Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Government Thuggery’ Category

Earlier today, I gave a speech to some folks at London’s Institute of Economic Affairs about the failure of global financial regulation.

I touched on some predictable themes:

The absence of cost/benefit analysis for regulatory initiatives.

The failure of anti-money laundering laws and their harmful impact on the poor.

How one-size-fits-all Basel rules led to imprudent risk and misallocation of capital.

How anti-tax competition schemes impose high costs on the financial system (which get passed on to financial consumers).

One thing I noticed, though, is that I didn’t get overly passionate when discussing these topics. I didn’t even get that worked up when talking about the OECD’s dangerous plan to create something akin to a World Tax Organization.

But I did get rather agitated when talking about how money-laundering rules and regulations have led to disgusting and reprehensible examples of so-called civil asset forfeiture.

This happens when a government decides to steal the property of citizens simply because they think it may have been involved in illegal activity.

Politicians and bureaucrats often use the failed Drug War as their rationale, but the activity doesn’t actually have to be illegal. I specifically cited the horrific example of the government stealing $35,000 from some folks in Michigan for no other reason than money from the family grocery business was generally deposited in amounts under $10,000.

I’m sure such government actions have a negative economic impact, but this is a case where the moral argument should take precedence.

Simply stated, all decent and humane people should stand united against thuggery by government.

And in an example of serendipity, after finishing my speech, I turned on my computer and came across more evidence against civil asset forfeiture.

Here are some truly disturbing passages from a report in the Detroit Free Press that showed up in my Twitter feed.

Thomas Williams was alone that November morning in 2013 when police raided his rural St. Joseph County home, wearing black masks, camouflage and holding guns at their sides. They broke down his front door with a battering ram. “We think you’re dealing marijuana,” they told Williams, a 72-year-old, retired carpenter and cancer patient who is disabled and carries a medical marijuana card. When he protested, they handcuffed him and left him on the living room floor as they ransacked his home, emptying drawers, rummaging through closets and surveying his grow room, where he was nourishing his 12 personal marijuana plants as allowed by law.

All this sounds horrible – and it is, but it gets worse.

They did not charge Williams with a crime… Instead, they took his Dodge Journey, $11,000 in cash from his home, his television, his cell phone, his shotgun and are attempting to take his Colon Township home. And they plan to keep the proceeds, auctioning off the property and putting the cash in police coffers. More than a year later, he is still fighting to get his belongings back and to hang on to his house. “I want to ask them, ‘Why? Why me?’ I gave them no reason to do this to me,” said Williams, who says he also suffers from glaucoma, a damaged disc in his back, and COPD, a lung disorder. “I’m out here minding my own business, and just wanted to be left alone.”

Why him? Well, one local attorney has a good idea of what’s really happening.

“It’s straight up theft,” said Williams’ Kalamazoo attorney, Dan Grow. “The forfeiture penalty does not match the crime. It’s absurd. …A lot of my practice is made up of these kinds of cases — middle-aged, middle-income people who have never been in trouble before. It’s all about the money.”

Just to be clear, Mr. Grow is emphasizing the utterly perverse incentive structure that exists when cops are allowed to steal money from citizens and use it to pad their own budget.

This system needs to be reformed.

And the second bit of serendipity is that a new report from the Institute for Justice showed up in my inbox. It explains why civil asset forfeiture should be abolished. And while the report focuses on the venal actions of the IRS, this reform should apply to all government agencies at all levels of government.

Civil forfeiture is the government’s power to take property suspected of involvement in a crime. Unlike criminal forfeiture, no one needs to be convicted of—or even a charged with—a crime for the government to take the property. Lax civil forfeiture standards enable the IRS to “seize first and ask questions later,” taking money without serious investigation and forcing owners into a long and difficult legal battle to try to stop the forfeiture. Any money forfeited is then used to fund further law enforcement efforts, giving agencies like the IRS an incentive to seize.

Here’s how IJ suggests that this type of abuse can be halted.

The surest way to prevent innocent people from losing money unjustly would be to end civil forfeiture and replace it with criminal forfeiture. Short of that, removing the financial incentive to seize, raising the standard of proof to forfeit and enacting other procedural reforms would help protect people from losing their bank accounts when the government has little or no proof of criminal wrongdoing.

While the Institute for Justice does great work, I don’t think they should have opened the door to halfway reforms.

Heck, even the two people who helped start up the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture program now say it should be abolished.

P.S. The Princess of the Levant is also in London, so I’m being forced to engage in tourist activities.

We took a ride on the London Eye, which wasn’t cheap but offers very good views of Big Ben, the House of Commons, Westminster Abbey, and other historic sites.

As far as I’m concerned, though, London is too cold and dreary. The only good tourism involves a warm beach in the Caribbean.

P.P.S. To close on a humorous note, here’s some anti-gun control humor with a rather pointed message.

Definitely worth adding to my collection.

Read Full Post »

It’s probably not a fun time to be a police officer. The deaths of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York have led some – including the Mayor of New York City – to explicitly or implicitly accuse cops of systemic racism.

And then you have folks like me, who grouse about cops for reprehensible abuse of citizens as part of the drug war, as well as disgusting examples of theft using civil asset forfeiture.

Heck, any decent person should get upset about some of the ways law enforcement officials abuse their powers. Consider these excerpts from a nightmarish story out of Houston.

