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Guide to policy events at SXSW 2015

February 18, 2015, 5:15 PM

Every year, tens of thousands of people swarm to Austin, Texas for SXSW Interactive – one of the biggest annual gatherings of technologists, activists, and entrepreneurs in the country.

Here at R Street, we think this is a great opportunity to promote free-market ideas and interact with the broader policy community and its stakeholders. But the landscape of events can be hard to navigate, especially with so many sessions of dubious interest to the policy wonk (e.g. “Better Living Through Minecraft,” “Speed Date Your Way to Massive Social Impact“).

To help remedy this problem, I’ve combed through the schedule for the best policy-focused events so you don’t have to. Check out my full guide below. Think I’m missing something? Let me know.

The “(★)” indicates a member of Congress will be participating. The “(R)” designates an R Street-sponsored event.



12:30-1:30pm: Your Laws, Your Data: Making Government More Open (R) • Convention Center, Room 10AB

3:30-4:30pm: Commercial Threats to Freedom of Speech Online • Convention Center, Room 10AB

5:00-6:00pm: Streams, Shuffles and Statutes: Congress and Music (★) • Convention Center, Room 18ABCD



9:30-10:30am: Politics of Innovation: DC, Tech Working Together (★) • Omni, Capital Ballroom

11:00-12:00pm: Can Washington Protect the Net Economy? (★) • Omni, Capital Ballroom

12:30-1:30pm: Net Infrastructure: The Economy’s Hidden Backbone (★) • Omni, Capital Ballroom

2:00-3:00pm: The Cake is Not a Lie: Gamers and the US Workforce (★) • Omni, Capital Ballroom

3:30-4:30pm: Making Sense of the Competitive Comms Landscape (★) • Omni, Capital Ballroom

5:00-6:00pm: The Future of Privacy (★) • JW Marriott, Salon 8

5:00-6:00pm: Re-imagining Privacy for Consumers and Developers (★) • Omni, Capital Ballroom

5:00-7:00pm: CDT & R Street Policy Happy Hour (R) • 238 W 2nd St



9:30-10:30am: How Big Data Can Transform Poverty Policy (★) (R) • Convention Center, Room 10AB

9:30-10:30am: Privacy Matters: Baking Privacy into Your Apps • JW Marriott, Salon 7

9:30-10:30am: Friend or Foe? How Government Impacts Startups • Hilton Austin Downtown, Salon E

11:00-12:00pm: Give Me Your Data, but Stay Away From Mine! • JW Marriott, Room 404

11:00-12:00pm: How Public Policy Protects Patents and Startups • Convention Center, Room 10AB

12:30-12:50pm: IoT Decoded: Sensors, Small Data and Social Change • Convention Center, Ballroom G

1:15-1:30pm: The Bitcoin Opportunity • Convention Center, Ballroom C

3:30-4:30pm: Legal Hackers: A Global Movement to Reform the Law • Convention Center, Room 10AB

5:00-6:00pm: When Should Privacy Trump Free Speech? (R) • JW Marriott, Salon 8

5:00-6:00pm: Millennials: The Unstoppable Force (★) • Convention Center, Room 10AB



9:30-10:30am: What’s Next? Surveillance Reform Post-Snowden • JW Marriott, Salon 4

11:00-12:00pm: Operation Choke Point and Alternative Currencies • Convention Center, Room 10AB

11:00-12:00pm: The Changing Privacy Landscape • JW Marriott, Salon 4

12:30-1:30pm: Disruptive Innovators Under Attack • Hilton, Salon E



9:00am-4:30pm: Innovation Policy Day • 301 East 6th St

9:30-10:30am: The Future of the Internet – How Open is Open? • IPD

11:00-12:00pm: Our Bytes, Our Digital Selves: What Privacy Means Now • IPD

11:00-12:00pm: Putting Policymakers to Work For You • Convention Center, Room 10AB

12:30-1:30pm: Battles at Home: Protecting the Sharing Economy • IPD

2:00-3:00pm: Patent Reform: It is Time to Finish the Job • IPD

3:30-4:30pm: Skilled Labor, Green Cards, and H-1B Visas, Oh My • IPD

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

Bill to repeal state alcohol/grocery separation law passes Florida House committee

February 18, 2015, 4:38 PM

From St. Petersblog:

Christian Camara, Florida Director of the libertarian think tank R Street Institute, said that although it is government’s responsibility to provide public safety, businesses that already sell alcoholic beverages should not have to incur the “enormous expense of essentially erecting a standalone store” to sell other spirits.


Texas homeowners might get break on insurance premiums

February 18, 2015, 4:08 PM

From the San Antonio Express-News:

But homeowners insurance companies are suffering further losses from high numbers of lawsuits for hail claims, according to R Street, a public policy research organization based in Washington with an Austin office.

