2019-08-22 12:01:02

For years, I’ve been writing extensively about criminal harassment laws (see, e.g., this law review article), and filing briefs in criminal harassment cases. But in April, my experience with harassment laws took a different turn—I learned that a criminal harassment case had been filed against me in New Jersey, under N.J. Stats. 2c:33-4(c):

[A] person commits a petty disorderly persons offense if, with purpose to harass another, he … Engages in any other course of alarming conduct or of repeatedly committed acts with purpose to alarm or seriously annoy such other person.

In theory, such a charge could yield up to 30 days in jail.

The criminal summons noted that the complaint had been filed by one Andrew Bonner, and it was based on his assertion that, “to the best of his/her knowledge, information and belief, [Eugene Volokh] … did,”

And as it happens, I was indeed mailing material to Mr. Bonner at his home address. The New Jersey state police did contact me at his behest and told me he didn’t want me mailing such material. And I did tell them that I wouldn’t stop (though, as you might gather, I also told them why). The facts in his allegations were thus basically correct—so far as they went—though the legal characterization (that the material was “harassing” and “threaten[ed] further cyber-harassment and slander”) was not.

Now you might think that, before the charges were filed, the prosecutor would have looked into why I was troubling Mr. Bonner so, and whether I was indeed acting “with purpose to alarm or seriously annoy” and “harass” him (which is what the statute requires).

But it turns out that New Jersey is one of the few states that lets a private complainant start a criminal proceeding without a prosecutor’s approval. All that is required is that a person file a complaint, and that it “appear[] to the judicial officer from the complaint, affidavit, certification or testimony that there is probable cause to believe that an offense was committed, the defendant committed it, and a Complaint-Warrant … or summons can be issued.” And as you might gather, the judicial officer seems to generally operate just from the face of the complaint, without any investigation. (Prosecutors, for all that people sometimes complain about them, at least generally do investigate the complainant’s accusations a bit before filing charges.)

And what the complaint didn’t explain was why I troubled myself with mailing things to Mr. Bonner: Because I was required to do that by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 5(a)(1), which provides that, generally speaking, any federal court filing “must be served on every party.”

As I noted a few days ago in this post (“‘Right to Be Forgotten’ as to Court Opinions Rejected …”), I had moved to intervene in a case Mr. Bonner had filed, in order to oppose his attempt to seal any court order the court would issue in that case. He had filed the case pro se, so the address in the court files was his home address (and, as best I can tell, he wasn’t registered for electronic court filing); I therefore basically had to either personally hand all my filings to him or mail them to him. A prosecutor, I presume, would likely have looked into this—if only by asking Mr. Bonner to show him the offending mailings, which are clearly service copies of court filings. But the judicial officer issuing the criminal complaint did not.

Thankfully, I am fortunate to know New Jersey criminal lawyer Steve Kaflowitz—as it happens, from when I filed amicus briefs supporting his position in a case before the New Jersey Appellate Division and New Jersey Supreme Court (State v. Burkert). That case, as it happens, was a successful First Amendment challenge to an application of … New Jersey’s criminal harassment law.

Steve and his colleagues at Caruso Smith Picini, Tim Smith and Wolodymyr Tyshchenko, very kindly agreed to represent me pro bono. (Many, many thanks to them.) Thanks to their help, the prosecutor declined to prosecute—prosecutors in New Jersey have that power, albeit only after a citizen criminal complaint is filed—and the court dismissed the case. Indeed, thanks to their help, I didn’t even need to fly out to New Jersey to appear in the case. At the hearing in late June (the transcript of which finally arrived Monday), the judge explained how little it can take in New Jersey to get the criminal charges initially filed:

THE COURT: Judicial officers have to look at probable cause statements or citizen filed complaints dozens of them monthly, if not weekly, and have to make determinations based on the limited amount of information provided and they are asked to do so with taking the complainant’s words as 100 percent truthful and, unfortunately, given the limitations of time and resources, a lot—many times they are liberally reviewed and liberally construed and in this case, the probable cause was found.

