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Archive for the ‘Crime’ Category

Thanks to decades of experience and research, we now know several things about so-called anti-money laundering (AML) laws.

It’s not that the theory behind these laws is without merit. The original notion was that perhaps we could reduce crime by figuring out ways to prevent crooks from utilizing the banking system. That’s a worthy goal. But it turns out that it doesn’t work.

For all intents and purposes, AML laws are a misallocation of law-enforcement resources.

So you would think that policy makers would be endeavoring to repeal these counterproductive rules and regulations, right?

But you would be wrong. Some of them actually want to double down on failure. To be more specific, four senators have introduced a bill to make these laws more intrusive and onerous.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein, along with Senators John Cornyn and Sheldon Whitehouse, today introduced legislation that modernizes and strengthens criminal laws against money laundering – a critical source of funding for terrorist organizations, drug cartels and other organized crime syndicates.  The Combating Money Laundering, Terrorist Financing, and Counterfeiting Act of 2017 updates criminal money laundering and counterfeiting statutes, and promotes transparency in the U.S. financial system.

It’s quite possible that these politicians actually think this new law will somehow reduce all the bad things they put in the bill’s title (I’m surprised they didn’t add tooth decay and cancer to the list).

But if past experience is any guide, the real-world result will be more abuse of law-abiding citizens.

Writing for the Blaze, Justin Haskins warns how the new legislation can endanger innocent people.

Four U.S. senators have proposed legislation that would significantly expand the power of the federal government to seize citizens’ money when traveling in or out of the United States. …several troubling provisions in the law could put law-abiding American citizens at risk of losing tens of thousands of dollars for doing nothing more than failing to fill out a government form. Under current federal law, travelers transporting $10,000 or more in cash or other monetary instruments are required to report those funds to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Failure to report funds, even if unintentional, can lead to the seizure of the money and criminal or civil penalties.

That approach already produces horrible abuses of innocent people.

And imagine what will happen if this new law is enacted.

The Combating Money Laundering, Terrorist Financing and Counterfeiting Act would expand “monetary instruments” covered under current law to include “prepaid access devices, stored value cards, digital currencies, and other similar instruments.” This is particularly problematic because digital currencies, such as Bitcoin, are theoretically always transported by the owner of the digital currency account wherever he or she goes, which means digital currency owners with accounts valued at $10,000 or more must always report their funds or risk having them seized. Even more troubling is the law treats all blank checks as though they are financial instruments valued in excess of $10,000 if the checking account contains at least $10,000, which means if a traveler accidently fails to report a blank check floating around in his or her luggage, the account holder could face stiff penalties — even if there is no suspicion of criminal activity.

Some of you may be thinking that it’s okay to subject innocent people to abuse if it achieves a very important goal of stopping terrorists.

But that’s not happening. In a must-read article for Foreign Affairs, Peter Neumann points out that AML laws are grossly ineffective in the fight against Islamo-fascism.

…the war on terrorist financing has failed. Today, there are more terrorist organizations, with more money, than ever before. …Driven by the assumption that terrorism costs money, governments have for years sought to cut off terrorists’ access to the global financial system. They have introduced blacklists, frozen assets, and imposed countless regulations designed to prevent terrorist financing, costing the public and private sectors billions of dollars.

And what’s the result of all this expense?

It hasn’t stopped terrorism.

…there is no evidence that it has ever thwarted a terrorist campaign. Most attacks require very little money, and terrorists tend to use a wide range of money-transfer and fundraising methods, many of which avoid the international financial system. …Terrorist operations are cheap, and according to a 2015 study by the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, over 90 percent of the jihadist cells in Europe between 1994 and 2013 were “self-funded,” typically through savings, welfare payments, personal loans, or the proceeds of petty crime. …many jihadists have used their own savings and welfare payments or taken out small loans; others have borrowed money from their friends or family. …Financial tools cannot stop lone attackers from driving cars into crowds.

But it has imposed major burdens on innocent parties.

…the focus on the financial sector proved ineffective; it has also harmed innocent people and businesses. To address policymakers’ demands, financial institutions have “de-risked” their portfolios, shedding investments and clients that might be linked to terrorist financing. …De-risking, moreover, has resulted in the de facto exclusion of entire countries, mostly poor ones such as Afghanistan and Somalia, from the global financial system. The bank accounts of refugees, charities that operate in regions torn apart by civil war, and even Western citizens with family links to so-called risk countries have been closed. Practically no Western bank now offers cash transfers to Somalia, for example, although 40 percent of the population depends on remittances from abroad.

And what is the author’s bottom line?

Simply stated, the current system is a failure.

Instead of continuing to look for needles in a haystack, governments should overhaul their approach to countering terrorist funding… Otherwise, they will waste time and money on a strategy that cannot deliver security for many more years to come. .. Policymakers need to acknowledge that the war on terrorist financing, as it has been conducted since 2001, has often been costly and counterproductive, harming innocent people and companies without significantly constraining terrorist groups’ ability to operate.

I agree.

Indeed, I wrote an article for Pace Law Review, published back in 2005, that made many of the same points, including a lot of attention on theoretical role of cost-benefit analysis.