Normally, only about 2 percent of claims wind up in the courts, according to R Street. But in certain places in the Texas, disputed claims have been bundled into what the industry considers “nuisance” lawsuits…

…R Street urges the Texas Legislature in its current session to reform state law.

One proposal would reduce legal compensation. If a $8,000 payment is made by an insurance company, and the homeowner believes it should be $10,000, the legal fee currently is based on the $10,000 amount, according to R Street. Instead, R Street recommends basing it on the $2,000 difference. That’s one change.

The 18 percent late payment penalty also is too high, given today’s interest rate climate, a R Street report states. R Street also recommends that the state should require homeowners to communicate with insurers before filing lawsuits as a step toward reducing the amount of litigation.

As of this week, no legislative proposals for these reforms had been filed in the current session of the Texas Legislature, said Josiah Neeley, Texas R Street director. Neeley said he expected bills to be filed soon.

R Street welcomes bill to liberalize Florida liquor laws

February 18, 2015, 2:32 PM
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Feb. 18, 2015) – The R Street Institute welcomed today’s vote by the Florida House Business and Professions Subcommittee passing H.B. 107, also known as the “Growler Bill.” Among other provisions, the bill repeals state law requiring spirits be sold only in liquor stores, paving the way for retailers that already sell beer and wine to enter the market for hard liquor. Supermarkets, convenience stores and big box stores already have strong consumer protections in place to prevent minors from accessing alcohol, and often outperforming traditional liquor stores in theft prevention and age screening.

“By removing outdated and onerous regulations, this bill promotes greater competition and consumer choice,” said R Street Florida Director Christian Camara. “There is no reason why stores that already safely and legally sell beer and wine should be forced essentially to build another store to sell other types of alcohol.”

The bill also allows liquor stores to sell other goods, which is a boon to small businesses that would like to expand their offerings.

“These market-freeing reforms are long overdue, and we urge the Florida House to act decisively to pass the bill,” said Camara.

Testimony to the Florida House Business and Professions Subcommittee

February 18, 2015, 1:02 PM

As Florida director of the R Street Institute, one of my responsibilities is to identify emerging free-market issues in my state and suggest to our national office in D.C. that we engage on them.  Some of our experts have done work related to alcohol retail in other states, and like those cases, we see the issue before you here today as strictly a free-market one, especially the repeal of outdated provisions in Section 12 of the bill.

We believe it is government’s responsibility to provide, enforce and ensure public safety. That definitely includes making sure that existing barriers preventing minors from accessing alcohol are preserved. But we do not believe businesses that already sell alcoholic beverages and abide by those public safety regulations should be required to incur the enormous expense of essentially erecting a stand-alone store just to sell other kinds of alcoholic beverages

The protocols employed by stores that sell beer and wine are essentially the same as those that sell other forms of liquor. That is, they must adopt policies and procedures to ensure they do not sell to minors, as well as loss-prevention safeguards to impede shoplifting.

In fact, our research has shown that convenience stores, supermarkets and other retailers that sell alcohol perform better than liquor stores in preventing sales to minors.  This is especially true among big-name retailers who devote millions of dollars in resources to their loss-prevention departments. They also have a lot more at stake than smaller stores if they are caught breaking the law by selling alcohol to minors.

This ties into other research finding de minimis difference in rates of underage drinking between states that allow liquor sales by supermarkets and other retailers versus states that do not.  The reason for this is simple: the overwhelming majority of minors who drink either purchase get their alcohol from friends, family and, in most cases, their own parents.

Therefore, I would conclude the only reason to preserve the status quo and continue requiring businesses to incur the expense of essentially erecting a stand-alone store to sell liquor is to use the force of law and government to protect one particular segment of the market. In our view, that is not a proper role for government.

Rather than suppress commerce, government should explore ways to reduce barriers to make it easier for willing consumers to transact with the businesses of their choosing. Laws that hinder the growth of existing businesses or the entrance of new businesses should be repealed, especially when they serve no public safety purpose.

Repealing this onerous requirement will not put liquor stores out of business. On the contrary, it would encourage the industry to innovate and better compete with other retail stores. Likewise, consumers would benefit from greater competition, because they would have more options and reap the benefit of lower prices, which may very well lead to more tax revenue.

As it currently stands in Florida, it’s not any easier for a minor to buy beer at a supermarket than it is to buy liquor at a liquor store. As such, we support the repeal of outdated laws that impose expensive, onerous requirements on businesses as a precondition to sell particular kinds of alcohol legally, as well as other provisions that reduce the hurdles emerging businesses and business models must clear.



