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Updated: 2018-01-20T00:00:00-05:00


Soderbergh’s Messy Mosaic Jumps from App to HBO


Mosaic. HBO. Monday, January 22, 8 p.m. Mosaic's title is a bit of sly wordplay. Obviously it derives from the task presented by Steven Soderbergh's tale of murder in a small town—that is, to solve the crime. But something else needs to be pieced together here; namely, figuring out what the hell Mosaic is. A TV show? A video game? A digital version of one of those interactive dinner-theater murder mysteries? Though Mosaic is airing on TV for the first time next week, it's been around since last year as an app that allows viewers to direct the investigation themselves. Follow this clue or that. Pick the character whose perspective you wish the story to be told through. Check voicemails and emails between the suspects and the victim. Nothing you do will change the outcome—this isn't Clue, the 1985 board game movie that was shot with multiple endings—but it apparently alters a viewer's understanding of why things happened. I haven't used the Mosaic app myself. To me, the whole thing sounds like being invited to edit Soderbergh's rough cut without getting paid for it. Those who have tried the app mostly seem to regard it as an interesting experiment that ultimately fails, which is kind of what people thought about K Street, Soderbergh's 2003 HBO political drama shot with improvised dialogue rather than a script, except on that one, people used phrases like "utterly incomprehensible," "egregiously stupid," and "Soderbergh should be clubbed like a baby seal" in place of the word "interesting." As for Mosaic's merits as strictly a TV show—it airs five hours over three consecutive nights—they are mixed. Sharon Stone plays retired writer Olivia Lake, whose reputation and (dwindling) wealth rest on a single lucky punch thrown a quarter of a century ago: a children's book with multiple perspectives. It can be read as the story of a hunter trying to protect his family from a bear, or that of a bear trying to protect his family from a hunter. Advancing age has activated Olivia's cougar hormones, and she targets first a hunky young bartender (Garrett Hedlund, Unbroken) and then a charming corporate shark (Frederick Weller, Banshee) as romantic playthings. But it's not all clear who's zoomin' who. The bartender is a would-be artist looking for a patron; the suit, a bunco artist interested in separating Olivia from the deed to her mountainside estate. The multiple cons in Mosaic spin closer and closer, and a collision is inevitable. But when it comes, it's from an unexpected direction: Eric Neill, the corporate shark, declares his love for Olivia and confesses his scheming. Dominoes begin tumbling in all directions, some of them lethal. At times, Mosaic is a fascinating noir, especially when Stone is on screen. She hasn't always chosen roles wisely, but anybody who's seen her as the flighty mafia moll in Casino or the doomed woman on Death Row in Last Dance knows the extraordinary depth she can bring to the right film. It is on magnificent display in Mosaic. Some of the other members of the cast match match her, particularly Paul Reubens (yeah, that Paul Reubens) as Olivia's gay BFF and romantic strategist. Hedlund and Weller, on the other hand, offer flat and highly predictable performances that require the storyline to carry the show. Soderbergh's needless opacity—making viewers guess whether days, weeks or months have passed since the last scene is not mysterious, just confusing—sometimes renders that a difficult proposition. But a mosaic can't be judged until the last piece is in place. This one gains momentum as it moves along, and ultimately is an absorbing exploration of the complexity and incertitude of human relations. "I think kids' art is 100 percent a declaration of who they are," says Olivia of one of her philanthropic passions. "I think it's the last time we tell the truth." I don't know about kids, but don't expect the truth from anybody in Mosaic. [...]

Government-Approved Workouts? The Fight Against Fitness Licensing.


Almost everything the federal government has told the public about healthy diets over the past three decades may have been wrong. The U.S. Surgeon General suggested avoiding saturated fats and prioritizing grains and other carbohydrates. Low-fat products started filling the aisles at grocery stores, as families tried to follow the government's infamous food pyramid. Obesity rates continued to climb, and some dissenting scientists and started questioning the consensus. The U.S. government and major health organizations were slow to react, but in recent years have finally started updating the official recommendations. Is the exact same scenario about to play out in the fitness industry? "All of these government agencies, all of our universities, they've all sat silent through one of the worst declines in health the modern world has ever seen," says Greg Glassman, who's the founder of Crossfit, which runs more than 14,000 gyms around the world. "And their response is still exactly wrong." (Crossfit is a corporate donor to the Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this website.) Crossfit's explosive growth was made possible in part by the lack of regulation in the fitness industry. While many states require licenses for occupations as innocuous as trimming trees, tending bar, braiding hair, or even arranging flowers, personal trainers can work without government oversight. Crossfit was free to run its own certification program, which flouts most of the conventional nutrition and exercise advice championed by government and academia. The company regularly spars with fitness credentialing organizations with different exercise philosophies, like the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), and the American Council on Exercise (ACE). Several of them have united under the banner of the Coalition for the Registration of Exercise Professionals (CREPS), an industry group that regularly lobbies for regulation of the fitness industry. The fight is occuring largely behind-the-scenes at state legislatures across the country, where licensing laws have been introduced on 26 separate occasions since 2005. Crossfit supporters have pushed back just as hard, at times showing up in person to speak out against the bills. The one place Crossfit lost is Washington, D.C., which passed the nation's first fitness trainer licensure law in 2014. "It's an attempt to silence Crossfit on the subjects of nutrition and exercise," says Glassman. Mark Rippetoe, a weightlifting coach and creator of the fitness program Starting Strength, has also been fighting licensure efforts. While Starting Strength differs from Crossfit in important ways, there are some commonalities, like promoting training with barbells and encouraging movements that aren't approved by establishment players in the fitness industry. "The state legislature that would adopt a statewide licensure program for exercise is composed of people who do not understand anything about the squat," says Rippetoe, who advocates a "full squat" where participants dip below parallel as opposed to the less dramatic version promoted by ASCM. Rippetoe and Glassman both believe that their unorthodox training methods would be imperiled by licensing regimes. "The intersection of policy and politics is a very problematic one," says Holden MacRae, a professor of sports medicine at Pepperdine University and a Crossfit member. In 1995, the U.S. Surgeon General shifted the emphasis from vigorous, high-intesity physical activity to moderate-to-low intensity activity in the early '90s based on shaky scientific evidence. In 1995, it issued a report that shifted the recommendations away from vigorous activity towards low-to-moderate intensity and de-emphasized certain fitness markers like strength, agility, speed, power and coordination while emphasizing cardiorespiratory fitness. The guidelines were adopted by the American Heart Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Colle[...]

Is Tax Reform Already Working?


To read the press releases, you might think the GOP's new tax reform law is already a smash success. The legislation, which permanently slashed corporate tax rates from 35 percent down to 21 percent, was only signed into law last month. But more than 100 companies have already indicated that they will make big moves to benefit workers and the economy—including raising wages, handing out bonuses, granting 401(k) increases, and committing to increased capital investment—while citing the law's reduction in the corporate income tax rate as at least part of the reason. American for Tax Reform published an impressive list of the companies who have made such announcements so far, with quotes linking their action to the tax bill. Walmart increased its base wage for all hourly employees from $10 to $11 and granted $1,000 bonuses. Aflac Insurance is extending parental leave, increasing its 401(k) match from 50 percent to 100 percent on the first 4 percent of compensation, and making one-time $500 contributions to every employee's 401(k). That amounts to a $250 million increase in overall U.S. investment. But it's not clear how many of these moves would have happened anyway, even if tax reform had never passed. The recent burst of activity isn't at all in line with the standard economic theory of how reductions in marginal federal business tax rates affect workers' compensation. Economists usually argue that lowering marginal tax rates on investment gives companies an incentive to earn more taxable income leading them to invest in other businesses and the expansion of their factories. This in turn raises workers' productivity, and ultimately leads to higher wages. In other words, it takes time for companies to invest new capital, and reap the benefits of their investment. This is clearly not what happened here, however, since many of the bonuses were announced after the House and the Senate passed the tax bill but before the president even signed it. So what's really going on? I asked tax expert Scott Greenberg at the Tax Foundation how he explains the discrepancy. He said that "an alternate theory may be needed to explain the recent bonuses and pay increases." According to him, "One such theory, which has been suggested by Kevin Hassett, is that workers may have some ability to bargain for a share of the windfall from a business tax cut." He isn't sure how to evaluate yet whether that theory is correct, but he acknowledges that "it is true that some of the companies providing bonuses and wage increases have done so after demands by labor unions." Greenberg also offered another, more cynical theory. "Companies may have been planning on raising labor compensation anyway, due to increasingly tight labor market, and chose to attribute bonuses and wage increases to the tax bill, as part of an effort to build public goodwill for the legislation." With Moody's estimating that the unemployment rate will drop to 3.5 percent by the end of the year, the raises probably indicate a tighter labor market, and employers taking steps to retain their employees. If this theory is correct, it is a brilliant public relations move from companies who for years have been labeled greedy bastards who always keep all their profits and will keep the benefits from the tax cuts all to themselves while leaving their employees out to dry. But it's not exactly a sign that the tax law is an instant hit. Now, this could play out in multiple ways. On one hand, based on the commitment made by many companies on the ATR list to increase their capital expenses significantly in 2018, more wage increases could be coming as the standard theory predicts. It will take some time to materialize, but it will happen. On the other hand, the narrative that the bonus frenzy is a direct result of successful tax reform legislation could backfire. For one thing, Americans and employees may incorrectly expect for it to happen year after year. And while tax reform will indeed grow wages over time, it will never be a[...]

