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Archive for the ‘Government Thuggery’ Category

One of the unfortunate features of Washington is that people often wind up in places that bring out their worst behaviors.

The classic example is Jack Kemp, who did great work as a member of Congress to push a supply-side agenda of low marginal tax rates and less double taxation. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that the Reagan tax cuts were made possible by Kemp’s yeoman efforts. But when President George H.W. Bush brought Kemp into his cabinet back in 1989, it wasn’t to head up the Treasury Department. It was to be Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, a department that shouldn’t even exist. And because Kemp was weak on spending issues, he predictably and unfortunately presided over an expansion of HUD’s budget. If he was at Treasury, by contrast, he may have been able to stop Bush’s disastrous read-my-lips tax deal.

Another example is that Republicans members of Congress from farm states generally favor small government. So if they wind up on committees that deal with overall fiscal issues, they usually are allies in the effort to restrain Leviathan. Unfortunately, they more often wind up on the Agriculture Committee, which means they accumulate power and expertise in the area where they are least likely to favor free markets and limited government. They net effect is that  they may still have a decent voting record, but their actual impact on public policy will be harmful. The same thing happens with Republicans who get on the transportation committees.

Today’s example is Attorney General Jeff Sessions. When he was Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, he was an ally in the fight against big government. He favored decentralization. He supported rolling back the welfare state. He favored entitlement reform. He supported tax cuts. He used his power and position to try to do the right thing. But when Trump asked Sessions to join his cabinet, it wasn’t to head the Office of Management and Budget, a position that would have been a good fit. Instead, Trump picked him to be Attorney General, which is problematical because Sessions is an advocate of the failed War on Drugs. And he’s also a supporter of “asset forfeiture,” which occurs when governments steal money and property from citizens without convicting them of any crime. Or sometimes without even charging them with a crime.

I’m not joking. This happens with distressing regularity. It’s called “policing for profit.”

In poor nations, a corrupt cop will stop motorists to shake them down for pocket change. In the United States, we’ve legalized a bigger version of that sleazy behavior. George Will shared a reprehensible example last December.

The Sourovelises’ son, who lived at home, was arrested for selling a small amount of drugs away from home. Soon there was a knock on their door by police who said, “We’re here to take your house” and “You’re going to be living on the street” and “We do this every day.” The Sourovelises’ doors were locked with screws and their utilities were cut off. They had paid off the mortgage on their $350,000 home, making it a tempting target for policing for profit. Nationwide, proceeds from sales of seized property (homes, cars, etc.) go to the seizers. And under a federal program, state and local law enforcement can partner with federal authorities in forfeiture and reap up to 80 percent of the proceeds. This is called — more Orwellian newspeak — “equitable sharing.” No crime had been committed in the Sourovelises’ house, but the title of the case against them was “Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. 12011 Ferndale Street.” Somehow, a crime had been committed by the house. In civil forfeiture, it suffices that property is suspected of having been involved in a crime. Once seized, the property’s owners bear the burden of proving their property’s innocence.

The good news is that there’s a growing desire to stop governments from stealing.

Indeed, Will points out that there was “a 2015 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on forfeiture abuses.”

Unfortunately, not everybody at the hearing agreed that it’s wrong for governments to arbitrarily engage in theft.

…one senator said “taking and seizing and forfeiting, through a government judicial process, illegal gains from criminal enterprises is not wrong,” and neither is law enforcement enriching itself from this. …this senator asserted an unverifiable number: “Ninety-five percent” of forfeitures involve people who have “done nothing in their lives but sell dope.” This senator said it should not be more difficult for “government to take money from a drug dealer than it is for a businessperson to defend themselves in a lawsuit.” In seizing property suspected of involvement in a crime, government “should not have a burden of proof higher than in a normal civil case.”

The Senator who made these statements was Jeff Sessions.

And, as George Will explains, the then-Senator missed a few points.

