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Published: Fri, 24 Nov 2017 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Fri, 24 Nov 2017 23:01:20 -0500


Permissionless Biotech Crop and Livestock Innovation

Thu, 16 Nov 2017 17:46:00 -0500

Obama administration minions issued drafts of biotech crop and livestock regulations just two days before they left office last January. They were apparently motivated by their worry that genetically improved crops and livestock created using precise new genome-editing techniques like CRISPR would escape government oversight. There is good news. The USDA has now withdrawn these proposed regulations. The FDA should immediately follow suit and withdraw the scientifically indefensible regulatory proposals submitted by the Obama Administration. As I reported earlier: Treating each version of new improved livestock as a drug is really bad news for developers and consumers, since it takes years for a new drug to get through the FDA process at an average cost of more than $1 billion. Consider that it took the agency 20 years to approve the Aquabounty salmon that was genetically engineered simply to grow faster. The proposed USDA regulations were designed to change the way the agency approves genetically engineered plants and the draft FDA rules would subject genetically improved livestock to the same onerous process required to get the agency's permission to market new animal drugs. On the face of it, the precision of new genome-editing techniques would seem to call for less, rather than more regulation. The Obama administration proposed that breeders of gene-edited plants submit their new varieties to the USDA for pre-approval. Waiting on agency decisions would very likely slow down the process of developing new biotech crops even more. Under the Obama administration's proposed rules, the FDA would have required pre-approval of genetically improved livestock like Holstein dairy cows engineered to contain the same gene for hornlessness found naturally in Angus beef cattle. Since that gene in Angus cows harms no one, it wouldn't hurt anyone if it were in Holstein cows. So why should breeders have to beg FDA permission to sell hornless Holsteins? Why should breeders have to get regulatory permission at all to sell genetically engineered crop varieties or livestock? Breeders have for nearly 100 years been inducing genetic changes in plants by bathing them in caustic chemicals or blasting them with gamma rays to create hundreds of new crop varieties. The Mutant Variety Database run jointly by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency lists more than 3,000 commercially available crop varieties created using mutagenesis. None of these mutated crop varieties required regulatory approval before their developers could introduce them into the marketplace. Why should crops created using vastly more precise biotech genome-editing need regulation? Animal welfare issues might arise in the cases of gene-edited livestock, but otherwise there is no scientific justification for regulating them as "new animal drugs." The FDA should speedily follow the USDA's salutary lead and withdraw the draft biotech regulations that the Obama administration left behind at that agency. Both agencies should step back and adopt the principle of permissionless innovation with respect to modern biotechnology. Mercatus Institute fellow Adam Thierer defines this as "the notion that experimentation with new technologies and business models should generally be permitted by default." He adds, "Unless a compelling case can be made that a new invention will bring serious harm to society, innovation should be allowed to continue unabated and problems, if they develop at all, can be addressed later." Since there is no such compelling case against advanced biotechnology, both agencies should radically reduce the amount of regulation that they currently impose on the development and deployment of modern biotech crops and livestock.[...]

Real Common Sense on Gun Control

Sun, 12 Nov 2017 08:00:00 -0500

Here's how to judge the pragmatic case for gun control: if the pro-control lobby managed to have each of its favorite restrictions enacted, could we as individuals be more casual about our safety than we are today? The answer clearly is no. So what's the point of the restrictions beyond letting their advocates feel good about themselves? A false sense of security is worse than no sense of security at all. Mass shooters have obtained their guns legally, having had no disqualifiers in their records; used guns legally obtained by someone else; or obtained them despite existing laws. Therefore, the controls most commonly called for would not have prevented those massacres. In the latest massacre, the shooter had a disqualifier—a less-than-honorable discharge from the Air Force after a year in the brig for domestic abuse—but the Air Force failed to report that disqualifier to the FBI and so it never got into the database that was checked when the shooter bought guns from licensed dealers. New controls, such expanded background checks, would not have prevented the shooting because the Air Force was already required to report the shooter's conviction to the FBI. Even a ban on rifles with certain features, misleadingly called "assault weapons," would not have prevented the shooting because equally powerful rifles would have been available Thus the victims of the latest shooter, like the victims of the previous mass shootings, would have been no safer under the sought-after gun-control regime than they were at the time they were murdered. But this is not the end of the story. Even if those shooters had been unable to obtain their guns as they did, it does not follow that they would have been prevented from committing their monstrous offenses. How many times must it be pointed out that someone who is bent on murder is not likely to be deterred by legal restrictions on the purchase of guns? The gun-control advocates pretend that legal methods are the only way to obtain firearms, but we know that is not true. People have always been able to obtain guns through illegal channels. Gun-running—firearms smuggling and trafficking—is probably as old as the earliest gun restrictions. Guns can be stolen and sold. (There are 300 million of them.) Guns can be made in garages. Guns will eventually be made routinely on 3D printers. Supply responds to demand. Black markets thrive whenever products are prohibited. But the black market—by definition—is already illegal. So what are gun-controllers to do, make the black market doubly illegal? I don't think that's a solution. Even more drastic forms of control won't change this story. The Australian tax-financed eminent-domain approach, in which the government ordered people to sell their guns to the government, failed to remove all guns from society. "That policy … removed up to one million weapons from Australians' hands and homes," Varad Mehta writes. "This was, depending on the estimate, a fifth to a third of Australia's gun stock." How many bad people do you imagine surrendered their guns? How would an Australia program—which some Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, favor—do here? Not very well, I'd guess. Think what would happen if the government tried to confiscate people's guns with a heavier hand than that used by the Australian politicians. Individual rights aside, would that be an acceptable outcome for the sake of reducing gun violence? (Do be aware that most gun fatalities are suicides.) If people with bad intent would continue to obtain guns no matter what gun controls were on the books, it follows that people's responsibility for their own safety remains the same in all circumstances. Even beefing up police forces won't deliver greater safety: the cops are always too far away, and besides, they have no legal obligation to save you. The worst outcome would be for people to believe they were safe simply because Congress passed some piece of magic legislation favored by gun-controllers. That would be a cruel joke. This piece [...]