Tennessee's Haircut Cops Bust Barbers Who Lack High School Diplomas


The Tennessee barber cops caught up with Elias Zarate on January 18, 2017. Zarate was working upstairs at The Revolution Studio, a small barbershop on trendy Front Street in downtown Memphis. The job, which he had held for only a few weeks before getting busted, was like a dream come true for Zarate. He'd learned to cut hair while helping out in his uncle's barbershop as a kid, and he had honed his skills over the years by cutting his siblings' and friends' hair. At Revolution, Zarate had served clientele from ordinary working-class to members of the Memphis Grizzlies, the local NBA team. But getting that job required a state-issued license. Zarate had bought one a few months earlier from a friend "who knew a guy." He wondered at the time if the license was legitimate, but the opportunity seemed too good—and why shouldn't it be that easy to get a barber license? The license, of course, was a fake. No one can just buy a license to be a barber in the State of Tennessee, or anywhere else for that matter. Obtaining one requires years of schooling, passing various exams, and the paying fees to the state Board of Cosmetology and Barber Examiners. Jerry Biddle, the field inspector from the Tennessee Board of Cosmetology and Barber Examiners who stopped by the Revolution Studio that day, quickly spotted the fake. "He came straight to me and was like, 'That license is fake,'" remembers Zarate. Biddle's report of the incident is straightforward. He entered the barbershop. He witnessed Zarate cutting hair. He checked Zarate's license. It was not valid. He questioned Zarate, who admitted that he'd never been to barbering school. It was a run-of-the-mill investigation and an open-and-shut violation of Tennessee Cosmetology Act code 62-4-108: "person without a valid license practicing." There's nothing in the report—nor in other legal documents that eventually became part of Zarate's case—that suggests any concern about the 28-year-old's skills with scissors and a razor, or that indicates Zarate had done anything to put customers at risk. It's a simple matter of not having the right paperwork. For Zarate, the confrontation was more memorable. "They put fear in you. You know, they make you feel like they're going to come get you and put you in jail," says Zarate. "I just felt like I was dealing with the police." And that was just the beginning of his ordeal. After dealing with the barbering police, he had to face the barbering courts. The citation he received on January 18 required Zarate to appear before an administrative judge at a formal hearing of the state Board of Cosmetology and Barber Examiners in Nashville. With no previous experience in dealing with state licensing boards or navigating the quasi-judicial workings within them, Zarate assumed the hearing would clear up some of his confusion about what he had to do to get a legitimate license. The hearing went quite differently. He didn't have an attorney, and because it was an administrative hearing, he wasn't provided one. In all other ways, it was essentially a trial. There was a judge, a set of witnesses (including Biddle), and evidence filed by the state. "I thought it was to tell me what I'd done wrong or how to go about getting my license or getting right with the state," he says. "Once I got there, though, it was a full-on case against me. They slaughtered me." He was hit with a $1,500 penalty, followed by $600 in additional fees that included court costs, attorneys' fees, and the expense of the investigation that had busted him for the fake license. There was no information about how to get licensed correctly. The state didn't want to help him. It just wanted money. "I was thinking, how am I supposed to pay for this fine, you know, because they're stopping me from working," Zarate says. He tried to follow the process for appealing the fine, sending a letter to the board in mid-September pleading his case and requesting help. The appeal was flatly denied. Still wanting to[...]

Proposed California Car Ban a Perfect Mix of Hubris and Silliness


It's about time that members of Congress and the California legislature got really serious about combating the nation's pollution problem. Just as Jonathan Swift had a "modest proposal" to keep poor Irish children from being a burden to their families and their country (by selling them to wealthy English people as food), I, too, have a modest proposal for dealing with the unconscionable level of pollutants that are emitted in the U.S. to produce electricity. Let's propose a plan to shut down the nation's power plants. The facts are unmistakable: An environmental group in 2009 reported that the "nation's power plants emitted 2.56 billion tons of global warming pollution... which is equivalent to the pollution from nearly 450 million of today's cars—nearly three times the number of cars registered in the United States in 2007." Even cleaner natural-gas fired plants, which have become more prevalent in ensuing years, "release 21—120 times more methane than earlier estimates," according to a summary of a Purdue University/Environmental Defense Fund report from last year. Do you care about clear air, the health of our children and the future of the planet? Of course you do. So there's little reason to complain about this idea. Before you chalk it up to one columnist's silliness, consider that some California policy makers are proposing something equally "modest" and ludicrous. Yet they seem totally serious about it. Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) and some other Assembly members have introduced legislation that would ban the registration of passenger vehicles that are not "zero emissions." Assembly Bill 1745 would, beginning in 2040, prohibit the California Department of Motor Vehicles "from accepting an application for original registration of a motor vehicle unless the vehicle is a zero emissions vehicle." Likewise, California Air Resources Board chairwoman Mary Nichols told Bloomberg in an interview that Gov. Jerry Brown (D) "has expressed an interest in barring the sale of vehicles powered by internal-combustion engines." The governor reportedly wondered why China is able to do this and lawmakers haven't considered it in California. So now California's legislature is indeed considering something that would, according to the article, "send shockwaves through the global car industry due to the heft of California's auto market." Shockwaves for such a modest proposal? It's not as if the underlying concept—banning stuff that our political leaders don't like—is anything new. As a colleague noted, perhaps California lawmakers ought to simply ban the production and sale of meat-based products, also, given the ill effects of slaughterhouses on the environment, our diets, and on the quality of life of the animals that end up on our dinner tables. We've got to think out of the box. The bill would exempt large commercial vehicles and cars brought to California from other states. Perhaps legislators aren't thinking big enough. Sure, this column has a mocking tone and hasn't dealt with the actual arguments in favor of a ban on gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles, but there really aren't any serious arguments for doing this. The apparent goal is to reduce pollution, but the real goal may be about making a moral statement and grabbing headlines. Journalist H.L. Mencken wrote that politics is about keeping people alarmed "with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." That's a bit overstated, sure. Pollution remains a serious problem, but it's best handled through market advancements, not by allowing politicians to scare us into embracing fake "solutions." It's reality time. California is not going to get rid of polluting vehicles—or power plants, for that matter—by banning them. It would mostly harm the poor, who cannot afford the pricey new electric vehicles. But maybe they can consider selling their children to help afford the latest Tesla. EVs are great advancements, but even th[...]

Movie Review: 12 Strong


The visual hook for 12 Strong, a first feature by onetime war-zone photojournalist Nicolai Fuglsig, is a poster photo of a group of soldiers—clearly modern in their desert-camo fatigues, complicated assault rifles at the ready—mounted on horses and loping our way as a big Chinook battle chopper rises out of a cloud of dust behind them. The equine anachronism is mildly arresting—what fresh Wild West could this be? But we quickly find out—it's actually Wild Middle East—and then settle in for what turns out to be a well-made, old-fashioned war movie with an appealing cast and, as you'd hope from any movie in which the name Bruckheimer crops up in the credits, a buttload of head-snapping, blood-spurting, building-flattening action. In other words, there's a lot to like here! Unfortunately, it's not quite enough. Our "horse soldiers" (the title of the true-story Doug Stanton book on which the movie is based) are a team of 12 Special Forces veterans who've volunteered, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, to strike the first counterpunch against the loathsome Taliban and their Al Qaeda associates, currently infesting the rubbly wastes of Afghanistan. The movie has no interest in sifting through the politics of this period (thank you Lord); nor is it much concerned with more than four of the team's members: strikingly godlike Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth); his right-hand man, a warrant officer named Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon—exactly the kind of grim-eyed guy anyone would want to seek revenge with); and two combat-seasoned sergeants, Sam Diller (Michael Peña) and Ben Milo (Trevante Rhodes, of Moonlight). The movie laughs in the face of cliché. After a compact history of jihadi attacks on American lives and property, from the first assault on New York's World Trade Center in 1993 to the second one eight years later, we meet the soldiers as they prepare to depart for battle. It's a melancholy business, of course, although Nelson's wife (played by Elsa Pataky, Hemsworth's actual wife) is totally stiff-upper-lip about it. ("I'm a soldier's wife," she says, "and I've been lucky.") Other spouses aren't so sanguine. Once assembled, the team is informed by a bald-headed, baggy-eyed colonel named Mulholland (a disconcertingly corpselike William Fichtner) that they're headed for Uzbekistan, from which they'll be infiltrated into neighboring Afghanistan. Their mission: to hook up with a General Dostum (Navid Negahban), one of the many fractious warlords of the country's rebellious Northern Alliance, then proceed with him to the Taliban stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif and assist him in destroying it, or at least them. Since the craggy Afghan landscape rules out modern transport, their journey will be undertaken on horses and donkeys—no problem for Nelson, who grew up on a ranch or something, but a major pain for the rest of the team. Nevertheless, off they go. From this point, the movie devolves into a meditation on various ways to drop a jihadi. Rifle fire works well whenever the wily buggers step out from concealment behind the country's abundant supply of rockpiles; but calling in air support to deliver death-from-above is more efficient, and, frankly, more gratifying. Over the course of two hours and 10 minutes, we see a lot of bad-guy turbans retired, bullets taking them out in the modern cinematic manner, with attendant gushes of blood. There are possibly way too many of these firefights—they do begin to grow tedious. But the movie sustains Why We Fight momentum with jolts of atrocity: a passing glimpse of a video in which a pregnant woman is being stoned to death, and a scene in which a village schoolteacher who attempted to educate little girls is shot in the head in front of her students by a Koran-waving Taliban fanatic (the movie's default villain throughout, played by black-bearded Numan Acar, who'd be a shoo-in for the role of evil vizier in a[...]

Trump Turns One


The 45th president does not tend to elicit measured evaluations. Since even before his formal entry into national politics in 2015, Trump has acted as a powerful magnet on the body politic—attracting and repelling onlookers with equal force. A year ago, as we prepared to see a former reality television star sworn into the highest office on Earth, predictions abounded regarding the effects he was about to have on the country and the world. On one side were confident assertions that he would repeal the Affordable Care Act, bring back manufacturing jobs, and end political correctness once and for all. On the other were fears that he was a racist and a dimwit who would certainly abuse the powers of his station and might well start a nuclear war. On the Trump presidency's first birthday, the reality is less extreme than either set of prognosticators envisioned. The Republican Party under his leadership managed one major legislative accomplishment—tax reform that cut the corporate rate and is projected to add nearly $1.5 trillion to the debt—and failed after months of wrangling to enact an Obamacare replacement. Tensions with foreign governments from Iran to Russia to North Korea continue to simmer. The stock market has followed a dramatic upward trajectory, yet anger continues to grow over perceived wealth and income inequality. With the midterm elections now 10 months away, political polarization seems to hit new highs daily, but in many ways the checks and balances of our federalist system are working to keep even the current unscrupulous White House occupant from actualizing his most ambitious plans. As the 365-day mark approaches, have we reached a milestone worth celebrating or taken just another step in our national descent to unthinkable places? Reason asked 11 experts to weigh in on Trump's record so far. From positive signs on transportation policy and regulatory rollback to a worrying rise in nationalist sentiments and redoubled efforts to cleanse the United States of undocumented immigrants, the answers were a mixed bag, highlighting just how much uncertainty awaits the country in the year to come. —Stephanie Slade TAXES AND HEALTH CARE: Victory, Sort of, Maybe Peter Suderman At the beginning of 2017, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan told GOP lawmakers that the new Congress would repeal Obamacare and pass deficit-neutral tax reform by August. At summer's end, Republicans, despite holding majorities in both chambers, had accomplished neither. But eventually they would accomplish parts of each. In March, the House was set to hold a vote on legislation that would have repealed much of the Affordable Care Act while setting up a new system of related federal tax credits. Ryan was initially forced to pull the bill from the floor due to lack of support, but after making a series of tweaks intended to provide states with more flexibility, the body passed a health care bill in May. GOP leaders congratulated themselves for making progress on the issue, but the plaudits were premature. The bill stalled out in the Senate. By September, the Obamacare repeal effort was dead and Republicans had moved on to more comfortable territory: rewriting the tax code. At the center of the new effort was a significant cut to America's corporate tax rate, which at 35 percent was the highest in the developed world. Donald Trump had campaigned on slashing it to 15 percent. The GOP aimed for 20. At first, the tax effort went much like the health care effort. There were disagreements between the House, which hoped to partially offset any revenue losses with spending cuts, and the Senate, which gave itself permission to increase the deficit by $1.5 trillion. Republican senators also disagreed among themselves: Jeff Flake (R–Ariz.) and Bob Corker (R–Tenn.) worried about sinking the country further into the red, for instance, while Marco Rubio (R–Fla.) and Mike L[...]

