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DC Circuit Court refuses to halt EPA’s carbon rule

January 22, 2016, 10:45 AM

If you thought the courts were coming to the rescue to stop President Barack Obama’s greenhouse gas restrictions, think again. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit just denied the request of Alabama and 23 other states to pause implementation of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) until litigation over the regulatory scheme is concluded.

The CPP seeks to reduce carbon emissions from utilities 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

Opponents of the CPP had essentially three chances to stop the carbon restrictions from being implemented coming into this year. The first was securing a stay after the rule was officially published. The second opportunity is winning elections in November. The third is for the litigation ultimately to be successful and decided by the Supreme Court at some point in the future.

With efforts to stay the CPP foiled, time becomes the biggest threat to successful litigation. If the CPP is effectively implemented or even successful in changing energy-generation decisions by utilities, striking down the CPP may be little more than a moral victory.

That basically leaves CPP opponents with the option of winning the White House and holding the Senate if they want to end the CPP. That could happen, but it is far from certain.

Meanwhile, states face a September deadline to either submit a compliant carbon-reduction plan or request an extension.

State litigants suing to stop the CPP aren’t even remotely interested in submitting a plan to comply. Some conservative politicos have taken it even further. They’re pitching a “just say no” response to the CPP. It may make for fantastic political talking points, but the DC Circuit’s decision makes that choice significantly more complicated.

If states refuse to comply or ask for more time, the EPA has authority to craft a cap-and-trade system and impose it on the states. The concept of a federal implementation plan (FIP) forces conservative lawmakers to answer one particularly tough question: “Would you rather make energy-generation decisions for your state or have the EPA do it for you?”

Right now, the most sensible option is being widely overlooked.

States opposing the CPP should ask the EPA for extensions by the September deadline. Doing so extends the plan-development window until 2018. It’s not a high standard either. The request requires a broad nonbinding statement of the types of carbon plans the state is considering, an explanation of why the extension is needed and a commitment to hold public hearings on the process.

While conservative states aren’t going to oppose the CPP in court and simultaneously develop a compliance plan, they should plan for contingencies if the elections don’t go as planned or if the litigation fails.

Asking for more time just makes sense, and it keeps the EPA from starting the FIP process. It probably doesn’t feel great for conservatives, but it’s also prudent.

EPA foes threaten Supreme Court battle to freeze climate rule

January 22, 2016, 12:11 AM

From ClimateWire

“Failing to stay the rule puts pressure on states to develop compliance plans for a regulation that may very well turn out to be illegal,” said R Street President Eli Lehrer. “During the ensuing confusion, we expect states to struggle to comply with the rule, energy providers to overhaul infrastructure and customers to bear higher costs and less reliable energy, when the rule ultimately may be found on shaky legal ground.”

R Street disappointed in court ruling allowing EPA rule to go into effect

January 21, 2016, 5:31 PM

WASHINGTON (Jan. 21, 2016) – The R Street Institute expressed deep disappointment in today’s decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit not to stay the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan rules while it hears challenges from states and industry critics.
“Failing to stay the rule puts pressure on states to develop compliance plans for a regulation that may very well turn out to be illegal,” R Street President Eli Lehrer said. “During the ensuing confusion, we expect states to struggle to comply with the rule, energy providers to overhaul infrastructure and customers to bear higher costs and less reliable energy, when the rule ultimately may be found on shaky legal ground.”

Roughly half the U.S. states have sued to have the rule overturned. Nonetheless, with compliance deadlines fast approaching, states are forced to write their own plans in order to maintain control over the regulatory scheme.

“The Obama administration is reaping the benefits of a friendly D.C. Circuit court,” Lehrer said. “The CPP is a dramatic overreach by an activist administration, and now we’ll all be paying for it.”


No, the rest of the world doesn’t use ‘single payer’

January 21, 2016, 2:23 PM

There’s plenty of reason for free marketers to be skeptical of proposals, like the ones emanating from Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and hinted at by Republican Donald Trump, that would create a single-payer health-care coverage system in the United States.

But, if only because these proposals have resonance with the public, they’re certainly worth debating. A rational debate depends on getting the facts straight and there’s one fact that both left and right often get wrong: “single payer” health care of the sort Bernie Sanders proposes isn’t universal in the developed world and the U.S. system isn’t particularly free market by the standards of peer nations.

Although definitions vary slightly, a single-payer health-care system is one where a single entity — a government-run insurance plan — pays all bills for a variety of medical-care services and private payment for these same services is more-or-less banned.

Among the G-7 countries, only one nation, Canada, actually maintains such a system. One other, Italy, has a pretty similar system but allows much more private payment and, because of the low standards for public hospitals, nearly everyone who can afford private insurance carries it.

Japan maintains a government-run health care plan, but it has so many gaps that most families find a need to carry private insurance to cover things like cancer treatment and related costs the public system excludes.

Germany, like the United States, has an employer-state hybrid system with heavy regulation of insurance companies.

France has a “dominant payer” system, where one quasi-governmental entity (CNAMTS) pays many bills, but about 90 percent of the population maintains private coverage as well, and most people pay something out of pocket each year.