And the judge also explained the factual reasons why the case had to be dismissed:

THE COURT: … Mr. Bonner, … not only must [Volokh] not stop sending them [i.e., these materials] to you, he is actually required by law to send a copy to you if any correspondence he sends to the Court because you have filed prose. It is part of the Court Rules that stipulate that any party—any pro se party to an action must be copied so that they are aware of the correspondence, because it would be an unfair prejudice to you if you didn’t know what your adversary was doing and you weren’t getting notice of that.

If you were an attorney, it would be the same—the same rule would apply. The attorney must be copied any time a letter to the Court is written or a motion is filed or any action is taken in correspondence with the Court. That’s part of the fundamental rules of Court and there’s nothing that can—nothing that can be done to stop him from copying you on letters that he’s addressing to the Court….

[T]he Court would never be able to find harassment given that the only correspondence that you have is legally required correspondence in terms of Mr. Volokh’s participation in this—as an amicus in this federal matter.

This statement is slightly imprecise—I was participating as a proposed intervenor, not as an amicus—but otherwise strikes me as quite correct.

So all’s well that ends well, again thanks to Messrs. Kaflowitz, Smith, and Tyshchenko; and I should stress that many people have faced wrongful charges that were much more perilous than the petty disorderly conduct charge that I was facing. Still, I thought it was an interesting story, and something of an illustration of how the New Jersey citizen complaint process can go (even if briefly and reversibly) off the rails. I can imagine how someone else in my shoes might have felt, if he didn’t know local lawyers who were happy to help, and didn’t know enough about the relevant legal rules to be confident that everything would turn out fine.

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2019-08-22 10:00:25

By the time today’s 50-year-olds reach retirement age in the mid-2030s, Social Security is projected to be bumping up against insolvency. That will mean automatic 20 percent benefit cuts for everyone. Clearly, it’s never been more important for Americans to stop trusting the government with their financial planning, and yet far too many of us still do.

Studies show that around 35 percent of Americans would run into financial trouble if they missed a single paycheck or were hit with an unexpected expense of $1,000. When it comes to saving up for the big things—like retirement—the data are far worse. A 2018 survey conducted by Northwestern Mutual, a financial services firm, found that one-third of Americans have less than $5,000 in private retirement savings, and the average amount tucked away is just $84,000, far less than the nearly $1 million the average retiree will need.

All told, the American personal savings rate, a measurement of how much the average household saves after all taxes and spending, has been below 10 percent for nearly the entire 21st century (though it has rebounded from a low of 2.2 percent in July 2005 to a recent high of 7.7 percent in December 2018, according to data from the Federal Reserve).

“Most Americans really ought to be saving more,” economist Tyler Cowen wrote in January after a government shutdown exposed just how quickly some Americans can end up on the rocks. “It shouldn’t be controversial to point this out.”

Yet it is, at least a bit, because low interest rates continue to signal to consumers that they should borrow and spend, not put money away. If we are a country of grasshoppers, it’s partly because the Fed is telling us not to behave like ants.

Saving money for a rainy day is both a personal and a social obligation, and the poor state of Americans’ savings accounts manifests itself on both levels. It’s most obvious when someone you know is facing the hardship of being unable to pay emergency medical bills or afford a crucial car repair. Setting up a GoFundMe page might fill the gap, but it won’t put someone on the path to personal solvency.

More broadly, inadequate savings leave Americans more likely to turn to the government for help, which gives leverage to politicians who will want to pilfer others’ savings and retirement accounts. If more people feel like they’re teetering on the edge of financial instability, then there will be more demand for expanding the taxpayer-funded safety net—even if there is ample evidence that the government can’t even fulfill many of the promises it has already made.

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2019-08-22 08:00:54

The owner of the Victoria Saloon in Sparks, Nevada, says the city is trying to force him to raise prices on drinks, undercutting his competitiveness with the nearby Nugget Casino Resort. Johnny Eastwick leases his patio from the city, and he says officials offered to renew his lease only if he agreed to match the Nugget’s prices on drinks during special events, a requirement he says would force him to double and, in some cases, nearly triple his prices. City officials say the patio is in the public right of way, so Eastwick benefits from any special events hosted by the Nugget and should have to abide by its rules.

