Category: Public Policy

The Welfare of Children

Welfare is, and has always been, about promoting the welfare of children – not adults. The name of the US’s first nationwide program – Aid to Families with Dependent Children – says it all. It wasnt a program for poor people generally, but for poor families with children. Its predecessor – numerous smaller programs run at the state and county level, collectively referred to as “Mother’s Pension Programs” – also had the wellbeing of children – not mothers – as its central purpose.

For the past forty years, the American debate on welfare has lost sight of what should be its organizing principle: improving the lives of impoverished children. America never got past Reagan’s preoccupation with the “welfare queen.” Even the welfare reform signed into law by Bill Clinton was crafted without respect to what should have been its overarching priority. For decades American policymakers have been asking the wrong questions about AFDC, and its successor, TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families), as well as numerous other welfare programs, such as Medicaid and Food Stamps (SNAP).

When scrutinizing welfare programs, Americans have become overly concerned with what economists refer to as “the moral hazard problem.” Like any form of insurance, social insurance is expected to impact behavior. Without car insurance, for example, you would drive more carefully. Without homeowners insurance, you might never use your fireplace. Lacking health insurance, you might never ski. In the absence of unemployment insurance, you might deal with your boss more deferentially. And indeed, without welfare, poor people with children might be more inclined to work, or to put in longer hours at work. These are all instances of “moral hazard” – of people behaving differently because they have insurance.

Despite the moral hazard problem, we are almost always far better off with insurance than without it. It is the folly of conservatives to be preoccupied with the work ethic of poor mothers, who might take welfare as an opportunity to stay home and look after their children. They consistently fail to ask the most important question: whether welfare improves the lives of children.

At last, sanity is being restored to the welfare debate. This week, the New York Times ran an op-ed penned by the Chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. He discusses, approvingly, several new lines of research that supply an empirical basis for the notion that welfare does indeed benefit children. The best and latest scholarship shows that welfare helps children live longer, healthier lives, obtain more years of education, and earn more. Welfare has a positive impact on such diverse phenomena as low-birth weight, high school and college completion rates, teenage mortality, standardized test scores and crime.

All along, the objective of welfare wasnt to make things easier for parents, but to alleviate the harm that poverty inflicts on children. It is encouraging to see this very basic insight embraced by the president’s chief economic adviser, and to see the welfare debate move back toward its proper area of concern.

 

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the NYT op-ed: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/11/opinion/smart-social-programs.html?emc=edit_th_20150511&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=32816889&_r=0

 

 

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GOP Immigration Priorities Revealed

Where does the GOP really stand on immigration? Indeed, they arent entirely monolithic – some conservatives say they’d grudgingly allow a pathway to citizenship for some unauthorized immigrants; others say they’d like to see the US (somehow) expel all of its unauthorized immigrants – some 3.5% of the US resident population and 5% of the workforce – if only by elven magic and pixie dust.

Conservatives are all but unanimous in their opposition to President Obama’s common-sense, pro-family reforms, which exempt millions of unauthorized immigrants from deportation. Many, including House Speaker John Boehner, have maligned Obama, claiming that he “cannot be trusted to enforce the laws as written” – implying that a GOP president would do things differently – that if the GOP had its druthers, US immigration policy would see a dramatic change.

Economists employ a useful concept: “the revealed preference.” Recognizing that some people (particularly politicians) will lie about their true mindset, we are wise to ignore their words when we have their actions to reveal their actual preferences. Revealed Preference Theory is in fact a whole lot more involved – but this facet of it closely tracks the popular notion that talk is cheap – and that walking the walk – as distinct from talking the talk – is the true indicator of someone’s heartfelt policies and beliefs.

So where do Republicans really come down on immigration? We might start by taking a look at how the number of unauthorized immigrants living in the US changed during the tenure of the last GOP president. When Bush Duh took office in January 2001, the unauthorized immigrant population was about 9.4 million. In 2003, it passed 10 million. During 2005, it surpassed 11 million. And in 2007, Bush Duh’s seventh year in office, the number of unauthorized US residents reached what remains an all time high of between 12 and 13 million – more than double the number in 1996.

