Out of the Storm News

Syndicate content
Free markets. Real solutions.
Updated: 2 weeks 3 days ago

Smoke-free tobacco can save lives

May 11, 2015, 8:10 AM

While our federal government dreams of a tobacco-free society, 42 million Americans continue to smoke cigarettes and nearly half a million die each year. That’s 1,300 smoker deaths every single day.

Tobacco policy in the United States is driven by prohibitionists who insist that smokers quit nicotine and tobacco altogether. They ignore the fact that nicotine, although addictive, is not the major cause of any disease associated with smoking. Nicotine is similar to caffeine, which is addictive but safely consumed by millions daily in coffee, tea and cola drinks. Science shows it’s the smoke that kills, yet the government refuses to tell smokers about far safer alternative products like smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Over the past century in Sweden, men have smoked less and used more smokeless tobacco (a spit-free product called snus) than in any other Western country. The result: Swedish men have the developed world’s lowest rates of lung cancer and smoking-related deaths.

Numerous research studies document that the health risks of smokeless tobacco use are so low as to be barely measurable, even for mouth cancer. (The European Union removed warning labels for that disease from Swedish snus packages in 2001.) Statistically, smokeless users have about the same risk of dying from their habit as automobile users have of dying in a car accident.

Swedes have a history of embracing harm reduction. They invented the modern seat belt and they’ve eagerly substituted relatively safe snus for cigarettes. Snus is now widely available in the United States, as are e-cigarettes, another safer-than-cigarettes option. E-cigarettes deliver nicotine in a vapor of water and propylene glycol, which is used in hundreds of medicines and personal-care products. E-cigarettes satisfy cigarette smokers because they provide the “throat hit” that mimics smoking.

Research shows that smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes have helped many smokers quit deadly cigarettes.

Tobacco prohibitionists inaccurately portray smoke-free products as causing teen smoking, but there is no evidence for these claims. National surveys show that teen smoking has declined to record lows. Tobacco initiation by young people should be stopped in its tracks. But the 8 million Americans who will die from smoking-related illness in the next 20 years are not children today; they are adults, 35 years and older. Children shouldn’t be used as a smokescreen to condemn their smoking parents and grandparents to premature death.

I have conducted research on tobacco use and health risks for more than 20 years at two major cancer centers. In 2011, I created “Switch and Quit,” the first-of-its-kind, community-based quit-smoking program in Owensboro, Ky. That campaign, aimed at smokers who were unable or unwilling to quit using total tobacco abstinence, included print, radio, billboard, social-media and cinema public-service messages.

The switch-and-quit concept has been endorsed by the British Royal College of Physicians (among others), which found that “smokers smoke predominantly for nicotine, that nicotine itself is not especially hazardous, and that if nicotine could be provided in a form that is acceptable and effective as a cigarette substitute, millions of lives could be saved.”

Switching from cigarettes to smoke-free tobacco products yields almost all of the health benefits of quitting altogether. That’s the life-saving truth.

IRS created tool to calculate Obamacare repayments, didn’t share with public

May 08, 2015, 5:26 PM

The Internal Revenue Service developed an online tool that would have helped Americans who received health insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act to better calculate their tax bills, but opted not to share that information with the public, according to a new report from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of the Inspector-General.

In case you missed the news, 2015 tax-filing season was something of a fustercluck all around, as tens of thousands of Obamacare subsidy recipients were stuck with tax bills that were massively more than they expected. This past year marked the debut of the federal Advance Premium Tax Credit, intended to help modest-income Americans without workplace health insurance and who don’t qualify for Medicaid to purchase coverage through the Obamacare exchanges. However, because APTC adjustments are based on what a taxpayer projects his or her income will be over the course of the year, those who undershoot the figure are required to pay back some or all of the subsidy when they file their annual returns.

It turns out this is no small problem. According to H&R Block, fully two-thirds of tax filers who received the subsidy had to return some of it to the IRS. The average payment for that cohort, the company found, was $729. That’s nothing to sneeze at, given that the 2014 income guidelines would limit subsidies to individuals making between $11,770 and $47,080. Separate research by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that half of all subsidy recipients ended up having to pay something back to the government.

The IG’s report reveals that the IRS recognized the instructions for figuring out this so-called “shared responsibility payment” were so complicated that it had to develop an online tool to help its own examiners to calculate it. It just opted not to share that tool with the taxpayers who actually would be asked to comply with the rules and cough up the dough.

IRS management informed us that they decided not to provide taxpayers an online SRP calculator because approximately 80 percent of individual taxpayers use tax preparation software to file their tax return. IRS management stated that they partnered with tax return software providers to ensure that their software accurately computes the SRP and developed a detailed worksheet in the Form 8965 instructions to assist taxpayers in computing the SRP.

While we understand the IRS’s decision to partner with the tax return software provider community, we also believe the IRS has an obligation to provide the same level of assistance to all taxpayers, including those who file paper tax returns.

The report notes the agency is currently “reevaluating” whether to make the tool public in the future.

Subsidy repayment wasn’t the only nasty Obamacare surprise for taxpayers this year. H&R Block also found broad confusion about the penalty for failing to comply with the individual mandate. While many assumed they would be hit with a $95 fee, which was the figure most commonly reported in the press, the law actually sets a variety of potential penalties depending on income and family size. The company reported the average penalty paid was actually $178.

In 2016, the flat fee will rise to at least $325. For a family of four who earns $60,000, the penalty for failing to have coverage will be about $975. Mark Ciaramitaro, vice president of H&R Block health care and tax services, noted in a statement:

This season saw general ACA-related confusion, incorrect or delayed 1095-A information documents, and overall anxiety regarding refund impacts…With many taxpayers now receiving coverage documentation, more taxpayers who will experience APTC reconciliation and the doubling of penalties, unfortunately we should expect taxpayer anxiety and confusion to continue next year.

You can say that again.

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

Washington Monthly was warning about domestic digital surveillance…40 years ago

May 08, 2015, 3:41 PM

Via Gizmodo’s Paleofuture blog, we have a reminder of a December 1975 article in Washington Monthly that warned about the potential for government spooks to use the newfangled thing then called the ARPANET to spy on citizens domestically.

