Policy Institutes

Here is the first paragraph of an Associated Press story about the new House highway bill:

Despite years of warnings that the nation’s roads, bridges and transit systems are falling apart and will bring nightmarish congestion, the House on Thursday passed a six-year transportation bill that maintains the spending status quo.

Yet some of the government’s own data—as I cite here—shows that, rather than “falling apart,” the nation’s bridges and Interstate highways have steadily improved in quality over the past two decades.

I wish reporters would explore the data themselves, rather than just parroting what the transportation lobby groups say. I also wish they would use their imaginations a bit and realize that if bridges and highways were actually nightmarish and falling apart, then state and local governments—who own the bridges and highways—have the responsibility and full capability of fixing them themselves.

As for the “spending status quo,” that status quo has included steady increases over the past two decades. The chart shows total highway trust fund spending using Federal Highway Administration data for 1990 to 2014, and the Congressional Budget Office baseline projection for 2015 to 2021. The new House highway bill would spend this baseline amount over the next six years, while the Senate bill would spend somewhat more.

Drought is a common feature of climate; but every so often when a longer-lasting or somewhat severe drought occurs, it is not long before someone, somewhere, makes the claim that that drought was either caused or made worse by CO2-induced global warming. A simple test of this thesis can be conducted by examining the historic record of drought for the location in question. If it can be shown that similar (or greater) frequencies or magnitudes of drought have occurred in the past, prior to the modern increase in CO2, then it cannot be definitively concluded that the current drought is the product of anything other than natural climate variability.

Unfortunately, long-term historical drought records covering more than a few decades of time are lacking for most locations across the planet. As a result, scientists have sought to augment these short-term instrumental drought histories with much longer proxy records, records that will sometimes extend back in time several centuries to millennia. Such is the case in the recent study of Vance et al. (2015), who derived a 1,003-year proxy of historical drought in eastern Australia.

In recent years, concerns of a CO2-induced influence on drought in eastern Australia were magnified with the 1997-2009 occurrence of what has been called the “Big Dry” – the most persistent drought to envelop the region since the start of the 20th century. Noting that there is a scarcity of long-term drought records in the region and that “no high-resolution studies cover this era of Australian prehistory,” Vance et al. set out to produce “the first millennial-length Australian drought record.” In doing so, they utilized climate records from the Law Dome ice core in East Antarctica to reconstruct a 1,000 year record of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation that they then combined with an eastern Australian rainfall proxy (also derived from the Law Dome site) from which they were able to identify historic megadroughts (defined as more than 5 years of below average rainfall). The resultant record is presented in the figure below.

0.5 for both reconstructions) highlighted in blue banding. Bottom panel: Annual Law Dome summer sea-salt time series (grey), with 13 year Gaussian smooth (thick black) and drought periods (> 5 year duration, >0.5 for both IPO reconstructions) identified (orange banding). Source: Vance et al. (2015)." title="Top panel: Independent reconstructions of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation (blue = decision tree and red = piecewise linear derivation), with positive phases (>0.5 for both reconstructions) highlighted in blue banding. Bottom panel: Annual Law Dome summer sea-salt time series (grey), with 13 year Gaussian smooth (thick black) and drought periods (> 5 year duration, >0.5 for both IPO reconstructions) identified (orange banding). Source: Vance et al. (2015)." height="218" width="700">

Top panel: Independent reconstructions of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation (blue = decision tree and red = piecewise linear derivation), with positive phases (>0.5 for both reconstructions) highlighted in blue banding. Bottom panel: Annual Law Dome summer sea-salt time series (grey), with 13 year Gaussian smooth (thick black) and drought periods (> 5 year duration, >0.5 for both IPO reconstructions) identified (orange banding). Source: Vance et al. (2015).

As indicated by the orange shading in the figure, eight megadroughts are noted in the proxy record, the longest of which has “no modern analog.” Lasting 39 years (1174-1212 AD), this unparalleled drought was the exclamation point on a uniquely dry period in which 80 out of 111 concurrent years (over the period 1102-1212 AD) persisted in drought. The modern, or so-called “Big Dry,” by comparison, was judged by Vance et al. to be “far from an exceptional eastern Australian drought in the context of the past millennium.” And, as a result of this observation, the researchers conclude that water management in eastern Australia “needs to account for decadal-scale droughts being a normal feature of the hydrological cycle.” Indeed it should; and climate alarmists should take equal notice that there is no evidence to support the claim that CO2-induced global warming caused or enhanced the occurrence of the Big Dry.



Vance, T.R., Roberts, J.L., Plummer, C.T., Keim, A.S. and van Ommen, T.D. 2015. Interdecadal Pacific variability and eastern Australian megadroughts over the last millennium. Geophysical Research Letters 42: 129-137.


There was a time in America when the Left could be counted on to defend free speech. But as countless examples today demonstrate, those days are long gone. From campus speech codes to campaign finance to prosecutorial threats against climate change critics and more, the evidence is as fresh as this morning’s newspapers.

Campus assaults have been so well documented by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) that they need no elaboration here. But the latest campaign finance “reform”—“until the court reverses its decision in Citizens United”—can be found championed in an op-ed in this morning’s Washington Post by such stalwarts of the Left as Yale Law School’s Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayers. On Tuesday last, it seems, Seattle voters approved a measure that would “give” each registered voter a $100 “democracy voucher” that could be spent “for only one purpose—to support their favorite candidates for municipal office.” The city can of course “give” that $100 voucher only if it first “takes” the $100 from its taxpayers, which it will do in all the unequal ways that modern tax systems exhibit. Thus is the political speech of private individuals reduced by forcing the funds they might otherwise direct to candidates of their choice to be redirected through this public funding scheme to candidates they may oppose.