Law enforcement policy should include cost/benefit analysis so that resources are best allocated to protect life, liberty, and property. This should not be a controversial proposition. Cost-benefit analysis…already is part of the public policy process. For instance, few people would think it is acceptable for a city of 10 million to have just one police officer. Yet it is also true that few would want that city to have five million police officers. In other words, there is a point where additional law enforcement expenditures – both public and private – exceed the likely benefits. Every government makes such decisions. Cost-benefit analysis applies to aggregate resource allocation choices, such as how many police officers to employ in a city, but also to how a given level of resources are utilized. In other words, since there are not unlimited resources, it makes sense to allocate those resources in ways that yield the greatest benefit. On a practical level, city officials must decide how many officers to put on each shift, how many officers to assign to different neighborhoods, and how many officers to allocate to each type of crime. The same issues apply in the war against terrorism. Officials must decide not only on the level of resources devoted to fighting terrorism, but they also must make allocation decisions between, say, human intelligence and electronic surveillance.

Now let’s shift from theory to evidence.

I argued AML laws didn’t pass the test.

…while anti-money laundering laws theoretically help the war against terror, this does not mean that they necessarily are justified by cost-benefit analysis. A…book from the Institute for International Economics…strongly supports anti-money laundering laws and advocates their expansion. But the authors admit that these laws imposed costs of $7 billion in 2003, yet they admitted that, “While the number of suspicious activity reports filed has risen rapidly in recent years…total seizures and forfeitures amount to an extremely small sum (approximately $700 million annually in the United States) when compared with the crude estimates of the total amounts laundered. Moreover, there has not been an increase in the number of federal convictions for money laundering.” The private sector bears most of the cost of anti-money laundering laws, but the authors also note that, “Budgetary costs for AML laws have tripled in the last 20 years for prevention and quadrupled for enforcement.” The key question, of course, is whether these costs are matched by concomitant benefits. The answer almost certainly is no. …the government seizes very little dirty money. There are only about 2,000 convictions for federal money laundering offenses each year, and that number falls by more than 50 percent not counting cases where money laundering was an add-on charge to another offense.

Let’s close with passages from a couple of additional articles.

First, Richard Rahn explains why all anti-money laundering laws are misguided in a very recent column for the Washington Times.

…what is even more shocking is the extent to which various government organizations monitor and, in many cases, restrict financial freedom, and seize assets without criminal conviction. …The government argues that it must collect financial data and then share it with many domestic and foreign government organizations in order to stop tax evasion, money laundering, drug dealing, other assorted criminality, and terrorist finance — all of which sounds good at first glance, until one looks at what really happens. If you think that the war on drugs has been a failure, look at the war on money laundering, tax evasion and terrorist finance for an even bigger failure. …money laundering is a crime of intent, rather than actions, in which two different people can engage in the same set of financial transactions, but if one has criminal intent he or she can be charged while the other person is home free. Such vague law is both ripe with abuse and difficult to prove. …The financial information that government agencies now routinely collect is widely shared, not only with other domestic government agencies, but increasingly with foreign governments — many of which do not protect individual liberty and other basic rights.

And here are some excerpts from a column in Reason by Elizabeth Nolan Brown.

American and British banks are monitoring customers’ contraception purchases, DVD-rental frequency, dining-out habits, and more in a misguided attempt to detect human traffickers… Their intrusive and ineffective efforts come at the behest of government agencies, who have been eager to use asset-forfeiture powers… The U.S. and U.K. banks RUSI researchers interviewed said they were happy to help law enforcement prosecute human traffickers and had little problems turning over financial records for people already arrested or under investigation. But proactively finding potential traffickers themselves proved more difficult. As RUSI explains, “the often unremarkable nature of transactions related to” human trafficking made finding criminals or victims via transaction monitoring a time-consuming and unfruitful endeavor. Yet financial institutions are boxed in by regulations that threaten to punish them severely should they participate in the flow of illegally begotten money, however unwittingly. The bind leaves banks and other financial services eager to cast as wide a net as possible, terminating relationships with “suspicious” customers, monitoring the bank accounts of people they know, or turning their records over to law enforcement rather than risk allegations of not doing enough to comply.

In other words, these laws are a costly – but ineffective – burden.

Which is what I said in this video for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

P.S. In closing, I should point out that statists frequently demagogue against so-called tax havens for supposedly being hotbeds of dirty money, but take a look at this map put together by the Institute of Governance and you’ll find only one low-tax jurisdiction among the 28 nations listed.

Even the State Department’s most recent list of vulnerable jurisdictions shows only a handful of international financial centers.

Yes, places Cayman and Bermuda are on the list, but so are countries such as Canada, China, India, Italy, Netherlands, Russia, and the United Kingdom. In other words, it’s basically a random list of jurisdictions rather than a helpful guide.

P.P.S. You probably didn’t realize you could make a joke involving money laundering, but here’s one starring President Obama.

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The Moocher Hall of Fame highlights people who have some special trait that sets them apart from normal welfare recipients. They may get on the list because they are undeservingly rich, malignantly evil, incredibly entitled, or downright weird.

I also have a terror wing in the Hall of Fame. Though I’ve had to become selective since it turns out that just about every nutcase terrorist in the western world mooches off taxpayers.

And now I’m thinking I need a new wing. I’m not sure what to call it, but it’s for the middlemen or wholesalers who engage in industrial-level fleecing of taxpayers.

