Scott Sumner  

Missing moods at the Boston Globe

PRINT
Economic Growth and the Policy... The Boston Globe's Case is Eve...

Polls show that 58% of Americans favor the legalization of marijuana. Even Texans support it. But an initiative to legalize pot in (very liberal) Massachusetts may fail. One reason is anti-legalization editorials like the following, in the highly influential Boston Globe.

When I think about the prospect of legalizing marijuana in Massachusetts, I surprise myself by sounding like my father. Cannabis tourism? THC-infused lip balm? "Budz and sudz" crawls? What is the world coming to? . . .

Like most Massachusetts citizens, I voted for legalization of medical marijuana when it was on the ballot in 2012. But the chaotic rollout of that measure is a cautionary tale. Recall that within weeks of the election, implementation of the new law was on its way to becoming a fiasco of falsified license applications, shoddy background checks, allegations of corruption and influence-peddling, voided licenses, and lawsuits galore. Communities objected, and licensing stalled, as dispensaries were sited in residential neighborhoods instead of clinics or pharmacies, where they might have maintained at least the patina of therapeutic purpose. Meanwhile, thousands of deserving patients suffered until the first dispensary finally opened in Salem last June. If the state can't handle a nonprofit medical marijuana market for a limited number of patients, can we reasonably expect it to establish an all-cash, profit-driven buzz bazaar without a hitch? . . .


The editorial continues on in the same vein, with lots of minor bureaucratic points. Notably missing is any discussion of the 400,000 Americans currently serving in prison for drug violations, or the millions more whose lives have been scarred by their criminal record. One might have expected some acknowledgement of the vast racial inequities, the fact that whites are as likely to use pot as blacks, but far less likely to go to prison. After all, Black Lives Matter has become a hot topic at liberal papers like the Globe. But when it comes to drug legalization, minorities are almost invisible. Instead we get this:

As with legalized gambling, the states are in a competitive frenzy to hatch these golden geese before the market is saturated. It's beggar-thy-neighbor time, and no one wants to miss out. States are salivating at the prospect of easy revenue without the pain of raising taxes.

But marijuana revenues, like gambling income and other forms of "voluntary taxation," are a cheap, fractured way to fund public services. Instead of people contributing equitably to the common good, a smaller subset foots the bill. Sure, some people will smoke pot whether it's for sale at the 7-11 or not. But does the state need to endorse it, or -- worse -- come to depend on it?

Possession of small amounts of marijuana has been decriminalized in Massachusetts for seven years. Before we embark on this billion-dollar bender, maybe we should just take a breath.


The endorsement comment is just silly. Massachusetts has legalized the sale of cigarettes---does anyone seriously believe the state is endorsing the use of cigarettes? The comment about decriminalization is telling. It's a signal to affluent suburban moms, "don't worry, if your teenage son gets caught buying pot, he won't get a criminal record. Instead we'll send the sellers of pot to prison, and those are mostly minorities."

Back in January, Bryan Caplan did a brilliant post on "missing moods". Here's a sample:

2. The immigration restrictionist. Immigration from the Third World to the First World is almost a fool-proof way to work your way out of poverty. The mechanism: Labor is more productive in the First World than the Third, so migrants generally create the extra riches they consume. This doesn't mean that immigration restrictions are never justified. But the reasonable restrictionist mood is anguish that a tremendous opportunity to enrich mankind and end poverty must go to waste - and pity for the billions punished for the "crime" of choosing the wrong parents. The kind of emotions that flow out of, "The economic and humanitarian case for immigration is awesome. Unfortunately, there are even larger offsetting costs. These costs are hard to spot with the naked eye, but careful study confirms they are tragically real. Trapping innocents in poverty because of the long-run costs of immigration seems unfair, but after exhaustive study we've found no other remedy. Once you see this big picture, restriction is the lesser evil. This is true even after adjusting for the inaccuracy of our past predictions about the long-run dangers of immigration."

I have met a couple of restrictionists who privately express this mood, and read a few who hold it publicly. But in percentage terms, they're almost invisible. Instead, the standard restrictionist moods are anger and xenophobia. Mainstream restrictionists hunt for horrific immigrant outliers, then use these outliers to justify harsh treatment of immigrants in general.


I notice the same thing about immigration foes.