Real Federalists Need to Step Up to Fight Jeff Sessions' War on Weed


You would think that the Justice Department has better things to do than to restart a federal war on marijuana or that it would want to stay away from interfering with the will of the people in the 29 states, plus the District of Columbia, that allow at least the medical use of marijuana. But you would be wrong. Thanks to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, we have now an emerging conflict between federal and state laws. That conflict should be resolved in favor of the states. When he was a senator, Sessions once said during a Senate hearing, "Good people don't smoke marijuana." So nobody was surprised when a few weeks ago, he revoked the Cole memo—a document that provided guidance to federal prosecutors about targeting sales to children, money laundering and sales across state lines, as opposed to targeting the legal state sale of medical and recreational pot. The memo was a poor alternative to revoking the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which, the Cato Institute's Trevor Burrus writes, "defined marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning that it has no accepted medical uses and has a high potential for abuse." He adds, "Despite advances in our understanding of the medical benefits of marijuana, and despite 29 states having legalized medical marijuana in some form, federal law treats marijuana (as if it were) as dangerous as heroin." Note that cocaine, which has recognized medical uses, is a Schedule II drug. The memo had the very positive effect of providing banks, users and dispensaries with confidence that they could operate legally without arrest. Unfortunately, Sessions' move could signal intent to use federal power to go after individuals and corporations in states that allow marijuana. Though this is a legal move, it is ill-advised. Whatever one thinks of pot use, I can't imagine a good justification for going back to prosecuting the perpetrators of victimless crimes except that it fits nicely with the AG's outdated and paternalistic views. It also goes against federalism, a belief that Republicans claim to hold, wherein states should be allowed to make decisions outside federal control on a variety of issues—such as legalizing marijuana. The Founding Fathers wrote a Constitution that distributed political power between the states and a national government. Police powers reside with the states, not at the federal level. Our nation operates on consent of the governed. An Aug. 3 Quinnipiac University poll indicated that 94 percent of Americans support adult use of marijuana for medical purposes, if prescribed by a doctor. This poll indicated that Republican support for medical marijuana is at 90 percent. An Oct. 25Gallup Poll shows that a majority of Republicans support fully legalizing marijuana. At a time when Republicans are worried about following the will of the voters they'll face this November, they might want to note those lopsided numbers. States should be allowed to make decisions outside federal control on a variety of issues and let the people, not the federal government, decide what they want. Right now, many states respect the right of individuals to choose medical marijuana to treat stress, the nausea associated with cancer treatments and epilepsy. In eight states, the people have gone a step further and consented to adults using marijuana without a doctor's prescription. It's the essence of liberty to let people make their own decisions as long as they're not harming others. This notion eludes Sessions. In 2014, Congress passed the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which prohibits the Justice Department from prosecuting medical marijuana businesses in states that allow it. Naturally, the AG wants Congress to pass an appropriations bill removing that language. Now's the time for the real federalists in Congress to stand up and stand by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, (R-Calif.), and Sen. Patrick Leahy, (D-Vt.), wh[...]

'Fake News' Is Not an Excuse to Regulate the Internet


President Trump promised that today he'll announce the recipients of his "Fake News Awards," an honor he's sure to bestow upon unflattering coverage that displeases him, a category that will almost certainly include the book Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff's insider tell-all of life in the Trump White House. But with "fake news" back in the real news, it's worth reflecting upon how both Republicans and Democrats have utilized the amorphous term to lay the groundwork for the regulation of speech on the internet and why that's a very bad idea. Shortly after her defeat, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton held a press conference decrying the prevalence of fake news on social media, calling it "a danger that must be addressed." In October of last year, Democrats in both chambers of Congress took up her call, grilling the attorneys for the tech giants Facebook, Twitter, and Google about Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and the role of so-called "fake news" in sowing discord and confusion among the electorate. "You have been identified as major purveyors of fake news," Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) told lawyers at one hearing. Some Democrats were explicit in their threats to regulate the companies if they didn't do a better job weeding out trolls, bots, and fake news. "You have to be the ones to do something about it," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), "Or we will." While Democrats seem concerned that tech companies don't do enough to police content on their platforms, Republicans and conservatives have expressed concern that they do too much to cultivate their users' newsfeeds. "Your power sometimes scares me," admitted Sen. John Kennedy (R-Okla.) at one point during a hearing. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) questioned the social media giants over whether or not they consider themselves "neutral public fora" and cited a study that claimed to have found political bias in Google search results. Former White House adviser Steve Bannon has called for Facebook and Google to be regulated like public utilities, and conservative Fox News host Tucker Carlson made a similar case on his show after Google fired software engineer James Damore for writing an internal memo questioning some of the company's diversity policies. But both Democrats and Republicans are missing the mark when they call for the government to regulate the flow of information on the internet. Treating social media as some sort of public utility is quite simply a power grab that all but guarantees that politicians and unelected bureaucrats will decide what information should appear in Americans' newsfeeds and would likely grant the government even greater access to our private communications than it already has. This is not the first time governments have tried to control new tools of mass communication. Much like the internet, the advent of the printing press provoked panic and backlash among the elite institutions it disrupted. America's first multi-page newspaper was shut down after a single edition because it spread rumors about the sex lives of government officials and published what the colonial government described as "uncertain reports," or what we might today call "fake news." For the crime of publishing without a license, the government imprisoned and later ran out of town another early colonial newspaper's editor: James Franklin, older brother to Benjamin Franklin who went on to run that paper and do a few other notable things. A few decades earlier, John Milton criticized the British government's regulation of materials produced by the printing press, writing in 1644 that, "Truth and understanding are not such wares as to be monopoliz'd and traded in by tickets and statute." Instead, wrote Milton, better to "Let [Truth] and Falsehood grapple." Granting government even the slightest control over the free flow o[...]

How To Make Health Care More Affordable


Virginia's new Democratic governor, and its new class of Democratic lawmakers, have an opportunity to improve access to health care in Virginia. But to do so, they might have to go against their partisan instincts. Gov. Ralph Northam already has made Medicaid expansion one of his top priorities. Republicans don't like the idea. But their recent abandonment of divisive social causes such as abortion and anti-LGBT issues suggests they might be more receptive to compromise on Medicaid as well. Then again, maybe not. Regardless, Democrats and Republicans should be able to find common ground on two other approaches to expanding health care. The first is a bill from Republican Del. Roxann Robinson. HB 793 would let nurse practitioners practice medicine independently, rather than under the thumb of a supervising physician, after a probationary period of supervision. At present, nurse practitioners in Virginia must have a contract to work under a doctor's watchful eye. If a nurse can't find a doctor to agree to such an agreement, the nurse is out of luck. If a doctor retires or dies, the nurse is out of luck. If a doctor joins a group practice with restrictive rules, the nurse is out of luck again. Roughly half the states in the U.S. already permit advanced-practice nurses to operate independently. A huge body of research has validated the approach. The Institute of Medicine recommends it because the rules limiting nurse practitioners "are related not to their ability, education or training, or safety concerns, but to the political decisions of the state in which they work," and because "most studies showed that NP-provided care is comparable to physician-provided care on several process and outcome measures. Moreover, the studies suggest that NPs may provide improved access to care." The Department of Veterans Affairs adopted the reform last year. The Kaiser Family Foundation endorses it. The Federal Trade Commission also supports expanding the ability of nurse practitioners to perform medicine independently, which would provide "safe, lower-cost competition" to physicians. Likewise, it would increase the supply of medicine in underserved areas, such as rural areas, where there is a serious shortage of doctors, as well as statewide. (By one estimate, Virginia will need 29 percent more doctors by 2030 to maintain the status quo.) Other research has shown that giving nurses a greater scope of practice helps bring costs down by as much as 35 percent, with higher levels of patient satisfaction. That's the first reform. The second? Repeal the state's Certificate of Public Need (COPN) requirements. Virginia's COPN regime requires health care providers to get the state's permission to spend their own money on investments such as new hospital wings or major medical devices such as MRIs and CT scanners. The process is hugely expensive and time-consuming — in large part because market incumbents, such as large hospital chains, are allowed to weigh in on whether the state should permit new entrants to compete with them. Congress originally imposed the system to deal with a problem caused by federal reimbursement rates for Medicare and Medicaid. Washington eventually changed the reimbursement formulas and lifted the COPN requirement, but many states (including Virginia) kept it in place. In theory, COPN is supposed to control health care spending through central planning. In practice, it doesn't. Washington state found, for instance, that "CON has not controlled overall health care spending or hospital costs." A commissioner for the Federal Trade Commission has written: "Ironically, a government program originally aimed at reducing health care prices is likely inflating them, at least in some situations." The FTC and the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department have repeatedly arg[...]

