2016-09-06T06:00:00-04:00Just after midnight on July 18, Darren Charrier grabbed a surfboard, headed out past the breakers near Cape Canaveral, Florida, and settled in to wait. Before long, he got what he came for. His buddy—paddling just behind on his own board—documented the moment for Twitter. In the striking snapshot, Charrier is in silhouette, backlit by the flare of a rocket returning to Earth and settling upright on its launch pad. Inspiring feats of aeronautics are not terribly unusual at Cape Canaveral, home to NASA's Kennedy Space Center. But this particular rocket doesn't belong to NASA. It belongs to Elon Musk, a man who is almost certainly both richer and smarter than everyone you know. His aerospace company, SpaceX, does have a contract with the U.S. government to carry several loads of cargo and hardware to the International Space Station. This mission, the seventh so far in 2016, successfully ferried a Dragon capsule loaded with two and a half tons of gear—including a handheld DNA sequencer—into low Earth orbit. But running a delivery service for the feds is merely a waystation for the co-founder of Tesla and PayPal, who has his eye on more radical experiments in living. "I think it would be cool to be born on Earth and die on Mars," says Musk. He adds, "Hopefully not at the point of impact." At the same moment Charrier was bobbing on the dark water, bathed in the glow of burning rocket fuel and Elon Musk's fever dreams, the rest of Twitter was exhaustedly signing off after day two of the Republican National Convention, which by that point had already been through a plagiarism scandal and an extended discussion of Hillary Clinton's exact relationship to Lucifer. The following week in Philadelphia served up the Democratic variant of anti-trade, pro-intervention, debt-denialist rhetoric, with donkeys in place of elephants and the word fair in the place of the word safe, alongside an awful lot of Donald Trump trash talk. The stakes are undeniably high in 2016, but the prospects for free markets and smaller government seem poor, no matter who wins. What to do? "Don't argue about regulation. Build Uber." Balaji S. Srinivasan is CEO of the cryptocurrency firm 21 Inc. and that is what he tweeted right before the conventions got rolling. "Don't argue about monetary policy. Build Bitcoin. Don't argue about it. Build the alternative." As the last U.S. space shuttle limped into retirement in 2011 and the agency's future looked uncertain, we could have had a big national debate about the future of space exploration. Instead, a bunch of billionaires were already strapping up to slip the surly bonds of Earth on their own—Musk with SpaceX, but also Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, and others. Don't argue about space policy. Build rockets. For nearly five decades, reason has advocated the privatization of the U.S. Postal Service. But those calls have become less heated over the years. Why? The Post Office still exists, it's still awful, and we're all going to be paying mail carriers' pensions until the end times. But that awfulness is increasingly irrelevant to daily life, thanks to a glorious cascade of innovative workarounds. FedEx, UPS, email, IM, SMS, Slack—even those old fax machines. Each is a razor blade slashing the Gordian knot of entrenched bureaucracy and byzantine regulation. Don't argue about the Post Office. Build messaging apps. This, then, is the only way out of the mess we've made: Culture and commerce must continue to get bigger and smarter faster than government and politics get bigger and stupider. Shortly after the conventions ended, Amazon announced a sale on former reason editor Virginia Postrel's 1998 book The Future and Its Enemies, a bargain at $3.99. Almost 20 years after its initial publication on dead tree, Postrel's recasting of the American political landscape seems more on point than ever, shining up from the iPhone Kindle app. "Some people," Postrel writes, look at "diverse, decentralized, choice-driven systems and rejoice, even when they don't lik[...]
Teachers in New York have been systematically manipulating students' scores on high-stakes testing.
High school students must pass the New York State Regents Examination to graduate. But when a team of researchers led by Stanford's Thomas S. Dee looked at scores in New York City, they found that from 2004 to 2010 the decentralized grading system made it easy for teachers to nudge students' numbers upward. At some schools, teachers inflated scores across the board—likely looking to improve their own performance reviews. At others, teachers tended to bump students who appeared to have underperformed on the test compared to subjective assessments, GPA, and behavioral measures.
All this fiddling with test scores may have closed the black-white achievement gap by as much as five points, as well as pushing many students who would not otherwise have graduated over the finishing line. The study, from the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that teachers altered nearly 40 percent of scores that were right below the cutoff, a group that is disproportionately black and Latino. At the same time, white and Asian students who fell just short were more likely than their black and Latino counterparts to see their scores fudged, suggesting that the racial implications of score manipulation cut both ways.
