Free Minds & Free Markets

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Philip Roth, RIP

If you are doing work that is expressive of what you believe and hope for, you need to "read" the arc of Philip Roth's career more than any of his individual titles.

Like a lot of people born at the very end of the Baby Boom, my first exposure to Philip Roth was not from his own books, but in the pages of Mad magazine. In the early '70s, it seemed like every issue had one of more gags related to Portnoy's Complaint, his best-selling novel in which the eponymous character describes masturbating with a piece of liver. A Mad anthology featured a parody of the film version Goodbye, Columbus, lazily titled Hoo Boy Columbus!, if I remember correctly. By the time I got around to reading that powerful short-story collection about Jewishness, class, and assimilation, I already knew all the key plot points of the titular novella.

With Roth's passing, an entire era of American letters closes up shop for good. Born in Newark, New Jersey in 1933, Roth came of age when being a novelist meant you could be or were even expected to be a culture hero, too. Especially if like him, you were partial to dropping turds in the cultural punch bowl or, like Norman Mailer or Gore Vidal, a raging narcissist who mistook the ability to write a sharp sentence for seriousness of thought on every topic du jour. Nowadays, our "great" writers are either pursuing trivial pursuits (Jonathan Franzen's most-heartfelt cause seems to be preserving bird habitat in Central Park) or toiling in relative anonymity, displaced by other forms of media, especially TV shows such as The Wire, The Sopranos, or Mad Men that do the cultural work once reserved for literature.

Along with Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, Roth was part of the post-war Jewish triumvirate of ethnically and literarily serious novelists, what Bellow once called the "Hart, Schaffner, and Marx" of American letters (HSM was an upper-middle-class men's clothing brand back when such things mattered). Like other writers of his background (especially from Newark, which also birthed such unassimilable heroes as Milton Friedman and Leslie Fiedler), Roth could be deliberately and offensively Jewish even as he cultivated a Henry James shtick, consciously toggling between worlds stinking of gefilte fish and organ meats and made boring and tedious by reserved, WASPish decorum. He's certainly not the last American writer of Jewish heritage, but he may well be the last Yid. Roth's specific ethnicity (and that of other white ethnics who were Italian and Irish) just doesn't matter that much anymore. Everybody these days is an insider/outsider, the symbolic role played by many of his characters, and in a world of post-colonial identity politics and intersectionality, being Jewish, male, and first-generation college doesn't cut the mustard, Kosher or not. The same is true of his sexual fixations, especially in books such as Portnoy's Complaint. I was born 30 years after Roth but even by the time I started reading "serious" literature and entered grad school for English in the late 1980s, his sexual revolution seemed as distant to my times as that of the Founding Fathers.

So is there something we can take from his ouevre, his life, his example? The shelf of books, fiction and memoir, he wrote isn't just voluminous, it's groaning under the weight of great passages and deep insights into the human condition, if we still believe in such a quaint, universalistic notion. Even his sillier works, such as The Great American Novel, a satire of a fictional baseball league set during World War II, rewards perusal. He introduced Americans to "writers from the other Europe" in a series of books written by authors trapped behind the Iron Curtain or exiled from it (a conventional political liberal, he was a great American defender of free speech in all its forms).

Much more to the point than any single work of Roth's is the constant searching, seeking, and maturation he displayed throughout his career. In the wake of the Kitty Genovese murder, he wrote in 1961 that "we now live in an age in which the imagination of the novelist lies helpless before what he knows he will read in tomorrow morning's newspaper." Like many serious writers (well, at least many serious male writers, such as Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, and John Barth)—he retreated somewhat into writing about writing (so-called metafiction or surfiction) and broad satire. To his credit, he moved past that stage and, like Bob Dylan in music, created at least one work that "mattered" every few years until he hung up his spurs in 2012. Later works such as 1997's American Pastoral, 2000's The Human Stain, and especially 2004's The Plot Against America show a man trying to make sense of a world that he was raised to inherit but that had gone missing due to the vagaries of history. The Plot Against America is an alternative history in which Charles Lindbergh becomes an isolationist president in 1940; a savage if somewhat mistaken take on George W. Bush unilateralist foreign policy, it's far more relevant to Donald Trump's presidency.

"Lord have mercy on us, we want a 'great' writer," wrote Leslie Fiedler back in 1951.

It is at once the comedy and tragedy of 20th-century American letters that we simply cannot keep a full stock of contemporary "great novelists."...From moment to moment we have the feeling that certain claims...are secure, but even as we name them they shudder and fall.

Fiedler's humorous ire was directed at F. Scott Fitzgerald, who is U.S. literature's equivalent of a one-hit wonder (maybe one-and-a-half). But the charge is true of Roth's rough contemporaries, such as Thomas Pynchon, who stopped "mattering" shortly after the publication of Gravity's Rainbow over 40 years ago. Don DeLillo is younger than Roth, but close enough for comparison. After spending the 1970s and '80s writing books about terroristic violence, including one novel that ends with the destruction of the World Trade Center, DeLillo failed us all after 9/11 by taking years to write a minor work that escaped from Ground Zero as quickly as possible.

