Published: Fri, 30 Sep 2016 00:00:00 -0400
Last Build Date: Fri, 30 Sep 2016 17:47:08 -0400
Tue, 06 Sep 2016 00:01:00 -0400Cash—the familiar, anonymous paper money and metallic coins that most of us grew up using—isn't just convenient, it's also a powerful shield for our autonomy and our privacy. That's the argument of cash advocates of course—but also of those economists and government officials who want to abolish the stuff. Cash's power to protect people from meddling and tracking motivates both parties, either to shore up our defenses against the state, or to squish them under their thumbs. And yes, you need to follow this debate. That's because the elimination of physical cash isn't some hypothetical possibility for the distant future; it's a goal actively sought by many international movers and shakers, and one that's nearing fruition in several countries. Arguing that cash "facilitates crime" and "is also deeply implicated in tax evasion" Harvard University's Kenneth S. Rogoff, former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, favors"moving to a society where cash is used less frequently and mainly for small transactions." Rogoff likes the power that eliminating bills larger than $10 would give the government over the economy, including manipulating people's spending and saving habits. "Take cash away, however, or make the cost of hoarding high enough, and central banks would be free to drive rates as deep into negative territory as they needed in a severe recession." Such negative interest rates, he and other economists believe, could be used to spur people to spend their money rather than keeping it in the bank. Peter Bofinger of the German Council of Economic Experts agrees. "Stand up for the abolition of cash, since coins and bills are obsolete and only reduce the influence of central banks," he proposed last year. Citigroup chief economist Willem Buiter also goes along with the belief that abolishing cash is a necessary step for giving governments the economic power they need to monitor and control economic activity. There's a price for abolishing cash, as you'd expect. In a world without the stuff, "You'd have no choice but to conform to the intermediaries' automated bureaucracy, giving them a lot of power, and a lot of data about the microtexture of your economic life," Brett Scott warns at OpenDemocracyUK. "To eliminate cash is to say to hell with financial privacy," cautions Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic. "An end to cash would mean that every financial transaction is exposed to a third party." Cash is "printed freedom," German economist Lars Feld pithily offered as a direct rebuttal to his Council of Economic Experts colleague. People "should be entitled to an escape from all-out state control," Deutsche Welle clarified with regard to Feld's views. There's really no argument here. Cash abolitionists fully understand that cash shields individuals from the state—and they hate that protection. "But where does one draw the line between this individual right and the government's need to tax and regulate and to enforce the law?" objects Rogoff, whose book, The Curse of Cash, came out last week. He knows where he would draw it—to encompass a lot more enforcement and much less privacy. Buiter also acknowledges charges that abolishing cash would be "shockingly illiberal"—and dismisses them. "[T]he net benefit to society from giving up the anonymity of currency holdings is likely to be positive (including for tax compliance)." "I confess to not being surprised," sniffed former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, "that resistance [to eliminating high-denomination euro notes] is coming out of Luxembourg, with its long and unsavory tradition of giving comfort to tax evaders, money launderers, and other proponents of bank secrecy." Any resistance should be suppressed, Rogoff emphasizes, as he notes that people may try turning to substitutes, such as foreign currencies, cryptocurrencies, and gold coins. "Won't the private sector continually find new ways to make anonymous transfers that sidestep government restrictions? Certainly. But as long as the government keeps playing Whac-A-Mole and prevents these alternative [...]
Sat, 20 Aug 2016 08:00:00 -0400A recent survey published by the International Food Information Council found that Americans are concerned about food safety. Foodborne illness resides as the top concern of survey respondents. These facts may sound worrying. Thankfully, they don't tell the whole story. The survey also reveals that fully two-thirds of Americans are confident in the safety of the nation's food supply. Data support that confidence. For example, the number and severity of foodborne illnesses appears to be trending downwards in many places, including California. Part of our confidence in our food supply no doubt stems from regulations. But rules can (and often are) imperfect, something I detail at length in my forthcoming book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable. And, as I wrote about in a 2012 law-review article, regulations intended to make our food safer often impose new costs but fail to improve safety. Earlier this week—keeping the above facts in mind—the FDA published final rules to clarify and update its "GRAS" classification system. The acronym "GRAS," which stands for "generally recognized as safe," refers to the status of permissible food additives. GRAS rules have been controversial for some time. On the one hand, critics have viewed the self-policing approach favored by the rules as too heavily weighed in favor of food producers and, ergo, bad both for consumers and food safety. On the other hand, the rules may give consumers a false sense of safety. Even then, the FDA is hardly handcuffed by GRAS. In 2015, for example, the agency effectively banned partially hydrogenated oils that contain trans fats, declaring these oils "are no longer GRAS." Many, me included, viewed the ban as a foolhardy attack both on food freedom and on the food industry, and an overstepping of the agency's powers under the GRAS rules. It probably comes as no surprise that the new rules have also proven controversial, and for some of the same old reasons. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) blasted the updated rules, which include continued voluntary reporting by the food industry, as the equivalent of "a self-graded take home exam that industry doesn't even have to hand in." Food Safety News reported "publication of the final rule has generated opposition from some of the so-called food police groups." But a group of toxicologists surveyed by Food Navigator, a source of news on the food industry, argued "critics have not provided any evidence that the GRAS system is putting the public at risk." Neither is the food industry. And it's America's food producers who I believe are rightly due a great deal of credit not just for the safety of the nation's food supply but also for our confidence in that food supply. Take McDonald's. The company, which has seen its stock rebound after it switched to an all-day breakfast menu, has been testing out fresh beef in some restaurants. (The company's burgers are currently made from frozen beef.) Though that's something consumers appear to want, many of the company's franchisees worry that the switch could lead to increased incidents of foodborne illness. Competitors, including Wendy's and In-N-Out Burger, already use fresh beef. Whatever the ultimate decision is from McDonald's, it's likely one that will strive to balance consumer demands with food safety. Businesses outside the food industry are also working to make food safer. A recent study by IBM researchers on the use of "big data" to mitigate outbreaks of foodborne illness found promising results. "IBM announced its scientists have discovered that analyzing retail-scanner data from grocery stores against maps of confirmed cases of foodborne illness can speed early investigations," reports the website Phys.org. Thanks to a combination of technological fixes and innovations, consumer demands, and regulations, better reporting, food-safety litigators, and other measures, our nation's food supply is largely safe, and appears to be growing safer.[...]
