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San Antonio must continue to revisit rideshare ordinance

March 06, 2015, 1:16 PM

Ridesharing reform is coming to San Antonio, but so far it’s been a bumpy road.

In December, the San Antonio City Council voted 7-2 to impose a set of unnecessary and burdensome rules on ridesharing companies. The new regulations imposed a litany of requirements on drivers before they were allowed to pick up fares. Drivers had to submit to a variety of background checks, including fingerprinting and drug testing, as well as random vehicle inspections and other redundant or even pointless regulatory hoops.

The San Antonio ordinance also imposed wildly disproportionate insurance requirements. Ridesharing drivers are required to have $1 million in comprehensive coverage from the moment they accept a fare. By contrast, someone driving a San Antonio taxi is only required to have the state minimum of $60,000 coverage per incident.

The regulations were so unwieldy that ridesharing pioneer Uber announced it would suspend operations in the city. Uber was soon joined in this by its chief rideshare competitor, Lyft.

In response, an ad hoc working group led by the council’s newest member, Roberto Trevino, worked to craft revised ridesharing ordinance that is more accommodating of the growing practice. That revised ordinance passed on March 5, but the changes, while positive, were not enough to alter Uber and Lyft’s plans to “pause” operations in the city once the regulations go into effect on April 1.

In the last few years, ridesharing companies like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar have become increasingly popular across big U.S. cities. These companies, which use smartphone apps to connect drivers and riders in real time, provide a service that often is cheaper and more convenient than traditional taxis.

Unsurprisingly, people who use these services tend to be big fans. City governments, on the other hand, started out more wary. Ridesharing did not always fit comfortably into existing 20th century regulations, and existing taxi monopolies were an entrenched interest opposed to reform.

But over the last few years, there has been a remarkable turnaround in how some of America’s biggest cities deal with alternative transportation. From Washington to Austin, cities have implemented sensible regulatory frameworks that allow ridesharing companies to provide an alternative to traditional taxis, while still addressing legitimate safety concerns. San Antonio’s restrictive ordinance was out of step with this trend.

San Antonio long has lagged when it comes to vehicle-for-hire regulation. According to a 2014 report by the R Street Institute, San Antonio ranked 47th out of America’s 50 largest cities in terms of how they regulate taxis, limos and other vehicle-for-hire companies, earning a grade of D-.

The new working group is a sign the San Antonio council is waking up to the risk that it will be left behind if it continues to obstruct ridesharing in the city. But more needs to be done. San Antonio can try to limit competition in its taxi market, but it can’t limit competition between cities. With Austin just down the road and more people moving to the city who are rideshare users, the demand to remove regulatory obstacles is only going to grow over time.

The best way to deal with regulatory mistakes is to fix them early. Hopefully this is a lesson the council is learning.

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

Rand Paul on why Republicans should care about Selma

March 06, 2015, 1:07 PM

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul was two years old when 500 marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on Sunday, March 7, 1965, to promote voting rights for black Americans and protest the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was shot by a state trooper at an earlier voter registration march.

Before the marchers, led by John Lewis and Hosea Williams, reached the other side, state troopers stopped and violently beat them as television cameras broadcast images of what would become known as “Bloody Sunday” to a worldwide audience.

Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of that day, which helped spur significant change in America’s historical trajectory, including passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Paul, the junior senator from Kentucky and a potential Republican nominee for president in 2016, wasn’t old enough to understand the events that unfolded that day, but he is well aware of their effects.

“(Bloody Sunday in Selma) helped solidify (for) people that it was really time to fix the tragedy of separation and segregation,” Paul said.

When the topic of discussion turns to present-day civil rights, Republican voices are far too often absent. Paul wants to change that.

He absolutely believes the civil rights movement should resonate with conservatives.

“Particularly after you get the 14th Amendment. (It) was a big step forward,” Paul said of the legislation that in 1868 provided “equal protection under the law” in response to the status of freed slaves. You can’t have tyrannical government at the state level or the federal level.”

