GMO labeling in Oregon

My latest makes the case against the Oregon ballot measure to require labeling of food made with GMOs:

Whole Foods would like to sell you on the virtues of the Rio Star organic grapefruit. “For juicing, Rio Star is the stand alone grapefruit” and is “widely viewed as the best” grapefruit grown in Texas, home to “some of the sweetest grapefruit in the world.” And despite originating from a breeding program that blasted grapefruits with radiation to scramble their DNA, eating them probably won’t kill you.

Read the whole thing.

Unsurprisingly, my views haven’t changed since this same debate came up in Washington last year.

Oregon’s war on vaping

The Oregon legislature recently failed to pass completely sensible restrictions on selling e-cigarettes to minor, an effort undermined by more extreme anti-smokers who were more intent on banning vaping in workplaces, bars, and restaurants. In today’s Oregonian, I write about lawmakers’ misguided attempt to include e-cigarettes in the smoking ban and their next proposal to impose new taxes on them. An excerpt:

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m actually getting nostalgic for the original smoking ban debate. Advocates exaggerated the dangers of secondhand smoke, but at least they made an effort to ground their views in science and demonstrate that non-smokers were being harmed.

The same cannot be said for those seeking to extend current bans to cover vaping. They’ll be the first to tell you that more study of e-cigarettes is needed. But why wait for results? They’re ready to ban first and ask questions later.

Read the whole thing here.

Tobacco tax skepticism

My latest article for The Atlantic provides four reasons to oppose the new tobacco taxes proposed in the White House budget.

When candy cigarettes are outlawed…

A city inspector in St. Paul spent his time last week seizing contraband candy cigarettes from an old-time soda shop and threatening the owners with a fine if they sell the sweet treats again:

Lynden’s, on Hamline Avenue near Cretin-Derham Hall High School, said a city inspections official came in last week and gave the shop a warning and added that a misdemeanor citation — with a $500 fine — would be next if the non-carcinogenic confections continue to be sold.

There are legitimate reasons why one may not want to sell candy cigarettes, but a law banning the products seems excessive. Thank local anti-smoking groups for putting the law into place:

The ordinance was championed by a group of St. Paul teenagers working with the Association for Nonsmokers-Minnesota, which educates youth groups and individuals who want to lobby for anti-tobacco policies.

You’ve gotta get them hooked on banning things when they’re kids if you want them to continue banning things as adults.

[Via BoingBoing.]

Romney won’t be president, and other good news

It’s no secret that I greatly dislike both Obama and Romney, so my expectations were pretty low going into yesterday’s election. Thus it came as some surprise to me that I went to bed late last night feeling happier about the results than I have for any election in my lifetime, and that has nothing to do with who will or won’t be in the White House.

Yesterday morning I tweeted, “Hoped-for silver linings today: Marijuana legalization, marriage equality, no GMO labeling, good turnout for Gary Johnson.” Pretty much everything I could have reasonably hoped for came true.

Marijuana legalization — Two out of three states where marijuana legalization was on the ballot approved the measure. My own Oregon let me down, but Washington and Colorado succeeded. Voters also legalized medical marijuana in Massachusetts and decriminalized it in Detroit. By putting two states in direct conflict with the federal government, this is potentially a watershed year in the movement toward a more humane drug policy.

Marriage equality — Same-sex marriage was on the ballot in four states yesterday. In Maine, Maryland, and Washington, it was approved by popular majorities. In Minnesota, a majority rejected a constitutional ban on gay marriage. Demographic shifts and growing social acceptance make it seem inevitable that more, perhaps all, states will eventually follow their lead.

GMO labeling — This is one issue on which I’m opposed to many of my peers in the food and drink industry, but I think that California’s proposal to require labeling of genetically modified foods was deeply flawed. The case that they are harmful to consume is very weak, labeling and liability would be costly, and the proposal itself was riddled with exemptions. If consumers and activists want to avoid GMOs I would rather see them push for more organic food or other explicitly GMO-free options than force mandatory labeling onto the entire food system. Cheers to California voters for getting this one right.

Eminent domain bonus — I wasn’t following Virginia’s referendum to further protect private property from Kelo-style takings for private development, but I’m heartened to learn that it was overwhelmingly approved.

Gary Johnson — His campaign never crystallized as I hoped it might, but Johnson nonetheless earned 1% of the vote and as of this writing a raw total of 1,139,562 votes, the most of any Libertarian Party candidate in history. More importantly, I think Johnson may have done more than any recent candidate to reach out to the left and make libertarianism cool. (Sorry, Bob Barr.)

Romney lost — Romney was just terrible. The flip-side is that Obama won, which is also terrible but marginally less so. Most importantly, yesterday was a straight-up beatdown for social conservatism and the last twelve years of Republican politics. This opens the door, at least, to a better GOP.

After all of this, watching Obama’s soaring acceptance speech at a bar in downtown Portland was simply anti-climactic. As my friend Conor Friedersdorf tweeted, “This speech would be more enjoyable if I didn’t already know what follows Barack Obama speeches like this. An imperial presidency.” Or as my friend sitting next to me summed it up, “I don’t even care about this shit. This is just bullshit.”

The electoral outcome of this presidential race was going to be dismal no matter what. On the economy, on foreign policy, on the Drug War, neither side offered the kind of changes we need. The inspiring story from yesterday is that in so many instances where voters had the option to expand freedom directly, they voted to do so. Given the opportunity to let gays marry the people they love, to let sick people access medical marijuana, to let ordinary citizens smoke a joint once in a while without fearing prison, they voted to live and let live. This bodes well for the future. We progress in spite of our politicians.

A case for Gary Johnson

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“Be Libertarian with me for one election,” suggests Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson in a recent advertisement. I’ve voted Libertarian in every election in which I’ve been eligible, so it’s no surprise that I’m doing so again this year. But my previous votes weren’t always enthusiastic. The party’s track record nominating candidates is decidedly mixed and I’ve gone along with some of their selections not out of any real support for the candidates, but only to sustain the party until they nominated someone stronger.

This year they did. Johnson, a successful two-term former governor of New Mexico, is the most credible candidate the Libertarian Party has ever offered. And given the dismal competition from the two major parties, his timing couldn’t be better.

I never had high hopes for Obama on economic matters but on a few areas, such as civil liberties, there was some expectation that he would be better than his predecessor (though even then there were warnings to the contrary). Instead, he’s expanded some of the worst practices of the Bush Administration. To give only a brief summary:

Extrajudicial assassination via drone, even of American citizens, is now a routine part of the presidency.

Indefinite detention without trial has been signed into law and federal attorneys continue to defend the power in court.

Despite initial promise on medical marijuana, the administration has ramped up the pace of armed raids on clinics operating legally under their states’ laws.