Waymo Unleashes Real Self-Driving Cars in Arizona

Tue, 07 Nov 2017 17:10:00 -0500

(image) Waymo, the autonomous vehicle subsidiary of Google's parent company Alphabet, has revealed that it is running its self-driving vehicles on public roads in the Phoenix suburb of Chandler, Arizona without a safety driver sitting in front of their steering wheels. The Verge reports that soon "the company plans to invite regular people for rides in these fully self-driving vehicles." If I were a resident of Chandler, I would rush to sign up for Waymo's early rider program to enjoy the experience of being chauffeured by a robot car.

For now, Waymo's autonomous vehicles are geofenced to roam within a 100 square mile area, but the company plans to expand as its cars collect more data. The eventual goal is to deploy a fleet of robot vehicles as part of ride-hailing services. Right now many Americans don't trust robocars, but I predict that once they are on the roads, a vast and rapid shift in driving habits will ensue. Why? Greater safety and lower costs.

My Reason colleague Jim Epstein reports that self-driving cars will make most auto safety regulation unnecessary. "Basically, the entire vehicle code can be boiled down to be safe and don't unfairly get in the way of other people," says Brad Templeton, an entrepreneur and software architect, who has worked as a consultant with Google on its self-driving car project. Aside from the weather, another big reason that Waymo and other companies are testing their robocars in Arizona instead of California is that the Grand Canyon State regulates with a significantly lighter hand.

And much cheaper robo-rides will persuade many folks to give up owning costly vehicles that sit in their driveways 23 hours per day. As I earlier reported, fleets of shared driverless cars could cut the average consumer's transportation costs by as much 75 percent. In addition, if travelers take advantage of robotaxis, one autonomous vehicle could replace as many as seven to nine privately owned vehicles. Battery-powered self-driving cars could cut greenhouse emissions by 90 percent and free up about 3,000 square miles of urban land now devoted to parking. And they would provide mobility to millions of Americans who can't or don't drive now, such as disabled people, children, and the elderly.

Self-driving will be safer and cheaper; what's not to like?

See Epstein's excellent Reason TV video on self-driving regulation below.

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The FDA Will Finally Let You See Your Genetic Information

Tue, 07 Nov 2017 08:45:00 -0500

(image) Food and Drug Administration (FDA) head Scott Gottlieb is reeling in his agency's outrageous four-year ban on direct-to-consumer genetic testing.

Under the Obama administration, the FDA sent a letter to the genetic testing company 23andMe warning that the company was "marketing the 23andMe Saliva Collection Kit and Personal Genome Service...without marketing clearance or approval in violation of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act." The letter noted that the company's tests had been providing "health reports on 254 diseases and conditions," including categories such as "carrier status," "health risks," and "drug response." But not anymore: The folks at 23andMe had little choice but to knuckle under to the agency's demands and stop testing new customers.

The company was eventually permitted to offer genetic test information on customers' ancestry and on genes associated with traits like the length of their toes. In early 2015, the agency allowed the company to provide users with results from a trait carrier test for Bloom Syndrome. Prior to the FDA's ban, the company's $99 genomic screening test package had included results from 53 trait carrier tests.

In April of this year, the FDA finally allowed the company to supply customers with genetic health risk information for 10 different conditions, including late-onset Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, celiac disease, and hereditary thrombophilia (harmful blood clots). Before the ban, the company had been providing its users with some genetic insights with regard to all of those health risks and about 140 others.

Gottlieb's statement dramatically loosens his bureaucracy's stranglehold on direct-to-consumer genetic testing. After genetic health risk test manufacturers have passed through a one-time FDA review ensuring that they meet the agency's requirements for accuracy, reliability, and clinical relevance, any subsequent additional health risk tests will not need to undergo further review. "The floodgates for direct-to-consumer genetic tests are swinging wide open," declares the STAT science new service. Let's hope so.

For more background, see my 2011 Reason article on my own genetic testing experience here. Go to SNPedia here for even more information on my genetic flaws.