Mon, 08 Aug 2016 18:00:00 -0400
(image) The Greater Philadelphia Chinese Restaurant Association is looking to get a 2005 ordinance requiring commercial establishments in residential areas to close by 11 p.m. repealed, as Philly.com reports. The association was formed after the ordinance was first passed. The ordinance called businesses like take-out spots, Stop'n'Gos, and convenience stores "nuisance retail shops" that had "become a haven for drug activity, crime and underage drinking," a common refrain in some cities. Community leaders in Camden pushed for a curfew in 2011, saying patrons at take-out spots were "more interested in buying drugs than Chinese food or fried chicken," as Philly.com reported at the time. My favorite pizzeria growing up in Newark was targeted by local community leaders for being an alleged drug hotspot. It eventually co-located with a liquor store and then finally shut down.
As for crime, Philadelphia homicides hit a nationwide high in 2011 but has been down recently. Most tellingly, the ordinance that forced businesses to shut down at 11 p.m. didn't offer any specific data about crimes occurring near such establishments, even though such data likely existed. One restaurant owner Philly.com talked to, however, said his busiest hours were between midnight and 2 a.m. Now after 24 years he is looking to sell his business but no one is looking to buy.
Elsewhere in Philadelphia, the Office of Property Assessment appears to be reneging on tax abatements that have attracted new homeowners, specifically targeting those that appear to live in "wealthy" neighborhoods, as one such homeowner wrote at Philly.com.
Sat, 30 Jul 2016 08:00:00 -0400July has been a bad month for those leading the foolhardy charge against energy drinks. Earlier this month saw the quiet but welcome dismissal of a set of lawsuits against Monster, the maker of popular energy drinks. The suits, filed earlier this year by Morgan & Morgan, a Florida-based law firm, claimed just two cans of Monster could be deadly. "When the Monster lawsuit started earlier in 2016, the law firm Morgan & Morgan claimed two 16-ounce cans of Monster Energy contained a 'lethal dose' of caffeine and that 'overconsumption of energy drinks has led to heart attacks, strokes and even death,'" reported the news website Inquistr this week. "The Florida-based personal injury law firm has now asked the courts to dismiss their lawsuits." The news is particularly noteworthy because the media loudly trumpeted the purported dangers of energy drinks in the wake of the lawsuits. A Daily Beast piece on the lawsuits, typical of the tone of some reports, described the lawsuits' target under an ominous (and false) heading: "death juice." Most reports on the lawsuit's withdrawal, when they have appeared, have been of the demure, three-sentence variety. Ominous-sounding lawsuits make for good headlines. Dismissals no so much. As part of its campaign against Monster, Morgan & Morgan had launched a website seeking potential plaintiffs to challenge the energy-drink maker. "If you or someone you know has experienced heart problems, seizures, an irregular heartbeat, kidney failure, or any other adverse effects after drinking Monster Energy drinks," the firm's EnergyDrinksLawsuit.com website advertises, "you may be entitled to compensation." Maybe not. "The voluntary dismissal of these lawsuits, we believe, speaks volumes," Marc P. Miles of Shook, Hardy & Bacon, counsel for Monster Energy Company, said in a company press release. "We believe fairness dictates that the media now write about the dismissals." In addition to the demise of the Morgan & Morgan litigation targeting energy drinks, fairness suggests the need to cite the rising tide of research demonstrating that energy drinks aren't the threat many critics claim. In an excellent Food Safety News piece on the dismissal of the lawsuits, Dan Flynn points to a recent peer-reviewed study by University of Texas-Austin researchers, which, in the words of the study authors, concluded that the impact of "consumption of a commercially available energy drink.... was similar to the effect of coffee and water consumption." Nothing to see here. Move on. But the news isn't all rosy for energy-drink makers and consumers. The lawsuit was just the latest threat against energy-drink makers. An effort by a Chicago city councilman to ban energy drinks failed several years ago, a story I detailed here. And the recent dismissal of the case against Monster doesn't spell the end of litigation over energy drinks, as other lawsuits are ongoing. Monster is still embroiled in at least one caffeine-related lawsuit with the city of San Francisco. A class-action lawsuit in California, while recently scaled back by a federal court, is still proceeding. A lawsuit involving Monster and the New York State attorney general is also pending. These lawsuits take place against an ominous backdrop, as the FDA has spent several years quietly "investigating 'any and all products with added caffeine" since I first wrote those words in 2013. The good news? That investigation hasn't singled out energy-drink makers. The bad news? It's targeting all foods and beverages that contain added caffeine—from caffeinated gum and beef jerky to sodas and energy drinks. The FDA's ongoing investigation raises the specter of the agency's campaign against Four Loko and similar caffeinated beers, which resulted in the agency banning the direct addition of caffeine to alcohol beverages in 2010. Targeting energy drinks and energy-drink consumers has been a cottage industry. With any luck, the recent dismissal of lawsuits against Monster and the publication of ne[...]