The most significant thing about ARPANET is that it permits the instant connection of computers of different types, ranging from the huge ILLIAC IV to the commercial-class models produced by IBM and others. Complex switching techniques allowing these computers to “talk to each other” are considered a major technological break-through. The question that goes on haunting civil libertarians is whether ARPANET can be used for domestic intelligence by being hooked into CIA, FBI, military intelligence, White House, or other computer systems.

Author Tad Szulc (whom Paleofuture notes was “probably” not a time traveler) was writing just a year after President Richard Nixon’s post-Watergate resignation. That makes it all the more fascinating just how well the piece reflects not only the mid-1970s conspiracy theory paranoia that drove films of the day like”The Parallax Effect,” “The Conversation” and “Three Days of the Condor,” but that also sounds so apropos of the post-Snowden reality we all have come to know.

There is no evidence, however, that ARPANET has been devised with domestic intelligence in mind. ARPA officials say that the network has never been employed for anything except the computerized exchange of military scientific data among the institutions forming ARPANET.

Still, the question lingers: Could the next Nixon order ARPANET to be turned into a police instrument, instantly telling every government agency everything there is to be known about every American citizen whose name has been recorded somewhere?

 

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

TNC bills could be on agenda for Florida’s special session

May 08, 2015, 2:53 PM

One of the consequences of the Florida House of Representatives’ decision last week to commence an abrupt sine die adjournment, rather than play out an intractable battle with the state Senate over the budget and whether to accept federal money to expand Medicaid, is that legislation that would have established clear and reasonable rules for ridesharing in the Sunshine State was left to die.

But there may yet be hope, according to the SaintPetersBlog. Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, tells the site that he expects legislation to address transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft will be on the docket when the Legislature reconvenes June 1 for a special session, which primarily will be devoted to passing the constitutionally mandated balanced budget.

“I won’t count out Uber for the special session,” said St. Petersburg state Sen. Jeff Brandes, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee. “I think you’re going to see transportation-related proposals included in the call for special session.”

Better still, Brandes made clear that he believes the law should establish one clear and consistent coverage standard for TNC and taxi drivers alike — the previous Senate bill set coverage limits for TNCs that were higher than those required of taxis — and would rather see a standard that treats TNC drivers who haven’t “matched” with a driver just as it would any other driver on the road.

“To me you should have the same amount of insurance if you don’t have a passenger in the car, whether you’re delivering pizza or packages or you’re on the Uber app waiting to pick up a passenger,” he says. “There should be one level of coverage for that, but if you have a passenger in the car, there should be a different level of coverage.”

Brandes believes that Uber and Lyft drivers need to pay the same amount of insurance as would taxi cab operators. “My concerns with this bill is that we’re kind of treating taxi-cab passengers as second-class citizens when it comes to insurance coverage under his legislation,” he says.

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

E-cigarettes are a friend to public health

May 08, 2015, 1:54 PM

Delaware lawmakers are now considered H.B. 5, a bill that would ban e-cigarette use everywhere smoking is prohibited. Experience as a public health physician has taught me to consider both direct and indirect impacts and to be wary of seemingly obvious consumer protections. On this basis, I believe that this bill would do more harm than good.

More than 40 million Americans smoke cigarettes. Smoking kills an estimated 480,000 Americans each year. Every day an estimated 3,000 teens try cigarettes for the first time. Many of them proceed to lifelong addiction and premature death.

Meanwhile, smokeless tobacco and other non-pharmaceutical nicotine delivery products represent about 20 percent of nicotine consumption in the United States. The numbers of deaths from all of these other products are so small that they are not tracked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or anyone else.

Physicians and public health authorities routinely recommend nicotine gums, patches, lozenges and inhalers for smoking cessation and as a substitute for cigarettes for smokers unable to quit. The nicotine in these products is derived from tobacco and contains traces of other tobacco-related toxins.

They are available on open shelves in fruit and candy flavors. They are sold without age restriction. Despite having so much in common with e-cigarettes, neither physicians nor public health authorities have expressed concern about the potential of these over-the-counter pharmaceuticals to attract teens to nicotine addiction or to harm adults.

We know exactly what is in e-cigarettes. Most contain nicotine, but some do not. The only other ingredients are limited to flavoring, propylene glycol, glycerin, citric acid and water.

Many vapers have successfully quit smoking after failing to quit using the currently recommended pharmaceutical products. E-cigarettes are the only products with proven success in getting smokers unwilling or unable to quit smoking to do so.

Environmental tobacco smoke (ETS, also known as “second-hand smoke”) kills an estimated 40,000 Americans each year because it contains high concentrations of the same toxins that kill smokers. About 85 percent of ETS is the smoke that curls off the end of the cigarette when no one is puffing on it.

E-cigarettes do not contain tobacco. Nothing is burned. Nothing is emitted when they are put aside.

The concentrations of toxins in exhaled e-cigarette vapor are so small that they are not detectable above background levels in most indoor environments. Traces of nicotine are present in exhaled vapor, but these are far too low to cause addiction or harm. Nicotine is also present in eggplant, potatoes and tomatoes, yet, no one has proposed banning these foods because of a threat of nicotine addiction or toxicity.

I fully support measures that could be effective in reducing tobacco-related addiction, illness and death. I oppose H.B.5 because it will provide no substantive protection to non-smokers and will do nothing to reduce nicotine use by teens. Banning e-cigarettes where smoking is prohibited will promote the myth that e-cigarettes might be as hazardous as tobacco cigarettes. By doing so, it will encourage smokers who might otherwise switch to keep on smoking. E-cigarettes can save lives. H.B.5 cannot.

I know this message conflicts with what you are hearing from local public health authorities. Their fear and distrust of “big tobacco,” and decades of conflating smoking with all use of tobacco, have strongly biased them against accepting any use of a non-pharmaceutical nicotine product in a public health initiative.

