Weekly Hit & Run Archive 2010 June 1-31

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Reason Writers on the TV: Katherine Mangu-Ward on Fringe Candidates on Russia Today

Senior Editor of Reason Magazine Katherine Mangu-Ward talks Tea Parties, fringe candidates, and third-party candidates on Russia Today's The Alyona Show on May 25, 2010.

Approximately 5 minutes.

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WSJ: Safeway, Supervalu Training Unions to Battle Wal-Mart

It’s an unsurprising story, but the Wall Street Journal digs into the financing of the anti-Wal-Mart movement and finds that rival supermarkets—like Supervalu, Safeway, and Ahold NV—have been stoking and underwriting community outrage:

Robert Brownson long believed that his proposed development here, with its 200,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter, was being held hostage by nearby homeowners.

He had seen them protesting at city hall, and they had filed a lawsuit to stop the project.

What he didn't know was that the locals were getting a lot of help. A grocery chain with nine stores in the area had hired Saint Consulting Group to secretly run the antidevelopment campaign. Saint is a specialist at fighting proposed Wal-Marts, and it uses tactics it describes as "black arts."…

Safeway, a national chain based in Pleasanton, Calif., retained Saint to thwart Wal-Mart Supercenters in more than 30 towns in California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii in recent years, according to a Saint project list and interviews with former employees. Former Saint employees say much of the work consisted of training Safeway's unionized workers to fight land-use battles, including how to speak at public hearings.

A few years back, I wrote about the history of big box panics.

Revolt Against the Public Sector

Politico has a decent article up about how, 

Spurred by state budget crunches and an angry public mood, Republican and some Democratic leaders are focusing with increasing intensity on public workers and the unions that represent them, casting them as overpaid obstacles to good government and demanding cuts in their often-generous benefits.

Lots of Chris Christie/Mitch Daniels quotes, but it remains striking to me how lame the public-sector union responses sound:

"It's outrageous to blame a librarian – to blame a fireman for the financial mess that we find this country it," the president of the American Federation of State County, and Municipal Employees, the largest national public workers union, [Gerald] McEntee, said. "We are the scapegoats in the states." [...]

"The Al Shankers and the Victor Gotbaums...they're not around any more," said Norman Adler, the former political director of the New York City public workers union, referring to public sector union leaders who battled through the crises of the 1960s. "The people who have replaced them are either not as sophisticated or not as talented as the old guard was." [...]

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, for instance, blamed "the hedge fund folks" who, she said, are "trying to use charters as a way of demonizing public school teachers."

So, don't blame the noble firefighter for the economic crisis, the movement needs greater Great Leaders, and god DAMN those hedge funds. Really?

What's missing every time this debate comes up is any actual defense of the basic and 100 percent undeniable trend line–we are paying much, much more money to deliver government services that (with few exceptions) are not performing any better, and the single biggest line item in that cost increase is employee compensation. The burden of proof is on the people pocketing our taxpayer dollars, and yet they continue to dissemble, whine, and change the subject (and sometimes even shrug), rather than robustly defending the public policy mess they have been instrumental in creating. As long as We Are Out of Money, they (and their apologists) will rightly be on the defensive.

Watch me debate with a California union honcho on the Stossel show below. And refresh your memory with our three classic cover stories: "Class War," "Failed States," and "The Next Catastrophe."

Reason.tv's Meredith Bragg and Dan Hayes Snag "I Am Free Enterprise" Video Honors!

I'm happy to announce that Meredith Bragg of Reason.tv won second runner-up honors for his entry in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's "I Am Free Enterprise" video contest. Check out his video about the making of a sandwich:

First-runner-up honors went to "Tracy Foster is Free Enterprise," which Dan Hayes helped out with.

The big winner was Carlos Sanchez. Check out his video.

For more background on the contest, go to the chamber's site here.

Reason Writers Around Town: Jacob Sullum Talks Drug Policy on Off the Page

In a recent interview with National Review Online's Will Cain, Senior Editor Jacob Sullum explains why "drug-related violence" is really prohibition-related violence, why more drug use after legalization would be a good thing, and why controlled substance is a misnomer.

Colorado Explicitly Authorizes Marijuana Dispensaries

Today Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter signed a law that authorizes government-licensed medical marijuana dispensaries. "Primary caregivers," who are allowed to grow cannabis for patients under the voter-approved constitutional amendment that legalized the medical use of marijuana in 2000, will now be limited to five patients each and generally will be permitted to grow no more than six plants per patient (although exceptions can be made based on medical necessity). Yet the law also allows larger-scale dispensaries to stay open, provided they obtain state and local licenses, grow at least 70 percent of their marijuana, operate at least 1,000 feet from the nearest school, and meet various other requirements. The Marijuana Policy Project says "hundreds" of the state's existing dispensaries will be able to stay in business, although municipalities would be allowed to ban them altogether.

Another bill signed by Ritter today requires that doctors who recommend marijuana have "bona fide" relationships with their patients:

The new law will require doctors to have completed a full assessment of the patient's medical history, to talk with the patient about the medical condition that has caused them to seek marijuana and to be available for follow-up care. The law also prevents doctors from getting paid by dispensaries to write recommendations.

Colorado now joins New Mexico, Rhode Island, Maine, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., on the list of jurisdictions that explicitly authorize medical marijuana dispensaries. The new rules eliminate the ambiguity that had allowed the DEA to continue raiding cannabis suppliers despite the Obama administration's policy against prosecuting those who comply with state law. If the DEA raids state-licensed dispensaries in Colorado (or elsewhere), it will be clear that the alleged shift in policy means nothing in practice.

Medical marijuana advocates plan to challenge the provision that permits local governments to ban dispensaries, which in theory could lead to statewide prohibition, contrary to the state constitution's medical marijuana provision.

ObamaCare's First Victim? "The rules changed in the middle of the game."

On my Twitter account last week, I noted the story of a Richmond, VA health insurance start-up that specializes in consumer-driven health care plans—or did, anyway, until it shut down. The top execs are now claiming the company was put out of business by regulatory uncertainty created by the passage of ObamaCare. Today, Politico's Sarah Kliff has a nice follow-up:

A Virginia-based insurance company says "considerable uncertainties" created by the Democrats' health care overhaul will force it to close its doors by the end of the year.

The firm, nHealth, appears to be the first to claim that the new law has driven it out of business. "We don't know what the rules are going to be and, as a start-up, our investors need certainty," nHealth CEO and president, Paul Kitchen, told POLITICO. "The law created so much uncertainty that is beyond our control."

...In an interview with POLITICO, Kitchen explained the impact of health reform on his business as two-fold. First, it created an uncertain future. With regulations yet to be written and rules constantly forthcoming, he said "everything felt beyond our control."

Second, Kitchen is apprehensive about a more-heavily regulated insurance market. The new health reform law requires insurance companies to spend a certain amount of premium dollars on medical costs and, in many cases, bans lifetime limits on medical coverage. Kitchen said he was uncertain whether nHealth would be able to comply.

"The rules changed in the middle of the game," says Kitchen. "We're not willing to wander into that environment." The White House aide agreed that the rules will indeed change, but in a way that benefits consumers. Stricter regulations will ultimately guarantee better coverage for subscribers. The medical loss ratio regulation, for example, will ensure that insurers spend a certain percent of subscriber dollars on medical costs rather than administrative expenses.

The fact that there are losers in a market is not by itself proof that a law is problematic (I can imagine any number of deregulatory moves, especially in the energy sector, that might kill some business models). And start-ups with short track records are inherently less stable than existing successful businesses, which means they're the most likely to get pushed out when rules change. But it does suggest the tough road health insurers are going to have ahead of them, and, in particular, the difficulties that companies that aim to innovate with CDHC-flavored plans are likely to face.

I took a longer look at how ObamaCare threatens consumer-driven health care plans here.

Express Advocacy for Us but Not for Them

Mother Jones reporter Suzy Khimm notes that the deluge of corporate speech prophesied by President Obama and other critics of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC so far does not even amount to a trickle. The Center for Responsive Politics counts exactly one example of express advocacy by a corporation in the recent elections: "A real-estate company called KDR Development ran a print advertisement against the Democratic incumbent in a Texas state House race." Labor unions, by contrast, have been quick to take advantage of their new freedom:

The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the AFL-CIO have begun to use the new Citizens United rules to promote their preferred candidates in closely fought contests, such as Lt. Gov. Bill Halter's challenge to Sen. Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas' Democratic Senate primary, and the special election in Pennsylvania's 12th congressional district, which Democrat Mark Critz won in mid-May....

The ads urged voters to "say no to Blanche Lincoln," "vote no on Blanche Lincoln," and "vote for Bill Halter," as well as another TV ad that suggested that "it's time for Arkansas to let [Lincoln] go."...

Similarly, the AFL-CIO told voters to "cast a vote for Pennsylvania jobs—Mark Critz for Congress" in a radio spot funded by soft money contributions. "We participated heavily in that election and we’re proud of the results we got," says AFL-CIO spokeswoman Amaya Tune. "We think that ad, and others that we got, were extremely helpful in pushing Critz over."

It makes sense that unions, which do not have to worry about alienating customers or upsetting shareholders, would be be more eager to run political ads than major corporations are. Still, Ricky Feller, AFSCME's deputy political director, worries that the union advantage won't last and therefore suggests that it should be enshrined in law:

"Once corporations figure out how they’re going to do this or not do this, we can't compete with their money," says Feller. But they believe that the same rules shouldn't apply to them. "We think unions are different from corporations," says AFL-CIO's Tune. "They actually represent members who pay their dues, representing working people."

Khimm alludes to the DISCLOSE Act, which she describes as "legislation that would create stricter disclosure requirements for political advertising," without mentioning that it embodies the sort of double standard Feller wants.

Last Week's Top 5 Hit & Run Posts

Here's what you were reading last week at Hit & Run:

David Souter, Jim Crow, and the Living Constitution, by Damon W. Root (6/4)

Yet Still Even More on The Coming War Between Public and Private Sector Workers...Chap MCMXIII, by Nick Gillespie (6/3)

Royal Society to Re-evaluate Position on Global Warming, by Ronald Bailey (6/1)

The Berwick Battle Begins, by Peter Suderman (6/2)

When Governments Choose To Pay For Medicine, They Also Choose What Medicine To Not Pay For, by Peter Suderman (6/3)

The Obama Administration's Genius New Plan For Keeping Health Insurance Premiums Down

The Wall Street Journal reports on the Obama administration's latest policy innovation:

On Monday, insurers that sell Medicare Advantage plans must submit their 2011 bids to the government. In a letter to four insurance-industry executives, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius warned the companies not to increase premiums and co-payments for seniors.

"Focus on price and quality rather than asking seniors who need health care the most to pay more for it," Ms. Sebelius wrote in a letter sent Friday and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. The letters went to WellPoint Inc., Cigna Corp., BlueCross BlueShield Association and Health Care Service Corp., according to a person familiar with the situation. Those executives met with Ms. Sebelius last month.

Many insurance companies are planning to increase costs for a range of services for seniors next year, according to consultants who have helped prepare their bids. Dozens of Medicare Advantage providers plan to cut back vision, dental and prescription benefits. Some plans are eliminating free teeth cleanings and gym memberships, and raising fees for hearing aides, eye glasses and emergency-room visits.

Consultants cite two reasons for the cuts. The rate the government will pay private insurers to run the plans is frozen for 2011 at 2010 levels, while medical costs are expected to increase an average of at least 6%. Such price increases and benefit cuts will help them recoup that difference, the consultants say.

Meanwhile, the health overhaul will impose drastic payment cuts to insurers that run the plans, and consultants say insurance companies need to begin adapting now. Starting in 2012, the law calls for a gradual reduction in government payments to insurers, totaling $136 billion before the end of the decade.

The Obama administration and Senate Democrats say that passing those costs on as early as next year is unfair. In her letter, Ms. Sebelius warned insurers that she will deny insurers bids if they include excessive price increases, using new powers under the health law.

Now why would Sebelius need to send a letter like this? Wasn't the Affordable Care Act supposed to, you know, make care more affordable? And didn't President Obama himself indicate that seniors needn't fear Medicare cuts? Or is this an admission that that, despite the administration's steady promises to the contrary, health insurance premiums are likely to go up in the wake of the new health care law?

Or maybe this letter is just a way of following through on those promises. The way the Obama administration will keep prices down and quality up is by...writing threatening letters to the health insurance industry warning them to keep service levels high and prices low.

If this is such a great idea, though, I wonder why we can try it for other industries? I propose we start with the video game console market: Let's make sure Microsoft puts out a next-generation Xbox pronto, and a stack of nifty new games to go with it. Obviously, though, I don't want to pay any more for it than a current console. Maybe the FTC and the FCC can take of this one with a joint-letter. And how about the wedding industry? Costs have gone up steadily over the years, and American families, already burdened by the effects of a sluggish economy, are suffering. If all it takes is a stern letter and a flash of some agency's regulatory weaponry to get more reasonable pricing and service out of the wedding planners and DJs and venue managers of the world, then surely this is a problem we can solve.