Fri, 29 Jul 2016 14:09:00 -0400
(image) This week many fans of YouTuber Marina Joyce, who posts videos on her channel about make-up and fashion tips, decided she must be in danger. Joyce didn't say so, and even told fans multiple times she was not in danger, but internet users, as internet users are wont to do, began to pull details from her recent videos to concoct a theory about Joyce being abused or kidnapped, possibly even by ISIS for use as a lure in an upcoming terrorist attack. There were so many calls to local police (Joyce lives in England) that they went to her house to check on her and tweeted that she was fine.
Eventually, Joyce's mother revealed she was suffering from schizophrenia. Joyce herself had repeatedly expressed surprise at people's concerns, and in a livestream described it as a "publicity stunt started by my viewers, not me." So the online mob that formed to dish out some collective "compassion" turned on her. The quote was passed around Twitter and the internet with the "by my viewers" part cut out. People who had spent days reading about Joyce and trying to "figure out" what happened were now angry, not with themselves for wasting time and bothering a stranger they might like to watch on YouTube based on their interpretations of her life, but with Joyce.
A Twitter search of the #SaveMarinaJoyce hashtag will find some sympathetic comments, and a lot of folks with no connection to Joyce except possibly subscribing to her YouTube channel or following her on Twitter (both of which they are always free to stop doing) expressing anger that Joyce wasn't clearer about not having been kidnapped or held hostage. How much clearer could she be?
The story of #SaveMarinaJoyce, which started less than a week ago, is illustrative of the same emotional inputs involved in bad policies pushed in the name of helping someone or something, from the drug war to the effort to "rescue" sex workers to "humanitarian" interventions like the one in Libya. They begin under the guise of compassion, and when it turns out a lot of people aren't necessarily interested in the kind of "compassion" that comes with coercion, the boot comes down. The widely reviled 1994 crime bill, which contributed to rising incarceration rates, is still defended under the premise lawmakers had to do something to "help" with crime. Hillary Clinton eventually started to blame an "obstructionist" Libyan government for the aftermath of the U.S.-backed intervention. The changing mob reaction captured in #SaveMarinaJoyce is as good an example of any why "I'm from the government and I'm here to help" can be such a dangerous phrase. Government is just a word for the meddling we want to do together.
Tue, 26 Jul 2016 11:20:00 -0400First Lady Michelle Obama was granted the task last night of making Hillary Clinton seem like a human being other people should aspire to emulate and not a lifelong politician who for some reason is less able to conceal her mercenary maneuvering than her peers. Part of Obama's speech was about the role of parents and parenting, and in particular, being good role models, suggesting that Clinton is such a person. The speech was also heavy on the idolization of the politician as substitute parent and very creepily the idea that the president is and should be shaping who your children are: With every word we utter, with every action we take, we know our kids are watching us. We as parents are their most important role models. And let me tell you, Barack and I take that same approach to our jobs as President and First Lady, because we know that our words and actions matter not just to our girls, but to children across this country — kids who tell us, "I saw you on TV, I wrote a report on you for school." Kids like the little black boy who looked up at my husband, his eyes wide with hope, and he wondered, "Is my hair like yours?" And make no mistake about it, this November, when we go to the polls, that is what we're deciding — not Democrat or Republican, not left or right. No, this election, and every election, is about who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives. And I am here tonight because in this election, there is only one person who I trust with that responsibility, only one person who I believe is truly qualified to be President of the United States, and that is our friend, Hillary Clinton. Who can forget the time Obama half-joked/half-lectured Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas because she ate an Egg McMuffin at McDonald's, even though such a breakfast is healthy enough when you're an extremely active young athlete. Obama no doubt thinks she's being a "role model" by pushing her healthy food and activity agenda, but there is a lot of evidence out there that the government doesn't know what the heck it's talking about when it lectures Americans on food. Food policy expert Baylen Linnekin frequently notes how terrible the government's analysis is on issues related to nutrition (read his takedown on the Food and Drug Administration's unscientific meddling in the salt content of products here). Obama herself as our nation's nutrition nanny back in 2013 pushed forward the discredited idea that Americans need to be drinking more water to improve health. Likewise, the government's attitude toward child-rearing, as Reason contributor Lenore Skenazy regularly highlights, is to fill parents with a constant fear that risks to children's safety are much higher than they actually are. When government officials decide that they play a role in shaping the lives of children, it seems to end up wanting to replace the judgment of adults (and also expand government regulation of goods and services). One doesn't have to believe that Clinton is exactly as amoral and self-serving as Donald Trump (she is, though) in order to be repulsed at the idea that we should be viewing the president or public officials in general as role models. Clinton's ideas for raising children properly have involved attacking pop culture and calling for government-endorsed censorship. No American should be looking to the president to shape children's lives (that's what parents are for), and certainly nobody should be looking for a dreadful scold like Clinton for that sort of guidance.[...]
