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R Street / CDT Happy Hour at SXSW

March 14, 2015, 12:00 PM

Sorry, this event is by invitation only.

R Street Panels at SXSW

March 13, 2015, 3:00 AM
Join the R Street Institute in Austin, Texas for three policy-focused panels during SXSW Interactive.

Douglas J. Besharov

February 26, 2015, 2:15 PM

Douglas J. Besharov is the Norman and Florence Brody Professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy and an associate fellow of the R Street Institute.

At Maryland, Douglas teaches courses on poverty, welfare, children and families, policy analysis, program evaluation and performance management. He directs the university’s Welfare Reform Academy and the Center for International Policy Exchanges. He is also a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, where he leads a program on international policy exchanges.

Previously, he was a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington from 1985 to 2009. During 2008, he served as president of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management and subsequently as APPAM’s International Conference Coordinator.

Earlier in his career, Douglas was the first director of the U.S. National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, serving in that post from 1975 to 1979.

He is the author of 18 books, including Recognizing Child Abuse: A Guide for the Concerned, which was designed to help professionals and laypersons identify and report suspected child abuse. He also has written more than 250 articles, appearing in such publications as The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.

Email: besharov@umd.edu

Neil Gilbert

February 26, 2015, 1:56 PM

Neil Gilbert is the Milton and Gertrude Chernin Professor of Social Welfare and Social Services at the University of California at Berkeley and an associate fellow of the R Street Institute.

Neil is also co-director of the Center for Child and Youth Policy and director of the Center for Comparative Family Welfare and Poverty Research. He served as the school’s acting dean from 1994 to 1996, in addition to a five-year stint as chair of the doctoral program. He has also served vice-chair and chair of the Berkeley Senate Faculty’s Graduate Council

He previously was a senior research fellow for the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development in Geneva. He has received two Fulbright Research Fellowships, serving as a visiting scholar at the London School of Economics and Political Science and the University of Stockholm Social Research Institute. He also served as a visiting scholar at the International Social Security Association in Geneva and at Oxford University’s Department of Social Policy.

In 1987, he was awarded the University of Pittsburgh Bicentennial Medallion of Distinction. In 2000, he was voted teacher of the year at the University of California at Berkeley School of Social Welfare.

Neil is the author of 30 books, including Capitalism and the Welfare State, published by Yale University Press, which was a New York Times notable book. His most recent book, A Mother’s Work: How Feminism, the Market and Policy Shape Family Life, also from Yale University Press, was an Atlantic selection and a Society notable book.

He is also the author of more than 100 articles, which have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The Public Interest, Society, Commentary and leading academic journals.

Email: ngilbert@berkeley.edu

The TSA is very sad about this DHS thing

February 26, 2015, 12:51 PM

Guys, the Transportation Safety Administration is very sad. Really sad. Like, they might not even feel like rifling through your unmentionables tonight they’re so dejected and depressed.

Everything about their job has simply lost its charm. Life as they know it may come to an abrupt end this week, though they will not actually be getting an unpaid vacation from work, thanks to regulations that mandate they work without pay until the “shutdown” subsides, and they would like you to know that despite what you’ve heard, witnessed and know to be true based on a boundless volume of evidence, the TSA is a very vital part of our Homeland Security program, and if you don’t fund them, America, there will be a price to pay. And that price is probably a cavity search.

If by the end of the week the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) does not receive funding, the Department shuts down.  A shutdown for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) means that most of our employees would still continue to come to work, without receiving a paycheck for that work until the shutdown ends.

As a counterterrorism organization, our dedicated and professional workforce will – in the event of a shutdown – continue to secure our nation’s transportation systems, without pay, just as they did during the government shutdown of 2013. Over ninety percent of our workforce – that’s about 50,000 employees – would continue to report to duty.

Yes, critical operations would continue, but the support for those operations would cease. Approximately 6 percent of the TSA workforce would be furloughed. Hiring would cease. Required training would cease. Travel associated with routine planned security inspections would cease. Deployment of security technology equipment would potentially be delayed.

Although TSA is most recognized and known for our work in nearly 450 airports throughout the United States, our national security mission includes mass transit and passenger rail, as well as pipeline and container traffic. These transportation systems play a vital role in driving the engine of our economy.