It's absurd, obviously, but hardly more so than what the Obama administration is doing here. Price controls on health insurance have already provoked a massive legal battle in Massachusetts, and the state's four biggest insurers are now all reporting operating losses—in large part, they claim, because of rate-hike rejections. Even Bill Clinton's economic advisers warned during the HillaryCare debates that imposing price controls would be difficult to implement and were likely to produce adverse effects. But those lessons appear not to have been passed on to the current administration, which seems determined to turn health insurance into an all-but government-run quasi-public utility.

Helen Thomas, and the Awkward Transfer From "Straight" Reporting to Opinioneering

Since we haven't run the video here yet, here's the ancient White House correspondent-turned-columnist Helen Thomas celebrating Jewish Heritage Month by telling Israelis (via a camera-wielding interlocutor) to go back to Poland and Germany:

Under heavy criticism (including from the White House), Thomas today announced her retirement.

As a fellow ex-UPIer and someone who greatly enjoyed a wine-drenched evening in Thomas' company 16 years ago (during which she told me, tears in her eyes, that Bill Clinton's disrespect for the office was worse than any of the presidents she'd covered), I am tempted to feel bad for an 89-year-old lady getting caught in what might be passed off as a senior moment, but there's no reason to believe that her statement and tone don't reflect her basic views.

They also, I believe, reflect an interesting, under-appreciated, and ultimately impermanent media phenomenon: The longer someone is submerged in what they and their organizations regard as traditional "straight" reporting, the more gruesome the results are when the gloves come off. As Thomas herself reportedly said in a 2002 speech, "I censored myself for 50 years.... Now I wake up and ask myself, 'Who do I hate today?'"

Straight reporters have been taught for six decades to submerge or even smother their political and philosophical views in the workplace. Like all varieties of censorship, this process creates resentment and distortion. Whatever it is that you feel prevented from saying, you will be more likely to scream once given the chance. This is why, for example, some of the most politically opinionated people you'll ever meet are newspaper reporters a couple drinks in out yakking with their colleagues.

Degrading the quality of that discussion still further is the likelihood that the partisanship-averse journos haven't bothered to construct their own self-conscious political philosophy, beyond identifying Bad Guys and wanting to Fix Problems. Show me the world's most intractable problems–the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the inability to produce mass amounts of energy without negatively impacting the environment, the search for a beer that tastes great and is less filling–and I'll show you reporters in bars having conversations worthy of the Alex Jones show. It's not that they're all Helen Thomases–she is truly one of a kind–but that in the absence of subjecting their own beliefs to journalistic rigor, they are more likely than many would expect to quietly nurture beliefs that outsiders would find surprisingly slanted and even extreme. 

For these and other reasons, when straight reporters transition to opinion journalism, one of the first things to go is the "journalism" part of it. Now they can say what they really feel, dammit, and what they really feel is that the Bad Guys are preventing us from Fixing Problems. There's no longer any need to grok the Bad Guy's point of view. Think of what happened to longtime Associated Press/CNN reporter Peter Arnett, for example, or just read the latest political musings from the once-straight war correspondent Chris Hedges. I saw this process repeatedly at the L.A. Times, when newsroom lifers would tranfer to the Opinion Dept. and immediately begin producing pieces that sounded like an activist's fundraising letter, caricutarizing the opposing side's absolutely worst argument.

All of which is why I wish even the straightest-edge news outlets would follow Reason's still-lonely example and show us (at minimum) who their staffers are voting for. Newspapers are more terrified that the public will realize how biased their reporters are than they are at continuing to publish work contaminated by suppressed political leanings and resentments. With the advent of blogs, social media, and other boomlets of cultural expression, and the deserved market decline in what press-thinker Jay Rosen has derisively termed "the view from nowhere," the mask has long since begun to slip and crack. Hopefully, the current generation of reporters entering the market will have figured out how to pursue fair journalism without hiding their beliefs, and to speak in whatever public fora without fatally undermining their work.

Reason.tv: Madam-Turned-Pol Kristin Davis - Can NY Take a Gov Who Was Convicted *Before* Taking Office?

Kristin Davis rose to notoriety as the madam who provided New York Attorney General and Gov. Eliot Spitzer with the escorts that led to his demise. Davis ended up going to jail for providing a business populated by and for consenting adults. Spitzer's penalty? Possibly getting a show on CNN.

Now Davis herself is running the Empire State's top slot in Albany, on a platform this is simple and straightforward in libertarian sanity: She wants to legalize (and tax) marijuana and prostitution. For a state as deep in the red as New York, that's no joke. She has also proposed liberalizing gaming laws and called for gambling casinos in the Catskills.

I built a multi-million dollar escort service from scratch before pleading guilty to promoting prostitution.  Prostitution in New York is estimated to be a $5 Billion a year business. Legalization and a reasonable tax rate could bring $ 1Billion in new revenues to New York State each year. Legalizing Marijuana would reap another $2 Billion a year. Then New York could balance the budget and still cut property and income taxes.

Additionally, she wants to legalize gay marriage because the state shouldn't discriminate and highlight the inequities of a criminal justice system that treats the politically powerless far worse than the politically powerful. Read more here.

Davis' official campaign site is here.

Davis has enlisted the aid of legendary political operative Roger Stone for a campaign which has no chance of knocking off presumptive gubernatorial shoe-in Andrew Cuomo. But her run gives voice to a series of issues that deserve to be heard now more than ever. And her run gives form to a vision of smart governance and policy that is not simply provocative but utterly persuasive.

Reason.tv's Nick Gillespie sat down with Davis to talk about her platform, the hypocrisy of elected officials, and her coming web-based reality show, Madam Governor, which will document her campaign.

Shot by Dan Hayes and Meredith Bragg; edited by Bragg. Approximately 5 minutes.

Go to Reason.tv for downloadable versions. Subscribe to Reason.tv's YouTube channel for automatic notification when new material goes live.

New at Reason: Matt Welch on the "Costs" of Free Speech

Last year the Obama administration updated Washington’s official position on what forms of expression are legal. “Whether a given category of speech enjoys First Amendment protection,” Solicitor General Elena Kagan argued in U.S. v. Stevens, “depends upon a categorical balancing of the value of the speech against its societal costs.” Yet as Editor in Chief Matt Welch explains in our July issue, consequentialism and the First Amendment don't mix.

View this article

And Who, After Reading Martin Luther King's "Letter From a Birmingham Jail", Could Possibly Object to a Tax on Sugary Soft Drinks?

Today's quote of the day comes from the disgraced former tyrannical prosecutor Eliot Spitzer:

After reading the Gettysburg Address, does the idea of a carbon tax to finally move us away from an oil and old-energy dependence that is fouling not only the Gulf of Mexico but our entire climate, foreign policy, and economy seem so outrageous?

Last Week's Top 5 Hits at Reason.com

These were the most popular columns at Reason.com last week:

Obama's Glamour Problem: Former reason editor Virginia Postrel on the economics of health care and the intersection of glamour and politics, by Ted Balaker (6/1)

Fight Bigotry Without Government: How the free market undermines racism and segregation, by John Stossel (6/3)

Do Liberals Suffer from Arrested Moral Development? What 10-year-olds and liberals have in common, by Ronald Bailey (6/1)

The Persecution of Gilbert Arenas: How gun prohibitionists and an image-conscious NBA scapegoated a basketball star, by Daniel Wattenberg (6/3)

Legalize Immigration: It's time to focus on letting legal immigrants in, by Steve Chapman (5/31)

Why the Tea Party Should Oppose the Drug War

Writing at National Review, Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron argues that if the Tea Party movement wants to get serious about limiting government, it must oppose the drug war:

Voter dissatisfaction with Republicans and Democrats is at historic levels, and the tea-party movement is hoping to play kingmaker in the November elections. The country’s current breed of discontent is ideal for the tea parties, because economic concerns are foremost, allowing the movement to sidestep the divisions between its libertarian and conservative wings.

As the elections near, however, voters will want to know where the party stands not just on the economy but on social issues. A perfect illustration is drug policy, where conservatives advocate continued prohibition but libertarians argue for legalization. Which way should the tea party lean when this issue arises?

If the party is true to its principles — fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, and free markets — it must side with the libertarians.

Read the whole thing here. And click below to watch Jeffrey Miron discuss his new book Libertarianism From A to Z with Reason.tv:

When Blue-State Zoning and Super-Cool Green Architecture Collide

This purportedly carbon-neutral building, in Venice, California, is three and a half feet too tall, according to Los Angeles zoning restrictions. Removing the solar panels would knock it down 18 inches, but that might not be enough for the City Council. The architect says, "To fix it would cost more than it cost to erect it in the first place." Read more about it at L.A. Curbed.

Hat tip to Shawn Richardson.

Debt Becomes Us

It's Monday morning. Time for another reminder about the coming budgepocalypse!

How big and bad is the U.S. debt, and how big and bad is it likely to become over the next decade? The President's budget expects it to reach 77 percent of GDP by 2020, which is far above the generally-accepted healthy threshold of 60 percent of GDP. This is the best-case scenario, which, given Washington's history of bloated budgeting, means you can safely ignore it. The CBO, on the other hand, projects that publicly held debt will equal 90 percent of GDP by 2020. And according to economists Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff—whose recent history of fiscal crises, This Time Is Different, is among the most thorough and influential takes on how economies weigh themselves down with debt—it's at that 90 percent point when things get really scary. Growth slows, and the economy becomes more likely to suffer shocks. Federal interest payments climb ever higher. And as that happens, the country becomes more and more likely to lose its triple-A credit rating—which is sort of like being put on economic probation (in other words, really bad news).

But what if we hit the 90 percent threshold even faster? The CBO's headline figure only total up publicly-held debt. But if you look at the government's gross debt, the timeline for the budgepocalypse is even shorter. In fact, we may already be there: The CBO expects gross central government debt to hit 94 percent this year. And it's expected to keep growing, too. This morning, Bloomberg is reporting that total debt could could hit 100 percent of GDP by 2012, according to IMF figures. Maybe we all get some sort of award when we finally owe more than we produce in a year? Or maybe we just keep shrugging our shoulders and scratching our heads and setting up bipartisan commissions to make it look like we're doing something.

In other news, according to the Wall Street Journal, some folks in Washington aren't quite sure whether to keep borrowing money in order to fund more stimulus programs or start cutting spending. But for the Obama administration, it's not that tough a decision: "The priority remains stimulating economic growth through continued spending." Fiscal responsibility!

Reason Morning Links: New Gitmo Allegations, Terrorism Arrests in New Jersey, Madoff Finds His Niche

Two Approaches to Curbing Student Drinking Problems

The first comes from Tufts, via the invaluable Inside Higher Ed:

Lawrence Bacow, president of Tufts University, has been inviting students who are mentioned in police reports to his office, so he can talk to them one-on-one about the risks of excessive drinking, The Boston Globe reported. In the article, Bacow argues that cultural shifts are needed to change drinking patterns, and so he asks students not only to change their own behavior but to look out for their friends. He started the effort after an incident this fall when he was walking back to his house, along with the president of Bowdoin College, after Tufts had defeated Bowdoin in football in the homecoming game, and he found a fire truck and an ambulance there, dealing with an intoxicated student. “There’s a student passed out on my lawn,’’ Bacow told the Globe. “At 3:30 in the afternoon!’’

I sympathize with Bacow regarding substance abuse by students, but however heartfelt his approach is, it doesn't really get at those drinking patterns he wants to change.

For that, check out this Reason.tv video produced by Paul Feine and Alex Manning and featuring University of the South/Sewanne president (and former Middlebury president) John McCardell. McCardell's crazy idea? End the prohibitionist mind-set that triumphed on campuses by the late 1980s and actually give kids some basic instruction on how to drink without puking your guts out. As he notes, no one expects a 16 year old to be able to drive a car without practice and instruction.

Terrorists Stole My Pre-Paid Cell Phone

Former Libertarian Party presidential nominee Bob Barr notes that Faisal Shahzad's Times Square bombing attempt might be a causus belli for the federal government to make pre-paid cell phones illegal. Excerpt:

This innocuous device, available now to virtually anyone wishing to buy a cheap cell phone useable for a limited period, represents perhaps the last opportunity for a person to communicate anonymously.  Yet, these devices are being targeted for extinction by a pair of United States Senators simply because the failed Times Square bomber used one in his preparatory activities; and law enforcement discovered this not because the *purchase* of the cell phone was recorded in an accessible database, but because Shahzad made at least one call to a number already on a government list of suspected terrorists.