To give you an idea of what I mean, here are some excerpts from a story in  Newsweek about some Chicago-based scamming.

…the grandmother was actually conducting a simple unemployment insurance scam, one that stole almost $7 million from the state of Illinois, attracted a federal investigation and on Monday earned Garcia a four-year prison sentence. Garcia would pass out business cards at gas stations and on some days 10 to 15 people would walk into her office and hire her to file unemployment insurance claims for them, according to court papers filed by federal prosecutors. Many of her clients were Mexican-born immigrants without lawful immigration status or work permits, which made them ineligible for unemployment benefits. …She also kept a list of U.S. cities near the Mexican border, handwritten and neatly organized, and selected from it when filling out a client’s application. …Garcia told the informant she had clients who used false Social Security numbers for five or six years without problems, and that nine out of 10 applications were approved.

I have a couple of thoughts about this story. First, why isn’t she in jail for longer? Second, why isn’t her daughter also in jail?

But most important, why is government so blindly incompetent that it makes us all have Social Security numbers, but then it doesn’t actually have some sort of system to match names and numbers on things like unemployment forms?!?

It’s almost as if government is a big incompetent blob.

Here’s another story about a welfare middleman, though this is also a case where it’s a woman who is ripping off taxpayers.

Convenience store owner Vida Ofori Causey out of Worcester, Mass. was charged in federal court Monday after pleading guilty to $3.6 million worth of food stamp fraud. …She was able to scam the program by buying food stamp benefits from receipts for half the actual value. …As a result, recipients had cash on hand to buy restricted items. The restricted items could include alcohol, cigarettes and even drugs.

Since there’s a long history of fraud in the food stamps program, I’m not surprised that this happened.

Though I’m impressed (in a bad way) about the magnitude. It takes a lot of dishonest recipients combining with one evil woman to produce $3.6 million in fraud.

Last but not least, here’s a really disturbing story about a moocher who very appropriately has been jailed for life.

For 10 years, the group targeted mentally disabled people, luring those who were vulnerable and estranged from their families and locking them inside cabinets, basements and attics, according to prosecutors. The group’s ringleader, Linda Weston, persuaded the victims to allow her to become their representative and began collecting their disability benefits. The victims, prosecutors said, lived in the dark and in isolation, and were fed food laced with drugs to keep them sedated; they were brutally punished if they tried to escape. On Thursday, a federal judge sentenced Weston, 55, to life in prison — plus 80 years — for her role in the scheme. …The case horrified Philadelphia, where in 2011 a landlord discovered four disabled adults locked inside a boiler room, NBC reported. …The group ran the operation in three other states, prosecutors said. …victims were forced to live in attics naked…were fed a diet of Ramen noodles, beans or stew just once a day. …Some were encouraged to have children in order to collect more benefits. …The group stole more than $200,000 in Social Security benefits from victims, some of whom were forced into prostitution.

By the way, all three stories today feature women, so America truly is a land of opportunity for reprehensible people of both sexes. So perhaps the bottom line is that I need a female wing in the Moocher Hall of Fame.

You’ve come a long way, baby!

P.S. Since today’s topic is about bad people who are financed by handouts, I’ll include some less-then-surprising news from the United Kingdom about another welfare-financed terrorist.

The ringleader of the London terror attack was bankrolled by the taxpayer, it has been revealed. Khuram Butt, 27, was claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance of around £300 a month, and was also paid housing benefit for his council-owned flat in Barking as well as child benefit. …Butt was a supporter of al-Muhajiroun and an associate of its leader Anjem Choudary, who encouraged his followers to exploit Britain’s welfare system. The jailed hate preacher even used the phrase ‘Jihad Seeker’s Allowance’.

Since the suicide bomber in Manchester also was leeching off taxpayers, we’ve reached the point where it will be more newsworthy if we find a self-sufficient terrorist.

P.P.S. I hope these are the virgins that greet Khuram in paradise.

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The libertarian approach to crime is both simple and sensible.

  • First, only activities that harm other people should be against the law. So get rid of laws against drugs, gambling, cash deposits, and other victimless crimes.
  • Second, make sure that government behaves properly and respects constitutional rights while investigating and prosecuting criminality.
  • Third, impose appropriate punishment on those properly convicted of harming other people.

In other words, be “tough on crime,” but make sure there’s a morally just system.

And I should consider adding a fourth principle, which is that laws shouldn’t be a way for governments to pad their budgets with unfair fines and other cash penalties.

With this in mind, let’s explore a practical example of why it’s a good idea to make sure governments respect due process and civil liberties. I wrote last year about how the Justice Department wrongly asserted that it has the right, without following due process, to reach outside America’s borders to obtain personal information.

In part, the bureaucrats at DOJ are exploiting old law that doesn’t provide clear guidance on how to deal with modern electronic communication and data storage. Fortunately, that’s something that should be easy to fix.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center correctly identifies the key issue in a column for Reason., starting with the fact that courts fortunately are not giving the feds a blank check.

