Kopel's Corner Weblog, September-October 2012

"Failure: Why We Need It"

• October 30, 2012 6:39 pm

That was the provocative title of a seminar earlier this month organized by the Istituto Bruno Leoni, Italy's free market think tank. The event was the IBL's 9th annual Mises Seminar. As is common at multinational seminars in Europe, the event and the papers were in English, which is today's lingua franca among well-educated Europeans.

My favorite paper was presented by Kaetana Leontjeva, who is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Lithuanian Free Market Institute. Her paper, Old-age state social insurance: may its failure be averted?, examines the history of old-age pension systems throughout Europe, with a special focus on the USSR, Lithuania and Georgia. She shows how these programs, initially of modest size, grew to an unustainable  level that is financed by borrowing. She argues that there are only two realistic alternatives:

1. Continuing the present systems, with only "technical" reforms. This will eventually lead to complete failure of the old-age pension system, as occurred in the USSR. " This would lead to a sudden and dramatic change in conditions of the elderly, bringing about poverty and chronic insecurity." OR

2. "managed failure." This means starting to shrinking the existing pension systems, by requiring that they operate on a balanced budget. Young people should not be told to depend on the current system, but should be encouraged to start making plans for their own retirement, by setting aside some of their current income to provide for their retirement. "For the ‘managed failure' approach to work, one generation has to concede and make a sacrifice by paying for the pensions of the current retirees and for their own. In the absence of such a consent and solidarity, the generation to make the sacrifice would emerge spontaneously, and the process of an unexpected old-age social insurance failure would be much more painful."

Another interesting paper came from Peter J. Boettke (Mercatus Center, George Mason University) and Daniel J. Smith (Manual H. Johnson Center for Political Economy, Troy University). "Monetary Policy and the Quest for Robust Political Economy" examines the failures of economists in thinking about the Federal Reserve. It is possible to imagine a Federal Reserve which conducts its affairs in an economically sound and apolitical fashion. But in practice, the Fed has often been a pump-priming engine of inflation, for political reasons. In other words, "Technical optima are nonoperational in a contemporary democratic setting." In the wake of the Great Recession, the economics profession has been busy dissecting recent technical mistakes by Fed. Boettke and Smith argue that economists instead ought to be analyzing the only solutions which can put an end to a century of Federal Reserve failures: the adoption of a monetary policy (e.g., based on an external standard, such as a commodities bundle) which removes Fed discretion to promote inflation. While such a policy might not be politically feasible in the short run, it is the only constructive alternative, and would become more politically feasible if economists did not self-censor their recommendations based on short-term political viability.

In "Bankruptcy: Why are Banks Treated Differently Anyway?," Mathieu Bédard (Ph.D. candidate in economics, Aix-Marseille Université, and a Fellow at the Institute for Humane Studies) classifies and analyzes the 29 different forms of government intervention into bank failures. He argues that ordinary bankruptcy is often superior to liquidations managed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

Even if you don't agree with the policy recommendations in these papers, they are worth reading for their thoughtful analysis.

Categories: Growth of Government, Paternalism, Russia 32 Comments

How Syria is Iran's route to the sea

• October 24, 2012 2:29 am

"Syria is Iran's only ally in the Arab world. It's their route to the sea." So said Mitt Romney at the Monday debate. The Associated PressThe GuardianThe Telegraph, New York, U.S. News,  Brad DeLong, Rachel Maddow's Maddowblog,  Comedy Central, and The Daily Kos promptly seized the opportunity to show off their superior geographical knowledge, pointing out that Iran has a coastline. The explicit or implicit explanation was that Romney does not even know basic geography. "Romney Flubs Geography" announced the A.P. headline on the Washington Post website. Readers in search of more sophisticated coverage  might have turned to Yahoo! Answers:

Q. Why did Romney say that Syria is Iran's "route to the sea"? ...when 1) Iraq stands between Syria and Iran, and 2) Iran already has the Persian Gulf, not to mention the Indian Sea?

A. Romney was speaking in the context of the debate topic on foreign policy and the sanctions restricting the finances and trade of Iran. Although Iran is indeed located on the seacoast of the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, the international trade sanctions have restricted and impeded its ability to transport armaments and other goods through its own seaports. To defeat these trade sanctions, Iran has resorted to using its air transportation to transport goods through an air corridor in Iraqi airspace into Syria and its seaports, such as Latakia.

Fact-checkers who actually investigate the facts might have started with expert websites such as StrategyPage. A 2006 article titled Syrian Delivery System for Iranian Nukes details the extensive seaborne smuggling operations carried out by Syrian companies operating out of Syrian ports. The article concludes:

Iran was generous with its "foreign aid" because Syria provided support for terrorists Iran backed. Now Iran is keen on getting nuclear weapons. The first ones Iran will get will be large and delicate. The only feasible intercontinental delivery system will be a ship. A ship that is accustomed to moving illicit goods.

