State of the Union

When SWAT Raids Are Routine

In his documentary Do Not Resist, Craig Atkinson depicts the militarization of police in the United States. Atkinson embedded himself with numerous SWAT teams across the country and followed them on their regular deployments.

John Payne interviewed Atkinson by phone in November, and the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

John Payne: What inspired you to make a film about police militarization?

Craig Atkinson: My father was a police officer, and I think that very much influenced my curiosity. He was a SWAT officer for 13 years, during the late ’80s and early ’90s, which gave me a background to see that things had changed. In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, for example, he was very much in the back of my mind when I was watching how the police were treating the community as they continued to search for the Tsarnaev brothers.

They were heavily armed with equipment, and the approach that they had toward the community made them seem more like an occupying force. [Producer Laura Hartrick] and I went up to Boston and interviewed people that experienced that, and they said to us that they were whisked out of their homes and detained for as much as four hours, face down on the grass, and never told why they were being detained. No charges were subsequently filed against these people.

I was very curious to know where all this equipment came from. Then we were fortunate enough to film in Concord, N.H., where we saw a group of activists protesting the acceptance of federal money to get an armored vehicle.

JP: Of course, at least in that case, the people they were pursuing were actually violent criminals who posed a threat to public safety. That’s really not the case in most SWAT raids, is it?

CA: Right, well, that’s the whole thing.

There are plenty of reasons to be heavily equipped in this way. Terrorist events would be one of them. I point people all the time to the Pulse nightclub shooting, where they used an armored vehicle to puncture a hole in the side of a wall and then free hostages.

We kept being told the entire time that this equipment was going to be used for a terrorist event or a hostage situation or a barricaded gunman. Then every single time we conducted a search warrant, it was for drugs. We did half a dozen raids while making the film. One time we found a bowl of weed. All the time, destroying the home and arresting people for small quantities of drugs.

An ACLU report says 80 percent of SWAT deployments are for search warrants, and if you look at the search warrants, the vast majority of those are for nonviolent drug offenses. Clearly there’s a time when you actually need this equipment, but we kept going out and seeing it used for low level offenses.

JP: That brings me to my next question. In the film you don’t have any talking heads describing what’s going on—you just embed yourselves with these police forces and see what they’re doing. One thing that surprised me is how forthright the police were with you. Why do you think they were so willing to talk about what is probably a controversial subject, at least to the general population? Were any officers reluctant to speak to you because of that?

CA: Well, we were very honest with our intentions, and I think that helped set the tone for our relationship with the police departments. We kept saying that we would offer an authentic portrayal of whatever we did together, and I think they were taking the opportunity to have that, where we wouldn’t re-edit or sensationalize the footage.

I think it speaks to how common these SWAT deployments are. We went on a ride-along, and we raided a home and recovered a gram and a half of weed, and the team told us that drug-search warrants are actually only 50-50—and they find stuff only 50 percent of the time. These are the types of standards that some police departments are working within. That same department also told us that they do 200 of these raids a year, three to four times a day. In my father’s era, they did 29 search warrants total in the 13 years that he was on SWAT, between 1989 and 2002.

In St. Louis County, every felony search warrant is executed by a SWAT team, and there are plenty of felony search warrants that don’t require that level of armament. They’ve gotten in trouble in St. Louis for raiding homes for code violations, for illegal gas hook-ups, and things like that.

JP: A lot of the film is you going with those St. Louis County SWAT teams, and there’s a lot of footage of the Ferguson protests and riots too. Is what you saw in St. Louis County common, or is it an outlier?

CA: Well, there are plenty of departments throughout the country that are deploying SWAT teams in a very similar way to St. Louis County—counties that have full-time teams, who are using SWAT on a day-to-day basis.

But when I go to larger departments, and they see the scene in St. Louis County where they’re checking Google Earth to make sure they have the right house before they raid it, a lot of officers see that and say they would hold those officers in dereliction of duty for not having a proper plan prior to entering the home. There are a lot of police departments throughout the country who will spend a week or two on one particular SWAT deployment, to ensure that it’s conducted safely, to ensure that it’s done in a way that’s as respectful to the community as possible.

But when you’re using SWAT for every single felony search warrant, there’s not time to properly plan. You might have a docket for a day that has four or five or six houses to hit.

About seven months after we edited the footage of that SWAT team checking an address on Google Earth, the same team raided the wrong home. Luckily no one was killed, but there have been cases where SWAT teams will raid the wrong home and someone will end up dying because they grabbed a weapon thinking they were under attack.

I just think that when you’re raiding homes on a 200-times-a-year basis, you’re not doing the proper investigative work to ensure that it’s done in a way that’s fair to the community, and it’s just leading to further unjust policing.

JP: A lot of the time, and not just St. Louis County, the intel that the cops were operating under was wrong. They expect to find drugs, but don’t, or it’s way less than they were expecting, or there were kids present when they thought there weren’t going to be. Is it just the number of raids that accounts for this bad intelligence, or are there other factors at play as well?

CA: To obtain a search warrant in my father’s era, you would have to do sufficient investigative work to prove your case prior to entering the home. You would do your entire investigation, and the judge would not give you a search warrant until you could prove that you could make an arrest on the individual even if you didn’t find any contraband in the house.

Well, that evolved, and now it’s become just the suspicion of narcotics. The search warrant we conducted in South Carolina was based off an informant’s testimony, so this is someone who could be trying to get off of a charge themselves and clearly has an incentive to give the officers some information. We went on the raid and they didn’t find what they were looking for.

It was supposed to be a drug kingpin; it was a 22-year-old college student. He was supposed to be there by himself; he was there with his mom and dad, his sister, and his sister’s four-month-old baby. When you’re not doing sufficient investigative work, and trying to go into the house as fast as you can in order to retrieve the contraband to be able to make the case, well, clearly mistakes happen.

That’s how I think we have seen the expansion of the stat that we quote in the film: 3,000 raids per year in the 1980s, whereas now it’s between 50,000 and 80,000 raids per year. We’ve just seen this incredible escalation, and it’s not hard to imagine how that happens when you’re rubber-stamping warrants.

Today you’re also able to seize the assets inside of the home and have those assets returned directly back to your police department. Gone are the days where you would take the asset and put it into a general fund for the city. After the feds stepped in and created the “equitable sharing” program, as long as a police department includes one federal agent on their task force, then their department itself gets to keep 80 percent of the money, and the feds get 20 percent of the money as a kickback.

So you’ve created a financial incentive for departments to go in and seize those assets, and that’s very much what we saw in the raid portrayed in the film. The first thing that was said when we got back to the police department in South Carolina was, “Did we seize anything?”

JP: Was that the raid where the guy was arrested, and he had the lawn-mowing business, and they seized the money he was going to use to buy another lawnmower? I wonder, do you think these officers believe that they’re helping that young man or his community in any way, or is it just base self-interest here?

CA: I think the law-enforcement community has been conditioned to think that all drugs are the bane of society’s existence, and that’s what’s destroying all of our communities, is the drugs. They’ve been effectively messaged to with the idea that the War on Drugs is the most important duty that they could perform. I think some of them do think that getting drugs off the streets will lead to less crime.

I think that veil is quickly being lifted, and a lot of officers we went out with seemed to be caught up in the middle, where they were given a top-down objective that completely put them at odds with their community. They felt as if they weren’t doing justice to the community by entering homes and arresting people for small amounts of weed, and putting them in prison, and creating all of the subsequent effects on that person’s life because they have now gone through the prison system.

