Obama RacineAlthough President Obama occasionally clings to the claim that his administration is the “most transparent” in history, with more and more revelations, this gets farther and farther from the truth. Clearly, we have an epidemic on our hands.

Over the past couple years, I have uncovered case after case of federal government officials, particularly those at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), knowingly and willingly moving select correspondence “off-line”, away from required, official email accounts. We have even found senior appointees at EPA, Department of Energy, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy using email accounts controlled by environmental pressure groups.

Regardless of intent, although I would argue these practices on their face indicate a desire to evade disclosure, the use of non-official email accounts for work purposes circumvents federal-recordkeeping responsibilities. Since employees have chosen to not search them in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests or congressional oversight requests, this allows government officials to avoid revealing their actions to taxpayers who finance their salaries.

These corrupt practices are not isolated to the federal government. In requests the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), assisted Colorado’s Independence Institute with, we show the practice extends to activists employed in state government. In Colorado, this means Gov. John Hickenlooper’s Chief-of-Staff, the governor’s Chief Strategy Officer and Director of the Office of Policy and Research to Colorado, Alan Salazar, and the Director of Environmental Programs for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (DPHE), Martha Rudolph.

On October 15, 2013, I filed a FOIA request on behalf of CEI for all non-official account emails of former EPA Region 8 (Rocky Mountain West) administrator James Martin, a former Environmental Defense (ED) lawyer who we had already showed was using a private account to correspond on work-related issues with former ED colleagues and state officials. After these revelations, like another high-level EPA official — former administrator Lisa Jackson, also known as “Richard Windsor” in a false-identity account I also discovered — Martin resigned from his post in February 2013. Under congressional scrutiny after these revelations, he turned over more emails, which I obtained from the EPA.

[click to continue…]

Earlier, we wrote about a Wisconsin town whose ordinance holds parents liable for bullying by their children, including certain speech. We and law professor Eugene Volokh noted that this raised serious First Amendment issues. Now, a New Jersey judge has done the same thing by judicial construction, by allowing New Jersey school districts to drag students and their parents into lawsuits brought against school districts by alleged victims of bullying or discriminatory harassment. (New Jersey’s anti-bullying law is so broad that it violates the First Amendment by banning non-violent speech, notes the civil-liberties group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.)

On March 12, a New Jersey Superior Court Judge ruled in V.B. v. Flemington-Raritan Regional School District that that school district, and the Hunterdon Central Regional High School, “could name 13 students and their parents as third-party defendants in a bullying suit,” dragging them into a lawsuit against the school districts, and potentially forcing them to share the massive cost of paying any damages awarded by a judge or jury against the school district. Judge Yolanda Ciccone allowed the parents to be sued based on conduct and offensive comments both in school (where teachers and schools officials, not parents, were in charge) and outside of school. She based this ruling partly on speech that is protected by the First Amendment outside the schoolhouse, such as unkind remarks on Facebook, writing that “Plaintiff’s complaint includes several allegations of that acts of bullying and harassment took place on Facebook, and that plaintiff had to contact Facebook directly to have to [sic] offending statements removed.”

Never mind that federal judges have ruled that the First Amendment applies with added force to students’ speech outside of school, meaning that vulgar speech that is banned in school may be protected speech when it occurs away from school, as cases like Klein v. Smith (1986) illustrate. Similarly, the federal appeals court in New Jersey has issued two First Amendment rulings in favor of students disciplined for creating fake web profiles lampooning their principals, holding that the speech was protected outside of school even if it would be unprotected in school, in Layshock v. Hermitage School District (2010) and J.S. v. Blue Mountain School District (2011).

[click to continue…]

Have a listen here.

Senior Fellow Angela Logomasini talks about her new Consumer’s Guide to Chemical Risk.

Post image for Professional Licensing: A Risk to the Free Markets and Freedom of Speech

From physicians to dentists to lawyers, the licensing requirements of many professions are well known—but for bloggers? A recent case in North Carolina demonstrates the dangers that mandatory occupational licensing poses to liberty and how established interests use such requirements to protect their bottom line.

North Carolina resident Steve Cooksey was ill, obese, and struggling with type 2 diabetes. In 2009, after being rushed to the hospital, nearly in a coma, he decided to do everything in his power to get healthy. By following a low-carbohydrate diet, Cooksey claims he was able to drop 45 pounds and get off insulin and drugs. He documented his story on his personal blog, where he provided advice to others practicing the “paleo” diet that he believes saved his life.

That sounds like a win-win situation, but not according to the North Carolina Board of Dietetics and Nutrition (NCBDN), which decided to go after Cooksey for the “crime” of offering nutritional advice without a dietitian’s license. In 2011, it sent Cooksey a letter, claiming that his blog, by giving readers “unlicensed dietetic advice,” even for free, violated North Carolina law. The NCBDN included a 19-page copy of his online writings with comments in red ink pointing out what he could and could not say.

Even more surprising, the notice asserted that Cooksey’s private conversations with readers and friends via email and telephone also constituted a violation of the state’s dietitian licensing law!