RESTORE Act gives Alabama opportunity to lead on economy and environment

February 18, 2015, 12:25 PM

April marks five years since an explosion at the Deepwater Horizon sunk the mobile drilling rig and released millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. While most Americans likely have moved on from the incident, many residents of Gulf Coast states like Alabama have not.

The sheer magnitude of the economic losses and environmental harm are still being calculated to this day. The long-term impacts, particularly for the environment, may not be fully understood for quite some time. Obviously, Alabama has a real and immediate interest in offsetting as much of that harm as possible.

Congress has provided the state a unique opportunity to address those problems, while demonstrating the ability to administer federal funds effectively and efficiently. In 2012, it passed the Resources and Ecosystem Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States (RESTORE) Act. The law redirects federal fines and penalties from the Deepwater Horizon spill in a manner that affords local and regional officials more control over the potentially vast number of needed restoration projects.

If Alabama is able to rehabilitate its Gulf Coast under the RESTORE Act, it may set an example for future federal spending that coordinates with state and local governments, rather than simply dispatching taxpayer dollars from Washington.

Although federal officials will directly allocate some RESTORE Act funds, the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council (Gulf Coast Council), comprised of state governors and federal agency officials, has discretion over a second pool of money. Moreover, the five impacted states have authority over a third pool of resources.

While Gov. Robert Bentley will represent the state on the Gulf Coast Council, the real opportunity for Alabama is in the direct spending administered by the state. In spite of the temptation to use RESTORE Act funds to alleviate the state’s budget challenges, Alabama must demonstrate an ability to balance the priorities of economic and environmental restoration responsibly.

Certain projects, like flood mitigation in coastal communities, may have both positive economic and environmental effects. As such, they should be prioritized. Where environmental projects like species rehabilitation and preservation are warranted, they should be balanced with positive economic investments in the area, like dredging in the Port of Mobile.

Most importantly, Alabama must continue to operate its state council as transparently as possible. Project selection criteria should be clear, expectations and deliverable metrics for projects should be publicly accessible and the state must fight waste and fraud that often plague spending of this magnitude.

The RESTORE Act presents a tremendous chance for Alabama to both rebuild its coast and show the nation how states can serve as prudent partners to improve federal spending. Alabama should not take that opportunity lightly.

We need politicians like Cindy Crawford’s latest photograph: unretouched

February 18, 2015, 11:24 AM

For many young men growing up in the 1980s and 90s, Cindy Crawford was hard to miss…not that many were trying to miss her. She reigned supreme as the top supermodel of an era.

Recently, an un-retouched photo of Crawford from a 2013 cover shoot for Marie Claire Mexico and Latin America shows the 48-year-old model as she actually looks prior to the image editing process.  The picture has gone viral with observers praising Crawford for being “real.”

❤️ “@AureliaCotta: Thanks @charleneWhite for Cindy Crawford’s real photo. Without photoshop. This means a lot to me. pic.twitter.com/MggZWJwtEd

— Charlene White (@CharleneWhite) February 14, 2015

While there is nothing wrong with the occasional book or movie to taking our minds to a different place, many of us spend more time in a virtual world than the real one. Our constant artificial diet has rendered many of us unable to truly distinguish fact and fiction.

It might have started by editing images of our celebrities into a customized concept of beauty, but we have since unleashed a culture responding to our every whim. Why bother with reality when we can simply customize another one for ourselves?  We have gone beyond clothes, cars and home décor. Now, we can even choose news channels and media outlets that fit our demands. If we do not like something we read or watch, we flip a channel or click a link. In our own realities, everyone agrees with us. Unfortunately, we have allowed these customized fabrications to enter far more important aspects of our lives.

Imagine if many of our political leaders were unretouched.

By now, we all know it. We have heard one talking point after another: “Yes, we can,” “the war on coal,” “federal overreach,” “the war on women,” “let me be clear,” “pay their fair share” and  “repeal and replace.” Those words often feel empty and contrived. Many of our politicians portray an image of what they think we want to see and hear. We accept the reality of political fiction in exactly the same way we consume heavily edited images of supermodels.

We knowingly embrace retouched politicians who sacrifice thoughtfulness and humility to become a cheap caricature of voters’ political preferences. We shudder at the reality that our political perspectives might be not be as perfect, their edges rougher and the path forward not so well illuminated. The truth of our circumstance and our interaction with each other makes us quite uncomfortable.

By trying to create a generic appeal, political leadership has repeatedly devolved into a consumption science rather than public service. If being true to a set of beliefs and perspectives results in political defeat, both the public and the candidate are better served. Waiting until after an election, leaving office or some other opportune time for authentic perspectives to surface puts perception over principled service.