The United Kingdom, finally, directly administers almost all medical personnel and facilities through a single governmental entity in each of the home countries. This is a “single-provider” system.

Except in the United Kingdom, there are significant numbers of people in all of these countries who report problems paying for needed medical care. This percentage is higher in the United States and Germany, intermediate in France and lower in Canada. The United Kingdom only achieves its apparently enviable results because of long waiting lists for many procedures and health-care rationing systems that are pretty close to the fictional “death panels” some conservatives claimed were part of Obamacare.

The American system as it exists isn’t unusually free market either. The German, French and Japanese systems — where consumers much more frequently shop around for insurance plans they like rather than having the government or an employer chose — offer more consumer choices than most Americans enjoy. Even though taxpayers pick up a very large portion of the bills, the French practice of publicly providing the prices of medical procedures makes that system feel a lot more like a free market than anything most Americans see day-to-day.

There are lots of valid criticisms of the United States’ health care system. The difficulty the poor or uninsured sometimes have in getting needed medical care is one of them. Some problems of the U.S. health-care system stem from lifestyle and cultural factors that organization and payment mechanisms can’t affect. But the lack of a single-payer system in the United States isn’t unusual in the slightest, nor is the system we have particularly free market.

Any debate should start by acknowledging both of those facts.

Copyright Week: R Street’s greatest hits!

January 21, 2016, 12:04 PM

Advocacy groups and think tanks across the nation are celebrating Copyright Week this week, intended to highlight a series of discussions supporting key principles that should guide copyright policy.

Copyright law impacts everything from Internet access to the music we listen to the books we read. So we decided to join the fun and create “R Street’s Greatest Hits on Copyright Policy” (trademark pending) to highlight our own work in this important, yet nuanced space. In an effort to be hip with the millennials, here are those greatest hits in listicle form:

#TBT The ‘Blurred Lines’ of music copyright

In 2015, a federal jury handed down a $7.4 million verdict against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, asserting the pair’s 2013 smash “Blurred Lines” borrowed inappropriately from the 1977 Marvin Gaye song “Got to Give It Up.” R Street’s R.J. Lehmann takes the time to explain the preposterousness of this ruling, including the many differences between Gaye’s old school classic and the 2013 hit. It’s clear that the court’s interpretation could hinder future artists and continue to the blur the lines of ownership and creativity. http://bit.ly/1NLdeto

Leave my NFL GIFs alone

Embattled National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell attempted this past season to limit the online proliferation of GIFs and Vines of league-owned content. After facing fierce backlash from sites like Deadspin and SB Nation, the NFL backtracked their effort. However, the episode could serve as a warning shot between sports leagues and fans looking for new ways to appreciate and enjoy the game. http://bit.ly/1MGNLO0

How much is a song worth, anyway?

This past year there has been much discussion about the economics of music. Artists, record labels, consumers, fans and legislators have spent a lot of time trying to figure out proper rules for the marketplace. In an age with so many competing avenues to share and find music, this column parses the details of this extremely complex system. http://bit.ly/1ZDdde0

Music Licensing: Longform

If you want to take a deeper dive into the maze of music copyright law, check out R Street’s policy study “Transparency in music licensing and the statutory remedy problem.” This paper examines the opaque system that hampers musicians and songwriters from fully benefiting from emerging ways to access music. http://bit.ly/23gb8tg

Books, books and more books!

A court ruling this past year reaffirmed the legality of Google Books, a project involving the unlicensed scanning and online search of whole libraries. The process of restoring and making available large swaths of older books is an important benefit to the public, introducing new readers to undiscovered works and enhancing the efforts of many academics and researchers. bit.ly/1V9WAW3

Do you really own your tractor?

They say nothing runs like a Deere! Yet if there is a malfunction and you try to repair your Deere tractor by tinkering with its software, you could be breaking the law. That’s because the software’s copyright is owned by the tractor company and cannot legally be changed or altered by anyone not authorized to do so, including the supposed “owner.” bit.ly/1PGsdCA

You didn’t build that!

Are creators or lawyers the driving force behind artistic freedom? This is the crucial question that R Street’s Zach Graves addresses in the Techdirt column “Imbalanced incentives hurt more than they help.” http://bit.ly/1MQia0S

R Street goes retro!


One of R Street’s first forays into the copyright discussion was through the classic hit policy study “Guarding against abuse: Restoring constitutional copyright” by R Street Associate Fellow Derek Khanna. In this study, Khanna evaluates the intent of the Constitution’s “progress clause,” as well as its application today. bit.ly/1lxFPba

And finally…

Fair use “In My Life”


R Street Associate Fellow Molly Schwartz perfectly summarizes the importance of fair use and a balanced copyright system:

No area of the federal law touches all of our lives so frequently and so ubiquitously as copyright law. Every time you write an email, every time you turn on your computer, every time you download a piece of software, every time you stream a song, every time you take a selfie, you are interacting with copyright law because you are making copies of someone else’s original idea. How copyright is regulated by the federal government has a direct impact on artists, tech companies, libraries, schools, content industries and ordinary users like you and me.


