Is Sean Penn Guilty or Innocent?

headlineSean Penn’s meeting with Mexican drug lord Joaquín El Chapo” Guzmán—conducted for an interview in Rolling Stone magazine—has triggered intense debate. Should Penn be prosecuted for being in secret contact with a fugitive from justice?

The discussion raises familiar questions: Is a journalist guilty of aiding and abetting a known criminal by not revealing his whereabouts to the authorities? Is a journalist who meets with a lawbreaker interfering with the course of justice?

Penn has a penchant for the so-called third world, sometimes of a noble kind and sometimes not, as when he uses his fame to legitimize dictators. His piece on Guzmán in Rolling Stone is less sexy than one would expect—it says more about Penn than about the drug lord himself. But Penn’s sometimes questionable politics, his debatable flair as an interviewer, and the fact that he is not a full-time journalist are no grounds for prosecuting him.

Otherwise hundreds of journalists would have been prosecuted for interviewing terrorists who were on the run. Osama Bin Laden spoke to Robert Fisk, Peter Arnett, John Miller, and Rahimullah Yusufzai while in hiding. None of them were sent to prison.


The Difference Between the State Department and Me

govt liesYou know what happens when the government “requests” information from me as an employer, business or property owner, or taxpayer, and I don’t respond within their deadline?

My bank account is seized, my property is seized, and I am thrown into jail.

You know what happens when the State Department (or any other government employee or agency) fails to respond to a request for information as required by law?

It gets more personnel and a bigger budget.

From this recent, “Inspector General Faults State Department’s Handling of Hillary Clinton’s Records: Department Repeatedly Fell Short of its Obligations under the Freedom of Information Act, Internal Watchdog Finds:”

The State Department’s internal watchdog found that the department gave “inaccurate and incomplete” answers to groups seeking access to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s records.

In a statement, the ​department acknowledged shortcoming in its information-management practices and vowed to accept the inspector general’s recommendations on improving the process. “We know we must continue to improve our FOIA responsiveness and are taking additional steps to do so,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said.

Mr. Kirby also pointed to Secretary of State John Kerry’s appointment of a transparency coordinator last year, as well as additional staff resources that are being added to the department to help manage its load of FOIA requests. [emphasis added]


Two Years into Obamacare, No Change in Share of Working-Age Americans with Trouble Paying Medical Bills

billsThe Kaiser Family Foundation and the New York Times have published the results of a survey of Americans, aged 18 through 64, which questioned respondents about their troubles paying medical bills. What is most interesting about the survey, which was conducted in September 2015, is that it shows no change in the proportion of people with trouble paying medical bills versus a similar survey from 2005, which surveyed all adults.

That is, despite a large decrease in the proportion of working-age people categorized as “uninsured” (even though many have actually become dependent on Medicaid, a joint state-federal welfare program, instead of actual insurance) one-quarter of us still have trouble paying medical bills.

  • In 2015, 15 percent spent “all or most” of their savings on medical bills. In 2005, it was 12 percent.
  • In 2015, 10 percent “borrowed money from friends or family” and nine percent “increased credit card debt.” In 2005, eight percent reported “borrowing money or taking out another mortgage.”
  • In 2015, 32 percent “put off/postponed getting health care you needed.” In 2005, 29 percent of adults report “they or someone in their household skipped medical treatment, cut pills, or did not fill a prescription in the past year because of the cost.”
  • In 2015, three percent declared personal bankruptcy because of medical bills, the same as 2015.


Powerball and the Lucas Critique

PowerballAs of this writing, the record-breaking Powerball official jackpot is some $1.3 billion, though this is misleading because a winner taking the lump-sum option would receive a check for “only” $806 million. With such a huge pot, many articles and blog posts are popping up, telling people that it actually makes financial sense to play the Powerball this particular time. However, many of these analyses completely overlook the role of other people playing, and even those that consider this factor tend to treat it as a fixed number. In reality, the best baseline result is to say that the bigger the jackpot grows, the more people who will play and hence the game once again takes on negative expected value. If you want to play for the psychic thrill, go ahead, but don’t let some quick arithmetic convince you that you’re making a savvy investment.

With the version of the Powerball game in place since October 2015, the probability of randomly picking the winning number is 1-in-292.2 million. If the cash lump-sum payout is $806 million, then one might calculate the expected value of a single ticket at about $2.75. If we factor in federal income taxes, the value of the ticket appears to be closer to $1.70. Since a Powerball ticket costs $2, we’re still in negative expected value territory.

However, these calculations overlook a crucial point about incentives: Even if the jackpot grew large enough to truly make such exercises yield a positive expected value, then that would induce people to buy more tickets. It would be quite foolish to rely merely on the results of a calculator, since there are presumably other people in the country capable of using a calculator as well.


US Drug Laws Destabilize Other Nations

elsalvadorThis article in USA Today is headlined, “El Salvador: World’s New Murder Capital.” El Salvador’s murder rate is 104 per 100,000 population, and as the article notes, this is a national average. “If you start looking at where the pockets of violence are, it’s shocking.”

Why are things so bad in El Salvador? The article says, “All countries south of the U.S. border face the same problem: cartels and gangs fighting to control smuggling of drugs and people to the United States and infiltrating government institutions to help them.”

It should be difficult for Americans to support domestic policies that have such pernicious effects overseas.