Democratic New York Sen. Chuck Schumer now has teamed with his Republican colleague from Texas, John Cornyn, and introduced a bill that would employ the heavy hand of federal law to prohibit anonymous cell phones. [...] [I]t is certain that many of their colleagues will jump at this latest chance to prove they are as tough on terrorists as the next guy, whatever the cost to the rest of the citizenry.

While Sens. Schumer and Cornyn may believe that the only people who purchase prepaid cell phones are terrorists, the fact is, many average, law-abiding citizens use such devices regularly.  Some people do so because they may not have the funds or the creditworthiness to buy a cell phone with a network plan.  Others may do so precisely because of the anonymity such phones offer; something especially important for journalists to be able to protect communications with their sources from being revealed.

Whole thing, including other civil liberties warnings, here; link via Barr's Twitter feed. The former Republican explained to Reason in 2003 and again in 2008 how voting for the PATRIOT Act hastened his turn to libertarianism. Watch his 2008 Reason.tv interview below:

New at Reason: Steve Chapman on the Big Ten and Midwestern Identity

In the Midwest, writes Steve Chapman, we don't have damp, blustery fall days: We have Big Ten weather. We don't have mammoth land-grant universities: We have Big Ten schools. You may insult our climate, our politicians, or our Miss America contestants, but not the Big Ten. But as Chapman notes, right now, people in high positions are talking about expanding the nation's oldest collegiate athletic conference. What they may overlook is that it's not just a sports association. It's an identity in a region that needs one.

View this article

Obama Theory of the Month

Is Barack Obama a secret Muslim? communist? immigrant? extra in the video for "Whoomp (There It Is)"? Gawker weighs the evidence.

That Sounds About Right

Obama's commission to reduce the federal budget deficit . . . says it needs more money.

Reason.tv Replay: Mickey Kaus on immigrants, new media, & bringing The Velvet Underground to Beverly Hills High (ca. 1968)...

...oh yeah, and his quixotic Senate bid against incumbent Barbara Boxer.

The Kaus family was deeply intertwined with California politics and culture long before journalist/blogger Mickey Kaus started his longshot bid to unseat Sen. Barbara Boxer in the 2010 Democratic primary.

Mickey’s father, the Viennese-born Otto Kaus, was a well-respected jurist who sat on the California Supreme Court from 1981 to 1985. His brother Stephen is a prominent Bay Area civil-litigation attorney and a commentator for The Huffington Post. Mickey’s maternal grandmother, Dorothy Huttenback, was a musical prodigy who headed up the Los Angeles Music Guild for three decades, and Dorothy’s son Robert served as chancellor of the University of California at Santa Barbara. Both sides of the family were part of the historic wave of German-speaking Jews who fled the Nazis for Southern California in and around the 1930s, injecting a distinctive, semi-alienated yet intensely patriotic intellectual style to the Golden State’s civic conversation.

Mickey Kaus’ position within the national public policy discussion has always been that of a tweak-your-own-side contrarian. He was part of the group of writers at the left-of-center Washington Monthly in the 1980s who hatched what they called “neoliberalism”—a qualified rejection of interest-group politics and Keynesian economics in favor of policies intended to harness rather than oppose market forces. That frame led him to The End of Equality, a seminal 1992 book that stressed opportunities over outcomes and took on the liberal sacred cow of welfare. Kaus certainly hadn’t abandoned the liberal fold—among other things, the book called for a federal jobs program, universal health coverage, and compulsory national service—but he wasn’t an ordinary Democrat either.

By the end of the 1990s Kaus’ name was synonymous with political blogging. He had launched one of the first and most influential journalist blogs, Kausfiles, which for most of its lifespan has been published by Slate. In 2005 he helped kick-start the video debate site Bloggingheads.tv with his friend and frequent sparring partner Robert Wright. There and elsewhere, Kaus has distanced himself from his own Democratic Party on unionism, health care reform, public sector pensions, and especially immigration.

In 2010 Kaus decided to put his money where his mouth is and run against Boxer, the powerful three-term senator, as a way to advance the discussion about modern Democratic priorities. Needless to say, Kaus has no chance of unseating Boxer in the California primary coming on June 8. Yet his insights on new media, unions, and politics more broadly are well worth hearing. And his story about bringing the Velvet Underground to perform at Beverly Hills High in the '60s is not to be missed.

Reason.tv Editor Nick Gillespie spoke with Kaus in May, just after Arizona passed a controversial law about checking the immigration status of anyone who comes into contact with law enforcement.

About 40 minutes. Shot by Dan Hayes and Meredith Bragg; edited by Bragg. Go to Reason.tv for downloadable versions.

Hang Out With The Great Matt Ridley (& Matt Welch & Ron Bailey & Jacob Sullum) For a Week on Reason's First-Ever Cruise in February 2011!

Here's the great science writer Matt Ridley, author of, most recently, The Rational Optimist, writing in the Wall Street Journal about the evolutionary origins of trade:

Given that progress is inexorable, cumulative and collective if human beings exchange and specialize, then globalization and the Internet are bound to ensure furious economic progress in the coming century—despite the usual setbacks from recessions, wars, spendthrift governments and natural disasters.

The process of cumulative innovation that has doubled life span, cut child mortality by three-quarters and multiplied per capita income ninefold—world-wide—in little more than a century is driven by ideas having sex. And things like the search engine, the mobile phone and container shipping just made ideas a whole lot more promiscuous still.

More here.

If you sign on for Reason's first-ever cruise next February, you can spend a week hanging out with the very tall Ridley (and the equally tall and brilliant Ron Bailey, for almost 14 feet of science reporting excellence). Can Ridley play shuffle board and limbo as well as he can write? Come aboard and find out already.

And besides Ridley and Bailey, you'll get to hang with Matt Welch, Jacob Sullum, and me (whether you want to or not). And then there's Patri Friedman, the visionary behind the Seasteading Institute! This is one ship whose Lido Deck is gonna be pretty awesome.

The cruise leaves from Fort Lauderdale on January 30, 2011 and goes to exotic ports of call throughout the Caribbean for a week; cabins start around $1,500 per person, so you really can't afford not to come (this logic seems to work well with governmental jurisdictions, so maybe it'll work with you all too). That's an all-inclusive price for the ship, which is a pretty sweet deal.

Go here for more info.

Republicans of Obama's Fantasy World Believe "government has little or no role to play"

The president this week did one of his classic bits of corner-cutting caricaturization of his political opposition:

But to be fair, a good deal of the other party's opposition to our agenda has also been rooted in their sincere and fundamental belief about the role of government.  It's a belief that government has little or no role to play in helping this nation meet our collective challenges.  It's an agenda that basically offers two answers to every problem we face:  more tax breaks for the wealthy and fewer rules for corporations.

The last administration called this recycled idea "the Ownership Society."  But what it essentially means is that everyone is on their own.  No matter how hard you work, if your paycheck isn't enough to pay for college or health care or childcare, well, you're on your own.  If misfortune causes you to lose your job or your home, you're on your own.  And if you're a Wall Street bank or an insurance company or an oil company, you pretty much get to play by your own rules, regardless of the consequences for everybody else.

Keep in mind, the president is talking specifically here not about libertarian freakazoids who want to privatize their own grandmothers, but about governing Republicans. You know, the gang who, "during the first half of 2001 and all of the 2003-07 period maintained full control of both the White House and Congress," during which time they "increased total spending by more than 20 percent, an average of 5 percent a year," jacking up "both nondefense spending and mandatory programs enormously." How in the hell can you spend so much money on "more tax breaks for the wealthy and fewer rules for corporations"? Which one of those two answers (the only ones the GOP has, remember) best describes No Child Left Behind, Sarbanes-Oxley, or Medicare Part D? If Bush was really all about "fewer rules for corporations," how was it that he managed to be "the biggest regulator since Nixon"? (And do click on those links, they are filled with things like facts and numbers.)

And no, tax breaks and deregulation were not at the heart of the "Ownership Society." That mostly stillborn idea focused on increasing individual control over retirement, health care, and education. Not much to do with oil spills there, kemosabe.

Since the president is doing battle with imaginary libertarian foes, let me zero in on one claim: that–according to limited-government ghastlies–"if you're a Wall Street bank or an insurance company or an oil company, you pretty much get to play by your own rules, regardless of the consequences for everybody else." Here's the deal: On Planet Libertopia, if you're a Wall Street bank that screws the pooch you go BANKRUPT, as an opening bid. It's pretty hard to "play by your own rules" when you're dead.

I'll give Obama the last word:

And the truth is if I had taken office in ordinary times, I would have liked nothing more than to start bringing down the deficits that [Republicans] created.  But we took office amid a crisis, and the effects of the recession put a $3 trillion hole in our budget before I even walked through the door.  Additionally, the steps that we had to take to save the economy from depression temporarily added more to the deficit -- by about $1 trillion.  Of course, if we had spiraled into a depression, our deficits and debt levels would be much worse.  

Rand: More Drilling Regulations Needed

Soon after certain segments of the media accused Rand Paul of latent racism for his comments regarding the Civil Rights Act, the Kentucky Republican took another drubbing for the claim, made on ABC’s Good Morning America last week, that President Obama’s criticism of BP struck him as “really un-American.” Now Paul is taking a safer, if less libertarian line, on the BP disaster:

Paul, calling the spill "a great tragedy," told Tony Cruise on WHAS-AM that "I think we do have to have regulations, and we do have regulations in place but apparently wasn't enough.

"And sometimes even the best of regulations don't work because something unforeseen happens and that's what we have to figure out from this."

Via Hotair.

New at Reason: In Georgia, Michael C. Moynihan Discovers Another Side of Joe Stalin

On a junket to the former Soviet Republic of Georgia—sponsored by the government of Mikheil Saakashvili—Michael C. Moynihan visits the Russian line of occupation in South Ossetia and a nearby museum dedicated to the country's most famous son, Josef Stalin. He discovers, to his surprise, that the Soviet dictator was not only an unsurpassed political and military leader, but also a great scientist, humanitarian, and all around swell guy.

View this article

(Not) Breaking News: "The Obama administration and the health insurance industry have suddenly discovered that they need each other."

The New York Times squints and rubs its eyes in wonder at the pairing of two political adversaries:

After squaring off as political foes for more than a year, the Obama administration and the health insurance industry have suddenly discovered that they need each other.

Suddenly, eh? So the Times thinks this is a recent development? That's interesting, because I swear I've heard something like this before somewhere.

Look, it's easy to paint insurers as villains and act surprised when the industry buddies up with Washington. And, sure, it would be an exaggeration to say they supported the health care overhaul wholeheartedly; AHIP CEO Karen Ignagni was never going to quit her job and go volunteer at Health Care for America Now. And it's likely that there will be continued squabbling over rate hikes and regulations as ObamaCare takes shape. But the insurers saw where the legislative winds were blowing, knew they were going to be targeted, and, as a result, decided early on to suck up to the administration in an effort to get into its good graces, and thereby expand their influence. In doing so, they—like PhRMA (though not quite as explicitly)—made themselves partners in the health care reform process.

The flipside of that is that, for all its stern rhetoric, the White House ended up partnering with the insurers. The federal government has never regulated health insurance to this extent before—those responsibilities were left to the states—and, ultimately, the insurers are responsible for carrying out a lot of what the health care law calls for. And now the two are stuck together. They may not like each other, or at the very least they may not want to be seen to like each other, but either way, they're locked arm in arm—and they're going to be for a while.

It's a Bird. It's a Plane. It's a Private Rocket!

Look, a private company blasted a rocket into orbit today!

Read all about it here.

In my 2006 piece on high hopes for the private space industry here, I wrote:

Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal, now runs SpaceX, which is developing the Falcon rocket series, designed to be a cheap, reusable means of getting satellites and eventually heavier space vehicles for human use into orbit. Falcon testing has been mostly unsuccessful to date, with several delayed launches and an unfortunate fire at the first launch, which sent the rocket crashing into the ocean.

An "almost flawless" first flight for the Falcon 9 is a huge success.

UPDATE: Video!

Arizona City Councilman, on School Mural: "To depict the biggest picture on the building as a Black person, I would have to ask the question: Why?"

Well, here's an ugly story:

A group of artists has been asked to lighten the faces of children depicted in a giant public mural at a Prescott school. [...]

[The mural] features portraits of four children, with a Hispanic boy as the dominant figure.

R.E. Wall, director of Prescott's Downtown Mural Project, said he and other artists were subjected to slurs from motorists as they worked on the painting at one of the town's most prominent intersections.

"We consistently, for two months, had people shouting racial slander from their cars," Wall said. "We had children painting with us, and here come these yells of (epithet for Blacks) and (epithet for Hispanics)."

Wall said school Principal Jeff Lane pressed him to make the children's faces appear happier and brighter.