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2019-08-22 04:01:04

The U.S. government’s debt—that is, our and our children’s debt as taxpayers—is growing. This growth is largely driven by rising Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid obligations. These are the programs Congress could focus on and work to reform. Only the Democrats are really talking about reform, though they want “reform” to be in the direction of making these programs even more expansive.

There’s some hope, however, as politicians will have no choice but to face the facts on Social Security. Come 2035, this program’s trust funds will run dry and, by law, benefits will automatically be cut by 20 percent. When that happens, Congress will have no option but to reform Social Security in a more fiscally prudent manner. I have some thoughts on how to do this.

But before I explain, let’s make sure we’re clear about one thing: The program is indeed growing insolvent. Since 2010, Social Security has run annual cash-flow deficits. This means that the payroll tax revenues collected from you and me aren’t enough to fully pay the retirement benefits for current retirees. For now, the program makes up this gap by using assets in its trust fund.

It looks even worse in the long run. The Social Security Board of Trustees reports that over the next 75 years, the program will be underfunded by $13.9 trillion. To make Social Security solvent over this period would require an immediate and permanent payroll tax increase (today) of 2.78 percent of overall wages—which raises the average Social Security payroll tax bite by 25 percent. Alternatively, Congress could cut benefits by 17 percent. A mix of both tax increases and benefit cuts is obviously an option. No meaningful reform will be painless, and waiting only makes fixing the problem harder.

The bottom line is that this talk of expanding the program, rather than shrinking it, is crazy talk.

When Social Security was created in 1935, it was conceived to provide benefits for retired workers. Given the lower life expectancy back then, retired workers were never expected to live off of these benefits for very long. Over time, however, Congress expanded the program’s eligibility, extending it to spouses, disabled persons, and also children. While some aspects of the program are means-tested, everyone—rich and poor—receives core Social Security benefits.

This policy is silly for many reasons. First, in reference to a universal basic income (UBI), George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan explains that “Forcing people to help others who can’t help themselves—like kids from poor families or the severely disabled—is at least defensible. Forcing people to help everyone is not.” He adds, “If you were running a private charity, it would never even occur to you to ‘help everyone,’ because it’s such a frivolous use of scarce charitable resources. Instead, you’d target spending to do the most good.”

Caplan’s criticism of UBI applies to Social Security, which is also universal, though this wasn’t always the case. Back when Social Security was created—and with very few exceptions—ordinary Americans who stopped working became poor. Back then, Social Security benefits made more sense because they were nearly all paid to Americans in need.

Yet today, thanks to economic growth, capital markets, and massive increases in ordinary Americans’ standard of living, seniors now are overrepresented in the top income quintile. Younger Americans are overrepresented in the bottom income quintile and are the same people now obliged to transfer massive amounts of their earnings to seniors. Why? In theory, it’s for the promise that these younger workers will also get benefits when they turn 65-ish, even though their future benefits will pale in comparison to the payroll taxes these workers will have paid in over their lifetimes.

We must rethink the system entirely, root and branch. The current universal age-based system requires relatively high taxes and spreads the benefits thinly across everyone. Considering that much of the support for Social Security comes from people who incorrectly assume it’s mostly helping poor Americans—economists have shown that Social Security is a regressive system that mostly benefits higher-income Americans—we need reform that truly targets people who can’t help themselves. Such a reformed program would provide better and larger benefits to fewer recipients and, in turn, require less revenue and lower taxes.

To be sure, such a reform would be sweeping. Yet, so are the problems faced by the program.


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2019-08-22 03:05:19

“So please,” Rep. Justin Amash (I–Mich.) implored a brewpub audience of 50 constituents in the sleepy town of Hastings on Wednesday afternoon, “respect each other, love each other, and demand that we open up our system of government so that it’s available for everyone.”

It was the last of the day’s five public meet-and-greets—Amash’s first back home since declaring independence from the Republican Party on July 4. And as in the previous four, the representative famous for almost never missing votes, and always explaining them on Facebook, hammered away at one civics-nerd point above all. Process matters.

