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Virginia Gubernatorial Candidate Wants to Cut Taxes, But Not Enough: New at Reason

When is a tax cut deep enough?

A. Barton Hinkle writes:

Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam is losing most of the celebrity endorsements to his Democratic rival in the governor’s race, Tom Perriello—who can count Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in his corner. Northam isn’t going to be able to top that. He also can’t out-crazy other candidates in the race, like Republican contender Corey Stewart, who tweeted Monday morning that the removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans was proof “ISIS has won.”

Not that Northam would want to try. He is a centrist sans brio or bombast, which is what you want in a pediatric neurologist but not necessarily what you want to get out the vote on Election Day. So while he has the backing of Virginia’s Democratic establishment, he might need something to elevate his profile in the public mind.

The other day he proposed cutting the state’s food tax for the poor, according to a story by Travis Fain of The Daily Press. This is an excellent idea. Virginia’s food tax is only 1.5 percent, compared with 4.3 percent for other goods. But that is still too much given that the state budget, now $107 billion, has roughly doubled in real terms over the past two decades.

Northam’s proposal also has the virtue of brevity. “No Food Tax” is just one letter longer than the “No Car Tax!” proposal on which Jim Gilmore rode into the Executive Mansion in 1997—and would fill the same space on a placard if you tweak the font size a hair.

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Virginia Gubernatorial Candidate Wants to Cut Taxes, But Not Enough

Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam is losing most of the celebrity endorsements to his Democratic rival in the governor’s race, Tom Perriello—who can count Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in his corner. Northam isn’t going to be able to top that. He also can’t out-crazy other candidates in the race, like Republican contender Corey Stewart, who tweeted Monday morning that the removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans was proof “ISIS has won.”

Not that Northam would want to try. He is a centrist sans brio or bombast, which is what you want in a pediatric neurologist but not necessarily what you want to get out the vote on Election Day. So while he has the backing of Virginia’s Democratic establishment, he might need something to elevate his profile in the public mind.

The other day he proposed cutting the state’s food tax for the poor, according to a story by Travis Fain of The Daily Press. This is an excellent idea. Virginia’s food tax is only 1.5 percent, compared with 4.3 percent for other goods. But that is still too much given that the state budget, now $107 billion, has roughly doubled in real terms over the past two decades.

Northam’s proposal also has the virtue of brevity. “No Food Tax” is just one letter longer than the “No Car Tax!” proposal on which Jim Gilmore rode into the Executive Mansion in 1997—and would fill the same space on a placard if you tweak the font size a hair.

Gilmore’s car-tax cut turned out to be a complicated affair: It gradually reduced the local property tax on the first $20,000 of a vehicle’s worth, and used state dollars to compensate localities for the loss of revenue. This turned the tax cut into a state budget appropriation. It quickly grew beyond projections (imagine that)—until state lawmakers decided to cap the amount at $950 million. Lawmakers had their own plans for the money, and letting taxpayers have it back was getting in the way. Northam’s people say they want to avoid similar complexities, but they haven’t yet spelled out exactly how the food-tax cut would work.

Northam’s likely opponent—assuming he beats Perriello in the primary—is Ed Gillespie. He also has rolled out a tax-cut proposal that would give the state’s individual income tax rates a haircut. This has led to the usual knee-jerk objections. The Washington Post tagged Gillespie “Mr. Free Lunch” and demanded to know which programs would be “slashed” to “pay for” the tax cut. Perriello blasted him for “unfunded” tax cuts that “largely benefit the rich.”

Those complaints look rather feeble when Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) is issuing press releases boasting that “January 2017 General Fund Revenue Collections Up 7.4 Percent From the Previous Year” and that “February 2017 General Fund Revenue Collections are Up 3.6% From the Previous Year” and that “March 2017 General Fund Revenue Collections Up 5.7 Percent From the Previous Year” and so on.

As the Gillespie campaign points out, his tax plan would simply reduce the growth of state revenue from a projected $3.4 billion to $2 billion over five years. Apparently some folks feel it’s not enough for tax revenues to rise; they must rise at an ever-accelerating rate, and anything less calls for a “The End Is Near” sandwich board.

Similar considerations apply to Northam’s proposal. A 2014 legislative subcommittee report on the food tax noted that the state forgoes $526.7 million a year in revenue by not taxing food at the same rate as other goods. People earning $30,000 or less reap 15 percent of that benefit, or about $80 million. That is a rounding error in the overall scheme of the state budget.

Critics of Gillespie’s plan also knocked it, somewhat incongruously, for not being generous enough. “Average families in Lynchburg would only save $277 dollars (a year) under Gillespie’s tax plan,” said the Virginia Democratic Party before a GOP candidates’ debate there. A former Democratic candidate for the General Assembly said average Lynchburg families would save only “$5 a week under his tax plan, and that is chump change.”

But then Northam’s tax proposal doesn’t convey huge benefits, either. A person making $30,000 spends 11.6 percent of her income on food, on average, so eliminating the food tax for her would save her only one dollar a week. Someone making $18,000 pays a higher proportion of her income on food (about 15.8 percent), yet still would save only $40 or so over the course of a year.

But then so what? When you’re just scraping by, every penny counts. Better that penny should go to the poor than to the state.

Someone—Milton Friedman?—once said if you cut taxes and revenue goes up, you haven’t cut taxes enough. It’s something for both men to keep in mind.

