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Preview: Reason Magazine - Topics > Regulation


All articles with the "Regulation" tag.

Published: Mon, 18 Dec 2017 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Mon, 18 Dec 2017 13:28:31 -0500


Philly Votes to Regulate Bulletproof Glass in Corner Stores

Fri, 15 Dec 2017 10:25:00 -0500

(image) The Philadelphia City Council's Public Health and Human Services Committee passed a bill yesterday to regulate the use of bulletproof glass at food establishments. The original bill would have banned bulletproof glass outright, but that was changed following backlash from store owners, who said the glass was needed for their protection.

Democratic Councilwoman Cindy Bass, a primary sponsor of the bill, insisted these delis were the cause, not an effect, of trouble in her district.

"We want to make sure that there isn't this sort of indignity, in my opinion, to serving food through a Plexiglas only in certain neighborhoods," Bass said.

Speaking from personal experience as a resident of Philadelphia, the presence of bulletproof glass correlates well with the places where the city already deploys more police officers and mobile units. Banning the glass won't improve safety; it'll just make shopkeepers less safe. The bill scapegoats small businesses that the council's constituents patronize.

Republican Councilman David Oh pointed out that if store owners were forced to remove the bulletproof glass, they would have an incentive to bring firearms to work instead.

"They're not changing their business model, they're not moving," Oh said, identifying a likely ulterior motive in hassling the businesses. "What they will do is purchase firearms. I think that is a worse situation than what we have today."

As passed, the bill leaves the option open for city bureaucrats to ban bulletproof glass later. In the meantime, it imposes new regulations on stores that sell food and beer. It calls on the Department of Licenses and Inspections to promulgate new rules on the "use or removal of physical barriers" by January 1, 2021. It also requires the establishments to maintain a public bathroom that is accessible without walking through a food preparation or otherwise restricted area. (One complaint about "beer delis" is public urination outside, so this measure is intended to curtail that.)

The bill also creates a distinction between "large establishments" (with 30 or more seats) and "small establishments," creating new licenses for the latter. Supporters of the bill complained that the smaller establishments claim to be restaurants but only offer packaged foods and have fewer than the 30 seats they were up to now mandated to have.

It's not clear from the text of the ordinance when the rules will be begin to be enforced. The 2021 date applies only to regulations on physical barriers.

A bill in the state legislature would counteract the city ordinance: State Rep. Todd Stevens (R–Montgomery County) is pushing legislation that would prohibit municipalities from making certain "workplace safety" decisions. Bass has responded by saying if Stephens liked the stores so much, he should bring them to his constituents.

Less Regulation Means Less Opportunity for Government Corruption

Mon, 11 Dec 2017 16:00:00 -0500

The federal indictment of a former Massachusetts state senator, Brian Joyce, gave some headline writers an opportunity to focus on the comic element of his alleged scheme. The Democratic politician pleaded not guilty. He was charged in part with having accepted 504 pounds of free coffee from a franchise widely identified as Dunkin' Donuts. With Saturday Night Live already memorably mocking that company's seductiveness for a certain element of lowbrow New England culture, it's tempting to react to the Joyce news with a certain Boston cynicism—"at least it wasn't Stahhbucks"—and move on. But there are some serious points here, too. It will be interesting to see whether the federal effort to make "honest services fraud" charges stick against Joyce are any more successful here than were so-far failed efforts by zealous prosecutors to criminalize sketchy but maybe not actually criminal behavior by the Republican governor of Virginia, Robert McDonnell; by the Democratic Speaker of the New York legislature, Sheldon Silver; and by the Republican majority leader of the New York State Senate, Dean Skelos. In all three of those federal cases against state-level politicians, judges eventually defined honest services fraud differently than prosecutors did, and dismissed the convictions. The Supreme Court's 8-0 opinion in McDonnell v. United States was emphatic on the point: "conscientious public officials arrange meetings for constituents, contact other officials on their behalf, and include them in events all the time. The basic compact underlying representative government assumes that public officials will hear from their constituents and act appropriately on their concerns…The Government's position could cast a pall of potential prosecution over these relationships." The opinion, by Chief Justice Roberts, warned that if the prosecutors prevailed, "officials might wonder whether they could respond to even the most commonplace requests for assistance, and citizens with legitimate concerns might shrink from participating in democratic discourse. This concern is substantial." The honest services fraud issue is just one part of the story here, though. Reading the indictment—which includes charges of racketeering, extortion, money laundering, defrauding the IRS, and bribery—it's hard to miss the fact that a lot of the alleged corruption involves government interference with free markets. The "nationally branded coffee and pastry fast-food business" had an interest in state laws governing the relations between franchise holders and parent companies, and in "tip-pooling" legislation about how employees split tips. The indictment also discusses Joyce's involvement in allegedly "exerting pressure on and advising" members of a town planning board whose approval a developer needed to subdivide a piece of land. The indictment also features a company "interested in promoting property-assessed-clean-energy 'PACE' legislation in Massachusetts. PACE was an alternative energy financing program that required state legislation because its funding was derived from issuing bonds that were secured by increased property tax assessments." If state and local government just let restaurants do what they want with their tip money, let landowners do what they want with their property, and let people who want solar panels or windmills on their property pay for them themselves, there would be less opportunity for corruption. Smaller government, in other words, in addition to whatever other virtues it has, has the possibility to be more honest government. And larger government—more involvement of politicians in regulating or subsidizing or licensing the economy—has the potential to be more dishonest government. It provides more opportunities for crooked politicians to shake down businessmen, and more opportunities for crooked businessmen to try to buy political influence. Whether that is what happened in Joyce's case will be for a jury or perhaps eventually appellate judges to decide. Prosecutors, the press, and voters c[...]

