Category Archives: politics

How the state of Missouri could save money in a tough budgetary climate

The view from Schmitt,Warner, and Gupta (2010):

The United States currently incarcerates a higher share of its population than any other country in the world. We calculate that a reduction in incarceration rates just to the level we had in 1993 (which was already high by historical standards) would lower correctional expenditures by $16.9 billion per year, with the large majority of these savings accruing to financially squeezed state and local governments. As a group, state governments could save $7.6 billion, while local governments could save $7.2 billion.

These cost savings could be realized through a reduction by one-half in the incarceration rate of exclusively non-violent offenders, who now make up over 60 percent of the prison and jail population.

Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice William Price puts this into perspective for Missouri in a Feb. 3rd, 2010 speech:

Perhaps the biggest waste of resources in all of state government is the over-incarceration of nonviolent offenders and our mishandling of drug and alcohol offenders. It is costing us billions of dollars and it is not making a dent in crime.

Listen to these numbers. In 1994, shortly after I came to the Court, the number of nonviolent offenders in Missouri prisons was 7,461. Today it’s 14,204.  That’s almost double. In 1994, the number of new commitments for nonviolent offenses was 4,857. Last year, it was 7,220 — again, almost double. At a rate of $16,432 per offender, we currently are spending $233.4 million a year to incarcerate nonviolent offenders … not counting the investment in the 10 prisons it takes to hold these individuals at $100 million per prison. In 1994, appropriations to the Department of Corrections totaled $216,753,472. Today, it’s $670,079,452.  The amount has tripled. And the recidivism rate for these individuals, who are returned to prison within just two years, is 41.6 percent.

Here is a graph, again from CEPR:

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On not representing the status quo

…Voters may yet see Obama, in the years ahead, as disappointing or transformative or neither. But the one thing he will never really embody is the status quo.

From an excellent article in today’s NYT, here.

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Economic development, markets, and a Missouri governor I’ll identify as “Jay Nixon”

Thomas Duda at the Show-Me Daily writes:

While reading the Springfield Business Journal, I ran across a mention of the governor’s recently formed Executive Advisory Board, which will produce “a five-year plan for economic growth.” The governor’s press release states:

The final outcome of the planning process will be six to 10 strategic objectives to transform Missouri’s economy for the 21st century. The objectives will pinpoint existing and future industries that will drive growth. Along with each strategic objective, the plan will include specific tactical steps necessary to accomplish the goal. The strategic objectives and tactics will focus on the next five years.

Although I find the Executive Advisory Board’s mandate ludicrous — that state government should chart and shape the course of something as complex as our collective future economic development, I do find it encouraging that a committee member quoted in the Springfield Business Journal stated:

“We spend lots of money on economic development every year. The question is, ‘Are we strategically aligned to do it in the most effective way?’”

Obviously, the panel will not consider the possibility that the state of Missouri leave the business of economic development entirely, but I am somewhat hopeful that Executive Advisory Board just might conclude that the termination of some market-distorting policies would set Missouri on a course toward a freer and more prosperous future.

Say there are several companies in cutting edge industry X that are trying to make location decisions. The key criteria for a potential location is whether or not the legal architecture for that business to operate exists or not. Do you think it is appropriate for a governmental commission to try to predict what kind of legal architecture is necessary to sustain economic growth? Consider the much debated but unarguably important scholarship of Rafael La Porta, Florencio Lopez-de-Silanes, Andrei Shleifer and Robert Vishny (LLSV 1998) whose data-driven approach to analyzing the relationship between legal development and economic growth has been influential in persuading governments to support markets, not replace them (LLS 2008).