Bush Duh’s presence in the White House had no impact on the steadily increasing number of unauthorized US residents. The only reason why their numbers finally plateaued and began to decline after 2007 is because a weak US economy made the US less attractive: fewer people tried to enter the US illegally, and a fair number of those already in the US departed.

Since Obama took office, and the Great Recession receded, the number of unauthorized immigrants in the US has leveled off at about 11.5 million. It may surprise some to discover that while Clinton and Bush Duh each oversaw periods during which the number of unauthorized immigrants increased by the millions, Obama is the first president in recent history under whom their numbers have roughly held steady.

But we arent here to discuss Obama’s immigration priorities – our aim is to discern the GOP’s real stance. And quite conveniently, it just so happens that yesterday the GOP passed its very first budget resolution in more than a decade. Given all the GOP tough-talk on illegal immigrants, you’d expect there to be a whole lot of new spending for DHS border security and immigration enforcement, right?

Nope. As it turns out, in its brand new budget resolution, the GOP didnt even maintain spending on immigration enforcement and border security at current levels. By cutting the benefits of most federal employees, the GOP, for all their hand-wringing, and their recent government shutdown threat, would effectively reduce the resources available for immigration enforcement and border security!

Le plus ca change. The GOP did nothing while millions illegally entered the US under Bush Duh’s watch. And just yesterday, in its budget resolution, the GOP revealed its preference for reducing the resources available to the Department of Homeland Security. So what does this say about conservatives’ real immigration priorities? – It reveals that immigration, for conservatives, isnt a priority at all.

 

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No Freedom to Discriminate

The US Supreme Court seems poised to end state bans on gay marriage in the few states that still do not permit it. Under the 14th amendment, states are not allowed to deny “equal protection of the laws” to any person. As distinctions between traditional marriage and same-sex marriage wither under scrutiny, state bans on same-sex marriage become ever more apparently a bald denial of equal protection, and will very likely be declared unconstitutional by the Court when it renders its decision in the coming months.

But just as one form of discrimination is about to be stamped out, another is trying to emerge. Such discrimination occurs in a commercial setting – when, for instance, a gay couple goes to a baker for a wedding cake, and the baker refuses. (This is analogous to racial discrimination from the Jim Crow era, when a black person seeking a room in a whites-only hotel could be turned away by the manager.) Unlike bans on gay marriage, which are perpetrated by the government, this form of discrimination is committed by private citizens – and there’s no federal law against it.

While the Bill of Rights and the 14th amendment secure individual rights against federal, state and local governments, they are generally inapplicable to the rights we hold with respect to each other. That’s why the US needed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to end apartheid. Under federal law, before the Civil Rights Act, the proprietor of a shop could turn away any prospective customer or employee for any reason whatsoever. One could choose to serve and-or hire blacks only, whites only, Catholics only, Jews only, etc. – and the US Constitution had (and still has) nothing to say about it. While the Constitution forbids governments from maintaining whites-only buses, or blacks-only universities, it allows private parties to do as their conscience (or lack thereof) dictates. It is because of the Civil Rights Act – not the Constitution – that private parties cannot discriminate on the basis of “race, color or creed” in the course of operating a business.

While red states lag far behind blue states in virtually every socioeconomic measure, they are great innovators of bigotry and intolerance. The Supreme Court’s unfortunate decision in Hobby Lobby gave conservatives a new not-so-bright idea. The Court held that closely-held corporations can refuse to provide their employees with health insurance coverage for birth control, if doing so ran afoul of their “religious beliefs.” In other words, a corporation’s Constitutional “religious freedom” takes precedence over a federal law requiring them to provide insurance coverage for family planning.

Enter the “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts” (RFRAs) now working their way through state legislatures across the country. On their face, they seem innocent – as was the original RFRA passed by Congress in 1993, and signed into law by Bill Clinton. The idea was to give people the right to refuse certain impositions on the part of the government, when they conflicted with their religious beliefs. But a few red states got the notion to expand the application of these laws to private parties as well. And so if a gay couple asks a baker to bake them a cake, the baker might be able to rely on a state RFRA to refuse. The analog to Hobby Lobby is unmistakable, as it should be. Conservatives thought they found a new lipstick for their pig: by dressing up bigotry in the garb of religious freedom, maybe they could sneak it past the courts, and engender a whole new era of discrimination.

