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Thieves With Badges

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

Civil forfeiture is the government practice of taking property from citizens without due process, but while pretending that it’s all above-board. When police say they suspect a crime, they can impound property associated with that crime. “Civil forfeiture” is the legal legerdemain: instead of suing the owner, the government sues (get this) the property itself.

And, because of this trickery, burden of proof is inverted: victims must prove their innocence and their right to the impounded property.

Generally, governments keep it. Some police departments are “rolling in the dough” they get from impounding property.

This has been known for some time; I’ve written about it before. But now the Washington Post has finally taken notice … and unearthed a new element to the story.

“Behind the rise in seizures is a little-known cottage industry of private police-training firms that teach the techniques of ‘highway interdiction’ to departments across the country,” the Post’s report relates. There’s even a private intelligence network, the Black Asphalt Electronic Networking & Notification System, through which police “share detailed reports about American motorists — criminals and the innocent alike — including their Social Security numbers, addresses and identifying tattoos, as well as hunches about which drivers to stop.”

Participating police officers compete to steal more and more booty from drivers and their passengers.

Yes, it is stealing. It is only nominally “legal.”

Unfortunately, it is only one practice among many that have turned local police departments into the moral equivalent of gangland robbers.

If you say you want limited government, this is an issue ripe for protest. And lobbying for reform. And citizen initiatives.

For starters.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Old Rules Gotta Go

Friday, August 1st, 2014

Old hat. Long in the tooth. Creaky as an outhouse door.

These are just some of the expressions that apply to how our cities, states and metro areas are run — by ancient principles that do not serve the common good.

Last weekend I wrote about the ongoing revolution in transit, the peer-to-peer online app services offered by Uber, Lyft and the like. These ride-sharing services allow normal folks to give and receive car rides at great convenience.

They blow mass transit “out of the water” and throw taxi service sideways. Super-convenient, they make it cheap and safe for people to co-operate in new and productive ways.

Art Carden, at EconLog, notes the “social waste” that governments add to the system. While the new app-based services provide true solutions to the high transaction costs of negotiating among many people, governments give us squabbles: “the battle over the rules governing the conditions under which people will be allowed to do certain things is pure social waste,” Carden argues. “The social waste is reflected in the resources consumed in the fight over the rules.”

We’ve gotta have rules, of course. But they needn’t require micromanagement, massive restrictions, or high taxes.

The new era will be run (if allowed) on the basis of convenient co-operation, transaction costs reduced by communications technology.

The old era that still rules the roost runs on clunky old ideas that Carden rightly calls “mercantilism,” the political ideology that Adam Smith argued against . . . in 1776.

Government should undergird free markets, not intrude and dominate by licensing near-monopolies.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Yes, You Are a Suspect

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

Sometimes the Internet makes a mistake.

The other day, one of my favorite websites embedded a Fox News video about NSA spying. Fox News entitles their video “Citizens Treated As Suspects.” At the site showcasing Fox’s story, though, the headline reads: “The NSA Grabs Information from Non-Suspects; Ninety percent of those spied upon are under no suspicion.”

Can this be right? When you’re treated as a suspect, you are a suspect, aren’t you? You’re being suspected of … something. At least of being somebody who might be up to something worth snagging in an all-embracing fishing expedition. If you’re not guilty, somebody else leaving comparable data traces is, surely.

On the other hand, no matter how innocent you feel, you gotta be guilty of something for which the government could come after you, right?

I do not say you have done something actually wrong. Only something some policeman or bureaucrat could hassle you for. We live in an era when parents get arrested for letting their kids play in the park

Fox News reporter Shephard Smith says that most Americans caught up in the particular NSA surveillance net discussed in his story are just ordinary, everyday blokes — not reasonably suspected of anything NSA-spy-worthy. This is unsurprising given all we’ve been learning from the NSA documents released by whistleblower Edward Snowden (see ProPublica’s revelation-chart).

These days, in the eyes of our government we are all suspects. Continuously.

And there’s something very suspicious about that.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Google Mugged By Reality?

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

Google says health care is unhealthy.

Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla has conducted what he calls a “fireside chat” with Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. In one much-cited passage, Brin observes that although he is excited about making gadgets like glucose-measuring contact lenses, health care, because “so heavily regulated,” is “just a painful business to be in. It’s not necessarily how I want to spend my time. . . . [T]he regulatory burden in the U.S. is so high that I think it would dissuade a lot of entrepreneurs.” Page echoes his colleague.

A blunt, and fair, observation. But it makes one wonder why these super-entrepreneurs have not been more critical (at least so far as their search engine can tell me) of Obamacare, which multiplies mandates and prohibitions in the medical industry by an order of magnitude.

