Monthly Archives: March 2017

3 Common Immigration Myths Debunked

In this past election, Trump’s supporters embraced his calls for increasing immigration restrictions in a country that already has restrictive immigration policies. Now that he is in office, President Trump is planning to “publicize crimes by undocumented immigrants; strip such immigrants of privacy protections; enlist local police officers as enforcers; erect new detention facilities; discourage asylum seekers; and, ultimately, speed up deportations.”

The fear of immigration is commonly based on three basic assumptions: “immigrants are not assimilating into our culture,” “illegal immigrants are hurting our economy and stealing our jobs,” and “illegal immigrants are criminals and terrorists.” All of these assumptions are myths.

Myth #1: Immigrants are not assimilating to our culture

Those who support restrictive immigration policy believe that current immigrants are changing our values and our politics, and are not assimilating like the previous generations of immigrants.

On specific policy issues, immigrants, like Americans, tend to align with the moderate position like the rest of America.

Assimilation is a process that takes time, but the claim that current generations of immigrants are not assimilating like they did in the past is false. Recent research from the National Academies of Sciences shows that current immigrants are assimilating as well as or better than previous generations.

Some Americans are concerned that immigrants are more inclined to support leftist views. However, like Americans, a plurality of immigrants identify as independent. Although immigrants tend to lean Democrat when they must choose between the two parties, this is primarily due to the Republican Party’s anti-immigration stance.

When it comes to specific policy issues, immigrants, like Americans, tend to align with the moderate position like the rest of America. For example, immigrants do not disproportionately support a larger welfare state, as Republicans claim. A Cato Institute study shows that 1st generation non-citizens and naturalized immigrants hold similar moderate policy positions as native citizens.

Myth #2: Illegal Immigrants Hurt our Economy and Steal our Jobs

The economic benefits of immigration, both legal and illegal, are vast. Immigrants fill shortages in the job market and pay taxes.

Some immigration opponents claim that they are a drain on government programs. However, research shows that immigrants contribute more in taxes than they receive in government benefits. Although the variables are too ambiguous to have a definite answer on whether they have a positive or negative impact on government spending, the positive economic benefits are unambiguous.

Since 2012, Mexican workers have been leaving the U.S. at a higher rate than they are arriving. This drop in Mexican immigration has had a negative effect on our economy. The National Association of Homebuilders estimated that the number of unfilled construction jobs in the U.S. almost doubled between 2014 and 2016.

The lack of available talent to fill these jobs has led to increased construction costs and depressed home building. Allowing only 5,000 working visas for foreign immigrants seeking lower-skilled jobs year-round makes it difficult to find legal workers.

Five years ago, 53 percent of skilled-trade workers were more than 45 years old, and nearly 20 percent were aged 55-64. The skilled-trade workforce continues to increase. Trump’s plan for stronger immigration restrictions and deportations will only exacerbate labor shortage problems in the skilled trades.

Myth #3: Immigrants are Criminals and Terrorist

Research shows immigrants and illegal immigrants are less likely to be criminals than the native-born. Immigration surged in the 1990s as the crime rate plummeted. In fact, higher immigration can correlate with lower crime rates, because an influx of low-crime immigrants added to the population creates a lesser chance to encounter a criminal.

Your chances of being killed by a foreigner in a terrorist attack are 1 in 3.6 million per year.

The dramatic decrease in crime in Buffalo is a good example. In the run-down areas of west side Buffalo where Bangladeshi immigrants arrived, crime fell by 70%. Denise Beehag of the International Institute of Buffalo told NPR that immigrants, “were pretty much the only group that was moving into the west side of Buffalo.”

Also, immigration is not affecting the likelihood of being attacked by terrorist. Your chance of being murdered by anyone is 1 in 14,000. A Cato study found that over the last 41 years, your chances of being killed by a foreigner in a terrorist attack are 1 in 3.6 million per year. The chance of being murdered in an attack committed by an illegal immigrant is much less likely, 1 in 10.9 billion.

You are more likely to win the lottery (1 in 258.9 million) or die in a plane crash (1 in 11 million) than be murdered in a terrorist attack by an illegal immigrant.

Anti-immigration policies are based on myths about immigrants and their contributions to our country. We cannot claim to be the land of the free by closing our borders to those seeking to improve their lives by economically serving ours.

Brenden Weber


Brenden Weber

Brenden Weber is a recent graduate of the University of Iowa, with a degree in political science and a minor in philosophy. He has worked for various non-profit organization and is the founder and editor of Libertarian Reports. Follow him on Twitter @brendenweber3.