Specifically, Paul sees “Bloody Sunday” as the necessary impetus that moved the nation to combat state-sanctioned racism.

“People at the time must have been shocked by the violence of it,” he said. “It also showed that something really had to be done. It was extraordinary to have federal intervention, but at the same time what happened with the violence at Selma was extraordinary as well.”

While half a century has passed and America has made great strides toward a more equal society, significant racial and socio-economic disparities in employment, incarceration rates and education remain.

“We do have a lot of work to do,” Paul said. “We have a great deal of poverty in our big cities.”

To address these gaps, Paul proposes “economic freedom zones,” or areas with reduced taxes, which he believes will provide cities with high-minority populations living in poverty with the resources to craft solutions that work for them rather than a top-down approach from Washington.

In December 2013, Paul introduced a bill in Congress to create those zones in cities such as Detroit. “This would dramatically lower taxes and leave $1.3 billion in Detroit that would not be sent to Washington,” he said.

Paul plans to offer the same for “any other city that has high pockets of poverty or unemployment.”

Paul also sees education as a significant area where there should be shared goals of improvement among Republicans and Democrats. “I’m a big fan of school choice, letting kids chose to go where they want to go to school,” he said. “I’d let them go to the best public school they want to choose in their area, or I’d let them go to the best private school and take their voucher with them.”

With minority voters, and particularly black voters, heavily supporting Democrats, Paul recognizes Republicans have their work cut out for them in persuading them the GOP has a plan with their interests in mind.

“In the 1920s, nearly 90 percent of African-Americans were Republicans,” he said. “When the Great Depression came, there was a large switch in allegiance, and it has been the same or continuing to get stronger over the last 70 years or so.”

One of the effects of the Voting Rights Act was the creation of “majority-minority” congressional districts nationwide, virtually assuring that minority voters are able to elect a candidate of their choosing. Yet the districts also generally consolidate those voters in one area, all but eliminating their voice in neighboring congressional districts.

Paul sees that as a challenging issue to address.

“(Majority-minority districts) have allowed for much greater minority representation in Congress,” he said. “That’s good, and I agree with that. (But) all of these voters have been grouped in one district. … There hasn’t been as much interaction between Republican politicians and large African-American populations.”

Paul said the events in Selma were critical to our trajectory as a nation of equals, and they should still inspire our efforts today.

“I’m very glad that the terrible tragedy [in Selma] finally spurred our country to do the right thing,” he said.

Cheap oil gets rid of subsidized oil in developing nations

March 06, 2015, 12:32 PM

William Goldman is best known as the screenwriter behind the films the Princess Bride and Marathon Man. He is also the author of a profound quote about business: Nobody knows anything.

Goldman was talking about the movie business. A studio might spend $100 million dollars on a picture, bring on the biggest stars, promote it relentlessly and it could still flop. Or it might be a hit! How can you tell whether a movie will succeed or fail? Nobody knows.

Goldman’s insight isn’t just true about movies. When it comes to energy, it is often also the case that “nobody knows anything.” Or, what’s even worse, that what everybody knows turns out not to be true.

For the past few years, oil has hovered around $100 a barrel. Pundits and experts wrote article after article explaining why the price of oil would remain high for the foreseeable future. And then, without warning, the price of oil tumbled, falling to less than half the price before rebounding slightly.

Once this happened, people wrote all sorts of articles about why the fall had to happen. Few could claim to have seen this supposed inevitability coming, however.

Not everyone has been pleased with the new lower oil prices. Among the various complaints, lower oil prices are supposed to lead to increased use of fossil fuels, exacerbating the problems of climate change.