"It is being lightened because of the controversy," Wall said, adding that "they want it to look like the children are coming into light."

Lane said that he received only three complaints about the mural and that his request for a touch-up had nothing to do with political pressure. "We asked them to fix the shading on the children's faces," he said. "We were looking at it from an artistic view. Nothing at all to do with race."

City Councilman Steve Blair spearheaded a public campaign on his talk show at Prescott radio station KYCA-AM (1490) to remove the mural.

In a broadcast last month, according to the Daily Courier in Prescott, Blair mistakenly complained that the most prominent child in the painting is African-American, saying: "To depict the biggest picture on the building as a Black person, I would have to ask the question: Why?" [...]

Faces in the mural were drawn from photographs of children enrolled at Miller Valley, a K-5 school with 380 students and the highest ethnic mix of any school in Prescott.

Link via Wonkette.

Online Charter Schools Make Teachers Unions Nervous

From the NYT:

Diane Ravitch, a leading educational historian who until recently favored charter schools, is strongly critical of the virtual charter system. Ms. Ravitch said the system eliminated “brick and mortar schools and it bypasses the unions,” mainly for the benefit of for-profit companies.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but: Duh. That's the whole idea.

Virtual charters are just what they sound like: Online charter schools that allow kids and parents from a state or district to choose online schooling, while remaining part of the public school system. They are only possible in states with charter laws that allow, or don't expressly forbid, those charters to go virtual and open up enrollment to the larger population. Kids often, although not always, take classes at home. The schools are frequently run by national companies like K12 Inc. or Connections Academy, which have developed working models for this new kind of education and contract with charters to provide content, equipment, and staff.

In her attempt at criticism, Ravitch has managed to articulate one of the strongest arguments for virtual charter schools.

As the article notes, Ravitch recently switched sides in the debate on education reform. Her despair is understandable: Charters and vouchers have not (yet?) produced the kind of radical systemic change that reformers hoped for, and standards-based reforms like No Child Left Behind haven't dazzled either. But having recently been on the side of reform, Ravitch retains her keen eye for stuff that freaks out unions and the educational establishment. Virtual charters don't tend to use unionized teachers, and if enough kids opt for online schooling, the way education dollars are allocated could change dramatically—undermining the unions' lock on the education industry.

The Times reporter's phrasing "for the benefit of for-profit companies," is odd, however. I suspect it slightly mischaracterizes what Ravitch, a smart and economically literate woman, actually said. Virtual charters are in competition with traditional schools, and they are often (although not always) run by for-profit firms. But that's like saying speedy taxi drivers are trying to beat out lumbering, unpredictable city buses "for the benefit of for-profit companies." It's technically sort of true, but doesn't explain why someone might want to take a cab.

To read more about the fraught relationship between teachers unions and virtual charters, check out my upcoming feature in the next print issue of Reason. (Update: that's the August/September issue.)

David Souter, Jim Crow, and the Living Constitution

Former Supreme Court Justice David Souter gave a big commencement speech last week at Harvard University where he criticized originalism—the school of thought that says the Constitution should be read according to its original public meaning—for having “only a tenuous connection to reality.” According to liberal pundit E.J. Dionne, Souter’s speech proves that liberal champions of the “Living Constitution” now “have fighting words of their own.”

Fighting words, maybe. But accurate words? Not exactly.

Souter argued that originalism has nothing useful to say about the racial segregation imposed by the South’s Jim Crow regime, and claimed that it was only thanks to living constitutionalism that the Supreme Court eventually nullified the vile doctrine of “separate but equal.” Here’s the relevant portion of his commencement speech:

[Brown v. Board of Education] ended the era of separate-but-equal, whose paradigm was the decision in 1896 of the case called Plessy v. Ferguson, where the Supreme Court had held it was no violation of the equal protection guarantee to require black people to ride in a separate railroad car that was physically equal to the car for whites.  One argument offered in Plessy was that the separate black car was a badge of inferiority, to which the court majority responded that if black people viewed it that way, the implication was merely a product of their own minds.  Sixty years later, Brown held that a segregated school required for black children was inherently unequal.

For those whose exclusive norm for constitutional judging is merely fair reading of language applied to facts objectively viewed, Brown must either be flat-out wrong or a very mystifying decision.  Those who look to that model are not likely to think that a federal court back in 1896 should have declared legally mandated racial segregation unconstitutional.  But if Plessy was not wrong, how is it that Brown came out so differently?

Here’s the problem with Souter’s claims: The Plessy decision is wrong under an originalist reading of the Constitution. Originalism includes the original public meaning of the 14th Amendment, which commands: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” Among those privileges or immunities is the right to economic liberty. Remember that the origins of the 14th Amendment lie in the anti-slavery politics of the Radical Republicans who drafted it and spearheaded its ratification. Their philosophy centered on a radically libertarian form of self-ownership, one that included both the right to armed self-defense and the right to liberty of contract. That philosophy was enshrined in the Constitution when the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868.

In Plessy, the Supreme Court upheld a Louisiana law that forbid railroad companies from selling first-class tickets to black customers. That law was a blatant violation of economic liberty under the 14th Amendment and should have been struck down as such. That the Supreme Court failed to do so isn’t an indictment of originalism, it’s an indictment of the justices who failed to take the Constitution at its word.

One Step Closer Toward An All-Taco-Bell Future

In section 4205, which lays out requirements for nutrition labeling at chain restaurants, the new health care law instructs the administration's Health and Human Services Secretary to "consider standardization of recipes and methods of preparation, reasonable variation in serving size and formulation of menu items, space on menus and menu boards, inadvertent human error, training of food service workers, variations in ingredients, and other factors, as the Secretary determines." [bold added] Time to admit defeat, declare Demolition Man prophetic, and convert all restaurants to Taco Bells?

Thanks to John Hoff at the always-helpful Galen Institute for the pointer.

Liability vs. Regulation

On the evergreen subject of BP, here's a dumb column from Tom Frank and a decent response from Tim Carney. Frank sees conservatives criticizing the Minerals Management Service's cozy partnership with the industry it regulates and writes, "Galt only knows how many times 'coziness' of the MMS variety has been celebrated as part of the struggle for free markets and free people." Carney responds that "BP's oil gusher is in federal waters, on seabed leased from the federal government," so "asking Washington to manage its own backyard fairly and competently isn't akin to embracing Frank's statism." Frank, Carney writes, is confusing "pleas for government competence with a desire for bigger governments."

Beyond PatchouliCarney is clearly correct, but there's a larger point worth making here as well. When cronyism like the corruption at the MMS is exposed, there are people whose immediate response is We need to get better regulators and there are people whose response is We need to get a better system. The first group thinks in terms of creating and enforcing an ideal set of rules that will prevent accidents. The second group thinks in terms of ensuring companies know they'll feel the full impact of the liability for any damage they cause. Group two might prefer competent regulation to incompetent regulation, but it also prefers the limits imposed by attorneys and insurers to the limits imposed by regulators.

These are general approaches, not precise platforms. In the wake of BP's big leak, members of group one called for everything from stricter enforcement of existing rules to a ban on all offshore oil exploration. And while group two would probably agree on abolishing the drillers' $75 million damage cap and ending federal ownership of the seabed, some of its advocates have also called for reforms ranging from mandating liability insurance to rethinking the limited liability corporation itself. But the basic approaches are constant, even if the details vary. One group focuses on regulation, the other on liability; one group wants to concentrate intelligence at the center of the system, and the other wants to push it out to the edges.

I'm in the second group, so when I read those reports about the MMS I see an indictment of the regulatory state. Frank reads the reports and sees evidence that the regulatory state should be stronger. The difference is that I understand Frank's reasoning, whereas Frank seems hardly aware that there's another position here at all.

Elsewhere in Reason: My review of Frank's last book, in which he makes some similarly addled arguments. Also, an article I wrote way back when about Exxon's liability for the Valdez spill.

Marijuana Initiative Roundup

This week an initiative that would legalize medical use of marijuana qualified for the ballot in Arizona:

The initiative would allow terminally and seriously ill patients suffering from specified diseases or conditions to use marijuana with their doctor's approval. It also allows for state authorities to add diseases or conditions to that list. The initiative creates a registry system for patients and caregivers and establishes penalties for false statements and fraudulent IDs.

Patients would have to procure their medicine at a regulated medical marijuana dispensary unless they live more than 25 miles away from a dispensary. In that case, patients or their caregivers could grow up to 12 plants. No caregiver could grow for more than five patients. Patients could possess up to 2.5 ounces.

Sixty-five percent of Arizona voters endorsed medical marijuana back in 1996 (the same year California became the first state to let patients use the drug), but the state legislature overturned the initiative. In 1998 Arizonans voted to reinstate the measure, but it never took effect because of a drafting error. The initiative purported to let doctors "prescribe" rather than "recommend" marijuana, a legally fatal mistake because prescriptions are regulated by the federal Controlled Substances Act.

In other marijuana initiative news (mostly courtesy of the Drug War Chronicle):

  • The latest poll shows support for California's legalization initiative dipping below 50 percent, but opponents are still outnumbered by eight points, with 10 percent undecided.
  • A new survey finds that 52 percent of Washington voters agree with the idea of "removing state civil and criminal penalties for possession or use of marijuana," which is what a ballot initiative whose supporters are still gathering signatures would do.
  • An initiative that would eliminate municipal penalties for possessing up to an ounce of marijuana has qualified for the ballot in Detroit.
  • A recent poll finds that 54 percent of Texans think marijuana should be legal for medical purposes (compared to national support of 60 percent to 75 percent, depending on the phrasing); half of them (27 percent) think it should be legal for recreational use as well (compared to more than 40 percent of Americans generally).

 [Thanks to Suzanne Wills for the Texas tip.]

Stoned Drivers vs. Drunk Drivers

A few weeks ago, I noted that the Obama administration, reputedly more enlightened than its predecessor on matters of drug policy, is encouraging states to enact gratuitously punitive laws that treat drivers with marijuana metabolites in their urine as if they were drunk. Since traces of marijuana can be detected in urine long after the drug's effects have worn off, this policy is just an excuse for sending pot smokers to jail. I suggested that tests of THC in blood would be a more accurate measure of impairment, comparable to the standard for alcohol. But as at least one commenter noted, there is an argument for treating drivers under the influence of marijuana less severely than drivers under the influence of alcohol: They are less of a threat to public safety. Experiments repeatedly have found that marijuana has a less dramatic impact on driving ability than alcohol does, with the added advantage that pot smokers seem to be more aware of their impairment and therefore tend to compensate for it by slowing down (whereas drinkers tend to speed up). In the latest study, reported recently in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, subjects who smoked a joint containing marijuana with about 3 percent THC "decreased their speed [more than the sober control subjects did] and failed to show expected practice effects during a distracted drive," but "no differences were found during the baseline driving segment or collision avoidance scenarios."

In their book Marijuana Is Safer, which I reviewed in the April issue of Reason, Steve Fox, Mason Tvert, and Paul Armentano cite marijuana's relatively minor impact on driving ability as a public safety advantage. To the extent that legalizing pot encourages people to shift from alcohol to marijuana, it could actually produce a net decrease in traffic deaths, contrary to the nightmare scenarios painted by prohibitionists.

Armentano surveys the evidence on marijuana and driving here.

[via the Drug War Chronicle]

Ron Bailey On Warren Olney's "To The Point" Today

Just letting Reason readers know that I'm scheduled to talk about "Energy Production: Policy and Consumption" on To The Point between 2 and 3 pm EDT today. Other guests apparently include No Impact Man Colin Beavan.

The Annoyances of U.S. Immigration Law

Cracked.com, which regularly disgraces its old paper namesake by being on occasion actually funny and smart, has a personal take on why people might want to just say screw trying to diligently obey U.S. immigration laws and processes. Some excerpts from the Australian writer:

It turned out my initial application was returned because, while I had attached a police certificate that proved I didn't have a criminal record, I hadn't attached fingerprints. Apparently, according to the DHS, the Australian police force is not yet advanced enough to have thought of prosecuting crimes using fingerprints. The Americans, therefore, needed a set of prints to make sure I hadn't got away with any crimes that had slipped past my homeland's investigation system...

No matter who makes the mistake, it's up to you to solve it.

In my case, the fuck up was performed by a border guard, who forgot to take a piece of paper from my passport which proved I'd left America after an earlier visit and hadn't overstayed my visa. This kind of thing is quite common. Once I figured out what had happened, I frantically collected the mountain of paperwork that would prove that I had indeed returned to my country (credit card records, work transcript, plane ticket stubs, etc) only to find that the office in Kentucky that I sent the proof to would not confirm that it had received this proof for another three months.