Tampa Bathhouses Become Latest Target of Sex-Trafficking Panic

Fri, 08 Dec 2017 13:42:00 -0500

Three sex-trafficking victims told their stories in a dramatic Tampa City Council meeting yesterday. The purpose of the testimony was to get support for a new city ordinance on bathhouses—a mammoth package of new occupational licensing requirements, record-keeping mandates, limits on hours of operation, and other rules. Problem: None of the victims who testified said they'd been exploited at a bathhouse. Indeed, local lawmakers failed to offer any evidence at all that sex trafficking is an issue at Tampa's bathhouses. In saner times, people might point out that this testimony amounts to an emotional ploy to conflate these establishments with horrific violence. But "sex trafficking" has become such a magic invocation that politicians can use it to pass just about anything, no matter how unrelated to the law's professed purposes. In this case, the city is using the specter of sex trafficking to collect new fees, take more control over local entrepreneurs, and make it much easier to shut down businesses they don't like. And they had ample help from the D.C.-based Polaris Project, which receives massive amounts of federal funding to undertake questionably beneficial trafficking projects. "Polaris has been working with the City of Tampa on this draft ordinance to figure out what needs to be updated," reported 10 News Tampa. "They've also been flying in from Washington for the past eight months to attend each city council meeting on cracking down on these parlors." "Rochelle Kahoon with Polaris...says this updated ordinance will no doubt run these parlors off," 10 News continued. "Members of Polaris also brought the website 'Rub-maps' to the attention of Tampa council members. It's a website where users can share feedback on massage parlors that offer sex." Again, it's unclear how the evidence presented—reviews of erotic massage parlors—relates to bathhouses in Tampa, other than that Polaris is trying to make that link. Tampa has entirely separate regulations regarding massage therapists and parlors. While the new ordinance could target some ambiguous area "spas" by counting them as bathhouses, the regulations would mainly apply to the combination sauna, gym, and social clubs that are a fixture of Tampa's gay scene. Complying with all the new rules would be a huge burden on these small businesses. Even if they manage to stay afloat under the new regime, setting up so many hoops all but ensures that city authorities can find some code violation if they go looking for one—while giving them a new mandate to go looking all they want. Enforcement of the rules would fall to Tampa police, the Department of Planning and Development, and the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, with violations punishable by a fine of up to $500 and/or imprisonment for up to 60 days. Enforcers could drop by for random inspections up to four times per year. Among other things, bathhouses would be forbidden from staying open past 10 p.m., keeping signs lit after closing, or allowing customers to enter through more than one front-facing entrance. Managers and owners at bathhouses would have to take a "human trafficking and prostitution awareness course" and apply for a new permit every year, subject to police and city approval and a clean criminal record. Any employee who was present in a room where customers were dressing or undressing would be guilty of sexual misconduct. Tampa's original bathhouse regulations were written in the 1980s. The new draft regulations were approved by the Tampa City Coucil on Thursday, and the bill will get its first reading on December 21. It must pass two readings to be approved.[...]

