Out of the Storm News
If a plan to delay the phase-out of some federal flood insurance subsidies is successful, Congress could be setting itself up for a nasty pre-election “October surprise.” Should a significant storm hit this season, lawmakers could be asked to cast a spectacularly unpopular vote to raise the debt ceiling for the already debt-drowned National Flood Insurance Program just ahead of November’s election.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., is leading an effort to dismantle reforms Congress passed just 18 months ago, when it voted to eventually require flood insurance rates to fully reflect the risks properties face. For decades, persistent subsidies have masked the true danger of living on the coast or in a floodplain. This has led to overdevelopment in these areas, including wealthy enclaves littered with vacation homes.
But Menendez may well be endangering the political prospects of colleagues who sign on to his bill. If flood insurance subsidies are not phased out, they will blow a significant hole in the NFIP’s already-leaky ship. In debt nearly $25 billion to U.S. taxpayers, the program will have to come to Congress to ask for yet more money to bail it out.
Votes on flood insurance debt and disaster aid have proven controversial in recent years. The fight over the response to Hurricane Sandy is a perfect example. Charges of hypocrisy and opportunism abounded on both sides of the aisle.
Both the NFIP debt and aid packages eventually passed, but not without substantial political cost.
That cost could come at a precarious moment. Some of America’s most deadly recent hurricanes have struck not long before early November, when Americans are scheduled to enter the ballot box to choose their congressional representatives. Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma made landfall between late August and mid-October 2005. Hurricane Sandy struck mere days before a national election on which the disaster would have a significant impact.
The bill for those storms came due not long after the skies cleared. In 2005, the NFIP’s ability to borrow was raised from $1 billion to more than $20 billion. The price tag for other Katrina aid ultimately exceeded $62 billion. The Sandy aid package totaled more than $50 billion and the NFIP had to raise its debt limit by another $9.7 billion. That’s $140 billion in taxpayer money placed straight on the nation’s credit card in just two storm seasons.
What’s more, this is in service of protecting subsidies for a tiny minority of Americans. Out of 132 million housing units in the United States, just 5.6 million are flood insurance policyholders and only about 1.1 million (or about 0.8 percent of housing units overall) pay subsidized rates. For every homeowner with an interest in maintaining the flow of subsidies for living in risky areas, there are 124 who bear the cost.
If the peril to political careers and the federal balance sheet wasn’t enough, the grim reality is that, by not aligning cost with risk, extending flood insurance subsidies will imperil more human life and property located in harm’s way. Unless Menendez likes seeing helicopters plucking desperate people off roofs, he should reverse course and support implementation of the reform plan he voted for in 2012.
From SNL Financial:
A NFIP-as-reinsurer plan seems unnecessary, as reinsurers are already one side of the industry most interested in taking on flood risks, R Street Institute Senior Fellow R.J. Lehmann told SNL. A more viable short-term alternative would be for the NFIP to purchase reinsurance or issue catastrophe bonds, he said.
“It could be structured in a way where the primary gets to choose how much it keeps and how much it cedes,” Lehmann said.
In a 1988 debate over drug policy, William F. Buckley Jr struck what would have been, for a conservative, a rather unconventional position on a hot button social issue:
If we get nothing out of the hour tonight, I would hope that we emancipate ourselves from the superstition that that which is legal is necessarily honorable.[…] It’s perfectly legal to contract syphilis, but it doesn’t mean that society is in favor of syphilis. As a matter of fact, it’s perfectly legal to vote for Jesse Jackson. Doesn’t make it reputable, does it? So we’re not talking about conferring a social sanction on taking drugs; we’re talking about how to cope with the drug problem.
Buckley was even more blunt in a National Review symposium sometime later, when he described the legal regime that would put young people in prison for life (or close to it) on possession charges as “the legal equivalent of a My Lai massacre.“
This position – that the war on drugs and its attendant legal ramifications were attacks on liberty – was not a new one for Buckley. He had, indeed, run on the legalization of drugs all the way back as a candidate for mayor of New York in 1965. And indeed, to this day, the magazine he founded considers it an official editorial line to support ending the drug war. Nevertheless, however elegant Buckley’s rhetoric, most of his peers on the right remained stubbornly wedded to the “superstition” he had denounced.
Until Rick Perry and Chris Christie, two of America’s most successful conservative governors, both suddenly decided to accept Buckley’s position on the question of marijuana.
Of course, neither Christie nor Perry has called for legalization of marijuana. That much might be a bridge too far. But what they have done is call for the decriminalization of the substance, and insofar as this is a step away from the “legal equivalent of a My Lai massacre” that has been the previous drug war, it is a step to be celebrated.
Yet while the conversion of Govs. Christie and Perry is something to be celebrated, it is a bit more difficult to explain. Why should these two men, alike in possibly no other way, have decided to shift positions on the topic?
