FREE MARKETS UBER ALLES

World per capita income didn’t change much from the time of Christ to the founding of the United States ($444 to $650 in 1990 International dollars), a period of 1,790 years. But in the following 320 years it jumped to $8,080. And about half of that jump came over the last 50 years. What explains this fairly recent explosion of well being? Many things, of course, but central to this explosion of wealth was trade. Only when people could specialize, which requires relying on others to produce part of what they need or want, i.e. to trade, was it possible to dramatically increase the productivity of individuals. The prospect of selling to others also carried the incentive to innovate and develop new technologies, etc.

Trading requires some level of trust in the person you are trading with and mutual acceptance of the rules of the game (contracts). This is relatively easy when you trade with your neighbors and fellow villagers face to face. But as trade extended over longer distances—as it expanded from personal to impersonal dealings— the development of trust became more challenging but no less essential. Product standardization, for example, allowed even greater efficiency and productivity but also facilitated the development of trust in the quality of what we are buying. Companies invested in building and preserving their reputations, which became associated with brand names. As trade expanded, the need for trust was satisfied in more innovative ways.

In today’s rapidly expanding Internet world, where virtually anything under the sun (virtual or real) can be traded via the impersonal Internet, the old brand name reputation approach to establishing trust continues to be useful. Thus we trust the level of quality of products marketed by Sears, or Nieman Marcus on their website to match what we find in their physical locations. However, “the customer review” is rapidly becoming an important source of trust, whether looking for a plumber, a restaurant, a hotel room, or buying a new car.

Government’s have long facilitated trade via providing security (Feudal Lords providing Sheriffs to hunt down highway robbers) and enforcement of contracts. At some point governments began to think that they could establish (or replace) trust more effectively than did competitive markets by imposing regulations to inform or protect consumers. Standard product information, for example, the contents and their nutritional values on the labels of food products, help consumers decide which product best meets their needs. Licensing practitioners of various professions—from cab drivers to physicians—became a widespread form of vetting minimum professional competence or standards. In many if not most professions the regulators tended to be captured by the industry they regulated resulting in protection of the practitioners from competition rather than protection of the customers from poorly trained service providers. Medical doctors fought, often successfully for a long time, competition from providers of alternative medical services (chiropractors, acupuncturists, Internet medical service providers, etc.). Licensed taxi companies obtained exclusive rights to serve specific areas and limit their number in order to boost fares in the name of consumer protection.

The medallions required to operate a taxi in New York City are a famous example of a government created monopoly. The following is from the website of the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission announcing the auction of 89 medallions on May 2, 2008:

New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) Commissioner/Chairman Matthew W. Daus has determined that the Minimum Upset (Bid) Price for each of the 43 available lots of two Minifleet (Corporate) Accessible Medallions that will be auctioned on May 2, 2008 will be $700,000. One Individual Accessible Medallion will likewise be available for bid on that date at a Minimum Upset Price, also set by the Chairman, of $189.000, as will two Individual Alternative-Fuel Medallions at a Minimum Upset Price of $300,000.

The Minimum Upset Price is the minimum amount that will be considered valid. The highest valid bids will be named apparent winners.

Such systems of licensing are meant to insure minimum quality of service (both of the car and of the driver). They are meant to establish trust on the part of customers that when a yellow car pulls up, he will not over charge or rape or rob you. These issues are explored in an interesting paper by Christopher Koopman, Matthew Mitchell, and Adam Thierer: “The Sharing Economy and Consumer Protection Regulation: The Case for Policy Change” Mercatus Center, George Mason University

http://mercatus.org/sites/default/files/Koopman-Sharing-Economy.pdf

“Under the traditional ‘public interest theory’ of regulation, regulation is sought to protect consumers from externalities, inadequate competition, price gouging, asymmetric information, unequal bargaining power, and a host of other perceived ‘market failures’.”