Consider, too, that this is not just a commission that can be characterized in a strict government/free market dichotomy. The press release notes that the commission will be directed by top business leaders; this is more appropriately characterized as a place where the public and private spheres interact to increase the efficiency of both. I point you to Vincent Ostrom, who notes in an interview with Vernon Smith:

Instead, we should expect to find some combination of market and non-market structures in every society, and we should recognize the complex configuration of institutions behind labels such as “capitalism”. We might usefully think about combinations of private and public economies existing side by side. However, it’s important to stress that not all forms of public enterprise are, or need to be, state-owned and operated. Markets are diverse and complex entities. Markets for different types of goods and services may take on quite different characteristics. Some may work well under the most impersonal conditions. Others may depend upon personal considerations involving high levels of trust among trading partners. In other words, the options are much greater than we imagine, and we can see this is true if we don’t allow our minds to be trapped within narrowly constrained intellectual horizons.

I hazard a guess that Duda does not account for these parameters. Consider Maryland, for instance. The economic development commission there (if there is one) there could make the determination that laws barring video recording of law enforcement provides a poor legal architecture for the existence of citizen journalism or documentary filmmakers, among others. Relaxing these laws would stimulate economic activities by people and firms who previously were priced out of the market by liability costs.

Or alternatively, an economic development commission could find that biotech companies would be happy to relocate to Missouri if they could rely on a legal architecture that protects them from unfair claims of tort. Without that architecture, biotech companies wouldn’t be willing to relocate to Missouri, and we’d lose what might otherwise be an very productive industry to another place.

I don’t want to extend this argument to subsidizing businesses to relocate through tax incentives and other kinds of public financing. But I do think that the notion that Governor Nixon is interested in promoting sensible economic development through the work and advice of private-sector leaders commendable, and I think that there are good arguments as to why.

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Talking to Mary Still on payday loan reform

I spoke to Missouri state representative Mary Still (D-MO 25) on her attempts to regulate payday lending. Also present was Abhi Sivasailam, a scholar at the Show-Me Institute, who is writing a policy study on the issue of payday loan reforms. Previously I wrote about Still’s efforts to regulate the industry here; my basic conclusion is first that a lot of the relevant data that might help us quantify the harms of payday lending does not exist or is unclear and second that I think that the real regulatory challenge is to tranche the market in a way that minimizes the harms that payday loans are implicated in.

There are easy ways to break this down into a free-market vs. anti-market debate. I don’t like them because I think that the hard ideological line is, well, wrong. It would be easy to accuse Still of being anti-market, but after speaking with her, I think she makes a much more nuanced claim. Part of it is simply that regardless of who is right about the normative question of “should we regulate payday loan providers out of business or not?”, there are reasonable arguments to be made that companies in this industry in Missouri have behaved extremely poorly.

The best piece of evidence that exists for this claim is that the payday loan industries were able to move enough money around to Missouri House Republicans that the speaker, Ron Richards, kept the Still’s payday lending bill out of committee for several months, and when the bill was assigned to committee, the hearing was chaired by Don Wells from Cabool, a Republican who himself owns payday lending stores. The hearing on the bill was deceptively presented as an information presentation on lending practices, which Still herself, the author of the bill in question, was not invited to or allowed to speak at. Testimony was exclusively presented by people in the payday loan industry, without any rejoinder.

There also seem to be substantial harms in the status quo that payday loans are implicated in. There is a lack of data to quantify these harms, and researchers are often forced to use proxies, like the number of bounced checks or bankruptcy filings in a region. While these are useful, there are some meaningful questions about possible omitted variables and trends that may color the data partially. No one has done simple, ground level research to improve the quality of the data available; while the Better Business Bureau collects data on received complaints, the people who are most harmed by a payday lender are often the least likely to file a complaint. The internal arguments there are that the people who are most likely to get locked into repeat loans and extremely high fees/interest rates are also the people who tend to be poorly educated, financially ignorant, and politically weak.  Poor people face extremely high barriers in simply accessing the information needed to know that legal mechanisms to arbitrate claims of tort exist and face high barriers accessing them (poor people have limited access to transportation and face much greater tradeoffs in terms of taking the time away from work or family to engage in that process).