But then something unexpected happened in many developing countries directly subsidizing fossil fuel use by their citizens. In response to the declining cost of energy, they have reduced or eliminated these subsidies. As the New York Times reported last month:

On Jan. 1, the Indonesian government abandoned a four-decade-old policy of subsidizing gasoline, permitting prices at the pump to rise and fall with global oil prices. As long as oil is cheap, Indonesians will not see much of a difference. Since October, India has stopped subsidizing diesel and raised fuel taxes. Malaysia cut subsidies on gasoline and diesel late last year….

Such subsidies amount to more than $540 billion a year worldwide, and for decades they have been used as a crutch by governments to buy political support and lend a crude, but flawed, safety net to the poor, energy experts say. But they are also a drag on economic development and cause environmental damage by encouraging the burning of fossil fuels and discouraging efficiency, the experts say.

To my knowledge, not a single person predicted that lower energy prices would result in the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies in the developing world. Yet it happened.

Nobody knows anything.

Or consider a related example. In 2008, voters in the United States were presented with a seemingly stark choice on energy. One candidate promised to reduce carbon emissions by imposing a government-run cap-and-trade scheme on the economy. The other’s slogan was “drill, baby, drill!” It seemed like a classic example of a policy tradeoff between economic growth and environmental quality.

And yet, over the subsequent six years, almost nothing happened according to this script. The American people elected the anti-drilling candidate, yet despite his best efforts, President Barack Obama was unable to enact his cap-and-trade policies. Instead, oil and gas production exploded, not due to government, but to the fracking revolution centered on private land and using privately developed methods.

Ironically, this boom in drilling had precisely the environmental effect that the Obama administration claimed only government could provide. Carbon emissions in the United States fell to their lowest level in 20 years. American emissions fell faster without cap-and-trade than European emissions fell with cap-and-trade.

If you had told someone in 2008 that the United States would cut its carbon emissions by increasing drilling, they would’ve looked at you like you were crazy.

Nobody knows anything.

I don’t know what the future holds for energy and, probably, neither does anyone else. Probably, it will be something just as unexpected as previous developments. Or maybe not. But the fact that the future is so unpredictable hardly means that we should just throw up our hands. There are lessons we can learn from our own ignorance, and ways to prepare for the future’s unpredictability.

First and foremost, government should stop trying to micromanage energy development. Government mandates regarding the proper fuel mix presume that we know the best ways to reduce emissions. Recent history shows this is not true. Attempts by the government to block individual projects (as with the Keystone pipeline) or pick individual energy winners (as with the Wind Production Tax Credit) are of dubious value.

Instead, we should harness the same force that led to recent emissions reductions: human ingenuity. The free-market system has shown repeatedly that when given the proper incentives, the ability of humanity to innovate and solve problems is unparalleled.

Finally, we shouldn’t be afraid of cheap energy. That may sound obvious, but far too many still accept the position of Paul Ehrlich that “giving society cheap, abundant energy would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.”

This sentiment is not only offensive, it has got matters backwards. The reason carbon emissions have fallen in the United States is that energy got cheaper. Developing countries are cutting fossil fuel subsidies because energy is cheaper.

Roger Pielke, Jr. has written about what he calls the Iron Law of Climate Change Policy: “When policies on emissions reductions collide with policies focused on economic growth, economic growth will win out every time.” But as recent events have shown, these aren’t mutually exclusive options.

Indiana passes e-cig regs, but stops short of vaping ban

March 06, 2015, 11:46 AM

The State of Indiana is moving to regulate e-cigarettes and the liquids used for “vaping.” The Indiana House and Senate both have passed legislation that would ban sales of the liquids to those under 18, require child-proof caps on containers, and require manufacturing safety standards. However, Indiana does not appear to be moving toward adding e-cigarettes to Indiana’s smoking ban as the state attorney general wanted.

Here’s a summary of what the bill contains according to WBAA radio:

Rep. Kevin Mahan, R-Hartford City, authored a bill including several regulations vape shop owners say they’re comfortable with – prohibiting sales to anyone under 18 years old, ensuring e-liquids are prepared in rooms that are up to commercial food preparation standards, requiring tamper-proof safety caps.