This column originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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Pop Culture, Black Markets, Skateboarding, and Freedom

The first installment of Pop Revolution, a new web series from Freethink, looks at a dramatic transformation in Myanmar since the regime there started loosening its controls on speech and trade in 2011. The locals haven’t just embraced elements of Western culture; they’ve transformed them, creating something that’s part of the global pop landscape yet still distinctively Burmese. The episode focuses on the country’s skateboarding subculture, which used to rely on illegally acquired goods and information—the video tips its agorist hat to black markets’ liberatory potential—and now can operate more freely outside the shadows.

The video was written and narrated by frequent Reason contributor Thaddeus Russell; two more figures who should be familiar to Reason readers, Kmele Foster and Amanda Winkler, had a hand in the production. Enjoy:

Bonus link: Another short film about skateboarding, this one mocking that moral panics that the sport periodically inspires.

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The New GOP Health Care Bill Shows Republicans Have Given Up on Fully Repealing Obamacare

Republicans in Congress have given up on fully repealing Obamacare.

Instead, they have decided they want to leave pieces of it in place, along with a system of tweaks and opt-outs that require federal permission and may never be used. And even that may be too much for some GOP moderates.

Last month, House Republicans made a failed attempt to pass the American Health Care Act, a bill that would have partially repealed and replaced Obamacare, putting in place a new system of tax credits while leaving many of the health law’s key insurance regulations in place. Since then, factions representing House conservatives and House moderates have continued to work on bill that they hoped might garner more support.

The vehicle they settled on to manage their differences was a system of state-based opt-outs, in which states could apply for permission from the federal government to escape some of the regulations put in place under Obamacare, and left in place by the AHCA, under certain conditions, after winning federal approval.

This limited and restricted system of opt-outs is at the core of a new amendment to the bill.

The amendment, which was reported last night by Politico, would allow states to apply to opt out of some of Obamacare’s community rating provisions starting in 2018, to override the federally mandated essential health benefits rules and set their own starting in 2020, and to charge individuals based on health status, provided a high risk pool or some facsimile to cover the sickest patients.

But Obamacare’s major insurance regulations would remain on the books at the federal level, as the default national option, which would mean that federal policymaking under either Republican or Democratic administrations would revolve around those rules.

Nor is it clear that the opt-outs would actually be used. The majority of states are currently governed by Republicans—yet as health policy analyst Chris Jacobs notes, not one has even hinted at interest in applying for a waiver. And although the new amendment appears for a speedier and more straightforward application process than states have seen in the past with other types of federal health policy waivers, it still leaves significant room for a future administration to deny states their requests, should they submit them.

The new amendment, in other words, calls for state flexibility that might turn out to be entirely symbolic.

But even that might be too much for Republican moderates. Although the new amendment looks like to increase support amongst the more conservative members of the House Freedom Caucus, their moderate GOP counterparts in the Tuesday Group may not be on board. And it’s far from clear what it would it would actually take to bring them on board–even to the group’s leadership.

In an interview with Philip Klein of The Washington Examiner yesterday, Tuesday Group leader Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pennsylvania) said he was still not on board with the bill. Dent cited the AHCA’s treatment of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion–which the new amendment does not address–as one reason for his opposition, and seemed to indicate that he opposed overturning Obamacare’s preexisting conditions rules for insurance companies. What would Dent prefer instead? Klein asked, and here’s how Dent responded:

Conservatives have cited the need to reduce premiums as a reason for supporting stripping out Obamacare regulations, such as mandated health benefits and limits on how much insurers can charge based on health status.

When asked how he would prefer to reduce premiums without removing Obamacare’s regulations, Dent said, “That’s the $64,000 question.”

When pressed further on whether there were any ideas for reducing premiums that have been proposed that he would support, he said he didn’t want to get into a negotiation with a reporter in an interview…

GOP moderates now appear to hold the votes to either send the AHCA on to the Senate, or to keep it stuck in the House. But if Dent is any indication—and there are signs he is—aside from simply leaving Obamacare in place and making slight tweaks to its structure, it’s not at all clear what would satisfy them. And it’s not clear that most GOP moderates really know either.

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The New GOP Health Care Bill Shows Republicans Have Given Up on Fully Repealing Obamacare

Republicans in Congress have given up on fully repealing Obamacare.

Instead, they have decided they want to leave pieces of it in place, along with a system of tweaks and opt-outs that require federal permission and may never be used. And even that may be too much for some GOP moderates.

Last month, House Republicans made a failed attempt to pass the American Health Care Act, a bill that would have partially repealed and replaced Obamacare, putting in place a new system of tax credits while leaving many of the health law’s key insurance regulations in place. Since then, factions representing House conservatives and House moderates have continued to work on bill that they hoped might garner more support.

The vehicle they settled on to manage their differences was a system of state-based opt-outs, in which states could apply for permission from the federal government to escape some of the regulations put in place under Obamacare, and left in place by the AHCA, under certain conditions, after winning federal approval.

This limited and restricted system of opt-outs is at the core of a new amendment to the bill.

The amendment, which was reported last night by Politico, would allow states to apply to opt out of some of Obamacare’s community rating provisions starting in 2018, to override the federally mandated essential health benefits rules and set their own starting in 2020, and to charge individuals based on health status, provided a high risk pool or some facsimile to cover the sickest patients.

But Obamacare’s major insurance regulations would remain on the books at the federal level, as the default national option, which would mean that federal policymaking under either Republican or Democratic administrations would revolve around those rules.

Nor is it clear that the opt-outs would actually be used. The majority of states are currently governed by Republicans—yet as health policy analyst Chris Jacobs notes, not one has even hinted at interest in applying for a waiver. And although the new amendment appears for a speedier and more straightforward application process than states have seen in the past with other types of federal health policy waivers, it still leaves significant room for a future administration to deny states their requests, should they submit them.