Wed, 20 Jul 2016 19:53:00 -0400Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), sounds like he doesn't know how a smartphone works or what the role of Congress is. The ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee fired off a letter along with two Democratic colleagues demanding Pokémon Go explain what it does about how much data its users use playing the game. "We are writing to better understand what measures Niantic has undertaken to ensure consumers are informed of Pokémon Go's effect on their mobile data usage," the letter begins, continuing by explaining that the app had been downloaded 7.5 million times in its first week out and earned "an estimated $2.3 million day on the iOS and Android platforms. The reference to revenue is totally gratuitous and unrelated to anything else Pallone brings up. He does not mention that Pokémon Go is a free app or that he has no business getting involved with Pokémon Go and data usage in the first place. Amazingly, while trying to whip up fears over Pokémon Go and data usage, Pallone cites a Wall Street Journal article titled "Relax, Pokémon Go Isn't Eating Your Data Plan," which reports that according to Verizon the app takes up less than 1 percent of its total data traffic. Pokémon Go, like any sophisticated app, can drain battery life, but it does have a setting for "battery saver." Battery usage is a problem for many smartphone users and one smartphone makers have long been working to improve. Like data usage, battery usage isn't any of Pallone's business either. It's up to individuals how much they want to consider their data usage when playing Pokémon Go. Most smartphones allow you to check data usage by app—I've used about 300MB of data on Pokémon Go in the last two weeks, hardly my most data-taxing app—and there are even apps to help monitor data usage instead. But Pallone could relax even if that weren't the case, because issues like data usage on Pokemon Go are outside the purview of Congress. It's notable too that the concept of net neutrality, which Pallone and Democrats tend to support, make it harder for service providers and app operators to minimize the cost of data usage because "net neutrality" doesn't permit treating data spent on Pokémon Go to be treated differently than data used on any other program or internet service. If Pallone is interested in contributing, he could work to roll back net neutrality controls. Frank Pallone ends with four questions he asks Niantic to answer, none of which it should feel compelled to answer and none of which are intelligent enough to be worth asking. He wants to know whether there are "best practices" Niantic follows to minimize how much data is used (their code is none of Pallone or the government's business), whether it works with carriers to "ensure that consumers are not unexpectedly hit with large overage charges," (this is non-sensical as other apps use even more data), whether it warns consumers about data usage (again, nonsensical given that Pallone has overblown the data impact), and most incredibly, whether it had "any mechanisms in place to make sure consumers are made whole in the event they are hit with an unexpected overage charge resulting from the use of your app." Why would anyone but the user of a phone be responsible for the data they use? I wouldn't even say Congress has more important things to concern itself about. Even if Congress didn't have anything to concern itself with—no self-created foreign policy, fiscal and other messes to get itself out of—Pokémon Go would still not be something that's appropriate for Congress to concern itself with. If Frank Pallone has concerns about Pokémon Go, he should free to quit his job in Congress and work on developing an augmented-reality game he thinks is superior. Otherwise he should shut up and not use the pulpit of political office to bully a company that did develop an augmented-reality game it and millions of users[...]
Wed, 13 Jul 2016 11:25:00 -0400
(image) Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) will absolutely not stand around and just let Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) snatch away her title of "The Absolute Worst." Feinstein announced Tuesday afternoon that she will oppose California's ballot initiative legalizing recreational use of marijuana.
Feinstein is a well-worn drug warrior, and last year was the only Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee to vote no on legislation to stop the feds from interfering with states that have legalized medical marijuana use.
She opposed California's previous attempt to legalize recreational marijuana and she's doing so again under the claim that it would harm kids and make the roads more dangerous. Her arguments, though, lack foundation. As Jacob Sullum recently noted, adolescent marijuana use in Colorado is holding steady, not increasing. And Sullum has also looked at the crash statistics and found that drug warriors have been exaggerating the impacts. A Heritage Foundation analyst claimed that fatal crashes in Washington State had increased dramatically since recreational marijuana use was permitted. But in fact, there was a mere increase of seven fatal crashes between 2010 and 2014, and while there was a small increase (10 percent) in the number of fatal collisions in which a driver tested positive for marijuana, there was actually a decline in the total number of people killed in crashes involving all drugs or alcohol. The number of cases where drivers tested positively for marijuana and nothing else rose from nine to 20. Clearly drug warriors want to present numbers like that as percentages to disguise the fact that the flat figures wouldn't and shouldn't inspire fear.