The administration has declined to bring any charges in cases of torture perpetrated by the CIA.

It goes with saying that Mitt Romney would be even worse on these issues. It’s difficult to know his true position on anything, but one thing is certain: He is no skeptic of state power. He’s hawkish on foreign policy, has no qualms using force to regulate personal behavior, and in the 2008 debates had this to say about indefinite detention without trial:

“I’m glad they’re at Guantanamo. I don’t want them on our soil. I want them in Guantanamo where they don’t get the access to lawyers they get when they’re on our soil. I don’t want them in our prisons. I want them there. Some people have said we ought to close Guantanamo. My view is, we ought to double Guantanamo.”

There’s not much to say in Romney’s favor on economics, either. His supposedly Ayn Rand-inspired running mate, intended to shore up his credentials, voted for TARP, auto bailouts, and Medicare Part D. Romney and Ryan likely offer to defenders of free markets what Obama offered to defenders of civil liberties: pleasing words followed by multiple stabs in the back.

Even by the usual low standards of presidential elections, the choices offered by the major parties this year are bleak. But unlike in past elections, the Libertarian Party has offered an alternative with legitimate credentials and appeal. A guy whom I think I could persuade some of my less explicitly libertarian friends to get behind. A guy whom I would actually be happy to see as president, if by some miracle he were to win.

Johnson, who governed as a Republican in a state dominated by Democrats, has cross-party appeal that could siphon votes from both candidates. He’s an outspoken advocate for marriage equality, supports legalization of marijuana, calls for ending the War on Drugs and treating addiction as a medical issue, and recognizes an important role for government in protecting the natural environment from polluters.

On the American Civil Liberties Union’s candidate report card [PDF], Johnson scored higher than Obama and any of the Republicans. He endorses repeal of the Patriot Act, an end to indefinite detention without trial, and a non-interventionist foreign policy.

Johnson is a more credible opponent of economic cronyism than Romney and Ryan, criticizing the complexity of the current tax code and the incentives it creates for lobbying on behalf of special interests. He endorses free trade and expanded opportunities for legal immigration. He concluded his terms as governor with a budget surplus and vetoed more than 700 bills. Like Josh Barro, I think the drastic cuts he calls for are unnecessarily severe in the short-term and do him no favors appealing to a broader base. I’m also unpersuaded as of yet by his tax policy. However such changes would have to come from Congress, not the executive branch, which would enforce the moderation with which he actually governed.

Johnson winning the presidential race is obviously a long shot, but he needn’t win for his campaign to be worthwhile. Simply being allowed to participate in the presidential debates would dramatically alter their tone, which will otherwise be a race to the bottom on civil liberties, spending, and military intervention. The debate commission – closely tied to the major parties – excludes third party candidates polling under 15%, so for that reason alone it is worth supporting his campaign and raising awareness of it.

Polling suggests that with more awareness of his candidacy, Johnson could find more support. Voters have been fleeing affiliation with the major parties for decades. Poll analyses by the Cato Institute find that about 14% of voters fit a fairly strict definition of “libertarian.” Under a broader definition as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” more than 40% accept the label.

Nonetheless, convincing people to actually vote for a third party candidate is an uphill battle. There are two reasons I encourage them to do so, one practical and one principled.

First the practical reason: It’s extremely unlikely that either Romney or Obama will miss your vote. Even if this turns out to be a close race at the national level, the race for electoral votes in your state may not be. Oregon, where I now live, appears to be of little consequence in the national election. The conclusion from FiveThirtyEight:

[...] in over 99 percent of the model’s simulations, Oregon’s seven electoral votes prove either a given for a winning Mr. Obama or unneeded for a victorious Mr. Romney.

The pessimistic view of this is that Oregonians’ votes don’t matter. The optimistic view is that we are free to vote our conscience. Are you tired of voting for war, civil liberties abuses, and cronyism? Congratulations! You needn’t feel obliged to cast your lot with the lesser evil.

And that brings me to the principled reason to vote for Johnson. Politics necessitates compromise; rarely does one find a candidate that one agrees with on every issue. But there are some issues on which one should not compromise. Among these, I suggest, are imprisoning people without trial and overseeing a secret “kill list” of assassination targets.

This string of civil liberties abuses began under Bush but one thing you could say in Bush’s favor is that at least he inspired a vocal opposition. Obama has largely bought them off, cementing excessive executive powers and leaving them intact for the next Republican president, whomever he may be. Concerns about civil liberties that seemed vital under Bush have been erased from the Democratic platform now that the party is in power.

There’s a very good discussion of this recently between law professor Jonathan Turley and actor John Cusack. (John Cusack, who knew?) It’s long but I highly recommend it. Here’s one exchange:

CUSACK: Yeah, yeah. And so then it gets down to the question, “Well, are you going to vote for Obama?” And I say, “Well, I don’t really know. I couldn’t really vote for Hillary Clinton because of her Iraq War vote.” Because I felt like that was a line, a Rubicon line –

TURLEY: Right.

CUSACK: — a Rubicon line that I couldn’t cross, right? I don’t know how to bring myself to vote for a constitutional law professor, or even a constitutional realist, who throws away due process and claims the authority that the executive branch can assassinate American citizens. I just don’t know if I can bring myself to do it.

If you want to make a protest vote against Romney, go ahead, but I would think we’d be better putting our energies into local and state politics — occupy Wall Street and organizations and movements outside the system, not national politics, not personalities. Not stadium rock politics. Not brands. That’s the only thing I can think of. What would you say?

TURLEY: Well, the question, I think, that people have got to ask themselves when they get into that booth is not what Obama has become, but what have we become? That is, what’s left of our values if we vote for a person that we believe has shielded war crimes or violated due process or implemented authoritarian powers. It’s not enough to say, “Yeah, he did all those things, but I really like what he did with the National Park System.”

CUSACK: Yeah, or that he did a good job with the auto bailout.

TURLEY: Right. I think that people have to accept that they own this decision, that they can walk away. I realize that this is a tough decision for people but maybe, if enough people walked away, we could finally galvanize people into action to make serious changes. We have to recognize that our political system is fundamentally broken, it’s unresponsive. Only 11 percent of the public supports Congress, and yet nothing is changing — and so the question becomes, how do you jumpstart that system? How do you create an alternative? What we have learned from past elections is that you don’t create an alternative by yielding to this false dichotomy that only reinforces their monopoly on power.

The big question of this election is not who whether Romney or Obama is marginally better than the other. The question is how to fight the abuses of power that have been fully embraced by both of them. Voting for Johnson is one small way to do so. Imagine if 5 million or 10 million people voted for a candidate running on a platform of civil liberties, ending the Drug War, non-interventionist foreign policy, and an end to cronyism. You don’t have to be a libertarian – you don’t even have to want Johnson to win — to think that this would have a beneficial long-term effect on policy as the major parties try to win those votes.