Self-Driving Cars Will Make Most Auto Safety Regulations Unnecessary

Mon, 06 Nov 2017 14:14:00 -0500

Federal auto safety regulations fill nearly 900 pages with standards that determine everything from rear-view mirror and steering wheel placement to the shape of vehicles and the exact placement of seats. Many of the rules don't make sense in the coming era of self-driving cars. Autonomous vehicles don't need rear-view mirrors, or (eventually) steering wheels. Their ideal physical form is still a work in progress. But an even bigger rethink is in order. As motor vehicles become essentially computers on wheels, software, not hardware, will soon be paramount for safety. This will make most government regulation unnecessary, and, to the extent that it slows innovation, could even cost lives on the highway. "Basically, the entire vehicle code can be boiled down to be safe and don't unfairly get in the way of other people," says Brad Templeton, an entrepreneur and software architect, who has worked as a consultant with Google on its self-driving car project. (He also blogs regularly on the topic.) One difference between self-driving cars and traditional automobiles is that companies will have every incentive to fix safety problems immediately. With today's cars, that hasn't always been the case. Templeton cites General Motors' 2014 recall of 800,000 cars with faulty ignition switches. The company knew about the safety flaw over a decade prior, but didn't act on the information because recalls are so costly. The companies actions had dire consequences: One-hundred-and-twenty-four deaths were linked to the ignition defect. But the safety problems of the future will primarily be bugs in software not hardware, so they'll be fixed by sending ones and zeros over the internet without the need for customers to return hundreds of thousands of vehicles to the manufacturer. "Replacing software is free," Templeton says, "so there's no reason to hold back on fixing something." Another difference is that when hardware was all that mattered for safety, regulators could inspect a car and determine if it met safety standards. With software, scrutiny of this sort may be impossible because the leading self-driving car companies (including Waymo and Tesla) are developing their systems through a process called machine learning that "doesn't mesh in with traditional methods of regulation," Templeton says. Machine learning is developed organically, so humans have limited understanding of how the system actually works. And that makes governments nervous. Regulations passed by the European Union last year ban so-called unknowable artificial intelligence. Templeton fears that our desire to understand and control the underlying system could lead regulators to prohibit the use of machine learning technologies. "If it turns out that [machine learning systems] do a better job [on safety] but we don't know why," says Templeton, "we'll be in a situation of deliberately deploying the thing that's worse because we feel a little more comfortable that we understand it." John Simpson from the California-based nonprofit Consumer Watchdog, who advocates stringent regulation of autonomous vehicles, says extreme caution is warranted because software in cars isn't like software in other contexts. "It's one thing to test Gmail in beta mode," he told Reason, "and software that when it glitches actually might kill you." "That these need to be perfect before we can allow them on the road is a mindset that has affected a lot of urban planners and...the pro-regulation set," says Marc Scribner, a senior fellow at the free-market think tank the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Since the alternative to allowing imperfect self-driving cars on the highways is the status quo—100 Americans die every day in automobile crashes—perfection shouldn't be the standard. "Delaying self-driving car technology," Scribner says, "means we're going to see additional deaths that we simply could have avoided if we allowed these vehicles on the road that are not perfectly safe but sa[...]

Opioid Commission Mistakenly Blames Pain Treatment for Drug Deaths

Thu, 02 Nov 2017 17:00:00 -0400

In the report it published yesterday, the President's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, chaired by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, endorses what has become the standard explanation for the rise in opioid-related deaths during the last decade and a half. "A widely held and supportable view is that the modern opioid crisis originated within the healthcare system," the report says. The problem began, it explains, with "a growing compulsion to detect and treat pain." According to this narrative, doctors in the late 1990s began to underestimate the risk of addiction and overdose among patients prescribed narcotics for pain. Responding to ill-informed advocacy on behalf of pain patients and deceptive marketing by drug companies, they lost their entirely appropriate fear of opioids and began prescribing them left and right. The surge in prescriptions led to a surge in "iatrogenic addiction" (i.e., addiction caused by treatment) and overdose deaths. To correct that disastrous mistake, the Christie commission says, doctors need to worry less about the suffering caused by untreated pain and more about the dangers posed by painkillers. That response is fundamentally misguided because the narrative endorsed by the commission is wrong in several crucial ways. Doctors did not mistakenly believe that the dangers posed by opioids had been greatly exaggerated. They correctly believed that the dangers posed by opioids had been greatly exaggerated, and they were right to think that excessive fear of opioids had led to inadequate pain treatment. Contrary to the impression left by a lot of the press coverage, opioid addiction and opioid-related deaths rarely involve drug-naive patients who accidentally get hooked while being treated for pain. They typically involve polydrug users with histories of substance abuse and psychological problems. Attempts to prevent overdoses by closing off access to legally produced narcotics make matters worse for both groups, depriving pain patients of the analgesics they need to make their lives livable while driving nonmedical users into a black market where the drugs are more variable and therefore more dangerous. "The catalyst of the opioid crisis was a denial of [these drugs'] addictive potential," the Christie commission says. The report does not try to quantify that potential, but survey data and studies of patients help to put it into perspective. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 98 million Americans used prescription analgesics in 2015, including both legal and illegal use. About 2 million of them qualified for a diagnosis of "substance use disorder" (SUD) at some point during the previous year. SUD is a catchall category that subsumes what used to be known as "substance abuse" and the more severe "substance dependence." The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which oversees the survey, does not report the breakdown between mild, moderate, and severe SUD. But based on this survey, it looks like somewhere between 1 and 2 percent of prescription opioid users experience addiction in a given year. By comparison, NSDUH data indicate that about 5 percent of past-year drinkers had an alcohol use disorder in 2015. That group was about evenly divided between "abuse" and "dependence." The NSDUH numbers provide a one-year snapshot. Some studies of patients who take opioids for extended periods of time find higher addiction rates, but they are still generally modest. A 2010 review found that less than 1 percent of patients taking opioids for chronic pain experienced addiction. A 2012 review likewise concluded that "opioid analgesics for chronic pain conditions are not associated with a major risk for developing dependence." A 2015 review noted addiction rates in various studies ranging from 3 percent to 26 percent in primary care settings and from 2 percent to 14 percent in pain clinic settings. Th[...]