Chad Chadwick has something many citizens can only covet – a spotless record. …But on the night of September 27th, 2011 Chadwick’s commitment to living within the law did him no good at all. It started when a friend concerned for Chadwick’s emotional well-being called Missouri City police to Chad’s Sienna apartment where he’d been distraught, drinking and unknown to anyone, had gone to sleep in the bathtub. A SWAT team was summoned.

I’m not sure why a SWAT team was needed in this case, but that’s not the horrific part of the story.

Here’s what then happened.

“They told a judge I had hostages. They lied to a judge and told him I had hostages in my apartment and they needed to enter,” said Chadwick. …Chadwick’s firearm possession apparently prompted SWAT to kick in his door, launch a stun grenade into the bathroom and storm in, according to Chadwick, without announcing their identity. “While I had my hands up naked in the shower they shot me with a 40 millimeter non-lethal round,” said Chadwick. A second stun grenade soon followed. “I turned away, the explosion went off, I opened my eyes the lights are out and here comes a shield with four or five guys behind it. They pinned me against the wall and proceeded to beat the crap out of me,” said Chadwick. That’s when officers shot the unarmed Chadwick in the back of the head with a Taser at point blank range. …And it wasn’t over. “They grabbed me by my the one hand that was out of the shower and grabbed me by my testicles slammed me on my face on the floor and proceeded to beat me more,” said Chadwick. Chadwick, who hadn’t broken a single law when SWAT burst through his door, was taken to the Ft. Bend County Jail with a fractured nose, bruised ribs and what’s proven to be permanent hearing loss. He was held in an isolation cell for two full days.

Did Mr. Chadwick then get a profuse apology when it was determined that he hadn’t broken any laws?

Not exactly.

Ft. Bend County District Attorney John Healy sought to indict Chadwick on two felony counts of assaulting a police officer, but a Grand Jury said no law was broken. …but Healy’s prosecutors tried misdemeanor charges of resisting arrest, calling more than a dozen officers to testify. Those charges were dropped as well.

The government eventually did figure out a way to get Mr. Chadwick into court, but it didn’t turn out so well.

A month ago, three years after the SWAT raid, a jury found Chad Chadwick not guilty of interfering with police. With tears in their eyes members of the jury offered the exonerated defendant comforting hugs. “They tried to make me a convict. It broke me financially, bankrupted me. I used my life savings, not to mention, I lost my kids,” said Chadwick.

This is one of these cases where I hope Mr. Chadwick sues and gets generously compensated (and I would want any damages to be financed out of the budgets of the officials who misbehaved).

Defenders of the police will argue, quite correctly, that we shouldn’t smear entire police forces or the overall justice system simply because there are some bad cops and unethical prosecutors.

That’s certainly the right attitude, though it’s worth noting that sometimes the “culture” of a police force can get so poisonous that wholesale dismissal is the only way to get better performance.

Here are some passages from a New York Times report about a city in New Jersey that got far better results by firing its entire police force.

It has been 16 months since Camden took the unusual step of eliminating its police force and replacing it with a new one run by the county. …the old force had all but given up responding to some types of crimes. Dispensing with expensive work rules, the new force hired more officers within the same budget — 411, up from about 250. It hired civilians to use crime-fighting technology it had never had the staff for. …Average response time is now 4.4 minutes, down from more than 60 minutes, and about half the average in many other cities. …In June and July, the city went 40 days without a homicide — unheard-of in a Camden summer. …And while the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., has drawn attention to long-simmering hostilities between police departments and minority communities, Camden is becoming an example of the opposite. “We’re not going to do this by militarizing streets,” Chief Thomson said. Instead, he sent officers to knock on doors and ask residents their concerns. He lets community leaders monitor surveillance cameras from their home computers to help watch for developing crime.

 An even more dramatic example comes from Georgia, a country of 5 million people wedged between Russia and Turkey.

As part of a series of reforms to create free markets and honest government, all 15,000 cops from the State Traffic Inspection Office were fired.

Georgian authorities chose a radical method of reforming the police structures which were not working. …The State Traffic Inspection was one of the most corrupt units in the Georgian government. It was almost totally self-financed, fleecing both local and foreign drivers as they traveled Georgian roadways. According to estimates, 80 percent of the money extorted from drivers was distributed along the chain of command all the way up to the minister. …In early summer of 2004, Merabishvili eliminated the State Traffic Inspection, firing all fifteen thousand employees in a single day! Two months later, in August 2004, the force was replaced by competitive hiring of employees for the newly formed US-style highway patrol. During the two-month transition period there was no policing of the roads, and yet the number of car accidents did not increase. There were no riots.

The part about nothing bad happening when there were no cops is especially revealing.

Sort of like how nothing bad happened during the sequester, even though President Obama warned of terrible consequences (humorously captured by these cartoons).

Or when we got welfare reform in the 1990s and poverty went down instead of increasing as the left predicted.

But now let’s defend cops, who actually help fulfill one of the few legitimate functions of government. And there are two reasons they deserve defending.

First, the vast majority of them almost certainly are good and decent people who simply want to help others by fighting and deterring crime. That’s a real value.

Second, almost all of the bad stories about cops exist because politicians have enacted bad laws. I’ve made this point about the drug war. I’ve made this point about asset forfeiture. And I’ve made this point in the case of Eric Garner.

If politicians didn’t criminalize victimless behavior, most horror stories would disappear.