In civil forfeiture there usually is no proper “judicial process.” There is no way of knowing how many forfeitures involve criminals because the government takes property without even charging anyone with a crime. The government’s vast prosecutorial resources are one reason it properly bears the burden of proving criminal culpability “beyond a reasonable doubt.” A sued businessperson does not have assets taken until he or she has lost in a trial, whereas civil forfeiture takes property without a trial and the property owner must wage a protracted, complex, and expensive fight to get it returned.

The Wall Street Journal also opined about the new Attorney General’s indefensible position.

The all-too-common practice allows law enforcement to take private property without due process and has become a cash cow for state and local police and prosecutors. …Assets are often seized—and never returned—without any judicial process or court supervision. Unlike criminal forfeiture, civil forfeiture doesn’t require a criminal conviction or even charges. According to the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, which tracks forfeitures, 13% of all forfeitures done by the Justice Department between 1997 and 2013 were in criminal cases while 87% were civil forfeitures. And 88% of those forfeitures were done by an administrative agency, not a court. …The lack of procedural protection coupled with financial incentives has turned policing for profit into a slush fund for governments hungry for cash, and the payouts too often come at the expense of civil liberties. We’d like to hear what Mr. Sessions thinks of the practice today.

Sadly, it doesn’t appear that President Trump is on the right side either.

In a new column on the topic, George Will addresses this unfortunate development.

There is no reason for the sheriffs to want to reform a racket that lines their pockets. For the rest of us, strengthening the rule of law and eliminating moral hazard are each sufficient reasons. Civil forfeiture is the power to seize property suspected of being produced by, or involved in, crime. If property is suspected of being involved in criminal activity, law enforcement can seize it. Once seized, the property’s owners bear the burden of proving that they were not involved in such activity, which can be a costly and protracted procedure. So, civil forfeiture proceeds on the guilty-until-proven-innocent principle. Civil forfeiture forces property owners, often people of modest means, to hire lawyers and do battle against a government with unlimited resources. And here is why the sheriffs probably purred contentedly when Trump endorsed civil forfeiture law — if something so devoid of due process can be dignified as law: Predatory law enforcement agencies can pocket the proceeds from the sale of property they seize.

The folks at Reason have a new video on Trump’s support for theft-by-government.

By the way, I hold out some hope that Trump may not be completely bad on the issue. It’s possible that he’s never considered the issue and doesn’t understand that it involves over-the-top government thuggery. He may simply think it’s some sort of procedural issue involving good cops against bad crooks.

So perhaps when he is briefed on what the issue really means, he’ll be in favor of protecting Americans from the kind of horrible abuse that the Dehko family experienced. Or the mistreatment of Carole Hinders. Or the ransacking of Joseph Rivers. Or the brutalization of Thomas Williams.

I could continue, but I think you get the point.

Let’s close, though, with some good news. I wrote two years ago about the case of Charles Clarke, who had $11,000 that was stolen by government. Thanks to the Institute for Justice, that stolen money has been returned.

Charles Clarke, the college student who was robbed of $11,000 in cash by cops at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport two years ago, will get his money back with interest under an agreement he reached with the Justice Department this week. …To keep the money, the government theoretically had to show that it more likely than not came from selling drugs or was intended to buy them. But that burden applied only if Clarke had the means to challenge the forfeiture once the government had taken his savings. Innocent owners often find that standing up for their rights costs more than the value of the property they are trying to get back. Luckily for Clarke, he had the Institute for Justice in his corner.

And the other bit of good news is that New Mexico has curtailed the disgusting practice of asset forfeiture. Hopefully Trump won’t try to destroy the careers of the lawmakers who decided the Constitution was more important than lining the pockets of the bureaucracy.

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Back in the 1980s, I would get very agitated when folks made excuses for brutal communist regimes by asserting that the United States also did bad things. This “moral equivalence” argument is now being recycled by Donald Trump, who basically excuses Putin’s brutality because America supposedly isn’t in any position to throw stones.

Here’s the interview, set to start at the point where Trump discusses Putin.