“When you go to Congress, you discover that all decisions are made by three people: the president, the speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader. That’s it,” Amash lamented. “All of you are essentially disenfranchised in this situation. You elect representatives to represent you, but representatives aren’t actually allowed to amend things, aren’t allowed to offer ideas. And what ends up happening is you have a system where outcomes are dictated to us rather than discovered through the process.”

A broken process means no floor amendments for an entire congressional session—a first. It means disregarding the designs of the Constitution, which as Amash pointed out is a “process document.” It means making political competition an ugly grab for punitive power, and it means replacing legislative deliberation with smashmouth scoreboard-politics, as when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.) refused to allow a vote on Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland during Barack Obama’s final year in office. (“I wouldn’t have supported that nominee, but he should have been allowed to have had a vote,” Amash explained at a Grand Rapids coffee shop in the morning.)

“McConnell, I think, has done a horrible job—I want to use the right adjective, because I don’t want to say it’s incredible, it’s been incredibly horrible,” he said. “Shutting things down, controlling it. And yeah, a lot of Republicans, a lot of conservatives might like the outcomes he’s getting, but that’s not the way our system’s supposed to work! We’re supposed to debate ideas and talk about things.”

Amash’s outspokenness and uncertain political future is drawing a lot of national attention at the moment. George Will devoted his most recent syndicated column to the congressman, the Associated Press sent out a widely picked up article questioning the incumbent’s re-election prospects, and the third-party presidential rumors continue to swirl. (At his fourth stop of the day, Amash ribbed political journalists for allegedly being so White House–focused that they have failed to adequately convey that, yes, he is running for Congress. He then appended his longstanding mantra that he doesn’t rule anything out, etc.)

But of all his near-term uphill battles, getting voters, let alone journalists, to feel a sense of urgency about the degradations of the legislative process is right up there.

“I think you need to start voting on the basis of process,” Amash maintained at a Grand Rapids brewpub (the city does like its beer). “It should be actually high on your list. Right now it’s not even on the list. Nobody asks about that. You might ask about guns, you might ask about immigration, you might ask about a whole host of issues, but nobody is asking about the process of legislating, and that’s what we should really put highest on our list—in my opinion, the highest thing, because if you have a bad process the whole system doesn’t function.”

While his audiences were frequently receptive to the pitch, asking on several occasions what they can tangibly do about this process business, one issue above all illustrated the gap between Amash’s critique of results-oriented policymaking and the public’s perennial appetite to do something about an issue: guns.

“So I know how you feel about the Second Amendment” came the second constituent question of the day, “but…” Thus was established a pattern.

At every stop, usually for several consecutive questions on end, Amash received anguished and sometimes angry cross-examinations from shaky-voiced teachers, fearful moms, amateur Federalist Papers historians, and even one survivor of a mass shooting event. If you have ever wondered what it would be like for a libertarian to be grilled about every single issue that comes up after a mass gun killing—universal background checks, “weapons of war,” New Zealand’s gun buybacks, interpretations of “well regulated Militia,” the anti-tyranny component of the Second Amendment, the National Rifle Association’s political influence, bans on public health research, the gun show loophole, red flag laws, gun licenses, bump stocks, you name it—that’s what went down in Western Michigan on Wednesday.

“I read an article in The New York Times that was dated August 9 that really shocked me,” came the second question at Amash’s second event, held at Grand Rapids’ Common Ground coffee shop and feeling like anything but. “There are 15 million military-style weapons in the hands of Americans….What do you propose, what change can we make, to stop the sale of military-style weapons, and get most of those 15 million military-style weapons…in the hands of Americans back so that we won’t have these mass murders anymore?”

The next 25 minutes was a remarkable gun-policy back and forth, with Amash arguing, among other things, that “military-style” is an amorphous definition, that most mass shootings are carried out with handguns, that red flag laws pose due-process concerns, that public opinion on the issue comes with a “knowledge problem” about such things as the definition of the word “semiautomatic,” that guns and gun rights are broadly and uniquely popular in America, that overall gun violence is down significantly over the past few decades, that people should not live their lives in fear of rare events, that ambulance-chasing legislation frequently abridges civil liberties, and that most policy proposals in the wake of mass shootings would not have impeded the shooter if retroactively applied.

