2019-06-26 00:10:04

The primary social network for a large and growing community has banned all positive discussion of Donald Trump and his administration. The official explanation proclaims “We cannot provide a space that is inclusive of all and also allow support for open white supremacy. Support of the Trump administration is undeniably support for white supremacy.”

While conservatives and liberals have been warring for control over social media, no one expected the first major political ban to occur on Ravelry, which most of the coverage has described as a “knitting site.”

But it’s much more than that.

I knit and crochet, and I’ve been a member of Ravelry for years. The site is much greater than a place for craft chat; it has over 8 million members. For lots of us, it is our main social media destination. Like other social media sites, Ravelry allows users to create groups—and there are groups for pretty much everything: work, food, travel, literature, relationships, kids, pets. There are members who continue to be active group participants years after they gave up trying to work out how to turn a heel. 

I’ve made real-life friends through it—and we rarely discuss actual knitting. I don’t participate in the political groups (the libertarian groups have roughly 100 members and are largely inactive). But even in the non-political groups, politics inevitably creep through. 

For the most part, Ravelry’s politics lean left. Before the 2016 election, the pro-Hillary Clinton perspective was obvious across much of the site. When Trump became president, I saw lots of discussions focusing on offering “comfort” in the face of this painful event. Ravelry also became a focal point for people seeking patterns to make the Pussy Hats that many wore to the Women’s March—and photos of members who attended the marches were prominently featured on the home page. Although Ravelry has users from around the world, it is U.S.-based and its political discussions are largely U.S.-focused.

Despite the large size of its user base, Ravelry has a small staff. It started as a project of a husband and wife team, who had no idea they were creating the Facebook of crafts, and it is still run by only five people. Those people have always worn their left-progressive perspectives on their sleeves. They have long made a point of their LGBT-friendliness, with rainbow flags during Pride month—sometimes to the consternation of older, conservative, users. Feminist and pro-choice messages abound. And designers who use the site regularly announce that they are giving a portion of sales to organizations such as Planned Parenthood or the American Civil Liberties Union. 

Those who are surprised that the site has declared itself part of the #resistance seem to be people who have never visited Ravelry, and who think it is just some noticeboard for grannies discussing baby booties. But to anyone familiar with the site, such a move does not come as a shock. Even the members who think this ban is ill-judged seem pissed-off, but not surprised. 

Ravelry’s success has come as part of a revival of knitting among hipsters—many of whom express left-leaning political positions. Along with retro dresses and cocktails in mason jars, the allure of the handmade (like the local, the artisanal) is strong among the hip and woke. Think Portlandia, not Golden Girls. They are the kind of people who want to find a new knitting pattern from their smartphone, rather than having to shuffle through the yarn-company offerings in the wire rack at Jo-Ann.

That’s the other side of Ravelry. It’s not just a discussion forum but an online store. It offers the world’s largest database of patterns for knitting and crochet, and is the first stop for many crafters looking to buy patterns—even if they don’t participate on the site in other ways. In many independent yarn stores, you can expect to find a computer set up entirely for shoppers to find patterns on Ravelry. As an online merchant, it is the main point of sale for lots of designers. Indeed, offering a pattern for sale on Ravelry is often the first step for a fledgling designer. 

This market dominance is what makes Ravelry’s move important. It is a bold move for a site of this size and commercial reach to ban pro-Trump speech. It remains to be seen if large numbers of non-vocal Republicans will leave in protest. The hashtags #byeravelry and #walkawayravelry are active on Twitter, and some angry users are also sharing their thoughts on Ravelry’s Facebook page. These people generally note that banning one political view is not “inclusive” or “tolerant” at all. 

I expect the Ravelry owners will stick to their guns—as is their right.

For a large social networking site to ban a political viewpoint might be a bellwether for where the culture war is headed. It is also a test of the “go woke, go broke” theory, which posits that taking a strong political stand will hurt a business’ bottom line. Other social media sites will certainly be watching to see if Ravelry suffers or succeeds. 

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2019-06-25 20:05:29

Yesterday Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) introduced a bill that would ban the importation, sale, manufacture, transfer, or possession of “gun silencers,” which he blames for helping the perpetrator of last month’s mass shooting in Virginia Beach murder 12 people. “The sound of gunshots is what tells you that your life is [in] danger, and that it’s time to run, hide, take cover, call the police and help others save themselves,” Menendez says. “At the end of the day if you can hear a weapon you might just save a life.”

Contrary to the impression left by TV shows and movies, so-called silencers, a.k.a. suppressors, do not eliminate “the sound of gunshots.” On average, they reduce the noise generated by a .45 ACP pistol, the kind used in the Virginia Beach attack, from around 157 decibels to something like 127 decibels, which is still louder than a siren or a thunderclap. It’s not surprising, then, that “most law enforcement experts say” the Virginia Beach shooter’s suppressor “likely had no bearing on his ability to kill so many people in so little time,” as the Associated Press noted.

