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Updated: 2017-02-22T00:00:00-05:00

 



Fake News, Misleading News, Click-Bait and the Media's Biases

2017-02-22T00:01:00-05:00

"Fake News!" shouts our president, calling out CNN, The New York Times and others. I love it. Although it's not really true—not the way President Donald Trump means it. The media rarely "fake" anything. Over time, they generally get the facts correct. But the president makes a good point: The smug lamestream media spin left but won't admit it. At ABC News, my colleagues acted as if I was the only guy in the building with an opinion. Everyone else was "in the middle." This was nonsense. Almost all were leftists. They constantly pushed big government. Their bias was revealed in questions they asked, the "experts" they chose to interview and their endless calls for political correctness and new regulation. Unfortunately, Trump is now just as ridiculous, claiming that "crime is reaching record levels" when it's half what it was 25 years ago. He claimed, "We had a very smooth rollout of the travel ban," and that he had "the biggest electoral college win since Reagan," and so on. This is absurd. Facts are facts. Trump shouldn't make things up. But I still love his "Fake!" tweets because much of what media spew is misleading. I did it myself. On 20/20, my consumer reports covered exploding coffee pots and risks posed by pesticides used on lawns. ("Danger in the Grass!") These weren't lies. A few personal injury lawyers did have clients injured by coffee pots. One man's skin peeled off after he played golf on a freshly sprayed course. The injuries were horrible. But in terms of consumer protection, this "news" was irrelevant and misleading. It's a big country. Rare and horrible things happen. I wised up eventually, realizing that those threats distract people from real threats, like driving in the rain, drinking too much, smoking, etc. But my peers continue to terrify people about trivial or nonexistent threats from power lines, hair dye, saccharin, NutraSweet, Teflon pans, electric blankets, computer terminals, cellphones, "killer" bees and more. They win awards for it. In 1999, the media said planes would crash because computers couldn't handle the switch to the year 2000. Now they claim global warming will drown us if we don't honor meaningless climate treaties. They imply that polar bears are vanishing, although scientists studying 13 polar bear populations found "12 stable/increasing and one declining." Friday, Trump varied his attack, calling The New York Times, NBC, ABC, CBS and CNN "the enemy of the American people." Enemy? Maybe Trump said that because he's a narcissist who thinks he is "the American people" and the media run antagonistic headlines like: "Doomsday Clock Ticks 30 Seconds Closer to Global Annihilation Thanks to Trump, Scientists Say" - NBCNews.com "...Trump will Destroy the Environment..." - The Intercept "Trump Will Destroy Public Education If We Let Him" - Huffington Post op-ed "Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?" - New York Times "How Trump's Speech to the CIA Endangered America" - The Atlantic These claims are a mix of opinion and click-bait. All are possible. Trump could be the infantile, petulant authoritarian some of us fear. Terrible things may happen. But they haven't yet, and much of what's written deserves the label "fake news." The press is depressingly shallow. They blow up little things, speculate about conspiracies and constantly obsess about "who's winning?" Offensive remarks are taken out of context and amplified. Days later, it's forgotten and the media move on to the next sensational accusation. They rarely explain the policies at stake, what those policies cost, past success or failure or the laws of economics. As a result, we miss the real news: the big, important changes that happen slowly. Remember the coverage of the beginning of the women's movement, the invention of the computer chip, Google, Facebook, etc.? No? That's because there wasn't any. But the growth of Facebook alone changed lives more than the election of any politician. Wages rise—inflation-adjusted household income rose $7,000 over the last 30 years. But the media claim that the middle class and[...]



The NEA Today, Entitlements Tomorrow

2017-02-22T00:01:00-05:00

Robert Redford says an Office of Management and Budget memo suggesting the Trump administration might try to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts is "another example of our democracy being threatened." The actor, director, and independent-film booster explains that "arts are essential" because "they describe and critique our society." Democracy probably would survive the demise of the NEA, which was created in 1965 and accounts for a tiny share of arts funding in the United States. But by the same token, getting rid of the NEA would have a negligible impact on federal spending, and there are strong reasons to doubt that the president's commitment to fiscal restraint goes beyond such gestures. Grants from the NEA and every other federal agency that funds the arts account for about 1 percent of revenue received by not-for-profit museums and performing arts groups in the U.S. So even if we arbitrarily exclude money-making enterprises from "the arts," the describing and critiquing of society that Redford values hardly depend on federal largess—a good thing, since it seems unwise to make this subversive function contingent on the good will of politicians. The NEA's fiscal significance is even slighter: Its $146 million budget amounts to 0.004 percent of federal spending. If we throw in the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—two other culture-related targets on the OMB's hit list that are favorite targets of conservatives—we are talking about 0.02 percent of federal spending, a barely perceptible bit of skin from a small potato. According to The New York Times, which reported the highlights of the OMB memo last week, most of the targets have budgets of less than $500 million, "a pittance for a government that is projected to spend about $4 trillion this year." But judging from the examples cited by the Times, the programs on the OMB's list deserve to be zeroed out, since they are either unnecessary (e.g., AmeriCorps, Bill Clinton's attempt to co-opt and take credit for local volunteer work) or positively pernicious (e.g., the Export-Import Bank, which subsidizes deals by big corporations like Boeing, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which tries to put a happy face on the government's immoral war against consumers of arbitrarily proscribed intoxicants). Whether these proposed cuts are a sign of seriousness or the opposite will depend on the Trump administration's approach to big-ticket items. Fortunately, the newly confirmed director of the OMB, former South Carolina congressman Mick Mulvaney, is a fiscal conservative who understands the need for entitlement reform, favors restraint on military spending, and takes a dim view of the grand infrastructure initiatives that Democrats tend to push. Unfortunately, Mulvaney's boss disagrees with him on each of these points. During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump promised to leave Medicare and Social Security alone, expand an already bloated military budget, and spend as much as $1 trillion on infrastructure improvements. "I have to imagine that the president knew what he was getting when he asked me to fill this role," Mulvaney told the Senate Budget Committee during a confirmation hearing last month. But he added that "I have no reason to believe that the president has changed his mind from the statements he made during the campaign." Will Mulvaney go along with the fiscal recklessness signaled by Trump's campaign promises, or will he persuade the president to change his positions? The response to Mulvaney's nomination from supporters of Trump's gratuitous military buildup (which seems inconsistent with the president's complaint that our armed forces already do too much) does not bode well. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has never met a military intervention he did not like, voted against Mulvaney's confirmation, calling him "anti-defense" and accusing him of "pitting the national debt against our military." But no other Republican in the Senate, including hawk[...]



Trump's Fake News Attack on Sweden, Immigrants, and Crime

2017-02-21T15:45:00-05:00

Is it really safe for you to return to Sweden, asked an American friend, jokingly, when I prepared to check out from my hotel in Washington, D.C. President Donald Trump had just warned his audience in Melbourne, Florida, about Muslim immigrants and terrorism in Europe. "You look at what happened last night in Sweden" the president yelled, "Sweden! Who would believe this!" Swedes took to social media to speculate about which awful event he referred to. An aged pop star had technical problems during rehearsal for a popular music contest, observed someone. Another Swede tweeted that out of respect for the families of victims we should not speculate about the terrible event until after it actually occurs. #lastnightinsweden quickly became a meme. Soon Trump took to Twitter to admit that he was not referring to something that happened in Sweden last night, but something that happened on Fox News last night. Tucker Carlson had interviewed Ami Horowitz about a documentary claiming that Muslim refugees were the cause of an "incredible surge in violence" in Sweden. This short segment was so full of distortions that it could be used as exhibit A for Trump's claim that the media peddles fake news. A Swedish policeman who was interviewed for the documentary claimed that Horowitz edited the footage to make it seem like he answered other questions, making it seem like the officer warned about refugees when the officer did not. The officer referred to Horowitz as "a madman." According to Ami Horowitz, "it was not long ago that the first Islamist terrorist attack occurred in the country." In fact, the only known attempt was in December 2010, more than six years ago (and no one was harmed but the attacker). But Trump's defenders have countered by arguing that violent crime has risen dramatically in Sweden since the surge of refugees began arriving in 2014. Swedish crime, you see, is not about Swedish crime any more. It's about the risk posed by Muslims and refugees. But if crime is rising dramatically, that phenomenon would not just be picked up by Fox News and Breitbart, but also by crime statistics. So what does the data say? Yes, immigrants to Sweden do commit more crimes than people born in Sweden, in contrast to countries like the United States, where immigrants commit less crime than the native-born. That's partly because refugees to Sweden are much poorer and less educated, and because they have a much harder time finding a job. The Swedish economy has been liberalized over the last two decades, but we've made exceptions for the labor market, which still makes it difficult to work and easy to claim welfare. There has also been an increase in organized crime in recent years. In a country with harsh drug laws, gangs fight over who gets to sell cannabis in specific territories. Large-scale immigration has contributed since new entrants want a piece of the pie. And yet the data fail to record the incredible surge in violence that Trump's defenders talk about. The homicide rate is almost exactly what it was a decade ago, despite the gang wars. The latest Swedish Crime Survey, from the Swedish Council for Crime Prevention, shows that the population exposed to assault has declined by 0.7 percentage point in the last 10 years, and offenses against the person in general "is approximately the same level as in 2005"—almost a decade before the surge of refugees. But isn't Sweden the rape capital of the world, as members of the alt-right constantly point out? Sure, Sweden has more registered sex offenses than other countries. But the willingness to report such crimes differs dramatically between countries. A culture where you talk openly about such crimes, and don't blame the victims, will also have more cases reported. Sweden has made a conscious effort to get women to report any offense, whereas countries like Saudi Arabia and Mozambique do everything to stop women from reporting. (They have almost no offenses. Fabulous!) Sweden differs from other countries in two more ways[...]