But that inroad on free speech pales in comparison to recent attacks on what most Americans would have thought were the free speech rights of climate skeptics, the RICO-ing of whom my colleague Walter Olson has been covering—along with the machinations of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. The latest from the latter is all over the papers today, the Post’s headline reading “Exxon investigated over climate change research.” The Left has already browbeaten Exxon Mobil into ending its funding for think tanks and advocacy organizations that express climate change skepticism. Now, however, it’s getting more serious, with Schneiderman issuing a subpoena that focuses, we’re told, “on whether Exxon Mobil intentionally clouded public debate about science and hid from investors the risks that climate change could pose to its business.” “Clouded?” What, a debate that is crystal clear? That of course is what the environmental establishment would like as to believe.

And circling back to the academy, so too, apparently, would one Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard University and a critic of Exxon who laments that we haven’t yet implemented a carbon tax. There are many reasons we haven’t, she tells the Post, but a significant one “is the role of Exxon Mobil and others in fomenting disinformation, undermining public support for such initiatives, and lobbying against policies that would have begun to decrease our fossil fuel dependency.” And this from a professor of the history of science, the annals of which are littered with the corpses of “settled science.” Clearly, if we don’t stop this speaking and lobbying, we could have one more corpse.

The Black Alliance for Education Options released the results of a new survey of black voters in four states on education policy. The poll found that more than six in ten blacks in Alabama, Louisiana, New Jersey, and Tennessee support school vouchers.


Source: BAEO Survey on Education Policy

The results are similar to Education Next’s 2015 survey, which found that 58 percent of blacks nationwide supported universal school vouchers and 66 percent supported vouchers for low-income families.

The survey also asked about black voters’ views on charter schools (about two-thirds support them), “parent choice” generally (three-quarters support it), and the importance of testing. However, it appears that BAEO is overinterpreting the findings on that last question, claiming:

The survey also indicated solid support among Black voters that believe educational standards such as Common Core and its related assessments is essential to holding education stakeholders responsible for student learning outcomes.

If the wording of the survey question was identical to how it appears on their website, then it says absolutely nothing about black support for Common Core. The question as it appears on their website is: “Do you think that testing is necessary to hold school accountable for student achievement?” The question doesn’t mention Common Core at all. For that matter, it doesn’t mention standardized testing specifically, nor explain how the testing is meant to “hold schools accountable.” Perhaps it means publishing the score results so parents will hold schools accountable. Or perhaps it means the state government will offer financial carrots or regulatory sticks. Or maybe it means whatever the survey respondent wants it to mean. 

Source: BAEO Survey on Education Policy

If Acme Snack Co. asked survey respondents, “Do you like snacks that are delicious and nutritious?” and then claimed “two-thirds of Americans enjoy delicious and nutritious snacks such as Acme Snack Co. snacks,” they would be guilty of false advertising. Maybe the survey respondents really do like Acme Snacks–or Common Core–but we can’t know that from that survey. Just as some people may enjoy carrots (delicious and nutritious) but find Acme Snacks revolting, lots of parents may support some measure of testing while opposing Common Core testing for any number of reasons.

BAEO’s question on vouchers was clear: “Do you support school vouchers/scholarships?” Yes, most blacks do. But its question on testing is much less clear, and therefore so are the results. All the BAEO survey tells us is that most blacks support using some sort of testing to hold schools accountable in some undefined way. Interpreting these results as support for Common Core is irresponsible.

After filmmaker Quentin Tarantino delivered an impassioned speech at a rally denouncing as “murder” some recent police uses of force against civilians, pro-police groups called for a boycott of his films.  So far, so dull. But now, according to the Hollywood Reporter, things have taken a new and remarkable turn. 

In a veiled threat, the largest police union in the country says it has a “surprise” in store for Quentin Tarantino.

Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, would not go into any detail about what is being cooked up for the Hollywood director, but he did tell THR: “We’ll be opportunistic.” 

Pasco specified that the “surprise” in question would be in addition to the standing call for a boycott. 

“Something is in the works, but the element of surprise is the most important element,” says Pasco. “Something could happen anytime between now and [the premiere]. And a lot of it is going to be driven by Tarantino, who is nothing if not predictable.

“The right time and place will come up and we’ll try to hurt him in the only way that seems to matter to him, and that’s economically,” says Pasco.

When asked if this was a threat, Pasco said no, at least not a physical threat.

Note well that last bit, which did not deny that the surprise might involve forms of on-the-job retaliation by Pasco’s members falling short of physical violence. Might it involve traffic problems at a Tarantino appearance? Asking patrons to state their business as they walk to a premiere? Simple failure to extend protection can accomplish a lot, as Padma Lakshmi discovered last year when police outside Boston failed to protect her from a vicious onslaught and tire-slashings when her crew tried to film a segment of Top Chef without a demanded union contingent. 

Like many others, I have taken positions adverse to FOP’s – opposing its call for attacks on police to be covered by the enhanced penalties of hate crime laws, for example, and criticizing the LEOBR laws that confer teacher-like tenure on errant cops. Perhaps from now on I too should worry about a “surprise” at the hands of police unionists who might, after finding my movements “predictable,” seize the “right time and place” to “try to hurt.”

Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake made a splash yesterday with their report on “paid patriotism.” The report shows that the National Guard and military services, in the name of marketing themselves to potential recruits, paid millions over the last several years to professional sports teams and a couple universities for on-field tributes to military personnel, which appeared to fans as unpaid expressions of affection. According the report:

These paid tributes included on-field color guard, enlistment and reenlistment ceremonies, performances of the national anthem, full-field flag details, ceremonial first pitches͕ and puck drops. The National Guard paid teams for the “opportunity” to sponsor military appreciation nights and to recognize its birthday. It paid the Buffalo Bills to sponsor its Salute to the Service game. DOD even paid teams for the “opportunity” to perform surprise welcome home promotions for troops returning from deployments and to recognize wounded warriors.

In other cases, it seems that a military marketing or promotional contract paid a lot of personnel to attend games without doing much of marketing value. They just wanted tickets.

Letters from Pentagon officials, appended to the report, ban these practices. A letter from Commissioner Roger Goodell of the National Football League, says that its teams will better differentiate what is and isn’t advertising and refund “inappropriate payments,” though what that includes is unclear. The NFL also included for the report a lengthy list of the unpaid troop tributes and pro-military acts of the NFL and its teams. Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association also say they’ll avoid paid tributes.

Besides the leagues, the major culprits here, in both ticket abuse and fake tributes, are the U.S. Air Force and Army National Guard from various states. The report never mentions the regular Army or the Marine Corps. The Navy comes up only once, due to the $24,000 that the Naval Supply Systems Command’s spent on Phillies tickets in both 2012 and 2014. It’s not clear why that purchase is in the report, given that the online contract says the goal is “social and recreational” purposes, not recruiting or promotions. Maybe that’s too much recreation on the taxpayer dime, but there is no misdirection, which seems to be report’s concern.

Some might wonder why paid tributes are so bad. As the Pentagon’s responses to Flake’s inquiries all note, advertising is a legitimate way for the military to recruit volunteers. Plus, it’s not as if fans received some sacred promise from the profit-making entertainment corporations—the teams— that they support not to blur the line between performance and advertising.

Still, there are a couple good reasons to be annoyed by paid tributes. First, it’s unclear that advertising during sports events, even the traditional, non-scandalous sort, is an efficient way to reach recruits. A Pentagon document appended to the report notes, reasonably, that professional sports broadcasts, especially football, reach much of the military target audience for recruiting. But, as the report notes, the Pentagon didn’t offer evidence that buying sports advertising or sponsorships to reach this audience is more cost-effective than alternative marketing strategies in generating recruits.

One likely reason for the military’s limited interest in the ostensible goal of this advertising is that it serves additional ends. Like the Air Force’s Thunderbirds and Navy’s Blue Angels air show units, the goal of military advertising arguably is public support or even awe. That’s conducive not only recruits but also to budgetary support and organizational health, sometimes at the expense of other public organizations. Because those aren’t necessarily kosher uses of tax dollars, it’s safer to say it’s all for recruiting.

If that misdirection is a problem, it’s a far more costly one than the one the report highlights. The press is mostly using the $6.8 million figure on the report’s cover as an estimate of spending on paid troop tributes from 2012 until 2015. Actually, it is unclear what the report means by that figure. But whatever the right amount, it’s a fraction of the $53 million that the Pentagon reports spending on marketing and advertising deals with sports teams over those three years. And that’s a drop in the bucket of the total marketing budget.  Maybe the Senators should broaden their scope.

The bigger reason to be offended by paid tributes is their particular brand of phoniness. Sneaky product placement is annoying. Getting paid to display your regard for military service is a more unseemly trick, a point Senator Flake made in interviews yesterday.

But weren’t displays a bit unseemly already? Uncompensated ballpark tributes do not lack for pretension. It is easy for public announcers to make fans stand and cheer by saying “heroes” during the seventh inning stretch or before kickoff, but hard to make them do so for the public reasons. The social patriotism produced for quick display in stadiums might not be much more legitimate than the paid kind. Maybe ballparks are a bad place to commemorate wars.

I hope everybody’s read my book The Libertarian Mind. Not to mention the companion volume The Libertarian Reader.

But for those who prefer listening or watching videos to reading, I’m excited to announce my new online Introduction to Libertarianism, the first of several Guides to libertarian ideas produced by Libertarianism.org. Each Guide will include an introductory video, a series of video lectures, and a featured book, along with additional reading lists, essays, and links to other materials. Here’s a peek:

Coming soon: Guides on such topics as economics, political philosophy, and public policy, generally with a short original book to accompany the videos. For the Introduction to Libertarianism, the accompanying book is The Libertarian Mind. The 14 short lectures – 10 to 20 minutes each – track the sections of the book:

The Early Roots of Libertarianism

The Classical Liberal Era

The Modern Libertarian Revival

What Rights Do We Have?

The Dignity of the Individual

Pluralism and Toleration

Law and the Constitution

Civil Society

Networks of Trust

The Market Process

The Seen and the Unseen and International Trade

What Big Government Is All About

Public Choice

The Obsolete State

My colleagues at Libertarianism.org and I have tried to create the best available introduction to libertarianism here in 2015. And by the way, even though it’s called “Introduction,” I think almost any libertarian will find some new and interesting material in both the lectures and The Libertarian Mind.

Read the book! And check out the video lectures at Libertarianism.org. 

The Washington Post today discusses how presidential candidate Donald Trump is dismissing the need for major entitlement reforms. The paper noted, “… leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump railed against proposals to end or significantly change Medicare.”

Trump said, “You can’t get rid of Medicare. It’d be a horrible thing to get rid of. It actually works. You get rid of the fraud, waste and abuse — it works.”

