Friday, February 27, 2009

The Big Lie

In honour of the long-overdue announcement that federal raids on medical marijuana America have ended, I thought I would post an excerpt on the origins of marijuana prohibition from Peter McWilliams' outstanding book, Ain't Nobody's Business if You Do, the text of which is available online through that link (but it's well worth purchasing).
The chapter of the book from which I'm drawing the following excerpt lays out the steps through which the Marijuana Tax Act (which banned cannabis in the United States) went before it was passed under the supervision of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Harry Anslinger, and the false premises and outright bullying to which the FBN had to resort to get the act passed and force medical professionals to get on board.
... how many doctors were heard in the congressional hearings in 1937? Precisely one. He represented the American Medical Association. The AMA opposed the bill. At least twenty-eight medicinal products containing marijuana were on the market in 1937, the doctor pointed out; drugs containing marijuana were manufactured and distributed by the leading pharmaceutical firms; and marijuana was recognized as a medicine in good standing by the AMA. [...]
[...] Like the Harrison Narcotics Act before it, the Marijuana Tax Act claimed—even in the title of the bill—only to tax marijuana. It was yet another deception perpetrated on Congress and the American people: the intent of the bill was never to tax, but to prohibit. Beyond mere deception, however, the Big Lie to Congress was yet to come.
In testifying before the congressional committee, the doctor sent by the AMA said the AMA had only realized "two days before" the hearings that the "killer weed from Mexico" was indeed cannabis, the benign drug used and prescribed by the medical profession for more than a hundred years. Said Dr. Woodward,
We cannot understand, yet, Mr. Chairman, why this bill should have been prepared in secret for two years without any intimation, even to the [medical] profession, that it was being prepared.
Anslinger and the committee chairman, Robert L. Doughton, DuPont Dynasties, Robert Doughton was a key DuPont supporter in Congress denounced and curtly excused Dr. Woodward. When the marijuana tax bill came before Congress, one pertinent question was asked from the floor: "Did anyone consult with the AMA and get their opinion?" Representative Vinson answered for the committee, "Yes, we have
. . . and they are in complete agreement."
The Big Lie. The bill passed, and became law in September 1937.
Anslinger was furious with the AMA for opposing him before the congressional committee. As the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, he could prosecute any doctors who prescribed narcotics for "illegal purposes." Which purposes were "illegal" was pretty much Anslinger's call. From mid-1937 through 1939, more than 3,000 doctors were prosecuted. In 1939, the AMA made peace with Anslinger and came out in opposition to marijuana. From 1939 to 1949, only three doctors were prosecuted by the FBN for drug activity of any kind.
McWilliams, for those who don't know, passed away in 2000. He had AIDS and cancer and had been successfully using marijuana (legal under California law) to control his nausea, but switched to Marinol after a federal investigation and a judge ordered him to do so. Marinol was only effective about a third of the time for McWilliams and one day shortly after he switched medications he began vomiting and choked to death.
For all the economic damage he's likely to do, Obama's policy on letting the states legislate on medical marijuana would have saved Peter McWilliams' life, and will save lives that would have been lost. If I had a hat, I'd tip it to Mr. Obama today.
Cross-posted to The Shotgun.

Stephen Harper: "In the long run, we're all dead."

Stephen Harper, in response to a question about the long-term effects of inflation and deficits caused by his stimulus policies, just said something along the lines of the following:

"I was taught early in economics classes, the famous economist John Maynard Keynes said that, ‘At times like this, we remember that in the long run, we're all dead.'"

Yep. Stephen Harper. Said that.

He then went on to say that people need to stop worrying about the long term effects of these policies and work on getting the money flowing.

I could point out that Harper wrote his dissertation on disproving the theories of stated famous economist, or I could point out all the "sustainability" projects that we probably should stop paying for if "in the end, we're all dead" is the mentality we're going with. There are just so many things wrong with this picture.

I'm trying to find a link or something. I'll post it when I do.

UPDATE: Quote corrected. The Globe and Mail reports "Ottawa sets up $3-billion stimulus stash":

Prime Minister Stephen Harper agreed there are some long-term risks associated with the stimulus package — but he cited a famous economist to argue that the short-term danger is greater.