The Year 2000 Would've Been More Futuristic With Fewer Regulations

2017-02-21T07:00:00-05:00

Recently, a friend of mine came across a copy of a 1959 issue of Modern Man, an American quarterly magazine that was published between 1951 and 1967. The article that caught his attention, and which he shared with me via email, tried to imagine the life of an ordinary person in the year 2000. "Most scientists," the author of the article averred, "agree that the year 2000 will compare to 1960 as 1960 compares to 1660." In the morning, a person will step into a "wheelless car that rides on air… piloted by radar… huge, transparent plastic domes… [will] cover large sections of the great urban areas from New York to San Francisco, thus affording every advantage of the outdoors without being exposed to wind and cold. And the average life span in the United States will be 110 years… By necessity [i.e., overpopulation], the great cities will be rebuilt on two or three levels. Streetcars, buses and taxis will be as rare as flying reptiles, with conveyor belts replacing sidewalks." It goes on. As readers of Reason know, the future is very difficult to predict. That's especially important in relation to our policy makers, who should be strongly discouraged from flights of fancy. Remember those 5 million "green jobs" that our former commander in chief of the economy promised to create in order to "stimulate job growth" and America's transition to green energy? In the event, it was fossil fuel fracking, not green energy, which helped to lower the price of oil, revived the U.S. economy and secured Barack Obama's reelection. Scientific agreements about the future are to be taken with a pinch of salt—something that the sage of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue refused to appreciate. Obama's successor, unfortunately, appears to suffer from similar delusions. Unlike Obama, who saw America's economic future in "green jobs," Donald Trump sees America's economic future in the kind of manufacturing jobs—cars and air conditioners—that the 1950s readers of Modern Man would recognize. It's bad enough to know that we are being ruled by wannabe clairvoyants, but it gets worse. Say what you will about the silly scribbling of the 1950s futurologists, it is undeniable that they were, in spite of the nuclear Armageddon hanging over their heads like the Sword of Damocles, infused with can-do optimism. (When was it the last time you watched an optimistic movie about the future?) And why not? The first half of the 20th century was filled with technological wonders. In 1903, for example, the Wright brothers had amazed the world by staying in the air (10 feet above the ground) for nearly a minute. By 1959, an artificial satellite was circling the earth. Was it really all that crazy to think that by 2000, there would be a human colony on the moon? And that brings me back to policy making. During the 2016 Republican National Convention, Peter Thiel noted that when he was a child, "Opportunity was everywhere." "America," he continued, "was high tech. It's hard to remember this, but our government was once high tech, too. When I moved to Cleveland, defense research was laying the foundations for the internet. The Apollo program was just about to put a man on the moon—and it was Neil Armstrong, from right here in Ohio. The future felt limitless. But today our government is broken. Our nuclear bases still use floppy disks. Our newest fighter jets can't even fly in the rain… Instead of going to Mars, we have invaded the Middle East." Thiel believes that American optimism and technological progress were throttled by overbearing regulation and out-of-control bureaucracy. If Trump focuses his energies on dismantling the regulatory state, rather than mandating who should make the steel pipes for the Keystone and Dakota pipelines, he may yet do America a lot of good. [...]



Cell Blocks Aren't Psych Wards

2017-02-21T06:00:00-05:00

In April 2015, Jamycheal Mitchell, 24, was accused of stealing $5 worth of snacks from a convenience store. A Virginia judge ordered Mitchell, who had been prescribed schizophrenia medication, to be sent to a psychiatric hospital, but there were no open hospital beds, so he was put behind bars instead.

Five months later, Mitchell was found dead in his cell at the Hampton Roads jail, 36 pounds lighter and lying in a urine-soaked bed, according to his family.

In December, the Justice Department launched an investigation into civil rights violations in that facility. "All prisoners, including those with mental illness, have a constitutional right to receive necessary medical care, treatment and services," Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said in a statement.

If the Justice Department intends to hold jails and prisons to those standards, it has many more cases to launch. Across the country, the mentally ill are routinely shoved into cells and denied proper care.

An investigation by the Sun Sentinel in Florida found the Broward County jail's contracted health care provider "left severely mentally ill inmates unmedicated and malnourished, despite having the authority to help them." Seven inmates have committed suicide or suffered extreme weight loss while in isolation at the jail since 2010, the newspaper reported.

There have also been four deaths just since April 2016 in the Milwaukee County jail, run by Sheriff David Clarke—reportedly on Donald Trump's shortlist for Homeland Security chief. One of those inmates was a mentally ill man who died of "profound dehydration."

A Huffington Post investigation found there were more than 800 jail deaths across the country, most of them unreported, from July 2015 to July 2016. About a third of those were suicides.

Ask any corrections official or beat cop, and he'll tell you the system arrests and holds the same troubled people over and over. Even with the best of intentions, using jails to house the mentally ill is a bad policy. When standards are lacking or staffers don't care about their wards, it can be a deadly one as well.

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Virginia's 2017 Governor's Race Will Make Trump-Clinton Look Dull

2017-02-20T12:00:00-05:00

If you have been moping around at home for the past few months, barely able to stir from the couch because you are so despondent over the lack of excitement in politics these days—well, cheer up. Relief is on the way. In about nine months Virginians will go to the polls to elect a new governor. If the contest sustains its current trajectory, it will make the Trump-Clinton contest look duller than a chess match in an old folks' home. We'll be able to thank both Republicans and Democrats for that, but at the moment the GOP has the first claim on the public's gratitude. This is owing in no small measure to Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of Supervisors and immigrant-basher extraordinaire. Stewart is the kind of guy who responds to Donald Trump's most outlandish behavior with: "Not bad. Now hold my beer and watch this." He launched his campaign by raffling off an AR-15. Nothing wrong with the AR-15, mind you, it's the most popular long gun in the United States. Still, the raffle is the sort of move that appeals chiefly to men with "Molon labe" stickers on the backs of their pickups. Legend has it that this phrase ("come and take them") is how the Spartans responded when Persia demanded they surrender their weapons. (As stories about Sparta go that one is excellent, but this one—of which there are several variations—is better: After invading Greece, Philip of Macedon sent a message to Sparta: "You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city." Sparta's response: "If.") More recently, Stewart lit into Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney for reiterating the city's longstanding policy about the police demanding to know people's immigration status (they don't). "Brazen lawlessness," Stewart declared. He also invaded Charlottesville to defend the honor of Robert E. Lee after the city council decided to move a statue of him. "Only tyrants attempt to erase history," he fumed. Nobody was trying to erase anything, of course—just move a statue from A to B. But Stewart got some mileage out of the line, and then got some more after he was jeered by excitable liberals. "The radical left-wing 'PC Police' are waging an all-out war against Virginia's heritage and history," he declared in an email. "I believe it's time to take a stand. Right here—right now!" In case you're confused, here's the short version: Immigration police good; PC police bad. Hope that helps. Across the aisle the Democrats are having a whale of a good time, too. Just as in last year's presidential election, they expected their heir apparent to the nomination—in this case, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam—to cruise to the coronation by unanimous consent. Then Tom Perriello threw a wrench into the works. Or upset the apple cart, or whatever it is people do these days. (Note to self: Find Hipster, request advice regarding correct idiom.) Perriello served one term in Congress but lost his re-election bid. The Obama administration savagely punished him for doing so by naming him to lead the State Department's 2015 Quadrennial Diplomacy & Development Review and then Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Why Perriello didn't file an Eighth Amendment challenge to this is a colossal mystery. In Congress, Perriello—who represented a fairly conservative district—stayed close to the middle of the road. He opposed an assault-weapons ban, supported a proposal to deny Obamacare subsidies to insurance plans that cover abortion, and supported offshore drilling for fossil fuels. Gun control, abortion rights and climate change are pretty much the Holy Trinity of Democratic politics, and now that he has started a primary fight Periello has renounced his apostasy and returned to the One True Faith. He even throws around terms like "intersectionality," which is the secret password that [...]



Trump's Strange Coziness With the Kremlin

2017-02-20T00:01:00-05:00

Donald Trump assured Americans Thursday that he is not acting in covert concert with Vladimir Putin. "I have nothing to do with Russia," he said during his news conference, insisting, "The whole Russian thing, that's a ruse." Those statements followed the firing of his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, after it was reported that Flynn had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his pre-inauguration phone conversations with the Russian ambassador. Flynn's deception was notable because it suggested he had something to hide. When BuzzFeed published a secret dossier on Trump that contained all sorts of disturbing allegations, the fear was that the Russian strongman had the means to blackmail the incoming president. But the salacious bits were so outlandish that they discredited the entire story. Given his record, the fact that Trump denies something automatically raises strong suspicions that it's true. Maybe it's not. But here's the crucial question: If Trump were in fact being directed by Putin, would he be doing anything different from what he has done? Trump has taken a friendlier and more optimistic view of the regime in Moscow than anyone in American politics. As a candidate, he welcomed Russia's military intervention in Syria on behalf of a vicious dictator. He said he would consider recognizing Russia's seizure of Crimea and lifting the sanctions imposed in response to it. He bragged that Putin had called him "brilliant," and he extolled Putin as a stronger leader than Barack Obama. He invited the Russians to hack into Hillary Clinton's email. It's already hard to remember how bizarre this once would have seemed for any American politician—particularly a Republican and particularly a president. Distrust of Russia has been a bone-deep instinct among Republicans since Warren G. Harding's day. One of their most durable themes was that they were tougher and less gullible about Russia than the Democrats. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan made their names as implacable foes of Soviet communism. Trump had nothing obvious to gain during the campaign from offering a rosy view of Putin. The voters who proved decisive to his victory—working-class whites, particularly men—had no history of affection for the Kremlin; just the opposite. There is nothing in conservative ideology that argues for overlooking the human rights abuses and state-dominated economy that characterize Putin's country; again, nothing could be less compatible. If a Democratic candidate had taken a similar posture five, 20, or 50 years ago, Republicans would have vilified him as a cowardly appeaser. Nor does Trump's indulgent posture serve any obvious American interest. The United States doesn't help itself by excusing Putin's aggression against Ukraine, which could lead him to destabilize other pro-Western nations on his borders. Weakening NATO likewise would reduce our influence in Europe while ceding leverage to Russia. The Trump record goes beyond mere statements. The New York Times recently reported that phone records indicate members of his campaign team "had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election." Trump has denied it, but Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov confirmed the campaign was in regular communication with his government. U.S. intelligence agencies say the Kremlin was behind the hacking of computers at the Democratic National Committee. Flynn had been a regular guest on Putin's TV propaganda organ, RT. Trump's first campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, had done an abundance of business in Russia. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson got the Order of Friendship medal from Putin. And we know very little about Trump's personal business interests in Russia—which Donald Jr. once said were significant—because he won't release his tax returns. He made it plain Thursday that he was angrier at the press for re[...]



Big Brother in the U.K.