This is wrong. Absurdly wrong.

Though let’s start by acknowledging that the United States is far from perfect. Our history includes black eyes such as slavery, mistreatment of native populations, incomplete legal rights for women, internment of Japanese-Americans, Jim Crow laws, persecution of gays, and other sins.

Even today, we have plenty of bad policies that restrict human liberty, often exacerbated by examples of thuggish actions by government.

But, at the risk of sounding jingoistic and patriotic, the United States began with a wonderful set of ideals and our history largely reflects a struggle to extend those ideals to the entire population.

Now let’s look at Putin.

When I tweeted my column about Russia’s flat tax two days ago, I screwed up by making a joke about the Trump-Putin “bro-mance.” I got savaged on Twitter by people who accused me of somehow endorsing (or at least accepting) the many repressive policies that exist in Russia.

The silver lining to Trump’s disturbing interview is that it gives me an opportunity to make clear my disapproval of both Putin and the silly doctrine of moral equivalence.

With regards to Russia’s president, do we have any reason to believe that he is motivated by the principles of classical liberalism? Does anyone think he wants to make Russia a free society? That he respects human rights and the rule of law?

Heck, even Trump didn’t dispute the premise that he’s a killer.

Moreover, how can anyone believe in moral equivalence when there’s a huge gap between the United States and Russia on measures of liberty.

Consider, for instance, the Human Freedom Index. As you can see, the United States is far from perfect. We’re ranked #23 for overall freedom, #28 for personal freedom, and #16 for economic freedom.

But we look good compared to Russia, which is #115 for overall freedom, #110 for personal freedom, and #102 for economic freedom.

And the Freedom House rankings show an equally dramatic difference.

The United States has a score of 90 on a 0-100 scale, with the highest rating for political rights and civil liberties.

Russia, by contrast, only has a score of 22 and gets the next-to-last rating for political rights and civil liberties.

To conclude, some folks sometimes say the continuing imperfections in the United States mean that there’s only a “difference in degree” between us and Russia.

My response is that if the “difference in degree” is large, then you also have a “difference in kind.”

There is no moral equivalence.

P.S. On a separate topic, you won’t be surprised by this report from the Washington Times.

More than half of IRS employees found to have intentionally cheated on their taxes last year were allowed to keep their jobs, according to numbers released by the inspector general that suggest the agency is still reluctant to punish its own staffers for breaking tax laws.

Yet another example of hypocrisy in government. I’ve noted the IRS has thieving employees, incompetent employees, thuggish employees, brainless employees, protectionist employees, wasteful employees, and victimizing employees. Now it has slapped-on-the-hand employees.

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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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Earlier this year, I borrowed from Dante’s Inferno and created the Five Circles of Statist Hell. At the time, I suggested that Venezuela was on the cusp of moving from the third circle (“widespread poverty and economic misery”) to the fourth circle (“systematic and grinding poverty and deprivation”).

Since we now know that children in the country are suffering from hunger and malnutrition, I think we can safely confirm that Venezuela has made that crossing, joining the dystopian hell of North Korea (though you can make a good argument that the savage regime based in Pyongyang actually belongs in the fifth circle).

And just in case you need another piece of evidence about Venezuela, consider these excerpts from a surreal BBC report.

Venezuelan authorities have arrested two toy company executives and seized almost four million toys, which they say they will distribute to the poor. Officials accused the company of hoarding toys and hiking prices in the run-up to Christmas. Last week, the government issued an order to retailers to reduce prices on a range of goods by 30%. …Venezuela…said…”Our children are sacred, we will not let them rob you of Christmas,” it said in a tweet, along with photos and video of thousands of boxes of toys. …The agency also posted photos of the two executives being marched from the premises by a squad of heavily armed soldiers.

Here’s some additional background on the economic situation in the country.

This is not the first time Venezuela has ordered price cuts on retailers, or mobilised armed units to enforce it. In late 2013, the country introduced laws allowing the government to fix prices and dictate profit margins. …The same measures have been used to fix the prices of basic products such as flour, meat and bread – but supply is limited in a country where many people go hungry.