Unfortunately, Cooksey’s case is far from an isolated incident. In just about every state, there is a dizzyingly long list of jobs that require would-be workers to go through a long, expensive, and sometimes arduous process to earn the privilege of entering into a given profession. While the stated reason for requiring occupational licenses is public safety, established players operating under existing licensing schemes usually fight tooth and nail to maintain occupational license requirement in place, to make it harder for potential competitors to enter the market.

Today, roughly 30 percent of jobs in the U.S. require some form of license (a sharp increase from a low back in 1950, when the share was only 5 percent). Fortunately, some workers are fighting these licensing regime—and many are winning.

[click to continue…]

Post image for Food Policy Fight: Junk Study on Vegetarian Diet

Log on to Twitter and you might read: “A vegetarian diet is associated with poorer health, a higher need for health care, and poorer quality of life.” Here we have junk science going viral! And its fanning the flames between meat-eating and vegetarian advocates. But it shouldn’t.

You can’t really blame the person pushing out this tweet too much, however, because her source is a study published in a PLOS One research paper. It highlights some of the pitfalls associated with paying too much attention to isolated studies that rely on questionable methodology and overblown claims.

This study is another example of how junk science adversely impacts public policy debates, which is why I recently developed A Consumer’s Guide to Chemical Risk: Deciphering the “Science” Behind Chemical Scares.” As this study on vegetarian diets shows, it’s not just chemical policy that’s negatively impacted by bad science. Personal choice, should rule the day when it comes to dietary choices, but because government is so involved — setting guidelines and telling us what we should and shouldn’t eat — food politics are unavoidable. Accordingly, meat-eaters might use this dumb study to push their agenda, but the facts do not really support them.

This study placed all vegetarians into one category, but there is no such thing as a single vegetarian diet. For example, some vegetarian diets might include mostly processed food and french fries, while others consist of nuts, beans grains, and fresh vegetables. It makes no sense to lump these diets into one category. Yet there are no more details in this study about what the vegetarian participants’ diets included and when the participants began them. Nor does the study include any empirical medical data; just reports from individuals about their perceived health profile.

Apparently, assessing the value of any particular diet was not really the point of this study, despite its conclusions. Rather it addresses the subjects lifestyles’ and perceptions about them, and it found that vegetarians (at least the Austrians in this survey) worry more about their health and report having more health problems than do meat eaters. It does not demonstrate that a vegetarian diet can’t be as healthy as or healthier than a diet that includes meat.

Yet the authors somehow conclude:

Moreover, our results showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with poorer health (higher incidences of cancer, allergies, and mental health disorders), a higher need for health care, and poorer quality of life. Therefore, public health programs are needed in order to reduce the health risk due to nutritional factors.

This conclusion offers lots of opportunity for anti-vegetarian soundbites, but the study really doesn’t show what this conclusion says. First the “association” does not prove cause-and-effect; and second it’s not a vegetarian diet that causes these problems. It’s the alleged lifestyles of the vegetarians, such as not getting vaccinated as often and not pursuing preventative health check-ups.

[click to continue…]

Post image for CEI’s Battered Business Bureau: The Week in Regulation

After a slow start to the year, regulations are now coming out at their usual pace, with nearly 80 rules last week. The Federal Register will likely exceed 20,000 pages this week.

On to the data:

  • Last week, 79 new final regulations were published in the Federal Register. There were 64 new final rules the previous week.
  • That’s the equivalent of a new regulation every 2 hours and 8 minutes.
  • So far in 2014, 809 final regulations have been published in the Federal Register. At that pace, there will be a total of 3,112 new regulations this year. This would be the lowest total in decades; this will likely change as the year goes on.
  • Last week, 1,134 new pages were added to the Federal Register.
  • Currently at 18,961 pages, the 2014 Federal Register is on pace for 72,927 pages, which would be the lowest total since 2009.
  • Rules are called “economically significant” if they have costs of $100 million or more in a given year. 10 such rules have been published so far this year, none of them in the past week.
  • The total estimated compliance costs of 2014’s economically significant regulations currently ranges from $1.05 billion to $1.34 billion. They also affect several billion dollars of government spending.
  • Seventy-three final rules meeting the broader definition of “significant” have been published so far this year.
  • So far in 2014, 174 new rules affect small businesses; 24 of them are classified as significant.

Highlights from selected final rules published last week:

For more data, see Ten Thousand Commandments and follow @10KC and @RegoftheDay on Twitter.

On 60 Minutes, Michael Lewis accused high-frequency traders of front-running. Apparently it’s become necessary to remind critics of high-frequency trading of the definition of “front-running.”

Front-running  - n. “The practice by market makers of dealing on advance information provided by their brokers and investment analysts, before their clients have been given the information.”  — Oxford English Dictionary

There is room for reasonable debate about the merits of HFT. And there is room for multiple exchanges catering to multiple types of investors.  But one thing critics should be wary of is distorting the terms of debate. Many, if not most, HFT firms are ”prop shops.” That is, they are proprietary traders, trading on behalf of their own accounts, not clients. There are no clients for these particular high-frequency traders to “front-run.”