Did you get that, America. A whopping 6 percent of the TSA will have to take the next week off. How dare you deny 94 percent of the TSA’s workforce their rightful time off? After all, it’s not as though this DHS situation has any merit, outside of say, heading off a massive abuse of executive power, which the TSA knows a thing or two about, or it’s not as if letting any more TSA employees off the hook during the impasse wouldn’t bring air travel to a screeching halt.

Anyway, Mitch McConnell is valiantly trying to weasel his way out of the whole mess, so perhaps the TSA needen’t fret.

Fargo forgoes facts

February 26, 2015, 11:35 AM

Two public health officials in Fargo, N.D. this week were the source of grossly misleading claims about smokeless tobacco for a local media story.

Fargo public health staffers Holly Scott and Melissa Markegard asserted that smokeless is as risky as cigarettes in an article by Robin Huebner. Here are the false claims.

  • “Just as dangerous”

“Some of that has to do with the misconception that if you don’t inhale, it might be somewhat safer,” said Holly Scott, a tobacco prevention coordinator at Fargo Cass Public Health. In fact, it’s equally as risky. “When chewing, they’re actually getting more nicotine than in cigarettes, increasing their nicotine addiction,” said Melissa Markegard, who is also a tobacco prevention coordinator at Fargo Cass Public Health. The incidence of many types of cancer and other diseases can be attributed to smoking and/or chewing tobacco, but combining the products makes it even worse. “It greatly increases (the risk of lung cancer) if they use both together,” Markegard said.

Virtually everything in this passage is false.  I demanded corrective action from Fargo’s physician-mayor, noting the report from Britain’s Royal College of Physicians, which concluded:

As a way of using nicotine, the consumption of non-combustible [smokeless] tobacco is on the order of 10-1,000 times less hazardous than smoking.

I also cited a 2004 study sponsored by the National Cancer Institute that concluded:

…[smokeless] products pose a substantially lower risk to the user than do conventional cigarettes. This finding raises ethical questions concerning whether it is inappropriate and misleading for government officials or public health experts to characterize smokeless tobacco products as comparably dangerous with cigarette smoking.

There’s been no response to my demand, but some in North Dakota are interested in factual information. Rob Short, a prominent state policy blogger, published a guest post from me and Jarrod Knox at KNOX radio in Grand Forks gave me air time to tell North Dakotans the truth.

It’s a shame that uninformed local public health officials misinform smokers about far safer smokeless tobacco alternatives.

The IRS was good to Lois Lerner

February 26, 2015, 10:31 AM

It seems that whatever Lois Lerner was doing, she was doing something right by her bosses.

Turns out, while was worming her way into the hearts and minds of every Republican in America, over her alleged use of IRS resources to investigate conservative 501(c)(4)s, trying to root out their dastardly ring of influence, she was also worming her way into the hearts and minds of IRS higher ups, who rewarded her excellent work with more than $100,000 in bonuses.

Former IRS official Lois Lerner received $129,300 in bonuses between 2010 and 2013, records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show.

Over a three-year period, Lerner, the head of the tax-exempt division at the heart of the IRS targeting scandal, received a 25 percent retention bonus—averaging $43,000 a year—on top of her regular salary…

Former acting IRS commissioner Steven T. Miller recommended Lerner for a $42,000 retention bonus in December 2009, when she first became eligible for retirement.

“Ms. Lerner is eligible for retirement and as an attorney with extensive experience would likely command a much greater pay and benefits if she left the Service,” Miller wrote. “Without a retention incentive she will leave the Service.”

The federal government, apparently, hands out these awards to very special employees that they feel need an incentive to stay in government service, rather than take their monstrous talents to the private sector. It seems Lois is so good at her job that the federal government is definitely loathe to lose her. According to the Free Beacon, Lois earned around $40,000 for her stellar work in 2011 and 2012 but missed out on her year-end bonus in 2013 because she earned just a teensy bit too much: around $230,000.

Of course, Lerner retired last year, so her retention bonus was cancelled. Tough break, I guess.