Unfortunately, as economists Mark Steckbeck and Peter J. Boettke observe, regulators often ignore ‘the dynamism of markets and the incentive mechanism driving entrepreneurs to discover ways to ameliorate problems associated with market exchange.’” page 6

“Writing in 1920, Arthur C. Pigou cautioned against contrasting ‘the imperfect adjustments of unfettered private enterprise with the best adjustment that economists in their studies can imagine.’ Instead, he noted that in the real world, policymakers may not implement policy as scholars think they ought to: For we cannot expect that any public authority will attain, or will even whole-heartedly seek, that ideal. Such authorities are liable alike to ignorance, to sectional pressure and to personal corrup¬tion by private interest. A loud-voiced part of their constituents, if organised for votes, may easily outweigh the whole.” Page 7

“Because rent-seeking is used to contrive exclusive privileges rather than to create value for customers, these efforts cost society forgone productive opportunities. To compound the problem, rent-seeking changes the way people allocate their talents. Rather than keeping a focus on devising new and innovative ways to create value, entrepreneurs turn their efforts toward devising new ways to acquire these regulatory privileges.” Page 10

So how has NYC’s medallion system worked? Ask a New Yorker. In 2006 there were only 12,799 licensed taxicabs in New York City, compared with 21,000 in 1931, when the city had about 1 million fewer inhabitants.

Koopman, et al, explore the implication of the choice (or mix) between market and government regulation for the area of what they call the “sharing economy.” The trading facilitated by Craigslist, Uber, and Airbnb has existed for centuries, but the use of the Internet by some clever entrepreneurs has transformed the business model.

Most of us in years past have taken advantage of a limousine driver between official jobs passing by slowly and offering a relatively cheap fare. Unauthorized drivers hang around airports and Theaters to pick up extra fares illegally. My favorite experiences were in the former Soviet Union in the first few years after its collapse. Most everyone wanted free markets but didn’t have a very clear idea how they were organized. We came to realize that virtually any car on the road was potentially an informal taxi. We could flag down almost any car and if we could communicate where we wanted to go and agree on a price, we had a ride. Uber has provided a high tech means of connecting such drivers with customers. “The company says it is not a transport or taxi service; it is a technology company whose product is not car rides but the phone application used to arrange them. Its UberX service relies on partnerships with thousands of independent contractors who use their own vehicles. Drivers find passengers using Uber’s phone app and then remit a percentage of the fare to the company.” uber-pressures-regulators-by-mobilizing-riders-and-hiring-vast-lobbying-network/2014/12/13/Washington Post

But what about trust? Those of you who have used Uber have probably experienced, as I have, an easier, faster, more polite, and cheaper ride. But how can we trust that the car will be safe and the driver competent and honest? The success of Uber and other web based services rests on their being able to satisfy these concerns. Will the dictates of market success do a better job than government regulation in satisfying these customer concerns?

“Reputation systems are arguably the unsung heroes of the social web. In some form or another, they are an integral part of most of today’s social web applications.” Chrysanthos Dellarocas, “Designing Reputation Systems for the Social Web,” in The Reputation Society: How Online Opinions Are Reshaping the Offline World, ed. Hassan Masum and Mark Tovey (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011), 3. To gain and keep the public’s trust, Uber has established internal standards for the private drivers and their cars that it signs up to connect with customers through Uber. The failure of any driver or car to live up to those standards (and they have several car types) hurts Uber’s reputation and thus its bottom line. It has a strong incentive to get it right. Uber also uses easy to provide customer reviews of each ride experience as do a growing number of web based trading serves.

But what about dishonest reviewers, perhaps working for a competitor (the world is a harsh and cynical place)? The presence of dishonest people lowers the standard of living in any society whatever its system of government or economy. Societies heavily dominated by honest people, are more prosperous. But some people will be dishonest and we need ways to deal with them and minimize their damage. Waze, the very popular GPS based car destination app, provides up to the minute information on traffic conditions on your route provided by users on the spot. It harnesses the desire of most people to be helpful. The information provided by users (their reviews, if you will) is rated for accuracy by other users (in the form of an easily delivered “thank you”). I have no doubt that services traded via the Internet will continue to explore better ways of establishing trust in the products and services traded there.