Enough of the processed political cheese, the virtual friends and synthetic beauty. “Real” is not some random occurrence to be praised as a cultural exception; sober awareness is essential to our humanity. It allows us to extend grace after failure, to understand with empathy, and to grow because we are forced to consider a world that does not revolve around us.

If one picture of Cindy Crawford can make us see that “real” can be beautiful, how much more should we expect of those we choose to lead us?

Federal court blocks executive amnesty, for now

February 18, 2015, 10:09 AM

The Obama White House may be preoccupied with trying to figure out how best to water down Middle Eastern conflicts into mere questions of unemployment, and busy putting together the first lady’s schedule for her whirlwind round of vacations ahead of retirement, but they’ll also have to scramble their lawyer corps this morning, as a federal district court judge in Texas has issued a temporary injunction on Barack Obama’s executive amnesty order.

The order will halt execution of any of the program’s initiatives, some of which were scheduled to start this week. It could yet be stayed by the Fifth Circuit (even by tonight, if things move really quickly), but for now, the administration will need to come up with a Plan B.

A federal judge in Texas has ordered a halt, at least temporarily, to President Obama’s executive actions on immigration, siding with Texas and 25 other states that filed a lawsuit opposing the initiatives.

In an order filed on Monday, the judge, Andrew S. Hanen of Federal District Court in Brownsville, prohibited the Obama administration from carrying out programs the president announced in November that would offer protection from deportation and work permits to as many as five million undocumented immigrants.

The first of those programs was scheduled to start receiving applications on Wednesday and the immediate impact of the ruling is that up to 270,000 undocumented immigrants nationwide who came to the United States as children will not be able to apply for deportation protection under an expansion of an existing executive program. A larger new program is scheduled to begin in May.

Of course, the federal government has probably already filed the necessary paperwork to put an injunction on this injunction, but I suspect that this case, which involves 25 separate states, was filed in Texas, and below the Fifth Circuit for a reason. The Fifth generally leans conservative – legally, not necessarily politically speaking – and beyond that, once the law’s provisions go into effect, it’s much harder to “right the wrongs” presented by an executive order without rolling back the benefits the order has already conferred. We call that, in the legal business, “irreparable harm.”

The nice part about this ruling is that, while Judge Hanen, at least according to the New York Times, does lean conservative in his rulings, his temporary injunction doesn’t touch on the question of whether the executive branch violated its constitutional boundaries, but whether DHS created a whole new program and a set of associated procedures without following the administration’s own rules. The administration, which responded in a statement yesterday, says they totally talked to this one lawyer who said he knew exactly what he was talking about and they’re definitely within their rights, so nyah.

At any rate, even if it is just temporary, the order itself is pretty fun to read if you have a while.

NIH funding stifles tobacco harm reduction research and support in academia

February 18, 2015, 9:19 AM

As a pathologist working at two large medical centers, I have studied the effects of smoking on health for more than 20 years. I’ve published scores of papers on the impressive benefits of switching from cigarettes to safer, non-combustible forms of tobacco (such as Swedish snus). This strategy – called tobacco harm reduction – has vast potential for improving public health.

In countless discussions about smoking’s devastation, people ask me: “If tobacco harm reduction is a viable quit-smoking option with huge public health benefits, why don’t U.S. medical schools advocate this concept? Why are you almost alone among American university professors in openly endorsing tobacco harm reduction?”

The answer resides within a powerful government agency, the National Institutes of Health.

The NIH is the pre-eminent source of research funding for virtually all universities and medical centers; it is the cudgel in the government’s campaign to create “a world free of tobacco use.” The NIH “invests nearly $30.1 billion annually in medical research for the American people,” according to its website. More than 80 percent of the institutes’ funding is awarded “through almost 50,000 competitive grants to more than 300,000 researchers at more than 2,500 universities, medical schools and other research institutions in every state and around the world.”

The NIH hostility to tobacco harm reduction was demonstrated in 1994, when the National Cancer Institute attacked me and my university because I published an article on THR in a scientific journal. Nothing has changed in 20 years. For example, a recent NIH announcement to fund research on smokeless tobacco, which is 98 percent safer than cigarettes, called for investigators “to develop an evidence base to inform smokeless tobacco control efforts, and to develop effective ways to limit the spread and promote cessation of smokeless tobacco use.” This prohibitionist mindset produces NIH-funded researchers who are hostile to tobacco harm reduction; the rest are cowed into silence.

It is hard to overestimate the influence of NIH funding. Universities aggressively pursue grants, and retaining NIH support is obligatory for faculty survival at most universities – influence and prestige are directly proportional to the size of one’s grants. Due to its magnitude, NIH funding is hugely influential in determining “legitimate” areas of research conducted by hundreds of thousands of university faculty throughout the United States. The agency’s influence is compounded by the NIH peer review system, in which groups of 20 colleagues pass judgment on grant proposals, and from which emerges a nationwide network of researchers who are intolerant of politically incorrect topics like tobacco harm reduction.