This fear and distrust has been amplified by national authorities who have taken bits and pieces of survey and scientific studies out of context to claim that e-cigarettes present risks for addiction and illness similar to tobacco cigarettes. It simply is not so.

I would welcome the opportunity to meet with Delaware public health authorities, advocates, legislators and journalists to present the surveys and studies on both sides of this issue. Emphasis would be on risk to bystanders and addiction of teens. Such a presentation would be readily understandable by legislators and journalists and would require no more than an hour of their time.

I therefore urge deferral of any further action on H.B.5 until these surveys and studies have been presented and discussed.

House appropriators look at legislative branch transparency

May 08, 2015, 1:20 PM

At last week’s full committee markup of the legislative branch appropriations bill, Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., offered an amendment that set the stage for more transparency around Congressional Research Service reports; Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, D-Fla., successfully pushed for an amendment to create a House Technology Task Force; and Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., offered and withdrew an amendment to create a task force on establishing a bicameral chief technology officer.

Also debated were cuts in funding to the Government Publishing Office’s online document repository FDSys and defunding the Open World Leadership Council, an international legislative exchange program. Included in the final appropriations bill was the continuation of a cost-savings effort to limit or ban the distribution of print copies of documents to congressional offices, including bills and resolutions, the Congressional Record, the U.S. Code, Reports of Disbursements and the Daily Calendar, in favor of online access.

Congressional Research Service reports

Rep. Mike Quigley offered and withdrew an amendment to the committee report that would require the CRS to publish online a cumulative, continuously updated list of all new CRS reports. The list would contain the name of the report, its unique ID number and the report status (new, updated or withdrawn.) This requirement applies to widely-shared CRS reports and would not apply to confidential memoranda prepared by CRS at the request of a member.

Here is the text of the amendment:

PUBLIC ACCESS TO TABLE OF TITLES OF CRS REPORTS

SEC. 1202. (a) TABLE OF REPORTS.—The Director of the Congressional Research Service shall establish and include on the public website of the Service a cumulative table in CSV or XML format that shows the title and report number of each CRS Issue Brief and each CRS Report which is issued, updated, or withdrawn by the Congressional Research Service at any time after the date of the enactment of this Act (including during fiscal years beginning after fiscal year 2016).

(b) CONTINUOUS UPDATES TO TABLE.—Not later than 24 hours after a CRS report is issued, updated or withdrawn, the Director shall update the table established under subsection (a) to include the title and number of the report and to indicate the action taken with respect to the report.

(c) EXCLUSION OF CONFIDENTIAL MATERIALS.—The Director shall not include in the table established under subsection (a) any report prepared by the Congressional Research Service as the product of a confidential research request made by a Member of Congress (including a Delegate or Resident Commissioner to the Congress).

Rep. Quigley is a longstanding champion of public access to CRS reports. CRS receives more than $100 million annually to write reports and answer congressional questions. Many of its reports become available to the public, but usually through indirect means that require the public to pay for access. Rep. Quigley has co-sponsored other legislation that would require equal public access to all widely distributed reports, but this amendment was focused only on listing the reports. In doing so, it avoided the traditional (unpersuasive) objections raised by CRS to its making the reports themselves available to the public.

In an email, Rep. Quigley’s office said they would continue to pursue the effort, adding that other members of the committee expressed an interest in learning more and possibly supporting the measure.

Improving congressional technology

Wasserman-Schultz offered a successful amendment to create a “House Technology Task Force” modeled after the successful Bulk Data Task Force, whose recommendations on publishing legislative data in formats that can be easily used by others resulted in significant changes in House practices and a new Rule for the 114th Congress. This new task force is directed to

identify and report to the Committee opportunities to enhance coordination of information technology efforts in the House, including, but not limited to, IT architecture and life cycle investment strategies, end-user training, network security, and recommendations for shared services that may improve IT effectiveness at a lower overall cost to the House.

This appears to establish a coordinated effort to use information technology to find new efficiencies in congressional operations. This is notable from a transparency perspective, because improved congressional processes rely on better information- technology coordination and infrastructure and that, in turn, can facilitate greater disclose and free up resources for new initiatives.

A thematically related amendment was offered and withdrawn by Honda to create a bicameral chief technology officer.

The legislation still must be approved by the full House of Representatives and identical legislation considered by the Senate. Video of the full committee markup is embedded below.

Second Circuit declares NSA bulk collection illegal

May 07, 2015, 11:54 AM

There is exciting breaking news out of the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers the states of Connecticut, Vermont and, most importantly, New York.

A three-judge panel has ruled unanimously that provisions of the Patriot Act that allow collection of information relevant to terrorism investigations does not authorize the so-called “bulk collection” of phone records on the scale implemented by the National Security Agency.

The decision marks a second major court victory for NSA reform advocates, following a lower court decision six months ago finding the program is likely unconstitutional. The Circuit Court ruling also reinforces findings from the president’s own Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which concluded there is “little evidence that the unique capabilities provided by the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone records actually have yielded material counterterrorism results that could not have been achieved without the NSA’s Section 215 program.”

This ruling reinforces our opposition to the Senate Republican Leadership’s move to pass a clean reauthorization of these ineffective and illegal mass surveillance programs. Accepting the status quo is a dereliction of the legislative branch’s responsibility to act as a check on executive overreach. It is time for Congress to rein in these invasive and illegal practices.

While the legislative battle and judicial process is far from over, today’s ruling is a good victory for privacy advocates and strengthens hope that we really can restore the Fourth Amendment.

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

Uber’s not in Kansas anymore; will New Jersey be next?

May 07, 2015, 11:24 AM

The decision by the Kansas Legislature earlier this week to override Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto of onerous ridesharing legislation already is yielding its inevitable consequence. Transportation network company Uber has announced it plans to pull out of the state before the new rules take effect early next month.

While a number of states continue to consider and implement reasonable ridesharing regulations, the path has been bumpier than expected, given that the historic compromise reached in March between leaders of the TNC and auto insurance industries on safety and coverage issues offers a great model for states to emulate. Nonetheless, some states continue to make the task harder than it need be. In Kansas, that took the form of an inexplicable requirement that any driver with a lien on his or her vehicle must carry additional coverages.