But Menendez thinks he knows better. “What first sounded like a nail-gun ended up being gunfire,” he says, suggesting that some victims might have lived if the sound had been louder. Never mind that there is no evidence to support that supposition, or that people have been known to confuse the sound of unsuppressed gunfire with noises generated by nonthreatening sources such as firecrackers or a car backfiring.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who is cosponsoring Menendez’s bill, insists there is no legitimate reason to own a suppressor. “The only people who could reasonably oppose a ban on gun silencers are criminals trying to avoid detection by law enforcement or mass murderers trying to hurt as many people as possible,” he says. “Whether a firearm is being used in a mugging or a massacre, the sound of a gunshot is a warning that helps bystanders get to safety and allows law enforcement to track and apprehend the shooter.”

Americans legally own about 1.5 million suppressors, which means they live in one of the 42 states where the devices are legal, have paid a $200 transfer tax, and have passed a federal background check that typically takes eight to 10 months. Based on data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, The Washington Free Beacon‘s Stephen Gutowski calculates that “roughly .003 percent of silencers are used in crimes each year.” Yet according to Blumenthal, every single American who owns a silencer is a criminal.

Why might law-abiding Americans find suppressors useful? As anyone who has visited a gun range can testify, guns are really loud, even when you’re wearing ear plugs or muffs. Suppressors provide extra hearing protection, which may be worth the cost and trouble of legally buying them if you shoot frequently, especially if you shoot large-caliber guns. Blumenthal seems to think that explanation is just a cover for criminal activity, which defies logic and math.

Menendez’s bill, the Help Empower Americans to Respond (HEAR) Act, would ban not just new sales of suppressors but current possession. Like Donald Trump’s extralegal ban on bump stocks, it would transform law-abiding gun owners into felons because they legally acquired a politically disfavored product that is rarely used to commit violent crimes. The text of the bill does not seem to be available yet, but Menendez’s summary says it would “authorize a buyback program” and “provide individuals with a 90-day grace period after the date of enactment for individuals to comply with the ban.”

Update: The bill is here. People who continue to possess suppressors after the 90-day grace period could be fined up to $250,000 and/or go to prison for up to five years.

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A Supreme Court ruling expanding when the government can keep business records secret will limit public accountability and hamper investigative journalism, transparency advocates and press organizations say.

In a 6-3 ruling on Monday in Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media, the Supreme Court broadened an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that restricts public access to government records containing trade secrets and financial information.

The decision overturned a test established by the Supreme Court in 1974 requiring private entities to show that disclosure of such records would cause substantial competitive harm. Instead, government agencies or third parties will now have to merely demonstrate that the records were intended to be kept secret when they were handed over to the government.

“It’s going to be a lot harder to get that kind of information,” says Rick Blum, policy director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “The Supreme Court has said ‘confidential’ means whatever the submitters says it means. There is no public interest consideration that would outweigh just an assertion that information is confidential.”

The case arose in 2011 after South Dakota’s Argus Leader newspaper filed a FOIA request to the Department of Agriculture seeking data on how much taxpayer money the department’s Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as food stamps, sent to more than 320,000 retailers participating in the program. 

The Food Marketing Institute, a retail group that intervened in the case, argued that the information would give a competitive edge to those retailers’ competition. A federal appeals court ruled last year in favor of the Argus Leader, but the Supreme Court overturned that decision, finding that the text of the law didn’t support the competitive harm test.

“At least where commercial or financial information is both customarily and actually treated as private by its owner and provided to the government under an assurance of privacy, the information is ‘confidential’ under the meaning of (FOIA),” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion.

However, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in a dissent that the majority’s broad interpretation was “at odds” with the purpose of the Freedom of Information Act itself.

“The whole point of FOIA is to give the public access to information it cannot otherwise obtain,” Breyer wrote. “So the fact that private actors have ‘customarily and actually treated’ commercial information as secret cannot be enough to justify nondisclosure.”

“After all,” Breyer continued, “where information is already publicly available, people do not submit FOIA requests—they use Google.”

Blum notes that reporters have managed to get identical SNAP data from several states. Using the data, the New Food Economy, a nonprofit news organization, reported last year that as many as 1 in 3 Amazon employees in Arizona receive food stamps.

As a result, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) introduced a bill to force large corporations to fully cover the cost of federal assistance to their employees. Amazon raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour a month later.

“It’s a great success story about the power of public disclosure,” Blum says. “But this is the very same information that the Supreme Court ruled should be kept confidential because the entity that gave the information to the government claimed that it was considered confidential. That essentially turns FOIA on its head.”

Government databases and paper trails are a treasure trove for reporters investigating the intersection of big business and government, but those companies, as well as the government, have often worked to keep those records secret.

For example, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled last week that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) must disclose a database of prescription opioid sales and shipments to The Washington Post and a chain of West Virginia newspapers.