That will never happen if voters allow themselves to be held hostage by Romney and Obama. And, for once, a third party has offered a worthy alternative. This year the surest way for the constituency supporting civil liberties, economic freedom, and social toleration to express itself is with a good turnout for Gary Johnson.

A brewery in the White House

We are deep into that part of the election when it’s impossible to escape the flood of frivolous news articles about what the candidates ate, exaggerated gaffes, or pretty much anything except actual policy. This week’s example: the fervor about the homebrewed beer that Obama occasionally breaks out on the campaign trail. Crowds chant “four more beers,” reporters get to write punny headlines like “Obama plays up love of beer to ferment coalition of the swilling,” and beer lovers in my Twitter feed gush that the president makes and drinks beer just like them, so, like, who cares about all his Bush-esque civil liberties abuses?

I reacted to the story with my usual political cynicism, but on further reflection having a sitting president publicly boast of his homemade beer represents a real advance in freedom. Though it’s hard to believe as I sit here typing in Portland, Oregon, where making a batch of homebrew with friends is a wholesome afternoon activity, brewing beer at home continued to be against the law in the United States long after Prohibition.

Portland-based homebrew advocate and local legend Fred Eckhardt wrote in his seminal A Treatise on Lager Beers about the state of American beer in 1969:

After Prohibition, it remained illegal to make homebrew (it still is) and so even then there was no light to be shed on the subject. Now more than 35 years after the end of Prohibition we are just beginning to explore the possibilities of homebrewing… There are almost no quality beers made in this country, so if you want good old-country style beer you must make it yourself. Even the German beers imported into this country are being made to the so-called American taste. Pablum and pap for babies. You actually can make beer just as good as the great European master brews in your home. This book is only a start.

Indeed it was. Nine years later, President Jimmy Carter signed legislation allowing people to brew reasonable quantities of beer at home for their personal use, no permits or taxes required. Today American brewers make some of the best beer in the world and many of them got their start making small batches in their garages and kitchens. (The quote above is excerpted in Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch’s The Declaration of Independents, which should be on everyone’s election year reading list.)

Prohibition casts a long shadow, however, and there are still many regulations that can trip up homebrewers. Homebrewing is completely illegal in Alabama and Mississippi. In other states archaic laws have banned removing homebrew from the home, shutting down beer competitions. In Oregon, such a law was amended last year after public outcry. Perhaps seeing the nation’s top elected official drinking beer made at his home will give added legitimacy to the practice and help remove these remaining barriers.

For what it’s worth, I’m not sure that even Obama’s beer is completely legal. [Update: See below for a response from the TTB.] As Dan Todd pointed out to me on Twitter, the beer is made by White House chefs, not the president himself. According to Reuters:

The beer, which comes in both a light and dark variety, is made by the White House chefs who use traditional beer-brewing methods. [...] Taxpayers are not footing the bill for the beer, as both the cost of the equipment and the cost of brewing the beer is paid for by the Obamas personally, the official said.

Federal law states that homebrewed beer cannot be sold and that it cannot be produced by partnerships or corporations:

Any adult may produce beer, without payment of tax, for personal or family use and not for sale. [...]

Partnerships except as provided in §25.207, corporations or associations may not produce beer, without payment of tax, for personal or family use. [The exception referred to is for operators of licensed breweries, who may take some of their product home without paying taxes on it.]

The Tax and Trade Bureau also has strict regulations for brew-on-premises facilities (BOPs), businesses that provide equipment and space to homebrewers, and the assistance they are allowed to provide to clients:

Proprietors and employees of BOPs may not:
Provide assistance to, or on behalf of, customers in the production, storage, or packaging of beer, such as:
– Fermenting mash,
– Adding sugar, CO2, or any other ingredients to beer,
– Filtering or bottling beer, or
– Providing physical assistance in the production, tank transfer, racking, or the bottling or kegging of beer.

I don’t know the specific arrangement the White House beer is brewed under, but having employees brew beer for one’s personal use seems possibly problematic. The president may also be stretching the meaning of “personal use.” When Obama gives his beer away to potential voters while running for office, does that still qualify? It would take one hell of a gutsy TTB agent to levy fines against his ultimate boss, but it sure would be amusing to watch the attempt.

Having a brewery in the White House also provides an opportunity to raise the question of why home distilling, which essentially requires only the additional steps of boiling one’s beer and collecting portions of the condensate, remains an illegal offense that can land one in prison. Merely owning a still in this country is suspect: It must be low in volume, can only be used for making purified water, essential oils, fuel, etc., and the TTB can demand from sellers of stills the name and address of any customer, no warrant required.

Our first president, George Washington, had a distillery on his property and underground distillers continue the tradition of making quality spirits at home. Unfortunately, making craft spirits legally requires leaping some major hurdles. Darek Bell, owner of Corsair Distillery in Nashville, Tennessee, discusses this in his extremely interesting book on distilling, Alt Whiskeys:

Unfortunately, only a few countries in the world allow legal home distilling. New Zealand, for example, is one of them. In the United States, distilling whiskey without a federal permit is a felony. This is no parking ticket. It is life destroying: five years in jail and a $10,000 fine.

Bell compares craft distilling today to craft beer in the 1980s. Small distillers are making excellent products but they’ve not yet achieved their full creative potential, hampered as they are by high start-up costs and regulatory requirements. Bell’s beer-inspired recipes provide a glimpse of what the future of small-scale whiskey might look like: Chamomile Wheat Whiskey, Huckleberry Moonshine, Bavarian Helles Whiskey. But trying these at home or experimenting with them before going commercial is forbidden, so the path that led to full-time careers for many homebrewers is closed to would-be spirits makers. Legal changes to bring home distilling into the open would help unleash this creativity.

This week’s many articles about Obama’s taste for craft beer have been inane, but they do show how far we’ve come destigmatizing and legalizing alcohol. If thirty years from now we have a president stirring Manhattans made with his special White House Whiskey, that will be an even greater sign of progress.

Update 8/23/12: I’ve been trying to reach the TTB for clarification on the legality of having paid employees brew beer for one’s personal use. I haven’t received a response, but I will update if and when I do.

Update 8/27/12: The Tax and Trade Bureau has responded to my request for clarification about the legality of hiring employees to make tax-free beer for one’s personal consumption. Short answer: This is an issue for which the TTB has never issued a ruling, but the law doesn’t preclude it.

Here’s the question I sent to Tom Hogue, who handles congressional and media inquiries for the TTB:

I’m curious if the TTB has ruled on the legality of having paid employees brew beer for one’s personal consumption. Without necessarily commenting on the White House beer specifically, would this qualify as legal homebrewing? If so, can ordinary citizens hire personal chefs to brew beer for them without paying taxes on it?