And if politicians didn’t treat police departments as backdoor vehicles for taking money from citizens, there would be no need for some of the unfortunate interactions that now occur between cops and citizens.

Now let’s defend the police from a very incendiary charge. Are cops racists, as some protesters (and government officials) would like us to believe?

Well, I’m sure there are some racist cops (of all colors), just as there are racist accountants, truck drivers, bureaucrats, and even economists. But the real issue is whether racism is a pervasive problem.

And when looking at one of today’s hot-button issues, the answer seems to be no. Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute has some compelling evidence that the police do not disproportionately kill blacks.

…understanding the relationship between African-American communities and law enforcement requires a deeper analysis than a single headline… One simple way to check for bias is to see whether the number of violent crimes needed to explain one police-related death is different depending on one’s race. …We divide the number of violent crimes by the arrest-related deaths for each race. The quotient tells us, on average, how many violent crimes it takes, by race, to produce one arrest-related death. If police are unambiguously racist, then it should take fewer violent crimes to induce one death in the African-American community. As the chart shows, according to our data, African Americans and white Americans have roughly the same proportion of violent crimes to police-related deaths. …These numbers are strikingly similar. The difference between them is small, and not statistically significant. …police appear to be treating the races the same.

But that hasn’t stopped the Obama Administration from subsidizing a group that produced a video that seemingly condones cop killing.

The Obama administration’s Justice Department funneled at least $1.5 million in grants to a New York legal-aid group featured in a new rap video that depicts two young black men aiming handguns at a white police officer. …The video for  “Hands Up,” which also shows a white police officer gunning down a black motorist wearing a hoodie, contains lyrics suggesting revenge for much-publicized deaths of black men in confrontations with police. …The organization, which was founded in 1997 and boasts some high-powered corporate lawyers on its board, has enjoyed a steady flow of taxpayer dollars since President Obama took office in 2009.

This is disgusting.

Accusing cops of systemic racism without evidence is bad enough, but to subsidize a group that glorifies cop killing is downright evil.

But the bottom of line of this post is that our main problem is too many laws that are either designed to collect revenue or to dictate private behavior.

That’s where reforms should focus, not on vilifying the average cop.

P.S. I can’t resist sharing an amusing anecdote about cops. Several years ago, I spoke at the Liberty Forum in New Hampshire, a conference connected with the Free State Project. Many of the participants were avid practitioners of “open carry,” which meant they had handguns strapped to their sides. At one point, I was riding with several of these folks down the elevator at the conference hotel and a family got in. A young boy noticed all their weapons and asked “Are you guys cops?” One of them cheerfully responded, “No, we’re the good guys.”

P.P.S. On the other hand, I also have a less-than-amusing anecdote.

Read Full Post »

According to Gallup, Americans now identify “government” as the most important problem facing the United States.

That doesn’t surprise. Gallup also found last year that big government is considered a far greater danger to the nation that big business or big labor.

Moreover, a poll from NPR earlier this year found that government was the leading cause of stress in people’s lives.

And Gallup discovered earlier this year that a record number of Americans think that government is corrupt.

So why do Americans have such a dour view of officialdom?

Well, let’s look at one example. The Wall Street Journal has a devastating editorial about dishonest and unethical behavior by federal and state bureaucracies.

The column starts with a strong assertion.

Prosecutorial misconduct has become an ugly commonplace of modern government, manipulating the legal system to attack easy political targets. 

It’s one that many people recognize is accurate, and probably helps to explain why pollsters now find the kinds of results cited above.

But if you think the WSJ is exaggerating or that people are misguided for being hostile to government, just check out how Andy Johnson, Anthony Smelley, Charlie Engle, Tammy Cooper, Nancy Black, Russ Caswell, Jacques Wajsfelner, Jeff Councelller, Eric Garner, Martha Boneta, Carole Hinders, Salvatore Culosi, and James Lieto were victimized by bureaucrats run amok.

But I’m digressing. Let’s get to this newest case. It deals with a forest fire in California and subsequent efforts for federal and state bureaucracies to blame a private company and extort some of the firm’s cash and land.

The story began in 2007 with the Moonlight Fire in California that burned some 65,000 acres, about two-thirds on federal land. Within 48 hours and while the flames were still burning, the state’s department of forestry and fire protection, known as Cal Fire, and the U.S. Forest Service blamed the disaster on Sierra Pacific, a Redding-based company that owns some 1.2 million acres of timberland. In 2009 a federal-state task force brought official complaints against the company and nearby landowners. California officials filed an action in state court while prosecutors sued for $1 billion in federal court. Sierra Pacific has insisted it didn’t start the fire but, faced with an open-ended legal fight, the company in 2012 settled the federal case for $55 million and a deed of some 22,500 acres to the U.S. government.

So far, so good, at least from the federal government’s perspective.

But there was still the case that was filed in state court, which presumably represented another attempt to extort more money from Sierra Pacific.

And this is where the government screwed up, whether through greed or incompetence (probably both). The WSJ has some of the sordid details that have been unearthed.