A number of prosaic reasons present themselves obviously. For instance, there is the fact that most Americans favor marijuana legalization, and have favored it since October of last year. This is, however, not true of Republicans, at least not yet. Given that both Perry and Christie are seen as likely candidates for the presidency, both these facts cannot have been lost on them, nor can the bind these two facts put them in: that is, that while Perry and Christie may be mindful that the lion’s share of independents and potential crossover voters favor full legalization, the people both of them would need to survive a Republican primary do not.
So what’s one answer to this Catch 22? Well, given that President Obama is carving out a niche as a definitive pro-legalization voice, it may be that Christie and Perry consider taking a position to Obama’s right, even if only by a hair, to be a safe middle ground to occupy. The trouble is that it may not be sufficient to win the support of moderates, and may alienate the very people who either of the two men (but especially Perry) would need in order to win the primary. This is the case that Peter Weber makes at The Week.
This story of political calculation certainly may explain the shift from Christie and Perry in particular. However, it elides the bigger question – namely, how did America get to a place where the president, and two opposing politicians perceived to be major contenders for the job in the forthcoming election, came to see softening on anti-drug policy as something to be embraced?
To answer this question, it turns out we may have to go back to Buckley’s call for us to “emancipate ourselves from the superstition that that which is legal is necessarily honorable.” Buckley might have gotten his wish, because however much Americans might have bought into this “superstition” once, it has become increasingly difficult to do so now, and for several major reasons.
Americans have borne witness to many dishonorable behaviors that are entirely legal, or have been treated as such, especially in the aftermath of the financial crisis. While there have been some traces of the usual scandalized responses, they’ve generally been muted due to increasing cynicism and apathy.
This alone would not produce political pressure for more legal-but-dishonorable acts to be allowed if not for a second factor: The erosion of public trust in the institutions that decide what is and is not legal in the first place. It says something, for instance, that we live in a world where lurid stories of police brutality are covered with equal horror by both liberal and conservative publications. We are not living in the 1990s, when Pat Buchanan could lionize police responses to crime as “force, rooted in justice, and backed by moral courage.” Rather, this is the world where one of America’s premier publications considers it vital to hire a blogger whose fame exists largely due to his coverage of excessive state force, to say nothing of taking on an entire team of libertarian lawyers as celebrity writers.
And that’s only the reaction to human police. The dystopian sci-fi fantasies that unlimited drone killings and mass NSA surveillance present are understandably reviled.
Nor is it only the police who have lost the confidence of Americans. Rather, the country has borne witness to the law itself being explicitly designed for abuse. One need only look at the manner in which Obamacare’s various mandates have been plucked out and rearranged like a legal Jenga tower, or the backlash against former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to understand pervasive disenchantment with the act of lawmaking and regulation. Ronald Reagan might have said the scariest words in the English language were “I’m here from the government and I’m here to help,” but Americans today have understandably shortened that scariest phrase to simply, “There oughtta be a law!”
So what are aspiring presidents to do in the face of this combination of well-deserved cynicism and suspicion? Why, run in the opposite direction. Argue not simply that new laws are unnecessary, but try to tear down old ones. Remove the “legal equivalent of a My Lai massacre” before new technology and overzealous enforcers render it more than merely a “legal equivalent.”
In short, if what is dishonorable need not be legal, then Americans may be forcing politicians to wake up to the fact that what is harmless or even honorable might already be illegal.This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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I happened to be watching the World Economic Forum in Davos this week and was struck by the number of CEOs who mentioned “clarity” as the overarching need for the American economy. Clarity in fiscal policy, clarity in environmental and financial services regulation and clarity as to how seriously serving as chief executive has eroded the president’s constitutional law background. (That last bit is my own interpretation, at least, of the subtext of their comments.)
Clarity is not the same thing as transparency, but the two are at least first cousins to the “wrong track” polling information, which has recently reached historic lows. Although it varies from day to day depending on the news reports, the most interesting aspect of the polls is a Rasmussen finding that in the same moment that a whopping 73 percent of mainstream Americans (whoever they are) feel the country is ceding ground on their personal vision of betterment, two-thirds of the political class (63 percent) opine that the country is heading in the direction it ought to be.
My notion of what would constitute the “right track” for the country would be responsible leadership working to eliminate the impact of certain negative mathematical certainties, rather than speculative problems of civilization generally. By “speculative”, I don’t mean imaginary, but difficult or impossible to quantify, and by “leadership” I am not only talking about elected officials.
Sure, there are human rights violations in many African countries, but do we have to take down Michigan’s recovery as a manufacturing center to prove a point? A resolution was discussed yesterday in the Michigan House of Representatives’ Financial Services Committee, which requests Congress repeal Section 1502 of the infamous Dodd-Frank Act, Congress’s answer to the 2008 financial crisis, when Wall Street discovered it had developed innovative ways to generate more debt than there is money in the world.