And here’s Tom’s response:

The answer to your question is generally speaking, yes. We have not issued a ruling on this issue, however, the regulations do not preclude a person from hiring a personal chef to brew beer for them, provided that they adhere to the regulatory provisions relating to personal or family use.

This is interesting for a couple reasons. First is that the White House brewery has brought up an issue that the TTB has never had to rule on before. Second is that while it’s illegal to sell homebrewed beer, one can apparently sell the labor that goes into making it. This opens up potential business opportunities. For personal chefs it’s an additional service they can offer and one more way they can differentiate themselves from the competition. It might even be possible to work as a “professional homebrewer,” traveling from house to house making beer to clients’ specifications. Who knows if there’s enough demand for that, but it’s an intriguing possibility. (There is at least one “Homebrew Guru” offering something like this in the form of home instruction.)

A caveat to the above: With no official ruling on the subject, these ideas are purely speculative. If more people start earning money making homebrew, the TTB may decide to rule and the selling beer vs. selling labor distinction might not hold up. But for now, at least, an enterprising brewer can claim a sitting president and former University of Chicago law professor as an example in his favor.

Koch vs. Cato

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The other thing that happened while I was on the road this week was not so fun: The Koch brothers filed a lawsuit against the Cato Institute seeking control of the think tank. I was, in fact, visiting Cato the day the news broke. Though Charles Koch was an early funder of the institute, in recent years the Kochs have focused their energies elsewhere while Cato, led by Ed Crane and others, blossomed into a respected, non-partisan think tank.

David Weigel speculates on the likely changes this will mean for Cato if the Kochs’ takeover prevails:

And so, with libertarianism at its modern apex, the Kochs are trying to wrestle the movement’s leading think tank away from the guy who built it up. (Literally. They just completed a renovation.) How would it change? In the past, Charles Koch and his allies have criticized Cato for lacking real, provable results. Since then, David [Koch] has found tremendous success with Americans for Prosperity, which in the Tea Party era evolved into one of the most powerful conservative organizations in electoral politics. (It has spent seven figures so far this year on TV ads against Barack Obama.) Draw your conclusions.

Crane and board chairman Bob Levy corroborate that interpretation.

I was going to write a post about this but Jonathan Adler has beaten me to it. I agree with every word:

Whatever the merits of the Kochs’ claim, I cannot understand how their actions can, in any way, advance the cause of individual liberty to which they’ve devoted substantial sums and personal efforts over the years. Even assuming their legal claim has merit, a legal victory will permanently injure the Cato Institute’s reputation.

Many libertarian-leaning organizations receive money from the Kochs and their foundations and are attacked on this basis. Such attacks can be deflected, as financial support is not the same thing as control. But if the Koch brothers themselves represent the controlling majority of an organization’s board, that organization is, by definition, a Koch-run enterprise. Progressive activists and journalists will have a field day with this. They will forevermore characterize the Cato Institute as “Koch-controlled” — and, as a legal matter, they will be correct. No efforts to re-establish the Institute’s credibility or independence will overcome this fact.

[...] Even if one assumes that the Kochs have better ideas for how Cato should direct its resources, know more about how to advance individual liberty, and are correct that the Institute is too “ subject to the personal preferences of individual officers or directors,” any benefit from whatever changes they could make will be outweighed to the permanent damage to Cato’s reputation caused by turning it into a de facto Koch subsidiary. In short, they will have destroyed the Cato Institute to save it.

In the past I’ve defended the Koch brothers from charges that their political activities are motivated by narrow self-interest. Funding scholarships for libertarian college students or sending them to week-long academic seminars are hardly profit-maximizing uses of their money. Though they are famously secretive, the only sensible interpretation of their actions over the past few decades is that they sincerely believe in broadly libertarian ideas and want to see them succeed in the long-run. Their investment in think tanks, journalism, and other non-profits are groping attempts to discover how best to bring that about.

However this takeover attempt seems in no way compatible with the greater good of libertarian ideas. Whatever the legal merits of the Kochs’ claim, the best outcome for the cause of individual liberty is that Cato continues to operate as an independent, non-partisan, respected think tank with a diversity of funders. There is currently no other libertarian organization fulfilling that role in such a high-profile way. In acquiring the asset the Kochs would inevitably decrease its value. This view is, from what I can tell, widely shared among libertarians who have posted about the matter. Perhaps there is something we don’t know, but given how many people involved in institutional libertarianism have benefited at least indirectly from the Kochs’ donations, that dissent should be telling.

I’m left wondering about the internal institutions surrounding the Koch brothers. They are known for their advocacy of Market-Based Management, but do they receive enough criticism within their non-profit work from the bottom-up? Having become accustomed to holding the purse strings, are they open to negative feedback? Do they have advisers who have the security to be able to tell them to back off? If personal animosity is blinding them to the greater good of the causes they’ve spent decades supporting, is there anyone to tell them that?

I don’t know. But the Charles Koch Foundation can be contacted and if you care about the independence of the Cato Institute I’d encourage you to send them a note:

Charles Koch Institute
Email: email@charleskochinstitute.org
1515 N. Courthouse Rd.
Suite 200
Arlington, VA 22201
Phone: 703-875-1600
Fax: 703-875-1601

There is also a Save the Cato Institute Facebook group, from which the image above is borrowed.

Disclosures: I interned for the Cato Institute in 2003 and later worked in their press office for about a year. I’ve also benefited in various ways from various Koch-funded entities, particularly the Institute for Humane Studies. I no longer benefit in any direct way from either and have great respect and affection for both.

Signs of Occupy Portland

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Last Saturday I went down to the Occupy Portland camps to have a look at what was going on there. This was the last day of occupation at the initial camp before the city ordered their eviction later that night. I’ve made my share of jokes about the Occupy movement, and I have a hard time taking any political movement too seriously, but I did want to give it a fair shot. As a friend of mine said in an “Appeal to Libertarians Concerning Occupy Wall Street,” we share significant common ground and shouldn’t dismiss the movement:

But, hold on a second. Last time I checked, aren’t we against bailouts and crony capitalism (a.k.a. capitalism), too? Remember how we have gay friends, and immigrant friends, and how we like freedom of expression, and we hate thug cops, and all that good stuff?

It was in that spirit that I walked through the camp. So first some good things, then some things I can’t get on board with.

ronpaul

nobody

One encouraging observation from the camp was the almost complete absence of signs promoting politicians. This is probably due in part to the fact that Obama faces no serious challenge to the Democratic nomination, so there’s no one campaigning hard left for Occupiers to get behind. But still, a lot of the people protesting were probably pretty excited about Hope and Change a few years ago, and today they are disillusioned with government, or at least with the current crop of politicians. Who knows how long it will last, but it’s heartening to see.