“Of course there's all kinds of risks of inefficient, expanded government policies that will continue into the future,” Mr. Harper told a news conference in British Columbia. “I'm not suggesting there aren't long-term risks.

“But I was taught early in economics classes, the famous economist John Maynard Keynes said that, ‘At times like this, we remember that in the long run, we're all dead.' So right now, we worry about the short term. We are worried about the short term, and we've got to get things right now.”

Cross-posted to The Shotgun.

Raids on medical marijuana will end.

Kalim blogged a while ago on Obama's promise to respect states' rights and allow those states in that he would respect the laws of states who have passed legislation to legalize the medical use of pot.

Yesterday, Attorney General of the United States Eric Holder announced that federal raids on licensed medical marijuana dispensaries will end.

Holder said Obama's campaign promise to stop the raids is "now American policy."

Cross-posted to The Shotgun.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

CRTC to call for licensing of streaming online content?

Andrew Coyne does more this week than provide us with an awesome blog post. He also provides us with some scary news about mumblings of new regulation down at the CRTC:
As the comedian Colin Mochrie, who testified at this week’s opening of CRTC hearings on regulating “new media,” observed, now that “the space for content is practically endless . . . content can easily get lost.” State intervention is needed “to make sure Canadians can find their own content.” What does all this lofty talk mean, in concrete terms? It means, if Mochrie and his friends at ACTRA, the film and television actors’ union, have their way, that anyone who streams live video online would have to be “licensed and subject to regulations.” It means that anyone who provides the means for others to do so would have to be likewise licensed and regulated. And of course, there would have to be new taxes to fund this content, on the off chance that Canadians should not prove as eager as all that to be told more Canadian stories online.
That's right. After years of badgering those who dare to partake in foreign media and billions in government subsidies to make creating and distributing Canadian artwork cheaper and easier, the CRTC is talking about regulating them to make it more expensive and difficult. This is by far the worst news in the piece, but it doesn't end there:
in the age of cross-ownership, when the proprietors of most of the major print publications, including this one, also own broadcast outlets, this opens the way for the CRTC to go where it has never before dared: regulating the print media.
Coyne goes on to speculate that the CRTC could mandate CanCon in print media, but I'd be much more concerned about the possibility that they could enforce a requirement that all print media outlets join a national press council the CHRC bureaucrats were mentioning some time ago, as well as imposing harsher penalties on print media that violated the CHRA.
Scary stuff.
h/t: Ker
Cross-posted to The Shotgun.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Manufactured crimes

Radley Balko has an explosive article published last week at Reason on the uncovering of manufactured evidence in the cases of death row convicts by two medical examiners.

The article, Manufacturing Guilt, (warning - the article contains some images and video that may be disturbing to readers) is centered around the case of a man, Jimmie Duncan, who has been convicted of raping and murdering a 23-month-old girl and sits on death row in Louisiana as a result. Originally he had been charged with negligent homicide (he says he had left her in the bathtub and came back to find her drowned there), but his charges were increased when bite marks were found on her cheek. The medical examiners who found the marks, West and Hayne, have a shady past, and it's just gotten a whole lot more questionable.

Don't ask me how, but Reason somehow got a hold of a 24-minute video that shows one of these medical examiners methodically and deliberately pressing a plaster cast of Duncan's teeth into the girl's face, creating the bite marks used to increase the charges and as evidence in Duncan's conviction.

In spite of this, Duncan is still waiting on death row.

Two other men convicted on rape and murder charges based on bite mark analysis by the same medical examiners were released (one from death row) after 30 years in prison when DNA evidence exonerated them and found the real criminal (who confessed to both crimes.) These examiners have carried an impossibly high case load for the states of Mississippi and Louisiana and are responsible for thousands of forensic medical examinations over the past 20 years.

It's unclear why either state would continue to employ these men almost exclusively in spite of questions about their work, including a recommendation for expulsion of the bite mark analyst from the American  Academy of Forensic Sciences by their own ethics board. 

The article is, as I've written, explosive, and can be read here. Again, though, be aware of the nature of the images and video on the site before visiting.

Cross-posted to The Shotgun.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Peanuts or Pills?

