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Six ways to spice up your Thanksgiving dinner…and conversation

November 27, 2014, 10:36 AM

For most Americans, Thanksgiving looks less like a Norman Rockwell painting and more like a cat rodeo. Embrace the strange and wonderful world of family, friends, and that person at the table that might possibly be related to you. Traditions are important, but sometimes we need to shake things up a bit. Here are six ways to spice up your time around the dinner table today:

  1. Truly Deviled Eggs – Deviled eggs are a Thanksgiving staple for many families, but they have lost much of the spiciness that gives them their name. It is high time for a return to former glory. Many deviled eggs are topped with a healthy sprinkling of paprika, but cayenne pepper makes for an especially interesting substitute. Consider preparing some of the eggs each way. Whether you tell your guests or not is up to you.
  2. Pop a Fly – After everyone is seated, begin incessantly swatting at a fly that does not exist. Note the size and speed as you discretely slip a raisin in your hand. Loudly declare that you have caught the fly. Briefly open your hand, just long enough for people to see the black dot and pop it in your mouth. Watch the horror on the faces of your guests, as they believe you have just eaten a fly.
  3. Never a Bad Time for St. Crispin’s Day – The St. Crispin’s Day speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V is one of the most stirring speeches of all time. Lightly modified, it can make for an interesting opening to any blessing prior to the meal:We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
    For he today that shares this meal with me
    Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
    This day shall gentle his condition;
    And gentlemen in America now abed
    Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
    And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
    That dined with us upon Thanksgiving Day.
  4. Remote Uncontrolled – After dinner, everyone has the handful of relatives who battle for control over the remote as they digest the meal. Generally it means a day of college and NFL football. Who says there should only be one remote control? Programming another remote to operate the television and discretely using it to tune to C-SPAN at every commercial break has the potential to be quite entertaining. Just make sure that your guests do not try to “repair” the television.
  5. Develop Creative Political Issues – Politics is undoubtedly on the menu for many families this Thanksgiving. One lighthearted and entertaining idea is to argue for or against political issues that sound familiar but do not actually exist. For example, defend President Obama’s plan to deport violent criminals to Iran. Express outrage over Harry Reid’s efforts to undermine age neutrality for the Internet by requiring senior citizens to be licensed before surfing the web. Finally, raise questions about whether or not we should privatize Congress.
  6. The Magic of Palms Down – Pick your favorite relative to demonstrate a magic trick at the conclusion of dinner. Ask them to place their hands on the table palms down. Fill two glasses with any available liquid and balance them on the backs of their hands. Inform them that they are responsible for producing the magic and removing their hands without spilling the glasses. Leave them there for as long as necessary.

Some of us have many reasons for giving thanks while others might find it a little tougher this year. Be mindful of that reality, and be thankful for the relationships in your life and enjoy your time together.

Time to shuck the big corn giveaway

November 27, 2014, 9:59 AM

By most reasonable measures, America’s corn farmers have had a fantastic year. Their 14-billion-bushel harvest represents the largest yearly haul of any crop by any single country in world history.  Corn farmers are the last people who should need your tax money, but that’s exactly what they’re getting.

Good weather and innovative new seeds have allowed modern farmers to produce more corn per acre than ever before. In contrast to the image of the struggling family farm that prompted Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp to start Farm Aid 30 years ago, farm family incomes are actually higher than the American average, as they have been for nearly three decades.

That’s why it ought to outrage taxpayers that the government’s crop “insurance” program — originally intended as a safety net for family farms — is going to pay out $10 billion this year to these same hugely successful corn growers.  Largely because of the success of the harvest, corn prices per bushel have declined, thus triggering automatic payments.

This is just one perverse outcome of America’s broken farm subsidy system. It’s also a sign that the supposedly money-saving bipartisan farm bill President Barack Obama signed in February won’t work as advertised.  American farm policy remains very far from any free-market ideal.

But all is not lost. Though debate on the next farm bill likely won’t start in earnest until sometime in 2018, there are constructive steps that both Congress and the administration could take to improve farm policy now.

The new conservative majority in the Senate could work with fiscal hawks in the House to make some tweaks. One option is a minimal transparency measure that would require the names and addresses of the crop insurance program’s biggest beneficiaries to be published, a requirement that is already in place for other agricultural subsidies. Using the USDA’s database, the Environmental Working Group found that at least 15 members of Congress received farm subsidies in 2013, 13 of whom supported the bill. There are about 1.2 million crop insurance policies that benefit over 1 million farms, but the great bulk of subsidies go to the very biggest players.  Twenty-six truly enormous farms received subsidies over $1 million in 2011 according to an analysis conducted by the Environmental Working Group.

For its part, the Obama administration should work to implement one of the good changes in this year’s farm bill, requiring that farmers who take crop insurance premium subsidies be accountable for their conservation practices. The 2014 bill extended and expanded a policy that President Ronald Reagan first signed into law in the 1980s, that agriculture subsidies shouldn’t pay to destroy wetlands and prairies in ways that impose hidden costs on taxpayers.

Under this program of “conservation compliance,” if farmers take subsidies and grow crops on highly erodible land, they need to do have plans to prevent the loss of soil. If they destroy wetlands to begin new farming, those lands are ineligible for subsidies. Farmers who don’t like the government’s rules are free to ignore them, so long as they give up the subsidies.

This is a perfectly fair policy that makes intuitive sense. However, the administration is sure to be lobbied by some farm groups who favor weak rules that let farmers continue to do the wrong things and collect government checks anyway. During the battle over renewal, many farm groups, indeed, tried to end conservation compliance entirely.

Over the long term, subsidizing the cultivation of wetlands and prairies isn’t just bad environmental policy; it also sets the stage for fiscal disaster. These lands are particularly sensitive to floods, droughts and other extreme weather, and subsidizing their conversion to farmland will result in big claims on the Treasury. Strong conservation compliance rules can save hundreds of millions of dollars and protect many environmentally sensitive areas.

Even though they make up a rather small share of the federal budget, farm subsidies deserve a high place on any list of the most profligate federal programs. In the long term, a system that has turned row crop farmers into welfare recipients should be eliminated outright. Market forces, not government bureaucrats, should determine what gets grown and who grows it.

Responding to Ferguson by building bridges across the racial divide

November 27, 2014, 9:01 AM

As the dust, smoke and gunfire in Ferguson, Mo., subside, Americans are left with realities that many of us would rather not confront. The circumstances surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown and the subsequent grand jury decision not to indict the officer who shot him may be the focal points of the media, but they also force us to consider our own attitudes on race.