For more about the R Street Institute’s complete work in the area of copyright click here!

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

Postal reform a painful but necessary step, says R Street’s Kosar

January 21, 2016, 9:49 AM

WASHINGTON (Jan. 21, 2016) – Reforming the U.S. Postal Service will require making some tough cuts, but is a necessary measure to take sooner rather than later, according to written testimony provided today to the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee by R Street Governance Project Director Kevin Kosar.

The service is in danger of going bankrupt and its debt is ever-increasing while its original intended purpose – personal correspondence – has moved almost entirely to other media, Kosar notes. The current system is a medium almost entirely for business marketing, government communication and rural parcel delivery.

“The service’s existential crisis goes deeper than finances,” Kosar writes. “It’s very raison d’etre has disintegrated.”

Kosar says that even if the postal services branched out into new products, the realities of the environment show that nothing will inject much-needed cash into the current system. Only serious reform can stem the tide and permit the agency to adjust its operations to the declining demand for its services, while keeping it focused on its mail-delivery duties.

“No amount of wishful thinking will make mail volume grow and postal revenues soar,” he said. “A government operation that goes bankrupt is unlikely to be bailed out by a public that sees it as a pointless anachronism. “

Testimony to Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on postal reform

January 21, 2016, 9:30 AM

My name is Kevin R. Kosar, and I am director of the Governance Project at the R Street Institute, a think tank here in Washington. Some of you may recognize my name, as I spent 11 years at the Congressional Research Service, where I was the lead analyst on postal issues. I thank the committee for convening this hearing.

The U.S. Postal Service has an existential problem. For five years, the agency has flirted with insolvency. It has $15 billion of debt, its statutory maximum. The USPS reports in its most recent annual financial statement:

Although our cash balances have increased, they remain insufficient to support an organization with approximately $74 billion in annual operating expenses. Our business continues to face challenges due to the ongoing migration of mail to electronic alternatives, and we are legally limited in how we can price our products and streamline our legacy business model…Furthermore, given our inability to raise cash through the issuance of additional debt, our current level of available liquidity may be insufficient to support our operations in the event of another significant downturn in the U.S. economy.

To conserve cash, the agency has put off many capital investments. The service’s 140,000-vehicle fleet is more than two decades old and needs to be replaced. The Postal Service has not made any payments into its Retiree Health Benefits Fund since 2008, meaning its $50 billion in unfunded health-care obligations are not getting any smaller. The agency has tried to shave overhead costs by not replacing hundreds of thousands of retiring employees, and closing post offices or reducing their operating hours. (Most post offices lose money.) The agency also wants to close many more of its mail-sorting plants. If Congress allowed it, the Postal Service would end Saturday mail delivery (except for parcels).

How the agency will escape its debt and return to financial sustainability is anything but certain. However, the service’s existential crisis goes deeper than finances. Its very raison d’etre has disintegrated. The act that birthed the modern, reorganized USPS declares:

The Postal Service shall have as its basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the Nation together through the personal, educational, literary, and business correspondence of the people.

That was drafted in 1970. Back then, long-distance telephone calls were fantastically expensive for most consumers and facsimiles were few. Pop songs of the time – like Rod Stewart’s 1972 hit, “You Wear It Well” – spoke of lovers writing precious letters to one another. When letter carriers went on strike in 1970, President Richard Nixon took to television to announce that he would contend with the threat. National Guardsmen were sent in to replace the wildcatters. Mail was king and the Postal Service could expect to reap profits as a communications monopolist.

Those days are long, long gone. Mail no longer “binds the nation…through correspondence.” Mail today is not a communications medium; it is a medium for business marketing. At most, 5 percent of all mail sent constitutes letters and postcards from one person to another. More than half of all sent mail is advertising. Person-to-person correspondence has gone electronic. I can email my sister in Ohio, text my nephew in New Jersey, Facebook message my friend in Russia and video chat with my mother for little to no cost. The public mostly gets its news online and over the airwaves. Magazines are a mere 3.5 percent of what USPS delivers.

So, the question to ponder is: why do we need a Postal Service? It is a question worthy of congressional deliberation.

To be clear, the Postal Service cannot be abolished; at least, not immediately. Many institutions’ operations remain tied to it. Local governments send jury summons, vehicle registration renewals and other important documents by mail. Voting by mail is widespread in the United States, and Colorado, Oregon and Washington hold all their elections by mail.

U.S. package delivery also is deeply dependent upon the Postal Service. FedEx and UPS have postal carriers deliver many small packages to sparsely populated rural areas. (It makes no financial sense for them to do it themselves and USPS carriers are on the route anyway.) The Postal Service also is tasked by executive order to deliver medicines in the event of a terrorist biohazard attack.

Many of the legislative reforms proposed in recent years dodge the USPS’ existential question and instead take for granted that the government should lug paper mail all over America’s 3.8 million square miles. This makes finding any significant reform that suits the two biggest interest groups (USPS unions and high-volume mailers) very difficult. It goes without saying that members of Congress from low-population and far-flung states tend to be averse to reforms that reduce the highly subsidized service their constituents receive.

