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December 15, 2014, 9:49 AM

From Earth Island Journal:

To this day, there is debate within the SmarterSafer coalition regarding whether the backlash against Biggert-Waters was a grassroots uprising or the result of a professional lobbying campaign. Eli Lehrer of the free-market think tank R Street Institute dismissed the intensity of grassroots protest and attributed the backlash to concerted efforts of groups like the National Association of Realtors. “The people on the other side of reform have a lot more money, incalculably more almost,” he insisted.

Poet of understatement: Mark Strand, 1934-2014

December 12, 2014, 5:31 PM

Before his death late last month at the age of 80, Mark Strand could claim one of the most varied careers of Americans active in the arts. Born on Prince Edward Island in 1934 and raised everywhere from Montreal to Brazil to pre-Castro Cuba, Strand was a painter, collage-maker, translator, writer, art critic and, most of all, a poet. He received nearly every honor available to an American poet: poet laureate/poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (1990-91), a Pulitzer Prize (1999), a six-figure no-strings-attached MacArthur Fellowship (1987), and a slew of other awards.

To a large extent, he deserved these laurels: Strand was an almost always good, sometimes great, writer of lyric and prose poems that conjure up moving, striking images in readers’ minds. And Strand wasn’t a lightweight, either: It’s hard to find a word or thought out of place, or an idea uncompleted, in his work. While he could do a fine job with a simple environmental description of snow, water and meadows, his more complex works, dealing with big questions like immortality and love, require careful reading and rereading.

What makes Strand’s work—all together for the first time in this final Collected Poems—all the more impressive is that it isn’t designed to impress: He almost never used a five-dollar word when a five-cent one would do, he rarely wrote in formal meter, and he used personal experience for much of his material. Over the course of an artistic career that lasted a half-century, he found few new tricks. This lack of showiness, more than anything else, established him as a significant artist.

Strand trained as a painter and, in interviews, spoke explicitly about the ways that painting, particularly surrealism, and his artistic training influenced his poetry. Even in his simpler early poems, he shows a keen ability to connect observation and emotion. Take this passage from the title poem of his first published collection, Sleeping with One Eye Open (1964):

Even the half-moon
(Half man,
Half dark), on the horizon,
Lies on
Its side casting a fishy light
Which alights
On my floor, lavishly lording
Its morbid
Look over me. 

This isn’t all that hard to understand or decode, but it’s interesting and lyrical enough to arouse the reader’s emotions. It’s elegantly crafted, if not traditionally metered. And when Strand gets more difficult, he’s just as good. One of his best early poems, “The Story of Our Lives” (1973), might be considered a cubist piece of poetry. Like a painting by Picasso or Klee, it simultaneously describes the same thing from different perspectives: the long-term arc of a relationship between a couple sitting together on a couch, under a variety of circumstances, through the literary device of a written book that is “the story of our lives.” The poem then examines that conceit from perspectives in relativistic space-time before ending on an uncertain, but ultimately affirming, examination of human existence, where a narrator’s voice concludes:

The book would have to be written
And would have to be read.
They are the book and they are
Nothing else.

Hitting this passage, after unraveling a fair amount of Strand’s other work, feels like an accomplishment—and one that makes a rather difficult poem well worth working through. It’s a solution to a longstanding crux of Strand’s own creation.

The Monument (1978), the last major piece of work that can be shelved with “poetry” produced by Strand until 1990, offers similar rewards to those who make their way through Strand’s musings on the philosophical concept of immortality in physical science, literary, philosophical and artistic senses. (Despite its classification, The Monument is almost entirely in prose.) Take, for example, his statement that “it has been necessary to submit to vacancy in order to begin again, to clear ground, to make space. I can allow nothing to be received. Therein lies my triumph and my mediocrity.” It’s a paradoxical thought that raises questions about everything from Harold Bloom’s theory of the anxiety of influence to the responsibility of authors to their readers.

Strand also had a zest for language itself. His free translations of the Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade are better and more moving than efforts (including some of his own) to do more direct translations from Drummond de Andrade’s native tongue. Strand changed lyrical Portuguese into a differently pretty, but clearly Germanic, English.

Strand’s short prose poems—which, because they often follow clear narrative arcs, are more like the microcuentos of the Peruvian writer William Guillén Padilla than poems, per se—became a more important part of his body of work over the years. His final collection of new work, Almost Invisible (2012), consists entirely of these. “Harmony in the Boudoir” is a typical example. The plot: A man stands at the foot of the bed and tells his wife that she will never know him. She, surprisingly, isn’t that disturbed and ends her reply by telling him: That you barely exist as you are couldn’t please me more. This is both amusing and thought-provoking: light on its surface, but with deep resonance.

It can be argued that it takes little sophistication to write free verse, and, on their surface, the short prose poems Strand turned to most recently are among the simplest art forms possible: They are the equivalent of anecdotes that just about everyone relates to in one way or another. But the sophistication of all this (and it’s there in almost all of Strand’s works) is often found far from the surface. And much like his poetry, Strand himself was modest and rarely showy in interviews.

There’s a fair amount of critically lauded modern visual art, and even some modern poetry, that just about anybody could produce. Mark Strand’s work—deceptively simple and self-indulgent as it may be—is good, challenging poetry well worth the time and effort it takes to appreciate.