The rioting, looting and violence are unacceptable activities. Period. Looting an auto parts store before burning it to the ground does absolutely nothing to advance justice and racial equality. In a 1966 interview with Mike Wallace, Martin Luther King Jr. remarked, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” In the same interview, he also noted, “Riots are self defeating and socially destructive.” Those who suggest that rioting in Ferguson is somehow an extension of Dr. King’s mission are guilty of rewriting history.

At the same time, there are many Americans who view Michael Brown’s death as a symbol of continuing racial disparity in our nation. Their non-violent protests and sincere comments across the country beg for a thoughtful response.

Much of the institutional and government-sanctioned racism in America has been effectively dismantled and, in most social and professional settings, racist comments or actions are not tolerated. We have witnessed the first black president and attorney general. This year, we saw the first African-American senator elected in the South since Reconstruction.

Many Americans focus on the positive progress our nation has made, but what has transpired in Ferguson may not fit as conveniently in that narrative. The institutions of slavery and government-sanctioned racism were horrible evils that targeted generations of people solely on account of the color of their skin. Those structures attempted to subjugate people, families and communities under false assumptions of racial superiority.

The disparities raised in connection with Ferguson matter deeply because they represent genuine perspectives and concerns about the role of race in America. Regardless of whether a grand jury should have indicted the officer that shot Brown, far too many African-Americans are able to identify with bias in law enforcement. That alone should be enough for those of us who have not had those experiences to ask questions, learn and support our fellow Americans.

Racial progress in America may have ended the engines of discrimination that created tremendous harm for so many. Unfortunately, putting an end to racist institutions and viewpoints is far different than intentionally and personally repairing the damage that they have caused.

Regardless of the color of our skin, we have the option of simply disavowing racism or intentionally building bridges outside of our immediate circles. Our past has heavily influenced our present, but how we respond to events like those in Ferguson will shape the future of our communities and nation.

Britain: E-cigarettes almost exclusively used by smokers and ex-smokers

November 26, 2014, 10:00 AM

The British government has just released statistics on e-cigarette use. The Office for National Statistics reports that e-cigarettes were used by 12 percent of smokers and 5 percent of former smokers in the United Kingdom during the first quarter of this year, but the rate of use among never-smokers was only 0.14 percent.

This is direct evidence that it is predominantly smokers who are using e-cigs, and some of them are becoming ex-smokers.

Release of the British data underscores the distressing fact that the United States neither collects nor publishes similar information, which is vital to intelligent public health policymaking.

It is disgraceful that 10 years after the introduction of e-cigarettes, and five years after a rapid acceleration in sales, the U.S. government — particularly the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention — collects almost no e-cig data in its many national surveys.

I emphasize “almost,” because the CDC has collected usage information among youth for the past three years, using it to mislead the public about an unsubstantiated new childhood tobacco epidemic.

When my son killed the TV, I understood its role in our home

November 26, 2014, 9:00 AM

Last Friday, I received an ominous message from my wife during a meeting, asking me to call her quickly. Given the immediate nature of her request, I assumed that someone had either become gravely ill or passed away. At any rate, I excused myself from the meeting and rang her phone.

“Are you sitting down?” she asked. At that moment, my fears were confirmed. Something terrible had happened.

“I have some bad news,” she said, “Your middle son killed the television.”

I was tremendously relieved to hear that everyone was safe and sound. The sense of relief dissipated when she explained that my son had thrown a wooden block at the seven-year-old television mounted on our living room wall and shattered the screen.

The irony of having a child destroy my TV in the same week that I had written a column declaring the importance of fathers staying calm in the face of child-induced frustration was not lost on me. Thankfully, I followed my own advice.

I generally like to think of our family as relatively detached from the television. We have one television in the house, and my wife and I monitor the content and amount of time our children spend watching it. We play sports, enjoy the outdoors and have plenty of activities outside of the house. Maybe that is why I was so surprised at our response to the loss of the television.

The first telling reaction was from my eldest son, who offered the entire contents of his piggy bank to replace the television as soon as possible. He has amassed quite a collection of quarters that he dutifully guards. His complete willingness to part with all of them demonstrated how much he valued the television.

I quickly discovered the significant impact of television as a result of its absence. First, I noticed that the house was much quieter. It dawned on me that we often have the television on in the background, making noise even though nobody is watching. With the many important voices already competing for attention in my home, the television needlessly adds many more.

I also found some of that time I always seem to be missing. According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey released in June, Americans watched TV for 2.8 hours per day in 2013. If we spend a total of 16 hours between sleep and work, we are burning 35 percent of our discretionary time parked in front of the TV. In a world where I am pressed to find time for my friends, my church and even my family, dialing back my television consumption further could be a game changer.

When we are tired at the end of a long day, the TV can provide the feeling of friendly conversation or relational engagement without the effort. Some nights I sit next to my wife on the couch watching TV for an hour or two and fail to exchange even a handful of words. We may be together, but it hardly counts as quality time.

I am not against television, and we will replace the broken one. There are shows and movies that challenge our perspectives, that entertain us and even help us learn. At the same time, I have come to realize that my television is a powerful influence that demands both time and attention in my home. It creates a relational quality and feel without providing any actual relationships.

All of us have friends, spouses or children that need us to spend time and effort on our relationships with them. Most of us have obligations that already limit the time we have to do that. As a result, we must ensure that we touch the lives of the people we value and love before we turn on the TV.

I learned plenty on the day the TV died. Now I am just praying that it does not happen to my smartphone.

The Uber fight comes to the South

November 25, 2014, 4:57 PM

You’d think the GOP would side with ride-sharing companies such as Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar over the taxi cartels and the local governments that are trying to protect them. After all, the Republican party campaigns on smaller government, less regulation, and entrepreneurship. And this summer, the Republican party and RNC chairman Reince Priebus issued a petition on the GOP’s website calling on readers to support the ride-sharing company Uber against “taxi-unions and liberal bureaucrats.”

However, as Josh Barro noted in a recent article at The New York Times, Republicans have not always lived up to their rhetoric when it comes to legalizing ride-sharing. He pointed to a recent study by the R Street Institute (where I work) and Engine, a group that promotes policies that favor start-ups, that graded 50 cities on how friendly they were to ride-sharing services and for-hire transportation more broadly. The study found no correlation between how friendly cities were to ride-sharing and the direction they leaned politically. For example, the three cities that earned A grades (Washington, Fresno, and Minneapolis) and the two that earned F grades (Portland, and Las Vegas) are all decidedly blue in their voting patterns.