The distributive nature of postal politics thus discourages Congress from facing the fact that Americans need the USPS less and less; what needs they do sill have are evolving. Unfortunately, postal politics also tend to produce fanciful “magic money” solutions, like postal banking and entering USPS into new lines of business. “If only the USPS could sell ___________ (fill in the blank), then its deficits would go away,” is the thinking.

But facts are facts and no amount of wishful thinking will make mail volume grow and postal revenues soar. Eventually, a day of reckoning must come. A government operation that goes bankrupt is unlikely to be bailed out by a public that sees it as a pointless, environmentally harmful anachronism. This is all the more reason to enact sensible postal reform sooner rather than later. Such reforms should permit the agency to adjust its operations to the declining demand for its services, and keep it focused on its last-mile, mail-delivery duties.

Thank you for your time and consideration on this important matter.


January 20, 2016, 3:50 PM

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January 20, 2016, 12:23 PM

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Oh, Sarah

January 20, 2016, 12:16 PM

It’s hard to believe the 2008 campaign was so long ago. But it’s easy to remember the unbridled excitement we all felt when that plane from Anchorage landed that night and an unknown governor from Alaska descended into the chaos of an open presidential campaign. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had been blindsided by a celebrity candidate from Illinois who had charisma and a cult following, and he needed a way to energize the base — a folksy, relatable vice president whose TV-ready family and penchant for colloquialism was just the thing to connect him with “Real America.”

If you could have told me, in 2008, that this is where that road would eventually lead, you’d have had to wipe my chin off the floor. With her endorsement of Donald Trump, Sarah Palin has done a complete 180 from her down-home conservative roots, embracing Trump’s populist, hardly conservative campaign with fervor, proving that she — despite what she’s said over and over for the last decade — is more about defeating an “establishment” boogeyman than she is following through on the limited-government, anti-abortion, free-market world she envisioned in her first speech to a raucous Republican National Convention.

I can’t blame Palin. Since 2008, the political field has changed dramatically. Just after Barack Obama’s election, the Tea Party was born — a movement, ostensibly, designed as a way to combat further government bailouts and curb government spending. In its wake, the Tea Party (which seems to exist only as a loose collaboration between major organizations now) left a conservative grassroots desperate for a conservative leadership that never truly materialized. Some “Tea Party” candidates turned out to be charlatans. Others turned out not to be ready for prime time. And while many Tea Party leaders considered their repeat failures the work of a shadowy Karl Rove-led cabal, it never established itself as a campaign machine. It did, however, demonstrate that there was a serious market for conservative speakers, conservative books, conservative memorabilia and conservative entertainment figures. Swiftly dumped by the Republican Party, Sarah Palin, who had given up her gubernatorial seat in Alaska, had very few options if she wanted to stay in the public eye. So she took the gig.

And now, Republicans are paying the ultimate price for turning their leaders into their entertainers. Because it’s now clear that the latter is far more important than the former.

Sarah Palin took the stage last night in a strange chainmail cardigan, determined, it seemed, to relive the best moments from every speech she gave on the campaign trail in 2008. The result was an amalgamation of “srill, baby, drills!” and vague references to congressional spending as drug use, pulled, seemingly at random, through a magnetic poetry kit or the like, from every great speech Sarah Palin has ever given. In some places, you could have easily replaced what was quickly deemed on social media a “word salad” with a string of emojis, and still have elicited the same general level of specificity and reason. We will be America! We will go to places! We will ensure the conservative opinion journalists of this world constantly regret their internal provision against day drinking!

The result was bizarre. She raged against crony capitalism — alongside a man who earlier in the day had embraced increased ethanol disbursements to the Iowa farmers we already pay not to grow food. She insisted she was “sticking it to the establishment” — alongside a man who has openly embraced the symbiotic relationship between government and big business at every opportunity. Gone was any indication that she had ever supported grassroots principles — you can’t oppose Obamacare in the same room as a man who recently called for a single-payer health-care system, call for lower taxes from a man who has openly committed to raising them, or claim to support the anti-abortion cause next to a man who claims to be pro-choice “in every respect.” It’s hard to push a conservative agenda when the man standing next to you has no agenda but his own.

I fail to see what conservatism gains from putting its future in the hands of two people best known for their short-lived reality television careers. It may, in fact, dismantle what remains of a Republican “establishment,” but it will do so in favor of a chaotic, ratings-driven nightmare, with little ideological mooring and less long-term appeal. And while I can’t say I’m surprised, I can say that I’m disappointed. When Palin first delivered her “hockey mom” speech to a standing ovation in 2008, I was proud that the Republican Party had finally identified someone in its midst who could speak the grassroots language because she understood where the grassroots came from. To see her now play second fiddle to the likes of Donald Trump speaks volumes about how we’ve evolved as a movement, though it says nothing good.

R Street welcomes proposed reforms to FEMA disaster assistance program

January 20, 2016, 9:04 AM

WASHINGTON (Jan. 20, 2016) – The R Street Institute welcomed the announcement, published in today’s Federal Register, that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is seeking to make reforms to the disaster declaration process that would more clearly align incentives and protect taxpayers.