“We have to be really careful about the law,” he cautioned. “Sometimes we pass laws because they make us feel good, but they didn’t do anything. And I’m afraid that a lot of the proposals we have now are the kind of things that would make us feel good but not actually resolve the problems. And some of the problems cannot be totally resolved. You can’t completely eliminate hate and violence.”

The audience was not satisfied with that answer.

“You keep saying, ‘This isn’t going to work, this isn’t going to work, this isn’t going to work,'” charged one man. But “if we didn’t have any laws governing the way in which automobile are handled, you would have a lot higher automobile fatality and accident rates then we have now. We have those laws. Do they work perfectly? No, they don’t work [perfectly], but at least we tried; we did something. And I’m not hearing anything that we need to do from you.”

Amash’s bottom line: “Our rights should not be predicated on very rare situations.”

If this had been, say, 2016 Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson instead of potential 2020 nominee Justin Amash, this exchange might have last three minutes instead of 25 and featured a lot of awkward hemming and hawing. Amash is not defensive about his beliefs in the face of popular pressure, and indeed seems to relish the opportunity to explain his lonely positions, while also taking pains to bracket the conversation with messages of mutual tolerance, empathy, non-demonization, and straight-up “love.” It can make for compelling human interaction. But in our polarized and occasionally poisonous political atmosphere, can it sell?

Amash’s pitch, and bet, is that the approach of independent thinking and institutional vigor can prove to be an antidote to the ugly polarization that’s taking over our politics. Through—what else?—process.

“Congress is increasingly operating differently for the way our system was intentionally created and I think that is very dangerous,” he concluded at Common Ground. “We will start to look more and more like other countries. Already I see the way people talk about each other is starting to represent the sectarian sort of disputes in other parts of the world, even like parts of the Middle East, where you might have Shia and Sunni and others. Where everything becomes like the lesser of two evils. ‘Well, our guy is bad, but their guy is worse, so we’ll support our guy to stop their guy…’

“If we follow this attitude that process doesn’t matter, all that matters is obtaining the outcome we want. We see an outcome, we go try to grab it. That is what happens in the worst parts of the world….In those countries when they see an outcome they want, they just grab it. The people with the greatest numbers, they’re like, ‘We have more numbers, we’re grabbing it.’ Then the other people fight them for power, and then when those people get the numbers, they’re like, ‘Now we’re going to grab what we want.’

“We can’t operate that way. We have to operate in a deliberate fashion. Open it up, I promise more of your ideas will get debated on the House floor. I’m not necessarily going to agree with you on every position, as you know from this event here….But I promise you, you will have a better outcome, generally. You will have a better process.”

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2019-08-21 22:30:24

A little after 6 p.m., the state of Texas will execute Larry Swearingen for a crime experts believe he was unable to commit.

Journalist Andrew Purcell detailed the events leading to Swearingen’s impending death in a thorough investigation.

A 19-year-old college student named Melissa Trotter disappeared from her Montgomery College campus, north of Houston, in December 1998. Police set their sights on Swearingen, an electrician who was witnessed having a conversation with Trotter in the college library. Montgomery County law enforcement also found a scrap of paper with the name “Larry” and his phone number in one of Trotter’s books.

After a few days went by, officers tailed Swearingen in an unmarked car and eventually arrested him at his mother’s house over unpaid speeding and parking tickets. His bail was set high. Though Swearingen was questioned about Trotter’s whereabouts, he maintained that he saw her last on campus.

Three weeks later in January 1999, while Swearingen was sitting behind bars, Trotter’s body was discovered in Sam Houston National Forest. Trotter had seemingly been strangled to death by one leg of pantyhose. With the discovery of the body, Swearingen was charged with murder.

A number of errors in Swearingen’s trial doomed him to death row. At least two involving DNA sealed his fate.