The recent alleged rape of a young woman in New Delhi, India by an Uber driver raises this issue in a dramatic way that the rape of a young woman in Fort Lauderdale two months earlier by a Yellow cab driver didn’t seem to. A foolish, careless comment by an Uber official about how he might use travel information on Uber’s customers, also raises questions about the safety and uses of such information. Are these problems better handled by regulation or by market competition?

The answer in my view is that the government should provide the foundation for trade provided by contract law and its enforcement, and minimal requirements that are generally applicable (a driver’s license and appropriate insurance). But the Uber’s of the world should be required by free competition to prove themselves and their service to the satisfaction of their potential customers rather than to regulators. If you want to know the standards of safety Uber has set for its self as it seeks customers, check its website, for example: http://blog.uber.com/driverscreening.

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A Citizen confronts the Bureaucracy

I recently concluded a contract with the National Bank of Kazakhstan to provide technical assistance in their effort to develop inflation-targeting capacity. I am working together with an American and a Czech econometrician, and thus decided it would be best to incorporate as a Limited Liability Company.

I live in Maryland and thus went to the Maryland government’s website and within half an hour had not only filled in the required application and paid the required fee, but had actually received (via email) the official, signed registration and Articles of Organization document for my company “Economic Consulting, LLC.” Sorry about the unimaginative name, I will give it more thought the next time.

Kazakhstan is a signatory of a tax treaty with the United States that requires it to deduct 20% from any payments to me under our contract unless I have provided a number of specific documents. In addition to the above Articles of Organization, I must also provide a certificate of residency for the company issued by the U.S. Treasury’s Internal Revenue Service and certified by an Apostille issued by our State Department. Rather than have 20% deducted, we agreed that the National Bank would not pay me anything until these documents were received. I was on a learning curve that I really didn’t care to be on.

Hence began what I hoped would be an equally efficient e-government interaction with the Federal government that proved to be anything but. For starters, the form 8802 to request the certificate was three complicated pages long and could not be submitted on-line. Thus the printed form and my check for $85 were sent August 27, 2014 to the IRS by U.S. mail. On September 3 my check cleared so I knew the request had been received. One worry eliminated.

A month later on October 6th I received a letter from the IRS that I assumed was the long-awaited certificate. Instead it was an acknowledgement that my request had been received on September 3rd and that the requested certificate would be sent within 30 days. And indeed in another 30 days another letter arrived, but rather than the certificate it was another letter like the last one saying that the certificate would be sent within another 30 days. Shit.

The letter provided a phone number, which I now called expecting a long wait at the end of an automated list of choices. In fact, the wait was only about 20 minutes at which point Karen answered my call. “Oh my goodness. You should not have received those letters (i.e., we should not have sent those letters). Those were the wrong letters because there was a problem with your request.” She proceeded to carefully and politely walked me through the application form to correct the one or two things I had gotten wrong. The confusion resulted from the fact that I will as always file my business expenses and income on Form C of the 1040 rather than filing separately for the LLC. Blaw, blaw, blaw.

Karen gave me her personal business fax number (yes the U.S. government still uses faxes) and said that she would process it right away. As I no longer have a fax machine, I walked down the street to a neighbor’s with a fax and sent it off receiving the normal confirmation that it had been received. Ten days passed. Calling that number had been so successful the last time that I tried it again. After a one-hour wait on hold Ms. Douglas answered my call and assured me that my fax had never been received. A short, pointless discussion followed about the earlier fax and I finally agreed to send it again, this time to her fax number. I needed the exercise anyway. She promised to call me to confirm its receipt, which in fact she did saying that it was now fine and she would process it immediately and I should receive the certificate within ten days. I was excited by the progress, but reflect nostalgically on the 30-minute start to finish, all on-line, incorporation of my company in Maryland.

Ten days passed and it hadn’t arrived so a called again, this time with only a 15 minute wait (note to self: Monday at noon is a good time to call the IRS). Jane informed me that the document had been processed by Ms. Douglas and printed and would now be ship to the Utah center for mailing to me and should arrive within ten days!!! They don’t do this every day, she explained politely. You can’t make this stuff up. I took a deep breath and struggled to keep my voice under control. I reminisced nostalgically about the 30-minute start-to-finish (including delivery to my desk) incorporation of my little company in Maryland.