Abhi notes studies in the literature (sorry, I’m lacking in the citation of the specific arguments but I will correct that later) lead him to the conclusion that payday lenders are good for the average borrower but bad for the marginal borrower. The studies he points to note that there is a clear discontinuity in the bankruptcy data for people taking out payday loans that can be isolated when you look at the credit scores of applicants. That is, there is a clearly definable threshold where people who are below a specific credit score tend to have a much higher rate of bankruptcy after they start taking out payday loans. The other study notes that there is an increase in bankruptcies and bounced checks in two states (Georgia and North Carolina) after payday lending is banned or regulated out of the market. The conclusion that can be drawn from these studies is that perhaps we should look at regulations that restrict access to payday loans by credit score or through some other similar mechanism. This has the benefit of allowing the market to function for those people who are able to benefit from the liquidity options that payday loans present without harm while restricting the market to exclude the people who are most likely to go bankrupt after using payday loans. Still agreed with the thrust of that analysis, which I don’t know has been a part of the legislative or popular debate to date.

The other issues that I think are at play here is the access to basic banking and financial mechanisms that aren’t often offered to low-income or minority communities by the market. Payday lending and the associated harms are more symptoms of this problem than they are problems themselves; I think it is true that in a world where it easy for poor people to access mainstream financial products they have fewer liquidity needs that lead them to payday lenders. Still agrees with that fundamental argument and is working with Missouri state treasurer Clint Zweifel towards that end. Still also indicates that she is receptive to tax-increment financing (TIF) to induce mainstream banking institutions to penetrate low-income communities, though she also hinted that in the long term the market is trending in that direction.

Addendum: Abhi’s previous work on payday lending is here and here, published through the Show-Me Daily.

Addendum the second: Abhi discusses our conversation with Still, here.

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Gay McDonalds ad in France

Note the final words (“come as you are”). It is strange to think that many Americans, particularly those who define themselves through their attachment to a Christian ideology, are not so open and accepting of difference as McDonald’s is willing to be.

H/T: Justin Scott.

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Racism, juries, and justice denied

From the Equal Justice Initiative:

The staff of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) has looked closely at jury selection procedures in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee. We uncovered shocking evidence of racial discrimination in jury selection in every state. We identified counties where prosecutors have excluded nearly 80% of African Americans qualified for jury service. We discovered majority-black counties where capital defendants nonetheless were tried by all-white juries. We found evidence that some prosecutors employed by state and local governments actually have been trained to exclude people on the basis of race and instructed on how to conceal their racial bias. In many cases, people of color not only have been illegally excluded but also denigrated and insulted with pretextual reasons intended to conceal racial bias. African Americans have been excluded because they appeared to have “low intelligence”; wore eyeglasses; were single, married, or separated; or were too old for jury service at age 43 or too young at 28. They have been barred for having relatives who attended historically black colleges; for the way they walk; for chewing gum; and, frequently, for living in predominantly black neighborhoods. These “race-neutral” explanations and the tolerance of racial bias by court officials has made jury selection for people of color a hazardous venture, where the sting of exclusion often is accompanied by painful insults and injurious commentary.

This is worthwhile scholarship. Why hasn’t this happened before?

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From the comments: On Rand Paul’s naive libertarianism

A friend who wishes to be identified only as “PhantomOutlaw” from www.cross-x.com writes to me in response to my posts (here and here) on Rand Paul’s naive libertarianism:

Can you expound on this “I could say alternatively that racism by businesses has serious negative externalities in practice and I’m ok with government regulation on those grounds.”

An externality is (very useful) economic jargon that just means a spillover cost or benefit of a transaction affecting people who weren’t involved in the transaction. An example would be a coal-burning power plant, where customers purchase electricity but the plant gives off pollution that affects non-customers. That would be a negative externality (which is bad). An example of a positive externality is if my neighbor hires a security guard for his house; if the guard deters thieves from the whole area, not just the neighbor’s house, I benefit from something I haven’t paid for.