FEMA announced it is considering establishing a “disaster deductible” as part of its Public Assistance Program. The program would require state and other local governments to commit a set level of resources before they would be eligible for federal grants following a presidential major disaster declaration.

“R Street long has advocated similar reforms to the Stafford Act system of disaster assistance,” said R Street Senior Fellow R.J. Lehmann. “This proposal from FEMA is a tremendous first step toward aligning incentives to ensure that local governments invest in mitigation and disaster preparedness. It would reduce moral hazard, better manage taxpayer dollars and better safeguard citizens’ lives and property.”

Credit could be granted toward meeting the FEMA deductible “through proactive pre-event actions such as adopting enhanced building codes, establishing and maintaining a disaster relief fund or self-insurance plan, or adoption of other measures that reduce the recipient’s risk from disaster events,” the agency said.

FEMA has opened its proposal to public comment, with a deadline of March 21, 2016.


Should it matter that Ted Cruz was born in Canada?

January 19, 2016, 7:09 PM

I have it on high authority that President Barack Obama is a Kenyan and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is a Canadian. By high authority, I mean that I read something on either social media or a forwarded email with horribly pixelated graphics and a dire threat of a calamitous future should I fail to forward the information on to others.

To be clear, President Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961. Ted Cruz was born in Canada in 1970. Both have been American citizens from birth.

The difference is that President Obama is clearly a “natural born” U.S. citizen. Cruz might not be.

The Constitution states that “No Person except a natural born Citizen” is eligible to hold the office of president of the United States. During the Constitutional Convention, John Jay wrote to George Washington suggesting that it would be:

[W]ise & seasonable to provide a strong check to the admission of Foreigners into the administration of our national Government; and to declare expressly that the Command in chief of the [A]merican army shall not be given to, nor devolve on, any but a natural born Citizen.

The common law definition was likely on the minds of the Constitution’s authors when they included the “natural born” requirement. In 1765, English jurist William Blackstone wrote: “Natural-born subjects are such as are born within the dominions of the crown of England.” That would suggest one needed to be born on British soil or in a British territory to be a British citizen.

The same Blackstone also noted that all children not born on sovereign soil…

…whose fathers were natural-born subjects, are now natural born subjects themselves, to all intents and purposes, without any exception; unless their said fathers were attainted, or banished beyond sea, for high treason; or were then in the service of a prince at enmity with Great Britain.

In short, even the common law seems to provide two routes to the “natural born” claim.

The Naturalization Act of 1790 is the only U.S. statute to use the term “natural born Citizens.” It provides that:

[T]he children of citizens of the United States [born on foreign soil]…shall be considered as natural born Citizens: provided, That the right of citizenship shall not descend to persons whose fathers have never been resident in the United States.

If courts use the common law to interpret the Constitution’s “natural born” eligibility requirement for president, Ted Cruz might indeed be disqualified. If they opt for the interpretation that “natural born” essentially means “citizen at birth,” then he’s likely in the clear. Either way, it’s past time to re-evaluate “natural born” as a constitutional qualification for president.

Before you get your hackles up, realize that America’s founders specifically exempted themselves in the text of the Constitution from the “natural born” requirement. They were quite suspicious of foreigners—other than themselves—who would seek the fledgling nation’s highest office to the advantage of some other nation. In the 18th century, those concerns might have made more sense.

Was George Romney a double agent for Mexico when he ran for President in 1968? No. Does John McCain have a secret Panamanian connection? No. Are we seriously concerned that Ted Cruz might be a Canadian plant? No.

Even if we eliminated the “natural born” requirement, a candidate for president would still need to be a citizen of at least 35 years of age who has resided in the United States for at least 14 years. At a minimum we ought to clarify the constitutional requirement to read that the president must be a citizen from birth.

While we’re at it, we should also consider whether we want to open up the presidency to naturalized citizens. Amending the Constitution shouldn’t be taken lightly, but we shouldn’t categorically eliminate presidential candidates without a good reason either.

The likes of Henry Kissinger (Germany), Bob Hope (England), Ayn Rand (Russia), and Madeleine Albright (Czech Republic) aren’t any less loyal to America because of their countries of birth. Other naturalized citizens like Elie Wiesel (Romania), who lived through imprisonment at the Auschwitz, Buna and Buchenwald concentration camps, carry an appreciation for America that weaves beautifully into the fabric of our nation.

Ronald Reagan famously stated that freedom isn’t passed “to our children in the bloodstream.” Neither is it passed along through the soil on which we’re born. Yet that’s where we find ourselves: deciding how much national devotion comes free with our dirt.

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

Congress actually dealt with climate change in the 2016 budget bill. Really.

January 19, 2016, 5:12 PM

From Inside Climate News

The new flood risk standard “is something that makes sense from a climate change point of view, but it is also something that makes sense no matter what,” said Eli Lehrer, an expert on flood policy and insurance and president of the R Street Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Washington, D.C. “The idea that taxpayer money should be used to build things that will almost certainly be washed away is stupid.”