Note that this is not the waiting time for them to process the documents and decide whether they're adequate, but the waiting time for somebody to wander into the mail room, pick up the envelope, and confirm that it is in fact there.

in my home state of 400,000 square miles and 1.5 million people, there was exactly one doctor deemed trustworthy by DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano to check me for disease. This means that the sole America-approved doctor, knowing he has a monopoly and you don't have a choice, will charge several hundred dollars to listen to your chest and ask you a couple of health background questions.

But you can never be too careful when it comes to disease, right? Well, the thing is, at the time I embarked on my medical check, I had already spent three months in America on a "tourist" visit, meaning that I didn't need to apply for a visa or do anything other than show up in LAX with a passport.

During those three months, I'd had ample opportunity to breathe the air, cough on people with my foreign, disease-infested lungs, and share used needles with schoolchildren while bleeding openly into the water supply.

Author C. Coville goes on to bitch about having to have his embassy interview back in his home country rather than America, and the limbo-like inability to do such normal-life activities as opening a bank account in the U.S. while the process crawls along.

Check out Jesse James DeConto's February 2006 Reason magazine feature on the criminal aspects of our immigration law enforcement, focusing on the difficulties placed in the path of resident immigrant workers. Also, Terry Colon's award-winning classic cartoon chart from Reason magazine's October 2008 issue, showing in graphic form even more details of the immigration law bullshit that Cracked's article complains about.

Price of Whole Human Genome Sequencing Slashed 60 Percent

The human genome sequencing company Illumina has just announced that it is cutting its price to sequence a person's entire genetic makeup from $48,000 to $14,500. Apparently, the service is ordered through a physician, so that may avoid some of the interference from the FDA and Congress that direct-to-consumer genotype scanning companies are now experiencing.

At that rate of decline - and if the feds can resist meddling - genomes should be going for less than $1,000 in about three years.

Who Will Count the Counters?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment grew by 431,000 jobs in May. This morning President Obama said "these numbers...mean...we're moving in the right direction," because "the economic policies that we've put in place are working." Since 95 percent of the net gain in jobs is due to temporary Census Bureau positions, the point is debatable. But it does jibe with the logic of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which counts every 520 hours of goverment-compensated work in a quarter as a job created saved funded. Think how much healthier the economy would be if we had a census every year. For that matter, why not every month?

New at Reason: Brian Doherty Interviews Sociologist Gary Alan Fine About Rumors and the Global Grapevine

Gary Alan Fine has studied the sociology of rumor for decades. In his new book, The Global Grapevine: Why Rumors of Terrorism, Immigration, and Trade Matter, Fine and co-author Bill Ellis dig into the rumors that both surround and shape the anxieties and stresses of America’s move into an interconnected global world. Senior Editor Brian Doherty interviewed Fine about a representative set of such rumors, including rumors of wicked immigrants who simultaneously enjoy secret tax breaks and form hyperviolent gangs; rumors of terror threats masterminded by Arabs, Israelis, and the U.S. government itself; rumors of tourists adopting pet rats and contracting AIDS from malign foreigners; and rumors of international trade that brings disease and death to hapless Americans.

View this article

U.S. Cotton Subsidy Shame

The Washngton Post ran yesterday an excellent editorial on the U.S. government's idiotic policy of massively subsidizing cotton growing. The World Trade Organization has ruled that the $3 billion in annual subsidies is a trade barrier and has awarded Brazil the right to retaliate by charging countervailing duties on U.S. exports of nearly $150 million per year. Not wishing to endure the wrath of U.S. software makers, wheat growers, and the like whose products would suffer the Brazilian tariffs, the Obama administration simply sends a check directly to the Brazilian government. As the Post editorial explains:

The federal government has spent more than $50 billion propping up cotton growers since 1991, with subsidies averaging more than $3 billion per year over the past decade. Most of this aid supports large, politically connected agribusinesses in the Sun Belt -- although the Arkansas Department of Corrections' operation, manned by convicts, has also received some of the cash. Thanks partly to the subsidies, U.S. producers can outcompete lower-cost producers on the world market; American farms account for about 40 percent of global exports. In 2002, Brazil complained to the World Trade Organization about this, arguing that the U.S. programs violated international free-trade agreements that the United States itself had championed. It took a while, but the WTO has agreed, authorizing Brazil to retaliate by levying tariffs against other American products. Brazil's threat to use that authority against U.S. goods, from wheat to software, forced the Obama administration to buy a truce last month...

The Post is entirely correct when its editors write:

Not only is it a wasteful sop to special interests, but it's also an obstacle to free and fair trade that needlessly complicates U.S. relations with the rest of the world. Reform -- or, better, repeal -- is long overdue.

Yes. The editors conclude with this most likely vain hope:

If this sorry episode doesn't shame Washington into ending this fiasco, nothing will.

Whole Post editorial here.

If They Are Bigger Than an A Cup....

Ah, the conundrums that modern times bring us and our hapless elected officials. The Associated Press is reporting:

Rehoboth Beach in Delaware isn't a topless beach — but a few transgender men caused a stir by treating it like one. Police say passers-by complained after the men removed their tops and revealed their surgically enhanced breasts over Memorial Day weekend. A lifeguard asked them to put their tops back on. The men initially refused, but covered up before police arrived.

Even if they hadn't, though, Police Chief Keith Banks notes the men were doing nothing illegal. Since they have male genitalia, they can't be charged with indecent exposure for showing their breasts. Banks says there's no need for a specific law to address the issue.

Rehoboth Beach commissioner Kathy McGuiness isn't so sure. She says the matter will be discussed at a town hall meeting next week.

One way to solve this issue would be for Rehobeth Beach commissioners to vote for the freedom to bare all, regardless of natural or enhanced upper torso status. However, I fear that the stumped politicos -- just to be "fair" to everyone -- are more likely to adopt the Victorian option and require that all bathers wear t-shirts at the beach.

"Fannie and Freddie need to be rethought entirely, if not eliminated outright."

The Bush-Obama, Paulson-Geithner, Republican-Democrat policy of having the federal government dominate the mortgage finance business until the Singularity reunites Christ with Valentine Michael Smith has lost the editorial board of USA Today:

As bailouts go, nothing quite matches the torrent of taxpayer money still pouring into Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the housing giants that now guarantee nearly half of the nation's $11.7 trillion in mortgages.

To cover loans that go sour, the federal government has already doled out almost $145 billion, and the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates the final tab will be about $381 billion. [...] [M]ost of this money won't get paid back. And even now, there's little talk in Washington about how to fix the problem. [...]

[They can't go on] forever as wards of the state, soaking up taxpayer cash. They also should not be allowed to go back to their unusual former status as publicly traded companies that are also "government-sponsored enterprises." That's why they got in trouble in the first place, paying outsized compensation and backing risky mortgages because politicians of both parties prodded them to do so.

Fannie and Freddie need to be rethought entirely, if not eliminated outright. And the time to start planning for that is now. [...]

Their "American dream" mission of profitably making risk disappear, so that banks would lend and people could buy their own homes, was always a fantasy. They merely took risks from banks and piled it on the taxpayers. Now everyone is paying the price.

Whole thing here. As Tim Cavanaugh put it last month

We can't go on like this. Leaving taxpayers on the hook for this continuing disaster isn't just unfair. It's economically ruinous. And nobody in the Treasury Department, the Fed, or the administration has anything resembling an exit strategy.

More Reason on Fannie/Freddie here, including the Reason Foundation's Anthony Randazzo succinct point in March: "It's time to kick Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac out of the housing market."

Mickey Kaus on How Unions Killed the Democrats, Immigration, New Media, & Bringing the Velvet Underground to Beverly Hills High

Oh yeah, and his quixotic Senate bid against incumbent Barbara Boxer.

The Kaus family was deeply intertwined with California politics and culture long before journalist/blogger Mickey Kaus started his longshot bid to unseat Sen. Barbara Boxer in the 2010 Democratic primary.

Mickey’s father, the Viennese-born Otto Kaus, was a well-respected jurist who sat on the California Supreme Court from 1981 to 1985. His brother Stephen is a prominent Bay Area civil-litigation attorney and a commentator for The Huffington Post. Mickey’s maternal grandmother, Dorothy Huttenback, was a musical prodigy who headed up the Los Angeles Music Guild for three decades, and Dorothy’s son Robert served as chancellor of the University of California at Santa Barbara. Both sides of the family were part of the historic wave of German-speaking Jews who fled the Nazis for Southern California in and around the 1930s, injecting a distinctive, semi-alienated yet intensely patriotic intellectual style to the Golden State’s civic conversation.

Mickey Kaus’ position within the national public policy discussion has always been that of a tweak-your-own-side contrarian. He was part of the group of writers at the left-of-center Washington Monthly in the 1980s who hatched what they called “neoliberalism”—a qualified rejection of interest-group politics and Keynesian economics in favor of policies intended to harness rather than oppose market forces. That frame led him to The End of Equality, a seminal 1992 book that stressed opportunities over outcomes and took on the liberal sacred cow of welfare. Kaus certainly hadn’t abandoned the liberal fold—among other things, the book called for a federal jobs program, universal health coverage, and compulsory national service—but he wasn’t an ordinary Democrat either.

By the end of the 1990s Kaus’ name was synonymous with political blogging. He had launched one of the first and most influential journalist blogs, Kausfiles, which for most of its lifespan has been published by Slate. In 2005 he helped kick-start the video debate site Bloggingheads.tv with his friend and frequent sparring partner Robert Wright. There and elsewhere, Kaus has distanced himself from his own Democratic Party on unionism, health care reform, public sector pensions, and especially immigration.

In 2010 Kaus decided to put his money where his mouth is and run against Boxer, the powerful three-term senator, as a way to advance the discussion about modern Democratic priorities. Needless to say, Kaus has no chance of unseating Boxer in the California primary coming on June 8. Yet his insights on new media, unions, and politics more broadly are well worth hearing. And his story about bringing the Velvet Underground to perform at Beverly Hills High in the '60s is not to be missed.

Reason.tv Editor Nick Gillespie spoke with Kaus in May, just after Arizona passed a controversial law about checking the immigration status of anyone who comes into contact with law enforcement.

About 40 minutes. Shot by Dan Hayes and Meredith Bragg; edited by Bragg. Go to Reason.tv for downloadable versions.

Keeping Their Eye on the Ball

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm:

Whereas, an umpire's missed call resulted in Armando Galarraga being charged a hit that clearly should have been an out [...]

Now, Therefore, be it Resolved that I, Jennifer M. Granholm, governor of the state of Michigan, do hereby declare Armando Galarraga to have pitched a perfect game, and I join Tigers fans all across the globe in saluting his unassailable accomplishment — the first perfect game in Tigers history.

Rep. John Dingell (D-Dearborn):

Baseball's executives have corrected a mistake on the field in a regular season game before – the pine tar game. This is the right thing to do and if getting this resolution passed makes it easier, I’m glad to help. [...]

Umpire Joyce made a colossal blunder, but if we can reverse it, he will have played a huge role in righting the wrong.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.):

Last night's performance deserves its place in the record books. It is clear that Commissioner Selig should make an exception in this case and invoke the "best interests of the game clause" to reflect Armando Galarraga's perfect game for the Detroit Tigers.

Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox:

I'm suing Jim Joyce for the call last night.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs:

I hope that baseball awards a perfect game to that pitcher. [...]

We're going to work on an executive order. [...]

I'm speaking with the full weight of the federal government.

Note: Cox and Gibbs were joking. We think.

Should Fathers Have a Right to an Abortion? Or to a Child?

Excellent story in Elle exploring the issues raised when men's and women's views about pregnancy clash in relationships.

The Parent Trap: Paternal Rights and Abortion

What happens when the girlfriend of a recently divorced father of two gets pregnant—and she wants the baby, he doesn’t? Should men, too, have the right to choose?

The story follows a late-30s/early-40s couple and is a great exploration of all sides of the issue. Bonus character: Mel Feit, a 1980s' men's right crusader who wore skirts on Phil Donahue.

Feit’s list of grievances range from sexist social standards—why should men still be expected to foot the bill on dates? Why is crying or showing weakness verboten for them?—to what he considers discrimination enforced by the state: men’s lack of reproductive rights combined with unfair child support laws. “Reproductive choice isn’t a fundamental right if it’s only limited to people who have internal reproductive systems,” Feit says. “If it only applies to women, it’s a limited right and that weakens it.” In his view, Planned Parenthood’s motto—“Every child a wanted child”—should apply to both people who make the baby.

Also in the mix is Dalton Conley, a professor at NYU who wrote an op-ed in the NY Times arguing that men had rights in fetuses: 

Conley, who calls himself a “progressive Libertarian,” pledged his allegiance to Roe v. Wade in the first few paragraphs of the piece, he concluded with this barnstormer of a recommendation, one that would gut Roe: “If a father is willing to legally commit to raising a child with no help from the mother, he should be able to obtain an injunction against the abortion of the fetus he helped create.”