The Washington Post reports that the second leg of pantyhose was discovered in Swearingen’s trailer by a landlord, even though it was searched twice before by law enforcement. A Texas Department of Public Safety lab technician testified in court that it was “a unique physical match” to the pantyhose leg found on Trotter’s body.

Since that time, the legs have been retested. Two experts have reported that the pantyhose don’t match. A third expert has refuted the original technician’s testimony.

The second major piece of convicting evidence was the timeline offered by medical examiner Joye Carter. When Carter performed Trotter’s autopsy, she was able to cut samples of Trotter’s internal organs. Carter later told the court that she estimated Trotter’s death to be on the day she disappeared, about 25 days before her body was discovered. However, medical experts note that if Carter’s assumption were true, a number of the organs she was able to cut would have already been liquified by the time the body was discovered. Pictures of the crime scene also show Trotter’s body intact, not heavily decomposed.

Since Carter gave her testimony, seven different forensic pathologists have offered a new timeline. Trotter was missing for several weeks, and likely died within two weeks of her body being found—not the same day she disappeared.

The new timeline gives Swearingen a flawless alibi: he was behind bars at the time of death.

Determined to pin the case on him, the prosecution accused Swearingen of raping Trotter before she died, despite the absence of semen, defensive wounds, or any other indication that she was involved in a physical struggle. Lacking in the forensic evidence to tie Swearingen to the murder, the prosecution painted his odd behavior as the result of his obvious guilt.

The prosecution was not the only party at fault. The Innocence Project, which has spent years trying to save Swearingen from facing capital punishment, has spent years pushing for DNA testing that should have been performed by investigators. As The Intercept reported in 2017, the state didn’t perform DNA testing on Trotter’s clothes, swabs from her rape kit, cigarette butts found near her body, or even the pantyhose identified as the murder weapon.

Rather than grant Swearingen and the Innocence Project the DNA tests that could shed additional light on the case, Texas responded by scheduling his execution.

“They are going to execute someone that the legitimate forensic science has proven innocent,” James Rytting, Swearingen’s attorney, told The Texas Tribune on Tuesday. “And the execution is going through on the basis of other forensic science that is borderline quackery—in fact it is quackery.”

Kristin Houle, executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, tells Reason “It is a sad day for justice in Texas. If his execution proceeds, Larry Swearingen will join several other individuals who were put to death by the state despite credible evidence of innocence.”

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Here’s an interesting development regarding the 2020 presidential race: We’re both vastly more interested in the election than we were four years ago and we’re convinced that neither major party represents us. What could possibly go wrong? Pretty much everything.

According to a recent Fox News poll, voters are extremely engaged in the election compared to where they were four years ago. Fully 57 percent of registered voters told Fox that they were “very interested” in the 2020 race (question three). That compares to just 30 percent around the same time in 2015. At the same time, Rasmussen finds

that 47% of Likely U.S. Voters believe it is fair to say that neither party in Congress is the party of the American people. In surveying since 2010, this finding has ranged from a high of 53% in 2014 to a low of 41% last year. Thirty-five percent (35%) disagree, while 17% are undecided.

So what happens when you combine historically high levels of interest with equally high levels of frustration with the major parties? Massive unpredictability, at the very least. That mindset is reflected in Bridget Phetasy’s essay “The Battle Cry of the Politically Homeless,” which appears at the Spectator USA website and is subtitled, “Anyone moderate with a brain and anything to lose has largely gone silent.” After noting that everything is politicized these days, the self-described “politically disinterested citizen” writes,

Democracy doesn’t die in the darkness; it dies when politics become team sports, in full view of a bloodthirsty, cheering electorate. We will return to the Dark Ages or we will evolve. Is that likely? I dunno. Have we evolved that much from the Roman Colosseum? Barreling into 2020—it doesn’t seem like it.

While both sides increasingly weaponize reason and peddle conspiracy in order to defend insanity, millions of sensible, moderate Americans grapple with the choice to join a tribe, tune out, or go insane.

If it’s way too early to guess which Democratic candidate will survive his or her party’s presidential Hunger Games and take on Donald Trump next year, this much is certain: The winner will be the person who not only turns out partisans but also woos the large number of independents. According to the latest numbers from Gallup, 38 percent of Americans identify as independents, 29 percent identify as Republican, and 27 percent as Democrats.