I think it’s hard to argue that there’s a benefit to society from locking up a person for a gram and a half of weed. It’s becoming a lot harder to make the claim that that’s true crime-fighting, especially in an era where we’ve seen several other states legalize weed. I think we’ve seen exactly the opposite, that putting people in prison is what’s turning out to destroy a community in so many ways.

JP: The film features a lot of military surplus—MRAPs [Mine Resistant Ambush Protected] and other sorts of armored vehicles—and you show how those end up in the hands of local police forces. Often I notice these departments don’t seem to have any idea what they’re doing with this equipment. Does the federal government require any sort of training, or is it just “Fill out some forms and go have fun”?

CA: Because of the Posse Comitatus Act, the federal government actually can’t train the law-enforcement officers. The National Guard has been used to help some departments learn how to drive the MRAPs, but there’s no official policy that requires any training whatsoever.

There’s a story of a police officer picking up one of the MRAPs from an army depot out in California, and when he’s driving it home, all four tires blow out because no one told this officer that the top speed is 45 mph. The vehicles are very heavy, and that friction alone can explode the tires. He was going 75 mph down the freeway, and he went into oncoming traffic and got into a head-on collision with someone who had just picked up a brand-new F-150. You can’t write this stuff.

We would see officers picking up brand new MRAPs off of the army-depot lots and just driving them home without any training whatsoever, or just very basic orientation. This is a vehicle that the military trained officers on for a minimum of 80 hours a week before licensing them, and before they would send the soldiers off to Iraq and Afghanistan. You’ve reduced that down to absolutely nothing, and departments don’t report statistics at all on when the vehicles are deployed, how they are deployed, and what is found in the home. Police officers have been left on their own to determine how they want to deploy these vehicles in their community.

JP: One of the most intriguing parts of the film is about the training offered by Dave Grossman. He does a lot of off-the-wall things, at least from my perspective, but he says that after killing someone they’ll have the best sex of their lives. I think that’s probably the line that stands out the most. Did you sense any moral conflict in Grossman, or his trainees, about using deadly force with what basically amounts to joy?

CA: In an unreleased clip that I have of Dave Grossman, he said something similar. He said there’s many ways to feel after you kill someone, but if you had to choose, he thinks that you’d want to feel good about it. The satisfaction of hitting the target under the stress of combat is something that you should feel good about. I found this very perplexing, because I’ve always questioned the efficacy of crossing the line and becoming what you’re actually fighting against. It seems like that’s the slippery slope one finds themselves on if they start to actually enjoy the violence that they need to use from time to time in order to protect the community.

I’ve always wondered why we’re not teaching officers, if they must kill, to do it from a sense of duty: it’s regretful when we do it, but nonetheless, this is the task that we’re asking you to perform, and it should be handled with a great deal of respect and care.

I think that we’re just crossing a serious line when you’re interrupting someone’s humanity, as Dave Grossman is, by teaching soldiers and police officers to kill from a process of desensitization, and through muscle memory and conditioned response. If you look into Dave Grossman’s training, he’s inspired by the fact that the military took the 15-30 percent kill ratio it had coming out of World War II and improved it to 90 percent by Vietnam, and did that by teaching to kill with pop-up targets and conditioned response.

He talks about how we interrupt the part of the brain that asks, “Should I be doing this?” That may be effective in wars, where you have to engage with the enemy on an ongoing basis, but when you’re taking that thinking and applying it to what cops are seeing on a day-to-day basis—whether it be traffic stops or whether it be calls of domestic violence, where they’re being asked to de-escalate situations— it doesn’t necessarily apply.

I point people all the time to the officer who actually was just charged with manslaughter for shooting and killing Philando Castile this last July in Minnesota. This is the individual who was reaching into his pocket for his wallet when the officer shot him six times, when he had a four year old in the back seat of the car. That officer had attended one of Dave Grossman’s seminars only two months prior.

JP: The final question, and I kind of have to ask about this: there are some signs the drug war might be on its way out, but on the other hand, Donald Trump has been elected president and looks to be appointing Jeff Sessions as attorney general, who is a drug warrior and probably a fan of police militarization like none other in the Senate. What are you seeing as the future of police militarization, and the efforts to reform it?

CA: I think the election of Donald Trump certainly complicates the situation, but I’m trying to get my head around how this affects the momentum and the direction of reform. I think that even if you end the War on Drugs, there are going to be new threats that law enforcement is going to put forth as reasons to stay heavily armed.

In the next four years, I think people need to be very active in paying attention to the rumblings of reform that are suggested, and to be very diligent in working on a local and community basis in order to effect change.

Activist groups have had some success recently in a variety of states to push back the asset-forfeiture laws. California voted to require a criminal conviction before seizing assets. I think that is a huge step forward. That’s the type of small step forward that helps de-incentivize law enforcement from using SWAT in a way that might put it at odds with their community.

We need to work on the state and local levels, because there are 18,000 police departments throughout the country. We filmed in 18 of them, and each community really has its own needs from law enforcement. So I think that people really need to work on that state and local level, fighting for what we can, because the federal level’s a big unknown right now.

John Payne is the campaign manager for New Approach Missouri, an initiative campaign for medical marijuana. He resides in St. Louis.

Is Missouri Still a Bellwether? /

This Sunday, Washington University in St. Louis will host its fifth presidential or vice-presidential debate in the last seven election cycles. (It would be the sixth, but a scheduled debate for 1996 was ultimately canceled.) I don’t pretend to know exactly what determines where the Commission on Presidential Debates holds its events, but I expect that Missouri’s reputation as a presidential bellwether at least partially explains why it was first selected back in 1992.

Missouri voted for the winner of the presidential election for the entire century from 1904 to 2004, with only the exception of 1956, when it voted for the former governor of neighboring Illinois, Adlai Stevenson. But in 2008 and 2012, the state broke against President Obama. The razor-thin 2008 margin of 0.14 percent—a mere 3,903 votes—could perhaps be written off as an aberration, but the nearly ten-point advantage for Romney in 2012 showed a state shading redder from its historic purple.

This cycle, Trump is expected to win Missouri decisively. Statistician Nate Silver, who correctly called every state in 2012, currently projects in his “polls-plus” forecast that Trump will win the Show-Me State by 7.3 points, compared to a 3.4 percent Clinton victory nationally. Similarly, the General Assembly seems to be under functionally permanent Republican control, with the GOP holding two-thirds supermajorities in both chambers.

However, the picture looks very different when we examine statewide offices. Republicans hold only the lieutenant governor’s office and one Senate seat. Republican Tom Schweich won election as auditor in 2014, but he committed suicide in early 2015 amidst an ugly gubernatorial primary fight. This allowed Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon to appoint Nicole Galloway to the post.

Several of those statewide offices are expected to go to Republican contenders on November 8, but most expect Democrats to retain the governorship and possibly flip the state’s Republican-held Senate seat. Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat who started his political career as a Republican in the legislature, is favored to defeat Republican gubernatorial candidate Eric Greitens, a former Navy Seal and political novice. Koster has spent his entire career building the sort of coalition that typically guarantees victory in Missouri, earning endorsements from both the Missouri Farm Bureau and the National Rifle Association, likely securing the support of typically Republican-leaning independents.