2017-02-19T06:00:00-05:00

The United Kingdom's Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority is not part of an agency tasked with fighting terrorism. It's a licensing body that "regulates businesses who provide workers to the fresh produce supply chain and horticulture industry, to make sure they meet the employment standards required by law," according to its mission statement. Nevertheless, under a new mass surveillance law, high-ranking officials in this agency will have as much access to the private internet information of British citizens as agencies that actually do fight terrorism. So will officials in the U.K.'s Department of Health, its Food Standards Agency, and its Gambling Commission, along with dozens of other government bodies. This is the outcome of the recent passage of the Investigatory Powers Act, also known by critics as the Snooper's Charter. The surveillance bill was hammered out after whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that several Western governments were spying on their own citizens. The U.K.'s response was to codify mass surveillance into law rather than to scale it back. Initially crafted in 2013, the law was pushed hard by Theresa May when she was Secretary of State for the Home Department (the U.K.'s national security and policing oversight office). Back then, Parliament resisted it due to the broadness of surveillance powers it granted. In the wake of the successful Brexit vote and resignation of former Prime Minister David Cameron in July, however, May took the helm of the government, and the Act followed her into power. The bill passed both houses of the British Parliament and was approved by the queen in November. It became law at the start of 2017. By requiring Internet Service Providers to keep all metadata and the basic web browsing histories of users for 12 months, the Investigatory Powers Act creates a trove of information accessible to many within the government. May had defended the legislation by invoking the need to fight terrorism. She also told members of Parliament that since a judge has to approve an order to snoop on or hack into a computer, there are "robust and consistent safeguards" in place—no need to worry. But the over-300-page law allows top officials of myriad government agencies to demand access to private information to fight any sort of crime, not just terrorism. It also contains rules on how to get a warrant to access confidential information stored by journalists, including a reporter's sources. Meanwhile, it creates special protections for members of Parliament: Officials have to meet a higher bar before snooping on them. Prior to the bill's passage, tech leaders and privacy activists argued with the Act's proponents over the right to encryption. Surveillance supporters wanted the authority to demand that companies like Apple and creators of messaging tools like WhatsApp build in secret "back doors" that would allow officials to snoop on suspects. Opponents replied by warning that there's no such thing as a back door that can only be accessed by authorized government representatives. Such encryption bypasses necessarily make people's information vulnerable to hackers. After the massive bill passed, analysts combed through it to see what had really changed. The law doesn't formally "mandate" that smartphones and messaging services have back doors. But it does create a "technical capability notice" giving U.K. officials the authority to demand changes to these products. And one of the things they're allowed to demand is the removal, upon request, of any "electronic protection" concealing users' communications or data. This means that private companies could be forced to break their own encryption to help the government access data. The law even authorizes such demands to be made on tech companies based outside the country if they do business within the United Kingdom. What's more, it prohibi[...]



Umbrellas: The iPhones of the Victorian Age

2017-02-19T06:00:00-05:00

Big cities are great places if you're looking for work, stimulation, love, or a new life. But the density that fosters excitement and opportunity also erodes security and identity. Amid the crush of strangers, a single person can feel violated or insignificant. So city dwellers are quick to adopt any technology suitable for carving out personal space in public.

Before the smartphone or the hoodie, the iPod or the Walkman—even before the automobile—that technology was the umbrella. It gave its bearer space and a semblance of privacy. Like the smartphone and the music player, it also provided ample material for humorists, social critics, and arbiters of manners.

In 1891, an anonymous Chicago Daily Tribune columnist called the umbrella "worse than a Gatling." Average women, the writer declared, "have not yet learned to carry umbrellas and parasols in a manner satisfactory to the unarmed pedestrian with a selfish interest in the preservation of life and limb." These deadly weapons weren't today's spring-loaded compacts but big models along the lines of golf umbrellas. Carried at an angle under the arm, they jabbed anyone who got too close.

Even while mocking the umbrella's propensity to take out the knees and ribs of innocent pedestrians, the columnist acknowledged the device's important social functions. "Women rely upon it to get them through crowds, to make uncomfortable the possessors of smarter bonnets than their own, to shield themselves from too inquisitive eyes, and to defend themselves from insult if they happen to be belated without other escort," he wrote.

A closed umbrella made a handy walking stick or prop while standing. An open umbrella was a screen against prying eyes. Lovers used them to create intimate spaces as they walked together or reclined in parks or on beaches. When Mississippi banned shades and screens on the windows of saloons, in an effort to shame drinkers, bar patrons began shielding themselves with open umbrellas.

"A man taking a drink at a bar under an umbrella is certainly not an example of conviviality," wrote a New York Times reporter in 1892, "and a row of men at bars retiring with their respective drinks under their several umbrellas, like so many inedible fungi of enormous size, present, one would suppose, a picture of the horrors of intemperance more dismal than was ever drawn by the late and ophidian [temperance crusader] John B. Gough." A judge ruled the subterfuge illegal: An umbrella constituted a screen under the law.

The most telling attack on the umbrella came in Edward Bellamy's utopian novel Looking Backward: 1887–2000, published in 1888. A monster bestseller, it told the story of a man who awakens in the year 2000 to find Boston transformed into a paradise of collectivist planning. When it rains, a continuous waterproof canopy encloses the sidewalk, so no one needs an umbrella. The wise old man representing the author's views opines that "the difference between the age of individualism and that of concert was well characterized by the fact that, in the nineteenth century, when it rained, the people of Boston put up three hundred thousand umbrellas over as many heads, and in the twentieth century they put up one umbrella over all the heads."

Like the automobile later on, the umbrella offended those who imagined a more efficient mass system. They saw it only as a way to keep out the rain. But the umbrella served psychological purposes as well. On the crowded streets of the 19th century, it gave individuals a way to assert autonomy and control—to enjoy the public while preserving the private.

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Reforming Our Awful Medicaid Program Requires Massive Doses of Political Courage

2017-02-18T10:00:00-05:00

Medicaid is arguably the civilized world's worst health insurance program. And while the bulk of the commentarati has been fixated on reforming Obamacare's exchanges, the far bigger political challenge will be dealing with the law's expansion of Medicaid. Even before Obamacare was foisted on an unwilling nation, this joint federal and state program had become firmly entrenched in every state because Uncle Sam on average gives states 50 cents for every dollar they spend on purchasing health coverage for the poor. Because of this federal largesse and incentive to spend, Medicaid has grown astronomically, becoming the single biggest ticket item on virtually every state budget. But it's not just expensive — it provides lousy coverage, too! Unfortunately, instead of fixing this terribly flawed program, President Obama essentially money-bombed states into expanding it even further. He offered to pick up 100 percent of the tab for the first three years for every additional person they covered up to 138 percent of the poverty level. After that, he'd taper it to 90 percent in perpetuity. Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia accepted the offer. But 19 states refused. Liberals will tell you that these GOP-run states are helmed by heartless monsters who don't care about the health of poor people. But the truth is that they just didn't want to be left holding the bag in case Uncle Sam reneged on Obama's unsustainable promise. Of the 16.6 millions previously uninsured Americans who obtained ObamaCare coverage between December 2013 and September 2016, only a net of 2.8 million did so via private coverage, according to Heritage Foundation's Edmund F. Haislmaier. The balance — a whopping 13.8 million — got it through Medicaid and its companion program for children, called CHIP. In total, Medicaid now covers almost 75 million Americans. And even before ObamaCare took effect, Medicaid paid for almost half of all births in America. That is stunning — and it's a number that has surely grown post-Obamacare. Medicaid's massive footprint would be acceptable if the program offered quality care at affordable prices. But it doesn't. The combined annual cost of the program now exceeds half a trillion dollars (with the feds' share at 63 percent and states' at 37 percent) — which adds up to roughly $7,000 for every man, woman, and child covered by the program. This is on par with the costs for private coverage. But do Medicaid recipients get comparable service? Far from it. Several reputable studies have found that Medicaid patients experience no better health outcomes than uninsured people, and arguably even slightly worse outcomes. But the most stunning of all was a 2013 study on Oregon's Medicaid program co-authored by ObamaCare architect Jonathan Gruber of MIT. By luck, it was the closest thing in real life to a controlled experiment. Here's what happened: Thanks to a budget crunch, Oregon was forced to rely on a lottery to distribute Medicaid coverage to 30,000 out of 90,000 applicants. These people were similar in every essential respect except that some got Medicaid and others didn't. Gruber compared the health outcomes of both groups and concluded that Medicaid "generated no significant improvement in measured physical outcomes" for diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and even mortality rates. (Medicaid patients did report better mental health outcomes.) Liberals claim that repealing ObamaCare will kill people. But at least as far as ObamaCare's Medicaid component is concerned, the opposite might in fact be closer to the truth. Nor is it hard to understand why. Medicaid reimburses doctors so poorly that providers literally shun recipients. This means that Medicaid patients face far longer wait times to see primary care doctors, specialists, or get surgery.[...]



Deregulation of Local Foods Is a Winning Idea That's Spreading

2017-02-18T08:00:00-05:00

Newly proposed legislation in Montana and California could loosen restrictions on millions of small food entrepreneurs in those states. In Montana, the Local Food Choice Act would "allow for the sale and consumption of homemade food and food products and... encourage the expansion of agricultural sales by ranches, farms, and home-based producers" in the state. The law would exempt those who make and sell such foods directly to consumers from mandatory licensing, permitting, packaging, labeling, inspection, and other requirements. The law doesn't exempt those who don't sell food directly to consumers—as in the case of those who sell to restaurants or grocers—or to those who sell food across state lines. "Eating what we choose should never be a crime," said State Rep. Greg Hertz (R), as he introduced the bill last month. Indeed, Hertz's bill would effectively legalize in Montana what is now a crime there and in almost every state: the act of selling something as basic as homemade cheese dip or pickles to your neighbor. Hertz's Local Food Choice Act is fashioned after Wyoming's groundbreaking Food Freedom Act, first-in-the-nation legislation passed two years ago that deregulated many direct-to-consumer food sales within the state. As I detailed here, Colorado passed a similar law last year. Other states have also considered similar measures. In California, a bill introduced this week by Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia (D), the Homemade Food Operations Act, "would allow home cooks to sell hot, prepared foods directly to customers." The California bill isn't as ambitious as those adopted in Wyoming and Colorado or that proposed in Montana—it still contains requirements for sanitation, training, and permitting—but it's a giant leap in the right direction. "Many of my constituents have expressed their concerns and frustrations trying to work in compliance with the existing, overly complicated cottage food laws," said Assemblyman Garcia in a statement announcing the bill, referencing the state's overly restrictive cottage food laws. Not surprisingly, all this talk of deregulating local food sales has some people nervous. State and local health officials in Montana, for example, have spoken out against the state bill, claiming it could lead to a rise in cases of foodborne illness. "Every state that looks at setting their local food economy free inevitably finds food police lining up with statistics on how freedom of choice is a danger," said Wyoming State Rep. Lindholm (R), who sponsored the Food Freedom Act in his state, in an email to me this week. "These individuals, bureaucrats, and industry associations all espouse their merits as to being defenders of ignorant consumers that cannot be trusted to make their own decisions as to what is best for their family." I asked Lindholm if there's been any uptick in foodborne illnesses in Wyoming since the law's passage. "Wyoming has seen the exact opposite that these do gooders predict," Lindholm tells me. "Wyoming[']s local food options have exploded and we still have had 0 foodborne illness outbreaks due to this Act passing into law." I've chuckled while hearing more than one overly cautious eater tell me they'd never eat food that was prepared in an uninspected home kitchen. Everyone should be free to avoid such food if they want, of course. But keep in mind that your own home kitchen isn't inspected. Your parents' kitchen and your grandparents' kitchen weren't inspected, either. Your friends' and relatives' kitchens aren't inspected. The baked goods you took to school to sell to other kids as part of a bake sale (or that you send with your own kids to school today) haven't earned any government seal of approval. Avoiding all foods save for those prepared in an inspected kitchen means dining out at [...]