Stratfor, which is an outstanding site for the collection and analysis open source intelligence, has the following reports involving Syria/Iran sea-related collaboration: An Iranian ship at the Syrian port of Tartus (also spelled "Tartous") picked up Syrian oil for delivery to China, to evade the economic sanctions on Syria (Mar. 30, 2012). Iran warships docked at the port of Latakia in early 2012 (Feb. 18, 2012), and in early 2011 (Feb. 22, 2011; Feb. 24, 2011). During the 2011 visit, the Iranian navy's commander, Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, announced that Iran was ready to help Syria improve its port facilities, and to collaborate on technical projects with Syria. (Feb. 26, 2011). (All the Stratfor articles are behind a paywall.)

So in short, Syria is Iran's route for the projection into the Mediterranean Sea (and from there, the Atlantic Ocean) of conventional naval power, and, perhaps soon, of nuclear weaponry.

Post-debate, the Washington Post‘s Glenn Kessler at least made a start towards a serious factcheck of the Romney quote. He published an updated and condensed version of a longer piece he had written last April about Romney's repeated use of the phrase.

In the April piece, Kessler wondered what difference Syria made, since Iranian ships can enter the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal. True, but anyone with even a mild knowledge of naval affairs could explain the utility of a Mediterranean port, as a opposed to a Persian Gulf port, for ships operating in the Mediterranean. In April and in October, Kessler wrote:

We also checked with other experts, many of whom confessed to being puzzled by Romney's comments.  [DK: Kessler should have named all the "other" experts, and should also have included the explanation of at least one of the experts who was not among the "many" were were confused.] Tehran certainly uses Syria to supply the militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas, but that has little to do with the water. The relationship with Syria could also effectively allow Iran to project its power to the Mediterranean and the border with Israel. But does that really mean, "a route to the sea"?

The last two sentences are really the buried lede of the story: Romney is raising a very important issue (Syria as the base for the projection of Iranian naval power), but Romney is not explaining himself in a manner which the less well-informed members of the public (e.g., the sources linked in the 1st paragraph of this post) can understand. If Romney were a better communicator, he would have laid out the facts in greater detail, as Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill did in their own time, when warning their countrymen about the military dangers of aggressive totalitarian regimes. As Kessler wrote in April, "If Romney is elected president, he will quickly learn that words have consequences. Precision in language is especially important in diplomacy, and here Romney used a phrase that left people befuddled as to his intent and meaning, especially since he did not even make a distinction between the Mediterranean and Arabian seas."

If you're a journalist or a commentator, there's no reason be ashamed just because a Washington Post writer reported a story much better than you did. But when you find yourself being outclassed by Yahoo! Answers, perhaps it's time to rethink your assumptions that you're much smarter and better informed than Mitt Romney.

Categories: Counter-Terrorism Policy, Iran, Israel, National Security, Presidency, Press, Terrorism 154 Comments

Louisiana amendment to strengthen right to arms, on November ballot

• October 3, 2012 7:04 pm

In state elections, the most important vote this November will be in Louisiana. A referendum there would significantly strengthen protection of the right to keep and bear arms in the state, and would set a very significant national precedent.

Before the Civil War, the Louisiana Constitution did not mention a right to arms. The Louisiana Supreme Courts, however, viewed the federal Second Amendment as directly applicable to state government. So in State v. Chandler (1850), the court held that the Second Amendment protected a general right to carry arms, but that a legislature could ban concealed carry.

A new state constitution, adopted in 1879, provided: "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be abridged. This shall not prevent the passage of laws to punish those who carry weapons concealed." La. Const., art. 3. The first sentence is, of course, nearly verbatim from the Second Amendment.

A century later, firearms prohibitionists had convinced some courts to reinterpret the Second Amendment so as to make it practical nullity. Supposedly, the Second Amendment right was not an individual right, but instead a "state's right" or "collective right"–which meant that individual gun ownership could be entirely outlawed. Because the Louisiana Constitution's language so closely paralleled the Second Amendment, there was a danger that a Louisiana court could interpret the state constitutional language to protect nothing at all. Indeed, some courts in other states had already done so, regarding state law language that copied the Second Amendment.

So in 1974, the Louisiana constitutional right was strengthened, with new language: "The right of each citizen to keep and bear arms shall not be abridged, but this provision shall not prevent the passage of laws to prohibit the carrying of concealed weapons." La. Const., art. I, sect. 11. The new language made it indisputable that the state constitution's right to arms was an individual right, belonging to each citizen.