Secretary of State Jason Kander provides an even more interesting case in his challenge to Sen. Roy Blunt. After earning his law degree at Georgetown, Kander served as an Army National Guard officer in Afghanistan. He put that service to political use in a widely praised ad in which a blindfolded Kander assembles an automatic weapon as he vows to both protect the Second Amendment and support regulations such as criminal background checks.

Kander has also painted Blunt as a Washington insider—a charge that seems impossible for the incumbent to deny. Blunt’s wife and son both work as lobbyists, and he serves as vice-chair of the Senate Republican Conference. In this anti-establishment year, Blunt is frequently attacked as a hated member of “the establishment” by members of his own party. All this has moved the race to a tossup, with Silver giving Blunt only a 2.3-point advantage.

This raises the question: is it really true that Democrats can no longer compete in Missouri at the presidential level, or is that the most recent Democratic nominees in particular cannot compete in Missouri?

Simple demographics can explain a great deal of this puzzle. As Democrats began to rely more heavily on minority groups in their presidential-election coalitions, states with large black and Hispanic populations became more prominent battleground states. Although African-Americans make up 11.5 percent of Missouri’s presidential-year electorate—very close to the national average of 13 percent—only 1.8 percent of the electorate is Hispanic, compared to 8.9 percent nationally. When Democrats lose with white voters as a whole, they will struggle in any state where over 80 percent of the voters are white.

True, there are other states where whites make up an even larger percentage of the electorate than they do in Missouri—and Clinton still holds decent-to-large leads over Trump in places such as Minnesota and Wisconsin. However, these states either have a much higher percentage of residents with a college degree or a lower percentage of the white population who identify as evangelical Protestants, or both.

What defines Democrats who succeed in Missouri statewide is their ability to appeal to independent white voters. Accordingly, they typically hold more conservative positions on hot-button issues such as guns and criminal justice. They typically come from either a prosecutorial background (Nixon and Koster) or military service (Kander) and make note of it frequently.

Could a similar Democratic presidential candidate win in Missouri? Probably, but it’s unlikely that he could win the nomination of the party. The progressive base would find him unappealing. We need look no farther than the doomed candidacy of Jim Webb this year to see how such a candidate would fare at the national level. Furthermore, there are many, far easier paths to 270 electoral votes for Democratic candidates, none of which run through Missouri.

Missouri has trended more Republican in the last decade, but the idea that it is now a solidly red state is a myth. It tilts right, but it remains a purple state—just not in presidential elections.

John Payne is the campaign manager for New Approach Missouri, an initiative campaign for medical marijuana. He resides in St. Louis.

Ferguson and the Troubled Spirit of St. Louis

I live in the city of St. Louis, about 10 miles south of the suburb of Ferguson as the crow flies. As I have watched national media cover the events in Ferguson over the past 10 days, I have wondered what impression people outside of St. Louis have formed about the city.

The first thing that outsiders should know is that Ferguson is not some post-urban hellscape. It’s a working class suburb with a roughly two-thirds majority black population, which is not unusual for communities in north St. Louis County. Nor is the city government and law enforcement exceptionally poorly managed or racist. That is not a compliment, however. Most St. Louisans think of our area as representative of the nation as a whole, and there is a great deal of truth to that. But, like the nation at large, St. Louis is still divided along racial lines. Ferguson exploded as a flash point specifically because of the shooting of Michael Brown, but many communities in the area are just tinderboxes waiting for a spark.

The St. Louis metropolitan area can largely be divided into five areas. First, there is the city of St. Louis itself, which seceded from St. Louis County in 1876, making it both a city and county under state law. A little more than 300,000 people call the city of St. Louis home, and it is almost equally divided between black and white. That’s true both in terms of numbers and geography, with Delmar Boulevard serving as a stark dividing line between the south (mostly white) and north (essentially all black) parts of the city.

A plurality of area residents live in St. Louis County, with just under a million people according to the last census. St. Louisans usually subdivide the county into the informal regions of south, west, and north, which some people actually mistake for counties themselves. To put it as briefly as possible, the south county region is working class and largely white; west county is middle and upper class and white; and north county is working class and largely black. The demographics of north county—where Ferguson is located—have changed the most in recent years, with many white residents moving into the outer counties—most notably by moving west across the Missouri River into St. Charles County.

Ferguson exemplifies the shifting demographics of north county. It was nearly three-quarters white in 1990 and is two-thirds black now. However, I do not want to give the impression that people are moving away from Ferguson because it is a particularly undesirable place to live. It is served by the Ferguson-Florissant School District, which is one of the better districts in north county. By contrast, the school districts of St. Louis, Jennings, Riverview Gardens, and Normandy School District—where Michael Brown graduated this spring—have all lost their state accreditation. And on the subject of school districts, I am obliged to mention what is often called “the St. Louis question”: Where did you go to high school? This single question can neatly profile your race, class, religious affiliation, and upbringing. The question speaks to a local insularity and desire to keep to one’s social milieu that is stronger in St. Louis than other metropolitan areas that I know.

That’s not necessarily problematic, but it is very easy to live in St. Louis and only interact with people of your background. That can quickly lead to labeling people who don’t fit that as other and unwelcome. I do not believe that St. Louisans harbor more racist attitudes than people in other cities, but they are more skeptical of those they consider to be outsiders.

That said, Ferguson law enforcement is hardly alone in struggling with race relations. Just a few miles away in 96.4 percent black Pine Lawn, the police department is well-known for hiring the castoffs of other area departments and is regarded as something of a public joke in the law enforcement community. In 2012, the NAACP lodged 20 complaints of civil rights violations with the city.

Since 2012, University City—home to Washington University, my alma mater—has imposed a 9:00 p.m. curfew on teenagers under 17 in the Delmar Loop, a popular strip of bars, restaurants, music venues, and retail shops. Of course, the mostly white college students are not affected by the curfew, but the black teenagers who live around the area are rounded up with regularity. Police enforce the policy with the “nuisance abatement vehicle,” which is an armored vehicle mounted with cameras that allow it to record all 360 degrees.

In the primarily black neighborhoods north of Delmar, violent crime remains a serious problem. Nevertheless, University City seems to invest more resources in chasing black teens away from more affluent areas in quasi-military vehicles than in protecting their lives. I’m sure that makes an impression. Read More…

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Drugs in Context

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush appeared on national television to address the country’s drug problem. As a means of demonstrating how widespread drug abuse had become, he held up a bag of crack cocaine that the DEA purposefully arranged to purchase in Lafayette Park across from the White House. “It is innocent looking as candy,” the President intoned, “but it is turning our cities into battle zones, and it is murdering our children. Let there be no mistake, this stuff is poison.”

For most of the 1980s and 1990s, drugs were portrayed as the driving force behind high crime rates, lack of educational achievement, and urban decay. Government propaganda during that time period consistently portrayed drug users more or less as zombies held in thrall to an addictive substance, against which they were powerless.

But, according to Columbia University neuroscientist Carl Hart, this is abject nonsense. In his new book High Price, Hart deftly combines his autobiography with his laboratory research into drug use to call into question the government line on drugs. Either aspect of the book would have been interesting enough on its own merits, but the almost seamless combination of the personal and the academic makes the book greater than the sum of its parts.