The effects spill over at home too. The article says, “The surge in violence explains why thousands of Salvadorans and other Central Americans have fled to the United States and why immigration officials are stepping up efforts to send them back home.”

The drug war clearly compromises individual liberty at home. Freedom has no meaning if people are only free to engage in activities that meet with government approval. I could list a host of other negative consequences stemming from the war on drugs, but I will save that for another time, to emphasize how our domestic policies have had such negative consequences for our neighbors.

Health Insurers’ Consensus on Obamacare Is Collapsing

healthcaregovThe health insurance industry is undergoing a crisis of consensus on how to respond to the failure of Obamacare. That is the only way to interpret the departure of another large, national carrier, Aetna, from America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP). This follows UnitedHealth Group’s departure from the industry’s trade group last June:

Those misgivings manifested most recently during the debate over ObamaCare when the so-called “big five”—UnitedHealthcare, Anthem, Aetna, Humana and Cigna—formed their own informal coalition.

Another healthcare executive, who asked for anonymity in order to speak freely, said that, for some, “there’s a sense that AHIP has become a one-trick pony for the Obama administration,” referring to the goal of advancing ObamaCare.

With the country’s first- and third-largest health insurers gone from its ranks, the insurance group could see problems arise from the divisions between large and small companies.

(Peter Sullivan & Megan R. Wilson, “Aetna departure a major blow for insurers group,” The Hill, January 5, 2016).

Insurers are losing money in Obamacare’s exchanges. The Republican-majority Congress has refused to bail them out of their Obamacare losses. On the other hand, they clearly have influence in the Congress, because last December a bipartisan majority gave the industry one-year relief from its Obamacare excise tax (which is passed on to consumers and employers anyway).


Friedrichs v. CTA Could End Compulsory Union Dues

33509937_MOn January 11, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association (CTA), a potentially landmark case. If the Court rules in favor of the plaintiffs, the financial strength and political clout of government employee unions across the country could be diminished greatly.

Ten California teachers and a teachers’ group, Christian Educators Association International, brought the Friedrichs case. The plaintiffs want to stop paying mandatory dues to the CTA, claiming that all activities of the union are “inherently political.” Since 1977, employees who are represented by a public-sector union can opt-out from paying union dues for political activities such as union opposition to a ballot initiative or union support for a legislative candidate. But in the 25 non-Right-to-Work states including California, these employees must still pay “agency fees” to cover the cost of union representation activities: negotiating contracts covering pay, benefits, and working conditions.

According to EdSource:

For California teachers, about $600 of their average $1,000 annual dues goes toward their fair-share [agency] fees; it is divided among their local union, the California Teachers Association, and the National Education Association for their expertise and representation. The remaining money pays for lobbying and campaigning at the local, state and federal levels.


Parental Choice Is a Better Path to Student Proficiency

Parents and kidsToday Education Week released its annual “Quality Counts” report. This is one of the main annual spending rankings used to justify more money for public education.

However, spending proponents never seem to tell us just how much more we’ll need to spend for students to be proficient in the basics.

Of course it costs money to educate students, but even a cursory glance at where the money goes raises serious doubts about how academic achievement is prioritized.

As of the 2011-12 school year, the latest data year available, total per-pupil spending averaged just over $12,000 nationwide. Only slightly more than half of that amount, $6,500 or 54 percent, went toward instruction, which includes teacher salaries and benefits, supplies such as textbooks, and purchased instructional services—including services from private schools.


New Video on History of Police Militarization

indeprevSeveral years ago, my coauthor Chris Coyne and I wrote a paper titled, “The Militarization of U.S. Domestic Policing.” Although we’ve since written on a variety of other topics, I frequently field questions on this paper and its themes.

It’s hardly a mystery why. Over the past three decades, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams or Police Paramilitary Units (PPUs) units have become prevalent throughout U.S. in cities and towns of all sizes. It’s estimated that about 20 percent of small town police departments employed a SWAT team or PPU in the mid-1980s. By the year 2000, almost 90 percent of police departments serving populations of 50,000 or more people had some kind of PPU. Now, around 80 percent of small town police departments have a SWAT team. Criminologist Peter Kraska estimates that approximately 3,000 SWAT deployments occurred annually in 1980. By the early 2000s, SWAT teams were deployed about 45,000 times a year. Current estimates place the number of SWAT deployments as high as 80,000 annually.


Dear Mr. Obama: I’m Not the NRA, and Keep Your Hands Off My Gun Rights

GunThere he goes again: President Obama pretending that only gun lobbyists care about the fact that the Founders felt so strongly about individual gun rights (on which the Supreme Court agrees) that they made it the Second Amendment.

Maybe you’ve seen those ads of pictures of every day, friendly looking folks, with the caption: “I’m the NRA.”

Not I!

Herewith, my Open Letter:

Dear Mr. Obama,

I’m not the NRA. I’ve never given them any money, signed a petition, or could otherwise even wildly be called part of the “gun lobby.”

30 years ago, as a single woman living alone, I was awakened in the middle of the night by a suspicious sound. I called 911 and waited ... in fear ... for an hour.

When the police deigned to show up, they were very condescending: “Are your parents home?” (I was almost 30 for heaven’s sake!) But agreed to walk the perimeter and declared all clear.

I promptly bought a handgun and got trained to use it.