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80 groups support Death Tax Repeal Act of 2015

March 05, 2015, 8:44 AM

Dear Congressman Brady and Congressman Bishop:

The undersigned organizations support your bill, the Death Tax Repeal Act of 2015.

We appreciate your work to lead the country toward a common sense tax code that does not impose a destructive double or triple tax at death. We support full and permanent repeal of the federal estate tax for the following reasons:

Repealing the death tax would spur job creation and grow the economy. Many studies have quantified the job losses caused by the death tax. Last year the Tax Foundation and Heritage Foundation both found that the United States could create over 100,000 jobs by repealing the death tax. A 2012 study by the House Joint Economic Committee found that the death tax has destroyed over $1.1 trillion of capital in the US economy — loss of small business capital means fewer jobs and lower wages. Lawrence Summers, former secretary of the Treasury under President Clinton; Alicia Munell, member of President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors; Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate for economics; and Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former CBO Director have all published work on the death tax’s stifling effect on job growth and the economy as a whole.

The death tax contributes a very small portion of federal revenues. The death tax currently accounts for less than half of one percent of federal revenue. There is a good argument that not collecting the death tax would create more economic growth and lead to an increase in federal revenue from other taxes. A 2014 Tax Foundation analysis found repeal of the death tax would increase federal revenues by $3.3 billion per year using a more realistic, “dynamic” economic analysis. In addition, the death tax forces family businesses to waste money on expensive insurance policies and estate planning. These burdensome compliance costs make it even harder for business owners to expand their businesses and create more jobs.

The death tax falls particularly hard on minorities. The death tax threatens to confiscate generational capital from African-American and minority communities. Death tax liabilities bankrupted the Chicago Defender – the oldest black-owned daily newspaper in the United States – and will reduce net African-American wealth by 13 percent, according to a study conducted by Boston College professors John Haven and Paul Schervish. According to a 2004 Impacto Group poll, 50 percent of Hispanic business owners know someone who sold their business to pay the death tax and a quarter expect to sell their business because of the death tax.

A super-majority of likely voters support eliminating the death tax. Poll after poll has indicated that a super-majority of likely voters support repealing the death tax. Typically, two-thirds of likely voters support full and permanent repeal of the death tax. People instinctively feel that the death tax is not fair.

The death tax is unfair. It makes no sense to require grieving families to pay a confiscatory tax on their loved one’s nest egg. Often this tax is paid by selling family assets like farms and businesses. Other times, employees of the family business must be laid off and payrolls slashed. No one should be punished for fulfilling the American dream.

The negative effects of the death tax make permanent repeal the only solution for family businesses and farms. Your legislation will help America’s family businesses create jobs, expand operations and grow the economy. We thank you for your continued leadership on this important issue.

Smoking cessation: minimal impact on weight

March 04, 2015, 3:00 PM

The association of tobacco use and body weight has long been a matter of concern. In 2004, I collaborated with Swedish investigators to publish the first research on whether switching from cigarettes to smokeless tobacco blunts some of the weight gain normally seen with quitting via abstinence.

We found that Swedish snus users and smokers who switched to snus gained no more weight than nonusers (average gain of around seven pounds over nine years). By contrast, the big gainers in our study were smokers and snus users who completely abstained from nicotine and tobacco.

Numerous studies have documented that smokers weigh less than nonsmokers, and smokers who quit add pounds. Since the 1970s, there are fewer smokers and more former smokers in the United States. For example, in 2010, only 19 percent of the adult population were current smokers (44 million), while 22 percent (49 million) were former smokers. Did changes in population smoking contribute significantly to changes in population overweight and obesity? The answer is no.

My University of Louisville colleague, research economist Nantaporn Plurphanswat, and I explore this question in a research article published in BMC Obesity. We used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys for the years 1999 through 2012.

Our analysis used body mass index (BMI), a measure of weight that accounts for height. Conventional BMI categories are underweight (BMI < 18.5), normal weight (18.5 to less than 25), overweight (25 to less than 30) and obese (30+).

Consistent with previous studies, we found that smoking was associated with lower BMI among both men and women. In addition, being a smoker increased the probability of being normal weight by 12 percent and reduced the probability of being obese by 13 percent among men; the magnitudes for women were smaller, +7 percent for normal weight and -8 percent for obesity.

We noted that women with higher education had significantly lower BMI than those with less education; this relationship was not seen among men. Marriage was associated with higher BMI among men, but lower BMI among women.

In a positive finding for men, we found no difference between never smokers and former smokers in terms of being in particular BMI categories. However, women were shown to be more prone to weight gain. Women who were former smokers had lower probability of underweight (0.2 percent), normal weight (2.3 percent), and overweight (0.4 percent) but had higher probability of obesity (2.9 percent).

No one should be dissuaded from quitting cigarettes, especially when there are many smoke-free options like snus and e-cigarettes that might obviate any weight gain.

Joint statement to House Government Operations Subcommittee on FOIA reform

March 04, 2015, 2:00 PM

Attached is the joint statement of the American Library Association, American Society of News Editors, Association of Alternative News Media, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the National Security Archive, National Security Counselors, OpenTheGovernment.org, the Project On Government Oversight, the Sunlight Foundation and the R Street Institute to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s Subcommittee on Government Operations, submitted in connection with the subcommittee’s Feb. 27, 2015 hearing “Ensuring Government Transparency Through FOIA Reform.”

Mother Teresa, Tiger Woods and the use of IP as censorship

March 04, 2015, 11:02 AM

Trumbull, Conn. is a town of 36,000 in suburban Fairfield County, perhaps best known for winning the 1989 Little League World Series and for being the hometown of decidedly unfunny insult comic Lisa Lampanelli.

But the sleepy burg (Family Circle magazine’s seventh-best “Town for Families” in 2011) currently finds itself in the midst of a controversy that combines the swirling issues of censorship and copyright, and particularly how claims to the latter can result in the former.

At issue is a painting titled “Women United: From Abigail Adams to Gloria Steinem” by local artist Robin Morris. It was one of 33 Morris paintings commissioned by Trumbull residents Dr. Richard Resnick and his wife Jane Resnick, which the Resnicks donated to be displayed at the Trumbull Library as the “Great Minds” series.