Can a state fill a budget gap with a price on carbon? Wash. may soon know

December 12, 2014, 4:33 PM

From E&E News:

“As much as I wish the EPA rule would be done away with … this is really the best way for states to deal with it,” said Lori Sanders, a senior fellow at the R Street Institute. “Whether it’s cutting corporate income taxes or personal income taxes, they can get rid of those and be pricing their carbon externality.” Sanders made it clear, however, that R Street is not in favor of using a carbon tax to plug budget holes, as Washington’s Inslee may recommend next week. “That’s not really our jam,” she said.

And she conceded that Republican-dominated states likely wouldn’t be interested in creating a new tax, no matter what the circumstances are. “I think the states where [a revenue-neutral carbon tax] works are the states that are the right mix of being Republican enough to look for market-oriented solutions, but maybe Democratic enough that the idea of a carbon price doesn’t scare them away.”

R Street congratulates Citizens on lowering reliance on taxpayers

December 12, 2014, 1:55 PM

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Dec. 12, 2014) – The R Street Institute welcomed this week’s news that Florida’s state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. is prepared to enter the 2015 hurricane season ready to pay catastrophic storm claims without having to assess Florida policyholders.

Citizens is able to weather a once-in-a-lifetime storm due to expanded reinsurance coverage and a surplus accumulated over nine consecutive storm-free hurricane seasons. Additionally, its board has approved a recommendation for the company to purchase additional reinsurance coverage to handle a 1-in-100 year hurricane.

The news comes on the heels of Citizens reducing its customer base to below 1 million, with further reductions expected in 2015, as efforts to transfer policyholders to financially secure private companies continue.

“Florida has been very fortunate to see nine straight hurricane-free years, but Citizens’ staff and board also deserve credit for maximizing the benefits of this ‘hurricane drought,’” said R Street Florida Director Christian Camara. “Purchasing additional reinsurance is a wise investment that will further protect taxpayers and the state’s economy from potentially crushing assessments should Florida’s lucky streak run out next hurricane season.”


Gone Google: Europe is pushing to limit Internet companies

December 12, 2014, 1:16 PM

Europe’s battle against large Internet companies (or should we just say Google?) wages on. Spain just introduced a new intellectual property law that will require Spanish news publications to charge a fee every time Google News posts a link to “even the smallest snippet of their publications.” As the head of Google News explained in a blog post, such a funding model is not sustainable, considering that Google News makes no money from its services. So Google News is pulling out of Spain.

Spain’s law spells bad news for Spanish-speaking Internet users around the world and carries dangerous consequences for treatment of the right to link to content under copyright law. In fact, it is difficult to find a single party who will benefit from the law. What might seem to be a bald exertion of special interest rent-seeking on the part of the Spanish publishing industry has, in fact, destroyed one of the major services that drives readers to Spanish news sites. Far from teaching Internet users that they must pay for good information, Spanish publications have simply cut themselves off from a huge swath of potential consumers.

German publications learned this the hard way when German law instituted a similar fee in 2013 (the difference being that German publications had the option to charge the fee, whereas Spanish publications will be required to do so). German publications quickly realized that it was more profitable to forego charging Google and include their content in the Google News index, effectively killing the law.

Things are getting real. Europe’s actions against Google thus far could be interpreted as blustering, bluffing and political posturing. The European Parliament recently voted in favor of an antitrust resolution to unbundle Google’s search engine from the rest of its services, but the resolution has no legal or political teeth.  The CJEU’s “right to be forgotten” ruling could be circumvented by searching for content on google.com instead of European versions of the search engine, such as google.fr. Germany’s ancillary copyright law, the precedent to Spain’s law, was optional.

But in the past few months, lawmakers have been cracking down. The “right to be forgotten” has been extended to .com Google domains. New European Digital Commissioner Günther Oettinger suggested that ancillary copyright laws could be expanded. The United Kingdom just announced a “Google Tax” that slaps a 25 percent surcharge on profits generated in the United Kingdom that are transferred overseas by multinational companies. Many expect similar taxes to follow in other European countries, increasing costs for U.S. tech companies and erecting previously nonexistent barriers in the digital economy. Such barriers will be fortified by tougher data protection and privacy policies coming down the pike.

It is politically popular to rant against large U.S. tech companies as “neo-liberal,” imperialist or big brothers, but the truth is that a huge percentage of European Internet users benefit from the services of these same companies. Google enjoys about 90 percent of the search engine market in Europe, a higher percentage of the market than in the United States.

Google’s actions could foreshadow a new trend in which foreign Internet companies find it impossible to operate in Europe. European lawmakers and special interest groups are creating a market characterized by complicated regulations, added fees and legal uncertainty. We could be looking at a future Europe cut off from the global Internet, replacing foreign services with second-tier duplications, such as a publicly backed European search engine that some Google critics are calling for.

An example of what a fragmented web would look like is Wiktionary, a useful wiki dictionary tool that has different platforms for different languages. The English version (en.wiktionary.com) is far more robust than alternatives (fr.wiktionary.com, etc.). The service would be most effective as a coherent whole, where all crowdsourced knowledge is pooled on a single platform. Now use your imagination to apply this small-scale example to wikis, search engines, ecommerce sites, news aggregators and other digital platforms or services that could be fragmented based on language, country, region or political party in power. It destroys the point of the Internet.

If Europe really wants to make a dent in the dominant U.S. presence in the tech market, it should look at reforming its own policies. It is more difficult to form companies in Europe. Tighter regulations hamper innovation. Rather than fostering the growth of European businesses that prioritize European values, such as data privacy, many European politicians are coming out with messages like those of French Prime Minister Manuel Valls:

“It would be wrong to think all regulation kills innovation … It’s the role of the state.”