Indiana and Arkansas seemed bent on passing RFRAs that facilitated this new form of discrimination. And then something remarkable happened: corporate America rose up in opposition, and the GOP in both states were cowed into amending their laws so that bigots could not rely on them to discriminate.

The US Supreme Court has yet to hear a case on whether one can invoke ones religious beliefs to discriminate against others on the basis of their sexual orientation. Many states afford no protections for gays from discrimination. And Congress has thus far failed to pass a Civil Rights Act for gays. But it is heartening to see this new form of bigotry beaten back by public opinion. The LGBT community assuredly needs a federal Civil Rights Act affording them full protection from commercial discrimination, nationwide. And the road to that destination just got a bit smoother.

 

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Refs:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_Freedom_Restoration_Act

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Employment_Non-Discrimination_Act

4 articles with comprehensive coverage of RFRAs: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/govbeat/wp/2015/04/01/the-twisted-history-of-how-religious-freedom-laws-confused-everybody/

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2015/04/02/arkansas-religious-freedom-bill/70831330/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/02/asa-hutchinson-arkansas-rfra_n_6995826.html

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/04/02/indiana-religious-freedom-law-deal-gay-discrimination/70819106/

http://www.hrc.org/resources/entry/employment-non-discrimination-act

 

Nuts over Water in California

California’s worsening drought has gained national and international attention. But what most reporting fails to convey is that California has the all water it needs for double, if not triple, its present population of 40 million – even in the worst drought in recorded history. That’s because the water shortage is not driven by the demands of the resident population, nor by industry generally. California’s water problem is an agriculture problem. Parsing it further, it is an almond and alfalfa problem.

As a matter of economics, the government is treating water like a public good, instead of like the commodity and production factor it truly is. Though water in California is getting scarcer, the price farmers pay for it is holding steady. And so instead of adapting to less water-intensive crops, they have gone right on producing the most water-intensive crops on the planet, planting more and more acres of them.

California’s 40 million people and non-farm businesses combined consume just 20% of the state’s water supply. The rest goes to agriculture. 10% of the entire California water supply goes to almonds alone. Another 10-15% goes to alfalfa. The math could not be weirder: alfalfa and almond production use more water than all of California’s residents and non-farm businesses combined. If Sacramento passed a law that made it illegal to water almond orchards or alfalfa fields, the water crisis would end that same day. You could double the size of Los Angeles too, and you’d still have enough water for every other purpose.

The problem with almond trees is that they are especially thirsty: it takes about 2100 gallons to make a pound of shelled almonds. By comparison, it takes just 300 gallons to get a pound of chicken, or 160 gallons for a pound of corn. In a healthy market economy, as water becomes more scarce, it will also get more expensive. Almond production should become less and less profitable, and shift to locales with cheaper water supplies. Water-stressed areas will adapt by planting crops that need less water. But California farmers are not asked to pay market prices for the water they consume. When deciding which crop to plant on a given field, the price of water simply doesnt factor in. And so, perversely, as the drought has worsened, almond production has increased – to nearly double what it was 20 years ago.

The State Water Project (SWP) is a massive state-run complex of reservoirs, aqueducts and dams that distributes water throughout the state, to cities and farmers alike. Its pricing scheme tells the whole story. Farmers in the central valley pay SWP about $50 per acre-foot of water. (3 acre feet are about one million gallons.) As water becomes more scarce, SWP does not auction it off to ensure that it goes to its most productive use. Instead, farmers either get water at a fixed price, or they dont, based on seniority. And so farmers keep on planting almond trees because they yield the best return per acre – because SWP makes water cheap for them. By comparison, Los Angeles pays SWP about $300 per acre-foot of water out of the same system. At that price, almonds cannot be grown. Desalinization plants produce water for about $2000 per acre-foot. At that price, farming is impossible.