As for the South, the scores ranged from B+’s for Virginia Beach, Louisville, and Raleigh, to D-’s for San Antonio and Kansas City, Mo. As the battles over ride-sharing heat up all over the South, here’s an opportunity for Southern Republicans to prove that they really are for limited government and that it’s not just a catchphrase.

Lawmakers, regulators, and city officials are discussing or have recently discussed ride-sharing in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Most of these states are solidly Republican on the state — and in many cases the local — level. But the reaction to ride-sharing has been mixed, with some regulators and lawmakers wanting to ban the practice and others supporting a lighter touch that reflects the unique nature of these services. For example, both Uber and Lyft use smartphone apps to schedule and dispatch riders, whereas traditional taxis are dispatched by telephone and can be hailed off the street.

All too often, state and local officials have been quick to place ride-sharing services in the box of unlicensed taxi operators. Major cities across the country restrict the supply of taxi licenses, sometimes forcing operators to buy taxi “medallions” from the local government. In New York City, medallions have topped $1 million and an entire industry has sprung up around financing them. Traditional taxi operators also accept massive regulations from local governments on everything from where stickers are placed to how much they can charge for fares. Ride-sharing companies argue that they are already much more transparent than taxis, both in terms of the prices they charge and in offering a rating system for every driver and every passenger.

If Republicans in the South want to show they’re truly for free markets and limited government, they should support efforts both to avoid overregulation of these new services and to repeal the anti-competitive measures already on the books for taxis and limos. They should work to ensure that all segments of the for-hire driver market compete on an even playing field. For example, there should be uniform minimum requirements in regards to such things as background checks and liability insurance.

Bold Southern Republicans should even consider abolishing taxi medallions entirely. Let taxis compete with ride-sharing services (and each other) on rates, and loosen the numerous regulations companies have to comply with that have nothing to do with public safety.

The American people are right to ask whether conservative politicians stand for less government, or for cronyism and big business. If Republicans in the solid-red South decide to lead the way in creating a level playing field for ride-sharing companies and traditional taxi cabs to compete, it would go a long way toward proving conservatives can walk the walk, and not just talk the talk.

Collection of CRS reports released to the public

November 25, 2014, 3:07 PM

Something rare has occurred—a collection of reports authored by the Congressional Research Service has been published and made freely available to the public. The 500-page volume, titled “The Evolving Congress,” was produced in conjunction with CRS’s celebration of its 100th anniversary this year. Congress, not CRS, published it. (Disclaimer: Before departing CRS in October, I helped edit a portion of the volume.)

The Congressional Research Service does not release its reports publicly. CRS posts its reports at CRS.gov, a website accessible only to Congress and its staff. The agency has a variety of reasons for this policy, not least that its statute does not assign it this duty. Congress, with ease, could change this policy. Indeed, it already makes publicly available the bill digests (or “summaries”) CRS produces at Congress.gov.

The Evolving Congress is a remarkable collection of essays that covers a broad range of topic. Readers would be advised to start from the beginning. Walter Oleszek provides a lengthy essay on how Congress has changed over the past century. Michael Koempel then assesses how the job of congressman has evolved (or devolved, depending on one’s perspective). “Over time, both chambers developed strategies to reduce the quantity of time given over to legislative work in order to accommodate members’ other duties,” Koempel observes.

The Evolving Congress’ 20 remaining essays are devoted to close-up looks at Congress (e.g., members’ demography, congressional staff) and how policy gets made (e.g., the rushed establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, the perennial extension of tax breaks). Altogether, the essays inform the reader how Congress, despite its evident dysfunction, does get some things done—often in creative ways.

If anything, The Evolving Congress provides further evidence that CRS’ reports should be released to the public. Congress and federal policy are complex, often maddeningly so. Freeing CRS’ reports would give the public something tangible in return for the $107 million it pays for CRS’ operations: an oasis of unbiased information in an Internet awash with half-truths and outright buncombe. And unlike most political science research, CRS’ work tends to be easy to read.

Hopefully, the 114th Congress will end this policy and post CRS reports online at Congress.gov.

CRS The Evolving Congress (December 2014) by Kevin R. Kosar

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

Austin gets a C on taxi alternatives

November 25, 2014, 10:00 AM

Austin enjoys a well-deserved reputation as a vibrant, tech-friendly metropolis. But when it comes to the vehicle-for-hire market, the city could be doing a lot better.

A new report released by the R Street Institute gives Austin a grade of C+ when it comes to how the city regulates vehicle-for-hire companies. The report, which ranks and assigns letter grades to the nation’s 50 largest cities, looks not only at how cities regulate traditional taxi and limo services, but also how restrictive they are towards transportation network companies (TNCs) such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar. TNCs, which use smartphone apps to connect drivers and riders in real time, have become increasingly popular in the last few years. Many cities initially have been wary of the TNC model, which does not always fit comfortably into existing 20th century regulations.

Austin’s C+ puts it in the middle of the pack. That’s not great, but it’s actually a significant improvement over recent practice. It was only last month that the city reversed its prior TNC ban, and instituted a sensible regulatory framework requiring liability insurance and other requirements for driver and passenger safety.

Prior to that, the attitude of the Austin government to these companies was downright hostile. During South by Southwest, the Austin Police Department tweeted warnings about the illegality of Uber, urging people to take traditional taxis instead. This despite the fact that Austin’s taxis were clearly overwhelmed by the influx of 30,000 festival-goers that had turned Austin’s ordinarily annoying traffic congestion into a sea of gridlock. Congestion can get so bad downtown that rickshaws have made a come back as a mode of transportation. In that environment, prioritizing anti-Uber attacks seemed like an odd choice for the city.

The city’s action legalizing TNCs raised Austin’s score from an F to an A on the relevant subsection of the R Street report. Yet the city’s overall grade still suffers from overregulation of traditional taxi and limo services. For example, Austin imposes a fleet cap on taxis, limiting supply and keeping the prices artificially high.

Austin’s regulation of limos is even worse. The city imposes a minimum fare requirement of $55 an hour, and a minimum wait time of at least 30 minutes between order and pick up. There is no safety justification for such requirements. They are pure protectionism. In practice, the restrictions mean limos do not compete directly with taxis. A wealthy family might hire a limo for a wedding or to send their kids to prom, but no one is going to use a limo service to make a business meeting across town or after a night out. This lack of competition means that traditional taxis often don’t provide as high a quality service as they could.