Google just announced that it is shutting down its engineering operations in Russia in response to Russian laws that require all data about Russian citizens be stored locally in Russia. Google pulled out of China in 2010 in response to cyberattacks and censorship legislation. Is Europe trying to be next on the list?

If Europe keeps telling Google to leave, Google might just go. The results won’t be good for anyone.


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

U.S. government wants to keep you out of comfortable boxers

December 12, 2014, 9:35 AM

As I am a woman, I cannot effectively comment on the pros and cons of various forms of men’s underwear and their comparative comfort levels. I understand that each type has its merits, and that men are frequently disposed to discussing them in great detail at cocktail parties, but given that women are frequently enticed to purchase underwear that consists of little more than a triangle of cheap fabric held in place by unreliable strings, I do not feel much sympathy in regard to this particular male conundrum.

However, it seems there’s a company in Norway, apparently, that has applied the latest in garment design technology to the ever-popular “boxer briefs” option, creating what they consider to be the ultimate in comfort for your bits and pieces (or “twigs and berries” or “block and tackle”) below the equator. Unfortunately, the U.S. government, in its infinite wisdom, has made it next to impossible for America’s men to experience the innovative Norwegian underwear, thus depriving millions of potential American customers from the revelation that is “Comfyballs.”

The Norwegian company Comfyballs applied to release its product into the US market earlier this year, but the country’s patent office refused to trademark the term, ruling that the brand name was “vulgar”.

The company was established in Scandinavia in 2013 and has since rolled out to Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

But American authorities banned it from operating under that name, finding that, “in the context of the applicant’s goods… Comfyballs means only one thing – that a man’s testicles, or ‘balls,’ will be comfortable in the applicant’s undergarments.

Apparently, the term “Comfyballs,” though, is not so much a moniker as it is an accurate description of how, exactly, your testicles will feel when they encounter the boxer briefs’ state-of-the-art technology and design. It is not merely a double entendre or cutesy marketing ploy to name the underwear after the feeling you might get from donning a pair. It’s the truth.

Package Front™ is designed to keep your equipment in place, while being lifted away from the inside of your thighs, preventing unnecessary heating of the balls. Extremely curved panels combined with innovative use of elastic fabric seams lift the user experience to a new level!

Now, the USPTO cannot effectively prevent Comfyballs from operating in the United States, but not approving their application for trademark does send Comfyballs into quite the conundrum. They’ve simply been denied the extra protection that a registered trademark provides. In the event someone in America comes up with a similar product and also names it Comfyballs, the makers of the original Comfyballs product are cut off from a variety of federal options for recourse, which is, of course, enough to make them think twice about introducing their product to a clamoring American public, no matter how interested they may be.

Anders Selvig, the founder of the underwear brand, plans to appeal the USPTO’s decision on the grounds that it has recently approved other trademarks that contain the term “balls” and certain variations of the term thereof, including the phrases, “nice balls,” and “I love my balls,” and trademarks for products like “Truck Nutz” and “Ballroom Jeans,” which have a hidden “Crotch Gusset” that apparently lets you “crouch without the ouch.” Selvig has not considered potentially changing the name of the product to something more aptly descriptive to “ComfyTesticles,” but I’m sure the option is on the table.

I, for one, believe this is just yet another front on our national uncomfortability with anything that offends our delicate sensibilities, and demand that America’s manly men be allowed to exercise their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of comfortable underwear.

The complicated politics of Uber

December 11, 2014, 5:31 PM


“I don’t think there are any clear partisan lines yet,” said Andrew Moylan, executive director and senior fellow at the R Street Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank based in Washington, D.C. “The reality has not yet caught up to the [Republican] rhetoric nationally.” The group recently released a report card grading cities on varying measurements of friendliness for transportation apps like Uber and Lyft. There were no obvious partisan lines. Interestingly, several liberal cities like Austin, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. established sensible regulatory climates and fared well, according to R Street. More conservative cities like Houston, San Antonio and Orlando fared poorly, and have embraced what Moylan describes as onerous regulations that hinder residents there from using the popular car-for-hire service…

…Moylan did say, however, that the legal fights have unearthed a division in the broader liberal coalition. “There’s the union-centric, labor-oriented side of that movement, which has done a lot to impose new regulatory climates and try to protect entrenched industries. On the other side, you have a younger, more tech-savvy part of the liberal movement not tied to union politics and more open to these technologies. Republicans have been trying to highlight that.”

“My gut tells me that some level of consumer demand is the key,” said Moylan. “When you have cities like Washington, D.C. or Austin, where there’s lot of peoples and needs, you can’t afford to get it wrong,” he said, adding that bigger cities tend to be more supportive of such services.

Hill funding compromise leaves FCC short on desired cash

December 11, 2014, 4:52 PM

From Washington Internet Daily:

The funding bill’s Internet Tax Freedom Act extension through Oct. 1 is clear indication that a “battle” is coming over the Marketplace Fairness Act (HR-684) next Congress, said Executive Director Andrew Moylan of the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank. R Street opposes MFA. There’s no reason for a relatively short extension of an “utterly noncontroversial” bill unless there’s forthcoming attempt to link it to MFA, he said. Moylan said he expects the House Judiciary Committee to address Internet sales tax issues next year.