Like a lot of political positions that use fear to justify nanny state authoritarianism, her positions don't have a foundation. Her hostility to marijuana legalization puts her at odds with nearly all of her peers in California (including gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is pushing Prop. 64). As late as last year she was still claiming that marijuana was a "gateway drug."
But while her drug nannying may put her out of step with Democrats, it's certainly keeping with her view as a government that rules over its citizens rather than answers to them. Her desire to regulate everything from guns to video games to drugs to even attempting to legislatively draft tech companies into helping the federal government violate encryption illustrates the mentality that made her one of Reason's "45 enemies of freedom." It doesn't look like she'll be evolving any time soon.
Tue, 05 Jul 2016 00:01:00 -0400Dirty water dogs bought from a cart aren't just a gut-busting lunchtime treat—they're a living for the vendor slapping on the mustard and onions and taking your cash. Pushcarts are a traditional entry-level business in the United States, as elsewhere. They have relatively low startup costs and allow sellers to go to where the customers are, rather than counting on buyers to seek them out. But it's a tough business, and long hours, sparring over locations, and dragging a cart from place to place are only half the story. Places like New York City have created their own cottage industries out of lassoing entrepreneurs—often immigrants—with obstructionist rules that make it ever-harder to make a buck while driving cart operators underground and into the clutches of illegal facilitators who can navigate through a sea of red tape. Last month, Crain's New York Business detailed how mobile food vending permits have become barriers to entry for people trying to earn a living, with the law breeding an illegal market for pieces of city-issued plastic that grant permission to do business. "A generation ago, after a few years of hard work and saving, Zamir could have become his own boss. Sidewalk vending was long an option for immigrants eager to improve their lives," reported Jeff Koyen. "That's no longer the case. Today's mobile food vending business is one of day laborers and shift workers who, despite hustling all week long, may not earn minimum wage." Zamir's boss, a cart operator named Sharif, has been working the same corner for 17 years, owns a cart that he built himself, but rents the use of his permit from its official holder. Permits aren't supposed to be transferrable, but the number available is capped at 3,000 in the cold season, plus 1,000 more from April to October, and there's a waiting list to get one. That creates a market for the permits, dominated by savvy underground permit holders who rent them out to the actual vendors—the going rate was $15,000-$20,000 for a two-year lease, according to a 2013 New York Times piece by Adam Davidson. The official price charged by the city for the permits is $200, but since "an estimated 70% to 80% of permits are illegally in use by someone other than the permit holder," according to Koyen, most vendors are paying a bit more. The reason for the cap and the underground market it creates is snobbery, pure and simple. People who have already made it don't like the sight of those who are scrambling to climb the economic ladder. "This is not supposed to look like a souk," then-Mayor Ed Koch complained in 1988 about the lines of carts and customers on midtown streets. He ordered a strict crackdown on pushcart vendors that inconvenienced hungry customers but economically crippled struggling entrepreneurs, some of whose carts were confiscated. "Souk" is just a word for marketplace, which is where people buy and sell goods and create prosperity. If a city isn't supposed to look like a souk, it's hard to visualize how it should look. The limits Koch put in place are still in effect. But he was hardly the first offender—or the first person to express contempt for the sight of largely immigrant vendors working hard to feed their families. "[T]he practical disadvantages from the undue congestion of peddlers in certain localities are so great as to lead to a demand in many quarters for the entire abolition of this industry, if it may be dignified by the term," sniffed the Report of the Mayor's Push-Cart Commission in 1906. Back then, the immigrant vendors were mostly Jewish and Italian, rather than Middle Eastern, so the term "souk" wasn't yet in wide circulation. For a hint of the foreign, the report instead turned to the "padrone" system "by which one man has control of a number of push-carts and also a number of licenses, hires persons to operate them for him, payi[...]