Los Angeles Reserves the Right to Decide Who May Sell You Pot

Thu, 07 Dec 2017 15:30:00 -0500

The City of Los Angeles voted yesterday to implement a host of licensing and regulatory guidelines that would usher in the legalized growing, manufacturing, and sale of recreational marijuana next year. For the most part, this is good news. One of the biggest cities in the United States is ending this particular segment of the drug war, assuming the Department of Justice doesn't come in and arrest everybody. L.A. is doing this for the money. When California approved recreational marijuana use, it gave local governments the authority to levy taxes on the trade. The Los Angeles Times reports that the city expects legal pot to generate $50 million in tax revenue in just its first year. (That sounds like a huge pile of cash, but it's nothing compared to the $1 billion the city spends annually on pensions and health care for retired city employees. The infusion of marijuana money is not going to solve L.A.'s spending problems.) Unfortunately, Los Angeles is handling this newly legal form of commerce the way it handles everything: with an incredibly complicated licensing system that favors certain people at the expense of others. This approach may mean that the black market for marijuana will continue in the city. L.A. is deliberately capping the number of shops and grow facilities that it will license, based on population and location. Officials calculate that fewer than 400 actual pot shops will be permitted, along with around 340 growers and 520 manufacturers. Fundamentally this means city officials, not the marketplace, will be deciding who gets to be a marijuana dealer. And that means influence matters. There's already going to be a licensing priority toward the entrenched medical marijuana interests who were early entrants as legal dispensaries. Note that when the city finally stopped resisting the opening of medical marijuana dispensaries, it did so in such a way that played favorites with these established businesses and deliberately helped them fend off competitors. In an attempt to be more inclusive, the city will also implement a "social equity" program to give some "priority processing" for people who qualify on the basis of being poor, or having previously been convicted of misdemeanor marijuana crimes, or having lived in areas who have been disproportionally impacted by pot enforcement. While that sounds nice, the rules are complicated enough that you can be sure they'll be gamed. And the city is imposing so many security and data retention requirements, that few actual poor people seem likely to get in before the license cap is reached. There are also all sorts of public hearing and notification requirements—not to mention the rules embedded in with the state's notoriously abused California Environmental Quality Act—that NIMBY types (and potential competitors) can use to keep pot shops out. If Los Angeles were really committed to help poor people and those chewed up and spit out by the drug war to start their own cannabis businesses, it wouldn't be capping the number of pot shops the city would permit. So we'll see how it goes. There are some empty storefronts in my Mid-City neighborhood that could host a pot shop. But there's also a rehab facility and an elementary school, and the regulations prohibit a shop from being within 700 feet of either of those, so I'm not holding my breath.[...]

Kinder Eggs Coming to America? Sadly, No—Ban on Chocolate Candies Still Persists

Thu, 30 Nov 2017 13:40:00 -0500

(image) Objectively speaking, Kinder Eggs are not particularly good candy. But with chocolate halves breaking open to reveal a tiny toy prize inside, Kinder Eggs are cool, from a kid's perspective. And like many things made arbitrarily illegal, these chocolate treats have earned a kind of kitsch cache with U.S. audiences that transcends taste buds or age. So a lot of folks were excited when headlines last week announced that Kinder Eggs are finally legal in America.

But it's fake news. While a modified Kinder Egg can now be purchased legally here, the original "Kinder Surprise" variety—the kind you'll find for sale in other countries—is still prohibited, since embedding non-food-items in candy is still banned. The American Kinder Egg will feature two separate halves: one for eating, one with a toy inside.

As Gawker noted back in 2013, Kinder Eggs "have been banned in the States since long before they were first manufactured in the early '70s" by Italian company Ferrero (also the masterminds behind Nutella). A ban on candies with embedded toys has been in place since 1938, when it was included as part of the omnibus Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Under the new law, confectionery products were prohibited from having "any nonnutritive object" either "partially or completely imbedded therein." (An exception exists when "such object is of practical functional value to the confectionery product and would not render the product injurious or hazardous to health.")

The Kinder Egg's illegal status only seemed to up American enthusiasm for the candies, which were smuggled back from abroad in many an ordinary citizen's suitcase over the decades.

I wonder how many knew they faced a fine of $2,500 an egg?

Yes: That's the legal penalty for Kinder Egg trafficking. And Americans have been prosecuted for the crime, though this is rare; airport agents will generally just confiscate the eggs when found.

The blog Today I Found Out provides some more backstory, noting that Nestle challenged the embedded object ban in 1997 after the company introduced a Kinder Egg–like product called Nestle Magic:

When Nestle was preparing to launch the product, the FDA explicitly notified them it was illegal under the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, but Nestle disagreed, noting the product was completely safe so should be considered one of the exceptions. Their position was backed by a report from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, who did their due diligence on the candy and determined it, and the non-edible item inside, were not a choking hazard.