Heritage Foundation Alum Critical of Transgender Rights to Lead HHS Civil Rights Office

The Trump administration has quietly appointed a Heritage Foundation staffer who has railed against civil rights protections for transgender patients as director of the federal agency charged with protecting the civil rights of all patients. Though the administration did not issue a formal announcement, Roger Severino is now listed on the website of the U.S. Department… Continue reading Heritage Foundation Alum Critical of Transgender Rights to Lead HHS Civil Rights Office

Tennessee Passes on Chance to OK Medical Marijuana

Medical marijuana won’t be legal in Tennessee anytime soon after a House Representative’s bill, which aimed to legalize cannabis use for people suffering from certain conditions such as cancer, HIV and epilepsy, failed to get Senate support. The bill, HB0495, was considered dead for the year after the state’s House Health Committee rejected the measure following… Continue reading Tennessee Passes on Chance to OK Medical Marijuana

How Spontaneous Order Keeps Houston Affordable

A metropolitan economy, if it is working well, is constantly transforming many poor people into middle-class people, many illiterates into skilled people, many greenhorns into competent citizens. … Cities don’t lure the middle class. They create it.

– Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

If you follow urban issues in the press, you might be forgiven for thinking that there are only three cities in America: San Francisco, New York, and Portland. All three are victims of their own success, as rising demand for housing has increased rents to unsustainable levels. Despite their best efforts, from rent control to doublespeak “inclusionary zoning” mandates, middle- and lower-class households are increasingly forced to leave these cities as each progressively transforms into a playground of the rich.

Yet there is a fourth city, a city which must not be named except to be derided as a sprawling, suburban hellscape. This fourth city has managed to balance a booming economy, explosive population growth, and affordable housing. This city has—as cities have for thousands of years—steadily grown denser, more walkable, and more attractive to low-income migrants seeking opportunity. This city is Houston, and it’s well past time for her to come out of the shadows.

Explosive Economic Growth, Booming Population, Functioning Housing Market

Before jumping into the nitty-gritty of how Houston has handled explosive growth in the demand for housing, it is worth first getting a handle on the magnitude of the challenge facing the city. When many people think of the Houston economy, they understandably think of large energy companies. Indeed, energy companies dominated Houston’s economy for much of the last century and continue to play a major role today. But in the years following the 1980s oil glut, Houston’s economy has been diversified in large part by startups and emerging small businesses. Mixing the Lone Star State’s light regulatory touch with the inherently entrepreneurial spirit of domestic and international migrants, Houston and other Texas cities have shot to the top of entrepreneurship rankings like the Kauffman Index. These entrepreneurs aren’t just wealthy oil barons in bolo ties either; Houston ranks high among cities in creating brand new entrepreneurs, well above cities like Portland and New York City.Almost like an Econ 101 practice problem, booming demand for labor at all skill levels has translated into wage growth in Houston.

Supplementing this healthy, emergent economic development has been a deluge of existing companies arriving in Texas from high tax, high regulation states like California and Illinois. Between 2008 and 2014 alone, 219 California companies moved to or expanded in Texas. Houston’s high number of engineers per capita and affordable energy have attracted manufacturing in particular, turning the city into the third largest manufacturing hub in the country.

Almost like an Econ 101 practice problem, booming demand for labor at all skill levels has translated into wage growth in Houston comparable to affluent cities like San Jose, Boston, and New York. Adjusting average annual wages for the cost of living, including consumer prices and services, utilities, transportation costs, and—most importantly—housing, Houston tops the list of all major US metropolitan areas. This shouldn’t be written off as torturing the numbers, either. This means middle- and lower-class Houstonians enjoy a higher standard of living than even their higher paid counterparts in high-cost cities on the West Cost and in the Northeast.

This blend of good governance, high real wages, and an urban ethos described by researchers at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University as “tolerant traditionalism”—an attractive mix of conservative personal values and toleration on social issues—has attracted hundreds of thousands of new residents over the past two decades. From 2014 to 2015 alone, the Houston metropolitan area welcomed 159,083 new residents, far more than any other city outside of Texas.  The city is projected to pass up Chicago by 2025, bumping America’s “Second City” from third to fourth largest in the country. Ample opportunities for new immigrants from across Latin America and Asia have transformed the city into one of America’s most diverse metros, offering a glimpse of America’s dynamic demographic future. Houston has also grown into a magnet for domestic migration. Since 2010, the city has welcomed nearly 100,000 black residents fleeing untenable rents along the West Coast and economic stagnation in the Midwest in what some are calling the “Third Great Migration.”