But it's the two people at the center of the story, both recently split from spouses themselves, who discuss the real-world difficulties and implications of the issue, that carry the story. It's a rare piece on the general topic that doesn't immediately devolve into an ideological sumo-wrestling match.

Read it here.

Charles Murray on Ayn Rand

In The Claremont Review of Books, Charles Murray, who remains very impressed and influenced by Ayn Rand, reviews Anne Heller's and Jennifer Burns' recent bios of the author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. A snippet:

There's no getting around it: taken as a whole, there is a dismaying discrepancy between the Ayn Rand of real life and Ayn Rand as she presented herself to the world. The discrepancy is important because Rand herself made such a big deal about living a life that was the embodiment of her philosophy. "My personal life is a postscript to my novels," she wrote in the afterword to Atlas Shrugged. "It consists of the sentence: ‘And I mean it.' I have always lived by the philosophy I present in my books—and it has worked for me, as it works for my characters." As both books document, that statement was self-delusion on a grand scale.

After Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957, Rand and her chief disciple Nathaniel Branden converted the themes of her novels into a philosophy that they labeled "Objectivism." Objectivism takes as its metaphysical foundation the existence of reality that is unchanged by anything that an observer might think about it—"A is A," as Aristotle put it, and as Rand often repeated in her own work. Objectivism's epistemology is based on the capacity of the human mind to perceive reality through reason, and the adamant assertion that reason is the only way to perceive reality. In Rand's view, notions of intuition or spiritual insight were hokum.

One of the extensions of these premises to daily life is that "[o]ne must never attempt to fake reality in any manner," in words from The Virtue of Selfishness (1964) that appear in variations throughout Rand's work. To fake reality despoils that which makes human beings human. Wishful thinking, unrealistic hopes, duplicity, refusal to take responsibility for the consequences of one's actions—all these amount to faking reality and, to Rand, were despicable. But Rand herself faked reality throughout her life, beginning in small ways and ending with the construction of a delusional alternative reality that took over her life.

More here.

Several Reason staffers reviewed the Burns and Heller volumes. Check it out here.

And check out Reason.tv's "Radicals for Capitalism," a 10-part series analyzing the enduring influence of her work and ideas. First episode below and rest here.

New at Reason: Friday Funnies

In the latest edition of Friday Funnies, Henry Payne looks at the problems Joe Sestak has been causing Barack Obama.

View this article

Reason Morning Links: A Drilling Freeze, a Slush Fund, and a Rumor of War

• North Korean official: "a war may break out any moment."

• As efforts to contain the BP oil leak continue, the feds halt all new offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

• The U.S. prepares to spend $100 million on a Special Operations HQ in Afghanistan, with construction to start around the time the drawdown of troops is scheduled to begin.

• Apparently, if you go on a Jew-hunting excursion for Richard Nixon, people just might hold it against you.

• The leadership PAC as self-perpetuating slush fund.

Also, WorldNetDaily Wants to Merge With The World

Newsmax is bidding to buy Newsweek.

Our Peaceful Borders

Last year, Radley Balko pointed out that El Paso, Texas, which sits on the Mexican border, directly across from the hideously violent city of Juarez, is one of the safest big cities in America. But surely that is an anomaly, considering that the Obama administration is entertaining the idea of sending troops to the border with Mexico. As the Los Angeles Times noted last month, "Officials say more than 6,200 people died last year in Mexico as a result of the drug war, and more than 1,000 were killed in the first eight weeks of 2009."

Now, it's an easy story to parse. Thousands are killed every year on the Mexican side of the border, as a result of the stupid, wasteful, failed "war on drugs." The Associated Press ran the numbers and found that Balko's positive picture of the situation in El Paso, vindicated by crime data, is also true of other border cities:

It's one of the safest parts of America, and it's getting safer.

It's the U.S.-Mexico border, and even as politicians say more federal troops are needed to fight rising violence, government data obtained by The Associated Press show it actually isn't so dangerous after all.

The top four big cities in America with the lowest rates of violent crime are all in border states: San Diego, Phoenix, El Paso and Austin, according to a new FBI report. And an in-house Customs and Border Protection report shows that Border Patrol agents face far less danger than street cops in most U.S. cities.

The Customs and Border Protection study, obtained with a Freedom of Information Act request, shows 3 percent of Border Patrol agents and officers were assaulted last year, mostly when assailants threw rocks at them. That compares with 11 percent of police officers and sheriff's deputies assaulted during the same period, usually with guns or knives.

In addition, violent attacks against agents declined in 2009 along most of the border for the first time in seven years. So far this year assaults are slightly up, but data is incomplete.

"The border is safer now than it's ever been," said U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Lloyd Easterling.

Wal-Mart Offers Its Employees Everyday Low Prices on College Degrees

I'm seriously considering immigrating to a 24-hour Wal-Mart. As far as I can tell, as soon as Wal-Mart starts offering sleeping pods, a fairly decent lower middle-class, middle-American life-cycle should be possible entirely within the confines of one of the megastores. I will get a job there, purchase my cheap organic produce in-house, pick up a gun if I want one, and buy everything else on the cheap. When I have kids, I will get Wal-Mart to put RFID chips in them, so that they will be easier to keep track of. When I am old, I will get my "women's medications" for osteoporosis at a massive discount. To sweeten the deal, Wal-Mart has announced it is getting into the college education biz:

The purveyor of inexpensive jeans and lawnmowers is dipping its toe into the online-education waters, working with a Web-based university to offer its employees in the United States affordable college degrees.

The partnership with American Public University, a for-profit school with about 70,000 online students, will allow some Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club employees to earn credits in areas like retail management and logistics for performing their regular jobs.

The university will offer eligible employees 15 percent price reductions on tuition, and Wal-Mart will invest $50 million over three years in other tuition assistance for the employees who participate....

“If 10 to 15 percent of employees take advantage of this, that’s like graduating three Ohio State Universities,” said Sara Martinez Tucker, a former under secretary of education who is now on Wal-Mart’s external advisory council. “It’s a lot of Americans getting a college degree at a time when it’s becoming less affordable.”

More on the joys and sorrows of getting a college degree online here.

Rush vs. Rand Paul

That’s Canadian prog-rock trio—and Ayn Rand enthusiasts—Rush, whose attorney has sent a cease-and-desist letter to Republican senatorial hopeful Rand Paul over his use of the band’s songs during campaign stops. The Louisville Courier-Journal has the details:

[Robert] Farmer, general counsel for the Anthem Entertainment Group Inc. in Toronto, which is Rush's record label, has sent a letter to Paul campaign officials informing them that they have violated copyright laws -- and urging them to stop."This is not a political issue -- this is a copyright issue," Farmer said in an interview. "We would do this no matter who it is."...

Jesse Benton, Paul's campaign manager, said in an e-mail: "The background music Dr. Paul has played at events is a non-issue. The issues that matter in this campaign are cutting out-of-control deficits, repealing Obama Care and opposing cap and trade."

He did not say if the campaign would stop using the band's music.

Obligatory Rush video below:

New at Reason: Daniel Wattenberg on the Persecution of NBA Star Gilbert Arenas

On December 19, 2009, NBA star Gilbert Arenas and fellow Washington Wizards player Javaris Crittenton got into a heated argument over a card game, exchanging violent threats. After Crittenton challenged him to a fistfight, Arenas told his younger teammate he was too old to fight him, but he’d burn his SUV or shoot him in the face instead. Crittenton answered that he’d shoot Arenas in his surgically repaired left knee.

Two days later, before practice at Washington, D.C.’s Verizon Center, Arenas placed four unloaded handguns on the chair in front of Crittenton’s cubicle in the team’s locker room with a note that read, “PICK 1.” As Daniel Wattenberg explains, that's what Arenas did. What Arenas didn't do was hurt anyone, fire a gun, own illegal firearms, or bring a loaded gun into either D.C. or the Wizards' locker room. Yet as Wattenberg explains, Arenas is still being scapegoated by gun prohibitionists and an image-conscious NBA.

View this article

Backlash Against Anthony Graber's Arrest

The arrest of Maryland motorcyclist Anthony Graber is generating some considerable backlash against the state's law enforcement officials. Graber was arrested and is being charged with felonies for posting video to YouTube of a cop who pulled his gun on Graber during a traffic stop. I've written about Graber here and here, and I discussed the case on WBAL's Ron Smith show yesterday.

Cato's David Rittgers has posted his own analysis of how officials are misinterpreting the state's wiretapping law here. Rittgers also discussed the issue on D.C. NPR affiliate WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi show.

And in a somewhat odd pairing, anarchist writer Wendy McElroy's write-up of the issue was picked up by Gizmodo. That triggered a link and discussion thread at Slashdot.

It's good to see this issue picking up steam. As I said on Smith's show yesterday, there seems to be a big disconnect here between the general public's attitude on recording cops (the feedback I've received has been almost unanimous in support of ensuring that the practice is legal) and the attitudes of law enforcement officials (on-duty cops have a right to privacy) and politicians (generally a position of deference to law enforcement).

The issue is important not just in order to keep law enforcement transparent and accountable, but in that it raises fundamental questions about the nature of individual rights in a free society. The way Maryland officials are interpreting the state's wiretapping law, government agents—in this case on-duty cops—have privacy rights in public spaces that ordinary citizens don't. But state employees acting as state employees don't have rights. Citizens have rights. Governments and their employees have powers, and only to the extent that those powers have been delegated to them by the people they're governing.

The Next Threat to Independent Journalism: Using iPad Tax to Fund Failing News Orgs

Earlier this morn we learned of state Sen. Bruce Patterson who wants to license journalists in Michigan, thus pushing the Wolverine State boldly into, what the 17th century?

Now via Reuters' Jim Pethokoukis comes word of a

staff discussion draft” from the Federal Trade Commission recommends ways the government can save journalism.  First, it lists a number of ways Washington can subsidize the media (to the tune of $35 billion a year):

– Establish a “journalism” division of AmeriCorps.

– Increase funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

– Establish a National Fund for Local News.

– Provide a tax credit to news organizations for every journalist they employ.

– Establish Citizenship News Vouchers (lets you direct money from tax return).

This sort of crap would be paid for with a slew of taxes on just about everything related to spectrum, broadband, and consumer electronics (which BuzzMachinist Jeff Jarvis has dubbed the "iPad tax").

Read more here.

Here's hoping this incredibly retarded idea goes over about as well as the new Jon Meacham-improved Newsweek.

Gulf Oil Crisis: Case for Government, or For Freer Markets?

While being widely seen as an example of exactly why bigger, better government is needed to ameliorate or somehow prevent mega-natural resource and pollution crises, anarcho-theorist and Seasteading guru Patri Friedman takes a swing at explaining how and why a truly free market, including some changes in current corporate liability law, has a better chance of managing such disasters. The key:

BP is worth about $250B, and current estimate are the spill will cost them $1B.   So damages after the fact can actually work.  I think the $1B number is very low, but even if it is off by two orders of magnitude, they could afford to pay $100B in damages.

Unfortunately, there are laws which limit the liability of oil companies for disasters, and thus prevent them from having the proper incentive. (Krugman blames libertarians for these laws, which is ridiculous, libertarianism != crony capitalism, and there is nothing libertarian about limiting damage liability). So BP can't legally be charged the full cost of the cleanup - which is a government failure, not a market failure.  Government implemented a policy which benefits special interests - big surprise.

Now, this idea of damages after the fact doesn't hold for all disasters - it just happens that the oil industry has the largest companies in the world, so they can pay damages even for very large disasters.   In other industries, where potential damages exceed company assets, I think the answer is to require liability insurance with amounts large enough to cover worst-case damages. Then you get a free-market price put on the risks (by the insurance market), which gives companies the right incentive to avoid risky behavior even if the damages are to large for them to pay.

If you have a 1% chance of causing $1B in damages with your $100M company, insurance will charge you $10M/year (plus a little profit for them).  Thus the company must bear the expected value of the disaster - which is exactly the optimal thing, it's the true cost of the activity.  Thus they will only take this risk if the benefit is greater than the cost.  Whereas if they don't have to have insurance, they face only a $1M/year cost (1% of the $100M max they will have to pay since that's all they have), which is not the true cost of their activities.  Note that one way to bring about this situation is to remove the limited liability of corporations for damages, which I favor on moral and practical grounds.  (Limited liability for business debts, or any other contractual interactions with persons, can simply be done through a consensual contract.  But why should liability be limited when you hurt people you didn't get consent from?).  If shareholders, officers, and staff were personally liable for damages in excess of the corporation's assets, you can bet your ass that every venture would have insurance!

You could argue with Friedman about this, if you care to, on Reason's first cruise ship excursion, early next year.