I didn’t notice any signs for Lyndon LaRouche, so hey, progress! There were limited signs of support for Ron Paul, presumably for his strong anti-war and anti-bailout stances. Unsurprisingly, there was nothing for Gary Johnson. He’s a successful two-term governor of a Democratic state. He’s anti-war and wants to cut defense spending. He’s liberal on abortion, same-sex marriage, and drug legalization. He’s against crony capitalism. He’s Ron Paul with actual executive experience and none of the social conservative baggage. Unfortunately he’s running as a Republican and not receiving any media attention, so he’s not getting any traction here. Or anywhere else for that matter. So if any Occupiers feel like getting behind a quixotic presidential campaign and totally confusing the narrative, well, here’s your guy.

guidelines

sanitizer

johnconner

Another interesting thing about the movement is its experiment in spontaneous order. A bunch of people setting up semi-permanent camp in a public park creates all kinds of logistical problems, like resolving conflicts, finding lost people, and taking care of basic sanitation. What it reminded me of is Hernando de Soto’s description of how extra-legal tent cities develop, which he analogizes in The Mystery of Capital to putting on your shoes before your socks:

Consider what it takes for a new migrant from a rural area to create a home for his family in a shantytown outside a large city. First, he not only has to find a spot for his house but also has to occupy the land personally, with his family. The next step is to set up a tent or shelter made from, depending on the country, straw matting, mud bricks, cardboard, plywood, corrugated iron, or tin cans — and thus stake out a physical claim (because a legal one is unavailable). The migrant and his family will then gradually bring in furniture and other household items. Obviously, they need a more livable and durable edifice. But how to build it without access to credit? They do what everyone else does — stock solid building materials and begin to build a better house, stage by stage, according to what kinds of materials they can accumulate.

Once the inhabitants of these new buildings have organized enough to protect their holdings or the local authorities take pity on their deprivation, they can bring in pavement, water, waste disposal, and electricity — typically at the cost of having to destroy parts of their houses in order to hook up the utilities. Only after years of building and rebuilding, and saving construction materials, are these owners finally in a position to live comfortably.

The Occupiers were living out the first parts of this process. I was impressed by the ingenuity required to set up a semi-functional community in the middle of a downtown park. Yet the protesters also demonstrated how the basic rudiments of capitalism — secure property rights and an accessible legal system — make it so much easier to get things done and can make the poor immensely better off. To be fair, this isn’t the sort of capitalism that most of them are protesting, but from a global perspective the Occupiers have to acknowledge that they have it pretty good. I’m not asking for three cheers for capitalism, but how about just one?

notprofits

traitors

It’s signs like the above, and the “Capitalism is Destroying Our World” sign at the top of the page, that ensure I’ll stay politically homeless. The anti-intellectualism and social conservatism of the Tea Party prevent me from getting on board with that group. Similarly, no matter how much I agree with Occupiers about some of the flaws in our current system, I can’t ever march under banners like these. Capitalism and the pursuit of profit remain the most reliable methods we have of improving people’s lives. The trick is to differentiate between profits earned by creating value and profits taken via subsidies, tax breaks, and regulations that cripple one’s competitors. I realize it’s trite to point out the irony of people damning capitalism while tweeting from their iPhones, but what else can you do?

“People Not Profits” is not the answer. “People And Profits, Not Subsidies” is a mantra I could get behind. Alas, not catchy.

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“Corporate personhood is not the issue here, Dude!” — What I feel like yelling at a lot of people lately. If you follow the Occupy hashtags on Twitter or walk through the protests you hear a lot of anger directed at corporate personhood, and it’s as facepalm-inducing as the “People Not Profits” signs.

As Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry helpfully explains, corporations are persons, not people. This means that “they’re recognized by the law as entities that can have a name, sue in court, be a party to contracts and have property.” And that is incredibly important. This doesn’t mean that corporations must be given all the rights enjoyed by flesh and blood people. The law is perfectly capable of recognizing different rights for different types of persons. See for example the different treatment of natural born citizens, naturalized citizens, non-citizens with visas, and undocumented workers. They’re all legal persons; they don’t all have the same rights. If the government has a compelling interest in restricting rights of corporations, it can do so.

Since corporations are persons, not people, why give them rights at all? Another way to ask the question is, why should people forfeit their rights just because they organize in the corporate form? Corporations would be useless if they did. It’s emphatically a good thing that the government cannot seize corporate assets without due process. It’s emphatically a good thing that it can’t take corporate-owned land for public use without paying just compensation. And yes, it’s emphatically a good thing that corporations have at least some speech rights to express the interests of their shareholders.

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Which brings us to the real issue here, Citizens United. Reasonable people can disagree about where to set the limits on corporate speech rights, but this case was a fairly perfect example of the sort of speech the First Amendment was designed to protect. Citizens United is a non-profit advocacy group funded mostly by individuals that sought to air a movie criticizing a presidential candidate. If that’s not protected speech, what is?

The Court arguably ruled more broadly than it needed to in Citizens United, but it’s worth pointing out how much didn’t change as a result of the ruling. Corporations are still forbidden from contributing to political campaigns. Citizens United addressed the relatively narrow question of whether corporations could pay for broadcast ads mentioning a candidate by name 60 days prior to a general election or 30 days prior to a primary. That’s it. Before and after Citizens United, corporations had and still have many other ways to speak politically. They can form PACs. They can broadcast issue ads. Wealthy individuals who work for or own corporations can spend as much of their own money as they please. Corporations can promote their messages in other media. Hell, they can become media by purchasing a newspaper or a TV station. And that’s just speech; this list doesn’t even get into the numerous other ways corporations can gain influence. About half of the states were already operating without laws similar to those overturned by Citizens United.

I happen to think that Citizens United was decided essentially correctly, but I also don’t think it’s quite the disaster for progressives that some of them think it is. It’s worth noting too that the decision also extends rights to unions and non-profits whose speech rights had also been restricted.

Fundamentally, beyond limits on direct campaign contributions and requirements of disclosure, it’s just not easy to limit expenditures on speech without violating First Amendment rights of deserving speakers. Even Lawrence Lessig now says:

Of course money equals free speech. And we should ask the people who are railing against the idea of money being free speech: “What if congress passed a law, and the Supreme Court allowed it, that said ‘Nobody can spend more than a thousand dollars challenging an incumbent.’”? You’d say, wait a minute, that’s a pretty effective way to guarantee an incumbent will always win, and I want to use my money as a way to speak freely about my desire to challenge the incumbent.

There’s no simple solution for reducing the influence of money on politics. Lessig proposes a sort of voucher system of public financing. Libertarians say we need to reduce the scope of government so that its favors are less important. Regardless, while Citizens United may work as a symbol for too much money in politics, I take Lessig to be right about this much: We’re better off finding new ways to enable speech than seeking new ways to restrict it. It’s disappointing that one of the more popular ideas among the Occupiers is a desire to reduce the scope of the First Amendment.