Mr. Trump seems sure that it’s easy to fix Washington with tough talk and a little elbow grease. I admire his confidence, but he needs to do his homework on the entitlement programs.

Because the Obama administration has buried its head in the sand on the entitlement crisis, the next administration will face very ugly budget projections when it comes into office in 2017. The chart below shows the explosive CBO projections for the three largest entitlements. Over the next two presidential terms, spending is expected to grow 62 percent on Social Security, 73 percent on Medicare, and 45 percent on Medicaid.

Without needed cuts, Social Security will become a $1 trillion program in 2018, and Medicare will top $1 trillion by 2022. These programs are only “working” to put the next generation of taxpayers into the poor house.

As for “fraud, waste and abuse” in the health programs, the cause is same as the cause of the explosive growth. That is, the open-ended and top-down structure of the programs that funnels vast funds to doctors and hospitals. The way to slow the rapid growth and cut the waste is to move to a system of consumer-driven health care based on individual vouchers, savings, and competition.

I have a piece running in the Federalist this week on the notion that presidential candidates should campaign “joyfully,” as Jeb Bush ever more desperately insists that he is. It’s not clear why we’re supposed to want joyful candidates, but that seems to be the prevailing norm. Hardly a week goes by without reporters needling the contestants: are you having fun yet? I wrote the column before former Senator Fred Thompson passed away on Sunday, but it occurred to me that his failed 2008 run is a perfect illustration of how perverse the cult of campaign-trail positivity has become. 

By almost any measure, Thompson had a full life: a Watergate Committee counsel whose questioning revealed the existence of the White House tapes; U.S. senator from Tennessee; “Law and Order,” “The Hunt for Red October,” “Die Hard 2.” But his short-lived presidential campaign isn’t part of the highlight reel. The Tenneseean put it gently in their obituary: “Mr. Thompson underwhelmed” in his 2008 bid. The press was harsher when Thompson dropped out of the race. “You must show an interest in running for the most powerful office in the world to gain that office,” John Dickerson scolded in Slatebut “The press copies of his daily schedule always looked like they’d been handed out with a couple of the pages missing. The candidate seemed like he might just show up for events in sweatpants.” “As his hopes cratered,” Politico chided, “the former Tennessee senator increasingly voiced his displeasure with a process he plainly loathed. Thompson’s stump speech became mostly a bitter expression of grievance against what was expected of him or any White House hopeful.” Ha: what a weird old grouch! I mean, the guy’s an actor, and he still couldn’t fake it! What’s wrong with him?

And yet, earlier generations of Americans would have viewed Thompson’s reticence as reassuring. As the political scientist Richard J. Ellis explained in an insightful 2003 article, “The Joy of Power: Changing Conceptions of the Presidential Office,” early American political culture took it as self-evident that anyone who seemed to relish the idea of wielding power over others couldn’t be trusted with it. “Presidential candidates largely stayed home in dignified silence,” he wrote, “ready to serve if called by the people….Distrusting demagoguery and tyranny, the dutiful presidency demanded dignity, reserve and self-denial from its presidents.”

By the mid-20th century, those cultural expectations had been upended, replaced with a demand for happy warriors with fire in their bellies and joy in their hearts. Changes in the nomination process reinforced the new norms, increasingly favoring boundless ambition and stamina. Campaigning for president “was something I didn’t do well,” Thompson himself reflected in 2014, “You have to about want it more than you want life itself.” But it’s worth asking: what sort of person wants the job that badly? And, are we sure we want that sort of person for the job?

As I wrote in the Federalist:

A latter-day Cincinnatus might put down his plow in the hour of his country’s need; he’s not going to sign up for a two-year ultramarathon of pleading with high-dollar donors, glad-handing his way through primary states, and saying things no intelligent person could possibly believe. Instead, we get the sort of person who wants presidential power badly enough to do what it takes to get it, 16 hours a day, feigning joy all the while.

At least, we should hope it’s feigned. Anyone who approaches “the process” with genuine joy in his heart is a maniac who should be kept as far away from “kill lists” and nuclear weapons as possible.

Years later, one of Thompson’s former aides said he’d have been “a great president, if he didn’t have to campaign for it.” I don’t know about the “great president” bit. I’m increasingly unsure that such a creature is possible. But Thompson’s inability to feign enthusiasm for the process spoke well of him. It suggested that he was psychologically healthy and normal. Those qualities are ruthlessly winnowed out by the modern presidential race, which rewards those with an unhealthy appetite for presidential power and glory. You’ve got to want it to win it, and they want it more. 

So, Dr. Craig Venter, the genius who first sequenced the human genome, is at it again. This time, he has created artificial life. Does the man ever sleep? Anyhow, here is the latest installment in my innovation-that-you-might-have-missed series. Included you will find news on the 3D-printing of a human heart, pain management, a new electric battery breakthrough and my personal favorite—sideways elevators!

Researchers Now Capable Of 3D-Printing a Human Heart Using Organic Materials

A recent breakthrough in bio-printing technology may allow for the creation of human hearts. A research team at Carnegie Mellon used a consumer printer to create a heart out of organic material. While 3D-printing has previously been used to solve a lot of different problems, it had, until now, built things out of plastic and metal—inorganic materials that don’t necessarily adapt well to the human body.  Hopefully, further progress of this sort in bio-printing tech will revolutionize the treatment of tissue damage and organ failure.