Unfortunately, Louisiana's Supreme Court, like some other courts of the late 1970s, was hostile to the right to arms. According to a 1977 Louisiana Supreme Court decision, "The right to keep and bear arms, like other rights guaranteed by our state constitution, is not absolute. We have recognized that such rights may be regulated in order to protect the public health, safety, morals or general welfare so long as that regulation is a reasonable one." State v. Amos 343 So.2d 166, 168 (La. 1977).

It was unexceptional for the court to observe that the right to arms is no more "absolute" than any other right. But the court went much further, and essentially stripped the Louisiana arms right of any meaningful judicial protection. According to the Amos court, any form of gun control was constitutional, as long as it was "reasonable."

In 2001, the Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling that held: "The right to bear arms is established by the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, sect. 11 of the Louisiana Constitution. The State of Louisiana is entitled to restrict that right for legitimate state purposes, such as public health and safety." State v. Blanchard, 776 So.2d 1165 (La. 2001). The Blanchard court cited Louisiana state and federal cases from 1986 through 1999 for this proposition.

So Blanchard adopted an even weaker standard of right to arms protection than had Amos. Under Blanchard, any restriction is alright so long as the government has a "legitimate" purpose.  Blanchard‘s legitimate purpose test copies one prong of the weakest standard of judicial review, the "rational basis" test, which was originally created for Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection cases. Under this test, every law is constitutional so long as the government has a "legitimate" purpose, and the law has a "rational" connection to that purpose.

Fortunately, gun control has not been politically popular in Louisiana in recent decades. So even though the state's courts have essentially nullified the constitutional right to arms, Louisiana's firearms statutes are not, in general, oppressive.

In the November 2012 referendum, Louisiana citizens will be given the opportunity to remedy the wrong decisions in Blanchard and Amos. Voters can adopt new constitutional language: "The right of each citizen to keep and bear arms is fundamental and shall not be infringed.  Any restriction on this right shall be subject to strict scrutiny."

If adopted, the referendum would make two direct changes:

1. For the first time in Louisiana, concealed carry would be constitutionally protected. This makes sense, because in the 21st century (unlike in the 19th), concealed carry is most common way that Louisiana citizens exercise their right to carry handguns for lawful protection. Like most other states, Louisiana has a statutory system by which concealed carry permits are issued under fair and objective standards.

2. The judicially-imposed "legitimate purposes" test (the weakest test) of judicial review would be replaced by the strongest test: strict scrutiny. Under "strict scrutiny," the burden of proof is reversed; the government bears the burden of proving that a gun control law is constitutional. To pass strict scrutiny, a law must be proven to serve a "compelling state interest" (not merely a "legitimate purpose"). Even if the law does advance a compelling state interest, the law is constitutional only if the government additionally proves that the law is "narrowly tailored" and is the "least restrictive means" to advance the compelling state interest.

Louisiana would be the first state to write the "strict scrutiny" standard into its constitution. This would become the model in other states for significantly strengthening protection of their own constitutional right to arms. So it is unsurprising that the proposed amendment is strongly supported by the National Rifle Association, the Louisiana Shooting Association, and Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is the most pro-right to arms Governor in Louisiana history, and a national leader on the issue.

Surprisingly, some people in Louisiana are opposing the Amendment on the grounds that it supposedly promotes anti-gun laws. For example, at this website, the author remains invincibly ignorant, even when the facts are patiently explained an attorney from the Louisiana Shooting Association. The website author wants to live in a world of absolute rights. Be that as it may, Louisiana today is not a state of absolute rights; it is a state where the right to arms essentially does not exist, as a matter of state constitutional law, as mis-interpreted by state courts. The amendment would remedy the misinterpretation, and make it drastically harder for future courts to uphold anti-gun laws.

A victory for the Louisiana referendum will profoundly strengthen the right to arms in Louisiana, and have significant positive effects nationally. A defeat would validate the actions of previously Louisiana judges in recent decades who deigned that the right to arms was unworthy of judicial protection.

Categories: Constitutional Amendments, Constitutional History, Constitutional Law, Elections, Guns, Militia, Popular Constitutionalism, Right to carry, State constitutional law 31 Comments

Does the Supremacy Clause mean that the federal government always wins?

• October 2, 2012 6:05 pm

Last week, I filed an amicus brief on behalf of petitions for certiorari in Chafee v. United States and Pleau v. United States. These related cases could be among the most important federalism cases before the Court this term. The amici are the Cato Institute and the Independence Institute.