In its opinion in HD Media Company v. United States Department of Justice, the appellate court noted that reporters had gotten similar data from the West Virginia state government, with stunning results. For example, the Charleston Gazette-Mail discovered that one opioid distributor sent more than 20 million doses of hydrocodone and oxycodone to two pharmacies in a West Virginia town of just under 3,000 people.

The disclosure, despite the caterwauling of the DEA and pharmaceutical companies, “resulted in no demonstrated commercial harm to Defendants and no demonstrated interference with law enforcement interests,” the 6th Circuit wrote. “But this reporting did result in a Pulitzer Prize, a Congressional Committee report, and a broader public understanding of the scope, context, and causes of the opioid epidemic.”

Corporations and the U.S. government have also colluded to try and hide details on law enforcement’s use of cell phone tracking technology. As I reported in 2014, Harris Corporation, the manufacturer of several cell phone tracking devices popular with law enforcement agencies, inserted non-disclosure agreements in its contracts with cities forbidding them from releasing any information about the devices in response to public records requests. Meanwhile, the federal government went so far as to remove documents from public courthouses and toss out criminal prosecutions to keep secret details of how police departments use the technology.

Maribel Perez Wadsworth, the president of the USA TODAY Network, of which the Argus Leader is a part, said Monday’s Supreme Court ruling “effectively gives businesses relying on taxpayer dollars the ability to decide for themselves what data the public will see about how that money is spent.”

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2019-06-25 21:10:05

The national debt will hit “unprecedented levels” in the coming decades, soaring well above the record highs set during World War II and reaching nearly one-and-a-half times the size of the entire U.S. economy by 2049, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected in a report released Tuesday.

And that’s the optimistic view.

The CBO says the national debt will hit 144 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), a rough estimate for the overall size of a country’s economic output, within 30 years, even if planned spending cuts materialize next year and even if Congress repeals the 2017 tax cuts in 2026, as planned. Neither of those developments should be treated as a sure bet—and, indeed, Republicans have admitted that the planned expiration of those tax cuts was nothing more than a gimmick designed to favorably influence the CBO’s analysis of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

(Actually, the numbers are worse. That’s because the CBO is looking only at debt held by the public, which excludes the portion of the national debt that’s held as internal loans between different parts of the federal government. For the CBO’s purposes, the current national debt is about 78 percent of America’s GDP, though including government-held debt puts the figure above 100 percent already.)

If current tax and spending policies remain in place, the national debt will soar to 219 percent of GDP by 2049, the CBO estimates.

The CBO’s projections assume that Social Security and Medicare benefits are paid in full, even if there are insufficient resources in the trust funds associated with each program. On the current trajectories and under current law, however, both programs would have to institute benefit cuts within the next two decades. Social Security is on pace to hit insolvency in the mid-2030s, at which point benefits would be reduced by about 20 percent. One of the trust funds within Medicare is on track to become insolvent and unable to pay out full benefits by 2026, according to the programs’ trustees.

If those programs are limited to paying out only what they take-in, it would reduce the long-term deficit to merely 106 percent of GDP, according to the CBO.

Under any of those scenarios, it should be obvious that the national debt is becoming a major crisis for the United States—although you wouldn’t know it by surveying the current political climate, which is almost completely devoid of deficit hawks. Republicans seemingly stopped caring about the size of the national debt as soon as President Donald Trump was elected, and a whole slew of Democrats are now seeking the White House while promising to spend billions or trillions more—often without any coherent plan for how to pay for their agendas, which translates into an implicit promise of higher deficits and more debt.

“The prospect of such large deficits over many years, and the high and rising debt that would result, poses substantial risks for the nation and presents policymakers with significant challenges,” said CBO director Phillip Swagel in a statement.

As the national debt climbs, so too will annual budget deficits. The current year’s projected deficit of 4.2 percent of GDP will increase to 8.7 percent by 2049 if current policies are followed—in other words, if the tax cuts are allowed to expire and planned spending cuts occur. Under the alternative scenario, in which the national debt hits 219 percent of GDP, America would be running annual budget deficits of more than 15 percent of GDP by the end of the 2040s.

And, sure, 2049 might sound like a long way off. But it’s really not. It’s as far into the future as the fall of the Berlin Wall is in the past. If the CBO’s projections are accurate, it means the national debt will roughly double between now and the time when most millennials will be retiring.

One of the major problems created by the growing mountain of debt is paying for it. That might sound obvious enough, but one of the major drivers of the long-term debt problem is the interest on the debt itself, according to the CBO’s projections. Discretionary spending is expected to be mostly flat—actually, it’s likely to decline a little—relative to GDP over the next three decades, but the growing cost of the debt and the increasing cost of entitlement programs are real problems.

This is also one area in which there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty in the CBO’s projections. If the interest on the national debt increases—as many observers believe it will at some point, as it becomes increasingly obvious that America has more debt than it can afford—the overall cost of paying down the debt will grow.