(image) Hatsune Miku is on a 10-city North America tour this spring. The turquoise-haired star is filling stadiums with glowstick-wielding superfans, as she has in Japan for years.
She's also not a real person. Miku is a vocaloid—a carefully marketed persona of a singing synthesizer application from Crypton Future Media. Anyone can create a Miku track using the consumer software that generates her teenybopper Stephen Hawking voice, and thousands have.
She appears on stage as a 10-foot tall hologram projected onto a transparent pane—a high-tech version of the "Pepper's Ghost" illusion common in haunted houses—accompanied by a live band. YouTube videos of the 2016 tour reveal some delightfully meta moments, including yellow-clad twin sidekicks Kagamine Rin and Len dancing the Robot to a song called "Remote Control." Miku also sings an oddly moving number called "Glass Wall": "This glass wall between us / won't keep us apart," she warbles. "I will sing out my heart / Just for you, my love."
In the late 1940s, the Ad Council—the folks who later brought us Smokey Bear, the crying Indian, and McGruff the Crime Dog—decided it was time to coordinate a massive propaganda campaign for American-style capitalism. "The American way is threatened by ignorance," the Ad Council explained in 1949. "While Americans today are as favorably disposed toward their economic system as at any other time in American history, they cannot effectively defend it against attack unless they have a better knowledge of how that system works. Very few Americans have that knowledge. They can be mislead by exaggeration of its faults, be made to forget the benefits it has brought them. Especially if a recession came, wide popular understanding of the virtues of our system in comparison with others would be vital to its survival. Particularly in view of the propaganda attack from within and without, we had better get started now to bring to every American the basic facts about our economic system."
Utterly devoid of irony, the ads come across as boosterishly simplistic today. And many other ads in the series, which ran for more than a decade, endorse less freedom-friendly positions—such as massive increases in defense spending and protectionist policies—but the underlying point stands: Markets make people's lives better, more pleasant, and more hopeful. So this weekend, as you traipse around in inexpensive sturdy shoes, eat cheap delicious hot dogs, and watch the fireworks on your enormous TV in air-conditioned comfort, why not take a minute to appreciate the "miracle of America" with some vintage propaganda?
(Many thanks to the marvelous Olivier Ballou for sending these my way.)
On the same day in April, the governors of both California and New York approved minimum wage hikes. Once they've fully kicked in, both states' rates will be more than double the current national level.
By the end of 2022, all California businesses with 26 or more employees will be required to pay their workers an hourly rate of at least $15. The first bump goes into effect on January 1, pushing the state minimum to $10.50. Several Golden State cities and municipalities had already set a wage floor at $15, including Los Angeles and San Francisco.
There's an asterisk in the new law, however—one that reveals more than its authors may have intended. The governor has the authority to delay implementation of the higher wage in the event of an economic downturn, an outcome that seems increasingly likely in a state already plagued by the perception that it is unfriendly to business. In his remarks about the law, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown acknowledged that there might be some flaws in the plan, saying that "economically, minimum wages may not make sense. But morally, socially, and politically they make every sense."
Wages will rise more quickly in New York City, where the bottom rate will be $11 by the end of 2016 for firms that employ at least 11 people, with a target of $15 per hour by the end of 2018. The wage floor will increase more slowly in the rest of the state.
Several other states, including Missouri and Oregon, have similar plans under consideration.
CORRECTION: The item initially stated that California suffered from unusually high unemployment. It does not.
(image) A vibrating piano score, moody lighting, and a generalized feeling of unease are pretty standard in a J.J. Abrams (Lost, Star Trek) production. But they sit oddly against the subject matter of his new nine-part documentary series, Moon Shot, on the companies participating in the Google Lunar X Prize competition.
The series, which is available on YouTube, profiles companies with names like Part-Time Scientists, Team Plan B, and Astrobotic that are vying for $30 million in prizes for technological and entrepreneurial solutions to low-cost robotic space exploration.
Coverage of space exploration errs on the side of dry technical exposition or bombastic nationalism (or too often, both) and Abrams has done a service by showing the human face and commercial motivations that drive the current phase of the race to the moon. But the creative choices for the series create an odd sense of foreboding about an enterprise where there is far more cause for sunny optimism.