Until, that is, Trumbull officials started getting angry messages, including from a local priest, insisting the painting (pictured above) be taken down. The scene depicts images of historical women of note, like Abigail Adams and Clara Barton, but also includes modern feminist icons Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, alongside Mother Teresa of Kolkata. Then, according to the Trumbull Times, this happened:

Following that interaction, [Library Director Susan] Horton received about eight more messages, all from men, she said, including from Pastor Brian Gannon of St. Theresa Roman Catholic Church in town. Horton was later forwarded a message from The Order of Missionaries of Charity in India, claiming the painting is a copyright infringement for using Mother Teresa’s image.

Horton said the library has been unable to find any proof that the painting would be a copyright infringement. However, First Selectman Tim Herbst demanded the painting be taken down last week, after getting opinion from town counsel.

To start, it’s unlikely that there is an actual copyright claim involved, unless there is an accusation that the painter, Morris, borrowed inappropriately from some other artist or image, which doesn’t appear to be the case. Barring that, then either Morris or Resnick owns the copyright, depending on the terms of the commission, and both are clearly amenable to the piece being publicly displayed. Indeed, that’s precisely why it was made.

Instead, the likelier claim by the Missionaries of Charity (if they are, indeed, pressing a claim at all – the provenance of this “message” remains somewhat murky from the reporting) is probably one of “personality rights,” which govern the rights individuals have to control the use of one’s own name or image in commercial contexts.

Personality rights are not copyrights, but rather are more akin to trademarks. Trademarks are asserted to keep potential competitors from muddying the marketplace through intentional confusion, say, by attempting to market an “AppleSauce” personal computer. By contrast, personality rights — building on Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis landmark 1890 Harvard Law Journal formulation of “The Right to Privacy” — prevent the misappropriation of one’s name or likeness for commercial purposes. Most often, they are invoked by celebrities against advertisers for intentionally misleading the public about whether the celebrity endorsed the product in question (a significant corpus of recent case law has involved “sound alike” voiceover recordings).

Since the painting is not being used in a marketing context (or, indeed, in a commercial context at all) it’s hard to see what the personality rights claim could be. Unlike copyright and trademark, personality rights are governed largely by state law, although the federal Lanham Act, which deals largely with trademark infringement and false advertising, does extend to personality rights, as well.

Further complicating the issue is that Mother Teresa is not, in fact, alive. In many states, including neighboring New York, the right of publicity does not pass to one’s heirs after death. (In Connecticut, the right is embodied in common law, but not statute.)

Perhaps the most relevant case to this incident would be the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ July 2003 decision in ETW Corp. v. Jireh Publishing. ETW, the licensing agent for golfer Tiger Woods, sued Jireh, the publisher of paintings by sports artist Rick Rush, claiming that Rush’s work “The Masters of Augusta” (above) violated both Woods’ trademark and his personality rights. In addition to finding that a person’s likeness alone cannot usually stand as a trademark, the court noted that the painting was not merely a representation of Woods – it was a work of art. As the Thomas Jefferson Center puts it:

[The] work contained a creative component that originated with Rush and was unique to his talent. In other words, Woods’ image was merely the raw material for Rush’s original artistic expression. As such, Rush’s First Amendment right to artistic freedom outweighed Woods’ property rights in the profits generated by his image.

Of course, rather than point to this clear and compelling case law – directly relevant to the Morris painting – Trumbull did the expected, censorious thing and just took the painting down. Although since Resnick has pledged he would “take full legal responsibility for the collection, in order to…protect the town,” one hopes this kerfuffle will prove to be a temporary one.

(h/t TechDirt)

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The civil rights history I missed growing up in the South

March 03, 2015, 11:28 AM

I learned about Christopher Columbus’s voyages on the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria.  I could recount the tale of the mysterious lost colony at Roanoke. The battles of the American Revolution, the founding of America and the Civil War became second nature. Our class reviewed the World Wars and the Great Depression in detail. I even remember discussing the invention of flight and man’s travel to space.

As far as the civil rights era was concerned, I learned that a man named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream of rights for black people, pushed through laws granting equality and was assassinated. We might have also briefly discussed Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus.

Understandably, growing up in the South, discussing the civil rights movement in a predominantly white school was a challenging proposition. To put it mildly, we glossed over it. Black people got their rights, the bad people lost and we could move on to the next chapter. The uncomfortable problem was that some of the “bad people” could have easily been some of our grandparents.

I never heard of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma. I was well into college before I ever read King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In fact, I had very little knowledge of America’s struggle for civil rights until I stumbled upon Professor Bryan Fair’s class “Race, Racism and the Law” at the University of Alabama School of Law.

Professor Fair and I went round after round on any number of political topics, but he left me realizing race, perspective and history were inextricably intertwined. Sadly, my romanticized history had done a great disservice to one of the most beautiful and painful chapters in our nation’s history.

I needed to see the pictures of the fire hoses, dogs and beatings. It is horrific to review, but it is also too important to ignore. I needed to know that the racist whisperings and comments I heard from time to time from my elders were uttered at tremendous cost. The cancer of racism is not simply an outdated cultural reality, but rather an evil that oppressed many Americans for generations.

More importantly, the civil rights era breathed life into the founding documents I knew so well. The Declaration of Independence embodies the idea that people have the right “to alter or abolish” a government destructive of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The civil rights movement unmistakably altered our government in a fulfillment of that foundational belief. In that respect, the likes of Dr. King, Medgar Evers and John Lewis need to be considered as modern equivalents to Benjamin Franklin, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.

Many of us who grew up in the South cannot change the past, but we cannot afford to ignore it either. When we understand that “history” is far more complex than one seamless convenient narrative about the past, we can better appreciate how far we have actually come and how much it cost to make it here.

DEA warns Utah of stoned rabbits

March 03, 2015, 9:19 AM

I would certainly not have predicted Utah to be the next state to take up the mantle of marijuana legalization, but thankfully, they are. I say this not because I’m a supporter of legalization (though I am), but because Utah’s legislative hearings on their medical marijuana bill — which would allow certain persons with “debilitating illnesses” access to “edible forms” of the drug — are absolutely magnificent.