Hart is the first black tenured professor of sciences at Columbia, and that is all the more remarkable considering his unlikely path to the Ivy League. He grew up in Miami in the 1970s, and his immediate family was broken apart when Hart was seven, as a result of his father’s infidelity and domestic abuse of his mother. That split forced Carl and his siblings to live with either one parent or a rotating cast of aunts and grandparents. By the time he was a sophomore, Hart’s family was living in the projects, and he was just scraping through school.

As he tells his life story, Hart carefully considers the choices that allowed him to beat the odds and contextualizes them with psychological research. He acknowledges in many cases that he made positive choices mostly out of chance.

For instance, Hart excelled in sports as an adolescent, and his desire to compete ensured that he kept at least the minimum GPA. However, he was relatively short for a basketball player, so he was not recruited to play collegiately. Then Hart took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, almost purely to avoid going to class the day the test was offered, but he ended up scoring well enough to gain entry into the Air Force. By enlisting, Hart was able to travel to both Japan and England and begin taking college courses.

On his first visit home from the Air Force over Christmas 1984, Hart started to hear more people in his old neighborhood talking about freebasing cocaine. In particular, he recalls a story about an acquaintance named Ronnie who owned a customized Monte Carlo that friends said had gone “in the pipe.” Over the next few years, Carl observed the “crack epidemic” explode across America from his posts abroad, and his desire to do something about the drug problem is part of what motivated him to pursue his undergraduate degree in psychology after leaving the Air Force.

However, as he moved on to graduate school, he began to question the prevailing view of drug addiction. Most scientists at the time endorsed the “dopamine hypothesis of addiction,” in which drugs that increase the amount of the neurotransmitter dopamine force addicts to constantly seek out this chemical reward.

Hart soon found that this simplistic, mechanical explanation for drug addiction was used to explain contradictory findings. Mice will self-administer cocaine, and if they are given a drug that blocks dopamine, they will initially respond even more before giving up entirely. On the other hand, rats given nicotine will stop responding immediately if the dopamine signal is blocked. Yet many researchers continued to proffer the dopamine hypothesis as an explanation for both responses.

Hart became interested in observing the use of illicit drugs in a controlled, laboratory setting. “It seemed to me,” Hart writes, “that it would be much more useful to study people’s actual decisions about whether to take drugs, rather than focus so much on what they said they wanted or craved in some hypothetical future.” What he discovered was that “[a]ddictive behavior follows rules and is shaped by situations just like other types of behavior. It’s not as weird or special as we make it out to be.”

When Hart was first hired for a postdoctoral stint at Columbia, he designed an experiment in which frequent cocaine users were given a dose of cocaine of varying strengths or a placebo, and then asked to choose between the same dose or vouchers for merchandise or cash. Not surprisingly, stronger doses of cocaine made participants more likely to choose the drug, which is consistent with the traditional, biologically deterministic view of addiction. However, participants were also less likely to choose the drug if offered $5 in cash instead of a voucher, and when the cash amount increased to $20, almost no participants chose the cocaine.

“Like the rest of us,” Hart argues, “people who are addicted to crack cocaine are sensitive not only to one type of pleasure but also to many. While severe addiction may narrow people’s focus and reduce their ability to take pleasure in nondrug experiences, it does not turn them into people who cannot react to a variety of incentives.”

Although Hart does not explore the connection, his results are consistent with the “rational addiction hypothesis” first put forward by economists Kevin Murphy and the recently-deceased Nobel Laureate Gary Becker in 1988. Under this view, drug addicts are not acting irrationally; they are maximizing their utility and will reduce their drug consumption if the price increases or will increase in the future.

How then does Hart explain the dire conditions in which the stereotypical drug addict lives? He argues that those dire conditions are more often the cause of drug addiction than the result.

A key problem is that poor people actually have few ‘competing reinforcers.’ Crack isn’t really all that overwhelmingly good or superpowerfully reinforcing: it gained the popularity that it achieved in the hood … because there weren’t that many other affordable sources of pleasure and purpose and because many of the people at the highest risk had other preexisting mental illnesses that affected their choices.

In other words, America’s drug problem is not primarily about drugs. Instead drug abuse is a symptom of a variety of other social problems, and, not surprisingly, those problems are worst in the poorest communities.

Hart stops short of calling for full legalization of all drugs, but he does recommend the decriminalization of drug possession. Portugal decriminalized drug possession in 2001 and has seen declines in drug-induced deaths and rates of drug use, particularly among the youth. “Portuguese continue to get high, just like their contemporaries and all human societies before them. But they don’t seem to have the problem of stigmatizing, marginalizing, and incarcerating substantial proportions of their citizens for minor drug violations.”

Refreshingly, Hart does not peddle any panaceas. His biography and research show drug abuse and the other social problems associated with it to be complex phenomena that will not be remedied or even ameliorated by simplistic solutions. However, Hart has at least demonstrated how we can begin to understand and substantively address those problems, instead of naively scapegoating certain politically convenient chemicals for all of society’s ills.

John Payne is the executive director of Show-Me Cannabis and lives in St. Louis, Missouri.

How Police Became a Standing Army

Police terrorism drill. Larry St. Pierre /

On July 15, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) sent 13 law-enforcement officers to execute a paramilitary raid on a no-kill animal shelter in Kenosha. The crime? The shelter was harboring a fawn that had been abandoned by its mother and named Giggles by shelter volunteers. The shelter intended to turn the animal over to a wildlife reserve the next day, but that was not good enough for the DNR. Wisconsin law forbids the possession of wildlife, so DNR sent the heavily armed team to capture and euthanize Giggles.

Eleven days later and less than 100 miles away, staff at a nursing home in the Chicago suburb of Park Forest called paramedics after 95-year-old World War II veteran John Wrana, suffering from a delusional episode, refused medical treatment. The paramedics in turn called the police, which further agitated Wrana, who threatened them with his cane and a knife. The police responded by shooting Wrana with stun guns and bean bags fired from a shotgun. Wrana died from internal bleeding shortly thereafter.

A generation ago, it is unlikely that either of these situations would have elicited such a violent response from law enforcement. But over the last 40 years, police have moved steadily towards increasing levels of force and militarization with little regard for the situation. Journalist Radley Balko has been documenting this phenomenon for nearly a decade, and in Rise of the Warrior Cop he explains how America has been transformed into a country where police conduct something on the order of 50,000 SWAT raids a year.

Balko starts with the provocative proposition that police as we know them in modern America are unconstitutional. “The Founders and their contemporaries would probably have seen even the early-nineteenth-century police forces as a standing army, and a particularly odious one at that,” Balko writes. “Just before the American Revolution, it wasn’t the stationing of British troops in the colonies that irked patriots in Boston and Virginia; it was the England’s decision to use the troops for everyday law enforcement.”

Balko links that decision to the oft forgotten Third Amendment, which forbids the quartering of troops in Americans’ homes against their will during peacetime. The Third Amendment is rarely litigated, and the Supreme Court has never heard a case primarily concerning the amendment, but Balko argues that it was included in the Bill of Rights out of a larger concern that a standing army could be used for the purposes of enforcing the law. “The actual quartering of British troops in the private homes of colonists was rare…It was the predictable fallout from positioning soldiers trained for warfare on city streets, among the civilian populace, and using them to enforce law and maintain order that enraged colonists.”

Balko calls this “more robust expression of the threat that standing armies pose to free societies” the “Symbolic Third Amendment.” He spends the vast majority of the book documenting how that concern has been whittled away by overeager cops, deferential judges, and politicians seeking to bolster their law and order credentials.