Jane quickly agreed with me that it would be nice for the Federal Government to catch up with the twentieth century (I meant the 21st century—but would settle for the 20th). Unfortunately, unlike the private sector, which is continually looking for ways to do things better for less, Jane and her boss have no incentive to do anything about the ridiculous process she described to me. The state of Maryland, which seems better organized and better managed, does at least feel a bit of competitive pressure from Virginia and other states, lacking at the Federal level. I am not about to move to Mexico or some other country over this.

The certificate—a one liner confirming my address – finally arrived on December 3, 98 days after my request. Now I can learn about how to get an Apostille and hopefully get paid. I assure you that I have not made any of this up. Please pray for me.

P.S. The State Department office of Authentication informed me by phone with no wait at all that I could not get an appointment (at which time the Apostille could be given while I waited) for 15 days, but that I could drop it off and it would be ready within three days. Sounds encouraging but I am not holding my breath.

P.P.S. As instructed, this morning (December 4) I drove into town to “drop off” my document to be authenticated and was informed that the drop off is only from 8:00-9:00 am — I was too late. Back tomorrow!!!

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Afghan President Ghani’s attack on corruption?

The Comptroller General of Da Afghanistan Bank, Afghanistan’s central bank, has been sitting in jail since October 8 along with 3 DAB colleagues as part of President Ghani’s attack on corruption. What has he done, asked the two young children of this young 32-year-old rising Afghan star? Muhammad Qaseem Rahimi was one of 21 Afghans convicted on March 6, 2013 by a Special Tribunal appointed by President Karzai for crimes associated with the Kabul Bank fraud, by which Afghanistan’s largest bank channeled virtually all of its almost one billion U.S dollars worth of depositor money to a handful of its owners and their friends.

Kabul Bank’s founder Sher Khan Farnod and his former bodyguard and later Kabul Bank CEO Khalil Ferozi received light sentences of five years in prison and were asked to repay 279 million, 531 million respectively. Mahmood Karzai, one of the President’s brothers and the third largest shareholder got off scot free having repaid part of what he had “borrowed” and claiming that he did not need to repay the loan he received to buy his shares (illegal in itself) because the shares were now worthless!!! These two primary perpetrators of this crime, as well as the other 19 appealed their convictions. Farnod and Ferozi have repaid nothing and have been seen dinning around Kabul ever since. In one of his first acts as President, Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank employee, ordered: the Supreme Court to get on with the case, the confiscation of stolen assets, the prosecution of accomplices, and the immediate incarceration of those convicted pending the resolution of their appeals. Justice finally on the move? Perhaps.

At the time of Kabul bank’s collapse four years ago, young Qaseem had just recently been appointed Deputy Director General of the central bank’s Supervision Department. As one of a group of young Afghan university graduates recruited to the central bank for special mentoring under a highly successful USAID capacity building program, Qaseem, a natural leader, rose rapidly within DAB. I frequently saw him standing in the middle of an admiring circle of his peers. As a Tajik of about 5’10’’ he towered over his much shorter Pashtun colleagues making him seem taller than he really is. After his two year mentoring appointment he left DAB and Kabul for graduate studies in Kuala Lumpur. Upon his return he pondered his options for a clearly bright future and with some hesitation (and some urging from me) returned to the central bank. He had hoped for a directorship but instead was offered the position of Deputy Director General of the Supervision Department. So what crime had he committed for which he now sits in jail?

The Special Tribunal found Qaseem as well as the Governor of the central bank, Abdul Fitrat, and its First Deputy Governor, Mohibullah Safi, both of whom have now fled the country, and five other DAB employees guilty of dereliction of duty. They had failed to detect and report the cleaver fraud perpetrated by Farnod and Ferozi. Though hard working and intelligent, at 28 years old Qaseem naturally lacked the experience of seasoned banking supervisors, who would have had great difficulty detecting this fraud as well. The central bank law like those in most every other country protects its employees from prosecution for acts committed in the good faith exercise of their duties.

At least two questions leap out immediately. How could the central bank staff have been charged and convicted in the first place and why haven’t their appeals been heard until now?