The new amendment, in other words, calls for state flexibility that might turn out to be entirely symbolic.

But even that might be too much for Republican moderates. Although the new amendment looks like to increase support amongst the more conservative members of the House Freedom Caucus, their moderate GOP counterparts in the Tuesday Group may not be on board. And it’s far from clear what it would it would actually take to bring them on board–even to the group’s leadership.

In an interview with Philip Klein of The Washington Examiner yesterday, Tuesday Group leader Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pennsylvania) said he was still not on board with the bill. Dent cited the AHCA’s treatment of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion–which the new amendment does not address–as one reason for his opposition, and seemed to indicate that he opposed overturning Obamacare’s preexisting conditions rules for insurance companies. What would Dent prefer instead? Klein asked, and here’s how Dent responded:

Conservatives have cited the need to reduce premiums as a reason for supporting stripping out Obamacare regulations, such as mandated health benefits and limits on how much insurers can charge based on health status.

When asked how he would prefer to reduce premiums without removing Obamacare’s regulations, Dent said, “That’s the $64,000 question.”

When pressed further on whether there were any ideas for reducing premiums that have been proposed that he would support, he said he didn’t want to get into a negotiation with a reporter in an interview…

GOP moderates now appear to hold the votes to either send the AHCA on to the Senate, or to keep it stuck in the House. But if Dent is any indication—and there are signs he is—aside from simply leaving Obamacare in place and making slight tweaks to its structure, it’s not at all clear what would satisfy them. And it’s not clear that most GOP moderates really know either.

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The Bipartisan Urge to Suppress Dissent: New at Reason

The University of California at Berkeley’s inhospitality to conservative speakers, the subject of a federal lawsuit filed on Monday, prompted a Twitter rebuke from President Trump a few months ago. Yet his administration seems determined to demonstrate that suppression of opposing views is a bipartisan impulse, writes Jacob Sullum.

After the Milo melee in February, Trump suggested on Twitter that Berkeley risks losing federal funds if it “does not allow free speech.” But if the president were sincerely committed to protecting First Amendment rights, notes Sullum, he would issue similar warnings to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which recently demanded that Twitter reveal the identity of a DHS gadfly, and the Justice Department, which is considering criminal charges against people who share classified information leaked by others.

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After Challenging Red Light Cameras, Oregon Man Fined $500 for Practicing Engineering Without a License

When Mats Järlström’s wife got snagged by one of Oregon’s red light cameras in 2013, he challenged the ticket by questioning the timing of the yellow lights at intersections where cameras had been installed.

Since then, his research into red light cameras has earned him attention in local and national media—in 2014, he presented his evidence on an episode of “60 Minutes”—and an invitation to present at last year’s annual meeting of the Institute of Transportation Engineers.

It also got him a $500 fine from the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying.

According to the board, Järlström’s research into red light cameras and their effectiveness amounts to practicing engineering without a license. No, really. Järlström had sent a letter to the board in 2014 asking for the opportunity to present his research on how too-short yellow lights were making money for the state by putting the public’s safety at risk. “I would like to present these fact for your review and comment,” he wrote.

Instead of inviting him to present, the board threatened him. Citing state laws that make it illegal to practice engineering without a license, the board told Järlström that even calling himself an “electronics engineer” and the use of the phrase “I am an engineer” in his letter were enough to “create violations.”

Apparently the threats weren’t enough, because the board follow-up in January of this year by officially fining Järlström $500 for the supposed crime of “practicing engineering without being registered.”

Järlström is now suing the state board over that fine, arguing that it’s unconstitutional to prevent someone from doing math without the government’s permission. He’s getting support from the Institute for Justice, a national libertarian law firm.

“Criticizing the government’s engineering isn’t a crime; it’s a constitutional right,” said Sam Gedge, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, in a statement. “Under the First Amendment, you don’t need to be a licensed lawyer to write an article critical of a Supreme Court decision, you don’t need to be a licensed landscape architect to create a gardening blog, and you don’t need to be a licensed engineer to talk about traffic lights.”

The notion that it’s somehow illegal for Järlström to call himself an engineer is absurd. He has a degree in electrical engineering from Sweden, worked as an airplane camera mechanic in the Swedish Air Force, and has worked in a variety of technical jobs since immigrating to the United States in 1992. In Oregon, though, all that matters is whether he has a state-issued license.

As crazy as Järlström’s story is, it’s not the first time the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying has been overly aggressive about enforcing their rules for who is and who is not an engineer.

According to the lawsuit, the state board investigated Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman in 2014 for publishing a campaign pamphlet that mentioned Saltzman’s background as an “environmental engineer.” Saltzman has a bachelor’s degree in environmental and civil engineering from Cornell University, a master’s degree from MIT’s School of Civil Engineering, and is a membership of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

What he isn’t, though, is a licensed engineer in the state of Oregon.

According to Järlström’s lawsuit, the board spent more than a year investigating Saltzman’s background before voting to issue an official “warning” against using the word engineer incorrectly.

In another case, the state board investigated a Republican gubernatorial candidate for using the phrase “I’m an engineer and a problem-solver” in a campaign ad. The candidate in question, Allen Alley, had a degree in engineering from Purdue University and worked as an engineer for Boeing (and, of course, wasn’t trying to lie about his lack of an Oregon-issued licensed but merely was making a freaking campaign ad), but

It doesn’t stop there. In 2010, the state board issued a $1,000 fine for illegally practicing engineering to a local activist who told the La Pine, Oregon, city council that a proposed new power plant would be too loud for nearby residents.

