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Updated: 1 hour 43 min ago

Breaking wind

April 03, 2014, 10:15 AM

It’s budget season, and with budget season comes a renewed debate over one of the most depressing elements of American politics – namely, its tendency to pick winners and losers based solely on the arbitrary political whims of individual legislators. As such, it’s no surprise that the Senate is considering pushing the Wind Production Tax Credit into its tax extenders package this week.

Unfortunately, like many of the worst pieces of legislation passed in recent years, this particular bit of bad economic medicine has a spoonful of sugar that many lawmakers find particularly easy to swallow. Namely, the fact that it has bipartisan support. Specifically, both Democrats like Mark Udall of Colorado, and Republicans like Chuck Grassley of Iowa, have signed letters that support extending the credit. At the state level, 23 governors have signed a similar letter.

On the one hand, it’s easy to see why bipartisanship of this kind carries so much currency in Washington, especially at a time when the two parties are otherwise historically polarized. In this context, bipartisanship can recommend a piece of legislation based on a cunningly disguised logical fallacy which posits that if both parties can agree on something, when they agree on so little, it really must be a noncontroversial public benefit. This is a naïve, if understandable, view insofar as it ignores the fact that many exercises in bipartisanship happen simply because the politicians in question are united more by common desire for economic favoritism and corporate welfare than they are divided by party affiliation. The Stop Online Piracy Act was one good example of such a bill.

Similarly, in this case, one doesn’t have to be an investigative journalist to see how the desire for campaign cash is the uniting factor. Grassley, for instance, has been on the receiving end of $5,000 from the wind industry, while one of Udall’s top five contributors throughout his career has been the alternative energy company NextEra Energy, who have given him a total of $42,000 over five years. In the words of Frank Underwood, “when the t—’s that big, everybody gets in line.”

Campaign donations alone don’t prove a lack of due diligence, but in this case, they certainly raise the question. The wind production tax credit is built on nothing but empty air. To begin with, the wind power industry reaps an unprecedented level of subsidies from the federal government relative to other forms of energy, taking in $24/megawatt hour, in comparison with $1.65 for all other forms of industry except solar. For this reason, the last extension of this credit cost taxpayers $12 billion.

This might be acceptable, or at least defensible, if the wind plants in question were producing energy Americans were actually using. But in fact, the subsidy is structured such that no one ever checks whether that’s actually the case. Rather, the credit simply assumes that if wind power is producing electricity, someone must want it, and forks over the money to wind companies regardless of whether the power they produce is wanted or needed. This runs entirely contrary to free-market practices, and to common sense.

What’s more, wind power has failed at an international level. As the German newspaper Der Spiegel noted about their own country’s experiment with a similar subsidy:

Indications are mounting, however, that green capitalism will not be able to meet all expectations. In courts around the country, complaints are mounting from wind park investors who haven’t received a dividend disbursement in years or whose parks went belly up. Consumer protection activists are complaining that many projects are poorly structured and lack transparency. In the renewables sector, fear is spreading that the Prokon bankruptcy – combined with plans for a reduction in the guaranteed feed-in tariff recently released by new German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel – could scare away investors.

Defenders of wind power claim the industry is still a fledgling one and needs time to be allowed to grow. But the fact is that the industry has been subsidized since 2009, and shows no signs of slowing down in terms of the amount of money it demands from the government. The entire point of a free market is to see which fledgling industries deserve to survive on their own, rather than pretending that some deserve special treatment simply because they aim to achieve objectives that are consonant with the wishes of political leaders. The wind industry is dependent on never having to leave the nest. If it can’t survive after five years of being propped up in a way that other industries are not, it may be time to throw in the towel and wait for something more economically viable.

In other words, the wind production tax credit is not so much a case of bipartisan common sense as it is of bipartisan cronyist irrationality. It’s time the federal government finally let the wind out of the sails of this unprofitable experiment.

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

Sanders talks robopocalypse on FBC’s ‘The Independents’

April 02, 2014, 4:27 PM

R Street Outreach Director Lori Sanders joined hosts Kennedy, Kmele Foster and Matt Welch (editor of Reason magazine) on Fox Business Channel’s “The Independents” to discuss whether the growth in robots and artificial intelligence spells a long-term threat to the availability of jobs. Check it out below.

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

Give larger tax breaks for raising kids, childless columnist argues

April 02, 2014, 12:57 PM

From Deseret News:

Although he is in his 30s without any kids, Slate columnist Reihan Salam argues that parents deserve better tax treatment, even if that means hiking taxes on the childless.

Should childless people be taxed to help families?

April 02, 2014, 12:13 PM

From news.com.au:

It is a controversial proposal, floated today in the US by one childless columnist who was raised by two extremely hardworking middle class parents who battled—as many Australian families do—to cover family costs.