In the context of this discussion, I think that government has a role in regulating away the bad things that come with a business actually engaging in racist business practices. Imagine if the steakhouse next to my house began only serving white people. That would probably prompt demonstrations and riots outside my house (negative externality). Now I face increased safety risks and the quality of the time I spend at home decreases.  Additionally, other businesses around the area now face decreased business because the area has a reputation for being racist, something that they weren’t responsible for but suffer from. Clearly these are all legitimate reasons why a government would seek to enforce content-neutral regulations against racism.

PhantomOutlaw continues:

Also, I don’t really understand this argument: “It is not unreasonable that a government seeks to actively curate a city’s image (to enforce voter-expressed preferences) and regulates the business climate with that in mind, nor is it unreasonable that government should seek to prevent the public disorder that inevitably follows racist practices.”

I hear you saying that if a municipality doesn’t want to be seen as racist, then its OK for them to regulate against racism if that is the will of the electorate. I may be missing something here but it seems like Paul would concur with this line, since it would be a state/local law. Additionally, isn’t there an argument for why civil liberties are key and shouldn’t be trampled on by the will of the people.

Sure. The first paragraph just says that a government has the right to shape a city’s image to express what voters want. For instance, if the voters of Columbia want to attract big software companies, they might vote for policies like bike trails and more downtown police officers walking the beat. They might pass new zoning regulations that tell people what they can and can’t do with their property. Sometimes these policies are hotly contested, but generally the ability of city governments to enact those content-neutral regulations is well established.

I agree with a stronger version of your second paragraph. I would say something like this: representative governments represent all citizens, and we don’t allocate citizenship by race or sex. So it is intrinsically a function of government to protect the interests of everyone and a violation of this social contract to allow businesses to be racist. Everyone is represented by government, so the businesses that we allow to exist should not be allowed to discriminate. Otherwise we’d be taxing people for governmental goods and services that flow to businesses that aren’t willing to serve everyone for some arbitrary and wrong reason. No taxation without representation, basically. These are the implicit protections of representative democracy.

The notion of representative democracy justifies federal action. Citizens of all 50 states are affected by the racist policies of one state much in the same way businesses close to a racist business are affected. So I think there is room for the functions of different levels of government to curb bad decisions or policies of other levels of government, and this is not inconsistent with libertarian principles. Hopefully that is a sufficient answer?

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Extended thoughts on Rand Paul and naive libertarianism

So I want to expand on this argument that there is a difference between consensual relations between individuals and consensual relations between individuals and businesses. The thing that Rand Paul gets wrong is that business transactions don’t happen in a vacuum, they happen in a market. Markets (at least legal ones) have the feature that they feature a varied and rich legal architecture binding a business to the larger communities like the cities and states where they have business licenses. In some senses this is a very democratic notion: markets should be accessible to anyone regardless of race because it is only through the regulatory functions of representative governments that they are able to exist in the first place.

In other words, if we have to give everyone suffrage regardless of race, we have to ban racist business practices.

Think of the analogy to building codes. Businesses operate under the very real parameters that they have to conduct business in buildings that are physically safe. If these buildings were not physically safe, and were for instance in a negligent state that inappropriately risked catching on fire, then there are serious obvious negative externalities that exist. If one building is on fire, other nearby buildings are at risk, and there is damage to property and life that must be evaluated. Hence, we have building codes and fire codes (regulations) to mitigate these risks so that one business can co-exist with others in geographic space.

Regulation against racism is much the same. Has anyone ever proposed to Rand Paul that in a world where he refused to regulate racism, racist businesses risk being focal points for violence and riots? The public safety considerations are substantial and presumably justify quite a lot of government intervention (anyone remember the Rodney King riots?) You could come up with a variety of empirically relevant scenarios here.

I understand that part of Paul’s argument is that federal regulation is not necessarily good. That is conceded. But the part of his argument that says government shouldn’t intrude on private conduct does not extend to business conduct and I think it is important that people understand that.

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Is someone making a power play in North Korea?