How does the Congress clarify the rules for exotic financial instruments developed by financial institutions? They enact Section 1502 of Dodd-Frank, demanding multi-billion dollar reporting requirements on small business who expect to use tin, titanium and tungsten, known as “conflict materials” from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and surrounding nations.
Since you asked, at last report, 155 of the 398 deadlines imposed under Dodd-Frank had been met, and 64 mandated regulations had not yet even been proposed. An Arkansas state senator testified at a November national meeting of state legislators that, in his bank, there are now three regulatory/compliance employees for every line loan manager. Does this indicate clarity or complexity?
It would seem that there are a number of areas that could benefit from a little more clarity, and by that, I mean less uncertainty. According to state and local elected officials within my circle, the EPA could potentially shut down nearly every municipality in the country under its newly proposed storm water regulations.
Do Americans know what is going on with their health insurance? Is there common knowledge about who is included in the publicly supported “safety net”? Should we believe our secretary of state or Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about whether or not the Iranian nuclear weapons program will be halted? All of these issues are in the news, important and not subject to much quantification.
Other trends are indeed subject to quantification, but not widely discussed. State Budget Solutions released its annual State Debt Report this week, which finds that, despite all kinds of balanced budget requirements in their constitutions and spending restrictions enacted, the states have accumulated more than $5 trillion of liabilities on their books.
In wholesome contradistinction to the federal government, the states are seeking clarity by asking actuaries how to fix this. They have actually passed reforms from Rhode Island to Utah addressing the problems that march on them inexorably, but that were shrouded in other-worldly rate-of-return assumptions, “smoothing” (averaging) public pension returns over several years and a general lack of interest by legislative bodies.
Leonard Sax reports in Girls on the Edge that, in the first ten years after the turn of the century, there was a 70 percent increase in the number of boys needing mental health services, compared to a 400 percent increase in the number of girls requiring treatment. Does this rising anxiety in the traditionally more responsible gender have anything to do with the fact that, increasingly, nobody can tell you what the rules are in so many areas of one’s life?
There has always been personal and professional insecurity, particularly work-related uncertainty. Nobody can predict the market movements with much accuracy. But what is really modern – and a huge drag on us, according to the CEOs interviewed at Davos – is government-sponsored uncertainty related to how we might be targeted by our own public servants at the IRS, the SEC, the EPA, the Justice Department, the Labor Department and so on.
Elected officials are all about “sending a message” to citizens by punishing them or rewarding them in as many ways as they can imagine. But to get people thinking we are on the right track, a good first step is to clarify the expectations and make the rules both simple and universal.This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
From the Miami Herald:
Critics grumbled that the program amounted to a hand-out to the well-heeled, who prefer living near the water while forcing folks in the hinterlands to diversify the risk of dwelling in a picturesque flood zone. At least that was a prevailing argument back in 2012. The libertarian think tank R Street Institute described the National Flood Insurance Program as welfare-for-the-rich, noting that “78.8 percent of subsidized policies are in counties that rank in the top 30 percent of home values, while less than 1 percent are in counties that rank in the bottom 30 percent.”…
…It seems this particular variety of fiscal conservatism isn’t nearly as much fun as cutting welfare or food stamps or unemployment payments. Plenty of working class Floridians face huge spikes in their premiums but what’s important here, as the libertarians at the R Street Institute noted, is that the program disproportionately subsidizes the coastal homes of the wealthy. When rich folks squeal, pols in Washington tend to listen.
From the Daily Oklahoman:
Dr. Joel Nitzkin, a public health physician and senior fellow in tobacco policy for the R Street Institute, argued that getting people to switch from cigarettes to e-cigarettes has great potential to save lives.
R Street is a nonprofit public policy research organization that supports free markets. It receives some funding from at least one tobacco company, Nitzkin acknowledged.
While both cigarettes and e-cigarettes normally contain the addictive chemical nicotine, “it is the toxic chemicals in cigarette smoke, when inhaled deeply into the lungs, that kills people,” Nitzkin said.
Nitzkin contended people can lower their risk of obtaining potentially fatal tobacco-attributable illnesses by more than 98 percent by switching from cigarettes to e-cigarettes.
Such a reduction would be important because the U.S. Surgeon General has estimated that tobacco will cause about 480,000 deaths this year in the United States.
“Is it likely or is it possible that we’ll find out 15 or 20 years from now that there was some unintended adverse effect … (caused by e-cigarette use)?” he asked. “We cannot guarantee that will not happen, but from everything we know, it seems exceedingly unlikely.”