Fri, 01 Jul 2016 00:01:00 -0400The last time I wrote about tobacco-related measures, I concluded that California legislators and health advocates have let a bit of Puritanism get the better of them. Why else would the governor sign a law that makes no distinctions between smoking dangerous, combustible tobacco products (cigarettes) and puffing on vaping devices that are a safer, alternative product? I still think some Puritanism is at work—it bothers activists that smokers find vaping enjoyable, as opposed to arm patches, nasal sprays and ten-step programs. But some readers reminded me of an even bigger and more cynical reason for the state's approach: officials are addicted to their cut of tobacco-related revenues. Smoking rates are declining. As smokers give up their bad habit, anti-smoking programs lose tax dollars. Taking dollars from government agencies and government-addicted nonprofits makes them as grumpy as taking the last pack of cigarettes from a habitual smoker. Even though the state passed several new laws—raising the smoking age to 21 and regulating e-cigarettes like tobacco, for instance—anti-tobacco activists have qualified an initiative for the November ballot that would go even further. The "California Healthcare, Research and Prevention Tobacco Tax Act of 2016" is, as its name suggests, all about hiking tax rates. California has one of the nation's lower tobacco taxes. The initiative provides a $2 per pack tax boost on cigarettes (from 87 cents to $2.87). It raises taxes on other tobacco products by an equivalent amount. I'm no fan of tax increases. And sin taxes are regressive—they impose a particularly high burden on the poor. But at least advocates are trying to do something that might improve public health by discouraging the use of a dangerous product. But this line in the initiative suggests the anti-vaping craze is mainly about the money: "Tobacco products also shall include electronic cigarettes." To be clear, the liquid that is heated and "vaped" is not tobacco, even though most—but not all—liquids contain nicotine. The nicotine is the point. Smokers are addicted to it. These products provide a safer way to get that fix—95 percent safer, according to Public Health England. If the initiative passes, the state will have another way to get its fix of taxes. In fact, the measure would boost taxes on vaping products by 320 percent, according to industry estimates. The Legislative Analyst's Office explains the $1 billion a year in expected new revenues will go to replace lost tobacco-related revenues. A small portion will go to the Board of Equalization to administer the tax. Law enforcement will grab $48 million. The University of California will grab $40 million for "physician training." The Department of Public Health will get a $30-million cut and the state auditor will get some money to conduct audits. "Many believe this misguided measure is driven more [by] money than protecting California's public health due to the fact that tobacco tax revenues are declining as adult consumption rates continue to fall," Joshua Kane, president of the California chapters of the Smoke Free Alternatives Trade Association, argued in his recent testimony to the Legislature. Only 4.3 percent of the current $1.52 billion in smoking-related excise taxes and settlements actually are spent on smoking prevention and cessation programs, he added. That reinforces the cynics' view: The government wants its dollars. And so does the tobacco industry, of course. The Los Angeles Times obtained an email from a tobacco lobbyist suggesting the industry would pay up to $10 per signature to place a possible referendum on the ballot overturning the age-21 measure. It would have driven up signature costs and endangered this tax initiative and other proposals slated for the ballot. That's cynical politics, t[...]
Thu, 30 Jun 2016 17:20:00 -0400
(image) This week the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released an official recommendation that no one should ever eat raw cookie dough. Ever. Also, Christmas is canceled. And your puppy is dead went away to a farm.
Turns out, it's not just the eggs that'll get you with salmonella, it's the E. coli in the flour. "The bottom line for you and your kids is don't eat raw dough," the FDA website declares. "And even though there are websites devoted to 'flour crafts,' don't give your kids raw dough or baking mixes that contain flour to play with. Why? Flour, regardless of the brand, can contain bacteria that cause disease. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state and local officials, is investigating an outbreak of infections that illustrates the dangers of eating raw dough."
"Outbreak" sounds bad, and 10 million pounds of flour were subject to a recall last year. In the end, though, the CDC reports that 38 people were sickened by the flour in a 2015 incident, only 10 of whom were hospitalized. No one died, as far as I can tell. As always, the delight and happiness of millions of children (and adults, let's be honest) are not factored anywhere into the equation.
Ben & Jerry's spokesman Lindsay Bumps says that "food safety is a top priority for Ben & Jerry's. In addition to a rigorous food safety program, the supplier of our cookie dough uses heat treated flour in the production of our cookie dough therefore there is no bacterial contamination. Ben & Jerry's cookie dough is unaffected" by the 2015 recall or, presumably, the current panic.
My prediction: Some time in the not-too-distant future, you will be able to easily buy (probably at Whole Foods) heat-treated flour explicitly for use in home baking and kid projects where the dough might be consumed. Entrepreneurs: I expect my cut when you make your first billion with this idea. I accept payment in raw cookie dough.
Sat, 18 Jun 2016 08:00:00 -0400Earlier this month, as I touched on briefly in a recent column, the FDA issued a "voluntary" sodium "guidance" for the food industry. The agency is seeking to pressure companies to reduce the salt content of their foods. It establishes and applies to 150 categories of food. It also creates two- and 10-year salt-reduction goals, with an eye to allowing time for "American palates to adapt to new tastes and manufacturers to reformulate products." The FDA claims the guidance is "intended to address the excessive intake of sodium in the current population and promote improvements in public health." But the plan, I wrote, has "faced sharp criticism." So what's wrong with this voluntary guidance? Many things. Here are three. First, it's not based on scientific consensus. "A majority of the research on sodium and hypertension indicates that high levels of sodium slightly increase blood pressure," said Cherylyn Harley LeBon, a lawyer, former senior counsel on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, and a contributing fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis who's followed the issue closely, in an email to me this week. "However, the majority of recent research on sodium and total health outcomes actually shows a wide healthy range of sodium intake that is well above the FDA recommendations." A statement by the Salt Institute, which represents salt makers, blasts the science underlying the FDA's guidance, calling the decision "tantamount to malpractice and inexcusable in the face of years of scientific evidence showing that population-wide sodium reduction strategies are unnecessary and could be harmful." The group rightly points out that a 2013 report by the Institute of Medicine—which, like the FDA, is housed within the Dept. of Health and Human Services—"specifically did not support sodium reduction." "Like others inside and outside of government, we believe additional work is needed to determine the acceptable range of sodium intake for optimal health," said Leon Bruner, Chief Science Officer of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a group that represents many of America's food and beverage makers, in the wake of the FDA's announcement earlier this month. Second, besides its shaky scientific basis, the FDA attack on salt is clearly just an intermediate step toward a future move by the agency to cap the amount of salt in food. Consider the move in context. The salt crackdown has been looming for years. And, as I've detailed, the FDA is currently at war not just with salt but also with a litany of other ingredients commonly found in many foods. Various activists are pressuring the FDA to turn its new "added sugar" label into a cap on the amount of sugar that can be added to food or, put another way, a ban on adding "too much" sugar. Other activists have sought to place limits on the amount of caffeine that can appear in foods. That's something the FDA has been considering. As I've also lamented previously, voluntary guidelines have a tendency to become mandatory. New York City's salt rules started off as a voluntary effort, I've noted, and recently morphed into mandatory rules. The FDA's rules that required the trans fat content of foods quickly turned into a ban on manmade trans fats. Finally, there's the very real problem that so-called "voluntary" rules aren't really voluntary at all. "Food producers will face public pressure to comply with FDA sodium reduction efforts even if they are voluntary," LeBon told me this week. "This will require millions in costs to reformulate products so that they remain appealing to consumers. And who will pay for these costs in the end: parents, families, and consumers." Simply put, this salt crackdown is the FDA's latest terrible idea.[...]