It is widely believed in the international community that the charges and convictions against the central bank governor and his staff were President Karzai’s retaliation for the embarrassment caused when Governor Fitrat disclosed the names of Kabulbank shareholders and borrowers in public testimony in Parliament on April 21, 2011. The names included one of Karzai’s brothers and one of Vice President Fahim’s brothers. Governor Fitrat resigned and fled the country for the United States soon thereafter for his safety. In a normal country these vengeful convictions would have been thrown out promptly but sadly Afghanistan and especially its judiciary is one of the most corrupt in the world.

But why Qaseem and his colleagues are still sitting in jail is harder to answer. If President Ghani wishes to move away from rule by Presidential fiat, as seems the case, he is right to adhere to established procedures as painful as they are. But jailing those convicted pending the consideration of their appeal is almost unheard of in other countries, though it is satisfying to see Farnod and Ferozi finally behind bars. An honest judiciary would have thrown out the convictions of the central bank employees long ago. Let’s hope they finally do so quickly now.

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My Prayers for Afghanistan

As of today (Monday September 29, 2014) Afghanistan has a new government headed by two very capable men, Ashraf Ghani, President, and Abdullah Abdullah, Chief Executive, of a new unity government. It is the first democratic change of government in Afghanistan’s history. It was not easy for Afghanistan to get to this place, and it is not clear whether the compromise, unity government, will hold together and work constructively together. The election, though bravely participated in by a large majority of Afghan people, was messy. And Afghanistan has a long way to go to achieve the norms of a peaceful, just, and prosperous 21st century country.

The best organization of the governance of Afghanistan’s ethnic and tribal groups (Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Aimak, Turkmen, Baloch, Pashai, Nuristani, Sadat, Gujjar, Arab, Brahui, Pamiri, etc.), if there is a “best,” is still evolving. The traditional ways of tribal life need to adjust to the standards of liberal democracies, which provide more space for individual expression and diversity and govern interactions under the rule of law. It is not easy today for the single breadwinner of an extended family to explain why he is not able to provide a job for his nephew, for which the nephew is not qualified. Merit based employment and promotion are among the concepts upon which the well-being of modern economies depend.

But Afghanistan faces more difficult challenges. The deadly insurgency of a relatively small band of terrorists (Taliban), who wrap their vicious immorality in the name of Islam (to the shame of real Muslims), continues and must be contained to the more manageable level of criminality that every society sadly must deal with. Afghanistan also suffers from the serious cancer of corruption, which has been feed and nurtured by the billions of dollars of foreign financial aid given with the aim of fighting the Taliban and establishing modern, liberal institutions. This is a paradox, not unlike over medicating a human cancer patient. The flow of foreign money is a magnet that attracts and feeds corruption, but without it the patient is likely to die. The over medication must be reduced, but finding the right balance will not be easy.

Afghanistan’s new President promises to give the fight against corruption, which will be long and hard at best, his highest priority. Referring to Sherkhan Farnood and Khalilullah Ferozi, the founders of Kabulbank, which had quickly grown to be Afghanistan’s largest bank when it collapsed in 2010 when the public and the authorities discovered that they had lent virtually all of its almost one billion U.S. dollars worth of deposits to themselves, Ghani stated that: “I will prosecute the two culprits. This will be the first sign that I am not going to tolerate impunity,” he said. “The Afghan public is sick and tired of corruption, we are not going to revive the economy without tackling corruption root, stock and branch.” I pray that he succeeds. Few things are as important for Afghanistan’s future than dramatically reducing corruption.

The hope for a better future for Afghanistan, however, rests, as always, with its young. I have worked in many struggling countries and have always met a few dedicated and intelligent people there. However, Afghanistan is blessed with a large number of unusually talented young men and women determined to make their country a better place. The extensive corruption over their heads will make that difficult. For some, the pressures and temptations of such ill-gotten wealth will overcome their nobler ideals. But I am praying that enough of these fine young people will be strong enough to persevere in their commitment to the rule of law and a better society. Their battle has not been and will not be easy. But I have been impressed by their determination and commitment to what is right. It has been a great pleasure to work with them. While Afghanistan’s new leaders will be able to send Afghanistan in a better direction if they choose to, my hope for this beautiful country rests with the new generation now moving up through its institutions.