Ruediger Frank at 38 North has this to say about the Cheonan incident:

The “cornered tiger” scenario is the only condition, beyond mental illness, under which Kim Jong Il would choose this option. One possible interpretation of the sinking of the Cheonan is that the situation in North Korea is so bad and the regime so desperate that it believes risking annihilation is its only option. But while it is hard to regard the situation in North Korea as rosy, it has been through worse times. With the currency reforms of 2009, the regime was able to win some time in its otherwise hopeless fight against the inevitable transformation of North Korea’s society when it expropriated the growing wealth from the newly emerging middle class and tried to partially demonetize the economy again. And as far as we know, prior to March 26, there was no intelligence pointing to unusual troop movements; no increase in communications that might have signaled something out of the ordinary was about to happen or signs that a change in the military’s alert status was about to take place.

Of all the possible scenarios for why North Korea would have been involved in the Cheonan incident, the one that should worry us the most is the possibility that it was NOT Kim Jong Il who gave the orders. While in 2008 one could have imagined, under certain circumstances, that a young recruit overreacted and shot a South Korean tourist at Mt. Kumgang, it is much less likely that the captain of a North Korean submarine had a short fuse and sank that corvette. He must have done so upon receiving orders, or at least a “go ahead” from someone above him. The higher up we move in the command chain, the stress motive becomes less likely. A lieutenant commander in his sub might think twice; a rear admiral will think ten times before pulling the trigger.

If the North Koreans torpedoed the ship, and if it was not done after a self-destructive order by Kim Jong Il, this may be proof of a destabilization of the current leadership in Pyongyang. Sinking the Cheonan without consent by the top leader would be an open act of insubordination. An autocratic leader who does not have his lieutenants under control becomes a liability to the system. It is fear and the unchallenged authority of the top that keeps an autocracy together. Many of us have argued that such considerations had allowed Kim Jong Il to take over power from his father so smoothly despite his very different personality: the elite knew that regime stability depended on a strong and undisputed leader, and he was the only realistic candidate for the job.

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On reasserting civilian control of law enforcement

I spoke yesterday to the Columbia City Council presenting my white paper on how to reassert civilian control over law enforcement in Columbia, Missouri. I was part of a group of people who might be variously labeled as libertarians who were at the council meeting to speak out against the policies implicated in the February SWAT raid of a suspected cannabis dealer that resulted in two small dogs being shot in front of a seven-year-old child, with nothing meaningful to show for the subsequent search or arrest.

Video of the city council meeting is here. I speak at 2:52.40. Mitch Richards, a libertarian member of Keep Columbia Safe, addresses some of the same issues that I do at 2:27.35 and I recommend listening to his speech as well.

Addendum: Greg Young comments on my white paper and posts it in full here. Coverage from the Columbia Missourian is here. Coverage from the Columbia Tribune is here.

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I’m going to be on the radio tomorrow!

At 5pm tomorrow, I’ll be on KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, Missouri with with hosts Steve Spellman and Mitch Richards, who will be interviewing me about a white paper I wrote on the topic of of re-asserting civilian control of domestic law enforcement. I will be talking very specifically about civil asset forfeiture laws and the constitutional issues involved. Radley Balko from Reason Magazine might also be joining us for the discussion. You can listen live on your Iphone using the Public Radio Player app.

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Missouri SB 795 wants to license egg retailers. No, seriously

I received an email from the Missouri Rural Crisis Center earlier today detailing their opposition to SB 795, a bill in committee right now that will probably see floor time today or tomorrow. The bill itself is long and contains a variety of provisions of very questionable merit, particularly a requirement to license:

All persons engaged in buying, selling, trading or trafficking in, or processing eggs, except those listed in section 196.313, shall be required to be licensed under sections 196.311 to 196.361.  Such persons shall file an annual application for such license on forms to be prescribed by the director, and shall obtain an annual license for each separate place of business from the director.