Even while experiencing much milder population growth, cities along the coasts have struggled to get a handle on exploding housing costs. Between January 2014 and January 2016, median home values in Portland, San Francisco, and New York City increased by an average of approximately $188,000. During the same period, in which Houston experienced a population boom far outpacing any other city in absolute terms, the median home value in Houston increased by approximately $9,000. Even expanding out to account for a recent downturn in oil markets, the median home values only increased by $28,000 between January 2012 and January 2016. It’s not just houses either; even beyond luxury cities along the East and West coasts, Houston remains one of the most affordable Sun Belt cities for renters. So what gives?

The Fruits of Market Urbanism

Houston’s remarkable affordability might seem strange to policymakers in high-cost cities along the East and West coasts. After all, the city has no rent control, whether of the now-discredited twentieth century kind or the new, shiny, equally counterproductive “inclusionary zoning” kind. Houston has less public and subsidized housing than the other top five major US metros. The fact is that Houston’s affordability doesn’t flow from top-down plans or strict land-use regulations. Rather, its affordability flows precisely from its lack of top-down plans or strict land-use regulations.

A growing consensus of economists and policymakers have argued for permitting more development in order to meet rising demand for urban living. The challenge facing high-cost cities is not their remarkable economic success and the subsequent rise in demand for housing—this is precisely the kind of success cities should yearn for—but their ongoing commitment to an out-of-date planning regime designed to keep cities frozen in amber. In its most extreme form, cities like San Francisco continue to enforce startlingly low densities in and around downtown despite burgeoning demand. Yet even in comparable Sun Belt cities friendly to new development, including Atlanta, Dallas, and Phoenix, much of the city is zoned and regulated in a way that effectively mandates low densities and prohibits urban, mixed-use development.


The kind of unpredictable diversity that calls to mind Jane Jacobs’ Hudson Street: a TV station and a US Secret Service office nestled among a beautiful neighborhood mixing single-family homes and apartments. (Google Maps)

Where nearly every other city attempts to tightly control emergent urban growth and restrict the mixing of urban uses, Houston has adopted what Justin Fox of Bloomberg View recently described as “zoning lite.” As researchers at the Wharton School have pointed out, Houston has some of the least restrictive land-use regulations in the country. Houston never adopted the bundle of orthodox urban planning policies that made spontaneous urban development impossible, and insomuch as Houston implemented land-use regulation, many of these rules have been liberalized in recent years. The city famously never implemented use-based zoning, a policy that mandates the separation of residential, commercial, and industrial activity, and effectively bans traditional urban development and forces automobile dependence on residents. This means that urban land in Houston can naturally shift alongside changing market demands, enhancing the flexibility of housing markets and empowering residents and business owners to collectively determine the right mix of uses in a decentralized process.

Gradual densification underway in Uptown, far from the 20th century downtown. Without parking requirements, it’s unlikely lots and garages would take up so much space. (Google Maps)

Houston has also benefited from a liberal approach to urban density, which was kicked into high gear by reforms in 1998. Nearly two decades ago, Houston policymakers dramatically eased density controls within the 610 loop, breaking the city down into “urban” and “suburban” classifications. In urban areas, regulations controlling lot coverage, setbacks, and height limits were significantly liberalized and in some cases eliminated altogether. The most visible result of this hands-off approach to land-use regulation has been the proliferation of high-rise developments both in downtown and the mini-downtowns scattered in and around Harris County. Yet possibly more important are the coveted “missing middle” developments underway across the city. Ranging from duplexes to live-work units, these developments offer an attractive compromise between the walkability of high-density environments and the human scale of low-density developments. Such developments, alongside innumerable apartment and mixed-use developments, are helping to keep desirable neighborhoods like Montrose, Midtown, and the Heights accessible to normal Houstonians. This explosion in medium-density, infill developments has turned Houston into a national leader in new multifamily units, creating a greater diversity of housing options than nearly every other Sun Belt city. These developments are helping to preserve and expand access to urban living in Houston, and they’re possible thanks in large part to the city’s lack of centralized urban planning and relatively light regulation of land-use.

New “missing middle” development within biking distance of downtown. (Google Maps)

The fruits of Houston’s unique approach to urbanization are also evident in the city’s lack of interest in aesthetic control. While many cities require design or aesthetics-oriented architecture reviews for most developments to take place, Houston places no such burdens on new building. This live-and-let-live approach to urban development gives residents, developers, and business owners the freedom to experiment with new designs. The result is a kind of “tolerant traditionalism” physically manifested, as architectural styles playfully mix within neighborhoods. A stressful experience, perhaps, for the orthodox planner who prefers conformity and order, but an exhilarating experience for residents who appreciate the spontaneity and novelty offered by urban life.