New Foam Batteries Promise Faster Charging, Higher Capacity

Despite billions of dollars spent on investment, innovation in batteries has lagged relative to other technologies. However, a growing number of researchers are looking at three-dimensional batteries that tend to have porous, sponge-like structures, as opposed to the traditional “2-D” form (i.e., thin layers of metal in a liquid electrolyte solution inside a box). A recent startup, called Prieto Battery, claims to have succeeded in producing a 3-D battery that would be cheaper to make, faster to charge, safer, smaller, and less environmentally toxic than conventional batteries. Prieto’s innovation increases the battery surface area, thereby reducing the distance that the ions have to travel, thus increasing both power and energy density. While the first applications of these new batteries will be limited to small wearable systems and consumer electronics, they could eventually spread to cars, and one day, even grid-scale storage systems.

Scientists Discover How to “Turn Off” Pain

Researchers have discovered that people who suffer from chronic pain (e.g., arthritis) develop more receptors that respond to opiate pain relief. Having extra receptors makes the body more resistant to pain—both by using our bodies’ natural painkillers, endorphins, and through prescribed opiates such as morphine. Put differently, people who regularly underwent physical pain, such as arthritis sufferers as well as those who exercised regularly, were more resistant to pain due to their brains’ increased opiate receptor density. Increasing the receptor density may, therefore, hold the key to more effective pain relief treatment.

Skype Founders Invent Self-Driving Robot That Can Deliver Groceries For $1.50

Through the company Starship, the cofounders of Skype have created a robot that can deliver groceries five to fifteen times cheaper than current delivery services. These robots are able to autonomously drive at a speed of 4 mph and carry 20 lbs. worth of groceries, while recharging at hubs that are in close proximity to grocery stores. However, human operators have the ability to take control of the robot at anytime. Starship claims that a delivery will only take 30 minutes and cost £1 ($1.50). They hope to have the robots on the market in 2016.

The Sideways Elevators of the Future Will be Shown Off for the First Time

As more of the world’s population moves to urban areas, the demand for elevator technology will grow. To answer the call, ThyssenKrupp AG has created a ten meter tall elevator prototype that uses magnetic levitation instead of the traditional steel cable system. This technology allows for the vertical and horizontal movement of elevator cars, while also having multiple cars in the same shaft. The technology is not fully developed, but in the future it could rival the contemporary elevator system.

Craig Venter Creates Life for the First Time in Laboratory

Dr. Craig Venter has recently created artificial life by injecting a synthetic chromosome into an empty cell where it proceeded to multiply, which is the very definition of basic life. Compared to the synthetic life form, human DNA has roughly forty times as many genes and three-thousand times as many base pairs or “rungs” on the DNA ladder. Future uses of synthetic life could range anywhere from new vaccines for fighting disease to finding new energy sources.

It’s not often that a regulatory policy analyst correctly predicts a pop culture development a decade out, so…

Back in the spring of 2005, law professor Christopher Yoo (then at Vanderbilt, now at Penn) argued in Regulation that the Federal Communications Commission should liberalize its “structural regulations”—controls on such things as how the broadcast spectrum can be used, cable TV rates, ownership of different media outlets in a geograpic market, etc. He explained that those controls limit the diversity of voices and programming in mass media, making it mainstream-directed, because such programming is most profitable under those rules.

About the time his article appeared, the now-defunct UPN Network announced its cancellation of the series Star Trek: Enterprise, the most recent TV installment of the Star Trek franchise. The reason was low ratings; Trek fans are fervant and typically middle to upper class, but they were not a big enough market segment for UPN and its desired advertisers. However, those characteristics made the fans an ideal market for a paying-subscriber-supported Star Trek—something that Yoo’s reforms would have allowed, but FCC regulations prohibit.

Seeing the news hook, Yoo and I wrote an op-ed for the San Francisco Examiner explaining all this and concluding

Hopefully, if the “Star Trek” series gets yet another revival, it will be in a mass communications environment where niche shows have a better chance to live long and prosper.

Unfortunately, the FCC hasn’t adopted the reforms we envisioned (if anything, going in the opposite direction). But human innovation—both in technology and business—often finds ways around government barriers.

This week, the CBS Network announced that a new Star Trek series will launch in January 2017, exclusively on CBS’s Internet-delivered subscriber service All Access. The move will attempt to do exactly what Yoo and I foresaw: tap the Trek fanbase to see if it is a viable market for the show.

It can’t be said that CBS is boldly going where no one has gone before. Cable and satellite services, premium channels like HBO and Starz, and streaming services like Hulu and Netflix have already entered the final frontier of subscriber-supported content, delivering high-quality but niche-audience new programming such as original series Game of Thrones and House of Cards, as well as network-cancelled series like The Mindy Project. They can do this, in part, because they can escape many of the FCC’s diversity-dampening regulations—for now at least. 

Unfortunately, the FCC hovers as menacingly as a Romulan starship, as evidenced by the recently adopted net neutrality regulations. Still, let’s hope that CBS’s new venture lives long and prospers.

The solution to this giant mess

is this reform plan.