Roth, like Toni Morrison (born in 1931), kept at it, long and hard, trying to make sense of a world that escaped the conditions into which they were born. For all of us who expect to live long lives and who are doing work that isn't merely remunerative but expressive of what we believe and hope for, we need to "read" Philip Roth's career more than any of his individual books. Like all of us, he never fully transcended his roots even as he hacked at them ruthlessly, lovingly, and obsessively. He couldn't quite make it into a world that was post-racial, post-feminist, post-everything. But he kept trying, which is no small victory over the Conqueror Worm.

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Is It Really Illegal for Trump to Block People on Twitter Now?: New at Reason

Federal judge rules that the First Amendment prohibits the president from blocking followers based on their political views.

Julien Viry/Dreamstime.comJulien Viry/Dreamstime.comThe First Amendment prohibits President Trump from using his personal Twitter account to block critics, a federal judge in Manhattan ruled today.

U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald, a Clinton appointee, said that Trump's occasional use of Twitter's blocking feature violates his critics' rights to free speech. "The blocking of the individual plaintiffs as a result of the political views they have expressed is impermissible under the First Amendment," Buchwald wrote.

It's a somewhat bizarre decision, writes Declan McCullagh.

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Prof Bumps Female Students’ STEM Grades (Because They’re Women): New at Reason

Free extra credit to “encourage female students to go [in]to information sciences.”

Nemanja Mandić/Dreamstime.comNemanja Mandić/Dreamstime.comOn May 14, University of Akron professor Liping Liu sent an email to his class sections saying certain categories of students—including women—may see their grades "raised one level or two." Liu claimed his approach was a part of a "national movement to encourage female students to go [in]to information sciences."

Fortunately, the plan appears to have been vetoed. Asked for comment, university officials say that "no adjustment in grades along the lines suggested by the professor has occurred or will be permitted to occur." But Liu's suggestion is still troubling, writes Liz Wolfe.

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NFL Players WILL Respect the Flag's Authoritah, Says Commissioner

Teams will now be fined if their employees don't show sufficient on-field respect during the National Anthem, because we live in a very serious country.

||| South ParkSouth ParkBecause nothing says "patriotism" quite like ordering people under penalty of a fine to stand up during the National Anthem, the taxpayer-soaking cajillionaires who run the National Football League have announced a new policy of fining any team caught having an employee sitting, kneeling, or acting disrespectfully on the field while "The Star-Spangled Banner" plays before a game.

"We want people to be respectful of the national anthem," explained NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. "We want people to stand...and make sure they treat this moment in a respectful fashion. That's something we think we owe. [But] we were also very sensitive to give players choices."

Thus continues a controversy that began with then–San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sitting during the anthem in an August 2016 preseason game to protest police brutality; that continued that fall with various players kneeling, locking arms, and putting fists in the air; then nearly petering out to maybe a dozen anthem refuseniks until President Donald Trump told an Alabama rally last September, "Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he's fired. He's fired!'"

Congratulations, America. ||| Sam Riche/TNS/NewscomSam Riche/TNS/NewscomExcited by how such nakedly pointless culture-war baiting was getting his base "stirred up," the president piled more worms on the hook. He sent Vice President Mike Pence to attend (and showily walk out of) an Indianapolis Colts game that featured an offensive non-stander. He even dragged the controversy into his State of the Union Address. (In fairness, the state of our union is that we bicker endlessly over this kind of phony bullshit while our elected officials misuse billions and billions of our dollars, including on professional sports franchises.) The NFL, whose owners lean Republican and whose ceremonial accoutrements have long been suffused with militaristic displays of patriotism, has been agonizing over anthem etiquette ever since.

Under the new policy, players will have the option (which they enjoyed before 2009) of sitting the anthem out inside the locker room. Also, in addition to the league fining the employers of the star-spangled scofflaws, teams themselves will have the discretion of fining non-compliant players. Goodell surely hopes that such fraught solicitousness to White House feelings will be greeted as a stately compromise, and maybe players will indeed roll their eyes and get on with their lives.

But there's something pathetic and insecure about the whole exercise. The United States is a patriotic and religious country that (rightly!) loves its damn sports, especially the homegrown troika of football, baseball, and basketball. Enforcing that love through coerced rituals and Pentagon product placements is not a projection of strength; it's an expression of weakness. Saying "How high?" when a president says "Jump!" is behavior suitable for a royal subject, not an American citizen. Rewarding politicians for playing fan bases off of one another—unless it's Red Sox–Yankees, in which case the old Iran-Iraq rules apply—isn't cheeky-clever, it's creepy-vulgar.

Have some damned confidence, America, and stop listening to confidence men.