Trains are no substitute for Keystone

February 26, 2015, 10:21 AM

In what was ultimately a surprise to no one, President Barack Obama yesterday vetoed the bill to approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. This sets the stage for yet another episode in a years-long political drama, as congressional Republicans scramble to find the votes necessary to override the veto.

The back and forth will continue with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., calling for a veto override vote within a week. When it approved the bill Jan. 29, the Senate vote was 62-36, short of the two-thirds needed for override. The House’s 266-153 vote likewise falls short of the mark.

Obama also will have an additional opportunity to weigh in on the issue, with a final determination following a review conducted by the State Department, which could still decide the $8 billion pipeline is in the national interest.

Many environmental groups and high-profile celebrities praised the president’s veto, claiming the pipeline would “pose an incredible risk to the health and safety of our families and a livable planet.”

While environmental concerns about the Keystone Pipeline’s construction may be genuine, they ignore the reality that oil production and transport will continue with or without this particular project. With the pipeline construction stalled, vast amounts of crude oil have been transported via trains. This is a significantly more dangerous and environmentally harmful method of transportation than a pipeline.

The real danger of crude-oil transport was experienced last week in West Virginia, as a CSX-owned freight train derailed and burst into flames. A state of emergency was declared, with local communities evacuated and an area water treatment facility shut down for fear of contamination.

This type of emergency has become all too common, as advances in drilling technology in North Dakota and Canada dramatically increase oil production. Completion of the Keystone Pipeline would streamline the process of shipping oil to refineries, reducing the amount of crude of oil transported via rail.

Currently, almost 10 percent of U.S. crude oil is transported by rail, which ships roughly 1.5 million barrels daily and more than 15,000 carloads weekly. The Keystone pipeline, which would ship 830,000 barrels a day from Alberta’s oil sands to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico, wouldn’t eliminate the need for train transport, but it certainly would make a dent.

For those concerned about climate change, shutting down pipelines ultimately does nothing to advance the goal of controlling carbon emissions. The State Department itself concluded in its environmental review that approving the pipeline would have no significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions or future development of tar-sands resources.

In the long run, the best and most appropriate way to respond to the environmental concern is with a revenue-neutral price on carbon, directing the revenues to offset other taxes that are even more destructive to human growth and opportunity. In the meantime, projects like the Keystone XL pipeline offer a much safer and more efficient method than the status quo.

It is about time the president ends the gridlock and grandstanding and approves this much-needed project.

Fair Use: Getting by with a little help from our friends

February 26, 2015, 9:35 AM

Is it legal for me to publish a blog post with this title? Am I violating copyright law? I am, after all, reusing lyrics from the chorus of a popular Beatles song. The recognizability and cultural resonance of the lyrics is exactly what makes it an appealing title for me to use.

Many of us have experienced it. That little twinge of uncertainty as we copy and paste an image from a Google search into a PowerPoint slide the night before a presentation and wonder, wearily, “I can do this, right?”

It’s a frustrating feeling. Most of us want to follow the law, and even when we don’t, there are mechanisms in place ensuring that we generally do. Copyright is one of those areas of law that we interact with on a daily basis as we partake in activities that feel harmless, or even beneficial, to the rest of society.

No area of the federal law touches all of our lives so frequently and so ubiquitously as copyright law. Every time you write an email, every time you turn on your computer, every time you download a piece of software, every time you stream a song, every time you take a selfie, you are interacting with copyright law because you are making copies of someone else’s original idea. How copyright is regulated by the federal government has a direct impact on artists, tech companies, libraries, schools, content industries and ordinary users like you and me. But luckily, most of us do not live in fear of getting fined every time we post a meme on Facebook.

The reason so many of our daily activities do not violate copyright is that the law recognizes an important limitation on the exclusive rights of copyright holders: the doctrine of “fair use.” In celebration of Fair Use Week, it’s worth taking a look at how fair use lets us interact with the creations in the world around us, especially online, and how its application could be improved.

The principle of fair use holds that there are some instances in which people can use copyrighted materials without permission. It is a broad and flexible concept that is defined on a case-by-case basis, as copyright infringement cases go to court. There are some basic situations, such as in educational and research settings, that generally are deemed fair use, but hard and fast rules are difficult to define.