The emergence of TNCs provides Austin with a chance to reassess how it treats transportation-for-hire companies in general.

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

U.S. regulators, insurers skeptical of global capital standards

November 25, 2014, 9:00 AM

A new report commissioned by the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America and the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies has found there would be significant economic costs associated with imposing global capital requirements on U.S. property and casualty insurers.

This cost is particularly important in light of the report’s other conclusion: that the industry already is exceedingly well capitalized. More specifically, the trade groups find the resources set aside by the industry are enough to cover a 100-year even more than twice as large as those of the record 2005 hurricane season, including Hurricane Katrina.

Insurance is an international business. Standards and trade practices span not only time zones, but also regulatory jurisdictions. To introduce conformity to the practice of insurance regulators around the world, globe-spanning organizations like the Financial Stability Board and the International Association of Insurance Supervisors were founded.

While the rules promulgated by the FSB and IAIS do not bind U.S. jurisdictions directly, they do foster frameworks of considerable persuasive authority. As a result, U.S. regulators and associations monitor their products closely.

Last week, at a hearing of the U.S. House Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing and Insurance, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners expressed concerns similar to those articulated in the PCI/NAMIC study, particularly when it comes to steps taken by international organizations that could have a deleterious impact on U.S. policyholders.

Pennsylvania Insurance Commissioner Michael Consedine, the NAIC’s president-elect, focused his testimony on three issues: transparency, capital standards and the IAIS common framework, also known as “ComFrame.” The theme of his testimony was “too much, too soon.”

On transparency: a decision by the IAIS to disallow the involvement of both consumer advocates and the industry itself has NAIC regulators worried that the IAIS has precluded the kinds of stakeholder engagement that is crucial to the development of consensus-based regulatory practices. The IAIS approach is predicated on a concern that transparency will lead to regulatory capture. For its part, the NAIC believes such issues can be addressed by maintaining balance between confidentiality in the ultimate decision-making process and openness in the preceding steps.

On capital standards: IAIS is currently working on a collection of capital standards for insurers. Standards for globally systemically important insurers, standards for basic capital requirements and standards for risk-based global insurance capital are all under consideration.

The purpose of these kinds of standards is to see that insurers do not slide into insolvency or otherwise threaten the viability of the global insurance market. Yet, standards also run the risk of ossifying parts of the insurance industry, by limiting growth and circumscribing the universe of products that can be offered.

Further, the NAIC believes that capital standards, insofar as they treat insurers like banks, may actually encourage risky behavior.

On ComFrame: ComFrame has been an ongoing project of the IAIS since the start of the decade. The project’s goal is to develop a foundation to establish better oversight of international insurance groups. In its testimony, the NAIC expressed concern that the approach creates a “one-size-fits-all” set of requirements, rather than a flexible approach that accounts for shared objectives, if not specific practices.

By the hearing’s end, it was evident that the NAIC, while eager to continue to participate in the development of global models, is decidedly reluctant to devolve any of its jurisdictions’ regulatory sovereignty to the IAIS. In light of the findings of the PCIAA/NAMIC study, particularly the potential cost implications for domestic policyholders, U.S. reluctance to submit to international standards is understandable.

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

How to talk about climate change at Thanksgiving: Recipes for good conversations

November 25, 2014, 8:31 AM

From The Equation:

If someone’s objections are rooted in conservative politics, it’s worth learning about Bob Inglis and the R Street Institute. They have sensible ideas for addressing climate change based on conservative values and they have good-faith criticisms of liberal policies, too.

Ride-sharing revolution receives lukewarm welcome in Ohio

November 24, 2014, 11:51 AM

From Watchdog Wire:

Though no Ohio cities have issued “cease and desists” to newcomers Uber and Lyft, they recently scored unimpressively on R Street Institute’s Ridescore Report Card.

R Street Institute graded 50 large cities on their friendliness to a variety of for-hire vehicle services, includes taxis, limos and TNCs (i.e. Uber & Lyft). “Ride scores” were graded on a curve, and devoted 40 percent of score to TNC friendliness, 40 percent to taxi friendliness, and 20 percent to limo friendliness…

…Two Ohio cities graded on the scorecard, Cleveland and Columbus received a C+ and a C overall. Cleveland, however scored better on its TNC regulations, receiving a B- over Columbus’ C.

Both cities also regulate the number of taxi medallions, creating a limited number of taxis permitted in the city.

Texas cities get mediocre grades for ride-sharing regulations

November 24, 2014, 11:47 AM

From Breitbart:

In recent years, ride-sharing companies have exploded in popularity, rapidly spreading across the country. Pairing smartphone applications powered by GPS technology and independent drivers driving their own private vehicles, ride-sharing companies like Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar have emerged as popular transportation options in many metropolitan areas but have faced stiff opposition from taxi companies and resistance from local governments. A new study released this week by the free market think tank R Street Institute aims to grade cities on how they are regulating ride-sharing companies, and there is clear room for improvement in the six Texas cities included in their study.

R Street’s report details how the fifty largest cities in America have approached the challenge of regulating what R Street refers to as “transportation network companies,” or TNCs. A blog post introducing the report describes what R Street views as some of the key advantages of TNCs: increased choices for consumers, lowered costs, better coverage in neighborhoods that were often neglected by taxis, and reduced congestion and environmental benefits as more people are willing to forgo owning a car or driving it alone. 

These TNCs are already having an enormous economic impact. As R Street notes, “The rapid growth of TNCs suggests strong consumer demand for transportation solutions that differ from traditional taxi and limo services,” and Uber alone was valued at $17 billion after an influx of cash from major investment firms last June. Taxi companies in several cities have reported significant decreases to their business, but at the same time, the TNCs appear to be attracting riders who would not have otherwise considered taking a taxi or public transportation, thereby expanding the potential market. The combination of what R Street describes as the “underutilized capital” of a car that previously carried only the driver and the smartphone apps that instantly connect that driver with passengers without needing a middleman is likely to have a multibillion dollar impact on our economy…

…As R Street writes, “the complex requirements taxi companies seek to impose on TNCs would severely hamper, if not eliminate, their ability to operate in most cities. While it is understandable that taxi and limo interests might resent TNCs for their leaner business model, the impulse to seek the expansion of restrictive regulations — rather than broader reforms that reduce the burden on all competitors — is worrying.” R Street acknowledges the heavy regulatory burden that the traditional transportation companies are bearing and describes the current moment as “a golden opportunity to discuss full-scale, pro-consumer regulatory reform.”