The board once investigated Portland Monthly magazine for running a story that described a young immigrant woman as “an engineer behind Portland’s newest bridge.” The woman in the story did not describe herself as an engineer, but the magazine’s editors included that description in the headline, the board concluded.

Järlström’s lawsuit isn’t seeking any monetary damages. He only wants a judicial order telling the state state board to stop violating the free speech rights of Oregonians.

“Anyone should be allowed to talk about the traffic signals—if they’re too long or too short or anything—without being penalized,” Järlström says.

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The Next President: New at Reason

Michelle Obama has better odds of being the next president than Hillary Clinton. Who else is up?

John Stossel writes:

Will Donald Trump be re-elected in 2020?

Probably not, say people who bet. They give Trump only a 23 percent chance. They do pick him over all other politicians, but the favorite is “other.”

I know this because I follow the betting odds at ElectionBettingOdds.com.

Yes, bettors were wrong about Trump’s election and Brexit, but those were exceptions, and those votes unusual. Even Brexit’s promoters predicted a loss; even Trump said he thought he’d lose when he saw the election-night exit polls.

But betting odds are usually right. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if the bettors gave a candidate, say, a 65 percent chance to win, and he lost, bettors were “wrong.” But remember, 65 percent means bettors also thought there was a 35 percent chance that candidate would lose.

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White House Responds to Sanctuary City Ruling, Meet the ‘Fraternal Order of Alt Knights,’ Sex Workers Protest Changes to Section 230: A.M. Links

Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and don’t forget to sign up for Reason’s daily updates for more content.

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Libertarianism Does Not Yet Rule America. Libertarians Know That. That’s Not a Reason for Them to Abandon Libertarianism.

From its beginnings as a distinct ideological movement in the postwar years, libertarianism has been a set of outsider ideas vastly disrespected by most American politicians and intellectuals. It was kept alive by small institutions, publications, and scattered academics (mostly in economics at first) who for decades were largely concerned with just keeping any expression of these ideas a going concern, barely expecting it could soon seriously influence mainstream political culture. (That story is told up to the turn of the 21st century in my book Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.)

Libertarians understand they are still to a large degree strangers in a strange land when it comes to the American political scene, struggling for impact in a world they never made, and any number of other cliches indicating that obvious truth: libertarianism is still a minority idea and libertarians are still embroiled in a difficult and long-term fight to influence political ideology and practice in America. Libertarians are generally not delusional on that point.

When it comes to awareness and acceptance of the overarching principles of libertarianism, even if not to their actuation across the board in governing, the situation for libertarianism is America has gotten much better in the 21st century along many dimensions. As Reason‘s Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie have argued, an often pre-political embrace of the options, variety, and choice inherent in the libertarian vision of free minds and free markets has spread massively in American culture, even if government qua government isn’t shrinking.

One of the ironic demonstrations of libertarianism’s inroads in American culture is that mainstream outlets find it necessary frequently to declare it dead, irrelevant, or fatally wounded. Lately we’ve had Tim Alberta in Politico assuring us that the libertarian dream is dead; and Adam Ozimek in Forbes saying libertarianism could be more successful if only it would narrow its vision a little.

Politico makes a good point as far as it goes: until Donald Trump’s bold political entrepreneurship proved surprisingly successful, there was reason to believe the GOP might be more inclined to go for a libertarian-leaning candidate such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) rather than someone like Trump, policy-wise a Buchananite populist in the Rick Santorum style (to point to the nearest even slightly successful precursor in the GOP), but with less sanctimony, less even half-convincing Christianity, and more aggressive crudity and lack of intellectual polish.

Examining the respective political fates of Paul and Trump in the 2016 presidential race, now we know better. But by the very fact that it is an outsider political movement not fully at home in either major party, nothing about libertarianism’s correctness or its hopes for the future depend on some short term victory; certainly nothing about the American people’s choice of aggressive protectionist nationalism (to the extent we can be sure what people thought they were getting when they choose Trump) proves that libertarianism is either mistaken or dead.

It just proves libertarianism remains what it has been since it arose as a distinct movement in America after World War II: a small fighting rump, but one whose spread and reach is as high as it’s ever been, even if it has failed in 2016, as it has always failed, to win the White House.

Otherwise, Politico‘s long article is merely a portrait of a moment in time, not the final fate of an ideology. Its observational power is mostly rooted in noting that, while he occasionally talks a libertarian-sounding game when it comes to, say, regulation, Trump is overall very opposed to the larger libertarian vision of truly free markets, respect for property rights, and restrained government power. True, and understood; especially as Trump’s pre-election rhetoric that hinted at the possibility he might be less bellicose than his predecessors overseas is drowned out in the sound of exploding missiles.

Alberta’s Politico article is a portrait of libertarianism as a philosophy still where it’s always been: not a comfortable fit with either major power. But it has a greater grip on a greater number of prominent politicians, and Americans (see, for just one easily quantifiable example, the Libertarian Party nearly quadrupling its highest previous vote total) than ever in modern history.

If libertarians are right—or even on the right path—with their understanding that our government is overtaxing, overspending, overregulating, and overextending its reach both into the lives of its citizens and across the globe in ways that make many people’s lives worse and our future more perilous, then American history will show it an idea that’s neither dead nor needing extensive pruning, as Ozimek in Forbes seems to believe.

Libertarianism: Is Less More?

Ozimek should rest assured that a narrowly-funded, scrappy, outsider ideological movement that has never quite been able to find a national politician they can all get behind (not even Ron Paul) knows full well that a majority of Americans don’t yet agree with them.