The malleable nature of fair use means that its definition and applications are constantly playing out in the courts and in our media. The HathiTrust Digital Library, a repository of scanned books set up by a consortium of research libraries, was recently ruled as fair use after the Authors Guild sued the consortium. Last week, a Fox News post on its website of an iconic photograph of three firefighters raising the American flag on Sept. 11, 2001 was denied safe harbor of the fair use doctrine

We are surrounded by popular culture that is only available thanks to fair use. Without fair use, there would be no video clips on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show or fan fiction, which is how the immensely popular 50 Shades of Grey“ first came to life It is still unclear how the complicated nuances of fair use will play out on social platforms like Youtube, where it is up to automated bots (without law degrees) to find and report copyright violations.

While fair use is a convenient safety net, its uncertain application can be frustrating, fostering fear, apathy, confusion, disregard or a combination of all of the above. Luckily, libraries and advocacy groups have stepped up to produce guides and best practices to help us laypeople navigate the copyright jungle:

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Green Scissors letter to Secretary Moniz on FutureGen 2.0

February 25, 2015, 1:56 PM

Secretary Ernest Moniz
Department of Energy
1000 Independence Ave. SW
Washington, DC 20585

Feb. 25, 2015

The Green Scissors coalition, made up of environmental, taxpayer and free-market groups dedicated to eliminating wasteful spending that is also harmful to the environment, applauds your recent decision to cut off funding for the FutureGen 2.0 project in Meredosia, Ill. After a decade of intermittent federal support, it is a relief to see the $1 billion allocated in the 2009 stimulus withdrawn.

FutureGen has long been highlighted by the Green Scissors coalition as an unnecessary expense that should be eliminated. Carbon capture and sequestration technology has yet to prove itself as either technologically or economically viable

Following the example set by FutureGen, and in the same spirit of environmental and fiscal responsibility, we urge you to withdraw funding for other carbon capture and sequestration projects, including Summit Power’s Texas Clean Energy Project and Hydrogen Energy California, which have been allocated a total of $650 million in stimulus funding.

We request that you end Department of Energy support for these projects. The demise of FutureGen 2.0 is the perfect opportunity to begin rethinking government subsidies for this risky and unproven technology.

Kind regards,

The Green Scissors Coalition

Friends of the Earth
Taxpayers for Common Sense
The R Street Institute

 

A rose ceremony we should tune out

February 25, 2015, 1:44 PM

Prime-time television is rarely, if ever, conducive to serious debates about public policy. Yet a recent article by Danielle Paquette on the Washington Post‘s Wonkblog manages to do just that.

The post, titled “The Bachelor, billionaires and the problem with farm subsidies for the rich,” details how the biography of Chris Soules, current “star” of ABC’s hit show The Bachelor, illustrates the problems with federal agriculture policy.

While Chris plays the role of everyday Iowa farm boy looking to get hitched, in reality, the John Deere-driving playboy is a “fourth generation land baron” who has received more than $370,000 in farm subsidies. This is a very different story from the bottom 80 percent of farm subsidy recipients in his home state, who collect, on average, about $1,600 a year.

The comparison is apt. U.S. farm policy is, in essence, one giant rose ceremony, with a few well-connected farms receiving huge amounts of aid, while the rest are sent packing.

Paquette goes on to explain how last year’s farm bill, which re-authorized agriculture policy for five years, extended a bushel of ill-conceived policies that waste taxpayer money by extending corporate welfare for big agri-business. While there were a few positive reforms — changes such as ending direct payments and reconnecting conservation compliance to crop insurance — major work needs to be done to rein in our bloated, unwieldy farm policy.

Unfortunately, current agriculture policy is nearly impossible to amend. Even as a broad coalition explains how unproductive and wasteful the current system is, a connected ensemble of legislators and high-powered lobbyists are able to exert their strength, continuing the status quo.

In many ways, this is similar to how The Bachelor is renewed season after season. Despite the fact that the show practically invites eye rolling and parodies, an intensely loyal following continues to keep it a ratings contender.

While I don’t see anything upending The Bachelor from a 20th (yes, you read that right) season, recent developments could set the stage for real changes to our nation’s agriculture policy.