The Garden State might present the next hot spot. Whereas ridesharing has made significant strides in many regions of the country, particularly in the West, the Northeast remains notably behind in recognizing the need for an appropriately modern and flexible regulatory regime to handle this emerging business model. Just in the past few weeks have proposals for real reform taken even the first steps toward public debate in states like New York and Massachusetts.

In New Jersey, we see a classic example of government bowing to incumbent special interests – particularly in the taxi cartel – with proposed regulations that would drive out the competition and innovation ridesharing has introduced. As The Associated Press reports:

Uber’s spokesman Matt Wing said the current bill New Jersey lawmakers are considering would be a death sentence for the company, WCBS 880’s Jim Smith reported.

The legislation calls for a number of new requirements, including requiring ride-hailing firms to display a Motor Vehicle Commission marker when drivers are searching for fares, background checks for drivers as well as safety inspections for vehicles.

“If this bill passes we will be forced out of New Jersey,” Wing said.

The bill breaks from the compromise worked out between TNCs like Uber and Lyft and major insurers like State Farm, Farmers and USAA in that it would require the companies’ commercial policies to cover drivers any time they are logged in to the TNC app. Not only does this represent a more stringent requirement than that emboidied in laws passed in places like California, Illinois, Colorado and Washington, D.C., but it threatens to crowd out newer policies and endorsements that insurers have rolled out in recent months, which offer coverage purchased by the driver.

Even more troublingly, the legislation essentially requires TNCs to get government approval at every stage of the process, from licensing to clearing new drivers to what signage and decals drivers would be required to display.

The legislation would require ridesharing drivers to receive special driver’s license endorsement as “commercial drivers” from the state’s Motor Vehicle Commission, despite the fact that most TNCs drivers are only part-time. The state also would issue a unique vehicle identifier for ridesharing drivers, which could be a license plate, sticker or some other signage. What need exists for either of these requirements has not been made clear in the public debates, to date.

It also would mandate fingerprinting for criminal background checks conducted through the state police, who would use the FBI Livescan program, rather than the third-party services TNCs use in most states. For its part, Uber asserts the background checks it performs already are more thorough than Livescan. Among other items, Uber says its screening includes records from county courthouses, federal courts, multistate criminal databases, the National Sex Offender Registry, Social Security traces and motor vehicle records that Livescan does not.

The bill’s future currently remains unclear. Both Uber and the cab industry have been embarked on a statewide tour of rallies, demonstrations and counterdemonstrations, looking to sway any lawmakers still undecided. Encouragingly, the Legislature appears have eased up on the throttle on a bill that had been speeding ahead toward passage. Perhaps there is still time to correct course and emulate the best practices that already are working well elsewhere, before the Garden State lets this bad idea steer it straight into a ditch.

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

Kamala Harris aide was running a secret police force

May 07, 2015, 6:39 AM

Sen. Barbara Boxer plans to vacate her U.S. Senate seat in the next few years, and the Democrats are looking for the Next Great Hope of the party to step into her wildly outdated sensible heels. Although rumors have flown about that Michelle Obama is angling for the job (with the Obama Library going to Chicago, but the Obamas decidedly not, Palm Springs is still on the roster as potential post-presidential digs), she hasn’t formed any committees or coffee klatches that would lead me to believe she’s serious just yet.

In her place, the Democrats have arranged the coronation of Kamala Harris, the bright young multiracial California attorney general who caught the eye of the president (literally) last year, and whose progressive credentials have made her a darling of the party (she was even given a key speaking slot at the 2012 Democratic National Convention). She’s widely credited with whipping California into shape (or, as “into shape” as California could ever be), but it seems she missed something very important happening right under her nose that might cost her her privileged status.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Kamala Harris’s deputy director of community affairs is now being accused of operating a “rogue police force” that claims to be a 3,000-year-old fraternal organization operating with extra-judicial authority.

An aide to state Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris and two others are accused of operating a rogue police force that claimed to exist for more than 3,000 years and have jurisdiction in 33 states and Mexico, authorities said Tuesday.

Brandon Kiel, David Henry and Tonette Hayes were arrested last week on suspicion of impersonating a police officer through their roles in the Masonic Fraternal Police Department, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department…

Suspicions about the Masonic Fraternal Police Department — whose members trace their origins to the Knights Templar — were aroused when various police chiefs in Southern California received a letter in late January that announced new leadership for the group, sheriff’s officials said.

After the letters were mailed, a man claiming to be Kiel and describing himself as the police force’s “chief deputy director” called various law enforcement agencies to schedule in-person meetings, sheriff’s officials said.

Although California officials have no idea what the group was actually doing or what it hoped to accomplish, they do know that it was well outfitted for the task. A search of two sites in Santa Clara revealed a cache of weapons and badges, full uniforms and “law enforcement paraphernalia,” which the group was using for… something. Apparently, this was all very well-hidden, though, since Kiel interacted with the public on a daily basis and yet no one had any idea that he was actually the select leader of an elite, ancient band special operations forces, charged with protecting and serving the people of California.

Frankly, this would all be more exciting if Kiel was Batman. As it stands, the story falls short of the expectations we’ve come to attribute to urban vigilantes.

Senate drops attempt to override Obama’s ‘double veto’

May 06, 2015, 2:20 PM

From USA Today:

Kevin R. Kosar, a fellow at the conservative-leaning R Street Institute, said the Senate should make time to protect Congress against encroaching presidential power. The pocket-and-return veto, he said, “insults Congress by attempting to deny it the right to override a veto.”

Signs of hope in North Carolina

May 06, 2015, 11:09 AM

The North Carolina House of Representatives passed a bill 119-1 Monday which, for the first time, would disclose to North Carolina drivers what they pay in surcharges to the North Carolina Reinsurance Facility.

The facility is a state-mandated entity for drivers who can’t get liability coverage from traditional auto insurance companies. It serves as the largest residual auto insurance mechanism of any state, by several orders of magnitude.  Roughly one-in-five North Carolina drivers end up in the facility, which represents more than 80 percent of the residual market policies sold in the United States.