Last week, Utah welcomed Drug Enforcement Administration agent Matt Fairbanks to testify, and among his rationales for bringing Utah back from the abyss: that Utah’s entire rabbit population is, from here on out, going to be stoned out of its ever-loving rabbit mind.

Utah is considering a bill that would allow patients with certain debilitating conditions to be treated with edible forms of marijuana. If the bill passes, the state’s wildlife may “cultivate a taste” for the plant, lose their fear of humans, and basically be high all the time. That’s according to testimony presented to a Utah Senate panel (time stamp 58:00) last week by an agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

“I deal in facts. I deal in science,” said special agent Matt Fairbanks, who’s been working in the state for a decade. He is member of the “marijuana eradication” team in Utah.

I can picture it now, a sort of Breaking Bad meets Watership Down scenario, in which Salt Lake City is overrun with haplessly unmotivated, lazy rabbits with the munchies, chowing down on Utah’s prized lawns and herb gardens (no pun intended), just waiting for their next opportunity to chomp down on some hemp and get high. As rabbits mostly exist as an endless food source for other animals less likely to develop a fondness for toking up, the scenario has both its benefits and drawbacks. While Utah’s dog population will probably be rather more agitated than usual, I presume, its coyote population is likely looking forward to the all-you-can-eat buffet.

Granted, Fairbanks does have some legitimate points. Unlawful marijuana cultivation — or, for that matter, unlawful cultivation of any kind — has the potential to create harmful circumstances and have an environmental impact. But of course, there’s an argument to be made that making cultivation legal allows authorities to mitigate these consequences by heavily regulating the crop. And while there is the greater potential for wildlife misbehavior, one need only look to Australia to understand that, despite our best efforts, our farm animal population will always have its fair share of bad seeds.

TNCs, state flood insurance among hot topics at NCOIL spring meeting

March 03, 2015, 9:00 AM

For those whose travel plans weren’t interrupted by the inclement weather, the spring meeting of the tri-annually convened National Conference of Insurance Legislators – held in Charleston, S.C. just as February turned into March – offered intense discussion and debate on topics ranging from cyber-security, severe weather preparedness and transportation network companies.

Since those are each ongoing interests for us at the R Street Institute, I’ll offer a brief rundown of the proceedings.

Cyber-security: In light of the large and well-publicized Anthem data breach – which saw the personal information of millions of subscribers compromised – subject matter experts, industry representatives, legislators and regulators all expressed concern about the how the insurance market would be impacted by a significant cyber-attack. One regulator went so far as to voice concern about the ability of insurers to remain solvent in the event of a major attack.

Informed by that high level of anxiety, a whole panel of regulators, when asked, suggested that new tools are likely needed to prepare for a cyber-attack, so that regulators will have the ability to monitor insurers’ preparedness closely. What exactly will constitute those tools remains to be seen, but pressure for action of some kind is growing.

Severe weather preparedness: A lunch keynote given by South Carolina Insurance Director Ray Farmer outlined his lowland coastal state’s approach to preparing for severe weather. Two prongs of his effort – an unceasing commitment to educating the public about the risks of hurricanes and floods and a refusal to craft a publicly backed residual flood market – were particularly encouraging.

Later, during a panel devoted to dialogue between the National Association of Insurance Commissioners and NCOIL, both Farmer and Georgia Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens confirmed R Street’s long-held suspicion that, when National Flood Insurance Program rates come closer to matching actuarial expectations, private insurers will begin to take on risk. Both states have seen an increase in the number of private flood insurance policies since the passage, albeit neutered, of the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act in 2012.

Legislators were curious about how exactly states are cultivating participation by private insurers. Commissioner Hudgens shared that his approach had included nothing formal. Instead, his department has relied upon administrative encouragement in the form of outreach.

TNCs: The TNC insurance coverage issue continued to garner significant interest from legislators at NCOIL. A panel was held to discuss a piece of model legislation put forward by Ohio state Rep. Michael Stinziano, D-Columbus. However, Stinziano was unable to make it to Charleston and, as a result, the panel’s conversation remained broad.

If the focus of discussion can be taken as an indication of concern, the so-called “Period One” – during which the TNC app is activated but the driver has not made a connection with a fare – remains an issue for many of the legislators at NCOIL. Still, participants in the panel, both legislators and insurance industry representatives, happily pronounced that insurers and TNCs are far closer to agreement than they appear publicly. Whether or not that is accurate, what is clear is that, the more insurers learn more about the risk profile of TNC drivers during Period One, the more amenable they are becoming to the idea of offering personal coverage. According to Uber’s Gus Fuldner, six carriers in eight states have now introduced products for the TNC market.

The other significant discussion point was brought up by North Dakota state Rep. George Keiser, R-Bismarck. He expressed concerned about the appropriate remedy for fraud, now that insurers are beginning to ask explicitly about the use of personal vehicles for TNC activity. Panelists provided unrehearsed responses that ranged from the need for coverage cancellation to prosecution. More will likely be heard on the issue at the next NCOIL meeting in Indianapolis.

One final notable development occurred in Charleston, though it had nothing to do with a specific policy. For the first time since the tenure of state Sen. Herschel Rosenthal in the 1990s, a legislator from California attended NCOIL. Assemblyman Ken Cooley, who is a current member of the California Assembly Insurance Committee and a longtime scholar of insurance issues, participated in a non-voting capacity in panels throughout the conference. His presence may well be a welcome harbinger of formal participation by the Golden State in NCOIL. Both NCOIL and California would benefit from exposure to and exchange with one another.

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Some DOE staff found new way to take advantage of students

March 03, 2015, 8:44 AM

Student loans are a billion dollar industry for the government, which basically insures that the system, despite Elizabeth Warren’s eternal pleadings, is unlikely to be reformed. But it seems, on at least a couple of occasions, the student loan process was very lucrative for a couple of individuals at the U.S. Department of Education as well (until they got caught at least).

According to a Freedom of Information Act request obtained by the Daily Mail, breach of conduct reports at the agency reveal identity theft, unlawful access to student loan records and a deficit in basic understanding of civics.