SPLC Selling Hate


Who will warn Americans about hate groups? The media know: the Southern Poverty Law Center. SPLC, based in Alabama, calls itself "the premier" group monitoring hate. Give us money, they say, and they will "fight the hate that thrives in our country." I once believed in the center's mission. Well-meaning people still do. Apple just gave them a million dollars. So did actor George Clooney. They shouldn't. Ayaan Hirsi Ali grew up in Somalia, where she suffered female genital mutilation. So now she speaks out against radical Islam. For that, SPLC put her on its list of dangerous "extremists." Maajid Nawaz was once an Islamic extremist. Then he started criticizing the radicals. SPLC labels him an "anti-Muslim extremist," too. While launching hateful smears like these, SPLC invites you to donate to them to "join the fight against hatred and bigotry." SPLC once fought useful fights. They took on the Ku Klux Klan. But now they go after people on the right with whom they disagree. They call the Family Research Council a hate group because it says gay men are more likely to sexually abuse children. That's their belief. There is some evidence that supports it. Do they belong on a "hate map," like the Ku Klux Klan, because they believe that evidence and worry about it? I often disagree with the council, but calling them a hate group is unfair. In my YouTube video this week (watch below), the group's vice president, Jerry Boykin, tells me, "I don't hate gay people. And I know gay people, and I have worked with gay people." But once you're labeled a hate group, you are a target. One man went to the Family Research Council headquarters to kill people, shooting a security guard in the arm before he was stopped. The shooter told investigators that he attacked the FRC because he found them on SPLC's hate list. Calling the council a "hate group" made its employees the target of real hate. SPLC also smears the Ruth Institute, a Christian group that believes gays should not have an equal right to adopt children. The institute's president, Jennifer Roback Morse, says they're not haters. "I like gay people. I have no problem with gay people. That's not the issue. The issue is, what are we doing with kids and the definition of who counts as a parent." The institute doesn't argue that gays should never adopt. "There could be cases where the best person for a particular child would be their Uncle Harry and his boyfriend," Morse told me. But the institute wants preference given to "a married mother and father." For that, SPLC put the Ruth Institute on its hate map. That led the institute's credit card processor to stop working with them. In a letter to the institute, the processor company said that it had learned that the "Ruth Institute... promotes hate, violence, harassment and/or abuse." "We went and checked our website," Morse told me, "and we were already down." I suspect SPLC labels lots of groups "haters" because crying "hate" brings in money. Years ago, Harper's reported that SPLC was "the wealthiest civil rights group in America, one that now spend most of its time—and money—on a fund-raising campaign." People in Montgomery, Alabama, where SPLC is based, call its elegant new headquarters "the Poverty Palace." "Morris Dees' salary is more than my entire annual budget," says Morse. "Whatever they're doing, it pays." Dees, SPLC's co-founder, promised to stop fundraising once his endowment hit $55 million. But when he reached $55 million, he upped the bar to $100 million, saying that would allow them "to cease costly fundraising." But again, when they reached $100 million, they didn't stop. Now they have $320 million—a large chunk of which is kept in offshore accounts. Really. It's on their tax forms. In return for those donations to SPLC, the world gets a[...]

Stop Warrantless Snooping on Americans


Over the course of two hours last Thursday morning, Donald Trump offered two diametrically opposed takes on a surveillance bill making its way through Congress. Both were wrong. The FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act of 2017, which the House approved last week and the Senate is considering this week, has nothing to do with purported wiretapping at Trump Tower or any other direct surveillance of the Trump campaign, as the president initially suggested. But neither is its impact limited to "foreign bad guys on foreign land," as Trump said in a corrective tweet after alarmed advisers explained his administration's position to him. The bill would renew for six years Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which authorizes warrantless collection of communications between people in the United States and people in other countries when "a significant purpose" of the snooping is obtaining "foreign intelligence information." Although the official target is supposed to be a "non-U.S. person" (i.e., neither a U.S. citizen nor a legal permanent resident) who is believed to be located in a foreign country, the National Security Agency "incidentally" gathers a great deal of information about Americans, including their international emails, chat sessions, and phone calls. Once the information has been collected, the FBI can peruse it at will, looking for evidence of crimes that may have nothing to do with foreign intelligence (itself a very broad category), let alone terrorism or national security. Section 702 thus gives the FBI and other law enforcement agencies a way to dodge the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures, which is generally understood to require a warrant based on probable cause for surveillance that reveals the content of private conversations. The bill that the House approved implicitly acknowledges this problem by requiring a warrant to search Section 702 data about Americans—but only when the FBI is looking for information about someone who is already the target of a criminal investigation (and only when the investigation is not related to national security). Criminal suspects, in other words, would receive more privacy protection than people who the government has no reason to believe have broken the law. The FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act also opens the door to reviving a suspended program that collected international communications "about" a foreign intelligence target. That kind of surveillance can pick up exchanges where neither party is the target and, due to technical problems in screening out domestic internet traffic, even when both parties are in the United States. Last week, by a vote of 233 to 183, the House rejected an amendment that would have required a warrant for searches of Section 702 data and for surveillance partly motivated by a desire to collect information about Americans. That amendment, known as the USA RIGHTS Act, also would have explicitly banned "about" surveillance and limited the use of Section 702 information to cases involving foreign intelligence or national security. The legislators who supported the USA RIGHTS Act included conservative Republicans such as James Sensenbrenner (Wis.) and Ted Poe (Texas) as well as progressive Democrats such as Jared Polis (Colo.) and Barbara Lee (Calif.). They were united by a belief that constitutional rights must be respected even when they inconvenience people who think invoking national security should be the end of the argument. "Our Founders gave us the Fourth Amendment to prevent a tyrannical government from invading our privacy, and we are fools to relinquish that hard-won right because of fear," writes Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who cosponsored the USA RIGHTS Act in the Senate and ha[...]

The Southern Poverty Law Center Scam


There are dangerous hate groups in America. So a group called the Southern Poverty Law Center promises to warn us about them. They release an annual list of hate groups in America.

The media cover it, but John Stossel says they shouldn't. It's a scam.

It lists Ayaan Hirsi Ali—who grew up Muslim in Somalia and suffered female genital mutilation—as an "anti-Muslim extremist." Just because she now speaks out against radical Islam.

They also list the conservative Family Research Council as a "hate group."

That listing led a man to go to the Council's office to try to gun down their workers. The shooter later told law enforcement that he picked the group because he saw they were on the Southern Poverty Law Center's hate map and he wanted to fight bigots.

Stossel disagrees with the Family Research Council on many issues. But he says they don't deserve to be called haters. The group's Executive Vice President, Jerry Boykin, tells him: "I don't hate gay people, and I know gay people, and I have worked with gay people."

Another group that the Southern Poverty Law Center smears is the Ruth Institute. The group argues that gays shouldn't have the same rights to adopt. But does that make them haters? No, says founder Jennifer Morse: "I have no problem with gay people. That's not the issue."

Other reporters, such as Megyn McArdle at Bloomberg, have also pointed out that the group is an odd fit for a "hate" list.

There are many non-hateful groups on the Southern Poverty Law Center's hate list. But Antifa, which clearly is a hate group, is not on the list.

The Southern Poverty Law Center wouldn't talk to Stossel about their list. Stossel says screaming "hate!" brings in money.

Morris Dees, the Center's founder, pays himself nearly half a million dollars a year. Although Dees once promised that when the Center's endowment reached $50 million, he'd stop fundraising, he didn't stop. Now the Center has $320 million dollars stashed away -- much of it in the Cayman Islands. It's all in their tax returns.

Stossel notes that they still con people into giving them even more money. Apple gave them $1 million last year.

He says the Southern Poverty Law Center has become a hate group itself. It is now a left-wing, money grabbing, slander machine.

Produced by Maxim Lott. Edited by Joshua Swain.

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Minimum Wage Hikes Inflict Maximum Pain


There's probably no more popular way of patting yourself on the back for doing good while actually harming people than advocating for hiked minimum wage laws that forbid people to accept work that pays below a legally mandated floor. When you raise the price of something above what people are willing to pay, people buy less of it, or else they pass the costs down the line, when possible. This isn't exactly a revelation; it's one of the older known economic realities. Unfortunately, there's always been a certain portion of the population that insists that labor is different and that you really can make people more prosperous by decree. But yet more recent evidence suggests that hiking the price of hiring people works just like raising the cost of everything else. This means that the recent craze for minimum wage laws has not turned out, after all, to be a genius plan for filling bank accounts. At the beginning of this year, the Subway sandwich chain announced a $5.00 foot-long promotion at its stores—well, at a lot of its stores. Not participating is David Jones, a Seattle franchisee, who posted a sign saying that he couldn't offer the much-advertised deal because "The cost of doing business in the City of Seattle is very high. We are balancing the Highest Minimum Wage in the Nation, Paid Sick Leave, ACA, Secure Scheduling, Soda Tax and much more." Instead, he offered coupons that lowered the price of sandwiches—but not to the extent of the $5.00 deal. The Secure Scheduling and Paid Sick Leave referenced in that sign are also expensive labor mandates in Seattle, in addition to the city's graduated hike to a $15.00 per hour minimum wage. In addition, the city whacks its residents with a 1.75 cent per ounce tax on sugary drinks that further raises the price of a quick meal. So a Seattle Subway franchise necessarily charges customers more for their food and drink than they'd pay elsewhere. That is, it charges more from customers willing to make the purchase. More expensive sandwiches may mean fewer buyers. That could result in fewer jobs at Subway franchises—and at other businesses affected by the same laws. In fact, employers in Seattle seem to be employing fewer people as a result of the minimum wage hike, and paying the people they hire for fewer hours worked. As a result, despite stepped increases in mandated hourly wages, "total payroll fell for such jobs, implying that the minimum wage ordinance lowered low-wage employees' earnings by an average of $125 per month in 2016," according to University of Washington researchers. (Flustered Seattle officials responded to the study by commissioning another paper from a socialist economics professor at UC-Berkeley who always finds that minimum wage hikes are beneficial.) So the sharply increased minimum wage has resulted in slimmer paychecks for many of the people it was supposed to benefit. But slimmer paychecks can turn into no paychecks if employers decide that it's not worth hiring people at artificially inflated prices when there are other ways to get tasks done. With 18 states and 20 cities hiking minimum wages at the beginning of this year, casual-dining hamburger chain Red Robin announced last week that it's eliminating busboys at all of its 570 locations, after having already dumped its expediters. "We need to do that to address the labor increases we've seen," chief financial officer Guy Constant told attendees at a retail conference. That doesn't leave many people still employed by the chain to take orders, prepare food, plate it, serve it, and clear tables—a point some industry critics are pointing to as a potential pitfall. But if you're familiar with the mostly western chain, you know that it's o[...]