To foster a fairer society and give those who are producing kids a little less excruciating financial pressure, he suggests that child-free people earning more than the median household income (in Australia $57,400 in 2011) should be taxed more heavily, and families should pay around $5000 a year less.

“As a childless professional in my mid-30s, I often reflect on the sacrifices working parents make to better the lives of their children. And I have come to the reluctant conclusion that I ought to pay much higher taxes so that working parents can pay much lower taxes,” writes conservative columnist and political commentator Reihan Salam in the journal Slate.

Childless should pay more tax

April 02, 2014, 12:04 PM

From the Times Union:

Parents help the economy grow by producing tomorrow’s workers, Reihan Salam says in Slate. To better compensate them for the cost and labor of raising children, we need to shift “the tax burden from parents to nonparents,” he says.

Florida pivotal in Internet tax battle

April 02, 2014, 9:58 AM

This piece was co-authored by R Street Florida Director Christian Camara.

A misleading piece of federal legislation, called the “Marketplace Fairness Act,” passed the U.S. Senate last year. Contrary to its title, this bill would allow states to impose an unfair burden on Web and catalog retailers by requiring them to collect sales taxes even for states where they have no physical presence. This could force Florida’s online retailers to comply with as many as 9,600 separate taxing jurisdictions across the country, even if their only physical location is here in the Sunshine State.

Despite more than a decade of efforts to simplify sales tax codes nationwide, they remain enormously complex. Supporters of the Marketplace Fairness Act dismiss this by pointing to the existence of software to help businesses untangle the dense web of rules and regulations in each jurisdiction. But software can no more solve sales tax complexity than TurboTax has solved income tax complexity. If the bill were to pass, the result would be heavy burdens on Florida retailers availing themselves of the Internet to expand their businesses.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., held a hearing recently to explore alternative approaches. He’s laid out a set of seven principles, arguing that taxes should be low, neutral and simple, and that any reform should protect vibrant tax competition, states’ rights and customer privacy. The Marketplace Fairness Act arguably violates each of these common-sense standards.

South Florida was well-represented in the hearing, with Democratic Reps. Ted Deutch and Joe Garcia sitting on the committee. If they consult with their constituents, they’ll likely find strong opposition. In a Mercury poll conducted last year, respondents opposed tax policies like those in the Marketplace Fairness Act by a 22-point margin overall. Republicans opposed it by a 39-point margin, independents by nearly 20 points and even Democrats by five points.

In short, the Marketplace Fairness Act is bad policy and it’s bad politics. We’re hopeful that Reps. Deutch and Garcia take that into account as Congress continues its work on this issue.

Should childless Americans pay more taxes?

April 02, 2014, 9:05 AM

From Hot Air:

I’m surprised by some of the upset in Headlines to Reihan Salam’s proposal. Granted, the phrase “more taxes” rarely induces happy thoughts among conservatives, but I thought there’d be more support for beefing up the incentives for having children within a movement that (a) laments the breakdown of the nuclear family, (b) frets about declining birth rates and what they mean for the entitlement state (see, e.g., Mark Steyn and Jonathan Last), and (c) would probably benefit electorally if more Americans had children. I can’t find any data about voters with kids from the 2012 exit poll but Romney won 56 percent of married voters while Obama won 62 percent of singles. If Salam tweaked his idea to limit the tax breaks to parents who are married and reside in the same household, with lesser supplements for single parents, would that change people’s minds? What I’m asking, in other words, is whether the problem here is that we’re using the tax code to do too much social engineering or not quite enough.

And before you say “the answer is to cut spending, not to increase anyone’s tax burden,” Salam agrees with you on that. He just insists on living in reality. We tried to starve the beast and failed; turns out the beast doesn’t starve, it simply borrows and keeps feeding. If we’re doomed to run deficits until a debt crisis brings about a reckoning, who should bear the burden of extra taxes in the meantime in the name of reducing that deficit as much as possible?

Congressional Data Coalition launches with panel discussion

April 02, 2014, 8:00 AM

WHAT: Official launch of the Congressional Data Coalition and discussion on public access to congressional information

WHO:

  • Daniel Schuman, policy director, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW); Director, Congressional Data Coalition (opening remarks)
  • Jim Harper, senior fellow, Cato Institute; Global Policy Counsel, Bitcoin Foundation (moderator)
  • Steve Dwyer, senior policy advisor and digital director, Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer
  • Kirsten Gullickson, senior systems analyst, Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives
  • Nick Schaper, senior vice president, Engage; former director of digital media, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio
  • Josh Tauberer, founder, Govtrack.Us

WHEN: Friday, April 4, 2014, from 10:30 a.m.-noon

WHERE: 1310 Longworth House Office Building, Washington, D.C., 20515

WHY: What does a digital Congress look like? Congress has an opportunity to make truly transformative changes in its approach to data that could drastically reduce legislative staff workloads while making the federal government leaner and more effective. Without modernization, however, civic hackers and constituents could be effectively cut off from data used to track legislation and hold elected officials accountable.

