors were caught withholding massive amounts of evidence undermining federal charges. This is the latest in a long series of federal law enforcement debacles that have spurred vast distrust of Washington. …The Bundys have long claimed the feds were on a vendetta against them, and 3,300 pages of documents the Justice Department wrongfully concealed from their lawyers provides smoking guns that buttress their case. …In the Bundy case, Judge Navarro slammed the FBI for withholding key evidence. …Until the feds cease wrongfully abusing their targets, there will be no rebound in trust in Washington. If the Trump administration cannot rein in renegade federal prosecutors, the president should cease-and-desist any and all claptrap about “draining the swamp.”

In other words, so long as there are some bad apples in the world of law enforcement (and, more broadly, in positions of power in government), jury nullification is a bulwark against abuse by the state.

Incidentally, I’m not implying Bundy and his pals are heroes. Yes, they’ve been mistreated, but they also seem to think they have a right to treat government land as their land. Which is why I think the real solution is privatization of the excessive government holdings of land.

Let’s now zoom out and look at three good pieces about jury nullification in Reason, starting with a column by J.D. Tuccille.

…jury nullification—acquittals of defendants who jurors believe did violate the law but don’t deserve punishment, either because of specifics of the case or because jurors oppose the law in question—isn’t always obvious. …But, as with much of what jurors do, nullification is important and potentially powerful. …Given the fury that judges and other officials display toward independent jurors, including occasional contempt of court and jury tampering charges, …Jurors who go about their business without revealing their motivations are immune to punishment, so keeping your mouth shut is just smart, even if it leaves the rest of us in the dark.

He provides an example of a jury slapping down an absurd prosecution.

…it’s more common to see cases like the rapid acquittal of an Ohio machinist who was arrested for making what Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives agents claimed were firearms noise suppressors (so-called “silencers”) without a license. …He claimed his products were actually unregulated muzzle brakes and that the government’s “expert” had no idea what he was talking about. Whether the jury believed the machinist, or whether they thought it was ridiculous to threaten a man with producing items that can easily be made on a home workbench and that lawmakers at the state and federal level are considering deregulating, is something we’ll probably never know. …Either way, they likely concluded that they were carrying out their responsibility to do justice and protect defendants from government overreach. Because, ultimately, jury nullification is just an extension of the jury’s role as a check on the state—whether prosecutors are applying law badly, or just applying bad law.

It’s not surprising to learn that the government does not like jury nullification.

But what is shocking is that the state is willing to imprison people for exercising their rights to free speech by informing potential jurors about nullification.

Here’s some of what Jacob Sullum wrote.

…a Michigan judge sentenced a local activist to eight weekends in jail, plus $545 in fines, 120 hours of community service, and six months of probation, for passing out jury nullification pamphlets in front of the Mecosta County courthouse. Keith Wood, a former pastor and father of eight, was arrested in November 2015 and convicted last month of jury tampering, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail. …Wood’s lawyer, David Kallman, who plans to appeal the conviction, argued that distributing the pamphlets, which contained general information about jurors’ rights, was protected by the First Amendment. He emphasized that Wood never discussed Yoder’s case with passers-by at the courthouse. …After Wood’s arrest, Mecosta County Prosecutor Brian Thiede said the FIJA pamphlet is dangerous because “we would have a lawless nation if people were to vote their conscience.”

The last sentence is the key. Notwithstanding the fevered statement of Mr. Thiede, we would not have a “lawless nation.” Jurors have no problem convicting those who assault, harm, kill, steal, and rape.

Nullification is a check on bad laws and/or bad actions by government. And that’s a good thing.

Let’s close with another piece by Tuccille, which has two very encouraging examples. We’ll start in Texas.