Beyond allowing diverse and exciting streetscapes, Houston’s lack of design-oriented, top-down planning has allowed the emergence of multiple urban centers. Where many US planners continue to plan cities around an industrial era model of one urban center—typically a twentieth century downtown—Houston enjoys multiple downtowns. In Metropolitan Revolution, researchers Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley describe how Houston’s lack of centralized planning has allowed the gradual development and densification of distinct urban centers. As Katz and Bradley describe in the book, urban centers like Gulfton and Pasadena gradually developed from low-density neighborhoods optimized for middle-class whites into mixed-use, medium-density neighborhoods optimized for newly arriving immigrants. Where the conventional planning regime that controls most US cities would have required hundreds of hours of hearings, committees, and paperwork, Houston’s liberal approach allows communities to organically change and adapt to shifting community needs.

The magic of toleration manifests itself physically in odd neighbors on W Mckinney Street: Intriguing, unconventional townhouses sit next to… (Google Maps)


…a beautiful, conventional single-family home. Houston’s light regulation of design allows for residents with different conceptions of the good life to peacefully live alongside one another. (Google Maps)

 

None of this should be taken to mean that Houston is perfect. As Stephen Smith and Daniel Hertz have rightly pointed out, regulations related to mandatory parking minimums, minimum lot sizes, and wide minimum street widths have served to restrict urban development and make Houston more spread out than it naturally might have been. More troublingly, the city has opened up opportunities for neighborhood majorities to push for mandated increases in minimum lot sizes and various historical preservation restrictions, potentially creating a two-tiered system of development restrictions in affluent neighborhoods and a relaxed approach everywhere else.

State subsidized enforcement of private covenants likely exacerbates this issue. To be sure, these problematic policies probably need to go. But the presence of these lingering restrictions above all speaks to the potential of even partial liberalization of urban land-use controls. Insomuch as Houston has adopted a market urbanist approach, it has resulted in a city that is more affordable than cities along the East and West coasts and denser and more walkable than most other Sun Belt cities, all while offering unparalleled economic opportunities for middle- and lower-class residents.

But What About Transportation?

Aside from “sprawl,” the other stereotype typically associated with Houston is endless traffic. While the city diverged with orthodox urban planning, it unfortunately fell in line with orthodox transportation planning. Like most other US cities, Houston spent most of the second half of the twentieth century building a congested web of freeways and expressways. Combined with policies like wide minimum street widths and mandated parking spots, the public provision of unparalleled and unpriced road capacity helped to build a city largely dependent on the automobile.

Houston has opted to take a back seat to residents, entrepreneurs, and civil society groups in cultivating economic development.

Thanks in part to Houston’s decision to forgo conventional urban planning, many traditional urban developments were able to survive and reemerge—likely an important factor in the city’s high Walkscore among Sun Belt cities. To supplement existing walkability and accommodate rapidly rising demand among young Houstonians for walkable communities, the city adopted a Complete Streets ordinance in 2013. The policy requires that all new and redeveloped roads be designed in a way that accommodates pedestrians and cyclists of all ages. Houston City Hall even invited chief walkability evangelist Jeff Speck to speak earlier this year, responding positively to low-cost, high-value ideas like adding street trees, installing protected bike lanes, and converting downtown roads from one-way to two-way. The city also adopted its first bike plan in early 2016, declaring its intent to build 300 miles of “high comfort” bikeways.

High density office space, apartments—and yes, parking—playfully mix. A Whole Foods sits in the middle, easily accessible to pedestrians and cyclists in the surrounding area. (Google Maps)

Houston has also started taking the need for transit seriously. Last year, the city transformed its bus system into a high-frequency grid without increasing operating costs, substantially increasing the feasibility of car-free living. While the city has unfortunately taken an antagonistic approach to ride-sharing services, local jitney services—private buses operating on fixed routes with fixed rates—have emerged to supplement the city’s public bus system. The planned expansion of bus rapid transit—essentially buses operating as light rail—offers an attractive way of addressing commuter traffic without the enormous costs and inflexibility associated with light rail transit.