The CBO assumes that the interest rate on the debt will never rise above 4.2 percent—well below rates paid as recently as the 1990s. “Many economists believe rising debt will raise interest rates,” says Brian Riedl, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and the author of a plan to hold the debt in check at barely less than 100 percent of GDP. He estimates that every 1 percent rise in interest rates would add $13 trillion in interest costs over 30 years.

“So there is massive interest rate risk in these projections,” he says. “Rising rates will bury us.”

The national debt is “a glaring vulnerability” for America’s long-term national security, warned Maya MacGuineas, president of the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, in an op-ed published this week. If China were to sell-off a sizable portion of the U.S. Treasury bonds it owns—and it owns more than $1 trillion of them—the resulting shake-up could easily trigger a rise in interest rates. Even just a 1 percent increase would cost the United States more next year than we currently spend on the entire U.S. Army, MacGuineas pointed out.

“We don’t know whether China will go as far as to weaponize their Treasury holdings,” she added, somewhat ominously. “Maybe they won’t. Or maybe they will wait until we are in a recession, or until they want to invade Taiwan.”

And if the debt crisis could arrive at any moment, well, there’s no need to wait until the CBO’s projections turn into reality. The debt crisis is already here. Congress, and Trump, should start acting accordingly.

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Marijuana legalization continues to move at blazing fast speeds, with Illinois today becoming the 11th state to lift its prohibition on recreational use.

Earlier this afternoon, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) signed HB 1438—otherwise known as the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act—into law. The bill legalizes marijuana possession for adults 21 and over, expunges court records for marijuana-related convictions and arrests, and establishes a taxing and licensing framework for the newly legal industry.

“Legalizing adult-use cannabis brings an important and overdue change to our state, and it’s the right thing to do,” said Pritzker in a statement, adding that “Illinois is moving forward with empathy and hope.”

By signing HB 1438 into law, Pritzker has made Illinois the first state in the country to pass a comprehensive legalization bill through its state legislature. Nine other states have passed ballot measures legalizing the possession and sale of recreational marijuana. The Vermont Legislature legalized the possession, but not the sale of, marijuana for recreational purposes in 2018.

Starting January 2020, Illinois residents will be allowed to possess up to 30 grams of marijuana for personal use, 5 grams of cannabis concentrate, and up to 500 milligrams of a cannabis-infused product. Non-state residents are allowed to possess half this much.

Significantly, the new marijuana legislation will also allow for the expungement of up to 700,000 records of past violations.

Local law enforcement and state police are directed to start automatically expunging arrest records that did not lead to convictions for low-level cannabis offenses. These expungements must be completed by January 2021 for those with post-2013 arrests. Those with arrests from before 2013 will have their records expunged by January 2023.

Meanwhile, those who were convicted for such low-level offenses will receive a pardon from the governor. The law also allows individuals and state attorneys to file motions to dismiss convictions for possession of up to 500 grams of marijuana.

Beginning in May 2020, the state will start issuing licenses for dispensaries, growers, infusers (makers of edibles and other cannabis products), and distributors. A total of 75 of these licenses will be available for dispensaries starting in May, as will another 40 each for growers, distributors, and infusers. More licenses will become available by December 2021.

Illinois will use a points system to award these licenses.

As part of the bill’s “equity-centric” approach, applicants who either have past marijuana convictions or have lived in a “disproportionately impacted area”—defined as a census tract with either high unemployment, high percentage of children participating in a free lunch program, or with high rates of marijuana arrests and convictions—will get extra points on their application.

These “social equity applicants” will also be eligible to have half of their non-refundable license application fees waived. These fees range from $5,000 to $100,000 depending on the type of license being applied for, and whether the applicant is a “new entrant” or already active in the state’s medical marijuana industry.

Cultivators will have to pay a 7 percent gross receipts tax on what they grow. Consumers will be slapped with excise taxes of between 10 to 25 percent depending on the strength of the marijuana they’re buying.

Moving from a black market to a heavily taxed and regulated one is no easy task, so state residents and visitors can expect a lot of bumps in the road as Illinois plows ahead with implementing legalization.

This road will be made all the bumpier given how much discretion the new law gives to state agencies to craft new regulations—an approach that’s already caused a lot of trouble in places like Oregon and California.

Nevertheless, that the sixth most populous state in the country has legalized marijuana is a tremendous achievement, and just another sign that ending the war on weed has become mainstream.

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2019-06-25 21:26:18

From San Antonio Express-News (Liz Teitz) (paywalled); you can see the deindexing requests in the invaluable Lumen Database:

Google has received six requests to remove links to newspaper columns about Lynette Boggs-Perez, a recently elected Judson ISD trustee [and legal counsel to the Bexar County Republican Party] whose political career in Nevada was dogged by scandal before she moved to Texas.