Does the Commerce Clause Empower Congress to Regulate Every Living Thing?

Mon, 30 Oct 2017 14:30:00 -0400

According to a Supreme Court brief filed today, Utah prairie dogs "produce nothing of importance except the annoyance of the surrounding population," and "they make terrible pets." The brief, which urges the Court to hear a constitutional challenge to a federal regulation protecting the rodents, concedes that they are "adorable little critters" but notes that "the protection of cuteness is not a congressional power" granted by the Constitution. The brief, filed by the Cato Institute, the Reason Foundation (which publishes this blog), and the Individual Rights Foundation, asks the Supreme Court to overturn a March 2017 ruling upholding the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to list Utah prairie dogs as a "threatened" species. That designation makes it a federal crime to "harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect" animals on the list. In rejecting a challenge to the listing by People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit relied on an alarmingly broad understanding of the congressional power to regulate interstate commerce. "The government seeks to protect an abundant, commercially irrelevant, and wholly intrastate rodent without regard for whether such regulation has any connection to economic activity, let alone commerce among the several states," says the Cato/Reason/IRF brief. "The Utah prairie dog is not a marketable commodity. There is no illicit trade in prairie dog horns or hides for the government to suppress. They carry no firearms into school zones. Their domestic relations are none of the government's business. Finally, they have neither purchased health insurance nor plan to do so in future." Those are references to Supreme Court cases in which the government claimed (mostly without success) that a federal law was constitutional because the activity it regulated had a "substantial effect" on interstate commerce. Although Utah prairie dogs have no commercial value and live only in the southwestern part of that state, the 10th Circuit reasoned that the power to protect them is a crucial part of a broader regulatory scheme. A similar argument was the basis for Gonzales v. Raich, the 2005 case in which the Supreme Court upheld the federal power to criminalize production and possession of homegrown medical marijuana. But unlike marijuana, Cato et al. note, Utah prairie dogs are not a fungible commodity, and their status has nothing to do with that of other animals protected by the Endangered Species Act. Contrary to what the appeals court implies, the brief says, it is obviously not true that "removal of the prairie dog from federal jurisdiction will render the government impotent to bar trafficking in eagle feathers." If any species are subject to congressional regulation, the appeals court implies, all of them are. "The Tenth Circuit's reasoning would apply to all animals, meaning that a general jurisdiction over all wildlife is hidden in the Commerce Clause," the brief says. "Congress, it is said, does not 'hide elephants in mouseholes,' but apparently the Constitution hides all animals in the nation in a prairie dog hole? Moreover, because the ESA isn't limited to animals but includes plants too, Congress apparently has the power to oversee all living organisms because some living organisms may have a substantial effect on interstate commerce." The 10th Circuit also suggested that Congress can justify its own power grabs by citing their economic impact. "The Constitution does not work on rewind," Cato et al. say. "Congress may not create an economic effect in order to regulate it, for the same reason it may not invade a country to declare war....If the effects of Congress's own laws can create the jurisdictional hook for Commerce Clause regulation, then Congress is the progenitor of its own power." Utah prairie dogs, by the way, are doing just fine. The Fish [...]

This One Weird Trick Could Improve Medical Care

Wed, 25 Oct 2017 12:00:00 -0400

Say you want to open a new grocery store. You do the market research, scout a location, develop a business plan, line up investors, get all the local zoning and other permits you need, and figure you have a decent shot. Then the state says you have to jump through one more hoop. You have to prove that the area actually needs a new grocery store. Oh, and one more thing: The other grocery stores nearby will have an opportunity to sound off on the question, too. Any bets on what they'll say? This, roughly, is how Virginia controls the amount of medical care available to its citizens. The Certificate of Public Need (COPN) system was created by congressional mandate many years ago. Some states repealed their COPN programs after Congress lifted the mandate. Virginia didn't. So medical providers have to get the state's permission to spend their own money making a variety of business moves—from building a new hospital wing to buying an MRI machine. Repeated examinations by the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department have found that COPN regimes reduce patient choice, drive up costs, and limit competition. The only parties that benefit are market incumbents such as large hospital chains. In recent years lawmakers in the Virginia General Assembly have tried to eliminate the COPN regime, or at least reform it. Intense lobbying by entrenched incumbents has prevented major changes. The incumbents insist that repealing COPN might let new market entrants "cherry-pick" profitable services, leaving the unprofitable ones, such as charitable care, to hospitals—which are often required to provide them. Maybe, maybe not: More than a dozen states have repealed COPN rules, and their hospitals seem to be getting by just fine. In any event, once you strip away the bureaucratese, COPN defenders essentially are saying that because government already has imposed many restrictions on providers, Virginia needs to keep this one, too. Which is a little bit like saying the best way to avoid a hangover is to just keep drinking. There are other reasons to take a dim view of COPN requirements. One of them turns on that four-letter word, "need." Beneath the COPN system lie several troubling presumptions. The first is that the market should provide people with no more than they need—in contrast to what they might want. The second troubling presumption is that officials can know, with any degree of certainty, how much medical care a given community will need later on. But can they? Probably not—at least according to an article in the latest edition of Regulation magazine. "Experts," it reports, "often do little better than laymen in predicting the future." The article draws on the work of Philip Tetlock, a professor at the Wharton School who has conducted experiments on prediction. He has found that so-called experts often end up being just plain wrong. Moreover, the more expert an expert is—the more narrowly he or she specializes—the less accurate the forecasts. Generalists tend to perform better. The article (by Stuart Shapiro of Rutgers) asks precisely how off base cost/benefit predictions, for example, have been. Tellingly, "the data on this are limited because there is little mandate for government agencies to retrospectively analyze... their regulations." Shapiro was able to find a 2005 report by the Office of Management and Budget. It reported that "of 47 analyses studied, 11 were roughly accurate, 22 overestimated the cost-benefit ratio, and 14 underestimated it." That's an accuracy rate of less than 25 percent. If an airline flew planes that crashed three times out of four the Federal Aviation Administration would have something to say about that, don't you think? There's less evidence about how well Virginia's COPN system predicts the so-called need for medical care. But residents have reason to be skeptical that its predictions rest ent[...]