…the state case continued, and it has exposed a fiasco of fraud and corruption… Among other problems, government investigators and prosecutors doctored reports, misrepresented facts and retaliated against employees whose questions threatened their strategy. …According to the theory implicating the company, the fire started when the blade of a Sierra Pacific bulldozer hit a rock and created a spark. Government investigators pinpointed a location and claimed they had confirmation from a bulldozer driver. Problem was, both the fire’s alleged point of origin and the scenario to buttress it were fraudulent. When the company questioned the bulldozer driver, he denied having made the statement and admitted he couldn’t have confirmed the statement prosecutors had him sign because he didn’t know how to read. Prosecutors were also dishonest about where the fire started. Overhead videos have shown that the point of origin marked by the government was well outside the visual boundaries of the burning forest nearly an hour after the fire started.

I’m tempted at this point to make some snarky joke, but this issue is far too serious. When the government prevaricates in legal proceedings, that undermines the rule of law and call into question the integrity of the entire system.

And the column reveals that there was corruption and mendacity at both the state and federal level.

A second federal prosecutor, Eric Overby, joined the case in 2011, only to withdraw promptly on discovering what he called prosecutorial abuse directed squarely at raising revenue. He told defense counsel that in “my entire career, I have never seen anything like this. Never.” In February 2014, California state Judge Leslie Nichols assailed the federal and state government for abuses of discovery so “reprehensible” and “egregious” that they “threatened the integrity of the judicial process.” He threw out the case and awarded Sierra Pacific $30 million in sanctions against Cal Fire.

There are still reverberations from the case as Sierra Pacific is seeking to void the agreement that was made (based on lies) with the federal government. Needless to say, one hopes the company will win.

But there’s something else that needs to happen. The corrupt government officials need to be penalized, ideally with criminal sanctions including jail time. The government’s lawyers also should be disbarred and lose their jobs.

Punishment is the right approach, both because it is deserved and because it’s the only way of sending an effective signal to other bureaucrats that there is a personal risk to government malfeasance.

I also think Sierra Pacific, like any other victimized party, deserves compensation. Unfortunately, that money would come from taxpayers when it should be deducted from the budgets of the misbehaving bureaucracies (and the salaries of the bureaucrats).

P.S. I noted at the end of last year that President Hollande in France has decided to get rid of his class-warfare 75 percent top tax rate.

That’s a sign of progress, to be sure, but I wasn’t nearly as eloquent on the issue as Dan Hannan. The British MEP has some very wise words in today’s Washington Examiner.

I was living in Brussels when François Hollande, the President of France, introduced his 75 percent top rate tax in 2012. Immediately, my quartier began to fill with French exiles, who could commute to Paris in just over an hour.  …Three years on, President Hollande is shame-facedly scrapping the 75 percent rate, having forcibly re-learned an ancient truth: Wealth taxes don’t redistribute wealth; they redistribute people. Thousands of well-off Frenchmen made the easy journey north, including the country’s richest man, Bernard Arnault. …Hollande’s tax, levied on incomes above one million euros, has been a miserable failure. Over its lifespan, it raised around $500 million, a tiny fraction of the original projections. Why? Well, the Paris bureaucrats who made those projections overlooked something rather important. Rich people don’t sit around waiting to be taxed. They have all sorts of ways of beating the system… A lot of politicians don’t want to hear this. Instead of accepting international competition, they legislate against it — by, for example, imposing international rules on tax harmonization.

Amen to all these excerpts. Hollande’s class-warfare scheme was an economic failure and a revenue failure.

I also like what Hannan wrote about tax competition, and you can watch two very brief speeches he made on that topic by clicking here.

P.S. If you enjoy short Dan Hannan speeches, here’s one about the European bureaucracy racket and here’s one on the hypocrisy of European politicians.

P.P.S. My favorite item from Hannan, though, is his column about the socialist part of Germany’s National Socialists.

Read Full Post »

Like the good people of Arizona, I despise speed cameras.

But not because I want reckless driving. Instead, my disdain is based on the fact that governments set up cameras where speed limits are preposterously low in order to generate revenue. And I speak from personal experience.

Like the good people of Houston, I also despise red-light cameras.

But once again, this isn’t because I want jerks racing through red lights and endangering innocent people. Instead, my opposition is based on the fact that greedy governments – operating recklessly – use such cameras as tools to fleece drivers.

Holman Jenkins has a column in today’s Wall Street Journal, explaining how the industry was supposed to operate.

A promising industry betrayed by the behavior of its customers—that’s the story of the red-light camera business. …Redflex Traffic Systems, leading practitioner of the once-sparkling business of setting up automatic traffic-enforcement systems for municipalities. The company and its industry were set to grow. The product improved traffic safety, freed up officers for more important work, and paid for itself. Towns and cities didn’t even have to budget a dime upfront because Redflex assumed the costs and risks of setting up cameras at designated intersections.

But in the real world, that’s not what happened. Politicians all over the nation used cameras as revenue-generating devices.

…serial revelations by the Chicago Tribune about the city’s buccaneering ways—running its camera system for profits rather than safety. …New York state conspicuously authorized cameras at various upstate locations in 2010 to close a budget gap. When New Jersey last week let a five-year experiment lapse amid a voter backlash, Moody’s called the decision a “credit negative” for local treasuries. In California, public acceptance steadily eroded as politicians kept piling on “surcharges” that turn a hundred-dollar traffic offense into a $500 fine in the mail. …the Trib cited the city’s “long-standing reliance on using the lowest possible yellow light time” to maximize revenues even at the cost of encouraging more accidents. …a universal peeve of motorists, being fined for a harmless rolling right on red.