It is fairly observed that almonds are California’s top agricultural export, more than double wine by gross sales. But agriculture is a very small part of a large, diverse state economy, accounting for less than 2% of California’s gross state product (GSP). Almond production itself is just 0.2% of GSP. But politicians are timid in their dealings with the powerful agribusiness lobby. People on the coasts are instead asked to conserve and pay for outrageously expensive desal projects and-or environmentally messy new dams and reservoirs, simply because politicians are afraid to ask farmers to pay the true price of the water they are using.

Agriculture in the Central Valley doesnt need to come to a dramatic end. But it does need to change, simply because the present practice is unsustainable. Taking shorter showers and washing your car less often is not going to do it. Spending billions on desal so that farmers can send almonds to China and alfalfa to Japan is sheer foolishness. We can be heartened that even in the worst drought in California history, there is still plenty of water to go around. It seems almost too obvious to observe that, particularly in California, water has value – and the state must let the markets reflect that value, to let economic actors make decisions based on real-world scarcities. Water welfare for farmers must end.

 

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Refs:

http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2014/05/_10_percent_of_california_s_water_goes_to_almond_farming.html

http://www.ecology.com/2014/08/29/water-intensive-food-impact-california-drought/

http://westernfarmpress.com/bullish-almond-market-reflects-concerns-over-crop-size-water

http://westernfarmpress.com/tree-nuts/almond-supplies-will-continue-tight-even-big-2013-crop

http://westernfarmpress.com/tree-nuts/growers-balance-record-high-price-2014-harvest-against-uncertain-water-prospects-next-year

http://www.mercurynews.com/science/ci_25859513/nations-largest-ocean-desalination-plant-goes-up-near

http://www.cdfa.ca.gov/statistics/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_State_Water_Project#Controversy_and_modern_issues

http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-california-almonds-20140112-story.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/wests-historic-drought-stokes-fears-of-water-crisis/2014/08/17/d5c84934-240c-11e4-958c-268a320a60ce_story.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_California#/media/File:Gross_Domestic_Product_of_California_2008_%28millions_of_current_dollars%29.svg

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/14/magazine/californias-central-valley-land-of-a-billion-vegetables.html

 

Bergdahl Rules

The successful effort to obtain the release of captured US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl set a high water mark for idealism, and highlights the best of American governance. Though the subtleties of law and principle implicated in Bergdahl’s case are easily manipulated by cynics, and thus misapprehended by the unwitting many, a great deal of good, and a fine precedent, has nonetheless proceeded from a difficult situation.

The evidence strongly suggests that Bergdahl deserted. While he’s entitled to the presumption of innocence, for our purposes, we’ll assume that Bergdahl will be convicted of desertion, and that the Obama administration expected as much as they worked to obtain his release, ultimately paying a significant price. It’s also reasonably assumed that the five Guantanamo prisoners, whom the US gave up in exchange for Bergdahl, are indeed dangerous, simply because the Taliban wanted them. And so the threshold issue is why the US would give up so much to rescue a deserter, who has likely been brought back to the US for the sole purpose of standing trial, to thereafter serve a lifetime sentence in a military prison.

The rationale was best expressed in the terse phrasings of Army Chief of Staff Anthony Odierno: “It was always a high priority that every soldier deployed to Afghanistan would return home. We will never leave a fallen comrade behind.” Or as a US Admiral put it, “If a man goes overboard, we will go and get you – we wont stand around asking if you jumped.” The commitment of the US military to every one of its servicemen has no exceptions for poor performance. The policy of leaving no man behind has no asterisk after it.

Some have raised the issue of the US policy against negotiating with terrorists. However the Taliban has never been classified by the State Department as a terrorist organization, neither under the Bush nor Obama administrations. The US went to war against Afghanistan not because the Taliban – its rulers – were terrorists, but because they were harboring terrorists. The Taliban is better regarded as an especially brutal, repressive regime (and-or insurgency), in the vein of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Pinochet, Trujillo, etc. And the US has exchanged prisoners with many such regimes in the past, including Nazi Germany, the USSR, and even the Confederate States of America. Right-wing hysteria notwithstanding, the Obama administration’s decision to negotiate with the Taliban does not set a precedent or mark a departure from longstanding US policies.