California's Prop 14: Death Sentence for Third Parties?

On June 8, Californians will get to vote on Proposition 14, which would eliminate the current party primary system in favor of one open primary in which anyone could vote for anyone regardless of party registration, the candidates could list or not list a party affiliation as they wished, and whoever the top 2 votegetters are, of whatever party, would go on to the general election. Polled support for the measure has been slipping lately, but is still above 50 percent (but with a large margin of undecided).

It is being sold as a way to crush Party inner circle poobahs from having too much power in choosing who gets to be the candidate. But third party activists from the Libertarian Party to Ralph Nader see it as just a way to ensure there is no possible third party choice for voters in general elections.

I survey the shape of the debate, with quotes and links galore, at my California news and politics blog "City of Angles." Go here for an anti-14 campaign led by LP candidate for California secretary of state, Christina Tobin. The official ballot arguments for and against Prop. 14. A similar measure in California's northern neighbor Oregon failed big in 2008 after early leads in pre-election polls.

New at Reason: John Stossel on Fighting Bigotry Without Government

Senate candidate Rand Paul has been repeatedly criticized for telling TV talker Rachel Maddow that the part of the Civil Rights Act that bans discrimination by private business is an improper interference with property owners' rights. According to the chattering classes, this was an unforgivable endorsement of racism. But as John Stossel writes, individuals should be surrounded by a sphere of privacy where government does not intrude. And part of the Civil Rights Act violates that freedom of association.

View this article

Days of Irritation

One of Barack Obama's most appealing qualities is his calm demeanor, which makes him seem thoughtful, reasonable, and disinclined to shoot from the hip. This quality is especially welcome in the wake of incidents such as the attempted sabotage of Northwest Flight 253 or the fizzled Times Square bombing, both because it encourages the public to keep the risk of terrorism in perspective and because it reassures those of us who worry about an overreaction from an administration that fails to do so. But the conventional wisdom in the Washington press corps seems to be that Obama needs to blow his cool to show he cares—really cares—about the BP oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico. That advice apparently influenced a statement Obama made on Saturday, when he said the seemingly unstoppable leak is "as enraging as it is heartbreaking." But did he really mean it? At a press briefing on Tuesday, A.P. White House Correspondent Ben Feller was determined to find out:

Feller: The President said when the top kill procedure failed over the weekend that the leak was as enraging as it is heartbreaking.  Have you seen the President enraged about this?

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs: Throughout this process, absolutely.

Feller: Do you think that that has come through to the American people?

Gibbs: I think the American people are frustrated.  I think the people of the Gulf are frustrated.  I think the President is frustrated. I think the White House is frustrated. I don't see how anybody could look at what’s happening in the Gulf and not be frustrated and heartbroken—absolutely.

The briefing then shifted to other topics. Fortunately, Chip Reid of CBS News picked up the ball from Feller, focusing with laser-like precision on the question all Americans are asking: Exactly how pissed off is the president?

Reid: You said earlier that the President is enraged. Is he enraged at BP specifically?

Gibbs: I think he's enraged at the time that it's taken, yes. I think he's been enraged over the course of this, as I've discussed, about the fact that when you're told something is fail-safe and it clearly isn't, that that's the cause for quite a bit of frustration. I think one of the reasons that—which is one of the reasons you heard him discuss the setting up of the oil commission in order to create a regulatory framework that ensures something like this doesn't happen again.

Reid: Frustration and rage are very different emotions, though. I haven't—have we really seen rage from the President on this?  I think most people would say no.

Gibbs: I’ve seen rage from him, Chip. I have.

Reid: Can you describe it? Does he yell and scream? What does he do? (Laughter.) 

Gibbs: He said—he has been in a whole bunch of different meetings—clenched jaw—even in the midst of these briefings, saying everything has to be done. I think this was an anecdote shared last week, to plug the damn hole.

Holy crap. Obama clenched his jaw? This must be serious.

To some extent, the bizarre fixation on how angry Obama is and how he expresses it (Does he raise his voice? Does he curse? And if so, does he use the really filthy words that you still can't say on broadcast television before 10 p.m., although they're acceptable on HBO and A&E?) reflects the "cult of the presidency" that Gene Healy decries. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, whose infantile expectations of the president Healy has skewered, is one of the pundits who thinks Obama should be more emotional to show that he's engaged. But I'm not sure that demand makes sense even for those who view the president as the literal father of our country. If Obama went on a profanity-laced, LBJ-style tirade, would Feller, Reid, and Dowd be satisfied? Or would they be frightened by the sight of Daddy freaking out?

Ohio Senate Votes to Ban Minotaurs

Following the lead of Arizona, the Buckeye State's senatorial solons have passed a bill banning the creation of "human-animal hybrids." A press release from the Ohio Christian Alliance hails the proposed ban:

Ohio Christian Alliance President Chris Long made the following statement, "For the past seven years, OCA has been working tirelessly with members of the Ohio Legislature to ban embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, and in recent years, animal-human hybrid. Science has advanced to the point where DNA from animals and humans can be intermixed in scientific laboratory experimentation. This is simply outrageous! Animal-human hybrid research is currently being conducted in England, which many in the international medical community now consider to be a rogue medical state. It is unknown how many U.S. laboratories are currently conducting similar research.

Among other activities, the Ohio bill would ban:

(a) A human embryo into which a nonhuman cell or a component of a nonhuman cell is introduced so that it is uncertain whether the human embryo is a member of the species homo sapiens;

(b) A hybrid human-animal embryo produced by fertilizing a human egg with a nonhuman sperm;

(c) A hybrid human-animal embryo produced by fertilizing a nonhuman egg with a human sperm;

(d) An embryo produced by introducing a nonhuman nucleus into a human egg;

(e) An embryo produced by introducing a human nucleus into a nonhuman egg;

(f) An embryo containing at least haploid sets of chromosomes from both a human and a nonhuman life form;

(g) A nonhuman life form engineered with the intention of generating functional human gametes within the body of a nonhuman life form;

(h) A nonhuman life form engineered such that it contains a human brain or a brain derived wholly from human neural tissues.

The Ohio bill would punish such "rogue" research by throwing perpetrators into jail for one year or imposing a fine of $250,000 or both.

As far as I know, only (e) and (h) have been attempted. For example, in 2008 "rogue" British researchers introduced a human nucleus into a hollowed out cow egg and managed to get it to grow to the 32 cell stage. The goal of the research is to create stem cells that might one day be used to figure out the genetic roots of illnesses and/or eventually to cure diseases by developing transplantable cells and tissues.

With regard to inducing human brain cells to grow in animals, researchers at Stanford University did this back in 2005 by injecting human embryonic stem cells into the brains of mouse fetuses. The goal is to research the development of human brain diseases and create better models for testing drugs to cure such diseases.

The Ohio bill is very similar to a couple of bills introduced some years back by U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback. In two columns, "Brownback's Chimerical Attempt to Curb Science" and "Senators Brownback and Landrieu Want to Outlaw Centaurs and Minotaurs," I discuss some of the valuable research that would be derailed by such bans.

When Governments Choose To Pay For Medicine, They Also Choose What Medicine To Not Pay For

According to the Wall Street Journal, a number of European countries are planning to cut back on prescription drug spending in order to help patch their budgets. Predictably, that means that some of the latest, most expensive drugs won't be available to some folks:

Greece has enacted some of the steepest cuts, slashing what it will pay by about 25% and drawing the ire of some drug makers. Over the weekend, Denmark's Novo Nordisk A/S said it was refusing to lower the price on its most expensive forms of insulin, effectively making them unavailable to Greek patients.

Novo Nordisk said it would supply its older, cheaper forms of insulin at the reduced rate. "A 25 percent price cut does not allow us to run a sustainable business in Greece, and this is what we have told the government," Novo Nordisk said in a statement Wednesday. "We will ensure that there are still insulin products available, albeit not the newest versions."

Danish drug maker Leo Pharma A/S also said it would stop supplying some drugs to Greece. The company makes treatments for psoriasis, eczema and other ailments.

This comes just days after a report that Canada plans to make big cuts in its prescription drug spending, also in response to looming budget troubles and the rising cost of care. The point here isn't that these governments should be spending more on medicine. It's that when governments provide, pay for, and guarantee medical care, it's always exceedingly difficult to keep costs from rising out of control because neither patients nor doctors have any incentive to make prudent decisions about care.

It doesn't require that patients or providers be totally reckless, either; marginal calls about the value of additional testing and treatment are going to be different when those tests and treatments are publicly subsidized. But that results in ever-increasing demand, which results in budget troubles. Inevitably, those budget troubles lead to government bodies making choices about what care to not pay for. And because public health care systems tend to have built-in advantages that allow them to dominate their markets, those otherwise reasonable-sounding budgeting decisions become decisions about what treatments are and aren't available to citizens—which frequently means that citizens get stuck with lower-quality treatments.

Reason.tv: The Rise of The Surveillance State - Q&A with "Watchers" author Shane Harris

In his new book The Watchers: The Rise of the America's Surveillance State , Washington, D.C., reporter Shane Harris chronicles 25 years of the intelligence community's efforts to "connect the dots" on terrorist threats in the United States.

Harris explains why we should have caught the Christmas Day bomber, how one promising electronic surveillance system was wiped out due to privacy concerns, and what it's like to be a spy in the age of Google.

In his day job, Harris covers electronic surveillance, intelligence, and counterterrorism for National Journal.

Reason Senior Editor Katherine Mangu-Ward interviewed Harris in February 2010. Shot by Dan Hayes and Meredith Bragg; edited by Bragg.

Approx. 10 minutes. Go to Reason.tv for downloadable versions and subscribe to Reason.tv's YouTube channel for automatic notifications when new material goes live.

Get Your Meta On

The Daily Intel offers a taxonomy of commenting communities, with pithy portraits of the commenters at sites ranging from Jezebel to The New York Post. Unfortunately, the list leaves out Hit & Run, but you can rectify that with your own efforts in -- where else? -- the comments.

The Reason Foundation, on "How to Fix California's Pension Crisis"

The Reason Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit (donate today!) with two primary functions: 1) publishing all Reason-branded editorial content, such as this sentence, and 2) conducting a bunch of nonpartisan public-policy analysis to help lawmakers and their bosses (youse) make better decisions. Being headquartered in California, some of the best research behind Door Number 2 has to do with the clusterfudge that is the Golden State's public policy.

On that topic, the Foundation today has released a shiny new study called "How to Fix California's Pension Crisis" (summary here, whole PDF report here), by Adam Summers. Some lowlights about the state they're in:

* California's public pension and retiree health and dental care expenditures have quintupled since fiscal year 1998-99, from about $1 billion to $5 billion this year. Retirement spending is expected to triple again - to $15 billion - within the next decade. [...]

* Since 2008, California has added over 13,000 employees to the state payroll during this recession. [...]

* In the 1960s, just one out of every 20 California state workers received "public safety" pensions. Now, one out of three state workers receives the lavish public safety benefits originally intended for the firefighters and police officers who put themselves in harm's way. [...]

* California taxpayers pay 85 percent of the health care premiums for most active state workers, 100 percent of the health care costs for most state retirees and 90 percent of health care costs for their families.

* CalPERS reported a loss of $56.2 billion for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2009. CalSTRS posted a loss of $43.4 billion in 2009. California taxpayers are on the hook for funding shortfalls not made up by pension fund performance or employee contributions, so taxpayers will be paying more to make up for these pension investment losses. [...]

* California is the only state in the nation that uses just one year – an employee's final year salary – to determine their long-term pension benefits. Most states use three- or five-year periods to determine pension benefits, making their systems less susceptible to pension spiking.

Among the many sensible suggested reforms:

* Close the defined-benefit pension plans for state employees and enroll all new employees in defined-contribution plans for pensions and other post-employment benefits, such as retiree health care and dental benefits. [...]

* Adopt an amendment to the state constitution prohibiting retroactive benefit increases.

Start chewing on the report here. Past Reason coverage on California's pension mess here.

James Cameron Is The Nuclear Option

Proving once again that the only way to make it in government is to be as boring as possible, the Obama administration has ruled out the use of a nuclear weapon to plug BP's leaking oil well. Talk about avoiding political fallout! Anyone living along the Gulf Coast who was hoping to reenact that scene in True Lies where Ahnuld smooches Jamie Lee Curtis while a mushroom cloud of love blooms oh-so-cinematically in the background is going to be pretty disappointed. But maybe not that disappointed: Who needs nukes when you've got the advice of the King of the World himself, James Cameron? That's right!

Film director James Cameron said he hopes he can bring together some of the top experts in deep-sea work to help craft a solution to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The director of “Avatar” and “Titanic” said he was moved to action after days of watching the oil well spew uncontrollably and successive attempts to cap it failed.