Thus, in grading the 50 cities studied for their report, R Street researched the regulations affecting the entire transportation for hire market, not just TNCs, but also taxi and limo services, to reach an overall “ride score” that “describes the city’s openness to competition in the market for hired vehicle services.”

The Texas cities included in the report, and their grades are as follows: Austin (C+), Dallas (C), Fort Worth (B-), Houston (C-), El Paso (C), and San Antonio (D-). Every Texas city except Fort Worth lost points for artificial restrictions on the number of taxis, in the form of a medallion system in El Paso, and a fleet cap in the other four cities.

Austin’s grade really suffered from the “F” it received for onerous restrictions on limo services, which impose a minimum fare of at least $55 per hour. TNCs in Austin faced a “very hostile” regulatory environment until the Austin City Council passed new regulations authorizing their operations last month. R Street’s report notes that these new regulations took the city’s TNC grade from an “F” to an “A.”

Dallas and El Paso’s “C” grades may change soon, as both cities have allowed TNCs to operate but have not officially legalized their operations. In Dallas, some City Council members have publicly called for stricter regulations, and there is concern that El Paso may move in that direction as well.

San Antonio, Texas’ lowest scoring city, got that grade from limo regulations that are even more burdensome than Austin’s, and a regulatory environment that is very hostile to TNCs…

…Josiah Neeley, R Street’s Texas State Director, told Breitbart Texas that Texas has a long way to go in how it regulates TNCs, and transportation services in general. “There are cities in Texas, such as Austin, that have recently made big improvements in how they treat vehicle-for-hire services,” said Neeley. “But overall Texas isn’t living up to its reputation as a conservative, business-friendly state in this regard. If a student brought home a report card with these grades, he’d be in a lot of trouble. Texas cities should continue to reform and repeal overly burdensome regulations of taxis, limos, and other innovative transportation services.” 

Texas at least outscores the two worst performers in R Street’s study, Portland, Oregon and Las Vegas, Nevada, where the regulatory environment is so harsh that TNCs do not operate there at all. Las Vegas even took the extraordinary step of sending cease-and-desist letters to TNCs before they began operating in the city, and when Uber attempted to launch anyway, the city impounded Uber drivers’ vehicles…

…In an interview with Breitbart Texas last month, R Street President Eli Lehrer identified TNCs and other parts of the “sharing economy” as a key part of their organization’s focus. Lehrer noted the “huge opportunity made possible by the internet to remove intermediaries from commerce and unlock otherwise dormant capital,” and the frequent challenges faced by these companies as local governments seek to adapt existing regulations to these new technologies. Getting involved in this debate, according to Lehrer, is a “golden opportunity for the political right to attract people who otherwise are culturally not connected to the right…this whole sharing economy is an enormous opportunity for conservatives.”

For more information about R Street’s study about regulation of ride-sharing services, visit rideshare.org, or read the full report here.

Where is U.S. energy policy heading over the next two years?

November 24, 2014, 10:54 AM

From the Wall Street Journal:

To get a sense of where energy and environmental policy might be headed in the next Congress, The Wall Street Journal reached out to policy advocates on opposite sides of the political fence: Alison Cassady, director of domestic energy policy at the Center for American Progress and a former aide to House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Henry Waxman (D., Calif.); and George David Banks, senior fellow at the R Street Institute and former Republican deputy staff director for U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member James Inhofe (R., Okla.). Here are edited excerpts…

MR. BANKS: In Congress, the GOP will adopt messaging bills and Congressional Review Acts on key regulations that the president will veto. At the same time, Republicans will slow or chip away at the White House’s climate policies via focused appropriation plays attached to must-pass bills. Beijing’s agreement that it intends to cap emissions by 2030 will heighten “leakage” concerns that U.S. emissions (and jobs) will continue to be transferred to China, thus strengthening the argument that EPA action does not produce any real climate mitigation benefits.

China essentially “agreed” to do what it already intends to do. Thus, there was no real “deal.”

China remains on track to reach a greenhouse-gas emissions level by 2017 that is double the U.S. level. In fact, China is expected to add the equivalent of the entire current U.S. coal fleet over the next decade. That translates into a new 600-megawatt coal plant every 10 days. At the same time, the U.S. plans to shutter a large percentage of its coal fleet, reducing a key source of affordable and reliable electricity. If that were a deal, it would be a lousy one, and Republicans know that…

…MR. BANKS: With the president expressing little interest in working with Congress, we should not expect to see significant bipartisanship on most controversial issues. The president’s carbon plans, for example, rely solely on using existing executive-branch authority under the Clean Air Act to achieve emissions reductions. Republicans are counting on the courts to eventually reject related EPA proposals, in part or in their entirety.

One wild card on the climate-change front is the potential for extreme weather events this winter. We came dangerously close to a grid failure last January during the polar vortex. If part of the grid fails (i.e., millions of people go without electricity) because of the absence of coal plants that were shuttered because of EPA regulations, the president’s go-it-alone approach could face major criticism. Democrats who have often used extreme weather events to promote action on climate change may find the tables turned by Republican arguments that unreasonable climate and environmental policies resulted in actual harm to the American people…

…MR. BANKS: It’s unfortunate that Sen. Mary Landrieu ’s effort failed by only one vote. A recent Huffington Post poll indicated that 56% of Americans support the pipeline. Of course, Republicans will try again next year. Four of the Landrieu “no” votes will be replaced with Republicans, thus the GOP has a solid chance of reaching the 60-vote threshold, as long as no more than three Democrats abandon their “yes” position. We should not expect the magic [veto-proof] number of 67 to be reached, given the symbolism of the pipeline to climate alarmism. The president will therefore maintain leverage with the veto threat.

Regardless, the Congress may send a bill to the president as a stand-alone. Given the number of bills that he will feel forced to oppose—chiefly those aimed at stopping the climate agenda—the White House should choose when best to exercise the veto, particularly given the level of public support for the project. Most Americans do not view Keystone as an environmental threat, backed by a State Department assessment that the pipeline only produces negligible greenhouse-gas emissions. If the president does veto it, Congress will attach the pipeline approval to a must-pass bill that he cannot veto…

…WSJ: The oil industry is lobbying Congress to relax the decades-old ban on oil exports, while the White House studies the upshots of the U.S. oil boom. What do you think Congress will do on this issue? Do you think the Obama administration will change its policy?