During Prohibition, some particularly zealous drys such as Henry Ford encouraged the federal government to use the military enforce the ill-conceived law. But the country repealed Prohibition before direct militarization of law enforcement—“the use of the standing military for domestic policing”—was ever seriously considered.

The trend towards police militarization did not begin in earnest until the 1960s, when law enforcement struggled with civil unrest and cracked down on the drugs associated with political dissidents and the counterculture. It also crept in subtly through “indirect militarization,” when domestic law enforcement agencies “take on more and more characteristics of an army.” That phenomenon can largely be traced to longtime Los Angeles Chief of Police Daryl Gates, who founded America’s first SWAT team.

Gates saw the weaknesses in the department’s response to the Watts Riots and a shootout with a sniper shortly thereafter. In his autobiography, Gates writes that he would have to “devise another method for dealing with snipers or barricaded criminals other than our usual indiscriminate shooting.” He formed an elite unit he called D-Platoon and arranged for them to train with Marines from Camp Pendleton at the Universal Studios lot.

The SWAT team was deployed for the first time in December 1969 to raid the Los Angeles headquarters of the Black Panthers. The operation did not go as planned. The team attempted to enter via the backdoor, which was blocked by a pile of dirt from an escape tunnel the Panthers had dug. That blew the officers’ cover and forced them to approach the front door, behind which the heavily-armed Panthers sat waiting. The Panthers opened fire and drove the SWAT team out of the building, beginning a three-hour standoff in which over 5,000 rounds of ammunition were fired.

Gates eventually asked Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty to request permission from the Department of Defense to fire a grenade into the building. Balko notes that this story is remarkable not because police used a grenade launcher in a city setting but because of “the procedures, the caution, and the trepidation that went into procuring the grenade launcher. About twenty years later, the Pentagon would begin giving away millions of pieces of military equipment to police departments across the country for everyday use—including plenty of grenade launchers.”

Miraculously, the raid on the Panther compound ended without any fatalities. Despite the tactical failure of the operation, it was a major media coup and brought a great deal of attention to the idea of SWAT.

The perceived success of the Los Angeles SWAT team in the Panther raid and in a shootout with the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974 led to swift proliferation of SWAT teams in major cities across America, totaling 500 by 1975. These teams were originally staffed by elite specialists who trained to negotiate and de-escalate potentially violent situations whenever possible. But as the teams increased in number and spread into smaller cities, departments began staffing them with officers who participated in the SWAT team part-time and cut back on training that did not involve the use of force.

Heavily armed terrorist groups and hostage situations are not nearly as common as television would lead us to believe, so departments began deploying their SWAT teams for more routine work. As Balko puts it, “just about every decent-sized city police department was armed with a hammer. And the drug war would ensure there were always plenty of nails around for pounding.”

For instance, the drug war turned very literal in the summer of 1983, when drug czar Carlton Turner and California attorney general John Van de Kamp called in the National Guard to eradicate marijuana in Humboldt County. The federal government sent helicopters and even U-2 spy planes to spot pot plants in the Northern California forests, and officers enforcing the eradication program went from house to house, kicking in doors and searching the residences without warrants.

Meanwhile, the courts used the drug war to chip away at the protection that warrants once gave to Americans’ Fourth Amendment right to be secure in their persons and houses from unreasonable search and seizure. When serving a warrant, law-enforcement officers were traditionally required to knock and announce themselves and give residents time to allow them entry before the police could resort to breaking down the door. But in the 2003 decision United States v. Banks, the Supreme Court ruled that the primary concern should not be the amount of time residents would reasonably need to answer the door, but how much time it might take for them to start disposing of the evidence of drugs. That ruling effectively gave police the power to serve every drug warrant as if they were taking down Pablo Escobar.

With essentially no judicial checks on their behavior, the number of SWAT teams and raids continued to grow. By 2005, approximately 80 percent of towns with a population between 25,000 and 50,000 people employed their own SWAT team. Even seemingly innocuous federal bureaucracies such as the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission had created their own tactical teams.

Given the number of SWAT raids executed every year, tragedies like the ones described at the beginning of this review are now inevitable. But Balko offers some suggestions for how to reverse the trend towards militarization and return SWAT teams to their limited role of responding to inherently violent situations.

Many of Balko’s policy recommendations are almost as infuriating as the problems he identifies—not because they are wrong but because they are such obvious safeguards that it is difficult to fathom how they are not already in place. For instance, Balko suggests that SWAT teams should not be used for regulatory inspections. Police departments should also record any raids they conduct and document how many involve diversionary devices, such as flash-bang grenades, and what evidence is found, then make that information available to the public.

“If these tactics are going to be used against the public,” Balko writes, “the public at the very least deserves to know how often they’re used, why they’re used, how often things go wrong, and what sort of results the tactics are getting.” We would not tolerate this sort of opacity from a city utility company, yet it is the norm for bureaucracies that have the power to break into our homes with automatic weapons.

The biggest reform Balko proposes is ending the drug war, which he thinks will never completely happen. That may be true, but it is surprising that he does not mention the 2012 legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, which may set off a potentially rapid trend towards legalization elsewhere. Such a massive policy change could conceivably herald a thorough rethinking of drug policy as a whole in the not-so-distant future.

The later chapters of the book contain a large amount of material that Balko published previously in magazines or online, and, although the content is just as strong, the narrative becomes choppier. The subject of the book is so immense, and many of the individual stories so compelling, that Balko could easily have written a book twice as long.

That is, of course, praise disguised as criticism. Rise of the Warrior Cop diagnoses a grave threat to our constitutional rights. If Americans still possess the wisdom of our Founders, we will heed Balko’s warning and turn back our drift towards a police state.

John Payne is the executive director of Show-Me Cannabis and lives in St. Louis, Missouri.

Occupy Wall Street: An Addendum

I was extremely pleased to see my take on the original Occupy Wall Street protest posted online yesterday, but I feel it may already be largely outdated. I wrote the piece in early October as an attempt to understand what the movement was all about. Although I never fully agreed with what most protesters were advocating, I was surprised to find myself generally sympathetic to their complaints.

Now, several of the occupations, Oakland in particular, are fighting for their survival against police assaults. This video of the police raid on Occupy Oakland brings to mind the assaults of Hosni Mubarak’s thugs on the protesters in Tahrir Square this winter.

It gets worse. This video shows a police officer firing a flashbang grenade at a group of people attempting to help a young protester who had just been wounded by a tear gas canister.

At Occupy Nashville, the police even seem willing to arrest members of the media and charge them with resisting arrest for covering the story. Regardless of how you feel about the original message of Occupy Wall Street, this should be very alarming. These people are American citizens exercising their First Amendment rights, and they shouldn’t be attacked like an invading army.

I recently reread “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan,” Hunter S. Thompson’s account of the controversy surrounding the killing of journalist Ruben Salazar by a L.A. sheriff’s deputy (using a tear gas cannon, incidentally) in 1970, and one line struck me as particularly appropriate today: “When the cops declare open season on journalists, when they feel free to declare any scene of ‘unlawful protest’ a free fire zone, that will be a very ugly day–and not just for journalists.”

Why the Occupiers started protesting is immaterial for the moment; that they have a right to protest is paramount. If we abandon that, we abandon everything that makes this country worth preserving.