The facility gets a lot of both younger and older drivers, as well as drivers of muscle cars and sport cars. The difference between what these drivers should be charged to pay the facility’s claims and expenses, and what they are actually charged under existing North Carolina law, becomes a recoupment charge levied on all insured drivers in the state. This keeps the facility from going bankrupt.

The state government has a system that defines certain drivers as “clean risks,” i.e., good (or good enough) drivers. But even some of them can’t get insurance from most auto insurance companies. Largely, that’s because the state’s politically invented definition of “clean risk” has little to do with the factors the actuarial tables show makes one a good bet for liability insurance.

North Carolina’s system is today the only one in the country in which auto liability rates are set communally through a rating bureau cartel, instead of letting companies develop their own rates. North Carolina doesn’t allow a number of rating factors (age, for one) that are used in virtually every other part of the country. Thus, it is slow to permit innovative new insurance products to come to market, as state policymakers refuse to recognize that companies can figure out better than the government which drivers are better risks.

Of course, it doesn’t help that some of the biggest players in the state’s insurance market stand behind the existing system. Part of the reason for this is that the system actually does allow companies to charge more than the rate advised by the Rate Bureau, so long as the company gets permission from the driver. The biggest companies have a perfect incentive to keep the status quo, as they have a disproportionately large number of these “consent to rate” policies which collect higher premiums and which no potential competitor is allowed to match. This is part of a bigger unfortunate trend of companies using the government to get a leg up on the competition by favoring certain practices that potential competitors either won’t or can’t copy.

Overhauling this system has proven a difficult to impossible task in recent years, so advocates of reform have turned their attention to a number of smaller, more modest changes. Transparency is one such effort. If the current bill passes the Senate and becomes law, drivers finally will know about their surcharges, and can better gauge what they are paying for protection.

Finding out exactly what one is paying can be highly motivating to reformers. This is a solid trend, and one we hope spreads far and wide.

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

Nitzkin testimony on Delaware HB 5

May 06, 2015, 8:22 AM

My name is Joel Nitzkin.

I am a public health physician, board certified in preventive medicine as my medical specialty. I have been a local health director, a state health director and president of two national public health organizations. I am here with support from the R Street Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Washington.

I am here to speak against adoption of H.B. 5 because there is no public-health justification for banning e-cigarette use in non-smoking areas. The case in the favor of such a ban is based on research that is three- to four-years-old. It also is based on selected bits of data which have been taken out of context from more recent research and from CDC surveys to support previously established positions by the Centers for Disease Control and major voluntary public health organizations. They favor the goal of a “tobacco-free society.” They interpret this goal as ruling out any consideration of any use of any non-pharmaceutical nicotine-delivery product in any public health initiative.

E-cigarettes present less than 1 percent of the risk of potentially fatal tobacco-related illnesses posed by tobacco cigarettes. E-cigarettes do not recruit teens into addiction.

Those who promote the ban like to cite a long list of chemical substances contained in e-cigarettes. They do this never admitting that the concentrations of tobacco-related contaminants are so low that they are not detectable above baseline levels in most indoor environments. Despite hype to the contrary, we now have enough information to state conclusively that exhaled e-cigarette vapor poses no risk to bystanders.

When it comes to recruiting teens, the hype is a classic example of taking data out of the context to justify previously drawn conclusions. They often cite the fact that e-cigarette use among teens has doubled to tripled in recent years, without referencing the fact that teens smoking rates have plummeted to record-low levels in the last four years. This is first time ever that reduced teen smoking rates have met or exceeded Healthy People goals.  The total number of teens using e-cigarettes, plus teens smoking has declined from year to year over these past four years, until this last year, when it has gone very slightly up. The vast majority of e-cigarette use by teens has been by teen smokers using e-cigarettes to transition away from smoking. While many non-smoking teens have experimented with e-cigarettes, their use has been almost entirely limited to one-time experimentation and occasional social use. Contrary to the hype, there is not a single report of a teen becoming addicted to e-cigarettes, then transitioning to tobacco cigarettes.

I could go into detail and expand on these points, but I won’t in the interest of time. Let me just say that I am here and I am involved in these issues because I believe that we have the opportunity to radically reduce tobacco-related addiction, illness and death by adding a tobacco harm reduction component to current tobacco-control programming, with e-cigarettes as a major product to be used for this purpose.

Banning e-cigarettes where smoking is banned will do nothing to protect the health of the public. It will, however, do harm by discouraging smokers from switching, by promoting the fallacy that e-cigarettes may be as dangerous as, if not more dangerous, than tobacco cigarettes.

E-cigarettes should be seen as a potential friend, not an enemy to public health.

I would be happy to answer any questions.

 

Kansas overrides Brownback veto on TNC bill

May 05, 2015, 3:07 PM

In a disappointing development, the Kansas Legislature has overturned Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto of S.B. 117, the so-called “Uber bill.”

While S.B. 117 is not without redeeming qualities – a regulatory framework is indeed necessary – its flaws will place serious burdens on the state’s transportation network company operators. Among these burdens is an unusual provision requiring drivers with a lien on their vehicles to carry additional insurance coverages.

In practice, this means that virtually all drivers will be compelled to furnish these additional coverages, because most new vehicles – like those required by TNCs of their drivers – are financed.

Though touted as a crucial step to address legitimate concerns on the part of lenders, the rationale for such a requirement is suspect. In an agreement reached between large players in both the insurance and TNC industries, no such coverage requirement was contemplated.

Further, of the states that have adopted TNC regulatory regimes, only one other has insisted on such a requirement.

This legislation likely will have a chilling effect on TNC services in Kansas, leaving consumers to suffer as their transportation-for-hire options diminish.

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

Good news (sort of) out of Texas

May 05, 2015, 2:21 PM

From Somewhat Reasonable:

As Josiah Neely, senior fellow and Texas director for the R Street Institute, points out in an article on the MasterResource Blog

…Neely argues, “With Texas wind power capacity at more than double the state’s RPS minimum, repeal is unlikely to do much to change the profile of renewable energy in Texas. But repeal is still important, because it sends a clear signal that markets, not politics, should decide what kinds of energy Texans use.”