Nestle went forward with the product anyway. It also lobbied Congress to change the law. But after a long legal batttle, the company had to discontinue the product and pull it from stores.

Are Dry Stream Beds Navigable Waters of the United States?

Thu, 30 Nov 2017 08:30:00 -0500

The House Subcommittee on the Environment held a hearing yesterday on what its chairman called "one of the biggest federal overreaches in modern history." The Waters of the United States rule, passed by administrative fiat in June 2015, gave the federal government jurisdiction over nearly every river, lake, creek, estuary, pond, swamp, prairie pothole, irrigation ditch, and intermittent rivulet in the U.S. It's a regulation that can force a rancher to spend $40,000 trying to get permission to grade a road through a dry wash that carries water only during occasional summer rainstorms—and then give up rather than pour more resources into the fight. After the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued the rule, 33 states and more than 70 private sector organizations immediately challenged it in the courts for being too broad. In October 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued a nationwide stay on implementing the regulation. The purpose of the subcommittee meeting was to hear testimony on the current status of federal water regulations, their impact at the state level and to examine options for improving them going forward. Chairman Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) said Wednesday, "Not only did the rule's flimsy definitions and underlying science mean that the agency had the ability to regulate private land, but it also placed significant financial burdens on some of our country's hardest workers." In her opening statement, subcommittee ranking member Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) noted that the 1972 Clean Water Act was adopted because many states had failed to meet their responsibilties to keep their rivers, streams, lakes, and estauries clean, allowing them to become "dirty and polluted"; some waters, she noted, had even "caught on fire." She cited a January 2015 EPA study, Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters: "The scientific literature unequivocally demonstrates that streams, individually or cumulatively, exert a strong influence on the integrity of downstream waters. All tributary streams, including perennial, intermittent, and ephemeral streams, are physically, chemically, and biologically connected to downstream rivers via channels and associated alluvial deposits where water and other materials are concentrated, mixed, transformed, and transported." In other words, we all (intermittently) live downstream. The Clean Water Act instructs the EPA to "prepare or develop comprehensive programs for preventing, reducing, or eliminating the pollution of the navigable waters." Central to the fight over federal jurisdiction is the definition of just what "navigable waters" are. Under the rules promulgated under the Obama administration, the EPA thinks it's pretty much any water at all. Most people would interpret the phrase more narrowly. In February, President Donald Trump issued an executive order instructing the EPA to "consider interpreting the term 'navigable waters' a manner consistent with the opinion of Justice Antonin Scalia in Rapanos v. United States." Scalia's opinion noted that before the Clean Water Act passed, the courts had "interpreted the phrase 'navigable waters of the United States' in the Act's predecessor statutes to refer to interstate waters that are 'navigable in fact' or readily susceptible of being rendered so." He then argued that "on its only plausible interpretation, the phrase 'the waters of the United States' includes only those relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water 'forming geographic features' that are described in ordinary parlance as 'streams[,]...oceans, rivers, [and] lakes.'" Just how far the feds reached under prior administrations was illustrated in testimony by James Childton Jr.—the Arizona rancher who wanted to grade that road. His environmental consultant warned him that this might require an Army Corps of Engineers permit, and eventually he abandoned the project due to mounting [...]