…the Justice Department…asserted that a U.S. search warrant should carry jurisdiction over the data of an Irish citizen being stored on a server in Ireland simply because it is owned by Microsoft, an American corporation. Thank goodness the federal appeals court has now rejected the government’s attempt… The outcome affirms a landmark defense of privacy rights against law enforcement overreach and clearly establishes that the U.S. government does not have jurisdiction over the entire world. It also removes a major threat to the competitiveness of U.S.-based multinational companies, which must operate under the privacy rules of the countries in which they operate. Many of those countries unsurprisingly take a dim view of U.S. government efforts to pry into the lives of their citizens.

But it would be good if lawmakers modified the law so that it reflects today’s world.

Members of Congress, however, shouldn’t count on either the courts or the Trump administration. Instead, they could address the fundamental issue. The root of the problem is a common one. A law—the Electronic Communications Privacy Act—was enacted in 1986 to address issues raised by the technology at the time, and Congress never bothered to update it despite significant advancements in the decades since. …This has also resulted in massive privacy blind spots—such as the ECPA’s considering emails held by a third party for over 180 days to be abandoned, allowing them to be accessed with a simple subpoena instead of a judge-issued warrant. Also of concern is that the process for working with foreign governments when investigations cross jurisdictions—through mutual legal assistance treaties, or MLATs—has been seen by officials as too cumbersome to pursue. Excessive bureaucratic red tape, in other words, has encouraged investigators to engage in a troubling power grab.

And there was legislation last Congress to address these problems, with a new version already introduced in the new Congress.

…a bill, the International Communications Privacy Act, that sought to resolve both of these issues. It would have updated privacy rules to acknowledge modern technological reality by doing away with such silly provisions as the 180-day rule. It also would have streamlined MLAT procedures to make international cooperation more practical. Another bill, the Email Privacy Act, was just reintroduced in the current Congress and would also update the ECPA.

Amazing the House already has approved the legislation.

The House of Representatives today approved by voice vote the Email Privacy Act (H.R. 387) to protect Americans’ privacy and public safety in the digital age. …a statement from House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) applauding passage of the bill. …“The U.S. Constitution protects Americans’ property from unreasonable searches and seizures and we must ensure that this principle continues to thrive in the digital age. …As technology has far-outpaced the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, the Email Privacy Act modernizes this decades-old law to establish a uniform warrant requirement to acquire stored electronic communications in criminal investigations. These updates to the law will better safeguard Americans’ constitutional rights while also protecting law enforcement’s ability to fight crime.  As the House again has overwhelmingly approved this bill, it’s time for the Senate to take up this bipartisan legislation and send it to the President’s desk to become law.”

The tech community is happy about this progress, though it’s also concerned the Senate once again will be the stumbling block.

…the reintroduced Email Privacy Act easily passed the House via a voice vote, showing that our Congressional Members still recognize how important this is. Of course, now it gets to go back to the Senate, and we saw how well that worked last year. And then we have to believe that President Trump will sign the bill. …It’s great that Rep. Kevin Yoder, along with Reps. Jared Polis, Bob Goodlatte, John Conyers, Ted Poe, Suzan DelBene, Will Hurd, Jerry Nadler, Doug Collins and Judy Chu keep pushing this bill. …the fact that they’re willing to support basic 4th Amendment concepts for email is worthy of recognition. Now, hopefully, the Senate won’t try to muck it up again.

I guess we’ll see whether there’s progress this year or next year.

In the meantime, let’s hope that lawmakers are guided by the three principles of good criminal justice policy.

P.S. And if politicians fail to follow those principles, then citizens should not feel obliged to follow unjust laws, (and hopefully their peers will back them up by practicing jury nullification).

P.P.S. Since courts almost always grant search warrants, I’ve never understood why law enforcement officials want to get around this constitutional principle. Moreover, I’ve never seen any evidence that the fight against real crime somehow is compromised by having to comply with the 4th Amendment. So now, perhaps, you’ll understand why I’m willing (albeit only on one occasion) to side with Ruth Bader Ginsburg over Clarence Thomas.

P.P.P.S. If there was a prize for undermining the Bill of Rights, Obama probably would have it on his mantelpiece.

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What do Andy Johnson, Anthony Smelley, the Hammond family, Charlie Engle, Tammy Cooper, Nancy Black, Russ Caswell, Jacques Wajsfelner, Jeff Councelller, Eric Garner, Martha Boneta, James Slatic, Carole Hinders, Salvatore Culosi, and James Lieto, as well as the Sierra Pacific Company and the entire Meitev family have in common?

They are all victims of brutal, unfair, capricious, and evil government actions. And I challenge anyone to read their stories and not feel at least some degree of outrage at their mistreatment.

And now we’re going to add Corey Statham to the list. The New York Times has an all-too-typical report of government greed and callousness.

Corey Statham had $46 in his pockets when he was arrested in Ramsey County, Minn., and charged with disorderly conduct. He was released two days later, and the charges were dismissed. But the county kept $25 of Mr. Statham’s money as a “booking fee.” …He did get a debit card for the remaining $21. But there was no practical way to extract his cash without paying some kind of fee. Among them: $1.50 a week for “maintenance” of the unwanted card, starting after 36 hours; $2.75 for using an A.T.M. to withdraw money; $3 for transferring the balance to a bank account; and $1.50 for checking the balance. …Mr. Statham is represented by Michael A. Carvin, a prominent conservative lawyer who…said the county’s motives were not rooted in solicitude for the people it had arrested. “Revenue-starved local governments are increasingly turning toward fees like Ramsey County’s in order to bridge their budgetary gaps,” he wrote in a Supreme Court brief. …“Providing a profit motive to make arrests,” he said, “gives officers an incentive to make improper arrests.” …$25 is not a lot of money — unless you are poor. It represents almost half a day’s work at the federal minimum wage, a federal judge wrote in a dissent in another case on booking fees.