…El Paso, Texas, Police Chief Greg Allen turned out to be a surprise defender of bypassing the usual criminal justice rigmarole of booking, mug shots, and jails. While careful to emphasize that he’s no fan of drug legalization, Allen says it’s a waste of his officers’ time to put hours into an “an arrest that has no end result of a conviction because of jury nullification.” This is only the latest evidence that rebellious jurors are putting limits on how badly government officials can treat the rest of us. …”Jury nullification, though still rare, appears to be on the rise in drug cases that reach the trial stage,” wrote Rice University’s Prof. William Martin… But jurors are…doing just that often enough that the El Paso Police Chief sees no point to making arrests that have “no end result of a conviction because of jury nullification.”

And finish with Georgia.

In Laurens County, Antonio Willis faced up to five years in prison for selling the equivalent of a few joints to an undercover cop. The cop, “who switched into an exaggerated Hispanic accent straight out of Cheech and Chong when dealing with suspects,” according to Bill Torpy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, kept pestering Willis for drugs while promising to hook the unemployed man up with a construction job. …the jury acquitted after just 18 minutes of deliberations. “A jury in Middle Georgia returned a Not Guilty verdict in a marijuana sale case despite the evidence,” retired sheriff’s deputy Tom McCain, now executive director of Peachtree NORML, approvingly commented after the trial. “The verdict can be nothing other than Jury Nullification.”

The moral of the story is not that jury nullification is a great thing. It’s only a second-best solution to the real problem of bad laws (exacerbated occasionally by bad prosecutors or bad cops).

But so long as bad laws (or incomprehensible laws) exist and government officials sometimes act dishonorably, we should support juries being the last line of defense for persecuted citizens. Remember, a tough-on-crime policy is only good if laws are just.

This is depressing.

Republicans botched the repeal of Obamacare. They’ve already sold out (twice!) on the spending caps in the Budget Control Act, and they’re about to do it again.

And now they want to bring back earmarks.

In this interview with Neil Cavuto, I explain why this is a very troubling development.

One thing I didn’t mention in the interview is that earmarks are inherently corrupt. Indeed, there’s a near-universal four-step process that – in a just world – would result in politicians getting arrested (see 18 U.S. Code § 203) for bribery, graft, and conflicts of interest.

  1. An interest group decides it wants other people’s money and decides to use government as a middleman.
  2. The interest group hires lobbyists, most of whom are former members of Congress or former staff members.
  3. The interest group and the lobbyists direct campaign contributions to one or more politicians.
  4. In exchange for those contributions, one or more earmarks are inserted in a spending bill.

That’s a great deal for Washington insiders, but not so good for taxpayers or honest government.

And if you don’t believe me, read about the oleaginous behavior of Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Jim Moran.

Now let’s consider an argument in favor of earmarks. Writing for Bloomberg, Professor Tyler Cowen of George Mason University argues that the system needs a bit of grease to work better.

…think of earmarks as local benefits inserted into bills to buy more votes in Congress. …Recalcitrant representatives can be swayed by the promise of a perk for their district. That eases gridlock…whether we like it or not, there is something inherently transactional about being governed.

As I stated in the interview, I don’t think this assertion is persuasive. Most legislation is bad for liberty, so I agree with America’s Founders that gridlock is good.

That being said, Tyler makes a couple of compelling arguments. First, he points out that we may need some pork to get good legislation through the process.

Advocates of smaller government should keep in mind that reforming spending and regulation requires some activism from Congress. Gridlock today is not the friend of fiscal responsibility, coherent policy, or a free, well-functioning capitalist economy.

I agree with the first sentence and said the same thing in my talk with Neil. We will need congressional action to reform entitlements and save the country. And if that means bribing a few members to get votes, so be it.

However, I think his second sentence is too optimistic. Good reform is not very likely with Trump in the White House. It’s a judgement call, to be sure, but I believe gridlock will be a good thing for the next few years.

Second, Tyler acknowledges that politicians try to buy votes, but he suggests that earmarks are cheap compared to potential alternatives (such as new entitlements, presumably).