According to the documents – obtained by the Daily Mail Online through a Freedom of Information Act request – a number of government employees set up an illicit scheme to steal students’ information.  

One woman created a bogus Department of Education account to access the National Student Loan Data System to aid her criminal plot.

While accessing the records, she would extract information from individual accounts.  

She swapped around the last four digits of her SSN with those of another during the scheme, and set up the fake identity to apply for credit cards, personal loans and set up a Sprint cell phone account.

An internal investigation within the department found she went into the database 24 times between 2006 and 2009 to retrieve the information. 

Just 24 hours after searching through the database on one occasion in 2009, the documents revealed she applied for a personal loan.

She was finally arrested and charged in 2011 and reportedly served one month in jail after her 18-month sentence was reduced. Another employee was caught trying to find Barack Obama’s student loan records, but made the twin mistakes of spelling Barack Obama’s name “Barrack,” which belies that lack of civics knowledge I spoke of before, and failing to realize that most of Barack Obama’s financial information — at least regarding his student loan payment plan — is public knowledge (he claims to have paid off his loans after 25 years, using the royalties from his book). A third employee used downtime at the DOE to promote his side projects. And yet another employee used his downtime to improve his collection of child pornography. The latter was arrested and convicted in 2011, as well, and is serving a 10-year prison sentence.

The good news is, the FCC has now approved “net neutrality,” so the same people who are in charge of administering your student loans may now also find themselves in charge of administering your Internet, which should certainly make it a reliable utility, to be exploited by no one.

It’s tax break week in Texas

March 03, 2015, 7:00 AM

The Texas state Senate this week is holding hearings on a whole slew of tax reform bills. Starting yesterday and continuing today and tomorrow, the Senate Finance Committee is considering legislation that ranges from property tax reform to taxes on sulfur.

Texas has many taxes highly deserving of being cut. Of particular note, though, are a series of bills that would scale back or eliminate Texas’ margin tax.

Here at R Street, we have been talking about how awful the margin tax is for years. Originally sold as a fairer and less complicated replacement for the state’s previous corporate tax, the margin tax has failed to live up to its promise on all counts.

First, it’s incredibly complicated. Companies must choose between four different tax bases and then apply multiple rates and exemptions, with the result that some companies pay more on tax preparation than they do in paying the tax itself.

The margin tax’s complicated structure also means that different businesses end up paying very different rates. Finally, since the cost of the tax is passed along to consumers in the form of higher prices, the margin tax is a hidden tax on the general public.

Numerous bills have been filed this session that would either eliminate the margin tax immediately or phase it out over time. Other bills would not totally repeal the tax, but would reduce rates and increase the base exemption. What all these approaches have in common is that they recognize the negative impact the margin tax is having on Texans.

Today and tomorrow’s hearings begin at 9 a.m. and can be viewed online here. Public testimony will be taken tomorrow in the Texas Capitol, Room E1.036.

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Addressing the real drivers of the explosion in food stamps

March 02, 2015, 1:12 PM

The U.S. House may not be able to agree on much when it comes to the size and scope of federal programs, but one thing has been clear over the last few years: Republicans feel the growth in our nation’s nutritional support programs, most notably the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is a problem.

With the next farm bill (which establishes federal policy for these programs) not due until 2018, the House Agriculture Committee is holding a series of hearings examining how to redesign SNAP and other nutrition programs to meet today’s needs.

Committee members are correct to see the growth in these programs as a problem. What began as a lifeline for a small number of citizens in 1964 swelled to support for more than 17.2 million Americans in 2000. The programs now serve 46.5 million citizens, about half of them children, and cost $74.1 billion annually to maintain, all from federal coffers.

However, the problem isn’t as simple as many Republicans would make it seem. As R Street Associate Fellow Doug Besharov of the University of Maryland testified before the committee last week, when nutritional support first began in the racially polarized mid-20th century, the program was designed intentionally to bypass the states, as many states, especially in the South, refused to offer welfare programs to minorities, particularly African-Americans. This biased treatment, combined with lack of opportunity for these citizens, created real hunger and malnutrition among large pockets of the population.

Today, the problem is flipped. Many states want to increase enrollment in SNAP because its benefits represent money is off the states’ books, rather than because they are practicing overt discrimination. Additionally, insufficient caloric consumption is, for the most part, no longer a problem, even for the underprivileged. In fact, poverty has become correlated with high caloric consumption, with too much of it coming in the form of empty calories that lead to obesity.

The federal government tried to keep program spending under control in the past through state-level asset tests, strong means testing, strict household definitions and work requirements, among other restrictions. However, during the early 2000s and through the Great Recession, many of these restraints were lifted in an effort both to help those suffering the consequences economic dislocation and to ease the burden on state budget coffers. Additionally, benefit levels were raised and individuals who receive other welfare supports – such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families – were deemed categorically eligible, increasing the incentive for more individuals to enroll.

Republicans have blasted these loosened restrictions, particularly the lifted work requirements and categorical eligibility, for the swelling rolls of SNAP recipients. Yet even with these looser guidelines, according to the Congressional Research Service, only 5 percent of those who received SNAP benefits in 2011 were more than 130 above of the poverty line. This suggests there are real needs among the SNAP population. But it’s also true that, after 50 years of helping keep people afloat, SNAP has done relatively little to lift people up.

It’s time to rethink what individuals need most. SNAP participation has increased as the labor force participation rate has fallen. But SNAP’s “off the books” structure discourages state officials from thinking about how to best serve this populations’ needs.

Besharov suggests cost-sharing for states as one way to encourage better practices, but more should be done. The decline in labor-force participation, the increase in disability rolls and the rise of single parenthood are the real drivers in the growth of SNAP participation. As Besharov notes, SNAP may be supplementing incomes for families who probably can afford food, but not many other modern necessities. Simply providing food aid while neglecting the real drivers of program growth will only result in more dollars out the door.

Luckily, the last farm bill contained a work-pilot grant program that will allow states to compete for federal dollars to create job training programs to encourage individuals to move into the workforce, and off of SNAP assistance. Rather than continuing to expect Uncle Sam to spend more on food aid, states should be helping people get back to work and training their citizens for jobs that local industry actually needs. After all, the adage regarding giving a man a fish exists for a reason. Unfortunately, for those who want to learn to fish, states would rather lean on federal government than provide the necessary fishing lessons.