There are other provisions they say go too far, including one that requires them to store three samples of each mixture they create. Indianapolis vape shop owner Shawn Anderson says that requirement would bankrupt him.

“With the amount of samples that I would have to save, because we do batches as small as six milliliters, it would cost me over $1.2 million per year,” he says.

The last thing Indiana should be doing is considering regulations that would diminish the availability of e-cigarettes. In addition, Indiana should keep in mind as they regulate these products they can serve as a smoking cessation aid. A study last year found that e-cigarette users were 60 percent more likely to quit smoking than if they used nicotine patches or gum. If Indiana restricts e-cigarettes, they will subject smokers to the higher health risk of tobacco smoking or force those who do want to quit to use the less-successful means.

Another idea that Indiana lawmakers considered was adding “vaping” to the public smoking ban already in place. However, this would be a bad idea for many reasons. Second-hand e-cigarette vapors are not nearly as harmful as second-hand tobacco smoke. A study found that second-hand e-cigarette vapors contained far fewer harmful chemicals than second-hand tobacco smoke and posed less of a risk to bystanders. Given the minimal risk to non-smokers and non-vapers, adding e-cigarettes to the public smoking ban would be an unnecessary infringement upon personal freedom.

Adding e-cigarettes to the public smoking ban also would eliminate an incentive for tobacco smokers to switch to e-cigarettes. Many people who take up vaping do so as a way to get around public smoking bans. There are likely always going to be people who will smoke as a means of ingesting nicotine. One of the reasons we have public smoking bans, in addition to the public health reasons, is to stigmatize smoking. If the goal is to improve public health, why would lawmakers consider a similar approach toward e-cigarettes? By adding e-cigarettes to the public smoking ban that covers tobacco cigarettes, it will unfairly stigmatize e-cigarette users and discourage people who are looking to quit smoking from using those products.

Many of these regulations are caused by the fear that teens are using e-cigarettes. In fact, a CDC study found that more teens were using e-cigarettes than using conventional cigarettes. The e-cigarette industry also makes it clear they support banning sales of e-cigarettes to those under 18. Instead of adding new regulations that may bankrupt legitimate vaping shops, perhaps the state of Indiana could work with retailers on programs to check identification of potential e-cigarette buyers, just as is currently done with tobacco and alcohol.

Indiana lawmakers, when they devise final regulations for e-cigarettes, need to take public health into account. They should also be careful not force Indiana residents into more dangerous and more risky options in a misguided effort to protect public health. Indiana lawmakers should remember the old maxim to “do no harm” when considering legislation on e-cigarettes.

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

Fighting crop insurance cronyism

March 05, 2015, 3:46 PM

From the American Conservative:

“I don’t have super high hopes it’ll go anywhere,” says Lori Sanders, outreach director and senior fellow for The R Street Institute.

She’s talking about the Harvest Price Subsidy Prohibition Act, a bill introduced February 12 that targets the harvest price option (HPO) crop insurance policy—known as “the Cadillac coverage option of federal crop insurance.”

…The American Association of Crop Insurers, the Crop Insurance and Reinsurance Bureau, and National Crop Insurance Services called the bill “just another example of agriculture opponents trying to erode the risk management tools on which farmers depend,” according to AgWeek. But in a press release, R Street argued that “This product goes above and beyond the definition of a safety net. It is the crop insurance equivalent of your auto insurer surprising you with a new Cadillac Escalade after you’ve totaled your Toyota Corolla.”

…The farm bill’s crop insurance measures inordinately help large industrial farms stay alive, giving them an unfair advantage over small to midsize farmers, who cannot afford the same coverage. As Sanders wrote in a piece for TAC last year, “The federal government pays, on average, 63 percent of producers’ crop insurance premiums, regardless of whether it is a small family farm or a large, multi-million dollar business. Twenty-six farms receive more than $1 million in premium support, while 80 percent of farms receive $5,000 or less.”