DMCA is turning ownership into ‘loanership’

May 05, 2015, 2:05 PM

From RealClearPolicy:

During the Great Depression, farm-equipment giant John Deere Co. famously refused to repossess tractors it had sold to American farmers who were having difficulties keeping up with their payment plans. In a particularly ironic illustration of just how much that spirit of bonhomie has evaporated in the decades since, John Deere today asserts that it is the real, rightful owner even of the agricultural technology modern farmers have already purchased in full…

Meet the money behind the effort to keep Alabama in the liquor retail business

May 05, 2015, 10:54 AM

“If you thought this bill was not going anywhere; that it would die or get killed like it always has, you need to think again!”

Bob Leavell is concerned that a measure to close Alabama’s state-run liquor stores might gain traction. The former Alcoholic Beverage Control Board  administrator under Govs. Folsom and James now happens to lease property to the state to facilitate its retail liquor operations.

He’d like for things to continue uninterrupted. After all, the State of Alabama is a heck of a reliable tenant. Property owners who lease to the state have a good gig…one worth protecting.

We’ve seen all the recent arguments from the current ABC administrator, ABC employees, the state employees union, shadowy social media outlets and even “Alabama’s Moral Compass,” ALCAP, telling us why we need to keep the ABC in the retail liquor business.

Whether you agree with their “government-control-is-better” narratives or not, they aren’t the most powerful force shaping the issue.

Monied special interests drive most political action in Alabama. Keeping the state in the liquor business is no exception.

“It benefits every person that owns an ABC store to see this legislation killed,” writes Leavell in his April 27 letter.

Letter to ABC Lessors re SB115

In fact, neither “alcohol” nor “liquor” is even mentioned in Leavell’s letter sent to around 170 similarly situated lessors.

Efforts to move the State of Alabama out of the liquor distribution business have constantly met bipartisan opposition, even from those regularly campaigning as champions of “limited government.”

The first effort this session failed to gain traction when four Republicans joined Democrats in opposing a bill that would effectively close ABC’s retail liquor operations. The sponsor of the legislation, Sen. Arthur Orr, was subsequently able to pass the legislation by a voice vote under a promise to make changes before the entire Senate.

Even when a number of senators, including all the Democrats, switched their votes to support the measure on the second attempt, Republican Sens. Jabo Waggoner and Clyde Chambliss maintained their opposition.

Leavell asks lessors to do two things: Send $2,500 each to pay for a lobbying firm, Tom Coker & Assoc., and contact their respective senators.

In case you were curious, many of the folks facilitating those conversations and lobbying are not exactly political lightweights in Alabama. Tom Coker served as an aide to U.S. Sens. Howell Heflin and Jim Allen. He lists Alabama Power Co. and the Alabama Hospital Association among his many clients.

 

California is learning to pay its own way

May 05, 2015, 7:53 AM

California is a land of calamity. The ground shakes, it runs dry and, with underappreciated frequency, it catches fire.

Surprisingly, the cost of modern life in the Golden State does not always track the risks its residents confront. Be it for earthquake insurance, for water or for fire protection, folks from Yuba City to Los Angeles all too often fail to pay what actuarial tables and resource meters suggest they should for the risks they take and the resources they consume.

California’s risks and resources are imprecisely allocated and undervalued. This is a legacy of an information-deficient age. It was an age in which a large land mass with a small population and bountiful, easy-to-access resources could mask profligacy. It was an age in which meaningfully apportioning the burdens of living could be overlooked. That age has passed and California is charging headlong toward a population of 50 million increasingly tightly packed and resource-hungry people.

Weighing these concerns has consequence for every part of the state. Coastal California, the state’s economic and cultural engine, sits along the world’s most perilous earthquake zone. Central California, an underappreciated and endangered cornucopia, is experiencing a new parched normal. Both mountain and rural California, among the most beautiful locales in the nation, are situated in a drought-worsening tinderbox.

It is tempting to conclude that, since all parts of the state are subject to natural burdens, why not just divide these burdens equally among all Californians? Such an approach maintains the status quo at the cost of a more resilient, sustainable and prosperous future.

Privatizing the responsibility for risks and resources expands freedom by reducing our reliance on the government. If settlement and development patterns don’t acknowledge the natural constraints of the land, we will forever need state-provided balancing mechanisms.

What we need, instead, is a market-driven reckoning with reality. Such a shift has never been possible before. But today, risk-recognition and resource-pricing tools continue to improve, as information technology can monitor trends at a micro level with ever-improving precision. Now that burdens can actually be tracked, distributing them accurately becomes a question of fairness.

Fairness requires people pay for the resources they actually consume, and bear the risks they actually chose to take. Using modern tools to measure risks and resource use allows us to move past the present dull fog of mass, undifferentiated responsibility. Californians can be freed from the burdens faced by their more resource-intensive neighbors and far less wealth will be needlessly tied up in a state-enforced bargain for which they receive no personal benefit.

The lives we choose to lead, and where we choose to live them, will change as the cost of our riskier and more resource-demanding choices are made apparent. This likely also will cause the traditional partisan alignments to shift. The urban vs. rural divide will be brought into even further stark relief as accurate prices reveal the extent to which some Californians subsidize others. Ultimately, such a development could reorient regional voting patterns according to a preference for local concerns.

In that California, one that equitably comes to terms with the hidden costs of its existence, uncertainty will be supplanted by confidence – by a predictable set of rules to coordinate our lives and build toward a more prosperous tomorrow.

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

How the DMCA is turning ownership into ‘loanership’

May 04, 2015, 12:31 PM

The following piece was co-authored by R Street Innovation Policy Director Mike Godwin.

During the Great Depression, farm-equipment giant John Deere Co. famously refused to repossess tractors it had sold to American farmers who were having difficulties keeping up with their payment plans. In a particularly ironic illustration of just how much that spirit of bonhomie has evaporated in the decades since, John Deere today asserts that it is the real, rightful owner even of the agricultural technology modern farmers have already purchased in full.