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The Levant

President Obama has announced his strategy for dealing with the Islamic State (a.k.a. the ISIL—Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). Does it make sense? In thinking about the answer to that question, consider Kevin Lees’ thoughtful assessment — five-thoughts-on-obama’s-isis-announcement – some reflections by Daniel Drezner– four-questions-about-obamas-isil-strategy and the following fantasy.

In order to kill all 28,000 ISIL fighters now in Iraq the United States and its allies Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan, Turkey and, dare I say, Iran, deploy 50,000, 100,000, 150,000 (whatever it takes) ground troops in the region (which includes, of course, Syria). These are augmented by U.S. logistical support (intelligence, aerial bombing, weapons, ammunition, and other supplies etc.). Leave aside the detail that their involvement in Iraq would be at the request of the government of Iraq, while their involvement in Syria would constitute war against the government of Syria. They succeed fully. Then what? Countering-islamic-state-will-be-hard-in-iraq-and-harder-in-syria-officials-say/2014/09/10/

The key question is whether a fully successful, foreign led military assault will result in or lead to a sufficiently strong Iraqi army to defend the country going forward, and in Syria I am not sure what, and that the ethnic/religious groups within Iraq and Syria will have, or soon be able to, resolve their governance issues sufficiently to function effectively as countries. Experience with foreign intervention in civil wars (e.g., Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Iraq in 2004) suggests that progress toward resolving internal issues is suspended as foreigners take over the fighting. Moreover the foreign liberators quickly become foreign occupiers and thus targets of unhappy citizens—if not the ISIL fighters, then their successors.

In that likely case, the United States and its allies will need to govern Iraq and Syria for a few years until local institutions and political forces develop sufficiently to take over self-governance. We did this before in Iraq from 2003-5, with the Coalition Provisional Authority of which I was a part (Senior Monetary Policy Adviser to the Central Bank of Iraq). While some useful institution building was accomplished, the overall effort was a failure, with Iraq’s governance under al-Maliki about where it was in 2004 or worse. Do we really want to try it again?

Aside from deep concerns about war with Syria, I think that President Obama’s strategy as outlined yesterday (Sept 10) is about right if not a bit overly aggressive. Iraq will not address and resolve its internal issues unless they do the fighting to defend their country, working out and making the compromises needed for peace and cooperation among its Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish populations. Limited, non-combat assistance from the U.S. and others can make a large difference, but it is and must remain Iraq’s war. To my taste Obama is leading a bit too much from the front when he should be leading from behind, but he has so far set out a strategy that could work. I hope that he sticks to it.

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The Abuse of Civil Forfeiture

The price of liberty is eternal vigilance

We need to repeat this warning twice every day. Today’s example comes from a three-part series in The Washington Post on the use and abuse of civil forfeiture by the police. Our free press is an essential pillar of our liberty.

The police, whose job is to protect us and enforce the law, can catch criminals more easily if they can freely search our private properties (our homes, cars, email, etc). It is more difficult to get away with unwanted crimes in a totalitarian state than in a liberal democracy that respects privacy as an important protection against the abuse of state power. We have wisely chosen not to live in a totalitarian state and have struck a balance between privacy and state/police intrusiveness that favors privacy. This makes it more difficult for the police to find criminals, but reduces the number of innocent citizens falsely accused. This is the way we like it, and we need to remain vigilant to keep it that way.

We also understand the importance of incentives for influencing and motivating behavior. If we want to encourage more of a particular activity, rewarding it financially can be effective. If those who find stolen (or illegally earned) money get to keep some of it, more will be found. That is what bounty hunting was (is) all about. But what if those finding the money are also given the authority to judge its legality? That would constitute a clear-cut conflict of interest. A bounty hunter could increase his financial take by declaring money illegal in questionable cases without due process to protect the innocent.