Cities Try to Avert 'Transit Apocalypse' With Taxes on Uber, Lyft

Tue, 24 Oct 2017 14:40:00 -0400

Mass transit agencies across the country have been having a hell of a time paying for their creaky and often ill-used bus and light rail lines. A couple of cities have come up with a novel solution: tax the transportation services that riders have been using instead. Yesterday, San Francisco's Transportation Taskforce 2045 produced a proposal to impose a fee of $.20 to $1 per trip on ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft. The revenue would be used to shore up the city's Muni bus system and to pay for a bunch of bike lanes and streetscaping projects. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel has a similar notion. His 2018 budget includes a $.15 tax on ride-share trips, with the revenue earmarked to fund the Chicago Transit Agency. "We will be the first city to tap the ride-share industry for resources to modernize our transportation system," he told Chicago's city council. Behind the rhetoric about "modernization" and building transit systems for the future is an attempt to prop up antiquated forms of public transportation that are increasingly irrelevant to today's urban centers. According to a new study by the Cato Institute's Randal O'Toole, per capita transit ridership has been on a slow but steady decline for the past 50 years. In 1970, the average urban resident took 50 transit trips a year. By 2016, John Q. Citydweller was taking 39, even though politicians directed more than a $1 trillion to the construction and operation of new rail lines, street cars, and fleets of public buses over that period of time. The raw number of public transit riders has also been in decline over the past three years. Between 2014 to 2016, transit ridership fell 4.4 percent. In the first seven months of 2017, it was down another 3 percent. O'Toole pins this decline on lower gas prices and the rise of ridesharing services. A 2017 survey conducted by researchers at Berkeley found that a third of ride-share users would have taken public transit were Uber and Lyft were not available. As transit gets squeezed from the outside by cheap and convenient competitors, transit agencies are buckling under the internal pressure of long-deferred maintenance and underfunded pension and health liabilities. New York's subway system is looking at a $6.3 billion maintenance backlog. D.C.'s WMATA needs to spend $17.4 billion over the next 10 years to fix the maintenance backlog in Washington's Metrorail system. In 2015, the Federal Transit Administration estimated that the transit industry as a whole had a $89.8 billion backlog, a number O'Toole considers "conservative." Meanwhile, the Chicago Transit Agency has $1.5 billion in unfunded pension obligations—almost as much as its $1.8 billion operating budget. Boston's unfunded pension and health care benefits are double its operating budget of $1.6 billion. These huge liabilities require agencies to spend an incredible amount of money they don't have on things that will at best prevent transit service from degrading further. As a fix, O'Toole suggest that transit agencies "stop wasting money on expensive and noncompetitive transit services and focus on providing basic, cost-effective services for those who need transit the most, while putting their economic houses in order by reducing maintenance backlogs, debts, and unfunded obligations." In other words: Stop building new rail lines, and replace the current lines with bus services as they outlive their usefulness. Instead of grappling with these long-run problems, transit agencies are exacerbating them by building costly light-rail extensions that fail to attract riders. The debt-ridden, fire-prone Washington Metro thought it would fix its problems with the fancy new Silver Line. It didn't, and now the region is building a $2.65 billion Purple Line to service the area's Maryland suburbs. Seattle's $54 billion transit expansion is expected to net ar[...]