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Olympia could punish early adopters of rooftop solar

March 02, 2015, 12:40 PM

When it comes to technology, so-called “early adopters” understand they are taking a risk. Those who choose to pay more for unproven or unscaled technologies do so with full knowledge that they both cost a lot and may ultimately fail.

In the world of consumer electronics, buyers of the Betamax or Microsoft’s Zune music player learned this lesson all too well. In the decidedly higher stakes realm of power generation, those sufficiently daring and ecologically conscientious to seek independence from the power grid may be on the brink of their own Betamax moment.

The Pacific Northwest – and Washington state, in particular – long has been home to breakthroughs in energy generation. But some in Olympia are seeking to tamper with the public policy fundamentals that help establish the viability of distributed generation technologies, touted as the future of energy generation.

Still in their infancy, these technologies are beginning to show signs of growth. The darlings of the long-promised green economy, they include fuel cells, always-trendy wind turbines and solar panels. In theory, early adopters who install one of these technologies on their property can reduce their reliance on the public power grid. More and more, this is how it is working out in practice, as well. Distributed generation technologies can have a net positive effect on power generation and push energy back onto the grid.

Washington’s H.B. 2045 is putatively intended to “increase the reliable distribution of distributed energy resources.” The bill’s proponents seek to accomplish this goal by moving toward centralized regulatory control. Existing energy providers (primarily utilities) like the idea, because they have an existing relationship with the state Utilities and Transportation Commission. Through that relationship, utilities likely would be able to head off competition from distributed generation technologies. Indeed, specific provisions of the bill make more sense when viewed through that prism.

Under the “net metering” process, a customer’s charges for each billing cycle are set by calculating the amount of energy they drew from the grid, minus the value of credits for energy they produced using onsite renewable generation and exported to the utility’s distribution system. In a nutshell, consumers generate X amount of power and they get a credit for whatever amount they export. This ensures they capture the full value of the energy their solar systems produce.

At issue in H.B. 2045 is whether it is necessary to control the number of “net metering” systems to avoid burdening other consumers unfairly. Given the current low penetration levels of distributed generation technologies, the case for doing so is unsubstantiated and more than a little suspect. What’s more, it’s difficult to see how taking less power from the grid would be a burden. Nonetheless, the bill seeks to end net metering once the 0.5 percent cap, among the lowest in the nation, is reached.

While net metering is considered a prerequisite to a consumer-friendly rooftop solar market in those states where rooftop solar is doing well, H.B. 2045 effectively scraps net metering in favor of a largely untested “value of distributed generation tariff.” This tarriff would be fashioned later by and at the discretion of the state’s utilities, subject to UTC approval, who contend they need this control to maintain the grid. This effectively puts the utilities in control of the future of distributed generation in the state and allows them to limit the competition they might otherwise face.

Punishing early adopters by upsetting the basic mechanism upon which they have come to rely will deal a huge blow to what appears to be a promising new technology.

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Building houses on sandy ground

March 02, 2015, 9:00 AM

In the summer of 2004, I packed all of my worldly belongings into a small U-Haul trailer and made the trek from Central Texas to the Florida Panhandle. I was going to begin a two-year clerkship with a federal judge in Pensacola. Only a few miles from the western edge of the state, Pensacola is known for its picturesque beaches and beautiful weather. The weather is nice, but not always.

“Don’t they have a lot of hurricanes in Florida?” my mother asked me apprehensively shortly before I left. It was her habit to worry, as mothers do. I explained there was nothing to worry about. Yes, Florida did sometimes get hit by hurricanes. But that was the eastern part of the state, the part with coastline running along the Atlantic Ocean. Pensacola was on the western side, protected from serious damage by the rest of the state’s jutting peninsula. To be hit by a hurricane, the storm would first have to pass below Florida’s southern tip, then swing due north, a sequence of events that almost never happened.

I don’t remember if I adopted a patronizing tone when I gave this explanation. I do know that my timing could not have been worse. Three weeks after I arrived, Hurricane Ivan made landfall in Pensacola, demolishing hundreds of homes and damaging many thousands more. Flooding and power outages meant that it was several weeks before I was able to return to work. The scale of the damage was immense, more than $18 billion in total. The human cost was also significant, with many stuck in FEMA trailers indefinitely.

The rebuilding efforts were impressive. But there was also something more than a little odd about them. While I admired the defiant spirit, I also wondered about the wisdom of building so many homes so close to the water. In Pensacola, the desire to be near the beach was so strong, they even built out on barrier islands, small strips of beach connected to the mainland by bridge.

In one sense, it was perfectly understandable. It’s nice being near the beach. But as events had just demonstrated, it also made you quite vulnerable. Contrary to what I had told my mom, hurricanes are not an unrepeatable event. The next year, the area was hit again by Hurricane Dennis (though the damage was not nearly as severe), and by the time I finished my clerkship in 2006, the nation had suffered through several other major storms, most notably Katrina.

I couldn’t help but think of the words from the seventh chapter of Matthew:

Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.

In America, of course, foolishness is not just allowed; it’s eligible for a government subsidy. One of the big disincentives to building in vulnerable areas is the cost of insurance. The greater the chance a property will be damaged by extreme weather (say, because it’s built in a floodplain), the more it should cost to insure. The added expense can discourage overdevelopment, while not preventing it for those still willing to take the risk. In practice, however, the government has systematically undermined this brake on building by offering its own cut-rate insurance coverage for these areas. Since the money collected in premiums isn’t sufficient to pay for the inevitable losses, taxpayers ultimately make up the difference.

The biggest of these programs, such as the National Flood Insurance Program, are federal. But states are not immune to this kind of silliness. In Texas, for example, we have the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, a state-run agency that provides coverage against hurricane and wind damage in specified coastal regions. The agency is supposed to be an insurer of last resort, but its rates are so low that it has ballooned in size, increasing its potential exposure far beyond its ability to pay.