The bill lists specific licensing requirements for egg ‘retailers’, ‘dealers’, and ‘processors’, along with a fee schedule that begins at $5 for egg ‘retailers’ selling fewer than 25 cases of eggs a week and tops out at $100 for egg ‘processors’ moving more than 1000 cases of eggs a day.

Licensing requirements are a good way for established firms to restrict the amount of competition they have; enacting legal requirements to pay a fee and obtain a license in order to sell even small quantities of eggs has a crushing effect on the ability of very small producers to compete in the market for eggs. Under this law it appears that it is now illegal to sell eggs from your backyard chicken coop to your neighbor without a license, a requirement that is unenforceably broad. The money raised will go into an ‘agriculture protection fund’ which sounds more like a giveaway to large agribusiness than anything else.

There are some places where licensing requirements protect consumers but here these requirements mean that consumers will end up paying more money for fewer eggs for no real reason.

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The connections between ethics reform, lobbying, free speech, and markets

Over at the Missouri Record, Dave Roland criticizes the ethics bill SB 844 in front of the Missouri Senate, presenting five specific arguments as to why the bill is constitutionally untenable. He has this to say on the subject of the bill’s provisions to expand the scope and breadth of lobbyist registration and reporting requirements:

The current version of SB 844 would also expand section 105.470’s definition of “legislative lobbyist” to include “any natural person who acts for the purpose of attempting to influence the taking, passage, amendment, delay or defeat of any official action on any bill, resolution, amendment, nomination, appointment, report or any other action or any other matter pending or proposed in a legislative committee in either house of the general assembly, or in any matter which may be [italics added] the subject of action by the general assembly and in connection with such activity… attempts to influence any elected official other than an elected official who represents the legislative district where the person resides.” Under the currently-existing section 105.473, anyone who meets the definition of a lobbyist is required to file a registration form, pay a registration fee, and on a continuing basis provide to the designated authorities a significant array of information about the resources expended in their efforts to communicate with elected officials.  The law treats a lobbyist’s failure to register with the state or keep current on the required reports as a criminal offense.

The Missouri Constitution, states that “every person shall be free to say, write or publish, or otherwise communicate whatever he will on any subject” (Article I, section 8), establishes the will of the people themselves to be the basis of all proper governmental authority (Article I, section 1), and guarantees the right to “apply to those invested with the power of government for redress of grievances” (Article I, section 9).  By classifying as a “lobbyist” any person who expresses their political ideas to a legislator other than the one elected to represent them, the General Assembly would unconstitutionally stifle political speech and erect barriers that would prevent the people of this state from making their opinions known to those vested with the powers of government.

The impacts of this kind of legislation are real and represent a serious threat to the channels of communication between people and their government. I argue that the real problem with lobbyists is not that they exist, but rather that the cost of lobbying is too high. When the cost of communicating with your elected representatives is relatively high, only powerful vested interests are able to afford lobbying services. When the cost of this communication is relatively low, powerful vested interests have to compete for access and even privileged access becomes less meaningful as politicians gain leverage from being able to choose from more variable coalitions in a dynamic political landscape. In more direct terms, the cheaper it is to be a lobbyist, the more democratic the results of the political process. Lobbying in a sense is the act of proxying speech for dollars and dollars for votes; when votes are cheaper and the population is large and more heterogenous the influence of any single political coalition faces very real limits from competition.

And there is empirical evidence these kind of requirements exert a stifling effect on free speech. University of Missouri-Columbia economist Jeffrey Milyo describes the real ways of in a recent paper published through the Institute for Justice, “Mowing Down the Grassroots: How Grassroots Loobying Disclosure Suppresses Political Participation“:

However, 
as 
this 
report 
documents, 
sweeping 
lobbying 
laws
 in 
36
 states
  to 
strangle
 grassroots
 movements
 in 
red
 tape 
and 
bureaucratic 
regulation.
Twenty‐two
 states
 explicitly 
include 
grassroots
 lobbying 
in
 the
 definition 
of
 lobbying,
 while
 another 
14 
consider
 any 
attempt
 to 
influence 
public 
policy 
to 
be
lobbying,
 as
 long
 as 
a 
certain 
amount 
is 
spent. 