Before the Nets moved to Brooklyn, I knew almost nothing about professional basketball, or basketball in any incarnation. I understood that it was a sport in which tall people excelled, and as someone who stands well below the median height, I spent very little time playing it. I certainly remembered Michael Jordan from my youth, when his shiny head was all but unavoidable; as a dark-skinned man with a shaved head, I suppose I have him to thank for being so smooth and aerodynamic. And I was vaguely aware of an indestructible, headband-wearing man called “The LeBron,” who for all I knew was some kind of myth or legend, like Sasquatch.
Yet when I first heard that a professional sports franchise was planning to move to Brooklyn as part of a multi-billion dollar real estate transaction, I was intrigued. The reason is that I am, and have long been, a Brooklyn nationalist. Marty Markowitz has nothing on me. When I get my facial tattoo, it will be a map of Kings County across my forehead.
If Brooklyn didn’t have a team, I thought to myself, all of the other professional sports franchises in the world could burn to the ground. Though I was born decades after the Dodgers left for Los Angeles, I grew up with a sense that a grave injustice had been done to my city — a crime that would one day be avenged.
In the 21st century, Brooklyn pride has become an irritating cliche. But in the 1980s and ’90s, it meant something entirely different. It was about thumbing your nose at a world that didn’t give us the respect we deserved. We Brooklynites were nobodies, treated as part of an anonymous expanse of mediocrity, crime and poverty ringing Manhattan’s Emerald City. This despite our proud architectural and cultural heritage, and our history as a separate and distinct city that competed with, and often bested, New York until we were conveniently swallowed up in an 1898 election that was almost certainly rigged.
So how could I not love the Barclays Center, the beautiful alien vessel that is home to the Brooklyn Nets? For all my enthusiasm about the arena, basketball was still baffling to me as recently as this past offseason. I started to read about the Nets, and about the sports more broadly, when they first moved from New Jersey. Intellectually, at least, the game started to make sense. Professional sports are the way Americans talk about all kinds of things such as business, race, class and modern medical miracles. Reading about the Nets organization gave me some sense of what I had been missing by avoiding pro sports my entire life. Even so, my connection to the team was more intellectual than visceral. At my first Nets game, against the Orlando Magic almost exactly a year ago, I brought reading material, just in case I got bored. The game wound up being pretty fun, and the food was excellent. Even so, I wasn’t quite hooked. I read an article or two amid the cheering fans.
I did, however, pay pretty close attention to the team’s activity during the offseason. I knew just enough about the NBA to know that the arrival of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett was a huge deal. Luring Andrei Kirilenko and two and a half legendary Celtics made the Nets’ Russian paymaster look like some kind of Svengali. A totally respectable team was now being discussed as a serious title contender. When one of my friends, a die-hard NBA fan, suggested that we buy half-season tickets, I decided to give it a shot. This team was destined to make noise, and I figured I ought to be a part of it. Another friend warned that just as the Lakers failed to build a superteam out of aging, dysfunctional parts last season, the Nets would disappoint. But if the Nets were truly terrible, I could still support the city I love while catching up on my reading and enjoying a wide array of gluten-free snacks.
Going to the games changed things. For whatever reason, I started thinking of the players as real people, and I couldn’t help but root for them on a personal level. When Shaun Livingston, who suffered an injury that should by all rights have been career-ending, played exceptionally but unflashily well at the start of the season, it occurred to me that it must have been a pretty big deal for him. When he had a slump, I felt the sting. And when he came roaring back during Deron Williams’ most recent injury spell, I was happy to see that Livingston’s feisty, intelligent play wasn’t a fluke.
Garnett has had a storied career, and he could retire tomorrow and be extremely proud of all that he’s accomplished. All the same, I imagined that he was plagued by the sense that his body and his instincts were failing him early on in the season, and I really wanted him to get his confidence back, not least because I’m keenly aware of my own aging. His explosive play the past few weeks have been a source of more fist-pumping excitement than I have any right to expect.
My Celtics fan friends had always boasted of Pierce’s loyalty, so I knew that he’d struggle to find a place on a new team. His bad days became my bad days while his flashes of brilliance gave me an adrenaline boost. I couldn’t identify with Joe Johnson, who seems almost supernaturally cool, but I was glad he was there to be a steady, solid performer even as the rest of his team flailed.
Then there were the players with something to prove, such as Mason Plumlee, who became another bright spot during some of the more dismal stretches of the season. You could tell how proud he was of making a name for himself. Andray Blatche has been making a fool of all who’ve doubted him. Apart from hitting a healthy percentage of his attempted 3-pointers, Mirza Teletovic laughed in LeBron James’ face (“I grew up in the middle of the Bosnian civil war, son.”). Not only is Teletovic thrilling Brooklyn fans, he’s putting his home country on the map, which has to be a huge source of pride. And though Alan Anderson isn’t necessarily great at pro basketball, his eerie resemblance to Method Man of the Wu-Tang Clan is enough for me. This could be the most lovable team in the NBA.