All of this is having a real effect. It’s become common to blame extreme weather on climate change. And certainly the damage due to extreme weather events has been increasing. Read beyond the headlines, however, and what you find is that the main reason storm damages have increased is that people have been moving to storm-prone areas. We have literally been moving into the path of storms, and government subsidies have been a big factor in allowing people to do that.

These programs weren’t created out of malice. As someone who’s lived through a couple of big storms, I know just how heartbreaking the situation can be. People can see all of their earthly possessions swept away overnight. The desire to help people in such situations, to make them whole, is perfectly natural. But the way we have been doing so has set us up for even more heartbreak down the road.

Edward Anselm

March 02, 2015, 8:54 AM

Dr. Edward Anselm is medical director of Health Republic Insurance of New Jersey and a senior fellow of the R Street Institute.

Edward s a frequent speaker at population health conferences and has been a strong advocate for reimbursement of smoking-cessation services. Most recently, he implemented the first harm reduction strategy sponsored by a health plan. Building on reimbursement for smoking cessation and enhanced coverage of FDA-approved smoking-cessation medications, the program seeks to engage patients and their doctors in a dialogue about harm reduction.

He previously served as chief medical officer of Freelancers Health Service Corp./Health Republic Insurance of New York, HIP Health Plan and Fidelis Care of New York. As a health care executive, his focus has been implementation of disease management and case management programs.

Trained in internal medicine at the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, Edward for several years ran a primary-care clinic. During his residency at Montefiore Medical Center, initiated a smoking cessation clinic. Since then, he has organized and led a number of clinics at hospitals and in workplace settings.

Edward is a fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine and serves on the board of the New York-metro chapter of Physicians for a National Health Plan. He also teaches courses on tobacco control and other public health topics as an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Email: eanselm@msn.com

Nuclear power is a ‘national asset’, says US think tank

March 01, 2015, 8:35 AM

From World Nuclear News:

U.S. federal research policy should recognize the nuclear sector as a national asset and treat it equally with other non-greenhouse gas emitting energy sources, R Street – a Washington DC-headquartered public policy research institute – says in a new report.

In The Role of U.S. Research and Development Policy in Nuclear Power, R Street Senior Fellow George David Banks says the civilian nuclear sector is key to the USA’s influential role in world nuclear safety and non-proliferation, but warns that the country’s international influence will be eroded if the country becomes a “marginal” supplier of nuclear goods and services.

Banks points to the low rate of nuclear new-build within the country, as well as a falling US market share of nuclear-related exports, competition from often state-funded foreign nuclear enterprises, coupled with challenges from deregulated markets. However, cheap shale gas and mandates and subsidies for other forms of generation, particularly renewables, are identified as the biggest obstacles currently facing the sector.

In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed its Clean Power Plan, aiming to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power generation by 30% from 2005 levels by 2030. However, the R Street study contends that the EPA’s proposal as it stands fails to give nuclear power adequate recognition.

To protect its existing nuclear fleet, the report calls for a technology-neutral approach to emissions reduction, with nuclear power treated the same as other non-emitting sources.

“Regulators and grid operators should pursue initiatives that provide adequate compensation for the positive attributes of nuclear power, including on-site fuel, diversity of supply and reliability,” it notes. Moreover, the premature shutdown of reactors because of “market distortions and flaws” poses a threat to grid reliability and the attainment of environmental and climate policy objectives.

To improve its competitiveness with shale gas and subsidized generation, the nuclear sector must look to improving its efficiency, the report says. The USA should refocus federal nuclear research and development programs on advanced reactor concepts and new materials, it adds.

The study calls for federal R&D to “focus on what industry cannot do and will not do on its own – generally high-risk, high-reward research.” The study questions current R&D cost-sharing policy, whereby the private sector is required to cover typically at least 20% of the total cost of a project. This, the report asserts, can actually discourage private sector investment in some projects, particularly those viewed as higher risk or longer to reach commercialization.

The report highlights a new fast test reactor as the cornerstone for federal R&D funding, describing such a facility as “absolutely crucial” for the development of concepts and technology that would enable the required advances to be made. Owing to the expense of such a facility – estimated at $2 billion – R Street recommends exploring the possibility of cost-sharing with public-private partnerships or even partnerships with foreign governments.

White House restrictions on data collection imperil innovation economy

February 27, 2015, 6:59 PM

In a late Friday news dump, the Obama administration released a dubious plan to create a “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.” This proposal would enact a slew of bureaucratic regulations on how consumer data can be collected and retained, including “privacy review boards“ run by the Federal Trade Commission and a directive to conduct “disparate impact” analysis on how data-intensive businesses operate.

While it may have been well-intentioned, the White House’s plan would create an unnecessarily burdensome regulatory regime that would raise costs for consumers in a variety of ways. These include new regulatory compliance costs, restricting the business model of subsidized services (like Facebook or Gmail) and imposing civil fines up to $25,000,000 on businesses.

The Mercatus Center’s Adam Thierer gives a great summary in a post at Tech Liberation Front:

America’s Internet sector came to be the envy of the world because our more flexible, light-touch regulatory regime leaves more breathing room for competition and innovation compared to Europe’s top-down regime. We should not abandon that approach now…the Obama [administration’s] proposal deals exclusively with private sector data collection and has nothing to say about government surveillance activities. The [administration] would be wise to channel its energies into that far more significant privacy problem first.

Indeed. Instead of meddling with one of the most innovative and prosperous sectors of the economy, perhaps the administration should set its own house in order first by addressing out-of-control government surveillance.

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

Coalition urges Congress to keep budget promises

February 27, 2015, 4:58 PM

Rep. Tom Price, Chairman
Committee on Budget
U.S. House of Representatives
207 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

Dear Chairman Price:

On behalf of the undersigned organizations and our combined memberships, we urge you to draft a fiscal year (FY) 2016 Budget Resolution that maintains the budget caps and savings promised to taxpayers under the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011.

Recent news articles point to an effort by some to get Congress to break the caps set for Pentagon spending. But to be clear, BCA spending levels for FY16 – in both defense and non-defense discretionary spending – actually exceed the levels enacted for FY15. The president’s proposal to jettison the caps and increase Pentagon spending by roughly $35 billion more than the approximately half-trillion dollars set by the BCA is fiscally irresponsible and unnecessary. Although some have maligned the BCA, its budget caps have effectively curbed excessive spending. Any effort to modify it must be done in a way that keeps promises made to taxpayers. Fiscal discipline is needed across the federal government and that includes defense spending.