I have no idea whether Mr. Statham is a sympathetic victim. But even if he’s a total jerk, that doesn’t change the fact that people who interact with the legal system should not be subject to fines or fees without a conviction.

This is yet another example of innocent people victimized by “policing for profit,” which notoriously happens with civil asset forfeiture.

And at the risk of sounding like a closet leftist, it bothers me when poor people and rich people face the same fines. I don’t know Statham’s situation, but there are plenty of low-income people who can suffer severe financial consequences when they have an unfortunate encounter with local law enforcement. Maybe we should be like Switzerland and proportionately adjust fines based on wealth. I don’t suggest that because I want local governments to have more money. Instead, I’m thinking such a policy would both make the law more equal and give the rest of us a strong incentive to fight against thuggish revenue-raising tactics.

P.S. I’m obviously on the side of Statham’s lawyer, but I can’t resist correcting something said by Michael Carvin. I’ve never looked at the numbers for Ramsey County, but, based on nationwide fiscal data for state and local governments, I will say with 99 percent confidence that Ramsey County is not “revenue-starved.” In the interests of accuracy, Mr. Carvin in the future should refer to local politicians as being “revenue-hungry.”

P.P.S. On a separate topic, here’s a nice reminder of the difference between the private sector and the government.

A man in Pomona was upset after a postal carrier was seen on surveillance video throwing a small package on his doorstep, but a surprise hero was also captured on footage. Brian Mundy sent the video to our sister station in Los Angeles using #abc7eyewitness. In it, you see the U.S. Postal Service carrier carelessly tossing the package. Much to Mundy’s surprise, moments later, a FedEx driver – wearing a reindeer hat – is seen gently putting down two packages. That driver even picks up the small box from the USPS carrier and gently puts it on top of the rest.

It’s all on video if you click on the story link. Yes, this is just an anecdote. And, yes, I’m sure there are plenty of bad FedEx employees and wonderful Postal Service employees. I’m mostly sharing the story for amusement value.

But I suspect John Stossel was right when he explained that, as a general rule, the private sector will do a better job.

 

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When I write about gun control, I generally make two arguments.

  • First, criminals are lawbreakers, so the notion that they will be disarmed because of gun control is a fantasy. Crooks and thugs who really want a gun will always have access to black-market weapons.
  • Second, to the extent that good people obey bad gun-control laws (and hopefully they won’t), that will encourage more criminal activity since bad people will be less worried about armed resistance.

These points are common sense, but they doesn’t seem to convince many leftists, who have a religious-type faith that good intentions will produce good results (they need to read Bastiat!).

Every so often, however, the other side accidentally messes up.

As part of its never-ending, ideologically driven campaign to undermine gun rights, the New York Times ran a big 5,000-plus word story last month about mass shootings. Creating hostility to guns was the obvious goal of this “news” report.

But buried in all that verbiage was a remarkable admission. A big majority of shooters already are in violation of gun laws.

The New York Times examined all 130 shootings last year in which four or more people were shot, at least one fatally, and investigators identified at least one attacker. …64 percent of the shootings involved at least one attacker who violated an existing gun law.

And for the 36 percent of the nutjobs in the story who purchased or obtained guns legally, almost all of them presumably would have gotten their hands on weapons even if they had to violate minor laws on guns prior to violating major laws against murder.

So what the New York Times and other anti-second amendment activists are really saying is that honest people should be defenseless even though bad guys always will have the ability to arm themselves. And by making such a preposterous claim, they actually provided ammo (pun intended) for those of us who defend the Second Amendment.

P.S. Maybe we should give the New York Times a “Wrong-Way Corrigan Award” for inadvertently helping to make the libertarian case for more freedom! Oh, and give Trevor Noah the Award at the same time.

P.P.S. Years ago, I used to post lots of gun-control humor. I’ve gotten out of the habit, but I can’t resist sharing some items that popped into my inbox yesterday.

This one of my favorites.

And this brought back fond childhood memories. Somehow I avoided becoming a killer even though I grew up watching Yosemite Sam, Elmer Fudd, and other trigger-happy angry white men. Not to mention shows like Combat and Rat Patrol!

Last but not least, this reminds me that crazed mass shooters are always sufficiently un-crazy that they manage to pick out gun-free zones before engaging in their rampages.

So maybe, just maybe, the problem isn’t guns. Indeed, perhaps we can draw the conclusion that society will be safer if more good people are armed.

Heck, even big-city police chiefs are beginning to reach that conclusions.

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The War against Cash is a battle that shouldn’t even exist. But politicians don’t like cash because it’s hard to control something that people can freely trade back and forth. So folks on the left are arguing that governments should ban or restrict paper money.