As we all know, or should, Reason is awesome. Over at Hit and Run, Ron Bailey posts an interesting question:
A New Scientist editorial poses this thought experiment:
IMAGINE you are seated at a table with two bowls in front of you. One contains peanuts, the other tablets of the illegal recreational drug MDMA (ecstasy). A stranger joins you, and you have to decide whether to give them a peanut or a pill. Which is safest?
Correct answer:
You should give them ecstasy, of course. A much larger percentage of people suffer a fatal acute reaction to peanuts than to MDMA.
A lot of folks won't like this answer. Ecstacy, after all, is a dangerous drug that has people acting wacky and incoherently, destroying lives left and right. Right? Apparently not:
...on all tests except for verbal memory, ecstasy users performed just as well as before [they used it] and on a par with abstainers....the effect on [verbal memory] was so small - a difference of a quarter of a word on average from a list of 15 - the real world implications are questionable.
Neither Bailey nor the New Scientist deny that ecstasy is a mind-altering substance. Otherwise, why would anyone take it? (This applies both to recreational and medical use, of couse.) But the results do raise the question of why, exactly, there is such rabid fear mongering about such drugs. As the article points out, the main long-term effects of ecstasy appear to be "driving politicians crazy." Politicians, of course, drive the rest of us crazy with the phenomenal costs of the drug war - not the least of which is the fact that too many people no longer trust that there is any cost to taking drugs simply because so many of the exaggerated costs have proven unfounded.
The call isn't for everyone to go out and have ecstasy for lunch instead of a peanut butter sandwich. It's for drug policy to be based on the real, scientifically proven dangers of the drugs, and not the extent to which busybodies and politicians lose sleep over it.
Read the rest of the Reason blog post here and the New Scientist editorial here. The study on effects of ecstasy that's quoted briefly above can be found here.
Cross-posted to The Shotgun.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Peoples' Stimulus: Get Your Money Back!

Reason.TV is at it again. The Peoples' Stimulus is a plan that would cost the same as Obama's stimulus plan, but would consist of one simple act: cancelling all payroll taxes for the remainder of 2009.

Now that's change I could believe in.

Cross-posted to The Shotgun.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Ignatieff acknowledges coalition was a bad idea.

Ignatieff might be on the record saying that the Liberal/NDP coalition that threatened to seize control of the government was not a mistake, but he seems to have acknowledged that it was a bad idea.
... the new Liberal leader acknowledged that Western outrage over the prospect of seeing overturned the results of the last federal election -- which brought a West-dominated minority Conservative government to power -- gave him pause.
"You are, after all, looking at someone who turned down the chance to become prime minister of Canada, and I did so, in part, because I felt that it would divide the country," said Mr. Ignatieff. "I want to be someone who unites the country, and that includes the West."
Although Iggy doesn't rule out working with the NDP to pass legislation in order to govern in the event that the government is defeated, he's pretty firm when it comes to kiboshing any further speculation about a coalition between the Liberals and the NDP or the Bloc.
It's pretty obvious that Ignatieff, who still has something left to lose - lots, in fact - would never agree to a coalition between the NDP and the Liberals the way an utterly destroyed Stephane Dion did. (Hell, even Dion was smart enough to resist it until it was the absolutely last option available.) Well, it's obvious to everyone except those Conservatives who continue to stomp their feet and impatiently insist that tossing fiscal restraint to the wolves and setting back small-government ideology in Canada by ten years was The Only Way To Stop The Coalition!, anyway.
And, let's face it, that argument gets more and more transparent by the day. You can pull apart the talking points even if you assume that Ignatieff is politically stupid and would have been willing to go through with the coalition, but that's just not a realistic assumption, and neither is the assumption that he would have spent far and above what the Conservatives did in their budget regardless of what Canadians wanted - no matter how much the partisans want that to be true.
Cross-posted to The Shotgun.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Giving up everything for nothing.

Are you upset that the government sold out Canadians in the 2009 Conservative budget? Do you worry that it was hard for Jim Flaherty and Stephen Harper to swallow their free market principles to do what was "necessary," to pass a budget that spends $85 billion more than it takes in?
Nonsense, says Andrew Coyne:
Why is everyone so surprised? The budget the Conservatives produced last week may have been startling in some respects... but it was hardly out of character. It was the logical terminus to a decade of climbdowns, reversals, and broken promises, dating back to the first efforts to merge the old Reform and Progressive Conservative parties. What began in fear and deception has ended in confusion and incoherence. Predictably enough.