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Welcome to the Occupation

Wall Street protesters share the Tea Party’s illusions

As I walked toward One Liberty Plaza on the first Friday in October, I thought about the Arcade Fire song “Rococo,” in which lead singer Win Butler lambastes “the modern kids” who use “great big words that they don’t understand” and build up an institution “just to burn it back down.” At the time it seemed an apt description of the Occupy Wall Street protesters who had seized the plaza—mostly young kids who enjoyed the fruits of American capitalism but now talked of tearing down the system that weaned them.

After walking around the protest for a half hour or so, I felt secure in that prejudice. A dozen or so drummers pounded away in a corner, their ceaseless rhythm rumbling through the canyons of lower Manhattan for at least a quarter mile in any direction. In the middle of the protesters’ impromptu shantytown, four people sat at a marble table busily rolling cigarettes behind a donation bucket and sign reading “Free Cigarettes: [email protected]” The atmosphere led one of my friends to remark that it was “all the worst aspects of a hippie festival with none of the drugs.”

With the exception of a smattering of Ron Paul signs, the protesters’ placards and literature showed an almost universal hostility to a market economy. A young man in a suit handed out a semi-official pamphlet welcoming me to the occupation. It advised me to visit the food bar where I could dine on granola and “Occu-pie” and suggested that after eating I should “feel free to refresh [myself] in the restrooms of neighboring businesses like Burger King and McDonalds without feeling obligated to buy anything.”

The pamphlet listed only one political demand: “Stop Corporate Personhood.” This was a relatively common theme on the signs, but for all that talk, many protesters also advocated an increase in corporate taxes, evidently failing to realize that the one policy precludes the other. Near the People’s Library, a piece of paper hung on the wall urging adoption of a mandatory four-day work week because it “keeps all the efficiencies of capitalism” but forces employers to hire the currently jobless to make up for the 20 percent reduction in labor hours.

As my group began walking uptown on Broadway, we ran into another throng of protesters marching down to the main demonstration. I stepped back and started snapping pictures just in time to capture a handsome young man with spiky blond hair dressed smartly in a black collared shirt and matching jeans. He carried a sign urging us to “Occupy Everything” because “we already know that we own everything.” With his square jaw and the steely resolve in his eyes he looked like a Bizzaro John Galt, ready to throw himself on the gears of modern capitalism and grind them to a halt.

I left that night convinced that the protest was little more than the latest banshee cry of the radical left. Over the weekend, however, hundreds of protesters were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge and similar occupations sprang up across the country. These developments prompted me to return to One Liberty Plaza the next Tuesday.

I arrived just in time for the General Assembly, where the plaza’s occupants attempt to build consensus about how their community should be run. Protesters are prohibited from using amplification, so to ensure that everyone can hear the proceedings they use what they call the “human mic,” whereby all participants repeat what the person who has the floor just said. Periclean Athens this wasn’t. Still, it struck me as a genuine attempt by the protesters to build something real.

As I interviewed some of the protesters that night, I discovered that many of them were not driven by a blind rage against capitalism but were simply trying to assert some modicum of control over institutions they believe are running over them roughshod. Carey Tan, an event planner with a nonprofit, told me she wanted the Glass-Steagall Act put back into place “to make sure my money isn’t being used to buy … sub-prime mortgages and lots of risky investments.” She also wanted to see the revolving door between business and government closed but was unsure how that could be accomplished.

Joe Therrien, a teacher in Brooklyn, echoed Tan’s argument about Glass-Steagall and also called for higher taxes on the rich and corporations. But he was not opposed to corporations as such, saying that he “want[s] there to be rich companies in America” and thinks they should pay more in taxes because they benefit from government services. Therrien was refreshingly humble about the limits of his own knowledge and put his faith in the ability of Americans to solve our problems through civil discourse. He said that although “there are individuals who claim to have the answers … as a group, we’re trying to figure it out together.”

You can disagree with Tan’s policy proposals or call Therrien’s trust in participatory democracy naïve, but these were not bomb-throwing radicals. They are relatively ordinary Americans who looked around one day, saw obviously dysfunctional political and economic systems, and decided to do something about them. And although the media portrays them as the Wall Street protesters’ polar opposites, the same can be said of most Tea Partiers. The Tea Party is older and more conservative, while the Occupiers are younger and more left-wing, but both are attempting to come to terms with American decline. They are both sincere and well-meaning in their own ways, but our problems are much more severe than either group dares admit.

It’s easy to scapegoat earmark spending (never mind that middle-class entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare are the real driving forces of government spending) or the 1 percent on Wall Street who are supposedly exploiting the rest of us poor bastards (never mind that most of us own stocks and bonds), but these are lies. Comforting lies, but lies nonetheless.

On Tuesday night, I stumbled across Jimmy McMillan—the Rent Is Too Damn High Party guy—standing on the edge of the plaza with a small crowd around him. “Go home,” he roared to the mostly uninterested protesters. “Make love to your girl.” When I asked him for an explanation of the comment, he told me that all Americans are responsible for our current predicament because they have perpetuated a corrupted political system. Now “the diehard Democrat is dying real hard.”

McMillan’s comments give away his political self-interest, of course, but they at least confronted the fact that we largely brought our woes upon ourselves by living beyond our means. The 1 percent in government and business may have made our bed, but we slept in it, happily dreaming the impossible, and now we refuse to shake off our delusional slumber. The Federal Reserve and the lending institutions sold us houses at 3 percent interest and no money down, but we bought them.

American exceptionalism and privilege are crashing down around us, but these protest groups—like the vast majority of Americans—refuse to reconcile themselves to this new, hostile reality. The world will move on without us; we are no longer the indispensable nation. Once we accept that fact, we can get down to the difficult business of becoming a normal country. Until then, Occupiers and Tea Partiers will remain little more than petulant children crying over the spilled milk of the American empire.

John Payne is director of research at Americans for Forfeiture Reform.

Being the Police Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

My parents own two flower shops in my hometown, and as I was growing up I worked there after school and every summer. One day when I was 17, I had to deliver an arrangement to a nursing home just west of town.

I viscerally disliked nursing home deliveries, but upon entering, I was relieved to find that this home was far nicer than the others—it was clean and had individual apartments for each guest. I found the specified room and handed the bouquet to a pleasant elderly woman, who was overjoyed to receive it.

When I returned to the shop, my dad informed me that the nursing home had just called. Not only had I delivered the arrangement to the wrong room, I was at the wrong place altogether–the correct nursing home sat just down the road. I returned shamefaced and apologized profusely to both the woman and the staff (not to mention my parents) for the mix-up. I had screwed up, and it was only right that I take the blame.

Many police departments in this country do not seem to follow that standard of common decency, however. Take this case from Pontiac, South Carolina: Read More…

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Mexico’s “Market Alternatives” to the Drug War

Earlier this week, Mexican President Felipe Calderon told the Americas Society and Council of the Americas that if the United States cannot limit drug consumption–which it can’t–Mexico may abandon the drug war. From a Reuters report in the New York Times:

“We are living in the same building. And our neighbour is the largest consumer of drugs in the world. And everybody wants to sell him drugs through our doors and our windows,” [Calderon] said.

“We must do everything to reduce demand for drugs,” Calderon added. “But if the consumption of drugs cannot be limited, then decision-makers must seek more solutions — including market alternatives — in order to reduce the astronomical earnings of criminal organizations.”