A particularly silly criticism of the deal is that the US paid “too high a price” for Bergdahl – that after years of negotiating, the US in the end caved in and sent five enemy combatants for a single US soldier. Such critiques are particularly frivolous, advanced as they are in a factual vacuum, by people who were not privy to the negotiations. More absurd is the “problem” such critics seem anxious to head off: the US placing too great a value on the lives of its soldiers.

A more interesting issue is President Obama’s decision to flaunt the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014, which mandates that 30 days notice be given to Congress before any prisoners are transferred from Guantanamo. That law, which Obama signed into effect, poses a separation of powers issue, and there is a very good chance that it is an unconstitutional usurpation of executive authority by Congress. (Obama said as much in his signing statement.) While in other countries the courts could resolve the matter with an advisory opinion, the US Supreme Court only has jurisdiction over live “cases and controversies” – i.e., the president cannot inquire as to whether a law is constitutional – he must make his own decision and act without the benefit of the Court’s opinion. And in such circumstances, very few conlaw scholars take the extreme viewpoint that the president must “faithfully execute” laws that seem to run afoul of the Constitution.

It would have been far easier for the Obama administration to do what some on the right-wing lunatic fringe suggested: try Bergdahl in absentia, obtain a verdict of guilt, and disown him. (Though it’s naive to imagine conservatives rallying behind the president as Bergdahl’s corpse was dragged through the streets by his captors.) Instead of taking an easy way out, the Obama administration stood fast to principle: faithful to the policy of bringing every man home; and to the presumption of innocence; and the commitment to due process, which affords the accused the opportunity to face his accusers and participate in his own defense. While the price paid for Bergdahl may have been dear, in the end it wasnt one soldier that the US was paying for, but a set of principles that go to the foundation of the republic.

 

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Cuba Libre

No matter the noble intentions of the Cuban revolution, Cuba has been a repressive oligarchy for more than half a century. And no matter the dubious motives behind the US desire for regime change in Cuba, everyone, everywhere should like to see Cubans gain political freedom. And so the question fairly asked is: what should the US be doing to facilitate regime change in Cuba?

The transition from despotism to liberty and democracy has occurred so many times in human history that the formula should by now be common knowledge. Countries as diverse as England, France, the US, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan have all gone through roughly the same process to get from their illiberal, undemocratic beginnings to the modern states they have since become.

Once liberal policies toward private property and contracts emerge, along with institutions to enforce and maintain them, a country’s economic development accelerates – and within a few generations an ever-greater fraction of the population will rise out of poverty. And as people grow wealthier, they invariably seek a political voice commensurate with their economic power. This storyline was as readily observed in 18th century America as it was in 20th century Singapore.

The lesson learned is that despots can be traded into oblivion. This already is the tacit US policy toward China – that as Chinese industrialists grow more powerful, the oligarchic Communist Party will eventually be unable to contain them. Incidentally, US policy toward China is utterly irreconcilable with its policy toward Cuba. In the days of the Cold War, of course, it could have been argued that enriching a Soviet ally ninety miles off the coast of Florida was dangerous business. However since the demise of the USSR twenty-five years ago, Cuba no longer poses a security threat to the US. According to the same logic that has made China America’s largest trading partner, trade with Cuba today would pose a real threat to the Castro regime, and would be a boon to the cause of Cuban liberty.

No other approach works. Democracy and liberalism imposed from without – as in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan – collapse for lack of the necessary foundation. Isolation – as in the case of North Korea – leaves the regime in control of the economy, reinforcing their power. Trading despots into extinction takes time, but it works, yielding stable, liberal democracies.

Of course despots in Cuba and China have their own motives. In China, an increasingly affluent population is kept docile by rising incomes (and fanatical media censorship!). Cuba’s government would probably also be willing to give up some control over the economy in exchange for economic growth. And once living conditions start improving, and expectations change, despots find themselves locked onto a course that will all but surely drive them from power.