The opinion columns in the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the San Antonio Express-News describe, among other things, her [now-expunged] 2006 criminal history over flawed election paperwork and a 2017 allegation that she took a neighbor’s puppy and claimed it as her own— a dispute that led her to sue the Converse Police Department….

Boggs-Perez denied sending any of the requests or being aware of them. Why anyone would do so is “beyond my understanding,” she said this week.

Google has not taken action on any of the requests, and the links remain available on the search engine….

In 2007, Boggs was charged with perjury and filing a false statement about her residency when she ran for the Clark County Commission. The perjury charge was dropped when she pleaded to a misdemeanor, which was expunged in 2015, according to the Review-Journal….

One of the alleged Boggs-Perez requests cited a court order, which can be used to compel companies to remove links, typically when a judge finds that there is defamation or copyright infringement. But that request, submitted in December, “does not have anything to do with a court order,” [Adam Holland of the Lumen Database] said. The sender attached instead a copy of the lawsuit Boggs-Perez and her husband filed against the city….

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Amid escalating tensions with Iran, President Donald Trump said on Monday that he does not need to seek congressional approval before carrying out a military strike.

“I like the idea of keeping Congress abreast, but I wouldn’t have to do that,” Trump said in an exchange with The Hill. According to Trump, “most people seem to disagree” with the notion that military action against Iran would require congressional oversight.

Rep. Justin Amash (R–Mich.), who has recently called for Trump’s impeachment, is one who does, in fact, believe that the Constitution grants Congress, and Congress alone, the power to declare war.

The president’s aggression against Iran intensified after the country shot down an unmanned U.S. drone on Thursday. In response, Trump approved and then called off a planned strike against the country that would have killed an estimated 150 Iranians. On Twitter, he explained that such retaliation was “not proportionate” to the damage inflicted by Iran.

While Amash lauded that decision, he did so with caution. “Glad the president pulled back from striking Iran but still waiting on the administration to make its case to Congress,” he tweeted. “Once strikes begin, the administration cannot guarantee things will not spiral out of control. We must do everything possible to prevent another reckless war.”

This isn’t the first time that the libertarian-leaning congressman has spoken out against unauthorized foreign wars. When President Barack Obama ordered the bombing of ISIS targets in Syria in 2014, for example, Amash lamented the complete absence of congressional oversight. The absence of any “debating & voting on war,” Amash said, is “irresponsible & immoral.”

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2019-06-25 20:35:37

Recently, I predicted that former Vice President Joe Biden would quietly move away from his longstanding flirtation with restrictionist policies and tilt in a pro-immigration direction. The Democratic presidential contenders in general are scrambling to be seen as more friendly towards immigration, and given that Biden has made a career out of swinging with the wind like a “rusty weather vane”, as Reason Editor at Large Matt Welch put it, it was only a matter of time before he “creak[ed] in the direction of prevailing winds.”

That time arrived yesterday: Biden penned an op-ed in the Miami Herald positioning himself as a champion of immigrants whose polices will reflect “American values.” But look past the highfalutin rhetoric and what you find is rank hypocrisy combined with the lamest reform agenda.

Biden condemned President Donald Trump’s “morally bankrupt re-election strategy” that, Biden wrote, “relies on vilifying immigrants to score political points.” But Biden forgot to mention that Trump, despite his best efforts, might not be able to match the lofty deportation record of the previous administration, in which Biden himself was second in command. Nor did Biden say a word about the 2012 Criminal Alien Removal Initiative, a nasty little Obama-era pilot program that I wrote about here. Under it, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in plainclothes and unmarked vans would park themselves outside Latino grocery stores, apartment buildings, parks, neighborhoods, and—on one occasion at least—a Bible Study group, and confront whomever they wished, demanding to know their immigration status. The ICE agents would handcuff and detain those they suspected—without a warrant or formal charges, much less allowing them a phone call and legal representation—and forcibly fingerprint them with a high-tech mobile unit. They’d then run the fingerprints through federal databases, a process that would sometimes take hours, during which time the detainees couldn’t leave to pick up their children or get to their jobs. All those flagged as undocumented, even if they were not criminals and therefore not the program’s primary targets, would be dispatched immediately to detention facilities to await deportation.

Biden also harrumphed that “build the wall is a slogan divorced from reality” that “won’t stop the flow of illegal narcotics or human smugglers.” Yet these concerns apparently did not enter his head when he voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush. That law cost federal taxpayers close to $2.5 billion and pushed migrants precisely into the arms of “human smugglers.” That particular wall also redirected migrants into more remote and treacherous routes, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of men, women, and children.

Biden’s Miami Herald piece also expressed support for bringing Dreamers, referring to those who were brought to the country as minors without proper authorization and have since grown up as Americans, “out of the shadows through fair treatment, not ugly threats.” But would he offer them a path to citizenship, which would prevent future threats from future administrations,  or would he offer mere legalization? Biden declined to say. And what about their parents—whom Obama had tried to protect via the Deferred Action for Parental Arrivals program—and the other 6 or 7 million unauthorized immigrants peacefully working, living, and raising families in the United States? Once again, Biden’s silence was deafening.