Sat, 11 Jun 2016 10:00:00 -0400As James Bond once asked, why is it that people who can't take advice always insist on giving it? The federal government is $19 trillion in debt, yet last week the nation's newest major regulatory agency tossed out 1,300 pages of new rules for the payday lending industry and it did so, we are told, because it is worried about Americans getting into too much debt and being unable to repay. That's rich. The new rules issued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) will send shock waves through the payday lending industry, likely forcing about 85 percent of storefront payday lenders to shut their doors. But who would shed a tear at the possible demise of that neon-tinged, usurious industry, where people who don't have any money or credit to begin with can get a small amount of cash if they agree to outlandish interest terms. Certainly not CFPB Director Richard Cordray. "Too many borrowers seeking a short-term cash fix are saddled with loans they cannot afford and sink into long-term debt," Cordray said in a statement announcing the new rules. "It's much like getting into a taxi just to ride across town and finding yourself stuck in a ruinously expensive cross-country journey." You would think that a guy who once edited the University of Chicago Law Review would know his way around an analogy, but apparently not, because that's a terrible one. No one is walking into a payday loan shop to borrow $300 and coming out of it saddled with a 30-year mortgage. And how often has anyone gotten into a taxi to go across town and discovered that they are actually being kidnapped, driven across the country and then forced to pay for the trip? Is this a thing that happens? But if you forget the second half of it, the analogy almost makes sense, because payday loans are kind of like a taking a taxi: you know you're probably getting charged too much, but sometimes you decide that it's worth it because you don't have any better options (don't drink and drive, kids). Which is exactly the point: Value is subjective. To one person, a $30 taxi ride across town makes sense, while other people will choose to walk/take the bus/stay home. Individuals have to make that decision based on their individual circumstances. Yes, using payday loans isn't cheap and certainly is not a sound long-term financial strategy—neither is taking a taxi across town every single day. Like taxis, no one should be relying on them on a regular basis. That being said, there are times when people need a quick infusion of cash and can't get it anywhere else. Forcing those lenders out of business does not change that—some people will, on occasion, need the services of a payday lender, whether they continue to exist or not. What are those people supposed to do now? Some of them will be forced to turn to government-subsidized credit unions—and some of those institutions have been lobbying for the CFPB to crack down on payday lenders, as Watchdog.org reported last week—and other people will simply be left with fewer options when they face a personal financial crisis. Forcing most of the payday lending industry into extinction does not solve that underlying problem. Much of CFPB's narrative about payday lending—a narrative that has been dutifully picked up by the media—should get a little bit of scrutiny. According to the CFPB, the entire payday loan business is basically a scam where businesses target individuals least likely to be able to repay their loans and the only solution is a strong application of government power. As Norbert Michel of the Heritage Foundation noted last week, it doesn't take a graduate degree in finance to figure out that's not a solid long-term business strategy. Payday lenders who don't get repaid aren'[...]