Last week Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., joined with Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., to introduce the Harvest Price Subsidy Prohibition Act. This bicameral and bipartisan legislation would save taxpayers $19 billion over 10 years by eliminating subsidies for profit guarantee program known as the Harvest Price Option. Unlike traditional crop insurance, which protect farmers from unanticipated losses, harvest price plans actually guarantee that farmers realize profits they didn’t even anticipate in the first place.

Additionally, the USDA is set to tighten the rules on just who qualifies as “actively engaged” in farming. This is to limit the influx of celebrities and corporate executives who receive farm subsidies without ever putting on boots or using a pitchfork. It is in part a response to the Environmental Working Group’s 2013 report that “50 billionaires or farm businesses in which they had a financial interest benefited from $11.3 million in traditional farm subsidies between 1995 and 2012.”

These proposals to limit taxpayer spending are important steps in the direction of substantial agriculture policy reform. However, these changes would represent just the tip of the iceberg of what’s needed to make a responsible system.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

R Street joins Public Knowledge, others, in urging Supreme Court to apply appropriate liability standards in key patent-infringement case

February 24, 2015, 3:23 PM

WASHINGTON (Feb. 24, 2015) – The Supreme Court should interpret patent law to limit needless infringement-inducement cases against technology companies, products, and services, the R Street Institute said today, joining other public-policy groups in an amicus curiae brief filed in the Commil v. Cisco case.

The case before the Court centers on whether Cisco is legally liable for infringement of Commil’s patents by inducing others to infringe those patents.“We know that patent and copyright protection are rooted in the same clause of the our Constitution, and we’ve seen their legal doctrines shape each other in the past,” said Mike Godwin, director of innovation policy and general counsel for R Street. “That’s why it’s vital for the court to apply the same liability standards for ‘inducing infringement’ in patent law that have been applied in copyright.”“People should not be held automatically responsible for infringing someone else’s patent if there’s no evidence of culpable, guilty expression and conduct,” he added.

Other organizations joining the Public Knowledge brief include the American Library Association, the Association of Research Libraries, the Association of College and Research Libraries, and the Center for Democracy and Technology.

The brief can be read in full here.

R Street / CDT Happy Hour

February 24, 2015, 2:19 PM
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The difference between wanting a carbon tax and getting one

February 24, 2015, 12:55 PM

Negotiation is the process by which value is determined by the intensity of the involved parties’ desires. The more that one party wants something the other controls, the greater the leverage of the petitioned party. Often, appearing to want something less is what stands between striking a fair deal and outright failure. This market-derived lesson is one that proponents of a carbon tax must learn, and quickly.

At the Northern California Citizens Climate Lobby conference, a room of more than 300 highly motivated and genuinely passionate people packed a large conference room on a Friday night to listen to a panel discuss what the moderator, Greg Dalton of the Commonwealth Club, referred to as “the end of the world.” Over the course of a two-hour conversation, the panelists considered how a carbon tax would work; what to do with the money that it would collect; and questions of political strategy. All of these issues were approached through the prism of the evening’s prompt: “Pricing Carbon: Can Conservatives and Progressives Agree?”

As one of the panelists, I was struck by the seriousness with which the audience took the panel’s suggestions. Members of CCL believe, rightly, that reconciling the disparate aims of the left and the right is a prerequisite to “creating the political will for a livable world.” Toward that end, members strive to pocket their normative political preferences in the hope that their organization, and its proposal, will attract bipartisan support.

The group’s executive director, a bespectacled and affable gentleman named Mark Reynolds, strives mightily to maintain his group’s rigid message discipline. He deserves credit for doing so; CCL has been astonishingly successful since he took over. The lobby has doubled in size for each of the last five years and now counts more than 16,000 members within its ranks. More importantly, CCL is meeting with elected officials and providing a constructive outlet for a hitherto misdirected potent political force.

Yet like many other groups in the carbon tax and larger climate-change movement, CCL faces an obstacle intrinsic to its effort. Virtually all of its members believe climate change is the single greatest threat that faces the nation, and that the threat is imminent. Why else would anybody sacrifice an unseasonably warm Friday night in San Francisco?

This unspoken assumption was given a voice as the evening wound down and the audience had an opportunity to present the panel with questions. An earnest woman in the front row asked gravely, “how much time do we have left?”