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problems

One of the most frequently noted difficulties with the Occupy movement is figuring out exactly what it’s fighting for. The spontaneous order that it has successfully used to organize tactics has been less useful for building consensus about political ends. The camp in Portland became a place to air a mish-mash of complaints. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it makes it hard to hold together a coherent protest. Protests work best when there are specific wrongs to be righted. Stop denying people’s right to vote. Stop denying people’s right to marry. Stop executing people when there is untested DNA evidence that could exonerate them. Or in this example of a sit-in that worked, stop your university from investing in companies that do business in Apartheid era South Africa. These are demands that can be acted on and goals that can be met.

It’s not clear that the same is true for Occupy, whose goals seem to be much more nebulously grouped around a loose concept of economic justice. At what point does the economic system become sufficiently just for protesters to stop occupying? Without articulated aims the movement never gets to declare victory and go home. Already, in reaction to evictions, it’s hard to tell if occupation is a means to an end or if it’s becoming an end in itself. What are the occupations accomplishing now that couldn’t be accomplished through regular meetings, smart online advocacy, and well-planned protests?

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cops

Post-eviction, the best thing going for Occupy Portland is that they provoked a response from the police. They got a chilling photo of cops in riot gear shooting pepper spray into the face of an unarmed woman. Things are even uglier in other cities. You look at those photos and videos and whose side are you going to be on? I have my share of disagreements with the Occupiers, but I’m absolutely disgusted by cops using excessive force against non-violent protesters.

But longer term, the movement needs to figure out what it’s doing. Prior to the evictions last weekend it was a point of pride for Occupy Portland that it was only protesting on public space. And while it’s a dubious proposition that the right of peaceable assembly includes setting up indefinite camp on public land, I’m all for people getting out there and protesting crony capitalism. Protest away! I was glad to see the Tea Party emerge and I’m glad to see the Occupy movement echoing some of the same themes.

But please, keep it to peaceful protests in public venues. I can’t tell you how much sympathy I lost for Occupy Portland when I saw the mob shutting down private bank branches, and from scanning local tweets I wasn’t the only one. Interfering in the private commerce of ordinary individuals is no way to advance a cause. An appeal to the Occupiers: By all means, persuade the customers of big banks to switch to local credit unions, but don’t become so certain of your views that you feel you have the right to force them on your fellow citizens.

Ultimately, the Occupy movement is going to have to accept that it doesn’t speak for the 99%. The 99% is divided. Support for Occupy is only around 33%. The consensus that groups can arrive at in a General Assembly is much greater than what they can pull off among the general population. Achieving anything in practice is going to require the much more prosaic business of working changes through the democratic process. Julian Sanchez says this more eloquently than I could:

[...] if disagreement is real—if large numbers of my fellow citizens sincerely hold very different views about what policy is best—then protest, however vital as a consciousness raising tool, can only be a preparation for the more humdrum enterprise of convincing your neighbors with sustained arguments (or being convinced yourself), electing candidates, and all the rest. To imagine protest not as prologue to politics, but as a substitute for it, suggests a denial of the reality of pluralism, and an unwillingness to find out what democracy actually looks like.

I’m afraid the alternative is going to be a self-defeating conflict between Occupiers and anyone who disagrees with them or is unwilling to sacrifice for the movement. There is some sign of this in the indifference shown to the many Portlanders, almost surely in the 99%, who couldn’t get to public transportation or their bank branch. Or in the decision of Occupy DC protesters to forcibly prevent people from leaving an Americans for Prosperity dinner where they listened to contrary views. Or in this reaction to Oakland workers who just wanted to get past the protest and to their jobs:

“These people tried to kill us. I can’t believe they are being that aggressive over a paycheck, over your own people fighting for you.”

If I counted myself among the Occupiers, I’d be looking very closely at the Tea Party right now. Despite all the jokes directed at the Tea Party it has endured as a political force. What it hasn’t done is produce a credible candidate for the presidency. Here’s Conor Friedersdorf explaining this failure:

[...] the actual tea party isn’t savvy. It overestimates its clout within the GOP, fails to appreciate the many obstacles to winning a general election, let alone implementing its agenda, and is therefore careless and immature in choosing its champions. It elevates polarizing figures of questionable competence like Sarah Palin because doing so is cathartic. [...]

Why couldn’t the tea party produce a viable candidate? Its partisans put fiery rhetoric ahead of substance, judged GOP politicians based on the extravagance of their promises more than what they’d actually accomplished, failed to demand of its champions some baseline level of competence, and insisted on pols who deliberately piss off outsiders rather than Reaganesque communicators intent on converting them. Tea partiers got drunk off the pleasure of hearing their prejudices echoed. They’re now waking up to face their hangover. And his name is Mitt Romney.

Is Occupy up for the challenge of doing better?

Beer cocktails at Cocktail Camp PDX

Cocktail Camp PDXCocktail Camp PDX returns next Sunday after a successful debut last year. This time it’s going to be bigger (at the Armory!) and better (we can serve full drinks!). Ezra Johnson-Greenough and I will be there giving a session on beer cocktails. Tickets are $40 if you buy them now; they go up to $50 starting tomorrow. I’ve copied the full schedule below; it’s a great line-up, so if you’ll be around Portland be sure to check it out.

10:30 — Lillet Meet & Greet and social hour
Morning social hour with complimentary low-alcohol cocktails served by Lillet. Come have a morning refresher and meet some of your fellow cocktail enthusiasts before the day gets started.

11:00 — The Art of Tasting Beer and Spirits
Set the stage and your palate for the day by learning how to really taste your spirits and beer. Learn what makes spirits different and how to pick out their defining characteristics. Lee Medoff (Bull Run Distillery), Nathan Gerdes (h50), and Alex Ganum (Upright Brewing) will lead the discussion.

12:15 — Beer cocktails: Why Have One When You Can Have Both?
Jacob Grier (Metrovino) and Ezra Johnson-Greenough (Upright Brewing) will teach you how to craft fantastic cocktails using the unlikeliest of ingredients.

1:00 — Northwest Distillery Social hour
Complimentary cocktail and punch bar hosted by Northwest Distillery and served by Nathan Gerdes.

2:00 — The New American Whiskey
The other whiskeys that have been taking bars by storm and redefining what “American whiskey” means. Learn more from Lance Winters (St. George Spirits), Lee Medoff (Bull Run Distillery), and Sebastian Degans (Stone Barn Brandy Works) about this growing movement.

3:00 — House Spirits social hour
Complimentary cocktail and punch bar hosted by House Spirits Distillery and served by Kyle Webster (St. Jack).

