Liberty Law Blog

The Mirage of Income Mobility

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A recent study by Raj Chetty and several co-authors suggests that income mobility has not greatly changed over the last generation. It is still as easy to move up the income ladder as it once was, contrary to the premise of many politicians who want to justify new government programs to increase income mobility. But why should we care about the degree of income mobility in society? Would greater churning improve society, such that, in every generation, the children of the poor would become rich and the children of the rich would become poor? This merry-go-round would open up prospects for the current poor but could also mean more conflict, as the rich would redouble efforts to use the law to keep their children on top.

Perhaps the focus on income mobility serves as a proxy for concern about social structures that prevent people from rising to the heights their talents warrant. And certainly if such structures are backed by the force of law, they are very bad and should be eliminated.  Titles of nobility, for instance, are to be condemned but fortunately the United States Constitution already forbids them.   Other state-forged manacles impede the rise of the talented.  For instance, lousy K-12 education supported by the taxpayer dollars hurts the poor in particular and is in urgent need of reform.

But changes in income mobility, even if they were demonstrated, are poor proxies for gauging the existence of such barriers, let alone their root causes. Continue Reading →

Has there been a political turn at the Washington Post?

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Interesting things are happening at the Washington Post.

1. The Volokh Conspiracy has moved to the Post’s website.

2. Libertarian reporter/blogger Radley Balko has moved to the Post.

3. Ezra Klein, an influential progressive columnist/blogger is leaving the Post.

Together, these represent a significant change in the Post’s website from progressivism towards libertarianism.

It is true that the Post, although a clearly liberal newspaper, has included conservative voices among its columnists, such as George Will and Charles Krauthammer. But this appears to be a move towards libertarians on the web.

The most obvious explanation for the change is that Jeff Bezos is changing the direction of the Post. There are some reports that Bezos leans libertarian, and he has donated to the organization that publishes Reason.

If it turns out that Bezos is moving the Post in a more libertarian direction, that would be a welcome change. Here’s hoping.

From a Parliament to Proconsuls

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The White House staff is reported to have concluded after an internal review that the United States does not have a parliamentary system. The lesson deduced from this insight is evidently that we have proconsuls instead, but in neither case is a regime of separated powers treated as more than an inconvenience. This is to be “a year of action,” after all, and Press Secretary Jay Carney bottom-lines it for us: the president will “work with Congress where he can and … bypass Congress where necessary.” Continue Reading →

A Scout at War

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“On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country…” That is the oath every Boy Scout pledges at every meeting. It also seems to be the spirit with which Robert Gates, former Eagle Scout and currently president of the Boy Scouts Of America, approached the job of Secretary of Defense between 2006 and 2011 and wrote a memoir that shows the scout spirit’s nobility – as well as limitations in positions of leadership. Since that spirit combines individual responsibility with teamwork, the higher the position the more problematic is the spirit.

Statesmen’s memoirs serve as records of events and, most importantly, as sources of insights into them. Incidentally, they tell us about the author’s character. This book’s comments on the character of President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, and lesser folk have drawn attention, but are of no enduring interest. Continue Reading →

Putting Geithner Under Oath and Otherwise Improving Federal Financial Credibility

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Michael Greve’s post on the troubling allegations about Secretary Geithner’s alleged threats against  S & P underscore a very serious structural problem in modern democracy. Careful evaluation of the solvency of democracies is essential to protecting the property and prosperity of citizens. It is particularly important because these governments are structurally prone to overspend and run up debts. Adjusting the credit ratings of sovereigns is not simply commercial speech but the political speech of the highest order. The credibility of government finances goes to the heart of politics.

The difficulty is that those companies who can monitor these finances are themselves involved in the financial services industry. Given that this industry is massively regulated by government, they are subject to potential retaliation, not only through litigation, but probably more importantly through the regulatory discretion of the modern administrative state. Thus, even without explicit threats, rating agencies may pull their punches.

The danger is not a problem unique to the United States. The European Commission has recently forced rating agencies to jump through hoops if they want to rate the sovereign debt of European nations. These rules followed the massive outcry by government officials when rating agencies downgraded debt of many European nations—some toward junk status.

The problem is serious enough that it requires a legislative solution. Continue Reading →

Friday Roundup, January 24th

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  • How should contemporary defenders of limited government and the rule of law understand and learn from the New Deal’s revolutionary movement? The current Liberty Law Talk with Gordon Lloyd, co-author with David Davenport of The New Deal & Modern American Conservatism, discusses this question.