We also understand there is pressure to make an end-run around the BCA caps by increasing the already generous $51 billion requested for the emergency Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account. As you know, OCO has already gained a reputation as a slush fund, as more and more base budget items are being funded through this “off budget” account. We urge you to resist these efforts and to scrutinize the administration’s use of OCO.

Much of the recent press on the Pentagon budget revolves around the specter of the return of across-the-board sequestration cuts supposedly wreaking havoc on defense planning. The simple fact is that, if the budget hews to the spending levels set out in the BCA, there are no “meat axe” across-the-board-cuts, just responsible budgeting.

Again, we urge you to keep promises the prresident and Congress made to taxpayers and draft the fiscal year 2016 Budget Resolution to meet the Budget Control Act requirements.

For further information, please contact Wendy Jordan at Wendy[at]taxpayer.net, or (202)-546-8500 x. 114



Americans for Tax Reform
Campaign for Liberty
Coalition to Reduce Spending
Council for Citizens Against Government Waste
National Taxpayers Union
Niskanen Center
R Street Institute
Taxpayers for Common Sense
Taxpayers Protection Alliance

Democrats take GOP to school on Homeland Security funding battle over immigration

February 27, 2015, 4:44 PM

Regrettably, shutdown politics has become the new norm in Washington. Whether EPA regulations, the Affordable Care Act or immigration, the art of the compromise has been almost completely lost. President Barack Obama does what he pleases through regulation and executive action, while Republicans threaten to use the power of the purse to defund the same. The latest attempt to attack President Obama’s immigration actions through the Department of Homeland Security appropriations process demonstrates again how Republicans lack the votes and resolve to effectively leverage their spending authority to change policy.

Even with Republicans controlling the Senate, they do not have enough procedural votes to end debate and move legislation. For years, Democrats fervently complained about obstructionist Republicans preventing legislation from receiving an up or down vote. Now they are perfectly content to play that role themselves. President Obama’s partisan protectors in the Senate have repeatedly refused to end debate on the House-passed Homeland Security funding measure that would effectively gut the president’s executive actions on immigration.

If the Senate cannot pass the House DHS funding measure, President Obama will simply blame Republicans for failing to present him with any DHS funding option at all.

Even if Republicans had the votes in the Senate and President Obama vetoed their DHS funding measure, Republicans also lack the conviction necessary to hold the line on government shutdowns. For whatever criticisms President Obama deserves for his unilateral policy actions, he has immeasurably more resolve than Congress. He has repeatedly dared congressional Republicans to stop him, and they have not been able to even agree on a plan within the party, much less a serious opposition to the president’s activities.

The truth is that House and Senate Republicans in Washington have little desire to see the Department of Homeland Security shut down, especially with terrorist threats running on about every media outlet imaginable. When the president and his allies know Republicans folding like a cheap suit is only a matter of time, the threat of a shutdown is meaningless.

For Republican representatives like Alabama’s Martha Roby, Bradley Byrne and Robert Aderholt, their support of the so-called “Cromnibus” funding measure came with the promise that Republicans would fight the president on immigration early in 2015. Now that Republican leadership seems intent on finding a way to provide President Obama with a “clean” DHS funding bill, the “fight” over President Obama’s immigration actions may be reduced to a single, entirely symbolic, vote on a bill that President Obama will promptly veto with virtually no political consequences.

Perhaps the most central problem for congressional Republicans is their continued efforts to fight the president’s action with inaction. Americans understand we need to reform our immigration system and secure our borders. The president even communicated that he acted on immigration because Congress would not.

Republicans must answer his challenge by producing a better immigration solution that simultaneously blocks him from writing the law himself.  In fact, Republicans need to start coming up with a large number of good ideas that show the nation how they would lead differently than Democrats. If these half-hearted attempts at political chicken are the best Republicans can produce, Americans are not likely to give them that chance.

Florida may move forward on TNC regs

February 27, 2015, 11:45 AM

Florida lawmakers this month filed legislation in both houses of the Legislature to regulate transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft.  The two companion bills seek to establish statewide guidelines, but differ greatly on particulars.

The Senate version — S.B. 1326, filed by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg — establishes statewide requirements, including background checks, minimum insurance coverage and a ban on drivers with three or more moving violations or a reckless driving conviction in the past three years, as well as a ban on drivers convicted of a DUI within the past seven years or other felony convictions.

The House version — H.B. 816, sponsored by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar — establishes similar requirements to those in the Senate bill, but also preempts and thus nullifies local government regulations. Additionally, Gaetz’s bill requires TNCs to pay a $5,000 annual permit fee; post fare and insurance information on their websites; implement a zero-tolerance policy on drug and alcohol abuse by their drivers; and suspend drivers accused of wrongdoing until an investigation is completed.

Although the bills are a long way from conforming to one another, they are poised to ignite a much-needed debate on what role the state should play, if any, in regulating this emerging market.

TNCs currently operate in several cities throughout the state, but they have increasingly been targeted by local governments.  The City of Orlando, for example, initially wanted to force TNCs to charge more than taxis as a condition to legally operate in the city, among other requirements. Ultimately, Orlando elected to force them to charge the same rates.  In December, Hillsborough County slammed TNCs with a cease-and-desist order, and when that failed to get them off the streets, they joined other cities — including Miami and Las Vegas — in pursuing injunctive relief against them in court.

TNCs and their supporters argue that many of these government actions are simply meant to protect the taxi cab industry.  Those on the opposite side, who support these types of regulations or outright bans, argue that it is a public safety issue because TNCs may not have adequate insurance, consumer protections or other safeguards.

It is not unreasonable for the state to set minimum standards and regulations aimed at TNCs, who have agreed to similar rules in other jurisdictions. The debate, however, will likely focus on the degree to which the state should preempt local government regulations.