3:00 — Yes, You Can Entertain!
Learn how to plan your own amazing cocktail parties with the help of David Shenaut (Beaker and Flask, Irving Street Kitchen) and Jacqueline Patterson (Lillet).

4:15 — DIY Sodas, Syrups, and Bitters
Expert instruction on doing it yourself from San Francisco’s Jennifer Colliau (Small Hand Foods, Slanted Door) and Columbine Quillen (10 Below).

Times are approximate and subject to change as the event approaches.

Defending Dudley

Republican candidate for Oregon governor Chris Dudley is taking some heat for comments he made suggesting that Oregon should add a tip credit to its minimum wage laws. (Tip credits allow businesses to pay less than the standard minimum to tipped employees on the assumption that the difference will be made up in gratuities; all but seven states make some sort of allowance for this.) The proposal is being used to drum up opposition to him from people in the service industry, as in this video:

If you’re a tipped employee already making minimum wage, then of course you’re not going to like this idea. But there are other considerations:

1) At $8.50 per hour, Oregon has one of the highest minimum wages in the country. We also have one of the highest unemployment rates. If you work or are seeking work in the hospitality industry here you’ve probably seen the crowds of people who show up in response to job ads; 700 lining up and even camping overnight at a new Olive Garden in Bend is an extreme example. Lines like that are an indication that the combination of a high minimum wage and no tip allowance is raising the demand for hospitality jobs while reducing their supply.

Many of these people lining up would likely be willing to work for less than the minimum wage rather than be unemployed. As a personal example, when I moved to Portland it took six months for me to find full-time employment behind a bar. I’d have gladly accepted a barback job for less than minimum wage in order to get my foot in the door somewhere, but it would have been illegal to negotiate such a deal.

2) The higher the minimum wage, the harder it is for employers to offer non-wage compensation. One of the biggest complaints from people in the hospitality industry is the difficulty of getting health insurance. Many of them might gladly trade a lower hourly wage for an equivalent contribution toward health insurance. (Actually more than equivalent, since health benefits wouldn’t be taxed. I’d be curious to see numbers relating minimum wage to provision of non-wage benefits, adjusted for other factors.)

As another personal example, the restaurant where I worked in DC paid less than the minimum wage, but employees who worked enough hours were eligible for insurance. That’s not a bargain we could make here.

To be clear, I’m not writing to advocate one way or the other on this issue. I’d just like to see better economic thinking in the discussions about it. Tip credits are portrayed as being bad for workers, but the trade-offs are more complex than that. Oregon’s current law favors employed hospitality workers over those seeking jobs in the industry and wages over non-wage compensation. These might be worthwhile trade-offs, but they are trade-offs, and so far I haven’t seen any acknowledgment of them in the critical responses to Dudley’s comments.

For more background on Oregon’s minimum wage and service industry employment see Patrick Emerson.

Well played, Powell’s. Well played.

Portland’s favorite book store has a sense of humor:

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Douthat’s wrong priorities on marriage

Ross Douthat’s column against gay marriage is more honest than most in acknowledging that many of the usual arguments are factually wrong, but that leaves the remaining argument pretty weak:

So what are gay marriage’s opponents really defending, if not some universal, biologically inevitable institution? It’s a particular vision of marriage, rooted in a particular tradition, that establishes a particular sexual ideal.

This ideal holds up the commitment to lifelong fidelity and support by two sexually different human beings — a commitment that involves the mutual surrender, arguably, of their reproductive self-interest — as a uniquely admirable kind of relationship. It holds up the domestic life that can be created only by such unions, in which children grow up in intimate contact with both of their biological parents, as a uniquely admirable approach to child-rearing. And recognizing the difficulty of achieving these goals, it surrounds wedlock with a distinctive set of rituals, sanctions and taboos.

The flaw in this argument is supposing that the definition of marriage cannot adapt and must include both monogamy and heterosexuality. I think it’s more realistic at this point to say that conservatives need to choose between the two. They can protect the special place of lifelong (or at least post-marriage) monogamy or they can protect the special place of heterosexuality. Jonathan Rauch put it well in Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good Straights, and Good for America:

“… the river of history has rounded a bend. We have a choice to make. Marriage can be universal and thus the norm for serious couples, or it can be exclusive and thus only one of several norms for serious couples. But it cannot be both, and there are risks on both sides. We need to stop hyperventilating, sit down, think hard, and get this right.

[...]

Thinking people, though, have a duty to remember that a future without marriage for gay couples is also a leap into the unknown. It leaps into the future in which a new legal and social infrastructure grows up outside marriage; in which various forms of socially and legally sanctioned nonmarriage become, for all homosexual couples and many heterosexual couples, substitutes for marriage; in which a wedding band might mean married or civilly united or domestically partnered or just “committed”; in which “traditional marriage” becomes only one color on the lifestyle palette; in which polite people no longer ask each other whether they are married but, more discreetly, whether they are “partnered” or “coupled” or “with someone.” Imagine that.

Regardless of whether social conservatives find the idea of legally sanctioned same-sex marriage appealing, their opposition to it strikes me as a tactical mistake given their other concerns, in addition to being wrong for many other reasons.

Mitch Daniels’ anti-atheist comments

Indiana governor Mitch Daniels is getting some favorable attention from libertarians, perhaps with some justification given his reading habits. However he has nothing kind to say about the atheists among us:

People who reject the idea of a God -who think that we’re just accidental protoplasm- have always been with us. What bothers me is the implications -which not all such folks have thought through- because really, if we are just accidental, if this life is all there is, if there is no eternal standard of right and wrong, then all that matters is power.

And atheism leads to brutality. All the horrific crimes of the last century were committed by atheists -Stalin and Hitler and Mao and so forth- because it flows very naturally from an idea that there is no judgment and there is nothing other than the brief time we spend on this Earth.

Everyone’s certainly entitled in our country to equal treatment regardless of their opinion. But yes, I think that folks who believe they’ve come to that opinion ought to think very carefully, first of all, about how different it is from the American tradition; how it leads to a very different set of outcomes in the real world.

I was going to write a longer post about this until I realized the quote is from a December interview. That’s remarkable in itself, given that I just recently came across it. An American governor saying that any religion “leads to brutality” would surely have made bigger headlines, but disparage atheists and hardly anyone takes notice until months later.

Atheists have polled as the least trusted group in the US and a majority of respondents say they would not vote for an atheist candidate. Statements from politicians like Daniels are part of the reason. Since atheists are an invisible minority we have the option of letting such comments slide. As I’ve written before, I think this is a mistake:

Respondents to the survey call atheists elitist and in one sense they are right. Academia and the sciences are wide open to us. Educated Americans on the coasts are more tolerant of atheism. Unless we’re running for public office, no ceiling blocks our ambitions. Unlike other minorities, we have the luxury of not caring what other people think. And so we don’t.