NIH dollars are vitally important to faculty and to institutions. Agency grants cover direct research costs, which typically pass through the university as faculty, staff and graduate student salaries, equipment and other project-specific charges. More importantly, the NIH also covers indirect costs, which are not specific to the project but involve administration and facility support. These are negotiated by each university, and they range from 25 percent to more than 100 percent of direct costs. If a principal investigator (or PI – the faculty member leading the project) gets a $1 million grant at a university with a 50 percent indirect cost rate, the university pockets $500,000.

How much money does the NIH spend on tobacco research? I conducted a search of the NIH Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools for the word “tobacco.” In 2014, the NIH (mainly the National Cancer, Heart Blood Lung, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Institutes) dispensed $623 million (total costs) in 1,300 grants to more than 1,000 PIs at almost 300 universities, medical centers and other institutions. That works out to about $600,000 for each investigator. Few researchers will jeopardize grants of that size by doing or saying anything that conflicts with NIH dogma.

To explore the influence of NIH funding, start with members of the FDA Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee. TPSAC advises the FDA about regulatory actions, including “any application submitted by a manufacturer for a modified risk tobacco product,” which is a vital part of tobacco harm reduction.

A federal judge ruled last year that members of TPSAC, including current Chairman Jonathan Samet, had significant conflicts of interest in the form of funding from:

  1. Pharmaceutical manufacturers who compete with tobacco companies for the nicotine market; and
  2. Lucrative contracts to testify in lawsuits against the very industry they judge. He called TPSAC’s findings and recommendations “at a minimum, suspect, and, at worst, untrustworthy.”

TPSAC members also have a conflict of interest with respect to NIH funding. In 2014, six of the nine current TPSAC members had grants totaling $28 million (Table 1). Such outsized funding must be assumed to color decision-making, particularly on regulations as NIH-toxic as tobacco harm reduction.

Table 1. NIH support in Fiscal Year 2014 for tobacco projects to members of the FDA Tobacco Scientific Advisory Committee TPSAC Member University/Institution Total Support ($1m) Jonathan Samet Southern California 8.00 Warren Bickel Virginia Tech 0.39 Thomas Eissenberg Virginia Commonwealth 3.91 Suchitra Krishnan-Sarin Yale 5.79 Richard O’Connor Roswell Park 0.47 Kurt Ribisl North Carolina 9.21 Total 27.77

Followers of this blog know that major health organizations aggressively oppose tobacco harm reduction. They also receive considerable NIH funds to pursue tobacco-related projects. In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics received $406,000 in support of “adolescent smoking cessation in pediatric primary care.” The American Cancer Society was awarded $343,000 for “building research and capacity on the economic policy-tobacco control nexus” (the title was truncated in the database). The American Heart Association scored $7.5 million for its Tobacco Regulation and Addiction Center and other projects.

Another big grantee last year was the American Legacy Foundation, recipient of $2.1 million for eight projects. One of its employees, David Levy, obtained $703,000 via Georgetown University for “modeling the policy impact of cigarette and smokeless tobacco use on U.S. mortality.” (I will be eager to see Dr. Levy’s mortality estimate from smokeless tobacco use, as my research indicates that it is close to zero.)

Individuals at the University of California San Francisco have engaged in an aggressive campaign against e-cigarettes (examples here and here). Table 2 shows they were awarded $12.5 million in 2014, with over half going to PI Stanton Glantz.

Table 2. NIH support in Fiscal Year 2014 for tobacco projects to faculty at the University of California-San Francisco Faculty Member Total Support ($1m) Stanton Glantz 6.61 Pamela Ling 1.49 Ruth Malone 1.34 Lyudmilla Popova 1.09 Judith Prochaska* 1.05 Neal Benowitz 0.95 Margaret Walsh 0.53 Total 13.03

*Also affiliated with Stanford University

I have previously discussed in the distorted research results concerning smokeless tobacco and harm reduction from several investigators, including Gregory Connolly, Christopher Haddock, Stephen Hecht, Irina Stepanov and Robert Klesges. Together, they received $8.5 million for tobacco projects in 2014 (Table 3). Haddock and Klesges continued work on tobacco use in the military: Haddock studied “barriers to effective tobacco control policy implementation in the U.S. military,” while Klesges was PI on a project with a particularly intimidating title: “preventing relapse following involuntary smoking abstinence” (my emphasis).