Of course, not everyone can or will ditch their car for bicycles or buses and improved pedestrian, cyclist, and transit infrastructure can only do so much to address traffic congestion. In fact, Texas may soon have something to learn about traffic management from states like California and Oregon. In recent years, the two West Coast states have started experimenting with mileage-based fees, an alternative to the regressive gas tax that would charge road users based on actual mileage travelled. When combined with congestion pricing, a mileage-based system offers incentives for road users to find ways to avoid driving when road demand is high and shift necessary trips to when road demand is low. While observers often assume that Houston’s traffic jams are the byproduct of unrestrained markets, it is ironically the lack of a market for road use that puts publicly-owned roads in a tragedy of the commons situation.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Contrary to conventional wisdom, many US cities have a lot to learn from Houston. With tight development restrictions, out-of-date urban planning regimes, and burdensome regulations forcing middle- and lower-class Americans out of West Cost and Northeastern cities, Houston’s mix of affordable housing and economic opportunity is more valuable than ever. As other cities have attempted to maintain tight, centralized control on urban and economic development—exemplified by a recent push by Dallas to shutter local businesses in order to attract chains—Houston has opted to take a back seat to residents, entrepreneurs, and civil society groups in cultivating economic development and crafting urban communities.

Some continue to blame Houston’s unique approach for everything from flood damage—as if imposing side setbacks and keeping delis out of neighborhoods would avoid statewide flooding—to remaining pockets of poverty within the city. Certainly some form of citywide coordination on data collection and service allocation in pursuit of efficiency and equity makes sense. Yet past attempts to impose greater centralized urban planning on Houston have been defeated by overwhelming working-class opposition every time. Those residents know something many in the urban planning world don’t. It is well past time that we start taking Houston’s success seriously.

Nolan Gray


Nolan Gray

Nolan Gray is a contributor to Market Urbanism and a graduate student in city and regional planning at Rutgers University. His research interests include land-use regulation, economic development, and urban planning theory. In addition to writing, Nolan also hosts the Market Urbanism Podcast. He is originally from Lexington, Kentucky.

It’s Official: You’re Paying for Trump’s Wall, Twice

“We’re going to build a big, beautiful wall—and Mexico is gonna pay for it,” was one of Donald Trump’s campaign mantras. However, as Americans who don’t have political short-term memory loss will remember, politicians break promises once they’re elected. Such is the case with Trump’s promise to make Mexico pay for his “great” wall.

The reality is that Americans will wind up paying for the tariffs through higher food and consumer prices.You’re paying for it, not Mexico, and Trump’s newly released White House budget has made it official.

The Trump budget blueprint, released late Wednesday, calls for taxpayers to fund $4.1 billion through 2018 for Trump’s wall along the southern border of the United States. But that’s just for the initial construction. According to DHS estimates, the overall cost to taxpayers could be $21.6 billion, a figure that will likely be even higher considering the government’s penchant for going over budget and deadlines.

But wait, there’s more. Because Mexico has made it abundantly clear that it will not pay for America’s “great” wall, Trump has floated the idea of slapping a 20 percent tariff on all goods imported from Mexico to make up for the cost. This idea may sound legitimate if you disregard the laws of economics, but the reality is that Americans will wind up paying for the tariffs through higher food and consumer prices. As Anti-Media reported in January:

Many food products that people living in the U.S. enjoy, like fruits, vegetables, beef, and avocados, could be taxed an extra 20 percent under Trump’s plan. Mexican beer like Corona? 20 percent. Tequila, too. Cars, electronic equipment, machines, engines, pumps, oil, medical and technical equipment, furniture, lighting, signs, plastics, gems, precious metals, coins, iron, and steel products are Mexico’s top exports, which could be taxed 20 percent more.”

In response to the proposed tariffs, Mexico stated it would return tariffs—or border taxes—on U.S. goods going into Mexico, which would hurt American businesses and workers. So basically, you’ll be paying for the wall twice, or possibly three times if you are employed or own a business that relies on exports to Mexico.

At a time when illegal immigration to the U.S. from Mexico has reached a 40-year low, and the supposed economic benefits of the wall are nowhere to be found (though its negative effects are already being felt), many people are likely left wondering if it’s even worth it.

Nick Bernabe


Nick Bernabe

Nick Bernabe is the owner and lead editor of the website TheAntiMedia.org, an activist, blogger, and the founder and spokesman of the March Against Monsanto movement. He is also a guest contributor to The Mind Unleashed.

Legal Services Corp. Eliminated by Trump Budget

President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget eliminates funding for the Legal Services Corp. In his first budget proposal released Thursday, Trump is cutting discretionary spending to pay for an increase in defense spending and the wall on the Mexican border, the Washington Post reports.
The LSC is among 19 agencies in line for total elimination of funding. Others agencies to be cut include the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts, according to the Post and USA Today.

The American Bar Association is “outraged” that the Trump administration is calling to eliminate funding for the LSC and is calling upon members of Congress to restore it, ABA President Linda Klein said in a statement Thursday. Klein noted that LSC offices are in every congressional district and help 1.9 million people annually.