Why Customers Like Check Cashers and Payday Lenders

2017-02-18T06:00:00-05:00

The Unbanking of America: How the New Middle Class Survives, by Lisa Servon, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 272 pages, $27 My parents opened my first savings account for me when I was seven," Lisa Servon writes at the beginning of The Unbanking of America: How the New Middle Class Survives. "The teller gave me a green Pulaski [Savings and Loan] passbook with gold lettering. It made me feel important, like I'd crossed some threshold and joined a club that bigger kids and grownups got to be a part of." Clearly nostalgic for her rite of passage, Servon, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania, sets out to discover why that experience has become alien to so many modern Americans, and what practices and services they've adopted to replace banks in meeting their financial needs. She speaks with experts, entrepreneurs, and people trying to make ends meet, and she even takes jobs at a check-cashing store and a payday loan business. She concludes that banks as currently constituted aren't a good choice for everybody, and that many alternatives—including some options widely reviled by pundits and politicians—do a better job of serving many people's needs. The numbers of Americans who either don't have bank accounts (the "unbanked") or use them sparingly alongside alternative financial services (the "underbanked") can be startling if you were raised on bank robber Willie Sutton's apparently apocryphal wisdom that "that's where the money is." "As of 2013, the year of the [Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation's] most recent survey, approximately 8 percent of Americans were unbanked and another 20 percent were underbanked," notes Servon. The 2015 survey, released after her book was written, finds nearly identical numbers, but alienation from the banking system is even more remarkable in some major communities. In 2015, the Albuquerque Journal found that 11 percent of area households had no bank accounts, while 24.4 percent kept one account while also using alternative services. Likewise, in 2015 The Kansas City Star reported that 12 percent of local households—and 45 percent of local African-American families—completely avoided banks. Why do so many Americans shun the institutions traditionally devoted to saving and loaning money? The answer, many people tell Servon, is that banks don't seem to want their business and make it too difficult and expensive to get anything done. "Banks want one customer with a million dollars," the owner of one check-cashing chain tells her. "Check cashers like us want a million customers with one dollar." The check-cashing magnate has a clear interest in portraying his business in a populist way, especially given the criticism his industry faces from such politicians as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) and such activist organizations as the Public Interest Research Group. But as Servon learns, people who use such services seem to agree with that description. Check cashers and payday lenders may charge seemingly high fees, but they're knowable fees. "Customers can find it difficult to predict when banks will charge them a fee (they sometimes change the timing) and what the amount of the fee will be; this lack of clarity can be costly," Servon writes. "Now imagine the interior of a check casher—or visit one. It resembles a fast food restaurant more than a bank. Posters tell you what products are sold, and large signs above the teller windows list every product, along with its price." Alternative services come with clear costs—and they move fast. Somebody facing bills needs a paycheck cashed now, not after an arbitrary delay while the check clears. Unpaid rent or unpurchased groceries are bigger concerns than a few dollars in fees. Also, those fees aren't[...]



Why Government Funding Hurts PBS and NPR

2017-02-17T15:20:00-05:00

If the federal government were to cut off funding for public broadcasting, the programs that so many of us cherish not only wouldn't disappear, they would have a better chance of surviving long into the future. In 1967, President Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act, establishing a system of government subsidies that hasn't changed that much in fifty years. The lion-share of federal money was allocated—not to pay directly for programming—but to go to independent public television and radio stations that were established in every corner of a vast nation. Their main purpose has always been to distribute national content to their local communities. About 70 percent of government funding went directly the local stations in 1967. Fifty years later, that formula hasn't changed much. When the Public Broadcasting Act became law, maintaining a network of regional stations was the only way to insure that every American household had access to public television and radio content. Today, this decentralized system isn't necessary because it's possible to stream or download NPR or PBS content from anywhere in the world. As audiences moves online, the regional stations supported by the federal government are becoming unnecessary. It's not just that these stations have become a waste of taxpayer money—they also present an obstacle to online distribution. The advent of podcasting, for example, was a singular opportunity for NPR to capitalize big on a new way of distributing its rich content. Today, NPR publishes several of the top podcasts, but in a concession to the stations, it forbids show hosts from promoting podcasts on the radio or from even mentioning NPR's popular smartphone app. Station opposition is also the reason that podcast listeners can't download episodes of NPR's two top programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Recently, some of public radio's most talented show hosts and producers have gone to work for private podcasting ventures. One reason to leave, says former-NPR reporter Adam Davidson, is that podcasters "have a creative freedom that NPR's institutional frictions simply can't allow." The fact is that without federal subsidies, the programs themselves could thrive. About 40 percent of funding for public television comes from private contributions (individuals, foundations, and businesses). For public radio, it's about 60 percent. Without the massive overhead cost of 1,400 local public radio and television stations, that revenue would more than cover the cost of producing the programs and then distributing them for free online. And yet fans of PBS and NPR might ultimately be even better served if they were to privatize and charge a monthly subscription fee—moving in the same direction as the rest of the media. (In this scenario, the PBS stations that produce national content, such as WNET and WGBH, would become production companies.) Either way, ending federal funding not only won't destroy the only thing that's worth saving about public broadcasting. It could very well be its salvation. (Disclosure: I was a producer at WNET, the PBS flagship station in New York City, from 2002 to 2009.) -------------- Produced by Jim Epstein; production assistance from Ian Keyser. Subscribe to our YouTube channel. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. Subscribe to our podcast at iTunes. [...]



Great Balls of Fire, Sun Records Puts on a Show

2017-02-17T15:00:00-05:00

The Good Fight. CBS. Sunday, February 19, 8 p.m. Sun Records. CMT. Thursday, February 23, 10 p.m. "All rock 'n' roll came out of Sun Records!" declares Jerry Lee Lewis in the opening moments of CMT's bopping new miniseries. Like a lot of things in Sun Records, it's not quite true, but you'll be too busy dancing to care. Sun Records rocks! Filling out the early-1950s birth certificate of rock 'n' roll is no easy task. Did the water break in Chicago, where Chuck Berry was underlining his tone poems about the lives of an emerging demographic, the teenagers, with a jangling guitar? Or Philadelphia, where Bill Haley was punching up western swing music with machine-gun saxophone lines? Or West Texas, where Buddy Holly's nerd glasses distracted parents from his ragged cries to their kids to rave on? Memphis, perched just above the Mississippi Delta at a strategic spot where icy bluesmen and hillbilly shouters were bound to collide, has as good a claim as any of them. And Sam Phillips, owner of the corner-store Sun Records, if not the father of rock 'n' roll, was surely its midwife. Phillips in 1951 cut what is perhaps the first rock 'n' roll record, Jackie Brenston's Rocket 88 (though fans of Wynonie Harris' 1949 Good Rockin' Tonight will argue the point unto death and beyond). He discovered and signed Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins, then eventually lost them all because his mom-and-pop business instincts never rose to the epic level of his artistic vision. Three generations past the rise of rock 'n' roll, the thrill of its rise—the most exciting cultural revolution in American history—is in danger of being forgotten in an age of fans who don't know who Paul McCartney or Wings are, much less that he was in a band before that. But Sun Records is more than up to the task of its tale. The 10-episode miniseries starts out in 1951, just as Phillips is turning away from a successful career as a radio-station engineer to concentrate on his bandbox recording studio. Moving away from his bread-and-butter business of taping funerals and weddings, Phillips starts encouraging musical acts he spots in the down-and-dirty clubs along Beale Street, the main artery of Memphis' black nightlife. But his efforts are met with relentless hostility by record distributors, radio stations, parents and even his own wife. "I swear I heard the heavens open up," he exclaims as he plays his newest record for his wife. Sniffs she: "Sounds like the gate to Hell to me." Intercut with Phillips' story in Memphis are scenes of simmering discontent from a restless post-war generation. In rural Arkansas, a teenage Johnny Cash is trying to escape not only the fields where his parents sharecrop, but the dead-end schools where the three R's are reading, writing and the road to Detroit in hopes of a job on an automobile assembly line. In Louisiana, an adolescent Jerry Lee Lewis and his priapic-TV-evangelist-to-be cousin Jimmy Swaggart are sneaking into whorehouses to ogle the girls and, in the process, inadvertently picking up a thing or two about jump-blues piano. Back in a public-housing project, shy high-school kid Elvis Presley's cultural tourism is taking the opposite direction: He's slipping away from sermons at his own church to listen to the gospel singing at a black congregation on the other side of town. And in Nashville, Presley's soon-to-be manager, carny barker Tom Parker, has hustled his way from a gig with nickel-a-peek dancing ducks ("You shoot 'em! You eat 'em! You chase 'em around the yard! You see 'em in the pool! But you ain't never seen 'em dance!") to promoting country crooner Eddy Arnold. The backdrops to the inexorable march of these char[...]