Indeed, local governments can and should regulate TNCs to ensure public safety, especially in the absence of statewide regulation. However, it appears that some have used their regulatory authority to protect one industry to the detriment of another.  As I wrote recently: requiring companies to charge more than their competitors—or even dictating what they should charge to begin with—as a condition to conduct business is utterly un-American.  If Florida is “Open for Business,” as Gov. Rick Scott always says, price controls or other regulations so onerous or expensive that they purposely put certain industry players at a disadvantage or out of business altogether should not be allowed to stand. Therefore, lawmakers should at least explore whether to preempt such destructive, protectionist regulations.

Regardless, local governments, the taxi cab industry and other stakeholders should definitely be at the table and part of the conversation as these bills move through the process. Whatever regulations are eventually adopted at the state level should indeed level the playing field, so that everyone can compete safely and fairly. Current regulations that put traditional taxi cabs at a disadvantage, for example, should be revisited.

Ultimately, TNCs can and should be allowed to participate and become part of the transportation ecosystem.  As in every other industry, competition would increase quality, choice and innovation, and in this case, another transportation-on-demand option increases public safety by reducing drunken driving.

As the tourism capital of the world, Florida has a unique opportunity to be a model in transportation innovation.

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

R Street scholars on your podcast airwaves

February 27, 2015, 10:56 AM

R Street Executive Director Andrew Moylan sat down with the fine folks at the Through the Noise podcast to discuss, among other things, what a “think tank” is, how R Street fits into the think tank universe and, particularly, our work on sharing economy services like Uber and Lyft. Meanwhile, our former colleagues at the Heartland Institute interviewed Associate Fellow Dr. Brad Rodu about his work in tobacco harm reduction for the Heartland Daily Podcast.

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

Geoengineering: The cold war on global warming

February 27, 2015, 9:00 AM

A recent panel of the National Academy of Sciences called for increased research into geoengineering. The announcement drew a variety of reactions, ranging from “this is proof that mankind is doomed!” to “uh, what is geoengineering?” So in the spirit of science, I’ve prepared a brief “explainer” on this fascinating and complicated subject.

What is geoengineering?

Geoengineering, or climate engineering, is the attempt to alter the earth’s climate on a large scale via deliberate human intervention. Specifically, geoengineering aims to counteract the effects of global warming. Remember in old movies or kids’ television shows when a mad genius creates a weather-control device? Well, weather is not climate, so it’s nothing like that. But basically.

How would it work?

A lot of geoengineering proposals do sound like something out of a science-fiction movie. The most popular version involves pumping aerosols into the upper atmosphere to block some of the incoming sunlight. The idea is based on the fact that, just as there are greenhouse gases that trap sunlight and make the earth warmer, so there are others (such as sulfuric aerosols) that have a cooling effect. An unplanned demonstration of this strategy occurred in 1991, when Mount Pinatubo erupted, spewing tons of sulfur dioxide into the air. Over the following 18 months, global temperatures declined by nearly a degree Fahrenheit.

Other less-common proposals include dumping iron into the oceans (to stimulate plankton growth), increasing the reflectivity of surfaces and deploying giant space umbrellas to block out the sun (not even kidding). Needless to say, the practicality of some of these plans is doubtful.

Who wants to do this?

Right now, nobody. But a variety of people have argued that geoengineering could be a much cheaper solution to global warming than cutting greenhouse-gas emissions. Most geoengineering proposals would cost a few billion to implement, and would not require painful government-mandated emissions reductions. For example, the economist Robert P. Murphy has written that “[t]he option of geo-engineering makes it much safer to continue using fossil fuels and thereby pass on extra trillions of dollars of wealth to the next generation at possibly little or even no cost.” Similarly, Jim Manzi has advocated for “the development of geo-engineering technology that would be available on a ‘break-the-glass-in-case-of-emergency’ basis” in case warming were to reach dangerous levels.

Is there a downside?

Oh, yes. Milton Friedman famously noted that if you put the government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years there’d be a shortage of sand. Geoengineering would give the government control over the planet’s thermostat.

Consider an analogy: For the past hundred years, control over the money supply has been given to the Federal Reserve. Led by a group of experts in economics and business, the Federal Reserve is justified as a means of tempering the boom and bust cycle of the pre-central bank period. But the economy, it turns out, is really complicated, and nobody’s perfect, so occasionally the Fed makes mistakes that plunge the globe into a crippling depression.

Now imagine the equivalent of the Federal Reserve, but for global temperature. Maybe it would be based in Washington (shudder); maybe at the United Nations (double shudder). No doubt, it would be staffed by the world’s most eminent experts who made it through the political vetting process. Yet one wrong move, one over-reaction or under-correction, and the planet could turn into a hothouse or be headed into a new ice age. That could be really bad. When the earth’s temperature dropped a couple of degrees during the “Little Ice Age,” this led to crop failures, wars, revolutions, and other nastiness that may have killed off upwards of a third of humanity.

And that’s not the worst-case scenario. Because there is no world government (thank God), setting a single target temperature for the planet would be very difficult. Some countries might prefer a warming world. Others might want it chilly. The resulting conflict could lead to a new Cold War (pun intended). Because geoengineering is so cheap, planet-changing programs are well within the reach of poorer nations and even some wealthy individuals. That’s a lot of chances to screw things up royally.

Are we all going to die?


So we shouldn’t research geoengineering?

Just the opposite. In my view, the dangers inherent in geoengineering are precisely why we need to prepare for it. The United States has spent a lot of time and effort trying to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Geoengineering has just as much destructive potential, but is potentially far easier to get (unlike uranium, aerosols are readily available). Even if we don’t have to worry about a criminal organization trying to blackmail the world, we should worry about the possibility of environmentalists who take matters into their own hands, or of a dozen countries launching secret geoengineering programs that accidentally multiply their efforts. To guard against this, we need to know as much as possible about how the different options work (or if they work at all). We also need to figure out how to reverse whatever we do quickly, if necessary. In short, we cannot allow a geoengineering gap.

Also, Manzi isn’t wrong. Given the possibility that global warming could turn out really, really badly, it makes sense to have geoengineering as an option just in case. At least until President Gingrich establishes our Mars colony, this is the only planet where we can keep all our stuff. Geoengineering may seem like science fiction, but it could end up being better than the alternative.