According to company lawyers, those who try to repair their own tractors, which sometimes requires tinkering with the software that makes them run, may be breaking the law. In recent startling comments to the U.S. Copyright Office, John Deere insists that people who purchase new John Deere tractors don’t actually own them outright. Instead, they receive “an implied license” to operate John Deere equipment with the software essential to its operation.

It doesn’t take an engineer to recognize that if farmers can claim only to own their physical tractors, but not copies of the operating software, the threat of “repossession” has been raised to a whole new level. The American Farm Bureau tells us that 97 percent of American farms are operated by families, and that only about 16 cents of every dollar Americans spend on food makes its way back to those family farms. Now, the company once seen as the family farmer’s best friend is threatening legal action against them under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

In drafting the DMCA, we don’t believe Congress intended the odd conclusion that farmers do not have a legal right to tinker with, repair, sell or lend out their tractors. Indeed, if the legal system recognizes ownership rights only in physical property, and not the operating software that is now both essential and ubiquitous for so many devices and pieces of equipment and machinery, something has gone terribly wrong.

While John Deere’s claims have attracted attention for being particularly outrageous, this episode is only the latest in a series of copyright law encroachments on ownership rights in the Digital Age. These sorts of claims are expected to multiply as more and more things we use in our daily lives incorporate computers to regulate their functions and integrate with what has become known as “the Internet of Things.”

That many other companies also now, in effect, “loan” rather than sell their products is merely the logical extension of the DMCA’s digital rights management provisions. DRM places digital locks on software to make sure the code, which qualifies as an original creative work, is not copied illegally. In principle, it is intended to preserve incentives in place for innovators to create new software and benefit from their creations.

But the current state of the law fundamentally alters the concept of ownership and sets a dangerous precedent. People are beginning to become accustomed to not owning their own devices. You may buy a smartphone, but the software on your phone does not belong to you. You legally cannot tinker with it or alter it. Those rights are reserved to the company that sold it. It is not exaggeration to predict most of our material possessions soon will be embedded with software. The confluence of these two trends in law and technology would mean almost none of the objects in our possession will actually be ours. They will be loaned to us under an “implied license” for life. This will have profound implications for everything from practice of inheritance to the enormous market for secondhand sales.

We can only imagine what the market for used tractors will look like as this trend continues, but a look at the conditions faced by libraries today may give us a clue about how badly things could turn out. Libraries are able to loan out physical books thanks to the “first sale” doctrine of copyright law. The doctrine is supposed to ensure that, once you buy a copy of a copyrighted work – whether it’s a book or a tractor’s software – you can loan or resell it, or even alter it, so long as you don’t infringe on the copyright interests.

But under today’s publishing and copyright regime, much of it shaped by the DMCA’s restrictions, libraries do not own the e-books they purchase. Instead, they receive a license to access the content, similar to the one John Deere claims applies to its software-embedded tractors. Therefore, contrary to long-standing practices, libraries cannot loan e-books at will. Instead, DRM licenses restrict how many times an e-book can be loaned, set expiration dates for the content and charge significantly marked-up prices.

Gradually, the status quo for e-books is being extended not just to tractors, but to nearly every object with a chip in it, which already is more of what you own than you may think. We are making the transition from an “ownership society” to a “loanership society.”

We can’t believe this is what Americans want. In every sphere of our lives, we have the expectation that we own what we buy. The jeans you’re wearing right now were someone else’s original design and creation, but you bought them. Which means you can paint them, cut them up and sew them into a denim patchwork quilt; loan them to your sister; or sell them to a friend. You can even deconstruct them and use them to create a pattern and sew a new pair of jeans that follow the exact same pattern. This is all consistent with our traditional copyright framework.

That traditional framework needs to be built into our 21st century understanding of copyright. That’s why lawmakers who understand the situation are working on a remedy. Fittingly for today, “May the Fourth,” Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, has introduced a bill called YODA, or the You Own Devices Act. It would amend Title 17 of the U.S. Code to protect our traditional understanding of legal ownership by updating this aspect of digital copyright for citizens in this century. As Farenthold puts it:

YODA would simply state that if you want to sell, lease or give away your device, the software that enables it to work is transferred along with it, and that any right you have to security and bug fixing of that software is transferred as well.

While Rep. Farenthold’s bill would specifically address the device-ownership issues, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., recently introduced the Breaking Down Barriers to Innovation Act, which calls for more comprehensive reforms to the DMCA, such as removing access controls and technological protection measures that restrict such activities as repairing a personal device or making e-books accessible to people with disabilities. In other words, it is legislative reform that would stop making obviously legitimate activities illegal under copyright law.

Now is the time to put legislation in place. Few people want to have to relicense their cars, phones and other devices every time they try to sell them, repair them or loan them to a friend. Rather than jump-start a crazy-quilt copyright framework of “loanership,” let’s reinforce American ownership rights – so that when we buy a book, or a tractor or anything in between, we have the same property rights and expectations our grandparents had.

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

Coalition statement on World Press Freedom Day

May 04, 2015, 9:49 AM

On May 3, the United Nations will celebrate “World Press Freedom Day,” even though the organization has an abysmal track record of press freedom.

In October last year, at a tobacco control meeting in Moscow hosted by the UN’s World Health Organization, the media was banned from reporting and physically removed from the conference site just before the body voted to adopt an international tobacco tax. That meeting, complete with caviar dinners and luxury hotel stays for WHO officials, cost taxpayers from around the world more than $20 million.

Two years earlier, at a similar WHO meeting in Seoul, the same cabal of unelected and unaccountable taxpayer-funded international bureaucrats barred media.

There are numerous other examples of attempts by the UN to silence the media, including the blacklisting by the WHO of a prominent reporter investigating that agency’s failure to appropriately respond to last year’s West African Ebola outbreak. These instances paint a disturbing portrait of taxpayers unknowingly funding anti-democratic actions they would never tolerate by their own governments.