He did not go into more detail, but the remarks appeared to be a softening of Calderon’s attitude towards state regulation of the market for drugs, which could curb the power of the cartels by taking away their profits.

Calderon is probably just threatening U.S. political leadership here because they live in constant fear of Mexico going wobbly on them, and he knows it. However, what Calderon said is far larger than him. He may not personally want to end the War on Drugs, but if the violence in Mexico continues unabated, the populace will demand some kind of radical change, and legalization of some kind seems to be the leading candidate right now.

I am interested to see how the federal government would react to such a scenario. Certainly, they wouldn’t allow Mexico to pursue its own policies without Yankee interference. I predict that they’d declare the whole country a criminal enterprise and seize it as part of the largest forfeiture case known to man. I’m sure there are some Texas oil billionaires who wouldn’t mind getting their hands on Mexico’s oil fields.

Of course, the U.S. would then be stuck waging Mexico’s drug war, and I doubt we’d meet with any more success than they have. But that’s never kept us from trying.

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It’s a Market Failure, Even When the Government Provides It

The Cornell University economist Robert Frank’s latest New York Times editorial is well worth reading, not least for his argument in favor of a progressive consumption tax. (I’m not a fan of any kind of tax, but I think a progressive consumption tax would be far preferable to our current progressive income tax.)

That said, this section is way off base:

When the ability to achieve important goals depends on relative consumption, all bets on the efficacy of Smith’s invisible hand are off. …

The median size of a new single-family house in 2007 was over 2,300 square feet, more than 50 percent larger than its counterpart from 1970. That creates a problem for concerned parents, because good schools are usually found in affluent neighborhoods. To send your children to one, you must outbid others for a house in a good school district. Yet when all families increase their bidding for such houses, they succeed only in driving up their prices. No matter how much parents pay, only half of all children can attend schools in the top half.

Frank is of course correct that in any educational system only half of the students can attend above-average schools, but a Smithian market would not lead to this distortion in the price of housing. Government bundles education and housing, effectively requiring families to buy two of their biggest expenses together. By definition, the wealthy can better afford any good or service than other people, but bundling the goods restricts middle and lower class people’s ability to pay for either. Laying that government mandated failure at the feet of the market is utterly bizarre.

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Uncertainty and the Death Penalty

When I was still teaching, I caught a student plagiarizing a paper. It wasn’t just a matter of improper attribution, either–she had copied and pasted whole paragraphs from Wikipedia, apparently unaware that I knew how to use Google. The next day, her mother called the school and discussed the problem with me. “My children don’t cheat,” she said. This was an article of faith, not a subject for debate. Other kids certainly cheated, but not her children, so regardless of the contrary evidence I could produce, she would not believe it.

Tonight, the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis, and many people, myself included, believe there is reasonable doubt about Davis’ guilt. Davis was convicted purely on the basis of eyewitness testimony, which even the courts are starting to admit is unreliable. (Speaking as someone who has been the victim of violent crime, I know firsthand that the memory goes straight to hell in a fight or flight situation.) Furthermore, several of those witnesses have recanted.

Nevertheless, Davis was convicted, and his appeals went through the proper channels, so according to those, such as Rick Perry, who sleep soundly in the confidence that the government has never executed an innocent man, he must be guilty. You see, our government doesn’t kill innocent people. Other countries may do that sort of thing, but our justice system is above all that, so there’s no need to examine the massive piles of evidence that show it regularly makes mistakes.

Because if we have to question whether our government kills innocent people, we have to question its moral basis. Or lack thereof.

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Government Cannot Repeal Scarcity

I missed the Republican debate again last night (this time I was bowling), and the first bit of it that I saw posted to Facebook by a liberal friend of mine was this clip of Ron Paul. Wolf Blitzer asked Paul what should happen to a hypothetical, healthy 30-year-old male, who has the means to buy health insurance but chooses not to, if he is injured in an accident and goes into a coma. Paul’s answer is essentially that in a free society, charitable organizations would take care of such people, which is a fine answer as far as it goes, but I’d like to go further by pointing out the injustice of expecting the government to provide care to people who choose not to provide it for themselves. Read More…

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On Obama’s Depressingly Conventional Approach to the Drug War

Jacob Sullum’s invaluable feature story in the latest issue of Reason details the many ways that President Obama has failed to live up to the high hopes drug law reformers pinned on him back in 2008, when hope was still fashionable. I found this part particularly stomach-turning:

More generally, Obama has repeatedly expressed the view that many people in federal prisons are serving unconscionably long sentences. Yet he has not used his unilateral, absolute, and constitutionally unambiguous clemency power to shorten a single sentence, even though he has not otherwise been reticent about pushing his executive authority to the limit (and beyond). Obama went almost two years, longer than every president except George Washington and George W. Bush, before approving any clemency petitions. So far all 17 of his clemency actions have been pardons for long-ago crimes, most which did not even result in prison sentences, as opposed to commutations, which authorize the early release of current prisoners. While seven of the pardons involved drug offenders, the most severe sentence among them was five years for conspiracy to import marijuana, which 63-year-old Randy Eugene Dyer of Burien, Washington, completed more than 30 years ago. As of mid-2011, Obama had received about 4,000 petitions for commutations,  in addition to 900 that were pending when he took office. He had not approved any.

Read More…

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Rick Perry and the Assumption of Guilt

I share Dan’s revulsion at crowd’s ghoulish reaction to Rick Perry’s record of executions at Wednesday’s debate, but what I find most interesting is the way Perry elided Williams’ question:

WILLIAMS: Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?

PERRY: No, sir. I’ve never struggled with that at all. The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place of which — when someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, they get a fair hearing, they go through an appellate process, they go up to the Supreme Court of the United States, if that’s required.

But in the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you’re involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is, you will be executed.

Perry seems to believe that these due process protections exist for the sake of the guilty, not the innocent. He assumes away the very core of Williams’ question. The point is that we don’t know for certain that these people committed heinous crimes, and Perry has proved absolutely incurious about the possibility that Texas might have convicted innocent people. He actively fought an inquiry that could have revealed Cameron Todd Willingham, executed by the state of Texas in 2004, was in fact innocent, and he continues to block potentially exculpatory DNA testing in the case of death row inmate Hank Skinner.

Perry effectively assumes guilt in death penalty cases. He has to. If he allowed himself to believe that these people might be innocent, he would have to entertain the possibility that he is a murderer himself. So, yes, Rick Perry sleeps just fine at night–because he refuses to believe that he could be wrong.

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The Government Should Stop Giving Rich People Money

Warren Buffet caused a stir last week when he argued that he and other wealthy individuals should pay a higher tax rate. Now, as a libertarian, I prefer to balance the budget exclusively through spending cuts. However, if that’s not politically feasible, I support higher taxes today over deficit spending and the interest it entails.

But before we go raising taxes on every high-income individual, why don’t we just stop giving tax dollars away the most politically connected among them? Stephen Slivinski of the Cato Institute estimates that the federal government spent $92 billion in corporate welfare (i.e. subsidies to business) in 2006, a figure that has likely exploded upward with the rest of the budget. By comparison, eliminating the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy would raise $67.8 billion annually over the next decade on average–a quarter less than we spend on corporate welfare.

Until our government cuts corporate welfare queens such as Archer Daniels Midland and Monsanto off from the federal teat, I have a feeling that any revenue raised from increasing the marginal income tax rate will just come out of the pockets of one group of rich men and end up in the pockets of other, even richer men, whose only skill is knowing how to play the political system.