Table 3. NIH support in Fiscal Year 2014 for tobacco projects to individuals aggressively campaigning against smokeless tobacco Faculty Member University/Institution Total Support ($1m) Stephen Hecht Minnesota 4.49 Robert Klesges Tennessee 2.02 Irina Stepanov Minnesota 0.76 Gregory Connolly Harvard/Northeastern 0.70 Christopher Haddock National Development and Research 0.57 Total 8.54

The federal government, via the Department of Health and Human Services, is engaged in a coordinated, expensive campaign to create a tobacco-free society. The NIH, which contributes $24 billion annually to the American research establishment and $623 million specifically for tobacco research, strongly influences some in the academic community to vigorously oppose – and many others to ignore – tobacco harm reduction.

How the U.S. Supreme Court biased its own decision on same-sex marriage

February 17, 2015, 9:00 AM

By permitting same-sex marriages to take place over state laws to the contrary, the U.S. Supreme Court has essentially biased the outcome of the four same-sex marriage cases it will decide in a few months.

The court’s perspective seems to have shifted radically since it last considered the issue of same-sex unions in June o2013. Then, the Supreme Court rejected parts of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) by holding that legally married same-sex couples must receive the same federal benefits as their heterosexual counterparts.  The court’s opinion in United States v. Windsor did not hold that same-sex marriage should be recognized in every state.

Quite to the contrary, the Supreme Court noted, “The definition of marriage is the foundation of the state’s broader authority to regulate the subject of domestic relations with respect to the ‘protection of offspring, property interests, and the enforcement of marital responsibilities.'”

The Windsor holding emphasized each state’s well-established right to determine the definition of marriage. If Justice Kennedy and four other Supreme Court Justices believed then that the right to marry was fundamentally protected by the Constitution, they should have simply reflected that in their Windsor opinion.

They did not.

In fact, the Windsor opinion provides ample justification for the Supreme Court, as Justice Thomas recently suggested, to preserve the status quo until it hears the cases. “When courts declare state laws unconstitutional and enjoin state officials from enforcing them, our ordinary practice is to suspend those injunctions from taking effect pending appellate review,” Thomas said.

The latest Gallup polls do suggest a slight majority of all Americans (55 percent) support legally recognizing same-sex unions and a large majority of younger Americans polled favor the policy change. At the same time, those trends have not yet resulted in states amending their marriage definitions.

The current momentum in favor of legally recognizing same-sex marriage is almost entirely due to judicial interpretation. Of the 37 states currently allowing same-sex marriage, only 11 of them have recognized it through legislative action or popular vote.

By refusing to stay the orders of federal judges striking down state marriage definitions, the Supreme Court has created a situation completely unfair to the consideration of the issue before the court, same-sex couples rejoicing at the legal recognition of their marriage, and the citizens of states that define marriage as between a man and a woman.

Even those who oppose same-sex marriage realize the untenable position of legally recognizing marriages around the nation and then suddenly declaring them to be void. While Americans can and do choose to end their marriages, few would tolerate the government invalidating their legal union involuntarily. Given the court’s willingness to let legal recognition of same-sex marriages proceed, a decision anything short of protecting them with the full force of the Constitution would shock the nation.

If the unlikely event that the Court does issue an opinion contrary to the momentum of their own creation, the court will have needlessly caused heartache to those who welcome the change and an administrative nightmare for the states.

The Supreme Court will unmistakably have the final say on whether states are allowed to limit the definition of marriage based on sexual orientation, but they should have either said it sooner or waited to make the change until they were ready.

The highest court in the land needs to start acting like it.

Move to ban e-cigs stifles innovation

February 16, 2015, 11:13 AM

California lawmakers aren’t afraid of innovation, or so they say. Members of the Legislature in Sacramento will have their commitment to innovation tested this session when an attempt to regulate e-cigarettes again comes before them.

State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, has introduced legislation that would extend current restrictions on traditional tobacco products to e-cigarettes. Were S.B. 140 to be signed into law, Californians would be prohibited from using e-cigarettes in public meeting places like bars and restaurants. In Leno’s own words: “Like traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes deliver nicotine in a cloud of other toxic chemicals …”

In the broadest terms, Leno is accurate. E-cigarettes do deliver nicotine in a cloud of chemicals. But, to equate the toxicity of e-cigarette vapor to the toxicity of a traditional cigarette is misleading, even if not calculated. In fact, a study in the journal Inhalation Toxicity found the exposure to harmful byproducts in vapor is not just slightly smaller than in tobacco cigarettes, but orders of magnitude smaller.

In burning tobacco, traditional cigarettes create and release tar and other carcinogens not present in e-cigarettes. The persistent effort to craft a false equivalence between e-cigarettes and traditional cigarettes does not shoulder the weight of reality.