At this point, some people may be thinking that this is no big deal. After all, they might argue, at least the cameras make the roads safer.

But according to research commissioned by the Chicago Tribune, the cameras simply replace one type of accident with another, at least in part because the city government rigged the system to maximize revenue rather than safety.

Here are some excerpts from a report published by Reason.

Chicago’s red light camera program hasn’t made driving in the city any safer and has replaced one type of car crash for another. The cameras are there obviously to make money for the city, not for the benefit and safety of the residents. The Chicago Tribune commissioned a study to break down the city’s claims that cameras have reduced right-angle crashes at intersections by 47 percent and calls the number nonsense. They calculate that it actually dropped the rate of crashes that caused injuries by only 15 percent. That wouldn’t be such a terrible number if engineers hadn’t also calculated that their cameras didn’t also cause a 22 percent increase in rear-end collisions that caused injuries. …the Tribune story makes sure to point out how much revenue the city has gotten from the program—$500 million over 12 years. The Tribune also reminds readers of the many, many, many scandals and issues the program has faced, like tickets handed out for lights that had yellow signal times below the national standard, unexplained ticket surges, and outright bribes from a company operating the cameras to city officials.

By the way, this data from Chicago isn’t an anomaly. Radley Balko has reported on similar accident-causing scams all over the nation.

So now, perhaps, you’ll understand why I wrote more than three years ago that Jay Beeber is a hero.

And why I expressed admiration for England’s NoToMob.

But I confess I’m nonetheless conflicted about cameras. Simply stated, I don’t want morons driving 60 miles per hour on residential streets. And I don’t want narcissistic jerks zipping through intersections a couple of seconds after a light has turned red.

Cameras, if properly operated, could discourage genuinely dangerous behavior.

So here’s the libertarian quandary (actually it’s a quandary for everyone who wants a sensible society). How can you give government the power to enforce legitimate laws without simultaneously giving government the power to abuse people?

This is the puzzle that America’s Founding Fathers tried to solve with a set of rules that limited the power of government. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “ let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the constitution.”

Unfortunately, courts haven’t done a good job in recent decades of constraining the federal government. And the only halfway decent constraint on state and local governments is jurisdictional competition, and that’s a necessary but far from sufficient condition for good policy.

Returning to the narrow issue of cameras, part of the solution is to reduce government’s role in transportation. We already have lots of privately built and privately operated highways in America (and even in the United Kingdom). And private developers also build and operate some local roads. So why not let them set – and enforce – the traffic rules?

Such a system wouldn’t be perfect, of course, but I’m guessing we would have better rules than the ones imposed by politicians.

Or we can let politicians use new technologies to further monitor and control our lives (and empty our pockets).

P.S. If some brave citizen got arrested for busting a bunch of revenue cameras and I somehow wound up on the jury that decided the case, you can probably guess what I would do.

P.P.S. I shared a chart back in 2010 to show that economists are terrible forecasters.

Now we have more evidence. But instead of looking at growth predictions versus reality, here’s what economists predicted about interest rates compared to what actually happened.

This chart helps to show that economists shouldn’t try to make short-run predictions, which good economists already understand.

Whereas the bad ones are easily confused with con artists.

No wonder it’s so easy to make fun of us.

Read Full Post »

I wrote last week about the lunacy of a tax system that created the conditions that led to the death of Eric Garner in New York City.

But I wrote that column in the context of how high tax rates lead to tax avoidance and tax evasion. Let’s now zoom out and look at the bigger picture.

Using the Garner case as a springboard, George Will explains that we have too many laws.

Garner died at the dangerous intersection of something wise, known as “broken windows” policing, and something worse than foolish: decades of overcriminalization. …when more and more behaviors are criminalized, there are more and more occasions for police, who embody the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence, and who fully participate in humanity’s flaws, to make mistakes. Harvey Silverglate, a civil liberties attorney, titled his 2009 book “Three Felonies a Day” to indicate how easily we can fall afoul of the United States’ metastasizing body of criminal laws. Professor Douglas Husak of Rutgers University says that approximately 70 percent of American adults have, usually unwittingly, committed a crime for which they could be imprisoned. …The scandal of mass incarceration is partly produced by the frivolity of the political class, which uses the multiplication of criminal offenses as a form of moral exhibitionism. This, like Eric Garner’s death, is a pebble in the mountain of evidence that American government is increasingly characterized by an ugly and sometimes lethal irresponsibility.

I don’t know if Americans actually do commit three felonies each day, and I also don’t know if 70 percent of us have committed offenses punishable by jail time, but I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to learn that these numbers are correct.

They may even be understated.

Indeed, when I share horrifying examples of government thuggery, these generally involve brutal and over-zealous enforcement of things that oftentimes shouldn’t be against the law in the first place.

This Eric Allie cartoon is a good example, and definitely will get added to my collection of images that capture the essence of government.

In other words, George Will wasn’t exaggerating when he wrote that, “American government is increasingly characterized by an ugly and sometimes lethal irresponsibility.”

Writing for Bloomberg, Professor Steven Carter of Yale Law School has a similar perspective.

I always counsel my first-year students never to support a law they are not willing to kill to enforce. …I remind them that the police go armed to enforce the will of the state, and if you resist, they might kill you. I wish this caution were only theoretical. It isn’t. …It’s not just cigarette tax laws that can lead to the death of those the police seek to arrest. It’s every law. Libertarians argue that we have far too many laws, and the Garner case offers evidence that they’re right. …it is unavoidable that there will be situations where police err on the side of too much violence rather than too little. Better training won’t lead to perfection. But fewer laws would mean fewer opportunities for official violence to get out of hand.