Responses from the panel varied wildly, but two broad themes emerged. The first, articulated by Bruce Hamilton of the Sierra Club, was that action cannot come soon enough and that time is short to avert catastrophe. The loud round of applause that followed his observation suggested that his belief largely jibed with the audience’s.

The second theme, championed in a memorable fashion by Future 500 President Bill Shireman, was that, since he became an environmentalist decades ago, the refrain that “we only have 10 years left to act” has become all too familiar. In other words, that action is necessary but there is some time left to act. The response to Bill’s comment was subdued, suggesting that the very active core of CCL’s membership does not believe delay is tolerable.

If they hope to succeed, those audience members would do well to change their approach, if not their belief. Persuadable elements of the right, though willing to listen and even to deal, do not share their “world is ending” anxiety. Without that urgency, and keen to achieve their public policy gains, an empowered right will be emboldened to seek concessions commensurate to the perceived level of desperation they encounter. A scenario in which conservative support for a carbon tax is predicated upon the end of, for instance, the Affordable Care Act is not unthinkable.

At a certain point, the right’s asks will become so large that allies of convenience on the left (labor or poverty advocates) will be forced to abandon their support of climate-change legislation in favor of their own core priorities. For this reason, the time horizon question will prove dispositive unless carbon tax advocates’ urgency can be tempered.

Ultimately, averting the “end of the world” may well require appearing to care less about the world’s end.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

The worst sort of crony capitalism

February 24, 2015, 11:49 AM

“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein wrote in his 1966 libertarian classic The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. But when it comes to some segments of the financial services industry, local regulators actually take that notion to the next logical step. Under a variety of antiquated anti-competitive statutes, offering your customer a free lunch – that is, a rebate – is actually illegal, if the offer comes from an insurance or real estate agent.

State laws barring firms from kicking back some of the proceeds from an insurance premium or agent commission to their customers date back to the 19th century. Initially, they were justified on grounds that life insurance companies, in particular, had taken so forcefully to the practice of rebates that they were effectively engaged in an arm’s race that threatened the industry’s solvency. Given the paucity of tools the regulators of the 1800s had to measure risk-based capital, some basic admonitions against overzealous competition might even have been justified, under the circumstances.

But such laws have managed to persist for more than a century largely thanks to a combination of political inertia and the lobbying prowess of incumbent industry players. Though initially focused on literal cash rebates, the regulations have evolved over the decades to cover just about any extra perk that could be said to “induce” a potential customer to buy, other than the most insignificant of pen and keychain swag. Regulators in Utah recently barred an online broker from giving away software that helps small businesses track payroll and other human resources functions, even though the program was free to clients and non-clients alike.

There are, of course, rare cases outside of local real estate and insurance markets where giving something away for free might be considered a crime. Microsoft famously faced the scrutiny of the Clinton administration’s antitrust regulators for its bundling of the Internet Explorer browser with copies of Windows 95. More recently, chip-maker Intel in 2010 settled a Federal Trade Commission complaint that it was offering illegal rebates to maintain its dominant market position. But even leaving aside the merits of either of those cases, both of which likely fail Judge Robert Bork’s landmark directive that antitrust law must only be used as a “consumer welfare prescription,” it’s clear that the markets where anti-rebating statutes are enforced are far from oligopolies. The Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America boasts more than 250,000 members. The National Association of Realtors claims more than 1 million.

Proponents of anti-rebating laws argue that they serve as essential protections, ensuring that all consumers are treated fairly and equitably. But one can’t help but notice that such arguments inevitably stem from industry incumbents, who perhaps not coincidentally enjoy the perks of regulatory checks on competition. Actual professional consumer advocates have tended to see such arguments as the balderdash that they are. When a Florida court struck down that state’s anti-rebating law in 1984, none other than Ralph Nader wrote:

By preventing competition, the companies could avoid unpredictable agent behavior in return for legally price-fixing the commission at higher than market levels. It has been a cushy arrangement for both companies and agencies as they otherwise pledge their allegiance to free enterprise and against government regulation.