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This Is How the Government Works…Or, to Be More Exact, Why It Doesn’t

For any of you who haven’t been keeping track of all the craziest scandals in Washington–not the kind where Congressmen send crotch pics or dress up like furries, but the kind where people get killed–the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) ran a program from November 2009 to to January 2011 known as Fast and Furious. In addition to being named after a terrible series of Vin Diesel movies, the program’s crimes include allowing guns from the United States to pass into the hands of, who else, Mexican drug lords. These weapons have been implicated in a number of shootings, including the killing of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in December 2010.

So you’d think the guys at the ATF who ordered Fast and Furious would be finished, right? Their careers completely destroyed and possibly facing prison time?

Well, that might be the just thing, but government is usually the enemy of justice, not its champion. Here’s what really happened:

The ATF has promoted three key supervisors of a controversial sting operation that allowed firearms to be illegally trafficked across the U.S. border into Mexico.

All three have been heavily criticized for pushing the program forward even as it became apparent that it was out of control. At least 2,000 guns were lost and many turned up at crime scenes in Mexico and two at the killing of a U.S. Border Patrol agent in Arizona.

The three supervisors have been given new management positions at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. They are William G. McMahon, who was the ATF’s deputy director of operations in the West, where the illegal trafficking program was focused, and William D. Newell and David Voth, both field supervisors who oversaw the program out of the agency’s Phoenix office.

This illustrates one of the many reasons the government fails so consistently and so thoroughly. Everyone accepts a CYA mentality, whenever someone screws up royally, his superiors have to pretend that all the screw ups responsible are actually super competent and fete them with promotions and awards. Remember when President Bush honored George Tenet and Paul Bremer with the Presidential Medal of Freedom after Tenet told us the case for Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction was a “slam dunk” and Bremer horribly mismanaged the early days of Iraq’s occupation? That wasn’t an isolated incident. It’s a pervasive feature of government: pretend your mistakes are actually accomplishments. Even if no one believes you, you might be able to say it enough to convince yourself.

Story via Radley Balko.

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The Impossible Is Possible

When Ron Paul announced his 2012 campaign for president, I joked that his odds had improved from nil to slim since 2008. The odds are still stacked heavily against him, but there seems to be a path that could lead him to the Republican nomination and possible victory.

Despite many of the big media outlets’ unwillingness to even mention Paul’s second place finish at the Ames Straw Poll this weekend, it likely signals that he will perform well in the caucuses in January. New York Times number cruncher Nate Silver argues that Ames is the best predictor we have at this stage of the race for performance in the Iowa caucuses. Even when Silver includes several other predictors in his analysis, all signs currently point to Paul and Michele Bachmann leading the pack by a substantial margin.

But Ron Paul doesn’t need to win Iowa like Michele Bachmann does. If Paul finishes with a strong second in Iowa behind Bachmann, he will build momentum going into New Hampshire while simultaneously denying it to Mitt Romney. Romney limps into New Hampshire after losing to an evangelical candidate, allowing a legislator who has openly feuded with his party’s leadership on several key issues to win the primary–we’ve seen that movie before. At the moment, the prediction market InTrade puts Paul’s chances of winning the New Hampshire primary at 20%, which is not great, but it’s within the realm of possibility. Read More…

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Default: The Two Sweetest Words in the English Language

Although I don’t think any of the so-called “serious” politicians will allow the federal government to default on its debts at this juncture, our current fiscal policy is unsustainable. At some point, the government will have to stick it to one or more of the major interest groups in play: bondholders, seniors and others who depend on entitlements, and taxpayers. I believe bondholders will bear the brunt of the government’s nearly inevitable fiscal collapse, and that is exactly as it should be.

The politics of the situation are relatively simple. More senior citizens vote than any other demographic, and with Baby Boomers on the cusp of retirement, their numbers will swell, so large cuts to Social Security and Medicare will remain next to impossible. Tax rates will rise, but American taxpayers (and the American economy) simply will not stand for the level of taxation necessary to maintain our foreign empire, pay entitlements, and service the debt.

Something must give, and it will be the debt, specifically the 47% of our public debt held by foreigners and foreign governments. These groups have little direct impact on American politics, and although it will create international outrage, our domestic politics don’t allow any other way out.

And bondholders–both foreign and domestic–should lose out. They act as the government’s enabler, ready to supply the junkie with his next hit whenever his cash runs low. This is an institution that launches wars on whims and imprisons more of its own citizens than any other country on Earth. Anyone who voluntarily gives his own money to it either lacks even a passing familiarity with its stunning immorality and incompetence or is so blinded by status quo bias that he can’t see the very clear writing on the wall. Buying debt carries risks, and when you give your money to the governmental equivalent of a magic bean salesman, you have no right to complain when you don’t get it back.

Headline reference here.

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Temptations of Empire

I have a new article in Reason where I review two books on the great empires of history and explain that imperialism does not make the conquering nations any richer or safer. Moreover, decentralized societies are safer than consolidated empires because would-be conquerors cannot take existing administrative systems and technologies and use them for their own ends. Somewhat paradoxically, the stronger we make our own state, the more vulnerable we become to outside conquest because the apparatus can easily be turned against us. If you want to make your society safe from outside invasion, make your own government as weak as possible.

I also interviewed one of the authors, Timothy Parsons, who is a professor at Washington University in Saint Louis and happened to be my history adviser when I studied there as an undergraduate. During our discussion, Parsons describes how the only winners in empires are special interest groups, how empire can corrupt the politics of the metropole (Edmund Burke gets a mention here as an anti-imperialist), and how the conquerors often become the conquered. Parsons argues that empires are no longer feasible because of the rise of national over local identity. Nation-states have largely put an end to empire as it was traditionally known, but nation-states themselves are inherently imperial. According to Parsons, the major difference is that nations seek to turn people into citizens while empires only seek subjects.

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Congress’ Latest Dog and Pony Show

I have not paid much attention to the rancorous debt ceiling debate. That’s not because I don’t care about federal spending. There are few aspects of government policy that don’t interest me at least somewhat, and, as a relatively young man, I’m constantly horrified by our government’s spendthrift ways because it’s my future income they are auctioning off in advance. It’s also not because I think the negative consequences of a default have been vastly oversold–though I do.

No, it’s because I can’t imagine that a government so hellbent on spending money would voluntarily limit itself with the much higher interest rates that would inevitably follow default. The Republicans would like fiscal hawks to believe that they are willing to accept such stringent limits, but their governing record would indicate the opposite. The GOP is far too wedded to perpetual war and middle-class entitlements such as Medicare to sincerely desire substantial spending cuts.

Neither party has given the slightest indication that they are serious about cutting spending, so it’s incomprehensible to me that this debate could be anything but a ruse by Republicans in Congress. Whatever deal emerges in the eleventh hour–and one will–the Republicans can fake reluctance in public and rejoice in private that the gravy trains to their districts will make all scheduled stops right on time.

Even if I’m wrong, and Congress does not vote to raise the debt ceiling by the August 2nd deadline, I don’t believe for a second that would stop the government from spending us into oblivion. Members of the government long ago dispensed with the need for Constitutional authorization for their activities, so why would mere statute stop them now? Politics is the art of the possible, and a few words in the legal code simply cannot stop the momentum of the $3.8 trillion behemoth known as the United States federal government.

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