Before continuing, I can’t help commenting that BBC journalists apparently can’t put 2 and 2 together. The reason supply is limited and people are suffering is because of the price controls and intervention.

Sigh.

Anyhow, here are some final passages from the article.

The Venezuelan government is becoming increasingly unpopular as the country’s economic crisis grows. …The International Monetary Fund estimates that inflation – the rate at which prices go up – will hit 2,000% next year.

Yup, Venezuela is a regular Shangri La. No wonder Bernie Sanders is so infatuated with the place.

But let’s focus today on the Venezuelan government’s attempt to play Santa Claus by seizing toys and selling them at below-market rates.

I don’t know if this move will be politically popular since that depends on whether ordinary people have some degree of economic sophistication.

But we can say with great confidence that it represents terrible economic policy. That’s because, as Thomas Sowell has wisely noted, it’s very difficult for a government to steal wealth more than one time.

The victims (both the ones who already have been looted and the ones who might be targeted in the future) quickly learn that it’s not a smart idea to accumulate assets that can be stolen by the state. In effect, the productive people of the country learn to behave like the Little Red Hen.

In the short run, though, the Venezuelan government gets to play Santa Claus. At least for 2016.

But it won’t have that option in 2017. And because the nation’s kleptocratic government is running out of victims, it’s just a matter of time before the system collapses, at which point the government either gives up power or launches a brutal crackdown.

Hopefully the former.

Though it would remain to be seen whether the leftist thugs who currently hold power are able to escape the country with all the loot they’ve stolen, or whether they get the Ceausescu treatment.

They deserve the latter.

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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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What’s the worst development in economic policy of the Obama years?

Those are all good answers, but if you look at the data from Economic Freedom of the World, a major reason for the decline in America’s score is that the rule of law has eroded.

In other words, the United States is becoming a place where clear and neutral rules are being replaced by arbitrary and capricious government power. And this is not a trivial matter. Issues related to the rule of law account for 20 percent of a nation’s grade – the same level of importance as fiscal policy.

In another worrisome development, the United States only ranked #19 as of 2014 in a global ranking of how well nations maintain the rule of law.

There are several reasons why America’s ranking is going down. To cite just a few: The arbitrary rewrites of Obamacare. The Operation Chokepoint fiasco. IRS regulations that overturn existing law.

And it appears the Obama Administration wants to go out with a bang.

The Wall Street Journal opines on a new regulatory scheme from the Treasury Department to boost the death tax burden by arbitrarily inflating the value of certain assets.

…before President Obama leaves office, his Treasury Department is rushing to implement a de facto increase in the federal estate tax. Since Congress does not agree that the Internal Revenue Service should suck more cash out of family firms, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is up to his usual tricks, trashing established interpretations of tax law to bypass the legislative branch. Not even Mr. Lew has the gall to claim he can raise the federal death-tax rate of 40% without congressional approval. So the game here is to contrive ways to expose more of the value—or imagined value—of an estate to IRS revenue collectors. Last month Mr. Lew’s Treasury announced a proposed rule to close what it calls an estate and gift tax “loophole.” Until now, the IRS permitted realistic values for portions of closely held corporations and partnerships. …consider a minority stake with limited rights in a family business. While the business as a whole may have considerable value, how much would an investor be willing to pay for a small, illiquid piece of a private business that she can’t control? The typical answer is not much. On the other hand, the investor might pay handsomely for a controlling interest. The IRS has long recognized this reality and has allowed the discounting of interests in closely held businesses to more closely reflect what they could fetch on the open market, rather than simply assigning a percentage of a firm’s overall estimated value.

In other words, Obama’s Treasury Department wants to force heirs to pay tax on what they think an asset is worth rather than what it would fetch on the open market.

This regulatory scheme – if ultimately successful – will make a bad tax even worse.

And it also will be bad for the economy.

