Odds & Ends

You may have seen Cato’s excellent Downsizing the Federal Government project. They have just produced a series of quick-hit videos, each just a few minutes long, going over various federal departments’ excesses and offers reforms that would bring them back to earth—or abolish them outright. Each one is well worth watching:

Department of Agriculture

 

Department of Education

 

Health and Human Services

 

Department of Energy

 

Department of Labor

Post image for Corporate Culture Makes a Difference — In Business and in Baseball

Last night the Boston Red Sox won the World Series after coming back from a worst-place season in 2012. Their 6-1 defeat of the St. Louis Cardinals capped a remarkable turnaround that resulted from a mix of a new coach, a blockbuster trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers, seven free-agent acquisitions, and a “culture of excellence.” Sabermetrics undoubtedly played its important role, as it does for almost every ball club. But to a player, they created and bought into a team spirit that maximized their talent to reach their goal – and had fun doing it.

Here’s one report of how the team coalesced:

Red Sox players loved coming to the park early and finding several teammates ready to go to work with them to refine the subtle details of their games. They practiced together to improve their execution. And when they did not practice, they discussed their execution so that they could do a better job of preparing for game situations.

The result was a team striving for greatness in the details. And as the players sensed that shared purpose, they recognized the logical conclusion of the undertaking. The players felt empowered to set critical standards for each other, foremost to play the game with maximum effort and intensity, with perfection of execution.

This soon created the identity of a team that believed it could do something extraordinary.

Red Sox General Manager Ben Cherington, in discussing the additions to the roster that made a difference, was reported as saying:

He wanted players who had reputations for being good clubhouse guys. He wanted players who understand that playing for the Red Sox is a unique experience — that is, expectations are high, and players are held accountable.

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Post image for Please, Think of the Pandas!

One of the most visible casualties of the government shutdown that began yesterday is the National Zoo’s popular live webcam of its baby pandas. The government has temporarily ceased funding the zoo, forcing the camera to also be shut down.

Panda enthusiasts would be happy to learn that the Zoo Atlanta is still airing its panda cam online. The San Diego Zoo is also airing its own panda webcam online.

Why are these two zoos still able to air these webcams when the federal government is shut down? Both of these zoos are privately funded. Zoo Atlanta and San Diego Zoo both receive funding through donations from corporations like Ford Motor Company and McDonalds, among other sources.

It appears the market has already noticed the rising demand for cute panda webcams and provided alternative sources for viewing. It’s yet another example of markets providing services better than governments.

The panda cam shutdown itself is an example of  the Washington Monument effect. The idea is that government shuts down services that are not necessarily essential, but are highly visible and popular to the public. This will generate an outcry by citizens to keep these precious services, and the agencies that provide them, funded.

That the government could even have services it considers non-essential is ludicrous. It is a blatant display of an oversized government, with excessive programs.

If these programs really are non-essential, then we should consider allowing them to remain shut down beyond this impasse in congress. The market has already shown it can handle providing these services; let it continue to do so without government’s help.

In a recent article in The Freeman (“The Abolition of the Playground”), Jeffrey Tucker decries public regulation of elementary school playgrounds. He makes a good point, especially in his criticism of the makers of silly rules, but misses one important aspect of freedom.

A disclaimer: I can’t remember a time I had fun on a playground. In elementary school, while my classmates played kickball on the acre plot allotted our school, I liked to sit by a tree with bulbous roots and read. I begged my teachers to let me stay inside, and some did. I dreaded the period of “play” after lunch every day. I found sunlight oppressive and physical activity nauseating. I went to a private school, played in “a good private playground, with clear rules and maximum choice within the rules” and had “an early experience of freedom itself.” It was bleak, mostly because “freedom itself” did not include the choice to opt out of playground time.

Children exercise very little autonomy. Such is the nature of childhood, and it can be a joyfully ignorant period of life. I take umbrage, though, at adults advocating for “liberty” from state imposed regulation for the sake of children’s happiness and free-spirited play. And a playground is, by definition, prey to “regimentation and central dictate” because the definitions of play are so limited.

Tucker notes that, “the point of the playground is the teeming activity of many individuals that somehow emerges into a micro social order without direction from above.” Yes, play time can help children learn about cooperation. But a true education of what freedom entails requires the choice to opt out of the faux-social order. Adults trying to reform our top-down state education system should consider what freedom could actually look like for students.