Oroville Dam Threatens Valley After Warnings Ignored Long Ago

2017-02-17T00:01:00-05:00

A Sacramento Bee story published Monday succinctly described the disaster unfolding at the nation's tallest dam, where flaws in the Oroville Dam's concrete spillway are forcing water onto the earthen emergency spillway. Threats of a spillway collapse led to mandatory evacuations throughout Butte, Yuba and Sutter counties last Sunday, although residents have since been allowed to return home. "Oroville Dam contains a flaw, some critics assert, one that could damage the structure during a major flood and threaten downstream communities," according to the Bee. "That flaw is the dam's emergency spillway, which empties onto a bare dirt hillside adjacent to the earthen-fill dam." The torrent of water could erode the unprotected hillside, undermine the emergency spillway's foundation and lead to a catastrophic failure. The amazing thing is that the news report was first published Nov. 27, 2005. The Bee's Monday publication was a reprint, given the relevance of the report nearly a dozen years later. It provides necessary context after another news organization revealed that three environmental groups at the time had urged state and federal officials to line the emergency spillway with concrete to avoid the kind of problems on display this week. A dozen years ago, the dam was going through a 50-year relicensing process with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The Friends of the River, the Sierra Club and the South Yuba Citizens League argued in their filings that the 1960s-era dam "did not meet modern safety standards because in the event of extreme rain and flooding, fast-rising water would overwhelm the main concrete spillway" and threaten flooding in communities down river, according to the Mercury News, which broke the story this week. State and federal officials brushed off the suggestion at the time, arguing that the likelihood of such an event was slim and that it would be too costly to complete those improvements. The dam received its relicensing and the matter faded away. State water officials have been consumed more by drought issues than flood possibilities in the ensuing dozen years. But given the accuracy of the environmental groups' predictions, it's worth taking a deeper look at what happened. At a news conference near Lake Oroville Monday, "the state's top water officials brushed aside questions" about that old report and didn't address assurances from a top state water official in 2005 that "(o)ur facilities, including the spillway, are safe during any conceivable flood event," according to the latest Bee report. The news story revealed another troubling piece of the puzzle: Congress had authorized the construction of a smaller dam on the Yuba River near Marysville, which is down river from Oroville. The Oroville Dam's operating plan was predicated, in part, on the construction of this other dam, which would take pressure off the larger facility. But it was never built. In the view of critics, this serves as a touchstone for much that is wrong with California's water policy. Former Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a Republican from San Bernardino County, criticized Gov. Jerry Brown (D) for spending so much time defying the new Trump administration "that it forgot to do the things government is supposed to do, like maintain infrastructure." The seven years of drought that preceded this rainy season, he added, would have been an ideal time to fix decrepit levees and dams but the Brown administration was more focused on building a $68-billion high-speed rail line, dealing with immigration issues and boosting public-employee compensation. That's a harsh assessment, but there's much evidence to support the theory of ongoing state n[...]



Why the Resistance Is the Best Thing That's Happened to President Trump

2017-02-17T00:01:00-05:00

Sure, it matters that President Donald Trump has a historically low favorability rating. Then again, disliking the president isn't exactly a courageous act. Plenty of Americans—many of whom supported the president during the general election—don't like Trump. They do realize that politics is a trade-off. Here's a more revealing question pollsters might ask people: Do you "like" any better Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) or Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), pussyhatted marchers griping about the patriarchy or the totalitarians blocking Education Secretary Betsy Devos from walking into a public school? That's the choice #TheResistance—whose mantra, let's face it, has synched with the Democratic Party—has created for many moderate Republicans, right-leaning independents and movement conservatives concerned about Trump. That is to say, they offer no choice whatsoever. They offer plenty of hysteria, hypocrisy and conflation of conservatism with Trumpism for political gain. For pundits on the left, the idea that conservatives can judge the presidency issue by issue is completely unacceptable. As important as attacking Trump is, depicting conservatives as fellow travelers who enable fascism confirms every preconceived notion they harbor about the right. In a recent Atlantic piece by Peter Beinart titled "The Anti-Anti-Trump Right," the subheadline reads: "For conservative publications, the business model is opposing the left. And that means opposing the people who oppose Trump." As is customary these days, the left, much like Trump, questions the motives of political foes rather than addressing their arguments. Beinart goes on to name the only two honorable conservatives in the entire country (according to Democrats), David Frum and David Brooks. For them, Beinart contends, conservatism is "prudence, inherited wisdom, and a government that first does no harm." Sure it is. Everyone else is a moral coward and a hypocrite for failing to support liberals in their fight to... in their fight to do what, exactly? It's true that Trump doesn't exhibit prudence, reliance or inherited wisdom. Yet—and I know this is exceedingly difficult for Democrats to comprehend—neither does the alternative. If liberals were serious about convincing Republicans to abandon Trump in toto, they'd have something better to offer than Trump. What seems to most vex critics of the anti-anti-Trump contingent (and I am mentioned in the Atlantic piece) is that conservatives aren't appropriately agitated about the world that liberals see, a world that has turned out to be far less apocalyptic in the early going than they imagined. But if it's a zero-sum choice they're offering, that includes picking Judge Neil Gorsuch over Planned Parenthood; tax cuts over teachers unions; Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Iran's Holocaust deniers; deregulation of the bureaucratic state over legislation; or forcing progressive cultural mores on everyone, and so on. For example, many former free traders are now embracing the protectionist big-government policies of Trumpism. This is the kind of capitulation many fiscal conservatives feared. Again, the problem is that for free traders, Democrats are as just bad. In fact, the popularity of protectionism among populist movements on the left and right is so strong there's a good argument that the only way to possibly counteract it is to elect more conservatives to Congress. The average resistance fighters might dislike Trump. But they hate conservatism. By treating even the most milquetoast, run-of-the-mill Cabinet nominee as the worst thing that has ever happened to America, The Resistance gives conservativ[...]



Movie Review: A Cure for Wellness

2017-02-17T00:01:00-05:00

Gore Verbinski's A Cure for Wellness is a beautifully photographed nightmare that delivers powerful jolts of horror—some of them really horrific. But the movie doesn't make even basic fright-flicky sense, and the director doesn't seem to care. In the production notes, he invokes the term "dream logic" to justify the picture's endless narrative bafflements; but that's a handy out for a story that simply doesn't add up. So what's this lumbering oddity all about? I'm afraid it's about two and a half hours long. Our protagonist is a young Wall Street hustler named Lockhart (talented but pasty Dane DeHaan, looking like Leonardo DiCaprio if Leonardo DiCaprio had been dragged behind a truck). In a long introductory passage that cries out to be trimmed, we learn that the company where Lockhart is employed is in turmoil and that its CEO, Pembroke, has lit out for a mysterious health spa in the Swiss Alps. A farewell letter he has left behind says, "I will not return. Do not attempt to contact me again." Lockhart is dispatched to find Pembroke and bring him back. When Lockhart arrives in Switzerland, Verbinski, who still has a great eye, gives us a gorgeous shot of a gleaming train following a long curve of track into a mountain tunnel. Onboard, Lockhart notices a little boy drawing something in the condensation on a window. He's drawing the devil. How come? No reason—the devil makes no appearance in this movie. The kid's just setting a rote mood. Verbinski seems to have been uncertain what he wanted to accomplish with this picture. It feels like a simple celebration of the horror tradition. Lockhart's mission to mountainous Mitteleuropa recalls Jonathan Harker's journey in Hammer's Horror of Dracula. And an overheard tale of incensed peasants faintly echoes the pitchfork-wielding mobs of various Frankenstein films. There are also trace elements of the gruesome Hostel movies, a brief dab of (ridiculous) zombie menace, and salutes to not one but two Vincent Price classics (The Abominable Dr. Phibes and the original House of Wax). But there's nothing fond about these call-outs to generally much better movies, and after awhile I wondered if Verbinski was just going for a high-end gross-out movie. That's pretty much what he's ended up with—although even the movie's ickiness is vitiated by its constipated pacing. Once he arrives at the castle-like spa and meets its director, the purring Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs), Lockhart has a chance to savor the air of heavy portent that hangs over the place. "There's a terrible darkness here," one patient whispers, unbidden. When he encounters a weird young woman named Hannah (Mia Goth) and expresses a desire to leave, she says, "No one ever leaves. Why would anyone want to?" As the minutes congeal into hours, we come up with our own answer to that question. Lockhart now embarks on an obstacle course of bizarre torments. There's a hair-raisingly graphic dental ordeal, a gushingly gutted cow, a swimming pool full of eels, an isolation vat full of eels, a toilet full of eels—in fact, unless someone has made a full-length eel documentary, there are probably more of the slimy suckers here than in any other movie ever. If only we could figure out why. (All right, eels are kind of phallic, and when we see them in a pool swimming around the virginal Hannah, we get what Verbinski is trying to suggest. Unfortunately, it's not much—or anything, really. It's just something to gawp at.) Basically, the spa's hydrotherapy regimen isn't curing any of its residents of whatever it is from which they suffer: it's actually making them sicker—unto death, in fact (or [...]



Why Trump Should Reject Calls for a Carbon Tax

2017-02-16T14:35:00-05:00

There's a full-court press underway to convince President Donald Trump that it would be a good idea to impose a carbon tax on the American people. He's hearing about it not only from well-connected businessmen such as Elon Musk but also from establishment Republicans. Let's hope he has the fortitude to resist their exhortations. Musk's advocacy is easy to understand. In the same way he has benefited from other government policies in the past, he would be a major beneficiary of actions punishing fossil fuel consumption, through his electric car and solar power businesses. A carbon tax would be just another in a long line of government handouts for his companies. The Republicans pushing a carbon tax, on the other hand, have different motives. They mean well but are misguided. The primary group behind the effort, the Climate Leadership Council, claims to consist of a "who's who of conservative elder statesmen." It comprises veterans of past Republican administrations, including former Secretary of State James Baker, former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, and economist Greg Mankiw. The members of the Climate Leadership Council want to replace many existing environmental regulations with a carbon tax, arguing that it would be more economically advantageous. This is a seductive but ultimately unconvincing argument for several reasons. First, they are presenting an alternative to regulation where none need exist. The best answer to unnecessary and burdensome environmental regulations is to abolish them. Proposing to trade them for a carbon tax might make sense if Democrats were in charge. But under a unified Republican government, that approach is like deliberately taking a knee at the 1-yard line and kicking a field goal instead of just walking into an unprotected end zone. Just take the easy score. Second, the trade itself is an illusion. History has repeatedly shown that when new taxes are adopted in exchange for reducing the scope of government, we always get the tax increases and rarely see the promised returns. When they do arrive, they are short-lived. Put another way, there's little reason to expect that the next Democratic administration won't reinstate all the regulations supposedly traded for a carbon tax and then keep the tax. Finally, there's reason enough to be skeptical about the environmental claims. The debate over climate change is obviously complicated and extremely politically charged. Yet even if one agrees that the climate is changing, it's not unreasonable to question whether we should be basing policy on predictive climate models that have overestimated future temperatures for decades and are likely overly sensitive to changes in carbon dioxide. Furthermore, if we accept the models, even the Environmental Protection Agency's estimates predict that entirely eliminating all U.S. carbon emissions—which would be completely impractical and detrimental to growth—would have less than a negligible impact on temperatures by the end of the century. This is an important issue, and it is important to do it right rather than act based on knee-jerk reactions as is typically done in Washington. Unintended consequences, such as chasing high-carbon activity into markets with fewer controls, would most likely reduce the impact of a carbon tax even further. The intended consequence of raising the costs of energy on Americans would be bad enough, and it wouldn't be justified by the offered benefits. Let's hope President Trump can see through the arguments of these carbon tax petitioners. COPYRIGHT 2017 CREATORS.COM [...]