That’s the purpose of an organized minority ideological movement such as libertarianism: to do the research, education, advocacy, electioneering, and storytelling that might help Americans see that, to survey some libertarian ideas, the drug war is both wrong and unproductive; that stealing property from citizens without charging them with a crime is unjust; that market and price mechanisms need to play a role in a sensible and affordable health care market; that our foreign interventions often merely sow the seeds for the next perceived necessary foreign intervention.

With that understood—this basic idea that a radical and small movement for ideological change is trying to move the political needle somewhere it isn’t already—Ozimek’s basic argument that most Americans don’t seem to shape their own decision-making or voting around small government proves libertarianism is terribly flawed and needs rethinking doesn’t bear much weight. (Nick Gillespie explained here 12 years ago why obviously decisions other than tax rates or regulation are going to shape people’s decisions about where to live as life is, blessedly, about more than just taxes and regulations.)

Ozimek has a narrow set of libertarian ideas he thinks are important and workable, and they are indeed part of the libertarian movement message. Precisely what they are isn’t quite clear—he writes that “people want quality of life, economic growth, and good government. All three of these can be helped on some margins by utilizing market forces, deregulating, and increasing freedom. Libertarianism should focus on these margins, and accept that the all-too-popular vision of radical freedom and minimal government at all costs is not wanted by enough people to actually matter.”

It sounds like what Ozimek really should be concluding, if he indeed believes that stuff about bettering the world through “utilizing market forces” etc. is that people and politicians that are not libertarian should be more libertarian. And that’s what libertarians are trying to accomplish.

What advantage—for the libertarian as opposed for the Ozimekan—from pursuing a narrower vision of freedom and limited government is not clear from this essay. Nor is it clear exactly what ideas of the libertarian movement he is recommending jettisoning, or keeping. (While Ozimek isn’t rigorous on this point, he seems to be implying that somehow the existence of very libertarian people or arguments is harming the cause of slight libertarian improvement. I addressed whether libertarian extremism, that is, a full or radical version of the small-government vision, was harming the movement writ large last year. I didn’t find the case proven.

Libertarianism certainly hasn’t cleared the field in American political culture yet. But to be held to such a standard, when 20 years ago it was considered so unknown and insignificant that publications of the stature and focus of a Forbes or Politico would never have bothered running articles about how and why it’s allegedly failing and fading, is its own kind of victory in political culture, and a necessary prelude to more important ones.

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‘The Wall Will Stop the Drugs,’ Trump Promises. No, It Won’t.

“The wall will stop the drugs,” Donald Trump promised in a recent interview with the Associated Press, reaffirming his simpleminded faith in the power of interdiction to prevent Americans from getting the psychoactive substances they want. Although drugs from Latin America are “coming around [border barriers] in certain areas,” the president explained, “if you have a wall, they can’t do it because it’s a real wall.” Thanks to the real wall, he said, “we’ll stop all of it.”

No, they won’t. As Theresa Cardinal Brown explains in the May issue of Reason, “drug smugglers have already beaten Trump’s wall” through a variety of evasive maneuvers, such as hiding drugs inside shipments going through the wall at legal points of entry, using tunnels to carry drugs under the wall, flying or catapulting drugs over the wall, and transporting drugs around the wall on boats and submarines. Thanks to prohibition, Brown notes, “the profit incentives to find ways over, under, around, or through any border infrastructure are high, and the cartels have more than enough money to spend on R&D.”

When Trump allows himself to contemplate the possibility that his wall will be less than 100 percent effective at stopping heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, and marijuana from entering the country, he still thinks the barrier’s boost to interdiction efforts will be wll worth the money spent to build it. The Department of Homeland Security estimates that Trump’s wall will cost about $22 billion, and Senate Democrats say the tab will be closer to $70 billion. But “I think I’ll do it for $10 billion or less,” Trump told A.P. “If we stop 1 percent of the drugs because we have the wall…that’s a tremendously good investment.”

It’s a mystery how Trump made that calculation, but it seems to depend on the assumption that stopping 1 percent of drug shipments means reducing the supply of drugs by 1 percent. That is not how interdiction works, to the extent that it works at all. Cartels replace the drugs lost to interdiction, and they can do so pretty cheaply, since drugs acquire the vast majority of their value after entering the country. Given the economics of prohibition, the most drug warriors can reasonably hope to accomplish by intercepting shipments is forcing drug dealers to charge their customers more by raising production and distribution costs. But because the replacement cost is low, interdiction is unlikely to have a significant and lasting impact on retail prices.

“With few exceptions and despite increasing investments in enforcement-based supply reduction efforts aimed at disrupting global drug supply,” a 2013 study published by BMJ Open concluded, “illegal drug prices have generally decreased while drug purity has generally increased since 1990. These findings suggest that expanding efforts at controlling the global illegal drug market through law enforcement are failing.” There is no reason to expect that seizing 1 percent of incoming drugs would have a noticeable effect on consumption, let alone enough to justify the cost of Trump’s wall.

Trump either does not understand any of this or assumes that voters don’t. “I’m going to create borders,” he promised in a campaign video. “No drugs are coming in. We’re gonna build a wall. You know what I’m talking about. You have confidence in me. Believe me, I will solve the problem.” While Trump’s promises may sound especially grandiose and childlike, any politician who pushes supply-side solutions to drug abuse is engaged in the same basic scam.

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The Bipartisan Urge to Suppress Dissent

The University of California at Berkeley’s inhospitality to conservative speakers, the subject of a federal lawsuit filed on Monday, prompted a Twitter rebuke from President Trump a few months ago. Yet his administration seems determined to demonstrate that suppression of opposing views is a bipartisan impulse.