It’s unlikely that either major party will see a surge of new members as they get increasingly shrill, bitter, and partisan leading up to Election Day. President Trump is already floating policies that are geared to fire up his base. He wants to end birthright citizenship and double down on trade war with China, and in anticipation of a recession, he’s already lambasting the Federal Reserve for not doing his bidding. The Democrats have their own reflexive responses, including amping up charges of racism against any and all voters who disagree with them on just about anything.

The end result of such ugliness is not likely to be a great awakening of civic engagement but something like The Great Tuneout, with weaker-than-expected voter turnout and even less faith and confidence in whoever manages to squeak into office. Which, if past is prologue, will lead not to less government but more.

That is, alas, how things work: A decline in trust and confidence in political and social institutions historically breeds demand for more control and regulation by the very government we respect less and less.

For possible ways to resist this downward spiral, go here.

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2019-08-21 20:30:58

Since launching a decade ago, the decentralized, peer-to-peer cryptocurrency bitcoin has been lauded (and denounced) for its potential to route around traditional state-based monetary systems and allow individuals to trade directly with one another.

Much of the discussion has understandably focused on how it is transforming economic exchange. But Alex Gladstein, the chief strategy officer of the Human Rights Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes and protects civil liberties in closed societies, is interested in how it empowers people in autocratic countries to escape government control. Only about 8 percent of global transactions use cash and the switch to digital payments means that authorities can track what individuals are up to with greater ease than they used to. 

Bitcoin, its underlying blockchain technology, and the emerging Lightning payment network are allowing people to escape surveillance, says Gladstein, who has co-authored a brand new book on the subject, The Little Bitcoin Book: Why Bitcoin Matters for Your Freedom, Finances, and Future.

In today’s Reason Podcast, he tells Nick Gillespie how bitcoin is changing the way people live and transact in places such as China, India, Iran, and Venezuela. He also explains how in an increasingly cashless America, cryptocurrency is helping us to escape what’s been called “surveillance capitalism,” why Human Rights Foundation’s annual Oslo Freedom Forum is more important than the World Economic Forum in Davos, and how bitcoin and associated technologies will “really bankrupt the ability of authoritarian regimes to do what they do and basically force their hand to reform.”

Audio production by Ian Keyser.

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2019-08-21 19:35:29

March For Our Lives wants sweeping gun control, and a lot of other things too. On Wednesday, the group released its Peace Plan for a Safer America with the ambitious goal of reducing gun deaths and injuries by 50 percent in 10 years.

“You see these shootings on TV every day and very little happening around it. It’s painful to watch,” David Hogg, a survivor of the 2018 Parkland shooting and co-founder of March For Our Lives, told the Washington Post. “I think that this plan is something that we can truly—as a country and as Americans united against violence and fighting for peace—can get behind.”

The plan Hogg expects the country to get behind includes radical changes to America’s gun laws, the federal government, and the U.S. Constitution itself. It would start by creating a national gun licensing system.

“It should at least be as difficult to buy and transfer a firearm as it is to buy and transfer an automobile,” reads the plan before going on to describe a licensing system that would be far more onerous than anything that currently exists for owning a car.

A person looking to get a firearm license would have to go through an in-person interview, provide personal references, and complete “rigorous” gun safety training. Law enforcement bodies would oversee this process, and applicants would have to re-complete it annually in order to maintain a license.

Once an applicant secures one of these federal gun licenses, they will have to pay unspecified licensing fees that would pay for the costs of this national licensing system and also pay for the general costs of gun violence.

Higher fees would be charged for bulk purchases of ammunition and firearms, which seems somewhat redundant given that people would be limited to one gun purchase a month. Online sales would be banned and a 10-day waiting period for gun sales would be imposed.

The types of firearms one could purchase would also be restricted. Both “assault weapons” and “high-capacity magazines” (two terms which go undefined in the March For Our Lives plan) would be banned. Products that fit those descriptions that are currently in private hands would be subject to confiscation through a mandatory gun buyback program.