When Play Drives Progress

2017-02-16T06:00:00-05:00

Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, by Steven Johnson, Riverhead Books, 322 pages, $30 At the 1996 Republican convention, Newt Gingrich gave what the editors of The Weekly Standard condemned as "the worst and most embarrassing speech of his career." Pulling Olympic gold medalist Kent Steffes up on stage, the speaker of the House and leader of the Republican Revolution sang the praises of the unplanned creativity that had produced…beach volleyball. "There's a whole new world of opportunity opening up that didn't exist 30 or 50 years ago—and no bureaucrat would have invented it," he said. "That's what freedom is all about." Yikes. Newt obviously didn't get the memo. Conservatives weren't supposed to celebrate beach volleyball. They were supposed to be serious, to praise hard work, self-restraint, and small-town virtues—"God, family, honor, duty, country," as nominee Bob Dole said in his convention speech. Not fun in the sun. Or anything else spontaneous and creative, especially if it came out of California. "Locating the spirit of American freedom in Olympic beach volleyball," the Standard said, was completely off-message. (Never mind that the convention crowd cheered.) I highlighted this strange political moment in my book The Future and Its Enemies, published two years later, because it captured an important clash of worldviews. On one side were those who celebrated entrepreneurship, spontaneity, innovation, and the market's ability to produce new pleasures. On the other were those who believed that prosperity flowed from diligence, thrift, and self-denial, and worried that too much fun threatened to destroy culture, markets, government, and all things good and true. The latter view, particularly dear to neoconservatives, I dubbed the "repression theory of progress." Best articulated in Daniel Bell's The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, which built on Max Weber's idea of the Protestant ethic, the repression theory predicted that consumer culture's emphasis on "play, fun, display, and pleasure" would ultimately undermine the whole system. Capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction. Steven Johnson does not buy the repression theory of progress. Nor does he accept its counterpart on the left, where technology and markets equal oppression and drudgery. A man of the center-left, he is a classic dynamist: a genuine liberal who appreciates the power of inventions and institutions that emerge from the bottom up. In Wonderland, Johnson, whose previous works include How We Got to Now (the basis for a PBS series) and Where Good Ideas Come From, explores the playful sources of innovation. "When human beings create and share experiences designed to delight or amaze," he writes, "they often end up transforming society in more dramatic ways than people focused on more utilitarian concerns. We owe a great deal of the modern world to people doggedly trying to solve a high-minded problem: how to construct an internal combustion engine or manufacture vaccines in large quantities. But a surprising amount of modernity has its roots in another kind of activity: people mucking around with magic, toys, games, and other seemingly idle pastimes." Johnson is not a theorist. He never attempts to define play or to clarify why he highlights some experiences designed to delight or amaze rather than others. (Why so little on sports in a chapter on games? Why so down on the automobile? Why spices rather than, say, dyes and pigments? In a resolutely global and multicultural work, why so little on China?) He doesn't separate playf[...]



Free Speech Even for Corey Lewandowski

2017-02-16T00:01:00-05:00

Since arriving in the White House, Donald Trump has upended many customs and norms, including many whose value was not fully appreciated before. But at least one tradition has proved impervious to his corrosive impact: the University of Chicago's reverence for free and open debate. Trump's penchant for lies and demonization has thoroughly polluted political discourse. He has blurred the line between reality and fiction in a way that North Korean propagandists must envy. He has also converted many of his followers to ideas they once rejected—such as the ineffable charm of Vladimir Putin. But he has also driven some on the left mad. On Feb. 1, at the University of California, Berkeley, self-styled anarchists attacked police and civilians, started fires and smashed windows in a successful effort to prevent an appearance by the venomous Breitbart News contributor Milo Yiannopoulos. This time, the offending party is the president's first campaign manager and notorious apologist, Corey Lewandowski. He was invited by the University of Chicago's Institute of Politics, headed by longtime Barack Obama adviser David Axelrod, to participate in a closed, students-only seminar on Wednesday. Naturally, some at the university demanded that he be disinvited. UofC Resists, which represents students and faculty, is one of four groups that signed a letter to Axelrod proclaiming that the institute should not "provide platforms" to "those who incite hatred and violence against refugees, immigrants and minorities." Assistant philosophy professor Anton Ford offered a creative elaboration. "Sometimes there are people or views that are dangerous in and of themselves," he told the Chicago Tribune's Dawn Rhodes. "The very ceremony of debating that is problematic." But those objecting are using words in the same deceptive way as Trump and his confederates. In the first place, Trump's inflammatory words about Mexicans and Muslims do not amount to incitement, which refers to trying to produce immediate action. Had Trump actually incited violence, he could be criminally prosecuted. Last year, the U of C was the site of a lecture by Angela Davis, a longtime leftist and former Communist Party USA leader—which somehow went off without much notice. This is a woman once indicted for supplying guns to men who took over a California courthouse to force the release of prison inmate George Jackson. In the process, they took hostages and killed a judge. Davis was acquitted, as historian Ronald Radosh has written, "despite her proven ownership of the murder weapons and a cache of letters she wrote to George Jackson in prison expressing her passionate romantic feelings for him and unambivalent solidarity with his commitment to political violence." Lewandowski's sins, though they be as scarlet, don't come close to that level of reckless irresponsibility. If his opinions are dangerous, as I think they are, they are also well within the protection of the First Amendment. For him to be invited to defend Trump is exactly what freedom of expression is supposed to include. Ford rejects the "ceremony of debate" as intolerable. But debate, particularly with those holding toxic views, is not a ceremony. It's the beating heart of a free, democratic society. Shielding U of C students from exposure to Lewandowski wouldn't refute his views or convert those who share them. It would only prevent students from hearing what he thinks, gaining insights into how the campaign persuaded so many voters and responding to him. The university, to its credit, firmly[...]



President Trump's Travel Ban Requires Intellectual Honesty and Political Indifference on the Part of Judges

2017-02-16T00:01:00-05:00

Over the past weekend, Trump administration officials offered harsh criticisms of the judicial interference with the enforcement of the president's immigration order. The Jan. 27 order suspended the immigration privileges of all refugees from Syria indefinitely and all immigrants from seven designated countries for 90 days. After a federal district judge in Seattle enjoined the federal government from enforcing the executive order and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that injunction, President Donald Trump's folks pounced. They argued that we have an imperial judiciary that thinks it has the final say on public policy — one that will freely second-guess the president in areas that are exclusively his under the Constitution. Here is the back story. The Constitution provides for essentially a shared responsibility in the creation of laws. Congress passes bills, and the president signs them into law. Sometimes bills become laws over the president's veto. Bills are often proposed by presidents and disposed of by Congress. When challenges to the meaning or application of the laws are properly made, the judiciary decides what the laws mean and whether they are consistent with the Constitution. My point is that there are substantial roles for the legislative and executive branches in the process of lawmaking and that there is an exclusive role for the judiciary in interpreting the meaning of the law. When it comes to articulating and carrying out the foreign policy of the nation, the president is superior to the other branches. Though the House of Representatives and the Senate appropriate money for foreign policy expenses and the Senate ratifies treaties and confirms ambassadors, the president alone determines who our friends and enemies are. Congress has given him many tools with which to make and carry out those determinations. Among those tools is substantial discretion with respect to immigration. That discretion permits the president, on his own, to suspend the immigration privileges of any person or group he believes poses a danger to national security. Though the effect of his suspension may, from time to time, fall more heavily on one religious group, the purpose of that suspension may not be to target a religious group. Can an immigrant who has been banned from entering the United States challenge the ban? In a word, yes. Once an immigrant has arrived here, that person has due process rights (the right to know the law, to have a hearing before a fair and neutral authority, and to appeal to a superior neutral and fair authority). This is so because the Constitution protects all persons. The challenge to the president's exercise of his discretion cannot be based on a political disagreement with him or an objection to the inconveniences caused by the enforcement; it can only be based on an alleged constitutional violation. In the Seattle case, the states of Washington and Minnesota had sued the president and alleged that he had issued his Jan. 27 order to target Muslims, many of whom study or work at state universities. Can the courts hear such a case? In a word, yes; but they must do so with intellectual honesty and political indifference. The judiciary is an independent branch of the government, and it is co-equal to the president and the Congress. It is answerable to its own sense of scrupulous intellectual honesty about the Constitution. It is not answerable to the people. Yet in return for the life tenure and unaccountability its members enjoy, we expect[...]