 In 1879 . . . he published his essay “Cabinet Government in the United States,” in the International Review. Clearly influenced by his reading of Bagehot, he denounced the inefficiency of the present government by “irresponsible committees” from a “legislature which legislates with no real discussion of its business.” As Wilson saw it, the separation of powers was an obstacle to good government, rather than a guarantor of the independence of its various branches: “To the methods of representative government which have sprung from these provisions of the Constitution, by which the Convention thought so carefully to guard and limit the powers of the legislature, “he wrote, “we must look for an explanation, in a large measure, of the evils over which we now find ourselves lamenting.”

Escaping Havana

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Una NocheUna Noche captures a defining moment in the lives of three adolescents in today’s Cuba. It narrates the existential predicament of Raul and his best friend, Elio, seen from the point of view of the third adolescent, Lila, who is Elio‘s twin sister.

But as the director has pointed out in an interview, there is another main character in the movie: the city of Havana. Una Noche is filmed entirely in Cuba’s capital, and the city functions not only as a space for the story, but as part of it, contributing to the film’s powerful impact on an audience. Continue Reading →

Double Standards for the Police

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Radley Balko has a new blog that is being hosted by the Washington Post.  Balko, who was formerly at Reason and the Cato Institute, writes about issues of prosecutorial and police misconduct.  His stories are extremely interesting and unfortunately don’t get all that much play at right wing sites, although he does have readers on the left (as evidenced by his former association with the Huffington Post).

Recently, Balko discussed the double standards used by prosecutors to review police shootings as compared to shootings by private citizens.  Here is an excerpt:

This week, the office of Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey announced that it won’t be filing charges against Brian McGee, the Torrance officer who rammed Perdue’s truck, then opened fire on him. The DA found that McGee made a “reasonable mistake,” even though Perdue is white and Dorner [the suspected cop killer] was black, and Perdue’s truck wasn’t the same color as that reported to have been driven by Dorner.

Part of the reason why McGee’s actions were deemed reasonable is that just blocks away, seven LAPD cops had just fired 100 bullets at a truck driven by Margie Carranza and her mother, Emma Hernandez, thinking they were Dorner.

It’s certainly understandable how police on heightened alert for a suspected cop killer might be a bit nervier than usual. That doesn’t excuse unleashing swarms of bullets at innocent people. To contrast, consider a drug suspect who wakes up to a midnight drug raid. Maybe the police have made a mistake, and this particular suspect is innocent, in which case he’d have no reason to suspect the home invaders might be cops. Maybe the suspect is actually a drug dealer, but mistakes the raiding cops for a rival dealer. The latter is of course less sympathetic. But in both cases, the suspects have every reason to be anxious and afraid. And in both cases, it would be understandable why they might want to defend themselves. In both cases, the decision to do so would be an honest mistake. Both of these scenarios have happened, numerous times. And in both scenarios, the suspects are almost always charged with one or more felonies, whether or not police subsequently find any significant quantity of drugs. If they kill a cop during the raid, they’re going to be charged with murder.

Geithner’s Gangster Government?

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Here and there I’ve noodled over the prospect that the U.S. might turn into Argentina. I did not mean it as a policy recommendation.

Geithner Testifies At House Hearing On International Financial SystemComes news that in 2011, then-Secretary Timothy Geithner called Harold McGraw III, Chairman of Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services’ parent company, to warn him that the firm would be held “accountable” for its downgrade of U.S. debt (prompted by the melee over the debt ceiling). Continue Reading →

Originalism and the Confirmation Process

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Cato Unbound has created a forum for discussion of the thesis of John Lott’s latest book, Dumbing Down the Courts. In the book, Lott argues that indicia of judicial quality, such as law school attended and career success, are actually hindrances in getting confirmed as each party tries to prevent the other party’s judicial champions from getting on the bench.

In my contribution, I argue that Lott has discovered a trend that can reduce the quality of the output of the lower courts.   We would be better off with courts staffed by the best nominees of each party.  They would help create better and clearer resolutions, particularly in the many cases that have no substantial political or ideological import.

My essay offers a variety of solutions. One is a return to originalism, which would reduce the importance of judge’s political and ideological preferences in big stakes constitutional cases. I argue:

But another possible social solution is the revival of originalism in constitutional interpretation. That revival would also lower the stakes because judges would be adjudicating the most important legal questions not on the basis of their personal preferences but on the basis of the historical fixed meaning of constitutional provisions. They would look not inward to their own values but outwards to empirical facts of the world that judges have in common.

If a judge exercises less policy discretion, the identity of the judge matters less. Non-originalist doctrines, like that of modern substantive due process, unfortunately maximize policy discretion. Continue Reading →