Biden also lamented the fact that Trump’s efforts to yank “Temporary Protected Status (TPS)” from immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan has “injected unnecessary uncertainty into the lives of thousands of families.” TPS refers to a program under which folks fleeing natural disasters or acute political turmoil are given permission to live and work in America until the situation in their native country has improved.

Biden’s complaint here is correct. And as president, he would presumably reinstate TPS for these people. But that of course won’t protect them from a future president who wants to remove this status. To avoid that possibility, Congress would need to rewrite the law and hand TPS holders a path to permanent residency. Would President Biden support that effort? Mum’s the word!

In his Miami Herald op-ed, Biden also declared that our “asylum system needs to be improved, but the answer is to streamline and strengthen it so that it benefits legitimate claims of those fleeing persecution, while reducing potential for abuse.” But precisely how does he plan to achieve this “streamlining and strengthening”? Trump has insisted that Congress needs to close the loopholes in the asylum law that make it impossible for him to cage asylum seekers with children for more than 20 days. Biden doesn’t exactly say what he thinks of this; instead, he brandishes the “bipartisan effort to address the root causes” that he led as vice president to prevent Central American migrants from fleeing by “improving security, reducing inequality and expanding economic opportunity” in their home countries.

But these are just empty words that won’t do anything for those stuck in those countries now. The most effective way to help them and alleviate the strain on the asylum program—not to mention the border generally—would be to create a proper guest worker program for Central Americans. As I’ve noted previously, Central American migrants have a mix of economic and security reasons for fleeing. But the United States’ current guest worker program is so restrictive that, regardless of the motive, these Central Americans have no other choice but to take their chances with the asylum program, further straining border resources. Would Biden push such reforms as president? He doesn’t say.

And while Julian Castro, the former Democratic mayor of San Antonio, has actually suggested a concrete if modest step to decriminalize immigration—the real “root cause” of the border crisis—Biden only mutters about enhancing “border security.” Castro wants to eliminate Section 1325 of the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act, which made illegal entry a criminal rather than a civil violation and handed Trump a powerful excuse—and tool—to crackdown on border crossers.

One reason Biden is so silent about this aspect of the problem is that he does not want to draw attention to the role he played as a senator in helping President Bill Clinton enact the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. That law not only further criminalized immigration but also upped the penalties for unauthorized entry. It required mandatory detention and “expedited removal” of criminal aliens involved in “aggravated felonies” without so much as a hearing or any consideration of circumstances.

Furthermore, under that 1996 law, the definition of “aggravated felony” was expanded to include such things as drug possession, driving under the influence, and illegal re-entry. The law also basically eviscerated due process for immigrants (even legal ones accused of crimes) and created a criminal–immigration-detention–deportation pipeline that Trump is now using.

Biden rightfully takes Trump to task for calling immigrants “animals” and creating “horrifying scenes at the border of kids being kept in cages, tear-gassing asylum seekers, ripping children from their mothers’ arms.” But if Biden wants to be taken seriously, he should also take himself to task and admit his role in paving the way for the tactics that Trump is now using.

Otherwise, Americans will be forgiven if they see him not as a centrist with gravitas—but as an empty suit in high dudgeon.

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The number of people applying to be cops in Montgomery County, Maryland, has dropped by half in recent years, according to a department complaint last week. Officials suggest it’s because of growing national skepticism toward policing.

“When you do a job that’s being highly criticized on a daily basis, we have to ask ourselves, how do we find good candidates that really want to be under that type of scrutiny,” said Acting Police Chief Marcus Jones.

Montgomery County won’t have an easy time importing its officers from other communities, either. Recruitment of law enforcement officers is down in areas around the country, and the drop in numbers is stark.

“The number of full-time sworn officers per 1,000 residents decreased, from 2.42 in 1997 to 2.17 in 2016,” the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported last summer. The raw number of police officers in the U.S. also declined slightly, from 724,690 in 2013 to 701,169 in 2016.

Next door to Maryland, police departments in Virginia also saw declines in applications. So have departments in Minnesota, in Nashville, and in New York City, to name a few.

Nationally, 66 percent of police departments report seeing declining numbers of applications, according to a survey of 400 law enforcement agencies by the the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF).

The FBI suffers similar recruiting challenges, with special agent applicants plummeting from 68,500 in 2009 to 11,500 last year. This year, the Bureau doubled its recruitment advertising budget in an effort to attract more warm bodies.

These drops aren’t necessarily a bad thing. The cop hiring crisis offers an opportunity for rethinking how we keep the peace in this country.

That opportunity could be squandered, however, if authorities don’t address the problems of brutality and bias in police forces while resisting intrusive tactics that could make policing even nastier.