Our sacred principle of “innocent until proven guilty” is being undermined by the civil forfeiture of private property by police who are allowed to keep part of what they take. “Civil forfeiture is the government power to take property suspected of involvement in a crime. Unlike criminal forfeiture—used to take the ill-gotten gains of criminal activity after a criminal conviction—with civil forfeiture, police can take property without so much as charging the owner with any wrongdoing.” http://www.ij.org/inequitablejustice

“Cash seizures can be made under state or federal civil law. One of the primary ways police departments are able to seize money and share in the proceeds at the federal level is through a long-standing Justice Department civil asset forfeiture program known as Equitable Sharing. Asset forfeiture is an extraordinarily powerful law enforcement tool that allows the government to take cash and property without pressing criminal charges and then requires the owners to prove their possessions were legally acquired.” http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/investigative/2014/09/06/stop-and-seize/

The practice of “equitable sharing” encourages police to circumvent state laws on civil forfeiture in order to share in the proceeds of property confiscated under federal law. This financial incentive encourages the police to seize more private property but suffers from an unacceptable conflict of interest. The results, as revealed in The Washington Post’s three article series, can be ugly. We should not be surprised, but we should be indignant.

Here is one of many examples: “Mandrel Stuart, a 35-year-old African American owner of a small barbecue restaurant in Staunton, Va., was stunned when police took $17,550 from him during a stop in 2012 for a minor traffic infraction on Interstate 66 in Fairfax. He rejected a settlement with the government for half of his money and demanded a jury trial. He eventually got his money back but lost his business because he didn’t have the cash to pay his overhead.
“I paid taxes on that money. I worked for that money,” Stuart said. “Why should I give them my money?”” http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/investigative/2014/09/06/stop-and-seize/

“Last year, equitable-sharing agreements funneled $600 million to police budgets. Clearly, with the size of the federal Asset Forfeiture Fund exceeding $2 billion in 2013, civil forfeiture is big business for the government.” http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/tim-walberg-an-end-to-the-abuse-of-civil-forfeiture/2014/09/04/e7b9d07a-3395-11e4-9e92-0899b306bbea_story.html

“The Post found:
• There have been 61,998 cash seizures made on highways and elsewhere since 9/11 without search warrants or indictments through the Equitable Sharing Program, totaling more than $2.5 billion. State and local authorities kept more than $1.7 billion of that while Justice, Homeland Security and other federal agencies received $800 million. Half of the seizures were below $8,800.
• Only a sixth of the seizures were legally challenged, in part because of the costs of legal action against the government. But in 41 percent of cases — 4,455 — where there was a challenge, the government agreed to return money. The appeals process took more than a year in 40 percent of those cases and often required owners of the cash to sign agreements not to sue police over the seizures.
• Hundreds of state and local departments and drug task forces appear to rely on seized cash, despite a federal ban on the money to pay salaries or otherwise support budgets. The Post found that 298 departments and 210 task forces have seized the equivalent of 20 percent or more of their annual budgets since 2008.

“Since 2001, police have seized $2.5 billion in cash from people who were never charged with a crime.”  http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/09/08/civil-asset-forfeitures-more-than-double-under-obama/

This has gone much too far for the health of our Republic.

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The Rule of Law

The rule of law is an essential foundation of modern market economies. It increases the prospect and expectation that our individual efforts will be rewarded on the basis of merit (i.e., the success with which we satisfy the public’s wants at prices the public is willing to pay) rather than on the basis of favoritism (i.e., who we know). It introduces an element of certainty (rules of the game) in an otherwise uncertain world upon which to build our entrepreneurial efforts. It is fundamental to our notion of fairness and a protector of our personal freedoms. It is a notion and practice that attracts wide admiration from ambitious and freedom-loving people around the world and to our great benefit brings many of them to our shores.

We have never enjoyed the rule of law fully or perfectly, but our belief in it and our relatively close adherence to it remains critical to our success and the world’s eroding respect. Departures from the rule of law in our dealings with each other at home or abroad, undermine the efficiency of our market economy and diminish our freedom, but more importantly undermine the respect of others and our moral authority, which is almost as important to our place in the world as our military strength. Thus any erosions of the rule of law should be exposed and resisted vigorously.