Why regulating Uber and Lyft is such a big deal

December 11, 2014, 11:04 AM

From the Rivard Report:

Members of Council have heard a lot about a “level playing field” with legacy cab regulations. But rather than regulate up to the monopoly cab level, why not deregulate cabs so that cab drivers can keep more of the money they earn, drive nicer cars, and provide more options for consumers rather than enriching the owners of the few authorized taxi cab monopolies. San Antonio’s cab and limo regulations are among the worst in the country. See an excellent national comparison of taxi, limo, and TNC regulations by the R Street Institute here. Hopefully city council won’t continue this unenlightened approach with the adoption of a bad ordinance today.

San Antonio regulations could run Uber out of town

December 11, 2014, 11:02 AM

From Breitbart:

The R Street Institute, a free market think tank, recently published a study on how America’s fifty largest cities are approaching the challenge of regulating TNCs. As Breitbart Texas reportedSan Antonio got the lowest score out of any city in Texas, a D-, and these new regulations are poised to drive that score even lower. “Make no mistake. This is not an ordinance to allow ride-sharing. It’s an ordinance to prevent ride-sharing,” Josiah Neeley, R Street’s Texas Director, told Breitbart Texas. “The regulation throws up so many anti-ride-sharing roadblocks, from millions in insurance to written exams, that it will effectively prohibit ride-sharing companies from operating in San Antonio.”

San Antonio passes anti-Uber regulations

December 11, 2014, 10:56 AM

From the Daily Caller:

Josiah Neeley, senior fellow and Texas director for the R Street Institute, said that these regulations are supported by established taxi companies to prevent competition. He said even with small changes to the regulations, they will still likely be too much for Uber.

“Frankly, I’m not sure that they would be able to function in the city if they wanted to try,” he told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

Neeley said that this debate will come up again because the people want these services.

“It is one of those things where the public wants ride sharing, they want the alternatives,” he said. “I don’t think that the issue is going to go away.”

Taxi trouble in Texas

December 11, 2014, 10:00 AM

Texas has a well-deserved reputation for being a freedom-loving state. We like our regulations same as we like our steaks: rare.

That, at any rate, is the stereotype, and there is a lot of truth to it. But while the Lone Star state adheres to a hands-off approach to governing in many areas, it ain’t always so.

Consider ridesharing. Using smartphone apps to connect drivers with passengers, companies like Uber and Lyft have grown rapidly over the last few years in many big cities by offering a cheaper, higher quality alternative to traditional taxis. Many drivers work part-time, setting their own hours and making good money doing so.

Yet on Thursday, the San Antonio City Council is set to vote on an ordinance that would impose so many restrictions on ridesharing companies as to effectively ban the practice. Under the new regulations, before Uber or Lyft drivers are allowed to pick up fares, they must submit to a background check, fingerprinting, a driving test, a defensive driving course, a physical exam, an eyesight test, a drug test, written and verbal tests of English proficiency, and random vehicle inspections. Given that the individuals in question already have drivers’ licenses, many of these regulatory hoops are redundant or even pointless.

As if that wasn’t enough, the San Antonio ordinance piles on insurance requirements that far exceed any reasonable justification. Ridesharing drivers are required to have $1 million in comprehensive coverage from the moment they accept a fare. By contrast, a San Antonio taxi need only have the state minimum of $60,000 coverage per incident.

The San Antonio ordinance might not pass. Then again, it might. Last month, a Houston ordinance went into effect requiring a 40-step process for driver registration. Though much less onerous than the proposed San Antonio ordinance, the law was sufficiently burdensome that Lyft announced it was suspending operations in the city. Uber has likewise indicated that it will have to pull out of San Antonio if this ordinance is adopted.

San Antonio, and especially Houston, are relatively conservative for big cities. Republican Greg Abbott won both cities during his recent triumph over Democrat Wendy Davis for governor.

Yet even before these recent ordinances, these cities ranked near the bottom of the class on ridesharing regulation. Last month, the R Street Institute released a scorecard ranking America’s 50 largest cities in terms of how they regulate taxis, limos and other vehicle-for-hire companies. San Antonio received a grade of D- and ranked 47th out of 50, behind every other Texas city. Houston was only slightly better, with a grade of C- and a rank of 40. By contrast, the American city with the most “hands off” approach to ridesharing was Washington, D.C. And Austin, which is known for being the more liberal of Texas’ major cities, also passed a comprehensive ordinance legalizing ridesharing.

Now, Portland, which is as liberal as they come, is currently seeking a court injunction barring Uber from operating in the city. The issue isn’t that liberal cities are better on ridesharing; it’s why the most conservative, free market cities aren’t uniformly good on the issue.

Why are Texas cities lagging when it comes to ridesharing? Demographics and entrenched interests are two important factors.

In denser cities with more reliance on public transport, the benefits that come from ridesharing are all the more vital. Some cities have also been dealing with the issue longer than others, which helps public officials and the public at large gain a better understanding of the value alternative vehicle-for-hire companies can provide.

How a city regulates traditional taxi and limo services is also important. When a city puts caps on its taxi fleet this can create a powerful lobby against more competition, whether from traditional or alternative sources. By contrast, where entry into the taxi market is already relatively easy, there may be less resistance to new transportation models.

Whatever the reason, though, this trend cannot continue. Texas continues to urbanize, and its success depends on being able to continue to attract people to live and work in vibrant communities. Cities like San Antonio can’t afford to be seen as backward when it comes to technology and transportation.

‘Commemorative’ bills plunge in 113th Congress

December 11, 2014, 6:40 AM

For all the talk of congressional dysfunction, there is a bit of good news: Congress has spent less of its valuable time passing “commemorative” legislation. For this development, we can thank Republicans and leaders in the U.S. House.