Virginia Can Do More to Improve Animal Welfare


"If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog," goes an old saying mistakenly attributed to Harry S. Truman. In fact, Truman once gave away a cocker spaniel puppy that had been given to him, earning him the enmity of dog-lovers across the country. Lawmakers in Virginia will face a slightly different test of their sympathies this year when the General Assembly takes up numerous animal-welfare bills. Among them is a measure (SB 28) proposed by Republican state Sen. Bill Stanley, which would prohibit giving state funds to any organization that conducts "medically unnecessary" research on animals that causes "significant pain or distress." The bill was prompted by revelations about experiments at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center that induced heart attacks in dogs and puppies and forced them to run on treadmills. "Some of the experiments are known to inflict severe pain in the dogs and puppies—some are as young as 6 months—while withholding pain relief," a Times-Dispatch story reported in October. Stanley also has introduced SB 32, which would create a state database listing Virginia residents convicted of felony cruelty to animals. The list would be publicly available—and therefore helpful to those who offer rescued animals for adoption. Republican Sen. Richard Stuart has introduced the same measure under a different bill number, SB 212. Democratic Del. John Bell is introducing a measure (HB 646) to restrict tethering—i.e., tying a dog up outside. Last year Bell introduced a broader measure that was killed in subcommittee on a voice vote, after some frankly ludicrous objections (e.g., what about sled dogs?). This year's more narrowly tailored bill prohibits leaving animals tethered during freezing or dangerously hot weather, when the owner is off the property, and at night—and it makes exceptions for work animals. It also prohibits certain types of tethers, such as those that are too short, or heavy chains. As one animal-welfare advocate pointed out, this still lets owners leave animals penned up in small enclosures such as chain-link cages, exposed to bitter cold or punishing heat. But it's a step forward—the modest sort of step most likely to pass a legislature that prefers incremental change to the radical kind. Democratic Del. Mark Levine has introduced HB 425, which forbids people convicted of animal cruelty to own companion animals, and requires them to attend anger-management or similar treatment unless a court finds they no longer present a danger to animals or to others. Another measure (HB 593), introduced by Del. Wendy Gooditis, creates a felony offense when someone who has been convicted of animal cruelty in the past five years kills a horse through cruelty or malicious neglect. Other measures address the business end of animal welfare. For instance, Democratic Del. Jennifer Boysko has introduced HB 270, which lets localities prevent pet shops from selling animals from breeders. Democratic Del. Dawn Adams (who beat Manoli Loupassi in the 68th District and who will become the state's first openly lesbian delegate) has introduced HB 713, which prohibits commercial dog breeders from keeping dogs in cages with exposed wire floors. A couple of measures (HB 79 and HB 94) require boarding establishments to ensure that an employee is present during group play. There are still other measures—such as ones forbidding dogs from riding on your lap while you drive (SB 97) and allowing pets in wineries (HB 286). Space prevents an exhaustive recitation of them all, but animal-welfare groups such as the SPCA will be happy to give you a rundown. The ones mentioned above, however, probably qualify as the most important[...]

Start Saving Now, Because Social Security Is Screwed


The single largest government program in the United States will soon have an annual budget of $1 trillion a year. Yet even that amount isn't sufficient to fulfill the promises it has made. If Congress doesn't address its insolvency issues, payouts will need to be slashed by a quarter starting in fewer than 20 years. The program is Social Security, and our national pastime seems to be turning a blind eye to its dysfunctions. The problems with this entitlement aren't unique. Obamacare is also a mess, while cumulative government spending on Medicare and Medicaid is growing at a faster rate than Social Security is, and eventually will consume a larger share of the economy. But that's no reason to ignore the serious fiscal issues with America's main retirement program. Since 2010, it has been running a cash-flow deficit—meaning that the Social Security payroll taxes the government collects aren't enough to cover the benefits it's obliged to pay out. That should have been a signal that the time had come to look at reform. Instead, we've spent the last seven years ignoring the problem. To get by, the program started tapping into the assets set aside beginning in the 1980s for rainy days. Prior to 2010, the program collected more in payroll taxes than was needed to pay the benefits due at the time. The leftovers were "invested" into Treasury bonds through the so-called Old Age Trust Fund, which is now being drawn down. In fact, the Treasury bonds are nothing but IOUs. When it's time to disburse benefits they can't afford, Social Security administrators turn in those paper promises in exchange for hard cash from the Treasury Department. But Treasury also doesn't have the money: It has already spent it on wars, roads, education, domestic spying, and much more. So when Social Security shows up with its IOUs, Treasury has to borrow to pay the bonds back. That adds to the debt that future generations will be on the hook for via higher taxes. Did you catch that? Past generations of workers paid extra payroll taxes to bulk up the Social Security system. But the government spent that additional revenue on non-retirement activities, so now your children and grandchildren will also have to pay more in taxes to reimburse the program. You may be tempted to wave away this problem. After all, there's more than $2.3 trillion left in the trust fund. Don't. The Social Security trustees have calculated that the cash-flow deficit over the next 80 years will amount to a staggering $44.2 trillion, and that's after adjusting for inflation. Under current projections, the make-believe assets in the fund will only be enough to pay full benefits until 2034. At that point, the system will have to revert to paying out only the amount taken in through annual taxes. And that means benefit cuts across the board of 25 percent. This will screw up everybody's plans, but it will be especially hard on lower-income Americans, who are more likely to depend entirely on the program during their later years. Options for reform at that point will be limited. With the national debt projected to be 105 percent of GDP, or $39.1 trillion, in 2034—and with Medicare and Medicaid facing even bigger long-term problems—Congress will be too broke to restore full benefits for all. The most likely scenario is that higher-income earners will see their benefits disproportionately reduced, their taxes disproportionately hiked, or both. To them I have but one piece of advice: Start saving now. Given this predicament, Congress should make it easier for all Americans to save. One way to do that is through the creation of Universal Savings Accounts, or vehicles that al[...]

The Corrupt Politics of Low-Income Housing


The rent is too damn high—so each year Congress appropriates billions of dollars to address the nation's collective housing needs. The programs vary from loans to tax credits to straight-up subsidies, but a common feature is that federal taxpayers pony up the dough and then a motley collection of state-level politicians, financing agencies, and housing authorities decide how it's spent. Can you guess where things go wrong? In theory, oversight is provided by bureaucrats in Washington tracking every dollar and by local leaders increasing their re-election prospects by providing housing assistance to their constituents as effectively as possible. In practice, the feds turn a blind eye to inefficient uses of the funds while local officials gleefully engage in politically advantageous graft. Take California Treasurer John Chiang. By virtue of his position on the three-member California Tax Credit Allocation Committee, Chiang exercises enormous influence over who gets $94.9 million each year in federal tax credits intended for developers of low-income housing. He has used this position to great effect, steering millions to major campaign donors. These include Pacific West Communities, to whom Chiang has voted to give some $60 million in federal tax credits since 2007. The company has returned the favor with $37,000 in campaign contributions back to him. Some 82 California housing developments were funded with these tax credits in 2016. If California-style corruption isn't your bag, perhaps you'll appreciate the sheer incompetence of the Atlanta Housing Authority (AHA), which is currently struggling to get out of an expensive subsidy deal it literally forgot it made with local developer Integral. Over the past two decades, the AHA has awarded $114 million in federally funded loans to the company, which has yet to pay them back, and which now owes about $29 million in interest to the agency. That did not stop former AHA chief Renee Glover from unilaterally agreeing to sell Integral $137 million worth of AHA-owned land for the bargain price of $20 million. Glover resigned in 2013, and the current leadership can't recall this deal ever being made. They're now suing to stop it from happening. In Michigan, the state's housing finance agency was given $761 million in Troubled Asset Relief Program funds to protect distressed homeowners from foreclosure during the Great Recession. Instead of using the money as intended, officials sat on it while thousands in Detroit had their homes seized for failure to pay property taxes. When the state did start spending its bailout funds, half the total went toward demolishing the homes left vacant by those tax foreclosures. But all of this pales in comparison to the misdeeds of the Navajo Housing Authority (NHA), which is supposed to provide housing on the Navajo Indian reservation. In the past decade, the NHA has received some $803 million in federal funding while building slightly over 1,000 homes. That works out to $723,000 per home, or about 10 times the median home price in the Navajo community of Kayenta, Arizona. Much of the money was spent on structures that were either never finished or never occupied, including a women's shelter that stood completed but empty for nearly 18 years while homeless people slept outside it. All these examples of fraud, waste, and abuse are the natural result of separating the people paying for housing programs from the communities that are supposed to benefit from them. Federal functionaries have very weak incentives to ensure the program dollars are used well. The worst they usually have to worry about is for their f[...]

For Libertarians, No Silver Lining With President Trump


I confess I was indulging in wishful thinking when I thought I detected a silver lining to Donald Trump's election as president. That's what comes of being an optimist and a libertarian romantic. Beware apparent silver linings; they may be fool's gold instead. The ultimate hoped-for silver lining was that having a man such as Trump—need I furnish a list of unflattering descriptors at this late date?—on top of the political heap would discredit the very idea of government itself. A scaled-down version was that with Trump in charge, the bloated presidency might finally receive the long-overdue inspection it deserves. After Trump, how could anyone want to see so much power and discretion, not to mention the nuclear launch codes, in the hands of one person? In the past, people of the opposing party and ideological grouping asked that question but with an obviously partisan agenda in mind. Democrats and progressives railed at George W. Bush's imperial presidency, but they rolled over as soon as Barack Obama assumed the helm. At that point the dramatis personae smoothly changed roles with no hint of awareness of their hypocrisy. Something similar happened when the White House passed from John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to Richard Nixon. The apparent principled protests against power were in fact no more than talking points from the out-of-power camp. In reality the worry was not the amount of power but only who exercised it. There was little appetite shown for institutional reform, presumably because each side wanted the power available the next time it held the White House. I had naively hoped that might change into a principled disgust with power in the wake of Trump's ascension to the pinnacle of government. Unless I've missed something, I see no sign that those who properly despise Trump are beginning to understand that the only real solution lies in radically shrinking the state. The problem is that the idea of the state is too deep in the psyche to be uprooted by a mere personality—even one as repugnant as Trump. In reality the state is a church (or, more precisely, states and churches have a common genus), complete with a dogma, rituals, and taboos that most people have no desire to question. Thus it would take more than a dangerously obnoxious president to get people to entertain fundamental questions about their faith. The easier coping mechanism is to tell oneself that the voters must work harder next time to get the right person into office. If anything, Trump makes that mechanism seem even easier to use. He's the alleged outsider, the business tycoon without government experience who thought he could sort-of-autocratically run the state apparatus like the Trump Organization. Some but not all of Trump's shortcomings—not to put too fine a point on it can be attributed to his outsider-ness. So most people who oppose Trump can fall back on the excuse that all of Trump's problems stem from his failure to have risen through the political ranks. The lesson they will take away from the experience: next time let's elect a conventional politician who understands the art of governing first hand. That would have been harder to argue had an experienced politician with Trump's features (if such a person were possible) been elected, although some would have made the argument anyway. Let's face it: for them, any argument would be preferable to the libertarian argument against power per se. Are there any silver linings to a Trump presidency on the policy front? Aside from some deregulation and modest tax reform (which other Republicans could have been [...]