MR. BANKS: It is highly likely that the ban on crude-oil exports will be lifted by this Congress with White House support. Our reduced dependence on oil imports—resulting from increased domestic oil production and transportation-fuel efficiency improvements—has made the ban much more difficult to defend. Moreover, the ban and its exceptions could very well be inconsistent with U.S. trade obligations, as pointed out by a number of studies.

WSJ: What do you think Congress and the president will do about the ban on oil exports?

MR. BANKS: It is highly likely that the ban on crude-oil exports will be lifted by this Congress with White House support. Our reduced dependence on oil imports—resulting from increased domestic oil production and transportation-fuel efficiency improvements—has made the ban much more difficult to defend. Of course, wild cards exist. An oil supply shock in the Middle East, for example, would complicate a shift in policy, despite the global market’s increased need for U.S. oil…

 

EPA’s Clean Power Plan: Likely to fail regardless of litigation outcome

November 24, 2014, 9:00 AM

In less than two weeks, comments are due for the Environmental Protection Agency’s highly controversial Clean Power Plan (CPP), which would regulate carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. According to the agency’s self-imposed schedule, the CPP is expected to go final in June 2015, with state plans to be presented a year later and the possibility of one- or two-year extensions for multi-state plans. The EPA will then have a year to review each proposal, which the agency can reject if it determines that a state’s targets will not be met. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has warned the agency will impose a federal plan if necessary.

While many observers are looking to the courts, ultimately, to determine the fate of the EPA’s efforts, fewer people appear to appreciate that the rule is highly likely to fail as proposed, regardless of the outcome of legal challenges. The Clean Air Act was not designed to regulate carbon emissions; that fact will become even more obvious to the public as more and more states simply cannot comply with the CPP over time – in many cases, at no fault of their own.

The CPP reflects a potential power grab by Washington because of the plan’s proposed compliance options, which do not reduce emissions at the entities EPA has set out to regulate. Under federal law, the agency has the authority to regulate emissions from specific sources (i.e., the plan’s first building block), but those powers do not extend outside the physical boundaries of such sources (i.e., “outside the fence”). For the other three building blocks of the CPP, the federal government has either no or only very limited powers to guarantee state compliance.

Statements by McCarthy that the agency might seek to enforce provisions in state plans that currently fall outside of EPA’s authority have raised concerns that the EPA’s efforts could undermine traditional state rights regarding energy and environmental policymaking.  For instance, if a state with a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) included the mandate in its state plan, but then later lowered or repealed the RPS via the state Legislature, the EPA could move to enforce the original target, dismissing the will of a state’s elected officials.

These valid concerns have resulted in a number of state legislatures adopting laws that would actually forbid pursuing compliance methods “outside the fence” – a step that helps protect the balance of power between the states and the federal government. Next year, that list of states will likely grow, as state officials become more aware of the threat posed by EPA, resulting in the submission of a number of plans by the June 2015 deadline that are limited to “inside the fence” approaches. Many of these states will fall short of EPA compliance. Other states may simply refuse to provide plans to the agency.

Significantly, most of the plan’s compliance options require some states, particularly those dependent on coal and poor in renewable resources, to take various legislative actions that are not politically viable, especially in the timeframe prescribed by the agency. A coal state with a Democratic governor, for example, could find it impossible to coerce the state Legislature to accept new or dramatically increased renewable energy or efficiency targets. Accordingly, it makes practical sense for some states simply to say “no” to the EPA and wait for the agency’s response or for the litigation process to play out.

Undoubtedly, the agency would then be forced to move forward with a federal plan. But the scope of such action would be limited to “inside the fence” options that likely would not be technically viable, calling into question the legality of any federal plan. After all, the EPA cannot force a state legislature to pass any law that it does not support, including a renewable portfolio standard or an energy-efficiency mandate. The success of the Clean Power Plan in the near term thus depends on the willingness of states to surrender authority to the federal government and approve compliance actions over which the EPA has no control.

In the long term, the most significant threats to the Clean Power Plan, however, are the hurdles to compliance that fall outside the powers of the states and the EPA. Despite its much-vaunted flexibility, the CPP makes too many misguided assumptions about the availability of natural gas infrastructure, which the plan assumes will allow mass fuel switching from coal. After all, coal plants simply cannot be replaced by natural gas plants. EPA also appears to ignore the absence of a federal resolution of the nuclear waste issue – a problem that prevents nine U.S. states from building new nuclear units – and the potential challenges posed by other federal laws to the permitting of natural gas and renewable infrastructure (e.g., Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act).

Consequently, some states with every intention to meet the targets under the Clean Power Plan will find themselves unable to deliver the needed reductions at no fault of their own, which will pose major difficulties to EPA’s enforcement arm.

The collapse of the CPP will thus play out over time. Some states will refuse to play by the EPA’s rules upfront. Other states will fail to reach their targets over the long term, for a variety of reasons. The potential negative impact on environmental federalism – the foundation of our success in cleaning the nation’s air and water – is deeply troubling.

An EPA that relies on the willingness of states to surrender authority, with no power of its own to force those same steps, seriously calls into question the future of the agency’s credibility in compliance and enforcement.

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

Don’t overregulate taxis, ride-sharing

November 21, 2014, 1:00 PM

The hallmark of downtown Sacramento’s renaissance has been the emergence of a high-quality restaurant and bar scene. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Sacramento, geographically diffuse as it is, has the ninth-highest rate of alcohol-related fatalities in the nation, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

To reduce drunken driving fatalities, it is crucial that Sacramento maintain a healthy transportation-for-hire industry that accommodates taxis, limos and ride-sharing services, formally known as transportation network companies.

In recent years, it has become both more important and more difficult to maintain regulatory balance in the industry. It has become increasingly competitive as services such as Uber and Lyft, which offer smartphone applications to arrange rides with amateur or semiprofessional drivers, have claimed a niche.

This new source of competition has put taxis and limo services on the defensive, which in turn have put political pressure on elected leaders. Some cities have buckled, erecting regulatory barriers to TNC operations. In more extreme cases, cities sought to tear them down completely.

To appraise the state of the market, my colleagues at the R Street Institute have released a study examining transportation-for-hire regulations in 50 cities across the nation. Sacramento ranks 11th best, and fourth out of eight cities in California. While encouraging, Sacramento’s relative success is a function of some particularly onerous approaches in other jurisdictions.

There is room for improvement.

Sacramento has been among the nation’s best in embracing ride-sharing services. California’s legal framework, cemented during the last legislative session, has resolved much of the insurance and liability ambiguity that plagues regulators elsewhere. For its part, City Hall has maintained a light-handed approach by refusing to adopt anti-competitive fleet or service restrictions.