…what seems like a reasonable interpretation to some looks like a wasted revenue opportunity to the Obama Treasury. …As always, Mr. Lew and Treasury are happy to seize more wealth from the private economy. …But voters may ask how much economic destruction is acceptable in the name of such fairness. …the tax clearly encourages people to consume now rather than invest in the future. This means lower GDP over time and fewer opportunities for the poor, some of whom might want to work for family businesses. The Tax Foundation reckons that the economy would be 0.8% larger over a decade without the estate tax.

Here’s another example.

The Obama Administration has been shaking down banks for money because of supposed misdeeds leading up the government-caused financial crisis.

The various fines may of may not be legitimate, but what’s really troubling is that a big chunk of the money is then being steered to left-wing groups. Many of which are seeking to impact the political process.

Andy Koenig of Freedom Partners has a column in the Wall Street Journal with some of the unseemly details.

The administration’s multiyear campaign against the banking industry has quietly steered money to organizations and politicians who are working to ensure liberal policy and political victories at every level of government. The conduit for this funding is the Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities Working Group, a coalition of federal and state regulators and prosecutors created in 2012 to “identify, investigate, and prosecute instances of wrongdoing” in the residential mortgage-backed securities market. In conjunction with the Justice Department, the RMBS Working Group has reached multibillion-dollar settlements with essentially every major bank in America. …Combined, the banks must divert well over $11 billion into “consumer relief,” which is supposed to benefit homeowners harmed during the Great Recession. …a substantial portion is allocated to private, nonprofit organizations drawn from a federally approved list. Some groups on the list—Catholic Charities, for instance—are relatively nonpolitical. Others—La Raza, the National Urban League, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition and more—are anything but. This is a handout to the administration’s allies. Many of these groups engage in voter registration, community organizing and lobbying on liberal policy priorities at every level of government. They also provide grants to other liberal groups not eligible for payouts under the settlements. …The settlements also give banks a financial incentive to fund these groups. Most of the deals give double credit or more against the settlement amount for every dollar in “donations.”

Needless to say, diverting money to political allies sounds like the kind of chicanery you’d find in a banana republic, not an advanced western society.

But it gets worse.

Here’s another Wall Street Journal editorial on an additional bit of regulatory/tax overreach by the Treasury Department. It deals with the Obama Administration trying to stop “inversions” by unilaterally changing the rules in ways that will hamper sensible business practices for all multinational companies.

The Treasury Secretary…wants to prevent “earnings stripping,” in which companies allegedly make loans from their overseas businesses to their U.S. subsidiaries to minimize taxes. The feds succeeded in destroying the proposed merger of Pfizer and Allergan. But we warned in April that the Treasury plan would be “ugly for everybody,” imposing new costs and paperwork burdens on companies that never had any intention of moving overseas or stripping earnings. And sure enough, from small S corps all the way to Exxon, the afflicted have been explaining how the new rules will make it more expensive and difficult to do even routine business functions like cash management. …the banks hate this rule too. By limiting their ability to move money across borders to meet customer demand and respond to market stress, it could force them to violate other regulations, or worse. A July letter from Citigroup, Bank of America and J.P. Morgan Chase to Treasury officials warned the rules could make “financial services groups more fragile in times of financial stress, thereby creating risk to the financial stability of the United States.” …If Mr. Lew were reasonable, he’d drop this misguided assault on American business and work with lawmakers to craft a corporate tax reform that ensures U.S. companies never want to leave the U.S.

A report in the New York Times highlighted some of the legal issues involved in this issue.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed a lawsuit on Thursday to block new rules issued by the Obama administration that prevent American corporations from merging with foreign-based companies and moving their headquarters abroad to save on taxes. The business group, along with the Texas Association of Business, filed the lawsuit in federal court in Austin, Tex., saying the administration was overstepping its authority in issuing the rules. …“If the defendants’ rule is permitted to stand, it is not just mergers that will suffer — it is the rule of law, and the certainty and stability required for effective commerce, markets and economic growth, that are truly threatened by the defendants’ unauthorized and unlawful action,” the plaintiffs said in their filing. …“Although it might seem esoteric, this action is a clear case of federal executive branch officers and agencies bypassing Congress and short-circuiting legislative debate over a hotly contested issue,” the lawsuit says.