Lawmakers Want Heavy-Handed Regulation of Lighter-Than-Air Balloons

Tue, 24 Oct 2017 08:00:00 -0400

The National Transportation Safety Board has for years been pushing a reluctant Federal Aviation Administration to regulate, of all people, hot air balloon operators. Prodded by a single terrible crash in 2016, the NTSB has suddenly found allies in a bi-partisan collection of Texas lawmakers, who are loudly demanding action. On Monday, Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D–Texas)—along with Reps. Blake Farenthold (R–Texas) and Will Hurd (R–Texas)—introduced legislation that would force the FAA to require medical screenings of commercial balloon operators. Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas), who likes to describe himself as "one of the most libertarian members of the senate," is also on board, having introduced similar legislation back in June. "Continued rejection of NTSB's recommendations risks condemning more unsuspecting families to death," wrote Doggett (D–Texas) in an October 19 open letter to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) chief Michael P. Huerta. The Lockhart crash happened in Doggett's district. At long last, the NTSB's regulatory dream stands a good chance of becoming reality. This latest legislative push came in response to the release of NTSB's preliminary report on a crash that killed 16 people July 30, 2016 outside of Lockhart, Texas. The crash is the deadliest ballooning accident in U.S. history. The balloon's pilot—Alfred "Skip" Nichols—had been taking multiple reaction-impairing drugs at the time of the crash, and he had been arrested numerous times for drunk driving. The NTSB report called for stricter oversight of ballooning operations and periodic medical screening for balloon operators. It's a demand the NTSB began making in 2014 and one the FAA has consistently opposed. The FAA has consistently contended widespread medical screeing would not have prevented fatal crashes, none of which has ever been caused by a pilot's medical issues. From October 2003 to July 2016, there were 15 fatal balloon accidents, five of them involving commercial balloons and operators. In 2016 alone, 413 people died (including the Lockhart deaths) deaths from all general aviation aircraft accidents. In its submission to the NTSB in April, the FAA noted that the deaths in the Lockhart crash were equal to the total number of deaths in all fatal balloon crashes of the preceding twelve years. For an agency known for its heavy-handed regulations of drones and for killing off "Uber for planes," the FAA made a convincing case that nothing in the NTSB's recommendations would have even prevented the Lockhart crash. The cocktail of opioids, antidepressants, and amphetamines found in Nichols' system, are already prohibited by FAA regulations, as was his failure to report his multiple arrests for drunk driving and drug possession. Nichols had falsified his 1996 application for an FAA medical exam in 1996 to exclude a drunk driving arrest, despite this behavior carrying up to $250,000 in fines and five years in prison. It's unikley additional sanctions would have deterred him from doing so again. The FAA actually found out about Nichols' failure to report his various charges in 2013, but declined to sanction him because the last of them was three years old. A condemnable failure on the part of the FAA, perhaps, but not one caused by a lack of information. Reason's Scott Shackford asked at the time of the crash whether the problem was a lack of transparency, rather than regulation. At the time, little information was available to customers about their prospective balloon pilots. Since Lockhart, the balloon industry created a voluntary certification system. Balloon companies must provide evidence that they randomly screen their pilots for drug use in order to achieve the highest safety ranking. The urge to regulate in the wake of a tragedy is often overpowering. Burdensome and ineffective rules, howev[...]

Should Lawmakers Care How Much Fish Is in a Sustainable Fish Finger?

Sat, 21 Oct 2017 08:00:00 -0400

Earlier this week, while waiting for a flight home, I ate lunch at the O'Hare Airport outpost of The Publican, a fantastic, meat-centric Chicago restaurant. I've eaten at their downtown location several times over the years, sampling from their menu foods such as beef heart tartare, boudin blanc, and skate wing. The foods at the airport location are a little less interesting, though still far better than most airport food. After paying my bill and running to catch my flight, I noticed a cooler outside the restaurant that featured a variety of beverages. Garden-variety sodas (including orange Fanta), bottled waters, energy drinks, and the like. None would have been out of place at your local 7-Eleven. Then I glanced at the top of the case and was stopped, bemusedly, in my tracks. It featured signage billing the sodas and whatnot within as "Local, Sustainable, Delicious." Hmm. Orange-flavored Fanta, a friend pointed out, may be "delicious," but it—along with everything else in the case—was neither "local" nor "sustainable" by any reasonable definition of these words. I halted to snap a photo of the case. Though I almost missed my flight in the process, it was a worthwhile delay. The photo says so much, I think, about the lengths marketers in general, food marketers specifically, and, here, restaurants will go to choose language that tells us what we want to hear in an effort to earn our business. The next morning, still chuckling about the experience thanks to friends who'd commented on a Facebook post I'd made about the local, sustainable, and delicious canned and bottled drinks, I happened upon a story about this week's season debut of Tricks of the Restaurant Trade, a show from Britain's Channel 4 that uncovers artifices restaurants use to attract customers and maximize profits, and educates customers about how not to get snookered. The show, which debuted last year, explores "how consumers can get the best experience when dining out." "Every restaurant uses glowing adjectives and enticing descriptions to encourage their customers to buy more of its food," The Daily Mail reported this week, in a piece on the debut of the show's current season. "But if you see the words 'hand-made,' 'home-cooked,' or 'fresh,' then don't fall for the claims hook, line and sinker as the food may not live up to its label." If this show were American, I suspect a large part of its focus—like most local television consumer investigations—would be to call for more regulations to rein in the big, evil food companies that deceive us. Thankfully, after watching a few clips from Tricks of the Restaurant Trade, I detected no such bent to the program. What I did see, though, was some good, basic consumer education. The idea that food sellers (or anyone selling anything at all) want to make their products appear somehow better than they are is hardly anything new. Neither are investigations into the practice. A Wall St. Journal video from 2014, for example, looked at "sly tricks [restaurants use] to get you to spend more for your meal." In legal circles, the practice is known as "puffery," which this brilliantly titled article, "The World's Most Trusted Article on Puffery," describes eloquently. Puffery falls short of fraud. Nevertheless, these practices have faced increased bureaucratic scrutiny in recent years. EU regulators are currently looking to crack down down on food producers that market foods of different qualities in different countries without declaring so by, for example, marketing higher-quality juice or bread in France than in Poland but selling both under the same label. "I will not accept that in some parts of Europe, people are sold food of lower quality than in other countries, despite the packaging and branding being identical," said Jean-Claude Juncker,[...]