Berkeley College Republicans (BCR), which invited conservative commentator Ann Coulter to speak on campus this Thursday evening, and Young America’s Foundation (YAF), which underwrote her visit, argue that Berkeley’s vague, unwritten policy regarding “high-profile speakers” unconstitutionally discriminates against unpopular viewpoints. As a result of that policy, which was adopted after violent protests prompted the university to shut down a February 1 appearance by former Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos, Berkeley canceled Coulter’s speech, then offered to reschedule it for next Tuesday afternoon, in the middle of the “dead week” between classes and exams.

BCR says it felt compelled to cancel an April 12 talk by another conservative journalist, David Horowitz, after the university insisted that it take place at an inconvenient location and end by 3 p.m., meaning most students would be in class while Horowitz was speaking. BCR and YAF say the restrictions imposed by Berkeley in the name of public safety have not been applied to left-leaning speakers and amount to an “unlawful heckler’s veto” that marginalizes conservative voices.

After the Milo melee in February, Trump suggested on Twitter that Berkeley risks losing federal funds if it “does not allow free speech.” If the president were sincerely committed to protecting First Amendment rights, he would issue similar warnings to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which recently demanded that Twitter reveal the identity of a DHS gadfly, and the Justice Department, which is considering criminal charges against people who share classified information leaked by others.

Last month a special agent in charge at Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a division of DHS, issued a summons to Twitter seeking records that would unmask the person or persons behind @ALT_USCIS, an account that regularly criticizes the Trump administration’s immigration policies. There did not seem to be any legal justification for the summons, which looked like a blatant attempt to intimidate critics.

DHS dropped the summons the day after Twitter filed a lawsuit arguing that it threatened the First Amendment right to engage in pseudonymous political speech. Last week, in response to inquiries by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), DHS Inspector General John Roth revealed that his office is investigating whether the CBP summons was “improper.”

The day before Roth expressed concern about government inquiries that might have “a chilling effect on individuals’ free speech rights,” CNN and The Washington Post reported that the Justice Department is once again looking for a way to prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for sharing classified documents with the public. The Obama administration abandoned that project after concluding that charging Assange with violating the Espionage Act would create a precedent that could be used against any news organization that publishes stories based on “defense information” from sources who obtained or divulged it illegally—a very common journalistic practice.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo says we shouldn’t worry about that because Assange is not a real journalist, a debatable and constitutionally irrelevant point. The “freedom of the press” that is guaranteed by the First Amendment is not the freedom of people who work for officially recognized news outlets; it is the freedom to use technologies of mass communication.

That freedom extends to everyone in the United States, whether or not he is a professional journalist or an American citizen. If Assange broke the Espionage Act by distributing classified material within the U.S., that means he used “the press” there.

Trump, who declared “I love WikiLeaks!” when it was revealing embarrassing information about Hillary Clinton, has changed his tune now that he perceives a threat to his government’s secrets. When he was asked about a potential criminal case against Assange last Friday, Trump said, “It’s OK with me.”

© Copyright 2017 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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The Next President

Will Donald Trump be re-elected in 2020?

Probably not, say people who bet. They give Trump only a 23 percent chance. They do pick him over all other politicians, but the favorite is “other.”

I know this because I follow the betting odds at ElectionBettingOdds.com.

Yes, bettors were wrong about Trump’s election and Brexit, but those were exceptions, and those votes unusual. Even Brexit’s promoters predicted a loss; even Trump said he thought he’d lose when he saw the election-night exit polls.

But betting odds are usually right. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if the bettors gave a candidate, say, a 65 percent chance to win, and he lost, bettors were “wrong.” But remember, 65 percent means bettors also thought there was a 35 percent chance that candidate would lose.

There’s wisdom in crowds, if the crowds put their money where their mouths are.

Bettors accurately picked Oscar winners, “American Idol” winners and most important elections. ElectionBettingOdds.com named VP picks Mike Pence and Tim Kaine a week before they were picked.

Even when bettors bet wrong, they are quicker to adjust than others. By 10 p.m. on election night, the odds had flipped from Clinton to Trump. An hour later, bettors had Trump at 90 percent, but CNN’s Wolf Blitzer was still saying, “Hilary Clinton is now ahead in the all-important electoral college map count!”

Last week, right before France’s election, reporters claimed that the terrorism in France would help elect Marine Le Pen. Saturday, Fox News headlined: “Le Pen sees Trump-like boost.”

But bettors knew better. They favored Emmanuel Macron, 60 percent to 20 percent, and sure enough, he was the first-round winner.

The New York Times hyped Jean-Luc Melenchon, France’s socialist candidate (of course), claiming he was “gaining steam.” But betters weren’t fooled. They gave Melenchon just a 5 percent chance.

A more complete track record of the bettors’ predictions is posted at ElectionBettingOdds.com.

I should explain: ElectionBettingOdds.com is a website my TV producer and I created. He takes the odds from legal betting markets, mostly from the biggest and most reliable one, Betfair (based in the U.K.). Our site converts Betfair’s complex formulae to percentages that are easy to understand.

Candidates’ shares trade like stocks in the stock market. Since, as I write, bettors give President Trump only a 23 percent chance of winning in 2020, you Trump supporters can make a big profit if he wins. Buy 100 shares of Trump now (at 23 cents a share) and if he wins, you’ll get $100 for every $23 you bet.

Actually, you Americans can’t make that bet, because restrictive U.S. anti-gambling regulations prevent Betfair from dealing with Americans.

One American website, PredictIt.com, did get a special exemption from regulators that allows it to take limited bets from Americans, but they don’t yet offer 2020 odds on individual candidates.

