Friday, November 24, 2017


Some time back, I was reading an article on the Greek Debt Crisis (it's remarkable that this seems like ancient history already) and one of the people they spoke to made an interesting pair of observations that work basically like this: There are always opportunities in a crisis, and those opportunities always come at a cost to someone. They were remarkable points, and they stayed with me ever since, mainly because they helped me articulate something that I'd sort of understood, but hadn't found a concise way to say: A lot of prosperity actually isn't. It just seems that way because someone else is paying the costs. This isn't to say that all prosperity is due more to cost-shifting than actual economic bounty, but since money is just as green if it turns out that someone else actually did the work to earn it, from the point of view of many observers, the two can be difficult to separate.

The point came up again when I was reading this article in The Atlantic about Justice Clarence Thomas' misgivings about the current practice of civil forfeiture. (For the uninitiated, civil forfeiture is the practice of seizing assets and then, initiating a legal action against those assets, rather than the owner. What sets civil forfeiture apart from criminal forfeiture, apart from the asset{s} being the defendant, is that no criminal charge is necessary. As a DEA agent put it: “We don’t have to prove that the person is guilty. It’s that the money is presumed to be guilty.”) The federal government and the states alike have civil forfeiture laws, and they can be moneymakers - the Justice department's forfeiture programs "brought in about $28 billion over the last decade."

But, as I noted, other jurisdictions are in on the act. And for some of them, it's an important source of revenue. Justice Thomas cited an article in The New Yorker on the practice, and it carried this passage:

“We all know the way things are right now—budgets are tight,” Steve Westbrook, the executive director of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas, says. “It’s definitely a valuable asset to law enforcement, for purchasing equipment and getting things you normally wouldn’t be able to get to fight crime.” Many officers contend that their departments would collapse if the practice were too heavily regulated, and that a valuable public-safety measure would be lost.
In other words, if we're not allowed to continue a practice that is easily abused into becoming virtual police shakedowns, we won't have the money we need to protect and serve. Or, we're too broke to care about right and wrong.

The New Yorker piece focuses on what seemed to be remarkably open abuse of the program in Tenaha, Texas. But what took me back to the story about the Greek debt crisis and the observations therein was how many of the people were from out-of-state. The police there weren't using the process of civil asset forfeiture to clean up their city. They were using the fact that they were situated on a major highway to fleece motorists passing through.
It's been said that representative governments more or less have to do what their constituents ask of them. While some politicians appear to have ironclad holds on their seats, even that depends on people approving of the job that's being done. Being gerrymandered into a safely partisan seat doesn't save you from a primary challenge. And it seems that a lot of the time, the public asks their government to deliver valuable services to them, but not to raise their taxes. Borrowing money from the global investor community (whether persons or nation-states) is a workable solution for the federal government, but states and localities don't always have that option, and so they have to be... creative.

And for the people they serve that creativity often goes unnoticed, but even if they do see it, their options are either pony up more of the costs themselves or do without - and if they were willing to have done that in the first place, it's unlikely that the shakedowns would have started in the first place.

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