So maybe we ought to be speaking up more. I don’t mean by forming advocacy groups or adopting pretentious new words like “brights,” but by being forthright when people inquire about our religious beliefs. I’m as guilty as anyone of equivocating by saying I’m “not religious” when asked rather than matter of factly admitting to atheism. This polite ambiguity prevents some awkwardness, but keeps atheism outside the boundaries of what is publicly acceptable and, ultimately, shows a lack of respect for ourselves and the people we interact with. Enough of that. We’ve got catching up to do.

To their credit, the Center for Inquiry Indiana has taken Daniels to task for his comments, and Jonathan Turley was on it immediately.

Alcohol taxes and the Overton window

We boozehounds on Twitter were abuzz today about a proposed California ballot initiative that would drastically increase taxes on all forms of potable alcohol:

A new initiative that would increase the tax on alcohol was cleared for signature gathering today by the Secretary of State’s Office. And it’s not a modest tax increase, it’s huge. Tax on a six-pack of beer would increase from 6-cents to $6.08. And say goodbye to two-buck chuck–a tax on a 750 ml bottle of wine would go from 4-cents to $5.11. And the tax on a 750 ml bottle of distilled spirits would increase from from 65-cents to $17.57.

I find it hard to believe that this would pass in a state that has so much riding on its alcohol industry and I think that’s sort of the point. Consider the idea of the Overton window:

The Overton Window is a concept in political theory, named after its originator—Joe Overton—former vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. It describes a “window” in the range of public reactions to ideas in public discourse, in a spectrum of all possible options on an issue. [...]

Overton described a method for moving that window, thereby including previously excluded ideas, while excluding previously acceptable ideas. The technique relies on people promoting ideas even less acceptable than the previous “outer fringe” ideas. That makes those old fringe ideas look less extreme, and thereby acceptable. The idea is that priming the public with fringe ideas intended to be and remain unacceptable, will make the real target ideas seem more acceptable by comparison.

Now it’s possible that the sponsors of this initiative, Josephine and Kent Whitney, truly believe this is a reasonable tax increase. But I doubt that winning the vote is the only goal of this initiative. The aim is to get lots of news coverage for their far-out idea and thereby make smaller tax increases seem reasonable by comparison. So if you don’t want them to succeed, don’t take them too seriously.

Additional note: The Overton window is often described in a very cynical, manipulative context. In contrast, the late Joe Overton’s peers at the libertarian Mackinac Center use it to explain how think tanks can change public policy for the better. They see shifting the window as the noble aim of libertarians working in a world often hostile to free markets and individual liberty. As Nathan Russel wrote for the Center:

A long-term focus on shifting the Overton window allows a think tank to follow its ideals and perform a genuinely positive public service, instead of being constrained to merely advocating those policies that are currently possible. When the window of political possibilities is moved along the political spectrum, the impossible becomes desirable and the simply desirable becomes imperative. This is the true influence of a think tank — shaping the political climate of future legislative and legal debates by researching, educating, involving and inspiring.

[Hat tip to Rumdood, who tweets, "Look, I'm OK with a modest increase in taxes on booze, but from $.65 to $17.57 for a 750mL bottle of rum is insane." Manipulation of the Overton window in action? See also Jeff Woodhead and Chad Wilcox on the Overton window and health care reform.]

Health care reform’s tanning tax

To minimize the penalties you may suffer under health care reform, withdraw from your HSA now and spend the money on some indoor tanning. From this helpful timeline [.pdf] detailing what’s in the reform bill:

Indoor Tanning Services Tax. Imposes a ten percent tax on amounts paid for indoor tanning services in lieu of the tax on cosmetic surgery. Indoor tanning services are services that use an electronic product with one or more ultraviolet lamps to induce skin tanning. The tax would be effective for services on or after July 1 , 2010.

I dislike indoor tanning as much as anyone who’s had “Jersey Shore” intrude into their cultural lexicon but I don’t know why taxing it should be part of health care reform, why this is a logical substitute for taxing cosmetic surgery, or why we were thinking about taxing cosmetic surgery in the first place. Thankfully I tan the natural way, from the glow of my computer monitor.

[Link via Arnold Kling.]

Public choice and BPA

This week the Oregon Senate is considering a bill to ban Bisphenol-A, or BPA, from use in products intended for children under the age of four. BPA is a common chemical in plastic containers. There is some fear that it causes harm by leaking into food and drink products. I am skeptical, as I am of most such scares, but I haven’t done enough research on the topic to have a firm opinion either way.

Writing at Blue Oregon, Kari Chisholm is sure that we should pass the ban. In fact he’d like to ban it in all food containers, not just the ones intended for children. Some of his reasoning is based on scientific research but the rest is biased towards what’s good for legislators. Here’s one of his arguments:

Smart legislators will vote for SB 1032. It’s the right thing to do, but it’s entirely possible that it could become a political issue in upcoming campaigns. When our son was born, I had never heard of BPA. But hanging around with a bunch of new parents, I quickly learned about it – and this is a major worry with young families. (Legislators who don’t have young children of their own would be smart to check in with some new parents — they may be surprised how deep the concern runs about BPA. Entire businesses have been built to help parents avoid this chemical.)

Given a choice between protecting the health and well-being of Oregon children – and protecting a bunch of out-of-state (and overseas) chemical and plastics manufacturers – I think the choice is clear. You can imagine what the attack ads will look like for those who vote against the bill.

This also isn’t about jobs. No one in Oregon produces BPA or the products affected by SB 1032.

This might all be true, but there’s nothing praiseworthy in the provincial idea that we should go ahead with the ban because the only people who would be hurt by it are non-Oregonian Americans or foreigners who are likely economically worse off than we are. It’s expedient for legislators to think that way but it’s not a principle we should encourage. (If Oregon was home to a BPA plant, would Chisholm want legislators to ignore science to protect their political prospects?)

Then he updates with this:

Over at the OLCV blog, Jon Isaacs notes that the Bisphenol-A baby-bottle ban is an opportunity for a big bipartisan accomplishment, at a time when there’s been a lot of partisan bickering and stonewalling.

I don’t even know what the point of this is supposed to be. Bipartisanship is only good if the laws that are being passed are good. It’s not good for it’s own sake. If all it does is give politicians something to point to when they’re running for re-election and cover from lobbying groups then I don’t see the value. The same blog post he links to notes that 90% of the bottles for sale in Oregon are already BPA-free anyway, suggesting that concerned parents and retailers are handling the alleged problem reasonably well on their own.

There might be good reasons to ban BPA in bottles, but after reading this Blue Oregon post I’m less convinced than ever that the decision will be based on sound science rather than on the self-interest of legislators.

Update 2/16/10: The bill failed.