So let us have none of these astonished little essays on how difficult this must have been for Stephen Harper, how the Reformer who had entered politics to fight deficits had come to embrace them. Once, this would have been hard for him, but by now it is second nature. And spare us, please, the cries of betrayal from stalwarts of the right, who never imagined that a Conservative party could produce a budget like this. Where were these people the last 10 years? I’ll tell you where they were: right by the party’s side, urging it on.
There is no betrayal here. They were all in this together.
Not only have the Conservatives given up everything they once stood for, according to Coyne, but they've gotten next to nothing in return.
So they’ve given up everything they ever stood for, and what have they got in return? Pretty close to nada. They’re stalled in the polls, again. The fabled majority remains firmly out of reach. Those disposed to mistrust them are as suspicious as ever, while their own followers are now thoroughly demoralized. They have not moved to the centre; they have only succeeded in shifting the entire political spectrum to the left.
It's hard to argue with Coyne's overall theme at this point, in my opinion. I'd disagree that there hasn't been anything good accomplished under Harper - there are a few important changes that have been made, though they were overshadowed by so many bad decisions. And sure, there are those who would follow Stephen Harper right off a cliff and would vote Conservative if P.E. Trudeau came back to lead the party, but at this point it's tough to find anyone with much better to say about the Conservatives than "Well, just look at the alternative!"
Read the rest of Coyne's article here.

Cross-posted to the Shotgun

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Salary caps could be extended

Yesterday Terrence Watson posted on Obama's announcement that he would cap salaries of executives at companies receiving taxpayer support at $500,000.

Some say that very high salaries don't necessary guarantee the best executives and that these companies had it coming if they had decided to ask for government aid. These arguments are seductive, but flawed.

It's true that having high salaries doesn't guarantee the best executives, but it's also true that having access to medical care doesn't guarantee good health. Taking away the ability of companies in trouble to attract those likely to have the talent to get them out of the mess they're in will lead to little other than dependence on tax dollars becoming endemic to that company.

In the US, companies in trouble would be stupid, at this point, to not go after a bailout as an alternative to overhauling their organizations or declaring bankruptcy. There's money being thrown all over the place and only the completely naive should be surprised at the enthusiasm with which businesses are taking up the government on its offer of handouts. It's completely believable, then, that the government should want to do something about all the money being thrown around.

But if the purpose of the salary cap is to discourage companies from taking advantage of the bailouts, then why have them at all?

To shed some light on this perplexing question, Barney Frank, House Financial Services Committee Chairman, said today that Congress will consider extending the $500,000 salary cap to executives of all financial institutions and perhaps to all U.S. companies.

“There’s deeply rooted anger on the part of the average American,” the Massachusetts Democrat said at a Washington news conference today.

He said the compensation restrictions would apply to all financial institutions and might be extended to include all U.S. companies.

The provision will be part of a broader package that would likely give the Federal Reserve the authority to monitor systemic risk in the economy and to shut down financial institutions that face too much exposure, Mr. Frank said.

Get ready to watch investments run as fast and far from the country as they can if this is the kind of legislation that's going to pass in the United States. I have a hard time believing anyone is actually stupid enough to not see what would happen under this type of proposal, but I never count out the possibility that politicians will find a way to lower the bar.

cross-posted to the Shotgun blog

The Austrian Solution

Austrian economists have been criticized frequently for proposing that we do nothing in response to the economic crisis in a political climate where the majority are demanding that the government do something (anything!)

Well, Robert Murphy over at Mises.org takes up the challenge of answering, "do you Austrians have a better idea?"

Murphy first points out that you don't actually need have a better idea to realize that the idea being criticized is bad (an idea that's dangerously rare these days)

If an allergic man has been stung by a bee, I don't know what to do except rush him to the hospital and maybe scour the cupboards looking for Benadryl. But I'm pretty sure drawing blood from his leg, in order to inject it into his arm and thus "stimulate his immune system," is a bad idea on numerous accounts — not least of which, is that I'm pretty sure an allergic reaction means your immune system needs to calm down. But the point is, if a bunch of guys hold the man down — he has to be forced to endure the procedure for his own good, don't you know — I feel perfectly qualified in yelling, "Stop!"