  • In Part I, we looked at the argument that cash should be banned or restricted so governments could more easily collect additional tax revenue.
  • In Part II, we reviewed the argument that cash should be curtailed so that governments could more easily impose Keynesian-style monetary policy.
  • In Part III, written back in March, we examined additional arguments by people on both sides of the issue and considered the risks of expanded government power.
  • In Part IV, a few months ago, there was additional discussion of the dangers that would be unleashed if politicians banned cash.

Now let’s add a fifth installment in this series, and we’ll focus on the destructive turmoil resulting from India’s decision earlier this month to ban “large” notes.

The Financial Times explains what happened.

India unexpectedly scrapped all larger-denomination banknotes overnight… Prime Minister Narendra Modi said 500 and 1,000 rupee notes — worth around $7.50 and $15, respectively — would cease to be legal tender from midnight on Tuesday. The announcement stunned Indians, who were given four hours’ notice that much of their cash would be “mere paper”. RBI data suggests that the Rs500 and Rs1,000 notes account for 86 per cent of the value of all cash in circulation in India at present. …The shock move is the latest step by Mr Modi’s administration to crack down on the vast shadow economy, which remains beyond the reach of India’s tax authorities.

Before delving into why this is an unfortunate development, I can’t resist pointing out that banknotes worth $7.50 and $15 are neither large nor inappropriate for an economy at India’s level of development.

When the United States had a similar level of per-capita GDP (back in the late 1800s), there were $500 and $1000 notes. Yet America didn’t have serious problems with corruption and tax evasion. So why should the existence of far smaller bills be a problem in India today?

I’ll return to that question in the conclusion, but let’s first look at the impact of Prime Minister Modi’s unilateral attack on currency. A column in the New York Times explains why the policy does more harm than good.

On Nov. 8, the Indian government announced an immediate ban on two major bills that account for the vast majority of all currency in circulation. …In the two weeks after the measure was announced, millions of Indians stricken with small panic rushed out to banks; A.T.M.s and tellers soon ran dry. Some 98 percent of all transactions in India, measured by volume, are conducted in cash. …So far its effects have been disastrous for the middle- and lower-middle classes, as well as the poor. And the worst may be yet to come.

The ripple effect of the policy is large and unpleasant.

…demonetization is a ham-fisted move that will put only a temporary dent in corruption, if even that, and is likely to rock the entire economy. …Anyone seeking to convert more than 250,000 rupees (about $3,650) must explain why they hold so much cash, or failing that, must pay a penalty. The requirement has already spawned a new black market to service people wishing to offload: Large amounts of illicit cash are broken into smaller blocks and deposited by teams of illegal couriers. Demonetization is mostly hurting people who aren’t its intended targets. Because sellers of certain durables, such as jewelry and property, often insist on cash payments, many individuals who have no illegal money build up cash reserves over time. Relatively poor women stash away cash beyond their husbands’ reach.

As is so often the case, the bogeyman of terrorism is being used as a rationale for bad policy, even though everyone realizes that terrorists won’t be affected.

When the government announced demonetization, it also justified the measure as a way to curb terrorism financing that relies on counterfeit rupee notes… Catching fake notes already in circulation neither helps trap the terrorists who minted them nor prevents more such money from being injected into the economy. It simply inconveniences the people who use it as legal tender, the vast majority of whom had no hand in its creation.

I’m sympathetic, by the way, to the notion that the government should fight counterfeiting. Crooks printing up fake notes is even worse than central banks printing up too many real notes.

In any event, this indirect attack on the shadow economy imposes considerable costs on regular Indians.

In a country like India, where the illegal economy is so intimately intertwined with the mainstream economy, one inept government intervention against shadow activities can do a lot of harm to the vast majority, who are just trying to make a legitimate living.

Writing for Bloomberg, Elaine Ou has a negative assessment of this proposal.

India is conducting a big test of the idea that getting rid of cash can help address crime and corruption. Unfortunately, it might achieve nothing more than a lot of inconvenience. Criminals and corrupt officials often conduct business in cash, because it’s hard to trace. So in a sense it’s logical to assume that abolishing cash will help reduce criminal activity. …This rationale has led Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to declare a surprise cancellation of the nation’s two highest-denomination notes, effectively invalidating 86 percent of total currency in circulation. Anyone with outstanding notes must either deposit them in a bank — potentially incurring a tax — or exchange them for replacements in strictly limited sums.

Ms. Ou explains that the policy will be traumatic for the hundreds of millions of Indians who don’t have bank accounts.

In a country where most transactions are conducted in cash, many people have been unable to pay for necessities like food or medical services. Banks have had to work overtime to handle the exchange, bringing other financial services to a halt. It’s certainly likely that the sheer trauma will leave people less keen to hoard rupees, creating a big incentive to move economic activity out of cash and into banks. Except that a huge number of Indians don’t have a bank account.

In any event, she points out, banning cash won’t have much impact on corruption since politicians and public officials have plenty of ways to extort wealth from the productive sector.

…the prevalence of cash is far from a foolproof indicator of criminality and corruption. Consider Nigeria, which is perceived as one the world’s most corrupt countries and has a currency-to-GDP ratio even lower than Sweden’s… Nigerians have abandoned cash because they have so little trust in government-issued currency. Instead of using banks, they tend to transact in mobile airtime minutes. …Those with more substantial wealth put it in foreign currency. By undermining faith in its cash notes, India may go the way of Nigeria. Villagers are already resorting to barter. …corrupt public officials were believed to have their wealth in real estate and gold.