Cracking Down on Cashless Cafés is Crazy

Fri, 20 Oct 2017 14:25:00 -0400

As more consumers use credit cards and payment apps, many businesses have decided to stop accepting cash entirely. If you think that sounds unobjectionable, you must not be Alderman Edward Burke. Burke, a stalwart of Chicago politics who was first elected to the city's Board of Aldermen in 1969, has introduced an ordinance that would prohibit restaurants and retail outlets from refusing to accept cash. Federal reserve notes, Burke explained to Chicago's NBC affiliate, are "legal tender for all debts public or private. So follow the law." If it were actually the law that businesses have to accept cash, of course, there would be no need for Burke's ordinance, which threatens businesses with $2,500 daily fines and revocation of their business licenses. For the record, the U.S. Department of the Treasury's website says that "private businesses are free to develop their own policies on whether or not to accept cash." The City of Chicago itself requires residents to pay with credit cards, checks, or money orders for booted vehicles. The city's buses don't accept half-dollar coins, which were legal tender the last time I checked. Burke argues that the processing fees for credit cards get rolled into the final price of products, which consumers then have to pay. But processing cash comes with costs as well, notes John Gordon of Pacific Management Consulting Group, a restaurant consulting firm. Cash "has to handled," he says. "It has to be stored in a POS [Point of Sale] system It has to be counted at least every shift. At the end of the day it has to counted and tallied into a sales report." All that costs time and money. And unlike card purchases, which are in the ether as soon as they're processed, cash has to be either deposited at a bank or picked up by an expensive armored car service. "You can just see in the value chain all these costs loaded onto cash," says Gordon. And so some businesses are going cashless. The Chicago-based chain Argo Tea converted six of its locations into cashless cafés earlier this year. Their website says that ditching paper transactions "increases our speed of service, allowing us to take your order faster and get everyone through the line and on their way with their custom-made drinks and food in less time." For Argo, there is also a safety component to switching to card only transactions. "A cash-free store also reduces the chances of robbery, keeping our employees safe," explains an FAQ on their website. For Burke says that businesses that go fully digital are displaying "an elitist attitude that doesn't really reflect what Chicago is about." Something that could also be construed as elitist would be for a politician to decide that he knows how to better run someone else's business. Chicago is home to thousands upon thousands of retail outlets serving customers of all incomes and tastes. The owners of those businesses are in the best position to determine if not accepting cash, or for that matter going cash-only, is the right move for them.[...]

Seattle to Amazon: Don't Leave Me, Baby

Wed, 18 Oct 2017 13:15:00 -0400

Cities hoping to host Amazon's second corporate headquarters have until Thursday to submit their bids. More than 50 jurisdictions have jumped at the opportunity already, promising increasingly extravagant incentives to the e-commerce company. On Monday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie offered Amazon $7 billion in tax incentives to set up shop in the Garden State. Local officials in Georgia have offered to let the company incorporate its own city. Tuscon even sent Amazon's CEO a 21-foot cactus. The only place not jumping for joy is the company's current hometown of Seattle, where politicians have reacted to the prospect of Amazon expanding elsewhere as if they were going through the phases of a bad break-up. Local officials greeted Amazon's initial announcement with an "I'll never let you go" kind of rage. One councilmember, Kshama Sawant, reacted by yearning "to take these behemoths into democratic public ownership." Some Seattle politicians are now expressing regret about such harsh words, and are promising to be a better partner to the company. Last Friday, five out of nine Seattle City Councilmembers—along with a clutch of county and state officials—sent a letter to Amazon. To the extent that the company's decision to expand elsewhere was based on "feeling unwelcome in Seattle, or not being included in some of our regional decisions," they wrote, "we would like to hit the refresh button." "Those of us who are signing onto this letter want you to know we have heard you," they added. "We also want you to stay with us and grow with us both in Seattle and with our sister cities across the state." To kickstart this new relationship, the politicians propose including Amazon in a series of taskforces targeting traffic, crime, and education. This letter is no doubt heartfelt. But it also misses the point, says Erin Shannon of the Washington Policy Center. "There needs to be a much bigger reset button for that letter to have any meaning," Shannon tells Reason, adding that the "city's anti-business climate is playing very likely a strong role" in causing Amazon to look for greener pastures. In 2014 the city passed one of the nation's first $15 an hour minimum wage laws. This was followed by onerous employee scheduling regulations, restrictions on running criminal background checks, and an infamous (and probably illegal) income tax. To draft this tax, Seattle hired John Burbank, director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, who once called Amazon a "sociopathic roommate" that the city was better off without.* And these are just the policies that have passed. Also in the works is a so-called Amazon tax, which would levy a yearly $100-per-employee levy on large companies. Amazon has tacitly acknowledged that policy factors are playing a role in its search for a home away from home. It lists "a stable and business friendly environment" as one of four key preferences for the site of its new headquarters. The company has also said it was looking for a good "cultural community fit" with "local government structure and elected officials eager and willing to work with the company", and it has encouraged bidding cities to include testimonials from other large companies. The Seattle City Council's letter is remarkable in how little it seems to understand these concerns. Rather than offering to improve the city's business climate, officials are asking for Amazon's help in mitigating the problems its growth has supposedly caused. For instance, the letter's section on the "gig economy" mostly bemoans the rise of contract workers in the tech sector, telling Amazon that "we would like to work with you, other employers, employees, and contract workers to establish new policies around fair work, schedules, and livable [...]