If you grasped that analogy, you can understand my feelings about anything Paul Krugman writes.

He then lays out an Austrian-friendly (though he admits not pure Austrian) plan for dramatically cutting government as the ultimate economic stimulus.

Among his recommendations: dismantle the IRS and level the building, eliminate the DEA and the Department of Education, and more:
Cut the Pentagon budget in half. In FY 2008 it was (officially) some $460 billion,Download PDF so that cut alone would free up $230 billion per year. This isn't an article about foreign policy, so we won't be specific about how the military could achieve such cuts. But if you're worried that the country would suddenly be overrun by Iranian tanks, the following chart should reassure you:


Top 10 Countries by Military Expenditure, 2007

These ideas are far from politically feasible in the US or Canada, but it's an entertaining read and it's nice to see pie in the sky thinking in the right direction.

h/t: Isaac Morehouse.

cross-posted to the Shotgun blog

Andrew Coyne is at it again

Coyne has another great column over at Macleans. Last week he declared the end of Canadian conservatism and caused a ruckus.

Conservatism, though, isn't the issue to Coyne.

Conservatism may not be my thing, but it is for a lot of other people, and I grieve for their sake that the party they have invested so much of their hopes in has turned to such warm beer. And all Canadians, whatever their leanings, should wish for more balance and diversity in our political choices....

... I would prefer there were at least one party that understood market economics, that stood for balanced budgets, honest money, and freely set prices, undistorted by subsidies, quotas, tariffs, ceilings, floors, or tax preferences; that had a general
preference for competition over monopoly, voluntarism over coercion, open systems over closed, unless a compelling case could be made to the contrary; and that understood their virtues not only in terms of efficiency, but of fairness, freedom and environmental stewardship. And so in that sense I have no party.

But then, I have no party in a lot of ways. Nor do a lot of Canadians. It isn’t just free marketers who haven’t got a party. Federalists have no party, in the sense of a party willing to defend the national interest against the pull of provincialism and Quebec nationalism. Democratic reformers have no party. Classical liberals (or as Barbara Frum used to call herself, “1950s liberals”), believers in the equal rights of every individual under the Charter — as opposed to group rights advocates, on the one hand, and Charterphobes, on the other — are no less bereft. There’s no party that stands for consumers, against exploitation by producer interests; for the jobless, against restrictive labour laws that prevent them from pricing themselves into work; for taxpayers, against the depredations of rent-seeking special interests; for property owners, against the marauding state. There’s just a vast gap in the Canadian political spectrum, or several of them, while the parties compete to see who can spend the most, devolve powers the fastest, pander most cravenly. Canadians think they live in a liberal, democratic, free-market federation, but there isn’t a party nowadays that believes in any of these things.

Now go read the rest before I just copy and paste the whole thing over here.

h/t: Ker.
cross-posted to the Shotgun blog

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Spectre Coalition and other scary stories.

Anyone still standing up for free markets in Canada has heard the smug scolding of partisans. "Well just look at the alternative! Think about what would have happened if the COALITION had been in power! There would have been WAY MORE SPENDING and NO tax cuts!! You just have no idea what's politically feasible. Harper had to bring in a big-spending budget in the long-term interests of Canadians!!11one!"

Well, you've probably heard it with more foaming at the mouth, but that's the gist of it. It's time to stop the madness.

So let's look at these claims one by one:

First - what would have happened if the coalition was in power? Well, first let's assume that Ignatieff was ever willing to go ahead with the coalition and he wasn't just pulling a Quebec and threatening that he just might do it! if he doesn't get his way - though I have my doubts - it would have been political suicide - it's not the biggest problem with this defense of the budget.

Would a Liberal-NDP coalition have shelled out even more deficit spending? Probably, but I seriously doubt it would be significantly worse than what we got from the Tories. Canadians might be in favour of deficit spending these days, but that doesn't mean they'll take as much as anyone would give them. I have a really, really hard time believing Canadians would have swallowed anything more than around 15% more spending (that is, I think the absolute highest deficit most would accept would be around $100 billion) than we had dumped on us already, even with Jack Layton taking a spot in cabinet.