Junkyard Blight No More


Like oil-slicked seagulls and smokestacks spewing black fumes, piles of rusting cars were standard symbols of environmental blight in the 1960s and early '70s. "Few of America's eyesores are so unsightly as its millions of junked automobiles," President Richard Nixon declared in a 1970 speech. Although Americans had been dumping cars since the 1920s, replacing worn-out models with new wheels, the problem was a relatively late-breaking one. Up through the 1950s, junkyard workers would rip apart the cars and recycle their components. During World War II, U.S. Marshals even seized scrapped cars from a Maryland junkyard whose owner "had refused to sell the much-needed materials at established prices." By the '60s, however, wages had risen, making it too expensive to pull old cars apart by hand, and steel mills were getting pickier about what they would accept. "The problem was copper: even a small amount—1 percent or so—when melted in a steel furnace will weaken the properties of steel," writes Adam Minter in Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade (Bloomsbury). Once steel mills stopped buying the old scrap, junk cars started piling up. Making the problem worse were new bans on the incinerators that had previously burned away everything but a car's recyclable metal, producing choking black smoke in the process. City, state, and federal officials all tinkered with regulations designed to hide or eliminate the blight of junked cars, without much success. "Abandoned cars are the biggest pollution problem this country has," a Pittsburgh official told The New York Times in 1972. By then, however, the solution was on its way. It had started on an airplane in 1955, as businessman Sam Proler was throwing back screwdrivers and mulling a problem. Sam was one of four Houston brothers who owned Proler Steel Corp., a company that had found itself stuck with 40,000 tons of recycled-car bundles that steel mills would no longer accept. "They had too many contaminants, like copper and rubber," he told Recycling Today in 2007. But Proler had an idea. What if instead of burning away the impurities and smashing cars into blocks, you could put a whole automobile into a hammermill like the industrial shredders used to break up rocks, chop animal feed, or chip wood? He asked the flight attendant for some paper and began sketching. Turning the sketch into a working machine took several years—Proler received a patent in 1960—but the Prolerizer, as it came to be known, did the job. It reduced a car to what contemporary journalists described as "corn flakes" and used magnets to separate the iron and steel from other components. The machine was a monster: 1,000 feet long, with motors "taken from naval destroyer escort vessels," it "had 12-foot flywheels and 6,000 horsepower," brother Hymie Proler said in 2002. Rumors of the new invention inspired another Texas innovator's more compact solution. Alton Newell owned a scrap yard in San Antonio, where he was already shredding car parts, if not full automobiles. "As soon as we saw that that could be done," his son Scott told Minter, Newell decided to build a shredder big enough to take a whole car. He also realized he could make it smaller and cheaper, with lower power requirements, than the Prolerizer. The trick was to feed the car in little by little, rather than all at once. He dubbed his side-feed roller The Insight. That move, concludes Minter, whose own family ran a scrap business, is what "made the shredder affordable to smaller scrapyards and cleaned up the mess of cars polluting t[...]

Selling Freedom


Libertarians like Larry Sharpe. It was nearly impossible to attend a state-level Libertarian Party (L.P.) convention in 2017 and not see the affable former Marine and 2018 candidate for governor of New York laying out his seven-year plan to transform the party from a distant third-place finisher to the country's decisive swing bloc at all levels of government. When I asked former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld how Libertarians could best build on their momentum, he began his reply with: "You want to get out more candidates like Larry Sharpe." Of course, Bill Weld is the only reason a normal consumer of politics might have heard of Sharpe in the first place. Weld was the Libertarian vice presidential nominee in the 2016 race—by far the most famous and electorally successful candidate for that office since the party's founding in 1971. And in May 2016, at the Libertarian Party's national convention, Sharpe came this close to beating him. A measly 32 votes on a hotly contested second ballot separated Weld's 50.5 percent from Sharpe's 46.9, much to the bafflement of the assembled national press corps. At a raucous moment, the party's radicals and anarchists rallied behind Sharpe, even though he is decidedly not one of them. So who is Larry Sharpe? Basically, everything your stereotypical L.P. member is not. A relentless communicator in a party represented in the last two elections by a man known for his rhetorical stumbles. A black face in a mostly white sea. An adoptee and poor kid from the Bronx whose father died when he was 11 and whose German-born mother became a convicted drug felon, in a political movement often unfairly maligned as a privileged few defending their spoils. A veteran in a party whose vice chair recently argued that joining the military to pay for college is like saying, "I agreed to kill innocent people because I wanted the money." Above all, Sharpe is a fast-talking management consultant and sales trainer fond of saying things like, "culture change is the answer in any organization, period." Sharpe's "common-sense and empathetic communication style" is "opening up hearts and minds to a new kind of politics," national Libertarian Party chair Nicholas Sarwark enthuses. "His campaign is raising the bar for…candidates across the country." In a decentralized party of disheveled dreamers, Sharpe's strategic patter can feel like a bracing shot of adrenaline. It also comes at a time when there are no other obvious new Libertarian frontmen, despite the party's record-shattering vote totals in 2016. Two-time presidential nominee Gary Johnson has declared that he's never running for office again. Nomination runner-up Austin Petersen has become a Republican. And Weld is even more controversial among L.P. members now than he was in May 2016. In the matter of two short years, Sharpe has become the most effective fundraiser in the Libertarian Party. His particular specialty is raising money from the very people who complain they don't have enough of it. He'll grab anything—a "Johnson/Weld 2016" T-shirt, or some discarded campaign poster—and give it the cattle-auctioneer treatment. I've witnessed him take a book I co-wrote and, by virtue of me being in the room with 25 L.P. activists, squeeze out $200 for the damned thing. "I'm out there now because no one else is doing it," he explains. "The Libertarian Party's been through three iterations," Sharpe tells me in late November in midtown Manhattan, not far from his office. "I'm the vanguard of 3.0, right? The end of 2.0 was Gary Johnson.[...]

Court Kills Most of Idaho’s Law Against Secret Farm Recordings


Last week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that parts of Idaho's "ag gag" law are unconstitutional. The court upheld, in part, a U.S. District Court ruling from 2015 that found the Idaho criminal law runs afoul of the First Amendment. Ag gag laws are on the books in seven states. As the Ninth Circuit explains, these laws "target[] undercover investigation of agricultural operations [and] broadly criminalize[] making misrepresentations to access an agricultural production facility as well as making audio and video recordings of the facility without the owner's consent." Proponents of the Idaho law, including lawmakers, argued it was intended to "quash investigative reporting." A person convicted of violating the law faced up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $5,000. The case decided last week, Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Wasden, saw several animal-rights and free-speech groups, including the ALDF and ACLU, join with others to sue Idaho in an effort to overturn an Idaho law that makes it illegal to snoop on agricultural producers. The 2014 law was drafted by the Idaho Dairymen's Association, which was unhappy when video taken by an animal rights group, Mercy for Animals, revealed abominable mistreatment of dairy cows in Idaho. Does this decision throw open the doors of agricultural operations in Idaho to trespassers of all sorts? Hardly. "If, as Idaho argues, its real concern is trespass, then Idaho already has a prohibition against trespass that does not implicate speech in any way," the Ninth Circuit ruling notes. I discuss the case (and ag gag laws more broadly) in my recent book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable. I also organized more than a dozen fellow food-law faculty from around the country to sign on to an amicus brief in support of the ALDF and its fellow plaintiffs. And I attended oral arguments in the case in Seattle in May, which I wrote about here. In our brief, we argued in favor of the value of the information that undercover investigations provide to consumers by making that information available within the marketplace of ideas. As the court rightly notes, "undercover investigative reporting... has brought about important and widespread change to the food industry, an arena at the forefront of public interest." The good news in last week's the Ninth Circuit ruling is that the court effectively overturned the Idaho law. The court found that two key parts of the Idaho law—one prohibiting a person from misrepresenting themself to enter an agricultural production facility, the other banning a person from making audio or video recordings of a production facility—are unconstitutional. But the Ninth Circuit reversed the lower court, upholding the part of the Idaho law that criminalizes the act of obtaining agricultural production facility records by misrepresentation. Supporters of ag gag laws did find a silver lining in last week's ruling. "The big news in this decision is that lies or false speech can be 'criminalized' if made 'for the purpose of managerial gain or material advantage or if such speech inflicts a legally cognizable harm,'" writes Farm Futures columnist Gary Baise, an attorney and farmer. But opponents of Idaho's law—and ag gag laws in general—should find much more to like in last week's ruling. "The Ninth Circuit's decision in ALDF is an important victory for consumers," says Mahesha Subbaraman, the appellate attorney who drafted ands submitted the amicus [...]

Throw Your Kid in the Scorpion Pit


"He has a class on race and emotional safety," an old friend of mine squealed with delight about her son's public school schedule. I am equally delighted to report that my own kid receives no such lessons. When it comes to Anthony's education, my goal is to de-emphasize, not ratchet up, the importance that race plays in his interpersonal dealings. I also don't think that focusing on emotional safety—whatever that is—is likely to build the kind of strong, resilient people who can handle life's curve balls. But I'm also glad that my friend is free to feed her offspring whatever nonsense she sees fit. The worst-case scenario is a world of homogeneous groupthink. Instead, if enough families do their jobs right, our kids will grow up in world of differing opinions and contending values—the sort of intellectual scorpion pit that fuels a free and open society. "An important part of critical thinking is being able to give reasons to support or criticize a position," argues Joe Lau, a philosopher at the University of Hong Kong who specialized in metacognition. "The proper functioning of a liberal democracy requires citizens who can think critically about social issues to inform their judgments about proper governance and to overcome biases and prejudice." Critical thinkers "strive to improve the world in whatever ways they can and contribute to a more rational, civilized society," writes educational psychologist Linda Elder of the Foundation for Critical Thinking. "They strive never to think simplistically about complicated issues and always to consider the rights and needs of relevant others." To support or criticize a position and consider the rights of others, you first have to be aware that ideas beyond your own exist, and that it's important to engage them. There's not enough of that right now. Echo chambers arise when children are raised in an environment kept scrubbed of disagreement. Many college students today never learned to defend their positions because they rarely encountered contrasting views. Given that, headlines about speakers being chased off campus, while troubling, are hardly surprising. In her May 2017 commencement speech, Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust addressed the obvious disconnect between the students and faculty at elite universities, including hers, and recent political developments in the country. Too many people were simply blindsided by the degree to which a large percentage of Americans disagreed with them, and were willing to support a presidential candidate and policies that university dwellers overwhelmingly rejected. "From at least the time of Galileo, we can see how repressing seemingly heretical ideas has blinded societies and nations to the enhanced knowledge and understanding on which progress depend," Faust said. "We must work to ensure that universities do not become bubbles isolated from the concerns and discourse of the society that surrounds them." To avoid fueling this problem, I try to give my son contrasting viewpoints on controversial subjects in our home-school lessons. When he studied the Progressive Era, we worked from video lectures by a college professor sympathetic to the progressives' cause, alongside lectures from a broadly conservative point of view, readings from Thaddeus Russell's A Renegade History of the United States, and excerpts from Illiberal Reformers by Thomas C. Leonard—which is to say, a group of sources with very different takes on the same topic. My son knows where I'm comi[...]