DIY Biohackers Are Editing Genes in Garages and Kitchens

Wed, 18 Oct 2017 11:30:00 -0400

"A biohacker for me is somebody who is doing something clever or interesting in biology," says Josiah Zayner, a molecular biophysicist who runs The ODIN, a company that sells do-it-yourself genetic engineering kits. "They're usually these people that have been fucked by the system who are trying to unfuck themselves." Zayner is one of the leading figures in the biohacking movement and is the main organizer of the BioHack the Planet Conference, a yearly gathering of citizen scientists. This year, over 100 members of the biohacking community met in Oakland, California to discuss a wide array of issues from at-home genetic engineering to questions on bioethics. Biohackers have often been compared to computer hackers of the 1980s, but instead of breaking into and manipulating information technology systems, they're focused on hacking living organisms with the hopes of curing illnesses and in some cases obtaining superhuman powers. Their shared mission is to put this technology into the hands of as many people as possible. "People should be able to use all the technologies that science develops," says Zayner. "It shouldn't just be patented and given to companies or exclusively given to certain people." These do-it-yourself biologists say the democratization of science has given them the freedom to do work on projects that are often ignored by larger institutions. They're using gene editing technologies like CRISPR to create personalized treatments for those suffering from rare diseases or cancer, reverse engineering pharmaceuticals like Epi-Pens so people can make their own medicine at home, and even creating glow in the dark beer. "I think this is the most exciting time thus far in the history of the world to be alive with respect to what we can and will do with life forms," says Hank Greely, the director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University. But breakthroughs in the world of biohacking are drawing more scrutiny from federal regulators. Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration began placing restrictions on non-human genetic modifications and declared that genetically edited animals must be classified as drugs. This gives the agency broad authority over a number of do-it-yourself genetics tests and requires experiments involving animals to go through the same vetting process as a new drug. "I guess they couldn't call them cosmetics and they couldn't call them foods, so they're like dogs are drugs," states David Ishee, a Mississippi canine breeder who is working on editing out genetic diseases in dogs. "Everybody's worried about what someone could do with this technology and nobody seems to care about the damage that not doing it will cause because these animals are dying." Increasing regulation could undermine biohacking breakthroughs for humans as well. "I'm a huge fan of deregulation because I believe in the inherent goodness of capitalism," says Zayner. "Stuff doesn't progress unless people do useful things with it." Produced by Alexis Garcia and Justin Monticello. Camera by Garcia, Monticello, and Zach Weissmueller. Ascent by Jon Luc Hefferman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license ( Source: Artist: Cut and Run - Electronic Hard by Kevin MacLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license ( Source: Artist: New Dawn by Bensound is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (https://[...]

California Partially Repeals Foolish Law That Accidentally Banned Book Signings

Mon, 16 Oct 2017 12:46:00 -0400

Next year California's bookstores will once again be able to host author signing events without fearing an expensive lawsuit. The threat of those suits sprang from a 2016 law that tried to crack down on sales of fake autographed memorabilia by requiring retailers to provide certificates of authenticity for any autographed merchandise worth more than $5. Last week Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that loosened the new rules: The threshold will now be updated to $50 for most autographed memorabilia. Autographed books, fine art, furniture, and decorative objects will be excluded from the certificate requirement, according to The Los Angeles Times. "The law was ostensibly passed to protect people from fraud. But it made little sense when applied to stores like Book Passage, which sell books that are autographed in the consumers' presence—and thus present no risk of fraud," notes Anastasia Boden, an attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which had sued to stop the original law. As I reported when that lawsuit was launched, the list of criteria for the certificates of authenticity was absurdly long. The law specified that those certificates must contain a description of the collectible and the name of the person who signed it, the purchase price and date, and an "explicit statement" of authenticity. It must also indicate how many items were signed, whether they are numbered as part of a series, and whether any more might be sold in the future. There also has to be proof that the seller is insured. And of course there has to be a certificate number provided by the State Board of Equalization. There's a separate requirement for an "identifying serial number," which, naturally, has to match the serial number of the receipt—a receipt that must be kept by the seller for no less than seven years after the transaction. Finally, the certificate of authenticity has to say whether the author provided his John Hancock in the presence of the dealer, or another witness, and include the name of the witness. (There is no requirement that the witness' first born must also sign the form.) A single mistake or omission could cost book stores huge sums of money: up to 10 times the purchase cost, plus damages, plus court costs, plus attorneys fees, plus interest, says Boden. The law led the Easton Press—a publisher that counts novelist Neil Gaiman, pop astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and humorist Carol Burnett among its authors—to stop shipping signed books to Califorinia stores. That decision was made to avert potential suits, but it further hurt small stores like Eureka Books in San Francisco. The consequences for bookstores may have been unintended, but they were anything but unexpected. Reason's Brian Doherty, covering the original bill's passage in September 2016, warned that it could "if fully enforced squash, among other things, the practice of author book events." That's exactly what happened. src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0">[...]