“I was watching with growing horror thinking, ‘Those morons don’t know what they’re doing,’” said Cameron, speaking at the All Things Digital conference Wednesday evening.

His work on the film “Titanic,” he said, gave him exposure to some of the world’s top experts who work in deep-sea environments. That started him thinking that those trying to stop the oil flow didn’t have the right skill set.

“Wait a minute,” he said, “I know a lot of people who work in deep submergence … They know the engineering that’s required to work at that depth.”

He contacted the Environmental Protection Agency about his plan. “I thought let’s get all the people I know together for a brainstorming session,” he said.

No word yet on whether Cameron will be bringing in an army of submersible mechs, or what roles Bill Paxton and Sigourney Weaver will play. But I'm guessing that Michael Bay, who once made a movie that was actually about a deep-water drilling crew sent to stop a catastrophe with a nuke, is jealous.

Meet The Man (and The Mustache) That Would Regulate Journalists in Michigan!

This is Bruce Patterson, a state senator in Michigan, who wants to regulate and license journalists in the Wolverine State, a place that has been Mississippi du Nord for going on three decades now, with massive job losses, population shifts, and an economy that performs somewhere south of Greece. Oh yeah, and a massive budget deficit that shows no signs of turning around anytime this century.

Patterson, reports FishBowl NY, wants to pass a law that

would require license applicants to possess, among other things: 1) "Good moral character"; 2) a degree in journalism; and 3) three writing samples. In our experience, those first two "qualifications" are in no way preconditions to quality reporting. The third may be necessary, but is by no means sufficient.

In any case, Patterson has said that the existence of a license would not preclude unlicensed writers from reporting the news; sounds like he's more interested in putting a state seal of approval on certain organizations/individuals instead. His bill is a response to certain instances of reporting in which the writer has demonstrated a lack of understanding of the issues at hand.

Maybe it's just the honorary Ohioan in me but, Jeebus H. Christ, the things those Michiganders up there think of!

On the up side, when pols of all stripes start yapping about licensing the press - or subsidizing it with public money - maybe that's just a sign that pixel-stained wretches (of absolutely horrible moral character, with no degrees, and likely no "clips") are starting to draw blood. Or at least attention the free-spending, idiotic ways of most statehouses and legislatures. Mebbe.

Is it a good idea for governments to get involved with the media financially and/or in terms of licensing? Obviously no. Watch a vid that makes the point.

Yet Still Even More on The Coming War Between Public and Private Sector Workers...Chap MCMXIII

From Aaron Proctor's Twitter feed comes news of a blood-rage-inducing-and-perfectly-legal-ripoffsky of taxpayers in Ben Franklin's hometown:

Camille Cates Barnett will get nearly $50,000 annually from the city pension fund for the rest of her life after June 30, when she leaves her post as Philadelphia's managing director after two years, five months, and 24 days.

On the same day that a City Council committee moved to close the loophole that allows short-time employees such as Barnett to buy credit in the city's pension fund based on public service elsewhere, the Board of Pensions and Retirement revealed that Barnett had done just that.

Barnett has paid $122,303 to become vested in the pension plan, according to the Mayor's Office and the Pension Board, a privilege unionized employees are entitled to only after serving five years.

She had already made some payments toward the buy-in this year, and paid the balance of $106,564 on April 15.

Whole story here.

As noted above, this loophole - which only applied to non-union-represented workers, by the way - has been closed. But you gotta wonder how many other similar scams are built into Philly's and other cities' pensions and benefits plans. My wild guesstimate: a lot.

Reason on the war between public and private sector workforces.

Reason Morning Links: Blagojevich Corruption Trial Begins, D.C. Teachers Union Buckles, More Election Tampering Accusations for White House

New at Reason: Steve Chapman on the Right to Remain Silent

In the last 44 years, the Miranda warning has become as American as the Iowa State Fair. Most of us could recite it in our sleep, particularly the part that goes: You have the right to remain silent. Police and prosecutors, who once saw it as coddling criminals, have learned to live with this modest obligation. But as Steve Chapman writes, not everyone is so adaptable. Some people bridle at the notion of going along with something that protects the guilty as well as the innocent. Five of them sit on the Supreme Court of the United States.

View this article

The European Far Right is Far Left (on Economics)

Filling in over at Matt Yglesias's Center for American Progress blog, Jamelle Bouie upbraids British historian Andrew Roberts for writing that "Far from being the much-heralded 'crisis of Capitalism' that the left has so long and salivatingly augured, this recession has in fact seen Capitalism’s ultimate triumph." Bouie says that a clever chappie like Roberts "can’t possibly be surprised by Europe’s rightward turn during the recession," pointing to a recent study, previously trumpeted by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, that "found that 'for every percentage point decline in GDP growth over two quarters, support for the far right rises by 0.136 percentage points,' which is a statistically significant effect, though not an electorally significant one (emphasis added)."

I am going to assume the study cited is methodologically sound (the conclusions seem unsurprising, though, from a quick look at the paper, the authors don't seem to identify which parties it considers "far right"), but Bouie's analysis is wrong on almost every count. By conflating the rise in "far right" parties with free market parties—Roberts is talking about a supposed rejection of "prime-the-pump Keynesianism"—Bouie concludes that Europe's recent turn to the right is unsurprising. Roberts' case is a mite overstated (I made a similar argument here), but Bouie, who says the correlation between financial disaster and an insurgent right is "obvious," doesn't seem to understand that the far-right parties of Europe are almost all anti-immigration and pro-welfare state.

There are also, he argues, obvious historical precedents to consider:

That said, you need only look to Europe in the 1930s to see how economic distress distorts the political landscape. Right-wing parties successfully capitalized on widespread insecurity to gain power or influence in Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria and France.

This is bizarre. The Italian fascists came to power in 1922, some years before the depression (and the 1930s!), by advocating a corporatist economy. In Spain, the fascists didn't ultimately seize control until 1939. As historian Stanley Payne points out in The Collapse of the Spanish Republic, by 1934 the Spanish economy was recovering and "although economic circumstances played a role, political rivalry remained the dominant motivation" for the political upheaval of that year, which precipitated the coup in 1936. Indeed, a fascist putsch seemed unlikely, Payne argues, because Spain was not burdened by "any significant demobilized army, any great mass of urban unemployment, any strong Spanish nationalism or militarist programs, or potential popular leaders."

And to what is Bouise referring in France, which saw the 1936 election of Leon Blum's socialist Popular Front, which had Édouard Daladier as a Prime Minister in 1933, and a moderate-right government in the early 1930s? In Austria, a far-right party—the National Socialists—gained power by annexation, using the ethnic pitch of Heim ins Reich and not an appeal to economic concerns.

But back to modern Europe: I invite Bourie to look at the party platforms of extreme right parties like the NPD in Germany, the Danish People's Party in Denmark, and Sverigedemokraterna in Sweden, all of whom display a deep hostility to capitalism. On the website of the NPD, an unreconstructed neo-Nazi party that periodically polls well in the former East Germany, one can buy "anti-capitalist" t-shirts and sweatshirts (and Admiral Doenitz gear!) and can print out generically anti-American handbills. Most of the extreme parties—left and right—agree on economic issues, though differ on who should receive state assistance—i.e., immigrants.

One more thing: Yesterday, I criticized blog posts by Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein for credulously reporting from a newly constructed Chinese village, where everything was free and the state provided gratis birthday cakes (and Beijing's version of eminent domain, which has forced people from their homes to make way for new developments). Yglesias emailed me, pointing out the he had previously blogged on the horrid policy of forced relocations. A fair point, and one I should have included in the post. And to be honest, it was Klein's giddyness and baffling credulity about the "sweet deal" offered by the Chinese government that really irked me.

The Unbearable Rightness of Being Armed

Yesterday the California Assembly approved a bill that would make it a crime to openly carry a gun in public. Under current law, Californians may carry guns openly as long as they're unloaded—a fact that some gun owners have used to make a symbolic statement about their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. The alarm generated by these displays gave rise to the bill, which now goes to the state Senate. The Los Angeles Times sums up the arguments pro and con:

Supporters of the bill...argued that the practice [of openly carrying guns] intimidates the unarmed and wastes police resources because officers frequently have to respond to worried callers saying there's a person with a gun outside Starbucks, or a similarly crowded public space....Opponents argued that there have been no serious incidents associated with openly carrying firearms in California, and called the bill a solution in search of a problem.

What's interesting is that carrying a concealed weapon, which by the logic of this bill's backers would be preferable, is much harder to do legally in California. In addition to undergoing training and passing a criminal background check, you need permission from the local sheriff or police chief, who decides whether you have "good cause" to carry a gun. Such a discretionary permit policy is now the exception in the U.S.; nearly 40 states either do not require a license or grant one to any resident who has a clean record and completes the training. But policies like California's used to be common, based on the premise that hiding a gun, as opposed to carrying it openly, reflected a sinister motive. As Justice Antonin Scalia noted in D.C. v. Heller, the 2008 Supreme Court decision upholding the Second Amendment right to armed self-defense, "the majority of the 19th-century courts to consider the question held that prohibitions on carrying concealed weapons were lawful under the Second Amendment or state analogues." But those laws allowed the carrying of visible weapons, which were deemed less threatening precisely because they were out in the open—exactly the opposite of the premise endorsed by the California Assembly yesterday.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence cites a poll it commissioned that indicates most Americans share this uneasiness about the open display of firearms (unless they're carried by police). The group does not provide the exact wording of the questions it used (which may have been biased against conspicuous gun toting), but the results are plausible. Question for discussion: What does this reversal of traditional assumptions about the proper way to carry a gun signify?

Previous coverage of gun-toting Starbucks customers here and here.

Prohibition Can Cause Flesh to Rot

According to a letter in the June 1 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, cocaine mixed with the veterinary anti-parasitic drug levamisole hydrochloride can cause "bilateral necrosis of earlobes and cheeks"—or, as the Yahoo! News headline puts it, "Contaminated Cocaine Can Cause Flesh to Rot." Doctors already have reported that levamisole in cocaine can cause agranulocytosis, a reduction in white blood cell production that leaves the body vulnerable to various infections. But this week's letter, which describes two cases, is the first report of skin lesions like these tied to consumption of levamisole-tainted cocaine. Both side effects have been seen in clinical studies of levamisole, which is used in humans to treat cancer and autoimmune disorders.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 70 percent of cocaine seized at the border in 2009 contained levamisole, up from around 10 percent a few years before. The drug's popularity as a cutting agent may have increased because it enhances cocaine's perceived effects while reducing its cost. But even though most cocaine consumed in the U.S. (perhaps as much as 80 percent) now contains levamisole, and about 6 million Americans use cocaine every year, there have been few reports of serious side effects from the contaminant, which suggests that they do not occur very often. Presumably people whose immune systems are already weak are especially vulnerable. As I noted last September, when the federal government started warning the public about levamisole in cocaine, whatever hazard it represents is entirely attributable to prohibition, which makes drugs more dangerous by encouraging practices that would never survive in a legal, open, competitive market. Just as drinkers no longer need to worry about methanol in their liquor, medical users of legally produced cocaine need not worry about levamisole.

Sir Paul McCartney on Fixing The Hole For Young, Exploited Successful Songwriters

The Cute Beatle (who is vying to the death with Ringo Starr for the vaunted designation of "the Only Remaining Beatle") sounds off on the Internets and the downloading and the young Italian girls:

“Years ago, when this first started, this idea of people being able to download stuff for free, I was doing an interview in Italy and it was a young girl and I said, ‘What do you think about it?’ and she said: ‘Oh, I think it’s great. You know, you get it all for nothing.’ I said, ‘Okay, this week, you go back to your office and your boss says, ‘Sorry, I’m not paying you this week,' how’d you like that? She said, ‘Oh, no, I wouldn’t like that.’

“I said, ‘Well, that’s the equivalent’ because I’ve kind of, you know, I’ve kind of had the best of it, really. But the young kids coming up now, let’s say, there’s a guy who's got a hit and he’s got a young family--that’s his job. Now, if he doesn’t get paid for that, I think that’s unfair. So, I think, you know, it’s good to get a nice, fair system where whoever does something that’s really successful, should get paid for it.”

More, including video, here.

Actually, the equivalent would be something like: "You go back to your office and and your boss says, You've sold a million records but I'm not paying you because you owe for studio time and distribution and marketing costs and keeping the lights on while you were out."

As The Walrus's contemporary, Roger McGuinn, could tell him, those record companies aren't exactly quick to dispense royalties to performers.

Are contemporary young, successful songwriters stuck darning their own socks like a latter-day Father McKenzie? Somehow I doubt it. But wot do I know? I actually saw Give My Regards to Broad Street in the theater.

Reason on this sort of thing.

One goddamn great Macca tune (who really could never write a goddmaned lyric to save his life):