Thus, 
such 
common 
activities 
as
 publishing 
an 
open 
letter, 
organizing 
a 
demonstration 
or 
distributing 
flyers 
can
 trigger 
regulation 
and 
force 
organizers 
to 
register
 with
 the
 state
 and
 file
 detailed
 reports on
 their 
activities,
 as
 well
 as 
the 
identities 
of 
supporters.
  These regulations
 raise
 the 
costs 
of
 political
 activity
 and 
set
 legal 
traps 
for
 unsuspecting
 citizens,
 thus
 making 
it
 more 
difficult
 for
 ordinary 
citizens 
to
 participate 
in 
politics—all 
with 
little 
or 
no 
benefit 
to 
the
 public. 

As 
this 
report
 finds:

  • Lobbying 
regulations
 are
 not 
intended 
to
 be
 understood
 by
 ordinary
 people.

 The
 first
 paragraph 
of 
Massachusetts’
 new 
lobbying 
law, 
for 
example, 
scored
 0.9
 on 
a 
100‐point 
scale 
in 
a 
readability 
test. 

Going 
by 
such 
tests, 
it 
would 
take
 34
 years 
of 
formal 
education
 to 
understand
 that 
paragraph; 
not 
even 
a 
doctorate
 from 
MIT 
or
 Harvard 
would
 be 
enough.
  • The 
red tape 
would‐be
 grassroots 
lobbyists 
must 
navigate 
to 
properly 
disclose
 activities 
and 
financial 
support 
is 
complex 
and 
burdensome. 

In 
previous
    research,
 ordinary
 citizens
 who 
tried 
to 
fill 
out 
similar 
forms 
correctly
 completed
 only
 about
 40 
percent
 of 
tasks.
  • Running 
afoul
 of 
these 
regulations
 could
 bring
 stiff
 penalties,
 including
 thousands 
in 
civil 
fines
 and
 in
 some
 states 
criminal
 penalties.

 In
 New York,
 the
    maximum 
criminal
 penalty
 is 
$5,000 
and 
four 
years 
in 
jail, 
equivalent 
to 
arson
 or 
riot;
 in
 Alabama, 
it
 is
 $30,000 
and
 20
 years,
 equivalent 
to
 kidnapping.
  • The 
public 
likely
 gains 
little 
from
 these 
regulations. 

Previous
 research
 suggests few
 will 
seek
 out 
the 
disclosed
 information, 
but 
many 
will 
be 
deterred 
political 
activity 
by 
the 
public 
disclosure 
of 
their 
personal 
information.
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Why Cameras? The Market Solves Better!

Here is the text of an op-ed I submitted to the Columbia Tribune about 2 weeks ago. They have not gotten back to me on whether or not they will publish it, but I think that it is worth reading so I’ll post it here. Key knowledge for people who don’t live in Columbia: Proposition 1 was an initiative to give the police chief the option of placing surveillance cameras downtown.

As a libertarian who identifies politically with Democrats, my initial feelings toward Proposition 1 were mixed. I have a deep-seated distrust of government surveillance, but in some respects I regard surveillance of any kind of public activity an unavoidable consequence of being in public. This takes on more meaning when you consider the leaps in portable surveillance technologies that have happened over the last decade that make surveillance by private citizens in public spaces inevitable.

Consider this. Almost everyone who walks on the street of Columbia has a cell phone with an embedded camera. A lot of these phones, particularly smartphones like Android or the Iphone, have embedded video cameras. These cameras are deployed ubiquitously by citizens recording events in their daily lives: the food they eat, the street performers they see, the accidents and crimes they witness. Citizens without training in journalism are now the most important asset we have in terms of breaking news. As an example, remember the plane that touched down in the Hudson last year. The first footage from the scene wasn’t captured by any government camera or any media on the scene, but rather by a man with his Iphone.