California’s smoking ban is popular and the public has come to view tobacco use with disfavor. In fact, the use of traditional cigarettes is trending toward an all-time low. If Californians can be led to believe that restricting e-cigarettes is functionally the same as restricting traditional cigarettes, they will support S.B. 140 with enthusiasm — regardless of the reality. In the larger picture, restrictions on e-cigarettes, predicated on problematic public health arguments, could actually harm public health. While the National Institutes of Health found that well-known pharmaceutical smoking cessation treatments like nicotine patches fail at above a 90 percent rate, e-cigarettes appear to be a viable tool for mitigating the effects of traditional cigarettes. Evidence suggests that vapor products can actually act as tobacco cessation mechanisms.

Just as importantly, a large study conducted by the government of Great Britain discovered that existing smokers, not those who have never used tobacco products before, predominantly use e-cigarettes. There is little to the claim that e-cigarettes drive people to smoke, and there is even less to the claim that restricting e-cigarettes will decrease the overall number of smokers.

In the end, though their educational efforts have been loudly and consistently maligned, the e-cigarette industry has innovated a potentially useful product. While not as popular as Silicon Valley firms, they are innovators nonetheless. They have developed a far less dangerous and potentially beneficial tool that allows adults to exercise their personal freedom with a de minimis public health impact.

Whether or not S.B. 140 passes, arguments to stifle innovation through false characterizations never are a healthy thing. Clouds of toxic rhetoric can be bad both for public health and private innovation.

Restoring the Gulf Coast through local control

February 16, 2015, 11:04 AM

For many on the Gulf Coast, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill seems like it was yesterday. Many might be surprised that almost five years have gone by since that tragic accident, which released millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

The spill caused billions of dollars in economic harm and immense damage to the Gulf Coast environment. While some of the environmental impact is apparent, many of the longer-term implications remain unknown.

What we do know is that Congress afforded Gulf Coast states a unique opportunity to remedy the damage. In 2012, Congress enacted the RESTORE Act (“Resources and Ecosystem Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States”). The law essentially redirects federal fines and penalties to three different pools of money, in an effort to give local and regional officials more control over restoration projects related to the spill.

The structure of Congress’ response may prove to be an interesting model for future government spending. Too frequently, agency heads in Washington are tasked with doling out federal resources on any number of federal priorities. That often means well-intentioned bureaucrats in a D.C. office building, rather than the officials and citizens closest to the problem, make critical operational decisions.

The RESTORE Act changes those dynamics significantly. While federal officials are responsible for allocating some of the funds, the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, which is made up of state governors and federal agency officials, has discretion over a second pool of money, and the five Gulf states have authority over a third.

While the law may enable recovery dollars to be spent more efficiently, it poses a number of challenges. First, it requires thorough coordination to avoid funding overlapping projects. Each administrative body spending RESTORE Act funds must operate in constant communication with the others. That likely means officials should establish federal and regional project priorities before states commit their resources.

Devolving spending authority for such a significant pot of money requires substantial transparency and accountability. The BP penalties, which represent the lion’s share of the RESTORE Act funds, have yet to be finalized. But both the regional council and the individual state councils must ensure that their project-selection criteria are clear, that project expectations and deliverable metrics are publicly available, and that the responsible council works in concert with the treasury inspector general’s office to track dispersal of funds and completion of projects.

For the RESTORE Act to be most effective, states must demonstrate an ability to responsibly balance the twin priorities of economic and environmental restoration. Rather than simply using the RESTORE Act funds to offset tight state budgets, each state must look for priorities that bolster their economy and environmental well-being.

The RESTORE Act is a tremendous opportunity for the Gulf Coast to rebuild after the spill, but it may also be a chance for America to find better ways to care for taxpayer resources, rather than another centralized plan coming out of our nation’s capital.

National disaster preparation and response plan gets bipartisan traction

February 16, 2015, 10:13 AM

From Business Insurance:

Ray Lehmann, a senior fellow at the Washington-based R Street Institute, a free market-oriented public policy group, said “we’re hopeful” that the private and public sector actions will lead to movement on comprehensive disaster policy.

The institute also is a member of SmarterSafer.org, a coalition of environmental, insurer, free market and other groups that support mitigation efforts and oppose government subsidies of construction in environmentally sensitive and unsafe areas.

Mr. Lehmann said that the executive order has drawn resistance from some Republican senators. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., for example, questioned the executive order’s legality.

“We don’t believe there is anything remarkable in the executive order, but it’s something that could be contentious,” he said.

Florida insurance needs more than a one-hit wonder

February 16, 2015, 9:16 AM

From Daytona Beach News-Journal:

A new research study from The James Madison Institute and R Street Institute provides a detailed roadmap for practical policy solutions in this arena. The report can be accessed at www.jamesmadison.org.