Last week, the New York Times’ Derek Willis reported that this Congress has enacted far fewer bills to name post offices than its recent predecessors. The 110th Congress (2007-2009) set the record, passing a whopping 109 of these laws. With hardly any time left on the clock, the 113th Congress has renamed only 23 post offices. (At the moment, 15 bills have been signed into law and another eight post office naming bills await the President’s signature.)

Commemorative legislation, a Congressional Research Service report explains, comes in many forms:

  • Naming post offices, other federal buildings and other federal structures
  • Creating postage stamps
  • Issuing commemorative coins
  • Bestowing congressional gold medals
  • Establishing monuments and memorials
  • Creating commemorative commissions and observances
  • Establishing federal holidays
  • Requesting presidential proclamations

Additionally, Congress issues charters. These honorific documents of incorporation typically do nothing more than slap an “endorsed by Congress” sticker on favorite nonprofit organizations.

The 113th Congress, to its credit, has passed only a small number of commemorative bills (seen in Table 1 below). The 46 commemorative bills enacted amount to 21 percent of the 218 total bills enacted in the last two years. To put this number in perspective, in recent Congresses, post office naming legislation alone constituted 20 percent of the total bills enacted. In the 113th Congress, postal naming bills amount to only 10.5 percent of the bills sent to the president (thus far).

Those who love these sorts of bills talk up their beneficence: commemorative legislation is nice because it honors someone, something or some place. It’s legislation that a party-torn Congress can work together to pass, and which might serve as the basis for collaboration on substantive policy-making.

Or maybe commemorative legislation usually is little more than an attempt to win votes back home. Regardless, commemorative legislation comes with significant costs: time and man-hours.

How much? Nobody knows, because the calculation of cost per bill enacted is so complex. But to get a sense of the magnitude, consider a typical post office naming bill. Should a member decide he or she wants to name a post office, one of his or her staffers must meet with legislative attorneys to draft the bill; do the research to choose a post office that is appropriate (preferably not one soon to be closed); get other representatives and senators from one’s home state to cosponsor the legislation; and work with the House and Senate committees of jurisdiction to get buy-in for the bill.

Then the legislation needs to be formally introduced into both chambers, entered into Congress.gov and CRS will need to write a bill digest. CRS librarians also may be asked by Congress to research the background of the individual for whom the post office is being named, so as to ensure he or she is not a lobbyist or disreputable figure. Then the legislation must be scheduled for action by both chambers (including the committees), voted upon, finalized and delivered to the president’s desk, after which it gets printed by the Government Printing Office and added to the U.S. Statutes-at-Large.

Thereafter comes the work of issuing self-congratulatory press releases by the bill’s sponsors, and actual implementation (whatever there is). And let’s not forget that added to all of this is that CRS has to devote the valuable time of Ph.D.s to writing reports about these types of bills and coaching Congress through the process.

In recognition that time was short and commemorations were not a high-utility use of it, Republicans, particularly in the House, cracked down on them. The leadership of the House made it clear that a 20-year old rule (Rule 28) curbing commemorative legislation would actually be enforced. Additionally, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, to which post office naming bills are referred, adopted a rule stating:

The consideration of bills designating facilities of the United States Postal Service shall be conducted so as to minimize the time spent on such matters by the committee and the House of Representatives.

The committee, which spent an enormous amount of time in recent years working on postal legislation, saw little sense in spending its precious time on naming bills. The majority also likely sought to exert a little pressure on members to get behind their postal reform bill by going slow on moving post office naming bills. (No postal reform was enacted, alas.)

Critics, especially on the left, tar this Congress for not passing as many bills as other Congresses. Congressional productivity, plainly, should not be measured by legislative enactments alone. The institution has duties beyond that, like oversight. And when it comes to costly and mostly pointless commemorative legislation, passing fewer bills is a good thing.

Let’s hope the 114th Congress continues the trend. With the debt skyrocketing and the economy limping along, our nation’s highest legislature has better uses for its time.

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

All hail the CRomnibus

December 10, 2014, 6:00 PM

After much hemming, hawing and belt-tightening, Congress finally unveiled their “pared-down” yearly budget, this year lovingly titled the “CRomnibus” because it is the product of the unholy union between a continuing resolution (CR) and an omnibus spending bill. The reason for the cute nickname is simple: the omnibus spending bill will keep the government funded through next September, when we have this same fight all over again. The continuing resolution will keep the Department of Homeland Security funded only until March, in the hopes that the Republicans can somehow pass an immigration bill that will keep Obama from declaring that everyone — including, but not limited to, various animals and inanimate objects — can obtain legal work permits.

While the two parties did spend much of last week cutting out unnecessary spending and negotiating the details of the bill in order to avoid a shutdown, the very best, lowest number they could come up with to keep the government rolling on is $1.1 trillion, because everything is terrible and we’ve lost all sense of reality.

The legislation is expected to pass in the coming days and will allow the incoming Republican-controlled Congress to clear the decks of lingering spending issues while setting the stage for a prolonged fight with President Obama over immigration policy.

At 1,603 pages, the bill includes at least $1.2 billion for agencies to deal with the influx of unaccompanied immigrant children who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. There’s also money to fight the rise of the Islamic State and $5.4 billion to fight the threat of Ebola. But there are also significant changes to campaign finance laws and potential cuts to retiree pension plans. Democrats were cheering bigger budgets for enforcement at agencies created after the 2008 economic collapse.