Now, for some postgame analysis, here's Ken White:

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Lifetime GPS Tracking Is Not Punishment, Says Wisconsin Supreme Court

The court relies on a debunked recidivism estimate to justify tagging and surveillance of sex offenders.

Wikimedia CommonsWikimedia CommonsLast week the Wisconsin Supreme Court unanimously ruled that defendants need not be informed that pleading guilty to certain sex crimes will subject them to lifetime GPS monitoring because that requirement is not a punishment. In reaching that conclusion, the court relied on a widely cited but fictitious recidivism estimate as well as the familiar but dubious assumption that a state's asserted interest in promoting public safety justifies the burdens and restrictions it imposes on sex offenders long after they have completed their sentences.

Under Wisconsin law, people convicted of serious sex offenses involving minors are required to wear GPS transmitters on their ankles for the rest of their lives unless they leave the state, become permanently incapacitated, or successfully petition a court for relief after 20 years. The Department of Corrections reviews tracking data every night and receives alerts whenever an offender leaves an "inclusion area," enters an "exclusion area," or tampers with his GPS device. Malfunctions and signal loss that cause erroneous alerts can lead to arrest, jail, and loss of employment.

The court notes that the tracker, which "can cause blistering, especially when wet," creates a noticeable bulge and is visible whenever the offender wears shorts or sits down. It includes a speaker than can be used to issue commands or reminders, which "can be heard by anyone within earshot of the offender," who has to sit near an electrical outlet one hour a day to recharge it.

In addition to facilitating constant surveillance, then, GPS tracking conspicuously marks anyone who wears it as someone to be shunned, feared, despised, and perhaps worse. That mark of shame compounds the stigma associated with registration as a sex offender, which also entails restrictions on where people can live, work, or "loiter." But according to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the public shaming is incidental to the main purpose of GPS tracking, which is regulatory rather than punitive. "In light of the 'frightening and high' rate of recidivism for sex offenders," the court says, "the relatively minimal intrusion of lifetime GPS not excessive in relation to protecting the public."

That "frightening and high" quote comes from a 2002 opinion by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who asserted that "the rate of recidivism of untreated offenders has been estimated to be as high as 80%." Kennedy seems to have gotten that number from Solicitor General Ted Olson, who cited a DOJ manual that in turn relied on an unreferenced 1986 estimate in Psychology Today. That estimate has been debunked repeatedly and repudiated by its original source. It nevertheless lives on in the decisions of courts across America, justifying all manner of restrictions on sex offenders.

The continued reliance on fanciful recidivism numbers can be crucial in cases like this, where the difference between a regulation and a punishment depends partly on whether the burdens imposed by a law are disproportionate to its impact on public safety. If the annual risk that a sex offender will commit a new crime is not "frightening and high" but, as the evidence indicates, low and shrinking over time, forcing a 70-year-old who served time for a sex offense half a century ago to continue wearing a GPS transmitter makes even less sense than it does on its face.

Another important factor in the Wisconsin Supreme Court's decision was the supposed constitutionality of continuing to imprison sex offenders after they have completed their sentences, which SCOTUS has said is fine as long as you remember to call the place where they are confined a "treatment center" rather than a prison. "Lifetime GPS tracking," the Wisconsin Supreme Court says, "provides a middle ground between releasing dangerous sex offenders into the public wholly unsupervised and civil commitment."

In other words, if you are required to wear a conspicuous ankle monitor that is used to keep you in your "inclusion areas" and out of your "exclusion areas" for the rest of your life, you should shut up and be grateful that you get to walk about in public at all. When indefinite imprisonment does not count as a punishment, any burden that falls short of that is a mere inconvenience that can easily be justified by "frightening and high" recidivism rates, even when those rates are pulled out of thin air.

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New York the Latest City to Take Aim At Plastic Straws

Momentum to ban these convenient suckers keeps growing.

Stockcreations/Dreamstime.comStockcreations/Dreamstime.comNow New York City is considering a plastic straw ban.

On Wednesday, three Democrats on city council—Rafael Espinal of Brooklyn, Helen Rosenthal of Manhattan, and Barry Grodenchik of Queens—introduced a bill that would prohibit restaurants, bars, and other food service businesses from giving customers single-use plastic straws.

Businesses would be fined $100 for the first violation, $200 for second, and $400 for any violations thereafter. A medical exception would allow restaurateurs to hand out straws to anyone with a disability—including, oddly, people whose disabilities do not have any effect on how they drink their beverages. Everyone else would have to suck it up.

Espinal, along with John Calvelli of the Wildlife Conservation Society and Adrian Grenier of HBO's Entourage, try to justify the proposal in a New York Daily News op-ed, arguing that plastic straws are both an environmental menace and easily replaceable.

"While plastic straws are among the most common litter found on beaches, they are also among the hardest plastic to recycle and the easiest to replace," wrote the trio. "Alternatives to plastic straws made of paper, bamboo, metal or glass are readily available. Consumers can even skip the straw altogether."