But for taxis, the regulatory situation is markedly worse. Sacramento limits the number of taxi permits and strictly controls how cabs can be dispatched to customers. In May, the City Council passed new rules mandating cabbies to accept credit cards and drive vehicles less than eight years old. The regulations also require taxi drivers to pass a test that checks their ability to speak English and their knowledge of the city’s geography.

On their face, these regulations aspire to ensure a higher level of service by forcing low-performing companies out of the market. In reality, these regulations place taxis at a competitive disadvantage.

To encourage the competition necessary to lower rates and increase availability, the last thing Sacramento should consider is extending these regulations. Similarly burdensome requirements on TNCs would only stymie their development. With the arrival of new competition, Sacramento should instead let consumers decide.

As ride-sharing services succeed, taxis will adapt to demands for newer vehicles and better service, or they will simply go out of business. Municipal regulations are slow, cumbersome and imprecise when compared with the realities enforced by ever more discerning customers.

Downtown Sacramento’s transportation-for-hire environment should embrace the new without burdening the old. But each sector of the industry will be necessary to overcome the region’s penchant for drinking and driving.

Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/opinion/op-ed/soapbox/article4036517.html#storylink=cpy Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/opinion/op-ed/soapbox/article4036517.html#storylink=cpy

The Great American Smokeout: Easier said than done for long-time smokers

November 21, 2014, 12:31 PM

From KNAU:

E-Cigarettes are battery powered devices that look a lot like the real thing. But instead of delivering nicotine to the body through tobacco combustion – the most dangerous part of smoking – they deliver it through a water and glycol-based vapor. Brad Rodu is an oral pathologist and professor of medicine at the University of Louisville’s School of Medicine. He says, “E-Cigarettes and other smoke-free products are a way for the smoker to take back a measure of control over that behavior and reduce his or her risk for a number of deadly diseases.”

For 20 years, Rodu’s research has focused on Tobacco Harm Reduction, the substitution of safer tobacco products by people who aren’t able – or willing – to quit. “Keep in mind,” Rodu says, “that cigarettes are the  most dangerous and toxic consumer product in the United States. And so, smoke-free tobacco products represent an enormous reduced risk potential for smokers.” He adds, “Many, many of the nation’s 45,000,000 smokers do not want to quit.”

Obama’s immigration authority defense by Department of Justice is one big contradiction

November 21, 2014, 12:20 PM

When the president announced his executive actions to address immigration issues, he undoubtedly knew that his decision to categorically suspend immigration law enforcement for millions of undocumented immigrants would be met with intense legal skepticism.

In his remarks to the nation, President Barack Obama articulated the specifics of his proposal:

If you’ve been in America for more than five years; if you have children who are American citizens or legal residents; if you register, pass a criminal background check and you’re willing to pay your fair share of taxes….[W]e’re not going to deport you.

Immigration reform is one of the more contentious policy issues facing the United States, but the most significant issue with Obama’s executive actions has much less to do with policy preferences than it does with the scope of presidential power. Opponents of the president’s actions argue that he is acting well outside of this constitutional authority, while President Obama argues that he is acting in a manner consistent with the responsibilities of the executive branch.

President Obama called upon the Office of Legal Counsel within the Department of Justice (DOJ) to offer the legal basis for his deferred action for undocumented immigrants. Unfortunately, the 33-page DOJ memorandum creates even more questions about the president’s authority and the nature of the non-enforcement proposal itself.

The memorandum correctly articulates a conventional understanding of prosecutorial discretion as a case-by-case enforcement decision regarding an individual. The problem for the DOJ is that the president publicly highlighted his action as a blanket non-enforcement policy.

DOJ attorneys are well aware of the distinction between prosecutorial discretion and the president’s broad modification of immigration law. As a result, the DOJ’s guidance characterizes the president’s promise of deferred action in a completely different manner than the proposal presented by the president himself.  The DOJ memorandum notes, “the proposed policy provides a general framework for exercising enforcement discretion in individual cases, rather than establishing an absolute, inflexible policy of not enforcing the immigration laws in certain categories of cases.”

In his national address, President Obama clearly stated the conditions under which broad categories of undocumented aliens would not be deported. The DOJ simultaneously argues that there is no “inflexible prioritization policy.” The two positions seem to be in direct contradiction with each other.

The DOJ recognizes that if the president’s executive actions on immigration are successfully characterized as “not enforcing the immigration laws in certain categories of cases,” they could be challenged as attempts to rewrite the immigration laws or avoid statutory responsibilities to enforce them.

While President Obama and many Americans may feel strongly about changing federal immigration law, the president does not have the ability to make categorical changes without Congress. More importantly, the president should not present one plan to the American people on national television as his lawyers prepare another one hoping to survive legal challenges.

Texas cities are losing control of fracking

November 21, 2014, 12:03 PM

Overall, conservatives in Texas had a very good election night earlier this month. Republicans took all the statewide offices, as indeed they have in every election since 1994, and claimed virtual supermajorities in both the state house and senate. Even a ballot measure on a light rail project in liberal Austin went down to defeat.

Yet in the midst of this dominance of common sense came one ominous result. Voters in the city of Denton approved a ballot measure banning all hydraulic fracturing within city limits. While municipalities have banned fracking in states ranging from Colorado to Pennsylvania, Denton represents the first time a city in energy-loving Texas has done so. And unless swift action is taken, it may not be the last.

What happened? The anti-fracking campaign raised the typical objections: fracking contaminates groundwater; fracking causes earthquakes; fracking will lead to a zombie apocalypse. But the arguments that seem to have gotten the most traction were the “quality of life” concerns. A drilling boom is accompanied by increased traffic and noise, among other things that residents find to annoying. The pro-drilling campaign emphasized the huge economic benefits that the city was foregoing, but in the end, the idea of NIMBY—“not in my backyard”—won out.

What happens next will be utterly predictable. First, there will be lawsuits. In fact, they have already begun. Mere hours after the election results were announced, the Texas Oil and Gas Association filed suit in state court seeking an injunction of the ban. The lawsuit argues that the city ban violates state law by prohibiting drilling on sites where it is permitted by the state. As a “home rule” city, Denton does have a good deal of regulatory latitude, but can’t pass restrictions that contradict state law.