Amen.

A just society should have very few laws, and those laws should be both easy to understand and they should focus on protecting life, liberty, and property.

Sadly, that’s not a good description for what now exists in America. Professor Carter explains.

…federal law alone includes more than 3,000 crimes, fewer than half of which found in the Federal Criminal Code. The rest are scattered through other statutes. A citizen who wants to abide by the law has no quick and easy way to find out what the law actually is — a violation of the traditional principle that the state cannot punish without fair notice. In addition to these statutes, he writes, an astonishing 300,000 or more federal regulations may be enforceable through criminal punishment in the discretion of an administrative agency. Nobody knows the number for sure. Husak cites estimates that more than 70 percent of American adults have committed a crime that could lead to imprisonment. …making an offense criminal also means that the police will go armed to enforce it. Overcriminalization matters… Every new law requires enforcement; every act of enforcement includes the possibility of violence. …Don’t ever fight to make something illegal unless you’re willing to risk the lives of your fellow citizens to get your way.

Which is a good description of why I’m a libertarian notwithstanding my personal conservatism.

I don’t like drugs, but I’m not willing to let someone else get killed because they have a different perspective.

I don’t like gambling, but I don’t want another person to die because they want to play cards.

I don’t like prostitution, but it’s awful to think someone could lose his life because he paid for sex.

This Glenn McCoy cartoon summarizes what’s happening far too often in this country.

P.S. Since this has been a depressing topic, let’s close by switching to some good news.

I’ve previously explained why I’m somewhat optimistic on the future of the Second Amendment. Well, the folks at Pew Research have some new polling data that bolsters my optimism.

Here’s one result that put a smile on my face.

And here’s a breakdown that’s also encouraging. Note how blacks have become much more supportive of gun rights.

I guess this means “Stretch” and “R.J.” have a lot more support than just two years ago.

And it’s worth noting that cops have the same perspective.

In other words, these are not fun times for gun grabbers.

Read Full Post »

When people figure out ways to keep the money they earn in their own pockets, rather than having it confiscated by government, I’m almost always happy.

That’s because governments tend to waste money (should any of us pay for corrupt pork-barrel spending?).

And it’s because government impose bad tax policy (is it fair to have governments tax us more than one time?).

I also object to oppressive tax collection tactics (why do murderers have a presumption of innocence, but not taxpayers?).

With this bit of background, you can understand why I cheer when greedy politicians fail in their efforts to grab more money.

Here are three stories about tax avoidance. The first and third stories should make you smile, while the middle story is a tragic reminder of what happens when you mix bad tax policy with bad enforcement tactics.

Our first story is from the U.K.-based Times, which reports that English shoppers will travel all the way to Belgium to buy cigarettes.

Smokers — and smugglers — are flocking to a small village on the Belgian coast in search of cheap tobacco to beat the taxman. …The savings are substantial. A sleeve of 200 Benson & Hedges Gold costs £45 in Belgium, compared with £90 at a British newsagent; a 50g pouch of Amber Leaf tobacco is on sale for £5.65, about £11 cheaper than at home. Sticking to the recommended allowance of 1kg of tobacco and 800 cigarettes will save a smoker about £400 per trip. However, as there are no limits on the amount of tobacco and alcohol that a person can bring back from an EU country, some day-trippers are pushing that to 3kg of tobacco and 3,000 cigarettes, for combined savings of £1,350.

The folks making the trip resent the way their government (often using Orwellian tactics) is trying to pillage them.

Many smokers are angry at high UK prices and annual rises in duty. A grandmother from the West Midlands tweeted to the Conservative party: “I saved £3,000 for a holiday this year. I won’t pay UK tax to be bullied. Much cheaper to buy abroad.” …An estimated 80 coaches make the trip each week from different parts of the UK. The Times joined a service run by Excalibur Coaches, starting at Elephant and Castle in south London at 5.55am and joining a P&O ferry crossing at Dover. …“There are a lot of English here but the government has made cigarettes so expensive that, with this price difference, people are bound to be tempted.”

I’m glad for these people. The U.K. government has gone way overboard in their efforts to grab more tax. Notwithstanding what the politicians say, it’s not immoral to protect your income from rapacious and untrustworthy government.

There was no suggestion that anyone on the Excalibur coach broke any rules, but trippers are reluctant to speak openly for fear that they will draw the attention of Border Force officers, who are cracking down on the illicit traders.

The same thing happens in the United States, by the way. Excessive tobacco taxes by some state and local governments create big incentives for consumers to seek out cigarettes that are more affordable.

And our second story is about how government over-reaction can lead to horrifying consequences.

First, some background from A. Barton Hinkle, writing for Reason.

Thanks to New York’s laughably high cigarette taxes ($4.35 state plus another $1.60 in the city) and higher prices generally, a pack of smokes in New York City costs $14 or more. That creates a powerful incentive to smuggle smokes in from states such as Virginia, where you can buy a pack for a third of that price. …The robust cigarette smuggling irritates officials in New York, because they miss out on a lot of tax revenue.

And because politicians deploy resources to capture some of that foregone revenue, it leads to enforcement efforts that, in the tragic case of Eric Garner, led to a man’s death.