In my own Daily News op-ed, I push back against both arguments. Straws, I note, are hardly the biggest problem when it comes to beach litter:

Straws make up a pretty small portion of plastic waste overall. Results from California's yearly coastal clean-up find that straws are about 4% of all beach debris collected. In Vancouver it's 3%. In the UK, straws are just 2% of all beach refuge.

And while plastic getting into the oceans is a big problem, it's not a particularly American problem:

The U.S. as it turns out does a pretty good job of disposing of the waste we produce, making us responsible for less than 1% of plastic going into the oceans. That's compared to countries like China, which contributes almost 28% of yearly plastic marine debris, or Indonesia, responsible for another 10%.

As one chemical engineering professor put it to National Geographic, "Let's say you recycle 100 percent in all of North America and Europe. You still would not make a dent on the plastics released into the oceans. If you want to do something about this, you have to go there, to these countries, and deal with the mismanaged waste."

Straw bans in a couple coastal cities will be of even less help to the environment. But they would do a good job of inconveniencing customers and ruining businesses for whom plastic straws are a crucial component of the drinks they service. As I wrote in the Daily News:

There are those drinks that would be rendered hopelessly impractical in a straw-free world, from the standard milkshake to your favorite whipped-cream topped beverage from Starbucks. Bubble tea might disappear entirely without the straws needed to slurp up the tapioca balls at the bottom of the cup that give the beverage its name.

Indeed, bubble tea merchants were some of the strongest opponents of Vancouver's straw ban, with one tea house manager telling the city council, "our industry depends on straws. This ban will be detrimental to many businesses in our city.

"Who's going to pay more money for a metal straw?" one New York bubble tea shop manager tells Reason, adding: "It's impossible to suck up a bubble through paper."

Reusable straws really aren't practical for drinks that more often than not are consumed on the go. But for straw opponents, these bans are starting to take on a self-justifying momentum. In the words of Espinal and co.: "California is also looking to implement a statewide ban. For the sake of our environment and ecological future, New York City must be among these progressive champions." Gotta keep up with the progressives Joneses.

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Transgender Bathroom Case Bounced by Supreme Court Starts Long Trek Back into the Spotlight

Federal court allows a Virginia student's case against school district to continue.

Gavin GrimmEverett Collection/NewscomThe fight over which public school restrooms transgender students can use is winding its way back through the legal system, and it may be heading back to the Supreme Court.

A federal judge in Virginia ruled Tuesday that a lawsuit by a transgender student who was barred from using the boys' facilities can move forward. Or rather, it can move forward again. The plaintiff, Gavin Grimm, was a central figure of a lawsuit that made it to the Supreme Court but then was punted back down after the Department of Justice switched positions.

Grimm, now 19 years old, sued the Gloucester County school board in Virginia in 2015 after they implemented a policy requiring him to use either the women's facilities or a single-stall unisex restroom. Grimm had begun the transition to living openly as a male and wanted to use the boys' restroom. He argued that the school district's policy violates Title IX of the Education Act of 1972, which forbids sex-based discrimination. But the law also permits schools to set up sex-segregated facilities to protect people's privacy, so there's been an ongoing conflict over which way to navigate the landscape is correct.

Under President Barack Obama, the departments of justice and education settled on an interpretation that favored Grimm, based on several federal court decisions—most notably Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, a 1989 case where the Supreme Court ruled that discrimination on the basis of whether a person complies with gender stereotypes is a form of sex-based discrimination. That case involved a woman claiming she was denied promotions because she wasn't feminine enough. The Obama administration advised school districts that discrimination against transgender people is also a form of discrimination based on gender stereotypes.

Some states resisted, and we ended up with a collection of differing federal court rulings. The Supreme Court agreed to hear Grimm's case in 2016. But then when Jeff Sessions took over as attorney general, he rescinded the Obama administration's guidance letters to schools and decided to leave matters to the states, saying it was the Justice Department's position that "gender identity" is not a category protected from discrimination by federal law.

The Supreme Court then punted the case back down the legal ladder. This did not end the conflict in any way, and Grimm continues to fight through the courts.

This week's ruling, from Judge Arenda Allen Wright of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, will allow Garvin's case to move forward again. The judge rejected a request from the school district to dismiss the case.

In the judge's 31-page ruling (read it here), she notes that the school's policy stemmed not from complaints by boys that Grimm was in their restrooms, but rather by adults in the community who found out the principal had quietly accepted Grimm's transition and let him use the boys' room. She further notes that since Grimm has filed his lawsuit, he has progressed along his transition, taking hormones, surgically altering his body, and getting his birth certificate and state identification legally altered to list his gender as male. The state itself is treating Grimm as a male, even if the school is not.