Post image for Senate Immigration Bill Authorizes E-Verify as Surveillance Tracking

The Senate immigration bill (S. 744) is immense, so most Americans (and, more importantly, journalists) can be forgiven for missing the part that authorizes the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to use the bill’s mandatory employment verification system (E-Verify) as a surveillance system for workers.

The Senate’s E-Verify proposal is electronic national ID, allowing employers to identify new employees using a biometric system containing photographs or substantial personal information (p. 531). To assuage fears that E-Verify would expand to other uses, the authors of the bill included a clause stating that the E-Verify section was not authorizing any agency to use the system “for any purpose other than for employment verification” (p. 594).

This misleading language was carefully written to allow other sections of the bill or even current statutes to authorize the use of E-Verify for other purposes. Five hundred pages later, the authors explicitly expand the identification system into a surveillance system. Tucked at the end of the section on guest work visas under “Requirement to Monitor,” it states, “the [DHS] Secretary shall monitor the movement of W [temporary] nonimmigrants in registered positions through… the Employment Verification System.” (p. 1105).

In other words, the system will already be used as tracking and surveillance, not simply for employment screening. E-Verify records the physical location of the employment check, meaning it can be used to track location as well as verify identity. The authors of the bill might argue that the bill only targets foreigners (similar to NSA surveillance), but since U.S. citizens also have to go through E-Verify, it’s not clear how DHS would screen out the time and location data of Americans—and nothing in the bill requires them to do so.

Given the fact that most Americans oppose the current secret expansion of the NSA surveillance state, where is the demand for even more domestic surveillance?

There are a lot of things Republicans can do to get themselves primaried these days, but embracing comprehensive immigration reform does not seem to be one of them.

A survey taken earlier this month of voters who have a history of voting in Republican primary elections found those “who support comprehensive immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship, do not run afoul of the majority opinion of their primary voters,” the survey oufit said. “That is true in every region of the country, and in suburban and rural districts alike. It is true with Tea Party voters, social conservatives, fiscal conservatives and moderate Republicans … as well.”

Here are the findings:

–Nearly four in five think the system is broken and something must be done to fix it. That includes 75.4 percent of the Tea Party supporters polled as well as 78 percent of those who watch FOX News daily.

–More than 70 percent support something along the lines of the Gang of 8 proposal.

–Nearly 73 percent support a pathway to citizenship, even though nearly 90 percent believe comprehensive legislation won’t lead to increased border security.

–More than 70 percent support increased legal immigration for those with advanced degrees or skills in math, science, engineering or technology.

–Nearly 57 percent support increasing the number of low-skilled immigrants allowed to enter to work in agriculture, construction and service industries.

The surveyors said about one in five GOP primary voters oppose most elements of immigration reform. “This minority tends to be vocal, but their level of activism should not be confused with the size of their numbers. The large majority of primary voters see a badly broken immigration system and want it fixed. Most Republicans are willing to support a pathway to U.S. citizenship, provided that several conditions are met, including criminal background checks, learning English, paying fines and waiting a period of years.”

In other words, the legislation the Senate approved could use some fixes – elimination of E-Verify tops on the list – but it is not that far from what Republican voters say they want.

Post image for Bad Science: CDC Forced to Reverse its Recommendations on Salt

Mother may know best, but Uncle Sam certainly doesn’t.

In 1977, the federal government put a warning label on saccharine, claiming it caused cancer. It took only 20 years to to admit this was wrong. Then there’s the so-called Healthy Food Pyramid created by the USDA to advise Americans on the composition of a supposedly healthy diet. Although many still follow the recommendations of the food pyramid, it has since been questioned by researchers and nutritionist and even cited as a potential factor in America’s skyrocketing rate of obesity. Now we have another example of bad advice — government recommendations on sodium intake.

For years, public health advocates, politicians, and government agencies such as the FDA, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been cajoling Americans to cut their salt intake and pressuring food makers to comply with salt-reduction programs.  Agencies recommended we cut sodium consumption to less than 2,300 mg a day. In May, the CDC was forced to admit this advice was wrong as well. A report commissioned by the CDC and conducted by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies found no evidence to support this previous advice.