If You Think Haiti Is a Shithole, Then Blame America for Helping to Make It That Way


President Donald Trump reportedly described Haiti and a slew of other nations as "shithole countries" while meeting with lawmakers about immigration policy yesterday. If you expected more from from him, then you probably expect too much. But eight years to the day after an earthquake brought Haiti to its knees, most Americans view the country closer to the way Trump describes the place than they'd like to admit. The typical American's understanding of Haiti doesn't go much further than the global press's tagline: the "poorest country in the Western Hemisphere." And there is undeniably poverty in Haiti. The average economic output for a Haitian is $820 per year, compared with their neighbors in the Dominican Republic, who average $6,000. I spent nearly four years working in Haiti, first as an economics journalist and then as the manager of a coffee-farming venture. As I wrote in Haitian Coffee Grows on Trees, my book about my time there: "Over half of all Haitians are undernourished, compared to just 15 percent of Dominicans. Just one in four Haitians has access to a toilet. More than half of all adults cannot read. Money sent home by friends and family who live abroad powers almost a quarter of the economy. That's not too surprising once you know a figure that development economist Michael Clemens often cites: 80 percent of Haitians who have escaped poverty have done so not by staying in their own country but by leaving for the United States." Only about one in five Haitians have a job that pays a steady wage. The rest work informally, or not at all. Today, if you look at a list of coffee-growing countries, you might not even find Haiti on it. Which is shocking, given that just over 200 years ago, the colony that predated Haiti was the world's biggest coffee producer. The story of how the tiny place that once sold half the world's coffee fell off those lists takes many pages to tell. But the country's current predicament has far more to do with the U.S. government than everyday Haitians. To be clear, the Haitian state and its leaders have perpetually hamstrung their own people, when not outright decimating them. But Haiti's history also includes a United States that initially refused to acknowledge or trade with the second free republic in the New World—the first free black republic, borne of a successful slave revolution. It includes two decades of occupation by U.S. Marines, a time when free Haitians were conscripted into chain gangs and shot dead for attempting to escape. It includes hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to a father-son dictatorship whose three-decade reign ruined the country's economy and murdered thousands of citizens. And it includes a foreign aid faucet that continues to flow today, despite the ill incentives it creates. Tweaks to immigration policy would do orders of magnitude more to help ordinary Haitians than that aid—as if helping Haitians were a concern of the present administration. For everyday Haitians, life working as in the United States as a manual laborer, hotel housekeeper, or fruit picker is often much better and more lucrative than doing much of anything in Haiti. Roughly 80 percent of the half-a-million-plus Haitians who live in the U.S. are working age. Eight in 10 of them who are over 25 have high school degrees, which means they're slightly more educated than the average immigrant and only slightly less than native-born Americans. Clemens has called immigration Haiti's "m[...]

American Crime Story Takes on Versace’s Murder


The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. FX. Wednesday, January 17, 10 p.m. It doesn't take long for The Assassination of Gianni Versace to get to the point. When the neo-couture designer is shot in the face outside his Miami Beach mansion, perhaps five minutes into the show, one riff-raff-ista snaps a quick Polaroid of his dying body, then begins soliciting business at the top of his voice: "I have the only photo of Versace! The bidding starts at 30 thousand!" A few feet away, tourists are soaking napkins in his puddled blood, then sealing them in plastic bags, artifacts of the True Cross for the 20th century's most heartfelt religion, the cult of celebrity. If Federico Fellini had ever visited South Beach, the result might have been something like The Assassination Of Gianni Versace—a long, horrified gaze at the corrupting effect of celebrity, not just on those who possess it, but on the culture in which they dwell. Scarcely a moment this nine-episode miniseries—the second installment of Executive Producer Ryan Murphy's American Crime Story anthology drama—goes by fixing on images of the garish and grotesque: A psycho gay hustler dances around the soon-to-be-corpse of one of his tricks, smothering under a hood of duct tape bound around his head in what he expected to be a playful S&M ritual; wizened old men, pale pork bellies hanging over their speedo bathing trunks, wander the streets, peering into the seedy clubs where writhing bodies are wreathed in clouds of amyl nitrite. And in scene after scene—the hospital, the morgue, the mortuary—the stiffening cadaver of Versace lies omnipresently by, gaping bullet wound in each cheek, awaiting repair with mortician's foundation, the final artifice of a life dedicated to the artful concealment of fashion. The last season of American Crime Story, which retold with stunning acuity the story of O.J. Simpson's murder trial, also focused in part on the corrosive effect of celebrity, but mostly in the context of the criminal justice system. This time around, Murphy and his screenwriter Tom Rob Smith (who in 2011 was a literary sensation with his Child 44 trilogy of novels about a homicide detective in Stalinist Russia) have taken square aim at celebrity and the cozenage it almost inevitably breeds. The 1997 Versace murder is a perfect vehicle for their exploration. Both the Italian-born Versace and Andrew Cunanan, the spree killer who shot him, inhabited a sybaritic club world where sex was easy, drugs cheap and image the coin for both. Versace used his status as a fashion icon to attract a steady parade of awed young men to his mansion. Cunanan, with no real accomplishments to his name ("Nothing, I've done nothing my whole life," he admits in a rare moment of candor) but possessing an excess of easy charm backed by a superlative talent for lying, pursues his own quarry: older men with money and a fearful indisposition to resist Cunanan's violent streak. A chance encounter between the two in San Francisco is seemingly uneventful, but in time it sets them on an inexorable collision course. Murphy, as usual, has accumulated an excellent cast, including Penelope Cruz as Versace's dour sister Donatella, a weathered Ricky Martin as his weary party-boy lover D'Amico, and Judith Light (Amazon's Transparent) as the tightly wound wife of one of Cunanan's deeply closeted tricks. And Versace himself is capably played by Venezuelan [...]

Everyone You Love Did Drugs


It turns out that a lot of accomplished, well-respected historical figures did drugs. From Winston Churchill taking amphetamines to Thomas Edison lacing his wine with cocaine, not everyone who uses narcotics is a hopeless basket case living in a dumpster. While some drug users spiral into addiction and crime, others go on to become president. It's time to debunk the age old stereotypes of the back alley dangerous dealer or the lazy stoner when, according to the National Survey on Drug Use, roughly half of all Americans have tried an illegal drug. In the latest "Mostly Weekly" host Andrew Heaton breaks down the cartoonish Drug Warrior portrayal of drugs by showing some of the beloved historical figures who used them, including: Thomas Jefferson Getrude Stein Carl Sagan Cary Grant The Beatles Mostly Weekly is hosted by Andrew Heaton, with headwriter Sarah Rose Siskind. Script by Sarah Rose Siskind with writing assistance from Andrew Heaton and Brian Sack. Edited by Austin Bragg and Siskind. Produced by Meredith and Austin Bragg. Theme Song: Frozen by Surfer Blood. Song: "Burnt to a Crisp or Bloody as Hell" by TeknoAX Subscribe at YouTube. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes. [...]

Immigrants Are Paying the Price for Obamacare


Democrats spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency trying to save ObamaCare from his assaults. They'll spend the second year trying to save immigrants. And if they want to point fingers at anyone for having to ward off this one-two punch, they should aim them squarely at former President Barack Obama. The single biggest blunder of Obama's presidency was his decision to prioritize a makeover of America's health-care system over an immigration overhaul. Obama's health-care plan had zero bipartisan support, while reworking immigration had considerable enthusiasm on both sides of the aisle. By choosing health care, Obama rendered both programs politically vulnerable. Earlier this week, a California judge issued an injunction barring President Trump from scrapping Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that gave DREAMers, immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as minors but have grown up as Americans, a temporary reprieve from deportation. Not only did the judge tell Trump to ice his plans to throw DACA recipients out of the country, as he was planning to do if Congress did not pass a law offering them permanent protections by March, but to renew the DACA status of DREAMers who already have it. But Democrats shouldn't get too excited by the order, as the Trump administration will surely appeal — and it could well prevail in a higher court. This means that if they can't work something out with the president and Republicans, DREAMers will face deportation. But the ransom that Trump will demand in exchange for leaving DREAMers alone is shaping up to be substantial. Pay no attention to his recent comments at a White House meeting with congressional leaders where he said he wants an immigration deal filled "with love" — this is empty posturing. If he were serious, he wouldn't have scrapped, just the night before in fact, the special status that 200,000 El Salvadorian refugees have enjoyed to live in the United States since they were displaced by an earthquake in 2001. Ditto for Haitian and Nicaraguan refugees. Nor would Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, have announced mere hours after Trump's love fest that he will not allow a DREAMer fix to be attached to a spending bill. Democrats are threatening to shut down the government if Trump doesn't back off. They may prevail if they muster an extraordinary show of unity, but in reality, they are playing a weak hand — which is evident from the modesty of their demands. Already, they have quietly made concessions, like dropping all talk about legalizing anyone other than the nearly 1 million DREAMers — leaving the other roughly 9 million undocumented immigrants vulnerable to deportation, even if they have committed no crimes and have deep roots in the United States. All hope for a usable guest worker program for Mexicans is gone, as is the notion of expanding the H-1B visa program for technology-related work. Trump, meanwhile, is demanding $33 billion over 10 years for enhanced border security, $18 billion of which will go toward building the Great Wall of Trump. Indeed, he doubled down on his demand for this wall in a tweet after his White House kumbaya session. In addition, he wants Congress to pass laws requiring employers to use E-Verify to check the work authorization status of all new recruits against a federal database. He has been atta[...]