A news report highlights the real-world impact of the Indian government’s bad policy. Starting with the impact on a poor single mother.

With demonetisation, Sayyed’s family has been forced to cut costs across the board to make sure their limited cash resources don’t get exhausted faster than the banks can exchange money. “Last week it took me four hours of waiting in line to get my old notes exchanged,” said Sayyed. “And because no one had change for a Rs 2,000 note, I had to buy ration on credit for six whole days.” Vegetables and foodgrains, says Sayyed, have grown more expensive in the past 10 days, because of the impact of demonetisation on wholesalers and retailers.

And the impact on a small-business owner.

His salon, which charges Rs 40 for a haircut, used to make anywhere between Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,200 on the weekend. But now, he said, that has fallen to Rs 500. …How is he coping with this liquidity crunch? Not by going cashless. In part because he doesn’t have a bank account. “I tried to open one but they wanted too many proofs of identity,” Sharma said.

By the way, Sharma is a victim of pointless anti-money laundering laws, something even the World Bank recognizes as being particularly harmful for the poor.

A farmer also has been hit hard.

It has been three weeks since Vedagiri’s single acre of land had been tilled and paddy seedlings had been sown. …“The cooperative bank cannot lend us money now, so for the whole of last week, our crop has been standing without pesticides,” said Vedagiri. Several times last week, Vedagiri and the other farmers of Royalpattu were turned away by bank employees. New currency notes have been slow to reach most rural cooperative banks across India. While sowing the crop, Vedagiri had employed 20 labourers. But he has been unable to pay any of them since he had not still received the rest of the money…Vedagiri does not know how he will get through this cropping season without incurring a loss.

Bloomberg reports on some of the bizarre unintended consequences of this bad policy.

Indian ingenuity is being stretched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cash ban to crackdown on unaccounted money. India’s cash economy has been thrown into turmoil since Modi announced last week that 500 and 1,000 rupee notes would cease to be legal tender and would have to be deposited at banks by year-end, leaving about one-seventh of currency in circulation. …Here are some unintended consequences. Indian defense jets are on standby to airlift cash from mints across India to remote corners of the country. …wealthy Indians rushed to make costly purchases with unaccounted cash. One luxury watch outlet in north-west Mumbai saw 45 units of Rolex watches sold on a single day, according to a representative of a watchmaker, who was present when the sales took place. Demand matched what the shop would usually sell in a month and the store had to turn away customers… A new gold rush also emerged soon after Modi’s announcement. “Jewelers who had shut shop for the day on Nov. 8 had to reopen their stores within a couple of hours and were selling gold up to 4 a.m.,” Chirag Thakkar, a director at gold wholesaler Amrapali Group, said by phone… Customers paid as much as 52,000 rupees per 10 grams, almost double the current prices, he said. …About half of an estimated 9.3 million trucks under the All India Motor Transport Congress were off the road eight days after the announcement as drivers abandoned vehicles mid-way into their trips after running out of cash, according to Naveen Gupta, secretary general of the group. India’s roads carry about 65 percent of the country’s freight. Drivers don’t have enough money for food, truck maintenance and to make payments at border check posts. …Compounding the problem of pumping new money into the system is the need to reconfigure the country’s 220,000 cash machines so that they can dispense the new 500 and 2,000 rupee notes, which do not fit into existing ATM cash trays.

To be fair, some of these costs are transitory in nature, so it’s important to distinguish between those consequences and others that might linger.

Though the part of this story that doesn’t make sense is that the government plans on issuing new high-value banknotes. So the Prime Minister is not actually banning large banknotes (or even all non-digital currency), which is the usual goal of the war-on-cash crowd.

So why did the Modi cause so much turmoil with an overnight ban rather than allow for an orderly transition? I’m assuming that the answer has something to do with inconveniencing those with large cash holdings, some of whom will be crooks or counterfeiters or corrupt public officials.

As already noted, the battle against counterfeit currency surely is worthwhile.

But I have considerable doubts about whether this currency swap will have much impact on the shadow economy or public corruption.

And that brings me back to the rhetorical question I posed early in this column about why the United States didn’t have massive problems with crime and public corruption back in the late 1800s (when our per-capita GDP was akin to India’s today according to the Maddison data), even though we had banknotes that were far more valuable ($500 and $1000 compared to $7.50 and $15).

The answer, at least in part, is that the United States had a very tiny government. Government spending consumed at most 10 percent of economic output, with most of that spending at the state and local level. And there was no income tax.

And since people weren’t penalized for earning money and creating wealth, there was no incentive to be part of the shadow economy. And since government was small, there weren’t that many favors to distribute, so there wasn’t much need to bribe politicians or bureaucrats.

If Prime Minister Modi wants a vibrant, above-ground economy with minimal corruption, maybe that’s the path he should follow.

Let’s close with a very sage warning from Richard Fernandez’s column in PJ Media.

Money in its various forms has become the new battleground between a State that needs to reward its constituencies with and the actual economy which produces most of the real goods and services required to do it. The sad experience of command economies suggests in end the Real always wins over the Official.  As Ramesh Thakur said of India’s demonitization policy: “a better solution would have been to shift the balance of economic decision-making away from the state to firms and consumers; simplify, rationalize and reduce taxes; cut regulations and curtail officials’ discretionary powers; eliminate loopholes; and widen the tax net.”