Such laws used to be common in real estate markets, as well, but most states have abandoned them, particularly as the Internet made direct sales by owners a more feasible option than they previously had been. Nonetheless, ten states – Alabama, Alaska, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Oregon and Tennessee – still maintain bans on offering any sort of rebate to a real estate customer, despite long-standing pressure from the federal Department of Justice to abolish such bans. The DOJ’s Antitrust Division notes that consumers in states that permit rebating can save as much as $6,200 in commission fees on the sale of a median-priced home.

Unsurprisingly, the repeal of anti-rebating statutes in most state real estate markets has not led to any marked uptick in unfair consumer practices, discriminatory treatment of clients or any of the other catastrophic harms predicted by proponents, other than potentially contributing to the 34 percent drop in average real estate commissions nationwide since 2004. Nor has the repeal of anti-rebating laws in insurance markets led to any notable harm to consumers in Florida or California, which scrapped its statute as part of the otherwise lamentable Proposition 103 initiative in 1988.

It isn’t just that anti-rebating laws are archaic and anti-competitive. They ultimately could serve as serious impediments to the ability of mom and pop agencies to find new ways to justify their existence. Younger consumers are more than comfortable conducting almost all business online. Throwing in additional free services, like risk management and help with claims and benefits administration, just might be the human touch needed to keep those face-to-face relationships going.

Anti-rebating laws are the worst sort of crony capitalism; on this, even Ralph Nader and the tea party should be able to agree.

DHS spent a lot of money on office furniture

February 24, 2015, 10:20 AM

This week, Congress is readying for it’s biggest battle yet, over funding for the Department of Homeland Security, in return for Barack Obama forgetting all about that little executive amnesty order that has since been stayed by a Texas federal court. While the Republicans and Democrats fight over whether DHS is using their money wisely, and whether important programs will suffer as a result of a temporary funding halt, the Department of Homeland Security, it seems, is less than concerned. After all, it’s not immigration enforcement or the Transportation Safety Administration they’re worried about losing the cash for.

Nope, it’s their interior design budget:

Funding for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—which is due to expire at the end of this week unless an agreement in Washington is reached—has continued to rise under President Barack Obama. His administration claims the agency’s increased funding is necessary to protect the homeland, but records show that the DHS has continued to increase its spending on furniture and office makeovers as its budget has been increased.

A review of records on the official government spending website by the Washington Free Beacon shows the agency has spent nearly $150 million on office furniture and makeovers since Obama took office. Those fiscal years for which he has been responsible and whose budgets have been enacted are FY2010 through 2014…

Records show that the DHS spent $147.7 million on furniture for FY 2010 through 2014.

Examples of some of the contracts reviewed show that $4.1 million was spent for “nationwide field furniture management services contract”; $1.3 million for “systems furniture” for its Laguan Niguel, Calif., location; and $1.1 million for furniture for an office in Vermont.

In fiscal year 2014, the DHS had over 1,300 contracts labeled “office furniture” on the spending website. DHS spent nearly $28 million for furniture in that fiscal year alone.

Those contracts include $2.4 million for office furniture for a Washington, D.C., office. That contract was signed on Sept. 26, 2014 and Miller’s of Columbia in North Carolina was the recipient.

Another contract shows $163,856 was spent for “waiting room seating” for one office. That contract was signed on May 5, 2014.

The DHS also spent $148,809 on “aluminum folding tables in support of Sandy Recovery Office” according to the contract for a New York office signed in 2014. Hurricane Sandy occurred in 2012.

Other high contract amounts include $1.3 million spent on “office furniture and related items” for an office in New York.

I think the “furniture management services” that clock in at $1.3 million is the best expenditure on this list. After all, when you’re spending millions on furniture, you should probably have an entire agency with a more-than $1 million dollar budget just to administer the program, right?

According to the federal budget, DHS’ allocation is about $10 billion higher now than it was at the end of George W. Bush’s term. If you consider how much harder it appears to have been working in those days, the fact that DHS is looking at a cool $60.2 billion in funding might make you a little miffed. But you have to think about it from their perspective. Even if everyone in DHS is legally required to show up for work, whether Congress has approved continuing funding or not, the offices they’ll show up to are probably downright shabby. That $10 million could go a long way towards updating and remodeling their facilities to ensure a necessary comfort level.