Then there is the raw power of being in an enormous room full of people shouting “Broo-klyn” at the same time. These are my people. Yes, our team has been pretty terrible until recently. Yes, we have the worst mascot in the NBA. But whether it’s fans from the Jersey era who’ve stuck with the team or former Knicks fans who are sick of Jimmy Dolan and want to give Brooklyn a shot, or people such as me who are still extremely confused by foul calls (I do know that the refs are always biased against us), we’re sharing in this crazily intense collective energy. It is weird, and it is glorious. When I’m not at the games, I’m checking the score. And when I go to the games, I’m leaving the reading material home.
From the Huffington Post:
“Don’t forget the poor,” Lori Sanders and Eli Lehrer of the R Street Institute (a conservative think tank), urged Weekly Standard readers, explaining that “Properly structured work incentives would build on … the Earned Income Tax Credit, which remains decidedly modest. For a single worker without children living at home, the EITC refunds less than $425 per year. Introducing and expanding similar wage supplements . . . would further encourage a life of work as preferable to welfare or life in the underground economy.”
From the Daily Caller:
Lemon spoke with liberal commentator Hilary Rosen and conservative columnist Reihan Salam about the president’s comments in an interview with The New Yorker published this week. “The issue,” Obama claimed during that interview, “has been the inability of my message to penetrate the Republican base so that they feel persuaded that I’m not the caricature that you see on Fox News or Rush Limbaugh.”…
…Salam noted that it’s not just Republicans and Fox News. “There are a lot of people — including Democratic lawmakers, including women who served in the Obama administration — who say that this is a difficult guy to work with . . . I have a feeling that the president sometimes wants to sometimes shift blame to other people for some of his failures as a communicator, as someone who’s building coalitions.”
What would you do if you were a high-profile governor caught in the midst of a pseudo-scandal, with the national news media hanging on your every word? Here’s an idea: rather than focus exclusively on hurling accusations and counter-accusations, talk about something that actually matters. That is what New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie did this past week. After weeks fending off accusations that he had systematically abused his power to punish his political enemies, Christie spent a good chunk of his second inaugural address on criminal justice reform. Cynical observers might conclude that the governor was shrewdly changing the subject, and they’d be right. But it happens that he is changing the subject to the most vexing policy challenge facing the United States, and arguably the most sorely neglected.
New Jersey is one of America’s most affluent states. Yet many of its largest cities are scarred by both high crime and an incarceration boom that has made a stint in prison a disturbingly common rite of passage, particularly for young black men. Though many believe that mass incarceration is a cure for violence, as it incapacitates potential victimizers, problems arise when incarceration becomes so commonplace that it is destigmatized, and that it ruins the lifelong earning potential of young men caught up in its net, few of whom go into prison as irredeemable villains. As Mark Kleiman, a public policy professor at UCLA and a leading advocate of criminal justice reform, argues in When Brute Force Fails, the chief challenge facing many people who wind up in prison is a lack of impulse control. And this problem can be more effectively addressed through low-cost interventions — like programs for parolees that offer modest punishments for failing drug tests, like a weekend in the clink — than through high-cost interventions, like a years-long prison sentence. What we’re dealing with is an enormous waste of human potential that harms not just the young men who wind up in prison, but also the families, and the children, they leave behind.
And that is exactly how Christie described the “failed war on drugs” in his second inaugural address. After stating that “every one of God’s creations has value,” and that the loss of a job can strip people of their dignity and self-respect, he railed against the notion that “incarceration is the cure of every ill caused by drug abuse,” and he promised to make drug treatment programs more widely available. He described his ultimate goal as creating “a society that understands that every life has value and no life is disposable,” a neat way of connecting his pro-life convictions to the cause of treating drug offenders more humanely.
Though one assumes that Christie’s emphasis on criminal justice reform stems from a humanitarian impulse, it also happens to make good political sense. When Christie was first elected governor in 2009, he was very much the candidate of the Garden State’s conservative outer suburbs and rural areas, and no one expected him to take much of an interest in the problems plaguing cities like Camden and Newark, his hometown. Yet in his re-election bid, he campaigned aggressively for urban voters and minority voters, and he was rewarded with 51 percent of the Latino vote and 21 percent of the black vote, numbers that are more impressive when you consider that he won 32 percent and 9 percent of Latino and black voters respectively during his last go-around. (Indeed, the aggressiveness of his outreach in communities that have long been monolithically Democratic is part of what’s at issue in the recent wave of allegations concerning the Christie administration’s heavy-handedness.) Talking sensitively and intelligently about the damage mass incarceration does to poor urban neighborhoods was one of several ways Christie tried to build trust with Democratic voters.
Criminal justice reform isn’t just an issue that resonates with Democrats, however. As the political scientists David Dagan and Steven Teles observe in their article on “The Conservative War on Prisons,” there has been a sea-change in how the political right understands mass incarceration. Dagan and Teles attribute this development to the fact that conservatives have over time come to see mass incarceration as an example of big-government waste, and the prison guard lobby that presses for mandatory minimums and other harsh measures as just as self-interested as the teachers unions.