“The American policing profession may be facing the most fundamental questioning of its legitimacy in decades,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, in a 2017 organizational newsletter. “The very essence of policing is being debated in many cities, often because of controversial video recordings of police officers’ actions. Community trust has eroded, and the professionalism of the police is being questioned.”

A healthy job market gets some of the credit for the police recruitment crunch but, as Jones and Wexler describe, law enforcement has lost its gloss in the eyes of many Americans. Public opinion of law enforcement slid to a 22-year low in 2015, according to a Gallup poll.

Numbers have somewhat rebounded since, but that only emphasizes a racial gap in perceptions of police. African-Americans, in particular, tend to view cops as the government’s enforcers rather than as protectors, amidst widely publicized racist incidents and concerns that their communities are disproportionately (and corruptly) targeted. In addition, a militarized police culture that arms officers with weapons of war and trains officers to treat the public as enemies worries those who feel targeted not over race, but just for not being cops.

The FBI has its own issues with declining supportespecially among Republicans—after once again getting drawn into political shenanigans. Given the Bureau’s history of misconduct, it’s arguably to Americans’ discredit that it took so long for us to become disenchanted.

Heavy-handed modern policing hasn’t just alienated the public; it’s decimated the pool of potential recruits.

“Some potential hires are ineligible to be considered because of prior arrests and convictions on minor criminal charges, such as possessing an open container of alcohol in public,” PERF’s Wexler points out. “This situation is especially prevalent in agencies that have practiced strict ‘zero tolerance’ policing in the past.”

That last point may offer a key to improving relations between the public and what used to be known as “peace officers,” by pursuing a less confrontational approach to policing.

“This militarized transformation of American law enforcement—and all that comes with it…should not be a part of the American landscape,” former Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief of Police Stephen Downing wrote for Reason five years ago. He went on to propose a program including ending drug prohibition, doing away with federal provision of military equipment and training to police departments, dumping civil asset forfeiture and its incentives to official banditry, reining-in search procedures, and establishing effective civilian oversight.

“With these kinds of reforms in place we could begin to heal our communities; diminish the mass incarceration of people of color; allow more parents to be with their children and fewer children to be sent to foster homes; recognize that addiction is a health rather than a criminal-justice problem, and supplant prison with treatment; abate the arms race between the police, gangs, and cartels; end police profiling; and restore the requirement of reasonable suspicion as an irrevocable feature of constitutional policing,” he added.

Downing’s proposals parallel, in many ways, the 2015 recommendations of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. While stopping short of a retreat on drug prohibition, the task force’s report noted, “law enforcement cannot build community trust if it is seen as an occupying force coming in from outside to impose control on the community.” The report called for less-brutal tactics, consent-based searches, demilitarized police forces, and civilian oversight, among other changes.

The proposals were largely ignored at the time and pushed aside by the Trump administration’s renewed emphasis on law-and-order policing even as crime rates continue their three-decade decline. But reformist ideas about restrained, less-intrusive policing aren’t just philosophically attractive to those of us who care about liberty—they may help thinning police ranks reconcile with a hostile population.

Unfortunately, improvement isn’t inevitable. Bad ideas abound, too.

“Contemporary researchers and police believe that they can…predict a crime before it happens—using computer algorithms,” Reason‘s Ron Bailey warned in 2016.

Police in some communities already adjust how they interact with people they meet based on risk scores assigned by computer algorithms. Cops like predictive policing because it lets them target anticipated trouble spots. But such tactics can become self-fulfilling.

“This creates a vicious cycle where police are sent to certain locations because the program predicts these locations to have the most crime, and the police begin to believe these same locations have the most crime because these were the locations to which they were sent,” cautions the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Dozens of cities have already deployed predictive policing software, Vice reported earlier this year. That means there’s a good chance police will soon have a risk assessment appended to your name that will affect how much violence they bring to traffic stops and appearances at your door.

So, which will it be? Will law enforcement agencies rein-in their excesses and start interacting with the people around them as humans to be protected rather than as enemies to be dominated? Or will they instead assess us as committers of crimes that have yet to occur?

With their ranks diminishing and morale in the pits, policing will certainly change—for better or worse.

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2019-06-25 14:44:08

It is probably not an accident that the first word in the titles of the two most notable pieces outlining the tenets of the post-liberal right—Sohrab Ahmari’s recent First Things essay “Against David French-ism,” and an earlier manifesto, “Against the Dead Consensus,” also in First Things—is “against.” The post-liberals know definitively what they oppose. The question is: What are they for

As National Review‘s Charles C.W. Cooke wrote last week in a sharply argued piece, there is something profoundly incoherent to the post-liberal ideology, a lack of discrete and practical steps that might be taken to achieve their ends, or anything like a concrete sense of what that end might look like, were it to be achieved. It’s remarkably unclear what, exactly, the post-liberals actually want. 