The magic of the CRomnibus is, that while it generally sucks all around, the only person who can shut the government down at this point is Barack Obama. And while he’s had quite the “let it burn” philosophy since suffering a crushing defeat in the midterm elections, vetoing the bill right before the Christmas holiday would ensure nothing but constant shutdown coverage, with only minimal interest from Congress in ending the standoff. The Obama Administration is masterful at engineering distractions for the media, but two weeks is a lot of airtime to fill. The president can only have so many sore throats and colonoscopies.

The other magical result of the CRomnibus is basically everyone hates it, which in D.C., usually means you’ve hit upon a fairly decent solution. If anyone were happy about it, it would be time to worry.

San Antonio goes too far with ridesharing insurance requirements

December 10, 2014, 5:52 PM

San Antonio, Texas—a military-heavy city that counts insurer USAA as one of its largest private employers—appears to be on the verge of implementing one of America’s worst laws to regulate transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft.

The current San Antonio bill—which has dozens of problems my colleague Josiah Nealey describes in The American Conservative—is particularly notable for its onerous insurance requirements. Texas itself has slightly-above-average minimum insurance requirements, with $30,000 per person and $60,000 per accident for bodily injury, and $25,000 for property damage. But in San Antonio, the bill would impose on ride-sharing drivers a $200,000 minimum, more than any state save Michigan; mandated uninsured motorist coverage, which required in only 14 states but not for other Texas drivers; and a requirement for comprehensive/collision insurance that is not required by law anywhere else.

The first two requirements are within the bounds of reason; indeed, there’s a decent public safety rational for requiring TNCs to carry uninsured motorist coverage even if other drivers in the state don’t have to. But the mandate for comprehensive/collision coverage seems particularly problematic and anti-market. There’s no public benefit whatsoever in forcing people to protect their own cars. Indeed, for people driving older cars –as many starting out as ridesharing drivers will do—it’s almost certainly a net loss to economic welfare to require it.

In the context of a generally reasonable framework for regulating ridesharing, it might be possible to overlook the problems with the mandate in favor of political expediency, particularly since so many new cars are going to have lienholders who require such coverage already. In the context of a San-Antonio-like law that, as Neeley says, imposes “a background check, fingerprinting, a driving test, a defensive driving course, a physical exam, an eyesight test and a drug test” the requirement needs to be considered in the same category: as an unwarranted and unjustified barrier to people earning a living.

In short, rather than making it easier for economic activity to take place by transferring risk, the insurance requirements are serving as part of a constellation of bad ideas that seem likely to harm a vibrant emerging industry. San Antonio’s ridesharing insurance mandates are threatening to make an already bad policy much worse.

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Fear and loathing at Columbia Law

December 10, 2014, 1:31 PM

It isn’t the “stupid American voters” that are the problem in this country, unless you count the crazies manifesting their unhappiness this week that the fellow who promised to get eaten by a large Anaconda snake has backed down.

It’s mostly the people in charge who are failing us and not behaving like competent adults. Let’s start with the criminal law, which catalogs offenses against the people. At the top of my list is the officer who arrested a Florida sixth grader on a felony weapons charge when a butter knife was found in her backpack. How about the school administration which attempted to justify this arrest, on the basis of a “zero tolerance” rule?

And now, of course, the tragic attempted arrest and death of a New York man who was suspected of selling loose untaxed cigarettes. Not rape, murder, armed robbery or even bilking seniors out of their life’s earnings, but an arrest for minor tax evasion, which is reportedly as common a crime committed by public officials as jaywalking.

Related is this week’s news that Columbia Law School is allowing its students to postpone their exams this month if they feel traumatized by the non-indictment of either the officer who administered the fatal choke hold on the man in the grasp of the law on the sidewalks of New York, or who fired the fatal shots in Ferguson. Of course, either situation could possibly prove to be a miscarriage of justice, and I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of these matters.

The interim dean of the law school was quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying:

The grand juries’ determinations to return non-indictments in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases have shaken the faith of some in the integrity of the grand jury system and in the law more generally. For some law students, particularly, though not only, students of color, this chain of events is all the more profound as it threatens to undermine a sense that the law is a fundamental pillar of society designed to protect fairness, due process and equality.

That’s right. The law school administration suggests that if you don’t agree with the outcome in a criminal proceeding under the criminal justice system — which has been developed and refined over time to protect fairness, due process and equality — you can behave as if you just lost a member of your family. In the Ferguson case, almost every spokesman for a group equated justice with indictment, and non-indictment with lack of justice.

There is a deeper problem here, and it will take a while to sort out. We have subcontracted out nearly all decisions about ethics and right and wrong to lawyers, who don’t obviously have a better innate moral compass or capacity for making those distinctions than the rest of us. They depend on the process we use today, a legal system built up literally over centuries in the United States and England. What we sometimes find is that it wasn’t the law that was the problem, it was the misapplication of the law by the people in charge.

Why is it so easy to believe that with the entire nation and civilized world looking on, the two grand juries neglected their sworn duty to look at all the evidence in the two cases, including the protocols for law enforcement engagement with citizens? Columbia Law chose to question “the integrity of the grand jury system and the law generally,” but it offered no thoughts on what we we use to replace that system. Mob rule and lynchings? An eye for an eye? We’ve tried all that, and we thought we had made improvements. But every legal system created is only as good as the people in charge.