The new ordinance is also vulnerable to claims that it has taken property without paying just compensation. Both the Texas and U.S. Constitutions provide that government entities must pay when they deny landowners the use of property, including mineral interests, via regulation. These lawsuits have also already started. In September, Denton-area attorney Charles Chandler Davis sued Denton for a million dollars based on a takings claim, and many other suits are expected. Given how much valuable oil and gas is stored beneath the ground there, paying compensation could leave the city in a dire situation.

You might wonder why the city government would support such a daft idea. And, in fact, the answer is that they didn’t. A fracking ban was voted down by the Denton city council this past summer. Instead, Tuesday’s referendum was the result of an environmentalist-led petition drive, whereby a small percentage of a city’s overall population can force an issue onto the ballot. It’s reasonable to expect that the campaign that proved successful in Denton will become a model for efforts to block production in other cities and counties.

This is hardly the first time that a city has pulled out a rifle and taken aim at its own foot (see, Detroit). And ordinarily if a city wants to pass stupid laws, that’s up to them. But energy is different. The shale boom is transforming both the Texas and American economies. Natural gas production is up by a third since 2005, and Texas alone is now producing 36 percent of America’s crude oil output. The efforts are underway to put large fractions of that energy off limits to production, with the Denton ban only one small example, are misguided at best.

The relationship between the states and the federal government is full of give and take. Cities, in contrast, are ultimately creatures of the state in which they were built. Local control cannot be a pretext to justify taking private property. When cities like Denton begin losing control over fracking regulation to environmentalist campaigners, it’s time for the state to step in and reaffirm who has primary authority over regulating energy production.

Fresno hits right note on for-hire ride services

November 21, 2014, 11:55 AM

When it comes to getting around town, Fresno has struck a good balance between regulation and innovation.

A newly released study by my colleagues at the R Street Institute, which examined the regulatory environment for taxis, limos and transportation network companies, ranked Fresno third best overall, behind only Minneapolis and Washington, D.C.

In California, Fresno ranks first — by miles.

Over the past few years, the transportation-for-hire industry has become increasingly competitive. TNCs, services that allow people to use applications on their smartphones to arrange rides with amateur or semi-professional drivers, have claimed a niche in this slow-to-change industry. The introduction of a new type of competition has pushed taxis and limo services onto the defensive.

Some cities have buckled under the political pressure of the taxi and limo industries and have erected regulatory barriers to TNC operations. In more extreme cases, cease-and-desist orders were sent to TNCs in an effort to shut them down completely.

Fresno has resisted these efforts, perhaps because it already had a moderate approach on taxi and limo regulation. For instance, Fresno places no fleet-size restrictions on taxi operators and insists on no minimum fare for limo services. By showing regulatory restraint, Fresno has offered all sectors of the transportation-for-hire industry an opportunity to flourish.

In less dense metropolitan regions, like Fresno, transportation-for-hire is critical. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics indicate that, of major cities, Fresno residents suffer the seventh-highest rate of alcohol-related fatal crashes per capita. Fostering an environment conducive to affordable and readily available transportation for those under the influence of alcohol will forestall utterly avoidable fatalities.

TNCs, in particular, are well suited to provide services on the city’s periphery, with flexible and less costly alternatives to traditional transportation options. Since TNCs operate on the principle that drivers pick-up passengers in close proximity to them, they are able to realize savings that cabs or limos cannot when they are summoned from great distances.

To be sure, TNC services are not without their unresolved issues. Questions about how to accommodate disabled passengers and what kinds of insurance policies will be required to cover TNC activity, demand ongoing attention. Still, as with any novel venture, these questions will be answered over time through trials of the various costs and benefits.

An opportunity to refocus on the role and regulation of transportation-for-hire should not be confined to TNCs. Fresno’s success in the R Street study is relative to other, more hostile, jurisdictions. Thus, to create a truly friendly regulatory environment, serious consideration should be given to relaxing the regulatory burden on all parts of the transportation-for-hire industry.

Still, Fresno has set itself apart in California and demonstrated the kind of municipal leadership that other jurisdictions need. The people of Fresno are better for it.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/11/20/4243622/ian-adams-fresno-hits-right-note.html#storylink=cpy

Surgeons general say the darndest things about tobacco

November 21, 2014, 11:53 AM

Acting U.S. Surgeon General Boris Lushniak recently tweeted:

.@OxfordWords #Vape may be #WOTY but the increase in never-smoking youth using e-cigs is a not a trivial story http://t.co/mqeuIvgQRX

— U.S. Surgeon General (@Surgeon_General) November 19, 2014

The tweet referred to the Oxford English Dictionary’s having designated “vape” as the word of the year, and reflected a CDC report claiming that e-cigarette use among children had increased in 2013. The prevalence of e-cig use among youth who had never smoked was 0.3 percent.

Tobacco use by youth is never trivial, but in taking an extreme position, Dr. Lushniak was acting in the tradition of previous surgeons general.

In December 1992, Surgeon General Antonia Novello announced:

The majority of our experts predict an oral cancer epidemic beginning two or three decades from now if the current trends in spit tobacco use continue.

That was shocking news for many, including this oral cancer expert. As an oral pathologist for 15 years at Emory University and the University of Alabama at Birmingham – deep in smokeless tobacco country – I had made microscopic diagnoses in hundreds of oral cancer cases (almost all smoker/drinkers), and I had assisted in the treatment of hundreds more. Over time, I had become increasingly bothered by the disconnect between the dogma I taught my medical and dental students (that smokeless tobacco was a death sentence for oral cancer) and what I had experienced in practice (that smokeless tobacco was almost never listed as a behavior on the pathology request forms, the rare exception being powdered dry snuff).

Dr. Novello’s announcement was the catalyst for my research, which led to my first journal articles in 1994, and my book, “For Smokers Only”, in 1995. (An updated version with a new chapter on e-cigarettes is now available in print and as an audiobook here).

I testified at a 2003 congressional hearing on tobacco harm reduction, at which Surgeon General Richard Carmona also testified. (Dr. Carmona is today an NJOY director and chair of its scientific advisory committee.) In that hearing Dr. Carmona said, “there is no significant evidence that suggests smokeless tobacco is a safer alternative to cigarettes.” I subsequently noted in a Washington Times editorial that the surgeon general had ignored decades of published research and the findings of Britain’s esteemed Royal College of Physicians.

Dr. Carmona so blundered in supporting a ban on all tobacco products that Bush administration officials had to backtrack. “This is not the policy of the administration,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, adding that Dr. Carmona’s comments reflected his views alone.

The surgeon general occupies one of the most trusted positions in American medicine. The individual holding that post should speak the truth about safer cigarette substitutes, today and always.