We live in a world where Google is driving cars wired with recording equipment down every road in America to capture pictures and video for Google Street View. This world also includes numerous ways to share information, both audio and video, easily and at practically no cost over the internet. Facebook is a good example of how pervasive social networking is and how easy it is to perform de facto surveillance on people in your social network.

More generally, surveillance technologies are extremely cheap and pervasive. I would hazard a guess that it might cost less than $10,000 to wire downtown Columbia with cheap video cameras. You would even be able to stream videos online live 24/7/365. It is not illegal (and impossible to regulate) the surveillance performed by private citizens, particularly those who own or access property located in Columbia.

The revolution in search also factors in. Google, Wolfram Alpha, and Bing all represent large-scale efforts to make all kinds of data instantly computable. I think that within a year or two we will be able to search in real time the media created by people as they go about their daily lives as the technologies that aggregate and compute data become cheaper and more available.

So this is my argument. Proposition 1 was a non-starter for me because I think it is true that in the next couple of years the availability and usability of surveillance technologies will be so pervasive that government surveillance is unnecessary and indeed irrelevant. I voted against Proposition 1 because I don’t see a need to uniquely grant government with these powers; citizens acting of their own free accord in their daily lives perform practically the same functions.

I also recommend this post on surveillance in New York City from Volokh Conspirator Stewart Baker which contains some related insights that I think function well as an extension to my argument.

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A quick thought about an application of the Folk Theorem

Has anyone noticed that the Folk Theorem is a great conceptual paradigm with a lot of explanatory power for the incentive structures that exist in the Republican party right now? Here’s the excerpt from Wikipedia:

It is possible to apply this class of theorems to a diverse number of fields. An application in anthropology, for example, would be that in a community where all behavior is well known, and where members of the community know that they will continue to have to deal with each other, then any pattern of behavior (traditions, taboos, etc) may be sustained by social norms so long as the individuals of the community are better off remaining in the community than they would be leaving the community (the minimax condition).

This is why ‘epistemic closure‘ has made the Republican movement intellectually moribund. Republican social norms enforce an intellectual strait-jacket because its intellectual incoherence mandates a kind of suspension of rationality.The Republican movement is in the transitional state where the Folk theorem no longer applies at a growing intellectual margin. Consider very specifically David Frum’s untimely exit from the American Enterprise Institute after the publication of his essay ‘Waterloo‘ in March. And Gary Becker, the Economics Nobel Laureate in 1992, notes in an essay last may the ‘intellectual deterioration’ of the conservative movement, noting prominently:

My theme is the intellectual decline of conservatism, and it is notable that the policies of the new conservatism are powered largely by emotion and religion and have for the most part weak intellectual groundings. That the policies are weak in conception, have largely failed in execution, and are political flops is therefore unsurprising. The major blows to conservatism, culminating in the election and programs of Obama, have been fourfold: the failure of military force to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives; the inanity of trying to substitute will for intellect, as in the denial of global warming, the use of religious criteria in the selection of public officials, the neglect of management and expertise in government; a continued preoccupation with abortion; and fiscal incontinence in the form of massive budget deficits, the Medicare drug plan, excessive foreign borrowing, and asset-price inflation.

I would also add the conservative opposition to gay marriage is another fracture point in the Republican meta-narrative. This is because legally speaking, marriage is just a package of contracts for specific things. In this light the debate over gay marriage is literally a debate over contract rights and if we can restrict them on the basis that only two people of different sexes can make these contracts. This puts Democrats in the same tent as the Libertarians on an issue of property rights, inasmuch as we can think of the restriction of the right to contract as a restriction on the kinds of property, both real and virtual, that you can structure through a marriage.

In any case, I think that this country loses something when the Democrats cannot be challenged by real, intellectually rigorous arguments from the Republican umbrella and there is no viable third party, at least not yet.

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