2016-06-09T15:05:00-04:00If you've been part of the broad-based libertarian movement for more than a few years, you know that it is growing in popularity, visibility, and influence throughout American politics, culture, and ideas. Once a smallish movement tightly identified with the likes of Ayn Rand, Robert Heinlein, and Milton Friedman, rarely a day goes by now where some new writer, thinker, pundit, artist, or celebrity doesn't come out as libertarian (among the most recent: Jane's Addiction guitarist and TV host Dave Navarro and Republican political consultant Mary Matalin). "Libertarianish" politicians such as Rand Paul, Justin Amash, and Thomas Massie are blazing a different path in the Republican Party and Rand's father Ron electrified college campuses during his runs for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008 and 2012. Two years ago, The New York Times Magazine asked, "Has the 'Libertarian Moment' Finally Arrived?" and in the 2016 election cycle the Libertarian Party presidential ticket of former governors Gary Johnson and William Weld has already probably received more press than all previous tickets did put together. So libertarianism as a political and cultural force is on the rise. With that in mind, Reason.com is happy to host a debate over "virtue libertarianism." William Ruger, a former college professor and Afghanistan war vet who is now vice president of research and policy at the Charles Koch Institute, and Jason Sorens, a lecturer in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College and the originator of idea behind the Free State Project, argue that libertarianism—"the political philosophy of free markets, property rights, toleration, and peace"—will grow even faster if its champions embrace "a duty to respect our own moral nature and to promote its development in others." In short, they reject what they call "libertine libertarianism," or a willingness to treat all lifestyle choices as essentially morally equivalent. Conservatives and progressives, they say, worry that a libertarian world in which the goverment is reduced to its simple "night watchman" functions will likely result in anarchy or a world in which the poor and defenseless are constantly degraded. Virtue libertarianism assuages these fears, they hold, by providing moral direction that will improve people's outcome and material support for those who can't help themselves. It's not just the right of libertarians to endorse and uphold particular ways of living, they say, it's the duty of libertarians to do so, as long as the state's coercive apparatus is not involved. This is a provocative thesis, to say the least, and Ruger and Sorens are answered by Steven Horwitz, a self-identified "bleeding-heart libertarian" and a professor of economics at St. Lawrence University; Deirdre McCloskey, who teaches economics, literature and communications at University of Illinois at Chicago and is the author of the new Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World; and Katherine Mangu-Ward, the managing editor of Reason magazine. Comments can be added below. Send email responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.—Nick Gillespie, Reason.com. The Case for 'Virtue Libertarianism' Over Libertinism William Ruger and Jason Sorens Over the past several decades, libertarianism—the political philosophy of free markets, property rights, toleration, and peace—has gone mainstream. The libertarian perspective on a wide range of policy issues—including growing support for educational choice, Second Amendment rights, marijuana legalization, and criminal justice reform—has not only become respectable but the one held by a majority of Americans. Liberating technologies at the heart of the "sharing economy" and new forms of money such as Bitcoin are also widely hailed (and demonized!) as libertarian. While the presidential ambitions of the "libertarianish" Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) were t[...]
In March, the Department of Defense issued an official invitation to "hack the Pentagon." In a bid to improve security that mimics longstanding practice in private industry, the military invited hackers to find vulnerabilities in the 488 websites it currently runs.
The program is the brainchild of the Defense Digital Service, an office that's supposed to bring youth, engineering expertise, and tech savvy to the feds' kludgy bureaucracy. "I am always challenging our people to think outside the five-sided box that is the Pentagon," said Secretary of Defense Ash Carter in a press release. "Inviting responsible hackers to test our cybersecurity certainly meets that test."
But political concerns have altered the program in ways that are likely to decrease its effectiveness. Only "verified hackers" will be allowed to participate, and they'll have to pass a background check and register with the government—something the best and brightest in the field might be reluctant to do, for obvious reasons. The Defense Department will also provide participants with access to "predetermined department systems" for a "controlled, limited duration," further reducing the probability the program will catch a real security vulnerability.