The State of Rhode Island and the federal government are fighting for custody of Jason Pleau, who is accused of perpetrating a murder during the course of a bank robbery. Rhode Island got him first, by revoking his parole for previous crimes. Pleau has offered to plead guilty in Rhode Island state court, and receive a sentence of life without parole for the murder/robbery. Although Pleau's robbery of the bank's night depository involves no particularly strong federal interest (such as the murder of a federal officer), the U.S. Attorney for Rhode Island wants to prosecute Pleau in federal court, and has stated that capital punishment may be sought.

Over four decades ago, the States entered into an interstate compact, the Interstate Agreement on Detainers Act (IADA). The Act provides the procedures for the temporary transfer of a prisoner from one state to another state, for criminal prosecution in the second state. Congress liked IADA so much that it not only gave permission for the compact, it also enacted IADA as a federal statute, and made the U.S. a party to the compact. So under IADA, the U.S. functions just like any other "sending" or "receiving" state.

The U.S. Attorney filed a detainer under IADA, to obtain temporary custody of Pleau. IADA explicitly provides that the Governor of the sending state has an unlimited right to refuse to transfer a prisoner. Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee exercised this right. Because Rhode Island does not have the death penalty, Chafee believes that it would be contrary to Rhode Island public policy for Pleau to be subject to capital punishment for a crime perpetrated in Rhode Island, by a Rhode Island citizen, against another Rhode Island citizen.

Having been rejected under IADA, the U.S. Attorney then sought to obtain Pleau by asking a federal district court to issue a writ of habeas corpus ad prosequendum. This common law writ is used by a court to obtain a prisoner for prosecution, and it is implicitly recognized in the 1948 federal habeas corpus statute.

Lower courts split on whether the ad prosequendum writ could be used to evade IADA. Rhode Island lost in federal district court, won 2-1 before a First Circuit panel, and then lost 3-2 before the First Circuit en banc. What made the case of particular interest to Cato and the Independence Institute was the en banc majority's casual use of the Supremacy Clause as a trump card automatically resulting in a win for the federal government.

The National Governors Association filed an amicus brief on behalf of Governor Chafee before the en banc panel; the NGA argued vigorously against the U.S. Attorney's theory that the Supremacy Clause can override a valid compact between the States and the federal government. The NGA argued that this interpretation makes all federal/state compacts into worthless scraps of paper, as far as federal adherence to the compact is concerned.

Although the Solicitor General initially declined to respond to the cert. petitions by Chafee and Pleau, the Supreme Court has requested a response from the SG, which should be filed later this month.

The Cato Institute's write-up of the case is here. Scotusblog's collection of the various briefs is here, including the cert. petition amicus briefs of the National Governor's Association and the Rhode Island ACLU. (Note that this is for docket number 12-223, the Chafee case. The related case of Pleau is 12-230, which is linked from the Scotusblog page for Chafee.) Below is the summary of argument from my amicus brief:

The First Circuit's decision violates Supreme Court teachings about the relationship between habeas corpus writs and state sovereignty, as explicated by Chief Justice Marshall in Ex Parte Bollman, 8 U.S. (4 Cranch) 75 (1807), and by Chief Justice Taft in Ponzi v. Fessenden, 258 U.S. 254 (1922). More fundamentally, the First Circuit misuses the Supremacy Clause to make it an absolute trump card to defeat any state claim. This is not, and never has been, the meaning of the Supremacy Clause.

The decision below mangles the Supreme Court's major case about the Interstate Agreement on Detainers Act, United States v. Mauro, 436 U.S. 340 (1977). Westlaw characterizes the First Circuit's decision as the "most negative" of the more than 600 lower court cases applying Mauro. The decision below does not merely misread Mauro, but instead chops quotes and inverts language so as to turn Mauro into the opposite of what Mauro actually said.

There is no evidence, let alone an "unmistakably clear statement," that any act of Congress, including the 1789 and 1948 habeas corpus statutes, was intended to abrogate state sovereignty, including the sovereign right of Governors to refuse a writ of habeas corpus ad prosequendum.

The First Circuit grants unauthorized additional power (indeed, statutorily forbidden power) to the federal government, which makes it imperative that this Court grant certiorari to protect our constitutional system of dual sovereignty.

Thanks to my fine summer interns, Christopher Ferraro and Rachel Maxam, of Denver University Sturm College of Law, for their work on this brief.

Categories: Constitutional Law, Criminal Procedure, Federalism, Habeas, Supreme Court 37 Comments

Bleg on First Amendment offensive speech

• September 21, 2012 6:08 pm

I thought it would useful to compile a list of some of the most offensive words, images, etc. which have been held to be protected by the First Amendment. I'm especially interested in Supreme Court cases, but other cases are fine too. So commenters, please submit your nominations. Thanks!

Categories: First Amendment 39 Comments  

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