Top Google executives are known to be liberal in their politics, and presumably have been sincere. It seems, though, that reality is not cooperating with any ideological tilt they may yet harbor in favor of government paternalism.

It’s in fields with which a businessman is best acquainted that he is most likely to recognize the value of freedom — at least his own, if not always that of competitors. So perhaps we should hope that Brin, Page and other Google principals try to achieve something great in every industry there is. That way, they can come around to consistent, principled support for freeing markets.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Greek Recipe for Disaster

Thursday, July 10th, 2014

Several years ago, Despina Antypa and her husband worked at a leading newspaper in Athens.

Then came the economic crisis.

The bad news was “just a whisper” at first. But when friends began losing work, she had the foresight and discipline to plan a new career. One unrestricted by language or country — just in case they ever had to leave Greece. She chose pastry, taking classes every weekday for two years, practicing techniques on weekends.

Sure enough, in 2011 the couple lost their own jobs. Despina threw herself into the task of confecting a signature delicacy good enough to sell; some 3,000 trials and errors (“mostly errors”) later, she was satisfied.

Then came the work of developing a website, packaging, selling.

Orders poured in. The labors were paying off. Except that—

The business was killed in its crib by bureaucrats.

The Greek government demanded a lot, including

  • advance taxes equal to “50 percent of estimated profit in the first two years” (money never to be returned were the business to fail);
  • minimum square footage for her shop much greater than necessary; and
  • a separate toilet for walk-in customers (although there would be no walk-in customers).

The arbitrary burdens proved too great. In 2013, her husband got a job offer that meant moving to Brussels. They jumped at the chance. There they forged the new life they could have forged in Greece — had they been allowed to.

It seems that the road to recovery is not helped by hobbling the runners.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

P2P Jitneys

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

Virginia state government has banned Web-based/app-based car-ride services Uber and Lyft from operating in the state. After applying heavy fines. After demanding the services follow rules originally devised for taxis and limo and bus services.

It seems tantamount to banning the automobile a century ago because the horse-and-buggy regulations on the books didn’t fit.

Uber and Lyft call what they provide “ride-sharing” services, allowing people with smart-phone and tablet apps to “hail” rides they need, from almost anywhere to almost anywhere. The folks providing the rides have signed up and even taken classes, and both parties rate each other after the transaction. Riders can “steer clear” of low-rated drivers if they want. And drivers can not offer rides to low-rated riders, as well.

It’s quite a service.

I first heard about this idea from economist David Friedman, a generation ago. He called it a “jitney” system, and offered it as an alternative to mass transit systems that are just too capital intensive to make a profit while still servicing diverse needs.

Now, the idea is off to a good start with two excellent services. Technology has allowed for safe, low-transaction-cost contracting between strangers. This sort of person-to-person (P2P) revolution could change everything.

Including government patronage. Or the need for much government regulation. Taxicab services are heavily regulated in most places. The excuse is usually safety and traffic considerations, but let’s be frank: it’s mostly a government power grab. Horning in on territory. Collecting a fee.

Uber and Lyft leverage the capital car-owners invest, and such P2P services are probably the most efficient contracting systems possible. If free market principles should apply to anything, it is jitney services.

So, Virginia, lay off. Free the P2P.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Senator for the VA

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont socialist, has been all over the media discussing the VA scandal.

However, I can’t find Mr. Sanders reflecting on his own role in the fiasco.

Last September, Sanders argued, “The VA is making progress in reducing the disability claims backlog. I meet very often with General Shinseki, (and) with (VA Under Secretary) Allison Hickey to see the progress that they are making.”

Apparently Sanders, chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, needs new glasses.

As the public and the president were discovering the depth and breadth of the scandal, the Vermont senator moved quickly to defend the VA: “The Veterans Administration provides very high-quality healthcare, period. It’s not perfect.”

“Not perfect” indeed.

Sanders also warned of “a rush to judgment,” noting emphatically, “We don’t know how many veterans died.”

As the scandal spread nationwide, the good senator . . . freaked out. “There is right now as we speak a concerted effort to undermine the VA,” he told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes.

“What are the problems?” Sanders asked himself. “The problems is . . . you have folks out there now — Koch brothers and others — who want to radically change the nature of society, and either make major cuts in all of these institutions, or maybe do away with them entirely.”

How possible future cuts might prevent the VA from getting the job done at present remains unclear.

On Thursday, Sanders blocked Senate consideration of HR 4031, which had passed the House by a whopping bi-partisan 390–33 vote. The bill would have given the VA Secretary the power to replace managers who weren’t producing for patients.

Senator, let our vets go . . . let them escape the bureaucracy to seek the care they deserve.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.