The question for Christie is whether or not he’s willing to go further to better the lives of New Jerseyans living in dangerous neighborhoods. The NYU sociologist Patrick Sharkey, author of Stuck in Place, has found that children living in neighborhoods that have experienced homicides suffer a serious and lasting blow to their cognitive outcomes. As governor, Christie could implement new strategies to help reduce crime levels, like shifting resources from punishing criminals to preventing crime in the first place, by, for example, pressing local police forces to become more efficient, and to expand when necessary.
Christie could also do more to reduce the intense economic segregation that keeps New Jersey’s poorest residents far beyond the reach of job opportunities. So far, Christie has been skeptical of measures designed to encourage greater density, and more affordable rental housing, in the state’s more affluent towns, but these measures could do a lot of good. The same goes for encouraging denser development in cities like Hoboken. If Hoboken attracts more high rises, poorer New Jerseyans are much less likely to be displaced from neighborhoods within easy commuting distance of good jobs by would-be gentrifiers. (Ironically, Christie’s lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, is accused of being a bit too overzealous in encouraging Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer to embrace density.)
By calling out the “failed war on drugs,” Christie has made a good start in making his second term mean something. What he needs to do now is wage a larger war on the destruction of human potential.
The British Medical Journal grossly erred in its Jan. 2 commentary “Hold the line against tobacco” by Editor Dr. Fiona Godlee.
BMJ asserts that e-cigarettes pose a “grave risk to public health because of their potential to renormalize and glamorize smoking.” As Clive Bates pointed out in a scathing critical comment:
It requires heroic contortions of logic to regard the emergence of a product that is perhaps 99-100 percent less risky than cigarettes and a viable alternative to smoking as an adverse development… [The e-cigarette] should really be seen as a disruptive intrusion into the cigarette industry: a new high-technology product entering the market for the popular legal recreational drug, nicotine, and posing a threat to the dominant and most harmful delivery system, the cigarette… Your editorial follows the established pattern of prohibitionist public health activists of focusing on minor or implausible risks for which no evidence exists in reality, while ignoring or diminishing the huge potential benefits that are real and visible from adopting e-cigarettes.
Dr. Godlee’s commentary veers dramatically from the norms of science journal precision, as seen in this extraordinary claim: Moves by New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s administration “against tobacco, trans fats, and sugary drinks, and for promoting physical activity and calorie counts on menus, are credited with improving life expectancy among New Yorkers—now two years higher than the U.S. national average.”
Nothing in the city’s formal report on life expectancy even remotely supports this claim. The report mentions anti-smoking policies, but offers no proof that they account for differences in mortality from heart diseases and cancer between New York and the United States as a whole. Mr. Bates is right to call for “a BMJ special edition setting out the evidence for the effectiveness of these measures in improving life expectancy in New York.”
The dominant theme of the BMJ editorial is revulsion of the tobacco industry: “E-cigarettes also legitimize the industry, buying tobacco companies a seat as ‘partners’ at the health policy table,” a position Dr. Godlee rejects.
The reality is that in the United States, regulation of the tobacco industry has de facto legitimized it and guaranteed companies a seat at the health policy table. Indeed, FDA officials are compelled to consider industry research and analysis, and if the FDA fails to do so, it is subject to repercussions.
Apropos of this, it is sadly worth noting that the FDA has also lapsed in its adherence to rigorous scientific principles. Its recently released preliminary report on menthol, which I have commented on here, is a case in point. Lorillard last November submitted these scathing comments to the FDA public docket:
Unfortunately, FDA’s review of the available scientific information on menthol cigarettes falls far short of FDA’s own established standards of scientific integrity and cannot be used to draw valid conclusions, nor can it serve as the basis for regulatory action. FDA’s analysis suffers from many significant flaws and its conclusions are at times based upon unsupported speculation and conjecture. Many of the studies relied upon by FDA fail to meet the appropriate standard of scientific evidence, yet numerous high-quality studies are improperly and inexplicably discounted or entirely omitted.
The 134-page submission backs the company’s claims with robust evidence.
Rigorous standards imposed by regulation should apply equally to all parties, including regulators themselves. Such standards may be especially uncomfortable for tobacco prohibitionists, who are prone to gross abuse of the facts.This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Over at the VICE podcast, R Street Senior Fellow Reihan Salam hosts a debate between Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy & Technology Project, and Slate columnist Fred Kaplan over Kaplan’s recent piece “Why Snowden Won’t (and Shouldn’t) Get Clemency.” Watch the full debate below:This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
The Honorable John Boehner
U.S. House of Representatives
H-232 The Capitol
Washington, DC 20515
January 23, 2014
Dear Speaker Boehner,
In light of your comments last week about the need to modify the Biggert-Waters flood insurance reforms instead of simply delaying them, we are writing to recommend a number of changes for you to consider making to the law.