They do offer other interesting bets, however:

Think basic provisions of Obamacare will be repealed this year? Bettors give it only a one-third chance.

Tax reform fares better: There’s a 50 percent chance individual income taxes will be cut.

Finally, who do Betfair’s bettors predict will be Trump’s competition in 2020? Mike Pence, Elizabeth Warren and, oddly, Michelle Obama.

None comes close to Trump in the odds. Pence is in second place, with just a 9 percent chance. Pence probably leads other Republicans because many bettors don’t think Trump will complete one term. If Trump quits, Pence would have the incumbent’s advantage. Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz are the next Republicans, but both are below 3 percent.
I am surprised Hillary Clinton does so poorly. Elizabeth Warren leads all Democrats with 8 percent. In fact, bettors give Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders and even Michelle Obama (5 percent) better shots than Clinton (3 percent).

Of course, it’s early. We should be skeptical of predictions of events four years in advance. But when I want the most accurate possible clues about the future, I turn to ElectionBettingOdds.com.

Those odds aren’t perfect, but they’re better than pundits, polls and other alternatives.

We’d have more valuable predictions if nervous U.S. lawmakers would just legalize political prediction markets. Unfortunately, they’ve been too close-minded to do that.

COPYRIGHT 2017 BY JFS PRODUCTIONS INC.

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Oklahoma Death Penalty Commission Recommends Extending Moratorium

The Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission recommended that the state extend its moratorium on executions “until significant reforms have been accomplishing,” offering 44 specific recommendations related to a variety of death penalty-related topics they studied in their year-long investigation of the death penalty in Oklahoma and the United States.

“Many of the findings of the Commission’s year-long investigation were disturbing and led Commission members to question whether the death penalty can be administered in a way that ensures no innocent person is put to death,” former Gov. Brad Henry, a a co-chair of the bipartisan commission, wrote in the introduction to its 300-page report.

“Oklahoma’s history of wrongful convictions, falsifying evidence, and botching executions clearly demonstrates that the state cannot and can never be trusted with the death penalty,” Marc Hyden, the national advocacy coordinator for Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, an anti-death penalty group, told Reason. “The risks are just too high, and when you look at the rewards, they’re far too low. The death penalty doesn’t deter crime, and often harms murder victims’ families, and I think this is the reason that so many conservatives are opposing the death penalty.”

“It’s great that this commission is highlighting so many problems that have marred their death penalty system,” Hyden continued, “but I think we also have to take a serious look at all the other issues too, and to me all these suggest that Oklahoma has not earned the trust of Oklahomans, the kind of trust they need to be able to wield the death penalty.”

Hyden pointed to a poll last year that found that while Oklahomans supported the death penalty 3 to 1, a majority, 53 percent, supported repealing the death penalty if it were replaced with life without parole, financial restitution, and property forfeiture.

The commission acknowledged last November’s vote on State Question 776, which saw Oklahomans approve enshrining capital punishment in the constitution by a nearly two to one margin. “Nevertheless, it is undeniable that innocent people have been sentenced to death in Oklahoma,” the report continued. “And the burden of wrongful convictions alone requires the systemic corrections recommended in this report.

“Unfortunately, a review of the evidence demonstrates that the death penalty, even in Oklahoma, has not always been imposed and carried out fairly, consistently, and humanely, as required by the federal and state constitutions,” the report found. “These shortcomings have severe consequences for the accused and their families, for victims and their families, and for all citizens of Oklahoma.”

The commission presented its findings on forensics, “innocence protection,” or wrongful convictions, the role of the prosecution, the role of the defense, jury issues, the role of the judiciary, death penalty eligibility, clemency, and the execution process.

It warned that an “overreliance on forensic analysis without requiring empirical evidence to substantiate its claims—coupled with intentionally bad actors (or unintentional human error) and little oversight, accountability, training, and adherence to scientific procedures and standards—can place innocent people in jail, or even worse, on death row.”

“One of the most troubling areas of forensic science, particularly with respect to the death penalty, is the use of unscientific, mistaken, or even fraudulent forensic testing and evidence,” the report found. “The power of forensic science is corrupted when forensic experts inappropriately—whether intentionally or inadvertently— testify beyond what has been scientifically supported by empirical evidence, and when they pronounce a ‘match’ that implicates a defendant.”

The commission noted the case of Joyce Gilchrist, who was fired from the Oklahoma City Police Department’s crime lab in 2001 amid accusations of falsifying evidence—she had worked on thousands of police investigations and testified in more than twenty capital cases, including, the commission noted, “at least 11 that resulted in executions.” Gilchrist challenged her termination in court, claiming it was in retaliation for her reports of sexual harassment.

The commission bemoaned the lack of independence for forensics labs, which are often run and open to manipulation by local police departments.

The commission made a number of recommendations involving forensics, including that the state implement recommendations made by a 2013 commission, which included forming a committee that could “formulate a quality and enhanced training program for Crime Scene personnel [and that] [t]he program should be implemented in all Oklahoma police training academies” and repealing the exemption from licensing for latent fingerprint examiners and digital forensics analysts.

The commission also recommended that the state should “follow best practices with respect to certification of forensic experts,” that the legislature should change the law to require biological evidence be kept 60 days after an execution, and that judges should be given forensics training,

On innocence protection, the commission noted that there had been 10 exonerations of death row inmates in Oklahoma since the death penalty was reinstated nationally in 1973, “placing it in the top five states with the highest number of individuals released from death row due to evidence of innocence,” and pointed to a study that estimated that at least four percent of those sentenced to death in the U.S. are innocent.