The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Wants to Weaken Attorney-Client Privilege

2017-02-15T15:00:00-05:00

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has been in the spotlight lately, with courts and congressional Republicans zeroing in on the agency's unconstitutional structure that leaves its head—currently Richard Cordray a likely future Democratic candidate for Ohio governor—in possession of vast powers, accountable to no one. Sen. Ben Sasse has dubbed Cordray "King Richard," and President Donald Trump has been threatening to fire him. It's just the latest scandal for the CFPB, which a few years back got itself in hot water for collecting reams of consumer data, undercutting privacy rights while putting lots of potentially sensitive personal information at risk in the event of a hack, and has been in the firing line nearly continuously since its inception for spending lots of taxpayer cash on everything from high salaries to luxurious overhauls of its headquarters. Now the CFPB may be headed back into big doo-doo, thanks to a rule it is pursuing that would allow it to share communication between an entity it regulates and that entity's lawyer with a slew of other government regulators—potentially even with foreign governments. The rule would also relieve the CFPB from any requirement that it inform an entity it regulates that it's sharing such information with Congress, and bar entities it regulates from sharing any correspondence related to CFPB enforcement without the agency giving a proverbial thumbs up. It's obviously a big boon to a big government regulator, written by and for big government regulators. Unsurprisingly, it's also being decried as a straight-up erosion of attorney-client privilege, and something that jeopardizes a core, constitutionally protected civil liberty. In comments on the proposed rule, the American Bar Association—an entity that more often than not seems to side on policy with Democrats like the ones who authored Dodd-Frank and act as protectors of the CFPB—writes that, "each such disclosure of privileged information by the CFPB to a non-federal agency or Congress could endanger the privileged status of the information." In other words, every time the CFPB discloses privileged information, they're making sure that legally, it's no longer confidential. Or, you have the right to a lawyer, but what you and your lawyer say to each other is not really private and can totally be used against you. This is so because under federal case law, if privileged communication is shared with any third party, even a federal agency, its confidentiality evaporates; the only instances in which this is not so are when it's shared with a relatively narrow set of third parties, explicitly listed in actual legislation. The ABA argues that CFPB's attempted erosion of attorney-client privilege matters because preservation of it underpins "fundamental rights to effective counsel." So, in this rule, we have another example of itty-bitty, little-discussed, not-very-interesting regulation that, if put on the books, will put more civil liberties on the chopping block—in this case, one protected by the Sixth Amendment. Clearly, the civil liberties immediately at risk here are those of financial service providers themselves—not you or me (unless, say, you own an entity the CFPB regulates or is trying to regulate). The problem, though—as ever—is when you start eroding a right for one arguably undesirable person, you tend to end up eroding it for all people. Once you set a legal precedent, it has a tendency to stick around, and be [...]



Is it Religious Liberty or Discrimination? Yes.

2017-02-15T12:00:00-05:00

Once again Virginia lawmakers have passed legislation to protect religious freedom. Once again, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) will veto it. And so the debate goes on. Supporters of such measures—which, in various forms, are being debated around the country—say they simply want to ensure that government does not force the faithful to violate the dictates of their conscience. Opponents retort that religious-liberty bills grant some people a license to discriminate. Who is right? Both of them. Many conservative Christians (and Muslims) sincerely believe gay marriage, among other things, is morally wrong. Forcing them to participate or endorse such practices is an affront to their most deeply held beliefs. So, they argue, they should not have to. And in fact, some of them don't. Churches, for instance, are not obliged to host gay weddings and clerics are not obliged to officiate them. It's another story for businesses such as photographers and bakeries that make wedding cakes. Three years ago the Supreme Court declined to hear a case involving Elane Photography, which had been sanctioned by New Mexico for turning down a request to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony. Last year Colorado's supreme court let stand a ruling against a baker who refused to make a cake for a gay wedding. Gay-rights groups and their supporters say such refusal is nothing but rank discrimination, similar to the discrimination against blacks in the Jim Crow South. That is not entirely correct. If a gay couple goes to a bakery run by a conservative Christian in search of a dozen chocolate chip cookies, the baker will gladly oblige. Likewise, a religious photographer will be happy to take pictures of a same-sex couple's home so they can put it up for sale. The baker and the photographer are not refusing to do business with an entire class of people. They are refusing to participate in a certain type of activity. In some cases, though, it's impossible to separate the two. Certain states let adoption agencies refuse to place children with same-sex couples, and several more are considering it. Allowing adoption agencies to exercise their consciences does authorize discrimination against an entire class of people. Many agencies are one-service shops. It's not as if an adoption agency can say, "We won't help you adopt a child—but can we interest you in a box of cookies?" And in Oklahoma, lawmakers recently considered a sweeping measure that would let a wide range of individuals and groups "refuse to provide goods, services or accommodations to certain groups if they were following sincerely held religious beliefs or conscience ... regarding marriage, lifestyle or behavior." Refuse to provide service to certain groups? That is indeed a license to discriminate. But even more narrowly tailored measures, like the proposal recently passed here in Virginia, codify discrimination in another sense. The bill sponsored by Republican Del. Nicholas Freitas stipulates that no person shall be "required to participate in the solemnization of any marriage" or be penalized by the state for acting on "a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman." In short, the bill carves out a special exception for religious belief in one very specific instance: gay marriage. Yet people have intensely held religious beliefs about all sorts of things, not just gay marriage. So a bill that genuinel[...]



Bad News: The Government Wants to 'Help' Driverless Car Companies

2017-02-15T06:00:00-05:00

Google's parent company, Alphabet, revealed in December that an unaccompanied blind man had successfully traveled around Austin, Texas, in one of the company's cars, which had neither a steering wheel nor floor pedals. That same month, Alphabet announced that it is spinning off its self-driving vehicle technology into a new division called Waymo. Also in December, Uber launched an experimental self-driving ride-sharing service in San Francisco.

The future is rushing toward us. Unfortunately, the government wants to help.

In the case of Uber, the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) was so eager to help that it ordered the company to shut down its service, declaring that its regulations "clearly establish that an autonomous vehicle may be tested on public roads only if the vehicle manufacturer, including anyone that installs autonomous technology on a vehicle, has obtained a permit to test such vehicles from the DMV."

Anthony Levandowski, head of Uber's Advanced Technology Group, responded by observing that "most states see the potential benefits" of self-driving technology and "have recognized that complex rules and requirements could have the unintended consequence of slowing innovation." By refraining from excessive regulation, added Levandowski, these jurisdictions "have made clear that they are pro technology. Our hope is that California, our home state and a leader in much of the world's dynamism, will take a similar view." Uber moved its self-driving fleet to Arizona.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) likewise wants to "accelerate the next revolution in roadway safety"—so in September, naturally, the agency issued a 116-page Federal Automated Vehicles Policy that outlines a 15-point design and development checklist applicable to the makers of automated cars. In case that was not enough help, the agency then issued a 392-page Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to mandate that all new light cars talk to each other using a very specific vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology.

Instead, these rules are likely to slow down innovation and development. Compliance with the agency's 15-point safety assessment is supposedly voluntary, but woe betide any company that fails to file the proper paperwork. Even more worrying, the DOT is calling for a shift from the current regime, in which automakers self-certify that their vehicles meet safety standards, to a system where the agency tests and approves the product before it can go to market. This would bring all of the speed and efficiency of the federal government's drug approval process to the auto industry.

Plus, as Competitive Enterprise Institute researcher Marc Scribner points out, the safety benefits of the V2V mandate "will be trivial for the next 15 years, at which point far superior automated vehicle technology may be deployed to consumers." Self-driving cars equipped with autonomous collision avoidance technologies will likely provide all of the supposed benefits of V2V communications—and do it sooner. If the incoming Trump administration really wants to help, it'll get Washington out of the way and withdraw these two proposed rules.

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Repeal! No, Wait!

2017-02-15T00:01:00-05:00

Republicans promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act. But now they are hesitating. I understand why. Most Americans opposed Obamacare ever since the Democrats imposed it. But now that Congress actually might kill it, more (about half those polled) say, "Wait, I like Obamacare!" Once people get a subsidy, they'll fight to keep it—fight hard. People fight even to keep subsidies and guarantees that are obviously destructive. French job "protections," such as a 35-hour work week, have so wrecked France's economy that its socialist president tried to lengthen the work week, as well as raise the retirement age to 62 years old. Thousands of people protested, blocking roads to airports. The reform plan died. Greek day care workers took to the streets when their bankrupt government tried to get them to work more than 30 hours per week. Recently, Mexico said it would stop subsidizing people's gasoline. Seems reasonable. But the riots were so severe that people died. I hope Donald Trump's attempts to end bad programs have more success. But I won't count on it. President Reagan promised to abolish both the Education and Energy Departments. But his Congress increased funding for Education. Farm subsidies were supposed to be a temporary Depression-era "fix." They would protect America against food shortages. Now America has food surpluses; our citizens are fat; and farmers are richer than most Americans. Did farm subsidies diminish? No. They rose from $3 billion to $23.3 billion. U.S. sugar quotas raise the price of everything that's sweet. Our crazy rules are why Coke is made with corn syrup in America but sugar in most of the world. This enriches Florida's Fanjul family, which protects its handout by donating to both Republicans and Democrats. Peanut subsidies will soon approach the total value of the whole U.S. peanut crop itself. Insane. Yet the subsidies continue. After World War II, American sheep and goat farmers convinced politicians that mohair deserved special protection because it was used in soldiers' uniforms. Today, uniforms are made of synthetics, but mohair subsidies haven't stopped. My former colleague Sam Donaldson even got some because his family raised sheep. When I confronted him, Sam agreed that the payments are "a horrible mess" but said he'd keep the money since "the law is on the books." He could have made the same point about another bad federal program, government flood insurance. That's one that paid ... me. Sorry. I won't do it again. In 1995, the Clinton administration did manage to get rid of the mohair subsidy. But five years later, Congress brought it back. Why? Recipients of corporate welfare are motivated lobbyists. They have lots of money at stake. You, by contrast, pay a little more in taxes or a few pennies more for soda. Will you bother your congressman about that? Probably not. Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) is still trying to kill the mohair subsidy. I wish him luck. At one point, he got help from, of all people, Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-NY). Weiner brought a goat to Capitol Hill to draw attention to the dumb handout. It may have been the only sensible thing Weiner ever did. But even the goat didn't work. Congress rejected Chaffetz's bill. And the goat stabbed Weiner's hand with his horn. Farm subsidies are terrible, but America's biggest handouts are entitlements: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. You say, "Social Secu[...]