“Some of the worthy services the LSC provides include securing housing for veterans, protecting seniors from scams, delivering legal services to rural areas, protecting victims of domestic abuse and helping disaster survivors,” Klein wrote. “More than 30 cost-benefit studies all show that legal aid delivers far more in benefits than it costs,” Klein wrote. “If veterans become homeless, or disaster victims cannot rebuild, their costs to society are significantly more.”

Also supporting the LSC are the heads of more than 150 U.S. law firms, who told Trump in a letter that eliminating funding would hamper their ability to provide pro bono representation because they partner with legal aid groups receiving LSC funding.

“Eliminating the Legal Services Corp. will not only imperil the ability of civil legal aid organizations to serve Americans in need, it will also vastly diminish the private bar’s capacity to help these individuals,” the letter stated. “The pro bono activity facilitated by LSC funding is exactly the kind of public-private partnership the government should encourage, not eliminate.”

The LSC requested $502 million for fiscal year 2017 and received $385 million in appropriations for fiscal year 2016.

LSC President Jim Sandman remained optimistic about the outlook for the LSC in an interview with Bloomberg Big Law Business. He said he expected Congress to ignore Trump’s proposal and to grant the full $502 million funding request.

“We represent a fundamental American value—equal justice,” Sandman told Bloomberg. “That’s a value as old as the republic itself. Congress understands that.”

Here Comes the Fed! Texas Land Owners to Lose Property for Trump’s Border Wall

The government offered $2,900 for 1.2 acres near the Rio Grande. If Flores chooses not to accept the offer, the land could be seized through eminent domain.

Jen Reel The ribbon left by the DHS in 2008 to note where the border wall would enter on Aleida Flores’ land still remains.

The week before Donald Trump’s inauguration, Yvette Salinas received a letter she had been dreading for years: legal notice that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) wants to build a border wall on her family’s land near Los Ebanos. The 21-page document, entitled a “Declaration of Taking,” is addressed to her ailing mother, Maria Flores, who owns the property with her siblings. The letter offers Flores $2,900 for 1.2 acres near the Rio Grande. If she chooses not to accept the offer, the land could be seized through eminent domain. “It’s scary when you read it,” Salinas says. “You feel like you have to sign.”

The 16-acre property has been in the family for so long that none of them can remember the year it was acquired. Salinas only knows they’ve had it for five generations. Her uncle runs a few head of cattle on the property, which lies not far from Los Ebanos’ most famous attraction, a hand-drawn ferry that shuttles cars and their passengers across the river to Mexico.

This is not the first time the federal government has wanted to seize the land for a border wall. In the wake of the Secure Fence Act of 2006, the Bush administration put up 110 miles of border fencing, much of it on private land in Texas. In 2008, Salinas’ family received a condemnation notice offering them the same low, low price of $2,900. Others in Los Ebanos were mailed similar notices.

But nature and time were on their side. Los Ebanos is squeezed into a bend in the Rio Grande, and lies entirely in the river’s floodplain. A treaty between the United States and Mexico forbids building any structures in the floodplain that could push floodwaters into surrounding communities.

Jen Reel The map given to Flores in 2008 by the DHS showing their proposed fence acquisition tract on Flores’ land.

Salinas’ family held off on signing the condemnation letter. As time passed, building a wall in Los Ebanos seemed less likely, because of the treaty and because the Obama administration made wall-building less of a priority. In the meantime, Aleida Garcia, Salinas’ cousin, said the government has increased security in the area by adding more surveillance, which she prefers to Trump’s proposed 30-foot wall. “Even if they build a wall, people will still come,” said Garcia. “What’s helped us tremendously and is less expensive is the technology — the aerostat balloons, the ground sensors and even boots on the ground.”

But Los Ebanos appears to be a prime target for the Trump administration. The surveying and planning work has already been done, and the Secure Fence Act authorizes more border fencing to be built. And in 2012, the United States half of the International Boundary and Water Commission, a binational organization tasked with managing the U.S.-Mexico water treaty, capitulated to lobbying by DHS and agreed to a wall in the floodplain.

Jen Reel The map given to Flores in 2008 by the DHS showing their proposed fence acquisition tract on Flores’ land.

Salinas says her family doesn’t want to give up their land, and they are consulting with lawyers to decide what to do next. But fighting the federal government could mean spending years in court. If they lose, DHS could take their land without compensation. Salinas, who is 29, says it makes her sad that the family’s legacy could be divided by an ugly wall that will cause problems for Los Ebanos. “We don’t want this wall — the town is pretty much united on that,” says Salinas. “But we don’t want to get sued by the U.S. government either.”

Trillions in Debt and We’re Just Scratching the Surface

As the federal debt has gone from astounding to unbelievable to incomprehensible, a new problem has emerged: The US government is actually running out of places to borrow.