Before he launched his presidential campaign, Jeb Bush released his emails from his eight years as governor. Now he’s released a 700-page book of selected emails. According to Amazon’s search function, I’m not in the book. But I did have a brief exchange with Governor Bush in 2003. As a libertarian, I wasn’t convinced by his argument. But I was impressed that the governor personally answered an email that I didn’t even send to him but rather to a member of his press staff. Governor Bush announced the creation of the Governor’s Task Force on the Obesity Epidemic, with such goals as:

  1. Recommend ways to promote the recognition of overweight and obesity as a major public health problem in Florida that also has serious implications for Florida’s economic prosperity;
  2. Review data and other research to determine the number of Florida’s children who are overweight or at risk of becoming overweight;
  3. Identify the contributing factors to the increasing burden of overweight and obesity in Florida;
  4. Recommend ways to help Floridians balance healthy eating with regular physical activity to achieve and maintain a healthy or healthier body weight;
  5. Identify and research evidenced-based strategies to promote lifelong physical activity and lifelong healthful nutrition, and to assist those who are already overweight or obese to maintain healthy lifestyles;
  6. Identify effective and culturally appropriate interventions to prevent and treat overweight and obesity;

When the announcement of this task force reached my inbox, courtesy of the governor’s office press list, I had this exchange (read from the bottom):

From: Jeb Bush [mailto:jeb [at] jeb.org]
Sent: Thursday, October 16, 2003 8:05 PM
To: David Boaz
Cc: jill.bratina [at] myflorida.com
Subject: FW: Executive Order Number 03-196

David, the reason for this is that obesity creates huge costs to government. If you believe in limited government, you should support initiatives that reduce it. I know you believe that it is not the role of government to deal with these demands, which I respect, but until you win the day, we need to respond to the challenge.


—–Original Message—–
From: David Boaz [mailto:dboaz [at] cato.org]
Sent: Wednesday, October 15, 2003 10:30 AM
To: DiPietre, Jacob
Subject: RE: Executive Order Number 03-196

Why is what I eat any of the government’s business? This is the very definition of big government.

—–Original Message—–
From: DiPietre, Jacob [mailto:Jacob.DiPietre [at] MyFlorida.com]
Sent: Wednesday, October 15, 2003 10:21 AM
Subject: Executive Order Number 03-196

DATE: October 15, 2003
TO: Capital Press Corps
FROM: Jill Bratina, Governor’s Communications Director
RE: Executive Order Number 03-196
Please find attached an Executive Order creating the Governor’s Task Force on the Obesity Epidemic.

As I said, I wasn’t persuaded. I’ve written that obesity is not in fact a public health problem. It may be a widespread health problem, but you can’t catch obesity from doorknobs or molecules in the air. And the idea that our personal choices impose costs on government, through semi-socialized medicine and similar programs, has no good stopping point. If obesity is the government’s business, then so are smoking, salt intake, motorcycle riding, insufficient sleep, cooking all the nutrients out of vegetables, and an endless stream of potentially sub-optimal decisions. (I was going to include drinking whole milk, but … well, you know.)

I’m glad to note that last month Jeb Bush said that a federally developed anti-obesity video game, “Mommio,” was a waste of “scarce resources.” Maybe he’s coming around.

The overwhelming conclusion of the best research on school choice is that students who receive scholarships to attend the school of their choice perform as well or better on achievement tests on average and are more likely to graduate high school and go to college. The positive effects are particularly found among low-income and minority populations that are presently the most choice deprived.

The only way opponents of school choice get around this inconvenient truth is by ignoring it, which they do with great persistence. They are frequently aided in their willful ignorance by dubious “reports” that claim to evaluate the evidence while inexplicably leaving out numerous gold standard studies by researchers at top universities. The latest such “report” comes from the Center for Public Education, which Professor James Shuls of the University of Missouri-St. Louis methodically exposed over at the Show-Me Institute’s blog

Recently, the Center for Public Education, an arm of the National School Boards Association, released a report on the merits of school choice. The paper claims to summarize “what the research says.” Interestingly, the report fails to include almost every analysis that has found benefits to private school choice programs.

When Anna Egalite, an assistant professor of educational leadership, policy, and human development at North Carolina State University, conducted a systematic review of the competitive effects of private school choice programs, she found 21 studies. She concluded that the results “unanimously find positive impacts on student achievement. Such overwhelming evidence supports the development of market-based schooling policies as a means to increase student achievement in traditional public schools.” Interestingly, the Center for Public Education did not cite any of these studies.

Similarly, there have been 12 random-assignment studies of voucher programs. These are considered the “gold-standard” in social science research because they are the best at determining causality. Eleven of the 12 studies have found positive effects from voucher programs. The Center for Public Education review only cites one of these studies.

The report cites plenty of useful statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics and other sources, but does not even attempt to cite the plethora of useful research on school choice programs.

Nevertheless, the report does get at least one thing right—private school choice tends to boost graduation rates.  This was highlighted in the evaluation of the Washington D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, which showed a 21 percentage point increase in the graduation rate for voucher users.

Not surprisingly, given that they neglect to cite any of the ample evidence showing that school choice succeeds, the Center’s conclusion is that “In general, we find that school choices work for some students sometimes, are worse for some students sometimes, and are usually no better or worse than traditional public schools.”

The Center for Public Education does not explain what criteria it used to determine which studies to include in its supposed review of the research on school choice. Hopefully they will respond to Prof. Shuls’ critique by issuing a revised report that is more transparent and thorough–but don’t hold your breath.

By nearly a 2 to 1 margin, Ohio’s Issue 3 has failed. It may be just as well. Jacob Sullum writes at Reason:

[I]t’s not clear whether the rejection of Issue 3 reflects general resistance to legalization or opposition to the initiative’s most controversial feature: a cannabis cultivation cartel that would have limited commercial production to 10 sites controlled by the initiative’s financial backers. The ballot description highlighted that aspect of the initiative, saying Issue 3 “grants a monopoly for the commercial production and sale of marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes” and would “endow exclusive rights for commercial marijuana growth, cultivation, and extraction to self-designated landowners who own ten predetermined parcels of land.”

This is nothing like the model that prevailed in Colorado, and that seems to be working well so far.