Study Confirms Health Advantages of Vaping

2017-02-15T00:01:00-05:00

The first surgeon general's report on e-cigarettes, published in December, describes them as "an emerging public health threat." A "tip sheet for parents" that accompanied the report recommends evasion in response to the question, "Aren't e-cigarettes safer than conventional cigarettes?" Curious teenagers (and adults) will have to look for an answer elsewhere, such as a study reported last week in the Annals of Internal Medicine. It confirmed that e-cigarettes are much less dangerous than the traditional, combustible sort, a fact that may come as a surprise to Americans who get their health information from government officials. The researchers, led by Lion Shahab, a health psychologist at a University College London, tested the saliva and urine of 181 volunteers representing five groups: current smokers, current smokers who also use e-cigarettes, current smokers who also use nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products such as gum or patches, former smokers who have switched to e-cigarettes, and former smokers who have switched to NRT. Shahab et al. found all five groups were receiving similar amounts of nicotine, but the switchers showed "substantially reduced levels of measured carcinogens and toxins." The differences between vapers and smokers were dramatic, ranging from 57 percent reductions in three volatile organic compounds (ethylene oxide, acrylonitrile, and vinyl chloride) to 97 percent reductions in acrylonitrile (another VOC) and in a tobacco-specific nitrosamine, a potent carcinogen. The levels for vapers were at least as low as those for NRT users and in some cases lower, which is striking because NRT is widely accepted as a safe alternative to cigarettes. This study, which involved long-term e-cigarette users, reinforces the results of a 2016 study finding large reductions in toxins and carcinogens among smokers who switched to vaping during a two-week experiment. Shahab et al.'s findings also jibe with chemical analyses of e-cigarette liquids and the aerosol they produce, work that led Public Health England to endorse an estimate that vaping is something like 95 percent safer than smoking. The huge difference in risk between vaping and smoking is hardly surprising, since the former involves inhaling an aerosol that typically consists of propylene glycol, glycerin, water, flavoring, and nicotine, while the latter involves inhaling tobacco smoke, which contains thousands of chemicals, hundreds of which are toxic or carcinogenic. Yet misconceptions about the hazards of vaping are widespread, thanks to public health officials and anti-tobacco activists who seem intent on obscuring the truth. In a recent survey of American adults by Vanderbilt Law School professor W. Kip Viscusi, 48 percent of respondents erroneously said e-cigarettes are either just as hazardous as the conventional kind or even more hazardous. Thirty-eight percent said e-cigarettes are less hazardous, but only 14 percent correctly said they are much less hazardous. It's no wonder the public is confused, when the surgeon general, the Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention portray e-cigarettes as a menace to public health instead of an opportunity to reduce smoking-related disease. All three inaccurately describe e-cigarettes as "tobacco products," falsely implying that the risks posed by vaping are similar to the ris[...]



Libertarian Valentine's Day Cards

2017-02-14T09:45:00-05:00

Happy Valentine's Day from Reason. You are the key to my Locke --- You have the curves to supply demand. --- Some encounters are too good to be unconstitutional. --- You stole my little pink heart. --- Don't just send a card, send a Personal Statement. --- Let me show you my instruments of labor. --- Break the state, not my heart. [...]



South African President Wants To Be More Like Zimbabwe

2017-02-14T07:00:00-05:00

Back in 2000, a poll conducted by the South African Helen Suzman Foundation found that only 9 percent of Zimbabweans thought that "land reform," which is to say expropriation of mostly white-owned commercial land and its redistribution among black Zimbabweans, was the most important issue in the forthcoming election. That low number ought not to have surprised anyone who spoke to ordinary Zimbabweans. A tiny portion of blacks saw their future as subsistence farmers on tiny plots of ancestral land. They saw themselves as manufacturers, accountants, lawyers, doctors—just like everyone else. Robert Mugabe, the 92-year-old Marxist who has been in charge of Zimbabwe since 1980 and who was recently nominated for yet another stint in the highest office, saw things differently. The election, which he thought he might lose, would be fought on the issue of land distribution. Conveniently forgetting that most of the farm land changed hands under his presidency and was, thus, legitimately owned under the laws that he promulgated, Mugabe stoked anti-white resentment. Along with the usual electoral shenanigans, such as voter intimidation and out-of-date voter rolls, land reform helped to return him to office. Over the next few years, almost all of the country's 4,000 white-owned farms were invaded by state-organized gangs. Some of the farmers who resisted the land seizures were murdered, while others fled abroad. Mugabe claimed that the land would be given to the landless masses. In fact, much of the best land was given to his cronies. The new owners showed little aptitude for farming, however. The agricultural sector soon collapsed, and with it most of Zimbabwe's tax revenue and foreign currency reserves. Those parts of the economy that processed the agricultural produce soon followed, as did the banking sector, which relied on farms as collateral for future lending. To meet its obligations to domestic and foreign creditors, the government ordered the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) to print more money, sparking the first hyperinflation of the 21st century. At the end of 2008, when the Zimbabwean dollar was finally scrapped in favor of the U.S. dollar, hyperinflation ran at an annualized rate of 80 sextillion percent. Why bring up this piece of history? South of the border, in the economic powerhouse of Africa, an unpopular government in trouble with the electorate, is contemplating its own Zimbabwe-style land reform. South Africa's President, Jacob Zuma, has recently promised to speed up land reform. According to Zuma, "the challenges of poverty, inequality, and unemployment have their roots in the vast tracts of land that was stolen from the indigenous people of South Africa". Land reform should, therefore, be "radically accelerated". Considering that the minister of rural development and land reform, Gugile Nkwinti, has already acknowledged "that much land had already been transferred [from largely white commercial owners to inexperienced black small-holders] in most cases of transfer a productive farm which was a going concern had collapsed," South Africa ought to tread very carefully. Following the land reform in Zimbabwe, land productivity started to lag heavily behind that of South Africa. If South African agriculture collapses, other economic problems will be sure to follow. [...]



Not Off the Grid, But We Can See the Edge From Here

2017-02-14T06:00:00-05:00

Cottonwood, Arizona—Our power went out for the better part of a week in 2008 after a particularly nasty storm. It failed quite frequently when we lived in our previous house at the end of a dirt road in Cornville, a few miles from our current locale. That might have had something to do with our remoteness, or the extreme weather in the state. Or maybe it was the local tradition of crashing pickup trucks into desiccated wooden utility poles and knocking them over. During a blackout, having your own well isn't necessarily as independence-enhancing as you might think—not when the pump requires electricity and the surface of the water is far too low to dip some out by hand. Then you have nothing but a steel well cap to meditate upon as you consider the requirements of coffee pots and modern plumbing. Unless you're prepared. Because outages were common, we had stored water, cut firewood, and fueled up the camping stove and lanterns. We remained hydrated, warm, and fed through that and every other experience with the electric grid's fragility. All in all, it was a bit Little House on the Prairie for our tastes, though with a better wine selection—but ultimately more of an inconvenience than a disaster. But tolerance for inconvenience can decline with the years. "We need a way to keep the air conditioning on if the power goes out," my wife told me when we moved to our new house in the foothills. Wendy had reached a point in life marked by the occasional mood swing and extreme temperature sensitivity, and she made it clear that maintaining a climate-controlled environment in the house through all scenarios that nature or man might send our way was a non-negotiable requirement. This being Arizona, where everything bakes for much of the year under the fireball in the sky, my first thought was solar. But I quickly discovered that all of those panels adorning people's roofs were nothing more than expensive shingles during a power outage. Most solar installations are designed to feed the grid, not keep you independent of it. I priced adding batteries to the mix to gain some autonomy, but they more than doubled the cost. And batteries couldn't handle the power demands of an air conditioner anyway. So we settled, if that's the right word, for a 22 kW standby generator, which can handle the well pump and keep the air conditioning running. We were especially pleased with our decision when in October the European Union completed a coordinated cyber-attack simulation and found it leading to a "very dark scenario" including crashed power grids. I also beefed up our water storage with rain barrels hooked to the gutters. Now, when the wet stuff falls from the sky, I capture it before it runs off into the desert. The barrels are conveniently located near the garden, which is handy for watering the food I've taken to growing. In fact, we're dining tonight on pesto made with our own basil, mint, parsley, and San Marzanos (yes, tomatoes—we make the Sicilian variety of pesto, not that bland Genoese slop). The olive and fig trees were coming along nicely, too, until the wild javelinas chomped on them. They're definitely a long-term project; I'll try again next year. Wendy and I have stumbled down our path incrementally over the years out of a combination of necessity and curiosi[...]



When the Hotel Industry Places a Hit on Airbnb, Politicians Happily Take the Contract

2017-02-14T00:01:00-05:00

New York officials are on the job, protecting the world from the likes of Hank Freid and Tatiana Cames by slapping the two with a combined total of $17,000 in fines. What threat to life, liberty, and property did this dastardly duo pose? They were renting rooms to willing customers, the bastards. Fried and Cames were slapped for violating laws prohibiting apartment owners from renting rooms for less than 30 days if they're not living on the premises, and a further law passed last year that banned advertising such rentals. It's a direct strike at innovative home-sharing services like Airbnb and the people who use them that parallels similar attacks around the country. "The law signed today will provide vital protections for New York tenants and help prevent the continued proliferation of illegal, unregulated hotels, and we will defend it," New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D) trumpeted last October. Maybe I'm the suspicious type, but I think those "vital protections" Schneiderman refers to are against competition to the established old-school hotel industry. Just last summer, the Office of the New York State Comptroller fretted that the hotel business in New York City wasn't doing as well as hoped. "Despite impressive gains, the average room rate (i.e., the average cost of renting a hotel room) has not yet reached its prerecession level" and, in fact, "room rates declined slightly in 2015." This bums officials out, because "New York City collected a record $1.8 billion in tax revenue from the hotel industry in fiscal year 2015" and officials want to keep scooping up that revenue and maintain close, personal friendships with the people who generate that kind of cash. Tellingly, the comptroller's report cautioned that "The growth of nontraditional competitors, such as Airbnb, that match people looking for lodging with owners or renters of private apartments, presents a challenge for the industry." You don't say. New York's home-sharing restrictions "should be a big boost in the arm for the business, certainly in terms of the pricing," Mike Barnello, chief executive of LaSalle Hotel Properties, told shareholders in a conference call last October. "You got to thank all of our friends at AHLA [American Hotel and Lodging Association] for working as hard as they have been to push legislation across the country really in all these key cities." He added, "registration and limitations would go a long way towards curbing the hosts who are actually operating basically illegal hotels." Obviously, New York officials aren't alone in preferring their crony capitalist pals over innovative services and budding entrepreneurs. Last year, Chicago was one of those "key cities" that adopted restrictions on home-sharing that the Chicago Tribune described as "dizzyingly complex, setting various kinds of limits and ways to get around those limits for different types of residences in neighborhoods around the city." "If the guiding principle were to protect the community from danger, there would have been no need to include a 4 percent tax on top of one of the highest hotel taxes in the country," added Illinois Policy. "Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the aldermen saw a potential cash cow and didn't hesitate to throw visitors under the bus to protect the hote[...]