Hill credentials are not required for attendance. The event is organized by the Congressional Data Coalition, sponsored by CREW and R Street Institute, and made possible with the assistance of other organizations including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Sunlight Foundation, Engine Advocacy, Competitive Enterprise Institute, TechFreedom, GovTrack, WashingtonWatch, Data Transparency Coalition, and others.

Upside-down on mortgage interest deduction policies

April 01, 2014, 3:42 PM

From the Denver Post:

In metro Denver, for example, the average tax saving from the mortgage deduction for households earning more than $100,o00 (in adjusted gross income) is $5,183, according to a study by three economists published in the current issue of National Affairs. For those below that threshold, the average subsidy in Denver is just $2,199, with of course most of the benefit congregated toward the upper part of the spectrum.

“Most Americans receive no benefit from the preferential tax treatment of home ownership,” write Andrew Hanson, Ike Brannon and Zackary Hawley, “and those who do see such benefits tend to be high-income earners who own large, expensive homes, and who are therefore unlikely to be on the fence about whether to buy or rent.”

No stroke risk with snus

April 01, 2014, 1:33 PM

Swedish researchers who two years ago reported no association of heart attacks with snus use (abstract here, my blog entry here) now conclude there is no association with stroke.  The new study, appearing in the Journal of Internal Medicine, is once again the product of a collaboration of scientists from the Karolinska Institute; Sweden’s Umeå, Uppsala and Lund Universities; and the University of Milano-Bicocca in Italy.

Compared with never-users of tobacco, the hazard ratio (HR, similar to relative risk, adjusted for age and body mass index, BMI) for stroke among current snus users was 1.04 (95 percent confidence interval = 0.92 – 1.17).  HRs were not elevated with higher levels of snus consumption (one can per day) or longer duration (more than 20 years).

Claims that snus causes heart attacks and strokes were first raised in 1994 by the Karolinska Institute’s Gunilla Bolinder. I challenged the institute’s specious claims in the medical literature in 1995 and later with Carl Phillips and Karyn Heavner, as well as on my blog.

It is well known that nicotine does not cause cancer, but its role in cardiovascular diseases has been difficult to determine. Studying users of Swedish snus, who consume large quantities of smoke-free nicotine over decades, the Swedish researchers concluded that nicotine was unlikely to be a contributor to heart attacks or strokes.

Smokeless tobacco and nicotine have been demonized for no valid scientific reasons.  The Swedish findings are vitally important to all consumers of nicotine and tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.

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

No stroke risk with snus

April 01, 2014, 1:33 PM

Swedish researchers who two years ago reported no association of heart attacks with snus use (abstract here, my blog entry here) now conclude there is no association with stroke.  The new study, appearing in the Journal of Internal Medicine, is once again the product of a collaboration of scientists from the Karolinska Institute; Sweden’s Umeå, Uppsala and Lund Universities; and the University of Milano-Bicocca in Italy.

Compared with never-users of tobacco, the hazard ratio (HR, similar to relative risk, adjusted for age and body mass index, BMI) for stroke among current snus users was 1.04 (95 percent confidence interval = 0.92 – 1.17).  HRs were not elevated with higher levels of snus consumption (one can per day) or longer duration (more than 20 years).

Claims that snus causes heart attacks and strokes were first raised in 1994 by the Karolinska Institute’s Gunilla Bolinder. I challenged the institute’s specious claims in the medical literature in 1995 and later with Carl Phillips and Karyn Heavner, as well as on my blog.

It is well known that nicotine does not cause cancer, but its role in cardiovascular diseases has been difficult to determine. Studying users of Swedish snus, who consume large quantities of smoke-free nicotine over decades, the Swedish researchers concluded that nicotine was unlikely to be a contributor to heart attacks or strokes.

Smokeless tobacco and nicotine have been demonized for no valid scientific reasons.  The Swedish findings are vitally important to all consumers of nicotine and tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.

Letter to FCC on process reform

April 01, 2014, 12:46 PM

March 31, 2014

Marlene H. Dortch, Secretary
Federal Communications Commission
445 12th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20554

RE: GN Docket No. 14-25

Dear Ms. Dortch,

Our organizations share and support the Federal Communications Commission’s goal of improving the agency to operate in the most effective, efficient and transparent way possible, as outlined in the Feb. 14, 2014 staff working group-led “Report on FCC Process Reform.” Process reforms that achieve these important goals and make the commission more agile and business-like should be adopted and executed quickly. We commend the commission for its work in identifying and proposing a series of process reforms to better serve the American people.

Many of the commission’s recommendations will win broad – or near unanimous – support. However, the proposal to require organizations petitioning the commission to provide donor lists and contribution amounts when submitting public comments on agency policymaking matters is extremely concerning to our organizations, as it threatens to undermine and restrict First Amendment protections.

Public participation is the cornerstone of representative democracy. Those who seek to petition their government and engage decision makers should be free from unnecessary requirements that seek to divine their innermost motivations for having an opinion. This is why both the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Administrative Procedure Act prohibit capricious barriers to freedom of expression.

The facts and opinions that participants present should be evaluated on their merit. Any divination of the motivations behind them should not be a factor in considering their worth. The very notion of judging the merit of citizens’ comments based on anything other than the argument at hand, is an ad hominem attack, which suggests that the government allows preexisting biases based on the sender of the message and not the message itself to influence its evaluation of public comments.

In addition, there is no indication in the record of a problem that exists in the current disclosure requirements. Nor is there an indication in the record of why more burdensome disclosure requirements are necessary. Creating more burdensome obstacles to submitting comments not only violates civil liberties by creating barriers to participation, it is also an invasion of privacy. Privacy should be protected not to disguise the origination of a message, but to shield commenters from unwarranted harassment.

Additional disclosure requirements will expose participants to harassment, ad hominem attacks and other intimidation tactics. This is not speculation, the use of these types of tactics is well documented. For instance, in the case of lawsuits known as “SLAPP” suits, Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation are filed not to achieve a litigation outcome, but to silence opposition. With these glaring examples of attempts to silence opposition voices, it is clear that violating the privacy of organizations will lead to additional unwarranted attacks on free speech, which is vital to the democratic process.

In sum, we believe the commission’s quest to seek the motivations of those who comment on its actions is misguided, and that the agency should focus its energy on consensus reforms and building credibility for its own internal processes, as the reform process originally set out to do.

Organizations:

American Commitment
American Conservative Union
American Legislative Exchange Council – Task Force on Communications and Technology
Americans for Job Security
Americans for Tax Reform
Center for Freedom and Prosperity
Center for Individual Freedom
Citizens Against Government Waste
Citizen Outreach
Digital Liberty
Freedom Works
Frontiers of Freedom
Hispanic Leadership Fund
Illinois Policy Action
Institute for Liberty
Institute for Policy Innovation
Less Government
The Maine Heritage Policy Center
MediaFreedom.org
National Taxpayers Union
Public Interest Institute
R Street
Rio Grande Foundation
Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council
Taxpayers Protection Alliance
TheTeaparty.net

Individuals:

Kevin McLaughlin
Bruce Weber

Give parents free money

April 01, 2014, 11:56 AM

From Demos:

Reihan Salam has a piece at Slate in which he advocates creating a tax system in which people with children pay lower rates than people without children. This would be in addition to keeping the existing child-related tax credits and personal exemptions, as well as adding a brand new $2500 child tax credit. He fashions his dual-track taxing system as a way of making Republican Mike Lee’s plan to increase tax benefits to parents deficit neutral.

Housing tax breaks create inequality, benefit Democrats

April 01, 2014, 11:51 AM

From National Center for Policy Analysis:

Are the tax breaks actually increasing home ownership? According to a study from the R Street Institute, no. Rather, the provisions are helping those who can afford homes purchase bigger ones.

Tax credits and children: Parents should pay lower taxes, and childless people should pay higher taxes

April 01, 2014, 11:31 AM

When my mother was my age, she was working full time while raising three small children, and she spent every spare moment studying to finish a graduate degree. My father was working extremely hard as well. Between the two of them, they were able to provide their kids with a solidly middle-class life. But it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t always fun.

So now, as a childless professional in my mid-30s, I often reflect on the sacrifices working parents make to better the lives of their children. And I have come to the reluctant conclusion that I ought to pay much higher taxes so that working parents can pay much lower taxes. I believe this even though I also believe a not inconsiderable share of my tax dollars are essentially being set on fire by our frighteningly incompetent government. Leviathan is here to stay, whether I like it or not, and someone has to pay for it. That someone should be me, and people like me.

Who should pay more? Nonparents who earn more than the median household income, just a shade above $51,000. By shifting the tax burden from parents to nonparents, we will help give America’s children a better start in life, and we will help correct a simple injustice. We all benefit from the work of parents. Each new generation reinvigorates our society with its youthful vim and vigor. As my childless friends and I grow crankier and more decrepit, a steady stream of barely postpubescent brainiacs writes catchy tunes and invents breakthrough technologies that keep us entertained and make us more productive. The willingness of parents to bear and nurture children saves us from becoming an economically moribund nation of hateful curmudgeons. The least we can do is offer them a bigger tax break.

Raising children is not exactly a thankless undertaking, I realize. As many parents will tell you, the satisfactions of parenting can be their own reward. Parents appear to be very into the supposed cuteness of their progeny. I wouldn’t know, but that’s the word on the street. We as a culture still hold parents, and particularly working parents, in high esteem.

Yet it is also true that we’ve stacked the deck against parents in all kinds of ways. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has found that raising a child born in 2012 will cost a middle-income family a cumulative total of $301,970 over 18 years. As high as this number sounds, it is actually a massive understatement, as it fails to take into account the cost of postsecondary education. It also fails to factor in the value of forgone earnings and career opportunities. While nonparents can focus on their jobs in laserlike fashion, parents are rarely in a position to do the same. Every time a sick child keeps a parent home from work, her earnings suffer, either directly, because she’s taking an unpaid leave of absence, or indirectly, because she’s missing out on opportunities to climb the corporate ladder.

Even when we compare a nonparent and a parent who are working exactly the same hours and earning exactly the same income, the nonparent has a clear leg up. Most obviously, the nonparent has far more disposable income to play with, which she can save, to become much richer than her parent counterpart over time, or spend, to travel to exotic locales, to eat out constantly, to wear awesome clothes or to live as I do in a conveniently located shoebox in a great American metropolis. Raising taxes on nonparents could even the score a bit, tilting the balance ever so slightly in favor of those who toil on behalf of America’s future workforce by wiping their butts and painstakingly removing their head lice.

There are, to be sure, some decent arguments against my soak-the-childless plan. It could be that lowering disposable income for nonparents would actually lead them to delay marriage and child-rearing, as people might want to build up a sizable nest egg before they start being fruitful and multiplying. Or we might take the view that even if we ought to give middle-income parents bigger tax breaks, it is the ultrarich rather than nonparents who should pay for it.

Giving working parents a meaningful tax break is going to cost quite a lot of money—so much money that raising taxes on the ultrarich alone won’t be enough. Recently Utah Sen. Mike Lee, a tea party Republican first elected in 2010, released a tax plan, the Family Fairness and Opportunity Tax Reform Act, that preserves the current $1,000 child credit, the personal exemption for children and the Earned Income Tax Credit while adding a new $2,500 child credit. Unlike the current child credit, Lee’s new credit never phases out, so it can be of use to higher-income families. Under Lee’s plan, a middle-income family with two kids earning $70,000 could expect a $5,000 tax cut, which sounds about right.

The problem with Lee’s plan is that it would massively increase the deficit. The Tax Policy Center finds that it would reduce revenues over the next decade by $2.4 trillion relative to the current law baseline. Lee doesn’t propose this, but the most straightforward way to offset the lost tax revenue from parents would be to raise taxes on nonparents.

Right now, Lee’s plan has two income tax rates: 15 percent for all income below $87,850 for singles or $175,000 for joint filers, and 35 percent for all income above those thresholds. You could come pretty close to closing the revenue gap by changing those thresholds to, say, $50,000 for singles and $100,000 for joint filers. Parents wouldn’t have to worry too much about these new thresholds, because the new child credit would still lower their taxes. Nonparents would take the hit. Right now, the 35 percent tax bracket only kicks in at $405,101 for singles and joint filers, so this tweak would infuriate large numbers of articulate and engaged upper-middle-income childless voters who earn more than $50,000.

These millions of nonparents are not good political enemies to have. But does this mean those of us who favor a more parent-friendly tax code should give up? Not quite. Tax reform along these lines could awaken a sleeping giant in American politics, namely the 36 percent of American voters who have a child under 18 in their household. Unlike the retirees and near-retirees who fight tooth and nail to protect Medicare and Social Security, we don’t have a well-funded political pressure group that defends the child credit. It can’t help that parents are too busy raising children to plot and scheme their way to more favorable tax treatment. But if parents were to flex their political muscles, we might have a revolution on our hands. And this nonparent, at least, welcomes the prospect.

Letter to Congress and White House on bulk data collection

April 01, 2014, 10:28 AM
President Barack Obama

The White House Attorney General Eric Holder

United States Department of Justice Majority Leader Harry Reid

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell

United States Senate Speaker John Boehner

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi

United States House of Representatives Chairman Patrick Leahy

Ranking Member Charles Grassley

Committee on the Judiciary

United States Senate Chairman Bob Goodlatte

Ranking Member John Conyers, Jr.

Committee on the Judiciary

United States House of Representatives Chairman Diane Feinstein

Vice Chairman Saxby Chambliss

Senate Permanent Select Committee on

Intelligence

United States Senate Chairman Mike Rogers

Ranking Member Dutch Ruppersberger

House Permanent Select Committee on

Intelligence

United States House of Representatives

 

April 1, 2014

We the undersigned are writing to express support for ending the government’s bulk collection of data about individuals. We strongly urge swift markup and passage of the USA FREEDOM Act (H.R.3361), which would enact appropriate surveillance reforms without sacrificing national security. This letter focuses on bulk collection, but overbroad NSA surveillance raises many more privacy and security issues that Congress and the Administration should address.

We appreciate that Congress and the administration are converging on consensus that the National Security Agency’s (NSA) bulk collection of telephone records must end. Among other things, legislation on bulk collection should:

  • Prohibit bulk collection for all types of data, not just phone records. Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act applies broadly to business records, and the Department of Justice has claimed authority for bulk collection of any records that reveal relationships between individuals.[1] Legislation that focuses only on phone records may still allow for the bulk collection of, for example, Internet metadata, location information, financial records, library records, and numerous other records that may help “identify unknown relationships among individuals.”[2]
  • Prohibit bulk collection under Section 214 as well as Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, or under any other authority. While the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone records under the purported authority of Section 215 has received considerable attention, the NSA engaged in the bulk collection of Internet metadata using the Pen/Trap authority under Section 214 until 2011.[3] Legislation that focuses solely on Section 215 would still fail to prohibit the bulk collection of phone and Internet metadata using Section 214, the National Security Letter (NSL) statutes, or another authority.
  • Require prior court approval for each record request. Under current law, the government must obtain approval from the FISA court before it can force private entities to turn over records (in bulk or otherwise) under Sections 215 and 214 of the PATRIOT Act. In addition, President Obama, in his January 17th policy announcement, established that a judicial finding is required before the government can query the phone records that the NSA collected in bulk.[4] Congress should leave this key safeguard in place. If there is concern that the FISA Court would move too slowly to authorize domestic surveillance beforehand, then the solution should be to provide the FISA Court with sufficient resources.

The USA FREEDOM Act addresses each of these reforms, as well as others, by aiming to prohibit bulk collection of all data under Section 215 and 214 and the NSL statutes while preserving the requirement of prior court approval. Beyond bulk collection issues, the USA FREEDOM Act also includes strong transparency provisions for both government and private entities, and the bill closes a loophole that allows the government to search for the content of Americans’ communications without a court order. In contrast, the FISA Transparency and Modernization Act (H.R.4291) removes the requirement of prior court approval, and instead creates a new authority that gives intelligence agencies virtual subpoena power over Internet and telephone records. Additional questions have arisen regarding the scope of the FISA Transparency and Modernization Act: specifically whether the bill would actually prohibit bulk collection of all data, including financial information, and the extent to which the bill would enable surveillance of individuals who are broadly “associated” with a foreign power even if the individual is not in contact with or known to the foreign power. Accordingly, we oppose the FISA Transparency and Modernization Act in its current form, and we urge swift markup and passage of the USA FREEDOM Act.

Overbroad national security surveillance raises a host of constitutional, human rights, and practical concerns, and we urge Congress and the administration to address systemic reform. The trust of the American people and the global public cannot be regained with legislation that achieves only modest changes to discrete programs. We look forward to working with Congress and the administration to advance legislation and policies that preserve the integrity of the Internet and the free exercise of individual liberty and human rights.

Sincerely,

 

Access

Advocacy for Principled Action in Government

American Association of Law Libraries

American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression

American Civil Liberties Union

American Library Association

Amnesty International USA

Arab American Institute

Association of Research Libraries

Bill of Rights Defense Committee

Brennan Center for Justice

Center for Democracy & Technology

Center for Financial Privacy and Human Rights

Citizens for Health

Competitive Enterprise Institute

The Constitution Project

CREDO Mobile

Cyber Privacy Project

Defending Dissent Foundation

DownsizeDC.org

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Freedom of the Press Foundation

FreedomWorks

Free Press Action Fund

Generation Opportunity

Human Rights Watch

Liberty Coalition

National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

National Coalition Against Censorship

National Security Counselors

Open Technology Institute, New America Foundation

OpenTheGovernment.org

PEN American Center

R Street Institute

Reddit

Republican Liberty Caucus

Rutherford Institute

TechFreedom

World Privacy Forum


[1] Administration White Paper: Bulk Collection of Telephony Metadata Under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, Aug. 9, 2013, pg. 14, available at http://cryptome.org/2013/08/doj-13-0809.pdf.

[2] Id. at pg. 14. Although the White Paper distinguishes medical and library records from communications metadata, there is no guarantee that such information could not at some point be determined to meet the DOJ’s “relevance” standard.

[3] See Report on the National Security Agency’s Bulk Collection Programs for USA PATRIOT Act Reauthorization, Dept. of Justice, Feb. 2, 2011, pg. 3, http://www.dni.gov/files/documents/2011_CoverLetters_Report_Collection.pdf. The program was shut down because it was ineffective, not because the government ceded legal authority for the bulk collection of Internet metadata. See Glenn Greenwald, Spencer Ackerman, NSA collected Americans’ email records in bulk for two years under Obama, The Guardian, Jun. 27, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/27/nsa-datamining-authorised-obama.

[4] Remarks of the President on Review of Signals Intelligence, The White House, Jan. 17, 2014, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/01/17/remarks-president-review-signals-intelligence.

 

R Street advocates investment in new coastal mitigation program

April 01, 2014, 8:00 AM

WASHINGTON (April 1, 2014) – The R Street Institute today called on Congress to make a major public commitment to fund research into alternative technologies to aid citizens who are encouraged by the government to live in coastal areas that soon may be underwater.

According to consensus projections, global sea levels are expected to rise by six to 16 inches by 2050 and potentially by as much as 6.6 feet by the end of the century. The Union of Concerned Scientists notes that rates of sea level rise are particularly fast along the U.S. East Coast and Gulf of Mexico, which currently have a combined $10.6 trillion of insured commercial and residential property in coastal counties. Even if sea levels rise less than expected, furthermore, storms are certain to bring continued flooding to many coastal areas.

“It would be more cost-effective if we could address climate change by exploring ideas like a revenue-neutral carbon tax, or at least stop encouraging stupid development in at-risk flood zones,” newly appointed R Street Senior Fellow Arthur Curry said. “But since both houses of Congress and members of both parties have now spoken loud and clear that they won’t stop subsidizing flood insurance for beach houses, beach nourishment and other stuff that’s hugely wasteful, the next best strategy is adaptation. ”

Under R Street’s proposed Abandoning The Lungs for Advanced Nautical Technology in Inundated Societies (ATLANTIS) Act, the federal government would commit at least $10 trillion over the next decade to development of “artificial human gills,” a technology that allows people to breathe the oxygen dissolved in sea water and which is totally a real thing that R Street did not just make up.  In fact, an Israeli company called Like-A-Fish Technologies has held a European patent on the technology since 2007, indicating a potentially serious national security gap as the United States falls further behind in strategic merman defense.

“Yes, we’re fiscal conservatives,” R Street President Eli Lehrer said. “But what’s another $10 trillion for something that would be so darn cool?”

“Jimi Hendrix totally foresaw this day would come, man,” R Street Senior Fellow R.J. Lehmann said. “If you play the third verse of his song ’1983…A Merman I Should Turn to Be’ backwards, you can totally hear him say ‘Harry Reid is a hypocrite.’ Well, it’s either that or ‘Harry Reasoner’s a parakeet.’ Yeah, 1983 is about 30 years too early, but that’s Jimi, man. Always ahead of his time.”

The ATLANTIS Act also would commit an additional $5 trillion to submarine retrofitting, to better enable inundated structures to withstand the pressure of being submerged below the surface of the ocean. To better control the exorbitant costs of underwater demolition and construction, Curry proposes the measure include incentives for the use of fish, crustaceans and cephalopods as a work force.

“An octopus, obviously, can be a fantastic multi-tasker, but other sea creatures each have their own specialties: sawfish are great carpenters, eels do bang-up electrical work, pilot fish are the best to get into dark crevices,” Curry said. “Hammerhead sharks make surprisingly good foremen, but they do have an unfortunate tendency to eat their crew.”

Curry said greater clarity still would be needed on what sorts of work visas are required for aquatic fauna spawned outside of U.S. territorial waters, and urged that the matter be addressed in the coming immigration reform debate.

R Street Executive Director Andrew Moylan proposed that, in the interim years before the East and Gulf Coasts are completely inundated, Congress also might want to consider funding research into artificial human wings.

“It certainly would save us the cost of all those helicopters that will be needed to pluck people off rooftops each time a big hurricane hits,” Moylan said.

Tax smokeless tobacco, e-cigarettes at lower rates

March 31, 2014, 8:30 AM

Gov. John Kasich’s plan to increase taxes on all tobacco products is bad tax policy, built on an unscientific, unsuccessful anti-smoker strategy: wuit or die.

Only one component of the governor’s plan makes sense — increasing the cigarette excise tax. Economic studies show that a 10 percent increase in cigarette price leads to a 1 to 7 percent reduction in smoking rates and a 1 to 3 percent reduction in cigarette consumption. However, while some smokers will quit or cut back, many others will persist.

We recommend an option that is fiscally responsible and that could save lives: Raise cigarette excise taxes, but keep those on smoke-free tobacco products (smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes) proportionately low and commensurate with their vastly lower health risks.

Research shows that higher cigarette taxes cause smokers to adopt less expensive tobacco products. Smoke-free tobacco products are effective cigarette substitutes because they deliver satisfying doses of nicotine. Nicotine, one of the most intensively studied drugs in history, is addictive but does not cause any smoking-related disease. Its safety profile is comparable to that of another addictive substance, caffeine.

Decades of studies reveal that smokeless tobacco use is at least 98 percent less hazardous than smoking. Unlike cigarettes, smokeless tobacco does not cause lung cancer, heart disease or emphysema. In fact, lifelong smokeless users have about the same risk of dying from that habit as automobile users have of dying in a car wreck. Although e-cigarettes have been on the market only for several years, tobacco research and policy experts agree that these products confer about the same health risk as smokeless tobacco.

The Royal College, one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious medical societies, concluded “that smokers smoke predominantly for nicotine, that nicotine itself is not especially hazardous, and that if nicotine could be provided in a form that is acceptable and effective as a cigarette substitute, millions of lives could be saved.”

Cigarettes confer high health risks and should be taxed at high rates, while smoke-free tobacco products have minimal health risks and deserve far lower taxes.

In 2005, Kentucky became the first state to use risk as a benchmark for different tobacco excise taxes. This rational tax policy would allow Buckeye State lawmakers to demonstrate fiscal responsibility while fulfilling their moral obligation to help inveterate smokers lead longer and healthier lives.

Congress must put a clamp on the ‘patent trolls’

March 31, 2014, 8:00 AM

The Senate Commerce Committee is expected to vote on a bill soon aimed at addressing patent demand letters from entities frequently referred to as “patent trolls.”

Clearly, the momentum in Washington toward remedying concerns related to these trolls, also called patent assertion entities, or PAEs, and their impact on innovation and the economy hasn’t lost any steam in the new year.

This is important because patent enforcement provides the necessary legal protection to the entrepreneurs whose creativity energizes the unique engine of U.S. innovation.

At least that’s the way it should work.

The past two decades has seen the rise of a trend toward trolling by exploiting shortcomings in patent law. PAEs buy up patents for unrealized products and technology and use them to extract license fees from small businesses, retailers and manufacturers whom the PAEs threaten with demand letters in hopes of cashing in with a quick settlement.

Despite federal action in the House and now potentially the Senate, the patent trolling problem afflicts certain areas more than others.

In 2010 alone, the Central District of California saw 2,289 filings for patent infringement. In Nevada, however, there were only 198 such filings.

This is largely attributed to a provision in the law allowing a plaintiff in a patent suit to file anywhere in the country where the product or service utilizing the disputed patent is sold. It’s no surprise that plaintiffs choose court districts where patent holders, who can often be considered trolls, tend to get favorable rulings.

Silicon Valley boasts a reputation as the hub of the American high-tech sector, one that earns us accolades for our innovative companies and people across the globe.

However, this region sits in the center of a state whose courts have become disproportionately popular with entities that threaten its future as a center for technology growth.

With unfathomable discrepancies in case totals like those between California and Nevada, there is no wonder the White House recently issued guidance to curb the surge in frivolous suits by plaintiffs.

The patent trolling problem is not just a U.S. problem, and in some instances seems even more egregious internationally.

For example, Sisvel, an Italy-based PAE, serves as a perfect example of what could happen when trolls’ actions go unchecked. This troll has been in practice since 1982, when it was formed with the goal of acquiring and asserting patents related to television technologies.

Sisvel has had a busy 31 years swelling to become a mammoth of patent assertion, controlling the access to 12 different technology standards pools operating out of multiple offices in seven countries.

Sisvel made news when it requested that law enforcement raid the German CeBIT Trade Show, claiming that 51 of the show’s booths were infringing upon their patents. Though profiteers like Sisvel claiming infringement was nothing new, raids by armed guards drew international attention to just show how far these bad actors were willing to go.

Interestingly, late last month, Sisvel announced a new CEO named Karel van Lelyveld, who was one of the original founders of MPEG LA, a U.S.-based, patent-pooling entity that also has been accused of troll-like behaviors.

Patent trolls use their often-significant legal and financial resources to bully smaller entities without the financial resources to sustain a prolonged defense.

Often the least costly course of action is to settle out of court. This is the desired outcome for the troll, which gets paid and avoids a trial and the risk that its patent claims might be invalidated.

This is a trend that must stop.

California must shake its reputation as an advantageous battleground for trolls to launch their lawsuits and threats against innovators.

The federal government taking notice and actively working toward remedies like the Innovation Act in the House is a positive step. Hopefully, the Senate will continue to make this issue a priority with its actions in the coming months.

Silicon Valley is known for having the brightest minds with the best ideas. Let’s hope lawmakers in Washington will continue to work to protect those ideas by putting the brakes on patent trolling and encourage innovation, rather than discouraging it under the looming threat of frivolous patent suits and threats.

Who cares about the value of work?

March 30, 2014, 6:53 PM

From the Washington Post:

Two other conservative thinkers, Reihan Salam and Rich Lowry, say the antidote is for Republicans to become “the party of work.” As they see it, work “stands for a constellation of values and, like education, is universally honored.” The GOP, they said, “should extol work and demand it.”