And my favorite Russian-Irish-Californian economist also has a very apt summary of this issue.

Remember, if the answer is more government, you’ve asked a very silly question.

P.S. If he wants more future prosperity, Modi also should make sure the government no longer attacks private schools.

P.P.S. And it also would be a good idea to reform civil service rules so that it doesn’t take two decades to get rid of no-show bureaucrats.

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When writing about money laundering laws, I’ll sometimes highlight gross abuses by government and I’ll periodically make the usual libertarian arguments about privacy.

But I mostly focus on how the laws simply don’t make sense from a cost-benefit perspective. Anti-money laundering laws and regulations impose large burdens on the private sector, which creates disproportionate hardship for the poor. Yet there’s no evidence that the laws actually hinder criminal activity, which was the rationale for imposing the laws in the first place.

I have the same attitude about the War on Drugs. Yes, I get upset that people are mistreated and it irks me as a libertarian that people aren’t free to make their own choices (even if they are dumb choices) about what to put in their bodies.

But what really gets me angry is the absurd misallocation of law enforcement resources. Consider this info from a recent WonkBlog column in the Washington Post about the ever-expanding efforts of government to harass drug users.

Federal figures on drug arrests and drug use over the past three decades tell the story. Drug-possession arrests skyrocketed, from fewer than 200 arrests for every 100,000 people in 1979…, hovering near 400 arrests per 100,000 people. …despite the tough-on-crime push that led to the surge in arrests in recent decades, illicit drug use today is more common among Americans age 12 and older than it was in the early 1980s. Federal figures show no correlation between drug-possession arrests and rates of drug use during that time.

But here’s the part that should upset all of us, even if we don’t like drugs or even if we think they should be illegal.

Instead of focusing on the fight against crimes that actually have victims (such as robbery, murder, rape, assault, etc), the government is squandering an immense about of time, energy, resources, and money on drug arrests.

…arrests for drug possession continue to make up a significant chunk of modern-day police work. “Around the country, police make more arrests for drug possession than for any other crime,” the report finds, citing FBI data. “More than one of every nine arrests by state law enforcement is for drug possession, amounting to more than 1.25 million arrests each year.” In fact, police make more arrests for marijuana possession alone than for all violent crimes combined.

That last sentence is breathtaking. Does anyone think that busting potheads is more important than fighting genuine crime?!?

Do you want an example of law enforcement resources being misallocated?

Well, this story from New Hampshire tells you everything you need to know.

…an 81-year-old grandmother had been growing…the plant as medicine, a way to ease arthritis and glaucoma and help her sleep at night. Tucked away in a raspberry patch and separated by a fence from any neighbors, the plant was nearly ready for harvest when a military-style helicopter and police descended on Sept. 21. In a joint raid, the Massachusetts National Guard and State Police entered her yard and cut down the solitary plant…authorities are using budgeted funds, prior to the end of the federal fiscal year Saturday, to gas up helicopters and do flyovers. …“Is this the way we want our taxpayer money spent, to hassle an 81-year-old and law-abiding patients?” Cutler said.

Gee, I don’t know about you, but I’ll sleep more comfortably tonight knowing that lots of taxpayer money was squandered to seize a pot plant from this dangerous granny!

Still not convinced that law enforcement resources aren’t being wasted? And still not upset that lives are being disrupted and harmed by heavy-handed government.

Then consider this horror story from Reason.

James Slatic, a California medical marijuana business owner, found out all his family’s bank accounts had been seized by the government one day in January when his 19-year-old daughter tried to buy lunch at the San Jose State University cafeteria and her card was declined. Slatic’s wife tried to transfer money to their daughter, figuring she had simply overdrawn her account, as teenagers are wont to do, but her account wouldn’t work, either. What the Slatics soon learned was the San Diego police had frozen all of their bank accounts: $55,258 from Slatic’s personal checking and savings account; $34,175 from his wife Annette’s account; and a combined $11,260 from the savings accounts of their two teenage daughters, Penny and Lily. …The Slatics’ crimes? None. Or at least, the San Diego District Attorney’s Office hasn’t charged them with any in the nine months since it seized their accounts.

His business also was shut down, which wasn’t good news for him or his employees that are now out on the street.

The trouble for James Slatic began five days before his family’s accounts were frozen, when around 30 San Diego police officers and DEA agents raided Slatic’s medical marijuana business, Med-West Distribution, and seized nearly $325,000 in cash from a safe. …The raid was a crushing blow to Slatic—not to mention his 35 employees, who lost their jobs and benefits without notice.

Here’s a video detailing this disgusting abuse by government.

There is some good news. Voters in several states voted last week to decriminalize pot.

And for those who worry that legalizing marijuana will be a gateway to decriminalizing harder drugs, I encourage you to read this Cato Institute study on what happened after Portugal legalized all drugs early last decade.

This isn’t an argument about whether you should use drugs, like drugs, or approve of drug use. You can be the drug equivalent of a teetotaler like me and still realize that it makes no sense for the government to squander lots of money and hurt lots of lives simply because politicians want to control what people choose to put in their own bodies.

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