When the Globe and Mail (not exactly a bastion of conservative thought) uses phrases like "Harper Shovels the Money," it is not big spending for a Conservative government, it's just big spending.

"Ah," say the Tories with a condescending air as they ignore everything the free market defender just said, "but what about the tax cuts? You wouldn't have
gotten those from The Coalition."


Again, I'm not sure this is true. Maybe we wouldn't have gotten across-the-board, broad based tax cuts from a coalition, but we almost certainly would have gotten something similar to what we saw - cuts aimed at lowering the tax burden on lower
income Canadians and the middle class. Besides, the cuts we got weren't as great as advertised.

"Anyone who thinks Harper and Flaherty should have just stuck to their guns and refused any deficit spending simply has no idea what's politically feasible and what's not." To some extent this is true - Canadians probably would not have accepted a budget without some sort of bailout/stimulus spending, and a lot of free market advocates aren't willing to accept it because they know the effects it will
have on the economy and believe that, as an economist, Harper ought to as well.

But this lack of political will is partly Harper's fault. Before the new year Canadians were largely opposed to big deficit spending. Perhaps if the Tories had stuck to anything since Dion decided to grow a pair in December we wouldn't be in the political situation we're in. (Though the picture might not be as bleak as we think.)

That aside, though, while spending might have been politically necessary (and I'm willing to concede that that's the case), certainly the volume of spending put forward last week wasn't politically necessary - they could have gotten away with spending less. The fact that some spending was necessary doesn't mean that $85 billion dollars in deficit spending was necessary.

Further, Flaherty could have put forward some serious tax cuts instead of glamming up the scheduled increases in the personal exemptions. A further cut to the GST would have been politically popular and something that the average Canadian could see as an attempt to "stimulate" economic activity. And in the same way that most Canadians opposed to deficit spending will tolerate it, most Canadians opposed to trimming the fat from government would have tolerated some if only the will had been there.

"But! Think of the long-term interests of Canadians!" Tories will cry!

Yes - let's!

Let's think of the fact that this budget has set fiscal conservatism back by a decade and thrown out any credibility serious small-government advocates have by tossing out the last support from any successful political party of their ideas. Let's think of the fact that if Harper had proposed more modest spending and fallen on the budget, even this would have been better for conservatives because when all the opposition's spending didn't produce recession-ending results, the Conservatives could stand on their record and bring in the dramatic cuts to government that will be needed after this spending orgy has passed. Let's think of the fact that when the spending doesn't produce results for Harper, either, the "alternative" on the table will be to ramp up spending even further.

Let's think of the fact that these days political discourse in Canada consists of four teams in the House of Commons trying to out-Liberal one another.

The long term interests of Canadians, indeed.

"Well, that's what you get when all you're quoting is the Liberal media," Conservatives will eventually sneer.

Ah, yes. The Liberal Media - almost as nefarious and spooky as The Coalition. How could I have forgotten them?

But apparently what "the Liberal media" is up to these days, according to partisan
Conservatives, is accusing the government of not being fiscally restrained enough, supposedly because they want to turn conservatives on the Conservatives. But the Liberal media I know (and certainly the Toronto Star) wouldn't risk convincing Canadians that a tax cut is the way to go just to get in a few digs. They're reacting the way they are because this is a really. big. budget., not because it's some sort of conspiracy.

Besides, where should I be getting my news? Exclusively from Conservative Party press releases? Look. When you are calling Andrew Coyne a raging Liberal for his comments on the government's budget, you need to start considering the possibility that you've got the blinders a little too firmly in place.

And before any Tories go one step further and accuse everyone who criticizes the budget of jumping ship, let me point out the obvious and say that criticism of the budget and support of the Harper government are not mutually exclusive.

So there you go. Defenses debunked, so spare me the scare tactics. I won't lose any sleep condemning Harper up and down for this budget because condemning it is what anyone who believes we have to reduce the size of government should be doing.

Cross-posted to The Shotgun. Hat tip to about a quarter of everyone I know.