The National Flood Insurance Program’s $24 billion debt threatens its long-term fiscal viability as a result of policyholder premiums that have long been heavily subsidized below market rate. In 2012, Congress finally began to resolve this critical issue by passing the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, which made commonsense changes to bring NFIP’s finances in order and correct the program’s long-standing inequities.
These reforms, however, can be amended further to address growing and legitimate concerns about affordability. Our coalition, SmarterSafer.org – a diverse group of environmental advocates, taxpayer watchdogs, insurers, and housing organizations – has previously outlined a series of changes to make Biggert-Waters more environmentally and fiscally sustainable. The proposals are outlined below:
- Slow Down The Rate Increases For Properties Impacted By New Maps And Home Sales. Phase in risk-based rates for remapped properties and homes sold so that households facing premium increases won’t see their costs rise more than 25 percent in any year. Further, Congress should move the effective date of the home sale provision, so it only applies to homes sold after these new reforms are adopted.
- Delay Implementing New Maps In Areas Where FEMA Is Assessing Levee And Other Flood Control Systems. In areas where levees no longer provide 100-year flood protection, FEMA should be required to account for those levees and the level of protection they provide in both maps and rates. FEMA must not, however, delay any maps currently being considered for more than 18 months.
- Means Tested Assistance. Congress should require FEMA to establish a targeted, means-tested, temporary and paid-for premium support and mitigation fund to help homeowners of modest means who face affordability problems. However, this support should be outside of the rate structure—rates must be risk-based to provide policyholders with a true understanding of their risk.
Affordability Study. GAO should conduct a study on how to address affordability more broadly, including how to prioritize mitigation and how households with true affordability issues can be helped. FEMA must also conduct its affordability study and report to Congress within 6 months.
- Focus On Mitigation. Congress should require FEMA to use a portion of its existing pre-disaster mitigation funding to mitigate properties impacted by flood insurance rate increases.
- Responsible Communities. Communities should be encouraged to undertake mitigation efforts through the Community Rating System (CRS). The CRS should also explicitly provide credit for natural, nature-based flood mitigation efforts. Congress should authorize FEMA to explore community-based insurance concepts that could benefit communities that invest in mitigation.
- Private Sector Participation. FEMA has missed numerous deadlines under Biggert-Waters, including a requirement that they look at purchasing reinsurance to better protect taxpayers. Congress should require FEMA to report within 6 months on its findings.
- Adopt Levee Vegetation Policy By Region. Many communities are now being told they have to purchase flood insurance due to the combination of remapping and levee decertification because of levee vegetation issues. Congress can address this issue by authorizing the Corps of Engineers to adopt a regional variance approach to regulating levee vegetation.
These changes will do more than simply assuage the opposition that has arisen over the past few months – they will target subsidies in the National Flood Insurance Program to those who truly need it while putting the program on stronger financial footing.
We hope that you will continue to build on the progress made through Biggert-Waters and help ensure the National Flood Insurance Program is restored to solvency once again.
Thank you for your consideration.
From The Blaze:
In 1999′s comedic classic, “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut,” a mob of angry parents, searching for an explanation for their children’s increasingly profane language, point the finger at Canada — the country of origin for a pair of fictional comedians, Terrance and Phillip, whose routine consists entirely of fart jokes. In a fittingly named song, “Blame Canada,” the parents sing the following lines…
Based on these data, Brad Rodu, Professor of Medicine at the University of Louisville, concludes that worries about e-cigarette use as a stepping stone to smoking is overblown. “Federal authorities should restrict youth access to all tobacco products,” he says, “but it is unacceptable for them to characterize e-cigarettes as gateway products when they are, in fact, helping to eliminate the smoking plague.”
WASHINGTON (Jan. 23, 2014) – Delaying the phase-out of federal subsidies for flood insurance would discourage private insurers from writing the coverage and moving more risk from the National Flood Insurance Program into the private sector, a new report from the non-partisan Government Accountability Office concludes.
The report, which was commissioned as part of the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, also finds that private insurers would need both greater access to claims data and the freedom to charge risk-based rates before they would be able to take significant market share away from the NFIP, which is currently more than $24 billion in debt to U.S. taxpayers.
“Although raising rates could create affordability concerns for some, delaying the increases could reduce the chances of increasing private sector involvement in flood insurance, leaving taxpayers to continue paying for flood claims through future borrowing from Treasury,” the GAO wrote.
Because of its persistent financial and management challenges, the NFIP has been on the GAO’s list of high-risk federal programs since March 2006. In addition to seeing unsustainable growth in its debt load, the flood program has not repaid any principal on its loans since 2010.