The writers at National Review have done a superb job of addressing this issue. Let’s start with some observations from Kevin Williamson.

…one must have a permit to sell cigarettes in New York, and New York bans the sale of so-called loosies, single cigarettes sold to those who lack either the means or the desire to purchase an entire pack at the going New York City rate of $12 to $14. …In a sane world, selling cigarettes would not be a crime. …That isn’t an argument for anything-goes lawlessness, but it is an argument that we have too many criminal offenses, and an argument that not everything that is a crime is a danger.

David Harsanyi has some similar thoughts.

Garner wasn’t targeted for death because he was avoiding taxes, but nonetheless, prohibitive cigarette taxes unnecessarily generate situations that make events such as this possible. …In the case of Garner, police were enforcing a law that has nothing to do with violence, not in the short or long term. …New York has by far the highest cigarette taxes in the nation: more than five bucks a pack. Unsurprisingly, the policy has spurred a black market. …The more profitable it becomes to circumvent taxes, the more dangerous this mini-prohibition will be. Garner was selling single cigarettes, incidentally. Does anyone believe that isn’t a waste of time for police and prosecutors?

Another National Review contribution is from Jonah Goldberg.

…you know what reasonable people can’t dispute? New York’s cigarette taxes are partly to blame for Eric Garner’s death. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky made this point Wednesday night on MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews, and liberals have been freaking out about it ever since. …anyone with a level head should understand — and agree with — Paul’s point. When you pass a law, you authorize law enforcement to enforce it. …Without laws making cigarettes more expensive, Eric Garner would be alive today, period. …In the war on tobacco, like the war on drugs, if politicians will the ends, they must will the means. This is something that libertarians understand better than everyone else: The state is about violence. You can talk all day about how “government is just another word for those things we do together,” but what makes government work is force, not hugs. If you sell raw-milk cheese even after the state tells you to stop, eventually people with guns will show up at your home or office and arrest you. If you resist arrest, something very bad might happen. You might even die for selling bootleg cheese.

Heck, we’ve even gotten to the point that the bureaucrats at the Food and Drug Administration are conducting raids on dairies for the horrible crime of selling to consumers who prefer unpasteurized milk.

But let’s focus on what Jonah wrote about the state and violence. Charles C. W. Cooke also addressed that issue in his NR column.

Ultimately, “the State” is a synonym for “organized violence.” “If you refuse to pay your taxes,” Representative David Brat recently noted, “you will lose. You will go to jail, and if you fight, you will lose. The government holds a monopoly on violence. Any law that we vote for is ultimately backed by the full force of our government and military.” In consequence, Brat proposed, we should be careful about when and how that violence is utilized. Certainly, civilized nations need laws. But it is one thing to recruit armed men to prevent murder and rape and grievous bodily harm, and it is quite another to do so in order to regulate the manner in which cigarettes may be sold. …Was Garner killed deliberately? No, of course he was not. …Nevertheless, we should all be willing to acknowledge that Garner would never have been so much as approached had the city not wanted its pound of flesh in the first instance. Because there are consequences to all laws — however minor — it is incumbent upon us to ask if those laws are worth the risks that they yield. What, I wonder, would the anti-tax rebels who threw off the British Empire make of the news that a man had lost his life for peacefully selling a “loosie”?

By the way, the National Review writers openly state that the Eric Garner case involves a lot more than taxes. They point out that there are very big issues about race, the proper use of force, and the integrity of the justice system.

But everything they wrote about misguided tobacco taxation is also right on the mark.

Now let’s look at our third story, which is fortunately amusing rather than tragic. It was sent to me from the Public Secrets blog, and it deals with a Spanish theater is taking a rather unusual step to avoid that nation’s crippling value-added tax.

Crippled by colossal tax rates and falling ticket sales, the Spanish cultural sector is taking creative action to cut its tax bill, including one theatre which has changed its main business to pornography to avoid having to pay high taxes. …Theatre director Karina Garantivá said: “It’s scandalous when cultural heritage is being taxed at 21 percent and porn at only at 4 percent. Something is wrong”. Her company, which performs works by the “Spanish Shakespeare” Pedro Calderón de la Barca has decided to circumvent the new, punitive taxes by registering as a distributor of pornographic magazines – and is offering free performances. Punters buying €16 worth of hardcore-swingers magazine Gente Libre from the company receive a ‘free’ ticket to a performance of the highly regarded 17th century comic drama El Mágico Prodigioso.

You have to give them credit for creativity. I previously wrote about a Spanish theater that gave “free” tickets to customers who purchased low-taxed carrots for absurd prices, but I’m guessing the porn angle will be more successful.

Heck, I’m a cultural rube, and even I might be tempted to patronize the theater.

But not because of the porn. Instead, I admire the philosophical approach. Unlike a lot of artists, these folks in Spain apparently aren’t looking for handouts.

Garantivá said: “We don’t want subsidies, we are a private initiative. The best subsidies are fiscal measures that don’t prevent me from doing my work”. …Although the company is presently selling second-hand pornography to escape tax, they may produce their own to sell in future, as their present stock is only 300 magazines. Doing so would be “a stand against the government”, said the director.

And they’re even willing to produce their own porn as a way of saying “bugger off” to government. Given my libertarian principles, maybe I should…um…volunteer to help? Viva la libertad!