Over the last decade, studies on salt, many with conflicting conclusions, have called into question the commonly accepted wisdom that less salt is better. Some research has even concluded reducing sodium consumption too much might result in increases in mortality for certain groups of people. According to the report brief, the committee of researchers with the Institute of Medicine was tasked with assessing this new body of research on sodium and to come to conclusions about dietary recommendations for the general population.

The study, titled, “Sodium Intake in Populations: Assessment of Evidence,” found higher levels of sodium consumption were associated with increased risk of heart disease. But there was no evidence to suggest that consuming less than 2,300 mg of sodium was correlated with any increase or decrease in risk for heart disease, stroke or death. Furthermore the study found that reducing sodium intake to less than 1,840 mg a day could increase the risk of negative health outcomes for certain people.

“Recognizing the limitations of the available evidence, the committee found no consistent evidence to support an association between sodium intake and either a beneficial or adverse effect on health outcomes other than cardio-vascular disease outcomes (including stroke and CVD mortality) and all-cause mortality.” But the committee also concluded that “evidence from studies on direct health outcomes is inconsistent and insufficient to conclude that lowering sodium intakes below 2,300 mg per day either increases or decreases risk of CVD outcomes (including stroke and CVD mortality) or all-cause mortality in the general U.S. population.” The committee’s ultimate conclusion is that for most people, sodium consumption is not all that important a factor in managing their health risks. “We found no consistent evidence to support an association between sodium intake and either a beneficial or adverse effect on most direct health outcomes,” said Dr. Brian L. Strom, George S. Pepper Professor of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who chaired the committee that released the report.

So what does this mean? Many people will, undoubtedly, become frustrated with the repeated reversals on dietary recommendations. But this is simply the nature of scientific research. It takes years of good research and rigorous academic debate to come to conclusions about how the human body operates. And even then, those conclusions are –or at least they should be—readily re-evaluated and amended when new evidence is found. This lack of perfect knowledge isn’t a problem when individuals are allowed to examine the current body of evidence and choose whether the recommendations are appropriate for their unique situation. Problems arise when politicians or health advocates assume that one research paper constitutes gospel truth for every person and then attempts to coerce the entire population into complying with those recommendations. One person’s magic potion could be another person’s poison, and  both should be free to make that determination for themselves.

European animal rights activists made a big mistake in 2006 when they failed to fight passage in the European Union of REACH, which is short for Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals. Now that the U.S. Congress may soon consider a similar law, will American animal rights groups fight it or repeat the mistakes of their European counterparts?

Sometimes animal testing is necessary for scientific discovery and to ensure both safety and efficacy of of drugs and consumer products—including cosmetics.  But I have to agree with animal rights groups in Europe for complaining that the REACH program demands excessive and unnecessary animal testing.

REACH demands companies submit data, which in many cases requires animal testing,  to demonstrate their products are safe. This includes thousands of trace chemicals manufacturers have used safely for decades. This program has obvious economic costs, is bureaucratic and is unlikely to improve public health, as CEI documented in our study on the topic  before the program became law in 2006.  We also argued the REACH concept was fatally flawed and could not be fixed.  But animal rights groups did not put up a good fight; instead they negotiated a few amendments in an attempt to reduce the number of animals that would be tested.

Animal rights groups now appear to be the only ones who recognize some of the program’s fatal flaws.  In a recent statement, the European Coalition to End Animal Experiments (ECEAE) notes:

However, the ECEAE has experienced many problems related to animal testing and we are disappointed to see that the Commission’s REACH review appears not to have gone far enough to acknowledge these issues.

One of the central goals of the legislation is the promotion of alternative methods with the requirement that animal testing would be a last resort. The Agency, the Commission and the Member States have however, failed, in our opinion, to uphold these principles. After all the promise of an ‘intelligent’, science-based approach, the Agency has reverted back to conservative, tick-box toxicology. We are seeing routine additional requests for animal tests in some areas, an almost complete failure to reject proposals to test on animals and a lack of leadership from the Commission or the Agency on the promotion of alternative methods that already exist.

Although it is good these activists finally stepped up to the plate, it’s too little, too late.  The big question remains: Why have these groups compromised their principles on REACH and worked to mitigate it rather than fight passage?  Perhaps they think government-mandated testing is more acceptable than private testing.  They never give private firms the pass they gave the EU on REACH, even when the testing makes sense.

