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Archive for June 11th, 2020

One week ago, I wrote about how the welfare state creates high implicit marginal tax rates, thus making it difficult for low-income people to climb out of poverty and dependence.

But that’s not the only way that poor people are victimized by big government.

Another very serious problem is the way local and state governments impose a plethora of fees, fines and charges that can wreck the lives of the less fortunate.

In a column for the New York Times, Professor Bernadette Atahuene of the Chicago-Kent College of Law opines on the problem of greedy local governments.

I coined the term “predatory cities” to describe urban areas where public officials systematically take property from residents and transfer it to public coffers… Ferguson, Mo., is one well-known predatory city. As a 2015 Department of Justice report showed, the police in Ferguson systematically targeted African-Americans and subjected them to excessive fines and fees. …local courts issued arrest warrants for unpaid fines and fees… Minor offenses, like parking infractions, resulted in jail time… The Ferguson Police Department and courts prioritized revenue raising over public safety, transforming Ferguson into a predatory city.

Professor Atahuene cites the pernicious policies of New Orleans and Washington, D.C. (and note that asset forfeiture is one of the problems).

New Orleans is another. …Orleans Parish Criminal District Court’s primary source of funding was the fines and fees it collected. This created a structural incentive for judges to aggressively and erroneously pursue payment from those with no ability to pay, turning New Orleans into a predatory city. Washington, D.C., is yet another predatory city. While civil asset forfeiture laws allow the police to seize property that they suspect was involved in a crime, in Washington, D.C., property owners had to post bonds of up to $2,500 in order to challenge the seizure. If the owner could not raise money in time, the D.C. Police Department sold the property, and the money went into its annual budget. In a two-year period, the Police Department made $4.8 million in profit by seizing money from over 8,500 people as well as seizing 339 vehicles.

Every decent human being should get upset about the grotesque way that politicians are mistreating their residents.

Especially since poor people are being disproportionately victimized.

By the way, it appears that Professor Atahuene is not a libertarian. She wants Congress to approve a big bailout, based on the theory that state and local politicians will be less likely to engage in what I’ve called “rapacious revenue-raising tactics” if they get big buckets of money from Uncle Sam.

Needless to say, I think that would be a mistake.

But I don’t think someone needs to agree with me on everything, or even most things, if we can periodically find common ground on proposals that would improve the lives of people (not just on the need to curtail greedy local governments, but also on issues such as over-criminalization and police unions).

P.S. I wonder if there would be fewer petty fines, fees, and charges if they were levied on the ability to pay, thus making higher-income people more sensitive to the problem?

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