Establishing a permanent commercial pot cartel has no clear public policy rationale. It appears rather to have been an instance of shameless self-dealing by individuals who hoped to extract rents based on the public’s anxiety about change. Even – and I don’t say this lightly – even a state monopoly on commercial sales might have been better, in that the rents would have gone to a public purpose, rather than to some well-connected speculators, who ought not to profit from a law written specifically to favor them. Indeed, such laws are not properly called laws at all; they are privileges – private laws, rather than public ones, and as such they come under grave suspicion.

The problem, then, is not corporatization. Love it or hate it, we’re neck deep in corporatization already. Few would object to it now, I would think, particularly given that Issue 3’s backers did (grudgingly) relent and allow personal cultivation. The trouble is not corporatization; it’s when only a self-selected handful of corporations even get a chance to enter the market, and when all others are excluded by law forever, presumably by means of the same awful Drug War apparatus we’ve always known.

What should a legal marijuana market look like? It’s a little early to tell. Colorado’s experiment is still developing, and its market may not yet be mature. What’s called for is flexibility in business design, as well as rapid response by state governments to any genuine problems that might arise. (Will they? Maybe!) We don’t really know what consumers are going to want yet, including whether that may vary regionally or over time, and what negative externalities their choices might or might not produce. Establishing a cartel would have been exactly the wrong move.

In a recent The Hill piece on the REAL ID debate in New Hampshire, I wrote about the complaint against federal legislators who cease representing their states in Washington, D.C., and start representing Washington, D.C., in their states.

That seems to be happening in New Mexico, where four of five members of the congressional delegation are at best standing by worrying about a Department of Homeland Security attack on their state. At worst, they are lobbying the state legislature to cede authority over driver licensing to the federal government.

The DHS is pushing New Mexico toward compliance with REAL ID, the national ID law, by saying that it will not offer another extension of the deadline for compliance. The statutory deadline passed seven years ago and no state is in compliance. No state will be in 2016. The national ID law is as unworkable as it is weak as a security tool.

But U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D) and Martin Heinrich (D), and Representatives Ben Ray Luján (D) and Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) had this to say in a joint statement:

Our offices remain in close contact with DHS and it is clear from our conversations that the state legislature and the governor must take action to ensure New Mexicans can continue to access federal facilities and airports in the months to come.

It’s not the New Mexico delegation calling the shots in Washington, D.C. It’s Ted Sobel of the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of State-Issued Identification Support. According to Government Technology, he confirmed Friday that New Mexico’s practice of issuing licenses to qualified drivers without reference to their immigration status is the reason why DHS has mounted this attack on New Mexico.

That’s a good state policy, though, treating driver’s licenses simply as a license to drive. And it’s the policy New Mexico has chosen. I can imagine New Mexicans being nonplussed to learn that their congressional delegation is “in close contact” with the federal bureaucrats attacking their state’s policies and authority.

A Santa Fe New Mexican editorial calling for state compliance is too conciliatory and wrong in its conclusion, but it says of REAL ID, “It likely won’t increase security but does add to the bureaucratic hurdles citizens and state governments face. Another solution to New Mexico’s problem would be for Congress to repeal the law.”

Another solution indeed. Perhaps the paper should urge the congressional delegation to defend the interests of New Mexico and New Mexicans by defunding and repealing the national ID law.

Presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have proposed value-added taxes (VATs) as part of their tax reform plans.

I critique these taxes in National Review today, arguing that they could become engines of big government growth.

Cruz and Paul are champions of small government, and so their embrace of VATs is unfortunate, and also potentially dangerous.

Dangerous because VATs are probably the only way that liberals would be able to fund the huge projected growth in unreformed entitlement programs in coming years.

In a worse-case scenario under the current tax system, liberals would succeed in hiking income taxes, but they wouldn’t be able to seize much more money because the income tax base is so mobile in today’s global economy. The corporate income tax, for example, is a complex and damaging tax, but it is not capable of raising the government any more revenue than it already does.

But in a worst-case scenario under a Cruz or Paul VAT, the government would be able to confiscate far more money as the VAT rate were jacked up over time. It is no coincidence that Western European governments—with their VATs—collect substantially higher revenues as a share of GDP than we do.

In a best-case scenario, reformers like Cruz and Paul will lead the charge to cut entitlements and enact a simpler, lower, pro-growth tax code. But we have to consider how liberals will work to hijack new tax structures and try to drive us in the opposite direction.

Cruz and Paul are heroes for their battles against the GOP establishment on overspending and other issues. But I fear their tax plans would not move us in the small-government direction they want to go in over the long run.

This morning, I saw a TV ad for Lasik eye surgery and that got me wondering, “What’s happened to the price of Lasik since I had my procedure 10 years ago?” We hear a lot about the rising cost of healthcare. (By the way, how is that Obamacare working out for you?) But, what about elective medical procedures – you know, the ones that patients pay for themselves? And so I called the ophthalmologist who performed my Lasik operation (with superb results, I might add) to find out the details.    Back in 2005, he charged $3,500 for fixing nearsightedness and astigmatism in both eyes, or $4,264 in 2015 dollars. Today, he charges $3,000. That amounts to a real price reduction of 30 percent. In the meantime, average hourly earnings of production and nonsupervisory employees (a close approximation to the quintessential “blue collar worker”), rose from $15.91 in January 2005 to $20.80 in January 2015. So, an ordinary American needed to work for 220 hours to afford a Lasik surgery in 2005. S/he needs to work 144 hours to afford the same procedure today. That’s a 35 percent decrease in terms of work time.   And, as my doctor reminded me, the price was not the only thing that has changed. Lasik machines today are significantly more precise, achieving 20/20 vision with greater regularity for nearsightedness, farsightedness and astigmatism. They are much safer and disastrous complications, such as the loss of sight, have become even rarer (i.e., Lasik has been a very safe procedure for a very long time). The doctors performing the operation are more experienced and the screening of potentially problematic patients has improved.    Candidly, my doctor has admitted that the prices could come down even more. One reason for Lasik prices being what they are is that only ophthalmologists are allowed to perform Lasik operations. Optometrists, however, are banned. And, of course, there is immigration, which makes it super difficult for foreign doctors to work in the United States.   Still, relative to 10 years ago, today a prospective Lasik patient enjoys the benefits of better and safer machines, and a price/time reduction of 35 percent. Not bad, not bad at all. Please visit HumanProgress and search for “cost of cosmetic procedures” to see how other elective medical procedures have become cheaper over time.  