For that matter, why has Columbia Law not granted days off to its student-lawyers who are traumatized by scary new uses of the Internal Revenue Service to silence people the administration doesn’t like? Or by the specter of an American president ignoring his constitutional authority and oath of office to execute the law of the land?

I guess the lesson Columbia is teaching is that respect for the law depends on one’s sensitivities.

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Uber sued by San Francisco, Los Angeles for misleading riders

December 10, 2014, 11:22 AM

From the San Jose Mercury-News:

The DA’s actions are the latest in a long line of controversies and kerfuffles swirling around the ride-sharing world, particularly in the intense rivalry between Uber, the largest company, and second-place Lyft. Companies have been accused of trying to steal each other’s drivers, while critics blast the industry as out-of-control capitalism and some passengers complain about being gouged. This latest move by authorities trying to come to grips with a burgeoning and brand-new industry is par for the course, says Andrew Moylan, executive director of the The R Street Institute, a free-market think tank in Washington, D.C.

“Yes, we’re seeing creative destruction as these companies disrupt the taxi industry,” he said. “But we’re also seeing creative destruction on the regulatory side as cities try and find out what the boundaries are and what problems they might run into as this new industry evolves.”

Moylan said that while the public is entitled to transparency, for example, in how the ride-sharing companies charge their passengers, “at the same time we’re seeing a knee-jerk anti-competition sentiment, much of it driven by a taxi industry that wants to take its competitors down a notch.”

Will San Antonio welcome or reject ridesharing?

December 10, 2014, 11:12 AM

When talk turns to cultivating a local high-tech economy, Internet companies like Google, Facebook, Apple and other Silicon Valley giants tend to come to mind. Certainly these companies provide high-paying jobs that call on science, technology and engineering skills.

But consider another tier of companies that take technology and connect them to everyday needs, creating something new that has immediate benefits for everyone. Examples are Uber and Lyft, who are seeking to bring their Internet-based transportation networking companies, also known as ridesharing services, to San Antonio.

When policymakers talk about the benefits of the digital economy to the community, this is what they mean. All the good intentions about promoting high tech will mean nothing if the city’s first reaction is to erect barriers to anything that threatens to disrupt comfortable enterprises which depend on the status quo.

Already active in a number of cities in the United States and internationally, TNCs fill an important need in areas where there is little or no public transportation or where consumers are underserved by conventional taxi and limousine services. By way of a smartphone application, Uber, Lyft and companies like them connect individuals seeking a ride with a network of available cars and drivers. Prices are set by time of day and traffic conditions, and users know the cost of the fare before they are picked up. The app allows them to give immediate feedback on the driver, the car and the overall service. Passenger feedback is amalgamated and contributes to an overall score for the driver that is displayed to future users.

Wherever Uber and Lyft have entered the market, the consumer response has been positive and welcoming. But that attitude doesn’t always extend to city governments, and San Antonio has proved no exception.

Although initially hostile, cities like Austin ultimately listened to residents, recognized the value TNCs offer the community and chose to regulate them in line with existing taxi services. Certainly, some regulations are needed to ensure passenger safety. Unfortunately, there are others – such as limits on fleet size, or different rules and rate schedules for medallion taxis and executive limo services – that are designed to protect the profitability of each group.

The San Antonio City Council’s taxi regulations already contain these provisions. Its proposed TNC regulations, scheduled to be discussed at its Dec. 11 meeting, appear to be more of the same.

The ordinance before the City Council creates an entirely separate set of rules and requirements for TNCs that, if enacted, will serve to all but bar them from the market. The paperwork alone is daunting: the proposed regulations would require an individual seeking to be a TNC driver to acquire documentation from six separate sources and meet at least 10 city requirements. In addition to the time involved, the process would cost at least $300, including $175 in fees to the city, plus a $150 fee to the airport for the right to pick up and deliver passengers there.

Many of these requirements apply only to TNC drivers. For example, drivers will be required to undergo an eye exam before being approved by the city, even though an eye exam is already required for a driver’s license. Applicants also are required to be tested for drug and alcohol use, which is somewhat pointless, because the test only determines if a controlled substance is in the body at the time of the test. TNC apps allow a passenger real-time reporting of an impaired driver, who, under terms of their contract, would be suspended immediately pending an investigation.

The proposed insurance rules are also tilted against TNC drivers. Conventional taxi drivers in San Antonio must carry the same total primary liability as all Texas drivers–$115,000. TNC drivers would have a primary requirement of $175,000 plus an additional $200,000 in excess—before picking up a single passenger. TNC drivers must be insured for at least $1 million when carrying passengers, carry $1 million in uninsured motorist coverage and $50,000 in collision coverage. None of these provisions would apply to conventional cab drivers.

Rather than circle the wagons on behalf of the city’s taxi companies, the San Antonio City Council should use the occasion of Uber and Lyft’s entry to revisit and overhaul the city’s taxi and limousine regulations from the ground up. Recent data shows the need. San Antonio received a D-minus grade in the 2014 Ridescore Report published by the R Street Institute, a Washington-based free market think tank. The full report measured 50 U.S. cities on how well their regulatory frameworks promoted market entry, diverse business models and greater competition in their livery markets. Lackluster as Texas cities were (Fort Worth earned the best score, a B-; Austin, Dallas and Houston received C+, C and C- grades, respectively), San Antonio came in dead last.

The council this week can determine if it wants to stay in last, or if it wants to recognize how technology is giving residents new transportation choices. It not only has a chance to respect those new citizen choices, but to send a broader message that San Antonio is open to the next generation of Web-based entrepreneurial talent and the ideas they will spawn.