The report comes as the U.S. Senate prepares to consider legislation that would delay implementation of Biggert-Waters’ reforms for four years. It also comes in the wake of burgeoning interest from private insurers – both from the admitted and non-admitted markets – to begin writing flood insurance coverage in Florida, as well as intense interest from the global reinsurance and catastrophe bond markets to take on risk transfers from the NFIP.
“We agree with the GAO’s conclusions that the first step toward moving to a competitive private market in flood insurance is to preserve reforms that transition the existing federal program to risk-based rates,” R Street Senior Fellow R.J. Lehmann said. “For too long, the federal government has subsidized development in risk-prone and environmentally sensitive regions. While we’re still a long way off from a fully private flood insurance market, taking steps in that direction is the best way both to protect taxpayers and to begin the process of adapting to a changing climate.”
The GAO’s report also offers support for the notion – proposed by R Street and partner organizations within the SmarterSafer.org coalition – that the proper way to deal with affordability issues within the NFIP is through means-tested subsidies.
“Currently, subsidies are available regardless of a property owner’s ability to afford a full-risk premium,” the GAO wrote. “Means testing the subsidies would ensure that only those who could not afford full-risk rates would receive assistance and should increase the amount in premiums NFIP collects to cover losses.”
Oklahoma City’s KFOR NewsChannel 4 carried this report on the Jan. 21 joint hearing of the Oklahoma Senate Committee on Health and Human Services and the Oklahoma House Committee on Public Health on e-cigarettes and the value of tobacco harm reduction. The included a snippet of the testimony offered by R Street Senior Fellow Dr. Joel Nitzkin.
“If we are going to do better in terms of reducing illness, death and addiction from cigarettes and other nicotine products, we need a fundamentally new approach,” Nitzkin told the study group.
Watch the full report below.This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
From the Shawnee News-Star:
Dr. Joel Nitzkin, a physician and a former Louisiana State Health Director, is scheduled to make a presentation as part of the hearing.
“Tobacco control policy has gone largely unchanged during the last 30 years. Significant data is pointing toward the promise of these products to help reduce the rate of smoking,” Nitzkin said. “It really becomes a question of ethics, whether public health officials across the county acknowledge this data in their efforts to achieve a meaningful reduction in smoking rates.”
Florida lawmakers should ensure the windfall that will soon come to the state’s counties under the federal RESTORE Act are used as intended for environmental and economic reparations and improvement, or risk saddling taxpayers with bigger burdens down the road, R Street Senior Fellow and State Projects Director Daniel M. Rothschild told First Coast Connect host Melissa Ross in an interview on Jacksonville’s WJCT radio. Listen to the full interview here.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
OKLAHOMA CITY (Jan. 22, 2014) – Lawmakers should avoid public health policies that perpetuate the myth that that all tobacco and nictotine products present a similar risk of potentially fatal illness, R Street Institute Senior Fellow Dr. Joel Nitzkin told a joint study committee of the Oklahoma state Senate and House of Representatives on e-cigarettes and tobacco harm reduction methods.
In his presentation, Nitzkin proposed a number of affirmative steps the Legislature could take to reduce tobacco initiation and encourage current smokers to quit, including fully enforcing age restrictions on the purchase of all tobacco and nicotine products and considering upping the age to purchase any tobacco product from 18 to 21. He also proposed policies to crack down on contraband sales, citing recent surveys finding that between 30.5 percent and 42.1 percent of cigarettes consumed in Eastern seaboard states with high cigarette taxes did not bear the proper local tax stamps.
However, Nitzkin advised Oklahoma lawmakers against following the recent examples of Utah, New Jersey, the District of Columbia and New York City, all of which have extended public no-smoking bans to cover e-cigarettes.
“The state should not prohibit use of e-cigarettes or other smoke-free tobacco products in non-smoking areas,” Nitzkin said. “Such a law or regulation could do harm by leaving the impression that these products are as hazardous to bystanders as cigarettes.”
He urged lawmakers to engage with those in the public health community who endorse tobacco harm reduction strategies, adding that lower-risk smokeless tobacco and nicotine products should be subject to lighter taxes than cigarettes and other forms of smoked tobacco, to encourage switching.
Nitzkin also offered updates to his November 2013 R Street paper, “The promise of e-cigarettes for tobacco harm reduction.” The updates, available here, cover such issues as smokeless tobacco warnings; data on contraband, the percentage of smokers who initiate tobacco after their 18th birthday, the relative addictiveness of different classes of tobacco and nicotine products, the level of toxins in exhaled e-cigarette vapor; and the role the major producers of pharmaceutical nicotine reduction therapy products have played in the push to ban e-cigarettes.
“If there was any doubt as to the attitude of the pharmaceutical companies relative to the threat posed by e-cigarettes, their actions, largely behind the scenes, has done everything within their power to eliminate the competition posed by e-cigarettes,” Nitzkin wrote.