Tiny California City's Firefighting Reform Could Be Model for Others


California's cities are running out of cash, as pension expenses gobble up growing portions of their budgets. They've cut services, raised taxes and come to Sacramento to implore the pension funds and the legislature to help out, but city governments don't have the muscle of the state's public-sector unions, which fight reform. Here's more of a reality check: These fiscal problems are becoming dire even though the stock market is at record levels, and the state's two massive pension funds enjoyed stellar gains last year. Healthy investment returns keep the pension systems funded, but what happens if there's another downturn? What to do? The union-controlled California Public Employees' Retirement System assures us that everything will be fine. The stock market, apparently, will take care of things. But the fund is mulling yet another fee hike for hard-pressed cities, so this do-nothing approach isn't a good option. Pension reformers have tried legislative fixes and initiative campaigns, but have been thwarted because of the "California Rule," which bans the reduction of pension accruals unless public employees are given something of equal value. Reformers are waiting for the California Supreme Court, which this year may decide whether or not to amend that rule. But who knows what the court will do?h Yet there is a third option, which is being pioneered in the small Riverside County city of Calimesa. Frankly, I'm surprised that it hasn't gotten more attention—or more push back from the state's firefighter and police unions. Such "public safety" spending is eating up 60 percent of the city's general-fund budget. Instead of waiting for a crisis, or hammering taxpayers with tax hikes or service cuts, the city implemented a plan that will cut back the cost of firefighting services. Mayor Jeff Hewitt led the city to curtail its contract with Cal Fire (the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) and create its own fire department. The main reason is to get out from under the union contracts that make it impossible to shave costs and innovate. Specifically, the new department will be free to determine its own staffing levels on fire trucks. It will also enable the city to switch from a "3 percent at 50" pension deal that lets firefighters retire at age 50 with at least 90 percent of their final three years' pay and move to a cost-effective 401/k-style retirement plan that's common in the private sector. "In 2012, Riverside County adopted a policy requiring all contract fire service cities to pay for three-person engine companies, despite the already high-quality level of service provided under the previous arrangement," Hewitt explained. "Calimesa was never asked if there was an actual need for increased staffing, and never agreed to upgrade because the associated costs were simply unsustainable." Hewitt feared his city was being pushed toward bankruptcy. By taking control of fire services, and starting fresh with a new department, the city can get its cost under control and actually expand the level of service—including building a new fire station to serve the Western neighborhoods and purchasing a new $411,000 fire truck. Everyone appreciates the work that firefighters do, but their salary and benefit levels in California have gotten out of hand. The median total compensation packages are in the $145[...]

Stop Scaremongering. The Press Is Freer Than It's Ever Been


The Committee to Protect Journalists, a group alleging to promote press freedom and the rights of journalists, gave President Donald Trump the Overall Achievement in Undermining Global Press Freedom Award in its Press Oppressors awards this week. The story was giddily retweeted across the liberal Twitterverse because, one imagines, people actually believe it. Watching Trump and the media slap fight like a couple of sloshed Real Housewives hasn't done wonders for the country, granted. But setting aside the melodrama, and the Kabuki theater, and the symbiotic relationship between the two, the fact is that self-serving complaints about American press freedoms being in peril are unqualified bunk. For one thing, the very breadth and intensity of the anti-Trump press illustrates there are few inhibitions or no strictures on their freedom of expression. Trump's attacks on journalists—some of them brought on by their own shoddy and partisan behavior—are often unseemly and unhealthy, but it hasn't stopped anyone from engaging, investigating, writing, saying, protesting or sharing their deep thoughts with the entire group—every day, all the time. That's not to say average Americans don't have plenty of reasons to be worried about the future of free expression. There are forces gathering that aspire to criminalize dissent and punish Americans for their unpopular opinions. In fact, many of the loudest voices crying out about Trump's fascism fully support these efforts, rationalize them or are complicity silent. "While previous U.S. presidents have each criticized the press to some degree, they have also made public commitments to uphold its essential role in democracy, at home and abroad," claims the Committee to Protect Journalists. It's true the last president made many public commitments to uphold the press's essential role in democracy while he was secretly scouring the phone records of reporters and an editor of the Associated Press to uncover leakers. Democrats showed their commitment to a free and open press by siccing the Justice Department on a Fox News reporter and calling him a criminal "co-conspirator" for attempting to solicit leaked classified information, as journalists have been doing forever. If the Trump administration, which has a bigger leak problem than any in history, were to engage in anything resembling this kind of behavior, it would rightly be considered a massive scandal. Every newscast and every front page would lead with it. But it's not just about the past. While Trump's efforts to stop fabulist Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury from being published are silly and counterproductive and sure to fail, he is merely accessing the legal rights that all Americans enjoy. In the meantime, Democrats currently support new laws that would allow the state to ban political books and documentaries. The years of President Obama made overturning the First Amendment via the overturn of Citizens United a tenant of the Democratic Party platform. Obama, in perfect syntax, engaged in an act of norm breaking by calling out the Supreme Court publicly for upholding First Amendment. That was rhetoric, too. Few defenders of the press seemed bothered by any of it. Those claiming that the president of the United States (Obama or Trump) is "overall" more detrimental to press freedoms than the le[...]

Movie Review: The Commuter


The Commuter is a straight-up action product that will be familiar to viewers of any of the previous collaborations by its star, Liam Neeson, and its director, Jaume Collet-Serra. As in their 2014 Non-Stop, Neeson's character here, an implausible life-insurance salesman named MacCauley, finds himself sucked into a loopy plot in a tightly confined space (in the earlier film an airplane, here a commuter train running from New York City to upstate suburbia). The movie has little of the neo-Hitchcockian flair of the duo's 2011 Unknown, but it does have Neeson, the most sympathetic of middle-aged action stars, and it could be his most madly convoluted outing to date—although that's probably too large a claim. There's no point in nitpicking a movie like this; it delivers exactly what genre enthusiasts would expect: plentiful tension and violence, with occasional sprinklings of sentiment. MacCauley is a 60-year-old man with a wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and son (Dean-Charles Chapman) and a steady stream of bills (mortgage, tuition) that's threatening to bury him. In his Manhattan office one day, we see him suddenly getting fired by his young boss for no good reason. Out on the street, disoriented, he ducks into a bar to contemplate this unwelcome development, and is approached by Alex Murphy (Patrick Wilson), his old partner in the NYPD. (Yes, MacCauley is an ex-cop, which'll soon come in handy when he's called upon to demonstrate a facility with handguns and head-cracking.) Next, MacCauley's old commander (Sam Neill) turns up, acting oddly; Murphy natters on, saying things like, "That's yer Irish pride talkin'." MacCauley is soon out of there. Making his way to Grand Central Station, he boards his usual homebound train and is quickly joined by a mysterious woman who calls herself Joanna (Vera Farmiga). She tells MacCauley there's a bag of cash hidden in a nearby restroom, and MacCauley can have it on the condition that he find the one person on the train who doesn't belong there (whatever that might mean), and plant a little GPS unit on this individual. After he does that, she says, there'll be even more cash. And what will happen to the tagged person, MacCauley wonders. He shouldn't have asked. That MacCauley doesn't burst out laughing at this ridiculous proposition is a tribute to Neeson's mastery of the straight face. Soon MacCauley is stalking the aisles of the train's various cars, giving the squint-eye to each of his fellow passengers. There's a guy with a suspicious guitar case, a girl with a suspicious bag, and a monumentally snotty Wall Street dickhead (Shazad Latif) whom you'd hope MacCauley would shoot just to make the world a better place. Our man is also called upon to mete out a furious beatdown or two—why else are we here?—and to take continuous cell-phone calls from Joanna, who somehow seems to be aware of every move he makes on the barreling train. (At one point, when he discovers a corpse crammed into a maintenance crawlspace, the dead guy's phone rings, and—yes—it's her again.) The story is preposterous, as we see. But the director keeps it chugging along. And he pulls off a couple of pretty great scenes – a brutal hatchet-and-knife fight that had me wincing, and some furious runaway-train acrobatics, with MacCauley hanging on for dear[...]

Nuclear Button Bluster Aside, Trump's Intervention Impulses Can Be Curbed


Perhaps none of President Trump's tweets have had more power to shock than his declaration that his "nuclear button" is "much bigger" than North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's nuclear button—"and my Button works!" The one strange solace of the situation, as The New York Times' Ross Douthat and National Review's David French noted, is how few people take Trump's bombast seriously. The "main effects of Trump's tweets," French argued, "are to stoke the online outrage machine, impair his credibility, and to unsettle a certain number of well-meaning Americans." True enough. As bizarre as it is to imagine from the vantage point of even a year ago, no one is marching in the streets over the president of the United States issuing Freudian threats of nuclear war on social media. It is possible Trump's "verbal aggressiveness" on Jan. 2 could lead to the devastation of total war, as a Yale psychologist recently warned, but it is more plausible his military aggressiveness would accomplish that unwanted end. And while there seems to be no means to tame Trump's tongue, we do have the means to tame his interventionism, if only we will use them. Consider that while South Korea launched its first official negotiations with its northern neighbors in two years, an effort to ease tensions and "move toward peace and reconciliation," the Trump administration is reportedly mired in an internal debate on whether to bomb North Korean nuclear sites and then wish upon a star that Kim doesn't get too angry. "The idea is known as the 'bloody nose' strategy," The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday. "React to some nuclear or missile test with a targeted strike against a North Korean facility to bloody Pyongyang's nose and illustrate the high price the regime could pay for its behavior. The hope would be to make that point without inciting a full-bore reprisal by North Korea." As the Journal piece understates, this proposal is "enormously risky." The cutesy schoolyard name ought not deceive us: An air campaign on North Korea, however limited, is war. It is extraordinarily reckless to suppose that Kim, faced with the prospect of a military intervention and regime change his nuclear arsenal was built to deter, would not retaliate with as much brutality as he could muster. Seoul, a metro area of 25 million people, is just 35 miles from the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea. Even if a "bloody nose" strike destroyed in an instant the great bulk of Kim's nuclear stash, a single warhead inaccurately launched by a single short-range missile would be enough to cause the death of millions of innocents. And that's just a single bomb on a single city. With his blackmail scheme undone, Kim could turn his chemical and biological fire on Seoul, American troops and their families in Asia, on our allies in Japan, and perhaps even on U.S. Pacific territories like Guam. Compound that horror with the prospect of involvement from China or Russia, true nuclear powers with a history of aiding Pyongyang. A strike like this would bloody far more than a nose. Even the best-case scenario is grim in the extreme. The task is to stop such an ill-advised preventive attack before it begins. I see three potential means to that end. Insofar as personnel is policy, Trump should f[...]