I'd expect the drug warriors at the liberal Boston Globe to lament, "It's unfortunate that the drug war has led to the incarceration of 400,000 Americans, mostly minorities. But alas, we need to pay this heavy price in order to avoid becoming a horrific hellhole like Colorado, Washington or Oregon." But we don't even get that argument. Instead, they seem oblivious to the pain caused by their policies. In previous posts, commenters often tell me that these drug criminals are "bad people" and would be doing something else like robbing banks if they were not selling drugs. I say bad laws make bad people.

Screen Shot 2016-09-28 at 12.02.02 PM.png

BTW, this is nothing new for the Globe. A few years back a "right-to-die" referendum had a big lead in the polls, and then lost narrowly after the Boston Globe came out against it. They are the sort of paper that seems liberal on any given issue, except those that would actually give people more freedom.

PS. I should emphasize that this is just one editorial, and may not reflect the official position of the Globe.


Comments and Sharing






COMMENTS (18 to date)
E. Harding writes:

"One might have expected some acknowledgement of the vast racial inequities, the fact that whites are as likely to use pot as blacks, but far less likely to go to prison."

-This is uncritical repetition of left-wing mythology.
http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/11/25/race-and-justice-much-more-than-you-wanted-to-know/

"One might have expected some acknowledgement of the vast racial inequities"

-As exist with every single crime imaginable except driving under the influence.

"or the millions more whose lives have been scarred by their criminal record"

-Do you really think these people would do something productive instead of selling pot?

"It's a signal to affluent suburban moms, "don't worry, if your teenage son gets caught buying pot, he won't get a criminal record. Instead we'll send the sellers of pot to prison, and those are mostly minorities.""

-The same thing was done in nearly all-white Portugal. This isn't a racial issue.

"I say bad laws make bad people."

-Do you have any evidence for this conclusion?

"They are the sort of paper that seems liberal on any given issue, except those that would actually give people more freedom."

-Sadly, yes. I have to agree.

I'm undecided on the topic of marijuana decriminalization/legalization. Marijuana, like tobacco, is bad for your health. Perhaps a steep tax could be a compromise.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

Very nice point about drug policy. Adding the problems of black markets to the problems of narcotics is obviously a disaster.

One might point out that adding the problems of black market transport to migration flows is not good either.

And while migration to the West is obviously good for migrants (that's why they keep coming) it is also reasonable to ask what costs the local citizens (especially the poorer local citizens) should pay just because they live in successful societies. Also what level of risk should be run of compromising what makes such societies successful in the first place. Until economics has a robust explanation of what makes some societies long term successful and others not, some humility on the last point is in order.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

On migration, I am more of a "manage it cleverly" than a restrictionist as such.

Floccina writes:

The war on drugs drives me crazy. Government does not have good tools for surpressing drug use. Legalize it all completely and leave to people like me to try to convince people to not use drugs. People need access to safe drugs at local pharmacies.the only drugs that adults should have to get a prescription for are antibiotics.

Scott Sumner writes:

Lorenzo and Floccina---both good comments.

Mark Bahner writes:
"I say bad laws make bad people."

-Do you have any evidence for this conclusion?

Don't you think asset forfeiture laws provide overwhelming evidence for this conclusion?

If you don't read Reason magazine...you should. ;-) I'll bet there have probably been over 100 cases of absolutely horrendous asset forfeiture abuse provided in Reason magazine in the last decade. The police literally commit legalized theft. Why? Because the law says they can.

Reason magazine on asset forfeiture

Mark Bahner writes:

Just one example from that link:

Albuquerque resident Arlene Harjo, 56, is paying off a loan for a car she doesn't have, because the city seized it for a crime it readily admits she didn't commit, under an asset forfeiture program that is supposed to be banned.

Albuquerque "legalized" theft (which is actually truly illegal)

Matthew Waters writes:

"I say bad laws make bad people."
-Do you have any evidence for this conclusion?

In addition to asset forfeiture, the stigma of a drug conviction and/or perpetual and expensive probation makes it tougher to get out of a poverty/crime cycle.

Benjamin Cole writes:

Who exactly wants to illegalize pot? I don't get it.

Is it the alcohol lobby? After all, if pot is legal it would be just about free. Anybody can grow the stuff, and the new varieties are very potent. Why have any laws at all about pot?

There is a legitimate body of academic work that large-scale 3rd world immigration to 1st world countries can injure the people on the lower rungs of the working totem pole. This make sense.

Beyond that, a sovereign nation should enforce immigration laws, and such laws should be arrived at democratically, and clearly, and be administered accountably.

If voters want one or 10 million immigrants a year---well, that is up to voters.