Note that while the ruling is favorable to Grimm, the judge isn't actually determining in his favor (though she does seem to agree with his side's arguments). Rather, the judge ruled that Grimm has enough of a Title IX complaint to continue and that there are enough precedents friendly to Grimm's arguments to reject a call to dismiss the case.

And so the bathroom battles march on.

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Trump's New Secretary of State Is Pushing America Closer to War with Iran: New at Reason

Mike Pompeo's "plan B" is reckless and dangerous.

CHINE NOUVELLE/SIPA/NewscomCHINE NOUVELLE/SIPA/NewscomSecretary of State Mike Pompeo's first major foreign policy speech was everything Iran hawks have dreamt about.

The address was filled with tough-sounding rhetoric about Iran's behavior in the Middle East. Pompeo provided red meat to neoconservatives, unilateralists, and primacists alike, outlining an approach that relies on economic, military, and political pressure to bend Iran to Washington's will.

What the Trump administration billed as a "plan B" in a post-Iranian-nuclear-deal world was in truth not a plan but a long list of grievances and a series of demands that Tehran will almost certainly reject. "Relief from sanctions will come only when we see tangible, demonstrated, and sustained shifts in Tehran's policies," Pompeo told his audience.

These may be popular words from the standpoint of domestic politics. But in terms of actual policy, the speech is substanceless, writes Daniel DePetris, a fellow at Defense Priorities.

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Did Leaded Gasoline Contribute to the U.S. Baby Bust?

Maybe, but it's more likely that Americans chose to have fewer kids.

LeadedGasolineBronwyn8DreamstimeBronwyn8/DreamstimeThe U.S. fertility rate has fallen to a 40-year low of 1.76 children per 100 women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Is lead to blame?

A new study by three Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) economists says it is. Noting that "increased lead exposure lowers the general fertility rate for women of childbearing age," the trio argues that "reductions in airborne lead between 1978 and 1988 increased fertility rates and that higher lead in topsoil decreased fertility rates in the 2000s." They might be right, but another explanation for the falling fertility rate is more convincing.

Between 1973 and 1996, the U.S. completed the process of totally eliminating lead as an additive in gasoline. As a result, lead concentrations in the atmosphere have dropped by 99 percent since 1980. In their study, the CMU economists look at fertility rate trends in that portion of the population (about 30 percent) where they have adequate data for atmospheric concentrations of lead in the 1980s. They similarly seek to correlate fertility rates in about 70 percent of the population with their exposure to lead in the topsoil after the year 2000.

After taking into account possible confounders—local climate, housing, socioeconomic status, education, nearness to highways, race, poverty, unemployment rates—they calculate that the decline in airborne lead meant 95,000 additional babies would be born annually. They also estimate that cleaning up areas with high concentrations of lead in the topsoil to the median level of contamination would induce an additional 166,000 births annually.

The researchers do find a correlation between seeking out infertility services and living in states with above-average airborne lead concentrations. But CDC data show that the infertility rate for married women fell from 11.2 percent in 1965 to 10.3 percent in 1976 and further to 8.4 percent in 1982, and the use of leaded gasoline was increasing for most of that period. The CDC reports that the infertility rate among married women continued to fall, reaching about 6 percent in 2010, despite the fact that the CMU researchers identify ongoing exposure to lead in topsoil as a contributing factor to lower fertility rates. (I cite infertility rates of married women because that's the longest consistent dataset offered by the CDC.)

Interestingly, data from the 1950s report atmospheric lead concentrations in major cities that were similar to those during the 1980s. Yet post–World War II fertility rates soared, resulting in the baby boom. U.S. total fertility rates fell steeply from the baby boom years, reaching their nadir of 1.74 children per woman in 1976. Total fertility rose to 2.08 children in 1990 and then held more or less steady at around 2 children per woman, rising to a pre–Great Recession peak of 2.12 children in 2007.

The CDC has tracked contraception use among married women from 1965 onwards (adding unmarried later). In 1965, some 63 percent of married women were using some form of contraception, including oral contraceptives, IUDs, and condoms. That rose to nearly 68 percent in 1976, as oral and intrauterine contraceptives displaced condoms. In addition, sterilizations increased from 7.8 to 18.6 percent of women during that decade. In 2008, the CDC reports, 78.6 percent of married women practiced some form of contraception.

Another way to parse U.S. fertility data is to consider just how many children U.S. women on average intended to have versus the actual number that they give birth to. A 2005 study looking at intended and ideal family sizes between 1970 and 2002 finds that both remained stable at just over two children during that period. "Reported fertility intentions of American women approximate the country's contemporary period levels of fertility," notes the study. Adding that their findings show "in the aggregate, both stable intentions across time and an ability to realize those intentions."