Though I won’t be waiting by my phone expecting a call.

All kidding aside, the common theme in all these stories is that people don’t like paying excessive taxes.

We may not all agree about when taxation becomes excessive, but I assume just about everyone will agree that it’s perfectly legitimate to avoid or evade the French tax laws that require some people to pay more than 100 percent of their income to government.

On the other hand, most of us also will have little sympathy for folks who try to avoid or evade when they live in jurisdictions – such as Hong Kong, Bermuda, and Switzerland – that are honest, well-run, and lightly taxed.

My proposal is that we have a simple and fair system like the flat tax so that people have much less reason to evade or avoid.

In the meantime, I’ll continue rooting for taxpayers who thwart the greed of the political class.

So three cheers for French entrepreneurs, American companies, Italian boat owners, California citizens, Greek shop owners, Facebook millionaires, Norwegian butter buyers, New York taxpayers, Bulgarian smokers, foreign cab drivers, New Jersey residents, Australian film stars, and everyone else who does their part to limit the amount of tax revenue flowing to governments.

P.S. There’s at least one tax avoider who doesn’t deserve any support. Actually, there are at least two of them. Make that three. Oops, four and five. Wait, we have six. Seven. Eight…and an entire building of them…well, I think you get the point I’m trying to make.

Read Full Post »

I generally focus on the profligate habits and abusive tactics of the federal government in Washington, but that doesn’t mean other levels of government are well behaved.

In a column for the Washington Post, Catherine Rampell outlines some of the reprehensible ways that state and local governments extract money from the citizenry.

Think of recent, infuriating stories on civil asset forfeiture, in which law enforcement seizes cash and other property from people who are never charged with crimes. Often the departments that do the seizing get to keep the proceeds, which leads to terrible incentives. …Onerous traffic fees and court fines — which have been blamed for long-simmering tensions in places like Ferguson, Mo. — often have a similarly mercenary motive.

She’s right to be infuriated.

Policies like asset forfeiture are disgusting ways of stealing money, particularly from the less fortunate. Indeed, it’s worth noting that the two first leaders of the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture office now say the practice should be ended because of rampant abuses.

But other revenue-raising policies also are objectionable.

…states and cities are also increasingly trying to monetize other behaviors seen as sinful or wayward, like marijuana use, strip club patronage, and gambling. Hence the explosion of state-sponsored lotteries, which prey on (mostly poor) people’s mathematical illiteracy… States have also been jockeying to expand casinos and other venues for legalized gambling, which voters seem to see as generating free money. …Then there are the expensive occupational licensure requirements for jobs that don’t seem to require state-level gatekeeping, like hair-braiding.

At this point, after reading various examples of greedy governments pillaging citizens, you may be thinking Ms. Rampell is a good libertarian.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Her anger is misdirected. Instead of holding politicians accountable, she blames voters for their unwillingness to acquiesce to tax hikes as a way of dealing with “widespread budget crunches.”

If the political toxicity of spending and tax hikes encourages obfuscation at the federal level, it has led to far more destructive and distortionary policies at the state and local levels. Voters hate taxes and will punish any politician who threatens to raise them (or, in many cases, does not accede to cutting them). But schools, roads, police forces, garbage collection, firefighters, jails and pensions still cost money, even when you cut them back as much as voters will tolerate. So instead of raising taxes, state and municipal governments have resorted to nickel-and-diming constituents through other kinds of piecemeal, non-tax revenue raisers, an outcome that is less transparent, and likely to worsen the economy, inequality and social injustice. …It’s time to take off the fiscal blinkers and start rewarding politicians who have the courage to advocate raising revenues the old-fashioned way: through taxes.

Reward a politician for raising taxes? Isn’t that like rewarding a mosquito for taking your blood?

But I shouldn’t be snarky. After all, maybe Ms. Rampell is right and that budgets for state and local governments have been cut as much as possible.

That being said, I noticed she didn’t include any figures on the trends in spending by state and local governments.

So I went to the Office of Management and Budget’s historical tables, specifically Table 15-2 which includes state and local government expenditures. And after adjusting the data for inflation, based on the composite deflator in Table 1-3, I put together a graph to determine whether there was a “budget crunch” for state and local government.

Um…not so much.

As you can see, state and local government spending has jumped dramatically, even when looking at inflation-adjusted dollars.

Indeed, the 164 percent increase in outlays since 1980 is four times greater than the 40 percent increase in the nation’s population over the same period.

In other words, the only “budget crunch” is the one being imposed on long-suffering taxpayers by state and local politicians.

Those officials are the folks who deserve Ms. Rampell’s ire.

P.S. Since this column corrects a big oversight in a Washington Post column, I suppose this would be a good time to point out other mistakes or misstatements I’ve noticed in that newspaper.

Such as the time it asserted in a news report that Germany is “fiscally conservative.”

Or the time the newspaper claimed a 0.158 percent cut would “slash” the federal budget.

And how about the time the Post said the tiny sequester would impose a “sledgehammer of budget cuts.”

P.P.S. On the other hand, the Washington Post has produced genuinely good editorials on school choice and postal service privatization, so it isn’t all bad.

P.P.P.S. And it presumably is better than the New York Times, which has a bigger list of preposterous stories (and I’m not even counting Paul Krugman’s mistakes, some of which can be seen here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,675 other followers

%d bloggers like this: