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Vermont leads nation in effective insurance regulation, California least effective, R Street study finds

December 17, 2014, 9:56 AM

WASHINGTON (Dec. 17, 2014) – The R Street Institute has released its annual report card on insurance regulation, awarding Vermont with a grade of “A+” and California and North Carolina grades of “F.”

The 2014 Insurance Regulation Report Card, R Street’s annual flagship publication, examines which states do the best job of regulating the business of insurance, by assigning scores in 12 different areas, including insurer solvency, fraud, competitiveness and willingness to modernize.

“Reviewing the data on insurance in 2014, we see mostly stable trends in consumer and business freedom in state insurance markets,” said R Street Editor-in-Chief and Senior Fellow R.J. Lehmann, the author of the study. “In some states – notably Florida – real efforts were made to scale back, or otherwise place on more sound financial footing, residual insurance markets and state-run insurance entities. Other states, notably North Carolina, appear to be moving in the wrong direction.”

Vermont received consistent scores across almost all areas of the scorecard, specifically in consumer protection, politicization, auto and homeowners insurance environments, rate freedom and clarity and regulatory restrictions.

At the other end of the spectrum, North Carolina received a failing grade in part due to the state’s inflexible rate bureau system and recent growth of the residual market FAIR Plan and Beach Plan. California earned a failing grade due to its similarly inflexible Proposition 103 regulatory system.

The report also noted that states continue to draw far more in regulatory fees and assessments than they spend on insurance regulation. The 50 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Colum­bia spent $1.32 billion on insurance regulation in 2013 but collected more than double that amount, $2.74 billion, in reg­ulatory fees and assessments from the insurance industry.

“These surplus regulatory fees and assessments end up in state coffers to patch other holes in state budgets,” Lehmann said. “They serve as a hidden tax on insurance consumers, raising the cost of coverage for everyone.”

If premium taxes, fines and other revenues are included in the tally, only 6.4 percent of the $20.45 billion states collected from the insurance industry last year was spent on insurance regulation, down from 6.6 percent the prior year.

The full report can be read here.

2014 Insurance Regulation Report Card

December 17, 2014, 9:00 AM

Since it opened its doors two years ago, R Street has issued an annual Insurance Regulation Report Card. This is the third edition of our annual examination of which states do the best job of regulating the business of insurance. R Street is dedicated to the mantra: “Free markets. Real solutions.” Toward that end, the approach we apply is to test which state regulatory systems best embody the principles of limited, effective and efficient government. In this context, that means states should regulate only those market activities where government is best-positioned to act; that they should do so competently and with measurable results; and that their activities should lay the minimum possible financial burden on policyholders, companies and ultimately, taxpayers.

There are three fundamental questions this report seeks to answer:

  1. How free are consumers to choose the insurance products they want?
  2. How free are insurers to provide the insurance products consumers want?
  3. How effectively are states discharging their duties to monitor insurer solvency, police fraud and consumer abuse and foster competitive, private insurance markets?

For this year’s report, we have adjusted the weightings of some categories and incorporated new data sets into our analysis. Most notably, we have added new sections analyzing the resources state insurance departments set aside to respond to consumer complaints, as well as states’ efforts to modernize their regulatory apparatus through such efforts as reform of reinsurance collateral rules and participation in the Interstate Insurance Product Regulation Commission. We also have refined our analysis of states’ fraud-fighting resources to better measure the degree to which they are prepared to respond to levels of suspected fraud reported in each state. Finally, both in order to more equitably balance the 12 macro rating categories this report tracks, and to provide more intuitive final scores, we have weighted the categories so as to track with a scale of zero to 100.

Did Tom Coburn just cancel the Super Bowl?

December 17, 2014, 12:06 AM

No, is the short answer. The longer answer is more complicated.

As has now been widely reported, it appears the U.S. Senate will not, after all, pass legislation extending the federal Terrorism Risk Insurance Act before the program’s scheduled expiration Dec. 31. The House had already passed the bill (about which, we’ve already expressed our quibbles) and Senate leadership reportedly had enough votes even to sustain any one of a number of potential 60-vote procedural motions.

In the end, however, a threatened hold from outgoing Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., will sideline the measure for the rest of the year. Despite earlier promising that “we’re going to have to be here until we finish our work, whether that’s Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., sounded tonight like he was ready to throw in the towel on this one:

“His objection is going to kill TRIA,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday night, referring to Coburn.

“If we change the bill it’s gone,” Reid said. “Amending the TRIA bill would just be another way to kill the TRIA bill.”

Originally passed in 2002, TRIA requires commercial property insurers to offer terrorism insurance coverage to their clients in certain key lines of business, and creates a $100 billion federal reinsurance backstop for terrorism-related losses. The bill under consideration would raise the point at which coverage is “triggered” from the current $100 million in terrorism-related losses to $200 million.

Long a skeptic of the TRIA program, Coburn said his objection actually was to a separate provision to create the National Association of Registered Agents and Brokers, a nationwide registry of licensed insurance agents that was originally proposed as part of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley financial reform bill back in 1999:

He is criticizing the creation of a national, nonprofit clearinghouse that would allow insurance agents to register and establish a national standard, and he says states should be able to opt out of the program.

Coburn spokeswoman Elaine Joseph said that Coburn wants to offer an amendment allowing for the opt-out.

“If NARAB [National Association of Registered Agents and Brokers] is as popular as proponents say that it is, no state will ever opt out and the amendment will be moot,” Joseph said.

While we did not and would not advise allowing the program to expire abruptly, as it likely will cause at least a few weeks of consternation over what coverage insureds do or do not still have, neither is a short-term expiration of the program necessarily the catastrophic event some in the affected industries would have you believe. The broad outlines of a deal – albeit, as already mentioned above, not a deal we at R Street were especially pleased to see — clearly are already in place.

While there is a chance that the new Republican majority in the Senate would entertain somewhat broader and somewhat deeper reforms to the program than the outgoing Democratic majority, truly transformative changes aren’t really in the cards, and there’s almost zero chance that the program would stay expired for long. An extension could potentially even be passed “retroactively.”

Perhaps top of mind to the general public, who don’t usually pay much attention to obscure federal reinsurance programs, is that one particularly pernicious rumor should finally be put to rest: no one is canceling the Super Bowl over terrorism insurance. The NFL is now making this as clear as possible:

But NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told CNN in an email Tuesday that the speculation over the Super Bowl being canceled is “not true.”

“The Super Bowl will be played,” Aiello said.

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Lawsuits against premium booze makers may have major impact on spirits labeling

December 16, 2014, 4:01 PM

So-called “premium” spirits, which are made in smaller batches and are traditionally more expensive than ordinary mass-produced spirits, are helping to fuel growth in alcohol sales in the United States and around the world. This coincides with the increase of market share that so-called craft beers have been enjoying in recent years. Higher-quality alcoholic beverages are in demand.

Two of the brands that have been gaining in popularity are Maker’s Mark bourbon and Austin, Texas-based Tito’s vodka. Just last year, Marker’s Mark aficionados complained when the company thought about lowering the alcohol content in order to stretch supplies. Tito’s vodka has seen explosive growth in sales since its founding in 1997, announcing plans for international expansion this year. Both brands also are targets of lawsuits from booze drinkers over how each is marketed and labeled.

Let’s start with Tito’s vodka. It’s distilled in Austin, Texas and comes with a fascinating story. Its founder, Bert “Bertito” Beveridge, started the company after borrowing $90,000 on his credit cards and cobbling together a still of used Dr. Pepper kegs and a turkey-frying rig. Beveridge won the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2001 and the company subsequently took off. Today, it has a 26-acre facility that produces 850,000 cases a year. In spite of this growth, the vodka brand still calls itself “Tito’s Handmade Vodka.”

In September, Tito’s was hit with a California lawsuit for false advertising, among other charges. The following month, the company was hit with a similar lawsuit in Florida. Both suits claim the product can no longer be called “handmade” because it’s made in a large factory process with little control by humans. Beveridge released a statement to the media answering the charges:

‘Here at Tito’s Handmade Vodka, we are proud of our process that focuses on the quality of the product and involvement of human beings,’ he said. ‘We distill at the same distillery in Austin, Texas, where I, Tito, started the business in 1995, distilling in batches in pot stills that are customized and hand-built on-site to our proprietary specifications. We hand-connect the hoses and pumps as we taste and qualify the next steps with the distillate. We taste our product to ensure head and tail cuts, all of which are done at our distillery in Austin, Texas, are made to our exacting standards to deliver the highest quality. The artistry involved in knowing when it’s time to make those cuts is something that cannot be duplicated by even the most sophisticated machines. Our proprietary process is designed to bring the very best quality vodka to our friends and fans for a reasonable price.’

Maker’s Mark also has been hit by a lawsuit over its label. Maker’s Mark, which is owned by Beam Suntory — which also owns Jim Beam and many other brands — also calls itself “handmade.” The Maker’s suit was also filed in California and accuses the company of misleading consumers because Maker’s Mark also uses modern manufacturing processes. While Beam Suntory has not commented to the media about the specifics of its planned defense, an attorney and bourbon expert, Chuck Cowdery, explained one potential strategy to the Lexington Herald-Leader:

‘I’m sure somebody noticed ‘handmade’ on the Maker’s Mark label and figured the case is just as good against Maker’s as it is against Tito’s, and Maker’s (i.e., Beam Suntory) has much deeper pockets,’ Cowdery said by e-mail. ‘Maker’s Mark isn’t new to this question. They have always pointed to the fact that every bottle is individually dipped in wax by hand. One might also argue that constant human oversight of all processes is a component of ‘handmade.”

The outcomes of these two lawsuits could go a long way to determine how companies in the premium spirits industry market themselves. The “handmade” label is just a part of how premium-spirits distillers set themselves apart from mass-produced products. A lot of the confusion centers on how to define a “premium spirit” or a small batch maker. Do we apply the terms to companies like Maker’s Mark and others like them who merely produce smaller volumes of alcohol, or do we need a more narrow definition?

The American Craft Spirits Association, which ironically was co-founded by Tito’s Vodka, limits membership to companies that produce less than 315,000 cases a year and are independent licensed distillers. This means that Maker’s Mark and other brands that are owned by larger companies could not join. Are the smaller distillers the only true “craft spirits” and the only true premium spirits on the market?

Ultimately, these questions will be worked out by the courts in how they interpret the false advertising statutes. But American consumers will play their own role in deciding which brands they think provide them with the premium alcohol they’re looking for.

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Big CRomnibus winners: NSA, hungry kids, farting cows

December 16, 2014, 10:41 AM

If there was any good news to come out of this weekend’s CRomnibus festivities, it was that you can now make any Democrat immediately cringe by implying that Eizabeth Warren is their side’s equivalent of everyone’s favorite showboating Republican presidential contender, Ted Cruz. But that’s about it. The rest of the CRomnibus is just an endless string of soul-crushing spending provisions, Wall Street handouts and complete budget funding for a bunch of agencies you don’t even know exist until you accidentally run afoul of them.

There were some winners, though. Republican legislators managed to scale back a few of Michelle Obama’s school lunch reforms, which will mean that fewer middle- and high-school kids will be able to gross out the Internet with their meager and disgusting meals (proven to keep them from obesity by ruining their delicate teenage appetites). Leadership was also able to cancel out EPA regulations that would have compelled cattle and dairy farmers to report and control the “methane gas emissions” from their herd, and prevent them from having to purchase EPA indulgences just so that their cows can safely fart and burp on American soil.

And while you were busy wondering if the government was going to shut down, and busily poring over 15 pounds of the CRomnibus bill, Congress took advantage of the distraction to pass a sweeping endorsement of the NSA’s warrantless data collection program.

With nearly no public notice or debate, Congress on Wednesday approved legislation that critics say blesses the warrantless collection, dissemination and five-year retention of everyday Americans’ phone and Internet communications

The controversial language was quietly incorporated into an intelligence authorization bill that passed the Senate on Tuesday and then the House on Wednesday.

The legislation, privacy advocates say, sanctions for the first time the executive branch’s warrantless collection of American communications under Executive Order 12333, issued in 1981 to authorize the interception of communications overseas.

Section 309 of the intelligence bill sets a five-year limit, with many exceptions, on the retention of U.S. persons’ communications collected under that order, which was issued well before widespread use of cellphones and the Internet….

The good news is that Congress has managed to update a law that was written in 1981, before anyone was using email to do anything other than direct troop movements along the USSR’s Western border. The bad news is, they don’t much care to do anything to the law that reflects any update in technology made since the Reagan administration, and the provision basically rubber stamps what the NSA is already doing. But at least they’re being remarkably efficient in the Obama administration’s service for once: the update comes just in time for a rather large expansion in the Obama Administration’s surveillance program.

The New York Times reported in August that the Obama administration is rewriting internal policies to allow the FBI direct access to a database of raw communications collected under the executive order.

Yaaaaaaaay. I suppose it’s only perfectly appropriate that the U.S. Congress is taking note of the holiday spirit by adopting the same policy towards privacy as the Elf on a Shelf.

 

RISK: U.S. could raise up to $25B by eliminating flood insurance subsidies — GAO

December 15, 2014, 2:57 PM

From ClimateWire:

Another way to look at foregone premiums might be to consider it as spending in annual federal budgets, said R.J. Lehmann, a senior fellow and co-founder of the R Street Institute. That could have consequences as lawmakers try to square FEMA spending in appropriations committees. It could also encourage them to reduce subsidies, Lehmann said, by counting efforts to decrease foregone premiums as savings. “That would be the path to keeping Congress honest, and to more responsibly accounting for their duties, both to taxpayers and to the environment,” Lehmann said in an email.

Patents as weapons of self defense

December 15, 2014, 11:21 AM

The Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Dean Baker notices something strange in the New York Timesprofile of four-year-old Chinese cell phone manufacturer Xiaomi, an emerging player in the global telecommunications market. Specifically, Baker picks out a seemingly throwaway line highlighting that one of the challenges Xiaomi faces is that it “does not yet have much of a patent portfolio, leaving it vulnerable to lawsuits from competitors.”

Baker asks why the lack of a patent portfolio, in and of itself, would necessarily open an emerging tech company to lawsuits:

The answer of course is that patents are used as a harassing tactic. The idea is to bury your competitor with patent suits in the hope that one may actually get past summary judgement and go to trial. This can be time-consuming and expensive for a small company.

The advantage of having a large patent portfolio in this context is that you get to play tit for tat. You turn around and throw a pile of patent suits back at your competitor. The fight usually ends with both sides agreeing to drop suits, and occasionally some licensing fees being paid.

From an economic standpoint, these patent wars are a complete waste, but they nonetheless may prove profitable for a company that fights effectively. It’s too bad that our “free traders” are so opposed to free trade, otherwise we could reduce this source of waste and upward redistribution (patent lawyers tend to be one percenters).

 

 

 

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Revealed: Little-known Mississippi attorney general go-to man for Hollywood

December 15, 2014, 10:45 AM

It’s easy to see how Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood—a Bible-reading, pro-gun, pro-life Democrat—has survived in statewide office even as his already conservative state has turned a deeper shade of red. Quite simply, he’s a likeable, quotable guy who doesn’t seem to have forgotten his roots in New Houlka, Miss. (population 626).

Since taking office in 2003, Hood has done meritorious work bringing Civil Rights Era murderers to justice and has proven himself willing to tussle with insurance companies (over hurricane claims) and drug companies (about prices). Even his ties to once-wealthier-than-Croesus trial lawyer Dickie Scruggs (who finished up his prison sentence in September) seemed only to add to his populist charm.

That’s why it’s very interesting to learn, via the recently leaked trove of Sony emails, that Hood is the go-to-guy for Hollywood movie studios seeking to gain the upper hand in a complex but high-stakes battle with Internet companies over copyright law. In a nutshell, the studios, through the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), are seeking to revive the principles of the controversial SOPA (Stop Online Piracy) and PIPA (Protect IP Act) that would give them and anyone else who owns intellectual property a huge amount of power over the way websites and search engines operate.

The webzine The Verge first reported that one e-mail from MPAA General Xounsel Steven Fabrizio talks about getting together three to five attorneys general but says that “Hood alone, if necessary” will carry water for the studios. Similarly, the website Torrentfreak reports that Hood’s potential reaction to a press release was key in shaping the studios’ public message. Hood, the moviemakers and their lawyers seem to assume, is the guy who can and will issue civil investigative demands to the search engines on all sorts of things that interest them. As Techdirt reports, the studios are willing to spend heavily to get even more AGs to follow in Hood’s footsteps.

They’ll need some sort of strategy like this because the heavily funded push to pass SOPA and PIPA in 2012 failed dismally after groups on the left, right and center — as well as major Internet sites like Wikipedia — launched a major protest involving mass petitions and a one-day site blackout.

No evidence suggests that Hood’s relationship with the movie industry violates any laws or canons of legal ethics. Moreover, none of Hood’s major financial supporters seem to have strong ties to the movie industry. That makes his behavior all the more unusual, since Mississippi has almost no economic interest in the movie industry.

Indeed, the state lacks a major film school, doesn’t house production for a single scripted TV show and has served as the main shooting location for only five widely released movies over the past decade. The MPAA itself says that the state has a total of 242 film-and-television-production related jobs; one of the smallest per-capita totals in the nation. All in all, Mississippi has more people who make their living arranging flowers (460, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ databases) than in film and TV production.

Maybe Jim Hood really likes hanging out with movie moguls?

San Antonio votes to crush ride-sharing companies like Uber

December 15, 2014, 10:16 AM

From Breitbart:

San Antonio already had the most restrictive regulations for TNCs, according to a study by the free market think tank R Street Institute, as Breitbart Texas reported last month. “Make no mistake. This is not an ordinance to allow ride-sharing. It’s an ordinance to prevent ride-sharing,” said Josiah Neeley, R Street’s Texas Director. “The regulation throws up so many anti-ride-sharing roadblocks, from millions in insurance to written exams, that it will effectively prohibit ride-sharing companies from operating in San Antonio.”

Fannie and Freddie: Proving that insanity is good for business

December 15, 2014, 10:10 AM

Insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result. Even a casual observer of the U.S. economy since its collapse in 2008 is likely familiar with the terms “toxic debt” and “default risk.” As it happens, the good people within the mortgage industry may need a reminder. Because of them, the risk of an earthquake-triggered mortgage default crisis in California appears to be set for an increase.

Recently, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two large government-sponsored mortgage enterprises best known for their catastrophic, wealth-transferring, home mortgage lending habits that necessitated a taxpayer bailout to the tune of $187.5 billion, have determined it appropriate to both raise lending limits and to lower downpayment requirements.

What could go possibly wrong?!

For one, recession could result. Once again, individuals with the least ability to sustain mortgage payments will have access to homes beyond their ability to safely afford. In the event of a financial downturn, such individuals will again be prone to default en masse. While this is fantastic news for secured lenders and bureaucrats, the resultant stress of widespread default could have dire consequences for the U.S. economy as a whole.

But that is a story already well told. What is particularly alarming about the latest decision to increase lending limits is that the areas listed are the last places, geographically, that the government should be accruing greater mortgage exposure.

Furthermore, while Fannie and Freddie have chosen to maintain the national conforming loan limit at the same level (it is at $417k for the tenth consecutive year), loan limits have been raised in 46 high-cost counties. Four new California counties are subject to higher limits: Monterey, Napa, San Diego and Ventura. Those four counties join other high-cost California counties like Los Angeles, Orange and San Francisco.

But wait, there’s more. Virtually contemporaneously, Fannie and Freddie have also detailed plans to lower the minimum downpayment required to qualify for their mortgages from 5 percent to 3 percent.

California’s high cost of living provides a fig leaf of political cover for offering higher loan limits, but the case for lowering downpayment requirements beggars belief.

The merits of each decision aside, because some of the increases are in areas that are among the most catastrophe-prone in the nation, they ignore the fact that there is default risk associated with seismic activity that is currently underappreciated.

When a major earthquake next strikes California’s coast, the cost of the damage easily will run into the billions. It has in the past, as was the case with both the Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes, and it will happen again. Since the majority of seismic risk in California is, in essence, publicly held, individuals without private insurance or sufficient financial resources to rebuild their homes will have little option or incentive to avoid defaulting on their mortgage. When they default, taxpayers will again have to bail out Fannie and Freddie.

It bears noting that less than 10 percent of California homeowners currently purchase earthquake insurance, and that it is the one major catastrophe peril for which Fannie and Freddie do not currently require insurance coverage for conforming loans. Earthquake default risk is the stuff that bubbles are made of.

Taken together, by increasing the loan limit and lowering the downpayment threshold Fannie and Freddie are placing taxpayers, particularly California taxpayers, at risk.

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Senator to EPA: Help states tax carbon

December 15, 2014, 9:55 AM

From National Journal:

Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse wants EPA, as it crafts a major rule to cut carbon pollution from power plants, to explore how it could help states comply by taxing emissions. His broad comment letter to EPA on the planned rule states: “EPA should … carefully consider comments from the Brookings Institution, R Street Institute, and others on steps EPA could take to enable states to comply using carbon taxes or fees.” It also expresses support for states banding together in carbon trading systems.

Underwater

December 15, 2014, 9:49 AM

From Earth Island Journal:

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

Poet of understatement: Mark Strand, 1934-2014

December 12, 2014, 5:31 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 12, 2014, 4:33 PM

From E&E News:

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

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

R Street congratulates Citizens on lowering reliance on taxpayers

December 12, 2014, 1:55 PM

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

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

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

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

 

Gone Google: Europe is pushing to limit Internet companies

December 12, 2014, 1:16 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

December 12, 2014, 9:35 AM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The complicated politics of Uber

December 11, 2014, 5:31 PM

From MSNBC

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

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

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

Hill funding compromise leaves FCC short on desired cash

December 11, 2014, 4:52 PM

From Washington Internet Daily:

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

 

Why regulating Uber and Lyft is such a big deal

December 11, 2014, 11:04 AM

From the Rivard Report:

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