The pilot program is part of a broader response to recent incursions on federal digital security, including last year's breach in the United States Office of Personnel Management, which compromised the private information of 21.5 million government employees. Less than a month before the new program was announced, an unknown hacker posted a list of nearly 20,000 FBI agents and 9,000 Department of Homeland Security officers online.
(image) The film Whiskey Tango Foxtrot tosses Tina Fey (of SNL and 30 Rock fame) into a war zone, as reporter Kim Baker, a desk jockey turned adrenaline junkie. While Fey has been careful to say in the media that the film "has nothing to do with what should be done about Afghanistan—it is 100 percent not that," the whole plot turns on how difficult it is for people who are caught up in the heat of battle—combatants, civilians, and press—to keep perspective.
"I've gotta go. I'm starting to feel like this is normal. You know this is not normal, right?" Baker says to her war photographer friend-with-benefits (played by a casually debauched Martin Freeman) as she tosses clothes into a suitcase in her grimy Kabul bedroom. Unremarked upon—though the film does not entirely ignore it—is that she, unlike the Afghans she meets, has the luxury of leaving "the Kabubble" when she's had enough of war.
Sen. Edward Markey (D–Mass.) has put a hold on the nomination of Robert Califf to be the new commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Markey hopes to force the agency to revisit its policies toward opioid painkillers, such as OxyContin. "The FDA must commit to shift the way it approaches and evaluates addiction," he said on the Senate floor in February, "before I can consider supporting Dr. Califf's nomination."
Markey believes the FDA has failed to take the risks of abuse seriously in its approval process for new opioid drugs and new uses for existing drugs. In particular, he focuses on a regulatory decision he calls "OxyContin for kids." He fails to note that the drug was approved for a very narrow use: kids 11 or older who are having trouble managing severe daily ongoing pain using first-line painkillers. In other words, the FDA wasn't approving power painkillers for use willy-nilly in the juvenile population; it was giving doctors who treat the sickest kids another tool to help them.
Markey's puritanical approach to pain management and his concern about the toll of drug abuse may be well-intentioned, but by pushing the mandate of the FDA closer to the role of law enforcement, he's more likely to further politicize and slow an already torturous process.
(image) Making a Murderer, a 10-episode Netflix documentary series, follows the twisted legal saga of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin native who served 18 years in prison for the sexual assault and attempted murder of Penny Beerntsen. Avery was exonerated in 2003 but rearrested in 2005 and convicted of a totally different murder after a byzantine sequence of legal maneuvers.
Similar to the hit podcast Serial, the show gains its spellbinding power by delving ever-deeper into the ordinary, messy, ruined lives of those who run, and run afoul of, the criminal justice system. The result is a thrilling—and ambiguous—look at a part of American life typically shrouded in secrecy.
When the series debuted in December, it fed into a growing national conversation about cronyism and corruption in America's judicial systems, prosecutorial misconduct, standards of evidence, and the need for criminal justice reform.
The Food and Drug Administration wants to decide under what conditions the word natural is allowed to appear on the front of food packages, much as the term organic is restricted today.
Both words had previously been used at the discretion of manufacturers, with the minimal guidance that the term can only be used if "nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food." The new rulemaking process is intended to address whether "natural" can be applied to highly processed food, such as high-fructose corn syrup, as well as "production methods, such as the use of pesticides" and "thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation."
Depending on the rules' final form, this may also be a back door to labeling food containing genetically modified organisms, a topic that is being hotly debated in Congress and state legislatures.
In response to pushback from industry and the public, the government has extended the comment period on the new definitions through May 10, 2016.