To date, neither the UN nor the WHO has made any effort to explain why it kicked journalists out of taxpayer-funded conferences or blacklisted members of the media from covering important stories.

The undersigned taxpayer groups, watchdog organizations and free-market think tanks from around the world are asking the United Nations for a full explanation of why these attacks on the press were allowed to happen.

At the foundation of any free and fair society is a government that respects the freedom of the press and upholds that principle by guarding against any efforts to dilute the open exchange of news and ideas.

Taxpayers should never be put in a position where their hard-earned contributions to government coffers are used to support organizations that do no respect the freedom of the press. Unfortunately, in the case of the United Nations, this is exactly what taxpayers around the world are being forced to do.

Organizations from across the globe have a message for the UN: We will not tolerate our governments wasting taxpayers’ money on organizations that do not respect the values we cherish most and we call on governments to cease funding organizations that operate behind closed doors absent openness and transparency.

Yours,

Daniel Greenberg
Advance Arkansas Institute

Adedayo Thomas
African Liberty Organization for Development

Isack C. Danford
African Students For Liberty

Susan A. Carleson
American Civil Rights Union

Grover Norquist
Americans for Tax Reform

Tim Andrews
Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance

John F. Tate
Campaign for Liberty

Kristin Fecteau
Campaign to Free America

Troy Lanigan
Canadian Taxpayers Federation

Rocio Guijarro
CEDICE-Libertad, Venezuela

Tim Knox
Centre For Policy Studies

Lisl Biggs-Davison
Centre for Research into Post-Communist Economies

Mahmoud Farouk
Egyptian Center for Public Policy Studies

Guillermo Peña Panting
The Eleuthera Foundation, Honduras

George Landrith
Frontiers of Freedom

Martín Simonetta
Fundación Atlas para una Sociedad Libre, Argentina

Raja Juli Antoni
The Indonesian Institute Center for Public Policy Research

Amin Ahmad
Institute for Leadership and Development Studies, Malaysia

Luis E. Loria
Instituto de Desarrollo Empresarial y Acción Social, Costa Rica

Andrew Langer
Institute for Liberty

Masaru Uchiyama
Japanese for Tax Reform

Seton Motley
Less Government

Orhan Ceka
Liberal Alternative Institute, Macedonia

Brent Bozell
Media Research Center

Pete Sepp
National Taxpayers Union

Linda Whetstone
Network for a Free Society

Jordan Williams
New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union

Omar Shaban
Palthink for Strategic Studies, Palestine

Lorenzo Monatnari
Property Rights Alliance

Lori Sanders
R Street Institute

Paul Gessing
Rio Grande Foundation

Robin Sitoula
Samriddhi, The Prosperity Foundation, Nepal

Adinda Tenriangke Muchtar
SuaraKebebasan.org (Freedom Voice, Indonesia)

Jonathan Isaby
TaxPayers’ Alliance

Frank Asiedu Bekoe
Taxpayers Alliance of Ghana

David Williams
Taxpayers Protection Alliance

Judson Phillips
Tea Party Nation

Muhamad Iksan
Youth Freedom Network

Leaked email: Mayor Walt Maddox and Councilor Kim Rafferty’s municipal cabal to keep ridesharing out of Alabama

May 01, 2015, 2:52 PM

“Clearly, controlling the narrative is in our best interests,” writes Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox.

Birmingham City Councilor Kim Rafferty favors forming an ad hoc committee “to keep control of this issue going forward.”

It may feel like a script for House of Cards, but it’s just the state of the debate over ridesharing in Alabama.

4/22/2015 Email Exchange Between Rafferty and Maddox

If you’re a politician like Maddox or Rafferty, who were sounding off in a chain email circulated on April 22, you have to spin it to win it. That’s why they’re so interested in controlling the storyline.

For the uninitiated, ridesharing is a cashless transportation service accessed via phone-based application. Whenever you need a ride, you click and a driver shows up. Options run from individuals driving their own cars in their spare time to professional limousine-style drivers.

I’d rather have that type of convenience than more government-controlled models. But then, I’m the kind of person who has always loved disruptive technologies like Netflix and Uber more than the backroom machinations of politicians.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a regular patron of ridesharing services whenever I travel. And the R Street Institute, where I also do some work, has supported ridesharing and evaluated the transportation-friendliness of cities around the nation.

Companies like Uber or Lyft provide a service customers want, they are trying to do business in Alabama and their presence would undoubtedly create economic opportunity, increase tax revenues and improve our transportation environment.

Yet some of our municipal leaders will have none of that, and they’re delighted with their success so far.

“I am immensely proud of how our municipalities prevented and or dispensed with illegal app transportation operations with a minimal cost legally,” Rafferty wrote in the email.

Translation: “We prevented ridesharing from coming to Alabama.”

“As far as I can see, we did it most expeditiously and effectively than any other state or country in the world. We all should be proud of what we have accomplished so far.”

Translation: “We should celebrate because we prevented Alabamians from having a tremendous convenience that cities across the nation and globe enjoy.

Rafferty says municipal leaders are justified in opposing  proposed legislation at the state level that would streamline ridesharing regulation because they have a “duty to secure public safety, business integrity and regulatory measures.”

Sure, as is the case with any service industry, negative stories are a reality. But are those stories the norm or the exception?

Alabamians have seen more than their fair share of political fear-mongering recently, and we shouldn’t buy it.

Atlanta has ridesharing, and so does Nashville. New Orleans just authorized it. Even Pensacola has it. In fact, most major cities in the United States, including the taxi Mecca known as New York City, have ridesharing.

Rafferty would know, because it appears her take on Uber is “do as I say, not as I do.”

In a conversation with Councilor Rafferty, she said that she uses Uber when she travels — to be fair, she switched to Uber Black, Uber’s higher-end executive luxury service, after a negative experience with UberX.

Maddox and Rafferty want to control the narrative. How about instead, they try this on for size: “We’re prepared to do anything we can to support business innovation, create economic opportunity for the people we represent and end the political spin that has held Alabama back for far too long.”