Ugh. At least Hillary Clinton is proposing to change the law in pursuit of bad policy on inversions. Obama just waves his magic wand.

Let’s wrap up by refocusing on why the rule of law is a fundamental building block of a free society. Back in 2014, I shared a very good video from Learn Liberty about the importance of the rule of law.

That video is a compelling explanation of why it is good to have clear rules, along with limits on the arbitrary power of government officials.

Indeed, it’s probably no exaggeration to assert that rule of law is the greatest contribution of western civilization.

Here’s a movie clip (courtesy of FEE) that makes this point.

Based on the Obama Administration’s unilateral and capricious actions, maybe a new movie should be made about the rise and decline of western civilization.

P.S. On the topic of Obama and movies, here’s some humor to offset today’s dismal topic.

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While I dismiss conspiracy theories that presume there’s a plan in Washington to strip away our rights, I do think there’s a natural “public choice” explanation for ever-growing, ever-more powerful government. And that can lead to ever-expanding examples of abusive mistreatment of citizens.

If you don’t believe me, just ask people like Andy Johnson, Anthony Smelley, the Hammond family, Charlie Engle, Tammy Cooper, Nancy Black, Russ Caswell, Jacques Wajsfelner, Jeff Councelller, Eric Garner, Martha Boneta, Carole Hinders, Salvatore Culosi, and James Lieto, as well as the Sierra Pacific Company and the entire Meitev family.

Here’s something else to worry about, especially considering the way citizens are increasingly mistreated by callous officials.

Former Senator Tom Coburn, along with Adam Andrzejewski of OpenTheBooks.com, wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal about the militarization of the bureaucracy.

Special agents at the IRS equipped with AR-15 military-style rifles? Health and Human Services “Special Office of Inspector General Agents” being trained by the Army’s Special Forces contractors? The Department of Veterans Affairs arming 3,700 employees? The number of non-Defense Department federal officers authorized to make arrests and carry firearms (200,000) now exceeds the number of U.S. Marines (182,000). In its escalating arms and ammo stockpiling, this federal arms race is unlike anything in history. Over the last 20 years, the number of these federal officers with arrest-and-firearm authority has nearly tripled to over 200,000 today, from 74,500 in 1996. …During a nine-year period through 2014, we found, 67 agencies unaffiliated with the Department of Defense spent $1.48 billion on guns and ammo. Of that total, $335.1 million was spent by agencies traditionally viewed as regulatory or administrative, such as the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Mint.

Here are some of the strange example of militarized bureaucracy, along with my speculation as to why the paper pushers ostensibly need heavy weapons.

The Internal Revenue Service, which has 2,316 special agents, spent nearly $11 million on guns, ammunition and military-style equipment. That’s nearly $5,000 in gear for each agent.

Perhaps the IRS bureaucrats expected Tea Party groups to fight back after they were suppressed to help Obama’s reelection?

The Department of Veterans Affairs, which has 3,700 law-enforcement officers guarding and securing VA medical centers, spent $11.66 million. It spent more than $200,000 on night-vision equipment, $2.3 million for body armor, more than $2 million on guns, and $3.6 million for ammunition. The VA employed no officers with firearm authorization as recently as 1995.

Were the VA bureaucrats worried that angry veterans who were put on secret waiting lists might get violent instead of simply dying?

The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service spent $4.77 million purchasing shotguns, .308 caliber rifles, night-vision goggles, propane cannons, liquid explosives, pyro supplies, buckshot, LP gas cannons, drones, remote-control helicopters, thermal cameras, military waterproof thermal infrared scopes and more.