A 2010 study that looked at the childbearing intentions of a late baby boom cohort (born between 1957 and 1964) found that the women aimed to give birth to an average of 2.22 children. By 2006, they had given birth to 1.97 children on average. So why did a substantial proportion of Americans in that cohort end up having fewer children than they intended? The researchers highlight the role played by "life-course factors," finding that "both women and men who postponed childbearing or marriage were much more likely to have fewer births than they intended." The study points out that postponement implicates declining fecundity with age, competing nonfamilial activities, and failure to find a suitable marriage partner.

Exposure to lead is undeniably harmful to human health. And perhaps it has contributed to lower U.S. fertility rates. But it seems more likely to me that U.S. fertility rates have fallen largely because Americans are choosing to have fewer children.

For further background, see also my analysis of the claims that exposure to leaded gasoline increased U.S. crime rates.

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A Libertarian Take on John McCain's Restless Wave and the Legacy of an 'Authoritarian Maverick': Podcast

McCain biographer Matt Welch talks about the Arizona Republican's latest book and personal crusades.

Few politicians have made more of an impact on their times than Arizona Sen. John McCain, who is battling brain cancer.

His new book, The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights, and Other Appreciations, has just been published and is already making news. In it, the 81-year-old former prisoner of war and torture survivor talks frankly about Donald Trump, the mainstream media, and his congressional colleagues. Throughout his career, McCain positioned himself as a centrist and a "straight talker"; his pushes for campaign finance laws and military interventions put him at odds with libertarians even as he was friendly toward immigration and trade.

In the latest Reason Podcast, Nick Gillespie talks with Matt Welch about McCain's life and legacy. In 2008, when the senator was the Republican nominee for president, Matt published McCain: The Myth of a Maverick, a tough-but-fair assessment that had its origins as a 2007 Reason cover story called "Be Afraid of President McCain: The frightening mind of an authoritarian maverick." No one is more qualified to talk about John McCain's life and legacy than his biographer, Matt Welch.

Subscribe, rate, and review our podcast at iTunes. Listen at SoundCloud below:

Audio production by Ian Keyser.

Photo credit: Christopher Fitzgerald/Chris Fitzgerald/CandidatePhotos/Newscom

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The Economy’s Improving—Why Keep Attacking Immigrants? New at Reason

Immigration hawks continue to dig in.

Donald TrumpMark Wilson/SIPA/NewscomThe big furor last week concerned President Trump's use of the word "animals" to refer to members of MS-13. Some news reports claimed he had used the term to describe all immigrants, which led to push-back from Trump supporters: There the media go again, lying about the president. This retort elicited a rebuttal in turn, to the effect that Trump's precise wording (to the extent such a thing exists; "Trump's precise wording" is almost an oxymoron) doesn't matter because the president "systematically obliterates any distinctions between the overwhelming majority of immigrants who are law-abiding and the violent minority among the foreign-born."

That's certainly true, going back to the president's statement that Mexican immigrants are "bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."

A year or two ago remarks like that hit the air like a thunderclap out of a clear blue sky. Now they seem, if not tame (can one say "tame," or is that too much like "animals"?), then more mainstream. But not in a good way. A. Barton Hinkle is confused why this is scapegoating continues even as the economy grows.

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Here's Why $19 Billion Won't Fix New York's Subway—or Your Local Transit System

Until riders pay most of the cost of public transit and operators are directly answerable to their customers, nothing will get better.

New York Post coverNew York Post coverWhen New York City's subway opened in 1904, a ride cost a nickel. Today the system is breaking down in virtually every possible way and boasts the worst on-time performance of any major transit system in the world.

Last summer, the system was declared "in crisis" and got an $800 million infusion in emergency cash and repairs. A year later, the head of the MTA, which operates the system, is now pushing a plan to fix the subway that carries a jaw-dropping price tag of $19 billion—about the same amount as nearby Connecticut's total state budget. The fixes will take decades, promises MTA head Andy Byford, but the first few years will focus on the signal system, which breaks down all the time, causing backups, jams, and delays. The New York Times reports:

There have been serious delays in installing a new signal system, which is known as communications-based train control, or C.B.T.C.

Of New York's 22 subway lines, only the L train has the advanced signal system. An effort to install the technology on the No. 7 line is years overdue.

Mr. Byford has said he hoped the No. 7 line signal upgrades would finally be completed this year.

That promise—and a nickel—gets you nothing but delays on today's subway. The L train is a major line that goes between Manhattan and Brooklyn and the East River tunnel it uses was damaged by "Superstorm Sandy" in 2012. As a result, the tunnel will be be shut down for at least 15 months starting next year, massively disrupting service for hundreds of thousands of people and leading to fears of what is colloquially dubbed the "L-pocalypse." So it's especially dank that the L is the city's only subway line with advanced technology.