How Many Zeros Are in a Trillion?

The $20 trillion debt is already twice the annual revenues collected by all the world’s governments combined. Counting unfunded liabilities, which include promised Social Security, Medicare, and government pension payments that Washington will not have the money to pay, the federal government actually owes somewhere between $100 trillion and $200 trillion. The numbers are so ridiculously large that even the uncertainty in the figures exceeds the annual economic output of the entire planet.

Since 2000, the federal debt has grown at an average annual rate of 8.2%, doubling from $10 trillion to $20 trillion in the past eight years alone. Who loaned the government this money? Four groups: foreigners, Americans, the Federal Reserve, and government trust funds. But over the past decade, three of these groups have cut back significantly on their lending.

Foreign investors have slowed the growth in their lending from over 20% per year in the early 2000s to less than 3% per year today. Excluding the Great Recession years, American investors have been cutting back on how much they lend the federal government by an average of 2% each year.

The Fed is the only game left in town.

Social Security, though, presents an even bigger problem. The federal government borrowed all the Social Security surpluses of the past 80 years. But starting this year, and continuing either forever or until Congress overhauls the program (which may be the same thing), Social Security will only generate deficits. Not only is the government no longer able to borrow from Social Security, it will have to start paying back what it owes – assuming the government plans on making good on its obligations.

With federal borrowing growing at more than 6% per year, with foreign and American investors becoming more reluctant to lend, and with the Social Security trust fund drying up, the Fed is the only game left in town. Since 2001, the Fed has increased its lending to the federal government by over 11% each year, on average. Expect that trend to continue.

Inflation to Make You Cry

For decades, often in word but always in deed, politicians have told voters that government debt didn’t matter. We, and many economists, disagree. Yet even if the politicians were right, the absence of available creditors would be an insurmountable problem—were it not for the Federal Reserve. But when the Federal Reserve acts as the lender of last resort, unpleasant realities follow. Because, as everyone should be keenly aware, the Fed simply prints the money it loans.

A century of arguing about how much to increase spending has left us with a debt that dwarfs the annual economic output of the planet.

A Fed loan devalues every dollar already in circulation, from those in people’s savings accounts to those in their pockets. The result is inflation, which is, in essence, a tax on frugal savers to fund a spendthrift government.

Since the end of World War II, inflation in the US has averaged less than 4% per year. When the Fed starts printing money in earnest because the government can’t obtain loans elsewhere, inflation will rise dramatically. How far is difficult to say, but we have some recent examples of countries that tried to finance runaway government spending by printing money.

From 1975 to 1990, the Greek people suffered 15% annual inflation as their government printed money to finance stimulus spending. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Russia printed money to keep its government running. The result was five years over which inflation averaged 750%. Today, Venezuela’s government prints money to pay its bills, causing 200% inflation which the International Monetary Fund expects to skyrocket to 1,600% this year.

For nearly a century, politicians have treated deficit spending as a magic wand. In a recession? We need jobs, so government must spend more money! In an expansion? There’s more tax revenue, so government can spend more money! Always and everywhere, politicians argued only about how much to increase spending, never whether to increase spending. A century of this has left us with a debt so large that it dwarfs the annual economic output of the planet. And now we are coming to the point at which there will be no one left from whom to borrow. When creditors finally disappear completely, all that will remain is a reckoning.

Antony Davies


Antony Davies

Antony Davies is an associate professor of economics at Duquesne University in Pittsburg.

 

“Behind the Smoke” Legendary Rock Guitarist Steve Hackett formerly of Genesis on ‘I Take LIBERTY With My Coffee’

Saturday, March 11, 1:00 PM EST/10:00 AM PST Guitar virtuoso and rock legend, Steve Hackett (formerly of Genesis), joins me on “I Take LIBERTY With My Coffee” for a revealing interview. Steve is set to release his latest album ‘The Night Siren’ on March 24th, 2017 through InsideOut Music (Sony). As implied in the title, ‘The Night Siren’ is a wake-up call… the warning of a siren sounding in this era of strife and division.  I recently hung out with Steve on the Cruise to the Edge 2017 and we discussed what inspired him to make this album and the messages he hopes to reach people with. The album’s first track ‘Behind the Smoke’  is about the refugee crisis.  Not just now but in history as well.  Steve, like many of us, is a descendant of refugees as his grandparents had to flee Poland in the late 1800’s. Please join me as I welcome this legendary artist as we discuss his career, his life, his activism and his desire for a world filled with Peace and Justice first.

“I will always be known as a progressive musician. But what that means is there are no rules to be followed. Anything can happen at any time, and that’s certainly the case here.”