I don’t even know what propane cannons and LP gas cannons are, but they sound almost as awesome as a tank, so why not get them if taxpayers are footing the bill?

The Environmental Protection Agency spent $3.1 million on guns, ammunition and military-style equipment. The EPA has put nearly $800 million since 2005 into its “Criminal Enforcement Division.”

Is the EPA’s assault on illegal ponds really that dangerous?

The Food and Drug Administration employs 183 heavily armed “special agents.”

What’s the point of having milk police if they aren’t well armed?

The University of California, Berkeley acquired 14 5.56mm assault rifles and Yale University police accepted 20 5.56mm assault rifles from the Defense Department. Texas Southern University and Saddleback College police even acquired Mine Resistant Vehicles (MRVs).

There are rumors that very dodgy characters sometimes show up on campuses, so who am I to question the need for heavy weapons?

And there are other bureaucracies to add to this list, which doesn’t make Corburn and Andrzejewski very happy.

Other paper-pushing federal agencies with firearm-and-arrest authority that have expanded their arsenals since 2006 include the Small Business Administration, Social Security Administration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Education Department, Energy Department, Bureau of Engraving and Printing, National Institute of Standards and Technology and many others. …the federal government has become a gun show that never adjourns. Taxpayers need to tell Washington that police powers belong primarily to cities and states, not the feds.

By the way, I have no objection to armed guards stationed at federal buildings. There are wackos out there. And I’m completely in favor of armed Energy Department officials guarding nuclear facilities.

But do we really need armed regulators interacting with the public?

Yes, bureaucrats occasionally have to deal with potentially dangerous people. And even if they’re enforcing rules that shouldn’t exist, I think they have every right to be protected. But in those rare instances, why not simply call up the local cops and ask for an escort? Would that really be asking too much?

Jeff Jacoby is similarly irked by the militarization of the bureaucracy. Here’s some of what he wrote for the Boston Globe.

…consider one domestic organization’s fearsome arsenal of military-style equipment. In the space of eight years, the group amassed a stockpile of pistols, shotguns, and semiautomatic rifles, along with ample supplies of ammunition, liquid explosives, gun scopes, and suppressors. In its cache as well are night-vision goggles, gas cannons, plus armored vests, drones, and surveillance equipment. Between 2006 and 2014, this organization spent nearly $4.8 million to arm itself. Yet its aggressive weapons buildup has drawn almost no public attention. …It is the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, an agency of the US Department of Agriculture, that has built up such a formidable collection of munitions. And far from being an outlier, it is one of dozens of federal agencies that spends lavishly on guns, ammunition, and military-style equipment.

I guess the APHIS bureaucrats must run into ISIS terrorists. Or something like that.

But the more serious point, which Jeff astutely addresses, is whether militarized bureaucrats send the wrong message.

Between 2006 and 2014, the report shows, 67 federal bureaus, departments, offices, and services spent at least $1.48 billion on ammunition and materiel one might expect to find in the hands of SWAT teams, Special Forces soldiers — or terrorists. …the arms race has metastasized to federal agencies with strictly regulatory or administrative functions. The Internal Revenue Service, for example, now spends more than $1 million annually on firearms, ammunition, and military gear, double what it was spending a decade ago. Since 2006, the Department of Veterans Affairs — which has been sharply criticized for episodes of fatal incompetence in patient care — has poured nearly $11.7 million into guns and ammo. …Incredibly, there are now fewer US Marines than there are officers at federal administrative agencies with the authority to carry weapons and make arrests. …this federal arsenal alarms Adam Andrzejewski, the head of American Transparency’s OpenTheBooks.com, which researched and assembled the new report. “Just who,” he asks, “are the feds planning to battle?”

As I said at the start of this column, I don’t think bureaucrats are “planning to battle” anyone.

But I am concerned that a bloated government with vast and growing powers is a recipe for an ugly and unfortunate encounters.

Especially when we have a tax code and regulatory apparatus that make all of us criminals even when we’re trying to obey.

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