Don't expect this new fix to work, even with those $19 billion. (If passed, the plan will almost certainly cost much more.) The MTA has an almost perfectly uninterrupted history of failing to get any job done well, on time, or effectively. Importantly, the plan doesn't address the core issue with the NYC subway and many other transit systems around the country: The people who operate it are not responsible to the riders who use it. The riders who use it also pay a smaller and smaller share of the operating costs, thanks to subsidies from tolls levied on drivers using bridges and tunnels. Last year alone, those tolls kicked more than $1 billion to MTA buses and subways. And then there are the endlessly proliferating taxes and fees on people who purposefully avoid the subway.

As Jim Epstein and I explain in the Reason video "How to Fix New York's Totally F*cked Subway System,"

These include a special sales, corporate, and payroll tax, plus fees on real estate transfers, car rentals, drivers license renewals, and vehicle registrations. And the state just imposed a brand new surcharge on taxis and ride shares coming into Manhattan, with the money going to the MTA.

The predictable result of such subsidies is rotten service, periodic bailouts, and out-of-control costs ("subway workers on average make $155,000 in total annual compensation, or more than twice the passengers they serve").

The rambling wreck that is the New York subway isn't just the MTA's fault. It's the result of a dysfunctional management system, borne of earlier crises in cash flow and operating failures, that centralizes a huge amount of power over the system in the governor's office in Albany.

Any reform plan that doesn't fundamentally alter how the subway generates and uses its revenue is doomed to failure. The single best practice for any transit system, says Reason Foundation policy analyst Baruch Feigenbaum, is to have its riders pay as close to the full cost of the system as possible. Low-income riders, students, and other special cases, he notes, can get special fares or rebates. "That is the most efficient system," he explains, and it's "also the best system for the rider, because if the rider is the one paying the cost, then the transit agency is serving the rider. If Albany is bailing out the transit system, then it's going to be whatever Albany wants."

It took decades for New York's subway to upgrade its turnstiles and to modernize its payment systems away from tokens to electronic cards. Such laggard behavior was always justified in the name of New York exceptionalism. (When I lived and worked in New York in the 1980s, people would seriously claim that subway tokens were somehow as integral a part of the greatest city in the world as bagels, street crime, and public urination.) To this day, the service doesn't charge riders based on the length of their trip or whether it's rush hour, as most other systems do. When riders, who currently pay around $2.75 a trip, are bearing the actual costs of the system, they will be motivated to demand top-flight service; if there's something New Yorkers are exceptional at, it's bitching and moaning about bad service. The difference under Reason's plan is that the MTA will also be in a position to use its revenue wisely and directly, rather than answering to an overlord who lives 150 miles north of the city.

Watch "How to Fix New York's Totally F*cked Subway System":

Links and details here.

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The 'Taxi King' Cooperating in the Michael Cohen Case Pleaded for a Government Bailout

"We want big poppa paying attention to us," Gene Freidman once told Reason. "I want the government...protecting me."

Evgeny "Gene" Freidman, the flamboyant 46-year-old "Taxi King" of New York and a perennial tabloid muse, has been sued for ripping off drivers, spent time last year in a Chicago prison, and once faced criminal charges for slamming his now ex-wife against a wall.

This recently disbarred Russian immigrant, who in 2013 elicited an angry tirade from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg ("I'm going to destroy your fucking industry"), is now cooperating with federal prosecutors in the case against Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's personal lawyer, as The New York Times reported yesterday. Freidman managed cabs for Cohen—the embattled attorney had at least 34 medallions to his name—and agreed to talk to investigators as part of a deal to downgrade state charges that he skipped out on $5 million owed to the government, which could have sent him to prison for 25 years.

Freidman, once the owner of an estimated 900 medallions, has had financial difficulties since Uber started upending the city's cab industry. New York medallions, valued at over $1 million apiece as recently as 2014, now sell for about $120,000—mostly through bankruptcy and foreclosure sales.

When Reason interviewed Freidman in 2015, a handful of his taxi garages had just filed for bankruptcy protection and he was angling for a city bailout in the form of loan guarantees for medallions. "We want big poppa paying attention to us," he said. "I want the government interested in me and protecting me....It's a scream for help and a scream by a child for attention."

In April of that year, New York City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez (D–10th District), chair of the Transportation Committee, participated in a private meeting Friedman arranged with bankers, medallion owners, and politicians to build support for a city bailout. "As medallion values continue to drop, Council Member Rodriguez takes steps to stymie further decline," his press aide announced in a statement at the time. At that private meeting, as the New York Post reported, Rodriguez stated that the city needs to "explore the possibility to pay restitution for those who value in that investment."

Freidman made age-old justifications for government support in his inimitably crude fashion, telling Reason that "our industry brings billions of dollars to funding the MTA, to funding schools, to funding policeman, ambulances, firefighters, and so on." He also took pains to depict the taxi industry as a force for civic good, stating that "my best days" started on September 12, 2001, when people wouldn't employ "people of color or different ethnicities, and they all became taxi drivers." During Ramadan, to help his Muslim drivers "feel great" when breaking fast, Freidman says he provided them with "Subway sandwiches with vegetable[s], tuna, cheese, and chips."