“Right now, it seems the world has been plunged into darkness. Wherever you look, extremism and intolerance are dominant, and people are getting fed up with politicians. They are losing faith in the way they behave. But within the midst of all this, what I am saying is that embracing a multi-cultural approach gives us all a way of moving forward in the right way.”

It’s taken a year or so for Hackett to bring this ambitious album to fruition. In doing so, he has shown a tremendous capacity for following his instincts and inclinations, eschewing the easy path of going in a straight musical direction, in favor of being more adventurous.

Photo by Tina Korhonen © 2016, all rights reserved.

Indiana Used Stolen Funds to Pay Law Enforcement

There is a very clear reason as to why law enforcement has so diligently defended the routine use of civil asset forfeiture: it’s extremely profitable.

A recent federal audit of Indiana law enforcement agencies has shown just how beneficial this practice has been to its officers by revealing that the state used more than $400,000 of seized assets to pay for salaries, “fringe” benefits, and overtime pay.

This controversial practice has earned the nickname policing for profit.As lax as the federal guidelines on asset forfeiture are, using seized funds to pay for personnel is strictly prohibited. But that didn’t stop Indiana law enforcement from finding creative ways to move the money around.  

Policing for Profit

The controversial legal tool of asset forfeiture allows police officers and other law enforcement entities to seize money and physical property from anyone suspected of wrongdoing.

Unfortunately, as the Drug War and the War on Terror have both escalated over the last decade, national security has trumped liberty and the threshold for determining suspicious behavior has been lowered to include just about anyone.

Conveniently enough, routine traffic stops now frequently turn into “suspicious” situations as soon as the officer on the scene discovers that the driver is carrying large amounts of cash. This is precisely why the practice earned the nickname policing for profit. Since officers are “entitled” to keep a portion of the spoils, there are very few safeguards in place to protect innocent people from becoming victims of institutionalized highway robbery.

Officers of the law are profiting from the theft of innocent Americans.While many states have been successful in placing limitations on this practice over the years, the federal Equitable Sharing Program provides a loophole, allowing state law enforcement to act on behalf of the federal government, in exchange for a cut of the forfeited property, which is usually around 80 percent.

It was this same federal asset forfeiture program that allowed Indiana law enforcement to pay its officers with stolen money.

The Innocent Pay the Price

According to the federal guidelines on the Equitable Sharing Program, state agencies are prohibited from using forfeited funds to pay personnel costs “so that the prospect of receiving equitable sharing funds does not influence, or appear to influence, law enforcement decisions.”

This makes perfect sense; after all, it would be unjust to give officers incentive to accuse innocent people of criminal acts, since they stand to directly benefit from the situation.

While this safeguard may seem like a solid checks-and-balances system on paper, it hasn’t done much to stop local departments from using the money at their own discretion, which has often meant using it to pay for its officers’ salaries.

The federal guidelines do allow for one exception to the salary rule, however: if the funds are used to pay for the wages of an officer who has stepped in to replace a vacancy left by another officer leaving to join a special task force.

While this was true of an officer in Henry County, Indiana, the department had been using forfeited funds to pay the replacement over $40,000 more than the officer he was replacing. Since the base salary was, in fact, “allowable” or under the federal guidelines, the Inspector General only marked the extra $40,000 as “unallowable” on the part of Henry County.

Civil asset forfeiture will always be ripe for abuse.However, a recent Washington Post investigation found that 81 percent of those who have had money or property stolen through asset forfeiture have never actually been charged with a crime. Considering this, it is appalling that law enforcement is using this money to fund even a cent of their personnel costs at the expense of innocent bystanders.

No matter how the federal guidelines are framed to prevent abuse, at the end of the day officers of the law are profiting from the theft of American people, many of whom will never get their day in court because there were never any official charges filed.

In addition to the overpaid officer, the Inspector General found $165,000 of “unallowable” expenses within the state’s expenditures. This included an instance in Richmond County, where a $91,000 salary was being funded solely by forfeited funds. Henry County, as it turns out, had transferred around $380,000 to other departments and counties. Richmond was just one of several recipients.

Unfortunately, this federal program is not likely to go away anytime soon. Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions has been a huge advocate for this program which he believes to be integral to maintaining domestic law and order.

However, as Indiana’s audit has demonstrated, civil asset forfeiture will always be ripe for abuse because the entire system relies on incentivizing police officers to steal from those they have sworn an oath to protect.

Brittany Hunter


Brittany Hunter

Brittany Hunter is an associate editor at FEE. Brittany studied political science at Utah Valley University with a minor in Constitutional studies.