…The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the bill bill could save more than $18 billion over the next decade, “with no effect on the premium subsidies farmers receive for standard crop insurance policies,” says R Street.

So why doesn’t Sanders think it’ll get past committee?

“It’s very arcane, few know about it outside the Farm Bureau,” she told me—and the Farm Bureau has developed a reputation for supporting agribusiness, to the detriment of smaller family farmers. The Farm Bureau is just one piece of the Big Ag lobbying behemoth that dominates Washington: “In addition to the American Farm Bureau Federation’s twenty-two lobbyists, no fewer than 20 of the state Farm Bureaus, including Missouri, have registered lobbyists in Washington, leading the field of agribusiness lobbyists,” Ian T. Shearn wrote for The Nation in 2012. “Over the past decade, the nation’s ten largest agribusiness interests gave $35 million to Congressional candidates—led by the Farm Bureau, which gave $16 million, or 45 percent of the total.”

…Sanders believes a lot of the Farm Bill’s cronyism is indirectly supported by Americans’ ignorance. People assume that support for the farm bill equals support for the local, family-run operations they consider the backbone of American agriculture. “Mainstream America just doesn’t know,” she said.

However, Sanders does hope that this bill—as well as the AFFIRM Act, which will be reintroduced to Congress in two weeks—will help raise awareness about the cronyism the farm bill supports, and what reforms need to be made. “We need to keep the drumbeat going.”

Time for full investigations of Hillary Clinton

March 05, 2015, 9:02 AM

Recent press revelations indicate that Hillary Rodham Clinton likely violated federal law by conducting State Department business via a personal email account. Both Congress and the State Department Inspector General’s Office should commence investigations.

The Washington Post shows this was no accidental goof. Clinton, or a member of her team, set up a private domain email account during her confirmation proceedings to become secretary of state. The New York Times reports that she never once used an official State Department account during her four years in the post. This is unacceptable.

Congress enacted the Federal Records Act in 1950. The objective was straightforward: to preserve records of government action for posterity and for public examination. In short, agencies preserve records of historical value, then transfer them to the National Archives and Records Administration, which makes them available to the public.

NARA has issued exacting guidance directing agencies how to discern records from non-records, including how to preserve the former and dispense with the latter. By law, responsibility starts at the top:

The head of each Federal agency shall make and preserve records containing adequate and proper documentation of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, and essential transactions of the agency and designed to furnish the information necessary to protect the legal and financial rights of the Government and of persons directly affected by the agency’s activities.

In the case of the State Department, that agency head was Clinton.

Nowhere in NARA’s email preservation guidance does it provide for any government employee, to say nothing of a cabinet head, to use a private email account and walk off with her work missives after leaving the position. On the contrary, all federal employees are obliged to: “review each message, identify its value and either delete it or move it to a record-keeping system.” While the guidance allows for incidental messages like spam and all-staff announcements to be deleted immediately, it makes clear that any “substantive policy discussions conducted in email” ought to be preserved for several years and ultimately transfer to NARA.

The law rightly provides for harsh penalties for removing federal records. Anyone who intentionally “conceals, removes, mutilates, obliterates, or destroys, or attempts to do so, or, with intent to do so takes and carries away any record, proceeding, map, book, paper, document, or other thing” covered under the law faces both fines and up to three years in prison.

The affair invokes another possible legal peril in the potential mishandling of classified information. Assorted federal laws and regulations govern how national security information is to be handled and protected. It is inconceivable that none of the tens of thousands of emails sent and received by Clinton transmitted classified information. The behavior detailed in press accounts is at odds with extensive regulations on how classified information must be safeguarded by government officials. Mishandling of classified information also carries serious penalties.

Clinton titled one of her books Living History. Both the State Department Inspector General’s Office, and Congress itself, should investigate to see if she compromised history by violating our nation’s records laws.

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)

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.