Viguerie and 67 policy leaders urge comprehensive tax reform now

February 16, 2015, 9:04 AM

From ConservativeHQ:

“America’s tax code is an expensive, growth-sapping disaster,” said R Street Institute’s Executive Director Andrew Moylan, “As the National Taxpayers Union’s research has shown, simply complying with the tax code cost Americans more than $220 billion last year. That’s about as much as we spent on the Departments of Education, Veterans Affairs, State, and Homeland Security combined. The time has come to demolish this shaky foundation and build a new code from the ground up.”

Senators introduce bill to cut crop insurance

February 16, 2015, 8:59 AM

From AgWeek:

The Harvest Price Subsidy Prohibition Act is also supported by a coalition of left- and right-wing groups, including Heritage Action, the R Street Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, FreedomWorks, the National Taxpayers Union, Campaign for Liberty, Taxpayers Protection Alliance, Center for Individual Freedom, Coalition to Reduce Spending, Less Government, Taxpayers for Common Sense, Club for Growth and the Environmental Working Group… …At the briefing, Andrew Moylan of the R Street Institute discounted criticism that the savings on crop insurance are relatively small. Moylan said that if concern about savings is limited to big ticket items such as Medicare and the defense budget, “we will be nihilists.”

Congressman reboots proposed ban on Internet access taxes

February 16, 2015, 8:56 AM

From Heartlander:

R Street Executive Director and Senior Fellow Andrew Moylan agrees with Radia’s conclusions, calling the bill’s introduction “an important development.”

“Getting rid of the grandfathering for the seven states is a great idea. All previous versions of this proposal have lacked removing the exemption,” he said. “States have power granted to them by the people to achieve common goals. Congress has the power to do this, preventing states from doing dumb things to harm interstate commerce.

“Conservatives are right to be wary of exercises of that power, but this is what the interstate commerce clause was created to do,” Moylan said.

Support Montana’s warrant-for-content bill

February 13, 2015, 1:48 PM

Dear Austin Knudsen, Debby Barrett, Chuck Hunter, and Jon Sesso:

We, the undersigned companies and organizations, are writing to urge speedy consideration and passage of Montana House Bill 444. The bill would provide needed protection to Montanans’ sensitive personal and proprietary communications stored in “the cloud.”

Montana HB 444 would make it clear that the state government must obtain a warrant to compel a service provider to disclose the content of emails, voicemails, or other private material stored by the service provider on behalf of its users. In some circumstances under current law, the government can force service providers to disclose this sensitive information with a mere subpoena.

Montana HB 444 would provide greater privacy protections and create a more level playing field for technology. It would provide certainty for businesses developing innovative new services and competing in a global marketplace. Notably, the Department of Justice and FBI already follow the warrant-for-content rule. The bill would allow law enforcement officials to obtain electronic communications content in all appropriate cases while protecting Montanans’ constitutional rights.

For these reasons, we strongly urge the members of the Montana legislature to support Montana HB 444.


Advocacy for Principled Action in Government
American Booksellers for Free Expression
American Civil Liberties Union of Montana
American Library Association
Bill of Rights Defense Committee
Center for Democracy & Technology
Citizens Against Government Waste
The Constitution Project
Constitutional Alliance
Data Foundry
Defending Dissent Foundation
Demand Progress
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Free Press Action Fund
Golden Frog
Less Government
National Workrights Institute
New America’s Open Technology Institute
Power House Management
R Street
Restore the Fourth
Sunlight Foundation
Venture Politics

Lehmann talks extreme weather on NPR’s On Point

February 13, 2015, 1:02 PM

With record snowstorms crippling New England, R Street Institute Senior Fellow and Editor-in-Chief R.J. Lehmann was a guest this week on the nationally syndicated public radio program On Point with Tom Ashbrook (a co-production of National Public Radio and Boston’s WBUR) for a discussion of extreme weather, climate change and the impact of both on business and the economy. Also joining were Frank Nutter, president of the Reinsurance Association of America, and Laurie Johnson, chief economist in the climate center of the National Resources Defense Council. Among the topics covered were the National Flood Insurance Program, federal agriculture supports, the Coastal Barrier Resources Act, the disaster-planning framework put forward by the SmarterSafer coalition and the inadvisability of a national catastrophe fund.

You can hear the whole segment below.

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

Black introduces legislation to promote energy security, expand states’ rights

February 13, 2015, 12:50 PM

From Rep. Diane Black:

The Federal Land Freedom Act would not extend to federal Indian land, the National Park System, the National Wildlife Refuge System, or a congressionally designated wilderness area. The legislation is supported by Heritage Action, Western Energy Alliance, The R Street Institute, and the American Legislative Exchange Counsel (ALEC).