Unfortunately, US policy toward Cuba is driven by a vocal minority, which itself has been unable or unwilling to learn the most obvious lessons from history – including, above all, the extraordinary failure of those policies to alter the status quo in Cuba after more than fifty years. An about-face is long overdue. The Obama administration’s tentative first steps toward building diplomatic and economic ties between the US and Cuba are a step in the right direction.

 

Editor’s note: It’s spring break in LFG-land – we’ll be back with new material in two weeks. Until then, peruse our archives, share your favorites with friends, leave a few smarmy comments – we read them all, and, if inspired, we may even shoot a little back at ya.

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Case Closed in Ferguson

In the end, US Attorney General Eric Holder had to pass on Ferguson. Because of the way the law is written, it’s almost impossible to convict a cop who can reasonably assert that he feared for his safety. And so long as a victim isnt cuffed, a cop who claims he was afraid is going to get off.

However the public should be aware of the strength of the case against former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. While the Field Guide does not have access to the Department of Justice’s records for the investigation, we were able to find the informal testimony of 9 witnesses, one of whom says one thing, and the other 8 say something else. The odd man out, of course, is Wilson himself.

According to Dorian Johnson, Wilson exited the vehicle, and fired several rounds at the fleeing Brown, hitting him once in the back. Brown turned around with his hands raised and said, “I dont have a gun. Stop shooting!” Wilson then shot Brown several more times, killing him.

According to Michael Brady, Brown was “balled up” with his arms under his stomach and he was “halfway down” to the ground. As he was falling, Brown took one or two steps toward Wilson – presumably because he was hit and stumbling forward. Wilson then shot him three or four times.

Piaget Crenshaw said that Wilson chased Brown for about 20 feet before shooting him again. “I saw the police chase him down the street and shoot him down. When Brown then raised his arms, the officer shot him two more times, killing him.”

Tiffany Mitchell said that after the first shot was fired, Brown started to run away. “After the shot, the kid just breaks away. The cop follows him, kept shooting, the kid’s body jerked as if he was hit. After his body jerked he turns around, puts his hands up, and the cop continues to walk up on him and continues to shoot until he goes all the way down.”

James McKnight said that Brown held his hands in the air just after he turned to face Wilson. He stumbled toward the officer, but didnt rush him, and “the officer was about six or seven feet away” from Brown.

Phillip Walker said he saw Brown walking “at a steady pace” toward Wilson with his hands up and that he “did not rush the officer”, adding that Wilson’s final shot was from a distance of about four feet.

Emanuel Freeman stated that Wilson fired twice at Brown while he was running away, and five more times after he turned around to face Wilson.

A construction worker, whose reaction to the shooting was a youtube sensation, said that Brown began walking toward the officer with his hands up, at which point Wilson began firing at Brown and backing away. After the third shot, Brown’s hands started going down, and he moved about 25 feet toward Wilson, who kept backing away and firing. The worker was unable to discern if Brown’s movement toward the officer was “a stumble to the ground” or “okay, I’m going to get you, you’re already shooting me.” The worker disputed the claim that Brown rushed at the officer, “I dont know if he was going after him or if he was falling down to die. It wasnt a bull rush.”

There’s also a medical examiner’s report. While the ME says that her report is consistent with the scenario that Brown reached for Wilson’s gun, she added, “I’m not saying that Brown going for the gun is the only explanation.” In other words, her report is consistent with Wilson’s testimony, but also with that of the 8 witnesses above.

In the end, forensics could not resolve three key issues: (1) the range from which the head shots were fired, (2) whether Brown was approaching fast or slow, or (3) whether Brown had his hands up and extended from his body. Those issues can only be resolved by witness testimony – and not one witness, except Wilson, says that Brown was rushing. Not one says Brown was as close as Wilson claimed when he took the final shots. All say Brown was either approaching slowly, or stumbling. Most say his hands were out. Not one says that Brown reached for the gun.

The law is what it is, and we cannot complain if good laws sometimes produce undesirable results – all laws are imperfect in this way. But while the law has spoken, and the case is closed on Ferguson, let it not be suggested that justice has been done.

 

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