Front-running is already illegal under current law. If firms that do take in outside capital are front-running, then they should be prosecuted. But indiscriminate use of that term detracts from the HFT debate.

Have a listen here.

Senior Fellow William Yeatman is skeptical of an EPA report claiming the Clean Air Act will have nearly $2 trillion in annual benefits by 2020.

Everyone seems to be jumping into the debate about high-frequency trading, now that Michael Lewis is peddling his new book, Flash Boys.

Lewis contends that the stock market is rigged, and that the culprit is high-frequency traders. But not everyone agrees that they are to blame, or that the stock market is even rigged to begin with.

Cliff Asness, founder of AQR capital, suggests that high-frequency traders have in fact made trading cheaper for hedge funds. And this, in turn, benefits clients, such as pension funds or university endowments:

What is good for us is lower trading costs because it translates into better investment performance and happier clients, which makes our business slightly more valuable. How do we feel about high-frequency trading? We think it helps us … we devote a lot of effort to understanding our trading costs, and our opinion, derived through quantitative and qualitative analysis, is that on the whole high-frequency traders have lowered costs.

So the hedge funds that benefit from these lower transaction costs are able to pass those savings along to their investors. And their investors are made up largely of pension funds and university endowments.

In short, the savings that high-frequency traders generate get passed on to a very broad base of consumers, including those who only participate in the market indirectly — via a pension plan or as the beneficiary of a university endowment.

There is undoubtedly lots of room for innovation in market microstructures. And new exchanges may be one solution to what some people perceive as a problem. But competition among market participants and exchanges is the way to bring about that innovation — not increased regulatory scrutiny.

I wonder if the same Luddites who whine about HFT would have complained to Thomas Edison that his Universal Stock Ticker gave some investors an unfair advantage over those who relied on newspapers to get their price information.

Post image for Consumer’s Guide to Chemical Risk

Will these chemicals make me fat? That sounds like a weird question, but some consumers may actually have such worries, thanks to a constant barrage of news headlines suggesting that synthetic chemicals—an even some naturally occurring ones—are responsible for nearly every public health problem imaginable.

My website and CEI‘s recently released booklet, A Consumer’s Guide to Chemical Risk: Deciphering the ‘Science’ Behind Chemical Scares,” are tools designed reduce both the confusion and fear about chemicals. These tools provide consumers with some insights on the science and the politics behind the headlines.

For example, when confronted with a new claim, consumers can evaluate the underlying science by asking the following questions:

  • Is the association strong and statistically significant? Most of the studies in the news are merely statistical analyses that assess whether two factors occur at the same time. They don’t prove cause-and-effect relationships, which can only be inferred when the association is very strong. Accordingly, if researchers report a “weak association” or “suggestive” one, consumers should be suspicious of the claims.
  • Is the sample any good? Ideally, a randomly selected, large sample of a population provides the best chance of good data, but locating and developing such samples is difficult and expensive. Accordingly, researchers often work with less-than-ideal samples and existing databases that offer imperfect data, or both. Accordingly, a study with 1,000 subjects is more reliable than one with 100 subjects.
  • Are there serious confounding factors? The the possibility that a factor other than the two variables in question is responsible for the result is always present. While scientists attempt to apply “controls” in studies in an effort to negate the impact of such confounding factors, it does not always work. Consumers should be suspicious when there are other factors that more likely contributed to the result.
  • What is the potential for recall bias among study participants? Some studies require interviewing subjects about their personal behavior, sometimes expecting them to recall chemical exposures dating back decades. The subject’s failure to recall the facts accurately can so undermine the validity of the data that the final study results are completely off the mark. Be wary of studies that rely on this type of subjective data collection.
  • Does the language used by researchers suggest they are stretching the truth? Good researchers will strive to keep their biases in check, while still working toward finding something interesting. Yet others add “spin” to weak and meaningless “findings” to garner publication and media interest—and more funding. For example, researchers trying to prove that trace chemicals can make us fat have captured headlines by labeling these chemicals as “obesogens.” Their science may be weak and inconclusive, but their marketing it this way garners lots of media coverage.
  • Is the study relevant to humans? Tests on rodents involve administering massive amounts of chemicals to animals bred to be highly susceptible to cancer, and many form tumors as a result. Despite what headlines may suggest, such tests are not particularly relevant to risks associated with human exposures to trace levels of chemicals.
  • Is the exposure significant enough to matter? Many substances that are helpful or benign at low levels can sicken or kill at high levels. Accordingly, if the study involved high exposures, consumers should question whether it’s relevant to trace exposures through consumer products.
  • Is the study peer reviewed and published? Peer review is designed for an industry to self-regulate to reduce fraud and poor quality research. While it alone isn’t sufficient to assure a study is completely sound, consumers should be very skeptical of claims from studies that have not undergone any peer review.
  • Can other researchers reproduce the study results? Science is a long process of discovery that brings us closer to an answer as an issue is examined time and again. Part of that process involves repeating specific studies to see whether different scientists or teams of scientists can reproduce results of their peers’ or even their own research. If data is unavailable or other researchers have not been able to reproduce the result, the study is less compelling and may be discredited.

Find out more at SafeChemicalPolicy.org.