2016-03-09T06:00:00-05:00Every fiscal year, the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 requires the House and Senate to enact 12 separate discretionary spending bills, one for each appropriations subcommittee (Agriculture, Defense, Homeland Security, and so on). They have failed to meet this minimum requirement since 1994. When Republicans re-took the Senate in November 2014, thus ensuring GOP control over both houses of Congress, they vowed to change all that. "One of my challenges is to try to convince some of my members that passing an appropriations bill is a good thing, not a bad thing," incoming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told The New York Times. "The Senate basically didn't do squat for years." Yet squat is still the order of the day. While the unified Congress did manage for the first time in six years to pass a budget resolution—the also-required, nonbinding baseline blueprint from which the appropriations bills are supposed to be carved—the appropriations process once again devolved into an ungainly, unreadable, last-minute mess of legislation called the omnibus. Clocking in at $1.1 trillion for Fiscal Year 2016, and stuffed with bills that even the relevant committee chairs had no idea were going in (see "The Last Honest Man in Congress," page 32), the best thing that can be said about the omnibus was that at least it wasn't another continuing resolution. Continuing resolutions (or C.R.s, as they are known in D.C.), keep the federal government funded for short stints while politicians continue arguing about the appropriations bills they refuse to pass. In practice, they increase the frequency of can't-miss deadlines—and, during periods when Congress is divided, round-the-clock headlines—after which money for all "nonessential" purposes runs out. That hypothetical was realized on October 1, 2013, when a cutoff to appropriate funds for the next fiscal year came and went without even the band-aid of a continuing resolution. House Republicans had passed a package that purposefully did not include money for the Affordable Care Act. President Barack Obama and the Democrat-led Senate refused to consider the bill. For 16 days the government went into power-saver mode, until a heavily criticized GOP gave in and passed a C.R. that funded Obamacare. Since that moment, Republicans—particularly their new House Speaker, Paul Ryan (R–Wis.)—have preferred that their white-knuckled deadlines come less frequently, and without the noisy arguments over a shutdown. In October, as Ryan was on the verge of taking the gavel from John Boehner (R–Ohio), the House passed a two-year budget deal to increase federal spending by $80 billion, remove the 2013 sequestration caps on military spending, and suspend the debt limit until March 2017. In one fell swoop, the comparative fiscal discipline imposed during the divided-Congress era of 2011–2014 was discarded. The main drama left was seeing how exactly lawmakers would divide up the spoils. Omnibus packages, which combine at least two and usually more individual spending bills, offer several advantages to members of Congress at the direct expense of their constituents. By combining so many disparate elements into one big legislative glop, representatives leave a much smaller paper trail against which they might be held accountable for their votes. By coming in a must-pass rush, the packages become ripe for gaudy earmarks and tailor-made rule-changes benefiting favored interests. In the eyes of the political press, the up-or-down vote becomes a referendum on legislative responsibility where the only wrong answer is no. The 2,009-page omnibus (along with an extra 233 pages of tax extenders) for Fiscal 2016 was introduced on December 16, passed by both chambers[...]
At the end of November, President Barack Obama signed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, which could clear the way for private companies to profitably mine asteroids and extract other off-planet resources, such as water or rare metals, for economic gain.
The bill, sponsored by newly minted House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R–Calif.), declares that a "United States citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource under this chapter shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource or space resource obtained in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of the United States."
The law includes a clever workaround of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which declares that no "celestial body" shall be subject to "national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means." That treaty, to which the U.S. is a signatory, has long been seen as a barrier to commercial development of space assets. But the new law doesn't assert sovereignty. Instead it instructs U.S. courts on how to handle property claims by any company, domestic or foreign.
With firms such as Planetary Resources, Deep Space Industries, Shackleton Energy Resources, and Moon Express all eyeing various space rocks for commercial purposes, this law clarifies the rules and incentives as companies develop ways to generate rocket fuel in space, engage in zero-G 3D printing, and more.
Public school janitors earn more money than any other municipal employees in New York City. In September, the New York Post reported that the average pay for a school custodian was $109,467 in the 2013–2014 school year.
As surprising as it may seem, these Cadillac custodians make a bizarre kind of fiscal sense. There are 799 custodians on the school system's payroll—638 of whom earn more than $100,000—but they are charged with cleaning 1,500 school buildings. That means virtually everyone is working massive amounts of overtime.
Despite all the overtime, school districts find this arrangement preferable to taking on more workers, due in part to the high cost of new hires. Putting a new city employee on the books requires a mountain of paperwork, and it saddles the treasury with long-term commitments on benefits. And in the case of school custodians, the city also requires applicants to obtain special licenses certifying that they are able to operate boilers, heating and cooling systems, fire alarms, and sprinklers.
John Murphy, an associate inspector for the Department of Buildings, brought home the most overtime pay of any city worker in 2014: $179,099 to boost his overall take-home total to $265,498. Explaining the astronomical figure to AMNewYork, a city spokesman said Murphy picked up extra shifts after Hurricane Sandy and that about $100,000 of the money was covered by federal recovery funds.