…virtually every member of Congress looks to support government spending that will boost his or her re-election prospects. It is often the case that directly targeted local spending — which may take the form of earmarks — buys support for a relatively low dollar price per vote. If earmarks are removed, representatives are still going to pursue votes, but the total amount of electorally motivated, wasteful government spending may be higher.

This is a potentially persuasive point, but I’ll be skeptical until I see some supporting evidence.

In a gridlock environment, I suspect enacting non-earmark spending is not that easy (though I admit an Obamacare-level budget buster every 10 years would completely wipe out in just one year the money that might be saved over several decades with an earmark ban).

In addition to what Tyler wrote, another pro-earmark argument is that there will always be a person who decides how money is spent. And I’ve had members of Congress tell me that they’d rather make those decisions that have a bunch of left-wing bureaucrats allocate money.

That’s a perfectly reasonable argument, but it doesn’t address my fundamental concern that the existence of earmarks will seduce members into supporting higher overall levels of spending.

Which brings me to my final point. I’m willing to cut a deal.

I’m willing to let politicians allocate 100 percent of spending with earmarks if they’ll agree to a comprehensive spending cap that complies with the Golden Rule and slowly but surely shrinks the overall burden of federal spending.

If the crowd in Washington is serious about the argument that earmarks are needed to grease the skids for desirable legislation, it’s time for them to put their votes where their mouths are.

Given the track records of most of the politicians who support earmarks, I’m not holding my breath.

I haven’t written in any detail about “jury nullification” since late 2010 and it’s time to rectify that sin of omission.

Nullification occurs when a jury votes not guilty because a law is either unjust or wrongly applied, not because a defendant is actually innocent. And I know that’s what I would do if I was on a jury and the government was persecuting someone for engaging is self-defense or getting nabbed by a revenue camera.

The bottom line is that Walter Williams is right when he says that it is immoral to obey bad laws.

Let’s review some expert opinions.

Writing on the editorial page of the New York Times, a former prosecutor urges jury nullification.

Earlier this year, prosecutors charged Julian P. Heicklen, a retired chemistry professor, with jury tampering because he stood outside the federal courthouse in Manhattan providing information about jury nullification to passers-by. …The prosecutors who charged Mr. Heicklen said that “advocacy of jury nullification, directed as it is to jurors, would be both criminal and without constitutional protections no matter where it occurred.” The prosecutors in this case are wrong. The First Amendment exists to protect speech like this — honest information that the government prefers citizens not know. …Jury nullification is not new; its proponents have included John Hancock and John Adams. The doctrine is premised on the idea that ordinary citizens, not government officials, should have the final say as to whether a person should be punished. As Adams put it, it is each juror’s “duty” to vote based on his or her “own best understanding, judgment and conscience, though in direct opposition to the direction of the court.” …Nullification has been credited with helping to end alcohol prohibition and laws that criminalized gay sex. Last year, Montana prosecutors were forced to offer a defendant in a marijuana case a favorable plea bargain after so many potential jurors said they would nullify that the judge didn’t think he could find enough jurors to hear the case.

A column in the Washington Post by Professor Glenn Reynolds at the University of Tennessee argues that juries have an obligation to rein in bad prosecutors.

Despite the evidence, those responsible for convicting you may choose to let you go, if they think that sending you to jail would result in an injustice. That can happen through what’s called “prosecutorial discretion,” where a prosecutor decides not to bring or pursue charges against you because doing so would be unfair, even though the evidence is strong. Or it can happen through “jury nullification,” where a jury thinks that the evidence supports conviction but then decides to issue a “not guilty” verdict because it feels that a conviction would be unjust. …Prosecutorial discretion is regularly applied and generally regarded as a standard part of criminal justice. …So-called jury nullification, on the other hand, gets far less respect. Though it is clearly within the power of juries to refuse to convict whenever they choose, judges and prosecutors tend to view this practice with hostility. …there has been a massive shift of power toward prosecutors, the result of politics, over-criminalization, institutional leverage and judges’ failure to provide supervision. It’s time to redress the balance.