For more on Freidman and how Uber destroyed his business, scroll down to watch "Uber and the Great Taxicab Collapse."

Related: Freidman is cooperating in the Cohen case as part of a deal related to charges that he defrauded the Metropolitan Transportation Authority by pocketing a 50-cent surcharge on every taxi ride that's earmarked to subsidize subways and buses. As Nick Gillespie and I recently argued, schemes of this sort violate a central tenet of good transportation policy, which is that every mode of travel should be self-sustaining. Diverting money from drivers to pay for the subway instead of raising fares is the root cause of transit's problems. For more on that topic, watch "How to Fix New York's Totally F*cked Subway System."

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Georgia Gubernatorial Race Features First Black Female Nominee and Man Who Pledged to Round Up Immigrants In His Truck: Reason Roundup

Plus: The FBI exaggerated encryption problems and Congress rolls back Dodd-Frank.

Chris Aluka Berry/REUTERS/NewscomChris Aluka Berry/REUTERS/NewscomTuesday election results. Tuesday saw primaries and runoffs in Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, and Texas. The most attention-grabbing result comes from Georgia, where former state House minority leader Stacey Abrams won the Democratic nomination for governor. If she wins, she'll be the first black female governor in the U.S.; she is already "the first black woman to be a major party's candidate for governor," notes The Week. "She will face the winner of a July Republican runoff between Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp in an election that will test whether the state's politics have shifted enough for a liberal Democrat to win after more than a decade of Republican rule."

Cagle and Kemp competed in a five-way contest notable for "the candidates [trying] to one-up each other on who would be toughest on immigration," reports NBC.

One of Cagle's ads featured images of MS-13 gang tattoos and guns being fired at the screen, while Kemp pledged to round up undocumented immigrants in his "big truck." A third contestant, state Sen. Michael Williams, outfitted an entire "deportation bus" for the purpose.

Abrams won against Stacey Evans "in a primary that pitted competing visions for the future of the Democratic Party against each other," writes Sean Sullivan in The Washington Post. Abrams "ran on a liberal platform, while Evans, also a former state legislator, rooted her pitch in being able to win over crossover voters in the general election. The AP called the race with 30 percent of precincts reporting; Abrams led with 74 percent of the vote at that point."

In Kentucky, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray—who unsuccessfully challenged Rand Paul in 2016—lost the Democratic nomination for a seat in Congress to former fighter pilot and first-time candidate Amy McGrath. Record producer Hank Linderman also won a Democratic congressional nod, in the state's second district.

Current Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson fended off a challenger with 72 percent of the vote.


The FBI has been lying about encrypted cell phones. A Washington Post investigation finds that the FBI "has repeatedly provided grossly inflated statistics to Congress and the public about the extent of problems posed by encrypted cellphones." The agency claimed that encryption prohibited it from accessing 7,800 phones tied to criminal investigations last year. The actual number was somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000, according to the Post.

FBI Director Christopher A. Wray has repeatedly cited the imaginary 7,800 inaccessible phones as a reason why tech companies should make "back doors" to encrypted devices that allow them to be accessed by law enforcement.


Ditching Dodd-Frank. Congress voted yesterday to roll back several bits of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, thereby freeing up banks from regulations passed in the wake of Great Recession. "The bill chips away at several parts of the Dodd-Frank Act," explains Reason's Eric Boehm.

The most significant changes are targeted towards small banks. Those with less than $250 billion in assets are exempted from Dodd-Frank's so-called "enhanced prudential standards"—strict regulations regarding liquidity, risk management, and capital meant to serve as a "stress test" for banks' balance sheets. It would also exempt banks with less than $10 billion in assets from the so-called Volcker Rule, which limits speculative investments.

Other major parts of the Dodd-Frank law remain unchanged, including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and the so-called Durbin Amendment, which imposed price controls on debit card fees and has been blamed for reducing the availability of free checking accounts.


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Congress Stands With the Blue, Against the Constitution: New at Reason

The lopsided House vote for treating assaults on cops as federal crimes is a bipartisan portrait in cowardice.

AmazonAmazonLast week the House of Representatives, by a margin of more than 10 to 1, approved a bill that would make assaulting a police officer a federal crime. The lopsided vote on the Protect and Serve Act was a portrait in bipartisan cowardice that vividly showed how readily politicians forsake their oaths of office to keep their hold on power, argues Jacob Sullum, who says the bill is redundant and unconstitutional.

Assaults on police officers are already illegal in all 50 states, Sullum notes, and there is no reason to think local law enforcement agencies are reluctant to pursue such cases. In any case, the Constitution does not give Congress the authority to fight local crime, and the interstate angles mentioned by the bill are so oblique that they could justify federal prosecution of pretty much any assault (or attempted assault) on a cop. If the alleged assailant drove on an interstate highway or used a weapon produced in another state, for instance, that would be enough to make a federal case out of it.

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