Back in 2002, Stephen Ware wrote a policy analysis for Cato entitled “Arbitration Under Assault: Trial Lawyers Lead the Charge.” That assault – endorsed by the New York Times in a two-part series that is getting some attention – depends crucially on both an attack on freedom of contract and a refusal to take seriously what consumers vote for with their marketplace choices.

As has come to be widely acknowledged in recent years, most class action litigation over consumer financial claims goes on for the benefit of lawyers. It produces scanty benefits for customers but does drive up the costs of providing common services, which is passed along in the form of higher fees and rates. Given a chance, as a result, almost every company will seek to draft “fine print” substituting low-cost, relatively fast arbitration for forms of litigation whose transactional cost greatly exceeds the value to customers of eventual relief given. Even where there is strong competition in a market (among affluent credit card users, for example), it is exceedingly rare for consumers to switch accounts because one provider shunts claims into arbitration while another invites class action litigation.

What does this signify about consumer preferences? Consumers willingly switch all the time from one airline loyalty card to another in quest of better miles-and-points rewards, baggage allowances, pre-boarding policies, and so forth – but not to avoid arbitration policies. Why not? To the experts the Times prefers to speak to – and as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce points out, every single judge and law professor the Times spoke to was hostile to arbitration, which is hardly true of the universe of all distinguished law professors and judges  – it must be inattention or false consciousness; consumers don’t realize that they’ve giving up terribly valuable rights. The other possibility is that consumers rationally place little before-the-fact value on a future benefit that is expensive to provide and mostly pays off for the lawyers who – as Daniel Fisher points out – mostly manage to stay in the background of the Times piece. 

I’ve got more on the story at Overlawyered this morning, where I’ve been covering the Litigation Lobby’s war on arbitration since I launched the site in 1999.  Other Cato legal scholars have agreed with a Supreme Court majority (but not with the Times) that the role of the government is ordinarily to enforce, not substitute its judgment for, clearly worded private contracts generating terms announced and known to the parties.  And I’ll give the last word for the moment to blogger Coyote, writing about a recent California anti-arbitration bill so extreme that even liberal Gov. Jerry Brown saw fit to veto it: “Here is how you should think about this proposed law: Attorneys are the taxi cartels, and arbitration is Uber. And the incumbents want their competitor banned.”

The Arizona Republic and the Associated Press (AP) used Cato’s recent work to highlight the failure of E-Verify to turn off the jobs magnet that attracts unauthorized immigrants to the United States. Arizona has a shaky record on immigration enforcement, despite its laws and reputation to the contrary. Maricopa County Attorney’s Office has had zero E-Verify related cases since 2010 and the state Attorney General’s office has failed to update a list of E-Verify compliant businesses since at least 2012 – a requirement under state law.

Other states’ recent experiences also point to problems with E-Verify.

In Ohio, an unauthorized worker at a dairy company was charged on October 20th with identity fraud, after having been discovered to be using the Social Security number of a (legal) Arizona resident.  The fraud only came to light after the Arizonan discovered that his Social Security number was being used in Ohio. The fraud was not discovered by the routine E-Verify check that the unauthorized Ohio worker underwent in 2013. E-Verify confirmed the worker, who was utilizing the stolen SSN and fraudulently obtained documents based off of said number, as work-authorized and legal. The use of a valid number and fraudulent (but on the surface valid) documents by migrants is a problem with E-Verify that we’ve highlighted in the past.

California passed legislation to prevent employer misuse of E-Verify. Their law effectively duplicates federal restrictions on re-verification of employees, bars selective verification (targeting certain applicants over others), punishes use of E-Verify as an interview screening tool, and imposes a $10,000 fine for misuse. The intent of the new law is positive but it will be impossible to enforce. 

Finally, a controversial immigration bill has become law in North Carolina (I wrote about this in May). The new law lowers the threshold for mandated E-Verify to businesses with five or more employees, limits the types of identification that migrants can present (effectively banning use of Mexican consular identification cards), and prevents local and county governments from adopting so-called “sanctuary city” policies.

E-Verify imposes an economic cost on American workers and employers, does little to halt unlawful immigration because it fails to turn off the “jobs magnet,” and is an expansionary threat to American liberties.  During the housing collapse and Great Recession, Arizona enacted the Legal Arizona Workers Act (LAWA), which mandated E-Verify for all new hires in the states.  In its early days, E-Verify had a reputation of effectiveness that, combined with the crashing economy, resulted in a large exodus of unlawful immigrants from Arizona.  After the economic recovery and E-Verify’s flaws were made clear, subsequent states like Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina have had far less success in using E-Verify to decrease the numbers of unauthorized immigrants in their states.  E-Verify’s bark was worse than its bite.   

This post was written with the help of Scott Platton