Former Chicago Home Loan Bank president to lead R Street’s financial services work

January 19, 2016, 9:26 AM

WASHINGTON (Jan. 19, 2016) — The R Street Institute is pleased to welcome Alex J. Pollock as the institute’s newest distinguished senior fellow. In his new role with R Street, Pollock will work on a broad range of financial services issues, including those affecting the banking and securities markets; the Federal Reserve; reforms to the government-sponsored enterprises; risk and uncertainty; retirement finance; and alternative energy finance.

Pollock joins R Street from the American Enterprise Institute, where he was a resident fellow working on a similar issue portfolio. Before joining AEI, Pollock was president and CEO of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago for 13 years.

“Alex has had an extraordinarily distinguished career as a banker and a scholar of financial-services regulation,” said R Street President Eli Lehrer. “We’re thrilled he is joining R Street, where he will continue to be a leading voice in these important policy discussions.”

Pollock has testified before Congress numerous times and is the author of many scholarly papers on financial markets.

One of Pollock’s first events in his capacity as R Street senior distinguished fellow will be to moderate the Feb. 4 panel “The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission Report: Five Years Later.” Pollock and an expert panel will discuss lessons learned from the financial crisis and the actions needed to ensure it doesn’t happen again. The event is free and open to the public and press.

“I’m delighted to be joining such an energetic, entrepreneurial and thoughtful think tank as R Street,” said Pollock. “I look forward to expanding R Street’s work in a wide variety of financial services policy issues.”

He is director of the CME Group, the Great Lakes Higher Education Corp. and the Great Books Foundation (where he was chairman of the board from 2006 to 2014). He is past-president of the International Union for Housing Finance and a member of the Business Advisory Council of the Graham School of Management at Saint Xavier University.

He has an M.P.A. in international relations from Princeton University, an M.A. in philosophy from the University of Chicago, and a B.A. from Williams College.


Alex J. Pollock

January 18, 2016, 10:48 PM

Alex J. Pollock is distinguished senior fellow at R Street, where he works on policy issues relating to mortgage finance, banking, the Federal Reserve, government-sponsored enterprises, retirement finance, corporate governance and the role of risk and uncertainty in financial systems.

Before joining R Street, he was a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, focusing on many of the same issues. Before joining AEI, Pollock was president and CEO of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago from 1991 to 2004. A prolific writer and speaker, he has also testified before Congress on numerous financial issues. He is the author of “Boom and Bust: Financial Cycles and Human Prosperity” and, in 2007, created a one-page mortgage information form to help borrowers understand their mortgage obligations.

Pollock is a director of the CME Group, the Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation and the Great Books Foundation (where he was chairman of the board from 2006 to 2014). He is a past-president of the International Union for Housing Finance and a member of the Business Advisory Council of the Graham School of Management at Saint Xavier University.

He has an M.P.A. in international relations from Princeton University, an M.A. in philosophy from the University of Chicago and a B.A. from Williams College.

Email: apollock@rstreet.org

The Unbearable Lightness of Donald Trump; or, Trump is Hitler

January 17, 2016, 1:47 PM

From Stanford Arts Review

Mike Godwin, an attorney and author in 1990, now a director of innovation policy and general counsel for The R Street Institute, has himself written on the Trump-Hitler comparisons, arguing, as he has since his initial proclamation, that the ultimate purpose of Godwin’s Law is not necessarily to end debate when Hitler is referenced, but rather to encourage critical investigation into the usage of such a reference, in order to avoid both obscuring the topic at hand and underestimating the full historical significance of the Nazi regime.

New and Improved: The late medieval epic gets an English update

January 15, 2016, 7:01 PM

To the medieval Europeans who built magnificent cathedrals and oversaw the greatest flowering of Western culture since Rome, few stories had more resonance than that of Troilus and Criseyde. All three European languages that have given us significant medieval literatures—French, Italian and English—also left their own versions of the tale produced by poets considered masters of their craft. It continued to resonate: Shakespeare told his own version of it, and other accounts were produced in languages as obscure as Scots. The leading Middle English version, written by Geoffrey Chaucer—and a longtime favorite of Chaucer scholars—is now the focus of a version produced by the British poet Lavinia Greenlaw.

The story, in Chaucer’s telling, goes like this: During the Trojan War, Troilus, a prince of Troy, falls for Criseyde, the widowed daughter of the disgraced soothsayer Calchas. They are brought together not by chance, but rather through the machinations of Criseyde’s sinister uncle Pandarus. The two exchange letters through him. Eventually, they meet and consummate their relationship. But their love is doomed: Calchas, who has gone to the Greek camp after foreseeing Troy’s defeat, asks his hosts to trade a prisoner for his daughter. The two lovers consider eloping but decide not to; instead, Criseyde says she’ll escape and return to Troilus’ after 10 days.

She doesn’t. Instead, she responds coldly to Troilus’s letters and ends up in bed—more or less willingly—with a Greek named Diomede. Troilus realizes she isn’t coming back and, with nothing left to live for, perishes in battle.

Chaucer borrowed almost all of this plot and much verbiage from Giovanni Boccaccio (best known for the Decameron), who, in turn, was inspired by the French Roman de Troie of Benoît de Sainte-Maure and, most likely, prior oral traditions.