Granted, the budget fight is about more than DHS’ wasteful spending. It’s about the cornerstone purpose of a three-branch government. But it’s always nice to know that government agencies live up to your worst expectations.

R Street paper touts importance of federal research and development in nuclear power

February 24, 2015, 9:17 AM

WASHINGTON (Feb. 24, 2015) – Federal research policy should be reoriented to recognize the U.S. nuclear sector as a national asset that contributes to domestic economic, energy security and environmental goals, according to a paper released by the R Street Institute today.

In “The Role of U.S. Research and Development Policy in Nuclear Power,” R Street Senior Fellow George David Banks writes that nuclear power is critical to U.S. national interests because of its inherent link to the nonproliferation agenda and importance to the U.S. Navy, including its supply chain and recruitment efforts.Banks lays out several steps federal and state governments should take to protect the existing nuclear fleet, including taking a technology-neutral approach to emissions reductions.“Nuclear power should be treated the same as other non-emitting sources,” wrote Banks. “Regulators and grid operators should pursue initiatives that provide adequate compensation for the positive attributes of nuclear power.”

“Moreover,” Banks wrote, “as long as government favors renewables over nuclear, the private sector will be less willing to invest in the future of nuclear power.”

Banks also highlights the importance of making nuclear power vastly more efficient, to improve its competitiveness with shale gas and subsidized generation. To achieve this, the United States must shift more research dollars away from areas where the private sector is capable of investment and toward advanced nuclear concepts and new materials, which will produce greater revenue streams and significantly reduced waste.

As part of the research effort, Washington should explore reforms to current cost-share requirements for private sector R&D, which in some cases subsidizes what industry would do anyway.

“The federal government should focus on what industry cannot do and will not do it on its own – generally high-risk, high-reward research,” he wrote.

To further research efforts, Banks notes the importance of U.S. investment in a new fast test reactor that would be versatile and capable of testing a number of different concepts, a capability that would help win broader support across the nuclear energy community.

The full report can be found here:
http://www.rstreet.org/policy-study/the-role-of-u-s-research-and-development-policy-in-nuclear-power/

The role of U.S. research and development policy in nuclear power

February 24, 2015, 9:00 AM

The U.S. civil nuclear sector faces a number of challenges that threaten grid reliability and climate mitigation goals. Though current U.S. reactor designs improve confidence in the predictability of construction schedules and costs, the United States is unlikely to see a substantial expansion of its nuclear fleet in the near future. The biggest current obstacles are cheap shale gas and continued mandates and subsidies for other forms of generation, particularly renewables. State and federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, should treat nuclear power like any other non-emitting source. Furthermore, the federal government should refocus its nuclear research and development programs. Of particular value to improving the competitiveness of nuclear power would be advances that reduce operation and maintenance costs for the existing fleet and that improve the thermal efficiency and fuel burn-up of future reactors, thus reducing waste streams and significantly increasing revenue streams for owners and operators. A new fast test reactor that allows testing of advanced concepts should be built as soon as possible, to achieve these strategically important objectives.

Is it unfair to compare ISIS to the Nazis?

February 24, 2015, 8:54 AM

From Newsweek:

Is it time to repeal Godwin’s Law? The rise of ISIS–a fast-growing, fascistic, expansionist force that’s willing to murder any person who dares defying its strict tenets–gets many people thinking of World War II.

In 1990, Mike Godwin, a lawyer and author, observed that in online conversations someone will eventually invoke the war against fascism. As Godwin framed his law, in long strings of online debates “the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or to Nazis approaches 1.”

Godwin’s insight is profound. The N word (as in Nazi) in casual debate is inadequate. Hitler’s crimes were so painful that no Seinfeld-esque “soup Nazi” should introduce his name into serious discourse…

…In ISIS’s case, it seems, Godwin violations just roll off the tongue.

Godwin himself tells me that neither he nor anyone else is in charge of his eponymous “law,” so anyone can break it. “The Third Reich taught us once and for all how fragile civilization really is, and how, surprisingly, a whole society could allow and even encourage new, ‘modernized’ forms of massive death and destruction,” he said. ISIS, for now, is a “footnote to what we learned in the 20th century about how fragile civilization is.”

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February 23, 2015, 4:44 PM