The power-class in the USA has been loathsome in this regard, basically saying that 30 million illegal immigrants seeking work (1980 to present) and occasional amnesties is okay.

We believe in law and order until we do not.

Rajat writes:

How many of the 400,000 in prison are in there for trafficking marijuana? It never seemed to be mentioned in The Wire.. Or do you propose legalising all hard drugs?

kimock writes:

A useful clarification could be op-ed or column, which refer to one writer's position versus editorial, which typically refers to the position of a newspaper's editorial board.

Shane L writes:
"I say bad laws make bad people."

-Do you have any evidence for this conclusion?

I don't see pub-owners, beer companies and wine traders shooting and knee-capping one another. Presumably this is because they can refer threats from competitors to the police and courts, who intervene on their behalf. When people move into a business involving illegal goods, they cannot turn to the police and so must protect themselves from violent competitors by personally becoming involved in violence, like pre-state clans engaging in tit-for-tat revenge raids. If drugs were legalised, competitors could appeal to the law for support.

Incidentally, I've wondered if this is relevant to the occasional complaint about Black Lives Matter, that black Americans are many times more likely to be killed by black criminals than by police. If ordinary black Americans are afraid that the police will treat them unjustly, even violently, they might be more inclined to avoid the criminal justice system and seek protection from rivals by engaging in personal violence against them. I have no evidence for this! I wondered, though, if some black American communities may behave somewhat like anarchies if their people are afraid to appeal to a perceived unjust system, and instead rely on gangs for protection from rivals.

Thaomas writes:

On the related point of criminalization of opioids, the highest costs have been shifted abroad.

GregS writes:

"But the chaotic rollout of that measure is a cautionary tale. Recall that within weeks of the election, implementation of the new law was on its way to becoming a fiasco of falsified license applications, shoddy background checks, allegations of corruption and influence-peddling, voided licenses, and lawsuits galore."

I love how these are all consequences of inadequately liberalizing the market. Yes, if you restrict the number of licenses or make it hard to get them, you’re going to get some shady politicking by people trying to acquire them.

Their argument is pure status-quo bias. I’m scratching my head at the “voluntary taxation” point, too. Is this supposed to be a bug, rather than a feature?

Great post. The authors of the Boston Globe piece are endorsing pretty despotic restrictions on personal freedom, and implicitly the large amounts of violence needed to enforce those restrictions, without any acknowledgement that they are doing so. You’d think they’d at least try to argue that it’s worth the cost.

Scott Sumner writes:

Harding, Would they be doing something useful? You mean like spending lots of time posting "alt-right" comments on the blogosphere?

Seriously, I guess I don't think we should advocate putting people who we have never met in jail, merely because we don't think they would be otherwise doing something with their time that we personally thought was useful.

Ben, Generally speaking, voters want to legalize pot, and politicians want to keep it illegal.

Rajat, I favor legalizing all drugs, but I understand that at the moment that would be politically impossible. Thirty years ago legalizing pot was politically impossible, but now 58% of Americans are in favor.

I'd guess that many thousands are in prison for drug trafficing in marijuana, but don't know how many. It's complicated, as people often go to prison for multiple offenses, say drugs and money laundering, or tax evasion, or possession of a firearm, etc.

Thanks Kimock, I'll try to remember that in the future.

Jay writes:

@Scott Sumner

To be fair to E. Harding (who made some good points, not sure why you focused on a weaker one or labelled him alt-right), I don't believe he advocates putting people he doesn't know in prison, he was simply saying that not all those millions were "scarred" and had other blemishes in their lives not related to this particular law. I'm not saying it makes it right, just saying that claiming only angles get put in prison for drug laws doesn't advance the cause any.

Floccina writes:

Benjamin Cole writes:
Who exactly wants to illegalize pot? I don't get it.

Pew reasearch on: In Debate Over Legalizing Marijuana, Disagreement Over Drug’s Dangers

Bad for people and society (kind of redundant) seems to be the biggest reason.

Scott Sumner writes:

Jay, I labeled him alt-right because he is alt-right. I don't mind if people label me libertarian, and I assume he doesn't mind being labeled alt-right. Anyway, it was just a joke.

I never claimed that only angels were being put in prison by our drug laws. I agree that if you randomly round up 400,000 people off the street, it will include many bad people. And I'd even agree that those imprisoned for drugs are probably worse than average. But none of that has any bearing on the case for imprisoning people who have done nothing wrong.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top