As compelling as this story was to the medieval mind, it has largely faded from view. A little-performed opera seems to be the only adaptation of note to emerge from the 20th century. Even in college classes intended for English majors, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the classic Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are used far more often to introduce Middle English than Troilus. And Shakespeare’s version remains one of his least performed plays.

In some ways, this is a pity because Chaucer’s poem has much to recommend it. It’s all lovely sounding Middle English verse written in seven-line rhyme royal stanzas (A, B, A, B, B, C, C) and offers, in Criseyde, the first fully realized female character in English-language literature. The complex exchange of letters and depths of emotion establish an ideal of courtly love better than any other work in Middle English.

That said, Chaucer’s poem is frustrating to read: The ultimate fate of Criseyde, likely the most sympathetic character in the poem, never gets revealed. Instead, after Troilus dies, Chaucer launches into a semi-apology for speaking ill of women, a discussion of eternal love, and then a rant about how Christianity is better than paganism. Many minor plot threads are never resolved, and some plot elements make little sense. (Greenlaw’s own introductory notes point to a forest hunting sequence that takes place during the siege of Troy.)

In fact, upon examination, the hostage exchange that sets the final tragedy into motion is simply bad plotting: Calchas never gives a particularly good reason why the Greeks would agree to trade a prisoner in exchange for a young girl of no particular military or financial value, especially on behalf of someone who isn’t actually fighting. And some other rewards often found in Chaucer’s work are absent: Troilus isn’t funny (like many of the Canterbury Tales) and, despite having a plot drenched with sex, it is uncharacteristically coy by Chaucerian standards. A masterwork, yes, but ultimately, pretty boring.

In fact, it’s the very opportunity to correct the flaws in Chaucer’s work that makes Lavinia Greenlaw’s new take on the story so fresh and vital. Writing in what she calls a “corrupt version” of rhyme royal, and using a wholly modern English vocabulary, she distills Chaucer’s tale into 211 seven-line poems, each with its own title, appearing one per page. The resulting work is much shorter and, while it often paraphrases Chaucer (and, occasionally, Boccaccio), it’s hardly lacking in creativity. At its best, it’s just beautiful. Describing Criseyde during a festival, Greenlaw writes.

Among these candy colors stands Criseyde

a white veil above her widow’s black.

The crowd acknowledge her natural place,

as before all others only she holds back.

This works well on a number of levels. First, like much good poetry, it condenses meaning in a very effective manner: a woman in black amid a shimmering spring festival, aloof and somehow important. Second, the poetry is pretty: The alliteration of candy / colors / Criseyde and white / widow’s in the first lines sounds marvelous when read aloud and may, to modern ears, recapture some of the feelings the poem invoked in Chaucer’s original language. Without becoming archaic, she manages to evoke a “long ago” feeling by using dated phrases such as “candy colors” and “natural place.”

Where Chaucer is slow in telling the story, Greenlaw writes in distinctly economical language, moving the plot forward with almost terrifying efficiency. Her use of subtitles—moving the plot along at the bottom of many pages—gives the poem a very becoming urgency. And while the story is certainly stripped to its essentials, it’s never difficult to follow.

And she’s very good at unraveling the psychology of her characters. Introducing Pandarus, the poem’s villain, she launches immediately into his twisted psychology, both narrating and offering insight into the mind of a manipulator:

Has The Prince—flat-out, sobbing—

been hurt

Or has some devilry borne fruit?

He pulls up a chair.

He can taste the juice.

This is simple, of course, but also very telling. Pandarus, sympathetic on the outside, is eager for the “juice” of “devilry.”

Greenlaw also does a good job where Chaucer himself proves strongest: She’s particularly good at Troilus, who, despite having the most time onstage in Chaucer’s poem, remains the least interesting of the central triumvirate. Greenlaw, in far fewer words than Chaucer, offers at least as much insight. Describing the way he feels when he sees her for what turns out to be the last time, she manages to convey his emotional state with elegance and to foreshadow his demise:

Long after dawn they lie tight pressed.

At last he makes himself dress

All the while looking upon his lover

As if upon his death.

She’s just as good—and heartbreaking—in describing his descent into depression and quasi-suicide on the battlefield. In describing his despair over the realization that he has lost Criseyde, she writes:

He recites old letters as if they were prayers

And imposes her form.

He’s a locked room.

In just a few lines, Greenlaw describes Troilus’s actions (reciting letters) and embodies the feelings of depression overtaking him. This is the work of a master. Lavinia Greenlaw, standing in the shadow of a giant, has done something extraordinary. In many important respects, she has managed to improve on a great work.

The split screen

January 15, 2016, 6:52 PM

The headline for a New York Times piece by Peter Baker this week used the metaphor of a split screen, contrasting President Obama’s State of the Union address with the messages conveyed in last night’s South Carolina debate between the Republicans who seeking to replace him.

We are decidedly the most powerful nation in the world, or we have nearly fumbled our chance to be so.  We have a surging economy with millions of new jobs, or we are making our way back excruciatingly slowly to where we were in 2008, and only after throwing trillions of dollars onto our piles of debt. We have better health-care coverage and have saved the system with electronic medical records, or our doctors all complain that they spend 90 percent of their patient time (with the few lucky people they still are willing to see) clicking through seven computer screens to prescribe Tylenol. Wall Street runs the country and is ruining it, or the political class is running the country and ruining it.