The Dead Consensus manifesto leans heavily on hopelessly vague generalities like, “We stand with the American citizen” and “We oppose the soulless society of individual affluence.” The manifesto has a distinctive vibe, but it’s not exactly a to-do list. Ahmari’s anti-French essay argues for “[fighting] the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.” Ah, yes—not only the common good but also the Highest Good. Surely that won’t be too difficult to determine. Everyone knows and agrees on exactly what that is, and why it deserves to be capitalized. 

And yet it is possible to detect something that connects the post-liberal worldview, a shared sensibility that is, if not a platform or a program, at least a sort of guidepost suggesting a way forward. And that is an underlying sense of censoriousness. It is a prevailing belief that free expression has simply gone too far, and that the state should probably do something about it. 

Think of the incident that prompted Ahmari’s essay about French-ism, a Facebook ad for a “drag queen story hour” at a Sacramento public library. This was the display, the cultural occasion, that sparked his ire: Not a restriction on religious liberty or an imposition on his faith, but a positive depiction of a lifestyle he disagrees with in a public venue. This is the sort of thing a David French-ist might not fundamentally object to, but that Ahmari would. Ahmari, in other words, is against a public square that is open to forms of personal expression he doesn’t approve of. 

You could see the same censorious tendency at play in Ahmari’s now-deleted Twitter post praising Alabama public television for refusing to air an episode of Arthur, an animated PBS kids show about an aardvark, because it depicted a gay wedding. 

Perhaps the right compromise here is that there shouldn’t be publicly funded television or libraries. But the proper role of public funding is not what Ahmari is arguing about. 

What he and the post-liberals like him want is a popular culture shorn of the images and ideas and lifestyles they deem wrong for society, or just plain don’t like. Which helps explain why First Things editor Matthew Schmitz, in defending Ahmari’s worldview, chided French for watching and referring to “an explicit TV series, Game of Thrones.” This isn’t a dispute about public funding for libraries; it’s about casting scorn on forms of cultural expression that the post-liberals regard as ugly and indecent. It’s an argument that some forms of expression cross the line of social acceptability.  

Combine this with their stated willingness to use the force of government to achieve their ends and their distaste for individual autonomy, and it becomes clear that much of what they are after is a kind of soft censorship, in which the post-liberals use state power to discourage, if not actively suppress, disfavored forms of expression for political, religious, and personal ends. It’s about controlling what people say. 

Which brings us to Sen. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.). In Washington Free Beacon Editor Matthew Continetti’s recent taxonomy of the right, he identified Hawley as “closest the post-liberals have to a spokesman in the Senate,” noting that the young senator “has already established himself as a social conservative unafraid of government power.” 

As if on cue, Hawley last week introduced a bill to revoke current protections afforded to large internet companies by Section 230, which essentially indemnifies tech businesses from material posted by their users. In order to keep those protections in place, Hawley’s proposal would force large tech companies to obtain a certification from the Federal Trade Commission that they are politically neutral. 

Hawley has framed his proposal as a way of preventing censorship, arguing that the largest and most powerful technology companies are biased against conservatives. His bill is thus predicated on a convenient misunderstanding of what censorship is: A private company, like Facebook or Twitter, suspending an account or deleting a post is no more censorship than a bar owner kicking out an unwelcome patron is censorship. 

But when the government sets up a board of political appointees as the arbiter of what is and isn’t politically “neutral” on the internet’s largest platforms for personal expression, a recurring process that effectively determines their right to exist, it may not quite be censorship in the strictest sense—but it’s awfully close. It’s a way of giving the government control, a de facto veto power, over privately-owned forums for self-expression. It’s a proposal driven by the same censorious impulse that drives so much of the post-liberal right. 

Hawley’s legislation probably won’t pass, at least not any time soon. The passage of legislation may not even be the point. But even if that’s the case, the introduction of the bill is, at minimum, intended to put tech companies on notice, to bully them, in the way that only a sitting senator in the U.S. Congress can bully, into setting speech rules that are more to the liking of, well, Josh Hawley, and those who think like him. 

That is what the post-liberal right wants, perhaps more than anything else: To control the venues for speech, both public and private, and to discourage and punish lifestyles and ideas and expressive acts they view as unpleasant or depraved or inappropriate or immoral, using the force of the government if necessary. They are pursuing this campaign under the usual social-conservative guise of helping families and protecting children and restoring decency to an immodest and vulgar nation…presumably with someone modest and tasteful, like Donald Trump—who Ahmari praised as someone whose “instinct has been to shift the cultural and political mix, ever so slightly, away from autonomy-above-all toward order, continuity, and social cohesion“—as president. This isn’t about families, not really. It’s about power. 

The post-liberal worldview is priggish and intolerant, an ideology rooted in a moralizing authoritarianism. For it is predicated on the assumption—the assumption that the censorious always make—that the world would be better if people weren’t free to speak and live peacefully as they choose, because they, the enlightened few, know best. 

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