In addition to these direct limitations on gun ownership, the Peace plan would also beef up the federal bureaucracy’s ability to go after gun owners. A new National Director of Gun Violence Prevention position would be created. This director would report directly to the president and coordinate a multi-agency response to halving gun deaths and injuries over 10 years.

The March For Our Lives proposal also calls on state and local authorities to go beyond federal efforts and pass their own, stricter gun laws.

Civil libertarians might be concerned that creating an onerous national licensing system, banning common weapons already in circulation, and then directing the federal government to enforce all these new laws might make criminals out of millions of responsible gun owners.

To assuage these fears, the March For Our Lives plan also includes a few planks intended to deal with the “intersectional dimensions of gun violence.” The group’s new gun violence czar would work with local police departments “to better train officers in implicit bias, conflict resolution, and crisis intervention.”

Incredibly, their plan seems to assume that the more gun laws we have, the less policing we’ll need.

“The more successful we are with stronger gun policies, the fewer firearms enter the illegal market, and the lower the footprint of the criminal justice system in people’s lives,” reads the March For Our Lives plan. Perhaps we could also reduce the number of narcotics officers by more zealously prosecuting the drug war?

By suggesting we can have strict gun control and enhanced civil liberties protections, March For Our Lives ignores the history of New York City’s ‘stop-and-frisk’ program that was intended, in part, to get more guns off the streets, but ended up providing police with a legal justification for routinely harassing and humiliating the city’s black and brown residents.

A few constitutional sticklers might point out that most of what the March For Our Lives folks want to do would be open to constitutional challenges. Others might say it’s politically unrealistic.

Not to worry! March For Our Lives has a plan for that, too.

On the political side of things, the group calls for crushing the National Rifle Association (NRA). The NRA, their plan says, should have its tax-exempt status investigated by the IRS, and its campaign donations investigated by the Federal Election Commission.

The landmark D.C. v Heller Supreme Court decision, which confirmed that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to gun ownership, would be “reexamined” by the Department of Justice, and more federal judges skeptical of gun rights would be appointed.

This Peace proposal also calls for having a national conversation about reforming the Supreme Court in order to prevent “partisan political influence and interference”—i.e. decisions protecting gun rights.

March For Our Lives’ single-minded focus on reducing the number of guns in America ignores the fact that violent crime rates have fallen to record low levels across much of the country even as the number of guns and gun owners has increased dramatically.

The specific policy interventions its calls for, from assault weapons bans to expanded background checks, would do little to deter violence. Their plan is also hopelessly contradictory by promising both criminal justice reform and a sweeping array of new violations for which Americans can be arrested and imprisoned.

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2019-08-21 15:55:26

New survey data indicate that cigarette consumption among teenagers, young adults, and the general population continues to decline, notwithstanding fears that vaping would become a gateway to smoking. To the contrary, says a report on the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, e-cigarettes may be contributing to the downward trend in smoking.

“Fewer than 1 in 6 people aged 12 or older in 2018 were past month cigarette smokers,” notes the report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Cigarette use generally declined between 2002 and 2018 across all age groups. Some of this decline may reflect the use of electronic vaporizing devices (‘vaping’), such as e-cigarettes, as a substitute for delivering nicotine.”

That hypothesis is consistent with a 2018 analysis that found the long-term decline in smoking among teenagers and young adults accelerated as vaping became more popular. But it is inconsistent with the fear that Scott Gottlieb, former head of the Food and Drug Administration, expressed in explaining the rationale for new restrictions on e-cigarettes to battle the “epidemic” of underage vaping. Citing data from the National Youth Tobacco Survey (NYTS) showing a spike in e-cigarette use by teenagers last year, he worried that vaping would ultimately lead to more smoking.

While the smoking rate among teenagers stayed about the same in last year’s NYTS, it continued to fall among 10th- and 12th-graders in the Monitoring the Future Study, and now we can see that the NSDUH results are similar. More than a decade after e-cigarettes were first marketed in the United States, it still looks like they are a substitute for the conventional kind, drawing people away from smoking rather than toward it.

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