Two principles of the rule of law are that they must apply to everyone equally (ourselves as well as others) and that the rules can’t be changed retroactively.

Through the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) and other tax and Anti Money Laundering measures the United States has been increasingly forcing its own laws on other countries and turning banks into policemen to the detriment of the banking system. According to The Economist magazine (6/28/14): “In a piece of extraterritoriality stunning even by Washington’s standards, the new law requires banks, funds and other financial institutions around the world to report assets held by American clients or face a ruinous 30% withholding tax. America is, in essence, using threats to outsource its financial policing. This is working: so far, more than 77,000 financial institutions have agreed to pass information to the IRS. The costs of complying with FATCA are likely to dwarf the extra revenue it raises” Many of the approximately 7 million Americans living abroad are finding it difficult to open bank accounts. “Many have been rejected by foreign providers of banking services, insurance and mortgages because, given the amount of paperwork needed to satisfy Uncle Sam, American clients are simply too much hassle. Foreign firms are less keen to hire Americans because of the extra tax complications. Not surprisingly, the number of Americans renouncing their citizenship has quadrupled since FATCA was hatched…. FATCA’s intrusiveness raises serious privacy issues…. The financial superpower looks ever more a regulatory bully, setting rules it ignores itself.” “America’s new law tax compliance heavy handed inequitable and hypocritical FATCAs-flaws?”

When contracts can’t be honored because a company is not earning enough money, bankruptcy laws provide for a well-defined process for transferring ownership from shareholders to creditors, which includes the priority of creditor claims against the inadequate assets of the failed company. Bank bondholders and other creditors price their credit in light of their place in the cue. It violates the principles of the rule of law to changes these priorities after the fact, but this is exactly what the Obama administration did when it put General Motors into bankruptcy by favoring the United Auto Workers pension fund: “A bedrock principle of bankruptcy law is that creditors with similar claims priority receive equal treatment. In the auto bankruptcies, however, the administration gave the unsecured claims of VEBA [union pension] much higher priority than those of other unsecured creditors, such as suppliers and unsecured bondholders.” “Obama’s UAW Bailout”

The government’s inconsistent and unpredictable treatment of distressed financial institutions in 2007-8, some were bailed out and some were allowed to fail, and the resulting uncertainty about future treatment, has surely contributed to the reluctance of banks to lend and of firms to invest thus slowing the pace of our economic recovery. “The Financial Crisis: Act II”

Sadly the examples of political hypocrisy with regard to the rules of the game are growing. Fortunately there are some signs of push back. The Supreme Court just unanimously overturned as illegal the President’s so called recess appointments of members to the National Labor Relations Board. “Supreme court strikes blow-Obama exceeded authority with recess appointments” The Speaker of the House of Representatives is suing “the Obama administration for its use of executive actions to change laws.” “Boehner confirms lawsuit against Obama executive actions”

The hypocrisy has been non-partisan. Though fully justified, the hypocrisy of the outcry over the IRS’s missing emails related to targeting conservative organizations was exposed fully in Sunday’s Washington Post. Government departments and agencies are required by law to maintain copies of official correspondence (all office emails included). This law has been regularly violated. Examples are “the Bush White House’s destruction of millions of e-mail messages [including those of John Yoo, the Department of Justice lawyer who justified torture] as well as the destruction of pre-investigative files by the Securities and Exchange Commission, including files pertaining to Bernie Madoff and Goldman Sachs.” How has this happened? “Congress has neither appropriated sufficient funds for agencies to implement electronic record-keeping nor added oversight and penalties to the Federal Records Act that would ensure compliance.” “The IRS isn’t the only agency with an e-mail-problem”

Hypocrisy is rendered impotent, hopefully, from exposure. Thus hopefully George Wills’ latest column on the Redskins will be widely read. “The government decided that redskins bothers you” It begins: “Amanda Blackhorse, a Navajo who successfully moved a federal agency to withdraw trademark protections from the Washington Redskins because it considers the team’s name derogatory, lives on a reservation where Navajos root for the Red Mesa High School Redskins.” And the hypocrisy gets worse from there.

For more examples see my “Big brother is getting bigger”

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