By the way, Glenn has proposed ways (see postscript of this column) of addressing this imbalance, which is tied to over-criminalization.

And here’s another column in the Washington Post arguing in favor of jury empowerment.

As I tried cases, I gained enormous respect for the seriousness with which jurors approached their work. …These jurors had no problem convicting anyone of a violent offense, if the government proved its case. For drug crimes, however, it was a different story. …they frequently voted “not guilty” in nonviolent drug cases, no matter how compelling the evidence. …When I started teaching law, I published an article in the Yale Law Journal situating these D.C. jurors in a long line of jurors…who refused to convict American patriots of sedition against the British crown; jurors who acquitted people guilty of violating the Fugitive Slave Act; and jurors who would not punish gay people for “sodomy” for having consensual sex.

Amen. Juries should pursue justice, not act as rubber stamps when prosecutors act as cogs for an unjust regime.

Now let’s look at a real-world example, as reported by the New York Times.

As much as chocolate and watches, Switzerland is known for bank secrecy. …it also made Swiss banks targets for an assault by the United States government… Bank Frey was among the very few to defy the legal onslaught. And Mr. Buck…was the bank’s public face, responsible for landing and then managing American accounts. That put Mr. Buck in the government’s cross hairs. In 2013, a federal grand jury indicted him for conspiring to help Americans avoid taxes. …But things didn’t go as prosecutors had planned… The crux of the defense was that the responsibility to pay taxes and declare income did not rest with Mr. Buck. It was his clients who had decided not to pay taxes. He was under no obligation to tattle… Prosecutors branded him as a crucial cog in an international tax-evasion scheme. …Then it was Mr. Agnifilo’s turn. …“Stefan Buck has nothing whatsoever, nothing whatsoever, to do with the choice that an American taxpayer makes” to not declare offshore assets. …The jury deliberated for a little more than a day. …the verdict: not guilty.

The story doesn’t mention jury nullification, but I’m assuming – from a technical legal perspective – the prosecutors had an open-and-shut case against Mr. Buck. After all, he did “conspire” to help Americans protect their income from the IRS.

But the jury decided that conviction would be absurd because a Swiss person on Swiss soil has no obligation to help enforce bad U.S. tax policy. So they voted not guilty because that was the only moral choice.

And the good news is that this is becoming a pattern.

In October 2014, one of UBS’s top executives, Raoul Weil, went on trial in Florida. Federal prosecutors accused him of helping clients hide billions. Mr. Weil’s lawyers argued he had no knowledge of or responsibility for what had happened. The jury deliberated for barely an hour before acquitting him. The same week, a Los Angeles jury acquitted an Israeli banker who faced similar accusations. The Americans’ pursuit of foreign bankers no longer looked invincible.

The even-better news is that these nullification decisions by juries may now lead to some “prosecutorial discretion.”

The Justice Department had now lost the three cases it had tried against foreign bankers who helped Americans avoid taxes. Dozens more cases are pending. Those who represent accused Swiss bankers say they expect Mr. Buck’s verdict to embolden defendants and to cause prosecutors to think twice before bringing new charges.

In other words, the bad law will still exist but hopefully will have little or no impact because prosecutors are less likely to file charges and juries won’t convict when they do.

That’s a victory for liberty, though it surely would be best – as we discussed just a few days ago – if politicians repealed the bad laws that make unjust prosecutions possible.

P.S. I’ve confessed mixed feelings about potential nullification in cases of vigilante justice.

P.P.S. In my younger days, I assumed that cops and prosecutors were the good guys, helping to maintain an orderly society. I still think that most of them want to do what’s right, but I also now realize that our Founding Fathers were very wise to include strong protections for defendants in our Constitution. Simply stated, some cops and some prosecutors are bad and those bad apples are why I favor strengthening the Fourth Amendment and have become more skeptical of the death penalty.

P.P.P.S. Even if you’re a law-abiding person, you should support civil liberties.

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