Sat, 11 Jun 2016 08:00:00 -0400Since 2010, The Hive Winery, in Layton, Utah, has used local fruits and honey to create its award-winning fruit wines. The Hive has also demonstrated a unique penchant for stinging the powers that be. In a state where Mormonism dominates, The Hive produces two cherry wines, the polygamy-themed "SisterWives" and "Bishop's Daughter," the label of which shows a topless, tattooed blonde woman in a tub above an entreaty to "give this cherry a try!" Recently, the winery decided to take on Utah's Zion curtain, a mandatory "7-foot-2-inch opaque barrier that newer restaurants must have in bar areas so children [and anyone shorter than Greg Ostertag or Mark Eaton] can't see alcoholic beverages being mixed or poured." The Zion curtain, which gets its name from Mormon scripture, "forces many restaurants to erect physical barriers between customers and bartenders," I wrote last year. "The reasoning? Elected officials in Utah fear that 'letting the public see drinks being prepared would lead to more alcohol sales and more alcohol consumption.'" In an act reminiscent of anti-communist graffiti painted on the Berlin Wall, Jay Yahne, who owns The Hive, has turned the tool of state oppression, his winery's unwelcome Zion curtain, into a canvas for bold protest against that oppression. In large type, the message on Hive Winery's Zion curtain says Utah's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control is "Doing As Bishop Commands," a reference to what he sees as the church's entanglement with the state. Yahne told Salt Lake City's Fox affiliate that ""those in Utah who don't believe the Mormon church controls what is done in Utah... are naive." The winery also uses the space to promote one of its own wines, the aptly named "Zion Curtain." Yahne says he's simply exercising his First Amendment right. The alcohol control folks haven't yet challenged that right (at least as pertains to Yahne's protest). The Zion curtain has been controversial since it was adopted last decade. Polls have shown Mormon and non-Morman Utahns alike oppose the Zion curtain. A bill that would have torn down the curtains, sponsored by Utah State Sen. Jim Dabakis (D-Salt Lake City), which he's labeled "weird," "awkward," "annoying," and "miserable," failed to pass this year. (I agree with Dabakis, though I've preferred "sheer idiocy.") Instead, lawmakers will "study" the issue. Previous efforts to rescind the 2009 law have also fallen short. Mormon Church leaders, who don't imbibe, perhaps not surprisingly, don't see the Zion curtain as a big deal for those who do. "How important is it to see your drink being made?" asks a 2014 Mormon Church video defending the Zion curtain. "Does it really matter, as long as you get what you ordered?" Left unsaid, of course, is that the only way to see if you've gotten exactly what you ordered—to determine whether you're the person who took your top-shelf order instead poured you from the rail—is to see it being made. "It's an absurd law and I'm glad to see the winery protesting it," said Jacob Grier, the author of Cocktails on Tap: The Art of Mixing Spirits and Beer, who also tends bar in Portland, Oregon, and is a frequent Reason contributor. "Watching cocktails being prepared is a point of interest for drinkers, and more importantly, it's a spur to education. I've had countless conversations with guests that begin with them asking what I'm making or what's in a bottle they've never seen before. Those interactions encourage them to widen their horizons and try new things." This is an important point that appears largely to have been lost so far in debates over the Zion curtain. Beyond legitimate concerns that the person pouring your drink could either be shorting you (by pouring yo[...]
Thu, 09 Jun 2016 12:55:00 -0400New York Times health reporter Margot Sanger-Katz, who has cheer-leaded for increased taxes on soda for some time, published an article yesterday in praise of Philadelphia's "novel strategy" to promote its proposed (and likely to pass) measure increasing the price of sweetened drinks by one-and-a-half cents per ounce. The game-changing strategy to sell a regressive tax that will disproportionately hit the pockets of the poor, as well as grant even more power to the government to regulate the personal choices of private citizens? Framing it as a revenue source, rather than as a do-gooder health measure. While it is true that there is an obesity crisis in this country and high-calorie and sugary drinks certainly do play their part in expanding American waistlines (though that part is frequently overstated), like so many Nanny State initiatives, Philadelphia's proposed tax is confusingly inconsistent right out of the gate. Sanger-Katz writes that to assuage the guilt of some members of the City Council that their tax will hurt lower income residents — because "Poor people tend to drink more sugary drinks than higher earners" — the measure also taxes sugar-free diet sodas (which are also frequently calorie-free), which "was an effort to spread the tax burden up the income scale." The measure also exempts juice drinks, which naturally contain sugar, "as long as they have 50 percent juice, even if they also have added sugar." So essentially, the tax is based on the political preferences of the council members, not science. In April, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney's proposed soda tax became a bone of contention in the Democratic presidential primary race, when Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) blasted his rival Hillary Clinton over her support of the measure. Sanders called it a "regressive tax" which violated Clinton's pledge to "not raise taxes on anyone making less than $250,000." Other traditionally Democratic interests are also opposed to the tax, including the Teamsters union, whose International Vice President Bill Hamilton said at a rally in Philadelphia yesterday, "The issue has never been about health and we will all end up paying for this tax with the job losses that will occur if the mayor's soda tax is passed." It should also be noted that Sanger-Katz mentioned Mexico's national soda tax in her article yesterday, crediting the tax with causing a "substantial" drop in the "consumption of sugary drinks" for the first year of its existence. What Sanger-Katz neglects to mention is that Mexican soda sales rebounded a year later. How could this be? In an article last month, Reason contributor Baylen Linnekin explains: Soda tax supporters appear flummoxed, but undaunted. Their argument: it was hot. Really. Since 2015 was warmer than 2014, tax supporters argue, that can help explain the increase in soda consumption in Mexico. A few months earlier, Linnekin noted that one of the prominent studies touting the success of Mexico's soda tax, which was published in the British Medical Journal, "was funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies—which also provided $10 million to push Mexico to adopt the soda tax in the first place—and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which supports soda taxes. And yes, Bloomberg Philanthropies is former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg's primary charity organization, whose stated mission is to "[create] lasting change" where "the greatest good can be achieved." As mayor, Bloomberg was known for insinuating his personal health and diet preferences into policy, and his Nanny Statism did not cease when it came to charity. For example, he banned private food donations to homeless shelters because their salt content[...]