Take your pick of visions. These are the landscapes in the parties’ parallel universes. As we move into election season, they will provide a lot of interesting discussion, and much more noise.

With the January calendar still allowing a first this or that in 2016, I would like to add these considerations of public schizophrenia to those proffered:

Is the United States a country which is great, or used to be, or can be, because of its government or because of the character of its people?  Because of its rules, or because of the people who live by them – or don’t?  Are we a better country if the federal government decides most everything about how our nation operates, or is it a better county if the states and local governments can figure out much of how to referee the activities of the work-a-day world?

How many people understand the difference between national and federal these days?  I can tell you that many CEOs have learned the difference, as regulations spew out of the Federal Register.

Ten or so years ago I was privileged to sit in an audience in the National Press Club in Washington to listen to a presentation by the legendary Alex Kozinski, who until 2014 served as chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. He was introduced by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and stepped to his side to rip the cover off of a large presentation board on an easel with some writing on it.

Upon inspection, it appeared to be a colorful version of the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution – the Bill of Rights.  Some of them were huge and written in international orange and hot pink. Some were barely discernable by even those seated in the front rows.  He said that’s how the US Supreme Court actually sees them.

Kozinski’s point was that the first, fourth and fifth amendments get a lot of attention at SCOTUS, but cases were not being brought under the Tenth Amendment.  There had been only two or three within the last couple of decades, at that time.

Today, largely because of the partisan and ideological agenda of the current administration, there is surging interest in rebuilding the federalism structure that served us well for hundreds of years.  As Ronald Reagan often reminded us and the current crop of GOP presidential candidates are emphasizing, the powers not enumerated in the Constitution are reserved to the states and the people.  The states have shown the way to reform and innovation for years, and people are starting to recognize the difference between state and federal regulation.

There are many manifestations of this new split-screen federal/state vision, which has worked its way into the edge of the right-track/wrong-track polling.  As Gov. Chris Christie mentioned in the Charleston debate, since Mr. Obama has been in the White House, the number of states run by Republican governors has increased from 19 to 31. That can’t be purely attributable to gerrymandering (state borders haven’t changed, after all). It must mean that voters are becoming more concerned about fiscal management.  How else do you explain new Republican governors in Maryland, Illinois and Massachusetts?  How else do you explain General Electric’s move of its corporate headquarters to the latter from Connecticut?

Delegations from many states have met three times in the last two years, specifically to discuss an Article V constitutional convention to address restoring the eroded authority of states.  A large number of them are suing or otherwise resisting the federal government on health care, land management, the administration’s Clean Power Plan or the Waters of the United States regulation.

My friend Ken Ivory, a state legislator in Utah, was on the front page of the New York Times this week as the founder and energy behind the American Lands Council, an organization formed to petition the federal government to return unallocated federal lands in the western states to those states, as was done in the East a century and a half ago. Because the federal government owns up to 90 percent of the unallocated land in some states, it is supposed to be making payments in lieu of taxes that the states are unable to levy to support school districts and other state services funded by property taxes.

Unfortunately, when sequestration went into effect, one of the first things cut was these payments to states.  The federal government loses money on every acre of land that it holds, and has locked up enough resources from any recreational, mineral resource, timber harvest or other use to have attracted increasingly negative attention from residents of western states.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee fired off a letter earlier this week to 20 politically diverse states who are contesting EPA overreach over one issue or another.  After identifying the purpose of the request for information, the letter ends:

Accordingly, the Committee respectfully requests your feedback on the state resources and efforts necessary to comply with EPA regulatory actions, and whether the current regulatory framework between EPA and the states upholds the principle of cooperative federalism.

It has been a long time coming, but the long-ignored side of the split federal/state screen is beginning to sputter some images, and could generate a strong signal during the upcoming presidential sweepstakes.

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

Postcom national news

January 15, 2016, 5:38 PM

From Postcom

The Postal Service Board of Governors is not well-structured to provide competent oversight of USPS executives and the massive USPS apparatus. The agency has a half-million employees and more than 30,000 facilities. Governors are part-timers who rarely have expertise in postal operations or corporate matters. They do not have a squad of permanent professional staff who can school them on postal issues and watch the hen house while they are away. Governors’ compensation, notably, is not affected by their performance or by the USPS’ financial results. As Congress slogs away at postal reform legislation, one hopes it will rethink the USPS board of governors. It may determine that a board is still needed, but if so, lawmakers should define its purposes, and craft the board in a way that would give its members the ability and incentive to be successful.


BCFC announces top ten most egregious examples of unfair government competition for 2015

January 15, 2016, 5:33 PM

From Business Coalition for Fair Competition

San Antonio’s CPS Energy, the city-owned utility, began a solar rent-a-roof program, SolarHost, a pilot program that would pay CPS customers, homeowners and commercial property owners to let them put solar panels on their roofs in direct competition with private solar companies.