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Congress and public opinion: Five things you may not know

December 10, 2014, 10:28 AM

As anyone with an iota of awareness has already heard, Congress is exceedingly unpopular these days. A mere 14 percent of the public approve of the job Congress is doing.

A new report by the Congressional Research Service, the legislature’s nonpartisan think tank, provides deeper explication of the problem and its causes. As indicated by its title, “Understanding Congressional Approval: Public Opinion from 1974 to 2014,” the report offers a four-decade overview of public sentiment. Deeply sourced in political science literature and loaded with data, but the report is nonetheless easy to read, with five key points that are especially striking.

1. The public has been down on Congress for 40 years.

The report, written by Dr. Jessica C. Gerrity (a former colleague of mine), points out that “[c]ongressional approval has been greater than 50 percent only four times in the past 40 years—1985, 1987, 2001 and 2002.” On average, in any given, only about 32 percent of the public approve of the work Congress is doing.

2. Recent public disdain for Congress has been especially intense for the past four years.

Public approval of Congress has dropped below 20 percent seven times in the past 40 years, and four of those were in the past four years. As far as we know, that’s unprecedented.

3. The public rarely adores Congress, but the loathing is becoming personal.

It is the norm for congressional approval to be below 60 percent. In fact, Congress’ Gallup approval rating has exceeded 60 percent for only three months (January 2002 to March 2002) since 1974. (It peaked at 63 percent.)

Throughout much of this period, John Q. Public tended to think well of his own member of Congress, despite his generally low esteem for the institution as a whole. That, the CRS report finds, is changing. Individual members are increasingly un-loved by their constituents.

4. The media is partially to blame. But so is Congress.

The media rarely publish stories describing congressional achievements. Instead, it regularly focuses on lawmakers’ worst behaviors: personal scandals, corruption accusations and trash-talking between the parties. Actual congressional achievements, including the humdrum work of oversight and constituent service, get little ink.

But Congress also is to blame. The public is turned off by partisanship and bickering. And that is exactly what Congress has been serving up by the ladle-full.

The report notes that “the legislative process, as of late, has been characterized by increasingly partisan conflict as polarization in Congress has increased.” Social scientific research, CRS points out, strongly suggests “the more conflict is observed or perceived in Congress, the less the public approves of Congress.”

5. Congress can raise the public’s esteem for it.

Doing more to improve the economy also could bolster public satisfaction. The CRS report points out the public tends to be happiest with the national legislature during good economic times.

Beyond that, Congress should deal with its public relations problem, which is borne partially of a collective action problem. Congress has 535 members and two parties, each trying to aggrandize themselves, frequently at the expense of one another. New members frequently have earned their spots in Congress by running campaigns against it. Discord, then, almost is inevitably associated with Congress in the popular mind.

It is thus almost inevitable that the president, whoever he or she is, will enjoy higher approval ratings. In part, this is because the president has a team who can help him or her sculpt positive, coherent narratives that emphasize achievement and project dignity.

Congress could lift its positives with the public if it more frequently spoke collectively about the things it gets done. This would require far more coordination from congressional leadership, which has sullied the institution through constant mudslinging.

Interestingly, the report’s data also indicate that Congress might help itself by trashing the President less. As the above figure shows, the approval of Congress rises and falls with the public’s esteem for the President. Disagreement between the branches is normal and healthy, but relentlessly bitter rancor makes both branches look contemptible.

Finally, the report suggests that Congress should devote “more time and resources to informing the public about core tenets of the legislative process.” The public needs to be reminded that debate is not bad. Disagreement is a part and parcel to democracy, and arguing can produce smarter policy.

While it goes beyond the text of the CRS report, it also seems plausible that Congress would benefit from making its operations more cognizable to the public. Presently, the institution operates under fantastically baroque procedures that seem inextricably tied to policy-making paralysis. That a single Senator can, for example, kill legislation that was approved by committee, and supported by the House and most Senators, is baffling and infuriating. (CRS, by the way, has a team of experts in legislative process who advise Members themselves on how the legislative process works.)

All that said, it seems inarguable that Congress could improve its standing with the public by seeing to it that its debates more often culminate in tangible take-aways. It is difficult to imagine John Q. Citizen much heralding a legislature that seldom is in session, rarely passes a budget, does not contend with the skyrocketing debt, and generally shirks its duties.


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R Street strongly urges San Antonio to reject new ridesharing regulations

December 10, 2014, 10:02 AM

AUSTIN, Tex. (Dec. 10, 2014) – New ridesharing regulations currently before the San Antonio City Council could force transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft to leave the San Antonio market, the R Street Institute warned.

Under the proposed rules, which the council is set to take up tomorrow,  TNC drivers would be required to get a full physical and eye exam before driving; be certified as able to read and speak English; and subject to random checks of their vehicles.

“There are so many objectionable features of this proposal that it’s hard to single out any one of them,” said R Street Texas Director Josiah Neeley.  “The ordinance throws up so many roadblocks in front of potential drivers that it seems designed to make sure that no one will be able to comply with its requirements.”

In a recent study by the R Street Institute, which graded 50 of the largest U.S, cities on the market friendliness of their driver-for-hire regulations, San Antonio scored near the bottom, earning a grade of “D-.” This was due to an already overly hostile regulatory environment to TNCs.

“San Antonio would do well to follow the example of other cities, like Washington, which have recognized that residents deserve the benefits of vigorous competition both within and between sectors of for hire drivers,” said Neeley.