In fact, after these groups dropped the ball on REACH, they then pushed the European Union’s 2011 Cosmetics Directive, which placed bans on the use of animals for cosmetics testing.  Although REACH imposes largely indiscriminate testing mandates, the cosmetics industry engaged in a very limited testing regime only where necessary. For example,the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association noted the number of animal tests conducted in Europe to ensure cosmetic safety in 2008 amounted to just 1,510 animals of more than 12 million animals used for scientific testing in Europe that year. REACH requires far more rodent testing than did the cosmetics industry.  The ECEAE estimates REACH will require 13 million to 54 million animals for tests conducted between 2009 and 2018, and REACH testing will continue beyond 2018.

Unfortunately, members of Congress, industry and environmentalists are negotiating reforms to the federal Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) that  are modeled after the REACH program. The final bill is likely to include a provision that will demand chemical testing that ensures “reasonable certainty of no harm” to humans, a standard the federal government currently uses for pesticide regulation. Despite the standard’s terminology, the final result won’t be reasonable. Like REACH, it will demand massive retesting of trace chemicals that have been used in consumer products safely for decades. There is no certainty the law will generate any health benefits, but you can be sure it will needlessly harm lots of lab animals.

Will American animal-rights activists–as well as the more mainstream groups that support humane testing–step up and oppose such policies in the United States or will they  compromise their principles?

When trying to get out of a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging. When the hole is a state pension deficit, it’s also a good idea to throw away the shovel. The shovel in this case is defined benefit (DB) pensions, which are structured in a way that makes deficits likely.

Defined benefit pensions depend on a combination of investments and contributions from employers and employees for funding to pay obligations to retirees. Investment returns vary from one year to the next, so a period of underperforming investments can lead to a shortfall in a pension plan’s assets relative to its funding projections.

This happens surprisingly often because many pension plan managers calculate their contributions against discount rates based on unrealistically high year-on-year investment return projections. And they have an incentive to use discount rates based on high projected returns, because that means lower employer contributions.

Now many states face huge public pension shortfalls because of years of their kicking the can down the road like this. State lawmakers are reacting in different ways, not all of them for the better.

To date, Illinois lawmakers’ reaction to their state’s pension crisis has been like that of someone in a hole who keeps digging. A recent — thankfully failed — legislative proposal would have left the state’s defined benefit model in place and put taxpayers on the hook through the creation of a pension payment “guarantee.”

By contrast, an example of someone trying to throw away the shovel can be found in Virginia, where the Speaker of the House of Delegates has proposed shifting state employees from defined benefit to defined contribution retirement plans, such as 401(k) accounts.

Government employee unions are their legislative allies are certain to fight such a change, and their opposition is bound to be fierce. But lawmakers who are serious about securing the Old Dominion’s fiscal future should not be deterred from pursuing far-reaching pension reform, which is a fight worth having. Other states’ lawmakers should watch and follow suit.

For more on public pensions, see here.

OPINION

RICH LOWRY: “The beginning of the end for big labor
“Michigan is on the verge of passing the kind of “right to work” law that is anathema to unions everywhere and is associated with the red states of the Sun Belt, not the blue states of the Rust Belt. To say that such a development is stunning is almost an understatement. Michigan is to unionization what Florida is to sand, Texas is to oil and Alaska is to grizzly bears. The union model hasn’t just been central to its economy, but to its very identity.”

DAVID KOPEN: “Does any government have the legitimate power to ban medical marijuana?
“Ernst Freund was one of the Founding Fathers of progressive constitutionalism. His 1904 book The Police Power: Public Policy and Constitutional Rights argued for a vastly expanded understanding of the police power. [...] So what would Freund, that great advocate for loosening the restraints on big government, have to say about laws which prohibit the medical use of marijuana?”

KATY WALDMAN: “5-Hour Distillery
“Do [whiskey] startups have to wait years and years before selling their first bottle of the good stuff? [...] While some high-end whiskey brands distill their own grain or corn, many distinguish themselves not by distilling or aging, but by mixing various carefully selected, pre-aged blends together. It’s also common practice for these companies—which include Adelphi, Silver Seal and Lombard—to create a signature taste by applying filters that remove congeners, the harsh chemicals which form during fermentation, and by adding liquor flavorings and spices. One exception to this rule is bourbon: It’s illegal in the United States to modify bourbon in the time between it leaves the storage cask and enters the bottle.”

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