There was not one cause of wrongful conviction, the commission stressed. “Instead, it is most often a combination of factors that implicate multiple components and actors within the criminal justice system, as well as external factors, such as community pressure to identify a perpetrator after a high-profile murder,” the commission reported. “For the 10 men exonerated from Oklahoma’s death row, multiple factors led to their wrongful conviction, including false confessions, mistaken eyewitness identification, false or misleading forensics, the use of jailhouse informants, official misconduct, and ineffective assistance of counsel.”

Between 1989 and 2016, for example, of 103 people with mental illness or intellectual disability who were exonerated, 72 percent had made false confessions. The commission also warned of the problems of using jailhouse snitches.

It recommended that courts do more to permit “qualified expert testimony on the limitations and use of eyewitness testimony” when appropriate, to include directions to juries to consider such testimony in the state’s uniform jury instructions, “best practices” for photo arrays and line ups, eliminating the show-ups, which the commission explains is “when a single suspected is presented,” training law enforcement, prosecutors, and defense attorneys on the limitations of eyewitness identification, the recording of police interrogations in homicide cases (and a rebuttal presumption of inadmissibility if the entire interrogation is not recorded), “best practices” for law enforcement on interrogation methods, reliability hearings for and training on jailhouse informants, and legislation to provide adequate compensation for those exonerated from death row as well as to require such exonerations are applied to relevant government records immediately upon expungement.

The commission also looked at problems with prosecutors and the “limited checks on prosecutorial power.” It noted a study that found one of the most common reversible errors in appeals was the “prosecutorial suppression of evidence that the defendant is innocent or does not deserve the death penalty,” pointing to several cases in Oklahoma where evidence favorable to capital defendants was intentionally withheld.

“One study reports a correlation between reversal rates due to state conduct and the zealous use of the death penalty by counties,” the commission pointed out. “The study found that ‘[t]he higher the rate at which a state or county imposes death verdicts, the greater the probability that each death verdict will have to be reversed because of serious error.'”

For prosecutors, the commission recommended they and their investigators receive regular, mandatory, training on the common causes for wrongful conviction, and regular training on their obligation to notify foriegn governments when charging non-citizens with capital crimes, and that they be required to allow open-file discovery at all stages of capital cases and to retain files on capital cases until 60 days after a death row inmate has been executed, died in custody, had his sentence commutes, or had been exonerated.

The commission also looked at public defenders, finding that they were often inadequately funded to vigorously defend capital cases. It recommended advisory guidelines on appointing defense counsel in capital cases, regular training for capital defense counsel “specific to the unique demands” of capital caes, compensation for employees of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System (OIDS) equal to those of district attorneys’ offices in corresponding countries, adequate compensation for conflict counsel in capital cases and a lift of a compensation cap far lower than in many other states, and that conflict counsel not be required to seek funding beyond statuatory caps directly from OIDS but should receive them from court funds in their county.

The commission also examined jury issues, and recommended guaranteeing the right to preliminary examination (voir dire) of individual jurors upon request by the state or the defendant as a way to mitigate problems like racial discrimination.

On the role of the judiciary, the commission recommended that judges receive regular training on capital trials, that the law be amended to prevent the failure to raise extra-record claims during a direct appeal from being used to deny such claims in post-conviction review, to require that counsel for death row inmates only be required to show good cause for discovery they request, and to amend the law to run capital direct appeals and state post-conviction proceedings consecutively, not concurrently.

The commission made a number of recommendations on death penalty eligibility related to the unconstitutionality of executing the mentally diabled. It recommended lowering the standard to prove a defendant’s intellectual disability or mental retardation to a preponderance of evidence irrespective of the determination made by the judge or jury before or during the trial, amending the state’s uniform jury instructions to “clarify that capital defendants must be permitted to attempt to establish their ineligibility for a death sentence on the basis of intellectual disability/mental retardation” if they’ve taken at least one IQ test that yielded a score lower than 76, amending the law to allow individuals other than the prison warden to raise the issue of competency of death row inmates, and prohibiting the state from executing someone who can be shown by a preponderance of the evidence to be incompetent or insane.

The commission also recommended that the state pardon and parole board be more open and not restricted to “individuals with experience in the criminal justice field,” that that board publish substantive guidelines on clemency, that the board have guidelines for members who have a conflict of interest in evaluating a condemned inmate’s petition for clemency to recuse themsevles, to permit condemned inmates to watch the presentation of their clemency petition via closed-circuit television, and that the pardon and parole board deliberate before voting on petitions of clemency.

The commission noted that Oklahoma has for years adopted the newest, untested methods of execution. It was, for example, the first state to establish lethal injection, and in 2015 became the first state to nitrogen asphyxiation as a method of execution.

The commission recommended that Oklahoma “adopt the most humane and effective method of execution possible,” noting that currently that appeared to be the “one-drug (barbiturate) lethal injection protocol,” that its execution protocol be reviewed continuously, that the Department of Corrections (DOC) “provide clear direction to department personnel involved in” executions, that the department require verification of lethal injection drugs as part of its written execution protocol, thorough training and evaluation of all government personnel involved in an execution, signed certifications from the DOC director at least 48 hours before any scheduled execution that the execution protocol has been appropriately followed, that inmates be notified at least three weeks in advance of what drugs would be used in their legal injections, and that an independent third party should conduct a “quality assurance review” after executions.

There has not been an execution in Oklahoma for more than two years, and the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in 2014 triggered a number of reviews. Only one execution took place in the state since then, that of Charles Warner, while he was appealing his case to the Supreme Court on the grounds that the use of midazolam constituted a cruel and unusual punishment. The court eventually ruled 5-4 against him.

You can read the entire report here.

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