European Union Approves Weedkiller

Tue, 28 Nov 2017 15:31:00 -0500

The European Commission has extended the license for European farmers to use the popular weedkiller glyphosate by five years. That's good news: Every scientific committee and regulatory agency but one that has evaluated the safety of the glyphosate has found it safe for human beings and the natural environment. And the sole exception, a highly conflicted report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, was marked by confirmation bias and conflict of interest. So science and evidence won out over a massive disinformation campaign run by anti-pesticide and anti-GMO activists funded by the Big Organic. Naturally, those activists are furious that they were not able to scare the commission into a glyphosate ban. "Today's approval, even if only for five years, is a missed opportunity to get rid of this risky weedkiller and start to get farmers off the chemical treadmill," Adrian Bebb of Friends of the Earth Europe told Agence France-Presse. Greenpeace's Franziska Achterberg added: "The people who are supposed to protect us from dangerous pesticides have failed to do their jobs and betrayed the trust Europeans place in them." Sadly, French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed that the herbicide will be banned in his country. One of the most clear-eyed analysts of anti-technology disinformation campaigns is David Zaruk, who teaches risk communications at Université Saint-Louis Brussel. At his Risk-Monger blog, Zaruk pulls no punches about how close activists came to derailing evidence-based decision-making: Clearly the activists had the perfect storm with glyphosate. So many other interests collided over the last two years, with new trans-Atlantic partnerships of vile opportunists and silos of slime forming into armies of intolerance, including: • Anti-GMO American carpetbaggers salivating at removing the chief motivation for farmers to benefit from Roundup-Ready maize and soy by manipulating the European precautionary handicap. • American class-action lawyers seeking to exploit the EU's hazard-based regulatory approach to create a confusion over the safety of public health exposure to profit from lawsuits against industry. • Anti-industry activist groups from both sides of the Atlantic have united flush with funds from the burgeoning organic food industry lobby seeking to incapacitate conventional farming and create market-friendly conditions for their unsustainable agricultural production process. • An alarming scientific ignorance at the heart of the European Commission. Many of the activist groups involved in pushing their anti-evidence agenda were involved in removing the post of EU Chief Scientific Adviser just three years ago. • Agroecologists have been pining to return Europe to a pre-industrial Malthusian paradise, and banning the use of agri-technology was their first important step. Having their lunatics in charge of the European risk assessment process would have been the icing on the cake! Not just yet. Only time will tell if politicians and regulators can continue to resist such chemophobic campaigns.[...]

British Think Tank Report Says EU Food Policies Raise Food Prices

Sat, 25 Nov 2017 14:40:00 -0500

A new report from the TaxPayers' Alliance, a British nonprofit, argues that British food prices have been made artificially higher—an estimated seventeen percent so—by a combination of EU "tariffs, subsidies, and overly restrictive regulations." The 51-page report comes as Britain crafts its future ahead of 2019's Brexit, which will likely leave British lawmakers solely responsible for crafting the island's agricultural policies. While some in Britain have argued that these high food prices necessitate government provide more aid to those in need, the TaxPayers' Alliance report concludes that since government policies are responsible for the higher food prices in the first place, it makes far more sense to repeal the bad policies, thus targeting the root causes of those problems. "Brexit gives the UK an unprecedented opportunity to examine its agricultural and trade policies and adopt a more liberal approach which will ultimately result in a more productive agricultural sector and lower food prices for consumers," the Taxpayers' Alliance said in a recent farm-policy statement. The report pins most of the blame for these higher food prices on the European Union's bloated Common Agriculture Policy, known as CAP. "The programme is the most expensive scheme in the EU—accounting for more than 40% of its annual budget—and one of the most controversial," the BBC explained in a 2013 expose on CAP. The BBC notes agricultural subsidies under CAP, which predates the creation of the EU by several decades, are responsible for "the creation of 'mountains' and 'lakes' of surplus food and drink." But these subsidies, the TaxPayers' Alliance report reveals, are just one part of the CAP problem. CAP also imposes steep import tariffs on food. For example, the group cites research in its report showing that CAP taxes dairy imports at a rate of more than thirty-five percent, and that "the tariff on processed chicken is 88 per cent." CAP tariffs also target non-food items like farm equipment. Finally, the Taxpayers' Alliance report says strict CAP food-safety regulations also help make food prices artificially high. This combination of subsidies, tariffs, and strict regulations have made CAP the perfect tool, as the 2013 BBC article concluded, to make "Europe's food prices some of the highest in the world." So does the Taxpayers' Alliance report carry any weight in Britain? Maybe so. The group was founded in 2004 to combat government waste, higher taxes, and the lack of government transparency. By 2009, The Guardian reported then, the Taxpayers' Alliance had become "arguably the most influential pressure group in the country." That's great news. But why—beyond your status as a denizen of this Earth—should you care about some British think tank's report on the impact food taxes there? Sure, we fought a war against Britain that was, I've argued, in large part, a revolt against food taxes. But that was a long time ago. You should care about this report and the outcome of post-Brexit policies in Britain because the same issues the TaxPayers' Alliance highlights in its report are currently at issue right here in the United States. We certainly have wasteful farm-subsidy programs in place. It's a topic I've written about here probably a million times, including as recently as last week. We have food taxes that some argue should be increased. Some states tax groceries. Some activists in this country have argued for taxing "bad" food and subsidizing "good" food. I've been part of the debate, for example serving as a panelist at this Urban Institute event on the validity of taxing so-called "junk food" in 2015. Finally, we currently have a president who has argued for the purported merits of new import tariffs. More specifically, he seems particularly enamored of food tariffs. If these lousy economic policies are bad for Britain and British consumers[...]

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 [...]

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 [...]

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 [...]

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..[...]